Nuestro Señor San Ignacio de Kadakaamán
In the spring of 1845, the townspeople of San Ignacio started to suspect that the statue of El Santo Niño de Atocha, seated casually in his niche on the epistle side of the mission church, was climbing down at night and walking around. María Apícula, the old woman who cleaned the sanctuary, ran to the neighbors one evening, blanca como la nieve, white with fright. She told them how a dark shadow had appeared behind her and it was child-sized and she could hear the tap, tap, tap of a staff upon the flagstones, all the way to the apse.
The people went at once to the statue. The boy-Christ was there, frilly-collared and seated as usual. He held his basket in one hand and the staff in the other, and wore the little brown cape about his shoulders. The eyelids were open, the eyes serene. Not even the fluffy plume in his hat was askew. They examined his feet, for it is common knowledge that El Santo Niño de Atocha wears out his sandals on his nightly escapades of do-gooding. But the sandals were intact.
It was a mystery what he could be doing, for El Santo Niño de Atocha is known for visiting prisoners with his basket of foodstuffs, but San Ignacio had no prison. It had only a broken adobe jailhouse no longer used for anything. There were holes in the crumbling walls and some goats had taken up residence.
–Maybe he was going to Loreto, someone suggested. To the prison there.
Don Buenaventura, the mayordomo of the village, shook his head and spoke with authority: His shoes are too clean. My shoes are dirtied just by crossing the street, let alone traveling all the way to Loreto.
El Santo Niño does other things besides visiting prisons, said another person. He goes wherever someone needs him.
–But his shoes are perfectly clean, Don Buenaventura insisted.
–Well if it wasn’t him, what was tap-tap-tapping behind me? María Apícula asked.
A chill went over the crowd. Get the priest, someone said. Father de Cabecera will have an opinion.
The Rev. Fr. Serafín de Cabecera was a white-robed, rabbit-toothed Mercedarian who had given the precious remaining years of his life to attend the people of San Ignacio. His hair was a mat of soft gray grass standing upon his scalp. Brown spots of age, daubed by the desert sun, showed underneath. He had been a pale boy, beset by too many fevers, grown upward into a man but not much outward, and when he swallowed, his large Adam’s apple ascended like a bucket from a well. Sometimes he placed his fingers on it without thinking and felt it go up and down. When celebrating the Mass, he wore a bright pink chasuble embroidered with flowering grapevines in gold thread, refashioned from the cheerful brocade gown of one elderly Marquesa of Merced who wished to bless a poor priest far away in the lonely frontier.
There were few priests left in Lower California, only six for the whole peninsula. Soon to be five, Fr. de Cabecera thought with gladness. But in the meantime, there were children to baptize and young people to marry. There were confessions to hear and the deceased to inter. In the last few years, a real town had sprung up at San Ignacio, for it was an oasis, with an underground watercourse that ran in an arroyo filled bank to bank with palms. The town had winding, shaded streets, dates and figs and oranges and lemons and plenty of animals, and people who have the tranquil quality of those who never want for water. The contented people of San Ignacio raised large families and they streamed into the great stone church, the centerpiece of the town.
The priest’s surname, de Cabecera, might be translated as either Father-who-is-the-head, or Father-of-the-pillow, and it was a little joke around the mission. Hurry home, Father, the people would say in the evening. Your pillow is waiting!
Though they did not mean to be unkind, the people could not resist teasing Fr. de Cabecera. Oh Father, they would say when he tried to correct them. You need a dance more than any man we’ve ever seen. At first he had laughed along with the others. But soon an irritation took hold. In the capital, why, any man would kiss the hand of a priest. But here no one listens, there is no respect. Here it is all joking and fandangos.
Then, in the same spring of 1845, the last remaining native of San Ignacio—a man known to the townspeople as Cochimí Juan—ruined the Father’s enthusiasm for his retirement by predicting in front of everyone that the priest was going to die.
Cochimí Juan did not like priests. He had not liked the former priest, one of the Dominicans—those domini canes, those hounds of God who hunted men and herded men’s souls. One night Cochimí Juan overheard the former friar’s housekeeper say that she was going to poison him, making the death prediction an easy one. The demise of the previous priest led everyone to think that Cochimí Juan could predict the future.
