For an hour or so, I saw their column slowly fading in the sunset. Then, as it disappeared on the horizon, I made my way back to the temple. I was furious against Salvacion, yet I had been unable to confront her in front of Mercedes. Her last words had sounded so grim and weary, so unlike her usual self, that I hesitated on the front porch before entering the building. I found her sitting on the stairs in the inner courtyard with the scraps of food which we had kept for the journey back and a bottle of liquor. She pointed to a plate where she had left my share.
“We can eat now and go when we’re done. Hernani did most of the job, you just have to close the Shrine. This time we travel by night.”
Picking a piece of dried meat with her fingers, she gave a deep sigh.
“It’s one fool’s errand after the other. Is Alejandro just messing with me? I really thought when I saw the priest that something was going on. Esperanza! I should have known. With a name like that…”
I ignored her rambling and placed myself in front of her. My hands tend to tremble when I grow angry, so I pushed them against my sides as I started:
“Your intervention earlier was cruel and unnecessary. These people did not need to hear that from a representative of the Temple, let alone from you.”
She swallowed her meat and picked up the bottle, glancing at its content with a scowl.
It struck me once again. However detached she wanted to look, something in the rhythm of her speech, a little slur in her voice, betrayed a sadness which I had already felt in her, but never so distinctly. I fell silent, retreating to my plate while she swallowed what was left of the liquor directly from the bottle. Then after eating a little, the question which had bothered me earlier finally took shape in my mind.
“Who paid, in Trinidad del Este?
This time her eyes went right for mine.
“You said to Mercedes that someone always has to pay. But in Trinidad, when you restored the Spirit, who paid for it?”
It was not the first time I had had that thought. But somehow I had never phrased it quite that way before.
“Is that not what we are seeking: miracles? Magic that nobody has to pay for?”
The laughter she gave then struck me like a gust of cold wind. But she calmed down just as suddenly.
“Of course you’re right. Nobody paid for Trinidad del Este. Nobody paid a thing.”
A sort of weary smile softened her features as she stood up and walked past me out of the courtyard.
“I’ll let you settle things here. I’m done with this place.”
I finished my meal and headed for the Shrine. The rituals to close a temple are not very difficult. As I detached the sacred gauze for burning, I noticed that the Spirit had changed its shape. It was now a small, round cactus. Then it disappeared, as the fire took and the smoke rose towards the opening in the temple roof. Esperanza had lived.
On the front porch, as I left the building, Salvacion had recovered her placid air.
“Now back to Alba. Hernani said that Alejandro had news for us.”
And on we went, out of the desolated, silent town and into the desert, having completed another standard inspection mission.
END OF EPISODE I