There were many things Alejandro Castillo did not know. For a start, he did not know his given name or the people who were his parents. In this, he was one who embraced mystery not because he had that special talent but because he had no choice. When Father Guillermo Rojas found him on the streets of that small town in Spain, the boy that became Alejandro Castillo could not even speak Spanish. He was dirty and wearing clothes that were filthy and torn. He spoke what people then believed was gibberish. Despite this, the boy had smart eyes, intelligent eyes, and a persistence in his demeanor. Father Guillermo Rojas took in the boy and raised him as his own child. Castillo, because the boy was sitting in front of the old mayor’s dilapidated house that the locals in their mean-spiritedness called “the castle,” and Alejandro, because Father Rojas had been reading a history of Pope Alexander VI. The boy looked like a gypsy, a gypsy who had been abandoned by gypsies. But Alejandro Castillo was, as Father Guillermo Rojas deduced, a clever child. He learned Spanish easily and spoke properly within a year. By the age of six, one would never have known Spanish wasn’t the boy’s original language.
“Your Grace? Did you hear me? Your nephew was here asking to see you.” Alejandro Castillo turned to look at his assistant. It was clear then that he had been caught in daydream. For almost a minute, the Archbishop stared at his assistant before saying a word. Why had Javier come to see him? It had been many years since he had been seen on the island. It was rumored he was living abroad. Javier brought with him a mix of emotions for Alejandro Castillo, most of which were not even remotely pleasant. Javier made it a habit of creating such responses in those who knew him.
“Your Grace? Your nephew?”
“Yes, yes. I was just reviewing the events of the past week in my head.”
“I asked him to come back later.”
“Today? Later today?”
“Yes, Your Grace. I thought you were lying down and didn’t want to simply
announce him to you.”
“Did he seem upset?”
Father Juan Marquez had been the Archbishop’s assistant for decades. He likely had many suspicions about the Archbishop, but he was a faithful man of God who felt serving the Archbishop was his calling, his own small way of serving God. In many ways, he took care of the day-to-day activities of the Church on the island. He was the one who spoke to the other two priests on the island, instructed them on finances, reviewed their sermons, etc. His voice was essentially the voice of Alejandro Castillo, the voice of the Church in that small place.
“No, Your Grace. He seemed pleasant, if not somewhat sad.”
“Did he say anything?”
“No. Your Grace. Just that he needed to speak with you. Today, if possible.”
Some men join the military to escape a life of poverty. Others join the work force, enter a life of sales and meetings like I did. But Alejandro Castillo, at an early age, living with Father Rojas, saw that the Church was a Kingdom on earth as much as it was the gateway to heaven. And like his namesake, the Borgia Pope, he decided early that the Church would be his escape from a common life. He entered the seminary as a teenager. And he became a priest in his early twenties, a Bishop by age thirty. Others would have scoffed at accepting the role of Bishop when it was presented as something tied to moving to this island, but Alejandro Castillo had already deduced that being a Bishop in a remote area would allow him to be a prince of sorts. And in this, he was 100% correct.
“I will take my lunch on the back terrace today. When Javier returns, you can bring him to me.”
“Of course, Your Grace. Will he be joining you for lunch?”
“No. Send a boy to tell him to come at 1:30. Set no place for him at my table. I don’t expect him to be here for very long.”
Father Juan Marquez left the room as quietly as he had entered minutes earlier. And in the Archbishop’s mind, the question turned and turned: Why was Javier coming to see him? The boy was a clever one; that he knew. In this he was much like his father. Even in that instance, the Archbishop complimented himself. He knew quite well that Javier Castillo was not his nephew but his own son. And maybe it was the fact he never knew his own given name why he insisted Cassandra Diaz name their child Castillo. Pride, maybe, but also a strange challenge to the order of things.
The Diaz sisters were not the first women with whom Alejandro Castillo had sexual relations. I sometimes wonder if he slept with my own mother when she was a young woman, but my sister and I look too much like our father for me to believe that. Before and after Alejandro Castillo’s vow of celibacy, the man had many indiscretions. In this, too, he was like his namesake, the Borgia Pope. But the Diaz sisters were different. In a way, he loved them more than any other women he had taken to bed. He had gone to great lengths to have them, something he had never done before or after. He couldn’t remember which of the two had first caught his eye, but he knew back then they would never acquiesce to his advances the way other women had. So, because he wanted them, desperately wanted them, he convinced the Reynolds man and his jealous wife to have them placed in the convent. Alejandro Castillo was no fool. And neither was his son.
