I extended to the comandante the opportunity
to walk the floor of the exchange with me, and he seemed reasonably
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 heapsJohn 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 Humboldt
Institute, and the Instituto Geográpica 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 rare local species of parrotlets.
It could be done; it would be done; it had to be done. Even
before hed first published in a peer-reviewed journalat age seventeen,
in Auk, Field Notes on the Breeding and Diet of the Tovi
ParakeetBlair 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 passionobsession, his bewildered parents would have saidfor 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,
youre coming with us.
Blair started to explain that he was a scholar, thus worthless
in any monetary sensehed been counting on his formidable language skills
to walk him through this very sort of situationbut 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. Blairs most
valuable possessions, worth more than his car.
Hes a spy, announced the rebel.
No, no, Blair politely corrected. Soy
Youre a spy, declared the
comandante, poking Blairs notebooks with the tip of his gun.
In the name of the Secretariat Im 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 forests vast
plumbing system; every morning they woke to piha birds screaming like pigs, and
then the mixed-species flocks kicked 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 a moment in a thoughtful way.
Yes, the rebel answered, ecology is
important to the revolution. As a scholarhe gave a faint, possibly
ironic smileyou can appreciate this, and he made a little speech
about the environment, how the firmeza revolucionaria had banned
the multinational logging and mining mafias from all liberated
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 at once. When at last they led him into the main office, Comandante
Albertos first words were:
You dont look like a spy.
A number of Blairs 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 maximo, 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.
Im not a spy, Blair answered in his
wired, earnest way. Im an ornithologist. I study
However, Alberto continued, if they
wanted to send a spy they wouldnt send somebody who looked like a spy. So
the fact that you dont look like a spy makes me think youre a
Blair considered. And what if I did look like a
Then Id think you were a spy.
The subcomandantes hawed like drunks rolling around in
the mud. So was it all a big joke, Blair wanted to know, or was his life really
at stake? Or both, thus a means of driving him mad? Im an
ornithologist, he said a little breathlessly, I dont know
how many ways I can tell you that, but its true. I came to study the
Albertos jaws made a twisted, munching motion, like he
was trying to eat his tongue. That is for the Secretariat to decide, all
cases of spying go to the Secretariat. And even if you are what you say you are,
you will have to stay with us while your release is arranged.
My release, Blair echoed bitterly.
You know kidnapping is a crime in most countries. Not to mention a
violation of human rights.
This isnt a kidnapping, this is a
retención in the sociopolitical context of the war. We merely hold
you until a fee is paid for your release.
Whats the difference? Blair cried, and
when Alberto wouldnt answer he came slightly unglued.
Listen, he said, I dont have any money, Im a
student, okay? In fact Im worse than worthless, I owe twenty thousand
dollars in student loans. And if Im not back at Duke in two weeks,
he went on, his voice cracking with the wrongness and rage of it all,
theyre going to give my teaching-assistant slot to somebody else.
So would you please save us all a lot of trouble and let me go?
They scanned his passport photo instead, then posted it on
their Web site with a $5 million ransom demand, which even the hard-core
insurgents knew was a stretch. Sixth Front gets the Exxon guys,
Subcomandante Lauro bitched, and we get the scientist with the holes in
his boots. He became known around camp as John Blair,
always the two names together, Johnblair, but John got mangled in
the depths of their throats so that it came out as the even more ridiculous
Joan. In any case they couldnt seem to speak his name without
smiling; thirty years of low-intensity warfare had given the rebels a heightened
sense of the absurd, and Blairs presence was just too fertile to ignore,
a gringo so thick, so monumentally oblivious that hed walked into the
middle of a war to study a bunch of birds.
So tell me, Joan Blair, one of the
subcomandantes might say, pointing to a manakin spouting trills
and rubatos or the tanagers that streaked about like meteor showers, what
is the name of that species, please?
He knew they were testing him, nominally probing for chinks in
his cover, but more than that they were indulging in the fatuous running joke
that seemed to follow him everywhere. Which he handled by coming right back at
them, rattling off the Latin and English names and often as not the Spanish,
along with genus and all the natural history he could muster before the rebel
waved his arms and retreated. But an implacable sense of mission was rising in
Blair. He eyed the cloud forest lapping the compounds walls and knew that
something momentous was waiting for him.
If you let me do my work, he told Comandante
Alberto, Ill prove to you Im not a spy.
Well, Alberto answered, perhaps. A
man of impressive silences and ponderous speech, who wore his gravitas like a
pair of heavy boots, he had a habit of studying his hands while he spoke, slowly
turning them back and forth while he declaimed Marxist rhetoric in the deep
rolling voice of a river flowing past giant boulders. First the
Secretariat must review your case.
Always the Secretariat, MURCs great and powerful Oz. In
the evenings the officers gathered on the steps of their quarters to listen to
the radio and drink aromática tea. Blair gradually insinuated
himself onto the bottom step, and after a couple of weeks of Radio Nacional
newscasts he understood that Colombia was busily ripping itself to shreds.
