|Jul/Aug 2010 Fiction|
for George Lucas
It was a warm May morning that almost felt like a holiday. Angelo found his mother cooking tortillas. He took one of the warm tortillas and hungrily tore it apart. "Did you sleep well?" she asked.
"I had a strange dream," he said. "I dreamed I was a cannoneer in the Republican army battling Emperor Maximilian. But I was executed for cruelty to a duck." He didn't tell her that in the dream she had been dead, or that he had prayed for her soul before going out to shoot the duck.
"Why would they execute you for cruelty to a duck?" his mother said.
"I shot it from my cannon," he said. "After they executed me, they burned my body because I tried to prove the word of God."
"You have always been an odd boy, Angelo," his mother said. It was true, what she said. She continued, "I've never heard of an Emperor Maximillian. When I was a little girl, we had Emperor Agustin de Iturbide. Your grandfather was killed by the Spanish in the War of Independence." She stopped working and searched his face with the eyes of a mother. She said, "I hear the French army is near Puebla. I hope they leave us alone here."
"The Republican army is also near," Angelo said. "There will be a battle whether we want one or not."
"You stay out of it, Angelo," his mother said sternly. "You've no business getting involved. You are my only son and your duty is to me, may the Blessed Virgin guide your father's soul to its reward."
"Yes, Mama," Angelo said.
Angelo worked as a tanner's apprentice, scraping hair and fat from cow hides. After scraping, the hides were cured for several days in a warm bath of water and dog feces. The smell of the tannery got into Angelo's skin and hair and clothes, but he hardly noticed it anymore. Everyone avoided him.
The day after his strange dream was a Sunday. Angelo walked down to the stream to bathe with soap, which he did once a week. His mother liked for him to not stink at Mass, because the others would force them to sit at the back of the church. Also, he planned to go to the cantina that afternoon. Marisol worked at the cantina.
As he swam naked in the stream, a duck floated around the bend of the river and took refuge in the reeds. Angelo swam toward it and the duck became frightened and tried to fly away, but its left wing trailed behind it in the water and was obviously broken. Angelo fished a river stone from the shallows and threw it at the duck. The stone hit the duck on its smooth round emerald head. The crack of its skull echoed off the overhanging red cliffs. Angelo swam it down before the current swept it away, and after drying himself off and dressing, he took the duck home to his mother.
His mother was pleased. "This must be the message of your dream, Angelo," she said. His breakfast was ready, and he sat down and ate it hungrily. His mother was the best cook in the village, but it had been many years since she had cooked a duck, she said.
She left to ask their neighbor, old Mrs. Lopez, if she remembered how to prepare a duck. Angelo changed clothes, then counted out three quarters of his pay and put it in the pottery jar beneath his mother's bed. When his mother returned, he accompanied her to Mass. Mrs. Lopez had already left for Mass.
After Mass, they returned home and ate a small meal together. The duck still lay on the sideboard. His mother went to speak to Mrs. Lopez. Angelo was looking forward to dinner tonight, but first he wanted to go to the cantina and buy a beer. Also, he wanted to talk to Marisol before all the other men arrived.
The cantina was empty except for three military-looking men sitting in one corner. They weren't drinking. They watched the door and one man was watching out the cantina's dirty window. Angelo ordered a cerveza and waited at the counter. Soon, Marisol arrived. She was Angelo's age, and when they were children, they had promised each other they would marry one day.
"Hello, Marisol," Angelo said.
"Phew! You stink, Angelo," she said, holding her nose.
"I want to talk to you," he said.
"Our wedding," he said.
"I'm not marrying a tanner," Marisol said. "You smell like death."
"Knock on wood," Angelo said sternly.
"Knock yourself," Marisol said. "You really stink. Can't you smell yourself?" She disappeared into the kitchen, where the owner was already shouting for her.
Angelo knocked on the counter, then drank his beer. Marisol came out and poured him another beer for free. "Really, Angelo," she said. "We were children then. I can't marry you."
"What if I weren't a tanner?" Angelo asked. "What if I joined the Republicans to fight the French?"
"What a stupid thing to say," Marisol laughed. "What would your mother do? You can't join the army. You don't even know how to fight."
"I know how to fight," Angelo said. "I know how to fire a cannon. I will become an artillero in the glorious Republican army."