At exactly 1:15 pm, the table on the back terrace overlooking the gardens was set with linen, silverware, and china. It was a Saturday, so wine was opened and the correct glasses placed. Father Juan Marquez had already instructed the gardener to pick some of the purple calla lilies from the edge of the pond, and he found them now resting on the side table that sometimes served as a bar in the evenings on the rare occasion the Archbishop had guests and wanted to take after-dinner drinks and a cigar on the terrace. He quickly found the small crystal vase and placed the lilies in it with some carbonated water. He artfully set the three lilies pointing away from each other so that they made a triangle. Always threes because Father Juan Marquez understood the unquestionable power of that number. At 1:25 pm, he left the terrace, after ensuring that everything was in order, and took up his place in the dark entryway of the mansion to greet Javier Castillo. At 1:27 pm, Señora Hernandez brought the covered lunch and set it for the Archbishop. At exactly 1:30 pm, Alejandro Castillo sat at the table. And five minutes later, after the steward had placed the napkin on the Archbishop’s lap, after the wine had been poured and the plate uncovered, releasing its pent up steam, after he could hear the creak of the door confirming Javier’s arrival, he started his lunch.
Father Juan Marquez ushered Javier Castillo to the terrace and waved his hand toward a chair set near the table but not at the table. Before Javier Castillo sat, he said good afternoon to the Archbishop.
“You have cut your hair, Javier.”
“Yes, Your Grace. It seemed the right thing to do.”
“You look more like a man now with your hair short. How long have you been here?” The Archbishop continued eating his lunch of grilled chicken and rice with a mango salsa, the knife and fork clinking against the china punctuating his questions.
“Two weeks now. Mama died four days ago.”
“Excuse me? I have heard of no funeral arrangements this week.”
“Mama didn’t want a funeral, much less a burial.”
“Yes, but people will find out she is dead. And they will question who owns the Reynolds Estate now.”
“Yes, Father. That is why I am here. I plan to stay. I need to stay. And I am her only child, but there is no will.”
“And your cousin, the Governor General, is aware of this?”
“No, Father. But I need a statement from you in case he questions, something in writing to say Mama left everything to me, that I am her heir and that the estate is now mine.”
“Why would I do such a thing, Javier?”
“I have never…asked much of you, though we both know I have every right to ask.”
A younger Alejandro Castillo would have been outraged, but instead he was calm and responded: “No, I guess you have never asked much of me.”
Alejandro Castillo had never done anything for his son. Javier was always quick to point that out. His stories of his father were incredible. Part of the reason he did little for Javier stemmed from the fact Cassandra Diaz forbid it, threatened to contact the Governor General and even Rome, if it came to that. For two years, Alejandro Castillo believed he had the upper hand when it came to the Diaz sisters. Once they were in the convent, he had them confined, beaten, and tortured. How better to be their savior? How better to bed them? He made himself their savior. It certainly was not the first time a man had done something like that. But in the end, he came to know them for what they really were: brujas. He came to understand that he never forced himself on either of them, much as he loved to believe he had back then, but that they had allowed the entire thing to happen, willed it to happen. At times he had to have known they had orchestrated the entire thing. Once Cassandra had delivered Javier, there within the convent’s walls, everything changed. He learned with time that the Diaz sisters were powerful women, powerful in ways he would never understand. And here sat this man who was the very proof. As he looked at Javier, he had to have seen the Diaz sisters. Javier Castillo had their nose, their aquiline nose. But it was difficult for him to look at Javier Castillo and not also see himself. And this troubled him more than anything. Like his mother and aunt, Javier Castillo was a dangerous man, something wicked and untrustworthy. Like me, the Archbishop knew far more about Javier Castillo than he likely realized.
“If I do this for you, you must do something for me. You must marry.”
“Yes, a woman. If need be, I can find you a suitable bride.”
“Mama never married, and she ran that estate just fine.”
