The Catalyst

“Painted Desert at Night” by Wally Pacholka

He was lost and it was getting dark. The vast expanse of the desert lay about him featureless and monotone and were it not for the footsteps bearing witness to the trudging of his mule he would have thought that he had made no progress thus far. That this New World he had been called to evangelize was some ancient void or vacuum without dimension nor exit, hidden unremarked and nameless to its sisterworld.

In the coldblue sand the pattern of the footsteps grew unsteady and the mule’s breathing became heavy. He got down and took the flask from the harness and though he knew it had been empty hours ago he put it to his ear and shook it as though expecting some sort of miracle. Nothing.

He patted the mule on the head as though in so doing he could somehow mitigate its suffering. The panting creature looked back at him and in the silent intensity of its gleaming eye he seemed to read a languid and bemused reproach. As though questioning him if this Creator he had left land and family to preach indeed existed. And if so, why He treated those closest to Him in such manner.

He sighed. He looked at the intimidating landscape about him. He put his fingers to his chest and caressed the small wooden crucifix he wore hanging around his neck. His mother had given it to him before he got on the ship and left for his missionary journey. “Hold it,” she had said. “Hold it to remember that in all hours I am commending you to the Virgin’s protection.” He thought that if there was a moment when he would ever this protection, this would be it.

He got back on the mule. They had not moved five steps forward when to his right he saw a bonfire erupt some meters away. It cast light on the silhouette of a man seated on the ground unmoving and inclined as though in prayer to an infernal deity.

He approached the man. “Hola,” he said.

The man looked up at him but made no reply. His face was wrinkled either by old age or the steady baking of the sun or perhaps both.

“Tiene agua?” he asked the man.

The man took a bottle of water and passed it to him. He sat across the man and the man watched him as he drank the water and warmed his hands by the fire.

“You’re not from here,” the man said. It was not a question.

“No.”

“Just passing by?”

“I’m a priest.”

“A priest?”

“A man of God. I’ve been sent to start the new Church in a town.”

“The Church?”

“The Catholic Church. A new religion.”

“Ah.” The man’s lips waxed into a sardonic smile and the shadows of his wrinkles produced by the manic bonfire lighting seemed to dance menacingly on his face like vivified tattoos. “More European ideas, I reckon.”

“European ideas?”

“Foreign ideas. Ideas from your side of the world.”

“Truth is always truth. On whatever part of the world one finds it.”

“And you reckon you possess this Truth? That you are its sole proprietor?”

“I believe truth exists in varying degrees. That each man possesses the truth in greater or lesser forms. And that the truth revealed by God to us is the Truth in its plenitude. The Author being Truth himself.”

The man chuckled. “Tell me. The Indians live here peacefully. They worship their God in their own way and live their traditions and their culture. And they are contented as it is. They enjoy happy lives and happy deaths. Won’t you think so?”

“I might.”

“And yet you come here with your new doctrines and confabulations which will certainly sow havoc on families. The sins you prohibit under your European views are an integral part embedded in the Indian life. This leads to differences. Differences that lead to divisions that lead to harbored hatred that lead ultimately to warfare. Death. Violence. I’ve seen it happen. Like a new species introduced into foreign soil breaks the preordained cycles of nature. That is the way it works. Your doctrine will only sow chaos. Is that what you want?”

“No.”

“So then.”

“An isolated man born imprisoned in a cave — never exposed to the light of the outside world and hence oblivious to his sense of sight — for such a man his idea of happiness is cold water that does not make him sick. An unbitter herb. Some small spiny fish eaten raw. If he is lucky.

“Now tell me. Would it be righteous to deprive that man of his visual sense, the luminous phenomenon of sight? Deprive him of his exposure to the outside world — with all the new pains it entails to expose oneself to fellow man, but with all the glories and joys as well — on the pretext of his being already contented with his dark cave? Leave him in the darkness?”

The man stretched back and then rubbed his hands against the fire. “And you believe your religion is this light?” he said.

“I believe that it is the nature of truth to be made manifest. To spread of its own accord through the darkness, absorbing into itself and intensifying the already existing traces of light. That it is the inevitable destiny of man to come face to face with the splendor of the Truth, for ultimately the Truth is united to the heart’s insatiable yearning for happiness, Goodness in its fulness. It is only in the Truth where man can find Goodness, for the one coinhabits the other. I believe that I am but the dispensable instrument of Truth to carry out its definitive diffusion.”

The man sat silent now. He stared into the fire as though looking at but not seeing it. The ragged bonfire reflected off the blacks of his eyes like a pair of wild pentecostal tongues, as though reflection or brimming of that interior maelstrom produced by reckonings myriad and conflicting in the heart of man.

That night they both turned in to sleep by the bonfire. Outside the rim of its yellow and windshifting purlieus the darkness was inkblack and terrifying. As though what lay there in the inscrutable beyond was the obliterating wordless void that precedes time’s first conception. When the priest woke up the air was dense with the sharp lipid smell of meat. The man had dressed for departure and squatted cooking breakfast on a small fire. The priest got up and the man looked at him and stood up.

“Listen,” he said. “Priest.”

“I hear you.”

“I got to thinking. What town did you say you were heading to?”

“El Nuevo Hombre.”

“Right. So listen. I got to thinking. You are going to need some accompaniment around these parts. Considering as you still got a portion of the way to go and you being a foreigner. I myself am quite familiar with these parts. I know the natives here almost as if I’m one of them, see.”

“You want to accompany me?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“A bit out of the way for you, isn’t it?”

The man took off his hat and fumbled with it. “I’ve been wandering around for a pretty good part of my life now,” he said. “I don’t haven’t really had a fixed place to go, see. But last night I started to think about our conversation. And I reckoned you were someone who knew the way. Or at least I’ve never had a conversation with someone so sure of where he was headed before. So.”

“So?”

The man placed the hat on his head. “So whatever it is you’ll be building in that town, I want to take a part in it. If you’d let me.”

The priest smiled. “I’d be glad to,” he said. “Come follow me.”