Authors: Leonard Foglia,David Richards
Little Jimmy rang the doorbell for a third time. His mother wasn’t home, which was unusual. Was she gone now, too? Everyone was leaving and no one was explaining anything. All he and his sister had been told was that their older brother was going on “a little vacation.” But there’d been no talk beforehand of a vacation. No goodbye party. No nothing. There was only that quick departure in the middle of the night. When he awoke the next morning, Little Jimmy actually wondered if he’d dreamed it all. Now this!
Locked out of the house, Little Jimmy trudged the two blocks to the shop, where his father was dealing with a pair of tourists, who seemed bent on picking up every last piece of merchandise and asking the price. Little Jimmy plopped down on one of the leather chairs (for sale), took a notebook out of his schoolbag and listlessly went over his math lesson, until the tourists finally sauntered out of the shop without buying anything.
“How was school today?” Jimmy asked.
Little Jimmy shrugged an okay. “Mom’s not home.”
Jimmy looked at his watch. “She must still be at the market.”
Another reminder, Little Jimmy thought that his brother was gone, since he was the one who always went to the market for their mother. He sighed. “Can I have the key, Dad?”
Key in hand, the boy stopped at the shop entrance and turned back. “Can I ask you a question, Dad?”
“Why did he leave?”
“He didn’t leave. He’s just gone on a little trip. You know how he likes to travel.”
“But why so quickly? In the middle of the night.”
“You know him. Once he makes up his mind to do something…”
“When’s he coming back?”
“I don’t know for sure. Soon enough. When he decides he can’t go another day without seeing his younger brother.”
Little Jimmy reflected on that. “He didn’t leave because of me, did he? I mean sometimes I say things about him, you know, that he’s a dreamer and he never knows where he is and he’s always late for meals. But I’m just kidding. He knows that, doesn’t he? I’m just making a joke.”
“Yes, he knows that. Don’t worry. He’ll be back before you realize it.”
But Little Jimmy was sure he was the reason his brother had gone. It was all his fault and no one could convince him otherwise.
He turned the key in the lock and pushed open the heavy wooden door, which moaned its familiar welcome. Before he had a chance to shut it, a woman appeared in the doorway.
Hablas inglés, no
“Yes,” Little Jimmy replied hesitantly.
“I thought so. My name is Judith. I’m here to see your brother.”
“He’s not at home now.”
“I see. Do you mind if we come in and wait for him?” She forced a little smile and stepped inside the doorway.
It was then Little Jimmy noticed there was another person with her, a short, funny-looking man with shiny, slicked-back hair, the color of coal. The man was not as pushy as the woman. He just stood on the sidewalk, waiting silently to be admitted, but there was nothing friendly about him. He squinted in the sunlight, which made his narrow eyes appear even narrower.
“I told you he’s not here now,” said Little Jimmy, blocking the woman’s way.
“Yes, I heard you,” Judith Kowalski replied, an edge of impatience creeping into her voice. “We’re prepared to wait.”
“He’s gone away.”
“What he mean ‘gone away’?” The funny-looking man spoke broken English with an unpleasantly sharp accent.
“On a trip. He’s gone on a trip.” Little Jimmy said loudly, as if he were speaking to someone hard of hearing.
“A trip!? Where?” Judith appeared alarmed.
“I don’t know.”
you don’t know?”
“Who are you people, anyway?”
“We are the good friends of your brother,” the man said, as he edged closer to Little Jimmy. His smile revealed a set of uneven teeth.
The boy stood his ground. “Then how come I’ve never seen you before?”
“There are many people you do not see.”
“Sonakul!” Judith muttered reprovingly with a sharp gesture of that indicated he should back off and she would handle this. She took a deep breath, as she redirected her attention to Little Jimmy. “We’re
friends. Now when will he be back?”
“Never! So go away!” the boy shouted. Disobeying every rule of courtesy his mother had taught him, he pushed the woman into the street with all his strength. He saw her lurch up against the funny-looking man before he slammed the door on both of them.
Judith punched at the doorbell obstinately, but the door remained shut. “You listen to me, young man,” she shouted through a crack in the wood. “You tell your parents they will not get away with this again. He is not their son and he will never be. No matter how much they pretend to him or you or anyone else. He knows the truth now.”
She put her face to the crack in the door, her composure shattered. Little Jimmy could see a solitary eye, looking for him, then a slash of red lipstick and the flashing of white teeth, as the woman gave vent to her fury.
