Disturbing the Night

On an August evening in 1941, five men - four friends and a stranger - stepped out of a bar in a small town in Sonora in Mexico and set out for a town on the other side of the mountains, miles away. The wife of one of the men had told her husband a story, a rumor really, which, that night, the man chose to believe and which sent them on their way. It is not known any more what the rumor was - had soldiers or bandits come? Had an innocent person been murdered?

The men were drawn, in simple truth, by the bitterness and sweetness of life. A heart-driven hunger to put an end, again, to suffering propelled them into the mountains. Climbing the western slope, up and up, they felt the onset of the great freight of human sorrow. They paused to rest at the ridge before beginning the long, jarring decent of the canyon's sharp-spined wall. Clouds had cleared off the sky and a path down was that much easier to find in the full lunar light. Moths flying above them obliterated the moon, making their shadows turbulent. When they came to a halt in treacherous places, each man was reminded of tenderness, of the affection the he had known.

The dolorous passage of time and the night's aloofness stole in upon them. Their descent brought them at last to the narrowest of creeks. They sucked at the clear trickle and stepped across. They agreed - another short rest before starting the climb out.

The men began to grow suspicious of each other in their weariness. Self-doubt seeped in. Each man's fears boomed off the vast drum of the night. Waking nightmare interfered with the generosity and compassion that had sent them on - the wish to be of use in a distant place - began to play badly against their memories. The misery and despair that emerged from what they recalled finally overpowered and drove them to the ground. They slept close to each other like frightened dogs. As they fell off, each recognized the reckless endangerment of life that the desire to help could become. And each saw how pride, even anger, might hold together such a seemingly vain enterprise to defeat evil.

Continuing on in the early morning, they reached the canyon's rim. They walked east into the trenchant light of dawn. On a road winding through sand hills, they encountered the gaunt and blank faces of men and women pulling children along, leading pitiful burros bearing meagre and strange possessions. They recognized the enemy everywhere and nowhere in the distant gaze, the hurry, the stumbling. The people were stitching hope, like sewing stones together.

The procession passed to the south. The men continued east, their worn hauarches crumbling the brittle and pallid soil, until they reached the edge of a village where a creek bed ran dry as fire-scorched cloth. Goats on the other side stared, catatonic, at the creek's bare stones. Children with water pails lay still in the dirt. The men, for all they had resisted the memory of human pain, began to cry. Their tears soaked their clothes. Their clothes began to drip, and this flow of tears filled the creek. The men waded to the bank and woke the children.

The travellers then stood uncertain by a scrawny palo verde tree, looking up the road, down the streets. One of them, the one the others did not know, took from his pocket a small gold crucifix. His face quivered with remorse. He had stolen it, he told them. When he was a boy he had stolen it from a church, intending to sell it, and then with the money to run away. But he could not bring himself to do it. And now, he said, he stood for the first time again in the same place, before the same proud but beleaguered church.

The man who was a stranger to the others turned away from them. He climbed the few steps to the church's doors and knelt down. A priest approached from a withered garden. The man offered him the cross. The priest comforted him.

In these same moments, the other men felt the weight of many objects in the small satchels they wore over their shoulders. When they looked within, what they saw they knew has been stolen. They spread out among the houses of the village to return these things to the people. To one house, six pesos. To another a pair of shoes. In one house virginity, in another dignity.

In another house serenity. Everywhere they knocked they met with looks of scorn. They were cursed and reviled. Even animals, into whose stalls they brought stolen grain and buckets of water taken by meanspirited boys, looked on them with contempt.

The hearts of these men sagged and bled before this indictment, but they went on- a silver hair comb, three oranges, a small paring knife, a book of poems, innocence, ambition - everything that had been stolen from covetousness, lust, spite, indifference.

By late afternoon, their satchels were empty. The men returned to the scrawny tree where they had started and saw their companion still on his knees before the doors of the church. They went and gathered him in. They had by now despaired of forgiveness or explanation. They were preparing to leave when village dogs surrounded them, thin and limping animals with open sores. The dogs pushed them up a street, past a turn, and through a gate to a patio where the slanting afternoon light gleamed in water glasses on a table and a boy motioned them ahead. A woman came from the house with tortillas and corn with bowls of meat and beans and onions, fresh lettuce and peppers. The men ate. The sun set beyond a wall, a long streak of heart breaking light they saw as an inflection of joy. When they had finished and waited and no one else had come, they left, walking away soundlessly into the moonlit night.

After the plaza before the church they saw some ten or fifteen people gathered. A senior man gestured for them to come over. He and the other men extended their hands in appreciation and to say good-bye. The women embraced them lightly and spoke softly - "Muchas gracias," "Estamos muy agradecidos." They conveyed their understanding of the bravery and innocence of the men. And also their fear that nothing can take away the night, neither the long night of war and abiding hatred nor the short, bitter nights of the soul. But to forgive, that assuredly wrecked the night, sometimes for long while. Life then became more firmly entrenched. Evil could not root it out.

The five men listened in silence, knowing how disruptive it can be to question wisdom or mystery.

When the villagers stepped aside, the men saw they had woven together a platform of sticks over which they had thrown three or four poor serapes. They sat down as they were bid, and as the people stepped back to give room they saw circling down caracaras and Solitary eagles. The birds grasped twigs protruding from the platform in their beaks and with a great and wild flapping lifted the platform up and, rising, bore it out over the plain. Behind them the men saw the village in strong moonlight and the bright pinpoints of lanterns and candles.

The birds carried them through the night. The men held each other's hands, and each in his way wondered whether forgiveness could ever match the extent of vengeance, whether love could ever match the extent of indifference, whether joy was the foe of what the priest called peccate mundi or merely the companion. The desert passed speechlessly below them. The stars reverberated like a scatter of diamonds, stones they had never seen, and the smell of night-blooming agave reached them. They took their emotion from the relentless concentration of the birds, the terrific hammer and authority of wings. In the deep canyon below, stark moonshadow rose abruptly to become again the moon-bathed earth and they watched feathers spiral off into the night as the birds pounded on.
Barry Lopez
ECM Records
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