Hands and Knees

first published as podcast:   Nov. 12, 2011

The priest woke up knowing how they should dig the channel to the garden. Under his tireless direction, dream natives from both sides of San Francisco Bay had already appeared to contour the site and bring water to the precious vegetables near their new healing Mission, recently christened San Rafael. He could taste the earth and smell the new onions, peas, garlic, beets, carrots, corn and greens.

Father Corazo threw back the cowhide and pushed himself to calloused knees on the compacted dirt of his room.

He recited the morning prayer of thanks to the Father.  This green, fertile land of fog was so different from the heat and dust of Baja. God’s humor had replaced the harsh sun of treeless Loreto, in Baja California, with these towering redwoods that obscured the sun all day.

From the Son, he sought purity and charity.

He asked for energy this morning from the Holy Spirit; from Rafael, the Archangel, healing for his flock; and from St. Francis, the grace to follow his example.

Corazo’s morning chocolate, still hot, was just inside the door; a signal from his servant that the bell for Mass would ring soon.

“Sebastiano,” he called.

Corazo’s helper, a native convert, came to the doorway.

“We’ll need ten men for digging today. Pull some of them from the tannery and the tallow pots. Have Julio assemble them after Mass near the corral with any digging tools he can spare.” Before Sebastiano could turn away, a youngster ran up.

“Yes, Tomaso?”

“Gabrielo says they are out of wheat seed.”  The Mission was already awake.

“We are not out of seed.” Corazo looked at Sebastiano, who said:  “I’ll bring it from the store room, Senor.”

“Tomaso, please have Gabrielo see Sebastiano after Mass.” Corazo needed time to set up an inventory and teach someone to maintain it.

“Brother.” Tomaso no sooner disappeared than Fr. Gil, Corazo’s superior, padded calmly up to the doorway. Gil’s thin frame had a curve like a frail old woman, but he was God’s tireless hand of healing here at San Rafael.

“Good morning, Father.”

“You recall I’m traveling today?”

“Certainly, Brother.” Corazo was surprised by his own lie.

“I’ve changed the dressings of the wounded.  Give them their medicine this evening. You’ll have to carry on for two days until I’m back; longer, of course, if there are surprises. Michaelito can help you. He’s almost fully recovered. We lost two more last night that came with the Nicasio group. Michaelito can inter them and log them in the registry.”

“Do you have the supply list?”

“Only the medical items.”

“Can I give you the general list after Mass?”

“Yes, but then I must leave immediately. Don’t delay. The tides.”

He didn’t mention his dream of channel and gardens to Gil.  Why risk denial?

Corazo had originally planned to send guards and converts West toward Bodega to round-up runaways today; a group of Koshaya Pomo natives had been gone over two weeks. Now, inspired by the dream of the channel, he was torn. He realized that for two days the projects on which the mission population labored would be entirely his own to choose; but so would be all the direction. It would be a lot to manage.  Was it too much?

Should he bring help from the outlying Rancheria to go with the soldiers?  No; better to have some of the Mission’s own unbaptized natives dig the channel and send fewer converts with the soldiers.

He suddenly realized he himself would be leading Mass this morning and that Gil had been indirectly reminding him. He gave up the idea of eating and went straight toward the women’s quarters. As he walked, he selected a large iron key from the ring on his waist rope.

When the key touched the iron lock, the women’s cries started, some tearful, some strident, others fearful or demanding. Claudio pulled the heavy door open and eight or nine girls poured out and scattered like birds startled from a tree. Old Claudio herded them toward the chapel.

“Good morning, little sisters,” said the priest to the women waiting to be formally released.  Some murmured “Buenos Dias” in return; others were silent, eyes on their feet. The smell of human waste and unwashed bodies filled the doorway with color, a muddy eggplant purple. It had been entirely dark until the door had opened; no windows, no candles.

“Wash for Mass. We’ll be starting almost immediately,” he said and stepped to his right and the women hurried through the door. A narrow-shouldered woman of 40 with strong eyes and a confident posture lingered. “Good morning, Rosaria,” he said.     She regarded him without sign of hearing.

“We want eight women at the looms today; four can be carding and spinning, but still learning, while the other four weave; four women to the fields; four to the gardens; four grind flour; four to the laundry, and so on. We will use the youngsters in the kitchen today, God help us. What is it?”

“Father, does your plan for today include some work on the huts for husbands and wives?”

“Not today, Rosaria. After water is reliably flowing to our gardens, we will finish the houses.”

“The wives cry all night for their husbands, Father. No one sleeps while they wail and moan, so we fall asleep in the field or kitchen or laundry.”

