The feeling of houses once lived in, traipsed corridors, vaguely familiar rooms, checkered patios and square pergolas of flowers, gardens, and immense walls. All these enclosures are familiar to me in dreams, but awake I know I was never in them. There is, in particular, a very old--ancient--secondary school with enormous classrooms, many endless corridors and, what is even stranger to me, an immense attic or abandoned dovecot.
He wanders through the garden. Indolent, he follows the edge of the wall, stops beside pots of flowers and breaks off a rose, raises it to his nose and breathes its perfume deeply. Far off bells resound. It is eleven in the morning of an autumn day, a groping autumn, hot though just beginning. A linnet crosses the sky and the child looks up as he lets the rose fall. Bored, he goes into the abandoned fronton court and scrutinizes the mysteries of the worm-eaten plaster walls which expose glimpses of red brick. He comes to the ruins of the old school and examines corners filled with refuse which he pokes through with a foot. Weak rays of sun filter through empty spaces between the dislodged roof tiles. Again he goes outside to the old gardens, long since abandoned, crosses a stone wall, and comes to the greenhouse, also in ruins, with broken pots and thousands of glass fragments covering the cold cement floor.
I slip into the dovecot and hang from the rafters, swinging on one after the other, and hover before dropping onto piles of hay and old clothes. I lie there half asleep as I gaze at the square of light outlined in the roof and listen to the cooing of white big-breasted doves.
Where are they? What are they doing while he is walking through the garden and wandering through the forbidden cloisters? Each priest is secluded in his austere cell, praying, perhaps abstracted in his own thoughts or reading a pious book. Only in the kitchen, which he has never been allowed to enter, are there noises and movements which he hears through the swinging doors that keep him from seeing the nun's faces and the hands that offer at every swing a bowl of hot soup or stew.
He doesn't pray although he goes to Mass out of duty. He doesn't take Communion. Neither he nor his parents believe in those things. They are called atheists. The priests know this and frequently let their disgust show and order him to take First Communion under threat of expelling him from school. The other children, especially students aspiring to be priests, don't understand that he doesn't believe in God, that he kills time looking at crucifixion images and saints' statues during Mass in the new chapel on the second floor of the school.
He prefers gathering insects to praying or discussing theology. Always he finds a reason not to attend spiritual retreats--a false medical excuse or a letter from his father asking to excuse him because of some ailment.
Carabus auratus, calopteryx virgo, epeira listada, oryctaes nasicornis, mantis religiosa. Little labels written in unsteady Latin on blue stickers. A long murderous pin piercing the chitinous thorax holds the insect in its correct position--legs, antennae and wings extended. Fragility of elytrons. Danger of moths.
Two pigeons observe me from the broken frame of the window facing south; beyond, white fluffy inoffensive clouds are gathering. Something glitters on the ground, in the hay. I go near; it is a gold ring, a wedding ring.
Christ on the cross is bleeding before the kneeling students, who pray or pretend to pray while secretly desiring the martyrdom of Mass to end so they can go out to the patio and play.
Through the swinging door leading to the kitchen nuns' voices and laughter can be heard, oil sizzling in blackened frying pans, the sound of spurts of water striking the shiny bottoms of the aluminum casseroles. The nuns are as dark as night birds, as secret as shadows, and are married to God in order to serve the priests. They wear gold wedding bands: He has caught glimpses of their hands forever hidden among the folds of their habits. They only say Mass, read as they walk in silence through the sunny cloisters, confess, and teach classes in religion and Latin.
Sooner or later he'll have to make himself study his Catechism, know it by heart, and make his First Communion, or they will expel him. During classes in religion he cannot go on discussing to the point of nausea and goes out to wander through the gardens, sketching fantastic animals on the wooden benches with a piece of stolen chalk, tearing leaves from the trees to observe them carefully with his magnifying glass, going through the old abandoned school and catching insects in medicine bottles while his companions study, though he knows that afterward, to make up his assignment, he will only have to read a few pages of a book and comment on them.
The First Commandment: Love God above all things.
But he cannot love Him because he does not believe in Him. At home he never learned about a pious image, any saint's picture, the Virgin figure, a Rosary. His parents and brothers and sisters never entered a church. Nor did his grandparents.
And the ring gleams between my fingers with the radiance of gold. Bells ring very near the shadowed attic and pigeons burst into chaotic flight. I look at the ring and discover, disappointed, that it has lost its glow as I feel it become hotter, too hot. It burns my fingers and I let it fall. Once on the floor it becomes a simple rusted iron washer. The afternoon descends, flooding the great angled attic with haze.
