If you have not been following along (and who has?) you may enjoy these chapters for themselves or you may wish to go back to the beginning and read forward.
The church was no longer simply a place of worship and wonder, but something that had to be approached with a certain wariness. People who had heretofore been merely superstitious and prone to read meaning into every event were now terrified of their own shadows and peered upwards at ceilings and lintels as they passed through doorways. There was no one who was fully at ease.
Consuelo lay in her (now much lengthened to accommodate her several years of growth) walnut bed after her horrible mishap. Its leaves wrapped tenderly around her, but she didn’t heal. Sophia, who ministered to her everyday, declared that she suffered from, in addition to her many wounds, vagotonia, an irritability of the vagus nerve. The symptoms of such were clear to Sophia, who spent days consulting her books. The child sometimes complained quietly of very cold arms and at other times suffered from heat. She was often drenched in sweat no matter what the condition of the ambient air. Sometimes it seemed she had no blood circulating through her fingertips and these then turned a dark blue. Sophia covered these sweet, small hands with woolen mittens and massaged them vigorously.
But there was more.
Most dreadful of all was the fact that Consuelo could not see.
And as a consequence this trauma and the state of her dearest Consuelo, Juanita never had another menstrual period after the day of the accident. It must be said that it was the time in her life that this cessation of flow might be expected, but nevertheless, there are, remember, thought to be no simple coincidence in Solución. This inability on the part of Juanita to never henceforth bear a child seemed to be, to those who heard of it, part of the curse.
Rumors about the whole incident and Consuelo’s condition flew, of course. The stories were, though worrisome, endlessly fascinating to villagers and each teller added details to make their particular tales the more beguiling to listeners. Also there was an unspoken competition among the residents. Each wanted to have been the only one to see this or that or to have heard such and such. Each wanted to be the special friend to whom a particular morsel had been passed on.
Some claimed to have seen a mysterious visitor, all dressed in black and bearing a basket of beans, when they passed by Consuelo’s home that morning. Others said they had seen lightening in the clouds high over the Sangre de Cristos just as Sophia appeared at her window. One said a devil had been seen cavorting on the roof of the church just moments before the loud crash was heard from within.
Villagers reluctantly tore themselves away from their gossip, their books, their snacks, their story telling and their lazing about and took to repairing the church as soon as the dry season was upon them. They made new adobe bricks; they mixed earth with water and pounded and pressed it into molds. They removed molds and set the green bricks out to dry in the sun until they were baked solid. They lifted the bricks, nearly forty pounds each, and slowly rebuilt the back wall and reinforced the roof itself. They mixed mud with straw and kneaded it by hand and filled gaps and covered all the new work. They plastered all over the wall and the roof. They mixed ground gypsum and white washed each wall. They lifted the great altar and replaced and repaired Santos and posts and mirrors. They applied paint where paint had chipped away. They once again, like their forebears centuries ago, gave up their meager savings and purchased and applied gold leaf where gold leaf had been loosened and spoiled in the mud.
But no one could do anything to repair Consuelo. She lay quietly. She never complained. She did not cry out. She didn’t move.
Sophia consulted all of her old journals and wrote to other Eclectics far and wide. She made visits to healers in neighboring villages for advice. She even called Eclectic headquarters in Cincinnati from the public telephone exchange in the nearby town of Purgatoria. She tried all the remedies she had learned over the years. She ground mesquite to a powder then placed the powder in a wet cloth and squeezed the liquid onto Consuelo’s eyelids. She rubbed her sweet crumpled body and the still open wounds with a decoction made from snakebroom. She brought all of her wisdom to bear in her efforts to heal Consuelo. Indeed, she stayed up night after night mixing this herb and that. She prayed until she trembled with exhaustion
Consuelo was also prayed over by other women of the village. They donated old dresses so Sophia had fabric with which to make clean poultices and fresh strips with which to bind the cedar splints to her broken arms and legs.
Consuelo was often held Sophia’s arms, her lips gently parted, and given willow and aspen tea to sip. Mugwort tea for energy was dripped slowly between these dry lips.
Still Consuelo was for the most part silent and still. No one was surprised that Sophia seemed not to be able to heal Consuelo. Sophia had no control over what had come upon the Consuelo and she would have no control over what would ultimately happen to her. Consuelo’s trials probably contained some message, yet to be worked out, for all of them.
After a while, even with their public belief in fate, the women, secretly blamed themselves just a little for their neglect of the church. They pooled their resources and hired someone to look after it from now on.
They hired Matilda, “The Toad,” to be a kind of seneschal. She was someone’s mother’s cousin returned from a trip to the outside world that had lasted several years. They called her “The Toad” because of her numerous, quite evident, warts. She had a warty face and warty hands. Her feet fed warts. Her knobby knees had several warts on each. Her ears were warty. Even her breasts had warts, some large and hairy. Her hair was thin and modestly pulled back and pinned at her neck. Her light brown face featured high and prominent cheek bones. Her dark, wide eyes were set deeply into the dusky hollows under her forehead. She could have been a model for a dia de los muertos candy skull except that she was dark and far from sweet.
