Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Nineteen: The Mysterious Miguel Barran

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Scootie woke with curiosity burning through his head. He flashed through a shower and a couple of Pop-Tarts before heading out the door and on to Fetzle. He charged into the library and found a couple of promising histories, one by a former director, one by a Santa Cruz columnist. The latter was hopelessly lightweight, ignoring troublesome matters like Harlan’s lifetime bachelorhood, his feud with John Muir over logging practices, and the stifling of his political ambitions by the anti-German sentiments of World War One.
Neither volume mentioned a person named Barran or a place called Villa Califa. The most he could find was a photo of a dark, extremely short man, about 50 years, seated on a mule. Harlan rode next to him on a large, muscular-looking horse. Something about their looks of grim pride told Scootie that they regarded each other as equals. The caption described the short man as “an unidentified worker, possibly Fetzle’s caretaker.” He made a copy of the photo, and was about to sit at the piano for a brief exploration when he heard music from the courtyard. He peered out the window to find a wedding, a father and daughter making their way down the aisle as a soprano stood before a string quartet, singing “O mio babbino caro.”
Nice touch, he thought. He left for the front door, Puccini in his ears, a picture of a Mexican dwarf in his pocket.

He sat in the Cafe Bolero, studying a double latte, stripes of espresso the color of sand under a snow-drift foam. Outside, it was hotter than usual, a real clam-bake, and he was glad to be inside under the ceiling fans.
The caffeine and cool air was doing nothing for his mystery cabin, and he knew his best source was closed off to him. He was amazed enough that Aggie had kept mum about the ticket giveaways, and he wasn’t about to gamble gamble on two miracles in a row.
“Ooh, someone’s wearin’ a two-ton thinkin’ cap.” Rip Scalding appeared over Scootie’s table, wearing a blinding white seersucker jacket with apple-cider stripes. He sat down and leaned on his cane, an elegant length of ash with a duck’s head carved into the cap.
“Hi, Rip. How are you?”
“I’m old, but you prob’ly already knew that. You, however, look downright troubled.”
“Easy to spot, huh?”
“Visible as a receding hairline.”
Scootie checked his recently installed caution meter and decided Rip could be trusted.
“I’m doing some research on Fetzle history. The name ‘Barran’ keeps popping up, but I can’t find it in the history books.”
“Short fella, this Barran?”
“Well, yes,” said Scootie, surprised. He took the photocopy from his pocket and pushed it across the table. “I thought this might have something to do with it.”
Rip held it at arm’s length and peered over his spectacles. “Sure. I know him. I was in the local ‘Hysterical Society’ for a while.”
“Yeah. Got tired of the politics, though. Some o’ those women act like they’re the Vatican cardinals pickin’ a new pope.”
Scootie laughed. “I know the type, brother.”
“I bet you do. Any case, I maintained my interest in certain Fetzle legends, and Barran’s got one of the more fascinatin’. Lotta conjecture, mind you, but it all seems to add up.”
“So,” said Scootie. “Tell, tell.”
Rip set his spectacles back on his nose, planning out his presentation. From his dead-wife stories, Scootie knew that Rip was serious about his storytelling.
“In the mid-1870s, when Harlan Fetzle met him, Miguel Antonio de Barran had worked his way from an impoverished childhood in Michoacan to become the leading woodcarver of Mexico City. His renown seemed to derive from his small stature – about three feet high – and the sublime qualities of his work. By his late twenties, he was in high demand from the landed gentry, for whom a Barran staircase or dining table carried sure proof of place and prestige.
“Harlan came to town at twelve years old, on a business trip with his father, Harlan, Sr. They stayed with a banker, Fernando Enriquez, who had commissioned Barran to craft the entranceway for his new mansion. Barran specialized in symbols of Aztec mythology, and was just beginning work on the central figure, a twenty-foot rendering of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent. The final piece included scales of gold form-fitted to slots around the serpent’s head.
