I had a pounding hangover when I woke up well past noon in a strange bed. A bottle of mineral water and an empty glass stood on the night table and clean towels had been placed on the dresser. I got up slowly, drank two glasses of water, opened the shutters and looked out the window. The bright sky that met the flat grassy earth at the horizon assaulted my aching eyes. After a shower and two aspirins that I found in the bathroom medicine cabinet, I eased myself downstairs to where the Prietos were having lunch in the dining room. Both were in their early sixties, Señora Prieto perhaps a few years younger. She tinkled a small bell and an obese Indian woman entered silently from the kitchen. I gladly accepted Señora Prieto's suggestion of breakfast of café con leche, toast and marmalade. The servant waddled back to the kitchen.
"Our son Pedro did not give us any details concerning your problem and we would not dream of asking you," Señora Prieto said. "We can only offer you our hospitality and hope that your stay here will provide the tranquility you seek." She was very polite and obviously sincere, but her smile seemed forced. My colleague Pedro Prieto had insisted that I go to El Chaco and spend some time on his parent’s estancia when, according to him, I was on the point of cracking up over a woman. It’s true that I was in pretty bad shape, drinking too much and all that, but, well…no point in getting ahead of myself.
"I'm afraid we won't be able to spend much time with you though, Marcos," Señor Prieto added. "You see, we are going through a rather difficult period." He folded his napkin on the table and smoothed it repeatedly. "Please don't think we always go around with such long faces. It happens that we are in mourning. The man who fetched you at the airport last night?" I nodded, although I had only a dim recollection of the man. "His name was Gumersindo Kaiser. An hour or two after bringing you here he met with an unfortunate accident."
"An accident it was not!"
I hadn't heard the servant re-enter the room. She put my food on the table and crossed her arms over an immense bosom.
"It wasn't an accident in the sense we usually mean when we use the word," Señor Prieto conceded, glaring at the servant, "but more in the sense of something unexpected."
"Not unexpected either," she insisted, obviously not in the least intimidated by her employer.
"He was my foreman," Señor Prieto said, ignoring her, "so his death, besides being very sad, has put me in a bit of a bind. For that reason I will be unable to dedicate as much time to you as I would like."
"That's just as well," Señora Prieto said. "He has come for a rest and to forget," -- she threw me a motherly glance -- "so he probably wants to be left alone anyway."
"To be sure," her husband agreed.
"Please don't worry about me, Señor," I said. "I know what it means to be busy."
He pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. "I must go upstairs and rest a while before facing the afternoon chores without a foreman." He put his hand on my shoulder. "I suggest you take a walk after you finish eating, but stay close to the trees or the sun will fry you like an egg." Then, bending to my ear, he whispered, "Then escape to your room with a good book or these women will bore you to death with their superstitious rubbish." He kissed his wife on the cheek and retired for his siesta. The servant returned to her kitchen and Señora Prieto waited for me to finish my breakfast. "More coffee?" she asked.
"No, thank you. The breakfast was excellent."
"I'm so glad you liked it. I believe I'll rest as well. It's our custom, you know. Please make yourself at home, Marcos." She left me with a sweet smile, thereby belying her husband's prediction, for the time being.
I took Señor Prieto's advice and went for a walk. The farmhouse was set in a small wooded area, beyond which was a vast expanse of green pampa. The sun was hot and the country air tired me, so I settled under a eucalyptus tree to savor the peace. In the distance cows grazed or lay dozing like brown billiard balls on an infinite green table. The only sound was the hum of insects. My mind wandered, first to my ex-fiancé in New York and the fact that she was moving in with the guy I thought was my best friend. The subject was too painful, so my mind jumped to my work in Buenos Aires. Finally, inevitably, it came to the man who had picked me up at the airport last night, dead but not yet buried, the victim of an "unfortunate accident" that wasn’t one. I tried to recall him standing in the airport terminal dressed in gaucho clothes with hat in hand. The bumpy ride to the farm. What was his name? Gumersindo. Señor Prieto who, it seemed, was reluctant to talk about it, had aroused my curiosity. Dark clouds appeared on the horizon and seemed to be approaching rapidly.
I returned to the house, opened the screen door and walked along a hallway toward the stairs. I heard voices from the kitchen and looked in and saw Señora Prieto and the servant seated at a small table with a máte gourd and a kettle of hot water between them.
"Hello, Marcos," Señora Prieto called. "How was your walk? Would you like a cup of tea?" Thankful that she had not offered the bitter máte, I nodded assent.
"Would you like it in the dining-room?"
"It's quite pleasant here," I answered, entering the kitchen, "if you'll permit me."
"But of course. Please do sit down. Would a bit of toast also be to your liking?"
"Thank you, no. Too soon after breakfast."
"How did you like our ranch? -- what you saw of it, that is. It's vast, you know. Victorino will show you around when he has time. Right now he's terribly involved with Gumersindo's -- what shall I call it -- fate?"
I recognized my cue. "I'm rather curious about that. After all, the man died shortly after leaving me. Of course I don't want to pry, especially if Señor Prieto prefers I not know."
"Oh, there's no question of prying, is there, Faustina?"
Facing the stove with her back to us, the servant mumbled something. I only caught the words "related" and "Gumersindo".
"She means that you were with him so soon before his death that a relation exists between you," Señora Prieto explained.
"I was thinking that myself."
"You were? That's interesting, don't you think so, Faustina?"
The servant shrugged and poured hot water into a teapot.
"What did he die of?" I asked.
"Faustina can explain it better than I can," Señora Prieto said.
Faustina brought the tea and toast, placed them before me, waddled to the refrigerator from which she took butter and jam, placed them on the table, then took her seat. It being the kitchen, there was no social impediment to her joining us. She poured hot water over the herbs in the máte gourd, closed her eyes and sipped slowly through the metal tube protruding from it. Then she opened her eyes, to the extent they were able to open, and looked at me. "Mireya tends to dominate those around her -- her parents, her friends, her husband..."
"Very beautiful and intelligent, but headstrong," Señora Prieto interrupted. "She was married but her husband ran away."
Faustina poured more water into the máte gourd and pushed it towards Señora Prieto. "With such a woman," Faustina continued, "the only recourse for a man is to dominate her before she can dominate him." She paused and looked at me. I nodded for her to go on.
"Gumersindo Kaiser courted Mireya, won her, or so he thought, and moved in with her. But who knows, Señor, what happens in the intimacy of people's homes." She smiled for the first time and I smiled back, in agreement with a truth as obvious as the humming of the insects.
"I blush to tell you what is known -- not rumored -- known, of Mireya's insatiability," she continued. "No doubt men like it at first, but the limits are soon reached, sooner if the insatiable one cannot or will not cook in order to keep up her man's strength and spirits. I tell you in all sincerity that insatiability, the desire to dominate and the absence of cooking skills are qualities which men do not like in a woman, be they ever so beautiful and clever. And all three in one woman is intolerable." She fixed me with her squinty stare. "I hope, Señor Marcos, that you will never be in a position to prove my words for yourself."
"I will certainly bear your words in mind, Faustina," I said, amused but careful not to show it.
"After a year with Mireya, Gumersindo was a wreck. It is therefore not surprising that he was attracted to his young cousin, Dominga, who embodied the qualities that Mireya lacked -- gentleness, domesticity, obedience and, above all, cooking skills. She was not beautiful or intelligent, it is true, and certainly not insatiable, rather the opposite, but Gumersindo was tired of all that. He needed to rest his head on a pliable bosom. When Mireya found out she browbeat him mercilessly and broke all the crockery in the house, most of it over his head." She accepted the steaming máte gourd from Señora Prieto and sipped from the metal tube. "He was a strong man and could have beaten her into submission. But he was afraid, for her strength comes from within, not from without like his, so he ran away to Dominga."
"That is understandable."
"Perhaps, but a great mistake, for Mireya did the natural thing, she turned to San La Muerte."
"He is the angel of death," Faustina explained.
No wonder Señor Prieto had warned me away.
"Mireya, following the ancient rules, carved a wooden doll in the image of San La Muerte holding a tin scythe," Faustina went on. "Then she took it to the church to be blessed. Priests do not like to do that, thinking it is superstition, so some people have a friend carry out the ritual. But Mireya was determined that a real priest bless her doll. She brought it to Sunday mass hidden between her breasts. Towards the end of mass, as the priest turned to the congregation in order to give the benediction, she quickly removed the doll from her bosom and raised it up before her eyes facing the altar. The priest, a young man from Buenos Aires, saw the apparition, but could not have interrupted the blessing without causing a scandal. Mireya replaced the image next to her pounding heart without bothering to protect herself from the razor-sharp scythe. She pressed it to her bosom as she left the church, inflicting a sacrificial wound in her left breast. The blood trickling down her body must have felt warm and comforting."
I swallowed hard, fascinated.
"Everyone, Señor Marcos, knew what she was up to. They knew that she would be placing San La Muerte in the direction of Gumersindo's abode or in front of his photograph, or both. And they knew she would be reciting the San la Muerte Death Prayer."
She closed her eyes and breathed heavily. Señora Prieto's eyes were also closed. I kept mine open and waited. Suddenly Faustina chanted:
Oh, good spirit of sweet Death,
Sing of love to him I cite,
Have him come to me this night.
Should he thrice deny thy prayer,
Let him taste thy deadly scythe.
She opened her eyes and raised her thick eyebrows. "Gumersindo became very nervous and fearful. He began to drink heavily, a man who hardly drank at all."
“That was one reason he was foreman,” Señora Prieto said. "Naturally his work suffered."
"Does Señor Prieto believe in Saint Death?" I asked her.
"Of course, everyone does. But he says the effects are caused by the power of suggestion."
"There may be something in that," I mumbled.
Faustina didn't hear me, or pretended not to. "Mireya prayed the Saint Death Prayer on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but Gumersindo did not return to her. On Monday evening..."
"Of the day you arrived, Marcos," Señora Prieto interjected.
"...a stranger appeared at the taberna and ordered a drink at the bar. All the men of the ranch as well as some from the town were there. They knew what day it was and that Gumersindo was defying Mireya and San La Muerte."
"The stranger arrived on horseback," Faustina continued, her eyes growing larger, "which means that he must have come from nearby. He was tall and gaunt, with a hook-nose hanging over a black mustache streaked with gray -- like yours, Señor Marcos."
"Who did they think he was, Saint Death?"
Faustina frowned. "Of course not. San La Muerte doesn't look like that stranger. But his emissary, certainly. Who else could he have been?"
I shrugged. "Go on."
"He drank his grapa in one gulp, ordered another and stood hunched over it thinking God knows what. Everyone was silent, concentrating their attention on the stranger. Finally Gumersindo could stand the tension no longer. He sprang from his seat, knocking over the table, and screamed at him."
She paused to sip more máte, taking her sweet time. "Well," I asked impatiently, "what did he scream?"
"He just screamed -- and drew his knife. The stranger pulled his poncho off over his head and wrapped it around his right arm as a shield. With his left hand he drew his knife from under the belt at the small of his back. Gumersindo didn't pause to prepare his poncho as a shield; he lunged forward, but the stranger stepped aside and plunged his knife into poor Gumersindo's chest and removed it as he fell to the floor. Then he wiped the blade clean on the dead man's poncho and walked out. He never said a word, he was never seen again."
"Who was he?"
"He turned out to be a new hand at a neighboring ranch." Faustina shrugged. "You see, emissaries are seldom aware of their roles. The stranger probably decided to clear out in order to escape revenge by Gumersindo's relatives. He needn't have bothered though; no one would think of attempting revenge on San La Muerte's emissary."
"Didn't the police do anything?"
"What should they have done? It was inevitable."
It thundered and a few moments later the rain began. Faustina rose heavily from the table and began to wash the dishes in the sink. I excused myself to Señora Prieto, pleading fatigue from the walk, though my lingering hangover and a sense of foreboding were the real reasons.
"The funeral is tomorrow," Faustina called as I climbed the stairs to my room.
I sat on the veranda the next morning and watched the Prietos leave for the church in their late model Ford pickup, followed by a small group of women in a truck, then the ranch hands on horseback dressed in their best gaucho clothes. It was no longer raining, but the sky was overcast and dull. A few minutes later Faustina waddled silently out of the house dressed in black, including hat and veil. She stood next to my chair, as though waiting.
"Won't you be late?" I asked her.
"I'm not going to the church, only to the cemetery. Aren't you coming?"
There was no reason why I shouldn't have simply said no, but Faustina is an intimidating person.
"It would be an imposition. I didn't really know him." She didn't say anything to that, but she didn't move either.
"How will you get there?" I asked her.
"The cemetery is only a league down the road toward the pueblo. We can walk and be there when they arrive from the church." She stepped down off the veranda and turned around and stared at me through her slit eyes.
We walked down the country road through the morning mist. I still don't know how far a league is, but it's farther than it sounds. We arrived at the tiny cemetery just as the hearse, followed by an old black limousine and the ranch group, were entering. Faustina joined them standing around the freshly dug grave. I hung back near the gate, feeling out of place. After the coffin was lowered and a priest intoned something, a strikingly beautiful young woman stepped forward, unpinned a red rose from her black dress and tossed it into Gumersindo 's grave. Then she turned away, ignoring the stares of the other mourners who considered her responsible for Gumersindo being six-feet-under, and walked past me to a horse waiting on the road outside the cemetery. She hitched her dress up, mounted and rode off. Faustina turned and nodded to me. There was no need, it was obvious that the woman was Mireya.
On the afternoon of the third day after the funeral, I skipped siesta and waited for Faustina in the kitchen. She showed no surprise at seeing me and went about preparing the máte.
"Tea, Señor Marcos?"
"No, thank you, Faustina. I believe I'd prefer máte today."
She set the máte gourd almost full of herb cuttings on the table, pushed the ornamented metal tube into it and poured hot water over the herbs. Then, following etiquette, she drank the first draught herself, wrapping her full purple lips around the tube's mouthpiece and silently sipping. She replenished the water and passed the gourd to me.
"Would you like some sugar, Señor?"
"No, I prefer it bitter." I sipped and did not find the stuff unpleasant.
"You wish to ask me something?" Faustina asked suddenly.
"Why...yes, as a matter of fact."
"Is it about Saint Death?"
I laughed nervously. "Right again. I wanted to ask you if he also works for men."
"Of course, though women need him more, things being what they are. There was the case of Carlita Menéndez some years back, who left her husband for a circus acrobat." She smiled. "That was a fine little circus. They said they were Italian but we all knew they were as Argentine as we are. Here if you say something is foreign everyone thinks it's better. The acrobat was small and dainty like a bird and he flew through the air like one. Poor Oscar Menéndez -- that's her husband -- was shattered. Probably the shame hurt more than his broken heart."
"What did he do about it?" I asked, profoundly interested. "Did he...?"
"The acrobat was fearless, as his profession demanded, so Oscar Menéndez turned to San la Muerte. As a man he didn't know the correct procedure and needed advice."
"And you gave it to him?"
"It was the least I could do," she said modestly. "The acrobat was a charming fellow, but he was an outsider."
"And did it work?" I leaned forward almost upsetting the máte gourd, which Faustina snatched away just in time.
"Of course it worked."
"Then the woman met with an...an accident?"
"No accident, as you call it. Carlita had no Señor Prieto to give her bad advice. She crawled to her husband on her knees."
"You have a similar problem, is it not true?"
"Somewhat similar, but different."
"First of all the woman is in the United States."
"Distance is no obstacle for San La Muerte."
"But she never heard of Saint Death and wouldn't believe in him if she had.
Faustina thought this over for a moment. "Listen to me, Señor Marcos. I know what I'm talking about. San La Muerte is generous. Only one of the parties involved has to believe -- and you believe."
I felt the sweat soaking my shirt as I squirmed in my chair.
"Anyway, I probably won't be here much longer," I said. "My work in Argentina is finished, at least for the time being, so I wouldn't have time to go through all the motions."
"You know, making a doll, having it blessed and all."
Faustina looked at me as though I were an interesting insect. Then she closed her eyes for what seemed an eternity. "Making the doll is not difficult, I will show you how," she said, opening her eyes halfway. "But you must do it, and you must also obtain the blessing."
"You don't expect me to use Mireya's method, I hope."
"No. You have money, you can pay the priest. Then you can go home. On the following Friday you will place your San La Muerte in the direction of the woman's abode or in front of her photograph, and you will recite the San La Muerte Prayer."
I did what had to be done there, following Faustina's instructions, and flew home. There was no point in waiting around in Buenos Aires as my client was still vacillating concerning my proposal. And the Saint Death Prayer? Yes, I recited it before Dagmar's photograph without really believing that it would work. Then an astonishing thing happened. The next day, a Saturday, she called, full of contrition, said she had made a dreadful mistake and begged me to take her back. She even suggested marriage and I jumped at it. She seemed to have been quite happy with her new partner but, according to her, the urge to be with me again was irresistible.
I realized soon after the wedding that it was no good. If Saint Death was responsible he certainly gave me what I asked for, but it wasn't what I wanted at all. My eyes were opened and I saw Dagmar for what she really was -- a washed out, far from insatiable, boring blonde. I was immensely relieved when a telegram arrived from my client in Argentina informing me that they had decided to implement my proposal and asking me to return to Buenos Aires immediately. I composed the letter to Dagmar on the plane. It's so much easier to ditch someone while sipping champagne at thirty-eight thousand feet in First Class.
The first weekend in Argentina I flew to El Chaco and took a taxi to Mireya's pueblo. I inquired for her at a one-pump service station from an unshaven attendant sitting in the shade of his shack sipping máte. He squinted at me, spat on the ground and gave the information.
