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Koan

 

Get a free novella from Tim Gorichanaz when you join the fiction fan club!

 

 

In Sun & Moon, life on a primitive island takes a turn for the worst after the village elder receives an ominous vision from the Sun. How can you do what’s right when everyone else is doing what’s wrong?

 

 

 

 

Get your free copy at http://timgorichanaz.com/books

 

Koan

 

Tim Gorichanaz

 

Text Copyright 2016 Tim Gorichanaz

All rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You know the sound of two hands clapping.

Tell me, what is the sound of one hand?

 

Hakuin Ekaku

 

Chapter One: Business Arrangements 3

Chapter Two: S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria 12

Chapter Three: Wax & Pollen 24

Chapter Four: Rumors 36

Chapter Five: Fire 48

Chapter Six: Whispers 59

Chapter Seven: A Child Is Born 66

Chapter Eight: Many Lives 74

Chapter Nine: Life After Life 88

Chapter Ten: An Unacceptable Paradox 99

Chapter Eleven: Wonder 111

Chapter Twelve: Agony and Ecstasy 121

Chapter Thirteen: Una Mala Noche La Tiene Cualquiera 134

Chapter Fourteen: Pawns 141

Chapter Fifteen: Revelations 149

[] Chapter One: Business Arrangements

 

“Did you have fun tonight?”

“Yeah,” said María Teresa, looking at her shoes. She hadn’t really been listening. Instead, she was thinking about tomorrow—and what she was going to do. She was thinking about the monastery—and the miracle she so desperately needed.

“Come on.” Guillermo nudged her. “It wasn’t that horrible, was it?”

She blushed. “No,” she said, shaken from her thoughts. “I had fun. Dinner was nice.”

“Well,” said Guillermo, “I’m glad you liked the food at least. Hopefully in time you’ll enjoy my company, too.”

“I do enjoy your company,” she said, trying to soothe him. It would have been true a few months before, but not now.

“Sometimes you don’t act like it.”

“Sorry. It’s just—”

“I understand. You don’t have to explain. It’s just the situation we’re in. But we should try to make the best of it, otherwise we’ll both be miserable.”

“I know…”

“Do you like me at all?” It was the first time he’d sounded uncertain all night. She looked up at him. Even his hair, short and black and usually so disciplined, was wavering onto his forehead. He was still handsome.

“Guillermo,” she said. “Of course I like you. You’re a perfect gentleman.”

“Just not… what you were hoping for?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I was hoping for anything.”

“You think too little of yourself.”

“I mean, I didn’t really have any expectation.”

“I know what you’re saying. It’s not like either of us has a choice, anyway.” He smiled. After a moment he added, “A terrible way to look at life, perhaps, but it’s the truth.”

They continued walking, but neither said anything for a while. Both were pretending to casually take in the sounds of Madrid at night, though really each was desperately trying to figure out what, exactly, would be the most appropriate thing to say next. It was the truth, as Guillermo said, and some truths had sharp corners that just couldn’t be softened.

Still, what beautiful night sounds they were: the muffled bass lines from bars and restaurants, fading in and out as they passed by, the din of conversation of the people gathered outside the bars, the patter of footsteps going every which way, with the here-and-there notes of high heels striking the ground, uneven as their wearers navigated the cobblestones. The pleasant melodies of someone toying with a guitar in the plaza a few streets down, growing louder at intersections, and the chatter of the partiers drinking in the streets, all underlined by the whir of automobile engines and punctuated every so often by a honking horn or siren.

“Here we are, linda,” said Guillermo, coming to a halt. “Are you sure you want me to leave you here? It’s dark. I can walk you home. It’s no problem, really.”

“See? A perfect gentleman. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Goodnight, Guillermo.”

“Goodnight.” They kissed on the cheeks. Not that it was really kissing, seeing as no lips touched skin—they smacked instead at the air. It was the pragmatic goodbye of friends, and there was nothing romantic about it, not so much as a lingering gaze. Thus it was hardly befitting as the parting gesture of two people who were destined to be married.

Then again, María Teresa had no interest in marrying Guillermo—none whatsoever—and so it was hardly to be expected that she should express any romance in her goodbye, especially given the delicate nature of their relationship: Urged on by their parents, they’d been seeing each other for almost a year. María Teresa was at first, if not delighted, at least charmed; Guillermo was María Teresa’s first boyfriend. But things had taken a turn for the worst after one uncomfortable night in late April, not long after María Teresa turned fifteen. It was now June, and the situation between María Teresa and Guillermo hadn’t much improved.

Even if she didn’t have ambivalent feelings about Guillermo, María Teresa wouldn’t have tarried in getting away from him tonight—she was already late for meeting Álvaro.

She turned toward home and walked tentatively, checking over her shoulder until Guillermo was out of sight. He had a habit of suddenly reappearing after they parted for the night; tonight it would only delay her further. As he walked away, she saw him fish what could only be a pack of cigarettes from his pocket—he didn’t think she was watching. Once he was gone around the corner, she turned toward the park and doubled her pace.

María Teresa and Álvaro always met at the same place: their rose garden. They called it theirs, anyway. But then, so did every other couple that lingered over its public tiles. Long had it been the purview of Spanish lovers to meet in flowery gardens under cover of night—ever since the Middle Ages, when the Moors began designing and installing them, perhaps for that very purpose.

Álvaro was waiting on their usual bench, twiddling his thumbs. His head was bowed only slightly, but his shaggy hair obscured his face entirely. María Teresa wasn’t often late, but he had no reason to think he was being stood up—not like that poor sap sitting on the far bench. The guy looked positively dejected, and Álvaro couldn’t help but feel bad for him. But there was, of course, the awkwardness of sitting alone amidst the coddles and coos of all the other couples in the rose garden, their hands wandering around each other’s bodies and their lips making slobbering suction.

“Are you waiting for someone?” said María Teresa as she approached Álvaro.

“Well, I was,” he said expansively, “but you look much more beautiful than her. That dress.” María Teresa was wearing her newest dress, and she was charmed that he noticed. “I think she forgot about me anyway. Or maybe she’s off with another guy. Hey, you wanna take off before she shows up?” He stood.

“I’m sorry, Álvaro. Dinner went longer than I planned.”

“It’s okay. I was having fun here.”

She looked around. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Anyway,” he said, “I get it. You like him better than me—it’s fine.”

She sighed. “That’s not it at all.” She idly fingered the skin above her upper lip.

“Girls don’t usually spend long evenings dining with guys they don’t like.”

“Usually. Anyway, it’s not that I don’t like him. Just not in the way we’re… supposed to, I guess.”

“I know, believe me. And I know you’ll be marrying him soon enough—and not me. I’m just happy to be with you when I can.”

“Álvaro…” Before she could go on, he put his arms around her and silenced her with his lips. He smelled good: musky, manly. They embraced, and for a while the only thing that existed for each of them was the other. But that was an illusion, and it faded soon enough. She became aware of the roughness of his face against hers, and it reminded her of the fuzz above her upper lip. She feared that one morning she’d wake up to see it had darkened into a full-on mustache—she wanted to shave it, but she’d heard that would only make it grow back darker. She pushed Álvaro away.

“I can’t do it,” she said. “None of it. I can’t do this anymore.” She sat down on the bench. “It’s like they’ve got my whole life written out for me and I’m just along for the ride. But it’s not even a fun ride. Life shouldn’t be like that.”

“No, you’re right. But maybe it’s just your outlook. I mean, they didn’t tell you to be here with me right now, did they? And look where you are.”

“Álvaro,” she said, suddenly solemn. “Did you ever get the feeling that… the world was made for a different sort of person?”

“Don’t say things like that.”

“But I can’t help it. No matter what I do—it’s just not right. It makes me angry just thinking about it. But sometimes… Sometimes I just don’t want to be here anymore.” They were silent for a few moments.

“Mari, I’d be heartbroken if you weren’t here anymore.”

“It’s not you. You know that. It’s—everything else. I just can’t take it. I don’t know what to do.”

“The only thing you can do: Take it one day at a time. Hey, school’s almost out. It’ll be summer vacation. We can see each other more. That’ll be nice, won’t it?”

“Today I woke up and I felt so sick. It was a weird feeling, like there was something foreign inside me. My head was pounding. I thought I was going to puke. And all I could think about was having to go to dinner with Guillermo. All day at school, just pam pam pam.”

“You know, I read that negative thoughts can manifest as physical sickness. Maybe that’s it.”

“I just want to feel better.”

“Cheering up would be a start. Look on the bright side: You got a good dinner, didn’t you? Better than at home, and you didn’t have to pay for it.”

Her mouth perked up. “I suppose.” She paused. “How can you be so strong, Álvaro?”

“We’ve gotta try. That’s all we can do, isn’t it? If we don’t try, what else is there?”

“I think I’m getting fat, too. Maybe I just need to stop eating.”

“No, that’s not the answer. And you’re not getting fat. You’re more beautiful than ever.” He gave her waist a loving squeeze. She chortled. “I mean it,” he said. “And look at that face: You’re practically glowing.”

“Well, that’s still only part of the problem.” She let out a great sigh. “I want to do something—fight back—but it’s just… everything keeps adding up. It keeps getting worse. I pray to God every night to go easier on me, to lighten my load a little, and it just keeps getting heavier and heavier. I don’t know how much more I can take. Sometimes I wonder if God’s even listening.”

“Maybe you have to ask in Latin.”

“Shut up.”

“Sorry.”

“Sometimes I think—you know—it’s up to me to lighten my own load.”

“There is something to be said for taking your life into your own hands. To make things happen instead of just letting them happen. You’re the only one who can make the real decisions in life, you know.”

“There’s one thing that I know would work. But it’s scary.”

“Oh, no,” said Álvaro, realizing what she meant. “No, no. Come on, get up. Let’s go for a walk. That’ll cheer you up.”

The garden was circular and labyrinthine; the rose bushes formed the walls of the maze. For María Teresa, the slow walk along the winding path was a fragrant reprieve from the thorns of her life. But it was only artificial. Roses didn’t really grow in the shape of mazes. She clasped Álvaro’s hand tightly as they went. The rose garden was one of the many sections in Retiro, the large park in the center of the city, replete with fountains, manicured hedges and a proliferation of walking paths. At this time of night, the park at large was populated with slow-walking, murmuring couples, much less romantically aggressive than those inside the rose garden. María Teresa was happy to join them. She usually liked the rose garden, but when it was crowded like this she couldn’t wait to get out—those people stirred up bad memories.

As they emerged onto a wide gravel path, the full moon was clearly visible in the sky ahead.

“There’s the medicine you need,” said Álvaro. “You know, I read that Japanese people spend a lot of time looking at the moon. They say it heals the spirit.”

“Japanese people?”

“It’s worth a try, at least. I don’t think it can hurt.”

“It is pretty, isn’t it.”

“Just like you.”

“But evil.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, “you have the sun and the moon. One has to be good and one has to be evil. So which one’s which? The sun comes out in the daytime and the moon comes out at night.”

“That doesn’t mean that it’s evil, though.”

“But evil things happen at night.”

“Maybe the moon is the speck of good amidst all the evil. Like the last thing in Pandora’s box.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Mari. We just talked about this in Señor Gozalo’s class.”

“Oh,” she said, somewhat embarrassed. María Teresa was never much for school, and she often daydreamed out of boredom in world history. She’d only signed up for it because of Álvaro—he loved the class. “Remind me,” she said.

“After Prometheus brought fire to the humans, Zeus gave Pandora—she was the first woman—a box as a gift. She opened it, and all these terrible things came out—theft, murder, greed—and they spread throughout the world. Pandora was horrified by what she’d done.”

“But it wasn’t her fault.”

“Still, she felt like it was. If she hadn’t opened the box—”

“But she didn’t know what was inside.”

“Well, she wouldn’t be the last woman to feel bad for something she had no control over.” He smiled at her. “Anyway, after all those evils left the box, there was still something in there: hope. And that’s why, even though there’s evil in the world, we can still have hope. Even though it’s dark, we still have the moon.”

“I don’t believe in that mythology stuff.”

“Oh, Mari.” Álvaro grew quiet. “I know sometimes it can seem like there’s no hope in the world… But there’s always hope, you know. That’s the truth. That’s why I’m still here.”

“What I mean is I don’t believe all that stuff actually happened.”

“But belief doesn’t enter into it; it’s just the way it is. You can’t not believe in stars or raindrops; they’re just there. It’s the same thing.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I mean, it couldn’t be true—it goes against the Bible.”

“Does it?”

“The Bible doesn’t say anything about Pandora. Jesus hated the Greeks. They were the pagans.”

“But what about Adam and Eve? It’s the same thing. Eve took a bite out of the apple and that brought evil into the world. Do you see?”

“Whatever. I don’t want to talk school right now.”

“But it’s…” He faltered. “Never mind.” His face betrayed his frustration, but it quickly relaxed.

María Teresa was eager to put it behind her, too. “I guess the moon looks pretty, though,” she said, “evil or not.”

“So are you feeling any better?”

“Maybe a little.”

“I want you to know something, Mari.” He stopped walking, and so did she, and they turned to face each other. The moon watched.

“What’s that?”

“I love you. And I would miss you so much if I couldn’t see you anymore.”

“I love you, too, Álvaro.” She looked away, ashamed.

They allowed their spirits nourishment for a few minutes, walking in silence beneath the glow of the moon. It was getting late—they both knew it—and they directed their steps toward María Teresa’s piso. If she got home too late after midnight, she’d have hell to pay—and worse, questions to answer. For all her parents knew, Álvaro was out of the picture, and she had spent the whole evening with Guillermo. But if she got home too late, it would raise her parents’ suspicion. Or, God forbid, they might call Guillermo’s parents. As painful as it was cutting her time with Álvaro short, seeing as it was the only good part of her life, she knew that if she pushed her luck too much, she’d never be able to see him again. Her father was a powerful man; if she provoked him, he’d see to that.

The shops on Serrano had long since closed, and the bars here and there were serving their last vermouths and wiping the tables, the decadent old clientele winding down their conversations. María Teresa and Álvaro turned onto Mari’s street and passed a number of closed shops and residential entryways. They slowed as they closed in on her building. It was austere and somewhat nondescript, the kind of place you’d miss easily if you weren’t looking for it. A look inside, though, revealed unmistakeable luxury. A diamond chandelier hung in the entryway, and sculpted Greek replicas posed against the walls. The marble floor was freshly polished, there were flowering plants in every corner and the porter stayed on duty the whole night through.

They stopped outside just before the doorway so that they porter couldn’t see them—he’d be the first to spread gossip. “What are you doing tomorrow?” said Álvaro.

“Church,” said María Teresa. “And then I don’t know. Some homework, I guess. Poetry—it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“So I’ll see you at school?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Have a good Sunday, then.”

“You too.”

“Can you do me a favor, though?”

“What’s that?”

“Try to be happy. You have a lot to be happy about, you know.”

She attempted to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. It wasn’t that easy, but she couldn’t explain why. Álvaro was too logical, and some things in life just didn’t make sense that way. “Okay,” she said. They kissed a lingering goodnight.

“Good evening, señorita,” said the porter. He was looking up at her over his spectacles, his hands folded atop his protruding belly. He was waiting for a response before he could revert his attention to the newspaper in front of him.

“Hi, Nacho,” said María Teresa.

“A bit late, isn’t it?”

“Not too late.”

He smiled. “Off to bed with you. A young lady needs her sleep.”

She smiled back—another grimace—and made her way toward the elevator.

“Sleep well,” he said as the elevator door began closing.

Outside, Álvaro turned to go once he saw María Teresa disappear into the elevator, stepping quickly away before the porter could catch a glimpse of him. He headed home, shuffling back down Serrano and into the adjacent neighborhood, which was much less affluent. The eminence of the buildings around him accordingly shrank as he neared his home, a good number of them in disrepair. Here, renovations were limited to the buildings in the roundabouts, with their historical, sculpted facades. No proprietors would bother spending money on the lesser buildings. The residents weren’t worth it.

Droves of glittery prostitutes hung under dark awnings, and they called to Álvaro as he passed. Deep in thought, he didn’t have ears for them. He followed his familiar tracks to his building, which was quaint and comfortably middle-class, with no marble sculptures or potted plants to speak of. His family had enough money to live, but nothing extra. Remarkably, Álvaro’s parents so valued education that they sent him to an excellent private school, the same that María Teresa attended. They were one of the poorest families at the school, but they didn’t let it bother them.

Álvaro greeted his mother, who was still up reading in her frazzled robe. She asked if he wanted a piece of fruit or some crackers with cream cheese, but he said no and that he’d see her in the morning. As he lay in bed, he thought about what María Teresa would be doing right now. He hoped she was okay. He pictured her, stepping lightly in her house—he’d been there once before and could picture it exactly.

The Colmenars lived on the top floor in the largest piso of the building, though the ones below it were by no means small. The elevator opened directly into their home, and María Teresa crept through the entryway and living room toward her bedroom, hoping not to arouse the attention of anyone who might still be awake and should find her arrival time inappropriately late. She thought of Guillermo and Álvaro—the night—her situation. Her thoughts wandered to what she was going to do tomorrow, the leap of faith she was about to take. She hoped it would make things better, but it was scary all the same.

The house was pristine, as usual. They had it cleaned twice weekly, not that it was necessary. The furniture was freshly oiled; the lemony scent, thick and pungent, reached almost into the elevator. The floor had been waxed, too, and it was almost slippery. The place was quite large, offering much more space than a family of three could conceivably need, but there were so many things—extravagant things—that there was no free space to speak of. There were elegant terra cotta pots of that held bushes and trees, all manicured. A vase of flowers without so much as a drooping petal sat on the dining room table. There was also a short pile of papers, probably documents from the flower shop María Teresa’s mother owned. Even these were stacked exactingly. The other surfaces—end tables, coffee tables and pedestals—were adorned with shiny artifacts and large hardcover books, mostly on botany. There were also a few tall bookshelves upon which sat innumerable other books, all more for decoration than information, and the remaining space was crammed with a few more vases of flowers among so many polished statuettes, pedestals and priceless trinkets that anyone who tried to count them would find their head spinning. All of the furniture, down to the most innocuous ottoman, was made specifically for the space—María Teresa’s father had them specially commissioned from a carpenter in his pueblo—and everything was exactingly arranged to align with the pattern of the parquet floor. The curtains were all drawn to the exact same level, contributing to the room’s harmonic composition. The whole piso reeked of unnecessary expense, luxuries that the Colmenars could afford because there was nothing more pressing or essential that demanded their money. But for all the well-intentioned harmony, and despite the piso’s vast size, the place was so stuffed with objects that one would have to be forgiven for thinking that it was, indeed, too small after all. María Teresa’s mother had been heard complaining about this numerous times. With a larger space, she said, there’d be more room for the other things she wanted to buy.

“Mari, is that you?” It was her mother, emerging from her bedroom. She had long dark hair and a narrow, pretty face—an older version of María Teresa. She was wearing a set of cream-colored silk pajamas with lace trim. She looked tired.

“Yeah.”

“How was it?”

“Good.”

“I’m glad. Going to bed now?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Good night.”

María Teresa could tell by her mother’s tone that her father wasn’t home yet. If Rodrigo had gotten back already, Sofía would have sounded more relaxed, perhaps whispering so she wouldn’t wake him. She had been staying up, waiting for her daughter and husband to get home before she’d be able to go to bed herself. Though it wasn’t by any means usual, it wasn’t uncommon for Rodrigo to get home between one and two in the morning. Sofía always waited.

Don Rodrigo Colmenar Santander was an important man, and with importance came late nights at work, dinner meetings, events—with more frequency than his wife Sofía would have liked. But it was because of these late nights that she could afford the luxurious lifestyle that she found so comfortable, and so she put up with it—though, if pressed, she might admit to preferring less money and more time with her husband. A bit less money, anyway. As it was, though, she spent much of her time waiting for Rodrigo to get home, and sometimes her mind took her to dark places. After all, Sofía didn’t know what, exactly, he did on a daily basis—he didn’t talk much about it—and whatever it was generally left him stressed and exhausted. She had to wonder if he was up to no good. But then, that was the price one must pay for such things. For as long as there have been circumstances, there have been trade-offs.

Rodrigo was the reason the Colmenars had such nice clothes to wear. Not only because his job made enough money to buy good clothing, but because the company he’d built just happened to be a clothing company. A decade prior, Rodrigo looked to the successful American and Italian brands and determined to do something similar in his own country. He knew next to nothing about clothes, but he had good business sense, and he surrounded himself by people who knew the textile and fashion industries inside and out.

Rodrigo was a professional schmoozer. He began by moonlighting outside his brain-dead office job, buying lunches for any manager or mogul who would answer his calls. His circle expanded, and soon he added designers and models to his repertoire. By the time he’d saved up enough to open a small store with a limited collection, he knew all the right people. He did not set out to create an empire—just a small store, maybe a few across Spain, that specialized in quality ready-to-wears that could rival the handmade wares of yore—but he underestimated his penchant for success. The stores multiplied like bacteria, making their way into cities across the country and soon even Portugal and France, and they separated into distinct strains: a brand for the well-to-do and discerning, a brand for the wallet-conscious, a brand for teenagers. There were always new brands in the works—internal developments and acquisitions alike—and stores were constantly popping up all over the place, but Rodrigo wasn’t as interested in those banalities. He was pouring all his focus into the next great frontier: the Atlantic Ocean. Oh, what Rodrigo would give to open a store in New York City.

There were a few obstacles, though, that needed tending to before this could happen. He needed more English-speaking staff and had to take care of some pressing matters at headquarters, but those were trivialities compared to the major hurdle: Office space was growing extremely limited as their business continued to expand. Rodrigo began looking for larger spaces around the city, but his next-in-lines threw up their arms, outraged, refusing to leave. The office space was perfect, they said, and their processes were so optimized for the exact space and layout of this office that productivity would suffer a hundred fold for months if they relocated. Rodrigo suspected their resistance had nothing to do with the interests of the business, but rather they didn’t want to alter their commute schedules or find a new haunt for lunch and drinks every afternoon. They’d gotten to know the owner at the place across the street, after all, and he gave them good deals.

Sure, it seemed ridiculous, but Rodrigo knew better than to alienate the people who, aside from himself, had the most power in the company. He was quite sensitive to the fact that they didn’t need him; they were so talented that any of them would be quite successful on his own. So he obliged them, and he promised that they wouldn’t abandon their original office. Anyway, one had to respect tradition.

Another option was to keep the current office but purchase additional office space elsewhere, thus operating from two locations. But this would surely require at least some personnel to relocate, and even if he could arrange it so that this wasn’t necessary, having two locations would likely engender hiccups throughout the flow of business. That wouldn’t quite work, either. At least not yet. Maybe when the business was even bigger.

The only other option, then, was to expand into the neighboring spaces. On one side was a cluster of government offices, and on the other side was an old monastery. There was no talking to the government—they wouldn’t budge—and Rodrigo had offered on several occasions to purchase the monastery and have it remodeled, but he was always met with arguments about cultural heritage and Church protection and Lord Jesus and I-thought-you-were-a-man-of-tradition that he couldn’t find a way around.

So, for now, Rodrigo was at something of a standstill. Should he move his original office or open a second location and risk angering his most powerful employees—risk losing his hold on the business altogether? Or should he fight the government, who could have his business nationalized and torn asunder with the simple flick of a quill? Should he start a war with God Himself? This last option was the most dubious of all, but somehow Rodrigo thought it just might be the only way to make it to America.

[] Chapter Two: S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria

 

It was Prometheus who brought the fruit of fire to the first humans. He came, singing the songs he learned from Sarasvati, and lifted the veil of darkness from Adam and Eve so that they might, with only one eye each, read the words written by Thoth on the leaves of all the trees. For this they were expelled from Eden. The origin of human knowledge was also the genesis of sin—the birth of spirituality. It is said that man was once one with God, but through his deeds he gradually distanced himself from that Eternal Presence. Worship, then, has always been a longing to restore intimacy with God. All peoples have partaken, though they have done so in different ways, each exploring a different facet of the same crystal.

Long ago, amidst rolling hills, near a modest river at the center of an enormous peninsula replete with plains and hills and wild olives and beasts, a group of nomads, who knew of such things, recognized that the top of one particular hill would be a suitable place to take pause and reach out to God—while keeping an eye on the surrounding territory. They erected a standing stone and sang songs around it. They buried one of their ranks who’d recently died, smearing ochre dye over the rocks with which they surrounded the deceased. They arranged other rocks in a circle around the site, leaving amulets in suggestive crevices, elaborating a sanctuary worthy of the Almighty. They wanted to create something that would last, not necessarily for centuries, but for themselves should they pass over this land again and be in need of respite. They’d been traveling long and wide and had established many such places across the countryside, and they credited their survivorship to the blessings that resulted from this practice.

The first tribe came and went, and over time other tribes happened upon the site and availed themselves of the worship facilities, singing their own songs and inscribing their own runes, adding further elaborations and modifications upon the original construction, burying their own dead in stratum upon stratum of holy earth. Some were so numerous that one would be remiss to even call them tribes. Soon they began to come with their own names: Carpetani, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Alani, Visigoths, Umayyads… One after another these groups shared this holy place, each using it according to their own traditions to honor the God of their fathers. Some tribes stayed longer than others; indeed, each successive civilization had its idiosyncrasies. But all attributed their good fortune to the grace of this ancient site, and all came and went, just like summertime, old age and ecstasy.

Rumors of healing and plenty drew newcomers to the rolling hills and soon they were perpetually occupied. Sometimes this led to conflict, but there was always respect for the holiness of the sacred site. The latest occupants of the area called themselves Spaniards or Catholics, which meant the same thing, and they erected a city brick by brick, engulfing the hills and their holy places. Nowadays the ancient site would have been unrecognizable to those early nomads, but its somber holiness would still have been felt, perhaps more strongly than ever.

S. Abbey of Our Lady Miraria, as it was now called—nobody could remember what the S stood for, but it was maintained out of reverence for tradition—was still well known for miracles. In recent centuries, it was extolled by survivors of dubious infections, successful orphans whose mothers had died in childbirth but still did well in life, farmers who reaped unexpectedly good harvests without so much as planting a seed, and kings who sank entire navies despite being vastly outnumbered. These were not simply the fancies of history, but the miracles continued to this day: On the cobblestones outside the church sat a scattered collection of abandoned crutches and eyeglasses, proof for any who might doubt. Even at this very moment, a tiny old man hopped at the abbey steps, shouting about how this morning he couldn’t see, but now he could.

The public came to the abbey from near and far, hoping to cure their dear old aunt from infection, find a spouse before their fiftieth birthday, pass an exam in school, coax the home of an enemy into burning down, inspire faith in their hoodlum children, exorcise the demons that swelled within their mother-in-law, unburden them of an unnameable bone disease, or destroy the hideous potted plants their neighbors insisted on keeping in plain view. Many who came to the monastery prayed for miracles of their own. There were even some who dared sneak into the monastery’s courtyard garden, either by scaling the rooftop in the dead of night or letting themselves through side doors during Mass, in order to steal some of the lilies that grew there. It was said that the Miraria’s flowers were enchanted, having bloomed from the same bulbs for centuries, and if they were replanted in a home they would bring miracles to the residents.

For as long as the monastery had existed, everyone believed in the miracles.

But now, for the first time in history, there was another group: the skeptics. The country had, for decades, been ruled by a fascist Catholic regime, the design of Francisco Franco. When he died, the government was revolutionized, and so was religion: The people had seen what Catholicism could do, and it left a bad taste in the mouths of many. They wanted nothing to do with the religion. As a result, rumors began to circulate that attempted to discredit any divine holding that the monastery might have had. Conspiracy theories abounded, suggesting that the monks emerged in the dead of night to leave old bandages and walking sticks near the doorway to create the impression that they were doing good in the world. Testimonials described the way the monks poked their bald heads out of their tiny windows and checked in all directions to be sure they weren’t being looked upon before scaling the pipework and scattering goodies upon the cobbles and then disappearing with their black robes into the darkness. The believers then questioned why the monks would want to attract more visitors, because didn’t they become monks in the first place because they wanted to get away from people? To which the skeptics would reasonably answer that the whole reason they had a church was to engage with the community, and they’d add that by the way monks didn’t seek isolation but actually they sought to test their faith in environments of high temptation just like Jesus Himself did when He went into the desert, and haven’t you even read the Bible? And thus the arguments continued, as did the rift.

Say what they would, María Teresa was never convinced by the skeptics. She believed that miracles happened every day, and she prayed desperately for the day when hers would come. Her Aunt Rama had been the one who instilled the faith in her when she was a little girl, back when her aunt still lived in Madrid. Aunt Rama had since moved up north to the Basque Country. Just like the Christians in the Middle Ages who fled from the invading Muslims, she sought refuge in the mountains from the threat of secularity. The Basque Country was still fervently Catholic.

María Teresa prayed every night before bed for all sorts of things. Sometimes she asked God for help in passing her tests or to make the fuzz on her upper lip disappear. Sometimes she prayed that her friends would invite her to their birthday parties and trips to the movies. Sometimes she prayed for things like world peace and an end to poverty. These prayers were even answered sometimes, but for the most part her friends were friends at school alone, and poverty and her peach fuzz persisted. Still, she felt better going to church. Somehow, it always gave her a little hope. Sometimes she prayed for her parents. Even though they were among the skeptics, she was grateful that they respected her antiquated fancies, to use their words, and allowed her to attend Mass on Sundays. Not that she understood why they didn’t go to Mass themselves: When the difference between Heaven and Hell only cost an hour a week, the choice was a no-brainer.

María Teresa donned one of her Sunday dresses and made her way to the church. She knew it was a nice dress from one of her father’s most exquisite collections, but to her it seemed hopelessly black. Today in the sunlight, though, the dress conveyed a certain sparkling energy, and this made María smile a bit. It might actually be a decent day, she thought. She was going to church—and today was Confession—and then she’d just hole up in her room and do homework and maybe listen to some music or watch TV. Maybe looking at the moon did help some, after all.

It was a short walk to S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria, and María Teresa had taken it so many times that she let her legs do the thinking. She passed a man who looked somewhat ragged, and she wondered if he was homeless. He certainly looked it, but it was rare to see homeless people in her neighborhood. She saw them in Retiro often enough, sometimes offering their services as fortune tellers, shoeshiners, poets or musicians, and she also saw them over by Álvaro’s place, and every so often outside the church door, but never where she lived. What was he doing here?

Seeing poor people always tore at her heart. She felt sad for them, for their troubled lives of begging and scavenging, and she wanted to help. Sometimes she stopped and talked to them—they often had interesting stories, and if nothing else she might at least have brightened their day with a friendly greeting. If she had a spare peseta, she always handed it over—but she almost never had any money. It was curious: In some ways, she felt just as derelict as them. More often than not, she was sure that she was all alone in the world, and she had no money to her name—she didn’t have a job, and she didn’t contribute to society in any meaningful way. If her parents stopped spoon-feeding her, she would be exactly the same as this bedraggled man. And yet she looked different, dressed different, and spent her time doing different things. There was something that set her apart from them, but what was it? Whatever it was, it was very fragile, she decided. She said a quick Hail Mary for the homeless man.

She filed into her usual pew within the church of S. Abbey of Our Lady Miraria, smiling and nodding at the other regulars who greeted her, and she knelt down before the Holy Virgin Mary and all the Angels and Saints to pray for a few minutes before the service started. Sometimes people closed their eyes when they did this, but María Teresa always thought that was a shame; ever since she first came here as a little girl with her aunt, she preferred to look upon the wondrous designs that adorned the church. Along the outer aisles were a total of four chapels, all outlined with gold fluting and flourishes, framed by Corinthian columns and angelic busts, and adorned with lesser-known paintings by better-known Baroque masters and life-size statues with folded hands and rosaries. The floor was tiled in a dizzying pattern of zigzagging whites and blues. The apse was fully paneled in sea foam arabesques and cryptic golden seals, the interplay among the forms looking something like a bygone wedding cake. Trumpeting angels sprang from the walls, proclaiming the good news of the elegant altarpiece that covered the chancel wall from floor to ceiling, a hulking wooden sculpture ostensibly chiseled from a single mammoth slab of mahogany—but who’d ever seen a tree with a trunk so wide?—and leafed with gold, this too with a dazzling succession of curls and blossoms, cherubs and crowns. The only empty space was the rectangular place near the bottom where the altar used to be fixed to the wall; after the Second Vatican Council it had been begrudgingly dragged forward so that the priest would face the congregation during the Liturgy. Candles everywhere had been lighted—the crimson one near the tabernacle, of course, never having been put out—casting flickering light on the ribbed vaulting that ran up the walls toward Heaven. It was all so decadent. The church even smelled holy—something like old leaves and lingering incense.

María Teresa was lifted from her revery as she was bumped by an old lady who’d settled right up against her. Size was one of the shortcomings of the elegant place; there was only seating for about fifty souls besides the monks, so Sundays were crowded. María Teresa wanted to say something suitably passive-aggressive, but before she could, the organ sounded.

The church’s organ was small and old by objective measures, meaning it was perfect for this church, which was also small and old by objective measures. Its pipes, a bit discolored, rose behind the congregation along the choir wall, and though their number was meager, they were certainly beautiful, if in disrepair. They were also slightly out of tune, and they produced a sound that a non-Catholic might venture to call haunting, but given the somewhat helter-skelter nature of the whole place, a slightly-out-of-tune organ was the only sort of organ that would fit.

On cue, the thurifer made his way up the center aisle spreading the scent of God throughout the church. Behind him the servers carried candles, crosses and the Gospels, and last of all came Father Xabier, the abbey priest. The whole party made a profound bow in front of the altar before solemnly scurrying to put all their implements in their respective places. The priest lay an expansive kiss over the altar, then retrieved the thurible from the thurifer and spread incense around the altar and Crucifix before settling in his sumptuous chair.

When the final notes of the organ’s hymn had faded away, Father Xabier stood up and began the Mass, saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He pronounced these words with a dryness that might have been mistaken for solemnity by someone who had not heard the priest speak them in his buoyant Latin. It was not solemnity; it was boredom. There was something about the vernacular rites that seemed to tire him. Father Xabier had always seemed overly traditional to María Teresa, but then again, perhaps that was a positive quality for a priest.

The holy man led the people through a well-practiced sequence of standing, kneeling, bowing, Sign-of-the-Crossing and sitting, with intermittent singing, responding and reciting, and, of course, reverent bouts of absolute silence. At times a door could be heard creaking, and there was always one monk who looked back to see if it was a parishioner gone exploring, perhaps heading for the cloister garden. The Catholic ritual was beautiful in itself, rich with history, but its true beauty was that no participant did any of these things alone. Rather, they did them as part of a worldwide community. Soon the very stuff of Jesus Christ her Lord and Savior pulsed through the being of María Teresa and the other congregants, and then this Mass was ended and everybody was dismissed to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, thanks be to God.

The organ bellowed again as the priestly party recessed from the altar, and by the time the hymn ended the congregation had already begun filtering from their pews towards the exit. But María Teresa and a handful of others stayed in their places; the Sacrament of Penance was being offered today, and María Teresa dutifully confessed every month. When there was space, they arranged themselves in rows outside the confessional and kneeled in prayer as they awaited the priest.

One by one the people confessed, their unintelligible murmurs echoing throughout the otherwise silent church. Soon it was María Teresa’s turn. By now her heart was beating for two—she was nervous. She got up awkwardly and shuffled into the confessional, which was something like a large armoire, and took a seat in the dark. The priest sat on the other side of a wire screen.

“Good morning,” said Father Xabier.

María Teresa always wondered if the priest could recognize her through the screen. It was supposedly meant for privacy, but she, after all, could see him more clearly than ever.

He was probably in his fifties, yet even so María Teresa couldn’t help but think of him as handsome. He was well advanced in the balding process, but it suited him well, and the close-cropped hair that remained was graying elegantly. He did not wear glasses, which seemed important, given that virtually every other older person María Teresa saw wore them. His skin was vivid, even in the relative darkness, and he looked healthy—there was no sign of sagging skin or those spots of aging that affected other men. His frame was strong and his voice was gentle, if direct. Indeed, there was something attractive about the man; perhaps it was the light of Christ shining through him. Despite all this, though, María Teresa felt uneasy being near him. She thought of rushing out of the confessional. It wasn’t too late.

“Good morning,” said Father Xabier.

She swallowed. Now it was too late. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she said reluctantly. “My last confession was a month ago.” She gathered her thoughts. Though she’d been preparing her words for weeks, her thoughts were still jumbled, still confusing. She knew she had sinned—she knew everything was sin—but she didn’t know where to begin. With a sigh, she picked a thread at random and started there. “My parents have arranged for me to marry someone.” She whispered hoarsely in a dejected, almost detached, way, and her sadness reverberated throughout the tiny wooden chamber. “I think it should be my choice, though, and besides I don’t love the guy they want me to marry. I think I love someone else. I know I do. And I know that children should listen to their parents, but they’re not even good Catholics, and shouldn’t it be my choice who I marry? I know have been disrespecting my parents—but it’s so hard.” She paused for a moment. “And not only that, but I have to confess that I have…”—she grew quiet—“done it, you know, before being married. Anyway, one time it was—not my choice, but I think it was still a sin, and the other time I guess it was my choice, but it all happened so fast. And this was even before the last time I went to confession but I was too afraid to say anything, so I think it was another sin to not confess it. Oh Father, I don’t know what to do.” Her voice trailed off, and she quickly added, “I am sorry for these and all of my sins.”

“You say you do not know what to do, “ said Father Xabier, “but Confession is certainly a good first step.” He paused for a moment, smiling comfortingly. “It may have been a long time ago, but I do remember what it was like to be a teenager. It’s not always easy, is it? But you have to keep your love for the Lord first and foremost, and if you can do that, everything else will fall into place. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father.”

“But it is not always so easy. You must know that intercourse is the supreme consummatory act. By that I mean it is an expression of the deepest love, an action that fuses two people as one—and it is an action that can create a child. No child should be brought into the world with parents who do not love each other most deeply. Sometimes we are led into temptation—I know it as well as you do—but we cannot deny that the foremost reason for intercourse is childbearing, any other pleasures or pressures notwithstanding. I don’t expect you wish to bring a child into the world at your age, and without a husband to share in the task, it would be unfair to the child. Life is short and parents die, but a child who never gets to know both his parents as a single, married unit was robbed of something vital. I know that wasn’t your intention. We are only human. Sometimes all we can do is confess our sins and pray for the Lord’s guidance and that He might make us stronger.

“Now, you say your parents are not good Catholics; let us leave that judgment to God. For as Jesus said, Let he among you who has not sinned cast the first stone. The Lord also tells us to honor our father and mother. What does this mean?”

“To listen to them.”

“Partly, yes, but there’s more to it. It means to make them proud by listening to them. To respect them. To respect that they came together as one to bring you into the world and to raise you. To respect that they want what will be best for you in the end, and that they know what this might be even if you yourself do not. It’s a question of perspective—your parents are older; they have lived a long time. All the mistakes they made and the lessons they’ve learned in life, they’re putting to work for you so that you don’t have to suffer the same way. I know it might not seem like that, but it’s true.”

“But they can’t just make me marry whoever they want. It’s my choice in the end, isn’t it?”

“They have your best interests in mind. If you disagree with their decision, then you could talk to them about it. But honor is important, young lady. Do not cast it aside so casually.”

“But they don’t control my life. I do.”

“God does, in fact. He has a plan for all of us, and that plan is first carried out for each of us through our parents. To spurn your parents is to spurn God Himself. I know it is difficult sometimes, but we must accept what we are dealt in life. Do you know the story of Job?”

“I have heard it before.”

“Maybe you’d do well to hear it again. Let me see.” Father Xabier opened his Bible directly to the page he was looking for—he knew the book so well by feel alone—and told the story of a man named Job. At first María Teresa thought he was reading, but it was clear that Father Xabier had the bulk of the story memorized. Job was a righteous man who made God proud, but Satan argued that he was only good because he had been blessed with good fortune. God and Satan tested Job, stripping him of every comfort to see how he would react. Father Xabier concluded, “And Job said: Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked will I depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. It’s not just a story—do you see? We should all endeavor to be like Job.”

“I understand,” said María Teresa, her lips pursed. She was glad for the screen, because her face was certainly red, her expression petulant. It did not matter if these were the words of God coming through Father Xabier; she did not find him handsome any longer.

“God will forgive you of these sins,” said Father Xabier, “and so that you might be strengthened from further temptation, you shall say one Our Father every night this week before you go to bed. And I trust you have a Bible at home?”

“Of course, Father.”

“I’d also like you to read the rest of the Book of Job. There’s much more to the story.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Now, please say your prayer of contrition.”

“My God,” said María Teresa, “I am heartily sorry for having offended You. I detest all of my sins because of Your just punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, who are all good and deserving of all of my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Your grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.”

“God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Amen.”

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”

“His mercy endures forever.” With this, María Teresa got up and left the church.

She stepped into the cruel sunlight and noticed right away that her dress no longer shimmered—it was more like a black hole, one that had already consumed her body and was quickly gaining on everything around it. And somewhere in that outer-space nothingness, her stomach was being jostled around, and she thought for a second that she might throw up.

The nausea passed, but a dull headache was quick to take its place. María Teresa stumbled over the cobblestones and the pangs sharpened with every movement. She wanted to be in bed—why couldn’t she just be in bed? She tried to walk faster but that only provoked her nausea. I’ll take it slowly, she thought. I just have to get through this and I’ll be able to lie in bed all day. Under the covers and I’ll never come out. She quopped home, and though the discomfort persisted, it soon dimmed from center stage, taking on a supporting role, allowing her to focus on other dismal aspects of her life. I guess it won’t be a good day after all, she thought. Her warm bed was the best thing she could think of; at least there she could sleep and get away from everything.

Usually going to church made María Teresa feel better—even when she wasn’t feeling particularly down to begin with—which made her present state all the more jarring. And confession—that should be the best of all. She usually felt relief as God forgave her of wrongdoing. It was good to be forgiven, wasn’t it? So why did she not feel good today? Something was wrong.

It was the priest; it had to be. She had gone to confess her sins and he made it seem like it was all her fault, like it was stupid of her to look for forgiveness. Was it true what he said? Did honoring your parents mean doing whatever they wanted, no matter what? Even if they weren’t honorable people themselves? It couldn’t be, María Teresa thought; it just didn’t seem right.

But still, God did say it, and what God says, goes. Would she really have to marry Guillermo? She tried to picture their life together: them waking up in the same bed, him going off to work, him coming home late and trying to touch her. It didn’t seem pleasant, and whenever she tried to see them doing something fun—going to a movie or dinner or walking through the park—she realized that he wasn’t Guillermo at all, but Álvaro. Why couldn’t Alvaro’s father have been a rich businessman? No, thought María Teresa, it doesn’t matter. Nobody can tell me what to do. I’ll love whoever I want, and I’ll marry whoever I want.

Priests don’t know anything, anyway, she thought. She remembered how Aunt Rama had told her once about a priest who said that animals didn’t have souls, but then a different priest said they did. And María Teresa knew all along they did, anyway. And then there were those priests who took advantage of their altar servers. If some priests were capable of evil, couldn’t many more priests be capable of stupidity? María Teresa remembered the priest from somewhere in Castilla–La Mancha who took all the money from collections on Sunday, bought himself a crate of strong anís and then made a habit of saying Mass drunk. She’d heard that story from her father, who saw it in the papers and relayed it as if presenting irrefutable evidence that Catholicism was wrong. No, Catholicism wasn’t wrong, Aunt Rama had assured her afterwards; priests were merely people, and people could be wrong. That was it—priests were just bumbling idiots.

But that didn’t make her feel much better. If priests were dumb, how much dumber did that make her? Still, she tried to tell herself that nobody could control her life. That didn’t turn out to be very encouraging, either; she realized that, in practice, not even she could control her life. After all, she was presently wrapped under her covers at midday, hiding from her own life. Was that the behavior of someone in control? And she was certainly not in control when it came to her date with Guillermo a few weeks back. Sure, there were moments every now and then when it felt like she might have some agency, but on a whole it did seem that she was merely a puppet. The question was: whose puppet?

The first answer that came to her was: God. She was God’s puppet. It suddenly dawned on her that this is what everyone in the Church had been saying their whole life, only they tried to make it sound a little better by saying servant instead. “So that’s it,” she said aloud, “I’m just a stupid marionette in some magician’s traveling show.” She could feel herself bumping around in God’s briefcase as he galloped to the next city, her strings getting tangled—choking her. “Let me just die already.”

She stayed under the covers for most of the afternoon, and she would have remained there all day if her mother didn’t insist she come out for dinner. “You haven’t eaten all day,” said Sofía. “You have to eat something. Don’t make me come in and pull you out.” María Teresa flopped out of bed and drudged into the kitchen. The small table, which was used for food preparation just as it was used for quick family meals (in practice, the grandiose dining room table was only used for special occasions), was set with three plates of chicken cutlet, fried potatoes and grilled asparagus, along with a small bowl of olives to be shared. Rodrigo was already sitting, his head buried in the small notebook on his lap.

“Here, have a seat,” said Sofía as she took her own. “Are you not feeling well? You look a bit sick.”

At this, Rodrigo looked up. “Oh, she’s fine,” he said. “Just pretending, trying to get you to let her stay home from school tomorrow. Is that it? I know the look—Velásquez always tried to pull that one back when I was his manager. I bet he still does it to Soza.” Sofía was annoyed.

María Teresa didn’t say anything. She only picked up her fork and poked at her food. She cut a corner off the cutlet and chewed until it disintegrated—she didn’t even have to swallow. Then she did the same with a shaving of potato. Meanwhile, Rodrigo continued talking.

“…Really trying to push this through,” he said. “Get it done, you know? Will I ever be happy when we can get this figured out.”

He had always talked this way with his family, employing the meaningless phrases of businesspeople. His words might make enough sense to anyone who’d been caught up on all the background, but neither Sofía nor María Teresa knew what he was going on about. Curiously, for all his apparent eagerness to talk, he never seemed interested in providing the necessary context for his family to understand what he was actually saying. And he never made any indication that he wanted to hear anything they might have had to say in response. He never asked them about their days, or their interests or plans or worries. He just blabbed on about the things he always blabbed on about, whatever these were. In fact, one might have gotten the impression that he wasn’t even talking to them. He was just… talking.

He did bring home bags of exclusive clothes for the girls every now and then. For María Teresa, that was all the interface with her father that she desired. Sofía, though, longed to engage more deeply with her husband. She wanted to have two-way conversations again. Sometimes she had things she wanted to say. What if she wanted to tell him about something funny or terrible that had happened at the flower shop? Or about a story she’d heard from her friends? How could he be so uninterested in her life?

Given the circumstances, Sofía might have accepted that she’d never get a word in, settling instead for just knowing with any certainty what was going on in her husband’s life. He talked a lot, but he communicated surprisingly little. She tried to pry when she got the opportunity, but he didn’t budge. Tonight, for example, she had gathered enough cryptic snippets to ascertain that there was a critical problem in the marketing department with the new brand they were launching, that most of the problems could be traced back to that good-for-nothing Álvarez, and that Rodrigo had a post-meeting lunch tomorrow at the place where last time the idiots had given him flan when he had asked for a piece of cake. Sofía was proud of herself for gathering that much—it had been one of her more successful forays into her husband’s psyche—but she still didn’t know much. What made it worse, she got the sensation that he wasn’t trying to hide the truth from her, but rather that he just wasn’t able to convey anything very well to people who were not himself. He hadn’t always been that way, she remembered; he’d just been getting too caught up in the business. Sofía thought for a moment about their early dates—how charming and sensitive he’d been—and she missed that Rodrigo. But they certainly didn’t have such nice clothes back then.

“Alright,” said Rodrigo. “I need to go get this done before tomorrow.” He excused himself, clutching the little notebook that he’d been glancing at throughout his meal.

Sofía’s eyes fell, and she let out a small sigh. After a slow breath, she turned toward María Teresa. “What’s wrong?” she said. “You’ve barely touched your food. Feeling down?”

“Just a bit sick.”

