THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ

 

BOOK THREE:  BOOK of the PACIFICATION

 

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

 

          Padre Juliano was, in fact, mortified when told of the General's decision to house his convict labor in the church. The unceasing arrival of prisoners and their equally abrupt exits from the world had made of Santa Cruz, for him, a spiritual Hell on earth. His faith reeled, despair closed around him. During the campaign he had felt his soul uplifted by being part of a crusade, a penetration by the righteous into the heart of Satan's abode. But with victory had come confusion. The darkness of Chan Santa Cruz had not dispersed at the arrival of the Mexicans, it had but yielded, regathered and, by degrees, now threatened to envelope them all. Resistance to this moral decay was as futile as firing bullets into the ocean.

          During the rainy months, when the sheer numbers of a convict population that cried for deliverance that could not be extended... save through death... exceeded that of the Army and Yucatecan Guard combined, the priest fell into despair. For a time, he masked this under the guise of a missionary's zeal. The presence of so many heathen souls... whether of gente de razon led astray, or the submissive, yet spiritually chaotic Mayan refugees... led him forward, like a pitiful insect beating its wings against a flame. He pleaded to the General to allow the prisoners to attend Sunday Mass but Bravo refused, his hold upon the colony depended on the fatigue and dispersal of its population; the evening confessionals permitted to the captives went scantly attended due to sheer exhaustion. It seemed that the ingrates acknowledged their labor and Bravo's lash sufficient payment for their sins, and some even publicly embraced eternal damnation, as only logical in the cosmology of Santa Cruz del Bravo. So the Padre paced, and studied Scripture long into the night for a clue, rereading, also, the accounts of his predecessors going back to the sixteenth century; the learned deLanda, who had commanded the history and literature be brought to him for recording and revision before it was consigned to the flames and, further north, Father Sahagun's comparison of the attributes of the old Mexican gods with the heathen immortals of the Greeks and Romans.

          He ravaged these old books for grains of inspiration that would unlock the souls of savages and open them to Christ but this, too, was like shooting water. The docility with which the indios mancos accepted and asserted every tenet of the Christian faith offended him as much as the scorn with which the prisoners rejected it; worst of all were the sanctimonious avowals of Bravo’s officers that doing their duty of Christianizing the territory by force exempted them from the maintenance of their own immortal souls. And in the mornings, after nights of rain, hours before the sun gained height, he would turn to his books and find a black and green mold that smudged and befouled his fingers.

          The influence of Miguel Chankik remained constant only in its unpredictability. The old man had done all that he vowed, he had brought the mazehualob willingly, faithfully, to God. During the summer months his aid had been invaluable in translating the Padre's lessons into the native tongue of the mazehualob, and diligently enforcing and prevailing upon the indians to follow those rules set down by Scripture. Padre Juliano had terminated the custom of burying the indian dead in straw mats and introduced to them that essential instrument and standard of civilization that had supplanted the primitive communion of the Campo Santo... the coffin. Under his tutelage, the sale and offering of candles to the Christian saints had soared, though the disparity of offerings puzzled this Mexican priest. How curious... the minor saints these Maya prayed to… Padre Juliano sometimes thought.

          Then, there was the matter of the sacristan's disappearances. Following the long departure of the previous year, the old curandero took to leaving for days at a time, although he always returned by Sunday, stating only that his absences were for the purpose of bringing the gospel to those indians of the villages of the territory who were not in rebellion against the government of Mexico, as were the sublevados, the bad men. They were too far off to come to Santa Cruz del Bravo weekly, Chankik reasoned, but still in need of the word of God... and when Padre Juliano questioned him harshly, a procession of many hundreds of them was made to Santa Cruz over the Easter holiday, overflowing the church and causing consternation among the officers. "If the old man wishes to minister to the Maya in their villages," Bravo ordered, "let him do so. I do not want to see another gathering of so many indians here again."

          Chankik had declined to say where these friendly villages existed and Bravo was of no help, for the sacristan's influence over the commanding General deepened through the summer. In the dead of night in June, July and August... when rain cascaded off the stone roof of the cathedral, the tin roofs of the officers' quarters and humbler spreadings of canvas and palm... when Juliano's fingers itched and ached from the turning of moldy pages, the priest allowed his suspicions to run riot. Last, and worst, of these was the inevitability of Chankik's missions being upon the orders of the General himself, and that their purpose was not the spreading of faith, but espionage. Bravo had, by now, made clear the prospect of the Padre's forthcoming eviction when September arrived... the Cuerpo de Operarios, a palm and limestone hut, had already been designated, to him, as the future home of the Most High Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.

          Juliano could not walk past this hovel without turning his face. His frantic telegrams to Merida and to Mexico City went unanswered.

