Café Lempira (Part 2 of 4)

Alain nodded toward the patio. “Check out that bird.”

An unusually large rainbow-billed toucan perched near the top of the massive cage. Like the old man sitting underneath the bougainvillea, the toucan kept to the shadows cast by the leaves of creeping vines thick with brightly colored flowers. As if sensing our attention, the toucan made a strangely triumphant croaking sound and shifted back and forth on its perch. The bird croaked again, louder, and fluffed up its feathers, as if offering a challenge. It hopped toward a branch closer to us, and a silver band fixed around its left leg glinted from the shadows.

Despite the warmth of the day, I shivered. “That bird’s a trip, that’s for sure.”

“The tucán is very smart,” the old man said, “and he plays checkers very well.”

“Checkers?” Alain said. “That’s a kids’ game.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I said. “When I was in Costa Rica, the guards in the national parks played checkers to pass the time. Two guys playing, the rest standing around watching and commenting. I watched, too. It was intense. And fast. Not a kids’ game at all.”

Alain fixed me with a dismissive look. “Mack, it’s checkers. How hard can it be?”

I shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The waiter appeared with our coffee, and I let the subject drop.

Maybe it was the contrast with the Nescafe we’d drunk camping on Celaque, or maybe it was something to do with the earthenware cups, but it was the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Nutty, with a hint of chocolate. Rich and strong, not a trace of bitterness. Next to me, Alain sighed and wrapped both his hands around his cup.

“Excuse me, please,” the old man said, standing. “I will return in a moment.” He stood and walked into the patio, behind the cage, and out of view.

I ripped a strip off the napkin under my coffee cup. “Alain,” I said, “we should bail out of here.”

Alain frowned. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Dude, this place is getting creepier by the second.” I folded the strip and tore it in half.

“Mack, you’re being paranoid. And ease up on that napkin. It didn’t do anything to you.”

I let the shredded paper fall onto the table. “I’m getting a weird vibe. Something’s just off about this place.”

Earlier, the café had appeared spacious, welcoming, full of vibrant plant life. But now, the vegetation pressed close. The empty wooden tables had become tiny rafts bobbing in a restless green sea. Above them, the figures in the murals loomed large, angry gods waging war under gathering thunderclouds.

The closest mural featured a Spaniard with a jutting beard thrusting a bloody dagger into a Lenca warrior wearing feathered headdresses and war paint. In the background, screaming women clutched infants to their breasts, their small brown hands offering no protection against a flurry of crossbow bolts fired by armored Spaniards. At the mural’s edge, beyond the fray, a leering priest held a bloody cross in one hand and clutched a fistful of gold coins in the other. At the bottom of the painting, row upon row of grinning skulls drank greedily of the freely flowing blood.

Alain was nonplussed. “Mack, calm down, everything is cool. Eat something. You’ll feel better.”

In the cage, the toucan croaked and dropped to a wooden table like those in the cafe and began to pace back and forth making small, anxious sounds. Opposite the bird, a single chair sat empty. Something rested on the tabletop, but the seething mass of vines and flowers prevented me from seeing what it was.

Suddenly, the old man was back. He ignored me and addressed himself to Alain. “The tucán, he is anxious to play. Are you ready?”

Alain finished his coffee and stood. “Yeah.” He turned to me. “I’m gonna show this bird how it’s done.”

The white-suited waiter appeared, silently, next to the door to the cage.

I put a hand on Alain’s arm. “Alain, man, I don’t know about this.”

The toucan let out a mocking whistle followed by two clicks.

“Mack, it’s checkers. With a bird.”

“We should get out of here. Now.”

Alain shook his head and me a look I knew meant Don’t be a pussy and walked into the patio. The waiter opened the door to the cage, and Alain walked inside. The silent waiter closed the door behind him.

Prompted by Jesse Allain: toucan, coffee bean, Honduras: Avec fromage, mon ami. Photo by Javier Mazzeo on Unsplash