I.15 Rage

For a moment, both of them were still. Ernesto stood, inching forward, while she remained arched on her chair, her features barely distinguishable in the dark. Then her voice rose, trembling with violence:

“You irresponsible scum!”

I shot forward but she was much faster than me. The chair fell behind her as she swept past the table and dashed upon him. His body recoiled. Her fist had hit right under his thorax. But she did not let him go. She caught both his shoulders and drew his contorted face toward hers.

“That was your plan? These people trusted you and that was all you had?!”

She was shaking him when I caught up to them.

“Salvacion, stop!”

I tried to separate them but she wouldn’t relent.

“You think that’s how it works? Just wait for someone else to make a miracle! Is that it?!”

Then as she shook again and Ernesto started gasping for breath, something else happened. At first I thought I heard my heart drumming in my ears, but it was a single beat, pulsating throughout my body. My eyes lost their focus: the call was coming from further away. Another wave was surging from the Spirit and spreading through the temple. I let go of Salvacion and turned round. She must have felt the sudden change in me, as I heard Ernesto’s body fall to the ground with a dull thump, and her voice followed me through the hall leading to the Shrine:

“Just find out how close the threat is.”

The Shrine door had been locked, but she broke it open with a violent gust of wind. Then out of the doorway rushed such a violent emotion that I can only describe it as an inhuman, guttural wail, the death cry of some primal life-form. I clenched my teeth and walked in. At the centre of the small, wooden web of arches and columns that formed the inner Shrine, wrapped in the sacred gauze that hung from the cupola above, the large, luminescent image of the Spirit rose. It had taken the shape of an iris, like one of those which Mercedes cultivated, but shrivelled and dry. A purple gleam pierced the white fabric of the gauze, within which its form writhed, shaking the entire edifice. I had rarely seen a Spirit so out of bounds. But I needed to concentrate. Closing my eyes and restraining my senses, I focused solely on images, seeking some concrete information. And I felt it. A drive upwards, like that of a geyser, pushing through the earth. A fountain of blood. Without time to catch my breath, I shouted out to Salvacion, who awaited behind the door.

“It’s coming from below. It’s coming now!”

I.14 Miracles

As soon as Ernesto’s words came out, Salvacion’s entire body contracted. She curled back, her face disappearing under the waves of her black hair. He gazed down at her in triumph.

“Everybody knows. You are Salvacion Eduardo del Leon. You saved Trinidad del Este, you performed the miracle of virgin restoration!”

His breathing had become audible. A mixture of hope and defiance made his voice tremble slightly.

“You will strip me of everything, judge me and send me to living hell. But you will save this town. All of my efforts will not be for nothing. You can save Esperanza and the people here.”

Salvacion’s face was hidden in the darkness. Not a sound rose from her arched figure. He repeated.

“You can save them.”

The cold of the desert night had fallen on the scene, and I felt my back shiver lightly. Salvacion was still as a statue, while Ernesto’s face was rapidly changing. After a moment, a morbid smile seemed to tear through his hollow cheeks, and when he spoke again his voice quavered with a hysterical up and down.

“Why should I let them die? Why should I refrain from using our powers and let the desert swallow Esperanza, if you, you can pacify the Spirit without an offering?”

I wondered for a moment if I should try to stop him, but he was too far gone at this point. There was no choice but to wait for Salvacion to intervene, and see what I could do then.

“What is it then? Is the Temple so greedy, do they want their share of our offerings so much that they will let us starve rather than help us? Have you come to make an example of this town, to keep us meek and scared? What is it? Answer me!”

He was shouting now, shrill cries that echoed through the building.

“Kill us then! Kill us for the sins that the Temple blames us for. I won’t be a part of the slaughter, you get your hands dirty, you take responsibility for all of this!”

Again he quieted down. I had thought his mind was lost for good in his own madness, but some kind of incredible resilience brought him each time back to an even more terrifying state of hopeless lucidity.

“Kill Esperanza or save it. I … I couldn’t do either.”

I.13 The damned

Ernesto seemed to ponder for a moment, standing half-way between Salvacion and me, as if the scene of his dilemma was once again set before his eyes.

