Everyone knows a daisy in a desert will die too soon. Tommy smiled anyway. At nine he was the solitary ward of St. Paul’s Missionary, in the atrophied village of San Tulta, Mexico.
St. Paul’s was established in 1873 during the height of Christian church planting. At the time San Tulta was thriving; producing ancho, pasilla, and chipotle peppers. Its soil, however, turned with the century and its population diminished. In 2010 its only remaining citizens were missionaries.
Tommy hadn’t seen his parents since he was two. TJ and Cindy were archeologists who used the mission as their base from 2000 to the fall of 2003. By August of their first summer, their condom supply ran out and the heat melted Cindy’s rhythmic calculations. When she became pregnant, neither wanted to leave their promising work. Sister Melanie provided the assurance they craved showing the couple a register of hundreds of children born at the mission; all healthy. “God has graced our nest, rich with his blessings.”
As for the parents of the last baby to be added to the registry, there were no pictures. And Tommy’s guilt at not being able to remember their faces marked his first sin. He asked forgiveness every morning and every night. It was the only sin he felt guilty for. The others he had a knack of shrugging off with a few Hail Mary’s. The Sisters appreciated his promises and countless Rosaries.
Cindy and TJ McClary had been away for three days at Talum when Sister Melanie grew concerned. Cindy had left an ample supply of milk for the baby but it was running low. Sister knew Cindy would never put her child in jeopardy. After the fourth day she called the authorities. After two weeks, even the Americans stopped looking. Tommy became a permanent member of the Missionary.
Tommy wasn’t bad. He was a boy. A toy boat in a sea of women. They were aged; the youngest fifty eight. The oldest, if measured by the arc of her back, was twice that. She was the infamous Sister Melanie, and the one thing she hated more than Tommy’s smile was Tommy’s smile when he bent his head down to his feet and turned his neck back up to say, “Helloooww.”
Sister Melanie didn’t always hate Tommy. When she convinced Cindy and TJ to have the baby at the mission, it was exciting. St. Paul’s was atrophying. During the seventies it had witnessed an upsurge as a retreat colony. Eventually it lost ground to destinations offering amenities instead of the delight of endurance, discipline and desert. Now Tommy was the mission’s last recruit, a manifestation of their hope: their savior and the future resurrector of the Mission.
She never thought she would become his primary care giver. Sister Melanie had decided early to never have children. The miracle of him being sent to the mission must have been divine providence from God. A God that wanted her to experience the wonder of being an Aunt, a teacher, and purveyor of the word to the lost generation of youth. Sister would be able to correct all the mistakes of her early teaching days. When his parents vanished, however, her delight in Tommy became as bent as her back.
It was Tommy’s not knowing what his parents looked like that fueled his obsession with creating his own images: drawings, doodles and sketches. When he was old enough, Sister Melanie sent away for a paint set. It took longer for the package to arrive than for its contents to run out. It was then Tommy looked for other mediums. Tommy liked how he could control the level of brightness by pressing harder or softer with pencils. One of the few items the mission had was a vast supply of pencils left over from the Mission’s school days. Sketching became his life. Paper, however was hard to come by.
It was the lack of paper that prompted Tommy to lose his drawing privileges. He was seven and in a desperate attempt to draw, he turned to his bible. It had been his mothers and one of three gifts he would receive during his eleven year stay at the mission. It was his favorite possession in the world, not because of its contents but rather because it was the only tangible thing he had to remember his parents by. His drawings began innocently on the title pages and sketches between paragraph breaks. Soon he began to see patterns in the spaces between the words and worked to bring them out. Tommy was afraid to draw over the words. He knew Jesus himself would come down and beat him harder than any frail nun could have.
It was Sister Agatha who became suspicious of Tommy’s sudden infatuation with the word of God. Even she would be second to Tommy if piety was measured by the hours spent with the good book open.
Tommy was finishing a set of cumulous clouds in a paragraph break in St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians when he was caught.