          Padre Juliano was not one of those theologians who incubated in the capital of Mexico, and whose faith was built on a soft and forgiving foundation of purity and love. There were many such milk-drinkers whose standard was a children's Jesus, blond and bearded like Bernardo Reyes, the favorite General of Don Porfirio, but clothed in soft, white robes and bleeding hands. The Padre's career had taken him to odd corners of the Republic and toughened his Christianity; he was not a cruel man, but one who understood the virtue of uncompromising opposition to evil. It was regrettable that his Spanish forefathers had pulled down the idols of old Mexico and burned their books and witch-doctors, but the fruit of their resoluteness had been the eradication of a vile cult of human sacrifice that offered up its victims to a panoply of Devils that would have awed even, the, magicians of Chaldea and horrified the worst sybarites of the Roman Empire. He had accepted his posting to Quintana Roo, girded himself for struggle. But what could one make of heathens, who not only accepted the word of God at once, but outdid one another to make a show of their piety while Juliano's Catholic contemporaries... from Bravo down to the humblest soldier... let their souls slide into perdition for the unceasing search after pride and profit?

          The General's remark that the cathedral of Santa Cruz del Bravo was a pagan structure, unconsecrated... and, therefore, suitable for any purpose the Republic decreed did... not pass muster. It was all that Padre Juliano possessed.

          Then, too, the priest's suspicions that Chankik was handing over, to Bravo, the locations of the villages to which he had gone to bring the word of Christ was distasteful. Who was to judge whether the indians were not prepared to accept redemption or, even worse, had already done so, even as they were slaughtered in their sleep. When the sacristan's return was followed by that of a hunting party boasting of their kills, the Padre took no solace in his General's reply that, if a Christian village and its occupants had been put to the torch by misadventure, they were surely enjoying the benefits of conversion - a speedy passage to Gloria sparing them the tribulations and temptations that awaited the living. Juliano knew much of Bravo's methods, and was growing to despise them. And the thought that the responsibility was, in some part, his own weighed upon his soul... as if that object was pressed between the collapsing walls of the stone cathedral. Nor did he look to his forthcoming expulsion as penance. Wet palm was only a burden, following a spirit's storm.

          Pressed between Mexicans, who laughed off his mission, and indians who accepted his every word unquestioningly, yet remained placidly inaccessible, Juliano had begun to entertain notions of resignation. Such renunciations were common, and a less demanding post could have been procured without loss of reputation by virtue of the Padre's years; still, however, the thought was repugnant. For Santa Cruz, while a triumph of the martial and material arts, remained a spiritual desert.

          To shake this sentience of despair, he sometimes roused himself with danger by accompanying one of the General's exploratory parties. But these occasions, even when occasional bullets flew, did not provide the relief that he sought. The admiration of the soldiers for his bravery was, to the Padre, a false thing... for his motives were now subject, not merely to question, but to self-condemnation. He marched all the way to Bacalar and returned whole, but still apart from God.

          Miguel Chankik, wiping the Catholic idols, observed the empty place in the Padre's soul spreading like gangrene; a putrid occlusion growing from the size of a bitter orange to a cannon shell. He hummed monotonously, pleased with himself... all the pieces in his little puzzle falling into place...

          Maybe it was time to carve new santos...

          Often Juliano would follow the railroad tracks on horseback and the trail beyond to Central for, as he explained to Bravo, the purpose of ministering to the small encampment there. The inhabitants of the small outposts on the trail grew used to this sight of the priest, a lone Sancho Panza, without even a Quijote, for his guide and leader. The rotating commanders of Central tolerated him and one, Captain José Macias, had even used his influence to ensure that the indian hut which served as a cathedral... and which was his foretaste of the lowly stature of his ministry come September... was filled for mass, even though the services took place on Wednesdays or Thursdays.

          Macias, however, troubled the Padre more than the other officers, despite his unfailing courtesy and attentiveness to Juliano's meditations. "He is more like an indian than the indians themselves," the priest realized, one night, before dropping into a troubled sleep.

          He awoke later that night in a profuse sweat, despite the presence of a cold fog... an unpleasant legacy of the wet coastal swamps that lay to the south of the encampment. Dimly, he tried to remember where he was and, as he sat up, he found that he could not even recall his name. Pulling on his boots, he lurched to the door; a light was shining through the fog, a voice spoke to him.

          In what seemed a matter of seconds the priest was out of the sleeping village, walking down the road away from Santa Cruz in his nightgown as the fog condensed against his face and neck and water dribbled from his nose. Despite this, he did not experience discomfort, his feet were agreeably light. The light neither intensified nor faded. Padre Juliano walked on.

          Presently he heard the cry of an owl to his right and turned towards it. The fog had taken on the luminous quality of Ascension Bay but there loomed, barely visible, an enormous ceiba, its roots seemingly embedded in the swamp. From it the owl cried once more and the priest looked up.

          Floating by the tree perhaps six meters off the ground, the children's Jesus raised his arm to welcome Padre Juliano. The moonlight, shining through a break in the fog, reflected upon the beard of Christ like spun silver. White light that surrounded him closed in upon the priest and a thunderclap exploded in Padre Juliano's ears.

          And, thereafter: Gloria.

 

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