This is the next chapter of my serialized novel The Romance of the Village of Solución : A Serialized Novel August 8, 2013. All previous chapters are available on the blog, beginning with August 8 post (link in the masthead). Subsequent chapters are individual posts. This book was begun and an entire first draft completed around 2000/2001. It is being rewritten and edited chapter by chapter and posted here.
The Little Priest
Of course, all of this, the death of the woman and the jumble of grave goods, and all the pining and suffering, took place long before the time that the little priest came to town. I was never certain how much time had passed between the founding of the village and the coming of the little priest. These stories, of course, are of mythic quality thus time is flexible and ahistorical. They are quasi-sacred texts and as such, things that happen in them transcend ordinary categories. Still, there is physical evidence that both the little priest and the founder of the village were genuine, that is to say, real people. There were, after all, until the fire, the fresh roses in the church every morning and, on one wall of the chapel, an icon representing the priest himself. And the original bean pot, though a bit chipped and cracked, was enshrined in a Plexiglas case in one corner of the sanctuary next to a painted plaster image of the Virgin Mary. People could buy little tin replicas of the bean pot at a little store near the church. It was said to improve one’s cooking if hung near the stove.
The little priest was a small man, they told me. They said he was not much of a man at all to look at him. He wore a workingman’s jacket, oily and stiff as if fresh from some sea facing town on the south of England. It was a brown streaky jacket covered with loops and brass buttons and hanging all over with knives and pots and colorfully enameled holy pictures engraved in tin. He wore dark trousers. They were dusty and frayed around the hems of the legs. Small bits of thread and torn cuffs stuck out around his brown ankles. He wore no shoes, but his feet were soft looking with clean toes and immaculate toenails. They looked as if they had been brushed and manicured each time they were in evidence. The joints of each toe were smooth and regular not gnarly or knobbed as one might suspect of a well traveled walker. Nevertheless, appearances aside, he had clearly been treading upon these feet far too long for there were dark cracks like webs of spiders around his calloused heels.
He had a round, brownish orange face with a smile so gentle that he looked a bit like a grinning pumpkin. No, this was not a menacing pumpkin look. There was nothing alarming or mean about the man. His very dark hair was slightly wavy but thinning on the top and he had a pronounced widow’s peak. His hairline was clearly receding though he was not yet thirty. His eyebrows nearly met in the middle of his forehead, but he never seemed to frown or bring them all the way together. Never were these eyebrows, as the expression goes, knitted. His face gave the impression that he was a blank but kind man, easy to be sitting near, and happy to be comforted by. The skin on his cheeks was smooth and fine but dimly scarred as if he had escaped disaster as a youth. He talked quietly and slowly and moved his hands with grace and ease to touch a child or lick a spoon of custard or lift a sweet tart to his mouth. The smallest finger on his right hand crooked just slightly when he held a fork or took a bite of flakey pastry. He laughed easily, quickly, and sincerely. To see him sitting in the plaza brought to mind sunlit hills of dried prairie grass or moonlit sand.
When he arrived in the village, he noticed, of course, the plaza full of crosses and the twin’s grave and the sister’s grave and lay down on his back just beside these graves. He pulled a blanket from his pack. It was a woolen, mostly red blanket, Navajo by the looks, with broad angular colored bands that depicted difficult journeys. Tales of twin heroes were woven along the edges. Bits of yucca fiber stuck out from the woof here and there. Someone’s hair and someone’s father’s tooth were visible, inserted by the weaver in the warp. It seemed a bit odd for a priest to have such a blanket. But people let this thought go, there was so much more about him to provoke their curiosity.
He placed the red blanket over all his body and his head, having arranged a gourd and some pieces of frankincense and lumps of copal and a tin bowl full of water near him. He lay there murmuring words in Latin or some other lost archaic language.
Of course after all these generations, what he said has been through the equivalent of the telephone game. Some told me that what he said was:
“Jesus Christ commands me to come to you with a message of hope.”
