by J.B. Polk
I notice her at once - a vixen face, green eyes, corn-colored hair, barely out of her teens. There is something distinctive about her. Perhaps it is the frown that lands on her forehead when she concentrates or the way she chews on the lower lip when she smiles. She is new and must have joined the band when I was on away last month. In Nicaragua – for the first time in eight years.
I look at the attendance sheet and my heart skips a beat when I read: Sophie Candelle, the surname that has haunted me for years. She raises her hand in a self-satisfied acknowledgement as I say it aloud. Yes, it’s me, her whole body seems to announce.
Riotous emotions block the passage of words in my throat. I brace myself and continue reading trying to keep my voice encased in the steel armor of restraint. One by one, hands spring up until I get to the last name. They are all here – 15 youngsters eager to take out their instruments and play.
I have always believed in the healing power of music and am convinced that, just like laughter, tears, rain, and certain childhood aromas, it can bring relief to broken souls. And, if played correctly, it can even mend them completely. But not today. Not when I am faced with a young woman whose name is Sophie Candelle. Not in Bismarck, North Dakota where I thought I would be able to put everything behind.
As I try to gather my thoughts a shrill giggle pulls me out of my reverie.
“Silence!" the word cuts like a whip and commands an immediate hush.
They are surprised. They have never seen me, Dora the Conciliator, like this and are not content with the change. They stare at me with undisguised hostility.
“OK, we will start with Here Comes Mardi Gras. Remember, it´s all about the rhythm. People are marching. They are having fun. You are having fun playing for them. One, two, three!”
Piccolos, clarinets, alto saxophones, cymbals - they are all in tune and the rhythm is impeccable. I want to praise them, but I don’t. The rehearsal stretches like an elastic about to snap. After Mardi Gras they play New Orleans Parade and finish on a softer note: Glory of the Nation. All I want is for them to pack up and go. Go right now.
There is laughter and some messing around as, one by one, they leave the hall. Only she is left. I observe her slim shoulders and bouncy hair. She is taking awfully long to put the saxophone into the case. The steel cube of emotions is suffocating me, I bite on it, swallow it, but it must irradiate from my skin, or my heart, because she turns around and looks at me.
“Is everything all right? Aren’t you feeling well?” her voice is heavy with genuine concern.
I move closer, and slowly, ever so slowly, place my hand on her shoulder. Through the thin fabric of her blouse I can feel the warmth of her flesh and the fragility of her bones. I’d like to dig my fingernails in, squeeze until it hurts, grind her into the floor.
“You sure you are all right?” Her anxious eyes never leave mine.
I can’t utter even one word and simply nod.
She is worried now and hurries to catch up with the others.
I follow. In the parking lot, the girls are shouting, giggling while they wait to be picked up.
A black Buick LaCrosse stops in front of the hall, the door opens and lets Sophie in. At the driving wheel – Andrew Candelle. The man who buys milk for Sophie´s breakfast Apple Jacks. The man who delights in reading her laudatory school reports. The man who has sent her to the Bismarck concert hall to play saxophone in a marching band. The man responsible for my son´s death.
I reach for my bag and fish out a packet of Winstons. Inhaling deeply, I savor the smoke - numbing comfort for an inarticulate mouth and listless fingers. Somewhere in its cavernous belly, in a yellowish envelope, there is a picture of my son. I suppress the desire to take it out, to look at it once again, to touch the frayed edges, to search for something I might have missed. And true enough, every time I discover something new - the way his hair curls above the right ear, the little crease of attention for the benefit of the camera, the rebellious twinkle in the eyes. The crooked smile I will never see again.
“Come back from the meadows of your thoughts, come back, my pretty maiden,” a voice breaks into my retrospective journey. Vincent, the concert hall manager, looms over me like a handsome ebony tower.
“Ay Nicaragua, Nicaraguita la rosa más linda de mi querer,” he sings.
“La flor más linda de mi querer," I correct.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of a teacher! Spoilt my inspiration, you have,” he mocks.
“Go back to your ledgers, spreadsheets and numbers and leave music to me,” I admonish jokingly.
“Iron Dora, the embodiment of teacherdom. Who did Mozart compose his Requiem for? Was Tchaikovsky a swan fan when he created the Swan Lake? Why do all teachers, even music teachers, have to dissect beauty? Chop, chop, chop – dissect a concerto into quavers and semibreves. Shame on you, Dora.”