“I’ve made an appointment with the doctor for the morning, okay? You didn’t look so good when you came home from church… and then with you lying in bed all day. It can only mean one thing: time to go to the doctor. It’ll be okay. Just try to take another few bites—you’ve got to get something in you—and then you can go back to bed. Does that sound alright?”

“Yeah,” said María Teresa. María Teresa was annoyed that her mother had made the appointment without first consulting her—she was always doing things like that. But right now she couldn’t muster the energy to so much as wear a chagrined expression. She would let it be. She conveyed a few more bites of food into her mouth, chewed slowly and swallowed. Finally she was excused.

María Teresa didn’t like going to the doctor, but when it was a choice between the doctor and school—both were unpleasant, so what was the difference? It wasn’t like the doctor could really help her, anyway; doctors didn’t know anything about love or marriage or Penance, and they probably never realized that they were only puppets in the world, too. All doctors knew about was open your mouth and it looks like you’ll be fine but take this to be safe. They were just as useless as priests.

It took forever for her to fall asleep—it was all she wanted, yet her heart was galumpgalumping with thoughts of a thorny rose garden confessional closing her in, of Satan and God laughing at the miserable life they’d orchestrated for her, of Guillermo as a dragon and she his captive damsel with no San Jorge to come to the rescue and her parents cheering him on, and every minute that left her awake added to this distress because of her ineffectiveness at waving away these delusions and because she knew that for every second she failed she was another second further from sleep. Indeed she wondered if she’d ever get to sleep—how cruel of God for keeping this from her, the last thing in the world she might get any satisfaction from…

She woke up sicker than ever, and she lay awake in bed until the world around her stopped spinning—or at least slowed to a wooze that, if unpleasant, was manageable. The minutes elapsed in a series of fading flashes: the flush of the toilet, her pants on one leg, someone handing her a glass of water, her shoes by the door.

Why, God? María Teresa said to herself. She knew it was her punishment, of course. For continuing to see Álvaro, for not honoring her parents, for thinking bad thoughts about a priest. She had gone through the motions of Penance—she did say one of those Our Fathers while she was tossing and turning the night before, and if she knew she’d have been up so long she would have gotten started on the book of Job, she really would have—but she found no solace in the sacrament. Because she did not truly believe in her heart that God had forgiven her, He didn’t, and she didn’t forgive herself, either. She’d just have to accept that she’d been doomed to a life of unending misery. Yet as she bumped along in the car on the way to the doctor, the stopping and going somehow served to settle her vertigo, and it was as if a heavy bridal veil was lifted off her.

“Feeling any better?” said Sofía.

“A little,” said María Teresa.

They found a parking spot on the street and walked a block to the doctor’s office. María Teresa had been here several times in her life and it was a familiar place; she tended to internalize the architecture around her as she walked. Yet this place wasn’t familiar to the point of being banal—she’d been in her own kitchen, for example, so many times that she couldn’t resurrect a single memory of the place. Here, as she walked the tiled sidewalk a rush of memories came back to her: the bright curly letters of the pastry shop across the street and the comforting smell that came from it as she peered out from her mother’s arms, the way the sun irritated her legs when she came with chicken pox, the taste of the piece of candy clanking against her teeth when she came with strep throat, the tiny lizard that winked at her from under a stoop when she came with a stomach ulcer. She remembered the doctor, too, how his hair grayed and thinned a bit more with each successive visit, how he yapped cheerfully as he poked and probed and jabbed things into her ears and mouth, the cold touch of his fingers as he ran them over her bumps, the hollow sound of his stethoscope and the crinkle of the paper she sat upon, the way the chair creaked as he shifted his weight. She had many memories of the doctor’s office, but never before did he ask her to pee in a cup.

“Okay,” said the doctor when he returned from flirting with his secretary—they’d been able to hear everything as they waited. He was carrying a small strip of paper. Once he’d taken a seat, he said matter-of-factly, “Señora Álvarez, you were right: María Teresa is pregnant. There’s no doubt about it.” He went on to demonstrate his certainty by explaining how the markings on the strip indicated the presence of a hormone in her urine, but María Teresa could no longer hear. Pregnant? She knew the word. It meant that there was a baby growing, didn’t it? Growing inside her. How did a baby get inside her? And—that meant she was going to have a baby. Her own baby. But she was only a child. How could that have happened? Children didn’t have babies. Not long ago she’d been a baby herself. It didn’t make sense.

“Thank you, Doctor,” said Sofía. “Mari, it’ll be okay. Don’t be afraid. We’ll talk about it.”

The doctor went on about how they should make an appointment with a gynecologist, but María Teresa wasn’t listening. Pregnant. How could she be pregnant? Of course she knew how the biological mechanics worked… but didn’t couples spend years trying to conceive? Wasn’t it woefully unlikely? She thought of these things now, but the truth was that the prospect of getting pregnant never once crossed her mind before, not when Guillermo had made her shoulder cold and told her it would be okay, and certainly not on that impassioned night with Álvaro, when they were alone in the park and it was dark and the grass was warm and moist and the breeze tickled her.

Again it was God—punishing her for her weakness. God or Satan, but what was the difference? The priest always said God loved the weak, that He cherished and helped them, that the weak would inherit the earth. But now María Teresa knew the truth was that God hated the weak, that He laughed at them and made their lives worse and worse so he could keep laughing. There were probably some people that God chose to save, but María Teresa was not among them. She was one that God had chosen to torture. And Father Xabier, in his wickedness, had ousted her. God was like a child shaking the cage of a poor rodent, and María Teresa writhed and shivered looking for shelter but there was none, not beneath the spinning wheel and not under the overturned water bowl. God shook her and shook her from every next place she found to hide, and now she was left exposed and helpless—and with child. Like the Holy Virgin Mary except for she was not quite a virgin and wouldn’t give birth to Jesus but something far worse—a rat. Mary cried as her holiest child died, but María Teresa cried even before her child was born. Before Mary’s child was born, an angel came to her to announce the good news, to give her advance notice that she was going to be blessed and chosen, but there was no gentle bedside annunciation for the bad news. It just happened—an abrupt shaking, and just when María Teresa thought things couldn’t get any worse. She was no Mary; God had made that abundantly clear. Now more than ever, María Teresa wanted to die.

[] Chapter Three: Wax & Pollen

 

“This is serious,” said Rodrigo, businesslike. “Very serious. Do you have any idea what this means? My daughter—pregnant before she’s been married.” He was looking at María Teresa across the dining room table the way he’d look at a torn piece of merchandise. Something once valuable—with the capacity to increase his success—now void, completely worthless. A sour investment. Could he have his daughter’s threads and buttons recycled? The question might have crossed his mind.

María Teresa sat with her arms folded and her head curled downward as if she were deep in prayer. But she was not praying; she was trying to figure out the best way to die.

“You can’t be married if you’ve already got a child. It just doesn’t happen. You’re not—it’s a scandal! What are people going to think? My own daughter… I can’t believe this.”

For all the outrage stirring in Rodrigo, Sofía stayed calm, though a careful observer might notice her trembling fingers and pursed lips. She reached out her arm as if to pat María Teresa on the shoulder, but it was too far, so she let her hand rest palm-down on the table, pointing in her daughter’s direction. “It will be okay,” she said.

“Don’t tell me you don’t understand what this means either, Sofía. This is no time for solicitude. This is a major problem.”

“She’s just a girl, Rodrigo.”

María Teresa never watched horror movies, but it didn’t matter; living in the city was enough. Sofía had the news on every night—María Teresa could hear it from her room, usually to her chagrin although now she had to admit it came in handy: It provided her with inspiration. Just the week before, a woman a few streets down had jumped from her fifth-story window. The news reporter had relayed the information matter-of-factly, as if she were merely saying that the sky was blue and cloudless or that there was a new baby marmot at the zoo. María Teresa imagined what that must be like—stepping onto the tiny balcony to get some fresh air like you do every day, maybe pretending to water the potted plant that’s far beyond saving anyway, perhaps wondering who might be idly watching from their kitchens or bedrooms through the windows across the street, bending forward to look at the slow procession of black cars and dog-walkers, far far far below, waiting for a vacancy, climbing up and holding out your arms and taking in the horrible world around you for one last time before letting—

“We’ll be ruined!” said Rodrigo. “It doesn’t matter if she’s just a girl. It wouldn’t matter if she was a hamster. She could be a dandelion, for all I care. We’ll be ruined all the same!”

“Rodrigo…”

If María Teresa died, the news reporters would talk about it just as indifferently as they relayed the information about that woman who’d just jumped off her balcony. If it didn’t matter to the rest of the world whether she was alive or dead. And since being alive was so much trouble to her, then it was an easy choice…

“The Ortegas will be scandalized if they hear about this. It’ll be the end of everything. Everything.” He was quiet for a moment. “I suppose, though, all is not lost quite yet.”

María Teresa pictured tying a plastic bag over her head and breathing deep deep deep until there was nothing left to breathe. She imagined the final traces of air running through her head and dissipating, like a straw slurping at an empty cup. A vacuum. It would hurt, and it would probably be slow. She’d be thrashing about in endless whiteness, smelling the sterile plastic and seeing only the upside-down green M of Mercadona and she’d probably be shaking and trying to scream only it wouldn’t work with no air in her system, and she’d be writhing so long wondering if she was dead yet or if she hadn’t done it right. That might be too terrifying. And besides, she might claw through the bag out of pure instinct, saving herself, but maybe there would be some permanent psychological damage or something. That wouldn’t do.

“We’re the only ones who know, right?” Rodrigo said.

“Yes.”

There was always the classic hanging, thought María Teresa. She’d used to think it was a question of hanging there long enough until you ran out of air, but she recently learned that the real idea was to set it up so that your neck snaps in that first fall and that’s the end of it. She wondered which was better: A slow death would be excruciating, wouldn’t it? But a fast death would make taking that jump all the more terrifying. You couldn’t ease into it.

“Then there’s only one solution: She will not have this baby.”

“You can’t mean—”

“It’s the only way.”

“No, Rodrigo. We can’t. No way.”

“It’ll be for the best.”

She could always just slice herself open and let her life run all over the place. It would dry up, soon enough, and darken into chocolate-colored paste. What would her parents say when they found her? She imagined the horrific scene: It would finally be payback for everything they’d put her through. They deserved it.

“That’s where I put my foot down, Rodrigo.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“You’re talking about a child. A living, human child. You can’t just kill it and pretend it never existed.”

“It’s the only way.”

No, thought María Teresa. They didn’t deserve it. They might not have been the best people, but they were trying. They didn’t deserve such a bad daughter, and they didn’t deserve to have to deal with… that. There had to be a way that was less messy. Her mother’s pills. That would be perfect. There were all kinds of pills, she knew, beautiful and colorful, rows of shiny bottles. She didn’t know what they were for, but it didn’t matter. She’d swallow them all up, just like candies, and they’d send her off to a peaceful, endless sleep…

“There has to be another way. We can take care of the child ourselves—tell people it’s ours. We’re not too old. Don’t you realize, Rodrigo? This is our grandchild we’re talking about.”

“Who ever wanted a bastard grandchild? Over my dead body.”

“What about adoption? There are people who would raise the baby. It happens all the time.” As much as it would pain Sofía to have to give up her grandchild, she knew this was better than the alternative Rodrigo had been proposing. “Why rush any decision? There is time.”

“And how do you propose we’d keep people from finding out? Look at her, Sofía; she’s already packing on the pounds. A pregnancy isn’t exactly easy to hide.”

“We’ll take her out of school. We could send her by my sister—or keep her in the house.”

“What did I do to deserve this?” said Rodrigo. “I’ve provided you both with everything, and this is how you repay me? The son of a filthy teenage whore… It’s worse than no grandchild at all! I bet she doesn’t even know who the father is.”

Sofía looked as though she hadn’t considered the question. “Do you, Mari?”

María Teresa was jarred from her reverie. She hadn’t really been listening, but she knew she was being addressed. “What?” she said.

“Who is the father?” said Rodrigo.

In truth, she didn’t know who the father was. Who did she hope it was? She didn’t know what to say. She could say it was Álvaro, but her father would probably have him killed—he hated Álvaro. She could say it was Guillermo, but the memories of that night made her shudder, and she didn’t want to bring them back to life. She couldn’t have said why, but the words that came off her lips were, “Father Xabier.”

“The priest!?” said Sofía.

“From the monastery?” said Rodrigo.

“Honey…”

“Did that foul pedophile attack you?”

María Teresa knew she couldn’t retract the words she’d uttered, and she couldn’t change her mind now about who the father was. She’d have to go along with it now, but she couldn’t manage to say anything. She nodded to her parents. Another sin against God—what would He do to her next? Now she feared that God wouldn’t let her slip out of this world peacefully or quickly. He’d sentence her to a slow, torturous decay, and she could already feel it beginning. She was shaking.

“Jesus Christ,” said Rodrigo. “I always took that man for a faggot. All priests are, aren’t they? Especially those monks, all living together. But to think they were capable—Christ Almighty, Sofía, I told you we should never have let her go to that church alone.”

Sofía’s eyes were red, tears welling up around them. She moved to a chair adjacent to María Teresa and put her arms around her daughter. “My baby,” she said. “I’m so sorry—I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry this happened.”

“Well that just does it,” said Rodrigo. “I knew the Church was pure evil, ever since I was a little boy and I saw how my mother fell for their baloney. Believe me, we’re going to raise hell. Those pansies will never live this out.”

María Teresa thought about the baby inside her, and she thought she felt it kick. She pictured it with horns, piercing her innards in attempt to break out.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” said Sofía. “We could have helped you. We’re your parents. This—I’m so sorry you had to go through this.”

“I—” María Teresa started.

“Of course she’s been scarred by it,” said Rodrigo. “She’s only a girl—leave it to a man of God to take advantage of her.”

“Can you tell us what happened?”

María Teresa was sobbing behind her hands. She shook her head.

“Not now, Sofía—can’t you see she’s affected? It’s clear enough what happened: He got her drunk on wine and the Holy Spirit when she came for confession or something and I’m sure he told her that old God wanted her to do something for him, but she had to trust him and it would be okay. That’s how it always is—you’ve heard the stories about the boys. Those sly dogs are capable of the most treacherous lies to get their fix…”

“What are—we going to—do?” By now Sofía was crying abundantly, just like her daughter.

“Justice, mi amor. We’re going to get justice. We’re going right up to that sore devil’s face and he’s going to fess up for what he’s done. He’s going to pay for it. We’re going to the police and then the media, and they’re going to let the whole world know. Believe me, that monastery is going to burn for what this man has done to our María Teresa. Another victim of God. It has to end now.”

María Teresa wanted to take back what she’d said—to rewind time and say any other name instead. She could have said anything—the boy from the frutería, or the courier. Even if she’d said it was Álvaro—which for all she knew was the truth—she could probably could have managed to assuage her father somehow. It wouldn’t have been so bad. But she managed to say the one name that would surely cause her to burn forever in the fires of Hell. Now there was no stopping her father. He was ready to rain on the entire Church, the only thing that’d offered her solace over the previous weeks and years. What had she done?

“Now?” said Sofía.

“Of course! This has waited long enough. Should that horrible man get away with what he’s done for a second longer? Up, both of you.”

No words were spoken in the car. Though the light rain normally would have been barely audible, it fell with the pounding of hail on the pavement. The only other sounds were the raspy exhalations of Rodrigo and the intermittent residual sobs of Sofía. It was a short drive to the monastery, and the blurry state of affairs made their arrival come all the faster. At this time of night parking was plentiful, and Rodrigo pulled into a spot directly in front of the steps that led to the door of the church. Uncharacteristically, there were no crutches strewn about—no miracles today.

María Teresa thought of praying for what was about to happen, but she couldn’t face God.

“Can I stay here?” she said. “I don’t think I could…”

“Of course, Honey,” said Sofía. “We’ll take care of it.”

Inside the church, the monks were in the middle of compline, their final prayer before bedtime. The monks of S. Abbey of Our Lady Miraria prayed together eight times a day, and these canonical hours directed their day in the way the hours of the clock direct the days of most. They rose at dawn for their early morning prayer, which led into Mass, and not long after they said another round of morning prayers. They offered their mid-morning prayers along with breakfast, and followed those up with their late-morning prayers and, on most days, a public Mass. Afterwards they had some time for study and housekeeping, which they capped off with another bout of community prayer, a second meal and time for recreation. Their next service took place in the mid-afternoon and was followed by manual labor—usually scrubbing or tending to the animals they kept to provide them with food, but this also included baking the biscuits they sold to support their community. Once this was done, the monks came together again for another round of prayer, another session of work or study (as the needs of the day dictated), the last meal of the day and—finally—their nighttime prayer.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace,” said the abbot from the front of the church. Waxy candlelight flickered through the clouds of incense, offering mystical illumination to the small gathering of men. The abbot’s words were underlined by the solemn chanting of the monks in the choir. “Where there is hatred,” he said, “let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light.” A faint rapping could be heard at the door—at first it was timid, but it quickly grew in anxiousness and volume. Even so, the abbot carried on: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console—” soon the knocking became too distracting even for the monks under the relaxing candlelight. Finally one of the monks excused himself with a cursory Sign of the Cross and made his way toward the narthex.

The monk opened one of the smaller doors, almost invisible in the grandeur of the church’s main portal, and he stuck his head out into the rainy street. He saw two figures standing at the main portal, one of them knocking incessantly.

“Good evening,” said the monk.

“Finally!” said Rodrigo. “Are you Father Xabier?”

“No—”

“Get him for us then.”

“I’m afraid we’re in the middle of a service. I’d ask that you come back tomorrow before Mass. That is his usual community hour.”

“No. It can’t wait. We need to speak to him right now.”

“I—” The monk paused. “Yes,” he said. “Very well. One moment.” The monk gave a slight bow, offering a quick, “God be with you,” before he disappeared into the church. He walked up the aisle and quietly tapped Father Xabier on the shoulder. “There is a couple outside to see you,” he whispered. “They say it’s urgent.”

“Thank you,” said Father Xabier, and the other monk took his place. Father Xabier was used to these sorts of interruptions; dealing with crises was part of his office as a priest, and crises tended not to confine themselves to only the community hour. Couples, of course, were the most susceptible to crisis; he’d offered no shortage of prayers for counseling, conception and conciliation in his lifetime.

He walked toward the church entrance as the abbot continued slowly, “It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

“Good evening,” said Father Xabier. “How—” He was met with a man’s fist square in the face and a gasp from a woman.

“Rodrigo!” said Sofía.

The priest was unfazed, despite the trickle of blood coming from his nose. “Yes?” he said, just as if Rodrigo had greeted him with a hug and a cold glass of beer. And because he didn’t stoop to match Rodrigo’s aggression, the tension of the situation began to unravel. Still, Rodrigo was not one who was quick to calm down.

“That’s some nerve, monk!”

“Is there a problem?” said Father Xabier. He didn’t recognize either of the people before him, and he could make no guesses as to what they had come for.

“I’ll teach you to lay your hands on my daughter!”

Rodrigo raised his fist again, but the priest put up his palm in a placating gesture. “You could surely pummel me to the ground, but I fear that wouldn’t rectify anything. Solutions are found with words, not fists.”

“Why I—” Rodrigo said angrily.

“A man who cannot control his anger is as helpless as a city without walls, open to siege and invasion. Please, what is the matter?”

“You!”

“Father, sir,” said Sofía, recognizing that her husband’s behavior would only make the situation worse. “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing to him?” said Rodrigo. “It should be the other way around. No—even that wouldn’t be enough!” His hair was now quite wet and disheveled, and it was beginning to stick to his head.

“I’m sure the rain doesn’t help,” said Father Xabier, pulling inside. “Come in, come in. We’ll sit down in the rectory.”

“You ju—” Rodrigo began, but his words dissipated. Not even Rodrigo could bring himself to yell inside the church, not with the cool chanting of the monks’ concluding compline and the mollifying scent of melted wax and burning incense thick in the air, and so he and his wife followed close behind the priest as they were led through a series of corridors, emerging in his meeting room. The three of them took seats on a pair of facing couches.

“Now,” said Father Xabier. “Will you tell me what is the meaning of all this?”

“Don’t be coy, priest,” said Rodrigo, rising already. “You know exactly why we’re here. Never thought we’d find out, did you?”

“Father,” said Sofía. Her voice was calm, undoubtedly buoyed by the priest’s evenness. “Forgive him, please. You might not even know who we are. My name is Sofía Colmenar, and this is my husband Rodrigo. It’s been… a long time. We are here because we have just learned that our daughter María Teresa is pregnant… And she’s told us—she says that you’re the father.”

“Is that so,” said Father Xabier. It was not really a question. And it was not a tone of denial. Nor was there any hint of surprise or disbelief. It was perfectly neutral. Not at all what the Colmenars were expecting.

“So… you admit it then?” said Sofía slowly. “How could you?”

Father Xabier merely shrugged.

“But you’re a priest. She trusted you. You took a vow. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“I will have to answer to God alone for what I’ve done in my time on this earth.”

“But our daughter is a person, alive. A victim.”

“There are some sins that cannot be committed alone.”

“You mean—?”

The monk raised his eyebrows, making it clear that if she wanted something said, she’d have to go there herself. For his part, he’d let the implications unfurl on their own. It was true that they hadn’t gotten the whole story from María Teresa; maybe they should have done so before they came to the monastery. In any case, letting on their ignorance to the priest would be impolitic. The Colmenars had assumed it was a case of rape; if it was really consensual, then there would be no legal recourse, and Rodrigo would have to look elsewhere for justice.

The three of them sat in silence for a few moments before Rodrigo decided to prod further: “You seem rather calm for a criminal who’s just been caught,” he said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I will pay for my sins before long.”

“How about now! Don’t you realize what you’ve done? María Teresa is only a girl—she’s in no state to raise a child—your child!”

“I will care for the child.”

“You will?” said Sofía. Her mouth was gaping.

“Of course.”

“And that’s all you have to say, is it?” said Rodrigo.

“What’s done is done. Is there more to be said?”

Rodrigo brooded for the rest of the evening, from the priest’s rectory to his and Sofía’s bedroom. As he lay in bed with his wife, the thought of taking advantage of one of the rare nights they’d actually gone to bed at the same time didn’t cross his mind.

Sofía had been outraged, as any parent would be—granted, she wasn’t as obstreperous about it as her husband—but that was before she learned that María Teresa may not exactly have been an innocent victim. Was that why María Teresa didn’t seem to want to talk about the incident? Sofía was disappointed in her daughter and astounded by the actions of the priest, but still… She remembered being a teenage girl, and the priest was handsome and a good man, after all. What he did along those lines was between himself and God—it wasn’t any of her business. It was her job to worry only about María Teresa, and now it was seemed the situation wasn’t as iniquitous as she’d originally thought. The relief was enough to make her forget that she had anything to be upset about at all.

Rodrigo, on the other hand, was implacable. “They’re going to pay,” he said. It was more to himself than to Sofía—he’d muttered that same sentence so many times, and she had long since stopped responding. He had put on the face of the zealous father, sworn to protect his daughter from deviants, and that was what he wanted others to believe. But for as much as Rodrigo made airs about attaining justice and making sure those horrible men wouldn’t harm any other girls, his real object was a question of business.

And then there was the other business arrangement to consider: the marriage of María Teresa. She had been promised to Guillermo Ortega, who, if Rodrigo did say so himself, would make a strapping husband whether the marriage were arranged or not. More importantly, he was the son of the Julio Ortega, the proprietor of the world’s largest manufacturer of shopping bags—freely given out, seldom thought of, but indispensable to the retail experience. “A great bag can make a person feel great about what they just bought,” Julio once explained, “even if they were on the fence in the store. I can give a number of examples where a simple redesign of the shopping bag led to a seventy-percent reduction in returns.” Julio liked to say that if a bag does its job well, it shouldn’t be noticed, except by passersby, to whom it serves as advertising. A good bag bypasses the senses and plays on a subconscious level—it’s only noticed in its absence or shortcoming. Ortega bags swaddled goods sold the world over—from the black plastic bags that made vodka and condoms more discreet, to the embossed luxury bags with heavy creases and curled ribbons, overflowing with tissue paper. Each bag was perfectly designed for the type of object it was meant to hold.

There were, perhaps, not many people in the world who could appreciate the subtleties of shopping bags—especially in a world where people were saying plastic was dangerous and there was talk of charging customers for bags—but Julio Ortega ranked highest among them. Rodrigo had been using Ortega bags in all his stores for years now, but only recently had he began cultivating a friendship with Julio Ortega himself. Like Rodrigo, Julio had a superb mind for business: He was among the first Europeans to outsource manufacturing to Southeast Asia, and following that he outsourced most of the operations of his business, leaving him free to wine and dine and amass surprising sums of money without stepping in the office more than once a fortnight. That left him with plenty of time for client relations, and Rodrigo was eager to pick his brain about bringing his business to America. After all, success for Rodrigo in America meant more success for Julio.

Rodrigo and Julio had first met at a trade show. After pragmatic introductions, their conversation turned to soccer. Rodrigo was a Real Madrid fan, and Julio was die-hard for Atlético—normally, this would have been a surefire recipe for enmity, but Rodrigo and Julio managed to turn their diametric passions into a friendship. Supporting their local teams pitched them against each other, in a way, but their discussions of Spain’s prospects of ever winning the World Cup brought them together. This was not lost on them: They were separated from one perspective, but together from another. And even when each was touting the merits of his preferred team and disparaging that of the other, there was always an air of respect for the other’s arguments. Perhaps this was because both were reasonable men: Rodrigo was quick to recognize the shortcomings of his own team, as was Julio.

Soon enough Rodrigo discovered that Julio had a son nearing puberty—about the same age as his own daughter—and he immediately spotted the opportunity. He knew it would be risky setting up two children in this way, but he knew he had plenty of time to cultivate their love—and the payoff would be well worth it. First Rodrigo suggested that their children meet, saying that his daughter could use some esteemed company, not like the rabble at her school (private and expensive though it was). Julio obliged, unable to overlook the great compliment, and that led to a few playdates that were, from the naive perspective of both fathers, wildly successful. This perceived success led to a strengthened relationship between the men, and when the time was ready, Rodrigo mused over drinks how the two children were born to be together and how they’d probably get married someday. Julio didn’t notice the comment at first—Rodrigo had let it slip with calculated spontaneity—but eventually, by the power of suggestion, he began to fervently believe it—and fight for it.

Rodrigo had sown the seeds expertly, and he nursed the seedlings over the years. He made sure his daughter had all the same play sets that Julio’s son Guillermo had, and he bought her books and posters that reflected young Guillermo’s interests—chiefly among them ranked soccer, bullfighting and medieval warfare. On those rare evenings that he was home for dinner, he steered the conversation, ever so subtly, toward matters of interest to the Ortegas, and when the children were old enough to galavant about the city on their own, Rodrigo made sure that they both had enough money in their pockets to produce very happy memories.

But Rodrigo wasn’t home enough to know that she had scarcely flipped through any of the history books, never once touched the soccer ball, and spent the money he’d given her on other things. Sofía noticed this, but she never thought to tell Rodrigo. She wasn’t of the opinion that a husband and wife had to overlap in all respects—she thought about herself and her own husband. After all, who ever heard of a girl who liked bullfighting and soccer? Of course, she was also somewhat blinded: Rodrigo had taken to arranging couples’ dinners in order for Sofía and Julio’s wife to get acquainted with each other, and soon the women grew in friendship just as the men had.

In reality, the children were only marginally compatible. Like any young couple, their interactions were awkward at first, but there were some things that no number of shared experiences or years could cause them to overcome. The simple truth was that some personalities could not become intimate. Guillermo and María Teresa viewed the world in radically different ways: For Guillermo, everything was straightforward and governed by cause and effect. For María Teresa, the possibilities were theoretically endless, but her reality—that is, her parents—confined her, locking her in dissatisfaction.

As womanhood bloomed for María Teresa, she began to see Álvaro, one of her oldest friends, in a more romantic light. But when Rodrigo heard about this from Sofía, he worked to suppress their friendship. It was amazing what the man could do from such a distance. Álvaro nearly had to transfer to a public school for financial reasons, but his mother made abundant sacrifices to avoid that—which Rodrigo hadn’t foreseen.

For his part, Guillermo had fallen head-over-heels for María Teresa, and he was blind to how incompatible they really were. He’d long since taken it for granted that they’d be married someday. She was gifted to him at such an early age that being able to say she was his girlfriend gave him a certain power over his peers; as the years progressed, he’d grown so complacent that it scarcely occurred to him to so much as look at other girls.

It wasn’t an arranged marriage in the historical sense of the term. Indeed, both families had duped themselves into believing that everyone involved had simply met and become friends on their own. Because there was no explicit arrangement, the situation was somewhat precarious—after all, there was nothing but momentum to prevent catastrophe between the young lovers. Granted, momentum was powerful. It would take a tremendous force to shake what Rodrigo had carefully prepared—something like an unplanned pregnancy with a priest.

The Ortegas were traditional, which meant they were Catholic, and they had corresponding old-world moral values. Rodrigo had intuited these things from their conversations—though it was never explicitly the topic of discussion—and he was careful to obscure his agnosticism. Of course, the present situation would be a crisis even if the Ortegas were not obsessively Catholic. Rodrigo knew his daughter’s pregnancy would be a deal-breaker. A deal-breaker for the marriage—and, more importantly, a deal-breaker for his dreams of doing business in America. He’d have to find a way to leverage the years of momentum he’d built, but it would be difficult. As Rodrigo lay in bed after the confrontation with the abbey priest, he wondered: How could he assuage the Ortegas?

The moon was peering in through a crack in the curtains, but Rodrigo and Sofía were too aflutter to get any solace from its visit. Their hearts were racing and their minds were distracted; they were elsewhere, deep in the past and future, in hypothetical situations, in worries and cavils. It was no wonder they didn’t notice the moon.

In the other room, María Teresa was also awake. And likewise, the moon was unseen to her, even though her curtains were drawn open. It would have taken someone like Álvaro to bring her back into the world.

There was a baby inside her. A human, tiny but growing. Growing and growing, and soon enough it would find its way out of her. How would that come about? Would it burst through her skin, tear open her body? Would it spread her open till she split in half? She’d heard childbirth was so painful that most women preferred not to recount it. The prospect of such unbearable pain was something she’d filed away in the recesses of her mind, confident that she wouldn’t need to think about it for a long time. But now—so soon—these ideas reemerged, and they terrified her.

And as if the thought of having to give birth wasn’t bad enough, what would the child do to her after it was born? Now, so tiny inside her, it was almost as if it didn’t exist. Maybe she was just gaining weight like anyone else. Her body was going through changes—that was normal for teenagers, wasn’t it? Things that cannot be seen can be ignored. But once the child was alive, when it could breathe just like her… what then? Such a thing could no longer be denied, and nor could the havoc it would wreak upon her. What would it do? Would it drain her of her energy, suckle on her substance? Would looking upon its face stir up memories of painful nights? She hated it already. She hated where it came from, she hated that it was inside her, and she hated what it would become.

Only hours ago she was plotting her own death. It seemed so urgent, so necessary, so assuredly within reach. Somewhere inside her, she still considered suicide her best option, but it wasn’t as visceral. Such thoughts came and went, she knew, and right now they did not occupy her. As such, she considered what might happen if she did decide to kill herself. Would her baby die along with her? Maybe that was for the best. After all, a child born of hate would lead a life of hate. And with a mother like her, with a family like hers, what sort of life could it be expected to lead?

Her mother had told her that Father Xabier would care for the child. That seemed like a relief—she wouldn’t have to bear the untellable burden of the thing. But why would he agree to do that? It wasn’t his baby. Priests were sworn to celibacy—for admitting that he’d lain with her, he’d be thrown from the priesthood. And for lying, he’d be cast into Hell.

If her child was evil, what would it do to Father Xabier? Would it drag him from his holy place, infect his ministry, kill him off entirely? Did he deserve such further maltreatment from her? Certainly not… But maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that he would be able to overcome the child’s innate malevolence. After all, if anyone could nurture a vicious wild thing into a tame and faithful companion, it would be a monk. It occurred to María Teresa that this was exactly one of the tenants of Baptism, that each of us is born evil but we are washed clean and forgiven and adorned with Grace when we receive the sacrament. It was a nice thought. Maybe she owed him the light of a child for what she’d done to him already… If that was so, she couldn’t take the child’s life. She might still take her own—afterwards—but not before it was born. She thought again of childbirth and shuddered.

At least one thing was for sure: She could never face Father Xabier again—she couldn’t so much as picture herself going back to that church for Mass. What if she went to confess about this whole thing? Just the thought was absurd. But he knew it was a lie—didn’t he?—so why did he go along with it? He could have denied it. He could have said anything and it would have been closer to the truth. He could have implored her to tell her parents what really happened. But he didn’t. Is that so? Was that really all he said? What was he trying to do? Whatever his motive, she was glad he did it. She could never have told her parents what really happened.

Guillermo had taken her to the wax museum first. How could she ever explain to her parents how those figures made her think of being dead?Celebrities, royals, foreign presidents and historical figures—they all stood, wearing their most characteristic expressions, and they were so lifelike that you couldn’t pinpoint any single thing that distinguished them from a real person, but all the same there was some unnatural stillness about them, and the place smelled like a funeral. She wondered how it would feel to be made of wax. To exist, but not completely, with everything happening around you, but without you having to take part in any of it. Being detached. It sounded good to María Teresa. She tried to explain this sensation to Guillermo, before she really understood it, when they were there standing before Montezuma and Marilyn Monroe, and he only laughed.

“I like you better alive,” he said, and he put his arm around her. If she were made of wax, she could have stayed in place, ignored him, remained even when he left. But she was a flesh-and-blood human, and so she had to reply with feigned cheerfulness and walk along with him as his arm directed her. She could feel his heart beating.

After the museum, they had a round of tapas in a secluded plaza. Typically tapas accompanied beer and wine, but they were only in high school so they ordered sodas. All the same, children imitate adults, and soon Guillermo was acting as if he’d actually been drinking alcohol. His words were a little more direct, his face more excited, his eyes more stupid.

They went to dinner at a place Guillermo liked, and then they took a walk in the park. They sat down on a bench to watch the people go by, and all of a sudden Guillermo began kissing her madly. She didn’t mind this because it meant they didn’t have to talk. She could close her eyes and be somewhere else. Still, it went on longer than usual, and Guillermo’s heart was beating faster than usual. They got up and walked for a minute or two before Guillermo said, “I want to show you something,” and María Teresa acquiesced.

They made their way to Guillermo’s piso—it was nearly the same as the Colmenars’ place in terms of ostentation and abundance. No one else was home—and they wouldn’t be, Guillermo said—but they settled in his bedroom from force of habit. They talked and kissed some more, and soon Guillermo moved closer. His fingers traced her silhouette and he whispered to her; his heart was beating faster than ever. When he got the courage he unbuttoned and showed her what he wanted to show her. She couldn’t get any words to come and so she said nothing; he got even closer. He took her hands and said it was okay, positioned them gently and pushed down her head. Soon his hands were in places that were only for her and just enough clothing was removed. Like the tide he overflowed and then receded, leaving her beached among shards of dead shells and clinging, prickly, slimy algae. She was vaguely in pain, but it wasn’t like any hurt she’d felt before. It had all happened so fast.

He thought it was an expression of love, but for her it was pure terror. It was something like a wax sculpture that was trapped, forever smiling. To an outsider it would look like happiness, but they never saw the sculptures when the lights went out. María Teresa could never explain all this to her parents. They’d never been in a wax museum after hours. They didn’t know what it was like.

For all the unpleasantness of that day, she’d had a much better experience with Álvaro not long after. Now she wondered, though: Was it really better, or was she only better prepared?

As María Teresa lay in bed, she thought about these events, the proximity of these incidents. She didn’t know what had emboldened both boys, independently and simultaneously. Maybe it was the springtime pollen.

[] Chapter Four: Rumors

 

It was Tuesday morning and María Teresa was staying home from school again. There were only a handful of schooldays left, and Sofía wished that María Teresa could end the year on a positive note. Still, Sofía knew they probably wouldn’t be learning anything new in these final days, and her daughter’s long-term health was their highest priority. She had to do what she could to help María Teresa.

When she spoke to María Teresa the previous night about their conversation with Father Xabier and what had been decided about the child, the girl seemed surprisingly calm. It was new territory for both of them, and Sofía suspected that neither quite knew how to handle it. Sofía wanted to pry for more details from her daughter, just like with her husband. Now more than ever, it pained her that she could not know everything about her child. She’d given birth to her, nursed her and raised her, and for María Teresa’s first several years they were never apart. But as the girl got older, she grew more distant from her mother. Now all the details of María Teresa’s life were not known to Sofía by default. Sofía wanted to know more—she wanted to know everything, but she would settle for anything the girl would be willing to tell her. Snippets, details. In the doctor’s office when Sofía learned her daughter was pregnant, it struck her what little those snippets and details actually amounted to. Practically nothing. What else was there hidden behind the curtains of María Teresa that Sofía didn’t know about? When did they become so alienated? Sofía longed for intimacy with her daughter, but María Teresa didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone.

Sofía had noticed that Mari had been a bit down recently. Mothers notice such things. And she had tried to coax her girl back into happiness first by bringing home a box of pastries from La Mallorquina, tasty but ineffective, then by taking her on a shopping trip, which didn’t mean much to someone who’d always gotten her clothes free from her father’s company, then by giving her a leather-bound volume of European fairy tales. This might have done the trick if Sofía had only known that the person Rodrigo and Sofía thought was Mari’s Prince Charming was actually, in the girl’s eyes, the dragon. Sofía settled by keeping more fresh flowers in the house than usual. But she feared even that didn’t help, despite what she’d read about the therapeutic effects of pollen in the air.

And now this happened. It certainly wouldn’t help matters; it was like taking someone who was wading through a river and dropping them into the ocean. But as far as Sofía could tell, this was a slump that María Teresa would have to climb out of on her own. She wasn’t in any mortal danger, Sofía reasoned—if it was consensual, the priest hadn’t hurt her—she’d just been shaken a bit and was feeling blue.

Still, Sofía remembered her own pregnancy, years before, and the time she was deflowered, years before that. Perhaps she ought to sit down and talk with María Teresa later in the day. She must have questions. But María Teresa seems so resistant to any sort of interface with her mother.

Despite all this, Sofía was more than eager to conduct her day as usual; any deviation from routine would betray to the rest of the world that something terrible had happened, that she had failed as a mother. She wasn’t uncaring—she desperately wanted to help María Teresa, but at this point she didn’t know what else she could do.

It was important to keep up appearances, and that required adhering to her everyday schedule. This meant having a coffee and glancing at the pages of the morning paper while she made uncomfortable smalltalk with Rodrigo before he went to work, pretending it was just another day. And afterwards she occupied herself with a few chores. The dishes, a bit of straightening.

Soon enough the house was in order and she went down to her flower shop, which was right next door. Pulling open the front door of the shop was her favorite part of the morning. The perfume of all those flowers was better than any spray her husband could have bought her. She propped open the door, turned on the lights, set up the register and waited. She didn’t have any orders to prepare today—there was only one a week, on average—and there were only a handful of customers on any given day. It wasn’t that she was doing poorly; her flower shop was minuscule by design, and she had just enough business that she could handle everything on her own without being stressed. It wasn’t as if she needed the money, after all. Here she busied herself with chores as well: trimming leaves that were beginning to flag, changing water, adding powdered fertilizers, tying ribbons, tweaking arrangements, planning orders. And when all of this was done, she went to the café across the street and took her usual seat under one of the umbrellas on the terrace. This gave her a clear view of her shop, and she’d be able to come quickly to the aid of a customer, should one arrive. But that was unlikely. Here she waited for her friends to come, and when they did, they’d carry her through the lunchtime hour. Then she’d close her shop for siesta and come back down for a few hours in the evening, mostly to catch the neighborhood businessmen who needed something to make amends with their wives.

“Good morning, Señora Colmenar,” said the straight-haired server girl, bringing out a cup of coffee, a bottle of water and a croissant. It was what Sofía always ordered.

“How are you doing today?”

“Doing well enough.” She set down the items one by one.

“Things better with your boyfriend?”

“Oh, not really… He moved out this weekend.”

Sofía found relief in hearing that she wasn’t the only one going through hardship. “Oh, my dear,” she said. “But you look like you’re holding up okay. In time you’ll probably see it’s for the best. It’s hard now, but it will get better. I know it.”

The young woman smiled weakly before diverting her eyes. “Ah,” she said, looking across the street. Three women had emerged from the building Sofía lived in. “Here come our friends. Good morning, ladies!”

The approaching women waved and shouted greetings, and the server excused herself to get their usual orders ready and tend to other patrons. The ladies took their seats under the umbrella, smiling. Every day was a wonderful reunion for them, as it had been for years.

The newcomers were all progressing through their middle ages; perhaps compensatorily, they always dressed with glamor, wearing flowery dresses and strings of pearls, for their morning rendezvous. One of them—no one was sure who—gave off a familiar orange blossom scent that was like a walk through the streets of Seville. Like Sofía, they valued keeping up appearances.

“It’s so nice to be out here. Another beautiful day we have,” said Rosa. Indeed, it seemed as if they’d finally emerged from the long, wet spring season, which had been delayed this year thanks to an extra long, extra wet winter—the rains were coming much more seldom. She shut her eyes for a long moment and inhaled the sunlight. The leaves on the trees that lined the sidewalk fluttered in the wind, and the passing automobiles whirred by pleasantly. She opened her eyes and said, “And have I got some news for you ladies.” Building up the excitement was all part of the spectacle. She’d tease for some time about the great story she had today, dropping hints and details as they talked about nothing in particular, until finally the other ladies couldn’t bear it anymore and they begged her to tell them what she knew. Rosa always enjoyed this.

Rosa was the oldest of the four, nearing her sixties. She wore a string of pearls and a wry face that accentuated the wrinkles around her eyes and made her teeth look even more crooked than they actually were. Her curly hair, once long and black, was now short and gray. For years she resisted the change, but she eventually gave up on dyes, saying that gray hair on a woman made her appear more wizened. It was Nacho who had told her that. Rosa was the only single one of the four; she was a widow, and her husband had passed away some years ago, leaving her with a hefty sum of money and plenty of time to pursue socializing. Her friends and acquaintances naturally felt bad for her when her husband died. Encouraged by her empathic nature, they soon opened up to her with their own hardships. She had since become a harbinger of gossip, an oral chronicler of the goings-on of all the families in the apartment building. Nacho helped her piece together certain discoveries, of course, telling her about the odd deliveries that the Hortalezas received on a regular basis, the foreign women that the quiet Señor Dominguez entertained, and the comings and goings of any number of teenage children.

There was, of course, some gossip that escaped Rosa. With all the juicy happenings in the neighborhood, this was only natural. It was something of a standing challenge among the other women around the table to bring to light stories that Rosa hadn’t yet heard; they tried every now and then, but only after Rosa herself had exhausted her stories for the day. Should one of them succeed, she would be rewarded with a lascivious smile and a sum of social capital. Even so, the other ladies didn’t dare tell Rosa about all the rumors they heard. They had good sense. Some rumors—murmurs about Rosa’s romantic cavorts with Nacho, for example—needed never reach her ears.

Sofía was suddenly afraid. What news could Rosa have today? The woman knew so much—things she shouldn’t know. It was as if she had eyes everywhere. Could she have found out about María Teresa’s pregnancy? Was she about to tell everyone? She hoped that even if Rosa did know, the woman would have the prudence not to mention it. Then again, Rosa was known to find some stories more valuable than friendships. Sofía gulped.

The server returned with an assortment of coffee drinks, juices and pastries on a dish, and she distributed them automatically among the women.

“I heard about Antonio, honey,” said Rosa. “I’m sorry he did that to you. He’ll get what he deserves, though. I promise you that.”

The server smiled and murmured something as she went away. She knew the women well—at least as well as a server could—and she wasn’t surprised that they knew and inquired about the personal details of her life. But such a promise did seem strange to her.

Evidently it seemed strange to Helena, too. “What does that mean? That you promise he’ll get what he deserves? You’re not planning something, are you?” Helena was the youngest of the group, in her early forties. Her hair hadn’t yet begun to gray, but that didn’t stop her from dyeing it: Naturally dark, it shone in the sunlight with an auburn sheen. It was only recently that she’d started getting it colored—she said she’d always wanted to but never got around to it, but the other women suspected it was a reaction to the skin on her face beginning to sag, a lateral attempt to restore her youthfulness.

“No, no,” said Rosa.

“Are you a fortune teller? A gypsy?” said Mayra, the fourth companion. “I’d believe it.”

“Nothing like that,” said Rosa. “You know, I don’t usually tell the future. Just like Pilar Ternera, my specialty is the past. Let me tell you: It is actually much easier to tell the future than the past.”

“How could that be?” said Helena. “The past has already happened, but the future hasn’t. It has to be easier to talk about something that’s happened than something that hasn’t.”

“You might think so, but you’d be wrong. You see, everybody experiences things in a different way. This sunshine—it might feel nice to me, but someone else might get sunburnt, and it might make someone else terribly thirsty. We all have our own interpretations. And when these things become the past—when I think about yesterday’s sunshine, or the sunshine from a year ago—those differences get even bigger. People exaggerate certain details and forget others. They project their present onto the past and think they felt or saw different things than they really did. And so people will argue with each other about how, no, it happened like this, and no, that happened first, and no, you’re wrong about that. It takes someone very skilled to talk about the past with authority. But when it comes to talking about the future, you can say whatever you want because it hasn’t happened yet. Who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

“Not a fortune teller then—a philosopher! Is that it?” said Mayra.

“I am a filmgoer, not a director,” said Rosa.

“Enough already,” said Helena. “You’re making me feel like I’m talking to my husband. Tell us the news!”

Sofía took a deep breath. Rosa was about to tell them that her daughter had slept with a priest and was now pregnant. She could feel it. She sat, frozen, horrified by what was to come. She could already see her friends’ reactions when they heard the news, and Rosa’s horrible toothy smile as she told it. She hated Rosa at that moment. But even so, she knew she couldn’t blame the woman. It was, indeed, a juicy piece of gossip. At least it would be, if it had to do with anyone else. Gossip is a game: You try your hardest to expose others’ family secrets while trying to keep your own undiscovered. You never gossip about your own family. Your own family secrets did not qualify as gossip; they were blemishes that had to be concealed. Sofía touched her face.

“Oh, you really want to know, do you?” said Rosa. “What about you, Sofía? You’ve been so quiet today. Do you want to hear the news, or have you got a story you’d like to share first?”

Sofía hoped the panic didn’t show in her eyes. She collected herself as quickly as she could and said, “Oh, no. Nothing today. But let’s hear what you’ve got. Who’s it about?”

Rosa smiled and enjoyed a long pause. “Jorge.”

The pressure inside Sofía dissipated when she heard the name. What a relief—she became aware that she’d been clenching her whole body, and the feeling lingered. She did her best to smile at Rosa, as if the man’s name only increased her anticipation of a good story. Rosa had said Jorge, not your daughter. Everything would be okay. Jorge. Sofía thought they had long since exhausted any gossip the man might generate. Jorge was a younger gay man who lived alone in their building. Not openly gay; he was once married to a woman and had divorced her not long after they said their vows. Since then he’d taken to entertaining man after man in his apartment. The women had borne witness to the chronicle as it unfolded slowly through Rosa’s stories.

“Another boy, is that it?” said Mayra, disappointed. “That’s hardly news.”

“Don’t tell me it was a child this time,” said Helena. “They do keep getting younger and younger…”

“No…” said Sofía.

Rosa took a long sip of coffee and chewed a slow bite of her danish, relishing her friends’ reactions. Finally she said, “A woman!”

“You don’t say!” said Mayra. “Now that is news.”

“Don’t get too excited,” said Rosa. “She might have been a—service woman—if you know what I mean.”

“Well, tell us what happened already,” said Helena.

“Yeah,” said Sofía. “What do you think it means?” She was trying her best to get into the story, to convince her friends that she was her former gossip-crazed self now that she knew her family wasn’t under fire.

