It is 1949 in a seaside town in Mexico, and Caterina lives happily as a cherished daughter of a wealthy family. She has only one worry: she has no early memories of her childhood. Increasingly, strange images drift into her mind—a gazebo, a farm, a blonde woman. She has no idea that she is really someone named Cate Miller, who was kidnapped from her Indiana farm family ten years earlier. In her fifteenth year, her life changes again. This time she will remember the past.
Cate survives an automobile accident in California that kills her Mexican parents. The police uncover her true identity and return her to her biological family, who gave her up for dead years ago. Against a backdrop of social change, Cate, who is tied to both the past and the present, struggles to achieve her dreams. A Catholic, she believes in the tenets of her faith with childlike obedience—but as she learns more of life, she finds a less orthodox route to the divine through the poems of Federico García Lorca.
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IN THE TIME OF PEACOCKS
By LYNNE HANDY
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Lynne Handy
All rights reserved.
Gaviotas de Plata, Mexico 1949
The bees were back. As the priest raised the host, the buzzing started inside Caterina's head. She pulled her eyes away from the stained-glass window where a slash of red had detained her—the burning bush through which God informed Moses that He was the great I AM. Fifteen-year-old Caterina Teresa Montserrat y Vega knew the Moses story well—the river weeds, the exodus from Egypt, the Ten Commandments. Mami hadn't told her, nor had Papi, Nana Alicia, Antonio, or any of her spiritual mentors. Had she lived before as an Israelite?
Such speculations were disturbing because reincarnation was anathema to Church doctrine, and she tried hard to be an obedient Catholic. Once, she had asked her brother Antonio if he believed in reincarnation, and he had said to do so was heresy. She didn't want to be a heretic; when she died, she wanted to be with Jesus in heaven. Pressing her fingers against her temples, she appealed to her patron saint, Catherine of Siena, begging release from dangerous thoughts.
Antonio whispered in her ear, "Do you have a headache, Little Sister?"
She shook her head, and he patted her shoulder.
Caterina's home was in an earthly paradise, Gaviotas de Plata, a seaside town in Mexico named for the silver gulls that swept dust from the sky. Her parents' ocean-view villa sat atop a hill amid swaying palms, fragrant oleander, and flirting peacocks, and she attended a convent school with brilliant teachers, among them Sister Ana Josefina, who had introduced her to the remarkable poems of the late Federico García Lorca.
Caterina called him by his Christian name, Federico. They were kindred spirits, he and she, even sharing a June 5 birthday. His work wasn't included in the school curriculum because of the erotic and political natures of some of the verses, but Caterina loved his lyrical metaphors, as did Sister Ana Josefina. The nun had loaned her a volume of his palimpsests—sealing the more controversial works under green tape. As soon as she could, Caterina had carefully peeled back the tape and discovered poems that drove arrows deep into her heart, especially "Song of the Seven-Hearted Boy," which told of secrets.
A rustling of robes. The cross was passing. Caterina bowed her head, crossed herself, and slipped out of the pew, nearly forgetting to genuflect. Someone opened the door, and a shaft of sunshine burst inside, gilding the white stucco walls. Esteve Montserrat, Caterina's father, guided tiny, birdlike Nana Alicia, pausing to say a few words to the mayor. Lupe, her mother, chic in a white suit, embraced the mayor's wife and continued toward the door. Caterina and Antonio followed like obedient ducklings.
In the front of the cathedral, Caterina's parents bade farewell to their friends. Dramatically, Mami removed her mantilla and fluffed her long blonde hair. Then Nana complained that her ankles had swollen, and as Papi and Mami half-carried her to the Mercedes, Antonio tucked Caterina's arm inside his own as if they were a courting couple. Giggling, she tried to pull away, but he tugged, forcing her to teeter on her new stacked heels. He laughed, telling her that she should still be wearing little-girl shoes.
Caterina pouted. "Mami," she said, "Antonio is teasing me."
"Conduct yourself like a gentleman!" railed Nana. "Never forget that you are Catalonian!"
