By Roberto Moulun
The blue sky of the Bajio extended itself forever. The red, white and green Mexican flag fluttered in the southern wind like a bird escaped from the jungle. I looked at the beggar sitting on the fourth step of the church’s courtyard. He was immobile with his eyes fixed on the flag, a wooden box containing a few coins in front of him.
A man of some fifty wasted years. A noble head of graying hair hanging to his shoulders. Black eyes under dark lashes. Valiant nose curving like the beak of an eagle. Mouth hidden by mustache and beard. The face of a painting by Goitia over the ruin of a destroyed temple. His body was distorted and shriveled, as if a giant hand had crumbled it.
Like me, he also waited.
I walked toward the beggar, slowly, trailed by the malaise that we who are healthy suffer in the presence of those mutilated by life. Not easy to describe that strange experience. It is a faint remorse, an intimate guilt that we quench by giving alms. We feel as if somehow, we had usurped from them a happier destiny.
He heard my steps on the worn-out stones. Stones keep no secrets. He heard my steps but didn’t turn to see me. His hand pointed to the wooden box.
“There.” His voice was harsh.
“I want to ask,” I said, “I have questions to ask.”
“Have you been here all morning?”
“Many all mornings.”
“Did you see a woman waiting?”
“Waiting for what?” His lips held ugly cynicism.
“Forget that I asked. You wouldn’t know.” I dropped a coin into his wooden box. Then I looked at his body and felt sorrow. “You couldn’t know.”
“Maybe I can answer,” he said. “A woman waiting?”
“Yes, a woman, a woman with deep green eyes.”
“This is not the only church in Lagos de Moreno. Was she to wait here?”
“Is this La Parroquia?”
“Si, la misma. I don’t see women’s faces where I sit. Only their legs as they walk by and drop their coins in my box. Wish they would drop…” He spat out an obscenity.
His was the face of a satyr on a destroyed body. I wanted to rip that face with my boot. The noble face turned ugly. Perhaps it was his pain that spoke. “Was it the war?” I asked.
“No, it was sickness and bad life. Yes, I saw the woman.”
He looked at his wooden box.
“Strange thing about coins. They hold memories, they carry feelings, but only a beggar would know.” He looked at me. I felt transparent to his eyes.
His deformed hand dipped into the wooden box and scooped the coin I had dropped. He lifted it like a jeweler examining a gem, held it in his hand for a long time; then he enclosed it in the claw of a fist, perhaps to strangle an unwanted memory from it.
“A gringo coin,” he said it in English with soft modulations, a lazy drawl with metallic echoes. “I also was a gringo long ago, up there in Kansas.”
“I took you for a Mexican!”
He gestured toward the flag. “The land, this land, swallows you if she wants you.”
I wanted to touch him, to ask more, but respect held me back. One doesn’t rob a man of his last secret. “You saw her then, the woman who waited.”
“I stole from her. She left her purse on the ground while she counted the coins she meant to give.”
From the pocket of a tattered jacket he brought out a small book covered in soft leather. He handed it to me. “Maybe it wasn’t the same woman.”
I glanced through the book and recognized her handwriting. She seemed to stitch her words to the page. “I am keeping the book.”
He tried to shrug his shoulders, but could raise only one of them.
“And she left. You said that she left.”
He did not answer but gathered his box and jacket, and pushed them inside a cloth bag. “It’s tiring, begging.”
“Don’t go yet, wait!”
“What now?” He looked at me with wrath in his black eyes. “What else now? Haven’t you asked enough?” There were tears shivering in his words. He threw the gringo coin to the cobbled street but it fell short and into the gutter.