I am Ángel Nagual. I will be a man soon. My village, Campo de la Estrella (Field of the Star), was once a Spanish Misión (Mission) before the break with Spain a generation ago. The Spanish priests were persecuted after the revolution. My village now keeps our own faith in our own homes.
Into my village one late afternoon walked a poor man with his woman holding a child. My father, Patecatl , met these strangers outside of the old Capilla (Chapel). The red tiles of that Capilla were molded and baked by my people when they were slaves.
The man says to my father, “I am José Jacobeo. This is my wife María.”
Patecatl, my father, observes, “This is a hard road to travel on foot with a woman and a child.”
The man, José, says, “It is a hard road even with a horse. Our horse was killed by a puma.”
The woman, María, speaks up into the conversation of men, saying, “God, himself, compels our journey.”
My father says wryly, “Do you flee your God?”
José glances over his shoulder and he says, “God is our strength.”
María says urgently, “We flee Poncio Pilato.”
My father is surprised and then he smiles, saying, “Poncio Pilato is only a story that bandidos tell to their children when they are disobedient.”
The child in María’s arms begins to cry.
My father leans over the child and he whispers sweetly, “My name is Patecatl, little one. What is your name?”
María says, “We have named him Jesus.”
My father raises his eyes to María’s gaze.
José says, “For protection.”
María pleads, “We need a place to rest.”
My father reflects upon their fear and their supplication and he says finally, “Of course. Of course. The old Church is used for our livestock, but the altar stage is free and clean. Please. You are welcome to stay as long as you feel you must.”
Then my father turns to me and says, “Ángel, see to our guests, please.”
I lead José and María with their child Jesus into the old Church. The sheep and the goats stir in the straw. Chickens roost in the rafters and up on the old cast-iron arañas de luces (literally, spiders of lights, chandeliers). On the altar stage I spread clean straw for them. I leave them a basket for Jesus and a clay jar of water upon the altar. María places little Jesus into the basket upon a mound of straw. She covers her face. José comes to her side and holds her in a comforting embrace. I leave them to their privacy.
I return to my father in our room in the old Capilla. I ask him, “Father, who is Poncio Pilato?”
My father shakes his head slowly and says, “Poncio Pilato is a legend among the mestizos (half-breeds). He is a demon bandido, the saint of outlaws.”
I ask, “Is he like Yaotl (Aztec god, Sewer of Discord)?”
My father grimaces and says, “No. No, Yaotl rewards the valiant even as he is the patron of discord. Poncio Pilato is like the Spaniard’s Devil, or should I say, like the Devil’s son,” then my father snorts, “ …like the Spanish priests.”
I finally ask, “Why would Poncio Pilato chase two poor people and their child?”
My father answers me with a patient smile, saying, “He wouldn’t,” and then he offers me in consolation, “Unless they have something he wants.” Then my father pauses and he says to himself, “Or they have taken something from him.”
The sunset is blood red and my father observes, “There is a dust storm to the West.”
We hear a scream. It is María!
My father and I run from the Capilla onto the altar stage. There José is restraining María who reaches screaming toward the child in the basket upon the altar.
My father hollers, “What is wrong…?” but in that instant we see the scorpions!
An army of black scorpions is scaling the altar, climbing onto the child’s basket. The scorpions halt their advance in a halo radiating around the child Jesus. The innocent child is enchanted by his wiggling visitors and he laughs with delight and he reaches for the nearest scorpions. The scorpions raise their claws but they remain just out of the reach of Jesus.
Suddenly a voice rumbles from the road outside the Church, calling, “María!”
María now faints to the floor in the embrace of José.
My father hisses, “Wait here!” but I follow him out of the Church to the road.
There are horsemen shuffling on the dark road. A man rides forward. He is enormous. I gasp when I realize that under his sombrero he is wearing an Aztec sacrificial mask of jade mosaic. The plaster eyes stare relentlessly.