One of the men in the corner stood up. Marisol put her hand on Angelo's arm and nodded significantly. The man approached and leaned against the counter beside Angelo. "Tequila," he said. Marisol left to fetch his drink. The man looked Angelo up and down, sizing him up with his one eye. The other was covered by a leather patch.
"You want to join the army?" the man said.
"I might," Angelo answered indifferently.
"The army of General Ignazio Zaragosa is composed of professional soldiers. Do you want to be a professional soldier?" the man asked.
"Perhaps," Angelo said with a shrug.
"It's not a decision to be taken lightly. Not something to do so you can win your girl's affection. If you join, likely you will never see her again. It may be years before you can come home, if you survive. You'll probably be killed."
Angelo drank his beer.
"What makes you think you can fire a cannon?" the man pressed.
"A cannon is a complicated weapon. The artillero is the smartest man in the army. He must be a philosopher as well as a soldier."
Marisol returned with the man's tequila and set it on the counter. The man took it.
"I had a dream," Angelo said. "Last night. I dreamed that I was a cannoneer in the Republican Army battling the French Emperor Maximilian."
"Who is that?" the man asked.
"I don't know," Angelo said. "All I know is that I was a cannoneer in the army fighting the French."
"You can't leave your poor old mother," Marisol said to Angelo. She turned to the man. "Don't take him away. He is his mother's only son. She has no other children."
"Be quiet, Marisol!" Angelo said.
"Perhaps it would be best if you stay with your mother," the man said, smiling. "Your first responsibility is to her."
As the man reached for his money to pay for the tequila, he twitched back his long black cloak, revealing the red stripe running down the leg of his trousers.
"You are an artillero!" Angelo gasped.
"Shhh!" the man warned. "If you are a true patriot, you will say nothing." He took his tequila and returned to the table, where he and the other two men leaned together and began whispering. After a few moments, they stopped and looked at Angelo.
Angelo turned away. He was certain they meant to kill him now. They were probably on a scouting mission against the French. He waited for them to leave, but they never left. He stood at the counter drinking beer until well after dark. When his money ran out, the owner of the cantina made him leave.
The three men watched him go. Angelo stepped outside into the dark street and staggered around the corner, where he waited to see if the men would follow him. They didn't. He waited a little longer before starting for home.
It was late. Angelo was ashamed of his cowardice, and doubly ashamed to come home drunk. He thought about staying out all night, but his mother had been so excited about the duck, Angelo couldn't disappoint her. She would be angry at him for coming home drunk.
Whenever Angelo would stay out late, his mother always left a lamp burning on the table just inside the door. But the house was dark. Angelo entered and called in a quiet voice, "Mama?" There was no answer. He couldn't even hear her snoring. A few coals glowed in the ashes of the fire. He found a dried corn husk and touched it to a coal until a flame jumped from the tip. He lit a lamp, then turned and found his mother sprawled on the floor beside her overturned chair.
The village doctor removed the bone and clot of half-chewed duck meat from his mother's throat. The duck's carcass lay on a platter at the center of the table. One half-eaten wing lay on the floor where she had dropped it. Angelo stood in the doorway until the doctor covered her face with a blanket. They took her to Mrs. Lopez's house and someone sent for a casket and a priest. The doctor took the roasted duck home with him rather than let it go to waste.
An hour before dawn, Angelo decided to hang himself. He searched the house for a rope but all he found was the twine his mother had used to truss up the duck. It was greasy with cold duck fat. Then he found his father's machete. He remembered how King Saul had fallen on his own sword after learning that his son Jonathan had died in battle with the Philistines. A machete was not a sword, but Angelo thought he could manage it, if only he could discover how to fall on a sword so that it killed him. He was afraid to try to hold it to his chest and fall on it, so he leaned the machete against a chair with the point up.
He readied himself over it. Now, he was going to die. Now, was he not ready to die? He had always imagined he would marry Marisol and have a dozen children. But he had killed his own mother with a duck. That was certainly the warning of his dream – he saw that now. His mother was dead because he had been too much of a coward to leave the cantina. Those cannoneers hadn't been waiting to kill him. His mother had often told him the sun didn't revolve around him. He knew that now. Not that it mattered. He was about to die.
