Chapter 1 – Maximón’s Mission
“Look at what was done to her.”
The Agent holds the photograph up to the face of the Interpreter. Her eyes repel toward me with disbelief.
I know what the photograph shows. Her lips, her nose, her cheeks, her eyelids and her ears are cut off. She is not lucky to be alive.
“What is your full name?”
– Alonzo Cesar León Navarro
“How old are you, Alonzo?”
“Where do you live?”
– Nowhere now. Here. I guess you could say at the San Nicolas Mission in East L.A.
“How did you get involved in this?”
The girl I wanted to marry suddenly got married to someone else right after high school. She told me I didn’t know what I wanted. But I said I wanted to be married to her. That wasn’t enough.
So then I really did not know what I wanted. I wasn’t ready for college. I told my Grandmother, “College isn’t ready for me.” My Grandmother told me I couldn’t stay with her anymore if I wasn’t going to college. Where was I going to stay? When I saw my father he said I should “man up” and join the Army.
I couldn’t get a job. One day I applied at this Vietnamese fast-food place. It was a hot day. The only good thing about it was the beautiful girl ordering at the counter. On the way back I walked past the San Nicolas Mission. The same beautiful girl walked past right in front of me and went into the Mission. It looked cool inside so I followed her through the small door. Compared to outside it was really dark. I couldn’t see for a minute but it was a lot cooler.
The walls and floor were white and all the wood was dark, almost black. I sat down in the last row. I didn’t see the girl. I looked around. The white paint was holding this place together. It was dark and cool because the four windows along each side toward the altar were small with thick stained glass. Above the altar was a round window with a star-shaped pattern of stained glass, like a rainbow web.
The street door opened behind me. I heard a soft whirring sound and I turned to look. An old man in a motorized wheel-chair was coming down the aisle and he stopped beside me.
“Nice in here, isn’t it?” he said. “Praying for cooler weather?”
“Praying for a job, man.”
“What do you do?”
I looked toward the altar, “Screw up.”
He laughed, “You have come to the right place.”
He raised both arms toward the altar. “Blessed is he who knows he has screwed up”, then turning to me, “for he has begun to be saved. I’m Pastor Maximón. What’s your name?”
“Do you know what we do here at the San Nicolas Mission?”
“Talk about Hell?”
He smiled and his eyes narrowed, “Yes, but we also do something about Hell. We find homes for orphans from Central and South America, and, right now, we’re getting a team together to help rebuild a village in Guatemala that was hit by an earthquake.”
“Would you like to help?”
“Would I get paid?” I said, thinking this was bullshit.
“Well, we are told to render unto ‘Cesar’, aren’t we? Yes. We have some generous donors who have funded this entire adventure.”
I didn’t expect that. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “You look like you’re in good shape. Are you going on the trip?”
He made rowing motions with arms that suddenly looked really big and muscular, “No. But I work out all the time. I used to compete in martial arts. I fought for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I still teach even after I lost my legs.”
“How did that happen?”
“I stopped along the freeway to help a lady with a flat tire. I was being a good Christian, right? I had her car jacked-up when this drunk woman hit us. Not a scratch on her. But me, I was sitting there staring at my cock-eyed legs. It took the ambulance twenty minutes to get there. But God decided it wasn’t my time to die. That was more than years ago.”
“Well, I hope the drunk bitch is rotting in jail.”
“She got seven years. No insurance. But she had a young daughter and no family here. When I heard the sentence I knew I didn’t want that child to grow up without a mother. I petitioned the judge to let her out. I had to sign a bunch of papers.”
“When they let her out she came to me crying saying over and over ‘thank you, thank you’. What can you do? God gave me this challenge for a reason.”
He closed his eyes, “I like you, Cesar, and I can tell you have a strong spirit. I think God has put you in the right place at the right time. This will change your life in so many good ways.”
For some reason I thought of the beautiful girl who had crossed my path going into the mission.
Chapter 2 – La Paloma Blanca
Two weeks later I was at the airport. Pastor Maximón had expedited my passport. I had said good-bye to my Grandmother the night before and then I had spent the night with my friend Roberto who got me drunk and loaded.
“California Sensemilla is very good for the mind but, however, so is Colombian and hash and let’s not forget Magic Mushrooms,” Roberto prescribed. The next day I awoke next to him on the couch and he said good-bye to me without opening his eyes. I grabbed my duffle bag with the La Paloma Blanca Ministries logo that Pastor Maximón had issued to me for my possessions.
At the airport everyone else’s parents were there. Everyone else was talking at once and hugging everyone else. We boarded this big private plane that some rich donor chartered for the ministry. On the fuselage of the plane was painted the same logo La Paloma Blanca Ministries. There were supposedly thirty of us, young and old. Each of us could only bring the issued duffle bag. The aisle was crowded and I shuffled toward the back of the plane.
Then I saw her again. The aisle seat next to her was vacant, thank you Jesus. She was wearing a Mayan peasant blouse richly embroidered with bright blue and red designs. She seemed to be bowed praying. As I approached she raised her eyes to me and when I paused at the vacant seat she made a swift but delicate gesture for me to sit down. I stowed my duffle bag under the seat because supposedly all the compartments above were reserved for ministry gear.
I didn’t intend to be rude but when I turned to look out the window I stared at her profile. She was small but there was something very strong and sure about her. She had full long hair tied in the back. She wasn’t wearing any make-up. Her skin was dark and unblemished and there were wisps of black hair on the side of her cheek. It made her look earthy. She had a small emerald stone pierced into her earlobe, both earlobes, I found out soon enough.
She glanced out of the corner of her eye at me and smiled. “I’m Esmeralda.”
“I’m Alonzo.” I couldn’t find any more words.
She started talking about the ministry like we were old friends. But when she turned toward me I must have looked a little surprised. On each cheekbone under her eyes was painted a very faint gold cross with a tiny dark dot at each crux to represent a nail, she told me.
“So when we look into the mirror we remember who we serve.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
She indicated others bearing the faint gold crosses.
“We are apprentice pastors.”
As she spoke I just stared into her big dark eyes and nodded little agreements. I didn’t know how much older than me she might be but she was a lot more together, more mature than I was. Her gaze was steady and without fear. Then she tilted her head a little to the side and smiled. I suddenly realized that she had asked me a question.
She laughed, “You will make a wonderful husband.”
My face got hot. Luckily a woman stood up in the aisle at the front of the plane and asked for everyone’s attention.
“For those of you who are new to our ministry, I am Rita. Before we take off I would like to lead a little prayer.”
Everyone bowed their heads.
“We give thanks for the generosity that has allowed us this ministry. We thank you for moving all these hearts to serve you. Grant us safe journey and safe return. And guide us do only good as it is your will. Amen.”
We had almost an hour’s wait because something was wrong with the electricity and then we had to wait our turn to use the runway.
I listened to Esmeralda the whole time, trying not to be stupid. The flight to Guatemala City took five hours. I fell asleep. Then it took a long while to land. We must have started descending a hundred miles off. All the lights were turned off and all was nearly silent except for the steady noise of the motors. Then some kids started to sing softly and slightly out of unison so that it was barely possible to identify what they were singing. But it struck me that it was the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard.
That did not prepare me for what happened after we landed.
Chapter 3 – Terminal Charges
“We will be landing at La Aurora International Airport in a few minutes. The weather is 27 degrees Centigrade or 82 degrees Fahrenheit. It is cloudy and has been raining on and off this evening. Wind is picking up out of the West. Welcome, La Paloma Blanca Ministries, to Guatemala City.”
A soft cheer arose.
Esmeralda was gazing down at the lights of the city, “The air up here is making the lights waver like hot coals.”
Into the ribbon of twilight rose four mountains. I asked, “Are those the volcanoes you were talking about?”
“Yes. That one is Pacaya, the one that caused all the trouble.”
“And that is near where we are going?”
“Yes, near the city of La Antigua. A village named Mudéjar. It was once an estate granted to one of the conquistadors.”
I had never been so attracted and so intimidated by a young woman. During the flight she had lectured me about Guatemala. But she was the first girl I ever actually wanted to listen to. I didn’t care what she talked about.
When the plane halted at the terminal everyone stood up and began to file out. I let Esmeralda go ahead of me. She wove away quickly through the crowded aisle without another word, to be with the other apprentice pastors. Since I had been seated toward the rear of the plane I ended up near the end of the line entering the terminal.
At the entrance there were several armed guards on each side of the line of La Paloma Blanca workers. Nearest the line each guard held leashed a big Pit Bull lifting its forepaws off the ground straining to savor each passing person. Many of the workers made brave smiles and said cute things to the dogs but it looked to me as if they might as well have said “eat me first” the way the dogs reacted. I was determined to stare straight ahead.
As I passed, both dogs began to growl savagely and bark at me. My chest felt like it had suddenly filled with ice water. A guard came over and said right into my face “Come with me.” I looked back to see the ripple of turning faces as the rest of them heard about what was happening to me.
Two guards took me into a room and pulled the duffle bag out of my hands. The first one glared at me as if daring me to challenge him. He just dumped the duffle bag contents onto a table. I realized that the second guard was holding his gun at my stomach. A moment later the first guard held aloft what looked like a baggie of marijuana. I nearly fainted.
“It isn’t mine, I swear.”
He gave me a cruel smile.
I was ready to cry. “I swear, I swear to God. Do you think I am loco?”
“I think you are estupido. This is not Los Angeles.”
I suddenly thought of Roberto and our last night of partying. Would he have been so fucked-up that he put a baggie of dope in my duffle bag as a “going away present”?
“Well, no matter how stupid you are you will learn how serious this is.”
He got out his phone and spoke calmly and triumphantly while staring at me.
“Detain the others.”
They hassled me for a long time. Then they brought in several of the apprentice pastors. There were five of them, including Esmeralda who didn’t look at me. They argued in low voices. I gathered that all the other workers were being searched as well.
I stared mournfully at the baggie of marijuna that the guard was brandishing. Then a realization hit me.
I interrupted the heated discussion.
“Esmeralda! I admit I partied the night before the flight. But I did not take dope with me! It isn’t even the same weed we were smoking. I swear!”
There were more hissing heated words. I wondered without hope: was I going to jail or back home? Finally, there seemed to be an understanding.
“Esmeralda. What is going on?”
She looked over at me with disappointment, “We are going to pay a ‘fine’. Money we can’t afford. And a guard has to come along with us to Mudéjar.”
I have never been so thankful and so shamed at the same time.
Chapter 4 – Running with the Bullshit
After we were all released we silently got on a big old US school bus, painted with the La Paloma Blanca Ministries logo and colorful child-like illustrations of Christ’s life. As I moved down the gauntlet of unforgiving glances there was no seat vacant for me. I passed Esmeralda who kept herself rigidly immersed in a book. The guard and I finally sat down in the very back.
I still couldn’t figure out that baggie of dope. If it wasn’t from Roberto, where did it come from? Who had access to that duffle bag besides me and Roberto? There was only one other person. Esmeralda? While I was asleep? No, no way in Hell. Who had been sitting behind us? I was so upset I just couldn’t think.
Because we were so late we had to drive all the way to Mudéjar at night. After an hour we entered the city of La Antigua.
