Librada comes out of her stupor again and asks for water. Ña Sotera gives her a drink. Marta is looking at the image of San Onofre in the niche. Catalina is looking at the black birthmark on her arm. Ña Sotera leaves the glass on the table. She turns down the sheets, tucks the sick woman in and goes back to her place with her hands on her lap.
(Each one’s thoughts take flight like a bird that then returns with a different fleeting memory about what they had lived through together. Ña Sotera remembers more details than the others. Like Engracia stabbed in the corridor of the dismantled house. Engracia and Librada clutching opposite sides of the basket, depositing it on the ground. Serapio’s head, enormous next to his skinny and abbreviated body. His matted hair and round eyes. His moist dark lips. He never had facial hair. He was hideous. But what does that matter now?)
Ña Sotera stands up to get something to drink. The pitcher is in the corridor just outside the room. She walks back inside putting loose strands of gray hair behind her ears.
“This water don’t quench my thirst, not a whit. For sure it ain’t from the well.”
“What do you mean, it ain’t from the well? You’re the one’s lost your taste. I wouldn’t want to drink any water that weren’t from our delicious well neither, though.
(That first sip of water from the well in the church plaza when they reclaimed the town. Everything was broken, dismantled, destroyed. Even the well curb was knocked down. But gazing down into it, the water was still there, the same as always, clear and serene, its taste unchanged. The amambay fronds falling to the bottom like lashes from its round and peaceful eye. The women can’t know—they’ll never know, perhaps—about the two bodies thrown in there and whose bones rest ninety feet below. By the time they arrived, who knows what was left of those nameless bodies?)
“I’ll never forget that gulp of water or how scared I was to spend the first night in my room with no door or window. You wouldn’t believe it.”
“Why’d you be afraid to sleep in your own house? That was nothing after all we’d been through, my God. Remember the time the Brazilian soldier almost stuck a bayonet through your neck.”
“Sure. but now we’re back and everything’s like it was before. The fear too. How else we gonna know that we’re home again?”
Librada pronounces some vague words again. The women lean over the cot attentively.
“Whadya say Librada?”
“You want something?”
But she returns to her immobile silence and only occasionally opens her eyes though her gaze doesn’t fix on anything.
“That was the first wake in San Onofre. After the war. We laid him on the cot, on Engracia’s shawl. We dressed him in the cloth Ña Sotera was weaving for his drawers and an undershirt.”
Laughter starts to surface again, but they don’t dare. Death was not something to laugh at.
“Remember his shroud?”
“Just a tube. We stuck both his legs in it. But who was gonna see his shroud anyway?”
“We put on his old army boots. Old, but they had to go with him. What a fight, the boots were so stiff, his feet too.”
“His eyes didn’t close all the way ‘cause we didn’t have two coins to put on ‘em so his lids’d stayed shut.”
“I didn’t want to look at the dear departed ‘cause with that eye half open and stiff it looked like he was giving us a dirty look.”
“Thank God we could light four tiny candles. And we prayed all night. Six rosaries. One each. Engracia made orange peel tea and we drank it without sugar.”
“The worst part was Serapio.”
“Engracia put him in Ña Sotera’s room so he didn’t see the body, but why the bother? During the night he started hollering again and we had to bring him to sit by us anyway.”
“What a laugh he let out when he saw the old man in his one-legged drawers, both legs in the tube. That demonic laugh. Gave everyone goosebumps. Even though we knew that laugh was his way of crying. Been like that since he lost his legs.”
“Me and Marta,” Catalina says, “and Librada and Benigna helped some too, dug his grave in the cemetery with Don Ulogio’s shovel. What a cheapskate. That miserable old man and his shovel. That short while and he wanted to rent it to us.”
“I told him, tightfisted old man, you’re gonna need someone to bury you one day and want ‘em to borrow your shovel.”
“We didn’t have a coffin. There was a lot of wood but there weren’t any nails or a hammer. What were we gonna do? We put him on top of a plank and covered him with Engracia’s shawl and wrapped his head up good so dirt didn’t fall on his face and that’s how we buried him. We prayed a lot too. And he got a cross.”
“Last year we painted it,” Catalina said.
It gets silent again. Through the window, branches from the trees in the plaza could be seen swaying in the wind. A bell sounded and broke the lull.
“Again with that bell,” Marta said.
“Every half hour he said, and he’ll do it. This priest does what he says.”
“Imagine,” Marta sighed.
Another long silence. Librada stirs on the cot but doesn’t open her eyes.
“Benigna hasn’t come to see her,” Catalina says. “Just that one time.”
“She lives in Camba’reongüe now, with her fella.”
“She’s really changed,” Marta says.
“But she wasn’t one of us anyway. She came from somewhere else and from other folks.”
“And who knows how she lived during the war. She mustn’t have suffered like we did.”
“But she weren’t mean. Dumb neither. Remember when Don Ulogio told her to go with him, when Leonida was gonna leave him, though he didn’t let Leonida go, and treated her bad, all the same, till the end.”
“But who did that old man ever treat good?”
“I’ve never known a more miserable old man,” Ña Sotera said.
“With that disgusting stump of a hand and tesatu.”
The bell sounds again, and, again, the women look at each other but don’t say anything.
“He didn’t help us one bit. It would’ve been the same if he never came back. He’s nettled everyone since he showed up, years before the war.”
“Where’d that old man crawl out of? We thought he was dead and up he comes to make trouble for us on the road. And when we thought we’d left him far behind, he shows up with his woman and his mule to make trouble for us again. He ain’t got no soul.”
(Don Ulogio got down from the horse. Engracia stood in the doorway of the house with Marta and Librada and Catalina and Benigna, the maté with yuyos in her hand. He walked by them and without even a hello went into the house that was—and nobody was going to deny it—his, and which Ña Sotera was occupying since they had returned. Engracia followed behind him to explain and tell him that they had put Ña Sotera there because she was sick and that was the only room in half decent condition that had doors and windows and that way the ailing woman wouldn’t be so cold. But he didn’t even hear her. He was busy going from room to room stamping loudly, pushing the doors open, making a lot of noise. Ña Sotera, who was very feverish, got a real scare. She didn’t recognize Don Ulogio at first because of the fever. Don Ulogio finished making the rounds of his house, went back over to the women and looked at them with a face like a judge and said, “You’re going to remove that old woman from here immediately because I have to move into my house. And bring back all the furniture you took from here.”
Engracia responded calmly but very seriously. “We didn’t take no furniture from this house.”
“So, who took my furniture then?”
Engracia fixed her eyes on him, looked at him intently and then gave half a turn and went over to the sick woman without answering.
“Vacate immediately I said!”
From the head of the sick woman’s bed Engracia answered, “Ña Sotera’s got a temperature, she’s perspiring, and it’ll do her harm to just pick her up like that. Can’t you be neighborly for a bit.”
Don Ulogio didn’t want to know anything about it. Marta and Engracia helped Ña Sotera up, though she could barely stand on her feet, and just like that, half naked, they took her to Engracia’s house and lay her down on Pa’i Conché’s cot. When it was cold, Engracia slept there, and the old man slept in the church. But there was only one cot in the house and Engracia had to sleep on the floor even though it was winter.)
“There weren’t any Bishop in Asunción then.”
“Then what was there?”
“Don’t know. There had to be someone, but he weren’t a Bishop. All the same, he was in charge of church things.”
“Anyway, Aparecio went to see that kind of Bishop and told him a lie, but that lie was a good lie for us.”
(“We can’t send a priest if there aren’t at least fifty souls.”)
“There’s fifty and a half Monsignor.”
“Fifty, and one on the way. Who knows if it’s arrived yet?”
“That’s how it went more or less, from what we know.”
