IT was a harrowing time for the people. At the Coffee Club, we just sat by in cowed silence when the kinsman sadistically humiliated Ariel, a meek government functionary, for laughing at some joke that offended him, the kinsman. We were all engaged in some kind of business, which meant that the government was on our backs, and, more heavily, the Supreme Leader’s kinsman. Around this time, a man with fire in his eyes came up to the Z monastery and begged sanctuary in exchange for his belief, as he was an agnostic. The Abbot (who told us the story) already had enough trouble with the military, which suspected him of harboring enemies of the state. But the mysterious man with flaming eyes said that he was not in trouble with the authorities; he had deep personal reasons for wanting to bury himself on sacred ground. There was vengeance in his heart, he said, but being a just and confused man, he did not know how to exact it. Having learned that vengeance was God’s, he would leave the matter to Him whom he was determined to believe in, nonbeliever that he was, with all his heart and mind. He would dedicate his life to the pursuit of absolute belief. It was an unusual request. But the Abbot sensed a troubled soul, even if some of the other monks suspected a demented mind. The days that followed proved them wrong, however, for Paulo (that was the name he gave)fervently accomplished all the chores assigned to him. And no matter how tired he was after the day’s labor, he would repair to the chapel at any hour of the day or night and prostrate himself before the altar. Before matins, he would pray, and in bed he would pray. The Abbot believed that Paulo devoted every hour of his day to prayer. He prayed all the standard prayers along with the Rosary; he also had his own, which, the Abbot said, went something like this: That God should help him believe in Him, for though his mind had been filled with the absurdities of religion, he was willing to believe in them. There was nothing that his superiors considered worthy of belief that he would question. And then he murmured a bargain that the Abbot couldn’t make it, except that it seemed to him that Paulo was bargaining with his soul—“a white Faust,” the Abbot said. Weeks after Paulo’s dramatic appearance, the monks felt a heavy gloom descend on the monastery. The air grew hot and oppressive. But as monks are not as naïve as lay people, they were not easily impressed by signs and portents. They blamed it all on the heat wave. When later the dama de noche flowers exuded an extravagant fragrance and a soothing light covered the chapel, they attributed the phenomena to the monastery’s location in the mountains. But this was also the time when anguished wailing and crying emanated from Paulo’s cell, followed by a sudden calm. The next morning they saw an emaciated and bearded Paulo, his face radiant with a serenity they had not seen on anyone before. There were even some envious remarks about the blessedness of converts. Things began to happen when one evening a peasant who had been beaten to a bloody pulp by soldiers was taken by distraught relatives to the monastery. Aware of soldiers in pursuit, the monks hid the poor peasant in the remotest cell, which happened to be Paulo’s. But the soldiers knew every inch of the monastery; the monks could only bow their heads to the inevitable. It was only a matter of minutes before they pushed the door to Paulo’s cell. The soldiers saw two monks in prayer. Not to be taken in, their sergeant turned the monks around and saw Paulo’s bearded face and the other’s swarthy visage. The sergeant, inexplicably shaken, moved back and murmured his apologies. Later on, he would tell his skeptical soldiers, who despised him for his cruelty, that he thought he saw the face of Jesus Christ. It was rumored that he had been taken to a mental asylum afterwards. The battered peasant had lost all traces of his injury. It was believed that Paulo had miraculously healed him. Thus began the pilgrimages to the holy man in the Z monastery. The stranger the disease, it was said, the more responsive it was to Paulo’s healing touch. Hearing all this from the Abbot, we decided to seek the holy man as a favor to a friend. Luisito, a good man who was unfortunately loyal to the kinsman, was worried about the latter’s odd behavior. The kinsman became so foul-mouthed at the Coffee Club that the place would empty the moment he showed up. Once he stuck his tongue out and I swear I saw it reach down to his exposed navel. Luisito, ashamed for the kinsman and concerned about a public scandal had convinced the kinsman to see several medical specialists, who, however, saw nothing wrong with him after exhaustive examinations. But back at the Coffee Club, he would again at his most execrable behavior. Once he even held his genitals in front of everybody.
Of course, his enemies—practically everybody—found him more repulsive and hateful.
Luisito, in turn, was afraid that the Supreme Leader would hear about it, and so he decided to look into the holy man as a desperate measure. We did not share Luisito’s anxiety about the kinsman. Although Luisito swore that he was afflicted, we saw nothing more than a person drunk with power flaunting it by outrageous behavior. But Luisito swore that no person drunk with power would piss in his pants in front of Cabinet ministers and foreign dignitaries at state functions. For some reason, only he could see a flicker of distress in the kinsman’s eyes, while others saw nothing but the same bloated, arrogant face, looking for all the world that he was enjoying his outrageous antics. The Abbot, when we approached him, allowed that perhaps Paulo could help. We realized that the kinsman indeed had a problem. We were, of course, not unhappy about this, but we couldn’t deny Luisito’s cry for help. Paulo specified that the kinsman should come alone to his cell, which the latter took as a proper deference to his rank. We don’t know what transpired between the holy man and the kinsman, but the latter rushed out of the cell, shouting and cursing Paulo as the devil’s apostle, if not the devil himself. We were sorry for helping out Luisito. Surely, the accursed kinsman would close down the monastery and deprive poor people of the only hope and consolation of their wretched lives. The Abbot was distressed, as he feared arrest for him and the other monks. But nothing happened in the days that followed. Luisito was amazed that when the kinsman talked to the Supreme Leader, he was the very soul of sweetness and even recommended government protection for the monastery. Luisito guessed that the kinsman had been cured and that the strange reaction in their visit to the monastery was just the initial shock of an encounter between good and evil. The thing was that kinsman’s behavior had become worse. He broke the loudest wind and even moved his bowels at one of the monthly grand breakfasts of the Coffee Club. You can imagine the effect. The kinsman just glared at us as if we had committed the outrageous offense. Then he walked away, his pants marked with his feces.
And then he howled like a wolf in anguish. He disappeared for a month. As he was the Supreme Leader’s favorite emissary to the outside world, we did not think that shame was behind his absence—not that we cared. Gossip reached us that he continued his execrable behavior abroad, disgracing the government. It was said that a jetsetter’s party, he pinched the tits of the daughter of an Arab arms dealer. And on several occasions, he would open his fly in front of prime ministers and kings. For some reason, however, the Supreme Leader never heard of these incidents, but there were so many things he didn’t hear about in the first place. Inevitably, the kinsman showed up one morning at the Coffee Club. We braced ourselves. Nothing happened, however. He said “Hello!” and his usual “Whaddayahear?” We went on talking as if he wasn’t around, which usually annoyed him.
Along with the rest of the people, we were beginning to recover our lost courage. But when he began to open his mouth, obviously to say something obscene, he quickly closed it. It was as if he could not or would not allow himself to speak out. For days and days this was his way. Was he suddenly restrained now that the people were in an ugly mood? It was clear that the restraint was killing him: his bloated face twisted, his dentures rattled, unless he confined himself to “Hello!” and his ridiculous :Whaddayahear?” WHEN AT LAST, the Supreme Leader was deposed, nothing more was heard of the kinsman. Rumor had it that even the Supreme Leader shunned him, having finally heard of his offensive behavior in the halcyon days of power. The real joy for us was Ariel’s reappearance at the Coffee Club. He looked hale and hearty, the result, he said, of his stay in the province to recuperate from some nearly fatal illness. ‘The mountain air did me a lot of good,’ he said with the glow and happiness of the reborn. The Z monastery still stands, but it is no longer swamped with afflicted believers. According to the Abbot, right after the kinsman’s visit, Paulo just disappeared, never to be heard from again.