Guest post by Mike Boniface.
Old chants are buried in some canyon deep.
What would you give to hear that chant again?
–From Lost Herd, by Ian Tyson
My friend, a priest, trots his horse to mine and pulls to a stop. In the distance, a canyon wall cuts the Texas plain like a gash on a boxer’s chest.
“What do think?” I ask.
Boulders, white as bone, protrude from the rim. He frowns. “A harsh beauty.” The frown deepens. “Like God’s mercy.”
Mercy. Not a typical description for a landscape, yet appropriate for this broken terrain. Evidence, also, for the theory that humans take on the quality of the ground they trod.
Not far to the west, shepherds once striped off their shirts and furrowed their backs with rawhide whips. Barely alive in an arid land, each Holy Week they fed their bodies with pain in place of bread.
We follow a game trail into a gulch. On my left, a crevice cleaves a wall of red stone. The deep crack call to mind the gaping wound in the Sacred Heart. My mount skirts a clump of prickly pear and the image of the pierced heart dissolves into the history of this sin-scarred land: raiding parties, hangman trees, lynching posts, crosses white with flame.
Where are the penitentes when we need them?
The priest rides ahead. I ponder the scant preaching about penance in the present day, the lack of thirst for reparation of sin. Indeed, the ancient curse continues to lash this land of rock and sand. To the south, near the border, canyons echo screams of women and wind hums through skulls pecked clean by buzzards.
The horses pause at the bank of a shallow stream. My mare paws the water. Beneath her hooves, clouds of sediment explode like roses, scarlet blossoms bloom amid pebbles round and smooth as rosary beads.
High above, the cry of a hawk. At the sound, a transfiguration. The flowing stream becomes a glorious wound. In the echo of the cackled caw, the cry: “Surely, this was the Son of God!”
The horses cocked their ears, then lower their heads to drink.
Beside me, the priest rests his hands on the saddle. Earlier that day, his hands offered sacrifice for the salvation of the world. I think of the Saving Victim held aloft and a knot tension in my shoulders begins to relax.
“Not all chalices are made of gold,” I tell him.
He frowns, curious.
“Some,” I stare at rose-petaled water, “are carved in earth.”
Mike Bonifas lives in West Texas. His writing has received honorable mention in the JF Powers Short Fiction and Van Dyke Spiritual Essay Contests.