“They sent me here, two years ago. They knew Esperanza was doomed. I didn’t. Nobody told me, it was supposed to be the same, like all of my other assignments. Then, before I knew it, I had three hundred people on the edge of starvation, and the vagrants and the desert advancing, and not a word from Alba.”

His stammer returned. His hands had started to twitch.

“When I arrived they had been waiting, waiting for weeks, the crop was already half-wasted. They needed me to create water, for irrigation, just for drinking. Nobody else knew how. And before I had gone round town I saw it. There were piles of offerings in the temple, to pay for the restoration ritual. Sacks of wheat and clothes and utensils. More than they could ever afford to lose.”

From that moment, his eyes strayed to the other side of the temple. He was not talking to us any longer. My throat contracted: I knew from the layout that the direction he was facing must be that of the cemetery.

“The sand devoured the water, all of it. I don’t know how much of it they wasted, and they asked for more and paid with months’ worth of food believing they could keep the fields going. I saved what I could as tithes, to give to the children, but the rest of them… They didn’t have enough to eat once a day, once every two days. And the vagrants came to our door, the diseases spread. I could just help a few, one or two at a time, the worst off, with the charity funds. And then the order came.”

Once again, he regained composure, though his gaze was still lost in the distance. He was pleading, in front of some invisible jury.

“Could I just close the temple, just go and let them all die of thirst in the desert? It is what happens. Vagrants, vagrants here just die. That’s why they paid any price, why they suffered in the fields. If they have to leave their town they don’t go somewhere else, they die!”

His last words were spoken in a cry. But to my surprise, he turned calmly back to us, his eyes still gleaming with determination.

“I had to do something. So I devised a plan. If I could not kill these people and live with myself, I could at least find a way to save them with my life.”

Until that point, he had mainly been facing me, but his next words were spoken directly to Salvacion.

“And then, when I heard about you, I found it. I found a way to save Esperanza.”

I.12 Responsibility

Ernesto waited a moment, looking round at the empty building, before answering in his unwavering voice:

“I take full responsibility, for everything.”

Salvacion poured herself another glass of liquor and glanced at me. I nodded: it was high time to start the inquiry. I went through the official routine, concentrating on Ernesto, trying to read his face. He made no difficulties in admitting his faults. Forces of the Will had been used in the town, without him approving or registering them – he glanced sideways at the tip of the fountain, which rose above the temple walls. And he had chosen not to enact any restoration ritual, letting the damage which these forces effected on the Fabric of Life worsen, and the Spirit go into its present frenzy. I stopped him at this point.

“But why would you do such a thing?”

The side of his lips curled slightly in an ironic smile, and he simply said:

“What offerings could we find for the ritual? We had nothing, not enough food even to eat, and no human creations but the clothes on our bodies. What could we ever give the Spirit for this water?”

All the while his features barely changed. He glanced at Salvacion from time to time with inexpressive eyes. The darkening of his shirt under his armpits and on his torso was the only visible sign of tension. I could feel my own arms growing restless, and my hands started rubbing slightly against my trousers. Either he actually had some kind of plan, or his desperation had led him to madness. The light was fading, making the lines on his face dissipate in shadows. Then as I proceeded in my statement, relieving him of his duties and indicting him, I was interrupted by Salvacion. She growled, her upper body contracting:

“Are you just surrendering? Don’t you know the punishment for all of this?”

He did not make a move, but his appearance subtly changed. His shoulders slackened and his chin fell. For the first time, sadness came over his face.

“I know. I will have to pay.”

He turned to me with his eyes lowered. His voice, though still very clear, grew softer.

“I am guilty as a man of changing the sand into water, and as a priest for not trying to restore the balance between the forces of Will and the forces of Life, according to the precepts of the Temple.”

I was dumbfounded, unable to continue the inquiry. Surely he must be hiding something! He had to know that with such an imbalance, a Spirit’s survival instinct would enrage and mutate the smallest living being around, and wreak havoc until the human threat had been destroyed. And even if we tried a ritual now, and let it consume all the food and human artefacts in every last house in town, there might not be enough to pacify it until we could evacuate. He must have seen my eyes wander round, as he continued:

“I know, I know what you are thinking. This is madness. But what choice did I have?”

I.11 The dinner party.

I don’t know how long I stayed in this garden. Although I seem to recall the passing of time, the heat of the morning journey and the overwhelming sensations among the flowers left me drowsy and barely able to move. Mercedes was indeed a very silent woman, and I didn’t hear her say another word. I can vaguely make out her silhouette among the purple surface of the flower-beds in the evening light. When I came to, she had gone inside. The door was ajar, letting the cool air in, but I had to go back to Salvacion, and as I regained my senses I suddenly recalled the urgency of the situation. I paced the streets quickly to the temple. A young man was waiting for me at the door, and led me outside to a small courtyard.

“Ah, there you are!”

Ernesto walked up to me from the threshold of the temple with an earnest smile. The mayor and other members of the town hall stood beside him in the little back-garden where a table had been set, with a dozen chairs.

“Your colleague is coming down, I think. The mayor had this prepared for you.”

For the first time, as we shook hands, I saw the mayor up close. A middle-aged, muscular and scarred man, he was animated with the same faith that Mercedes had displayed, to the point that his attitude struck me as strangely meek. The sudden changes in his town must have left him so overwhelmed that he could just follow the flow of events, and he looked down at me from the height of his powerful frame with an uncomfortable mix of child-like wonder and suppressed fear. I tried to make conversation with the committee to lighten the atmosphere, but all eyes including mine turned gradually towards the door. When a child from a window on the upper floor made a sign indicating that Salvacion was coming, I could hear each man’s breathing become louder, and their token comments about the desert gave way to a tense silence.

Salvacion didn’t seem to have recovered from her headache. Upon coming out onto the terrace, she glanced at the people gathered round, quickly caught sight of Ernesto and, silencing him before he had time to say a word, motioned him to the table. She sat down, clasped a glass bottle, had a look at the purplish liquor it contained and filled her glass. The members of the city hall, after a moment of hesitation, moved to their seat. But as they touched their chairs, she glared up at them.

“Who are they?”

Ernesto started:

“The mayor…”

“They can go. This is a matter regarding the Temple. I want nobody but you and us here. And that includes the peeping toms at the window.”

She had not raised her voice, in fact she seemed to speak rather at her glass than at the men around. But the illusion of safety had been shattered, and a voiceless panic seized the villagers. Before I knew it, even the people waiting on us had retreated out of sight. Only Ernesto remained calm – calmer it seemed than I was myself. Standing straight at the edge of the table, his arms behind his back, turning his tired eyes to us in turn, he waited. Salvacion drank down her glass and wiped her mouth with her hand.

“Now, we want to know what has happened here.”

I.10 Trust

A chair stood against the wall, below a narrow window with drawn blinds. She motioned me to it. The petals pressed lightly against the side of my legs.

“I grew flowers, in the Costa region where we lived. But when we fled the war here there were no flowers to grow. The last fields of maize were dying.”

She opened the door beside me and called out inside the house. A figure moved from just behind the window and a girl came out. She must have been around twelve, thinner and with lighter skin than her mother under her plain grey dress. She turned to me and gave me a short nod, with curious but evasive eyes, before listening to her mother, who spoke softly to her and kissed her cheek. Then she disappeared inside again. Mercedes let her go with an apologetic smile.

“This is my daughter Carolina. Sorry she is so shy. I am like her usually. I don’t talk a lot.”

It took her a moment to resume her train of thoughts.

“We ploughed until the sand had killed everything. And I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t do anything then.”

She spoke with a sort of deliberate rhythm which blended strangely with her musical voice, as if this was a tale she knew by heart. The lines in her face followed the phases of her confession, crying out the suffering which her words glossed over.

“Priest Ernesto was with us then. He laid farmer Juan who had welcomed us and sister Carolina and Maria the seamstress in their grave, and the vagrants that came from the desert and died at our door. He would dig in the sand for them…”

The little girl brought out two cups and a pitcher on a small platter. Mercedes stopped in her story while she was there. The door closed again.

“He was a good man. He never took advantage, I mean. We knew, even with no money, he would do the same for us. And then the water came out of the ground.”

I said earlier that I did not follow Mercedes to her garden out of passion. Let me be then as honest as I can and say that, when she raised her eyes to me at this instant, drawing her shoulders back under the light-brown seems of her dress, I was absolutely and shamelessly fascinated.

“That is when we decided. We would not despair. We would trust ourselves and act.”

She turned, looking round at the flowers, then knelt and plucked one. Then she rose once more and came to me, taking off the handkerchief which protected her hair to tie the flower over her forehead, her graceful figure towering over my face, glowing with resolve in the afternoon light, and she added:

“Priest Ernesto said you came here to help us. We will do good with this water.”

Then her eyes flickered, and her body recoiled slightly.

“Do not doubt us, señor. Do not break our hope.”

I.9 Side-tracks

“Señor, you don’t need to go this way.”

Once again, someone stood between me and the Shrine. But this time, it was not mere politeness that halted my steps. The determination I could read in the lines of her face, in the direct look she gave me, made me falter for a second. I reasoned with myself. She seemed so sure. Then as I stood there in doubt, she took my hand, neither violent nor seductive, but very simply leading me out of the building.

“Come with me.”

Do not think that it was merely some kind of passion that made me follow her outside into the street, were the diagonal rays of the afternoon sun cut against the sharp angles of the houses. She was beautiful in her sand-battered, heroic way. Her smile, beaming from cracked lips, over her sunburned skin and thin muscular arms, and the light wrinkles on her forehead and the side of her eyes – though she must have been my elder by only half a dozen years – seemed to me like the mysterious first words of so many stories. But as I marched beside her, under the half-hidden stares of a couple of villagers at their windows, what guided me was a more pressing curiosity. I asked her if she understood the reason for our presence. She answered as she walked.

“It is the water, señor. Priest Ernesto told us you would come. But before you talk to him, I want you to see.”

We turned into a back street, and my senses were assailed by the perfume I had smelled earlier. A small door led to a courtyard. When Mercedes opened it, she beamed.

“See.”

And there they were. Dozens, maybe hundreds of thin, long, fragrant purple flowers surrounded us in the shade of that inexplicable garden. Little streams of water chequered the dark-brown soil between the beige walls, as if that little plot had been preserved forever in the middle the sand.

“Señor, this is our flower garden. This is what priest Ernesto did for us.”

I.8 Restlessness

As soon as we entered the small, dimly-lit room, with a smell of warm spices coming from the attic, Salvacion took off her coat and slouched down on the bed next to the door with an audible groan. I made my way to the cot against the back wall, taking one of the towels that had been left there for us and handing the other one over to my partner, who let it fall limply on her face. Then, after dusting off my coat and hanging it on a nail, I leaned back against the wall next to the bed and told her in a low voice what I had seen. There was no doubt that the entire town was under imminent threat. The violence and clarity of the Spirit’s dream, the surge of emotions outside of the temple’s walls, pointed to a desperately broken balance. The powers of the Will had obviously been used with little or no restoration ritual. And no figure was singled out: the reckoning would hit the entire town. The question was not if, but when creatures made feral by the disturbance would bear down on Esperanza. She answered my assertions with short, non-committal “hmms”, holding her forehead firmly between her hands. I pressed her on:

“Shouldn’t we be evacuating the town right now?”

After a moment of silent reflection, she muttered back to me:

“This Ernesto… He has something up his sleeve. We’ll give him until tonight.”

There was no arguing with her. Besides, my curiosity had also been stoked: the villagers could be fooled, but for a priest to remain this calm with an enraged Spirit on hand, something must be up. I concluded that I needed more definite information, and decided to make my way to the Shrine and question the Spirit’s dream directly. She turned on the bed and groaned with her back to me:

“If you’re going out, get me some of that citrus you had. My head is killing me.”

Only Salvacion could be thinking about fruits at this time. But my exasperation gave way to a deeper concern. She visibly thought that she needed the rest, which meant that she sensed the imminence of a fight. If so, I needed to confirm my doubts and be ready to evacuate the villagers.

Two men had been stationed on the stairs. They rose up and turned to me as soon as I opened the door. From their sudden agitation and the determination in their eyes, I understood that they were keeping watch on us. They called out to others, but I had no intentions of letting them bar my path, and slid between them with the stern gaze and short, imperious gesture which I had copied from Salvacion. I am however still unreliable in my rudeness. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, frozen and embarrassed in front of the pleading gaze that rose from the bright, motherly face of Mercedes.

I.7 Ernesto Aranjuez

TempleI ate the fruit slowly and tried to regain composure. We followed the main street to the temple, a narrow rectangular structure standing on a stone platform above a couple of stairs, with an arched front and a bell-tower on the far east corner. A very typical church for the region, though it too seemed to have been thoroughly cleaned and decorated. On the porch, surrounded by the men that had stepped forward to greet us – the city council, as I had supposed – the priest was bowing in front of Salvacion, who received the unusual courtesy with indifference, and did not turn her eyes from the temple itself when he extended his hand towards her. I wanted explanations rather than hostilities, and rushed to shake the poor man’s hand before the insult became too manifest. As he turned to me, his awkward smile and countenance made me glad that I had not left him in distress. He seemed charming, with a sad but compassionate look in his eyes. He was not old, and could have been handsome with his tall, slim frame, had he not looked so gaunt and exhausted. He seemed to be the only sickly man in this eerily healthy community. His reddened eyes strayed as he stuttered:

“I am very glad that you are here. My name is Ernesto Aranjuez. I hoped it would be you, I did.”

Salvacion by then was overtly frowning, but she made no comment and let him go on.

“I am sure you would like a rest. A hard journey it is, to our town. We are so far out. But sorry, please come inside. We can talk at dinner, when the heat is more bearable. I will have rooms prepared here.”

I assented and we followed inside. We were told the side-rooms in the temple were vacant except for the priest’s own chambers downstairs near the Shrine. As we came close, I felt the pangs of fear and violence which had permeated my vision once again, but he barred our way with feigned innocence and directed us to the staircase. Salvacion ignored my mute questions and walked up slowly. Then, after a few steps, she looked down at Ernesto and said in her professional, matter-of-fact tone:

“You have some explaining to do.”

I had expected the poor man to dissolve in front of our eyes, but to my surprise his answer was as calm and restrained as the comment.

“Of course. Tonight.”

I.6 Reckoning and mercy

It surged violently, wave-like out of the temple. Before I knew it, my perceptions had been driven out of my body skyward, and I was contemplating Esperanza from above, with a swirling motion like that of a bird of prey. I was caught by surprise: it is very rare to have these experiences without visual contact with the Spirit in the Shrine, let alone being overtaken by them so suddenly. As I tried to regain my concentration and note the details of the scene – moonlight bore nearly horizontally on the mountain ranges in the distance – the ground below me seemed to pull me closer, as if inhaling the air around. Though I had no perceivable body, I felt weighed down in my fall, and had to fight the dread of crashing down. But the ground itself followed my descent. The entire town was being pulled below the earth, which clenched around it like a closing mouth. Its jaws bore down on me as I pushed back with all my strength, desperately trying to swim or run or fly back up. My last thought was a curse: in my panic, I had forgotten to check what had happened to the town below. Then I tripped and fell to my knees, panting, my head throbbing in my temples, in the middle of the crowded street.

The dreams, however long they may seem, last only a fraction of a second, and the villagers noticed only my clumsy step and my sudden paleness. My eyes went directly to Salvacion, who had turned back. Her eyebrows twitched. Either she had somehow sensed something herself, or she knew by my looks that I had had a vision. But I thought it better not to rouse the crowd’s suspicions, and signalled that I was fine. Then another face passed before mine. Brown with sunlight, soft despite the marks left by the desert wind, and with dark-brown eyes so deep that they absorbed mine for a second, she held her hand out to help me stand.

“Are you not feeling well, señor?”

I turned towards her and, with my knee still in the dust and I suppose the most incongruous out-of-phase look, I asked her name. A sight I must have been! But as I stood up quickly and shamefully, lowering my eyes and wiping the stains off my coat to avoid her gaze, there she was, a citrus fruit in her hand, smiling a warm, forgiving smile.

“Here, have this.”

While I opened the fruit with a slightly trembling hand, thankful for the much-needed comfort, she added:

“My name is Mercedes.”

Then a man came between me and her, and she disappeared from my sight.