Keeping the faith in an unwashed land.
April 24, 2016
THE WORLD AS HE KNEW IT lay dying around him, and the peon had only faith to quench the thirst that gnawed like a thorn in his throat and refused to go away. He could not spit it out. He could not swallow it.
He knelt in the darkness and gazed up at the Cristo that hung in agony upon a wooden cross behind the altar of the little chapel of El Cerrito de la Santa Cruz.
The face of the Cristo bore the scars of torment, its mouth gaped open in a silent, twisted, hopeless plea for water. All the world cried for water. The peon bowed his head. The statue – the one his people called Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno – understood his troubles.
He believed it.
He had to.
There was nothing else to believe in, not when thirst gnawed like a thorn in his throat and refused to go away.
He stood and, in the dim light of a late afternoon, the peon looked closer at the faint inscription on the 1798 painting of a priest who held the blessed Cristo in his arms. And he read of how the tiny presidio on the dry bed of the Rio Grande had ached for water then, too, but had not felt the mercy of rain “until Jesus arrived.” The words were a comfort to him. They held hope in a land that seldom knew hope. Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno had never left them. It would not let the people of the desert land suffer forever. It had compassion.
So why was he hurting now, the peon wondered. He began to smile, and the peon had not smiled for a long time. He stumbled out of the chapel and trudged home to his thirsty children who cried themselves to sleep because the mesquite sapling water buckets were empty again.
The summer sun had reached down and squeezed the moisture from a baked and barren landscape that shuddered around the tattered edge of Presidio. The Rio Grande had become nothing more than a muddy wallow, and the sky found no clouds to relieve its misery. Only the nights brought shade.
Men cursed, and they deserted the land that had been deserted by the rain. The storekeeper of Presidio watched them go and packed to go with them. He had no other choice. He had gambled on a godforsaken patch of Western Texas ground, and it had beaten them all.
The land had cracked beneath them. Prayers had been swallowed up by an empty sky. He wondered why the peon could keep on smiling, and the storekeeper decided that the burning sun was driving them all mad, and his eyes were swollen with a fever as hot as the sand beneath his feet.
“The rains will come,” the peon told him.
“I don’t have time to wait.”
“You must keep praying.”
“That’s like throwing good money after bad.”
“Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, he will not forsake us.”
The storekeeper laughed. He had heard the strange tales of the Cristo just beyond the river near Ojinaga, but he never believed them. He knew he couldn’t always trust the superstitions of the peons.
The storekeeper didn’t put any faith at all in the miracles of a wooden statue that had become worn with age. He was much too learned for that. All he could ever prove was that the Franciscan Father Pedro Antonio had actually walked into the desert and left the holy figure behind in 1790. He had been told that the hair and the fingernails of the Cristo still grew and had to be trimmed, but he ignored the stories as babblings of old men who had nothing better to babble about.
The peons swore that during the pain of famine, the statue walked the fields at night to call down the rain and bless the ground. The storekeeper merely shook his head with a certain amount of sorrow and despair.
He had seen them die of starvation, still waiting for the Cristo to whisper their prayer for rain. Their crops were burned and wasted in an unquenched land. He hurt for them. He had no intention of dying with them. Come morning, he would be gone.
“The Cristo came to protect us,” the peon told him. “You must have faith in it.”
“It’s just a statue,” the storekeeper argued, all emotion drained from his voice. “It’s as worthless as the wood it’s made out of.”
There was a sadness buried deep within the peon’s eyes. “But it refuses to leave us,” he said softly.
The storekeeper nodded and kept right on packing. He had heard of the priest who believed the statue too beautiful for the poor little church in Ojinaga, who had crated it up and tried to carry the Cristo to the Bishop in Chihuahua.
But somewhere along the way, the mules balked and would not pull the wagon. They lay down in the trail, and lightning cut angrily across the sky, and a great wind rolled with thunder across the desert floor. The priest would simply say, “The image does not want to go to Chihuahua. It wants to stay here. It will never allow itself to be removed from Ojinaga.”
Maybe it was a miracle. Maybe the statue did want to remain in the poor little church that was its home. Then again, maybe the mules had become frightened by the storm and were only acting like mules.
The storekeeper rubbed his graying beard and wiped the summer sweat from the creases around his eyes. He also knew that some peons whispered of a good and handsome stranger who once walked the streets of Ojinaga and never grew old, who lived among the poor and healed their sick for a hundred years.
One morning, they awoke and the young man was gone. When the peons entered the little church, they saw the image of the stranger hanging in agony upon a wooden cross behind the altar, its mouth gaped open in a silent, twisted, hopeless plea for water. And they worshipped him. And they said he made it rain. The peons, if nothing else, could tie their last hope to a superstition. It was all they had.
The storekeeper knew better. The time had come for him to move on along before someone finally buried him beneath a parched land that cried for water and cried in vain.
That night, the peon went again to the chapel of El Cerrito de la Santa Cruz. He was hoping for a sign. After all, he remembered his father telling him about Pancho Villa’s soldiers who fought their way into the church in 1912, then tore up the benches to make beds.
They were sitting beneath the image playing cards when one looked up and saw tears running down the wooden face and blood oozing from the wounds beneath the crown of thorns. The Villanistas fled in fear. They would soon be dead.
Now perhaps the Cristo would give the dying peons – the faithful – a sign of hope. The peon looked up and gasped. His hands trembled, and he fought hard for his next breath, having trouble finding it. A chill cut through him like the blade of an ancient dagger. He heard a scream and realized it had been torn from his own throat.
The Cristo was gone.
By morning, a sudden storm had torn through the misty veil of an unclouded sky and swept ominously across the desert. Rains hammered the bleached prairie, and the Rio Grande was flowing wild again.
The storekeeper awoke uneasily to see the peons running – some stumbling and others crawling – toward the little chapel. He followed, though he had no idea why, as the warm splinters of water splashed down upon the fevered blisters that burned and tormented his face.
The sky above him was gray, and the sun had hidden its face behind a thunderhead boiling purple, then a black shade of green, just above a gnarled stand of mesquites in the west.
The storekeeper pushed his way inside the chapel, then he, too, fell on his knees. His hands trembled, and he fought hard for his next breath, having trouble finding it.
A chill cut through him even though his face was awash with sweat. He gazed upon a holy image whose vestments were wet and who had goat head stickers embedded in its robe.
Its mouth no longer gaped open in a twisted, hopeless plea for water, and its wooden feet were caked in mud as though they had been walking in the fields at night when the rains finally came.