February 12, 2018
Julián pronounced (hoo-lee-AHN) is a Peruvian housebuilder from the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado. He doesn’t speak English and Michelle barely speaks Spanish, so there is always a language barrier between them. Nevertheless, over time, he brings out parts of Michelle that have lain dormant and unexpressed during her twenty-five-year marriage to Derek.
Derek is her rock, her anchor to all that is normal and safe, and her promise of steadfast love. Julián begins to represent her own inner wildness, her link to animals and nature, her desire for the exotic and the unknown. She discovers the beauty of the rainforest at the same time that she discovers the allure of Julián, and these two attractions become intertwined and inseparable.
How these feelings play out become the central theme of the story, and I won’t disclose any spoilers. However, I’ll tease you with the following excerpts.
The first excerpt is taken from Michelle’s second encounter with Julián, when he and two other men are preparing to thatch a traditional-style cabin they are building for the eco-lodge. She has just asked them what they have in the cart they are hauling.
“Crisneja,” the first man answered. “Para el techo.” He pointed to the framing for the roof, and Michelle suddenly understood. Thatch for the roof. She peered into the cart and noticed that the leaves were each as long as her forearm and had been cleverly woven onto strips of thin wood about three feet long, the wood now forming the edges of each roll.
She raised her eyes from the cart to the man. Fate had concocted an exquisite blend of indigenous and Hispanic blood to create a face of unquestionable charm. He was older than she had originally thought, perhaps in his forties. As before, he wore a thin long-sleeved shirt of an indeterminate tan-turned-gray with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. The lean muscles in his forearms twisted under his brown skin as he gestured to explain that crisneja was made from the leaves of the palmiche palm, woven onto the sticks like so, and tied with strips of bark…. She did not understand a word of his Spanish, but only heard the lilt in his voice, felt the warmth and humor in his eyes, and saw the motion of his slender hands as he demonstrated the process of weaving thatch. He raised his eyebrows to ask – do you understand? – and his smile brought forth appealing cheekbones and the flit of a dimple in his left cheek, seductive and alluring. Michelle thought of the fleeting yet flashy display of small bright feathers that male manakins use to attract females.
The next excerpt describes what takes place after Julián identifies a bird for Michelle:
Michelle stared at Julián, speechless, wondering how this roughened house builder would happen to know the voice of a cryptic bird that lived below knee level, out of sight in the Amazon rainforest.
“How did you learn this, Julián?”
He grinned, shrugged his shoulders and began to explain in Spanish, but once again she became lost in a string of incomprehensible words and felt like a two-year-old. With patience he tried again, more simply and slowly, until she understood that his father had taught him many things when they harvested Brazil nuts each rainy season. His father had taught him about mammals by showing him tracks in the mud. For birds, he taught Julián to recognize over 100 vocalizations. Julián mastered the identification of tracks and bird calls long before he saw most of the animals that made them, but eventually over his life he accumulated actual sightings that linked the tracks and calls to the visual appearance of their makers.
Fascinated, Michelle began to redefine this person called Julián. Before this moment, she had pegged him as a house builder, and that was all. Before this moment, she had assumed that nothing in his universe could have overlapped hers.
But now, as she listened to him, she felt she had opened a hand-hewn box and found a stash of treasures. She wanted to ask him about animal tracks she had seen and bird calls she had heard on the trail to the eagle nest. And beyond that, beyond her own questions about animal identification, she was eager to learn more about this man. She wanted to hear stories of his childhood and learn more of his indigenous knowledge. She wondered if he had ever seen a jaguar, or a tapir, or an ocelot, and if so, whether those encounters were special for him. She wanted to learn about his family, where they lived, and what traditions they followed.
Yet strangely, she also wanted to flee. She felt awkward sitting next to him, even somewhat vulnerable. She blamed part of her discomfort on the language barrier, but deep inside, she knew there was something else. Something she should not be feeling. She was fifty-six, married, and not looking for trouble. She began to gather her things.
“Muchas gracias, Julián,” she said. “I must go now. I must do computer. I will see you later!” she said in simple Spanish.
“Sure, see you later,” Julián said, and his right cheek flinched. “Have a nice evening.”
She caught one leg one the bench as she rose from the picnic table. It wasn’t easy to walk away from this man.
Such is the allure of this Peruvian man!
In my next blog, you’ll learn about harvesting Brazil nuts, an activity that Julián’s family does each year. Do Brazil nuts grow on trees like walnuts?