Marsella is a terraced town on the Cuaca River. Rowboats line the dusty shore. A paper plate blows across the square. Light bulbs strung on rusted wire occasionally flicker on and off like giant sleepy fireflies. A mañanita! Littorella sings it so sweetly for her dark-eyed, fatherless daughter. She is sweetmeats in taffeta. She is woman flesh, fevered with venom and desire. Candles burn behind the shades. Black nightshades cover Marsella’s windows. Nightshades cover the windows on the square. Black shades seal the windows in Barrio Barragan, the windows up the hill, the windows on the terraces. The black sleeping masks are fixed in place so Marsella can dream while the river sleeps alone in its ditch.
“You can’t go, Luzanne! I won’t allow it!”
“Won’t allow it? Won’t allow me to find my son? Our son? Our firstborn precious baby boy? The son you prayed God Almighty for because you were afraid it might be a girl?”
Luzanne Brazil was shrieking by now. She could hear the hysteria in her voice, the words twisted with pain hurtling towards her husband, all without effort, without care, without control. This wasn’t like her. But she kept packing. And shrieking.
“You and your sons! That’s all it’s ever been! Sons, sons, sons! No one in your family cares about anything but the sons! Well, how do you think all of you got here anyway? Just from sons? It makes me sick, Joe. But I love our son because he’s my child. Not because he’s male. And now you think you can keep me from going to him? I can’t believe you aren’t packing your bag. Why is that, Joe? Why?”
He stood sullen, dulled by her rage. As usual, Joe could think of little to say. Or do. He felt nothing. Yet he knew he was where he belonged. He knew this was a crisis in more ways than one. That much he sensed. Same as when he sensed a cow was in danger or seriously ill. These awarenesses came without words. But then, he always did best without words.
Joe couldn’t let his wife go to this violent, foreign place. He couldn’t risk losing her. She was the unfathomable spring he knew kept him alive. He honored that spring, knelt at it in his mind, slept beside it, warmed and cooled his body in it, saw no end to it, knew it, drank from it, breathed its misty air, and gave silent thanks for it daily.
Luzanne sat on the edge of the bed staring at him. Joe had become a statue, sealed against inclement weather, resolute without any redeeming features. What burned in him went cold. He couldn’t keep it, couldn’t grasp its meaning, yet knowing that if his wife said their son’s name out loud at that moment the stone of his stance would cave in on him like a cathedral crashing in on itself, burying the flickering votive candles in rubble forever. God, please don’t let her speak. God help me, please. Don’t let her say his name. He choked as he shoved the name “Paul” down his throat.
Luzanne shook her head and sighed. “I don’t know why I bother trying to talk to you.”
Joe moved stiffly towards the door to avoid meeting her gaze.
“Get me a drink.”
“You know you don’t drink,” he said.
“I do now.”
He went into the formal dining room, opened the two-hundred-year-old china cabinet that had been his grandmother’s in Portugal, and removed a very fine bottle of aged brandy. Suddenly, Joe felt the stones of his stature loosening, rumbling. His mother had given them the brandy the day Paul was born, and he and Luzanne had put it away for a special occasion. Joe’s hands shook as he set the bottle down. Slowly he removed the lead seal and pulled the cork out.
Luzanne came into the room as he poured two snifters full. She saw the opened bottle of the special brandy. She saw her husband falter as he put the cork back in. She saw his hands quiver as he handed a glass to her. Even his words came out shaky.
“I think Tom Strong will take care of the cattle for me. I know Jack and Marianne can stay at Helen’s. She could use help with the baby anyway.”
Luzanne took a long, slow swallow of the very fine, very special brandy. “I’m going alone, Joe.”
“RHODA! TELEPHONE! RHODA! TELEPHONE!”
The parrot’s screeching nearly drowned out the ringing phone.
“Shut up, Major!” Rhoda screamed. “Hello? Oh, Hello! Yes, how are you, Estrella, my dear?”
“HELLO! HELLO!” screamed the parrot.
“Major, quiet! Nope, haven’t heard a word from Philemon. Don’t expect to. Don’t really want to, either. That would mean bad news.” Rhoda laughed.
The parrot laughed.
Estrella laughed on the other end.
“I tell you what, Estrella. If he doesn’t do it right this time, you have my permission to bust his ass and wipe all of Marsella with it.” She laughed.
“SAY GOODBYE, RHODA! SAY GOODBYE!”
Marsella is a terraced town on the Cuaca River. The mind of Ana Garcia wandered slowly, like the river. She felt like doing nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all. She let her mind wander until it too felt like doing nothing—not thinking, not wondering, not remembering, not questioning, not hurting, not fearing, not hoping—nothing.
The weather called for nothing. Only the air itself did anything, stacking itself up, one dense square of still air stacked upon another until the thick, spreading wall reached her terraced house. The cat uncurled, spilling its belly of fur over the tepid tile. He fixed one eye on Ana and let the other one fall shut.
The air kept building a denser wall, upward, outward. Ana watched from her comfortable chair, her feet up on the padded footstool, her bare feet resting, the soles facing east, facing the open doors, the terrace, the invisible, impermeable wall as it thickened, her soles sensing the steady work of the hot, heavy air, its slow incessant movement as it built upon itself, doing nothing but being what it was, like Ana was doing nothing but being who she was, steadily being, but doing nothing. No thought, no worry, no vague fear or remote dread, no concern on any level, just being.
