Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Fiction

The Miracle
Anthony Servante

Manolito held the plastic figurine in his small palm. He had bitten into his slice of the Rosca de Reyes, the egg bread shaped like a wreath, and felt the plastic Baby Jesus against his inner cheek like a loose tooth. He carefully removed it from his mouth and showed it to his aunts and uncles who were still searching for the figurine in their bread slices.
            “Manolito has found the Baby Jesus,” Uncle Luis announced to the gathering. “It is now Lucinda’s responsibility to oversee the Candelaria.”
            Old Aunt de Celia rose to her feet with the help of Uncle Ramos. The old woman leaned against the shoulder of her elder brother, Jaime Ramos, until she gained her balance. Then she asked Jaime to sit.
“Estamos aqui,” she began, but remembered many in the gathering did not speak Spanish. She cleared her throat and continued, “We are here today, many generations of the Ramos clan, but so too are their wives and husbands here to celebrate La Candelaria,
where we give blessing to the Light that Jesus brought to us that Christmas Day in the manger, but also to celebrate the birth of the seventh son of the seventh daughter, young Manuel Ramos, son of Lucinda Ramirez Ramos. Amen.”
            “Amen,” chorused the gathering.
            “And as befalls the finder of the Baby Jesus in the Rosca bread, there is the duty of the wish, the burden of El Milagro, the miracle. Come, Manolito.”
            As Manolito approached Aunt de Celia, he recalled what his mother had often told him of La Senora Luz Maria de Celia. She was a Bruja, what many Americanos mistranslated as “a witch,” but was correctly translated as “a mid-wife” or “an herbalist.” Many in the gatherings over the years sought to find out what ingredients she put in the bread, but to no avail. When it was time to pass down the recipe to the seventh daughter, Lucinda, she would then pass along the secret recipe to her and her alone. Now was that time.
La Senora de Celia wobbled a bit, but regained her balance by placing her hand on the young boy’s shoulder. Manolito remembered the first time Aunt de Celia broke the Rosca bread. He was only five years old then, and he cried when he didn’t find the Baby Jesus figurine. Aunt de Celia comforted him with a hug as she whispered in his ear, so that the others might not overhear her words, as if the words demanded secrecy from the Ramos clan, “Your day will come to deliver the miracle. Now shush and enjoy your bread, seventh son to the seventh daughter.”  Today she snatched the figurine from Manolito’s hand and kissed it. She closed her eyes and mouthed a silent prayer, and Manolito saw that his mother, aunts and uncles, all in the gathering were mouthing the same words.
            “Amen,” Aunt de Celia concluded and returned the figurine to Manolito. Then she asked her brother Jaime to help her back into her chair. It was time to bring out the holy wine to wash down the rest of the uneaten bread.
To Manolito’s surprise, the Baby Jesus felt hot, but just as quickly turned cold.
Aunt de Celia noted the boy’s surprise. The wishing time was ripe. Tonight the Northern Star would be bright in the sky. Once the wish was fulfilled, Manuel would sow the miracle and bring home its fruit, God’s will and blessed justice to his true believers. The Ramos family would gorge itself on the fruit at the first light of morning.
            As the aunts and uncles, cousins and in-laws exited, each congratulated Lucinda’s good fortune, for she was in charge of making the Ropon, the christening gown for Baby Jesus, and for preparing the supper for the Day of Purification, the day of the miracle. In a few hours the heads of the family would gather to sup on Lucinda’s carefully prepared meal of rice, beans, and birria, goat meat served in its own sweet blood, for the responsibility of serving the meal fell to the mother of the seventh son. Lucinda Ramos bowed her head a moment and said a prayer for her dead husband who passed away from cancer when Manuel was just three years old. She ignored the rumors that Aunt de Celia was glad he was gone, for it was de Celia herself who prepared the special medicine for her sick husband, but he was beyond help. Aunt de Celia had said as much herself.
            When the visitors had all left, Lucinda Ramos knelt and embraced her sole child, Manolito, and kissed him on the cheek. “Before you leave on your search for the giftee of the Promise of the Baby Jesus, you must first hear the story of the Ramos family. Your Great Tio Lupe Ramos was the first to come to the United States. He started a family and a tortilla business on Brooklyn Avenue and Lorena Street. The business grew big and fast, and soon your uncle had dozens of employees. With all the money he made, he fixed his immigration papers and got a green card. Then he began immigrating family members from Mexico. Pretty soon nearly all the Ramos family were here in the States. They started families and the second generation of the Ramos family in the U.S. of A. began. Then there was a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and then me, the seventh generation. And you are the seventh son born of the seventh generation. 
