A Novel

            Ben Touchstone, his young eyes crimson and swollen, drew the blanket closer to his chin and sighed, his breath freezing into circles on the window. His father, Ojo, had deserted them in the middle of the night without a word. Lit by the setting moon, Ben's small, pale face contrasted with the walls of the brown adobe house, nestled in a field on the edge of the pueblo.
            He quietly watched as the wind from Taos raked snow from the topmost ledge of the mountain, then studied his reflection in the window; the straight nose, cobalt eyes, square jaw and sweep of straw-blonde hair across his forehead. He wished he'd been born otherwise, not with the curious bleached complexion and Anglo features which caused tourists and town folks to murmur when he and his father sold their chilies at the market. He sensed they wondered which of his parents was white, and which was the Indian, and when passing the old pueblo women sitting cross-legged on the plaza in Santa Fe, he'd close his eyes and turn away from their curious stares, eliminating, he thought, any evidence of his peculiar appearance.
            He tried to stop the tears which snaked past his cheekbones to his mouth, but the salty taste caused his sorrow to deepen. He sobbed as memories of his father pulsed like neon lights within his mind. He recalled the stories Ojo related, usually late at night, the two of them alone behind the house. Ojo would pound the drum and talk of times before history existed, eons before his people received their name, "Te Tsu Geh." How their ancestor's spirits came into existence from the lake at Sandy Place, far to the north. They came from underneath the lake, Ojo would say, but not before they were cleansed with fire by older, wiser spirits which lived within the lake itself. Occasionally Ojo would lapse into Tewa, the ancient language of his people. Ben never understood his father when this happened, but Ojo's steady drum beats, which sometimes lasted until dawn, lingered in his soul.
            He now felt emptied out like a dry arroyo in August since Ojo's sudden departure the week before, and wondered once more what caused his father to abandon them.
            This morning was no different from any others since his father's disappearance. He stared across the small room at the bamboo fly rod Ojo had made for him, and Ojo's mud-caked boots poised at attention in the corner, then sadly recalled their early morning treks to the market. He glanced at the empty space above his bed where Ojo, a year ago, had nailed eagle feathers to the wall the night before his thirteenth birthday.
            Ben heard his mother's slippers sliding down the hall, then closed his eyes and waited for Kate to say the same thing she'd said every morning since he could remember. "Ben, time to get up. You'll sleep your life away." He pulled the frayed blanket over his head and turned to face the mud wall. "It's time, Ben. It's Christmas Eve. We're walking to Chimayo."
            He remembered all too well from years past the interminable procession with the neighbors to the tiny church beside the stream which usually froze during Christmas. He knew his hands and face would numb from the harsh wind they'd encounter on the back road which led them to the sanctuary. But his mother told them, "Baby Jesus was born in a cold, dark manger somewhere in the desert. You've got the chance to feel his pain, but you're lucky," she'd say, "you've got coats, he didn't, just a diaper." It was the same every Christmas Eve and while a sliver of moon still hung above the mountain, Ben rubbed his face and felt the sting of cold wood against his feet as he stepped onto the floor.
            "Henry isn't dressed I bet," he mumbled, "and neither are you. Why do I have to go?"
            "Your brother is ready, he's standing by the door."
            "You and Henry go, I want to sleep."
            "I'm counting to . . . ."
            "I know, I know, but next year you're going without me."
            "You sound just like your father. We'll be waiting on the porch."
            For months Ben had felt the bitterness toward his parents grow. Initially he only resented the difference in their races which caused him to be shunned by natives and Anglos alike. But now he also blamed them for his impoverished condition and the harsh hand which fate had dealt him, so harsh, that to awaken each morning had become a struggle. And now he felt the pain of Ojo's absence on Christmas Eve.
            The Touchstones were the first to cross the Taos highway and Ben was the last to fall in line behind Kate, who was leading the procession toward the river road. Soon they were joined by neighbors, their breaths streaming over their shoulders like steam from locomotives. When the pilgrims paused to wait for an elderly couple who lagged behind, Ben strained to locate the crows that cackled down at them, each outlined by the moonlight illuminating the road which wound down, then sharply up toward Chimayo.
            Ben stared straight ahead at the stately figure of Kate, who carried herself with a dignified composure she'd earned from surviving hardships which others could only imagine. Ben knew what she'd endured, as did Henry, who chose to ignore it. Her imposing stature commanded respect and at that moment, she reminded Ben of a righteous piper leading them up to the promised land. The shawl, wound tight around her marble white neck, caused Kate to appear older than her fifty years. Ben saw her turn and flash those steel gray eyes, then signal for him to close the distance before the road bent and led higher toward the hills which encircled the isolated church.