Gargantuan car bombs rocked the cities each week; judges and journalists were
assassinated in droves; various gangs, militias, and guerrillas fought the Army
and the cops, while the drug lords and revanchists sponsored paramilitary
autodefensa squads which seemed to specialize in massacring unarmed
peasants. In their own area Blair could hear shooting at night, and the distant
thud of helicopters during the day. Rebel patrols brought in bodies and bloody
autodefensa prisoners, while U.S. Air Force planes gridded the sky
overhead, reconnoitering the local coca crop.
Where, Blair asked during a commercial break,
is this Zone of Disarmament theyre always talking
Youre in it, Subcomandante Tono answered,
to which Lauro added with a sarcastic snarl, You mean you
Some evenings Alberto joined them, usually when one of his
interviews was being broadcast; hed settle onto the steps with a mug of
tea and listen to himself lecturing the country on historical inevitability and
the Bolivarian struggle and the venemous strategies of the World Bank. After one
such broadcast he turned to Blair.
So, Joan Blair, what do you think of our
Well, Blair said in his most formal Spanish,
of course I support these things as general principlesan end to poverty,
an equable education system, elections where everyone is free to
participate. The officers murmured patronizingly and winked at each
other; amid the strenuous effort of articulating himself Blair barely took
notice. But frankly I think youre being too timid in your
approach. If you really want to change society youre going to have to
start thinking in more radical terms.
Everyone endured several moments of intense silence, until
Alberto cleared his throat. For example, Joan Blair?
Well, youre always going on about agrarian
reform, but face it, youre just evading the real issue. If you really
want to solve the land problem youre going to have to get away from the
cow. Theyre too big, they overload the entire ecosystem. What we have to
do is forget the cow and switch over to a diet of mushrooms and
Mushrooms and insects? Lauro retched. You
think Im risking my ass out here for mushrooms and
But Alberto was laughing. Shut up Lauro, he gave an
honest answer. I like this guy, he doesnt bullshit aroundwith a hundred
guys like him I could take Bogotá in about two weeks.
During the day Blair was free to wander around the compound;
for all their talk of his being a spy the rebels didnt seem to mind him
watching their drills, though at night they put him in a storage hut and
handcuffed him to a bare plank bed. His beard grew in a dull sienna color, and
thanks to the high-starch, amoeba-enriched diet he began to drop weight from his
already aerodynamic frame, a process helped along by the chronic giardia that
felt like screws chewing through his gut. But these afflictions were mild
compared to the awesome loneliness, and like all prisoners he spent countless
vacant hours savoring the lost, now-clarified sweetness of ordinary days. The
people in his life seemed so precious to him nowI love you all! he
wanted to tell them, his parents and siblings, the Biology Department
secretaries, his collegial though self-absorbed and deeply flawed professors. He
missed books, and long weekend runs with his buddies; he missed women so badly
that he wanted to gnaw his arm. To keep his mind from rotting in this
gulag-style sump he asked for one of his blank notebooks back. Alberto agreed,
more to see what the gringo would do than out of any humane impulse; within days
Blair had extensive notes on countersinging among Scaled Fruiteaters and
agnostic displays in Wood-rails, along with a detailed gloss on Haffers
theory of speciation.
Alberto fell into the habit of chatting with Blair whenever
they happened to cross paths in the compound. He would inquire about his
research, admire the sketches in his notebook and generally smile on Blair like
a benevolent uncle. It came out that Alberto was a former banker, a
burgués city kid with advanced degrees; hed chucked it all
twenty years ago to join the MURC. It was false, that bourgeois
life, he confided to Blair. I was your typical social
parasite. But no matter how warm or frank these personal exchanges Blair
couldnt shake the sense that Alberto was teasing him, holding back some
essential part of himself.
You know, Alberto said one day, my
grandmother was also very devoted to birds. She was a saint, this womanwhen she
walked into her garden and held out her arms the birds would fly down and perch
on her hands.
Amazing, said Blair.
Of course I was just a kid, I thought everyones
grandmother could do this trick. But it was because she truly loved them, I know
that now. She said the reason we were put here on earth was to admire the beauty
which God created.
Albertos lips pooched out in a sad, nostalgic smile.
Beauty, you know, I think its nice, but its just for
pleasure. I believe that men should apply their lives to useful
Who says beauty and pleasure arent
useful? Blair shot back, sensing that Alberto was messing with his mind
again. Isnt that what revolutions are ultimately about, beauty and
pleasure for everyone?
Well, the comandante laughed,
maybe. Ill have to think about that.
So much depended on the rebels goodwillwhether they
lived by the ideals they so solemnly sloganized. Blair knew from the beginning
that their honor was the best guarantee of his life, and with time he began to
hope that hed found a group of people with a passion, a sense of mission,
that was equal to his. They seemed to be authentic concientizados,
fiercely committed to the struggle; they were also, to Blairs initial and
recurring confusion, loaded with cash. They had the latest in laptops and
satellite phones, fancy uniforms, flashy SUVs, and a potent array of high-tech
weaponsnot to mention Walkmen and VCRsall financed, according to the radio
news, by ill-gotten gains from the cocaine trade.
Its a tax! the rebels screamed whenever a
government spokesman started going on about the narcoguerrillas of
the MURC. We tax coca just like any other crop! A tax which
brought in $600 million a year, according to the radio, a sum that gave Blair a
wifty, out-of-body feeling. On the other hand there were the literacy classes
and crop-rotation seminars, which the rebels sponsored for the local campesinos,
who looked, however, just as scrawny here as in the nonliberated areas. So was
it a revolution a conciencia, or just a beautifully fronted trafficking
operation? Or something of bothBlair conceived that the ratio roughly mirrored
his own odds of coming out alive.
