Excerpt- A Day In The Life Of A Severed Head: A Mural


Rosalva Garcia dipped her pastry into a cup of coffee heavily sugared and creamed. She was recovering from her lapse into unconsciousness. For the others, the shock had passed as quickly as a minor earth tremor—and with as little residual effect. Falcon Rock Village was, after all, a part of the Greater City of Los Angeles, where the bizarre was no more unlikely than, well, an earthquake.
“I didn’t know you were so prone to the effects of shock,” Tessie Hill said. “Perhaps you might consider carrying some smelling salts in your purse, just as a precaution.”
“Well,” George Nicomedes observed graciously, “it’s not every day somebody walks into a store with a severed head in a plastic bag.”
“That’s right,” Paul Kim said. “Besides, Rosalva is a woman of the old school. She was never hardened by the American culture.”
“Hot-blooded Latin,” Chuck Taylor snipped. “If they’re not screaming and yelling, they’re fainting.”
“It’s a woman’s true nature to be delicate,” Sidney Liao agreed.
“Both of you gentlemen are sorely in need of a modern education,” the librarian fumed.
“Never mind,” Rosalva Garcia spoke. “They’re just men. Ignorance is their nature, after all.”
The men grumbled, but said nothing. Rosalva Garcia continued.
“While I was asleep, I had a dream.”
“About pastries,” Chuck Taylor muttered.
“More of a memory, actually,” the manicurist said. “I remembered something I hadn’t heard in years, a story related to me by a number of the most pious members of Santa Anastasia’s parish—the very church where I received the sacraments of Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage (to my first husband, whom I also buried there). That it burned to the earth in a horrible fire and never rebuilt was a most grievous loss to us all.”
Her right hand sketched an attenuated Sign of the Cross.
“Catholics,” Sidney Liao said, shaking his head in Baptist disapproval.
“And devout Catholics they were,” Rosalva Garcia said. “But please, don’t interrupt. When I awoke and scrutinized the face of the head, I put things together, two plus two. After all these years of seeing the dark stranger walking alone along the riverbank, I had no idea—nothing had ever connected in my mind. But today, by the grace of the Almighty, a vision has revealed the truth to me. I know the identity of the homeless man whose head now lies in Mr. Kim’s meat case.”
She put down her pastry and dabbed at her lips with a napkin.
“Let me tell you the strange and awful history of our unfortunate visitor, the happiness that was his dream, and the misery that became his fate.”


Once, during the days of the faraway Asian war, there was a young woman of extraordinary beauty and piety. The name of this angel was Yolanda Esquibel. She possessed, according to those who knew her, a living miracle of a face: unblemished, fair, unlined by the grief that regularly attended her days. Surely, this girl could have had any of the young men of the parish. Many had attempted to court her, but all had been spurned. She had instead devoted herself to tending to the needs of her mother and half-wit brother and, whenever possible, visiting her father in the hospital, where he lay dying of the illnesses brought on by a lifetime of hard drink. Somehow, despite all the burdens placed upon her, she managed to spend ten hours a week serving with the sisters of the parish on their missions of mercy to the homeless and the poor.
Now, when Yolanda turned twenty-one, her mother passionately insisted that she marry. It was not good, her mother reminded her time and time again, for a young woman to delay marriage. It neither followed the natural order nor God’s will. It was time for her to begin her own family, and surely, since she had lived a spotless life until this time, God would bless her with a fine husband and many beautiful children.
Here, it is said, the old woman Esquibel beat upon her chest, repenting whatever unknown sins had brought such sorrow to her own marriage.
The beautiful young woman felt her heart pulled in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, she felt obliged to follow the will of God, especially as it pertained to the commandment to obey her parent. However, she also greatly admired the nuns, and found their vow of chastity to be especially appealing, meaning, as it did, that their flesh, like their souls, would remain forever uncorrupted and incorruptible.
Many nights, Yolanda lay awake, praying for an answer to her dilemma. Her answer came not long after in the form of young Simon Orozco, newly returned from the war.
Now, until this time, no one had dreamed that Simon, the fifth son in a large family of ne’er-do-wells, would ever amount to much. He was a sickly boy, bone thin and frail until adolescence, then doughy as a ball of white-flour masa. He was good for nothing at school. Even the gangs did not want him. To his credit, though, he attended church regularly and took communion by his mother’s side. In retrospect, we all of the parish might have seen that he was more alike Yolanda Esquibel in his piety than any of our other youths.
The young man who returned from the war bore little resemblance to the Simon Orozco our parish remembered. Now he was trim and muscular. He sported a small moustache, but it was elegant. He had been promoted to Lieutenant in a short time. Entering church the first Sunday of his return, he walked beside his mother, who had never seemed taller, although now dwarfed by her son.
Simon had, like all the other boys of the parish, been a great admirer of Yolanda Esquibel. Unlike the others, though, her acts of kindness and devotion had not escaped his attention. Seeing the tall, handsome man in the uniform enter church that day, Yolanda blushed—a deep, virginal blush. Her mother took notice. Within hours, the two matriarchs had spoken on the telephone. The next Sunday, Simon Orozco was invited to the house of Yolanda Esquibel for an elaborate dinner.

A young heart soars like an eagle.  An old heart must labor like a crow.  A young heart dives like a hawk.  An old heart waddles like a pigeon.  You will understand what I am getting at here.  It did not take long before the two young people fell in love.  Simon Orozco would embark upon one more tour of duty.  When he returned, he and his rapturous bride were to be wed.
    It was a sad day in the harbor when Yolanda Esquibel bid farewell to her beloved Simon Orozco.  The tears that streamed down her cheeks were the first she’d ever shed for a young man.  They were not the last to be so shed.
    Some months later, even as she was gleefully working with her mother in the sewing of her wedding gown, word arrived through the Orozco family that Simon had been declared Missing in Action.
    Yolanda knelt in the church for many weeks, fasting and praying, hoping for some sign that the government had made a mistake.  The word returned from Washington:  Simon Orozco was officially M.I.A.    Yolanda continued to pray for his return.  As best she could, she filled her heart with hope.  However, with each day that passed, that hope dwindled, like the flame of a votive candle.
    Now recently to our parish had come a new priest.  He was a young man, this Father Connor.  He had dark hair and a warm and pleasant smile.   His crisp blue eyes, undeniably handsome, also struck some of the parish women as wandering a bit too much for a priest, whatever his age.  After the initial flush of curiosity, however, he settled into his priestly duties, assisting old Father Sanchez, saying the second Sunday mass, tending to the confessional.
    Perhaps we were all naive and should have recognized at once the young priest’s true nature.  But in those days, we Catholics would never begin to think ill of a man of the cloth, even one with wandering eyes and a flirtatious smile.  Father Connor moved among us, as we moved alongside him.  We took our sacraments and went home to our week of petty infractions against an all-forgiving Lord.
    It was not long after the news of Simon Orozco’s disappearance that Father Connor began to notice Yolanda Esquibel.
    “What a tender child! ” The young priest exclaimed to a lady of the church.  “Who is she?  Why does she always look so forlorn?”
    When told about the terrible disappearance of Simon Orozco, so near to his wedding day and the start of his life of happiness, the young priest shook his head sadly.
    “War is a terrible thing,” he said.  “The destroyer of youth for the profit of the old.”
    The church woman agreed that this was indeed true.
    “Please let the child know I am always available to help in whatever way I might to console her in her time of grief,” the priest said.
    The church woman agreed to relay the Father’s message.
    Not one time but several times did it take for the young priest’s message to reach the hungry ears of Yolanda Esquibel.  When she did at last receive the suggestion, her heart overflowed.  She made arrangements to visit with the priest at the rectory that afternoon.
    The young priest had arranged for his housekeeper to prepare sweet cakes and milk for the young woman and, for himself, a bracing glass of sherry.  Yolanda arrived in the early afternoon, precisely on time.  She wore a pale cotton dress, and her long, brown hair was pulled back away from her face and secured with a plain barrette.  The young priest thought she looked absolutely radiant.  Even her sorrow contributed to her beauty.  It was all the priest could do to keep from staring at her.  God had, it seemed, granted her not only the face of an angelic girl, but the contours of a mature woman.
    “It would be dishonest if I did not tell you that I have been made aware of the source of your distress, Miss Esquibel,” the priest began.
    “It is common knowledge,” Yolanda said, looking downward.  “It is not only my tragedy, but a tragedy for the entire parish, who loved him.”
    “I am aware of this,” the priest said.  But you must never give up hope.  Despair, remember, is among the greatest of sins.”
    At this, the young woman began quietly to sob.