“I was taking the elevator up from the basement yesterday, and this woman got on at the ground floor. I’d never seen her before. But she was young and busty, with a really nice derrière. I remember those days. Oh, and she carried this black leather tote—something your husband might carry for a weekend trip. Anyway, I started talking to her and she said she was just visiting a friend. Now, I know everyone in our building and all their friends, and I’d know if this scarlet was someone’s friend. So I asked her who and she wouldn’t say, and I just casually mentioned I’d never seen her before and she got all befuddled, and before I knew it we were at Jorge’s floor and that’s where she got off!”

“So did he just want a change of pace, or what?” said Helena.

“I tell you, I don’t blame him for a second,” said Mayra. “Sometimes I get tired of driving stick shift all the time, too!”

“Do you know how long she stayed?” said Sofía.

“Nacho said she left a few hours later—they left together.”

“So what does that mean? If she was really a harlot she wouldn’t have stayed that long, and they wouldn’t leave together, don’t you think?”

“Unless he thought people were starting to suspect him, and he just wanted to be seen with a woman, you know.”

“I don’t know… I guess we’ll have to wait and see who comes calling next.”

“Oh! Exciting!”

“But what if the next one is one of those, you know—queens. It’s bad enough there are so many in the city center. But here? There are children around. It’s just not appropriate.”

“Now, let’s not jump to extremes.”

“I’m just saying—what if.”

“Jorge has never struck me as a creep, though. He might play for both teams, but he’s still a dignified man, you know. He’s got that good job and he’s always nice and everything. I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about. And anyway, you should be talking…”

“I didn’t mean my kids.”

“Ladies,” said Rosa. “Let’s not get nasty. Remember what I said about telling the future? Let’s leave that to the Andalusians.”

That little exchange reminded Sofía how quickly gossip can get twisted. It begins with a few strands of truth—things that actually happened, at least most of the time—and someone weaves them into a story. But as the story is passed around, people quickly find the simple braid too boring. A good story is a valuable thing to possess, and the privy aren’t quick to discard something with any promise; in attempt to bolster the story, people interweave their own invented strands, but soon even that goes limp. In the end, all that can be done is to wring the thing violently in hopes that some last drippings of value still remain within its strings. Soon enough, Sofía mused, they’ll be saying that Jorge was entertaining a string of cross-dressers, and then they’ll swear that he was one himself!

Sofía wondered what the story of her daughter’s pregnancy might become if it got out. Her daughter was far from perfect—like everyone—but she didn’t deserve that. Gossip was horrendous.

But what was it for? Such stories might be entertaining to some, but was entertainment really the whole reason gossip persisted? Maybe some stories were meant to demonstrate a moral, to show what should and should not be done, to allow the audience to experience these things through the follies of other characters so they don’t have to. But it could not be that all stories were so noble. No—it goes back to the value of a story, Sofía thought. We all want to be the ones to break news to others. Information is power, but it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. As long as you can say something that someone else hasn’t already heard, as long as you have the potential to entrance them, then you have power over them. Rosa thirsted for power.

“Well,” said Mayra, nearly licking her lips, “haven’t any of you heard about Celia?”

“What about her?” said Helena. Rosa merely stared, careful not to betray any interest.

“You know she’s hosting that American university student, right?”

“Mark,” said Rosa.

“Yes, Mark,” said Helena. “He’s been there for a couple of months now. What about it?”

Mayra paused with a smile. It was rare that she was the one to share a piece of gossip—more often all she could do was interject details into Rosa’s stories—and she evidently wanted to savor her moment. “What do you think about him?”

“He’s hot,” said Helena. “Do you think all Americans look like that?”

“Unlikely,” said Rosa. “I heard they’re mostly fat.”

“You should be talking, Rosa,” said Mayra with a wink.

“Now, now,” said Rosa. “This comes with age. You should have seen me when I was the boy’s age. We would have made on like rabbits…”

“You’re a good guesser,” said Mayra.

“No!” said Helena.

“Oh yes,” said Mayra. “I have it on a good source that Celia and Mark have been—you know. The walls are thin on some floors.”

Rosa’s eyes widened. Only a tiny bit, but Mayra caught it, and she gladly accepted her prize. “And what about her husband?” said Rosa. Now that it was proven that Rosa didn’t quite know everything, it was Rosa’s job to attempt to poke holes in the story, to find out where its details were lacking, so that she could demonstrate that Mayra didn’t have that much power over her after all—and so that, soon enough, Rosa could reconstruct the story as her own.

“I don’t think he knows,” said Mayra.

“What if he’s in on it too?” said Helena. “The man’s a looker. That could be a lot of fun, don’t you think? Not a plug in the bunch.”

“Well either way, good for her,” said Mayra. “I’m glad she’s putting the boy to use. It’s not like they’re good for much else, right? And they come here to have a good time, first and foremost. It’s only fair you give it to them.”

The ladies sat, each dazed in her own mind, for a few moments. Sofía said offhandedly, “Sometimes I wish I had someone young around.”

“And why don’t you?” said Rosa. “You should contact one of the universities. They’re always looking for hosts, you know. Those Americans are clamoring to live in our houses. They pay good money—not that it matters too much—and there are enough of them. And presto, you’d have yourself a nice American boy in a month.”

“It’s a bit hit or miss, though,” said Helena. “A friend of mine had a fat one for a semester. He was nice enough, I guess, but no carnival.”

“Still, I’d say it’s more hit than miss, if you know what I mean,” said Rosa. “But Sofía, is something wrong at home? Rodrigo not doing it for you?”

“He’s gone a lot.”

“Aren’t they all,” said Mayra.

“Sometimes I wonder if they’re with other women,” said Helena. Seeing Sofía’s expression, she added, “I’m not saying Rodrigo is, just that I wonder about my Javier. The men spend so many hours away, sometimes days, and then they never want it when they’re home. If they weren’t getting it somewhere else, why wouldn’t they want it?”

“I know! Always saying they’re too tired,” said Mayra.

“Too tired is right!” said Rosa. “Felipe always tried to pull that one, bless his heart. You’ve just got to pin them down. Men like a bit of a scuffle.”

“But Sofía, you shouldn’t feel bad,” said Helena. “After all, he made a promise to you when he married you, and if he’s not fulfilling that promise, then you have the right to… you know, supplement a bit. Nobody would look down on you. It’s justified. Practically expected.”

“You can’t just idle away your youth,” said Rosa. “Take it from me. Get yourself a fine young boy. If not an American, then what about a Sottish one? I’ve heard they’re good.”

“I’ll look into it,” said Sofía, more to shut them up than out of honest interest. They were embarrassing her—and what if someone overheard? Still, she could not ignore the fundamental dissatisfaction she felt. She wasn’t sure an American exchange student would be the answer—maybe, though—but there was indeed something lacking in her life. It was simple and low-stress enough, the recent events notwithstanding. (Perhaps this was another reason she had joined the group of morning gossipers: to add some level of happening to her life.) But her husband was never home, and when Mari was at school Sofía spent most of her time alone. No, even when Mari was home, she was at that age when a girl does not appreciate the company of her mother… Sofía had started the flower shop in effort to curb these feelings years before, and it had helped for a while, but soon enough that familiar malaise crept back into her consciousness. She’d certainly be happy, if only she could—if only she had… she wasn’t sure what.

She desperately wished there were a way to improve her marriage, to better her life. But all Rodrigo seemed to care about was his business. Even now, when their daughter was going through a crisis, the business ramifications were all he could think about. In some ways, she wished she could punish him for this. At the same time, though, she longed for a way to help him with his business—it was all he cared about, and it seemed like the only avenue for regaining intimacy with him. But what did she have to offer?

When she sat with her group of friends here, it was so clear that gossip, which sometimes seemed innocuous, could affect the real world. Words had real consequences. It was the power of storytelling. Sofía thought of the waning fragility of her marriage. Could she use her words to save her relationship? Perhaps there was a way. But she had no real story to tell, did she? What story could she possibly tell Rodrigo? What could she say to fix everything that had started going downhill so many years ago? Would he even listen? Maybe, she realized, Rodrigo wasn’t the one she had to tell. Maybe Sofía could save her marriage by talking to someone else.

Meanwhile, María Teresa couldn’t sleep, tired though she was. She didn’t feel sick today—only uncomfortable. It wasn’t much better. She wanted to sleep because it would make the time pass. She tried reading, but she couldn’t make any sense of the shapes on the pages. She tried saying prayers, but she couldn’t remember the words. She tried sleeping, but her mind only screamed louder. Memories flashed and buzzed like a television channel with poor reception. She tried counting sheep but that only made her angry, not sleepy, and she tried to force herself to think about nothing, but that didn’t work either. She rolled back and forth, unable to get comfortable. It was far too light out, so she folded her blankets over her head, but that only made it hard to breathe. She closed her shade, but daylight clawed through the empty slits around the edges and it seemed even worse than before. It was too hot, so she took off her socks but then put them back on when she felt over-exposed. It was actually her face that was uncomfortable, she realized, but she couldn’t take that off. Sweat—that was the problem, and it seemed to be coming from her hair, soaking into her pillow and coating her whole body with its slime. She considered cutting off all her hair, and she might have done it if there were a razor or pair of scissors close enough to reach. When the only thing you wanted in the whole world was sleep, but even that was impossible, what else was there? Not even ending her own life seemed possible now; not long ago it had seemed like her only option. This only occurred to her, in fact, because she was struck by the contrast a new day could bring. So different, but somehow still the same: There certainly were a number of ways to be miserable. So she writhed, conscious that the baby inside her belly, the tiny priest, was protesting any decision she made, any thought she had. There had to be something she could do to settle down. Somewhere she could go where it would be better.

The Crucifix on her wall reminded her that she’d forgotten to say her Our Father last night—it was part of her Penance—and she hadn’t even started Job. She could have idly recited an Our Father—it was a simple prayer and she could pronounce the words without thinking about what she was saying—but she hardly thought it was worth it at this point. And as for Job, there was no chance, even if her Bible wasn’t on the other side of the room. So what if she didn’t complete her Penance? It wouldn’t change a thing. She rolled over and tried again to fall asleep, without success.

She’d heard her mother leave earlier, which meant she’d be able to leave unnoticed if she wanted, and as long as she was back within a few hours her mother would never find out she’d gone anywhere.

The sun was fierce and almost blinding, but it was nice, in a way. She was wearing the same stretched t-shirt she’d slept in the previous night and a pair of clashing tights that reached down to just over her knees. Her hair was tousled and, though the breeze helped a bit, still matted with sweat. She generally took much more care of her appearance, but at this point it was the last thing on her mind. For all she cared, no one else in the world existed. These forms that hovered past her on the pavement—none of it was real. People didn’t glow, after all.

She walked with no particular destination in mind, barely aware of anything. That was nice—she almost dared to suspect that she felt better already. Her feet traced a familiar path, and before she knew it she was walking in the park, following a sound like the crooning of geese at a funeral. She neared a man sitting on a bench, a trumpet case open in front of him, and she felt her lips curve into a smile. A face she knew, and a sound. Something about this man had always magnetized her; he’d been sitting on that bench for as long as she could remember. She loved to hear him play. His shaky performances were far from perfect, technically speaking, but they were more authentic than anything else she’d ever heard. The music was dripping with sadness, which had so struck her because she’d always thought of the trumpet as a joyful instrument. Now and then she saw people flip coins into his open case as they walked by, entranced. A few times she walked by him when there was only silence, during his breaks. Even so, there were still a few people who tossed him coins. Of course, he made more money when he was actually playing, but he eventually decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. María Teresa rarely heard him play anymore, but he was playing today. For her. And he was playing with such sadness that she thought, just for a second, that he might know how she felt.

Her steps took her to the rose garden, the fragrance delicately bathing her as the trumpeting faded to a distant whisper. What did roses know of arranged marriages? Of sin? Of Penance? Hell? Nothing. Perhaps that’s what made them so beautiful. They didn’t trouble themselves with anything. They only lay outstretched, perhaps enjoying the sunlight, lapping up the rain when it fell but not complaining when it didn’t. They bloomed when it was time and then they matured, bore fruit and withered away, all according to the seasons. If only she could be more like a rose. But there was no season in her life, no order, no natural justice. She could never be a rose.

“Well, well,” said a voice.

María Teresa looked up in alarm. She’d been caught.

“Do your parents know you’re here? I don’t think they’d be too happy…”

María Teresa’s spirits jumped. It was Álvaro.

“Skipping school to go sit in the rose garden,” he said. “Only you.”

“And what are you doing here?” said María Teresa.

“I cut out after history when I saw you weren’t there. You didn’t call yesterday—I thought something might be wrong. I tried calling your place. When no one answered I thought you might be here.”

She attempted a smile.

“What’s wrong?”

She dropped the effort. “Everything,” she sighed. “Absolutely everything. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.”

“Sounds like someone hasn’t been doing their moon viewing.” He sat down on the bench next to María Teresa and wrapped his arm around her. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

She sighed.

“I want to help you, Mari. But even if I can’t, sometimes just talking about it is enough. Come on.”

“I don’t even know where to begin.” He was her closest friend, her oldest friend, the only one who she could even hope to describe her feelings to, the only one who had a chance to understand her. But even he might as well have been an ocean away.

Álvaro smiled at her encouragingly.

“Well, I might as well just tell you—everyone will find out soon enough, anyway.”

“What is it?”

“Álvaro,” she started, “I’m—” The words caught in her throat. He waited expectantly and then, when she wasn’t forthcoming, prompted with a head motion and an arm over her shoulder. “Pregnant,” she finally said.

He was silent for a moment. “Pregnant?” he said slowly. “Pregnant.” A minute passed; he stared at her and into the distance and at the roses around her all at once. “You’re sure?”

Suddenly María Teresa was on the verge of tears. “There’s no reason to cry,” he said hurriedly. “That’s not so bad, is it? I’m here for you. For us. We—it’ll be okay.”

“Not so bad?” Her eyes were moist.

Álvaro fell silent again. He sat upright and his face grew serious. “I can put school on hold, work more hours at the restaurant.”

“Álvaro—”

“We can do this. It’s our child—this is important.”

Mari’s eyelashes were wet and tears streaked her face, falling in beads. Álvaro would be the perfect father, wouldn’t he? He was already willing to make sacrifices, to pause his own life to help raise the child. She wished it could be so simple—she wished the two of them could escape and live alone and raise their baby. Only what if it wasn’t his? Álvaro didn’t even consider that it might not be his; he was so trusting. And what about her? That night with Guillermo—it was the one thing she’d never told Álvaro, the only secret between them.

But in the end, none of that mattered, thought María Teresa. Her baby was already going to Father Xabier. She couldn’t change her story now, not after the priest practically confessed that he’d done it. No one would believe her.

She knew she should tell Álvaro all this. He might even be able to help her. But what would he think of her afterwards? And could she even bring herself to say the words? Having to replay it in her head over and over was bad enough, but having to relive it all out loud? It was too much; she couldn’t do it.

“Do you know when you’re due?” said Álvaro. “We need to start getting ready. Should we—find a place to live? I don’t know—”

“Álvaro,” María Teresa sobbed, “I’m not keeping it.”

“You can’t—”

“Not like that.” She cleared her throat. “The priest at my church is adopting it. They’re making me. My parents.”

“A priest?”

She couldn’t tell him the truth, and it hurt. It stabbed. Had he been in her position, he would have told her the truth; she knew it. But she couldn’t do the same for him. And why? Because she was too embarrassed? No, it wasn’t embarrassment, exactly. What she really feared was losing him. She began crying again, and soon let herself lose control, partly because she was overcome by emotion and partly so she would have more time to answer him.

“Tell me,” he said. “It’s your baby—our baby—not theirs. I don’t understand. Why do they have any say in it?”

“They say,” she said between sobs, “you know. I’m supposed to marry Guillermo. If I have a child already—the deal’s off.”

“But this is life, not a deal.”

“There’s nothing I can do.”

“It’s my baby too, Mari. Don’t I have a say in this?”

She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she didn’t know whether it was his after all, not when he was so sure. She’d sooner tell him about how she lied and said it was the priest. “There’s no choice. My father would kill you if he knew it was you.”

“It’s my baby. Don’t you think I’d risk my life for my child? Who knows, he might even ease up a bit if you would just stand up to him a little.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Mari, this is important.”

“You think it’s easy for me? To have this thing inside me everyone’s fighting over? I don’t want this, Álvaro. None of it.”

“Mari…” He caressed her hair. It was down and unkempt, a contrast to the usual tidy ponytail she kept it in.

“Sometimes I just want to die, Álvaro. Do you understand? I can’t even manage to want to live for myself. How can you expect me to live for a baby?”

She had said things like this before, but she never seemed so resolute. Álvaro didn’t know what to say. There were eggshells everywhere—razor sharp—and he was blindfolded. She held her head in her hands and continued sobbing, and all he could do was rub her back.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “Somehow.”

[] Chapter Five: Fire

 

María Teresa sat slumped at the kitchen table. Her second-trimester belly, though quite distended, was still small enough that, sitting like this, she could almost fool herself into thinking that she’d just been eating too many sweets. But she couldn’t sit like this forever; her back was strained enough as it was. And so she had no other choice but to let the world see that she was pregnant. Not that pregnant teenagers were unheard of, but they did tend to occasion whispers and sometimes ridicule. Especially at school. The year was newly begun and many of the people there hadn’t seen María Teresa in the summer months, so her endowed appearance was shocking. Most of the gossipers had sense enough to not let her hear what they said, but it was almost as if some of them wanted her to hear—wanted to hurt her. As if she hadn’t already been hurt enough.

“Would you look at that,” she heard.

“I always thought she was such a nice girl. I didn’t think she would… you know.”

“And here I thought the Basques killed off all the whales.”

“What’s she still doing here?”

“Bet she makes her parents proud.”

“Wish I could find such an easy girl.”

“I used to see her at church. The Miraria Monastery. They do say children are miracles, don’t they?”

“Looks like she’s past saving now.”

She got used to being called a certain four-letter word that, having gone down from five and far from Rome, lost all its angelicism. It was not a nice word.

These were the sneers of strangers, and though the people themselves were inconsequential to María Teresa, the things they said still hurt.

Fortunately, some of her closest girl friends—though even these were, for the most part, only friends at school—stayed by her side, telling a few of the detractors to mind their own business and assuring María Teresa that she and Álvaro made a cute couple and that they wished they could find such a great guy for themselves.

María Teresa and Álvaro spent as much time together during school as they could, seeing as doing so outside of school was now expressly forbidden, whereas before it was merely objectionable. Just the sight of him from down the hallway was enough to lift her spirits. And once they were within their mantle of each other’s presence, they were deafened to the points, stares and whispers coming from outside.

Over the previous months, Álvaro had made a visible effort to pull María Teresa out of her melancholia, and by all accounts he was successful. “I promise we’ll find a way to keep our baby,” he said to her often as he caressed the space behind her ear. She didn’t believe him—who could conceive of so directly countering her father?—but something about the way he said it always made her feel better. For the first time in a long time, she felt she had something to live for. That’s how she survived the gossip.

Outside school, the world was rather indifferent to Maria Teresa’s pregnancy. Only days before, a bomb exploded in an underground parking lot below a supermarket, killing a dozen small children among fifty total, and injuring many more. Not to mention all the material damage.

There were the testaments of cousins, parents and neighbors of the victims that colored the news about the ongoing police investigations, leading to a steady drip of new smalltalk material for the general population. It was constantly evolving. First the explosion happened without warning, and then the police had received a threat minutes—or was it nearly an hour?—before the incident and searched the store earnestly for trouble—or did they ignore the threat entirely? Did the police have a right to issue orders on private property? The public was in a fiery debate. Meanwhile families were frenzied with worry about whether the corpses that were burned so badly that they couldn’t be recognized might actually be their uncle or sister or son who had gone away recently and hadn’t been heard from since.

It soon became clear that the incident was ETA’s doing—they’d been on a rampage lately—which in itself also became the topic of moral debate and idle chitchat. ETA, whose name stood for the Basque words meaning Basque freedom, was originally a pacific group that promoted Basque culture—things like berets, ribbon dancing and burly sports—but evolved into a paramilitary organization that literally fought for Basque independence and was growing more and more malicious by the year.

But how blowing up a supermarket and killing non-partisan civilians furthered the cause for Basque independence was nebulous at best. Even Basques who at first were on ETA’s side were now outraged. Was that really the way to deal with adversity? This was much worse than their previous car bombings, and so much different from anything they’d done before. It wasn’t heroic, and there was no good reason for it—not like Ispaster, where ETA killed government workers who were transporting weapons to be used against the Basque resistance. And it certainly wasn’t like the assassination of Carrero Blanco, the man who was slated to succeed Franco and would undoubtedly continue persecuting the Basques. The car was blown five stories high. Blanco’s body bobbled around in the car because he hadn’t worn his seat belt, and then it flew out the window into the open air and finally landed on some woman’s balcony like a dead lecher. Maybe this type of thing didn’t work anymore—potential targets started being more careful, not parking in the exact same place every day, not always taking the same car. Some things didn’t change, though: ETA was still doing most of their attacks on Friday, the same day Jesus died.

This was all much more troubling and interesting to the outside world than the child growing within a young girl.

All things considered, María Teresa really was feeling much better. Her morning sickness had receded, and she was beginning to come to grips with her situation. Even if she would have to marry Guillermo eventually, at least she could spend time during the day with Álvaro now. And being pregnant also gave her an excuse to deny Guillermo’s invitations whenever they came up. Once or twice she even managed to fool her parents into thinking she was meeting up with Guillermo, when in fact she was going to meet Álvaro for coffee or to sit in the rose garden.

She learned that nobody argued with a pregnant woman. Not Guillermo, not her parents—no one. Even the pedantic Chino at the end of her block stopped fussing over anything less than five pesetas. He’d even taken to smiling gingerly when she walked in.

Indeed, things were much better for her now that the focus of God’s retribution was no longer precisely upon her, at least for the moment. In truth, she hadn’t gone to church since last June. Regarding her Penance, she’d only said one Our Father and barely made it through the first page of Job. But maybe God had forgiven her anyway. He’d gone on to punishing the rest of the country for their transgressions, she thought, thinking of the recent news that permeated her piso every evening. He was punishing the sinners of the world through ETA. Did that mean they were on God’s side? Were they God’s angels?

Besides the kids at school, the only other people in the world who weren’t talking about ETA non-stop were in María Teresa’s immediate family. Because her pregnancy was always getting harder to keep out of sight, it was always getting harder to keep out of mind—and the dinner conversation.

In the rare times when Rodrigo was home, he muttered comments about the sodomists at monastery, more to himself than to either of the women. And as he muttered, his eyes gazed upon María Teresa’s belly. Seeing as his words only contained the most cryptic of hints, she could only guess what he was thinking—she knew it wasn’t good—but she did notice that he no longer looked at her with reproach; instead, his eyes were filled with fire.

But that was only most of the time. There were some occasions when Rodrigo surprised María Teresa. For example, he had continued bringing her new clothes as he always did, and as she grew he brought larger sizes. But it quickly became clear that, while the larger sizes were bigger in all places, she was only getting bigger in one. He relented that she’d need proper maternity clothes, saying that no daughter of his would be walking about like a derelict. Because none of Rodrigo’s brands carried maternity clothes, he authorized Sofía to take her shopping for other clothes (though he mentally noted the market gap and decided to bring it up with the brand developers). María Teresa thought it was the first genuinely nice thing her father had ever done for her, but he rebuffed any conversation on the topic, or even thanks. He simply went on to his next task as a matter of business, holing himself up in his office.

As uncommunicative as Rodrigo was, Sofía was just the opposite. Seeing María Teresa’s growing belly resurrected memories of her own pregnancy, and she was eager to share her experience with her daughter. Tonight she sat across from the slumped María Teresa, spreading cream cheese on crackers and plating slices of ham for the two of them.

“And your nipples?”

“Mom, stop.”

“Just asking. You know, I still can’t believe it.” Excited though she was, Sofía had to keep in mind that she was only to be a grandmother biologically, which was, perhaps, the least important aspect of grandmotherhood. The baby itself was to be adopted by Father Xabier—Rodrigo had already made all the legal arrangements—and after the child’s birth none of them would see it again. María Teresa and Sofía both privately imagined going to Mass at the monastery and seeing the child from afar—part of their family but not quite, within eyeshot but impossibly distant. It was a difficult image to swallow, but it was still far enough away that they could ignore it, pretend it was a mere fiction. Anyone could fool themselves into thinking anything they wanted about the future, after all, as long as it was still in the future.

“You’re feeling better, aren’t you?” said Sofía.

“Mostly, yeah.”

“But not entirely?” She had noticed the way the girl was sitting. “Come on, you can tell me. What is it?”

“The kids at school…”

“Don’t listen to them. People just feel a need to bring others down. Anyone who’s doing something different or better.”

María Teresa slumped a bit further.

“It’s easier said than done, I know. Just try to remember that they can’t control themselves—it’s almost instinct. Bless their hearts, the stupid things. But all people are like that. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Right?”

María Teresa smiled a bit at the verse and nodded.

“There we go. That’s always a good place to start. Sometimes smiling is all we can do. You know, most things in life we can’t control. A skill we all have to learn—though not everyone does—is to recognize what we can and can’t control. And when there’s something we can’t, then you just have to smile and make the best of it.”

“Like I haven’t heard that a million times.”

“You can hear something a million times but still never really hear it. I think you have to be in the right place at the right time, in the right frame of mind, to really understand certain things. The lessons that are really important are worth repeating a million times because, eventually, you will be in that right place at the right time, and that’s when you most need to hear it. Even I need to hear it again and again, and I’m the one saying it.”

“I just don’t want to hear it right now.”

“Alright. Anyway, eat something,” said Sofía, pushing the plate of ham and crackers toward María Teresa. “You need to keep up your energy. Want some water? A banana maybe?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Your essay for Señor David going okay?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s due soon, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s done.”

“Want me to read it over?”

“Since when do you read over my essays?”

“Just trying to be helpful.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“And all your other classes?”

“Everything’s fine.”

“Okay,” said Sofía.

María Teresa poked at the corner of a cracker before picking it up and chewing it slowly. Cream cheese on crackers had always been one of her favorite snacks. “Mom,” she said after a while, “I’m scared of what Dad is going to do. He’s been…”

“I know,” said Sofía.

“I’m worried he’s going to do something horrible. And this whole thing is my fault.”

“He wants what’s best for everyone.”

“I think he just wants what’s best for him.”

Sofia was silent.

“Is he really going to burn down the monastery?”

“No, honey. Of course not. He’s just angry. They’re only words.”

“But if he does… If he does, what’ll happen to my baby? I mean, it’ll be with Father Xabier, but what would happen if he really does…?”

“Don’t think about that. It won’t happen, don’t worry.”

“But I can’t help it. I can’t stop worrying.”

“Mari,” said Sofía as she grasped her daughter’s hand within both of hers, “I think it would be best not to think of it as your baby. That’ll make it too hard.”

María Teresa didn’t respond. No matter what anyone said, it was her baby. It was growing inside her. That made her the mother, didn’t it? Even if they took her baby away, it would be her baby forever. She thought of what Álvaro had told her, that he’d find a way for them to keep their baby. She wasn’t sure she believed him, but what if he really came through? That would be the best of all outcomes, wouldn’t it? Too good to be true. But it was impossible. The future could only be expected to bring what had been brought in the past, after all.

“I just wish we could leave them alone,” said María Teresa. “Father Xabier agreed to take care of the baby—I can still marry Guillermo and everything like you guys want. Isn’t that enough?” She tried to look convincing, but her expression quickly fell apart. “Why isn’t it ever enough for him?” she sighed.

“I’ll talk to him,” said Sofía. “You’re right. We do need to think about the baby.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

And though Sofía fulfilled her promise, her conversation with Rodrigo went about as well as could be expected. That is, not well at all. They were in bed and she spoke meekly from under the covers. He sat up, the lamplight making jagged shadows on his curly chest. Even without the suit to communicate his power, he was foreboding: He was much larger than Sofía, and though he wasn’t particularly muscular, his body was coated in a dense padding that gave the impression that he was. “Do you presume to give me commands?” he said carefully. He wasn’t angry—at least he didn’t seem angry—but that made his words seem all the more commanding.

“No,” said Sofía, “I was just—”

“I know you were just,” he said. “But you have to understand that some things are the concerns of women, and some things aren’t. Women are good at telling stories. Gossiping about neighbors—that’s what women do. That’s what you should be concerned with. Men, on the other hand, do business.”

“Rodrigo.”

He swung his legs out from under the covers, stomped onto the parquet floor and began to pace around. He was like a brooding wild beast, ferocious in his bareness. Sofía tentatively pulled herself up, making only the slightest of motions before abandoning the endeavor and feebly leaning on the headboard instead.

“Let me tell you, mi vida. That baby is a blemish on our name. It is best to put it from our minds. Once this is over with, we’ll all be better off.” He looked her in the eyes. Sofía saw the same fire that had scared María Teresa earlier. She was silent. That had settled it, as far as Rodrigo was concerned.

He took his place back on his side of the bed, pulled the covers up tight and turned himself away from Sofía. His breathing slowed. As he lay in the darkness waiting for sleep, suddenly he could see something. A bright realization—an epiphany. In a flash of insight he knew that this whole time he had been mistaken. The situation had seemed like a treacherous strait. Certain necessities had seemed inevitable. But suddenly the flames were only smoldering. There was a clear path through the rocky pass, and he knew that there would be no more fire. Some things required heat and others didn’t. It was clear now that the present situation was the latter. It would be okay. He could see it all: The priest would raise the baby as his own, María Teresa would still be married with Guillermo, and his business would still partner with Ortega’s. There was no need for fire after all.

That was the start of a few of the best days any of the Colmenars had known in some time. Though Rodrigo never spoke of his epiphany, it shone in his words and actions. His tone was brighter, his voice gentler, his words kinder. He came home a bit earlier and even went so far as to smile at his daughter when he saw her and ask her about her day and how school was going and if she was feeling okay. The fire was nowhere to be seen. María Teresa was in good spirits, too. She didn’t dare bring it up, but she suspected her newly good-natured father might be willing to annul the arrangement between her and Guillermo. She knew it was a tall order, but there would be plenty of time. She had hope, for the first time in a long time. Only Sofía seemed ambivalent: When Rodrigo caressed her, she seemed taken aback—almost embarrassed. Ashamed, even. He took it as a sign that he’d been overly distant in the recent past and brushed it off. She was a bit stiff to the touch—resistant—so he resolved to liven her up as much as he could.

One morning María Teresa was not alone on the elevator. This in itself was not remarkable; there were certainly enough people living in the building that this would happen from time to time. Even so, it wasn’t often that María Teresa saw someone she didn’t recognize. The old woman with curly gray hair standing next to her in the tiny elevator was one she’d never seen before—but she seemed somehow familiar. Something like a fairy godmother. Not only that, but the woman was staring at María Teresa. And not at her eyes, but at her belly. She also seemed to be murmuring, though inaudibly, and shaking her head slowly, clearly disapproving of something. This all made María Teresa feel self-conscious. She gripped the strap of her backpack, which clung to her shoulder, and eased the bag toward her front.

“It’s a shame,” the old woman finally said.

María Teresa looked up at the woman, her brows furled.

“You poor, poor thing,” the woman said. Her teeth were like a mountain range. “But you look like you’re keeping up very well.” She paused. “All things considered, I mean.” There was something godmotherly in her voice, but it could just as easily have been something sinister—patronizing, maybe. Her teeth were treacherous, her words an avalanche.

María Teresa wanted to say something, but she couldn’t figure out what to say. She was used to being ridiculed for her pregnancy by people her own age, but the older people either tended not to be so petty or kept their comments to themselves. And whereas most people simply ridiculed her, this woman was acting as if she felt sorry for María Teresa. Was being pregnant so pathetic?

“That man should be ashamed of himself,” the old woman said, her eyes still fixed on the girl’s belly. She was shaking her head slowly. “To abuse one’s position…”

“What?” María Teresa finally said.

“The man who did that to you. You poor girl. To imagine such a sweet girl like you would have to go through such… barbarity.”

“What are you talking about?” Part of María Teresa didn’t want to seem rude, but most of her was past caring.

“I’m sorry. There’s no need to be prickly, my girl. Everyone’s heard the story by now. And nobody blames you. It’s just a shame that it happened, is all.” The elevator was open at the ground floor now, and the old woman stepped out gingerly. She flashed a prurient smile and walked toward the porter. As María Teresa walked by, eager to get to school as fast as possible, the old woman turned to her and said, “Take care now.”

The next day there was another curious first. Not long after María Teresa returned home from school, there was a knock on the door. This was practically unheard of; the only time María Teresa remembered an unanticipated knock was the surprise visit of her aunt from the Basque Country a few years prior. Was Aunt Rama back again? María Teresa’s heart leapt. She would have liked to see her. Sofía went to answer the door, and curiosity brought María Teresa into the hallway.

“No,” said Sofía into the cracked door. “No. She’s not here, and you won’t be able to talk to her. Very sorry, goodbye.” Sofía attempted to shut the door on the apparently unwelcome guest, but whoever it was had quickly wedged their foot in the door and before Sofía could react forced the door back open with their elbow and peeked their head through the doorway. It was a man in a suit, carrying a narrow notebook—a reporter. His eyes lit up.

“Are you María Teresa Colmenar?” the man said, seeing the girl in the hallway. Sofía let out a sigh.

“Don’t answer,” said Sofía.

“May I ask you a few questions? It will only take a minute.”

“Get out of my house.”

“Please. I don’t mean to intrude. I would just like to ask a few questions and then I’ll be on my way.” María Teresa was frozen. Ask her questions? About what? The man was now mostly inside the apartment, having squeezed himself through the narrow gap like a snake.

“I said,” said Sofía, “get out of my house.” She sprang in front of the man as she said this and then, in a determined violence the likes of which María Teresa had never seen before from her mother, Sofía launched her knee into the reporter’s crotch. The man let out a yelp and fell backwards—he hadn’t expected it. Sofía took advantage of his imbalance and pushed him out the door, quickly locking the deadbolt and fixing the chain. “Now leave before I call the police!” she said through the door. She didn’t wait: She went to the phone and called Nacho, telling him that the man who’d just come up was trying to bother them and to never let him up again please.

“Who was that?” said María Teresa.

“A reporter.”

“He wanted to talk to me?”

“Yes.”

“About what, though?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. Don’t talk to reporters.”

“But what if it wasn’t bad?”

“Those reporters… They grasp for stories anywhere they can. And if they don’t find a story, they take whatever they do find and they bend and twist it until it at least resembles one. It’s nothing you want to get tangled up in. Nothing for a girl like you.”

“And what if I wanted to talk to him?”

Sofia hesitated. “Why would you?” she said.

“But what if?”

“I’m your mother. It doesn’t matter. If I say that man is not allowed in my house, then he’s not allowed in my house. But please, Mari, promise me that you won’t talk to them if they approach you when you’re outside. Please. It can only do harm.”

That reporter never did get a hold of María Teresa—she never saw him again. But that didn’t stop him from writing her story. It came out on the front page of Veinte Minutos which, though somewhat lower-brow, was perhaps wider read than any of the other newspapers in the city. Freely available at metro entrances, morning commuters picked it up and read it on the train, leaving it behind for the next-comers to pick up. Thus, even though the Veinte Minutos newsstands were often exhausted by eight o’clock in the morning, the newspaper could be found—and was read voraciously—well into the evening. How many might have seen the headline Miraria Priest Rapes Teenage Girl is up to speculation, of course, but judging by the whirlwind of conversation on the topic, it was an appreciable number. And in a country that was historically Catholic but now had a hearty community of those who were sure it was time for change, especially post-Franco, such stories were used as ammunition by those who tended toward liberalism and used as proof for a need to bolster traditional values by those who tended toward conservatism. Not the story, necessarily, but the headline. That was the important part. After all, the story itself reneged on the headline, admitting that there was no evidence of rape and that there was just as much likelihood that the relationship was consensual, but there wasn’t a single person who read that far. Like most newspaper articles, the second half could have been complete gibberish and nobody would have noticed.

“Did you see this?” said one commuter to her companion, gesturing to the headline.

“They ran out of altar boys, then,” said the man.

“Will they stop at nothing? They’re priests, for God’s sake. What is the world coming to…”

“It makes me sick.”

“How can the monarchy continue supporting the Church when things like this keep happening? If this is what it means to be Catholic, how could anyone in their right mind accept it? It’s like the indulgences in the Middle Ages. There’s going to be a reaction.”

“It has to stop.”

“You know, I hate to say it, but it makes me ashamed of my parents.”

The rumors and discussions in the general public were disconnected from María Teresa—the news article, for all its grime, fortunately didn’t give her name. Somehow, though, everyone who knew or knew of María Teresa knew that she was the teenage girl in the story. The one who had been raped. And the word spread.

The girls at school who she had considered friends now scorned her. Some simply avoided her as much as possible, and they averted their eyes whenever they crossed paths. But others were painfully direct. They said she had changed and they didn’t even recognize her anymore, and one went so far as to explicate that they couldn’t be friends any longer. These were the girls María Teresa had grown up with. They had gone from playing together in school to visiting each other’s houses during siesta every so often. They’d had a long history of squabbles over shoes and jackets, but never before had one of them alienated another so acutely.

Worse, these were the girls who had stayed by María Teresa’s side even when the rest of the school was ridiculing her, after it was clear that she’d gotten pregnant. The only thing that had changed was that now the world thought of her as a victim of rape rather than a mindless slut. She had been attacked—it was beyond her control. The priest was the villain, not her. So why were they avoiding her? Why were they blaming her? She had changed—what did that even mean? If anything, these friends of hers should have clung even more closely to her side. She’d been raised on stories of compassion for the weak, of consolation for victims. Why was this not borne out in reality? Why her friends should abandon her when she was most in need was unknown to María Teresa. What were friends for? Nobody else could understand what she was going through, anyway. Their families were nurturing and understanding, not like hers. They were fundamentally different; they always had been. Maybe they had never truly been friends to begin with.

Suddenly María Teresa realized what the old lady on the elevator was talking about. That man… abusing his position… barbarity. She knew about the rape. But that was before the article had come out—how did she find out? María Teresa hadn’t the dimmest ember of an idea; she didn’t even know who the woman was. But the woman knew, whoever she was. She must have found out somehow. And for that matter, the reporter must have found out somehow as well. Someone had to have tipped him off. How could all these people have known something about María Teresa without her knowing, and without her even knowing who these people were? And with all this going on, María Teresa had to constantly remind herself that the story wasn’t even true.

Still, as inciting as the truth could sometimes be, it didn’t take so much as that to cause outrage in a community. There were anti-rape, anti-priest and anti-monarchy flyers pasted in all the usual places—in the entryways of Chinos and supermarkets, on bus shelters and pillars—some of them announcing town hall meetings and others simply expressing discontent. And for all the flyers there were, there was even more graffiti. Most notably, someone had sprayed the message Ni Amor Ni Dios in graffiti across the facade of S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria. Religious and historical buildings were usually off-limits to even the least moral of spray paint hoodlums, but these were special circumstances. And the monks, because they never left the building, didn’t learn about the graffiti for some time. And once they did learn about it, it proved difficult to remove, not least because there were protestors out front at all hours of the day who quite liked it. Gone were the days of abandoned eyeglasses and bandages on the monastery steps. Now there were only protestors and spray paint.

Newspapers and magazines published op ed after op ed. People talked in clusters on sidewalks and in shops; the incident was the go-to topic of conversation when people ran into each other. It seemed that everyone had already forgotten about ETA. And everywhere that María Teresa went, eyes followed her, words of pity and promises of revenge coming in both ears. She heard a great deal, but she realized that what she heard could only be the tiniest cross-section of what was really being said. There was talk of dissolving the monastery, of the good brothers joining other monasteries, of the priest leaving the monastic community—some assured their companions that he was slated to be excommunicated by decree of Pope John Paul himself. People were boycotting S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria in favor of more sanctimonious places of worship.

Suddenly it dawned on María Teresa: It was her father. He was the one who had spread the rumors. He was the only one who knew, and the only one who could. He’d talked to the reporter—used his connections, no doubt. Who else could stoop so low?

But why? He’d said the monastery would pay for what Father Xabier had done to her, but that wasn’t the whole story. His vendetta against the monastery stretched back much further than that. She knew he’d always hated the Church, but she didn’t know why. For all the thousands of muttered slurs she’d heard him utter throughout her life, she couldn’t recall a single explanation. Whatever it was, it must have stretched back to before she was born. He did tend to say things like I always knew and Ever since I was a boy when talking about his hatred of religion. And he’d always hated this monastery in particular. Was it because S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria was such a paragon of the power of faith, given its reputation for miracles? The monastery would burn—that’s what Rodrigo had said. And now it was all but literally aflame.

So her mother had lied to her. She said she’d make sure he wouldn’t do anything to the monastery—that María Teresa’s baby would be safe. Was this her idea of nothing? How could she do this to her? Her mother had been one of her only advocates, especially recently. How could she betray her daughter so easily?

Unless…

María Teresa knew her father, and she knew he was stubborn. If he wanted to burn down the monastery, her mother wouldn’t be able to stop him. That’s what must have happened: She pictured their conversation, her mother’s feeble attempts to persuade her father, him sitting, smug and resistant. María Teresa should have known better; no one could convince him of anything he didn’t already believe. It was hopeless.

Her situation had already gotten worse—and now it was worse than ever. Negative attention followed her everywhere—whispers, pointing, stares. She could feel the evil eye all around her, and that would only worsen her misfortunes. Her friends had all deserted her, and it was only a matter of time before Álvaro gave up on her, too. Why would he stay with her when there were so many other girls out there who weren’t so incendiary? She saw him less and less, making up excuses to not linger with him in the hallway or see him after school.

Once again, María Teresa spent most of her free time alone in her room, lying in bed. It’s not too late, she thought, I don’t have to go through with this—with any of it. She ran through her options again: pills, blades, rope… She wondered if her father had a handgun stashed in his desk somewhere. He seemed like the kind of person who would, but it had never crossed her mind before. The door to his den was always locked, though, so she had to count it out. She could throw herself out the window. She pictured it: She’d stand on the ledge and then tip tip tip. She’d sail for a few carefree seconds of bliss and then—finally—she wouldn’t have to think about anything ever again. It seemed like such a good choice, but there was still something holding her back. She didn’t even want to get out of bed.

How had she screwed everything up so badly? It wasn’t so long ago that she was perfectly fine, she thought. Sure, she was promised to marry someone she didn’t want to marry. At the time that had seemed so horrible, but now she’d give anything to go back to the time when that was her biggest worry. Letting that thing happen with Guillermo, and then doing it again with Álvaro—she’d made so many mistakes. She’d let things happen to her, and they escalated—or dragged her down, rather—so quickly. How stupid she’d been. Now she was pregnant, her belly growing fatter every day, and it was only a matter of a few weeks until she would give birth. A diminutive version of herself was to be let out. Who was she to do such a thing? To inflict that upon the world? She wasn’t fit to raise anyone. But it didn’t matter: She wasn’t going to be allowed to raise the child anyway. It was going to someone else. Was that worse? She had unfairly blamed the priest, but maybe he actually deserved it for being such a stupid, horrible person—even stupider and more horrible than herself. But why did he accept it? That was what she couldn’t understand. Who would accept such injustice? It didn’t seem possible. María Teresa didn’t like the priest, but she had to admire him now. Who else could raise another person’s child as their own, given the circumstances? Unless he meant to torment the child, to use it as a way to pay María Teresa back for the evil thing she’d done, for the Penance she hadn’t served, for the new and horrible lie she’d told but could never confess.

And now she’d managed to jeopardize things even further. There must have been a better way to navigate the situation. There was no evidence of rape, so the law of the Crown could not exercise its power. That should have been the end of it. But all the negative press and public outrage could not be ignored by the Church, which was not like the Crown. The Church was so much stricter, so much more thorough in its domain. The Crown could not promise eternal damnation for its violators, but that was the Church’s chief purview—for laypeople and the clergy alike. Priests, everyone knew, were not allowed to have sexual relations. And because its institution was under fire, the Church would have to take action: Father Xabier was certainly going to be relieved of his priesthood—perhaps even excommunicated from the Church. That’s what they were saying. Not only had she stuck him with a child that wasn’t his—both the stigma of having partaken in creating it and the responsibility of having to raise it—but she’d stripped him of his profession. She’d stolen his livelihood. What else could he do if he was excommunicated? And she would have to live with it.

So that was it: God had resumed punishing her. Things had gotten better for that brief period in which María Teresa no longer thought it was the end of the world, when Álvaro was her rock, but now the punishment was back tenfold. She stayed home from school first one day a week, then two, then three. She lay in bed as much as possible, which was the best solution for now, but she knew that eventually she would have to do the one thing she could do to fix the mess she had created. It was only a matter of time.

[] Chapter Six: Whispers

 

Xabier Aldana Ochoa was fifteen once. Maybe twice: When he thought back on his boyhood, there were distinctly happy memories and there were distinctly sad memories. Such a dichotomy could only indicate that he had been fifteen two times: once happy and once sad. The happy memories were his favorite ones to think about, but the sad ones were the most important.

Not that he spent much time dwelling on the past. His work as a monk and priest kept him so engaged in whatever task was presently at hand, in his wholehearted devotion to God, that there was no time to wander. His mind and body were no longer his own since he took up the habit; they were God’s. But even for the most disciplined, the past creeps up from time to time, coaxed out by the jingle of tea being stirred, the taste of burnt bread or the wobble of an old chair. Your mother’s smile might shine through the pages of an old book, triggered by some sequence of words or a sound or smell that reminded you of her, and the smell of the flowers in the garden under the bright blue sky might remind you of your father. Something about a painting as you walk past might remind you of a girl you used to know, and you might wonder what happened to her—what could have been. And then the smell of the varnish might stir up a memory of coming home after a long day by the stream to see your father working underneath his automobile, a thin trail of oil snaking into the road. The past peeks through resewn seams and old scars.

It had been a long time, but Father Xabier could remember his teenage days very clearly, back when he was only Xabier—sometimes only Xabi. He lived with his family in Ugarte, which was about halfway between Donostia and Bilbo, and his house had a name. When he got a bit older, he would learn that Ugarte could be accurately described as minuscule, as far as towns went (though it certainly was not the most minuscule of Basque settlements). Donostia and Bilbo were like two bright stars: Between them were any number of other stars—Basque villages—but these were all but invisible, precluded by the brightness of those shining two. But back when Xabier was fifteen—in the happy days—Ugarte was neither minuscule nor invisible. It was home, the extent of the world as he knew it. Life was simple and he was happy, if only out of ignorance.

As a boy he attended school with the other children from Ugarte and the surrounding villages, read voraciously in his free time, fished in the stream, helped tend to the chickens and, like all good Basques, attended Mass every Sunday. By the time he was ten, he was also expected to help out with more laborious tasks around the house, such as splitting wood and butchering livestock.

His mother was lovely in every way. She approached every duty she had as a mother and wife not as a begrudged obligation, but as an honor. Every morning she sang while she prepared breakfast. That’s what Xabier remembered most. The way her voice perked up the spirits of everyone who heard it, and how it made old bread and tortilla taste like the best of Christmas feasts. Xabier had always hoped that he’d be able to find a wife as lovely as his own mother, but he wasn’t sure there was anyone in the village of that caliber. There was one girl who might have come close, but as it happened Xabier didn’t have enough time to find out.

And his father was just as warm. He worked in a factory during the day but somehow wasn’t like the other factory workers, who were always tired and complaining. They furled their brows at the news on the radio, but he kept his lifted with wonder and delight. In a village where the majority of cars were black (and the ones that weren’t black were varying shades of dark gray), Xabier’s father had bought one that was bright blue. It stuck out from three villages away. And to make it even brighter, he always kept it full of fresh flowers. They bloomed on the dashboard and peeked out of the spaces between the seats. He even talked about installing a planter in the back so there could be even more flowers. He said the smell of them kept him alive. Whenever a door opened, petals would flutter out. And when the family drove somewhere, a trail of plump bumblebees followed them wherever they went. Everyone got used to having petals stuck to their shoes, tracking them around town. Oh, the Aldanas must have been here, people would say when they saw the petals. Xabier thought it was the funniest thing.

