The May Crowning

For five years, Berenice waited for a chance to dematerialize her cousin, an objective she almost fulfilled the first time Dorotéia took part in the May Crowning, in the church on the square. It was an event staged on several tiers of wooden bleachers, where blue, pink, and white angels were arranged according to the vicar’s whim. The latter were the elite. Only elegant, fair-skinned, well-behaved girls got to wear white.

On the top tier, suspended only by the Virgin Mary’s good will (Berenice couldn’t understand how no one ever fell from there), an angel from a good family (well-born, well-brought-up, just like Berenice, but less loopy), stood on tippy-toes and, between the shrill liturgies of the faithful, crowned the statue of Mary. In Berenice and her Catholic grandmother’s opinion, the event was beautiful, exquisite, unforgettable. But poor Berenice had never been a white angel. Due to her olive complexion, deepened by the sun, she had never made it past blue angel. An ignoble extra swelling the ranks. Although her mother thought she was beautiful, her chicken-feather wings dyed with aniline got her dress all sticky, driving the adults mad and frustrating Berenice. 

Her career as an angel almost ended the year that Ismênia, her neighbor and friend, although a little squat for the role, played the angel who crowns Mary. Most unfortunate. In the middle of the celebrations, Ismênia got her period for the first time. Bored in her blue wings, Berenice noticed the blood on Ismênia’s white tunic. Not understanding what had happened (and at precisely the most solemn moment of the ceremony), she exclaimed aloud, “Oh my God, someone’s murdered Ismênia’s backside!”

Needless to say, the party was over. The vicar expelled Berenice from the platform, while Ismênia, surrounded by her mother and aunts, who were trying to hide the revealing stain, hid in the sacristy. The angels fell about laughing and the shrieking choir choked on its own notes. Berenice was dragged out of the celebration by the wings. She felt wronged. All she had wanted was to save her friend, and in return she got a scolding. Even from her teary mother.

“Why the scene, Berenice? Can’t you behave yourself just once?”

Her attempts to explain that she really had seen blood were useless. Yes, Ismênia was going to die. She had obviously been attacked in the backside.

Oh my God, groaned her family. No one forgave Berenice, who, hiding her face in her wings like a chick with croup, listened to her family’s laments. What a complicated world. What was wrong with reporting a murder?   

Seeing Grandma Vogel’s embarrassment and dismay at her granddaughter’s debacle, Grandpa Vogel solved the problem with a generous donation to the church. The vicar’s face quickly lit up in a warm smile. He was charitable about Berenice’s antics, saying, “Berenice is an exemplary angel. We expect her back next year. Silent, of course.”

Grandpa Vogel told Berenice never to speak without thinking, but she held her ground.

“Grandpa, I saw blood on Ismênia’s backside. Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I was only trying to save her,” she insisted.

Grandpa Vogel’s philosophical answer frightened Berenice.

“It is the inexorable destiny of women’s backsides. There isn’t a soul who can save them. Get ready, because one day they’ll kill yours.”

Before she got her period and the year after Ismênia’s tragedy, Berenice, an ineffable blue angel, attended the crowning at the vicar’s invitation. Duly hidden on the first tier of the bleachers, behind a few dozen other angels (a precaution taken by the vicar to avoid a new incident) she felt most humiliated. She didn’t understand folks who made a big fuss over paying homage to the Virgin Mary (exquisitely beautiful, but just a statue), but mistrusted human beings. She hadn’t lied. She had seen the bloody cataclysm on her former friend’s tunic with her own eyes. 

The only good thing about this crowning was the fact that Dorotéia attended the ceremony for the first time. It was consolation for Berenice. So I’m a blue angel, but I’m an angel. My dull little cousin isn’t even an angel.

Their nanny was right; sooner or later everyone takes a fall. The following year, during all the May-the-Month-of-Mary brouhaha, Berenice almost choked when she saw that her cousin Dorotéia, debuting in her celestial duties, had become a Wonder Angel. All in white. Pleated tunic, silver braid around her waist, enormous wings. Her brother examined their cousin’s wings and announced, “They’re turkey feathers, dipped in bleach.”

Fortunately, Berenice had grown out of the angel role. Thanks to the murder of her own backside, her grandmother and mother had promoted her to the status of virgin, a creature like an angel, but devoid of wings. Naturally, Berenice was a blue virgin, a detail that exasperated her. Before she knew it she'd be dead and buried in a blue gown. And then how could she protest if she hadn’t done it when she was alive.

