Just last Sunday el padre felt the keen appeal the rites had always had, especially when nailing himself, in a manner of speaking, upon the very cross formed by the meeting of the nave and the transept.
But when he took himself to bed and informed his housekeeper that he was not to be disturbed, several visitors of several stripes must have forced themselves in. It felt, as he listened to them, as if not only his love of rite, of ritual, but his tolerance of transgressions large, small, and imaginary, had deserted him. It seemed, to a man with the soles of both feet already feeling the flames, temporal he hoped, that they were telling him more than they had to.
Life had taught him that those who had something to confess generally kept it to themselves, that those who enter, or exit, the confessional wracked with tears just wanted to be heard. Or seen. After sixty years on the job it was hard to imagine anyone more desperately lonely than a priest but, apparently, some are.
His first uninvited guest was Aurora—or was it Rosalba?—a not-so-young woman he had known since she was a child.
There he was in his humble cot, propped up with pillows that, adequate as they had been for a lifetime, were suddenly uneven. Hard-edged. They must have been stuffed with straw, straw with a definite odor of dead chicken. Chicken, the meat of those who don’t only go without on Friday. And there she was, kneeling—without the slightest intimation that he no longer had a single sacrament, not a hint of one, to grant—at his deathbed.
He could hardly hear a word, though it did seem she was moaning about, not what she might have done to someone, but what someone had done to her. Should he reach deep within to find remission for that? Should he compel himself to make a certain sign over her? To assign a hundred muttered venerations to one rather special lady of Guadalupe? Maybe, instead, with the last little bit of force left in him, he’d just slap her on top of the head.
But on she went.
What should he, a country priest, call her drivel? Hogwash? Perhaps, thanks to the abundance of his leavings, the bull would have a better word. El padre had the impression his persecutor had been claiming persecution for half an hour, hanging her head lower and lower as her voice rose higher and higher. All he could see now were stiff gray hairs starting out from her part, pushing stiff black hairs into eternity, and a dry scalp rising from her skull like some historical parchment, perhaps a Dead Sea scroll, climbing clusters of hairs with a life of its own.
“Ah, yes, my child, do go on,” he managed. “I’m dying to hear the end.”
Perhaps it had been his turn to mutter, for Rosalba, or Aurora, possibly telling herself she had only imagined his words, felt encouraged to continue.
“Oh, I know, some say they were born on the wrong side of town or the wrong side of the tracks, but all sides of Pueblo Viejo are the same and the train will never come here. I must have been born on the wrong side of the moon. Is it possible?”
El padre, savoring a brief blessing of silence, realized his tormentor had come to a stop, that he must utter further encouragement.
“Yes, child, in this world anything is possible, but…”
“I was born in the wrong century, before electricity and agua potable came to our pueblo. I was the wrong child. I couldn’t work the fields, not like a boy. In school I made the wrong friends. They made fun of me. But the story doesn’t end there.”
“I was afraid it wouldn’t.”
Could he really have said that? How had he kept his job all these years? True, he was a bit of a burbler. Maybe no one had ever heard what he said. Maybe his flock thought he was mumbling Latin, which was, or had been until not that long ago, the language of God.
“I went on,” said Aurora, or Rosalba, “to marry the wrong man, to have the wrong children.” Here the old girl looked up, her eyes filled with vivid pictures of the wrong man, the wrong children, and asked…
“What can you do, padre, when you’re born on the wrong side of the moon?”
El padre thought maybe he should say something about the moon only showing us one side, one we have not chosen nor was chosen for us but, though he opened his mouth, nothing came out and Rosalba, or... Never mind.
“And now you who have never been any help to me, are dying, and God has sent me to be as useless to you in your last moments as you were to me from childhood on. I just wanted you to know, padre, that it never seemed to me you believed a word you said. As far as you were concerned, it was all horseshit, wasn’t it?”
That was it, the old girl had the word. He almost thanked her.
“Admit it,” she continued. “There’s no one here but me and you. And God.”
“Aurora, if you please, padre. I had a feeling you could never tell me from my sister. For your information, she was the pretty one. I was the one born with the wrong face.”
Here Aurora, who couldn’t have much more time left than he, looked up with as evil a grin as could be managed with all those missing teeth, the ones knocked out by the wrong husband.
Anyway, that was that. There was no need to answer. A curse or two more from her and, having taken her revenge for what she considered to be a lifetime of deceit and deception, she was gone, to be followed by…
No one, thank God.
An utter silence in which it was all he could do, now that she was gone, not to tell the old bitch where to take herself off to. Lying there he realized he didn’t care what happened to her, maybe he didn’t care what happened to anyone. What if, he asked himself, now that it was too late to do very much about it, he had never cared for, and certainly never loved, anyone or anything?
