now as the aged scion of his family, still tending
his sister Ramona’s fields and wondering how all
of his family could have died before him. When
the mountains surrounding Guadalupe erupt in
flames, the history of the village seems to be set
loose in the smoke. The dead arrive and the silent
speak. When Flavio is accused of starting the fire
that quickly threatens to consume the village, the
disaster becomes one more mystery that he must
fold into his own memory, though he cannot quite
understand any of it.
A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García is a
beautiful, funny, even epic tale of how all history is
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
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A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García
By RICK COLLIGNON
UNBRIDLED BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Rick Collignon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe morning the mountains caught fire and the village of Guadalupe began to burn, Flavio Montoya was once again standing beside the irrigation ditch behind his sister's house.
"This field is turning co dirt," Flavio said, and then he turned his head and looked at the foothills. There had been no moisture in Guadalupe for Four months, and the hills were dusty and too dry. The trees had grown faded and listless as if they had forgotten altogether what rain was. There was a shadow moving between the piñons, and Flavio thought idly that it seemed too large and moved too haphazardly to be a deer.
"My sister's field" he said again, to no one but himself, "is dying."
It was just past dawn, and the sun was still far below the mountains. Flavio had been trying to irrigate Ramona's field for the past twelve days, and he had come to wonder how such a simple chore as moving water, a thing he had done all his life, had suddenly become so difficult. While it was true that there had been no rain for months, it was also true that the ditches in the village were running full from the heavy snows the winter before. More than enough water to keep the fields wet. Where the ditch ran, the alfalfa was green and sturdy, but stretching away from it was cracked earth and a scattered army of stunted yellow plants. And although the drought and the harsh spring winds were much to blame, Flavio knew that he, too, was at fault.
Each morning, long before dawn, Flavio would come to the field. But after just a few minutes of digging, he would tire and then stand motionless with his shovel as if both were spaded in the ground. He would stare blankly at the dark shadow of the mountains or at the back of Ramona's empty house with its small curtained windows and think about nothing. And then, suddenly, as if there were no such thing as time, he would wake and find himself standing in the heat of the sun. Then he would walk slowly to his truck and drive home.
This morning, the morning Flavio saw the shadow of Felix Garcia moving between the piñons and the morning Guadalupe began to burn, Flavio and his shovel were again standing quietly beside the irrigation ditch. He had once again forgotten how dry his sister's field was, and staring absently at the foothills, he remembered the time his Grandmother Rosa told him that Demecio Segura had been born into a snowbank.
"Demecio was just a little man, mi hijo," Rosa had said to her grandson. "Almost no bigger than you. And for all his life the only luck he ever had was poor at best."
It was early October and snow had fallen for the first time on the village of Guadalupe. Flavio had walked that morning from his own house on the other side of the valley to his grandmother's. He had never walked that distance by himself before, so when Rosa opened the door and saw him standing proudly in the snow with wet feet and no hat on his head, she had shaken her head and smiled. Then she told him that, although she was happy he had come to visit, if he ever did such a thing again she would have his grandfather sit him down and they would have a little talk. Rosa and Flavio sat in the kitchen together, Flavio ate biscochitos and drank warm milk with coffee while his grandmother told him about Demecio Segura.
"Demecio had always sworn," Rosa said, "that he could remember distinctly the moment of his birth. And he would tell this story over and over to anyone who would listen.
"'It was the coldest night of the year I was born,' Demecio would say. 'When there is no daylight and Christmas has just passed and there is no reason to live. I was born on that night. Although it was my mother's good luck not to endure the severe pains of childbirth, it was my bad luck to be born into a snowbank.'
"Demecio's luck was always like that," Rosa said to her grandson. "His cows were not only sickly, but grew to the size of large dogs and were so mean-tempered that when Demecio was near they would bark and try to bite his feet. His wife, who was not from here, was fond of climbing trees until one day she fell while picking piñon and broke the bones in her neck. Not long after that, Demecio went to live with his nephew, Luis, a man who never spoke but only grunted. It was said that Luis would hit Demecio with a stick whenever Demecio complained, which was always. He was not a happy man, hijo, and he went about his life as if the air was full of stones.
"'I remember clearly,' Demecio would say. 'that life before this life was warm and without trouble and that the first time I took a breath it was snow.'
"Demecio's mother, who was named Demecia after her own mother, became pregnant one spring night. She was forty-six years old and unmarried and an only child who lived with her old parents. Demecio's mother told no one she was with child because she did not know she was pregnant until the moment her son sprang from her womb like a fish jumping from the river. Although Demecia was a good-natured woman, there was, since her own birth, a blankness about her eyes and around her mouth and in her movements as if a fire inside her had never been lit. She did not know she was pregnant for the simple reason that she was unable to comprehend the idea of yesterday.