She lived just outside town in a two-room, cinder-block house with a slanting cement roof. There was no bell so I clapped. Mireya opened the door immediately and smiled at me. She asked me in and prepared the máte. She was wearing a black dress cut well above the knees. My heart pounded like a teenager's. She said she remembered me from the funeral and knew that I was Pedro Prieto's friend. I blurted out my proposition: she would come to Buenos Aires and live with me in the Sheraton, all expenses paid of course. Then she would accompany me to New York when my work in Buenos Aires was finished. She said "Está bien", walked into the bedroom, which had no door, took a cardboard suitcase from under the bed and calmly began filling it with clothes from a dresser. I wanted to throw her on the bed and have her then and there, but I waited until we were in my room at the Sheraton in Buenos Aires, after a lunch of baby beef and a bottle of champagne with soft tango music in the background.
The month in Buenos Aires passed quickly. I was very busy and left the hotel early while she was still sleeping. We made love every evening after the movies, the theater, opera or dancing. I tried to explain this new world to her and began to teach her English. She was an excellent student.
I thought I could control Mireya, who was, after all, a simple country girl, but I was wrong. Once she was settled in my apartment in New York she became domineering. If she didn't get her way she threw things. Once I walked out after a particularly stormy altercation and she threw my electric razor at me from the fourth-story window. It hit the roof of my car as I was getting in and left a two-inch deep dent. If it had been my head... Well, I can't say that Faustina didn't warm me.
When I was no longer up to daily sex she accused me of being impotent and said I should go to a doctor. If none could help me in New York she knew a curandero, or witch doctor, in Argentina. I read The Tao of Love and Sex, but I had neither the time to perfect the technique nor the "loving patience" of my partner. She took to picking up stray cats. At first I thought, hoped, that she did it out of compassion for animals, but no cat lived longer than a week. More than once I came home when she was out shopping (a favorite pastime) and found a dead cat in our bed. I don't know how she killed them, there were no signs of violence, but I suspected some kind of black magic. I didn't ask, I didn't want to know. Instead I began to look for ways to get away. I dared not broach the subject however, for fear that she would either kill me or inflict a serious wound. I found myself putting away the bread knife when it happened to be lying on the kitchen table in order to avoid the chance that Mireya would pick it up in a fury and attack me with it. She is small in stature but incredibly strong.
Finally, one day when she was out, I plucked up my courage (if you can call it that), packed some clothes and books and took off. The note I left on the kitchen table said that I still loved her -- which was and still is terribly true -- but that I could no longer stand living with her, she should forgive me, and so on. I left a considerable sum of money and suggested she return to Argentina. This time the goodbye note was not inspired by an unwillingness to face the one I was hurting, but by fear of her.
Today a terrifying thing happened. I was in the hotel bathroom shaving when I saw him..it..in the mirror behind me -- Saint Death. There was no skin on his skull, but there were eyes in the sockets, red-streaked eyes that stared at me in the mirror. I must have fainted, for when I came to I was on the floor alongside the toilet with a nasty cut on my head.
I have considered the possibility of going back to Mireya. That, after all, is the reason for Saint Death's intervention, but by now I consider it a fate worse than death. I suppose in a way I am resigned. I will mail this letter now. If I survive, Gumersindo Kaiser's death and my wife's contrition were no more than spooky flukes, today's apparition was a hallucination and Saint Death is a myth. In that case, I trust you will return this letter or, better still, burn it. If something does happen to me however, you will know that the responsible parties are Mireya and Saint Death."
After reading Marcos Barragán's astonishing letter aloud to Detective Sergeant Donnally, I explained that my friend Marcos was a computation consultant who often worked in Latin America, that he was of Cuban descent and spoke fluent Spanish. His fiancé had deserted him for another man, but they were reconciled, married, and separated again. I had heard that he had taken up with an Argentine woman, but I never met her.
"You better take this," I said, offering the letter, "as evidence."
"Evidence of what?" the detective asked. When I didn't answer immediately he sighed. It must have been as obvious to him that I was trying to get rid of the letter as it was to me that he didn't want it. "I'll ask the Assistant District Attorney if he wants it included in the documentation. " He smiled. "I kinda doubt it though. I mean we can't very well arrest Saint Death."
"What about her? There's no evidence that she killed him, it looks like a typical Central Park mugging. And anyway she's probably in Argentina."
"But she had a motive, this letter makes that very clear."
"Yeah, well ... I'll ask the Assistant D.A."
He stood up and put Marcos Barragán's letter in his pocket. "I always say it's better to stay away from foreign women," he said as he headed for the door. "We got enough headaches with our own."