“If your parents don’t tell us where he is without delay, then I swear the wrath of God will come down upon this house and all those who inhabit it. That includes you! If not the wrath of God Himself, then you can count of the wrath of his servants. Do you understand me?”
Little Jimmy stood frozen on the other side of the door, afraid to reply.
Jostled by the crowds around him, the young man stared into the glass case at the petrified finger of St. Teresa of Ávila. At least that’s what the sign said it was. If it weren’t for the two rings, he didn’t think anyone would be able to identify the object as a finger at all. One was a plain gold wedding band, but the other was a fancy piece of jewelry with large, costly stones - something that didn’t quite jibe with the life of the revered saint. As for the finger, if it
a finger, it was spongy and grey. It looked to him more like algae or a mushroom.
When he had landed, hours earlier, at the Madrid airport, the young man could have rented a car or caught a bus to Oviedo, but he’d chosen to hitchhike instead. Something told him to take his time. Like all pilgrims, he wanted to make his own way through the countryside, so that his destination had some context. His first ride had taken him less than 100 kilometers, before letting him out on the outskirts of Ávila. He was tempted to press on, but the bulging medieval walls that still surrounded the town had captured his imagination and he’d allowed himself to be been drawn through one of the massive gates, into the labyrinthine streets.
The glass case stood in the tiny Sala de Reliquias, attached to the Convento de Santa Teresa, which was built on the site of the saint’s birthplace and contained a museum with its own treasures. But someone had had the lucrative idea of making the prize relics as accessible as possible. So the finger – along with the saint’s sandal, her rosary and the cord she flagellated herself with – was housed in what anyone walking by would take to be primarily a gift shop. The idea seemed to be that the faithful, moved by the relics, would be inspired to buy a picture or a silver medallion or a replica of her rosary and so have a piece of the good saint herself. The swarming crowds, stepping on one another’s feet, elbowing one another aside, in their clamor for a trinket, bore out the wisdom of theory.
The young man had grown up in Mexico and seen his share of relics. But something struck him as different here. This was Spain, the country that had brought Catholicism to the new world, imposed it upon the populace, remade an indigenous culture. The finger looked to him like little more than a piece of mould, but to the people around him, it was pointing the way. A way that led directly to the cash register! Vendors certainly sold their share of trinkets outside the cathedrals in Mexico, so he was not so much surprised at that. But for a moment, he felt as if this was where the practice had all begun, here in this very gift shop in Ávila, where a waxen finger was provoking an orgy of acquisitiveness. He had to push his way outside.
Ten minutes later, he was back on the highway, thumb extended. He felt strangely light-headed, as he waited for another accommodating driver to stop and pick him up. It wasn’t the fierce sun that beat down on him – he’d known that in Mexico – nor was it the wait between rides. He’d hitchhiked before and knew that cars whizzing by, their drivers not giving him so much as a sidelong glance, were part of the game. The dizziness came from within, a feeling of detachment from the landscape that rose and fell like the swells of the ocean, as it rolled inexorably toward the line of blue mountains in the distance.
On the other side of those mountains stood the town and the cathedral that held the secret of his birth: a cloth supposedly stained with the sacred blood of Christ, blood that now ran in his own veins. And while his parents had reassured him he was no different from any other young man, finding his way in life, in the end they couldn’t deny that his birth had been engineered by others and that his genes were not their genes. Still, no one had any hard proof the cloth was authentic, so the whole scenario seemed slightly unreal to him, a deluded fantasy thrust upon him by fanatics who claimed his function was to save the world from itself. How could he do that? He could barely get the attention of the passing drivers.
As if to prove his point, a silver Mercedes streaked by, a flash of coolness in the landscape baked brown by the sun. The young man mopped his brow with the kerchief he carried in his back pocket, slung his backpack over his shoulder and started to walk in the direction of the mountains. For the time being, he looked like any twenty-year-old student, thumbing his way around Europe on as little money as possible. He relished the anonymity. Ever since the mudslide, people in Querétaro had begun to look up to him, as if he could bring about a change in their lives, make broken things whole again. An unwelcome sense of expectation weighed heavy on his shoulders. It was as if he had been thrust into the leading role of a play, but no one had provided the script.
Hearing the rattle of an old truck, he stuck out his thumb automatically and was gratified to see it slow down and pull off to the side of the road.
