Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Priest's Tale

I was bored on a flight... and so looked in the seat-back for the United magazine. I came across this article, and really enjoyed it. It has a good story line, and a little cultural history, and a bit of a surprise. So here it is to share.


The Priest's Tale
- By Frederick Waterman

Charlie West laughed.

“You know, this conversation sounds like the start of a joke: ‘So, a salesman and a priest are on a plane …’”

Father Barranca smiled. “And who would have guessed they were talking about gambling?” The priest’s accented words held the rhythm of another language.

Flight 137, the dawn flight out of Las Vegas, was chasing its shadow across the Nevada desert. The priest, sitting in 22A, wore a black clergy shirt; his hair was as white as his collar. The unshaven salesman, wearing a wrinkled red sports jacket, squinted as he looked at his fellow passenger.

“Father, would you mind sliding that shade down a bit? It’s a little brighter up here than in a casino.”

“Ah, but you were a winner,” the priest said, lowering the shade.

“In a manner of speaking,” Charlie replied. “Now, you told me that you stopped in Las Vegas on your way from Mexico City to LA because you wanted to see the casinos and the gambling. But you didn’t tell me why.”

“No, no, I didn’t,” said Father Barranca.

“Last night, I took off my collar—we are allowed to—and walked through the casinos to watch people play the card games, the wheel, and the machines. I must tell you that I felt right at home: so much prayer and so many bargains with God.”

Charlie laughed. “Well, when a player needs a little luck, where else can he go?”

“That is a good question,” the priest said. “Where else?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Do you know what a Spanish deck is?”


“It has only 40 cards—2 through 7, the face cards, and aces.” The priest’s eyes, though calm, were unflinchingly direct. “What do you know of Mexico?”

“Not much—Cortés arrived in the 1500s, we took Texas from you, and Pancho Villa and Zapata tried to start a revolution a hundred years ago.”

“When the Spanish settled Mexico,” the priest said, “they brought their culture with them. In Spain, there were two classes: the rich and the poor. In Mexico, for three centuries, 3 million acres were owned by a few hundred families. The péons and the peasants were given a choice: work on the great estates—the haciendas—or starve.

“The history of Mexico is the history of the land. If you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. That’s why our history is so violent, why so many of our leaders— Hidalgo, Morelos, Madero, and Carranza—have been killed.

“And then there is the greed and corruption. It’s been part of Mexico for so long that now we expect it. But, there are a few places, far from the cities and the biggest haciendas, where things have been different, where villages made their own laws, and farmers worked their own land.

“In the south of Mexico are the Osoro Mountains and, halfway up, cradled by the hills, there is a valley called Annarita. The mountains block the desert wind that would dry out the soil and blow it away, and the mountains protect the people, too, because there is only one narrow trail; a bandit, attacking or escaping, would be exposed to a shot from a rifle. Or 20 rifles.

“In Annarita, beans, corn, and rice all grow well, and for many years, life changed very little. Then, in the early 1900s, the valley added a new crop, and it, too, flourished. Men came across the desert to pay a high price for Annarita’s coffee beans. And, at the end of each growing season, on Día del Paseo—the Day of the Walk—every man, woman, and child would carry as heavy a bag as they could manage down the trail to where the coffee buyers waited. That night, there was always a fiesta.

“The coffee paid for doctors to visit Annarita and gave every family some money. In most ways, the modern world came slowly to Mexico’s farthest corners. It wasn’t until the 1950s that cars started to replace burros, and a road was built across the desert to the bottom of the Osoro Mountains. And that’s when the trouble began.

“In the spring of 1952, a man named Soltero drove to the end of the new road and walked up the trail to Annarita. He was a handsome man with a neat moustache who wore a suit and a tie, and polished shoes that were meant for city streets. He looked at the white adobe buildings and the fields, and said that he’d heard about the valley and might want to live there. No one believed him, of course; he wasn’t a farmer. But, four months later, Soltero returned.

“He had a dozen rough men with him, and, standing in the village square, he said he wanted the townspeople to gather there immediately. An old man said that wasn’t possible, that everyone who could work was out in the fields. Soltero turned to one of his men and said, ‘Torrez! Get them in!’ This man, who was bigger than all the others but was dressed in the coarsest clothes, took out a pistol and fired it in the air once, twice more, then three times, emptying the gun.

“In less than 20 minutes, everyone in Annarita was in the town square, many of them breathless. Soltero stood on the steps of the church, his men a few steps below him. ‘My name is Víctor Soltero,’ he said. Then, he held up a piece of paper. ‘And you are on my land.’

“There was a stunned silence, then shouts of ‘What is that?’ and ‘Give that here!’ The people moved toward Soltero, but his men pulled out their guns, and the farmers stepped back.

“‘I own this valley,’ he said. ‘If you want to leave, my men will help you out of your houses—which are on my land. If you want to stay—good, I need workers.’”

Charlie interrupted, “How could that happen?”

“In the 1940s,” said Father Barranca, “the Mexican government realized that revolutions always start with people who have nothing. The southern haciendas were expropriated by the government; then small pieces of land were sold or given away, usually to the farmers who had been working on them. No one in Annarita knew about this, but none of its land had been claimed—until Soltero, who paid off the bureaucrats.

“His deed was real: He owned everything in Annarita except one farm that he hadn’t dared claim. Mexico’s greatest president, Benito Juárez, was also from the mountains of southern Mexico, and descendants have relatives. Soltero wasn’t a fool; in a country where influence is everything, he wouldn’t challenge cousins of the Juárez family. Three brothers, Emilio, Diego, and Luis, lived on this farm, and, like Juárez himself, they were pure-blooded Indian. These young men didn’t look like farmers; they looked like the Aztec warriors who had fought against Cortés.

“Soltero announced that the percentage of farmland to be used for growing coffee beans would triple, from 20 to 60 percent. ‘Do anything you want with the rest,’ he told the villagers. ‘Plant flowers, if you wish—but I would recommend that you put the flowers in the cemetery, and plant enough food for yourselves.’

“Soltero took the best house in the valley for himself, and the closest houses for his men. The villagers watched helplessly as people were moved out of their homes. One old woman was helped from the house she was born in; she didn’t cry, but she touched it gently as she left.

“Neighbors took in neighbors, and, that night, the people of Annarita met in the church. Some argued that everyone should leave, that there must be another valley somewhere. For most, though, their tie to the land was too strong; it had been worked by their parents and grandparents, and ancestors back beyond memory.

“Emilio, the youngest of the three brothers, stood up and said, ‘Tomorrow, the sun will still rise on our valley and on our village. Soltero owns Annarita, but only by a piece of paper. In every other way, by history, by right, it is ours—and it will come back to us.’

“Before the villagers left the church that night, they prayed. But, the next day, they learned that in return for letting the rest of them stay in their houses and grow food on ‘his’ land, Soltero said they all must plant, grow, and harvest ‘his’ coffee beans. As one villager said, ‘Now we’re péons on our own land.’

“A few days later, a little boy went back to the house he had lived in, to get a small pouch of shiny stones that he had buried under a window. He was on his knees, digging with his hands, when Torrez stepped out the door. The boy screamed and ran away, and never went back.

“Two months after Soltero arrived, he sold that year’s coffee harvest, though it was grown by the people of Annarita. And he sold it for a good price. There was no fiesta on the night of Día del Paseo. Instead, for the first time, the farmers talked of how to kill Soltero.

“They would have done it that night if they could, but Soltero always had four guards with him. He knew that the people hated him; he may have enjoyed it, too, because it made him feel powerful. Some men are like that.

“A new coffee plant needs three years to produce beans, and that meant Soltero was staying,” said Father Barranca. “For the next year, Soltero and his men oversaw the planting and care of the new coffee plants. The farmers of Annarita were surprised at how much the guards knew about growing coffee, and that included Torrez, who never looked at the villagers when he spoke to them, and he made sure that the guards did not become too friendly. ‘You’re here to work,’ he told them, and the guards obeyed.

“More coffee plants meant less food— except on the farm owned by the three brothers, who pruned all their coffee plants from 10 feet down to just a few inches and planted these fields with other crops, so there would be more food for their neighbors. And, because they had the best-flowing spring in Annarita, they used it to help nearby farmers irrigate their food crops.

