Roses for the Dead

 

Padre Lucas found rest under an olive tree. He pressed his handkerchief to the halo of white hair around his skull, attempting to suppress the beaded sweat drenching his face. He leaned against the olive trunk, contemplating the green quilt covering the valley floor, tracing the corn patches and grape fields stitched together by a thread of stone hedges. The sinuous River Caima, unusually brilliant under the sun, forced him to squint. He shielded his face. The river, the earth’s open artery, crossed the heart of the valley, delivering life and fertility to the fields. Intricate veins burst from the main artery, channelling precious water to remote places along the hillside.

From the vantage point on the hill crest, Padre Lucas relished the angels’ vista across Vale D’Água Amargurada. In the distance, his destination, the Mateus mansion, was but a crumb engulfed by a swarm of ants.

The noon sun and the slope scant of trees had arrested his progress. He perspired inside the black cassock. His chest rose and sank in futile attempts to expel the burning air. His nostrils flared and puffed from exertion. Padre Lucas was a sight matched only by strained bulls pulling logs up the incline. He now clasped a rosary in the infernal heat and muttered a string of curses under his breath. Parishioners he encountered on the dusty trail asked him to add their intentions to his prayers.

Half a century ago Padre Lucas had arrived with a wooden crucifix dangling from his neck and an immaculate Bible in hand, eager to guard his assigned flock of parishioners. Fresh from the seminary, words of justice and compassion had leaped easily from his mouth. Short lived words, words lasting as long as trout baited out of the River Caima. An earnest crowd of peasants had awaited him while a child timidly stepped forward and placed a bouquet of red roses in his hands. A reception of Senhores, led by Ambrósio Mateus, ceremoniously welcomed him.

“It’s the honourable Senhores’ pleasure to present you with the key to the newly built parish house. Maria will be at your service, overseeing your domestic matters. Nothing fancy. Adequate for a soul like yours, only concerned with matters of the Spirit and the Heavens. The day to day business of earthly matters, we will attend to,” Ambrósio declared as the Senhores clapped.

The Senhores informed him that everyone regretted the tragic accident that had befallen his predecessor, Padre Baptista. A hunting party of Senhores, tricked by the devilish dusk, had shot the unfortunate man, mistaking the priest for a lone black wolf.

“Terrible tragedy. If only we understood the Lord’s ways, His will, calling home a disciple after only a year of service. A year of youthful misguided sermons on meaningless mortal matters, failing to give guidance to the people’s spiritual hunger,” Senhor Ambrósio said, placing his heavy hand on Padre Lucas’ shoulder. Padre Lucas assented with a nod of his head and his fist tightened around the rose stems, thorns sinking into his flesh, drawing a trickle of blood. Padre Lucas watched peasants in the fields below him. He had grown accustomed to the sight of his peasant parishioners shaving the mountain face and carving precarious terraces up the hillside. From the crown of the hill where Padre Lucas sat, the fields resembled a stairway to heaven. It was as if the peasants were fleeing a hell pit, moving heavenwards, seeking a better life.

Padre Lucas mused on why his parishioners were flocking to the Mateus mansion for a last glance at the stern body of the man who had tyrannised their lives. Was it curiosity, the opportunity to tread upon their oppressor’s varnished wooden floor, or witness to the end of his reign?

He observed the mourning crowd, a black human stain, spilling from the mansion, spreading quickly over the surrounding land.

As Padre Lucas walked solemnly to the mansion’s stone portico, the sea of people parted. A moat of tables lined the mansion’s periphery, serving maize bread, salted olives and lupini beans, sweet breads and jams. The quince jam and the sweet breads attracted the peasants the way a sugar spill attracts a scurry of ants. A decent meal, at last.

To clothe the peasants eager to pay their last respects, proper attire waited at the entrance. Black veils, shawls and kerchiefs for the women. Black polished shoes, ties and suit jackets for the men. For most peasants, it was the first time they had walked in shoes. Their wobbly steps dragged the polished slickness of leather in a shuffle around the casket.

Padre Lucas entered the sombre living room and hesitated, feeling the blast of a thousand candles burn his face.

“May the Father of Mercies, the God of all consolation be

with you,” he greeted those present.

The stench of burnt paraffin assaulted his senses. He pinched his nose. Through the black haze of candle smoke, he recognised Senhor Ambrósio Mateus in his Sunday suit. The corpse lay nearly buried under red carnations. Carnations stolen from his garden and tossed into the coffin by the constant throng of peasants. Ambrósio’s umbrella rested on his folded forearm. Throughout his life, rain or shine, Senhor Ambrósio had leaned on the umbrella’s solid oak stump, as someone else might lean on an amicable shoulder. The umbrella, a loyal companion unto death.

Padre Lucas walked towards Senhor Ambrósio’s grandson and successor, Mário, a young man weeping under the inherited burden of wealth and power. Padre Lucas voiced condolences, vigorously shook Mário’s limp hand and remarked, “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them.” The Senhores from Vale D’Água Amargurada nodded in agreement. The peasants murmured.

The Senhores stood erect, arms crossed over their chests, surrounding Mário in a protective circle. A rose brightened each black suit, stem and thorns buried in their breast pockets.

Padre Lucas raised his hands, supplicating to God, and recited an opening prayer,

 

O God,

to whom mercy and forgiveness belong,

hear our prayers and command that Senhor Ambrósio

be carried safely home to heaven

and come to enjoy your eternal reward.”

 

 

Amen,” replied those present.

Padre Lucas stood by Mário’s side and patiently waited for the final trickle of people to pay their last respects.

Most peasants hurried past, not bothering a glance at the body, merely following the trajectory towards the food tables. Others genuflected, their mournful respects shed genuine tears of relief. Padre Lucas had treaded upon the valley dirt long enough to have personal thoughts about God and the limitations of his compassionate teachings.

(…)

excerpt                         ©paulodacosta

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The Scent of a Lie is a book of fourteen inter-connected stories, set in two charismatic towns in Portugal. Characters weave in and out of the intertwined stories, which can be read as a novel in fragments.

(2002/2012) – Paperback (140p) Format: 196 x 126 – ISBN: 978-0978184766

 MP3    Audio-Book (unabridged) Time: 4 h 14 m                  ISBN:9780978184773

 

from:  The Scent of a Lie,  LPO 2012 – 2 edition

 

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