Sunday, January 12, 199–, 11:32 a.m.
Manquehue Bed & Breakfast, Huillinco, Chiloé Island
It wasn’t the most promising day of my career. In the middle of my closing prayer at the impromptu morning service in this isolated hamlet in southern Chile, I had the feeling that as a missionary, I was pretty much a flop.
A breeze laden with moist earth and cut grass wafted in through the net curtains at the open window of the rustic house-turned-inn I was boarding at. The fragrances of summer nudged my memory to the June Vacation Bible Schools of my childhood, with their opening ceremony each day—the children bouncing, the flags waving in the sunshine, the salutes and songs.
Though the smells were subtly similar, everything else here was as far removed from the suburbs of Baltimore as a place on the same planet could be. Almost the entire population of the lakeside village of Huillinco had been invited, but ninety percent of the pathetic turnout were housewives and the other ten percent sported white manes and walking sticks. If it were a VBS, we’d have lacked enough children to carry the banners, let alone belt out the choruses.
Sure, I was just a dumb gringa to them. And a canuto, their derogatory term for an evangelical Christian. But during a civil war in the Archipelago of Chiloé, I’d really hoped that even if the locals didn’t hold me in high regard, they might feel compelled to gather and pray for their men.
Not that I advocated foxhole conversions. But I was a little disappointed. A resounding triumph, this meeting was not.
Still, I intended to encourage the few who had come. That was my goal—and my fiancé Nicolás’s—in planning this Sunday service. Only Nicolás hadn’t made it…
“…And dear God, I pray you might bring all the men home safely, very soon,” I finished. Especially my man. “In the meantime, give these ladies your deepest peace. Thank you for hearing and answering. In the name of Jesus my Savior, Amen.”
I drew a deep breath, lifted my head, and found the row of women wedged on the stiff bamboo settee crossing themselves in unison. Oh, well, at least they were fervent. I smiled around at the twenty-or-so neighbors lining the walls of the Manquehue family’s quaint living room. My friend Jana Garrido’s fragile mother-in-law, Señora Eugenia. Señora Beatriz, the nursing aide, and her sister-in-law, Fabiola. Pregnant teen bride Marité Panguipán, and her friend Pamela. Even the unlikely Señora Clemencia, among the others.
Poker-faced as the collection of knickknacks on the shelf, they probably would’ve felt more comfortable crammed around the kitchen stove. But my hostess, Señora Sandra, had insisted on using her best room. Its chintz drapes and immaculate wood floor presented a classic Chilote contrast with the cardboard mats and air of damp disuse.
“Thanks again for coming, folks,” I said. “You’ve been a blessing to me, and I hope that’s mutual.”
“Absolutely, Señorita Melissa.” Señora Sandra plowed through the neighbors to pump my hand. “If we don’t trust in God, who else is there?”
Her father-in-law, old Don José Manquehue, hobbled to my side. “Your faith and hard work have been an example to everyone here, young lady.” He patted my arm with a gnarled hand.
Drs. Rob McCormack and Cara Winslow, American tourists-turned-volunteers whom I aided as interpreter, moved with the flow toward the front door. “See you at lunch, sister,” Rob called.
I grinned back. “Right, you apostate.” Was Rob a believer? I wasn’t sure, but he and his wife had blown me away with their dedication after being caught in Chiloé National Park at the outbreak of the insurrection ten days ago.
The crowd thinned quickly, as the Chilote matrons scurried home to their rising bread dough and hungry pigs. I needed to wind things up here as soon as possible myself. The doctors had been willing to share me for this morning’s service, so I hadn’t even been on duty at the medical post yet today. Lieutenant José Miguel Scherling-Meyer, a Special Ops carabinero in charge of the military encampment at the east end of town, had volunteered to man the med-post so the doctors could attend the meeting too. “Since I’m an atheist, you know,” he’d said with a smirk.
“I don’t believe that, amigo.” After a rocky start to our friendship, l was starting to like José Miguel.
“Believe it, a Jewish atheist. I don’t trust battlefield prayers.” His face hardened. “Not that I’ve been anywhere near a battlefield.”
“Me neither. But I don’t have to be in a trench to know how much I need God.” I laid a hand on his forearm. “And you don’t either, to be useful. José Miguel, do have any idea how indispensable your role here’s been?”
His eyes had brightened a little at my praise. Too bad he’d missed the service this morning, but at least the doctors had the chance for a break. They’d see their last wounded patients off to the Castro hospital this afternoon, and then…
What was next on the agenda? No doubt, missing park ranger Don Miguel Molina would need medical attention when the military detachment located him, but other than that, the action in this area was winding up. Thank God.
