The Voice and Arms of God: Full Text

1

Years and years ago when my father, Onofre Moreno, was a child, nine, maybe ten years old, perhaps his favorite thing in the world was his father’s motorcycle. This was in Ecuador, in Guayaquil, on Second Street where they lived, when everybody still called him Nofrito except his little gang of neighborhood kids made up of some older cousins, his brother, and two or three friends from the private school, who all called him Choco, for his dark skin. Their house, built up with cement bricks, was blue, light blue, the color of the sky in a good mood, and the windows were framed in purple, a rich man’s color, and the roof was dark gray. It was two s[tories high, rare in those days, and it stood out among the houses of Second Street which were wooden and rotting. The wall around the house and yard, eight feet high, also was made of cement bricks, and it too was light blue, painted in a hurry, the stripes from the brushes still visible years later. On top of the wall, sticking up from a very thin layer of mortar, were the many scattered pieces of broken bottles, green, blue, clear, orange, brown, to keep out thieves and other criminals. Onofre Moreno, Sr., the father of little Nofrito, bought the house before the births of his sons with money he had inherited upon the death of his own father. This, Nofrito’s family, was not a wealthy family, but they were wealthy enough: Sr. Moreno was not a laborer at the harbor; he went to do his job in an office that overlooked it, and he wore a white man’s clothes, white shirts with buttons, a tie, dark pants, black shoes, his hair combed into place with shiny sticky grease, his skin smelling of the grease and cologne, at all times with the look of a serious man upon his face. Sr. Moreno, proud, his face like dried clay, rode his motorcycle on all days of the week, but it was on Sundays, and only on Sundays, that he gathered his family, his wife, Concha, his oldest, illegitimate son, Nelson, little Nofrito, and their youngest, a little girl, Anita, and they all rode together on the motorcycle, even though they owned a car, to arrive at the restaurant near the harbor, to visit with the older sister of Onofre Moreno, Sr., Patricia, who lived alone.

This is how they rode the motorcycle. Onofre, Sr., with his legs over both sides, started the motor and held it steady while Concha, holding Anita in one arm, slid behind her husband, into her place on the passenger’s seat. Both of her legs came down on one side, for she wore dresses, and she braced herself by sliding the heels of her shoes into a space between two metal pipes below her, saying a short prayer under her breath and crossing herself and closing her eyes. Nelson, older than Nofrito by a couple of months and the bigger of the two boys, climbed in between Concha and his father, holding onto his father’s waist. Finally, little Nofrito, admiring the shine of the metal before him, sat in front of his father, who, in between shifting gears and the sharper turns, sometimes held onto him with one arm over his chest.

The city of Guayaquil was laid out before them like water from the bucket which has spilled out onto the sidewalk, reaching as far as its momentum will take it, until its trickle no longer makes anything else wet. They rode in and out of neighborhoods, up and down the streets, all throughout the city. The motorcycle made all the noises a motorcycle can make, announcing their presence before they arrived and staying around long after they’d left. They rode out from Miraflores, the tiny neighborhood where they lived, to the new highway. They rode down through the tunnel that spit you out onto Malecón, in the shadow of the old hill where hundreds of years ago the people built their houses, on the lookout for the ships of pirates or Spaniards—both intent to burn the place down. Once, it is said, the ghost of St. Augustine spared the lives of everyone of Guayaquil, by appearing in a great cloud to the Spaniards, scaring them off, a sword in one hand and the Word of God in the other.

They passed through a small square where there stood a large statue of a man covered in pigeon shit, looking up and pointing to the sky, who had been a relative of the Morenos, the former president who had legalized divorce in Ecuador and who, it is told, had been killed by a group of angry devoted Catholics after they, on that very spot, had poured gasoline over his body and lit a match. The family rode down one long road made of dirt, around the statue, and back again along the road paved some years before. This was, Nofrito imagined, a parade of some kind, a show for the people of Guayaquil, a moment of pride for the Moreno family.

The buildings everywhere were made of clay or cinderblock, one or the other; their merchants, who were too poor to purchase real signs, merely painted on their outer walls the names of each business, CEVICHE Y PESCADO Y CHANCHO, or JOYERÍA, or EL UNIVERSO, in tall, wide, clumsy letters. Everything was brightly colored, greens, yellows, reds, blues, pinks—these were everywhere, covering all buildings. All kinds of street merchants, too, filled the streets and sidewalks, trying to make deals with you as you walked by or stopped at the traffic lights. Here came the boys into the street to juggle or do handstands while you waited for the light to change, in hopes that you would give them a sucre or two before the green light came on. There was the ice cream man from Cuenca, a poor man who wore a Panama hat, carrying that barrel across his back and shoulders, selling ice cream to everyone who needed to calm the sun’s heat. And here came the wooden-legged man with the little good-luck monkey—who for a sucre would give you a piece of paper, which was your fortune, wishing you hope and goodwill. He walked up and down the sidewalks, the sound of his wood-tipped leg thumping on the concrete—carrying his little organ and monkey and giving happiness to the people who believed in faith. The solderer, the man to fix anything made of metal, pans, pots, pipes, walked up and down the neighborhoods, and all day long he yelled for everyone to hear, Anything for welding! Anything for welding! There was a man who carried his baskets full of fruit, screaming out, They are all avocados! Here on the streets of Guayaquil was everybody, everybody, as beautiful as the morning. The love of God and the prayers of the saints, Nofrito liked to imagine, filled the hearts of them all.

They turned up the long street called el 9 de Octubre, passing the Seminary of the Iguanas, whose little park out front—the reason for its name—was filled with iguanas who let people come up to them, to feed or touch them. While he drove the motorcycle, Sr. Moreno always remained quiet, with a firmness in his mouth and forehead, and Anita was terrified of the motorcycle’s noise and speed and so she kept her face hidden in Concha’s breast who herself had not opened her eyes. Nelson, always quiet and waiting and angry and shy, said nothing, but looked into his father’s back, his black curly hair flying everywhere in the wind. Nofrito, who had been waiting anxiously for Sunday to come—and for the motorcycle ride it would afford him—pretended to be James Dean or some other American hero whose movies he had been told not to see. He leaned forward, or looked into the side-view mirrors, or brought his hands to the handlebars over his father’s hands. The sound of the motorcycle and its feel beneath him were one and the same, in the way the smell and taste of a thing are one. Their bodies on the motorcycle shook, and Nofrito liked to feel his stomach and legs move without meaning to, and to hear the shake and rumble of his own voice as he rode. It was in this way that Nofrito spent late mornings on Sunday, riding on his father’s motorcycle, with nothing in front of him but the wind. His face squinted when it hit his eyes, and his lips became long and thin, squeezed shut, as though he had tasted something bitter.

Around the corner and just down the way was the restaurant which sat on bank of the River Guayas, near the harbor, four or five kilometers upriver from the Pacific Ocean. All around them were the sounds and smells of their city, this beautiful place which was at once tiny and enormous, at once dangerous and lovely, where on your motorcycle you could pass by seminarians and beggars and the statues of martyrs, and feel your chest fill up with wonder.

When finally they arrived to the restaurant, they stepped down off the motorcycle as carefully as they had climbed up onto it, Concha and Anita first, Concha leaning forward to set down the little girl. Then Concha sat up and removed her shoes’ heels from between the metal pipes, and she fixed her hair with her hand, and she set her feet upon the dry dirt, taking the girl’s hand and heading for the front doorway. The boys jumped down easily and waited for Sr. Moreno to kick down the stand and remove the key from its hole, then all three strode together, the boys one step behind their father, slowly, their chins raised up, Nofrito hoping no one would say anything while he stuck out his chest. They came into the courtyard where during the week a radio played, but on Sundays there was live music, three guitars and a singer, no microphone, just the naked lovely sounds they made playing all the traditional folk songs. In the restaurant, which was separated from the water in the harbor only by a parking lot, stood long wooden picnic tables painted dark red, the lengths of four or five men, arranged as though this were an enormous outdoor school cafeteria, with an aisle down the center of the rows the waitresses could walk down. All kinds of people—large families, usually—came for food and drinks and happier times, the smell of ocean filling the noses of them all. Sr. Moreno ordered crabs and shrimp and chancho and lamb stew and seco de pollo and French fries and ceviche and chivo and octopus soup and squid and lobster and shark, enough to feed a dozen hungry people, and the adults drank beer or wine or brandy, and the children drank Tropicál, which fizzed in their mouths and tasted of strawberry. This was a big place, a place filled with the hard work and laughter of many men and their families, where the rich and the poor ate together, at the same long red wooden tables, and where perhaps a man would see Patricia, ignoring that half of her face was covered by a birthmark, purple, thick, wet-looking, like the liver of a cow, and, walking over to their table, would make the proper inquiries, court her, and take her into his family and his home.

___

Nofrito knew that Patricia, whom the children called Tía Pati, was ugly, that her face was awful to look at, that she was fat, that her face and body acted together to disgust him. He felt his stomach growl with discomfort whenever he looked at her, that purple splotch sticking to her face, the dark hairs that grew in thick long strands out of her cheek and neck, her glasses and dark woman’s mustache only making things worse. She had short hair on top of her head, a little longer than a man’s, not bothering to let it grow beautifully and shining. Her arms were freckled and her breasts, even though she was fat, were small. She never arrived to the restaurant before the rest of the Moreno family, which, Nofrito used to believe, was to avoid being seen alone in a crowded place, her face marked as it was. It was agreed between Tía Pati and the Morenos that they would arrive at eleven in the morning, but that is a loose time in Guayaquil, a time of laziness on Sundays, so the Morenos on their motorcycle came by at around eleven-thirty. Tía Pati always came at noon. She came into the courtyard with her head up, knowing where to look in order to see the faces she knew, always in the far corner, nearest the water of the harbor to show Anita the boats. Nelson and Nofrito ran around under the tables, or walked on the tabletops and benches in order to avoid imaginary lava flowing beneath them, pretending to be pirates or criminals on the run, and Sr. Moreno, having already ordered food for everyone, would rest with his wife and daughter, pointing at the boats or reading a newspaper while they waited for their order to be served. Tía Pati would arrive at around the same time the food did.

But, for all her ugliness, and though she always came later than everybody else, Tía Pati seemed never to take notice of herself, which was a small wonder to Nofrito. She told stories with a woman’s voice, with a woman’s laugh, and with a woman’s movements. She touched her brother’s arm, or batted her hand in a pretty way, as though the mark on her face were a sign on her back, something she remained unaware of: this is to say that the shame of her face did not show upon it. There had been a time—Nofrito was much younger then, maybe three or four years old—when he first noticed, or first began to think about, women having breasts, that out from their chests came what looked like enormous drops of rain. He remembered wondering whether anyone else had noticed them—or had he imagined them into being?—and why, if people noticed these things, did no one talk about them? Why did no one mention what hung from his mother’s, or on any other woman’s, front? This was an early memory, a small memory, but one which nonetheless caused him great shame, for he had wanted to know about what no one else would mention, and so he remained silent about them, about these breasts; in a similar way, he remained silent about his tía’s birthmark, and felt great shame for having noticed it, for looking, for staring, for having an interest, for feeling something she apparently did not feel at all.

And so Tía Pati on Sundays, over lamb stew and yellow rice with onions and three or four or five glasses of beer, told stories, and beautifully, never covering her face, never looking down. Always in her stories amazing things happened, unbelievable things, but things nonetheless that might possibly occur, a fat man who cried on a staircase because he’d forgotten the name of a beloved pet from years ago, or a child in the street whom she had seen preaching the kingdom of God, or, while she was out taking a swim, a hundred smiling dolphins all around her, jumping into the air, touching her as they swam by, as though this were a dance, or a blessing, or magic. She made the adults and the children laugh at the same time, at the same things, and she was the only one whom Nofrito had ever seen do that. But there it was, all the time, that ugly purple something on her face. He did not understand how she lived so happily. And he never asked, for there was shame in that for him.

Still, she was his favorite aunt, the one who sent him letters and money and candy in the mail or at school, for she worked as one of the secretaries in the administrative office, and she was the one who, despite her looks, had a pretty laugh, and the one who kept his secrets, the one who, lying, in order to save him from his father’s drunken fists one night, took the blame for a kitchen window left open and drops of milk spilled on the counter. She, her voice raising, screamed to her brother as he walked heavily at the boy, as he clutched the boy’s shirt in his hand, as he lifted up the boy and threw him down, No, you asshole, you pendejo, no, it was me, it was me, I spilled the milk, I opened the window for some air, I am sorry, will you hit a woman’s face, will you deform her even more, if you hit anyone tonight it will be me. Then his wrath was calmed, and he brought down his fists, lowering his arms, and Tía Pati, standing behind her brother, looked steadily at Nofrito who—crouched on the floor, still waiting to receive what had been about to come—began to understand true sacrifice. She put herself between them, she with a woman’s body and a woman’s softness and a woman’s persuasion despite her ugliness, and she kissed her brother’s lips and told him to go to bed. She whispered something into his ear, then, stepping away from him, for all to hear, she apologized for the mess with the promise to clean things up.

It was true: Sr. Moreno beat them miserably—Nofrito, Nelson, even Concha—all of them except Anita. These are the kinds of stories no one wants to hear, and yet everyone has heard them. Sr. Moreno, as other men, drank after his shifts in the office, paydays especially. This was not uncommon. They drank along La Diez y Ocho, 18th Street, where the hookers worked, and sometimes found themselves in the arms and legs of a prostitute, who, on occasion, gave them the clap, for which the hookers themselves sometimes were severely beaten, for in addition to the sting and pus, the men who brought home diseases were chased by their wives with brooms or cooking pans. All of this, though, was like a comedy, a routine, an act, a put-on, loud and ridiculous, and could, mostly, be laughed away. Wives did not pick fights that could not be finished by their husbands: yes, they cried; yes, they screamed; but they did not make threats. And this, too, was the case in the home of Onofre Moreno, Sr.: his difficulties were settled in the taverns, and if they could not be settled there they were beaten into his wife and sons, a flaw perhaps beyond compassion for some, but this story cannot be told far enough into history that everyone can be loved. If it is impossible to love Sr. Moreno beyond his fists, or his drinks, or his women, then do not think of them. Think instead of a motorcycle built for two people, and on this motorcycle a man and his family ride on Sundays to visit his ugly sister, whom he loves and protects and obeys, and think of the eyes of his son, of Nofrito, of the eyes this boy has for him, of the love and honor and waiting naturally built into a boy for his father; wonder at that love between these people, this family on the motorcycle, these people who hold onto each other, and watch as the motorcycle rides and makes its noise, as the family arrives to eat, to laugh, to listen to the music, and to the stories of Tía Pati, who, in her ugliness, hides many secrets.


2

One Sunday afternoon, Tía Pati had just set down an empty glass of beer and—since she was one of those women who, she liked to say sometimes, could drink like a man—she asked the waitress to bring her some brandy. Sr. Moreno and she were talking of old times while Concha fed shrimp to Anita and watched to ensure the boys behaved, which always seemed an impossible thing to ask of them. Tía Pati and Sr. Moreno had begun to laugh, and this caught the attention of the boys and their mother, who turned to see what the laughter had come from, and so Tía Pati gathered their attention. When she and Sr. Moreno were children—she told them—when she had been a girl just fourteen and Onofre, Sr., had been a boy, in the old days before all the restaurants and ships and people and buildings had come, when there were nothing but sailboats and fishermen all along the coast, their father, the father of Pati and Onofre, bought them a canoe. There were four children in the family, Pati, Onofre, and the twins Tito and Emilio, who were younger than Pati by nine years and younger than Onofre by six years. The canoe was bright yellow and came with two long wooden oars that fit through two metal rings, one on either side of the canoe. It was not a long canoe; it seemed to be made especially for children—for there was just enough space to fit the four of them comfortably.

