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"Brilliant . . . dramatically real and poignantly felt . . . a remarkable feat." (Chicago Tribune)
"Morrow's assiduous probing of the intricacies of moral choice hits us where we live-or ought to live." (The New York Times Book Review)
"Astonishing in its breadth and vision-an intimate record of a dangerous age." (The Boston Globe)
Kip and Brice are best friends, sons of men who engineered the atom bomb in New Mexico. As they come of age in the mid-sixties, Brice is drawn into anti-war activism, while Kip disappears in Vietnam--leaving Brice to marry the woman they both love. Twenty-five years later, Kip returns--but can he reclaim what has been lost? "Uncommonly moving."
Los Alamos to New York and Long Tieng, 1944–1969
WE CAME CAREENING across the desert toward Chimayó, dry warm wind over our faces hysterical with laughter, crazy with our sudden freedom, while over our heads an enormous sky wheeled, studded with stars, and the Milky Way shed its ghostly glow over the buttes and piñon trees and junipers. We were fifteen and we were in some kind of trouble. We were tickling the dragon's tail hot and heavy. And though our eyes were tearing from the wind that scratched them, the tears dried on our temples as fast as they flowed, and our tongues felt thick from the scotch whiskey we'd taken from Fuller Lodge back on the mesa. It was me and Kip and this kid we picked up hitching in the middle of the night out along the stretch by San Ildefonso pueblo, not Indian, a Hispanic named Fernando Martinez who was probably younger than we and who kept standing up in the back seat as we accelerated across the landscape. The bottle went around from hand to hand. Words were shouted but flew away behind us into arroyos and sagebrush. We were the most unholy trinity on the face of the earth, or else the most holy.
Grim and giddy, we'd have been a sight to see if anybody had been there to see us, but the highway between Pojoaque and Chimayó was empty. We stopped once to walk into the desert a few hundred feet and throw ourselves down on our backs and look up at the stout stars and wobbly moon and howl and curse and dance, and just be cool, bad outlaws, while back on the road the radio blasted "Tutti Frutti" and this Martinez began to carry on because Kip asked him what he was doing at the pueblo if he lived over here on the high road to Taos, and the kid started bragging that he'd just popped his first cherry. I said,—No you didn't, and he said,—Did so, and Kip said,—You lie like a dog, man, and he said,—You lie like a rug, man. But it didn't really matter because when he asked us what we were doing out here in the night in a stolen car, good boys like us, crewcut and white as soaptree yucca petals, here in our T-shirts and bluejeans cuffed over brown shoes, when we told him what we were doing, he didn't believe us any more than we believed him. We told him we were from up on the Hill and we were making a pilgrimage to the valley of the little church where the dirt is sacred, because we were sick and our parents were sick and every last one of our neighbors was sick. All of us were guilty, tainted black to the pit of our souls by what had happened at our home. This is what we said. We, they, all of us needed to be cured, and the only way to be absolved of the infamy of so many murders was to go, pay homage, and partake of the magic purifying soil at Chimayó. Fernando Martinez coughed loud, spat hard, and rolled around in the arroyo laughing like somebody who didn't have the sense God gave an apple, and said,—You guys are nuts, and we said,—Are not, and he said,—You're out of your minds, and we started running like jackrabbits to the car, and Martinez was at our heels shouting,—Hey, wait for me! and though we didn't, he managed to leap into the back seat on the fly in time to stay with us all the way down into the village, and we didn't mind because nothing mattered, we were in such trouble by now, nothing mattered at all except getting to the church in order to be blessed with the miraculous dirt that would sanctify our great escape and confirm our newfound manhood.
The plaza of El Potrero was dead. After we pitched to a halt, a willowy cloud of dust came washing over us, and what descended in its wake was a glorious silence, sweet and haunted. We sat, staring up at it, awed almost to sobriety. A dog barked in the near distance, short choppy echoing yelps, then everything was silent again.
El Santuario de Chimayó, humble in the moonlight, an enchanted godhouse whose curved lines and organic shapes made it seem like a thing built by fairy-book creatures, so phantasmagoric were its adobe towers and rounded mud walls. It was more sublime, more modest than anything we had ever witnessed. At that moment, without having to confirm in words what we were thinking, we knew, both of us, that we had not guessed wrong. Chimayó was just where Kip and I had to come, we night riders in the tradition of Las Gorras Blancas who journeyed across New Mexico from dusk to dawn a century ago cutting the cursed barbed wire, fighting the bosses who were bent on fencing us in even then—our people, our land, our lives—we kids, we midnight penitentes burdened less by our own sins (ours were still ahead of us) than those of our community. And this was why we were here. Because we had finally gotten it through our adolescent heads, finally comprehended our exile and why our fathers were both revered and hated—revered because they were heroes who brought the war to an end, hated because in order to end the war they created something that in turn promised to destroy the very people it was meant to protect.
