14

Not three weeks later, Pati had passed. Four days after that, the child, Rolf Moreno, a son, my tío, had been born into the family. Yesterday, Saturday, the family gathered—those who live in America, anyway, which is almost all of us by now—and he, Rolf, was buried, put down by years of sickness; in the end, its form was cancerous growth in both the bones and blood, a near-to-impossible mix of two kinds of leukemia, bringing him in and out of hospitals where doctors worked on him: blood transfusions and all kinds of other treatments which, finally, only prolonged his suffering. He had been short, the shortest of all the Morenos, standing only four feet, eight inches. His head was small, and his eyelids drooped, not like Anita’s (whose moved up and down involuntarily), but like a dog who is tired, and when he smiled they did not lift. His cheeks carried sadness and misunderstanding, the look of having gone unheard, as though he wanted to cry but wouldn’t. He had moved from Guayaquil to Hermosa Beach a few months before my birth, and I had known his small, sad, acne-scarred face all my life. In the time after Dad left us—which had forced Mom to seek a job in an office—for the few months, anyway, before my brother and I were watched by O.P., it was Rolf who stayed with us, taking care. I remember his blue corduroy shorts, and his enormous socks, white with blue-and-yellow stripe which he always pulled up to his knees, and he always wore brown topsider shoes which, back then, was how Latinos dressed when they lived near the beach. His mind worked slowly, and by dishonest people he was easily manipulated and lied to, but he was competent enough to babysit. In the final years he got very skinny, weighing at times less than seventy pounds. As a favor sometimes to my father I used to drive him to the hospital—towards the end, his blood transfusions became somewhat regular—and sit with him until he was admitted. We never spoke; he had not learned English, and I only know a little Spanish, although—I suppose from those days when he was my babysitter, even after my own son was born—he had always called me Nofrito, the nickname I inherited from my father, and which, upon the birth of my own son, Onofre Moreno IV, was given to him. And in this way it felt that we understood one another best. Outside of his child’s name for me, what was said we spoke mainly in gestures, in pointing, in grunts, in smiles, in waves hello, in handshakes goodbye. In his whole life he was always gentle, always kind. Rolf had been the last Moreno child born of his generation, though not the last one conceived. Concha had had to bear the weight of pregnancy and loss three times more before her body gave her any rest.

But now, yesterday, Concha buried her youngest son. She is old now, and no longer beautiful—it is many years later. She has aged, and she carries the weight of many ages. I watched her walk—slowly, very slowly—up the center aisle of the church, carrying a big yellow and blue and red quilt, aided by my father on one side and by my abuelo on the other, both holding her by an arm. They brought her before her son’s casket and, reaching in, placing the quilt in the casket, touching his face, his shoulders, his chest, whimpering, crying, growing louder, she shook him as though to wake him, but my father and abuelo stopped her, unclenching her fingers from Rolf’s jacket, then, wailing before the Lord, screaming, sobbing, making her words last a long time, spreading them out before Him, she cried out, and all who heard her felt the weight of her suffering, My God, my God, what have you done? ¿Por qué me rooobas? ¿Por qué me castiiiiigas? ¡Miiiijo! ¡Miiiijo! ¡Miiiijo!

I cried silently in my seat.

___

My father slides his glass along the table, looking at me. He tells me that four days before the birth of Rolf Tía Pati died, which, by then, once everyone had seen her sick, was not a surprise, and so the adults, painfully, reluctantly, made themselves ready. In the mornings, Concha went with Anita to see Tía Pati, and, some evenings after work, though not all, perhaps for the great sadness he endured to see her, Sr. Moreno, by the duty and honor he must have felt toward his sister, had also gone to visit her. And every day after school, Nelson and my father, Nofrito, had walked to her room in the hospital, just a couple of blocks outside Miraflores, the four-story cement building with a basement, the only building covered all in white paint, and where, day by day, hour by hour, the poor woman was getting yellower, throwing up all the time, sometimes even while they were in there with her. The two boys entered her room, which was small, it too painted white, empty except for her bed and bedpans and perhaps a tray of food, the low sounds of a radio sometimes coming in from down the hall, the boys with their hands folded in front of them, their school boys’ uniforms wrinkled from a day of play and study, their books hanging off their backs, their heads hung low, because when you are that young you cannot imagine entering the presence of the dying in any other way. They smelled her vomit, and her bowels, which is more than a child should have to endure. Still, this woman was nonetheless the one in whom Nofrito’s faith held firm, the one who so many times had saved him from his father, and she was the woman he had loved above all other women—even above his own mother, whom he also loved. In the end, how ugly she was had not mattered to him, although sometimes to children things like that can matter.