“Your mother never did the unnatural things you have done…”
The irony of those words must have filled Javier with rage, but Javier’s face remained stony, or at least he believed his face remained stony. To Javier, his face betrayed no emotion, much less shame, which is what his father wanted from him. His father delighted in shaming him. Javier Castillo had felt shamed by his father many times over the years, but this was a new kind of attempt based on facts Javier Castillo felt certain, at the time, he had hidden from his father.
“Well, if you know the things I have done, then you know a marriage for me isn’t going to work.”
“You are manly enough. People do not stare at you the way they do those
flowery boys that work down by the docks.”
Javier Castillo knew then exactly to which unnatural acts his father had been referring. Although he had rarely ever seen his father or talked to him, his father had deduced that he did not love women.
“Imagine my surprise when that friend of the Governor General, the one from Italy who spent a month here with his family, confessed to me that he had fucked a man in my guest house. You were that man.” Javier had never heard his father use a curse word, much less as crassly as that. He had, in fact, had sex with the Italian tourist, but this was so far in the past that even the particulars of it had long since faded away. Javier would guess he had only been seventeen at the time. What confused Javier was why his father had kept this knowledge for so long without acting on it. Why had he waited until that very moment to reveal that he knew exactly the kind of man Javier was? And then, despite the fact he knew he was about to lie to his father, he said: “I will marry. For your statement, I will get married.”
“Good! Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying you cannot have sex with men. We all have our particular weaknesses. But discretion…Discretion is, however, an important thing. And when you do have sex with men, let it be with someone like that tourist; do not go to bed with a poor field hand. Don’t sleep with poor men on this island period. They cannot be discrete. Trust me on this.”
Alejandro Castillo was finished. And with a single ring of the small silver bell next to him, Father Juan Marquez appeared. Javier Castillo rose and politely said good-bye to His Grace before being shepherded out by the priest who assisted his father. The Archbishop sat on his terrace and quietly finished his lunch.
The only memory Alejandro Castillo had of the time before he was taken in by Father Guillermo Rojas in Spain, vague and refracted by the passage of time as it was, was that of being in a dense forest. To Alejandro Castillo, memory made the forest a cathedral of trees, the branches high above like the winged buttresses he knew in the great Spanish cathedrals. He had no idea if he had become lost in this forest or if he had been abandoned there. But in the dark crevices of his mind, the ones he refused to examine despite many opportunities to do so, he stored the belief he had been abandoned. Whether or not this was the case was irrelevant. It fueled him, the belief in this abandonment. It allowed him to do the things he had done throughout much of his adult life.
The only item Alejandro Castillo possessed from his life before being taken in by Father Rojas was a small wooden amulet. On it, there was a carving of a small axe. And there were times, like this one, where Alejandro Castillo would fish the amulet from the small ornamental box he kept atop his chest of drawers and turn it over and over in his left hand. This amulet was the oldest thing he had, the oldest thing in his small box of memories. As he turned it over and over in his hand, it conjured no memories of his life before he became Alejandro Castillo. The amulet was triangular in shape and worked smooth by its creator and smoother by time itself. The small axe was done with painstaking detail, so that you could see the leather bound around the handle and, at times, even the way leather could be made to reflect light by the repeated clutching of hands, by the way repeated usage could wear down the dark skin of the leather. The old woman who had cared for Father Rojas had given it to him after the priest had died, told him it was what the priest had found in his pocket all those years ago. No money, no papers, no clues save this small wooden amulet. And as it had done his entire adult life, the amulet gave up not a scrap of information to Alejandro Castillo.
Alejandro Castillo wrote the statement for his son, detailing how Cassandra Diaz had left the estate to him. In what must have seemed preposterous to Father Juan Marquez, the Archbishop had requested he be taken to the Reynolds House to drop something off for his nephew. But Father Juan Marquez’s job was not to question, and he arranged for the driver to take His Grace to the Great House at the bottom of Mutton Hill. When the car arrived at the house, after climbing the winding road from sea level, the Archbishop asked that the driver leave him but return in half an hour.
Out behind the Great House, the cane fields and orchards stretched for miles. His son would be well off without need of the Church or anyone else. You can imagine how, at that moment, Alejandro Castillo felt a certain relief, though he would never have been able to assign such a name to that emotion he felt. Before he reached the front door, before he even crossed the entire front terrace, the door opened and a young woman lowered her head. “Señor Castillo is in the sunroom.” She directed the Archbishop, who found his son sitting there reading a newspaper. Sitting near him at the window of the sunroom looking out at the grounds drinking a cup of coffee was a young man that, from his dress, was certainly an American.
