The wind pushed the clouds. The moon appeared, brilliant and full; it glided by the roof of the farmhouse, it slipped down the walls and came in through the open window. The light burst into the modest room and its unexpected splendor awakened Marciana, who slept next to her impassive man.
Alert, the woman scoured the room with her eyes. Everything was utterly quiet. All she could hear was the sound of crickets in the nearby grass.
Almost out of habit, she rocked the hammock where Juan, the littlest one, slept. She looked at the cot shared by Santiago and Lucia, the older ones, and she passed her hand over her eight month-pregnant belly, as if she were taking stock of all her children.
Kept awake by the premature clarity, uneasy without knowing why, she began to worry about the next day's work and wanted to get her tasks organized in her mind.
"If I get up at five to light the oven," she thought, "The first batch of chipas will be ready at six; Jose can sell them on the road at seven. That's the hour they sell best, as breakfast for the people walking. At eight or nine, we can have another batch. Later, while Lucia washes the clothes and Santiago carries water from the stream, I can crush corn to make sopa paraguaya."
As she found all this very feasible, almost routine, but changed only slightly due to the pilgrimage that had already begun, she resolved that she would also go to Santuario, to mass at vespers. She tried to appease sleep by praying, and she took out the rosary she kept under her pillow.
It was then that she noticed that the statue of the Virgin of Miracles of Caacup_ that she had under a shelf glowed with a strange luminosity.
She sat up and looked at it with great attention; she was tremendously shocked when she noticed that eyes of the image, which always followed those who looked upon it, were not directed to her, but fixed on Juan.
She was afraid and wanted to wake up her husband. But he, submerged in the heavy sleep of alcohol, grumbled and continued immersed in his stupor.
"Dear Virgin of Caacupe! I entrust to you my son Juan, if he's your favorite, just as he's mine, too."
It was surprising to have said something she always had hidden in her heart, and had never confessed or admitted even to herself. Now she had said it, and the Virgin listened to it.
As if her secret were a fault, she wanted to justify herself, remembering that Santiago had been born when she was still practically a child, a product of her first love and her first deception. After a time, the creature became ballast. When she landed a job in the city, her mother, exhausted by raising her own children and the grandchildren her older children kept leaving her, could endure no more burden and died. Marciana had to return to the country. She began to work on the local ranches, making homemade sweets and chipas. She went from shortage to shortage. She renounced many things for that child and it was almost an obstacle when she met Jose, a chipas vendor, her current companion. This one, finally, who said he was in love with her, accepted her in spite of the child. She went with him to his farm to serve him as a woman and to help him in his work. Before the year was up, Lucia was born, quite a disappointment to the father who was hoping for a boy.
What anguish it gave her to remember those years! Jose paid no attention to the little girl; he had turned gruff and impatient. It was during that time that the man began to drink and to mistreat her. Two miscarriages occurred and when Marciana had already begun to think that she'd never be a mother again, she found herself pregnant with the only child she had ever really wanted. For nine months she suffered the fear that her body would expel it ahead of time. But, he was born just fine. There he was now, almost a year old, proud and healthy, sleeping in the hammock. He was the child of a miracle. And the Virgin looked upon him!
Insomnia had made her remember things she had forgotten.
Other clouds arrived with the summer breeze and covered the moon, darkening the night.
The farm fell back into the shadows, but the little statue of the Virgin held for a moment longer its strange glow, until Marciana, overwhelmed by fatigue, fell asleep.
"I'm telling you, Teresa, it has to be someone important. For sure it's a movie star. On the other hand, they never would have called us at this time. For me, it all comes great, so close to Christmas. It's almost like a miracle. I'm telling you they've got to be important: check out the soap we're going to put out, and the silk sheets! Not even when the president of who-knows-where came was there so much preparation. The only weird thing is the season. With this heat, hardly anyone comes this way. And even fewer on Vespers, on the Virgin of Caacupe Day Eve. But gringos are all weird. What do they know that tomorrow is Virgin of Caacupe Day? But, get moving, Teresa. We've got to fix up the entire floor, not just the suite. It looks like an entire entourage is going to come. These stars travel incognito, but they carry along their photographers. That's what I say. Well, okay I already see your face. I already know I'm a fake, but that's a virtue, Mamita -- from God in his heavens -- they always tell me that with my way of speaking and with a little training, I'd be great. But that's life, right? I couldn't stay in school after third grade and I'm only a hotel maid. But this is for sure; I'm the best maid; that's why they're calling me now. And, well, I also rose high, right? To the 15th floor. Do it with the flannel, Teresa, like I told you. Finally, I no longer want anything for me, but yes for my son who's going to study. If God and the Holy Virgin help me, he's going to get into the university and will be a doctor or a lawyer. Don't laugh, Teresa, don't be bad! And don't leave fingerprints in the mirror!
Numerous bags, several persons giving orders and someone who carried out the requirements of registration, came in front of the black limousine. The elevator, which had been reserved hours before, greeted the anticipated guests and they were guided to the penthouse.
