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Ventriloquist, a Short Story by R. Craig Sautter


puppets and ventriloquist

Padre Pedro Martiniez was tired. His day, like nearly every day these days, broke early with arrival of another band of pilgrims who needed to be fed, needed to shower, needed a place to rest to restore themselves before continuing their thousand-mile trek north to the sacred land of their tormented and improbable dreams. Most of all, he believed, they needed spiritual support to sustain them on their immensely difficult journey, one that often robbed them of their money, their belongings, their dignity, even the lives of those they loved. Several churches in the small Durango town between the Cite de Mexico and Juarez shared the burden of continuous migration.


            The good Padre had convinced his devout congregation of former peasants and hard-working laborers to refashion the church cellar, to donate beds, cots, blankets, clothing, and a portion of their food to help these exiled brothers and sisters in their struggle to find a safe, secure home. He begged his congregation to sacrifice time and resources, for their earnest prayers. It was never enough.

This day, Padre Martinez rose at five, before the soon-to-be-hot sun streaked over the horizon of shabby buildings facing the Zocalo. After dressing in his long, black Jesuit robe and worn white collar, he submerged himself in solitary prayer in the sanctuary darkness mystically illuminated by red and blue stained glass. As a priest, Padre Martinez had dedicated himself to ministering to the desperately poor and to his personal asceticism. The Padre was a tall, intelligent man of fifty-seven years, sincere, good natured. He owned nothing but the clothes he wore and a shelf of reflective journals filled with his sermons and notes, in which he also confessed troubling doubts.


He was both a spiritual liberationist and a champion for the disinherited. Although he trembled with imperceptible fear, he spoke out boldly against murderous gangs and cartels that terrorized his town and country. They had beaten parishioners, recruited their children, robbed the church. He led marches and prayer services against them. More than twenty Mexican Catholic priests already had been killed in recent years. He knew they hated him.


Roused by voices of new arrivals as they emerged from a refurbished farm laborer bus after traveling all night, the cleric greeted them warmly. “Welcome my friends, welcome to Santa Teresa’s. How may we help you?”


“Thank you, Padre,” Diego Santiago, their handsomely paid guide responded, taking the divine’s hand in his, bowing his head.


The priest smiled at each exhausted soul as they exited the bus, then introduced Sister Carmen, his assistant who just arrived at his side. “Show them to their quarters and let them shower or rest until breakfast is ready.” he nodded to his trusted assistant to whom he barely needed to speak to communicate.


“About an hour,” he told Santiago.

Martinez heard the first of his local volunteers, mostly women who left their own families at least twice a week to minister to the hunger of these haunted and brave souls. He told them, "When the crowds asked Him, ‘What then should we do?’ He said to them in reply, “Whosoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whosoever has food should do likewise.”


“Padre Pedro,” asked Alicia Gomez, one of his faithful servants, “How many this morning?”

“Prepare for forty hungry souls, my child. They plan to resume their quest late this afternoon. But we should expect another group before dark. Word came yesterday that they are traveling by foot. They will need dinner, rest, even shoes.”


In the church pantry, the volunteers prepared a simple meal of huevoes with chorizo, black beans, sweet potatoes, and avocados. The volunteers served the ravenous crew, cleaned up, and returned home.  Just to stretch out on a mattress quickly induced sleep among the travelers.


The rest of the Padre’s day passed with its normal routine of visits to elderly parishioners, to the local clinic where a child of his congregation was fighting pneumonia, back to lead a noon Mass, paper work for the city department that was contributing small funds to help buy food for the wanderers. Before he knew it, the morning group was boarding its rickety bus and pulling away from the church. He forced himself to project an encouraging smile, then went up to his office on the second floor to lie down on his simple, narrow bed. After three decades as a crusading priest, he barely had strength to carry out his rigorous day. Soon he dozed off, recalling his boyhood on a lonesome four-hectare dirt farm where he scratched out corn and vegetables, raised chickens. He’d been sent to a parish school, and after distinguishing himself, to the university in the capital where the Jesuits trained him in mathematics and theology.


He woke with a start. Another group had arrived. He heard Sister Carman ushering them into the community room below the sanctuary. “Where was your home?" He asked a lean man of almost thirty, the apparent leader of the small group.


“Ecuador. Government troops burnt our homes to make room for a new factory. Our lives were in danger. We had no choice but to flee. We’ve been beaten and robbed.”


“I am sorry, my son. Here you have a home for as long as you need.” The Padre grasped his hands and pressed encouragement.


“Gracias, Padre. But we must finish our journey. We are so near now, we must not stop.”

Sister Carmen showed them boxes of used but newer shoes, a rack of donated clothing. Volunteers served dinner of chicken tamales, black beans, yellow rice, corn, and tomatoes. The travelers ate in a stupor of silence. Some showered, most went to their beds and instantly slept. When they settled, Martinez retreated to his office.


