Thursday, June 4, 2009

Domício Coutinho | from Duke, the Dog Priest

Domício Coutinho
from Duke, the Dog Priest
Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers

Chapter Five


Run, you immigrant, run! It’s no time to take advantage of the winter moment not found in the Northeast! The sacristan falls down, enjoying himself. In the distance he glimpses a group of old people shivering in the cold before the unopened church. A chill runs through him. Father Topper, in high boots, gloves, and a black beret, alongside the kitchen worker, is just finishing clearing the sidewalk. Amarante went in the side entrance and slowly pushed the door open. Careful… He knows what it means to get caught coming in late.

The crime of lèse-ponctualité. How to silence the colossal hinges? The priest has his back toward him and is crouching, but at the first squeak he turns, his nose puffing smoke. His neck swivels. The quarry, the quarry has arrived, there he is, frightened, hands in his pockets, his spirit in tatters, frozen. The priest is readying his pounce, relishing the dread that possesses the victim, letting him feel it sliding down his throat. The priest’s eyes revel in that pre-attack. Silence shrouds the locale. The Mexican’s forced smile has frozen, transforming him into a skull with bad teeth. The hawk’s claws open and close in the prelude to the bite. “O God of immigrants, hear my plea!”

He catches his breath; the priest, who looks like a black cane, stiffens. The Mexican, his hair escaping from beneath his cap, still shows his teeth like some lunar ghost. The priest slowly raises his hand to his chest as if it take out a weapon and withdraws a letter. He extends his arm. His lips touch and say in staccato: “Adiós, muchacho!” It was the firing.

The cane-priest, hands behind his back, listens impassively to Amarante’s swan song (nota bene that in him impassivity was an act of kindness): the dirty trick his roommates had played on him, all of them by infected with the laziness virus, cause and effect of a serious malady, namely unemployment. Out of sheer patriotism he had not thrown them out. He wasn’t lying, no. Make a phone call, they were all still there. So hard to adjust to a land where you don’t speak the language.

Suddenly, a miracle! The priest’s lips contract to abort a smile. Impossible to tell whether it’s one of disdain or of some other sentiment. At the corner of his lips and spreading across his entire face appears a shadow of kindness. He went to the telephone and reprimanded someone, scratching his pen across the paper. Then he extended his arm, without saying a word. The note read: “See Father Johannis van Houtert, St. Thecla Church, Blueberry Lane and Elm Street.” It was the parish of the Deonite fathers.

Chapter Six


That change of church was a good thing, and changing priests even better. (Bless you, Father Topper! I won’t be foolish or ungrateful enough to forget the age-old wisdom that says God writes straight with crooked lines.) They were the children of John Deon, now residing in heaven, then little known, a candidate to sainthood who needed only a couple of small complementary miracles to confirm him in the position, gain his seat, install himself in a church, and ascend to an altar as the legal broker of favors and miracles. Commission up front or in installments. Candles, jewels, money. Their program of goals rivals those of Ignatius, Francis, and Dominick, being an amalgam of all of them, emphasizing the planting of God in countries through which had passed the “Batavian heretics” (forgive me, my people, for it is no longer politically correct to call our Protestant friends heretics; it was once a consecrated expression), sowing the faith and building churches throughout the world. To take revenge on the phobic and caustic Father Vieira: “Holland will construct altars!” Yes, and they constructed churches, schools, hospitals galore. They constructed seminaries. They planted God and made Him grow in uncultivated lands. So just watch out for the Batavians’ revenge now, Vieira!

Father John, the rector, had been a missionary in Brazil and spoke Portuguese like a native. He knew our history, our classics, our legends and tales. All the priests strive to teach Amarante the things and customs of the land, the modes of behavior. They secure for him his green card, the great triumph of precitizenship, which confers upon the immigrant the same rights as Americans, except voting and running for office. For the first time, he can feel at home. Now he could smoke a cigarette, have a beer without worrying about the companions’ joke, “It’s the Migra!” Rare as it was, it was always feared that an immigration agent would appear at any moment to cart off the illegals.

