by Carmen Baca
With roots entrenched in the mountain I called home at the edge of the Sangre de Cristos, I surveyed my surroundings from near the top. My many limbs reached to the skies on sunny days or cold, snowy ones for so long I had no concept of my age. All I knew was that I had evolved from sapling to mature adult over many revolutions of the sun and moon. Seasons mattered not, not for my brethren and me. Our purpose was to grow, to provide shelter to those who needed it, and to give sustenance to all living beings. We were the sentinels, the giants of the forest.
But we, too, felt fear. Nature’s wrath threatened us in the annual spring winds. We bent so far from side to side we feared we would snap in two.
“Hold fast!” I cried to my fellow giants.
“HOLD FAST!” they called, their voices echoing from mountain to valley and each peak beyond.
We held steadfast to the earth, our roots clawing into the dirt and around buried stones to keep our balance. Our size would have broken our smaller brothers, our offspring, and even ended the lives of forest creatures had we fallen. We stood tall.
The droughts that sometimes came after increased our peril during the spring thunderstorms which followed. Dry lightning ignited one of us once on a distant ridge. We watched in horror as one of our brother’s trunks exploded and his limbs caught fire, the flames growing and spreading to his neighbors until a wall of vivid red and brilliant orange spread and covered that mountain top. Black smoke rose high, turning gray as it wafted toward us.
“Oh, no,” the smallest of us, the saplings, cried.
“Remain strong!” my brother beside me called.
“REMAIN STRONG!” each tree in the forest shouted.
The echoes gave support to those of our brethren already covered in fire and to the others who stood until they could no longer. The inferno pulsed with a life of its own, its breaths made stronger by the fuel feeding it. The roar of destruction reached us even though we were in no danger then. We feared fire like we feared nothing else, and we quaked deep inside ourselves because we knew as big as we were, as strong as we stood, we were no match for it.
We watched for so many passings of the days into nights that we worried they would never end. That all-consuming firestorm ate everything in its path. Only one ridge lay between the devastation and our mountain when man came to our rescue. We were safe—for now. We mourned for those of our kind and for the animals who used them for harbor and home. So many had succumbed to the conflagration. The reminder of the tragedy stood before us for many more passings of the sun and the moon. Those dry, dead pillars stood tall until the winds came again to knock them over. The sounds of the cracking, decaying trunks reached us in the silence that came thereafter. We cringed, our boughs shaking in sympathy. And we shut our eyes at the last horror they endured as mankind did: from dust they had emerged and to dust they returned.
Time passed, with more spring winds and fall fires, but our mountain was spared. I never wondered why, but now I speculate perhaps because of what I am now. Springtime returned and with it came the men again. Others followed, bringing loud apparatuses on tracks and large wheels, creating roadways which crossed our mountain. The monstrous machines felled many of us with precise efficiency, and we came to understand our purpose had changed. Some of us were destined for unknown intent because man had determined we could be used to benefit him. We continued to stand tall, and we understood some of us would be cut down. We did not know which among us would be next, but we all clung to the hope that whatever our futures held, our ancient frames would be used for noble causes.
I watched many of my brothers fall into the jaws of those massive machines. Afterward, I stood alone in what was now a glade, and I wondered why I had been spared. Many more times the sun and moon traded places in the sky, until the day my turn came. No large, rumbling devices appeared on that early morning. Instead, two wagons arrived, pulled by draft horses and accompanied by a group of men on horseback. They halted in that clearing and stood looking up at my massive trunk. They spoke among themselves words I could not hear from my height, and they must have determined I was right for their plans, whatever they were.
Two men approached with a long blade I later learned was a two-man crosscut saw. Several more with axes stood by. I felt a vibration close to where my trunk rose from the earth and my limbs trembled with the back-and-forth cutting motion of the men manning the tool. I expected more sensation, something I didn’t know the name for but something dreadful. But the severing of my body from my base, though it took some time due to my width, occurred with no more than an increase of that forceful reverberation deep in my core. Then I fell. I struck the earth with my massive frame, several of my branches breaking with the impact. My trunk shuddered a bit after the fall and then I was still, my view from the ground novel and unexpected.
The men took to their axes and dismembered me from top to bottom, some of my trunk left long while other sections were cut short. The part of me that was capable of understanding was lifted into the wagon along with other pieces. After the two wagons were filled, we traveled down the mountain and reached a small hamlet in a valley I had only seen from high above. A large dwelling, our destination I discovered, provided cover for me for another period of the sun chasing the moon and creating light after dark.
When I was handled again, it was through a machine which trimmed me and turned me into what the men called lumber. My evolution had begun. And though I pondered over the final product that would come from my frame, I harbored the hope that it would be noble, worthy of the sacrifice of my entire physical being to it.
Fifteen-year-old Matías José de la Cruz, apprenticing as a carpenter with his uncle, ran his hands over the lumber in the family sawmill, gauging which of the newly created boards would more suit his new project. Selecting those his hands found smooth yet supple, good for carving, he loaded them onto his father’s wagon and deposited them across two sawhorses in the shed he used for his woodworking. As young as he was, his reputation grew with the few items he had made for friends and family: a kitchen table, some chairs, a workbench, simple projects which hadn’t presented any challenges.
This one was not difficult to make either, but it would be his most important, most worthy of expert talent and extraordinary touch. He would transform the lumber into a crucifix, one of the most sacred of symbols of their faith. He had chosen the most majestic, prodigious pine of the forest. He smiled as he ran his hands down the smooth wood and envisioned it evolving from what it was now to what it would become.
The project had been requested by his father, el Hermano Mayor, the highest-ranking brother of the lay confraternity known as los Hermanos Penitentes, the Penitent Brothers. The brotherhood, existing in some Spanish-speaking cultures around the world, was especially active in northern New Mexico in the early nineteen hundreds. Known for their leadership of rural communities in both service and religion, they also piqued public interest because of their spiritual rituals enacted behind the locked doors of their moradas, prayer houses. Because non-members were excluded, sensationalistic rumors spread that they did unspeakable things in the name of self-penance. On Holy Thursday every Lent, one brother played the part of Christ and carried the crucifix from the morada to the cemetery where the road was lined with descansos, small pillars of rock, for each station of the cross. This re-enactment, attended by the community, played into people’s imaginations about what los Hermanos did to themselves on those Lenten nights behind closed doors.
The cross they had carried until now had exhausted its purpose after decades of use, which was why Matías’ father wanted a replacement. Matías knew his creation would be the focal point of everyone’s eyes on that Jueves Santo, and he was determined it would be his best work yet. Nothing could be more sacred, though carving his own cross to carry in processions when his time to be initiated into the brotherhood would be a close second.
Every day after school, Matías retreated to his shed to work on his project, talking to the seven-foot-long and heavy board that would be the pillar the Hermano playing the part of Christ would carry on his back.
“You will be a masterpiece,” Matías told the post. “You will play an important role in the brotherhood’s processions. You will draw the eyes of everyone.”
He didn’t know his words penetrated the very heart that was left intact of the original giant of the forest. The heat his fingers felt coming from the wood as he rubbed it smooth with sandpaper he attributed to the friction. He didn’t know the lumber vibrated inside with the pleasure it retained from knowing it would have a special purpose.
Matías took his time fashioning the cross with his special touch and attention to detail, hand-carving scenes from the stations along the front and back of the cross-sections. No one had asked for these features, but he answered a compelling need inside himself to supply los Hermanos with a crucifix worthy of them. To Matías, los Hermanos deserved his reverence. He felt they were the closest to the apostles any human on earth could hope to reach. His self-doubts about his worthiness to become one of them became the conflict he struggled with internally and most intensely over the past year. He knew his time was close to becoming one of them, but he couldn’t see himself as deserving of the honor, not with his flaws.
Right before Lent, Matías called his father to the shed and showed off the finished product. Señor De la Cruz, tears brimming over, could find no words to express what his heart felt at the sight. The workmanship of his son’s artistry would suit the brotherhood’s needs for many years to come.
“Bien hecho,” el Hermano Mayor said, looking close up at the intricate details of the scenes etched into the wood. “We will have the padre bless it next time he gives mass.”
Matías nodded, but inside his body quaked with the approval in those two curt words:
Well done. A second later, the unspoken question in his father’s eyes turned him cold: Will you be ready to join us this year?
Matías watched his father carrying the crucifix over his shoulder to deposit it in the wagon for the short ride to the chapel midway between the cemetery and the prayer house where it would stand in a corner to await its blessing. The voice in his head echoed the question. Will you? It will symbolize your emergence into manhood from childhood. Are you ready?
The double doors of the capilla closed, pulled shut by the hands of el Hermano Mayor, the lock clicking into place before he removed the key. The interior lay in the muted sunlight coming in through hand-made curtains with crocheted hems. I came to awareness there in an atmosphere of silence meant for introspection and devout prayer. I stood to the right of the entry beside a large bin of wood filled and ready to feed the box stove in the center of the space between door and pews. A wide aisle between two columns of wooden pews led to the altar. Saints, crosses, candles, and statues of Mother and Child, Mother holding dying Son, and various other religious relics stood in no particular pattern. The rustic simplicity pleased me. There was a sacredness to the place, a peace I missed from when I towered atop the mountain.