The mission did not have any spare bibles to replace Tommy’s desecrated version. The mission didn’t have any spare anything. It was only through the generosity of a larger Church in Oaxaca that the Sisters received any supplies. (Tommy would later learn that the Mission according to the Vatican had been closed in 1982.)
Thus it was Sister Kathleen’s idea for Tommy to go back and add theological components to every drawing in his good book. Once that was done, Jesus would forgive him. Tommy took the work seriously and diligently colored crucifixes onto his fire trucks, Apostles on his Martian landscapes and Virgin Mary’s into the clouds. The Sisters were pleased with two things. Tommy not running around driving them crazy, and his true devotion to the word. When he was finished he was eleven years old and every bit of space in his book was covered. It was beautiful.
For his last image on the inside back cover, Tommy dug for remnants of memory of his mother and father. He saved the space for last when he knew his practicing would pay off.
When Tommy finished the book he brought it to Sister Melanie for inspection. As she turned the first pages, her back became more and more straight to allow more and more light to reflect off his work. After Genesis Sister Melanie was sitting upright and Tommy saw the closest thing he had ever seen to a smile on her face. The arc of her back was replaced with a tear in her eye. Holding the book with more reverence than if it were the word of God alone, she continued with Exodus. She didn’t flip through the book but rather turned each page with reverence. Tommy buzzed around until he couldn’t control himself. “Look at the last page!”
“I want to look at them all Tommy,” she said through her choked throat, “They’re wonderful.”
And they were. Not only were the drawings good, but the progression in skill was inspired.
“Go outside and play.”
“I want to take my bible.”
“I’m not finished looking Tommy.”
“But you didn’t even look at the last page,”
Sister Melanie shot Tommy The Look and he clamped his mouth and stood up straight.
“Now go and play. I want to show the other Sisters what you’ve done.”
Tommy froze steadier than he had been. Sister Melanie saw he thought he had done something wrong. “This is superb Tommy, I want to show the other Sisters how good it is.”
Tommy smiled. Praise was scarce and as his mind danced Tommy’s head bobbed. He escaped the church dreaming about what the other Sisters would think of his drawings. He envisioned them hanging one of the pictures but then felt guilty about the thought of ripping a page from the bible. Tommy knew how slow Sister Melanie was at everything and so he knew she wouldn’t be done looking until late in the day. Until then, he decided he would do all the fun things there were do to at the St. Paul’s Mission. He would have to do all three slow in order to take up the whole afternoon.
His first stop was to the well. Although it had dried long ago starving the land’s peppers, its cap was a testament to true craftsmanship. The native stone was hand cut and fit together with the slimmest of seams. It’s arcing joists supported a mansard roof that suited both the landscape and the need to keep everything below in constant shade. Etched in the stone was the underground stream marker φ. The combination of influences made the well beautiful. Tommy liked to call into its cavern and listen to his echo. It was his version of an imaginary friend. “Hellooooooww,” he called. Tommy’s artistic skills outpaced his social skills, and even conversations with himself were laconic.
“I said GOODBYE silly well.”
“I’m not silly, I’m Tommy,” he laughed and hopped off the mortared stone of the ancient well.
Next Tommy ran to the railroad tracks. The tracks were from an abandoned silver mine. Everything was gone but for nine meters of narrow gage rail. Tommy had been told that a person could hear a train coming if they pressed their ear against the rails. Tommy listened patiently for a train to come. In his dreams the train was driven by his mother and father. They carried backpacks with tools for digging up bones and a stringed pale blue box with a chocolate cake inside.
Today was special. Tommy was sure he would feel a vibration on the track. His bible was finished and the picture of his parents was perfect. How could they not come back on such a day?
