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FATHER JUNIPERO'S CONFESSOR
By Nick Taylor
HEYDAYCopyright © 2013 Nick Taylor
All rights reserved.
NUEVA CALIFORNIA, 1784
I ROSE AT DAWN a humble conqueror. Here, a thousand leagues north of the landfall of Cortes, the Bay of San Francisco was alive with birds, giant flocks passing before the sun like veils. The briny aroma of the marshes rose to the window of my lodge, along with the cloying odor of acorn porridge.
The Earth's newest Catholics were stirring.
I had convinced the neophytes of the rightness of tortillas at supper, but their allegiance to atole in the mornings was unshakable. To me it seemed cruel, not to mention unwise in a time of uncertain provision, to forbid such an innocuous privilege. I myself had sampled the acorn gruel, and to the best of my knowledge it was not intoxicating, nor poisonous in any way. The taste was another matter. The acorns were ground and reground on the women's stone metates until the tough fibres of the acornmeat gave way to coarse meal. My children used no herbs in seasoning the dish, nothing but creek water.
That morning I selected two neophyte boys to serve as runners and translators on the journey to Carmel. Neither gave even the slightest hint of pleasure when I called his name, for it was the habit of this tribe to suppress all outward signs of emotion. In the two years I had lived among them, I had only on rare occasions seen a smile, and then only from a baby.
After breakfast we waited for the last member of our traveling party, a soldier from the presidio. I had no reason to expect that we would be bothered on our journey, particularly with the two neophyte boys in my company, but custom required that we be attended by a soldier. The King's soldiers were dull men, deficient always in some way, for why else would one be posted here at the wildest frontier of all Christendom? As we waited for the tardy soldier, I joined with my companion, the Reverend Fray Vicente Santa Maria, in singing a Mass for the safe completion of our travels and the healthful recovery of Fray Junípero.
"Kiss the hands of His Reverence," implored Fray Vicente, "and assure him that the work goes well in this quarter."
"That news will cheer him more than a thousand kisses," I said.
My companion nodded knowingly. The little bird-boned Galician was right to anticipate that Fray Junípero would ask first about the mission. I would be lucky if His Reverence gave me five words about himself, so fully did our work consume his thoughts.
"But you will kiss his hands for me?" Fray Vicente's brow creased above his weak gray eyes.
"I will, Brother."
The soldier arrived just as the boys finished saddling our mule, and we four joined the trail before the sun had burned the dew from the grass. While arduous, the fifty leagues' journey between my mission on the bay and Fray Junípero's at the edge of the great Southern Ocean was a tonic for my nerves. The hills were dry at this time of year, and in every direction they rolled out like golden waves, studded here and there with live-oaks, manzanitas, prickly pear cactuses and other camels of the plant kingdom, each guarding its hoard of water deep within the Earth. In some places, there had been no rain since Easter. But even arid land provides fodder for the senses: there was the sage and anise scent of the chaparral—like the maquis of my native Mallorca—clinging to the grades too steep for the oaks. There was the rustle of oak leaves, stiff as fish scales, in the breeze. Hawks screeched on their high circuits, waiting for the rustle of the serpent or the vole. And always the steady clop-clop of the mule. His plaintive snort, the soothing words of the boy holding his rope. The grunt of the soldier on his horse, stomach aching from last night's tipples. And my own breathing, always in my ear, the only constant companion all these years.
In the great valley south of the bay, the air was warm and dry. Extending my arms on either side of the trail, I brushed the whiskers of yellow sunburned grass. Before the governor forbade it, the Indians burned the hillsides once a year to clear away the dead grass and flush out game. In spring, fresh shoots would grow, turning the hills green for a while. The oldest Indians said that the hills were never as green as they used to be, as though we Spaniards, with our unfamiliar tongues and customs, had brought curses rather than the light of Christ.
These people, the costanoans as we called them, were kin more to the beasts of field and forest than to the European man. They compared unfavorably also with their southern cousins, the descendants of the aztecas and mayas, who had been, when Cortes found them, skilled with tools and accustomed to rule by monarch. These northern tribes lacked even the most rudimentary understanding of human society. Agriculture, pottery, stonemasonry, metallurgy—all of these were as foreign to them as the Spanish tongue. Without crops of any kind, they lived an irresponsible life, gathering acorns and various wild grains, relying on the vagaries of nature for their sustenance. Their poor nutrition made them ugly, short, lumpish, and ungainly. The women went about in skirts made of rabbit skins laced together by sinew thread. The men and children were altogether naked. To mask their physical shortcomings, or perhaps to distract the looker, they marked themselves—men and women—by smearing pigments into wounded skin. We forbade scarification among neophytes residing at the missions, but the practice continued beyond our perimeters. Some pagans had even adopted the cross into their designs—a development which cheered Fray Junípero even as it horrified the rest of us. "The skin is only the beginning, Paco," Junípero had said. "Soon the Holy Cross will be etched into their hearts. All is progress, my son! Love God!"
