from Reina’s Flight

The President Has Mystical Visions." This was the headline in the Heraldo. Mr. Camargo had been convinced that the Heraldo, his newspaper's rival, would not publish a single word about the scandalous bank deposits made by the president's son in Sao Paulo. Even if they had any information, they would conceal it. In the last couple of years, the president had granted the Heraldo all sorts of favors, bestowing it with radio broadcasting licenses and the concession to a luxury game preserve in Patagonia. Camargo had been sure they would not report the deposits, but he had not expected the coup de théâtre of an even flashier title. Mystical visions. In a country that had once been governed by fortune-tellers and witch doctors, that phrase was a real showstopper. Camargo should have ordered his presidential correspondents to keep a closer watch on the president's movements. Now, no one would care about the seven million dollars that the president's son, a vapid twenty-one-year-old, had deposited in a phantom account. They would say it was an error, or that the money belonged to someone else. Mystical visions filled the horizon.

According to the Heraldo, the president had cancelled a dinner with German investors, and retired to his bedroom at 10 P.M. to watch television. He switched on a documentary about Carlos Salinas de Gortari made in 1995, and became depressed. "Just think what ill will and envy can do to a great man," he said to his butler when he brought in his dinner. Salinas gazed out from the television, bearded, with dark bags under his eyes, lying on a modest bed in Monterrey, a Mexican flag hanging behind him. A few months after he had left office, his brother had been accused of embezzling and countless other crimes. In order to restore his family's honor and that of his own presidency, Salinas de Gortari had had no other recourse but to go on hunger strike. He went to the house of a loyal friend, Rosa Coronado, and asked for refuge. Soon, the place was filled with the press. "I'm going to let myself die of hunger," he said to interviewers from Televisa. "What they have done to me is an affront to my dignity. I am going to commit suicide." The hunger strike lasted less than twenty-four hours because almost immediately emissaries from the new president arrived in Monterrey to absolve Salinas of the troubles Mexico had suffered under his mandate. The Argentine president cried in his residence in Olivos as he saw Salinas leaving Monterrey, head down, smaller and more forlorn than ever, wearing the same black leather jacket as when he arrived. "He felt that sooner or later, all upright men suffer the cross of injustice," wrote the smarmy Heraldo columnist. "He felt that in this dark world, each of us has a kindred spirit. He stepped out on the balcony, and as he looked at the trees in the park, he thought he saw a white light shining through the branches. It was around 11 o'clock. Amid the branches of a lemon tree, he saw the blinding image of Jesus Christ. Appropriately, the president exclaimed 'Dios mío, Dios mío.' Our Lord, wearing only a loincloth, was floating in midair, as in paintings of the Crucifixion, with his head to one side, in a sign of his suffering. When, suddenly, He opened his arms and floated toward the limpid midnight sky, the president could clearly see the Stigmata: his side gashed open with the tip of the lance, the bloody cuts produced by the crown of thorns, the hands and feet pierced by nails. A celestial power brought the president to his knees as the light dissipated among the clouds. He prayed an Our Father and an Ave Maria. Later, still shaken by his vision, he called the chaplain and asked him to go with him to the miraculous tree. There, at the foot of the lemon tree, they found a gold crucifix stained with a fine stream of blood. Although it is July,1 the tree was filled with blossoms, which faded like glowworms."

This can only be the work of Enzo Maestro, thought Camargo. The writing employed the same pious language as the columns he wrote for El Diario. Instead of responding to the accusations regarding the bank deposit in Sao Paulo, he had chosen a rearguard attack. Who was gong to poke fun at a celestial vision backed up by the presidential chaplain? If Christ had appeared to the president it meant either that the end of the world was near or that He himself recognized his innocence. Maestro's stratagem left Camargo no clear course of action.