Father John was tall, husky, with bushy eyebrows, his eyes a deep, brilliant blue, his skin burnt from the backlands of Mato Grosso. He liked to talk about his adventures among the Indians. He had once spent an entire night celebrating a new baby, something unique in the world. The woman about to give birth was placed on a wooden altar decorated with flowers and banners and surrounded by torches. Two native priests stood at the side of the midwife, who was dressed like a Vestal, a half-moon on her forehead. They sang and danced as they awaited the child. All night. The entire village was there, singing, dancing, eating and drinking until the child was born. The mother-to-be lay on her back, completely adorned, wearing a multicolor diadem symbolizing the dawn ready to give birth to the sun. When a child is born, it is a new sun being born to the tribe. A song announced the arrival of a boy who would be chieftain of the whole world. They sang, and the song came forth like a moan. That is why they treat the baby as if he were a king. Each one approaches, bows, offers gifts, and passes the child from hand to hand. Only at the last does he come to the arms of his father, who returns him to the mother.

The Indians go on drinking and dancing to the sound of the flute, to the sound of fifes made from the bones of their enemies. The young, nude Indian women eagerly serve meat and cauim liquor in celebration of the newborn. God be praised! They weren't cannibals. Speaking of cannibals, he related that once, at a feast, an Indian man stood up and said, “Chief, I don’t like my mother-in-law!” The chief whispered to him, “At least take a few bites of the rump so as not to offend the family.”

From time to time, a young woman would be dragged off into the forest, to return as light-footed as if walking on the moon. Others followed in a flickering play of shadows. Love wasn’t forbidden, but custom called for it to be done in the dark.

The chieftain, with skin the color of brazilwood, curly hair, visionary eyes, wearing a leather loincloth, was the image of a John the Baptist without staff. The puffs of smoke from the peace pipe rose in artistically coiling clouds to form a figure with long hair, glassy eyes, and hands like an open cluster of flowers. “Erejubê, mussacá Paim!” said the chief, which meant: “Hail, friend priest!” To which he responded, “Erejubê!” and took a swallow from the cup and a puff from the pipe, then raised his arms and repeated: “Erejubê! Erejubê!” Everyone began to dance, their arms upraised, the great offering to Tupã, who was the sun, and his son, the child who had just been born, in his white garb and a golden mask, with fine silvery hair and star-like eyes. They crouched and raised their arms, singing to the sound of the flute, around and around the altar. The mother rose, her child in her arms. She began to dance, a mystical dance to the god of fertility for the gift of a new life. Then she descended from the altar and set it afire. Afterward, all the unmarried women, torches in hand, began running around the bonfire. They symbolized the dawns to come, the future of the tribe, the golden suns to which they would give birth.

The child represented at the same time the goddess Friendship, Tupã’s most beautiful daughter, who appeared living in the smoke from the fire. She alone kept them all united, strong in combat, generous in the division of spoils. The soul of the tribe. On moonlit nights, the nubile women would dance on the banks of the river, where the most favored could see the goddess with her long silvery hair reflected in the waters, star-like eyes, and hands like the petals of flowers, teaching them the art of loving, the mysteries of love. Each newborn child was another knot of Friendship in the soul of the tribe. A primitive Brazilian life with a small taste of paradise.

Father John was able to evoke all of this, with his candid smile, his ivory teeth, his guttural, sonorous laugh. He was perfectly identified with his calling. A double calling, in fact, born in him and his father at the same time. An uncle of his, Father Walter, from the day of his ordination was a scandal who became an anecdote. The new priest stood unsteadily at the altar, mumbling his words, showing all the signs of drunkenness. It was speculated that because of his lengthy seclusion and strict fasting his system had become too weak to take the wine. The truth is that merely sticking his nose into the chalice was enough to make Father Walter dizzy. At the time for communion, his head would spin, his Latin turn to Sanskrit, and his legs wobble in a pirouette as he turned to the congregation. At the Dominus vobiscum, one hand remained in the air while the other attempted to stifle an irrepressible burp. The Ite missa est would emerge in a voice so muddled that it seemed like a prolonged gargle.

