It took me a long time to come back to my senses. After carrying Mercedes inside her home and laying her on a makeshift bed, I sat for a while in a daze. Her daughter, who seemed to have regained her composure much more quickly than I had – I recalled Mercedes telling me how they had fled the war, and wondered dimly what other horrors she must have witnessed, miserable child –, handed me a cup filled with water. I could not drink it: this might be their last provisions for who knows how long. The thought made me start, and I finally got a hold of the situation. Telling her to take care of her mother and that I would return soon, I made my way back to the central plaza.
I was expecting to find the entire town in disarray, with people locked at home packing or trying to flee in the night. To my surprise, however, the villagers had assembled around the remains of the fountain in quiet order. When one of them recognised me in the light of the torches they had lit, he simply called for the mayor. The faces that surrounded me were tremendous to behold: all of the hope and anxiety that I had seen in their features hours earlier had vanished, leaving not even the spark of terror or hatred to temper their sorrow. When the mayor drew up to me with downcast eyes, I felt like a judge delivering a death sentence. I think he knew from the start what I was going to tell him. The whole town would be considered guilty of profiting from the priest’s crimes, and its villagers would be taken into custody by the temple. In the meantime, they were under our jurisdiction. Everyone was to remain at the temple’s disposal and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Given the state of the Spirit, I added that they should not try to flee for their own sake: there were probably other monsters in the desert, and Salvacion was the only one able to protect them. They listened in complete silence. I wonder if I would not have preferred some kind of protest. But the mayor’s only answer, long after my explanation had ended, was a subdued nod.
Then his eyes rose to me, his muscular body still slightly bent, as if burdened by some invisible weight. I saw his pupils shrink in the torchlight.
“But señor please, we have just one favour to ask.”
The people who had assembled behind him shuffled to the side. On the ground, next to the gaping hole in the middle of the plaza, five shapes lay covered in dark sheets.
“Priest Ernesto is dead. We cannot give them a proper burial.”
So it was that, after condemning the town and all of its inhabitants, I led their silent procession to the cemetery and, in a dream-like atmosphere of complete improvisation mixed with awe-striking gravity, performed the mourning rites.