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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.

~

Behind her back, Sister Ursula's students called her the B.V.M., Black Veiled Monster. However, she had a romantic and even poetic streak that would come out at arbitrary moments. She would suddenly drop the math lesson and begin telling stories from mythology with such color and conviction that her students could see Apollo's beast-scowl of rage and frustrated love, hear his howl as Daphne's delicate body grew into the bay tree. On certain days in May, Sister Ursula would seize her Bible and read at length from the meatier passages in the Song of Solomon. She had a deep, beautiful voice, and as she read she noticed that Carlo Puovi listened with a quietness that was unusual for him. "You are all fair, my love; / there is no fault in you. / Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; / Let us depart... from the dens of lions, / from the mountains of leopards."
      Sister Ursula would also read from Isaiah, which, she told her students, was actually a great love poem to God. "Look what he says here. 'I have graven thee on the palms of my hands,'" she read, raising her two big hands and opening them to her students, with an ecstatic expression. Stirred by her emotion, they peered closely at her palms and fancied they could see the outline of a divine commanding eye, the curl of a sacred beard.

 

~

Consolata's storm system of black hair was untamable, no matter how her mother labored over it with comb, brush, and pomade. Still, at sixteen she wore her hair down her back and dressed in the Virgin's colors, unlike other girls in the tenth grade. When Sister Ursula lifted her great inquisitor's brow to heaven and prayed in the classroom, Consolata screwed up her eyes so tightly that her own brows furrowed. She would also sometimes cover her eyes with a graceful hand during Mass, symbolically shutting out the distractions of the wide and dirty world. Sister Ursula was given to forecasting pious fates for the students she approved of, and she would sometimes put her hand gently on Consolata's wild black mane and say softly, "And there are some whom God blesses by allowing them to braid Saint Catherine's tresses all their lives." Everybody understood that Sister Ursula was tactfully suggesting that Consolata follow in the steps of the virgin martyr--short, of course, of being tortured on the wheel--and enjoy her virginity all her life.
      When Carlo saw this he wanted to laugh wildly. He also wanted to kiss Consolata tenderly and shake her until her big pearl teeth rattled. Her entire person was like a barbaric gift, which she would have died rather than bestow. But what is a gift for, except to give?
      Carlo dared to express this thought to Juan, an almost blind boy who had his own newspaper stand. Juan, who had been St. Rita's prize student before glaucoma took most of his vision, laughed. "It's a gift all right, but only for the right person. You have the wrong voice, the wrong skin, the wrong hair, the wrong mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, all the way back to your rock-dumb, gorilla-hairy old aboriginal ancestors. Even in Incan times, Puovis weren't the high priests up there in the temple, having fun harvesting human organs for the sacrifices. No. They were the sorry-ass burros laid out on the slab, having their miserable slave hearts cut out. Not much has changed, either."
      There was a pause. Then Carlo said in a cold voice, "You're lucky you're blind. Give me the fucking newspaper."
      When he turned seventeen, Carlo was expelled from St. Rita's almost as a matter of course. Sister Ursula felt a faint twinge, because of his math scores. If they had belonged to anyone else, she would have been shaking down the richer members of the parish, arranging scholarships. But, she told herself, anyone could tell by a single look that Carlo Puovi would come to nothing and worse than nothing. She couldn't even stand the color of his eyes. Why had he stayed so long at St. Rita's, anyway? Why did he force his way into the Catholic Youth dances every Friday night? He was always thrown out of the dances. He was thrown out drunk, kicking at the priests with his snakeskin boots. He was back in black the very next Friday, high on mescaline, dancing brilliantly with back flips, splits, and blazing knee-drops before he was thrown out by the huge and ferocious Father Karl. In fact, Carlo and Father Karl battled each other every Friday night until both were bleeding from the ears and mouth. It was a matter of pride with Father Karl to deal with St. Rita's young thugs himself, not to call the police.