"On the day of Demecio's birth," Rosa had said, "Demecia was returning home from the church where she had dusted with a dry rag, as she did every Thursday evening, the fourteen stations of the cross. As she neared her parents' home, a sharp spasm racked her lower stomach and Demecia gasped in pain. Her feet slipped out from under her, and she fell hard on the frozen path. She wrapped her arms around her belly and moaned, and in that instant, Demecio, in his haste, burst into the world and landed face first in the snow. He lay there half buried without moving, his voice shocked into silence. If he'd had one coherent thought it would have been that life is full of surprises and none of them can you see coming."
Rosa leaned back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. She looked across the table at her grandson. "So you see," she said. "You must always be careful and never walk across this village until you're old enough."
Flavio, who'd had no idea his grandmother's story had anything to do with him, suddenly saw the village full of small vicious cows and men who did not speak but only hit you with sticks. A place where babies could be found in snowbanks.
"Grandmother," Flavio said. "Will those things happen to me?"
"Which part, hijo?" Rosa said, and she smiled.
"All of it."
"No, mi hijo," and she leaned across the table and touched her grandson's hand. "It is someone else's story. Not yours. But that doesn't mean you should ever ever forget."
Seventy-five years later, Flavio stood in the field behind the house that had once been his grandparents' and then, after their deaths, his sister Ramona's. His mouth was half open, and his breath came and went gently. He slowly became aware of the water rushing through the ditch, away from him and away from his alfalfa. It occurred to him that all he had really done for the past twelve days was drive across the village to torment his alfalfa, which deserved better. It was then, out of the corner of his eye, that he saw Felix García, a man too old and sick to be out by himself, walking through the piñons.
Felix García hadn't walked anywhere for the past eight years other than to shuffle along with his son, Pepe, from his bed to a table in the café that carried Felix's name. A vein had burst in Felix's head one morning while he was preparing beans and chile in the kitchen of his small restaurant. And though Felix had always been a quiet man who kept to himself, the stroke left him utterly mute and slow and vacant, as if whatever had once been inside him had suddenly left. He now spent his days sitting alone in the far corner of the café while his son cooked in the kitchen.
Flavio and Felix had known each other all their lives and, before Felix's stroke, Flavio would often stop at the café before going to his fields. He and Felix would sit and drink coffee, and through the smoke of their cigarettes they would watch light come to the village. Flavio had continued to go to the café after Felix fell ill, but in truth, the trembling that never left his old friend's hands and the soft sounds that came from the back of his throat made Flavio feel uncomfortable, as if the two of them had become lost in the same place.
One day, a few years ago, Flavio had sat beside Felix and without even looking could see how badly Felix's back was now bent and how he stared straight ahead with wide open eyes even though his head dipped low to the table. It was then Flavio realized not only that he no longer knew who this man was, but that he couldn't bear to continue watching him approach death in such complete solitude.
That was the last time Flavio had been inside Felix's Café Even now, when driving past the restaurant, he would look elsewhere and think of his fields or of the wood he was to get at the lumberyard. He would think of anything and pass by the café as if the place was not quite real and those reside were only thoughts he used to have.
The first thing that went through Flavio's mind when he saw Felix stumble to the base of the foothill and into the sagebrush was that what he was seeing couldn't possibly be happening. The Felix García he remembered had difficulty walking just a few steps, and that only with help from his son.
"I am seeing a trick," Flavio muttered. He closed his eyes and felt the sun hot on the back of his neck. He wondered how long he'd been standing in the heat, and he realized that somewhere along the way he had become an old man. Along with too much sun, that could make someone see things he would prefer not to. Flavio took a deep breath and let it out slowly. But when he opened his eyes, he could still see Felix wandering slowly through the sage as if lost in each step.
By the time Flavio had hurried and tripped his way through the brush to Felix, Felix had stopped moving altogether and was standing stone still staring straight ahead. His clothes were a mess. His trousers were ripped at the knees, and his shirt was torn where it had snagged on piñon branches. His hands were stained with pitch and crusted with dried blood. Flavio thought that he looked as though he had spent the morning not walking, but rolling up and down the foothills.
"Felix," Flavio said hoarsely, out of breath from moving so quickly through the sagebrush. He reached out, almost more to steady himself, and touched his friend's arm.
"Felix," he said again, "what are you doing out here? This is no place for you." Felix's lips moved without making a sound. His face was streaked with dirt and saliva and was badly scratched, a thick clot of blood on one ear. Flavio shook his head and looked at the foothills. "Where's Pepe?" he said. "How can this be?" The hills were empty, and with no breeze it seemed to Flavio as if nothing had ever lived there except loose rock and piñon and scrub oak whose leaves were now curled and yellowed with no rain.
Flavio leaned forward and in a whisper said, "Are you better, Felix?" As soon as the words left his mouth, he realized how foolish they were. No one as ill as Felix ever got better, and if they did the whole village would have heard. Even if Flavio had not been told such news, no one in Felix's condition would suddenly get up one morning and go hiking in the mountains.
