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from the April 2006 issue

Last Rites

The maid whispers, "It's Sixto, he wants to know if you can come out to see his boss, says the poor old woman won't last until morning." I listen to the news with a feigned serenity, the languidness of one who knows too well that death comes to each of us in time, while holding back the cry of HALLELUJAH that jumps to the back of my throat and stifling the joyful itch in my sex, in my prominent belly, resisting the war drums that echo in my temples which have gone gray with years of silent resentment.

"I don't want to go for nothing. Have they really given up all hope for her?" I ask with my eyes fixed on the desk, forcing myself not to stutter, not to rush.

"I think so, Father, Sixto has a letter from Dr. Cisnero, but he wants to give it to you in person." I remain seated, even though I want to run to the door. I daren't act as if I had waited for this moment all my life. I mustn't even remember the thousand nights consecrated to my hatreds, nights I wasted imagining how I would feel today. If I drown myself in these memories, these anticipations, I risk experiencing only halfway, without plenitude or total awareness this night, this blessed night, full of grace. This night of felicitous resolve. This night that will ratify the thousand other nights of lonely torture.

To display my indifference, I pretend to be still absorbed in reading Proverbs. I linger on one of those I underlined when still a seminarian (at that time I documented my misfortune with biblical quotations). It is especially appropriate for this hour: The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share its joy.

"Tell him to come in," I order the maid. She is one of the strangers who do not know the bitterness of my heart or share my exultant joy.

Sixto comes in--Sixto, the foreman who served Doña Ernestina even in bed (according to gossip). When I first knew him he was agile, TOUGH, castrating pigs with a single slash. He's turned into an old man with slow legs and a hard face, cracked like a piece of dried beef. I take Dr. Cisnero's letter, I read, rushing through the doctor's pleasantries and explanations retaining only the meaning of the words confirming the rapid approach of death.

"They ordered me to tell you that you must hurry. I came in the van to take you." Sixto's eyes glisten. Is he holding back his tears, or is this a glistening of another sort, the malicious sparkle of gratified anger? Ah, Sixto, you were always the sly one. You DO share my joy, don't you? Your eyes can't lie to me. No one loves; no one feels sorry for the old cripple!

I yawn, to express my distaste for emergencies. I rise slowly and head for the sacristy thinking that I mustn't make Sixto's mistake. My face must be an opaque mask. My eyes must not sparkle or dance, must not give me away. The case containing holy oil is covered with dust. I clean it with a blow and standing before the mirror I compose my face into a look of routine compassion, touched with resignation, the very look the dying woman's relatives will expect. Gathering the rest of my last rites kit, the props that support this theatrical performance and step out onto the street as onto a stage. Sixto is waiting for my entrance, still putting on his act of grieving Indian. He's a good supporting actor...or is he acting? It can't be that her death truly distresses him! Idiot! She used you as a stallion, treated you like a slave, and you still feel sorry for her? I felt like slapping his sorrowful face even as I helped him climb the high step of the van. Couldn't they have sent a less geriatric chauffeur? Perhaps Ernestina only has old dotards at her service now. It's only natural. Young people today wouldn't stand her shrieking like a starving rat, her stinginess, or the creaks and pops of her wooden leg. Youth couldn't abide with her and in the end she was left with the veterans of masochism. Servants so used to her whip that they will almost die of sorrow when the daily lash comes to an end.

We leave the village by the main road and arrive at the highway junction. I lived here once, right there where the technical high school stands. It was a modest two-story house. On the ground floor my father had his veterinary office. Upstairs my mother, my bothers, and I were crammed together in two small rooms with wall so thin they trembled when the train passed. Each day, on bicycle or horseback, I traveled down this same way that Sixto takes me, which was just a dirt road then, carrying the vaccines against hoof-and-mouth disease my father prepared. Just before the hacienda, Cecilia lay in wait for me. Her sudden appearances had a savage element as imitating Tarzan, she would fall on me out of the trees, laughing, radiant, splendid as the jacaranda flowers that carpeted the road. I rewarded her bone-jarring feat with a ride, thrilled when she demanded one because I liked to feel her breasts pressed hard against my back, her arms around my waist, her breath in my ear. They were innocent rides. We enjoyed each other's skin, without clouding our sensations with reflections, like plants enjoy the sunbeams. Later, Ernestina began her sermons against necking, against lust, and we discovered that there was a difference between the pleasure of touching each other and other pleasures like drinking cool water or sleeping when tired. She filled our minds with guilt, filthy guilt and sacred guilt and to put a stop to her canings, her irascible scolding, our rides became secret dates. Our hugs became furious biting kisses. Our hands searched for the centers of our bodies with impudent caresses that we now knew damaged our souls. But that's enough, ENOUGH of memories, enough of the past. Today is a day to get drunk on the present.