The situation made its way by word of mouth from Aspen to Amsterdam. In Rome, learned cardinals tore their hair analyzing the fact, seeking a solution. Any solution, so long as it didn’t violate the inviolable charge: “Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood.” But there was no solution to the sad, bizarre, and comical reality. And many would come from far away just to see Father Walter drunk on the blood of Christ. There, among the Indians in the depths of the backlands of Mato Grosso, the memories returned.

Theodor, a mere twelve-year-old boy, and his entire family had their eyes fixed on the altar as if watching a spiritualist séance. Then came the calling, at which his father, upon learning of it, trembled, as jubilant as if it were his own. A great divine calling had blossomed in the family. Thus had he grown up, the model of virtue and knowledge. And to quote Margarita Buonarroti, his most fervent admirer, when he spoke even the stones gathered round to listen.

The Cunhatãs came to him: “Does Paim want to drink?” And he replied, “Paim wants to!” His constitution was strong; he hadn’t taken after his uncle.

Father John always greeted Amarante in the morning with “Erejubê, mussacá Amarante!” And the response was “Erejubê, mussacá Paim!” It was the first Tupi expression he had ever learned, and from a Dutch priest in the heart of Nova Eboracense… Why wasn’t Tupi taught in the schools in Brazil?

The rector, referring to the sacristan, joked with Father Thomas, the steward of the house, who was also tall and had the belly of a canon, a wrinkled brow, and brusque gestures; his crablike eyes turned glassy when he took a disliking to someone: “Look, Tom, he needs time to get used to it. When did you ever have a sacristan who’d studied in Rome?” The steward thought, “A college graduate?! His job is to keep God’s house clean and well cared for. Nothing more.”

The church of St. Thecla, formerly a convent with an adjoining school run by nuns, had been transformed into a parish. Father John was vicar and rector of the community of three priests, two brothers, and six nuns. The new parish had been carved almost entirely out of St. Philomena, not without some protest and resentment on the part of its vicar, Father Norbert, who suddenly saw his church impoverished by the departure of its more affluent parishioners, the German immigrants. That had happened around 1919. Wishing to free themselves of the reputation as racists, they joined forces to build the new church, which would become a marvel on the banks of the East River.

The work went forward mainly in winter, when the majority of construction laborers were generally idle. Everyone pitched in as best they could, and in order to raise spirits, beer was imported from Bavaria, attracting masons, carpenters, and helpers of varying degrees of competence. Arnold Fritz, the overseer, took on the task of training the volunteers. Celebrations, music, and outdoor dances marked the end of the day and drew young men and women from the Village and Little Italy. People even came from Harlem. And it was there, along with the waltzes and German songs, that the immigrants heard for the first time the future Negro spirituals. Under the glare of the lights, workers and helpers of every type, striving to finish what they had started, moved like shadows among the girders, careful not to step in the fresh cement; to the sound of voices deep into the night, the church rose like a castle in a fairy tale.

Despite the Christian fervor of those folk, a tragedy shocked the neighborhood and complicated the work. That night a youth, with his girlfriend in his arms, had fallen into the cement for the foundation. The snow covered them and they weren’t found until the following day, literally petrified. As they had always been seen working by themselves into the late hours of the night, people thought about a reckless act or something similar. It explained a lot, words spoken the evening before that at the time meant nothing. Above all, there was their position and the spot where they had fallen: behind the main altar above the still unhardened cement, and on the day of the patron saint, St. Thecla, who had sacrificed a great love to die a virgin. And just a day after an Italian touring troupe had performed the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Furthermore, some pointed out an old quarrel between the two families and the class difference; which wasn’t true, for despite his being German, the son of an engineer, and her being the daughter of an Italian father who owned a grocery store, Hubie’s and Concetta’s families seemed in agreement about the marriage. Hubie was a graduate of Yale in architecture, and Concetta, taught at Julliard. Nor did anyone pay attention to Arnold Fritz’s sobs of remorse whenever he passed by there, perhaps the last person to see the couple before the fatal plunge. It was the old man’s habit to laugh and cry at the same time, at the end of the day, following the beers that predisposed him to waxing sentimental and impassioned. Only many years later would he reveal that Hubie, happier than ever, in his tenor’s voice, had played the role of the legendary Romeo by opening his arms, while Concetta was a Juliet who danced ballet and could barely keep her balance on the girder. They didn’t appear to be intoxicated. Fritz had seem them fall, embraced, but since the cement was still wet there was no danger of their injuring themselves; nor was there a cry of pain or any other sound after an epitomical vow of love that they trilled into space, which at the time the construction boss took to be a simple rehearsal for a play. “And even if he’d tried,” joked Dorothy, “getting him away from his lover wouldn’t have been easy, and no power on earth could have pried him from her arms.” They tried to untangle them, but ended up in the hospital, Fritz with a stiff neck, Betsaida with a swollen leg. But best of all, the day after hearing about the antics, old Fritz drank enough to kill him but first decided to confess. And even repenting he garbled the sin so much that the priest had no recourse but to give him a few raps on the head. It was true. It was all true. But Dorothy embellished the thing in such a way that truth itself lied as it left her lips.

