One could argue that being a native Batistan my opinion of the events I am about to recount must necessarily be tarnished with local prejudice and distorted by personal involvement. And, in a way, it would be true. But of one thing you can be sure. I’ll tell you what happened as best as I and other Batistans remember, local prejudice or not.
Before starting my story-telling I must explain something about our village and its name as well as give you a brief description of the hero of the unusual events.
Named after a Jesuit priest, Padre Batista, the hamlet lies in the district of Jinotega, at the foot of Yeluca, south of the Honduran border. The village (if one is bold enough to call the cluster of huts a village) has carved a passage into the jungle whose tagua palms and mauritia trees periodically send scouting tendrils to reclaim the territory unlawfully appropriated by people.
Batista, boasting a population of 46 with the occasional variations that death and birth alter from time to time, is a tightly-knit community relying completely on whatever can be wrenched from the surrounding fields, caught in lakes and streams or picked from trees and bushes. Our women reap cotton, weave cloth, bake corn tortillas and carry babies in hemp sacks tied to their backs. We, men, plant, weed and harvest when necessary which leaves us quite a lot of time for story-telling or observing leaf-cutting ants that can strip a bush naked in a matter of hours.
If you ask the villagers about their dreams and ambitions they’ll tell you they are too busy just surviving to be bothered with things that cannot be and will not be so they leave dreams and fancy musings to town folk and other idle people.
Life’s not perfect in Batista but if one could ignore the occasional flooding of the Cua river and the volcanic indigestion that makes Yeluca belch ashes and smut, one could call it pretty good.
Once a year, to celebrate the birthday of the patron - San Batista - the village awakens from its dormancy and the preparation for the annual fiesta begins. Festive clothes are extracted from trunks, coils of smoke laze up from adobe ovens late into the night, bottles of guaro line the banks of the stream to cool, the effigies of the Saint are dusted and polished.
It is Paco “Cara de Palo’s” job to go to the nearest town of Bocay to fetch the priest who says Mass on that special day.
Paco owes his nickname - Wooden Face - to the expression of immutable seriousness which marks his otherwise unremarkable features. I have known Paco for more than forty years and not once did a shadow of a smile cross his lips. Before the events I am going to tell you about happened I had often wondered if, by no fault of his own or some hereditary flaw, Paco lacked the necessary smiling muscles. But be it that or some other thing, no-one had seen Wooden Face crack a smile or even as much as lift the corners of his mouth to show amusement.
Paco’s most proud possession are his cows - two bad-tempered heifers whose grandiose names reflect their owner’s exorbitantly good opinion of them. Isabel de los Santos and Carmelita de Aragona earned for themselves a reputation of being not only temperamental but also quite aware of their important standing in Paco’s household and the whole village.
Wooden Face, it is said, treats the cows with more love and dedication than he does Jacinta, his wife of twenty years and he takes offence if anyone refers to them as simply ‘cows’ or uses one of the names only.
To anyone who wants to listen (or for that matter to anyone who doesn’t) Batistans frequently recount the story of the heifers and the Yankee geologist stationed in the village to explore the volcano. Fascinated by the local customs and the inexhaustible riches of lore, he used to question us and scribble copious notes in his little book.
El Gringo, as he was known, was a middle-aged man with a shaggy blond beard and the diluted blue eyes of an incurable alcoholic (apart from the bloodshot eyes we could always see the little hip flask he carried in his pocket).
One day, on his way to the volcano, el Gringo spotted Paco sitting at the roadside chewing on a blade of grass.
“Tell me, Paco, are the cows good milkers?”
“Aye, Isabel de los Santos is.”
“And the other one?”
“Carmelita de Aragona is a good milker too.”
“And tell me, would they be good for beef?”
“Isabel de los Santos would.”
“What about the other one?”
“Carmelita de Aragona would be too.”
“Are they yours?”
“Isabel de los Santos is mine.”
“Now I understand, the other one is not yours.”
“Oh no, Carmelita de Aragona is mine too.”
El Gringo, perplexed by Paco’s answers and quite confused with the names, scratched his beard and walked away without taking notes in his little book for the first time.
Now that you know a little about the main character of my story, I’ll go directly to the miracles.
That year, just like every year, we were getting ready for the fiesta. The figure of the saint boasted a new coat of paint, our women had sewn him a full set of clothes, even his nose, chipped off by a drunker bearer in a previous ceremony, had been lovingly restored.
Early in the morning, before the sun had emerged and painted the surrounding hills a luminous red, Paco set off for Bocay to fetch padre Rigodolfo, a wisp of a man with the face of an ancient chiguagua and the communicative skills of a macaw. But somehow that year an acute feeling of doom nudged at his stomach and before leaving he had made sure the heifers were safe in the corral and ordered Jacinta to give them an extra forkful of hay.
The night before he had heard shots - the Sandinistas ambushed the Contras or the other way round. Paco didn’t pretend to comprehend or wanted to comprehend politics other than the politics of everyday living.
“Let them measure miles of red tape and churn out slogans in Managua,” he said, “Here, in Batista, we are more concerned with failing crops, the vagaries of weather and getting enough guaro for the celebration.”
In Bocay, he rested in the Plaza for a while and let the mule drink water from a fountain. Around him the hectic Sunday activity was being increased by a protest of workers from a local bottle factory. Armed with guitars and harmonicas, carrying placards, groups of youngsters loitered about and sang. Paco watched and listened, his ears registering the pleasant sounds of the tune and although it was a Sandinista song he was highly gratified to discover the words “holy water” incorporated in it. To express his approval he launched a tentative attempt at joining in.
Ay Nicaragua, Nicaraguita,
The prettiest blossom of my love,
Blest by holy water,
Nicaragua, shining with shed blood.
