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Shrouded in his brown Franciscan robe, Father Timothy Riordan stepped out into the sharp, dry cold of early morning to look at the stars. The sky, moonless and clear, gave no hint of dawn. He stood still in the rectory courtyard, eyes raised toward Polaris. Then, looking like a medieval monk performing some occult ceremony, he turned slowly left to right, taking in Orion as it fell toward the western horizon, the Dog Star blazing low in the south, Spica hovering over the Sierra Madre, where the sun would rise in two more hours. Completing the circle, he tracked the Dipper’s pointers back to Polaris.
He’d read somewhere that six thousand stars were visible to the unaided eye; here in the Sonoran Desert, far from city lights, the air so transparent he could have imagined himself an astronaut on the moon, there seemed to be ten times that many: a profligate splatter of glittering worlds, each a window into the mansions of God. That was how he liked to think of them, even as the astronomy enthusiast in him knew that if they were windows into anything, it was the past: the light striking his eyes had begun its journey to Earth when the Roman Empire fell, when men were painting images of bison on cave walls, when dinosaurs wallowed in Jurassic swamps.
Did these contrary views of creation suggest a mind at war with itself? Riordan didn’t think so. Observing the heavens produced an awe akin to a religious experience: behold the eternal, behold the shoreless ocean of space and time; and the constellations’ procession along the ecliptic—stately, harmonious, predictable—had the same soothing effect on his soul as the drone of Latin chant.
The habit’s cowl slipped to his shoulders, exposing his cheeks and ears to the chill as he turned again, this time from right to left. He ended with his gaze once more on Polaris, the north celestial pole. These rotations had become, in recent months, like the ritual of an obsessive-compulsive; he felt that if he failed to perform them, dreadful things would happen. That dreadful things continued to happen anyway hadn’t convinced him that this practice was a superstition as futile as a rain dance. He entertained the possibility that it worked a kind of prophylactic magic, preventing still greater evils from afflicting his parish. Mexico had taught him many truths. One of them was: Things are never so bad that they can’t get worse.
He returned to the rectory, made coffee, and, holding the steaming mug in both hands to warm them, went to his room. It met the standards for Franciscan austerity—narrow bed, desk, armoire, bookshelf, walls bare except for a crucifix and a shell painting of the host and chalice—though Riordan wasn’t austere by nature. The knotted cord girding his waist was supposed to bind him to a life of self-denial, but physical pleasures—the smell and savor of pollo mole Actopan, the burn of a good bacanora, the wind chafing his face when he opened up his Harley on a paved straightaway—often made the spirit’s struggle with the flesh an unequal one.
He switched on the space heater—the rectory’s thick adobe walls seemed to produce cold rather than merely trap it—made his bed, then read his breviary, his cowboy boots clomping as he paced the clay-tile floor. He liked wearing cowboy boots; they made him the six-footer his driver’s license falsely claimed him to be. Though he’d kept all his hair—uniformly gray except for a few reddish strands streaking both temples—he’d lost nearly an inch in height since his ordination, twenty-six years ago, and now stood exactly five ten and a half in his stocking feet. Everyone shrinks with age, Lisette Moreno had told him; the spinal disks compress under the prolonged pull of gravity. He’d joked with her: What would happen if people lived as long as turtles? Would gravity eventually crunch them down to the stature of six-year-olds? Would we live in a world populated by wizened dwarfs?
Finished with his breviary, he dragged the glowing heater over to the desk and fired up his laptop to read over the homily he’d composed last night. He was distracted briefly when his eye fell on the desk photograph of the Riordan clan, taken at his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. They were the very picture of Irish Catholic fecundity: the elderly couple surrounded by eight children and twenty-two grandchildren, a population recently increased by two. Riordan stood on the far left, the absence of a spouse and kids making him appear isolated. His mother and father had that hale and hearty look seen in billboards plugging retirement communities for “active adults” with images of shined-up gray-hairs swinging golf clubs or riding mountain bikes. They were in their mid-eighties now, his father recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, his mother with rheumatoid arthritis, both bound for some assisted-living facility lying beyond the golf courses and bicycle paths. “We’re rounding third, and home base is a hole in the ground,” his father had written in his last letter (not an e-mail, a letter, handwritten in a spidery script). The universe delights in change, Riordan thought, recalling something he’d read in Marcus Aurelius. Old age and death were nothing more than change, and therefore not to be feared. Dad might find that a debatable proposition.
