Fiction

One Redeeming Feature

By Gillian G.Mason

A shaft of dusty sunlight filters through the lead light roof panel, illuminating the sweat-soaked brow of the bald pale man in the cedar-wood darkness of the confessional box. He is shaking - a touch of malaria, but also fear. "Forgive me Father for I have sinned..." in bad Spanish with a thick German accent. The elderly priest mumbles the ingrained litany of his work and the taste of gunmetal in the sweating man's mouth becomes as sharp as lemons.

Stumbling on his words the little German begins telling of his "involvement" - he keeps calling it that - in acts of such abomination that the priest, as so many times before, quietly vomits into the bucket he has learned to bring for this monthly ritual. He pulls a leaf off the little calendar he has tacked up in the box to keep track of how often people come to confess - guilt being a powerful weapon for some of his clients - '2nd May 1979'. He wipes his mouth on the thin paper before dropping it into the pail. There will be no other callers today - he has arranged that - and guilt is not one he need ever use on Gerhard. That creature has enough of its own, and in any case never misses - God in heaven if only he would sometimes!

What does the evil fool think? That by coming here to an old Padre he can save his rotten soul? Not a chance, but Father Constantino, though ensconced in his vocation like an old leather armchair greased with the money of the plate, still has a sense of duty. Attending the performance of this foul repertory is the only thing that is unpleasant in this quiet backwater of the Catholic world he has made his burrow. Well, apart from the climate.

The fetid breath of the sobbing German adds garlic to the stale incense. "Bloody Krauts and their sausages," thinks Constantino as he pulls further back from the fortunately utterly opaque grille.

Eventually it is over, and the priest hurries away, as usual wondering if God really exists. After a few years of listening to the monthly tales of that monstrosity crouched in the darkness, Gregorio Constantino does not know if he is more or less of a believer. At least he has the resignation of age to shield him from taking issue with himself. His life is almost done on this Earth, and he can be certain that he will not end up in the same place as that bastard in the next one - and it would be Heaven enough simply not to have to listen to that sub-human ever again.


At noon, out of the shade, midst the crumbling adobe hovels, the sun stares so hot it cuts you in two like scissors. The earth cracks like ginger cookies baking.

Maria Fenella sobs alone as she thinks over and over what the doctors have told her. Her little Anna, oh little Anna, never to see. Anna was born blind but the doctors said there was hope. Anna was three years old and the doctors said, wait a little longer, there is hope. A doctor here has discovered some papers about experiments done during the war. Nobody else believes it but he says he can do eye transplants.

When Anna was seven, Maria took her again to the eye hospital, eleven miles walk and then sixty on the bus away. They returned this morning, tired and dirty, without hope. Beautiful Maria's deep brown eyes were not properly formed. The doctors before "could not have known," they said. They "must not hold out false hope again," they said. There was only one way to save her sight, but it had never been tried, and that would need more money that Maria Fenella would ever possess, and even then, eye donors in South America were unheard of. Amongst the poor backward population of the provinces such a notion was appalling, and even if some fresh corpse could be found and permission obtained, without fast transport or refrigeration they would spoil before they could be got to the hospital. But yes, the doctor did believe it was theoretically possible, and yes, they did have the equipment (it lay dusty in the storeroom along with all the other useless donations from North American corporations eager to offset their tax and print glossy PR brochures). He was "only telling her the facts," and, "I only tell you this because maybe one day when the economy gets better and if I can get the chance to try this operation," but, "You must be realistic Senora, we do not have the resources to try this."

Maria hugged herself and rocked, too tired to cry any more. Anna was fast asleep on her rotten pallet of a bed, dishevelled and worn out by two days of walking and riding on filthy busses and having her eyes messed about with by funny-smelling men. Anna had never smelled cologne before, and doctors were prone to use a lot to make it heard above the disinfectant of the wards' ironstone-tiled floors.

In the other room the tenant shuffled his papers. Eventually he came through, although he need not ask what had happened. He listened to Maria's quiet defeated tale, looking as gaunt as a corpse.

Even as she sought comfort in telling this stranger she had known under her roof for eight years, Maria thought "Wolfgang you bastard. You old cold bastard, if only I did not need your rent you would be out." "It's not a doctor she needs." explained Maria, "They have a doctor." Maria went on, telling her daughter's tale, seeking pity from Gerhard like water in a well that has been dry for forty years. The lodger sucked his teeth and looked away. Maria was shocked out of her sniffling then, when she noticed a tear roll down the old German's cheek.


By ten-past cock-crow Maria was screaming and the whole village bustling round. Anna was gone and the sinister old German Gerhard too. They only had one conclusion in mind and the priest when they woke him was dark and tight-lipped. He offered to pray, a service that served only to confirm their worst fears. The priest, although keeping the content of the secrets of the confessional, had let it slip to his housekeeper that he was regularly mortified by his most frequent customer's revelations. The rumours in the village about the German and his past were, although thoroughly inaccurate, not pleasant, and included speculations about children. It was only natural that the worst would be thought, especially as Anna was such a pretty girl, and being blind, well, she was no witness was she?

When the Santana brothers reported that their truck was missing, Pedro was sent to the bus stop on the priest's bicycle. There he would tell the bus driver to tell the police in the capital. It was about eight-of-the-morning when Pedro reached the bus stop. He would have two hours to wait.