It all changed so quickly. Planes flew overhead, and then flashes and bursts. The village a few miles away had been bombed, and suddenly both Xabier’s mother and father were dead. Xabier was taken to a government orphanage with a number of other children, and after a number of months (when it was safe, as they said), he was sent to live with his uncle, who was a businessman in Bilbo. He never learned what happened to his old house with a name or his father’s bright blue car.

“You will speak Christian in this house,” said Xabier’s uncle when he met the boy. “Hopefully we can civilize you yet.” Xabier had grown up speaking Basque at home, but he was also competent in Spanish, if somewhat unpracticed; Basque children who went to school studied Spanish, but those who never left their villages rarely had cause to use it. But Xabier’s uncle wasn’t Basque—at least he didn’t seem it—even if he did live in Bilbo, which was the capital of Bizkaia, the largest city in the Spanish Basque Country and the heart of the Basque economy. It might seem as if someone who lived in such a city should have adopted a certain Basqueness simply by virtue of being there, but this was not the case. Indeed, Xabier’s uncle refused to call his city by its Basque name Bilbo, always using the hispanicized Bilbao instead.

In truth, Basque identity was always rooted in the countryside. Once so little as the concept of metropolis appeared, a vital Basqueness evaporated, and little by little it was replaced by cosmopolitan, homogenized Spanishness. Of course, the newly-installed Fascist regime that sought to neutralize Basque influence didn’t help. Bilbo was an industrial city, heavy with smog—man’s imitation of the mist on the surrounding mountains—and with a narrow, muddy estuary burbling through the middle, something like a river but without the fish. Geographically Bilbo was quite undeniably in the Basque region, and it was only an hour or so from Ugarte, but Xabier couldn’t have felt further from home. And then he was stripped of his language.

Xabier’s uncle was evidently of the opinion—the popular opinion of the new Spanish regime—that Basque and the other minority languages of the peninsula should be squelched in order to extend the use of God’s chosen language, Castilian Spanish (the centuries-strong Catholicity of the Basques notwithstanding). In actuality, it probably had more to do with the Francoist public officials wanting to know what people were saying rather than any notion that the Basque language was somehow unchristian. Franco surely wanted to stomp out any possible avenues for uprisings that he could think of. But perhaps there really was an element of God-fearing dislike somewhere in there: Basque was an ancient language, in use long before anyone had been crucified, let alone Jesus Christ, and it was easy to dismiss those who spoke it as pagan bumpkins. The Basques who did happen to be non-idolaters always had the option of speaking Spanish. Indeed, Basque was better off not being spoken at all. After all, who had a use in the twentieth century for a language that put so much stock in things like the sun and boulders?

But there was no arguing with a dictator, and thus Xabier could not argue with his uncle. All the same, something so ingrained in a person as their mother tongue does not surrender easily, and often it’s beyond conscious control. Just as an English speaker might unconsciously reply yes or okay, even if their partner doesn’t speak English, and perhaps even if English were expressly forbidden (so strong is the reflex of the mother tongue), so a Basque speaker is just as susceptible to let out a bai or ondo without premeditation.

In Xabier’s case, the stakes were rather high: Every time something Basque came out of his mouth, he was lashed with his uncle’s belt. And though he grew vigilant of his own linguistic behavior, there were times when he slipped—and paid for it. Sometimes they were flippant whips at Xabier’s side or arm, and sometimes they were more orchestrated strikes across his bare back. “This is the only way you’ll learn,” said his uncle. If it could be said that Xabier eventually got used to the beltings, it was at this time that his uncle found it prudent to use things other than his belt in his teaching. Now he grabbed at whatever tool was nearby, be it an umbrella or skillet—one time it was even a knife, but it was only used as a threat.

Xabier’s skin became scarred in places, and Xabier dwelled on those scars whenever he caught himself in the mirror. But there was always more of him that wasn’t scarred than that was scarred—he reminded himself of that. Despite the occasional wounds, the man never sought to hurt Xabier severely—only to shake him out of his old country habits—and to his credit there were some times when, rather than reaching for a weapon, he merely gave the boy a stern look and asked him to repeat himself in Spanish.

Still, it wasn’t merely using Basque that provoked the wrath of Xabier’s uncle. The man was volatile and hateful, and of very strong opinions that happened to differ diametrically from those of Xabier. Nearly everything the boy did was in poor taste: There were rules for using silverware that he’d never learned before, and never would he have considered adjusting himself to be an unpolite action. Xabier was not a barbarian, but his uncle seemed to think so.

Xabier went on, suffering these abuses, cultivating fortitude, and learning. He sometimes thought about running away—he knew that there had to be a better way to live—but he also knew that wasn’t realistic. First, he had nowhere to go. The city was still vast and alien to him, and the only one he knew was his uncle. He had made a few new friends at school, but he couldn’t just go live with them—that would never work. There were too many unknowns, and though his present situation was far from idyllic, at least it was familiar. And even if he did manage to get away, what would become of him? He’d get a factory job somewhere, because that’s all a man without education could do in those days, and he’d end up just like his father’s colleagues: dead on the inside, animatronic.

He learned that he had to accept the things life brought him that could not be changed, and to work for that which should be changed. Little by little, he learned to tell the difference.

So Xabier stayed, and it wasn’t all bad. For as horrible as his uncle was, the man was still family. His only living connection to Ugarte and his house with a name. Between the assaults there was the occasional story of his mother as a girl or his father when they were newlyweds, and Xabier treasured those moments. If he left, there would never be another one. And though Xabier was mistreated, the beatings came less and less often as time went on, and mere verbal abuses and passive-aggressive obstacles were easier to withstand. Finally, Xabier knew that his education was the key to his future, and if there was anything about his situation to be grateful for it was that his uncle was rich enough and Catholic enough to send him to Saint Ignatius, the best parochial school in the city.

As his body hardened, so did his mind. In his darkest moments, Xabier turned within, and there he found what he knew could only be God, that ever-present, ever-loving being he had been hearing about since he was a little boy but never thought could exist outside church and maybe catechism class. God had always been something that other people talked about, but now Xabier found God for himself, and he found in God solace from the trials of his life.

Apparently this brought an outward change in Xabier; his Jesuit teachers began pulling him aside and asking him if he’d ever considered becoming a priest. “You have all the makings of a good shepherd,” they said. “A reflective heart, a gentle mind, a dextrous tongue. You might very well have a priestly vocation. Listen to the Lord and see what you discover.” Xabier had been listening, in fact, and even before they first mentioned it he knew he wanted to devote his life to God.

But priests had to deal with all the horrible people in their parishes, people like Xabier’s uncle. They had to perform baptisms, give speeches and counsel couples who were married but could no longer stand each other. Everything priests did seemed an attempt to please—placate—the massive herd of confused parishioners, and that didn’t appeal to Xabier. He wanted to serve God, but if he became a priest he’d be living a lie. What was he to do?

Fortunately he discovered that there was another way to live a holy life: as a monk. And the more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that a monastic life would be the best way for him to honor his Creator. There were monasteries everywhere, but he set his sights on S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria in Madrid because it had a lineage of Basque abbots and was highly esteemed. And so he left the Basque Country. Though he knew he could never be truly comfortable anywhere else, there was nothing left for him there.

He arrived at the abbey and explained to the porter that he wished to become a monk. The porter left, ostensibly to fetch the abbot. Minutes passed, then hours. A bit of anxiety stirred at the man’s lengthy absence, but Xabier realized: He’d come to the monastery to contemplate, and it was his wish to spend the entirety of his life there—so what was there to be in a hurry about? He’d arrived, and that was all there was to it. So he sat presently and prayed and did not trouble himself about being left alone for so long. Days passed. He was no longer waiting for anything. There was no need to chide himself about patience. When he became thirsty, he fetched himself water from a pitcher that had been left upon the porter’s station. When he became tired, he took a place on the floor and shut his eyes, and when he awoke he resumed his post on the chair. By the third afternoon he was quite hungry, and he managed to assuage his pangs by putting his trust in God and drinking more water. By the fourth day he found himself biologically distracted, but he persevered. Finally the porter returned with the abbot. They asked him if it was still his wish to adopt a monastic life, he said yes. Hearing this, they stripped him of his worldly clothes and covered his scars in the same black habit all the other monks wore. Thus he became a member of a community that stretched back to Saint Benedict in the sixth century and a participant in a practice that was as old as the human species itself.

Brother Xabier’s daily schedule included plenty of time for reading, and he was encouraged to study the history of the monastery. Most of the brothers sought only broad knowledge of the place—a little went a long way, they said—but Xabier was captivated, and he determined to read everything he had access to. When he lived in Ugarte, he suspected that many of the buildings were centuries old but could not know anything for certain; no one had ever troubled to record the histories of the dwelling places of sheep herders. The chronicles of the monastery, on the other hand, were extensive—almost overwhelmingly so. But again, Xabier took solace in the fact that he had the rest of his life to study the documents. There was no hurry.

The present edifice dated back to the thirteenth century, back when the hill upon which it stood was far from the tiny village on the Manzanares River that was called Madrid, separated by a league of brambles, bears and strawberry trees, but the geographic location had been a worship site since time immemorial. Back then it was simply called Sancta Maria. (Despite the seemingly exhaustive chronicling, the meaning of the S in the present name had long since been lost, if ever recorded, and it was apparently not possible to date or explain the addition of Miraria to the name.)

By that time the Moors had come through and claimed most of the peninsula for their own interpretation of God, but to most people this was only a formality, if they even heard about it. The news had come only in whispers from Toledo and Salamanca. The Moors never came to Madrid themselves. And in any case, the new sovereigns didn’t mind the construction of new Christian buildings as long as they were paid the appropriate tax, but in practice the tax collectors couldn’t be bothered to visit every tiny town; it would cost more to get there than they’d end up getting in jizya.

Even in its earliest years, the abbey was revered as a place of miracles. Residents and visitors alike diverted their attention from the stoic Visigoth churches that they had once so adored and instead encouraged the growth and success of the monastery. As non-mendicant orders have always done, the monks of Sancta Maria labored to produce goods to sell to visitors in order to support their community. Most accounts praised their honey, although there were also suggestions that at times the monks traded in blessed bread and beer. When the Catholic Monarchs discovered America and therefore cocoa in the late fifteenth century, the monastery was among the first to sell confections made from the beans, which were regarded as a miracle in their own right. Chocolate products always sold well. As time went on, the monks incorporated handmade rosaries in their wares and began to sell Bibles in Spanish for the growing population of readers.

As he read, Brother Xabier felt himself becoming a part of history, a stepping stone in a bridge across the oceans of time. When he awoke before dawn and knelt by candlelight, when he smelled the incense that pulsed from the thurible, when he regarded the steamy flowers of the courtyard garden on rainy days, when he wiped his brow after heaving an enormous sheet of biscuits from the oven, when he ate in silence, he sometimes thought of all those who had done these same things before him and how much had changed outside the walls of the monastery all the while. Monasticism was more than a stepping stone—it was a rock, an anchor for the wild fury of the world.

In time Madrid was made the capital of the country—another event that was considered a miracle, if only at first. The population grew. The bears moved away and the strawberry trees dried up, and Madrid engulfed the monastery but grew no holier because of it.

S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria enjoyed prosperity until the nineteenth century, when the country fell into a series of wars. The century was proof that, just as even the sturdiest of fortresses will eventually fall to a determined siege, so too could the rock of civilization be sundered under enough pressure. The monasteries were used to quarter French soldiers and stable their horses after all the homes that could be commandeered were filled. The monks who were not slaughtered only lived to see their golden regalia used to serve slop to the foreign militia. The flowers were trampled. The crypts were scavenged for anything of value, and in some cases the corpses themselves were ravaged. Sometimes the fires used for cooking and heating revolted, taking as much as they could with them. Eventually these devastations could no longer be excused as merely the casualties of war—there was something malicious at play. Soon enough, 1835 brought the midnight burning of countless monasteries and convents across the country, and God’s whispers could be heard beneath the boisterous rioting of the crowds. Now it could no longer be imagined that these were unhappy accidents. Entire communities of monks and nuns were being slaughtered. One night at the Franciscan monastery in Madrid, chillingly close to the Miraria, the monks were blasted full of bullets and gored with bayonets with such violence that that anyone who didn’t succumb to the butchery drowned in the blood.

Could it have been anything but a miracle that S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria was not decimated? Most of the monasteries were destroyed entirely, their plots sprouting into banks and government buildings, and a few monasteries were reborn as parish churches, but the community of the Miraria persevered all this time—admittedly waning. The abbot at the time determined that, to best ensure its continued fortune, the monastery should employ a priest so that it, too, could be protected as a parish church while still maintaining its monastic community. Thus one of the brothers was ordained, and ever since then the Miraria lived a dual life, and it progressively waxed.

The wrench on monasticism relented as the twentieth century began to unfold. By the time Xabier arrived it was a healthy, stable community. A few years after Brother Xabier joined the community, Father Fernando passed away, and the abbey was left without a priest. The diocese appointed an interim priest to celebrate Mass at the Miraria, Father José from a tiny parish in Extremadura. Father José was fine—for the interim—but the abbot greatly preferred to have one of the brothers carry out the priestly duties. A fellow monk would understand their way of life and the solemnity of the priestly office in the monastic context, and would moreover hopefully be less inclined to eat their cookies without paying.

The abbot looked amongst the monks and apparently saw in Xabier the same thing that Xabier’s Jesuit teachers had recognized in him so long before: a disposition for the priesthood. Was God trying to tell him that he should have become a priest all along? Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad; he would still be a monk, after all. And so he was ordained.

Both the monastic community and the parish of S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria were at their peak, leagues more revered than they’d ever been since their previous-century suppression and just a bit holier than they’d ever been since the days of bears and strawberries, and all signs were pointing to further flourishing to come. Until, that is, the story came out of the young girl who’d been impregnated by the priest: Now the monastery was at the lip of a downward spiral that would carry it down down down. Anti-Franco and anti-Catholic sentiments were growing, and they pointed to the monastery and its sinful inhabitants as prime evidence. Attendance declined—nobody wanted to go to the church of a villain—and sales halted.

“We must brace ourselves with austerity against these trials,” said the abbot. “We will persevere as we have in the past, and we will thank the Lord that our troubles are, this time, merely economic. No blood has been shed.” But he knew that it might only be a matter of time: The monastic massacres—so recent in the annals of history—grew out of nothing more than a poor reputation that was allowed to fester.

Things only got worse. Soon the once-crowded Mass services were attended only by the monks. Their wares had gone stale, the ingredients rancid.

The Brother Accountant shared his fiscal concerns with the abbot: If they did not do something, they would not last much longer. During their conversation the abbot divulged that he had received a letter from the bishop, who had received a letter from the cardinal, explaining in long and ambiguous phrases that unless certain measures were taken, the Catholic Church would no longer be able to offer any sort of support to the monastery.

“What will you do?” asked the Brother Accountant.

There was more the abbot wanted to say—much more was on his mind—but he did not want to give voice to his deepest worries. He did not want to scare the other monks.

All he said was, “We will put our trust in the Lord.”

[] Chapter Seven: A Child Is Born

 

The news of the monastery’s decline spread throughout the country, but it didn’t have to travel far to reach the ears of the girl who’d allegedly lain with the priest of the Miraria. Most people, tired of the Church’s antics, saw poetic justice in the situation. “It serves them right,” some said. “It’s about time they learned that, though they may be above the constitutional law in our godforsaken country, they’re not above the law of economics.”

But María Teresa was not rejoicing; every breath about the monastery brought her more pain.

She thought she had hated Father Xabier back then, months before. She was canonically angry, disillusioned. But even as frustrated as she had been, she never would have wished this upon the Miraria. She was attached to the monastery; it had been her anchor for as long as she could remember—her aunt’s flowery dresses, the doll she carried and set down next to her in the pew. Attending Mass was what kept her spirit from flapping away in the chaotic gale of her youth. And Father Xabier, now that she thought of it, had been a real father to her, even though the only time they spoke face-to-face—if you could call it that—was in the confessional. She had betrayed him. He was only doing his job. How could she have been so selfish? So short-sighted? She hated herself. She hated what she did and she hated that God let her do it.

She’d taken to locking herself in her room again, lying in bed. She hadn’t been going to school—and just when the busiest weeks of the term were upon her. She’d fallen so far behind that there was no possibility of catching up, anyway. It was a lost cause, and staying under the covers was much easier. She’d even practically excised Álvaro from her life. He’d tried to visit, but she spurned him. She didn’t feel good, she said, and just wanted to get some rest. She lay, and her thoughts festered.

“I hate everything,” she said drearily. There was nobody around—all the more reason to talk out loud. Her belly looked like it was about to burst. Part of her hoped it would; she hadn’t had the resolution to carry out any of her suicidal fantasies, but she would welcome death if it came knocking. If she would just die, maybe that would save the monastery.

Life was miserable. And to top it off, soon she would have to give birth, which was supposed to be the most painful experience that existence had to offer. And anyway, the thought of adding to the misery of the world by cramming another life into it was not attractive. She knew that the time would come any day now, and she still wished there was a way she might die first.

She ate reluctantly, only to get her mother to stop bothering her, and she only left her bed to go to the bathroom. Soon even her blankets felt heavy, like she was being crushed by a boulder. “When will it end?” she said. “When will this be over?”

One day her whole body cramped up. It lasted only a second, but its memory lingered. Another horror. Some hours later it happened again. Then again an hour later. There was a rhythm to the cramps: They were sparse at first but they were growing in frequency and intensity. She knew what it meant, and she was terrified.

“Mom,” she said weakly. “Mom.” She heard a shuffle.

“Is it time?” said Sofía through the door.

“Oww…”

“Mari?”

“I—think so,” she said. “I think it’s time.”

Sofía grabbed at the handle, but the door was locked. “Can you open the door?” she said.

It was so far away.

“Mari? Can you open the door?”

Getting up seemed an insurmountable task to begin with—and what if she cramped on the way to the door? But María Teresa was scared, and she knew only her mother would be able to help her. As bad as her life was, it would only be worse if she couldn’t manage to open the door. She fought through it, made it to the door, and collapsed in her mother’s arms.

Sofía guided María Teresa to the couch to sit while she gathered some snacks in the kitchen. Evidently she’d been preparing for this moment; she had a number of things already wrapped up.

“Off we go,” she said. They went downstairs and hailed a cab to the hospital. Then María Teresa was wheeled into a delivery room, where she was stirruped and offered anesthetic.

Before there was any chance for further conversation, there was a gooey, prismatic liquid and a smooth, warm iceberg—the baby’s head. María Teresa heaved and her breath deepened, but she did not cry out. There were short periods of calm punctuated by waves of mounting pressure. It was something like those times after a large meal when she could feel the masses of food moving through her bowels, only amplified a hundred—no, a thousand—times. María Teresa realized that, though the sensation was intense, there was no real pain. It was like a dream. She’d expected the worst of all feelings, but it was somehow much more pleasant than the misery of lying in bed. And during all this time, she didn’t once think about the monastery or Father Xabier or the campaign of divine retribution that was being pitted against her. While she was giving birth, María Teresa was practically in bliss. In less than three minutes’ time there was a red baby girl, fully exposed to the world but still connected to the womb, followed by a surge of organic matter the same color as the baby. María Teresa watched in amazement—she had always thought babies came naked into the world, but hers was fully clothed in shimmering liquid. The newborn did not cry, but merely gazed. María Teresa herself wanted to cry, but she didn’t, either. She, too, gazed. The baby had Álvaro’s eyebrows.

After a little snip, a brief inspection and some cleaning, the baby was wrapped in swaddling cloth and placed in María Teresa’s arms. She looked upon the child, and it was then that she began to cry—warm, shiny tears. There was light in the child.

María Teresa stayed in the hospital for two days after the child was born, long enough for the doctors to determine that both were and would continue to be healthy. In retrospect, they had no cause to keep either one even the first day, but they had never seen such a smooth, painless childbirth before and thought there might have been some trouble lurking around the corner. Things in real life never went off so perfectly, they might have reasoned, so they’d keep a close eye. When the girls were released, Sofía came to collect them with the look of someone who had been crying. María Teresa actually smiled when she saw her mother.

Sofia had made María Teresa’s bed for her, and the three generations of women settled in it, the baby on top of the girl with the grandmother alongside. It was beautiful, but it was only an illusion: Both adults, maybe even the baby, couldn’t help but think about what would happen when Rodrigo got home.

Looking at María Teresa, Sofía saw that her daughter had been affected by the experience: A switch inside her had been flipped. Whereas in the previous months she drudged with lethargy, now she positively beamed. Sofía was familiar with the change; she’d seen it in other women after giving birth, and she noticed it in herself. Children gave women something to live for. Some women didn’t have the luxury of feeling a strong calling as young ladies; for them, children were a new lease on life.

But the circumstances here were different. María Teresa couldn’t keep the baby. Everything had already been arranged. The baby would disrupt Rodrigo’s plans—perhaps more importantly, at least for Sofía, it would further disrupt Sofía and Rodrigo’s marriage. They didn’t need more tension.

Even so, seeing her granddaughter now, Sofía thought that she might have been changed by the experience, too. Maybe having a child around wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe she’d made a horrible mistake…

When Rodrigo first saw the baby, his face lit up—but he quickly hid it. “Don’t you so much as consider giving it a name,” he said. He was a man of integrity, he liked to think, and he would not change his mind now. Besides, he had business matters to attend to, and he didn’t want to deal with any distractions. He turned toward his office before his mask was exhausted.

A name. Of course, choosing a name for her child had been one of María Teresa’s recurring thoughts, even before the child was born. In the hospital she’d given it hours of thought, prompted by her own name written where the baby’s name should have been. But all the same, she had made no progress in choosing a name: Any one that occurred to her just wouldn’t do. She’d once had a teacher whose name was Rebeca; she liked the sound of that name but it reminded her of school. One of the nurses was named Carlota, which she briefly considered, but she noticed a hairy mole on the nurse’s neck and promptly discarded that option. Paula, Alejandra and Julia had come to mind, but her daughter was decidedly female and she wouldn’t settle for a feminized version of a man’s name. Lucia? No, as she rolled the name over in her mind it began to sound sinister, more and more. How did anyone ever settle on a name for their child? A single word to capture everything she felt—she doubted there was one. She was determined to do it, even though her father had now forbidden it, but it would take some time. For now, mi niña suited her beautifully.

“Mi niña,” said María Teresa, stroking the baby’s cheek. She was asleep.

“Mari,” said Sofía, a hint of disapproval in her voice.

Only months before, having a child was nowhere on María Teresa’s mind. She was too young. And now she was a mother. In some ways, it seemed so sudden. She had grown a lot, gradually, over those months of gestation, just as the baby had grown, even if she didn’t realize it. She was practically a different person now. Indeed: She was a mother. It was all so surreal, like a dream she might wake up from at any second. “I don’t want to give her up,” said María Teresa.

“Your… father—already has everything arranged. We can’t change anything now.”

“I’m not going to.”

“It’ll be okay.”

“It’s my baby, isn’t it? It’s my job to take care of her. Why should you get to decide anything that happens to her?”

“And you’re my baby, and I’m responsible for you. You’re just a little girl yourself. It’ll be for the best. I don’t think you can see that now, but you will later.”

“The best for who? Not for my baby, that’s for sure.”

“You know the circumstances—we’ve talked about this a hundred times.”

“Mom, we don’t have to do it.”

“Mari.”

“But think about what will happen to my baby if the monastery is closed. You’ve heard what they’re saying. Where will she go?”

“The priest will take care of her. You don’t need to worry about it.”

“And if he gets excommunicated?”

“You have to remember it’s his baby too—not just yours. And he’s older and in a much better position to be a parent.”

“Mom…”

“What?”

Maria Teresa hesitated. She spoke softly. “It’s not true.”

“What’s not true?”

“What I said before, I made it up. I’m sorry.”

“Said about what?”

“The priest—none of that was true.”

“What do you mean?”

“That it’s not Father Xabier’s baby. He never—we never—did anything.”

Sofía was silent. “Is that so?” she said, searching María Teresa’s face. “Then whose is it?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

Sofia paused again, her face now relaxed. “Mari, Mari, Mari…” She rubbed her daughter’s shoulders. “I see what you’re trying to do. And I understand why. I know it’s hard. Sometimes… we do things that we regret. But no one can change the past. All you can do is change the future, and that’s what your father and I are doing for you: changing your future for the better.”

“But—”

“It’s not your cross to bear, Mari. Let it go. Father Xabier will take care of everything. He has God on his side, doesn’t he? You just have to forget any of this ever happened and live your life. Go see Guillermo, go to school. You’ll have a baby with him eventually, when the two of you are ready. You’ll have a magnificent life. Just look around—you can have all this for yourself. Everything you see. Guillermo can provide for you. But you’re not ready yet… It’s too early.”

María Teresa didn’t say anything. There was no point. It was clear that her mother was only parroting the things her father said; there was no talking to her. She knew one thing for sure, though: No one was going to take her baby from her. She’d run away from home if she had to—she’d do anything to protect the child, whatever it took. She clenched her baby just a little bit tighter.

That evening, when the baby was napping, María Teresa emerged from her room for dinner as usual. Rodrigo was there, looking tense as always, probably thinking of some manufacturing deal. The meal was cutlet with fragrant rice and a cup of relaxing herbal tea. It was delicious, as usual. What was unusual, though, was that María Teresa fell asleep before she finished eating.

“She sure went out quick,” said Rodrigo.

“Doesn’t take much,” said Sofía.

He shook his head. “I still can’t believe we’re doing this.”

“It’s the right thing to do, remember.”

“How long will it last?”

“No idea, but let’s not waste time. Pick her up and I’ll get the baby.”

Rodrigo scooped up his daughter, touching her for the first time since she was a small child. She wasn’t heavy by any means, but it was a struggle for him—it had been ages since he’d put his body to use for anything besides sitting in a chair. He waddled her to her bed and pulled the covers over her.

Meanwhile, Sofía had the baby in her carrier, still asleep—it was a blessing that newborns slept so much. Just in case, she had a bottle of formula ready to stuff in the baby’s mouth. Still, it was best to act fast. She draped a blanket over the baby’s carrier like a magician about to make something disappear.

“You all ready?” said Sofía.

Rodrigo paused. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. There was fire in Sofía’s eyes; he didn’t think he’d ever seen it there before. He pursed his lips. “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing? What kind of parents are we?” Evidently something had threatened to hamper his integrity—he was having second thoughts.

“Oh, she’ll be fine. It’s just a little medicine. She’ll sleep for a bit and she’ll wake up right as rain.”

“Not when she finds out her baby’s gone.”

“She knew this was coming,” said Sofía. “This just makes it go a bit more smoothly.”

“But what will we say?”

“With what I gave her, she might not even remember giving birth. That’ll buy us some time.”

Rodrigo looked horrified. “Have we become monsters, Sofía?”

“Look, this was your idea in the first place. We can’t go back on it now; everything’s already arranged. And anyway, it’s for the best. You know that. Don’t get all caught up.”

“But part of me just can’t help but think we’re making a terrible mistake…”

“Honey,” said Sofía, putting her arm around his back, “just think—when all of this is over, everything will go back to normal.” She stepped away from him. “No,” she added, “not normal—better. Things will be better than ever before.”

Rodrigo still wasn’t convinced, but he couldn’t muster more words. He didn’t know what the right choice was. On one hand, they had made the arrangements. But on the other, maybe they shouldn’t have done so in the first place. And then there was the matter of sticking to his first decision, something he’d always prided himself on. But he could have been mistaken… Was this how a father should treat his daughter? His granddaughter? When faced with the dilemma, he did what was easiest. He didn’t see it in those terms, of course—he’d never admit such a thing. But the fact remained: Rather than wrestling with a difficult decision, all he had to do was follow the protocol they’d laid out. Deviating from the plan now would require questioning, rethinking, persuasion. He didn’t have the energy for it. Everything came back to business for him; thoughts of his company consumed him, and he couldn’t focus on anything else. He couldn’t make so many decisions. Besides, the plan they’d outlined would be good for his business in the end…

Before he knew it, Rodrigo was at the steps of the monastery. He set the baby carrier on the stone ground before him. It was draped in a blanket, as if that measure would convince the baby that she was safe at home and any passerby that there could possibly be something besides a baby inside. Both were dubious, of course, but at least the blanket kept the baby a little warmer on a chilly night. He held a folded letter in his hands that he was supposed to leave with the baby. Again he wondered if he was making a mistake. He probably was. But what other choice was there? Raise the child himself? He was too old for that. Keeping the baby around would only make him angry—a constant reminder of the hypocrisy of the Church. Kick out María Teresa and make her find her own way in the world? That would be more cruel than anything. The only other choice, then, was to give the baby up for adoption; in a way, it was exactly what he was doing now. Rodrigo tucked the letter underneath the baby carrier, rapped at the monastery door and left.

The baby sensed she was alone, and she began to wail. The short, repetitive bursts sounded off the walls and sunk into the stone. It had been a long time since the steps had heard that sound, but it was familiar: In the Miraria’s long history, it had seen countless infants left on its doorstep.

Adoption had been an institution for as long as there were humans to give birth. Parents died and fellow tribespeople hugged and fed the orphans as their own; women without means found themselves pregnant and enjoyed the altruism of those better off. Some adopted children even rose to great social heights—Roman emperors, even. By the time the monastery was founded, Europe had all but invalidated the concept of adoption. In a society that was particularly sensitive to inheritance, bloodlines were paramount, and where there was adoption, there was no bloodline. But the practical need for a system of adoption didn’t go away: Sad though it be, some children were still born unwanted, some children lost their parents and some parents simply didn’t have the means to feed extra mouths.

Thus began the practice of giving children up to Divine Providence. Rather than being adopted by a caretaker in particular, more and more children were being abandoned on church doorsteps, left in God’s hands. Reactions varied: Some clergy sought to oust the shameful denizens who would dare abandon a child. Some were overwhelmed by the presence of Original Sin and, seeing no other remedy, sent the child afloat in the river behind the mill as if to pretend they’d never found it. Some sold the children off in order to afford a more lavish Christmas celebration for themselves. Some seized the opportunity to raise perfectly docile altar boys. This last route proved the most popular. The Church institutionalized the oblation of abandoned children, wherein they were raised in the monastic tradition and could later become monks or other clergy, and a few would leave the monastery as adults and enjoy a higher standing because of it, with no social scar of abandonment to speak of. Eventually this practice evolved into the establishment of orphanages, and systems were put in place through which orphaned boys could become apprentices to local craftsmen rather than just clergy, and girls could be married off to men of means. With the rise of orphanages, fewer and fewer children were left on abbey doorsteps, and now it was practically unheard of—it only happened in stories.

If there was anyone in the streets who heard the unmistakeable cry of a lone infant, they diverted their path so as not to be seen near it—or see it. As long as they didn’t actually see it, they could assure themselves it wasn’t real. They wouldn’t have to get involved. The neighbors shuttered their windows, now quite adept at ignoring any noises that came from the direction of the monastery. If there were any who gave it a moment’s thought, they would be led to a single conclusion: This child must have been the result of the ungodliness that led to the present situation in the first place. A child born out of wedlock, the fruit of a licentious priest. An abandoned child, the Devil’s riff on the abandoned crutches and eyeglasses that usually littered the monastery steps. If anyone around felt a twinge of pity for the abandoned child, it was outweighed their fear of divine retribution. They would not come close to it.

The infant’s soft cries eventually penetrated the doors of the monastery, reaching the porter’s ears as a vague howling that could have equally been a motor refusing to start, a stray cat with a broken leg, a whistling windstorm or a figment of his imagination. After several minutes the porter was forced to accept that the sound would not let up and needed his attention. He got up.

He opened the door to reveal what could only be a crying infant in a carrier, unmistakable even in the dark. It was the first time he’d personally found a child at the doorstep, but of course he had heard the stories and knew what he had to do. Anyway, he couldn’t say he didn’t expect it; by now even the monks had heard that the girl had given birth.

“This is how God fulfilled what He had foretold,” said the porter to the night air. He pulled away the cover as if to confirm that there was, indeed, a child beneath it, and he picked up the carrier and the folded piece of paper that was tucked under it. As he made his way back inside, he said to himself, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

There was a bottle of synthetic milk alongside the baby, and the porter used its nipple to cue the baby’s lips, hoping that this might stop the crying. Fortunately it did. Now the porter held the bottle in one hand and the carrier in the crook of his other arm. He was relieved. Still, it was no time for rest.

He directed his steps toward the abbot’s office. At this time of night, the man would be finishing up some paperwork before the night’s final prayer.

“Brother Abbot?” said the porter.

The abbot was visibly weary. He had been wrinkling his eyebrows over the piece of paper in his hands. The porter didn’t know it, but he’d been staring at that piece of paper for quite some time, weighing the possibilities it foretold.

He looked up slowly and peered over his glasses. “Is that—?” He set down the paper.

“Yes. This note was left with the child. It’s addressed to Brother Xabier.” The porter handed the folded paper to the abbot, who then refocused his eyes through his glasses as he regarded the letter. The porter could feel the tension in the abbot’s saccades, flickering like candlelight.

“This is the child of María Teresa Colmenar Álvarez and yourself,” the abbot read. “It was responsible of you to agree to care for your daughter. All the same, may she forever be a reminder of what you’ve done to ours.

“Well…”

“Leaving children on abbey doorsteps,” said the abbot with a sigh. He set down his glasses. “I never thought I’d see it. This simply doesn’t happen anymore. In the fourteenth century, maybe, the child could have been raised under God’s loving eye. But today… and this child, so publicly known, the cause of such outrage… But in light of what’s happened, and considering that this is a girl… Things are too shaky as it is. It wouldn’t do to raise a girl here.”

“And Brother Xabier?”

“It would seem that he promised to care for the child.”

“So,” said the abbot with measured words, “Brother Xabier promised to raise the child. The child cannot be raised here. One would seem to preclude the other.”

“Thus there is no choice.”

[] Chapter Eight: Many Lives

 

The abbot called Brother Xabier into his office. He was holding the baby in his arms, rocking her back and forth slowly even though she had already fallen asleep. When Brother Xabier saw this, he knew immediately what it meant. His heart leapt, but he sat down and calmed his mind. The abbot was likewise relaxed, and he spoke softly.

“My brother,” he said. “We have a young guest.”

“I see.”

“And with visitors come decisions. Shall I lend this neighbor a cup of sugar? Do I have a place to offer as shelter to this traveler? Our brotherhood seldom sees visitors, but we must make decisions all the same. When new men come in search of a new way of life, for example, we must decide if they are fitting for our community. This…,” his voice slowed, his head tilting downward, “is something like that.”

“Is that so?”

“So I have had to call you here tonight. You know, none of us is free from temptation,” he said.

“Of course not.”

“Especially here, at the abbey, though the laity might be inclined to think the opposite.”

“Yes,” said Brother Xabier

“Temptation is part of life. We can only pray that God bolster us, that we become strong enough to resist it. Thus I cannot hold against you what you’ve done; there is no blame. You are human, just as I am, just as Brothers Tomás and Ángel and Federico are. What has happened to you could have happened to any of us. And that is why I have a difficult decision before me. Throughout all your years of tenure at this abbey, you have been faithful and obedient, sensible and helpful. You have been an asset to our community. But now this thing—this blight—has surfaced. For God’s sake, there is a child sitting with us! All actions have consequences. In some cases, the consequences are between the individual sinners and God alone, but this is not one of those cases: We are a parish monastery, and because of our spectacular history—and I mean that literally, as we have occasioned spectacle after spectacle—the world’s eyes are upon us. The people are outraged, and we’re under pressure to make a prudent and swift decision. Under such circumstances, our entire community is in danger, and all the more so if we do not react in a way that assuages the public. Do you understand me?”

“I do.”

“Perhaps it is not a difficult decision, for we know exactly what must be done, but it is difficult so much as it pains me to have to acknowledge it.”

Brother Xabier nodded solemnly.

“I’m afraid we have no choice.”

“Is that so.” It was not a question.

“We must trust in the Lord with all our heart, for his mercy endures forever.”

“Amen,” said Brother Xabier.

The abbot stood and passed the baby carefully into Xabier’s arms. “This is your child now,” he said. “Born in Sin, like all children, but I trust you’ll have her baptized, and she may yet be saved. May the Lord bless you both.”

“Amen.”

Brother Xabier stood up and was escorted from the abbot’s office. He waited in the atrium, sitting down with the baby in its carrier on the floor. It was the same place he had waited as a young man, so many years before, with just as much uncertainty. The abbot appeared with a small bag, which he handed to Xabier. It contained the clothes that he was wearing the day he arrived at the monastery; they still stunk of Bilbao. Xabier exchanged his habit for his old clothes, and he was no longer a monk. The things in his room—the books and trinkets he’d collected over the years, meager though they were—belonged to the monastic community and it was understood that he would not be taking them with him, but the abbot gave Xabier his journal, along with a sum of money that would allow Xabier and the child to survive for a few months while he made a new life. By then a number of the monks had assembled in the atrium, and Xabier hugged his closest brothers goodbye, bowing reverently to the others. Tears were shed over austere faces. All the same, there were a few smiles: For under even the darkest of circumstances, a newborn child is a source of light. Soon enough the abbot gestured for the goodbyes to cease. It was Xabier’s time to go. And the abbot knew that it wouldn’t be long before the time came for everyone else to go as well.

It was late, and the streetlights had long since stepped in for the sun. As Xabier stood on the vacant street, baby carrier in one hand and sack in the other. It had been so long since he was outside the monastery. He drew a deep breath. Decades before, Xabier stood in the same spot and breathed in just as deeply, though he was facing the other way. He hadn’t been balding then, but he had the same clothes on. He certainly didn’t have a child. Standing there, he was struck with the sensation that his life had been on hold all this time, and he was now resuming it, though he’d been plunked just a bit further forward than where he’d left off. The feeling made him slightly light-headed.

If his life had been on hold, what did that mean? That he’d been living a dream? That it wasn’t real? A waste? That in-between time as a monk had taken him over. Those days in Ugarte and Bilbao were by now the memories of a different person, so far away, so nebulous. Granted, their details were being dredged up with every passing second; his clothes were the link—the distantly familiar smell, the way they clung to his body. They fit the same as they always had.

The road before him was a new life. But how did one go about making a new life? He’d have to raise this child, but he didn’t know the first thing about children. There wasn’t much documented about Jesus’ childhood, after all, and the Bible was the book he was most familiar with. Nor did the histories of Europe offer advice on the matter. He racked his brain for memories from the Basque country that had to do with childrearing, but he was at a loss. It was easy to be daunted by the enormity of the task at hand, thinking of everything that had to be done all at once.

But then again, it was the same with anything. If he thought of forty years of prayer and labor and single-minded dedication, this also seemed overwhelming, but he had gotten through it without it seeming like so much as a chore. How had that been? He’d always focused only on the next thing that needed to be done. Not everything at once, only the next thing, one at a time. What was that saying? A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It was like that—but there was not only a single step at the beginning, but single steps all along the way.

So Xabier did all he could do: He did the next right thing. He took one step, then another, trusting in the Lord, as he always had. How fortunate, he thought, that God should apportion him so many lives: the first as a farm boy, then one as a budding metropolitan, one as a monk, and now…

The city was impossibly vast. Even Bilbao, which once boggled him, was tiny by comparison. After decades of never leaving the monastery, existing only within the confines of a small building, he could not begin to comprehend what all these buildings could be used for and where all these streets could lead, let alone how anyone might successfully navigate them. Thank God for the Lord, he thought. It was a phrase that occurred to him from time to time, and it always made him smile.

He saw rental signs here and there and wondered how one could go about deciding where to live when there were so many options. But he waved those thoughts away: It was too late at night to begin looking for a permanent place to live, so that would have to wait till tomorrow; nothing could be done about that now, so there was no sense thinking about it. He walked more or less at random until he found a small hotel with a vacancy. He took the baby with him to the Chino down the block to get food and supplies—he’d have to change the baby’s diaper soon, if not already, and she would need food. He put a package of diapers, a bottle of milk and some rice for himself on the counter.

The clerk held up the bottle of milk. “For baby?” she said.

“Yes,” said Xabier.

“Not this. You need different.” She walked to a shelf near the diapers and procured a large yellow can. “Formula. Mix with water. Make milk.”

Xabier examined the can, and it seemed she was right. He’d never heard of such a thing, but it did make sense: Humans were different from cows, so human milk ought to be different than cow’s milk. He guessed the formula was meant to emulate human milk better than cow’s milk would.

“Ask wife,” said the clerk.

“Oh, there’s no wife,” Xabier said with half a smile.

“I’m sorry. Look.” She grasped the can and turned it around to show him the panel of instructions. “Put one spoon in, then make warm. Baby sleep with warm milk.”

“Thank you,” said Xabier.

Back in his hotel room, Xabier mixed the baby’s milk and fed her from the bottle, holding her lovingly in his arms. She was a very peaceful child, not fussy at all. Xabier had the impression that babies cried a lot, but this one proved surprisingly calm. She was just as new to the world as he was, Xabier mused. Maybe she was just taking it all in. He certainly was.

He sat curled on the couch, a posture he hadn’t taken since he was a boy, and rocked the baby gently. He was captivated.

“What will I call you?” he said. “The baby won’t do. You’ll need a name. Something beautiful.” He thought for a moment, and then another. Naming a child was no trivial matter, and it was something he hadn’t ever thought about. Suddenly it occurred to him. “Ah!” he said. “I know the perfect name for you. How about Esperanza?” The child’s eyes seemed to twinkle. Soon the bottle was empty, and both of them fell asleep.

When Xabier awoke with Esperanza in his arms, the girl was no longer just a baby. She was no longer the bastard child of one of his irresponsible parishioners, no longer the mistake of a hapless teenage girl, no longer a blight that caused him to be thrown from the monastery; she was his daughter, a blessing from God. He kissed her gently on the forehead.

He washed up, made himself a breakfast of rice and knelt for a few minutes of prayer. He learned to do the things that he’d been doing automatically all his life in a new way: with a baby in his arms. It was tricky because she had to be held just so, or else her wild head would go bobbing like a crewman off the deck of a ship in a storm. He fed Esperanza again and changed her diaper, and then he took her outside.

It was going to be a busy day: Xabier needed to buy another outfit or two for both himself and the baby. He’d have to buy some proper groceries, or at least some salt. And, most of all, he had to find a place to live. Again, he took the day one moment at a time. Finding a home first made the most sense—that way he wouldn’t have to carry things to the hotel and then right back out of it—so he set off to that end, walking down streets that looked peaceful and appealing and watching for signs.

It didn’t take long for him to find a small piso that was available and affordable. He met with the landlady, a spastic, tiny woman with bulging eyes and frizzled gypsy hair, and she smiled brightly at him.

“So tell me about yourself,” she said with the look of one about to relish a good story.

“There’s not much to tell,” he said. “I’m just an old man from far away, new to the city, looking to start a new life.”

“A new life. Yes, we all need to start one of those from time to time. We seem to think that we only get one chance at life, but the truth of the matter is that we all get many lives. Isn’t that right?”

“That would seem to be the case.”

She continued smiling, looking at Esperanza more than at Xabier. If she thought it a bit strange that a man so advanced in age—Xabier wasn’t old, per se, but he was certainly past the age at which a man would typically have an infant child—she didn’t show it, and she didn’t so much as insinuate it. In fact, she seemed to find something trustworthy in Xabier’s person. It was a wonder she didn’t recognize him; by then Xabier Aldana Ochoa was a household name, thanks to the papers. Perhaps her sympathy toward a single father was strong enough to squash all suspicion.

Soon it seemed as if she’d all but decided that he’d be renting from her, as far as she was concerned, and she continued the conversation in a friendly way, dropping any pretense of business.

“I just can’t stop admiring your little girl,” she said. “She’s darling.”

Xabier smiled. “Isn’t she?”

“And she’s got your nose. How sweet.” Xabier involuntarily wrinkled his brows for an instant, but the woman didn’t notice. She continued talking, already on the next topic. She told him about his new neighbors: a pair of university students whose nightly cavorting might bother him at first but he’d get used to it; a young single doctor for whom she had taken it upon herself to search for a mate; and a young woman who served at a nearby bar and was having trouble with her lover. “You’ll fit right in,” she told him.

When their talk came back around to the details—money, that is—the woman didn’t stop being friendly. “I know what it must be like,” she said. “I’ve got some children of my own. Grown up, by now, but I remember those days.” She nodded to the infant. “In fact I remember it like yesterday. Waking up at all hours of the night from the crying, scrambling to figure out what might be the matter, trying everything you can think of but then nothing seems to do the trick, and finally all you can do is try your best to block out the noise. The good old days. Although, your little one seems quite content. She hasn’t made a fuss the whole time we’ve been talking. Aren’t you a little sweetheart?” All said and done, the landlady waived the security deposit and let him pay month-to-month without any sort of contract.

“I suspect you’ll be looking for some work as well,” she said, “when the baby gets a little older. Have you got enough money saved up until then? We could probably work out a loan if it came to it. Or you could pay a visit to the municipality—I know they’ve got some sort of benefits for out-of-work parents with young children. It’s up to you. I know it can be a trying time when you’ve got an infant, and all the more if you’re worrying about money on top of it. Anyway, just down the block that way”—she pointed—“there’s a bar that needs some help around lunchtime, and at the other end of the block there’s a frutería that also needs a hand. You could start at either one of those. Maybe you can find a nanny. I’d offer myself, but I’m afraid I don’t have the energy anymore.”

“You’ve helped enough already. I’m very grateful.”

“Not at all, not at all. Just you let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

After several more minutes of banter, a series of would-be goodbyes and a slow progression toward the exit, Xabier was stalled in the landlady’s doorway for a ten-minute story about a neighbor she’d once had who brought home a raccoon from a vacation in Germany and tried to keep it as a pet. It was a good story. Eventually Xabier was dismissed, and he settled into his new apartment. It didn’t take long, given that he had hardly any belongings. Then he went out to do his shopping, which also was quick, perhaps because he was anything but picky when it came to such things. He’d been in the monastery so long, after all, that anything in the real world seemed an unimaginable luxury.

By now it was early afternoon, and he sat down for a well-deserved nap with Esperanza, this time opting for the bed.

 

I should have known I didn’t stand a chance, thought Álvaro. He was walking on Pintor Rosales, a calm parkway near the western edge of the city. The street ran alongside Parque del Oeste, an expanse of greenery often picnicked by university students, and there was a wide tile sidewalk between the street and the park—as wide as the street itself. Parakeets chirped in the trees, and every so often there was an old man murmuring to his old wife on a bench. Here and there a car passed. Álvaro was alone with his thoughts.

Ever since Álvaro had first heard about Guillermo, Álvaro suspected that María Teresa loved Guillermo more than him. It was jealousy, simple and understandable, and yet Álvaro never gave it that name. To him, it was only an uncomfortable tugging in his chest. Álvaro had never met Guillermo, but he had a clear image of him in his head: tall, muscular, mustachioed, handsome, outgoing, wealthy. Álvaro knew that Guillermo was probably not smarter than him, but he was already beginning to suspect that smarts didn’t matter in this world.

Without María Teresa, Álvaro didn’t know what he would do. He enjoyed his time alone, to be sure, but being with her made him feel really alive. In general, he tended to be reserved. It wasn’t that he hated other people: Often he longed for conversation, but whenever he thought about talking to someone, he played out their entire conversation in his head before it even began. He tried different responses, imagined different reactions, followed every path—dozens of permutations. And while this was going on, he was silent. It was as if he’d forgotten to actually have the conversation he was imagining so vividly. It took a special kind of person to draw him out of his own head, and María Teresa was one of those people. There was no guarantee he’d find another person like that, he thought.

And yet, she was preoccupied with Guillermo. He wanted more than anything for her to be happy—more even than his own happiness or satisfaction. He knew she’d been troubled—mostly because of her family life, but maybe there were things he didn’t know about—and he wanted to support her. He accepted that she would one day go on to marry the rich, mustachioed and good-looking (albeit stupid) Guillermo. He tried to accept it, anyway, but it was difficult.

And now there was the question of the child—his child. She was going to have his baby—how did that figure into the situation? Ever since she told him the news, there was a new feeling brewing within him: a fatherly instinct. He needed to raise the child. He would do it on his own if he had to. What would be unacceptable to him would be to have no part in his child’s life. But the prospects of ever even seeing the child seemed dubious. There were so many problems.