In truth, Cochimí Juan was just a regular man. He could not predict anything except the weather, and only because he had studied the sky for so many years. But there was no one to talk to about the weather, much less anything of substance. Since the arrival of the priests so many years ago, all of the Cochimí had perished of sickness or gone away, leaving him with an awful hollow feeling that kept him awake at night. San Ignacio had become such a sad place that Cochimí Juan thought about leaving, and he decided that he would do it. But first he decided to have some fun. Knowing that the townspeople thought he had mystical powers, Cochimí Juan told Fr. de Cabecera that the priest was going to die. Then he went home and waited to see what would happen.
The next person to see the terrifying little figure in the church was the son-in-law of María Apícula. This time no one could dismiss the occurrence as an old woman’s imagination, which is what the townspeople had said to reassure themselves. But the son-in-law could not be dismissed. He was respected by all, a man with slow capable hands who took care of the church. Troubled by the apparition, he sent a child at once for the priest.
–What kind of joke is this, Fr. de Cabecera said, when the boy came to the door of his room.
The priest imagined what would happen. He would run huffing to the steps of the church and they would all have a vigorous laugh at his expense. It had happened before, once even during the last rites. A man had popped up, and the priest nearly fouled himself; he could not bear to report to the bishop how appalling things had become.
The boy pulled his hand. Come, Father.
Fr. de Cabecera scrutinized the boy. The child looked back at him in earnest. But even the littlest ones had learned to hide their guile. Yet perhaps at last they truly have need of me, the priest thought. Some emergency. Some spiritual matter they cannot discern on their own.
He closed his book. He hurried across the courtyard to the steps of the church.
While adobe missions all over the peninsula were crumbling, the stately stone church of San Ignacio would stand forever. People came from everywhere to see it. The church had one square bell tower on the left, and four stout finials on the right to balance the effect. The native builders, now long dead, had mastered the Moorish arch and the alfiz and the colonette and the dome and the niche. The stone was whitewashed with seams of painted pink. The façade was inlaid with rose-colored squares and circles and false columns and even a Spanish coat-of-arms, the whole thing made grander by adding idea after idea. And all the statuary still kept their heads.
The son-in-law was waiting on the steps with María Apícula and Don Buenaventura, the mayordomo, who was congenial as usual. Hello, Father! he cried.
–What is this about, the priest said.
–I went to check the foundation, the son-in-law said. Where the water was seeping through.
–And then what, the priest said.
–It suddenly went very dark in the church, the son-in-law said. There was no light, no light at all, Father.
–That is what happened to me, María Apícula said, but I forgot to tell that part.
The priest waved her quiet. Go on.
–There was a tapping sound behind me, and I turned around, and there was a little person standing there.
–A little person? What kind of little person, the priest said.
–I couldn’t see it clearly. But it was coming toward me with one of its arms stretched out.
–Oh, God, María Apícula said. Her hand zoomed across her chest, crossing back and forth like a hummingbird among the flowers.
–Was it menacing you, the priest said.
–It is hard to say. I got out of there.
Fr. de Cabecera examined their faces. There was no hint of cleverness. They are looking to me, he thought. They are afraid and have need of a priest. He took an instructional tone: This is a serious matter. It is good that you sent for me.
–We thought we’d better, before you got dealt the death blow, Don Buenaventura joked.
Fr. de Cabecera talked over him: This does not sound like El Santo Niño. He does not go around frightening people.
María Apícula stopped crossing herself, her hand frozen in mid-flight. That’s right, Father, she said. He goes around helping people. He wouldn’t frighten a fly.
–He is a child, the priest added with authority. What is there to fear from a child.
The son-in-law stood there, hat in hand, thinking. But Father, he said. If it wasn’t El Santo Niño—bless his name—what was it, then?
–I do not know, the priest admitted.
–Oh Father! María Apícula cried. It is coming for you! Just as Cochimí Juan foretold.
Fr. de Cabecera felt a sudden apprehension. Do not talk nonsense, he said.
–Sail away from here, she cried. Go tonight before something happens.
The priest swallowed. I will go when it is my time to go. I am not afraid.
–Of course he is not afraid, Don Buenaventura said. He is only standing there with his hand upon his neck.