After six minutes of listening, Tommy’s tolerance for inactivity hit its limit and he trotted off to his next destination: The Tree. It was the largest in the area. The bottom branch too far for Tommy to reach. He knew one day he would be able to reach the first branch and climb all the way up its dead stalk. Until then however, Tommy settled for climbing the shadow of the tree. Over the years Tommy had developed numerous ways to laterally ascend. Sometimes he would swing from branch to branch like a monkey. Sometimes he would do one armed pull ups; the shadow of his arm pulling against the shadow of the branch. Today however Tommy leapt from branch to branch with ease and dexterity.
His final stop was to the San Mateo gorge. It was a long hike up a steep path. Tommy knew it well. The nuns didn’t know about the gorge as they were too frail to ever make the journey. For Tommy however, it was the exact reason he loved the trek. It was there he felt free. The effect of coarse rocks along the path were dulled by Tommy’s flimsy sandals. Every few hundred yards a sharp one would pierce his soul whereupon Tommy would stop and pick it up. By the time he arrived at the gorge Tommy collected a sizable number of sharp rocks. As usual he held them with the lip of his shirt pulled up like a basket. “Goodbye you bitties,” he would say before plunking them one at a time over the ledge. “Bitties,” was the only bad word Tommy thought he knew. And when he said it, it made him feel even more free.
When his day of fun was over Tommy started his way back to the mission. He was extra slow walking past the silver mine and even slower going past the well. It was only when he saw the familiar site of the faded blue van, his pace picked up.
“Padre, Padre,” he called.
The driver, Father Juan Montez was one of the only men Tommy had ever met. He had been the driver of the supply van since before Tommy was born. Tommy tried to wear his hair like him and speak Spanish like him. However, he was not around for long enough for Tommy to learn much.
“HOLA!” Tommy screamed with pride.
“Hola Tommy, Que Tal?”
Tommy stared; face blank. “Hola hola Padre,”
“No paper today Tommy,” replied the Padre.
“I know Tommy, maybe next time. Paper has been hard to come by lately.”
“Hola, Hola, Hola, Hola, Hola,”
“I know Tommy,” he replied, “I feel the same way sometimes.”
The rust and pale blue van had not delivered his request for paper for over three months.
“I know Tommy, but I have something even better than paper.”
Father Montez could see the disappointment in Tommy’s face replaced with hope. What he didn’t know was with the bible drawings finished, Tommy had nothing at all to draw on. He would have to wait the entire month without drawing anything just for the possibility of paper. For the artist Tommy was becoming, it is the worst punishment possible.
What the delivery truck did bring however was a rare treat. One of the members of Father Montez’s parish had donated canned delights.
“Look Tommy,” Father Montez pulled out the colorful jars, “Tomato relish, Cubebs, Long Peppers, Anchos and Ms. Gonzales’ special sweet relish, we’ve got it all.”
Tommy smiled. He remembered the taste of the sweet relish from his last birthday.
“We can have birthdays every day!” Tommy shouted.
“Sure,” replied Father Montez. “We’ll have to be sure to write Ms. Gonzales a thank you note.”
Ms. Gonzales was an expert. Her basement was a rainbow of jars filled with every native fruit and vegetable in the region. Peppers where her specialty. Although the number of peppers she packed were few in comparison to the tens of thousands her grandmother had canned before her, she was no less qualified. Grandmother Gonzolas taught her daughter the secrets to great taste, and to great safety. Peppers should be canned immediately: washed, cut and in the jar within four hours of their picking. The cleaner it goes in the jar, the tastier it will come out of the jar. All food should be rid of dirt, stems, and damaged areas. Air is the devil: while the food is waiting to be canned it should be stored in water with lemon juice; exposure to the air will affect its flavor. A proper seal will keep out that which would render the food inside poison. Boil away sins: High temperature is the only way to kill the undesirable bacteria in the jars.
Ms. Gonzales knew that if she wasn’t careful during every step, the canned food inside could become deadly. After the jars were boiled and their seals secured, she hand inspected each jar tapping its lid with a teaspoon. She knew the high pitched ringing of a spoon hitting a well sealed jar.