The notebook became his means of staying clued to reality, of
ordering time, which seemed to be standing still or maybe even running
backwards. The only thing the guerrillas would say about his ransom negotiations
was that Ross Perot might pay for his release, which Blair guessedthough he
could never be surewas some kind of joke. A group of the younger rebels took to
hazing him, los punketos, ruthless kids from the city comunas who
jittered the safeties of their guns whenever Blair walked by, the rapid
click-click-click cascading in his wake like the prelude to a piranha
feed. Sometimes he woke at night totally disoriented, unsure of where or even
who he was; other nights it seemed that he never really slept, sinking instead
into an oozing, submetabolic trance that left him vague and cranky in the
morning. One night he was drifting in just such a haze when a punketo
burst into the shed, announcing through riffs of soft hysterical laughter that
he was going to blow Blairs head off.
I wouldnt recommend it, Blair said
flatly. The kid was giggling and twitching around, literally vibratinghopped up
on basuco was Blairs guess. Hed probably been smoking for
Go fuck yourself, said the kid, jamming his gun
into the notch behind Blairs left ear. Ill kill you if I
Itll be thrilling for a minute, just after you
pull the trigger. Blair was winging it, making it up as he went along;
the main thing, he sensed, was to keep talking. Then itll be like
having a hangover the rest of your life.
Shut up you cocksucker, just shut the fuck up. Shut up
so I can kill you.
But its true. I know what Im talking
You? You never killed anybody in your
Are you kidding? The United States is an extremely
violent country. You must have seen the movies, right? Rambo? Die
Hard? Where I come from makes this place look like a nursery
Youre a liar, the kid said, though less
Why do you think Im here? I have so much
innocent blood on my hands, I was ready to kill myself I was so miserable. Then
it came to me in a dream, the Virgin came to me in a dream, he amended,
remembering how the rebels fell to their knees and groveled whenever the Spanish
priest came to say mass, and the punketos were always the worst, weeping
and slobbering on the padres ring as he walked among them.
Follow the birds and youll have peace, thats what
she told me in the dream. Follow the birds and your soul will know
And Blair talked on in the most hypnotic, droning voice
imaginable, cataloguing the wonders of Colombian avifauna until the
punketo finally staggered off into the night, either stupified or
transcendent, it was hard to say which. But when dawn broke and Blair was still
alive a weird peacefulness came over him, along with the imperatives of an
irresistible conviction. As soon as the cuffs came off he strode across the yard
to Complaints and Claims, brushed past the guard and walked into Albertos
office without so much as a knock. Alberto and Tono were spreading maps across
the jefes big desk; when the door flew open they went for their
holsters, a reflex that nearly got Blairs head blown off.
Go on, he dared them, stepping up to the desk.
Either let me do my work, or shoot me.
There was a heat, a grim fury about Blair that most people
would associate with madmen and fanatics. The comandantes eyed the gringo
at a wary slant, and it occurred to Blair that, for the moment at least, they
were actually scared of him.
Well, said Alberto in a cautious voice,
what do you think, Tono?
Tono blinked. I think hes a good man,
Comandante. And ecology is important to the revolution.
Yes, Alberto agreed, ecology is important
to the revolution. He tried to smile, to inject some irony into the
situation, but his mouth looked more like a fluttery open wound.
Okay, Joan Blair, it will be as you wish. I give you
permission to study your birds.
Blair was twelve the first time it happened, on a trip to thezoohe came on the aviarys teeming mosh pit of cockatoos and macaws and
Purple-naped Lories, and it was as if an electric arc had shot through him. And
hed felt it every time since, this jolt, the precision stab in the heart
whenever he saw Psittacidaehe kept expecting it to stop but it never did, the
impossibly vivid colors like some primal force that stoked the warm liquid
center of your soul.
Hed known a miracle was in these mountains, hed
felt it in his bones. For five rainy days he tramped ever-widening circles out
from the base, traversing ridges and saddles and moiling through valleys while
the armed guard followed him every step of the way. Hernan, Blair guessed, was
another of the comandantes jokes, a slight mestizo youth with
catlike looks and a manner as blank and flaky as cooled ashes. By now Blair knew
a killer when he saw one; Hernan would as soon shoot a man as pinch off a
hangnail, but as they trudged through the gelatinous drizzle together Blair
began to get the subtext of the comandantes choice.
So how long have you been with the MURC? he
Always, Hernan replied in a dreamy
That other boy, Hernan said in a gaseous hum,
that other boy died. I have been a revolucionario my whole
Blair studied the youth, then went back to scanning the
canopy. Alberto had returned the binoculars but not the camera.
So I guess youve been in a lot of
Yes, Hernan said in his humming voice, and he
seemed to reflect. Yes, many, he added.
Whats it like? Blair asked rudely, but
the kids catatonia was driving him nuts.
