The Old Sailor’s Tale
The old sailor lived high on the cliff road outside of the village. It was a humble mud brick home, with carefully managed gardens that made him largely independent of the village. He kept to himself and tended his small area.
The villagers would see him walking the hills or tending his gardens, but like most old men, he was largely invisible and there was not much curiosity about his background. It was said that he came from Spain, and Jesus, the young boy who had come for the priest, was his only apparent local friend.
Never once did he receive a visitor in all the many years in which he had lived there. He did not attend church, but was friendly to all who took occasion to say hello in passing. Neither was there any sign of the cross in his home or on his property. He never swore and consumed no meat, and his sustenance was due to his own gardening efforts.
He sold some vegetables in the town, and they were always delicious. Some even claimed that they had curative powers, having recovered from illnesses shortly after consuming them. The small money he made from his sales efforts allowed him to buy bread and wine from the local merchants, so in this way he was an economic asset to the village.
The young padre walked quickly with Jesus, who had come to meet him, and was throwing a stick for his new pet. While walking, he removed the handkerchief that he had wrapped around his cut hand. To his amazement the cut was gone. No sign whatsoever remained of it. He started to think that perhaps in the excitement of Rosa dying he had imagined it, but the bloodstained handkerchief gave witness to his memory.
He shook his head in disbelief and recalled how Rosa had seemingly come back to life. He had been so sure she was gone. He was young, but as the only priest in the village, he had witnessed several passings already, and he recognized the death rattle, the lifeless eyes, and the final end of all respiration. It was truly a day of miracles. How else could he explain it? The Holy Spirit and miracle of the Christ had descended upon them and blessed all those there.
Was that why the dog, stood up and prayed before the crucifixion? He wondered while he walked.
They were near the sailor’s house, and Father Santiago was glad, because his thighs burned from the steep climb up the north road. It was too steep for the old sailor, he thought. Maybe his heart couldn’t take it any longer.
Jesus ran ahead and opened the gate for the padre, and stood by it patiently waiting with Santo. The padre smiled at Jesus and walked through the gate and under the trellis of roses beyond it, then paused, admiring the old sailor’s gardens. The earth was rich and dark, unlike any near the village. The sailor had carried it by the basketful on his back from the forest on the far side of the mountains. It took him years to acquire it all.
The gardens were very fruitful because of the rich earth and abundant water supply, which came from a mountain spring in the side of a nearby cliff. The sailor had made his own cement and made a small aqueduct to carry the spring water to his garden where it was gently distributed in just the right trickle to keep the plants perfectly watered automatically. Any vegetable one might imagine could be found there in various quantities throughout the year.
“Very inventive,” Santiago said to Jesus, pointing to the aqueduct, and then he turned and gently opened the door to the cottage and they walked inside.
The old sailor lay in bed, his skin dark and leathery, so much so that he appeared more to be made of wood than of flesh and bone. His hair was thick and as white as snow, and his eyes, which opened when he heard the door close, shone a brilliant blue in the sunlight that slanted through the cottage window illuminating his face.
He smiled, and his teeth were white in the sun, unusual for such an old man. Most of the local villagers had poor teeth due to a lack of care and a diet high in carbohydrates. But the old man ate no animals and the many plants he chewed kept his teeth polished and his gums sound.
Suddenly, he saw Jesus and he shouted: “Get out! Jesus, take the dog away. He is your dog now. I gave him to you and you must not bring him here. Take him outside!”
“Jesus, take the dog outside, please,” said the padre.
The boy looked sad, but obeyed without question. “I will be outside, if you need me. Goodbye, Sailor.”
“Goodbye, Jesus. You have been a good friend, and you are a good boy. I am sorry I scolded you. We will meet in the clouds one day. Farewell.”
The door closed behind Jesus and the old sailor turned to the padre and smiled.
“A fine boy. He will live a very long time, but I hope not as long as me.” The sailor laughed ruefully. “Do you know where I am from, Father? From Zaragoza...from Spain...a long time ago. Did you know that I once had a young and beautiful wife and three beautiful children? No, of course, you could not know. That was many years ago, and they are all gone.”
He looked up at the padre, who had pulled a chair up to the bed, and tears streaked down his leathery face. “You see, I didn’t know...I didn’t know the secret then. It was later, only later that I found out, and it was too late then.
“Too late,” he said sobbing. “Too late to save them. And later, it did not matter. Later, I found the evil that was concealed in the good. I learned my burden and my task, and it has been this way with me all these years. Will you hear my confession?”
“Yes, of course,” said Padre Santiago.
“And you must promise, when I tell you,” the sailor said, grasping the padre’s robe and arm very tightly, “you must promise to protect the boy!”
“Yes, I promise. But protect him from what?”
“I swear by the Virgin, Padre, that what I am about to tell you is all true. I knew the saint you are named after. I knew him long ago, in Zaragoza. I met him in the flesh and spoke with him. I helped build the first chapel to Our Lady there...many, many years ago.”
“You mean you dreamed of Saint James? You met him in a dream?”
“No, Padre. I was there. I knew him in real life. It was from him that I got the dog, in the year A.D. 40 of Our Lord. But he didn’t know...he only told me how he came to have the dog. He didn’t know the secret. He didn’t know the pain,” the old sailor said crying. “If he had known he wouldn’t have done that to me. I wouldn’t have accepted the dog from him. It was my blessing...my curse. You will explain and instruct Jesus, and protect him. You must promise me, because I love the boy, like my own son.”
“I will do so,” promised the padre.
The padre closed the front door of the cottage behind him and blessed the house with holy water, praying in Latin. He looked up at the sky and crossed himself in the sign of the cross, then kissed his crucifix and whispered: “Christ has mercy.”
Jesus was curled up under the tree next to the garden sleeping with his dog. Santo lifted his head and wagged his tail as the padre approached. Santiago knelt on one knee and took the dog’s head in his hands and looked into his eyes. He saw his own reflection in the clear blue eyes of the dog. There was no sign of cataracts or excessive age.
Then he picked up the dog’s paws one at a time and examined the pads on the dog’s feet. The dog appeared to be no more than a few years old. His teeth were clean, and without tartar; his breath was fresh and smelled from mint plants. And then he remembered.
Santiago remembered seeing an old sailor in Sonora as a child, some twenty years ago, and seeing a dog walking with the old sailor, who was very old, even then. A sailor was an unusual sight in his town. Was it the same sailor? But even if it were, he never thought for a second that this was the same dog.
Surely, it had to be a descendent of that dog. The story he had just been told by the old sailor from Zaragoza couldn’t possibly be true.
Jesus felt Santo’s tail thumping his leg and awoke and looked at the padre.
“Is Sailor gone?”
“No, Jesus, he is sleeping. He wants to be left alone now.”
The padre rubbed his hand thoughtfully over Jesus’ head.
“Jesus, it has been a hardship for your aunt to take care of you and your cousins. How would you and Santo like to stay with me at the mission? Your aunt will not take kindly to another mouth to feed, but you and Santo are welcome to live with me. You can have your own room to sleep in with your own bed.”
“My own room? Can Santo sleep with me?”
“Yes, my son.”
“Then I would like that very much!”