Saint of the Burning Heart

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by Texas author Julia Robb

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Dañiel believed pain from his weekly crawl went in cycles. When he first dropped to his knees on St. Joseph’s stone floor and began walking forward, from the heavy wooden doors to the altar, the pain first spread to lacerated skin, then to bruised bone and abused ligaments, leaping up his body like an electric charge until even his scalp quivered.

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After progressing ten feet, though, the pain eased and was replaced by an ecstasy so overwhelming it was almost sexual; he crawled for this release, for the vague justification–he shed blood, like the martyrs–for the expiation, he was sorry, sorry, sorry, help me help me. The stained glass windows and smell of candle wax bathed his soul with heavenly balm, Mary’s face, no longer made of stone, melted with tenderness, just for him.

Saintliness lasted ten minutes, then he hurt so badly he sweated like a cold window in a hot house, and was in so much agony he had no choice but to push himself up from the floor and put himself to sleep for the next fourteen hours.

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Occasionally, Dañiel vowed to stop crawling; it was an obsession, not a Godly act, he told himself–his once true spiritual insight. But when his knees hurt enough, he did not crave more sinister activities.

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Once he was caught. He walked into the church and found a teenage boy crawling up the aisle on his knees. Dañiel first thought the boy was an apparition meant to humiliate him, but when he realized he was seeing a real person he jerked the boy up and lectured him: God does not want your pain, he said, knowing, with a great deal of satisfaction, he was telling the boy the truth, doing his priestly duty, exactly as he was, for once, supposed to do.

The teen fled the church and Dañiel, helpless to stop himself, crumpled to his knees and began crawling himself. After punishing himself for three long feet, the same teenager opened the church doors and stared at the priest, amazed. Dañiel tried to concoct a lie, something to explain himself, but was so ashamed that after one startled look at the boy, he could not drag his eyes from the floor.

On this particular day, Dañiel was reluctant to make his weekly pilgrimage down the aisle. He was afraid someone who had been to the funeral mass earlier in the week would appear at the church, to pray and light candles for Doña Paulita’s soul.

As the familiar darkness began its invasion and he knew he would have to do what he dreaded doing, what he longed to do: Find his car keys and flee to his pit of forgetfulness.

Although Daniel habitually hid his car keys from himself, throwing them to the top shelf in the rectory office, or hurling them into the backyard, into tall grass, it did him no good. When he had to leave he always found the keys and fled town as if chased by the hound of heaven.

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Click here for a quick look inside the book “Saint of the Burning Heart”

This day was no different. The priest beat his way through the weeds, to the direct spot where he had thrown the keys and his heart did not stop racing until he found himself near the Mexican border, a hundred and twenty miles away. Something about the gently rolling land soothed him. It was covered with almost purple-looking desert growth rolling from horizon to horizon, punctuated with white billows of cloud.

By the time he got to the tiny border town he was almost giddy from freedom and anticipation. It did not matter the American side of the river was almost deserted, as if the sun had pounded the town into sick submission. He drove over the bridge spanning a green river winding like a skinny snake through the sun-struck land–called on one side Río Grande del Norte, big river of the north, and on the other Río Bravo del Norte, wild river of the north–like something, or someone, pursued him.

Nobody stopped him or asked a question. American customs agents waved him on, Mexican border guards, in their muddy brown uniforms, waved him on. Pasar, pasar.

American border guards tore cars apart when they left Mexico, searching for drugs or other contraband. But they never stopped people or vehicles crossing into Mexico because nobody took anything worth having into the land of destitution; buildings decayed south of the border, signs hung over the streets like vultures, ranchero music blared from outdoor speakers attached to buildings standing on half-paved streets. Vendors stood patiently in the sun by their fly-crawling carts and sold melons, pastry-oozing pumpkin crusted with brown sugar, squatted patiently by tiny braziers, tended grilled meat which filled the streets with fragrance and wood smoke.

Supermercado, the signs read, Floreria de Moda, Almacén Acapulco, Hamburguesas Deliciosas, La Casa de la Música.

A bust of Francisco Madero stared stoically into the Mexican sun in the palm-filled plaza, next to the stone benches and dry fountain. Two blocks later Dañiel parked at the unpainted two-story wooden building with shutters askew on the second level, one which leaned, as if in a high wind. The sign over the front door said Paris Bar and Grill and the open door yawned at him like the gates of hell.

Rancid garbage slapped Dañiel in the face when he walked in, and he froze in shock and confusion when he remembered he had not taken off his white priest’s collar.

After frantically searching the room for witnesses, and spotting one, he snatched the collar off and stuffed it in his pocket. The bartender, a slight man with longish greasy hair, looked down, rearranging bottles under the bar. Without glancing up or changing his expression, the bartender put his hand over the wooden counter and snapped his fingers. Dañiel hesitated in the murky light. This was his last chance to stop. He couldn’t stop.

Breathing faster, Dañiel’s heart pounded. He took a twenty-dollar bill and slapped it in the other man’s palm and the bartender stuffed the money in his shirt pocket, reached under the counter and slammed a bottle of tequila and a room key on the bar never acknowledging his customer.

“Priest,” the bartender said, stuffing the word with disdain.

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