The day I was brought down, I ascertained I was now at the bottom in the valley I had viewed every day. Day after day, the young man laid his hands on me in one way or another, with a small ax and wood carving tools, sandpaper, a soft cloth. His confident touch gave me no apprehension. I knew whatever he did to me would be pleasing to the eye. The young carpenter spoke to me as he worked. I knew from his fastidious attention to detail and his scrutiny of his handiwork I was intended for a special purpose. I tried to make him feel the joy he gave me by exuding a warmth from deep within me.
Day after day, I looked forward to seeing my visage in the reflection of his eyes. Where before I had been a round trunk of great size, then transformed into long blocks of wood, I was changed again into a cross, some symbol the people seemed to associate with their beliefs in the same power as I. The someone, the all-powerful who created us all. That realization gave me gratification deep in my heart, what was left of me. From a giant of a tree, I emerged as a thing of beauty, intricate carvings adorning my exterior, while the inside of me remained unchanged. I had been grateful to be alive in the shell I had been given and in that place where I spent the first century of life. I was now overjoyed to be of service to man as a symbol of hope for them for however much time I had left.
The heart of me which had been carved by the young man’s hands rejoiced for myself. But my keen sense of empathy allowed me to read into his eyes. They revealed an internal conflict I hoped perhaps to influence into giving him the spiritual awakening he so craved. I had to try; we were bound, he and I. There was no putting it off. It was time for his evolution as it had been mine from the moment he had cut me down.
Matías accepted the congratulatory handshakes of the community, los Hermanos especially, that next Sunday morning when the parish priest came to give mass. The crucifix had been blessed and carried to the altar as a gift to Santo Niño, for which the chapel had been named. Each man looked him in the eyes as they gripped hands after the mass, and Matías knew they all shared the same inquiry as that of his father. The men lined up to take the cross from the capilla to the morada on foot. They walked down the dirt road in a procession of two rows behind Matías’ father carrying the crosspiece in the lead. They took turns moving up behind him, taking up the bottom of the long, heavy crucifix to lighten his load. He watched for a moment, picturing himself at the end of the procession. Then he left for home with a niggling reminder in his heart that before Lent he had to decide if he was ready for his initiation ceremony.
The cold of February gave way to a warm spell on that Ash Wednesday, the day marking the beginning of Lent. The prayers at the morada held a special significance that year. Matías became an Hermano before the night was over. The initiation he had been anticipating with the dread of the unknown passed instead into an internal satisfaction with himself that he had accepted Christ as his Savior with a deep consciousness of what it entailed. Of course, he had been baptized and confirmed, but he had been only months old and ignorant of the significance. Even his catechism and subsequent communion ceremony had been somewhat superficial, a rite of passage he was required to undergo, with a slightly more depth of understanding as a teen. But becoming an Hermano set him apart from his peers. A certain respect and a reverence for what he represented made even his best friends heed their words and govern their behavior lest they disappoint him. Matías finally understood the significance of his emergence from boy to man.
Much time passed as I grew old and weathered. The delicate carving of biblical scenes on my crosspiece had faded with the constant touch of los Hermanos’ hands over the many, many trips of the sun and the moon. While I stood against the back wall of the prayer room in the morada for long periods, I was taken out for special ceremonies. I was the centerpiece of the brotherhood’s attention during a time they called la Cuaresma, Lent. I came to understand when the morada’s doors and windows remained open and the fresh spring breeze blew through the three rooms for that duration, and my core throbbed with renewed energy from the excited noise of the men, women, and children of the community.
Each Lent I looked forward to a special day they called Jueves Santo when an Hermano carried me at the front of a procession from the morada to the capilla, the campo santo, and then back again. I was the center of every eye on this day, and I sensed my importance more, but not in a self-aggrandizing way. It was a deep honor to be a part of the community. I knew I symbolized something great, something beyond my ken.
But this afternoon, with Matías now an old man at the edge of passing into the afterlife, carrying the cross despite his brothers’ protests, I sensed this day would end unexpectedly. The old Hermano bore the brunt of my weight on his shoulders and upper back, but it was made more bearable by his brothers. They shuffled along close by, shifting one out for the other after every Station of the Cross when they stopped to kneel in the dirt and pray. In this manner, each brother held the cross, three at a time beside and behind Matías, and all shared the burden of man’s sins as they walked.
A short rest after they returned to the chapel preceded the brothers finishing the procession to the morada where they ate their last supper together and prayed behind the locked doors. I had seen the Verónicas who came when the men rested earlier to leave pots kept warm on the stove and dishes filled with food, the table laid, and the rooms spotless. The women’s society—the wives, mothers, sisters of los Hermanos—served as an auxiliary to the brotherhood with their own leader and rules of conduct. They were freer in their discourse around me than the men when they cleaned the prayer house, and I was privy to their thoughts more than those of los Hermanos.
They and the rest of the community members were invited to attend the final ceremony
marking Christ’s last day on earth. The people walked by lantern from their homes to the morada. I remember seeing this display of bobbing illuminations from the mountain top. Groups and lines of lights traveled winding paths, single shining dots joined them at junctures, and the large body of lights made its way to the morada where I stood at the front of the altar with Santa Muerte to my left. The carved effigy sat perpetually poised in a small picket fence enclosure with an arrow pointed at any who stood before her. She faced me across the room every day since my usual location was against the opposite wall from her.
In the darkest hour of the night, the ceremony began with the lighting of thirteen candles placed along a triangular-shaped candelabra about five feet long standing on a four-foot-high pedestal. The candles, symbolic of Christ and His twelve apostles, illuminated the room with a soft, deceptive peace. We all knew the flames would be extinguished one by one, plunging us into the deepest black both physically and spiritually, evoking a most intense personal penance.
This was the most horrible and holy of nights, Las Tinieblas, the Earthquake Ceremony. It took us all back in time to listen and to participate in our own ways. Each attendee, whether Hermano, a Verónica, or layperson, chose the method best for them to experience with most poignancy the night of Christ’s death. Following each prayer, the mournful chanting of the alabados, like dirges, sent chills up our spines.
“Mother Mary, look at Your Son…see the cross on His shoulders…His body bathed in blood…His head crowned with thorns…His final day has come…”
I felt the human pain as I envisioned the scenes of that day in the flickering of the candles on the walls. As though they cast shadows of those acts so many years before on the night of Christ’s death, those humans felt the pain of culpability which they projected toward me, the physical cause of their Maker’s mortal suffering.
Since my evolution, I had felt revered by the community. Only on the nights in all those years of performing Las Tinieblas was I made to feel abhorrent. I deflected their pain, accepting the reverence they also felt deep inside. I was a symbol of death, but also of the redeeming Passion and resurrection. I stood tall as after each alabado, a candle was extinguished. The act brought more darkness into the room as though it physically and slowly wrapped a shawl over us all or perhaps a death shroud, I ascertained after this night.
By midnight, we would experience His descent into hell when the last candle went out. The complete and utter darkness of the shuttered room, cloying with the scent of wax and incense, stifling with the fifty or sixty people crammed into the rooms—all contributed to the atmosphere of hell. The human wails and swift whooshes of whips, snapping and striking skin, the rapid turning of the multiple and different sized matracas, the noisy clackers, made the ears hurt. The cacophony symbolic of the chaos that is hell lasted only minutes, but always, always penetrated my heart, the heart of the tree I once was.
Our internal pain made worse by the doleful alabados, sung by los Hermanos, sent many of the women into tears. The children cried because their mothers did, and I thought perhaps they too sensed the solemnity of the ritual in their own ways. Then by some unspoken signal I didn’t understand, all quieted. One by one, the candles’ flames brought light and peace into the room, kerosene lanterns were lit, children quieted at mothers’ shushes, and deep breaths restored life to the prayer house. Quiet conversation, some with nervous, shaking voices, commenced.
Usually, no one lingered. The rooms were straightened out, the fires banked, candles and lanterns extinguished for the last time that night. The Hermano Mayor locked the door, and the humans left me alone again in the dark with la Muerte on her stool directly across from me.
This night was an anomaly I hope I never witness again. Bittersweet with great sadness and joyful rejoicing, the end of another beginning had started sometime during our clamorous man-made hell. Matías had evolved for the final time. Santa Muerte had aimed and penetrated the heart of the old man. But it was I who caused his death. Although it pained me greatly to know I played a crucial role in transforming him, I acknowledged our connection had been inevitable.
He had changed me for good, and I had repaid him by transforming him into something better. The wailing and the praying commenced. The fast preparations for the wake of the long night ahead ensued. I observed from my place in back of the prayer room, but I knew only the shell of the man remained. I knew Matías had already emerged from the morada with wings.
Carmen Baca retired in 2014 from teaching high school and college English for thirty-six years. Her command of English and use of her regional Spanish dialect contribute to her story-telling style. Her debut novel El Hermano published in April of 2017 and became a finalist in the NM-AZ book awards program in 2018. Her third book, Cuentos del Cañón, received first place for short story fiction anthology in 2020 from the same program. To date, she has published 5 books and close to 50 short works in literary journals, ezines, and anthologies. She and her husband live a quiet life in the country caring for their animals and any stray cat that happens to come by.