A Prayer for Alejandro
Note: I have arrived at the first stop on my journey and will post soon -- in the mean time, this story is for a writing contest I committed to before I left, since I was the one to choose the muse: Confession.
Thank you for reading♡
Bless me Father, for I have sinned.
Arturo squirmed in the pew and looked up at a flume of moonlight streaming through a stained glass window. Dust motes whirled within it, glinting like specks of platinum. Outside he could hear the carnival rides grinding and spinning, the sounds of peoples’ delighted screams floating back into the church and mixing with incense. Turning his body, he could see the Ferris wheel, his favorite, scooping up patrons and then, getting up speed, churning in the black night air, a psychotic blur of neon green, red and blue light. Whenever he got a chance to ride, he loved it best when his car was frozen at the very top, while patrons were loading or unloading, and he could see the jagged rocks that rimmed the coastline near his village. That was where he lived with his brother. He sat back on the pew, inhaled the incense, and closed his eyes. His job tonight would be to save Alejandro.
It was the festival of El Grito de Independencia and once a year, San Jose del Cabo would transform from a peaceful fishing village to a destination for everyone in the region. Families drove here with all their children, loaded into cars and trucks. They would sleep beneath the underpass outside town. He would see tent cities walking on the dirt road home, rough blankets hung from the concrete beams, cooking fires lighting up the night. When the families finally left town, their vehicles resembled the carnival rides, plastic whirlybirds, stuffed animals and piñatas overflowing from the windows, children hanging off the backs of trucks, drunk on cotton candy, hot chocolate and churros.
He knew Father Dominguez would be here soon and he was on a mission. He recited what he planned to say over and over in his mind.
Bless me Father, for I have sinned.
The church of the Virgin of Guadalupe was a second home for Arturo. He loved sitting next to Mama on Sunday mornings, leaning against her doughy chest, and listening to Father Dominguez speak in his singsong-y voice from the lectern. Mama smelled like a mixture of cilantro and sandalwood. He would fall asleep during the Mea Culpas until Alejandro kicked him in the leg and they were off, crawling under the kneelers towards the back of the church, where Alejandro would light all the votive candles.
Alejandro was Arturo’s twin brother. Even though he was always getting him into trouble, he loved him with a passion that only non twins could dream of. There was always something unspoken between them, a pact that had been made from the moment of their birth.
Mama rarely told the story, only when family would come, like for the celebration of Dio de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead.
“Ai, it was a terrible delivery,” she would always say, stroking her stomach with a soft, pudgy hand. “A terrible night. After three girls, God had wanted to give me two boys.”
Mama would go quiet, and the aunts would gather around, arms around one another and hug, eventually the slap of tortillas between palms would once again be heard. Arturo was surrounded by a world of women, which is why Alejandro meant so much to him. But the most important reason he was so important in his life is that they were the only ones who would ever be able to protect their mother from their father. Panzuelos was a frightening man.
Some nights in the house were quiet, but more often Arturo wished he could not hear the noises that came from the kitchen. The sound of his father’s old pickup, rattling down the rocky road, sent pain into the pit of his stomach. He knew what was going to happen next. He and Alejandro would lie still in the night, their bodies stiffened at the ugly, slurring words, followed by the thud of a fist against his mother’s soft flesh. Then his mother’s cries, a crescendo of ear-splitting howls, followed by a slow slide of muffled moaning. He knew Mama would be sitting by the fireplace, rocking.
His oldest sister, Maria Estrellita, once tried to face down Panzuelos. But she received her father’s fist, fingers covered in silver rings, a benediction of knuckle and metal that knocked out three teeth, and she never tried again.
Arturo rubbed his hands on his knees and tried not to listen to the sounds of the carnival. He wanted to ride the Ferris wheel and forget the terrible things he saw. To sit at the top and rock the car, just enough to imagine what might happen if the latch came undone and he fell to the sawdust and lights below. But he didn’t always have these dark thoughts. Most of the time all he wanted was to buy a buneulo from a vendor and dip it in condensed milk. He watched the sacristy door and waited. No Father Dominguez. Where was he? If he didn’t see him soon, he worried what might happen to Alejandro.
Alejandro had taken care of the family problem. Panzuelos had passed out, lying in the dirt in front of the house like usual on Saturday night, and Arturo woke just in time to see his brother pouring gasoline on his father’s recumbent body. Arturo started to cry out, but his voice became lodged in his throat, the words unable to form. The truth was, he could never have the courage to do what Alejandro did. A match stuck and lit the night, a glowing opening into a world of hope.
