creative ramblings & reverie

Friday, January 25, 2013

La Conquistadora (Version Two), Beginnings

Sometime during the night of Sunday, March 18, 1973, La Conquistadora, the willow-wood madonna which was Santa Fe’s beloved patron saint, was stolen from her altar in the downtown Cathedral.  Sometime between 9:15, p.m., when Della Garcia, the sacristan, carefully locked the heavy outer doors with their sixteen carved panels (the arthritis in her hands, worsened by the icy March wind, making it an act of love), and just before 6:00 a.m. the following morning, when the doors were opened again for mass.  Sometime in those fateful eight hours the lives of a whole town were changed, forever.

Carlotta Muñoz, championship swimmer for St. Michael’s Highschool her last two years there but unable to afford college even with the swimming scholarship she’d been offered, and not wanting to go even to Albuquerque when Drew was here, whether or not she got to see him, had access to the files at Los Corazones (short for Los Corazones Solitarios, or Lonely Hearts, the singles club on Garcia Street next to La Leche League, where she was office manager).  She could have told the police, had they asked, that there were over 9,452 people living alone in the Santa Fe city limits, who would have had no one to vouch for their whereabouts that night.  No way of adding in exactly how many more were unaccounted for one way or another:  out cheating on their respective husbands or wives or other partners, off on business trips or long weekends in Las Vegas, in the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital, or in jail.  Or, of course, those who might have driven in from out of town, Española or Belen or Truchas, Madrid or Waldo or as far as Socorro—one of the words Carlotta knew best in all the world, help—or might have been working together, in the darkness of late winter.  Those who, like Carlotta herself, would do absolutely anything for the person they loved.  Whose elderly neighbor, snooping as usual, could report that he or she had come home late, had been carrying a suspicious bundle wrapped in garbage bags.  Just as Carlotta’s nosy neighbor, Mrs. Archuleta, who took in ironing and sold eggs, would report the suspicious bundle she had seen Carlotta stow in her garage.

At 9:30 that Sunday night Margaret Aspinwall, who with those 9,451 other Santa Feans lived alone, had just put the last dab of cadmium red on a painting of hollyhocks, a 4’ x 4’ canvas purchased with some money her mother in St. Louis had sent her for her fiftieth birthday, and was cleaning her red-saturated boar’s bristle brushes in the stained bathroom sink of her studio apartment (with kiva fireplace and vigas) on Camino Escondido, on the other side of the river, rented by the month from the secretary to the Episcopalian bishop on the understanding that Margaret would keep dusted the collection of priceless old kachinas that looked down on her with unnerving penetration from the built-in bookshelves there.  Margaret found it ironic that she should have found a place to live on the hidden road, thinking how perfectly that suited her need for anonymity, the name she had just changed before driving the stolen Mustang to this town in the high desert where no one knew her or what she was.  Where no one had any idea, any more than she did until now, this moment of reckoning, what she might or might not do.

Many hours after midnight in the kitchen at Tecalote, on Cerrillos Road, Peter Trumbel slipped the knife hot out of the commercial dishwasher into his cloth bag.  The bag, sort of a Navajo saddlebag rip-off, was from the Ortega weavers in Chimayo.  He’d lived in Chimayo before Philip took him in, near the Sanctuario; for three or four years after his brother was shot in L.A. had joined the pilgrims walking along the highway on Good Friday.  He had learned then—prayer had to be an act.  Though Peter shared a house on Bishop’s Lodge Road with his partner Philip Gabriel, Philip was currently making a fool of himself over a Japanese bath boy—a specialist in Flowing River Stone Massage at one of the spas in Jemez Springs, deep in the mountains, whose café au-lait skin always smelled disturbingly of pine oil and Lapsang Souchong tea, who was a Buddhist.  Peter was sous-chef at Tortuga Café (galley slave, more like), and started work at 4 a.m. each morning, making the thirty-five gallons of red chili sauce they went through every day.  Sauce for their famous breakfast burritos, carne adovada, enchiladas, frito pie.  Peter ground the chili pods from the ristra, added oil, comino, oregano, salt, garlic.  But lately he’d been coming in earlier still (the damned insomnia again) and using the kitchen for his own cooking, for the twenty kinds of flan he’d so-far invented, the cookbook that Philip had promised he would print for him on the letterpress in his print shop on Acequia Madre, which he called At The Sign of the Cottonwood Tree (because he saw the little outbuilding first during a merry June blizzard of cottonwood fuzz).  Tonight Peter was supposed to be experimenting with a new recipe for flan flavored with Calvados, apple brandy from Philip’s cousins’ home in Normandy.  As he downed another glass of the stuff, furiously, not smelling or tasting it, he thought about the crisis of faith the Buddhist massage therapist had caused—and what it had led him to.  His act of prayer.  He reached down to touch the hard blade of the knife through the rough woven fabric of the bag.  He might be needing that.