The first day's travel was routine. The only excitement came when the neophyte boys spotted on a distant hillside a small flock of cierdas, which are a kind of antlered deer found in this country. Being well provisioned and impatient to reach Carmel, I denied the boys' request that we stop and hunt. We spent the night at the southernmost reach of the valley, laying our mats under an oak as wide as the apse of a cathedral. I spent a restless night worrying about the condition of my master, and after a breakfast of cold tamales, I could wait no longer for news: I sent the two neophyte brothers ahead to Monterey with instructions to return like Noah's doves with news of His Reverence.
Thus I was alone on the trail that second day with only the pitiful young soldier, my escort, for company. Astride his sweltering horse, he scratched his groin constantly and complained too often of thirst. Several times I tried to engage him in conversation but gained only that he had been raised in the diocese of La Mancha. The dolt lad had no thoughts on God, art, or politics. I resolved that we would walk in silence, and I occupied myself in imagining that the ridgelines of the hills were the spines of giants buried beneath the earth. "Cervantes would have loved this country," I said out loud, trying one final time to engage the young man. He said nothing, being either unwilling or unable to reply.
We followed the trail over the crest of the coast range onto the sandy plain formed by the delta of the Rio de Monterey. The river had been named San Elizario by Fray Juan Crespí—may his soul rest in Christ—but had been changed subsequently to match that of the nearby presidio, which served as the administrative capital of New California. The fog normally enshrouding the basin was out to sea that day, and late in the afternoon I was able to see our returning messengers some distance down the trail. They called when they saw my mule inching gingerly down the slope.
"Amar a Dios," I replied in the usual fashion. "What is the news of Fray Junípero?"
Pánfilo, the elder of the brothers, gave the report: "When we arrived, he was seated at a workbench outside his cell, cutting a bolt of cloth with ... scissors." The neophyte spoke carefully measured Spanish, pausing only briefly at the end before remembering the word for the odd cutting implement, las tijeras.
Watching the boy struggle with the Castilian tongue, I recalled how Rigoberto, my first neophyte son, had once described the unfamiliar sounds of our language: "The Spanish tongue is like a minnow, father, snapping insects from the surface of the pond." Like these boys, Rigoberto had once gone ahead. But he had never come back.
Pánfilo's younger brother could not contain the thrill of finally laying eyes on the famed Fray Junípero Serra. Switching to his native tongue—which I spoke only haltingly but understood well—he said, "There was a line of women, Father, waiting to receive the cloth. Some had been baptized in Christ, and some not. Some were heathen women from the villages. But it did not matter—His Paternity made each kneel and hear a prayer to Our Lady."
I knew that if a heathen woman came to Fray Junípero on any feast of Our Lady, he would allow her the same amount of cloth as a baptized woman—so long as she knelt and listened to a prayer sung over her by the matron of the convent. I pictured these women clearly: they would be dressed as Spanish peasants in loose-fitting robes, sun-bleached linen blouses, huaraches, and wide straw hats. Their unbaptized cousins stood in their rabbit waist-tunics, waiting patiently to see the friar who required only that they hear a song to receive his gift of woven cloth, a commodity more dear to these people than gold.
The report of His Paternity engaged at his usual work gave me hope that he had been premature once again with his boding. Indeed, when we arrived at Carmel around dusk, he came all the way to the road to greet us. With him were Father Fray Matías Noriega, his companion at the mission, and a crowd of not less than one hundred neophytes, or nearly all the population in residence. They trailed behind their father in perfect discipleship, bearing candles and boughs of fragrant cedar. It was a clear evening, and the sun was just then setting over the ocean, bathing the scene in a warm orange light. As always, Fray Junípero beamed with the favor of Christ, arms spread wide in welcome. My soldier escort was so moved by the sight that he spurred his horse so that the beast would not tarry on the last decline.
Our animals' feet churned up an unfortunate cloud of dust. Taking a lungful, Fray Junípero began to cough: a bitter, painful noise. He lifted an arm to cover his face. I ran to his side and was joined there by Fray Matíasand Junípero's boy, Juan Evangelista José. Junípero pushed us all away, preferring to make his own way, unaided, back to the dormitory. We remained in the road, careful not to move for fear of stirring up more dust. When His Reverence disappeared inside, Fray Matías touched my arm.
"Fray Francisco, I apologize for not contacting you sooner, but the Father President insisted that I keep his secret."
"You should have written."
"I beg your pardon, but he reads my correspondence."
I had known Fray Matías many years and had always found him candid and trustworthy. All of our band of missionaries agreed that he was an exemplary friar. Indeed, that is why Fray Junípero had chosen him to replace our friend Fray Juan Crespí—may he rest peacefully in Christ—as his companion at Carmelo. Now, though, I wished Fray Matías had been perhaps less exemplary in his devotion. I resented what the soldiers might have called his "weak spine."
"You could have sent word another way," I said. "A runner, perhaps."
"He is much changed since Fray Juan passed."
"That was two years ago, Brother."
Fray Matías bowed his head. Though a decade younger than I—not yet into his fiftieth year—his head was entirely bald, save for a gray corona at the rear. "I only know what I have seen, Your Reverence. I have prayed many times for God to give Fray Junípero the strength to mourn, but I assure you his grief persists unabated. I know I could never replace Fray Juan, but it seems as if there is an obstacle in his heart."
"Fray Juan will never be replaced," I said, measuring my words like a chemist mixing a powder. "Even so, you must not burden yourself with Fray Junípero's suffering."
The idea of anyone bearing the suffering of our Father President—this man who beat himself with iron chains, who smashed stones against his breast until his skin was torn and bleeding—was sufficiently inconceivable that it struck both Fray Matías and me as a kind of joke. He smiled and said, "I suppose you are right."
It was now nearly dark. The neophytes had gone back inside the walls of the mission, and the gate would soon be locked for the night. Fray Matías and I were alone in the road, feeling a change in the air. Mission San Carlos Borromeo is located on a bluff above the Rio Carmelo, and in the evenings, the fog rolls onto the marsh below the bluff, filling it up like a lagoon.
"He wrote also to the brothers at San Antonio and San Luis Obispo," said Fray Matias. "But he asked that I hold the letters until you arrived. I was not to tell anyone the extent of his suffering."
We walked together as far as the door of Junípero's cell, where I asked Fray Matías to leave me alone to compose myself. I had a sudden feeling of dread, caused not by the failing health of my dear beloved friend, but by an old jealousy, something I thought I had put behind me long ago.
I took a deep breath and knocked. A moment passed in silence, and then came the familiar voice: "Who is there?"
"Your Reverence, it is Fray Francisco."
Another pause. "Come in."
I had not been to Mission San Carlos in over two years—not since Fray Juan's requiem Mass. Much had changed at the site since then, most noticeably the construction of the stone church building, which was now nearly three-quarters complete. Fray Junípero's cell was exactly as I remembered it: four bare walls, unplastered so that one saw the pebbles and bits of straw in the adobe bricks. The earthen floor was neatly swept. There were no furnishings but a wooden bed frame, a stool caned with tule reeds, and a low table for writing. A single candle burned in a pewter cup on the table.
Fray Junípero sat on the stool, fingers clasped about his rosary. He made no effort to rise as I entered, but only said, in his usual high-pitched, grating voice, "Amar a Dios, Brother."
"Always," I replied.
He looked, in a word, diminished. His eyes had retreated into their sockets, and his mouth turned down slightly at the corners. Although short in stature—never more than five feet, crown to sandals—Fray Junípero had always maintained an unyielding posture. Now he was hunched like a cobbler. Both sleeves of his habit, I saw, were crusted with mucus from coughing. Around his neck hung the usual wooden crucifix, an enormous object, one of the only possessions he had brought with him from Mallorca those many years ago. At bedtime he removed the crucifix from its cord and placed it on his chest, where the horizontal beam stretched nearly the width of his breast.
I stood awkwardly for a moment, before my Father pointed to the bedstead, indicating for me to sit. "Oh, Paco," he said, "would you please close the window? I am so cold."
I went to the far wall, where a portal about the width of a man's forearm opened onto a garden of roses and pink gillyflowers. I myself had planted this plot, before the founding of Mission San Francisco called me north. In my time at Carmelo, I had never had the pleasure of witnessing the roses in full bloom. I could not see the colors in the darkness, but the smell confirmed success.
I pulled the casement shut.
"Thank you, Brother. Please sit."
There was no mattress, only a thin wool blanket spread over the slats. Many years ago, I had wondered how a man could sleep on such a pallet. That was before I discovered that His Paternity did not sleep.
"I came as soon as I received your letter," I said.
"Remind me, Brother, which letter is this? I have sent you so many. And each time ... each time you remained at your mission."
"Your Reverence, I am here now"
"I suppose you want to discuss the supply ship."
Excerpted from FATHER JUNIPERO'S CONFESSOR by Nick Taylor. Copyright © 2013 Nick Taylor. Excerpted by permission of HEYDAY.
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