Lady of the House

Milk is frothily hitting the bottom of the bowl with a loud ting. Conchita has poured the still warm liquid from a wooden pail into the old tin bowl that wears thin. This bowl is battered from use and rough storage in the small cowshed, where she has now found some privacy. It is the only metal vessel surviving in the hacienda, apart from the large blackened pan in the kitchen.

 

After a while the circles on the surface of the milk smooth out and it becomes calm, delicate in its creamy stillness. Conchita feels ridiculous and has to fight a sudden urge to drink as much as her stomach might hold and throw away the rest. In the late afternoon sun thrusting its burning rays through the open door, her tanned face is visible as a vague reddened hue reflected in the milk’s white. Conchita has not seen a proper mirror for some years now. During the previous wet season the thin silver foil on the looking glass shard that she had preserved for so long had become grainy and flaked off the piece of glass. Hot damp air disagreed with it. Now she can only gaze at the reflection of her face in a pail filled to the brim with water from a well, or in the calm ponds that proliferate across the fields and meadows in the wake of the long weeks of rain during the wet season.

 

The ponds remind her of dew droplets on a deep green blade of grass. In her long gone careless childhood, she loved running with the gauchos’ wily sons. They taught her to pick grass blades in their prime that had sharp, well-defined edges. Not too soft or stiff with age, and on this account prone to break into tatters when blown too hard. When firmly placed between the thumbs put together, the blade metamorphoses into the membrane of a powerful makeshift whistle. The screeching sound carries far, startling animals fearful of an invisible bird of prey about to pounce.

The population loss in Paraguay after the war of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870)
The population loss in Paraguay after the war of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870)

In the evening mom poured an almost full bowl of milk for soaking hands each day of the week before Conchita’s wedding. Smiling at her daughter she confided that this small secret of keeping the skin beautifully supple had passed for generations in their family, from mothers to daughters. Conchita was grateful to mom, though she had never learned how to talk to her, and kept evading her soft embraces. She preferred horse-riding and standing at her father’s side when he told the gauchos what to do at the daybreak and then listened to their reports before nightfall. When cattle was moved between pastures, father and Conchita rode for hours without speaking a word. They intuitively knew what the other thought, what had to be done. She adored her father and always took note of that tiny upward move of his chin, when it was time to stop for a meal before the worst sunshine hit at noon.

 

She began to hate him after the month when he had been away, taking the cattle to the market in Concepción. Father returned with the gift of a pink lacy dress, ‘fit for a young lady,’ as he said. Conchita obliged and put it on. No, it wasn’t her in the mirror. Mom was delighted and began clapping the hands in this silly gesture of hers. Father came up to mom and kissed her curtly on the cheek. She would have liked to throw her hands around his neck, but knew better from the over two decades of her marital experience with father, and desisted.

 

It was then, after the dinner of grilled beef served on the porcelain plates from Europe, that father delivered the news. ‘Conchita, you’ve grown up. Adulthood is about responsibility. Before the winter is over, you will marry our neighbors’ son, José,’ he said. Conchita instinctive blurted out in reply, ‘No, I won’t marry anyone, let alone this dimwit.’ Just in time, mom grabbed father’s hand fast with which he had hastened to grab a horsewhip. Anger forced perspiration to his forehead. Father’s face darkened. But he kept his voice calm and level, just repeating, ‘You shall marry him.’ The gauchos shunned her, as ordered, and father’s manservant followed Conchita wherever she ventured outdoors. Faithful Antonio kept telling Conchita to stop in Guarani when she approached the household’s precinct. He didn’t let her saddle any horses. Ladies were not supposed to ride. Conchita was a lady now. A lady awaiting her wedding.

 

As planned and expected, Conchita married José in María Auxiliadora Church in Concepción. It is parents who choose spouses for their children. Who else? It is tradition. Conchita liked recollecting the moment when at the altar José lifted the veil to kiss her on the mouth for the first time. It was a strange sensation. Conchita shuddered, to her own surprise, with pleasure. Scrubbed and groomed José didn’t look like a dimwit. But he wasn’t good at horse-riding. Conchita would win any race against him. But then. Then it already didn’t matter.

 

Both shy and unsure what to do, they spent a delicate wedding night filled with tenderness. Conchita slowly opened to her husband and guided him into herself, as mom had blushingly advised her to.

 

It seemed so long ago. Before the following Sunday José, father and Conchita’s two elder brothers, Natalicio and Emiliano left for war together with other ‘able bodied men.’ It was the first time Conchita heard this dry legal phrase. How mutable and curiously adaptable this tenet of law books was. After a year and a half, her only younger brother, Adolfo, joined the ranks with his already drafted father and brothers. Conchita couldn’t understand how it was that Adolfo was ‘able-bodied.’ He was sickly and not yet fourteen. Adolfo tired fast in the saddle and could hardly shoot, let alone with any precision. Perhaps, it wasn’t of any significance, as at that time almost no munition was left for the few rifles remaining at the army’s disposal. Mom tearfully waved Adolfo goodbye, and Conchita could see from his contorted face that her little brother did his best not to burst out crying. On his saddle, Adolfo had a rifle securely fastened. Before he had left for war, faithful Antonio had carved the rifle from a log. Conchita had painted it as best as she could by patiently staining the wood with the juice of dark berries. The rifle had soaked in the sweet dish of crushed berries for two days before it had gained the required dark sheen and was ready for use. The rifle emitted a homely smell of a fruit pie.

