Major Ascension Luna was neither a major nor a Luna. His real name was Ascension de Jesus Pareja, a single mother’s son with a single last name and a gift of youthfulness still noticeable in his fifties. He ranked himself as a major after his Bronx neighbors could not believe that in his native Colombia there were generals in the fire department, as he had initially told the people who used to gather around him. As the only fireman of Guárica, a town near the Amazon River, he wore with bravery a general’s uniform and a fireman’s helmet all his life, and kept the secret that he had never in reality seen a conflagration or a burnt-out building.
Luna became his last name because he and his Bronx followers promenaded, looking at the full moon in search of the cure for betrayal. He never had a cake for his birthday, neither in his poor childhood nor in the Bronx. He would rather to get a barrel to make a bonfire on the roof to honor the moon. He would stay up all night and early in the morning and offer a prayer to the image of the Virgin Mary. Holding a branch of thornless roses and a twig of rue, his eyes entertained by the last dancing red ember, he felt that if he had had a birthday cake, he would have been incapable of blowing out the flames.
Unable to put out a fire, Major Ascension survived in Guárica selling rue, the herb of grace: “Good for the stomach, good for virginity, for forgetfulness, and for regret.” And, recently he added, in his daily sales along Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, “Good for wrinkles.”
Wearing his general’s uniform, with its moonlike insignias, he strolled along the boulevard. He pushed a baby carriage containing hot rue tea, holy water collected from the monastery of Corpus Christi, abundant branches of rue bottled in alcohol, and tiny containers of oil from the miraculous plant.
For him, summers had more stops than winter because of the ice-cream sellers. He stopped the baby carriage in front of each vendor, dropped the branches of rue in holy water, and sprinkled drops on the cars and umbrellas. It was the same ritual that he saw in his hometown more than forty years ago, when the priest was going to start the high mass.
With the help of rue in holy water, God was effective in preventing police tickets, but Major Ascension gave the vendors a hand, yelling, “The storm,” meaning police officers asking the vendors for documents. Immediately, the umbrellas fell and carts moved inside small stores, and people covered themselves with blankets. Before the complete silence heaved, a herd of vendors ran to alleys making the sign of the cross.
He himself had been stopped, not only by the police, but also by sanitary inspectors. Those “sanity” inspectors were the most dangerous because their fines could reach $1,000. “Sanity inspectors. It is insane to punish those who only try to survive,” he repeated all the time.
Fortunately nothing happened to him. The rue’s smell was very strong and it was neither marijuana for the police nor food for the inspectors, who only found the tea of rue without cups; it was a trick to hide evidence of sales, but he explained to the inspectors that it was part of the ritual. “It is a sacred beverage, and people need to bring their own glass.” His prayer was always “Protect us against the police, and sanity inspectors. BENDICIONES Y PROSPERIDAD.” For this prayer, he would get one dollar and a free bowl of soup from the Mexican woman selling esquites.
Only once Sergeant Molina gave him a ticket, but it was dismissed; the judge ruled that Major Luna was not a vendor because he was moving back and forth along the boulevard. Sergeant Molina knew that Major Ascension was the one who warned the vendors when the police appeared. After the court date, Sergeant Molina stomped Major Ascension Luna’s wobbling baby carriage.
“I hope we catch you before you give that tea to a pregnant woman and kill a baby,” said the sergeant, straining his neck and dusting off Major Ascension’s moonlike insignias, which, according to him, distinguished generals in Colombia. “General de mierda…oops. I meant Major Ascension.” He laughed and knocked on the major’s helmet.
Major Ascension did not flinch. He held the baby carriage tight. Even though the carriage wobbled more with the motion, Major Ascension went on walking at the same pace.
“I will arrest you and send you back to your country,” Sergeant Molina blurted.
Since that day, Major Ascension carried with him his US passport with a twig of rue tucked inside, next to his picture. He continued giving the sacred tea to pregnant women with a prayer.
“God, only you know if the body of this woman has mala yerba or the seed is for a strong tree.”
Inside his apartment, he had his saints in little shrines among plants of rue, but without any candles. There was no fire in that apartment, not even a stove, just a microwave and a rice cooker.
Once a week, he and his followers went to a roof and drank the sacred tea while Major Ascension Luna gave a speech. Children lined up and proceeded to the center of the roof in pairs. Major Ascension would command, “Face center,” and the children would pivot to face each other in parallel lines, so the “major” would march through the children, returning their military salutes with his hand placed to his temple. Before preaching, he would order the sacred tea served, preventing any woman who had missed her period to drink it without his prayers.
“Fire is a god, and god only visits us for a celebration. We never close our door to that visitor; we never tell him that he is late. Fire leaves as my wish becomes its wish,” he said once during the most important celebration, the day of a full moon.
“But, Major, we thought that a fireman’s job is to fight against fire with hoses and water,” said a small woman, dwarflike behind a taller crowd.
Looking for the voice, Major Ascension moved the crowd apart. “That’s the reason fire becomes angry and destructive.”
Every night he observed small, rain-like drops held along rue leaves and giving off a strong, repulsive smell. He had learnt the rue properties from his grandmother. “In alcohol for muscle pain, in holy water for prosperity. The rue’s yellow flower in the girls’ underwear to protect their virginity. The leaves and a potato skin placed on patients’ foreheads to help them forget a love.”
The rue had cured people’s arthritis and erased warts. It was the secret of his tight skin, because he washed his face with it and cold water twice a day. But Major Ascension would not be satisfied until he found the cure for betrayal. During the days of the full moon, he organized a procession going from roof to roof, asking God to give some rue to the moon to cure betrayal in human beings.