Tía Pati looked at her brother, who by his face seemed to remember the canoe as though they still owned it, and Nofrito stirred in his seat. One thing to understand is that stories about Sr. Moreno and Tía Pati were not told very often, so Nofrito did not know very many things about them, especially stories from when they were young. Sr. Moreno, when the family was not with her, remained quiet in things concerning Tía Pati, but not in a way that seemed suspicious; he was simply a quiet man. Nofrito, then, quite understandably felt curious and impatient in his listening, for he loved to hear these stories.

And so it happened one day that their father bought them a canoe. He had had it brought to their house, into the front yard, which was at least four kilometers from the ocean, and he presented it to the children in a manner that seemed almost ceremonious. From oldest to youngest their father called them outside, giving each an opportunity to consider its possibilities. When finally all of them had seen their new canoe, their father stood in front of it as though it were sacred—quietly, proudly. Nobody understood why. They were to share it, he told them solemnly, and in time, if they were wise and paid attention, they would learn many wonderful things in and around the gigantic, dangerous, lovely ocean. Then he left them to it, to their canoe, turning and walking inside the house without another word. Immediately the twins jumped into it, calling out commands, pretending to row themselves along the patches of dirt and grass that surrounded it. Pati, almost entirely disinterested, said nothing, but—Tía Pati emphasized—the eyes of Onofre grew wild and large.

___

At this Nofrito looked to see whether his father’s face had changed, and it had. The man seemed to be engrossed in this, his sister’s story, as though he did not know its ending, or as though he were a child who had heard it many many times, every night hoping to hear it again. Tía Pati, now sipping from her glass of brandy, continued. Tito and Emilio, who were still very young, only five years old, could not appreciate the weight and meaning of the canoe. They only saw themselves as pirates or brave men who killed monsters; the world was still in their hearts, in their imaginations. But Onofre, nearing twelve by then, had been growing up lately, and his appreciation for the things of reality, for the things of this world, had been making itself more solid, bigger, full of the dirt of the earth, so that by the end of the next day, Onofre had stolen Pati’s roller skates and found a thin wooden board lying around the neighborhood, then asked his father to buy him some rope, and with these he fashioned together a kind of wheelbarrow or buggy. He placed the skates underneath the wooden board on which he rested the back end of the canoe, and the rope he wrapped around two of the wooden planks that served as seats in the canoe. He strung the rope through the two metal rings on either side of the canoe, and finally he tied the rope around his shoulders. He used the oars as walking sticks, to help pull himself along. On the morning of the third day he filled the canoe with his things, a couple of wire clothes-hangers, three old potato sacks, and a few handfuls of candy, and he began to march, the canoe and buggy sometimes rolling, sometimes dragging, behind him. The twins were to walk with him, to help him replace the canoe whenever it fell from its place on the wooden board, and they were well paid in candy for their efforts. Together, and very slowly, the three of them walked to the ocean. Every now and then the twins returned home with news, updates on Onofre’s progress, to keep their mother from worrying, or on orders to bring back a sandwich for their brother.

___

Tía Pati looked at Sr. Moreno, who sat quietly, listening, waiting. She laughed a little, and finished her glass of brandy, ordering another. She took out a small tin of cigarettes and lit one, offering one to Sr. Moreno, who also took one.

Nofrito, sitting across the table from Nelson, saw that he too was listening with great attention. The courtyard of the restaurant was filled with all its regular noises, men talking to women, children playing games, the songs of the performers, and the smell and feel of the afternoon air came cleanly through his nostrils and into his lungs. He heard the boats in the harbor, their cables and pulleys swinging and banging against the metal poles, and he saw birds flying around scavenging for French fries and squid. He tried to imagine the coast in the days of his father the boy, as an empty thing, without the rocks and boats of the harbor, having only sand and water to look at, just a few fishermen’s nets—but this was very difficult, and so he began to pretend this story was a legend, one that took place in a world far away. One cannot picture one’s father the child, for the father is the father, and none other than the father; this story, then, began to unfurl itself in Nofrito’s mind as though he were listening about any one of the great prophets or saints, and with the same reverence.

In a moment Tía Pati began again, saying that by late that afternoon the twins had returned for the final time, having said that once they reached the shore Onofre ordered them to return home with news that everything is fine, todo bien, todo bien.

But—Tía Pati said—everything was not fine. Onofre did not return home that evening, missing dinner. Then the sun came down. Then a couple of hours passed. The whole family waited in silence; there were no other thoughts in any of their minds. These were different times—Tía Pati told the children, looking at their eyes, speaking slowly in order to ensure that the proper emotions would rise up in them. She said, These were safer times, you understand, and a boy could be left alone to wander the neighborhood and shore for hours, even all day, if he liked. Adventure was not to be taken away from a boy, everyone agreed. But, she said, a boy came home in the evening. A boy ate dinner with his family. A boy slept in his home every night.

In the living room, their father sat quietly in his chair while their mother stayed in the dining room, next to Onofre’s plate at the table. Pati and Tito and Emilio went off to their bedrooms, and no one was saying anything. This lasted for a long time, and still Onofre had not returned. Pati, inside her bedroom, wept; she heard her brothers through the wall, speculating, telling each other about different possibilities, wondering about the dangers he might be facing, their story growing larger each time it passed between them. Pati’s feelings grew against them and she was in turns angry, sad, afraid, then angry again.

By morning, the only ones who had slept were the twins, for Onofre still had not returned. Pati had stayed awake the entire night, crying quietly and rolling around on her bed. She had heard her mother and father in their bedroom, her mother praying and her father walking around. It had felt like a long night, and it was. The minutes passed slowly by and all three, Pati and her mother and her father, waited through them in a solitude more painful than prison—for in prison at least you are already caught and there is little more to worry about. By morning, only the twins had any energy, and they demanded breakfast, to be clothed, to be cared for. Their selfishness could not be held against them, of course, for they were so young and knew nothing of real danger, but Pati nonetheless resented them, hated them, and even found herself in moments wishing Onofre harm just so the twins might feel sorry for their lack of concern and blame themselves.

After a while, Pati dressed herself and made for the front door, but her father stopped her. Where are you off to?—he asked, raising his hand as he spoke. I will see where he is, she said, if I can find him. He is lost and I will find him. But her father said, You will not go. He pointed to the chair behind her. Sit down, he said. Do not move. You will go nowhere.

An hour later, after several requests, her mother began to protest. Where is he?—she demanded. Have you no concern for your son? She banged her fists against her husband and begged that he let them go, This is your son, she said, my son, and he might be in great danger. But he refused.

Eventually, even Tito and Emilio had, in their hearts, begun to notice that Onofre was not home yet; this did not make sense to them, this absence, this absurdity, and they began to cry to their mother, who did not know how to console them, for she too seemed inconsolable.

So Pati found it in her heart then to forgive them for their stupidity the night before, and she took them into her bedroom, and told them again the story of how the mark on her face had been made when an army of octopi had covered her in their ink, angry at her for having stolen away the rocks and shells where they lived, staining her face as a reminder that she should never again try to take their precious treasures. It was a story she had told many times over the years, changing and expanding it; as she told it now, it was set wholly underwater and included her being caught and tried by the Octopus King, sentenced, and, in addition to being covered in their ink, forced to leave behind all the shells and rocks she had tried to steal. It was a tragic story with a great many descriptions of each angry octopus—who were the witnesses at her trial—and of each rock and shell, and it kept the twins amazed for a long time, their questions and wonder passing the time for hours that day.

___

The story of the Octopus King was new to Nofrito, and it surprised him to hear his tía tell it—for now she had actually made mention of this, her purple marking, she had acknowledged it, had let everyone see it with her, had allowed herself to be seen as stained and punished, as ugly, to be gazed upon, and though the story was merely a fantasy, it satisfied him a little to hear it.

Tía Pati said, When nighttime again approached, and when dinner was again being prepared by their mother, who in tears in the kitchen had long been filled with rage and spite and fear, their father spoke. He had gathered them all into the kitchen. He looked old and weak, the result of hours of worry. His hand covered his mouth, and he looked at the ground, his face showing the wrinkles of thought. You misunderstand me, mijos—he told them. Listen to me, for I will say this only once. Onofre will either return, or he will not; he will come back, or he is gone. This is a truth we cannot argue with, something we cannot change. It is one or the other. He looked at his children and at his wife, allowing them time to understand. Then he bent down to one knee, placing one hand on the shoulder of each twin, saying to them all, I gave you that canoe and by it Onofre has decided to go. It is what I wanted for him. He is learning about the world; he is old enough now to try. He paused, looking for his words, clearing his throat, then he said, It is the same with war, don’t you understand—you cannot worry a soldier into safety. So we must stay here, and we must wait, and pray, and hope. But you should understand that we cannot go after him, for if we do, if we allow ourselves that small comfort, and if we were to find him, it would reverse all the things I want to teach you.

Then, turning, he left the kitchen and walked into his bedroom, closing the door behind him. No one saw him for the rest of the night.

___

Now Tía Pati raised her eyes and hands to the children, and she nodded, as if to signify that the story was over, as though the children would not wonder what had happened to their father. Nofrito sat on his hands and rocked in his seat, and so did Nelson. How would it end? How long would it be before their father returned home? How had he fought through enemies, as they were sure he must have, defying certain death, then returning home with great wealth under his arms, and dragging that yellow canoe—now filled with a chest of diamonds and gold and pearls—behind him? It had to end in a great victory, Nofrito was sure, and so he made a noise from his throat, sitting up and leaning forward, saying, But?

Tía Pati ordered another glass of brandy and smiled, allowing their questions to grow and multiply. She smoked another cigarette and looked across the table to her brother, who also smoked and drank from his glass of beer, almost laughing. Shall I tell them what happened to their father?—she said to him. Or is their father so filled with humility, so chivalrous, that he would not allow this lady to brag for him? Sr. Moreno put his face in his hand and laughed, which was perhaps the first time Nofrito ever remembered his father seem embarrassed, and this at once caused him to feel pleasure and worry: pleasure at his father’s vulnerability, for is it not a kind of miracle for a rock to grow soft?—but worry, too, for is it not unnatural and frightening that one might push against a rock as though it were filled with feathers? Nelson, who almost never spoke, practically screamed out, Yes, please, what happened to him? What happened to Papi? How did he make it home?

The truth is, Tía Pati said in a moment, drinking from her glass, I do not know how he made it home, or exactly when. This was the second night he had been away, remember, and though we all were filled to our foreheads with fear, no one can go that long without sleep, and so we slept, all of us, dreaming about nothing, for the heaviest sleep, the sleep of necessity, is always empty, it is for one purpose only, which is rest. Dreams are a part of the sleep of the healthy, and nightmares are only a kind of prophecy.

So, she said, in the morning when I awoke, my bedroom had been filled with all kinds of things, a hundred rocks and shells, some of them strung together with fishing line, as natives form a necklace, and some of them were too big and beautiful to be worn around the neck, sparkling from the sun rays that came through the window, and among these was an enormous conch shell filled with the distant roaring sounds of ocean tides, and then, nearer the door, behind these treasures, there were the captives, three old potato sacks filled with the flesh of dead and dying octopi.

Of course, she said, I knew what this meant and I ran into the bedroom of your father where he lay asleep, dirty, his skin red in cuts and scratches, fresh blood dried up on his left arm, near the shoulder. I walked to him and covered him with kisses, and repeated thank you a thousand times, and he, worn and tired from the long hunt, only said, I killed them all for you, all I could find. They will never do anything like that again. Then he turned over and he fell asleep.

After that, we ate octopus soup for days, and used the rest for bait, and I dressed myself in seashell necklaces for many years to come.

Then, in a moment, to make sense of it for them, Tía Pati said this to the children—It was the last thing your father did as a boy, and it was the first thing he did as a man.

Nofrito and Nelson both looked at their father, who himself looked at Tía Pati. Nofrito felt in his stomach all the things a boy can feel, his head light, as though it were rising, as though it would soon float away. Anita, who hardly understood what Pati was saying, ate a little more shrimp, and Concha, who had heard the story many times, watched as her boys began to receive the knowledge of manhood, of honor, and she was proud.

3

Concha, a woman of many sayings and prayers, loved her children very much, even Nelson, whom she raised with as much dignity and care as she raised her own. Her face was beautiful, filled with peace and gratitude, and the frame of her body was small and strong and feminine. Her forearms were brown and thin. She stood upon short legs, and her breasts were a mother’s breasts, full and heavy from years of use, for, despite her strength, she had grown old and tired more quickly than her age might have told you.

It had not been her intention, nor anyone else’s, that she marry her cousin, the child of her mother’s brother, but these things sometimes happen, in this case the result of an ugly lust on the part of Sr. Moreno one night after too many drinks—she had been a virgin, and only just turned seventeen—and though no pregnancy had followed they had been found out by her parents, who demanded of them confession and marriage in the house of God. Within a year she had given birth to little Nofrito and made room in her home for Nelson, the son of a woman she had never met, a prostitute, when Sr. Moreno brought him home to her, apologizing.

It was well known, even in those days, that to mix the blood of relatives in children is a risk whose danger is beyond foolishness, and Onofre and Concha were warned against doing such things. But, as Concha was especially devoted to her religion and to piety, she refused to take medical precaution, and so had nothing to do with contraception. As a result, since the birth of Nofrito, who was healthy, Concha had been pregnant six times more, four of whose babies had died in the womb and had been delivered cold. Of the other two, only Anita had survived beyond two years, though her eyes and eyelids sometimes moved involuntarily, loosely, out of sync with the other, as though they were the broken parts of two different machines. Belinda, born just one year after Anita, had died of something similar to a heart attack a week or two after her first birthday.

All of this was very painful. Concha, the mother of five dead children, wept and prayed for understanding, and for patience, and for faith. There were times she believed the deaths of her children to be punishment, for God neither approved of sexual relations between close relatives—to be sure one must only remember the stories of Lot’s daughters, whose children became the fathers of evil nations—nor of sexual relations prior to one’s wedding, which was the sin of David with Bathsheba. But even David had to sacrifice only one of his children for his sins, this to Concha’s five, and more than adultery he had had the blood of an innocent man upon him. Of course, therefore, there were many nights filled with confusion and fear and self-pity and wailing into silent darkness, for Concha was a woman of great love and passion for the proper things, and by this virtue she had loved her children, all of them, and missed them greatly. David, in his loss, had wailed and prayed and fasted only while his child still lived, but, because of his great faith, he was content to cease when his child had passed, for it is written, the child would not return to David but David would return to the child. Sometimes Concha thought of this story and it brought her a little comfort, but she did not have faith as David had faith, and for years she felt a great mountain of pain. By the time she had turned twenty-eight, Concha had been pregnant seven times, had given birth to three living children, two of whom survived, and had raised as her own the son of a harlot; one does not accomplish such things without wearing one’s body into great sadness and age, nor without abandoning one’s religion or devoting oneself wholly to it, and so in her appearance, though she had aged beyond her years, one could see in her face the beauty and prayers of a saint upon the fires.

___

And then, it happened again. Sometime after her twenty-eighth birthday, when Nofrito and Nelson were just little boys, about ten years old, and when Anita was three, Concha became pregnant with her eighth child, and this frightened her beyond imagination.

She told only Pati at first, whose reaction was happy and full of talk, of course, for pregnancy by its nature is almost always good news. The women walked together after lunch one Sunday while the children hid among the rocks surrounding the harbor, catching small crabs with broken lines of fishing wire and bits of ham. There was a small path lining the harbor like a thin strand of hair, and it was upon this path the two women walked every Sunday after lunch, talking about their week, laughing about this or that, now listening to the children argue about how to tie a proper loop into fishing line.

On this day Concha here and there barely said these words, No sé, no sé, no sé, as though to herself, hardly above a whisper. Then they both were quiet for some time. They listened to the ocean and birds and everything. In a moment Concha again began to mumble, having finally worked up the courage; she said, Pati, it has happened again. It is unimaginable. I am pregnant.

At this Pati clapped her hands, lifting her body up on her toes. She put her arms around Concha and kissed her cheek and grabbed her hand, saying, Niña, this is a beautiful gift. Then she wrapped her fingers around Concha’s arm and leaned her head against Concha’s, and the two walked together. But once she saw in Concha all kinds of anxiety and pain, Pati offered her tender consolations, holding her hand, stroking her hair, listening to Concha’s long list of fears and worry.

