Creative Arts - Deb Carlen, Editor


The Gift

Fiction by Dave Chambers

The fifteenth century Convento dos Loios in Evora, Portugal, was converted to a pousada in 1962. The door to the room where I stayed there in 1993 was less than six feet high and the floor sloped perceptibly. To prove this point, I put my deodorant on the floor and watched it roll slowly across the room and under the large armoire. While retrieving it from a place that had obviously not been cleaned in many years, I discovered a small book – as it turned out, a diary.

All the next morning was spent with officials and near official busybodies. It seems that the diary belonged to one Father Henrique. When the state took over the monastery, Father Henrique was seventy or eighty years old and strongly disinclined to go with his brothers to the new house. He was frail and in ill health, and it was agreed that he should finish out his last few months in the cell he had occupied since the First World War. Father Henrique confounded all by continuing to live, apparently as a rather colorful character, for another twenty-six years.

I was not allowed to keep the book, but I managed to obtain some photocopies of poor quality and a promise that was never honored of a complete copy of the diary. I am trying to get translations for the papers I do have.

17 March 1963
Hello, Father: it is your son Henrique. How are you tonight? I am praying for them all. I am praying very hard. I am old now so maybe I can’t do this as well as I used to.

I said a little service today. His Christian name was Alfonso Sao Pedro de Balsemao Alporao, the son of somebody or other. I don’t know where he was born, but he lived here a very long time. It was a little service; just him and me. We agreed to that many years ago. I forgot a lot of the words, but you know what I was supposed to say and he didn’t mind.

Alfanso was an enormous man and healthy. So I don’t know why he died. It wasn’t his heart or his liver or anything. He just understood it was time to stop living and so he did. It may surprise you to know that most people were glad he died. You must explain that to me.

Wasn’t Alfanso a great young man, Father? He was the first one to get one of those little Puch scooters. It was too small for him and so was that silly leather helmet he couldn’t strap around his huge, grinning, square head. When he drove through town it looked like he wasn’t moving.

And how he would sing. He was awful, but he was lusty and loud. Some of the folks as far away as Sao Miguel de Machede said they could hear him, and they said they would sue Evora. He just laughed. He laughed at everything.

He got his name, El Rocho, at a soccer game against Estremoz. When the teams were resting between periods, he went out on the field and challenged all the children in the town of Evora. He said, “You’re as weak as cooked noodles.” Then he got down on his hands and knees and every boy and girl poured onto the field and piled on him and tried to turn him on his side. There were so many kids jumping and yelling that you couldn’t see the big, laughing man underneath. No one could upset him, and so Mayor Ribeiro declared that Alfonso was “El Rocho de Evora.” They made a proclamation.

In those days, the joy in this large man’s heart was Eulalia. She was from Beja and she was small and bright and fiery. For four years when she came to Evora during the war they were inseparable. She could really sing. And you would hear them any night in the cafes, at the home of Eulalia’s aunt, or in the alleys where other lovers went.

Sometimes he treated her like a child, but mostly when there were other people around, he acted as though she were the Princess of Portugal. She embarrassed him by trying to make him dance.

About the Feast of Sao Gonsalo, el Rocho showed me a silver cross he had bought for Eulalia. I remember how small it looked in his hands and how he held it uncomfortably as if it had a spirit and was really holy. He said he had saved his money and wondered whether a “knowledgeable man such as I thought this a suitable expression of his intentions.” I must have mumbled something appropriate because I remember how he grinned. For the last time ever, he grinned in that big, square face, and he went off singing a saias.
Three days later, in the evening, one of the boys in town urgently begged me to go with him. “Father, you have to come; you have to do something,” he repeated as we hurried to Eulalia’s aunt’s house. There was a crowd already there, but no one went in. Above the whispered questions, I heard a rhythmic scraping or rasping sound.

