The church looked warm and welcoming against the backdrop of lifeless land. Its strong wooden doors beckoned him, promising some respite from the fierce sun. Hector accepted the invitation and crept inside. Breathing deeply, he was glad to find that the devil’s own dust clouds could not penetrate the sacred sanctity of the church. The air was always different in here. Hector wasn’t sure if it was the presence of God, or the architecture that created the stillness, but he really hoped it was the former. God’s intervention was about the only thing that could save them now.
Hector ran his hand through his hair, easing the dark, damp strands from his forehead; his sombrero habitually held at knee-height as a mark of respect. So many memories were stored in these walls, so much history. Maria had stood where he was now, a smile, expectant yet contented resting on her face as she made her way towards him, toward the unity of their souls. He walked where she walked, feeling her presence with every step, until the altar halted his movement. Dropping to his knees, his hands found the coolness of the floorboards. His entire life seemed to be held below their smooth exterior. Tears of joy had seeped through the grain at the offering of his children to God, and tears of pain as the offering was accepted. Invisible to eyes other than his own, three small coffins adorned the platform.
The word ripped through him and forced its way into the air.
“Where are you?”
The only reply was the taunting repetition of his words as they bounced off the plain stucco walls. A chill crept through his veins. This place was supposed to be one of refuge, of belonging, yet, as he shuffled to his feet, all he felt was emptiness. Desperate for a sign of some higher presence, Hector’s eyes searched the room for something… anything. Even the dust angels, brought to life by thin rays of light that weaved their way through the tiny windows, abstained from their usual illusion of life. Following the light, his eyes fell on a figure in the far corner, illuminated against a backdrop of shadows. St Nicholas, protector of children.
“You,” he growled, “you were suppose to watch over my children.” He made the distance three strides. “Where were you when the Caudillo’s men came and took my babies? I tried to protect them, I tried….” His words broke as the pain of remembrance shot through his soul.
“They made us watch. Do you know that? First they took their innocence, and then they took their lives. Izel was only six years old. She was a baby but still they…..their cries live within me now, clawing at my heart.” Hectors chest heaved as he tried to regain control. “You should have saved them.”
He focussed his attention back to the altar, his eyes moving up the large ornate cross that stood at its centre. “What have I done to deserve this, have I not been faithful? I don’t understand why we are being punished like this. I have taken all measures to protect what’s left of my family against those who dare to call themselves human, but I cannot protect against that which I cannot control. The riverbed is dry now. Our cattle are gone, our crops are dead, even El Lobo has moved away in search of new hunting grounds. We are starving, and you stand by and do nothing. What sort of God are you?”
Hector took a step forward, his arms stretched, reaching for the cross, but his legs, weak from hunger, refused to hold him any longer and he fell. Gripping the cold metal, and heaving up the last remnants of faith like bile from his stomach, he planted a kiss on the ground before looking up to the heavens. “Please, I’m begging you, please help us.”
The sound sliced through the otherwise silent air. Hector stared at the church door, his head tilted to one side. High-pitched short rasps that would have, under any other circumstances, been inaudible, now caught his attention. At first, Hector couldn’t place the noise. It definitely came from outside, but it was somehow wrong. Again it came, and his eyes widened. He ran towards the entrance, pushing the aged wood with all his strength until it swung open, and then he knew for certain. The noise was wrong because it didn’t belong there; it was the sound of a baby’s cry. Placing his sombrero back on his head to avoid the harsh sun, he stepped out into the dust storm.
The graveyard was deserted. Only the weather-worn wooden crosses waved at him through the tangle of dead grass. He picked his way through the graveyard towards the sound, but it stopped as abruptly as it had started. Stopping, listening, there was nothing. Lowering his head to avoid the onslaught of dirt that pounded at his face, he realised that his search had brought him to a familiar spot. A row of small crosses stared up at him, each with a name lovingly carved across it. Hector didn’t have to read the names. He closed his eyes, feeling the smooth handle of the chisel, as he carved his farewell into the soft pliable grain. He wiped a dusty hand across his cheek, but they were dry. Dead though his children might have been, at least they no longer suffered. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and gazed once more at the crosses, forgetting his reason for being there. Serenity and peace, feelings long forgotten, took their place within his soul, and for the first time in an age, he felt no pain. A movement behind a nearby clump of cacti pulled his attention away.
There, hidden from view, and wrapped in an old serape, was an infant, no more than a few months old. Hector crouched down and took the child in his arms. It seemed to be in good health and its face lit up as he stroked a finger down its cheek. The grass around it remained untouched and his were the only footprints, so where had it come from? Hector smiled. It was obvious. God was watching after all. This definitely wasn’t the sign he was hoping for, but it was a sign, nevertheless. Cradling the child, he picked his way back through the grave markers to the church door. After a final glance around for the mother, Hector’s eyes returned to the church. “Thank you,” he whispered, his fingers tracing a cross on his chest, “thank you.”
The curtains twitched as he strode toward the house, and Maria opened the door. She looked weary, but there was more than that. A worried look sat firm on her face. “Where have you been? Lucia is sick again, and I thought you’d gone.”
Hector placed the bundle on the step and reached out for his wife. He held her close as she wept. “I’m sorry, my love, I’m so sorry for worrying you. You know I’d never leave, you are my world.”
She burrowed her face into his chest. It felt good to have her close. “So, where have you been?” she asked.
He held her at arms length, looking into her eyes, “I’ve been to talk to God, to ask for help.”
Maria pulled away from him. “There is no God,” she spat. “God would never have allowed this to happen.”
“But there is,” Hector took hold of her once more, “I yelled, I cursed, and I begged, and then He gave me a sign. Look.” He picked up the bundle from the step, pulled back the cloth, and showed Maria the smiling face beneath it.
Maria took a step back. “A baby? Hector, we can’t even feed ourselves, how are we going to feed a baby?”
“I don’t know. I asked for help, and this is what He gave us,” Hector said.
“Well…” Maria pulled the covers back further, looking at the infant’s plump body, “I guess they say he works in mysterious ways; we can’t turn down a gift from God, can we.”
A smile crept over Hector’s face as he followed Maria into the house with the child. Her seductive sway always caused his heart to beat a little faster. She turned and took the child from his arms, motioning toward the bedroom. “She’s missed you too.”
Lucia was asleep when he entered, her dark curls damp with sweat. He ran his palm across her cheek, barely touching the skin so not to wake her, and kissed her clammy skin. Feeling her stir, he pulled away. She opened her eyes and looked at him. He swore he would disappear into those big brown pools one day. Lucia tried to lift her head but the exertion was too much. Hector cupped her face in his hands and smiled. “Your Mama tells me you’re sick again.”
“Yes,” she said. It was barely audible. “My stomach hurts, Papa.”
“Well, you just rest now.” He kissed her forehead. It tasted of salt.
“We’ll soon have you feeling better.” The rhythmical rasping of sharpening knives filtered through from the kitchen and Hector’s smile grew.
“God gave us food.”
Lisa Jenkins is a 37 year old writer from Swansea, South Wales. Brought up reading Edgar Allen Poe, her writing style concentrates less on descriptive gore, and more on the dark side of the human mind. The main aim of her story telling is to put the reader into the uncomfortable position of questioning the strength of their own morality, while also fulfilling the most important role of any writer, that of entertainer.