From his pulpit, Padre Gregorio looked out over a sea of lovely spider lace mantillas. His congregation was almost entirely women. Only seven males of this village still lived: three old and bent rogues, who were here in the church, snoozing in the back row; a wounded and spent shell of a former boy who would never function as a real man; Salvador, the midwife’s husband, who had lost a foot at the Battle of Curupaity; Ricardo Yotté, the scion of a noble family who had become a close companion of Eliza Lynch, the consort of the dictator, Francisco Solano López, making him one of the most powerful men in Paraguay. Last in the priest’s heart, Comandante Luis Menenez—the local governor—tall, proud, and petty, who inhabited a place safer than that of almost anyone in the country, so sure of his convictions, so secure in his unstinting support of López. The comandante looked up expectantly from the front row. His usual benign expression, the padre knew, masked a wrath that might descend on a priest just for saying what this priest intended to say today. The government dragged men of the cloth to prison as fast as it did rebels and slackers.
“My children,” the priest, barely thirty-two years old, said forcefully into the thick humid air above the heads of the congregation, “today we must speak of a grave matter. An infinite and rending sorrow weighs on all our hearts. The violence that has so long plagued other parts of our continent has now devastated our once-tranquil Paraguay. You have all felt great pain and great loss. Paraguay is like a tree struck by lightning, burnt and withered. Night seems to have fallen.
“But we must look forward to the sunrise. Though the embers of enmity and conflict burn on, the war’s great battles seem to be over. It is time to put aside weariness and sorrow and begin to rebuild our country. To do so, we must overcome one great obstacle. Here in Santa Caterina only one of ten men remains. It must be the same all over our beloved Paraguay. You can see what this means. If we go on following the church’s laws of only one wife for each husband, our numbers will die out entirely. I and the good Padre Juan Bautista before me have taught you the marriage laws, the sanctity of your bodies, the commandment against adultery. We have enjoined you that you risk eternal damnation if you do not live chastely.
“I have prayed and fasted, struggled to find a way for you to cling to these laws, but I can see no other way, my children. We must, for now, give up these holy precepts.” He raised his voice and let it ring out over their heads with a conviction he prayed would convince them. “To repopulate our nation, you must accept the necessity to conceive—outside of marriage—the children who will be our future. Unions I cannot bless before this altar, I am sure God will bless in private. Pray to our Holy Mother. She will know you are not committing foul acts of the flesh, but making sacrifices to save your race. She will intercede for you at the throne of heaven. She will understand that these beautiful flowers of womanhood must find a way to bring new souls to Paraguay, so the tree of its life will grow up again from its roots. Paraguay para siempre! Paraguay forever!”
* * *
The faithful in the church, silent as they ordinarily were, buzzed with surprise, puzzlement, shock. They sang the responses for the rest of the mass in a state of distraction, until Padre Gregorio placed the chalice in the tabernacle, closed its black wood and silver door, genuflected, and turned to his congregation. He held out his thin, elegant hands. “Pax vobiscum.” He raised his right hand to bless his flock, but they did not go in peace. As he left the altar for the vestry, they filed down the main aisle, singing the recessional with unusual energy, and were hardly out the tall front doors of the church before they began exclaiming.
A knot of three or four women, straight-backed and barefoot, their traditional white homespun clothing hanging from their thin bodies, whispered together excitedly. The name they spoke most frequently was “Ricardo Yotté.” Yotté—young, elegant, securely connected to the most powerful people in the country—was the first choice of several of them to father their future children. Energized by their prospects, they quickly retreated to Alberta Gamara’s café at the north end of the plaza.
Cross-eyed, leather-faced Gaspár Otazú separated himself from his elderly male companions and dusted off his quasi-military shirt, complete with epaulettes askew and one brass button. He sidled up to the lithe and winsome Xandra León, doffed his military cap, and leered at her. Within seconds, her parents—Salvador, the wounded war veteran, and Alivia, the village midwife and healer—ushered her off toward their family’s estancia just outside the village. Gaspár then approached Manuela, the lady blacksmith, who also politely rejected the old man.