Oh, its not so bad. Once the shooting starts
Which Blair took for a genuine answer; five days through some
of the most beautiful, rugged country in the world and the youth showed all the
emotion of a turtle. It might not matter what you hit him witha firefight, a
bowl of stew, a trip to DisneylandHernan would confront each one with the
same erased stare, but when Blair passed him the binoculars on the fifth day,
pointing down a valley at a grove of wax palms and the birds wheeling around
like loose sprockets, Hernan focused and gazed in silence for a time, then burst
Theyre so silly! he cried.
And they were, Blair agreed, they were delightful, this
remnant colony of Crimson-capped parrots whose flock notes gave the impression
of a successful cocktail party. Thered been no sightings of the Crimson
since 1973, when Tetzlaff et al. spotted a single breeding pair in Pichincha,
Ecuador. CITES listed the species as critically endangered, though the more
pessimistic literature assumed extinction; that first day Blair counted
sixty-one birds, a gregarious, vocal group with flaming crowns and chunky
emerald-green bodies, their coverts flecked with blues and reds like glossy
M&Ms. Sixty-one birds meant that God was good: not only was there a decent
chance of saving the species, but if he lived and made it home with his data
intact Blair was going to knock the ornithological world on its ass. He and
Hernan built a blind of bunchgrass and palm fronds, and Blair settled into the
grind-it-out fieldwork mode. He charted the foraging grounds, the potential nest
holes, the roosts and flyways across the valley; he identified the mated pairs
within the flock and noted the species strong affinity for wax
palmsCeroxylon andiculum, itself endangeredand surmised a trophic
relationship. They talked constantly, with complex repertoires of sounds,
chattering in an offhand, sociable way as they clambered about the canopy or
sputtered from tree to tree, their short shallow wing beats batting the air with
the noisy ruction of windup toys.
Within weeks Blair had a basic ethological profile. In
exchange for the privilege of fieldwork he had to do camp chores every
afternoon, which was nothingthree years of graduate school had inured him to
slave labor and subsistence living. In some ways this was better than school: he
got room and board, worked with minimal interruptions, and was furnished a local
guide-bodyguard free of charge. Hernan proved adept at tracking the birds on
their feeding rounds, leading Blair through the forest as they listened for
debris tumbling through the leaves, then the fuddles and coos that meant
Crimsons were overhead. At the blind he usually lay back on the grass and dozed,
rousing from time to time to say amazing things about himself.
I had a girlfriend, he once confessed to Blair
in a sleepy voice. She wouldnt let me kiss her, but shed
bite me on the ear.
In the same vacant drone he told all manner of terrible
stories: battles hed fought, prisoners hed executed, patrols where
his column had come across peasants burned to death or babies nailed to planks.
The stories were so patently nightmarish that Blair wondered if Hernan was
talking in his sleep, channeling the dreams that rose like swamp gas out of his
wounded subconscious. His own family had been killed when he was twelve, their
village wiped out by autodefensas for electing a former insurgent as
Sometimes I see them, Hernan murmured in a
half-doze, one arm thrown over his eyes, feet crossed at the ankles.
Sometimes Im lying on my cot at night, and I look up and all my
familys standing there. And its like Im lying in a coffin,
you know? My familys alive and Im the one whos really dead,
and theyve come to my funeral to tell me good-bye.
Blair was so horrified that he had to write it all down, the
baroque, spiraling cycles of murder and revenge mixed with his notes on
allopreening among the mated Crimsons and the courtship dances of the unattached
males, the way they minced around like fops doing a French quadrille.
Sickness he wrote in the margin of his notes, theres a
sickness in the world, along with parrots the most intelligent and
beautiful of birds, also the most threateneda clue to the nature of things
(?). He wrote it all because it all seemed bound together in some
screamingly obvious way that he couldnt quite get. Tramping through the
woods, he and Hernan kept coming across giant cocaine labs, the thuggish workers
warning them off with drawn machetes. The coca fields around the camp kept
expanding; radio reports of the fledgling peace talks took on a spectral air,
with the MURC insisting on prenegotiation of themes which might be substantively
negotiated at a later time. Every few weeks Hernan would go off on a mission,
and after three or four days hed drag in with the other survivors,
skinnier, with corpse-like shadows under his eyes but otherwise the samethe
next dawn he and Blair would be at the blind, watching the birds greet the day
with gurgling chatter. In March the males began to hold territory, and when the
females developed brood patches Hernan offered to climb the trees for a look at
the nests, a job they both knew was beyond Blair. After a year in the mountains
he was a rashy stick figure of his former self, prone to fevers and random dizzy
spells that made his head feel like a vigorously shaken snow globe. Sometimes he
coughed so hard that his nose bled; his bowels were papier-mâché,
his gums ached, and the sturdiest thing about him seemed to be his beard, which
looked positively rabbinical.
Go for it, Blair answered, and in a flash Hernan
was seventy feet up the tree, relaying information while Blair wrote. Clutch,
two; eggs, white; nest, about the size of a Guambiano water jar. Hernan had left
his rifle propped against a nearby tree; Blair eyed it while allowing an escape
fantasy to float through his head, a minivacation from the knowledge that if he
ran theyd catch him before the day was out. Still, the rifle raised a
nagging question: how could he leave, now, in the middle of his research, even
if he got the chance? But not to leave might be a slow form of suicide. Sooner
or later something would get him, either sickness, a swacked-out punketo
or an autodefensa raid, or maybe the Secretariat would decide to make a
point at his expense. The hard line had lately crept back into the MURCs
rhetoric, which Blair guessed was part posturing for the peace talks, part
exasperation at the trend of the times. The Soviet Union had imploded, the
Berlin Wall was gravel, and the Cuban adventure was on life support, and yet the
MURC insisted it would soldier on.
