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#AGE OF REPTILES

Old: almost old as Time itself, we reach back to distant eons, before birds filled the skies, or flowers and grasses carpeted the land, before Man ever looked out across the seas. Our lives are slower than yours, geared to the grinding of the Great Geologic Clock. Your lifetimes flicker before us, comparative blinks of an eye: your countries, your empires rise and fall, unheeded.

You deign to call yourselves sentient, yet for centuries you failed to understand what we represent - you called us monsters and conjured folk tales to explain our presence, eventually believing your own myths as proven fact. Only recently did you dig ancient bones from rocks, hinting at our past glories. And just decades ago – to us a fleeting nanosecond – did one among you walk upon our lands, watching us even as we watched him, and begin to divine the true story encoded in the shapes and patterns of our shells. Some among you still call this man liar, but you should heed his words; for though we are old we are not immortal – after countless millennia, it seems at last that our time is running out…

Galapagos Islands, 1875

 

Carlos Gallo stepped onto the island of Fernadina - once known to the Anglos, with typical parochialism, as Narborough - looking every inch a man of wealth and influence: as indeed he was, most of the time. Behind him his 20-year-old daughter Valentina sullenly trailed, pouting. She was exceptionally good at pouting – certainly she had the lips for it. Lips of sweltering carmine: voluptuous as ripe berries and tender as budding carnations, puckering sinuously from a sepia face that was perhaps a tad too broad to be classically beautiful. Like her lips, her deep brown eyes were huge: direct and sensual, fringed by the long black lashes and thickly exotic brows of the definitive latina. Perhaps the only subtle aspect of her face was her delicately concave nose, but even this flared suggestively where it neared those all-consuming lips. Surrounded by a shoulder-length cascade of flaring ebon curls like black fire, it was a face of unremitting sensuality. Valentina recognised this: unfortunately, so did everybody else.

Moreno was dead, that was the kicker: a simple foreigner with a knife and a grudge succeeding where Alfaro and his Liberals had failed for years. The Iron Rule was over, but for Senor Gallo it was just one more obstacle in his quest for a peaceful existence. True, he was no Moreno fan, though he had done as well out of Ecuador’s “economic miracle” as any; and frankly, though he admired the Church, he’d found its creeping intrusion into every aspect of life a touch vexing. But what Gallo detested above all else was instability, be it nationally or in his own life - right now, he was saddled with both.

“I can’t believe you’ve dragged me all the way out here,” Valentina moped, her pout assuming superhuman proportions. “If I have to be exiled in these godforsaken islands, couldn’t it at least be to Puerto Villamil - somewhere half-civilised?”

“You’re not being exiled,” replied her father tersely. “This is about penance, learning your lesson and above all keeping away from men, all of which will be much easier here. Now quit whining - try to be dignified for once.”

There had been no real need to accompany his daughter on this trip, Gallo reflected – Valentina was frequently wayward, but she would never defy him to the extent of actually running away. But in the immediate aftermath of the assassination it struck him that getting away from Quito himself might be beneficial – he was, after all, not only a prominent businessman but also a known Liberal supporter. It was true he’d heard no word yet of blood on the streets, but one couldn’t be too careful: if the vacuum was to be violently filled, best to be out of the way for a while.

There was no welcoming committee, save for one: their host, Padre Piosa. A big man in his black robes, he put Valentina in mind of some great grieving turkey. She backed warily into her father’s shadow as introductions were made.

“Senor Gallo,” said the Padre. “An honour to welcome you to our humble island: I only wish circumstances were not so unfortunate.”

“Well,” Gallo coughed, “it’s really not that bad – just a young girl losing her head over a man. Happens all the time.”

Piosa’s eyes narrowed. “Senor,” he muttered gravely, “I was referring to the loss of our blessed leader, Moreno.”

Valentina took a moment to enjoy the spectacle of her father bug-eyed and red-cheeked with embarrassment, before stepping forward to save him.

“Padre,” he said, with audible exhalation, “my daughter, Valentina.”

“Delighted, Senorita – may you find God’s grace in our humble community.”

With an unexpected flourish, Piosa kissed her on the hand, eyes flickering over her ornate travelling ensemble as he did so – even in time of national mourning, Valentina affected only the finest fashions Quito had to offer. Scooping up some of her voluminous luggage, he led them towards the chapel, squatting amid the tiny port like some whitewashed hen surrounded by its brood. A strangely lopsided building, disfigured by the addition of numerous wings and annexes: no doubt as the Refuge for Young Women (they were, at least, not referred to as “fallen”) had expanded. It was a short walk, but Valentina was not used to any form of exertion – ruefully, she realised humility would not come easily to her. For one thing, it made her sweat.

A figure awaited them on the chapel step: it raised itself and approached, resolving into a young woman whose aspect immediately caught Valentina’s eye. Despite an unflattering black smock seemingly composed of literal sackcloth, and a frankly sanctimonious veil draped across the top of her head, she gave an impression of statuesque elegance. In truth she was no taller than Valentina, but something in her movements suggested long-limbed grace, innate and not a little sensual.

“Senor and Senorita Gallo,” Piosa announced, “allow me to present my other current ward. Her name is Kasta Vasquez.”