Now, returned from who knows where, she was nearly thirty and without immediate kin or funds. She needed housing and she needed work. So she was hired by the women and given a small room attached to the back of the church to call her own.
The church was also hers in a manner of speaking. She was to care for as if it were her baby, her child, and her most precious possession. She swept and cleaned it every day, polished pews with bees’ wax, dusted pillars with long handled mops, scrubbed floors on hands and knees, and checked the roof each day for signs of cracks or weakness.
Wherever Matilda had journeyed, it seemed to have caused her to take up odd habits indeed. For example, Matilda was a living chapel. All over her apron and her striped cloth coat and full cotton skirt were pictures. All up and down her sleeves and on her breasts were pictures. These small pictures were beautiful, colorful little enameled miniatures encased in hand-hammered tin frames. These were lovely portraits of people, men, women, and children, painted with tiny, delicate brush strokes on copper or ivory (though not a few had been done of chicken-skin and one or two on mere cardboard). These, it turned out, were likenesses of villagers who had died many years ago. Or they were pictures of people with whom Matilda had once been acquainted but who had themselves gone away from the village and not returned. She herself had made these portraits in her years of absence, having trained herself to be a miniaturist as she traveled here and there and having called upon the memory of those she had known and lost as her subject matter. How astonishing was the beauty of these images in contrast to the lumpy, warty visage they adorned.
On each miniature was a single, carefully calligraphed question: “Donde Están?”. The question, written of course in her own cramped hand, was a plaintive one, indeed. Because, you see, despite Matilda’s service to the church, her faith was weak and this question was not rhetorical but sincerely asked. She wondered everyday while sweeping and while oiling woodwork in the chapel. She wondered while carrying the trash and renewing holy water and scraping candle wax from floor and altar. She wondered to herself: “Where, oh where, did dead ones go?” She wondered if each has a soul. She wondered that if each had a soul, was this soul of substance or of spirit. Most of all, she wondered where the souls went. So she wore her questions on her clothes and hoped, someday, to have answers. Indeed her clothing created a sort of heirophany or manifestation of the sacred for the villagers, not unlike the 16th century Voronet blue monasteries of Moldavia which, in lively cartoons, told the story of the Last Judgment. The villagers of Solución, like those ancient Romanians, did not respond well to abstract theological questions but were stimulated to excess by pictorial symbolic universe. Matilda was nothing if not that. Matilda, in her aprons and copper and ivory pictures became a living altar, never quite a part of the profane world, always forcing her queries as she walked about the village.
Matilda was not a likely candidate to carry the burden of this problem of the nature of the soul and an after life. She was in every other way a pious, simple seeming woman. She kept a cross tucked into one hand and kissed it frequently and firmly. A lively portrait of Mary in a blue veil was stitched onto the pocket of her canvas vest. In the pocket she kept a hankie and a bit of celery root or cinnamon to chew on while she worked. She had few failings and no known kin or animals to live with her, though it was rumored that a familiar cat slept under her bed but never showed itself to anyone but Matilda. And though she was in a constant state of consternation, musing, as she was, about the nature of the soul, she dared not speak of it as we shall see.
The villagers considered her to be the answer to the mystery posed by Consuelo’s tragedy. Matilda’s presence in their lives, they believed, finally revealed the meaning and message of the whole event. It is easy, in retrospect, to trace the compelling sequence that will help you to understand why so many of the people of Solución came to accept Matilda as God’s messenger as they did and why Matilda’s aprons and vests presented such a compelling, God sent, damnable challenge to them.
As inhabitants of Solución saw it, if the village had not been plagued for centuries by spirits that frightened them, the women would not have slept in heaps. If the women had not slept in heaps, the women would not have neglected their duties. If the women had not neglected their duties, the adobe on the roof would not have failed. If the adobe had not failed, the rain would not have entered the church. If the rain had not entered, the altar would not have fallen. It certainly would not have fallen during the time that Consuelo was kneeling there praying.
And, the icing on the cake: if Consuelo had not been struck, there would have been nothing to feel guilty about and the women would not have hired Matilda. There would have been, for the villagers, no daily encounter with a walking assault on their already rocky faiths. Thus the question of the nature of the soul and what happens after death would never have been raised. By the logic of the villagers, it was the very spirits who had plagued them all along who were responsible for Consuelo’s blindness and ultimately the questions raised by Matilda’s presence. As the villagers saw it, they deserved Matilda. She had been sent as a consequence of centuries of faithlessness to confront and test them and their beliefs once and for all.
The test had to be met. There was no turning back. Now the women and the men and even small children worried and wondered at their futures in new ways. With no priest to guide them, no answers to Matilda’s questions were forthcoming from any authority. So some people lived inside the boundaries of a fiery fear, as strong as the one the women of generations past had felt but also different. And the advantage of this new fear was that it didn’t require giving up any old ones. No, this new fear was a fear of something they’d never thought to fear before: this fear was for their mortal beings and of a hell that surely awaited them for doubting. The answer many if not most found was simple: they became apostate and embraced a purely secular life. There was no point to anything, they came to believe. It was this condition in which I found most of the villagers when I began my fieldwork.
