Tribe

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Jen Leeper

The men and women and children and old people of the village were as still as they had ever been. After all, they were well reputed around the world not for their stillness, but for their flight. They were like birds whose sky was the ground, and this ground had been their sky for more than five centuries. Their feet were their wings. They could carry them for a migratory distance of 400 miles in two days. Even the old ground birds of the 60,000 remaining members of the Raramuri tribe were carried across land with a stamina that alluded to something in the wild.

The stillness in this particular village was caused by a man whose feet were only feet and not wings. His eyes were the color of the sky on a clear day in the golden canyons of the Sierra Madre. His skin was almost the color of Micha’, or the moon. His hair was black with whispers of gray here and there. He was a holy man and wore black from head to toe to indicate this.

In the past, other holy men like this one had come from all over to live among the villagers. Some had stayed for a few months, while others drew their last breaths in the Sierra, among the canyons and ground birds. But, the holy man who stood on the rock wore the clerical garment of another time, when priests still rode into the canyons on horses or mules. This holy man wore a cassock. And, this cassock wore the evidence of wear. It was tattered and dusty, as it had brushed often against the world.

The holy man stood on a large boulder near the cave dwellings where the ground birds had emerged moments before. He stood on the rock so he could see everyone and so everyone would know he was there for the whole village. It was a rare and primitive scene, isolated from the modern world in its primitiveness. The brown faces looking up toward the holy man were smooth with youth or weathered with age, but all were equally possessed by a childlike countenance. Dark, brown eyes sought the world with the barest curiosity. Hands formed the Sign of the Cross. Though some in the village diluted their Catholicism with pagan ritual and belief, the canyons had echoed for centuries with the evangelistic voice of Rome, and so it eternally and naturally reverberated inside of the Raramuri as did the seasons of the canyon.

A man, who was the same color as the villagers of the canyon, stood below and to the side of the holy man on the boulder. This man was not a holy man or a Raramuri. He wore brown sandals, not much darker than his skin, tan khaki pants and a white, short-sleeve Guayabera –style shirt. His coarse, curly, brown hair was closely cropped and shone with sweat, owing to the June heat pressing the inhabitants of the Copper Canyon of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The holy man began speaking.

“I am Father John Capshaw.” He had an irrevocable calm in his face that transferred to his words. He was neither young nor old. The skin at the corner of his eyes had already started gathering, folding time away in its creases.

The brown-colored man at the lower left of the priest translated for the villagers. He spoke the old Uto-Aztecan tongue. His lips shaped the words crisply as he was not a Raramuri and the language was not his first language. His first language was Spanish. His words were muscular and hard. They had not had time or incentive to soften on his lips as they had on the lips of those living in the canyon.

Eyes darted from the priest to the translator, then back to the holy man.

“I have come to be your new priest in this canyon. I’ve come from Ireland.”

A general ‘Ohhh’ was broadcast among the villagers, who glanced at one another for explanation. Some of the villagers shrugged, while others squinted with greater curiosity at this visitor who proposed that he wasn’t that at all.

Salvador Ruiz, a native Cuban and an official translator for the Vatican, only met Father John Capshaw for the first time two days earlier, in Mexico City. He had never heard of the people who could cover 400 miles of ground in only two days, with only their feet, until a week ago, when he was told he would be leaving Morocco for the Sierra Madre and he would have to learn a new language almost overnight.

He had never known people to live in caves. His child’s imagination, dormant for so many years, was pricked anew by fantastical visions of canyons licked with sunlight so golden they shimmered as if with a glittering dust precipitate of this light and heat. And, Salvador’s mind had climbed higher so it could see bronzed men wearing colorful body and face paint, and arrows at their backs like pointed wings. But, he had quickly descended to the lower regions of his imagination where the adult brain probes instinctively for safer logic.

In fact, Salvador was relieved to find a people, though divinely crafted with feet that plowed the air of the ground with the swift grace of a cheetah, who were as subdued in their other physical aspects as he or any other human. His mother was Mexican and Uto-Aztecan was the language of her people going back several generations. He saw the blood of his own ancestors rise to the surface of the faces before him. He saw this familiar blood in the shapes of features similar to his mother’s and even his own. He saw it in the dark eyes cradled in these Indian features.

The priest spoke again to the village.

“There’s an old church in Creel that hasn’t been used for many years and it needs much renovation. If you would like to help with those renovations, I will hold a meeting at the church site tonight at 7 for those who are interested. I am very happy to be here with all of you.”

Salvador was impressed. He had served as a translator for many priests. These other men had used too many useless words in their introductions. As a translator, he always felt the strain of useless words on his own tongue. And, this was the first time his tongue felt relaxed and there was no tension in its muscles. Father Capshaw’s words of introduction were sparse. Other

priests had lathered up their introductions to native peoples with unnecessary personal anecdotes or humor, or pitched themselves like shampoo or other products.

Father Capshaw began a blessing in Latin, over the entire crowd of villagers. Salvador’s tongue was still as the Latin poured out of the priest on the rock. Latin was the language of the Church, and was not to be translated. Salvador got down on his knees and closed his eyes and the moment passed over Salvador like a storm. Then it was quiet.