The homily. He would deliver it at today’s Requiem Mass, the Missa Defunctorum. He considered the Latin more appropriate; as far as their earthly existence went, the dead were defunct, all right.
Only two of those he’d buried recently had died of natural causes in the fullness of years. The others, like the two young men to be interred today, had been booted out of life well before their time, usually by a burst from a nine-millimeter or a cuerno de chivo—the AK-47. The lucky ones, that is. The luckless had been tortured to death or burned alive. Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy. The Lord better have, because it was in short supply around here.
He’d said so many requiems that his sermons had become variations on a theme, like the one he was reading now: messages of assurance, of comfort, of hope borrowed from Scripture or from Shea’s Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. “We cry out, why did Ángel Reyes and Hector Díaz have to die so early in their lives? All we can say is that they were called to heaven for our Lord’s own purposes, and all we can do is pray that He will forgive their sins that they shall be justified on the day when the Earth dissolves in ashes.”
He didn’t believe his own words. There must be something else he could say, closer to the truth.
Two days earlier, a detachment of paratroopers had attempted to quell a demonstration in the town plaza, a protest against the orders to disarm the pueblo’s autodefensa, its citizens’ militia. A gun went off—whose, no one knew for sure—and the soldiers opened fire. Whether they’d shot over the heads of the crowd or into it was another thing no one knew for sure. The former, Riordan figured, because Ángel and Hector had been watching the demonstration from up on the bandstand when the paratroopers’ rifles cracked and the bullets found them.
He stared at the screen, as if expecting the laptop to write a revision automatically. What would it say if it could? If they’d been standing a few inches to one side or the other, they would have lived, that’s what; therefore, the Lord had not summoned them for His own inscrutable purposes. Their deaths had resulted from the random convergence of the bullets’ trajectories with their positions in the plaza. That was the truth, but to declare it would be to rob their families of all solace. It would be to tell them that they lived in an absurd universe. Or in a universe ruled by a God as careless of human suffering as the stars Riordan had gazed at this morning. No sparrow falls that the Father does not see it. But it falls regardless, so what difference does it make if its fate is observed by the eye of heaven?
A second after that heretical thought, his organs seemed to liquefy and spill out of him. Doubt was the antidote to complacent self-righteousness; lacking doubt, there could be no faith, as there could be no courage without fear. But this sudden emptying wasn’t the physical manifestation of doubt. This was how it would feel to lose his faith entirely. How it would be to live in the absence of God. Mexico, drowning in a blood-dimmed tide deeper than any Yeats had imagined, the sicarios killing as much for kicks as for money (And why not? he thought. Might as well enjoy your work), was testing his faith. That struck him as … what? Strange? Peculiar? Ironic? The conversion of the Americas had begun in Mexico. He’d seen the fact proclaimed on the gilt-edged pulpit in its first church, La Señora de la Asunción: la evangelización del nuevo mundo comienza aquí. And hadn’t the late Pope proclaimed Mexico to be semper fidelis? Yet this nation ever faithful was putting his faith to the test.
He silently recited the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary, begging forgiveness for thinking that God did not care for His creatures. He prayed for his faith to be strengthened. Then he printed his homily and read it a second time, hoping the words on the page would ring more true than they had on the screen. Of course they didn’t, but they would have to do.
* * *
The church of San Patricio de las Colinas was large enough to merit a full-time cook and a house cleaner. Their services seemed extravagances to Riordan, not in keeping with a Franciscan’s dedication to a life of humility and poverty, and for a while after taking over as pastor he’d considered letting them go. Father Hugo Beltrán, the parish vicar, opposed him, arguing that the two women, though humble and poor, had not taken vows to those conditions of life. Wasn’t it more Christian to give them some pride and income by providing them with honest work? “Besides, you are not so humble and poor as you think,” he’d said. “One who is humble and poor does not ride a motorcycle with so much chrome as yours.” Riordan wasn’t sure if it was the bike or merely its chrome that brought the vicar to this conclusion. He agreed to keep the women on, but only if he and Father Hugo cooked breakfast for themselves and for the Resident, the man everyone knew as the Old Priest.
