Agustin and the Harlot
April 9, 2023
“For a spirit of prostitution
leads them astray and they
have played the harlot against
Father Eusebio and Agustin were alone in the Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, since the last Mass had just ended and all the old women who attended the services had left. Father Eusebio remembered the days when his Masses were packed with men, women and children, but that was in the past, before la gran corrupcion, the period when nearly all the people of Madre de Dios simultaneously gave up on the religion of Christ and venerated other gods instead – sin, money, drugs and lust. The truth is Father Eusebio often thought of leaving Madre de Dios and establishing a church in a more hospitable place, far from the Amazon Basin town where the only thriving business activities were growing coca leaves for the coca lords or working the bars, nightclubs and whorehouses on the Avenida Simon Bolivar. But ultimately Father Eusebio always decided to stay in Madre de Dios, for he refused to believe that all the citizens of the town were beyond the possibility of redemption.
“I think,” he said to Agustin, “that you should marry Viridiana. You are at the right age to begin thinking of marriage and raising a family.”
“Marry Viridiana?” echoed Agustin. “Surely you realize that the child in her womb isn’t mine.”
“That shouldn’t worry you overmuch. Saint Joseph wasn’t the biological father of the infant Jesus and yet Joseph raised Him as his own. And Viridiana, despite all her flaws, is a noble and generous woman. Weren’t you once in love with her?”
“A long time ago, Father Eusebio, when I was a seventeen-year-old, and she was just sixteen. I remember running in the fields, holding her by the hand. Viridiana was the first girl I kissed – I still remember that first kiss – but we didn’t take it any farther. I always respected her pudor. Then she stabbed me in the back and forgot everything she had promised. She took up living in free union with Sheriff Jose Augusto Gutierrez.”
“You know he raped her, don’t you? That what happened wasn’t her fault. And God teaches us to forgive. I think Viridiana would make for a wonderful wife.”
“Aren’t you forgetting a minor detail, Father? You seem to forget Viridiana makes her living as a prostitute.”
“All the more reason for you to rescue her from such a condition. What did you want her to do? After what Sheriff Gutierrez did to her, there was no alternative to prostitution. Her parents died so long ago. And she is one of the few women in town who occasionally comes to Mass. I tell you if you marry her, she will make you happy.”
“My initial reaction is to resist. Even if I forgave all her past transgressions, what guarantee would I have that she would not go back to her disordered life? A monkey, even if dressed in silk, remains a monkey.”
“Haven’t you heard of Saint Mary of Egypt? She was a harlot from the age of twelve until she was almost thirty. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she had an encounter with Mary and eventually became a desert hermit, fasting, praying and living alone. She never returned to her ancient trade.”
“Well, Viridiana is no saint. She will sleep with the vilest creature, as long as he pays her well. I won’t go into details, Father, but you can’t even imagine what she does at the parties organized by the coca lords.”
“I know more than you might think. You see, Viridiana is a very special person. She is one of the handful of women in this God-forsaken village who still comes to Confession from time to time. I always tell her the same thing, that she must look for another line of work, but I believe she thinks it’s impossible to survive in any other way. If you marry her, you will give her a means to escape. Remember the Christ did not punish the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned, but instead told her, ‘neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.’”
“I don’t know that I can live with a woman such as Viridiana. What would everyone think? What would my mother think?”
“As far as the people of Madre de Dios, you have nothing to worry about. The townspeople have long ago forgotten even what it means to sin. In their minds, there’s no difference between a life of celibacy and one of unbridled lust. And as far as doña Josefina, she might be a little scandalized at first, but with time she’ll learn to love Viridiana like a daughter. I know your mother and I can assure you of that.”
“I am almost certain that if I marry Viridiana, she will not be faithful. If what you’re doing is trying to have me accept a Cross as a means to get closer to Jesus, just let me know. But don’t pretend that you don’t realize that marriage to Viridiana comes with certain perils.”
“Who else do you pretend to wed, Agustin?” asked the priest. “Is there another virtuous woman in all of Madre de Dios? Isn’t adultery rampant? Is abortion not commonplace? And by taking to yourself a wife of whoredom, and raising a child born of whoredom, maybe the citizens of Madre de Dios will see that they can be forgiven by God just as Viridiana is forgiven by you. Don’t you see God’s heart is broken by their wicked conduct, by the fact they have all become unrepentant whores, slaves to the coca lords and everything the coca lords have brought to Madre de Dios – brothels, gambling, unremitting violence? At least Viridiana is noble, Christian in the best sense of the word despite her many sins. Have you noticed how generous she is to the Indian children who beg on the streets, skinny as dogs?”
After the rubber barons left in the 1940’s, Madre de Dios became a poor and sleepy town. The impoverished citizens of Madre de Dios engaged in small-scale agriculture and led quiet but dignified lives. Every year there were processions in honor of La Virgen del Rosario, Saint Joseph and Saint Teresa of Avila. Despite the poverty of the town, the central church was actually expanded to accommodate a greater number of feligreses. The Jesuits came and built a small high school. The town of Madre de Dios was officially dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier. Father Eusebio called it a “little bit of Heaven.” After all, he did not forget that the town was named after the Virgin Mary.
All of that changed in the 1970’s with the arrival of the coca lords and the narco-boom. The coca lords arrived in Madre de Dios and transformed it almost overnight. Soon all sorts of illicit businesses sprung up in Madre de Dios like ugly weeds of evil. The peasants, used to subsistence farming, could now gamble at new casinos using dollars paid to them for farming coca leaves instead of potatoes and corn. The sex trade was ubiquitous. Young women used to working as maids and nannies for a pittance commanded high prices at new, fancy brothels. Former army conscripts could earn a fortune as “bodyguards” to the drug lords and to assassinate their enemies when necessary. The Hotel Bolivar built during the rubber boom of the 1940’s was refurbished to hold grand feasts which often ended up in orgies. Cocaine was easily available and cheap. There was a flourishing open air drug market overseen by the most powerful drug lord in Madre de Dios. Dead bodies began to appear on the streets, killed as scores were settled between rival cartels. And to Father Eusebio’s great consternation, Mass attendance dropped precipitously, as well as the giving of alms.
“Surely,” he said during a homily at a virtually empty church, “this town is much worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. At least in those cities, nobody found decapitated heads on the roads, victims of fourteen-year-old sicarios.”
Viridiana’s life as a prostitute began soon after the beginning of the narco-boom. She had been living in the home of Sheriff Gutierrez ever since the night he raped her. There was no one to whom Viridiana could complain, as he was the only authority in town, so she ended up staying with him. After the coca lords arrived in Madre de Dios, the Sheriff had become something of a rich man himself, as he took a generous tajada from their earnings in order to look the other way. But he was also a prodigious and reckless gambler. That is the reason Viridiana suffered her desgracia.
One night Sheriff Gutierrez was playing rocambor with Cuco Garcia, a one-eyed man who ran the most luxurious brothel in Madre de Dios, and Edelberto Monasterios, head of the most profitable cartel. All three of them had plenty of money as a result of the drug trade and placed heavy bets as they played into the night. Sheriff Gutierrez kept losing and losing, which made him bet more and more to see if he could recover what he had lost. At some point, he bet his house and lost that too. The other two players were ready to leave since they figured the Sheriff had nothing else to wager.
At that moment, Sheriff Gutierrez called Viridiana.
“We’ll play another round,” the Sheriff said. “If I lose, Viridiana will belong to the player who wins. If I succeed, you will no longer take my home.”
Soon Viridiana appeared. She was unsure why she had been called by the Sheriff. Garcia and Monasterios looked at her with eyes of concupiscence and agreed to the Sheriff’s proposition. Surely there was no more lovely woman in all of Madre de Dios: auburn hair falling to her shoulders, eyes like turquoise, an enticing and youthful body. None of the whores in Cuco Garcia’s brothel – many of them spent and tired cocaine addicts – could replicate her beauty or match her silhouette. So all agreed to one more round of rocambor.
Cuco Garcia extracted a brand-new Spanish deck from his coat pocket. The winner in a game of rocambor is always the player who has the most matadors: the single sword, the seven cups, the club, the golden coin. Sheriff Gutierrez was lucky enough to receive all of the matadors when the cards were dealt, so he easily won the round. He had regained his house, but he wanted to continue playing. So he made another proposition to his fellow players: you get Viridiana if I lose, I get twenty-thousand dollars if I win. When the cards were dealt, Sheriff Gutierrez felt he could possibly succeed again. He didn’t have all the matadors, but he had the most powerful matador, the single sword, and his other cards weren’t all that bad. The whole game depended on whether one of the other players had been dealt all the remaining matadors or if they had been split between the two. If the matadors had been split between the two, Sheriff Gutierrez would win again.
“Hold my hand so you can give me luck,” he said to Viridiana.
She held it firmly, since she wanted him to win the round.
By then, she had figured out that she was the object of the bet and prayed for Sheriff Gutierrez to have the best hand. She felt no love for the sheriff, as he was a rough and vulgar man. But the alternative was life in Fantasy Island, the whorehouse owned by Garcia, or being turned over to the drug lord Monasterios in order to participate in the orgies he organized at the Hotel Bolivar.
Viridiana shuddered at both possibilities.
In the end, however, it was clear that Garcia had the best hand, that he had all the remaining matadors. He had not split them with Monasterios, so it was Garcia who won the round.
“Viridiana will be mine!” Garcia exclaimed. “She will be the delight of my bed and then she’ll make me rich. Men will come from the length and breadth of the Amazonia just to spend an hour with her. Gentlemen, the game is over!”
Agustin often felt a pang of guilt about how successful his restaurant was. Las Delicias had been a solid business even before the narco-boom, but once the coca lords arrived, Agustin’s diner – set up in the courtyard of his mother’s home – had become successful beyond all expectations. It was the favorite place to eat for Edelberto Monasterios the drug lord and Cuco Garcia the pimp, who often arrived at Las Delicias with a group of prostitutes, often including Viridiana. They spent wildly on wine and beer, and always left generous tips.
Agustin wondered whether he was sinning merely by participating in the prosperity brought to Madre de Dios by the coca lords. After all, the huge tips he received were the result of money obtained by drug trafficking, prostitution and even murder. And he hated seeing Viridiana among the prostitutes. For all the rumors about how she had been forced into prostitution, she didn’t seem dejected. Sometimes Agustin saw her laugh – and that racked his heart. He remembered the girl he had loved as an adolescent and this laughing whore seemed to be another person.
Agustin didn’t interact with Viridiana when she visited his restaurant. He took her order, served her plate and said nothing to her. It was Cuco Garcia who spoke for the group. The one-eyed pimp had a reputation for brutality – for beating up his whores – and Agustin was astonished that Viridiana could be so mirthful with such a man. But now Agustin had it in his head that he must marry her. He knew that he must propose to her that very day. Didn’t the Lord Himself order him to do so? Wasn’t that the meaning of his unruly dream?
In the middle of the night, Agustin had awakened, sweating. He was sure the Lord Himself had spoken to him and commanded him to marry Viridiana.
“And she may betray you,” the Lord had warned. “She may escape from your home for weeks, return to prostitution, and knowing all this you must still marry her and forgive her when she goes astray. You must also prophesy to the town of Madre de Dios, tell them that they have incurred God’s wrath, that they shall see floods and epidemics unless they mend their ways.”
“Why do you want me to bear such a Cross, to marry a prostitute whom you suggest will be adulterous? And why choose such a weak vessel as your prophet? Surely there must be another citizen of Madre de Dios who could better accomplish the goals you have in mind.”
“In time you will understand why I am commanding you to marry a harlot,” said the Lord. “Do it with delight. And as for your insufficiency as a prophet, trust that the Holy Spirit Himself will guide you.”
Cuco Garcia the pimp left the restaurant early, said he had some business to attend to, and left three crisp hundred-dollar bills on the table. The five or six prostitutes who had accompanied him remained and asked for another carafe of wine. When Viridiana left the table to go to the restroom, Agustin took advantage of the situation to approach her.
“I know that you’re pregnant,” he said. “And I know your child has no father. I would like to be the father to your child.”
“Are you proposing marriage? Truly, Agustin, after everything I’ve gone through? Why would a man like you want to marry an unrepentant whore?”
“Because I don’t think you’re unrepentant. And even if you are, it is the will of God that I marry you. Father Eusebio says you will make an excellent wife. You were my first love, yes, the only woman I have ever loved.”
“Don’t you realize that after all of these years, my sin has become a habit? I probably couldn’t live within the strictures of marriage. Cuco wants me to abort the baby and carry on. At this point, I think that would be the wisest course.”
“What would Father Eusebio say? What do you think the Lord would think? I know that despite everything you still believe.”
“Oh, get away from me, Agustin. The girl you seek to marry died long ago, after a game of rocambor in the house of Sheriff Gutierrez.”
“Rocambor?” Agustin echoed. He could not understand the meaning of her words.
“All I mean is that I am a different person after having worked as a prostitute for three years. Believe me, you wouldn’t want such a wife. I now enjoy vice. I love cocaine. I would sin even if I wasn’t paid for it.”
“You also go to Mass from time to time. And Father Eusebio has told me he’s heard your Confessions.”
“I’m just not worthy to be your wife.”
“Think about it, Viridiana. I would like to give my last name to your child. You can escape from Cuco’s burdel forever. And despite everything, you can regain your virtue in a marriage blessed by God.”
“Are you done?” asked Viridiana.
“Just one more thing,” said Agustin.
“I love you still.”
Viridiana woke up at three in the afternoon. She was glad she had a few hours until the men came to seek her services at night. The previous evening she had snorted cocaine, “entertained” more than a dozen men, and drunk until she passed out. It had become a ritual every week at the Hotel Bolivar, where Edelberto Monasterios threw lavish parties and all the new notables of Madre de Dios attended: coke dealers big and small, government authorities, local military men, even a former priest who had been defrocked and now made his living as a bodyguard to a wealthy coke baron.
Viridiana had a huge headache and gave herself to thoughts of self-focused rumination. Is this all there is to life? Nights of meaningless pleasure, days of boredom, constant sex. And now Agustin offered her a means to escape. She had loved him too, when she was seventeen, but those days were oh so distant now. Could she really change her life? What if she said the heck with it and told Cuco to find another whore to take her place? Would he beat her up? Would he threaten to kill her? Frankly she couldn’t care less. She got out of bed and walked to the kitchen, where she fixed herself a sandwich.
Although Fantasy Island was the newest and most luxurious whorehouse in Madre de Dios, Viridiana couldn’t help but see it as somehow shabby. The bordello was located in the middle of the town, a green structure with twenty-four rooms and a bar on the first floor, where the johns could look at the available women and choose the one they preferred. If they wanted, they could choose a travesti instead. The walls of the brothel were painted in garish colors, a deep purple and a bright yellow, and there was an image of San Nicolas, patron saint of prostitutes, affixed to one of the walls.
Even in mid-afternoon, the whole place was dark, as if it were nighttime, since all of the windows were covered with thick purple drapes and there were only a few lightbulbs on the ceiling. Before the coca lords arrived, all of the whores in Madre de Dios had been Amerindians, but the coke lords had connections and had been able to import prostitutes from as far away as Paris and New York City. Yes, the coca lords had brought prosperity to Madre de Dios, a damned prosperity thought Viridiana, as she began to eat her sandwich and looked forward to another tedious day.
Meche entered the kitchen – a petite Ashaninkan woman who had remained after all the other Amerindian women had left because she was known to be very inventive in bed.
“Did you just get up?” she asked.
“After another marvelous party at the Hotel Bolivar,” responded Viridiana.
“Why do you even go? You know they’re all the same.”
“Because of boredom, Meche. Nobody realizes how boring the life of a whore can be. Life in a brothel is more tedious than life in a monastery. Our lives are more similar to those of cloistered nuns than anyone can imagine.”
“Have you ever thought about another kind of life?”
“A week ago I received a marriage proposal, if you can believe it. Who would want to marry a whore? A silly boy I loved before I entered the life.”
“Maybe you can take him up on it. Is he handsome?”
“Not overly handsome,” Viridiana smiled. “But not unattractive either. And he’s one of the kindest men I’ve ever known.”
“Cuco would be delirious,” replied Meche. “But I say go for it. At least that way you could have a family. It would be much better than spending the rest of your days with a bunch of overworked and aging whores”
“I’m not sure I can remain faithful to a single man, Meche, not given how I’ve lived these past few years. And I’m afraid marriage may disappoint me. At least in the whorehouse I know what to expect.”
“Yeah,” Meche replied. “One fat old man after another, each with his own quirks.”
“Do you think I should seriously think about it?”
“The opportunity may not come again. And you won’t be young forever.”
“I shall pray on it,” responded Viridiana. “Do you ever pray, Meche? Do you ever pray to San Nicolas?”
“I’ve heard about him, how he’s the patron saint of women like us, but that’s pretty much all I know about him. And I do say a prayer from time to time.”
“San Nicolas has been a protector of harlots ever since he rescued three young women from a life of prostitution. When he learned they were to be sold to a whorehouse, he secretly left gold on their doorsteps. That way they could have money so they could be married. And I’ve heard that in France young women ask San Nicolas for husbands. There’s even a prayer they say to him.”
“Well, there you have it,” said Meche. “Pray to San Nicolas.”
On their wedding night, Agustin was clumsy, maladroit, uncertain, for he had never been with a woman before, but that only made Viridiana love him all the more.
She was his teacher and Agustin her pupil, and she knew he had much to learn. She would teach him the ways of love with gentleness and patience, not the brutality she had endured at the brothel managed by Cuco Garcia. Agustin’s love was better than wine, much better than cocaine. She rejoiced in their bodily and spiritual communion as if it had been her first time also. Never before – in all her years with multiple lovers – had she experienced such delight. She remembered the Song of Songs which she had heard in church. Her beloved was like a bag of myrrh which lay between her breasts, a soft perfume which permeated her very body.
“Surely,” she said to Agustin, “I shall love you for the rest of my days. Yes, my beloved, you are kind and our bed is capacious. Like a lily among the thorns is my love for you, like a lily when compared to the thorns of prostitution.”
Viridiana’s joy in sharing her bed with Agustin moved her to poetry, moved her to song, for she too had loved him since he was little older than a boy.
“Place your right hand beneath my head,” she instructed him, “and with the other embrace my body. Don’t be afraid. With you my disgrace is over, my winter is past. I promise you, Agustin, that I shall never return to my days of harlotry.”
Agustin gently caressed her.
“Forget about that time. It is gone like yesterday’s rain. It is completely forgotten. Let me bask in your comely face, in your luminescent body.”
“Hold me, hold me tight,” she said, as she pulled him towards her by his coarse black hair. “Hold me. Never let me go.”
“Press your lips to mine,” he responded. “I have longed for this moment for a lifetime. Your two breasts are like twin doves which I have desired since I was a boy. Let me eat the ripe fruits, your breasts that are like clusters of grapes.”
“Promise me that our love shall last, Agustin. Promise me that it is a fortress. Tell me that I shall never return to the brothel.”
“That is up to you, Viridiana. For my part, I am entirely yours. I made a pledge in church today, before man and God, that I shall be like Joseph to you and the child of your womb.”
Then he emptied himself into her body, like cool water filling a cistern. Only then did she announce her fear.
“Are you afraid?” she asked as he lay on the bed beside her.
“Afraid of what?” he queried.
“Of Cuco Garcia. Of what the pimp can do. He swore he would not allow our union, that I belong to him and him alone. He said he would force me back into the whorehouse.”
“We’re safe in my mother’s house. There’s an image of the Sacred Heart protecting the front door. And I have a rifle if I need to use it. I shall defend your virtue with my life.”
“I pray that you shall have the courage to do so. I hope that I’ll have the bravery to resist him too.”
“Forget about that for now. Cuco is in your past. I am in your future. The past belongs to the devil, the future to God’s munificence and grace.”
“Will you be a jealous man, Agustin? Jealousy is a cruel as the grave. Will you ever trust me after the life I’ve lived?”
. “To me, you are undefiled,” pronounced Agustin. “Come, let’s make love again. I love you so much, Viridiana.”
Agustin began to fulfill the mission he had received from God in his dream. Since his restaurant was open only for lunch, he had the whole afternoon to preach God’s message of repentance to the masses of Madre de Dios.
The crowds began to grow as they listened to Agustin, their modern-day prophet. For some reason, his words were more persuasive than those of Father Eusebio. He reminded the people of their forgotten devotion to La Virgen del Rosario, to the days when the churches were packed, when the town was not in the grip of drug-related violence. Soon Agustin began to be called the prophet of love by the citizens of Madre de Dios. He reminded all in the Plaza de Armas that they were in danger of a terrible punishment from God, but emphasized that Christ was the source of a limitless love. He repeated again and again that it was not too late to repent and seek the Lord’s inexhaustible capacity to forgive. But he cried out, like the prophet from the wilderness, that the citizens of Madre de Dios had little time to renounce their public and manifest sin.
“Didn’t I marry a prostitute myself and forgive her for a life of iniquity? In the same way, since you are whores in the eyes of God, you can expect His forgiveness if you ask with devotion and change your wicked ways. Everyone in the town is complicit. There are no innocents among us. We are all involved in spiritual prostitution, betraying our God like an unrepentant whore betrays her husband. I myself have stopped receiving tips in my restaurant since I realized I was benefiting from ill-gotten gains.”
Agustin felt he had been given a special mission from God and he would not shirk from it, even if his message was received with fury by those in power. After all, the Lord had been kind to him. God had demanded that he marry a prostitute, but she had turned out to be more faithful than a guiltless maiden. And God had given him the gift to prophesy, even though he was a simple and uneducated man. Surely after having received such a gift, he had to use it to the best of his abilities. He was certain that unless things changed soon, Madre de Dios would be doomed.
Like Saint John the Baptist, Agustin did not hesitate to call out some of the greatest sinners by name: the cocaine barons, the corrupt police officials, the known assassins, the politicians who were easily bribed. With Saint John the Baptist, Agustin fearlessly told them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!”
And those who were mentioned by Agustin by name plotted against him when they congregated in the night. Chief among them was Sheriff Jose Augusto Gutierrez, who feared that Agustin’s words were having an effect on the populace. Agustin was constantly reminding them that instead of imposing law and order, the police chief did nothing to curb the epidemic of gun violence in Madre de Dios nor to do anything against the drug trade. The Sheriff had heard rumors that some, inspired by Agustin’s accusations, were openly discussing the possibility of replacing him. So he met with Cirilo Buendia, the town’s mayor, who was also on the take, as well as Edelberto Monasterios, boss of the most powerful drug cartel. Together they discussed the possibility of eliminating the intrusive prophet. But the mayor urged caution. Agustin was beginning to become very popular with the citizens of Madre de Dios and if he was killed in an obvious manner, there could be some serious repercussions. Better to send him a warning, said the mayor. Once he realized his words put him in danger, Agustin would easily be silenced. It had happened with so many others. Self-righteous indignation quickly disappeared in the face of a threat of murder. And if he didn’t heed the warnings, if he persisted in his folly, then they would act in such a way that the whole town would learn a lesson.
Once Odette was born, Viridiana gave herself to motherhood with abandon. She enjoyed suckling the child at her breast, changing her diapers, watching her sleep in perfect peace. As Father Eusebio had predicted, doña Josefina quickly learned to love Viridiana like a daughter, for Viridiana seemed to be a perfect wife. She was diligent and worked hard, kept the house spotless, always had dinner ready for Agustin when he came back from work. And every night she celebrated her joy with him in bed.
Viridiana often accompanied doña Josefina to Mass on Sundays and frequently received the Eucharist. At night, she prayed to San Nicolas, patron saint of harlots, and thanked him for having granted her wishes. He had released her from the bondage of prostitution. Viridiana no longer was bored with life, but found delight in everyday activities. She had easily weaned herself from cocaine and never drank to excess. She began to pray to Saint Therese of Lisieux and tried to follow her “little way” – finding God in the most mundane of tasks.
Everything was perfect until one afternoon, while she was walking in the Plaza de Armas with Odette in her arms, when Cuco Garcia suddenly reappeared in her life.
Viridiana had thought she was completely rid of him, that he would never pester her again, but the truth is he hadn’t sought her out because he wasn’t interested in her while she had a bloated belly. During all those months of pregnancy, he was merely waiting. He still believed she belonged to him. After all, hadn’t he won her during a game of rocambor? Hadn’t they spent the night together a hundred times? So when he saw her in the Plaza, he quickly approached her.
“You’re beautiful again, Viridiana. You have recovered your youthful figure.”
“Leave me alone,” she responded as she tried to walk away from him. But he followed close on her heels.
“Don’t think that I’ve forgotten about you, Viridiana. After all, that child you are nursing might be mine.”
“She might be anyone’s child,” responded Viridiana, “but she now has a father, my husband Agustin.”
Suddenly Cuco took her by the arm and pulled her to an alley. She tried to resist, but it was useless.
“You’re coming back to Fantasy Island with me right now,” he told her. “Marriage isn’t an appropriate condition for an experienced whore like you.”
“Leave me in peace. I have a life now, a daughter and a husband.”
“Just spend the night with me, Viridiana, just tonight, and I’ll let you return to your husband tomorrow. Otherwise, who knows? An accident might befall him. There are so many trigger-happy sicarios in this town.”
“You have so many women at your disposal,” she said in a plaintive voice. “Why must you persecute me?”
“Don’t you realize you have always been my favorite, Viridiana? I don’t want to give you up to this town’s itinerant prophet. You would be so much better off with me. Don’t tell me you don’t want a little puntita of cocaine from time to time.”
“No, I won’t go with you. I have given up on every vice.”
“In that case, be prepared to become a widow. It’s not too hard to find Agustin while he is preaching in the streets. The man has become a religious fanatic and a pest to all.”
“You wouldn’t,” Viridiana muttered.
“I mean it,” responded Cuco. “Just come with me now. You’ll spend the night with me and tomorrow you can join your husband. I’m sure he won’t be terribly upset. After all, he knew what he was getting into when he married a practiced whore.”
“Don’t hurt him,” Viridiana pleaded.
“It’s all in your hands,” Cuco responded.
Viridiana started muffling tears, begging him to leave her in peace, but Cuco was unperturbed.
“Come on,” he said. “It won’t be so ugly. Don’t tell me you haven’t enjoyed our nights together in the past.”
“Just one night,” Viridiana finally acceded. “And then you leave me alone forever.”
“That’s all I’m asking for,” said Cuco.