It was well after nine o’clock before Mirella Antonelli got to the last note of Ave Maria.  She was annoyed.  She had been scheduled to meet Dru at nine.  But the bride had been having doubts (smart girl), so the wedding started twenty, thirty minutes later than it was supposed to.  And then there was a lengthy sermon, endless readings by both bride and groom, communion, and an ambling guitar solo by the groom’s friend.  All the while she waited to sing, in the chapel with that crazy circular staircase apparently built without any nails (miraculous, they called it), Mirella worked on memorizing her part in the The Marriage of Figaro.  She would be part of the chorus, for the summer opera.  She had come to audition for the apprentice program the previous August, had argued over restaurants in Strasbourg with the Norwegian tenor whose favorite role was Tamino.  He’d been staying at the ranch in Tesuque of some rich eccentric local woman who taught show jumping and rode a motorcycle with the sidecar all around town to do her shopping and errands, carrying her riding whip.  Mirella hated the high desert, and especially the altitude, which left her heavy with fatigue, as if she were much older than twenty-six, and unable to sleep nights.  So she’d sat outside the sliding glass door of her bedroom staring out over the piñon trees and rabbit brush, chamisa, the foothills touched with moonlight, the million stars that you didn’t see in the cities she was used to, Paris, Munich, Rome, until she’d heard the splashing in the pool below her room, and had gone down to find a man—a boy really—swimming, grey-eyed, a kind of water spirit.  Dru or some such funny name, who kissed her in the deep end, who came back to her room with her and talked about how alive he felt when he was in someone’s dark living room, in a strip of moonlight, as if it was a new identity he put on.  She didn’t understand all the nuances of English, so didn’t understand until later that he was talking about breaking in, thieving.  But it was all the same to her.  Anything to counter the boredom.

The theft was discovered when the church was unlocked for 6:00 mass on Monday morning.

The rector, Father Miguel Baca, sank to his knees on the flagstone floor.  He could not help but thinking, though he tried to stop himself, of Jaime Lucero, Jaime with his little sister in St. Vincent’s, the other six brothers and sisters he had to support.

Martin Lilienthal, an archaeologist at the School of American Research, was on a plane to Washington that afternoon, where he would be meeting in secret with museum officials.

Renee Richard, owner of an art gallery off the Plaza, slipped out to the French Bakery for coffee with a friend, in the room with steamed windows, polished copper kettles, ferns.  They shared a crèpe with apricot jam, to go with their frothy glass mugs of café au lait.  The stories were flying.  Even those who were not Catholic, had not, perhaps, heard of La Conquistadora before.  The newcomers, the gringos.  About all of the little figurine’s dresses.  Her jewels.  Her crown.  The women who dress her.  “One dress, made by Cochití Pueblo artist Dorothy Trujillo, is of Native American design and includes small silver bracelets and a miniature squash blossom necklace.”

Mrs. Archuleta, who lived next door to Carlotta and took in ironing for a living, mounds and mounds of other peoples shirts and sheets, phoned the police late in the afternoon, before finishing a batch of tamales for her niece’s confirmation, the corn husks she was spreading with masa and then a tablespoon of roast pork and chili, to let them know what she had seen in the night, suspicious activity.  She had never liked that girl, she told them.

The police wondered if the crime were related to thefts over the past two years of other religious art from churches and Penitente moradas around the state.  On July 5, the year before, a valuable statue of San Miguel had been stolen from Santa Fe’s San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States, along with other statues and paintings.  A letter to be received by the diocese office the following week would suggest that La Conquistadora had gone off in search of the lost San Miguel, because he’d been gone so long and clearly needed help in finding his way back home.

The APB bulletin out on the woman who was calling herself Margaret Aspinwall, living among the kachinas and painting hollyhocks, hadn’t yet been connected with her.  The white Mustang, muddied by the winter snows, sat in the garage with its Massachusetts license plates unobserved.  She walked everywhere.  A ginger cat had adopted her.  She walked to Gormley’s Market on Canyon Road, to buy it Purina in cans.  Feeling less nervous now that the deed was done, she went to the Fenn Gallery, to see the luscious paintings by her art teacher’s favorite painter, the Russian émigré Leon Gaspard.  The gallery was marvellous, though nothing to do with the fens she knew, the marshes behind the baseball park in Boston.

The month went on.  The town continued bereft.  The police continued baffled.  Lent started.  A few sad crocuses bloomed.  The wind blew constantly.

Phillip made flan with amaretto, flan with ground almonds, flan with ginger.  The bath boy loved ginger more than anything, he told Phillip.  But he said that about a lot of things.  For a Buddhist he was uncommonly attached to things of this world, to the most intense sensual pleasures.  To commotions of the senses:  fear, jealousy, pain.  The thrill of taking and destroying things that others cared about.

. . .


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