Comandante Menenez, after eyeing Xandra León as if she were a pastry in a shop window in Buenos Aires, took his small, smartly dressed wife Gilda by the arm. They spoke to no one. The señora comandante opened her frilly white parasol and marched with her tall, stern husband directly to their stately Spanish-style house, which faced the church across the square, the most prestigious location in the town.
“That priest is taking his life in his hands,” the comandante said into Gilda’s delicate little ear.
* * *
Ordinarily, Padre Gregorio quickly changed out of his vestments and hurried to chat with his parishioners at the front door of the church. Today he shied away, slowly removed the chasuble and alb, hanging and folding the sacred clothing—green for the Sundays after Pentecost. Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost infused the spirits of the apostles. Had the Holy Ghost inspired him? Or had the counsel he had just given his flock come from some base and willful place within his own soul? He could not at this moment deal with their astonishment, their need for guidance through the waters he had roiled. He would exit through the back, would wait to see the villagers in the coming days, a few at a time, and deal with them quietly. Cowardly as it was, he left the vestry through the dim belfry. The only light in the tower slanted down from the unglazed windows high above his head. His foot hit something on the floor. He tripped and nearly fell. A sack had been left there. He opened the back door.
Bright, early September sunlight streamed on to a scene that tore his breath from him. The sack was a man’s body, lying on its side. He turned it. Good God! How could this be? The young, handsome Ricardo Yotté’s dark eyes stared blankly. Impossible that this man could be dead. But there was a terrible gash in his head, the white of his skull showing under pink flesh.
The padre’s breath came back in gasps. Yotté’s pomaded black hair was crusted with blood around the horrifying wound. The skin of his face was ashen. His lips slack. None of the man’s considerable power remained.
The priest looked up into the tower. Had Yotté fallen? But what could he have been doing up in the belfry? The priest put his fingers to Yotté’s neck, feeling for a pulse, though the man was cold, surely dead. Then he remembered himself and ran back into the church for the oils of extreme unction. Yotté’s soul—such as it was—must be a priest’s first priority.
He returned to the body, uncorked the vial, and took a drop of the holy oil on his right forefinger. If Yotté’s soul lingered, the sacrament might help him into the next world. The padre closed Ricardo’s dead eyes and with the oil made the sign of the cross on the lids. The body still carried the slight lemony scent of Yotté’s cologne. “Through this holy unction,” the priest said aloud, “may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight.” He repeated the words, anointing Yotté’s ears—“sins or faults thou has committed by hearing”—then nostrils and lips. Fervent as he wanted his prayers to be, Padre Gregorio knew full well that Yotté’s eyes and ears and lips had sinned, if not against God, then against many others. He had aided the dictator and his concubine in looting the citizenry of every last trinket of any value. He had reported anyone who lacked enthusiasm for the carnage López had perpetrated. He had embraced any scheme that furthered his own fortunes, regardless of the suffering caused to others. The padre bit his lip and forced his mind away from judgment. That was God’s province. “Whatever sins thou hast committed through taste,” the priest continued. Before he died, Yotté might have repented the evil he had done. His soul could still go to God. At least that was what a priest was supposed to think.
The padre took the dead man’s limp fingers, intoning, “Whatever sins thou hast committed by touch.” The priest’s hands continued their motion, but his mind stopped. Beneath Yotté’s usually carefully manicured nails, there was grass and mud, as if he had been clawing the ground. Then as he moved toward the dead man’s expensive patent leather boots, intending to anoint his feet, he saw something that redoubled the chill in his heart: cuts in Yotté’s elegant European shirt, with a small bloodstain near each slit. He raised the shirt. Under the fabric were wounds, as if from a knife. He counted six of them in the chest.
The padre sat back, stunned. Murder. It could only be. And in a country where in the past few years, tens if not hundreds of thousands had died in battle and of disease, this death seemed somehow personal. Mano a mano. That it was this man made it at once understandable and incomprehensible. Yotté was not only a henchman, but also a close friend of the dictator, Francisco Solano López, and a kind of courtier to López’s consort—the beautiful foreigner, Eliza Lynch. Yet someone had murdered him. The comandante would have to be told. The priest now had another piece of dangerous news to deliver.
Copyright © 2012 by Annamaria Alfieri