Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar
by Jess Wells
Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
1875, in the southern country of Calexicobia
After the government had burned it to the ground, it was hard to imagine the Caketown Bar surrounded by a raucous shanty town, home to cast-off mothers and unclaimed children, filled with lively mirth and mayhem together, where every day was a celebration even if not a holiday, where peacocks cawed from the backs of donkeys, and women’s wigs and bunting were playthings for the monkeys in the trees when they stopped playing catch with the dogs. Flowers of unknown origin bloomed in the night and then flew away, and blue mist or green fog rolled in without warning. It was a town where morning was heralded by a rum cask being rolled across a dance floor, and the groggy question of who had arrived in the night; evening announced by the sizzle of lightbulbs in bent sockets and men slapping the dust off their pants with their hard-working hats, women putting a baby to the breast and finally sitting down. Tartatenango, Spanish slang for Caketown, hosted every traveling circus and any Romany family who roamed the southern country of Calexicobia, every soothsayer and shabby hawker of medicinal nonsense, any run-away from the army, convent, or hostile home. No one was turned away for being muddy or misshapen or ragged. Everyone was welcome until proven unworthy and it was just assumed that everyone was on their second chance: at the Caketown Bar, sharing stories of the past was much more intimate than nudity.
In the beginning, seekers from the north trekked through the jungle, veered off a minor mule-train road just after the third hollow acacia tree and followed a wide animal track to find it. Burdened with sadness and loss on top of their possessions, they trudged toward the little town whose name was whispered among the laundresses or spoken low by the cook after a glance over her shoulder. The midwives knew of it, the women of the theater troupes and Romani spoke of it late at night.
Those who used the snaking Magdalena river that was its western boundary had an easier time finding it. The river was calm and narrow at this spot before growing wide and wild as it headed north toward the sea. Boaters set their sights on a beach between two enormous white boulders that were smooth and firm like the breasts of a new mother in the morning.
Its founding was more a protest than a selection. Paloma Marti, who was six foot five, at seventeen far younger than she looked because of her surprising height, saw the hungry glare and familiar danger from the boatmen and two male passengers on the barge she was riding. When the ringleader flashed a knife under the guise of cleaning his nails, she abandoned her small bag and dove off the side of the boat, swimming toward the inviting boulders.
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