MOUNTAINS OF THE BLUE STONE
A Contemporary Novel of Redemption
"Ever hear of the Penitentes?" asked Art.
"I lived with them," said Drake. He drained his cup and said he was going for air.
"Mind if I come?" asked Art. "I like a constitutional after breakfast." He carried a black umbrella.
The sky had cleared. The wind blew chill and smelled of exhaust fumes.
"Do they really flagellate themselves?" asked Art.
"Yes they do."
"And crucify someone?"
"So they say," said Drake. "I never saw it."
"Hard to believe that kind of savagery still exists."
Drake looked at him. "Depends on what you call savagery, I guess. They kept religion going back in the early days when the church pulled out."
"In a perverted form," said Art. "I've read a great deal about them."
"Yeah, a lot of shit's been written."
"But to crucify people. . . ."
Drake said they usually didn't die. "I never knew one to die," he said.
"That's because it's secret," said Art. "They just don't tell you. Any way you look at it, it isn't civilized."
A brown Chevy riding low on its bumper advanced slowly. Its windows were closed but still the cacophony of rock-and-roll split the morning. Adolescent faces laughed out at them from beneath slicked-down hair. "That what you mean by civilized?" asked Drake.
A small dog with matted gray hair lifted his leg and peed against a fire hydrant, then cocked a floppy ear toward Drake and Art, worked his back legs importantly like a little kid who's just answered the question right, and started his busy way across the street.
The crawling low car with its blaring antimusic accelerated suddenly, spurted, swerved toward the little dog, ran it down, hit it square with a pulpy thud. They raced away and their laughs and the noise went with them. On the rear bumper a sticker read LUV YA JESUS.
The dog lifted its flop-eared head from the crushed body and Drake ran toward it. He stroked an ear. He cupped the round little face in his hand and his own throat felt thick. The little fellow struggled horribly for a moment, then his head fell, and a line of blood ran from his mouth onto the wet pavement. A hind leg still twitched.
"Sons-of-bitches," Drake yelled. A car blared its horn at him and he jumped back. It ran square over the small gray body.
"Sons-of-bitches," he said again.
"You tell that gavilán get his ass outa here and not come back never!" The call roared from the back of the cantina and swept over the person of José Villareál and everybody laughed. But José only took another long swig of his cerveza, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, then on the new red T-shirt, leaned back, belched loudly, and grinned. José had white even teeth and grinned a lot. He was used to Tomás ordering him to leave because that hombre's daughter, Pilar, was always in heat and José flashed a white grin and an evil eye and slicked his shiny hair straight back and he walked with a swagger that made everyone forget he was small. To be ordered out was the highest flattery.
Besides, he knew when he left Pilar would follow him.
He grinned and shrugged. "¡Qué importa!" he said to his buddy, Tonito, who was watching the bar for Tomás. Sometimes Tonito also tended bar at Colinas and sometimes after that he went on police duty when Sheriff Garcia would let him and then he arrested his earlier customers, especially the gringos, for DWI. On the nights Tonito wasn't enforcing law and order he went carousing with José-drinking tequila and chasing girls and fighting cocks. They went down the mountain in Doña Rosalía's pickup; they had always borrowed Pedro's until he went to Colinas and took it with him.
Tonito flashed a grin at José who took another long drink and was letting it wash the dust out of his throat when Tomás came raging from the back like a Brahma bull out of the chute and Tonito said, "He be one mad hombre, amigo. You hadn't oughta throw fingers at Pilar when he's looking."
José said Pilar shouldn't twitch her ass at him when he was looking and then he grinned and said, "Okay, okay, Tomás," in his lazy voice. "You don't want my money, I take it down the road."
"An' start takin' it now," roared Tomás. "¡Pronto!"
"When I finish my cerveza." He passed his fingers sensuously over the sweating can.
"¡Nombre de Dios! The rest of his cerveza, he says!"
"You get my money, I get my beer."
"You come in here, insult my Pilar. . . ."
José thought it would be pretty hard to insult Pilar Archuleta but decided it wouldn't be a tactful thing to say to a mad bull so he drained his Coors, squeezed his hands around the can, felt it crumple, and swaggered out in his red shirt and his tight jeans, all macho, leaving the can on the counter.