He readied himself to fall on the machete. The sky outside was gray with the coming dawn and the light from the lamp began to pale. This is when Judas hung himself, Angelo thought. He closed his eyes, clenched his hands behind his back, and leaned toward the point of the machete. As he fell, he threw out his hands and knocked the chair over, and the machete fell flat on the ground and Angelo fell flat on top of the machete and barked his chin on the hard dirt floor.
He jumped up, set the chair right, and grabbed the machete. Then he heard the distant echo of a cannon. Many cannon. He walked to the door and looked out. Marisol stood in the middle of the street, clasping a shawl around her shoulders, her eyes wet and red and her cheeks shining with the morning dew of her tears.
"I just heard about your mother, Angelo," she said, trembling prettily. "I'm very sorry." She noticed the machete in his hand. "What are you doing?"
Angelo looked at it. The cannons sounded like far off thunder. He saw smoke in the direction of Puebla. "I'm going to fight the French," he said and he ran past her, shoeless, with his shirt tails hanging out.
"Angelo!" Marisol cried after him.
Puebla was a long way away, but he didn't care. His one hope was to die in battle defending the Republic. If he could do that, he believed his soul would find absolution. Nothing else could atone for the death of his mother. He didn't even bother to think what to do or where to go, or even if he would arrive at the battle in time to fight. In truth, he planned to kill the first Frenchman he saw. He didn't care. And he would go on killing Frenchmen until somebody shot him. He hoped he might kill one or two before they shot him down.
But by the time he actually reached the battle, he found himself the leader of a small mob of machete-wielding peasants. As he raced through town, they had followed. They had only been waiting for someone to lead them. Angelo stopped at the top of a ridge, beyond which smoke and thunder boiled and the air swelled with the cries of charging men and the crackle of musketry. The battle spread across the valley below him like a faded tapestry. There was so much smoke, he couldn't tell the French from the Mexican army. Each cough of the cannons felt like a donkey kick to his chest. He had no idea where in all this maelstrom to fling himself. It didn't matter, really, only he didn't want to be killed by mistake while attacking the wrong side. He tried to study the battle, but he didn't understand what he was looking at.
Then a cannon erupted on the ridge to his left. He climbed around a boulder and saw two small field pieces being set up on the ridge. One had already been fired and the French cannoneers were busy reloading it. Without thinking, Angelo charged, shouting the Grito de Delores, "Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe!" which is what his grandfather cried as he died on a Spanish sword. Before the French were even aware of their doom, Angelo was among them, climbing over the nearest cannon, hacking with his machete.
The other peasants swarmed around the cannon and quickly overwhelmed the French. It was over more quickly than Angelo thought proper. So many lives should not end so quickly or easily, he thought. He looked at his machete and found it covered with blood, though he couldn't recall actually striking anyone with it. He wondered what to do next.
His companions had already tumbled one French cannon down the ridge and were pushing the second one toward the ledge. He raced to it and beat them back with the flat of his machete. "We can use it against the French!" he shouted.
"How? No one here knows how to shoot this crazy thing," said a man from a neighboring village.
"I know how!" Angelo said.
By this time, the French forces below had seen what had happened to their battery. Already, a squad was starting up the slope toward them. They had bayonets fixed to their muskets and there were nearly as many soldiers as Angelo had peasants. Seeing them, several of his companions lost their ardor for battle and slipped away. Others stupidly charged the French with their machetes and were cut down by a volley of musket fire.
"Turn it around," Angelo said to those who remained. "Point the cannon down the slope toward them. Jam rocks in front of the wheels to keep it from rolling away." He dug through the surviving caisson and found several rounds of canister. Although he had never seen such armaments, he knew how to use them because of his dream.
Next he chose several men and explained what they should do. One would sponge out the bore and ram the charge home. Others would carry charges and shells to be loaded upon his command. He himself took up the firing position. One of the dead Frenchmen was holding a length of twine, and he knew he'd need this to fire the gun. He searched the Frenchman's pockets and found the priming wire and several friction primers. He knew from his dream exactly how these were used.
By this time, the French were almost upon them. He ordered his men in the loading and priming of the cannon, while he took aim on the approaching soldiers. It felt bizarre to continue these methodical tasks of cleaning and preparing the cannon for firing while death marched ever closer. Even more bizarre was the calmness of the French soldiers. He wondered at their bravery, but then again, he thought, it must seem ridiculous to them that a band of Mexican peasants could ever fire a cannon without blowing themselves up.
