17 Aug THE NEW SAINT: A STORY OF POLITICAL PROPAGANDA ON THE ECUADORIAN COAST (1938) – By Jose de la Cuadra
THE NEW SAINT: A STORY OF POLITICAL PROPAGANDA ON THE ECUADORIAN COAST (1938)
In the bottomland along the river, the rice crop was almost ready, its sprigs gradually turning golden in the equatorial sun, its roots refreshed by the dark waters that rose around the base of the plants twice daily at high tide and then subsided at low tide, as if the marsh were breathing. The wind came down the river flirting with its ripples, just as crystalline as the water, seemingly emanating from the same distant Andean source, and it gently shook the long, rough leaves of the rice plants. Small splashes made by the sudden swish of tails-a catfish, a small crustacean-occasionally shook the lower parts of the plants from below. The springs would soon swell to the bursting point, matured by the labor of the mud and the sun.
“You’re going to make a pile of money this year, don Camilo.” “You never know. It depends on the price. And as far as I know, the price of rice in Guayaquil is rock bottom. Of course, who cares what we make, right? A poor man’s sweat doesn’t make anything but a stink.”
“Relax, don Camilo, you’ll see. The sucres are going to rain on you thicker than mosquitoes in the marsh.”
But Old Camilo Franco-whose unflattering nickname was “Bottles” because of his formerly limitless predilection to drain liter bottles of aguardiente – was not really thinking at all about the erect, parrot-green stalks of grain. Nor was he thinking about the potential produce of the stand of fruit trees that extended behind his riverbank dwelling with walls of woven cane. Nor about the egg laying hens that clucked and pecked at caterpillars and dried corn in their little enclosure. Nor about his enormous white ducks, “big as a one-and-a-half-year-old goat,” that floated in the surrounding ponds and drainage channels, dipping their bills in vain pursuit of fish. Nor about the hogs that awaited their judgment day in his pigsty, mean while getting fatter and fatter. Nor even about the young calves that frolicked around his cows, rubbing themselves against their mothers’ thighs and tugging ineffectually at the wild grasses in the pasture.
You could have said to the man:
“Don Camilo, your house is falling down . . . .” “Let it fall.”
At most he might add:
“The termites have eaten through the supports, and I don’t have any arsenic.”
And, vaguely and slowly, he would make an ugly face signifying sadness.
And yet, Camilo Franco was, or had been, a tough, energetic man, strong as a thorny guadua cane as big around as your arm, and just as prickly, too, a man who had held firm against the rav ages of age-never weakening even for a day-since he turned fifty a couple of decades back.
He had an adventurous past, one that he never bragged about, and, to the contrary, used to curse with regret.
Old Camilo had been born the son of agricultural workers who lived by arrangement with the landowner on a large estate, the descendant of slaves, still in the same place where both the slaves and their descendants had lived out their miserable lives for generations, always working for the same rich families. He did not conceal his family’s long history of servitude:
“Until I was thirty-three years old, the age of Christ, as they say, I worked my whole life for the white Moreira family.”
But then he had left, running away from everything, in order not to marry Magdalena.
“I had been in love with Magdalena. That was one pretty heifer!
Everybody gawked at her. We were about to get married, on my saint’s day . . . but the patron got ahead of me . . . .”
The old man sighed when he told the story, even now, so many years later.
“He took advantage of her and wanted me to accept it and cover his tracks. But I couldn’t accept it . . . how could I? Magdalena cried . . . and I loved her more all the time . . . but the patron got ahead of me . . . .”
His voice became opaque and hoarse when he told the story, even now. And if his listeners were able to look deep into his eyes while he told it, they would no doubt see, against the background of his ashen grey pupils, the dark figure of that distant country girl, still wandering today, perhaps, on who-knows-what twisting path way through this life . . . . Meanwhile, told from the angle of the patron Moreira, the story would include a pastoral landscape, the blue sky, and lustful Love descending on fluttering wings. The rustic damsel would surrender herself to the conqueror’s powerful arms as Pan, or some other similarly lecherous deity, watched with amusement from a nearby copse of trees.
The time that old Camilo spent in the inhospitable, virgin wilderness, deprived of the deliciously human virginity of Magdalena, had been full of countless, extraordinary adventures. The forest gave up all its secrets to him. He learned the magic of the plant kingdom: the herbs that cure and the herbs that kill, the trees that signal the presence of water or buried treasure, that ward off thieves or malicious spirits. He familiarized himself with the obscure lives of animals, from the most horrible creeping things to the fiercest of beasts.
“I’ve made plenty of money off that stuff, too. But I never did any- thing un-Christian, either. Not me! I’m a good child of the Lord.”
People used to make fun of his religiosity: “You, don Bottles, will believe in anything.”
In fact, his fanatical religiosity led him to expect divine intervention in almost all matters, appealing to each saint according to his or her spiritual jurisdiction: “San Andres, please look after my rice crop. Santa Ana, please watch over my cow. Santa Barbara, I need rain! But, San Jonas, don’t let it flood!” On the other hand, shrewd man that he was, he always took practical measures to facilitate the miracles that he so devoutly awaited, and he systematically applied the philosophy of old sayings. “God helps those who help themselves,” he would say solemnly, or “He who find him self in the water should swim for shore,” and he would then let out a shrill little laugh.
They say that when he supposed the danger to have passed, that the patron had forgotten about his act of defiance in not marrying Magdalena, he finally came out of the hills.
“But I came here, to the bottomlands.”
“And why didn’t you go back to the Moreira estate, don Bottles?” “Some say I refused to go back so as not to face the patron, and some say it was so as not to face Magdalena.”
“And how about you? What do you say yourself?”
“Nothing. I don’t say anything. I don’t say yes, and I don’t say no . . . to anything.”
