Swan Song

Chapter 1

From beneath a fringe of mink lashes, I gave the dark, robust young man behind the Mellehue Bible Church pulpit a second look. And then a third. He had to be one of the best-looking guys I’d ever seen in my life, and I’d circulated around. But…he was also six weeks married. And I was three weeks born again.

Chuta. Just as I teetered on the brink of declaring my newfound faith to the world, the old Coni Belmar shrank back, wavered—and wandered. I found myself struggling against a woman’s most irresistible temptation. At least, men were my worst downfall.

Believing in my heart was one thing. It wasn’t much of a risk to confide to the pastor’s wife that I trusted in Jesus either. A far bigger stretch to confess my decision to my griffin grandmother the weekend before. But doable, with a lot of encouragement.

Living out my faith in front of the world would mean another challenge altogether. I couldn’t abuse God’s gifts, snub His commandments, or betray His love. If I wanted to please the Lord, I couldn’t lie, cheat, steal boyfriends, covet husbands, flaunt my assets, provoke their stares, or bounce from man to man any longer. And everybody would be watching from now on.

I gulped. In reality, it took only a few seconds to make up my mind…again. Leonel Nahuelanca remained safe from my prowling—probably immune too, but that was beside the point. I was also committed elsewhere. To obey God, first of all. And to respect Marcos Serrano, as the one man in my life. Even though he didn’t want me…yet.

 I slid to my feet beside one of the front benches of the quaint pine-paneled chapel. “I’d like to say something,” I said.

Leonel acknowledged me with a smile and a nod of his sleek raven head. An anomaly if ever there was one, this newlywed high school student also happened to be a skilled maestro under contract with the Chilean Armada. I’d made the connection as soon as I was introduced to him and his bride, Cristina, that morning. My Santiago friend Macarena had attended their wedding and gushed about how Cristina had dropped her well-heeled fiancé—Maca’s new boyfriend—for the unpretentious islander. Admittedly, Leonel was almost as handsome as Marcos—almost. However, Cristina appeared serious and sensible as well as lovely, so I doubted she’d married the guy merely for his looks. I was learning.

He led the Sunday evening service with down-to-earth simplicity, and when he invited anyone in the congregation to share a personal word, I recognized it as the opportunity I’d waited for to speak up. Tonight, amid students and friends old and new, I would declare a public pledge. The moment had arrived.

I wasn’t usually timid, but as I looked out over the swarm of faces—probably nearly a hundred—a wave of gratefulness tied my tongue a minute. Since my students and I had arrived from the Chilean Patagonia to the island of Grand Chiloé the evening before, I’d never met so many just-plain-nice people in my life. They didn’t owe us so much as a cup of tea, yet they’d bent over backwards to welcome us.

“First, on behalf of our whole school group from Puerto Cignos, let me reiterate our thanks for your very warm Chilote hospitality,” I said. “You’ve been so kind, we hardly know how to express our appreciation, and our visit here has only begun. If any of you ever travel to Patagonia in the future, by all means let us return the favor.”

I caught Linda Peterson’s grin. Within a month, she and Pastor Colin would move out of their comfortable saltbox—which presently housed five nine-year-old girls and chaperones Maura Gaete and Eugenia Carrillo, along with their own family—to an alpine-style chalet in Puerto Cignos within the month. Naturally the Petersons had a vested interest in getting to know us folks from their new hometown, but I was sure they would’ve helped anyway.

“Thank you, Señora Linda, Señora Ana… I’d better not start mentioning names or I’ll miss someone important, but… The cazuela and soapaipillas were wonderful, and so was the milcao at tea time. Wasn’t it, kids?”

One or two of my more finicky students affected a half-hearted grimace, but most of the twenty-eight fourth graders broke into a spontaneous round of clapping and foot-stomping and whistling. Amid the commotion, a couple entered the main door of the sanctuary. The modest chapel was packed at the back, so they slipped down the side aisle toward the front.

