Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Cardinal Sins by JB Polk

It is a mother´s duty to choose her child’s name. And to choose it well. The moment a person is born, the mother can see the path her child will follow, and she must decide on the name accordingly. There’s no use trying to defy Fate – no one can change what’s been written long before a person´s birth. Fate is not an arbitrary but quite a deliberate master. The one, let’s call him or her Superior Being, God, Destiny, Mother Universe or the Pachamama , who has decided on what will be and what shall not be, is not a mere amateur dabbling in motiveless dry runs but an expert, a Divine Pharmacist allotting slots and vials and boxes for pills - such quantity and chemical composition for some, a different one for others. He or she knows the right formula for every one of us. He or she knows how much and for how long and where to take it.
Of course, we can pretend that things are just as they are supposed to be and maybe we can even fool ourselves for a while. But it’s impossible to fool the Divine Pharmacist who has structured our road. We can hide the pills made for us under the tongue or shut tight the box or the vial, but we won’t be able to fool him, or ourselves, forever.
Sometimes, despite omens that herald a child’s future, parents ignore Fate and choose a name that catches their fancy rather than a name that would fit a baby’s character. And that´s what happened to the Benavides girls from the place where I was born.
My family originally came from an island off the southern coast called the Isla Grande. It is big and long with hills overgrown with raulies trees native to that region. It was the last place the cruel Spanish conquistadors invaded, the last one to resist their fierce clutches. Its shores are windswept and rough, but the interior is lush with rivers full of trout and overgrown with forests teeming with wildlife. The sea around the Isla Grande is ravaged by whirlpools and deadly currents. Many of the islanders lost their husbands to the cold embrace of the water. My father was among them. I must have been ten or eleven when it happened, but I can still remember my mother sitting on the shore looking at the horizon, hoping that a white sail would appear and announce my father’s safe return. But he never came back. The sea swallowed him together with the rest of the crew and the boat. Some said that it was not the sea at all but the Cahuelche, a dolphin-like creature that inhabits the deep waters around the Isla Grande. They say that in the past, the Cahuelche was a real man but was punished for his sins and sent to the confines of the ocean where he yearns for the company of other humans and that´s why he sinks fishermen´s boats to keep him company.
It was around the time of my father´s disappearance that my mother told me the story of the Benavides sisters, or the Three Cardinal Sins, as people called them. And it shows that like in everything else, parents can go terribly wrong if they defy Fate.
The Benavideses were the richest farmers for hundreds of miles around, far wealthier than the hacendados from the Argentinean pampas, their land more fertile than all the farms of the country put together and they owned more heads of cattle than the herds that roam the icy steppes down south.
Hernan Benavides married a city girl, the worst choice for a farmer, if you ask me. Raised in the capital, used to balls and carriages drawn by six horses, Carmen Benavides was too haughty to bother with the islanders. They lacked sophistication. Their language was too simple for her, their customs too vulgar.
Three daughters were born of the union and to satisfy her fancy, or maybe she was following the custom she had read about in one of her French romances, Carmen named the girls after flowers: Rosa, Margarita and Dalia.
Rosa was a creature of extraordinary beauty - red lips, milky complexion, hair like an anthracite river. But she lacked humility and patience. If her shoes were not shiny enough, her tea too cold, if a kitchen noise woke her up too early in the morning, there was always some poor serving wench who had to pay for it - Rosa saw to the punishment personally, always encouraged by her mother. She liked it the best when the whip drew blood.
Margarita, the prettiest of the three, was incurably lazy. She would not leave the bed for anything. She’d stay there for days eating, reading, and the maid had to carry the chamber pot to her so that she could relieve herself. Even the Sunday Mass was not worth the effort of getting up. Nothing could force her to drag her body out of bed.
But the worst of the three was Dalia. She had inherited her mother’s city manners and her father’s country inflexibility.
When the Benavideses died in the year of the Great Plague (which they say killed millions on the five continents) Dalia, who was the oldest, was left in charge of the farm and the household.
Pretty and rich, the girls did not lack suitors who flocked from far and near, from towns and villages, even from the Great Country of the North where yellow-haired men eat buffalo meat, wear wide-brimmed sombreros, carry pistols in bullet-studded belts and call themselves cowboys. But they wouldn’t do for Dalia, not a single one, oh no. The Benavides pride was too great. This one was too ugly, another too poor, still another not slim enough. Many came and went turned away by Dalia’s pride and her unreasonable expectations.
So the girls stayed alone; servants, fed up with ill-treatment, left; the land, unploughed for years, turned to dust, money seeped away, and the house looked as if a smallest breeze would tumble it down. The girls withered and turned ugly. Surrounded by hens nesting in cupboards and larders, pigs that rooted for food in the kitchen and died of old age in the bedrooms, the girls strutted among the ruins in their finery that by now was nothing more than rags. Inside and out the place was draped with cobwebs, the roof moss-eaten and crumbling, paths choked by weeds, windowpanes sealed over with grime.
Margarita died first and so lazy were her sisters that they left her body, now fat and bloated, to rot for a full week until the stench became unbearable and flies laid eggs in the corpse and bred with the speed of lightning. They finally dumped her in the pigsty where her flesh fell of the bones and the skeleton turned yellow.
After Rosa had gone, Dalia lingered for a year or two haunting the empty house, scavenging for food, fighting for it with whatever dogs remained. She passed away one morning missed and mourned by nobody.
But that’s not the end of the story, oh no. Death had no mercy on the Three Cardinal Sins. There was no peace for them in their graves. At night, when the moon bloomed like a daffodil on the pastures of the sky the spirits of the wretched girls roamed the countryside begging for help. There was no place for them in the Land of Eternal Rest until they repented for their sins.
Rosa carried a whip, begging travellers to flog her until her body bled, to punish her the same way she had punished others. Margarita offered to scrub doorsteps with her long hair and sweep autumn leaves that kept falling making her job a never-ending task. And Dalia...Dalia searched for a lover - the poorest of paupers, the ugliest of men, a dwarf with webbed feet and harelip to take to her lonely bed.
My mother saw the Benavides sisters many times and, as far as I know, they still haunt the Isla Grande unable to rest.
The candle flames fitfully dapple the walls, slide down from the ceiling to the floor drawing bars of light and ghostly silhouettes. The fire in the hearth has settled into an amber glow, sparks burst forth from the hearth bringing me back from the fantastic to the real world. I look at the little girl sitting next to me - her head is resting on the table, she is silent, the breathing coming out in regular puffs. Her cheeks are pink, and the long black lashes casts shadows on her face. She´s asleep.
“And that is why, my baby, the name I´ve chosen for you comes neither from pride nor from strange customs. Because I respect Fate and the Devine Pharmacist´s will. I´ve named you Gloria - not because I have glorious hopes for you but because day after day I bask in the glory of motherhood and want to preserve the feeling for ever,” I whisper and watch the sleeping child with infinite love.

© JB Polk

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