“Your Grace? I did not know you were coming.”
“I wanted to drop off those papers you requested.”
“Leenck, this is Archbishop Castillo, my uncle.”
The way Javier tells it, Leenck smiled and said hello. He and the Archbishop exchanged a few words, enough to confirm for Alejandro Castillo that the man was definitely from America. His English was certainly inflected with the sounds of that vast continent. It did not have the small biting consonants buried in the English spoken by the men from England, nor did it have the mellifluous rhymes inherent in Spanish or even the English spoken by those who first spoke Spanish. Alejandro Castillo told Leenck he had some family matters to discuss with his nephew and requested some time alone with him. Although presented as a request, it would have been obvious to Leenck that this was a really a command. And so, Leenck rose from his chair, slugged down the last of the coffee in his cup, and rushed from the sunroom.
“I asked you to marry and then I come here and find you with a man.”
“He is not that way, Father. He came to the island to see my mother but she had already passed away. He is sick and dying and knows he won’t make it back to the States.”
“Oh. I just…”
“Assumed I was not being discrete, to use your term?”
“I have the papers. Let us focus on that.”
“Well, I am glad you decided to help me. The Governor General was here
yesterday, inquiring as to whether I would be staying on or not.”
“Of course he inquired. His father was born in this house. He was born in this house and grew up here. It is a wonder he didn’t put up more of a fight back when the rest of his family died off. But he was always deathly afraid of your mother.”
“I may not have the Reynolds’s last name, but I do know my own family’s
“I wasn’t implying otherwise. I wrote up the papers. You should keep a copy of it at the bank. There are special…”
“Deposit boxes set up for things like that there.”
“Yes. Well, I am sorry I disturbed you, Javier.”
“It is fine, Father. You are the only family I have now.”
“I don’t think your Tia Flora would appreciate a comment like that.”
“Tia Flora died, Father. She died within a day or two of Mama.”
The Archbishop tried to hide his surprise from Javier, and in this he was almost outstanding. But what he couldn’t hide was the grief on his face. It was clear that he had loved the Diaz sisters in his own way, but his heart loved Flora Diaz more and in a very different way than it had her sister Cassie. In those confusing days in the distant past, the Archbishop had felt real heartbreak when Flora left the convent. And when she left the island it had hurt him in a way he had not anticipated. Of the two sisters, Flora was the one he likely loved, really loved. He never had her hands bound when he visited her in the convent. And, unlike her sister Cassandra, he never had her gagged before visiting her. Javier knew all of these things but kept this knowledge close to his chest.
“How did she die?”
“I’m not sure, but a neighbor found her in her kitchen. I suspect she had heart problems. I had seen her about a week or so before it happened.”
The Archbishop excused himself, but as he was walking out, he turned to Javier Castillo and invited him to dinner the following evening. He even, as a gesture of good will, asked him to bring along the young man, Leenck. Javier Castillo had what he wanted, but he figured it best to just say yes. Alejandro Castillo was, as he had pointed out moments earlier, the only family he had left.
Dinner the following evening was to take place at 6:00 pm. That morning, a messenger boy from the Archbishop’s mansion had delivered a note from Father Juan Marquez instructing Javier to be at the mansion with his guest at 5:30 pm for cocktails on the side terrace followed by dinner at 6:00 pm sharp. At exactly 5:20 pm, the car arrived from the Archbishop’s mansion to pick them up. Shortly thereafter, from his bedroom window on the upper floor, Alejandro Castillo watched the car pass through the gates to his property and enter the grounds, watched it snake up the long driveway to the front of the house. He did not need to alert Father Juan Marquez. Father Juan Marquez was already at the door waiting to greet the Archbishop’s guests. In every version of the story, Father Juan Marquez is always ready and waiting.