"And don't come back!" Tomás roared. He grabbed the crushed can and let it fly, right past José's head.
The departing guest turned at the door and grinned his macho grin, threw a defiant finger at no one in particular and, laughing, ducked out the door.
Drake laughed along with the rest, the way they always did. Everyone already knew the punch line, because it happened this way with slight variations just about every Saturday night when José swaggered in from Colinas with his week's pay and his fidget eyes and Pilar would twitch through and José would signify by comment or gesture that she'd made contact and Tomás would throw him out. There wasn't any bad blood between them, not even a personal quarrel. Tomás knew Pilar stirred up the chile pot deliberately, but he had to go through the motions of protecting her questionable virginity. His protests gave José a chance to go through his macho act; each maintained his reputation; and the performance entertained his clientele before they settled collectively to serious drinking.
Drake knew they'd seen the last of Pilar for the evening. He ordered another whiskey and waited for the bets on José's chances that night. It was about even that in an hour or so he'd come roaring in looking for Tonito, cursing all women and proposing they go down the hill in chase of more.
Then both young cocks would swagger into church next day and, self-consciously out of grace, abstain from mass which was their way of proclaiming to the congregation at large and Pilar in particular their successes with the girls in Colinas or Española.
Though Francisco called José un hombre sin oscuro-a man of no soul-Drake sometimes saw the quick shadows of fear cross the unfurrowed face, as a hawk will cast his circling shadow over the desert floor, saw him cross himself as if he heard black horses thundering in the sudden short storms of his mind, before he recovered his arrogance and laughed and showed his fine white teeth and said loudly, "¡Qué importa!" Big deal!
Drake didn't know what José hunted but whatever it was he didn't find it in the girls he screwed which would be like stalking a mountain lion and trapping a rabbit and he thought, It's what a man hunts, not what he finds, that carves his soul.
If a man did find what he hunted, what then? Did he find the symbol or the thing behind it? Or nothing at all? Which was the reality anyhow, the lion or his secret power? José's girls, or the arcane depths of the female earth?
Or was he getting drunk and assigning shadows to José because he'd seen him in a few moments when fear washed over him and exposed a deformity in his nakedness? Well, drunk or not, he'd seen it; and though he didn't know what José sought, he knew what he feared, which is coming close.
He remembered the time they'd gone fishing. José loved to pull trout from the shaggy-shored streams and he knew where the deep pools were. When they left, his gaunt mama was shrieking like a wind in a winter chimney.
She'd had another dream. "It was your papa again," she mourned. "He gets no rest in Purgatory because he has sons who won't pray for him!" Morality always hung like heavy perfume in the air around Atiliana Villareál.
"Sí, Mama, okay. Mañana I will light him a candle."
"Mañana, he says! Mañana! Always he says mañana, he thinks only of catching the fish while his papa suffers. Ay, válgame, soon enough you'll be there too, you'll need prayers from your sons. If ever you have any." A new rise of tears washed her eyes. "If ever you find a good girl to marry."
She hit a nerve, though, and José went to light another candle before they went fishing. Drake, waiting in the back of the church, saw José's shaking hand that lit the candle in its red glass, saw the haunt-eyed face when he turned to leave, and remembered the same look at Padre Lorenzo's velorio.
On a side wall toward the back of the church hung a retablo of a saint carrying a string of fish. "San Rafael," explained José. "The patron of fishermen." He made an obeisance to the santo. "Now we catch fish!"
As they left the church they met Luz Peralta coming in with a mended robe for a santo. José looked at her as if she were the Blessed Virgin herself. Drake heard the deference in his voice when he greeted her, saw her quick shy smile, and noted her fragility.
"There's a girl for you!" he said.
"She's not a girl," said José hoarsely. "That's Luz Peralta. Gonna be a nun." Maybe so, thought Drake, but she sure looked soft-eyed at José.
In the sun again, José threw off his dark mood with an eloquent shrug and delivered his favorite formula to dispel the threat of Tomás, the taunts of Pilar, and the awful fears of Purgatory. "¡Qué importa!"
Remembering, Drake grinned and started to leave the bar but just then Enrique Peralta came in so he ordered two more copitas.