    “What is it, child?” The priest took her soft, thin hands in his and clutched them to his chest.  “What have I done to hurt you?  Oh, Lord!”  He prayed theatrically.  “How may I ever atone for bringing this sweet innocent to tears?”
    “It’s not you, Father,” Yolanda explained.  “It’s me.  I have sinned.”
    “Not here,” the priest said softly.  “If it is confession that your soul hungers for, let’s avail ourselves of the sanctity of the confessional booth, where by my vows all that you say goes with me to my grave.”
    Encouraged by his kindness, Yolanda rose and went with the priest to the church and entered the dark, cool confessional booth.  She waited until the screen slipped back, and the silhouette of the priest appeared, leaning ever so slightly toward her.
    Of course, whatever went on within the confessional would never have been related by Father Connor.  That was one vow which even a man such as he would never dare break, for fear of eternal damnation.  However, in her jubilation and terror, Yolanda Esquibel herself would speak of what had transpired in the months that followed to an older neighbor as the two women hung out laundry to dry in the sun.  This woman, Leticia Cardoza, for a time took Yolanda Esquibel’s fantastic stories to be the melancholy ravings of a young woman in the pangs of grief.  Upon surmising the truth, she would turn it to the service of her own unwholesome desires.
    What Yolanda Esquibel confessed that first time set the priest’s ears—and no doubt other parts of him as well—on fire.   The sin which burdened her soul was none other than the sin of lust.  Yes!  From their first chaste kiss, she had been swept up in all manner of strange feelings regarding Simon Orozco.  With every day of absence, those feelings grew stronger.  Worse, in her imagination, these feelings were more and more often taking on human shapes.  What had begun as vague longings were fast becoming images of great specificity.
    She realized that these cravings were the work of Satan, but there was little she could seem to do to control them.  Prayer had failed.  Good works had failed.  That was why she had come to see the priest.  Perhaps he, being wise in all matters of the spirit, could help her break free from the devil’s agonizing grip—before it was too late!
    Father Connor pondered a moment, and then gave Yolanda her penance:  one rosary.  She was shocked by the leniency of this, but the priest explained that her sin was grave indeed, and he needed to pray that night to God for guidance, so as to properly administer the sacrament and achieve both forgiveness and an end to the young woman’s temptation.
    “Thank you, father,” the young woman said, many times, before being released from the confessional.
    The priest watched her as she knelt in the back of the small church, working the beads of the rosary between her slender fingers.  Her eyes were brimming with tears of elation and relief.
    The priest spent that evening not in prayer, but in devising a scheme through which he could unlock the young woman’s passions and have them for himself.  Her reputation for chastity, of course, was well-known throughout the parish.  Her piety and good deeds were fast becoming legend.  Where, the priest fretted, was the human weakness in this seemingly perfected being?  By the following day, the priest had devised a plan.
    As scheduled, he met with Yolanda Esquibel in the confessional.  The young woman explained that she had said her penance, as prescribed.
    “Last night, I prayed for you,” the priest whispered.
    “Thank you, father,” came the response.
    “I prayed that you be released from your torment.”
    Again, the same thanks were issued.
    “And then, my child, the most miraculous event of my priesthood occurred!  I received a visit from an agent of our Lord Himself.”
    Yolanda Esquibel gasped.
    “The Lord has listened to your prayers, and He is preparing to help you escape your terrible trial.  You see, your reputation for piety is so great, it is even spoken of among the angels and saints in heaven.”
    “No!”  The young woman gasped.
    “It is true, my child.  You must not question the words of God, as spoken through this messenger.”
    “I’m sorry.”
    “You should be honored,” the priest continued.  “”Even now, your name is carried on all the golden tongues of heaven.”
    Here the priest sighed portentously.   
    “But even as your fame has spread, so has the determination of the Evil One to ruin you.”
    The young woman was not at all clear what the priest was communicating to her.
    “As one among God’s especially beloved, you present a special challenge to Satan, whose sinister mission it is to destroy all that God has made good and all that God loves.  For this reason, the dark one has chosen to turn upon you all his powers of temptation.  The situation,” he concluded, “is dire indeed.”
    “What can I do to resist?”  The young woman’s voice was aquiver.  “How may I serve the Lord, and not the devil?”
    “In his infinite wisdom, the Lord has instructed me to speak to you of the following remedy, which I believe to be the only way to save your immortal soul.”