Was this, in its quiet, hopefully unseen, way, the cross he had been nailed to? Was this, then, the moment to repent? And then what? To..?
El padre wondered if, after all these years, “forgive” was really in his vocabulary.
Perhaps it would be sufficient, with failing vision, to read the writing on the wall.
Besides, he could feel the minutes, the seconds, running out, and so he lay in absolute silence, for which he continued to be grateful. Declining populations, straying youth, evangelists poaching the faithful, all had their advantages. El padre’s eyes closed. They stayed closed.
Was this it then? El fin de la calle?
The end of the street on which, for some time now, maybe always, there had been no one but himself? Far from those blood relations who had preceded him in death, from his numerous brothers and sisters who had chosen other walks and had never liked him much more than he liked them?
He stopped himself. He was thinking like Rosalba or…or all the rest.
Then, just when he thought he was going to be allowed to leave this world in the relative peace and tranquility that can be the one blessing of such loneliness, such solitude, a male voice entered his consciousness. Maybe, thought el padre, if I don’t open my eyes, it will go away. But it grew louder, closer, as if some sinner were droning directly into his ear.
“I’m going to tell you, padre, because I know you won’t tell anyone else. Are you listening?”
He wasn’t often asked if he was listening, perhaps because, as we all know, it is the obligation of the one behind the grille to hear every word. Perhaps, out of courtesy, he nodded, though he felt sure his chin was already on his chest, that it could go no lower. In any case, the voice continued.
“You remember, padre, a year or two ago, the dogs started disappearing in Pueblo Viejo. Well, not disappearing, their bodies were discovered, here and there, in the most grotesque positions, still foaming, after death, from the mouth. You remember?”
El padre attempted another nod.
“Well,” continued the voice. “I know no one much missed the dogs of the street. Who cared about them? Suddenly, along with, no thanks to me, other improvements, we had garbage collection. The dogs were unnecessary. Their lives were miserable anyway. Out in all weathers. Without shelter. Without love or family. Without, in spite of the garbage, before the pickups began, enough to eat. Nothing to do but wait, weakly, for the next edible scrap, then to fight over it.”
El padre had a feeling he knew the voice and concluded that, by keeping his eyes shut, he might never have to see a face he didn’t particularly want to.
“I didn’t stand around to watch them die though if, a few minutes later, I happened to walk past with so many others, I could shake my head for, as you know, there’s not much you can do for a poisoned dog, no matter how intense the torments, the agony, induced by…who knows?...insecticide, rat poison, fertilizer, even antifreeze.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” began el padre, but silence had returned.
In the hope the man was gone, el padre peeked out of one eye. He knew it. El ex-presidente. The former mayor. Himself.
Could he be?
But how could he, when in power, have torn himself away from his shrewdly negotiated contracts, his questionable real estate deals, and found time to toss meat stuffed with insecticide, dipped in antifreeze, from the window of his silver SUV?
It wasn’t possible.
“You’re covering for someone, señor presidente,” managed el padre. “Come now: who poisoned the dogs? Your very attractive wife? Your old witch of a mother? Perhaps your son, the one who intended to follow in my footsteps until he, for reasons known only to his father in heaven—and perhaps you—hanged himself?”
El ex-presidente, unfazed by cross-examination, almost as if he’d anticipated it, continued.
“Ah, you’ve always been a sly old bastard, padre. Life has taught you to be as suspicious as hell, hasn’t it? But no, my lovely wife and ancient mother were content to poison me, metaphorically at least, and, if you remember, the dog poisonings continued long after my son, not long after a visit to you, gave up on life.”
Both of el padre’s eyes were open now and he was, strangely, continuing in the voice he had always wished he had in the pulpit.
“No, señor presidente, there are no secrets in Pueblo Viejo. Everybody knows who’s humping who. And it doesn’t even enter the realm of possibility that you, you yourself, el presidente, found time to poison, just for example, the widow Teresa’s beloved old mongrel, along with all the others. Come now, down on your knees if you have any faith left in you, and out with the real story.”
El padre had positively thundered the last line and even pointed an authoritative finger at the floor, below which, as all of us in Pueblo Viejo know, the flames of hell await. But, in the silence that followed, it was, as el ex-presidente went on and beads of perspiration formed on el padre’s forehead, the tale of one dead dog in particular that came to mind.
Tuerta began her life, as far as human beings were concerned, as a companion to the pit bull of one of the landowning families. She was a nervous animal who needed much more exercise than the stubby creature she was fed to accompany. At night she ran around the field occasionally used for fiestas that usually lasted far into the night. It was thus that she must have run into a tree or a bush in the absolute darkness of a night on which nothing had been scheduled.
The next morning the man who fed both dogs noticed that one of Tuerta’s eyes was red-rimmed, twice as big as the other. In time it became even larger and finally crusted over to a final transformation as a non-functioning organ in a death’s head of considerable presence. Those who saw her running behind the fence, consumed, apparently, by restlessness, came to call her Tuerta, one-eye, though, in their own minds, they might well have called her Mal de Ojo.
But Tuerta, el padre knew, was actually very sweet, affectionate, that is once she figured out how to escape from the field of fiestas. When confined she had snapped up anything offered without consideration for the fingers of he who offered. Free, she was a different creature. True, she was only a street dog but, spotting a human being she had known when there was a fence between them, she would rush him, if only to press herself against his leg and look up to ask, rhetorically, if without a word…
‘We know each other, don’t we? We’re friends, remember?’
There was, he recalled, her good eye looking up at him, and the other eye, the evil one, perhaps asking its own, wordless, rhetorical question.
‘Tell me, padre, now that we’re alone, here, in the street, my street: you have never really loved anyone or anything, not in this life, have you?’
Not really answering, then or now, el padre continued to narrate, inaudibly, at least in a voice never meant to be heard, Tuerta’s story to himself.
Because, as occasional companion to the better bred bitch, the pit bull, Tuerta had, in spite of her evil eye, become quite popular, spreading her form of an embrace over much of the neighborhood she patrolled, never snapping at that which was offered her but accepting from one and all most gently, it was all the more shocking to find her stiff one morning, as el padre had beside la presa, the pueblo’s humble water supply, her good eye stuck as open as her bad.
There were no signs of violence, no obvious wound, no blood. The bite of a rattler, un cascabel, was disallowed, for there was no obvious swelling.
The conclusion was she’d been poisoned. If she had foamed miserably at the mouth as she died, the foam had been eaten by the flies before she was found. But who would have handed a piece of poisoned meat steeped in rat poison, in fertilizer, to Tuerta who, in spite of her mal de ojo, was probably the sweetest dog ever to wander the streets of Pueblo Viejo?
Lying there, eyes closed, el padre recalled the ignominious epilogue to her story, for we all knew it. Well, not really. No one really knew how whatever it was had happened to her. What everyone knew was what followed.
Those who had only seen her by la presa staring at the sky were the lucky ones. El padre who took a walk there every day he was up to it had been about to notify the present mayor that something must be done with her body. But, before he had a chance, she was gone. It was only on his next walk, a week later, that he discovered where to.
There she was, at the other end of our still waters, face down in la presa and, though her fur was waterlogged, twice as large as she had ever been in life. There was a terrible smell about her. This time el padre did make it past the present mayor’s intimidating secretary, but by the time the wreck of the municipal truck had made it up there, she was gone. No doubt exploded. Sunk.
Down in the cold and the dark where the fishes would finish her.
At the memory, el padre’s teeth fairly gritted for, unbeknownst to one and all, perhaps even to himself, he had not really been alone as he neared the end of the street. It was that poor bitch he had cared for more than he had ever cared for anyone or anything, but it was her he was thinking of.
“Dear dog,” he had said at the time, “how could anyone?”
Tuerta had not deserved such an end. She was in her first youth, just filling out, through scavenging, in a way that had not been possible on the scant offerings of the landowning owner of the pit bull. Tuerta, free, was enjoying herself. She had a life as good as any street dog’s ahead of her; better, for she had friends from a former life. She had done nothing to deserve the poison placed in her trusting mouth by the deceiving hand of the poisoner himself. She certainly didn’t deserve the dishonorable disposal that had followed a day or two later.
Once more el padre asked himself who would, who could, possibly have poisoned her and then, after everyone had had a good look at her, thrown her body in la presa.
If it was the very man who had come to poison his last moments, perhaps el padre might bring forth a bit of a confession and then withhold absolution—in a word, forgiveness—for such an unpardonable crime. Yes, that is what he would do as his last act on this earth: refuse the sacrament, refuse to bestow that which had been bestowed on him.
“Señor presidente,” he began. The title, apparently, was for life, and el padre was always one to observe the forms. “Let us come to the point. Are you the one who…?”
“If you’re asking about that miserable one-eyed bitch, the question isn’t who did it, but why, why he, or she, did it. To answer that question, you’d have to ask yourself, padre, if the spirit of the Holy Inquisition doesn’t still live in the hearts of all mexicanos, right there beside an even older chamber of horrors, that of the gods who preceded and, for all we know, may follow. Have you seen their faces, their evil eyes fixed on you, padre, perhaps in your prayers, your meditations? For they are still here, padre, overhead, in the air, under our feet. The faces of those who, not content with an animal now and then, will eventually, once more, demand human sacrifice, in considerable numbers, en masse, if they are going to permit those final rains to fall.”
Here el padre noted that el presidente, perhaps in the grip of his historical vision, had pulled a chair to his bedside and leaned over him. He noted the odor of the fine tequilas the former mayor must have turned to in his retirement and contrasted it, in memory, with the odor of the floating body of his dear dead Tuerta and wondered how—how?—there could be any connection between the two. Did el presidente worship strange gods in the hacienda he had built for himself while in office? Had he traveled to Spain to slow march with the surviving gentry behind the Cross of the Holy Inquisition or their descendants on the winning side of their infamous civil war? Was the poisoning of dogs all that was left to the faithful in our more enlightened times?
“Yes, padre,” said el ex-presidente, “you got it in one. Though neither my wife, my mother or my dead son poisoned the street dogs of Pueblo Viejo, I did, in fact, poison one. The one you cared for. Is that it? Have I got it in one? Oh, everyone could see the softness in your eyes when you watched her trot by, ever restless. Everyone could hear the softness in your voice when you spoke to her.”
“Well, I, I didn’t…I myself didn’t,” faltered el padre.
“They weren’t the eyes my son saw when he came to see you so near the end, at el fin de la calle, so to speak. It wasn’t the voice he heard when you dribbled on about the unpardonable, the unforgivable, sin of self-destruction.”
El padre had turned his head on the pillow of his misery the better to face the former mayor, man to man. He felt his heart, what was left of it, hardening.
“If you’ve come for absolution, señor presidente, you can forget it. If I had a sacrament left in me, which I haven’t, if there were penance you could do in remission of such a low act, more despicable than the acts of the gods who preceded our own, and you claim will follow, I would not pronounce it.”
Here el padre paused and gathered himself for what might well be his last act on this earth, but before he could get his curse out, el ex-presidente continued.
“I leave you with a vision, padre, no worse than the one you foisted on the frightened children, the bitter old women, of Pueblo Viejo.”
“If you haven’t come to smother me with my stinking pillow…” began el padre but, once more, the voice of el ex-presidente overrode his own, probably weakening one.
“Have you ever seen a hanged man, padre? Mexico has no death penalty, so it would have to have been one who took his own life, un suicidio.”
“No, but I…” began el padre, knowing what was coming and in his own defense, but el ex-presidente, not yet on his own deathbed, beat him to it.
“Well, let me tell you. If the neck doesn’t break, and it doesn’t for suicides, who haven’t that far to fall, death is by strangulation, relatively slow strangulation; the brain, without blood or oxygen, dies slowly; the eyes may burst, the tongue may protrude, the bowels and bladder let go. Can you see him, padre, can you smell him, my son, to whom you yourself, so many times, as befitting your office, said ‘my son’?”
That was it. El ex-presidente had said his say, he had nothing to add. El padre, in the sudden silence, glanced sideways at him, if only to see the man’s eyes—wherein he was, no doubt, expected to see, flickering therein, if not the flames of hell, then his own total failure as a man of God and, perhaps more damning, simply as a man, a human being—but el padre, being something of a fighter, was not prepared to give up, not on himself, not yet.
The final curse curled around his tongue and, taking a deep breath, he opened his mouth but, since el ex-presidente was gone, it hardly mattered that nothing came out.
Once more el padre had the opportunity to thank God for silence, all silences, wishing, perhaps, he had known more of them.
But, far away, getting closer, he heard the smallest song from what must have been the smallest of birds. Either it was a hundred meters off or it was no bigger than a thimble and the sound was less of a song, he thought, and more like that of a calf sucking than anything else or, perhaps, that of a body sinking slowly to the bottom of la presa.
El padre listened. And listened again. It occurred to him, and it was no more nonsensical than much of what he had long claimed to believe and, indeed, stuffed into others, that it was, somehow, the spirit of Tuerta, not yet dead, come to see him off, and Tuerta, as dogs do, sometimes, know more than you, her good eye open wide and speaking as dogs speak, wordlessly, spoke wordlessly to him.
Michael McGuire’s story collection The Ice Forest (Marlboro Press, distributed by Northwestern University Press) was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Publisher’s Weekly. His stories have appeared in Guernica, J Journal, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review (x2), Hudson Review, New Directions in Prose & Poetry (x2) & etc. His plays are published by Broadway Play Publishing. The Scott Fitzgerald Play, University of Missouri Press, a Breakthrough Book chosen by Joy Williams, has been published as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition.