BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
MANUELA’S MISSION Part I
The Beanery Writers Group extends congratulations to Kathleen Clark, who won Second Place Award in the 2009 Short Story Contest sponsored by the Works in Progress Writer’s Workshop in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Her story will be posted in two parts. Visit the Beanery Online Literary Magazine on Monday to read Part II.
Shivers skittered down my spine. Goosebumps peppered my tawny-brown arms. Sweat beaded my forehead. This horrible thing couldn’t be happening! I wouldn’t let it! Saint Joan, help me! I crossed myself. With my mind already working like a tumbler lock, I set to scheming. Telling Father Santiago would be easy; but would he believe me? Every night, keys dangling from his waist, he securely locked the massive front doors. The arched windows were about eight feet above the ground, except one, beneath the staircase leading to the bell tower.
I’d overheard a disturbing conversation between two unknown men, where from the back of the church, I knelt praying the Rosary for my ailing sister, Rosa.
“Soooo. . . this is the legendary crucifix! Hummm! Exquisite, eh? Mere words are an injustice!” I turned, quickly glanced at the men.
“Providin’ it’s authentic, it’s well worth a fortune!” Commented the lanky man.
The scruffy guy whistled, “Fine piece for the collection! Better an’ we even expected.”
“So, when are we removin’ it?” Eagerly asked his partner.
“Twenty-four sweet hours an’ she’s ours!” Both men chuckled.
Dulce Jesu`s! The men shuffled out. Moving discreetly, I checked the stairwell window, then slid the rusty locks and pushed upward. Specks of peeling paint fell to the floor and covered my hands. Whoa! My plan could work only by propping cement blocks underneath the window from outside.
A dog nipped playfully at my feet as I sprinted down the alley that lead to my home. I pounded up the front steps, two at a time, the screen door banging on its hinges. Mama called from the kitchen, “Manny, where were you? I was so worried!” My children! Dolores thought. Manuela, energetic, precocious and bull-headed! Rosa, only eight, bright, beautiful and diagnosed two years ago with childhood leukemia. Like thunder and lightening, they are! Mama was extra sensitive, over-cautious about us since the onset of Rosa’s illness.
“Mama, pardon, por favor! I stopped after school to say a Novena for Rosa. Father Santiago sends his prayers.” The enticing aroma of Mama’s spicy Mexican chili made my stomach growl. I kissed her cheek. “Later Mama, got lots to do.”
How does one remove a crucifix from a church? It’s something a ten year old girl doesn’t contemplate. But, those thugs were not going to steal the mission’s precious artifact. Not while I was breathing! Riffling through jumbled items in the closet, I found a sturdy canvas sack to store it. Now real strategy problems hit me! Clearly in view, it hung several feet above and behind the altar, but wasn’t easily accessible. Must return for a closer look.
“Felicia’s invited me to spend the day. Can I go? Por favor” I begged Mama Saturday morning. This, my cover to return to the mission. Mama consented. Sliding into the second row kneeler, craning my neck like an ostrich, I knew that even tippy-toed I’d be straining. Behind the altar, high-backed, velvet-covered chairs sat to right and left. Slide one underneath.
On opposite sides of the altar, tapers in long brass candlesticks sent elongated shadows upward, giving the cross an eerie quality. Wall sconces lit at spaced intervals caused flickering patterns. Three parishioners moved slowly, pausing before the altar,
genuflecting, then returning to kneel quietly in the pews.
Father Santiago, Mission Santa Domingo’s respected parish priest for twenty years, approached from the left aisle, nodded and stopped to pat my shoulder. “Manuela, child, good to see you! How’s your sister?” He asked, fingering by habit, the worn ebony Rosary that dangled from his waist.
“Rosa? Pretty normal, has bad and good days, yet she seldom complains. Mama takes her for weekly treatments and I help out. Good days, we take a wheelchair stroll. Rosa loves getting out of her room. Fresh air, sunshine and seeing friends makes her smile.” Involuntarily I shuddered, “She needs a miracle, Padre. Just as her leukemia edges into remission and we breathe a little easier, it returns with the ferocity of a pouncing tiger.”
“Keep faith, child. Don’t ever give up!” His knobby forefinger lifted my quivering chin. “Your Mama, now there’s a pillar!” His coppery eyes twinkled. An uneasy feeling struck the pit of my stomach; along with many others he saw Mama as a saint! Never could I measure up to her quiet, solid strength. But then, few could.
“Father,” I swallowed, gathering courage, “there’s something very important I must tell you. The crucifix, the relic. . .some men are planning to . . .” I was interrupted by an elderly woman tapping him on the shoulder, requesting his prayers. He turned, signed the cross on her forehead and my spur-of-the-moment decision fizzled.
Back home, I recalled the tale of Mission Santa Domingo’s nearly 300-year old relic. The crucifix elevated above the altar was extraordinary. It’s fascinating history drew thousands of devout and curious from around the world. People made yearly pilgrimages here. We sat, facing each other on the worn sofa as Mama told the story.
“Legends say the mission’s relic was made from a fragment of Christ’s crucifixion cross, known as la Vera Cruz or the ‘true cross.’ Stories surrounding its discovery date to around 326 A.D. when St. Helena, mother of the great leader and conqueror, Constantine the Great discovered it in Jerusalem. Reportedly, she found an entire cache of post-crucifixion artifacts buried beneath ruins of the pagan Temple of Venus in an underground cellar, over an empty rock grave. Soon after its discovery, the wood of the True Cross was cut into small relics and scattered throughout the Christian world,” Mama continued.
“Missions were being built all along the California coast in the early 1700’s. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem Father Juan Hernandez, a Franciscan monk, was given a fragment of the Vera Cruz by the local Bishop. He brought the treasure back to Santa Domingo. Kept locked in a vault, it was publicly displayed only on special feasts and holy days. The devout have since traveled world-wide to venerate it.”
“Mama, if it was a ‘fragment’ why do we have an entire cross?” I asked, curious. She patted my knee.
“Faith, inspiration and tradition come into play. Later, a resident monk proposed incorporating the fragment to form an actual cross. Native wood was imported from Israel; then he lovingly and expertly crafted the Christ figurine,” Mama concluded. I was awestruck. I’m going to steal it! The devout would be crushed by the sudden, mysterious disappearance of their beloved relic. Under the circumstances, saving it from ultimate destruction, was more important than temporary reactions. My decision was final . . . and justifiable.
As dusk approached I wiggled through my bedroom window, tumbled to the ground and sprinted down the alley. Neighbor boys bouncing basketballs and a couple runners passed me. Ahead, the L-shaped adobe building, capped by a red tile Spanish-style roof was eerily quiet. Lights filtered from inside windows and beneath closed doors of the Franciscan community. I slipped around the side of the building, placed the cement block in place, stepped up thrust open the window and dropped to the floor.
Relief flooded me! No one in sight. The place deserted. I ran quickly down the side aisle. Behind the altar I gazed upward where Jesu`s smiled serenely. St. Joan forgive me! Dragging the high-backed chair beneath the cross, I mounted, stretched and reached. My fingertips barely grazed the toes of the Christ. I needed height. Spotting a kneeler cushion I dismounted and grabbed it. I withdrew heavy twine I’d tucked inside my jacket and formed it into a lasso. Swinging like a Mexican cowboy, I aimed for the crossbeam . . . missed. Try again! Loop and swing! It caught! I tugged down and out with both hands. Something cracked! Then I froze. Click. Clack. Click. Footsteps on cold stone.
“Hey you!” two startled, gruff voices. “What’re you doin’ kid?”
Muscles tightened. Nerves tingled. Caught! By the thieves! Caught. Lifting the object they wanted.
“Appears he’s doin’ our job for us,” The lanky, sandy-haired guy smirked.
“Only, he’s gonna’ break the damn thing, then what’ll we do?” The scruffy one grumbled angrily.
I yanked harder. With a loud thud, the cross tore loose from the wall, dislodging chunks of plaster and showering a fan of white dust over my head, falling pieces chipping the chair arm and causing loss of balance.
The men headed toward me, laughing. “Need some help, kid?” Noooo!
Panicked, I grabbed the two-foot cross and bolted around the right side of the altar railing. Lanky was on my heels, gaining fast! I abandoned thoughts of exiting though the window, dashed up the bell-tower staircase and headed down the corridor. I slammed into the old wooden door fumbling for the knob. It refused to budge. I pushed. It screeched open. Squinting in the semi-darkness, I spotted the door leading to the outside courtyard, but not before I’d tripped over a giant cast iron bell. Lanky lunged yanking the tail of my jacket. I tore loose. “Kid, I’m gonna’ kill ya! Wait! Ya don’t understand,” he gasped.
A burst of cool night air hit my face when the door gave. Fleeing down the narrow outside steps, shoes slapping pavement, heart exploding in my chest, I never stopped until I reached my back yard. With luck, I’d outrun my pursuers. I prayed oncoming darkness would disguise my whereabouts. I ducked behind a row of bushes to catch my breath and then tumbled through the open bedroom window. Quickly I stuffed the precious relic in the canvas sack and then shoved it under the bed. Safe! But for how long?
I’d done the unspeakable! I awoke to Mama rapping urgently on my door. “Something awful’s happened, Manny! Come quickly, the mission, the cross . . .” Unaware of my escapade, she seemed unusually disturbed. Do mothers know? The relic’s theft hit the morning news like a meteorite hurtling through space; hot and fast!
Television cameras focused on a distraught Father Santiago speaking brokenly, gesturing toward the altar. “It’s gone. . .who would. . .?” Do such a thing? Reports described a young male of slight build running from the scene. They thought I was a boy? I froze! Lanky and Scruffy were talking to the reporter.
Hoping my eyes wouldn’t reveal my secret, I looked at Mama. She opened her arms. “What a terrible tragedy, Manny. Let’s pray the thief gets caught.” She buried her face in her hands, crying. She hadn’t been so upset since learning about Rosa’s leukemia.
Part II will be posted on this site on Monday.
ADDITIONAL READING written by Kathleen Clark:
To read more of Kathleen’s writings, see the Beanery Online Literary Magazine, www.beanerywriters.wordpress.com, and click on her folder: BW/WR KATHLEEN, on the right side of the page.