The nuns knew the ring too, and would never open a jar without hearing it. As Padre Montez and Tommy carried the cases of jars into the mission, the other Sisters found it hard to contain their excitement. They all recognized the Gonzales seal on the top of each lid, signifying the finest product in Mexico.
Sister Melanie let Tommy check the seals with a special silver spoon. Each and every jar rang out as they placed the swatches of peppers in the Mission’s pantry. When the cupboards where fully stocked, Tommy was scooted out of the area so the Sisters could prepare a feast.
It was Sister Katherine who couldn’t contain herself and dipped the same silver spoon Tommy had checked the seals with into a jar of the special sweet relish. It tasted even better than it looked. Her tongue twirled against the cold silver as the sugars danced with her taste buds; elating and exciting the parts of her that hadn’t felt sugar in months. When Sister Mary discovered Katherine’s indulgence, her only recourse was to find another spoon.
Together, with the day old bread and other supplies the Padre brought, they created an afternoon feast of toasts, relishes, and peppers. They laid it out like a banquet dinner in the dining area and decorated the table with ancient dinnerware reserved for high holidays. With every “snick” of an opened jar, the excitement heightened. When the other Sisters arrived for the feast, the mood turned gleeful. Sister Melanie indulged too and sampled each and every variety. They delighted in layering their toast with not just relish, but a even a smackering of butter that Sister Katherine had been saving for a special occasion. Tommy however, was not around for the feast. The Sisters hadn’t seen him since he helped unload the supplies. Some of the Sisters were missing the thought of his relish covered smile, while others relished in the silence of his absence. And inside, they thanked heaven Tommy wasn’t there so they could indulge themselves without having to set an example. Even Sister Agatha ditched her habit. She was smiling and eating a pickle, pretending she could feel the wind blow through her hair, when she came face to face with Sister Melanie.
“Where is your habit Sister?”
Sister Agatha froze; her smile evaporated. And then the sudden jolt of sugar in her system took over.
“It’s due for wash.”
Sister Melanie squinted as if her depth of contemplation was measured by the number of furrows created by her brow per minute. “Mine is due for wash too.”
And with a brush of her hand, Sister Melanie’s habit was gone and collected with the others into a basket.
Hair was flying and sugar was pumping through the Sisters veins. Sister Kathleen suggested a song.
“But first let’s say a prayer for Ms. Gonzalez,”
“Her generosity will be remembered.”
It was then, as the song began, Sister Melanie for the moment started to question the generosity of Ms. Gonzales. Ms. Gonzales had provided the mission with canned jars only out of an obligation Grandmother Gonzales had committed to. And since her mother passed, the obligation bore fruit less and less frequently with the passage of time. Before the next song began, she mentioned Ms. Gonzalez’s generosity to Sister Mary.
“Maybe a relative is sick and she needs a bit of prayer,” chided Sister Mary.
Sister Melanie laughed enjoying herself and her full tummy for the first time in months.
“Let us not question the work of the Lord,” confirmed Sister Melanie.
Though now, Sister Mary couldn’t let the mystery lay still. “And yet she was so generous, there are cases and cases of delight.”
“More today than in all of the past eight years combined,” agreed Sister Katherine.
“God has blessed us,” replied Sister Melanie
“God bless Ms. Gonzales,” replied Sister Mary. And everyone joined in repeating.
And yet there was cause behind Ms. Gonzales’s generosity. Not malicious, but rather premonicious. Although the lids, caps and seals were all from Ms. Gonzoles’ regular supplier, the soda-lime glass jars she used were from a new supplier. Of course all the seals were new rubber, mail ordered from Mexico city. The harvest was fresh, her process meticulous. And yet she had a feeling all was not right. Thus Ms. Gonzoles decided to donate the lot to the mission instead of sending it to the stores. It was the jars that created a problem. The jars had a residue.
Sister Katherine was the first to feel the effects of the residue in her stomach. First a rumble, then a gurgle. With a full stomach she barely made it to the latrine fifteen minutes after the dinner party dispatched. She didn’t leave for an hour. And only then by the forceful knocking of Sister Mary, begging to be let in.
“Wash your hands in the kitchen water closet,” cried Sister Kathleen, trying to cover the sound and the fury emanating from behind the closed door.
“It is occupied by Sister Melanie,” she replied, “have you a soul you will let me in.”
And so they switched. And then the switch became a rotation as three more Sisters joined the chorus. And the toilet paper ran. And the narrow white sheets ran faster that evening than ever in the mission’s history.
Dusk passed into night and the end to the colonic terror showed no sign of subsiding. Sister Melanie’s first thought was botulism. A disease born from improper sealing of jars. That was dismissed as none of them exhibited difficulty swallowing or speaking, double vision, trouble breathing, nausea or vomiting.
During the next morning’s rotation, the waiting Sisters heard a sound unlike the other unusual sounds they had been hearing. The ripping of thick paper was out of place. It was Sister Katrina who ripped the first page. It was the only blank page in her bible she could find. When the other Sisters heard it, they all looked down in shame and with their right hands, felt the bump of their bibles tucked into the pockets of their own robes. And they felt reassured. The few that didn’t feel the bump would return to their rooms and come back with their own.
And slowly the pages were soiled and disposed of. At first the blank pages and chapter headings were used. By the end of the day, all discretion evaporated. By the evening, as their symptoms lessened as their intestinal tracks straightened, they worked through the last pages of Revelations.
The following morning there was nothing left of the bibles or any paper product within a hundred yards of the missionary. Tommy returned for breakfast famished. Sister Melanie let him eat as much as he wanted.
“Can we have sweet relish today?”
“No dear,” replied Sister Melanie “the sweet relish was bad, it made us sick.”
“What kind of sick?” Tommy asked.
“Bathroom sick,” replied Sister Melanie.
Tommy looked relieved. He thought his own sickness was caused by Jesus punishing him for borrowing a full jar of the sweet relish from the supply truck for himself. While the nuns were feasting on toast, Tommy was sitting on the well with his knuckles, two deep in the jar.
“Did Jesus make you sick?” Tommy confirmed that the wrath of God wasn’t responsible for the wrath on his colon.
“No, Tommy,” said Sister Melanie, “It was just bad relish.” Sister Melanie’s tone was sweet.
“Did you have any relish yesterday, Tommy?”
He didn’t want to hear her tone change. “No, Sister.”
“Good for you, Tommy,” said Sister Melanie. “You’re a good boy.”
“Thank you, Sister. Can I go play?”
“Can I have my bible back?”
Sister Melanie sucked in a long breath through her nose. As she held her breath, both her lips moved outward, up and back into her mouth. Tommy was confused by her pause.
“The drawings were brilliant, Tommy.”
Sister Melanie could see that Tommy didn’t know what the word meant.
“The drawings were excellent, Tommy. The best art we’ve had in the mission since it was built.”
“Your drawings were more magnificent than our windows.” She pointed to the stained glass artistry. She felt Tommy beginning to understand. “They were as intricate and crafted as the woodwork on our pews.” Sister ran her fingers along the sculptured grooves etched on end caps. “I especially loved the last one.”
“Of my Mom and Dad?”
Sister’s eyes widened as even more guilt set in. She hadn’t recognized the picture of Tommy’s parents in the bible as it really didn’t look anything like them. It was only now that she realized the sketch was indeed of his parents.
“Tommy, Tommy, you’re such a good boy.”
Tommy was confused.
Sister Melanie took a step toward Tommy and hugged him. She hugged him with all the love saved up from all the years she had no one to relinquish it upon. Sister Melanie hugged Tommy as if he were the most precious gift in the world.
She started crying. Sister started crying because out of desperation, she had wiped her butt with the pages from Tommy’s bible. She cried because she had thrown away the cover as it was far too contaminated to save. And because she knew if she did save it, the cover and the last picture of inside the back of it would have been an eternal reminder to what she had done.
Sister Melanie cried. And the cry became a weep. And Tommy held her. He held her like a man. He held her as if she were the most precious gift in the world too. And Tommy rubbed her ever bending back and said “Everything is going to be ok.” Just like Sister Melanie had done throughout his childhood. And he knew not to let her go.
When she was ready Sister Melanie told Tommy what she had done with his bible.
“It was so very special Tommy, that we decided to send your bible into heaven.”
“Don’t they already have enough bibles there?”
“Not with pictures like yours, Tommy.”
“So Mom and Dad can see it?”
“Yes, Tommy. I bet they’re looking at it right now.”
Tommy smiled. He smiled a wide and happy grin. An arc so majestic that Sister Melanie couldn’t help but continue his arc on her face and her tears began to flow again.
“Can I go play now?”
“Yes, Tommy, for as long as you like.”
After Tommy left Sister Melanie knelt. She planned to kneel as long as it took for her to come up with a plan for Tommy. A plan that would ensure not only his safety which had been her primary concern as he was growing, but now his happiness. Sister Melanie didn’t need to kneel for long. She rose after three minutes, two of which were spent in the actual rising. It took her the following week to make the necessary arrangements. And it wasn’t until after the weekend that Tommy was sent out to play for the last time.
“We’re expecting a special guest, Tommy.”
“No, Tommy. It’s a surprise, will you be at the well in case I need to find you?”
Tommy’s eyes grew wide. “No, not the well!”
“Ok, Tommy,” she paused, “Tommy, have you seen any of the Sister’s habits?”
“No Sister,” he replied.
“Well if you do be sure to let me know,” she said, “We still can’t find them.”
“Make sure you stay between the mission and the tree, Tommy.”
With a nod and a hop Tommy headed for the tree and adventures that lay in between. After a few hours, the tree became boring and he headed back to the mission. As he started to cross the field of sand that once grew the best peppers in all of Mexico, Tommy was interrupted.
The stranger wore what Tommy would later learn was a suit. As the man approached, Tommy noticed the large prints he made in the ground as he walked. They didn’t look like his feet, or the sandal prints of the nuns. When his curiosity overcame his shyness, he raised his head. Tommy could barely believe the redness of the man’s hair which seemed to cover his entire face.
“Are you a clown?” Tommy asked.
“No. I’m a consultant,” said the man. “What’s your name?”
“Tommy McClary?” the man replied, “What a good name.”
“What’s your clown name.”
The man smiled. Tommy’s eyes widened in disbelief. He had never seen anyone smile like he saw himself smile in the mirror. The man’s teeth were much more yellow, but it was the same smile.
“I’m your Uncle, Tommy.”
“I’m your father’s brother.”
“You knew my father?”
“Yes,” the man stated and after a pause continued, “We were best friends.”
“I drew a picture of my Dad and my Mom.”
“I heard about the picture, Tommy, it was wonderful. You’ve inspired the entire mission with your work.”
Tommy was happy.
“Would you like to come to America with me?”
“Is it far?”
Tommy nodded with an understanding beyond his years.
“but you could come back and visit.”
Tommy thought of the well and of Sister Melanie herself pulling up the aged bucket. A bucket filled with the nuns’ bright white habits with Tommy’s dark brown pooh stains. “Would I have to?”
Tommy thought about not coming back. He would miss his friend who lived in the well and the tree, and the gorge, and especially Sister Melanie. Inside Tommy knew Sister would eventually forgive him for soiling all the habits.
“Is there paper in America?”
“All kinds of different paper?”
Tommy smiled. “I’ll go,” As the man reached out his hand. Tommy took it and tried to smile just like the man.
Bruce Seymour is a writer from New Haven, CT and owner of Another Bookstore, and independent bookseller in New Britain.