Deep in the heart of our ambivalence it took moonlight to shine in upon certain truths, for, back on the hill of poplars where we lived—poplars are los álamos—there were things so buried in the dark, the sun didn't know how to make them manifest. Good old pock-faced buttery yellow daddy moon, we drank to him, lifting our bottle high to where he nested in the cottonwood trees and big box elders. All was aglow and appeared to pulse. I can remember feeling scared and happy. I believed in what we were about.
For whatever kind of night this Martinez had already managed to have, he was not ready to give it up just yet as history. No doubt the chance to watch what these two strange children come down from the Pajarito Plateau were going to do was more compelling to him than going home. We didn't pack him off. We had come in our way to like him by then. He was a saintly outlaw was Martinez, we'd decided, and probably yes it was true he was not a virgin anymore. Even if he were, we had to admire if not covet the way he wandered around in the night, unprotected and unsupervised. We'd never met anyone quite like him, having ourselves been overprotected and overseen from as far back as either of us could remember—literally corralled at birth by barricades, censored and surveilled, isolated and cloistered, sworn to silence, and guarded by military police in hutments and on horseback. Though it had been seven long years, nearly half our lives, since the roadblock gates had been lifted, and one no longer needed a pass to get in and out of our town, the sense of constraint, of being different and apart, remained. Even the few dangerous games we had managed to invent and play up on the Hill, games we worked at hard in the hope of seizing vital freedoms, paled before Martinez's ranging independence. Look at him down here on the desert floor running free as the breeze. Listen to him brag and laugh. Watch his head jerk, his fingers point, his knees snap. See his clothes flap casually around his arms and legs—even his old baggy denims gone white with age and cotton shirt thinned to silk seemed untamed. He was absolutely fluent with his freedom, wore it with the same unself-conscious grace a ponderosa wears its bristled boughs.
So, yes. We'd begun to admire this Fernando for where his hasty feet could carry him. Also, being our parents' children and therefore not entirely unpragmatic, we kept on with him because it had become clear he knew the way far better than we.
Now Martinez leapt from where he had been perched on the dusty cream canvas boot behind the back seat. In the moonlight I could make out the merest trace of a moustache and dark down in his chin cleft. He was an old young boy, I thought. We followed him down the mild slope of the plaza under the zaguan, the arched entrance into the courtyard of the church. A creek trickled and gurgled out below and ahead of us somewhere, water that would twine, like all running water in this stretch of scratchland, down into the Rio Grande and find its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The birds were all asleep, the dog had gone back to sleep. Everyone was slumbering but us three. Martinez had the bottle and knew the way, so we were as much in his wake as the lunar-gray highway dust had been in ours back on the desert.
—How do we get in?
—See, I was baptized here, I know this place good, Martinez assured us, his voice a low mewl, ignoring my question. He was more talkative now that he'd become one of the impromptu gang, the leader in fact for the moment. We didn't speak, but studied him as he tried the carved wooden doors that led into the sanctuary.—Damn, he said. The doors were shut tight and it was too dark to jimmy the old lock. After a few elastic moments of silence Martinez reappeared, ran his forearm over his mouth, and led us around to the west side of the church. The stars burned cold and bright above the steeples and through the tree limbs, but seemed different here than back on the Pojoaque flats, more razor-like and frozen and sharp. The sky between them was purple toward the horizon, bluish black at the center overhead, and dirty white like aspen bark around the body of the full moon. On the far side of the river, over at the margin of several hectares of pasture rose Tsi Mayoh, the hill from which the valley takes its name. It was a long, curvilinear granite hump that resembled some dozing, ancient beast. Scrub bushes crowded its backlit profile like crooked teeth. The moon kissed its horizon and I thought if I were the moon, I would, too.
Martinez was carrying on.
—Yeah yeah, I was saved here when I was little, you know. See, I was born too small, size of a grasshopper, my bed was a shoe box, and I kept getting bloody noses and headaches and when I'm in third grade they're afraid I'm gonna die, and the doctor in Taos say I got a brain tumor and he wants to operate and my mother decides to bring me to Chimayó, so we go inside the church here, we pray, and after we pray we go in the little room and I kneel down, I bend over, and they sprinkle the dirt right there on the back of my head. Sprinkle dirt just like you sprinkle holy water. I still remember the smell of that cool dirt. It smells like ... real earth. You'll see. God he lets things happen bad and good, but for me it was good.
Along the length of the plaza side of the santuario runs a room that, I later discovered, used to be a vestment chamber where the priest would don his robes for Mass, but was converted to a sacristy where pilgrims pause to give thanks, having visited the posito and partaken of the sacred dirt. It is in this room the faithful leave behind their crutches, after experiencing the miracle of the soil. Martinez pointed to a dormer window that protruded from the roof of the sacristy.—Up there, he said. The edge of the roof was just high enough that Kip and I had to boost Martinez on our shoulders to hoist him up. Once there, he whispered,
—Come on, and extended his hand down to us. Kip climbed on my shoulders and Martinez pulled him onto the roof.
—Now what? I said.
—Jump, said Martinez.
