Cross-posted from lgbtSr
Among the pleasures of editing lgbtSr is the opportunity we have to showcase artists, photographers, thinkers and writers. Edward Swift fits well in that company and it’s a delight to share excerpts from his last novel, ‘The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint’. (You can read an interview I did with Edward here.)
Edward lived in New York City prior to moving to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he’d planned for many years to relocate. I met Edward when we both worked at Sesame Workshop (then Children’s Television Workshop) and again at Reuters, where he remained until his move. Edward is an artist of many talents and has pursued them wherever he lives. He’s also a prolific author. His book ‘Splendora’, first published in 1978, was ahead of its time in telling the story of a woman who goes back to her hometown of Splendora, Texas, to reveal a secret that rocks the sleepy town. His first memoir, ‘My Grandfather’s Finger’, recounts his life growing up in Big Thicket, East Texas, and he is working on a second memoir, ‘My Life in Books’ about his experiences in the writing, publishing and book selling worlds.
‘The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint’ is the story of a woman who lives for love, poetry and revenge. Her mother is considered a living saint; her father a man of science and logic. The daughter’s lifelong mission-to destroy the family that murdered her father, distorted her mother’s reputation, and ruined her country-is fulfilled on the day she invites the president of the nation to lunch. What follows is an enticing introduction into this exotic woman’s world and to the people who inhabit it. – Mark McNease/Editor
The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint
On the day the president came to lunch Señora Josefina Esperon arose before dawn. She was eighty-two years old. Her country was celebrating two hundred years of independence, and she was determined to make the occasion a memorable one for herself as well as the nation. Wrapped in a black kimono that smelled faintly of camphor, she sat on her balcony overlooking the Street of Merchants and Peddlers, and in the first hour of dawn she bleached her face with rice powder. Before the air was too heavy to breathe, she rouged her cheeks and lips, drew black lines around her eyes, and while the capital city, which she hardly recognized anymore, slumbered in tropical heat, she smoked one filterless cigarette.
“Smoking aids the circulation,” she said to her servant who was making the bed. But the old servant, who was called Contenta and whose real name was long forgotten, had spent fifty-seven years in that house, and she knew beyond a doubt that there was nothing wrong with the Señora’s circulation, it was her nerves.
“At your age you should know better than to invite the president of the country to lunch,” Contenta said. “What were you thinking? How many times have I told you, there isn’t any food in the house?”
“All you think of is food,” Señora Esperon replied. “Food is the least of our worries, especially today.”
“All I think of is God,” said Contenta. She fingered the many rosaries draped around her neck, wrapped around her wrists and ankles. “God will come to our aid, surely.”
“As surely as not,” replied Señora Esperon.
Allowing her thoughts to drift with the smoke that disappeared into the yellow sky, she gazed over tile rooftops to the remains of the harbor where her parents had arrived in the year 1901. So long ago, she thought and so many changes, almost none for the better. The capital city was once a bustling port, a gateway into a new world, where tall ships from Spain, Portugal, and Italy unloaded their cargo of wine, spices, and silks and returned with a bounty of new flavors and aromas. But after two hundred years of independence there were no ships in the harbor, no fishing boats docked to the rotting piers, and no passengers waiting for arrivals or departures. The crescent-shaped harbor had been diminished in size by the encroaching salt marsh and in place of the ships and fishing fleets, oil derricks stood like prehistoric skeletons facing the open sea where red algae floated like ribbons of blood.
“Today,” she said, “the sea is the color of wine, and the sky is hiding behind sulfur smoke. Will there be a tomorrow?”
“There will always be a tomorrow,” Contenta answered with assurance.
“How can you believe such a thing?” Señora Esperon replied in astonishment. On realizing what she had just said, and the various answers she was likely to receive, she quickly added, “Please don’t respond to my question. Today I do not wish to cause myself unnecessary aggravation.”
While Contenta swept the balcony, her rosaries jangled like raw nerves but Señora Esperon remained calm, even though she too was uncertain as to how the day would end.
“What are you thinking now, Señora?” Contenta asked.
“I am remembering what was and what may never be again,” she said. Her eyes moved across the city veiled in smoke and yellow clouds. “At one time this was the most beautiful city in the Americas, a city of boulevards, palm trees, and gardens. A city with an opera house and a season, a national theatre, a museum, a symphony orchestra, and many poets. Oh, where are our beloved poets?”