Hiding a smile, Antonio begged his grandmother's pardon and leaned over to kiss Caterina's cheek. Although he was a tease, Caterina thought he was a wonderful brother. At twenty-two, he lived at home and was studying to be a lawyer. He helped her with geometry when she was distracted by the peacocks' cries and could make no sense of pi, escorted her to soccer games and to the beach, and played board games with her in the solarium. It was he who told the family stories—how proud Montserrats emigrated from Spain to Mexico in service of Napoleon, increased their fortunes in the copper mines, and became powerful judges. He had little to say about their mother's family, the Vegas, who had relocated to Laredo, Texas. Mami never visited her family. When Caterina inquired if there had been a rupture, Antonio said no—the Vegas had become Americanized, and Mami had lost touch with them.
The Mercedes waited at the curb. Standing by the car was Cisco, the chauffeur, wearing tan trousers and a shirt patterned with orange flamingoes. He threw open the doors with a great flourish. Nana climbed in the front seat and moved over to make room for Papi, while Mami, Caterina, and Antonio got in the back. The leather seats were warm from the sun, and the trapped air smelled of garlic, telling tales on Cisco, who had eaten a tortilla as he waited.
Nana glared at him. "Cisco, next Sunday, you shall wear a suit and attend Mass. Esteve, how does it look to my neighbors that your chauffeur does not go to church?"
Papi nodded gravely. "You are right, Madre."
"Next Sunday," said Cisco, "I promise I will go."
Lest Nana complain, he drove at a snail's pace, circling the plaza so she could identify farms that were setting up produce stalls for Monday's market. She commented on the pyramid of red, green, and yellow bell peppers on one of the tables and then said she had seen enough.
"Cisco," she said, "take me to the hacienda of my daughter, Celia. I suppose my son and his wife have plans."
"We're expected at the Krugers' for brunch," said Mami.
Industrialist Gerhardt Kruger was married to Esperanza Mendez, a famous film star, who went by her given name. She had two children from a previous marriage—a son, Marco, and a daughter, Pilar, who was Caterina's dearest friend. Six months earlier, Esperanza had given birth to baby Elisabetta, of whom Pilar was desperately jealous.
"Someday," said Nana, using an offended tone, "you must save an entire Sunday to spend with your family."
"Next Sunday, we'll gather at the villa," Papi assured her. "Lupe will make her delicious enchiladas."
Cisco drove to Celia Rodriguez's house where everyone got out of the Mercedes to say hello. Tia Celia, a younger version of Nana with bright eyes that missed nothing, had glasses of papaya juice waiting on the verandah. Nana sat down in a soft chair, propped her feet on a footstool, and fell asleep.
"So you are going to Señor Kruger's," said Tia Celia, lighting a cigarette. "I've seen his castle from outside. What is the interior like?"
"Moorish," answered Papi. "Decorated tiles, arced windows, carpets—"
"Jars," offered Antonio. "One expects a genie to pop out."
Tia Celia slid her eyes at Mami. "How fortunate you are to know the great Esperanza, Lupe," she said, a taunting edge to her tone.
"As you know," Mami replied evenly, "our girls are school friends. Our paths may not have crossed if it were not for that."
"Of course not," said Tia Celia, smirking. "Esperanza, who comes from a respectable family near Mexico City, would have not traveled in your social circle—at least, not before you met Esteve."
Papi narrowed his eyes at Celia. "How many times have I told you not to insult Lupe? We are leaving now. Had you been kinder to Lupe, we would have stayed longer."
Nana woke up. "Leave? Why are you leaving, Esteve?"
"Celia has spoken with a barbed tongue," he said.
"You quarrel just as you did when you were children!" Nana said in disgust. "Celia, apologize to your brother."
"She must apologize to Lupe," said Papi.
Grudgingly, Celia said she was sorry. Mami forgave her, and Nana settled back into her nap. A few minutes later, Caterina, her brother, and their parents said their good-byes, climbed into the car, and continued on to the Kruger castle.
"Your sister is such a witch," Mami said.
Papi kissed her hand. "You are an angel, Lupe, to put up with her."
"I do it only for your sake," she said.