Of course, Concha’s pain had not been forgotten: Pati had after all been near to Concha in those years, had poured out compassion on Concha at the deaths of her children, and though perhaps Pati should have remembered immediately that Concha would be full of fear, so responding with quiet sensitivity, she remembered now, and she was quiet now for this sister of hers.

I do not know—Concha said again, rubbing her hands and fingers over themselves, then covering her mouth. I do not know. What would God have of me? This is my eighth child. Have I not already suffered?

And of course Pati could not bring answers before her, could not comfort her sister with solutions, so in wisdom she remained quiet and they walked together silently until one of them heard Anita crying, having been pricked by a baby crab handed to her by Nelson, who had told her lies, assuring her that the babies did not prick.

___

After that—even though others were told the news, and even though her belly began to grow out for the world to see, and even though the regular preparations were made and a space was cleared for the coming child—for Concha the thing was a private matter, a private concern, a silent panic, and though she could not fast (for she was pregnant) she prayed, and she lit candles, and she made promises to many saints, keeping watch over her Rosary and her thoughts. She begged God for mercy, for the child to live, for His blessings with this baby, for His guidance and care and love, for His attention to her devotion. In the early afternoons, before the boys returned from school and before Onofre came in for the evening, she spent a quiet hour in the backyard among the grass and flowers and the tall, lovely Araucaria tree. She sat and prayed as the mystics do, with an open mind and heart, humbly, and she waited for the voice of God to speak, as she had been told He would, in a soft whisper you almost did not hear.

4

Miraflores was the name of that small neighborhood in Guayaquil where my father lived with his family. It spanned the distance of seven streets by seven avenues, named for numbers and flowers, and my father lived on Second Street, halfway between avenidas Calceolaria and Heliconia. The entire neighborhood was bordered on the north by the new highway, and on the south by one of the many little rivers—un de los dedos del rio, one of the river’s toes—which joined itself to the main waterway, the River Guayas, a few kilometers down. The River’s Toe did not have an official name but it was called by the children El Callejón Besarón, Kissing Alley—or simply El Callejón—for all those secrets the children enjoyed along its banks, hidden as they were by the tall and leafy trees and bushes. Everything was clean back then, the water safe to enter into, for paddling and for swimming. Some of the boys made rafts of dead wood and rope—or, if their parents were rich enough, they purchased canoes—and they rowed along the waters after school or on the weekends. They made small cages of paper cups and string, poking many tiny holes into the bottoms of the cups, big enough only for water to escape. They passed the string through the bottom of the cup—tying it securely with knots on either side, and they tied a stone to the bottom end of the string. Then they made bait of small bits of chicken or bacon, tying the bait to the inside of the cup. Once the contraption was baited, they let the cup fill with water, following the stone to the bottom of the river, dangling the string from their fingers. Inevitably, some baby crab or crayfish would smell the bait and crawl into the cup, thinking himself lucky for the feast before him. When this happened, the boys lifted the cup out of the water and it drained immediately, leaving only the crayfish—powerless now to climb out to freedom. Some of the braver boys built fires to cook their catch, showing off, but most of them—after poking at it for a while—returned the animals to the water, having grown bored once the chase had ended, saving them to be caught again tomorrow.

In truth, yes, Miraflores was a small neighborhood, just a few streets long and a few streets wide, its people, their faces, familiar to one another. But to a boy of ten, like my father at the time, it was world enough—enormous, important—and all along those streets was territory to be claimed, and wilderness for exploration, honor and reputation to be built up, and curiosity to be satisfied. Therefore, no, there was not enough time in the day for his adventures, for his wonder to be tamed: because a boy needed time, very much time, to poke sticks at bee hives, to throw pebbles at birds, to catch crabs in El Callejón, to make races of swimming to and from the opposite bank, to fight his enemies, and to do it right; he needed time to climb trees in search of birds’ eggs, and to throw them at the girls—as he hid, out of view; he must have time to devote to his games of fútbol in the street, played within lines drawn by chalk on the paved streets, or by markers of shoes and shirts on the streets of dirt, since each street—First, Second, Third, up through Seventh—had its team of boys to represent it, and at any given time of day, especially Saturdays and Sundays, you could watch two or three games at a time, and you could hear the yells to pass or shoot, and arguments over a hand-ball, or the celebrations over a goal, up and down the blocks of streets.

As a result, then, adventure was not to be had merely in the day, but also at night, in secret, in the safety of the darkness of midnight, when, after dinner, after bedtime, some boys gathered at El Callejón to make plans for mischief, to play cards, or to smoke cigarettes, or to drink liquor, or to fight, or to meet girls.

In order to escape their house without first being noticed, so they might join their little gang of friends and cousins, Nofrito and Nelson, after being sent off to bed—then after complaining that they were too old to be put to bed so early, a game they played now and then, intended to cover any bad intention they might have had—managed to learn how to climb down the side of their house. They ducked out their open window and used the concrete house like the side of a mountain, stepping down to and from windowsills and other jutting bricks. This was dangerous, but over the years they grew better at it, following a predetermined route down the wall. Finally, as they lowered themselves, they found a place to set their feet—on the wall separating their backyard from the neighbor’s. Here they had to be careful, since bits of broken glass covered the wall, so they were sure always to wear their shoes. From here it would have been only a short walk to open ground, and an easy jump down, one that would not make their feet sting as they landed, but there was always this one difficulty: the neighbor next door had filled his backyard with ducks, dozens of them, for eggs and meat, perhaps a hundred; they slept soundly, thank God, every night; still, on the occasion that one of the ducks would wake and begin to make its noises, only to wake up the others, which in turn would have stirred the entire neighborhood, one of the boys, Nofrito or Nelson, as they walked along the wall over the broken glass, threw a handful of breadcrumbs, emptying his pockets, and this shut them up quickly enough—and long enough, too, for the boys to jump down off the fence to the grass below, and then to make a run for it.

A few years later, I am told, when the novelty of their boys’ games had worn thin, and when the novelty of another game—chasing girls—had begun to grow, my father made a game of wooing the housekeepers of the neighborhood. Now the housekeepers of Miraflores—with some exceptions, of course, though few—were girls, teenagers most of them, in between the years of school and marriage. These girls, after leaving school, seemed only to be waiting around for a wedding, and so they came and went, year after year. Always was there somewhere in Miraflores some new girl hired, for a couple of years at least, and this was how they spent those years: lonely, quietly, humbly, cleaning, folding, dusting—wife practice, they called it— living in a maid’s quarters, usually a small shack in the backyard, in a room connected to the tool shed or laundry room, or, if they were lucky, in a small bedroom in their employer’s house. All kinds of housekeepers worked in the neighborhood, employed by those who could afford it, anyway. None, however, was ever employed by the Moreno family. The official reason for this, given to anyone who asked, was that in the face of so much hardship—of having lost so much in pregnancy—Concha had to fill her day with distractions, and her housework acted as such; but there were whispers in Miraflores that the employment of a young woman—and at that to allow her to stay in the house—should never happen. It was Concha’s one objection, they said, for everyone knew what would happen if Sr. Moreno, overcome by temptation, had only to walk down the hallway for satisfaction. This, of course, was a rumor, one which Nofrito had spent much energy, in fights around Miraflores, putting to rest.

And so, perhaps because in his own house there was no young woman to look at and admire, in those days when chasing women became a thing to fill his time, my father climbed down from his window, sometimes to meet with, and other times only to spy on, the different young housekeepers in the neighborhood. He filled his pockets with breadcrumbs and made his way past the ducks of his neighbor. Once he was in the street, he hummed quietly to himself the love songs from Nat “King” Cole, Español, which, though Cole sang with a gringo’s accent, were nonetheless the romantic croonings of a master. Nofrito thought that to sing those songs, these classic love songs Cole sang in Spanish, might impress his girl—so my father practiced, quietly and to himself, trying to mimic the American. He brought gifts at times, a flower, a stuffed bear, but the majority of times he brought only his desire. By the time he was sixteen, like the bee that flies from flower to flower, my father had been with, or had seen the body of, nearly every housekeeper in Miraflores.

But I have jumped ahead in time, and I have skipped most of the story. Here, let us return to the days when my father, little Nofrito, was only ten years old, when you could still be a pirate and a boxer and a fisherman and a champion fútbol player all in the same day, when to be dismissed from school meant hours of play ahead of you—when girls were still the throwing targets of your handfuls of birds’ eggs.

5

A gigantic tree grew in the backyard of the Moreno house, an Araucaria, which stood straight and tall, taller than any of the houses around. Nofrito climbed the tree by stepping up the blocks of wood his father had nailed to its trunk, then, without their help, he found his way up into its branches. He could swing and play on the Araucaria without the danger of falling because it was built like a ladder and a woman, its limbs thrust out, meant for play, but with tenderness, with care, in the way a mother coddles even the most scared of boys. Almost every evening at around seven o’clock Nofrito climbed the tree. From his place up there Nofrito saw far across Miraflores, onto its streets, some of them dirt, some of them paved. He saw the games of fútbol, the boys chasing the girls, the yards of his friends’ houses. He saw mothers in their yards calling to the children or talking to each other, their aprons wrapped around their waists and their hair tied back or curled, their hands always drying, wet with water from somewhere, a sink, the laundry, the hose. He saw El Callejón, the trees which hid the banks of the River’s Toe, underneath which all kinds of mischief was taking place. To the east lay the hills filled with green and brown and yellow, and to the west he could see over top of the slope that led finally downward to the Pacific Ocean, where boats came in and out, up to and away from the River Guayas, filled with food and clothes and cars and tourists and fish. He saw everything, and it caused in him a feeling of wonder, something like fear and hope and hunger, like the moment one stops laughing, and he waited to see his father come around the corner on his motorcycle.

And when finally he came around, in Nofrito grew love and terror both. He appeared quickly, all at once, from around a corner three or four blocks down, his white shirt and tie and dark pants blowing like a flag in the wind. His face was still and quiet, and his hair had not moved since the morning. This was Nofrito’s father, this was strength, and fear, and power—the voice and arms of God. His hands stretched out to grab the handlebars and gears, and his feet rested on their places, legs bending a little at the knee, and his back hunched in concentration. He seemed to lean forward and backward at the same time, as though he was determined, but at ease. He wore no helmet, and dirt rose up behind him in a little cloud, and you could hear the sound of it, like ten thousand bees that were angry. Nofrito loved to see his father on the motorcycle. He came to the tree alone, always, and he climbed it quietly, and in part he believed this place to be a secret, a spot behind the leaves and twigs to watch his father ride. This is how a boy waits for his father, to see something new and beautiful and strong, to see something beyond imagination. There is hope in a boy who waits for his father, and these are the great things that happen to him: as Sr. Moreno came around the corner to the driveway of the house, Nofrito felt something which is hard to explain, like air with wetness, like a gurgle in the throat, which, really, was love. The body of little Nofrito became tense, then it relaxed, and the feeling left over was strange, a tickle, and it was in his throat. He would have told you—these would have been his words—his father could fit in the back of his throat; his Papi was riding around in his throat.

Nofrito flung himself from the tree, two or three branches at a time, until he landed, feet first on the lawn. He ran to the front window of his house, and again he waited, now by the front door. By this time Sr. Moreno had turned into the driveway and parked the motorcycle, had walked to the front walkway, and was now headed inside.

He entered the house, and the boy stood in front of his father. Sr. Moreno sometimes patted the boy’s head, or walked by, or, if he was drunk, which was often enough, he waited for a reason to lift his fists.

___

Sr. Moreno, half-smiling, had once brought a box of crayons in his bag, a big box of them, sixty-four crayons of different colors. My father, Nofrito, as usual, had received him by the front door. They were a new import, Sr. Moreno began telling him, bending down to show him, of the best American company, and this was the test product, an advance set, a gesture on behalf of the Americans, so that Sr. Moreno would know whether to invest in their importation, whether to sell them here in Ecuador. And, he said, who better to find out whether they are a worthy investment than his own children? Motioning for Nofrito to follow him, he asked of Concha—whose belly had only just begun to swell, her body beginning to fill with her unborn baby’s weight and size—to gather the rest of the children, and to bring some coloring paper.

In a little while they were all seated around the kitchen table, paper in front of them, to be shown how the box of crayons worked. Sr. Moreno demonstrated, showing them the colors, all the different rows of many colors, taking them out of the box, pouring them onto the table, six different kinds of red, four types of purple, and all the shades of green you could think of. There were gray and black and white and many yellows and oranges, and everything between them. He lifted them up in between his fingers, encouraging their use. Draw, mijos, look at all the colors—he said. What color do you want, mijos? They are all here. Miren, niños, miren. They are here, all of them. Then he turned the box around, and showed them a hole in the back near the bottom, which, he said—peeling back the paper label of a light green crayon and putting it into the hole, turning it around and around—was to sharpen any crayons that had become blunt. He removed the crayon, showing how sharp it had become, and they all were amazed.

Then, to the wonder of them all, Sr. Moreno took the crayon into his mouth, swallowing it whole, and, a few seconds later, after much twisting and fussing, he pulled the crayon out of the back of his neck.

Now of course this was a trick, but a child can never tell. All three of them sitting at the table began to wonder at their father’s talent. Cómo lo hizo?—they said to one another. How did he do that? They begged him to do it again, and again, and he did, over and over, each time showing his face to writhe and squirm with discomfort, as though his body were being poisoned by the presence of the crayon inside, as though at any moment he might choke and die, each time elevating the drama of the crayon’s removal from his neck. Would it come out this time? Would the crayon find its way out of his body? Nobody seemed to know. They were all in shock when he had succeeded. They could not believe what they saw, but they were forced to.

After a few turns of this trick, Sr. Moreno decided to leave the children to their drawing, smiling as he warned them that to try swallowing a crayon without the proper training would lead to disaster. Heading for the kitchen, where Concha prepared the meal, he left the children to their coloring. What do you think?—he asked them. This a beautiful toy, no? Why don’t you all draw something nice for your mother.

In a few minutes, Anita’s paper was covered by scratch marks of all different colors, for she, being only three years old and delighting in the colors themselves rather than in the shapes they made, did not yet know—nor did it seem she wanted to know—how to make forms out of her drawings. She took one crayon after another, sometimes lifting it to her nose in order to smell it, sometimes taking it to her tongue, perhaps tempted to swallow the thing herself. On her paper she made long arcs and circles and loops and, with the look of concentration on her face, she filled her papers with all the colors in the box. Before long there was a short pile of paper next to her, and several scattered before her, all with different colors in many different patterns. She made no noise, she only hummed to herself every now and then, as though her tune made a kind of happy commentary on things, and she did not bother her brothers, who ignored her. She stood up on the dark skinny wooden chair, and she stared at the paper before her. Nofrito, sitting down next to his sister, had been focused on trying to draw the Araucaria in their backyard, but either because a boy does not appreciate the significance of such things or because he is embarrassed by the significance itself, he soon gave up, so he began to draw a game of fútbol in the street, filled with the boys of the neighborhood and their feet without shoes. This was a drawing filled with small details, a black & white ball, and all the houses of Second Street in the background, and some of the trees, and the boys running and kicking and jumping, and the street in front of the house, which was made of dirt. He tried to find colors that looked right, but the color of the road and the color of the skin of the boys were both brown, and to see the distinction between street and person, even with the different shades of brown that were available, became difficult. Finally, he gave up on this, too, and decided to draw a picture of himself, so he traced the outline of a round head.