The senior apprentice pastor Rita stood up in the front of the swaying bus.
“Everyone. We are passing through La Antigua at a very special time. It is Semana Santa. Starting on Palm Sunday there is a week-long re-enactment of Christ’s last days with processions of religious sculptures. On Good Friday the people cover the streets with a rainbow of flowers and fruits. They call those floral carpets alfombras.”
I thought sadly of what Esmeralda had already explained to me about holy Brotherhoods, Hermandads, who hold sacred vigils for their sculptures that are then carried through the city in a procession over those alfombras. I could barely see the top of Esmeralda’s head.
Rita continued, “And as a surprise La Paloma Blanca Ministries has been allowed to carry a sculpture in the procession. And you will all help with the sculpture and you will all participate.”
While everyone cheered several of the kids looked back at me shaking their heads.
“Fucking great,” I muttered.
The guard looked over at me and said, “Estás corriendo en la chingada.”
I was glad when we left La Antigua and headed up into the mountains on an unlit road.
Chapter 5 – Mudéjar
At night Mudéjar is illuminated with only occasional lanterns. The village road was sometimes dirt and sometimes cobblestones. I could see a mixture of tall ornate colonial ruins and small simple houses. Some of the houses had portions collapsed. The bus turned down a tree-lined alleyway between low stone walls of residences. The bus stopped. It was very quiet.
An older woman came out of the nearby house and approached the bus, waving.
The bus door opened and Rita stepped out, “Itza! We made it.”
Itza came near and Rita hugged her, saying something into her ear. Itza was short and dark and she smiled but with narrowed eyes. She looked toward the back of the bus and because I saw the glistening of her eyes I swear she stared at me.
Rita got back on the bus and led the group in a short prayer of thanks. Then everyone grabbed their duffle bag and exited the bus quietly. We filed through Itza’s wooden gateway. There was a dog on her flat roof looking down at me. I stopped for a moment. The guard sauntering behind me laughed.
Itza’s house did not seem small on the inside. The soft lantern light on the pale yellow walls made the rooms seem larger. There were very few items of furniture or decoration. But there were mats prepared for all of us to sleep on. It didn’t feel crowded, it felt cozy.
Rita asked for attention and said another little prayer. Then she freed everyone to pick a mat upon which to place their duffle bag, to freshen-up, and to explore the property.
Most of the workers wanted to go out into the yard after the long uncomfortable bus ride. My guard sat down on a mat and proceeded to ignore me. I went outside. No workers had spoken to me since we were released from the airport. I looked for Esmeralda.
When I wandered around to the back of the house I noticed shadows in a room. I peered into the window and saw the apprentice pastors holding hands in a circle. The faint gold crosses with the “nail” on their cheeks returned lantern light and seemed more obvious. Each of the apprentice pastors would mutter something in turn but they kept their eyes open. I was soon just staring at Esmeralda who was facing in my direction.
Suddenly they all turned toward me. I quickly stepped back into the darkness.
Esmeralda found me minutes later.
“Alonzo, you have a lot of bad habits”, but she smiled at me thank God.
“I am so sorry, Esmeralda.”
“I know you are.”
“I spoiled this for everybody.”
“Well, …… not yet anyway.” That smile again. She could flail me with that smile and I would be happy.
I asked, “How does Itza feel about a guard with a rifle in her house?”
“She has seen a lot worse. She will be fine. Don’t you worry about Itza. You just worry about yourself.”
Esmeralda turned and walked away. I stayed in the darkness.
Chapter 6 – The Burning Desire
I was against the wall, I was being stoned. The crowd threw kerosene on me, I heard the flames crackling. My eyes went blind with black smoke from my own burning flesh.
I awoke from my nightmare. I heard rain smattering on the roof of Itza’s house. I smelled smoke but it was sweet. I just stared at the ceiling. My mouth was dry. I wanted water. I sat up. I could just make out objects in the twilight of that morning.
I saw the shapes of people slowly sitting up and stretching their arms. Some still snored softly and were quietly teased awake. A lantern was then lighted in our room.
Itza announced gently, “Rita has made breakfast.”
Someone laughed, “Oh, no!” and Itza quickly amended “With my supervision.”
Lucas, one of the male apprentice pastors, mimicked Rita, “And now I’d like to say a little prayer of thanks…”
We filed through the open air kitchen. There were pots and bowls of colorful ingredients. A big cooking fire snapped and popped and smoked.
Rita handed each of us a paper plate of panuchos or so she informed us.
It looked like a gooey pizza but it smelled delicious.
Some ate outside under the patio cover and watched the scattered rain. Some leaned against the walls inside the house or sat cross-legged on their mats. We drank our bottled water.
I had not seen my guard.
Rita came in and led the Morning Prayer. She then announced “Today we start our mission by helping with reconstruction at the orphanage. You will all be assigned to a workgroup. You won’t need your duffle bags. Just file outside and wait to be called.”
Each apprentice pastor read out loud his list of assigned workers. I was not called. Rita said that I would accompany Itza into La Antigua to buy food for the orphanage.
An old Land Rover bounded up the muddy alleyway and came to a sliding stop next to Itza’s low stone wall. The woman driving leaned over to look at us. Itza waved that we were coming. We walked toward the Rover and suddenly my guard was beside me.
“I go with you, pendejo.”
I tried to sound friendly, “Hey, what’s your name anyway?”
“Rico Suave” and he spat into the mud at my feet.
So I thought “OK, fuck you too.”
The woman driving was called Irma and she worked at the orphanage. She knew Itza who got in next to her. Irma said hello to me but nothing to the guard who sat beside me in the back. As the Rover picked-up speed the slender Irma began a gyrating dance working the clutch, pushing the gearshift, and wrestling the steering wheel. The muscles on her arms stood out. All the way to La Antigua the Rover shuddered, slid, snorted and bucked like it was a bronco with Irma the rodeo rider. Although I braced and shifted in the backseat I was able to appreciate the rolling jungle hills and the low clouds caressing them.
El Mercado was a huge maze of shops and stalls a few blocks from La Antigua’s town center. It was crowded with local families and some tourists.
Itza looked at fruits, vegetables, live chickens and gossiped with all the vendors. My guard shouldered his rifle and walked away from us through the crowd toward the plaza. I saw Irma move away though the crowd behind him. I couldn’t help it, I followed.
Irma came to the end of a block and peered around the corner. I went to the opposite side of the street and followed her gaze into the town center.
My guard was conversing with a man and a woman who looked like tourists. The tourist woman laughed and touched Carlos and never took her gaze off of his face.
When I looked over for Irma she was gone.
I quickly headed back to where I had left Itza. She was still shopping and loading the Rover without my help. Irma reappeared but said nothing while picking-up fruits and setting them down ignoring the vendor.
Then there was a commotion back toward the town center and everybody began to move in that direction. I followed in the vacuum of the crowd.
In the plaza I could see the tourist man and woman backing up from a crescent of shouting gesturing people. Someone threw a rock. The tourist woman yelled for help. Then more rocks and bottles were hurled at them.
A fat old policeman appeared and tried to intervene. He raised his pistol and fired a shot but he too was showered with objects and he ran away. I could hear that the tourist couple was being accused of a child’s abduction.
A rock struck the tourist man in the head and he crumpled to his knees. A boy ran up behind him with a baseball bat and struck him between the shoulder blades. The tourist man fell on his side trying to draw a breath. A woman threw a liquid on him. A man stepped up and flicked a lighted match. The tourist man was suddenly on fire. He just curled up and burned like a bug.
The tourist woman screamed and screamed and screamed for help.
“Olivia!” someone shouted. It was my guard trying to force his way through the mob. He unshouldered his rifle and struck people out of the way with the rifle butt. “Olivia!”
“Carlos! Carlos!” she kept screaming. Then she was hit on the head by a big rock and she fell to her hands and knees. She started crawling toward Carlos’ voice like a baby, wailing and drooling .
A young man ran out of the crowd and doused her with liquid. She rose on her knees shrieking. She dropped back and crawled furiously. Her knees left bloody skid marks. The mob threw burning trash. She set her hand down on a burning piece of paper and she burst into flames. She tried to stand flailing her arms; slower and slower and then she fell forward hard on her face and she burned.
Itza grabbed my arm. She already had Irma in tow. “Go right now!”
Back in the Rover Irma stalled the engine. It finally roared and we lurched in a cloud of black smoke. We left Carlos somewhere behind in the mob.
I could only yell, “Why did they kill them?”
Itza shouted back to me, “Too many children have vanished from here.”
Irma said viciously, “I am glad the whore is dead!”
Chapter 7 – The Orphanage
I was still seeing the killings, over and over again. None of us had said a word since we fled La Antigua. Irma was driving us straight to the orphanage in Mudéjar.
Itza kept looking over at Irma. Irma’s ferocious outburst had upset me too. Did she just assume that woman “Olivia” was guilty of child abduction and deserved to die like that? Her anger seemed personal.
We came to a long wall that had fallen in many places. We drove right through one of the breaks.
The orphanage is the former main house of the ancient colonial estate. We stopped near the entrance. Itza got out, “I’m going to find Rita.” Irma followed her through the door but said nothing. The food was still in the Rover but I wasn’t going to just stand there.
The entrance opened into a corridor that surrounded a cloister. There were many stairwells and other corridors. I did not expect the intricate and colorful tile. I saw that Itza had gone in one direction but Irma was going in the opposite direction. I followed Irma.
I wanted to talk to Irma but for some reason I kept to shadows as I followed her. She stopped at a door and quickly entered. I was unsure what to do. I didn’t move. A minute later she emerged dragging a metal suitcase.
Irma kept looking behind herself but she never acknowledged me. She struggled with the suitcase through a passage to the outside.
I started to follow but suddenly a little girl stepped in front of me.
She looked up at me and beamed, “Hello.”
“My name is Rosalinda.”
“What is your name?”
“Me, I’m Cesar. I’m sorry, cariño. I’ll see you later” and I moved past her.
“Do you live here?” she said sweetly behind me.
I went outside through the passage. I was in a walled patio. I saw a breach in the wall. I could hear Irma thrashing through the vegetation beyond. I didn’t have to be quiet as I followed the noise.
Now close ahead the noise suddenly stopped. I stopped. Then I heard her huffing and I heard tearing vegetation.
I heard her coming back my way. I stepped behind a cluster of big leaves and I crouched down. Irma passed me without the metal suitcase. Her face was sweaty and she brushed her soiled hands.
I could no longer hear her. I proceeded to find where she had hidden the suitcase.
I came to what looked like a T-shaped headstone. The stone looked very old. There was a shape carved into it. It could have been a scorpion. The vegetation behind it had been uprooted and then returned.
I went around the stone and on my knees I pulled up the debris. I soon uncovered the metal suitcase.
“What did you found?” said little Rosalinda peering down at me over the stone.
“You aren’t supposed to be out here.”
“Why are you?”
As I quickly covered the suitcase again with the torn vegetation I said “I’m not supposed to be here either.”
“You better come with me” said Rosalinda wrapping her hand around three of my fingers. We walked back along the trampled path.
At the wall I picked her up and set her through the breach into the patio. When I stepped through I looked up. Rita, Itza, Irma, Esmeralda and several workers were there staring at me.