This morning was Riordan’s turn, as it was most mornings—Father Hugo had once tried to fry an egg and had incinerated the yolk. Riordan had learned to cook years ago, when he was studying in Rome, to spare his finicky palate from the dismal fare served at the North American College.
He grabbed an onion and a tomato from a wicker basket and placed them on a cutting board.
“Would you dice the tomato and onion?” he asked, turning to Father Hugo.
The vicar did make a decent prep chef; he wielded the knife skillfully. When he was done, Riordan scraped the vegetables into a cast-iron skillet, ignited a burner on the propane stove, and set a wind-up timer.
“Five minutes, no more, no less,” he said, and sat down at the kitchen table, which was thought to be as old as the church, its heavy planks, fissured and time-darkened, bound with iron clamps. The Old Priest sat beside him, wrapped in a serape over a wool cardigan, his brown, blue-veined hands quivering, either from cold or age.
“We are going to have a full house today,” Father Hugo said after a silence. He sounded like a rock impresario.
“For the wrong reasons,” Riordan said.
“What reason can be wrong to fill a church?”
“A funeral for two boys shot to death.”
“You would prefer everyone to stay home?”
“I would prefer—” Riordan began, but he was interrupted by the timer’s ding.
He rose, allowed the onion and tomato to cool for a minute or two, then broke six eggs into a bowl, adding a little salt and pepper, half a cup of grated Parmesan, and a sprinkling of oregano. He whipped the mixture into a froth, dumped in the vegetables, poured the lot into the skillet, and placed it on simmer.
“And what kind of omelet are we to have today?” asked the vicar.
“You are untrainable,” Riordan admonished, with gentle humor. “Observe the flame.”
“Forgive me, maestro. A frittata. An omelet is cooked quickly over high heat, a frittata slowly over low. Also, it is not flipped and served as an oval. It is served round, like a pie.”
“Exactamente! Perfectly round. And the top is cooked like so.” Riordan removed the skillet from the burner and slid it into the oven, under the broiler. “For no more than one minute.”
Sixty seconds later, he pulled the skillet out of the oven. After letting it cool for another half a minute, he sliced it into thirds, lifted each wedge out with a spatula, and filled three plates.
Father Hugo led them in the blessing. With mincing care, he cut his frittata into bite-sized squares. He was a small, bald man with lazy black eyes and a profile that could have come off a Mayan frieze: the sloping forehead, the prominent nose.
“What do you notice?” Riordan inquired, after he’d savored his creation.
“It is firm but not stiff and dry. An omelet would be creamy.”
“You pass, Father Hugo. I’ll train you yet.”
“You were saying that there is something you would prefer. About filling the church.”
I would prefer not to talk about it, Riordan thought, feeling his jovial mood dissolve. But he spoke anyway.
“I would prefer that our parishioners come for the love of God or from the fear of God or even to give themselves something to do for an hour than to bury a couple of eighteen-year-olds.”
Father Hugo bowed his head between his upraised hands to concede the point.
“I’m sick of funeral masses,” Riordan went on in a louder voice. “Sick of burying people I should be marrying.”
“Yes, of course…”
“And I’m sick of saying the same thing in different words. That they were called to heaven, as if God had something to do with it.”
“Ah, it’s your lack of originality that troubles you?”
The vicar’s dark eyes sparkled with pleasure at what he considered a clever remark. Riordan brushed it aside. “No God that we worship can possibly have anything to do with what’s been happening here. What’s been happening all over Mexico.”
“Are we to have a seminary discussion? How do we reconcile the existence of evil with our loving God?”