–Absurdity, Fr. de Cabecera said. But he peered into the open door of the church and María Apícula went back to blessing herself.
The next morning, everyone in San Ignacio was talking—the cattle ranchers and the keepers of the shops and the sailors who had deserted their whaling ships and the two Frenchmen who believed in liberté and their Mexican wives and all the people of the town. They were talking about whether the peripatetic Santo Niño de Atocha and the coming death of Fr. de Cabecera were connected.
–I do not feel ill, the priest insisted. But still some of the women clung to him and cried.
–An accident, Father, they said. What about an accident?
Fr. de Cabecera could not get any work done. Everyone looked at him with sympathy and he felt that no one was taking him seriously. He decided to take matters into his own hands. He decided to visit Cochimí Juan at the hut where the old man lived at the edge of town.
As the priest walked down the street, the people came out of their homes and raised their hands to him in a strange kind of salute that he had never seen before. María Apícula came out of her house and stood weeping into her shawl as he went by.
–Wait, Father, she called.
He went over to her. Stop your crying, he said. As you can see, there is nothing wrong with me.
–Oh, Father, she wailed. Don Buenaventura and I wanted to give you a fandango before you sailed.
–Well, give it then, he said. Nothing is stopping you.
María Apícula saluted him and hid her face in the shawl.
At last he came to the final hut. Cochimí Juan was sitting outside under the shade of the palm-leaf portico, smoking tobacco. He offered a cigarillo to Fr. de Cabecera, who took it and rolled it back and forth in his fingers.
–Hello, Father, Cochimí Juan said. I see that you have not died yet.
The priest sat down and came to the point. Do you consider yourself a sorcerer? he asked.
Cochimí Juan blew two streams of smoke through his nose.
–Because it is against the law of God to consort with sorcerers, Fr. de Cabecera said.
–I am not consorting with sorcerers, there aren’t any left to consort with.
Fr. de Cabecera fiddled with the cold cigarillo. And it is wrong to tell the future, he said.
–That may be so, Cochimí Juan said. Forget I said anything, Father. Wash it from your mind.
–Then you recant what you said?
–I recant it, Father. How fortunate for us that you will be around for a long time.
–Not very long, the priest said.
–A shame, Father, a real shame.
–What do you mean, a shame.
–Just that, Father.
The priest crushed the cigarillo under his sandal and turned to go. But then the man uttered a little noise behind his back. It was like the sound of pity, the clucking of a tongue.
–You did recant what you said?
The priest fingered his Adam’s apple. He is teasing me, he thought. No man can predict the future. He walked away. But he could feel Cochimí Juan’s eyes on him. It was as if he could see, without looking, the old man watching him and blowing smoke through his nose. Damned old charlatan, he thought. Tomorrow I will show these people what a priest is for and put an end to this whole business.
But before he retired for the night, he went into the church and checked to see that El Santo Niño was sitting properly in his niche.
Before dawn, the priest climbed the steps to the belltower. He surveyed the town. A warm wind was blowing. Stars were bright in the black fabric of the sky. The moon shone on the great copper bells, green with age and hanging austerely in their arches. He looked down upon the sleeping streets with satisfaction and took up the bell rope.
He pulled the rope and pulled it some more. He pulled with gusto. The low notes rang over the tops of the palms, across the arroyo, and out to the dark volcanoes that fringed the town. He woke the whole village and with pleasure he watched the people straggle out of their homes and into the plaza and to the steps of the church.
–What is it, Father? Don Buenaventura called.
The priest hurried down into the sanctuary and the people were waiting, rubbing their eyes and blinking.
–He is certainly no Father-of-the-pillow this morning, someone commented, which broke everyone up.
–Now listen, the priest said, trying to regain the solemnity.
He led them to the niche of El Santo Niño, which was vacant. The statue now rested in a glass coffin, the kind used to parade the saints in festivals. El Santo Niño lay in state, with a tiny silver padlock affixed to the lid of the box.
María Apícula looked concerned. I don’t think he likes it in there, she said.
–Can he breathe? another woman asked.
–Maybe make a little hole, the son-in-law added.
–I am not going to make a little hole, the priest said. I have placed El Santo Niño in the coffin to dispel this fantastical myth. To show you that he is not going around at night and there is nothing to fear.