I can't stand the silence in the van, I turn to Sixto, "How's your wife? She hasn't been in to the clinic in town since she got that cream for her rheumatism. Did she get better?"

Sixto rolls his sad eyes heavenward, "Thanks to God and His mercy, she is better, Padre; now the sick one is me*Š" he labors over a tedious report about his health. I don't bother to listen; it's better than silence and my thoughts of the past. His droning voice and the long straight line of the highway create a hypnotically monotonous atmosphere. It's a dark night, the air heavy with moisture. Tomorrow it will rain on the cornfields ranked beside the roadway. Why are they passing so slowly? At this pace, God forbid, we will be in time for the funeral, not the last rites! I can't be late! I must come between the cripple and eternity just like she came between Cecilia and me.

She meddled. Meddled? She manipulated. She allowed us to be sweethearts as long as she could keep us under strict watch. In the hacienda she drove us apart, banished to distant chairs. On the pretext of minding her niece's virtue she sent her to bed early, then earlier still in, while inviting me to stay longer. I was a big boy after all. "Would you like a cognac, young man?" she would coax and I, I out of what...out of duty, out of love for my girl, took the drink pretending not to notice her advances. Oddly, I don't think my body excited her. If she could seduce me, it would humiliate Cecilia, achieve a miserable victory over our two-footed youth. Cornered in the deep sofa in the living room she was all over me, her foul breath in my face. She bared her horrible stump and pressed it against my thigh as if she wanted to force me to desire the most repulsive thing about her. Yet she was too cowardly to suggest something indecent. She took cover behind talk that on the surface seemed upright, decent, even moralizing but made sordid by her forced physical intimacy. We young people were inexperienced. She knew more, much more, about life and worried that Cecilia and I might do something stupid. We were at a vulnerable age, the age when young people go straight or astray, depending on circumstances, depending on the guidance of their elders. She trusted me, oh yes indeed, she trusted me, but the girl had hot coals in her body. The girl seethed, she assured me. Why, if only I had seen how she panted at night, and how she woke up sweating with her nightdress undone. That's why she had to protect her, even punish her. I understood, didn't I?

Yes, I understood! I understood that she used Cecilia's intimate passion to excite me. I understood her deviousness, and I held myself back from insulting her, from killing her with her own cane, because she had the power of witches in fairy tales. She had the ability to turn love into dust. I would have obliged her, I swear I would have stooped so low, if it would deliver my princess from the spell, but a force greater than my will restrained me when I, with eyes tight shut, tried to touch her. It was You, God, whom I obeyed! Your omnipotence caused my impotence, as if I already knew the order I learned from your sacred book: Rejoice with the wife of your youth, a loving hind and a graceful doe. Let her breasts satisfy you at all times, and be ravished always with her love. Why should you, son, be ravished with a strange woman and embrace the bosom of a stranger?

We have turned off the highway to La Sauceda, and my heart feels as if it is tearing open. Accustomed to measuring the wait that ended today in terms of years and months, an increasingly shorter distance, and only moments, now separates me from my revenge. The headlights illuminate deserted adobe shacks, magueys, and bewildered hares. To a stranger, this landscape must seem like a ghost town. For me, it's a picture of the desolation I am inside.

As a young man, I dreamed of leaving those scrubs and running away to the capital. I wanted to be a lawyer. One never knows how or when his life rots away. I never imagined I would end up being the priest in San Luis de La Paz. You, Ernestina. YOU could never have predicted it either, otherwise you would never have staged your grand performance. Or have you forgotten now? Forgotten through mental incapacity, through the degradation of conscience, dismissed it with the passage of years? My rejection hurt your pride. Your spite grew stronger and stronger like the creaking of your false leg on the tiled floor of the patio, when wounded by my rebuffs, you hurled yourself out of the room, slamming the door behind you. Oh, you satisfied your spite. You made up for it by keeping Cecilia in the your hand. Come back at six tomorrow, you'd say. Oh, the girl can't go out tonight, no, or on Monday. Not today, she has a piano lesson!

Just one good romp with me and perhaps you would have relented, in fact, I'm sure of it. One good romp to satisfy your damned pride! But I was naive. To make love to you seemed a transgression of nature. I preferred to talk, reasonably of my love of Cecilia in the clear light of day, while the ranch hummed with its ordinary life, not in the damp darkness. I couldn't have picked a less suitable moment. Cecilia and I were going to marry and live in Mexico City, if you respect me, give us your consent and your blessing; I love her sincerely!

From your lips first a green foam and then a powerful shriek came out. You slapped away the hand that I had placed between yours hoping to move you with my abject sincerity and with the coldest treachery, you launched into that speech, that speech like an offended virgin! "You filthy whelp! Let me go! Stop touching me, you dirty little bastard. You think I don't know about your perverted lust for me? What's this *Šñproposal' of yours? You would marry my niece and would *Šñsatisfy' me as well? I have put up with your rude attentions out of respect for your father, who has been my lifelong friend, but don't think you can talk me into this. And forget about Cecilia! The poor girl is ugly, I know, but she deserves better than the village errand boy. Now get out! Ah, you're not leaving? Sixto, come here please! Take this spoilt brat and throw him off the ranch!"

