Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Flor

 

Felix Pérez Cruz drove the last bus out of Huehuetenango bound for Todos Santos, the bus called the Flor de Cuchumatán. The night his mother died, as it would turn out, he was driving too fast, and the Flor went off the road on the curve above my house, tumbled ninety meters down the mountainside with a big clatter of metal and rock, and landed upside down on my patio. My husband was in town with his lover, that brazen seductress Hilda Florencia, and I had only the help of my two eldest children, roused by the tumult. I flipped on the outside light and sent my Marta running down the path through the milpa to the neighbor’s house—it was July and the corn was already taller than a man’s head; the trail was slippery with mud from rain that had just stopped, gracias a Dios—while Moisés and I entered the bedlam of the bus, climbing in through the open door.

Felix Pérez Cruz lay unconscious near the door, wedged in against a sign pronouncing “The Lord will watch over your going and your coming now and forever,” that had been above the windshield when the Flor was right way up. Blood streamed out of a gash in his forehead. Beyond him Miguel, the ayudante, picked through a tangle of wailing people, sprawled in a mess of shawls, hats, and bundles spilling all the usual things people bring back after a day in the department capital—a pair of black patent shoes, lengths of PVC pipes, a stuffed Hello Kitty doll, etc. The people and stuff were piled over baggage racks on the ribbed metal ceiling, now the floor, of the bus. The smell of their fear cut through the damp night air, the smell of vomit and piss. One woman screamed over and over, “My baby, my baby, my baby!”

Miguel helped the people clamber through the bus, under the seats suspended overhead, Miguel carrying children and grandmothers, one by one to the door, where Moisés and I got them out. We spread blankets for them to sit or lie down on. By the time Don Enrique arrived, breathless from hauling his bulk up the path, with his wife, the curandera Emiliana, and my Marta, most of the passengers were out, all alive, gracias a Dios, and the shrieks had quieted to moans. Don Enrique and Miguel together wrestled Felix Pérez Cruz out of the Flor and carried him to my bed. Doña Emiliana and Marta set to work washing cuts, rubbing salve on bruises, splinting and binding broken bones, and spitting chewed leaves of ruda in the faces of the survivors, to protect their souls from the dangerous aftereffects of their fright. Doña Emiliana had brought the ruda from her medicinal garden.

Meanwhile, I ministered to Felix Pérez Cruz, a youth not much older than Moisés, who already had a bad reputation in Todos Santos—it was said he stole from the owner of the Flor—and would now bear the additional burden of the crash and the destruction of the bus. No doubt the authorities would make him pay. He’d lost enough blood to make his face pale, unless the pallor came from a vision he’d had right before he lost control of the bus, felt it slide sideways across the gravel of the road and plunge over the edge. Unconsciousness would have come as a relief. Nevertheless, I brought him back from it, after stanching his bleeding wound and pulling the flaps of skin together with adhesive tape, by using a rag soaked with aguardiente. After his eyes flickered open, looking huge and black and lost in his gaunt face, I put the bottle to his lips, although the consumption of spirits is against my religion, and told him to drink.

There are some kinds of pain that liquor can’t blunt.

I felt a great surge of pity, tenderness, felt my bruised heart break for this failure of a bus driver in my arms, and that was how it began. After all, as my husband is so fond of reminding us every Sunday when the culto gathers in our patio to listen to him sermonize brimstone and salvation: to err is human, to forgive, divine. In which case, Mundo, who spends all week erring with Hilda Florencia only to be forgiven each Saturday when he returns to us, is over-filled with divinity. Being much in the forgiveness habit, I shushed Felix Pérez Cruz when he struggled to sit up, apologizing for the blood on my blankets, the bus on my patio, the owl of calamity hooting on my rooftop.

“Doña Clara Luz, I must flee,” he told me. “I saw my mother’s face in the rear-view mirror.”

“Mi’jo,” I told him and pushed him back down. “You are in no condition to even stand.”

