“Let’s go for a drive,” the mother of the family said. Her two daughters, a 3-year-old nephew, and his brother got ready to pile into the car. Going for a drive can mean many things in Paraguay. It could be a few-minute trip to the house-front store down the street or it could involve an hours-long journey to another town.
I hurried to the bathroom, the key is to always go before leaving, and asked what we were going to do. “Get the saint,” the mother said. She said it as though it was both obvious and I should have known what she meant. But, of course, I had no clue what “getting the saint” involved. Questions raced through my mind: What saint? Are we going somewhere to pray? Is it okay if I go in the athletic shorts and tank top I’m wearing? Are we bringing a statue of a saint somewhere? Where? How long are we going for? I climbed into the car, and we were off. I decided my attire was acceptable because one of the daughters was wearing a house dress.
“What are we doing?” I asked again.
“Getting the saint,” the daughter in the house dress said.
We stopped at a little store and picked up bread, sugar, and several pastries. I wondered, “Are we going to be gone so long we need food? Is the food going to be some kind of offering?”
We drove down a road on which I used to live. The road wound into a forgotten part of Paraguay and connected my town to another town. It was lined with pink and gold grasslands. We slowed down to let free-range cattle cross the road. Dusk was falling and its heavy light washed over the tiny school and houses we passed. It was strange to journey to no where as night shadows came. Paraguayans tend to stay home after dark.
The mother told me, almost in passing, that the little girl who had lived with them for about a year was gone. The little girl’s mom came with police and a judge and took the girl without warning. The reason the girl was living with them in the first place was because her mother was neglecting her.
We stopped. There were no houses close to the road. There was no visible reason for stopping at that point. The mother and the daughter in the house dress got out of the car, the others didn’t move. The mother said I could stay in the car if I didn’t want to walk. My curiosity was burning. Why so much mystery?
We started to walk on a little footpath. I asked the mother, “What is the saint? Why is it here? What is it for? Where are we bringing it?”
As we wove between the brush and grass the mother finally explained. We were getting a cross with Jesus on it. The mother said that this cross was a special one, a specific one, that was hard to find. A single man was the keeper of the cross and it was passed down to him from his mother. When something bad happens in my friend’s family they come and get the cross and bring it home for a night to pray.
We got to the keeper of the saint’s house after a short walk. He was an old, thin man. He had two teeth and his clothes were faded. His house was one room, with space for a bed and a table where the saint and its alter sat. The house was made of wood slats. Off to the side was a shower and toilet; the painted metal wall around them was starkly modern compared to the rest of the homestead. Two basins with dirty dishes were sitting on wooden planks. The beige sand around the house was swept like a Japanese garden. There was an ax with a new tree-limb handle. The daughter reminded me that the man lived all alone. She commented that he needed someone to break the solitude. Giant trees, like those that inspire poems, stood at the edge of his swept space. They created a canopy. His house stood on a ridge, and below spread the grasslands. It was perfectly silent.
The mother handed the man the bag of food. He pulled together the assorted chairs he had so we could sit. He was a chair short. The mother began to chat. The daughter chimed in at appropriate times. They spoke Guarani. They smiled and laughed. The mother followed the man to the alter to get the saint.
Anyone who has been in a Paraguayan Catholic place of worship knows what I mean by the Jesus cross. The cross is carved out of wood and has a bleeding Jesus nailed to it. He is wearing a crown of thorns. The one we were getting was about one and a half feet tall. It was painted blue and there was a little angel that attached to Jesus’ chest. I thought of vampires, but imagined the angel was supposed to be healing him.
The mother walked slowly as she carried the cross. We returned to the car and went back the family’ home. When we arrived the grandmother came over, she lives across the street. I couldn’t tell if the grandmother was crying, but she kissed the Jesus on the face. “Welcome to our home,” the grandmother said to the saint.