"I'm sorry, Felix," Flavio said. "I didn't mean to say that. Venga, primo," and he reached out his hand again and took Felix's arm gently. "Let's get out of the sun."
Flavio found that if he pulled Felix's arm slightly, Felix would shuffle his feet and follow alongside him. They made their way slowly through the sagebrush and over the warped timber spanning the irrigation ditch into the alfalfa field. At times, Felix would stop and Flavio would talk to him about anything, as if his words carried the rhythm that would make Felix move his feet. By the time they crossed the field to Ramona's house, the back of Flavio's shirt was stained with sweat. He felt as though he had been walking in the sun for hours.
When Flavio pushed open the door of his sister's house, he felt a rush of cool air against his face and could smell the heavy odor of dampness and musk. He had not been inside the house in the five years since Ramona's death, and the place was exactly as it had been on the day she died.
A week after her funeral, Flavio had driven to her house with the intention of packing away her things in boxes, draining the pipes of water, and boarding up the windows. He had parked his truck under the cottonwoods in her drive and sat in the cab smoking. It was late spring that day. The leaves on the trees had just opened, and the air was warm. Looking at the house, he thought that this was where his grandparents had once lived and where his father had been raised. The earth around the house was full of their footsteps, and the old adobe wails were seeped with their scent. After he finished his cigarette, he had started the truck and left the place as it was.
There was talk in the village, especially among those who were older, that Flavio had left things the way they were just in case Ramona was to return, that he thought she would be upset if her favorite dress or her coffee cup was stuffed away in a box somewhere. Sometimes children would peer in the windows, in the thin space between the curtains, and they would see Ramona's shoes on the floor beside the bed that was unmade or the pots still sitting on the stove. When they would see her paintings hanging on the walls, they would decide that there were better places to be than in this house.
Over time, the house became a place people gradually stayed away from, as if its emptiness was full of things that made them uneasy. Even Flavio, who had spent much of his youth there and later had drunk coffee with his sister in her kitchen, had come to feel uncomfortable when walking too near the house on his way to the alfalfa field.
Now Flavio stood before the open door and looked inside. He could see the sofa across the room. Hanging on the wall above it were a number of Ramona's paintings, the oils dulled with dust. He thought that maybe it wasn't such a good idea for him and Felix to stop here, that it was possible they would catch some disease from the air that had been trapped inside the house for so long. He wondered how much longer it would take the two of them to walk the distance to his truck. But he could see how ragged Felix's breath came and went and how dry and cracked his lips were. Who knew how long it had been since he'd last had water. Flavio patted his arm.
"Come inside, my friend," he said. "We'll take a little rest in my sister's house and then I'll drive you home," and they walked together inside the room.
Sunlight was coming in the small window above the sink in the kitchen. There was enough light in the room for Flavio to see that the surface of all the counters was thick with rodent droppings and the dirt that fell like mist from between the boards in the ceiling. The walls were stained a dank yellow from roof leaks and were so bad in one area that the plaster had swelled out away from the adobe. Bowls and pots and silverware that had once been his grandmother's lay strewn on the countertops. On a small table was a stack of old books that mice had gnawed at, bits of pages lying on the floor. And here, too, were more of Ramona's paintings, some of them streaked with dirt and water, the paint smeared and blurred. The room looked small and sad and used up and made Flavio feel even more tired than he already was.
"This house is becoming lost," he said softly, his words not much more than air. After a few seconds, he walked across the room to the sink. He turned on the tap and was relieved to find that the pump in the well still worked. He let it run until the water ran clear and then he drank deeply from the faucet, washed out a glass, and filled it again for Felix.
Felix was sitting on the sofa in the front room. Other than the dirt and scratches on his hands and face and his torn clothing, he looked just as if he were sitting as usual by himself in the corner of Felix's Café. His hands, trembling slightly, rested in his lap. His shoulders were hunched and he stared forward with his head drooping. Flavio sat beside him and held the water to Felix's lips as the old man took a few sips.
"This has been some morning, Felix," Flavio said and leaned back against the couch. "To see you walking out of the mountains." He shook his head and settled a little deeper into the sofa. "I don't know what I thought."
Across the room was a painting of the same alfalfa field Flavio had been trying to irrigate for the past twelve days. But in this painting the field was full, the alfalfa green, the blossoms a rich purple. Two men and a small boy stood in the distance with shovels where Flavio knew the ditch lay. Beside it hung a painting of the old village office, which still stood not far from Ramona's house-a crumbling adobe with cracked windows and a bellied roof that sat in a field of dry weeds and twisted, rusted-out vehicles.
Excerpted from A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García by RICK COLLIGNON Copyright © 2002 by Rick Collignon. Excerpted by permission.
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