I said this as well to that pubic hair, the police chief, who made his appearance as he always does long past the time he could have been helpful, after the survivors had been bundled off by various conveyances to the hospital in Huehue or their families down the valley in Todos Santos. Our community, from long practice, knows how to deal with emergencies. The chief, despite my protestations, insisted on taking Felix that same night into custody and I insisted on riding with them as far as the altiplano because I had promised Felix I would look in on his mother.

The chief let me off in La Ventosa, as miserable a spot as there ever was on a cold night, and Felix told me how to find his mother’s house in that cluster of huts where the wind never ceases to howl and you are more likely than not to find a sheet of ice in your pila in the morning. I picked my way by stars up a path through boulders to the house Felix had described, where light leaked like a bad omen out from chinks in the eaves. I pushed open the door, which was unlatched, and found a single room lit up by a fire blazing on a dirt hearth—if Felix was a thief, he wasn’t a very good one, unable to provide even the comfort of a cement floor or cinderblock stove for his mother’s shack—and candles everywhere. It seemed all the women of La Ventosa, women I knew from the market at Todos Santos, were in the room, gathered around a mattress on the floor.

In a corner of the room, a clot of children with dazed faces huddled together, clutching one another. Everyone stared at me, as if I were a phantasm.

“Felix, the bus driver, sent me,” I said, to assure them that I was of this world.

“Ay ay ay Dios!” one woman moaned. “Is the son dead too?”

Of course, the import of the vision in the rear-view mirror was obvious from the motionless, worn-out rag of a woman on the bed. Her funeral vestments completed, even her best huipil and corte were tattered, the women from the village crossed themselves, knelt back on their haunches on the dirt floor, and commenced the ritual caterwauling that always accompanies these occasions. It was the middle of the night. I had no recourse but to join the mourners and offer my prayers for the cluster of sobbing orphans, five of them, the eldest not more than ten, helpless as newly hatched chicks.

*           *           *

That Sunday, by divine law a day of rest, the Lord granted permission for the task at hand, and the entire culto, over a hundred people, as well the owner of the bus, Porfirio Ramirez Mendoza, and a hired ox, set to work with ropes to right the Flor. Two hours later, the shattered hulk was hauled off the patio to rest on busted tires, a miracle, surely as the ark on Ararat, my husband proclaimed, citing scripture: “On the seventeenth day of the seventh month (the very date, as it happened, of the accident) the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” The ark of the Flor had carried the souls of sinners over stormy seas, Mundo proclaimed, and delivered them to the land of repentance. My husband certainly has a golden tongue, to have created an ark out of that heap of metal that, even before the accident, had been a wheezing cast-off norteamericano school bus, bought used, resurrected, and repainted a spangled red and gold for its afterlife as the Flor. And would be resurrected a second time, Don Pilo, its owner assured us after the sermon, which he attended although he is not evangelical. The sight of his ruined bus had reminded him that Death awaits us around every corner, always ready to pounce, and inspired him to prayer.

The engine still worked; the chassis was still strong. Don Pilo intended to fit a new body onto it.

“In that case the bus is not a total loss,” I told him.

“Gracias a Dios,” he said.

“Perhaps you can show mercy to Felix Pérez Cruz, whose five younger siblings have no one to provide for them while he is in jail.”

Don Pilo snorted. “The boy belongs in jail. I was planning to sack him anyway.”

“If you will renounce your claim against him—fíjese, you’ve no more chance of recovering money from him than squeezing honey from a lemon—and give him back his job, I guarantee he’ll never steal from you again.” I was standing at my husband’s side as I spoke, taking full advantage of my righteous station as the preacher’s wife. “I plan to save his soul, wretched sinner though he be.”

And who was my husband to object to such a plan, busy as he was evangelizing that hija de puta, Hilda Florencia?

My argument, plus the promise of at least a partial restitution over time through garnished wages, persuaded Don Pilo.