My laugher is strained when I say: “Hey Vincent, what´s this thing about a meeting at eight tonight? The one on the poster.”
“Oh, that thing… We´ve been asked to hold a general discussion on the new refugee policy. With a guest speaker – the guy who financed the mega windfarm project just outside the city. How many refugees we can still accept in Bismarck, from where and why. I understand he feels we´ve had enough and should let the central government know. With the unemployment rampant and all the stuff, he says we should simply close the doors. But there are others who oppose it. So it might turn into a heated debate.”
“And you, Vincent? What´s your view? How many more can we let in and from where?”
He knows I´m a Nicaraguan refugee and feels cornered.
“Don’t ask me, Dora,” he is noncommittal.
“I´m am just a humble concert hall manager. I´m not allowed to have views. I do as I´m told. The Mayor wants the hall for a meeting, the Mayor shall have the hall. But no matter what, I still love you and if only I were a decade older and you a decade younger, I´d marry you in a flash,” as always, he turns everything into a joke then swaying like a catwalk model, he walks away singing at the top of his voice.
“La rosaaaaaa más linda de mi querer!”
As soon as he is gone, I no longer resist the temptation and dive into the bag. After nearly twenty years, the colors have faded, some parts are virtually erased from so much handling, but I can easily distinguish all of Manuel´s features. As he had been a month before I saw him for the last time.
After graduating from The National Conservatory of Music I left Managua because I thought that it was not right for me and my young child. I craved a simple and quite life, so we moved to Rosario, a village near the Honduran border where I taught arts and music to kids with indigenous faces and eager eyes.
Rosario was, and still is, a tightly-knit community where not much happens apart from the occasional births and deaths and where people completely rely on whatever they can wrench from the fields, catch in the lake or pick from trees and bushes. Local women harvest cotton, weave cloth, bake corn tortillas and carry babies in hemp sacks tied to their backs while men plant, weed and fish when necessary which leaves them quite a lot of time for storytelling and observing leaf-cutting ants that can strip a bush naked in a matter of minutes.
If you asked the villagers about their dreams and ambitions, they’d probably say they are too busy just trying to survive to be bothered with things that cannot and will not be, so they leave dreams and fancy thoughts to town folk and other idle people.
Life is not perfect in Rosario but if one ignores the occasional flooding of the Cua river and the indigestion that makes the Cosiguina volcano belch magma and ashes, it is pretty good.
Or, had been pretty good until someone realized that wealthy foreign tourists would pay good money to hike in the jungle, climb the snow-capped volcano, dip their feet in the lake, and experience the whole “rustic” adventure before going back to NASDAQ and the steady flow of bitcoins. The only problem was that it needed a posh hotel right at the edge of the lake and Rosarians had no intention of moving. That someone was Andrew Candelle – an American investor and property developer.
Rosario was home and I never thought of going back to Managua for good. I kept in touch with my family and Manuel and I visited for a few weeks each summer. But we were always glad to return to the peace and quiet of the village.
“Don’t molly-coddle the boy or he’ll grow up to be a wimp,” my father warned me during each visit, but I never believed in the ‘spare the rod spoil the child’ principle. People close to us said that the relationship we enjoyed was not the typical parenting thing because while other teens preferred comic books, Atari games and raved about Ricky Martin and Mariah Carey, Manuel and I read Marquez and Neruda and played folk and classical music – me on the flute and Manuel on his violin.
I took the gift of Manuel´s company for granted. It was a fixture – like the sun in the sky or the rain that fell on the jungle and was then exhaled as warm mist. I was certain it would never change but change it did.
I can’t recall when it actually started. Was it the year he refused to accompany me to Mass or when he switched from Lorca to Cuban poets? For me, it was a shallow phase he was going through - deep inside the old Manuel, the epitome of generosity and maturity remained.
But gradually, the Nikki Lauda posters on his bedroom walls were replaced by black and white Che Guevaras. I still ignored what I can now clearly see as signs of rebellion - not against me, his mother, but against the world that took a lot and offered little. Against people like Andrew Candelle.
Suave, smartly dressed, speaking perfect Spanish with a Florida accent, he roared one day into the village in a monstrous jeep and tried to sweettalk the villagers into selling their land and selling it cheap.