 

After the victories in Brazil, father came home for a single night. Exhausted but happy. Mom was crying all night and kept him tight in her arms. It didn’t work. In the morning father tore himself out from the feminine clutches. Embarrassed by mom’s wailing, he left without glancing back, without saying a word, without waving a hand. Mom yelled at his back in distance, ‘What about Conchita? When is José coming back?’ Father just rode south – the Argentinians had to be kept at bay.

 

We never saw him again. The news came that Emiliano had fallen in the battle of Corrientes. Natalicio’s festering wounds sustained in the battle of Riachuelo cost him his young life. Afterward no news followed. No one was sure what was going on, where the enemy was, where our army stood. Was there any army left? Faithful Antonio managed to return to the hacienda after the war. Before he died, emaciated and feverish, he let them know in a faint, almost inaudible, whisper that father had drowned in the white marshes of Tuyutí in the chaos of retreat after the battle.

 

Soon the capital fell. No one knew what happened of Adolfo. It was no use to ask. Decimated troops, hiding in forests and faraway plains, kept attacking the enemy who occupied the country. The soldiers-turned-guerillas starved and succumbed to diseases. The eyes of survivors who happened to steal unseen to the hacienda in the dead of the night were permanently frightened. They ate without talking and slept clutching their knives, the handles shiny from use, and the blades nicked and worn thin. Worn out by cutting wood, enemies and, only rarely, some food. It was their only remaining weapon. The knife with which before the war Conchita and mom would cut steak during dinner. Later, even thinner, half-naked boy-soldiers with sunken eyes followed. They were deliriously holding onto ‘spears,’ or long sticks of hardwood with the top ends roughly sharpened and hardened in camp fires.

 

Mom retreated to her marital chamber and refused to leave. She hardly touched increasingly simple meals of peppers and potatoes with no meat, leaving them mostly uneaten. She became like a delirious boy-soldier with a spear, who mumbled about patria, duty, and called himself and others like him ‘patriots.’ Mom was fading away. She refused to live. Father and her sons were the apple of her eye. Conchita was only a girl. Many patriotic ladies who earlier would have never dreamed of riding with their legs astride joined the patriots. All the killing appeared silly to Conchita. She might have ‘enlisted’ (not that any lists were kept on which the names of the soldiers would be inscribed), like others, but for the fact that at the hacienda Conchita was the only remaining ‘able-bodied’ woman with some knowledge of farming. She also felt responsible for mom, who had stopped talking to her. Mom didn’t care to acknowledge Conchita’s presence, and in a murmur incessantly prayed or monologed with the shadows of ‘her men.’

 

One late morning, when Conchita brought mom a breakfast of milk and a piece of stale corn bread warmed in fire, the first thing she noticed after opening the door was that mom’s hair had gone completely grey overnight. She was dead. It was after the President’s last stance at Cerro Corá. Like mom who refused to live, the President, surrounded by his most faithful female and male soldiers, refused to surrender. ‘I die with my nation!,’ he yelled, and met death lanced in the abdomen and shot in the back. The enemy soldiers seized the First Lady who had fought by the President’s side leading the detachment of the staunchest patriots’ daughters. All became prisoners of war. Ladies more so than men because, raped repeatedly, they quickly graduated to being women and soon afterward guards called them nothing else but ‘sluts.’ Most would have let any guard do what he might will because they had to live. They had younger siblings and old mothers to take care of. The duty for women was to go back home and wait for a husband, father, or brother who might survive.

 

Had it not been for mom, Conchita would have joined and become a patriot instead of digging a hole with her own hands in which they buried mom swaddled in soiled bed linens. It didn’t matter. War was like a snake. It entered the path when no one was watching. War coiled under an innocent-looking stone and hid behind the bedroom door. War continued after its end, a snake swallowing its tail. Another usual night. But for the fire, which broke out in the barn, in the stable, in the chicken house, in the pig sty, in the cowshed, in the household servants’ quarters… At once in so many places. Marauders from the victorious armies were busy occupying the country. They occupied themselves with looting and raping. Neither faithful Antonio’s old wife Maria, nor their daughter Paula who hadn’t even had her first period yet, nor Conchita, was spared. The soldiers demanded food and wine. They kept all the hacienda’s three women in the most spacious room with the wide comfortable bed, which happened to be mom’s marital chamber. So many of them came in and went out. The soldiers had their way with the three women laid on the bed side by side. The women had no strength left to cry. They endured. Indifferent to the soldiers’ panting and moaning. Those waiting for their turn and those who had finished drunkenly horsed around the house breaking what was left to be broken, and spoiling any food they didn’t care to eat. The hens, dogs, and goats maddened by the fires were running a riot within the yard. The soldiers enjoyed themselves by taking shots at the animals. ‘Target practice,’ they called it.

