Paternostro’s Promise

 

by Frank Thomas Smith

 

 

The sky in the east is tinged with orange as the sun prepares to rise over the Argentine Pampa. Patches of light reach into a beehive set in the garden of an affluent suburban Buenos Aires home, signaling the start of another furiously active day. The first hunters step out onto the hive’s porch and soar off in search of the blossoms opening to receive them. Birds begin to sing softly outside the bedroom window.

A shrill scream wrenches Miguel and Alicia Paternostro from sleep – a persisting cry of rage and pain. Miguel buries his head in the pillow as Alicia wearily puts her legs over the side of the bed and pulls herself erect. She looks at the clock on her night table. God, she murmurs, we’ve only slept for two hours. She walks into the adjoining room and picks an infant out of its crib. Its face is red with exertion and its tiny fingers are closed in tight fists. In response to Alicia’s soothing it reduces its cries to gasping whimpers. But as soon as it gets a second wind the fury breaks loose again and Alicia puts her son down in desperation.

“Call the doctor!” Miguel Paternostro shouts.

“I can’t call him now, it’s only six o’clock, and it’s Sunday,” Alicia says irritably.

“Why not? Why should he sleep? Let him cure Miguelito, then he can sleep.”

Alicia picks the baby up again, rests it over her shoulder and pats its back. She sits of the bed and looks at her husband with her marvelous black eyes, now bloodshot from lack of sleep.

“María Elena told me yesterday about a woman in the Villa de las Tres Marías in whom everyone has confidence,” Alicia says. Miguel pretends not to hear, so she furiously pulls the pillow off his head. “María Elena knows a woman of confidence who can do wonders. Listen, damn it, Miguel. She never fails.”

“And how, may I ask, does she know that?” He rubs his eyes and sits up.

“Well, she heard it, how she – Doña Amalia is her name – has cured so many babies…including the Martínez’s little daughter.”

“She heard it. And just because María Elena heard something from one of her gullible friends you want to take our son to a fucking witch in a villa miseria.” But he immediately regrets his harsh words, not because he doesn’t believe them, but because Alicia is looking at him with such misery and fear in her eyes.

“But Miguel,” Alicia implores, “it’s been two weeks and the doctors can do nothing. He must have empacho. And she’s not a witch, she’s a curandera.”

“Here, give him to me.” Miguel takes the baby, lies back down and holds it in the air above him. “What’s the matter, Miguelito, don’t you feel well, my poor little son?”

The baby stops crying and looks down at its father’s face in surprise and what would have been pleasure if a pang of pain hadn’t shot through his stomach and set him off to crying again, although somewhat more softly.

Curandera – witch doctor, same thing,” Paternostro says. “And empacho isn’t recognized by medical science.”

Alicia brushes a lock of blond hair from her husband’s perspiring head. “Please Miguel,” she says, “he’s been eating like a bird and he’s as thin as a reed. I’m worried.”

“The doctor says it’s constipation, colic, whatever, and not serious.” But Paternostro only says this not to give in too easily, for he is also worried.

“He said it usually isn’t serious,” Alicia insists. “But Miguelito has all that poison in him and it could be serious. Besides, who can trust doctors nowadays?”

*

Despite his doubts, Miguel Paternostro is expectant as they approach the Villa de las Tres Marías slum in María Elena Lozano’s car. He passes it every day in the suburban train on his way to work in his architect’s studio in downtown Buenos Aires, but it is one of many and he has never paid much attention to it. It rained yesterday and their shoes are covered with mud as they make their way through a maze of shacks made of pieces of old wood and corrugated tin. Half-naked children lean out of glassless windows to stare at them.

María Elena claps her hands three times in front of a shack adorned with crudely painted planets, moons and stars. A heavyset old woman of distinct Indian heritage pulls aside the curtain which serves as a door and smiles at them. Her face reminds Paternostro of a prune.

“Good morning Doña Amalia,” María Elena says. “I am Señora Lozano and these are the Señores Paternostro. Their child is ill. The Señora Martínez told you, I believe. ”

The old woman nods. “Enter please, señores,” she says.

They must stoop to enter the shack and once inside there is barely room for them all. A long wooden table takes up almost half the space, a squat wood-burning stove is in a corner and one wall is covered with shelves containing unlabeled bottles. Over them hangs a crudely carved crucifix. A ragged curtain covers the entrance to another room, which must be small indeed. The floor is earthen. Doña Amalia takes a kettle from the stove and fills a fist-sized máte tea gourd with hot water. As custom demands, she partakes of the first draught herself, slurping noisily. Then she refills the gourd and offers it to Alicia, who hands the baby to Paternostro before emptying the gourd in three sips. After María Elena has imbibed, it is Paternostro’s turn. He hides his distaste at having to sip from the bronze straw which has already felt the impress of thousands of slum-dweller lips, but he knows that it would be offensive to refuse, so he hands Miguelito back to Alicia and swallows the bitter brew quickly.

“Please excuse me for not having enough chairs for all to sit,” Doña Amalia says, although there are no chairs at all in the room. Paternostro wonders if she is being ironic. She looks closely into Miguelito’s face. “Ay,” she exclaims, “the poor creature is empachado. How long has it been?”         

“Two weeks,” Alicia answers.

Doña Amalia frowns. “That is too long. You should have come earlier.”

