Reading Signs for the General

The Fortune Teller (detail), 1628

The Fortune Teller (detail), 1628

In her village they’d called her Maria Immaculada, because she had never married and never even taken a man to her bed. Now she was a frail old woman, well past seventy. At an age when she should’ve been allowed to sit in the shade and cluck at the ways of the young until she died, instead one hot morning a government limousine with tinted windows had stopped at her house. A young army officer knocked on her door to inform her she’d been invited to dine with their country’s leader, El Hombre Maximo, that very evening. He’d offered her a ride in his air-conditioned Cadillac. What she was not offered was an opportunity to decline. Two years later, she had not yet returned home.

General Augustin Montoya, El Hombre Maximo, had sent for her because she was a bruja, a witch, and he was famously preoccupied with the occult. Maria was famous in the northern part of the country for her ability to read the signs and portents that appeared in the heavens. Every roaming planet, every falling star, it was said, was a telegram from God, sent in a language the Angel of Chastity had taught Maria to read.

At the twenty-third hour, time for the nightly lesson, Maria joined General Montoya on the western balcony of the Presidential Palace, which looked out over the capitol city of Concepción. Two hours after curfew, the city lay silent and dark, the better for El Hombre Maximo‘s perusal of the night sky.

General Montoya was a man of neat, spare appearance, perhaps to compensate for the gross indulgences of his leadership. During the day he wore starched fatigues and the scarlet beret that was his trademark, but at night he favored sandals, loose cotton trousers, and fine silk shirts. He sat in a high-backed, velvet upholstered chair, stroking his mustache, and squinting through the eyepiece of an expensive American telescope. It made sense to him that if his soothsayer could, with her dim old eyes, read the future in the planets and stars, then with the aid of technology, he would soon be able to predict the plots of his enemies before they were even hatched.

“Sir, I wished to ask you something,” Maria Immaculada said. She wore thick peasant skirts below a knitted shawl she kept wrapped tight around her shoulders, and she stood only a little taller than the armrests of the General’s chair. “Recently I received word from my niece. She said los escuadros fantasmos had come through the village.” Los escuadros fantasmos–the infamous Ghost Squads–conducted sweeps for enemies of the junta, plucking young men from their beds in the middle of the night and loading them into trucks bound for destinations unknown. “She said there was much weeping in their wake.”

The General jumped in his chair, startling her badly.

“Two!” he exclaimed. “Two falling stars, moving in perfect parallel, but in opposite directions!” He opened a notebook lying in his lap and began flipping rapidly through the pages. “We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? What does it mean?”

Maria took a steadying breath. “It means, sir, that–”

“Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, I’ll figure it out.” He found his page, traced down a list with his finger, and frowned. “Potential trouble, it says here. A situation that could take an unexpected turn, with mortal consequences.” Again he bent to the eyepiece. “Perhaps there will be another celestial event, a modifying signifier.”

“Perhaps, senor,” Maria agreed. “But remember that the stars suggest, they do not command.” She folded her hands tightly before her withered old breasts, as if in prayer. “Isabel–that’s my niece–she said her boy Aldolpho was taken.”

“Taken where?”

“Well… that is the thing, senor. We do not know. It’s been a week, and no one has heard from him.”

The General sighed and gave her a sidelong glance. “Well, he was not an enemy of the state, was he? Not a troublemaker?”

“No. Not a troublemaker. ‘Dolpho is a good boy.” She kept her eyes on her hands, which were shaking.

General Montaya noticed her tremors, and smiled. That he could strike fear even into the heart of a bruja made him deeply happy. Once he gained her powers for himself, who would be able to stand against him?

“Then you have nothing to worry about, tia Maria. He’ll check out clean at the station and then they’ll send him home. If he isn’t home already, it’s probably because he made a few friends while waiting around, and now they’re out eying the young girls of Concepción.” Abruptly, he jammed his face back against the glass. “Dammit! Was that another meteor? Was there a lightning strike? Dammit!”

“I’m sure you are right, senor.” Maria could hardly force the words out. “But I was hoping…” Her voice trailed off.

Again the General sighed, much more heavily this time. He slumped back in his chair and ran a hand down his face. He finished with a second stroke to smooth his black mustache. “What are you asking me to do, tia Maria?”

“I thought perhaps… you could check…”

“Check? Check what? If he passes questioning, he will be set free. If not, then he won’t. Those are the laws of the land. I may have made them, but I cannot break them at will. It is for the good. If you nephew is still with los escuadros fantasmos, then that is where he should be. He is surely a danger to us all.”

“Adolpho is an innocent,” said Maria Immaculada, in her smallest voice.

“No one is innocent, bruja.” General Montoya heaved himself sitting up and returned to his telescope. “Ah! Another shooting star! This one, I swear, did not fall to earth, but shot from earth to sky! According to the book, it means ill fortune! What do you think, adivina? Is it a true sign, or false?”

That was when he heard, from somewhere close behind him, the clack of a cocked revolver.

“Sir,” Maria Immaculada said, “I think it is true.”

Sean Manseau is a writer living in New York. For more of his work visit