Álvaro turned to books. His cousin, who had studied history at the university, got him interested in East Asia, and it just so happened that translations of many of the cornerstones of Chinese and Japanese philosophy were only recently making their way into Spanish. He scrambled to get his hands on as many as he could. He didn’t have much money, but because he was only a teenager and he didn’t have bills to pay or groceries to buy, any money he made at his ten-hour-a-week restaurant job could go toward books without cutting corners elsewhere. He bought a new one almost every week.

Álvaro was reading Chuang Tsu, a collection of thoughts by the eponymous ancient Chinese philosopher. There was one part in particular that astounded Álvaro and continued to echo in his thoughts long after he’d first read it: One night Chuang Tsu dreamt he was a butterfly. In his dream, he was conscious only of his happiness as a butterfly, fluttering here and there, sailing on the wind. But as soon as he awoke, he was Chuang Tsu once again. Now, though, he was uncertain of whether he was a man who’d dreamt he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

Was Álvaro really Álvaro? Or was he someone else entirely, only dreaming he was Álvaro? In a way, it was a comforting thought. It meant that anything he was struggling with here might only be an illusion. The things he did, in one sense, may not really matter. But just as the butterfly had no notion of its manhood, Álvaro was limited to his circumstances, illusory though they be. Trapped in his circumstances, and trapped in his struggles. It was hard.

He’d read about a mantra that, upon being uttered, would heal a person of all afflictions. That was what he needed, so he gave it a try. After he said the words, he thought he might have felt better, but he couldn’t be sure. It seemed hopeless. Then again, maybe he just didn’t pronounce it correctly—he’d have to practice. Maybe he stood a chance after all.

 

María Teresa woke up from a long slumber. It took her a few blinks to get her bearings. She was on her bed—her usual waking-up place, though she didn’t remember how she got there. She was alone.

But—? She almost said it aloud. She looked from side to side, then on the floor. Had it really all been a dream? Didn’t she go to the hospital, give birth, take her baby home? The memories were wrapped in an ethereal haze, but even so they were vivid. She tried to think back, turning over every detail in her mind, looking for any clue that it might have been a fabrication. She remembered at the time having the impression that she might have been dreaming. But her dreams were always so nonsensical, so impossible… The recent events, on the other hand, unfolded in a perfectly reasonable way. But where was her baby? If the baby were real, she’d be here.

She looked down at her belly. It was still extended. That seemed proof enough. Still she probed it, applying pressure here and there. She felt no motion, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything; the baby kicked when it wanted to, not when she wanted it to. Thinking back, everything seemed so real—could she really have dreamt it? If she did, maybe she ought to go back to sleep, back to that life. It had to have been a better life than the one she was awake for.

She stumbled out of bed and struggled to gain her footing. She felt lightheaded for a moment but the vertigo quickly passed. She must have made some noise, though, because her mother called: “Mari…? Are you awake?” She sounded more polite than usual, more cautious, as if she were expecting her daughter to be on the brink of tantrum.

María Teresa let out a groan. It was supposed to be a reply in the affirmative, but it came out as more of a ngh.

Sofía knocked gently at the door. “May I come in…?” she said. Hearing no shouts of protest, she cracked the door slightly. She peered in at her bleary-eyed daughter. “You have a visitor…”

A visitor? María Teresa couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a visitor. Who could it be? Álvaro? She looked at herself in the mirror: refreshed, if disheveled, wearing some wrinkled clothes. She didn’t usually fall asleep in her clothes—what had she done last night again? She couldn’t remember, but she didn’t dwell on it. She considered changing into something a little more proper, something that felt fresher, but she figured that the chances of her visitor being the king were extremely slim, so there was really no point in fussing over apparel. If it was Juan Carlos, after all, she could always run back and change before he got a good look at her. She’d heard his vision was starting to go.

But when she emerged in the living room, she did not see the king. Or Álvaro, for that matter. “Good afternoon, my lady,” said Guillermo, dressed in his usual button-down and tailored pants. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? I just wanted to come see how you were doing. Your mom let me up. You look great.”

María Teresa was lost for words. Seeing this, her mother cut in for her. “Isn’t that nice, Mari? He wanted to see how you were doing. He’s always so sweet and caring. A man who will look after you is a rare thing in this world, let me tell you.”

“Mom!” said Mari. Guillermo blushed.

“I’m serious. Anyway, okay, you two have some catching up to do, don’t you? I’ll get out of your way. Just pretend I’m not here.” She left the room.

“So,” said Guillermo cautiously. “How are you?”

“Okay, I guess. What time is it?”

“After two.”

“Don’t you have school?”

“It’s puente. Fiesta Nacional.”

“Oh…”

“You’ve been pretty out of it, haven’t you? Your mom tells me you’ve been really sick.”

“I guess.”

“But it looks like you’re doing better now. Anyway, Mari, I really wanted to come say—well, to thank you I guess.”

“Thank me?”

“For… not saying anything.” He spoke quietly. “About that time we… you know. I mean, pregnancy is a big deal. When they asked you who the father was, you could have told them the truth.” He was almost whispering. “But that story about the priest—it was brilliant.”

María Teresa looked at him blankly.

“I’m just not ready for it. For all that—commitment. Responsibility. I want to finish school, to get a job at my father’s company. That’s my priority. When that is settled, then it will be time to think about children. I want to spend my life with you, cariña, but we have to be responsible about it. If I had to take care of a child, that would all be ruined. Not to mention my family’s reputation. My father would be furious.”

“I’m sure.”

“I’ve been thinking, and I know it was a mistake what we did back then. I don’t think we were ready for it. I didn’t think—you know—anything would come of it, like that. You know what I mean. So I really appreciate that you didn’t say anything. It means a lot to me that you—that you care so much. And that you didn’t make a big deal out of the whole thing. I mean, it’s really not a big deal, when you think about it. You have to finish school, too, you know—you can’t be taking care of a baby. Having a child changes your life, and I don’t think it’s always in a good way. Have you heard what people are saying already? I mean, just imagine if you didn’t come up with that thing about the priest. What would people be saying about you? About us?”

“But I’m not—” she started, but lost her words. Guillermo furled his brow, looking somewhat confused, but didn’t say anything. She interpreted it as concern. “Don’t worry about it,” she said with a sigh.

“But I can’t help it,” said Guillermo. “I care about you. Anyway, it’s half my baby, isn’t it? Don’t I have a right to voice my opinion?”

“And where were you months ago?”

“Mari, I just explained… it’s something we had to keep… under wraps.”

“And let me deal with this mess all on my own? Sounds like you care about me a whole lot.”

Guillermo paused. “That hurts, Mari.”

“And?”

“I know that… well, we haven’t always been on the best of terms. It’s our situation. And I know you’ve got Álvaro also. But just think about the future: I already have a good job lined up. And things as they are, that’s exceptional. Who knows if Álvaro would be able to find one… I’ll have plenty of money, María Teresa, and I’ll care for you, and you won’t have to work a day in your life. You won’t have to worry about anything. What can Álvaro promise you? That’s what you have to think about—you have to be realistic. That Álvaro, he—his family’s kind of… poor, you know. You have to think about the future—that’s all I’m trying to say.”

“You don’t know him,” she said. “You wouldn’t say that stuff if you did.”

“But I know how these things work. My father—”

“Your father. Of course your father. He tells you all this stuff, doesn’t he? Tells you what to think? Do you even have a brain in there, or is it just a headset wired up to your father?”

“Mari.”

“Look, I’m done. You’re making me upset.”

“I didn’t mean to. I just—”

“It doesn’t matter.”

When Sofía returned with a plate of quartered sandwiches, the two were sitting oddly apart, not talking, looking in different directions. “Oh, now,” she said, “you don’t have to be like that. Pretend that you weren’t getting along. I’m just a mom, you know, not an alien. And if you two are going to get married one of these days, you’ll have to face being seen together. You know the whole world’s going to see you kiss on your wedding day. No sense being shy about something so silly as talking on a sofa.” She set the sandwiches on the coffee table. “Alright, alright. I know how it is to be young and awkward. You’ll grow out of it. I’ll just leave this to you then.” After another moment, she disappeared. María Teresa thought there was something peculiar in the way her mother was acting today, but she couldn’t quite figure out what it was—or what it meant.

“Well, I guess I should get going,” said Guillermo.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Anyway, I was serious about thanking you.”

“Yeah,” she said again. Her face betrayed how stupid she thought he was.

“Okay, then… Bye.” He let himself out, and María Teresa didn’t so much as get up from the couch.

With everything on her mind, Guillermo was the last thing María Teresa wanted to think about. But she couldn’t help it. Seeing him, in her own home, for the first time in so long—the unexpected conversation replayed, his words echoing again and again.

She’d always thought of Guillermo as a gentleman, a perfectly good guy who, if she was honest with herself, she’d be happy to marry if she had never met Álvaro. But maybe he wasn’t so perfect. It was clear now that he had his own priorities, his own way of seeing the world… He was so much like her father. But she couldn’t blame him for that; she supposed everyone had their priorities.

Nor could he be blamed for thinking the child was his. She tried to see things from his perspective… It was the obvious conclusion. And his reaction was also understandable: They were both young, and having to raise a child would change the course of their lives. He was afraid, maybe. It made sense that he’d want the baby taken out of the equation. It was easier that way. For him, anyway—he wasn’t the one who had to carry it and give birth. He could just turn his head and that was it.

She couldn’t help but picture what her life would be like if she did marry Guillermo. But the thought of committing with such finality to someone who could so easily cast aside his own child for such selfish reasons—it was monstrous, wasn’t it? Parents were supposed to bend over backwards for their children—to die for them, if it came to it.

At that notion, María Teresa couldn’t help but think of herself. What sort of parent would she make? She had been willing to die—itching to die, even—but not for the sake of her child. She had wanted to die in spite of her child. She had wanted to throw herself out her window and take her child with her. That meant she was just as much of a monster as Guillermo was—maybe worse. She sensed God’s impending punishment all around her.

But she hadn’t done it, after all. She was still alive, and so was her niña. There was still hope for her, maybe. And the more she thought about her baby—she couldn’t help but think about her, for she was always weighing on María Teresa, always in sight before her—the more she thought that she might be able to lead a good life with her baby. Other women had done it before her. Giving birth as a teenager wasn’t unheard of, after all. Difficult, maybe, but not impossible—and wasn’t it worth it? It would be easier if she had a partner, or at least parents who supported her… But people had to make do with what they had. She wondered if Álvaro would come with her. It could be his baby, after all. And even if it wasn’t—did it matter? She knew he would raise it as his own either way, because that’s how he was. If there was a father in the world who would die for his child, it was Álvaro. But she couldn’t ask him to run away with her. It was too much to ask—he had so much potential, it would be horrible of her to expect him to throw it all away. Besides, she hadn’t seen Álvaro in so long, maybe he’d forgotten about her entirely.

It struck her: She could go live with her aunt in the Basque Country. It had crossed her mind before, but now it seemed like her best option. She could scrounge up enough money for a bus ticket to Bilbao, and she could stay with her aunt until she gave birth and then find a job somewhere and start a new life. Álvaro could come once he finished school, maybe. It was perfect. That’s what she would do. But she had to do it fast, she thought, because her due date had passed. She’d give birth any day now. If she gave birth first, her parents would give the baby up before she could do anything about it. If there was to be any chance for her, she’d have to leave soon. Tomorrow, even, or the next day at the latest. However quickly she could get the money.

Sofía returned. “Where did Guillermo go?”

“Oh,” said María Teresa, coming out of her reverie. “He had to go.”

“Always on the move, that one.”

“Yeah.” María Teresa got up and went back to her room. She spent some time reading Cien Años de Soledad before taking a nap, and then her mother called her out for a dinner that proved exceptionally awkward—Sofía continuing her TV mom act and María Teresa thinking only of bus money—and eventually she went back to her bed, turning over thoughts of her her new Basque life and everything she was about to leave behind, until she finally fell asleep.

In the morning, María Teresa was horrified. She caught herself in the mirror as she was walking to the bathroom, and she noticed right away that her belly was smaller than it had been before. She stopped dead in her tracks, staring at the mirror. Her brow furled, she tried to remember how big her belly had looked the previous day, and the day before that. Had it changed size? The more she stared, the harder it was for her to remember. It could have been an optical illusion. She grabbed at herself and appraised her belly with both hands, squeezing gently. It couldn’t be, she decided. How could a child get smaller? That made no sense. Her belly was still significantly larger than it had been before she’d gotten pregnant, of course, so she didn’t have much trouble convincing herself that nothing was awry. “Must be my imagination,” she said aloud. “I’ve been out of it…”

She continued on her way toward the bathroom, but she was interrupted again, this time by her parents.

“Then curl it!” said Rodrigo. “But hurry—we don’t have all day.”

“You drag me to these things,” said Sofía, “and then you want me to curl my hair, but then you want me to be ready faster… Make up your mind!”

“Just hurry.” Rodrigo, wearing his usual business suit, went into his den.

“Morning, Mari,” said Sofía as she passed María Teresa. Sofía was holding a curling iron.

“Hi.”

“Rodrigo didn’t tell me until today, but—”

“That’s because it just came up!” said Rodrigo from the other room.

“Right,” said Sofía, plugging in the curling iron and wrapping up a lock of hair. “Anyway, he’s got some important deal going on and he needs me at a lunch meeting. Luckily he’s picked a day where I had no orders at the shop, otherwise I’d need your help. But we’ve got to go meet some people at his office first, and then go to lunch—”

“Didn’t I say hurry?” said Rodrigo.

“One can only do so much.” She released the first lock and twirled another around the iron with the quick delicacy of someone who’d done it a million times. “We should be back around four, I hope.”

“Okay.” María Teresa sidled past her mother into the bathroom, finally.

“Are you ready yet?” said Rodrigo.

“Yes, yes,” said Sofía. She released the iron. Her hair now bounced in beautiful, loose curls as she tilted her head. “Honey, can you help me with this dress?”

“I thought you were ready!”

“I just need help zipping it up, then I’m ready.”

Rodrigo stomped out of his den to meet her, muttering something under his breath about women not being able to dress themselves. He undid the top button and then zipped aggressively from her lower back.

“Ouch!” said Sofía. “Careful.”

“You want me to zip it or not?” He continued a bit more chivalrously, pausing here and there to gather the fabric from both sides in short tugs. The zipper took its roost at the very top of the dress, and Rodrigo redid the top button. “There,” he said. “Now let’s go.”

Sofía unplugged the curling iron, left it on the coffee table to cool and picked up her purse. “Okay,” she said.

Just as they were halfway into the elevator, Rodrigo cursed. “Now you made me forget the papers!” He darted back into his den and reappeared with a leather-bound portfolio.

“Honey, hurry up! The elevator’s beeping!”

Rodrigo pulled the door of his den shut behind him and flew into the elevator, and they descended.

As far as spats between her parents went, this one was pretty tame, María Teresa thought. It was innocuous bickering—the kind she could imagine other kids’ parents doing. Such arguing happened all the time, and over the years she’d gotten used to it.

But there was something markedly unusual about this incident. After they left, the piso was enveloped in a ringing emptiness. Not quite silence, but a standstill—a cliffhanger—like watching the action of a movie build up and climax and then, instead of folding into a graceful denouement, end abruptly in the middle of a blurry tumble because someone had cut the film. María Teresa sensed that something was missing, not quite right. Something was left undone. It was the same feeling you might get while eating a sandwich you just made, which prompts you to go back in the kitchen to investigate, where you find that you’ve left the refrigerator door ajar.

María Teresa quickly realized what it was: She’d heard her father shut his den door innumerable times, but every time the slam was followed by the sliding of the bolt as he locked it with his key. The door was always kept locked. But this time, she didn’t hear the bolt. That’s what was missing, lost in the floating plasmic potential around her. The two elements went hand in hand: slam, bolt. Slam, bolt. Slam, bolt. Slam—

Curiosity overwhelmed her. She’d lived in that piso all fifteen years of her life, and she knew it like the back of her hand. She knew the shape of the hairline crack in the tile right next to the bathtub. She knew how the kitchen faucet let out a tiny dribble from its base when it was turned open all the way. She knew about the unsightly scrape on the living room parquet that was covered by their biggest couch. She knew so many details, but she’d never so much as seen the inside of her father’s den. What was in there? She imagined plush velvet walls, regal armchairs, a fireplace… Her father locked himself in there for hours on end—for whole evenings, entire weekends. He must have had a whole separate life in there. What did he do? Did he have a large TV set? A private movie theater? Or was he working on an enormous jigsaw puzzle? No, he didn’t have the patience for that. Could there be… She feared what she might discover in there. Somehow, though, that made it all the more tantalizing. Would she discover a side of her father that she never knew?

And besides, it seemed utterly unfair—incomprehensible, even—that there should be a part of her house she didn’t know. She lived there, after all, and it was the place in the world she knew best. It was cruel that part of it should be kept from her, that even amidst the most familiar there should be the unknown…

It didn’t take long for her to decide to go in. Not only to satisfy a childhood curiosity, but as a matter of justice. The dictatorship was over and there was a constitution now. It was time for justice. She had a right to know what was in her own house, to know what her father did.

And as she had her hand on the doorknob, it dawned on her. If there was one thing she’d find in that room, it was money. Her father had loads of it, she knew, and he had to keep it somewhere. She imagined one of those giant safes she’d seen in the movies. But a safe wouldn’t do any good if she didn’t have the key or know the combination. She doubted he used gold bars as paperweights—her family was well off, she always knew, but not that rich. Anyway, she didn’t need a gold bar to make it to Bilbao. If she could find a two thousand–peseta bill, that would be enough for her bus ticket and food for a few days—maybe even a hotel stay, if she needed it. She’d make it to her aunt’s house without difficulty. He probably wouldn’t even notice it was missing. And if he did, two thousand pesetas wasn’t that much to him, anyway. Besides, she was running away. She’d never see them again, so what did it matter? She thought of it as their parting gift to her, their way of making it up to her for all those years of misery they’d put her through. For trying to control her life. Maybe she’d take five thousand.

As she turned the doorknob and began to open the door, her heart raced. She braced herself for one of the foremost discoveries of her lifetime. More than a hint of voyeuristic excitement came over her, bringing with it an undertone of guilty discomfort. Would she regret going in?

The door opened to reveal a simple room that looked not unlike the living room, but with much less furniture. The parquet floor was the same in here, but it was mostly obscured by a large Arabian rug. There was a desk in the middle of the room, a small bookshelf along one side and a shelf of trinkets along the other. A large window filled the wall behind the desk. No TV, no jigsaw puzzle, no stash of contraband, no safe. It was quite a letdown after María Teresa had so built up her expectations, but she continued gawking all the same. More than anything, she was consumed by the grandiosity of the desk: As large as their dining room table but much more shapely, it was hewn of dark, polished wood with richly sculpted details throughout. It was covered in papers, arranged in stacks with stray leaves peeking out here and there. There were folders and boxes also, as well as a cup of pens.

María Teresa took a seat in the large leather chair, spreading her fingers across the table as if in attempt to absorb some of the power that lay within it. She spun around lazily and her eyes surveyed the details around her, eager to make the discovery she so longed for after all.

Though she sat on her father’s throne, surveying his room, she was no closer to understanding what he did in there for all those hours. It was, by all accounts, boring. It was all paper and pens. There was a typewriter, but it was in its hard case at the bottom of a bookshelf and looked long-unused. And likewise did the books above it, dusty and old. Like so much else in their home, those things were only for show.

She looked more closely at the papers on the desk as a last resort, determined to find something interesting, but she was quickly let down. Everything looked to be business-related, all printed with the same sterile letterhead on the same white Bible paper. Invoices and memos, with scrawling annotations here and there. Such-and-such service, account, remittance, deposition. The words were obscure and meant nothing to María Teresa. Just the same boring old business she always knew her father was involved in—nothing to shed new insight on the man. But, she thought, there just had to be some secret in here. No one bought a safe just to keep it empty, and nobody kept a vacant room under lock and key.

As she looked around again, something new caught her eye: The garbage can beneath the desk was filled with wrinkled papers unlike the ones on the desk. It was stationery, the color of pale caramel and visibly weighty. It was clear that someone had crumpled them—or tried to—but the paper was so thick that it refused to stay balled up, stretching out slowly to fill the garbage can. Not only was the paper itself alluring, but what was written on it: From her vantage, she could clearly make out the word Xabier.

“Father Xabier?” she said to herself. It had to be—there weren’t many Xabiers around, given that most Spanish parents opted for the decidedly non-Basque Javier, and she couldn’t think of another Xabier she knew personally, and she suspected the same went for her parents. What was her father writing about Father Xabier for? She picked up the garbage can and dug in; the caramel papers were buried below a layer of crumpled white memos. She fished out the Xabier, flattened it in the tension between her hands, and read.

“This… is your child?” she said. The words were foreign at first, meaningless, but their gravity quickly congealed. She scrambled for the other papers, reading them one by one as quickly as she could. They all contained more or less the same message, though it transformed slightly from version to version. They had different wordings, presenting the information in different orders. Some had parts crossed out and others ended mid-word. She intuited different levels of anger and formality in each of them.

It could only mean one thing. But—she was struck with an idea. She scrambled for one of the white papers that was at the top of the bin. It was dated today.

“No!” she said. “But—”

She grasped at her belly again. It really had gotten smaller, she realized. She really had given birth.

[] Chapter Nine: Life After Life

 

Xabier was struggling up the stairs. He’d just bought a crib, which came in a large box (assembly required). He carried Esperanza in one arm, and he needed more than his one other arm to carry the box, so he’d recruited his foot to help with the task. With one eye on the baby, he wedged his foot underneath the box, curled his arm around an upper corner the best he could, and pushed upward with his foot. It was enough to go one step with each effort, but no more. He made his way up, slowly and sweatily and not at all gracefully, occupying the entirety of the stairwell. Xabier hoped there wouldn’t be anyone trying to get by. Or to see him at all, for that matter—he didn’t want anyone’s pity.

“One… step… at a time,” he said. Eventually he made it to the stretch of stairs that immediately led to his floor, and he had to take a short break. “Guess I’m not as young as I used to be,” he told Esperanza. “Though I only really notice when I do stuff like this.”

After a few breaths, he resumed his task. But this time, as he heaved, he lost his footing on the step below. As he slipped, his thoughts jumped to the protection of the baby, though this came at the expense of the crib. The box tumbled onto the landing below and crashed into the wall. The noise provoked a yelp from Esperanza—this evolved into crying, a reflexive reaction to the perceived threat.

“Now, now,” said Xabier, bouncing the baby gently. “There, there. No need to cry—we’re both okay. Yeah, we’re okay. See? That was scary, wasn’t it? We almost took a tumble ourselves there, didn’t we? What a fright!” He cooed and repeated the mollifying words, stroking Esperanza’s shock of black hair. Her wailing quickly faded into a whimper. “Yes,” said Xabier. “That’s my girl. That’s a good girl.”

Just then, Xabier’s fear was realized: He heard a door open from the floor above. His apartment? Was someone inside? No—it was the door next to his. “Oh dear!” said the woman who emerged. “Are you okay there?”

“Oh yes,” he blushed. “All fine.”

The woman was young and plain, her hair straight and vaguely red. She stepped a bit closer, and her eyes lit up. “Are you sure?” she said. Her eyes jumped to the large box on the landing below. It didn’t open in the fall, but two of its corners were dented. “Let me help you.” She stepped down. The two awkwardly negotiated their roles for a few seconds before Xabier came to his senses: He didn’t want to make the girl carry the large box, so he gave her Esperanza and reached for the box himself.

When they were inside the apartment, Xabier noticed how captivated the woman seemed with the baby. Her eyes were fixed on Esperanza. “She likes you,” said Xabier. The woman was holding the baby closely, swaying gently. Esperanza was peaceful.

“And she’s a cutie herself. What a darling little girl. How old is she?”

“Seven days. Just dropped out of Heaven.”

The woman swooned. “You know, sometimes I wish I had a little baby. They’re so precious.”

“You’re married?” said Xabier. She looked young.

“Oh! No, no. Not like that. I mean—sometime in the future. I couldn’t handle it right now. Especially since my boyfriend—well, if I even have a boyfriend. We—oh! You don’t care about that stuff. I don’t know why I’m talking.”

“I understand. It can be hard. But sometimes… we have to forget about our past lives. Move on. There’ll be another guy out there, I’m sure. Look—you’re a natural mother. Esperanza has really taken to you.”

“Esperanza? That’s a beautiful name.”

“God helped me pick it.”

“God…” she said.

“I used to be a priest.”

“Right.” She paused. “Sorry. I do know who you are, though.”

“Oh?” Xabier blushed. If she knew who he was, that could have meant many things. He always preferred meeting people who didn’t already know who he was. And given the circumstances, all the more.

“I guess I should introduce myself. How rude… My name’s Gabriela.”

“Another beautiful name,” said Xabier. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” They kissed on the cheeks.

“You know, I’ve always had a great respect for priests. I’m not religious myself, but whenever I hear about a priest in the news, I just think about the pressure they must face—you must face. Politicians, too, I guess, but priests are on another level… The expectations are just so high. And people are so cruel, always looking for fault, eager to turn any rumor into a scandal.” Xabier’s eyebrows were raised. “Sorry—I studied history, so I get a little worked up sometimes. Things like that happen time and again, and the ramifications can be astounding.”

Xabier merely smiled.

“Anyway,” she said, “you must have just moved in?”

“Yeah, a few days ago now. Still getting acquainted.”

“I can see that.” She looked around his ascetic apartment, which had barely any furniture—only that supplied by the landlady, worn down by all the previous tenants—and no decorations to speak of.

“It’s a work in progress.”

“Aren’t we all.” She smiled. “Well, I’ve got to head over to work. It was really nice meeting you.”

They said goodbye, promising that they’d see each other soon and that each would of course let the other know if they needed anything, and Gabriela went back into her own apartment to finish getting ready.

Ignoring the pile of clothes that belonged to her ex-boyfriend, she selected a light sweater to layer over her t-shirt. She went into the kitchen for a glass of water; James Dean stared at her from a poster that her ex had gotten her when she was going through her Classic America phase. As she looked in the mirror to fix her hair, her eyes caught a number of his things in the background: a stray magazine, a throw, empty brackets on the wall that used to hold a shelf that he’d built. It had since fallen down.

She meant to get rid of all his things. Not only the things that belonged to him, but everything that reminded her of him, to give herself a fresh start at life without him. But she was never quite able to. She started a few times, but she always got distracted by the memories engrained in every object. And some memories were nice. Did she really want to get rid of them? And besides, there were things like songs (Me Cuesta Tanto Olvidarte by Mecano, for one) and restaurants (McDonald’s) that reminded her of their time together. These things she couldn’t even hope to erase.

They’d been together for years. The breakup—the emptiness—still felt strange to Gabriela, but only when she caught herself with her guard down. When she thought about it rationally, she knew it was for the best. Getting rid of him was like excising a malignant tumor. He had to go. He’d tricked her into thinking their relationship was healthy, symbiotic, but he was a parasite. She knew this. But nobody is completely rational, the denomination homo sapiens notwithstanding, and if she was honest with herself, she really did miss him. But there was no time for that; it was time for work.

It was just after eleven in the morning and the sun was high in the sky. On most days, Gabriela started as early as seven, so coming to work at this time gave her a strange sensation: Seeing the hustle and bustle of the streets and the wealth of customers already sitting down incited a rise of anxiety—as if she’d woken up late by mistake and she had a lot of catching up to do. But the anxiety was quickly replaced by a wave of calm when she remembered that she hadn’t done anything wrong, that she was indeed scheduled to come in later that day, and that feeling far outbalanced the anxiety. On some days like this, the cycle would repeat itself a few times on her walk to the café. The anxiety was frightful, to be sure, but she enjoyed the episodes overall. Much in the same way that, when you wake up from a bad dream, the first seconds are heavy with despair and alarm but you quickly realize it was only a dream. Relief—real, deep relief—had always been one of her favorite feelings. Perhaps it was just the reassurance that every day wasn’t exactly the same after all.

That was important, because many things were the same day after day. The group of middle-aged women gathered at her café, for example, always occupying the same table, did the same thing every day: They gossiped about their neighbors. She couldn’t help but overhear them as she circled their table—and their conversations certainly weren’t bashful, so they were easy to hear even from inside, even over the din of all the other customers put together.

Gabriela had always disliked gossip. She called it the pastime of the idle. She herself always had so much to do—who had time for gossip? Not only that, but Gabriela suspected that gossip was harmful in itself. She saw that people used it as currency. Spending it would give oneself more social power, at least for a while. But one person having more money always meant another person having less money, and it was the same with gossip: It always came at the expense of others. Most people, it seemed, thought gossip was harmless—just entertainment. But now that she’d met Xabier, something clicked—she knew firsthand that gossip could do real harm in the world.

It happened one morning, maybe a few weeks before. The woman who owned the flower shop came beetling across the street to meet her friends, an urgent smile on her face. As Gabriela was setting down her café americano, the woman became solemn and broke the news: Her daughter had been raped by the priest of the Miraria, and now she was pregnant.

The other women tried to look scandalized, but Gabriela could see that they were really smiling lasciviously, despite their gaping mouths—the corners of their eyes gave it away.

“Is that so?” asked one of the women.

Now the woman who owned the flower shop acted as if she was too wounded by the events to give up anymore details. The other women took the bait, eager to coax out anything they could. This was juicy.

At first it seemed that the woman offered up the news of her daughter as a sincere topic of discussion, as if she was struggling with it and desperately wanted advice from her friends. But as the conversation went on, it became clear that this was not the case: She knew what she was doing. The woman was cashing in this story for a better seat in the social arena.

It was Gabriela’s job as a server to be cordial with the women no matter what they happened to be talking about—indeed, she had to pretend not to hear a word they were saying unless it was directed to her—but privately she was outraged. How could a mother betray her own daughter—and granddaughter—to the wolves of public ridicule? And with such nonchalance? Gabriela couldn’t help but wonder if the story was even true; given the track record of these women, she doubted it. More than likely, the woman’s daughter had gotten pregnant from one of the boyfriends her mother sometimes brought up—it sounded as if there were an endless parade of them—and now the woman was trying to save face. But who could know for sure?

From that point on, Gabriela began to hear more and more about the priest, the rape and the baby. Not just from the woman who owned the flower shop, but from everyone. She saw the story morph from that one detail-void sentence into long narrations that changed with each telling. The priest was cast as an incontrovertible villain who had a history of attacking little boys and girls. Some said he took advantage of this particular girl in his confessional, covering up her mouth with his sash and telling her that she’d go to Hell if she uttered a word to anyone. Apparently the priest was a drunk who also made a regular habit of purchasing harder drugs from the alleys of Chueca and liked to get high before performing his abuses. They said he kept his stash in the tabernacle, and that any doubting listeners could go have a look for themselves. People were saying that he wasn’t even an ordained priest, that he was only pretending in order to take advantage of the social standing of the priesthood and the libidinal privacy that the confessionals offered. A few people emerged who said they had seen the man hop off a bus from Santander years before, already wearing his blacks, making his way toward the Miraria, and that he looked like trouble from the moment they first set eyes on him.

The stories had gotten more and more ridiculous, but nobody else seemed to notice it. Where Gabriela saw the endless addition of new layers of fabrication, others saw the steady uncovering of the truth.

Through wonderful serendipity, Gabriela met Xabier and the little Esperanza in person. She knew immediately that the stories were false, right down to the very first sentence that she’d heard from the mouth of the lady who owned the flower shop.

Those women had been so nonchalant about ruining the priest’s life—Gabriela tried to convince herself that it wasn’t intentional, but their actions spoke for themselves. And the public went along with it, like blind sheep. Now the priest had been excommunicated from the monastery for something he didn’t do, and he was raising a child that wasn’t his after he’d taken a sacred vow never to bear children. It struck Gabriela that the baby was the granddaughter of the woman who owned the flower shop; the woman had so easily tossed aside a member of her own family. The grandmother had betrayed her daughter as well, and it was a betrayal in the worst sense. Didn’t family mean anything? But the most painful part was that Gabriela had seen it all happen right before her eyes.

Gabriela couldn’t help but turn these thoughts in her mind as she tied her apron. The women were in their usual place, but the one who owned the flower shop was not there. Gabriela silently mused that perhaps she’d fallen into a manhole and died, swept away among the fermenting human refuse and mutant alligators. The other women were just as boisterous despite their friend’s absence, and Gabriela was suddenly reminded that the woman who owned the flower shop was not the worst of them. They were equally ravenous. Gabriela was sure they’d affected others’ lives with their cattery, far more than just the priest. Were these women not interested in living lives of their own? How could they not see the emptiness in themselves? Gabriela hoped she would never grow old.

I shouldn’t be so judgmental, Gabriela thought. All I have to worry about is bringing them their coffee and croissants. If I spend too much time thinking about them, I’m just as bad.

“And how is our favorite girl today?” said Rosa, the oldest of the women at the table, as Gabriela emerged with a tray.

Gabriela smiled at her. “Pretty good,” she said. “You’re all having the usual, right?”

“Of course,” said one of the other women. “You know us best. We missed you when we got here, you know, but we told the man who tried to take our order that we’d rather just wait till you got in. She already knows what we want! I said.”

“I hope you weren’t bored.”

“Of course not,” said Rosa. “Ladies like us have way too much on our minds to be bored.”

Gabriela smiled and turned away. She was glad that she could always rely on the pretext of having to help other patrons when she wanted to cut a conversation short. Even inside, she could hear the women talking boisterously about her recent breakup. She was incensed, but she knew that those rumors, at least, wouldn’t have such dire consequences.

 

María Teresa had collapsed on the floor of her father’s den. She wasn’t unconscious—her legs had just given out. “Mi niña,” she said to herself. “They took my baby.”

She had been ready to run away and start a new life. In some respects it wasn’t like her to think that way. Her life wasn’t ideal, but she never considered it within her power to change it. In general, she accepted what life brought her. The only exception was her arrangement with Guillermo—the thought of Álvaro inspired in her a drive do something. But perhaps there was a part of her that resigned itself to acknowledge that one day she’d end up with Guillermo, despite her protests. Something had changed, though; she’d been ready to take action, to forge her own path. For the first time, she saw clearly what she wanted in life and she thought of a way to get it.

Her recent discovery derailed this plan. She’d already given birth, and her parents had given her baby to the priest. Did they think she’d never notice? Did they think she wouldn’t mind? María Teresa resolved to carry out her plan. She’d only have to take a brief detour.

She made her way to the monastery. She was going to get her baby back. The priest would have to give it to her, right? It wasn’t even his baby to begin with; he knew that. But when she arrived, the church door was locked. She rapped a few times and waited an anxious thirty seconds before trying the side door. It was also locked, and knocking elicited no response. Her heart was knocking, too. She went back to the main church door and rapped harder than before, and then she shouted, and then she tried the other door again. She felt sweat on her back, clustering around her bra strap, causing her t-shirt to cling uncomfortably. Why weren’t they answering? Her muscles began to spasm: One at a time, her biceps or cheek or hamstring or brow tightened for a blink and then released with a tremor. Something was not right.

“Young lady,” said a voice. “Are you trying to go to Mass?”

Maria Teresa swung around. It was an old man, talking to her from the sidewalk. “I need to get inside,” she said.

“You’ll have to go to Mass somewhere else now. Why don’t you go to San Jerónimo? That’s a nice church.”

“Is there another door?”

“Have you not heard the news? It’s closed up. No one’s in there anymore.”

“Closed up?”

“Serves them right, if you ask me. These monks were a black stain on the Church if there ever was one. San Jerónimo, on the other hand… It’s right by the Prado. You must know where it is…”

She stared at him. When he was satisfied that she would cease trying to get into the Miraria and head to San Jerónimo, he continued on his way.

María Teresa turned back around and looked at the immense church portal in front of her. Not even God could get inside, she realized. Still, she desperately wanted to. Her baby! In her mind, she saw the door swing open, break down, crumble. There had to be a way in. But the old man had told her that there was no one inside, which meant that even if she managed to break in she wouldn’t be any closer to retrieving her baby. It took a few seconds to reconcile those thoughts.

“But,” she said. Realization came upon her, a wave of peace that smoothed her tremors and slowed her heart. “But…” She was deflated. Her legs were weak.

She had been picturing what would happen. In her mind, it was still more vivid than any fond memory: She’d walk up to the portal, enter the monastery, ask to see Father Xabier, be directed to his quarters, where he’d be standing with her child in his arms, ask for her little girl back, be handed the baby, leave the monastery, board a bus to Bilbao, and finally disembark into her aunt’s embrace and start a new life. But none of those things happened. She’d been stalled at step one. What could she do now? If the monastery was closed and all the monks had gone elsewhere, where could she find them? They were monks, which meant that they didn’t talk to anyone—how could she find out where they’d gone? It was impossible.

Her legs folded onto the steps of the monastery, and she looked out at the sky. The sun sneered, and the clouds were furled. “So that’s it,” said María Teresa. “That explains it.” It was her continued punishment from God for what she’d done. She deserved it—everything that had happened. She’d brought it upon herself. God wouldn’t let her go. Now there was nothing for her to do but despair.

She went back home and instinctively retreated under her bedsheets. No matter what sort of storm her life was putting her through, her bed was as comfortable as always. In a world that insisted on changing, the warmth of her bed was one thing she could count on. She supposed, though, that it was only a matter of time before that was taken away from her, too.

Usually María Teresa lay in the safety of her bed until the tempest passed. When she sensed that whatever it was that currently bothered her about the world had changed, she reemerged. This time, though, the the world outside did not change.

Instead, it was María Teresa that changed.

No, God would not let her go, she realized. But it wasn’t because He hated her; it was because He loved her. Her punishment would continue until she changed—until she apologized for what she’d done and resolved to start anew. She knew that Father Xabier had been right—what he told her during her confession so long ago, before she even knew she was pregnant—that we have to accept what God gives us in life. To be grateful that we have anything at all. She did not want to go to Hell, and she wanted to be happy with the life she had right now. Suddenly it was clear to her what she needed to do.

“I’m sorry,” she said aloud. “Please forgive me.” She had said these words many times in the past, but never before had she truly meant them. This time, though, a tangible lightness came over her, as if an angel had peeled a heavy, scratchy blanket off her that she didn’t even know was there, and she was bathed in light. María Teresa sat up in bed, and she was serene. She had been forgiven. She had been physically forgiven.

It was an invigorating feeling, and she was inspired to do something. She took a mental inventory: I am María Teresa Colmenar Álvarez, she thought. I have two parents who have given me everything I have, down to my very life. They’ve worked hard to raise me. They’ve sent me to a good school, an opportunity that not everyone has. They expect that I’ll marry Guillermo Ortega Palomo. I would expect that as well if I’d never met Álvaro Morales Fernández. I got pregnant and gave birth to a girl. She was given to a priest, which perhaps is fitting, seeing as she was a child born in sin. The monastery where the priest lived is now as empty as Jesus’ tomb, and I don’t know if I will ever see her again. That is all I know. So where do I go from here? What’s next?

School. That’s where I’ll go, she thought. For as much as homework annoyed her and she didn’t like some of her classmates, school was something constant. She had a schedule that she could count on, she had teachers that never changed, and she knew the rules. “I’ll go back tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll start all over.” She didn’t need to go to Bilbao to start a new life; she could do so right here.

Reenergized, María Teresa climbed out of bed and made herself a sandwich, then sat down on the couch to read. She had been reading Cien Años de Soledad for some time now, but she’d made very little progress. In contrast to the book’s characters who were afflicted by insomnia, María Teresa always found herself overcome by drowsiness before she’d even finished a page. She’d slog on through the next page or two, barely registering a word, before quitting and curling up under the covers. In her recent life, she had no motivation for anything—especially not for reading. But now she found herself with renewed vigor, and she found the story exciting. Maybe it was the story of her own life, she thought. José Arcadio Buendía was just like her, in a way: In his selfish desire to further his own knowledge, he led an expedition to leave town. But Macondo, he learned, was surrounded by swamp and mountains, inaccessible to the rest of the world. God exists, the people of Macondo reminded themselves in the time of amnesia. In other words, God intervened: It was not in God’s will for José Arcadio Buendía to leave Macondo. Instead, he remained, devoting himself fully to his children. He wanted to leave Macondo to continue his life, but instead he was chosen to remain in Macondo and start a whole new life right there. And that’s exactly what María Teresa would do. She turned the page.

On rainy afternoons, María Teresa read, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth. The first time she did it almost out of curiosity, sure that the bad taste would be the best cure for the temptation. And, in fact, she could not bear the earth in her mouth. But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food. She would put handfuls of earth in her pockets, and ate them in small bits without being seen, with a confused feeling of pleasure and rage, as she instructed her girl friends in the most difficult needlepoint and spoke about other men, who did not deserve the sacrifice of having one eat the whitewash on the walls because of them. The handfuls of earth made the only man who deserved that show of degradation less remote and more certain, as if the ground that he walked on with his fine patent leather boots in another part of the world were transmitting to her the weight and the temperature of his blood in a mineral savor that left a harsh aftertaste in her mouth and a sediment of peace in her heart.

María Teresa was absorbed in the narrative, and so she did not notice the door opening.

Even if María Teresa hadn’t been reading, she may not have noticed it: Sofía was returning home, and she was trying with all her focus not to make a sound. Sofía was startled, though, to see María Teresa sitting on the couch in front of her. She’s waiting for me, she thought. Sofía jumped back involuntarily, her heels clicking on the parquet floor, and she let out a slight gasp. This was enough to cause María Teresa to look up from her book.

“Oh,” said Sofía. “Hi, Mari.” She hoped that María Teresa didn’t notice that she had been trying to creep in unnoticed; that would be suspicious.

“Hi,” said María Teresa, apparently eager to get back to reading. “No Dad?”

“You know him; he had to go back to the office to finish up some more things.”

“How was the meeting?”

“Oh, it was about what I expected—same as those things always are. The food was good.”

María Teresa smiled over her book.

“You look… content. How are you feeling?” Sofía set her purse on the table.

“Mom.”

“Yes?”

“I found the letter. The one Dad wrote to Father Xabier.”

“You—?” Sofía tried to sound calm, but the lump in her throat precluded her attempt.

“So you just waited till I was asleep and then took her away?”

Sofía swallowed. “Mari,” she said as she took a seat on the couch next to her daughter. “I know it’s not what you wanted. I wish there were an easier way. But it’s for the best—you’ll see. We’re not against you, Mari. We’re just trying to protect you. It’s a… confusing time, for all of us. I know it’s hard, but it will get better. I promise.”

She rubbed her daughter on the shoulder; María Teresa acquiesced, her face blank. She set down her book, open and face-down, on the coffee table, tempering the cover of an enormous volume of Georgia O’Keefe paintings.

“Your father and I… we’ve made mistakes. And you’re still so young. You may not feel young—because you can’t understand what youth feels like until you’ve felt old, and that won’t happen to you for a long time. You have so many years ahead of you, and something like this… has the potential to derail you for the rest of your life. No one should be defined by a mistake they made when they were fifteen. I think everyone deserves a second chance. And that’s what your father and I wanted for you.”

“Mom, I—”

“Before you say anything, I just wanted to say that I know you’re probably angry. I don’t expect you’ll really understand why we had to do what we did for a very long time, but you will, eventually. You might even someday be able to forgive us.”

“I know, Mom. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I’m going to go back to school tomorrow.”

“That’s very mature of you.”

 

The next day, María Teresa enjoyed a reunion with all her school friends. She’d been gone for about a week now, and everyone that saw her was amazed by what they considered a total transformation: Gone was her tremendous belly, and seeing as she had no infant in tow, it was easy for them to see her as the María Teresa she’d always been.

When teachers passed, they smiled at her. The girls who had scorned her for months now suddenly considered her their friend once again, and they caught her up on the latest trends and who had a crush on who. Students she didn’t know happily ignored her, whereas before they openly gaped and sometimes chuckled. This made her happiest of all.

María Teresa was happy to forget about the past few months. Even before that, the María Teresa she used to be was always down in the dumps, always slow and lost. She didn’t want to be like that anymore. She earnestly wanted to start a new life—and she was careful about what parts of her old life would be carried over.

Álvaro figured largely in these considerations. She was meant to marry Guillermo, and she’d finally chosen to accept God’s will. Still, she thought Álvaro was a good friend—trustworthy and intelligent—and she didn’t want to forget about him entirely. She could still be friends with him; she’d just drop all pretense of romanticism. It wouldn’t be so hard.

She was on the way to her locker before lunch when she saw Álvaro in the hallway. Her heart leapt. It was the first time she’d seen him in weeks, and he had changed considerably. She might have believed, in fact, that she was looking at Álvaro’s older brother—it was only when she remembered that he had no older brother that she knew for sure that she was looking at Álvaro himself. He’d gotten a haircut, and he looked more handsome than ever. Had he grown taller? His face showed the vague beginnings of a mustache and beard. María Teresa felt the saliva drowning her tongue; she swallowed, but then her mouth was all too dry. She noticed his chest, firm against his shirt. Suddenly he didn’t seem as thin as he always had. He looked strong, but still as level-headed and sensitive as she remembered: The way his fingers curled, the gentle shape of his eyebrows… Her breathing grew more and more uneasy as she surveyed his every detail. She shook her head. Just friends. She was going to marry Guillermo, and she and Álvaro would just be friends.

“So what brings you here?” he said.

“Álvaro!” she said.

“I’m glad to see you back here.”

“I figured I didn’t have any excuses to stay home anymore.”

“And you wanted to see me, right?” he said, smiling.

“Well, there’s that.”

“How’s the baby?”

She paused. “I’m trying to start a new life,” she said.

“A new life?”

“Everything was getting too—I don’t know. I just needed to start fresh.”

“But I liked the way you were, Mari. You don’t need to change for anyone…”

“For myself,” she said. “And anyway, have you looked in the mirror lately? Tell me you haven’t changed since the last time I saw you.”

“My haircut?” he said, surprised.

“Not only that. You look… different.”

He shrugged. “You look different too. I think we’re all changing, all the time, even if we don’t realize it.”

“I think you’re right,” said María Teresa.

By now they had arrived at María Teresa’s locker. She exchanged her books for other ones and the two made their way to the lunchroom.

“You never answered about the baby,” said Álvaro. “How is he? Or she?”

She wore a stern expression. “It was a she. But she’s not my baby.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“She was adopted by Father Xabier, the priest from the monastery.” She tried her best to sound matter-of-fact, but relaying these details caused the slightest of wavers in her voice.

“What!?”

“You think I’m in the condition to raise a baby?”

“Mari,” said Álvaro carefully. “I can’t believe you didn’t talk to me about it beforehand.”

She didn’t say anything. Her lips quivered.

“Don’t you think I should have had a say in this?” he said.

In all this time, María Teresa had never told Álvaro that she’d slept with Guillermo. So with good reason, he thought the child was his. But she couldn’t tell him now, after she’d kept up the charade for so long. Anyway, she thought, the baby was gone now, so it didn’t matter who the father was. Still, she was crushed by how he must feel. She was tempted to direct that anger onto herself, but she knew it was something she should brush away, a vestige of her past life. She echoed her mother, saying, “It’s for the best, Álvaro. For all of us.” The words sounded insincere, even to her.

“Do you really believe that? We could have made it work.”

“What’s done is done.”

Alvaro stopped walking. They were alone in the hallway—their conversation had had them walking slow—but still he spoke in a hush. “But it’s our baby, Mari. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

Maria Teresa’s eyes became moist, her face red. “Can’t we just forget about it? Forget about this all?”

“How?”

“I thought you of all people would be able to—it’s like that stuff you’re always talking about. That philosophy, nourishing the soul, cleansing the mind. Present moment, oneness. All that stuff.”

“This is different,” he said. “Our baby, Mari.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. With gritted teeth, she said, “Don’t you think I’ve thought about it? What do you think has been on my mind for all these months? It was my parents’ decision to give her up for adoption—I didn’t agree at first, but now I’m glad they did it. It’s a load off my chest. Really. I can be a better person—a new person. I can try again.”