The Treviños, of course. I knew Marcos’s mother and stepfather at once. His brother, Nicolás, and sister-in-law, Melissa—newlyweds themselves—had hosted me, Tabitha Sánchez, and the rest of the girls at their parents’ home last night, since the Treviños couldn’t make it in from the island of Chauquelín until this evening. I was already edgy about meeting them, even before their unexpected arrival in the middle of my speech.

Though I’d seen their picture more than once, I didn’t expect what a striking pair they made, either. Marcos had once called his mother a little mermaid. His grandmother, her former mother-in-law, had referred to her as a brunette beauty. And no doubt about it, she absolutely was.

Madre mía, how old was the woman? She had to be in her mid-to-late forties at least, but… Her hair, twisted into a glossy chignon in all the photos, hung loose today and coiled around her shoulders like a mass of flowing seaweed. She floated, floated, up the aisle like a gentle wave rolling into shore. María Angélica De la Cruz de Treviño indeed carried herself with a mermaid’s unearthly grace. No wonder her soccer-star son possessed the physical agility and coordination he did.

She wore a long coat, not of metallic scales, but of white hand-knit wool as sumptuous as ermine. As she eased into the opposite end of my bench, she smiled. Quite as if she knew me, which of course she didn’t. Suddenly dry as cotton, I licked my lips and flicked a glance at my lavender bouclé suit.

“So it…it was an enjoyable afternoon for us all,” I continued lamely, “and we’re happy to find so many new friends. But I have something else I’ve wanted to share for a while, and this seems like the appropriate time. Three weeks ago tonight, I-I finally responded to God’s touch on my heart and put my trust in Him. I need to thank so many people—some of them here tonight—for having the courage to speak up and tell me the truth.”

I met the joy in the turquoise eyes of my friend Melissa Travis de Serrano across the room. She looped her arm through her husband Nicolás’s and they exchanged a glance so full of tender delight that tears pricked in my eyes. Of course they’d heard my news from her sister Linda earlier, and we’d discussed my decision at length the evening before. At least they were more excited about it than Marcos. Gave me the benefit of the doubt.

“Marcos Serrano first gave me a tract months ago” —I choked back the memory, feigning matter-of-fact composure— “and challenged me with the Bible. Then Melissa and Captain Nicolás, Pastor Colin and Señora Linda, all had a part. As well as the church folks from Puerto Cignos…you, Tabitha, and Rafael, Eugenia, Don José…”

“Most of all, unawares, I had a wonderful legacy from my own family. My mother and father and brother became believers just before their death nine years ago, and I never knew it until I found my mother’s diary recently. Talk about a call from the grave…”

A hush deepened around me. The musicians left off fiddling with their guitars. The schoolchildren stopped shuffling their feet. I had their complete attention now, even local millionaire-turned-chaperone Douglas Greenfield idling awkwardly by the door. Next to Señora Linda, Maura Gaete de Fernández’s crimson lips hung open in an O. Tears trickled over Tabi Sánchez’s rounded cheeks.

“Maybe you’re wondering why I haven’t made my faith public until today,” I said. “For a very specific reason—I felt my grandmother, Señora Lucía de Fiorucci, should be the first to know. Telling her about my parents and about my mother’s diary seemed like an important part of the story, but it wasn’t the right moment to spill some of the other…sensitive information contained in the diary. So I kept quiet until last weekend.”

I could’ve added, I was afraid of not being believed when I believed. But I didn’t. I pressed my lips together and pushed on. “I’ve got a lot of growing and changing to do. I-I know that. But Jesus has bought me and started the work. Please pray for me, and my grandmother too. She’s just had a mild stroke and she needs the Lord as well.”

I slunk down into my seat again, wishing I were dainty and inconspicuous like other women. Leonel Nahuelanca said, “Señorita Coni, I too…know the power of God through a diary. We’ll pray right now.”

I lifted my head and mouthed my thanks to that practical, good-looking Chilote. God bless you, Brother Leo…and your wife.

A feather touch alighted on my hand. Marcos’s mother leaned over two or three children to catch my attention and give me a sweet smile. “So nice to finally meet you, my dear,” she murmured.

And I thought she didn’t know who I was…