Monday, July 01, 2013


The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The  Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun -- he felt himself falling into an ecstasy. It was nothing  less than this: he had brought it to pass. Had restored to life a dead man.

In all these years of carrying his teachings through the land, preaching his axioms, counsels, his wholesome thoughts for the good of Mankind—of declaring in passing that the Day of Judgment is at hand: repent, sinner, before it is too late—this was the first time he had ever experienced a success so profound, so sublime. And it had taken place in the dry, dry desert of the Atacama. Indeed, it had taken place  in a wasteland -- a salitrera, a nitrate mining camp; the least likely setting for a miracle. To top it off, the dead man was  named Lazarus.

There is no question: in all these years of wandering the roadways, the pathways of his country, he had rid people of many evils, many sorrows -- had even raised up more than one man from his deathbed, men who had already given up hope, had been abandoned by medical science. He was sought after by throngs of the sick of all descriptions, of all conditions—not to mention the hordes of blind people, of paralytics, of the deformed and the mutilated who followed after him, who came before him seeking miracles—he anointed them and blessed them all without regard for their creed, religion, social caste. It may have been his laying on of hands; or perhaps rather the home remedies and herbal unguents which he applied—if the Holy Father saw fit to restore many of these poor souls to health, hallelujah, brother! And if not, hallelujah as well. Who was he to judge, to find wanting the blessed will of the Almighty?
To restore a dead man to life, however: this was something else. This was a higher art. As he would say every time some grieving mother approached him, begging between sobs that he might take pity on them, come to our house, see if you can do anything for my little son, he died while he was sleeping, Oh Lord Christ; or will you come and annoint my mother, she was consumed by tuberculosis, the poor dear -- with the understanding, perhaps, that they meant to pay him for his visit with some valuable heirloom, knowing of course that he did not accept offerings of money. On every one of these occasions, plus many others as well, the Christ of Elqui's response was simply to recite this verse, as boring already as the menu of a pulpería: "I'm sorry, dear brother, my dear sister, very sorry; but the sublime art of resurrection belongs exclusively to Our Divine Master."

 And that is what he said to the miners who arrived caked with dirt, carrying the cadaver of their workmate. They came just at the moment when he was most full of grace, preaching before the people on the diabolical influence that the modern world csn wreak on the spirit of even a devout Catholic, a believer in God and the Blessed Virgin Mother. The gang of calicheros broke into the midst of the worshippers, carrying on their shoulders the body of the deceased; dead of a heart attack, they were telling him as they laid the body with care at his feet, stretched out on the burning sand.

Upset, embarrassed, everyone talking at the same time, the rednecks were explaining to him how they'd been eating their lunch, their Thursday plate of beans, just beans again, the group of them had been on their way down for a drop to drink, to "wet the whistle," and that's when tragedy struck -- their fellow worker, all of a sudden he grabbed at his chest with both hands, he fell to the ground as if struck by lightning -- not a chance to say so much as help!

--And there you have it, sir-- said one of them --. We thought that you'd be able to do more than this quack of a camp doctor; there's nothing on his shelves but bandaids and permanganate.   

In the midst of that waiting crowd, the Christ of Elqui didn't say a word. On the contrary: broiling under the sun in his purple taffeta cape, he stood silent, looking at the dead man. His gaze was absent, almost translucent, as if he were gazing at a mirage out in the desert. He seemed to be struggling with a deep-seated psychic dilemma. After an instant that seemed an eternity, with a histrionic wave he looked away from the dead man, covered his face with both hands, opened his mouth to speak, bearing in the inflections of his voice infinite pain:

—I am sorry, my brothers, but I can do nothing. The sublime art of resurrection belongs exclusively to God the Father.

But the miners had not come to hear rejection, rejection wrapped up in the cellophane of pretty phrases. Surrounding him, their wiry beards almost touching him, they pleaded, they demanded, they begged him in the name of God Most Holy, Oh Lord Christ, at least try it. Told him it will cost you nothing to try. That all you need do is to place your blessed hands over the body of our friend—as we have seen you do for the infirm among us all these days—and to recite a few Hail Marys or an Our Father. Or whatever else you might find to say. You must know better than we, which things you can say to convince the ancient one on high. And who knows, perhaps God in his moment will understand and take pity on our comrade, the best among strong working men, who has left in this vale of tears a widow, still young, and a crowd of seven little kids; imagine it, Oh Lord, seven children, fully seven, all still quite young.

—This poor kid, Lazarus, his body here with us— cried one of them, turning to the deceased, laying his arms in a cross over his chest —you could say he is a countryman of yours, sir, for just like we have heard of you, he was born in a village of the Coquimbo province.

