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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara Stories
By Ben Fountain
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Ben Fountain
All right reserved.
Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera
I extended to the comandante the opportunity to walk the floor of the exchange with me, and he seemed reasonably intrigued.
--Richard Grasso, Chairman
New York Stock Exchange
Bogotá, Colombia, June 26, 1999
No way Blair insisted to anyone who asked, no self-respecting bunch of extortionist rebels would ever want to kidnap him. He was the poorest of the poor, poorer even than the hardscrabble campesinos pounding the mountains into dead slag heaps--John Blair, graduate assistant slave and aspiring Ph.D., whose idea of big money was a twenty-dollar bill. In case of trouble he had letters of introduction from Duke University, the von Humboldt Institute, and the Instituto Geográfica in Bogotá, whose director was known to have contacts in the Movimiento Unido de Revolucionarios de Colombia, the MURC, which controlled unconscionable swaths of the southwest cordilleras. For three weeks Blair would hike through the remnant cloud forest, then go back to Duke and scratch together enough grants to spend the following year in the Huila district, where he would study the effects of habitat fragmentation on rarelocal species of parrotlets.
It could be done; it would be done; it had to be done. Even before he'd first published in a peer-reviewed journal--at age seventeen, in Auk, "Field Notes on the Breeding and Diet of the Tovi Parakeet"--Blair had known his was likely the last generation that would witness scores of these species in the wild, which fueled a core urgency in his boyhood passion--obsession, his bewildered parents would have said--for anything avian. Full speed ahead, and damn the politics; as it happened they grabbed him near Popayán, a brutally efficient bunch in jungle fatigues who rousted all the livestock and people off the bus. Blair hunched over, trying to blend in with the compact Indians, but a tall skinny gringo with a big backpack might as well have had a turban on his head.
"You," said the comandante in a cool voice, "you're coming with us."
Blair started to explain that he was a scholar, thus worthless in any monetary sense--he'd been counting on his formidable language skills to walk him through this very sort of situation--but one of the rebels was into his backpack now, spilling the notebooks and Zeiss-Jena binoculars into the road, then the Leica with the cannon-barrel 200x zoom. Blair's most valuable possessions, worth more than his car.
"He's a spy," announced the rebel.
"No, no," Blair politely corrected. "Soy ornitólogo. Estudiante."
"You're a spy," declared the comandante, poking Blair's notebooks with the tip of his gun. "In the name of the Secretariat I'm arresting you."
When Blair protested they hit him fairly hard in the stomach, and that was the moment he knew that his life had changed. They called him la merca, the merchandise, and for the next four days he slogged through the mountains eating cold arepas and sardines and taking endless taunts about firing squads, although he did, thanks to an eighty-mile-a-week running habit, hold up better than the oil executives and mining engineers the rebels were used to bringing in. The first day he simply put down his head and marched, enduring the hardship only because he had to, but as the column moved deeper into the mountains a sense of possibility began to assert itself, a signal too faint to call an idea. To the east the cordillera was scorched and spent, rubbled by decades of desperate agriculture. The few mingy scraps of surviving forest were eerily silent, but once they crossed the borders of the MURC-controlled zone the vegetation closed around them with the density of a cave. At night Blair registered a deep suck and gurgle, the engine of the forest's vast plumbing system; mornings they woke to the screams of piha birds, then the mixed-species flocks started in with their contrapuntal yammerings and groks and crees that made the forest sound like a construction site. In three days on the trail Blair reliably saw fourteen species on the CITES endangered list, as well as an exceedingly rare Hapalopsittaca perched in a fern the size of a minivan. He was amazed, and said as much to the young comandante, who eyed him for a moment in a thoughtful way.
"Yes," the rebel answered, "ecology is important to the Revolution. As a scholar"--he gave a faint, possibly ironic smile--"you can appreciate this," and he made a little speech about the environment, how the firmeza revolucionario had banned the multinational logging and mining "mafias" from all liberated zones.
The column reached base camp on the fourth day, trudging into the fortified MURC compound through a soiling rain. They hauled Blair straight to the Office of Complaints and Claims, where he sat for two hours in a damp hallway staring at posters of Lenin and Che, wondering if the rebels planned to shoot him today. When at last they led him into the main office, Comandante Alberto's first words were:
"You don't look like a spy."
A number of Blair's possessions lay on the desk: binoculars, camera, maps and compass, the notebooks with their microscopic Blairian scribble. Seven or eight subcomandantes were seated along the wall, while Alberto, the comandante máximo, studied Blair with the calm of someone blowing smoke rings. He resembled a late-period Jerry Garcia in fatigues, a heavy man with steel-rim glasses, double bags under his eyes, and a dense brillo bush of graying hair.
"I'm not a spy," Blair answered in his wired, earnest way. "I'm an ornithologist. I study birds."
"However," Alberto continued, "if they wanted to send a spy, they wouldn't send somebody who looked like a spy. So the fact that you don't look like a spy makes me think you're a spy."
Blair considered. "And what if I did look like a spy?"
"Then I'd think you were a spy."
The subcomandantes hawed like drunks rolling around in the mud. So was it all a big joke, Blair wanted . . .
Excerpted from Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain Copyright © 2006 by Ben Fountain. Excerpted by permission.
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