 

Conchita didn’t think of José. What was there to think about? He vanished, like Adolfo, never to come back. His unburied cadaver torn apart by vultures and hyenas, while his unlamented soul was condemned to wander aimlessly, forever barred from the peace of hereafter.

 

She has sighed without noticing. The images of the past have blurred in front of her eyes and disappeared. Conchita is soaking her work-hardened palms in the milk in the tin bowl. She likes the silken feel of the warm liquid and the soothing sunlight of the late afternoon. ‘Yes, mom, I remember,’ she whispered to herself, ‘I shouldn’t squint in the sun. It will leave my face with whitish wrinkles. So what? No one will marry a fallen soldier’s widow. I’m not looking for a husband. Anyway no men are left to be husbands. Neither widows, nor unmarried girls expect one.’ The occupiers left the country adding only some children, mostly by way of rape. They took grain, cattle, furniture, carts, horses, saddles, harnesses, riding boots, threadbare coats, cutlery, dining sets, books, river ferries, wagons, and the gold from the treasury. ‘For reparations, said they.’

 

Conchita, Maria and Paula worked what was remaining of the devastated hacienda. They kept animals in roofless pens, though Conchita managed to put together a misshapen box for chickens to stay in at night. Each month the occupation administration never failed to send soldiers for provisions, and during harvest for contingents in lieu of tax. No one sold or bought at the markets. Money ceased changing hands, and disappeared. At least marauders stopped plundering and raping, and enough was left for the three women to live on. War stopped and its ravages had to be paid up by the victims. The patriots were dead, so they were of no help. They could be remembered and revered, or most often, cursed at. Cursed be fathers who left their families, cursed be husbands who didn’t sire children, cursed be sons and daughters who didn’t take care of their parents in old age.

 

‘Damn it!,’ Conchita shouts to herself. Night has fallen without a warning. The stars are blinking across the black moonless sky. She has been dreaming for too long. Work waits to be done. Conchita pours the milk back to the pail and is rinsing the bowl with clean water from another pail. Carefully measuring her steps in darkness, she is walking without seeing to the pig pen. She listens to the six pigs sleeping. They sound somewhat like people, wheezing, panting, and snoring. The pigs’ sleeping noises change – they have smelt her and woken up a bit. They are not startled, it’s only Conchita; she keeps coming at strange hours. The grunting pigs approach the wooden trough into which she has poured the soaking milk. They vigorously slurp it up in no time. She is caressing their heads. It is now so rare to be able to touch anyone, but yourself. Animals must suffice, their feathers, fur, bristles, and their supple bodies. When one of them has fattened enough, then we wring a chicken’s head or quickly cut the artery in the pig’s neck, all three of us taking care to keep it still.

 

*   *   *

 

Father Francisco has been walking for more than a week, the donkey at his side patiently carrying their meager provisions. His animal companion eats grass and is satiated. The weather is warm, but the donkey senses that father Francisco suffers hunger. Strangely, humans do not want or cannot subsist on grass or bush leaves. Father Francisco likes looking into the donkey’s large honey-colored eyes and strokes its head. In these intimate moments the content donkey brays quietly. Father Francisco smiles. It is almost like talking to another person. Even better, donkeys don’t lie or scheme. Traveling so long without coming across a house compelled him to say a Sunday mass in the wilderness. The donkey pricked its ears and listened to the Latin words attentively. Father Francisco never ceases to surprise him, all the time so quiet, and then out of sudden garrulous. He speaks and speaks to no one in particular. The melody of his voice is sweet and unthreatening. The donkey, patient with its human minder’s foibles, brushes the head against Father Francisco’s back. The man cannot bring himself to call the donkey ‘his.’ ‘Nothing is ours in this world,’ thinks he, and adds in this bit of Latin that he still recollects, ‘Vanitas vanitatis, omnia est vanitas.’

 

These words feel strange in this uninhabited plain, where Father Francisco would greet whoever might cross his path in Guarani. His Latin isn’t anything better than the donkey’s braying. At least all understand braying, but who understands Latin. ‘Do I?’ Just as the war emptied the country of people, it also denuded churches and monasteries, turning them into charred ruins or desecrated empty shells. Christians were killing Christians, Cain’s crime repeated time and time again, equally by men, women, priests, monks, nuns and children. No difference. Satan blinded them all. The call to arms, to kill and to be killed, trumped in this country any other vice, be it adultery, gluttony, theft, or sloth. By slaying another person you can enter deeper into their body, through a larger number of orifices, including those which you cut open with your own sabre, wherever you like. At once you satisfy all your senses, lust, hunger, thirst, and carry out all the sacraments in a single act of baptizing and confirming the holy matrimony of death with life in which you partake and anoint the slain with your own spilled blood.

