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Vol. 3, No. 2

Boy Into Panther
by Margaret Benbow

The first time Consolata saw Carlo Puovi, he was kneeling on Ambrose Reilly's chest, clutching the hair of the much bigger boy in both fists and pounding his head against the cement of the schoolyard. In the same instant Father Karl Dubroski came running out of the church shouting to Carlo in his horrible Spanish: You are in America now. You are here now. Not every fight has to be to the death.
      Father Karl did his best to wrench Carlo off Ambrose, but the boy did not want to let go and fastened himself to Ambrose like a raptor with razor talons and beak. In the end Father Karl had to half stifle Carlo in his own enormous black coat, bag him like a rabid dog, and haul him upside down in a fireman's hold into the school. Carlo first saw Consolata from this position. He looked with curiosity at the girl standing quietly among her hysterical schoolmates in her unspotted white dress ,and she returned his gaze calmly. His upended head kept bouncing against Father Karl's backside as the priest plunged across the schoolyard, and involuntarily she smiled. With his eyes on hers, Carlo raised his fists, opened them and released Ambrose's red curls into the wind with a formal gesture of blessing.

 

~

The Puovis were refugees from an incredibly isolated and primitive province in South America, so far back, and so deep in, that nobody at St. Rita's Parochial School had even heard its name. Sister Ursula did show her class a map of this province, and it looked like an attacking black panther with blue rivers of entrails. Sister Ursula explained to Consolata and others in the sixth grade that, although this province was the poorest, most worthless and godforsaken place on the face of the earth, the inhabitants were fighting over it in a civil war. The Puovi family had been trapped between the different factions and had had many unfortunate experiences. It was a miracle, and due entirely to God's grace, that in the end they escaped with their lives. Everyone in the class should thank God, and be kind to poor little Carlo. This was before they had actually seen him.
      Privately, Sister Ursula pondered the few words Carlo's mother had said to her when she enrolled her children at St. Rita's. Mrs. Puovi explained in her bizarre English that because her husband was a dreamer, it was Carlo, her oldest son, who planned and led the escape from the civil war. The mother seemed to add that Carlo had had to kill a few soldiers, but the teacher decided that she must not have heard her right.
      Carlo's parents never lost the look of battered and terrified stowaways, people born to live in small, malodorous spaces like caves, cells, or anchor holds. All of the younger Puovis suffered from a variety of disgusting ailments--worms, chiggers, lice--and Carlo himself had rat bites on his legs. The school nurse dosed and physicked them savagely for months. Carlo looked very different from the rest of his family. If a human female had lain with an alpha wolf and conceived, the result might have looked like Carlo. He had eyes of a silvery gray, like a virulently alive ghost, and stiff black hair so vigorous no cap could contain it. His features were the proudest of crags. His shoulders filled doorways and burst through the tragic steerage pullovers his mother bought for him. He wore shoes that a good horse would have disdained, but he won every race.
      When Carlo first came to St. Rita's, although he was twelve years old he had never brushed his teeth in his life. He didn't speak a word of English. When the others were studying, Sister Ursula would give him colored pencils and paper. She didn't know what else to do with him. The first day, he drew highly detailed pictures of sumptuous grapes and cherries, which he'd seen in Consolata's lunch, and of soldiers burning houses down. The second day he drew oranges and apples, and himself killing a soldier with a machete. Sister Ursula had no idea how to respond to this work, of which he seemed quite proud.
      He learned to read, write, and speak English more quickly than Sister Ursula had expected. At first he read as though he were translating ancient hieroglyphics and wrote as though he were inscribing them. Because of this, other students sometimes made fun of him. But the same person never made fun of him twice.
      Sister Ursula did not like surprises of any kind, and so she studied some of his homework and exams--particularly in English and math--with a frown. Could he be cheating? Then she would look at his other work, in civics and history, and her brow would clear. It was as she had foretold. The boy was a dunce.

 

~

A flu epidemic almost emptied the eighth-grade classroom the spring that Carlo and Consolata were fourteen. They ate lunch together every day for three weeks. Consolata was an only child, and her tender little sandwiches were the only ones in the school that were innocent of crusts. They were filled with tiny cubes of egg salad, shaved chicken breast, and tuna with the dark parts cut out. Her tomatoes were seeded, and she ate with a monogrammed spoon.
      "Your peaceful little lunches," Carlo said. He in his turn hauled out a crushed and greasy bag, often foul smelling from some unspeakable leak. She tried not to look at his savage Incan lunches, but sometimes took a peek. Animal body parts that resembled shattered hunks of liver, heart, or raw brawn--she hardly knew which, but they made the filthy waxed paper wet and red--drooled into the whole onions, often complete with their muddy roots. She had seen Mrs. Puovi pawing through the dead-vegetable bin at the market, and fully believed the rank, tangled objects in the bottom of the bag could be anything at all--hair balls, livid orange fungi, shriveled garlic bulbs, toenails. He ate through it all solidly, with every appearance of satisfaction.
      At first they were almost silent as they ate. One day, however, Mrs. Blanca y Blanca had made a particularly perfect lunch for her daughter. Carlo couldn't take his eyes off it. He thought it was as though the mother were making an offering of varied, exquisite ambrosias to her baby goddess. Even the deviled egg fascinated him, its finely sieved yolk planted with a slice of stuffed olive. Consolata herself was as self-contained as an egg, and the moment came when he couldn't stand it any longer. He picked up her little golden banana and casually stuck it in his ear. Yawning, he stuffed raspberries in his nostrils. He seized the egg and clapped it to his upper cheek, where it stuck. He expected Consolata to scream for the nuns at the sight of the mashed devil eye sliding down his face, but she surprised him by laughing. In fact, in a girl less pretty, it would have been called a belly laugh. After that they talked all lunch hour. They discussed the beating that Father Karl had given Ambrose Reilly for insolence that morning, a beating so savage and protracted that in the end the boy had to be carried home by his parents. Carlo said he had always suspected Father Karl of suffering from lurid pathologies, and this proved it. Consolata thought about this in her calm way for a moment or two, and then said politely but very firmly, "Ambrose was insolent. We should remember that Father Karl was not really beating Ambrose, but the devil in Ambrose."
      Consolata was surprised when her friends said Carlo was frighteningly ugly, crude, and incoherent. She privately thought that he looked like a picture she'd seen of the great Incan ruler Manco Capac. His eyes blazed out the same way. Of course you had to forget his terrible clothes. As for his conversation, he made perfect sense to her.
      During these weeks, they had only one brief argument. One day Carlo had in his lunch what appeared to be a boiled dog jowl and a half-rotten plantain. He became annoyed at the finicky gestures with which Consolata ate her darling little lunch. She took tiny bites of her pudding, fairy sips from the lemonade bottle. Something about the way she searched out strawberry seeds from the corners of her lush lips with a snowy napkin particularly maddened him.
      "You little burro princess!" he said, using the word with which South Americans of Indian descent dryly tease and identify each other.
      She turned pale with outrage. "I am not a burro," she said. "My family is pure Spanish. My mother told me so."
      Now, Carlo had seen Mrs. Blanca y Blanca at the market, haughtily rejecting black grapes. Her nose looked like the nose of the Indian on the Big Chief writing pads, and her skin was a proud shining copper. When Consolata said she was pure Spanish, he smiled to himself. However, he said nothing.
      Privately, everyone agreed that Carlo's parents were incredibly ignorant and smelly. The father's appearance, not to mention his barbaric English, made it difficult for him to find work. However, in time he was befriended by the Communist who lived on his block. The Communist, whose name was James, found work for him on a construction site.
      Joaquín was very grateful to his friend for this job, and insisted that Carlo, as eldest son, go with him to thank James. However, Carlo stayed in James's living room only an instant. He stood looking at certain objects and at the numerous pictures on the walls that showed horrible historic events. When James explained that he found them fascinating and inspirational, Carlo simply turned and walked out. Joaquín caught up with him a block away, breathless with anger. "What is the matter with you? We owe him everything."
      "We owe him nothing. You work hard, you deserve that job. I am not going to converse with a man who keeps a model of Hitler's bunker on top of his TV. He has a picture over the fruit bowl of Mussolini's corpse hanging by its heels from a lamppost. You should stop going there."
      "You said once that Communists deserve respect--"
      "He is not like other Communists. He is dangerous. He watches you as an eagle eyes a piece of meat. He has some kind of plan. You are putting yourself at the mercy of a dangerous fool."
      But Joaquín returned to his friend's house. That evening, James said that the time had come for Joaquín to learn certain tragic truths about the Catholic church. Surely he was aware, or would be as soon as he had the facts, that the Church was a bloody abomination that fed on poor men's lives. Had the priests in Joaquín's country helped him during the civil war? Was he aware that the Church had supported the most vicious faction of soldiers? When he called on the saints, had they rescued his family? James talked like this for hours that night and many nights to come.
      Slowly, hatred of the Church grew in Joaquín's heart like a blazing particular star. He would walk into the sanctuary at St. Rita's and gaze slowly from face to face of the twenty or more religious statues that, preening in their niches, looked down on his struggles. The more warlike saints glared belligerently about them with a fiery martial air. Others, like Saint Sebastian, with arrows through his temples, palms, and heart, wept and bled beads of wood. Statues of the Virgin were often enriched with gold leaf, her dark face surrounded with flowerets and cascades of lace carved from ash and oak boles. Some men had spent their entire working lives, he knew, wrenching carved lace for saints, with tears and with blood, from the hardest materials.
      Sweet and pleasant things flowed to these huge, sacred dolls. Flowers clustered around their niches. The stone toe of Saint Jude, patron of impossible causes, was worn smooth by the desperate kisses of the faithful. Mrs. Puovi used to pray to Saint Jude during the civil war.
      The time came when Joaquín Puovi decided to blow up the statues. He brought a ladder into the sanctuary late at night, when it was empty, and painstakingly collected all the stone, wood, metal, laced, and jeweled figures. He did not throw them in a heap, but positioned them with an odd dignity, on their feet when possible, in a group before the altar. He then lit the fuse to a bomb in their midst. However, the fuse exploded prematurely, killing Joaquín.
      Carlo was the first person in the church after the explosion. He had found out about the scheme, too late, from his mother. His first startled impression, when he saw the richly robed and suavely smiling statues in their ranks, and his father's remains draping the chandelier, was that aristocrats of iron had somehow conspired to murder the peasant who defied them.
      Consolata at fifteen was already famous for knowing the right thing to say on every occasion. Also, she was one of the few students who spoke to Carlo Puovi. "That Consolata Blanca y Blanca, she is so good," said Sister Ursula. "She never gives up even on the blackest sheep." However, even Consolata did not know how to comfort the son of a deceased, deranged, and unsuccessful terrorist. Besides, Carlo was stoical.
      "I found a bomb-making booklet in my father's lunch box," he said. "The Communist gave it to him. He should have known the old fool couldn't read. The Communist is responsible." And the saints, he added in his own mind.

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