by David Wardrop
It was National Pretzel Day and the church was alive. If you were to stop and listen you would hear it breathing not that you could for it being National Pretzel Day the church was busy and the church being busy meant that the church was noisy only in the darkest of night and sleepiest of morning could you hear the church breathing.
“Hoy!” Padre Di Maria yelled at the top of his voice. “God gives us bread and with this bread we use our creativity to shape into the form of a pretzel to show Him our thanks in his name. We gave our thanks to God on this National Pretsel Day in Mexico.” Padre Di Maria raised his pretzel high into the air.
“AMEN!” He said louder than he said hoy.
“Amen!” replied his good sized congregation numbering two hundred, a good number for what is a small town, the town of Azul Aires in the north of Mexico blessed with a miraculous amount of water. The town of Azul Aires was beneath a constant blue sky and being in Mexico most of the days were hot. But with a carefully managed supply of water from the well behind the church the town of Azul Aires did prosper but because there was only one well the town did not spread out and become bigger in an arid cacti strewn harsh landscape. Padre Emiliano Marcos Di Maria knew the reason for the plentiful water. The blue stone it was said that many Saints had touched and blessed the blue stone and the dinner plate sized purest of pure blue stone had pride of place in the centre of the church.
The sound of a gunshot brought the celebrations of National Pretzel Day to a halt and faces of joy to worried confusion.
In the entrance of the church stood a wiry, weathered looking man. His sombrero was almost bleached white by the sun the edges still had a blonde tinge. It was difficult to tell the age of the man. The skin of his face was withered like the bark of an ancient oak but his big drooping moustache was a youthful dark black.
“Arriba los manos!” his voice was a deep guttaral coughing macho voice. “Me llamo Batista I have come for the blue stone.” Batista pointed the nozzle of his revolver to the centre of the church.
The padre got as angry as a man of God could get. It was an inward type of anger most noticable in his eyes. The dark brown eyes had a smouldering suggesting a flame behind them.
“Leave.” said the padre.
The man in the sombrero smirked his eyes with their own fire.
“This town sure has a lot of water Padre, look at you, you all got pretzels, you got your guacamole, SO PLENTIFUL!” Batista bellowed. “God has blessed you with all this abundance. Do you know what God gives to me? Last week my new born donkey drops dead from starvation, alive for just three weeks. I have planted crop after, crop after crop the only things that grow are the agave and bones.”
All of a sudden Batista moved with surprising speed and grabbed a young girl in the congregation and the church was filled with screams and gasps.
The Padre moved forward with a speed and grace of his own. When within a few feet of the bandit and the bandit with his gun aimed steadfast at the girl while his arm was around her neck pinning her to him, the padre held his hand up in a pleading manner.
“Por favor, you can have the blue stone. I will give you the stone.”
Batista said nothing but his face while still angry had a look of understanding.
“I will get it.” Padre Di Maria said to lessen a very heavy silence.
“Si.” Batista said in a distrusting voice not easing the grip on his gun or the girl. The congregation were all silent with eyes fixed firmly on the six shooter. Padre Di Maria gave silent thanks that no one had made a move against Batista or even one swift move in general for if anything were to spook the man with the gun he would fire it anyone could tell by the look in his eye he had no hesitation with shoot to kill.
Padre Di Maria picked up the blue stone for the first time in his life, many, many times he had touched the stone but never before lifted and it was a lot lighter than it looked, perhaps being blessed by Saint after Saint after Saint had reduced the weight over the years like the weight of sin had been lifted from it with each blessing.
As he lifted it there were tiny noises of woe in the congregation. Padre turned with the stone in his arms so that Batista could see it and the eyes on the weathered scorched face lit up with unmistakable greed. Somehow he knew about the blue stone and its power to provide a plentiful supply of water. Could he have figured it out somehow? It seemed unlikely. Could one of the perishoners have told him? Possible but again unlikely. None of the Saints could have told him for they have all gone to heaven. Worst and maybe the most probable is that this Batista was once in attendance of this church. Can it be that this Batista has gone so far from God and his church that he is now stealing to satisfy his greed? For Padre Emiliano Marcos Di Maria such a thing was unthinkable he had always guided each and everyone of his parishioners to the light and the good.
“Take it, this stone blessed by many Saints will bring water and life to your land.” Padre gave too much ceremony to the moment. Everything still needed to be done with the utmost caution a girl’s life was at stake. Padre managed with one hand to pass the blue stone over with the heaviest heart and yet the most relieved one when Batista let go his grip on the young girl. Maria Asuncion rushed to the arms of her tear streaked parents.
“Bueno.” Batista had a wide grin on his face revealing rusty looking teeth. “Nobody follow me, nobody come looking. The stone is now mine.” And out of sheer wretched meanness he fired his gun and smashed the statue of our mother of Guadalupe. Batista bellowed with laughter looking upon the fragments of alabaster on the church floor.
“Gracias Padre.” he raised his sombrero an inch with his pistol. The church door slammed leaving Padre Di Maria and his congregation in stunned silence. In a daze he looked around him. The head of the statue of our mother of Guadalupe was the only part intact, the eyes looking along the floor to the pews. The blue stone was gone and now a dusty brass dish lay empty in its place. His flock had so many negative faces, a mix of fear, shock, pain, sadness. The rest of the church was intact with the awe inspiring ceiling above with its painted clouds and angels. The magnificent stained glass windows, the big ones being twenty feet long, all depicting the world that God had created the jungle of south east Mexico with shards of dark green and jade, the sea with the many creatures in a number of colors you would not think could not exist as stained glass. The smaller stained glass windows had all the Saints that had blessed the blue stone. Behind the pulpit was a modest wooden cross made from Monterey pine. He took strength from all these things no matter how small and everything could find a place in the church and all were welcome Padre was sure there was a mouse living in the church. With eyes on the cross he in turn crossed himself in the name of The Son, The Father and The Holy Ghost.
He turned to the congregation measured and composed. “Now let us pray.”
It was inevitable that the rest of the day was going to have a sombre tone. In his sermon he spoke of surviving and being content it was a change from the arranged sermon of talking about how green signified life. They liked his sermon as they always did however he felt the worry of uncertainty in his congregation. A sleep robbing worry as they would have sleepless nights worrying what very likely lack of water was going to do to them and everything around them.
That night when the sun had gone down and things were only just starting to cool Padre went to the verde crest, the hill almost mountain that sheltered Azul Aires, to talk to his friend coyote.
“Coyote!” The Padre called his hands cupping his cheeks. He called again after waiting a lengthy time. After the second calling and while considering a third. A strong alpha male coyote with a lustrous auburn for and vivid shining eyes stood on the top of verde crest a tribute to nature.
“Padre.” said the coyote with a smile. “It has been a long time since we last spoke.” The Padre nodded an apologetic nod. “What brings you to my domain on the fringe of your town?”
“A matter of what might be justice I have no right to deal out.”
“Intriguing.” Coyote said and paced toward the Padre who had offered a chicken head. Coyote took a sniff of the morsel in Padre’s fingers and took it in one bite. “Thank you.” Coyote said after a gulp and sat down beside him and so Padre told him of the incident.
When the description was over coyote stood up and circled for a while. “The way I see it you have two options Padre. Consider the cactus, the cactus bides his time in the desert, the cactus waits and waits for that brief time of water but the cactus also has spines it will protect itself from the animals that want to eat it. Then consider me, the coyote, I must kill many animals I must do this to ensure that me and my pack survive and it must be done to maintain balance to keep the landscape from being overgrazed and thus rendered barren. So, are you a cactus or a coyote? Do you survive without the blue stone and scrape by with a slim supply of water? Do you act like me? The coyote, I perform a needed savagery not because I want to but because I need to. The choice is up to you.” And with this coyote bolted back up to the top of verde crest and howled the noise over his domain.
It was now pitch black, Padre staring into the darkness contemplating the words of coyote. He turned to go back down the hill and as he did so he raised his hand and his friends the cacti began to glow the yellow of the sun and lit his way back home.
The truth be told Batista was not the first bandit to have entered the church. Years and years before Batista burst into the church when the Padre was a young man, in the dead of night a gunslinger by the name of Carlos stumbled into the church bleeding heavily claiming to have been attacked by a monster or demon. He pleaded to go to confessional and with his last moments of life Carlos conffesed all his sins and the terrible things he had done and pleaded the God would forgive him. While the young Padre Di Maria was not able to save the life of the bandit he did feel that he had saved his soul. Before going to bed the Padre read from the bible specifically the book of genesis his favorite passage of the bible.