Then he turned to look at Nelson who was smiling very big, too big, as though he did not know how far the smile had spread across his face, at the pictures he had begun. Nofrito peeked over the shoulder of his brother. On the page before Nelson was a picture of a woman without clothes. The hair on the head of the woman was long and black, and her face was painted with red lipstick and long eyelashes, and the woman’s skin—all of it visible to the eye—was brown. There was a small, inverted triangle, colored black, drawn in for her pubic hair. Nelson laughed quietly as he colored in her nipples, dark red circles at the center of her enormous breasts. Nofrito began to smile, and his skin felt hot and tight. Where had Nelson learned to draw this?—he thought to himself. When had he learned about such things? Had Nelson ever seen a naked woman? Nofrito looked at the picture before his brother, forgetting about his own. And although it was only a drawing—and at that the drawing of a young boy—Nofrito felt wholly mesmerized. Here was nudity, and danger, and pleasure. Here was a strange courage in Nelson. It seemed to be an announcement of some kind, a proud sort of confession, a passing on into manhood, to draw the body of a woman, to color in her nipples, and her hair, and her smiling red lips.

The bravery of Nelson became a kind of inspiration to Nofrito. He turned to his own drawing, at the outline of a round head he had intended to become a self-portrait. But now he would not be left out, shown to be so young in the ways of women and sex. So instead of a boy’s body, he drew a woman’s. He began to laugh, and he showed it to Nelson, who approved by raising his eyebrows and whistling. Nofrito drew her with long red hair, wearing high-heel shoes; other than the shoes she was nude, her breasts even bigger than those Nelson had drawn. Nofrito drew her standing naked next to another person, who, after some effort, soon began to look like him. As best he could he drew in his own face, and his own short hair, and a blue pair of short pants he wore most days. Nelson, impressed by this, said, Hiiijole, and laughed until he was almost crying.

___

Now Sr. Moreno returned to see what progress, if any, they had made on their pictures. He entered the room, still smiling, it seemed, from before. A bottle of beer was in his hand, though he did not seem drunk, only happy—but one cannot every time know for sure. When he saw the naked woman before Nofrito, his anger came upon him. He had not seen Nelson’s picture, for the boy had been smart enough to have covered it with other pieces of paper, in order to hide it from view.

Sr. Moreno knelt beside his son. What is the meaning of this?—he said to Nofrito, snatching the picture from before him. Then the man stood up, and for a moment he studied the drawing, his eyes filling up with disappointment and rage, his face as red and swollen as ever it had been. You like this? You like these things?—he said, pointing to the paper. He began to yell—Is this the picture you have drawn for your mother? Nofrito sat quietly in his chair, now assured of what was to come, but feeling the ridiculous hope of his mother.

Sr. Moreno grabbed the boy’s shirt in the front, at the collar, pushing his fist into the boy’s neck with one hand, forcing the crumpled picture into his face with the other. Nofrito shrugged his shoulders and pointed his face up, but his eyes were pointed down, away, not to look into the face of his father. You want to know a woman? You want to be a man? Nofrito, held by his father’s closed fist pushing into his neck, began to cry stiffly, in a way that seemed like crying and holding your breath at the same time. He was lifted up by his shirt. Then flung down, away. Now Sr. Moreno walked, and he stood over his son. He punched him. He punched him again.

The boy was beaten now, made to bleed from his nose and lips, thrown about, pushed down, punched in the face and chest, kicked in the stomach, in the legs and back. Sr. Moreno’s body moved with great power and strength, as though he were fighting a man, his muscles appearing to use all force they were capable of. He cursed at his son, calling him dirty, perverse. He commanded the boy to pray, You will pray now, you pervert, pray to God for His forgiveness, for His mercy, and hope now that He pities you.

Eventually, Sr. Moreno threw the boy onto his bed, and here was Nofrito, quiet now, quivering, breathing through his teeth, left to mend his own wounds.

___

Perhaps you are wondering what happened to the rest of the family. Why did Concha, except for the excuse of her pregnancy, neglect to rescue her own child? What good was there inside of these people that they would let one of their own become Isaac on the altar, that they like Peter had turned their backs, that they would, without a whisper of complaint or rebuke, allow such terror to occur? And perhaps there is no satisfying answer. Perhaps Concha, by moral obligation, should have attacked her husband for the sake of her son—it is possible she should have taken a broom, or a bottle, or a cooking pan, to his head, to his back, to his legs or stomach, and screamed, and scratched, and cried, demanding of her husband the release of their son; perhaps Nelson should not have sat silently at the table, his fingers covering his own drawing, hoping not that Nofrito would be forgiven but that he would not be asked to show the paper beneath his own hands; maybe you expect of Anita, the tiny little girl, to cry, simply out of fear, out of confusion, out of the intuition children have that this should not be, this kind of hatred and anger should not be—but she did not. Nobody cried. Nobody helped. Nobody stopped the man from beating his son. They only listened to the cries of the boy, to his breathing, his grunting, to the sound of one man’s fist upon the body of his son, and they all looked down at the floor, hoping that this was not the truth of the matter, begging God that this was not the truth.


6

All throughout the days when my father, Nofrito, and his brother, Nelson, were young, even when they were so young as five or six years old, this was a beautiful thing for them: they were fighters. Their cousins and some of the boys from Cristóbal Colón—the private school, the school of Nofrito and Nelson, where Pati worked as a secretary—had taught them fighting, and together they had formed a kind of small neighborhood gang, one of a few in Miraflores, and they spent their time following one another around, innocently enough, to tell dirty jokes, to laugh too loudly for some of the storekeepers and mothers to tolerate. Sometimes they gathered at El Callejón to raise mischief. Occasionally, one boy found another boy whom he did not like, a boy from another gang or no gang at all, and at these times there were fights, acts of significance in those days. Fighting was not without its order, its principles and rules: each was one of honor, even for someone so small as Nofrito; and every boy, before leaving his house (or upon returning to it in the case of an unexpected encounter), that he may prepare for a fight, whether to watch or to participate, put on his special pair of shoes, fighting shoes, zapátos lucharónes, black with white laces that came up high on the ankle, which served two purposes: to set them apart from the other boys, who wore all kinds of other shoes or no shoes at all, and to provide each one with the proper speed and traction, were any policeman or other adult to come around, that each might avoid trouble with his mother, all of whom never stopped worrying. Every fight was between two boys, one to one, surrounded by friends and enemies: this was a public event, for honor and for humiliation. In addition, the fight ended when one boy began to cry, or when he fell, unable or refusing to stand again—and continued no further. This was the code, followed at all times, without exception.

Fights were held in many places, on sidewalks, in El Callejón, in backyards when no one else was around, and sometimes on the grounds of Cristóbal Colón, behind Building G, between a wire fence and the back wall of the building, on the edge of the campus, far away from the administrative building, where adults were hardly ever found.

Among some of the boys in the neighborhoods were rivalries and bitterness, but as he grew up, Nofrito—or Choco, as they called him when he fought, for he had dark skin, darker than all of them—learned how to be tough against an enemy, and so did his brother, how to fight holding cork taken from bottles of wine, which made the fists stronger than anything you can imagine, how to kick the groin, how to avoid being kicked in the groin. When he found the money and could escape to the theaters without being found out, Choco watched fighting movies, every moment studying the styles of these heroes, practicing the sideways stance or the high pitched sounds of martial arts masters, in order to throw kicks to the face or stomach as he had seen it done on the screen.

By the time the brothers had turned ten, they were among the best fighters around. Nelson had once beaten a twelve-year-old boy, Jaime, who had called him puto. Choco had once upset a teenager as he walked past, by spitting—whether by accident or not nobody could tell—near his feet, and it was known that this teenager had studied karate and was one of the more feared boys around. The fight was planned and everybody showed up, worried in part for the young Choco, because the older boy had been trained in the ancient arts. But when the teenager moved to punch him, Choco, who stood in front of a lamppost on the street, ducked his head and the teenager’s fist hit the metal of the pole, breaking two fingers on his right hand. Choco, taking advantage, punched the boy’s throat, then his groin, and the boy fell to his stomach to cry for a long time.

Fights had to occur after school, or on weekends, away from the adults. Many were planned ahead of time, sometimes days in advance. Still, other times they came more spontaneously, the result of big mouths, the taunts and name calling spurred on by secret ideas of greatness, by hopes to be feared in Miraflores and the other neighborhoods in Guayaquil. When this happened, everyone ran home to get his zapátos lucharónes, or to retrieve some of the boys who had been absent during the initial argument, first knocking on their doors, then lying to the mothers, perhaps telling her of the man with his good-luck monkey, or the man from Cuenca selling ice cream. Choco, of course, understood what this kind of thing meant, and as he listened to his friends spinning lies he was already lacing up his shoes, excitement building in his stomach as he did.

Eventually, everyone gathered at the agreed-upon spot, and predictions were made, the sizes and reputations of both fighters taken into account, the smallest boys sent down the way to be used as lookouts, and the fight played itself out till its end, with all the yelling and entertainment and horror that each was able to provide. It was a time, I am told, of great heroics and honor, and whenever I think of these things I long to have been among them, watching my father with his fists curled over cork, and I hear the chants, Choco, Choco, Choco, and I see him, my father, ready to give the winning blow, and O how my stomach fills with pleasure.

___

In the early days, when these fights had first begun among boys in the neighborhoods, when not even Anita had yet been born, they, Nelson and Nofrito, just something like five or six years old, had once fought against one another—the result of an argument nobody can remember. When in their backyard beneath the Araucaria they were found to be beating each other with fists and kicks, making the boyish noises of such a struggle, sounds that came out like small puffs of smoke, Sr. Moreno, moving with great quickness from the house and across the yard, like a bear or ape who surprises you with its speed and grace, separated them harshly. He removed his belt and slashed at the tree. He had no anger in his face, none, that is, which Nofrito could see, but the sound nonetheless stopped everything, and fear came into Nofrito—the shame of his sin, or at least of being caught, spreading more every second. No brother, their father said, should bring his fists against his own. This was a law, he told them, a law among Morenos, a kind of bond which brothers can never break, and, if it were broken—only the most terrible things could follow. Then Moreno knelt down and showed the boys his belt, warning that if ever they should fight again they would feel the burn of it on their skin.

___

Afterwards, that night, Sr. Moreno was gone for hours at the bars. When he returned he came home heavily, drunk, staggering. He entered the house smelling of the bar and its women, and by the looks of him, by his stagger and breathing, everybody understood that to stay away was wisdom.

But he began to mutter something about his sons, My sons, where are my sons, bring them here. They will learn a thing or two.

He called out. He moaned. Grunts came through his nose. And in his chair in the front room, in the dark, the sounds of words and nonsense coming from him, one might have guessed he was asleep, or awake, or in a trance, or praying perhaps: all of these seemed true of him.

The children, behind their mother, hid in the kitchen.

Nofrito heard his father call out his name—and then he called out to Nelson. Bring them here—he said. They will learn.

They walked quietly into the front room where Sr. Moreno sat waiting, and they watched him. For a moment Nofrito was tempted to hold Nelson’s hand. The father stood up from his chair, grabbing hold of Nelson, pushing him back to one side of the room; now he grabbed hold of the Nofrito, too, and pushed him to the opposite side. They stood facing one other.

In a moment Sr. Moreno said, Let us see this fight.

Nofrito said aloud: But, you already—

—You will fight, Moreno said. Understand now. Feel. Boys who fight. Brothers when they fight. What. Happens. Now. Now damn it. Learn this way once and for all.

Hardly understanding, hardly making sense of their father’s words, the boys, across the room from one another, stood still.

Sr. Moreno continued: Nofrito. Son. Time now. Walk to. Your brother. Walk to him. Strike him. On the face. Nose. With all your power. The younger to get the first shot. It is only fair.

But Nofrito did not move.

In disbelief, this boy of five or six looked at his father—which, if this ever happens, if the son does not believe in the father, what happens next is a feeling like sickness in the stomach, like worms beneath the skin; it is awful, and unnatural, and frightening—so that his father yelled, Move! Damn it!

Then he obeyed, but his muscles too were filled with the same confusion, and he moved very slowly. Is there any other possible response? Now Sr. Moreno seemed to come out of his trance, or sleep, and came to. He removed his belt. He repeated his words again, now more lucidly. You will do it, damn it, just as I said. Or you will feel the burn of this belt all over your body.

Nofrito came across the room. He walked over the rug, dragging his feet. He breathed in. He closed his fist. He raised his arm to strike, then he watched as it came down onto his brother’s face, full of force and strength. The sting of his punch rang all throughout Nelson’s face, Nofrito could see, over the nose and eyes and into the ears. Nofrito saw anger and hatred cover his brother—for who can feel a punch without growing angry—and then the sorrow. And over these Nofrito saw tears, which came naturally, without hesitation, falling out from Nelson’s face gently and smoothly.

There was quiet then for a long time.

And Concha: where was Concha? How did she let this happen?

Fear and fear alone.

___

Now Sr. Moreno said to Nelson, It is your turn. Go to him. Gather your strength.

Nelson approached his brother.

While Nofrito stood unmoving, their father said to him, Don’t move. You had your chance. Not one inch this way or that. But Nofrito was already obeying, and obviously this was not a command to correct the boy, but nonsense said in drunken stupidity. Therefore, Nofrito began to shiver.

Nelson moved closer.

Do not move, Sr. Moreno said again, as though he thought Nofrito would make a run for it. Let your brother have his chance. It is only fair.

And still Nelson moved closer.

This way to learn, the father mumbled. This way to teach you a lesson.

And in the same way Nofrito had first punched him, Nelson struck Nofrito on the nose. The sting spread throughout his face, too, up into the nose and into the eyes and ears. And now Nofrito’s tears, as naturally and immediately as they had been with his brother, forced their way out, and his eyes shut, blinded by liquid and salt. Nofrito covered his face with his hands.

___

And now there is this moment: Nofrito holding his hands over his face and nose. Here is this moment of strategy, a space created by a boy who knows the danger he is in: these hands of his, these hands not much bigger than a baby’s, still with the dimples of a baby’s hand, one above each knuckle; here are these hands yet unable to grasp a grapefruit, these tiny, unmoving hands which hide his face. But why? Do these hands give him strength, do they soothe his pain, do they cover his shame? Let us watch these hands; let us move through them, beneath them, and let us see this young one’s face below, his suffering, his strategy: these tiny hands buy him time, so that his face and body might be moved to cry even more than is necessary. Imagine his desire, his need to weep beyond what is appropriate. See how the muscles loosen in his face, then tighten, then loosen again. Watch his face move beneath those hands, expanding, contracting. He pushes out tears, the skin folding around his eyes and nose and mouth as he breathes in and out, in and out, huffing, expelling air. He needs this time to change his face, to exaggerate the physical pain, to gather his fear and to spread it loosely across his face. This is an effort designed to dismiss himself from the scary game, for if he can cry loudly enough and long, he might buy his father’s pity—or perhaps his mother will rescue him—and possibly he will be sent off to bed, and fall asleep unhurt, in the safety of his bedroom, beneath the covers of his bed, so that tomorrow all will be forgotten. He is just a boy after all, a boy who not long ago was a baby; just look at his tiny hands which prove it. This is his strategy, his hope. Here is this moment when little Nofrito understands his suffering, and tries to escape it.

___

As he began to cry, and as his hope had begun to grow, he felt on his head a short smack—one thump, then another—his father’s hand: two thumps purposed towards distracting him, towards making him forget to cry, to scare him out of crying, and never again to return to it.

Sr. Moreno said, Now wait until you can see. Wait a moment. Wipe the tears. Because it is your turn once more.

___

And how to finish this. How to explain the truth of it, and the sadness, which is that this game continued for more than an hour, long into the night, when time for drunkards does not exist. The father dangled his belt before his sons, promising them, in return for disobedience, more pain than they could imagine. He directed them each time where to strike the other, from the top of the body to the bottom, and back up again: now the nose, now the cheek, now the chest, now the arms and stomach, the back, a kick to the knee, and so on, back and forth, over and over, each boy receiving his turn. And with each strike and gouge and kick the boys came more and more to believe these two things equally, though opposites, which settled into the soil of their bellies, and buried themselves deeply, like coarse ugly stones:

I must not bring pain to my brother, for it only brings pain to me.

I must bring pain to my brother, for I hate him.

The intentions of Sr. Moreno, that to fight one’s brother in return only brings one unnatural pain—this lesson had been learned, yes. But a boy of five or six does not know how to blame his father for anything, even for the most awful of evils, and so eventually each believed that these blows, that these pains, were not the result of evil in the father, but the result of his brother’s own doing. They took their turns, one after the other, and their hatred grew, and sympathy became bitterness, and bitterness turned quickly into those stones in their stomachs.

