The peons cross themselves as they pass my door; the men grabbing the sombrero from their head, the women, in the high crowned black hats of the region, take the cigar from their mouths to mumble Aves. They look at me and then, invariably, their eyes turn to the big wooden cross that stands between the little church and the school house.
Each Easter the strongest men of the pueblo carry the heavy wooden cross, fashioned from ancient timber it is said by the Conquistadors themselves, three times around the village, returning it to the church. Here it waits out the year, slotted into its socket in the huge rock hewn from the mountain by the devotees of an earlier religion. Sometimes I think that the local people pay more homage to the rock than the cross, but Christian conversion was often a matter of practical compromise.
They are a sombre people, the adults of this hard country. The young children still laugh and play in the dust but their parents have little to bring them joy. Four centuries of servitude have developed the stoicism of the Indian but recent times have really put them to the test. Sure, there have always been the rich land owners with their private armies; crooked politicians; local bandit chiefs; but these were almost institutionalised, each played his respective role, there were customs to be observed. The second half of the twentieth century has seen a change in the rules. The world is now a very frightening place in South America.
There has always been killing in this part of the world but it was usually an understandable thing. A quarrel over a woman, a point of family honour, even out and out greed or a matter of local politics; it was wrong, no doubt, in the eyes of God, but these things happen. Now there are Death Squads.
Police or Army, Private Goons or Mercenaries; we never knew. They wore American style uniforms, but doesn’t everyone nowadays. They carried a motley assortment of weapons; an Israeli uzi, A.K.47 assault rifles, and each carried a U.S. army issue Colt 45 automatic. There were ten of them when they raided my tiny school, shooting dead my lay teacher and raping Sister Barbara and the eldest of my girl pupils. They made me watch, handcuffed to the school swing which we had installed with such pride only that spring. They had a special fate in store for me, the priest.
They nailed me to the cross! With galvanised roofing nails! Two burly men lifted the cross from its socket and laid it on the ground whilst the others stripped me naked. Sticklers for detail, they fashioned a crown of barbed wire for my head. Did Christ struggle as they nailed him to the cross? I know I did, and I remember a weird detached part of my mind debating whether it was proper behaviour in the circumstances. The pain, at first. was less than I had expected, just a dull bruised feeling in my hands. My feet were a different matter, a problem for them. A roofing nail is not long enough. A couple of attempts, which badly damaged my right foot, proved it impossible and they made do by securing my feet with rope. I weep when I see my whole left foot.
Between them they hoisted up the cross and slotted it back into the stone. It was then I got The Wound.
The chief sadist was, as I have said, a stickler for detail. Lacking vinegar and gall, he flung a glass of the local wine in my face commenting that it must taste worse. Still one point eluded him. The Roman soldier’s spear! Grabbing the machete from his belt he made a wild slash at my side as I hung on the cross. I would have been better off with a spear. Perhaps then I could have died. With a burst of automatic weapon fire in the direction of the deathly silent village they piled into their two jeeps and drove away.
When they were gone the children ran screaming to the village. Doors opened, windows were unshuttered and people came. I must have fainted. I don’t remember them taking me down and I awoke in my bed at the mission. I was bandaged and heavily sedated. At least that is how I accounted for the strange deadness of my spirit. I could remember, in cold clinical detail all that had happened, the death of Pedro, the horror on the face of Barbara, the shrieks of the Rodriguez twins and my own sacrilegious ordeal and there was nothing. No Anger! No Rage! Nothing but a chilled nothingness that reached into my very soul. If I have a soul any more!
It has been a year now, and the cross once again broods over the village from its boulder. Someone has cleansed it of excrement, and no blood stains remain in the school. There is a new priest in my little church. He is a keen young man from the city and he teaches my pupils in my village school. He is very kind to me but I mock him and ask what will he do if they come back. They may not come back, there has been a change of government once again, but I have no faith in that. I have no faith in anything. I can no longer pray. The love has gone to be replaced with a cold grey despair. And I ask myself, did Jesus hate his torturers as I hate mine?
I am destroyed and I sit outside my adobe cottage in the sun. The village girls take it in turn to tend to me. They bring me food and gently chide me if I fail to wash. My wounds are healed, after a fashion. I say after a fashion because there has been one strange development. My hands and foot are sound again, the stigmata cherry red for all to see, but the wound in my side is strange.
Despite the fact that the wound appears to be completely healed, for twelve hours once a month it weeps blood.
It is the Meneversary, if I may coin a word, of the attack on the school. The wound itself does not open, but tears of blood ooze through the skin. It is not a great amount, perhaps no more than fifty millilitres, but enough to play havoc with my clothes and alert the girls who found bloodstains on my sheets. The word soon spread.
The strangeness is bringing pilgrims from all over the region. It will not be long before some enterprising entrepreneur in the city starts organising coach trips. How the superstition arose I do not know. I was first aware of the phenomenon when people began bringing their colicky babies for me to bless and touch. Ancient crones, crippled with rheumatism, tackle the steep slope to my house. When they started to arrive on the broad backs of their grandsons I was sufficiently aroused from my lethargy to make enquiries.
Father Tomas is quite concerned but I have told him that I make no claims to supernatural powers, I’m not sure that I believe in the supernatural any more. We discussed the placebo effect until I tired and rudely went to sleep in mid sentence. The locals think differently and I am in danger of becoming a Saint in their eyes. A SAINT! Now there is a bitter joke. I should have DONE something! Oh My God! I really should have done SOMETHING!!!
The End