Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 16

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

   

 

                              Chapter 16

 

They went to dinner that evening at Vieja Bavaria, a center-city  German restaurant on Estados Unidos.  Udo had driven his silver BMW, weaving in and out of narrow streets, then along leafy avenues, the river on the west horizon appearing wide and placid and colorless.  They passed  viviendas temporarias  on the river bluffs, Asuncion's shantytown,  Cubistic,  Ava thought, as if  designed by Picasso, the fading light ocher on tin roofs.  They drove past the Cathedral, the Teatro Municipal, the Museo de Historia Natural with its butterfly collection, she thought she remembered, and the Presidential Palace where in years past, Udo informed them, passersby would be shot by General Stroessner's security troops if they stopped to gaze too long.

Really?  Julie asked.

He invents these old stories, Evita said.  When I was small he made me so fearful I would not go within a block of the palace.       

Carmela had declined to come, but Udo insisted Evita accompany them should she and Julie want to slip away to the dance clubs.  Evita explained to Julie in the back seat as they drove that Udo was clueless about nightlife, but that she knew her way around the city and would rescue her from boredom once they had eaten.

As they entered the restaurant with its polished-wood panelling and dirndl-clad waitresses, its mix of spoken-German and oompha music, Ava felt flush with nostalgia.

We were here with our parents, weren't we? she asked Udo.


Yes, of course, many times.  He maneuvered them toward a corner table near the kitchen.  This is popular with German tourists, he told them when they were seated, but Paraguay has a large community of German immigrants.  Early in the century Mennonites came to settle the Chaco, large estancias of orange groves, cotton and cattle, but others came later to the city for business, like our family.

Ava felt awkward ordering in German when the waitress came, but Udo slipped without effort into the language of their childhood.  He asked if the sauerbraten was fresh, would she please bring them a bottle of Spatlaser, maybe a plate of kleiner liptauer as appetizers, bitte schon.  She understood perfectly, but she hadn't spoken German in years.  The words felt alien to her mouth.

You mentioned the Chaco, Julie asked.  What is that?

The vast interior of the country, Udo said.  Miles and miles of savanna, cactus, scrub and thorn, a few settlements, military outposts, quebracho forests, mosquitos as large as pigeons.  Don't ask me why the Germans wanted that land.  Probably because the Indians offered so little resistance.  I prefer civilization with all the amenities..

For Ava, being in the restaurant was like awakening into a forty-five-year old dream, a sensation both exhilarating and melancholy.  The thought of so much lost time saddened her.  But being with Udo now seemed like some unrequited desire buried deep inside her had finally been satisfied.  She had carried his image for so long in her mind.  She tried to match her last mental snapshot of him as a boy in the aging man who sat across from her.  And watching Julie converse in Spanish with Evita -- she was glad they had come.  On impulse she reached across the table and laid her hand on top of Udo's.

I wish I had visited years ago, she said.

He nodded, but the waitress returned before he could respond.


When the food came Ava thought of her mother's steaming kartoffelsalat, the schnitzel  and knockwurst she would special order from Munich, and the cakes laden with brandy which her father loved.  No-- her memories were fusing together.  The packaged meat came from Milwaukee, and she had loved the cakes.  Her mother baked and shipped them to Ava in college, the same cake her father had once been fond of.  His indistinct image evanesced in her mind.

They gradually adopted American foods until it was rare for her mother to even cook sauerkraut.  Her mother became lost interest in cooking, and until Eva and David married, food was usually a sandwich or tv dinner one consumed without ceremony.  She could hear her mother's complaint:  It takes too much energy to cook for just the two of us.

For inexplicable reasons, her mother became listless and would sit for hours in her wicker rocking chair on the screened porch and stare out at nothing, nothing really, almost as if some invisible creeper had begun to imprison her with its sucker vines.  Poor, sad Momma, sitting and rocking with her glass of amnesia.  Ava had seen pictures of her mother as a young woman, vivaciously pretty, but that was another life, before she had married and left Europe.  Ava tried hard to enter that private mental estate where her mother was confined, but school and  friends and her own unfolding life swept her along through decade after decade until she ran aground in middle-age shortly after her mother died and she seemed to have only regrets, so many of them, washed up like daily driftwood.

Ava ate more than she had eaten in weeks, her appetite back after the exhausting travel. And now rested, she smiled to watch her daughter make Evita laugh in fluent Spanish, both so animated.  Julie might come through for her yet, she thought.  Even Udo was eavesdropping on the girls' conversation.  He watched Julie's face, and Ava wondered if he, too, was searching for traces -- maybe of what Ava might been at twenty or even their mother who had Julie's flax-gold hair and blue eyes which seemed to crinkle shut when she laughed.  The resemblance at certain times was startling.


