Behind Porfirio, the ground shimmered in the rising heat. For a moment, the scrubland behind him disappeared in a mirage, replaced by the fleeting image of a dark, still lake. Its vivid appearance brought a memory to the surface of Deke’s mind unbidden.
In the memory, Deke stood on a path in a well-manicured park, a place of solitude and tranquility. It was a cool and peaceful day. Puffy white clouds drifted languidly across the sky. Lush grass grew on either side of the path, a thick green carpet completely unlike anything in the desert. It stretched down a gentle hill on each side of the path, leading to a pair of lakes.
Each lake was alive with fish, tiny darting shadows flitting briefly in and out of view. In one lake, the fish were silver, their scales bright enough that they reflected the sun back in sudden glints when they came close enough to the surface. In the other, every fish was black. Their subtle shapes were harder to see in the murky waters, but they were no less lively for that.
As Deke had stood there watching the fish, a man in a neatly tailored grey suit had approached him. The man’s poise and bearing spoke of an easy confidence learned through years of practice. His smile was open and friendly, his manner warm. Everything about him was welcoming. Deke liked him immediately, and trusted him not at all. He recognized too many of his own attitudes in this stranger.
“Hail, fellow,” the man had said, a smile resting lightly on his lips. “Fellow artist.”
Deke had raised an eyebrow, and the man had shrugged. “Artisan, if you prefer. We know our own.”
They had looked at the lakes in silence for a while before the grey-suited man spoke again. “Amazing that they can contain so much life, is it not? And so much more beneath the surface, so many we’ll never see.”
He had paused reflectively before continuing, “And yet—every one is the same. Seems almost a shame, does it not? No variety, not truly.”
Deke had noticed then that the man carried with him a metal pail filled with water. Inside it was a jet-black fish twice the size of Deke’s hand, swimming in slow circles. Its body curved to avoid the edges of the bucket, but even so its fins and tail regularly bumped up against the sides. The container was far too small for it, and Deke had felt an urge to seize it from the man and release the fish into the lake.
Instead, he had asked, “You get that from that lake over there?”
“No,” the man had said, surprise tingeing his tone. “Rather the other way around, in fact.”
“You saying that the lake got the fish from you?”
“Indeed, but there are more interesting questions to be asked here.” The man had cast his gaze up and down the path, as if searching for someone. Finding no one, he had shrugged.
“Well, let us force the issue.” The grey-suited man had indicated the lake full of silvery fish with a tilt of his head and a slight heft of his bucket. “Do you mind?”
“Ain’t my lake.”
“You’d be surprised.” With that enigmatic statement, the grey-suited man had stepped lightly down the hill, heading for the lake. He had closed to within a half-dozen feet and was lifting the bucket to dump it in, when a sudden turmoil in the water caused him to stop.
Silver fish had scattered in every direction as Porfirio strode forth from beneath the lake, water cascading off of him. He had come to a halt before the grey-suited man, his body a physical barrier separating the man from the lake.
“Porfirio,” the man had said pleasantly. “Or did I leave you even that? No matter. We all must be called something.”
Porfirio had simply stood unmoving, giving no sign that he had even heard the grey-suited man.
“I wasn’t going to trade him, you know,” the man continued. “We made no deal. He would have gotten this for free.”
The grey-suited man had twisted around then, calling back out to Deke, “You still could! Would you like this?”
He indicated the bucket again, and added, “It’s a simple thing, this one: knowledge of how you survive Cerro Muerte. I can give it to you. Free of charge.”
Deke had shaken his head slowly. “In my experience, there’s nothing that costs more than a stranger’s free gift.”
The man’s smile had slowly expanded, revealing sharp white teeth that seemed to stretch farther back into his mouth than they should. For a moment, though nothing obvious changed, he had looked more wolf than man.
“You would know, fellow artist. Fare thee well.”
Still smiling, he had turned his back on Deke and Porfirio and walked away, bucket swinging at his side. Deke watched him until he disappeared into the forest surrounding the park. As the man had entered the wooded area, Deke swore he saw him drop to all fours, but between the distance and the shadows he couldn’t be sure.
Deke had turned back to find Porfirio sitting on the far side of the path, looking down at the lake filled with black fish. He had felt he should say something, but was unusually at a loss for words. So instead he had simply taken a seat next to him, and together they had quietly watched the dark fish trace patterns in the water.
Deke shook himself, scattering the memory. He still stood sweating in the heat with Porfirio, not sitting on a hill by a calm lake. Around them was scrubland, not manicured grass and carefully arranged paths. And above him still loomed the earthen monstrosity whose shape he could not quite fix in his mind. He was not at the park, no matter how vividly he recalled it.
In fact—had he ever truly been at the park? He could not recall where it was located, how he had gotten there, or what he had done after. It was a disconnected moment in time, unattached to the rest of his life. And surely impossible, for he had only met Porfirio after arriving in Rosin’s Hollow. None of it made sense.
An image from the park briefly resurfaced in his mind: the lake full of silver fish. And in between them, almost unnoticed among their glinting scales, a single tiny black fish swimming with the school, pretending to be one of them.
“Porfirio,” Deke said. “The park. Was that—were you there?”
If Porfirio was listening, he gave no sign. He was turned partially away from Deke, staring up at the monolith before them. He seemed to be waiting for something.
And then, without warning, Porfirio stepped forward, closing the final distance between them and the towering rock edifice. He walked to its edge and then into it, disappearing into a previously hidden crevice between its stones.
“Porfirio! Porfirio, hey!” called Deke. There was no reply.
Deke hesitated, cursed himself and followed Porfirio inside.