The two armed families were on the alert day and night so that no one dare remove them, or even touch them. It had been God, or it had been Fate that put them there. After heated debates, the Metropolitan Curia finally gave in, provided that the structure of the church be modified by relocating a column supporting the nave so that the tomb would be on the outside, forming a niche. The work was carefully and meticulously done. However, a dispute arose between the mayor, the bishop, and fanatics from all over, with the newspapers eventually getting involved in what became known as the “war of the noses.”

Until then no one had noticed that the bishop, a man of slight stature, and the mayor, a hulking man, possessed such outsized noses. They were so elongated, in fact, that they seemed to have no owner and to promenade in the air by themselves. One wag went so far as to dub them comets. Despite the contrast, at a distance the noses even seemed to touch. The worst part is that neither man had realized the similarity that united them. The press was quick to make the connection, not as an insult to Their Excellencies but as something that brought them together, something that anyone with good sense would have looked upon with humor and as a reason for friendship. True, those who visited them in those days refrained from sneezing or blowing their noses, and any touching of the nose could be seen as a lack of respect, bad manners, or deliberate impoliteness. The saying was coined: “In the house of the schnozz, you don’t mention noses.” So anyone who couldn’t repress a sneeze had to dash to the bathroom, alleging a pressing emergency, and once there either muffle the sound or rub themselves until the urge went away. A chance encounter one day came to be a source of irritation for the two municipal dignitaries and initiated an intrigue that no one suspected. When they met in the hall, even before the handshake, a widening of the eyes was the sign of the thing that struck them like a lightning bolt. Thereupon, each man remained sulking in his corner, looking sidelong at the other, attentive to the other’s slightest movement. They became so aware of the anomaly, each viewing the other as a self-portrait, that any sudden sneeze from one made the other jump as if fending off an unexpected blow. Within minutes, they had become so restive and irritated that a simple touch of the nose was tantamount to mockery; the sound of blowing one’s nose into a handkerchief, an indecent act; any position of the hands or fingers, a despicable and calculated form of pornography. When finally they could no longer bear the discomfort and rose to go on the attack, face to face, sparks seemed to fly like the clash of swords. No one would have expected the diminutive bishop to use such a vicious choice of words or a professional politician to be so foul-mouthed.

“This is a question of Canon Law, in which Your Excellency … is an illustrious ignoramus,” intoned the bishop.

“This is a question of Civil Law, in which Your Excellency … is a complete idiot,” replied the mayor.

In the friction the noses flashed on and off. Sparks scattered through the room. The encounter would become the ruination of both men and go down in history as the great politico-religious debacle. The mayor would end up losing his office to a man of the people, and the bishop would be removed from a cardinal’s see to the middle of nowhere, in Utah. One newspaper ran the headline “The Great Clash between the Cross and the Sword” – without the desired effect, however, because actually it was not a matter of either cross or sword but of lethal noses locked in combat.

Based on Canon Law, the pontifex stubbornly refused to allow the couple to be buried in the place traditionally reserved for prelates, abbesses, mother superiors, and other dignitaries. In addition, the probable suicide eliminated any idea of their being buried in the church. However, the mayor, a visionary, attributed the accident to the inscrutable designs of Providence, already dreaming of the benefits a legend could generate for the city. And he began speaking of Hubie and Concetta as if they were canonized saints. The mayor won. A spicy story was invented and his version became the reality. The site was suddenly transformed into the hottest attraction in the city.

Winos from the Bowery, who quickly made it their gathering place, had little respect for the story, and, if by day they filled their pockets with small change, at night they pissed on the legendary tomb. Naturally they were denounced and beaten up by many respectable people and others without any mercy, and every night sounds could be heard coming from there and spreading through the neighborhood. To some they seemed like mournful moans; to others, the sighs of a failed love. Now and then a blind man would show up, no one knew from where, singing plaintively of a love he never revealed to anyone. He would sit on the tomb and in the middle of the night, his voice bemoaned an eternal longing:

The love I sought
The love I lost
The love I dreamed of
The love that fled…!

Your lips bring me longing…

A sigh escaped his breast as he continued:

I wanted only to dream
Of the love that went away
I wanted only to kiss
The love I lost

Following the refrain, the powerful evocation:

Your lips bring me longing…

In those evenings of roses
I slept in your arms
And when I awoke,
Your love had flown

Now I weep
For the love I lost
I wanted only to find
That love I lost
I wanted only to dream
Of the love that went away

Oh beautiful evenings of roses
Oh beautiful evenings of April
Oh my gentle longing
Oh the love that flew away

Your lips bring me longing…

Finally, longing transforms itself into the persona of farewell and passion:

Farewell, Longing
Do not forget me
Oh the love I dreamed of
Oh the love that flew away
Oh the love I lost

Hidden in shadow, through the night his voice seemed to come from the tomb in which was interred his longing. Many would awake and stand at the window until his voice was hushed.

* * *

The church had turned out to be a fine example of work. Never had the Gothic and the Romanesque been united so harmoniously. Blueberry Lane was a nice, albeit senseless name, for there was not a single blueberry to be seen. The square with its immense oak tree looked out upon the waters of the river. The church extended from the corner of Blueberry Lane to Elm Street, with two points of access; on the left side was the priests’ quarters with the directory in front, the reception area, and a small gift shop of sacred objects. Next to it was an ample area with a circular atrium and a massive girder in the middle, across from the interior door to the church. Then the dining hall and, at the very rear, the kitchen. In a second row of columns, heading back in a straight line, came first the brothers’ quarters on one side and the quarters for guests and the spiritual director on the other; in the rear, with several windows looking out onto the church’s backyard, the rector’s suite and Father Thomas’s bedroom.

From the atrium one passed through a service gate before entering the corridor that ran parallel to Blueberry Lane, then to the school and the nuns’ quarters. The sisters came through there every day with the schoolgirls, to attend seven o’clock mass.

The school, for poor and abandoned girls, was an immense square with an interior atrium, an image of the Virgin of Lourdes above the stones of a waterfall, a garden with a pathway in the middle, and a sports field in the backyard. At the far left end it faced Oak Street, along FDR Drive, where there was a service gate.

It was turned over to German Franciscan friars eager to offset the damages wrought by the First World War. Resentments reemerged worse than ever during World War II, and the day after Pearl Harbor the Germans were hastily removed and dispersed to other venues. Contrite, they devoted themselves to teaching and charity among the poor; and despite their nostalgia, they never established the slightest contact with the Dutch priests and nuns who replaced them.

The bell tower stood like an arm raised to heaven. At night its light tinged with gold the waters of the river that washed the island in a chimerical fragmentation. It was perhaps the only place in Manhattan where a church still dominated the landscape. There, at least, the Lord of Hosts still ruled the air, free of the challenge of skyscrapers. As in the old days, as evening fell the bells acclaimed the Ave Maria in their golden throat and cherubic voices. Bells had the magic ability to breathe life into olden times and to pray within us. Their nostalgic bong-bong, before ascending to the heavens, rolled over the waters of the river. At that hour, rare was the passerby who didn’t say a prayer, or even the skeptic who felt no tiny sense of contrition. That six o’clock magic seems universal and knows neither creed nor limits, for the earth abounds with celestial ambassadors on their mission to mankind.