*           *           *

My husband had begun spending nights in town a year before the bus accident, in a small room in the back of his pharmacy on the calle real, the main street of Todos Santos. Occasional nights, at first. He claimed exhaustion after a long day of tending to the bodily aches and illnesses of his customers, poor man! just as he succored their spiritual pains on Sundays. Also he had to rise early in the morning to open the shop. I’d suggested the whole family should move into the pharmacy. But no, he said, there wasn’t room for four children, let alone the little ones he believed were still to come. I didn’t tell him there would be no more, that I’d had the operation after baby Santos was born, that for me, four was enough. Mundo wanted to be the father of a tribe: nothing was ever enough.

It was true, the back room of the pharmacy was too small for a family. There was barely enough room for one double bed.

Besides, Mundo didn’t want to live in town, he claimed at the time. The noise, the crowds, the drunks, the bus fumes. Only in the peace of the country, in our house high perched in the mountains where you look straight into the eye of God, could he hear messages from our Lord. At the time, I believed that Mundo spoke with the voice of God. Not a large man, my husband, nor overly handsome. His nose was too long and curved, his moustache thin like the hair on top of his head, his chin too pointed. But he gave off light. He paced. He gestured. His whole body energized by fervor, by spirit that flashed from his eyes like electricity. No one could escape the excitement of his presence.

I basked in his glow. I was proud to be his wife, I won’t deny it, and you know Proverbs 16: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

My fall came swifter than the Flor’s.

Mundo’s nights in town became more frequent. Then Emiliana, the curandera, my dear neighbor and comadre, who delivered all my children but the last—Santos came by emergency caesarian in the hospital in Huehue, after forty hours of useless labor, and that was when I asked the doctors for the operation so there would be no more—Emiliana who is godmother to my children, who knows all my secrets, told me the gossip going around the market. No one else dared whisper it to me, the preacher’s wife. That Hilda Florencia had got her talons hooked into my tender husband. I wept when she told me.

What can I say about Hilda Florencia? You know the type, who must have other women’s husbands. In her short career, she was little more than a chit, living in her parents’ house down by the slaughterhouse, teaching preprimario at the Urbana Mixtano one would trust her with children older than first grade—she had already been through: Baldomero, the math teacher who gave her extra help with fractions when she was still in school; Augustín the carpenter, whose nails have bent on the third whack ever since he lay with Hilda Florencia; Prospero the postmaster, but he’s slipped his delivery into practically every pretty girl in town, so I don’t fault Hilda Florencia there, although his wife Rosa does; and, it is rumored, the priest. Catholics!

Hilda Florencia had never married, never even shacked up, as they say, and this is unusual, and most unusual of all, never had a child. Some said she was barren, and that it was her hungry suffering womb that caused all her troubles. But it’s my opinion that she used a potion, and Emiliana concurs on that. Emiliana, practiced herself in brujería, should know.

After Emiliana told me that Hilda Florencia was meeting my husband evenings in his pharmacy, I confronted Mundo, late at night in bed when the children were asleep, and asked him, I confess I was crying and possibly a little hysterical, why he would bring sin and disgrace on our family with such a one.

He told me he was driving out the seven devils from her, just as our Savior did from María Magdalena.

*           *           *

There will be those who say I took up with Felix Pérez Cruz for revenge upon my husband. Not so! Emiliana will tell you that everything that happened resulted from a curse gone wrong. Black magic is difficult to control, she will be the first to admit. But, I am getting ahead of myself. I must stick to the natural order of things, before the Flor tumbled onto my patio spilling its driver into my life.

When I saw that Mundo could not be dissuaded from his course—men are ever blockheads in these matters and can no more control their urges when lust comes down upon them than a pack of village dogs—I went to Emiliana. “You must put a curse on Hilda Florencia,” I told her. “Not for my sake. I have gotten rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, along with every other form of malice, as the apostle tells us. But that Hilda Florencia is a danger to every Christian woman in Todos Santos.”