“The Hebrews solved that one.” It was the Old Priest, speaking for the first time that morning. No one knew exactly how old he was; people joked that he’d said the first Mass when the church’s construction was completed, in 1785. He himself had never revealed his age, though with his dingy gray hair cut in a monkish bowl and his gray beard and a face as creased and dry as brown wrapping paper, he had the look of a biblical patriarch. “There was the kingdom of Yahweh, and the kingdom of Azazel, where the sins of the people were sent,” he continued, his voice thin and fragile. He folded a tortilla into a triangle, then bit off a piece and pulped it between his yellowed teeth. “On the Day of Atonement, sacrifices were made to Yahweh, but also to Azazel. He received the sins of the people. All their sins for that year were laid upon the scapegoat, and the goat was led to a high place in the wilderness and flung to its death.”
“Giving the devil his due,” Riordan said.
“I think that maybe Mexico has become like Azazel’s kingdom. She crawls in sin.”
“No more than anywhere else,” Father Hugo said.
“It has been said, hasn’t it, that Mexico is cursed because she is too close to the United States and too far from God?”
Beltrán shut his eyes and tilted his head backward to signal strained forbearance. He thought the Old Priest was getting soft in the head. “That’s been said, yes, and much too often. It means nothing.”
“Maybe he has a point,” Riordan said, recalling the sensation of a divine abandonment that had come over him earlier. “Think of these atrocities. Is it enough just to kill somebody? Oh, no. The body has to be dismembered, decapitated, eviscerated.”
“The newspapers say that it is done to intimidate. That is how each cartel terrifies its enemies.”
Riordan agreed. That was what the newspapers said. And the TV. And the radio, all attempting to explain the inexplicable. But what they were really doing was denying the unacceptable.
“What are you talking about?” asked Father Hugo.
“To maim and mutilate to intimidate your rivals is barbaric, but it makes a kind of sense,” Riordan answered. “What’s going on now … the bodies the state police found in the van last month, heads and arms chopped off. Those people weren’t narcos—”
“Yes, I know. Migrants,” said Father Hugo, with a dour look.
“Exactly. Migrants heading north. Kidnapped and executed when their ransoms weren’t paid. That’s more than barbarism. It’s delight in barbarism. That’s what Father was saying.” He inclined his head toward the Old Priest. “And it’s what the newspaper will not say, so they invent this nonsense about terrorizing one’s enemies. It’s inhuman, it’s demonic.”
“But the Beast has been defeated,” Father Hugo said. Whether he was being sincere or uttering another ironic comment, Riordan couldn’t tell.
“He seems to be holding his own in Mexico,” Riordan said. “Sixty thousand murdered in six years! Tell me, if it’s not the work of the devil, then how does a country that produces Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes produce people capable of such things?”
Father Hugo stood and rinsed his plate in the sink. “In the same way that the country that produced William Faulkner produces maniacs who massacre people in cinemas and schools.”
“I knew you’d say something like that.”
“What did you expect?” Dripping a little venom into the question. “A gringo has no standing to lecture about the evils of violence.”
Riordan had been the pastor in San Patricio for four years. But, he thought, he would always be the gringo here, the stranger who usurped the pastoral seat from a worthy Mexican, like his vicar.
“I wasn’t lecturing,” he said. “Remember what happened to our police chief three years ago.”
“Who can forget it?”
“It was thought through, it was planned.”
“Your meaning is…?”
“The sicarios who did that were not crazy. It was an insane act committed by sane men.”
“Cómo se dicé in inglés? A distinction with no difference?”
“There is a difference. It’s moral insanity. And it’s spread all over this country. A spiritual epidemic.”
“What happened the day before yesterday was very tragic, but it wasn’t sicarios who did it. It wasn’t an act of insanity. It wasn’t deliberate. It was an accident. The soldiers fired over the heads of the crowd.”
“It would seem not high enough,” Riordan said.
* * *
Father Hugo’s forecast had been accurate: In every pew people sat shoulder to shoulder. More stood in the back. Still more would have jammed the side aisles if those weren’t blocked by scaffolding. Up until a few months ago, painters and artisans had been restoring the chipped and faded murals of saints and biblical scenes and the inevitable Virgin of Guadalupe. The project had been suspended because the workers came from elsewhere, and the roads into San Patricio had grown too dangerous to travel, even in daylight. Halting the work was a bitter disappointment for Riordan. Beauty, the harmony of shapes and colors, fostered harmony in human beings. He believed that as deeply as he believed in the communion of saints, though he lacked even the flimsiest evidence to support either proposition. The statuary and artwork in this church was said to rival that in the church at Xavier del Bac, in Arizona. His friend and fellow Franciscan Kieran McCarty had overseen its restoration, an achievement Riordan hoped to emulate here. He clung to that hope as much for his parishioners’ sake as for his own. They mustn’t think he’d given up. That was why he’d ordered the scaffolding to remain in place; to take it down would signal surrender as surely as lowering a flag.
Two simple pinewood coffins, closed because the bullets had cleaved both boys’ skulls, were laid end to end at the foot of the altar. The Díaz family occupied the front pew on the right side of the aisle, the Reyes family on the left. Hector’s and Ángel’s mothers, dressed in mourning, sat primly, hands folded in their laps, faces blank.
Riordan led them and the congregation in the act of penitence, and as sometimes happened when he recited the words “in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” the face of another dead young man flickered in his memory and he beat his breast in the thrice-repeated mea culpa with more sincerity than usual. I, too, crawl with sin, he thought. I am marinated in it.
César Díaz, wearing a dark suit jacket and a white shirt too small for his neck, went to the pulpit to deliver the scriptural readings. He had a bulldog’s nose and a cratered face, but his voice, an orator’s, diverted attention from his looks. He read the passages from Ezekiel and Romans as if he were addressing a crowd through a bullhorn. “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise.… If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall live with Him.” César, owner of a walnut orchard, head of the agrarian union, and chief of San Patricio’s autodefensa (vigilantes, they were called in the press), was probably the reason the church had been filled. Parishioners wanted to show him respect. Then, too, his nephew had fallen to army bullets. If Hector and his friend had been killed by La Fraternidad—the Brotherhood—there probably would have been fewer mourners. You did not want the cartel to think you grieved for its victims, lest you become one. But the army was a different story. The soldiers, even though they could play rough, were under some restraints, so people were not as afraid of them.
In the choir loft, the organist played the notes to the “Alleluia,” the congregation sang it, and Riordan, garbed in black vestments, took his place at the pulpit to read the gospel—from Luke, chapter 7, “In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for comfort, but of thee, O Lord”—followed by his homily, with its recycled sentiments. The Credo followed, then Communion, then the concluding rites. “May they rest in peace,” he said, looking past the coffins at the congregation. Townspeople mostly, a few Indians from the foothill villages, faces dark and secretive. “May almighty God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you…” Thinking, Will He? Because he didn’t doubt that a few Brotherhood spies had infiltrated the service, keeping tabs on things. Those young men whose gold rings flashed as they sketched the sign of the cross with hands that had blood on them. “Go, the Mass is ended.”
César signaled the pallbearers, who shuffled out of the pews, hoisted the coffins, and led the recessional down the center aisle. Outside, they loaded the coffins into the bed of a Ford F-350 that would serve as a hearse. In the plaza, in crisp winter sunlight, helmeted soldiers wearing ski masks stood in pairs, rifles slung across the fronts of their armored vests. They’d been cheered as liberators when they’d rolled into San Patricio less than two weeks ago; now the churchgoers eyed them with mingled fear and hostility. Riordan stood at the front doors and watched his congregation atomize, scattering across the plaza and down the streets angling from it like a wheel’s spokes.
Only Hector’s and Ángel’s families, sorting out who would ride with whom to the cemetery, remained on the church steps. César shook Riordan’s hand and thanked him for his most excellent sermon, a great succor for his sister-in-law, Lupita. Riordan cringed inwardly at what he thought was an undeserved compliment. “Come with me, Padre Tim,” César said, donning a straw cowboy hat. “There is a thing I need to ask.”
