When Wildflowers Bloom
Esteban rolled his blanket and stowed it in the corner, then shut his eyes, until he could make the journey of years toward the door. He walked across the brick floor and watched his bare feet meet the pitted clay. Fingers worked the latch, the pine slab swung out, and the spring air, bursting with growth and renewal, slapped his face. He longed to retreat into winter, into the dead, brown hopelessness of it. Past the doorway, in the spring sunshine, splashes of scarlet, lavender, and gold painted the ocher earth. He tried to resist, but his vision slid into the past, where his three younger sisters hopped, twirled, and pranced through sunflowers and lupines. With brows knitted in comical concentration, they wove crowns of poppies, a gaudy chaos around their heads. “We’re goddesses,” they laughed. “Come dance with us,” they begged him. He lowered the blackest of looks at the spring. “I curse you; I curse your flowers and your false promises.” The spring ignored him. The spring carried on with its festivities and delivered him to this grief that he stifled through the summer and winter.He might have lost his count, the stretches between springs so long that memory slipped the ties that anchored it, but he believed that seventeen springs had come and gone since he became Esteban. In the old life, he had a name of the people. At night on his blanket, while the others slept, he chanted the name to himself, Shbiy’ai, Shbiy’ai, Shbiy’ai, lest he forget it. He remembered it as if in his mother’s voice, lest he forget the sound of her. She stood over the cooking pot with steam shiny on her cheeks. “Shbiy’ai, bring some firewood.” The aromas of venison simmered with wild onion, beans, and squash over smoking piñon. “Where are you, Shbiy’ai?” she called. Father raised his infant son to the skies and gave him the name of the hawk, but he had done nothing to earn it. The name shamed him. He protected it from the forgetfulness of time to hone the painful edge of the shame.
Esteban stepped out into a breeze of winter’s cool tempered with a summer’s promise of heat. He plodded on the path that wove in and out of the shade of adobe walls, avoiding the wildflowers until their scent wafted his way, and he flinched at the assault. In the workshop, he took his place on the floor amid wood shavings and blocks of pine and picked up the carving he had started yesterday. He carved the wood with patience, letting the form reveal itself in the grain. The face peeked at him through the pine, and his knife followed its contours. He wanted to bring his mind to bear on the face alone, but the boy he had been, the boy called Shbiy’ai, intruded.
On a spring day, when the men hunted in the canyons, the women planted in the maize field, and the children scampered through stands of wildflowers, they came. They set fire to the pueblo, and the flames raced the length of the mesa. In the fields and canyons below, the tribe watched their world fall into smoke and cinders. He could still smell the fire, taste the smoke burning into his throat, hear the keening of the women, again see it all through a rain of ashes.
He clung to his mother, his arms around her waist, and she pressed his head to her bosom, her hand entwined in his hair. A soldier pulled on his arm and wrested him from her grasp. Her hand slipped from his hair, and he reached back for her, but the man carried him beyond her reach. He fought with twelve-year-old muscles, and they laughed at his punches and kicks. His mother’s screams shattered the air; he cried out for her. Their voices joined with those of other mothers and sons until one wail of sorrow engulfed them all.
They dressed him in a shift of sackcloth that covered him in sweat from neck to ankle and threw him and a dozen other boys into two wagons pulled by their beasts. The boys were of an age that allowed no tears, and moist eyes worked to hold them, but Shbiy’ai licked salt from his lips. Across the desert, the wagons lurched and creaked over the wildflowers, and their bouquet rose around him. His mother’s voice chased him.
The wagons climbed into the highlands on the northern horizon and followed a rutted path through a pine forest. They stopped in a settlement of tents and huts beside a river, where the priests lived alongside soldiers and captives from other tribes. The priests inhabited a peculiar society absent of women, lacking the touch of women. Shbiy’ai thought they must share his melancholy, missing their wives and mothers and homes. They struggled through the dust and heat in their brown robes and straw hats, strings of beads clicking against their legs, sweat dampening flushed faces.
One word at a time he learned to understand enough of their language to survive, but the shapes of the sounds on his tongue were so elusive he spoke little. They called their tribe the Español, and they called the people Indios, all the people, not distinguishing between the tribes. They forced him onto his knees before their altar, dripped water on his head, and told him he belonged to their god. He knew nothing of their god. That they would think a dribble of water could wipe the people’s gods from his mind showed him they knew nothing of him. In their lack of awareness, they seemed a tribe of inferior intelligence.
