Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Chalice of Acopalca

(Things are not always as they seem)

He hadn’t expected to find so many townsfolk’s in the church—he had turned about and there they were. He knew morning services had already been held, and evening services would not be for hours yet; it was the dry season of this small Andean city of Peru, and early and late were the services, weddings on Saturdays only, and three services on Sundays.
For a moment he wondered if he did right. He squeezed into an empty pew not all that far away from the front of the chapel like alter—made out of logs of eucalyptus trees and planks put on top of the logs to even it out, the bag he was carrying, he laid gently down on the pew; the alter was lit up with a conflagration of candles, but the rest of the small chapel, was dimly lighted, and he was surprised to see among the group of several residences, the constable (or peace officer, police, the only police officer in the village) among the townsfolk’s, he was easily recognized. The priest was among them, grimed faced. They all moved slowly, saw the bag he had placed firmly on the pew—especially the constable.
You could smell a cloud of incense from of the candles seeping all the way down into the isles, circling the pews. The police officer was swinging a long rubber stick, one he used on defiant criminals. They had stopped in front of Manual Garcia—moved a few feet closer—looking upon him as some transfigured face, an outsider, which he wasn’t. He stood up as a man with unquestionable faith, which he was. The atmosphere in the chapel was gentler now, milder—but the police officer was harsh, not quite or as mild as the other faces among the group: darkness flooded his eye sockets, a great deal of blood seemed to fill his face, for that moment he seemed to want to persecute him right then and there, on the spot, “Let me see what’s in the bag,” he demanded. And Manual handed it over to him.
With fire in his eyes, he yelled “I figured so, you stole the Chalice from the church, it’s been missing since early this morning, right after mass, what are you doing here with it? What do you have to say for yourself?”
Everyone was waiting for his response, expecting one, as if it was an inquisition, and according to their changing faces, torture was how they were going to get to the truth of the matter, if indeed he pleaded innocent. But he never answered them, he never spoke one word.
“Actually,” said the priest, “we are not so cruel, as you might think, we just need an explanation.”
In most cases in such little towns, and villages in the High Andes, where there is little law enforcement, the rule of law is held within the hands of the community, handed out I should say by the majority of how they feel justice should be given to a culprit—: with thieves they are often given a beating or maiming them—shaming them in front of the whole town; with more sever crimes, even burning them to death is taken into consideration; it is not unusual—but it is on the other hand becoming less and less needed since the turn of the 21st Century, but Manual, had a good reputation. Nothing frightened him.

They had brought Manuel to the little square police station, that had only a small dark room for a cell, three feet by seven, no lights, a dirt floor, and a crib like mattress on it for him to sleep, and a bucket to do whatever he needed to do, it was his toilet—and since he’d not talk on the matter, they’d bring the matter up to the whole town to take a vote on just how they wanted to settle the matter, deal with this situation.
Suddenly, Helen Mayta, a school teacher, the only one in the township, seemingly standing next to the priest and police officer as the door to the little dirt floored jail was closed, had an idea—having been almost disengaged from the whole conversation with Manual and his capturers, trying to remember something. She had seen Jose Herrera at early mass this morning, the last one to leave she presupposed, since she was the second to last. A down and out drunk, who did odd jobs, caught trout in the nearby river stream, and sold them to the townsfolk’s for a bottle of beer, or coin they might have available.
She looked small and slender and filled with some kind of insight.
“Excuse me,” she told the priest and police officer, “I think there is more to this robbery than the eye can see, I beckon you to wait with your judgment until I come back.”
“Okay,” said the officer, not wanting to have attracted attention, several other folks were nearby, figuring if she had something on her mind, concerning this state of affairs, something is still better than nothing, because the crime did not fit Manual’s past behavioral patterns.

She hurried over to Jose’s hut, slipped through the door, it was unlocked and ajar, saw him sitting in a chair, drinking a beer. He saw her, stopped and turned around. She carefully examined his face, slowly pulled out a chair from his table, she was sure of finding out some information to this robbery. When she talked, she leaned toward him, right in front of him—eye to eye, nearly shoulder to shoulder.
“Jose, Manual is in jail because of the Chalice that was stolen this morning, what do you know about it?”
When she stopped talking, he turned away from her. “Go, leave me alone.” He exclaimed.
“I’ll follow you everywhere until you tell me what you know?” She announced without one iota of hesitation.
He quivered as if she had struck a bone inside his body, with a thorn, perhaps thinking: why on earth can’t she leave me alone. That is a drunk’s credo.
“He’s in great danger Jose, of being accused of a serious crime!” She howled, as if she had a wolf inside her.
“But I myself didn’t think there’d be so much trouble in bringing it back,” said Jose half turned away from her, embarrassed, or feeling guilty, he then paused. Then he turned back to her, now both alongside one another again, said: “In the chapel, the priest left the wooden box the Chalice is held in unlocked this morning, and I jumped over the ropes to the altar, and grabbed it, and Manuel, when he came over to visit me, saw it on my table, told me to bring it back, but I couldn’t, and he said he would. And so I let him, I didn’t think a ton of hostility would be created over this.”
“Yes, it led just to that, before he could put it back, he was caught with it, he hasn’t said anything to anyone about it, so if you don’t—do you see?”
“I know what they’ll do to me if I admit it,” said Jose.
“No we don’t, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I don’t dare go back there, but if I don’t, you’ll tell them and it’ll be worse for me.”
“You don’t know?” she explained.
He looked at her. What else was there to do, “You’ll come?” she questioned. Her facial expression inflexible, yet her eyes gentle. “Yes,” he said, “I’ll come.”

No: 833 (11-20-2011)