The Christ of Elqui lifted his gaze to the eastern sky. For a moment, he appeared fascinated by a far-off flock of birds flying in slow circles above the slag heap, flying over the dusty tailings of the salitrera. Pulling at his bushy beard, thinking and rethinking what he was going to say. Finally he spoke, in an apologetic tone:

—We all know where we were born, my brothers, but not where our bones will lie buried.
One of the sunburnt men, the biggest among them, with a thick birthmark crossing under the handlebar mustache on his face; he bore all the signs of being foreman of the group—the others called him Gutiérrez the Fox—ceremoniously removed his hat. Pleading in an anxious tone, with his crafty eyes, his fox eyes:

—This poor boy Lazarus, here where you see him, Teacher —he was more than just a good Christian, he was an exemplary husband, a caring father, one of those sons who loves his mother more than anything on this Earth. He was the only solace for her old age; he brought her up here from the south to live with him.
And these were the key words. The man who honored his father and honored, above all, his mother, the “queen and sovereign of the household,” as he himself had preached and published in his pamphlets, such a man was worthy of a long life, of many days on Earth. And indeed, the man was named Lazarus. How could this be other than a signal from God?

He approached the body that lay before him. Gazed on it a while, standing. The dead man was wearing a filthy work shirt that reeked of sweat, jeans patched on the sides with burlap flour sacks, double-soled boots. The skin of his face, weathered by the sun and by the dusty desert wind, resembled the parched geography of the pampas. Roughly forty-five years old, with a dark complexion, rough hair, and a short stature: he recognized the unmistakable pampino type -- it's a type you meet every day in these salitreras, where he felt right at home. These many years now, he'd been travelling through the camps preaching the good word; and long ago, before the Celestial Father carried his dear mother away to heaven, when he was still a young lad, he had worked as a miner for a few years.

As he knelt down beside the body, the Christ of Elqui noticed the stench of drink was strong on it— perhaps the dead man had downed a few bottles of spoiled wine, or the poisonous spirits that some of the low-class pulperías brew from denatured alcohol; these wretched miners were pretty hard up. But what of it, that’s how pampinos are. They are patient men and they put up with a lot; their backs and their courage are strong. One should not judge harshly the moments of weakness, of luxury, that the precarious pleasure of drunkenness affords them.

The Holy Father understands well that liquor—and if one does not have liquor, some Eau de Cologne—allows them more easily to bear the tedium, the criminal loneliness of these infernal locales; inebriation makes more tolerable their pitiless exploitation, the insatiable greed of their foreign employers.

The Christ of Elqui had been in Los Dones for a few days. Its residents had been supporting him, good Samaritans; particularly the women, who would invite him every day to eat with them or to take tea. Him and his two apostles with him, two men out of work who'd sworn their devotion to him in Taltal. Two men in rags who hadn't yet learned even to cross themselves, though they'd been with him longer than a month, who ate like starving men,  smoked as if they were before a firing squad; who would sooner take a slug of liquor than scourge themselves.

For his part, he must serve as a light for the world; he did not drink or smoke. A glass of wine at lunch, as directed in his teachings, was sufficient. He hardly touched his food; for among my sins, of which I certainly have many, my brothers, I have never reckoned gluttony. Indeed, at times, simply because he wouldn't think about it, he would go for days without eating. His frugality was not limited to his diet; generally, in order not to be too much of a burden on whatever household afforded him shelter, he would just sleep on one of the rough wooden benches, the simple furniture that the workers used, or stretched out on the floor like a dog, on the clean tiles of the pampino houses. He always tried to make whole the families that  welcomed him, anointing their injuries, leaving a word of counsel or a few pamphlets with them—his maxims, his wholesome thoughts for the good of Mankind. And, of course, his recipes -- his herbal remedies for every class of ailment, certainly these.

So, before the eager eyes of a crowd anticipating bearing firsthand witness to a miracle, the Christ of Elqui, still kneeling on the ground, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, adjusted his taffeta cape, and rolled up the cuffs of his tunic. With a theatrical, studied motion he placed one hand on the forehead of the corpse and raised the other up to the heavens, holding up his palo santo crucifix; his face to the sun, he began to pray unto God most high, his voice clear and strong—should it be Your blessed, Your holy will, Oh Eternal Father, Father Most High, Holy Father, make all your power manifest, in the name of Your infinite mercy: restore unto life Your son, Lazarus, and lengthen his days here on Earth; for on the testimony of these present, his workmates, this man was a fine person, a good Christian, one who has hewn close to his sacred duties, has earned his bread from the sweat of his brow, has loved his wife and his children. Above all, Oh Divine Father, he has honored and protected his sainted mother.
It was December, the middle of the month, and the day’s air was thin. The white sun was crackling hot on the galvanized walls. But stronger than the weather was the intrigue, the anticipation; nobody moved an inch.
While the Christ of Elqui spoke -- partially in a foreign idiom, for he possessed the gift of tongues -- a supernatural silence fell over the world. No one was listening to the buzz of engines, the squeak of pulleys, to the noise of pistons in the factory; no one heard the revolutionary Mexican ballads that were coming from a Victrola at the end of the plaza. At this instant, the Christ of Elqui -- in prayer, his face turned to heaven -- was the central point of the universe.