They went to Fantasy Island and an Indian nanny took Odette away. Cuco ordered a sumptuous banquet. He offered her the best French wine and she drank it avidly, thinking that way the task ahead of her would be much easier. She looked at the image of San Nicolas affixed to the wall and prayed for her deliverance, but she was not delivered. Soon she found herself in Cuco’s spacious bedroom. When he offered her some cocaine, she readily accepted. In fact, she snorted as much cremita as she could. She was sure Agustin would never forgive her and needed strength to do what she knew she had to do.
The following morning, she awoke naked in Cuco’s bedroom. He had left a little cocaine for her on the dresser next to the bed and Viridiana did not hesitate to snort it. She looked in the mirror and hated what she saw in it: the old puta had reappeared. Surely she could not return to Agustin after what she had done. She knew she was not altogether blameless. After snorting enough cocaine, she had given herself to Cuco with a relentless passion. He was a far more efficient lover than Agustin could ever dream of being. But she had missed the poetry. Agustin always took her in his arms with a poem, or a chant from the Song of Songs. Those nights were gone forever. She suddenly realized that she could not go back to her married life, for in a single night she had destroyed it.
Agustin knocked on the door of the rectory and Father Eusebio answered.
“Come in,” said the priest.
“I need to talk to you,” Agustin replied. “I feel my life is collapsing all around me.”
“I heard about Viridiana,” Father Eusebio said. “Truly I did not expect it. She seemed so joyful when she appeared in church with your mother and the baby. And now she’s working at Fantasy Island again.”
“Yes, she’s back with Cuco Garcia, going to the cocaine parties at the Hotel Bolivar again. The thing is that I trusted her, father. I never treated her as if she were a former prostitute. She stabbed me in the back just like when she was seventeen. And the worst thing is she’s taken away my child. I truly loved Odette as if she were the product of my own loins.”
“How long has it been?”
“Two months, Father Eusebio. At first I thought of seeking her out, but then I realized it would be useless. Why seek more humiliation? She obviously prefers the life of a harlot to that of a wife in a Christian marriage.”
“I don’t know what to say, Agustin. I’m sorry I gave you such poor advice. I thought she could be rehabilitated.”
“And there’s another thing,” said Agustin. “I’ve been receiving messages. This one arrived just this morning.”
Agustin handed the priest an envelope.
Father Eusebio extracted a letter and quickly read it.
“So they want you to stop preaching,” he said.
“They’re threatening my life. I ignored the two prior letters, but this one states it quite clearly. ‘Beware of the ravening wolf. Our sicarios are everywhere. Stop attacking those in power by name.”
“I thought you were doing wonderful work, that you were truly being guided by the Holy Spirit. People have begun to come to church once again. The confessionals are no longer empty.”
“I know,” said Agustin. “The people are listening.”
“Perhaps you should continue with your preaching, but just avoid naming names. There are very powerful men who profit from the corruption of Madre de Dios. And you know they are all too willing to kill.”
“I refuse to be silenced. If they kill me, what can I say? The coca lords and their allies have destroyed this town. I shall not countenance it. Somebody has to call them out, the police chief, the mayor, the whole lot of them. If I back down, who will replace me? And don’t forget it was the Good Lord who gave me the instructions to protest against the current condition. Even as he also warned me that Viridiana would betray me.”
“God has chosen to give you the Cross. And there is no better ladder to Heaven. I shall pray for the Lord to continue to protect you.”
That afternoon, Agustin returned to the Plaza de Armas and picked up his bullhorn.
“I have been warned not to talk to you,” he said as a crowd began to form about him. “They say if I don’t bow down my head like all the rest, they shall take my life. But I say, ‘Come at me! Another shall take my place.’ We have to oust the coca lords and their sycophants from Madre de Dios. This town has become a city of evildoers, stained with the footprints of blood. You have become as vile as the things you love. But we shall no longer be a corrupt generation. I call out Sheriff Jose Augusto Gutierrez. He does not enforce the law. He breaches it. I call out Mayor Cirilio Buendia. He has sold us out to the coke lords. I call out General Faustino Sarmiento. His supposed drug interdiction efforts are laughable. I call out Augusto Salazar, owner of the Hotel Bolivar. He pollutes our youth with cocaine.”
Suddenly, amid the growing throngs, a fifteen-year-old indigenous boy approached with a pistol. Two shots rang out in the Plaza de Armas. Agustin collapsed. He had just been shot in the chest. A woman placed a cushion beneath his head as he began to bleed profusely. The teenage sicario disappeared into the crowds, having earned his thousand dollars in a matter of seconds.