For Valentina, it was like suddenly looking upon some fantastically idealised older sister. Her face was deep, a stretched buff softened by sinuously contoured cheekbones. The nose was slight and straight, utterly dignified, a mere hint of tempestuous flare at the nostrils. The mouth, narrow and taut, was a wonder: bottom lip ruby and full as wine overflowing a goblet; upper lip a triumphal arch of glossy scarlet exposing prominent pearl incisors. Her stone-grey eyes were wide yet strangely delicate, subtly lashed beneath brows whose angular arc recalled a seabird’s wings. What hair spilled beneath the veil suggested a distinctly non convent-like, unrestrained crown; dark as smoked wood but glimmering hints of auburn and old gold where it caught the light. Valentina had a keen eye for beauty – primarily her own – and wondered with a searing melange of admiration and envy if there was a body under that sacking to match the face.

“Kasta is only twenty-three, but already she aspires to the sanctity of the Convent,” the Padre beamed. “I pray that under my tutelage she will become a worthy Bride of Christ.”

The girl smiled shyly, a sudden fluorescence of perfect teeth. Valentina tried to suppress the thought that this was one bride Christ definitely wouldn’t turn down – it felt vaguely blasphemous.

“Valentina,” Piosa continued, “Kasta will be your companion throughout your stay. I trust that, through her, you will come to know the ways of piety.”

Valentina flashed a grin towards her new acquaintance: just perhaps, here was something that might make her exile bearable.

*

That belief was very soon jolted by a glimpse of her future accommodation: a tiny, windowless box of a room, with an unyielding plank bed – she found her luggage took up most of the free space. The arrangements for ablutions – shared, of course, were shockingly primitive; but it was not until Valentina visited the comparative splendour of her father’s room that she threw one of her trademark tantrums: Senor Gallo had taken up residence in an apartment created, more in hope than expectation, for visiting Catholic dignitaries.

“It’s not fair,” she fumed. “I’m in a cell, with a mattress I could break my arm on. It’s like being in gaol.”

“Oh, do stop complaining, chiquitilla,” Gallo fussed over his unpacking. “It’s for your own good.”

“My own good? All I did was fall in love – is that a prison offence?”

Her father shrugged irritably. “There’s no point discussing it further – you were stupid, and I suppose that’s a young lady’s prerogative. But I can’t afford scandal, so just take your medicine and stay out of trouble.”

You’re the one should be keeping out of trouble,” she shot back. “Piosa doesn’t know you’re a Liberal, does he?”

Senor Gallo grunted guiltily. “I try to keep my business and political interests separate.”

“How did you find out about him, anyway? You don’t have any contacts in the Galapagos.”

He found me. I received a letter from the Padre, very soon after the assassination, in fact: it said he provided a service for young women in trouble. In the circumstances, manna from Heaven.”

Valentina’s eyes narrowed. “But how could he have known? It seems awfully coincidental.”

“Perhaps, but I understand the principle of gift horses – it’s a chance to solve two problems with one move. Once things have settled down on the mainland I can return, and after your little purdah you will join me – everything will be as it was, except hopefully Alfaro will be in power.”

Valentina moped. “Mother would never have let you do this.”

Senor Gallo glared. “You never knew your mother.” His expression softened abruptly. “But you’re probably right – she’d have talked me out of it. However, God rest her soul, she’s not here – so quit stalling, and get along to your quarters. I have to finish unpacking, and then finalise arrangements with the Padre.”

At the door Valentina turned. Her eyes were tearful.

“I love you, Daddy.”

Gallo smiled. “I love you too, Gatito. That’s why I’m doing this.”

*

Back at her ‘cell’, Valentina found Kasta in the wide-eyed act of examining wardrobe.

“Careful,” she snapped in mock annoyance, “those gowns probably cost more than this entire island.”

Kasta started, her eyes lowering in a guilty and, thought Valentina, fetching manner.

“I am sorry,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to pry – they’re just such lovely things…”

“Borrow anything you fancy,” said Valentina, amused she’d been taken seriously. “We look about the same size.”

Kasta dropped her head. “I’d love to, but Padre would forbid it – he despises vanity.”

“Then I’m going to be a trial for him – I have made it my life’s work never to look less than fabulous.” She sat down on her bed, which creaked impressively but was otherwise unyielding. “Was there something in particular you wanted?”

“Just to say ‘hola’. I wonder if you’d be interested in seeing something of the island.”

Valentina sneered. “This wouldn’t involve walking, by any chance? ‘Cause if it does, I’d as soon stay here, thank you very much.”

“Well, it’s your choice,” said Kasta airily. “But if you do, Padre may insist you begin scripture studies – there is a particularly dull Bible passage he makes new girls memorise.”

Valentina pursed her voluptuous lips. Then, with a world-weary shrug, she got slowly to her feet.

“All right, I’ll come, but I need to change first – give me ten minutes. I swear, this place will be the death of me…”

*

Valentina never failed to dress provocatively, but this was the first time she had caused offence by affecting what was, by her standards, plain white. When they met by the chapel door Kasta seemed utterly horrified.

“What in the Blessed Virgin’s name are you thinking?” she hissed.

“What?” Valentina was genuinely puzzled. “I’m just trying to be comfortable.”

“Have you forgotten our beloved Presidente?” Kasta gasped. “This is a time of mourning.”

“Oh, that. Well, there’s only so much grief a city girl like me can deal with – black’s a great colour, but it can get a trifle stale.” She took a few steps into the sunshine, unfurled her matching parasol, turned expectantly. “Well, are we going on this dratted trek or not?”

Kasta rolled her eyes, muttered a fervent prayer for patience, and then fell into step with her strange new companion. What few residents were on the streets glared at Valentina’s luminescence with ill-disguised contempt, but she didn’t seem to care. So long as she was provoking some sort of reaction, Valentina seemed happy.

“So you’re going to be a nun,” was her opening salvo, as they drifted beyond the limits of the tiny port. “Must’ve done something pretty heinous, if that’s your only option in life.”

“We are forbidden to talk about the past,” said Kasta sullenly. “Padre says dwelling on our mistakes can lead to sinful thoughts.”

“You know, I don’t think the Padre and I are going to get along. And frankly, if you insist on doing everything he says, I doubt we’ll get along, either. Are the other girls as boring as you?”

“There are no other girls,” snapped Kasta. “Padre sent them back to their families, straight after the assassination.”

Valentina gave her a sideways glance. “Interesting. And may I ask why you weren’t sent with them? Or is that forbidden, too?”

Kasta hung her head in that appealing, pious manner. “There is nobody would have me.”

“So I was right,” replied Valentina archly. “You did do something heinous. Don’t worry darling, I’ll worm it out of you eventually.”

Kasta stopped walking. Her look was venomous.

“Are all Quito girls so rude and obstreperous?”

“Heavens, no,” laughed Valentina theatrically. “I’m one of a kind – Papa says I always open my mouth before using my brain. You’ll get used to me eventually.”

She smiled winningly, mollifying Kasta’s hostility. They resumed walking, progress slowed by Valentina’s affected lack of fitness. Imperceptibly the trail turned wild about them, until it became little more than a cut through low-growing bushes bedecked with appetising berries. And it was here that Valentina suddenly found her aching feet frozen into immobility, just as if she’d taken root.

There were monsters ahead. One could have mistaken them for big, slightly flattened boulders had not each four obvious, heavily-scaled limbs and long protruding necks wreathed in grotesque wrinkles of sallow, leathery, greyish flesh. The ‘boulders’ themselves were simply brown carapaces, composed of vast interleaved plates like weirdly irregular fields viewed from height, each one a mini landscape with its own contours, reflecting the daylight with a dull sheen. A long, beaked, flat-faced head, set with two tiny black, perpetually weeping eyes, was fixed to each obscene neck at right angles, almost as if bolted on. With infinite, laborious patience the creatures were nipping berries from low-growing shrubs, oblivious to their presence. For all her shock, Valentina knew instantly what she was looking at.

“The Galapagos,” she breathed. “Do you know, even as I was coming here, I never dreamed I’d actually … I mean, I’ve read about Giant Tortoises, but to really see them…” her voice trailed off.

“Oh, they’re everywhere,” Kasta replied offhandedly. “They just get in the way, mostly. Padre regards them as vermin – they are kin to the serpent, after all.”

She stepped indolently between and around the browsing leviathans, but Valentina was too mesmerised to follow. Instead she moved close as she dared to the nearest reptile. It stopped eating, turning its head vaguely in her direction, but was otherwise unmoved – she could see the glistening pulse of its tiny nostrils respirating. Emboldened, she walked right up – the curve of its shell reached almost to her knees. As her shadow crossed it the creature drew its head under the carapace with surprising, reflexive speed. Valentina reached down, lightly touching the shell: for some reason, she’d expected it to be cold, like marble, but it was warm as live skin and, for all its surface irregularities, smooth as a polished floor. Glancing up, she saw that Kasta had continued on, receding into the hazy distance. With reluctance Valentina bade farewell to her creature, and she hurried to catch up. She kept looking back over her shoulder, until the last of the great grey shapes had also decided to move on, their burnished domes merging placidly with the brush.

“Darwin,” she said, half involuntarily, and heard Kasta’s sharp intake of breath.

“That name should never be uttered around here,” she spat, through gritted teeth.

“Why ever not?” Valentina was genuinely stunned. “He was here, wasn’t he? He studied the tortoises, and they helped shape his theories. If these islands are famous for anything, it’s that – without Darwin, no-one would have heard of them.”

“Padre condemns the man as a heretic. His ideas contradict Holy Scripture – the very word of God.”

Valentina scoffed. “My understanding is that Darwin’s books are scientific works – since when did the Bible concern itself with natural history?”

Kasta again stopped abruptly. Her beautiful eyes glowed with anger and fear.

“You must not say such things,” she whispered. “Blasphemies can be punished.”

Valentina’s bubble-cheeked grin remained utterly disarming. “Only if dear Padre gets to hear about them – and you’re not going to tell him, are you Kasta dear?”

Kasta shook her head with a world-weary sigh.

“No, I won’t tell. But answer me this: whatever do you do at confession?”

“Why, lie, of course,” Valentina replied with a wink. She spun the parasol indolently on its shaft and carried on, chuckling. Kasta raised her head to the heavens, but if God had noticed the impossible newcomer, he had nothing say about it. Yet.

*

It was one of the more convivial business meetings for Senor Gallo, supping what he strongly suspected to be sacrament wine in Padre Piosa’s austere but comfortable apartments. It certainly eased the distaste of recounting Valentina’s transgressions.

“Of course, she’s not really bad,” he mused aloud. “It’s just she’s headstrong, and when she cottons onto an idea it’s dashed hard to get her off it.”

Piosa nodded sagely. “I think she will find our regimen of prayer and study salutary. Of course, nothing can quite compensate for a mother’s influence…”

Gallo winced slightly. “You’re right Padre, of course. I’ve done my best, but instilling womanly ways is beyond me.”