A few minutes later, his vestments exchanged for what he called “clerical fatigues”—a black jacket over a black shirt with white Roman collar—Riordan rode in the Ford with César at the head of the cortege. They proceeded slowly down cobblestoned Avenida Obregón, past colonial houses with pastel façades and iron-barred windows, then the Hotel Alameda and Quiroga’s bakery. César did not speak until they reached the tin-roofed taquerías and llanteras near the town limits.
“I raised Hector like my own son, since my brother’s death,” he said. “To lose him like this…” He made a sound, not quite a hiss, not quite a sigh, to indicate that he couldn’t find the words. “I would like you to have a talk with that officer, that Captain Valencia.”
“Me? What would you have me say?”
“That if he wants our collaboration, he should apologize. Not to me only. Not to the Reyes family only. To the entire town. There was no need for his men to open fire.”
César’s pickup labored up the steep grade to the cemetery, as if it were towing the cars and trucks behind it, and then followed the road in its circle around the headstones. Colorful flowers, some real, some plastic, adorned the graves of others Riordan had buried. Most were under twenty-five, except for the police chief and two constables, slain in a Brotherhood ambush, and for a narco who had managed two unusual feats: he’d lived past forty, and he’d died not from gunfire but in an auto accident. He’d had enough money to rate a small marble tomb. A banner fluttered over it—NAZARIO, YOU ARE WITH US ALWAYS—and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, placed there on the Day of the Dead, two weeks ago, stood upright at the entrance, in case his soul needed a drink.
César parked, his grille nearly kissing the rear of the last vehicle in the line, not a line now but a ring of metal forming, as it were, a protective barrier around the graves. Two fresh ones had been dug in the Díaz and Reyes family plots, each a miniature necropolis enclosed by low stone or cinder-block walls. The plots were side by side, which would allow Riordan to stand between them and conduct a single service for both boys.
“Why don’t you speak to Valencia yourself?” he said to César.
“He’d arrest me before I could open my mouth.”
“It would be a job for a mayor, if we still had one.”
“But we don’t. Besides, you are more respected than the mayor ever was.”
“Not by Valencia, from what I’ve heard. It is said that he has no love for priests.”
Outside, men were removing the coffins from the Ford’s bed. As the mourners began to exit their vehicles, grackles burst into flight from the trees, like dark blossoms torn and flurried by a strong wind. César opened his door to climb out, then paused, a foot on the running board, his hat brim casting a shadow across the lunar landscape of his face.
“We don’t want him to love you, only to listen,” he said. “This Valencia has ambitions, I am told. He’s overdue for promotion. If he can be convinced to work with us instead of against us…”
“I understand,” Riordan said. “Let’s talk about it later. It’s time to bury your nephew.”
* * *
Funeral masses and graveside rites, all the ceremonies of mourning, blunted the sting of irrecoverable loss; but once the last hymns and mumbled requiems had fallen silent, it struck like the pain of an amputation after the anesthetic has worn off. So it was that the sight of the coffins lowered by ropes into the raw graves and the thud and rattle of stony dirt striking the coffin lids tore from Hector’s and Ángel’s mothers primal cries of grief. There was no need now for the decorum they’d shown in church. They were in the deepest realms of sorrow, where sorrow, gorging the throat with its bile, can be tasted. Though they were only in their early forties, recovery would take more years than they had left to live.
Anna Reyes was embraced by her husband, who tried to look strong and stoic; César held Lupita Díaz as she let out a howl, there on the hilltop, under a sky cold, blue, and void. Riordan’s familiarity with such lamentations did not make them any easier to bear. He heard clearly a hopelessness in the women’s shrieks, and it made him question how deeply they believed in the consolations of his sermon. I am Death, I have taken your sons from you forever was the voice they heard now. For the second time that day, Luis sprang into his mind. He recalled how he’d felt, reading about Luis’s death in a three-paragraph story deep inside the newspaper. Nothing even close to what these two women were suffering, but it allowed him to participate, however faintly, in their anguish. César, one arm around his sister-in-law’s shoulders, led her toward his pickup. When she was inside and the door shut, he glanced at Riordan, who whispered, “I’ll try to see Valencia. But surely you don’t expect an army officer to apologize.”
“I have learned not to have expectations,” César said.
Copyright © 2017 by Philip Caputo