Ana stretched her soles eastward, the air—smooth as powder—fell like a benediction upon her feet, upon her bare arms, her moist forehead, her dry lips. She closed her eyes and let the sullen day slowly fondle her. She unlocked her knees. Her feet parted into a V, her eyelids burned as the day persisted in its heated seduction. Ana did nothing to stop this intruder’s gentle, deliberate caresses. A succulence of heat settled on her throat. Lazy minutes going nowhere filled the space under her arms and behind her knees. The silent guest put its face in her lap, nuzzling underneath her breasts, slipping slowly down past her belly until the forest between her legs caught fire. The uncurled cat watched and yawned, then closed his other eye. Ana moaned as she fell asleep, and let the day take her.
Paul Brazil woke with a razor to his throat. “Go ahead. Kill me. I deserve to die. Please God, kill me.”
The young girl giggled. “No, Padre. I don’t kill you. Mama say go to shave Suyo Santidad.”
“No!” He pushed her hand away.
“You don’t want?”
“No santidad. No holiness, no holy anything when it comes to me. Please. Por favor, no ‘Suyo Santidad.’ I am not holy. Don’t call me that.”
Dulce backed away. “Lo siento.”
“Don’t be sorry. Esta bien, okay?” The priest got up from his cot and went towards the girl. She froze like a trapped rat.
“Dulce, please. I am sorry.” He pounded his chest. “Lo siento. Don’t be afraid. Oh God, please. What are you doing to me? Now a mere child is afraid of me!” Paul dropped to his knees with hands in prayer.
Dulce ran from the room, screaming for her mother.
He began to weep. “I’m a priest. A priest who has killed someone. Oh my God, please help me.”
He looked around. “I’m not going to get any help.”
Littorella stood in the doorway with Dulce hiding behind her.
“Santa Monica!” she exclaimed at the sight of the sobbing priest. She loved invoking the saint for mothers. She loved being a member of that holiest of groups. Mothers. Adored, revered, nearly saints themselves. Recipients of the utmost respect. Practically equivalent to the Virgin Mary herself. Except not exactly virginal. Not Littorella.
She smiled as she watched the man cry. “Mi Dios! I never thought I’d see the day. Padre Paul brought to his knees.”
Her English was flawless. Barely a trace of accent thanks to the British businessman who took advantage of her when she was sixteen, or so she let him believe. Such a myopic, introverted man who knew nothing about women and nothing about seduction and nothing about poverty and what it will make a girl do.
From then on, he made Marsella a regular stop in his business itinerary. Littorella was bought and paid for by Rodney Chatham, and she managed to make it last for several years. She was that good. But she was getting older. And wider. And now she had a daughter who knew no father—only uncles, friends and now, a priest.
“Come on, Padre. I’m getting tired of watching you cry all over my floor.” Littorella helped him to his feet with Dulce clinging to her skirts. “Let go of me, chica, and help Padre to the bed.” Dulce ignored her mother and clung to her even tighter.
Paul Brazil flopped onto the cot. “I’m sorry, Littorella. I shouldn’t have come here.”
“No, probably not. But now you’re here, aren’t you?” She sat beside him and lit a cigarette. “So tell me what’s going on.”
Dulce stood, wide-eyed, frozen. “Girl, go get Padre some cafe con leche. Well, go on!”
She did as told.
“You gotta forgive her, Padre. She’s never seen a man cry. And certainly never a man of the cloth.” Littorella laughed. “She’s young yet. Wait till she starts breaking hearts like I did. I could’ve filled the Cuaca River with them. Want a puff?”
“No, thank you.” Paul sat hunched over, a servant beaten by the Master.
“So talk to me. What’s this all about? Priests aren’t typical guests in my house, if you know what I mean. Though it’s an interesting concept.” She stroked his head. He didn’t seem to notice. “Hmmm, the more I think about it, the better it feels.”
She scooted closer to him on the narrow cot. He didn’t move. “Obviously you’re in some kind of mess.”
“And now you need some place to hide your holiness.”
He didn’t respond.
Her stroking accelerated. “So you came to good old Littorella.”
Again, he nodded, beaten, a man without a prayer.
“Padre, I think this might be the best thing you ever did.”
Dulce returned with a large cup of coffee with milk and sugar. Littorella took the cup and held it for Paul to drink from as if he were an invalid. The young girl sat on the floor by her mother’s bare feet.
“There you go. That’s right. Take a few sips. Yeah, that’s it.” She then drank from the cup, carefully placing her lipsticked mouth exactly where his lips had been. “Delicioso. You did good, Dulce. Run on outside. Go on now. And don’t come in till I call you. Claro?”
This wasn’t the first time the young girl had been sent from her mother’s bedroom. Dulce nodded and bolted out of the room.
Littorella was now free to concentrate on the priest. Free to concentrate one hundred percent. To do for him what he had done for his parish. Love. Comfort. Succor. Yes, she thought, he could use a lot of succoring right now. She put the cup down and pulled him to her, succoring, succoring, his head fell against her chest, succor succor as her arms went around him her breasts into him against him towards him for him, her face down in his hair her nose smelling the priestly hair, her lips like a pair of hunters on the trail of a rare animal. Love. Comfort. Succor. Yes. His face turned into her into her full darkness clothed in delicate white cotton. Yes as her mouth went in search of his, down past his ear onto his neck she succored him as he let her cross the stubble field of his cheek to his nose, his finely formed nose, and then yes and she went backwards onto the bed pulling him with her, on top of her, she found his lips on the way down and like any good hunter, acted quickly, instinctively, trapping her game, and then moving in for the final kill.
To be continued….