    Here, the priest laid out for Yolanda Esquibel the details of his scheme, being careful always to remind her that these were God’s words, relayed by divine messenger.
    There was, in the back of the church, a small room sometimes used by the priests to rest during prolonged services.  (Actually, this was a storage room set up with a cot and used by the groundskeeper for his occasional trysts—but no matter to the priest!)  Tonight, after her mother had gone to sleep, Yolanda Esquibel was to slip from her home and come to the church.  The door would be open.  
    She was to enter the small room and lie down upon the bed and there wait.  When she heard three taps on the door, she was to close her eyes tightly.  The messenger of God, his angel, would arrive in human form, so better to complete his mission.  Although bodily a man, he would still be an angel, a divine being radiant with perfection.  Should at any time Yolanda Esquibel open her eyes, she might very well be blinded by the angel’s brilliance or, worst of all, consumed by fire before she had a chance to repent her sins fully and renounce the temptations of Satan, thus forever consigning her soul to Hell.
    Once the angel of God arrived, she must give herself over to him fully.  Only by giving herself to the spiritual purity of the angel could she cast off the putrescence of carnal desire.
    “But what of my vow to Simon?”  Yolanda Esquibel asked at last.  “Surely the Lord cannot expect me to go against my word.”
    “That is true, my child,” the priest said sadly.  “And that is the last of the messages God’s angel relayed to me.  Your beloved Simon Orozco, whom you believe missing, is in fact dead.  You are free of all vows.”
    “Go with God,” the priest finally admonished.
    Yolanda Esquibel left the confessional in a daze, but it was certain that she would follow the priest’s commands to the letter.  Who can say why?  Possibly, in her grief over the death of her fiancé, her mind was too clouded to recognize such a calloused deception.  Perhaps, her faith in the Church and its officers—and especially in the sanctity of the Sacrament of Confession—was so great that she could not for a moment believe that what the priest had spoken was all an elaborate contrivance.    
    But let us also entertain the possibility that this young woman may have been more than a little puffed-up by the notion that she had already achieved fame in heaven, and more than a little flattered by the thought that God would reward her goodness by something so great as a visitation by a holy angel.
    Yolanda Esquibel had seen paintings depicting angels many times at church and elsewhere.  Sometimes, the creatures were little chubby babies with wings.  Other times, though, the angels appeared as fierce warriors, muscular and bronzed.  We might speculate as to which type Yolanda Esquibel hoped would grace her secret room on the night that was to follow.
    That night Yolanda did as the priest had commanded.  Of course it was the priest, no angel, who came to the room, undressed the young woman, and partook of whatever pleasures his corrupt soul could conceive.
    The next afternoon, she again appeared in the confessional booth.
    “I did as you said, father,” she spoke nervously.
    “Yes?”  The priest whispered.
    “The Angel hurt me.”
    “In what way?”
    The girl described what she had felt.
    “Ah!”  The priest exclaimed.  “That pain is nothing if not a signal that the demons are being cast out!”
    The girl sighed.
    “In one way, I feel relieved, father.”
    “And how is that, my child?”
    “I do feel purified, as if my first sin has been lifted from me.”
    “That is how it was to be.”
    “But I am worried, also.  While I believe that the sin is gone, the temptation to sin is greater than ever.”
    “The evil one must not be allowed to triumph.” The priest’s voice rose in proclamation.  “I believe it is God’s will that you continue to allow visitations by His angel until the last of Satan’s temptations has been driven to the four winds.”
    That was how the priest gained complete control over Yolanda Esquibel.      Each night for many nights, the young woman would sneak into the small room behind the vestibule of the church and wait for the priest, who enjoyed her in every way.  Only once did Yolanda falter and open her eyes.  The glimpse of the priest was brief, obscure.  She decided that it was only one more trick of the devil, trying to replace the Demon of Lust with his brother, Doubt.
    The change in Yolanda Esquibel’s demeanor did not escape her neighbor, Leticia Cardoza.
    “You seem happier every day.” The older woman spoke across the chain fence.
    “You can tell no one,” Yolanda Esquibel answered excitedly.
    “Of course not.”
    Then, sparing the more intimate detail, Yolanda Esquibel explained how her piety was being rewarded nightly by an angel in the guise of a human, who visited her in order to purify her, body and soul.
    “Poor girl,” Leticia Cardoza thought to herself.  “Too much prayer and too little sex.  She’s finally lost her mind.”