“May I ask, if it’s not too personal, why you never remarried?”

“No-one could ever replace my Queta,” Gallo sighed. “You have seen my daughter – imagine one even more beautiful, but withal elegant and refined. It’s been sixteen years, but I still miss her more than I can say.”

“I understand, my friend. I think, with the loss of our dear Moreno, the whole country has had a taste of your pain.”

Gallo coughed, and drained his glass. The conversation was becoming altogether too maudlin.

“Padre, you haven’t mentioned a fee – obviously, money is no object…”

“I make no charge for doing the Lord’s work,” said Piosa grandiosely, “but the families whose daughters stay here make voluntary donations. This chapel has served us well down the years, but it is old – I dream of having the funds to replace it some day.”

“Just tell me how much you need – I’ll willingly exceed it.”

Piosa waved his hand dismissively. “Think about it during your stay – I am sure we can agree an appropriate sum.”

“It is no problem, my remaining a few days? I realise the imposition…”

“Not at all, my friend – to be frank, after ministering exclusively to farmers and retired whalers, it’s a refreshing change to have some urban company. You are free to dwell long as you wish. And while we’re on the subject, you’re aware of Kasta?”

“The other girl – the one you’re training for the convent?”

“Hm. Labour is an important aspect of her discipline – it distracts from earthly urges, frees her mind to focus on the spiritual. While you are here, you may treat her as your personal servant: she will do anything you ask her to. Absolutely anything….”

*

Now Valentina had affirmed interest in the tortoises, Kasta seemed obligated to point out further evidence of their omnipresence. Along the way, in every ditch, gully or washed-out hollow they saw the remnants of one or more luckless individuals that had either become trapped or simply staggered to a final halt. Scavengers had stolen flesh and the elements bone, leaving in all cases only the shells: sometimes pristine, sometimes bleached and cracked and broken by time. How old some of these vestiges were was impossible to guess – hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. There was sadness about these fragments – the same sadness one might feel walking through an abandoned graveyard, headstones broken and inscriptions forever obscured by erosion. It didn’t help that Kasta was also, somewhat gleefully, outlining the dreadful fate that awaited her.

 

“Rise at dawn: prepare breakfast, clean the Chapel, prepare midday meal, Bible study, work in garden, Evening Mass, bed. Don’t think you can slack off at Bible study – Padre gives tests. Fail, you’re confined without food until you get it right.”

“I shan’t survive,” Valentina shuddered. “I’m not sure I can survive this excursion.” They had been walking almost an hour, and her calves and ankles were beginning to shriek with discomfort. “Is there nothing I can do to save myself?”

“Keep your father here as long as you can – Padre won’t wield the big stick while there’s family around. As for later, well, perhaps I can help you out.”

“Oh ho – do I sense a thaw? I knew my fatal charm could penetrate that virgin veil. You like me, don’t you?”

“You are without doubt the strangest girl I have ever met,” Kasta smiled. “I suspect you may be unhinged, but yes – I do like you. If I didn’t, I would never have brought you here…”

Valentina had been all but oblivious to their descent back towards the shore. Now they stepped from cover to look across a secluded, rock fringed cove where the sea rippled like blue silk fringed with ermine across a glittering swathe of sand. Once again the city girl was smitten by the primordially pristine vista: boobies wheeled in white spiralling flocks out towards the horizon; iguanas basking upon the boulders like grotesque ornamental statues, oxide green; cormorants hopping among crags with such gusto it only slowly became apparent they were flightless. The water drew Valentina like a magnet: she discarded her parasol, kicked off her shoes and with her skirts carefully lifted stepped into the warm, bubbling surf. As it sucked and skittered around her burning ankles the relief was indescribable, ecstatic. She turned to look back at Kasta, who was watching indulgently, her expression neutral.

“Don’t tell me,” she sighed, “Padre disapproves of seaside paddling.”

Kasta grinned. “He might, if he knew about it.” And then, with unexpected, erotic grace she slipped the veil from her forehead, allowing a surge of wild ebon hair to stream out in the wind. Flicking off her simple sandals she walked into the water, hem held just high enough to expose long shins clearly defined as cutters’ prows, muscular calves curving elegantly behind.

“This is my secret place,” she said. “I used to sneak out here whenever I could – nighttimes, mostly. Sometimes I’d bring other girls, ones I could trust.”

“Secret paddling parties, eh?” Valentina replied archly. “Not exactly heresy, but it’s a start.”

“Not just paddling,” Kasta added dreamily, gazing out to sea. “If the moon was full, and the water calm, we’d take off our things and swim beneath the stars.” She looked directly at Valentina. “You could come swimming too, if you want.”

Valentina thought she glimpsed something then, a flicker in those misty grey eyes – it sent an unexpected shiver of excitement through her, a faint thrill of intimacy. She tried to think of something intelligent to say, but ended up blurting simple truth.

“I can’t swim.”

Kasta tossed her head back and laughed, a sound wide and open as the ocean itself. She swished out of the water and across the sand to an invitingly smooth rock. Valentina followed, settling beside her newfound friend. She thought of Kasta, swimming naked, and again found herself wondering what body lay under the all-consuming sackcloth: and as Kasta restored her veil she fixated upon the only part of the would-be nun that remained exposed.

“You have the most beautiful feet I have ever seen,” she suddenly said, shocked to blushing at her own seriousness of tone. She leaned forward, unashamedly studying Kasta’s elegantly elongated toes, her serpentine arches; the taut ligaments of her ankles.