He goes up the stairs beside the rectory and crosses a long stripped gallery with a great glass window on the south side which the roseate afternoon light pours through. At the end are the students' bedrooms, where they are forbidden to approach one another. But he approaches that end, passes the statue of Santo Domingo, the one of the saint pointing heaven out to a child, and he sticks his head into the vast dormitory door. It is a long room with high, shadowed ceilings, with small beds in a row on either side of a central aisle. On the rear wall is a picture of Saint Albertus Magnus with a candle always burning before it. Little cabinets painted a very dark green show off locks and latches, hiding wretched Sunday vestments, comic magazines, forbidden cigarettes, letters, and some boxes of stale cookies. The floor is made of heavy red tiles, and the walls are painted olive gray halfway up, the rest is lighter gray. Here and there hangs a bulb shorn of its shade and twisted wires creep and meet, ending at a white bakelite switch. He gives it half a turn and the student dormitory lights up. Then he discovers in the light's yellowish sadness that poverty is more evident--the quilts, worn from use, show the white mesh and the basting, the pillowcases are threadbare and there are enormous black chips in the enamel frames of the beds.
In the palm of my hand I still feel a burning circular mark. I try to leave the attic, but a force keeps me there as the thick haze surrounds me. Only the rusty ring, now a living red, produces a tenuous circular clarity. I hear murmurs and laughter--and hurried steps over the floorboards. A slight figure, like a shadow, streaks through the dark. Tke pigeons have not returned.
He goes down the steps, out to the playground, and walks through the grove of trees which flank the dirt walk to the old decayed chapel used only once a year for spiritual exercises. The door is bolted and chained, but he tries to look inside through the keyhole. He sees nothing till his eyes become adjusted, his pupils dilate, allowing him to see Christ high up , far off, at the end opposite the door he is spying from. Christ sems to be suffering.
He veers toward the chapel sheltered by the shade of the enormous fragrant eucalyptuses, even more fragrant than the incense which the ancient walls retain, and he discovers a praying mantis lying in ambush. He looks at it: It stands upright as if praying, very still and concentrated in its deadly intensity. He too lies in ambush, stretched out on the grass, the insect unaware of his presence or ignoring it. After a brief contraction, the insect suddenly stretches and traps another insect its own size between its claws. She immobilizes it and begins to gnaw at its neck with her powerful mandibles. As soon
as she sees it is dead, she swallows the head and then the rest of its body. The process takes scarcely half an hour. The bell announcing recreation rings, the class in religion is over, and he gets up without taking his eyes off the insect. Once he had seen two mantises copulating; after,the female devoured the male.
Now he moves away from the spot so that the other children won't find the insect and stamp it to death. He already has several mantises, he doesn't need another.
The shadow begins to take shape until it becomes a definite figure with glowing edges: Its arms are raised to heaven in supplication and it stands very still, secure in its mute oration. It is a haloed angel. Its face has the innocent sweetness of a madonna. The aura begins to fade until it turns to an opaque figure--it begins to elongate, its eyes enlarge and bulge, it turns greenish brown, and its arms stretch, becoming thinner, then its neck and its body, until it becomes a delicate insect with enormous ewyes and preying claws.
During the siesta, while the other children are discussing the form of angels, he penetrates his forbidden, accustomed places. He goes up the stairs leading to the priests' cells, traverses corridors with immaculate floors, climbs through a window and goes down a dirty, unfrequented passageway which leads to the highest part of the old school. He lingers there, scrutinizing old broken statues of saints, damp torn paintings in peeling gold frames chipped at the corners, useless furniture.
A light sound breaks into his musings. It comes from the abandoned attic. He strains his ears and hears brief crossings on the wooden floor, like furtive steps, and a smothered murmur. On tiptoe he approaches the door and glues his ear to it. The sound resembles breathing that is quickening, but it is still far off, as if it were coming from the opposite end of the attic. He pushes carefully, not to make noise, and the door gives, leaving the way clear. He sees only dimness and shadows on all sides--old deteriorating desks and heaps of old moth-eaten clothes in corners. He feels his way ahead until his eyes grow used to the dimness and he reaches an angle. There the sound is more intense--it is the panting of animals or devils. He hesitates before making the turn, but his curiosity is greate han his caution. A ray of vertical light penetrates the depths of the attic; in it he sees the half-naked bodies bathed in the blinding light of the siesta--the beast with two heads struggling between spasms.
The profile of its arms bristles with stiff spines. Suddenly the mantis stretches her claws in a precise, spasmodic movement and traps her lover. She imprisons him in her embrace and gnaws at his neck. A slight quiver runs through the male's body as it expires in full orgasm.
© norberto luis romero
Translated by H. E. Francis