 

‘No, not that madness again,’ cries out Father Francisco, startling the donkey. ‘I need to take hold of myself. Thinking makes me no good.’ He speeds up the pace of his walking. Now he must be careful, not to trip or fall into a chasm on the faint track overgrown by lush vegetation during the long postwar years when hardly anyone has crossed it. No time for idle thoughts that the devil or clouded reason dictates. The donkey falls happily into the quickened step. Father Francisco pats his companion on the hard, bristly back, and doesn’t need to resort to prayers, his mind emptied of thought, fully merged with the now of the slowly changing surroundings.

 

A small fast-running stream crosses the path. Father Francisco falls on his knees and is drinking his fill. The donkey’s head next to his cheek. Both are drinking. Trees and bushes line the stream’s low banks. The traveler and his companion have selected a grassless spot screened with the dense foliage from the suffocating noon sunshine. The donkey lies down on its side and pulls the legs under its lean belly. Father Francisco rests his head at the faithful animal’s back. The loud sound of snoring is spreading around. The metallic din of cicadas buzzing without a pause lulls them quickly into deep sleep.

 

A shadow has passed in front of Father Francisco’s shut eyes. He dismisses it as part of a dream. Then another, and yet another descends. The nightmare would not leave him alone. With a rustling sound the shadows are circling around the traveler and the donkey. Father Francisco is stretching his arms and yawns loudly. ‘It’s the end of the rest. Time to get up,’ he thinks. At this moment one of the shadows has pecked at his knee. The shooting pain has woken him up in no time. And both the donkey and Father Francis are startled in this motionless dusty afternoon by vultures. Only these birds haven’t starved, their feathers shiny, their eyes alert and bodies full. The vultures have moved a safe distance away from the two foreigners intruding on the birds’ own turf.

 

A while later, Father Francisco has noted that the vultures are impatiently eating nearby from a mummified corpse stuck in a narrow chasm. They have picked the legs clean, but the birds’ necks are too short to let them reach the upper body stuck deep in the tight hole. With a stick, Father Francisco shoos them away. The vultures hiss back at him threateningly, but cautiously move away. For sure, the two foreigners will leave soon. It is the vultures’ country and they don’t want any humans and their animal helpers here. Yet there are more than enough cadavers for each scavenger.

 

Father Francisco has pushed the dead person deeper into the chasm and filled it up with small rocks and dirt. It has taken a long time. The donkey, busy eating shrub leaves, looks on. After the work, Father Francisco washes his hands in the stream. He calls it a day and, after unharnessing the donkey, takes out from the bag the bedding roll and his most treasured possessions – the small iron bowl and the short knife with the blade’s tip broken. From time to time, waving the stick, he runs up to the vultures that try to approach their old feeding ground. It takes a while before they fly away, realizing that there is no food left for them. Humans are such misers. They won’t eat their dead and won’t let you either. But they see no problem with hunting down and slaying one another. What twisted creatures they are. A curse on them!

 

Father Francisco prays over the makeshift grave with the cadaver inside. The donkey at his side, its strong hot breath straight into the nape of the kneeling man. Father Francisco has tried to fashion a cross from sticks, but has no twine to bind them together. He just puts one stick on top of the other and small stones at their ends. He knows it is in vain, that after a couple of days the wind and vultures will unmake this sign of the holy faith. But he has tried and has given a Christian burial to the nameless dead. God sees everything. The Lord knows all. May the deceased person’s soul rest in peace. Amen.

 

It has been a never-ending chore. ‘No, a duty, a Christian duty,’ Father Francisco scolds himself for this inappropriate choice of words. After the war gave in to occupation, and a poor resemblance of peace took hold, Father Francisco and the donkey left the marshes and desolate forested plains where they had hidden and lived on roots, berries, and some fish. Far away from the people who had turned into carnivores. Both emaciated and tired, a glimmer of hope rejuvenated their strength. Explosions, fires, moans of the wounded, dying people’s and horses’ shrieks of horror were no more. They dared to head back home. To Belén, where before the war Father Francisco had led a small flock of the faithful. Now he knew he hadn’t led them well enough. The sheep went astray and lost their way. The town was empty. No one to be seen. The church stood solid as it had before, but for its blackened roof that had caved in after a fire. The bell tower kept mum, its bell gone, the supporting beams had been torn out from the mortar with big chunks of the wall.

 

Nothing doing. Father Francisco and the donkey traipsed north, to Concepción. Maybe someone was left alive there and the dean had already returned to his church – the Church of María Auxiliadora, Mary Help of Christians. It was difficult to keep the vow of obedience to the Church. Why not to go back on it? Why not to settle where the grass is thick and sweet, the forests abound in fruit, and the streams are full of fish? Why to starve? For what? For whom? For what a purpose? The donkey gently bumped the motionless Father Francisco, relieving him from the incessant thoughts that kept torturing him. ‘Yes, you are with me,’ he said, stroking the donkey’s head between its ears where it liked it best. ‘We must go.’

 

They trudged for many days and nights. The way was long. They met no one but unburied corpses, half-rotten. Decomposition made horrific wounds appear a natural part of the dead body. The gash became a new aorta and the gaping slash another limb. It was the language in which the deceased now talked to Father Francisco. A complete Latin dictionary of all the ways in which violent death may meet you. On the contrary, no need to imprison Guarani words in ink on paper. No need to gather them in a glossary. Guarani stays where it belongs – with life, like a bird always on the run, between the speaker’s lips and the listener’s ear. In the easy flow of conversations, far away from the towns built of stone, and from adobe farmsteads. When people are gone the sound of Guarani is nowhere to be heard. No vampire scribblings of it are preserved on sheets of paper to haunt the living.