“Me puto.” I raised my eyes to heaven.
Chapter 8 – The Fall of the Blessed Virgin
“What are you doing with her?” Rita demanded of me.
Startled by the tone of Rita’s voice little Rosalinda took my hand again. I resisted the impulse to yank my hand away. That would have made it look worse. Esmeralda lowered her gaze and imperceptibly shook her head.
Rita continued without mercy “Irma told us you were following her and then you disappeared.”
I said “I was just waiting for Irma. I saw Rosalinda go through that break in the wall so I went after her.” I looked over into Irma’s unflinching eyes and knew I shouldn’t tell the truth. Irma knew I was following her the whole time and she had acted like she didn’t.
Irma asked little Rosalinda to come over to her. “You went out again? What am I going to do with you?”
Rosalinda replied emphatically after serious consideration “I don’t know.” Irma carried her away inside.
Rita dismissed the workers and she, Itza and Esmeralda had me retell what I had seen when the tourist man and woman were killed. I didn’t tell them about Irma and Carlos. They didn’t asked.
Rita and Esmeralda agreed that they needed to meet with all the other apprentice pastors as soon as possible in the cloister.
They seemed to shut me out once again as they strode down the corridor away from me. I shuffled past the room from which Irma had taken the metal suitcase. The door opened abruptly. I was startled. It was Irma.
“Come in here.”
She shut the door behind us. It appeared to be her bedroom. Against one corner was a simple mattress covered with colorfully woven blankets. Beside the bed was a small table improvised as an altar. Upon it were lighted votive candles that illuminated a portrait of the Blessed Virgin. Next to that was a rickety bookshelf of holy articles and figurines. Against the opposite wall was a wood closet inlaid with a spiral mosaic. It was open and I could see her few humble skirts, tops, and dresses. There was a single lantern on the wall.
I turned around to her and she said bluntly “If you tell anyone what you saw me doing I will deny it. Who will they believe? Me, or you who already have a bad reputation?”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say.
“And if you tell, you can believe me that your life will be worthless.”
Then we both heard Carlos angrily calling Irma’s name as he clomped down the corridor.
“Get into the closet!” she was pushing me. “If you make a sound, you can believe me it will be your last.” She closed the two doors of the wood closet. I curled against a corner and tried to cover myself with a dress.
Carlos burst into the room and shoved the door shut again.
“What did you do?” he yelled.
One of the wood closet doors popped ajar and I could see them both.
“What did you do?” he started to rage. He shoved Irma to sit her down on the bed.
She taunted him “Be very careful what you say to me.”
Carlos gave her a swift clubbing across her face with his big hand. Irma coiled and spit blood onto his pants.
“I have hidden your precious suitcase.”
She leaned back and her eyes flashed “So, if you do that again you will never find it and they will both kill you.”
Carlos fell to his knees in front of her, bowing, pressing his fists into his eyes and clenching his teeth, “Why did you do all this? Why?” He was almost crying.
Irma placed her hand gently on his head and caressed his hair like a little boy’s.
Carlos arose and grabbed her hair on both sides of her head behind her ears. They stared venomously into each other’s eyes. Slowly Irma raised both her arms and with her finger tips began to stroke his wrists.
Holding her hair Carlos flung her against the bookcase. The holy figurines on the shelves trembled.
Carlos then grabbed the neckline of her dress with both hands and tore it open to her navel. Her breasts were tattooed in concentric circles.
He reached to the crotch of his coarse military pants and opened them. He then lifted her dress and penetrated her, again and again pounding, pounding, bludgeoning her with his pelvis. The religious relics tumbled to the floor. She clung onto his shoulders with both her arms up his back. Then her legs closed around him. She leaned forward and bit his neck. Through their clenched teeth they both screamed . He staggered sideways and they fell onto the bed. The tiny altar table jumped and the portrait of the Blessed Virgin fell forward onto the candles extinguishing all but one of them.
The room seemed to pulse as the lantern on the wall swayed to their harsh breathing.
Chapter 9 – The Guardian Angels
I heard soft commotion in Irma’s room. I heard the door open and shut. Then I heard quick steps toward where I huddled in the wood closet. Both closet doors flew open in Irma’s hands. She still wore the torn dress and so I was staring at her tattooed breasts. She pulled her dress together.
“Get out” she said with no shame. Carlos was gone.
I got up quickly and hit my head in the wood closet. I hurried past Irma without looking at her again. Stepping over the fallen religious objects I went straight to the door. I opened it peeking both ways down the corridor and exited gratefully into the twilight.
Afraid of what I had seen and heard I hurried to the cloister. There Esmeralda and the other apprentice pastors were standing in a circle holding hands. They faced each other with eyes wide open. Alternately one or another would say something that I could not hear.
“Amen” they all said in unison and disbanded. They hadn’t noticed me. Esmeralda and the apprentice Lucas strolled away together toward a fountain. I didn’t like the looks of that. I crept along the corridor toward the same fountain.
Esmeralda and Lucas talked close together. They seemed intent on each other’s words. But Lucas saw me, “Hey, pervert.” Esmeralda turned, “Alonzo, stop spying and come over here.”
She smiled but they had embarrassed me. I could feel my face getting hot. “Why do you all hold hands in a circle like that?”
“That’s how we communicate.”
“To our Guardian Angels.”
“Your Guardian Angels?” I derided, “Isn’t that for little kids?”
Lucas snapped back, “I’m thinking you’ll be needing your own guardian angel real soon.”
Esmeralda frowned at him. I thought “Alright!”
Then she turned to me, “Alonzo, we need you to come with us back into La Antigua tomorrow.”
“Lucas, Irma, you, and me.”
“Why?” I thought of Irma and I was afraid again. “Is this about those tourists who got killed?”
“Lucas and Irma are going to find out more about that. But, La Paloma Blanca Ministries is participating in Semana Santa and we still need to make certain arrangements. You will come with me.”
Lucas interjected impatiently, “Would you rather dig out the toilets in the orphanage?”
“I’d rather dig shit than listen to shit.” I was losing control.
“Alonzo!” Esmeralda admonished me like a child. Then the way Esmeralda gently said, “Lucas” really pissed me off.
Lucas grinned, “How cute, Esmeralda. You have a jealous puppy. Listen, tough guy. Figure it out: Rita thinks you’re bad for morale.”
“Lucas, please. Alonzo, that is not true. I asked Rita if you could join us.”
I wanted to tell them all to fuck off. I wanted to run away into the jungle. But I wanted more than anything else to just be with Esmeralda tomorrow.
Chapter 10 – The Conquistador
The next morning we were bounding down to La Antigua in Irma’s Rover. I sat up front next to Irma. I did not look her in the eye. I pretended to study the hills rolling by in the sunshine as I tried to glimpse Lucas and Esmeralda in the back. Lucas was turned toward her saying something and smiling. I could see that she was looking down and smiling. I almost bit my tongue off.
Irma parked on a cobblestone street near the town center. Lucas and Irma headed off up the street. Esmeralda said to me “We’re early. There is something I want to show you.”
She led me up another street lined with little shoulder-to-shoulder buildings each painted a different color. We did not hurry. I wanted time to slow down even more. I begged the sun to stand still for this perfect morning. I didn’t have anything interesting to say to Esmeralda so I just asked, “Do you know Irma very well?”
“You could say that. She’s my sister.”
Esmeralda must have seen my eyes bulge.
“I don’t tell everyone that.”
I was shocked and flattered at the same time. Esmeralda just opened up to me.
“Our family lived in a bad zone of Guatemala City. Irma is my older sister and she was abused by my father.”
“When Irma ran away from home at fourteen we heard that she had become a prostitute to make money. We didn’t really know for sure.”
“My mother took me and went to the United States.”
“Itza is my mother’s sister. She told us that Irma had joined a mara, a violent gang. When my father disappeared Itza assumed that it was Irma’s gang that did it. We don’t really know.
“But I returned here with La Paloma Blanca Ministries and Itza and I found Irma. The Ministry helped us a lot.”
“Irma said she was desperate to get out of the gang so the Ministry got her a job at the Mudéjar orphanage, far from her gang.”
“Irma has been quietly dedicated to the orphanage ever since. She can still seem pretty intense at times even now, I know.” Esmeralda became silent.
I thought to myself, “You still ‘don’t really know’, do you?”
I became emboldened and blurted, “What about Lucas?”
“He doesn’t seem much like an apprentice pastor.”
“Oh? And what does he seem like?”
“He seems like someone a pastor would be counseling abstinence to.”
Esmeralda looked at me and covered her mouth as she burst out laughing. She laughed until tears ran down the faint gold crosses on her cheeks.
“I’m going to short-circuit” she sighed as she wiped her eyes, “It’s a good thing we are here.” We stopped in front of a white-washed building with deep set windows.
“What is this place?”
“A little museum. Come inside. I think you will like this.”
Esmeralda paid the woman sitting inside the doorway. I followed Esmeralda as she headed directly to a specific lantern-lit alcove.
“Here we are.”
“What is this?”
She began to lecture me.
“These are personal possessions taken from the Mudéjar estate before it became an orphanage.”
“The estate was given in 1527 to one of Pedro de Alvarado’s conquistadors as a reward in the conquest of Guatemala.”
“The conquistador’s ‘official’ name was Don Gonzalo Contreras but he was actually a Spanish Moor named Abdul Aghrab who volunteered to fight in the new world for a chance at wealth.”
Esmeralda was mesmerizing me with her story. I began to feel light headed.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
I felt like I was going to throw-up.
“Esmeralda,” I saw her name come out of my mouth like a diving board and my mind just ran and jumped.
“I love you, Esmeralda.”
Esmeralda finally took my arm, “Alonzo, you have a lot of bad habits.”
Chapter 11 – The Brotherhood of The Harrowing
Esmeralda held onto my arm as we walked toward the exit of the little museum. Her touch was so tender. My heart was flying away. I wanted to paw the ground with my hooves.
Outside she released me to shatter in the sunlight.
“This way,” she said.
“Where to now?”
“The Brotherhood of The Harrowing.”
“Brotherhoods are responsible for the beautiful Holy Week processions, remember? The Brotherhood of the The Harrowing is the one associated with La Paloma Blanca Ministries through our donations.
“What does this have to do with me?”
“La Paloma Blanca Ministries has been invited to carry their float for a portion of the procession route.”
“What’s the big deal?”
“Each Brotherhood cares for and parades a life-sized sculpture of Christ, Mary, or a Saint. Some of those sculptures are over 300 years old.”
We continued up the slowly winding cobblestone street. A young man on a bicycle coasted past going downhill. We came upon Indian girls sitting on the curb. They wore the colorfully patterned Mayan clothing. One was reading a tabloid newspaper, one studied a book, one was sewing, and the two youngest ran towards us clutching trinkets for sale.
“Ah, muñecas de preocupaciones” said Esmeralda, stooping to greet the little girls. “Voy a comprar dos bolsas, por favor.”
“What did you buy?”
“Muñecas de preocupaciones. ‘Worry dolls’. When children get scared they are given a little doll the size of a paper match. They’re made of sticks and colorful threads. They tell their fear to the doll and then place the doll under their pillow. While they sleep the doll takes away their fear.”