Though Matilda’s pictures and questions were odd and challenging enough for any reasonable village to endure, there was something even odder about her with which the people had to contend.
When Matilda was spoken to, you see, she repeated in full what ever it was that was said to her. She repeated what she heard, but more loudly than the speaker had spoken. In fact, she repeated others’ utterances very loudly indeed.
Sometimes children came up behind her while she swept or while she rubbed the altar rail. These rascally children whispered nasty things. “All the village is damned to hell and the fuckers who live in it will burn through eternity,” they yelled behind her back. And she, without intention, repeated at the top of her lungs, “All the village is damned to hell and the fuckers who live in it will burn through eternity.” The bad children snickered quietly from their hiding places as Matilda repeated these nasty things, always quite loudly, in the church and before the Holy Mother. It gave them particular pleasure if a villager were coming in just then to pray and heard Matilda’s words. No matter how often they had been told of her affliction, none could stand to hear these kinds of things spoken in the church. And they never could stop the little boys from teasing Matilda in this way.
Matilda could not, you see, help herself. To her complete dismay, when she was addressed by the children, her lips moved and her voice yelled out: “I am a shit head. We are all shit heads. Oh Fuck, Fuck, Fuck.”
The children laughed and ran out of the church. Matilda would kneel and cross herself. In her mind she knew what she had said and she prayed to be relieved of this burden of odd speech. And yet, though she believed in her heart that these words were not hers, she also wondered if her affliction was sent upon her as a punishment for wondering about things she shouldn’t and for causing doubt among the other village people.
At the end of each day of work, after the torment of the children, she was exhausted. She returned to her little room to eat cold bread and tinned cheese and perhaps a piece of fruit. She fell asleep in tears atop her tiny cot and braided bedspread.
You might see now why her faith was weak and why she prayed incessantly and why she wondered where souls go. You might understand better why she wondered what souls are. She was tormented in the day by children and in the night by her own questions. She lay, sometimes in sheet-soaking fevers, and got up every night to record her visions and her questions and her fears, as many saints before her had done.
January 6, 19….
He appeared to me again riding on a silk blanket and wrapped in a dark cloud. As he passed over my head I could see the wounds and the blood dripping from his palms. He called out to me, “Sister Matilda. Do not fear. Your secrets are safe with me. Tell me lots more. I really enjoy hearing from you.” I thought this a strange thing for the Christ to say, but answered, “Oh Lord, I would tell you more if I was sure I could trust you.” At this, he turned into a frightening thing, a massive black bear with teeth bared and claws snatching at the air. He also had wings, large things like fans. I knew then that I had almost been fooled. It was the very devil asking me for my soul.
Her tired, warty fingers were thoroughly calloused by her nightly writing so that they were hardly able to grasp her grandmother’s ancient ink pen. Yet she wrote, and wrote in a fine hand.
We would have all, I believe, liked this Matilda Toad very much. We would have admired her clean small room and pretty braided bedspread. We would have found her quaint and studied all the pictures on her clothes and wondered at this archive that she kept upon herself. We might have found her seeming religiosity admirable. We might have believed her willingness to question sacredly held beliefs an indication of great courage on her part.
But though we might have admired her, we could not have talked with her. We could have had no dialogue or conversation. You see, she would have simply echoed our own words.
“Good morning, Matilda. Would you care to sit and have some tea?”
“Good morning, Matilda. Would you care to sit and have some tea?”
“No, my dear, you are Matilda. I asked you first.”
“No, my dear, you are Matilda.”
“YOU are Matilda.”
“YOU are Matilda.”
She would look sad and tired. We would be incapable of getting off the merry go round.
Though she would look us in the eye and raise an eyebrow or provide entertaining inflection, the words that would come back would always be our own no matter how hard we tried.
It can be unsettling to hear your own words coming back to you. It can be much more unsettling to hear them come back almost immediately. You would have wondered along with me if Matilda was simply mocking us. It could seem, this repeating, to be mocking. The less secure of us would hear our words as foolish and our vocabulary a reflection of our stupidity. We might learn to speak fewer words or to weigh the need to speak more heavily and perhaps to fall into silence all together. And so it can be said and thought that Matilda had a generally dampening effect on conversation in the village except among those who found it amusing to hear Matilda say things that they themselves found in someway to be taboo.
If we truly wanted to have tea with Matilda, we would simply lead her by the hand to the tea table. We would refrain from asking, “sugar?” because her retort would be, “sugar?” No, we would learn to lift the bowl and pass it under her nose.
But what if Matilda initiated conversation, you might ask. Matilda stuttered so badly when not repeating another’s words that she could not be understood at all. The stutter was born of the fear that the words arranging themselves in her throat, on her tongue, and by the curves and puckers of her lips were not hers at all. She was so unsure of her authority in speech that she kept silent.
So the leaky roof led to the downfall of Sophia, the blindness of the baby, the prominence of Matilda in village consciousness, and a village full of fearful, doubting, mostly silent and largely secular people. This was not a pleasant village. Once again, the watchers thought surely no one would stay under such circumstances. Once again, they were wrong.