At about this time the German was parking behind Asuncion's sprawling market-place. He hopped spryly down from the cab and went to the back of the truck. Maria was in the back wrapped in a blanket, drugged with chloroform and soundly sleeping. Her undernourished body just went into the large canvas hold-all by tucking her legs under her in the foetal position. Her abductor was careful to tuck her well down and conceal her with the blanket. With surprising strength he hefted the straps over his shoulder, and, slightly bent he trudged heavily away from the truck with his captive.


Dr Galatino smartened himself and put on more cologne when the telephone from recepcion told him there was a person claiming to be an eminent specialist with a sick child at the desk. He was somewhat bewildered however when he saw the state of the child the man placed on his examination trolley, and her strange means of conveyance.

"Er, you are a doctor they tell me?"

"Ja ja, si si"

"But this is Anna, I only saw her yesterday..."

"Ja ja. She needs an operation."

"She is unconscious. I do not understand. What operation? What has happened to her?" questioned the doctor as he began to examine the child.

"Nein nein that is the chloroform, she is only sleeping now. I mean her eye's need an operation."

"Chloroform?"

"Yes she will remember nothing but you are asking too many questions. Do not be irrelevant! Her eyes Gottdamt! Her EYES!"

"Ah... Er, sadly there is not the money... but where is her mother?"

"Her mother is well. The child is sick. Is this enough to pay?"

The German produced a leather drawstring purse and emptied it with a clatter onto the doctor's large desk. Golden coins tumbled out. It was immediately obvious even to the confused doctor that there were many thousands of dollars' worth. In the fractured economy of Paraguay gold was not unheard of as currency, but seldom had the doctor been offered quite as much as this in payment.

"This is most irregular," stammered Galatino, "but I can do nothing."

"You are a doctor?"

"Yes!"

"An eye doctor?"

"Yes, but..."

"You know how to do the operation?"

"Yes, but only from an old paper I have translated from German. I don't know if it would work."

"Ja, ja. Not to worry about that. You MUST operate immediately!"

"But her parent, her mother must give permission."

"But you have her permission. Did you not ask her to sign a consent form yesterday?"

"Well yes but that was only for the examination."

"But under Paraguayan law it does cover the eye operation still yes?"

"Well.. yes, technically I suppose it might, but that is irrelevant."

"Because you have no eye donor."

"Yes. This is ridiculous. You claim to be some sort of specialist. You are obviously not a medical specialist though, because if you were you would know that there can be no hope for Anna without a donor."

"But I am a medical specialist Doctor Galatino. I am a very senior doctor indeed. At least I was. You have the equipment?"

"Yes."

"And if you had a donor you would do the procedure?"

"Well, yes, I think it would be justified to try in these circumstances, but this is fantasy. There is no donor. So you claim to be a doctor. What is your name then doctor...?"

Suddenly - to Galatino's dismay - the strange visitor produced a scalpel from his top pocket. Waving the scalpel he shouted for the whole world to hear, "I AM A DOCTOR! I AM DOCTOR! I AM A DOCTOR! I AM DOCTOR JOSEF MENGELE! I heard enough from Anna's mother to know you have found my papers. It worked dammit, it worked! I DID THE EYE TRANSPLANTS IN AUSCHWITZ! GOD FORGIVE ME I CANNOT SAVE MY SOUL, BUT I CAN SAVE THAT GIRL'S SIGHT!"

Doctor Josef Mengele then performed his last operation. With all the skill he had shown when, without a trace of emotion, he had vivisected the little dark-haired Jewish children in Auschwitz, he dissected out, without flinching, first his right and then his left eye, placing each carefully on the desk in turn as the blood poured down his face. Then he cut his throat. He showed less emotion as he slit his own jugulars than one would carving slices from a Thanksgiving turkey.


Galatino mysteriously disappeared immediately after the operation, which he performed reading his translation of the original papers, following the instructions precisely. No indication of where he went was ever found except some odd blood stains in his office. The police could do nothing. Gerhard was never found either, and as Anna was unharmed apart from the strange operation which appeared to be successful, the case was closed. The records were subsequently lost in an earthquake.


Galatino was having trouble at the newsagent's again. His Portuguese was dreadful. After six years practice he still couldn't make himself well understood. Still, that was small inconvenience to a wealthy man. His brother down here in Brazil had understood him when he asked him to get him and the body out of Paraguay quick, and the bank had understood profit well enough not to understand the swastikas on his little "coin collection" when he sold it.


Anna is reading a cheaply printed magazine. Maria worries about her now they live in the big city, but it was best to get away, and for Anna too. At least she can get an education, and she got a scholarship. The magazine has a creepy story about the skeleton of some Nazi they dug up four years ago that was supposed to have drowned. Anna comments to her mother about the story, "They say he was a terrible man. Not like that other nice German man I remember from when I was a little girl," Maria turns away and says, "Anna, you are not a little girl now. You are a woman of seventeen. You should be doing your studies not reading stupid tales. Anyway do not believe everything you are told. Seeing is believing."

Anna puts down her magazine and picks up her medical book, she skims over the text again, but she already knows she will pass her exams. Other students think she's a bit creepy, with those intelligent clear blue eyes and black hair, and the uncanny cold-hearted way when they have anatomy lessons that she acts like she's seen it all before.


Copyright © Kevin Slaney