As the morning bell rang, he said:  “You and the others must wait on God now and not sin by complaining. You must teach the young ones. Now we are wanted at Mass.”

When Corazo approached the altar to the east of the cross, he was surprised to find two men in Franciscan robes kneeling in front of Gil. The one he recognized, Fra Amoroso, rose to greet him. The other was a stranger, on his knees.

“Greetings, Brother,” said Amoroso, embracing Corazo warmly. “We pushed through from San Jose in two days, can you believe it?  You should come back with us, when Gil is back.”

The spontaneous invitation touched Corazo, since it clearly bubbled up from a full, exuberant heart.

To Corazo, Gil said: “Please begin the service.”

Amoroso said quickly:  “This is Brother Quijas. Quijas, this is Corazo.” The two exchanged nods.

“May I ask one of our visitors to deliver the message this morning?” Corazo asked the pair, more than Gil.

“Please do,” said Gil.  Amoroso indicated Quijas with an inclination of his head.

Natives filled more of the chapel than usual since word had spread that there were visitors at San Rafael. Some of the congregants were sick and hoped for healing from the shaman of the whites. Converts served at the altar, while assistants in pants and shirts of crude mission cloth patrolled the gathering with long goads to jab back to wakefulness anyone whose head drooped.

As the sound of the unskilled chorus drained away, Quijas turned to the group.

“Is this the best you can do?” he shouted, without preamble. “Is this how you thank your God?”

Sebastiano translated for the group in a few calm-sounding Miwok words that whispered where Quijas had roared.

Corazo was dumbfounded. He glanced at Amoroso. There had been no warning about this judgmental messenger.

“The Almighty shaped you from the mud with His Own Hands. He stretched your muscles like the string of a bow. He put the heart of hot blood in your chest, as he put the hot sun in the sky. He put His Precious Lips to yours and breathed into you His sweet Breath and gave you life. And this is how you live?  Thankless?  Grasping?  Naked?  Fornicating?  Thieves! Stealing anything shiny!”

Corazo stood up to intervene. Gil wasn’t doing anything about this torrent of hostility.

“You are the devil’s own children and we have come to you here in the mouth of Hell to pluck you out of the fire that the evil one has built for you.”

Here Corazo sat down again. Maybe Quijas was back on firm ground.

“He fathered a son, too, And that’s your hope! Dirt poor, in a family with a father not his own, laughed at, picked on, hungry all the time, whipped, beaten, killed horribly.” Quijas grabbed a silver crucifix from the hands of a neophyte and waved it above the heads of the first rows. The natives shrank back. “You must grab hold of His hand to live!”

Amoroso said, under his breath:  “A waste of energy. Food and beads and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.”

Corazo started to speak, but Amoroso interrupted.

“I know. I should’ve warned you about our brother’s vocabulary.  Our mestizo brothers are a different breed of Franciscan, eh?”

As they left by the door at the side of the chapel, a tight-lipped Quijas joined them.

As though they had never been interrupted by the Mass, Amoroso said: “Quijas is to inventory the cattle, horses and sheep, as well as vines in production, bearing fruit trees and grain crops in the ground. I will visit some of the locals, because of persistent rumors that Russians or Americans have come to this area.”

Quijas said:  “I’ll need a servant. Maybe this one,” he said, indicating a girl, the wife of Benicio, passing by with a basket of clothes outside the men’s quarters. Quijas reached out and gently pinched her ear as she went by.

Corazo said:  “I’ll speak to Sebastiano, who will arrange an appropriate servant.”

Amoroso displayed a letter. “This should make our expectations clear to your Lieutenant of the Guard.”

At the sight of the letter, Corazo stiffened. “Gil is leaving on the tide for Dolores. I’ve got to get a supply list to him! Excuse me, Brothers! Please visit Lt. Arguello, while I am occupied.” He pushed away his hunger again and hurried away to find Sebastiano.

An hour later, Gil embarked in the large tule boat, with Corazo’s list of supplies under his hat. Corazo didn’t expect much on tomorrow’s boat that came for water, just some grape plants and medicine, but next week’s barge would now be full of good things.

Tomorrow’s water boat! “Sebastiano! After we get our visitors underway, please check on progress at the creek. So much sickness may have put Teodorico behind. And give me a hide count. Please just observe. Don’t become entangled with Teodorico. And tallow. Let me know how many bags are ready.”

When they reached the smaller square at the Asistencia, he saw natives waiting in the pockets of shade that different trees and structures offered.  The aqueduct project! How much time had been wasted.  Corazo reprimanded himself. “Sebastiano, separate them,” he said, indicating four young women, obviously enjoying being the center of male attention, near the laundry.  Corazo goaded himself. He had to get this group into the field and digging, per plan.