The crowd passed by and the mule, its belly bloated with ingested water, was getting impatient to move on.
He found the priest at the Jesuit Mission, helped him mount the animal and leading it by the harness, left Bocay.
“How’s life, Paco?” Padre Rigodolfo enquired.
“The same as always, padre, the same,” Paco answered with his usual curbed loquacity.
“Bearing up, padre, bearing up.”
“Thank God, Paco, thank God.”
The conversation ground to a halt and the priest, lulled by the mule’s steady tread and the warm fingers of the sun caressing his bald pate, dozed off.
The road led through the jungle. Spider monkeys hopped from treetop to treetop, porcupines scuttled through the undergrowth and the whisper of the foliage had a sedating effect on the preoccupied Paco who had not shaken off the feeling of foreboding.
They were nearing the village when the unusual calm of the afternoon shot pangs of alarm through his body. It was too quiet, unnaturally so. Expecting to see the customary coils of smoke competing with the wispy puffs of steam common to every rain forest he looked up towards the hills swathed in a thick blanked of greenery Nothing was visible over the impenetrable canopy of leaves.
“Padre,” Paco shook the priest.
“Ha?” Padre Rigodolfo woke up with a start.
“Can you see smoke?”
“What smoke? Where?” The priest squinted against the strong glare of the sun. “No, Paco, there’s no smoke.”
“There should be, “he said with a sinking heart. “Jacinta was going to bake empanadas. She’d never forget.”
The old priest slid off the mule and listened.
“Not a sound.”
A terrible certainty dawned on Paco. The Contras! Searching for food they were known to wipe out whole communities in the area.
“Stay here, Padre. I’ll go and look.”
He skirted the village and with each step the feeling of doom thickened. Mentally, he was bracing himself for what he guessed he’d see - bodies strewn around and (God forbid!) his cows, Isabel de los Santos and Carmelita de Aragona, gone.
And then he saw him - a man in a khaki uniform with splotches like dried blood, the belt studded with bullets, a rifle aslant his shoulder, going from hut to hut, hustling people out. He saw Jacinta, her back slumped, run to the centre of the village where men, women and children huddled together, fear stamped on all the faces.
Quietly, Paco retreated, his heart beating a wild zarzuela against his ribs. What should he do? What should he do? He crept towards the altar where the figure of San Batista stood - a mild smile affixed to the plaster lips.
“Ay, Santito, help. They’ll kill Jacinta.” With a degree of control he refrained from mentioning his cows.
The saint gazed at him with an unblinking stare, the new robes fresh and crisp around his stiff shoulders. A dull ache throbbed in Paco’s chest and his eyes filled with tears. He approached the figure and leaned against it as one might on an unfeeling tree stump. He could hear shouts but above the turmoil in the village another sound, sharp and clear, broke through. He turned his head towards the sound… yes, Isabel de los Santos - he would recognise her mooing among thousands of others. And pretty peeved she was, too. Jacinta must have forgotten to feed her. Soon, the upset bellowing of Carmelita de Aragona joined in and the two commenced an angry duet.
And it was then that Paco understood. It was San Batista’s way of giving him the answer, the miracle he had hoped for! The cows! Bad-tempered when fed they easily turned into demons on empty stomachs of which they had four – the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum- all of which were now empty! It had happened before. Freed from their enclosure, the cows had stampeded through the village in search of hay and had wounded Chueco Rafael (because of his pronounced squint) who never went near them again.
“Thank you, Santito,” Paco bent and kissed the saint’s feet.
He hurried towards the corral where the cows’ bellows were reaching a desperate crescendo. He was about the open the gate when another idea crossed his mind. He ran back to the house, rummaged in Jacinta’s sowing box and took out the thickest darning needle he could find.
“This’ll do just fine,” he muttered and miracle of miracles - his mouth stretched in a half-grin.
The heifers, impatient to get out, pushed against the fence as he unlatched the gate.
Holding the needle between his fingers he stuck it into Isabel de los Santos’ rump. The roar that tore out of her gullet was terrifying. Blindly, she bolted out followed by Carmelita de Aragona who had received a similar treatment.
“The bulls!” Paco shouted. “The bulls are coming!”
The cows’ hooves raised a thick cloud of dust as they charged. The man in the uniform reached for his rifle but it was too late. Like a brick wall, the cows plunged forwards ignoring the fleeing villagers, their rage focused on the running man.
Paco strode slowly, his mouth stretching more and more until it stretched to its full capacity.
“Paco!” Jacinta screamed.
“You are smiling! A miracle, all the Saints, a miracle!”
A suffocated giggle bubbled on Paco's lips then burst out like a gunshot. Holding his belly with the hands, his eyes watering, Paco laughed. And everybody else laughed with him.
“With a needle…” Paco squealed. “Isabel de los Santos…With a needle.”
And although we had no idea, not at that time anyway, what he was talking about we laughed. And laughed. And laughed.
After, still giggling into his fist, Paco collected Padre Rigodolfo and Mass began. We thanked San Batista for the miracle. Two miracles, to be quite truthful: saving us from certain death and making Paco laugh for the first time in his life.
When all the empanadas had been eaten and the liquor coursed warmly through his veins, Paco laughed some more. The image of the charging cows resurfaced in his mind time and time again and he dissolved in peals of convulsive squeals.
“With a needle, San Batista, with a needle…”
With all due respect, Holy Father, the reason for taking the liberty and writing this letter is nothing more but to express our gratitude to San Batista and to add to the list of other known miracles attributed to him. For many, they may not amount to much but we, Batistans consider it a clear proof that out patron takes great pleasure in looking after the village that cherishes his memory.
Wishing Your Holiness good health, I remain forever your faithful servant,
Arnaldo Nogal, the village scribe.
Author Notes: Part of my anthology available on Amazon Kindle