    After a time, as do all things born of deception, the priest’s plan began to unravel.  The groundskeeper, whose room the priest used for his seductions, had been at first as easy to control as Yolanda Esquibel.  The priest arranged for him to have the secret room to himself on Sundays, and he was also allowed use of it late at night, after Yolanda Esquibel had gathered her belongings and gone home.  To sweeten the deal, the groundskeeper was also allowed practically unlimited access to unconsecrated wine, which the two priests, old and young,  enjoyed in abundance.
    However, the wine was to be the young priest’s undoing. The proscribed limits upon his earthly desires soon grew to rankle the groundskeeper.  While he could see his mistress, it was for the most part possible only quite late at night, after he was already tired, or drunk, or both.  Furthermore, his mistress was growing weary of the constant excuses he gave to explain why he was unable to see her.  
    His mistress, as fate would have it, was none other than Leticia Cardoza, Yolanda Esquibel’s neighbor and sometimes confidant.  She was a formerly pretty woman in her early thirties and she had once been married, albeit to a miserable drunk who was often unsure whether she even lay in bed with him at night.  They had been divorced, a scandal at that time, and she was beginning to feel the advance of her years.  Unmarried but no longer young, she was growing extremely restless with the mysterious situation.
    “What have you got, another woman in your little room?”  She snarled at the groundskeeper one night.
    “No,” he said.
    “I don’t believe you!”
    “No,” he insisted.
    “It’s that little tramp, Gloria Dominguez, isn’t it?”
    After an hour of such hectoring, the groundskeeper finally grew exhausted and confided to his mistress the truth, that the priest was using the room for his own purposes, which involved the veiled appearance of a woman at the same time every night, and some goings-on that sounded, through the closed door, like a strange cross between a session of passionate lovemaking and an exorcism.
    “Ah!”  Leticia Cardoza sighed to herself.  The room, the angel, the priest, Yolanda Esquibel—the pieces of the puzzle were arranging themselves in her mind.
    The groundskeeper’s mistress could barely hold fast her excitement.  In truth, for years she had despised the little angel of Santa Anastasia’s.  She hated the girl’s perfection, her goody-goody manners, her limp, pathetic acquiescence.  Worst of all, she hated the constant comparisons between the girl and herself.  While the parishioners spoke in awe of the Esquibel girl’s virtue, they whispered about the older woman’s indiscretions.  While they marveled at the girl’s pale beauty, they mocked the dark circles gathering beneath the woman’s eyes.
    There were other reasons for the groundskeeper’s mistress to rejoice.  For some time, nearly since the day of his arrival, she had longed after the young priest.  Now, thanks to the imbecilic if athletic groundskeeper, she had the power both to destroy the little angel and acquire what she most wanted, Father Connor, he of the searing blue eyes and tell-tale bulge in his cassock.
    She noticed.
    Now, thinking quickly, the groundskeeper’s mistress drew up a plan of her own.  Certainly, she did not want to reveal the priest’s indiscretion to the parish.  That would result only in his condemnation and removal from the area, away from her waiting arms.  She needed, rather, a way to remove her rival so that, in his weakness and loss, the priest would be easy prey for a woman who offered just what he had grown accustomed to, now that his passions had been sufficiently stoked.  
    That night, she convinced the groundskeeper that the only way for the two of them to regain their secret meeting place was to put an end to the continuing tryst between the young priest and his mistress.  That seemed logical enough to the groundskeeper, especially in his stupor.  The plan was this:  the next day, during the regular hour of confessions, the groundskeeper was to disguise himself with a moustache his mistress would fashion of her own hair.  He would enter the confessional and, masking his voice, tell young Father Connor that he—the groundskeeper—was in fact Simon Orozco, returned from the war.  He was to tell the priest that he had heard from some army associates that his fiancé, Yolanda Esquibel, had been unfaithful to him in his time of distress, and that he had returned to the community disguised as a homeless beggar, intending to discover the truth for himself.
    “Then,” the mistress said, “you must give this priest the reason why you have come to confess.  Tell him that you harbor murderous urges in your heart.  Tell him that you wish to be forgiven of this sin.  Ask him to pray that you do not act upon your urges and kill the man who had deflowered your beloved Yolanda Esquibel.”
    “That should do for a start,” Leticia Cardoza concluded.  