“Don’t be silly,” Kasta giggled uncertainly. “Nobody’s feet are beautiful.”

“Yours are,” replied Valentina, glancing briefly but meaningfully into Kasta’s face. She reached down, and her fingers brushed the soft flesh of an instep, dislodging a fine rain of dried sand. Kasta shivered, slightly but perceptibly: she pulled her foot back, but it was only to cross it atop the other, revealing more. Valentina knelt, dusting sand from the sole with gentle fingertips, the underflesh pliant like ruffled velvet to the touch.

“That’s just like Jesus,” Kasta whispered, “washing the feet of His disciples.”

But Valentina had never felt less like Jesus in her life – there was a roaring in her ears unconnected with the tide: her temples throbbed dizzily. She stroked the rippled skin from heel to toe in slow, trailing caress, and Kasta’s contented sigh carried on the breeze,

“I once read” Valentina murmured, “that in some philosophies, the sole of the foot is considered a map of the entire body – touch the right part, and you can stimulate the whole of their being.”

She lowered her lips to brush the marble-smooth web of skin just behind the toes, tasting saltwater, and flecks of clean sand. She had an urge to put her tongue to the tip of Kasta’s big toe, but at that moment the foot was withdrawn. Kasta stood up.

“We have to get back,” she said. “There is meal to be prepared…”

She put on her shoes, restored the veil, and began demurely walking. But Valentina lingered a moment, looking out to sea and trying to rationalise her feelings. She was thinking of tortoises, and what they might be like without their shells: it seemed as though her dress was wet, yet not a thread had touched water.

*

Kasta was in her room, contemplating scripture, when the door erupted and something like a dark cyclone surged in, depositing a long swathe of expensively shimmering silk upon her bed.

“There you go,” announced Valentina. “Since you’re determined to prolong our nation’s misery, I picked out a black one specially.”

Kasta was held up the dress, studying it with wonder: never in her life had she seen anything so exquisite.

“Well,” Valentina nudged, “aren’t you going to try it on?”

Kasta placed the garment against herself – it felt cool and light in her hands, contrasting the heavy, constant scratch of shapeless sackcloth. She knew temptation, and yielded immediately.

“You mustn’t look,” she said, with a stern glance. Valentina pouted, for one of her hopes from this operation had been at least a glimpse of Kasta’s mysterious corpus. Nonetheless, she obediently sat on the nun’s bed, gazing resolutely at a small plaster Madonna while clothing rustled behind her – a singularly incongruous moment.

“All right,” said Kasta, after what seemed an age. “You can look now.”

Valentina spun her head, and for a moment it was as if someone had flung a bowl of cold water in her face. She stared, her mouth open.

“What’s the matter?” Kasta seemed pained. “Do I look ridiculous?”

“No, no: you look,” Valentina struggled for the right word, “you look ravishing.”

And she did. That Kasta possessed a body was no longer in doubt, one so luscious a man might cut his throat upon seeing, just so his last image on earth could be of such loveliness. The dress, cut to Valentina’s exacting dimensions, clung tight to Kasta’s generous curves in a manner at once flattering and, to the spectator, mildly threatening. The cloth hung from her generous hips and waist in perfectly perpendicular folds; strong shoulders and shapely arms were provocatively exposed. But above, and indeed in front of, all this was unsuspected, sumptuous embonpoint crammed with voluptuous tension into the bodice, creating a curving crest of flesh possessing all the drama of a dammed river. Kasta’s cleavage was a riving so dark and deep one could imagine falling into it, never to see daylight again. Valentina could not help herself staring, and as she did she became aware of a tingling deep inside, an old but familiar sensation she felt loath to suppress, though she knew it would inevitably lead to trouble. She kept on staring until Kasta became uncomfortable.

“You think it doesn’t suit me,” she muttered, crestfallen.

“On the contrary: it’s perfect, looks far better on you than it ever did on me. You should see yourself.”

“There are no mirrors here. Padre says vanity is an obstacle to purity.”

If all nuns were built like that, the Padre probably had a point, thought Valentina, but said nothing. The tingle within was wicked, delicious – it was giving her the most wicked and delicious ideas.

“Why not wear it for dinner tonight?” she suggested, archly. Kasta’s eyes bulged; her mouth fell open.

“You’re not serious – Padre would flay me alive.”

“I don’t think so – he may be celibate, but he’s still a man. Look, you’ve got the rest of your life to be frumpy – why be the duckling when you can be a swan, at least for one night? Wouldn’t it be worth a few hundred Our Fathers?”

Kasta glanced down at herself, sweeping her hands over her newly soignée form. She looked at Valentina conspiratorially.

“You’re trying to lead me astray, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” Valentina smiled. “That I most definitely am.”

*

Valentina had to give the Padre credit – if he was incandescent with fury at Kasta’s transformation from serving-girl to belle-o’-the-ball, he concealed it beneath a veneer of formal civility. Not so her father: Senor Gallo’s eyes nearly popped out on stalks when Kasta made her entrée, looking for all the world like a Quito debutante on the prowl for bachelors. Once he could tear his gaze from the girl – or more precisely, from a section below her neck to just above the waist – he fixed his daughter with a look of desperate venom Valentina found utterly gratifying.

Though she was at that moment possibly the most glamorous cook on Earth, Kasta’s fare was virtuously plain and simple; however, it was appetising enough. But Gallo could enjoy his food: he saw the devilish glitter in his daughter’s eye, and knew the dress was but the beginning. He could sense her, wound up like some impish coil ready to spring. It was Piosa flicked the switch.