At about eight in the morning, the radio announced that the president was leaving for a monastery in a remote area of the Pampas to meditate. With him was the miraculous crucifix, and he was leaving the earthly worries of governing the country in the hands of his younger brother, the Speaker of the senate. The television news wanted to transmit images of the sacred lemon tree, but the guards at the presidential residence in Olivos would not allow anyone to enter. Even the most distrustful journalists were saying that, after a supernatural experience, the only reasonable thing for the president to do under the circumstances was to pray and retreat into solitude.

At about nine in the morning, the news had already been repeated so often that all the other lights of reality had begun to switch off. All else was forgotten: the tears shed for the deaths of Princess Di and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Unabomber's letter decrying consumerism and technology, the Khmer Rouge trial of the dying Pol Pot, the racial conflict in Kosovo, and, of course, Juan Manuel Facundo's deposit in a bank in Singapore. The penitent president filled the airwaves. The television followed him to the entrance of the Benedictine chapel where the abbot and ten monks awaited him. The images of the plains appeared to be bathed in a pale, delicate, primeval light. The abbot advanced and received the president with open arms, but the president dodged this fraternal greeting and fell to his knees, kissing the abbot's hands. Then the doors of the chapel closed behind them, and the cameras panned up to the cross on the bell tower and the clouds. This scene was repeated over and over again by the government-obsessed networks.

Before ten in the morning, Camargo had fashioned a counterattack, but he recognized fearfully that several of its steps were tenuous, to say the least. He knew what he should not do, but could not make out clearly what he should do. It was not the right time, for example, to publish the photos of Juan Manuel Facundo's bacchanal in Sao Paulo, because it would simply look like frivolous vengefulness to his readers, who would be caught up in the mystical fervor of the moment. And though El Diario had found three bishops who were suspicious of the appearance of Christ and who questioned the presidential chaplain's haste in recognizing the miracle, he could not put too much importance on that announcement. The people were inflamed with supernatural certitudes, not doubts. To insist on discussing the deposit of seven million dollars in a bank in Singapore would also be misguided: the scandal had evaporated before it even came into being.

As soon as he arrived at the newspaper he called an emergency meeting of the editorial staff. The political desk had already taken the routine steps: they had sent a photographer and two reporters to the Benedictine monastery, Santa María de los Toldos. The monks were of no use, as, in addition to the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, they had taken a vow of silence. The only recourse was to wait for a visit from one of the president's friends. The general information editor had already researched the history of the monastery and the routines of the monks. He brought out pictures of the refectory, the inner patio, the cells, and of a black, crowned Virgin that was the main object of veneration in the monastery. If we write about all of this, we are agreeing to play the president's game, said Camargo. We adorn him with all the qualities he does not possess: devotion, asceticism, humility, innocence. But we cannot hide what we know. Yesterday we were on the offensive, and now we have to defend ourselves.

He pushed his chair back and put his feet on the desk. He began to speak more slowly. In moments of deep reflection, his jaw loosened and he would pause on each word. I want a fresh take on this, he said, encouraged by an unexpected idea. Call Reina Remis. That girl knows how to unravel the most twisted theology.

Reina in the morning looked so insignificant as to be almost pitiful. She wore round glasses with dark frames that accentuated the smallness of her mouth, loose corduroy trousers, and a blouse that she must have found on the sales rack of some cheap store. Sometimes she was sexy, and other times, she seemed to disappear, as if she had rubbed herself out with an eraser. One had to convince oneself she was there at all. She sat down to one side of Camargo's desk, with her head down and her hands on her knees. But the sensation of absence disappeared as soon as she began to speak.

"What do you think of this mystical vision?" asked Camargo. "We're discussing how we are going to approach the issue."

"It's impossible," she answered nonchalantly, "It's complete hogwash. If the president had said that he saw the Vrigin Mary or a saint or an archangel, the apparition would be unlikely but possible. But Jesus Christ? The president is either too ambitious or just plain ignorant. Christ can only appear in a state of glory, and only to announce the end of the world. Otherwise, it's an impostor, the Devil, or the Messiah's twin. Does anyone around here have a bible, a New Testament?"