The young man on the bicycle came by again pedaling uphill. He was leering at Esmeralda. When he saw me glaring at him he stood on his pedals and showed me his bare ass.
“Making new friends?” asked Esmeralda.
“Could I have a couple worry dolls to stick in my eyes, please?”
“I think you’ll need a whole bag” she laughed.
We continued past a leather shop, several fabric shops, places to eat, souvenir shops, and a jewelry shop. We finally came to a woodcarver’s shop.
“This is it.”
“This is the Brotherhood?”
“Yes. I’m going to introduce you to Arturo Luna who owns this shop and who dedicates himself to this Brotherhood.”
The shop was filled with wood panels, boards, and blocks of every shape and size. The smell was delicious. The floor was carpeted in wood shavings and sawdust.
“Is he in?” I asked.
“Believe me, you would know if Arturo Luna were in” Esmeralda smiled mischievously. “He must be in back at the altar.”
We went through a wide doorway into a room that was cool and dark except for a lighted altar at the far end. The floor sloped downward like a theater. As we walked in, even before my eyes became accustomed to the dim light, I could hear how high the ceiling was. There was a man standing in the candle light down on the altar looking toward us with his hands spread in welcome.
“Arturo,” called Esmeralda in greeting.
Then I saw three figures standing before the man on the altar. Yes, it was Lucas, it was Irma, and it was a guy so big and round that I had to blink twice to make sure it was not two people.
The big man turned and raised his hand. His skin was so blue-white it glowed with light from the altar.
“Arturo, this is Alonzo.” Arturo Luna was an albino with big round eyes that were ethereal pink. His hand covered mine but it was warm and he was gentle.
“Well, Alonzo, what do you think?” He gestured toward the man standing up on the altar who had not acknowledged us at all.
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered. He was a statue of Jesus. But not an idealized statue. He looked like a real person with flaws in his shape and complexion. In fact his complexion was dark not white. The skin glistened. His eyes seemed alive.
“You like those eyes, don’t you” smiled Arturo. He whispered conspiratorially, “They are made with black diamonds and diamond dust.”
“Did you…?” I began to ask.
Arturo quickly raised a finger to his lips and looked around.
“…carve Him?” I finished.
Esmeralda laughed and said, “That statue is over 400 years old.”
“How do you know?”
“It was a gift to the first church in La Antigua from the conquistador’s estate.”
“Why is it here?”
“That first church was buried in a volcanic mudflow in the 1700’s. Some devotees risked their lives to rescue that statue. Since that time, it has been in the care of similar devotees who came to be known as…”
Incredibly, as if on Esmeralda’s cue, Arturo rose on his toes and bowed like a ballerina, “The Brotherhood of The Harrowing.”
Lucas spoke up, “Yeah. You might say they rescued Jesus from hell.”
Chapter 12 – The Sister of Mercy
I went over and stood at the feet of the Jesus. The others began to whisper. I pretended that I didn’t hear. That room was a perfect theater.
“Well?” asked Esmeralda.
Lucas replied, “We went to the police station but our contact wouldn’t speak to us. He sent some other guy over and stayed close-by so he could listen. We were told that gringos showed up last night, paid off all the right people, and took both bodies.”
Irma added, “And I think we were followed. I kept seeing this guy on a bicycle.”
Lucas said, “He was probably interested in you.”
“No,” said Irma, “I think he was un vigilante.”
I almost broke my ‘deafness’ and asked ‘for who?’ I tried to remember if my bicyclist had tattoos.
“Irma!” I heard someone bellow.
We all looked toward the entrance. A man was swaggering down to us. As the candle light reached his face I could see concentric tattoos that looked like war paint.
“Garra?” Irma was clearly frightened.
Garra sneered, “You? Hiding in a church? Even Jesus will not forgive you.”
“I’m here to warn you, bitch.”
Lucas stepped in front of Irma and Esmeralda. Arturo closed ranks with him.
Garra growled, “Don’t be stupid!”
Then he roared at Irma, “Rosalinda is in danger, you stupid whore!”
“Don’t you dare touch her!”
“Not me, bitch! It’s your puto Carlos!”
I ran over to become part of the shield too.
Good. Esmeralda was worried for me. And I never even saw Garra punch my head.
I realized I was on the floor against the altar. There were halos of bright fireflies around my face. But I could make out Lucas and Garra throwing punches. I saw Arturo backing the women away. Garra punched and kicked at Lucas’ groin and tried to gouge his eyes. Lucas was blocking every blow. Then he got a hold on Garra’s fingers and bent his hand back until I heard a crack and a scream. Lucas whirled Garra against the altar. He held him there and battered him in the ribcage and in the stomach. I never saw anybody’s arm move so fast. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. When Garra curled forward going limp Lucas held him up by the neck and started on the face. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. Garra’s face ended-up like a bowl of menudo. Lucas let him slide to the floor. Garra just gurgled and wheezed bubbles of blood.
Lucas turned to Esmeralda. I must have been hallucinating because I heard Esmeralda say softly, “Kill him.”
The white of one eye opened in the pulp of Garra’s face. Irma shouted “No!” and she threw herself on him.
“No! He is Rosalinda’s father!”
Chapter 13 – The Curandero
We all just stared at Irma who was sobbing on top of Garra’s limp body.
Arturo found his wits first, “Irma, he can’t breathe.” Irma instantly rose up on her knees and clasped her hands together in front of her face. Garra coughed and gasped.
“He’s choking on blood!” she cried. Garra began to sit up but inhaled sharply and collapsed back to the floor.
Arturo raised Irma to her feet with his big gentle hands and nudged her over to Lucas. He bent near to Garra’s face and said with terrible calmness, “You have a shattered ribcage and will probably puncture a lung and drown in your own blood. If you try to speak a piece of your face will fall into your lung and you will suffocate. Stop moving. Turn you head to the side and breathe through your nose.”
Garra turned his head and blew a glob of blood out his nose, winced and began taking short breaths.
Esmeralda said to Lucas, “Check the entrance to make sure Garra was alone and be careful.
Arturo added, “And bring back a wood panel to set Garra on. We’re going to have to move him.”
I tried to stand up but I was instantly consumed by vertigo. I plopped right back on my tailbone. Arturo said to me, “You have a concussion. Don’t move yet.”
Lucas returned with a piece of wood panel about the size of Garra. “Things look normal out there.”
“What about Rosalinda?” cried Irma.
“I got ahold of the others. They are on their way to the orphanage right now.”
Arturo supervised the placing of the wood panel under Garra. Arturo lifted Garra’s head and shoulders a fraction of an inch. Lucas lifted Garra’s torso only slightly by holding onto Garra’s belt. Esmeralda slid the panel completely underneath him. They all lifted the makeshift stretcher and shuffled Garra into an adjacent room. Lucas came back for me and held me erect while I moved my feet into the same room. There were decorative carved blocks hanging on the wall. They had set Garra and his wood panel onto a table. They set me in a nearby chair.
Esmeralda said, “We need to get back. Arturo, will you be alright?” Arturo fluttered his hand for them to depart.
“Alonzo, you stay here for now. If you can stand without falling…”
“Or puking,” added Lucas.
Esmeralda continued, “…you can help Arturo, OK?”
I nodded emphatically and I instantly felt like a wave had swept up my head and dropped it back down again. “Whoa!”
“You can believe me that we must go now!” insisted Irma.
So I was left watching Arturo tend to Garra. He opened a box on a nearby shelf and recited to himself, “Calahuala is very good for the broken bones and Ek’ Balam will heal the wounded blood vessels. Chaya will help healing as well. Bakalche’ bark will close the wounded muscles.”
“You sound like my friend Roberto with his ‘medicinal plants’” I said.
“Oh? Is he a Curandero? A healer?”
“You might say that.”
Arturo smiled, “Does he heal the body or the mind?”
“You would say the mind.”
Arturo mashed herbs in a small bowl and then added a dark liquid, “Chacah,” he said for my benefit, I guess, “A bowl of medicinal chocolate to help it all go down.”
Garra was focused on his own fragile breathing. I think our conversation pained him. Arturo finally leaned over his ear and said, “Turn your head slowly and face up. I’m going to drip some medicine down your throat. Hold your breath when I do. Understand?”
Garra raised and lowered his eyebrows in acknowledgement and even that was painful for him.
“OK. Now” said Arturo and he slowly dripped the dark sauce down Garra’s throat. Garra coughed.
“I said don’t breath.”
Arturo set the bowl down and told Garra to turn his head to the side once again and just wait.
“Arturo, where did you learn medicine?”
“When I was born this way,” he made a sweeping gesture with both hands, “it was expected of me. A big fat pink-eyed albino Mayan obviously had to be tight with the gods. It was lucky that as a child I was interested in herbs and medicines anyway.”
“Why do you have a wood carving business if you are, like, a doctor?”
“Doctors heal the rich. Curanderos heal the poor in the name of Ch’ulel. If I wanted to be rich in gratitude and dinners I would have remained only a Curandero. But I need more than dinners. I need dinero.”
“Ch’ulel? Is that God?”
“Well, not yours.”
“Your Brotherhood runs a church for Christ’s sake. Do you believe in all that or not?”
“I believe the world is uncaring. I believe the world is indifferent to its own existence. Mercy, forgiveness, kindness are the flowers of Man and Woman. They are what Man and Woman alone bring into the world. Cruelty and selfishness are already here for the taking.”
Garra moaned drowsily as the medicine took effect.
I said, “Arturo, I’ve met Rosalinda. If this guy is her father, what is her mother like?”
“Irma is Rosalinda’s mother.”
“She was in Garra’s gang. When Irma became pregnant she finally woke up and wanted to leave the gang life. Esmeralda helped her and her baby Rosalinda to escape. Irma was given a hiding place in the Mudéjar orphanage. Esmeralda took Rosalinda to the United States.”
“Why did she bring Rosalinda back here?”
“That is something that Esmeralda will tell you when she is ready.”
This was all too much for me, “Who are you people?” I asked in exasperation.
Arturo made a face of mock indignity, “We are Christian soldiers!”
“So where did Lucas learn to fight like that? I’d like to learn that.”
“Lucas was taught by Pastor Maximón. And Pastor Maximón will be at the orphanage tomorrow.” Arturo winked, “He’s making a TV commercial.”
Arturo handed me a small yellow vegetable pod, “This is for your concussion. Chew it slowly and don’t swallow the fibers.”
I began chewing it carefully in the front of my mouth. It was bitter. After a few seconds numbness began to radiate from my lips in concentric circles over my face, my head, my neck and on down my whole body. Finally I had no bodily sensations left at all. I felt good having no feelings.
Then I heard myself think “The world is my body.”
Chapter 14 – Fire is Born
I looked over at the decorative carved blocks hanging on the wall. I knew now that they were Arturo’s copies of Mayan hieroglyphs. One was a depiction of a lizard standing on its tail next to what looked like an undulating snake. I knew without effort that it said “Fire is Born”.
I heard myself think “What is happening to me?” and then I turned to Arturo. Arturo’s skin was glowing with a blue-white light. He turned his head toward me. His eyes were no longer ethereal pink; they were yellow and cold like the eyes of a jaguar. Something was urging me to become hysterical but I didn’t. I had a vision of a tiny worm writhing under a pin. I heard myself think “That is where I placed my fear.”