Some say the end of history has come, Alberto
intoned to the journalists. We can all have different interpretations
about whats happened in the world during these very complex years, but
the fact of the matter is that most things havent changed. Hunger,
injustice, poverty, all of the issues which led the guerrilla of the MURC to
take up arms are still with us.
True, thought Blair. He wanted to believe in the Revolution,
in its infinite capacity for reason and justice, but the Revolution
wouldnt return his camera for one day. All of his research would be
deemed hypothetical unless supported by a photo or specimen. No photo, no
dissertation, and hed sooner burn every page of his notes than take a
I could steal the camera back for you, Hernan
offered. I think I know where hes keeping your
What would happen if they caught us?
Hernan reflected. To me, nothingI can just disappear.
To you? He shrugged. Theyd probably cut off your fingers
and send them to your family.
Blair considered for a second, then shook his head. Not yet.
He wasnt that desperate yet.
When the chicks hatched Hernan went up again, checking out thenests while the parents and auxiliaries seethed around his head like a swarm of belligerent box kites. One egg would hatch, then the second a few days later;
Blair knew the second hatchlings were insurance, doomed to die unless their
older siblings died first, and he sketched out a program for taking the second
chicks and raising them in captivity.
The Crimsons had saved him, in a way; maybe hed save
them in turn, but he had to know everything about them first.
Theres something wrong with us, he told Hernan one day. He
was watching the nest holes for the soon-to-fledge chicks and thinking about the
news, the latest massacres and estimates of coca acreage. The U.S. had pledged
Colombia $1.6 billion in aidadvisers, weapons, helicopters, the whole bitwhich
made Blair wonder if his countrymen had lost their minds. There was a fire
raging in Colombia, and the U.S. planned to hose it down with
Who? Hernan answered, cracking open one
Us. People. The human race.
Hernan lunked up on one elbow and looked around, then subsided
to the grass and closed his eyes. People are devils, he said
sleepily. The only persona decente who ever lived was Jesus
Christ. And the Virgin. And my mother, he added.
Tell me this, Hernanwould you shoot me if they told
Anh. Hernan didnt bother to open his
eyes. Theyd never ask me.
They wouldnt? Blair felt an unfamiliar
surge of hope.
Of course not. They always put the new guys on the
firing squads, to toughen them up. Guys like me they never bug for stuff like
Over the next few days seven chicks came wobbling out of the
nests, and Blair set himself the task of tracking the flock as it educated the
youngsters. Back in the shed he had notebooks and loose papers crammed with
data, along with feathers, eggshell fragments, and stool samples, also a large
collection of seeds with beak-shaped chunks gnarled out of them. Occasionally
Alberto would trek up the mountain to the blind, checking in on Blair and the
latest developments with the children, as hed taken to
calling the parrots. He seemed relaxed and jolly during these visits, though his
essential caginess remained; he would smile and murmur noncommittally when Blair
lobbied to start his captive-breeding program. Get with it,
Alberto, Blair pressed one day. It would be a huge PR coup for you
guys if the MURC rescued an endangered species. I could help you across the
board with that, like as an environmental consultant. You know were
really on the same side.
Alberto started to speak, then broke off laughing as he
studied the wild gringo in front of him. Blair was dressed in scruffy jungle
fatigueshis civilian clothes had worn out long agoand with his gaunt,
weathered face and feral beard he looked as hardened as any of the guerrillas.
New recruits to the camp generally assumed that he was a zealot from the
mythical suicide squad.
Joan Blair, you remind me of a man I once knew. A man
of conviction, a real hero, this guy. Of course he died in Bolivia many years
Fighting for the revolution, of
Blair winced, then shook off the spasm of dread. So
what about my captive-breeding program?
Alberto chuckled and patted Blairs shoulder.
Patience, Joan Blair, you must learn patience. The revolution is a lot
more complicated than you think.
Theyre negotiating you, Hernan said a fewweeks later. Some big shots supposed to be coming
Bullshit, Blair said. The camp was a simmering
cesspool of rumors, but nothing ever happened.
Its true, Joan Blair, I think youre going
Maybe Ill stay, Blair said, testing the
idea on himself. There isnt an ornithologist in the world
whos doing the work Im doing here.
No, Joan, I think you should go. You can come back
after weve won the war.
What, when Im eighty? Blair chewed a
blade of grass and reflected for a moment. I still dont have my
photo. Im not going anywhere until I get that.
The rumors persisted, gradually branched into elaborate
subrumors. Just to be safe Blair got all his data in order, but it was still a
shock to see the helicopters come squalling out of the sky one day, cutting
across the slopes at a sassy angle and heading for camp. Blair and Hernan were
walking back for afternoon chores, and if there was ever any doubt about
Blairs intentions his legs resolved it for him, carrying him down the
trail at a dead sprint. At camp the helicopters were parked on the soccer field,
two U.S. surplus Hueys with the sky-blue Peace Commission seal on their hulls.