      Consolata, wearing her everlasting blue and white, would dance with quiet Jaime Perfidia and watch these battles over his shoulder. If she was sitting with friends, the bloody denouements of Carlo's fights often took place directly in front of her folding chair. This happened so often that one of her friends said, "It's as though he is a torero, and he pushes his paseos right in your face." Except for the hours Carlo spent at the dances Friday nights, no one could be exactly sure where he went or what he was doing during that period. He would often be mysteriously absent for days at a time, and when he returned, he would have money.
      The night of Carlo's eighteenth birthday, he showed up in new, narrow black pants, a black shirt poured over his bulging shoulders, and a bolo tie whose clasp consisted of an amethyst the size of a duck egg. Somewhere he had found scented grease with incredible fixative powers, so that his black wolf's hair lay welded to his head in hard scrolls. He spent the evening snaking back and forth in front of Consolata in agonizingly slow, stylized dance steps, with a very beautiful, depraved-looking Indian girl plastered to his front. This girl had come from Carlo's home province. Tightly clasped in each others' arms, the two of them laughed and talked in a strange, guttural dialect that Consolata could not understand.
      Several times during the evening Consolata accepted quiet Jaime Perfidia's invitation to dance. After two hours, Carlo fought with Father Karl and was thrown out. The Indian girl vanished at the same time. Consolata danced with Jaime. She would have said that she was feeling nothing in particular, but after a few minutes she was astonished to find tears on her cheeks. She excused herself, and walked out of the gymnasium where the dance was being held and into the hall. She walked up to the entrance doors, and then stopped. Through the doors she could see Carlo standing alone on the sidewalk in front of the school, facing it. He did not look as though he particularly wanted to be there, but he also looked as though no force whatever could tear him away. He just stood on the sidewalk and waited. The night wind had torn his black hair free of the comb tracks of grease he had applied earlier.
      Consolata went straight down the school steps to Carlo and took his hand. Without a word they began walking in the direction of the huge park, where her mother had told her never to go. They moved through broad sheaves of moonlight and wind that smelled of black locust. After they reached the park, they crossed a meadow where there were flowers she had not known existed in the city. Here and there she saw dark, flickering figures, lying behind bushes or running in the distance, but she was safe because she was with Carlo.
      At last they reached the center of the park: very far back, and very deep in. In the moonlight Consolata could see his dark head and silver eyes, and the black clothes that fit so well she might have shaped them over his body with her own tender hands.
      "In the province where I come from," he said, "the groom kidnaps the bride."
      She knew that this was actually a question, one that put her whole life in his hands. She nodded with a grave expression that made him smile. He began taking off her white-and-blue garments one by one. It took him a while, because he was trying to conceal the trembling of his hands. At last she stood in the moonlight wearing only her saints' medals, with the great mass of her hair stirring around her. Carlo was so astonished by the beauty of her body that he forgot, for a moment, what it was he had wanted to do. Then he put his hand on her breast and moved it slowly to show her how the nipple stood up on the roselike areola. "Little flower," he said.
      She stared at his dark hand and at his smile, which she saw as mocking. She backed away from him with a white face and white teeth clenched like a wolf's. She picked up her white-and-blue garments. He said, "Consolata," and when she ignored him, in a panic he put his hands on her shoulders. She wrenched herself free. "Don't touch me," she said. You dirty Indian was what he heard. Then she simply walked away from him, into the trees. For a few seconds he could see her body glimmering through the branches, and then she disappeared. As he stood in the clearing he saw his life as it would be, and it coldly watched him, too.
      When Consolata walked into the hall at St. Rita's, perfectly groomed as always, the dance had ended. Jaime Perfidia stood waiting for her, holding her coat, an expression of mild bemusement on his handsome features.

 

~

Five hours later that night, Carlo put his valise in the front pew and looked up at the wood, metal, and stone faces gleaming in the sanctuary. There they all were, happy way up high. He got the ladder and began work at once. He lifted them down and carried them for what seemed a long time. It was amazing how heavy some of them were. He had to transport Saint Benedict in a fireman's hold. He thought that this particular statue of the saint should be declared patron of the fat instead of the dying. Other statues felt light and fragile, their wooden bones like bundles of twigs for the burning. Saint Barbara, who was invoked against lightning and sudden death, could be lifted as though she were a baby. Calmly he began disassembling the Holy Family.
      Carlo did not usually think in metaphors and fables, but he hadn't slept well the night before and was working in a coma of fatigue. It seemed to him that in the past years he had been dreaming in red. He'd been kicked awake and now came to do a work of black. If Father Karl's sermons were correct, he would be towing this darkness behind him for the rest of his life. Well, he could do that. It would be worth it. Still, he remembered Father Karl sticking his huge nose, like a great Polski pickle, over the lectern as he glared at his students and snarled out, "All of your lives you will be choosing between poison and food. Choose food." Carlo wondered what food worked in that old dragon's gut and brain, nourishing the monster within; what food made him batter the young, assign medieval penances to the old, run mad at dances.
      As he worked, Carlo also remembered folk tales Sister Ursula used to tell to her class. She may have been an evil hag, but she could tell a story. There was one about a Sioux boy who escaped his enemies by turning into a panther. Sister Ursula displayed a picture of a shaman's mask that showed this transformation. A terrible black fell of hair grew in writhing waves over the human features. His nostrils burned red. Ferocious eyebrows of black fur engulfed the sad, clear eyes.
      The Sioux boy was hated by many. "He was full of enemies," Sister Ursula said, "as dead meat is of maggots." But this boy had a totem spirit who transplanted cells from a panther's legs into the boy's legs. All around him burned the enemies' fire-glow. From a stone-cold, standing start he leaped gigantically over their astonished faces.
      At first, Carlo had planned to arrange the statues in a group before the altar, as his father had done. Upon reflection, he changed his mind and put all but two before the Communion rail. They could not kneel, but at least they would be down where the common folk were, just this once.
      The two remaining statues were saints renowned for being virgin martyrs. He thought it was a very Catholic concept: to be revered for experiences one had never had. He arranged these brides of Christ like cordwood on the big cooling board of the altar. Saint Cecilia had a smooth little face, painted in airy pastels like an Easter egg. Saint Apollonia had white flowers growing out of her mouth. Carlo fumbled in his wallet and produced Consolata's most recent class picture, which he had extorted from Jaime with menaces the week before. He'd bought a tiny frame for the picture, silvery metal chased with flowers. Consolata looked as though she had been scrubbed, burnished, and all but waxed by her mother, but nothing could really tame that hair. Carlo passed his thumb once, slowly, over the black curls, then carefully placed the picture in Saint Cecilia's palm.
      He figured it would take Consolata's mother about three months to marry her off to that nun's pet eunuch, Jaime Perfidia. Mrs. Blanca y Blanca would have the grand triumphal fantasia of a wedding she'd been plotting for eighteen years. However, he would not see it. He would not be there. He did have one successful relative, an uncle who worked out of Cleveland. He'd decided to stay with the old cutthroat and learn what he had to teach.
      The sticks of dynamite. The fuse. He glanced behind him to make sure the escape route was clear. He carried the valise to the church door, then returned to the sanctuary. As he passed the Communion rail, his eye fell on Saint Rita. She wore a crown of roses but held ready a crown of thorns. Oh, that was it. That was the way to be. Desolation, happiness, it was all the same to her. She was prepared, no matter what occurred. He hesitated, then with something like a smile lifted and carried the patroness of desperate cases to a place of safety, beside the front entrance.
      He returned to the sanctuary. He lit the fuse, and began walking calmly to the exit. At the last instant, as he reached the door, he suddenly turned, rushed all the way back to Saint Cecilia, snatched the picture from her palm, wheeled again as the fuse hissed against the dynamite, dug for his life, and then leaped in an impossibly long vault as the roar and flames blew out every window in the church and filled the air with flying saints' heads and limbs.
      Minutes later he awoke to find himself on the floor at the back of the church. Blazing clouds made up of shimmering red dust and fire dazzled his eyes. Looking down, he could see the picture still clenched in his fist--but was it a life grip or a death grip? He opened his hand and saw that the metal corners of the frame had gouged four deep cuts in his palm. I have graven thee, he thought confusedly, and then lost the rest of the sentence as a movement above him made him look up.
      The altar had been blown upward to the great chandelier and dangled from it like a trinket.
      He could not believe in his own existence. How could it be so? Then he turned and found himself face to face with Saint Benedict's cordial smile. The roly-poly oak saint, who had been a monster to carry, had stayed largely intact and fallen against the wall in such a way that he protected Carlo from debris with his great wooden beer gut, with the branching muscles of his friendly arms.
      Carlo stood up. He smoothed out the picture as well as he could and put it back in his wallet. He looked at his watch, which to his astonishment was still ticking. Before leaving town, he would have just time enough to pay a brief visit to the Communist. It wouldn't take more than thirty seconds.
      He took a long look at the burning sanctuary. He looked at the place where the altar had been, and where it was now. He said aloud, "Here I am. I'm going to do just fine, you son of a bitch." He picked up his valise, opened the door, and left.

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