And where—where was Concha—but weeping in the back of the house, in her bedroom, praying for mercy, yes, but fearing for her own safety, too much a coward to bring it to an end.

So how do I tell you each dreadful moment, each whimper, each intake of dry, hot air? How do I compose each silent wish that it would end, or arrive to the final words of the father, long after these boys were tired and crying and afraid, which were: If again you are to fight one another, and if I hear of it, you will only wish that I allowed this night to happen once more, for what happened here, tonight, will feel like forgiveness compared to the pain you will feel, pain I promise will be long and deep.

It is not enough merely to mention these, I know, but to linger here could take a lifetime, for these are the moments and pains that form the spirit, the moments that create in us all those things we do not understand, and I confess also that I, too, do not—I do not understand.


7

In the evenings, some months into the pregnancy, poor Concha at last put the children in their beds, Nofrito and Nelson last, and the most noisy—though they had not put up a fight; they had merely begun trying to reason with her that to be put to bed, at their age—by now both were eleven—seemed ridiculous. She could tell, however, that this was a plan, some kind of scheme in order to raise mischief, and she would not be fooled. So she listened to them very carefully—or pretended to listen—then closed her eyes slowly, with a gracious nod and a closed-lip smile, an indication that her patience was still with her, that she would not be swayed, and she asked the boys once again to go back to their bedroom, that sleep would come sooner than they thought it would, with the reminder that they would not mind to be in bed once they were asleep.

Sr. Moreno, deeply asleep by now, dreaming a drunkard’s dreams, still, heavy, would not wake, she was sure. She lit candles all throughout the dining room before the back wall where in the center the enormous wooden crucifix had been hung, two or three feet long, the body of the Son limp and peaceful, his ribs and veins visible under his skin, large drops of blood stuck to his face, full of the grace the Scriptures promised. She knelt down, moving a couple of dining-room chairs as she did. This took a little time, since her belly had expanded, her balance now in need of the support of the backs of those chairs. When she reached the floor she closed her eyes and folded her hands, finger over finger, in front of her face. She had gotten into this habit over the last few weeks, waiting first for everyone to sleep, and in addition to her time in the backyard among the flowers in silent meditation she now had taken to praying to the Savior Himself, asking Him directly to protect her and her unborn child, every night muffling the sounds of her words and tears and what would have been her wailing, for fear of waking up the children, especially Anita, who blamed loud noises on any number of monsters her brothers had lied to her about. Concha, as she knelt, prayed in her heart as Hannah the mother of Samuel had prayed, the woman Eli took to be drunk, moving her lips silently but praying these words in her heart, in bitterness of soul, weeping and praying to the Lord, as it is written, O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, do not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life. Concha thought also of the mother of Samson to whom God spoke, hoping also to hear these same words, this blessing from the Lord, You will bear a son but take much care and he will be set apart, this for the work of the Lord. She thought of these women and begged that she might be among them, her prayers each night rising up from this dining room lighted only by these candles, these small flickers of light in the dark, which themselves resembled this insane hope in improbability. She gave in to her longing, to her desire to love and nurture the baby inside her, and she prayed each night for hours, for months, O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you, turn your ear to my cry, O Lord, my eyes are dim with grief and I call to you, every day I spread out my hands but your wrath is upon me, it is heavy upon me, and you, O Lord, are heavy upon me, you have taken my loved ones from me, my children, my little babies, and all day long your wrath and terrors destroy me, they surround me like a flood, and darkness is my closest friend.

On one of these evenings little Nofrito had for some reason been stirred, his eyes hardly open, maybe catching light from underneath the door, and he came out of the bedroom he and Nelson shared, making his way down into the family dining room where he saw his mother bent down, her back curving and her head pointing sweetly into her own swollen belly. He stood and watched her. He heard her hushed sounds and he saw her cry. He thought he heard the children’s tune, Papito, Papito, chiquita yo soy ¡pero grande…grande es por ti mi amor!—stifling her own voice, part whisper, part scream, part song, over and over.

Mami, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?—Nofrito said to her.

Without a word the woman spread out her hands to him, compelling him with her arms and hands to move into her embrace, and so he approached her, and he let himself be surrounded, her arms covering him like a blanket, and he took on her crying, for how can a boy see his mother weeping and not himself be moved to fear and tears? But she calmed him. She held onto him, whispering into his ears, Mijo, niño, fall to your knees with me, put your hands on my belly, on the baby, yes, here, put your hands here around the baby, bring to this child through the hope in your fingers all the strength of the Lord, and call out to Him, mijo, ask Him to protect this child, and He will hear us, He will hear us, bend your knees now, my darling, and pray with me.

Afraid, filled with pity, filled with the pleading of his mother’s voice, Nofrito, next to his mother, kneeling at her side, below the enormous body of the dying Son, came into his mother’s prayer, repeating the words she spoke for him, May the Lord spare this child, May the Lord spare this child, May He give us a new brother, May He give us a new brother, May the Lord’s delight surround him, May the Lord’s delight surround him, 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. And for who knows how long they sat and prayed and cried together gently. Can you see it? Can you see them praying and mumbling and whispering and crying, his hands moving gently across the tight stretch of her skin? And who knows what He heard, if He heard, and who knows if He will answer—but see for yourself how full of love and hope, like two angels filled with light, this river is flowing out of them, this hope to God for good things to come.

8

The effects of the lesson Sr. Moreno had taught them all those years ago—when in anger he forced the brothers to fight—had seemed to last. The boys, obedient and frightened of their father, did not fight. They were growing up now, and though they were still boys—and as such, always tempted to fight—the years passed apparently full of calm. These brothers, for this is the way with brothers, were best friends and bitter enemies, and they themselves were unable to tell the difference. They fought together, alongside one another in Miraflores, cheering one another on, defending the honor of the other, one never speaking ill against the other, for they were a part of the same neighborhood gang; but, over the years, in the calm between them there also grew a great burden, which was hatred, thick, quiet, cold, for in their bellies those coarse stones remained. And yet they never brought their fists against the other, for fear of the anger it would bring up in their father.

However, years later, when they found themselves in the first days of puberty, a pimple here and there, fur growing beneath the arms and above the penis, a boy’s mustache above the lips, Nofrito had been seen with the girl who had light hair and green eyes. Her name, I believe, was Irena: the one Nelson had already claimed and taken to El Callejón.

Nelson, it should be said, had grown up before his brother—a little bit before, at least; which is not to say that his body grew up faster than Nofrito’s, for they found themselves in the throes of puberty at the same time; rather it was his will, or perhaps his mind—or at least his affection for sexual things—which grew up with great speed. I have already told you the time Nelson drew the naked lady with the crayons. So how do you think he knew about such things—and so young?

He had already gone to La Diez y Ocho—for its existence was no secret to anyone—and he had looked at the women there, fantasizing himself with them, had even asked a few of them—using all his bravery—to take a handful of coins in return for removing some of their clothes. All but one had laughed at him, touching his face, saying, Come back on your birthday, Big Boy, come back when you turn thirteen, and then I will make you a man; the other had led him into an alley, which smelled of dog shit and human piss, and she had taken his money, and she had removed from her blouse both her breasts for him to stare at and touch. She lifted her skirt a few moments while he gathered her into his eyes, unmoving, silent. Ecstasy moved through him like a warm liquid.

Before long he had saved a little more money and returned to her, coins in hand, ten sucre in all, the price in those days, and he asked this time for more, saying to her calmly those exact words, Now is the time for more. Time to be taken upstairs, to be touched, to be excited, to be soothed: the woman, reluctantly or not, obeyed.

So this was how Nelson had discovered sex. He in his quiet, in his always-brooding anger, fell into her arms, and she promised him a hiding place, and ecstasy, and desire-to-be-fulfilled. This mistress, this woman—full of charm he had never known—she promised him lust, to be lusted after, and she asked of him in return only secrecy, for even with prostitutes there are some things too shameful to make known. And, in this secret, his lust grew enormously. His years of anger, of quiet shyness (which really was only hatred), in these moments-at-a-time were released in short, involuntary contractions of muscle, in the overflow of warmth and touch and friction. And still his lust continued to grow. He took to masturbating himself all the time, two or three times a day, while he imagined her removing first her shoes, then her belt, now her blouse and skirt, smiling at him, which told of his power, his strength, his skill for conquest. In addition, he had begun flirting with loose, older girls, taking them the the River’s Toe, and they did things which naturally curious, yet unnaturally brave, children do to one other. Then, whenever he could collect ten sucre more, he returned to his lady at La Diez y Ocho, and she taught him the ways of desire, always taking care to touch him lightly at first, now with passion, now lightly again. She took care to tease him, to caress him, to praise him, to make him feel so much like a man. She whispered his manhood to him in quiet private exultations, and his ears went numb with excitement. Inside him he felt love and shame at once. And over all these things—for this is the way of sin, of passion, of darkness, of hiding—he had tried to maintain strict control and quiet; his lady, his girls, and his life in the imagination, these were his only, privately, to be touched or enjoyed by no one else. He could not imagine his lady on 18th Street with anyone but him, acting kindly toward, or whispering nonsense to, or touching the face and arms of, or giving in to, anyone else: and so he did not—perhaps he did not know how to, or perhaps he thought she waited around just for him. As for his girls, including Irena, the girl Nofrito was seen chasing, they were Nelson’s alone. Nelson had awoken to sex early, at only the age of ten or eleven, and he had learned well, quickly, to hide himself from the shame of public exposure—for, as his lady had taught him, the pleasure of secrecy makes all kinds of wonderful promises. But, since a prostitute can heal only so much, upon learning that Nofrito had taken what belonged to him, his girl, his Irena, Nelson’s ability to contain his anger, this hatred for his brother—after years—these coarse ugly stones in his stomach, all this was stirred, moved, and those stones rose to the surface: this he could not, or would not, control. The anger, therefore, and the spite, and the hatred of years, these were released in Nelson beyond measure, and as a result, to Nofrito, he became very, very dangerous.

And so it came about that Nofrito, or so it had been spread from one ear to the next, was reported to have chased Irena around the statue in the town square, an attempt to get a kiss. It was a believable story, of course, for this sort of thing can be believed about any boy of eleven years—and, by the logic of children, it was therefore true.

Finally, the news was brought to Nelson. In return, then, he allowed another word to spread—carefully, in murmurs the teachers would not hear: a fight between brothers was to come, the first of its kind, behind Building G, in the usual place.

___

The long school day finally over, after the hours of secrecy and chatter, the children came to watch. From their classrooms after the final bell, from the playground where they left the rubber balls, from the hallways and stairways and locker rooms, avoiding the eyes of their teachers, lying to their mothers—saying they needed to stay after school a little while, for homework or tutoring—speaking in breathless whispers to one another, holding books to their chests, making grand gestures with their hands, covering their mouths in surprise: they came. All of them were dressed in the same clothes, white shirts, a tie, dark pants, the girls wearing long skirts and sweaters, the boys with their sleeves rolled up, as though they believed themselves to be their own fathers, a long day gone by but now it is done, it is time to rest, time to take in the honor of a day well spent, time for entertainment, a fight, a fight among brothers, and here they gathered behind Building G, their clothing showing the white and dark of Catholic regulation, white and dark, white and dark, layers and layers of these children coming from everywhere like gulls and pigeons assembling on the coast, coming from all directions, white and dark, white and dark, the only words among them full of weight and expectation proper to this kind of rare occasion. Everyone waited with knots in their stomachs. Here, today, a fight, and that among brothers, such great fighters, each of them. Who would triumph? Who would be greater? Never had this been seen before. Perhaps it would not be seen again.

Of course, Choco had been notified, though not by Nelson himself—but by word of mouth, in the same manner Nelson himself had learned of his brother’s chasing Irena. You were seen with her—they told him—and Nelson has heard of it, but your brother has said she is not yours to molest. Therefore you have offended your own brother. And now he has promised to fight you. Today. Behind Building G. He has said he will have your ass!

Choco, then, whether to defend his honor, or to explain himself, or to remind his brother of their father’s rule (and how they had once feared this commandment!)—or perhaps because lust is a greater motive than any rule a father can impose—he arrived to the place, corks in his hands, zapátos lucharónes on his feet, prepared, if necessary, to fight, and to win.

They had been trained, as training goes, together: this much everybody knew. And each had seen the other fight many, many times. Each knew the tricks of the other. Each knew how to punch, how to throw kicks at the knee, how to make blood pour from the nose and mouth. And each knew how to avoid these things for himself. Therefore, if one made contact with the flesh of the other, one might have said, This is due more to luck than anything, for their skills are practically equal in all regards.

Though everyone who came to watch the thing had his favorite, the reputations of these two fighters, amazingly, were equal. And the fear of them, too, among the other fighters in the neighborhoods, was equal. Nelson, a little bit bigger and perhaps a little stronger than his brother, could not move as quickly, nor with the same anticipation, the same speed, which had before given Choco his many victories. Still, it was Nelson’s favorite thing, and his most common tactic, to heave his brute strength upon his opponent, to blind his enemy with too many punches to the chin and cheeks, and, in the days he had acquired this skill, there were few who could say they had got the best of him.

They stood before one another, angry, strong. The sun of the day bore down on them, and some of the children made for the shade, standing along the edge of Building G, in the bit of shady covering a wall might provide when the sun is so high, but the majority made a circle around the fighters. Some chanted, Choco, Choco, Choco. They made pumping motions with their fists. Others said, ¡Nelson ganará! ¡Nelson ganará! Most of the children, however, mumbled among themselves, unsure whom to support, pointing, telling stories that had already made their way around Miraflores, mesmerized merely by the spectacle. There were a hundred anxious children watching. And Nelson and Choco drew nearer, fists raised before their faces in the way of old fighting movies, dukes up.

Both boys had been taught not to punch first, never to make the first move. The first to punch, the eager one, so they were taught, is also the first to make a mistake, the one most vulnerable to punishment, and he, in the end, will be the one who cannot defend himself. Therefore, one would better learn to wait, to defend, to react. Both boys, then, were patient fighters, waiting, waiting, moving around and around in a circle, and as they did their shoes slid along the dirt. But Nelson, perhaps because he was the challenger and filled with the most hatred in this case, whose anger and jealousy caused this fight to come about—he swung first. He swung with great passion, and again, and again, and again, missing each time, for his brother’s movements were quick to dodge almost anything. Then Choco swung downward toward the groin of his brother, what would have been the winning punch, for who can withstand such pain as that, but his fist was stopped by Nelson’s raised knee. The children in the outer circle grew louder. Choco heard them yelling, heard even his cousins—who by now had taken sides in the conflict, either agreeing with Nelson’s rage or disbelieving the story about Choco’s chasing Irena—shouting out advice, what kicks or punches to make, and where, and when. He saw the children standing behind Nelson, his friends and enemies and people he’d never seen before, all in their white shirts and dark pants, chanting, waiting, hoping, and he felt the weight of their excitement, and he understood that this fight, this conflict, would end frighteningly.

He gave himself over, then, to the emotion that had begun stirring inside his stomach. He looked at Nelson and he understood that he had never hated anyone so much as this brother of his, this boy who looked like no one in the family, his black curly hair, his wide fair face, his fat nose, all which were the traces of the whore who had borne him, the woman only their father had known, and so Choco clinched the cork in his hands, and he no longer saw his brother, but an enemy—a threat. He came again at Nelson who stood ready in his quiet, steady rage.

Here a punch was thrown, and there a kick to the shin or ribs. Their fingers remained tightly wound about the corks in their palms. Nelson moved forward. He held hands before his face. He jabbed at his brother’s chin. Choco ducked and swung at Nelson’s stomach, but Nelson had lowered his arms just in time. Choco recovered, and put his arms up to protect himself.

It went on like this for a long time. A punch thrown here, and there a kick to the legs or stomach. Neither boy would allow an end to the fight. Neither was willing to give in to the other. No matter how stupid the thing had been or become, they fought on. Their fists raised and legs flew, and their skills and fortitude naturally gave way to their fatigue, slowly, in the way that water from the stream wears at the stone, or in the way rain tears away bark from the tree. They came to resemble the stone altars of ancient rituals—and blood poured from their bodies and onto the ground. The crowd of children who had gathered to watch, those who had been standing around yelling with the excitement and energy of the coming kill, eventually, as the minutes wore on, became filled with disgust, or horror, or boredom, for the reality of the event is always worse than the fantasy. In the case of these two brothers, honor had given way to hatred, to pride. And neither boy would cry. And neither boy would fall.


9

It was not entirely luck, but perhaps God’s will, or just probability, that Tía Pati, maybe having heard about the fight anyway—for the secrets of children are never entirely kept secret—came around the corner. She saw them standing, fists raised, staggering like drunken men. In a hurry she came at once. She pushed through the crowd of children, and grabbed the wrists of Nofrito and Nelson, a skinny boy’s arm in each of her hands. She brought them away with her, these stupid arrogant bloodied children, mal criados both, dragging them at her sides.

Now they had been caught and humiliated before everybody watching. The head of each boy hung low, and that ugly purple-faced woman pulled on their arms, that woman with the face, that blotch like dried blood, like spilled coffee, their tía, the one who worked in the administrative office. All the children scattered in the way they had arrived, to every direction at once, like a flock of birds.

Tía Pati’s anger came through her fingers, hot, hard, but even so this anger was tempered with compassion, in the way a bitch must use her teeth, but never her fangs, to correct her pups. The three of them walked silently through Miraflores. Nofrito thought of his father, of the rough dry hands that would beat him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his brother, full of defiance. Nelson seemed pleased, as though no evil, no fear, could come near to him. He had restored his honor today, Nelson had, and was this not enough, for a while at least, to carry his thoughts away from their father’s wrath? Nofrito saw him tighten his fists around the corks which were still in his hands.

Tía Pati spoke. What have you done—are you crazy—what but pain can be brought about—what but sorrow—what but rage—you are brothers!—had you thought about that—had you thought this through—no, of course not—no, of course—you are children—children who will one day be men—and children—and men—for all their wonders—they do not think—they only do.

___

The boys’ father had not, thank God, returned from work. Nofrito considered his luck in this. He would not be home for a few hours yet. Tía Pati yelled for Concha, who, after having put down Anita to nap, had gone to the backyard to pray. But now she came running, her belly full of her unborn child. Dios mio, she said. She knelt down. She touched Nofrito’s chin. She put her hand on Nelson’s cheek. She examined them thoroughly. Already Nelson’s lip had begun to swell, and Nofrito’s right eye felt very tender; he winced when she touched it. He would bruise, he knew.

In an instant, he saw her eyes grow horribly.

She said, Tell me you were not fighting.

The boys said nothing.

She said again, Please. I can hear anything else. Tell me you did not bring your fists against one another.

Nelson slipped his hands in his pockets, hiding the corks.

Mijos! Please! She begged them desperately. Look at me. Your father—

By now Tía Pati had stepped aside and moved into the kitchen, to allow the mother her place as parent of these boys. She had opened a cupboard, then another, then another, in search of a glass. She poured beer for herself, then another. Nofrito heard the sound of the bottles open, of the liquid slide down the glass. Now Pati poked her head into the doorway. Her face appeared, half smiling, half enraged, but no longer was her anger at the boys. She said, What is this about their father? She crossed her arms. Tell me—she said—what does their father think he will do?

Is it such a mystery?—Concha said, panicked. This man—and she paused. He is capable of too—and she paused again.

She had spoken too soon, and foolishly, Nofrito knew. She had betrayed her duty to her husband, and to marriage as a sacrament. A child can learn this much in so many years. But who could blame her—and who could easily solve this puzzle: Here was this woman devoted to her God, to her duties to Him, to piety, to marriage—even to marriage with her cousin—and now, had this woman’s devotion perhaps begun to fail? All these years she had not spoken against her husband, against his brutality. She did not make accusations. This was, after all, the Way. It would have been a violation, for it is written, Wives, submit meekly, and act as unto the Lord. A word of complaint, therefore, is infidelity, is it not?—if not to Sr. Moreno, then to God. Instead, she had only prayed, begged, that He might quell her sufferings. And did it matter that Tía Pati was his own sister, did it matter that she had known all along? Was not this mention of her brother’s brutality, was it not, in the face of vows uttered before God, a betrayal? Under her breath, Concha whispered, calling to him, O God, what has been done? And she said, Discúlpeme, Señor. A moment later she said, Please, Pati. We beg you. Say nothing.

___

Of course, it would have been easy enough to hide the truth from their father. Lies, stories, excuses—these could have been devised, rehearsed. The family might never have been in danger. The wounds on the face of each boy—these might have been tended to with peroxide and ice. In this way, nothing would be believed but the story they’d invented.

Tía Pati, however, would not give in to Concha’s plea. He will be told just how it happened, she said. And if I must, I will say it.

Concha begged.

She recounted for Tía Pati the entire story—that one from years ago: the slow, painful movements, the orders given by their father, the orders obeyed, the bloody fight between brothers hardly older than babies. Her eyes became big and wet.

She said, He will raise his hands.

She said, He will remove his belt.

But Tía Pati remained steadfast.

You were not here, Concha said. You did not see what I saw.

Nelson sat down on the couch. He crossed his arms, sure of what their father would bring. His fear and hatred had turned into stone. Nofrito stood still, his imagination running away, taking him here and there. He watched the two women argue.

Pointing to her sons, Concha said, He will wait until you have gone to your home.

She said, He will wait until he is drunk.

She said, He will hurt them beyond what you can bear to imagine.

She knelt down to kiss Nofrito, and she said: I will not allow it to happen.

She said, You must not say a word. Please.

But Tía Pati only repeated herself tenderly: He will be told just how it happened. And if I must, I will say it.

Finally, raising her voice, Concha said, This is not your house! This is not your family. Leave me to my business!

And she knelt down to cry.

Still—perhaps knowing that Concha spoke only from her fear— Tía Pati remained. She leaned down to her sister, and she put her hands on the woman’s belly, and she repeated her words, He will be told just how it happened. And if I must…

They held onto one another. Tía Pati touched Concha’s shoulders and back. She kissed her face.

Why, Concha said. How come you are doing this. She cried gently.

These boys live and die, Tía Pati said, and you—you live and die—by luck. You are lucky when Onofre is not stirred to madness. Other times, you are unlucky. Tía Pati swallowed, waiting a few moments to speak again. Quietly, then, she said, I have stood by like you for many years, for too many years—only hoping. But God has never appeared. She looked up now, as though scolding the heavens, and she said, No, no, it is wrong. Fear like this, it is wrong. She pressed her fingers against Concha’s face. She kissed her sister’s forehead. And so he will be told just how it happened. And if I must, I will say it. And you will see how my body, too, and how my voice, how they can become weapons.

Everybody was quiet. In a few moments, Tía Pati moved into the kitchen. She poured herself another glass of beer, then another, then another. She paced around the house. She set down her glass of beer. She rubbed her hands together.

Finally, she sat down on the couch, next to Nelson, and she put an arm around him.

The room grew deeply silent. The burden and weight of their combined fear brought in a kind of darkness, which surrounded them. It grew cold, or seemed to, while everybody waited for him to arrive.

Nofrito came over to the couch, next to his tía. He rested his head against her side. He closed his eyes as though to sleep, and tried to imagine his father wherever he was right now, probably still in the office overlooking the River Guayas. What did his face look like? To whom did he speak? Nofrito almost heard his voice, could see his eyebrows move up and down. The cuffs of his sleeves, of course, had remained buttoned—never rolled up, never unprofessional—since the morning. His tie hung from his collar, perfectly still. He sat at his desk and rolled back and forth in his chair. He picked up the receiver and dialed the phone with an impatient finger, soon greeting a business associate on the other end. They argued, and Sr. Moreno slammed down the phone. Perhaps now he would light a cigarette, or stand from his chair and slide papers into his briefcase. This father of his, this man in the office, became to Nofrito like a problem of logic, an impossible knot to be untied with thought, but these were not the lucid reflections of a man three times his age, when a problem of logic can be laid out before one and solved, where assertions and rebuttals might be examined; no, this was an inward feeling in the heart of the boy—full of that same struggle a logical problem would present, and it produced the same knowledge—lacking only the words to identify and to describe the process. This feeling, then, which was as big as his love, as big as his hatred,  as big as his confusion, as big as his fear, entered his chest not in the way a seed would grow—slowly, beautifully, as a kind of victory, into a sprawling powerful vine—rather it came like a boy at the coast  who digs a hole in the sand near the water, its progress slowed again and again by that very sand which has just been removed, sliding back down into the hole, filling it in once more: How is the son to perceive the father? What is the son to make of him? The father, of course, he is God—this is a natural belief, no matter how false, which is born into every boy. It is inherent knowledge written on the soul, and nurtured, of course, by the father’s voice and his arms and his love and his long, strong fingers. It cannot be helped. The father, too, however, is that Great Liar, the Fallen Light, whose goodness and beauty is only a trick—this was a learned belief, many times beaten into Nofrito, nurtured by drink and rage. But what else is the father but a man?—and merely so, nothing more—an importer and seller of American goods, of crayons and soda and clothing, who sits at his desk, who smokes cigarettes, who looks out the window at the beauty of the River Guayas—with the same wonder of all men who stand before nature. Nofrito, only what, maybe eleven years old, could never have formed these into words, could never have comprehended these things as they would have appeared in thought. Had he been able to form the words, however, probably he would have moved through all these ideas, reflecting on his father, this God, this Devil, this Man, and he would have said Love, and he would have said Hate, and he would have said Fear, and he would have said Hope. The contradictions, the knot, would have been difficult and long, but in his mind these things could have been worked out, perhaps. In the face of such difficulties, he would have understood the impossibility of all these things as true at once; perhaps in time he would have come to comprehend his father the man, the weak one, filled with good and evil, and Nofrito would have calculated a son’s disappointment in the father, a son’s hurt, and a son’s devotion nonetheless, and then, with compassion and hatred moving through him, he would have arrived at this impossible conclusion, saying at last one final word, over and over, then resist it with all the strength in his body: Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. But the feeling, that feeling in his chest—as hopeful and tired and futile as the boy digging his hole in the sand—this feeling which grew in him and grew and grew and grew, this fatigue, this anxiety, this push against impossibility—it had no words to say, it had no thoughts to consider—because it was a feeling. Therefore, this feeling, wanting a voice, was mute.

10

Had it been another day, at seven o’clock Nofrito would have climbed up the tall, lovely Araucaria tree in the backyard. He would have waited among the branches and leaves, with expectation, with impatience—for the rumble of his father’s motorcycle. At any moment his father would have come into view from around the corner, all his body strong, formed so naturally around the frame of the motorcycle that you would have thought they were one thing.

Concha would have been in the kitchen, her arms sticky with sweat and steam, her nose taking in the smell of the food before her as it cooked.

But it did not happen like that. Instead, at seven o’clock everybody sat inside, waiting—Tía Pati, too—in the front room, on couch and chairs, shoes tapping against the cement floor. Worry lingered in that room like a stench, and fear became like a screeching noise. Even Anita—who had by now woken up from her sleep—seemed to understand the gravity of things. She made no fuss; she was no burden to anyone. She sat next to her mother in the chair, hardly making a sound, only humming to herself in her way, though lowly, making a world come to life with her hands and fingers. By now, the truth had settled in to Nelson, who sat stiffly, vacantly, pale. He leaned his head against the couch cushion, eyes staring at the ceiling. Tía Pati, between Nelson and Nofrito, leaned forward, picking up her glass of beer, then back again to take a drink; as she rocked back and forth, Nofrito watched her face, trying to look without being noticed—for there was no part in him whose fascination with that purple splotch had diminished. His repulsion for her, and his love—these came in equal doses. One followed the other around in circles.

The motorcycle was heard, its rumble entering all their ears. The key turned off the engine, and soon the footsteps of Sr. Moreno could be heard. Nofrito was saved now, he was safe—thanks to his tía—but he nonetheless felt himself tremble when outside he heard his father let out a cough, clearing his throat. Tía Pati set down her empty glass of beer. She leaned back, watching for the doorknob to turn.

Hurriedly, Concha ordered Anita and the boys to follow her into the boys’ bedroom, upstairs. Come with me, come right now, she said. She escorted them up the stairs. Wait here until you are called, she said, leaving them inside, closing the door behind her, as though that were that. Sitting on his bed, Nofrito heard her footsteps move away, her feet sliding away along the dust of the cement floor.

Two minutes had not passed before the brothers, ignoring their sister, leaving her behind, humming to herself, were out the window and halfway down the house. Brick by brick they followed their usual pattern down, until they landed on the high glass-covered wall. They made their way over the shards, managing the short distance until they arrived over the patch of grass—where they could jump down safely. The ducks in the yard next door made some low noises, and some loud noises, but nobody noticed—since it was long before anybody would have gone to sleep.

Together the boys landed safely on the ground, as usual. Nofrito, drawn naturally to watch what forbidden event his mother would not let him see, walked quietly, secretly, slowly, to the front window of the house. He crouched, not to be seen, now listening, now watching. Nelson, however—also quietly, but quickly, and perhaps wisely—ran away, probably to hide among the trees of El Callejón, or maybe to see his lady over on La Diez y Ocho. He went without a word, not looking back, safe now at least for a few hours more.

11

Years and years have passed since then. In the early 1970s my father came to this country. He learned English. He earned a degree, then another; while he studied, first mathematics, then business, he played soccer for his university, and to his teams he was a hero; his name appears at the top of many lists of statistics—you can look him up, if you wanted to. He had grown into a man, thick, short—shorter than I am—and strong, a soccer player of the very best kind. He had moved to America, to California, to Hermosa Beach on the coast, that small city—it was practically a village—where I grew up, and in a few years he married a white woman who gave birth to two boys: I am their firstborn. Before long, before I had turned five, he left us and married again, this time to a Mexican lady, a dark-haired dark-eyed mother of two children, a boy and a girl, whom he raised in his house, and together they, the dark-eyed woman and my father, conceived another child, who is my half-brother.

There are pictures of his early days here, photographs of my mother and father, of their friends and families, of their days as teenagers, as young adults—I have seen them many times. One thing you cannot get from these pictures is that Hermosa Beach in the 1970s was a very beautiful place, because its beauty is behind them, off camera. The pictures only show you Mom and Dad and Fernando, standing in front of Dad’s blue-and-orange van, all still teenagers, hanging around in the gravel-and-dirt parking lot drinking beer and playing music from the speakers, Fernando wearing a yellow headband, sporting his catfish mustache, in those days very popular among Latinos. His left arm is raised over his head, holding up a can of Coors to the sun. Dad’s arm hangs loosely around Mom, who looks too young and too pretty to be my mother. Everyone is wearing a tank top. They are holding their own beers. These were the days before they had me, before they married, the days even before Dad started hitting Mom.

Or, here are my cousins Stevie and Gina and Cathy—Cathy is the little girl in the light blue dress—all in the front driveway of O.P.’s house. The basketball hoop rests above their heads, secured to the roof of the garage. And here, see here, it’s Tío Carlos, my father’s uncle, ten, maybe fifteen years before his heart attack which came late in the 1980s; he is behind them smiling, sitting down in the orange-and-green-and-yellow aluminum lawn chair, the one he would bring to all Dad’s soccer games, his back straight as he leans forward, wearing short pants and black socks and sandals in the way of old men, and everybody looks happy.

Here is this picture of my abuelo, in the days after he came to this country, his nose as big as his face. He wears a dark tie and a white shirt and long pants and black shoes, and his face looks serious and cruel, though I have added the cruelty, because when Dad drinks he talks about how Abuelo used to beat the shit out of everyone.

But you cannot see in these pictures the ocean of my childhood. You cannot see the cliffs of Palos Verdes which stand like soldiers over the shore. Behind Dad and Mom and Fernando, behind the van and the Coors and the yellow headband, behind the gravel-and-dirt parking lot, down that hill, what you cannot see is the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, stretching and stretching and stretching, reaching as God does until the ends of the earth—but it is there. It is part of all those pictures, behind them, underneath them, in all those good times, while they celebrate at those parties I have heard about, before the weddings and the adulteries and the divorces, because they are held up by it and drawn to it, to this ocean, lured by its power and wonder as I was just a few years later, by its promises of life and of mystery and of strength and of hope. You cannot get this from the pictures, and perhaps it is not enough merely to tell you about it, but I have seen this place, I have lived in it, and now while I tell you of it I am reminded of this truth: One thing I understand about him, about my father— he could never bear to leave the ocean.

Pictures from the 1970s have more yellow in them, or more orange—we have all seen the old reels and photographs; the people in them are taller, or skinnier, or happier; these pictures do not have the pinks and whites and neons of the 1980s, the rush of time or the self indulgence. These pictures have in them ease, long hair, open-toe sandals, naïve happy smiles that teenagers give when their worries are only theoretical. And even though the ocean is absent from view, even though these pictures do not show you the time I spent here, how I grew up in Hermosa Beach swimming, how beautiful I used to be, and small, and dark—my skin wrapped tightly over my child’s-bones and muscles, and my hair, how when it was wet it stuck to my face—even though you cannot see it, it, the ocean, is always there. In this way I grew up like my father had grown up, very near the water, always near the water.

These pictures in my hand, these pictures I am holding now, these were the happy times I am told of, here in California, in Hermosa Beach, and these eventually became the world as I knew it, made up only of white people and Latinos, my family, when I still believed everything had been created so I could have that ocean, playing with my father on the beach, holding to the back of his neck when the waves crashed over us, watching the dolphins jump and swim in the waves while he held me against him, and I felt happy, and I felt brave, for when a boy is with his father, he is not afraid.

___

Many years later, my father has not yet become old. His face is wide, Latino, brown, very dark brown, dark even for a Latino. He still has all of his hair, which is black, thick, like a young man’s. His eyes are handsome and enormous, with black pupils like very still water—unmoving, vulnerable, meek but not afraid. When he smiles you can see his mouth is big but his teeth are small. In Hermosa Beach, after he left us, while I was still a boy and I visited him sometimes on weekends, I watched his soccer games (he was always in a league of some kind), and I heard his team call out to him—for the ball, or to look out because someone was behind him, or to shoot—and still they called him Choco. The name is right: it—CHOCO—was his license plate, a Father’s Day gift from my mother, and I remember always agreeing, Yes, yes, yes, like chocolate, like chocolate. But now he walks gingerly, as over ice, his knees like broken hinges, limping from years of fist fights and soccer.

He says, My legs are gone, sure, but I still have my looks.

He laughs. I laugh too.

Despite his bad knees, however, he is still short and thick and strong. And although he has reached his fifties, a part of me still believes—as I believed when I was a boy, faithfully, doubtlessly, as though God’s strength moved through him—that he can yet beat almost any man in a one-to-one fight, like in the old days. Three years ago he was arrested on suspicion of spousal abuse (everybody in the house was, at the time, very drunk, and no one remembers exactly if this was the case, but his wife—his fourth now, a woman from Ecuador, from Quito—swears he slapped her, saying, Shut up, bitch, so she called the police), and for one night he was given a cell to share with four other men: three black, one Latino. The Latino man was enormous, and, my father says, No one dared to fuck with him. When my father was led into the cell, they, the enormous Latino man and he, nodded to one another. My father explains, It was silent camaraderie. My father, seeing that a top bunk was still empty, climbed up and made the space his own; then, because he could now make his phone call, he was escorted back out—but he had laid down his baseball cap, to secure his place on the bunk. When he returned, one of the black men was in his space wearing his cap, which, my father says, was a direct challenge. Now my father—this is the way he tells it—understood: Even in just this holding tank, even here for one night while we all waited for someone to bail us out—even in this place which was not quite prison, it was only jail, it was nonetheless something like the movies, mijo—and everybody was divided by race. And now they were testing me.

I am quiet, and he goes on.

Mijo, he says, I had to do something. I had to respond. Powerfully. Urgently.

He takes a drink from his glass. It is Sunday. We have met in a bar we both like. We drink, we eat, we talk. This is our way—for today, anyhow.

I look at him. This is my father, I tell myself. This is the man I call Dad.

He continues. He tells this story as though he is at once proud and ashamed. He says, I looked over at the big guy, who nodded to me again—which was his blessing:  like saying, Yes, man, go ahead, I will back you up. I turned to the black guy, the one on the bunk, the one with my hat on.

My father sees my disbelief, my surprise, and he reminds me, again saying, This is jail, mijo. This is the way things are.

He says, I raised my arms. In one hand I grabbed his throat. And in the other hand I grabbed his balls. I lifted him from the bunk. My father moves his arms up and around, as if to show me how he did it.

And then, mijo, I threw him to the floor.

He says this as though he too is in disbelief, that same pride-and-shame mix painted on his face.

He says, I said to the black guy, You nigger son of a bitch. Get off my bed, you mother fucker. Because of his accent, these last words sound like mahther fahker.

I feel my eyes grow. I look at my father, then I look around the bar to see if anyone has heard him, and I am relieved to see the place is practically empty—Sunday afternoons are more or less safe, I suppose.

He says, The other two black guys stood up, the one with my hat was still rolling on the floor and holding his balls. The other two were coming to shit down my throat. But the big guy, my compadre, he said, No—no—no. And everybody looked at him. We turned our heads. He lifted his finger, saying, One at a time. I stood there, and they came at me, first the bigger one with yellow instead of white in his eyes. Then came the little bald one. I kicked the first one and I punched the second one—both in the balls. They were on the floor, and I kicked at them a while. Finally, the one wearing my hat, he came at me too, but he was too hurt to do anything. Each got his turn at me, and I beat every one. I am in my fifties, mijo. I have bad knees. But I beat all of them, all three, one at a time.

He takes another drink. He swallows. He pours more beer. That look of pride-and-shame lingers a few moments longer, then disappears behind laughter.

And you know what, mijo? Now I was safe. I took back my hat. I pulled it down over my eyes. And I went to sleep. In my bunk.

We go on sitting in the back of the bar, at our little brown booth—and we order food. He lifts chicken wings and fried calamari to his mouth, he dips them in their sauces, and every now and then he pours more beer from the pitcher, or douses hot sauce onto his little white plate, and he remembers those days from many years ago in Guayaquil, at the restaurant by the harbor. He tells me of the food, how it covered that long red table, the mounds and mounds of it, how they never could finish it all—and his big wet eyes grow bigger and bigger. He talks of the smell of the harbor, of the rides on his father’s motorcycle, of the view of the River Guayas, and of the sailboats, and of the beggars, and of the man who sold avocados, and how when finally they arrived to that restaurant on Sundays the sounds of those folk singers made him feel happy. He is reminded of his tía, of the stories she used to tell, of her giant purple birthmark and his old fascination with her big ugly face. He describes it to me. He talks about the purple mark. He shows me with his hand how it covered half of her face, from forehead to chin, from her nose to her ear, on the left side. It was dark, mijo, he says. Dark and purple. It puffed up a little from her face. Hair grew from it near the bottom, close to her jaw line. Her face grew hair not quite like a man’s, but not like a woman’s. He says to me, I even wondered if she knew, if she knew how ugly she was. She had to know, but she never let on.

He tells the story of the Octopus King, of his father’s disappearing with the yellow canoe, how he protected his sister’s honor so like a child, so like a man, and together we laugh. For a moment I consider my father’s awe of his own father, of the contradictions, of the horror, of the love my father the boy had for his father, and of the hatred that was finally pushed into him. These stories lie between us and hover above us. They are the myths we have come to know as the truth. They are everything we believe in. I have heard these stories again and again over the years, and I know them like I know his face, like I know the face of my own son.

He, my father, does not cry anymore but he has cried before, many times, when he was drunk enough to cry. He has said, heaving into my shoulder, shaking, over and over again, I do not want to remember. I do not want to remember. I do not want to remember. Now, right now, he sighs, as though in disbelief, as though the stories happened to another person, as though he had never been Nofrito the child, and in truth this is in part how I have come to view things myself, which saddens me to discover.

Still, there is one memory which is for him a curse—that is his word, curse. It is the one story of Nofrito the child which, above all others, always brings me sadness, and it is the reason I have told you anything at all. When he has had enough beer to remember, he pushes himself back into the back cushion of his booth. He wipes his mouth with his napkin and he takes another sip of beer.

He says, shaking his head, as though arguing with the table before him, It is my curse, mijo. Mijo, it is my curse.

12

He says, They, Mami and Papi and Tía Pati, were arguing when I came to the window—yelling, all three. I watched. Mami pointed at Papi and then up at the ceiling, to indicate Nelson and me in the bedroom above them, where they thought we were waiting. Papi was in no mood to hear the news. At first he only sighed and picked up a newspaper, rolling it in his hand; with the newspaper in that one hand he slapped at the other hand as though his horse had just lost a race. But now his rage was growing. He walked into the kitchen. I was afraid: I knew what was to come since he had, in the past, used all kinds of things on me, sticks, belts—once he used the garden hose; he had punched me and he had kicked at my ribs. If I’d been smarter, I would have run off with Nelson wherever he went off to, probably to his woman on 18th Street, but I stayed to watch my tía protect me. Papi returned from the kitchen rubbing his chin, with a glass in his hand—beer, I think.

They kept arguing, their voices raising, rising, their bodies circling the room, the arms and eyebrows of both women making all kinds of grand gestures, but soon my tía had headed for the hallway. From there at the window, from that angle, I couldn’t see where she had gone to exactly—probably the bathroom. She held up a finger as if to say, Hold on, one moment, I’ll return soon. While I watched her leave, I prayed quietly, grateful to God for her. How many times had I seen her save me. How many times had she raised her voice for me, in my defense, or put her body between my father and me. How many times had he, my father, walked towards me, quietly, as in a trance, or else crazily, enraged, yelling, his hands always intending to grab and punch at me, and how many times, I cannot count, had she soothed that anger, by stroking his cheek, by touching his shoulder, by looking at him in the way of a sister desperate—demanding—to be heard. Even though she was so ugly, he had listened to her as though her words were this world’s most sacred law. When Tía Pati spoke to my father, when she whispered into his ear, no matter how drunk or angry he had been, no matter how enraged, he obeyed. And how I loved her for it. And here she was again, saving me. I prayed then, thanking God silently.

But now only the two, Mami and Papi, were left standing there, and at the moment Tía Pati left, my father’s back straightened, and he fixed the tuck of his shirt into his pants, and then, without warning, he struck her, my mother, across the face, which I had never seen him do, then he pointed at her in the face, his eyes open and round and dark. Of course, I knew it had happened, I knew he was violent with her, I knew he had struck her before—we had heard their fights—but he had never touched her where we could see them, and now it surprised me. It looked easy, as though it had become a part of one’s grooming: straighten your back, fix the tuck in your shirt, a hand raised, a hand come down. Easy. Mami, still pregnant then, the swell in her belly almost as big as the rest of her, covered her face with her hands where he had slapped her openly, palm first.

Do not get brave with me, you bitch, he said to her, and he returned to the kitchen for another glass of beer, leaving Mami alone to cover her face, to feel the sting, to pace the floor, moving her body this way and that, from here to there quickly throughout the room, with the anxiety of a very small bird. She did not object; she did not scream; she had received her punishment quietly, without crying, without complaint. I remained crouched in front of my house, looking through that window, waiting for my tía to appear again, waiting for her to save us all. My thighs and my knees, maybe tired from crouching, or perhaps because I was afraid, shook. And it was true, I was afraid of my father—of course—for he was brutal. Look what he had done to Mami. Remember his threats to me and Nelson. But it was equally true that I had faith in my tía. In a moment, my father, coming back out of the kitchen with a new filled glass of beer, raised it to drink—and, as he tilted back his head, I thought he spotted me. I saw his eyes—had they stopped on me?—and I stood still, hoping to have gone unnoticed. Then I saw that he did not finish his sip of beer before he lowered his glass, and I understood. Yes, he was looking at me now.

With his eyes wide, wide open, as just as round, as just as dark as when he’d hit Mami, and with his forehead hard and flat and smooth, he lifted his arm and motioned me to him, so I stood up and came inside. I passed Mami, who had stopped pacing around and now was watching me. Where had I come from?—she was probably thinking; after all she had herself put us up in the bedroom, and she had never known about our secret way down. I approached Papi. I was trying not to shiver. When I got close I did not look up, so that I did not have to see him raise his hand at me. Instead, I watched the floor. I thought about my tía—where had she gone? where was she now? where was her voice now to stop him?—and now I felt the space between hope and truth grow wide. When I fell to the floor I was still thinking about my tía, and I fell like I always did—my hands over my ears, my eyes closed tightly, holding my breath in my cheeks.

___

My father picks up, bites, and chews a bit of chicken wing. He licks his fingers. He swallows. I look at him, and I eat my own food. He says to me, You know, mijo, a very small child cannot comprehend his life as aimed at anything in particular. It is merely spread out before him to experience. To eat, to drink, to breathe. To laugh and to suffer. He shakes his head. He says to me, That name Purpose, mijo, whether real or imagined, is given to such things only in those years after.

He says that Tía Pati had still been gone, down the hall somewhere, and now Concha could only watch the spectacle, powerless—as always, stopped by fear, by cowardice—to demand anything of her husband. Sr. Moreno silently began to beat him, who also remained silent. But then suddenly she, Concha, was moving down the hallway, and she was yelling out, Pati! Pati! What is happening! Are you all right!

No, she was not all right.

Concha raced down the hallway and stopped at the closed door of the bathroom. Sr. Moreno’s attention moved away from his son, too, who remained on the floor for a long, long time before he moved any part of his child’s body. His Papi walked towards the bathroom door. By now Concha was hitting the door with an open palm, saying, Pati, Pati, Pati. Please, Pati. My father, that boy Nofrito, opened his eyes and closed his eyes, and he lay on the floor wishing only to fall asleep.

13

Sitting in his place across from me, my father explains—Because, he says, because it needs to be explained, it always needs explaining.

We have ordered another pitcher of beer, our fourth, and I fill his glass. Why not? We have no place to go.

Even now, he says, sometimes I still do not believe it. But these things have happened, he says. Things like this—they happen. Bigger secrets, worse than this one, mijo, even those have been kept secret.

What was the secret? In a manner that for everyone remains both mysterious and obvious at once—she was a drunk.

Everybody knew she liked a drink, so that it was said of her, that she had even said of herself, She could drink like a man, drinking beer and brandy and wine and whatever else, this to lift the spirits, this to call forth her stories, this—now the story goes—to ignore that enormous purple mark everyone but her was watching. How had she coped?—it is whispered among us; this was how; then somebody touches another’s arm, saying, The poor thing.

What Concha had heard, then—what had made her run down the hallway—were the pitiful sounds of pain and fear that come from too much vomit, from losing control of one’s bowels. Once the door was opened, Concha saw Pati laid out on the floor of their bathroom, no longer with energy enough to aim for the toilet, her clothes soiled. She had surrounded herself with her own bile, stinking up the house, filling it with the smell of old booze and shit. She was pale, and, because her liver had quietly begun to cease, she was light yellow, her skin taking on the color of the poisons floating through her. She moved to vomit again, but nothing came out. Then her mouth oozed brown saliva.

They took Pati to the hospital, and she was cleaned up, washed, set up in a bed, given water, given food. In a couple of days she was very yellow, even her eyes and tongue and lips—everything had turned the palest yellow, the color of corn starch in water. In those days in Ecuador there was nothing much that could be done—nothing much, for that matter, can be done now, either—and so they began to make preparations. The fight, doctors said, even if she fought bravely, would be over inside of a few weeks.