The Third Order, under the command of Margarita Buonarroti, the strongwoman of the parish, would meet to pray the chaplet and ask the blessing of the Most High. One group of boys would wait at the church door hoping to see the girls pass by, while others preferred to meet their female friends behind the church, near the tomb of Hubie and Concetta Maria.

Chapter Seven


After breakfast Father Thomas would stroll through the corridors, pausing and nosing in the corners, inspecting everything like a new sergeant with his troops.

He was the tallest of the priests, a big pot-bellied priest, as they said, with intense blue eyes. His hair cascaded over his forehead, and he was broad-shouldered, in contrast to his patriarchal belly. His full, strong voice cracked when he yelled, and his teeth were darkened from cigars. He punched the air as he walked.

The calling had come late, and he was close to forty when he was ordained, to satisfy a financial necessity of his family. His father owned a business, the celebrated manufacture of the wooden shoes of which Holland is so proud and which every tourist makes a point of buying. His mother was paralyzed at an early age, leaving her unable to raise him and his younger sister. Fortunately, young Hippolytus was skilled with a knife and quickly learned how to make wooden shoes. At the same time, he took care of his sister, five years his junior. He was finishing high school when war broke out.

Unable to serve, Hippolytus fled when Holland surrendered after five days of extremely weak resistance. Hidden in barrels floating in the canals, he hacked countless Germans to death and left their bodies bobbing in the water. He worked in conjunction with prostitutes and other comrades. They would go out with soldiers to make love in the dark, along the canals; when they spotted the barrels, the women would push them into the water. He never fired a shot, using only his knife. He lost so much weight that when he returned home one night his father and sister thought he was a ghost. They devoted themselves tenaciously to the manufacture of the folkloric wooden shoes. His father would cut the rough pieces, he sculpted, his sister painted.

Though not providing enough for them to get rich, the business supported the family. Some years later, Hippolytus, who procrastinated completing night school, weary of cutting shoes and unsure as to what profession to pursue, came home and said he would like to enter the seminary. The old man protested: “No! Absolutely not, you dolt!” At least not until his sister married, which ended up taking over five years. Fortunately, his brother-in-law was able to develop the business. Thus it was that Hippolytus Dankens, with the new name of Thomas, came to be ordained, already close to forty. That day, the church was packed with people there to see Father Thomas celebrate his first mass. It was the custom for engaged couples to get married in wooden shoes given them by the family, sporting comical and suggestive drawings. The crowd couldn’t suppress a guffaw when Father Thomas, at the urging of the local Patriotic League, stepped up to the altar wearing outsized sabots that looked like barrels floating in the water.

He was a national hero, loved by his people, with a physique that recalled an Apollo in a cassock but, poor man, with a voice like “Figaro,” a romantic ass who lived around there. He himself liked to tell the story. In his village there was a jackass who was crazy about plums and who would respond with operatic whinnies whenever he was given the fruit. He would swallow the fleshy part and whinny with the stone between his teeth. He did this artfully, producing a bray unlike any ever heard. People would laugh. Discovering that the louder the laughs, the better the plums they’d bring him, he would keep quiet when they didn’t bring him anything. But his heart would be in his throat whenever the neighbor’s female donkey, called Susanna, passed by. Moved, she began responding to his impassioned whinnies, conducting the melody with her tail until she disappeared down the road.

* * *

“You have to find the cobwebs and dust under the pews!” Father Thomas advised Amarante, the new sacristan, crouching and lifting his chin in the direction of the corners of the walls.

That morning he seemed more restive. He decided to change the routine and came up with the idea of having Amarante clean the school’s toilets, as one of the nuns had taken sick and fainted during mass.

Father Thomas opened the bathroom door and showed him the toilets. “There!” he said, pointing to the most disgusting one, “You may begin!”

Seeing Amarante hesitate in confusion, squeezing the sponge between his fingers and searching with his eyes for a brush, the priest brusquely took the sponge and, grumbling, kneeled, rolled up his sleeves, and plunged his bare hand inside, wiping the walls of the toilet. How could he, a priest, do that?