They trained him to make adobe bricks. One brick after another, stacked through the days, mesas of bricks. The mud caked his skin and ground into the pores, yellowing him with the complexion of illness and age. His teeth chewed on grit. Food tasted of earth.
In his fearless youth, he would let the fury free and say in the people’s words, “Call me Shbiy’ai, I am Shbiy’ai.” Father Xavier pulled him aside, slapped him, and warned him, under his breath, that he must cease his rebellious ways, but Shbiy’ai, emboldened by the mild punishment, refused to give up. Each time a priest uttered the alien name Esteban, Shbiy’ai corrected him, until they whipped stripes of raw flesh across his back. He bowed to them, answered to their name for him, and tucked Shbiy’ai into a corner of memory brought out only in nighttime whispers.
Esteban put down the carving knife and massaged the stiffness from his neck and shoulders. His fingers traced the familiar pattern of scars, those holders of memories as persistent as the spring itself.
He made bricks for ten years. The walls of the mission told the story of his adolescence and his youthful manhood. He had once planned his escape. He had held onto the idea of his place with the people. But as the walls rose to dominate and imprison those within them, his existence diminished, until he could no longer find himself except in the moments before sleep, when he chanted his name. Shbiy’ai, Shbiy’ai.
In the short periods of rest from labor, he passed the minutes whittling figures from bits of wood he found in the pile of discards outside the carving shop. With a shard of stone, he transformed the pine into tiny limbs and comical faces. The children of workers gathered around him, begging for a doll and dancing about when he gave them one. Father Francis, a willowy man of some jollity and kindness, stopped to watch one afternoon, and Esteban put down the half-finished doll, afraid he had broken a rule, but the priest said, “Beautiful work, Esteban. Report to the carving shop tomorrow.”
He put the carving in the basket with the others completed in the past few days and picked up another block of wood. The pine yielded like sand to the metal blade. What marvelous dolls he could make for the children if he were able to use such a tool. Gouge, shave, chip, the face emerged from the wood, as if it had always been there.
He thought, when the carvers began to produce the faces, that he must learn the features of each saint, but the priests had no knowledge of their gods’ appearances. The overseer of the carving shop, Father Mateo, told him to carve whatever white face he imagined. The crescent atop the head identified the face as holy. Esteban puzzled at the sloppiness of the white religion. The people’s gods were distinct, one from the other. The appearances of the Spider Woman or the Sky Serpent told of their powers and character.
Esteban’s mind often strayed into dreams of another life, while he worked, dreams of a family around a fire, the sun on his back in a field of maize, another pueblo on another mesa. But today the spring air dragged him to the old life, his mother at the cooking pot. Shbiy’ai, she called. Her voice shimmered through the alleyways, a current of love that curled around the corners until it found him. Shbiy’ai. He tried to answer, tried to find her in the maze of the pueblo, but she flitted away from him like a ghost.
He brought himself back to the carving shop and focused on the face that had formed in the wood. He blinked, not convinced his eyes told him the truth. He held in his hands the image of his mother, the strength of her cheekbones, the fullness of her lips, the arch of her nose, the face of the people posing as a saint topped with a halo.
If the priests saw it, their whip would flay him into bits of flesh and bone until he died. He touched the knife’s point to her cheek and pressed it into the pine. His hand trembled, the knife readied itself, but he was unable to let it disfigure her. She called his name across the desert, across the wildflowers. He turned the face to the floor, covered the wood with his hands, and sorted through a chaos of thoughts for a solution. The workshop door opened, and Father Mateo stepped inside. Esteban slipped the carving beneath the three saints in his basket, grabbed another block of wood, and set to work.
Esteban lay awake long into the night until the others settled into dreams. He crawled from his blanket and crept through the mission’s passageways to the carving shop and his workplace. He thought to wrap his mother’s face in a bit of sacking and bury her behind the workers’ garden, where she could enjoy the fragrance of tomatoes and peppers and squash. He reached through the darkness for his basket; it lifted off the ground with the weightless ease of emptiness. He waved his hand around inside the basket, and he knew one of the workers from the church had come after evening mass to collect carvings for installation in the morning.
Through the hours in the carving shop, he tried to calm his hands to avoid mistakes that would call attention to him, but he couldn’t see the face in the pine. He saw the whip on his back. Father Mateo remarked on the inferiority of his work and asked if he was ill. Esteban shook his head and concentrated on a mustering of his skills, but failed. As he shuffled with the rest to the church for the evening mass, he wondered why the whip had not yet found him. After his eyes had adjusted to the gloom, he looked up at the line of carved saints’ faces hung at the top of the walls part way around the church. He searched the faces one by one and found it, his mother’s face looking down from high above in the shadows, a face of the people surrounded by white saints.
A week of days and nights passed, and no one came for him. The soldiers had not tied him to the whipping post. The whip had not sliced his back. When he lay on his blanket and whispered his name, he grinned for the first time since the days of Shbiy’ai. Somehow the priests had not discovered his betrayal of their god. Somehow he had won.
The wildflowers withered, and the air turned stale with the heat of a merciless sun. The end of spring lifted a burden from Esteban. The priests, however, became irritable, their cassocks sodden and stained with sweat. They took up residence on chairs in the shade, fanned themselves with their straw hats, and shouted orders to the workers. Esteban used a path to the carving shop that avoided the inner courtyard where they sat.
On a morning in July, a hand reached out and grabbed his arm as he turned a corner. Juan Carlos, a construction worker from a northern tribe, pulled him into an alcove. Esteban shook his hand away. “What do you want? I have to go to work.”
“Keep your voice down.” His eyes scanned the passageway. “I have a favor to ask.”
“The carving you made. We want you to make more of them.”
Esteban’s stomach twisted. “What do you mean?”
“Many of the people have seen it and think it’s wonderful.”
“It was a mistake. I never meant for it to be hung.”
“But it was, and we can hang more.”
“I can’t do what you ask. They’d kill me.”
“They won’t know. We’ll protect you, hide them until we hang them where they won’t notice them.”
“We’d never get away with it.”
“Yes, we would. They think we’re no better than bugs under their feet. They never really look at us or what we do. They never expect us to do anything but what we’re told. Please think about it. It could be our small war against them. It would give the people a victory. We never have a victory over them.”
“We are bugs under their feet.”
“I’m tired of getting squashed. Aren’t you?”
“I have to go. I’ll think about it.”
If he agreed, he would risk his life, something he had avoided since the whip had scarred him. But, he asked himself, why had he been so afraid of death, when this life shredded his heart?
Each week he stood before the fear, cursed it into submission, and included a face of the people in the stack of carvings in his basket, first his father, then his grandfathers and grandmothers, then everyone he had known. During Sunday morning masses he searched the church walls until he found them. He saw that others found them, and the smiles gave him the courage to continue.
He and the three other carvers worked on faces of saints for two more years, until they covered the walls, columns, and altar. By Esteban’s reckoning more than one hundred faces of the people, masquerading as white saints, looked down on the worshippers from corners, niches, and shadows.
Springs brought their particular misery, one after another. Shining through the murk of indistinguishable years, the colors and scents of wildflowers wounded him with their brilliance. When his hair began to gray, and his bones ached after nights on the brick floor, he realized he had lived a lifetime in the mission. He thought his age to be forty or maybe forty-one on the day the abbot, Father Domingo, embraced him and said, “You are cherished by us, Esteban. We see how your face glows with love for the saints when you look up and pray to them. We want to reward your devotion. Join us, become one of us. Be our own Father Esteban.”
Their Father Esteban. When had he not been theirs, since the day of flames on the mesa? He paced the floor and jabbed at the air with fists as he told his fellow workers, “How do they dare think I’d smile and bow and be grateful for their offer, put on their robe and serve their God . They’re pigs. I loathe them. They stole our lives and made us slaves. Do they think I can forget all they’ve done to us? Join them? Better to kill myself.”
He expected their agreement, but they surprised him. “You should do it, Esteban. Earn their trust, and work against them in any way you can. Think about the things you could do for us as a priest.”
Esteban fought toward the decision. I won’t do it, his hate said. I must do it for the people, his conscience answered.