Mami asked Cisco to turn on the radio and find music to help pass the time. Cisco twirled the dial. A familiar tenor voice was singing the opening notes of "Yo Soy Mexicano."
"Ah," said Papi, "Negrete, the Singing Cowboy."
"I adore him," said Mami. "Every sound he makes comes from heaven."
Caterina smiled, knowing that singer-actor Jorge Negrete, a popular ranchero tenor, had operatic training. With his great voice, he could not help but make the simplest songs soar. Señor Negrete finished his song, and then came a drumroll—Xavier Cugat's band began playing a rumba. Caterina listened with half an ear, casting her eyes toward the Pacific as they drove along the coastal road; the ocean was calm, but she recalled other days when waves crashed against the rocks, heaving up great geysers of foam.
"When I was small," she mused aloud, "I thought the geysers were monsters."
Papi loosened his tie and chuckled. "What an imagination. I tell you, Lupe, the child will grow up to be a writer."
"When you were three or four," Antonio said to his sister, "you ran to my room, crying 'Tonio, there is a monster in my closet! He is green with long, curved teeth!'"
Caterina frowned. "I don't remember that at all."
Mami embellished the story, saying that Caterina's terror was a contagion that had spread to Antonio, causing him to howl. The bee drone sounded in Caterina's ears and a thousand whispers made her shiver. Something was out of whack. The story about her fear of a long-ago monster didn't ring true.
It troubled her that she had no memories before she started school at the age of six. Her friend Pilar could remember nothing before the age of eight; her father had died then, and the loss triggered a kind of amnesia. Caterina, however, had suffered no tragedy. That was the rub—she simply could not remember her early years. Sometimes, images unconnected to her present life flew into her mind like darting swallows—a farm with white buildings, a sturdy little woman who tucked her in at night, and a dog called Parker. When she had mentioned the farm, woman, and dog to Antonio, he had said she was inventing.
"Inventing?" she asked.
"Inventing an alternative world," he replied knowledgeably. "It happens when there's an age gap between siblings. It signals a kind of loneliness."
Caterina wasn't lonely, but sometimes, she felt like a leaf blown from a tree. Although she'd seen photographs of herself as a newborn infant, there were none between infancy and first grade. Family albums were filled with pictures of Antonio, continuous from birth through his present age. Mami had told her the album containing her early photographs had burned in a fire when a maid was careless with a cigarette.
English words flicked into Caterina's head—words like linoleum and tractor. At school, she was enrolled in a beginning English class, and the language came to her easily as if it were her native tongue. Two days earlier, she thought of the word, Falkirk, looked it up in the encyclopedia, and found it was the site of a thirteenth-century battle in which the English defeated the Scots. Why did she know that word? She'd never studied wars between England and Scotland. When she asked her brother, who spoke fluent English, why she knew so many English words, he said he'd taught them to her.
"Did you teach me Falkirk?" she had asked.
He smiled indulgently. "You made up the word, Little Sister. You have too much imagination."
Missing photos, English words creeping into her vocabulary, strange images—all these things bewildered Caterina. She was also baffled by her appearance, so different from that of her people. Blonde and fair-skinned, she was six inches taller than the women in her family. Mami had blonde hair, but she bleached it—she was really a brunette, as were all the Montserrats and probably the Vegas too.
Caterina glanced at her brother. Like Papi, he was handsome; he wore his thick black hair combed back from his forehead, a style that emphasized his strong chin and patrician nose. Her heart melted with love for him. The buzzing sound always went away when she thought of love.CHAPTER 2
Gravel crunched. Cisco had turned onto the narrow road that descended to the headland on which Señor Kruger had built his palace. Soon, the tiled roof came into view, a red circle, anomalous in the wedge of green earth projecting into the sea. Passing an olive orchard, they flushed a flock of gulls that flew off screeching into the sky. A quarter of a mile more and they drove through Señor Kruger's iron gate. A watchman waved Cisco in, keeping his machine gun hidden, but Caterina knew he had one. Pilar had told her. They motored up a tree-lined lane to the palace, a three-story limestone edifice with corner towers gleaming white in the late-morning sun.