 

Father Francisco, with the donkey at his side, buried the dead people they encountered en route. This Christian duty weakened and slowed them down on their way to Concepción. The town stood solidly on the plain as it had always done. But it was desolate, so few people in sight. ‘Less empty than Belén,’ thought Father Francisco. Some skeletal-like figures wandered aimlessly in the streets lined with the half-ruined houses. In the houses where the roofs and entrance doors were preserved, one was sure to meet well-fed foreign administrators busy occupying the country. As always, the dean was curt and direct, ‘What do you want of me,’ spoke to Father Francisco. ‘You are my superior, I’ve come for guidance,’ he replied. The dean sighed, and explained, ‘Everything is destroyed. No food. No faith left in the people, and for a good reason. Each one fends for themselves. No superiors left either. Just go.’ The dean blessed Father Francesco with a hurried sign of cross for the road, almost like shooing away a stray chicken. The dean turned back and was about to close the rectory’s freshly patched-up door. But he shook his head and, with no further words wasted, handed father Francisco a chunk of bread and a thick piece of jamón wrapped in a fat-stained rag. ‘It should keep his body and soul together for a day or two,’ thought the dean. ‘A good deed, however small, is better than none.’

 

Father Francisco obliged. Together with the donkey he wandered off. His only duty now to stay alive and keep burying the dead. It was not easy to erase the stain of death, the scar of war from the country’s face, contorted with pain and hunger.

 

After a good night’s sleep the stream’s murmur has woken him up. The rising sun has dispersed the last dark traces of the dream of Father Francesco’s travails. With a worn out piece of flint he is patiently striking a fire, catching the sparks onto a piece of amadou. Slowly and delicately he blows at the tiny fire. Soon a fire is ready. The bowl filled up with water from the brook is boiling. Father Francisco has taken some herbs out from the travel bag to make an infusion. He has longed for yerba mate, a veritable luxury in this difficult time, which he used to think an essential in the past. He smiles at this thought – in reality people need so little to live on, much less than they think it takes. After perfunctory ablutions in the stream and saying the morning prayer, Father Francisco sips the infusion and slowly chews the hardened pieces of corn bread with the last tiny scrap of dried beef. The donkey is already on its legs eating grass. The sun high in the sky is burning away the damp cold of daybreak.

 

Thank be to God for another day of life.

 

There has been some movement, as though the vultures have flown back, but no, Father has caught a glimpse of a human being. The person has taken a fright at Father Francisco. Unnecessarily. The itinerary priest is calling out to her – yes, it has appeared to be a woman – in Guarani. He wishes her a good day. The woman has reconsidered and is cautiously approaching the campsite and the fresh grave. She has looked at Father Francisco from head to toe and sees that he won’t bring any evil. ‘He looks older than he is, but a good bath and some nutritious food will turn him into a man in his prime,’ she thinks. ‘My name is Maria,’ the woman waves at Father Francisco to follow her, ‘the house of the hacienda is nearby.’ He bows courteously and introduces himself, this time in Castilian, ‘I am Father Francisco. Thank you for your kindness.’ Old Maria replies in Guarani, ‘These times we don’t get many visitors. We have lost the ease of talking in the lords’ language. Forgive me, Father.’

 

The donkey and Father Francisco follow Maria and after a while the big house of the hacienda begins to appear from behind the tall and straight trees that line the perimeter. ‘Please, stay here,’ she has shown them to the half-rebuilt barn, the charcoaled traces of a blaze still unhealed. ‘You can rest on the hay and have a bath in the large cattle trough behind the barn. Last night I filled it up with water. In this hot sun, it’ll get warm soon.’ I’ll be back in the evening, when dinner is ready. I need to announce you to Lady of the House. She needs some time to get ready. Please, excuse us.’ Father Francisco is just nodding and smiling at Maria, ‘We’ll wait. We are in no hurry.’ It is almost the time for siesta.

 

*    *    *

 

Old Maria rushes home, despite her age and a gout pain in her left foot. So much has been happening today. The grave, this priest, and his donkey. Conchita notices Maria walking fast and feels a pang of apprehension, but for the beaming smile at the old woman’s face. ‘What’s that? Tell me quickly, Maria,’ Conchita shouts impatiently when the old woman comes within earshot. ‘We have a visitor, Lady.’

‘Brazilian Soldiers? Again?’

‘No, no. Not them.’

‘Who then?’

‘I don’t know, but he’s a good man.’

‘As if men could be good. You’re mad.’

‘No Lady, it’s a priest.’

‘They’re the worst.’

‘But he is with his donkey.’

‘“Donkey,” you say. Does it make any difference?’

‘He has no weapons, and is all dusty from many days of travel.’

‘You say. You’d better keep an eye on him. This priest of yours.’

