That first half year in the parish of Santo Sebástian, Father Ambrose was afraid.
He feared the vast New Mexican spaces beyond the church door; he feared the scorpions he was told might sometimes hide in his shoe; he feared the howling of what he imagined were great hordes of coyotes surrounding the rectory at night.
But most of all he feared a call from the Archdiocese of Chicago, from the prelates who had sent him to Santo Sebástian, men who might change their minds and conclude that even this speck in the desert was not small enough nor far enough away in which to safely bury him alive.
He knelt in his room and gazed through the window at the crimson moon and prayed that the blood of the crucified Christ would absolve him. And the wind from the desert hissed Ego te absolvo.
But by the end of the first year, his fear thinned to anxiety. Soon the anxiety faded to worry, and within three months of the second year the worry had dwindled to an occasional unease and glance over his shoulder.
The desert was vast, but largely empty. He had only once found a scorpion in his shoe and he squashed it. He’d grown accustomed enough to the song of the coyotes to sit on the rectory porch at night and listen as he smoked.
And the men in the Archdiocese of Chicago never called. Father Ambrose realized that they were willing to let him rot in peace.
“Requiescat in pace,” whispered Father Ambrose, and slept soundly.
Father Ambrose had grown used to the parishioners, and they to him.
They were small in number and seemed suspicious of him, content to keep their problems to themselves, for which Father Ambrose was grateful. Less than fifty came to mass on Sunday, except on Christmas and Easter, when the congregation swelled to a hundred or so. There was one baptism and one requiem mass; now and then a request for a visit to the sick or elderly.
And on days when Father Ambrose felt more like his former self, in control, confident in the old invincible way, he would visit the little Catholic elementary school and spend time with the children.
Despite all the problems they had caused him, children still afforded him much pleasure. The ones who had betrayed him, he forgave, and the many boys and girls who had kept silent, the silence that he taught them was golden, he blessed with all his heart and prayed for nightly.
There was a boy named Carlos in whom Father Ambrose took a particular interest. He was small for twelve and afflicted with a stutter. As Father Ambrose had often seen before, Carlos was the kind of boy who brought out the worst instincts in the children who were predisposed to them.
Children, Father Ambrose knew, could be beasts.
Carlos roused in Father Ambrose protective and nurturing feelings, however misinterpreted by others. And of course he was a beautiful child, with his deep chocolate eyes and black hair and the shy smile of an angel.
He approached Carlos’s mother, a young widow, with a suggestion. He told her that a stutter could often be helped by learning a musical instrument. He himself played the clarinet and would be glad to give Carlos lessons. He recommended twice a week in the church. He would take the boy after school and when they were finished would drive him home.
Carlos’s mother hesitated, but Father Ambrose assured her it would benefit the boy not just with his stutter, but spiritually as well. Carlos seemed to like Father Ambrose, and so his mother consented.
They would begin next week.
All that week Father Ambrose spent in feverish anticipation. He had been too long denied the company of young souls who yearned for spiritual enlightenment and support. And Carlos was doubly handicapped, not just by his stutter, but in the lack of a father figure, a role Father Ambrose knew he played skillfully.
He would leave the boy better than he’d found him, however it turned out, and anyway, whatever he did was surely the will of God, or why else would he be permitted to do it? To prepare he would fast, fast and pray, and allow God’s light to fill him with divine guidance, as it had done so many times in the past.
Father Ambrose knelt before the altar and prayed out loud to the large wood crucifix where hung the melancholy Christ, painted in garish colors by a long dead parishioner, with ample droplets of blood around the crown of thorns and leaking from the wounds in his hands, feet, and side.
No matter how hard he prayed, Father Ambrose found he was besieged by intrusive thoughts of a less than spiritual nature. Perhaps, he thought, he was praying too hard and should give his soul a rest, break his fast, and indulge in a little bread and wine, as Christ himself was well known to do.
He rose and turned and from the corner of his eye saw something move in the shadows in back of the church.
“Hello?” he called.
Of course, no one answered. He knew he was alone. But as he walked toward the door to the rectory he had the distinct feeling that something was indeed lurking in the shadows.
“If someone is there, come out immediately. This is a house of prayer, not a playground.”
And with that, a child stepped out of the shadows.
Father Ambrose stared in amazement. It was Carlos, but not as he had ever seen him. The boy was in a white tunic and barefoot. His eyes and hair and unblemished skin were dark but shone with a radiant light. He smiled shyly and motioned to Father Ambrose to follow him.
“What are you doing here, Carlos? Where are you going?”
But the boy did not answer. He walked slowly out of the church. Father Ambrose rushed to follow him.
Even though Father Ambrose hurried and Carlos walked slowly, he could not seem to catch up. He followed Carlos along the dark road away from the church and into the desert.
“Carlos,” he called and the boy turned momentarily and gestured to him to follow.
Father Ambrose used the light on his phone to guide his footsteps over the cold desert floor. The desert was flat, yet he seemed to be moving downhill.
“Carlos, for God’s sake, come back!”
Though he had not been walking long, Father Ambrose had apparently gone a long way, for the lights of the church were dim and distant. He was cold, but the thought of the beautiful child warmed him and he plodded on.
Finally, Carlos stopped. Father Ambrose turned once more to look at the church, but it was gone. And when he returned his gaze to Carlos, he saw nothing.
The child too was gone.
Overhead the sky, which should have been speckled with stars, was black. Father Ambrose began to be afraid, just as he had been when he first came to Santo Sebástian.
He turned around and around and shone the dim light from his phone over the landscape. The light went out. The phone was dead.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he found himself at the bottom of a hollow; surrounding the round rim were eyes, an ocean of eyes — luminous, scarlet, staring at and surrounding him, slowly moving down the slopes from all directions.
“Merciful Christ!” he cried.
A dreadful howling filled the night, heart-rending cries, a high-pitched wailing of anguish and wrath.
Father Ambrose fell to his knees and covered his ears as the wave of coyotes broke over him in a black deluge.