Residents native to Isla Paradiso have never shied away from a day’s work. But work has become scarce. Those fortunate enough to have found steady employment, often labor in menial and thankless jobs each day just to make ends meet.
Despite the challenges they have faced as a result of an overly swift modernization of their rustic home, the local populace continues to thrive and adapt. As a collective people, they are hard-working and uncommonly dependable. But life is hard for them. There is no debate in that regard. It was easier before; when hard work was rewarded and consequences were immediately realized.
They have learned from difficult and unfortunate interactions with the slick talkers and business savvy predators who have descended upon their home over the past decade. With no real legal documents proving land ownership, some locals were stripped of ancestral farmlands which have since been repurposed. They are now forbidden to step foot on them. Trades and crafts that were once vital have been rendered obsolete. Skills which may have once supported an extended family have become unnecessary, if not completely antiquated.
To make matters worse, the murky repugnance of moral decay has encroached upon their culture. It brings with it an absurdist mindset valuing irreverent hedonism over any form or manner of restraint. The architects responsible for manufacturing this canon of misguided ideas broadcast their manifesto throughout a friendly new media; where it is cleverly packaged then sold as progress by its charismatic proponents. It has impacted, by design, the youth of the island more-so than any other age group. Old timers talk about the recent past as if it were eons ago. In reality, it has been within Van’s own lifetime these changes have taken place.
Van associates the arrival of Mitch and Wade on Isla Paradiso with the onset of its troubles. His perception of the situation may lead him to draw a conclusion that their presence was a cause rather than an effect. The reality of it, however, does not concur. It may be more accurate to say they were drawn here. Unfortunately, Van will not discover this for himself until some time later.
As our narrative resumes, we find that it is early Sunday morning. It was mentioned previously that many residents work diligently every day. In retrospect, the statement may be somewhat inaccurate. What we find instead is that whenever possible, Sunday is reserved for celebration and thanksgiving.
Van has been waking up early to meet Benita at her church, Santuário Basílica de Santo António, over the past several weeks. Van is captivated by the way it comes alive with singing, laughing, reverence, and fellowship. There is typically no seat remaining when the pastor speaks. Van gladly stands with the others who also give up their seats or arrive late.
Van always listens when the pastor preaches. He hears the words and sometimes thinks the pastor could be talking directly to him. Van is not sure why the words fail to connect with him the same way they seem to connect with everybody else in the building. Is fear holding him back? Is he afraid of becoming one of the monsters Mitch and Wade criticized so openly during his childhood? Much had been said to him about the church, and specifically church-goers. Neither Mitch nor Wade was particularly kind in their assessment of a subculture they generally referred to as being populated by crazies and bigots.
Van was too young to understand the ugly rhetoric infused into their comments and actions. Now that he is older, he sees the metaphorical scorched earth caused by ideological warfare irresponsibly provoked against a segment of society who promote love at the very core of their beliefs. Albeit, it is love coupled with obedience to a higher authority. As the others in the church pray in earnest, Van ponders in the silence of his own contemplation. What extremes are the instigators of this pretentious social conflict willing to justify in order to claim their victory?
Benita sings in the choir and always looks for Van after emerging from the dressing room before the service begins. He’s made a bit of a game out of standing somewhere different each time. When she does finally find him, he is rewarded with a heartwarming smile that somehow evokes a sense of peace through to his core. After the service ends, Benita finds Van, and hey walk together talking about the sermon. She always manages to somehow harvest thoughtful insights into the homily and how it fits into her life. Today is no different. She leaves every opportunity for Van to share his own reflections. But he finds nothing to share. He sees that Benita is saddened by this, and he assures her that he is not holding anything back from her. He just doesn’t feel anything.
They walk together toward the beach, which is a short distance from the church. After traveling only about half the distance, Benita stops and breathes a heavy sigh, then regards Van. The pastor of the church, Padre Nuno, had approached her this morning asking about him. Though somewhat surprised, Van casually asks what it was in reference to. Benita smirks while enjoying a light-hearted laugh with Van after sharing that the padre was simply reminding her of the times he would be available for sacramental Penance if circumstances required. Amused, she reassured the aged and overprotective pastor that she was still in good standing.
Immediately afterward, and with no visible reaction to her response, Padre Nuno spoke at length about an anonymous young man who, during his youth, had nearly starved to death. This young man would come to the dinner table and engage the family in delightful conversation and charming wit. But the oddest thing would happen as serving dishes were passed around the table. The young man would pass each dish to the person seated next to him without taking any for himself. When supper was finished, he would walk away from the table unfed and still starving.
Having nothing more to say on the matter, Benita and Van continue silently on toward the beach, each lost in their own thoughts, contemplating the plight of Padre Nuno’s starving young man.