‘I will, Lady.’

‘Where’s Paula?’

‘With the pigs.’

‘Make sure she has a good scrub. And you, as well.’

‘Yes, I will, Lady.’

‘Do we have enough to eat for four?’

‘I think so, Lady, and will start cooking soon.’

‘Good. I am off to the long pasture, but will be back soon.’

‘Yes, Lady.’

 

Conchita jumps onto her favorite jet black steed and rides away. Meanwhile, Father Francisco rolls over to the other side on the hay woken up by the quick clatter of the horse’s hooves. ‘Bathing can wait. Now I can sleep my fill under a roof. What a luxury,’ he thinks. The donkey is walking in circles in the barn’s gateway searching for the best place to lie down. Both are soon fast asleep. The curious chickens come inside to steal a peek at the two strangers reeking of the wild. The smell of fear and death sticks to them in contrast to their calm snoring. Ducks are quacking and cross the gateway making their way through the barn to the trough. They are not afraid. This quacking annoys the donkey, but it doesn’t move.

 

It has been the shortest day ever. All work is rushed to make time for a proper dinner. The first time in years. Luckily, following the depredations of war and occupation, four plates from a single dining set have been preserved, though cutlery is another thing, each piece differing in size and ornaments from one another. Food is what matters. A whole chicken for the four of them. Polenta with gravy and grilled tomatoes on the side. A ferreted-away bottle of prewar wine to wash down the feast, and freshly picked and sliced mango for desert. Like in Spain. Like it was before the war.

 

Conchita wears such a fine dress that Maria feels uncomfortable sharing the same table. The dining hall is the place for masters and their ladies, not for her, an old servant woman. But she is glad for Paula that she might go up in her own life, unlike her widowed mother. Father Francisco says a brief Latin prayer before the meal, and they eat. They savor each bit as if they have never seen this kind of food before. The red ball of the sun descends behind the horizon and soon night will fall. The sudden darkness is hardly dispersed by the single half-burnt candle inexpertly fitted into the misshapen wooden candlestick. They are gathered at this end of the long table, which is closest to the kitchen, so that Maria and Paula do not need to labor with the dishes. Each is piping hot, cooked to perfection.

 

No one speaks. The art of small talk has long disappeared, because a wrong word could mean life or death during the war, and the occupying forces haven’t been that different, always quick to shoot and slash the unfortunate with sabers. The four diners sip red wine. Paula has never tasted alcohol in her life. Her gleaming eyes become wide and dreamy. She dons one of Conchita’s girlish outfits. A bit worn out in the armpits with small holes eaten out by cloth moths. But in the twilight no one sees these imperfections. Her little Paula is like Lady Conchita. ‘Maybe she will become a lady, too,’ Maria sighs. It is time to go to bed. Such a memorable first true dinner after the war cannot be concluded without a word. It would be a shame. ‘Father, it is a pleasure to have you over for dinner,’ begins Conchita.

‘Likewise, my Lady,’ Father Francisco returns the pleasantry.

‘Please, excuse us our rough language, but we’ve had no opportunity to speak Castilian much since the war.’

‘Guarani is as pleasant. It is this land’s tongue.’

‘But no deeds are done in it.’

‘Who now needs any deeds?, my Lady.’

‘But times are changing.’

‘Maybe they are, or they aren’t. God only knows.’

‘They must, it can’t stay like that forever.’

‘Perhaps. You are young, and may live to see better times.’

‘Er, you’re not old, either.’

‘Thank you my daughter. I don’t know. I’ve had to travel for too long. My parish is gone. No one lives in Belén now.’

‘They’ll return.’

‘Maybe, they will. Too late for me.’

‘Yes, it’s late,’ Conchita has decided to cut short the unpromising conversation. ‘Tomorrow is a day, too. Time to rest.’

‘Thank you, my Lady,’ Father Francisco stands up and bows elegantly to all the three women at the table. ‘Good night.’

 

‘Father, let me show the way,’ Conchita takes the candlestick with the flickering flame and leads him to the entrance door. ‘Over there, at the yard’s other end, it’s the barn,’ Conchita says out loud. She always talked too loud for her mother’s liking, and in too manly a voice. A voice fit for giving orders and demanding respect. Father Francisco starts off in the direction she has shown him, carefully navigating the pitch black moonless darkness. Conchita sees how unsure of his step he is, and without a word takes his hand in hers. It’s like a bolt of light that unexpectedly shoots across his entire body, waking up Father Francesco’s dormant senses. ‘But…,’ he tries to say something. But Conchita quickly puts her supple palm over his lips. It faintly smells of milk under the stronger whiff of a European perfume. The donkey is surprised that Father Francesco has not come back alone. Its human companion never ceases to surprise him. Conchita and Father Francesco made hardly any sound and kept their quickened breathing quiet. She left before daybreak.