    Of course, that was not all there was to the mistress’s plan.  There was still the business of what to do with the groundskeeper once she had the priest under her spell.  The drunken lout was not likely to keep silent, once she had set him aside.  Finally, there was the question of what to do about Saint Yolanda, the Perfect.  The mistress had already planned for these, too.
    The next day, young Father Connor received three penitents.
    The first was the man who identified himself as Simon Orozco.  He confessed to Father Connor his overwhelming desire to track down and murder the man who had corrupted Yolanda Esquibel.  The young priest admonished him to drive those evil thoughts from his mind, to say five rosaries for the souls in purgatory, and to return to the confessional the next day.
    He doubted the man would follow those instructions beyond a rosary and a half.  He quickly decided never again to take his pleasure in the arms of Yolanda Esquibel—at least, never for the time being.
    The next penitent, who arrived a short time after the first had left the church, was Yolanda Esquibel, whose confession this time shocked the priest to the point at which he was nearly unable to breathe.  Yes!  Yolanda Esquibel believed she had become pregnant by the angel!  Assuring her that such an instance was impossible, the priest instructed her to say three rosaries of celebration, for surely her strange feelings were a sign from God that her torment was about to be ended.  He further instructed her to remain at home that night, since it was likely that the angel would no longer appear to her.
    The third was a woman whose voice he did not recognize.  Hidden behind a hat and veil, she smelled alluringly of perfume.  In a voice thick with need, she confessed to being plagued by an overwhelming lust for a certain man of the cloth.  To be near him, she whispered, she would be willing to commit any act, fulfill any desire—anything, and in the strictest of secrecy, as he would wish.
    Her penance was three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, along with a couple of Glory Be’s.  She, too, was asked to return the following afternoon.
    Back in the rectory after the three confessions, the priest broke into a terrible sweat.  Several coffee cups of sherry, it must be said, certainly did not help to cool the situation.  The young woman claimed to be pregnant.   If she were, and something in his heart told him it was so, then what?  Surely, no one would believe the story about the angel.  Under the pressure of shame, she would surely break down.  She would identify the small room.  All the fingers would point at him.  He would be found out.
    Then what?  Simon Orozco would believe—with or without proof—that the priest had defiled his fiancé.  The young priest had heard stories of how men killed in the war.
    And what of this other woman, the one whose scent had drenched the confessional and would have left him dizzy, even if all the rest of the afternoon’s revelations hadn’t?
    She would have to wait.  Perhaps.
    The next day, the groundskeeper,  pretending to be Simon Orozco, entered the confessional first.  The priest assured him that he had known Yolanda Esquibel since he first took office at the parish, and had no reason whatsoever to believe that she had ever found favor in the arms of another man.
    “In fact, last night, God gave me a vision,” the priest said to the man, noting to himself that he smelled strongly of wine, which made him all the more menacing.   “I believe I know what you must do to alleviate your fears.”
    The priest directed the penitent to the small room off the vestibule of the church.  There, at an appointed hour, his beloved Yolanda Esquibel would be waiting for him.  The man was to enter in darkness and silence, speaking only at the moment he consummated their complete union, and then only to identify himself as her long-lost Simon.
    Now Simon, himself a virtuous man, would never have followed the priest’s grotesque advice.  However, the groundskeeper, drunk and more than a little randy after a long absence from his mistress’s bed, consented immediately.  Besides, the priest encouraged him before leaving to partake freely of the fruit of the vine to reduce his feelings of apprehension about what was to come.
    Yolanda Esquibel arrived some time later.  This time, the priest instructed her to return to the little room, and proceed as she had each time before.
    “I believe a miracle will take place tonight,” the priest said to the anxious young woman.  “I believe tonight we may see resolution of your current crisis by the most wonderful miracle imaginable.    But there is one commandment you must follow absolutely,” he added.  “The Lord has advised me that you should never mention to a single mortal soul anything  He has done to alleviate your suffering.”
    She promised she would follow the Lord’s will, He having been so understanding during the past months of her torment.
    That was the priest’s final plan.  God’s will be done.  Simon Orozco would arrive under the cover of darkness and slip onto the cot with his beloved Yolanda.  The priest would be in the vestibule, awaiting the moment she cried out in joy at the discovery of a miracle:  her own beloved, returned from the dead.  The man, thinking the cry a result of the tearing of the cervical wall, would believe he was the recipient of his bride-to-be’s virginity.  Months later, when she became heavy with child, both of them would believe it to be his.
    They would live happily ever after.