Instead, he found a place as a sharecropper on lands belonging to the Echarri family, occupying a little piece of bottomland along the river, where he lived ever after.
“This is where fate brought me, where I found me a little piece of ground. This is where I married my wife, may she rest in peace. Here is where my daughter Carmen was born, the one they called Blackberry because she was so dark. And here is where Carmen died, too, in childbirth, leaving me my little filly, Marta. And here is where Marta has grown up, my only companion . . . .”
He adored his little filly. This big macho, as he liked to think of himself, seemed more like a woman when he was taking care of the girl. Every night before going to bed, he quietly approached the mosquito netting beneath which his granddaughter slept and contemplated her for a while. He carefully adjusted the netting to protect her from the mosquitos. And then, raising his calloused right hand, he made the sign of the cross and blessed her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. . . .
The cause of don Camilo’s distraction was, precisely, his granddaughter.
He knew that she was eye-popping pretty, an object of desire. He knew that her firm flesh was a morsel for any palate. He knew that her tender seventeen years were tempting, indeed. And, tireless watchdog, he suffered because he knew. He meant to get her married as quickly as possible, and he had already chosen a husband for her. The marriage would happen when the waters rose at the end of the season.
But he was still worried . . . .
The fiance, Juan Puente, was an agricultural worker on a nearby estate, but he was not of peasant origin like Camilo. He was from the city and had held a good job on the railroad until he lost it, accused of being a labor agitator.
The old man liked to chat with Juan Puente. Or rather, he liked to listen to the young man’s impassioned ideas about social reform, ideas that opened unexpected vistas before his tired eyes. When Juan Puente talked about the legitimate demands of workers and peasants, old Camilo got it. He got it, and he became pensive and, not understanding everything that Puente said, he squirmed, determined to master the ideas. Gradually, he incorporated the new ideas by mixing them with the old ones already in his head, and, without intending to, he modified the new ideas to make them fit.
Certain phrases danced in his mind: “Social Revolution,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “Lenin is the great saint of the new religion.”
Don Camilo thought of Vladimir Illych Lenin in a manner that harmonized with his ingenuous peasant religiosity. One time Juan Puente gave Camilo a magazine that contained a picture of the Russian leader, and the old man cut the picture out and put it up on the wall beside a number of saint’s images in the corner that he devoted to them. The little kerosene lamp that flickered there on a tiny altar thus illuminated one more holy image for the old man to remember in his daily prayers.
Without confessing it aloud, old Camilo supposed that, in case of necessity, Lenin would be able to protect him, by some sort of miraculous intervention, from the depredations of the patron.
And necessity seemed imminent.
The patron’s son, Dionisio, was prowling around Camilo’s house on an almost daily basis.
“I don’t like to see that hawk flapping around here,” repeated the old peasant. “That bird’s looking for prey.”
And he could easily guess that the prey was his granddaughter, his little filly, who was not so little anymore.
“Just like the other one. Just like him. Whites are all the same, all cut from the same cloth.”
He was afraid that the story of Magdalena might be repeated with his granddaughter, and so one day he communicated his fears to Juan Puente.
“You know, Juan Puente. I like you very well, obviously, and because I like you I’m going to tell you . . .”
“Tell me what, don Camilo?”
“I’ve had it with that Echarri boy, up to here . . .” “Why?”
“He’s after Marta. He’d like to have her.” “Really.”
“It’s God’s own truth. I’ve seen him.” “Ah . . .”
Juan Puente then said firmly:
“I’ll take care of that little twit. You’ll see. I know how to treat his kind.”
Don Camilo smiled, still worried.
But lo and behold, within a short time it became evident that young Echarri had discontinued his campaign.
He vanished completely from the vicinity of the humble house where he had appeared so often in the past, riding his fine thoroughbred horse with its expensive saddle and bridle, taking no care to keep the enormous animal’s hooves from trampling the crops that old Bottles had planted.
And then came the news that the patron’s son had left the estate to travel to Guayaquil, and eventually, to Europe.
One day at dusk, when don Camilo was conversing with Juan Puente outside on the porch in the cool of the evening, he brought up the matter.
“What did you do, Juan Puente, to get him off our backs so fast?” “Easy. I bumped into him one time, where your coffee bushes are planted. And I said to him: ‘Look here, young man. You’re after Marta, aren’t you? Well,’ I said, ‘Marta is going to be my wife, and if you don’t clear out of the way . . . I will kill you . . . understand? With this blade that I keep sharpened up just for you. Try it out. Touch it!’
And I showed it to him right there.” “And what did the white boy say?”
“He got all pale and stuttered all over the place, making excuses, saying I’d made a mistake, that he wasn’t after anybody, and that to prove it he was going to move up the date of a long trip that he was planning . . . . So I told him: ‘Good idea, young man. You take the trip that you have in mind, because if you don’t, I’m going to send you on a longer one . . . much, much longer. . . .’ These bourgeois that want to ride us are really cowards, don Camilo. You just have to know how to deal with them!”
“Ah . . .”
The old man asked no more questions. He walked into the house and softly caressed the hair of his granddaughter, who sat in the corner near Camilo’s little shrine, sewing her wedding dress. He lit the tiny kerosene wick and put it right in front of the portrait of Lenin. Then he went back out onto the porch to rejoin Juan Puente.
He took the younger man’s arm and whispered into his ear: “Listen, Juan Puente. I’m going to tell you something. . . .” “What?”
“That white Echarri boy going away . . .” “Yeah?”
“Lenin did it!”
And looking up at the low, heavy clouds, the old man obeyed a powerful impulse, and raised his tired voice to shout at the sky:
“Viva San Lenin!”
A gust of wind that was passing on its way to the river at just that moment caught the last syllable of the shouted name and returned it with a clapping of leaves . . . .