Horror on his face at seeing hands consecrated to touch the body of Christ plunging naked into the bowl, Amarante exclaimed, “Father, can’t we at least use gloves?”

The uncouth servant of God, still kneeling, stopped; raising his forehead, where sweat ran in the furrows, wearing the offended expression of someone who has just been slapped, he grabbed Amarante’s wrist with his clean hand. But when his other hand raised the filthy sponge into the air, the sacristan pulled back, and the priest would have tumbled to the floor if Amarante hadn’t broken his fall.

Rising to his feet, the priest pushed him away, rejecting the hands that kept him from hitting the floor. Amarante was apologizing, uncertain of what was going to happen, when a tiny sister entered with a bucket of warm water, a bottle of Mr. Clean, a small toilet brush, and plastic gloves. Blessed Sister Marie! Blessed ten thousand times over!

Father Thomas began prowling around, stupefied, astonished, his eyes wide:

“What?! What?! My God, what the hell is this?!””

The walls were covered with pornography. Indecent, shameful things in a school bathroom. A nude young woman and a boy with a small mustache completely gaga over her. Another of someone with a familiar face, though the priest didn’t notice the resemblance. And there, a cruel scene, the house dog with a human face, paws upraised, drooling with his tongue out. He was advancing on a nun with turgid breasts, jaybird-naked, in white gloves, high heels, and the headdress of sisters of charity. In another scene the dog was hugging someone whose identity couldn’t be made out, whether a nun or a girl.

The priest bellowed explosively like a wounded bull. Where were the sisters who failed to see such filth?! Good heavens!! Was this a convent school or a den of whores?!

Sister Marie, short, plump, and trembling from head to foot, had fallen speechless and disappeared, her face hidden in her apron.

Every morning girls from eight to sixteen would enter two by two for the seven o’clock mass. Some, pubescent and lovely, impetuous, sly as they could be; others, with an almost angelical air of piety. In the adolescents, their dovelike nipples were beginning to thrust against their blouses, the first sign of the emerging woman, the virus of seduction taking over the body and bringing into play the mechanism of love – the epiphany of sex on its first day of splendor.

As a group, the girls varied greatly in ethnicity. At the school they would learn the art of being wives and good housekeepers. This included sewing, cooking, washing, starching, ironing even undershorts and socks – ah, what times! Today, it’s the husbands who do the cooking and cleaning and wash and fold their wives’ panties… Oh, if only we could go back in time! Embroidery, music, dance, art appreciation, literature. Parlor entertainments and conversation. They would emerge ready for everything, in keeping with the rigorous norms.

Some sisters, influenced by Father Creus’s lectures, wanted to introduce a live laboratory class in sex, which certain boarding schools in Europe had been doing for some time. But the idea didn’t go over well here, not only because of the general view of priests and nuns but also because America was unprepared for the kind of revolution that was in fact already beating at the door. Americans were seen as puritans who in order to lose their inhibitions resorted to violent sports: hockey (a beautiful and agile game, sister to our soccer but on ice, in which the puck is kicked with a stick but the greatest excitement comes from blows to the head); football, in which man-towers, veritable giants, fall on top of one of the players, crushing his bones, and the crowd goes wild, jumping up and down over the feat; boxing; and rodeo, in which the reckless cowboy vigorously balances on the back of a wild bull. John Wayne is what Hercules was in antiquity. Each punch of his is an orgasm for the national spirit.

The older girls came behind, in Scottish plaid skirts covering their knees, an act of modesty that only served to further enhance the contour of the waist and the youthful appearance of their legs. They would sneak glances like inexperienced girls being courted for the first time. Men of all ages would observe the morning parade. But it was Brother Vincent, tall and blond, with the hair of an archangel, who was the object of the largest number of the girls’ glances. The more daring would return the boys’ winks with the skill of veterans. Others displayed total indifference, disdain on their lips.

Immediately behind came Sister Dora, of sturdy build but with good features and sensual lips, despite her bulbous nose. An olive-skinned brunette, she was in charge of studies and discipline, with an imposing chin and attentive to the girls’ smallest movement.