“They are dead and buried, Señora,” Contenta answered.
“Don’t remind me,” she cried. “What has happened to our city?”
Her eyes, which were once the color of water and sky, wandered over tile rooftops, into the amber colored clouds, and down to the red-streaked sea. This was the harbor of her birth, the capital city, her home, and she had never ventured beyond its boundaries. “I can imagine what is out there,” she had always said. “So why go?”
On the corner of Independence Avenue and the Street of Merchants and Peddlers she had lived in a house of forty-three rooms, four balconies, and two courtyards for her entire life, a life that now seemed too long and circuitous but not without a certain order. Both of her parents were buried in the larger of the two courtyards, and she would be buried there also; she had chosen her day, just as her mother had chosen hers, and she would not change her mind when the final hour arrived. She would not turn back; she promised herself this, because now, crippled with arthritis and burdened with the upkeep of such a house, there was nothing to turn back to and no one to turn back for. And so she sat on her balcony and awaited the inevitable. While surrounded by exhaust fumes and descending clouds filled with grit, she smoked her cigarette slowly, and she thought of her mother, Eufemia Esperon y Blanco, immortalized in the minds of her countrymen. The dead poets had seen the ocean in her eyes and the sun bleached desert in her pale skin. They said that her hair was like obsidian and her cheeks and lips had been touched by the rainbow. From the day she had arrived in the capital until the day of her death, portrait painters had found their way to her door. They had gathered on the Street of Merchants and Peddlers to wait impatiently for one fleeting glimpse of the woman whose image they hoped to capture.
Like our poets, she was a citizen of another world, her daughter thought, as she faced a morning sky and the sulfur clouds. On a narrow tapestry so long it stretched three times around the large courtyard, her mother’s life and death had been recorded, and on that auspicious day, the day the president was coming to lunch, the woven document would be displayed for the first time.
No, she was not of this earth, Josefina Esperon thought as clouds descended over the sea, the city of her birth and her house of two courtyards and forty-three rooms. The poets were right. She was of the sky and clouds. She belonged to the wind, not the water, not the soil, not even the mountains. And her death, although it was indeed marked with sadness, had not been a sad occasion, not as sad occasions go, for she had chosen her day, had stood before her open grave without fear, wondering aloud if her life had been a dream from which she had suddenly awakened. Had it been the life of another she had lived, or had it indeed been her own; and what was to follow the grave? “It is as if I’ve been away a long time,” Eufemia had said to her daughter, who had already, celebrated her sixteenth year. “And now I have returned to something I cannot quite remember. Where is the ship that brought us here? Where is the harbor? The crinoline wings, the halo, and the star? What has happened to them? Where is my beautiful hair? My handsome doctor? My beloved saint? My Angel? Surely they are waiting for me somewhere.”
“They are with you, Mother,” her daughter said.
“Where is the day of my arrival?” Eufemia asked.
“Is it not today, Mother?”
“No. It was long ago, my daughter. Where have you been, and where is my Angel?”
Seventeen years before her celebrated death, Eufemia and her husband, Doctor Alejandro Esperon, had arrived in the capital city. It was the beginning of a new century, and the end of a long and tumultuous voyage. A dark cloud had followed them across the Atlantic Ocean, but on the last day of their crossing they sailed under a brilliant October sky into a crescent-shaped harbor of clear, green water. The port was filled with ships and music. The air was fragrant with many flowers, and the sea breeze was sweet and gentle; but the sun was too harsh on Eufemia’s delicate skin so the captain of the ship presented her with a brimmed hat on which she fashioned a veil of sheer, white silk.
“This is a country of many villages and outposts,” the captain told the couple shortly before they docked, “but there is only one city, and the people who live in it are very sly. In no time at all they will have you believing that this is the oldest port in the Americas. Oh, these braggarts, there is little they will not say or do. Are you sure this is the place for you, Doctor?”
“This was my first choice,” Doctor Esperon said.
“Aside from the royalists you’ll have the Indians to contend with,” the captain continued. “If a stone can think, they can hear it thinking. They’ll read your mind, Doctor. They’ll tell you who you are even before you can decide for yourself. And what’s more, they’ll predict your future, if you let them.”
“I’ll predict my own future,” Doctor Esperon replied. “I assure you Captain, we will be very happy here.”
Relieved to be arriving, at last, Eufemia repeated her husband’s words. “We will be very happy, Captain. I am sure of it. I can foresee the future as well.”