A scruffy girl of twelve followed and stood in his doorway. Her little hands were rough, scarred with several burn marks. “Why does God not love us,” she finally demanded, her voice horse and strained. “What have we done to deserve being so mistreated?”


“God loves you, certainly he does my child.” Martinez knelt down so he could look into her brown eyes. “Perhaps, he is testing you, making you stronger. But he shall reward you for your faithfulness, your endurance. Soon you will find comfort and a new home up North. It will not be long now, my dear one.”


“Why does he create so many bad people? Why was my mother beaten? Why do we hunger? Why must we walk so far? What have we done wrong?”

“The Lord is with you, even in these dark times”

“But why, if He is supposed to be good?”

“That is a very difficult question, my child. Too many people have not heard or understood the loving words of our Lord. Some have been mistreated themselves and hurt others in revenge. This world is an imperfect one. We must endure these things before we can walk into His world of perfection and goodness.”


“I don’t believe you.” She stared without glancing away. “Bad men always hurt good people. God does nothing to stop them. He lets them steal and beat and rape and kill,” she almost screamed. “I hate him.” She turned to race down the narrow stairs, but Padre Martinez grabbed her arm.


“No, my child, you must not speak this way. Your heart will harden and you will become like those who have been so cruel to you. Do you want that?” He moved forward and embraced her.

“I will never be like them.” She tried to tear away.

“Then that is the path you must follow to salvation. You are an island of goodness in a sea of evil.” He put his arms around her. “So, you must do good to others, reach out to save them, bring them to your shore, because you know they deserve your kindness.”


She began to cry, shook her head, broke away and raced down the stairs. He followed to the basement where she ran to the arms of her mother. The Padre tried to explain the child’s distress, but met with cold stares. He was afraid they thought he tried to take advantage of her. She did not accuse him. Eventually, her mother put her to bed.


The volunteers had gone home and the Sisters returned to their convent next door. The Padre locked the gates for his guests’ safety and shut off all but a lavatory night light. He slowly climbed back up the stairs, sat down on his low bed, and wept. So many innocent souls passed through this sanctuary who must feel like this young girl, so many. His parish was doing all it could, but too many already had been damaged. Yet he also knew many were stronger for what they endured. He prayed for them all. Someday, he hoped, they would understand that God had shepherded them through their perilous journeys.


He sat alone in his office staring at nothing. He heard muffled gunfire in the distance, the same every night. He tried to write a few lines of his next sermon, on persistence and love. No words came. He was depressed. He turned off his green desk lamp, lay down exhausted. He could not sleep. The church was hushed, only distant coughs from the basement. He did not know how long he stared into the darkness. He heard the municipal clock chime twelve times.  


A single toll later reminded him he was still awake at one. He felt queasy, needed air. The young girl’s professed hatred of God haunted him. Why had he failed with her, with others? In his bare feet, he half limped to an archway, unlocked the wooden door leading to the bell tower, ascended to the open turret, raised his eyes to the heavens. “Oh, Father, why do these poor people suffer? Why do you make their path so difficult?” He fell mute, gazed upward beyond the tower’s four elaborate pillars. Clouds sprinted past before the dark blue expanse cleared of gray strata. Even in this small city, he could see some stars, a faint Southern Cross. He wanted his God to answer him, but it had been years since he heard His voice from without or within. He dumbly stared at distant points of shimmering light. He knew these were but a fragment of the billions of universes and galaxies beyond this night façade. On a parishioner’s television, he had seen the incredible tapestry of galaxies and spirals captured by the new space telescopes.


He felt so insignificant. This moment was not the first when he wondered why he believed in God when science revealed a more convincing infinity, when God refused to answer his prayers? Wasn’t this God just an outdated myth that made little sense against the immensity of expanding space/time? “Am I just a ventriloquist offering comfort to the unlearned? Where is the reality of God beyond my beautiful words?” He felt himself shaking. “Hasn’t Religion just been a stepping stone in the ascension of human consciousness?” He halted.


“If there is no God, what is left?” he interrogated himself.  He stood motionless in a warm, dry wind, felt himself falling into an eternity of accelerating questions he’d put off too long. “Even if He doesn’t exist, His legacy is Love,” the Padre whispered. “We must spread Love. That is our mission.” The Padre knew this was logic of a weary man, but that in the end his faith was real. He heard gunfire coming closer, knew someday a bullet would find him. The Cosmos was so vast and he was nothing but a flash of imperceptible light. Why did there have to be someone even greater than these infinite intricacies? He did not know if his faith was a fading light. At least he would die trying to do good for those in need. Wasn’t that enough?




 

R. Craig Sautter is author, coauthor, editor of 11 books, including two of poetry: Expresslanes Through The Inevitable City and The Sound of One Hand Typing. He wrote three books on the history of presidential conventions and elections (www.presidentialconventions.com). His short stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Evening Street Review, Catamaran, Deep Overstock, and Neon Garden. He was the 47th president of the Society of Midland Authors.

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