–I can make a little hole for you, the son-in-law said.
–And another thing, Fr. de Cabecera went on. This business of the old Indian’s prediction. He has renounced it. So let that be the end of it.
The people looked unconvinced.
–And do not refer to me as Father-of-the-pillow.
The next morning when the priest had finished saying Mass, the air in the sanctuary was thick with esteem. No one made a joke of any kind. The people surrounded him. Children clasped his hands. Young men looked shy and waited for their chance to speak to him about their beloveds. Mothers pushed the young men forward. Young women stood near with coy faces and pretended they didn’t know what the young men were about to do. Fathers stood around the edges, hiding smiles behind the canopy of their moustaches and remembering their own young loves.
Fr. de Cabecera was enjoying the whole thing when he happened to glance to the rear of the church. A figure stood in the shadows, beside the bright square of the doorway, bent over slightly so his head came straight out from his back. Like a vulture, the priest thought. Like a damned zopilote hanging about, trying to unsettle me.
He wheeled around. I will hear confessions, he told the crowd in a bright voice.
–Are you all right, Father? María Apícula asked. You’re as pale as wax.
–I am fine, Fr. de Cabecera said. Stop looking at each other like that.
When the priest dared to glance at the back of the church again, the figure was gone.
–What is it, Father? Don Buenaventura asked.
Everyone turned around. They all looked toward the glass coffin where El Santo Niño de Atocha lay smiling benevolently at the ceiling.
–Never mind, the priest said. You should all be thinking about your confessions. Once I am gone you will wish you had the chance to unburden yourselves. You will remember how fortunate you were to have a priest.
He hurried past El Santo Niño to the back of the church. He stepped into the wooden confessional box, the small and creaky animal stall bedecked with red squares that corralled images of angels and saints and devils. He plopped down on the bench and pulled the curtain closed. One by one the people knelt beside the screen. The sins were all familiar—the petty thefts, the boring liaisons, the uncharitable thoughts. He fell into a rhythm and the ritual fell from his lips. María Apícula came and cried a little but restrained herself, and Don Buenaventura had trouble being somber but did his best. Fr. de Cabecera gave light penances and everyone thanked him and blessed him. He was just reaching for the curtain when a shadow fell across the lattice.
–It has been one year since my last confession, a voice said.
Fr. de Cabecera felt a sudden chill. What do you want, he said.
–Why, simply to confess.
–Then kneel down.
–I am already kneeling, Father.
–Yes, well, make the sign of the cross.
He could see the hand moving and he hurried on with rehearsed speech: When you last confessed, did you omit some sin because of shame? Have no fear, because even under pain of death, I am bound to tell no one.
–Under pain of death, Father?
The priest’s hand went to his throat and he felt the giant lump of his Adam’s apple plunging as if to push something out of the way. He suddenly thought of all the things that could happen to him. Things that could snuff out his life like the stub of a wick. A ship lost at sea. A sliver of bone caught in the throat. A thorn piercing his foot, blacking out his leg and then his life. It is coming for you, María Apícula had said.
He rushed on at random: Did you act reverently at Holy Mass? How many times were you talking with others, sleeping, or making signs at the women? You must confess everything, for every man must die, but he does not know when.
–All right, Father. There is something.
The man leaned into the lattice. Fr. de Cabecera could make out the moving lips, and smell the tobacco upon the breath. The words slipped through the little holes and came into the booth like smoke.
The priest sat back and clasped his hands. I knew it, he said. You admit before me and before God that you lied.
–Yes, Father. I lied about lying.
–I told a man that I had lied. But I did not. So I lied, about having lied.
–What kind of nonsense is this. The priest put a hand to his forehead.
–What is the matter, Father. Have you fallen ill.
The priest snapped upright. No, I haven’t fallen ill. For God’s sake.
–May El Santo Niño bless you, Father.
–El Santo Niño. Why do you mention him.
–I am very devoted to all the saints, Father.
The priest swallowed. Tell me without any of your strange contortions. To whom did you lie?
The man was silent. But the priest could see the form of him, could hear the dry, rattling, tobacco breath.
–Well? the priest said.