Arturo was thinking, “I need your help. Watch what I am doing and do not turn away.” Arturo then appeared to plunge his big hands into Garra’s chest. There was no blood, just a ripple in Garra’s skin. I started to laugh because it looked like Arturo was washing his hands. I heard Arturo think “Don’t be a dumbass” and I became silent. Arturo removed his hands without blood and began to move his fingers into Garra’s face as if molding clay.
Arturo finally stopped and stood back. Garra began to snore. I was suddenly exhausted so I got off the chair, curled up like a dog on the floor, and fell asleep.
Chapter 15 – Asleep at the Feet of Jesus
I was on my knees bowing before the dark-skinned Jesus, begging forgiveness. He said to me, “Judas, even Evil bends to the Purpose of The Father. You can atone but you cannot be forgiven.”
I looked up into his black diamond eyes and I cried, “But the soldier who stabbed you with the Spear of Destiny is now a Saint!”
My shoulder was grabbed from behind and a voice said, “You are alone, so…”
“Alonzo! Wake up.”
I was being shaken. I opened my eyes. I was on my knees at the feet of Arturo’s statue of Jesus.
I rolled onto my butt and I saw Lucas crouching beside me and Esmeralda standing behind him in front of the altar with Arturo. I was completely disoriented.
Lucas laughed, “Hey, ‘Dorothy’, next stop: Kansas.”
“How do you feel?” asked Esmeralda.
“OK, I guess, but… I remember Arturo…”
Arturo interrupted, “The medicine I gave him was supposed to vent the pressure in the brain caused by the concussion, but sometimes it vents the mind.”
“I remember…,” I couldn’t find rational words for what I had witnessed.
Esmeralda smiled, “Arturo told us that you were sleep-walking ‘in a play’ all night.”
Arturo’s face was impassive but in his eyes I saw something peeking out. He said, “You ended up sleeping on the feet of my Jesus.”
I was startled to see Garra, shuffling up to the altar stage supported by Irma. I stood up. Garra’s face and torso were covered in welts, black and blue and green. But he didn’t look shattered and bloody like he did the night before and he wasn’t gasping for life.
Lucas said, “I guess I didn’t mess him up like I thought I did. He’s tough, I’ll give him that. Arturo cleaned him up real nice.”
Irma complained, “But he has amnesia.”
Garra’s expression and demeanor were not those of the swaggering gangster that descended on us yesterday. He was docile and quiet.
Arturo said, “The medicine worked well enough. I don’t know about the amnesia.”
Irma and Garra shuffled away up to the entrance. I was sure that Arturo knew all about the amnesia. What I had witnessed last night wasn’t being dismissed from my memory the way a dream would have been.
I asked Esmeralda, “Is everything OK at the orphanage?”
She said, “Rosalinda is fine. We’re being vigilant.”
Lucas said, “We don’t know where your guard has gone, but we’re sure not going to call the authorities to send us a replacement.”
For some reason, it seemed like the right time for me to confess, “I didn’t tell you about my guard and those two tourists who died.” I waited for a reaction.
“My guard never actually told me his name. When the tourist woman was being attacked I saw him trying to get to her through the mob. He was calling out ‘Olivia’. And she was calling out ‘Carlos’.”
Esmeralda raised a finger, “Last night Garra said that ‘Carlos’ was the threat to Rosalinda, not him, remember?”
Arturo asked, “What do you think it means?”
Esmeralda said, “I don’t know, but at least we have the name of one of the tourists: ‘Olivia’. That’s something.”
Lucas then asked me, “Anything else you haven’t told us?”
“Well, when we left the city after the killings, Irma said something strange. She said that she was ‘glad the whore is dead’ and it sounded personal. Even Itza noticed.”
Esmeralda said uneasily, “Maybe she believed the crowd’s accusations?”
“Before the killings Irma followed Carlos. She saw Carlos with the two tourists. The tourist woman seemed really attentive to Carlos. Then Irma disappeared and showed up back at El Mercado just before the trouble started.”
Lucas said, “For Christ’s sake, is there anything else?”
“No.” I didn’t tell them about the buried metal suitcase. Or the violent sexual relationship between Carlos and Irma.
Esmeralda shook her head slowly.
Arturo spoke up, “Esmeralda, you need to talk to your sister.”
Esmeralda pinched her lower lip, “This is starting to get weird.”
She looked at Lucas and nodded toward the entrance. Lucas clapped his hands once and said, “We need to get back, Arturo. Rita is meeting Pastor Maximón at the airport this morning.” Lucas hopped down from the altar and started up toward the entrance. Esmeralda went up behind him.
As I hopped down I looked at Arturo and nodded good-bye. In return he made his eyes go rapidly cross-eyed then wall-eyed, cross-eyed then wall-eyed over and over again. I didn’t laugh. I thought “Why do you keep fucking with me, Arturo?”
Then suddenly I sprouted wood: I got the biggest hard-on I’d ever had. It could have been a steel pipe. “No, The Spear of Destiny” said Arturo’s voice in my head. Under the weight of that blasphemy I leaned forward and moaned.
Esmeralda heard me and turned, “What happened? Are you alright?” She came back and took my arm the way she did in the little museum, so tenderly. I had to stay bent forward to hide my predicament. Esmeralda thought she had to support me so she pressed my arm tightly against the side of her breast. My cojones began to throb and cramp. I heard Arturo’s voice in my head again, saying it as if I should be thinking it: “Arturo, you magnificent bastard.”
Chapter 16 – The Children of the Ground Floor
I insisted on riding “shotgun” in Irma’s Rover “to avoid getting carsick”. Irma, Garra, and Esmeralda sat in the back. Lucas was driving. I placed both hands over my embarrassment. Lucas looked over at me.
I glared into his eyes and lifted my hands to reveal my predicament. He looked down and then back at me and he said “I’m impressed” and then we both started laughing. As soon as I acknowledged the humor of my predicament my embarrassment deflated.
“What is so funny?” hollered Esmeralda.
“Alonzo brought his own shotgun.”
“I don’t get it. And I don’t want to know,” said Esmeralda wrinkling her nose.
When we finally arrived at the entrance to the Mudéjar orphanage we saw the apprentice pastor Marcos waiting for us, holding little Rosalinda’s hand. Marcos was tall and slender with veiled eyes and a pock-marked face. He usually kept his face tough and impassive. I always thought of him as some convict who had found Jesus.
We got out of the Rover and walked over toward Marcos and Rosalinda. Marcos let Rosalinda go running to Irma. “Mama, mama!” she squeeled. We stood in a big circle. Rosalinda looked up at the badly bruised Garra not knowing that he was her father. She stared and neither of them said anything. Then she looked over at me.
To break the tension I said, “Hi, little sweetie.”
Rosalinda replied very seriously, “I’m not a ‘little sweetie’.”
“Oh. Hi, little angel.”
She smiled, “I’m not a ‘little angel’.”
“Oh. Hi, little tadpole.”
She giggled, “I’m not a ‘little tadpole’.
“Oh. Hi, … little octopus.”
She shrieked with delight and ran over to me.
“I’m not a ‘little oct-pus’.”
“Are you sure? You sure look like an octopus.”
She grabbed my hand and hopped with each word: “I, am, a, lit,tle, girl!”
“Well, if you say so.”
When I looked up the others were smiling at us. Esmeralda said, “Alonzo, if you feel up to it, why don’t you watch Rosalinda for a little while. We have to get ready for Pastor Maximón. Irma and Garra can have some time together.”
Irma said, “Rosalinda, show Alonzo where your Play Room is.”
Rosalinda corrected her, “His name is Cesar.”
“Rosalinda, my name is Alonzo, too. I’m Alonzo Cesar León Navarro.”
Rosalinda laughed like it was a joke and leaned far backwards to drag me with her, “Come with me.”
I walked while Rosalinda hopped and skipped down the corridor to the Play Room. There were desks and tables and a hundred toys, but no other children.
She asked me “What do you want to play?”
I saw on the floor a toy piano with flat metal keys. I bent down and tapped a couple of the keys and it made a chiming sound. I sat down cross-legged in front of it, “Do you want to sing?” I asked her.
The only song I knew on piano was The Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Dah. I played the beginning. Rosalinda began to clap and flex her knees in time to the oompah-oompah rhythm. I made up my own silly lyrics:
Rosalinda is a pretty octopus.
Alonzo is in trouble every day.
Rosalinda told me she’s a little girl.
But I like Rosalinda anyway.
Rosalinda shrieked with delight and she hugged my arm. She held it the same way Esmeralda did. I stopped playing. Rosalinda ran around the Play Room in a big circle. As she ran I looked at all the toys she passed.
“Rosalinda, where are all your friends?”
She stopped and became solemn, “They are getting ready for TV. I show you.”
She took my hand and pulled me down the hall to another door and opened it. The room was full of children. The room was long with beds on each side. The children were all wearing little white cloth shower robes. I saw Itza at the far end rubbing dry the hair of a little boy. I started to look closely at the children and I began to realize that they were all cripples or deformed in some heartbreaking way. A little girl on the nearest bed had no legs. She said, “Hi, Rosalinda”.
“Hi, Belicia.” Then Rosalinda looked up to me very seriously and said, “Do you want to see the pretty girls?”
“Uh, sure. OK.”
Belicia said sadly, “Bye, Rosalinda.”
We went out and then up a stairwell to the next floor. We stopped at a door and Rosalinda tried to open it. It was locked.
She clicked her tongue and said, “This door is always locked. I show you where you can see.”
Chapter 17 – Pretty Girls All in a Row
Rosalinda led me to another door. It was unlocked and it opened into a narrow hallway that was dim except for lighted portraits of little girls all along both walls. They were all smiling. They were all wearing pretty little dresses.
“Rosalinda, are these the ‘pretty girls’?”
“No. These are the good girls. They get adopted a los Estados Unidos.”
Rosalinda marched me down the hallway to a dark sitting room with a big window that looked into another room. In that other, well-lit, room I saw little girls sitting at tables writing or drawing, sitting in chairs reading, and one was practicing on a violin. They were all “picture-perfect” with their pink dresses and white sweaters. I could only tell them apart by the color of the ribbon in their hair.
Rosalinda went up to the window and turned a big dial on the wall below. I could suddenly hear the violin.
Rosalinda called-out “Hi, Carmen!”
The little girl practicing the violin looked over along with the other girls.
“Hi, Rosalinda,” said Carmen and several others in unison.
“I bring my friend Cesar.”
I felt compelled to step forward into the light cast from their room and I wiggled my fingers “hello”.
They all studied me for a moment and then they all giggled, “Hi, Cesar.”
Carmen said, “Rosalinda, have you heard? I’m going to be adopted and go a los Estados Unidos!”
Suddenly into their room from around a corner entered a young woman in an alluring black evening dress. I was immediately aroused and began to panic remembering Arturo’s little joke. But, no, it wasn’t a woman. I realized it was a little girl with a precocious made-up face, dressed like a woman.
She asked the “good girls”, with aloofness, “Who took my magazine?”
