Set in South Texas, in cinematic, vibrant and imaginative settings, the Texas/Hispanic culture gives the narrative its direction. Heartbreaking and soaringly uplifting, The Willows of Corona is told with candor, sensitivity and a perceptive observation as it treads delicately in one of the more complex paths of life.
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THE WILLOWS OF CORONA
By Maria Hilda Piñon
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Maria Hilda Piñon
All right reserved.
The brisk October breeze whirled the weeping willow leaves into a graceful dance and scattered the golden cottonwood leaves upon the green lawn of Corona's Catholic Cemetery. The solemnity of Carlos Antonio Moreno's funeral remained undisturbed amid the teasing changes of the autumn morning.
Father Antonio Praga, the Spanish pastor, bowed over the crucifix lying over the casket draped with the American flag. He removed it from the casket and kissed it, gave it to the widow and offered his condolences. Mrs. Consuelo Corona de Moreno stood elegantly by the gravesite dressed in traditional mourning attire with a black lace mantilla draped over her usual styled black chignon. Her black hair framed her oval, fair-skinned face and her teary, dark brown eyes.
Her oldest daughter, María Consuelo, pregnant with her second child, stood with her husband, Pablo, to her right side. She resembled her mother with her hair combed in a chignon, with the same color hair and eyes except her face was more rounded.
To Mrs. Moreno's left stood her seminarian son, Carlos Antonio, Jr., now twenty-two, dressed in his black cassock. His slender and boyish features made him look younger. With light brown curls falling over his fair-skinned forehead, his soft brown eyes seemed more amber colored.
María Victoria, the youngest, stood by her brother. Her dark, penetrating, round eyes and cameo skin graced her with a virginal yet mysterious quality. Full, shapely lips and a dark small mole on her left cheek unintentionally gave her a naturally seductive demeanor. High cheekbones on her oval-shaped face complemented the defined jaw line. Her long, slender hand tightly clutched a black satin bag and a set of broken pearl beads. An intact decade of beads and those attached to the crucifix were the only visible pieces remaining of a rosary.
Don Ricardo Galante II, Mayor of Corona, in his highly polished manner spoke flawlessly as he placed one hand on his wide girth.
"Friends, it is with a heavy heart I'm here to accompany my compadre at this final hour. My best friend was one of the finest citizens of Corona and an exemplary Catholic family man. We often celebrated together, and he'd say, 'When I die I want music at my funeral ... music of the mariachis.' So in his honor, they're here to say goodbye to Carlos Antonio."
"Las Golondrinas," a traditional farewell Mexican song began to play; its nostalgic melody filled his hazel eyes with tears that streamed down his bronze skin. It took him back two nights before, when the deputy sheriffs called him and the justice of the peace to the accident site. Upon inspection, the deputies had handed him an empty vial. The symbol of the skull and crossbones on the brown glass vial was all he needed to see to confirm the cause of death.
He decidedly told them, "Alright, men, only I've seen this vial. This was an accident. You get my point?" Then to Mike, the justice of the peace, he added, "No autopsy. Rule the case closed. This was only an accident. Do we understand each other?"
The following morning Father Antonio came to his office inquiring about the poison vial one of the deputies mentioned to him in passing.
"Ricardo, this is serious," Father Antonio charged. "If it was a suicide, a Catholic burial can't be performed."
"Father Antonio, I won't hesitate to call Bishop Andres, but I know you'll find a way. This must remain a secret. No one must know. The justice of the peace and the deputies have been sworn to secrecy. You too must swear. His death was an accident, not suicide. Do you understand?" he insisted as he handed him the vial for inspection.
Father Antonio sighed heavily as he held the vial in his hands. He walked out without swearing, yet he was determined, acquiescing with a nod. The vial did not make sense to him, but how could he dispute it? He had slipped it into his coat pocket, trying to dismiss the exchange with the mayor.
Everything happened so quickly, Ricardo Galante thought. The music ended and so did his reverie.
Standing opposite the mayor, Victoria looked past the mariachis and at Ricardo Galante III, who stood by his father, the mayor. Ricardo's dark, bushy eyebrows were unlike his father's but his hazel eyes and bronze skin were strong evidence of kinship. He seemed lost in thought as she gazed at the childhood friend matched for marriage to her by both parents.
Three inches taller to Ricardo's 5 ft. 9 in. stature stood Father John Collins, the Irish-German priest. His peaceful blue eyes were striking and remarkable, surmounting an angular jaw and cleft chin. His light and rosy skin was an uncommon sight in Corona. His gentle presence had a soothing, calming effect on her.
Father John's tranquil eyes met her piercing ones, disarming the shield of valor she stood behind for strength. Since her father's death she had not cried, but something about his eyes made tears roll down her cheeks, moistening her lips. She clutched the beads tighter and looked down at the casket, remembering her handsome father with mixed emotions.
