Tonewood 6/18/2011

Chapter I

The old man, whose thick knuckles were like crumbling brick, had killed the small boy. The boy’s body hung from the boughs of the tallest oak in the glen—the one with roots like skeletal fingers snatching at the soil in big bony handfuls. A summer breeze shuffled the leaves and the body swung lightly in the wind as the boy’s dead cheeks puffed like ripe blueberries. He hung from a thin, tight length of guitar string which left purple rings around his neck from the vain struggle. The boy had lasted only about twenty seconds before he went quiet. When he finally stopped kicking, the old man listened to the hushing-rushing of rubbing green leaves above with a smile and a hand-rolled cigarette. Sunlight dropped through the leaves like warm honey onto the dirt.

“Go on,” the old man said to the four boys who had silently watched him kill their friend. “Go get your daddies,” he said in a voice that was sincere and calm. If not for the hanging blue boy, whose lifeless knees scraped against the tree bark in dead sway, the boys might have regarded the old man’s voice with the same warmth and affection they did of their own grandfathers. Even still, something charming was yet left in his smile as he encouraged them. “I mean it, boys,” he said as he squeezed the tobacco down and licked the edges of the cigarette paper. “Don’t touch ‘im hanging there, he’s mine now, but go on and get your daddies. And maybe you should get an officer. I’ll wait here, I promise.” His thin cheeks stacked up like a heap of unsorted paper when he smiled and, for an unknown reason, they all instantly trusted him when he smiled. The old man stared into each of the four boys’ faces as he sat still beneath the tree. Then, they each nodded and left without a word, not looking back, knowing with certainty the man would not leave.

They each stumbled through the glen silently. They kicked pinecones into the brush and stepped over the stretched umbilical roots of the old oak glen. It was hot in July as they walked and their sweat sealed their shirts to their skinny ribs. Their shoes were dusted in dry dirt when they emerged from the shaded caves under the canopies of the old oaks and they each went home without saying more than their rounds of good-bye’s and see-ya’s, spending the rest of their individual walks staring at their toes and trying not to remember how their friend’s face looked as he choked and made noises like a wet, empty balloon being slapped against concrete.

Each of their mothers were uniformly (and each with a unique twist on the following formula) lamenting about the scope and breadth of their domestic career while indulging in a “well-earned and fully-deserved” glass of wine (or a mojito) as remuneration for their day’s toil and labor, sipping their spirits while resting in the shade of a patio as three o’clock chimed from the town’s bells. Each boy told their own mother with quiet honesty (“come on and spit it out”) that they were playing in the old oak glen (“I told you not to play there!”) and they had done something they shouldn’t have (“did you play with those stray dogs again? They have fleas!”) and that the old man from the fountains found them in the glen (“who?”) and there was an accident (“…what kind of accident?”) and now their friend was dead and the old man had killed him and was waiting. Each mother seized their boy close to their bosom in shock, screaming out about the horror of the murder, yet secretly thanking god that it wasn’t their boy hanging from the trees. Then they screamed “careful, don’t make me spill this!” as they nodded to the glass in their other hand.

All the while, the dead boy’s mother drank on and finished without even an interruption. When a nice breeze whistled through her fence and onto her patio, she took pleasure in the cool refreshing wind that leapt along her open sundress and exposed breasts, thanking god for the same breeze that had, a minute before, slid past the hanging ankles of her own dead boy.

The mothers who still had their boys coddled them from (no) threat in locked top-floor rooms until the pound of patriarchal boots stepped through the front door and echoed up the ivory banisters. The mothers exploded from their locked rooms, keeping their boys hostage inside, and frantically screamed at their husbands, relating the calm toe-watching story from the boys through the required filter of fear, terror, and blame. Each husband listened with boredom and placating quips, “what is it now, honey?” as they got a glass of water to fight the summer heat. They each withstood the barrage of bitter vitriol from their til-death-do-we-part until their spouses burst with panic and got to the point—the hanging body of a boy in the glen. Immediately, each husband swore to their wives that they would go that instant to the glen and get the body out of the tree before anyone else arrived so no one would see it. “And,” they each said as their chests swelled with proud courage, “I’m going to deal with that old man, deal with him how he should be dealt with,” each resolutely declared. They grabbed their hats and stormed out of the home, but not before finishing their glass of water and taking five minutes to sit down after their long day of work and take off their shoes, briefly, and plead their wives to make them just a little bite of something because the glen was far away and they had had nothing since lunch.

When the men each stumbled into the glen at dusk, they found their familiar-face-but-misplaced-name neighbors huddled in a small circle in the clearing before the tallest oak where the old man sat. They each silently watched the old man as he stared with quiet passion at a dark patch of ground covered in small splintered and scattered shards of polished wood. The boy’s body, whose pale skin was now beginning to blend into the velvet night rising out of the ground, still hung in the tree, yet none of the fathers looked at the dead son enveloped in shadow. The old man’s gnarled knuckles delicately adjusted the fragments of polished wood on the ground, a touch left and an imperceptible nudge up, as if balancing the pieces together to once more form something whole. The form of the slivers became clear as the moon peeled the streaked sky away and revealed the bulbous bottom, long thin shaft at the center, and knobbed head shape: this collection of scrap was once a guitar. Five curly strings were laid ritually next to the pieces, nylon and wrapped steel glittering in the silver mercurial light. The missing sixth string was, as they all knew, in use.

The wind hushed-rushed through the trees and the blue night shivered itself into every man as the silence held them rapt, watching the old man’s precise movements above the organological corpse. Finally, he stood and surveyed the split skeleton of the guitar, sighing finally and sitting heavy upon the roots of the tree. “I suppose you’re all here to take me for what I’ve done,” the old man said. No one responded. The men looked round, one to the other, each waiting for one of them to step forward and make the accusation, take action, do what must be done. “Who here is this boy’s father?” No one stepped forward.

With a deep, melancholic grunt, the old man stood up, rubbed his knees, pulled out a pocket knife and cut the boy down while standing on his tip-toes. The body fell into the dirt with an unceremonious flop. The old man had cut the knot on the bough, leaving the length of string still wrapped around the boy’s bloated neck, tautly extending behind the body and looking like the solitary wire of a poorly-made marionette or a fuse for a bomb. He reached down to the body and heaved it up onto his shoulder, gripping with arthritic hands and visible strain, and then wearily stepped over the bony roots of the old oaks. The men cleared the path for the old man and followed behind him as he exited the glen and walked to the boy’s never-again home. Like a funeral procession, the old man walked from the glen to the town and the husbands all followed behind quietly.

It was neither fear nor wonder that kept them silent. As they followed, each of them wondered this silence to themselves: why do we walk behind him without a word? Why did none of us say a word in the glen, why did we not attack, why did we just watch and why do we now just follow? But, the questions hung in their minds like steamed breaths hangs in winter air—ephemeral puffs that stretch out into nothing and wash away into the wind—and so, they trudged on behind the old man. The boy’s dead head bobbed over the old man’s shoulder and his purple eyes watched the men pace behind, his bloated rosy cheeks and puffed eyes unblinking. Without another breath in his lungs to ever come, he still managed to ask a question into the souls of every man staring into his bulbous, red-stained eyes: what will you do?

The men turned their gazes down and looked at the old man’s clip-clopping shoes.

On the terrace where the dead boy once lived, every house was dark and deathly still except for the shuffling of curtains from the pitch-black top floor windows where young, prisoner eyes squinted. They stared into the pools of light under each drooping street lamp hoping to catch a glimpse of the old man and the mob Instead of a ferocious gang of proud men hauling the bloody body of the old man and coddling the wrung corpse of the boy, the old man led the taciturn horde closer and closer.

With each clip-clop flip-flop step (and with each step, a barely-audible wheeze from the burnt lungs of the old man), the distance between the body and the home (and the distance between the body and the body’s kitchen and yard and bed) steadily shortened. Lattices of matron vehicles were parked outside of the boy’s house. All the lights were blazingly on, like a beacon on the dark lane. A syrup of confused whispers dripped from the open windows: “what do we say?”, “how are we supposed to make her feel better?”, “what are we supposed to do?”, and “who was her boy again?”

The old man dragged himself up the bricks to the front door of the home. The men all immediately stopped following, keeping their distance. They dared not step on the dead boy’s land. They filed out from their procession and spread along the concrete between the lawn and the street, standing shoulder to shoulder to watch the old man. He had not once looked back at the men following him, and gave the men behind only his back to watch as he knocked on the door. The house dropped into the same oppressive silence that followed the mortal march, and a minute later, the door shuddered but did not open. A woman on the other side looked through the gossamer curtains framing the small glass panes in the wooden door, her face veiled behind the curtains and safe in her sanctuary home.

“Go away,” she yelled through the wood, a sob breaking her words. The old man knocked again without opening his mouth. “Don’t bring that to me!” she screamed, and within only a moment, every light in the house suddenly shut off. The once flaming-yellow home was extinguished, and all at once, the old man fell into the dark with the body and no one to claim it. The night swept down upon him like water spilling over, and the sound of crickets and grinding heels accompanied the old man’s short, stabbing breaths. He turned to face the men, shrouded in darkness but still lined on the walk, and then spoke to them once more: “What now? Have I committed a crime against anyone now? Have I wronged anyone?” They did not answer. A shuffle of feet roughed the hushed night.

“You’re not welcome here any longer,” one finally said. “Take that with you.”

“Was I ever welcome?” the old man asked back. There was an indistinct rush of whispers.

“Leave,” another man said. His voice, while different, was nearly indistinguishable from the first. Their faces, smeared in the darkness, were one. Their houses, each made from the same blueprint and identical in construction, differed only in paint (this one blue, that one yellow). Inside, they invariably held the same sofas (only with different designers) and the same food (only of a different brand) and the same family (only of different names). Their children were a mass, without identity or personage applied, just another brood of agnates from a manufactured race leading constructed lives. And, in hollow pitch of night, this human conglomeration united, and they were out of many, one.

Outside of that union stood the old man with the dead boy. “Why have I never been welcome?”

“You have no soul.” The words hung in the air, echoing lightly off of the flat pavement. The words permeated the night, impregnated the air, and every lung sharply breathed the air in, breathed the words in, and held them. They had named the beast, and by doing so, gave it life.