Rosalinda said shyly, “Hi, Adora.”
Adora looked toward Rosalinda and saw me. That chiquita gave me a gaze as cold and as disdainful as ever any hot chica gave me at a club. She took her missing magazine from the hands of one of the “good girls” and turned quickly to leave without another word.
Rosalinda said with awe, “Adora is a pretty girl. She will get to make movies a los Estados Unidos and meet ‘portant people.”
Chapter 18 – Blood in the Water
I got a bad feeling staring through that window at those little girls. Like the feeling I got when my father told me my mother was sick but not to worry.
“Rosalinda, we need to get back to your Play Room right now.”
This time I picked up Rosalinda and carried her as I retraced our steps out and down from the second floor. To get her cooperation I held her facing forward sitting on my left arm leaning back against my chest with my right arm holding her around her waist. “You’re flying the airplane!” I said. I released her waist and held up my thumb, “Here’s how you steer!”. She grasped my thumb and I made propeller noises, dipping and swerving as she turned my thumb. Her shrieking laughter almost hurt my ears and I wondered if this was really the best way to sneak back into the Play Room.
“Coming into the airport,” I said as we entered the Play Room. And of course there was a crowd at the “terminal”: Pastor Maximón in his wheelchair, Lucas, Esmeralda, Irma, and Itza.
“Hail, Cesar,” smiled Pastor Maximón, “I see you have conquered.”
All I could say was, “Pastor Maximón, my friends call me Alonzo.”
Lucas muttered to me, “What friends?”
Esmeralda pinched his arm.
Irma put out her arms for Rosalinda and I handed her over.
“We were just playing ‘airplane’ in the hallways,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could. Itza smiled but the way she stared at me made me feel like blood in the water.
Pastor Maximón said in a booming voice, “Alonzo, you are really going to feel good about today. We are making a TV commercial that will show the good work we do here and make an appeal for support from viewers for the Mudéjar Orphanage.”
Two men entered the Play Room with camera equipment. “’Bout ready?” smiled the husky director wearing the Oakland Raiders baseball cap. He gave directions to his cameraman partner about lighting and angles. “So, Pastor, we’re going to have children all around you and you will hold the little girl with no legs on your lap. Your wheelchair will be a nice touch, by the way. So let’s cue the children, OK?”
Itza went to a door at the other end of the Play Room and opened it. Children limped, hobbled and wheeled in like a defeated army. Itza carried little Belicia and placed her on Pastor Maximón’s lap. Itza and the cameraman arranged the children in a semi-circle behind Pastor Maximón.
Little Belicia began to weep.
Rosalinda ran over, “Don’t be scared, Belicia. Being on TV is fun.”
“OK, kid, you gotta move,” said the director.
“No,” said Pastor Maximón, “She will be fine. She is Belicia’s friend and she will comfort her little nerves.”
“You dah boss, Pastor. Let’s try one, OK?”
Rosalinda reached up and held little Belicia’s hand. Pastor Maximón snuggled against little Belicia’s cheek.
Pastor Maximón said to the camera, “Dear ones, this is little Belicia. Isn’t she pretty? But life has not been pretty for little Belicia. She lost her family and she lost her legs in the recent terrible earthquake.”
I looked at Belicia and she caught my eye. Jesus damnation, I heard her voice in my head! “I was mad at Mama and I ran away outside and I said I didn’t like her and the big earthquake came and my house fell down on Mama and my tree fell down on me and I want to tell Mama I’m sorry.”
Tears began pouring down Belicia’s face as she stared at me.
“Perfect!” I heard the director whisper.
“If not for the generosity of you, Dear Viewers, what would become of little Belicia? She has no family. Where would she go? There is no place for her except in your generous hearts. Won’t you help the Mudéjar Orphanage to help Belicia?” Pastor Maximón kissed her hot streaming tears.
Chapter 19 – The Sermon in the Basement
In the evening all of us workers and several of the apprentice pastors were gathered together into the cloister of the orphanage. I stayed close to Esmeralda. So did Lucas. We were led by Rita who was the senior apprentice pastor into a hallway and then down into a very large circular stone basement. It was illuminated by the light of many lanterns. I counted twelve corridors leading away from the large basement room. We were in the back of the crowd. There were swirls of gentle breezes, but the air smelled of moist earth.
Esmeralda told me, “This is where Arturo’s statue of Jesus was kept before it was given to that first church, over 400 years ago.”
Rita clapped and spoke up, “Attention, everyone. Please. Attention. Pastor Maximón will join us in a moment for his sermon on this eve of Palm Sunday. You will be interested to know that this ‘basement’ is actually the catacombs of the old estate.”
There arose an uneasy murmur.
Rita said quickly, “It is really a fascinating historical site which we can tour later if we so desire.”
The girls said “Eww”, the guys said “Awright”.
I don’t know what made me say aloud, “What about an earthquake?”
In the ensuing silence I could hear the rustle of all the heads turning toward me. Esmeralda looked at me with a pained expression. I heard Lucas swear “Jesus.”
Rita was ready for this, “People, people. This catacomb was built to last a thousand years. Look around you. There has been no damage even after the most recent terrible earthquake. In fact, this may be the safest place to be for a hundred miles around.”
In the ensuing murmur many eyes flashed at me in the lantern light and they reminded me of the fireflies I was seeing after Garra punched my head.
I was “saved” when the camera crew backed out of one of the tunnels while filming Pastor Maximón riding in on his motorized wheelchair. For some reason I thought of a bullring with Pastor Maximón as the matador. “I guess that makes you the bull,” came a thought into my head. I looked around. I saw the back of one head turning away from me.
Pastor Maximón stopped upon a carpet of palm leaves and olive branches. The camera crew stopped filming for a moment. The director pointed the assistant forward. The assistant placed a light behind the wheelchair for an effect of radiance. The intricate colors and shadows of the old stone walls made an attractive back-drop. Upon the wall directly behind Pastor Maximón was a cross made of twisted palm branches. The director gave a thumbs-up sign and they started filming again.
“Beloved ones,” began Pastor Maximón, “we are filming this sermon for broadcast tomorrow, Palm Sunday. Rita will lead us in a prayer before I begin.”
Rita bowed her head and others did the same. Not me. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of our Lord. Speak to us through our Pastor Maximón this evening. Guide his words.” Then Rita opened one eye and caught me watching unhumbled, “Guide our hearing. Let your message be received by all who await in faith and let it be imposed upon all who need chastising. Amen.”
Chapter 20 – Blessed is Nothing
Pastor Maximón opened his mouth and he spoke to the camera:
“Science gives us the Meaning of Life. Religion gives us the Purpose of Life.
What is the Meaning of Life? What is the Purpose of Life? The two are not the same question.
The Meaning of Life or ‘What Does All This Signify?’ is answered by the Science of Physics with the phrase ‘dynamic equilibrium’. Hear me, beloved ones: anything is permitted in physical reality as long as it comes into existence balanced by its precise opposite.
The Science of Physics tells us that sub-atomic particles come into existence, and can only come into existence, ‘holding hands’ you might say, as particle and anti-particle, spinning in opposite ways. But they must instantly ‘let go of each other’s hand’ and fly apart to continue what we call ‘existence’. When they meet again, or ‘join hands’ again, they truly vanish. They once again become ‘empty space’, ‘nothingness’. Or ‘No Thing-ness’, as someone once explained it to me.
Hear me, beloved ones: This creation and destruction is happening all the time on the sub-atomic level and the sub-atomic level is the canvas upon which we are all painted.
In the Science of Mathematics there is no difference between the phrase ‘add positive-x and negative-x‘ and the term ‘zero’.
In other words, anything is possible in physical reality as long as it adds up to zero, to nothing. Hear me, beloved ones: physically we all add-up to nothing.
So there it is: the elegant Meaning of Life.
But why should Life exist at all? ‘Because it can’, Science would answer. And that is the only answer Science is allowed to give. But Religion, the opposite of Science, now speaks to us.
What is the Purpose of Life, the Purpose of All This? Toward what End is All This moving? Toward Nothingness? Science has demonstrated that we don’t need a ‘Purpose’ to move to Nothingness.
Is our Purpose just to survive? Again, Science has demonstrated that we don’t need a ‘Purpose’ to survive.
So, beloved ones, is there no Purpose? Can we make of All This anything we want? Our ‘Modern World’ is based on such a premise, isn’t it? Anything goes? ‘Do your Own Thing’ before it becomes a No-Thing? A No-Thing along with all those magnificent, mindless, sub-atomic particles?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the Passover the crowds greeted him saying ‘Hosanna’ which means ‘Liberate Us”. They believed that he was the Messiah, come to rescue them from Roman tyranny. But, beloved ones, I say to you that he came to liberate all of us from the mindless tyranny of a Life Without Purpose.
And the Purpose that Jesus gave us was…”
Suddenly the catacombs shook. Blinding dust exhaled from between all the stones. The lantern light shuddered on the walls like the flames of Hell. Dirt rained down upon our heads. There arose wails of terror.
“Esmeralda!” I cried.
Chapter 21 – Dust to Dust
I turned to Esmeralda and I saw Lucas shielding her from the falling earth. The shaking stopped but the dust kept roiling. The lantern glow turned red and the bright orb of each lantern flickered and grew dim.
“We’re going to suffocate” screamed one of the workers. I heard sobbing. Everyone was coughing.
“It’s the dust” shouted Rita, “Cover your mouth and nose with your prayer cloths!”
Rita held her cell phone above her head and turned on its piercing blue light. In the hellish dim she looked like the Statue of Liberty. “Quickly. Use your cell phones and make sure each other is OK. Line up in your workgroups. I’m going to call roll and then we’re getting out of here all together!”
The camera man turned his video lights back on and swept the room like a searchlight dispersing in murky fog. That was helpful, but I realized he was filming.
I saw Esmeralda push herself from Lucas’ embrace, “Help the others, Lucas. I’m OK.”
Pastor Maximón yelled at the camera man, “Keep the light on the people so they can muster!”
Rita knew the workgroups by heart, “Marcos’ group: Miguel”, (Here), “Rico”, (Here), “Diana” (Here)…
The Video Director hollered to his camera man, “Over here, Bobby. I can’t open the stairway door.” The video light revealed the Director with his T-shirt pulled up over his nose and mouth, facing the metal door. The door bulged inward in the fanciful shape of a forehead with horns. There were several screams.
I shuffled with Lucas and Esmeralda to Professor Maximón’s side. Lucas said, “Boulders have shifted into the stairwell from the earthquake.”
Professor Maximón lowered the prayer cloth from his mouth and I heard him say grimly, “That was no earthquake.”
“How do we get out of here, sir?”
“I can’t see!” shouted a worker. Then another. And another. I rubbed my eyes with my dirty hands. I was going blind with everyone else. “It must be the dust!” said Esmeralda. I watched Esmeralda fade from my vision. It was like dying.
Chapter 22 – Going Into the Light
“Can anyone still see?” cried Rita.
There was a moment of terrifying silence.
“Oh, God, help us!” There was weeping and lamenting.
And then I saw a glow that appeared to be coming from one of the catacomb tunnels. “I can see a light!” I shouted.
“Where?” called out Pastor Maximón.
“There. Over there!”