In the side yard, Pilar's brother, Marco, was practicing his golf swing. Señor Kruger, standing beside him, turned at the sound of the car and smiled. Two men, one of whom Caterina recognized as the film star Benito Vargas, lounged near the stone wall.
"I'm surprised Esperanza would invite Vargas to her house," said Mami, lifting her chin. "I suppose the other man is his lover."
Papi shushed her.
"Homosexuality," said Mami, lowering her voice, "is a mortal sin."
"Pardon me, Mami," said Antonio, "but it is not. The Church condemns only the act, not the feeling."
"It is all the same," retorted Mami.
Caterina looked with interest at Señor Vargas and his friend. Federico, the poet of her heart, had also loved men and was persecuted—maybe even killed—because of it. Loneliness and a different view of the world forced him inward to create poignant metaphors. She reflected that it wasn't so long ago that he died—only thirteen years. He'd been thirty-eight years old. If it had not been for the Spanish Civil War, he might still be alive. Their paths might have crossed.
Cisco stopped the car, and the Montserrats got out. Señor Kruger and Marco led them through a thick oaken door with a center panel devoted to a Hand of Fatima, whose inset eye was supposed to frighten away evil spirits. The entrada, or entranceway, was immense with an ogee arch pointing to a ceiling covered with bright-blue tiles inlaid with silver stars, and the plaster walls, painted pale green, were set with small cornices, sometimes holding vases. The ceiling motif was repeated on the floor, giving Caterina a sense of standing between two heavens. Passing under the arch, they entered the salon where Esperanza reclined on a green-and-silver-striped divan. Music played softly—Caterina thought it was from La Bohème.
Near the window, a middle-aged nanny with an unexpressive face burped infant Elisabetta. Señor Kruger kissed his wife's forehead, and she beamed the famed crimson-lipped, white-toothed smile that had captured the hearts of millions of cinema fans. She rose to greet her guests with the grace of a queen. Caterina knew there was more to Esperanza than beauty, for she cared deeply about children: in Mexico City, she had built two orphanages with sunlit rooms and playgrounds and had staffed them with kind and capable nursemaids; and she had also added a children's wing to Our Lady of Guadalupe Hospital.
Mami sat down on a tangerine sofa next to a Moroccan chest inlaid with bone and brass and patted the cushion for Caterina to sit beside her. Marco led Antonio away to see a new specimen of native ore he had found on a mountain climb, and Papi and Señor Kruger began a discussion on the price of shipping produce to Argentina. A servant came with a tray of drinks for the adults, and another followed with glasses of lemonade for the children.
Turning to the nanny, Esperanza asked, "Where is Pilar?"
"In her room," replied the nanny.
Esperanza reached for a little bell and jingled it, and when another servant appeared, she sent her to fetch her missing daughter.
"Pilar must have forgotten the time," said Esperanza, smiling apologetically at Caterina.
Benito Vargas entered the room and introduced his friend, Hugo, who had curly blond hair like Caterina's. The maid returned, saying Pilar wanted Caterina to come up to her room.
"Is she unwell?" asked Esperanza, knitting her well-plucked brows.
"She did not say," replied the maid.
Hurrying upstairs, Caterina knocked on her friend's door, heard a snuffled voice bid her come in, and upon opening the door, found Pilar lying on the bed, her long black hair sprawled like a wilted vine over peach-toned pillows. Her face was wet with tears, and two handkerchiefs lay crumpled like broken doves within reach of her right hand.
"What is wrong?" asked Caterina, much alarmed.
Rolling over on her stomach, Pilar pounded her pillows. "Elisabetta this, and Elisabetta that! No one is important except Elisabetta! My mother doesn't love me anymore."
She sobbed hysterically for a few seconds, was overcome with hiccups, and then reached for a handkerchief and blew her nose. "I feel better now," she said, gazing at Caterina with dark-chocolate eyes. "My monthly visitor arrived yesterday. It makes me say terrible things."
Excerpted from IN THE TIME OF PEACOCKS by LYNNE HANDY. Copyright © 2013 Lynne Handy. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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