Campesinos and guerrillas were streaming into the compound; Blair had to scrum
his way through the crowd to get a view of Complaints and Claims, where some
kind of official moment was taking place on the steps. Several distinct factions
were grouped around a microphone: Alberto and the subcomandantes were on
one side, along with some senior comandantes whom Blair didnt
recognize, while to their right stood a sleek delegation of civilians,
Colombians with careful haircuts and tasteful gold chains. Blair spotted the
American delegation at oncetheir smooth, milky skin was the giveaway, along
with their khaki soft-adventure wear and identical expressions of informed
concern. Everyone was raked toward the microphone, where a Colombian was saying
something about the stalled peace talks.
Why didnt you tell me? Blair almost screamed. A
Tele-Nacional crew was filming the ceremony; photographers scuttled around like
dogs chasing table scraps. What about me? he wanted to shriek, say
something about me! He tried in vain to make eye contact with the Americans,
whod arranged themselves into distinct pairs. The two middle-aged men
stood farthest from the action, robust, toned, country-club types; the other two
Americans stood close to the center, a tall, older gentleman with a shrinking
hairline and sharp Adams apple, then the sturdy young woman who was glued
to his side, short of stature, hyperalert, firecracker cute. The
international communitys show of support, said the speaker. A
message of hope from U.S. financial circles. Blair felt one of
his dizzy spells coming on, his eyes clouding over in a spangly haze. He slumped
and let the crowd hold him up; Hernan had vanished somewhere along the trail.
When the delegation began to move inside Blair watched them disappearing as if
in a dream, then roused himself at the last moment.
Hey! he yelped in English, Im
American! Hey you guys, Im an American!
Only the woman seemed to hear, flashing a quick, startled look
over her shoulder, then continuing inside. Blair started to follow but a guard
blocked his way.
Alto, Joan Blair. Only the big shots go in
Who are those people? Blair asked, craning for a
look through the door. Which abruptly shut.
Well, the guard said, assuming the manner of
someone schooling a particularly dense child, there is Señor
Rocamora, the Peace Commissioner, and there is Señor Gonzalo, the Finance
But the Americans, who are they?
How the hell should I know? Peces gordos, I
Blair didnt dare leave, not for a second, though he
could feel the sun baking all the juices out of him. The crowd in the compound
absently shuffled about, disappointed without really knowing why.
Fritanguera ladies set up their grills and started frying dough; a King
Vulture scraped lazy circles in the sky. After a while the American woman
stepped outside and walked down the gallery to speak to the reporters. Blair
brushed past the guard and was up in a second, intercepting the woman as she
walked back to the door. Out of insctict she started to dodge him; he looked
wild with his castaways beard and grimy jungle fatigues, but his blue
eyes beaming through the wreckage brought her up short.
Oh! You must be John Blair!
He could have wept with gratitude. Yes, Im John
Blair! You know who I am!
Of course, State briefed us on your situation.
Im Kara Coleman, with the A scissoring blast of syllables shot
off her lips. Wow, she continued, eyeing him up and down,
you look likehell, she barely avoided
sayingyouve been here awhile.
Fifteen months and six days, Blair instantly
replied. Youre with the State Department?
No, Im with the She made that scissoring
sound again. Im Thomas Spassos assistant, hes
leading our group. Thomas Spasso, she repeated in a firm voice,
and Blair realized that he was supposed to know the name. Chairman of the
Nisex, she continued, almost irritated, but still Blair didnt have
a clue. The Nisex, she said as if speaking to a dunce,
the New York Stock Exchange.
Blair was confused, but quite as capable as anyone of
rationalizing his confusionhe knew that fifteen months in the Andes might have
turned his American frame of reference to mush. So maybe it wasnt so
strange that the king of Wall Street would turn up here, in the jungly heart of
MURC territory. Blairs impression of the stock market, admittedly vague,
was of a quasi-governmental institution anyway.
Right, he said, straining to put it all
together. The unfamiliar English felt like paste on his tongue. Sure, I
understand. But who, I mean what, uhwhy exactly are you here?
Were here to deliver a message from the
financial community of its support for the current peace initiative. Foreign
investment could do so much for this country, we felt the MURC might be more
flexible if they knew the opportunities we could offer them. And Mr. Spasso has
a special interest in Colombia. You know hes close personal friends with
Blair shut his eyes and wondered if hed lost his mind.
You mean, he said in a shattered whisper, this
doesnt have anything to do with me?
Well, no, we came chiefly with the peace process in
mind. Im sorryshe realized the effect she was
havingIm truly sorry, I can see how insensitive that must seem to
you right now.
Blair was sagging; all of a sudden he felt very, very tired.
Isnt there something you can do for me? he softly wailed.
Anything? Kara touched his arm and gave him a mournful look; she
wasnt heartless, Blair could see, but rather the kind of person who might
cry in movies, or toss bites of her bagel to stray dogs.
Mr. Spasso might have some ideas, she said.