“Did you enjoy your stroll earlier, my dear?” he asked pleasantly enough.

“Yes, I did,” Valentina beamed. “Especially…” she’d been on the verge of saying ‘especially the cove’, but Kasta’s warning glance across the table stalled her. “Especially the tortoises.”

“Ah yes - the tortoises,” Piosa sighed. “I suppose they would be novel to a newcomer. Frankly, those who live here regard them as no more than a nuisance.”

“I can’t think why,” she countered, looking at him with deadpan malignance. “After all, they were a great inspiration to Senor Darwin, and his theory of – what’s it called? – evolution.”

There was momentary, unreadable flicker across the Padre’s face, but it was her own father who dropped his cutlery.

Senorita,” said Piosa carefully, his smile like a cobra’s, “I do not know what ideas you have been exposed to in Quito, but let me assure you, this man Darwin’s notion is heretical nonsense: Our lord god created all living things on earth, including your tortoises. There is no such thing as ‘evolution’.”

“But if that’s the case,” Valentina continued, affecting the look of an earnest schoolgirl, “what did God create the tortoises for? And why would He put the giant ones only on these islands? Seems rather strange, doesn’t it, Papa?”

But Senor Gallo was steadfastly studying his plate – he had the look of a man contemplating suicide.

Piosa’s smile turned triumphant. “Child, the answer to your question is simple and all-encompassing, just as the Lord’s will: He knew that men would one day find these islands, use them as base for reaping the leviathan harvest of the Sea. So He provided these slow, dull-witted creatures as an easy food resource, so none need go hungry on their vast ocean voyages.” At Valentina’s sceptically raised eyebrow he added: “This can easily be proven, if you wish: south of here lies another island, Santa Maria – one of the first to be colonised. A visit there would certainly be educational for you - it might even prove salutary for faithful Kasta.”

But at that moment the putative nun had her head buried in her hands, quivering slightly – it was impossible to tell if she was crying or giggling.

“And now,” concluded Piosa grandly, “I think it is time you young ladies retired – I am sure Kasta has warned you of our early starts. Might I suggest, before you go to sleep, that both of you pray: you, Kasta, for a return to modesty; and in your case, Senorita, for some of the humility of Our Lord Jesus.”

*

When the women had gone, Piosa surreptitiously produced another bottle of sacramental wine, which Gallo didn’t notice because he was busy hanging his head in shame.

“Padre, please accept my profoundest apologies for my daughter’s behaviour. I cannot imagine…”

“My friend,” came the kindly counter, “think nothing of it. Do you seriously imagine Valentina is the first spitfire I have had stay here?” He filled a goblet and slid it across the table. “I may be a mere priest, but I know a little of the world – there isn’t much these youngsters can say or do to truly shock me.”

“Even so,” Gallo glugged his wine recklessly, “I feel I must make some sort of reparation. Consider my donation to your chapel fund doubled – tripled, even. I shall draft the documents tomorrow…”

Piosa smiled. “Your generosity is not in question, Senor; neither is your concern for Valentina. Be assured, a few weeks of discipline and prayer will transform your daughter into a comely maiden you would be proud to give away. But if you truly wanted, there may be something… no, forget it: it is merely a notion.”

“Tell me,” said Gallo, desperation overwhelming his natural caution. “Ask anything of me.”

“I wonder,” began Piosa abstractedly, as if changing the subject, “did you ever consider some sort of lasting memorial to your late wife?”

“Of course, but – to be frank, I could conceive of nothing that was… epic enough to do justice to her memory.”

Exactly!” Piosa ejaculated, suddenly thwacking his hand on the table and making Gallo start. “That is exactly the problem. Just like me, you dream of a monument – I knew you would understand.”

It struck Gallo that he had not understood much at all, and he wondered whether the Padre was being deliberately obtuse, or if the wine was muddling his perception. Either way, he felt inordinately pleased to be in Piosa’s good books. The priest rose unexpectedly, crossed to a locked cabinet and extracted a sheaf of rolled papers. Coyly he spread them before Gallo’s blurry gaze.

“These are mere sketches – doodles, really. But this is what I would like the chapel to become, if I had the backing. Tell me, would this be a sufficient memorial?”

Gallo shuffled through the papers he felt an upwelling of emotion. The drawings were crudely rendered, but the structure they depicted was beautiful, hewn from solid stone, all asymmetrical flaws removed and its squatness replaced by an elegant steeple. It was simple and it was perfect: just the sort of place Queta would have chosen to worship. He looked up at Piosa with limpid eyes.

“You would… do me such an honour? I am not a particularly pious man…”

“You are a good man – that is what counts. If you were to provide, say, majority funding for the project, then it would be the least I could do.”

The last drawing differed radically from the others. It was of a mighty cathedral, all soaring towers and spires and mighty arches. The sort of structure only truly glimpsed in dreams.

“Ah now, that,” shrugged Piosa apologetically, quickly gathering up the papers, “is my secret fantasy – perhaps the nearest thing I have to a vice. Perhaps, if and when we go to Santa Maria, I may tell you about it. But for now, the hour is late, and I suggest we retire.”

Gallo surveyed the wreckage of the meal still splayed across the table, and through the muzziness in his brain a curiously mundane thought struck him

“What about all these things?”