In a few days, Nelson had refused to visit her, instead walking on to La Diez y Ocho, money in hand. Still, however, Nofrito had continued to come. Most times she was asleep when he arrived, and, if she woke up, by the time he’d gone she had fallen back to sleep again, although almost every day, for a short time at least, she spent awake with him. She asked him questions and they talked a little, and sometimes she laughed her pretty woman’s laugh, which made him feel better. He was too young to understand much, and one thing he did not understand was how she got so sick so quickly. I did not know you were sick, Tía, he said. I know, mijo, she said. I am sorry for not telling.

And so here she was, sick and dying in front of him, lying on her bed with her mouth open, looking at him tenderly through yellowing eyes and yellowing eyelids, breathing in through the mouth, breathing out through the mouth, her fat cheeks yellow, her smiling gums yellow, everything suddenly yellow except the purple on her face, the smell of her vomit and bowels churning his innards, making him want to leave, but leaving was impossible because this boy—this boy of only eleven years—was devoted to her, devoted to the woman in that bed, ugly or not, filthy or not, dying or not. He had therefore become afraid of her death, so as Concha had taught him one night some months before, he began to pray silently while she slept, for her protection, for her healing, for her soul to make it safely to heaven. In the words his mother had given him he prayed she would live, May the Lord spare this woman, may He give her new life, may the Lord’s delight surround her, and in return I give my efforts and strength to the glory of the Lord, that the name of the Lord may be glorified forever. He prayed for her and sometimes he felt good, but, afterwards, when he walked home, sometimes he was crying.

___

Then the time came when, it was certain, her death would come soon. The Morenos had had no telephone in their house to receive calls from the hospital—hardly anybody did in those days; they were for business purposes almost exclusively—so one afternoon after school let out, the doctor and nurses waited for Nofrito to arrive. Go home, they told him. Go home and tonight bring back everyone, bring back your entire family. Soon, they said, giving me a sad look, soon she will be gone. You must tell your family.

So he told Concha the news, and later he climbed up the Araucaria tree, and, among the branches and twigs and leaves he waited for his father who at seven o’clock came riding on his motorcycle—Nofrito saw him come flying through the streets the same as always: that hair stiff, that tie blowing as though it were itself the wind, his legs and arms and chest unmoving, his body as strong as ever across that machine—and when he came in through the front door he, too, was told the news. Practically without a word, and without eating dinner, everyone climbed up the motorcycle as they had every Sunday for years, Sr. Moreno first—to start the engine—then Concha, who, holding Anita, moved slowly, for her pregnancy by now was very ripe, then Nelson. Finally, my father the child climbed up in front of his Papi, feeling this feeling, a feeling like laughter and sadness at once, which, I imagine, was hope. Somehow, in a moment that should have long been forgotten, he felt what seemed like a question, Will you have faith now, Will you hope, Will you honor your God, and then together they rode the short distance across Miraflores, arriving to the hospital where the child’s poor tía lay weakly, quietly, yellow, full of poison, close to death.

A priest had been notified, and he met the family in Pati’s room, entering solemnly, politely, his fist to his mouth, clearing his throat. He had not shaved in a few days, it was obvious, and his hair was wet, and, though combed into place, dirty. He was not young and he was not old, and he was skinny. His size and shape, like a fence post, gave Nofrito the impression that he was made of wood, as though he walked like that, like a moving stick, all day long. Still, the look on his face, whether or not it was rehearsed for all of the dying people he saw, offered everyone—offered the child and tía and mother and father and brother and sister—love and compassion, as though the Son Himself were here washing Peter’s feet. In all his life Nofrito had not felt love this rich, like the clouds that sit on mountaintops, and he felt that hope again, that mix of laughter and sadness, and he thanked God silently, saying to Him, Yes, I will honor you, yes, I will have faith, yes, I will hope. Here was a man, this priest, who understood the way of holiness, of trials, of suffering—Nofrito could see that he carried it on his back like all the saints you hear stories about, and right then Nofrito had wanted to reach out and touch him.