“If Soltero had dared, he would have taken the brothers’ water and their land. He offered to buy their farm, he doubled his price, then he tripled it, but the answer was always ‘No.’ Then, the brothers’ goats and sheep began to disappear, or were killed and left near the spring.

“None of the villagers ever saw Soltero working; he stayed indoors most days, and the people called him ‘Manos Blandos’—‘Soft Hands.’ On most nights, Soltero and his men would go to the village’s one cantina, where they would drink and play cards at one end of the room, while the farmers talked in low voices at the other.

“Eventually, of course, Annarita proved to be too quiet for Soltero, and he began to leave the valley for a week at a time. On the 23rd of each month, Soltero walked down the trail and drove across the desert to buy his pleasures. Several times, he returned with a woman—always a different one, always for hire; after a few days with Soltero, they always looked glad to leave.

“While he was gone, though, something began to happen. It is natural for people to come together, and the villagers and the guards started to talk. Names were learned, stories were told, and the villagers understood why Soltero’s guards knew so much about coffee: They weren’t bandits; they were the sons of farmers, but from families too big for everyone to remain on the land. These were just men who needed work.

“And, inevitably, some of the guards began to talk with the girls of Annarita. But Torrez worried everyone. The first words in any conversation between a guard and a villager were always the same: ‘Where is Torrez?’ And whenever he was present, the old silence returned.

“None of the guards knew Torrez’s background, but they did know that he would do whatever Soltero wanted. Once, one of the guards said it was Torrez who had killed the goats and sheep on the brothers’ farm. ‘It is ugly work,’ the guard said. ‘But, when those orders come, Torrez doesn’t ask anyone else; he does it himself.’

“In Soltero’s second year, there was less rain, and the food crops were smaller. When the valley’s families had less to eat, they began to whisper that God had abandoned Annarita.

“Soltero went away for the week before the harvest, and Emilio took his rifle up into the mountains. For six days, he practiced the smooth sweep of the gun sight and the calm squeeze of the trigger. For him, a rabbit a hundred yards away had no chance; shooting a man off a mountain trail would be easy.

“On the day of Soltero’s return, Emilio went to the mountain rim and waited through the morning and afternoon. Dusk distorts distance, and by the time the car’s headlights appeared, it was too late for a clean shot. Emilio could only watch as the flashlight swayed up the trail.

“Charlie, you asked where a gambler should go when he needs a little luck. That night, Emilio asked his brothers the same thing, and the three of them talked about what Soltero had done to Annarita, and how it would not change as long as he was there. And they came to an agreement, a gamble, that each of them could live with.

“The next night, Emilio, Diego, and Luis walked down to the cantina, with its low ceiling, the heavy wooden tables and chairs, and the two groups at opposite ends. When Emilio entered, he walked up to Soltero’s table and said, ‘Do you still want our land?’

“‘Yes, I do.’

“‘What price?’

“‘My last price. I’m not a greedy man.’

“‘Are you a gambling man, Soltero?’

“‘It all depends whether I like the odds.’

“By now,” said Father Barranca, “the villagers were all listening. Emilio said, ‘Is three to one good enough odds for you?’

“Soltero studied Emilio’s face. ‘And what is the bet?’

“‘It is a simple one: We will cut cards—you draw three, I draw one. If you have the high card, my brothers and I will leave Annarita, and our land is yours. If my card is high, you leave, and Annarita returns to the people.’

“Soltero started to shake his head, then paused, looked at his guards, and smiled at Emilio. ‘Yes.’

“From a table nearby, Emilio took a deck of cards, turned it over, and showed it to Soltero. ‘A Spanish deck,’ Emilio said. ‘Forty cards. Ace is high, yes?’

“‘Of course,’ said Soltero.

“Emilio sat down, facing Soltero. Behind him were his brothers; the people of Annarita moved in behind them, and the guards stood behind Soltero.

“Emilio shuffled the deck, then put it in the center of the table.

“‘Choose your cards,’ he said.

“Soltero took the top three, turning over 5, 7, and king. Emilio took the next card: king.

“‘Again,’ said Soltero.

“Emilio shuffled the cards and put them down. Soltero looked at Emilio, who turned over the first card: jack. Soltero turned the next three: 4, 4, jack.

“‘Again,’ said Soltero.

“Emilio shuffled the deck once more and put it down.

“Soltero took the top three cards: 2, 7, king.

“Emilio flipped the next card: ace.

“Diego and Luis and the people of Annarita yelled and shouted and slapped Emilio on the back, until one of them noticed that Soltero was smiling, and they went quiet again.

“‘That was great fun,’ said Soltero. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a card game more.’

“‘You have lost Annarita,’ Emilio said.

“‘No, I didn’t. It was just a game, my friend. You didn’t think I was serious, did you? I would never bet this valley against your little farm.’

“‘You made the bet,’ Emilio said.

“‘And who is going to enforce it?’ laughed Soltero. ‘Not you.’ He gestured toward the silent farmers. ‘And certainly not them.’

“Soltero stood up. ‘Next time, we must …’

“And that is when Torrez moved. He walked around the table and stood behind Emilio.

“Soltero looked at Torrez. ‘What are you doing?’

“‘You lost,’ the big man said.

“‘It was only a game; you know that,’ said Soltero. But then a second guard walked around the table and stood next to Torrez. ‘What is this?’ Soltero asked.

“‘You lost,’ the second guard repeated.

“A third man, then a fourth, a fifth, and, finally, all 12 of Soltero’s guards moved behind Emilio.

“‘You have all had too much to drink tonight,’ said Soltero, ‘but I forgive you. We will forget about this tomorrow.’

“No one moved,” said Father Barranca. “No one spoke. When many people are quiet together, it makes a different, deeper kind of silence.

“Then, Soltero, speaking to Torrez, said, ‘I own this valley!’

“‘Not anymore,’ Torrez replied.

“‘The government says I do.’

“Torrez looked at the cantina’s bartender and said, ‘Paper and pen.’ These were produced and put on the table before Soltero.

“‘Emilio,’ Torrez said, speaking a villager’s name for the first time, ‘tell this man what to write.’

“Soltero turned toward the door, but Torrez pulled out his pistol and, pointing it at the ground, cocked the hammer. The click stopped Soltero. Then a second gun clicked, and another, and another.

“Sweat was now visible on Soltero’s face.

“‘Pick up the pen,’ Torrez ordered. And Soltero did.

“Emilio began to dictate, starting with the date and place; then he described the players, the bet, and its outcome.

“‘Sign it,’ Torrez said to Soltero, ‘and make your signature very clear.’ ‘Víctor Soltero’ was written in clean, legible letters.

“Then, Emilio took the pen and pointed at two men near the table. ‘Witness this.’ The men wrote their names in awkward but bold letters.

“‘Soltero, I know you,’ said Torrez. ‘You think that you can change this. But, if you come back, remember that men can be mistaken for bandits and shot, or they can fall off mountain trails and their bodies never be found. Do you understand?’

“Soltero nodded; then he walked out of the cantina. He was gone by morning,” said Father Barranca. “The signed paper was filed in Mexico City by Emilio, who stopped to see his cousins in the Juárez family. Soltero never returned to Annarita.”

“What happened to the guards?” Charlie asked.

“They stayed in Annarita, and became farmers again.”

“And Torrez?”

“The villagers learned that he wasn’t arrogant; he had never looked them in the eye because he was embarrassed by what he was doing. He was the son of a peasant who had never owned land.”

“Emilio was lucky,” Charlie said, “with the cards and with Torrez.”

“Maybe,” said Father Barranca, “but before Emilio and his brothers walked into the cantina that night, they knelt in the street and prayed to God. His brothers prayed that the right cards would appear, but Emilio prayed for Torrez. Then, Emilio made a final promise before the game began.”

“Did he keep his promise?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, he did.”

“And what did he do?”

“He became a priest.”


Gramps said...

That was a nice story. The writer had me seeing what he wrote. Thanks...

Gram said...

I enjoyed reading that story. It was very descriptive and I especially liked the ending. Good won out against evil. I always think that is the best.

Gram said...

I liked all five of your posts. Your book reviews are all good. However, when you say if you have a couple of hours you could read it. Most people do not read as fast as you but I like most of the books you choose to read. It was nice to have you here for dinner last night. Hope your week goes well this week.

maicher said...