Her father's Stetson hat made him look tall and gallant, despite his medium-built stature. This was more noticeable when he rode his favorite horse, Andante. Permanently tanned by his many years of ranching under the South Texas sun, his light skin was no longer obvious. Victoria looked at her broken rosary beads and then at the casket and felt waves of hurt and anger surge. These feelings dampened the sadness over his death.
Of the 35,000 citizens of Corona, those tightly bound to its history, political machine, and Catholic religion had the highest representation. It was a breach of social propriety and distasteful to miss the funeral of one of Corona's most reputable and prominent citizens. Every effort to be there had socially redeeming value. Those paying their last respects were as distinguished and diverse as the civic and church organizations. Members from the Church's Guadalupanas to the local VFW Post and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council were all present.
The color guard gave its final salute to their special kind of hero. The lonely and poignant sound of the bugle playing "Taps" hushed the ceremonial farewell. Those previously untouched emotionally now began to shift their weight from one foot to the other. Some cleared their throats while others wiped their sniffles with a fresh tissue. The shooting salute jarred the stillness. The uniformed soldiers meticulously removed the flag and gave it to the widow, Consuelo Moreno, who continued to stand perfectly straight with her hands gently clasped at her waist.
"The United States Government thanks you for Mr. Moreno's service during World War II. We offer our deepest condolences."
Mrs. Moreno bowed her head as she accepted the flag. Father Antonio Praga, seventy-six, wearing his long black cassock, brushed his hand over his plump stature. His cheeks were rosier than usual as the wind blew against his face. He cleared his throat before he addressed the crowd.
"On behalf of the Moreno family, I wish to express their gratitude to you for accompanying them. This concludes the service. Qué Dios los bendiga. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," he prayed, blessing the crowd as he made the Sign of the Cross over the people with his hand.
"Amen," they responded. Slowly the group broke up, some remaining to chat, others quietly leaving the grounds. Many continued to come by to offer support and sympathy to the family.
Father Antonio made his way through the crowds, pacing briskly to where Mrs. Moreno stood. "Chelito!"
"¿Sí, padre?" responded Mrs. Moreno, quickly looking up.
"I'll be at your house at 6:30 this evening so we can begin the novena at 7 P.M."
"As you say, and if you wish to be there by 5:30, you can join the family for supper."
"Thank you, Chelito, I'll try. Will you be alright?"
"Gracias, padre. We'll be home in a while." Turning to her children she continued, "Let's go home now. The limousine is waiting."
"Mamá," Victoria spoke. "I'd like to stay until everything is over."
"No, hijita, come with us. How will you get to Los Sáuzes later on? I can't send Pedro for you. He and the other workers have much to do at the ranch with all the invited guests."
"I'll be happy to drive her back," Father John interrupted.
"¡Padre!" Mrs. Moreno exclaimed. "How kind of you to be here. I hear you'll be in Corona for a year."
"I was to come next week, but upon hearing of the accident I came sooner."
"As always, you're heaven sent. Well, you know my Victoria does things her way. She says she wants to stay longer. There'll be lunch at Los Sáuzes when you come. You're welcome to stay."
"Victoria." Ricardo III spoke from behind. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Thank you for asking. No, we'll be fine."
"It's unfortunate, but I have three exams tomorrow and I need to drive back to San Antonio to prepare. But I'll come back and join you for the novena during the weekend. You know how important being responsible and doing our best is to my father."
"Yes, I know and thank you," Victoria politely replied.
"It's good to see you again, Father John, Mrs. Moreno." Ricardo bowed in acknowledgement.
"How've you been doing at St. Mary's?" Father John asked.
"It's my last year of pre-law. I think I'm doing well. My father is pleased."
"That's good. I'm sorry about your padrino," Father John offered.
"It's a big loss, but my father will miss him even more. Keep an eye on him, Father, please and, of course, on all the Moreno family."
"I will, Ricardo. Good luck."
"Thank you, Father John."
"Be very careful when you drive, hijito," Mrs. Moreno added. "You know how dangerous it can be."
"Of course, don't worry. You take care also. I'll be in touch soon, Mrs. Moreno, Victoria," he assured her smiling giving them both a hug.
Victoria excused herself and went to stand by the willow tree at the corner of the family plot. She stood watching, as everyone dispersed. The workers were within her view to one side of the plot, anxiously waiting with their shovels. Only the leaves lingered on the plot after the last person left. The casket was slowly lowered when the limousine drove off.
Father John stepped over to where Victoria was standing. "I see your father will be buried next to your sister, María Cristina."
Victoria gazed at the inscription on the headstone:
MARÍA CRISTINA MORENO CORONA BORN: JULY 21, 1953 DIED: JULY 22, 1968
She began talking ... reminiscing. "She was fifteen, I was ten. I don't think he ever forgave me for her dying. If I hadn't been sick that day, he might have saved her from drowning."
"You don't believe that, do you?" Father John asked, surprised.
"My parents chose to stay inside with me instead of going outside to the beach with everyone else."
"He couldn't have believed it was your fault!"