Others say that he said:
“Jesus Christ is not the messenger for whom you hoped.”
Obviously, the difference in these two utterances was the subject of long discussions in the village plaza. The men were most particularly interested in arguing about what the man really said, and were still doing so in the late nineteen forties when I came to do my fieldwork. Women seemed content to simply accept the fact that either way, the village itself was perpetually in grave trouble.
Everyone did agree in the retelling of the story that no one present at the time during which the little priest actually spoke claimed to understand him or dared to translate. It was only much later that some said they had followed his meaning and these few passed on their apocryphal translations to their own family members. These highly idiosyncratic reports, given forth long after the event, account for the vast differences in the tales people relayed to me. In fact, it is from this early period and as a result of these various understandings of what the little priest said, that I came to divide the villagers into three recognizable camps so far as their belief systems might be categorized at all. There were those villagers who could be said to have hope, those with no hope at all, and those who simply asked many questions and really believed very little about anything including the very idea of hope. Matilda, as you will see later, was one who fueled the perspective of the latter group. Rose, as you will come to understand, was clearly from the branch of villagers who had an abundance of hope.
In any case, the little priest lay there for days under the red blanket all the while murmuring in his strange, largely untranslatable tongue. Birds came down and sat upon his chest, led, it seemed, by a blue Mexican Jay. Dogs came and drank the water in the tin basin by his side. Villagers came and sat beside him listening and praying, for it was still in their memory, the passing of the bean-cooking woman. It was still fresh to them, their inexplicable, but ever present, sense of loss. They wanted something to fix it all. Perhaps, they thought, this little priest has been sent to do that.
As they became accustomed to his presence, and the odd became normal, they slept and ate by him.
Indeed, they brought their dinners in grand hampers. They brought their snacks. “Pass the chicken,” some said to others. Or, “give me some more salsa.” Or, “I’d like an ear of that good, sweet corn you have.”
Someone began to sell parched corn in little parcels wrapped in cones made of yellowed paper which had come to them from travelers or been found in old trunks, wrapped around glassware from the old country. Other vendors sold tortillas and tamales. More food was cooked in giant cauldrons as the crowd grew. Pit latrines were dug outside the plaza walls near the cornfield. Wash stations were established. And still the small priest lay and muttered on and on and on.
They sat, no longer silent, and gossiped by him. Children ran in circles on the graves of the twins. Some children screamed into the priest’s ears to see if he would awaken or move. “Get up, get up,” they called out. Or, “There, over there, is a large devil come to get you.” Or, they would simply jump onto his chest to see if anything could move the man.
Then, on the third day, a small band with elegant dancers on a tour came from Chihuahua. The troupe played and danced gaily on the plaza and entertained with stories and with jokes. Money was thrown at them.
While they danced, the little priest began to mutter but more loudly than before. His voice was more fervent, his tone more impassioned. People fell silent. Dancers stood frozen, mid step. Food was taken out of chewing mouths and placed on plates as people bent forward, trying to hear. Children were shushed.
It seems to me highly unlikely that a priest in trance would call out such ridiculous aphorisms. Nevertheless, I report what I was told.
A woman, one of the graying, bent doñas from the canyon, came and moved her hands across his body. Her hands began to shake. Harder and harder they shook; like two fluttering doves they shook. That was on the fourth day. And, now, he muttered again
“Oh,ayyah, oh omnia vinceat amor,” he called out in one of the more convincing statements attributed to him.
On the fifth and sixth days, the woman’s hands still fluttered and the priest muttered on. But now even the muttering was common place. More bands came and played, and children screamed as they charged at each other and gave chase to skinny dogs and frightened cats. Someone sold religious medals from a makeshift shop. Someone grilled sausages over an apple wood fire. Ah, the air smelled of maple and saged meat and the scent of spring blossoms. In fact, the stories about the little priest are as much about the smells of food prepared while he lay seemingly comatose as about his actual miracles.