Skeptically, Camargo took his feet off the desk and pulled a Jerusalem bible from the bookshelves behind him. Reina lifted up her head, and time stood still. She moistened a pencil with the tip of her tongue, and marked three verses from Paul's Epistle to the Thessalonians and a whole chapter from the Gospel according to Matthew.

"Look here in Matthew," she said. "The second coming of Christ, or Parusía in Greek, is preceded by wars, hunger, and earthquakes. Up to this point, our visionary could be right, because we have experienced some or much of this. But Matthew also warns, quoting Christ, that there will be false prophets and false Christs who will try to create the illusion of a second coming. Matthew is very scrupulous on that point. Read Chapter 24 closely. It says, we must not believe those who announce that Christ has returned to preach in the deserts or that he is coming and going among the houses. Because when he does arrive, the sky will open up, it will be filled with light, and we will all see him. Saint Paul's epistle is even more eloquent. We will know that Christ has returned, it says, because an archangel will sound the trumpet of God, and our Lord will descend among the just, who shall rise from the dead. That didn't happen at Olivos, did it? What the president saw in the lemon tree, if he saw anything at all, was an illusion. Either that, or he's lying. Or he saw the Devil. Any theology buff can explain it better than I can. I'm surprised that more bishops haven't protested. Or that Pope John Paul II hasn't objected from Rome."

"I don't think that the Vatican will protest anytime soon," said the international editor. "We mustn't forget that the person in question is the chief of state of a Catholic country. This is no joke. They will treat it as a diplomatic issue. First, they'll want to know why all this is happening."

"We don't have much time," said Camargo. "By the time the pope says something, if he does, the president will have two or three million heartfelt votes in his pocket. He'll win the next election, and the country will go on swimming in corruption."

"I could go, and try to get the abbot of Los Toldos to speak to me, if you think that might work," Reina proposed. "I'm a woman, so he'll answer my questions without thinking twice."

"The abbot does not receive anyone," retorted the political editor. "He has more than seventy interview requests already."

"I can surprise him at mass tomorrow at daybreak."

"Even if he did speak to you," Camargo challenged, "it would be too late. I need something today."

"Then our only chance is vespers: the Psalms, an Epistle, the singing of the Magnificat and the Salve Regina. What time is vespers on your schedule?"

Camargo ordered the news editors to find the name and phone number of the benefactress of the monastery. It was unlikely that she was still alive. The grounds had been donated to the Order of Saint Benito in 1948, almost half a century earlier. Reina turned her back to them, concentrating on the television screens. She had a long, elegant neck, and her dark, freshly-washed hair fell on one of her shoulders, exposing soft down that was like the shadow of other women she had been in the past.

The government channel showed images taken from a helicopter, the desert of Los Toldos, the small indigenous villages, and, here and there, the comings and goings of photographers under an unforgiving sun. The announcer was speaking in a low voice, and in the background one could faintly hear Bach's Suite no. 3. "The president has shut himself away in the most symbolic place in Argentina's Pampas," he said. "The cell he has been assigned contains only an austere cot, a night table, a crucifix, and a washbasin. At ten in the morning, after praying the rosary, the president begged the abbot to be allowed to knead the bread dough along with the other monks. A few photographers were allowed to capture the scene, in a now-historic document. The Argentine chief of state, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, digs his hands into the humble mixture of flour and salted water. Later he will assist in baking the loaves and distributing them to the poor people of this sweet land."

"Everything has been prepared in advance," Reina said, without turning around. "Even the mawkish text the announcer is reading."

"What do you think of this: our country is falling to pieces and we have to waste our time on this farce."

The helicopter flew over fields of alfalfa and dust eddies, then over a row of low, desolate houses; it paused briefly above the empty train station, then a drab town square, around which horse-driven carts and broken-down cars circulated. "This is a sacred land," the announcer said. "A land predestined for glory. There are more than three thousand Pampa Indians here; they settled on the fertile farms given to them by General Bartolomé Mitre one hundred forty years ago. Three kilometers from the square we are seeing here, in an Estancia called La Unión, one of the most important figures in Argentine history was born in 1919: Eva Perón, Evita, the champion of the poor. This is where Evita learned to walk, to read and write; this is where she learned of the injustices of the world. In the three-room school to the right, Evita attended her first two years of school, before the family moved to Junín. This is a symbolic story, is it not? Our president, illuminated by the supernatural vision of Christ, has come to pray for the well-being of the Argentine people in the same place where Evita Perón began her life of glory and martyrdom. . ."

"Switch the sound off, Doctor Camargo," said Reina, "it turns your stomach. Did you hear them speak of 'fertile farms'? Have you ever been there? Did you see what it's like there? Thirty-three square kilometers of sandy soil and bogs. There is almost no livestock. At thirty, the Indians look like they're seventy."

The helicopter continued its flight toward the monastery, a perfect square with an open space in the center, planted with flowers. The top wing, where the church stood, extended about twenty meters; on the left there was a construction with tall windows which perhaps contained the dining area. The right-hand wing extended down twenty meters; it held the cells of the newer monks. Reina studied the building closely. She imagined that, after vespers, there would be a procession bearing the statuette of the black Virgin under a canopy.

Camargo looked hopefully over the information from the archives. Maybe it was possible to do something. The patroness was dead, but one of her daughters retained her privileges, and every year she gave the monks a generous donation. Camargo was not sure what he would ask of her when he called her on the phone. "Now, we'll start our lessons in improvisation," he said to Reina in a slow, doubtful voice that did not go with his enthusiastic expression.

By chance, the woman was in Buenos Aires and she agreed that this political manhandling of Christ was scandalous. "I know the abbot," she said. "He is a saintly man, and for that reason, he is an innocent. Still, I don't understand how he could have fallen for such a trick. Of course I will help in any way I can, but I cannot travel to Los Toldos. It's a five-hour journey, and there is a terrible drought going on. I don't know if you know my Estancia in the Azotea de Carranza, six kilometers from the monastery. Right now, I have only two servants at home, and they never open the windows until mid-November. If your reporters don't mind the inconvenience, they can stay there. But there may not even be hot water for a bath. If you send a woman, it may be easier. I can call the abbot and tell him that she is a cousin from Europe who is devoted to the black Virgin. And ask him to allow her to use the family pew, of course. Just to be sure, I'll write a letter, what do you think? Yes, I can do it in less than an hour, of course."

"That's the way it goes, Reina," Camargo said. "Sometimes effort and intelligence are less important than a stroke of dumb luck."

"Then I'll go get dressed for the occasion."

"Wear a black dress, below the knee, black shawl. It's good that the president doesn't know you. He'll probably be watching your every step. He must be bored, and you'll be the only woman he will have seen in two days. He's insatiable, as you know."

"If he makes a move, I won't discourage him. Maybe he'll say something interesting."

On the television screens, two lines of pilgrims walked around the square in front of the Luján basilica with lighted candles. On one side, near the tour buses, Camargo recognized the government-owned bus that had brought them there. With each moment, the government was adding a new variation to its mystical circus, an unexpected twist. Some of the pilgrims advanced on their knees. Others tipped their candles so that the hot wax burned their skin. The square was filled with street vendors selling fake branches from the Olivos lemon tree, dipped in holy water.

"Reina," Camargo said, with a tenderness that seemed foreign to him, "You have to go right now. If you have a problem, call my cell phone. Call me in any case."

He wrote the number down on a piece of yellow paper. She stood up, and the soft edges of her body were outlined by the light from the television screens. "Who knows what lies under those shabby clothes," he thought to himself. Who knows what lies inside that woman."

1 July is midwinter in the Southern Hemisphere.

From El Vuelo de la Reina (Madrid: Alfaguara, 2002). By arrangement with the author.