            She'd never said a word, but Ben was certain she sensed his mood. It was only after his father's unexpected departure the week before that this feeling of resentment had risen to the surface.
            All around him Ben heard bits and pieces of 'Hail Marys' mumbled by the crowd, which now had swelled to over thirty, many he remembered from the day he entered grade school. Amelia Ocate, Kate's closest friend joined the group. Her thin, stooped figure draped in black, seemed too frail to withstand the trek to Chimayo.
            His brother Henry turned to glare back, his straight onyx bangs framing dark eyes filled with contempt as he recalled what Ojo had often said to Kate: "Ben's going to be the one to make it in the white man's world. Ben's smart. With his good looks, he can pass for white any time, any place." Henry continued to glare until a scowl from Ben caused him to turn and huddle closer to Kate, who by now was sixty feet ahead.
            Ben knew his mother shouldn't be walking to Chimayo. The doctor at the Indian clinic in Santa Fe had warned her not to overdo it, but Ben knew she wouldn't be deterred, especially when it came to her religion. His breath became harder to draw and he wondered how her heart was dealing with the steepness of the climb. He wasn't sure what the doctor had meant when he used the word 'congenital,' but sensed it wasn't good.
            The pilgrim's mumblings had finally congealed. Their disconnected prayers and the "Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our deaths" was a unified chorus which filtered up between the black twisted branches that pointed the way to the church.
            He saw his mother pause at the doors to the sanctuary, waiting with Henry who huddled by her skirt. Kate motioned for Ben to stuff his cap into his pocket before she fell to her knees to begin the slow crawl toward the altar, then finally into the cramped room which held the mysterious soil. Ben knew this was her intended destination and moving slowly behind Kate, he genuflected before the brightly painted tabernacle, then entered the small, dark chamber. He glanced up at the rows of crutches, holy cards and scribbled notes addressed to the Santo Niņo in gratitude for miracles which had occurred after visits to the shrine. While Ben watched Kate kneel and reach into the hole to cross herself with the sacred dirt, he recalled the story of the Santo Niņo's appearance and the cure of a cripple who'd crawled to the chapel a hundred years before. Kate moved slowly from the room toward the altar rail. Now it was Ben's turn. He reluctantly brought the soil to his forehead, over his heart and finally touched it to his shoulders.
            The pungent smell of half-burnt votive candles mixed with incense stung his eyes. Alone, surrounded by fearsome shadows which danced across the walls, he blinked and stared up into the plaster eyes of the Niņo above the hole. Suddenly, he felt a curious warmth surround him. He watched in disbelief as the mud walls suddenly began to pulse and shimmer, melting into what appeared to be liquid silver. Ben touched his face to see if he was dreaming. Stunned, he stared at the walls and ceiling which continued to ooze the glistening liquid. His breaths came in short gasps, then the fluid converged into a dazzling light which whipped into a circle above the statue. He smelled the scent of roses, then his jaw dropped and the strange warmth spread from his chest, through his arms and finally to his legs. Ben tugged at the buttons of his coat while the orb above the statue defined itself. He blinked again and rubbed his eyes, then suddenly the transparent figure of a delicate girl with exquisite features appeared and spoke in a soft, warm voice.
            "Don't be frightened, Ben," she said softly. Her voice seemed to radiate from everywhere-the ceiling, the walls, even the dirt floor beneath his boots. "I'm your angel. The warmth you feel is love, Ben. It's the reason I exist, and the reason you exist."
            He looked deep into her indigo eyes, the only color contained within her form which pulsed with the brilliance of the sun.
            "I'm going to leave this feeling with you for awhile," she continued, as Ben's eyes widened. "What you do with it is up to you. Ben, you'll meet many people in your life. Some will be kind and thoughtful, but others will be dark, very dark, their souls filled with evil. You won't know the difference between them Ben, but they'll be there, and so will I. Now go to your mother. She's kneeling at the altar and needs your help."
            He tried to swallow, but his dry tongue refused to move. His knees were weak, but the warmth produced a calmness he'd never experienced. Ben quietly left the room and found his mother kneeling alone, braced against the altar rail. She crossed herself, faltered and slumped toward the floor. It was at that moment she felt his arm around her waist, lifting her up toward the rail. She saw Ben smile and for the first time there was a kindness in his eyes she hadn't seen since he was very young.