People made love in their best picnic clothes. “Oh my darling Rosa, how I love you,” a young man would say, inexplicably caught up in a feeling he could not resist and all the while nibbling an ear of corn. “Oh my sweet Jose,” a young woman would say, “how beautiful you are to me” while dipping into a bowl of beans. And that would be that. Clothing was spoiled, reputations made and broken, and all while the little priest muttered on.
Then, without notice, on the seventh day, the little priest gave up muttering and stirred slightly. The blanket became animated. The priest threw it aside. He was glowing like a comet tail and the smell of roses filled the plaza. “Ah, roses,” Jose said as he plunged into the neckline of Rosa’s dress. “Ah roses, Rosa said,” as she played with the belt on Jose’s trousers.
On that seventh day, the woman’s hands fluttered once more then flew away and were never seen again. Other women patted her tortillas and dressed her hair from that day on and an image of her with stumpy wrists was painted and placed in the church where it could be seen until recently. At the base of the image were two delicately hammered tin images of hands. Fresh roses appeared before her image every day and pilgrims often spotted tears running down the face of the icon from her sad, weary eyes. Every year, from then on, around the time that the miracle of the flying hands had happened, women made tortillas cut into the shape of hands and delivered them to the sick and needy. But that was later after the venerated woman had died. What happened at the time was much more compelling.
You see, the little priest rose up just as the hands flew over him. He himself seemed to float, his feet not actually touching the ground, as he moved among the people dragging his blanket behind him. There was a soft rattle as he moved, a gentle clanging of knives and pots and of the holy pictures hanging from his clothing. The people all stopped of an instant what they had come to do here on that day. Sausages burned for no one moved to turn them over or remove them from the grills, children stood stalk still without being told to, and all gossip ceased mid-sentence. Lovers let each other go and stared at what seemed to be very like a ghost hovering, yet moving slowly in great circles round the plaza.
The little priest moved about and eyed each one present that day with love. He gave each one a rose from the bundle that appeared mysteriously from his garments. Many villagers brought out family bibles and showed me the rose an ancestor had received pressed and preserved inside the leaves of the book. These roses the little priest gave out had grown, in those seven days, out of the pockets of his oily jacket. They were perfect roses all in perfect bloom. They were red and pink and yellow. They smelled of heaven, ash, and sage. The smell of the sage was that sweet smell of desert sage after a hot rain.
The bands and dancers sighed and all went home that day feeling blessed and ready for a much more settled life across the border in Mexico. The vendors and the children and all the people of the village built a church for the little priest. They carved delicate roses into altar screens and onto bearing posts and on the vigas and the doors. The petals of the wooden roses were so carefully done that light the color of caramel shown through them. They created an extravagant altar and gave up life savings to gild everything with gold foil.
Solución in the time of the twin and the little priest was a Solución I’d have given anything to have experienced. There was, apparently, still something that resembled a spirit or a soul then, at least among a third of the villagers.
From what the villagers had been told and what they subsequently told me, things became more and more difficult for everyone quickly. Hard as the little priest had tried, lovingly as his church was built, the village did not thrive. When he died, crops began to fail, babies were not born and eggs began to fly through windows of the village houses and even those of the church itself. Walls of the houses became quickly black and had to be white washed two or three times a year.
But while the priest lived, before the twin sister died, nothing really horrible had happened. Yes, there was sorrow and doubt, but none of the really inexplicable tragedies had occurred. I mean, no one had, for Christ’s sake, died of ant bites in bed, the way Lucia did in the late eighteen hundreds. There had not been flu pandemics. The brutal winds from the north, the winds that would not stop for six months, had not hit the village. People had not suffered the invasion of the stinging flies that would not die.
So I will continue. It was all so long ago.
Next: The Ghosts Come
 “I believe it because it is absurd.” From a passage in Tertullian known variously as anti-intellectual, philosopher, and church “father” 160-225 A.D. I suppose the priest might have had access to his work in seminary.
“I carry all my things with me.” This is from Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems . It was popular in the 16th and `17th century. Clearly the little priest had read the book.
 Love conquers all