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The Calling

An original short story set in Mexico

George Bergin

T-Boned. Gringos would use the word T-Boned to describe the accident. The police report, in Spanish, would simply say golpe en el lado, hit on the side. When the big diesel water truck slammed on the brakes it was already too late. The heavy-duty grill drove the driver's side door of the little tan Mexican car into the driver. Carmen Rodriquez, alone in the car, was killed instantly. Four hours later the police went to the address shown on her driver's license. Her ten year old son, Javier, was watching T. in the living room of the small apartment two blocks from the malecon, very near the central part of La Paz.

When the police told the boy about the accident, his mother's death, he went to her room, laid down on the bed and sobbed quietly into her pillow. Carmen's next door neighbor, Maria Sanchez, told the police she would look after the boy until Carmen's live-in companion, Joel Guzman, returned from work. Joel worked on a fishing boat operating from La Paz harbor. The officers left Carmen's purse, her shoes, all the papers that were found in the glove compartment, two empty gas cans from the small trunk of the car, her keys, a wallet containing 640 pesos.

Carmen had worn her thirty years well on her ample frame. Eyes like brown obsidian, hair almost auburn. Her boy did not resemble her. Javier did not know his father; Carmen had been purposefully vague about the man. She once said he was dead. Another time, during a fight with one of her many lovers, she said he was a soldier, would one day return. Both her parents were dead. The young cashier's brother, Beto, had been working in Panama and she had not heard from him for several years.

Javier had always been a shy loner. So withdrawn and taciturn, he had been placed, almost from the start, in remedial sessions at school. Examinations by the school system, SEP, and family services, DIF, indicated no profound physical or mental incapacities -- he could hear, read, play with others, his motor skills were almost on a ten year level. He and another boy of ten were two years older than their classmates in the third grade.

His face, eyes, the light, creamy caramel skin, hair like the dusky yellow-gold of fine corn silk, were not close to the look of most Mexicans or Indians his age. Ethnologists might peg him for Italian, Spanish, Israeli. The eyes were deep and engaging; he moved with a grace uncommon for a boy his age, spoke little, even when pressed by his mother or his teachers.

Javier was asleep on the floor of Mrs. Sanchez's apartment when Joel came falling, stumbling drunkenly up the stairs to Carmen's place. Mrs. Sanchez opened her door just as the man was about to kick down the door to Carmen's place. He had forgotten his keys.

"She is not here. I'm so sorry, Señor, Carmen was in an accident in the car. She was killed. I'm so sorry."

The big man put both hands on the door frame, above his head, leaned heavily and unsteadily forward, looked at Mrs. Sanchez and said. "Dead? She's dead? Don't you lie to me." He closed his eyes, his chin dropped to his chest. "The boy?"

"The boy is here, with me."

The drunk has one last question. "The car? Where is the car?"

"The police said the car was destroyed. They did not tell me where it is, Señor." While Maria was deciding whether or not to give him the key, the fisherman raised his head, looked at the woman, looked back at the door, he stepped back and quickly kicked the old wooden door off the latch and away from the rusted hinges.

Mrs. Sanchez stepped back inside her place, locked the door, held her breath. The boy was in a fetal position, clutching the jacket he used as a pillow, pretending he had been asleep, had heard nothing. His quiet sobs moved his chest, his head, just enough to give him away.

While Maria was making breakfast the next morning, wondering what the man would do next, what she should do, what about the landlord, noise and movement next door took her to the window. Peeking out through the curtain she could see Joel and two other men carrying furniture, clothing, appliances down the stairs to a truck. She said nothing to the boy, made sure he ate the eggs, beans, tortillas, drank some milk. He seemed indifferent to the scraping, the knocks and squeaks beyond the thin wall between the two tiny apartments.

Maria and her daughter had not missed a single Sunday mass in over three years. She was worried about the boy. "Come with us to the church. You will be safe there with us." The boy returned to his place on the floor and coiled himself into a smaller boy, a boy who might not be seen, might be overlooked, might escape pain and punishment.

She lied out of kindness. "He doesn't know you're here. You'll be fine, just stay inside, keep the door locked. We won't be long."

Javier waited and watched, listened. When he was sure the men were gone, he snuck into the dingy place that had been his home for almost three years. They had taken nearly everything. Useless things were scattered about, the place was a shambles. They left some of his old clothes, some shoes. The boy grabbed up some shoes, clothing, got his mother's special bag from its hiding place at the bottom of a wooden crate full of old clothes. He stuffed the shoes, clothes in the bag with his mother's things, bounded down the stairs, walked briskly toward the malecón. A vision not completely incongruous with the streets; a small European-looking boy with worn-out boots, carrying a large hand-woven bag of gaudy colors advertising Cuernavaca. Javier had hidden the bag in the crate hoping his mother might forget about it. He could stare at the vibrant red, green and yellow stripes and flower patterns for hours... the colors, the texture, the patterns brought him not just sensory pleasure but a strange sense that when he was holding the bag, he and the bag were in a celebration of color and life.