Concha delivered notice to the administrative offices of Cristóbal Colón, saying that Pati had fallen very, very ill, that she was not expected to return.

I’d hoped it was nothing—one woman said sadly, who worked there and knew Pati.

What do you mean?—Concha asked her.

The woman leaned closely over the counter, saying, I had been hearing her in the bathroom. Over the weeks. She stayed in there a long time. Sometimes she was vomiting. Sometimes she was making waste. I asked her what was wrong. She told me it was nothing. She told me she was fine. A passing bug, she said. But I knew. I knew something. The woman paused to lean even closer to Concha, as if to conspire. She said, Still, I had hoped for her. She had started to stink a little.

Then Concha took the children to Pati’s house, in order to gather some of Pati’s clothes, maybe some trinkets or other reminders of home, to make the hospital tolerable—comfortable enough, at least. But when they arrived to her house they found its horrors, its secrets. To say unkempt, to say that word, this is just a joke, since that word unkempt cannot begin to contain, and cannot possibly mean, what they found there. They opened the door and, inside, it seemed as though wild animals had been through to kill each other; the smell alone seemed to confirm that theory. As they searched out things to bring to the hospital, books, a blanket, perhaps something to knit—what was that smell?—they held their noses at first, but finally they lifted their shirts over their faces. Concha tied a handkerchief around her face. They walked around the front room and the kitchen, and nothing was in its place, if it belonged to a place at all. There were clothes and towels thrown over the furniture, dishes that looked as though they had been used, and reused, and reused, then ignored. There were bath towels, a dozen or so, laid out here and there on the floor. And food, food lay open, and old, and rotting everywhere—on the floor, on the furniture, on chairs and tables. Bottles, empty, full, half-filled—many, many bottles—lay strewn on the dining room table, on the sofa, in the kitchen, on the counters, in the cupboards, her cheap vodka, a drunkard’s best keeper of secrets. She had been sick a long time; that, at least, was clear. And what was that smell? Nothing they found pointed directly to it. Could old food, could unwashed dishes—could these stink so bad as this? Nofrito, my father, doubted it. The children complained, keeping their noses in their shirts.

Concha went to the bedrooms, but she told her children to stay where they were, to stay put here in the front of the house: Do not leave the kitchen or living room, she said. Do not walk around this place. Perhaps, my father supposes now, Concha was trying to preserve some of Pati’s dignity, a little if at all, by keeping the children away from those back rooms, from the bathroom, from Pati’s own bedroom, for what other, darker, sadder secrets lay waiting back there?

When Concha left to those rooms, the children continued exploring the front room. Anita made a game of walking on the tops of towels which lay all over the floor. She jumped from towel to towel, as though they were lily pads and she were a frog. For no reason—what reason does a child need?—she lifted one of the towels.

What is this?—she asked out loud. It looks bad, she said.

Both boys came to her and saw feces, human, old—days, maybe weeks—left to rot, squished flat from having been walked on, again and again. They lifted the other towels and they found the same thing under those, too, trails of waste under every one—probably from the days she was too drunk to hurry.

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.

15

After Tía Pati passed, four days after, Concha—whose weeping had not yet stopped, for the loss, yes, of her sister, for the loss of her cousin, of course, but also to grieve the condition of this sister’s soul forever, as it is written, And these shall go away into everlasting punishment—gave birth to Rolf Moreno, the youngest of four living children in the household. He was born small, even for a baby, although the pregnancy had lasted all its weeks, and his head was even smaller, like a cat’s. The child was weak, very weak, and, when he was brought out of her body, he did not cry. As all babies do, he slept through his first few weeks, but without a sound, so the story has gone for years, without so much as a cry of hunger.

He was kind even from the very beginning. He had learned early to smile his smile—that rise only of the mouth but not of the eyes, which was the way he smiled his entire life. The rest of him, however, came slowly, over the course of years, long after the children his age understood how to think or speak or do, and the parts of his body were small, always small, his hands and arms, his feet, his legs, the width of his shoulders, all these were small, never catching up in size with anybody his age, but it was his head which even on the day of his birth caused everybody, especially Concha, the most concern, since it was the first and most obvious indication that he had been born deficient, and that the Lord might still be carrying a grudge against her.

But Concha was a woman of great devotion, and these, her son’s deformities, like all other trials of her life, only made her to undertake the journey of prayer and questions with even more fervor, entering into His presence every morning, sitting beneath the tall, lovely Araucaria, carrying Rolf into the backyard wrapped in a blanket, singing him songs about the love of God, kissing his tiny head, whispering to the child the truths of the world, He has provided and He will provide, He loves His creation, He takes pleasure in all His children, and then, spreading out a quilt over the grass, setting the child down to sleep or to watch the sky, she herself knelt down, the sun barely up, the warmth of the air of Ecuador hovering around her, as always, and she crossed herself and closed her eyes and spread out her arms with her face pointed up, up, up, saying, My God, my King, my Lord, answer my cry for help, listen to my groans, each morning I come before you and every night I cry out, and because of your great mercy, O my God, I am filled with wonder, so I beg you now to teach me, I kneel before you to offer my devotion, will you now guide me, now won’t you make your teaching clear, what will you have of me, what more can I confess, O Lord, since I need you to save me, I have come to the deep waters and the floods again surround me, they have come up to my neck and I am worn out calling for help, my throat is dry, so answer me, Lord, answer me out of the goodness of your love, out of your kindness, out of your mercy, and turn to me, and do not hide your face from your servant, for I am your servant in trouble, it is I, dear Lord, it is Concha, please, God, please, please, come near to me and rescue me from your wrath.

Concha wept and prayed every morning, before the house began to stir, for the loss of her sister, for the health of her baby, for understanding of her troubles.

___

But Concha was not the only one sad. Everybody else in the house had been ruined, too. Within a few weeks, Nelson, quiet and brooding, more and more had given himself over to the way of the streets of Guayaquil, devoting himself to wandering Miraflores and other parts of his great city, to lacing up his zapátos lucharónes, to carrying cork in his pockets always, to picking fights when he could, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, to stealing a little money, to sneaking out of the house at night, to going down to the River’s Toe in order to smoke and drink and cuss and touch girls with the older boys. Some nights, when he had enough money, he flew to La Diez y Ocho, to his woman there, and he entered deeply into the way of lust, to touching, to being touched, to paying his money for the sake of that prize: forgetting. Anita, the child, was still too young to understand everything, although she understood sadness, and, as we all do, in her depths she understood despair, so to see all these things in her Mami and Papi and brothers had caused her heart to begin feeling what loss, what heavy loss, everyone around her already knew. Sr. Moreno did not speak to anyone, it seemed, at all. Although he was perhaps the one who had loved Pati most, nobody saw him weep. At her funeral service he stayed quiet, hardly greeting his brothers, Tito and Emilio, who had traveled all the way from Manta to bury their sister, and afterwards he fled on his motorcycle to God knows where, staying away for more than a week, missing the birth of Rolf and, even when he returned, hardly noticing his new presence in the house, hardly noticing his wife’s feeding the child, or her songs to the sleeping baby, merely going in and out of the house, back and forth, back and forth, to and from his office at the harbor. When Sunday came, when the family should have climbed up onto the motorcycle, when everybody in their place was to manage the ride as they always did, to defy danger and death for the sake of that Moreno parade which rode all throughout Guayaquil, past the famous statue and the beggars in the streets and the merchants and the boys who juggled, in order to arrive at the restaurant at the harbor, to eat, to drink, to forget, Sr. Moreno instead removed the car from the garage, and everyone piled into it, its smell the dark wet smell of the garage, its upholstery cold, the children sharing the back seat and Concha in front holding Rolf—who, she told the children, must have been the reason, thank God, they were driving the car, saying, There are too many of us now—but perhaps Nofrito knew best that this was only  an excuse, that they could have found a way.

Nofrito, my father, who had believed in his tía, who had had faith in her, who had received the rewards of her sacrifices, and who in response loved her more than he had ever loved anyone, was perhaps the worst off. He, too, still snuck out of the house late at night. Still with Nelson he climbed out the window, bread crumbs in his pockets to quiet the ducks; still they managed to walk over the broken glass and jump down safely to the grass; but Nofrito did not go to the River’s Toe or to La Diez y Ocho like his brother, and he did not lace up his shoes in order to pick fights—although over the years those came nonetheless; nor did he yet follow the girls of Miraflores, showing up at the windows of the young housekeepers to whistle that eight-note tune, a romancer’s famous come-on, each note standing for one syllable: Si no sales no te veo—If you don’t come out I won’t see you; that all came in time, all in its time. No, when next to the cement wall Nofrito landed on the grass, he watched his brother run off down the street, off to play with the older boys, but he himself turned around and walked into the backyard, the quiet of night still all around him, the stars and moon above him like prayers, and he climbed up the tall, lovely Araucaria tree, to his spot among the branches, where he had waited for his Papi to come riding home, and he sat silently, waiting, imagining the soul of Pati entering heaven, wondering whether God had heard him that night in the hospital, hoping that He had. But, he wondered, was this—was that prayer, was that hope—was it only a child’s game, a silly strategy? He did not know. Here in the tree, he did not know. He remembered his tía on her bed, how she had breathed in and out through the mouth, how the smell of vomit filled the room like smoke, how yellow she had become, and how full of hatred, that now it seemed the smell, and her yellow color, and her hatred—that they were all one thing. She had said awful things, he remembered, and she had said true things, and now in his memory Nofrito could not tell which was which. This was how he passed the nights, not sleeping but hoping, remaining in that tree for hours, watching the moon pass over him, listening to the world beneath the silence of the stars.

___

My father says to me, On one of these nights, mijo, when I passed all night up in the tree, I had cried a little, thinking of my tía, and I had fallen asleep a little, too, because you cannot stay awake all night without feeling tired, but in the end I had spent the entire night up in that tree, and in the morning, as the sun was rising up, here came Mami, carrying the child Rolf in one arm and an enormous folded quilt in the other. I kept my mouth shut—I was not allowed to have been out—and I watched her come into the backyard. She walked slowly and quietly from the house to the grass, to just beneath my tree, beneath where I sat in the branches. She was singing something to Rolf very softly, smelling his head and kissing his cheeks. She dropped the quilt to the grass and kicked at its corners to spread it out a bit, after a moment placing Rolf down onto it, then spreading out the quilt some more, until it lay open like a mouth. I saw my brother lying on the yellow and blue and red of the quilt, looking up, beautiful and small. His head looked like a doll’s—it always did, for the rest of his life—like a doll’s head you would buy in a store to replace the first head, but when you brought it home you saw it did not quite fit the body. Slowly, he blinked his droopy eyes. He was my brother, and I loved him.

Mami knelt down, mijo, just below me.

She was still singing to Rolf, singing the song children sing to their fathers, the song she had sung to him when she was still pregnant, as though to teach it to him. He was too young to understand, of course, but that is how mothers are with their babies, not caring how young, for there is no such thing as too young, since all women know, it is their instinct, it is never too early to teach a baby love. She sang it to him, looking into his face, moving her lips above the baby’s, over and over and over: Papito, Papito, chiquito yo soy—Daddy, Daddy, this tiny I am—¡pero grande…grande es por ti mi amor!—but this big, this big my heart loves you!

In a little while she stopped singing, and she moved to pray. She let Rolf lie on his spot on the quilt, and she spread open her arms and she pointed her face up to the heavens, and her eyes, if they had been open, would have been looking at him, at Nofrito. Instead, she was looking at God in her heart, praying to Him. From here in the tree he had a view like God’s, and he saw down to her as God did, and he watched her with His pity, and His love, and His mercy, and her lips moved, and he heard the words come out of her mouth, O my Lord, O my Tower of Strength, hear my cry, listen to my prayer. I call as my heart grows faint because you have cast us off, you have scattered us, you have shown us desperate times, giving us wine that makes us stagger. But, O my Refuge, turn to us again, show us your face. I have married my cousin for your sake, that we would not live in the sin of adultery, or of rape, and we were married in your house. I have been pregnant, my God, eight times, and you have given me four with breath: Nofrito, Anita, Belinda, Rolf—and you have given us Nelson, too. But you took Belinda, whose heart stopped dead, and you took the others, the ones without names. All four of them, O God. Four cold babies.

You have given me a husband who beats us, who whips us until our bloods spill, until the blood of our bodies falls to the floor, the blood of my sons, the blood of my own body, and we are made weak by him. I confess I do not know how to protect my children, for the fear I, too, have of him. I have wept, and I have asked for the strength to fight him, to protect my children, but you have not given it to me.

You gave my cousin, my sister, Pati, a mark on her face, one that repulsed the world, and you stole love from her. She said when she spoke out against you that you gave her a life without love. And so she took to drinking, Lord, which killed her. She died loveless, alone, in the dark of the hospital, and now she lives forever in the darkness of eternal torment, abandoned.

When, O Lord, will you rise up? When will you hand us your favor? When will you protect us? You are God, and my soul thirsts for you—but we are in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

And now, less than a week after Pati passed, you gave me a son, you gave me Rolf, my baby son whose body is weak, whose head is too small, who does not cry, who smiles but who does not smile fully. Here is my son, O Lord, and do you have a grudge against him, too, that you would make him so malformed? Was he not covered in prayers? Did I not come to you every day and every night? Did I not have faith enough? Did I disobey?

What, O Lord, what, what, what have I done!

___

And now I look at my father as he sits across from me in our little brown booth, and he is out of beer now. I imagine him, imagine his face, to be the child Nofrito’s face. He hears Mami praying. He hears her cries out to God. She recites their lives to Him, she gives Him her soul, she spreads out the world before Him, and Nofrito watches her below, as God must also be watching, and her body is stretched out, and her arms are raised up to the sky. She begins to sing again, whether to Rolf or to God nobody can tell, Papito, Papito, chiquito yo soy…¡pero grande…grande es por ti mi amor!—it is a song for children and a prayer, and she will sing it for years, teaching it to Rolf, allowing him to inherit the troubles and suffering of all Morenos.

A thousand things come into my heart, because I know this story. I know what happens next. Nofrito will remember the night he prayed with Mami, the night he came into the dining room and she cried out, when she taught him how to pray, giving him the words to come before God, so that now while he sits in the tree, in the goodness of his child’s heart, Nofrito’s mouth will want to fill up with those same words, May the Lord spare us, may He give us new life, may the Lord’s delight surround us….

But fear, beginning in his stomach, will creep over him, and it will spread like very cold water all throughout his body.

Two things will happen to him at the same time: The child, let me tell you, will want to pray, for has he not seen in Mami the beauty of prayer, its weakness, its wide open need? But that fear will spread out and cover him, because his soul—his salvation—has he not already given it away? The child will believe that God cannot listen to him, cannot hear his cries, that he is forsaken, that he is lost forever in a place without a horizon, since he has given himself over for the sake of Tía Pati. And what a feeling this will be, and what a wound will open up in him. This, the child will believe, is exile; this is being forgotten. And he will suffer a great loss, the greatest of all losses—to reach out to God and to hear only His silence. What child should endure such an exile? Who can spare him now? Who can act as his protector?

At the same time, something equal and opposite will occur, taking the form only of questions, Is God not to be hated? Is God not to be abandoned? Had He not robbed Tía Pati of love, and has He not robbed him, Nofrito, as well? Has He not robbed Nelson, the son of a whore, and Mami, the wife of her rapist, and Anita and Rolf, whose deformities they will carry forever? How many nights and days and weeks and years, how long has Mami prayed, and how has God resisted what Nofrito himself has just seen to be an act of great love, of great devotion? He will fill up with rage and exile, and he will harden, silenced by hate so pure its white could blind your eyes.

Finally, my father will climb down out of the tree. He will feel all things at once. The weight of his exile will be an enormous hand on his back, pushing down. Crying, he will fall into his mother’s arms, and they will huddle together, shaking, afraid, suffering, saying, Mijo, Mijo, Mami, Mami, Mijo, Mami, Mami, and it will be one sound to the heavens, and before long their bodies will become like one thing, one beautiful thing that shares all things between them, shares hope, and pain, and love, and curse.

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

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