“Harlan, Jr. was bored to tears by his father’s official engagements, and spent most of his days watching the dwarf as he freed the huge, wonderful snake from the mansion walls. Though limited by their different languages, the woodcarver and the child began to make small conversation, even to invent little jokes, from gestures and shared vocabulary.
“The third reason for Barran’s popularity was his tremendous amiability. His size had always made him a target for ridicule, so he learned to fend it off with a quick and gentle wit, always finding a way to let his detractors in on the joke. He was also an accomplished guitarist and poet, and spent many of his evenings in the cafes of the city, entertaining his fellow citizens.
“It was into this world of laughter and artistry that young Harlan was invited. You could even say it helped to form his life’s view. Barran took him on a tour of the city’s statuary, explaining the subtleties of their dimensions and angles, and brought him to the Temple of Quetzlcoatl at Teotihuaca’n. He even taught him to play congas, so he could accompany him in the cafes.
“At the end of two months, the Fetzles returned to California, but Harlan and Miguel continued to correspond. Harlan learned to write in Spanish, and compose Spanish poetry. For years, Harlan Senior invited Barran to work on the family’s estate in San Francisco, but Miguel was much too fond of his adopted city – and, rumor had it, the ladies there who, whether from curiosity or simple affection, sought the little woodcarver’s romantic attentions.”
“Romantic?” Scootie asked.
“All right, Mr. Cronkite. Sexual. The youth of today got no respect for discretion. Any case, Miguel’s mind was changed 18 years later by a violent turnover in the Mexican government. His clients were now the ones trying to maintain the connection between their heads and necks, and he was inextricably bound up with them. His many followers managed to smuggle him out of the city, and the obvious refuge was California, where his young cohort was now building a mansion of his own.”
“Wait a minute,” said Scootie. “You meant the entranceway at Fetzle...?”
“That’s what I believe,” said Rip.
“I thought it was carved by Italians.”
“I’m guessing that was a cover story. Barran was wary of revealing himself – even in California. Story was, the carving of the entranceway was saved for the very last, once all the other workers were gone. Harlan denied access even to his closest friends, claiming he wanted to save this final touch for the grand opening.
“Ten years later, once things in Mexico began to settle down, Barran began to make appearances at the mansion, but still his identity was kept rather unclear. He tended to simply go by ‘Miguel,’ and he had a lot of fun denigrating the ‘shoddy workmanship’ of the entrance. Highly apocryphal story, but fun, nonetheless.”
Rip took a pause to sip from a glass of water, giving Scootie a chance to phrase his next question. He decided to toss out an erroneous assumption and let Rip correct him.
“So I assume Barran lived somewhere in the mansion?”
“Another gray area. Legend has it that Barran had a secret home in the woods behind the mansion, that he designed the place on dimensions more fitting to his own size – and, further, that the only member of the race of giants allowed to set foot in the place was Harlan Fetzle. They say he named the place ‘Villa Califa,’ another bit of humor. Califa was the Queen of the Amazons, the creation of a Spanish novelist named Garcia OrdoƱez de Montalvo, and ruled over a paradisiacal island called California. The island’s treasures were guarded over by griffins.”
Scootie worked hard to suppress the firecrackers going off in his head. Without even trying, he had hit the Mother Lode. “So that’s where the state got it’s name?”
Rip raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think I had to explain that part.”
“Oh, well, yes.”
“By the way, Scootie. I should’ve mentioned this before, but please don’t spread this stuff around too much.”
“The Hysterical Society?”
“Yeah. See, I’ve got my secret sources on this stuff, and I’m kinda savin’ it for a book.”
“I won’t say a word,” said Scootie. “Do I get a wife story today?”
Rip pulled out his pocket watch. “Tell you the truth, I’m a little talked out. Plus, my ladyfriend is due for another visit.”
“Okay. Thanks again for the info.”
“Hey, I’ll tell stories anytime ya like. Just wind me up and watch my lips flap.”
Rip gave him a salute and shuffled out the front door. Scootie took out his notebook and began taking down the details for Juliana.

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