“Kasta will deal with them, in the morning,” Piosa relied airily. “I remember she, too, was headstrong and spirited when first she arrived here. And now - well, best to think of her as little more than slave: that is her function, the nature of her penance.”

*

Valentina awoke, to the certain knowledge of someone padding into her ‘cell’. Her night-candle indicated an hour most definitely ungodly. She sat up. Kasta loomed at the foot of her bed, disfigured by a nightgown of coarse, stained muslin. In her hand a bottle glittered darkly.

“Taking a risk aren’t you?” Valentina whispered. “I bet sneaking into other girls’ rooms is another flogging offence.”

“Only if you’re caught,” replied Kasta wryly. “And frankly, given how much of this Padre and your father consumed tonight, I doubt anything short of the apocalypse is going to wake them. Here – I ‘liberated’ some for you.”

Valentina studied the bottle as though appraising its vintage.

“So how come Piosa’s so free and easy with the Blood of Our Saviour?”

“Until Padre blesses it, it’s just cheap plonk from Puerto Ayona. To be honest I think he prefers it like that.”

Valentina tipped a stream of viscous ruby to the back of her throat, savouring the slightly acid scorch.

“Ahh… nothing like a bit of sacrilege for hitting the spot.”

She felt a warm glow begin in the pit of her stomach, just as Kasta sat down on her bed, taking the bottle for a couple of generous gulps. It was all looking rather promising, though for what she still wasn’t sure.

“So: is this a social call, or initiation for some after hours drinking club?”

Kasta snickered. “I just wanted to thank you – for the dress, I suppose, but mostly for standing up to Padre. I’ve never known anyone talk back to him like that – you must realise, once your father leaves, he’s going to make you suffer.”

“Let him try – Papa will have him killed, if he so much as lays a finger on me. Man’s a buffoon - why don’t you stand up to him?”

Kasta took another gulp of wine, and hung her head.

“I can’t – I am dependent on Padre. I have nobody else.”

Valentina laid a tender, sisterly hand upon the nun’s arm.

“Tell me,” she whispered.

“I grew up in Los Rios,” Kasta began, unseeing eyes fixed on the floor. “Far back as I can remember, I was helping either on the farm or around the house. I suppose we were a poor family, though of course you don’t notice that as a child. I suppose also, it was intended that I should marry one of the farmer’s sons I used to see, either at chapel or market. But then, when I was sixteen, a stranger appeared at our homestead: he was an artist, quite a famous one at that. He said he had come to paint the landscape around us, but the moment he clapped eyes on me that all changed. He told me all kinds of stupid, flattering things: that I had the sort of beauty that deserved immortality; that all his life he had searched for the perfect model, and in me he knew he’d found her. He offered my father a princely sum for the privilege of painting me, and though my parents thought it somewhat unseemly it was an offer they could ill refuse. So it was one day, while my parents toiled in the fields, I sat for the painter.”

She hesitated. Her eyes were moist, and she swallowed stiffly.

“It was not until we were alone that he revealed his true intention: he wanted me to pose for him nude. When I refused, he said he would take back the money he had given; more, he would take steps to ruin our farm and blacken my reputation in the valley. I had no reason to doubt he could do these things, and so, reluctantly, I undressed for him. The strange thing was, once he began to sketch me, from all angles and in various poses, I began to relax. I remember the sunlight streaming in upon my back; it made me feel tingly and free. I thought perhaps, after all there was no shame in doing this. And then, on the second day, he tried to seduce me. I struggled, I screamed: he ran. He ran straight to my parents, then to our priest: he told them – he told them I had tried to seduce him. He said that being naked was my idea; that he had tried to resist but I had been aggressively wanton towards him; that I was an evil temptress. And they believed him. I shall never know why, but as God is my witness they swallowed it whole – perhaps they thought someone with such a reputation could have nothing to gain by fabrication. My parents disowned me; the priest suggested I was possessed. I was sent away, sent here, to do penance, even though I nothing to do penance for.”

She fell silent. Valentina had an overwhelming urge to put her arms around the girl, but it felt somehow inappropriate. Kasta sniffed and straightened.

“I used to cry about it, did so for years, but not anymore. Now I am resigned to my fate: someday I shall be a nun, and beyond earthly concerns. In the meantime, I work.”

“And go skinny-dipping, just occasionally,” Valentina put in. It elicited a slight smile.

“Yes. It makes me feel the way I did when I posed: just my skin, and the elements. It is my one secret; my one vice.”

There seemed to Valentina an extremely long interval before she could force out her next words.

“Would you…” she took a deep breath, “would you pose for me?”

Kasta’s look was direct, fiercely enquiring, but not overtly hostile.

“Why would you want that? You’re no artist…”

Valentina decided this was not a time for obfuscation. “I’d like to see your body,” she said, casually as she could, hope the excitement wasn’t too obvious in her face or voice. Kasta glanced away, as if she were about to give the matter intense thought; then quite unexpectedly she slipped off the bed and divested herself with brisk, practised efficiency. It was done with such matter-of-factness Valentina had no opportunity to be properly thrilled: nonetheless, her heart thundered, and she tingled all over.

Quickly, in self-parody Kasta swept through various poses, teasing with her nightdress as a makeshift veil: on tiptoe, arms and head raised towards the sky; ramrod straight, hands crossed on stomach, staring into the distance; bizarrely on one leg, the other kicked up behind her, arms looped acrobatically over her head. The constant shifting, self-conscious and clumsy, prevented Valentina from her desire to drink in Kasta’s naked splendour.