When he had finished the two shrimp tacos, stuffed with every vegetable, sauce and condiment offered at the taco stand, he was stuffed, uncomfortable. His eyes held the steady gaze of an eagle as he watched the vendor count out the change.

One simple decision: north or south? To the north was Loreto and the memory of cold nights on the ground behind the trailer. Inside the trailer his mother and her lovers were drinking, laughing, then grunts and cries until the middle of the night. At dawn he would sneak quietly inside. If she was alone he would find cold milk, some cereal, coffee, sugar -- warm himself in a dark corner while he ate, sipped the milk or coke or coffee. Waiting and wondering about how this new day would progress.

South? He had never been south, south to Cabo San Lucas. South it would be. He began to walk up Avenida Bravo to Isabel la Catolica and then straight south to Highway One. His feet were straining to get out of the old cowboy boots. He would have to discard the boots soon, put on the sneakers in his bag. For now he would bear the blisters to accommodate his cowboy look; jeans, belt, western shirt.

Because Javier did not know how far south he might travel, how long it would take, he must put some provisions in the remaining room in the bag. From a small store he bought three cokes, a package of sugar doughnuts. At a second store he bought ten candy bars, two bags of Tortilla Chips, a Michael Jordan keychain and a large strawberry-slush drink. As he counted out the paper and coins to the vendor, slowly, with the exactitude of a treasury teller, his fierce little eagle eyes were being observed by a larger bird. A bird of prey.

Patricio was at first annoyed at having to wait for a small boy to finish a purchase of candy and worthless trinkets while the two liters of beer in his hand were not getting any colder. Then he fixed on the boy's eyes, his nose, the soft glow of his creamy skin, the golden hair. And the bag. Where did such a boy get a fine bag like that one? Had the boy actually been to Cuernavaca? Maybe the boy was not Mexican at all, perhaps a foreigner, a tourist. There were many tourists in La Paz these days from all over the world.

No matter. While the beer was still cold he would drive back down to the malecón and share his beer with his friend Gustavo before he had to head back to the ranch.

Two hours later, about 50 sweltering kilometers south of La Paz, Patricio was pushing his ancient Dodge pickup to its limit when he saw, in the shade of an acacia tree, the bright and curious bag -- the bag and the boy.

The boy was standing near the road, his posture said he wanted a ride but he made no signal, no movement or expression that he needed any help from anyone. The rancher pulled the belching, smoke machine to the shoulder, stopped, looked back. The boy was looking his way but had not moved. Patricio put his left hand out the window and made a motion for the boy to come to the truck. After a five-count, the boy picked up the bag and walked slowly to the truck, put his hand on the tail gate to get in the back -- as he put one foot on the rusty bumper he looked up to see the driver signal for him to get in the front. He got in, bag on his lap, both hands on the handle.

"Where are you going?" was the rancher's straightforward question. After a short silence, without looking at the driver, the boy spoke softly. "South."

For the next fifty kilometers Patricio was driver, host and autobiographer. He told the boy all about Rancho Las Cuevas, about the caves, his ranch property, his animals, the house, a little history of his family, how they came to be at the ranch. The boy was silent, staring straight ahead through the dirty windshield at the monotony of the rutted asphalt.

"Do you have a family? Are they in La Paz?" asked the driver.

The wondrous eyes turned slowly to look at the man. "No," The boy said.

Without warning Patricio pulled off the road down a soft, steep shoulder of the road, stopped the truck in a cloud of dust. He left the truck running, got out, walked to the front of the vehicle to relieve himself. The rancher looked up to see the boy doing the same discreetly behind the truck. As they both climbed back in Patricio was grinning, surprised to see that the boy had taken the bag with him.

"I don't want your bag. I have everything I need at the ranch. There is plenty of room there. In fact, if you like you can come stay a few days, be my guest. You will not have to pay. There is plenty of good food, pure water from the stream. I will show you the caves." The boy looked straight ahead, nodded his approval.

At the ranch Patricio and Javier, bag in hand, toured the corrals, the house and finally the caves. The caves were at the bottom of the canyon, an arroyo growing wider each mile as it ascended into the flats between the mountains and the Sea of Cortez, twenty eight miles to the east.

The seasonal floods had formed the caves, bored deep into the sandstone cliffs beneath the ranch. The first cave, just below the corral, was no more than a shallow indentation in the side of the canyon. The boy stooped to see inside, peering into the gloom, moving slowly, pausing, and lingering, at peace in the quiet of the small alcove. The second cave was much larger, deeper, darker. About 100 meters east of the first, it was larger than a house but with an irregular dome for a ceiling.

The second cave should have the name "The Sacred Cave of the Revelation" for this is where Patricio got his idea. For the first time, the boy put down the bag. Javier was awestruck. He lifted both his arms and walked into the cool gloom of the big domed room as though he was ascending to heaven. Patricio thought of Jesus and the story of Pasqua, Easter. It seemed Jesus was born again in the boy; in a state of humble grace, walking not out of the darkness, into the sunlight but the other way around. He walked as though on tiptoe.

Patricio said "Almost all the bats are gone. It is cool and quiet in the cave. Do you like it here?"

The boy did not answer, he walked deeper into the cool darkness. The rancher waited for the boy at the mouth of the cavern. After five long minutes he walked into the gloom, found the boy seated in the dust, the bag beside him.

"Come, we will go back to the house, have something to eat. You can sleep there. You will have your own room, a bed." Patricio turned to go, looked back. The boy was not going to budge.

"You want to stay here? Sleep here?"

The boy nodded and almost made a small smile. "I'll bring you some bedding, some food and fresh water."

Over the next few days the rancher and the strange boy began to establish a relationship, a routine. Soon after first light the boy would leave the cave, walk up the canyon to a place where the stream formed some shallow pools. He would bath, clean his teeth, wash some clothes. He was never alone; the old man's two ranch hounds began to sleep at the mouth of the cave. They stayed at the boy's side from dawn to dusk, following him everywhere he roamed. After the bath, he would walk back up to the ranch to share breakfast and coffee with Patricio. After breakfast they would work in the garden, feed the pigs, walk along the black plastic water pipe from the cistern up the canyon to the stream, checking for breaks and leaks.

The rancher shared a thousand and one things with the boy. Lots of "how to's," "one should always," "it would serve you well to remember." The boy told Patricio that his mother was dead, he liked potatoes, he did not like cholos, street gangs, mariachi music, school uniforms, squash, fried squid, drunks.

At night the boy would return to the cool safety of the cave. Patricio had time to think. His ranch was the only one in the canyon. The ramal, the rural road, like a crooked finger pointing west, ran eight miles from Highway One to the ranch where it ended. The road crossed only ejido, Indian land, land not yet developed, deeded to Mexicans or others. If people in this area, began to believe that the boy in the cave was The Christchild Returned, would they not pay a few pesos to use the road, park their cars, trucks, buses, pay more to walk up to the cave? Who would say no? Who could say I don't have a right to make a small charge on my own ramal, to enter my ranch, come to my cave, see the boy, be blessed or even healed by the boy?

After breakfast the rancher poured coffee for himself and the boy, took a deep breath, leaned back in the rickety wooden chair on the porch and told the boy his plan. "When you go south, to Cabo San Lucas, you will need money. Lots of money. I have a plan. We can both make a lot of money. You are from the city. You don't know much about country people. People in the country are poor. They have little more than faith and hope. To survive, to be happy, they need something to believe in. If they believed a young boy in a cave on a ranch is Jesus Christ, the boy, as he was when he was growing up in Nazareth, they would flock to him, to see him, touch him, to be blessed by him or perhaps cured by him from some illness of the body or the soul. They would have to come up the road. They would need a place for their cars, trucks. I think they would each pay a few pesos to do this. Perhaps a few more to go up to the cave."

While the boy was thinking it over, the rancher pressed on. "You would have to stay in the cave during the day when they come. You would only have to take them by the hand, say a few words, I will tell you what to say. Hundreds, perhaps thousands may come. I will pay you two pesos for every one who comes to the cave to see you. I will pay you at the end of each day. You can count them as they come and go."

The boy looked up, the almost smile said Yes.

"I do not know when they will come. I will alert you. When they come to the cave you must only touch them on the head or the hand. Say nothing, not one single word except these: "God Forgives You, Dios Te Perdona and Eternal Peace, Paz Siempre. Can you remember that? It is very important that you speak no other words, answer no questions, about yourself, the ranch, about me, about La Paz, nothing. Say absolutely nothing except those words. I will be right there, at the cave, with you, to guide them, to keep them moving. No one will bother you. Will you do it?" Another nod.

Getting the word out was tricky. Patricio had not seen the inside of a church for almost forty years. Now he entered the small local chapels just long enough to be seen, to spark curiosity. He lingered outside, out of earshot of the priests, after the service, to talk with old friends, old schoolmates, ranchers, distant relatives.

He was chatty, he was spry, he beamed and bubbled, said his arthritis was a distant memory, said he had been healed, saved, forgiven by the boy, the Christ child.

He kept repeating, "Jesus has returned, it is him, the boy in the cave."

All it really took was being overheard by a news-hungry man who published a small newspaper in Santiago. The story was picked up by the newspapers in Los Cabos and La Paz. Patricio and his cousin Umberto put up two chain barriers, one on the road to the ranch, the other at the entrance to the ranch, right at his front door. Umberto made a shade of canvas and agreed to work the gate on the road.

The plan was working. After only two days, the cars and trucks began to boil down the dusty country road. They paid at the first gate, drove until they could go no further, parked on the side of the road behind the last car in line, walked to the second chain. Patricio would take the money from no more than twenty people at one time. He would ask the next group to wait, then he would act as guide for those who had paid, pointing out small rock hazards on the path down to the arroyo, to the cave.

Only a few grumbled about having to pay. Many had driven long distances and did not want to return without seeing the boy, well worth the twenty pesos to enter, fifty more to see the boy. No one questioned Umberto or the rancher about their right to charge a fee. People were being healed, souls were being saved, blessings were being received. The tears of joy and rapture flowing from the eyes of those walking back up the path to the chain instantly expelled any misgivings the next group might have had about the money, the trip, the dust, heat, the waiting.

Nothing comes easy. There were problems. Patricio had placed the first barrier too close to the ranch. When it became obvious to Umberto that no more cars could safely go beyond the barrier, that the one-lane dirt road was already close to gridlock, a parking, turn-around nightmare, he could no longer allow cars to move forward. They were backing up way beyond the barrier. Before he and the rancher could move the barrier another kilometer east to accommodate the growing crowds, the police arrived.

It became necessary to placate the police, agree to pay them for traffic control, pay for the placement of cones and signs. The upside of the payment arrangement was that Patricio's fears about the right to barricade the road, charge for entrance, disappeared. The traffic control the police put in place indicated a visible agreement that the rancher could continue to take money from the road-weary pilgrims... a little insurance.

Umberto's son, Rafael, was recruited to bring provisions to the ranch. The two men, the boy, must have food, beer, soda pop, ice. Umberto and Rafael began to sell refrescos, soda pop, to the travelers, at the first barrier and up and down the long line of cars. Patricio did not object. It insured that Rafael would continue to keep them supplied with the things they needed each day.

The money was pouring in. But, there was a cost. Dawn to dusk, each hour, Patricio would guide twenty pilgrims to the cave while the others queued up, seeking shade under every leafless cactus and scrubby tree near the chain. When he or the boy needed a break -- to drink, eat, take a few minutes for their toilet, the crowd at the chain would grow well beyond the area of shade. The pilgrims stood, grumbling uncomfortably in the scorching sun; some returned to sit in their cars until they could see the crowd begin to slowly make a smaller circle near the barrier.

Then came the priests. Two men pushed their way through the throng at the barrier, demanded to see the rancher. When Patricio returned for the next group they pressed forward, right up to the chain.

"I am Father Plutarco, this is Father Benito. We are members of the Vice Council of The Diocese of La Paz. We represent the Mother Church in the district south of Guerrero Negro to Los Cabos. We wish to see the boy, to talk with him."

Luckily it was only nine in the morning. Patricio was still fresh, could think on his feet. "The boy's authority is a higher one, it comes from El Señor directly. I have spoken with him about the local church, authorities such as yourselves. He says, with all due respect, to you and all the members of your diocese, when his mission at this little ranch has been completed, he will come to you. He will present himself to the diocese in La Paz. If you will leave your credentials with Umberto at the gate, you will become the first and only church officials he will speak with in La Paz. You may consider yourselves his special envoys to the highest church official in all of Mexico."

The tax people. Ni modo, it was bound to happen, sooner or later; in any crowd, anywhere in Mexico, there will be one or two people who work for Hacienda, the tax collector. The rancher put them off for awhile by telling them that he had received a special religious organization exemption from taxation.

The money he received was a religious offering and was not subject to taxes of any kind. They would be back. Again and again.

Was it all worth it? Patricio sat at a table in the kitchen of his small house. He brought the money box in from its hiding place beneath the rocks of the rough rock wall surrounding the main house.August 20th. In fourteen days he had made almost 17,500 pesos. The boy had made almost 6,000 pesos. If one would add the soda pop sales the two week total would be close to 28,000 pesos, about $2,500 U.S. dollars.