            My cousins had many girls, but the girls do not count, except as the bearers of the male children. There were six boys before you amongst my cousins, but you, the seventh, were born to me. I am the seventh daughter, you are the seventh son, and you have found the Baby Jesus in the Rosca bread. That is the Trinity of the Ramos Circle. We have had great luck with expanding the Ramos markets. We have many businesses along Brooklyn Avenue, from LA County to the City of Los Angeles. We have influence with the City Council and the Board of Supervisors. Your aunts and uncles wield much power with the law and the courts. Aunt de Celia guides us, but your other aunts and uncles do the actual lobbying for redistricting and tax breaks. Many of our neighbors respect us, but we also earned their fear. In the right combination, fear and respect allows us to prosper further and further.
            “Then came the bad year. La Eme—that’s the Mexican Mafia—tried to take advantage of the Ramos grip on Brooklyn Avenue. At first they paid the cholos to come to collect the “protection” money. At first we paid, but they kept raising the price. So we had a gathering, and Aunt de Celia said that she would meet with the head of La Eme and put an end to the blackmail and threats. That was the day you were born—seven years ago today. Your father, may he rest in peace, feared standing up to the Jefe, and Aunt de Celia often scolded him for not protecting you. But he was good if not strong. That is why I loved him. In you, you have both his goodness and Aunt de Celia’s strength. I know you will choose wisely.
            “So Aunt de Celia met with the Jefe, the boss of La Eme, with the promise to pay him a large sum of money. She poured him many glasses of whiskey and he drank and laughed. But what he didn’t know was that our Auntie mixed her herbs into the bottle of whiskey. The Jefe got so drunk that he fell down the stairs and cracked his neck. La Eme left us alone after that, and since then we’ve prospered, and we’ve reached this day where the seventh son of the seventh daughter of Ramos has bitten from the holy bread and found the holy figure of the Baby Jesus.  You have brought good fortune to our home.
“Aunt de Celia was very proud for you. I could see it in her eyes. Seven years old and already a man. Now you go out and make a wish as your aunt instructed you, and the Baby Jesus will make it come true. Then the Miracle of the Candalaria will wash over the Ramos clan. We will become stronger and live forever through our children. So, go now my son and find a worthy person to receive the wish. Meanwhile, I’ll prepare our supper and light a candle for our good fortune.” She kissed her son on the forehead and gave him a gentle push toward the door.
Then Lucinda danced into the kitchen with a smile full of pride on her face.
            Manolito decided immediately to make the wish to help a poor person. It’s what Jesus would have done. He headed for the park where the late afternoon crowd would still be eating their Rosca and fishing out little plastic figurines from their mouth. But the difference between those families and the Ramos clan was that Aunt de Celia made special bread with the spells of her herbs and incantations. For those other families it was but a superstitious time to eat and celebrate, but for the Ramos families it was ritual rooted in the times way before Jesus, in an age of Mayan sacrifices and holy promises between the many gods of earth, air, and water. When the Spanish conquerors brought their One God, the ritual changed. Instead of a sacrifice, they ate the bread, the body of Christ, and drank the wine, the blood of Christ. The gods had changed, but the magic remained constant. Aunt de Celia had told Little Manuel the story many times.
A cool breeze tossed the trees to and fro as the young Mexican-American boy entered Belvedere Park. Many families and friends filled the benches and sat on blankets, while barbeques lit with charcoals cooked carnitas, carne asada, chicken, and tripas. But where were the poor people?
The young boy sighed and gripped the Baby Jesus figure in his hand tightly. Please, Baby Jesus, he pleaded, help me find someone in need of your help, for I must
make my wish soon: supper’s almost ready.
            It was right in mid-thought that Manolito spotted the old man in the wheelchair.
He was dirty and the stink of his clothes cut through the smell of barbequed steaks and peppers and chiles wafting through the air.
Manolito approached the old man cautiously.
            The suspicious man halted his chair and eyed the boy. “What do you want?”
            “Happy Dia Santa,” Manolito said.
            “Is that what today is?” The old man considered the words. “Guess that’s why there’s so many people here in the park today. So what can I do for you?”
            “I have come to wish for you,” Manolito told him. “What would you like?”
            The old man laughed as he tucked the raggedy blanket under his useless legs. “Well, I could use a million dollars. How’s that? A million bucks.”
            “No, senor,” he corrected the old man. “Baby Jesus can only help your body and soul. Besides, how will such money help you? For an operation to walk again? Then wish to walk again.”