“But—”

“You can’t say anything, Álvaro. I’m sorry, but you can’t. You weren’t there. You’re not me. Do you know what it’s like to lie in bed all day, wondering if this will be the day you’ll finally kill yourself? I didn’t want that anymore.”

“Mari…” He gathered her in for a loving hug, and she buried her face in his shoulder. After a few moments, he held her more tightly, kissed her gently on the head, and whispered, “We’ll get her back.”

[] Chapter Ten: An Unacceptable Paradox

 

Rodrigo looked across the street with wonder. It was nothing new, objectively speaking. He’d seen it a thousand times—and from this very place at the bar, no less. Still, something had changed his perspective, because he was staring at his office building with a sparkle in his eyes. They were the same eyes he’d worn the first time he visited New York City, when he’d just stepped out of Grand Central Station and was struggling to comprehend the enormity of the buildings around him.

La Taberna del Ángel Serrano was the regular lunchtime and after-work haunt of himself and many of his employees. This was natural; it was the closest place, and those who are hungry or thirsty never look further afield than they have to. But the tapas here were good, and they’d built such a relationship with the owner that he gave them special deals—which mattered to Rodrigo years before, when he didn’t have as much extra money. There was no reason to look for a new bar.

Rodrigo sat alongside Pablo Álvarez, one of his closest colleagues, who served as the company’s president and answered only to Rodrigo. Pablo was a rung below Rodrigo on the corporate ladder, but they’d known each other so long that they felt more like equal partners. Until they disagreed, that is. Today, though, there was no disagreement—only celebration. Both smiled widely as they looked across the street, each with a small, cool glass of Mahou in front of him and a dish of sliced morcilla between.

“Would you look at it?” said Rodrigo.

“It’s beautiful,” said Pablo.

They were looking at their office building together, but it wasn’t the building they’d just spent all day in. Indeed, anyone else around would have said they were looking at S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria, which would have been accurate only hours before. Now, though, the former monastery was officially part of their office. Of course, there’d need to be some renovations before they could move in.

The server set down in front of them a plate of cured ham along with a hearty buen provecho. Both Rodrigo and Pablo took a few moments to relish the sight of the scarlet razors: The marbling was perfect, reminiscent of the striations of a wooden floor, and the slices were visibly oozing with nutty flavor. Men of their means enjoyed jamón ibérico de bellota more often than most people, but, to their credit, they always reveled in the experience as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Simply put, this ham was the best in the world, and they counted themselves among the blessed for living in the country of its provenance.

Like all ham, jamón ibérico began its mouthward journey as a living pig. But this ham came from no ordinary pigs: Only a particular pedigree of black-footed pigs from western Spain earned the denomination. The de bellota part concerned the diet of these pigs: Because pigs eat just about anything they were given, pigs these days were given just about anything to eat, even these special black-footed Iberians. Most commonly they were confined to tiny pens and fattened up on diets of stale wheat and when their legs could no longer support their blubbering bodies they were sent off to the butcher. But any worthy connoisseur of charcuterie would lament the missed opportunity, for the flavorlessness of the unnatural feed shone through as flavorlessness in the resulting meat. Sure, as these were rare and high-quality pigs to begin with, the resulting jamón ibérico was better than most of the stuff gracing the refrigerated walls of the local Mercadona, but it was nothing to salivate over. Jamón ibérico de bellota, on the other hand, came from hogs that roamed freely in oak forests. Not only did this provide the exercise that toned their muscles and contributed to their complex flavor, but it also supplied their especial diet: They fed only on the wild herbs and fallen acorns that they scavenged from the forest floor. The acorns were the defining characteristic; it permeated the meat and gave it a unique, savory flavor. After the animals were slaughtered, their haunches were hung in centuries-old cure-houses in the mountains for two years before they were finally ready. From there, they were distributed among the bars and restaurants of the country—and very rarely, they were begrudgingly exported—where they hung like oriental tassels from the ceiling, diamonds amidst the rough of the commoner jamón varieties. When jamón ibérico de bellota was ordered, a leg was ceremoniously brought down and placed on a dedicated apparatus that held the leg as if it were levitating above the bar. Finally, an expert with a square knife shaved off crisp slices, each with the same angular shape, and arranged them on a plate in a pinwheel pattern that bespoke visually the layered richness that the beholder was about to experience.

In concert Rodrigo and Pablo picked up pieces from opposite ends of the plate, maintaining the symmetry of the arrangement. They each bit off a small part—eating jamón ibérico de bellota was not to be rushed—and chewed. Pablo even closed his eyes. The flavor was expressed from the ham—the shady forest floor, the oily acorns, the crisp mountain air—and was mobilized by the saliva, inviting their entire mouth, mind, heart and body into the tasting experience. The simple act of chewing ham reminded the men of any number of past birthday celebrations, weddings and spontaneous nights out where the ham had also been served. A form of time-traveling. It was, as many have said, magical ham.

“One day I’m going to go to Guijuelo,” said Pablo, “and kiss those farmers and every one of their beautiful pigs.”

“It’s the best of the best of the best,” said Rodrigo.

“Only fitting for a day like today.” Despite the ham’s penchant for transporting the eater into the distant past, the men couldn’t help but revel in the present: They were celebrating what had only just happened, after all.

Not an hour before, Rodrigo received news from the metropolitan government that his company’s bid to purchase the building of the former monastery was successful.

Since the debacle with the priest, the monastery’s attendance and business had swirled downward, and it quickly became clear that the monastery would no longer be able to support itself. Rodrigo became privy to news that the Pope had advised the monastery that their community would be dissolved, apparently offering no alternatives in the face of the all-too-public scandal, and he immediately contacted the abbot and every other person of consequence in the Church and in government that came to mind, on his thickest company stationery, verbalizing his desire to appropriate the building. The priest in question was swiftly excommunicated, and the other monks were transferred to faraway Benedictine communities, so the building was soon vacant. Rodrigo sent more letters.

Of course, the new government was interested in money more than the preservation of an empty building, historicity notwithstanding; if the Church property was to be privatized, it meant more tax dollars for the state, something the strapped fledgling monarchy was eager to see.

The Church, for its part, had always been financially conscious, and it seriously considered Rodrigo’s offer. Because the monastery housed no relic, it wouldn’t be a great tourist magnet. There was its history of miracles to think of—and the people did love their miracles—but the officials predicted that the public would soon forget about that. The Church had a long history of governing such places—there were presently countless sites of miracles within their domain, and there were untold numbers of them that had already been forgotten. It could easily happen again. The monastery did house some nice paintings by important artists, but those could always be moved. In the end, the Church agreed that Rodrigo’s company could inhabit the building and do any renovations they saw fit so long as the churchroom itself was maintained and they didn’t alter the facade. They’d fix a commemorative placard beside the main portal and that would be the end of it.

In truth, Rodrigo was still somewhat uneasy about having betrayed his daughter. The opportunity to bid on the monastery was a direct result of that, and his more righteous principles told him that perhaps he shouldn’t be enjoying himself so thoroughly. Still, he was a businessman, and he determined not to let this opportunity go to waste, no matter where it came from.

“I hate to say it,” said Pablo between bites, “but I never thought this day would come. I mean, it’s a church, for God’s sake. What are the chances?”

“The chances…” Rodrigo said slowly, as if turning the words with his hands. “That’s the difference between you and me: You believe in chance.”

“And you don’t?”

“Do you believe in unicorns?”

“But how can you say there’s no such thing as chance? That’s like saying there’s no such thing as sunlight.”

Rodrigo smiled and paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “Think about a dice-roll. The epitome of chance, isn’t it?”

“Of course.”

“But not at all. Imagine that you hold a die between your fingers, with the number six at the top, and then you carefully set it down on the table, with the number six still on top. I’m sure you’d agree that there’s no chance there. Now, imagine that you hold that die in the palm of your hand and tilt it slowly until the die slides off and bounces onto the table. It’ll tumble and eventually settle on some number. You can also throw the die with all your might against a far wall, and it’ll ricochet and fly around, but eventually it will, just as before, tumble and settle on a number.

“I would argue that none of these scenarios includes chance. In the first case, it’s easy to see. There’s no variability possible. In the second case, there’s some variability: the angle of your hand, the shape of your palm, the speed with which you tilt your hand, the material of the table, the weight of the die, the gravity at your particular altitude, the air pressure and humidity. In the third case, there’s even more variability: the speed and angle of your throw, the material of the wall, the material of the floor… Do you see?

“We think of these things as chance because we could never hope to command all the variables involved. Not even close. It’s called chaos theory. There is a system here, governed by the same physical laws that govern everything else around us: friction, gravity… Yes, this system is so overwhelmingly complex that with our crude senses it seems like all we can do is call it chance, but if we had finely-tuned instruments at our disposal, and if we understood this system well enough, we would see very clearly that there is no chance at all in a dice-roll. But just because we cannot measure it does not mean it cannot be measured. It’s much like the weather—it might have seemed like chance to a medieval observer, but now we are beginning to understand it, and we can, with some accuracy, predict how the weather will be in the future. Do you understand me?”

“I think so… But what does this have to do with—?”

“I’m getting there,” said Rodrigo, making a calming gesture with his hand. “You might have heard people say that they make their own fate.”

“It’s an oxymoron.”

“Again, that’s where you’re wrong. The people who make their own fate are people, just like you, but they are people who understand these systems, if only intuitively. Their understanding of the functions that underlie things like human behavior and market forces has exposed that there is no chance involved in these things, just like with rolling dice. Everything in the world is clear as day, perfectly predictable, if only you have the instruments needed.”

“So they’re fortune tellers?” said Pablo.

“Not exactly. Most fortune tellers only pretend. After all, who can say they’re wrong? But even the ones who aren’t intentional charlatans are looking in the wrong places. They look at cards and crystal balls and tea leaves, when in reality all you have to do is look at the eyes of the person across from you. In the creases on their forehead: that’s where you see what’s really going on in their mind, and that’s where you can read their future.”

Rodrigo paused for a few moments to savor another bite of ham. “And that,” he concluded, “is the difference between you and me. And it’s exactly why I make more money than you.”

“Well, I make enough money.”

Rodrigo smiled.

The men sat in silence for a while, sipping their beers and chewing on ham. There was no chance in how things had transpired, Rodrigo knew—he’d simply seized the opportunities as they presented themselves.

“Maybe I should go to Vegas,” said Pablo. “And learn how to read dice.”

“Not now—there’s too much to be done. In a few months we’ll go to Vegas, you and I. We’ll spend a week—we’ll be bachelors again. But right now, though we can afford to celebrate today, we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“When are the renovations starting?”

“Tomorrow morning. It’s all arranged with the contractors. Everything should be done within a month. We can start using some of the space in two weeks. Which means we have some hiring to take care of. HR is already on the hunt.”

“And then?”

“We set our sights on America. We’ll finally have the infrastructure to support it. New York City. Can you imagine?”

“It’s what you’ve always dreamed of.”

“Like I said, I make my own fate.” The men looked out at the former monastery again, looming across the street, and thought of New York. An ocean away—suddenly within reach.

“It’s a miracle.”

Leaving the heavy topics, the two men told stories. After a while, when Rodrigo sensed they would only continue grasping further and further at the long-gone past, he decided it was time to wrap up their celebration.

He went home to find Sofía awake, as usual, waiting for him. Her eyes lit up when he walked in the door, and she smiled at him expectantly.

“How was your day?” she said.

He set a giant shopping bag of clothes he’d brought from the office onto the couch before saying, “We got it.”

Sofía let out a schoolgirl gasp and then, with her eyes, urged him for details.

“We have all the documents, signed by church officials. Let me tell you, those men are as hungry for money as they are for salvation. I didn’t tell them, but I’d have paid any price they asked.”

“You didn’t pay too much, did you?”

“I never pay too much.”

There was no talk of the price their family had already paid—but perhaps they did not see that as a cost.

“Anyway,” said Rodrigo, “the tax documents will take a few weeks to go through, but it’s all settled. We’re going to start renovations right away.” He smiled with visible effort, and his face began to relax. As he spoke, she sat perfectly rapt, her head slightly forward, her eyes wide.

“I’m so excited for you, mi amor.”

“Me too.”

“It’s everything you ever wanted. And you’ve deserved it for a long time… Finally, everything has aligned.”

“Couldn’t be better.”

“Should we have a glass of wine to celebrate?”

“Not for me—I’ve already had a few beers with Álvarez…”

The two sat in silence for a few moments. Sofía ventured to speak next. “So this means you’ll be home more, right?” She stroked his arm.

He gave her something of a smile, a look of pity—not pity for her situation, but rather for her naivety. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, no. Nothing like that. We’re just getting started. If anything, I’ll be working late a lot more.”

“But—”

“What happened today was a great success, no doubt, but it’s merely the scaffolding. We need to seize the momentum that we’ve just created—ride on that. Do you see? If we ease up on our diligence, if we stop pushing, then we’ll fizzle out and progress will come to a halt. If that happens, the structure we’ve just started will remain a specter of what it could have been, abandoned halfway through. A visible reminder to everyone that we tried and failed—to me, it’d be worse than never having tried.”

Sofía looked concerned, so Rodrigo kept talking in order to assuage whatever she interpreted from the words he just said. “Soon, though, Sofía. Soon. Before you know it we’ll launch our new American brand and we’ll open our first store in New York City. You know it’s what I’ve always dreamed of.”

“And then you’ll be able to work less?”

“Maybe, I think, but not right away. Depending on how New York goes—and I think it’ll go well—we’ll want stores in Los Angeles and Chicago soon enough, and then we’ll focus on bringing our other brands overseas. Of course we’ll have to stagger the openings to build up publicity. Hopefully by that point we have a strong partnership with Ortega—that will help—and then we’ll look at rounding out our offerings, addressing any market needs.”

Sofía looked disappointed. Rodrigo kept talking. “You know, I’m finding there can never be too many brands—no matter how little money people have, they always have enough cash for a new shirt or blouse. It’s like some kind of therapy. And nowadays people are starting to have money—and I think it’ll only get better. We need to take advantage of that from a business perspective, but it’ll take hard work and long hours… Soon, though, mi amor. We’ll have the life we always dreamed of.”

It occurred to Sofía that she was unhappy. This was not annoyance or frustration with their present conversation; Sofía realized for the first time that she was, and always had been, fundamentally dissatisfied.

She’d initially been attracted by Rodrigo’s passion. She didn’t know anyone else in Spain with his fire. He dedicated his whole self to any task he undertook. He made quick decisions, and he never wavered. She had dreamt of the day when he would dedicate his whole self to her. When he was ultimately successful—he’d let up on the long hours and they’d spend their days together, in peace, not worrying about a thing. She’d finally be happy.

But Sofía was beginning to realize that success according to his definition would never come. She should have seen it earlier, but she had been distracted for a long time. When María Teresa was little, all Sofía’s energy went into caring for the infant, the baby, the toddler, the child. She didn’t notice her husband’s elusiveness, his carrot-on-a-stick concept of success. Monetarily, they became richer and richer, but all Sofía could think about was potty training and setting up playdates. But now María Teresa was nearly a woman and didn’t need looking-after. Sofía needed to turn her attention somewhere else. Looking to her marriage, she saw that it had always been empty and that the glorious tomorrow would never come; she’d fallen for Rodrigo’s promises. Perhaps they were earnest in the moment, but the truth proved malleable. He’d reached his goals many times, but by the time he did so he’d already had further goals. He didn’t show much interest in being around—in being a good husband or father. He was happy to provide monetarily, but not physically. Perhaps he thought his role was merely that of a breadwinner, or perhaps it never crossed his mind.

For the past few years, Sofía had been looking forward to the opening of Rodrigo’s first New York store just as much as he was. She had let out the rumor about María Teresa and the priest because she knew it would help Rodrigo get closer to New York. She knew it would help her family, even if it was, by most descriptions, an act of treachery. Even if it caused pain to her daughter, even if it cost her her granddaughter. But a few moments of pain—a few dark secrets—were worth an eternity of glory, weren’t they? New York was that glory. Rodrigo working less, being home more, was that glory. New York symbolized the beginning of their happy life together, the time when she could finally spend quality time with her family, when she’d no longer be bored.

Boredom. She’d opened up her flower shop to fight that boredom, but now she saw that it hadn’t succeeded in keeping her deluded. She was not Rodrigo, after all. She didn’t love business. And now it was clear that New York was not the destination; it was just another stop on the endless bus ride, a bus that went in circles—very small circles—and always stopped at the same places.

“You’re frowning,” said Rodrigo.

“Oh,” said Sofía. “I’m very happy for you.”

 

While Xabier was cooking rice, Esperanza was lying on a blanket on the floor, admiring the world around her. Because cooking rice didn’t demand much attention, Xabier spent most of the time admiring her. “Want to hear a story?” he said. He waited for an answer, which came in the form of a gurgling coo that would have come whether there’d been a question or not, and he began, “There once was a monk who lived alone in a modest house at the peak of a modest mountain. There was only him and God up there. Nobody ever visited him—and this didn’t bother him, as it gave him more time to contemplate.

“But one day a man appeared knocking at the door. The monk let him in graciously, offered him the only chair in the house and prepared him a dinner that would fill him up.” Xabier silently considered the rice he was cooking. “The man gave thanks,” said Xabier, “and asked if there might be a place in the house where he could sleep for the night. The monk let the man use his own bed, assuring the man that he himself would be comfortable on the floor.” Xabier looked at Esperanza.

“When the monk woke up, just before sunrise, as always,” Xabier continued, “he discovered that not only was his guest gone, but the bed itself had disappeared with him. The monk didn’t have much time to contemplate what had happened, though, because all of a sudden there was another knock at the door. The knock was accompanied by another man who the monk invited to enter, have a seat and later eat dinner, and the monk begged the man’s forgiveness for not having a bed to offer, but he promised that the floor was plenty comfortable. The man was still sitting on the chair when the monk went to sleep that night, saying he wasn’t tired just yet.

“In the morning, no more was there a chair in the house. Instead, there was another knock at the door. The monk let in the third man, and by the next morning, his cooking pot had disappeared.

“The monk looked around his empty house, and there was yet another knock at the door. The monk, on the verge of losing his patience, told the visitor that he didn’t have a chair or a bed or a pot or anything else that could be stolen. If I let you in, said the monk, then afterwards I’ll be nothing more than a beast on this mountaintop. The man replied that at least the monk still had his house, for which he should be grateful. Won’t you show compassion for a poor traveler? asked the man. But the monk, fresh out of compassion, shut the door in his face.

“The monk slept restlessly that night, and what a surprise when he awoke: The very house that had surrounded him the night before had disappeared without any sign that it had ever been there in the first place. The monk didn’t have a mirror, but if he did, he would have seen that he was indeed nothing more than a badger on top of that mountain.”

Esperanza was wiggling. “Ah,” said Xabier. “The rice is done.”

 

Álvaro sat quietly breathing on the floor. He couldn’t manage the full lotus—he’d already created a sharp soreness in his right knee from trying—so he sat with his legs crossed in the usual way. He wasn’t used to sitting on the floor, and it was uncomfortable, but he understood that his body would adapt soon enough. Keen to perfect the aspects of the posture that he could, he made sure that his spine was erect and his head back and bowed slightly. He held one hand in the other, palms up, his thumbs gently together. His gaze was fixed on the floor not far in front of him, but he wasn’t looking at anything in particular.

Nor was he thinking of anything in particular. He tried to empty his mind of thoughts of other people, other places, other times. But thoughts kept coming to him. Visions of María Teresa, full-bodied and glowing. What is she doing right now, he thought. Does she still like me? Did she ever? He heard a door open, followed by some muffled chatter. He wondered who it was, but knew that he couldn’t get up to find out just yet. His thoughts wandered like a lost child back to María Teresa, and from there to Guillermo. What’s so special about him? What does he have that I don’t? He pictured Guillermo, rendering every excruciating, made-up detail: Guillermo’s animated face, talking to María Teresa; his body, fuller and more muscular than Álvaro’s; the way his arm wrapped around her; the way he touched her. Does she like Guillermo more than me? He wished his own muscles could bulge, and that he could be taller, and that he could afford the kind of clothes that Guillermo and María Teresa wore. But I do have something already that Guillermo doesn’t have, and it ties me to María Teresa more than any expensive shirt: the baby. He thought of his newborn baby, yet unseen but already lost in the world. I’m a father. And already I’ve failed to be a better one than my own. And he thought of his mother, who he loved and was grateful for but all the same sometimes made him want to run away from home and never look back.

He followed the protocol outlined in the book he’d bought and let these thoughts cross his mind without dwelling on them. It was ridiculous to think that he could solve all his life’s problems at that very moment, and so all he could do now was recognize that his worries existed and assure himself that he’d come back to them later. He counted his breaths—one in, two out, three in, four out—starting over every time he got to ten, although more than once he found himself at fourteen or fifteen.

His alarm went off, signaling the end of the session. Ten minutes of this felt like an eternity, but Álvaro was convinced that it’d be helpful. With practice, he had read, he’d be able much more quickly to still his mind. He’d experience peace and clarity—perhaps even enlightenment. He had heard that seated meditation could bring him these things, and the prospect was immensely attractive. He’d become so wrapped up in other people’s lives—mostly worrying about María Teresa and his mother—that he felt he was losing acquaintance with his own. And what would happen if he fell out of touch with himself entirely? For now, though, he’d made what he hoped was a good start.

He stood up, allowing his body a few moments to readjust to being fully stretched out, and he tried to discern the conversation coming from down the hall. He couldn’t hear what was being said, but he identified the speakers: his mother and his cousin, who must have been the recent arrival. Since he knew who it was, he decided to join them in the living room—if he hadn’t recognized the voice, he probably would have stayed put. He was glad it was his cousin; he liked her and enjoyed seeing her. She didn’t live far away, but their busy lives didn’t intersect as often as he would have liked.

“…A priest with a baby. It’s a paradox,” said Álvaro’s mother.

“You’d think so, but looking at the two of them, it’s like they belong together. It’s the weirdest thing.”

“Álvaro!” said his mother. “There you are. Gabriela’s here.”

“Hi, Gabi.” He greeted his cousin with kisses on the cheeks.

“What’s going on?” she said. “I just thought I’d stop by to see how your mom was doing.”

“As healthy as ever,” said Álvaro’s mother with a smile. She’d just returned home from the hospital after having an abdominal operation. She’d been experiencing what she thought was a stomach ulcer but what actually turned out to be an adhesion connecting the outer wall of her stomach to that of her duodenum. The pain was caused by stress on the adhesion when her organs shifted during her everyday movement. The doctors guessed that the condition had arisen after some sort of infection or internal rupture, but they could not be sure: Generally these adhesions were caused by malpractice during a previous abdominal surgery, but when there was no such obvious cause, they couldn’t so much as guess. Spontaneous adhesions were known happen, but they were extremely rare. As the doctor had explained to Álvaro’s mother, it was just a matter of winning the wrong lottery.

She’d always had such unfortunate luck—it was a line she said every time something bad happened, which, as far as Álvaro could tell, wasn’t any more frequent for her than for any other person. Still, her repetition of the prognosis seemed to make it true: Soon enough other people caught on, if unconsciously, referring to her as my friend who just has the worst luck and other such epithets. For his part, Álvaro sometimes wondered if his very existence was part of that sour fortune.

“What were you saying about a priest with a baby?” said Álvaro.

“It’s my new neighbor,” said Gabriela. “He just moved in. The priest from the Miraria—well, an ex-priest, I guess—and the little newborn. The age difference alone is a paradox. Anyway, she’s really cute.”

Álvaro had been to her apartment once or twice before. There was only one other piso on her floor, and he remembered the man who used to live there, an eccentric artist who was often visited by the police in response to his habit of throwing things off his balcony into the street. Mostly they were rejected paintings and dirty old brushes, which he evidently threw out in frustration, but every now and then it would be a perfectly good item of clothing or another inexplicable object. Once, Álvaro remembered, the man tossed out a palm-sized golden Buddha statue, which landed squarely on the windshield of a passing car, shattering it. The driver had been going along that day, probably on the way home from a dismal job or off to run some errand, when suddenly a fat Buddha crashed onto his lap. It would have been enough to make someone convert. If Álvaro remembered correctly, the driver got to keep the Buddha. The other defining characteristic of the artist was his wealth. They said he was extremely rich, and that he had bundles of money and old coins made of real silver just sitting around his apartment.

Álvaro had always been intrigued by the man, and under any other circumstances he would have asked what had happened to the old artist. At the moment, though, he was only interested in Gabriela’s new neighbor: He knew he’d just discovered the whereabouts of his and María Teresa’s child.

“You’ve heard about the whole thing, haven’t you?” said Álvaro’s mother. “The priest who raped that girl.”

“Yeah,” said Álvaro. His mother kept up with the news, but what she could never learn from the media was that her son was critically entwined in the situation. She vaguely knew that he had a girlfriend, or at least that he said he did—she assumed that no girlfriend existed and he was just making an excuse to spend more time with his friends. She’d always thought he’d turn out gay, anyway. Other parents might have suspected that a child who made up such stories was up to no good, but Álvaro got good grades and was helpful around the house, so she didn’t pry. And she never bothered saying she wanted to meet his girlfriend, given that, even if she did exist, at his age couples traded partners every few weeks.

Álvaro’s mother went on: “Good enough of him to man up and take care of his baby, but I’m not sure it makes up for what he did. Apparently the court couldn’t find any evidence that it was actually rape, but if you ask me they should have strung him up all the same. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad we have real courts now, but they’re still a little too naive to be really useful.”

“Courts can be just as bad as dictators,” said Gabriela.

“Well I suppose the government’s the government any way you slice it. But still—we need more justice in this world. Punish the wrongdoers instead of just letting bad things happen to good people all the time.”

“Do you really think it’s him?” said Álvaro.

“Of course,” said his mother. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day, and the details all match up. If you ask me—”

“But he’s a good person,” said Gabriela.

“And how can you tell? You’ve only just met him.”

“It’s intuition. And besides, I don’t believe that story about the rape. Not one bit.”

“And why not?”

“If you met him, you’d see. He’s the sweetest guy. I can tell he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“That’s not what the reports are saying, you know,” said Álvaro’s mother.

“You can’t believe half the stuff you hear in the news. You should know how the media is: It’s built to make money more than genuinely inform. They make things up just to keep their audience. It’s happened again and again throughout history.”

Butting their argument, Álvaro interjected, “What do you think will happen?”

“Nothing,” said Gabriela. “It’s over, as far as all that is concerned. I heard the monastery building itself has just been purchased for office space. All the other monks have been relocated. As far as this priest, everything’s been settled. I think the girl has relinquished any claims of parenthood, so he’ll just go on living as a single father, hopefully in peace. He really deserves it, if you ask me, given everything that’s happened.”

“And how can you know any of that if you don’t trust the news?” said Álvaro’s mother.

Gabriela smiled. “You’ve got to get your information from somewhere—just be smart about it.”

“Then maybe we can’t know anything at all for sure.”

“That’s a fair assessment.”

Álvaro didn’t just have a hunch that the priest was innocent—he knew it. Still, he didn’t dare vocalize that. How could he? He imagined himself explaining everything to his mother and Gabriela—he couldn’t even figure out where he’d begin. Moreover, not only would he have to admit that he’d had irresponsible relations with his girlfriend, which would have its own share of repercussions, but he was embarrassed at how badly he’d already failed at fatherhood: Surely being too ashamed to say a word throughout the entire pregnancy and then allowing the newborn to be adopted was about as bad as it got as far as parenting was concerned.

But even this thorough and heartfelt explanation would bring up too many questions. The biggest among them: Why a priest? If the baby was unwanted, it could have been given to a couple that was infertile or otherwise interested in adopting. But instead the child was given to someone who surely had no interest whatsoever in childrearing. Álvaro suspected some priests chose their profession expressly because they didn’t want to raise families. Or, at the very least, the idea of having children would have been repudiated before they entered seminary, and by the time a priest was Father Xabier’s age, it would have been a well-established impossibility. Giving up children to the Church seemed like a vestige of a bygone era—it just wasn’t done anymore. Álvaro wondered whether it ever actually was a practice, or if it was merely a figment of the collective fiction of history. In any case, having allowed his baby to be given away to anyone, priest or not, was inexcusable.

It was not a conversation he’d have with anyone except María Teresa. Maybe not even with her: The last time they talked, she made it clear that she had no interest in the child. How could that be? He’d never even seen the child and the pull of fatherhood was irresistible—and she’d actually borne the child and looked into its eyes. Did she honestly not feel anything for it? Or had she been brainwashed somehow? Álvaro couldn’t think of any other explanation. Still, the child deserved love from at least one of its parents, and if it wouldn’t get it from its mother, then it would from its father.

Álvaro thought of his own father, who had passed away five years before. It was painful having someone so close be wrenched away. He’d lived now for years without his father, and not a day went by that Álvaro didn’t think of him: missing him, wondering where he was, thinking about what he’d be doing if he were still here. After five years one might think he should have adjusted, come to grips with the situation. In many ways he had, but there was still a certain void left by his deceased father, and he couldn’t help but stumble across it from time to time. And now Álvaro was inflicting the same pain on his own child. Not only that, but it was worse: Álvaro wasn’t dead; he’d abandoned his child of his own volition.

The more he thought about it, the more Álvaro was ashamed of himself for not acting sooner. Surely he could have done something to divert the flow of events if he’d come out as soon as she told him she was pregnant. But he hadn’t been brave enough. That was the simple fact.

While his mother and Gabriela went on blabbering, Álvaro wondered what his daughter was like. In his mind he saw that other man carrying her, feeding her, changing her diapers—doing the things Álvaro should have been doing. The very thought was emasculating. He desperately wanted control.

With his cousin’s news, he’d made an important discovery: It wasn’t too late. He could still redeem himself. His child wasn’t lost in the wilderness—he knew exactly where she was. Certainly that was the most important step toward getting her back. Of course, he’d still have to figure out any number of details to create a feasible plan, but now that ground was broken he’d be able to make progress with increasing momentum. He hoped, at least.

[] Chapter Eleven: Wonder

 

Xabier had heard that babies couldn’t see until they were several weeks old, but even so he felt compelled to show Esperanza the world. If she couldn’t see it, she could at least feel it, he reasoned. Moreover, there was hardly anything to do in their tiny apartment. There was no telling when her perception would sharpen for good and her long-term memories would finally begin to crystalize, so he thought it best to immerse her in knowledge from her earliest days. Of course, he couldn’t just leave her at home, so even if he didn’t feel so strongly about exposing the outside to her, he would have had to do so anyway.

Autumn was underway, which meant frequent rains and dropping temperatures. Still, there were more pleasant days than unpleasant ones, and the intermittent unpleasantness made the nice days all the more enjoyable.

He took her to parks for afternoon walks: sometimes the manicured and somewhat French-looking Retiro, other times the enormous and untamed Casa de Campo to the west, and sometimes for a stroll along Pintor Rosales, culminating in a visit to the Egyptian temple that had been painstakingly reconstructed in Parque del Oeste, having been originally built in Aswan. They visited the city’s countless historic plazas: sitting at cafés, watching people, marveling at sculpted fountains, counting the cars that whizzed around the glorietas. He took her shopping and on other errands, pointing things out to her whenever it occurred to him that it might be useful for her to learn a word like bus or doggy. Everywhere they went, Esperanza ogled her surroundings, sometimes with a gaping mouth and other times with a smile. These outings were enjoyable for Xabier as well. Though he’d lived in Madrid for decades, he’d gone straight into the monastery upon arrival and had only just come out. He, too, had so much to learn.

Also among their excursions were visits to the city’s countless churches. They visited the construction site of the Almudena cathedral, mentions of which Xabier had come across in his studies—it was a treat to finally be able to visit the site in person. He recalled the history: In Medieval times, the de facto capital of Christian Spain was Toledo. Xabier had never been there, but he knew that it was home to one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world. Not long after Spain was unified, the capital was moved to Madrid. Because there was no cathedral in the new capital—hardly fitting for the seat of a Catholic monarchy—plans were discussed immediately for the building of a cathedral. These plans escalated ever further into the most absurd reaches of grandiosity until it was the general consensus that whatever they decided to build should be, by far, the largest cathedral in the world, towering over the Giralda in Sevilla and large enough to swallow up the cupola of Saint Peter’s. All this was meant to show the world that the Reformation—and later the Enlightenment—did not diminish the power and majesty of the Holy Catholic Church. The only problem was that even the One True God, apparently, had limited funds, and such a large building was simply out of reach. Not to mention that larger buildings required more design decisions, which necessitated agreement among a larger number of disparate parties. Plans were thus delayed until the late nineteenth century, when ground for a much more modest building was finally broken under King Alfonso XII on the site of a Medieval mosque that had been destroyed by Alfonso VI nearly eight hundred years prior, when Madrid was reclaimed after its brief period of subservience to the Caliphate. Perhaps Alfonso XII saw the groundbreaking as a symbolic smothering of Islam’s influence in Spain. Originally the cathedral was going to be a Gothic emulation, but a number of Baroque elements had since crept into the design. Work had halted and resumed a few times through recent years—now, it was healthily under construction and it seemed the building would be finished without another hiccup. There was already enough built to offer a concrete suggestion of what was to come, and Xabier was delighted by what he saw. Though the work was not slated to be complete until the nineties, the public was already welcome to enter the space. Xabier approached, teeming with excitement. Unfortunately, he found the church’s interior offensively hideous, and vowed never to return.

He also took Esperanza to visit the Church of San Isidro, which had functioned as the provisional cathedral of Madrid since it was built in the seventeenth century. The interior of this church proved much more pleasing to Xabier: Everything looked exactly as it should. This was astounding, given that a large portion of the church had burned down during the outset of the Civil War, taking with it the dome and many priceless artifacts. In the decades following the war, efforts were made to painstakingly restore the church—not to modernize it, but to truly restore it, down to the faithful reproduction of the elaborate altarpiece. Xabier doubted such lengths would have been employed for any other church: San Isidro was the patron saint of Madrid, a guardian for the everyday people. If the people let his temple sink into disrepair, who would watch over them? Who would stop another war from shaking their homes? They must have felt that they didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Whereas the San Isidro was the church of the everyman, the Church of San Jerónimo was that of royalty. The difference could be surmised from merely walking by: The Church of San Isidro was crowded amongst shops and apartments, no different from any of the other buildings on its busy street, and it was visited, if only in passing, by countless thousands each day. The Church of San Jerónimo, on the other hand, was perched atop a hill behind the palace that now served as the nation’s premier art museum. There was practically nothing else around it. It was removed from the tiny street that ran by its facade, and a high, wide staircase led up to its portal. San Isidro, on the other hand, opened right onto the sidewalk without so much as a step. As accessible as San Isidro was, San Jerónimo was foreboding. Still, San Jerónimo was an interesting and important place of worship, if only for its lofty history, and Xabier included it in his itinerary. The place had a long history as the investiture site of the princes of Asturias, and it had most recently been used as the venue for the coronation of King Juan Carlos I, cementing its reputation.

Xabier had been a member of the clergy for decades now, and touring these churches as a layperson gave him an odd sensation, as if he were a scab that had been peeled off because the skin beneath it had already healed. By that time the scab had only served as a blemish, and now that scab—he himself—was attempting to reaffix itself to the arm. Was he unwelcome? In the house of God?

Part of him felt as if he were wearing a disguise, attempting to fool all those around him, but his more rational self knew that was not the case. God was now calling him to be a layman, and a layman he would be. Now he was just one of the anonymous millions in the city. There were any number of old men who looked just like him. Without his black robes, there was nothing that distinguished him, and that was well enough. In this city, even the most infamous of outlaws could disguise himself by not wearing his priestly collar.

All this time, Xabier found Esperanza surprisingly well-mannered and easy to take care of. She wasn’t troublesome in the least. And yet, caring for her was immensely rewarding: Her every coo filled his heart with a tremendous warmth that caused his eyes to moisten. This was paradoxical, Xabier thought, because previously he’d assumed that only difficult things could be rewarding. Then again, God worked in mysterious ways. In any case, the delightedness of the child soothed any uneasiness Xabier might have felt about his new role as a layperson and a father.

It occurred to Xabier that he must have been drawn to visit all these churches as a reminder to make arrangements for Esperanza to be baptized. He knew it was best for children to enter God’s grace as soon as possible after they were born. Of course, he mused, he could probably just baptize the girl himself, but he thought it wiser—given the circumstances—to have the sacrament validated by a third party.

“You’re going to have a beautiful life,” said Xabier to Esperanza as he walked, pushing her in the stroller. “I can see it now: You’ll be like an Austrian princess in a mountainside palace, with servants who do everything for you, from feeding you to brushing your hair.”

The baby gazed with an open smile, amused by the world around her—or maybe by the thought of needing anyone to brush her hair, which was rather sparse.

Ever since he took her in, Xabier resolved to give his child the happy, carefree childhood that he himself never had. As Esperanza became more closely woven to his heart, he wanted to ensure her happiness all the more.

From a young age, Xabier had been expected to help with taxing manual labor around the house. “Not you,” said Xabier to his daughter, not verbalizing all his thoughts. “No, my little girl—you will not have to lift a finger.” His parents were demanding—more than those of other children, Xabier had often thought. Whenever he complained, they said that hard work was what it meant to be Basque. “Not you, my dear, not you,” said Xabier. “I can see you already, young lady, lounging like a Saracen princess, on embroidered pillows, by a reflection pool that they keep nice and cold—a respite from the summer heat.”

The thought reminded him of the hot summers in the monastery: The monks sweated so much in their heavy robes that the smell of dirty laundry wafted throughout the entire building. They had two sets of robes each and laundry was supposed to be done daily, but it was a thankless job, and because it was so unpleasant to deal with those sopping summertime robes, it was not uncommon for monks to forget that they had laundry duty. As a result, there sometimes wasn’t enough clothing to go around, and there may or may not have been times where monks were seen walking the halls completely naked. Xabier had heard rumors from the parishioners that bald monks had even been seen running stark through the streets on cool summer nights; he didn’t know whether these were true or not, but he suspected the stories weren’t entirely invented.

But that was another time. Whether we like it or not, Xabier thought, time passes and things change. He was reminded of his uncle.

After his parents were killed in the bombing, Xabier was sent to live with his horrible uncle. Even now, decades removed, Xabier still didn’t like thinking about it. “What matters is that I’m here for you,” he said. “And I’m not going anywhere. You’ll leave me eventually, I’m sure—as all children do—but I will always be here for you.”

Soon enough Esperanza was a month old, and Xabier could see that she was getting bigger every day. No matter how old she got, that ceaseless wonder with which she regarded her surroundings remained, and Xabier hoped it would never go away. Wonder was an important thing.

By now Xabier’s apartment was much more visibly inhabited. To someone who had known him as a monk, the mass of his possessions would have been astounding. It was, by all accounts, unmonklike. But then again, he was no longer a monk. There was a smattering of furniture—the apartment had come with the barest necessities, to which he had added a crib (which he was able to assemble despite first dropping the kit down the stairs), a bookshelf, a nightstand and two small tables. There were a number of books, a set of dishes, an assortment of tools, stacks of papers and a closet full of clothes, allowing for plenty of outfits for both Xabier and Esperanza. There were even things in his possession outside his apartment: Esperanza’s stroller, for example, was kept in a storage room on the ground floor—there was no elevator in the building. Sometimes Xabier wondered, only fleetingly and not so seriously, whether it would be safe there. Perhaps it was liable to get stolen. Even things that were out of sight weighed on his mind.

These things had introduced themselves into Xabier’s life one by one, some out of necessity and some out of caprice, and now they were part of him. It was a new sensation, having things: As a monk, he was not allowed any possessions of his own; everything belonged to the community. As a child, his family had been too poor and utilitarian to afford anything extra. Only as a young man in Bilbao might he have had any discretionary possessions, and perhaps he did have one or two things that were secret from his uncle, but his memories of that time were marred by discontent.

When he thought about it, it really was remarkable how much he’d changed over the years. The different phases of his life—his different lives—brought with them different modes of living, and he transitioned cleanly from one to the other, time after time. He had spent most of his life as a monk and perhaps that lifestyle was most deeply engrained in him, but now there was very little monasticism left in his life. There was, though, his sense of routine.

Every day in the monastery was more or less the same. The monks followed a strict schedule of prayer, labor and study, to which Xabier added his duties as the parish priest. In this sense, Xabier experienced more daily variation than his brothers—the mere presence of parishioners gave rise to unexpectedness. And now, though he was outside the monastic life, Xabier couldn’t help but organize his life in the same sort of schedule. Xabier always began his days with quiet prayer and reading before Esperanza awoke. When it was time, he tended to the child, and then he prepared breakfast, after which they went out on any errands they needed to run. Now it would be time for Esperanza to take a nap, and Xabier took advantage of the opportunity to do some more reading. Nearly every day he read the newspapers, which fascinated him: He sensed that he was experiencing history as it was happening. Not only that, but he sensed that his duties as a civilian included being at least somewhat informed about current events. When Esperanza woke up, he prepared lunch. In the afternoon, if the weather permitted, he took Esperanza on an excursion to a park or church or just for a walk down the street. Soon it would be time for supper, relaxation, more prayer and bed.

One day, while Xabier and Esperanza were out, something happened. Xabier surmised this when they returned from their outing, the instant his vision crested over the stairs: The door to their apartment was slightly ajar. Instinctively, Xabier clutched Esperanza tight. He crept up to the doorway and peeked his head inside. He stood silently for a few moments until he was satisfied that there was nobody inside. Or, at least, if there was somebody inside, he was sure it wasn’t a boisterous troll or a violent drunk. Still, there could have been a silent assassin, lurking just around the corner, waiting for him to pass by. The thought sent chills through his body, and he clutched Esperanza a little tighter. No, he told himself, that was silly: Why would a silent assassin be after him?

He remembered then that he was somewhat hated by the public. Though now he spent his days going about in anonymity, and the public had largely forgotten about the scandal, having moved on to the next scurrilous news story, there certainly had to be those who did not forget so easily. Perhaps they were after him.

Of course, he couldn’t stand in his hallway in fear forever. Sooner or later, he’d have to face whatever was waiting for him. The future was too uncertain, the past too miserable; all he could do was focus on what was happening at present. He opened the door slowly and stepped inside. He tried to advance slowly, but his efforts were hampered by the parquet floor, which let out low creaks in unpredictable places. Esperanza, for her part, was dead silent, as if she understood the gravity of the situation.

The interior was in disarray. Things had been moved and not put back, as if someone had been searching for something. Chairs were upturned. The couch was out of place and the mattresses were uneven, papers were strewn about recklessly and all the cabinets were open. The closet was a disaster: Xabier kept it generally organized, but now all the garments had been wrested from their hangers into a heap on the floor that was exploding from the closet.

It didn’t take long to survey the entire apartment, and it was clear that whoever had entered their apartment was no longer there. “What a relief,” Xabier said.

But that relief was quickly overshadowed: Clear of any mortal danger, Xabier’s mind occupied itself with accounting all his material losses. The time it would take to clean up, the things that had gotten broken in the shuffle and would have to be replaced, the clothes that had gotten wrinkled or smudged with dirt. Was anything missing? How could he ever know? All this formed into a heavy anchor that rooted itself in the sands of Xabier’s consciousness. Xabier waved away these thoughts as soon as he could, but he was surprised that he’d had them in the first place. He’d never felt anything like it. How absurd, he thought, that these things, which were only objects, should have any bearing on how I feel.

When he returned to his senses, Xabier gave thanks to God that he and Esperanza were safe, and that in the end nothing too serious had happened. It could have been much worse, he thought, remembering his mental images of the silent assassin lurking around every corner. But what had happened?

He straightened the bed, moving its frame back to where it belonged, evening the mattress and replacing the blankets, and then he laid Esperanza down for a nap. She fell asleep almost immediately, as if the tension of the incident had completely drained her.

Xabier got up and walked into the living room, surveying the damage. “I guess I should start cleaning up,” he said.

Xabier first crouched in his living room, tidying his books. He made a system of picking up each volume and briefly examining it, dusting off any scuffs and straightening out any pages that had gotten bent in the shuffle. He silently mourned for each book that had suffered permanent damage.

“Xabier?”

He jumped at the sound of his name, wondering for a split-second if Esperanza was calling him. Or—the burglar! No, it was Gabriela, standing right next to him in the living room. He flushed.

“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” she said. “The door was open.”

“Oh… I guess I forgot to close it.” He put down the book in his hands and gave her his full attention.

“I should have knocked.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m just cleaning up.”

“What happened?” she said, looking around.

“I’m not really sure. We just came home and everything was like this.”

“Oh…” she said gravely.

“What?”

“I wasn’t here today, but it’s happened before. I think it’s the same thing.” She explained that the previous tenant had been an eccentric artist who also happened to be quite rich. “There must have been at least four or five break-ins. Two that I remember, anyway—who knows how often it happened. People were always trying to rob him. I guess they thought he was an easy target.”

“This happened a lot?”

“The weird thing was, he didn’t seem to mind.”

“How can someone not mind about such a thing?”

“If they came when he was gone, he’d just clean up and go on as if nothing had happened. He only talked about it when I brought it up. And if they came when he was there… I remember one time he made the burglars sit for a portrait in exchange for whatever treasures they wanted to take with them, and that was it.”

“Imagine that.”

“He was quite a strange fellow.”

“But there was never any violence or anything?”

“None whatsoever. Again, I think after a while the thieves kept coming because they knew it was an easy haul. You know, it even happened once or twice since the artist left—before you moved in. I’d come home and see the door wide open. There wasn’t much inside, of course, and nothing to steal, so I’d just shut the door and call the landlady.”

“And she’s not worried about it either?”

“Well, we’ve changed the exterior locks once or twice, but I’m not sure she’s willing to do anything else. This is a pretty low-budget building…”

“Hmm.” His hands searched idly for another book from the floor, though he didn’t divert his eyes.

“Sorry. Hey, don’t get me wrong—the neighborhood’s great and all the rest of the tenants are really nice people. Usually there’s no trouble. It’s just that the guy who used to live in your place was a magnet for criminals. I think he brought it upon himself. Like I said, he didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he even enjoyed it. But now we have to deal with the leftovers.”

Xabier recalled how easy-going the landlady had been, how she seemed so cheerful and understanding and eager to help him, how she forewent the security deposit, enticing him to move in. Was it all because she knew she’d have a hard time renting the place otherwise? “This seems like the kind of thing you should tell someone before they move in.”

“She probably should have done so. I guess she thought it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, you know. I am surprised the break-ins are still happening. You’d think word would have gotten out by now that the artist doesn’t live here anymore. I thought criminals had some sort of communication network.”

“Doesn’t seem like that helps me much.”

“I know. Listen, I’ll call the landlady and talk to her about it. I guess all we can do for now is keep our guard up, be careful. Do you want some help cleaning up?”

“I’ll be okay. She’s napping, and this will keep me busy, anyway.”

“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll be home for a little while still, but then I have to leave for work.”

Gabriela let herself out, taking care to shut the door behind her.

Xabier continued cleaning. As he did so, the things he saw and touched pulled his mind in countless directions. He estimated the value of the damage of each broken plate, and he wondered again if anything was missing. He didn’t think so, but how could he be sure? He had so many things now. Mostly, though, he thought of Esperanza.

Though he’d begun accruing a fair store of material possessions, he knew that the only thing he truly wanted was a safe place to raise his daughter. That’s what all this was for, he thought. If it weren’t for her, there would be no books, no end tables, no nice clothes. And so, if Esperanza couldn’t be safe here, then there was a fundamental problem. Gabriela had said that the break-ins were nonviolent, that they only happened because the old artist was an easy target, but Xabier couldn’t count on that always being the case. Evidently not all the criminals knew that the artist had moved out, so why should all the criminals know that this was a nonviolent operation? He imagined all the possible ways that harm could come to Esperanza—what if they took her ransom? He had some money, but not enough to pay an exorbitant sum. Still, he’d do anything to get her back. But what could he do? And a ransom might be generous—what if they just took her and didn’t say anything? He supposed such things happened all the time; he’d seen the newspapers. Xabier would gladly give his life to protect Esperanza, but what if that wasn’t enough?