The money kept rolling in because those who saw the boy went away in a state of euphoria. When they returned to their homes, ranches, they would tell their friends and family all about the boy Jesus, the cave. They would grab the family bible, recite the verses about the Resurrection, the miracle of His return. They would tell them how the boy had spoken to them, touched them, blessed them, gave them eternal salvation. "He spoke my name, he knew me. He said God had forgiven me. His blessing, he said, would flow through me to all my family. We have all been blessed."

The pilgrims brought the infirm.For hundreds of miles, families dragged their sick babies, grandfathers, cousins up the dusty road. It slowed the process but added greatly to the propaganda. They were carried, they limped, hopped and hobbled down to the cave. On the way back up to the ranch house, they tried gamely to show improved movement, proof of the miracle, in some small way to pay for their visit, the great and burdensome inconvenience to their care-givers. Those blind, deaf, crippled or deformed had little chance at gracious payback. A few smiles could be mustered, some tears. It was enough. It was Him. He had blessed all those who had come before him.

For several days Patricio had been too tired at the end of the day to talk to the boy. He paid him, left the food and water, gave him a little courage for the day to come, a few short words about his hopes for continued crowds. Tonight might be a good time to tell the boy about his plans for expansion -- the pavilion for shade, the gate houses, the tienda, the ramp for wheelchairs, lights, lots of other things for the weary pilgrims. Torch in hand he walked down to the cave. The boy was gone.

Placed neatly on the bedding were the three white robes Patricio had fashioned from bed sheets for the boy to wear when visitors were present.

After two days of being harassed and threatened by throngs of frustrated and disappointed pilgrims, Patricio put an end to the entire affair by simply putting up the first barrier chain with a sign that read "The Boy is Gone." After two more days, the numbers of people who walked around the chain and went up to the house with their demands, began to dwindle. On the third day, the rancher was left alone. Not even the police or the tax people bothered to visit. He had the natural misgivings about the boy. "Maybe I paid him too much. Maybe not enough. Perhaps I should have talked with him more. Maybe he'll be back."

Patricio was so exhausted from the two straight weeks of work, he slept almost around the clock. He must now turn his attention back to the ranch. The place, the animals, the plants had been neglected. He almost fell asleep on the way home from Santiago where he bought ranch provisions, food for the animals, beer and whiskey to celebrate his new-found fortune. After a few more days of drinking and puttering, the rancher thought the ranch, the animals were pretty much as before. It was time to go south, to Cabo San Lucas.

He must put the money in the bank. It was also time to buy the many things for the ranchhe had wished for, new fencing, a new television, more solar panels, perhaps a new bed, things for the kitchen, new chairs for the porch.

Patricio bought gas in Miraflores and pushed the rusty truck south. It was a Monday, ten in the morning. Heavy traffic, all going south. In fact, it was more traffic than the rancher had ever encountered. He put it down to progress -- more and more visitors to the big city. He had only traveled the road south two or three times in the last couple of years. Then he hit the slowdown. Just before the grade at Caduaño, the traffic was a line of cars, stopped, then inching forward. "There must be a terrible accident. Maybe a big truck, a gas truck, something big to block the whole road. If I can turn around I will go home, put off the trip for another day." were his thoughts.

Then the line began to move forward a little. At the top of the grade it thinned out a little, his speed got up to 20 KPH, then the gaps closed, all the cars slowed and came again to the stop, inch forward, stop routine. It was agonizing. The accident, whatever it was, must have been close to the city because he continued in the slow-moving line for miles. On the corridor, fifteen miles from his destination, the line began to speed up. At one o'clock Patricio could see the city, the famous bay, the arch. Perhaps they had time to clear the road of the accident and all the wreckage is gone.

Then he saw it; the row of tents, the tents and the billboards. He could not hold back the smile -- and then the laughter. There had been no accident, no big gas rigs wrecked and sprawled across the highway. He knew the reason for the great traffic jamb. On the billboard, a sign so large it blocked out a big piece of the sky, a face, the angelic face of the boy.

The rancher spoke to himself "The bank and the ranch can wait. I had some work for the boy. Perhaps now he will have some work for me. Won't my sister Elena and her husband Rigo be surprised if I give service to The Lord this late in my life. I'll tell them I got the calling."

He turned to the right, following the long line of cars into the huge parking area. A sign above the entrance gate-house declared PARKING 40 PESOS. As the rancher joined the crowd moving toward the tents his fellow pilgrims could see his personal affliction, the reason he had come, was a malady of the mind. After the long, hot drive, the heat and dust, the crush of the crowd, what man in his right mind could wear such an indelible smile?

 

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2009 by George Bergin © 2007
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