Ava had ordered rouladen, a thinly-sliced beef roll, stuffed with celery, leeks and carrots, lightly braised.  Julie was picking over a plate of Kasseler Rippenspeer, thick slabs of smoked pork, with her usual paranoia about fat, but mostly she was distracted by Evita who was telling a long and humorous story in Spanish to which even Udo seemed amused.

The wine was a tart, amber Reisling from a centuries old family winery, Udo assured them.  It was harvested late, the last of the grapes ripened to a sweetness perhaps days before the weather would ruin the crop, a risk the vintner takes, but well worth the risk, ja?, he asked, raising his glass in a toast.  To my sister and niece, he said.  To your health.

Ava watched her brother, but she caught herself staring and glanced away when their eyes met.  For just a moment she thought she had glimpsed the boy.  And what was he thinking? she wondered.  Did he feel just as awkward?  Digging back into memory was a little like archeology, wasn't it?  So many chips and shards and pieces to make a whole, if that were even  possible.

You came here as a child? Julie asked her mother.

I think our parents liked this restaurant, didn't they, Udo?

Udo politely laid down his fork and patted his mouth with a napkin.  He nodded in answer to her question and said, yes, they had friends from Austria and Germany who met here often.  We children were usually left at home.  Father would play cards with the men.  And mother?  Who knew what the women discussed.  They probably solved the world's problems.

Ava liked the gentle irony in his voice.  She watched him watch the girls who were impressed by a waitress carrying four huge beer steins.

She wanted Udo to go on reminiscing.  I remember Father playing cards, she said.  The room was smokey, I think he smoked cigars, didn't he?


On occasion, he replied.  But never at home.  Our mother would not allow that.

I've tried to reconstruct him from what I remember, she said -- his big hands, the scent of his hair cream, that booming laugh when I would be laying awake in bed at night and I could hear he and mother dancing to the phonograph.  Tiny bits of memory, Udo, only fragments.  I want to know more.

He sighed and pushed his plate away.  I, too, have wondered about my mother.  I was what, nine years old when she and you left.  I felt abandoned and empty.  I don't think I ever recovered.

I didn't understand at the time, Ava said.  I still don't.  I don't think mother was happy here.  And then to her surprise, she was more unhappy in America.  I don't know why she left.  I kept expecting you and father to follow us.  I thought you would get off a plane at the airport in Wisconsin and we would all be together.  But--

It did not happen, he said, finishing her thought.  He raised the wine bottle to refill her glass.  More wine?  No.  Ladies?  Both Julie and Evita let him to fill their glasses.

They sat in silence as the restaurant cacophony swirled about them.  Ava pictured her mother in a red dress with puffed shoulders, '40s style, her hair in tight curls popular back then.  She saw her near the window with rain drizzling down on the street as shapes and shadows blurred past, perhaps the four of them, Udo across from their father.  It might have been a real memory.  She wanted it to be at that moment.

After dinner Julie and Evita excused themselves to tour the nightclubs.  Udo withdrew several bills from his wallet that he gave to Evita for a taxi home.  He said something in Spanish, firmly but with affection, Ava thought.  After they left and she was alone with Udo, mellowed by the wine, she breached her own etiquette.


Forgive me for saying this, but you seem very fatherly toward Evita.

He glanced away and shrugged, nonplussed.  Well, that is because she is my daughter.

And Carmela? she asked.

We are bound by love.  You see, in Paraguay we have three types of marriage:  a wedding  performed in a church, another in a civil ceremony and the third consensual, just as valid.  Illegitimacy has no stigma, so even though Evita is de la Vega, I am her legal compadrazgo.  It means a godparent, or a co-parent to help raise a child.

But you and Carmela never married?

Well, yes and no, he said defensively.  By consent, and by twenty-five years of living together.  You see, after you left for America -- I hope you are not offended by what I am about to tell you  --  father was in the prime of his life, a man not shy with women.  He would on occasion bring home a woman to spend the night, usually women without pedigree, you know,  mestizo women of mixed ancestry, always nameless to me and gone in a day or two.  In fact, I never met most of them.  But Carmela's mother was Estrella de la Vega, who actually was from a fairly prominent European family that squandered its fortune -- I don't know the history.  Estrella appeared one morning and never left.  Carmela was twelve years old and so timid she could not answer if you asked her a question.  But they stayed to cook and manage the hacienda while father was occupied with business.  I went away to military school, just two years older than Carmela.  I ignored her when I was home.  But within a year she transformed into a lovely swan.  My God, I was bewitched.  And one night when we were alone, well, nature overcame us.