In his dream Padre Di Maria was suspended in a bubble his throat was dry and with each cough a cloud of dust spilled forth. Everything about him was dry his eyes were dry, his skin was dry, hair was dry and throat and lungs were dry these being the worst because it led to a terrible choking sensation. He stumbled around inside the blurry bubble getting more and more anxious. Finally he stumbled and fell onto the slippery surface of the bubble, gasping and reaching out he felt the warm touch of a human hand. Instantly touching the hand his breathing became normal and his eyes had a moistness and hair had a slickness. What came next was a shock he looked from the hand to the owner of the hand and the owner of the hand was Carlos the gunslinger.
“Carlos.” Padre Di Maria gasped raspily.
“Si, Padre.” Carlos smiled showing an array of brown, white and missing teeth. “My hand might be dirty but my soul is clean.” Padre looked at his hand it had been stained by the hand of Carlos. The stain a mix of red and black, the red of blood the black of charcoal. “Every action has a toll Padre. Just outside the church beside the purple prickly pear Opuntia I buried my guns, they will still be there and they will still work.”
Could it be true? People all around the world had visions much more elaborate than the one that had greeted the Padre had turned out to be true. There was nothing to lose the tough as old boots prickly pear would be unaffected. The real question was what sort of stain this was going to leave on him a man of God.
Padre Di Maria borrowed a spade from the groundsman and set out to dig a shallow circle around the purple Opuntia. With the first push of the spade he had hit something. What he hit had a wooden container sort of sound to it. He dug around the sound and moved the rest of the soil with his hands and wrenching the box out with his fingernails coated in dirt. The box was an unremarkable thin pinewood box. The contents of the box however were something different altogether while they were remarkable they were unmistakably evil. The two six shooters were a burned black grey. The grip was worn smooth by so much use, how many lives these guns must have taken, parts of the guns had such darkness to them a darkness like the heart of the devil. The bullits still in the guns and presumably still in working condition were also black with a dark copper a lot like the hands of Carlos within the bubble black and an almost red. Padre Di Maria was repulsed by these weapons the sorrow they must have brought the pain they must have caused. Summoning the will that the coyote displayed on a daily basis Padre Di Maria loaded the guns and put them back in the box and tucked the box under his arm partly blocking out all the darkness surrounding the guns.
Emiliano Marcos Di Maria had decided not to tell anybody about his plans for a number of reasons the most major being this might be a journey he would not be coming back from. Without word he handed the spade back to the groundsman and asked for a horse to be readied for him. The Padre felt that if he were not to return his congregation would be safe in the hands of God.
Padre Di Maria took one, possibly last, visit to his church. He kissed the face of Our Lady of Guadalupe and knelt in front of the wooden cross and gave what might be his final prayer.
Padre Di Maria had found out from coyote where Batista’s suffering farmstead was located. According to coyote Batista had an intense hatred of the coyotes and had killed some of his brethren. Padre Di Maria went at a slow speed to the farmstead of Batista it was not out of cowardness that he went slowly to face Batista for he was going to a showdown with Batista and not turning back. There was no need to rush not that time was on his side exactly but like the cactus the town of Azul Aires could bind its time these were patient and devout people they had the power and the belief to survive severe drought. The one hesitation he did have was in regard to the guns. Padre Di Maria had never fired a gun in his life not even for hunting he was probably physically able to fire a gun but that lack of experience might prove to be the end of him. Padre Di Maria felt a force behind him the things he had encountered after the meeting with Batista his congregation, coyote, Carlos even the cacti all these things were willing him onwards and his cause was a holy cause.
Getting within a few feet of the Batista farmstead Padre Di Maria could now understand what Batista was talking about and that his words held truth. The sun felt so harsher here there was no escaping from it, invisible hands were pounding down on you even sweat was scarce. And bones did indeed litter the landscape with cow skull after cow skull so many cow skulls. Agave were present but they were outnumbered by stones.
The ranch of Batista was a very modest ranch and the wood of the ranch had been bleached much like his sombrero had the wood being a near white from whatever original color the wood would have been.
Padre Di Maria was unprepared when Batista stepped out of the front door with the blue stone strapped to his chest.
Batista said no words he immediately upon recognition of Padre Di Maria raised his guns took aim and fired.
Padre Di Maria clumsily took out the two guns and dropped them with the bullets from Batista’s guns painfully ricchoching off the dark guns and the bullets returning and hitting Batista in the forehead, down he went.
With aching hands Padre Di Maria stood over the body of Batista and uttered. “Sin causes destruction.”