I left. I left hurt and perplexed through the same door I see now from the van, illuminated by an anemic streetlight. We park next to the basin where the mules drink water. Nearby I see the hacienda's chapel, closed now for twenty years. I officiated there shortly before the drought that turned La Sauceda into a wasteland. I believe I even gave you the sacrament of communion, Ernestina, but you never confessed with me! Perhaps you had regrets. I certainly have my share after following a vocation I never felt. I entered the seminary knowing that I would be a lazy, ineffectual, apathetic priest, heedless of the spiritual needs of my flock. I was attracted to the priesthood solely by what kept so many faithful from the profession: celibacy. I couldn't be with anyone except Cecilia. You dangled her before me for two more years and then sent her to Europe. You killed my last hope by forwarding a postcard in which she smiled in the arms of a bearded man, dressed as a bride before the Cathedral of Rheims.

Latin and theology didn't cause me any problems, after all, I was raised in the "faith." What I could never accept was indulgence for sinners, the imbecilic offering of the other cheek, the undeserved gentleness of Christ. How can you accept, how can you BELIEVE in the miracle of salvation, when the hardened sinner repents at the last hour of life and enters heaven through the back door? Of all the sacraments, extreme unction always seemed the most ridiculous to me...but I liked it! I liked it because it is absurd. It gave me ideas, you know? The idea of asking to be assigned to this parish to be close to you, Ernestina? The idea of "special" last rites, that go against the dogma. The wicked idea of coming to this large house today, whose gates open screeching to Sixto's shout, and where I am greeted, welcomed by the six or seven relatives who came lured by the smell of inheritance. Ah, and here is my faithful companion in these critical moments, the anguished and obliging Dr. Cisneros!

"Another one passes from your care to mine, Doctor."

"It is impossible to compete with the Almighty, Father!"

"May I see her?"

"Please. Mustn't let the devil get ahead of us!"

Respectfully, the vultures withdraw. When I enter the bedroom, my heart returns to its normal rhythm. I am alone with her, clear-headed, calm. I bolt the door and make certain that there are no indiscrete gaps in the window draperies. My preparations made I look at you at last. Oh, Ernestine! You don't look like a dying person, you look like a corpse already! Your yellowish hair fans out over the cushions that keep you half-seated. The light of the candles accentuates the seams of your face, the color of the light curiously bringing out the blue in your hollow cheeks. In your left hand you hold a rosary that trembles slightly with the irregular beat of your pulse. Surprised to see me here? No, you must have expected it! But, unafraid! Oh, you must think that I forgave you as was my duty or perhaps that time heals all wounds as the old saying goes. Not ALL wounds, Ernestine, not all.

Slowly and elegantly, like a bishop, I come closer to your deathbed and then I look at you lewdly, returning the look you gave me when you wanted to seduce me, that night when I rejected you and your one leg. That leg I now feel, fondle, caress, and squeeze with a rage that gives you back life, that makes you react with a weak weak, Ernestina, you cannot push away my body as I pushed away yours. You cannot push away this body that you once lusted for, remember? I am just giving you what you once wanted. Wasn't this your fantasy, you horny old cripple? What bothers you then? That your fantasy comes true at such an...untimely moment? Oh, NOW you want something else. NOW you want God's forgiveness, not these avenging hands of his minister that rub your wrinkled breasts, not these sanctified fingers that intrude into the cobweb of your sex, not this pain of dying with all the filth in your soul.

I grab the rosary from you and throw it in the chamber pot. I masturbate in a hurry, please forgive my haste, dear lady, if I don't do full justice to your frog body, but clearly your time is short. And then, with my cassock up around my waist, overcoming the repulsion of your fully exposed incomplete leg, I penetrate you happily, sinking the anchor into the reef that prevented me from navigating inside little Cecilia. You wanted to go to heaven by the way of opportunists, and I came to stop you with...with a NEW sacrament. This is the extreme unction you deserve; this is your glory, the glory of going to hell with a belly of my holy oils. We stop heaving at the same time. I because I came. You, well, you because you are dead!

I get up from the bed satisfied, beatified! I arise with a clear conscience. Standing before the mirror on the closet door, I smooth my habit down, arrange my hair, and compose myself into the very image of a respectable priest. On leaving, I inform the conclave of jackals that you have passed away. "God has her in his glory." I murmur rolling my eyes heavenward, staring at the ceiling. It is a pious look that I have perfected with years of practice. I go out to the patio to enjoy the cool night air, the blessed night that will finally let me sleep peacefully. I too may now, rest in peace.

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