The situation looked bleak, but there wasn’t much he could do besides hope that the criminals, whoever they were, never came back. The abbot had given him plenty of money, but if he wanted to move to a safer place, he’d have to come up with enough for a security deposit and pay a higher rent, and he couldn’t do that just yet. The money wouldn’t last forever, and he had to stretch it out as long as he could. When Esperanza was a bit older, he could find a babysitter and get a job for himself—maybe then they could move. But for now, he had to stay put. All he could do was be more cautious: keep the door deadbolted, look behind him every now and then…

It didn’t take more than an hour to restore his apartment to its former level of cleanliness. In the end, it didn’t seem that anything was missing, and there were only a few things broken: three plates, the leg of one of the end tables and a lamp. A few of the books had been scuffed, and there was also a dark mark along the side of the couch. Granted, the couch had been there when he moved in, and perhaps the scuff had always been there—he couldn’t be sure.

Esperanza was still napping, peacefully unaware, and Xabier took a seat on the couch. He decided that he’d leave Gabriela a spare key to his apartment. If anything happened, she’d be able to get in. It seemed a reasonable precaution to take—it was something he’d never had to consider when he lived in the monastery. Now he had so much more responsibility.

He was a father. It occurred to him how much the role had changed him—and so quickly. It was one he never thought he’d have; indeed, when one joins the priesthood, the prospect of fathering a child is entirely counted out. Yet here he was. He felt like a different person, slouching here on this couch somewhere in the city, his daughter napping in the other room. It was such a far cry from his life in the monastery, ascetic and communal, where he prayed and worked and that was it. Sitting here, Xabier said a quick prayer.

Xabier’s thoughts returned to the monastery. He’d seen in the newspaper a few days before that the building was up for sale—he couldn’t believe it. And now this morning he’d read that it had been purchased by a clothing company, to be used for office space. He imagined his old quarters, now serving as the private office of some soulless mogul or maybe as a storage room. The cafeteria would become an array of cubicles. The corridors now mere hallways. And the most important component, the community of monks themselves, dedicated to a life of asceticism, prayer and single-minded wonder, would be replaced by a den of office workers whose minds raced with all sorts of notions—but always returning, like faithful dogs, to matters concerning pesetas and clothing, two things that rarely concerned the monks.

It was the defilement of a sacred space. Xabier recalled the Gospel episode of Jesus casting the marketeers from the temple. “It is written,” Xabier said from memory. “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” Yet here, it was the exact opposite: The traders had cast the clergy from the temple, taking it for their own, reducing it to profanity. The monastery should always be a house of prayer, Xabier thought, even if the community of monks was no more. But was there anything anyone on earth could do? It was the cyclical progression of history. Perhaps it would take Jesus’ second coming to set it right.

Xabier mused, though, that the businesspeople were, in a way, following Jesus’ message. It was the separation of Church and State: He made it clear that the temple was for worship, while trading should happen in the plaza, and the two should not intermingle. Then again, Xabier supposed that someone should be allowed to pray in the plaza if he wished. The opposite, though—selling things in a church—could never be allowed.

There was a certain element of nostalgia in Xabier’s anger. The monastery was his home—his true home. It traced its roots to the earliest Medieval times, when Saint Benedict set the example for its order, and Xabier wanted its lineage to continue forevermore. And yet he had known that the monastery’s days were numbered the moment that he heard that the child was his. Such a simple thing, a child, and it hadn’t even been born yet. Even so, the unborn child was enough to derail an institution that had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, surviving against the most sinister of persecutions. Looking at Esperanza, napping so peacefully, Xabier had no question that the trade was worth it.

But why couldn’t this clothing company just tear down the building and construct a new one? Occupying the holy walls with their petty greed—it was a mockery. Even Jesus would have had them destroy the building—if, indeed, there was no remedy. “Jesus made a whip of cords,” Xabier murmured, “and with it he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep and the oxen they traded, and he poured out the traders’ money and overthrew the tables. And he said to them, Take these things away; make not my Father’s house one of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up. Then the Jews responded, asking, What sign do you show us, you who do these things? Jesus answered them and said, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus, of course, was referring to his own body, which was risen from the tomb three days after his Crucifixion. Did that mean the desecrated temple—the physical building—was never to be rebuilt? It must have been a sort of purification: A temple that had been desecrated was no longer fit for the majesty of God.

But Xabier didn’t really believe the building should be destroyed. He had grown attached to it: He knew its bricks, its dark corners, its arched ceilings. The annual progression of the cloister flora—those miraculous, eternal flowers: the greenery of spring and the buds of early summer, the vividness increasing slowly until it reached its peak and then fading fading fading as the plants withered away in the cold and rainy winter. He remembered the beautiful sound of the rain that collected and flowed into the courtyard, its pitter-patter on the windows and cobblestones. He had always liked the rain. His room had grown comfortable, even with its flickering light and its smelly summer mugginess. He knew which floorboards creaked and where the sounds of the city outside were the strongest. Chatting pedestrians, car horns, sirens. The feeling of bread in his mouth at lunchtime, the dusty smell of the study. The way the sunlight shone in elongated stretches on the walls opposite every window. These mundane details occupied a precious place in his mind.

Xabier was attached to the place, and yet he was not. What he was really attached to was its memory, the imprints the place had made in his mind. This was all he had, for it was unlikely that he’d ever set foot in the building again—perhaps he’d never even see it again. Xabier should not have worried about the fate of the building, and yet he did. Perhaps it was a fear that any desecration of the building would somehow degrade his memories.

There had to be some way to prevent the monastery from being occupied by the company, and also to prevent it from being destroyed. But the situation was not in Xabier’s hands. Whose hands was it in? Certainly in God’s hands—the All-Powerful had worked countless miracles there before, after all. And yet Xabier felt that there must be a less passive route to take. What if it turned out that God didn’t care one way or another about the building? But Xabier certainly cared. Perhaps it was the government’s role to intervene. True, the young monarchy only seemed to care about making money, and the general public was wary of Catholicism after Franco, but the government certainly ought to care about historicity. King Juan Carlos, after all, continued the lineage of the Bourbon Kings. If there was no interest in tradition, then what was the Crown? The monastery was almost a millennium old. For centuries it was paramount to the well-being and even economic growth of Madrid. It should be preserved for its physical legacy alone, Xabier thought.

Esperanza began to stir, and Xabier was pulled from his thoughts. “Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have perfected praise,” he said. He went into the bedroom, changed her diaper and held her close. Even when the world around him reeled in chaos, when things were confusing and difficult, when he had nowhere else to turn, she was his rock.

Chapter Twelve: Agony and Ecstasy

 

María Teresa had been trying to avoid Álvaro since their last encounter.

Her baby was born in a dream and then taken away, leaving only memories. The way it danced in her belly, the relief when it was born, the sensation of its lips on her nipple as it drank its first milk, its wonderful hair and bright eyes. When she realized that her baby was gone, her first impulse was to retrieve it. The only path she could follow, though, dried up fast. There was nothing she could do. She wept. And then something happened: Her despair turned into rapture, and she knew that she would, from that point onward, be a better servant to God. She had failed in the past but no more would she slip; in this new life, she would be immaculate. She’d go back to Macondo, start anew. There was no problem with going back in time, after all. From that point forward, she would devote herself fully to God’s will, ignoring her own selfish desires.

“I’ll focus on school,” she told herself, “and when I graduate, I’ll marry Guillermo. I’ll be a loving wife and someday, mother.” Not only did she believe that this was what God wanted for her, but she thought that doing these things would bring her more happiness in life—that was the thing she’d most often been lacking.

And yet, when she saw Álvaro down the hallway that one time, all her resolve unraveled. Just at the sight of him, her legs turned to jelly. And then when she heard his voice, when he touched her, when he kissed her… Why hadn’t God made her stronger?

Her solution was to ignore him, and she did her best. Still, this effort kept him often at the top of her mind. Even when she was listening to lectures on the Napoleonic Wars and studying English, it was as if Álvaro were tapping her on the shoulder. If only she could forget about him entirely. She could try. As she walked down the hallway after class, she thought only of the difference between but and however. And now that her guard was down, Álvaro tapped her on the shoulder.

“Mari,” he said.

She didn’t have to turn around to know who it was; she’d recognize that voice anywhere. She thought of running away, and perhaps if she’d seen him before she heard him, she would have. But she was captivated, mesmerized like an Ancient Greek fisherman upon hearing the sirens. Or was it his touch that had petrified her? The contact of his finger upon her shoulder—certainly he thought it innocuous, but he didn’t know how deeply it penetrated her. She turned around.

“Where have you been?” he said.

She didn’t want to say anything, but looking upon her old friend, the one she’d loved so much, she couldn’t help it. Suddenly she was her old self. “Oh,” she said, “class has been really busy.”

“That’s something, coming from you.”

“I’ve been trying to do better.”

“Working hard, huh?” He smiled. “That’s great.”

María Teresa took the slightest step backward. Perhaps she could get away.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he said, “about our baby.”

For as much as she considered herself a new person, Álvaro’s utterance—something pertaining to the old María Teresa—registered immediately. How could that be? Hadn’t she been given a new slate? She had repented—why should her past mistakes come back to find her? Had God not forgiven her after all? But she’d felt the forgiveness so tangibly…

Perhaps she had not been reborn entirely. Maybe that’s just how it worked—nobody is completely empty when they’re born, or reborn. That would make sense, she thought. After all, what would be the point of being reborn if we didn’t at least remember our mistakes? We needed to remember them, on some level, in order to learn from them. She thought of the karmic cycle that Álvaro had once told her about—another remnant of her past life. The idea was that all beings are continually reborn as better or worse, higher or lower, closer to God or further away, based on their actions in the previous life. Álvaro always said that he wanted to be reborn as the morning wind. How could there be any sense of progress one way or another if there was no memory of the past life? Maybe not fully fledged memories, but fragments. These memories must come to us, thought María Teresa, as inklings—in dreams, in déjà vu. And they must also be lying tacit beneath certain words—like baby.

But Álvaro’s words revealed an even more important truth: Even if María Teresa had been reborn, not everyone else was. She had indeed had a baby. Even if she scrubbed it from her memory, even if she managed to forget about it entirely, it was a truth in the world, inscribed on the samsaric tablets of eternity. It was a fact that other people knew about, and other people could not be counted on to forget it like she wanted.

“Hello?” said Álvaro. His head was craned forward, searching. “Have you forgotten? I have to tell you—”

“No,” she said. “Not a word. It’s done.” She shook her head slowly. “Over with.”

He was aghast. “How can you say that?”

“Álvaro…” She wanted to run. She was a different person, and she didn’t want this vestige of her past life dragging her down. The whole thing was over with—why couldn’t he just let it be? She didn’t want reminders of the pain, of the punishment. María Teresa knew she would be better off without Álvaro in her life anymore.

On the other hand, Álvaro was one of her oldest friends. They’d shared so much. Lazy afternoons, deep secrets, walks in the park, physical warmth. They’d cried in each other’s arms, ran their fingers through each other’s hair, whispered in each other’s ears. All these memories came rushing back—thoughts she’d buried suddenly being reborn. These were things she hadn’t shared with anyone else. Álvaro was special. And even now, though she’d pushed him away, she could see there was something alluring about him, something she deeply desired.

With as much earnestness as she wanted to run away, never to see him again, she also wanted to reach out, to run her hands over his chest, to feel his body against hers. She wanted separation, but she also wanted communion. These compulsions were locked in cosmic battle, neither clearly stronger than the other. María Teresa realized that just as she’d sought Penance from God before, now she likewise wanted forgiveness from Álvaro. Could he give her that sacrament?

In a flurry, and not knowing why, she blurted out, “It’s not your baby.” Perhaps it was a deep-seated desire to come clean to her God, to Álvaro, or maybe she knew it was the one sentence she could muster that would hurt him most. It was also possible that there was someone else—a puppeteer—directing her actions at the time. She couldn’t be sure. The one thing that was sure was that there was no premeditation in her words; if she’d allowed herself even a second to debate whether she should say them, she certainly would have opted against it. Still, she said it.

“What are you talking about?” he said.

“It’s not your baby,” said María Teresa, now sounding more assertive.

“How can that be?”

“You think you’re the only person I’ve had sex with? You think you’re that special?”

Álvaro’s eyebrows were furled, nearly touching The wrinkles on his forehead and the fire in his eyes nearly burned María Teresa. He didn’t say anything.

“So get off my case,” said María Teresa.

“But we still did. Even if you did do it with someone else, we still did. And the timing…”

“It’s not your baby, Álvaro. Listen to what I’m telling you. Forget about it.”

“Mari—”

“Don’t Mari me, Álvaro. It’s not your baby, and that’s the end of it.”

“But that’s not true. How can you say that? How do you know?”

“I just know. Why won’t you leave me alone?”

“This is important. I know—”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Don’t be such a baby, María Teresa. Sometimes we have to talk about things we don’t want to.” He put his hand on her shoulder as he said this. It was the touch María Teresa had been longing for, the follow-up to the tap on her shoulder from before that had so beguiled her, but now that she didn’t want it, his touch stung. It was that finger-tap a million times multiplied—something pleasurable that, when amplified, became truly painful in its intensity. Agony from ecstasy. María Teresa jumped back from his touch. Álvaro recoiled his hand as if in apology, but the gesture did not abate her anger.

“Don’t talk to me anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to see you ever again.” It took all her strength, but she managed to turn around. No longer subject to Medusa’s gaze, she was able to walk away, even looking somewhat resolute about it.

Álvaro was stupefied. He’d never seen her act like this. In fact, he never would have imagined her capable of it. How could she say those things? More importantly, Álvaro wondered, were they true? Had she really been with other men? Was it not his child? He shook his head.

When he searched himself, when he looked for answers in the depths of eternity, he knew that it was his baby. Thinking back to that night, he was sure.

They were in the rose garden, and it was late. They were alone, save for the crescent moon, and the air was pregnant with pollen. It was as if all the flowers in the world had dispatched their scents to amalgamate in that park on that night, so thick as to form a blanket in the springtime air. María Teresa and Álvaro, all but unsuspecting, were wrapped up in that blanket and swept off their feet. The pollen carried them behind a hedge, under cover of trees, so that they were shielded even from the moon, and there, lying in the dewey grass, they felt for each other.

When he released, he knew. It was a tremendous feeling for him, doing that for the first time in the presence of another person, for the first time inside another person. He hadn’t meant to do it inside, but he couldn’t help it. He wasn’t fully in control of himself, and it happened so fast. And at that exact moment, he knew that his seed had taken root.

At first he was terrified—María Teresa did not see his face because it was so dark—but then a wave of calm came over him, along with the fragrant breeze. It wasn’t something horrible; it was wonderful. Having created a child was the most wonderful thing in the world, teenage circumstances notwithstanding. It wouldn’t be so bad, he had thought.

He collapsed on top of María Teresa and they rolled over. He wondered if he should say something about what he’d felt, but something kept him silent. He wished now that he’d spoken. What had happened since then had already happened, for better or for worse. But it was, without a doubt, his baby. And he had to retrieve his child. Maybe he’d have to do it alone. So be it.

Álvaro knew his memories didn’t lie. She’d only said those things to hurt him, he reasoned. She only needed time to cool down. But what if she never cooled down? The thought agonized him. As he watched María Teresa leave him, her words echoed in his mind: I don’t want to see you ever again. He wanted to shout after her, to blurt out what he’d come to tell her—that he knew where their baby was, that he had a plan—but he was frozen. He opened his mouth, but it was dry.

The bell had rung, but Álvaro still stood in the hallway. On other days he would have hustled to avoid being late for class. At those times, being late was the worst fate he could have imagined. Today, though, when he heard the bell, though on the surface he knew what it meant, it didn’t strike a chord with him. She’ll either come to her senses, thought Álvaro, or she won’t. Either way, I am going to get my baby. With or without her.

 

Xabier lay in bed, Esperanza curled up near his chest, both asleep. She had a crib, but both preferred sleeping in the same bed. Perhaps it was a reminder to each other that there was more to life on this earth than a hundred years of solitude. When she was older she would have to move to her own bed, Xabier knew, but for now, she was still his baby. The crib sat alone in the corner, its bright paint clearly visible even in the dark, like a watchful spirit in the night.

Any onlooker would have felt the love between father and daughter in that room. And despite Xabier’s age, nobody would have suspected that Esperanza was not his biological child. What did biology matter, anyway? Love, Xabier sometimes mused, was something that science could not explain. Science would say that love is an evolutionary adaptation, something that came about solely for its propensity to encourage reproduction. Science would explain that love is nothing physical, but rather the illusory result of a cocktail of neurotransmitters in the brain. And yet here in this room there was tangible love, thick and warm in the air, and it had nothing to do with reproduction, and more to do with the heart than with the brain. That was something science could not explain.

Having the love of another human was an unexpected state of affairs for Xabier. He had heeded God’s call to monasticism. He had foreseen for himself an ascetic life of solitude and prayer, in communion with God alone. All that had changed so quickly, so unexpectedly. Had he had the choice at the time, he certainly would have rejected this turn of events. And yet, now that he had gotten used to Esperanza, he knew that he wouldn’t give up this life for anything. If Gabriel came down from Heaven now and offered him the chance to go back to his life in the monastery, just as it had always been, he wouldn’t have hesitated to reject the angel’s offer.

Now that he had Esperanza, he realized that he had never actually loved anyone else in his life—except his parents, maybe, but that was so long ago. In fact, he didn’t even know what real love was. He thought he did, but that thing he had once called love was nothing like what he was experiencing now. Not even his closest brothers in the monastery, with whom he lived in a small community for decades, caused in him the same deep wrenching that Esperanza did.

That deep wrenching. He learned that love was not entirely pleasant. It seemed odd, then, that he should now find it so indispensable. Xabier and Esperanza spent every day together, and even at night they lay together. He cared for her and she illuminated him, and there was no sign that this would be changing any time soon. Still, he felt that wrenching. It was a heaviness, somewhere in his bowels, an aching that was not quite physical and not quite imaginary. That was part of love. It was the uncomfortable reality that they were, in the final analysis, separate people, that they were subject to the whims of time and happenstance, and that even though they might spend all their days in embrace, they would continue to be separate people forever, and as long as they remained separate people, there was the unavoidable reality that someday they would lose each other, that they could not be together forever. It was an aching from the tacit knowledge that time would pass. But if time didn’t pass, Xabier knew, love would not be the same. It was agony and ecstasy; there couldn’t be one without the other.

 

María Teresa was in tears. Her life had always been horrible, but now it was horrible and complicated. She had thought she had it all figured out, that she was supposed to marry Guillermo and live as his wife. She thought that’s what God wanted for her, and that was the end of it. It was an elegant equation, with so few variables. But María Teresa now knew that there were other factors in the world, insistent upon being worked into the equation. Namely, Álvaro. She knew he didn’t figure into God’s plan for her, and yet he was a source of strife. Whenever she saw him, she lost control of herself.

Part of her desperately wanted never to see him again. To cut him from her life so that she could live in the bubble of that elegant equation forever, never to be bothered. She’d all but done that in their last conversation. Don’t talk to me anymore, she had said. I never want to see you again. That was final. Perhaps he would never again attempt to see her. That was what she wanted, wasn’t it?

And yet, the thought caused her immense pain. Never see Álvaro again? How could she bear it? She wanted to forget about him, to devote herself to Guillermo, and she knew God wanted that very thing for her. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. There was wishing, and then there was reality. The two couldn’t be reconciled.

And then there was the baby. She wanted to forget about the baby, too. She wanted to go on with her life with Guillermo and someday, when she was ready, have a child that she’d love and care for. But she’d already given birth—nothing could change that. She thought she had accepted that her firstborn had been given up for adoption, that the little child was now long gone, had already forgotten about her, was already being cared for by another person with much greater means and much greater love than María Teresa could ever provide. The baby was better off without her. She’d even gone a few days without thinking about the child. But now she couldn’t stand the separation. She’d betrayed her own daughter. It was a horrible, selfish thing to do. If only she could take it back. Álvaro was determined to get the child back; why couldn’t she be as confident, as strong as him?

There were two threads of fate, like a snake with two heads that zigzagged through life as its two divergent minds fought for control, each of the heads occasionally attacking and even attempting to swallow the other. A creature locked in battle with itself. You might cut off one of the heads—and perhaps the creature would be saved—but you could never save them both. As long as both heads were still attached, they’d be attacking each other. The creature needed both heads to be its true self—and yet this condition was mortal. And María Teresa was there, at the heart of the creature, feeling the physiological effects of the civil war: the blood draining, the temperature rising, the immune system in full threat, but there was nothing she could do: The heart did not control the minds; it only wept for them.

She had gone on, finishing up the school day without listening to a single word any of her teachers had to say; her mind was buzzing with all these thoughts. She held back the tears until she was safe in her bedroom, when the floodgates opened and she sought solace in her usual place of comfort under the blankets. At some point, she fell asleep.

When María Teresa awoke, she heard her parents talking. She knew right away that they were discussing business matters, though this seldom happened. They were enunciating clearly, projecting their voices. When they were talking about personal things, on the other hand, they spoke more quietly, relaxed their speech, as if their voices were impassioned to the point that their tongues couldn’t properly express the things their hearts wanted to say, and at these times the only thing that reached María Teresa was muffled conversation about which all she could say for certain was who was talking. When it was a business conversation, though, she could hear everything as if they were in the same room as her.

“How could they do that?” said Sofía. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s the work ethic,” said Rodrigo. “Nobody wants to lift a finger anymore. Not how it used to be.”

“But they didn’t even call or anything?”

“I found out two days later they called the secretary of one of our lower managers. Like they did it on purpose—pretend they did their due diligence by calling, but to do it in a way they knew I’d never get the news.”

“The nerve. But there are other contractors, aren’t there?”

“I called every company I could find—they were the only ones with availability. Apparently it’s prime time, and they say we have to wait our turn.”

“Don’t they know who you are?”

“It doesn’t mean anything to them—they won’t budge. They say first come, first served, the end.”

“It’s despicable.”

“Just as well. The papers haven’t gone through with the government yet.”

“You must have some sway with them at least, no?”

“I’m going to see what I can do.”

Sofía was silent for a while. “It’s not fair.”

Here their conversation descended into lower volumes. Rodrigo probably turned toward comforting Sofía; they were done discussing anything having to do with his business.

María Teresa could hear them clearly before, but now she caught herself straining to listen. She knew it was fruitless—now she wouldn’t be able to hear them if she were standing right outside their door, and she didn’t care to hear their romantic nothings anyway. She thought about what she’d already heard.

By now it was common knowledge that Rodrigo Colmenar Santander’s company was in the process of acquiring the vacant monastery to expand their offices. If her parents hadn’t told her—very matter-of-factly, as if she had no ties to the monastery—she would have heard it at school.

She was ambivalent about the whole thing. The monastery had been the center of her faith for her whole life. Even now, months since she’d last set food in the church, she still thought about it every day. It was troubling to think that the day would come when that sacred building would be occupied by office workers. But the office workers were to be those beholden to her father; their presence would improve his success. So if she wanted to honor her father, she had to respect the turn of events. The monastery was empty, anyway, and there was no changing that, after all that had happened. Thus, in an effort to be God’s faithful servant, she decided that her father’s actions must have been for the best.

But what if she wasn’t meant to go along with it? What if it was a signal to her to take action on God’s behalf? After all, it was her fault the monastery was vacant in the first place. It was because of her that her father had had the opportunity to purchase it. Why would God let such a thing happen? It couldn’t have been part of his will. No, thought María Teresa, it was a side-effect of allowing humans to have free will—that’s what it was. Maybe God needed María Teresa to correct it.

But what could she do? She was just a girl. She wasn’t strong—physically or emotionally. Why would God call her? What did she have to offer? Looking around, she realized for the first time that she didn’t even have anything of her own. Everything belonged to her parents. Weeks before, when she was on the verge of running away to Bilbao to start over, she had had to look for money that she could steal from her parents because she didn’t have any of her own. Even now the idea of running away came to her in fleeting bursts of urgency—should she do it? She hadn’t yet, probably because she didn’t have a single thing to her name that was really hers. What if something went wrong? That being the case, what could she do for God?

She knew God had a penchant for calling upon the weak and poor to be his champions; there were any number of Bible stories that illustrated this. But now, that strategy did not seem so wise. This was a question of business and politics, and she didn’t have a sling against such things.

Maybe, she realized, it wasn’t a call to action as much as a continuation of her punishment. God had let these things happen precisely because He knew she couldn’t do anything about it—anything except live through its excruciating unfolding. Why?

She wondered whether God had actually forgiven her after all. She remembered feeling that corporal relief—she thought it was forgiveness. But she remembered now that she’d heard long ago that a confession that wasn’t mediated through a priest wouldn’t truly reach the ears of God. She hadn’t spoken to a priest since the last time she confessed to Xabier, and that was before she betrayed him. She rolled over and sobbed. “Why does everything have to be so horrible?”

The world was spinning around her again. “What can I do?” she said. Again she briefly thought of killing herself. She remembered that, not so long ago, she had been planning her suicide. Back then, taking her own life seemed like the only feasible solution. But though it seemed so simple, so within reach, she hadn’t done it. Now she recalled some of these mental scenarios as if to test whether they were still possibilities for her—asphyxiating herself with a plastic bag, jumping out the window, cutting her wrists. But these thoughts seemed distant. They were more like films, but ones that she’d only heard about, never actually watched herself. Despite her present desperation, María Teresa was glad that she hadn’t killed herself. And, no, she wouldn’t do so now. As hard as life was, she was happy to have it. Anyway, it wasn’t all bad. She thought back to her old self and tried to remember what had seemed so attractive about suicide. She couldn’t remember.

“So what can I do?” she said again. There was only one thing she could do: persevere. She must bear it. What other choice was there? And that was it—it was that simple. She only had one choice, and that was to go on. She would manage somehow, whatever happened.

She drifted off to sleep.

“María Teresa?” It was Sofía calling, just outside the room. She knocked softly, and then cracked open the door. “Mari?”

“Mmm?” said María Teresa, waking up.

“Sorry to wake you, but you’ll be up all night if you sleep any longer. Hard day at school?”

“Yeah…”

“I’m so proud of you for working hard lately. School is so important.”

“Okay.”

“Guillermo called before. He says he has a surprise for you, and he wants you to meet him at Restaurante Serafín tonight. That’s a really nice place.”

“He does?”

“At eight-thirty, he said. He’ll meet you at Metro Alcalá, the entrance on Velázquez.”

“Okay.” María Teresa looked at the clock. It was a little after six. She didn’t have any homework to do, and she hadn’t had any plans for the evening. Maybe seeing Guillermo was just what she needed. It would help her forget about Álvaro, at least.

She wondered what sort of surprise Guillermo had in store for her. He was always so romantic, she thought, so much more than Álvaro. So unpredictable. He’d said he had surprises for her in the past, but usually the locale itself was the surprise. In this case, he had already told her what restaurant it was—and it was a really expensive one. This meant that the surprise had to be even better than the restaurant itself. It must have been big. But what could it possibly be?

Guillermo was obviously was smitten by her, and she realized it. Before, this had often aggravated María Teresa, but now she thought of it as a boon. After all, it would have been much harder to make headway on her quaint life with Guillermo if he didn’t like her to begin with. If Álvaro stopped liking her, then that would make things easier. Or would it? Anyway, María Teresa thought Guillermo’s invitation might be a sign from God that she was at least moving in the right direction.

María Teresa arrived at the metro stop a few minutes after eight-thirty. She didn’t see Guillermo yet, and she was surprised at how disconsolate that made her feel. She must have been looking forward to this dinner more than she realized.

It was raining slightly, but María Teresa didn’t mind. She’d always liked the rain. She recalled the part in Cien Años de Soledad where it rained in Macondo for four years, eleven months and two days. No one in the book seemed to enjoy it; everyone was bored to death all those years, and it was so extreme that they threw grand parties when the rain slowed to a drizzle. But if María Teresa lived in Macondo in the time of the rain, she would have thrived, she thought, like Aureliano Segundo.

Anyway, now was one of those times that would have garnered a party: It wasn’t raining enough to necessitate an umbrella, and the people milled about so normally that it took a long gaze to see that it was actually raining at all; there was none of the awkward skittering, jump-running or tip-toeing that usually came with the rain. No one seemed to mind it right now. This was curious because, as far as María Teresa could tell, only herself and farmers actually liked the rain—and there weren’t any farmers within the city limits. Even so, she supposed that everyone accepted (if reluctantly) that it had rained yesterday, it rained today and, in all likelihood, it would rain tomorrow. At least for part of the day. Rain was practically a permanent fixture this time of year, like a long-unappreciated dinette that you always meant to sell to an antique shop but could never find the time. If you didn’t learn to accept it, you were in for a miserable life.

María Teresa saw Guillermo appear from around a corner, and her heart leapt. He smiled as soon as he saw her.

“How are you doing?” said Guillermo as he greeted her. He smelled like cigarettes.

María Teresa smiled weakly. Still, it might have been the first time she’d actually smiled at him at all. “Up and down.” She didn’t like the smell, but she tried to ignore it.

“That’s a relief,” he said. “I thought I was the only one. You know, everyone must have ups and downs.”

“Yeah.”

“And that makes me happy, in a way, though it might sound weird. Because if you’d said you were totally ecstatic already, then I’m sure being with me could only bring you down. But if you’re up and down, well, then maybe there’s some hope for me.” He nudged her. “Hey, let’s go.”

They turned away from the Puerta de Alcalá, large and triumphant, and walked up the tree-lined road. The restaurant was only a block away, but time seemed to slow down as they walked. Not in a drudging sort of way, but in a leisurely way—as if time itself just realized that it had spent its whole life rushing around and only now decided to stroll casually, take a seat, shut its eyes, breathe in the fresh air and savor the world around it.

María Teresa enjoyed the sensation. The chill rain pecking here and there at her sweater, the low growl of cars as they drove by, the glint of their headlights, the pat pat pat of pedestrian heels, the chatter. The rain collected in narrow channels along the edges of the street, running toward the drains. The whole world was in synchronized motion, like one of those old mechanical toys, only this one was infinitely vast—and not a simulacrum, but the real thing.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, taken.

“What is?”

“Everything. The rain.”

“I never thought of it that way. But now that you mention it, it is nice, isn’t it? It takes a special sort of person to notice the beauty in a rainy day.”

“But what could you call it, if not beautiful?”

Guillermo didn’t say anything, but he did begin to notice the way the rain rolled off the stone pavement, the light dancing over it. It really was beautiful.

In time they arrived at Restaurante Serafín. Guillermo gave his last name and they were taken to a candlelit table near a window, where they could continue to watch the rain. Guillermo asked for red wine and mineral water for both of them, and shortly thereafter they were brought menus. Guillermo ordered a plate of croquetas for the two of them to share and the oxtail dish for himself. María Teresa ordered the seabass.

She gazed at Guillermo. His hair was slicked to one side, his bushy eyebrows the perfect complement. Something about the circumstances made him look better than ever. Maybe it was the relative dim of the restaurant, or the flickering candle on the table, or the glittering twilight that shone through the window. His jaw was strong, his lips pleasantly curved. She could tell his face was freshly shaven, but she could note each dark follicle all the same. It was either that his hair regrew quickly, or he wasn’t the best at shaving. She preferred it this way. When he noticed her examining him, he smiled. She smiled back, awkwardly. Neither said anything.

María Teresa was anxious, but she knew she couldn’t just blurt out, “So where’s my surprise?” Surprises only appeared on their own schedules, she knew. They were shy, like the gray dots in that optical illusion: If they were inquired about directly, they’d disappear. “What are you talking about?” Guillermo would say. And she would reply that her mother had told her he’d asked her here to dinner because he had a surprise for her, and he’d say she must be either mistaken or going crazy because all he wanted was to have dinner with her. He’d either be sorry that he didn’t actually have a surprise for her, or he’d be annoyed with her for wanting a surprise in the first place. Did she really only come to dinner in hopes of getting a surprise? Her finger quivered near her upper lip.

Now that they had their drinks, placed their orders, and sufficiently exhausted the time that social nicety allotted for silent staring, they were at the point where there was no further excuse to postpone having an actual conversation.

“So,” said Guillermo, “I want to hear more about these ups and downs.”

María Teresa swallowed. She didn’t think she wanted to talk about any of it. She wasn’t one to talk about herself much to begin with, and she didn’t enjoy discussing her problems. Doing so, she thought, would only make them more real. And discussing things that weren’t problems was a mere attempt to ameliorate herself with undue praise, which would, moreover, cause the sparse good things in her life to pack up and leave. Still, she remembered her promise to God, and she knew that if she had any chance of lasting a lifetime with Guillermo she would at one point or another have to tell him things. So, little by little, she began to verbally explore her feelings. She talked about how it felt to discover her child had been taken away in the night—how even something that seemed so sinister was not, upon reflection, clearly good or clearly bad. She talked about her father’s business and how there was trouble with the monastery he’d purchased as office space. She talked about Álvaro and how she used to like him but now he annoyed her. She did not, though, mention the feeling she had gotten in her loins when she saw him recently, and nor did she talk about how she had only settled on Guillermo because she relented that it was God’s will for her.

All this time, Guillermo was an enchanted audience: He nodded and shook his head in appropriate encouragement and sympathy, and he chimed in with his own anecdotes here and there, always keeping them as short interjections that demonstrated solidarity without taking the floor from María Teresa. If he disagreed with or was disgusted by anything she said, he didn’t show it. His only expression was that of someone earnestly trying to get to know another person.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “No one should have to deal with these kinds of things. You’ve been through so much. And not the usual things that people go through, like dying uncles or broken bones. You’ve had to deal with unique challenges. I wish I could have been able to support you more…”

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s actually nice just to be able to talk about it with somebody.”

“I bet.”

A small plate of croquetas arrived. María Teresa and Guillermo each grabbed one carefully and took a bite. The crunchy exterior folded into the creamy insides, releasing an amalgamation of warm, salty flavor. Each of them declared that it was the best croqueta they’d ever tasted. They continued to enjoy them as they carried on their conversation.

“I still can’t believe all that about the monastery,” said Guillermo. “How could your father even think of such a thing?”

“He puts his business first.”

“Mine does too, but this just seems too far. Using an ancient building as offices? It’s ostentatious. Serves him right that it’s not going well.”

“I know.”

“That place is famous for miracles, you know; maybe this is another one.” He smiled. He new the place was also famous for being home to the priest that had raped and impregnated a young girl, but they sidled past that story tonight.

“You know,” said María Teresa, “you’re the first person I’ve talked to in as long as I can remember that hasn’t tried to tell me it’s for the best. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? I even caught myself saying it once or twice.”

“For the best? What does that even mean?”

“Exactly!”

“Maybe it’s what people say when they don’t have anything else to say.”

“I don’t know. I get the sense that it’s almost malicious sometimes—they’re like, Sit down and shut up because we know what’s best for you and you don’t. First it was Father Xabier the last time I went to confession, then it was my parents talking about the baby. Álvaro, my friends, everyone. Everyone thinks they know what’s best for me.”

“And they don’t?”

“How can they? It’s my life, not theirs.”

“But they can offer advice at least, can’t they?”

“Sure, advice is one thing, but the it’s for the best thing comes up when they’re making decisions for me, trying to rationalize the things they’ve said and done. I’m sick of it.”

“I know what you mean. Of course I’ve heard that kind of thing my share of times, too.”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

“You mean…” said María Teresa.

“Yeah,” said Guillermo. “Though not always in a bad way—I mean, I really like you, María Teresa, but the fact that we were arranged has made it a little awkward from the beginning. It would be one thing if we met in real life and got to know each other naturally, but here we were kind of forced into it. I don’t know. Maybe there’s just too much pressure with the whole thing.”

“But our parents know best, right?”

“They know best for them,” said Guillermo. “We children are just pawns in the games our parents play.”

María Teresa nodded.

“But don’t get me wrong. In this case, I’m grateful that they’ve put us together—I don’t think I would have met you otherwise. It’s just the principle, I think. It’s been weird.”

“I think God has a plan for all of us. Who knows.”

“That’s true. I guess you never know. But the chances would be smaller. God or parents, I’m glad I got to meet you, and I’m glad you’re here with me now.”

“I’m glad, too.”

“There’s something I wanted to give you.” He produced a dark, rectangular box with a ribbon and placed it on the table in front of María Teresa, her eyes wide.

“Really?” she said.

“When I saw it, I knew it’d be perfect for you. I know it’s not a special occasion or anything, but no day is inappropriate for a nice surprise.”

“But I didn’t bring anything for you.”

“Don’t be like that. Just open it.”

“Thank you,” she said, tentatively. She slid off the ribbon and cracked open the box. Immediately something inside caught the candlelight in a dazzling reflective spectrum, creating the illusion that there was a light source within the box. She removed the cover, revealing a dazzling gold necklace with a string of diamonds that shone like Orion’s Belt. She gasped. “It’s beautiful.”

“I knew you’d love it.”

“I do. You really got this for me?”

“Who else?”

“It’s just—I’ve never gotten anything like it before.” She wondered how much it was worth—it certainly looked expensive. Had he paid for it himself?

“Go ahead and put it on.”

She wasn’t already wearing a necklace, but if she had been, she would have tossed it onto the floor. For as nice as María Teresa’s clothes had always been, given freely to her by her father, she had never had very nice jewelry. Once or twice in her life she had gotten something from the Wise Men on the morning of Epiphany, but the bulk of her jewelry was cheap, from Chinos and gypsies. She didn’t wear that much, anyway, but maybe that was only because she never had anything nice to wear.

She put on the necklace without trouble, and she posed for Guillermo. “I was right,” he said. “You look perfect.”

She looked at herself in the tiny round mirror she kept in her purse. Her cheeks were flushed.

Their food arrived—one delight follows another—and they talked idly as they began eating. Both were as impressed with their meals as they were with the croquetas.

“This place is really good,” said María Teresa.

“We can come back any time you like.”

Their conversation steered clear of anything of real consequence for the rest of the evening. They finished eating, paid and then parted ways. On her walk home, María Teresa couldn’t help but think that she’d never had such an enjoyable time with Guillermo—tonight was positively wonderful, she thought. She was ecstatic.

[] Chapter Thirteen: Una Mala Noche La Tiene Cualquiera

 

“What kind of business are you trying to run?” Rodrigo was on the phone at the desk in his office, which was set up to look almost exactly as his den at home. The curled wire bounced along with the volume of his voice.

“I’m very sorry about the trouble, sir.” It was a female voice—unfit for a construction company, Rodrigo thought. “I’m not sure what could have happened.” The woman was trained to sound sympathetic, but Rodrigo could see right through it. At her end of the telephone she probably still had one eye on the novel she’d been reading before he called. She was probably eager to get back to it, not even listening to him. Rodrigo felt this gave him license to be even more abrasive than he usually was.

“I was told you’d start yesterday. All day long I was waiting, and I didn’t get so much as a call from you. If you said you were going to come, you should have come. But if some emergency came up, don’t you think it would have been conscientious to call and say you weren’t coming? Why am I the one who has to keep calling you to get any sort of communication?”

“It is unacceptable—I agree with you.”

“So you will get someone out here to start today?”

“Unfortunately that won’t be possible. The schedules have already been fixed.”

“Look, I’m already paying you double your rates. Are your other clients for today doing that?”

“Sir—”

“Like I was saying, what kind of business are you trying to run? There’s more money here, and there’s less money there. Seems pretty simple.”

“Sir, it’s not quite that simple.”

“No, it is very simple. I give you money, you come here to work. What I need to know is, are you going to be able to do this work at all, or should I find somebody else?”

“I’m afraid at this time I cannot say. As you know—”

Rodrigo hung up. He wasn’t getting anywhere with these people. He bowed his head in his hands, with his elbows on his desk, and massaged his forehead.

What he had wanted seemed so simple: A few building alterations to allow passage from his offices into the former monastery next door. At this point, that was it, really. The rest could wait. They could do it once the employees had relocated. But even the simplest task proved impossible; all the contractors in the city were booked, and apparently offering more money didn’t do anything. Generally he preferred to do things a little more professionally, but he was seriously considering have advertisements posted around La Latina and getting some immigrants to do the work for him. Surely they could fit the job into their schedules—many of them were unable to find legal work in the city, so Rodrigo’s impression was that they’d take any job that came along.

It would be one thing if he could have his employees move in despite the work not being done; they could use the front door of the monastery for now. But the incompetence of the contractors was not his only problem at the moment; there were also, apparently, problems with his paperwork that needed to get sorted out before the building was legally his. For now, there was nothing he could do, which was frustrating, given the air of celebration he’d cultivated the day he filed the paperwork. Moreover, Rodrigo felt constricted by his inefficacy. Not only was the whole thing anticlimactic—it was emasculating. But he just had to be patient, he told himself. Patience.

Rodrigo became aware of a faint racket coming from outside. He imagined that it could have been the contractors, the foreman shouting orders to his laborers. Had they finally shown up? No, it wasn’t that. There was certainly someone shouting, though. Many people. What was going on?

He lifted himself from his distress and allowed himself the momentary distraction of looking out the window. He couldn’t do anything about his larger problems at the moment, anyway, and he’d never be able to concentrate as long as the ruckus went on unexplained. But the moment he saw what was outside, he wished he hadn’t gotten up. Some things were better left uninvestigated.

There was a crowd of people standing in front of the monastery. People of every description except content, probably fifty of them. And they were looking directly at him. No, not at him—that was impossible—but definitely at his building. He could hear that they were shouting, but not what they were saying. Some of them were carrying signs—what did they say? Others had banners. Rodrigo struggled to make out the writing. Suddenly one of the signs was positioned—only for an instant—such that he could read it. Value history, it said. What did that mean? After a few moments, he saw another: Protect our heritage. And another: Culture over gold. Now he understood. These people were protesting the privatization of the monastery building.

Rodrigo had known these people existed; they’d caused problems for other companies who attempted to purchase certain buildings of historical importance. They were foolish people, with their eyes in the backs of their heads rather than the fronts, but their influence could not be ignored. In the past, the government had conceded to their whims. They were dangerous. And yet, their presence was something Rodrigo could not do anything about; the Crown had granted them the right to protest peacefully. All he could do was hope it was too late for them—that they wouldn’t win out this time—and to investigate who in the government might be in further need of monetary persuasion. It was not a happy situation, and Rodrigo collapsed back into his chair.

“What else could go wrong?” he said.

The next day, his question was answered. Of course, he hadn’t meant to receive an answer, but perhaps Providence should not be tempted with rhetorical questions. The mailman dropped off a hefty stack of letters, as he did every day, at the secretary’s desk. When the secretary returned from getting her nails done down the block, she sorted the letters into piles, as she did every day, according to what departments they went to, but she worked more carefully today (that is, slower) so as not to let the five hundred pesetas she’d just spent go to waste. After siesta, each pile was picked up by its corresponding departmental secretary, who left each piece of mail on the desk of its designee. The mail for the department heads generally ended up getting delivered last because their doors were often closed for private meetings.

Rodrigo got his mail when it was just about time to leave for the day. He flipped through the envelopes, seeing that most of it could wait till the next day to be opened, when he saw a piece of correspondence from the Church. He tossed aside the other letters and tore it open.

Esteemed Sr. Colmenar Santander, the letter began. We thank you for your inquiry, and we regret to inform you that your bid to purchase Edifice G7599, Filing 712QA-93, has been denied. The letter went on to describe how Rodrigo might seek to appeal this decision, if he was so inclined, but he didn’t read that far. He couldn’t believe it. How could they deny his bid? He’d offered far more than the building was worth. What was the Church ever going to do with it? But these were not earnest questions; he knew the answers very well: They had apparently decided, perhaps to make up for certain events that had happened in the past, that it was in their interest to protect this building as a site of cultural heritage, to keep it in their possession. Perhaps they’d turn it into a museum and charge a fee for admission; it would take a few years, but eventually they’d make far more in ticket sales than Rodrigo’s one-time offer. In other words, the protestors had won. In fact, he could still hear them outside. Apparently they hadn’t heard the news, he thought, like Saracens and Christians on a Medieval battlefield who continued to slaughter each other even after a treaty had been signed within the walls of Toledo. Even in the days of high-speed information, news still traveled slowly, it seemed. “If only they knew they had nothing to protest,” he said with a sneer.

Only minutes before, he was nearly ready to leave for the day, and he would have done so in better spirits than usual. But the news he’d just received would ruin his night, if not more. He reached for the bottle of anís he kept in his bottom drawer and took a swig. “Why do these things keep happening to me?” he said aloud.

It occurred to Rodrigo that perhaps he was being punished by God. He found it odd that he would think of this; all his life, he’d told himself that God was a farce. He did not believe in God. Rodrigo wondered if God could still punish him, that being the case. He supposed it was possible. After all, a sailor who didn’t believe in sea monsters could still be eaten alive, an Indian who didn’t believe in violence could still be shot down, and a man who didn’t believe his wife could still be tricked. Belief was separate from reality—it probably made no difference to God what Rodrigo believed in. Perhaps, then, he’d been mistaken all his life—perhaps he’d let his annoyance with the Church as an institution cloud his vision. Maybe there really was a God out there somewhere, separate from the Church, a God that was trying to tell him something through punishment.

But for what? It didn’t do any good to punish someone if they didn’t know what they were being punished for. How would they learn not to do it in the future? But this was not an earnest question, either: He knew he had done plenty of things that would warrant divine retribution. The vacancy of the building in question, after all, was a direct result of his intervention. It had been his idea in the first place, though he tried to renege. Sofía, on the other hand, told him again and again that it was a great idea, and she was the one who pushed him. She was the one who’d drugged their daughter, put the baby in his hands and marched him to the monastery steps. She was the one who spread the rumors. He’d only done what she told him to. Maybe he should have pushed back—why hadn’t he? In any case, the fact remained: He wasn’t the one who was guilty, he thought; she was. No, that wasn’t true… The problem was, he didn’t know what was true. He was guilty, at least partially. There was no way around it. He deserved punishment.

And what was it all for? To obtain this building, to get more offices, to expand his business, to make more money. That was it. As if all that would improve his life in any measurable way. Sure, he might make it to New York, but what did that matter? He’d achieved more success here in Spain than he ever thought possible, and he had everything he ever really wanted. He should have just been happy, left well-enough alone. But again, the fact remained: He hadn’t. And now there was this to deal with.

 

María Teresa is holding her baby. The little girl is glowing, her edges diffuse. She wiggles, testing out her arms and fingers. Her movements generate glittering trails that hang in the air where her arm and fingers were, the stardust moving slowly toward the place where they now are, twinkling. María Teresa is like this too: ethereal, luminescent. She wonders if she might be dead. No, she thinks, this is too perfect to be death. There is no warmth in death and here she can feel her little girl’s warmth, like the sun on your skin on the first day of spring, only tangible, with volume. She has never felt so warm, not since those nine antediluvian months she spent suspended in fluid, in darkness. This is something like that, she thinks, only the opposite: She is suspended in light. Maybe this really is death.

The baby is hungry and reaches for María Teresa’s breast. As she feeds her daughter, María Teresa feels the warmth even more strongly; just as María Teresa is putting milk into the child’s body, the child is putting warmth and light into hers. The mother nourishes the child, and the other way around, one physical and one spiritual. Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive. And above them, the moon, wide and white, benevolent like a smiling grandmother.

María Teresa looks upon her baby. She stares. For as much time as she spends looking—every day, every hour, every minute—it never feels like enough. María Teresa notices that the child’s chin is strong, shaped just like Guillermo’s. Somehow it looks wonderfully ladylike on her—on him, overwhelmingly handsome.

Suddenly the light was gone. María Teresa opened her eyes but there was only black. In a panic, she looked around. Still only black. Wait, no, not all black; there was a fuzzy yellow line, so faint it was barely visible, but as María Teresa stared it became clearer. Two lines, three lines, four. It was the outline of her window, the moonlight and streetlights shining in through the cracks in the curtain. It was cold. She reached for her baby but no one else was there. She felt around just to be sure. Of course I’m alone, she thought; it was only a dream.

It was a dream, certainly, but it was not only a dream. She knew this right away. If it were only a dream, it would have evaporated entirely as soon as she awoke. At first, she might have had some vague recollection of what it was she had dreamt about—broad strokes—but the harder she’d search her memory for details, the less she’d be able to remember. Soon even the broad strokes would dry up and disappear, like those of a window cleaner: sopping wet at first, then only visible here and there, and finally gone without a trace.