"Maybe not, except he was never the same with me after it all happened."
"How is that? He was a man who loved his family so much ... each one of you."
"He was more impatient and distant."
"Perhaps it was the death itself he was trying to deal with," he delicately suggested.
"And things got worse these last two years. He drank more and more and cried less and less. He was impatient with anyone else's tears. He seemed to be angry all the time, especially with God."
"What happened two years ago that things got worse for him?"
"I turned fifteen. María Cristina died the day after her quinceañera celebration. And the day after mine, he just drank every night."
"The thought of losing you also, perhaps, was unbearable to him, and he tried to forget by drinking."
"But that's exactly how he lost me. He was never the same again. My poor mother lost her companion two years ago as well. She was very gracious in dealing with him and became even more prayerful."
Father John thought back to María Victoria's quinceañera celebration, the first time he had met the family andVictoria. "I remember you waltzing with your father very well. You looked like a princess from a fairytale, with your salmon-colored gown. I watched you dance all evening."
"Coral color, as my mother would prefer you to say."
"The dance floor was transformed into a royal court, with all the fifteen attendants dancing with their chambelanes. All you needed was your Prince Charming." He smiled, looking softly into Victoria's eyes.
"At fifteen, your father is your Prince Charming," she stated with certitude, suddenly feeling awkward. "Well, my father is buried now, and received all the proper attention both from the church and government. We're lucky at Corona to have a Catholic cemetery and chapel."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, my father often talked about a friend, Felix Longoria, who died in the Philippines during World War II. He was from Three Rivers, just northeast of here. He was a war hero and they refused to bury him and allow the use of chapel because he was Mexican-American. The family wanted him buried there and they got help from Dr. Hector Garcia, another of my father's friends. He also founded the G.I. Forum."
"I remember hearing about the incident. He ended up being buried in Arlington's National Cemetery, didn't he?"
"Yes, thanks to Lyndon Johnson, a senator then and the GI Forum's intervention, my father said." Victoria turned away from the grave. "Let's not talk anymore. I'd like to go home."
She was still clutching her rosary beads; she quickly put them away. Father John, noticing her discomfort, said nothing about the familiar-looking rosary beads.
"I'm sorry. I know all this must be difficult. I wish I'd stayed closer to your family these last couple of years. But, now that I'm here, if there is anything you need, please don't hesitate to ask. I'll pray for the gift of forgiveness."
"For my father or for me?"
"For whoever needs it."
"Thank you," she said, walking away.
The fifteen-minute ride to the ranch house seemed longer. The monotony of the dry and harsh South Texas terrain decked with cactus and yuccas, huizache and mesquite trees suddenly softened with the weeping willows along the long winding driveway into the 85,500-acre ranch. The inscription over the entrance read "Los Sáuzes de Corona"—"The Willows of Corona." On the left post another sign read, "Deeded to the Corona family by the King of Spain, 1736." There was a crown engraved on the bronze plaque.
"What amazing beauty in this ranch! Look at all those willows. No wonder it's called the 'Willows of Corona!" Father John exclaimed.
"Would you like to drive through it?"
"You must be needed at home."
"I'll give you just a quick view. As you can see, the main house is up on the hill. An Indian raid in the late 1700s burned down the original hacienda but it was rebuilt and refurbished several times to keep up with modern conveniences. The style of the original Spanish colonial hacienda is always preserved and maintained. It's about 8,000 square feet."
"It looks very authentic and so huge."
"If you take a left before the driveway to the house, you'll reach the east side. Most of the structures are on the west side so that the evening easterly breeze from the Gulf can flow freely toward the house."
"With the heat during the day, the evening breeze must be so welcomed."
"It's incredible. Do you see that single willow on the top of that hill?" She pointed. "It's my favorite place on the ranch. You can pull up on the side and we can walk up the hill. I'll show you a panoramic view from there."
They walked up the hill and stood under the largest willow tree on the ranch. A wrought-iron table and two chairs painted white lay directly under the tree shade.
"No matter how hot it is, you're protected from the sun under the shade of the willow. I often come here to think, right under the willow. Sometimes I read, work on projects, or even do my homework on the table. Beyond the branches, if one sits or stands, one can see for miles, especially on a clear day. The sunset from the hilltop is an unforgettable sight."
"Texas does have majestic sunsets."
"Like no others," she proudly stated. "To the south, on the left, is a grazing pasture for the cattle. The ranch hands take the cattle from pasture to pasture, depending on which one is literally greener and grassier. Past the pastures are the worker's houses. The windmills beyond are much older than I am, and still pump enough water for all the cattle and trees, especially the willows."
"Are those oil rigs over there?" he asked, pointing toward the steel, hammer-like moving structures.
"Yes, they started pumping oil and gas successfully many years ago. They're supposed to drill for more natural gas wells next year."
"Is the river close to here?"
Excerpted from THE WILLOWS OF CORONA by Maria Hilda Piñon Copyright © 2012 by Maria Hilda Piñon. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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