    The priest took a sip of his sherry and admired his cleverness in this matter.  Then, he thought about the woman in the dark veil.
    The next night, as planned, the groundskeeper, pretending to be Simon Orozco, slinked into the little room near the vestibule, unaware that the priest was watching, hidden behind some vestments.  Inside the room, however, things did not go so well.   
    Yolanda Esquibel at first admitted the angel with open arms, even though he reeked of wine.  Within moments, however, she knew something was wrong.  The man atop her did not feel at all like her angel.  She opened her eyes and saw the groundskeeper atop her, his face oblivious with pleasure.  At once, she pushed him off and began shrieking like a terrified parrot.
    The priest, fearing the man had committed some act of violence, burst into the room, throwing on the light. The groundskeeper, naked, stood there, staring at the priest vacantly.  After all, he had merely followed orders and, besides, he was quite drunk.  
    Yolanda Esquibel covered herself hastily with a bedsheet and began immediately to beg the priest’s forgiveness for her most horrible sin, as if it had been hers to begin with.
    The priest stood aghast, but only for a moment, because into the room behind him stepped the groundskeeper’s mistress.
    You see, the woman in the dark veil had secluded herself outside the rectory, watching to see whether her plan had worked, whether she had frightened the priest from the arms of her rival.  When Father Connor emerged from his priestly quarters and headed for the church, his admirer, under cover of darkness, had followed.
    “So, you have been cheating on me,” she said to her lover, the groundskeeper, a note of triumph ringing in her voice.  “You will have hell to pay.  And as for you, you little tramp,” she said to Yolanda Esquibel.  “Is it not enough for you to have seduced a priest?  Must you have seduced his hired man as well?”
    The young woman realized that she had been deceived all along, that the angel who had appeared in the form of the young priest Father Connor had all the time been that same man.  She bolted from the little room, past the vestibule and out of the church.  Barefoot and naked, she ran a half mile to the River and there, despairing completely, hurled herself into the water, from which her body was never recovered.
    Now, while many believe she was whisked out to sea, others have claimed that she remains beneath the waters of the river.  It is said that on certain nights, if you listen closely, you can hear the voice of Yolanda Esquibel, sobbing for the loss of her true love, and for the child that would never be born.


Tessie Hill spoke first.
    “Is it my understanding that we are to suppose that our visitor here was the young priest, Father Connor, who was so consumed with grief and remorse over his deception of the young woman that he eventually went mad?
    “Of course not,” Rosalva Garcia replied with a touch of superiority in her voice.  “After the poor groundskeeper disappeared—believing, with some help from his mistress and the priest—that he would be arrested and charged with the death of Yolanda Esquibel—the priest took up with the woman until, growing bored, she confessed to his superior a version of what had transpired.  The young priest was whisked away to a monastery somewhere in the north, where he remains secluded to this day, no doubt drinking wine with other members of his order and having a grand time of his so-called rehabilitation.
    “The man whose head resides now in the case behind us is Simon Orozco who did, in fact, return from captivity once the war had ended, some time after the death of Yolanda Esquibel.  Stricken with sorrow and forever unable to again trust his church—the tongues of gossips spare no one—he began walking the length of the river, from its source in the mountains to Long Beach harbor, always listening, trying to detect the dead woman’s voice calling from somewhere within the waters.”
    “Over time, his grief and his despair overcame him, and he was reduced to the dark transient we have from time to time seen along the riverbank, staring blankly into the wind.”
    “It is a known fact,” Rosalva Garcia added, like a beloved spice, “that for the last ten years the river has run unusually high.  Some say it is because of the tears shed by Yolanda Esquibel, who laments the sorry state of the only man who had ever truly loved her.”
    “Ten years ago, they put in the water reclamation plant upstream,” Chuck Taylor snorted.  “That’s the reason the river runs all year round nowadays.”
    “Believe what you will, Chuck,” said Rosalva Garcia, “but be careful what you say in the presence of our guest.  The river has been known to flood most suddenly.  It would be a shame if, one day while you were riding your little bicycle, the River suddenly overflowed its banks and carried you far away and out to sea.”
    The other members of the group sighed their assent.
    Sidney Liao stretched his already thin lips.  “I would say, though, Rosalva, that your story does very little to undermine the notion that the Roman church is awash in superstition.”
    The woman raised a pastry from the table and, with visible relish, submerged it in a cup of sweet, light coffee.

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