And the priest finally showed up one day on a fat horse. The first fat horse they had seen in ages. A shiny box on the saddle frame and a twig of an altar boy with a weaselly face who trotted behind the horse nudging him along because he wouldn’t move on his own and the priest probably didn’t want to use the whip.
Everyone went out to the plaza. Except for Ña Sotera who couldn’t get up and was in bed again, during another bad spell. The few townspeople were already divided into groups. On one side, Marta, Engracia, Librada, Catalina, Benigna, Silvia, Leonida, Extramuros, Crisanto and the two shut-ins, Ña Sotera and Serapio. On the other, the old spinster who recently arrived with her niece. The other neighbors who came in the early days hadn’t arrived yet. The Pa’i got off his horse, surly like a storm cloud, passed the box to the altar boy, then quickly and tensely, without looking at anyone, went into the church. Everyone followed him silently and very respectfully. The Pa’i looked all around, probably for another reason to chastise everyone. The church was completely bare without pews and only one confessional. The high altar was missing two statues; the paintings on the wall were all stained; the altar had a newly woven but unembroidered cloth. The Virgen had one arm cut off. San Onofre was there but there was no way to know where his face was supposed to be since the time the women had plunged his head into boiling water to kill the termites. And just four small candles were lit in two candle holders made of mud. All very clean, it’s true. But you could already hear a thundering voice say,
“That indecent cloth on the altar isn’t good enough for a kitchen table. Four miserable candles. Those vile candle holders. What a lack of respect and cleanliness!”
The spinster, who was looking around at the others—though no one was looking at her—was very content while the Pa’i reprimanded everyone. And the Pa’i continued,
“Have you forgotten the first obligation of every Christian is to honor God, the Virgen, and the Saints? Can it be that you have gone so far as to neglect God’s house and forgotten the devotion that Our Lord, Our Blessed Virgin and our Patron Saint deserve?”
Everyone remained quiet, their eyes lowered. They didn’t know what to say. Only the spinster was feeling happy.
But Engracia got up and said,
“It’s not our fault Pa’i. The past three years we’ve had almost nothing to eat. But we kept the church clean from the beginning and the saint always had a candle, even if we were in the dark.”
At this, the angry priest seemed to soften a bit. He quieted down for a few minutes, ran his eyes over the less than stellar group of parishioners, looked around a few more times, more quickly each time, and then burst out again.
“Why is it that I see so few people? Where are the fifty-one souls of San Onofre de Cuarumí?”
This time, no one answered. The spinster and Leonida because they didn’t know anything about the matter, and the other women because they knew too much and were afraid to answer. The Pa’i looked at the pitiful group with daggers as if he wanted to strike them all down at once.
“Lack of faith, lack of Christian fervor. This is the state of the world these days.”
Engracia once again stood up to speak.
“Pa’i, everyone who lives in San Onofre is right here. Only two are missing. One’s very sick in bed and the other’s wounded and can’t get up, that’s why.”
“But I only count eleven here. Fourteen with the children. And I was told there were fifty-one.”
“We’re only fourteen, Father. Eighteen with the ailing woman and a young man who can’t walk and isn’t right in the head and a few children who need baptizing.”
“But the one who brought your request said fifty-one. Why did he lie?”
“‘Cause they told him if there weren’t fifty-one a priest wouldn’t come. And we really needed a priest.”
Now the priest was really fuming! Fireworks shot from his eyes. But Engracia didn’t budge.
“It was wrong to lie, Pa’i, for sure. And it’s true that there’s only a few of us, but each one’s got a soul and we can’t go without the holy sacrament. Can eighteen souls just be tossed in the trash like that?”
The priest went silent, though he still had that oaken face when he ordered the altar boy to prepare the altar for mass. He put on his stole and walked into the confessional, looking carefully beforehand to make sure there weren’t any cobwebs he could grumble about. But it was pointless because Catalina and Marta and Engracia always kept it very clean as if a priest was going to arrive at any moment. But the Pa’i was bent on finding something wrong and he did, yelling angrily,
“There’s no chair!”