Padre Patricio scanned the horizon. No clouds. No hope of rain. Had it been eight months? Nine? Week by week, he’d watched the Rio Braca shrink to a trickle, then to nothing, bared mud turning to crust in minutes. The herds were thinned. The sheep, skeletal. Their worth now lay chiefly in their blood, which was drinkable when mixed with the powdered root of the broom cactus.
The padre leaned on his shovel. Tortured nights birthed wretched days; an endless march of death. Burials filled each morning. Afternoons were for harvesting the next morning’s crop of corpses. He had never felt so far from Madrid, from the seminary. There, in shaded stucco porticoes, they taught you to gather souls for Christ. They did not teach you how to tell a mother to make her children drink their urine. Padre Patricio‘s throat burned, but he waited through the searing hours. He always waited until night to drink, when the natives fell into feverish sleeps. He leaned into darkness to take long sips from the clay jar of holy water, the one the natives were forbidden to touch. With his thirst satisfied for the moment, another day stolen, he sat awake in darkness and asked himself: where had God wandered? Further south, perhaps, but why had he dragged the rainclouds with him?
The padre said a prayer for Irasulo the farmer, who would never receive a burial. Irasulo and his two sons had gone to find water. On the third day in the desert, Irasulo crumbled to dust. Ubarro, the elder son, went mad and drank sand and perished. The younger boy, Ovald, crawled home. They found him on the outskirts of the village, burrowed under an overhang of rock, his knees worn through to bone. No water, he whispered. God has drunk it all.
When the village shaman appeared, slipping through the veiled, dizzying heat of late afternoon, he spread a white ointment of some sort on Ovald’s kneecaps, and on the peeling flesh of his head. When the shaman finished, he removed the ancient idol from its wrapping of wool and set it before the padre. The padre had seen this object before, when he had first arrived in the village. It was a spirit, or perhaps a demon, made of stone. Carved water sprung from its eyes and mouth. Speak to her, the shaman said. Tell her your wish. Padre Patricio knelt and ran his fingers over the lines of water. He made the sign of the cross. He thought of Cardinal Tomas’ trembling hand upon his head in blessing, and his vows taken, and of the jar of holy water growing lighter by the day. He looked at Ovald, a messenger with no message, his body ruined as the cracked and empty channel of the river. The padre folded his hands and made a wish, or said a prayer--no one was quite sure which, or if anyone besides the dying had heard it.
Joe Kapitan lives in northern Ohio. His writing has appeared in Wigleaf, PANK, Smokelong Quarterly and other fine places.