 

Paula brings Father Francesco breakfast and the midday meal to the barn. The donkey eats grass and drinks with cattle from the trough while he busies himself with prayers and some small tasks: chopping wood, repairing harnesses, carrying hay from the barn to the cowshed or collecting chicken eggs. But mostly Father Francesco sleeps, waiting for dinner. He has become more of a talker now. The women’s eyes are brighter each night. So many stories to tell, so much sadness to dispel. They even laugh. Day in, day out, the new ritual has caught on. In the evening one of the ladies keeps his hand, showing Father Francesco the way to the barn, the way that by now he has got to know so well. He is more tired in the morning than in the evening before. The siesta of Father Francesco takes even half a day now. He has no time for the donkey that fends for itself. The farmstead is big, it takes time for the donkey to poke its snout into each nook and cranny.

 

More than a month has passed like that, like never in Father Francesco’s life. He’s felt though that it couldn’t last. During dinner, more silent than recently, he has announced, ‘My dear ladies, I need to leave.’

‘Where would you,’ giggled Paula cheekily. Maria gave her a reprimanding glare, so that she started behaving.

‘If you must Father,’ adds Conchita, ‘then farewell.’

‘Thank you for your hospitality. I will always cherish my memory of it.’

‘Glad to hear you will,’ Conchita is looking straight into his eyes, but Father Francesco doesn’t know what to say. ‘Well, Maria will fix you some food for the road.’

‘I shall, Lady,’ confirms Maria, nodding with sudden sadness.

 

Off he goes in the morning, with only Paula free of chores to say goodbye. Father Francesco embraces her and kisses her long on the mouth, as if he were drinking the last mouthful of water in his life. Drinking so much that it might last him for the rest of what remains of his life. Now he wanders from one hacienda to another, saying masses in Latin and prayers in Castilian and Guarani, and administering sacraments. Father Francesco listens to confessions, gives communion, baptizes children, and anoints the dying. The only sacrament no one wants is that of marriage. People keep to themselves, to what they have salvaged from the times before the war. They don’t trust one another. They continue with their lives on their own. Each in their own fashion. Who can blame them?

 

After a year, his travels have brought Father Francesco and the donkey to Concepción. Without giving much thought to it, he is going to the Church of María Auxiliadora. The service has just begun. The donkey waits outside, while Father Francesco joins the faithful in their prayers. It is the dean who is saying mass. The parishioners are well dressed. European fashion has made a comeback. Babies swaddled tight in their moms’ arms are wailing. The dean is pouring holy water on their heads and repeats ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ The gathered are singing. Father Francesco joins in and sees Conchita, Maria, and Paula standing close to the altar. Maria is beaming. In front of her Paula is cradling a baby in her arms. They keep a respectful distance from Lady Conchita. The long sides of the black mantilla flowing from her head fall around her little swaddled bundle, like a canopy.

 

After making rounds with the holy water poured from the pewter beaker, the dean hurries back to the altar, crosses himself and opens the tall sandstone font. From the inside he takes out the freshly polished gleaming silver cup reserved for the well born. The dean turns to Lady Conchita who is standing at the head of the faithful, before the first step of the altar. ‘What name do you give to your child?,’ asks the dean.

‘José. After my late husband who fell in the war.’

‘Let him rest in peace, my daughter,’ whispers the dean, so that only Conchita can hear. And continues with the sacrament in a louder voice, ‘What do you ask of God’s Church for José?’

‘Baptism,’ replies Conchita.

‘Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?’

‘I do.’

‘Do you reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?’

‘I do.’

‘Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?’

‘I do.’

‘Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?’

‘I do.’

‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?’

‘I do.’

‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?’

‘I do.’

‘This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

‘Amen,’ say the faithful gathered in the church.

The dean pours holy water on Conchita’s newborn and announces, ‘José, the son of nobleman José de Alarcón y Ariza and his wife Conchita, the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross. Amen’

‘Amen,’ replies Conchita and the faithful.

 

The priest turns to the faithful and pronounces, ‘Let us rejoice, the new Master of the House of Alarcón y Ariza has arrived.’

‘Blessed be the Lord.’

‘Long live noble José, Master of the House of Alarcón y Ariza!,’ adds the dean, sure that now Lady Conchita will never fail to remember about his church when the hacienda thrives again.

‘Long live to José!,’ the hacienda’s new gauchos and their families shout the loudest.

 

In the crowd someone nudges Father Francesco with a sharp bony elbow. ‘Master it is, eh? A bastard born six years after his father’s death, my noble ass.’ He doesn’t reply. The crowd has parted to make the way for Conchita to walk down the aisle to the main entrance with José in the crook of her arm. She is walking slowly, with dignity, graciously glancing to the right and to the left. Her eyes meet briefly the eyes of Father Francesco, emaciated again, in dirty tattered clothes. Conchita averts her gaze, leaves the church, and in the two-horse open carriage is going back to her prewar life with Master of the House in her lap. She is sure that when time comes, José will avenge the death of his father and will make his patria a proud country again.