All at once a group of children came rushing into the church, chasing a dog and squealing in mock horror. Fr. de Cabecera saw the figure rise and move away and he could hear the stamping feet and the scrabble of nails on the stone floor and the barking, and the laughter and commotion went out and grew faint in the open air.
–Don’t you wish to hear your penance, the priest called out. Don’t you wish to be absolved. Here, one act of mercy, and . . .
But he was alone. He came trembling out of the box. He wiped his brow and went to the door and looked out. White clouds with gray undersides spread their wide shadows on the ground and on the hills. The dog clicked up the steps and sought to slip inside. Fr. de Cabecera blocked it with his knee.
He could see Cochimí Juan moving down the street, the children laughing and hanging from his hands. He was just an old dilapidated figure who rocked from side to side as he walked. What is there to fear, the priest told himself. Soon I shall be gone.
In the late hours, the priest cloistered himself inside his study to read. His poor poisoned predecessor—que en paz descanse—had kept a comfortable room. He had left behind a telescope to look at the stars, and a water clock with a bell to awaken him in the night for prayer. He had ledgers where he wrote in slight feminine hand about wheat, and corn, and how many cows, bulls, mules, and donkeys. He had a rough desk hewn from mahogany, transported all the way from Honduras. And he had shelves and shelves of books. There were books on architecture and theology, books on astronomy and diet, and small tomes of verse that stirred the higher thoughts in a man. There were books on animal husbandry and books about herbs, on metallurgy and diseases of the blood, and one little book simply on filigrees. Fr. de Cabecera added his own books of prayer and books on seeds, and a book about cacao that served him no purpose but reminded him of the cloister at Merced.
He was disquieted and annoyed at his own disquiet, worn out from doing good for a people who made light of him. Whatever he did, or said, they seized upon it as an excuse for ridicule. They would never think of blessing me for getting up at all hours, he thought. For being at every man’s disposal. No, Father-of-the-pillow never sleeps!
Why, without a priest they would be blissfully content. Left to their fandangos and intrigues. They are hooked on any commotion. Hoping even that something terrible should occur. Did they know what he had left behind to attend them? What any priest had?
He got up and paced the floor. I should ride away tonight. What would it matter? Some time at the coast awaiting passage; all could be explained later to the bishop and—he dared think—there is always absolution.
He poured himself a glass of wine. He swallowed it and poured himself another. They will congratulate themselves for having driven me away, he thought. And to think that in some other place I might have done some good. Why shouldn’t I leave tonight?
But then he should ever be a mockery. Father-of-the-pillow who feared the very Christ Child. They would all have a good laugh. The stories might even follow him to Merced. Rather than Father-who-is-the head, he would be remembered as Father-Feet, or Father-Flight, or something worse.
He went to the door and pulled the leather latch to the inside. A line of weak moonlight showed beneath the shutters. He swallowed and listened to the sounds outside the window. He heard horses whickering and nightbirds in the fruit trees and an old woman’s voice drifting across the plaza and another answering it.
He sat down at the desk with his bottle and a dark volume before him. It had a greasy spine and frayed page-ends, wrapped in a black cowhide that was beginning to crack. He drew the candle close and bent low over the pages. There were women tied to stakes with flames like fat foxtails reaching to their waists, and men cowed at the feet of jaunty, high-booted executioners. There were whole groups of martyrs in flames, their arms stretched away from the heat. There were poor men extended on racks and hung from trees, and an image of a man with a single arrow shot clean through his throat. There was even an image of a child being stoned, pitted and pitiful face looking up to the sky. Underneath each figure appeared a tiny inscription, something like: He thus received the crown so richly merited, or, She was welcomed into the court of the Heavenly King.
He leaned back. He had dribbled wine on himself. The dark droplets bloomed against the white tunic. He stood and went to the pegs where the clean garments hung, pausing to touch the gentle folds of the chasuble, shining with its flowery golden grapevines.
He looked around the room. He could abandon it all without a care. They have not learned a single moral lesson that will not fall away the moment I am gone. And mockery on top of that.
He was a fallow vineyard, a barren branch to be lopped off. He had not so much as a single grape to his defense. His throat went dry. No wonder El Santo Niño was coming for him. The hour of his pruning was at hand.