The personnel, in a row in the hallway, greeted them with reverence, as they had been instructed. The head housekeeper desired to enter and a woman with a severe face who organized the entourage, took her leave:
"Wait until you are called," she said, closing the door.
The girl, embarrassed, said to her companion:
"I know, Teresa, don't say anything. They're not movie stars. She's pretty ugly; not at all pretty. But it's clear she is a person of "class" because she's not wearing the latest, trendy fashion. Did you see the skinny guy with glasses? Very distinguished. Who could they be? Did you read anything in the papers? But what are you going to read in the papers, Teresa! Get up, get going, now that they're really calling us."
The girl had come in and looked around for the mysterious woman when she saw her come from the adjoining room.
"This blouse, too, please," she requested with a smile.
She had a beautiful voice and spoke perfect Spanish.
"What's your name?" she added.
"Catalina, at your service," she answered reverently.
"You're so young, Catalina!"
"I'm twenty-two, Ma'am, and I have a six-year-old son who's a darling. Look, here," she said, pulling a photograph from her apron pocket.
The woman contemplated the little boy with tenderness, but her smile vanished and she felt very agitated when Catalina asked:
"And do you have children, Ma'am?"
Her personal secretary wanted to put an end to this intrusion of privacy, but the woman was recovering her composure and she demurred:
"Leave it, Matilde; I want to see the photograph."
"What a beautiful boy!" she exclaimed after a moment.
"Yes, Ma'am. Thanks to God and to the Virgin. I always pray that I will not be without work because I want my son to study and to be someone. For example, just yesterday I was laid off because of the lack of tourists. I prayed to the Virgin for a miracle ... and you arrived. They gave me a contract for double wages!"
The woman gestured to her personal secretary requesting her purse. She took out a few green bills and gave them to Catalina, saying:
"Look, leave your address with Ms. Matilde and each month I'll send a little something for the child. This is so that you buy him toys this Christmas. Don't forget that he should study; and when he graduates he can come and visit me in my country."
"Ma'am, God will repay you! What is your name?"
"Remember me as a godmother, nothing more."
Catalina left the room with her heart bursting in her chest. "See, Teresa, I told you: the miracle, the miracle!"
"Fool, we're in the 20th century. There aren't any miracles any more."
"Atheist! Don't you even know that miracles can be modern, too?"
Like two common tourists, the couple left the lobby to go across to the dining room. The walked holding hands, like lovers embarking on an adventure. They passed by the shopping gallery and in front of a glass with the name "Stern," he gestured impulsively and invited her to come in.
"No, you know I'm not crazy about jewelry," she said.
He drew her inside the shop. She laughed, as if they were playing a prank.
The saleswoman showed them all sorts of jewelry, but she offered them very specially some earrings of gold and coral, with filigree-work, that, she said, were typical of the country.
"Very pretty. We'll come back tomorrow," said the woman, with a smile, as if wanting to end the game.
"That's impossible, ma'am. We're not open tomorrow. Didn't you know that tomorrow is the holiday of Caacupe, the most important religious holiday of the year?"
The saleswoman began to tell, with many details, how thousands upon thousand of persons go to the hill country by whatever method they can; some walking on foot the 55 kilometers from the capital.
"On the Day of the Virgin, ma'am," she continued, "Everyone is equal: rich, poor, penitents, people who have promised, beggars, debtors, hopelessly ill, appreciative healed, all, all come in search of or in payment of a miracle."
"Then it's better if you take the earrings now," said the man, trying to dissipate the emotion that the story had aroused in the woman.
When the arrived at the dining room, they selected a small table, next to a window. They were the only guests in the large room.
"Why is everything so solitary?" the man asked the maitre-d'. "The food that bad?" he added as a joke.
"It's the season, sir," said the man in the black jacket, very seriously. "There aren't many tourists in the summer. Plus, today is Virgin of Caacupe Eve. Everyone will be walking to Caacupe."
"So much faith!" exclaimed the woman with renewed anxiety. During the dinner, she could no longer think of anything else.
That night, her sleep was restless. She didn't know if she was dreaming or if she was reliving everything that had been said to her since her arrival.
She saw the long caravan of people who had made promises to the Virgin, and in the middle of the simple, devoted people, she too walked. All those around her were singing and she, too, began to sing, as if she had known that hymn of praise all her life.
She saw the saleswoman from the jewelry store, the housekeeper from the hotel, and the waiters from the dining room. All went in the procession with her, climbing the hill. She saw small children who wore blue capes and crowns of gold cardboard, and she saw girls dressed like angels with great wings of tulle attached to wire forms, with offerings of flowers and lighted candles.
An old woman approached her and murmured something in an unknown language, but she understood her perfectly, without comprehending the words, what it signified: "Let's go, the Virgin's waiting for you."