The old man nodded and sighed. “Does anyone really?” the old man asked. There was no answer.

“Do you want to know what he did?” No, they responded. “You do not care why I killed him?” No, they answered. “Do you want revenge? Do you want to punish me?” Yes, they answered. “Then do so.” None moved. He looked to the line of men, his hard eyes scanning the dark, and he saw not one of their faces and heard not a word. So he sighed again.

“You will find the courage to do so in time.” He then stepped off of the stoop of the dark home, feeling the eyes peering at him from every window, feeling the sight of every house and brick and lamp and mailbox upon him, and he passed through the calm night out of their world and returned alone to the glen where the shields of leaves and trunks made the earth darker than nothingness and colder than loss, exactly as God had intended the world.

He set the body on the ground next to the remains of the guitar. The old man delicately folded the boy’s hands into his lap and propped his head on a root so that he looked like he was lying back in reflection. His face was puffed and purple-black and his eyes stared through the world.

“Do you want to know why I killed you?” the old man asked. The boy did not respond. “Yes,” said the old man for the boy. “Okay, I will tell you,” he said resolutely. He sat down opposite the broken guitar and the boy and pulled out a folded pack of loose tobacco and began kneading the leaves between his fingers as he prepared a cigarette. “It’s because of that,” he said, pointing to the guitar. “I’ll tell you all of it, so that you know. You deserve that much.” And so he began.

Chapter II

About a hundred-and-fifty years ago across the ocean and in a small rural town named Moriles, Nino de Ossorio Guerin ripped his mother’s guts open under a full moon. It was no crime since he was yet to be born, but once he was pulled from her cooling corpse and took his first breath, his father had already resolved that the boy was vile and no child of his. He held this knowledge to himself, but Nino learned of his father’s opinion quickly. Nino’s father, Ricardo, had had one prized possession in his life: his wife. A son would not fill the void left in his heart by her departure, despite the vain (and now, lethal) belief his wife had held that bringing a child into this world would fill the void that grew within her whenever she looked at Ricardo. When Ricardo would smile with warmth and love, she would smile back perfunctorily without as much as a stirring in her breast. She loved Ricardo in the same way old men love Sunday afternoons and fishing, but the passions of her love beat elsewhere. She didn’t know when it became that way between them (she had had passion for him once, years ago, when rolling in the long grass at dusk), but it had faded. That was her own failing and she kept it sealed from Ricardo. Her love for him dictated that she keep him happy, but her love for another kept her vigilant.

She took her infidelity to her grave, but Nino was a son of Ricardo’s regardless. When Nino arrived to this world, the priest that was speaking the last prayers for his deceased mother paused and, for a brief moment, offered seemingly-innocuous praise to God that Nino had his father’s eyes and not his. Then, the priest administered all rudimentary tests of health while wiping the bits of blood and flesh from the boy and, upon finishing, held him out to his father.

“Take your son,” the priest said with a cracked voice of loss that sounded like piety. “He is healthy.” Ricardo looked at the priest in a daze and the priest nodded to the wrapped bundle in his outstretched arms once more. Finally, Ricardo rested his gaze upon Nino. Nino had his father’s dark complexion, his mother’s dirty-gold eyes, a thin lean nose and full pink lips. He even had a sprout of jet black hair. If it curled, it would be like his mother’s, if it were straight, it’d be like his father’s, but it was too early to tell. Any feelings of paternity and love Ricardo may have had for Nino instantly drained away from him when he looked back to the body of his wife mounted upon his wooden work table. She lay motionless in a dark sanguine pool of viscera and afterbirth, her gown streaked in the blood that they could not stop from draining onto the table, through the slats, and down to the dirt where it mixed with the earth to form congealed claret pearls.

“We must bury her,” Ricardo said, not looking back to his son or the priest.

“Now?” the priest asked incredulously, bringing the boy back to his chest.

“I see in your face that you too are struck with the grief I am, Father.” The priest nodded and dried his eyes. “I thank you for your sympathy. I am all she has in this world—had in this world. There is no one to come to a funeral. There is no reason to let her begin to stink. I am all she loved in the world, and she was all I loved.”

“She had much love in this world.”

“Perhaps you knew her better than I, Father,” Ricardo spoke as his eyes glazed over. Reality was transient to him as a mist of memories and dreams smashed away every foundation of his strength. “She spoke often of her walks to the abbey and her need for confession. She would dress so nicely, and always come back with flowers in her hair, and kiss me when she arrived and put all the flowers in a cup for the table. Then she would sing as she prepared our meals. Did you ever hear her sing, Father?”

“I often told her she needed to join our choir; her voice was that of an angel.”

“Father, for what she needed to confess so often? I do not know.”

“Take my word, Ricardo de Ossorio Guerin,” the priest said, moving close and putting his hand upon Ricardo’s shoulder. “She died without sin,” he declared as he pulled the boy of correct patronage closer to his chest. At once, the priest felt within him a feeling of immense freedom and sadness. Ever since Ricardo’s wife’s belly had begun to swell, he had long prayed in his tower that the baby not be his. If the fate of his own sin manifested, if the baby were his bastard, he would face the wrath of his neighbor for having coveted his wife. He had resolved himself to look to Ricardo and admit to him his sins and likely to be killed, for Ricardo was not known for his decency to other men. In fact, Ricardo was known for his tempestuousness and strength. But, when Nino opened his not-green eyes and appeared with the black hair not present in the priest’s ancestry, the priest silently thanked God for His goodwill and charity and vowed never to be tempted again. I have learned my lesson, he thought. Yet, sadness too welled within him that God sought fit to take from both men their mutual lover. The priest did not deny that he felt the same grief and anguish that Ricardo felt, but he kept it within himself for fear of showing guilt with his pain.

“Father, will you help me to bury her?”

“Ricardo, please, let us grieve for now, you have a newborn. We can do that at dawn.”

“Father, please,” Ricardo stammered in shame, looking anywhere but at the priest. “I—I cannot afford the toll for the gravedigger.” At once, the priest understood and nodded solemnly.

“Tonight we shall then. And what of the boy?” Ricardo blinked without recognition. Then, he nodded after a moment, took the boy from the priest and, for the first time, Ricardo held his son. As the weight sunk into his hands and he felt the warmth within the bundle of blanket, he felt tears come to his eyes. He held the bundle close and the priest thought he saw the root of love take hold in Ricardo. However, that was not so. Ricardo whimpered into the bundle and only thought one thing: she died for this? It is so small, it is so fragile and insignificant, and she died for this thing? She was worth ten of these, a hundred. It is not a fair trade, I don’t want this thing, I want her. And as he wept, Ricardo knew he couldn’t ever care for this boy, for this murderer.

The first night of Nino’s life was spent sleeping on the dirt. In his swath of blankets, Nino was carried in a backpack on Ricardo’s back while both men hauled his mother’s body to the edge of town. Under the full moon, they waded along the gravel paths and stamped hillocks with the bloody body tethering both men together. When they arrived, Nino was set onto the hard ground and propped up so as to not choke on his own wet tongue while his father and the priest struck into the packed dirt with shovels and picks. Nino cried, but neither man gave him any comfort, instead each staying silent and directing their emotions and pains into wounding the earth. Eventually, Nino lapsed into sleep and was all but forgotten. When the hole was dug and dawn approached, both men lowered her body inside and stood over the grave. They were both silent.

“Shouldn’t you say something?” Ricardo asked the priest.

“Yes,” the priest choked as he looked upon the solemn face of his sin. He wiped his eyes and smiled to Ricardo. “I am sorry, I do not usually act in this sort.”

“You are a loving and kind man to your flock,” Ricardo responded. “She had said that to me before. I don’t go to church.”

“I know, Ricardo,” the priest returned. “You would be welcome, my son.”

“Maybe,” he said. “She believed in it.” They both stood silent for a moment, staring at her. The sun was hidden behind a ridge of mountains to the east, but stripes of red were racing across the horizon and the scattered light began to cast a creeping shadow across her face.

“Is there anything you wish to say?” the priest asked. Ricardo stared at her as the shadow consumed her face.

“Like what?” he asked dumbfounded.

“Anything you wish. She is listening with God.”

“Oh,” he whispered. “No.”

“You’re sure?” He nodded. The thought of the priest listening to him, or even God listening in to what he said to his wife, made Ricardo uneasy. And, anything he felt, his wife already knew. Ricardo told the priest to do whatever she would have wanted. The priest cleared his lungs then proceeded.

“We commend unto thy hands of mercy, most merciful Father, the soul of this, our friend, our lover, and our wife, departed, and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust ; and we beseech thine infinite goodness to give us grace to live in thy fear and love and to die in thy favor, that when the judgment shall come which thou hast committed to thy well-beloved Son, both this our sister and we may be found acceptable in thy sight. Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, Mediator, and Advocate.” The priest then nodded and took a deep breath. “Amen,” he said alone. Ricardo did not make a single sound.

The priest knelt to pick up his shovel, but Ricardo stopped him. “We can’t bury her like that,” he said. He walked to Nino, picked him up, and unwrapped the blanket about the infant. In the dawn chill, Nino shrieked and kicked. Ricardo set the nearly-naked newborn back down to the ground and took the blanket to the hole and draped it over his wife’s body. “I don’t want to see the dirt hitting her. It’s…not right.” The priest heard the wails of the boy, but nodded to Ricardo. Once they finished, the priest asked Ricardo if he would come to the church the following day for prayer. Ricardo said he would think about it, then scooped Nino up and walked home.

When they arrived home, they both wept. Nino cried in hunger and shrieked at the cold settling into his bones, a coldness that stuck to his soul and would define him as a man, while on the other side of the room, Ricardo sobbed into his hands that didn’t know how to cook anything for either of them.