“It´s just a lot of lianas and spider monkeys you have here,” he said.
“With the money you´ll get, you can buy nice apartments in Managua. With flushing toilets and electricity. And that is where jobs are, too. Factories, commerce, transport – here, you just eke out a meagre living. Look at your kids – barefoot and hungry. What kind of future are you offering them? You hardly manage yourselves.”
But Rosarians were obstinate. It was their home, their jungle, their spider monkeys. They had no desire to move and live in cramped apartments overlooking other cramped apartments. Because for them, the capital was intimidating and menacing and the people who lived there seemed to hurry along set lines as if on rails and pass each other with the civility of strangers, with a distance not physical, because there was nothing physically distant in a city, but spiritual. And this mechanical non-design offended their cosmovision and their sense of order. Plus, they didn’t want to be drivers, builders or sell mango slushies in shopping malls. They wanted to keep fishing and weaving and observing leaf-cutting ants.
When Candelle realized that his sweettalking had no effect, he launched an intimidation campaign. He hired people to bribe some of the community leaders and others who would threaten the ones who refused to sell.
Manuel, nineteen at the time, got involved. He had lived most of his life in the village and loved it as much as the other locals. He took part in the meetings and encouraged people to act wisely but without cowardice. And they listened. Gradually, he became their official spokesman, but his spreading popularity did not sit well with Candelle and his goons. Still, it didn’t deter him from joining the protests to keep Rosario untouched, free of noisy tourists.
I worried and remonstrated warning him of the dangers.
He got angry.
“So has it all been just for show, mum? All the Tagore poems, all the Tennyson quotes? Only a beautiful theory? An experiment at parenting to see if you could turn me into a dream child? And when you´ve succeeded, you want to wipe it out because honesty is dangerous. When it comes to real life, you want me to take a back seat and watch.”
Of course, I blamed myself. It was I, after all, who taught him to treasure freedom. Fed on ideals like other children on formula milk, Manuel was to grow up in the image of the inner me. And when he had, I didn’t want him to get involved. I could quote verses and poems but the fear inside me that I could lose him was beyond poetry. It was a raw and painful ache of a mother whose child was in danger.
After that came the waiting. Waiting for Manuel to come home. Waiting for news about Manuel when hours turned into days and days into weeks. Where had he been? Why no phone calls? Coming back, he would be remorseful, apologetic to the point of humility but he never told me anything about his activities. Not anymore.
I heard from the villagers that they were getting ready to oppose any intent of taking over their land by force. And in the meantime, Candelle stopped trying to change people´s minds with bribes. He decided it was time to act.
The first house to burn belonged to Jose Dominguez, the most vocal of Candelle´s opponents apart from Manuel. Fortunately, Jose was in the fields, and his two kids at school. They were soon taken in by his father-in-law and life just continued. But so did the resistance to Candelle´s hotel.
Until two months later. Gabriel Mairena´s house was set on fire in the early hours of the morning when he and his family were asleep. They never stood a chance. Gabriel, his wife Yeriel and their daughter Paula died in the blaze. Everyone knew who was to blame but nobody spoke. Fear, thick and black, rolled over the village.
And then came the worst day of my life– a witness, paid by Candelle, testified that it was Manuel, my son, who had set fire to Mairena´s house. Allegedly, because he had been spurned by Paula and he took revenge on the whole family.
I sent him to Managua where my father would get him a lawyer. I had spent barely ten minutes with him before he boarded the bus. But he never made it to my dad´s - he was picked up 50 kilometers from Rosario. I saw him on the five o’clock news – on a stretcher, his shoulder wrapped in bloodied bandages. They said he had tried to resist and had been shot.
For weeks, I tried to contact him in prison, knocked on doors, implored, but a stern prosecutor explained that Manuel was in solitary confinement.
Three months later, they sentenced him to life imprisonment, and it didn’t surprise me to see Candelle in the courtroom, looking smug. We looked at each other hard and long and I promised myself that one day, he would pay for taking my child away.
At last I was allowed to visit my son in the high security prison where teenage boys and others described as ‘dangerous criminals” were held.
He hobbled towards me; the face sliced by the shadow of iron bars.
He was thin and aged a lot and although he was now missing two front teeth, I could still see my child in the smile.
“What have they done to you, son?”