He took their vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity, which changed his accustomed way of life little. He shaved a spot on the crown of his head, put on a worsted cassock, and hung a rosary from his belt. Wearing the costume felt like wearing the mask of a demon, and he hoped his mother would recognize him when she looked down on him in the church. However, they gave him a private cell for sleeping on a straw-filled mattress. At night, while he whispered his name, he rolled this way and that and found none of the pain suffered on his blanket on the brick floor.
He planned his campaign with care. Putting aside a natural tendency for decency and virtue, he created within himself a creature of cunning and deception. He began by working his way into a reputation of trustworthiness and dependability. He returned lost items to priests after he, himself, misplaced them. If a priest contracted an illness, he volunteered to tend their needs and do their jobs. He scrubbed floors, weeded the gardens, and took on any task that others dreaded. In particular, he became the indispensable ally and aide to Father Domingo.
When he judged his strength within the community sufficient, he approached Father Domingo. “I have a skill with numbers,” he said. “Perhaps I could help with the inventory of supplies.” And he pilfered food, blankets, and cloth from the storehouse and distributed them to the people.
When this first foray into sedition went undetected, he planned another. “I think,” he told Father Domingo, “the workers need more time for prayer.” And Father Domingo shortened the work day, convinced this was his own idea after Esteban praised his wisdom in finding a solution.
Esteban continued to flatter Father Domingo and nurture their relationship, before attempting another subversive act. He decided to appeal to the devout priest’s guiding principle, the conversion of the stubborn people. “My people are confused,” he told Father Domingo. “I’ve been trying very hard to win them over to Christ, but they hear of God’s forgiveness and receive punishment from the soldiers for petty misdeeds.” And Father Domingo, after much prayer, discussion with the other priests, and consultation with Esteban, instituted a more lenient policy and suspended the use of the whip.
The people rejoiced in this greatest of Esteban’s successes, but he tried to moderate their expectations. “We must go slowly, use caution. If I do too much, they’ll be suspicious.” Five Sundays passed, and the soldiers relaxed into their less belligerent relationship with the workers. Esteban relaxed as well, and when a woman asked if Father Domingo might permit a fresh coat of lime wash on the walls of the people’s living quarters, he devised a scheme for another offensive.
“The workers thought they might decorate their rooms with pictures of God’s handiwork,” he told Father Domingo. “They want the children to appreciate the wonder of God’s creation.” And with pigments made of soil and rock, they painted the walls with suns and lizards, hawks and serpents, spiders and moons, the deer and the bear. The priests, unschooled in the people’s beliefs, did not know the walls of their mission paid tribute to the people’s gods.
He was so delighted in using the priests’ ignorance against them that he instigated an assault on them that he later regretted as foolhardy. “The women want to prepare an Easter feast for the fathers,” he told Father Domingo. “Our favorite foods grown in our garden.” And the priests, too arrogant to suspect the conspiracy, choked on the peppers. They gulped wine for relief, and the people swallowed their laughter. One of the women kissed Esteban’s hand and said, “They have their church full of saints, but you are our saint.”
No longer a bug beneath their feet, Esteban launched his most ambitious project. “I would like to gather the children for the telling of Bible stories,” he told Father Domingo. And every Sunday after Mass he led the children to the courtyard behind the stable. While a guard kept watch, Esteban taught the children, in the old language, about their people, about pueblos on mesas and fields of maize, about their gods, and about a boy called fiy’ai.
In spare moments he sat on a bench in the sanctuary in communion with the carvings high above him. His eyes found those of his mother, and he roamed the alleyways of the pueblo, inhaled the cooking pot aromas, danced through splashes of scarlet and lavender with his sisters, and hunted in canyons of red rock towers with his father. He heard his mother call, Shbiy’ai, Shbiy’ai, and he answered, Yes, I am here. I am here.
Lane Stark holds a B.A. and M.A. in Linguistics from Rice University and studied writing at Rice and Gotham Writers Workshop. Another of her short stories appears in Scarlet Leaf Review. A writer, artist, photographer, and traveler, she looks for inspiration in the people and places along the road. A Spanish mission in the Southwest inspired “When Wildflowers Bloom.” The guidebook pointed out that many of the carved saints adorning the walls bore Native American features, a peculiarity explained by the author’s imagination. Lane and her husband spend summers on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington and winters in California.