Among his belongings the priest carried some holy water and a rosary and a Bible and a small wooden cross, and he wore the black cassock with a white clergyman’s collar—like any other priest. This, the hospital, must have been his place, the space he covered with the Spirit, for Nofrito had never seen him in Mass on Sunday nights, or at confession on Wednesdays, or anywhere else, so he imagined that the priest had a small room downstairs somewhere in the hospital, in the basement maybe, in between a linen closet and a restroom, where he studied and meditated and slept during those times when he had not come up to bless, to heal, to give Last Rites, to hear confession. Concha, who seemed also to see in the priest what the boy saw, spoke softly now, bowing her head and saying only one word, Padre. She crossed herself, and now so did Nofrito, but Sr. Moreno, covering his mouth, perhaps because of the smell, but probably in sadness—which was maybe only the second time Nofrito saw him break open—remained quiet in the back, behind everyone, against the wall, by the door, away from this scene of religious devotion. Nelson stood silently behind Nofrito, and Anita held onto Concha’s hand. Everyone stood behind the priest, who had moved forward to offer Tía Pati the Last Rites, and to hear her confession.

Without moving, without sitting up or turning her head, she said to him, No, señor, no. Get away from me. But again he repeated his words, Child, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—saying everything gently, pretending, Nofrito supposed, that she must have been delirious, that she must not have understood him, but then she, too, repeated her words, this time waving her hand, No, señor. Get away from me. I will not have it.

The priest, unwavering, said, The way to heaven, my child, the way to eternal life, is through the confession of sins, through the cleansing of the sacraments.

She opened her eyes a little wider, not angry, calmly, and she said, Then let Him confess to me, Father Priest. Let Him apologize to me. Sitting up in her bed, the yellow in her face getting darker, it seemed, all the time, she said, Let Him beg for my mercy, let Him regret the things He has done, let Him learn what it feels like to be humble. She smiled at the priest, but smugly. More than anything, she said, more than forgiveness, more than your cleansing, give me ceviche—I could use the taste of shrimp in my mouth! She laughed, but everyone else was quiet.

After a moment, Concha came forward, grabbing and kissing her sister’s hand, and she said, Pati, let the Father work. And Pati, as sick and yellow as ever, looked at Concha sadly, regretfully, surely knowing the significance her decision, since to reject a priest, to reject this man dressed in black, whom she had never met, who had no special feelings for her outside what he was bound to by duty, that was easy; easier, that is, than to say No to the God of one’s own relative, of one’s own cousin, of one’s own sister, which, in those days, was like saying No both to God and blood at once.

The priest said that Pati must listen to Concha, that she must listen to him, too, that they held the keys of truth, that the way is narrow and it is the only way, that the kingdom could not be entered but by the Son, please, Pati, please. Here was a servant of the one true God—offering her a pardon. But now Pati’s entire face seemed to widen, and she looked at him, saying calmly, Look around you, Father Priest. Look around at this family. Do. Look. See their faces.

Now—she said—look at me. In your days of study, of prayer, of ministry and forgiveness, of hearing confession and performing the sacraments, have you seen it? Have you seen a face like this?

He nodded, sadly.

Yes, of course you have, she said, coughing, coughing, coughing. Pati pointed at her face, saying, This is no surprise. You have seen the deformities, the pain, you have loved the ones who suffer. You have seen the world’s worst evils. You have seen death, and you have seen sadness, and injustice, perhaps worse than we can imagine, crimes against the innocent, accidents of great tragedy. You have seen everything, Father Priest, and still here you are, offering the love of God, serving Him with all your devotion. The evils of this world do not for you create unanswerable questions. You are convinced that despite the evil in this world, despite the suffering, there is God, God who loves, God who saves, even the very worst off, God would save even me, this poor ugly dying drunk, God who saved the thief on the cross—and, let me tell you a secret, Father Priest: so do I. I share your beliefs.

Nofrito watched the adults. He looked at the priest, this man full of love and understanding, who merely stood next to Tía Pati, listening. Nofrito felt the fullness of his own feelings of love for this woman, as well as of confusion. How, why, how, why, how—these words entered his chest and remained, thick and innocent and demanding.

You work in a hospital, Father Priest, a hospital in Ecuador in Guayaquil, and surely this, my face, it is not a shock. No, it is like many of the things you’ve seen. You look at me gently, full of God’s love, of the Son’s forgiveness, because even you might have love for me. But that is what I expect—is it not? After all, you are a man of God, and it is your duty. Yet here I am, a dying woman before you, a yellow dying drunkard and a believer like you in your God, but refusing these Last Rites, renouncing faith, rejecting your compassion. You must like to know what reason I have, Father Priest. And I will tell you.

She coughed. I die today, she said. And so hear this, let this be my confession.