“Blame the mighty hopes that make us men," he quoted Tennyson with a lisp.
“The cells are cold. I’ll need a sweater, like the one you knitted for my birthday. It’ll remind me of you…”
While I was knitting, his words resurfaced time and time again. Should I hope for his sake or for the sake of my own sanity?
I finished the sweater two weeks later, but they didn’t let me see him again. Never again. It was on the following Monday when the phone rang.
“With deep regrets…unexplained circumstances…suicide…”
For me, the world was over, or at least, the world as I had known it. The new world was dark as Munch´s “Scream”. I drowned in despair, chaos, and hopelessness. I no longer really lived but barely skimmed the surface of life.
I left Rosario a month later because every tree, every stream, every leaf-cutting ant remined me of Manuel. Before I went, the man who testified against him repented and sent me a note confessing he had been paid by Candelle to frame my son. But it was too late now. The peasants still refused to sell the land. Candelle got bored with waiting and decided to invest his money somewhere else - in Jamaica maybe. Or in Eastern Sumatra. He was gone and I had no idea where to find him.
When my father died, I decided it was time to try to live again and moved to Bismark, North Dakota where they needed a music teacher for their youth band. There was a large Nicaraguan refugee population there, so I felt at home.
And it was there, eight years later, that I chanced upon a girl with a vixen face called Sophie Candelle.
When I saw her earlier that morning, packing her saxophone I wanted to shout: “Who do you see in front of you every day? Do you see your father or my son’s killer?”
But I couldn’t because her green eyes were innocent and kind.
It is just before eight and I get ready to go to the meeting. Outside the hall people gather in groups. A thick nimbus of cigarette smoke floats in the air. I carve a passage through the stream of bodies to the hall cafeteria where the smell of freshly ground coffee and the buzz of human interactions send inviting tendrils.
“I told him to leave it alone if he couldn’t take the stress…”
“Laura saw them, kissing, two love-birds, I swear…”
“half a pound of flour, two tablespoons of butter, 5 ounces of ground almonds and a little bit of milk…”
Snatches of conversation invitingly poke at the wall I am attempting to erect around myself but the turmoil inside is stronger than the urge to join in the trivialities of life.
There is a rush, everyone surges into the hall to take a seat. Vincent is fixing the microphone on the podium. He raises a cheerful hand to greet me. I look away.
The Mayor walks onto the stage and speaks for a few minutes.
He gets a lukewarm round of applause when he says: “And now welcome our guest speaker. The man whose generosity has brought a lot of jobs to this city. I will ask you to listen respectfully and leave questions to the end.”
From the back of the stage Andrew Candelle strides in. Physically attractive like the men I’d seen on old recruitment posters from the times of the Second World War - square-jawed, tanned, a little older than the last time I saw him. But he has aged well, the hairline still going strong, refusing to recede. This kind of men, confident and ruthless, grow old in style - salt and pepper weave into their hair, tennis and exercise sculpt their bodies in firm muscle.
He taps the microphone to see if it works. The hall is silent waiting for him to speak. But he won’t, because I will not let him. At least, not before I have my say. I look around the packed hall, at the man on the stage and get up. My eyes meet Candelle´s. He knows who I am – and he is afraid. Afraid of what I might say, and what I might have against him that could spoil his plans for Bismarck, North Dakota. That might turn locals against his huge windfarm that already has many detractors.
There is some commotion in the hall as people stare at me, but I don’t care. I begin to speak.
“My name is Dora Gomez. I’m a refugee and I’m from Nicaragua. I’m also the mother of Manuel who would be thirty-eight this year. I brought him up to be an honest man. He is no longer with us because he believed that no matter what, he should always do the right thing. Always - and not just for show, as he once told me. Until the man on the stage, the one who is standing in front of you, decided that honesty had no value. Because the man who will speak to you, the man who has brought so many jobs to this city, does not believe in honesty. He only believes in the power of money. Because of people like him, people like my son must die. So before you pass a verdict today, before you decide if you should close the doors to those who run away from people like Mr. Candlle and others just like him, think about my son. And I hope, yes, I hope, that yours will be the right decision. Because my son believed that it was the mighty hopes that made us men.”
About the Author
Polish by birth, citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland in 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women´s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin, and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards. Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started contributing to magazines and newspapers and then writing textbooks for different Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing