Christmas Eve. Lake Chapala, Mexico.
In the twilight of early morning there is no color on Lake Chapala, only shadows of gray and darkness itself. In the city, cobblestone streets belong to hungry dogs and swirling trash and plastic. On backstreets sinners hurry by late from the arms of their lovers, practicing false excuses in soft whispers.
Pablo carried a small, faded denim satchel flung over his shoulder. He was short with a thin trimmed moustache and proud Maya nose. He fished the lake like his father had done. Because of his dark complexion from the sun, the other fishermen called him “El Chocolate.”
Pablo never walked the same streets down to the lake. That was bad luck. Ghosts played tricks on you if you dared walk the same path. Today, of all days, he was sure to be respectful of ghosts and not walk pass the dress shop with the white quinceanera dresses the girls wore on their fifteenth birthday. On this day he was sure ghosts would fly out of that shop and take his soul to hell.
He crossed the street and stopped in front of a tienda of women’s clothing. His wife had hinted what she wanted and he gave no clue he would buy it for her. But for months he had saved several pesos from each day’s catch to buy her a Christmas present. He traced her shoe outline on a piece of paper to be sure of her size. Her dress size he knew from sneaking a quick look at labels. Today he would fish the morning and after going to confession buy her the presents. He hoped this would make her happy this Christmas.
When he came to the silent harbor, his rainbow colored boat were tied with the others. The small, Mexican tri-colored flag attached to a metal rod flickered in the gentle wind of early morning. Silently he untied his boat and pushed off. With a few grunts the tiny outboard motor came to a fumy life and he motored out onto Mexico’s largest lake. He knew exactly where it was by the early morning light on the church steeple in Chapala. He shut off the motor and the quiet of the lake quickly overcame him. In the noisy church how could God hear all the people praying? But on the silent lake, God could hear whispers. He took out a pink thermos from his satchel and slowly drank hot coffee. It was his ritual to stop and pray in the lake every morning. He looked down into the black water and blessed himself. Then he touched a small holy card of the Virgin of Guadalupe wrapped in plastic and tacked up inside the boat. He looked out at the dark waters not far from his boat. He would never cast his nets there. That would be a sin. His coffee finished, Pablo fired up the outboard motor and headed out to work. It was going to be a short and happy day…he hoped.
In the fading light of the afternoon, Padre Sanchez hurried down a side street toward the church. His hands were in his coat pocket and his collar turned up at the afternoon chill that came off the lake in winter. His mind buzzed with all he had to do on Christmas day. There was a High Mass and many houses to visit. The sick and the poor must be visited. There were endless parties and certainly too many sweet drinks, food and music. He knew he would gain two kilos during Christmas time. This time of year was hectic, but he delighted in seeing people filled with the holiday spirit. He walked toward his small stone casita residence and was about to enter when a voice called to him from the shadows. From the shadows, Pablo appeared.
“Oh, Pablo. You want what?
“But this is Christmas Eve and confessionals are Thursdays and…”
Pablo just stood there. The Padre thought how unusual that Pablo, who came to church only at Christmas, would want to go to confession. Padre Sanchez tried to banish terrible thoughts that Pablo killed his wife or had done a terrible sin.
“All right Pablo, follow me.”
Padre Sanchez took off his coat and draped it on a nearby pew. He directed Pablo to the confessional booths. Both men knelt in the darkness.
“I don’t know what to say, Padre.”
“Tell me why you are here my son.” There was a long pause. “This is the time you must confess, Pablo. Tomorrow our Lord was born. And you too can be reborn again with this confession.”
There was another long pause and the Padre thought he smelled alcohol. It was not the first time a person came to confess, filled not with the Holy Spirit but with tequila spirits and confessed in sobbing terms, not to sins, but how hard their lives were. Sometimes a priest was not in the confessional to forgive sins, but to listen and give comfort.
“Pablo, what have you to say? I have matters to attend to. Tomorrow is Christmas.”
“Yes and the anniversary of the death of the girl. Tomorrow would be her quinceanera and she would be a woman.”
“What are you talking about, Pablo? The girl?”
“I put her body in the lake.”
The Padre was sure Pablo was drunk. “What?”
“It has been fifteen year ago tomorrow when my wife Lupita gave still birth to a girl. Then she cried and told me the child was not mine.”
“Pablo, I don’t…”
“I told her a proud man cannot live with such a thing. And the reason the child was dead was because God wanted it that way! Give me the girl!”
“Oh, Pablo…” It was the only words the Padre could speak.
“On that Christmas morning long ago, to hide my shame and the shame of the family, I went out to a spot in the lake, wrapped the small body in a net, weighted it down with rocks and slowly let it slip down into the dark water. When I returned home I put my wife on a bus to her little village. When she returned in a month I told her to say the baby died there at birth.”
The Padre was silent, holding his breath.
“I have forgiven my wife. And she has forgiven me. To do so is the right thing? Yes?”
“Yes.” The Padre said. “We must have compassion and forgiveness for those that have trespassed against us.”
“Is the girl in heaven, Padre?” He asked with tenderness in his voice.
“I cannot answer for God. I do not judge the souls of God’s children.” The Padre could not leave Pablo without any hope. “Our Lord has special kindness for the innocence of children.”
When the confession was over, Padre Sanchez walked toward his room and fumbled with his keys to open the door. He walked directly to a big leather chair and sat down, his coat still on. He stared out the window at the dark shadows crawling up near the top of the church steeples. He stared out a long time. Then the church bells rang and he knew he must rise and continue his Christmas duties.
Pablo walked home in the cold and twilight and was not afraid. When he entered his warm house he smelled the stuffed chilies and tamales his wife had cooked. The kitchen table was decorated with a red tablecloth and small candles flickered in the center. Soon the families would arrive and the small house would burst with laughter and joy. The women would bring more food and the house would have delightful smells and tang of exotic spices.
“On the way from church three wise men on camels stopped and told me to give you this.” He held out two small boxes. His wife paused with a puzzled look on her face. Then she smiled.
On Christmas day, Pablo walked to church arm and arm with his happy wife in her new dress and fancy shoes. They stopped to look at the quinceanera dresses in the shop. It was safe now. But he was still sad.