Suddenly something tapped. He saw a shadow move across the line of moonlight under the door and he could hear the scraping of feet in the dust.
His voice was small and stuck. Another tap came, and another. The tapping grew loud and insistent. He tried to rasp out a warning, and he tried again and at last his voice found purchase and he cried: Who is it?
Suddenly the jovial voice of Don Buenaventura echoed through the door.
–Good evening, Father! he called. Share some wine with me? Come to my rooms! Do not spend your evening alone!
The priest opened the door. He stood shivering in the blotted tunic, his fingers pressed over the stains.
–I see you have already begun! the mayordomo exclaimed. He took Fr. de Cabecera’s arm and led the priest to his compartment, settled him in a chair beside the great fire, and poured him a glass.
–What is distracting you, Father? Don Buenaventura asked. Come now, let me be your confessor!
Fr. de Cabecera settled back. Here in the sitting room, the tallow candles warming the walls with yellow light, the red wine and the happy creak of the chair under his host’s vast cheerful restlessness—his troubles seemed absurd.
–It has something to do with that old Cochimí! Don Buenaventura cried. Admit it, Father! When there was no priest, I learned how to read men as well as any cleric. Don’t tell me his predictions have made you anxious!
–No, Fr. de Cabecera said. And in any case, he renounced it as a lie.
The priest swallowed and added, But of course even without a renunciation, no man can foretell the future.
–I am not so certain, Don Buenaventura said. What about our former friar, may he rest in peace!
Fr. de Cabecera felt something lodge in his esophagus. He reached for his glass. A little panic crept over him. He had seen cows with growths in their throats, lumps that eventually choked and killed them. He wondered if the same thing was afflicting him. He hadn’t remembered that the prominence on his neck was so large. Had it always been so? He couldn’t swallow. He gathered some saliva and forced it down and took another swig of drink.
Don Buenaventura leaned close and stared into Fr. de Cabecera’s eyes. All mirth was gone. Take care, Father, he said. He lifted a finger and emphasized every word: I urge you, take very good care.
Fr. de Cabecera fingered his neck.
Don Buenaventura laughed a hearty laugh and slapped his leg. I speak in jest, Father! he cried. Give that prediction no credence. Oh, your face, Father!
The priest laughed weakly and Don Buenaventura poured him another glass. Don’t worry, the mayordomo said. If something happens, we’ll bury you with all the fanfare we can muster. Pillow and all!
Fr. de Cabecera could not sleep. He walked the town. The families were in their homes and he could hear laughter drifting up from the inner courtyards. He loitered outside the wall, straining to hear his name, but could make nothing out. A man came lurching up the street, tilted on drink. The priest pressed into the shadows and waited for the man to pass. What good did a sermon ever do.
He circled back. At his doorway María Apícula stood huffing and half folded-over. Father, she cried. El Santo Niño is gone.
–The coffin is gone?
–The coffin is there. El Santo Niño is gone. I couldn’t sleep, I went to pray. The lock is fastened tight and he is gone.
The priest’s hand went to his throat. That old Cochimí, he said. Playing a trick on me.
He pushed into the room and tried to shut the door but the woman followed. She plucked at her chin hairs, in her anxiety determined to rout one. No, Father! she said. That statue has turned vindictive, I can feel it. Bury it! Bury it and go away from here tonight!
Fr. de Cabecera wiped his hands on his robe and attempted a joke: How can I bury it when it is missing.
–Bury it when it comes tap-tap-tapping back to find you, María Apícula said. She snatched up the candle, grasping it like an aggrieved spirit, and looked furtively into the night. It was beyond any masquerade of which she was capable. He peered into the darkness. His dread began to rise.
Suddenly she grasped him and hung from him. Don’t go, Father! He pried her loose and she gripped the corner of his tunic and he nearly toppled.
He pulled free and straightened himself. His hour had come.
–Return home and wait, he said.
–No, Father, she clucked.
He tried to pat her shoulder and the gesture came off wrong. He tapped her a few times and said, I am your priest. I am telling you to go home.
She clutched his hand and kissed it and looked to cry again and he spun her away.
He went out. A cat skittered sideways as he went by. Alone in the night, his resolve disappeared and he glanced about. His hair stood prickling. The church glowed white in the moonlight, its windows round, vacant eyes. He was swallowed by the dark mouth of the door as he went in.