Suddenly, the foremost people in the crowd, which was mainly housewives, their purses stitched together from flour sacks, started in amazement. They could not believe what they were seeing: the dead man had twitched a finger. At least that’s what it looked like to many of them, and they shouted:

—His finger has moved! A miracle! A miracle!

The Christ of Elqui felt his heart leap. Without ceasing his prayer, he opened an eye and looked across at the hands of the deceased, interlaced upon his breast. He felt as if someone was lifting him up off the floor by his long, tangled, Nazarene locks. It was true! The dead man’s hands were moving! What he had dreamed of through all these years of preaching his gospel, preaching in his worshipped mother’s memory, had come to pass.

He has revived a dead man!

Hallelujah! Praise be to the King of Kings!

As the man opened his eyes and sat up infinitely slowly from the ground, as he looked about himself stupidly, the women wept and beat their breasts and cried miracle! miracle!... And it was enough for him to notice the gleam in the revived man’s eyes, to figure out that this was not the look of a man freshly returned from the sulfurous abyss of death. He caught on to the joke just a moment before this Lazarus, who could not restrain himself a second longer, rose up with a spring and gave way to full-throated laughter, leaning against his buddies for support.

The witnesses to this sacrilegious joke were scandalized at the heresy -- these miners, these savages would make a joke of their own mother... but gradually, nudging and grinning at each other, they ended up laughing. Even some of the women who'd broken out weeping hysterically, ended up joining in; the applause the joke received was a grotesque cacaphony  of guffaws, sobs, wet sniffles. Such was the explosion of hilarity, its expansive waves reached as far as his apostles, who were struggling to maintain their composure, turning their faces and covering their mouths to keep inside the impardonable cascade of laughter shaking them, drowning them from within.

The Christ of Elqui, still holding his crucifix on high, remained in ecstasy for a few interminable seconds. It seemed as if he had turned to stone. He opened and closed his eyes as if trying to frighten away with his eyelids the impious reality of the moment; and at last he reacted in anger, his pride wounded. His face flushed with rage, and he ranted against these damned pharisees, come to mock the sacred teachings of God. He untied the hempen rope he used as a belt, brandished it at them. The workers, still laughing, fled the scene; they vanished between the garbage bins and the clothes lines of the neighboring alley, on their way to keep on drinking somewhere else.

His apostles were shocked. They had never seen their Teacher like this -- he looked like he was possessed by a demon. As the crowd dispersed to their homes the preacher sat down, trying to recover his breath, on one of the stone benches. His dark eyes shone with fury. Resentment was strong in his soul; the tunic and the cape’s taffeta mortified his flesh like a hair shirt. He threw himself back against the bench, his gaze lost on some invisible point in the air. He began meticulously to pick his nose, alternating between his index finger and pinkie with a beatific expression on his face -- this was an unconscious habit of his in his moments of greatest spiritual anxiety.

After a few minutes of this—of having drunk from the “bitter chalice of misery,” as he referred to this class of buffoonery—he was constantly the victim of such japes—still digging about in his nostrils, the Christ of Elqui awoke with a start, as at the touch of an angel.

Seated there on the bench, he looked all around him as if reassuring himself of where he was. He wiped the snot from his fingers in the pleats of his tunic and, turning suddenly, he began to walk toward the other end of the plaza, where the music was coming from (and now they could hear it clearly) -- a Mexican ballad recounting the feats of Siete Leguas, beloved horse of Pancho Villa.

“Let’s go have a drink,” he called to his apostles from the middle of the plaza.

A bit surprised, they followed him. In his sermons and moral teachings he was always recommending they avoid spirits… but he reassured them. They would not be getting drunk, just trying to get over that scene, would just get a belly full of liquor to soothe this damned toothache, which he could feel coming back. Before he passed through the doorway he turned to his apostles, raised an admonitory finger and, as if seeking to comfort himself, warned them in a stern voice:

—Never forget, my brothers: the nail which sticks out, always runs the risk of a sharp blow from the hammer.

[Hernan Rivera Letelier's ART OF RESURRECTION was just translated from the Spanish by Jeremy Osner. This is Chapter One.]


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home