At the end of a long and dusty road, where mongrel dogs scavenged and sun-dried old men rocked and nodded in the noonday heat, Rafael Dominguez stood in the doorway of his small hut wiping sweat from his brow and squinting into the heavens. There was not a cloud in the sky, nor had there been for many weeks, and the well he had helped two men from the village dig last year had stopped giving. Even the river had gradually grown narrower, thinned to a small stream, then, with time, had simply vanished.

Before the river had begun to die, Rafael Dominguez had planted a patch of corn behind the small hut where he and his wife, Conchita and their two children, Paulo and Esmeralda lived. Each day, with Paulo at his side, he would don his straw hat and walk two miles to the river with a tree branch slung over his thin shoulders, his bare feet made hard and leathery by the hot, sandy soil along the way. The branch had two wooden buckets tied to it with pieces of sturdy twine Conchita had woven especially for the occasion.

One bucket of water was for his family, the other for the corn. Most days, Rafael Dominguez and his son would make the trip at least three times, and they would celebrate their good fortune by washing their faces and necks in the warm, cloudy liquid, after which he would carefully spread the used water over the crowded rows of the green, young corn.

“We must be careful,” he would always tell Paulo each day as they tended to the thin, green plants. “The water is as precious to our corn as it is to us, Paulo. And our corn is as precious to us as we are to it.”

“How are we precious to the corn, Papa?” Paulo would always ask.

Rafael Dominguez would smile patiently at his son.

“Because, Paulo,” he would say, “Without the rains, the corn cannot find water for itself. We are precious to the corn because it depends on us to bring it the water it needs to grow strong.”

“And we need the corn to grow strong, right, Papa?”

“You are a smart boy, Paulo, ” he would repeat tenderly.

At this moment Rafael Dominguez was angered: the rains had not come for months. He spoke not a single word about his reason for being angry to his young son; it was not a matter such a little boy should need to understand. Even, he felt, one as smart as Paulo.

That evening, as they sat down together for the meal of tortillas and beans Conchita had prepared, Rafael Dominguez thanked God and asked for His blessing on their food, but held back his usual plea for the rains. He would need to make confession to Father Alberto for what he had been thinking about. He could not bring himself to talk about it, even with Conchita as they lay together in the dark before sleep came.

Nights were often a time when Rafael Dominguez would awaken suddenly, then listen closely for the familiar sounds to come again. This night, as on many nights, in the moonlight shining through the window, he could see the children sleeping quietly on their bed, and he could hear Conchita's soft breathing next to him.

There it was, again. The sound of a coyote, long and wailing in the darkness. When he moved to the window, he saw the coyote's thin shadow as it stood near the old saguaro cactus that had stood for time eternal on a hill overlooking the village. He stepped carefully over Conchita and the children, closed the decrepit, wood door quietly behind him, then walked down the path he and others had worn with their feet and sandals over the years that led to the banks of the river.

“This is where I will make my confession,” Rafael Dominguez spoke softly. “No priest; only God will hear my words tonight.”

He stared silently across the riverbed, now dry and creased like an old tia's face. Under the glow of the moon a coyote ran to the edge of the dead river and stopped. It stepped further into the dry bed, sniffed the air, and then turned away as if puzzled. The ritual continued until the coyote had reached the center of the riverbed, where it sniffed once again, then turned and ran back up the riverbank nearby and howled.

“You, too, are wondering what kind of tricks God is playing on us,” Rafael Dominguez said in a grim, low voice.

At the top of the riverbank the coyote's eyes reflected the pale light and it turned and ran a few yards, then turned to look back at him. The animal looked parched: its fur was falling out in large patches around its neck and back and haunches, and both of its ears were split in several places.

“Tonight,” Rafael Dominguez said, “you will be my confessor, and I, yours. And before this night is over, you and I must clear up a few things.”

As if in agreement, the coyote barked a couple times, yipped at the sky, then ran a few feet closer. It sat with its tongue lolling out and flicked at its ear with a hind paw, then chewed vigorously at the paw for a few moments, seeking out some unseen devil.

“There are three things a man and his family need,” Rafael Dominguez stated, raising a finger for emphasis. “Some people think money is the most important need, but we know this to be untrue, for money brings with it great sorrow.”

Deep in thought for a moment, he rubbed at his aching shoulders and stared at the coyote, then spoke once again.

“Food, shelter and water, without question, are the most important. Without water, we will perish much quicker than without food or shelter.”

Rafael Dominguez stooped and picked up a stick, then began drawing in the dry sand of the riverbed. He first drew a circle, divided it into three equal parts, then pointed the stick at the coyote, which had tilted its head and was listening curiously to his speech making.

“Father Alberto tells us that the circle represents God,” he lectured, circling the stick around the drawing. “Each section represents one of those things, such as water, food or shelter.”

“However. You must understand and accept one thing for Father Alberto's—no, he says, God's—plan to work and keep working,” Rafael Dominguez warned. “He teaches us that all things are created by and given to us by God. He also teaches us that we must be deserving of God's love, and ask for forgiveness for our sins. Only then will God reward those most deserving of his favors.”

The coyote was frightened when Rafael Dominguez tossed the stick out over the dry riverbed, where it landed with a loud, clicking sound. The animal ran a few steps, then turned and sat down facing him.

“That is my sin, Father Alberto tells me,” he said. “I pray—God knows, I pray—for the rains to come, for my corn to grow so that my children may eat each day. Just not for forgiveness.”

“I say to Father Alberto: what about the bambinos, Father? What sins do the innocents need forgiveness for that would cause God to take away their water and their corn?”