But everything he did with the cannon, everything he saw and touched, seemed as familiar to him as his mother's house. More familiar, if that were possible. His dream had seemed so real, and in it every action so automatic, so second nature, that now the most difficult part was trying to make his companions understand what he wanted them to do. Mostly, they just wanted to run away. They'd seen what a volley of muskets could do and had little faith in the cannon. It was only Angelo's supreme confidence that held any of them at their stations.
As he inserted the friction primer, the French still had not taken up firing positions. They came on, marching in double file along the narrow mountain trail. Angelo had aimed the cannon straight down upon them, using a pyramid of solid shot to prop the tongue of the cannon up so that the muzzle would point down the slope. Fools, he thought. Arrogant fools. But as he jerked the lanyard to fire the cannon, he also thought, perhaps I am the fool.
The cannon belched smoke and backed several feet up the slope. When the smoke cleared, a third of the French were down and the survivors looked as though they had just seen the gates of hell open before them. Their commanding officer lay beneath his dead horse, thrashing it with his saber and screaming like a peacock. The peasants shouted and threw their hats in the air. But then a few of the braver French managed to pull themselves together enough to answer with their muskets. Two peasants fell and most of the rest fled, leaving Angelo with barely a handful of men.
He directed them in returning the cannon to its firing position. He sent others to bring more canister and charges. While one man sponged out the bore, Angelo placed his thumb over the breach vent. He knew from his dream that this would keep any smoldering bits from sparking the next charge as it was loaded. The French regrouped and prepared to attack. Angelo knew they would fire a volley and then close with bayonets. He ordered his men to load two canisters into the bore. The French opened fire and all but three of his men dropped or ran away. He inserted the friction primer as the French loosed a cry and charged up the slope, bayonets sparking through the smoke. He pulled the lanyard. The cannon backed up the slope with a roar like a wounded bull, nearly crushing him under its wheels.
When the smoke cleared, the surviving French were running away and already halfway down the ridge. The slope below him was scattered with the broken bodies of their comrades. Some were still alive, screaming pathetically. A few surviving peasants waved their machetes and shouted victory, though the battle still raged in the field below. They descended on the wounded French and slaughtered them where they lay.
Angelo vomited into the caisson.
Throughout the remainder of the battle, Angelo trained and directed his peasants in the firing of the cannon. They dropped shell after shell into the French lines below. At the end of the day, the French retreated in defeat, and the Republicans claimed the field of victory at the Battle of Puebla.
Angelo's small part in that battle did not go unnoticed. He was made a gunner of his own cannon and given the rank of sergeant. At the Battle of Camaron, he was brevited to the rank of lieutenant and given command of two cannons, and at San Lorenza, when the French finally took the city of Puebla, Angelo's battery successfully guarded the retreat of the Republican army. Before that battle, he had returned to his old village, where he found Marisol and made passionate love to her before paying his respects at his mother's grave. He left his village a hero, the old tanner's apprentice, with a promise to return and marry Marisol someday, after the war, perhaps. He had known many beautiful women by that time and Marisol seemed little more than a stupid country girl, though still rather pretty.
So it was that more than a year had passed since that day he had tried to kill himself, the day he had become a cannoneer in the Republican army. He received a summons to meet his new commanding officer, Colonel Barrera. He was shown into the Colonel's tent. Upon seeing the colonel, he was forced to suppress a laugh.
The colonel turned and squinted at Angelo with his one eye. His other was covered by a leather patch. "You!" the colonel exclaimed.
"So that was you on the ridge at Puebla!" the colonel said. "Please sit down." He did. An orderly brought tequila and the colonel poured Angelo a drink. He saluted him.
"You were as good as your word," Colonel Barrera said.
"Yes sir. Though it wasn't my intention when I left the house that morning."
"And now you are an artillero, just as you said you would be," the colonel said with a queer smile.
"Yes sir. By the grace of God."
"That must have been some dream."
With the war and the battles and just trying to survive, Angelo had almost forgotten about his dream of the duck.
"I think perhaps God wanted you in the army of the Republic," the colonel said. Angelo crossed himself.