            “No operations for me, boy,” the old man sighed. “And as far as my wishing to walk again, I’ve done given up on wishing. I sleep where I can. Eat what I find or what is handed to me by strangers. And I have to watch out for that. Even the kindest strangers may try to poison me, just to get this homeless man out of their neighborhood. They set a tramp on fire the other night. It’s not safe out here.”
            “How is it you that you have lost the use of your legs?”
“Well, since you’re going to wish me some new legs, I guess I can tell you,”
the old man winked at him. “A long time ago, there was this evil man in the neighborhood. He stole money from the businesses. He sold drugs. He sold women and children. It was him. He stole my legs. ”
            “My mama told me of this bad man,” Manolito said. “He hurt many people, she told me.”
            “Yes, he did,” the old man sighed again, “but I was his last victim. After me, he stopped hurting people. But so what?! It’s too late for me. No operations. No nothing. Down to wishes and prayers from a simple little boy. How pathetic. Now go away. I must find something to eat.”
            “Perhaps you can sup with me and my mama.”
            “Sorry, kid, but thanks for the thought.” He wheeled his chair passed the boy and headed for a friendly-looking family cooking carnitas.
            Manolito opened his hand and stared at the Baby Jesus. This is the one, he thought. I wish for this man to regain full use of his legs. Return to him the spirit he has lost. Then he gripped the figurine hard and closed his eyes. “I wish for this man to regain full use of his legs.”
            Dark clouds crept over the San Gabriel Mountains and covered the sky. Thunder crashed and the rain began to fall in torrents. In a blind, the picnickers gathered their things and cleared the park. The trees swayed from the sudden harsh wind and buckled under the weight of the sudden storm. Tree trunks cracked and splintered. Thick branches snapped and fell across the trimmed grass. Lightning struck a tree and the tree caught fire. Silhouetted against the red flames, Manolito saw the figure of a tall muscular man standing next to the fallen wheelchair.
            Manolito knelt and crossed himself. The old man puffed his chest and stretched his arms. He looked like a human crucifix. He ran his hands down the length of his legs
till he reached the tips of his toes. He felt around the holes in his shoes and dug his fingers in to feel the living flesh of his feet. He curled his toes and expanded
them. He tossed back his wet unkempt hair.
            “I can walk,” he shouted into the drenched sky. He stepped forward awkwardly, but after a few steps, the memory returned. This was walking. He stood before the kneeling boy. 
            The rain was washing the stink from his clothes and his skin. He unsnagged the knots from his beard. He examined his hands. These were once the hands of a young man, not an old man. When did he become old? Yes. He remembered. The evil one. She slipped drugs into his whiskey. She pushed him down the stairs. She broke his spine. The neighborhood celebrated her courage.  The police did nothing. They will all suffer. The rain will cover his rampage. He felt inside his coat and found the knife. Tonight hell will be filled with the blood of these people, but not before cutting out the heart of the evil one, La Bruja.
            But first he would sup with this child, this innocent lamb of God. He offered his hand to the boy, who arose and accepted it. The man felt the object in the boy’s palm. It was the Baby Jesus. “May I have this? he asked the smiling boy.
            “It has always been yours, senor,” Manolito answered.
            “Thank you. Is that offer for supper still open?”
            “Of course,” Manolito said, guiding the man by the hand toward home and mama. “Supper should be ready when we arrive. The family will be there waiting for the miracle. You will share it with them.”
“Good. I’m starved.” The evil one will suffer slowly and so will her loved ones, he thought. He felt the strength growing in his arms and legs. His mind sharpened with the memory of that day. He remembered the old neighborhood. The Ramos family. The pregnant niece of La Bruja. The Jefe of La Eme slipped the head of the Baby Jesus into his mouth and bit it off. He grinned like a jackal as he spat out the tiny head of the blessed figurine.
            El Jefe entered the Ramos house and immediately recognized La Bruja. He pulled the knife from his pocket and extended the blade, laughing at the irony of his luck. He heard Manolito lock the door behind him. The living room was lit only by a circle of candles. Inside the circle the seven hooded figures chanted what sounded more like animal noises than words. As the chant ended, the Ramos family members parted to reveal a large empty table. For no reason in particular, El Jefe walked over and lay on the table. Aunt de Celia removed the veil from her face and lifted the machete over her head. As La Bruja  cut off the Jefe’s head, Lucinda placed a huge vat to catch the fresh sweet blood of the sacrificial goat that Aunt de Celia had prepared for this meal seven years ago today.

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