The moon was sliding behind the mountains to the west, and it seemed to Rafael Dominguez that even the stars were losing their strength to the arid night air. The answer he had sought for so many years still would not come, and he turned and walked slowly toward his darkened hut. At a distance, the coyote trailed him as he walked, weaving in and out between the few saguaros and mesquite bushes that had somehow survived the scorching sun and the blistering days.

He looked toward the horizon, aware of the small changes the sky was making as it slowly pulled back the mantle of night. The coyote moved off toward the river, trotted up a low ridge and sat, then howled forlornly.

“Forgive the lowly animals, God!” Rafael Dominguez called, beckoning to the sky with arms open wide, as the coyote continued to howl from the riverbank.

“Forgive the bambinos, Holy One, for they are innocent of any sin! Forgive my compadres, please, dear God, for they know not what they have done to make you so angry!

As the skies began to lighten, Rafael Dominguez' voice grew softer the closer he came to his home. “And when you are finished,” he went on begging, “I humbly ask you to send us the rains, else we will all surely perish!”

He smelled the smoke of their fire and the tortillas Conchita was toasting. He paused at the open door and turned to face the dawn, then scanned the skies again.

No clouds, no voice of God in the thunder, he thought. No sweetness of God's breath in the rains.

“Are you there?” Rafael Dominguez asked aloud. “I'm listening.”

He shook his head sadly. “I thought not.”

“Who are you talking to, Rafael?” Conchita called. “Come in side before your beans get cold.”

“I am talking to Almighty God,” Rafael Dominguez replied, stepping through the doorway. “He doesn't seem to have anything to say to me this morning—or any morning, for that matter.”

“Rafael!” Conchita whispered fiercely. “What you are speaking is blasphemy! You must go to Father Alberto and say your confession!”

“Ah, yes. Father Alberto….”

Rafael Dominguez suddenly began giggling as he washed his hands with the few drops of water that remained in one of the buckets. The giggles turned to laughing. Then, as his wife, his son and his daughter watched in amazement, his laughing turned to tears and the tears grew to anguished sobs that shook his entire body, like a tree being whipped by a strong wind.

He dipped his fingertip into the salty water on his cheeks, and then crossed himself, not once but three times. “I said my confession in the night,” he cried. “I prayed! To the moon and the stars. To all of God's creation—to God himself if I thought he would listen!”

“Be quiet with that talk!” Conchita said.

Rafael Dominguez stumbled to the table and sat down. Light from the fire played on his face as he uttered the words he had been holding in his mind for all these years.

“He is not there, Conchita,” he said. “He is just. Not. There.”

Esmeralda clung to her mother's skirt as Conchita's face turned into a mask of stone; she was afraid for what her husband was becoming, for the sinful act he was committing before their children.

Paulo looked in his father's eyes and saw something he had never seen before, and then said softly, “Come, Papa. You and I will find him.”

Tugging his father up with one hand and taking the empty bucket in the other, Paulo bravely led him outside the hut and into the light. As his father bent over, he helped him lift the branch and buckets onto his shoulders. Then, as he had sometimes done with the old blind man in the village, he guided his father toward the river.

Standing in the burning sunlight at the foot of the pathway by the riverbed, Rafael Dominguez and his only son, Paulo, heard a coyote howling in the distance, then the gallop of its feet as it ran in their direction. The animal had streaked past Rafael Dominguez before he realized what was causing it to race down the dead river's edge. The coyote was pacing a dark brown, foaming tongue of water that was pushing dead leaves and twigs ahead of it as it bled down the grooves of the river bed, getting wider and wider as it moved closer to them.

Rafael Dominguez dropped the buckets, then shaded his eyes with his hat and peered back up the river toward the mountains, far off on the western horizon. Huge, purple masses of clouds rose high above the jagged range, and he saw bolts of lightning dancing among the tall columns and could smell the curtains of rain sweeping toward them across the desert.

“Papa!” Paulo yelled and pointed, happily jumping about. “The river! It is alive! It is alive, Papa!”

Rafael Dominguez ran up an embankment and looked again at the gathering storm. In the distance, the brown band of water was growing higher and wider by the moment, and more dead branches and debris were being swept up in the rushing mass.

“Paulo!” he screamed. “Run up here, quickly!”

The sounds of the hungry river had swelled, and Paulo continued to dance near the edge of the boiling waters, placing one foot then the other into the spreading ribbons.

“Paulo!” Rafael Dominguez cried, running down the embankment.

As he reached out for the boy's arm, a tree branch snagged Paulo's shirt and snatched him quickly into the roiling, brown current. He could only watch in horror as his son's small body was pulled under, and then tumbled end over end down the raging river until it disappeared from his sight.

 

Later that night, after the rains had slowed and the sun had fallen, Rafael Dominguez and some of the villagers found Paulo's body washed up on the riverbank several miles downstream.  He could not contain his tears, touching his son as if to restore the breath of life to his only son.

While Conchita washed and dressed the boy's body, Rafael Dominguez fashioned a small cross made with twine and several branches pulled from the riverbed. He gave it to his grieving wife to put in the ground at the head of the grave he had dug among the tall stalks in the corn patch.

When Father Alberto had said his words and he and Conchita had gently covered Paulo's shrouded body with dirt, Rafael Dominguez knelt next to the mound and cried bitterly.

“We watered the corn, then God fed the corn and the corn fed you, my beautiful son,” he wept. “But now, I will water it alone, and you and God will feed the corn.”

He wondered where he would find God to inform him of these things.


Submitted: August 09, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Frank Walters Clark. All rights reserved.

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