The air was cool and it swirled about him like a vapor. He shivered and crept through the nave. The saints in their niches were watchmen and every one of them waved the palm leaf of martyrdom; with upturned eyes they yearned to fly from the agony of their pedestals. His feet shuffled and echoed in the high chamber and the cold was like a curtain to be pressed through.
–Santo Niño! he cried. Doves scattered to the high windows, fanning the air, flapping and settling. His voice rebounded, calling to himself. He covered his ears.
He passed the empty niche of El Santo Niño and the vacant coffin. Candles caught the glass and became myriad.
–Santo Niño! he cried again. A bat flickered out and he stumbled back. It was only a juvenile, no bigger than a wrinkled date. It flitted up and disappeared into the blackness.
He looked ahead. El Santo Niño de Atocha was there, perched on the first step before the altar. Fr. de Cabecera trod forward. The gilded saints watched from their frames.
El Santo Niño smiled. He held the basket and the staff. The embroidered crimson cape lay about his shoulders. The frilly collar of his blouse was starched and his feet were tidy in their sandals.
Fr. de Cabecera stopped. So there are no prisoners hereabouts, he said. You come to torment me instead. Not a single captive anywhere to be found?
El Santo Niño did not answer. The feathers of his fluffy plume fluttered in the unseen currents of the candleflames. The priest came closer.
Its facepaint was cracking. The amiable red lips in shards, the terrazzo cheeks, the dark eyes rent by veins of white, as lightning. Fr. de Cabecera stood before the saint—revered and ridiculous—and was beheld by him in turn. The priest saw in the eyes a benevolence that terrified him. The gaze was keen; the basketed hand extended. He detested the charity he perceived there.
–You dare to pursue me! he cried. He gripped the statue, rattling it by the shoulders. One of the arms gave way; he could feel it flopping inside the puffed sleeve. He flushed with rage and ferried El Santo Niño back to its niche. He sat the statue hard upon the wicker chair. One of the eyelids closed and opened.
Fr. de Cabecera turned away. He marched down the aisle, dusting his hands on his tunic. He hove the door shut behind him and strode down the steps. Through the side courtyard and the little garden and past the rooms of Don Buenaventura, rooms that should have been his, the large ones adjoining the sacristy. His own narrow door was ajar. He pressed his fingers to his forehead; a vein was raging there. The world slipped into fog. He pushed against the door. María Apícula and the son-in-law rushed to him.
–Father, María Apícula cried, blessing herself. You live!
–Are you all right, Father? the son-in-law asked.
Fr. de Cabecera tried to speak but found he could not. A peculiar, bird-like sound emerged instead. He drooped into the chair, listing to one side, rudderless. He felt he was slipping underwater. The man and woman rippled before him, righted, and floated away again. He paddled with hands like tight little boxes that could not be opened.
In the coming days, everyone from the town visited the sickroom of Fr. de Cabecera. The shopkeepers. The sailors. Women of dubious repute. Young men and their young loves. The Frenchmen who believed in fraternité. The son-in-law. María Apícula, who brought a little pillow covered in tears and stitched prayers and wellwishes. And Don Buenaventura, who sat by the bedside of the priest and comforted him with jovial stories and spoonfuls of wine.
The people brought little gifts: baskets of brown sugar and chocolate and soft cowhide slippers and their confessions. They changed his bedding and cooled his brow and succored him with broth. Fr. de Cabecera lay with eyes and mouth open, scarcely blinking, watching the people in a state of wonder at the many hands upon him.
As for Cochimí Juan, he did not visit the ailing priest. Ailing himself, he went north and found himself at the coast where some other Cochimí were living, and he settled with them. Strictly speaking, they were not his own people, but there was a shared understanding, and they welcomed him. There were other old men there. They spoke of things of import like the changing skies, and what prophecies they knew, and the future of the people, and the need to hold fast together, as they were doing this very moment.
A. Muia lives in Skagit Valley, Washington. “The Coming Death of Father-of-the-Pillow” is part of a novel-in-stories set in Baja California, Mexico. Other chapters have appeared in Image Journal and Zymbol Magazine.