‘Am I dead?’ I asked the angel leaning over me. She smelled of soap.
She looked at me with a surprised expression on her face which was framed by her nun’s habit, her head had moved and I realised that the halo I thought I saw around her head was just the sun shining through the window behind her. It had reminded me of an illustration in a book. A book about which I had no further memory.
‘You are awake, at last,’ she said with a hint of an accent that confirmed for me that she was a European immigrant.
‘Where am I?’
‘The mission. The church of St James,’ she said.
‘Why?’ I asked. It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask, but I fought back the fear I was feeling. The illustration of the angel stuck in my mind but otherwise it was a blank.
‘You were found half-dead by the side of the main street of town, and brought here,’ she said. ‘You have recovered surprisingly quickly considering the condition you were in.’
She saw me licking my lips and offered me a drink of water. I took the glass with a shaking hand. Something bad had happened to me and was the cause of my loss of memory and also the loss of my identity. Specifying the cause of my affliction did nothing to assuage the torment inside my mind.
‘These are not my clothes,’ I said looking at the simple linen smock and trousers I was wearing. I knew that I was wearing temporary clothing given to patients. They felt wrong against my skin and smelt of other people.
I could also smell the scent from the rosemary sprig that hung above the door to the room. I could hear at least two sets of footsteps and a whispered conversation in a foreign tongue outside in the corridor. I guessed that the strange words were Spanish, but I didn’t understand it. The mission was Spanish. Saint James she had said, but they called him Santiago.
I had remembered that name and that their god was important to me even though I did not share their beliefs. The picture of the angel had been in a book that someone who followed their faith had showed me. This small but increased amount of memory was somewhat encouraging.
‘No,’ the nun said looking slightly embarrassed, ‘You had suffered a severe blow to the head and had a deep cut on your forehead. We had to wash the blood off your clothes and off you.’
I touched my head and felt the bandage wrapped around it. My long hair was tied up in a strange arrangement so as not to interfere with the bindings and I could tell that it had been washed with soap.
‘Thank you for caring for me,’ I said. ‘Did I have any belongings about my person when I was brought here?’ I hoped that seeing my possessions might help to stir my memory.
The nun left the room momentarily and returned with a pile of neatly folded clothes and a small wooden tray on which sat a money clip containing a number of bills, coins, a key, a whittled piece of wood adorned with animal faces and a gold ring. It was the sight of the ring and the band of lighter brown skin on my rough skinned hands that brought most of my memories flooding back to me.
I remembered who I was, who I had been with and where we had been going. The hospital in which I lay was part of a long established Spanish mission who came to this part of Arizona two hundred years ago when my tribe still owned its lands rather than being forced onto a reservation by the invaders who wanted our land for themselves.
The buildings housed an orphanage as well as the hospital. When Mai was a small child, her family had been killed in the fighting and she had been placed into the care of the nuns. She had been taught about Christianity and other European ways. She gave up our old gods of the earth, the water and the animals, and became a devout believer in the dead man on the cross, but then an incident when she was thirteen forced her to make the difficult decision to run away from the relative comforts she enjoyed and seek out and return to her tribe.
Mai’s tribe had been all but decimated by the white men and instead she was taken in by our tribe and travelled to our reservation. Over the years she became my friend, then lover and more recently my wife. Schooled in their ways she wanted me to wear the ring as a sign of our everlasting commitment to each other. I loved her and knew her enough not to refuse the request.
After Mai and I had been married for a year and after many years of sharing each other’s secrets she told me that she wanted to visit the mission. She wanted to make a special prayer and thank the people who had brought her up. I left our home in the safe hands of my cousins and made the journey with her. It was unsafe for any woman to travel alone in Arizona regardless of her race or creed. We paid to travel with the postal service the hundred or so miles from my reservation to the town nearest to the church. It was traditional for pilgrims to walk the last ten miles or so.
‘Where is my wife?’ I asked. I wondered if she was being cared for in a neighbouring room.
‘Your wife?’ the nun asked.
‘I was escorting her to this place.’ I said.
‘You were found on your own,’ she replied.
I put my ring on and swung my legs out of the bed.
‘I am going to get dressed now. I suggest you avert your gaze,’ I said.
The nun waited outside while I dressed.
I put my possessions back into my pockets. I had been mugged, but the muggers had not taken my money. They had taken the one thing I prized over all things in the world. I found my moccasins under the bed, slipped them onto my feet and called the nun back into the room.
‘How long have I been here?’ I asked her.
‘Since Wednesday,’ she said.
‘What day is it today?
‘Friday,’ she replied.
‘Two days,’ I said. Some distance could be travelled in two days, but the trail might still be readable.
‘Nine days,’ the nun corrected me. ‘You were brought to us last Wednesday.’
I cursed, apologised, and asked her to take me to the place where I had been found.
Text: (c) Matthew Haynes 2015
– Excerpt from ‘Blood Moon’ featured in The Sun and the Rainfall
Image: Anders Jildén