The priest climbed down from the rock without assistance. The villagers gathered around him now and they asked him several questions about where he came from and they told him about the old, abandoned church in Creel and how long it had sat unused. They called it ‘The Ghost Church’.

Salvador’s tongue was put to work again. He lost count after 30 questions. He could feel the familiar sounds turned inside out on his tongue. He discovered the language of his ancestors did not melt so easily as others did on his tongue. And, Father Capshaw was tireless. He answered questions from old men and young children. At last, the villagers chose the men who would meet with the priest at the church site later that evening.

The villagers receded to the cool shadows of their cave homes or beneath cliff overhangs.

Father John turned to Salvador.

“Thank you for being here. I’m studying the language, but it will take time. If you don’t mind tutoring me, it might free you up sooner for other work.”

Salvador was accustomed to appreciation from priests, but most priests had not been so eager to take on the challenge of learning a new language, especially one that was dying out along with the people who spoke it.

“Of course, Father. And, the tongue is Indian, not Spanish, so the sounds are more foreign to the Western ear, but fluency is possible within a month or so, with daily study,” Salvador said, a very thin remnant of a Cubano accent lining his words.

“Then, I will study every day.”

And, Salvador believed it when the priest promised this. His words were few and direct. They were not crippled by the excess of personal gain or human doubt.

“They, why don’t we start tomorrow? We can meet anytime you like.”

“I will begin saying daily Mass at 8 a.m. tomorrow and will hear Confessions after that. Meeting later in the afternoon around 2 or 3 would be good. ”

“But, where can you say Mass?”

“One of the side altars in the old church should still be intact, so we’ll use that until the renovations are finished.”

Salvador had not seen a side altar used for a Mass since he was a small boy in Cuba. The concept warmed up long-cold memories of his abuela wearing a lacy, black mantilla and clutching the watery gray beads of her rosary before every Sunday Mass. He had not felt this simplicity of faith in years. The sharp corners of his childhood belief had long since been softened into a circular, pool of doubt about the ancient doctrines and traditions upheld by the fragile, sometimes wavering integrity of a succession of mere, mortal men.

“Would you like to get something to eat, Father, before the meeting? We could get settled in at the motel in Creel.”

“Good idea.”

The priest and his translator made their way up a well-worn foot path, over a small ridge, back toward a small, blue truck, rented in Chihuahua City the day before.

Downtown Creel arrived quickly. Like the Raramuri, the town spoke to visitors from the past. There were the unpaved roads and hotels with long, Spanish names, and old, gringo cowboys waking the sleeping dust clouds of the roads with their truck wheels that lazily plowed through the same summer air of a century before when caballos delivered los gringos to Creel.

And, the modern Padre in his ancient, black cassock was a complimentary detail in this particular painting, as the town of Creel was as unchanged by time as an artist’s rendering. It was a moment in time, without past, present or future. It all looked the same in Creel.

The blue truck ambled like the other trucks in the town, but with purpose, as the two passengers searched for the Rio Grande Hotel. An old, whitewashed adobe building with the name of the hotel painted semi-circularly across the face of the hotel, in a garish, but striking red color, and accented by a red rose.

The two men checked into the hotel, which smelled of many layers of common human activity from smoking to eating to drinking, as the stench of cheap beer wafted from somewhere deeper and unseen inside the Rio Grande.

Down the road was a diner where the two men ate and Salvador smoked. They spoke of their pasts, before Salvador was a translator and before Father Capshaw was a priest. As a very young man Salvador had worked for an uncle in Cuba, who was a commercial fisherman. Salvador had helped his uncle clean and gut the fish he caught. He did this for six years until, at 20 years old, he decided he didn’t want a life on the water. In high school, he had taken two language courses to everyone else’s one. He was fluent in Spanish, French and German. Searching for direction, Salvador met with his priest at St. Cecelia’s where he had served as an altar boy for seven years. The priest who had baptized him suggested he become a mission priest because of his affinity for languages.

“I considered it and prayed many hours about it, but in the end God answered me with a letter from another priest from mi abuelo’s church about translating for a new priest at another church. Word had gotten out about my ‘dancing tongue’ as mi abuelo called it. And, from there, I was literally moved across the world from parish to parish, until I somehow made it to Rome. It’s all a blur now. In fact, most things are a blur to me, except when I’m translating. Then, everything is reduced to the finest clarity.”

“That’s how I feel about being a priest.”

For the first time, Salvador saw a glimmer of something that was not calm and peaceful in the eyes of his companion. It was like the resolute glint in the eye of a prizefighter before the first bell rings or a marathon runner before the gun sounds.

“I wrote ads and made lots of money. Then, my parents died and, so did my uncle. He brought me back to the doorstep of the Church and gave me a good shove. And, obviously it was a REALLY good shove.”

“I got shoved, but a little bit at a time, and all the way to the Vatican.”

The two men smiled at themselves and one another and continued to speak of the past in all its novelty as viewed through the eyes of a stranger. It was easy and comforting to dwell in the past at least for now, when the future seemed as strange and remote as this new people of the canyon who lived there.

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