Come inside, Ill try to get you a few minutes with
She led Blair through the door, down a short hallway and into
the big concrete room where the comandantes mediated peasant disputes
every Tuesday and Thursday. The delegates were sitting in the center of the
room, their chairs drawn in a circle as if for a group therapy session. Thomas
Spasso was speaking through an interpreter, and in seconds Blair formed an
impression of the chairman as a ticky, nervous guy, the kind of intractable
motormouth who said the exact same thing no matter where he was. Peace
will bring you huge benefits from global investors, the chairman told the
comandantes. The capital markets are lining up for you, they want
to be your partner in making Colombia an integral part of the Americas
economic bloc. He rattled on about markets and foreign investment, the
importance of strong ratings from Moodys bond-risk servicethe rebels sat
there in their combat fatigues and Castro-style hats smiling and nodding at the
chairmans words, but Blair could see they were barely containing
themselves. It was so close that they didnt dare look at each other, but
the real challenge came when the chairman invited them to visit Wall Street.
I personally extend to each and every one of you an invitation to walk
the floor of the exchange with me, Spasso said, his voice thrumming with
heartfelt vibrato. He clearly thought he was offering them the thrill of their
lives, but Blair could picture the rebels howling on the steps tonightOooo,
that we should have this big honor, to walk the floor of the bourgeois exchange
with him. Even now the comandantes eyes were bugging out,
their jaws quivering with the strain of holding it in, and it was only by virtue
of supreme discipline that they didnt fall out of their chairs
Spasso, ingratiating yet oblivious, talked on.
Hes very passionate, Kara whispered to Blair, who was
thinking how certain systems functioned best when they denied the existence of
adverse realities. After awhile the Peace Commissioner got to say some words,
then the Finance Minister, and then Alberto, who limited his comments to an
acknowledgment of the usefulness of market mechanisms, so long as social
justice for the masses is achieved. Then some aides circulated a proposed
joint statement, and the meeting dissolved into eddies and swirls as each group
reviewed the language.
Kara waited until Spasso stood to stretch his legs. Mr.
Spasso, she called, hustling Blair over, this is John
Spasso turned, saw Blair, and seemed to lose his power of
The hostage, Kara said helpfully,
hes in your briefing kit. The guy from Duke.
Oh yes, yes, of course, the gentleman from Duke. How
are you, so very nice to see you.
Nice to see you? Fifteen months in hell and nice to
see you? For Blair it was like a curtain coming down.
Sir, John and I were discussing his situation, and
while he understands the limited scope of our visit he was also wondering if we
could do anything with regard to facilitating his return home. At some possible
Well, Spasso said, as you know
were here in the spirit of a private-sector exchange. Though your name
did come up at the embassy this morning. He paused as one of the other
Americans approached, a fellow with silver-blond hair and a keen, confident
look. Working the final numbers, he told Spasso, waving a legal
pad at the chairman. Then were good to go. Thanks so much for
setting this up, Tom.
Spasso nodded and glanced at his watch as the American moved
off. People were milling about the big room, talking and bumping
John Blair, Kara prompted.
Mr. Blair, absolutely. Im afraid your situation
is rather problematic. There are lawshe looked to Kara for
confirmationapparently there are laws here in Colombia which prohibit
private citizens from engaging in kidnap negotiations. Am I correct on that,
Unfortunately yes, sir.
Aiding and abetting a kidnap
negotiation, I believe those are the words. Were to avoid any
action that could be construed as aiding and abetting a kidnap negotiation,
those are our strict instructions from the State Department. Which I know must
seem rather harsh to you
Blair had groaned.
but Im sure you can appreciate the bind this
puts us in. Much as wed like to help, our hands are
Blair wanted to hit this fool, or at least shake him hard
enough that some air got to his brain. Look, he said in his most
determined voice, theyre threatening to kill me, theyve
accused me of being a spy. They could take me out and shoot me as soon as you
Im certainly aware of the seriousness of your
situation. Señor Spasso, someone called from across the
room. Believe me, I am most sympathetic. But any goodwill we foster here
today will redound to your future benefit, Im sure.
Señor Spasso, were ready.
Be right there! People are working for your release, I
can assure you. Top people, extremely capable people. So hang in there, and God
Spasso joined the general push of people toward the door.
I am so, so sorry, Kara said. She reached into her satchel and
pulled out a handful of Power Bars. Here, take these, she said,
passing them to Blair. Ill talk to you before we
Kara melted into the crowd. Blair allowed the flow to carry
him out to the gallery, where he leaned against a column and closed his eyes. He
could not comprehend what was happening to him, but it had something to do with
the casual cruelty of people whod never missed a meal or had a gun stuck
to their heads. Out in the yard the press was forming ranks for another photo
op. Spasso and company gathered around the microphone; while they made the same
speeches as two hours ago Blair ate his Power Bars and discretely wept, though
in time he pulled himself together and resolved to make one last plea for help.
He scanned the yard and gallery for Kara, then entered the building, where he
found her in the big concrete room. She and the other two Americans were sitting
with Alberto and one of the senior comandantes. They were speaking in
quiet, reasoned tones, their chairs so close that their knees almost touched.
Blair was struck by their visible ease with each other, the intimate air which
enclosed the little group.
Oh, John! Kara cried. Maybe John can
help, she said to the others, waving Blair over. John, were
having some trouble with the language here, maybe you can help us
The blond American stood with his legal pad. All those
years of high school Spanish, he chuckled, and I dont
remember a thing.