“Can anyone else see the light?” he asked.
All murmured hopefully, but said “No.”
I turned to everyone and their shapes were becoming illuminated by the glow from the tunnel. I saw the glistening of their eyes groping for light.
Esmeralda spoke up, “Alonzo, if you can see you have to get us all out of here.”
Lucas said, “How do we know he’s really seeing anything? Maybe he’s hallucinating.”
“I can see you all,” I cried. I looked again toward the glowing tunnel. This time I was startled to see a distant figure beckoning. “Someone is in the tunnel! He’s waving us to come!”
Lucas protested, “I think Alonzo is out of his mind. Why can’t anyone else see what he’s seeing?”
Pastor Maximón said, “Alonzo, your ‘hallucination’ may be our only hope. Lead us out of here.”
Rita said, “Alonzo, you have to make sure we are all together.”
Esmeralda reached toward me and I took her hand, “Alonzo, if you can really see, make sure everyone is holding onto someone else and lead us all in a line.”
I heard Rita call out, “Everyone, grab the shoulder of the person in front of you. Work groups, first person grab the shoulder of the last person in the work group to your left. Help them, Alonzo.”
I lead the rows to link up head to tail. Rita insisted on being the very last. She was the last of our ministry group, but I placed the Video Director and the camera man behind her. I could see everyone like there was no dust. But in the illumination of that glow, everyone was black and white, as if in moonlight. I saw Lucas bend near Pastor Maximón so that the legless Pastor Maximón could clamber onto his back and hang onto his shoulders. I lead the leader of the first workgroup to clutch Pastor Maximón’s belt. I put Lucas’ hand on Esmeralda’s shoulder and then I took Esmeralda’s hand in my own.
“Let’s go,” I said and I pulled my caravan of doubtful followers into the glowing catacomb.
Chapter 23 – The Hornet’s Nest
I held Esmeralda’s hand. I leaned forward to pull her and the human chain coupled to her. Into the illumination of the catacomb tunnel I guided my blinded followers. I heard scuffing feet, stumbling, and sobbing behind me.
“Take it steady,” called out the legless Pastor Maximón who was clinging to Lucas’ shoulders. “Steady pace together.”
Rita, near the end of the human chain, spoke up with calm authority, “Everyone, all together with short steps. Right, left, right, left, right, left.” And soon the line of workers was scuffing in the same amplified cadence.
I looked back at them all. That unified sound seemed to instill confidence. The sobbing was subdued.
Lucas called to me, “What you are seeing, Alonzo?”
“You mean, what am I hallucinating?” In the middle of this disaster I was still irritated that he had doubted me to everyone else. “Maybe you should ask your ‘Guarding Angels’ for help,” I sneered.
Esmeralda spoke up, “They can’t reach us here.” Whatever that meant, she made me feel foolish for being peeved.
The figure far down the tunnel reappeared and gestured for me to come toward him. “I see him again!” I cried.
“I don’t like this. Why won’t that person come near us?” asked Lucas.
Rita called out to all of us. “I can breathe now. Is the dust gone?”
“There’s no dust here,” I hollered back to her. In this weird illumination we were all still sheer black and white as if we were all pen and ink animation. I noticed the Video Director and his camera man right behind Rita. They were whispering and filming blindly.
“Where are we now, Alonzo? Something has changed,” said Esmeralda.
The path of the tunnel had taken us into a large round chamber illuminated by the same diffuse directionless light.
I blinked, “Hostia puta!”
Esmeralda, Lucas, and Pastor Maximón called out together, “What do you see?” “What now?” “What is it?”
“There are statues along the walls of this chamber.”
What I dared not tell them was that each statue was placed in an alcove that was decorated by skulls, hundreds of skulls, artistically stacked and secured in vertical rows, framed by long bones. I counted softly “…ten, eleven. Twelve statues. They look like Saints. But they are holding swords.”
“Are they catacomb mummies?” asked Pastor Maximón. Several of the girls whimpered.
“I, I don’t think so. They look real. Alive. Like Arturo’s Jesus! This is so weird.”
Then I realized what was odd: I could see the statues in all their elaborate realistic color. The statues looked like full-color photographs while we remained black and white. I rubbed my eyes. It had to be a dream.
The camera man shuffled last into the chamber and was filming blindly in a circle.
Chapter 24 – The Scorpion
The figure in the distance of the glowing tunnel reappeared and gestured urgently for us to approach him. A thought entered my mind, “Do you find it strange that you accept all of this as real the same way you accept dreams as real while you are in them? Maybe you are unconscious and dying back in the basement.”
“We need to keep moving,” I said curtly.
“What is it?” “What’s wrong?”
“The blind can’t sightsee. I don’t know how long this light will last.”
Rita gave us a cadence again and we resumed shuffling out of the chamber and on down the tunnel.
Finally I could see nothing but the glow all around. And there in the distance was that figure now standing with his arms spread in welcome. I could still feel solid ground so I kept pulling Esmeralda and all the others along toward the figure. Now the mysterious glow was dissipating with each step. Suddenly we were outside in the palm grove below the orphanage. It was dawn of Palm Sunday. I turned in amazement. Everyone but me then collapsed. I was terrified. There was black smoke rising from the direction of the orphanage. I knelt beside Esmeralda.
“They only sleep within a dream,” spoke the strangely familiar voice behind me and I whirled around. It was Arturo’s statue of Jesus! I mean, a man that looked just like Arturo’s statue of Jesus. And then Arturo Luna himself appeared.
“Close that tunnel in your face,” laughed the Jesus at me, “or you’ll get lost again.”
I couldn’t remain standing. I fell to my butt.
“Have a seat,” said Arturo, grinning.
“What are you doing to me?” I cried. I began to shiver.
“Guiding you to your destiny,” said Arturo with melodramatic expression.
“Smooth out your sun-dress and try to listen like a man,” growled the Jesus. “I am Abdul Aghrab. Or as you may know me, Don Gonzalo Contreras the founder of Mudéjar”
“Wasn’t he a, a, an ancient conquistador?” I stammered.
The man amended, “He is a brilliant conquistador whose swordplay was so feared he became known as The Scorpion. You have met my twelve men back there. They are known to my enemies as The Hornet’s Nest.”
“What do you want from me?” I could not wake up.
“We have been waiting for you for a very long time,” said Don Gonzalo.
Chapter 25 – The Scorpion’s Messiah
I was shocked and horrified, “What, what do you mean you’ve ‘been waiting for me’? How..? I don’t know you.”
Don Gonzalo looked toward Arturo Luna. Arturo said to me very carefully and precisely, “There are individuals born with a life force that spills over and allows Don Gonzalo and his men to live again. If you grant it.”
Don Gonzalo explained, “Five hundred years ago Arturo Luna granted me and my men immortality in exchange for sparing his village. It was a devilish joke, but he has kept his word. He sealed us with his potions but we must draw our life from others.”
Arturo winked at me.
Don Gonzalo continued, “You can think of yourself as our Messiah. But like all Messiahs you must serve.”
Arturo said, “Alonzo, I suspected that you were special when you fell asleep at the feet of my ‘statue of Jesus’. That was the sign. But without your conscious granting of your life force, I have been forcing you so that you can make a choice.”
Don Gonzalo said, “In exchange for your ‘service’ my men and I could make you a king!”
“I don’t want to be a king! Arturo you’re freaking me out!”
“You could jump from that cliff and we would keep you from harm.”
Arturo asked him, “Could he turn that stone into gold, or, if he’s modest, a loaf of bread?”
Don Gonzalo raised his hand in dismissal, “An old trick.” He then added, “He could turn that palm tree into a marijuana plant,” and they both laughed. I shuddered with terror.
“You are the Devil!” I shrieked. I began to black out. Thank Almighty God I was going to wake up.
I did awaken but with a terrible headache. I was lying in the grass. I rose up on my knees. Through blurry vision I could see all the others arising from where they had fallen unconscious. Then I saw Esmeralda and Lucas embracing. They were kissing each other deeply.
I felt sick and I dropped down onto my hands. Right below my nose was a small bug scurrying. I muttered, “Hello, Alonzo. I am your God.” And then I threw up on him.
Chapter 26 – How Quickly They Forget
It was Rita who helped me to my feet.
“It is a miracle, Alonzo.” She was pointing back along our trail of crushed vegetation that led to the enormous boulder pressing the hillside. “I don’t remember how we ended up here, but we got out. All of us.”
In the palm grove the workers were gathering in clots to comfort each other and to cry from their unblinded eyes and to pray. Some looked at me and then quickly looked away. They hadn’t thought of me as one of themselves since the bust at the airport. I figured that they must really be afraid of me after all that just happened.
“Rita, did you know about that tunnel?”
“What tunnel?” she asked gently.
“What tunnel? That tunnel!” I pointed toward the boulder.
Rita looked at me quizzically. I became insistent, “The tunnel we just came out of? The glowing tunnel? The one that the boulder is now blocking?”
Rita looked at me and smiled sympathetically as she petted my shoulder, “We experience miracles in our own way, Alonzo. What I remember is the earthquake and being afraid for everyone. Then I couldn’t see.”
“Don’t you remember anything else?” I cried.
“I don’t really remember anything else. There must have been some kind of gas released by the earthquake. Just before I woke up I was dreaming that I was holding onto the shoulder of an Angel who led me here.”
I held my head in frustration. Rita said, “Don’t worry about it. The point is that we are all safe. Just keep breathing the fresh air.”
Who was dreaming? I slowly realized that none of them remembered what I remembered. I should have been glad, but, Thank you Jesus, I was now just a freak losing his mind. I had led them out of their blindness, hadn’t I? But toward me they were still blind.
I couldn’t blame them. I was a loser. I was pale and wobbly and I still had the bad headache that had turned my angry despair into vomiting when I saw Esmeralda let Lucas kiss her like that. Yeah, some miracle, alright.
Lucas was facing Esmeralda and he called to Rita, “We have our Angels back.” Lucas and Esmeralda knelt so that they could join hands with the legless Pastor Maximón. Rita joined their circle. They faced each other and began to nod. The dawnlight illuminated the faint gold crosses on their cheekbones.
“Jesus”, whispered Lucas shaking his head. He briefly looked away up to the plume of black smoke rising over the hill from the direction of the orphanage.
Esmeralda whispered, “Gabriel, are they alright?”
Pastor Maximón whispered, “Michael, what are you hearing?”
Rita whispered, “Ariel, is it safe to return?”
Finally they all said “Amen”.
Lucas took the lead now. With Pastor Maximón lifted again up onto his shoulders, he held Esmeralda’s hand and called back to all of us, “Follow us. Stay together. Get in a line again. Rita, you make sure we have everyone.”
Pastor Maximón asked Lucas to stop and turn to face the workers. The Pastor raised himself high up over Lucas’ head with his straight and muscular arms. He assured us all in his confident tone, “We’re going back up to the orphanage. There has been an incident, but it seems to have passed. We’re going to be fine if we just keep together.”
That’s when I noticed the Video Director and his camera man. They had been watching Re-Play but the Director now said, “Stop. Save the battery for what’s coming.”
Chapter 27 – Mateo, Marcos, Lucas, and Juan
The Agent suddenly says, “Fucking bullshit, kid!” and stops me from telling what happened.
The Interpreter lady is startled and looks at him, “What is wrong?” she asks.
The Agent stands up, “I can’t listen to this anymore!” and he stabs his finger towards me. “People died. That girl was mutilated. And you think we’re going to sit here forever listening to your bullshit stories? What is wrong with you? What are you hiding?”
– You think I could make this up?
“Yes! Yes, I do.” growls the Agent.
The Interpreter lady seems to be on my side and tries to mollify him, “So far nothing he’s said contradicts… what we know.”
“Well, do we know anything about fucking magic scorpions and ghost warriors? Do we?”
I used to go through this same shit with my father and my mother. The Interpreter lady tries to be cool and says, “Let him go on. We are here just to gather statements, and that is all.”
– Thanks, mom.
Why did I say that? She turns on me, “Shut your mouth! Do you think this is a joke? Que mierda, que?” Just like my mother. She catches herself, closes her eyes and sighs, and then says, “Tell us the truth, Alonzo.”
– Yeah? Then where was I? Oh…
We had escaped from the cave-in at the catacombs. I know what I saw … what I thought I saw, but now all that was like a fading nightmare. All of us now trudged around the hill toward the orphanage under that mushroom of black smoke. Near the orphanage walls Lucas halted all of us and then he went on ahead still carrying Pastor Maximón on his back. All I could think of was that I was glad he hadn’t kissed Esmeralda “good-bye”. I stood near Esmeralda at the head of our ragged line of La Paloma Blanca Ministries volunteers. Rita was ‘way in the back. The Video Director and his cameraman approached us.
“What happened? Why are we stopping?”
Esmeralda told them, “They’ve gone on ahead to make sure it is safe.”
“What is ‘safe’ after what we’ve been through?”
Esmeralda whispered, “There was no earthquake. There has been an explosion.”
“An explosion?” repeated the cameraman.
“Shhh,” hissed Esmeralda.
I don’t know why she thought she was still protecting everyone. But then the apprentice pastors Mateo, Marcos, Lucas, and Juan appeared.
All of them were holding weapons.
Chapter 28 – Arms Of Fire
The apprentice pastors Mateo, Marcos, Lucas, and Juan were holding handguns that were the length of their forearms. I wondered with bravado just which sacrament this was for.
“¿Qué sacramento era esto?”
“Shut up, pendejo,” growled Lucas. “Everybody follow us. Quietly.”
I looked to Esmeralda. She said nothing but motioned me to obey. Lucas wagged his weapon and glared at the two cameramen and they understood to film nothing. Mateo went to the end of the line of La Paloma Blanca Ministries volunteers and whispered to Rita. All whimpering was shushed. The procession started moving like a centipede on tip-toes through the jungle.
I had always known that there was something suspicious about these apprentice pastors and now I asked Esmeralda directly, “Who are you people? You aren’t really…”
Lucas turned back to me, “Shut-UP!”
Esmeralda frowned and shook her head at me.
We passed through a breech in the wall of the Mudéjar orphanage and we were led through the entrance of the main house and into the corridor that surrounded the cloister. The cloister grounds had sunken into a great shallow crater that still exhaled smoke. Beneath that were the catacombs where we had been trapped. My nightmare revived in tatters: the catacomb mummies, the strange light …, but there had been something else…, something insanely impossible. It peeked just around the corner of my memory.
Esmeralda’s aunt Itza called out from across the cloister, “The children of the ground floor are accounted for!”
Esmeralda called back, “Where is Irma?”
Itza shook her head ominously, “We cannot find her or little Rosalinda.”
I didn’t restrain myself, “Are they upstairs with the others?”
I felt Mateo’s elbow in my back and he asked me, “What do you know about upstairs?”
“Rosalinda showed me,” I felt cocky, like I was now someone to deal with, “The adoption room, the good girls, the pretty girls. It was pretty weird if you ask me.”
Esmeralda seemed alarmed, “What are you talking about?”
Even Lucas listened quietly as I described the narrow hallway with all the portraits of little girls along both walls, the dark sitting room with a big window that looked into another room at all the little girls picture-perfect with their pink dresses and white sweaters, the girls that little Rosalinda called the good girls, and then the precocious girl Adora who Rosalinda called one of the pretty girls who gets to “make movies and meet important people”.
The apprentice pastors glanced quickly at each other and then Lucas said, “Show us.” He then told Marcos to prepare to escort all the La Paloma Blanca Ministries volunteers along with Rita and Itza back to Itza’s house, “But give us a few minutes to search upstairs. I don’t think they’re going to bother you again.”
I asked, “Who is they?”
Nobody answered me.
Mateo, Lucas, Juan, Esmeralda and I moved cautiously upstairs. I took them to the unlocked door that little Rosalinda had led me to before. We went down the narrow hallway that was dim except for lighted portraits of little girls all along both walls. We came to the dark sitting room with the big window that looked into the well-lit room beyond. There was nobody there. I went up to the window like Rosalinda had done and I turned the big dial on the wall below. I called in, “Is anybody there? Carmen! It’s me, Rosalinda’s friend Alonzo…, I mean Cesar. Cesar, Carmen! Is Rosalinda there? Hello!”
We were all tense. Then Carmen appeared in the room beyond, peeking around a corner. “Cesar? We’re being good. Everyone is being still.”
Esmeralda spoke up, “Carmen, dear, querida, I am Esmeralda. Irma’s sister. Is Irma with you? Is little Rosalinda there?”
Carmen replied shyly, “Irma and Rosalinda left with all of the pretty girls.”
I asked, “When, Carmen? When did they all leave? Where were they going?”
Carmen pulled back around the corner but she was saying, “After the earthquake. Men came with her. They all left. She told us to stay and be quiet and someone would come later. She was crying. But we have all been good.”
Esmeralda said, “We know you have been very, very good. Everything is ok, querida. We are here for you.”
Lucas whispered to Esmeralda, “Ask her how we get in there.”
Esmeralda cooed, “Carmen, querida, how do we get in there to be with you?”
We heard Carmen from around her corner, “There is a door here. But it is locked from the outside.”
Lucas turned, “Let’s go.”
Mateo said, “Trying to find that door will waste time.”
Juan said, “Shoot the glass!”
Esmeralda said, “Well you can’t shoot the glass; it’s too dangerous with the girls in there. Lucas?” and she pointed to his weapon.
Lucas stepped forward and raised the stock of his hand weapon, flipped a cap open on the butt, and laid the butt against the glass. Mateo and Juan did the same thing. They started rubbing the edge of their gunstock butts rapidly up and down against the glass then sideways across the glass. There was a scraping, crunching, chewing sound and there appeared grooves in the glass, deeper, deeper.
When they had cut a big tic-tac-toe grid into the glass Lucas said, “Step back!” Esmeralda took both of my upper arms from behind and pulled me back against her. I crossed my arms and laid my hands on hers. Her hands were like ice so I must have been on fire.
Lucas commanded the other apprentice pastors, “OK, together. NOW,” and Lucas, Mateo, and Juan gave some awesomely precise kicks to the glass. The cut panes fell flat into the other room and didn’t even shatter.
I felt dangerously bold holding Esmeralda’s hands and I said, “I don’t remember that in catechism.”
Lucas turned to see me against Esmeralda and he glowered, “How’d you like me to teach it to your face, pendejo?”
He must have looked into Esmeralda’s eyes behind me because he quickly turned and climbed into the lighted room followed by Juan and Mateo, “Girls, come on. It’s OK. We’re here to get you where it’s safe. Come on, quick.”
I heard Carmen say, “Irma told us to wait.”
Esmeralda called into the lighted room, “Querida, we are the ones you were waiting for, believe me.”
The girls all came around that corner in their pink dresses and white sweaters. Their heads were sheepishly bowed, each with a uniquely colored ribbon in her hair. They climbed down through the openings cut in the glass and joined Esmeralda and me in the observing room. There were about fifteen of them.
Juan and Mateo and then Lucas called out, “Clear!”
Esmeralda asked Carmen, “How long ago did Irma and Rosalinda and those men leave here?”
Carmen whispered, “I had to pee three times.”
We led our pink flock of little girls back to where Marcos and Rita were waiting with the ministry volunteers. Marcos instructed the thirty volunteers to shepherd the little girls back all together with them to Itza’s house. As usual Rita was last, watching for any stragglers. She turned a worried eye back to us as she and Marcos left with the group and she blew us a kiss and then crossed herself.
Lucas barked behind me, “What are you still doing here, pendejo?” He shoved me toward the departing group.
I stumbled forward and then turned in defiance, “Hey, asshole! I know something that might help!”
Esmeralda was waving to Rita and said to all of us, “Guys, they’ve got about a ten-hour start on us. But they won’t be able to move very fast if they have taken some of the young girls.”
“Who is they?” I asked in exasperation. Toward Lucas I spat and said, “And I do know something weird that must have something to do with all this.”
Esmeralda with just a shake of her head stopped Lucas from kicking my ass, “Tell us, Alonzo.”
I was talking really fast, “After those tourists were killed I followed Irma and she buried a metal suitcase outside the orphanage wall. Little Rosalinda followed me and found me trying to dig up the suitcase. I stopped to take little Rosalinda back to the orphanage. Esmeralda, when you and Irma and the others found me coming back through that wall Irma must have figured it out. Maybe Rosalinda told her. Irma threatened me if I told anyone about the suitcase. None of you would have believed me anyway, right?”
Esmeralda sighed, “Alonzo…”
I felt a pang but I kept talking, “That’s what Irma said! Later Carlos, my guard, came to Irma’s room and when he hit her she told him that she had hidden the suitcase. Then Irma said that two different people would want to kill Carlos if he didn’t have their suitcase.”
Esmeralda interrupted, “Your guard? Carlos? He hit her? Carlos? Why would he do that?”
“Because Carlos had been talking to the tourist lady that got killed! Irma saw him and she did something. Irma was really, really mad. And then Carlos was really, really mad!”
Lucas was losing it, “How the fuck could you know any of this, you lying little pendejo?”
I screamed back, “Because I was at El Mercado with Irma, Carlos, and Itza. Carlos left me and went off to the town center and Irma followed him acting weird. Yes, I followed Irma. I was fucking bored shopping for vegetables with Itza. I saw everything! I lost Irma but I saw the tourist lady and man die! I saw the tourist lady waving her arms on fire,” the memory burned my eyes and I almost cried, “And Irma returned just before we got the hell out of La Antigua.”
I had a revelation like it was whispered in my ear, “Oh, my, God, that’s why Irma was so vicious about the poor dead tourist lady! Irma didn’t care about any kidnapped children! She was furious because Carlos… must have been fucking the tourist lady! And later Irma made me hide in the closet when Carlos showed up suddenly. That’s when he hit her and when she told him she had hidden the suitcase! Then they fucked. It was sick. When Carlos left, Irma threatened me again not to tell anyone about anything and she threw me out!”
Juan said, “This kid’s making my head hurt, but its making sense. What else have we got?”
Esmeralda, Mateo, Lucas, and Juan looked at each other and silently digested among themselves what I had said.
They all then nodded and Esmeralda said to me, “So show us the suitcase.”
(To be continued)
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