And what of Estrella and our father, she wondered aloud.

They were quite content, though outside of father's closest friends no one knew about them.  I trust you and mother did not know?


Of course not.  At least, I didn't, Ava said.  And I doubt if father would allow our mother to learn that indiscretion.  Legally, I believe they never divorced.

Udo poured the last of the wine into his glass and sloshed it about, his face thoughtful and intent.  Well, a couple years after Estrella moved in, she was driving to the market was hit by a cattle truck head on, killed instantly.  Another tragedy from which father never recovered.

How sad for all of you.

As I said, Udo continued, I was away at military school, but her loss was felt.  She was beautiful, like Carmela, just thirty years old.  Her death tore father's heart, as much as your leaving.  He paused, as if to read some message in his wine glass.  After Estrella's death his decline began, in health and soul.  But Carmela stayed and took over her mother's responsibilities and then, after a time Evita was born, my daughter, yes, she who has brought me both pleasure and pain as has your Julie.  He finished the wine, then motioned to their waitress for another bottle.

Was Estrella married before she met father?

Yes, to a soldier who was killed in one of the many government coup attempts.  Carmela has no memory of him.  Her grandmother is still alive in Buenos Aires with Carmela's aunt.  Carmela  visits her once or twice a year.  I met them at the funeral, but I have no contact with her relatives.  I am not a family person.  My music occupies me, a few business obligations.  Time passes.

Too quickly, Ava said.

And what about our mother?  Did she have interest in other men?  The waitress arrived with a second bottle.  She uncorked it and filled Udo's glass.  Ava waited until the woman had left before answering.


Mother expressed little interest in anything, really.  She struggled to be a good mother. She had few friends.  We lived modestly.  I don't know why she never worked like other parents, but I guess she still received some money from father.  When I think back, I can see how she was also emotionally crippled.  The war probably affected her, but she would never speak about her feelings.  Except when she was drinking and then she was incoherent.  I don't know, Udo.  Their marriage was a mystery to me.  I was hoping you would help me understand.

He drained off the wine in his glass and leaned toward her.  Are you feeling well enough to walk?  I  would like some fresh air along the quay and a cup of espresso.   This restaurant is too heavy with the past.

The evening sky is the color of wild plums, she thought, as they walked amidst the traffic and were enveloped by the distant wail of a riverboat, dogs barking, salsa music from a passing car radio.  To be here in this foreign city at night, she heard herself say, would be unnerving, if not for you, Udo.  I don't recall learning any Spanish as a child.

It's a simple language to speak, he said, but difficult to master.  English, though, the architecture of the sentences, the irregularities -- you must have struggled to learn it.

I did at first, but I was young.  Mother could never lose her accent.  She was too self-conscious.  Maybe that's why she had difficulty making friends.  I was immersed in public school, my friends spoke English, I listened to American radio, then later television.  I'm embarrassed to admit how much German I've forgotten.

For me language is just another music, he said.  German is more baroque and chromatic, while Spanish is like flamenco, intensely emotional and  passionate.  European English, to me, is narcissistic, those prideful, measured  tones of Churchill, like old cathedral bells, while you Americans, are polyphonic, except the Texas Americans who sound, to my ear, painfully atonal.


They had come to an open air cafe.  He led her toward a table just off the sidewalk.  Let me order us coffee, he said.  The air rising from the river will soon bring a chill.

She thought about Julie exploring the city with her cousin.  Why had Udo seemed so reluctant to admit that Evita was his daughter and Carmela his common-law wife, not that she would judge them.  When Udo returned he placed a steaming cup in front of her, smiling benignly, his eyes lit from within. 

This is a perfect night, she said.

I am only sorry you did not bring your husband David for me to meet.

He's a slave to his business, she said.  But he wouldn't be prosperous if he didn't work hard.  That's the curse of America today.  Everyone is so busy working we miss the journey along the way.

I am reminded of a line of verse from the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, Udo said. Cuantas ranas habituadas a la noche, silbando y roncando con gargantas de seres humanos a los curatena anos --  so many frogs accustomed to the night, whistling and snoring with the throats of human beings at the age of forty.  There are many frogs singing in the night -- it is the same in our country now.  I am fortunate to indulge my passions without being a slave to any job. 

How do you manage that?


He stirred his coffee with a teaspoon which he then offered to her.  I sold most of father's business -- but that is starting at the end of the story.  When we first moved to Asuncion,  father was an accountant with little practical business experience.  But he purchased a failing lumber mill that had been poorly run.  Within a year he established a furniture factory.  Then he began to buy farms which grew cotton, citrus, sorghum, maize, manioc.  He began exports to Europe after the war.  All of this required gifts to the authorities.