The problem of evil, Father Priest, is not a question of philosophy. You have your proofs, I am sure, and your books, your titles, your authors who have demonstrated the coherence of God and evil in the universe. You have your syllogisms. Not a few times have I heard men like you speak them—as though you were saving the world, so that your converts kept their seats. You’d make a great show, I bet, of arguing here, too—gently, gently, of course, with all love—to demonstrate how evil plays its role in the work of God’s kingdom, in accordance with His sovereignty, in accordance with His loving will, and you believe what you are saying, yes, yes, you agree with every word. You are authentic in your beliefs, of course. You are not here to fool anyone, I know. You have your speech ready, surely, and your refutations, and your elaborations, because you are a man of God, and it is your duty. But here, come here. Give me your hand, let me take your finger. I want you to do something for me, please. I die today, after all. Do this one thing for me.

I want you to touch my face.

Tía Pati took his hand, and held his first finger, bringing it to her face. The priest did not stop her—who knows what he was thinking?—and his finger began to move along her face, all the time her hand guiding him, bringing him up, over, down, around, all her face touched, the rough parts and the smooth parts, the hairs, her skin, her nose, her eyelids. Feel that skin on my face, Father Priest. It is a woman’s skin, is it not? It is a woman’s face, here on the right side. It is not the prettiest skin, no, of course not, but it is not the ugliest either, you have to agree. It is somewhere in the middle. And I have been grateful for it, grateful when I have taken photographs and could show only this side, sitting, my feet crossed like a lady, in my green dress, a flower pinned to it, with my hands in my lap, my face tilted just so, turned in just the right way, just enough to hide the rest.

Now, yes, do, feel that mark, trace its edges, these edges I have felt a thousand times, these edges I have prayed against, these edges I have begged God to remove, these edges I have wept over, these edges like uncooked meat, yes, do, feel, follow the veins of this birthmark, feel how it puffs up from the rest of my face, how it presses down easily under the slightest weight, as if it were made not of skin but of jelly, and here, take your hand, take your entire hand with its fingers and feel my face all, the whole of it, yes, close your eyes, Father Priest—now what do you feel?—it is no longer a woman’s face, no, it is not like skin at all—is it?—it is not like a face, at all.

The priest did all the things Pati had asked him to, feeling along those edges of her birthmark, pressing down upon it, closing his eyes as she directed, and he made no sounds, and his face had not filled with disgust, and still his body radiated all the love of God. His eyes, when he opened them again, did not well with tears, no, but with a kind of sad smile, which filled his face and body as though he were built entirely of hope.

Love, she said, is the center of your scriptures. It is the message of God. And here am I, I am made for it, I am desiring it, I am wanting to give it, to receive it. I am formed with love in mind. And I have my cravings, Father Priest, and I have my needs—but, but—but I am an empty cup. I have been thrown away and burned on the mountainside like all the trash in Ecuador. All my life I walked—like anyone else—I walked all the streets in town, in the squares, waiting for a bus or a taxi, or needing to shop or buy food, or to pay a debt, and all along these streets, every day the children stared, and the mothers stared, and the fathers stared—then looked away. They pointed. They called out names. Or they ignored me, pretending not to see. Men, men I wanted, men I loved, men I wished wanted me, never looked at me full in the face, afraid to tell me they saw my loving them, afraid to tell me they saw this, my horror—because both my face and my love to them were one and the same. Are you so surprised that I would speak like this? But the existence of this birthmark, even something so ugly as this, do you think it does away with my desires, that it would kill my cravings? I wanted to be loved, too, Father Priest. I wanted to be lusted after. I, too, wanted to be chased, to be courted, to be asked, to be taken in, to be cared for. But never, never in all my life did anyone look at me without pity, or without fear, or without hate. I have never seen the look of love on a man’s face. All my life, Father Priest, in all my life strangers did not look at me warmly. They did not want me. They did not hope for my love, for my favor. Is there anything more excruciating, Father Priest, than to be denied love in every moment, than to be denied even the hope of love? Tell me, Father Priest—what, do you imagine, is worse, what, do you imagine, is crueler than that?

My years were of rejection, of ridicule, of being seen—of only being seen, Father Priest, only seen, and that was enough for everyone, enough for the whole world to throw me away. You have seen my face, Father Priest, and you have seen the suffering of the world, and can you tell me anyone has suffered so much as this? Have you gone without love, Father Priest? Have you walked up and down streets, in and out of shops, for more than forty years, have you ridden in taxis, on buses, have you eaten in public, and have you heard the whispers of all people, of everyone, of even the beggars and criminals and prostitutes because they—yes, even they—have more than you, because they have love, because if they do not have love then they have at least the hope of it; and have you, Father Priest, can you tell me that you have gone so long without—without hope? You have seen despair, I know, but have you ever seen me? This is exile, Father Priest: to go without love. This, here, before you, is exile. I am covered in exile.