Chapter III

The first ten years of Nino de Ossorio Guerin’s life passed him quickly. He rarely saw his father, as Ricardo always chose to work late in the fields until and his arms and back cracked from the sun and the sky’s colors bled out like his blistered feet. Then, Ricardo would come home and fall asleep only to repeat the process the next day. When he did arrive home, he and his son would nod at each other as their only greeting, a nod only for mutual acknowledgement of each other’s existence and not a thing more. When Nino was very young, the priest would bring food because Ricardo could not find time nor energy nor reason to do so, and by age four, Nino knew how to cook himself. Nino quickly became self sufficient, realizing that cries and whimpers went unheard by his absent father, and when he unleashed his wet persuasions in Ricardo’s presence, he either got a backhand for ungratefulness or a glare and an admonishment for being weak. Ricardo kept ample sacks of flour, grain, and rice, and the river was only a quarter-mile down the road, so Nino never truly went hungry. He was provided for, albeit in the most basic of ways.

Ricardo, while not showing affection or love to his son, never truly hated his son. He didn’t have the life left in him to hold onto something as strong as hate. Instead, he simply spent his time moving day to day through life, a husk of a man who lives but is not alive. He ate out of necessity, he slept because his body forced him to, and he provided what was required to Nino in the form of provisions, a roof, and clothes. Whatever animating force Ricardo had once had was now only a memory, long since ground into the dirt under the heel of fate, leaving only a hollow man whose purpose was simply to continue on.

As Ricardo’s soul was bore out to form a shell, Nino began to feel his own soul bloom within him. Parts of his soul were united with God, but only because the priest had come to get him every Sunday morning to walk to the abbey for worship and to have long discussions about his dearly missed mother. That’s where Nino learned about his soul and that his soul was given to him by God as a gift. However, this only made Nino wonder why his soul—or whatever he thought was his soul—instead always felt cold. He always felt algid, as if a chill perpetually haunted his body even in the summer sunshine. It felt like putting his face to thick glass or lying on a rock’s smooth surface in the shade—passive, unmoving, and entirely without remorse. The feeling manifested most when he saw smiles and heard laughter. The cold feeling didn’t make him shiver, but it struck deep down into him and pressed upon some central locus, as if his entire body, all of his bones and every strip of flesh, all pressed upon a frigid and unmoving rock that hung heavy in the core of his thoughts and his chest.

“I have not seen you smile in quite some time,” the priest said to him on a Sunday walk back from the abbey.

“I do not believe you have ever seen me smile, Father,” Nino responded.

“I’m sure I have, don’t be so—” he said as he shook his hand in the air for a word he could not place. “Regardless, how is your father?”

“He is as he is,” Nino said flatly.

“Nino, you are lucky I know you as well as I do, or else I would find your manner to be quite rude and should think you were in need of a few lashings.”

“It is not my intent to be rude.”

“So it isn’t,” the priest said in acceptance. They continued walking down the dirt paths, winding through the small town in the Sunday calm. As they crossed into town, the dirt became smooth and compact from centuries of wagons and horses. Their town had a total of fifteen-hundred people, but because of trade, it saw many more. While not large by any standard, it still managed enough diversity to not require the knowledge of every person past in the streets. Instead, a familiar smile was all that was needed to get into anywhere and talk to anyone.

The town square, lined with vendors selling from the back of their ox-drawn carts, bustled with activity. To the north, the smell of smoke gusted anew from the blacksmith’s forges at every flame-licking bellow’s interval whine. To the east, the smell of rising bread from brick ovens attracted the poor and the hungry. To the south, the smell of flowers and olives in bloom reminded the women of children. That was where my father is, Nino thought, in the olive fields. In the center of the town square was a large wooden stage with a podium. Often, the governor would use the elevated setting to make proclamations or to read declarations, but it had also been used for executions. There hadn’t been a hanging in thirty years and the gallows had been transformed into a directory spire with arrows pointing to each corner of the town with distances to adjacent villages.

“Have you been reading the scripture, Nino? We will be reading of the Book of Matthew next Sunday. I hoped you might read a passage aloud.”

“I have been reading, but not those parts.”

“What have you been reading?” the priest asked as they passed a market stall with almonds and honey. The priest smiled to the vendor, said a few words, and made off with a gift of a half-handful of almonds. He held out his hand for Nino to pick a few out as Nino spoke.

“I have been reading about—Father, I have wondered often about my soul.”

“Your soul? What of it?”

“Do I,” Nino stammered, then looked up to the priest, “I am embarrassed to ask.”

“Nino, my son, do not be embarrassed. Your mother confessed to me a great deal of things, and for every one of them, I absolved her of her sins. You should look upon me as a confidant, as a friend. Whatever it is, you will see no judgment from me and you will get only the truth as I know it from the Lord Himself. So, Nino, please, what of the soul?”

“Do I have a soul?”

“Genesis, Nino, two-seven. ‘The Lord formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ A soul is what separates us from the dirt below your feet. It does not have a soul, yet we do. It is the breath of God that allows to live, rather than to simply be part of this earth. I can most certainly say, Nino de Ossorio Guerin, that you have a soul.” The priest smiled down at Nino warmly.

“What does the soul feel like, Father?” The priest repeated the question aloud with a smile as he popped an almond into his mouth. He gave the rest to Nino, then clasped his hands behind his back and walked with large footsteps, at once lost in thought and at second enjoying the chance for ambulatory pondering. It was an action much likened to the philosophers and the prophets, and the priest found himself suited for the task as well. When given a question of such magnitude, it felt only natural that a wise one should march in thought while determining the answer through meditation, dialectic, or logic—whatever was required (and whatever conveyed the most import to his subject). During Sunday mass, much of the session was spent in quiet solace and, when the priest had to speak, he strained his words so that he seemed to struggle with every sentence, bringing tears to the eyes of his most devout parishioners at his sublime revelations, at the feigned trouble of seeing God’s plan and trying to explain it with something as faulty as words.

Finally, the priest decided on the preferred method of answering the question, which also happened to be the easiest: dialectic. “What does it feel like to you, Nino?”

“I feel something, but I am not sure if it my soul.”

“What does this thing feel like, Nino?”

“It feels like, hm, I feel something…hard, like the ground, and cold, like metals. And it’s totally still within me, it does not move, it does not budge. And sometimes when I look at things that I know are supposed to make me feel holiness or God or such, such as I hear people talk about beautiful sunsets and I feel nothing or when there is a newborn baby and everyone goes on thanking God and talking about how blessed they are and I look and just see an infant and feel nothing of blessing or beauty, I just feel…resistant, I feel like that cold hard spot in me says ‘no’, like arrows bouncing off of castle walls.”

“That is quite troubling, my son,” the priest said as he furrowed his brow. “Are you sure that is your soul?”

“No, I am not, Father, that’s why I want to know, what does a soul feel like?”

“You are making a bold distinction, Nino! Let me ask you, do you feel this?” the priest said as he snatched Nino’s hand, held it up, and smacked it. Nino winced and withdrew his hand and the priest smiled. “What did you feel?”

“You hit my hand.”

“Yes! And this?” the priest said as he leaned over and kissed Nino on the head.

“A kiss on my head.”

“Yes. You felt those and you know where you felt it. Now, tell me where exactly you feel your soul is.” Nino looked to the ground and then pointed to his chest hazardously. “Your lungs?” He nodded no. “Your liver?” No again. “Your spleen?” Nino sighed heavily. “Surely you don’t mean your heart? An important organ, a very useful one, but surely not your soul. A heart is no more a soul than a plough is a field.”

“I don’t understand, Father.”

“A plough digs the dirt and allows the seeds to be grown, but it does not itself grow and it does not make them grow. It allows them to. Like the olive fields, where your father works.” Nino nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but the priest put his finger to Nino’s mouth with a smile and continued. “A heart allows a soul to be manifest, but it is not one. So, how can one even feel a soul? We can feel our flesh, sure enough, and we can pinpoint our organs, as we have demonstrated, but how do we pinpoint and feel that which is not exactly definable? What bladder holds the soul? None, my son, it simply exists in you. Do you understand?”

“No,” Nino responded quietly. “Tell me, I have read the scriptures and tried to understand it, but I cannot. What does it feel like? I think mine may be…wrong.” Nino bit his lip and exhaled sharply. A jumble of half-formed sentences rambled from his lips, each compounding his frustration. The priest soothed Nino and told him to calm and to breathe, to think of what he wanted to know. After a moment, Nino instead attempted to reverse the priest’s methods. “You have a soul too?” The priest smiled and nodded. “Can you feel your soul?”

“No more than you can.”

“How do you know that? Have you ever felt your soul when people go on about sunsets or babies? Ever felt something inside of you move around?”

“Of course, we all do. Generally, those feelings lead us to confession. We call that temptation,” the priest said with a wide, friendly smile.

“No,” Nino said quickly, “not temptation. I know what that is. This is…different.” He bit his lip and forced himself to continue. “This feeling, it is at the center of me, the very core of me, not my heart or my lungs but just…at the center of me. And it is empty and sealed. And I want to fill it. It pains me to feel as empty as I do, and yet everything I try to pour into that emptiness just…doesn’t go bounces off.”

“Not even God gets into this void, my son?”

“Not even God.”

“That is quite blasphemous, Nino.”

“I know, but I do not feel any differently for admitting it. Guilt, even, has no place within me.”

“That,” the priest said solemnly, “is quite a problem.”

“Do you know of this chasm I speak of?”

“I do,” the priest said as he looked away. “I do very well.”

“Is it the soul?” The priest sighed hard and looked down to Nino. He saw Nino’s mother’s curly black hair upon Nino’s dark brow and her dirty-gold eyes, only now, resting on a new face. Then, he blinked, and he saw her face in the ground, the shadow of the day inching down her face and covering it to be seen never again.

“You may be close, my son,” the priest admitted with a heavy sigh. “Your mother would know that answer, I believe.”


“Nothing,” the priest quickly said. “We should get you home, I have work to do for the coming festivals and you have food to prepare for your father.”

“Wait, Father, please,” Nino pleaded. “Is something wrong with my soul?”

“No, Nino, nothing is wrong,” the priest said as he knelt down. “In fact, it’s right, so right. It’s the very reason why your mother is so dearly missed. Many people live without ever feeling their souls within them. They take advantage of that divine gift and never nurture it. Like the plough to the dirt, the seed still needs water. A soul can easily be forgotten and wither, and so few ever notice when their soul needs watering, when their soul is empty and is calling out for something to fill that void. Your mother, she felt that way, and she made me notice that my soul, too, was empty. She was a gift of God, most certainly.”

“God did not show you what your soul needed?”

“God does not fill the soul, he only gives it to you to fill, like the earth does not grow unless you help it to grow.”

“How do I fill my soul, Father?”

“That, Nino,” he said with an honest sadness, “I cannot tell you.”

Chapter IV

As the spring rolled into summer, Nino found himself drawn more and more to his father. However, this went unnoticed by Ricardo, whose mind was never concentrating on anything happening around him, instead reliving memories or simply counting: how many steps from my door to the fields, how many olives I have collected today, how many days since she died. He never wanted conversation or attention and he never questioned Nino or asked anything of him. Ricardo had only made his presence known when something of his had been put out of order or Nino had done something to disrupt the flow of his daily ritual. Nino, too, only spoke to his father when they were in need of a supply, to which Ricardo would leave a handful of coins on the table, never counting and never caring. But, for some inexplicable reason, Nino had found himself watching his father with more interest ever since his discussion with the priest about his soul.

Nino had begun to wonder about his father and his father’s soul. Nino often remembered how smiles peeled the faces of parents at the sight of a baby or how young women blushed iridescent to the extended hand of their suitors, but he knew that those moments and actions could never produce such feeling from within himself, and as he continued to watch his father, he knew that those too would run off his father like water on feathers. He began to think perhaps he inherited a similar soul to his father. It would make sense, after all, for a father’s soul to be similar to his son’s.

While Nino did not have desire or love in his soul, he did have curiosity. His father would get up before dawn to go to the olive fields. Nino had begun to wake then as well and watch him prepare. At first, he stared from the darkness, from a half-open eye under a blanket, catching what glimpses he could without alerting his father. He watched which tools Ricardo grabbed, what clothes he wore, and what direction he headed. After a week of that, Nino had memorized every item his father grabbed and what motions he took every morning. He could learn no more from his covert position, so he began to grow bold. Nino decided he would sit up in bed and watch Ricardo without fear of being noticed. Ricardo only nodded to the boy when he felt Nino’s eyes upon him. Now that Nino knew Ricardo did not care if he watched, he grew ever more interested and would wait until his father left and would trace his walk down past the hill to the abbey. When his father was out of sight, Nino would hurriedly get dressed and run out to follow at a distance so as not to be noticed. Often, he lost his father and ended up going home in defeat. There were many turns and many fields south of town and if Nino was not vigilant, he quickly lost his father.

After two weeks of surreptitious pursuit, he had fully mapped his father’s route and could effectively follow without being seen. At first, Nino would just watch from two hundred meters back and learn whatever he could about his father before scampering home and going back to sleep. But, with time, his curiosity grew. Each morning’s expedition would last longer and longer until finally he no longer went home back to bed. He would sit on a far hillock and examine his father while lying in the grass, gleaning more and more information with each passing day. He was interested in where his father worked, what work his father did, which people his father knew, and above all else, he watched who his father was.

He strained and squinted to see if his father ever looked relieved in the shade, or if his face contorted in pain, or if he smiled at satisfaction of being finished for the day, but he never saw a thing. Instead, he saw a face carved of stone, one that knew no other expression than the blank and vacuous stare of a death mask. Truly, Nino wished to see his father respond to anything. He had never known his father to say much or even respond to much, but after weeks of watching the mechanical behavior of his father’s daily routine, Nino was no closer to an answer. He needed to see if his father felt anything because Nino wanted to know if he could feel anything. That chasm in his chest, that desire in his soul, was only growing fiercer and hungrier as the summer heat pressed harder in the Mediterranean air. God had no answer, and he found no answer in watching his father either.

With nothing left to learn from observation, Nino acted from the bravery of requirement. One morning before the sun rose while Ricardo stacked his wares, Nino spoke: “I would like to go to work with you.” Ricardo then did something that Nino had never seen him do before—he looked puzzled.

“Why? Do you wish to start making money of your own?”

“No. I want to learn more about you.”

“What for?”

“To find out about myself.”

“How will knowing me help you know you?” Ricardo asked tonelessly.

“I am half you, am I not?” Ricardo deeply exhaled and, all at once, remembered that inescapable fact he had long before forgotten: this boy is his son, and a son is made from yourself. Ricardo turned back to Nino and looked upon him now with new eyes. He examined Nino’s dark olive skin, like his own, and admired Nino’s sharp, long nose that was undoubtedly his own father’s, but he also saw the foreign curly black hair and dirty gold eyes, like dirt splashed with sun, that undoubtedly belonged to Nino’s mother. This boy, Ricardo knew, is half me. That thought brought a mixture of pride, grief, confusion, and failure to his mind, but he quickly turned from Nino to not show those things plaguing him, as if a dam had swelled and burst, bringing with it a tidal rush of bewilderment and chagrin. As Ricardo turned to the darkness, he grabbed a tightly wound cylinder of cloth mat, shook the emotions from his head, then turned and held the roll to Nino.

“You can watch and ask, but you cannot slow me down. If you do, you’re going home.” Nino nodded and took the roll. It was heavy, but if he hung it over his shoulder, he could manage. “Do you know the way?”

“I do. I have followed you for the past three weeks.” Ricardo nodded and within ten minutes, they were walking down the path side-by-side. They arrived at the olive field as the sun rose, slicing the morning mists apart. Within another ten minutes, the dew on the leaves and grass reflected the sun like a field of green shattered glass, waving and blindingly glittering with every passing gust. Workers filed into the fields, some of them smiling to Nino who only returned a blank, virgin face. Ricardo led Nino to a pack of trees set off into a corner of the fields. For this day, Ricardo worked on these dozen trees.

He set down all of his gear under a tree, pulled out two hemp sacks, one for him and one for Nino, stretched his back out by reaching up to a branch and tugging hard on his back, and then he knelt down into the wet grass. Nino watched and mimicked his father. “Why do you start lying in the grass?”

“During the night, many olives fall from the branches. We have to pick them up. We grab all of the ones we can see and we put them in the sack.”

“And then?”

“When we get there. Only ever focus on what you must do right now. There is nothing but right now,” Ricardo said sagely. Nino did not argue. For the next hour, they scrounged through the grass like foxhounds sniffing for a game scent. They parted the grass, picking up small little black spheres and dropping them into their sacks. Their hands pruned from the dew and chlorophyll, their fingers went and cold and were wrapped in soil from scraping the dirt, and their knees were caked with grassy green-yellow residue.

Ricardo looked over to Nino, and quickly grabbed his hand. Nino went rigid and watched his father whose eyes were intently staring at the black orb between his fingers. “This is not an olive.”

“It looks like an olive.”

“Eat it then.” Ricardo nodded at Nino and sat back in expectation. Nino examined the olive in his hand once more, then popped it in his mouth and bit, expecting the juicy saltiness to gush and the seed to wedge between his teeth, but he instead felt the grotesque, slimy crumble of something much different. It tasted bitter and revolting. He spit out the chunks and wiped his mouth after coughing. Nino looked up to his father who sat back on his palms with a nearly-imperceptible satisfaction. “What is that?” Nino choked out, spitting and wiping his tongue.

“Goat shit. Inconveniently, it looks a lot like an olive. But it’s too dry and not smooth enough.”

“It looked a little past ripe, not like shit.”

“They go pink when they’re past ripe. Like this,” Ricardo said, picking up a pink, marble-skinned orb. “They go pink. If it’s not pink and it’s not smooth, it’s goat shit. You have to know the difference, because even a rotten-skinned olive can still make good oil.”

“You let me eat goat shit?” Nino asked incredulously. In a thunderous moment not longer than a blink of an eye, Nino received an answer to the profound question that provoked him to spy on his father, an answer to that bottomless void of his soul where he felt nothing, an answer to whether or not he could ever feel. Ricardo smiled at him. And, all at once, Nino felt something within himself, new and foreign and scary, boiling to the top of his face, peeling his lips like a whistling kettle. He smiled back. At that moment, he knew he had a soul.

They worked the rest of the day together in amicable silence. They often looked to one another, and while their faces did not smile, their eyes did. Once they had cleared the grass of olives that fell in the night, they laid the cloth tarp around the base of the tree. They covered the ground beneath the tree outward from the trunk, radially like a large skirt, and when the cloth was completely overlapped and they had covered every inch of grass, Ricardo reached up and shook a branch. The leaves shivered and rains of olives dropped onto the cloth. Ricardo then pulled out a fascine knife and hewed smaller branches off of the main bough. Nino quickly darted to grab the discarded branches, careful not to step on any olives, and then proceeded to strip the twigs of their olives and toss them beyond the cloth dress under the large tree. Once a tree was completely strewn of its olives, they wrapped the cloth up together and funneled it into large hemp sacks. Then they repeated the process on the next tree.

By the time the sun set, they had filled four crates of olives, enough to make about ten liters of oil. The farm owner paid them for their work, and they walked back home with their tools slung across their shoulders. At home, they stuffed the tools into the corner where they belonged and Nino sat down at the wood table. He leaned his head forward onto his hands and his stomach bubbled like a caustic cauldron. It was dusk yet he still felt the broiling heat from the sun on his skin and his limbs felt like the brittle branches of the trees he had snapped all day long. Upon sitting, he had never felt so relieved.

“I would not have made that much without you today,” Ricardo said. Nino nodded without lifting his head. It was silent. Ricardo uneasily shifted his weight, looking at his beaten son. “Are you hungry?” Ricardo asked weakly, already knowing the answer. Usually, Nino left out a pot of rice or soup for Ricardo, but they had had no food today and Nino looked incapable of even moving. “I will go get some food, you rest,” Ricardo said. Nino grunted in an affirmative tone and Ricardo set off to the nearest thing to his shack: the abbey.

He arrived without fanfare. The walk was quick and the night air was brisk. Ricardo could seldom remember the last time he went walking in the evening. For the last decade, he had strictly dictated his daily life to be unchanging. It helped him to wean his mind off of the pain and the memories and had lulled his heart into a slumber so cavernous that no external woes could locate him in the abyssal seclusion of his grief. But, now, today, after having worked with the boy—no, his son—and now walking in the night again—something he had not done since he had hauled the body of his wife to her unmarked, disgraceful grave—he felt that maybe something was changing within him. Or, at least, perhaps a portion of his grief may have been pierced to reveal that time had made it a hollow edifice of its one violently vivid and painful self.

He approached the abbey quietly and entered the vestibule. The torch at the spires’ stairs was out and a dull glow bounced from the corridor leading to the chapel. Ricardo moved to the chapel and stood in the back of the nave while he watched the priest sitting in front of a dozen flickering candles beneath a stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion.

“Hello,” Ricardo said with a cough. The priest snorted loudly as if jarred from sleep and jumped from his kneeling position in front of the candles. He turned and squinted into the darkness while wrapping his robes about himself.

“Who is that? Hello? I demand you name yourself, in the presence of the Lord, qualify yourself!” he said quickly and frightfully. He leaned forward and applied his beady eyes to the shadowy recess of the chapel’s main hall.

“It is I, Ricardo de Ossorio Guerin,” Ricardo said as he approached. Each footstep was like a cannon’s boom in the darkness.

“Ah, Ricardo,” the priest said as he entered into the bowl of orange light. “What brings you here tonight? Is Nino alright?”

“Yes, he is well, Father,” Ricardo stated. “This may sound odd, but,” Ricardo hesitated. The priest snapped his attention to Ricardo, and he continued. “Could you cook something for me? I will pay. I need to take something home for Nino.”

The priest clapped his hands together and exhaled happily, shaking his clasped hands while he answered. “I would be delighted to. For Nino, anything You, too, Ricardo,” he said as he turned and blew out the candles at the altar and closed the myriad splayed texts around the light. He continued to speak quickly and lightly as he put one of the candles into a lantern. “He is a wonderful boy, you know, very bright, very sharp, excellent at his studies, but he has quite a peculiar head on about him. Have you noticed?” the priest rambled as he swayed his long, black robes side-to-side in step, the lantern swinging in his loose grip to throw the long, warping shadows of the pews high into the arched ceiling. “Are you going to the solstice festivals in town this weekend? This year it is our village to host. There will be over two thousand people here for it, bigger than last year by far. You should go, Nino will want to go, he has told me so. If you do not wish to go, of course, I can take him. But, on the subject of Nino, he says some of the most peculiar things.”

“Nino and I don’t talk, Father,” Ricardo said as he followed behind the priest.

“Really? He can hardly stop when I see him.” Ricardo responded only with a grunt which drew confusion from the priest. “You do not seem to be in high spirits, Ricardo, well, lower than usual. Is Nino not well? Is he injured? From what I know, he cooks every night.”

“He worked all day in the fields with me and he is too tired to cook. I told him to rest, I would get food.”

“The fields?” the priest responded as if he had misheard. “He was in the olive fields with you, today, picking olives?”

“Yes. He helped a lot.”

“Hm,” the priest responded. He led Ricardo into a tight brick hall with low ceilings and exited at the abbey’s storeroom. The abbey was large and cavernous, but was impure to its name since it had only one resident and not a cloistered choir of monks. Centuries before, monks had roamed the halls and lived at the abbey, but during a vicious storm, the living quarters adjacent to the chapel had been dashed to pieces. What was left was scuttled and the grounds instead turned to a garden. The monks moved to a welcoming new monastery in the north, further from the sea, believing that God had cursed this abbey. Despite its deprecated function as an abbey, the name still stuck. From then on, a single priest lived in the chapel spire alone except for the charity of a few pious individuals in the town who would come to keep him company. Over time, new priests would come from the north to take tenure at the Abbey de Moriles to relieve the old one. The position was often for life, and often was an informal banishment. This meant any priest curating the abbey often welcomed guests from the town. The current priest welcomed children to his abbey where he taught them scripture and how to till the soil which the priest believed promoted the virtues of patience, honesty, and hard work. “I did not think Nino would take to field work, not after our talks and having known his mother.”

“He said he wanted to go so that he could get to know me, because he needed to know himself. I know you speak to him more than I do, so does this mean anything to you?”

“Hm,” the priest repeated. “It’s certainly a queer thing to say, Ricardo,” the priest said with long, drawn-out syllables. He tidied himself with setting a pot to boil and rummaging in the dry stores, but he was instead spending the time looking busy to calm his nerves.

“Why?” Ricardo asked earnestly.

“Because he has often spoken to me about,” the priest hesitated, “about other things, about how much he does not want to share the same path in life that you have chosen,” the priest said with an innocent smile as he appeared with two large potatoes and dropped them into the pot. He set about ripping chunks of a loaf of bread apart and dumping them into the brine while also dropping in a few thin slices of salted jerky meat from a jar.

“What has he said?”

“He often asks about his mother and wishes to follow her examples. Of course, not literally, but follow her as a moral example. Perhaps, even, if I am so bold, he has made mentions about wishing to perhaps cloister himself into a monastery to the north. But, boys of his age do talk of much, Ricardo,” he said with a half-laugh and a shake of his head.

“He’s said nothing of the sort to me.”

“Would he, though, Ricardo?” the priest responded with faux honesty. He turned to face Ricardo and drew his eyebrows high and his lips low. “You haven’t been very forthcoming with your son. He has told me much, about how there is not much communication between you two. I pray often for you both.”

“Those are my matters, priest,” Ricardo said flatly, but with enough of a growl in his voice to make his point known. “Your matters are God. Let us not try and inform one another on where not to step.”

“Yes, fair,” the priest said as he stepped back and hunched his back in bowing prostration. “I am sorry if I offended you,” the priest said with a convincing humility.

“No, I am sorry, this is all new to me,” Ricardo said and eased back with a sigh. “Today was new to me with Nino. It was, more or less, our first day together. And now, you say this, and I realize that I—that I barely know the boy in my home.”

“I say this in friendship, Ricardo, but…perhaps you do not.” Ricardo looked to the priest with sunken eyes, shadowed in his doubt and his fear. “I see much of his mother in him, and I sometimes see none of him in you, but I mean this in no insulting way, Ricardo, honestly by the Virgin Mary. Even, dare I say, sometimes I feel as if I could have been the boy’s father,” the priest said in pretend harmlessness. Ricardo furrowed his brow then leaned on the wall. Before he could address those words, the priest spoke again. “In any case, I believe this is ready,” he said as he lifted the pot from the fire. He set the pot down in front of Ricardo and put a cast lid on.

“You’ve given me much to think about, priest,” Ricardo said. “Thank you for the food, I will have Nino bring it by tomorrow. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing, Ricardo, your words are payment enough for a lonely man such as myself.”

Chapter V

Hogueras de San Juan, the Bonfires of Saint John, was a holiday assimilated into Christian theology originally from the pagan tradition of midsummer, marking it as a festival of not only agricultural importance, for it was on the summer solstice that the festival occurred, but also of religious importance for it is exactly six months from the eve of the birth of Jesus Christ. For the town of Moriles, in this specific year, it was their turn to host the festival. Four surrounding towns converged upon their wide, flat streets and pitched tents along the river, suffocating every avenue with a human deluge. In total, two thousand people swept down into the village and when they all left the next morning, they would take with them a tale of two men’s deaths.

In the days leading up to the festival, every craftsmen and merchant began to snatch up any loose materials or products they could in time for the coming crowds. The merchants, in particular, arrived early with their traveling families and staked booths and tents on the main thoroughfare. Half of them were gypsies, and while the town had a natural disdain for such nomadic people (and usually found an unrelated theft or two to blame on to them), they were begrudgingly allowed. They mostly congregated around the wooden stage in the center of the forum, their beige tent peaks peeking over the edge of the gallows floor. The merchant children ran and played with the local children while their fathers haggled over both space and supplies.

One of the many squabbles was a merchant who set up his wares in front of a baker’s shop. The baker wanted the merchant to move elsewhere believing the merchant would both detract from his customers and also effectively hide the bakery outright. The merchant indignantly refused. They came to a mutual agreement when the baker gave the merchant five loaves of bread and a small jug of olive oil to relocate. The baker would remember the merchant’s name and in coming years, he would make sure to equally extort him the next time the festival were to be hosted in his own town.

Many of the laborers in the village were told that the fields, vineyards, and orchards were closed on the days leading up to the festivals. The owners of the properties were preparing their finest batches with only a skilled handful of workers. It was well-known that the festival brought enormous amounts of money into whichever city was lucky enough to host, and every person who came never wanted to leave empty-handed. This worked in equal response, however, for when the festival was outside of Moriles, the population would return with gifts and trinkets of their light travels.

While Nino had in previous years attended the summer solstice festival in the company of the priest, Ricardo de Ossorio Guerin had always stayed home and acted as if the day were no different than any other day without work, spending the time alone to wordlessly sharpen his tools. This was a weekly tradition for the calm Sunday afternoons when Nino went to church, leaving Ricardo to routinely grind his fascine knives, mend his tarps, and occasionally sew new soles to his boots. The summer solstice was no different.

On the eve of the festival, Ricardo sat by his grinding wheel in the corner of their small, dirt-floored shack. He pumped the foot pedal and the porous white wheel spun frantically as he moved a knife over it. The sparks shot into a dark corner where spider-webs rippled with momentary light. Ricardo finished one knife, placing it into a water bucket, and grabbed another longer one, a machete, and began to slide it back and forth over the wheel. His gloved hands felt the heat of the blade and the wheel groaned loudly, but he still heard his son awake in the next room. Nino said nothing as he passed by his father and went to the kitchen. Within an hour, Nino had a pot of rice ready and both men were quietly eating at their wood table. The heavy sounds of the wheel still lingered in their ears and the silence felt like a hanging weight on the thick, humid air.

“I am going to the festival today,” Nino said without looking up from his bowl. “Do you want me to buy you anything? I hear there will be blacksmiths from Porcuna. They will have new knives.”

“My knives are fine,” Ricardo replied plainly. They sat again silent. A minute passed with the sounds of spoons rapping on bowls before Ricardo spoke. “Is there anything you wish to buy?” Ricardo asked awkwardly. He was attempting to speak more to his son, especially after the meeting with the priest, but it was not an easy task for him. A sense of dread and cowardice crept up in him, but he continued.

“I do not know,” Nino answered. “If I see something, it would be nice to be able to buy it.” Ricardo nodded and stood, walked to his side of their shared home and produced a bag of coins. He set the bag down and pushed it across the table then returned to his rice. “All of it?” Nino asked, looking at the heavy bag.

“I would not have made that much by myself. It’s not mine, it is yours.”

“Thank you,” Nino said as he swiped the bag and tied it to his belt tightly. As he did, Ricardo looked to his son and allowed his mind to do something it had not done in years: to wonder. Ricardo hesitated before he spoke then quickly spat out another question.

“What do you think you will buy?”

“Um,” Nino said in thought. “Last year, there were many foods. Things I have never heard of or tasted. And there are dancers, I would like to give them some money. They dance so well, the gypsies especially. And perhaps a cross, I am the only boy who does not wear one on Sundays.”

“A cross,” Ricardo repeated. He thought again of what the priest said, that Nino had expressed interest in becoming a monk.

“I would like to stay until night, though,” Nino said absently. “I’ve never seen the bonfires. The priest takes me back after the parade.”

“I used to be there for the fires,” Ricardo responded. “With your mother.” Nino nodded. “You have never asked me about her.”

“I did not think you wanted to talk about her.”

“You ask the priest, though?”

“He talks often of her, I do not ask,” Nino said softly. “He never speaks about her really, though, just about how she was beautiful and wonderful and a saint.”

“Her name was Amaranta,” Ricardo said nervously. “Did you know that?” he asked, searching his son’s face for a look of respect or quiescent dignity. Nino nodded blankly, and Ricardo nodded back and sulked. Suddenly, Ricardo began to think of his wife once more. The things he had learned to block out, the grief and the loneliness, were coming back with each quiet moment that he had to sit with his thoughts. He began to count the seconds between their responses, devoting his brain to that simple task and not to the acknowledgment of long unhealed wounds.

“She liked to sing?” Nino asked slowly, fumbling his words as he spoke, sensing his father’s vulnerability. Ricardo looked to the side and nodded, speaking to the floor with a tremulous weakness in his voice.

“She did, when she cooked, and she loved flowers. She would steal them when in bloom from the church’s gardens, but I do not think the priest noticed.” Ricardo sighed deeply, and abandoned counting. “I miss her dearly,” he admitted. They sat again in silence. The far-off sounds of the festival began to dully echo into their hut, the faded hum of horses and yells and bells.

“You said you went to the festivals with her?” Ricardo nodded. “Jumped the fires?”

“When we were young, we did. Every year. Over and over before we went into the sea.”

“The priest would always push me home at dusk,” Nino said with a slight pout. “I have not done that. I have wanted to.” They shared another quiet moment, and both came to the same conclusion but neither found the words to say it.

They both spoke at once: “Would you—“, “You haven’t ever—“

They both quieted. Then, Ricardo shook the dust from his hair and looked straight into the dirty gold eyes of his wife and his son: “Let’s go to the festival, we will jump the fires together.” Nino nodded, not breaking eye contact. Then they each barely smiled, but it was enough, and the chasm within each of them, between each of them, began to inch shut.

They walked together into town to the festival. As they passed the abbey, Nino asked Ricardo to wait so he could fetch the priest. When the priest found out that Ricardo, too, was joining them, he quickly recused himself and said he would meet with them later on for he had to tend to some personal matters first, so both of the de Ossorio Guerins walked to town together.

The town itself, barely more than two dozen streets, was lost in the sea of people. The roofs of buildings barely stood above the throngs of people. Smoke billowed up from numerous small cook fires around town, and from a distance, the town itself seemed to shake and shudder with the people, pounding and pumping and pulsing the very earth as they jeered, clapped, and sung.

Every street smelled of a hundred different smells: the aroma of burning wood, the pungent odor of animals and their excrement, the freshness of fruits of all types, the allure of cooking meats and frying fish, and the enchantment of perfumes on women. The streets lie in shade from the canopy of the many merchant’s overhead silks, each a uniquely different type of exquisite: purples and golds shimmering with resplendent strips of beads and gemstones hanging like the dew on leaves; greens and blues like the meadows and the sky with woven patterns of turquoise and silver; reds and oranges like a fiery snake pressed into the very fabric and waiting to strike while watching from the entwined obsidian eyes with opaline and peridot scales. The merchants, each with any hundreds of items, yelled and smiled in mirth and in success, welcoming everyone with a stray eye to come and look at the finest things to ever come to Moriles: bags of spices and teas from the New World; tonics for any ailment and rosaries for any disease; the finest hats made by anyone in forty leagues; jewelry that weighed heavy as stones and shone like radiant stars against dark sky even amidst the blinding brightness of afternoon. There were shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, distillers, perfumers, tanners, tailors, and many more than Nino couldn’t point out.

Ricardo and Nino became part of the crowds, flowing from one stall to the next like flotsam in a stream. Nino hesitantly led, looking back to his father often to make sure they had not lost each other and Ricardo followed him wordlessly with a nod. As they passed from stall to stall, they were pushed and shoved, elbowed and jostled, but that was a normal part of the experience—an experience that Ricardo was wholly unready for. Ricardo, having been absent so long from both the festivals and from merriment, clenched his jaw and did not speak as anxiety and fear began to grip him. Nino wound from one merchant to the next, and at each stop, he would look at his father for any sign of interest. He mistook Ricardo’s apprehension and distress for judgment and disdain and Nino quickly fell into a self-conscious torpor.

They found themselves in front of a merchant with a colorful medley of melons, peaches, cherries, pears, and more. Nino listlessly scanned the produce then looked to his father who seemed more interested in staring straight ahead as in a daze, not blinking or looking at anything in particular. Although Nino wanted to buy something from the fruit merchant who was playfully slapping him on the shoulder, he didn’t want to seem wasteful in front of his father nor did he wish to brazenly spend money. However, when he looked upon the stall and noticed honey and figs, he had thought of all of the years that he had to rely on the grace of the priest to buy him food. At past festivals, the priest exercised much indecision before buying anything for Nino, and only ever in minute quantities. Every gift from the priest always came with excessive words of blessings, virtues, and lessons to be remembered, making sure that Nino never truly enjoyed the meager offering.

But, now, he had enough money and the priest wasn’t here…so he looked to his father again, hoping to see some look of acknowledgment to proceed and, to his amazement, he saw his father transfixed upon the figs with a look of desire that equaled his own. The boy quickly shoved a few coins into the merchant’s hand and grabbed a handful for himself and a handful for his father. Ricardo at first declined, but Nino shoved the figs into his hands, making it well known that if Ricardo did not grasp them, they’d be welcomed by the dirt underfoot.

Ricardo, without an option now, hesitantly bit into one. Nino watched and smiled as Ricardo’s eyes burst like kindling on a flame at the sudden taste. It had been years since he had had anything exotic, and it had been longer since he had had figs. But, with this fig, he remembered something even more important than simply having not had exotic fruits in a long time; he remembered pleasures. Pleasures, even those as basic as a sweet fig, had been woefully absent in Ricardo’s life for the last ten years, and with one bite, a pubescent desire reawakened within him, a long-since forgotten hunger, a need to satisfy desires that had been unattended for far too long. Within a moment, he had devoured every fig in his hand. He ravenously licked the honey from his fingers after he finished, unaware of anything else in the world but the sweetness that he had all but forgotten, and then he noticed Nino smiling at him.

He hid his fingers and, in his embarrassment, suggested pursuing more food at the next merchant stall, to which Nino agreed heartily. The boy bounded through the crowd and Ricardo followed with zeal, and within an hour, they had eaten shrimp and crab from an old fisherman, a bowl of bean stew from a farmer and his daughter, each had devoured a generous link of chorizo sausage by a local (and somewhat inebriated) butcher, baklava from a Greek merchant, and finished off by finding the source of their butcher’s merriment by each enjoying a glass of heavily-fermented apple cider.

They sat on the edge of the open forum where benches had been erected from piles of discarded wood waiting to be the fuel for the midnight revelry. Both of the de Ossorio Guerins sat in content bliss, each belching with a wink and a laugh. As they sat hazy and happy with their bloated bellies and docile inebriation, loud horns blew from the edge of town. Then, as if a flood of sound, many of the merchants began to move their kiosks from the thoroughfare and people swept to the sides of the streets with laughter and clapping. A loud drum beat bounced off of the beige stone walls of the city and the sounds of clacking castanets, hollow tambori hits, palm-slapped rhythms on the back of guitars, and the screeching joyous laugh of a singular master of ceremonies sat atop the throbbing acoustic wave. People clapped to the rhythm and children jumped between adult legs to see the source of the sound.

Ricardo looked to Nino who was absent-mindedly tapping his foot to the beat. Ricardo smiled to him then began clapping. Nino, still unaccustomed to the sight of a smile on his father’s face or of jocund festivity in his father’s eyes, stared blankly before Ricardo picked Nino’s hands up (the first time Nino had felt his father’s touch to his memory), and began smacking them together for him. Finally, Nino broke into clapping too, and they each clapped to the beat tipsily.

The sounds became sights as the parade made its way to the center of the town. The parade was led by dancing women, gypsies with gold tassels on long, wrapped purple silks swathed from their feet to their hips to their breast in one long sheet. They lightly held onto additional silks, twirling and throwing them into the air, each hanging and billowing like lavender clouds before the gypsies walked through the silks or twisted them back like smoke. On their wrists hung bells that pulsed to the beat as they jumped and leaped, grabbing people from the crowd and twirling them, dashing between men and leaning into them like a cat before pouncing back into the street. They entered the forum, spreading out around the gallows stage, darting back and forth for the encircled crowd.

After a few minutes, the gypsy dancer settled and bowed. The crowd cheered and tossed coins to the open center of the forum. Nino pulled out a coin and his father nodded as he scampered between people and held it out for a gypsy. She thanked him and kissed him on the cheek to the cheer of the crowd. Nino blushed and slid back to his father to find the priest now standing next to Ricardo. The priest had just arrived and sought out Ricardo and Nino and was now apathetically smiling down at Nino.

“Hello Father,” Nino said to the priest with a blush as he sat back down next to his father. “She kissed me,” he whispered to Ricardo.

“Do not be tempted, Nino,” the priest said as if Nino’s comment was meant for him. “They are but gypsies, they’ll be gone tomorrow and with a lot more than what you freely give them.”

“There’s no harm in it, let him be,” Ricardo said to the priest unfazed. He leaned back and folded his hands on his lap with a sense of relaxation and pleasure. The priest noticed this, and with unease, focused on Nino.

“Have you had fun today?” he asked innocently.

“Oh yes, we ate figs and honey and shrimp, oh and some stew, plus some baklava, and we had some of the cider, a bit rotten but that’s the way it is supposed to be, no?”

“It is, but moderation is the key,” the priest said solemnly.

“I think you need some, Father, and without moderation,” Ricardo said with a smile as he turned to him. The priest smiled perfunctorily then shook his head to say no. “I’ll get it,” Ricardo said as if he did not notice the priest’s refusal. He got up, twisted his back, and launched into the crowd. The priest slumped down next to Nino and sighed deeply.

“Your father seems well.”

“Yes, he is. We both are.”

“What is responsible for this sudden change?”

“I’m—not so sure, Father. I guess it all happened because I began to wonder about him.”

“And you never had before? I told you all you wished to know, what more was there to know?”

“I don’t know,” Nino sputtered, “it’s just different when you say it than when I watched him and worked with him.”

“And you? For ten years, your entire life, he has shown no interest in you, and now you are without reservation at this distinct change? It is not normal, my son, changes like these, so rapidly. They could be signs of certain madnesses—rabies, or the French Gout, or even the work of a more sinister nature.”

“No no!” Nino said with a laugh. “You’re very far off, Father, it’s not a malady or a sickness! He is just…happy. And I am too. I am having a good time, is it so necessary to try and diagnose an issue where none exists?”

“Nino, it is my experience as a man of God that nothing of this sort happens without an issue being present—it just has not presented itself yet.” The priest sighed and nodded. “But, if you say so. Were you going home soon?”

“We’re staying for the bonfires,” Nino said with a large, toothy grin. The priest raised his eyebrows and nodded with contempt masked behind concern.

“Be careful, Nino, they can be dangerous for boys.”

“He’ll be fine,” Ricardo said as he slid back to them, holding out a large mug of cider for the priest, one for himself, and a smaller one for Nino. The priest stood up, thanked Ricardo, and Ricardo reclaimed his seat next to his son.

“Will you join us?” Nino asked as he took a small sip and winced.

“I couldn’t,” the priest said as he began to ramble reasons.

“Come now,” Ricardo said as his cheeks flushed with a big gulp of the cider. “You must,” he said with a broad smile and an abashed belch. The priest waved his hands for words he could not find and sighed before agreeing only to the terms that he would see how he felt. “For now, stay,” Ricardo said as he slid over and made room for the priest.

The gypsies scraped the coins off the ground, bowed to another cheer from the crowd, and then they dispersed as all attention returned to the sound of the drums. A marching procession of locals entered into the square, lines of broad, fat men with deep-bellied guitarros strummed behind lines of men puffing into wet dulzanias who stood behind a line of men with bandurrias. At the back was a small army of boys and girls, all slapping the beat onto tamboris and drums, each smiling to be in the parade as their names were happily called out from the bystanders in the crowd and would momentarily stop to wave to their mothers and fathers before rejoining the rhythm and the procession of the traditional jota music. Then burst a dozen dancers, wrapped in white to their knees and then black coat and pants covered in a bright red sash, with one hand on their head with a clapping pair of castanets and their other hand swirling a brimmed hat back and forth. The dancers swirled in choreographed exactitude, putting the exotic and free-form bounding of the gypsies to shame with precision and practice. From the center of the musicians came a man, singing so loud that his voice broke a few times. He sang with wry humor of life, love, weddings, and religion. He twirled as he sang, his voice bounding above the instruments, leading like a torch in the night, and the crowd began to sing the traditional songs with him.

After a rousing half-dozen songs, he finished with a long-held crescendo that reverberated brilliantly and quivered with intensity which he ended sharply. A fantastically eerie echo now stood in the sudden stillness and he graciously bowed. Then, the crowd erupted and swallowed the dancers, musicians, and singer whole, throwing arms around their shoulders and shoving drinks and food into their hands, hoisting them up with praise and weighing them down with gifts.

Nino and Ricardo furiously clapped above their heads and whistled distinctly while the priest sedately clapped. He watched Nino and Ricardo cheering, his mouth a pursed slit and his eyes narrow daggers. He saw the smile on Nino’s face and no longer saw the somber and collected youth that he believed would be perfect for the quiet monastic study of texts. He watched Ricardo whose broken soul was a constant that could always make him feel better, for he survived Amaranta’s death with more dignity and self-respect than Ricardo. But, now, Ricardo was blissfully happy, euphoric and ecstatic—it was disrespectful, honestly, to Amaranta’s memory. It was blasphemous. And so the composed, calculating priest clapped evenly and unexcitedly.

The governor made his way to the stage and stood in front of the retired gallows, wearing a crisp suit and a politician’s smile, and asked for the crowd’s attention repeated times until the crowd was silent enough for him to pause, adjust his suit in their dwindling focus, then begin. His words washed over them without purpose. Only one-fifth of the people were even from his own town of Moriles, but with the other village’s people, so too came their governors whom Moriles’ governer individually thanked, pointing to the gallows pole behind him which held the arrows pointing to every surrounding village, and with each name he announced, the respective governor stood and the townsfolk of that village cheered. After the requisite thanks, praises, and self-serving compliments were out of the way, the governor spoke of the night’s upcoming events.

“We will have the bonfires on the river banks,” he said to a loud cheer. “But, before then,” he said tightly, enjoying the focus of the crowd, “the feast!” They all cheered again. “But, no feast is complete without the queen, so I present to you, our Belleza!” the governor said, sweeping his arm to a balcony in the back of the forum. A woman waved cheerily, a woman who was arresting with her honey almond skin and dazzling with her elegant sea-blue eyes, dressed in a virginal white dress with gold trim, and with a radiant smile tucked between tufts of lightly-curled black hair that fell like dollops of dark cream down her face and onto her shoulder. Two little girls stood at her sides, dressed in the same white as she, and they jumped up and down to wave at people as well. However, and quite oddly, the two little girls were of a fair white skin and their faces had the distinctly large eyes and thin noses of French ancestry. But these subtleties were lost on everyone looking at the balcony considering no one was looking at them—the overwhelming beauty of the ripe, blossoming flower of the Belleza commanded the gaze of men and women alike. Men below professed undying love in loud drunk shouts and shot kisses at her like volleys of arrows. After the crowd calmed, the governor retook their attention. “We in Moriles are very proud of her,” he said with a snigger that caught like wildfire between all men present, but he quickly hushed them, “and after the feast, you all shall be in awe as we are in awe every day of her, as she lights the first bonfire at midnight!” The crowd erupted and cheered, the Belleza waved and retreated into her building, and the governor rejoined the festival.

“She is astonishing,” the priest said breathlessly.

“They always are,” Ricardo responded. “Every time, they find a new Belleza, and she’s only more beautiful than any other woman ever seen. Every time,” he said uninterested.

“I try to stay out of it, for the sake of the church and the obvious temptation of sin, but—“ the priest stammered.

“You’re human, Father, no shame,” Ricardo said with a smile as he finished his mug of cider. “Let me get you another,” he said as he took the priest’s mug. The priest still looked at the balcony where the Belleza had stood, blinking and shaking head in disbelief. He hadn’t seen a woman so radiantly gorgeous since Amaranta, and not even she was like this one, no, this one was as if the sunlight itself soaked into her skin and she glowed like an angel. The priest fell back onto the bench as if struck, moaning and cursing himself in low tongues.

“Are you okay?” Nino asked, scooting closer to the priest. Nino was visibly intoxicated now, smiling without purpose or reason and red in the cheeks. His attention moved from the priest to the crowd and kept waving at anyone who would wave back, yelling out blessings and good fortune to them.

“I am fine,” the priest responded. “Nino, do you still feel as you did? About your soul?”

Nino turned his gaze from the crowd and looked to the priest and the smile wiped from his face. “I have not thought on it, Father,” he admitted.

“Well, think on it now, for me, Nino.” Nino looked down in thought. “You spoke of an emptiness within you, something hollow that could not be filled. Is this void filling? Can you now feel your soul as you once thought you could not?”

“I—“ Nino hesitated. “I do not feel a gap within me anymore, and I can now hardly imagine there ever was one,” he said honestly. Then, without warning and much to his surprise and the priest’s chagrin, he belched. Then, he fell backwards onto the bench and began laughing so hard that his face turned the color of an apple and he struggled for air. The priest watched without amusement.

Ricardo came back now with two more large mugs of cider and handed one to the priest. The priest declined, but Ricardo forced it into his hand in much the same way Nino had forced the figs into his own. “It’s for your own good, Father,” Ricardo said, wrapping the priest’s finical fingers around the mug and making him support the weight. He then tipped his mug into the priest’s, nodded, and then they drank.

As night fell, torches rose, and the noise never ended. Crickets joined the bands and the dancing went on long into the night. The feast was operated by a cadre of cooks, with dozens of pigs roasting over a communal coal bed and a dozen pots of stews frothing. Lines of bakers kneaded dough and cooked it, producing a dozen new loaves every other minute which were quickly sliced and snatched. On the gallows, a table was set up for all the governors and their food brought to them whereas everyone else walked in a line and grabbed scraps from the spitted pork and ladled themselves helpings from the plentiful cauldrons.

Nino found himself dancing with the daughter of the cook in charge of the bean stew he had eaten earlier. He danced with one hand on his head the other on his hip, jumping on one foot in circles while the girl swung around in the crook of his arm. Men on the outskirts laughed and cheered them on as the band played the same song constant for ten minutes to let them go and go and go, until finally, Nino spun too much and fell in his inebriation and the crowd swelled upon him and lifted him up and congratulated him. He laughed and howled and said he was in love with the world, and all the world that held him up professed love back as they threw him into a new dance with another young girl. He bowed with a stumble and a smile then launched into the dance and the girl was quickly laughing and moving with him. Before long her lips were on his neck between songs and after that they were on his lips in the shadows.

Ricardo and the priest sat on a bench on the edge of the forum under a torch while Nino danced. Ricardo’s large build and thick body held a staunch rebellion against the effects of the alcohol, but the priest’s gaunt epicene frame did not fare so well. The priest hung his head and his limbs were like a marionette’s, moving with extra inertia and wavering before flopping back down. His head lolled on his neck like a well-oiled joint, bobbing back and forth.

“Eat more, Father, you don’t want to be ill,” Ricardo said, handing his bread to the priest. The priest took it and lazily bit off a chunk that went soggy in his slack-jaw laced breath.

“She was astonishing, Ricardo,” the priest repeated. “You saw her?”

“I did, Father.”

“Amazing, such beauty, such beauty…” He took another swiping bite of the bread in his hand and his head rolled to the side. “Ah, women,” he said with a laugh crossed with a hiccup. “A sin I am destined to repeat, Ricardo.”

“I am sure we all have sinned, Father.” As Ricardo said these words, he could see Nino grabbing the girl he was dancing with and whispering something into her ear. She nodded and he then jumped from the clearing and into the thick crowd.

Nino emerged in front of both men, out of breath and smiling ear to ear. “Father,” he choked out as he stared at Ricardo. Ricardo told him to catch his breath and Nino smiled at both the priest and Ricardo as he stood tall and breathed deeply. “I got this for you,” Nino said as he pulled something from his belt, wrapped in a thick leather cloth. “I wanted to give it to you later, but, the dancing is making it hurt and I do not want to lose it, so…” he said forcing the gift into his father’s lap. He then waved and fled back to the dance and resumed almost without missing a beat.

“Hmph,” the priest said as he leaned forward. He propped himself on his elbow, twisting his head as he looked at Ricardo. He took another bite of the bread, violently rending off a chunk of the crust and eating it with a flopping jaw. “He is a good boy, Ricardo,” he said begrudgingly. Ricardo nodded with a smile growing on his lips as his son twirled round and round with a girl who fell into his arms like warm chocolate. Ricardo watched and remnants of memory and feelings welled within him like fireflies at dusk, small warm traces that did not hurt and instead illuminated forgotten shards of bliss in his fractured past.

“You are quite lucky he turned out to be as good as he is, Ricardo. No man is perfect, none enough to raise a perfect boy. Not even me, I am not a perfect man, Ricardo, far from it, far far from it! That may surprise you, but I am not, I know,” he rambled. Ricardo nodded and watched Nino as the priest spoke. Ricardo’s slight grin burst into a full smile when he saw Nino not-so-secretly kiss the girl he danced with, stealing her lips in the middle of a direction change. For only a moment, the girl went flush red and Nino’s eyes found his father in the crowd staring at him and Ricardo beamed at his son. “A smile!” the priest said and brought Ricardo’s attention back. “You have not done that since dear sweet Amaranta was called back by God, Ricardo! What is this new change in you, hm?”

“I am not sure the reasons,” Ricardo said. “I feel that perhaps I have overlooked things in my life and thought they only would cause me grief, but truly, they only ever existed to cause me happiness.”

“For a field worker,” the priest said with a stumble, “you sometimes say intelligent things. I thought all of Nino’s sharpness was from his mother, but maybe I am wrong!”

“Who is to say,” Ricardo said and finished his cider. He waved to the brewmaster across the yard and the brewmaster nodded and sent a girl to bring Ricardo another full mug. He thanked the girl, gave her the coins, and began to drink.

“Her, too, that waitress! So young, so fine, ah, to be young and able, Ricardo, I do wish I could be once more.”

“You’re lucky that no one can hear you, Father, they may think that you don’t take the word of God seriously with feelings like that,” Ricardo said with a sly grin that was lost on the priest.

“Now, Ricardo, I believe it was you who told me not to step where I ought not, between you and Nino, and now you tell me how to be a priest?”

“I meant nothing by it, Father,” Ricardo responded without much attention, still watching Nino.

“No no no, Ricardo, I don’t think you understand!” the priest continued. “Some people know, some do, that I am not exactly pure. God does as well, but He still sees fit for me to run His house, so fie with you who says I should not!” Ricardo sighed and let the priest ramble on. “That is why I am here, in this shit-infested hovel of a town Moriles! I was raised north of here, in a proper city, learned in a proper monastery, and when they found that I had a minor indiscretion with a baker’s daughter, well, they banished me here, yes, banished. Trust me when I say this is a punishment. We know of Moriles in the north, and we know that it is a prison to be cloistered here. There is no other priest who wants to lead the dim farmers and field workers and goat-herders of Moriles, men of such insignificant souls that God Himself has sought fit to not even have a proper church stand in your midst before blowing it to pieces!”

“You ought to keep your voice down, Father,” Ricardo said with a hint of agitation, not breaking his gaze on Nino.

“Speak to me if you wish to talk to me, Ricardo,” the priest said with a low tone like the slither of a snake. Ricardo shut his eyes, took a deep calming breath, and turned to the priest. “That’s better. You should know better than to disrespect a man of God. What were you staring at, hm? Nino? A failure of a boy, I should say,” the priest said with diffident venom. Ricardo set his mug down slowly, but the priest did not notice as he continued talking. “He had promise. He may have been a scholar, a man versed in the word of God. But, then, ha, who knows how it happened? How you, the stolid and stupid Ricardo who hasn’t even noticed he has had a son, somehow becomes a father in the span of one summer? And, the tragedy, the entire tragedy is that now he will just be you, a farmhand, hired help for the season. He could have been more, Amaranta wanted him to be more. She told me.”

“I warn you, priest, that you speak unkindly of many things. I forgive you because of the drink, but I won’t forgive you any further than now.”

“I need not your forgiveness, you need mine!” the priest seethed. “Why should I need Ricardo de Ossorio Guerin’s forgiveness?! No, in fact, I want to give you my thanks, Ricardo,” he said with a malevolent regality, “because I have been as a father to your son for ten years, but now, no longer! I resign from that abhorred post! I now see that my time has been a waste and now, thank you! I can resume my own tasks instead of babysitting your bastard!” he said with faux happiness and a tight-lipped spiteful smile. He grabbed his cider from the table and took a long gulp, wiped his mouth, and then continued while Ricardo sat rigidly still. In the torch light, Ricardo’s large frame, thick jaw, and gray clothes made him look not unlike a gargoyle, especially as the shadows pierced into his eye sockets leaving dark holes where a soul should be visible. The color drained from Ricardo’s face, and with every word from the priest, something began to slip from him, like sand through his fingers and he felt a coldness creeping back into him, a coldness he felt the night he buried his bloody wife.

The priest continued: “I take him to church, I taught him to read, I taught him to cook, to clean, to shower, to pray, how to read the sky and how to read the predictions, I even had to tell him to not fondle himself! I showed how to piss and not get it on his own feet like a degenerate, and you have done nothing but given him rice and grain and a roof. I have created his mind, I’ve made a human out of him, and you’ve only kept him from dying on the street, like sheltering a stray dog!” The priest squeaked and angrily gripped the table edge. “I had such hopes for him, and sometimes, I wondered if despite that hair of yours and that skin he has, ugly and dark like yours, despite it all…” the priest trailed off as his wavering finger tapped Ricardo’s exposed flesh.

Then, the priest paused and sighed hard, preparing to admit a sealed and private wish that, in giving it the form of life by saying it out loud, would render it forever destroyed. “I wondered if maybe part of him was mine, Ricardo, I did, I wondered that maybe he actually was and then that would all make sense and that would be why you cast him out, because secretly, somewhere, you knew he was not yours. I thought, yes, maybe that was why you hated him, and so I took him in, and I did because I know beasts. I worked a farm when I was young, yes, I was not always soft-palmed, and I know the wild godless things out there. They don’t raise a runt if they can smell that it isn’t theirs, and that’s what you are, a beast, soulless and without a single touch of God in you. And however you had the love of Amaranta, who was like a choir of angels herself, I do not know. But, now, I see that Nino is in fact all yours, a dull farmhand like his father! Luck though, by God, I can take one blessing out of this affair: Amaranta is lucky she died before she could see that he was the child of the husband she hated, because she surely would have hated that he was not mine! Why did you think she always came to the abbey? For prayer? For me, Ricardo, for me!”

At that moment, the music ended and everyone applauded and whistled and jeered. During the animation, Ricardo stared at the priest. The priest’s eyes wandered from Ricardo to the table to himself and back to Ricardo. His eyes were cold slits, frozen in a sneering expression. Ricardo was blank and vacant.

In the center of the forum, the governor retook the stage to announce that it was ten minutes until midnight and the bonfires would begin at the river shortly. The Belleza stood on stage with the priest and held out a torch, saying that she was honored to be a part of the festival and asking for everyone to follow her to the beach. She was again trailed by two identically-dressed but very out-of-place little girls who bounded and leapt happily and playfully. The crowds followed as if soldiers marching to war. Nino pushed through the flow of people to come back to the bench where his father sat silently staring at the priest whose eyes were transfixed upon the Belleza.

“The bonfires, let’s go!” Nino said, tugging on his father’s arm. Ricardo did not look to his son.

“I will meet up with you in a few minutes, the priest and I must finish our drinks,” he said flatly.

“No, let us follow, let us follow her!” the priest said as he tried to stand. Ricardo reached out and grabbed his robes and with one violent movement, threw him back down into a sitting position. The priest was shocked and looked to both Nino and Ricardo in a stupor, then he focused on Ricardo and he saw something cold and lethal in his torch-lit face.

“We will be there soon, Nino,” Ricardo said once more. “Go on ahead.” Nino shrugged and jumped along, then turned and yelled back.

“Did you like it? The knife?”

“I cannot wait to use it,” Ricardo said back, loud and flat while still staring at the priest and while his hand moved over Nino’s unopened gift in his lap, a brand new leather-shrouded fascine knife. Nino was grabbed by a girl and disappeared into the crowd.

The entire city left to the bonfires and then it was silent in the forum except for the pleading of the priest for forgiveness and Ricardo’s heavy breathing as he wouldn’t stop.


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