Johns American, said Kara.
Hes in graduate school at Duke.
Super! The man pulled Blair close.
Listen, were trying to work out the numbers here and we
cant seem to get on the same page. Im offering thirty-five hundred
per fifty unit, fifty thousand board feet in other words. Think you could put
that into Spanish for me?
Blair eyed the scribble of numbers on the pad.
Blair kept scanning the pad, the numbers teasing him; it
seemed important to make sense of the mess. Board
Its the standard unit in the industry. One
square foot by one inch thick.
Of board, Blair said. Youre
talking about lumber.
Who are you?
The man stuck out his hand. Rick Hunley, Weyerhauser
precious woods division.
Youre going to log this area?
Thats the plan, if we can close this
Blair turned to Alberto, who gave him a squirrelly, sullen
look. The honks and woofs of the press conference drifted through the door, and
that, Blair realized, was simply a show, a concoction of smiles and talking
heads. Whereas the deal was happening right here in this room.
Alberto, he cried in bitter, lancing Spanish,
how could you? How could you even think of doing such a
Alberto shrugged, then turned away as if he smelled something
bad. Running an army is expensive, Joan Blair. The revolution
doesnt survive on air, you know.
Christ, look at all the coca out there, how much money
could you possibly need? Youre going to wipe out the parrots if you log
We have to save the country, Joan
What, so you can turn it over to these
You think therell be something to save when
theyre done with it?
Enough, Joan Blair, I mean it. Alberto flicked
his hand as if shooing a fly. Get out of here, Im tired of
listening to you. Beat it. Where are those son-of-a-whore
But Blair had rounded on Hunley. Theres a parrot
up here, he said in very fast English, an extremely rare species,
these are probably the last birds of their kind in the world. If you guys come
in here logging its a pretty sure thing youre going to wipe them
Whoa, thats news to me. Hunley and his
partner exchanged dire looks; Hunley turned to Alberto. Comandante, I can
tell you right now if we get bogged down in any environmental issues then
were outta here. We dont have time to mess around with that
Is not a problem, Alberto said, emitting the
gruff sort of English that a bear might speak.
Well according to your interpreter it
Not a problem, no, for sure, no bird problems here.
Forget the birds.
I wont stand for this, Blair stated
flatly. I dont accept it. You people cant do
Albertos lips cramped inward, holding back a smile,
though Blair could see it surface in his eyes well enough, the near-lethal mix
of pity and contempt. Okay, Joan Blair, why dont you stop
us, he mocked, but something skittish and shamed began to leak into his
eyes, a grey, mizzly vapor that snuffed out all the light. Alberto tried to
stare him down but couldnt, and at the moment he turned away Blair knew:
the revolution had reached that classic mature stage where it existed only to
Okay, Alberto said, reaching for Hunleys
legal pad, I think we can make the deal. He circled a number on
the pad and handed it back to Hunley. For that, okay? For this price we
make the deal, but one more thing. You have to take this guy with
No way, Blair said, forget it. You
arent getting rid of me.
Yes, yes, you are going. We are tired of feeding you,
you have to go home now.
Go to hell Alberto, Im staying right
Alberto paused, then turned to the Americans. This
man, he said stiffly, pointing to Blair, is a spy. As a gesture of
goodwill, for the peace process, I am giving him to you, you may please take him
home. And if you dont take him home, today, now, he will be shot. Because
that is what we do to spies.
Kara gasped, but the worldly lumber executives just laughed.
Well, son, said Hunley, turning to Blair, I guess you
better come with us.
Blair wouldnt look at them, Spasso, Kara, the others,he wouldnt acknowledge the smiling people in the seats around him. He
kept his face turned toward the helicopters open door, watching the dust
explode as the engines powered up, the crowd waving through the storm of rotor
wash. The chopper throbbed, shuddered, shyly wicked off the ground, and as it
rose Blair glimpsed Hernan in the crowd, the kid dancing like a boxer as he
waved good-bye. In the chaos of loading hed slipped through the muddled
security cordon and shoved a plastic capsule into Blairs handfilm, Blair
had known without looking at it, a thirty-five-millimeter cartridge. The film
was tucked into Blairs pants pocket now, while he clutched to his lap the
backpack with its bundles of data and artifacts: the first, and very likely the
last, comprehensive study of the Crimson-capped Parrot. He hung on as the Huey
accelerated, trapdooring his stomach into empty space as it slammed into a sheer
vertical climb. The world fell away like a ball dropped overboard, the torque
and coil of the jungle slopes diminishing to finely pebbled sweeps of green. The
craft pivoted as it climbed, nose swinging to the east, the Crimsons
valley with its fragile matchstick palms sliding past the door like a sealed
tableaufrom this height Blair could see how easy it would be, nothing at all to
rub out the faint cilia of trees. Easy. The sheltering birds just so much
How does it feel? Spasso was shouting in his ear.
How does it feel to be free? They were rising, rising, they might never
stopBlair closed his eyes and let his head roll back, surrendering to the awful
weightlessness. Like dying, he wanted to tell them, like death, and how grieved
and utterly lost youd feel as everything precious faded out. That
ultimate grief which everyone saves for the end, Blair was spending it, burning
through all his reserves as the helicopter bore him away.