“Not like that,” she snapped, with undue annoyance. “Show me how you posed for him.”

Kasta’s face fell slightly. She hesitated a moment, the muslin limp against her bosom. Then in a smooth motion she twisted the nightdress into a coiled strand, as she did so seemed to flow into a fixed, precise position: the pose was simple and subtle, yet devastating. Kasta crossed one lean, long leg behind the other, standing on her beautiful toes so that the muscles in her calves and thighs curved proud and taut. One arm was raised, fabric hanging from it like a shimmer of mist, down across her middle to where her other hand seemed to hang indolently, though the slender fingers were extended, rigidly perpendicular. Kasta’s eyes gazed neutrally grey to some far horizon; her comely mouth was slightly open, but silent. And why not – her body was all the expression she needed. Her breasts were incomparable: lush teardrop sacs of ripe sepia, slightly elongated by their own voluptuousness; high-peaked by daintily stippled teats of rich brown sienna. Her slightly thickened abdomen was softened by the muslin’s gauzy film, hips losing definition though showing a subtle curve into what was evidently a sumptuous backside. Below, at the juncture of graceful thighs a perfect wedge of thick black coils protruded enticingly. Looking upon all this, Valentina knew two things, and both filled her with slight sadness: first, there was no way such an alluring creature could ever be a nun; and second, she had just fallen utterly in love with Kasta Vasquez. She continued staring until her model became visibly discomfited.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I, uh, was just wondering,” Valentina managed to croak, “How it was your artist managed to wait two whole days before trying to seduce you.”

Kasta lapsed into giggling, her pose disintegrating, breaking the spell. She spun elegantly back onto the bed, reclining in a manner that Valentina found deeply provocative, the nightdress enticingly draped. Her breasts seemed to flow slightly apart, quivering as they stretched and flattened yet retained their delicious buoyancy.

“Rub my feet again,” she said playfully, extending one leg, “I like that.”

Valentina shuffled to the bottom of the bed, kneeling as if in reverence (which wasn’t far from the truth). With trembling fingers she grasped just above Kasta’s ankle, pursed her lips and kissed the greatest of the toes pointed elegantly toward her, the tip of her tongue lightly pressing its soft fleshy pad. Kasta gave a faint gasp of surprise, but was unresisting. Head and heart pounding, Valentina slowly drew the whole toe between her silkily voluptuous lips, tongue probing gently beneath the nail’s horny arc while her thumb tips kneaded the rippled pliancy of the sole. Kasta sighed, a night breeze shimmering into relaxation. Valentina let the big toe slide from her mouth, leaving faint silvering of saliva. Daringly, she loosened her grip, but the foot was not withdrawn: Kasta’s eyes were closed, her head to one side; her bosom appeared to heave slightly, but it might have been Valentina’s imagination. Deep within she could feel a dreadful, pulsing melange of hunger and thirst: it was going to make her do something irrevocable; it was going to make her confess all.

“I had a lover,” she whispered. “A much older man, business associate of my father – a rival, really. I knew that, at first, he only flattered me as a means of undermining Papa, but I adored him anyway. We exchanged coded letters; met fleetingly in secret: he did nothing untoward, yet still seduced me thoroughly. He taught me how to kiss with tongues; caressed my feet, my hands, my neck, until I swooned in his arms. But he wouldn’t take me, no matter how I yearned for him – wouldn’t take that final, fateful step, lest my father tear him apart with bare hands.

“So, I decided to seduce him. It seemed so simple: all I had to do was find a day when Papa would be engaged in the city; send a secret summons to my lover; and dismiss the servants save for those I trusted implicitly. When he arrived, I pounced upon him like spider on fly, teasing and taunting him, using all the tricks he’d shown me, until his ardour was unmistakable – I could see it, feel it through his britches. And I wanted him, so badly I didn’t care if it hurt, didn’t care if I fell with child: I ached for him to split me, to fill me with his essence.

“I undid him, took out his penne, so huge and hard; he fumbled with my underskirts. But then, right at the last moment, as he was about to push against me, I panicked. I pulled back, but he was too far gone to stop himself: he sprayed all over my belly, my thighs, my dress; a sticky, disgusting mess. We were just trying to figure out what to do when my father walked into the room – I had been betrayed.

“For a moment, there was such cold fury in Papa’s eyes I was sure we would both be murdered. But then it faded, replaced by something worse: a look of deep hurt, as always seemed to come upon him when he talked of my mother. My lover fled, of course – I have not heard of him since. My father kept me confined to my room for weeks; only after the assassination was I allowed some freedom. And then he brought me here, to keep me from trouble – or so he believes.”

Silence. Kasta didn’t respond, didn’t move: for a moment Valentina thought she had gone to sleep. Kasta’s foot, pulsing and warm, was still in her grip – impulsively she parted her lips, smearing them from roughened heel to curling minor toes, her tongue flickering forth in tiny stabs of sweetness. Kasta shivered, moaned, stirred. She opened her eyes.

“Why do you tell me all this?”

“Because I want no secrets between us. And because…” Valentina hesitated. “Because I never thought I would feel again as I did that day; never ache for someone so badly I couldn’t help myself – I was wrong.”

She swirled her tongue glutinously around Kasta’s big toe, layering moisture upon it. The putative nun raised herself slightly, watching the operation – her look was detached, unreadable. Valentina again glimpsed the quiver of Kasta’s breasts, and her body hummed with intolerable need, distilled and pure. It was going to happen – it had to.