El Rocho was in the center of the kitchen. He was hunched over, more covering than holding Eulalia. The terrible sound was el Rocho sobbing. Heavy, steady, deep, it even vibrated the boards of the floor. It changed the timing of everyone’s breathing. For five minutes, or ten, or longer, the only thing in the world was a huge man crying over a girl’s still body.
Then he stopped, and as if anything that had ever existed before had now been washed away by his tears, he laid Eulalia’s body on the floor. He straightened the collar of her shirt. He looked at me, then put whatever he had in his hand in his pocket and walked out.
To this day, Father, I can hear el Rocho crying. Sometimes I can feel it in the floor. If you had been there, you would have cried. Anyone with a heart would have cried. If only, if only Evora would have cried!
At first the people were curious, then they became indignant because they had no tale of what had happened. Eanes, the coroner, said it looked like Eulalia might have had a bruise on the side of her head. Other than that, he didn’t know anything. There was talk of a trial. But as far as I know, no one asked el Rocha what happened. What could he have said? He held a small, cold piece of reality that would tear apart their fantastic stories. No one wanted that; no one asked.

Eulalia’s parents came to town about five days later. They asked to see me because someone told them I had “seen the murder.” Eulalia’s father said they had not come to judge. They only wanted two things: to know what had happened and to retrieve the silver cross. But I had no story that would satisfy them. They wanted to hear about a different person than I knew. I said I thought el Rocho had put the cross in his pocket when he left the house. I didn’t know anything they wanted to know and they did not talk with him.
Everyone told himself a story. Eulalia’s parents and the people of Evora destroyed each other’s hopes for retribution. The visitors found neither explanation nor sympathy. The town had no vehicle for its anger. Eulalia’s parents and her aunt left Evora, and talk of criminal action subsided.

The real trial took place in the streets, the bars, and the kitchens of Evora. At first it was assumed that el Rocha would simply leave. But he did not, so the town was forced to pull back from him. He was no longer welcomed in cafes. He worked in a succession of the most degrading jobs. No one admitted to employing him, and some refused to pay him after the work had been done. No one was certain where he lived. Evora went into exile because el Rocho refused to.

With time the uneasy anger got worse, you know. The Namoras said their daughter Cruz’s miscarriage was a result of el Rocho looking at her when she was pregnant. People said he ate the dead animals he cleared from the streets for the City. They said worse things about his digging graves for the Church. Children were told tales about him by people who were not even here when Eulalia died. It was said he was called el Rocha because he had no heart.

But he never answered one word. As far as I know, I was his only confessor – if that is the right word. Several times we had black coffee together at O Aqueduto. They would not have served him except for me. They looked away and pretended that I had ordered two coffees. Sometimes we said nothing for an hour or more. Sometimes he would talk a little about things that didn’t matter and sometimes I would do it.
Once, when he was fingering the cross, then worn almost featureless, I asked him if he wanted to tell me anything, just between us and God. For a moment I think he had some sort of feelings, then finally he said, “God knows and the others do not want to hear.” He could see that this hurt me, so he added: “My love is what killed Eulalia and poisoned Evora. I offered her this cross, but she would not take it, so it is still mine. Evora offered me its hatred, but I would not take it, so it is still theirs.” We never talked about it again.
Father, I assume you and el Rocho have discussed it and his dying was a way of forgiving the town. I made certain the cross was buried with him, but I don’t know what to do with the hatred that is left. You would be better at that than I am?

I am tired, Father. This praying is getting more difficult for me. I imagine right now you are having black coffee with el Rocha and he’s telling you “that silly Father Henrique doesn’t understand anything. That’s not so. I do know something, and I’m warning you. Don’t let him sing.

Good night, Father. Thank you for your Son. I love you. Remember me.

Dave Chambers, long-time Sonoma resident, has published 500 articles in professional and scientific journals. His latest book project, Building the Moral Community, is available for draft review: dchambers@pacific.edu. According to Dave, “The part about the deodorant is true.

Comments are closed.