Her usurping cousin, blonde and beautiful, would have made the archangel Gabriel green with envy. She was simply gorgeous. The relatives hovered around, chattering and putting the finishing touches on their precious darling. Finally, the perfect angel was left on her own, sitting in a chair so she wouldn’t get wrinkled. The adults went off to get ready for the occasion. Alone with her, Berenice set the trap.

“Dorotéia, do you know where angels live?”

The little lovely shook her head.

“In the sky, with my dad. He dressed up like an angel, flapped his wings and off he went. He never came home again. Have you ever seen my dad, who’s also your uncle, by the way?”

At that exact moment an airplane passed overhead. Good luck for Berenice; bad luck for the angel. Berenice took the opportunity.

“After Mary is crowned you are going to fly up to that plane and will never come home again.”

Dorotéia’s enormous long-lashed brown eyes grew even bigger. When Aunt Clara reappeared to escort her daughter, Dorotéia clung to the gate howling in desperation that she didn’t want to go.

No one paid the frightened angel any heed. Aunt Clara dragged her through the street. She stumbled along, tearing her tunic as she fell and losing her wing feathers as she bumped into posts and trees. By the time they got to the church, her saintly halo was crooked and crumpled, adorning a face swollen from crying. Standing beside the tiny winged creature, Aunt Clara, her mother, shouted in a rage that she was indeed going to crown the statue of Mary.

“Even if I have to smack you. I spent a fortune on your costume.”

Costume? The shock made Berenice gag. So, she was a fake virgin? Dorotéia, a false angel? The crowning wasn’t for real? Was it all a lie, just a lie? Straightening the virginal forget-me-nots on her rattle-brained head, Berenice decided that if it was all just pantomime she didn’t want to be a part of it.

“I’m not getting up on that platform in these ridiculous blue clothes.”

Grandma Vogel tried to put out the fire.

“What’s gotten into these girls, for Christ’s sake? Each crowning brings an unpleasant surprise. It all seems so normal with other families. Come on, Grandma will buy you an iced fruit bun afterwards.”

Berenice’s mother pretended not to understand, Aunt Clara continued arguing, and a neighbor stuck her nose in (another murder?) but was sent packing by Grandma Vogel, who was quick to reply.

“With all due respect, stay out of it. Our homicides are private affairs.”

What a complicated pair, the virgin and the angel. Dorotéia was still bawling her eyes out, begging to go home. Berenice felt sorry for her (she hadn’t expected such an emotional outburst), and tried to ease her guilt by supporting her cousin.

“I’ll stay with Dorotéia. I don’t want to go either.”

Grandma Vogel, embarrassed by the new public spectacle, appealed to the fruit bun again. To no avail. Afraid of disappearing forever, Dorotéia couldn’t stop crying. Berenice clung to her, swearing she’d take her home even if she had to fight with Our Lord in Heaven. Her mother’s face drained.

“Saintly Virgin, Berenice, who’s been teaching you such heresies?”

Saintly Virgin? Berenice cornered her mother wanting to know if, to be precise, hers was a saint or a virgin costume. Grandpa Vogel suspected she had been drinking port wine and smelled her breath: simple angel breath, the sweet smell of a child. With nowhere to turn, Dorotéia clung to the very person responsible for her predicament. After all, Berenice was the only one trying to help her. 

The debacle brought a number of consequences:

1) Never in the history of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church had such an untidy, filthy angel crowned the Virgin Mary. And what’s more, in the arms of her older cousin, a sulking virgin whose blue tunic was stained with the archangel’s tears.

2) United by the tragedy, Berenice and Dorotéia became inseparable friends. Neither time nor its various obstacles managed to separate them. Needless to say, on this day Berenice laid to rest the idea of evaporating her cousin. 

3) Berenice learned the meaning of the word heresy and started to believe that life was more fun than she had previously thought.

4) To the dismay of her grandmother and the satisfaction of her grandfather (a staunch atheist), the Vogel girls were never again invited to participate in the May celebrations.

5) Grandma Vogel bought the fruit bun, which served as a lesson for Berenice: sweets are for the feisty. Good folks (the sort that go to heaven) eat stale bread.

From A tecelã de sonhos. Published 2009 by Grupo Editorial Record. Copyright Angela Dutra de Menezes. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2010 by Alison Entrekin. All rights reserved.