Then Moses comprehends the weighty silence of the place. He realizes that no one is saying anything.
Hold on a minute. It ain’t just you, is it? It’s everybody here? You could speak if you wanted to, but you opt not to. Is that the thing?
Again the woman holds up her hands apologetically and invites the two brothers to follow her through the huge, arching mesquite doors and into the church itself.
White dove of the desert. Just beyond the threshold into the Narthex, the air cools considerably, as though God were a force of balance where all things hot become cool, all things cold become warm, and good and evil are meted out as on a swaying balance that always finds itself, eventually, level. Rows of wooden pews with arching backs line the nave, and some silent supplicants sit in individual prayer with heads bowed on folded hands. Were there whispers of devotion, they would reach high into the octagonal domes painted with robed angels – but instead there are only shuffling echoes and the aching sound of wood creaking beneath faithful bodies.
At the cross aisle, the woman gestures at them to wait, and they do, casting their gazes upwards to the dome and all around. Candles being scarce, homemade torches illuminate the interior with flickering movement like breathing. Could you read human circumstances like a living tarot, you might make something of the arrangement: Moses on the right, Abraham on the left, fixed like soiled anchors holding true to their resolution. There they are, epistle and gospel, parallel at the transept. At Moses’ side the alcove contains a white-gowned Virgin Mary, haloed and glorious, encircled by figures who would admire her – force of the distinctly feminine – and, yes, Moses would pay homage at her feet. The phoenix exquisiteness of girls. And then, in the opposite alcove, Abraham’s side, is the supine statue of an entombed man, San Xavier himself, shrouded in blue robes. A figure of recumbent death, made holy by slaughter and sacrifice.
And so would death and purity enclose Moses’ journeys like cards from a mystical deck laid on either side of his seeker.
As they wait, the woman moves towards the front of the church where, in the apse, an emaciated bald man kneels in a brown robe. She does not interrupt him but instead stands where he will see her when he looks up from his prayers. He smiles gently at her, and when she nods her head in their direction, the man turns and his sad eyes fall on the brothers Abraham and Moses Todd. The smile persists on his face, faltering only slightly as Moses perceives it.
The thin monk walks down the steps, leaving the woman behind him at the altar, and gestures for the brothers to follow him. He leads them through a door and past a large courtyard where other residents of the mission are tending to a large vegetable garden. A smell of cooking herbs wafts through the desert air from a long low adobe structure on the other side of the courtyard.
Abraham and Moses follow him to a small domicile separate from the other buildings in the complex. Inside there is a simple cot and a table with two chairs. The monk closes the door behind them and gestures for them to sit in the chairs.
Please, sit, he says.
You talk? Moses asks.
I do. As an order we’ve taken a vow of silence, but the times warrant exception in the case of welcoming guests.
Much appreciated, Moses replies.
Yeah, Abraham says, I ain’t much for miming.
I’m Moses Todd, and this is my brother Abraham.
My name is Ignatius, says the monk. If you mean us no harm, you are welcome to stay.
Moses notices that the monk is looking at Abraham’s busted lip, bruised face and half-shut eye from when he got beat up on in the desert two nights before.
I know we look somewhat raggedy, friar, Moses says, putting on a formal voice. But we’re just travellin through. We ain’t in the business of needless harm.
Ignatius smiles gently, and all the suspicion leaves his glance.
I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, he says. We’ve had unfortunate encounters in the past with brigands. However, what I’ve found is that most respond truthfully to a questioning of motives. It is indeed a time of honesty. I suppose lying has become, comparatively, so minor a sin that most don’t see the percentage in it.
My brother and I, Moses says, we’re hard to offend, friar. You likely couldn’t stumble by accident upon the offence to us – you’d have to give it your full effort and strategy. So don’t fret yourself on that account. We’re happy to get whatever you feel like offerin. And we’re happy to offer services in exchange.
Very kind of you, Ignatius says.
Kind ain’t exactly hittin the nail on the head, Moses says, glancing at his brother. But we’ll try to be of little bother to you.
There are not many of us here. Fifteen, and three children. The vow of silence is hardest on them, the children. But the quiet seems an appropriate devotion when the world itself has lost its tongue. And there is a practical purpose as well – it keeps from attracting the dead.
It’s as true an act as any, Moses says. We’re all of us become our actions – and any act done in sincerity is as good as we can hope for.
Well spoken, Ignatius says and nods his head in approval.
So the brothers are given permission to visit freely the compound, and they do, giving friendly nods to the residents. Moses keeps close to his brother to watch him. There are girls here, young and younger, and Moses does not like to think about what kind of temptation they give to Abraham.
Just before the sun sets, everyone gathers at two long wooden picnic tables behind the church itself. Food is served – a stew of vegetables and beans, brick-ovenbaked bread, water sweetened with cactus nectar. During the meal Moses notices two things, one that distracts him from the other. First, he notices a young woman who is escorted to the table by two other women and seated at the end as though with great honour. Moses has not seen her around the compound before this moment, and she wears a white gown that looks like the one worn by the Virgin Mary statue in the epistle alcove of the church. Treated like a queen, Moses expects the girl will behave in a queenly fashion. Instead, though, she eats her stew with a spoon gripped in her fist like a child would grip it – and her eyes are darting and sly rather than peaceful like the eyes of the other parishioners present. And when she sees newcomers Moses and Abraham at the table, she stares hard at them for a few minutes – a look with more gut than glory, more gravel than grace.
Moses would like to watch this young woman and read the meaning of her presence at the table, but he sees his brother Abraham’s attention caught by the little blonde-headed girl who greeted them from the balcony when they first arrived. The girl wears a pair of sunflower shorts and a white tank top, and she slurps loudly at her stew. It is impossible to interpret Abraham’s gaze on the girl, but Moses fears it. His brother, he knows, is abominable – and where but in a place of God is abomination more apt to quench its awful appetites?