Javier Castillo and Leenck were seated on the shaded side terrace looking out at the sea. They exchanged small talk that betrayed they knew very little about each other. Javier didn’t even know why he had taken in this foreigner who was dying. But he didn’t question himself. Death and grief inspire a different kind of loneliness, and Javier Castillo was not one to dwell too deeply on the root causes of his feelings. He rarely questioned himself at all. At 5:45 pm, the Archbishop appeared on the side terrace and a young steward rushed out to pour him a glass of red wine. The Archbishop was not in his usual attire; he was, instead, wearing an ordinary white button-down long-sleeved shirt without the white collar and a pair of dark grey pants. He looked, for all intents and purposes, rather ordinary.
“Father Castillo—I mean Your Grace. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“No need for formality with your Uncle, Javier.”
“Sir, it is good to see you again,” said Leenck.
The Archbishop joined them, exchanged pleasantries, and finished the glass of wine just as Father Juan Marquez showed up to call them to dinner. At exactly 6:00 pm, they were all seated and the first course was presented. The dinner was mostly silent save the occasional comments made by Father Juan Marquez to explain each course as it was brought to the table. After so many years, Alejandro Castillo barely heard the everyday things his assistant said. He didn’t even look up at him when he spoke about things like the filet of red snapper and where the fish had been caught that morning. For Alejandro Castillo, Father Juan Marquez had become a kind of voice narrating parts of his life. For him, the good Father had become background noise.
“How long have you been an Archbishop?” asked Leenck, breaking the silence as they finished their main course. Alejandro Castillo answered and wondered why Americans were always so obsessed with occupation and the things relating to it. The dinner had dragged on with none of the three exactly sure what to discuss or how to act. As dinner was being cleared, Father Juan Marquez appeared and announced the driver would be ready to take the two young men back to the Reynolds Estate shortly. But then, to everyone’s surprise, including the Archbishop himself, Alejandro Castillo announced that no, no, the young men would be staying for dessert and drinks. Father Juan Marquez could not hide the surprise on his face and simply said he would have the back terrace set up.
“Where in America are you from, Leenck?”
“Well, I have lived most of my life in California, but I was born in Spain.”
“In Spain? I am originally from Spain. Where in Spain?”
“Several miles north of Barcelona.”
“This is incredible. Javier, this is where our family comes from!”
Javier seemed lost in thought and, as they entered the terrace facing the garden, he simply nodded and stared blankly out at the fountains, the well-manicured strips of grass and all the intervening beds of f lowers with their purples, the occasional reds and whites, the garden mirroring the colored vestments the priests wore throughout the year.
“But your name? It is not a Spanish name.”
“No, my family lived deep in the woods and not in the town. I am not sure exactly where the people of my family originated, but they had been separatists and rejected the Spanish culture and language. Honestly, I think many today would call them a cult.”
“Do you visit them?” The Archbishop was animated in a way he had not been in over a decade. This young man who was dying was like a strange window into his own past. And as he looked at him more closely, he began to feel an uncomfortable sensation in his chest. His heart seemed not to beat in its usual tick-tock of a metronome way it always had. Instead, it seemed to be fluttering, lurching in a rhythm he had not experienced previously.
“No. I never visit them. I had a falling out with my family when I was a young man. I left. I moved to Barcelona. I learned Spanish and English. I got a job with a financial firm and learned the trade. Within a few years I moved to New York and then to California. I have never been back to Spain.”
“I came here from Spain as a young priest just promoted to Bishop. I haven’t been back except once about ten years ago.”
“And your brother? Is he in Spain?”
“You know, my father…” Javier interjected before lifting a glass of port to his lips.
“Oh, sorry. Yes, my brother. He passed away many years ago.”
“So, is Javier the only relative you see?”
“Yes, I suppose that is true.” Mimicking Javier Castillo, he said: “Javier is now my only living relative.”
As Alejandro Castillo said this, he noticed what I would later notice, that in profile his son looked very much like Leenck who was also, in that moment, in profile as both of them were watching a pigeon strutting along the edge of the fountain. It was as if the two profiles had been cut from the same stone by the same sculptor. The noses were different, but the foreheads, the eyes, everything else seemed similar, especially the mouths. But Alejandro Castillo didn’t fully think on this the way I have. It was just a passing thing noticed and then passed over, left to lie unquestioned.