"Please forgive my blasphemy," the colonel said. "I am an atheist. I have seen too many men die to believe in God. There is no glory in death. Only pain."
"Still, there is a power working in you, Angelo, or perhaps through you. Call it fate, if you will. Or God. I don't know. I don't want to know. But I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine. I am dining tonight with the abbot of the Franciscan monastery that is near here. I would like for you to join us."
"Thank you, sir. I would be honored."
"He's waiting for me now," the colonel said, rising. He tossed back the last of his tequila. "Shall we go?"
They rode the three miles through the dark to the monastery, talking amiably of the battles they had fought and the women they had loved. The colonel asked about Marisol and Angelo was glad for the darkness that hid his blush. The colonel laughed like a one-eyed Aztec god and slapped his thigh.
They were shown into a private dining room. Colonel Barrera introduced Angelo to the abbot and they sat at one end of a long table lit with candles. Monks entered with wine and the abbot thanked God. With their glasses full, the colonel toasted President Juarez. Angelo had never drunk wine. He didn't know whether he liked it, but he wanted to be polite, and he was a little intimidated by the abbot.
The abbot was a small man, probably the smallest man Angelo had ever seen. His brown robes and his tonsure inspired an instinctive reverence in the former tanner's apprentice. He'd been raised by his mother to respect monks and priests. This was an abbot, a man of authority within the church, almost like a general. He wanted to salute, but he knew that would be the wrong thing to do.
"This is excellent wine," Colonel Barrera said.
"It's from Bordeaux," the abbot said. He turned to Angelo. "How do you like it, Lieutenant?"
"It's very good, Your Excellency," Angelo said.
"Please," the abbot smiled. "Call me Father Anselmo."
"You are a good Catholic boy. Unlike my friend here, the colonel, who doesn't believe in God." They laughed. Angelo didn't see what there was to laugh about, but he laughed anyway, to be polite.
"This is French wine?" Angelo asked.
"All the best wines comes from France," the abbot said.
"Angelo is from a small village," Colonel Barrera said. "He was a tanner's apprentice. This is probably the first time he has tasted wine."
"Of course! Please forgive me, my son," the abbot said. "Isn't it rare for a mestizo like yourself to become an officer?"
"I wouldn't know, Father," Angelo said humbly.
"He is a rare fine warrior, Father," Colonel Barrera said.
"They say he is a born artillero. Firing a cannon is as natural to him as fucking."
Angelo blushed at this praise and at the blasphemy. The abbot smiled with fatherly patience, but something about the man bothered Angelo. The presence of French wine worried him especially. How had the abbot come by it? But he was too intimidated to ask.
Monks entered bearing trays of every kind of food imaginable. The table groaned as the food was piled up between the three men. "Are the other monks dining with us?" Angelo asked. The colonel and the abbot laughed.
Last of all, a monk brought in a covered silver platter and set it before the abbot. The abbot licked his lips. The monk uncovered the dish with a flourish. The colonel burst into applause, but Angelo turned his head away and sighed.
"Don't you like roast duck, my son?" the abbot asked. "This one was especially chosen from my private flock. I am a great duck fancier, you know."
"Ah, I forgot!" the colonel said. "Angelo's mother passed away as a result of choking on a duck bone."
"How terrible! But surely you do not blame the duck?" the abbot said.
"I blame myself, Father," Angelo said.
"But why? It was God's will, was it not? How can you blame yourself for such a tragic accident?"
"Because God revealed her fate to me in a dream, and I ignored His warning."
"What's this?" the abbot said. He turned to the colonel. "Can it be true?"
The colonel shrugged. "The same dream taught him to fire a cannon. It seems that God wanted him to become an artillero in the Republican army."
"Tell me of this dream, my son," the abbot said. The food grew cold on the table while the abbot's attention was devoted to the former peasant boy. Angelo related the dream as best as he could remember. "In the dream, I had set out to discover if a duck's quack makes an echo. I was a cannoneer, and in the dream I stood beside a cannon on a cold, flat plain facing the wall of..." his voice caught as he suddenly remembered that the building in the dream was a monastery, and that before going out to fire the cannon, he had lit candles for his mother's soul in the monastery's small chapel.
"...the high wall of a monastery," he finished, swallowing the knot in his throat. The abbot and the colonel exchanged astonished glances.