I only hoped that didn’t mean government officials would escort me off the island with the American doctors at the first possible moment. Rob and Cara were visitors, but Chiloé was my home, after all. Not Baltimore, certainly not Santiago. And now more than ever, since my official engagement two days ago to Captain Nicolás Serrano.
“How did the children’s class go?” I asked Jana in the Manquehue kitchen. “Looks like they’ve all taken off.”
Newlywed Jana scraped straggly bangs off her flushed forehead with the heel of her hand. “Couldn’t get away fast enough. I hope their noise didn’t interrupt you. I’m sorry, Melissa, I’m just not very good at this.”
“You know what they say about practice. You’ll get better, huachita.” I smiled. “But thanks, I really appreciate—”
The back door through the wood shed cracked open. Señora Beatriz stuck her head in. “Wondered if you were still here, señorita. Fabiola and I. Can we talk a few minutes?”
The sisters-in-law slipped into the kitchen. “No need to go, Jana,” Señora Fabiola said. “Belén was just telling me what a good time she had in your class.”
“My girls too.” Señora Sandra bustled in and tied an apron on over her jeans. “I could use some help loading up the meal for the med-post, though. Our turn. We’re using your car, right, Señorita Melissa?”
I passed her the keys—to Nicolás’s car, actually—and sat down on the bench behind the stove with the other women. “What is it?”
If anything, these two looked more upbeat than usual, despite the absence of their men. I was pretty sure no such place as a beauty salon existed in backwoods Huillinco, but they’d enjoyed a feminine pampering session somewhere. Maybe one of the local shopkeepers kept a box or two of hair color for sale under the counter.
“You ladies look nice this morning.” I smiled.
“Doesn’t she?” Señora Beatriz beamed. “I told Fabi last night I was fixing her up.”
Not that her cheating rebel husband would come around to notice. Poor Señora Fabiola.
“I’m going to my family in Flamingo Beach, as soon as my boy gets back with your captain, señorita.” Though the gray had disappeared from Fabiola’s thick waves, the stoic lines on her face had deepened to weariness. But self-possessed as ever, she folded her hands in her lap. “If you remember, our house in Cucao…was burned down.”
Dear God, right, the bomb. “C-completely? No chance of salvaging anything?” The place was gutted. My optimism probably irritated more than inspired her.
“Roberto—Bea’s husband, you know—told me yesterday afternoon he didn’t think so. We didn’t have much left in the sheds anyway.” Fabiola shrugged. “He’ll see to it for me. But bottom line is, I don’t have a home to go back to.”
I gripped the woman’s chapped hands. “As soon as things settle down here, I’ll be out to visit you. Flamingo’s not far from where I live in Mellehue.” Duh, as if she didn’t know.
“A lot closer than Cucao, anyway.” Fabiola’s thin smile was fleeting. “We’d love to have you. And I wanted you to know that—I prayed today when you told us we could.”
“I did too,” Beatriz said. “My man’s been telling me this for ages, though I always thought the canutos were a little…you know, weird. But this mess with my brother Franco—well, makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, Beto leaned toward the separatist cause too, but he’s a good man, a good husband and father, señorita. Not a mean bone in his body.”
“Don Roberto’s a believer?”
“If that’s what you call it. Though he’s no spineless wimp either. Push comes to shove, he doesn’t mind fighting. But not for fighting’s sake, like a lot of folks in this crazy town right now.”
“And the alternative to fighting,” I said, “is letting go of our pride and asking God to lead us. I know there’re all kinds of different opinions here. But Jesus is the one person we can follow without any doubts. He won’t disappoint us.”
“Well, Beto’s changed his mind about the separatists. This violence just isn’t the road to any place we want to go, he says—”
“Señorita!” Señora Sandra burst through the door again, Jana treading on her heels. “Here’s Lieutenant Scherling-Meyer. Por todos los santos, what news next?”
Jana’s pale face had blenched to a sick green. I jumped up and drew the girl to a chair. “What?” My gaze met José Miguel Scherling-Meyer’s as he stepped into the kitchen.
“Melissa, I just heard from Serrano—Lieutenant Serrano, not your— They never arrived in Cucao, the captain and the men traveling with him last evening. That’s Don Mont,” —his cobalt eyes widened as he took in the occupants of the room— “and Don Roberto, and the boy, Dión. Sorry to break it like this, señoras. Guess my lieutenant thought they must’ve spent the night at the river if they didn’t make the fording before dark. He’s had his plate full enough, but—”
“What do you think happened?” I felt the blood drain out of my own face. “A-another accident on the road?”
He grimaced. “Don’t know, but this morning when they didn’t show, your almost brother-in-law figured something must have gone amiss…