The other nuns, deep in prayer, gazed at the altar as if looking upon angels. Sister Thérèse, the founder, accompanied with difficulty the firm steps of Mother Gisela, who, with serene countenance and a lock of blond hair escaping from her headdress, led the psalm to which the other nuns responded.

The girls walked to the center, genuflected, and began filling the pews on one side. Which of them could be the gifted artist? Which face concealed the twisted niece of Picasso?

Whoever it was, the fact is that Father Thomas never again saw fit to send the sacristan to clean toilets; his work was limited to the inside of the church. Brother Vincent, in charge of the small shop that sold religious articles, would refer jokingly to the story of the bathroom without suspecting the role that had fallen to him in the drawings.

“Say, Amarante, how about those drawings?”

“Spicy, brother. You don’t want to know about them…”

“Mmm, mmm, spicy, huh?”

“I’ll say… pepper, garlic, and a few drops of lemon…”

“Gee, leave it to you Brazilians to make a joke of everything!”

Burning up with curiosity, the brother fell silent. He could feel the ground shifting, so he stifled his curiosity and gave another happy laugh, which resonated to heaven. A simple soul; even if he’d known of his role in the drawings, he’d have taken it all as a jest.

Father John and Mother Gisela, after analyzing the details, immediately sent Sister Marie to erase everything from the walls. The nun, eyes averted, recited a psalm as she scrubbed with the sponge.

The girls found out little about the drawings. The morning bath, which earlier that day had taken place without incident, was the time when the angel of silence hovered over them. Some were in the bathroom, while others in line awaited their turn. They knew of Rosely’s expulsion and the reason. Sonya, her neighbor in the dormitory, was the target of quick, sidelong looks. Embarrassed, she kept her head lowered, not knowing just what they thought of her. Behind her, on the alert, was none other than Sister Dora, substituting for the beloved Sister Doralice (known affectionately as Sister Bila). At the time, no one knew that cancer was devouring Sister Bila’s breast. Sister Dora, a nurse, was now also in charge of discipline and studies – no one dared mess with her. Anyone in line who moved or committed the slightest infraction of the rules invariably suffered a boxing of the ears or a medley of raps to the head.

Ever since the night before, when she had been caught fondling her sleeping companion and trying to get under the sheets with her, and Sonya had awakened the entire dorm with her screams, Rosely had been confined to a cell. That morning, she had packed her belongings and would be spirited away to the only institution willing to take her: the home for wayward youth. Sister Dora, who had been with her in those final instants, surprised everyone with a rare display of humanity. The resident champion of tradition, she detested the home. She alone saw the dilemma clearly: if the girl didn’t work out here, how much less in that den of iniquity. Inside, she suffered because there was no other way out, suffered over the entire story. Sister Bila, knowing nothing of what had happened, had lent her weight to Sonya’s accusations. It was recalled that she had once said, “That girl was an angel when she came here, and now I see her painting her face and wiggling her hips!” Sister Dora had no reason to doubt Sister Bila’s statements; it was Rosely’s attitude that confused her. Contempt on her lips, disdain on her nose, defiance in her eyes. She had explained herself once, grumblingly made a second attempt, and, as no one believed her, never again spoke.

Sister Dora would repeat to Mother Gisela, “It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the home better than when she went in…”

To which the mother superior replied, “My child, divine Wisdom has the habit of surprising us. The girl’s not fifteen yet. It’s possible that a good family will adopt her, or who knows, an envoy from heaven may come along later.”

“May God hear you, Mother Gisela,” she said, bowing her head in mystic and stubborn disbelief.

Rosely had gotten into the official car in the company of two armed uniformed guards. Mother Gisela had accompanied her that far and, taking her leave, given her a powerful and emotional embrace. “May God bless you, child, and guide your steps!” Rosely had responded with a quick, averted look, her lips cutting short a disdainful click of the tongue, and telling herself, “Hypocrites! Why don’t they get rid of the mask and find themselves a man?”
Brazilian writer Domício Coutinho's novel Duke, the Dog Priest has just been published by Green Integer. Coutinho lives in New York City.

English-language edition copyright ©2000 by Clifford E. Landers.


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