"I thought the high wall of the monastery would be a good place to listen for an echo. First, I established a standard of measurement by firing the cannon and timing how long it took to hear the echo."
"Interesting. Have you studied the philosophies of science?" the abbot asked.
"I cannot read or write," Angelo snapped. For some reason, he was angry at the interruption. "Next, I did a strange thing, a thing I have never been able to understand. Rather than wait for the duck to quack and time the return of its echo, as I had originally intended, I loaded the poor bird into the cannon and fired it at the monastery wall."
Angelo fell silent. Why had he done that in the dream? It made no sense. And with the memory of the dream, all the horror he'd felt at his mother's death returned. He'd tried to kill himself, and only the sound of cannons had saved him. It had all led to this moment, and for some reason, Angelo felt that everything he had said and done he had said and done before. He told the abbot of this.
"The French call this feeling déjà vu," the abbot said. When Angelo didn't respond, he said, "I hardly see how you could have interpreted your dream in such a way as to prevent your mother's death."
"My mother," Angelo said through gritted teeth. He bowed his head and clenched his fists in his lap. "The very next day, which was a Sunday, I killed a duck and brought it home to her. Then, when I should have been at home sharing the duck, I was at a cantina getting drunk because I was afraid that he planned to kill me." He pointed across the table at Colonel Barrera.
"What?" the colonel exclaimed. "Why would I do that?"
"I had seen your uniform beneath your cloak," Angelo reminded him.
"Ah, yes! I remember now. You must have thought I would kill you to keep you from talking," the colonel said.
"But that was mere chance," the abbot said.
"I was warned. In the dream, I was a cannoneer. The colonel was a cannoneer. I was shot for cruelty to a duck. My mother died because of my cruelty and my cowardice. And then my body was burned at the stake for the heresy of attempting to prove that which is written in the Bible."
"Written in the Bible?" the abbot said with a small, nervous laugh. "What is it that is written in the Bible that you were trying to prove?"
"That a duck's quack has no echo," Angelo said.
"But it doesn't say that in the Bible," the abbot said. "I don't recall that being in the Bible at all."
"It isn't?" Angelo asked. He felt a weight suddenly lift from his heart. "Are you certain?"
"Quite certain," the abbot laughed. "Where did you hear such a foolish notion?"
"I... I don't know," Angelo said. Perhaps he wasn't driven by fate, after all. If that part of his dream were untrue, then perhaps the other parts were untrue as well. Perhaps his mother's death really was an accident, and perhaps he wasn't to blame. "I suppose I heard it in the village. It is common knowledge. It says so in the Bible. That's what everybody says."
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," the abbot chuckled and shook his head. "A duck's quack having no echo." Then he paused thoughtfully. "I wonder. Come to think of it, I can't recall ever hearing the echo of a duck. Perhaps we should test your theory scientifically."
"That sounds like a splendid idea!" the colonel said. His stomach growled.
The abbot smiled at him. "Until tomorrow then? For now, let us attend to another duck. I think you will hear neither her quack nor her echo. She speaks to a different sense now, and I'm afraid if we don't hurry, she will be too cold to speak at all."
The abbot carved the duck and served out generous portions of the breast and thighs to his guests. Angelo tentatively tasted a bit of the skin and found it delicious. Before he knew it, he was stuffing his cheeks with the delicate breast meat while downing a second glass of French wine.
"Another thing I just remembered," the colonel said to Angelo between mouthfuls. "About that day in the cantina. Something you said about your dream. Something about an emperor. What was his name?"
"Maximilian," Angelo said with his mouth full. "Emperor Maximilian."
"That's it!" Colonel Barrera said. "Who the devil is that?"
"I haven't a clue," the abbot muttered as he set his fork on the table and pushed away his plate.
The following morning dawned cold and cloudy. Colonel Barrera and Angelo arrived early with his cannon company, and while the men set up the piece in the field behind the monastery, he and the colonel went inside to warm themselves.
While waiting in the hall for the abbot to appear, a monk exited a small door to their left. Beyond the door, they saw a small chapel and heard someone inside saying Mass. Angelo felt moved by the familiar sound and started for the door, but then he stopped himself, for this was exactly what he had done in the dream. He peered through the doorway, but to his relief, he found the chapel to be much smaller and quite different than the chapel in his dream.
"The abbot is on his way," the colonel reminded him.
"I'll only be a minute," Angelo said. His dinner with the abbot on the previous evening had dredged up memories of his mother and he had begun to feel guilty for neglecting her soul. In the victory celebrations after the Battle of Puebla and his subsequent induction into the army, he had missed her funeral, and there had been precious little time since then to attend to his duties as a grieving son. He entered the chapel and crossed to the candle altar. He lit a candle and prayed to the Blessed Virgin, even though he was certain that his mother was already in heaven. She had always been a devout woman, sinless as a saint, and it was indeed a cruel twist of fate, if fate it was, that she should die in the ignoble manner fate had chosen for her. Had she cried out for Angelo in her last moments, he wondered?
But no. She had choked to death. She had cried out for no one, he thought.
He rose and returned to the hall, where he found the abbot and the colonel waiting. The abbot eyed him sternly, but the colonel was sympathetic. Angelo found this strange, for of the two men, it seemed to him the abbot should be most sympathetic of his taking a moment to honor his mother's soul. The colonel was an atheist and had little time or patience for beliefs that, as he had told both the abbot and Angelo last night, were "foolish and superstitious rituals meant to keep the common man frightened and obedient."
"Come," the abbot said and led the way outside.
In the courtyard, a young monk awaited them with a white duck in his arms. Other than in his dream, Angelo had never seen a duck so pure and white, with feathers like fresh snow. The abbot took the duck and continued into the field to where Angelo's cannon stood, ready to fire.
Angelo experienced once again the feeling that the abbot had called déjà vu - a French word, he noted. He was crossing a field he had crossed before, toward the cannon sitting in the field just as he had seen it in his dream. The closer they came to the cannon, the more uneasy he felt. This was all just like his dream, or almost. Something was different, but he couldn't pick out the difference from the confused tangle of his memories.
Once they reached the cannon, the abbot asked the colonel to send the other men away. "Can he fire this thing without help?"
"Of course. The weapon is primed and ready for firing," the colonel answered. For some reason, the abbot had not addressed Angelo. It was as though they had become bitter enemies. He barely even glanced at Angelo, and when he did, it was with a deep and anxious frown.
Angelo checked the cannon to make sure his men hadn't loaded a ball or shell. He himself had made certain that the limber contained no projectiles, so that they wouldn't load the cannon by mistake. But he was doubly cautious, because of the indecipherable warning of his dream. He had tried to interpret the dream before and been wrong on every occasion. He wanted nothing to go wrong now.
But everything felt wrong. He found reasons not to fire the weapon. He checked and rechecked that it was properly loaded. The abbot grew impatient.
"What is the matter with you? It's cold. Let's finish this," he said.
The colonel pulled Angelo aside. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing. Only, something is different. This is just like my dream, but something is different." Angelo had begun to tremble.
"Well, put your mind to it. What is different?"
Angelo closed his eyes and tried to picture the dream again. He saw the cannon. He saw the pure white duck. But he didn't see...
"You," Angelo said. "You weren't in my dream."
"Aha. So this isn't just like your dream, is it?"
"No sir," Angelo said with a smile.
"Very good. Now, can we get on with the experiment?"
"Yes sir." Angelo had the abbot and the colonel stand well back from the cannon. He readied the lanyard for firing and checked his pocket watch. He'd taken it from the body of a French cavalryman he'd beheaded with a solid ball fired at close range. It was a fine heavy gold watch with a gold watch chain. The Frenchman had been an officer. He was the highest ranking Frenchman Angelo had ever killed. His name was engraved on the back of the watch, but Angelo couldn't read it. Nor did he want to know the name of the man he'd killed.
He waited for the second hand to reach the twelve. His idea was to time how long it took for the echo of the cannon to return. It would only take a couple of seconds, but it was necessary to establish this 'control' for the experiment, so that when they heard the duck's echo, they could be sure they were hearing the echo of their duck and not the answering quack of some other duck.
Sudddenly Angelo realized how absurd this entire experiment was. He couldn't imagine now why they had ever decided this might be a good idea. Yet here they were, waiting for him to fire the cannon.
He looked up to check his field of fire and saw a man riding toward them across the field. "Colonel!" he shouted, pointing. The man galloped up on a panting, lathered horse and saluted. He handed down a message from his courier's pouch. The colonel read it quickly, then folded it up and tucked it into his breast pocket.
"I'm sorry. I must go. Urgent news has arrived." The courier slid off the horse and the colonel mounted. He wheeled the horse around, wrenching at the reins. "Lieutenant, as soon as you are finished here, escort the abbot back to the monastery, then report with your cannon company to your captain."
Angelo saluted. "What is it, sir?" he asked.
"Probably nothing," he said, then spurred the horse to a gallop and rode away. The courier saluted and followed the colonel on foot. Angelo and the abbot watched them dwindle into the distance.
"Well. Now everything is as it was in your dream, my son," the abbot said with a wry smile.
"Pardon me, Father?" Angelo said in confusion.
"In your dream, the colonel was not here. And now he is gone. Just as you foretold."
Angelo fiddled with the lanyard, embarrassed and confused. The abbot seemed to derive some sort of strange pleasure from his discomfort.
"The colonel said last night that God wanted you to be in the Republican army," the abbot said. "And I am beginning to believe there truly is some uncanny power working through you, my son."
"It was only a dream, Father," Angelo pleaded.
"It was a sign. How else could a tanner's apprentice..." he said this with undisguised loathing, "...rise to become an officer in the army?"
The abbot paced back and forth beside the cannon, holding the white duck to his breast. "Your dream foretold your mother's death. It foretold your rise in the army of the Republic. It foretold this day, nay, this very moment."
"Father, I'm frightened," Angelo said.
"And well you should be. There is a power working through you, boy. But it is not the hand of God. I believe you are in league with the devil. It is Satan who works through you."
"Please God! No!" Angelo cried, falling to his knees and clutching at the hem of the abbot's robe. "Our Lady of Guadalupe, save me!" The abbot jerked his garment free and raised his fist at the prostrate young man.
"Satan is with you. How else could you know that Maximilian would be declared emperor of Mexico? The emperor only arrived three days ago at Vera Cruz!" the abbot shrieked.
"He did?" Angelo sat up and scrubbed the tears from his cheeks with the back on his hand.
"How could you have known of his arrival, unless Satan himself whispered the news in your ear?"
"How is it that you know of the Emperor's arrival?" Angelo asked. "Vera Cruz is far from here."
The abbot stopped, his face still contorted with righteous indignation, but now there was fear in his eyes. "I... that is..." he stammered.
"How is it that you know of this but we do not?" Angelo asked as he rose to his feet. "We who are fighting the French with every drop of our blood. How is it that you know before those who have given their lives to protect you from the French?"
"Stupid boy!" the abbot sneered as he fought to recover himself. "Who ever said we wanted protecting from the French? Mexico is destined to be ruled by the French. All the great houses of Europe support this. The church supports it. The army of the Republic is doomed." He turned at the sound of a trumpet blast in the distance. A peel of musketry echoed over the field. The duck flapped in panic at the sudden noise. The abbot tried to quiet the frightened bird, while a smile quivered at the corners of his narrow lips.
"Father, you have betrayed us!" Angelo said.
"It's not too late for you, my son," the abbot purred. "Declare your allegiance to the church and to the emperor and you may find your talents fetch a handsome price from your French masters. Or, if you prefer, you may return to your village and your tannery."
"I will never betray the Republic of Mexico!" Angelo shouted. He drew his sidearm, pointed it at the duck pressed to the abbot's chest. The duck quacked in terror and tried to fly away. Angelo pulled the trigger.
The abbot sat down and stared at the spreading stain of blood darkening the front of his brown robes. The pistol's report echoed back to them from the monastery walls. The duck staggered a few flapping steps, quacked once, and sank like a pillow, its white feathers flushing scarlet. The abbot fell over on his side.
A squadron of French cavalry rounded the corner of the monastery and rode straight at Angelo, sabers drawn, whooping at the sight of an unguarded piece of artillery. The cannon was still ready for firing, but it had no shell, just a blank charge of power. Angelo now regretted ordering his men to bring an empty caisson. The only thing he saw that might fit into the barrel of the small mountain gun lay at his feet. If he ran away, they would only cut him down from behind.
So as the soldiers bore down on him, sabers flashing coldly in the morning light, Angelo jerked the lanyard and fired the abbot's white duck full in their French faces.