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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Erica de la Palabra de Dios

A foreign travel journal mentioned the rail spur in a letter, and cited some of the villages along the route by name, but after the failure of Banco Commerciale the health of the area deteriorated. Few visitors were willing to cross a semi-deserted jungle without basic services.

The haunted outposts embarrassed the state. In 1965 twenty-one settlements in the district were listed to receive post-offices, grade-schools, and with them, new names. In a trial program Sombra de la Muerte was re-christened Cama de Flores, but that immediately led to confusion with the next village dubbed Garden of Eden.

The old monikers clung, for whatever reasons one imagines. Pies sin Suela hosted a silo for fertilizer. There was a taqueria, and a couple of speed bumps in a paved track that leads to the highway from the station. 'Feet without Soles' refers to the peeling of a man's feet, if he refused to work.

The promised schools were shoddily constructed. European lessons were so unattended that most the teachers quit after a week.

Riffs of Quolé, the native tongue thought extinct by scholars, were heard by locals. Even the smallest hamlets coveted caches of documents from an indigenous past written in native script on papers pounded from bark. Who planned on attending classes? The post-offices were bogged by theft and inefficiency, and roads remained more or less useless. Electronic signals flew over the heads of settlements beyond rescue, with histories impossible to forget.

The railroad company tried to reinterpret town names into something more cheerful, more modern. The natives could tell their history since Europeans arrived, but no one asked. Most lived in thatched huts beside small plots of corn planted amidst the scrub.

The region remained a featureless blot on maps, details open to speculation. By 1950 scheduled trains dwindled to two round trips a week and remained so until the mid 1970's. The Solitary Traveller, Perth, 1979 dismissed the district with one short phrase: "Don't go there", the entire area deemed too hazardous for foreigners. 

Beneath a spurge of trash trees, lianas and scrub, a limestone pan tore the bottoms off vehicles and shredded tires. One kilometer from the railway, a few improvements to the state highway system provided access to a small cadre of landowners who, with government funds, attempted to establish beef as an export. Deliveries of state-subsidized feed and fertilizer increased and kept the rail service alive.

Forests were cleared to make fields for livestock, large trees felled to pay local officials. Rats took over, and with them snakes. After storms in the rainy season, walking at night on dirt paths was hazardous due to 'quatre nez', seeking refuge from the floods.

Carne Quemada had been a staging ground for hardwood trunks. Limbs from these trees provided fuel for curing rubber. But it was said the name was first given because the place smelt of burnt flesh.

Workers who made trouble in Sin Agallas had their bowels pulled from a slice in the lower abdomen. Then their entrails were placed in a bag tied round the victim's hips. His intestines could be stuffed back in if he desired, either way he was released, and usually had strength enough to return to his village before infection set in.

Somehow however grotesque the horrors perpetuated on the lowlands tribes seemed to be absorbed by images of ritual purification, as the railway gained elevation. Time, abhorrently neutral, forgets acts of kindnesses and cruelty both. Time persists, though forever it is running out.

At La paz de los Muertos burnt scrub and banana plantations broke way to cocoa and coffee, then a succession of deserted settlements with European heritage also swallowed by jungle. The train lurched past these places.

Pasada Sorbo held a spring that had dried during the Conquest. Perhaps a dying man walked towards the mountains, hoping to drink clear water. He had a vision of Christ before succumbing to thirst. A spring burst from the ground where he fell.

The railway spent a few minutes in these hamlets. Ghosts seemed to peer through the grime of railcar windows. The drained faces flitted across shadows of overgrown ficus.

Ritos Finales or "Final Rites" had a main street with four structures and a garden zocalo with immaculate flowers set about a statue of Orozco de Aguilar holding a sword. A gardener on state salary maintained appearances. There was even a museum, where a guard looked after books papers and portraits, and told stories of the Conquest, doing his best to soften the bits about torture. Those details lay buried in the stacks of Biblioteca Nacional.

One saw the bedroom where Aguilar passed during his sleep. To maintain discipline and quell an incipient uprising, his lieutenants ordered fifty Quintole men and women disemboweled. Cited in a 1980's guidebook from Germany, it was omitted by official state documents.

Sombra de la Muerte, was deserted. The name was all that lived. Off this tiny intersection, a dusty spur led to the state highway. It was rumored you risked God's judgment if you touched foot there.

The train wheezed on. A conductor shouted the next stop, then a garbled translation in the native tongue, Quolé.

In 1930 the last fluent Quolé speaker, Doroona Ti-nassa, whose name meant "Flower who Remembers”, transitioned to another life without event. She left no specifics of her hundred plus years, nor did she recount her simple memories of the Conquest as told by her grandmother. She would die she said, when her dog, a short-hair of mangy appearance, also passed away. She claimed the dog held the souls of a departed husband and four children whom she had already outlived by thirty years. When her pet was shot by an angry inspector, Doroona met Jesus that same evening, mumbling unintelligible words to a cousin, who happened to be visiting.

Ti-nassa Doroona's importance to the town is noted by a brass placard affixed by the Cultural Office to a post in front of her house.  The engraved paragraph in Quole is one of few officially rendered texts in a language all but destroyed by a conqueror.

One crude Quole transliteration exists, rendered by a early 20th Century botanical scholar from Saarbrücken. Referred to by ethnolinguists as the Rosetta Stone of Quolé, the field notes of Oleg Kohlman provide a linguistic glimpse into a secret Quolé past. Using English phonemes Kohlman transcribed native names for a  Quolé encyclopedia of plant species, but his revelations about plant families were overshadowed by this insight into the ancient spoken language, and by his records on Quolé healing, itself a valuable trove of native pharmacology.

Five hundred miles away and two thousand meters above Los Azules, the rail line terminates in the small hill settlement of La Palabra de Dios. The inhabitants are a mix of hill tribes, potato farmers, herders and descendants of rubber workers from the lowlands. There also live some descendants from Aguilar himself, his lieutenants, and concubines. These grey-skinned ghosts exhibited signs of heavy inbreeding. Their heads sloped, with long ears, and pale skin. They flitted through quiet streets, spoke little, and kept to themselves.

It is said that if the train engine cannot breathe in La Palabra de Dios how can people? The air is so thin that water is precious, it is forever evaporating away.

The church at La Palabra de Dios held coveted images of twenty-two saints. Two rows of retablo paintings flanked the sides of a tin-enameled sculpture of Jesus soaked in blood and wrapped in thorns from his head to his waist. So many nails were driven into Jesus's extremities through the painted tin, he resembled a Central African votive doll. Some of the saints were more animal than man, or had breasts as well as male organs. One was a child. The saints' names could be given in native dialect, a few seem to have no history at all.

The only guide in Palabra de Dios, is a long-haired arrival from the capital, who waits for a curious tourist. For a few coins, he will attempt to link each pagan image to a popular Christian saint. Saint Francis is easy, who in addition to being surrounded by animals, wore the skin of a jaguar. St. Sebastian had a European spear run through his gut and another through his head.

Paintings on the wall told the same story. It seemed saintly feet were burned at the slightest provocation with red-hot cast iron, or legs lashed until the skin hung by flayed shreds. Women and children were impaled on stakes. Painted images of merciless angels courted the dying with heads of serpents and lizards.

Padre Gomé's father, Señor Antonio, died when Gomé was just eighteen. The following morning approximately one hundred Quolé speakers, most of whom who had never been seen in church, stood at the door with silent faces. They waited for Señor to open the chapel. One of the boys fetched them water. They stooped on the floor. Around the images candles flickered and cast undulating shadows. They set down offerings, of chickens, the heads of goats, fruits, flowers.

Of mestizo blood, Gomé as a baby was refused baptism at the basilica in Los Azules.

The reason for the refusals concerned a Papal Bull issued in 1795 itself a response to a bloody insurrection by native clergy, that resulted in the deaths of forty of God's faithful. The Holy Father pronounced the diocese a "A Sacristy for the Dammed". The entire congregation was ex-communicated in 1796 with the proviso that re-admission to the Body of Christ could occur in two-hundred years, pending good behavior. Then in 1940 a gruesome repeat of the violence, reinforced the Church's determination never to rescind the bull.

And so this little Church lived in a kind of Purgatory, and its faithful, in a kind of Hell. The town drew strength from beaten jungles that lay at its feet. The lineages of the clergy and stories surrounding the Gospels morphed into a cult and myth of suffering. In Rome they said the people grew horns. In the capital one crossed oneself before mentioning La Palabra de Dios, by name.

Priests traced a lineage to natives in the lowlands, and tribals from the hills, as well as a few white inhabitants who had no Catholic aspirations other than that of achieving forgiveness. It seems enigmatic and puzzling that such a diversity of laity should be obsessed with genealogy, or that any effort was made to trace descent from indigenous tribes. All who were associated with the diocese were devoted historians. In recent years, two Danish geneticists started a project mapping genes in the area bracketed by Aguilar's railway.

It could be said all who lived in La Palabra de Dios were possessed. By what? A desire to obtain forgiveness from his Holiness? To alleviate the guilt that clung like lichen to stones of the settlement?

With books, communiques and visiting laity cut off, congress with the church had severed.  Gomé encouraged native interpretations of Christian saints. Votive statues, first outlawed by the church Fathers, were tolerated. The images of the saints changed, morphed, and grew as sculptures of gods resurrected from stories grandmothers told about the jungle.

Bizarre perfumes scented the nave. Birds, rodents even monkeys made the church their home. A twilight chorus within blended with rainforest without. At candlelit services, held usually at dawn and at dusk, one heard fragments of fifteen different languages. The Fathers communicated Holy Words to tribal elders who made offerings of corn, semi-precious stones, amber, carvings of copal and perfumed wood. Penitents wore bags of mud about their necks. Others wore the entrails of game animals that had given their lives for food.

The theme of every service was pain. Suffering hung by a chain from the neck of the town. It rang, a noisy bell, and stank, a rotting beast. Even the forest creatures that attended services joined in cries of anguish. Parrots of La Palabra de Dios spoke another dialect. Their voices mimicked what was heard in church.

The tiny eglise persisted in efforts to forget. By force of the human spirit, it trudged through the slime of Purgatory, confident it had already experienced the flames of Hell. The confusion of oppressed and oppressor in the roster of saints reinforced their hopeful notions of forgiveness. You could beat a man's feet every day of your life, be forgiven, and then be sainted. There was even talk of sainting Aguilar, because his acts of oppression had taught the congregation so much.

Forgiveness from a liberal Pope in recent years was not forthcoming. Clergy and laity moved on. Services were punctual. So many candles were lit in the dark interior that even on the coldest of mountain nights when the frosty air of the snowcapped peaks bore into the gravel valley tucked between mountains like the breath of a dead angel, the interior of the tiny basilica stayed warm.

Once each month Gomé journeyed down the rail line to Los Azules to make his report to the Archdiocese, hoping to show that God's work was being done, and that the congregation was doing penance for its previous crimes. The Vicar would not admit him.

Gomé spent a brief moment in solitary prayer, though junior priests kept an eye on him from a chapel in the transept, less some of the silver objects at the choir suddenly go missing. Gomé left the report on a silver tray in the vestry. It was hand delivered to the Bishop after he left.

The Bishop's large ringed fingers bulged as he took up the request. He glanced at the perfumed letter, turned to the Vicar and scoffed. "These letters smell of the Devil, no? God has a right to live in Hell, yet he chooses not to do so."

The Vicar filed Father Gomés' letters, together with those of Gomé's own father, and the nine priests who had served before them, in a set of bindings that were not labelled. One could say what what one wanted about the Church, it kept everything, even works by the Devil himself.

Santa Maria de la Palabra de Dios was filled with flowers. Incense billowed from small silver braziers. The air was giddy with pollen, sweat and perfume. Haunted faces knelt, lit candles and prayed. Men and women wailed, their voices rose and fell, a chorus from a endless tide of pain. Tears from brown cheeks pooled onto the floor, and rows of worshippers replaced those who rose to give up their place. Machetes rattled against worn tiles. Tears were ritually gathered by flat copal wood spatulas managed by a priest who poured them over a fired effigy of the Holy Son. The statue brewed in a patina of green mould and salt. It resembled an excavated form of the Rain God, Chaak.

And so, with history as a backdrop, we come to the only daughter of Father Gomé, a young girl from La Palabra de Dios, who, through a bizarre quirk of fate, was adopted last year by an English family, and who now lives and studies in Mexico City.

Erica works as a tour guide in the Central Zocalo. With long straight hair impeccably combed she wears a slim black miniskirt and a long-sleeved white button down shirt, speaks English, quite well, tinted by an accent from somewhere else.

"I am not Mexican," she had said to me, shortly after we met. "I have a long story to tell you. Do you want to hear it?"

It was then she told me of the train ride I should take to better understand her country.

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