This dream was not like that, and so it was more than just a dream. A vision maybe: There was something in it, like a mirror at the bottom of the ocean, a reflection of a deep kernel of reality. A message, but not in any verbal language. Rather, it was a vibration that penetrated her deeply, like the waves of a tuning fork reverberating throughout her body. It was as if the María Teresa in the dream was not merely an invention of her imagination, but one that really existed. She was a real María Teresa, only in a different place—it was another version of herself, a testament to the possibility of an alternate mode of existence. Perhaps there was not only one reality, not only one will.

María Teresa felt empty. Her baby was gone. Surges of cramping somewhere within her abdomen clamped her again and again, coming and going like raucous waves beneath the full moon, a peristalsis of her yearnings that ushered out the feelings that had been lying tacit among her viscera, bringing them to the surface. She had tried to accept that her baby was gone, that this was the will of God. She thought she had gotten herself to move on, to forget about it, that it didn’t hurt her. She thought she had come to terms with her child living on as someone else’s child. But none of that was true. It was clear now that there were seeds of regret sown deep within her, and despite the drought that God had wrought upon them, they were now coming to blossom. She wanted the warmth and light she’d felt in that dream. She needed her baby. It was the middle of the night and she was lonely. She was having a bad night.

She had never been okay with it, she realized. She had gone back and forth, back and forth, but her attempts to accept it were only superficial—she had never really been happy with the situation, with her parents, with the priest, with God. It was the worst sort of injustice, something she didn’t deserve. And it was time she did something about it. Before, she had tried to put her trust in God, but if God would not bring her baby back to her, she’d have to retrieve the child herself. If she could only find the priest, he’d give her baby back to her. Certainly he’d be relieved to not have to take care of someone else’s child anymore. He was a priest, after all, and priests didn’t want to spend their days taking care of children.

But how would she find out where he was? He was now a layperson, just another one of the anonymous millions that inhabited the city. If he was even still in the city; he could have been anywhere. But there must be someone who knows where he is, she thought. Maybe the other monks. She knew that all the brothers of the Miraria had gone to other communities. There was another Benedictine monastery in a town not far away; perhaps some of the monks had relocated there.

“That’s where I’ll go,” she said aloud. The train ticket would be cheap enough; she’d be able to take the new suburban line, and from the station it would only be a short walk to the monastery. She watched the episode play out in her mind: She saw herself from above, rapping at the abbey door, meeting with the monk, getting Father Xabier’s address, returning to the city. It would be perfect. She watched herself again and again, becoming wider and wider awake with each replay. She couldn’t wait. If only she could go right that minute. The trains didn’t start running till morning, she knew, but there was no way she could go back to sleep.

 

Anyone can have a bad night, Rodrigo reasoned. Even he himself had known them before. Sometimes he even savored them: He’d always found a way to convert the dark lugubriousness he’d felt into renewed vigor, facing the next day with laser focus. This time, though, it was different. This was a huge blow. He still sat at his desk, the bottle of anís nearly empty, and he wanted to cry like a woman. He felt as though he were at the top of a cliff, a prisoner, hands tied behind his back, that he had been walked toward the precipice, where his captors had given him one final chance to say the magic word, to appease them, to redeem himself, and the whole time he’d been searching for the right thing to say and finally he thought he found the words that would save him and he opened his mouth—and all that was heard were the waves crashing against the rocks, far below. Some sweet gray mother.

Those crashing waves of the night did not relent. The next several days were difficult as well, and there were no signs of letting up. He had to buy a new bottle of anís before he knew it.

Rodrigo lost face with his employees. The news spread quickly, and overnight they began thinking of him as less of a fearless leader and more of a lumbering fool. He had promised them new offices, retail space in New York City. It had been his justification for driving them long and hard. But the rabbit on a stick didn’t work once the horses found out it was only cardboard.

He’d talked with Álvarez again about the possibility of relocating entirely. “Out of the question,” the man had said, wiping the crumbs from his tie. He refused to entertain the discussion any further. Rodrigo gritted his teeth, but he had no room to move. He knew that, in truth, not even Álvarez needed him. Rodrigo was barely involved in anything anymore. He was completely expendable. If he didn’t show up for a few days, it was unlikely that the business would suffer so much as a hiccup, yet he gleaned the biggest salary of them all. Sure, his name was on the door, but how much longer would they tolerate it? He couldn’t tempt them.

Thinking about the long term gave him a headache. Still, he had to do something soon. The company was on a collision course like an American steamship. He had to correct what they’d done in overzeal, when great expectations were just over the horizon. It wasn’t pretty, but it was their only chance to be saved from complete destruction. Plans for upcoming production were stymied, product lines were minified, and employees that were hired in the feverish expectancy of expansion were laid off. Rodrigo was devastated. There would be no New York.

Next door, S. Abbey of Santa María Miraria was vacant. The monks had moved out. The parishioners had long since moved on. Even the spiders had abandoned their nests in the corridor vaulting: Without the monks’ dirty laundry there were no flies, and with no flies there was no reason for the spiders to stick around. The lilies in the cloister, though, flourished all the same, just as they had for centuries. Either they were blissfully unaware of the political turmoil around them, or they chose to shine on despite it. Whichever it was, nobody seemed interested in stealing them anymore.

For lack of an abbot, of course, the place could no longer truly be considered an abbey, but it had yet to receive a new name. Still, there wasn’t much value fussing over the name of an empty building. Perhaps it didn’t need a new name; for the most part, people had always just called it Miraria anyway. And here again it had lived up to its name, respecting its own history, refusing to be sold into private hands.

Two days later, Rodrigo would receive further bad news—or, depending on who was telling the story, it might be considered another miracle. Just when he would be thinking that the worst of the disaster had blown over, he would receive a phone call from Julio Ortega, Guillermo’s father. The two men would discuss business and soccer in a friendly way for several minutes before Julio would reveal the real reason he called. “It’s with deep regret,” he would say, echoing the words of the letter from the Church, “that I have to tell you this… but my son Guillermo has—shall we say—fallen for another certain young lady, and I think it’s quite serious. I think it would be for the best if he and María Teresa didn’t see each other anymore.” The implication, of course, would be clear: Given the most recent economic developments, Rodrigo’s daughter was no longer fit to marry Julio’s son. This other certain young lady was undoubtedly the daughter of another, more successful, businessman. Before Rodrigo could probe for more details, Julio would suggest that he and Rodrigo should still be friends. “Sure, sometimes we get heated,” he would say, “but I do always enjoy a good argument with a Real Madrid fan who knows what he’s talking about.” But Rodrigo would not be listening anymore.

[] Chapter Fourteen: Pawns

 

Álvaro hoped it wouldn’t be a bad night. But he couldn’t let that worry immobilize him; if he didn’t do it tonight, he’d have to come up with a different plan: It was late autumn, so there were occasional days of unseasonable heat—today was one of them. But in another week or two, there would be nothing but chilly rain—maybe even snow. If it wasn’t tonight, he’d miss his chance.

He pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, crept out of his room, inched toward the entrance of his piso and closed carefully the door behind him. All the while he was listening for any sign of unrest from his mother’s room. There was none. This was reassuring; he knew she was sleeping more lightly every day—it was only a matter of time before she slept standing up—and if she caught him sneaking out at three in the morning there would be questions to answer. He could certainly have made up something believable enough to curb her suspicion, but it would have derailed his plans. No need to worry about that, though, he thought, as he made his way down the stairs.

“Gate gate,” he said, “para gate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha.” He said this many times, silently and aloud, over and over. He felt somewhat more even. He’d hoped it would slow his heart down to its normal rhythm, but perhaps some tasks were beyond even the power of words to accomplish.

Even at this time, the streets were populated. There were old homeless people bumbling here and there, though most of them had by now settled for the night on benches and under bushes and bridges. The ones that were still up walked slowly, barely taking a step at a time, either walking in dead silence or mindlessly babbling. At this time of night, there was no panhandling. A few were singing softly old folk tunes. But far more numerous than the homeless were the young people, only a little older than Álvaro, mostly university students, and they were drunk. They hobbled in groups with their arms over each other’s shoulders, they stood in clusters with Coca-Cola bottles at their feet, they sat on the steps of shuttered shops, and they spilled into the streets. They were boisterous, telling stories and laughing, playing guitar atop stone walls, peeing in corners and turning over garbage cans. The girls complained about their shoes and boyfriends. Some groups were confused, looking for a particular bar that was eluding them or trying to figure out their plans for the rest of the night. Chinos with hand-carried coolers walked amongst them, selling cans of beer for a real apiece.

Álvaro zigzagged through the clusters of people, navigating single-mindedly along the route he knew well. He silenced his mantra whenever he came within earshot of other people—it was odd enough for a boy his age to be walking alone at this time of night, and he didn’t need to attract anymore attention to himself by muttering in Sanskrit, especially given what he planned to do. The less attention, the better.

It wasn’t a long walk to his cousin’s apartment building, but he rehearsed in his head what he was about to do—how it would play out, what would happen—so many times, and he passed so many different sorts of people that it seemed as if he’d been walking all night. Still, he was surprised to arrive as quickly as he did.

Like most apartment buildings, downmarket and otherwise, this one had no porter. Instead, there was only an electronic panel next to the front door with an array of buttons, each having an accompanying label bearing the name of the tenant. Some were blank. Pushing any button would ring the telephone in its respective piso; the resident, if they so chose, could permit the ringer to enter with the push of a button that would cause the front door to temporarily unlock.

These systems were designed so that visitors could be let in remotely, without the tenant having to go all the way downstairs. (It was, in that respect, perhaps somewhat unchivalrous.) Though the system was built with visitors in mind, in practice, each resident was rung many more times in a day than the number of visitors they saw. The mailman, for instance, buzzed at random, only seeking to be let into the atrium to deliver the day’s letters. Solicitors of all persuasions sought similar access to leave on the staircase flyers for dental exams, coupons for supermarkets and Chinese restaurant menus. Champions from non-governmental organizations, too, wanted to come in so they could go door to door collecting signatures and pledges. Sometimes these people ran their hands down the panel, ringing every piso, with the expectation that someone—it didn’t matter who—would answer. In most such cases, there weren’t even any words exchanged, telephone connection notwithstanding. The residents themselves sometimes used the system: If someone forgot their keys, for example, or had trouble getting the front door to open—which happened more often than one might expect, leading some to whisper about a conspiracy involving the city’s locksmiths—they had to ring their neighbor to let them back in. And then, quite often, the name tags on the panel were outdated or illegible, and visitors couldn’t figure out which button they were supposed to push. Is that a C or a five? Does this building even have five stories? Sometimes the buttons didn’t even go in order. In effect, visitors frequently rang the neighbors of the people they were visiting.

In other words, tenants all over the city were used to being buzzed by people who weren’t visiting them. In general, it proved to be in the best interest of the person ringed to just let the caller in, whoever they happened to be. Most of the time, it didn’t matter. After all, nobody liked to talk on these intercoms—largely owing to the shoddiness of the connection, but also because of the sheer number of times a person was bothered in a day. If every ringer was given even a few moments of due diligence and nicety, there would be a line of people before the conversation had half-concluded, all waiting to push the same button. One simply couldn’t be expected to stand at the telephone all day. Thus it was common practice to finish these intercom conversations as quickly as possible—often, as with the solicitors, before they even began—and the only logical conclusion to any of these exchanges was, very simply, to buzz the person in. There was no harm in doing so, after all; if the person happened to make their way to your interior door, they could be dealt with at that point, when you could hear them better. You didn’t have to open up if you didn’t want to, and you could always call the police if there was any real trouble. If you just hung up the telephone, on the other hand, they were likely to keep calling back. And nothing was more annoying than the incessant ringing of a telephone.

Everyone knew these details, but nobody seemed to dwell on them. To Álvaro’s knowledge, they had never been exploited for nefarious purposes, which was surprising. Had he ever been the first at anything? Then again, what he was doing wasn’t nefarious—it was righteous.

He pushed one of the buttons, taking care that it was not one on the third (or second or fourth) floor. The button buzzed, but there was no answer. He tried again. Still nothing. He tried a different button. After a few moments, he heard a crackly voice. This is what Álvaro was hoping for: The wiring of these telephone systems was famously bad, of such low quality that neither interlocutor could quite understand the other. There was static and distortion, electric pops and interference. Some of the more luxurious buildings had their wiring redone regularly as technology afforded better connections, but this old building did not disappoint.

“Hello?” said the voice.

“Hi,” said Álvaro. “I’m your neighbor from downstairs I forgot my keys could you let me in?” He purposely slurred his words a bit more than usual to further obscure his voice.

“Sorry?” The voice was groggy.

He’d probably woken the person up. The discombobulation afforded by the madrugada was an advantage Álvaro hadn’t considered, but he was grateful for it. He repeated himself even more incomprehensibly, careful to make only the words neighbor and keys intelligible. Just let me in, Álvaro thought, and you can go back to sleep.

There was a pause, as if the poor resident still didn’t understand and was weighing the social ramifications of asking the ringer to repeat themselves again. In the end, the door buzzed, and Álvaro was quick to pull it open. He was inside.

Álvaro walked to the end of the hallway and pushed open the door to the courtyard. He looked up, orienting himself. Above him clotheslines hung, crisscrossing the courtyard on every floor, two of them occupied. The clothes hung like scarecrows, stagnant for the lack of wind. Something about them made Álvaro uncomfortable—he felt as if, even on the line, the clothes were being worn, only by invisible people, onlookers, who were tracking Álvaro’s movements. The clothes had to be dry by now—why couldn’t the people have taken them in before bed? He tried to shake the thoughts of being watched from his head. Concentrate.

He scanned the windows. As he had hoped, most of them were open—everyone wanted relief from the unseasonable heat, and they’d left them open for the night. He quickly found the window he was looking for—the one next door to his cousin’s apartment. Fortunately it was one of the open ones. Now the only question was how he’d get up there. Each of the windows had a protruding sill, enough to grab hold of. And while Álvaro had never thought of himself as particularly strong, at least he’d never been heavy in the least. Moreover, now that his adolescent body was bolstered with some new musculature, he was plenty strong to pull himself up without any trouble, especially given the circumstances. He pictured himself as one of those toddlers who, seeing their father trapped beneath a collapsed sedan, suddenly finds the strength to lift the car. Certainly he was stronger than a toddler—and lighter than a car. He’d never done anything like this before, and he had no reason to believe he should be able to—but nor did he have any reason to suspect he couldn’t. And he wanted it bad enough.

The only problem: The windows were too far apart. He could hoist easily himself onto the ledge of the ground-floor windows, but he wouldn’t be tall enough to reach the next row of windows. He hadn’t brought a rope, which might have come in handy. He could try jumping, but that would be risky once he got two or three levels up. He was strong relative to his bodyweight, to be sure, but he was not dextrous. There was also the noise jumping would cause; he didn’t want to wake anyone up. If one of the residents saw a pair of legs hovering just outside their window, they’d probably raise an alarm—or attack him. He didn’t want that.

Not knowing what else to do, Álvaro climbed onto the sill of the ground-floor windows. It was the window of a restaurant that had long since called it a night—there was no danger of him being seen by a night owl inside. Even though he was only a meter off the ground, he felt unbalanced, precarious, as he stood gripping the upper lip of the window. With one hand holding him in place, he reached his other hand as high as it would go, to gauge his prospects. No use—there was half a meter between his hand and the sill of the next window. Mentally he jumped, calculating how it would feel, where he would end up. There’s no way, he thought.

By now his heart was beating fast. There was still plenty of time before even the earliest of risers would awaken, but he felt a tremendous urgency. He had to act quickly. He had hoped that standing on the windowsill would spark an idea—something he couldn’t have come up with by observing from the courtyard floor. Many things were like that, he knew—some ideas took a certain perspective to be born. He was about to give up, to abandon the dire instinct of fatherhood beating within him. He’d given it a try, done the best he could, but it wasn’t enough. What else could he do besides his best?

He looked around again, and that’s when he noticed the pipe running to the floor from the roof in the corner of the courtyard. It was the downspout that shuttled the rain from the roof to an indented canal in the courtyard floor, where it drained into the sewer. Here, in the twentieth century, was the same technology that the Roman aqueducts once used across the peninsula. The pipe had been assembled from short segments, which, to Álvaro’s excitement, had generous lips. That was it: He could climb the pipe like a ladder—it certainly looked sturdy enough—and from there he could, at least in theory, grab onto the windowsill. Fortunately the window he wanted was the one nearest to the pipe—it was only a question of whether he’d be able to reach it from the pipe. It would take some measure of acrobatics, but he had to try.

The pipe heaved under his weight. Evidently it wasn’t built to support the weight of a human. Come on, thought Álvaro, you only have to hold out a little bit. He grabbed the next lip and pulled tentatively himself up. As long as he moved without any sudden movements, the pipe did not move anymore. He continued methodically, like a praying mantis on a branch, counting the windows he passed. He made the mistake of looking down—he was overwhelmed momentarily by a sense of vertigo and a fear that the pipe he was holding onto with all his life would suddenly detach from the wall. In a flash he saw himself falling to his death. He was afraid, but there was no other choice than to continue on.

When he was even with the window he wanted, he stopped. Just inside, he thought, is my baby. I’m so close—as close as I’ve been to her since she was inside Mari. Maybe she can sense that I’m here. Don’t worry, baby—I’m here to rescue you. His heart palpitated in code.

He reached out one arm toward the window. He could almost reach it. He was closer than he expected—he only needed another ten centimeters. If only I were taller, he thought. Again he wished he’d brought a rope or something. Or a grappling hook, like in comic books. What to do… He visualized himself jumping from here. Could he make it? He didn’t think so—he’d fall down too fast. That was it: As soon as he let go, he’d begin falling. So all he had to do to catch the window was to start higher. He’d still have to display tremendous agility and strength to catch the windowsill—and without the luxury of a practice run, or ever having done anything like this before, he wasn’t sure how it would go. But again, at this point, there was no other choice. He was most of the way up a downspout in the middle of the night. What else was he supposed to do?

He climbed a bit higher, his eye on the window. Is this high enough? Now? If he started too low, he’d never make it over far enough to reach the window. If he started too high, he might be able to get even with the window, but because of the acceleration he might be going so fast by the time he got there that he wouldn’t be able to catch the sill. It was a fickle calculation, and he had no real experience to help with it. He saw that worrying was futile. All I can do, he thought, is pick a spot, take a deep breath—and jump.

Álvaro stopped again, now halfway to the next story, and figured there was as good as anywhere. He looked at the window, executed another mental visualization—this time successful—and paused. I can do this, he thought. Everything depends on it. I can do this. He compressed himself—bent at the knees and hips—and then, ready or not, he launched himself away from the downspout, along the wall. His kick against the lip of the downspout caused a clamor that reverberated up and down the pipe, but Álvaro scarcely noticed—all of his senses were zeroed in on the windowsill.

He was moving in slow motion. To his relief, he moved laterally enough to be perfectly in line with the window, and he was falling perfectly into place. As he passed the window, he stuck his arms through it: At the last instant, he realized he didn’t trust his fingers to be able to grip the sill and then pull himself up after—what if he slipped? By sticking his arms in, though, he would be certain to catch the sill, and he’d have much more leverage. He was right, but he wasn’t ready for the pain of impact. He let out involuntarily a yelp—he was sure the bones of his upper arms had cracked. He was dangling over the courtyard, his armpits flush against the lip of the sill, his arms bent at the elbows and his lower arms gripping the inner wall. No, he hadn’t broken anything. Some sweat dripped down his face. He suddenly became aware that he had too much hair on his head—it was getting in the way, and both his arms were occupied so he couldn’t brush it aside. He let out a deep breath. He was fine.

The hard part was over—or had it not yet started? He struggled to pull himself into the room, looking for a reasonable balance between doing so effectively and doing so silently. He was about to roll into his final tumble into the room when he felt some resistance: His shirt was caught on something. But it was too late—he’d already put his body into motion. There was a loud rrrriiipp as Álvaro landed. It was only a small tear in the side of his shirt, but it had produced the loudest sound Álvaro had ever heard. He froze. Maybe nobody heard.

He was standing inside a dark living room, exactly like Gabriela’s in some ways but completely different in others. The dissonance was jarring. Still, he knew that the layout must be the same as in her piso, which meant that if the front door was straight in front of him, then the bedroom must be off to the side. The door was slightly ajar. He crept toward it.

What had he expected to see? The priest in his bed, sound asleep. The child in a crib off to the side, also asleep. He hadn’t played out fully the episode in his head, but now that he was inside the apartment he supposed he’d thought he would just pick up the baby, who would be overjoyed by the sight of her real father, and walk out, and that would be the end of it. Nothing could go wrong. He hadn’t seen himself falling to his death or anything once he got inside, as he did before he attempted to climb the downspout. Maybe he hadn’t really expected anything.

But what he saw when he pushed open the bedroom door, slowly and carefully so as not to let it creak, was not a sleeping man and a sleeping baby. He jumped back, his eyes wide, his heart bursting. Right in front of him was the priest, sitting up in bed, staring right at him. In the darkness Álvaro could not discern the priest’s expression—all he could clearly see were the whites of the man’s eyes. It was not a man sleeping in a bed and a child sleeping in a crib off to the side; what Álvaro saw was a father holding his infant child.

The man was silent and absolutely still, merely watching Álvaro. The door continued slowly to swing open—Álvaro had pushed it when he jumped back in surprise. Álvaro, for his part, was also frozen. Whatever he expected, this was not it. As his eyes adjusted to the scene, though, he was able to take in more details. He looked upon the child—she was sleeping, but he could see her face clearly—it was his own face.

“Yes?” said Xabier.

Álvaro was silent.

“Can I help you with something?” He asked the question as if this were the most normal situation in the world.

Álvaro hadn’t planned on a conversation, let alone such a calm one. “I,” he said. “I—that’s my baby, that you have. You’re holding. My baby.” He didn’t know what he was saying; the words were coming on their own. “I came to—take her back. I’m taking the baby.”

“Is that so,” said Xabier, not really asking a question.

“Yes. You’re not her father—I am.”

“Who are you, might I ask?”

“Give me the baby. She’s—mine.”

Xabier shifted his legs beneath the blankets, the baby still sleeping peacefully in his arms. He made a motion as if he was about to get out of bed, but before he could do so—

 

Gabriela was trying to sleep. She’d had a long day at the café and knew tomorrow would be just as bad, and she was tired. She knew there must be more to life than working from dawn to dusk. Throughout her life she’d seen others fall into that trap; she always told herself that she’d never let it happen to her. Yet she really needed the money. And—at least as society was presently organized, which was important given that Gabriela found herself in the center of a metropolis—with no money, there was no life. Who was it who’d said that without at least some measure of wealth there would be no happiness? It must have been an American. Anyway, working wasn’t that bad—she didn’t hate her job—and she could deal with a few days of joyless labor every now and then, as long as she was getting her sleep.

Tonight, though, it was too hot. Gabriela wondered whether it was actually extraordinarily hot, or if it just seemed that way after the crisp outset of autumn. In any case, it was uncomfortable. She lay in the darkness, under only a single sheet, tossing and turning. It wasn’t only the weather: Her libidinous neighbors were at it again, making rhythmic howling beating noises. After a short eternity they concluded, and the silent night swallowed up their sounds. After having cursed them so much, partly out of disgust, partly out of anger and partly out of jealousy, Gabriela needed time to cool down. Eventually she did, and she was just falling asleep when she heard what sounded like a Tibetan gong. Metallic, resounding, extended. Gonnnnnnnggggggg. A dream, she thought—her mind had been in that ethereal place, halfway between the waking world and that of dreams. Those kinds of things always happened on the verge of sleep. Still, she saw it clearly: those bald heads, the crimson robes, incense, silence. But she wasn’t in a temple—she was in her bed. It was a dream. And yet, there was something so tangible about the sound of the gong that was unlike any dream she’d ever had. It kept her awake.

She got out of bed. Maybe I just need a glass of water, she thought. On these hot nights it’s easy to get dehydrated. She heard some shuffling and scraping. A rip. By now her heart was beating out a warning. She stood perfectly still, straining to hear. Burglars? Or had someone’s cat just gotten into something? That was the trouble with nocturnal creatures mixing with diurnal ones. One was always causing a ruckus while the other was trying to sleep. Instinctively she grasped her umbrella. She held it by the canopy with one hand, assessing the hardness of the handle with the other. Her eyes were squinting in the darkness, as if that might make her hearing more acute. Perhaps it did. She heard muffled conversation. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the voices seemed familiar somehow. She listened harder. Something about a baby. Esperanza—of course. There was someone in Xabier’s apartment, someone trying to kidnap the baby. She’d heard stories like that before, abductions, where someone takes a child either for ransom or abuse. It must have been someone after that old artist’s money who didn’t want to leave empty-handed. She had to do something about it.

She acted decisively, swiftly, silently. She retrieved the key to Xabier’s apartment from atop her refrigerator, inserted it into the keyhole and entered, leaving the door ajar as she tiptoed toward the bedroom—that’s where the voices were coming from. She waited a bit longer—she had to be sure of the situation before she did anything. She saw the silhouette of a figure in the doorframe. It was a man who didn’t seem too foreboding but you could never tell by looks alone. The man took half a step into the bedroom as he said, “Give me the baby.” That was all Gabriela needed: She approached like an assassin behind the figure and swung the umbrella with all her might. She’d never been much for sports, let alone foreign ones, but in a flash she perceived the action as something like that of an American baseball player, swinging with enough force to hit a ball going a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour and make it go even faster in the opposite direction, enough to sail out of the park. The silhouette collapsed, evaporated, disappeared, like a shadow when the light goes on.

Gabriela became aware that it was now silent. There had been conversation, but she’d put an end to it.

In the silence a feeling welled up slowly in her gut, the feeling that she’d made a mistake, that she shouldn’t have done whatever she just did. No, she reasoned, she’d just saved Esperanza’s life. Esperanza’s and Xabier’s both. “Xabier?” she said in a whisper.

“Who is there?” said Xabier.

“It’s me, Gabriela. Who was that?”

“I’m not sure. He wanted to take the baby.”

Gabriela crouched over the collapsed silhouette. She squatted, setting down the umbrella as she did so, and leaned in to examine the man. She was horrified to discern his face: It was her cousin. “Álvaro?” she said. His eyes. “Álvaro!” She fell onto her knees. With her fingers she slapped his face lightly, repeatedly, trying to wake him up. But his eyes were already open. “Álvaro?” Seeing that the slaps made no difference, she grasped his shoulders. She shook him, and his head bobbled. “Álvaro…” She put a hand around his mess of frizzy hair, holding his head from below, and her hand became wet. Sweat. No, it was blood. Gabriela looked into his lifeless eyes and shook her head. She touched his chest—was it really him? Was this another dream? His lifeless eyes, his mouth partly open. She turned out her feet and collapsed onto her shins, and she sunk even further. She looked upon her cousin’s body like Mary in the Pietà and shed a marble tear. What had she done?

[] Chapter Fifteen: Revelations

 

María Teresa didn’t remember falling asleep. She must have done so at some point, though, because she woke up—as far as she knew, the only way to wake up was to first have fallen asleep.

She had had so much trouble sleeping. The heat, first of all: In August it would have been nothing special, but by this November day the summer had all but been forgotten. Dealing with the heat took a certain acclimatization. And on top of that, her mind was reeling with her plans for the next day, her heart palpitating eagerly with visions of finding the lost priest and her baby. At some point, she remembered, she remarked to herself that she really ought to try to get some sleep, because it was so late that if she didn’t she would be so tired the next day that all her plans would fall through due to an episode of narcolepsy.

And yet this morning she felt so rested. Her eyes shot open. Her heart resumed its powerful galloping. She saw it all in a flash: She’d take the cercanías train, find the other monk, learn where Xabier was, get her child, start anew. For the first morning in months, María Teresa had the impression that it would be a good day. Her day.

There was one small hurdle that stood in her way: a math test. A previous María Teresa would have struggled over whether to take the test or not, over which of her conflicting goals was more important, and she would have undoubtedly concluded that math was not important at all. Now, though, she couldn’t miss it; she needed to do well on it in order to make up for her lackluster performance earlier in the semester, in order to pass the class. Even her less rational subconscious didn’t need any convincing: She’d take the test and leave at lunch for the noontime train. There was no stopping her today.

Her buoyancy carried her to school, where she took a fidgety seat in her French classroom. Her mind was singular—math test, out. She was more interested in talking to a monk in the country than anything Madame Pérez had to say. She looked around as faces began to gather under the fluorescent lights. Chattering, gawking. Why were they staring at her? Along the walls, colorful grammar posters with images of Asterix and the Smurfs conjugating past participles and misusing prepositions. Bad memories. What am I doing here, she thought. Suddenly coming to school didn’t seem like such a good idea. I’m wasting time.

She was on the verge of getting up and leaving when the bell rang. It’s not too late, she thought. I could feign a bathroom break and leave out the side door. There wouldn’t be anyone watching this early. But then, there was something unexpected: She heard static from the PA system. Announcements? But those aren’t till third period.

“Good morning, students,” said a voice. It was the director. What was going on? The director never gives the announcements, thought María Teresa. Moreover, the director wasn’t speaking as dryly as she normally did; there were in her voice, barely perceptible, the edges of dolor. “By now I suspect most of you have heard,” she continued, “that last night, one of our students lost his life. Álvaro Morales Fernández. The details surrounding his death are still being discerned; the police have launched an investigation. Please, if any of you are approached by the media, decline to comment. There is no glory in spreading gossip. There will be a memorial service after school today in the auditorium. All are welcome to attend. This is a difficult time for all of us. Any who feel affected by this incident are invited to speak to one of our counselors. Please see your teachers, or feel free to visit my office, if you have any concerns. Thank you.”

María Teresa had heard the announcement, but her first reaction was that she must have heard incorrectly. Álvaro? Not the same Álvaro. Right? They were common last names—it could have been anyone. No, that wasn’t true. Dead? But how could that be? He was healthy, and she’d just seen him—when was the last time she saw him? She thought back. All the details of their fight came surging forward. I never want to see you again. Had she really said that? Did the director say police? She felt nauseous, aware again that everyone in the room was staring at her. Had someone asked her a question? She didn’t know the answer. She didn’t know anything.

Suddenly she leapt from her desk like a paralytic in the Gospel and ran to the bathroom. Her hands on the rim of one of the toilets, she poured out her disgust—with herself, with Álvaro, with God. That was it, she thought: God. Again God was plaguing her with further retribution. Had she not lived out enough punishment already? Had she not begged forgiveness? Had her repentance again been denied? She hated God.

She was sobbing now, draped over the acid basin, convulsing like a delirious priestess at Mount Parnassus. Álvaro. Was he really gone? An emptiness within her suggested that he was. He was gone. She sensed it. The world didn’t care that she’d never gotten to say goodbye, that the last thing she’d said to him was hurtful, hateful. Reality wouldn’t let something so trivial stop its progression. Álvaro. Where was he now? In Heaven? Hell? Purgatory, maybe. Or was he in the process of karmic rebirth, like he always talked about? Would he come back tomorrow as a lotus flower or the morning wind? Maybe he was nowhere, she thought. Maybe he was just gone and that was it.

She knelt there for some time attempting to reconcile the idea of a world where there was no Álvaro. Already she knew that she might never be able to adjust. She tried to console herself by thinking of Guillermo, of God’s plan for them, but this offered no relief. Under these circumstances, María discovered that she did not really love Guillermo. She did not long for him now, and perhaps she never truly did. It was Álvaro she longed for. But now he was unreachable.

In time María Teresa made it back to class—nobody asked her where she’d gone or why she took so long, because they already knew the answers. She stayed as long as her math test, but that was only because she was on autopilot, not thinking. The test went horribly; she couldn’t concentrate on logarithms now.

 

After the test, María Teresa left the building and headed toward the Atocha station. It was drizzling. She walked mindlessly, cutting through Retiro, the park where she and Álvaro had spent so many nights hand-in-hand. The rain let up and the sun came out. She found herself in the rose garden, occupied at this hour only by tourists. There was no love here today. They snapped photos, eager to take advantage of the day’s sparse sunshine before moving on to their next destination.

As María Teresa emerged on the other side of the rose garden, she saw a man, derelict, sitting on a bench, writing. He was alone, but something about him seemed to invite passersby. He had an open briefcase at his feet and leaves of paper tucked beneath it for protection from the intermittent rain. She gravitated toward him.

“Hello there, young lady,” said the man.

“Hello,” said María Teresa. She was surprised by the warmth of her voice.

“Have you come for a poem?” he said. “For you—just five pelas.”

“A poem?”

“It’s what I do—I write poems. I can’t play the trumpet, but can I ever write. What’s a poor old man like me got any business writing, you say? I’ll have you know I studied under Cervantes himself in my day, though he wasn’t much of a poet if you ask me, and even less of a teacher. When I told him as much, he gave me the boot. After that I studied under Lope de Vega, Quevedo and even Tirso de Molina. I don’t look that old, you say? Well, I appreciate the compliment.” He winked. “You like poems, don’t you?”

“Not really,” said María Teresa.

“Well that’s a shame, isn’t it? But I’ll be you like stories, eh?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You’re sounding a bit melancholy, you know. Let me see if I can cheer you up a bit. You do have a duro for me, don’t you?”

She fished a coin from her pocket and showed it to the man. He smiled.

“I do know one story that I think will do the trick,” he said. He closed his eyes and sat silently for a few moments before speaking. “In the remotest reaches of the meseta,” he began, “where the only sign of man’s existence was a tiny wooden house atop a tall, tall hill, there lived an anchoritic monk. He’d lived there—alone—for as long as any of the birds or badgers or toads could remember. To them he seemed enough like any other human, except that he didn’t talk—and speech had always seemed the hallmark of humanity. Of course, the monk had taken a vow of silence in front of God and all His angels—even the monk himself couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken.

“So the monk lived a simple, silent life of prayer and tending to his garden. But one day, while he was ridding his garden of weeds, something happened that made him break the vow of silence he’d taken years prior. A great—thing—was floating up there in the sky, bulging in some parts like an overripe cabbage. But even forgiving the bulges, it wasn’t quite round like a cabbage; there was a point at the bottom, as if the whole thing were a stretchy membrane like a frog’s egg, you see, and the black yolk had gotten so heavy that it was stretching stretching stretching the membrane downward. In other words, it looked somewhat like a giant parsnip, though with a relatively short tail, as far as parsnips go. And its colors: panels of red and yellow, green and blue, saturated and primary and quite unlike anything the monk had ever seen.

“Io papae! said the monk. He knelt in the dirt, staring up at the colorful parsnip, tracing it with his eyes until it was out of sight. And once it was gone, he closed his eyes and watched it pass over, again and again, inside his head. It was a manifestation of God’s glory, like another sun passing overhead, he decided, and he gave silent thanks. For the rest of the day, the monk could not concentrate on pulling weeds, preparing food, chopping wood or praying. He couldn’t wrest his mind from that parsnip that had passed overhead. What was it? What could such a thing mean? These thoughts affected him even as he lay in bed, keeping him awake for hours.

“In the morning he went about his usual business for some time. It is a true testament to the strength of the monk’s holy routine that he should so easily have forgotten something that had entirely thrown him off the day before and kept him up half the night. But suddenly, he remembered the parsnip.

“I must write this down, he thought. He could already feel the image of the strange bulb fading from his memory—what was the pattern of its coloring again?—and he wanted to still the mental decay before the memory left him completely. It had already come close. He abandoned his morning prayer for the moment and sat down to record his notes, including some sketches of the thing, and then he returned to prayer, newly bedazzled by what God hath wrought. Still, he soon became distracted again: Though he’d set down everything he knew about the parsnip, he was no closer to discovering what, exactly, it really was. 

“That morning he asked God to let the parsnip pass overhead again so he could have another chance to see it. It didn’t happen that day, or the next, but the day did come: He was out chopping wood, stocking up for the more temperate days of winter, when he saw it coming over the horizon. It seemed to be the very same floating bulb, following the same trajectory as the previous one. Again the monk followed the bulb until it was out of sight. 

“Confiteantur tibi populi, Deus, he said aloud.

“From that day on, the bulb passed over every day, and the monk regarded each visit as a special gift from God—a daily miracle. He counted himself among the blessed for having seen such a thing. At first, anyway.

“But as the monk gave it more thought, troubling questions began to stir: What is this parsnip, really? Why does it pass by? And where did it come from? What does it mean? These were questions he could not answer—not with all the faith he had cultivated in all those years of solitude—and this troubled him. He prayed over it, but soon even that failed to bring him comfort.

“The closest house to mine is over two days’ walk away, the monk wrote in his journal. Besides me, there is nothing here. Nothing for miles. And so it follows: The holy parsnip, whatever it really is, must be here for my sake alone. At first I assumed it was for my pleasure, but now I fear that was too fast a conclusion.

“It made him nervous. He expected it would pass over at some point every day, but there was no telling when—sometimes it startled him through the window as he was preparing breakfast, sometimes it peeked through the trees as he was gardening, and sometimes it appeared directly overhead as he was praying or taking a walk. Some days he could swear it came more than once. The monk found himself looking over his shoulder constantly, always worried that he’d find the parsnip lurking. Even as he was lying in bed, he felt it staring at him right through the walls, tracking his every motion—his every thought—passing judgment, like a deputy of God.

“It is watching me, he concluded. But why? He went over the possibilities: Was it God himself looking over him? Was it a spy sent to keep him honest? But why should there be a need to invigilate him so closely, when there were all the sinners of Sevilla and Córdoba to consider? Surely those Mohammedan devil-worshipers called for more supervision than a solitary man of God.

So what is the reason? wrote the monk. I did cut my compline prayer short the other day. And perhaps God heard me swear to myself the first time I saw it. The monk managed to come up with a short list of possibilities, but none seemed likely.

“At least one thing was for sure: The monk couldn’t allow the parsnip to spy on him any longer, regardless of its motives. Since it was impossible to predict when it would pass overhead, he would simply remain inside. Out of sight, out of mind. Of course, he had to venture out every now and then. Before doing so, he scanned the horizon through his window and then through a sliver in his door to make sure that the parsnip wasn’t about.

“One afternoon the monk was getting ready to make a hasty harvest for the day’s food. He checked the window and door and dashed to the garden, thrashing madly, scattering just as much as he harvested, looking shakily over his shoulders. The parsnip was nowhere in sight. Just to be sure, he looked skyward once more, expecting only to reassure himself that there was nary a cloud. But there it was: the parsnip, larger and brighter than ever, glaring back at him. And it was coming closer.

“The monk flung his harvest and dashed into his house, tripping a few times in the process, his heart beating faster than it had in ages. Forgetting about prayers and chores, he hid under his blanket, trembling, afraid the parsnip would break in and find him at any moment. He covered his head with his hands and clenched his eyes—hoping that keeping the thing out of sight would drive it from his thoughts. But even with his eyes closed, all he could see were a million floating, devilish parsnips in the skyscape of his mind. And they did not relent.”

The man stared silently at María Teresa.

“That’s the end?” she said. “That was supposed to cheer me up?”

“Holy parsnip?” he said. “You didn’t like that part?”

“But what does it mean? It’s scary. I didn’t like the ending.”

“Stories don’t always have to mean something, you know. Sometimes it’s just an old man trying to make a living. But I suppose, if you had to rake the story for meaning…” He paused, apparently deep in thought. “What’s most interesting to me is that the monk spent all those years practicing—and practicing for what?—but when the real world came calling, all he could do was hide under his blankets.”

“Hm,” said María Teresa. “What happens next?”

“What do you think happens next?”

“I guess the monk might go crazy, or maybe he actually talks with whoever his visitors are—faces the world, you know. Maybe he leaves his little house and goes off somewhere.”

“So either way, it sounds like he’s not a monk anymore, is he?”

“He could still be a monk, I guess, but a monk in the real world. You said he was practicing—maybe that’s what he was practicing for, don’t you think?”

“I think you’re right. Think of a spider—there are a million in this park, sleeping in the bushes right now, you know. A spider that troubles all night to make a beautiful web in the branches. But after all that work, the morning wind comes along and undoes all the knitting. It was all for nothing! It’s like that. You can trouble all you want in theory, but no matter how much thinking you do, you never know what will happen in practice.”

“I guess that was an interesting story.”

“You guess?”

“Here,” she said, holding out the coin.

“Thank you, my lady.”

It really was an interesting story; it had held her captive, oblivious to everything, for several minutes. It was only the old man’s mention of the morning wind that reminded her: Álvaro. She didn’t have the strength to make it all the way to Atocha; she turned around, and her feet took her home. It was raining again, rippling reflections on the cobblestones.

When María Teresa arrived, her mother was on the couch watching television—the midday news. Sofía stood immediately and came over to hug her daughter. “I’m sorry,” she said gravely.

Sofía and María Teresa turned to look at the television. The story of Álvaro’s death was being retold onscreen. The story had been recurring in all media, all morning. Generally nobody batted an eyelash at domestic deaths, be they killings or natural passings; these stories, if they were reported at all, were reported in dry sentences, only to fill time. Political deaths, on the other hand—like assassinations and ETA attacks—were a different story; they enjoyed extensive and emphatic coverage, sometimes for days. The perplexing death of a teenager, apparently, was also in this class. Details were hazy, lending the story to sensationalism—all the more because the whole thing smacked of wrongdoing.

The television showed the facade of the apartment building where Álvaro’s death—now being termed an alleged killing—occurred. María Teresa recognized the building: It was on a street she walked down often. It was outside her neighborhood, but it wasn’t far away. Neighborhood boundaries were artificial, anyway, and they were modular: They depended on who was talking, where that person was from and—most of all—what they wanted. The buildings bordering María Teresa’s district had been, for years now, aspiring to be associated with their wealthier neighbors, and this effect extended outward like a trail of dominos. The impetus, of course, was that if enough people could be convinced that these buildings were actually part of the ritzy neighborhood, their values would increase. The building on the television was nice enough—especially compared to the ones on either side of it—though it was very near the place at which the buildings were more run down than not. Its context notwithstanding, the building didn’t look unsafe—certainly not a place you might expect a killing to occur.

The segment cut to a photograph of a woman who Sofía apparently recognized. “That’s Gabriela!” she said. “Oh my God.”

“Who?” said María Teresa.

A caption appeared on the screen that read Gabriela Reyes Fernández, and the news anchor explained that this woman, presently in custody, was suspected in killing the boy. She also happened to be his cousin.

“You know her?” said María Teresa.

“She’s a server at the bar across the street, where I go with my friends. His cousin!?”

The news anchor continued, “A statement from the tenant where the crime occurred, an elderly man in the care of an infant, said the young man entered his apartment in the middle of the night in attempt to kidnap the infant. The suspect entered the apartment and acted in the man’s defense, allegedly not seeking to cause lasting harm. We will keep you updated on this story as more details become available. Next…”

“What a bizarre story,” said Sofía. “Gabriela—she always seemed so sweet. A cold-blooded killer?”

María Teresa did not hear. Whereas for Sofía, the story was merely a story—it might as well have been fiction—for María Teresa, it indicated an unsettling reality. She reconstructed the story in her mind, inserting the details she already knew. The last time they had spoken, Álvaro told her that he was going to retrieve their child. If the priest and the baby were living next door to his cousin, it was only a matter of time before Álvaro learned about it. It struck María Teresa: Álvaro had died trying to get her baby back. He’d died thinking about her. Should she feel guilty? She’d told him to forget about the whole thing, that it was in the past, that the child was no longer hers. She’d told him that she didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore. He didn’t listen. Maybe he’d been right all along: It was still her baby. It’d always be her baby.

María Teresa, suddenly aware of the weight around her neck, knew what she had to do. “I’m going down to the Chino,” she said. “I think a soda would make me feel better.”

 

Xabier lay with Esperanza until after the sun had risen and was well on its way toward its noontime apex. It never made it, though: Clouds materialized, no doubt from the mountains, and they brought with them a shimmering darkness and gentle rainfall. Xabier wasn’t asleep; he was giving thanks for her safety, and for her presence with him. As he listened to the pattering of the rain outside, he couldn’t help but think back to that night, when that young man had appeared in his bedroom doorway threatening to take her away.

Typically Xabier didn’t dwell on things that had happened in the past, but this incident kept climbing back to him. He said he was Esperanza’s father, Xabier remembered. Could that be true? He supposed, given the age of the mother, that it was true. After all, somebody had to be the father; in all likelihood this was not another virgin birth. So Esperanza’s father came to take her back—but something about it seemed so… criminal.

The young intruder was not the father; Xabier was. He was the one who had been taking care of Esperanza, and he’d been nurtured by her in turn. For weeks now, his had been the only face she’d seen. All of his thoughts revolved around protecting her, raising her in God’s light, keeping her healthy. There was no question: He was her rightful father. And blessed he was, to have such a glorious young daughter. He kissed her, his miracle, on the forehead as she slept. Peacefully she lay, unaware of the strife in Xabier’s mind, unaware of the incident of that night.

Gabriela had saved him. This was, Xabier knew, a curious way to regard a killing, but it was the truth. If she hadn’t arrived, Esperanza would probably be long gone—with someone who didn’t even know her name. Esperanza would be no more. It was serendipitous—maybe even the will of the Lord. And yet Gabriela had been so affected by what she’d done. Xabier had tried to comfort her, but she was bereft. She did not say anything; she only wept. Xabier, of course, didn’t know what it was like to take the life of another human being. He did know what it was like to lose a loved one—thoughts of Ugarte crept forward—and he thought it might be something like that. He comforted her, he forgave her—to the extent that an ex-priest could forgive on God’s behalf—and he asked if there was anything he could do.

And then the police arrived, and the news shortly thereafter… Xabier had been questioned by both. That had only been short hours before, but it seemed like another lifetime—the world around him had resumed normalcy. The cars outside accelerated and honked, people chattered. Anything connected with the previous night was only a memory. Where was Gabriela now? In captivity somewhere, probably being questioned. Perhaps she still couldn’t answer their questions. But that was beyond Xabier’s control; he couldn’t do anything about it. He lamented that his savior should be treated like a common criminal. Just like Jesus Christ, he thought.

He tried to clear his mind. “There’s no sense focusing on the dismal,” he said. “Not when there’s so much to be happy about. So much to be grateful for.” He stroked Esperanza on the cheek and rubbed her hair before getting up, moving carefully so she wouldn’t be jarred by his movement. He looked at her and gave thanks to the Lord that he had her in his life. “What would I do without you?” he said. He noticed the rain had stopped; the sun was shining again. He made himself some food and sat down to read.

In the afternoon, his buzzer rang. Xabier couldn’t understand the person, so he let them in. It was probably just a solicitor dropping off some flyers for massage therapy or sushi, he thought. A few minutes later, though, there was a knock at his door.

It was a young woman who he recognized as one of his former parishioners. Her hair was slightly damp. It must have been raining again—maybe she got caught without an umbrella. She was dressed plainly, in dark clothes without any jewelry, and she looked distressed. The skin around her eyes was red, as if she’d been crying. Crying in the rain, thought Father Xabier. He didn’t know the girl’s name—his flock had been numerous—but he knew right away who she must be: Esperanza’s mother.

“Hello,” said Xabier.

“Hello,” said María Teresa.

They stood looking at each other in tense silence for a few moments. “Is there something I can help you with?” said Xabier.

“I’m here to get my baby back.”

“Is that so,” said Xabier.

“Yes,” she said.

Xabier turned around and said a silent prayer. He beckoned her to follow as he walked toward the bedroom. He scooped Esperanza up in his arms such that she remained soundly asleep, a technique he’d mastered, and he turned back toward María Teresa. He held out the baby, and María Teresa took her in her arms. Esperanza stirred. Xabier was solemn.

María Teresa looked down at her child, and then back at Xabier. He couldn’t tell if she was happy or sad. She nodded to him. He nodded back, and then she turned around and left.

Xabier, now alone, took a seat on his couch. He looked around.

 

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Koan

  • ISBN: 9781370125937
  • Author: Tim Gorichanaz
  • Published: 2017-01-27 03:20:16
  • Words: 87087
Koan Koan