Gifts?

Bribes, payoffs -- there is no end to corruption in Paraguay.  During the Stronato, the rule of military strongman Alfredo Stroessner, father would go into drunken furies at the stupid tropicales.  Money would buy anything -- political favors, government contracts.  Why do you think Juan Peron came here during his exile?  And Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, another friend of the Stronistas, was assassinated just down the street from here in 1980. 

I confess I haven't followed the news of South America, she said, sipping her coffee.  It left a bitter-almond taste even as it warmed her.  Wind began to batter the awning which overhung the sidewalk.

Ah, here comes the pampero, Udo said.  This cold wind howls across Argentina from the South Atlantic.  If the wind blows warm, we call it the sirocco, which sweeps over the Gran Chaco from the northeast.  They are both without mercy.

Ava barely noticed the wind.  She was trekking deep in her memory.  So little residue of her father remained, almost nothing she could consciously recall.  Father must have been successful, she said, but as children we don't notice those things, do we?

You are right, Udo said.  Father had that Teutonic, hard-working intelligence.  At times he could be petty and cruel.  I saw him beat a farmer senseless for some small offense.  But after a time, long after you and  mother left, he began to hate his life.  He became so unbearable no one could be around him.

Why didn't he come to America or even go back to Europe? she asked.


That is a story for another time, he said.  Perhaps we should let the dead sleep in peace. Please, he said, brightening, I know almost nothing of your beloved Wisconsin.  Tell me about David, this brother-in-law I have never met..

Ava told him the sanitized version, names and dates without embellishing: the courtship and marriage, births of their children, her son's death, the emerald bay they lived above and the  agonizingly long winters, her art, David's business -- it could have been some stranger's life she had read about in a book.

             To be here, now, she thought, seemed a disconnect in her psyche.  The exotic street life unfurled about her with couples strolling along the street, men drowsing against melon-colored, 19th-century colonial buildings and women with their toffee-colored skin and waist-length braids, younger men lolling and smoking in groups, their bodies rhythmic and sexual when they drifted off along the avenue.  She had awakened into a Joan Miro canvas.  She was certain Udo noticed her staring like a tourist.

It's nearly midnight,  he said.  I don't want to wear you out after only two days.  As he led her to the car, his mood seemed to shift again into some private distance.  He was a man of unpredictable silences, she thought.  He didn't speak until they had returned to the sprawling hacienda on the river.

  Sleep well, he said.  I told Evita to bring Julie home early, so you need not worry about her. 

Thank you Ava began, but before she could finish her thought, Udo had turned and strode away into the darkness.

  Later, as she was easing herself into bed, she heard his music rising and falling, faintly contrapuntal to the chill pampero which blew at the window.  His music, as it  fluttered about the room like a creature with ten thousand wings, filled her with an infinite sadness. 


She awakened early the next morning to a lacework of early sun covering the far wall.  What day was it? she wondered.  Late August, but what date?  She took her small tin of watercolors and daybook out to the balcony.  The quiet light diffused the landscape and an opalescent mist rose off the river.  She did a horizontal wash with peach and lemon.  Then with her fan brush she tried to catch the changing hues, blending viridian and phthalo green with a meringue of raw sienna and a hazy chiffon lingering across the lawn.  Birds in full oratorio provided the soundtrack, a glorious day, she thought, still in her pajamas while everyone slept. 

She dabbed yellow ochre onto her palette, painting as fast as she could  before the transparent light vanished.  If only she had been a painter when they had left Paraguay years ago, she would have remembered her life more vividly.  She would have preserved this house and her brother running barefoot across the grass and her father wading in the carp pool, the colors more intense than memory could create.  She switched to a No. 6 sable brush and began to line the trees with swatches of ultramarine, crimson and sap green.  Not bad, she thought, for a quick sketch.

An hour later she ate breakfast with Julie and Udo in the courtyard.  Carmela set out a fruit platter, then brought them warm mbeyu', grilled manioc pancakes which resembled tortillas, and a thick porridge, she said, made of dried beans and peanuts.  As Udo poured coffee he asked Julie if she and Evita had enjoyed themselves.

We had an awesome time, Julie said.  I met several of her friends, and these guys, when they found out I was American, they wouldn't leave us alone.  They acted like I was some celebrity.  It was so wild.  If I lived here my grades would definitely suffer.

You see? Udo said, to Ava.  How can studies compete with this nightly carnival?

Is Evita sleeping in? Ava asked.


We were back by one, Julie said.  I would have slept later but the birds were so loud they woke me.  Besides, I can sleep when I get home.  There's too much to see and do.

A noble attitude, Udo said.  I thought today you might like to visit one of  my farms across the river and about an hour into the Chaco, which you were curious about, Julie.  I have a small orange grove from which the petit grain used in making perfumes is distilled   Evita knows the way -- she could drive you.

You can't come? Ava asked.

No, my sister, I am sorry.  I have a prior commitment with one of the central bank finance ministers.  They are so puffed with self-importance they would view my not coming as a personal insult.  You and the girls will have a good time.  Carmela can prepare a picnic lunch for you.  I think the weather will be perfect for a drive in the country.

 Udo vanished shortly after breakfast as Julie recounted in detail where they had gone, how the music was weird like 80s disco but fun, that her Spanish was worse than she thought because people were making her repeat what she said and then laughing uproariously.  I didn't care, she said.  I had guys hanging all over me and Evita.  She smacked one guy across the face for something he said, but that just got everyone at our table laughing even harder.  You could tell most of her friends were rich university students.

I'm glad you have someone your age to get around with.  I was afraid I wouldn't be much of a companion.

That's not true, Mom.  But you and Uncle Udo probably had a lot to talk about.

We did.  After dinner we walked along the riverfront and talked until midnight.

Well, I'm going to shower and wash my hair before we go anywhere.  I think it's pretty neat your family is in the perfume business.  Today should be fun.


Fun.  Ava thought of Julie's statement hours later, after they had crossed the Rio Paraguay by ferry at Puerto Ita' Enramada and bumped along dusty roads to the west, toward Villa Hayes.  Rolling , terra rosa, or red soil hills with an occasional herd of cattle made Ava think of New Mexico.  The temperature had risen as the barren plains swallowed the road.

I thought Paraguay would be all rainforest, Julie said.

Evita was driving a battered and paint-chipped 4x4 safari wagon.  She shook her head and said, the Chaco is how I imagine hell.  They passed an old man in a pickup truck with a teenage boy and an enormous pig on a leash in the truck's bed.  A few campesinos live here, Evita went on, theindigena or Indians.  Also snakes, jaguars, capybaras, big wild pigs, not like the one we just saw.  The word Chaco in Quechua Indian language means, "much wild life," or "land of many animals," -- something like that.

Poisonous snakes? Julie asked.

Yes.  But even worse are the gnats that get into your eyes or the pique, little, I don't know how you say it in English, fleas like, parasites that bury under your skin and cause sores. 

Julie, who was sitting in the front passenger seat jouncing at every rut in the road, turned with alarm toward Evita.

Really?  What do they look like?

You can't see them.  Pray they do not get in your ear because they will bore their way inside your brain and cause a most horrible death.  We call it pique madness.

Even Ava was becoming concerned until she saw the smile flicker across Evita's face.

Oh my God, you had me going, Julie said.  I was going to roll up the windows and not get out of the truck.  She frowned at her own gullibility.


As they slowed to turn onto a rutted, nearly non-existent side-road, an army jeep from the opposite direction followed them into the turn and nosed up to their bumper.

They want us to pull over, Evita said as she studied the jeep in the rearview mirror. 

One of the two soldiers in the jeep ambled wearily up to the driver's window, the other to the passenger side.  They both bent in the window to inspect the rover.  The soldier at Evita's window who had burnished, weathery skin and a pencil-stroke mustache asked to see Evita's license.  He backed away from the car to examine it.

The other who was younger and squat with a pig's snout of a nose seemed bored to Ava. He leaned farther in the window and sniffed Julie's hair. 

Gringa? he said to Evita.

Si, North Americanos, Julie replied.  She slid a little farther away from him.  Talk about bad breath, she said over her shoulder to her mother.

The soldier with Evita's license said something to her.  He wants us to step out of the car, she said.  These are probably lonely soldiers who want to get a good look at us, up and down.  Just do as they say.

They stepped out, onto the dusty road, Ava recalled an incident she had heard on the news about a group of nuns or women missionaries who had been murdered in some Latin country, she wasn't sure which.  Julie, she thought, seemed apprehensive also.  The soldier in charge said something to his companion, who leaned in the open passenger door and removed Evita's purse.  He brought it around to the front of the car, dumped it out on the hood and began to rummage through the contents.

Evita seemed to fume at him in Spanish.

Ava glanced to Julie to interpret.

She asked when did soldiers become bandits?  She said, are you going to rob us?

The one holding Evita's license replied calmly, his voice officious.

Julie said, he said they are only searching for drugs or revolutionary literature.

The fat inspector took Julie's lipstick tube and held it to his nose as if to inhale its scent.

Evita spoke harshly again and reached to take the lipstick away from the man.  He held it over his head, teasing her with it just out of reach. He pushed her away with his other hand and caused her to stumble.  She regained her balance, then fired off her angry reaction.

Julie said to her mother, she told him that no amount of makeup will make him any less ugly.  She called him an ignorant pig.  I don't like this mom.  They have pistols.

Both soldiers began to laugh at Evita's insult, the soldier in charge nodding as if to agree.  Evita began to collect her belongings which had fallen to the ground.  The soldier with the mustache came up to Julie and took a handful of her hair.  As he examined its texture he said,   Como Te llamas?

Julie, she said

Julie, he repeated, evidently pleased that she was more agreeable than Evita.

When Evita realized the first soldier was fondling Julie's hair, she interposed herself. She spoke too rapidly for Julie to translate.  Evita jabbed her index finger inches away from the man's face which seemed to momentarily startle him.  The other soldier stood piggishly slack-jawed and silent. 


When the soldier handed Evita's license back, his voice softened to an apologetic tone.   He waved his companion toward their jeep, then repeated the same phrase a second and third time as he backed away from them.  Evita's left hand was on her hip in a defiant stance. He climbed into the jeep and shook his head.  Ava could read his body language without translation.   He ground the starter as the engine weakly turned over, finally igniting with a backfire.  Then he slammed it into reverse, spun 180 degrees and splattered gravel in his wake as the jeep rattled off in the direction they had come.

Maybe you can intimidate the locals, Evita shouted after them.  They watched the jeep recede into the landscape.

Ava was still perplexed.  What did they want?

What did they want?  Ava asked.

 Machismo, Evita said.  Bored little boys playing soldier.  Take away their uniforms and their guns and they are nothing but thugs.  Uneducated street criminals.

They didn't want anything?

To amuse themselves, Evita said.

What did you tell them? Julie asked.  It happened so fast I didn't catch everything.  I'm nervous now -- look, she said, holding out her hands. I'm shaking.  Were you scared, Mom?

I didn't know what to think.  We hadn't done anything wrong.

As they got back into the car to continue on, Evita explained, the soldiers recognized we were from a higher social class by our dress and by how we speak.  They know that and resent us.  Young men from poor homes cannot attend university, so they enter the army.  The uniform is the best clothes they have ever worn.  Some wear shoes for the first time.  They eat regular meals.  But they hate the ladinos, those of us who are more European descended.  When they have an opportunity, they will say, you are nothing, you are scum, we have guns to make you bow down to us.  If a man had been with us, they would not have acted so boldly.

What did you say to make them leave? Ava asked.

I told them my best friend's father is Colonel Hector Alonzo, the head of the military and if he found out I was being mistreated, he would personally turn them into women.


You said that? Julie asked.

My words were more crude, she answered, her face relaxing into a semi-smile.  That is probably why you didn't understand.

Is your best friend's father head of the military?

No.  But it helps to read the newspapers and remember who is in charge.  They were too stupid to know I was bluffing them.

They drove in silence.  The road had narrowed to a single, occasional wheeltrack over hilly terrain.  Within ten minutes they crested a promontory and saw the farm nestled in a valley before them.  A creek zigzagged through the middle of an orange tree grove.  They jounced down a gentle incline, through an opening in a split rail fence and along a hard-packed lane where an old, rusted pickup truck sat next to a newer cargo van.  The sun felt unforgiving when they left the car's shade.  A mange-bitten dog with a rat's face trotted from the single-storied, white-washed house to greet them. 

Then Gaspar Rodriguez, named after Paraguay's first dictator he would later tell them, appeared on the shaded veranda at that moment to offer a more cordial welcome.  He had a  jovial face with bushy eyebrows that grew together like a large caterpillar.

He speaks no English, Evita said, introducing first Ava, then Julie.

Senor Rodriguez kept nodding effusively, pumping their hands like he was trying to draw water.  Hola, hola, he said.  Hola.

Hola, Ava replied, exhausting her Spanish vocabulary.

They went inside to meet his wife and three children, two boys, ages ten and seven, and a girl named Esmeralda, about two, Ava thought.  Within minutes the plump toddler was on Ava's lap, staring with wonderment into Ava's face, her dark, pebbly eyes unblinking and fathomless.


They drank warm Coca colas as Evita reprised their brief encounter with the Federales.  Ava asked if she might sample some orange juice, but when Evita put the request to Senor Rodriguez, he apologized with great flourish that harvest time was not until November and now the fruit was small and unripe.

Come back in November, Evita said, still translating his words, and you may have gallons of juice, enough to bathe in.

Gracias, Senor, Ava said.  Perhaps I will.