“Oh, this is such a funny thing, you coming from that part of Spain. Well, in some way you are like a brother then.” Alejandro Castillo probably could not believe that such words had come out of his mouth. He was not the kind of man to say such things. Clearly the surprise and excitement of this man hailing from the same part of the world from which he had come had gotten to him, affected him more deeply than he could explain. Alejandro Castillo never thought of himself as homesick much less a man buoyed by nostalgia. “I have some brandy I save for special occasions; we should all have some.” The Archbishop rang his silver bell and Father Juan Marquez ushered them all to the library, where the three men sat facing each other in a small triangle, a small triangle of leather armchairs. Father Juan Marquez had opened the room twenty minutes earlier and turned on the ceiling fan, had the fourth armchair removed and the remaining three positioned accordingly, placed small tables on the right side of each chair to accommodate their glasses, and set the brandy on the side table by the mantle along with three brandy snifters. He had done this just in case. As the three men sat down, Alejandro Castillo again studied the faces of his son and Leenck. There in front of him, it was then difficult to ignore that the two men really did have the same shaped eyes, the same hairline and forehead, and even the same mouth. Both of them had mouths that looked a great deal the way his own mouth looked each morning in the bathroom mirror as he shaved.
“How much do you remember of Spain? Javier told me you came here to see Cassandra.”
“Well, a friend brought me here to see her, but we had a falling out and I haven’t even seen him the entire week I have been here. He may have gone back by now.”
“Well, you don’t look sick like the people who come here to see Cassandra.” The Archbishop continued to use the present tense the way so many do when referring to someone who had recently died.
“I actually am very sick. I just don’t look it right now. Leukemia. I have good days and bad days.”
“Well, we must get together again before you leave the island.” Again, such a statement from Alejandro Castillo was surprising considering what I know of him, but one must accept a story the way it is told without too many questions. The surprise that is inevitable usually justifies such inconsistencies. But as Alejandro Castillo sat there talking to Javier and Leenck, he picked up a pen and began his nervous tic of flipping it over and over in his fingers, the pen rotating in a counterclockwise circle over and over vertically in his left hand.
“That is funny,” Leenck said. “I have that bad habit too.” As he said this, he pulled a small wooden triangle from his pocket and began doing the same motion with his fingers, flipping and flipping the item over and over with his left hand.
“What is that?” asked the Archbishop as he put the pen down next to his drink on the small side table. As he said this, Javier Castillo rose and excused himself to the terrace to smoke. This went almost unnoticed by the Archbishop, who was at that point utterly transfixed by Leenck and the way he flipped the wooden triangle over and over in his left hand.
“Not sure what it is exactly. A wooden coin?”
“Where did you get it?”
“My father. Apparently, the men in my family are all woodworkers. I think they have been woodworkers for centuries. My father told me a long time ago that every boy born into the family gets one made for him. It is the only thing I have kept from my time growing up in Spain. I guess I brought it with me because, well, I doubt I will make it back to California…”
“Let me see it. May I? See it?”
Alejandro Castillo took the small thing Leenck had been turning over and over in his hand. Wooden. Triangular in shape. Polished smooth. And there in the center was the same small axe he had studied patiently and repeatedly for years. He looked again at Leenck and saw again many of the features he could see on Javier’s face, on his own face. He turned the wooden amulet over and over in his left hand instinctively. In that moment, Alejandro Castillo was lost in his own head, that forest in his dreams suddenly present and dark yet vivid in detail. And for a brief
moment, he believed he could smell the forest he had not set foot in for a lifetime. Can you blame a man for such ridiculous things when placed in such a circumstance?
“You do that as if you have held such a strangely-shaped thing in your hands before,” Leenck offered.
Alejandro Castillo did not respond. He could not respond. He handed the small wooden triangle back to Leenck and excused himself. Within a minute, Father Juan Marquez appeared and announced the driver was ready. He then fetched Javier Castillo from the terrace and ushered both of them outside to the car. As the car made its way back down the long and winding driveway to the main road by the sea, Alejandro Castillo watched the red tail lights navigate the almost darkness of evening transitioning to night. He turned to look at the small ornamental box he kept on his chest of drawers. He could hear Father Juan Marquez call out to him to check if he were okay, and he responded that he was fine but tired, that he had maybe had too much to drink. Alejandro Castillo stared at the small ornamental box in which he kept his own wooden triangle. He would never again open that box. He would never again hold that small wooden triangle almost exactly like the one I found years later, the one I know belonged to Leenck and which I have kept all these years.