Where were the guards?  And their horses?  And his visitors?

As he passed the kitchen to the eating area, thinking to catch the brothers at breakfast, he noticed the mountain of ashes outside on the dirt. Had all good practice failed at once?  This should be in bags, saved for soap making. Then he remembered that Bartolo was sick. The visitors weren’t at table. Corazo decided to fetch his own hat, using that time to collect his thoughts.

As he turned toward his quarters, he saw a group of nearly naked natives, men, women and children, standing in the sun and dust in front of the chapel. They were a shabby group, with an assortment of pelts and baskets and weapons. One was obviously very pregnant. “Michaelito!” he yelled. They weren’t Huimen, from this area, he registered, but maybe Pomo from Olompali or even further north.

“Señor?” said Michaelito, at his elbow.

“What do they want?” asked Corazo, wondering out loud.

“To be baptized, father,” said the boy.

Corazo winced. He had been blank to that possibility, having looked them up and down for illness, signs of hunger, and what furs they intended to barter. “I need Teodorico now! And Sebastiano!” Michaelito hurried away. “And Rosaria!” Corazo called after him.

He went to his room. He dropped to his knees and wept.  He was already exhausted.  Disorganized.  Being driven by the details.  After a few minutes, he put on his hat. He found Teodorico and the others in front of the chapel. He laid out for them the amended plan for the day. Without the channel from his dream, they might pull this mess of a day back out of chaos.  Tomorrow just stared at him.

That evening, shaky with exhaustion, he followed the light of a candle toward the main infirmary.  He tried to remember what Gil had told him about changing the dressings. Which of the jars of powders, and pastes and leaves should he administer?  He hoped it was written somewhere.

Before he entered the hall, he smelled smoke, a fragrant dense smell, not hot, not thick. He passed a screen and amid the cots saw old Michaelito waving the smoke from a pot of burning leaves toward the bed of a patient; Michaelito was humming, lips moving. He was lifting the patient’s blanket to surround him with the smoke, then fanning the smoke below the cot and turning to the next bed.  Michaelito glanced up and held Corazo’s gaze for a moment. As the old convert turned back to his smoke, Corazo flushed with anger.

“This is still a house of God,” he yelled. He grabbed a lip of the smoldering pot and ignored the pain while he dragged it down the room and outside, fighting with the door.

He stepped back through the doorway to confront Michaelito. “Outside, you!” he yelled.

Michaelito cringed as though about to be struck.

“Come outside!” yelled Corazo again. “Now!” And grabbed the man’s elbow.

The fellow dropped to his knees and ducked his head.

Furious to find witchcraft within this sanctuary, Corazo grabbed the old man by his thin left arm and tried to drag him to the door. The arm was unresisting and the native flopped face forward to the floor.

“You little bastard, perverting your baptism, polluting our hospital!”

“Father,” said a respectful voice from several beds distant. Corazo saw Bernardo, usually energetic and fun loving from the water crew, propped up on his elbows while on his back, pain in his face, pale, with yellow crust around his eyes and nose. Bernardo had been sick three days.

“They are Bay leaves, father. It’s for the fleas. And the little lice. Michaelito was helping us against the fleas.”

The altar Corazo had built to his own judgment, his own skill, his own ability to manage, his altar to himself, fell to pieces. He heard Quijas’ voice in his outburst; saw Quijas’ anger in his own violence toward Michaelito. He saw himself in a cot in the hospital at San Diego years ago, proud of his suffering; at the steps of the seminary in Mexico City as a graduate, proud to be a humble Franciscan missionary. “It has been pride all the while,” he said out loud.

“My God,” he said, seeking, in that moment, His immense Presence, His forgiveness. For a moment, Corazo disappeared from his own awareness completely and immediately.

“Señor?” From the floor, Michaelito addressed him. He pointed to Corazo’s hand, blistered by the brazier. “Can I help you?”

“Thank you, Michaelito, no.”  Corazo gripped the old man’s hand and awkwardly helped him stand. “Let me help you finish; where I interrupted you.”

This time, with some bits of cloth for protection, they carried the smoldering pot back into the room. Corazo held blankets and propped up patients, while Michaelito wafted the smoke around them and through their clothing. When they were all done, Michaelito applied aloe and wrapped Corazo’s hand. Corazo described the garden and the aqueduct in his dream.

Michaelito nodded.

The aroma of Bay leaf smoke accompanied each of them to bed.

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