He did not remember when his passion for the moon started, but when he was small, looking at the full moon, he had asked his grandmother, “It is beautiful, but why is it so lonely?”
The old woman put the small bunches of rue away from her apron and said, “The moon was once a beautiful girl who raised a wild parrot and taught him how to sing and read. The parrot was a prodigy, but more than that, he was the girl’s best friend.”
“What was the girl’s name?”
The grandmother hesitated. She looked for a long time at the moon and finally said with a sigh, “Amanda.”
“Like my mother.”
“And the parrot was beautiful.”
“It was a white parrot and big like an angel.”
“Bigger than me.”
The grandmother smiled. “Just like you.” And went on, “A prince came once riding a horse. He stepped off the horse and knelt in front of the girl. He told her that he was looking for those clear eyes to share the same kingdom. A fairy told him, he said, that the purest girl had raised a parrot capable of singing and breaking the malign ivy that strangles all the crops and trees in his land.”
“How could a parrot’s voice break the branches?”
“Like when you feel how thunder in your ears almost tears them apart.”
The boy nodded.
The woman stood up, looked away from the moon, and dried her eyes. “The prince took the parrot, promising to return the following day to marry her. But he never came back.”
“Why, Granny? He was a prince and he had the parrot and a sword, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he was a prince, but he sold the parrot to a circus and brought the money to his kingdom,” she said with a trembling chin. “When the girl knew what happened with her friend, the parrot, and how he was enslaved, being brought from town to town, she ran desperately to the end of the horizon and she jumped. She crashed, tearing the clouds, and a storm came after. Ever since, we have the moon, who sadly appears, looking to cure the suffering from being betrayed.”
“Granny, maybe rue can help.”
“Maybe,” she said as she turned over and caressed the boy’s cheek. “But the moon does not have a mouth to drink the sacred tea.”
When he was fifteen, Major Ascension asked Rosario, his grandmother’s best friend, who his father was and the reason he had to bear a single last name. The woman sat next to him, pushing charcoal stones inside her stove. She clapped on the lad’s lap and said, “Mijo, mijito. Your mother was a prostitute.” The statement left him mute. “Father? You may have more than one,” Rosario added and took a rigid fan made of dried leaves to air the fire, whose flame grew from orange to intense red.
He ran across the field and arrived home breathless and crying. His grandmother, praying to the virgin, knelt in front of a candle.
He slammed the door, and the candle’s flame almost died from the gush of the wind. He did not remember his words, but only how his grandmother clasped her breast and sadly cried, “Why did Rosario have to tell you? Why, Rosario? I trusted her.”
Amanda Pareja, Major Ascension’s mother, came to the Bronx more than fifty years ago with the hope of marrying her boyfriend and working in a factory. Instead, she was locked up in a two-story building with dark ceilings and mirrors in all the walls. The first night, she was tied to the bed, and a line of men came in the dark to discharge their anger, their sweat, their dirty words in saliva. Amanda became pregnant and the rue beverage did not cause an abortion. The Dominican shaman said that it was a miracle. In the Bronx, the baby was born on a Thursday, May 26, 1960, the day of the Ascension of Jesus. The baby was not even three months old when Amanda took her own life.
Ascension came to Guárica wrapped in a brown cowl, carried by a monk who gave it to the grandmother. Major Ascension would not return to the Bronx until the age of twenty-one, after his grandmother’s death. In Hunts Point, wearing the same uniform and helmet as he had done in Guárica, he proclaimed himself a general of firemen and started to sell the rue with the hope to cure betrayal, which was “the origin of all suffering,” as he preached.
Two days before Major Ascension’s fifty-fifth birthday, a twenty-year-old girl had drunk the sacred tea without saying that she had missed her period. Precisely at the moment of Major Ascension’s birthday celebration and the roof illuminated by the flames of the birthday bonfire, Sergeant Molina and three officers broke in. The yells of “Everybody is arrested” cut the prayers. Everyone ran in different directions as the police gave chase to each of the followers, who tried to escape by jumping from roof to roof. Nobody knew exactly what happened to Major Ascension. Some said that it was out of fear; others, that it was the strong smell of rue. Still others thought that a major of firemen played with the bonfire; but, precisely at that moment and under a giant moon, a flame caught the general’s uniform of Major Ascension Luna. No one heard his cries. No one smelled his burning flesh. The rue absorbed everything. It was like the flames’ own spirit had decided to devour Major Ascension. Perhaps the moon wanted to smell the rue and learn whether betrayal could be cured.
Since that day, the inhabitants of Hunts Point in the Bronx see how a cloud hits the full moon. It looks like a helmet that slowly falls apart during the night. People who watch the helmet do not even remember Major Ascension. They do not even smell the rue. They think about themselves, their lives, their lies, and how the universe is just distance, a painful separation. Suddenly, the image of Judas Iscariot’s kiss strikes their minds and silently they thank him.
A native of Colombia, Jhon Sanchez immigrated to the United States seventeen years ago. He received a law degree from Indiana University and a MFA in English and creative writing from Long Island University. His prose and poetry have appeared in TheOverpass, New Lit Salon Press, and the New York Mills Dispatch, among others. He was awarded the NYM Cultural Center Residence for 2015, the Edward F. Albee Foundation Residency for 2014, and the Immigrant Artist Project Fellowship in 2011. "Major Ascension Luna" is a story written in The Bronx and for The Bronx. An essay that narrates how the story came to light was published in the anthology The Bronx Memoir Project. Mr. Sanchez wants to express his gratitude to Samuel Ferri, Orlando Ferrand, Martha Hughes and Nan Frydland for their editorial comments as well as the editors of Breakwater Review.