? Where are you going?” called out a gruff voice from behind the wheel.
“Well, I’m headed to Gijon. Oviedo’s on the way. Hop in.”
The young man climbed up into the cab, tossed his backpack on the floor and found himself facing a weathered farmer in his sixties, chewing on the unlit pipe in his mouth. With a grinding of gears that made the young man wince, the truck inched back onto the roadbed and then lurched forward, the speedometer slowly creeping upward.
“This isn’t the newest truck on the highway, but it’ll get us there,” chuckled the farmer.
! It’s fine by me.”
“Where you from?”
“Thought I recognized the accent. Got a few relatives in Acapulco. Well, second cousins, mostly. Always telling me there’s no place like it. Don’t suppose you know Acapulco?”
“Well, I figure there’s no need for me to go,” said the farmer. “Some of the prettiest beaches you’ll ever see are all along the Costa Verde. That’s the northern coast. Not far from Oviedo, matter of fact…”
The farmer lit up his pipe and they drove for a while in silence, allowing the young man to gaze out the window. There was a stark beauty to the expansive brown fields, some newly plowed, some still filled with the stubble of last season’s harvest. The sweep of the land was broken only by a lonesome boulder, leftover from some long ago ice age, or by a clump of trees, whose stubborn set suggested the ferocity of winter winds. Above, a clear blue sky lay over the land, like a huge inverted bowl.
“You a student?” The young man realized with a start that the farmer was talking to him.
“So why Oviedo? Most students go to Salamanca or Sevilla.”
“I don’t know…I heard the cathedral was beautiful.”
“There’s lots of others just as pretty in Spain. Burgos! Now that’s a cathedral for you.”
The young man thought of Saint Teresa’s finger. “They say Oviedo’s got some important relics.”
“Oh, boy! Don’t get me started on that subject! I’m not going to say they’re fakes. People believe what they want to believe. Come from miles around to see this one’s anklebone and that one’s sandals. Actually get down on their knees and pray to a toenail. ‘Our Toenail, which Art in Heaven…’” The farmer let out a raucous chuckle and the truck swerved briefly over the centerline. “I don’t mean to offend you, young man. It’s just that people carry on kind of crazy now and then.”
“I guess they do.”
“Act like perfect lunatics, if you ask me.”
They stopped to eat in a modest roadside restaurant beyond Salamanca. The young man had no appetite, but the farmer made up for it with a double order of meat and potatoes and a couple of glasses of red wine.
Shortly after they were back on the highway, heading north, past Zamora, past Leon. The young man realized that the blue line on the horizon had grown into foothills and the sky, so clear moments earlier, was streaked with grey clouds. The farmer had to shift to a lower gear. The straight road turned winding. Swirling mists blocked out the sun. They seemed to be entering a primal kingdom of rocks that resembled dinosaur skeletons rising out of the earth. The few reminders of daily life – a farmhouse, a furrow, a haystack – had vanished. Here man’s handiwork extended no further than the winding highway and the suspension bridges. He felt as if he were seeing time itself, time immemorial.
“You all right? Something bothering you?” asked the farmer, glancing over at his passenger.
“It’s unsettling out there.”
“Oh, yeah. I like to think the devil made these mountains. God created the fields and the plains and the valleys and all the hospitable places. Then the devil took over. And things got a little out of hand here. They say the dead screech at night in these whereabouts. But that’s sort of like Saint Teresa’s finger. You believe it if you want to. We’ll be out of here before too long. Oviedo’s only another forty-five minutes away.”
Soon, the land flattened out and boxy suburban developments started appearing beside the highway. The farmer let the young man out by a fountain near the center of the city that cast arcs of silver water into a circular pool.
“You go down that street, Calle San Francisco,” said the farmer, gesturing off to the right, “and you’ll come to that church you’re looking for. It’s at the end of a large plaza. Hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Thanks for the company.” The truck lurched forward, as if propelled by a sudden honking of angry horns, leaving the young man to get his bearings. Dazed, he slowly turned around, taking in the bustle. Workers were pouring out of office buildings onto the sidewalks and the tapas bars were filling up. The sun had had long since set, but the sky retained a neon luminosity that rendered the streetlights momentarily useless. A sign pointed in the direction of the cathedral.
Hesitantly, although his heart was racing, he threw his backpack over his shoulder and followed the arrow.