Suddenly the sun turned more brilliant, almost blinding. The light reflected in the copper that covered the cupola of the basilica, set off sparkling flashes, as if the luminous rays wished to indicate the way, the same way in which two thousand years ago, a shining star guided the three wise men to the tiny manger in Bethlehem.
The woman looked at her hands; she was the only one not to bring anything to offer; not myrrh, nor incense, nor gold. She thought in the earrings and she asked herself if it would be sufficient offering for the great thing she wished to ask for.
She was there, on her knees in front of the altar, like a humble pilgrim, begging for the miracle.
And she saw the Virgin, with her curling blonde hair held down by a regal crown of gold and precious stones, under a halo of stars. She saw her richly embroidered blue cape and between the pleats of silk, her hands assuming a praying position.
With eyes filled with tears, prisoner of a reverent and pious emotion, she began to whisper a ancient prayer, that now seemed to her completely new.
"May God deliver you, Mar'a!"
And the Virgin, from her altar of flowers, responded with a tender, maternal glance. The image slowly moved its lips and whispered a few words that the woman could not hear, because of a baby crying nearby, which grew louder and louder.
She woke up. She was in the arms of her husband who tried to calm her.
"You were crying. You've had a bad dream. It's all right, love. Try to calm down."
"Oh, no! It wasn't a dream. It wasn't a bad dream," said the woman, between sobs. "Promise me something, okay? Do you remember that when we decided to come, we swore we'd only do what we wanted to do ... Well, I'm begging you -- tomorrow I want to go to Caacupe."
The powerful automobile glides over the highway. Its air-conditioned interior does not allow one to imagine the heat outside. The sun falls full over the asphalt and its light reverberates, forming zigzagging mirages.
On the sides of the road, walking vendors have placed themselves, offering refreshments, palm fans, straw hats, baskets with recently baked chipas and trinkets. Over the pavement, pilgrims of all ages walk unhurried, praying and singing; some wear crowns of thorns. There is one who barely advances under the weight of a wooden cross. But in all faces, one sees faith, the devotion enters each one.
The woman in the car asks the driver to decrease his speed. The spectacle of the promissories, those who have promised the Virgin something, moves her profoundly. She has already seen them in her dreams.
Suddenly, inexplicably, the car stops due something in the motor. Immediately, another car that has followed them since their exit from the capital, moves ahead and the driver opens the doors so that the passengers can move to the other vehicle. They're about to do that when the woman hears the cry of a child, that seems to come from further away than the shoulder of the road.
"Come on, woman, you'll get sunstroke," says the husband.
But she, determined, begins to get out.
"For God's sake, come here!" begs the man and takes her by the arm. He doesn't dare to counter her because he's seen her face and he knows that nothing can stop her. So, he helps her and they go down the tracks of red dirt and get to a level place where they see a small farm.
Under the spreading limbs of a tree, a woman works with a mortar with precise, direct blows. Not far from her, a small child, with the smaller half of his little naked body seated in the dirt, cries and cries, with monotonous and tired sobs. His dirty little hands have left red streaks on his face.
The woman seems possessed. She does not stop even before the farm woman who looks at her strangely. She goes directly to the child and takes him in her arms.
"Poor thing! My little baby! Don't cry any more," she tells him, and she kisses him tenderly.
The child has grown quiet with the unexpected attention that the unknown woman is giving him. He looks at her curiously; he likes her earrings and begins to play with them.
Marciana has left the mortar and approaches, part uncertain, part friendly.
"You're going to get dirty, ma'am. He's all wet."
With her sleeve, she cleans the face of the baby and later tries to take him in her arms.
"Thank you, ma'am," she says. "He's crying because he's spoiled, that's all."
The woman does not want to unfasten herself from the child and with a voice somewhere between pleading and demanding, she says:
"Give me this child. You're going to have another one soon. Give him to me -- I want him so much! I'll treat him like a prince and I'll make him happy. I swear it!"
"Bring me my child. I won't give him up for anything in the world."
"Please --" insists the woman. "I'll give you whatever you want. I'll make your son happy -- he'll be a prince. A king."
"He's already my King. Hand him over!" The mother has become violent.
The woman burst into loud sobbing; the husband consoles her and tries to carry her away.
"Let's go, let's go. If it's only a little baby --"
"No, no! He's the one. The child I saw in my dreams, the one the Virgin gave me. She herself placed him in my arms. This baby's mine!"
The struggle has ended. Marciana has snatched away her son and carries him; and with who knows what intentions, she takes up the pestle from the mortar.
Juan smiles. He is in the arms of his mother and now has a new toy that sparkles in his dirty little fingers.
The couple go up to the highway. The car is waiting for them. But the woman has made a decision. She is not aware that drops of blood are staining her blouse of Belgian lace, nor has she noticed that she is missing an earring. She takes out her handkerchief and dries her tears.
She will go to the Santuario of the Virgin. Yes, but she will go walking. The entreaties of her husband who tenderly calls out to her are worthless:
"Come back, Fabiola, come back, ma chere."
She has already said it. She will go walking. Because she knows she must go.