 

*   *   *

 

In the end, no parish to his soul where the faithful would take care of his earthly needs, his manhood long gone in his dry loins, the itinerary clergymen was not needed by anyone. People didn’t seek him out for his preaching, because it was uninspiring and shunned the valorous deeds of the country’s patriots. He wasn’t much of a singer, either. The itinerary clergyman led a solitary life. He listened to poor people’s confessions and gave them communion in places forgotten by the world and the Church. They had no money to offer him. The clergyman didn’t want to be paid. A piece of bread and a roof over his head for a night would suffice. Every day he went further on across the wilderness, looking for lost souls. But this wilderness brought by war in places where crowds had been teeming receded in recent times. Children were born, settlers arrived from overseas. Fallow land was grazed and plowed again. Guaranis had to give up aimless wandering and were put to useful works in renovated and brand new haciendas established where none had been before. Slowly each piece of land was accounted for, registered in cadaster books, claimed by inheritors or bought by new owners. Ownership banished the wilderness, and pushed the clergyman deeper into the barren lands whom no one wanted, where the lawless found haven and Guaranis continued to roam.

 

People forgot his name, if he ever had one, and the scrawny figure became ‘this clergyman,’ though some doubted his profession. How come that a priest could be so dirty, walking in rags, the ribs almost poking through his thin flaky skin? Not even a monk could fall so low in adjunct service of the poorest of flocks. They shook heads when saw the clergyman slowly making his way across their dusty village, the donkey faithfully trudging at his side. No one spoke a word to him. No ‘God bless you, wanderer,’ to be heard. Let him go. The sooner he disappeared, the better. Good riddance. They spat at the sight of this scarecrow.

 

During another wet season, he found some warmth next to the donkey’s belly. But it wasn’t enough. The clergyman succumbed to cough and weakness. He couldn’t stand up, and lay in his tattered bedding, the merciful rain cooling his feverish forehead. The donkey stood vigil by his human friend, and at night lay next to him, shielding the clergyman from cold and nightmares that pitch darkness brings. No moon in the sky, and the storm clouds invisible in the darkness wiped out the stars. Only he and the donkey. True happiness. What more could a man wish for in this vale of tears?

 

The clergyman smiled and expired shortly after daybreak. The donkey got up on its thin legs and left his friend for a while to drink from the fast stream with low banks and lined by trees and shrubs. After drinking its fill, the donkey came back and began eating the grass. It was sparse and a tad dry at their campsite, but rains would coax up luscious vegetation soon, complete with sweet meaty leaves full of juice. The time of abundance lay ahead. But the clergyman’s half-open sightless eyes would not see it. The world of nature would claim him as its own, as part of it. The donkey knew, so continued to nibble. Patience, the animal was good at it. Where to hurry? The end is always the same. It doesn’t matter whether you go, south or north or in circles. You’ll always return to the same place, from whence you came.

 

The clip-clop of trotting horses disturbed the peace of nature’s gentle wake. Two gauchos and a pudgy boy of some eight years of age on a pony headed toward the brook. It was a good place with a low bank for watering the animals. The men noticed the lonely donkey and a figure lying in the grass. Young Antonio took the boy aside, while Modesto rode to investigate. Like he thought, another poor dead man, sighed Modesto. It is all because of the war. Too many of the survivors never came back home. Home was gone, everyone in their families killed, nowhere to return. ‘What is it?,’ yelled the boy.

‘Nothing, Young Master.’

‘Tell me,’ the boy demanded.

‘Just a dead man.’

‘It’s nothing,’ Young Antonio said to the boy, seeing his eyes going round with fear.

‘He’s not alive…?,’ whispered the boy.

‘People grow old and die,’ Young Antonio reached out with his hand to Young Master and reassuringly stroke his hair.

‘Let’s go. I don’t want to stay.’

‘We have to. It won’t take long. We must bury this poor bastard.’

‘Can’t someone else dig a hole for him?’

‘Who else will? No one comes here.’

‘We can tell the priest in the town.’

‘But animals could rip up the corpse.’

‘Animals?’

 

The boy was so new to the things of this world. Young Antonio gave him the whip to play with nearby and joined Modesto. There was a faint spot of some unmarked grave from the past, just rocks and pebbles really with some clamps of dirt mostly washed out by rains. It would do for a quick fix. They broke up the old grave and saw a tight rocky chasm with a skeleton pushed down half way to the bottom. There would be enough space left for another to add on the top. At least they won’t be so lonely in this desolate place. The new dead will keep the old company.

 

The agitated boy looked at Modesto and Young Antonio warily, still shaken. They finished quicker than they should have and from under the rocks and pebbles the tattered bedding could be seen. They had covered the dead man with it. The Young Master was impatient and anger gradually replaced his fear of death. The dead man’s donkey came up to where the Young Master was playing and touched him gently on the nape with his snout. The boy took fright and lashed out at the animal. ‘Young Master, stop!,’ shouted Modesto. But the boy didn’t listen and was viciously whipping the donkey. The animal stood patiently looking sadly at the boy with its big eyes. Modesto seized the boy’s hand to stop the whip. Young Master wouldn’t let it go. Modesto had to pull it out by force, scrapping the boy’s palm.

 

Young Master showed his palm to Modesto, and said ‘You see what you’ve done? I’ll tell mom!’

 

Saunt Aundraes / Cill Rìmhinn

September 2015,

and

June and August 2016

 

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