When Agustin first roused, the first thing he saw was the face of Viridiana: eyes swollen with tears, not a trace of makeup, the visage of a sorrowful Madonna. She was dressed in a simple floral dress that ended below her knees and still had a black mantilla veil on her head, as she had just returned from Mass. Agustin knew she had gone to pray for him. It caused him a great pain to sit up on the bed with a thick pillow beneath him, but he wanted to speak to her.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said with a gravelly voice.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she replied, “that I’ve come to visit you. It’s just that – it’s just that I was terrified that you would die.”
“No, that’s fine, Viridiana. How long has it been? I see Odette has grown.”
“Two months and twenty-one days. You might think it’s odd but I’ve counted every day. And yes, Odette has gone through a growth spurt. How do you feel, Agustin? Does it hurt much?”
“Just when I move. I guess I’ve been sleeping.”
“You’ve been asleep for a week,” responded Viridiana. “I’ve been coming to visit every day.”
“I thought you’d forgotten all about me.”
“I still don’t understand why they did this to you. I know it’s Madre de Dios, but you’re harmless as a young deer.”
“I imagine some of those in power don’t appreciate what I’ve been saying in the public square and wanted to give everyone a lesson. But they will not silence me. We have to get rid of that damned crop. We have to end the violent conflict produced by the drug trade.”
Viridiana said nothing.
“And what about you, Viridiana? I’ve heard you’ve returned to the parties at the Hotel Bolivar. Why insist of killing yourself a little at a time? Pick up Odette and escape to the capital. You can start anew.”
“I wish things were as easy as that. I’m probably an addict by now.”
“Then come back to me,” Agustin said abruptly. “Do you really want to keep being a slave to Cuco Garcia and cocaine? In the eyes of the Lord, you are still my wife. We were united in a blessed Sacrament. No matter what happens, that bond is indissoluble. Have I told you that I heard the voice of God Himself while I was in my coma, telling me to forgive you?”
“Do you realize what you are saying? I broke our bond, engaged in filth. I betrayed the man I love.”
“So you still love me, Viridiana? I knew it. And don’t doubt my capacity to forgive. Not seven times, but seventy times seven says the Lord. I’ve been close to death, so I realize what’s important. I don’t care if everyone gossips that I am a cornudo for having brought you back.”
“Don’t forget we live in Madre de Dios. Our love is doomed. Cuco, too, has powerful henchmen. They failed to kill you this time, but what about the next?”
“I’m not afraid. God is greater than those who are against me. Have I ever told you about the prophet Hosea? He preached for thirty years against those in power in Israel for worshipping Baal, a pagan deity, instead of the one true God. He was never killed despite speaking the truth to those in power, calling them out by name. Believe me, they wanted him dead, but the Lord protected him. And like me, Hosea married a prostitute. Her name was Gomer. Like me, he loved her. Like me, he forgave her. And like me, Hosea was told by the Lord Himself to accept her even though she returned to the brothel after having joined Hosea in marriage.”
“Do you realize what you are saying? That even after having sullied my soul and my body you are willing to take me back?”
“That’s what I’m saying, Viridiana, because I love you still. I love you like God loved the Israelites in the time of Hosea, like He still loves the citizens of Madre de Dios. My love is a forgiving love. And I shall continue to preach fearlessly against the coca lords and all their acolytes – Sheriff Jose Antonio Gutierrez, Mayor Cirilo Buendia, General Faustino Sarmiento and all the rest. I shall organize a great mass movement to bring sanity back to this town. It’s been done before. Other regions of South America have eradicated the drug trade from their midst. And don’t worry too much about Cuco Garcia either. He’s a paper tiger. At the proper time, he shall be brought to justice too.”
“Well, your movement has already begun,” responded Viridiana. “After you were shot, there were mass protests in front of the police station of Sheriff Gutierrez, the municipal offices of Mayor Buendia, even the military barracks of General Sarmiento. Gutierrez and the mayor had to flee in the night, for fear of being lynched. And the general has been called back to the capital by his superiors.”
“See? Like the people of Israel in the times of Hosea, the citizens of Madre de Dios shall also return to God. Like an adulterous wife, this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord. But the Lord shall forgive them in His infinite mercy just like Hosea forgave Gomer in his time, just like I forgive you now. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”
“I love you,” said Viridiana. “I have loved you since my adolescence.”
“I love you too,” responded Agustin. “And I love that daughter suckling at your breast. Do not be afraid of any enemy, for the Lord is with us.”
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale Coilege. His short stories have been accepted for publication in Synchronized Chaos, The Acentos Review, Carmina Magazine, The Hive Avenue Literary Journal, The Ganga Review, Faultline Journal, and Foreshadow Magazine.