Emiliana paused at her work—we were in her kitchen and she was patting out tortillas for the noon meal—and looked past my shoulder toward the door. The top half of the door was open to let in sunshine and clear the cooking smoke from the kitchen. I knew what she was thinking. To speak of witchcraft in plain daylight invites trouble.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “There’s no one around to hear us. I passed Don Enrique in your milpa, when I was coming down the hill.” It was the time of year the first ears of corn were getting ripe and Emiliana’s plump chuchito of a husband was sweating in his field, harvesting elotes and beans. Her younger children were all in school. As were mine, except for baby Santos. I’d left him at home with the hired girl. Emiliana’s kitchen was as quiet and secret as a cave.

She sighed. “You know I must do what you ask, comadre. Not only because we’re old friends, but to drive the evil spirit out of Hilda Florencia. However, I warn you, it will be dangerous. You have to bring me a photograph of the girl, and a piece of huipil that she’s worn, and a hair from her head. How will you do that?”

How indeed? It was not as though my donkey of a husband carried his lover’s picture about with him. “I’ll manage,” I told Emiliana.

“Remember,” I added, “our religion prohibits the taking of a life. I just want her to be unattractive to men.”

I believe in rooting out temptation at its source

*           *           *

The hair was easy to procure, from the bed in the back of the pharmacy, where it lay, long and black and blatant as a billboard across the pillow. To look for her huipil, I went to the cooperative store, where so many of the women of our town place their woven goods on consignment. I went through stacks of folded blouses, each with a name hand-written on a small paper pinned to the fabric, until I came to Hilda Florencia Pablo Matías. Aha! I unfolded the huipilmagenta and black and turquoise blue with triangles of glittering rickrack stitched around the collar. Gaudy, like the girl.

“Won’t that look pretty on your Marta, Doña Clara Luz,” Santiaga, who ran the shop, said. I saw the envidia in her sly face, that here was I, spending good money on a huipil instead of weaving it myself. These days more and more Todosanteras are buying rather than weaving. Santiaga, stuck in the old ways, disapproved, although the cooperative provided her livelihood.

“I dare say it’s been worn,” I said.

“Oh no. Brand new.”

I thought not. Surely after three months on her knees, tied by her loom to her porch post, passing the shuttle back and forth, Hilda Florencia would have worn her blouse to the fiesta before putting it up for sale. I had to hope so, for I paid a hundred quetzales for it. The thought of my money filling her purse was another burden to my broken heart. One more hurt she’d done me.

Never mind. Most of the money I got back, after I’d snipped a small piece from the huipil, sewn in a patch a tourist would hardly notice, and sold it to Tomasa to take to her husband’s shop down by the lake in Panajachel, where handicrafts go for twice the price they do up here in Todos Santos. Tomasa died soon after, leaving her poor one-legged husband to mind the store alone, but that’s another story.

The photograph caused the most trouble. After turning it over in my mind, I knew there was nothing for it but to approach one of Hilda Florencia’s former lovers, since I couldn’t very well go to the butcher and ask him for a picture of his daughter. I settled on Baldomero, the math teacher, and had to wait for school to start up again after the new year. Months had passed since Emiliana had agreed to help me, and I was seeing less and less of Mundo. I fretted and shed secret tears, but my comadre told me to bear up; the thing had to be done correctly. She cast the miches, the scarlet beans the shamans use to tell the future, and said the time wasn’t right.

In January Moisés left to study high school in Huehue, and we became a house of sad women: Marta, Nohemí, the hired girl Patricia, and only three-year-old Santos with his tiny penis. On weekends Moisés came home and Mundo returned to fill the house with God, but that only made the Mondays emptier and more bottomless. As soon as I dared, I walked into town to visit the Instituto, where Marta was in her second year of básico. There she was, my Marta, in the courtyard playing basketball with a gang of students on their break. Intent on the ball, she didn’t notice me go by, up the stairs to the second floor classrooms, where I found the math teacher, alone, gracias a Dios, in a disheveled classroom.

“Doña Clara Luz!” He looked up from the papers he was marking, surprised no doubt to see a parent so early in the term, although Marta had barely passed his course the year before.

“Profe,” I greeted him with the respect I give our teachers, whether they deserve it or not.

“You’ll be pleased,” he said quickly. “Marta passed the first test with high marks.” He began to shuffle through the papers on his desk.

“Fine,” I said. “Don’t worry yourself with finding it. I’ve come for something else.” I drove straight to the point, a tactic that will always startle people accustomed to devious pathways to their destinies. “I require a photograph of Hilda Florencia.” I stopped and allowed his mind to fill in the rest. If he guessed my purpose, all the better. Witchcraft can be abetted by awareness of it.

Confusion, shame, fear flickered across his countenance with the speed of television commercials, advertising his guilty soul. “But Doña Clara Luz!” he reiterated at last. “I don’t have a picture of her.”

“Surely you can find one, somewhere. Wasn’t she Señorita Instituto in her second year?” Voted the school beauty and brains, she went on to seduce her teacher in the final year. “Baldomero, I’ve entrusted my daughter to your classroom. If I should find out anything improper is going on, and let the director know, you wouldn’t be forgiven a second time.” The director, a practical man hard up for math teachers, had permitted Baldomero to come back once the affair was over.

Baldomero thought it over. “Perhaps I can come up with something.”

*           *           *

On a night of no moon, I left my house of sleeping women, the baby Santos in Marta’s bed, and went down the hill to a wooden shed Emiliana keeps on her property for her curing ceremonies. I took the prescribed offerings—candles, turkey eggs, a strong chili, aguardiente—as well as the items pertaining to Hilda Florencia. Emiliana built a sacred fire on the dirt floor of the shed, the same as she would have for a benign ritual. She filled a pichacha with copal and swung the censor back and forth until the rancho was full of smoke and incense, all the while chanting prayers to the Dueños de Cerros.

At midnight, I checked my watch, she said to me, “Clara Luz, you’re sure you want to go ahead with this? To drive evil from your household you call on the forces of witchcraft and accept the consequences?”

“You know perfectly well I do.”

Then she had me light four candles at the wrong end, no easy feat, and stand them next to the fire. She added some chunks of copal incense to the fire, put a turkey egg into the flames, and commenced again with her invocations. Of course, I won’t tell you the words she spoke. She kept it up until the egg exploded with a loud crack.

“Ah! That’s good,” she said. She put another turkey egg on the fire.

“Now give me the hair and huipil,” she said. From her bag she drew out a miniature figure made of pine resin. She stuck Hilda Florencia’s hair to the head and wrapped the scrap of huipil around it. The doll caused me to shiver. It had a nasty look.

The second egg exploded with a loud noise.

Emiliana placed a third egg on the fire and put the little Hilda Florencia into a tin can, the kind that beans or chilies come in, but the label was washed off. She added the photograph and the chile I’d brought along with four tiny crosses she’d made of twigs of ruda.

“That’s it,” she said. I helped her bind a cloth over the opening of the can so that nothing could come out and the third egg exploded.

She set the can on the dirt floor by the fire and put the last egg on the fire. The candles were burning low. She poured some aguardiente on the fire so that it flared up, picked up the pichacha and swung it through the smoke from the fire, all the while intoning in a deep voice like a man’s, calling on names I’d never heard, until the fourth egg exploded. The fire went out suddenly, making me jump, leaving us in total darkness.

“It’s done,” she said, lighting a bit of fatwood so we could see the fire’s ashes, the wax puddles from the candles, and the soot blackened can. She brushed some ashes from her skirt and hustled me to the door. “You won’t know where I bury the can,” she said. “That will be my secret.”

I can attest that I know everything else, every word and act of the spell. I am responsible.

*           *           *

Two weeks after the bus accident I waited until Mundo and Moisés had gone for the week, gave little Santos a hug and told my children that God’s work called me. Leaving Nohemí and Santos in the care of Marta and the hired girl, I left the house of sad women. Bible in hand I climbed the mountain road to La Ventosa and the house of orphans. There was Felix Pérez Cruz, now standing tall and willowy on his own two feet in that smoky room, with his little sisters and brothers hanging from him like boughs. The gash in his forehead had been pulled together with large stitches and his eyes were still dark pools. Looking at Felix Pérez Cruz, I wanted to drown.

“Doña Clara Luz, how can I thank you!” he greeted me. “Don Pilo gave me my job back.”

“Mi’jo, after supper we will thank God together for His small mercies.” I’d come prepared and pulled eggs and onions, tomatoes and tortillas, and a full jar of instant coffee out from my bag while Felix built up the fire. They had nothing but a pot of beans cooking and the little ones watched me chop and cook with wild faces. There were four, not five as I’d thought on that first visit, and Felix told me their names and ages as I worked. Ten, nine, seven, and four, and the father had disappeared al Norte before the youngest was born and never been heard from since. Two brothers and a sister between Felix and ten-year-old Josefina had also gone to the North, and sent money when they could. Josefina’s eyes were as deep and hungry as her brother’s and I could see they were going to need all of my love to fill her up. I would teach her to be a good mamacita for her family.

After supper the four children all burrowed into a bed in one corner of the rancho and I opened my Bible to commence study at the very beginning of the New Testament, the generations of Jesucristo. I made Felix read aloud in a soft voice while my finger pointed out the words. It was slow work. He struggled through Amminadab, Rehoboam, Jehoram, Hezekiah, and Zerubbabel, but when we got to the birth of Immanuel, he was on more familiar ground. The fire died on the hearth, and we sat close together for warmth. His eyes followed my hand like a beacon in the night. By the time Jesus came out of the wilderness, snores were coming from the patojos in their corner and the candle we were reading by was sputtering. I closed the Book.

“Clara Luz, you are my angel,” Felix said, “but I’m worried for my hermanitos. Who’ll take care of them all week while I’m driving the bus?”

“Dear boy, I’ll stay with them. My household is in good hands; God has told me to put yours in order.” Thus I orphaned my own children for those of a dead woman. Felix made as if to get up from the bed we were sitting on to read, the only other bed in the hut. I caught his hand and pulled him back. “Felix,” I chided, “you’re not going to make me sleep alone in this cold bed.”

Who but God could have given me such boldness?

Felix was an eager lover, with hands and lips as soft and hungry as his eyes. I’d never been with any man but my husband. Every week on Saturday night POM POM POM for ten minutes POM POM POM Mundo wielded his rod of the prophet POM POM POM until with a gracias a Dios he rolled off and went to sleep. God had told Mundo he must spill his seed before he could preach to the culto on Sunday. Mundo faithful servant obeyed. And I was a faithful servant to my husband.

Until these last six months, when Mundo’s rod stopped coming to me in the night, and I knew the curse I’d put on Hilda Florencia had failed. I was a woman without a husband, empty as a dry well.

Now here was Felix. “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news,” the Scriptures say. He brought me the good news in his hands and his mouth and he asked me, “Doña Clara Luz, like this?”

I praised God who’d delivered this sinning bus driver to my door and into my care and I gave him my faith and instructed, “A little lower.”

I enjoyed his bounty and he mine until the small hours before dawn, when he said, “I have to leave for work.”

“So you must,” I told him, “and fíjese, no more thieving from Don Pilo.”

I slept until morning when the little ones roused me. They’d begun to think of me already as their mother. We made fire on the hearth and in the chuj, and after breakfast I took their dirty rags and blankets and washed them, singing hymns as I worked. Josefina worked beside me at the pila rinsing and wringing, until her little hands turned white.

“Ow, Doña Clara Luz,” she wailed, “the water’s too cold.”

I took her hands between mine and slapped them until they were red and she was laughing. We spread the laundry out to dry on the branches of stunted junipers that separated the yard from the rocky mountainside. By then the chuj was ready, and I took the children inside to sweat and scrub the filth and hurt that had accumulated on their skin and in their hair and ears and all their secret places in the months they’d been neglected by their dying mother. When we were done they were bright and blooming as chilca in springtime.

Later on I bought a chicken from a neighbor and showed Josefina how to twist its neck and pluck it clean. We cooked a recaldo. I don’t know when those children had last eaten meat. I had them say their prayers and tucked them in and was about to go to bed myself, satisfied with the labors of the day, when the door opened and in walked Felix.

“Híjole! What are you doing here, mi amor?” I asked. I knew that normally, in the few hours between his evening arrival in Todos Santos and his morning departure, Felix slept on a pallet in the ayudante’s house in town.

“I’ve come for another lesson from the Bible,” he said with a hungry smile.

“And who is driving the Flor?”

“Miguel. I’m teaching him to drive. He’s very grateful, and in his gratitude promises to say nothing about dropping me here tonight on the way into Todos Santos. There are only a few passengers, and they’re all asleep.”

“You’re teaching him by letting him drive alone down the mountains?” The road was steep, narrow, twisted and rutted, the very road he’d tumbled from two weeks before.

“It’s all downhill. I told him to stay in first gear.”

*           *           *

I had only intended to spend a night or two in La Ventosa, but I ended up staying the week, scrubbing and sweeping by day and instructing Felix by night. For he came back each night and left again before each dawn to walk down into Todos Santos and resume his piloting of the Flor. In all that week Miguel did not wreck the bus and Don Pilo did not find out about the driving lessons, which only proves that God was watching over the situation. By the end of the week we had finished twenty-eight chapters of Matthew and seen our Lord resurrected. Friday morning I said goodbye to the little ones and left Josefina making tortillas. I walked down the mountain road and arrived at my house well before noon. To my astonishment, Mundo was waiting for me by the kitchen stove, where Patricia was preparing the midday meal. On his knee he dandled beaming Santos. I could only stare at the spectacle, startled out of speech, thinking I was witnessing an avenging angel in the form of my husband, come to draw his flaming sword.

“Look, my little king,” Mundo said in his mortal voice, so I knew he was not a heavenly visitation. He mussed the baby’s hair while he spoke with a solid mortal hand. “Here’s your mother! A wife of noble character is worth far more than rubies, my son. Where has she been?”

What devilment was this? Mundo was quoting Proverbs and tickling Santos until he squealed with giggles. A sight that six months ago would have brought me peace of heart, and now confused my senses with suspicions of more witchcraft.

“And didn’t Patricia tell you where I’ve been?” I asked. The hired girl didn’t have the brains or backbone of a rabbit. “Tending the orphans of Felix Pérez Cruz, of course. What brings you to this house, Mundo? Why aren’t you at the pharmacy?”

“La Marta came to me yesterday with news that you had vanished. Oh, amor! I thought you were dead, or stolen by the Llorona. I came home last night to wring my hands and weep. I am nothing without you at my side. What a lot of anxiety you’ve caused, mi pródiga!”

“Is that so?” I was not to be sermonized by this man who had given me every Biblical reason for leaving his bed. “I will remind you of Paul’s epistle to Timothy: he who sets his heart on the work of pastor must be the husband of but one wife. Perhaps you’ll not condemn my ministry to suffering children and wayward bus drivers.”

Mundo plopped Santos down onto the floor and spread out his hands in that familiar Sunday gesture of his that I know so well, that gathers his flock into his heart. “Ay, Clara Luz,” he said. “I am not a good man. I am unworthy to offer you any sacrifice, yet I beseech you to accept my bounden duty. Redeem me!”

Santos ran toward me with arms outstretched, in unconscious imitation of his father. I scooped up the little clown and with tears stinging my eyes I forgave the bigger one, yet again. I’d set my covenant with Mundo like a rainbow on the clouds long ago. “God have mercy on us all,” I said.

Outside I heard the hoot of the omened owl in daylight.

*           *           *

The redemption of Mundo cleared the sadness from our house like the canícula that brings the fresh-washed sun in the midst of the rainy season, and it kept me busy. I rose early to walk with my husband into town.  I tended to the customers at the pharmacy by his side. We returned home each evening in the back of Don Enrique’s pickup truck. The prophet’s rod made frequent visits in the night.

Calamity made its next appearance without mercy or remorse. Once loosened on the world, a curse can’t be called back, and will find some way, any way, to do its work. Sure enough, Emiliana hurried up the path to my house bearing the news and shut the kitchen door behind her, as if she could keep out the blasted owl. “Clara Luz,” she said, “the whole town is whispering. Prepare yourself. Hilda Florencia is pregnant.”

I let the tortilla in my hand drop into the fire. “Sálvame Dios! Is the child Mundo’s?”

“Claro. She hasn’t been with anyone else, and she’s well along.” Seeing my stricken face she added, “He hasn’t seen her this last month, of that at least I’m sure.”

“Poor solace,” I said, and felt the bitterness rise. “She’ll do her best to get him back. And I’ve given him Biblical grounds for divorce.” I told her about Felix Pérez Cruz.

“You think Mundo knows?” she asked.

“I think it’s what brought him back to me,” I said.

“Qué justicia. What an endless trial life is! What will you do?”

I had made up my mind. “Hilda Florencia needs a husband,” I said, “but not mine.”

The very next Sunday, leaving Mundo safe in the bosom of the culto, I took my Bible in hand and climbed to La Ventosa. I hadn’t seen Felix Pérez Cruz in a month, but the memory of his eager kisses and soft hands was strong upon me.  I trembled, not knowing what I’d find, anger or tears. The sadness I had banished from my own house might have found its way up the mountain to the windy spot I had adopted only to abandon. Filled with misgivings I wound up the trail to the door and discovered the house swept and Josefina tending the hearth. “Mi’ja!” I greeted her with a kiss.

“Doña Clara Luz!” Felix jumped up from his chair by the fire. His face paled like the night I met him. His eyes blackened into liquid. I felt their pull and my loss. I held my Bible tight.

“Have you remembered what I taught you?” I asked him.

“I need more lessons.” There was urgency in the air between us. Desire and betrayal urging themselves upon us.

“Take the Bible, then.” I gave him the heavy book.  “Let it fall open, and read me the first verse your eye falls upon,” I told him.

Josefina and the little ones looked on. Felix stood a moment by the table, where bits of onion and tomato that Josefina had been chopping lay scattered. Maybe he was pondering whether to open the book or throw it into the fire. But he let it drop open. “Any verse?” he asked.

“The one that draws you to it.”

He looked down, paused, and read aloud slowly. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” He stopped, and looked back at me, searching.

“God has spoken. He couldn’t be clearer. Your father and mother have left you. It’s time you marry. Past time, if you want to know the truth!”

“Who do you want me to marry?” As if he knew my purpose. As if he would live or die for me.

“I know just the girl. She’s pretty, and she’ll come to you already blessed. You’ll raise her child as your own, and have others, no doubt. I’ll be the godmother and make sure you’re well provided for.”

Thus it came to pass, as God had intended of course. I can’t blame myself; I’m only a pawn in the immortal plan, with no more power over events than I have over the rising and setting of the sun. Furthermore, if I had any regrets over giving Felix Pérez Cruz to Hilda Florencia, it would be a sin.

 

 

 

Deborah Clearman’s short fiction has appeared in numerous journals including the Adirondack Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Connecticut Review, and storySouth, and has been selected as a Glimmer Train award finalist. Her novel Todos Santos is available from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in New York City and Guatemala. For more information, visit www.deborahclearman.com