I’ve hung on this cross for four hundred and thirteen years, six months and nine days. Two hundred and seventy in this Basilica and a hundred and forty-three in the church in Santiago, a mile from here. Not counting the year it took six Chorti villagers to bring me from La Antigua, capital of the Vice-royalty, stretching from Chiapas to Panama. The villagers sent a delegate to the Bishop to commission me. Man is predictably inconsistent. Having lost lives defending themselves against Conquistadors and the Word, the Chorti set themselves toiling to pay the sculptor Cataño, for his masterpiece carved from dark balsam wood; Me, the Black Christ. The envoy walked several months to fetch me; an epic journey laced with unexpected hospitality, bizarre fruits and strange languages. The villagers discovered how diverse their motherland was, before outsiders tried and failed to inflict hegemony upon it.
* * *
Milo, my husband, and I were the first to arrive beneath the municipal arches. Ladinos claim we're late for everything: yet without a clock we rise before dawn and finish our labors at dusk. Milo has milked Mariposa and Manchitas by first light. He cycles along adoquin streets, basket-full of two-liter Pepsi bottles brimming with warm milk, ‘Leche! Leche!’ A raft of imitators echo him: ‘Leche! Leche!’ He’s so deaf women have to throw themselves in front of his wheel to stop him or he sails past. He leads the cows to pasture, tends to our maize and coffee. He eats and siestas under a jocote tree, returning home when the sun falls behind the hills. Meanwhile I wash, boil and husk maize, carry it to mill, mix it with lime and water and prepare tortillas with my daughters. We sweep the dirt yard, clean house and scrub clothes.
But tonight is special: Milo, my boy Tonish and I are making a pilgrimage to Esquipulas:
‘Don’t fret, Mami Celeste,’ the girls said, ‘we'll take care of things!’
My eldest son, back from El Salvador, will attend to Milo’s tasks. My boy Tonish, the head chorister, arranged the trip. He doesn't know I'm going to pray for his soul.
* * *
Hugo and I showed up after midnight: we’d downed a couple of beers and snatched a moment alone. Mami Celeste and Papi Milo were already there. Women waited in scattered groups under the municipal arches: old ladies squatting; fat ones leaning against pillars; giggling girls in faldas. Rain fell, stopped and started again, lightening flashed soundlessly. Cousin Saul, our dopey chofer, showed up and Hugo called thirty-one names. They took their places, women cramming full baskets overhead and wide hips into seats. We said the Padre Nuestro and Jorge, the dwarf priest, gave his blessings. Hugo set off a string of fireworks and we spluttered off into cobalt night, his thigh against mine.
The Chorti had the misfortune to live in the shadow of an extinct volcano, Quetzaltepeque, a fertile Eden. When gawky, fair Castilians set eyes on the wending Montagua River, framed by camel-hump hills, they fixed their grasping hearts on it. Their Promised Land was peopled by principled, unarmed heathens. The Chorti tilled maize; pressed, boiled and set cane into blocks; rode horses and mules. In their virtuous, full lives there was no room for suspicion. When the Castilians shifted from abuse of hospitality to outright occupation the Chorti defended their valley for three blood-drenches days and nights. The Spaniards were ready to kill every last one... so the Chorti gave in gracefully. Having robbed them of Utopia, the Catholics rewarded them with Old Testament aphorisms about camels and eyes of needles. The Chorti had never seen a camel.
* * *
Saul, my nephew and godchild, is our driver. I saw him baptized and married, his girls christened and confirmed. A broad fellow, without a tooth in his jaw, he has a good heart. He saved up and drove to New Mexico to buy this school bus. A handsome Blue Bird it is too: not a scratch on the yellow paint, gleaming chrome, vinyl letters on the windscreen with the girls' names: 'Lucy and Linda'. Above the mirror, the eagle and the Yanqui flag, lit with blue neon, flash on off, on off all night. My boy Tonish has no kids, no wife, not even a sweetheart. Milo gave up taking him to the fields years ago, he’d rather work alone. Tonish is a good lad; stays close to home, helps his sisters. He’s a clever boy, but there’s not much for güiros to do in our village of farmers and coffin-makers. Tonish lives for the choir... and Hugo.
We expect our boys to marry, work, to worship in the same church. I try not to let the glimmer of ridicule in my neighbors’ eyes bother me, the sneers on girls' faces, the names I overhear. Christ never married. He spent his life with men... once with a whore, even. My other son has a wife, three kids... why not Tonish? They grew up in the same house; same school, same church, same sisters. One loves girls, the other... .
* * *
North of the City we got stuck at road works for two hours. Nobody complained, it’s not their way. Dawn was divine: sublime rays slipping across mountains overflowing with waterfalls and greenery. If you believe in God, you’d think He’d arranged it on purpose. I do, but not like the others. Their God is a grouchy old bastard with a maudlin wimp of a son. Mine is earthy: he sweats, laughs and wanks like us. If I ran into Jesus I’d give him a taste of my Elysian Fields.
Further along, a bus was parked on the verge, displaced passengers staring off into space. As we slowed to pass, we saw a corpse under a white sheet. Poor cerote, never made it to Esquipulas: the old bugger lacked faith, I spose.
They collected me from the workshop at the end of rainy season on Saint Francis Day: a mute, glassy-eyed crew overwhelmed by La Antigua’s elegant churches, residences and cobbled streets. None had seen such brilliant workmanship as Cataño’s, blurring boundaries between craft, art and divinity. Smitten, they mumbled amongst themselves over how to bring me home. Cataño had one of his boys hammer together a float with crossbars like those used for Semana Santa.
On the way back, every village begged them to stay, to pay me homage. It took them the better part of a year to get me to Esquipulas. When at last they arrived, the Chorti had built me a simple maize-cane hut. It served at first, but it wasn’t long before word spread, drawing crowds from further afield: a proper church was called for.
* * *
We spent the morning shopping. At the foot of the Basilica lies a maze of stalls selling mementos and sweets. My boy Tonish wanted to buy a Day-Glo Virgin Mary that shifts into a luminous Christ as you walk past, but he hadn't enough quetzalitos. The kids begged for straw hats decorated with ribbon, tinsel and baskets. We pitched in for garlands to dress the bus. Hugo and Tonish tied the sign to the bumper. Tonish spelled out the stenciled words to me: ‘San Antonio’s Church Choir Silver Anniversary Celebration’.
* * *
Shuffling into the church we made a circle around the Black Christ. Not at all like the usual, skinny miserable yellow plaster ones you see with the pitaya-pink blood, flared nostrils and dead eyes. He was writhing on the cross: high cheek bones, long curls, open arms, toned muscles. Everything about Him was consummate. What a nice contrast His taut limbs would make beneath my fleshiness. I can picture what’s under His loincloth perfectly: sweeter than zapote, smoother than avocado, rigid as yucca root. The kind of man I wouldn’t kick out of bed. Absolute devotion? You bet.
Faith accounts for everything. Kant thought he’d invented the theory of perception but the Church understood it long before. The first pilgrim whose conviction was greater than his ego was a Mexican aristocrat who cured himself of a terminal illness. Didn’t take long for that to reach the ears of every hypochondriac in the Americas. Month after month they came: barefoot laborers feverish with dengue jostling with mustached landowners yanking unwed, gourd-bellied daughters. The candle light barely pierced the resin smog, burnishing my complexion. I tanned to the hue of cocoa beans, like the Mayans who worshipped me. Rumors of a miracle began to circulate.
A hundred years later the Archbishop of Guatemala, a Peruvian, made the journey, curing himself of homesickness. Over the next two hundred years thousands of pilgrims came: riddled with smallpox, gangrene or syphilis. Their wanting tires me. My head hangs in resignation, numbed. Innumerable candles drip stalactites, slipping and sliding, puddling the tiles with annatto reds, cochineal blues, saffron yellows and pine greens.
* * *
In the muddy lot filled with buses, we unwrapped our parcels and breakfasted on leftovers, washed down with Pepsi. The Basilica, white as confirmation satin, gleamed against the green hills, the gold dome dazzling as a crown. There were many pilgrims, though few wore traditional dress like us. We drew curious stares as we made our way through the mercado to the pleasant gardens filled with tall llama de bosque, dropping waxy orange blossoms. A torch burned brightly in a side-chapel. Inside, the walls were plastered with silver votives, hammered into legs, hearts, babies or eyes. I wished I had one, to avoid shaping my petition in words – but they haven’t fashioned one for mine yet. We waited in a line, shuffling slowly toward the Black Jesus. It was the weeping parents at his feet, sobbing over their lost child, that moved me. Pain filled my chest. Under the staggering weight of their sorrow I forgot the entreaty I’d come to make. As we took our leave, stumbling back, I realized that my boy Tonish may not be what I’d hope for… but at least he was alive.
* * *
They took photos of each other in front of the Basilica holding the choir’s blue and white banner: Mama Celeste and Papa Milo, Great Aunt Irla, the cousins Joni and Merli, Nicey and Jeferson holding hands. The girls patted their hair smooth, the boys puffed out their chests. The runners changed into their tennis and t-shirts, lit Independence Day torches and set off. Everyone cheered when the bus caught up. We stopped at Pasa Buena around lunchtime. Hugo and I went to 'stretch our legs.' He had the hump but that didn't put me off: I like him moody, adds a bit of edge. After two years, it’s not always there. Returning in good spirits we devoured a lunch of leftovers. Then we rolled up our trousers and waded in the chill river. And lay in the shade of the pine trees while kids splashed.
Just before we set off for the long drive home, through holiday traffic, Mama Celeste grabbed my hand. She brushed her palm across my cheek the way she used to when I was a kid, eyes wet with tears.