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Short Story

Santa Rosalía de Mulegé
Baja California
1820

THE COCHIMÍ SAY THE VIRGIN guards her pearls, and for that reason the church is never locked. The stone mission of Mulegé, perched upon red hills above the reach of estuarial floodwaters, had no doors to lock. The Indian workmen had not finished the carving. The church doorway stood open like a great stone maw, and the people passed in and out. Even when the workers at last hung the doors on leather hinges, they remained open, for the saints watch out for what is theirs.

The Virgin at Mulegé had a bowl full of pearls. Pearl ship captains brought them, and soldiers brought them when they took pearls from the Indians. Sailors brought them to the Virgin when their children were ill. The commerce of prayer took place every day in the church: a pearl for my child, a pearl for my husband, a pearl for my mother. We have no pearl, but we shall light a candle. We have no candle? Just a prayer then. And if no prayer, then just a sigh. Tomorrow we shall look for a pearl. I know a man who has one. His son is also sick? Then we shall ask someone else. Do not be afraid. There is a way.

Father Magín Matías Espín, the priest of Mulegé, kept count of the pearls. Every night he counted them. He stroked their shiny surfaces and put them to his teeth and tongue, and he knew each one by heart. The gray-green pearl that bought back the life of the soldier’s youngest boy. The pink pearl—odd in shape but beautiful in color—that brought a baby to Juana Amawayahá. The little white oval-shaped pearl, though the husband died later. There were pearls for dead children and lost husbands and accidents and nightmares. A hundred tiny seed pearls, gray and small as widow’s mites, for what petitions the Father did not know. The Indians came and left them, and they must come by night, for the priest counted every pearl before he went to bed and the next day there would be one more.

Father Espín kept a native boy, one of the Cochimí. The boy had no Cochimí name. He had only his baptismal name, José María, for his mother had died before giving birth. The priest, seeing the distended belly of the dead woman, hurried to act. He carved the fetus right from the water of the womb and as he lifted out the infant for baptism the child surprised him with a mighty breath, a great indignant outcry. The boy cried and cried—it seemed he would never run out of air. Father Espín hurried to find a wet nurse from the monjerío, and for a time the boy lived cloistered among the women of his own kind. But when he grew a little, the priest took him out and began to instruct him.

Every morning José María came to the sanctuary and leaned into the circle of the Father’s arm and rehearsed the catechism. José María could recite the doctrina chiquita from memory, and not just the children’s part, but the whole thing. He had learned the commandments of the law of God, and also the commands of the Holy Mother Church. He could recite them all, quickly and seriously.

—What is the seventh commandment of the law of God?

—We must not steal, said the boy.

—And what is the fifth commandment of the law of God?

—We must not kill.

José María went with the Father into the hills to persuade more of the people to the mission, and to the fields where the people were toiling, and into the adobes where the people lay dying. José María spoke Cochimí on behalf of the priest, who could not understand the language of the people. José María translated every word, and not only the polite words. The boy told the priest everything—the mundane words, the rude words, the pious words. He told the secrets of the people. And when José María heard mention of some sacred thing—a cape made of human hair, or a stone pipe to pull sickness from a man’s body—he told that to the Father also, because the people would not talk openly about sacred things, not even before the wooden box where they made their confessions. In this way, the priest collected strategies to conquer the people.

§

In Mulegé the sun rises over the gulf, drawing a pink line over the sea. The people looked to the east and the Father knelt before the little dawn-facing altar in his study, and he made his private petitions and waited for the boy to ring the Angelus which called the people to prayer. Each time the bell was struck it cried out, and the people also, but José María had no ears for the people’s cries. Instead he ran to the door of the Father’s study, where he stood with one foot atop the other, waiting to be called inside.

—Paili, José María said, for when he was small he could not say Padre and he called the Father this name still. Paili, the godhouse is waiting for you.

That was the manner of the Cochimí, never to say a sensitive thing directly. In this way, the Father knew someone was waiting for him in the sanctuary, sitting beside the wooden box where confessions were made.

—The church is waiting for me, you say?

—Yes, Paili.

—Not someone in the church, then?

The boy considered a moment. The Father laughed and beckoned the boy inside.

—Well, my son, the priest said. I must not keep the church waiting.

—No, the boy said, and he pointed to the Father’s pocket and asked, What have you there?

The Father smiled. If I tell you, then it will not be a surprise.

—But if you do not tell me, then I cannot be surprised either.

—I see, the Father said, and he fingered his chin as if thinking and watched the boy from the corner of his eye and he delighted in the small earnest face. After a moment he produced a peach from his pocket and said, A sailor brought this to me, and I will share it with you.

The Father cut the fruit and gave half to the boy. José María removed the core and put the sweet flesh into his mouth and the priest placed a hand upon the boy’s head, the heavy hair warm from the sun and from running.

—Paili, José María said. I saw the workers returning from the brick lots too early. And other men are hanging around the monjerío, calling to the women.

—What are they calling?

—Come out, come out, the Paili is away…. Are you lonely? And the women are calling back with a bad kind of laughter.

—And what else?

—Tonight there is to be a dance of the wrong kind.

Some children gathered in the doorway, looking inside. They tumbled over themselves and their eyes took in José María. They saw the clean cotón, the new sandals, the little wooden cross about the neck. They saw him next to the Father and some of them scowled. A few mocked in high voices, Paili, Paili, and the Father made as if to stand and they ran away with feigned crying toward the river.

—And is there anything else? the priest asked José María.

The boy looked to the right and left and he stayed in the Father’s arm. He scratched his head and rubbed one sandaled foot with the other and waited for a group of men to pass the doorway.

—Francisca meets a man in the hills.

—You told me this yesterday.

—It is Mario, not the tanner but the mason.

—You have said that already. I believe you have run out of things to tell me.

José María leaned into the Father. He pressed his nose to the Father’s robe and inhaled and the priest smiled.

—My son, why do you do that?

—For the smell of you, Paili.

The priest stood and took the boy’s hand in his.

—You are a good boy, he said.

—Are we going to the villages today?

—Not now, Father Espín said. Walk about, see what the people are doing. Then go down to the sea. Come back to me quickly when you are finished. Come directly.

To make the boy leave, the Father gave José María a treat, a little alfeñique figure in the form of a sheep, for the boy loved sweets.

§

Every day José María walked the path that followed the river to the sea, and he took the balsa that the Father had the builders make especially for him, and he rowed this little reed canoe into the sea and dove for pearls.

Father Espín sent José María to the sea every day in the summer when pearling is best. José María went even when the sky was cloudy, which is not good for diving. The sun should be perpendicular to the surface of the water, illuminating the bottom, and José María would wait upon the shore until the sun rose high in the sky.

José María brought all the pearls to Father Espín, and the finest pearls in the godhouse came from José María. The Father took the pearls and made a great necklace for the Virgin, a black strand that stretched to the floor, and he made a smaller white one for Santa Rosalía, the patroness of the mission. He placed pearls in the Virgin’s outstretched hand, and decorated her crown and dress with them, alternating pearls of black and white. And while the Father stood to gaze at the Virgin, the boy José María stood looking at the Father.

One night the priest was ruminating and quiet. When he finished counting the pearls and had recorded them in his little book, he turned to José María and said, Are you afraid down there, in the depths?

—No, Paili, José María answered.

—Do you enjoy going to the sea?

—Yes, Paili. I am the only boy with a balsa of my own.

—You do not think it dangerous?

—No, Paili.

—And you are never afraid, not even a little?

—No, Paili.

The priest was relieved and pleased. Someday I shall take you to Loreto with me, he said. I will show the governor what a jewel I have, the kind of gem we are hewing out of this country of stones.

José María had not noticed that his country was full of stones. But when the Father said it, José María looked and so it was. There are heaps of dark red stones all around, from volcanoes of long ago. And there is no other river in the district, or even the whole of the country—as far as any person had ever been. The river flows from the dark mountains of the Giantess and runs to the blood-red waters of the Vermilion Sea. In such a river the egret high-steps among the mangroves and giant snook run deep in estuarial waters half-salted. Mullet splash in a quiet night and the heron, regal as a bishop, moves on fragile legs with yellow eyes that snap to and fro. Above in the night a fingernail moon rests like a bowl with a white star sitting within and every woman pensive with upturned face imagines mano y metate, mortar and pestle.

There are hills in the middle of the sea, quiet cooled volcanoes immersed in depths of blue that fade downward into blackness. These hills do not breathe smoke anymore but each one has a name. Every place in this country has one name and two. Kadawasuet is now called Santa Isabel and Kaelamajá is San Baltazar. Huasinapí is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and today even the people call it so. The Fathers also gave new names to men. Wahamayí is called Ignacio. Wahayawhén is called Pablo. These second names are the names of dead men and speaking them aloud without shame was the ending of ways.

§

José María came early to the sea, for he was not bound as other Cochimí to work. The mouth of the river was a broad wash of swirling sandbars, crowded with shorebirds slow and content for the abundance of fish. Palms rustled and the little birds began their songs to one another. A fish jumped and jumped again, and the wind was at José María’s back, coming down from the hills. In the afternoon, the sun would warm the land and pull the breeze from the sea, and the palms would grow still and turn, and the wind would again be at his back when he returned to the godhouse. A heron sailed beside him upon warm currents and José María stretched out his arms like wings as he ran.

On the shore, an old Cochimí was fishing. The man was from the godhouse but did not wear the cotón. The deep brown skin of his middle was gathered in narrow folds that had fallen upon his hipbones and he stood on the sand with wide, planted feet. José María watched him. At intervals the old man cast a line of agave fiber into the sea and pulled out a fish. Then he placed the fish in a woven bag that he carried over his shoulder. The old man saw José María and the boy looked back at him, but neither spoke and the man turned away toward the line.

José María sat upon the shore and stared at the man unashamed and licked sugar from his fingers. Then he held the breath within his lungs to prepare himself. He checked to see that his little reed balsa was unharmed, though none would dare even to row it, for the Father had given it to him. He rolled the balsa over and examined the bindings that held the rushes in their tight bundles. Beside the canoe he kept a stone with a rope tied about its middle, and José Maria slipped his foot into the loop. The stone would carry him to the depths and hold him there, and it must not come loose. He sat on the sand and listened to the haw-haw-haw of the pelicans as they flew in tight formation and dove in turn. The sea had cast the corpse of a dolphin upon the shore, and José María took a few experimental breaths and could smell the reek of its dark flesh and its face smiled with lean bony jaws. Turkey vultures had landed and José María disturbed them with stones and they darted away and back again.

When at last he felt the sun’s heat atop the crown of his head, he pulled the balsa to the water and put the paddle upon it, and the stone, and his little knife with the curved blade, and a sharp-pointed stick and the net that he must wear about his neck to collect the oysters. He shaded his eyes and looked out over the sea. He knew the place he must go; little winds of pleasure fluttered in his chest and he knew.

He rowed out. The sound of the waves against the canoe reminded José María of animals when they chewed the brush. He looked back toward the old fisherman and the man was openly watching him. José María smiled, for the man was an elder, and he was looking to José María. On the beach the old man had looked meanly at him, but now wanted to see where he was going, where the good pearls were found.

At last José María ceased rowing and looked down into the sea. He had come to a deep place, and below lay a great underwater mountain. The crags and gullies were dark and thick with shells and other men were afraid to venture too deep inside the fissures for fear of being drowned. José María was not afraid. His back was rough and scarred from the rocks. But he knew his own breath, and he knew the moment to ascend, and this was the place to find the best oysters, who love tranquility and avoid the strong currents of unprotected seas.

José María never took a man to accompany him. He used a long line tied about his waist to fasten him to the canoe above. He took the stone in one hand, and he secured the net around his neck, and he took the sharp-pointed stick in the other hand. He took three deep breaths, and a fourth, and he said a prayer to Saint Peter the fisherman as the Father had taught him. And then José María slipped over the side.

The stone carried him down. The water was thick and warm at the surface, and grew cooler as he descended. The pulses of his heart began to slow and he felt dreamlike as the water cradled him down. The surface above became its own clouded sky and the sun was large and diffused and glimmering and as he slid downward the sun shrank into a small ball of white. All the colors of the world surrounded him—blues richer than the Father’s festival garment, ribbons of white from the sun above, red from the clouds of tiny animals that in seasons of great quantity give the Vermilion Sea its name. Far below, the water darkened cold and black, a grave beneath José María’s feet. But José María would not descend as far as that. As he went, the water above grew heavy, and at last he felt the mighty explosion from within, and that was his eardrums. Then he must be watchful; the blood attracts sharks.

The stone carried him. Finally he came to the great underwater mountain and he fell upon its roughness and grasped the barnacled outcroppings to stop his descent. Small crabs went skittering and fish flitted away with astonished eyes. There was strange music here, clicking and rushing winds and a high electric quietness, and the beating of his own slow heart and the creak of held breath. He saw a dark form near the surface, following his movements. This is the way of sharks, who rarely follow a diver downward, for they approach cautiously with their own fears. The shark had a flat plank head and eyes on either end, the kind called cornuda cruz, the horned cross. José María paid it no mind. Salt burned his eyes, but he looked down and saw the black aperture of a cave beneath him.

It was dark inside and narrow and José María felt a quickening within himself. He slipped his foot into the little loop of rope and the stone kept him from rising. The sides of the fissure were covered with oysters, their mouths open as if breathing in sleep. José María came soundlessly, but for fear of man the oysters snapped into tight little stone castles. José María passed his hand over them, and he took his pointed stick and pried one loose, and then another, putting them into the net. He worked his way along the wall, deeper into blackness. He did not work quickly and fearfully as other men, but carefully and dreamily, and his net was never as full as the nets of other men. As he worked, the sea about him was cool and undulating and he felt he had been absent from the world above for many days.

At last he felt the spasm in his chest and the burning of his throat and he must begin to rise. But he looked behind once more, and how had he not seen it? A great oyster, ugly and barnacled and fancy with tiny waving weeds about its mouth, ancient and rubbled grandfather which must conceal a pearl. He moved toward it and the lips closed with a little puff of cloudy water. He brandished the stick and forced it to the root where the oyster clung to the rocks but it would not loosen and he pushed and at last it gave. He slipped the oyster into the net and turned from the darkness toward the dim blue crack of the entrance and his abdomen burned and his mind pressed him only to inhale and he did not listen.

Slipping into the open sea, he kicked his foot free from the loop and the stone fell down and rested among the coraled hummocks. He began to rise. He looked toward the surface of the sea which had become the sky, and the sun grew larger and rippled outward as he neared the surface. This is the moment one must be careful, for the eyes can deceive and cause a man to panic. The surface could be very near, or still far, and he must go slowly upward without even a thought that might use what little oxygen he has saved for the last.

But José María had stayed too long. In his eyes the sun diffused into gray specks and the gray into black. His feet ceased to beat and the pointed stick drifted from his hand and he did not feel its release and his body began to rise on its own to the surface. And there was no companion in the canoe to see the small brown back like an island surface with globes of water upon it and swell along with the waves and the arms reaching down and the fish that came to examine them.

§

Father Espín sat in the dark stone church, counting pearls and waiting for José María. The priest kept a silk cloth tucked into his undergarment, close to his skin. He lifted the bowl of pearls from the niche at the Virgin’s feet and he took the cloth and put the pearls upon it. He kept an ivory blade of the kind that heavyset men use to slip into their shoes, an odd gift to a priest who for poverty’s sake could wear no shoes. He used the blade to separate and count pearls, and he herded them like sheep about the silken cloth.

Two days before, the boy had brought him a new pearl, blackest of miracles and perfectly round. The priest held it up. The skin was smooth, unblemished, and darker than iron or night. Candleflames shone on its surface like stars in a tiny universe. Father Espín put the pearl to his teeth. His tongue tasted the salt.

Once, a visiting dignitary sweating and taking refuge in the cool sanctuary questioned Father Espín about the great collection of pearls.

—The boy dives not for me, but for the church, Father Espín explained.

The visitor nodded and wiped his brow and said the mission was very fine.

—I want there to be no misunderstanding, Father Espín pressed. You will find no secret mines here or Indians working them for silver. No, the Indians bring these pearls voluntarily.

The visitor waved a bored and acquiescent hand and rose to leave, and Father Espín pursued him and said, I myself live quite simply. But we treat our saints as well as we can.

Now the priest waited alone in the sanctuary. Candles fluttered like little feathers of fire in the darkness, placed before the altar by Indians and soldiers and sailors and wives. Father Espín looked up. The Virgin, standing in her niche, was watching him. The Father leaned to the right, and then the left; the smile and the eyes followed him. Across her forehead and around her wrists lay shining strands of black pearls. She looked like a mermaid and the dark church and its walls of waving candlelight were the depths of her sea. The Father went back to counting.

Suddenly he was aware of a presence behind him. He rose to greet the boy. But an old Cochimí man and wife were coming instead. The priest quickly covered the pearls with his hand.

The man wore the simple cotón of the church Indians, and his wife the rough woolen skirt. They came on their knees, and the woman lifted her skirt and the priest looked away. He could hear them scraping toward the statue of the Virgin. They paused and whispered to one another. The priest looked again in their direction. He watched the two of them kneel there, heads together. The man’s whispers were instructive and the woman nodded. Then they blessed themselves and went out.

Father Espín went at once to the statue. One never knew what offering one might find—a cactus heart, or a bone or some feathers. Once he found a bat, wounded but still struggling, which he crushed and threw away. The priest peered into the bowl at the Virgin’s feet. There in the bottom of the bowl lay one tiny pearl.

He held it to the candle to examine it. Tiny, ugly, neither gray nor brown, and pitted with cavities. He rolled the pearl in his hand, appraising it for something he might have missed. No, the pearl was as it appeared. He chuckled, such had been the couple’s formality. He returned to the corner and sat upon the wooden bench to resume his business and the Virgin watched him.

The hour grew late and the boy did not return. Father Espín replaced the pearls and opened the shuttered window and peered out. At once his heart leapt at the sight of a boy coming along the path, but the boy was not José María. At last the priest climbed the little knoll behind the church and looked down toward the river. The hills were red and deep in the late-day sun and the arroyo below had already fallen into shadow. The palms shivered and scratched one another in the evening breeze. Brood hens bobbed about the walls of the church, looking for a speck of something. A few Indians were coming up from the brick pits and they saw the priest and one called the customary Amar a Dios on behalf of the group. They stood watching him. It was past the hour that the bell should ring.

Father Espín went to it himself and pulled the rope. The great bell tolled and men entered the church with low voices. Women brought their mats for kneeling upon the stone floor and the soldier arrived and took his place along the wall.

The Father stood before the people. They watched him with half-mast eyes and he shivered. There are so very few, he thought. Sickness has taken them all. Soon shall there be none?

Yet he must begin. He intoned the prayers and the Indians recited the Doctrina and sang the Alabado and still the boy did not return from the sea. Dust blew into the church from the open doorway and it swirled around the bodies of those seated on the ground and the soldier watched from the wall to be certain that none slept.

How I will scold him when he comes, the priest thought, and he raised his hand for the final blessing and the hand faltered and he steadied it with the other. The people rose. They exhaled as they left the church, as if all had been holding their breath within. They went to their supper and to their homes and Father Espín called the soldier to him.

—What is it, Father? the soldier said. You look pale. Are you ill?

—It is my boy, my son José María.

The Father’s voice failed and he turned to the altar as if to pray but turned again to the sergeant unsure of whether the prayers had finished or were just to begin. His fingers trembled upon his throat and he said, My son José María went to the sea…. He loves to fish for pearls, as you know. He has not returned. Will you go with me? Will you come?

—Yes, Father. Of course.

The soldier and the priest went out. They followed the path to the sea and when they reached the mouth of the estuary, Father Espín saw what he had feared and began to run.

A group of Cochimí fishermen had gathered on the beach. They had José María’s canoe and were haggling over it and the boy lay at their feet still tethered to the boat. The Father knelt before him and with shaking fingers he untied the knots that held the body fast and when the boy was free the Father fell upon him and wept.

The fishermen sat down and cut the net and pried open the oysters, and when they came to the last and largest they had difficulty opening it. The rebellious lips clamped down until one of the men took a knife and slipping it into the crevice he severed the muscle and the shells fell impotently apart. Into the hand of the knifeman fell a shining little pearl of pink.

—Here, Father, he said.

The priest would not take it. He gathered the boy into his arms and pressed the small gray face into his robes and held him there and cradled him beside the sea.

In the morning Father Espín chose a place in the campo santo and he carried José María there and buried him, and he stayed with him. The soldier told the people that the Father must not be disturbed. At evening the priest left the boy and went to his study and lay down, and he did not know who rang the Poor Souls’ Bell and hearing it he turned toward the wall and covered his face.

At some hour in the night, he rose. He wrote no letter to the superior and he blessed no one nor prayed. Abandoning all the sacred things, he slipped away into the wilderness, a poor and exiled Cain with only the hand of God to recommend him.

When the priest was discovered gone, the sergeant went down to the sea and found the Cochimí fisherman and pocketed the pearl. There was a girl down at Loreto that he was thinking of.


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