The next thing that happened were the screams of Mama, Dona Sanchez and his sisters, standing in the door, watching the fire light up the night. Dona Sanchez held a scarf to her mouth and ran towards the shooting flames, waving at the human bonfire. Mama stood for a moment longer, staring, and then ran to the pigsty and lifted a bucket of water, throwing it on the body. Now charred, Arturo could see the outline of the arms and legs, black and stiffened into a fetal position.
Alejandro was nowhere to be found. Arturo snuck out into the stable to see if he was in his usual hiding place. The hay was flattened into the shape of a small boy’s body – Arturo knew his brother slept out here many nights, unable to stand the sounds coming from the kitchen. He felt the surface but it was not warm. The cries outside were getting louder.
“Jesus Christo!” Arturo peeked out the window to see his mother crouching on the ground, now beating at the flames with a kitchen cloth. Dona Sanchez had dumped more water and the charred body rolled to one side. Panzuelos was in a seated position, as though he was driving a hellish car. Mama was now kneeling, hunched over the embers of her husband’s body. She rocked back and forth. The three little girls stood motionless; the middle daughter, Maria Delicia, holding a gray cloth doll, dumbly put a thumb in her mouth. Then Maria Estrellita turned and went back into the house.
Arturo leaned back against the stable wall. He was breathing heavily, his heart felt as though it would pound out of his chest. There was one more place he knew his brother could be.
Arturo loved to be an altar boy. He and Alejandro would dress in Father Dominguez’s study, donning the little white robes with golden sashes. Before Mass, Alejandro would swing the censer at him and bug his eyes out, acting like Panzuleos about to attack. Arturo would laugh so hard he had to roll on the ground. These were the best times, when he was away from the house, away from all the women who surrounded him. Just he and Alejandro alone, climbing onto Father’s desk, hanging from the window ledge, throwing frankincense water down onto unsuspecting villagers passing by the rectory.
Whenever he served during Mass, he would watch his father’s face from the altar. Panzeulos acted like a holy man for everyone to see, smiling so hard that crevices developed in his dark, leathered face. He wore a white high collar so he even looked like a priest himself, his dark five button jacket two sizes too small, pinched at the neck and hiked up on his arms. He would hold the baby, Maria Elena, on his lap and bounce her for everyone to see. Neighbors smiled to see the baby’s feet touch his pants again and again, but she wasn’t smiling – she looked frightened. Mama just sat resolute, expressionless. She only smiled when she would see Arturo appear from behind the altar, holding the golden chalice, Alejandro close behind.
Arturo awoke, his arms rigid and wrapped across his chest. He sat up and looked around - there was no sign of Father Dominguez. He listened for the sounds of the carnival; then he saw the sun filtering in through the clerestory windows, above the altar, throwing candy-colored light onto the tiled floors. He had fallen asleep on the wooden pew.
“Arturo.” He looked up and saw Father Dominguez standing over him. “Your mother has been frantic, looking for you.”
Father knelt down. Arturo studied his face. He was tanned and fit, like an athlete. He wore his priest’s day frock, black, with the white collar peeking out, tight around his neck.
“Son, I have to tell you something.” Arturo noticed Father’s eyes had misted over.
“There’s been a terrible accident at home.”
Arturo was silent.
“Your father is dead.”
Arturo didn’t say anything for a long time. He just watched the sunlight, springing like a leak through the open sacristy door, cast long orange rays crawling towards him over the stucco walls.
“We need to go see your mother. She thinks you are dead, too, Arturo.”
Arturo rubbed his eyes. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep in church. He hadn’t meant to do a lot of things. He thought he might feel relief, but a strange ache twisted around his heart. The weight of his own silence had become unbearable.
Turning around, he fixed his gaze on the confessional at the back of the church. “I have something to tell you Father.” Father looked at him for a long moment, then nodded his head and stood up.
The scene from the night before had been playing over and over in his dreams. His body was stiff from contact with the unforgiving wood where he had been lying all night; a deep groove had been carved from his nails, gouging the surface. In his dream he remembered he was drowning, his arms desperately trying to plunge him to the surface.
Then he remembered the fire. For a moment, as he watched the flames twist higher, biting and clawing at the night sky, he had become Alejandro. Ever since he was told he had been a twin at birth, a half of a whole, he wished he could will the tiny, gray body to life. Alejandro would have been the smarter one. Alejandro would have been the braver one. With Alejandro anything was possible. But Alejandro had never survived their birth.
Father Dominguez was waiting. With his eyes fixed on the confessional door, Arturo rose from the pew, rehearsing the words he knew he must say.
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