“We didn’t know about you earlier,” Alicia says, almost apologetically.

“What is his name?”

Miguelito,” Paternostro says,

“Ah, and you are Miguel, I assume.”

“That’s correct.” Paternostro again suspects irony, but who can be sure with such people.

“I like your name, Señor Paternostro,” Doña Amalia says. She turns to Alicia. “Undress Miguelito and place him on the table on his stomach please.”

After Alicia removes the baby’s diapers, Doña Amalia asks if Miguelito was fatter before the illness.

“O yes,” Alicia replies, “he was quite chubby and now he is as thin as a reed.”

Paternostro, feeling uncomfortably warm in the windowless room, puts his hands in his pockets and jingles some keys. Doña Amalia takes a bottle from a shelf behind her and sprinkles a white powder over the small of the baby’s back. Then she closes her eyes and runs her gnarled fingers over the same area for about thirty seconds, her lips moving soundlessly the whole time. Her skin seems remarkably smooth while her eyes are closed, but when she opens them it collapses back into a mass of wrinkles.

“Poor creature, the empacho is very strong.” She gathers a fold of skin from the small of Miguelito’s back into the thumb and next two fingers of both hands and pulls upward with a sharp jerk. A clapping sound results as though she had slapped her own fat backside. Miguelito’s shriek reverberates through the tiny room making the visitors wince. Alicia bites her lip, María Elena sighs deeply and Paternostro wants to jump forward and rescue his son, but he is rooted to the floor bathed in sweat. A foul odor begins to fill the room and they look at each other in alarm.

“The empacho is passing,” Doña Amalia announces happily. She executes another sharp jerk, the clap is repeated, Miguelito screams louder than ever and the foul odor becomes so strong that Paternostro feels he must leave soon or suffocate. Doña Amalia pulls the skin a third time, but no clapping sound is heard and Miguelito cries softly.

“It’s all over now and you can stop crying, Miguelito,” Doña Amalia says. “Now tell the truth, don’t you feel better? She turns him over on his back and, wonder of wonders, he smiles at her. That’s what I thought, she says and bends over to kiss him on the cheek. She hands him to Alicia, who rapidly dresses him, thanks Doña Amalia profusely and leaves the stifling room, followed by María Elena. Once outside she calls back: “He’s laughing, Miguel. Thank God he’s all better.”

Paternostro takes out his wallet and, without looking at her, asks Doña Amalia how much he owes her. She remains silent until he raises his eyes from the wallet and looks at her.

“It is enough for me to see the poor creature well again,” she says. Then, after a pause during which Paternostro stands there embarrased with his wallet in his hand:

“Say a prayer for me.”

He takes a bill from the wallet and holds it out to her. “I don’t pray,” he says, “so please take this instead.”

“Then you shall pray this once for me. An Our Father would be appropriate, Señor Paternostro, considering your name.” Her voice is firm and Miguel is anxious to breathe some fresh air. But he says nothing.

“Well?” she asks.

“All right,” he mumbles.

“Do you promise?”

“Yes…if you insist.”

“Good.” She takes the bill from his limp hand and stuffs it into her apron pocket. “Adiós, Señor Paternostro.”

Miguel stumbles out of the shack and gasps for air. The others have gone ahead to wait for him in the car. He follows, ignoring the mud.

“Come back, Colita, you thief!” A painfully thin child chasing a small dog with a rag doll in its mouth passes so close in front of him that she trips over his foot and sprawls in the mud. He moves to help her up, but she springs to her feet before he can touch her. Forgetting the dog for a moment, she tilts her head up at him and asks, “Is it better now, señor?”

“What? O yes, much better now, thank you.”

The dog, upset that the chase has been interrupted, drops the doll in front of its paws and barks shrilly at them.

“Colita, thief, give me back my doll!” The dog picks up the doll and runs crazily in circles for a moment before disappearing around the corner of a shack. The child, hair and limbs flying, follows.

*

“Look, Miguel,” Alicia says as they drive home, “Miguelito is asleep. He will probably sleep for a week to make up for all he has missed. But he must eat, poor dear, he is as thin as a reed."

“You two look as though you could use a week of sleep yourselves,” María Elena says. “Tell me, Miguel, how much did she charge?”

“Who?”

“Doña Amalia, of course.”

“Not much.”

In order to give information, which is power, she recently read, one must first obtain it. And María Elena is not one to be put off. “Really” she says. “How much?”

Paternostro is tempted to tell them about his promise and make a joke of it, but somehow it doesn’t seem very funny. “Just a promise,” he says.

María Elena laughs. “Why, that’s too precious. And you promised?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“It’s a secret between us.”

They stop at a closed railroad crossing and María Elena is reluctantly silent while an old train clatters loudly by. Then, once they have crossed the tracks: “Come on, Miguel, she must have charged something; tell us the secret.”

“I think she liked Miguelito very much,” Alicia says, saving him.

“Hmm, yes, possibly,” María Elena says, hoping to get more out of him. “What do you think, Miguel?”

"Oh yes, I think so, too,” Paternostro answers truthfully.

*

The sun is setting and the sky in the west is tinged with orange. The bees have returned to the hive with their last loads of nectar and pollen. The birds are chirping loudly, as is their custom in the spring. Miguel Paternostro is suddenly aware of being ignorant of many things. But of one thing he is certain: this night they will all sleep well.


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