After splashing coppery-colored water on their faces at a pump behind the house -- the water is from the river, Evita warned them, so don't drink it -- they ambled along a cart path which separated the grove from the endless savanna.  He says the farm is about 10,000 hectare, but only a small portion of it is cultivated, Evita said.

How is the perfume made? Julie asked.

Evita put the question to Senor Rodriguez.

His explanation was relayed in segments by Evita:  the flower oil was extracted at low temperature in the open shed with a vaporable solvent, then concentrated by distilling the liquid over many hours.  The residue of wax and oil remaining, called the floral concrete, was then sent   to a chemist in the capital who made the perfumes, sachets, soaps and floral water.    All Senor Rodriguez did was perform the first steps in the process.


They returned to the house, to a simple lunch of  bori-bori , a chicken soup with corn meal dumplings and small glasses of mosto, a sugar-cane juice too sweet for Ava.  They ate in the shade of an avocado tree behind the house.  Softball-sized avocado had fallen and burst open about them on the ground, the buttery fruit a staple for his cows, Senor Rodriguez told them.  The little girl climbed back onto Ava's lap with a hairbrush.   As she began to stroke the girl's hair, Senora Rodriguez  said she was their precious jewel, born after 18-hours labor with a midwife, finally coming breech.  She will let you brush her hair all day, she said.

Senor Rodriguez offered to drive them out in search of his free-range cattle, but they declined.  The arid heat was just as exhausting as the humidity, Ava said.  So they thanked he and his wife, patted the children on their heads and started back to the city.

Ava began to nod off by the time they got to the river, its champagne sun-sparkle flecked with boats, the air moist and cooler.  The young women's voices waltzed about her, a word of English punctuated by Spanish phrases, she dozing as best she could on the vinyl seats.  When they arrived home she went up to her room.  Shadows from the window fell upon her bed, and in the cypress outside a jabiru bird serenaded her, it seemed, for the two hours she slept. 

 

That evening Julie and Evita drove into the city to a soccer match.  They would eat at a parrillas, the Paraguayan version of fast food, Julie explained, which offered barbecue, fry bread and spicy vegetables.  She liked the open-air atmosphere, she said, and hearing the language improved her Spanish faster than she expected.


Ava wandered into the kitchen to watch Carmela prepare dinner.  She asked the woman how she had become such a fine cook, but it seemed a perfunctory question.  Carmela, who stood at a wooden counter chopping a red-leafed cabbage, merely shrugged.  After a moment she said, my English is not so good.  Ava felt clumsy not knowing even a rudimentary Spanish.  Before she left Wisconsin she had checked self-pacing Spanish tapes out of the public library, but she had forgotten all the phrases she had practiced.  Perhaps she had passed the language-learning threshold in life, she told herself.  English she had absorbed without effort as a girl and she could still mangle a German sentence or two, but the gulf between she and Carmela seemed  impassible.

She wanted to ask Carmela a dozen questions, but they both seemed uncomfortable by Ava's presence.  So Ava left the room and went out to the courtyard.  She sat on the edge of the pool, dangling her feet in the water.  An image came back of her parents dancing around the pool in a comical embrace and she splashing them as they swirled past, her mother giggling and her father, too, her mother in a pink, latex suit, circa 1950s, her skin glistening with waterdrops, her father's thick, white arms encircling her mother's waist.  Their happiness had been love, hadn't it?.

But what had changed?  What had caused the fracture?  Something subterranean, deep in the past?  Something which she and Udo in their childish idylls had never known?  And now she knew that Udo also bore the same wounds of loss.  She had felt his emotions flare up when they spoke about their parents.  Even after all these years, she thought.

Udo arrived home at twilight.  He listened quietly as Ava told him about being waylaid  by the two soldiers.  I wish you had gotten their names, he said, when she had finished.  Such abuse of power is too common.  Still today the  campesinos who organize against the wealthy landowners are beaten and killed.  Human rights are only for those who can afford them.  Yes, in this country, politics is the art of bribery and corruption.  These two, like many others, are empty men, he said, tapping his chest to illustrate.  No truth to live by but guns and bullets.  This is a sadness to the common people, this daily injustice.

Why don't you leave here? she asked.  You could move.


To where?  Tell me where I can escape such ignorance and I will go.  To America?  Will I find utopia there?  Or Europe?  No.  I live in peace here, my refuge of trees and river and birds -- you will  not find such majestic arias, even in your Carnegie Hall.  Hear them?  I have my music, my family and satellite television when I want to remind myself the world is insane.  I avoid entanglements.  Let all of that, he said with an airy wave of his hand, go on without me.  I prefer to be an anachronism.  But come with me.  I haven't eaten since this morning.  I am certain Carmela has dinner ready.  I requested she prepare more of her favorite recipes for you.

Over a dinner of sooyo sopy, a chunky beef and sweet pepper soup, accompanied by rice and bread fresh from the oven, Udo told her about his favorite composers: Maurice Ravel, he said,  inspired in the delicate "Pavane," in "Bolero" repeats the same melody line with orchestral variations for almost twenty minutes.  Some think that's genius.  I say his record got stuck.  He also wrote inferior operas.  Now the visionary Alexander Scriabin, his luminous "Poem of Fire," dreams to extinguish the material world in a ceremony of magic, poetry, perfume and dance atop a peak in the far Himalayas.  He was deranged.  Of course, I find Stravinsky harsh and uneven but in  passages in the "Canticum Sacrum," he was touched by the angels.  And who can deny Mozart's music, how it surges through the soul like elemental forces, and Beethoven?   No words could capture Beethoven, or the primordial rhythms of Schonberg or the lyricism of Manuel de Falla or Enrique Granados.  Did you know  his  ship was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1916?  A tragic loss.  The Spanish composers, Udo said, especially the mystical ones, are my mentors -- Turina, Rodrigo, the "Bachianas Brasileiras" of Villa-Lobos, who on his pilgrimages throughout the Amazon brought the folk music of Brazil to the world.  So many to choose from.

On the seventh day of creation, Udo said smiling, God rested from his labors and listened to music -- the music of the planets and stars crisscrossing the heavens, I think. Perhaps the dinosaurs bleating.


It's interesting, isn't it, Ava said.   We both share the creative impulse -- yours for music and mine art.  She had not eaten much and felt compelled to add that she hoped Carmela would not think she disliked the food.  It was delicious, but she had little appetite.  My hunger fluctuates, she said.  I seem to have been going through these life changes for years, and now the illness, the treatments and all the medication--

Our mortality, he said, interrupting.  We do fear death.  It is  too morbid a subject to discuss in polite company.

I'm not planning to die yet, she said.  Not for another twenty or thirty years.

He reached across the table for a bottle of  wine..  As he filled the crystal glass in front of her and then his own, he shook his head.  I did not mean to imply I thought you were about to die.  Only that such intrusions of illness remind us we are temporary creatures, yes?  His watery blue eyes stared intently into hers, then his gaze drifted off about the dining room.  He said, my favorite writer, Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote El cuerpo va, sonando, a la tierra que es de el, de laotra tierra que no es de el -- the body as it daydreams, goes toward the earth it belongs to, from the other earth it does not.  We are travellers here.  This I have always known, like a ghost-life, the real one yet awaiting us.  I often contemplate dying, when and how it will be.  You think I am strange?

No, she answered.  I think I understand.  I sometimes think similar thoughts in my solitude.  I respect that you choose to live apart from the chaos of life because your music is a high calling, like a religious vocation.

He smiled.  Yes, a religious vocation.  I am monsignor of the nightingales.

I have that same need for silence and reflection, not just to draw and paint, but I think my soul also longs for the eternal, even though I don't want to let go of this life  What was that verse?  The body goes toward the earth it belongs to?  I believe that.


Oh my, he said, yawning, his hand rising up to cover his mouth.  Now we have ventured into philosophy.  May I serve you more soup?

No, thank you.  It was excellent and I hope you will convey my gratitude to Carmela.  I tried to speak with her this afternoon, but our language broke down.  I don't think she cares much for me.

Nonsense, Udo said.  She has been trying to impress you with her cooking, but she has this confused female attitude, I think, that you would find her unworthy, who knows for what reason, to be my wife?  She holds an illogical judgement of herself, but I am a poor student in these matters.  I am standing in quicksand.  In time she will warm to you.

I hope so.  Evita is such a spirited young woman.  You would have been proud to see her stand up to the soldiers.  Back home we would call her feisty.

Feisty, he said, testing the sound.  Yes, I like the word.  If only she could be more of feisty and less undisciplined about her life.  You Americans don't realize how your television  seeps throughout our world like a poison gas.  Our young inhale these ideas of Nike shoes and computers and MTV, Madonna and Michael Jackson and Disneyland, the culture of excess.  Evita and her friends breathe this in, this avarice.  Your Oprah has more followers than the Pope.  Do you see why I choose to be a recluse?

Yes.  Upon impulse Ava reached over and touched Udo on the arm.  Did father feel the same about America?  Is that why he never came?

Ah, he said, glancing down at her hand as if it were a butterfly that had alighted.  That is a different story, he said.  More complicated than you realize.  Let me turn on the outer floodlights and we will walk in the coolness of the evening and I will tell you a sad and true tale.                       

 


 


    

 


 

 

 

     

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