I tossed the bottle up to them and jumped high as I could, my arms outstretched over my head. I touched their fingers, but fell back to the ground. Jumped again, again fell. The third time one hand caught mine, then another, and I swung freely in the night until the two of them hauled me aloft. We sat on the corrugated tin to catch our breath, then Martinez crawled to the dormer. Panes of glass were missing, and when he reached in to unlock the window frame he disturbed some roosting pigeons that launched themselves over his shoulder, making a raucous exodus of wings clacking and bleats like terrified babies. As Martinez slid backwards on the tin we all let out our own cries of terror. But then, at nightmare speed—too slow, too swift—we saw Martinez open the window and disappear into the crawl space.
—Yeah okay, he said from within, as if he were talking to somebody inside, his voice echoing off walls we couldn't see. Kip shimmied into the blackness after him, and I after Kip.
Now it was fully pitch-dark.—Come on, we could hear Martinez ten or twenty feet ahead of where we lay on our sides, breathing hard from fear. We heard him crawl on all fours forward, and we heard him pause before he jumped. When he landed he gave a grunt as if the wind were knocked out of him. Footsteps down in the nave. We scraped along, edged forward, bumping into one another, feeling our way deeper and deeper into the church. Suddenly the square opening ahead became illuminated—a faint white flickered in vague space. We crept to the end of the shaft and looked down into the void. Fernando Martinez stood below, a ghost shedding light upon ghost altar, ghost santos, ghost pews. He'd lit a candle and held it over his head. He wore a broad smile on his face.—Told you I know this place good, he said. I looked at Kip and Kip looked at me, and we dropped down feet first into the sanctuary, two drunk virgins, larcenous and saturated not just in hot, smooth swig but the innocence of angry idealism, hardly believing where we were.—Now we go to the well of earth, Martinez said.
Years later I discovered that there is a word for the act we performed on behalf of all the guilty souls back home on the Hill. Geophagy, it is.
Having hit our heads on the lintel of the doorway near the altar, we found ourselves in a claustrophobic chamber, a cell whose air was humid and ceiling low, with one small window. Here it was, the posito, a primitive circular hole carved a forearm's length wide and about as deep in the ground. We knelt. First we washed our hands with the dirt, then our faces, and finally we began to eat. From the tips of our fingers, from the bowls of our palms, we ate from the bottom of this hole handfuls of damp, crumbly loam known as the tierra bendita, choking, hacking and spitting, holding it down though it wanted to come up. Fernando Martinez sat against the wall and regarded us, amused and sodden and calm. He forbore to join our earthen feast. The candle flickered and made our shadows jump, giant and grotesque on the walls, while he finished off the whiskey and soon enough drifted into a dreamy stupor.
December 1944. Here is Los Alamos, New Mexico, an invented town, an extemporaneous city made for men at war, a secret district that couldn't be found on any map, a community that did not exist two years before Kip and I were born, between Christmas and New Year's, into a world of opposing ideas, of rage and determination, of fire and death, a community that was still in its rural infancy when we came crying into the slantlight—Kip morning, me evening—that poured through the windows of the delivery room.
Los Alamos. Sometimes in the night to frighten myself I will whisper those words into my pillow. Los Alamos. So low, so almost, so lost all souls. Los álamos, poplars, cottonwoods, the quaking aspen—álamo temblón. I'll whisper these words and I, too, will begin to tremble.
And yet it would be an easy falsehood to claim that I didn't love the place. However spartan, it was in many ways a veritable paradise back in those earliest days, as most who lived there would agree. We sometimes called it Shangri-la, though the military preferred the less expressive designation of Project Y. But by whatever name it went, Los Alamos was rather Utopian—a successful experiment in socialism, perhaps the most successful socialist community ever to be founded in this country, paradoxical as that might have seemed back in the fifties, when our principal purpose was to develop a hydrogen bomb to deter the spread of Communism, to bring socialism down so that the free-world markets might thrive and the concept of state ownership be passed into extinction.
Our parents were so young and so brilliant, and in our brand-new home there was no undertaker, no cemetery, there were no elderly people walking the streets, no widows gazing out windows. None of our citizens owned real property, nor were we subject to municipal tax. Unemployment was unknown to us. Loneliness was rare among us. Racism and casteing did not much occur to us—though it must be said there was certain social status attached to living in one of the houses of older vintage, because those were the only structures on the Hill furnished with bathtubs, but this rare honor went more often to the scientists than the military men. Still, we were a pretty integrated group. None of us was rich, none of us was poor, and because our town was unknown, drifters and grifters were never seen to walk our unpaved streets. In the war years our secret citadel was free of crime—no one had time to contemplate theft, and besides, none of us back then had anything worth stealing except ideas. Our skies were blue daubed silver and white and the purest black, and nowhere was the taint of smog that beleaguered other cities. Disease was more or less absent from our lives. That is, our doctor might set a broken arm, the result of a construction accident or a fall down a scree-strewn hiking trail, and later, as the bomb neared completion, might treat an early victim of radiation exposure, but the hospital was used above all as a place for delivering babies.
Excerpted from Trinity Fields by Bradford Morrow. Copyright © 1995 Bradford Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 16, 2011
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Posted May 7, 2013
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