Eighteen

Even as he knelt before the altar, rosary in his hands, he could not feel the presence of God. There had been times in prayer when Father Luis had felt the presence of the Lord so profoundly that it had made him weep. But today, he was alone. Perhaps, he considered, he had been for the past thirty years. What use would God have for a priest whose whole life was a lie? Who had done nothing but lie since the day of Juno’s birth?

In his mind he could argue the existence of God. In his actions, he affirmed his faith in the Church. But his heart seized with doubt in the face of the violence, poverty, and pain he witnessed in the lives of his parishioners, in the news of his world. It was an ache within him that did not begin with the death of his sister but had solidified that day, became like the benign tumor he had on the bottom of his foot which he felt only when it rained, but then every step was agony.

He had prayed feverishly since the police had visited, asking for guidance, for a sign. But no answers came. Rather, no different answers came. Father Luis knew it was time for Juno to know the truth of his past. Perhaps God had abandoned the priest in his prayers because he was really only asking for a reason to excuse further cowardice, more lies.

When Luis looked at Juno, he was sometimes overwhelmed with feelings of love and tenderness. As a child, Juno was so delicate, so sensitive, the picture of cherubic innocence. Luis wanted only to protect him within the walls of the church. In this, at least, he had not failed.

Juno’s blindness kept him necessarily isolated and the church kept him sheltered. Interaction with other children had been limited to mass and Sunday school. Juno had never heard the sound of a television set. His uncle kept an old transistor radio but very few channels came in clearly except a classical-music station and the local NPR affiliate.

Father Luis read to him from the paper, so Juno was not ignorant. He had an awareness of world events, technological advances, famous people. But these things existed in another universe, a place Juno would never visit. Juno was more concerned with his guitar, with the business of the church and the people who sought his counsel, than he was with a celebrity murder trial or the Mars probe. His uncle was secretly grateful Juno lacked the curiosity that could only bring him pain and harm, that could only expose a world far less peaceful than Juno’s, a truth more terrible than anything he could conceive.

He had always planned to tell Juno the truth about his past. But when the boy put the inevitable questions to him, Father Luis had woven an extraordinary tale. Juno was nine years old when he heard rumors of how his parents had died. And instead of delivering the truth his nephew deserved, when confronted the priest lied. The story differed little from the Scriptures read to him every day, and Juno never questioned its veracity, even as he grew older. Much as he never questioned the story of Noah’s Ark, or the Garden of Eden, or the parting of the Red Sea. For Juno this was truth, history. This was what his uncle and his heart told him.

But the real story of his mother and father and how they had died was not a fairy tale. It was as ugly and real as the world could be. In grief after his sister’s death, the priest had written a narrative of the events to share with the boy one day, something he hoped would help him to see into his mother’s heart and know the truth of her motivations.

“Care for him and make him know me.’’ His sister’s dying words haunted him. He had failed her yet again.

The truth had stayed locked away in the drawer in his desk for the last thirty-five years, bundled by a piece of string with the documents of Juno’s life – his birth certificate, his Social Security card. The pages were creased and yellowed and no one had laid eyes on it except the priest. Luis had always told himself, I have done this to protect Juno. Does he not suffer hardship enough?

But he could feel the cold eye of God on him. Luis knew he was also protecting himself from questions he could not answer even now.

It was late and the church was dark, with only the light of a few altar candles. The New Mexico night was silent. Juno was asleep. But not for long. Father Luis blew out the candles and walked toward Juno’s closed bedroom door. As he reached for the iron knob, he knew that he must wake Juno now and tell him or he never would – that he would lie until the day he died.

He startled at a sound from behind the church. Was it the back door? Had he been careless again and left it open? Grateful for one last delay, he walked back into the church. The door to the garden did stand open. And he could see a light coming in from outside. Not the mounted light, but the beam from a flashlight. It was obvious he should call the police. Yet he didn’t. He walked quietly toward the light, hearing as he grew closer the rhythmic sound of someone digging in the dirt.

He tried to peer through the opening of the door. But whoever was in the garden stood beyond the periphery of what the priest could see while remaining unseen. The digging stopped as the priest pushed open the door and stepped out into the garden. The man he saw there, he knew well.

“We’ve been worried about you, my son. Where have you been?’’

“I’ve been so busy, Father. So very busy,’’ the man answered with an unusual solemnity.

“What are you doing?’’ The priest looked down at the head of the shovel, and something unspeakable, in the beam of the flashlight. The cold finger of fear pressed into his belly. He took a step backward, the unformed thoughts he’d only vaguely considered when speaking to the police earlier, coming into horrifying focus now. He stared at the man before him and searched his face for the man he knew, and saw no trace. The wild, shifting eyes, the tousled hair, the mouth that twitched horribly between smile and sneer, were the features of a mad stranger.

“My son,’’ Father Luis began, voice quavering, “no sin is so great that the Lord will not forgive you. Come with me.’’

“I don’t think so, Father. I have too much of the Lord’s work left to do. I know you could never understand, even though you are a man of God.’’

In the last moment, the priest tried to run. But the killer was on him with the deadly speed and grace of a lion on a gazelle. The priest’s legs buckled and he lay dying in silence with a scalpel to the throat, staring with his dying eyes into the stars. The killer sat on top of Father Luis’s chest and watched the blood drain from his neck into the fresh, black earth until he was dead. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’’ He waited and was not surprised when the angel appeared to him again.

“Daddy.’’

He knew better now than to try to touch his son. It only made him go away. He just sat and stared at the beautiful child. The priest held the little boy’s hand. The killer was comforted to see how peaceful he looked. Of course, he knew he had had no choice but to kill Father Luis. But still, Father Luis was such a good man. It was a shame he had come outside when he did.

“Daddy, I’ll take him to God. It’s the only place he ever really wanted to go anyway. You did the right thing. You always do.’’

“Thank you, son.’’

They turned their backs on him and walked into the desert night, fading into nothing. He was overcome with fatigue. So tired, but so much work before him.

And yet another grave to dig.

But first, to finish the task at hand. He walked away from the priest’s lifeless body and returned to the hole he had dug. It was not the first hole he had made in the little garden.

“‘For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright heart,’’’he prayed, as he removed Maria Lopez’s heart from the jar of formaldehyde and placed it in the black wet earth.

His thoughts returned to Lydia Strong. He remembered the day she had stood in this garden. He could see from the look on her face that she sensed something. Of course she could never have imagined or intuited what was buried there. But she would know soon enough. He filled the hole, replaced the flower that was growing there, packing the earth in around the roots and the stem. He pointed the flashlight and assured himself that the ground did not seem disturbed. Then he walked to the van and took a body bag from the back. He lay it on the ground and then rolled the priest’s body into it, zipping it quietly.

Contents