My father composes himself and asks, “What do you want from my poor village?”
The enormous horseman leans forward and says, “I want what is owed to me, priest. I am Poncio Pilato.”
My father holds his composure and replies, “I am not a priest. I am Patecatl, the medicine man. What do we possess that is owed to Poncio Pilato?”
Poncio Pilato answers saying, “The child.”
My father asks boldly, “How is that innocent child ‘owed’ to you?”
Then the other horsemen ride forward ominously. Poncio Pilato points to each rider as they come to his side.
Poncio Pilato says, “This is Despiadado.”
I realize in horror that his eyes are sewn shut.
Poncio Pilato says, “This is Avaricio.”
I see that instead of eyes there are gold coins in his eye sockets.
Poncio Pilato says, “This is Lujurio.”
I see that his mouth is elongated like a horse and his lips are enormous and his tongue hangs out.”
Poncio Pilato concludes stating, “The child is Lujurio’s. He was enticed by the nun María in her daydream as she pretended to pray,” and Poncio Pilato scoffs, saying, “She was a willing virgin.”
Behind us I hear José exclaim, “Then it is all true!”
My father and I turn to see José supporting the unconscious María.
José ponders out loud, “María said it was a miraculous conception. She was afraid. She came to me for protection. I, I was in love with her before she became a nun. I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t care. I still loved her. But it is all as she told me!”
Poncio Pilato laughs coarsely and says, “I have heard this story somewhere before!”
María regains consciousness enough to mutter, “What will you do with my child?”
Poncio Pilato leans forward and says quietly, “The child belongs to me now,” and then he laughs, “You were a good hen, but this huevo (egg) belongs to me. Me costo un huevo (literally, it cost me an egg, it cost me a hell of a lot)!
My father speaks up, “Poncio, tiene huevos (do you have balls) enough to wager?”
Poncio Pilato sits erect in his saddle and his horse snorts and stamps.
My father continues, “I wager that you have no power over the child Jesus since he is truly innocent. I wager that your minions, such as the scorpions, can not harm him because his blood is half evil.”
Poncio Pilato growls, saying, “Be careful with your last words, medicine man.”
My father is unafraid, saying, “Only María can give the child to you willingly. Am I right? All you can do is terrorize us into forcing María to yield him to you,” and my father turns toward María and stares.
María is dashed sober by my father’s implications, and she cries, “No! No, no!” and she pushes herself away from José’s loving grasp. She runs stumbling back into the Church. José cries, “María!” and regaining his balance he runs after her.
I look to my father and he turns to me and says, “Stay where you are.”
I hear María screaming. I hear José wailing.
My father says again, sternly, “Stay.”
I then see José stumbling back out of the Church and he falls to his knees before my father, wailing and pulling his hair, crying, “María is dead! She has thrown herself upon the altar and the scorpions devour her! María! What have you done? María! What have you done, Patecatl?”
My father turns back to Poncio Pilato who grumbles, “Medicine man, you are as ruthless as Despiadado.”
My father replies, “But my eyes are sewn open. Only sacrifice defeats evil. Only sacrifice is holy. We own nothing in this world except our will.”
I am transfixed by the words, by the will of my father.
José grovels inconsolable in the dust.
But another rider approaches from the darkness. I stumble backwards. It is María! Or what was once María.
Upon a horse the color of ash sits an apparition of María. From her eye sockets flow two springs of tears. She joins the horsemen of Poncio Pilato.
Poncio Pilato pronounces, “Her name shall be Lacrimosa,” and he turns to my father and says slyly, “You are very generous with the souls of others.”
My father replies, “Poncio Pilato, you do not have their souls. You have only their sins.”
And then Poncio Pilato and his horsemen rode away with the wind.
My father welcomed José to stay on with our village, but José was too heartbroken to remain for long. José left Jesus with my father and my father made me Jesus’s keeper. Jesus is a little brother to me now and I worry all the time about his fate.