The one-room church was empty as Father Bautista handed the ballpoint quill to the American college student. “Start writing, Leo.” It wasn’t a suggestion and Leo had no choice but to obey.
“What should I write?” asked Leo, looking up from the blank sheet on the table. The priest’s face was set in a trained pose of seriousness and compassion, as if he were visiting a bereaved parishioner or listening to a mediocre confession at the end of a vapid Sunday.
Leo’s eyes stung from the sweat that had dribbled into them and mixed with his tears. The pen quivered, as if it wanted to take flight and return to its owner.
“Just the truth. You don’t have to be creative,” answered the holy man, “but be sure to mention that the body was dead before you moved it.”
Leo’s clammy hand trembled as the quill moved reluctantly across the paper, leaving a jagged trail of painful admissions. He tried to hide the healing blister on his index finger.
The padre stood above Leo with his arms crossed. When the pen stopped, he asked, “Is that it?”
“Read it to me.”
Leo raised the paper before him and read. “I, Leonardo Panini, of Calle 24, am the person who . . . who delivered the lifeless body of Citlali Reyes to the Urgencia room at the General Hospital, today July 4, 2013. Citlali was my friend. I found her body in my back yard when I was looking for my cat. I write this note voluntarily and of my own free will. Signed, Leonardo Panini.”
He looked askance at the priest. “Should I write more?”
The man in the black robe shook his head, uncrossed his arms and patted Leo lightly on the back. “No, not unless you want to. Down here in Puerto Escondido, that might be enough. I know the Mayor and the police chief.”
Leo understood the reference. In many parts of Mexico, administrative and procedural matters oftentimes took a back seat to justice and conflict resolution the old-fashioned way, by approaching each other, face to face. Maybe the priest, with the power and prestige of his office, would serve as his advocate.
Father Bautista leaned back and studied Leo in his chair from head to foot.
Leo was dressed like most visitors to this part of Mexico. His floral pattern shorts hung to just below his kneecaps and his cotton shirt was a light blue Guayabera, the style worn by many of the locals. His shirt was soaked in sweat.
“Let me see your hands,” instructed Father Bautista.
Leo put the pen down and thrust his hands forward palms up in obvious puzzlement. “What’s wrong?”
Father Bautista took Leo's hands in his and turned them over and back several times. “Why is there no blood on your hands? I mean, wasn’t there blood everywhere when you found Citlali?”
Leo tilted his head and took a moment before answering. He would never forget her. She resembled the sculpture of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty in the Louvre Museum in Paris that he’d seen during a summer vacation. And etched in every line of her soft face were insignificant, little worries that Leo had convinced himself he could soothe. “I hadn’t thought of that, but no, there was nothing, no blood, no weapon. Nothing I remember.”
Little furrows formed on the padre’s forehead. “Are you sure she was dead?”
Leo did not answer. He stared down at his feet. His tennis shoes were dirty from the red dust in his back yard where he’d found Citlali sprawled on the ground. He brought his right sleeve to his nose and inhaled the sweet scent of gardenias, her favorite perfume. Looking back on it, he was so nervous, he couldn’t remember whether he’d checked Citlali for a pulse. His hands began to tremble.
“Oh my God. You think she could be alive?”
“What made you think she was dead in the first place?”
“Well, Father, people don’t just lie around in the dirt on a hot day without a very good reason. It must be at least a hundred degrees outside.” Then it came back to him. “Besides, I did check for her pulse, first on her chest, then on her neck, you know, the carotid artery. I even shook her by the shoulders pretty hard, trying to wake her up.”
“And there was nothing, not even a faint beat, but her body was still warm, and I don’t mean from the sun, either.”
Leo began wringing his hands. His heart raced once more just like when he had arrived at the church and pounded on the door. At this moment, he could not look Father Bautista in the eyes as he summoned all his courage to confess another secret to this man of God.
“What is it, son? Something is troubling you. Whatever you say remains within these four walls, as you well know.”
Leo looked around. The priest was not kidding. There were only four walls with a wooden floor and a cathedral ceiling in this humble place of worship. “I’m ashamed to say this, Father, but Citlali and I have been visiting some of the Oaxacan Indian tribes when they worship their pagan gods, you know, like the Sun God, the God of War and the God of Fertility. We were doing it to write our thesis on cultural anthropology for our school back in the States.”
“I see,” said Bautista. “It seems we get at least half a dozen students every year who come to study the Mayan ruins and Aztec remnants in this part of Mexico.” He sank into a high-backed chair behind the desk on which Leo was writing. “And what connection do you see between your visits to these tribes and Citlali’s situation?”
Citlali’s situation? The question sounded odd to Leo as he had come here seeking guidance on his predicament. Almost immediately, he realized his self-centered concern. He glanced at the crucifix on the wall and prayed for divine forgiveness.
“I’m not sure there is a tie-in, but I don’t know what else it could be.”
The priest lightly rubbed his chin. “Can you be more specific?”
“I’ll try. When Citlali and I first saw the tribe’s ceremony, praying and dancing, it was entertaining and fun. It was like going to a theater play. The Indians were friendly and non-threatening. The ceremonies drew us in like moths to a flame. We went back for a second and third visit. Then, we began to take part in some of the dancing ourselves. Nothing fancy mind you, just hopping up and down and stomping our feet around a fire in a circle. We don’t know the native, tribal language so we couldn’t say the chants and prayers.”
“Are you sure these were worship ceremonies you attended and not festive celebrations?”
Leo nodded. “I’m fairly certain, Father. The medicine man leading the worship highlighted each celebration with the slaughter of a goat or a pig. At first I thought it was just to provide carne asada for the tribe, but when they held the slaughtered animal up to a huge stone block with the sun carved in its side, I knew this was a worship ritual.”
“You may be right, Leo. I’ve heard of these traditions being carried on since time immemorial. Were you harmed in any way, during these proceedings?”
“No, I wasn’t harmed, but I was affected by them.”
The priest cocked his head. “How so?”
Leo looked around as if someone was spying on them. “Can I have a glass of water? My mouth is really dry.”
Father Bautista nodded. “Of course, let me get one for you.” As the priest walked to a nearby table, he called out over his shoulder, “How long have you known Citlali and are you both from the same school?”
Again, her image flashed in Leo’s mind. Dark hair, emerald eyes, smiling mouth and soft, petite hands. Ah Citlali. She had so much to give. He wasn’t certain how he knew it, but he did, with a knowledge as strong as faith itself.
Leo waited for the priest to return with the water. “Thank you,” he said, accepting the cool drink. He gulped half the glass and then sighed deeply. “We arrived here at the same time, in September, but we’re not from the same school. I’m from NYU and she’s from UTEP, just across the border. That’s where her family lives. Her family roots are from down here, but she’s as American as apple pie.”
“I see, and are you and her dating or just friends?”
Leo fidgeted in his chair. “I guess you could say we’re more than just boyfriend-girlfriend. You know. She’s expressed her love for me and I’ve done the same. I mean I told her how much she means to me and that I want to spend the rest of my life with her. We didn’t plan to fall in love. It just kinda happened.”
Father Bautista watched Leo raise the see-through tumbler and swallow the last of the water. “Would you like some more?”
“What?” answered Leo. His countenance must have given away his nervousness and profound sense of loss.
The priest took the sheet of paper with Leo’s statement and appeared to be rereading it. His silence was disquieting.
“What is it?” asked Leo. “Should I add more to it?”
The padre remained expressionless as he took a seat next Leo. He tapped the back of Leo’s hand on the table. “You said you were affected by the rituals you attended. Tell me more about that.” He paused as Leo stared into the empty glass.
After an uncomfortable moment of silence, Leo decided to confess everything. He glanced at the priest. He didn’t want to look him in the eyes, so he locked in on his Roman collar. He felt terrible as he confessed yet another secret.
“Well, there is one thing I haven’t told you about. You know that pagan worship and dancing I mentioned?”
“Yes, what about it?”
“We were there again, last night.”
“You and Citlali?”
“I see. What happened?”
Leo shifted in his chair. “I know we probably shouldn’t have done it, but we both drank some kind of elixir or potion. A nude girl had come to me with an exquisitely carved and lacquered wooden cup. She handed it to me and silently withdrew. Everyone else was imbibing, so I looked at Citlali and she nodded in approval. I laughed and took a swallow.” Leo purposely omitted the fact that as he downed the potion, he shivered with mixed emotions of trepidation and gleeful anticipation.
The moment reminded Leo of the first time he had tasted beer at the tender age of twelve. He had been with his cousins at a family gathering celebrating his uncle's birthday in Yonkers. The parents were quite intoxicated when Leo’s cousin, Henry, stole a can and brought it outside behind the two-story house. Hidden by the rhododendrons, they “popped the top” and passed the can around amongst the four of them. The taste was bitter and yucky but Leo saved face and pretended to like it. Here, he had experienced the same feeling sans the bitterness.
Father Bautista lowered his look. Leo felt the priest’s eyes studying him.
“Did the drink affect you in some way?”
“Don’t tell my mother this, but it tasted like cheap tequila. The potion had a unique numbing effect. By the time Citlali and I finished the drink, I could barely feel my tongue.”
Father Bautista grinned. “Apart from the taste, was there any other noticeable attribute to this drink?”
“Yes, I’m afraid there was, Father.” Leo’s hands began to tremble once again and beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. His heart pounded in his throat.
Father Bautista leaned closer to Leo and once again tapped his hand. “It’s alright, son. Take your time. You’re safe here in the house of the Lord.”
“That’s the reason I came here,” said Leo. He knew whatever demons had entered his life would not follow him here. He ran the tip of his index finger along the rim of the water glass. “At last night’s ritual, we danced in circles again. We watched the flames, letting the tongues of orange and yellow mesmerize us. We howled like animals up toward the exaltation of the lighted moon. Citlali and I were enjoying ourselves, until I saw him.”
“Until you saw who?”
Leo felt a frisson of unease. It was like a New York raindrop, chilling and unexpected, rolling down the length of his bare back. “Until I saw me,” he answered.
“I don’t understand,” said the priest, his face a mask of confusion. “You mean you saw someone that resembled you, like a twin or something?”
“No, I mean me. I saw myself still sitting in the same place as before I started dancing, except that the sitting person had his eyes closed. Citlali was still sitting at my side with her eyes closed too. Yet, at the same time, she was dancing with me.”
Father Bautista’s wooden chair creaked as he leaned back. “This was right after drinking the potion?”
“And why does this frighten you? Alcohol plays funny tricks on the mind, including hallucinations.”
“I’m aware of that, but this was not alcohol. And whatever it was, the potion transported me to another place.” Leo now sought out the priest’s eyes. When their eyes met, a sob - half anger, half despair tore from him. He forced down the knot of panic in his throat and knew he must plunge forward.
“Easy, son,” said Father Bautista in a comforting voice. “I’m here with you. Take it slow.”
Leo struggled to control his sobbing. He wiped his tears with his left forearm, leaving a shiny trail of wetness. He took a deep breath. “As I said, after drinking the potion, I felt as if I had been transported to another place or dimension.”
Father Bautista scratched his head. “You mean another physical location, an actual locality or place?”
Leo shook his head. “No, it was more like a different level of consciousness, more like being in a dream state but being able to smell, taste and feel everything in the dream.”
Father Bautista listened and then rubbed the back of his left hand with the fingers of his right one, as if to confirm the sensation of touch. “Do you think perhaps you were just having a lucid dream, enhanced by the potion?”
“Oh no,” answered Leo without hesitation. “This was not a dream. I was not frightened by the experience until I saw someone in that dimension that did not belong there.”
At this, the priest straightened his back. Now it was his turn to look around as if to assure there was no one eavesdropping. He lowered his voice. “Was this someone with a presence of evil?”
Leo managed to eek out a grin. “No, Father, it wasn’t. In fact, it was my father.”
Father Bautista did not smile back. “So why would the vision of your father frighten you? Why didn’t he belong there, in your vision? Do you have a bad relationship with him, unresolved issues or anything like that?”
“No,” said Leo. “The thing is, my father has been dead for four years.”
The clergyman didn’t seem convinced. “Don’t get me wrong, son, but I’ve known a lot of people who miss the dearly departed and still see them in their dreams. Maybe, this is one of those cases?”
“If that was only a dream, then I guess I have nothing to worry about, but I fear it was more than that,” said Leo.
“Listen, Leo,” said the priest. “I have no doubt that whatever you experienced was quite real to you, but look at it this way: you woke up. You’re not in that dream state anymore. It’s over. You’re going to be fine.”
Leo didn’t utter a sound as the clock on the wall ticked for a full fifteen seconds. He watched as the priest rose and took his glass to the kitchen. Leo wondered whether he sounded like a rambling idiot. “I’m sorry, Father. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to you at all. Whatever happened to Citlali, I’m sure the doctors will figure it out.”
“No, no, it’s quite alright. You are welcome here anytime you’d like to visit. I too, am interested in seeing what Citlali’s condition is.” He returned with a second glass of water and sat again in the chair closest to Leo. “Can I ask you something?”
Father Bautista raised his left hand and began counting fingers on it with his right hand. “Okay, so first, you and Citlali take part in the dancing and drinking of the potion. Then, secondly you both enter this dream state and you see your father.” The priest skipped his third finger and touched his fourth. “Then you wake up and start looking for your cat and find Citlali. Is that about right?”
“More or less, yes that’s it,” answered Leo.
Father Bautista pointed at this third finger, the one he had omitted. “What happened here, Leo? Is there anything you recall that occurred between the time you saw your father and the moment you awoke in your home?”
Leo wasn’t sure but he thought he detected an accusatory tone in the question. He rubbed his hands together and brought his elbows to his rib cage as if a sudden chill had swept over him. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to say this, but yes, there was more.”
The priest clasped his hands as if preparing for prayer. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Well, at first we were doing the usual dance and frolic thing, but then these little white flowers started falling from above. I couldn’t see any clouds, but they definitely were coming from the skies. They were shaped like little bells and they were tiny, like snowdrops, about the size of the nail on my pinky finger.
“I saw Citlali smile. She obviously thought the flowers were pretty. She loves flowers, you know, especially red roses. She ran to me and gave a big hug, which I didn’t mind, of course. But then, the hug led to kissing and caressing, which in turn, led to more passionate stuff. Do you see where I’m going with this?” asked Leo.
“Are you trying to tell me you had sexual intercourse?”
Leo blushed. He was not about to tell this man of his numerous sexual encounters with Citlali. He didn't have to know that since their second date, Leo and Citlali had become lovers or that they had become obsessed with each other. After the first couple of dates Leo thought their passion and physical desire for each other would wane with time. Instead, their attraction toward each other only grew stronger. Their lovemaking had taken place at his apartment, at the beach and in the mountains. Any place would do. The only location they had not had sex was at Citlali’s dwelling place. She had signed up for a program where a Mexican family “adopted” the student for a year in return for compensation from the university. If they were to engage in any inappropriate activity there, they'd risk Citlali's right to remain in Puerto Escondido for the rest of the academic school year. There were certain things he did not want divulge to this man, even if the man of God was sworn to confidentiality.
“Yes, but the sex was in the dream, remember?”
“Uh huh, and where was your father during this time, in the dream, I mean?”
Leo looked away as if trying to conjure up the vision in his mind. “He was standing on the side of the fire opposite where Citlali and I were . . . you know, making love. He waved at me like he was leaving or bidding me farewell. When I raised my hand to wave back, Citlali turned her head to see who I was waving at and I lost my balance from being on top of her. When I tried to brace myself, I burned my hand. Someone said to me, ‘focus, focus.’ I remember panic setting in when I realized someone was choking me. Then, I felt a very pleasant, satisfying sensation. My whole body quivered right before everything faded into darkness. When I opened my eyes, I was back at home.”
Leo raised his healing blister. “This is where my finger touched the embers.”
Father Bautista was rocking slightly back and forth and Leo wondered if he was boring this man of the cloth. The priest stood and came to Leo.
“Do you mind if I ask to see something?”
“Like what, what do you want to see?” asked Leo.
“I'd like to see your neck, you know, for any injuries you may have incurred and not realized.”
Leo instinctively reached for his neck with his right hand and smoothed it across the flesh of his neck, front to back, side to side. “Sure, but I feel fine.”
“Great,” answered Father Bautista. He reached for Leo's collar and rolled it away from Leo's neck. “Oh my!” he said.
“What is it, Father?”
“Have you checked yourself in the mirror today?”
Leo pondered the events of the morning. “No, I haven’t. I got up and when I noticed my cat missing, I went looking for her. Why?”
“Well, you’ve got something resembling third-degree burns around your neck. Maybe I should summon a doctor for you,” offered Father Bautista.
“No, don’t do that, please.”
Michael M. Pacheco's debut novel, The Guadalupe Saints, was published by Paraguas Books in April 2011 and recently won