But look around you again, Father Priest. I am not alone. There are some children in my company. Even the beautiful have their exile, I suppose, and so perhaps I am not so different than the rest of the world. You see him there, Father Priest, that is my brother who leans back against the wall, covering his mouth, sad to see his sister die, and I have loved him, have loved his family—and his children, they are like my own—but listen to this, listen to how this coward beats his children, how he beats these children without mercy, and how he beats his wife, how he raped her when she was still a virgin, when she was just a girl, how he raped his own cousin because of drunkenness. And you see that woman, too, his victim, this one here who holds my hand, this is my cousin and my sister, and she is hardly better, since she is the one who, when their father rages against his children, does nothing to protect them. She hides in the back room and murmurs prayers to God. And what? Does He save them? Does He come out and stop their father from opening wounds in their flesh? You see this family filled with enough evil to create monsters out of these innocents, filled with enough evil to keep the world just as it is, since these children who stand quietly next to you, these children will one day be grown, will one day hate, will one day rule as they were ruled, you see them and now I hope you wonder with me, How come, how come, how come? If these children were, like me, to die today, they would have died unloved, thrown away, burned on the mountainside. This from the God who loves. This from the God who saves. And how come?

You are a nice man, I am sure. And you are handsome. You seem to care for everyone you speak to, even me. And I have nothing against you. By now—by now in this bed that I’ve slept in for something like three weeks, by now having drunk myself to the point of death, by now having turned myself yellow with poison, by now, by now, by now—I have nothing against anyone anymore, no. How could they help it? What they saw in me, and on me, what they saw was ugliness, and no one wants to look at ugly things for long. I do not hate them. It is only your God I hate, whom I believe could save me, who, if He wanted, could have made me a little less than beautiful—or who, if He insisted I remain this ugly, could have calmed my want for love. But because He created me, and because He made this world to hate me, to hate these children, to raise up children full of hate, and because when you look at me He made you only to pity me, and because He made you believe something different about me than you would about a pretty woman, that she craves as the ugly ones do not crave, that since no one craved me in return I must not crave, that I must not crave, that I must not crave, I, I…

It is not a philosophical problem, Father Priest. Evil is a problem of the heart, and mine is exiled. So let Him confess to me.

___

They all stood in wonder. Anita and Nelson and Nofrito stood with their heads hanging down, waiting for the adults to fix things, but nobody was saying anything. Concha looked at her sister, and now she bent to kiss her, and she whispered something into Pati’s ear.

What was this?—Nofrito thought to himself. Would she, would Pati, in the face of her death, reject God’s love, reject His law?

She would.

So get away, she said to the priest. You cannot have me. This soul is not yours to claim. Give the holy rites to someone else, to someone willing, to someone who understands the gifts of love.

Now there was quiet for a long time. Nofrito looked around at everybody. They were sad, all of them.

___

And so here, my father says to me, here she was, my protector, the one who saved me from my own father’s anger, refusing now to spare her own soul from torment. I was young, full of love and thanks and hope and fear, and I feared—oh God how I feared—for my tía’s soul now. So I prayed a quiet little prayer, quickly, silently. In the same moment the idea came to me I was already praying it. I did it in fullness of heart, my eyes closed, my lips moving with the words though I did not make a sound, O God, my God, if Tía Pati will not accept you, if she will not protect herself from you, if she will not be wise and accept your salvation for the sake of her soul, then take mine, O Lord. Take for her sake my soul’s salvation. And bless her entrance into the holy kingdom, I pray. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I pray.

My father looks up at me, filling his glass with more beer, the last from the pitcher, and though I am sitting in a bar in a booth in California, my mind is in the hospital in Guayaquil, where Nofrito stands quietly, his eyes closed, his face covered by his hands, listening to the adults argue over the significance of a ritual. The adults are crying, afraid for their sister who is very close to her death. She will die tonight, in the dark, alone, after everyone has gone home to rest. Even the priest cannot stop his compassion from turning into sadness, and he makes the sign of the cross and turns around, walking toward the door as purely and innocently as anything you can imagine. Here is this boy in love with his aunt, willing to give up even his soul, able finally to sacrifice for her sake. And I cannot help it—as Pati had told Nofrito of his own father—I think to myself: It was the last thing your father did as a boy, and it was the first thing he did as a man.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: