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On the trail of J.M. Asperges

by Gabriel Cerda Vidal

This unusual letter arrived at the El antiQuario offices some months ago (see Vol. 2, No. 11, Cartas). The postmark on the envelope was an illegible purple smudge and the letter itself appeared to have been composed on an old manual typewriter. Editorial consensus agreed that the letter was pretentious and decided, at first, not to publish it. However, El antiQuario's editor contemplated the submission during the following few days, and shortly before closing the edition, decided to include the text as reader correspondence in the Letters section of the magazine.
Our editor had a plan. "There's a story in here, Newshound, and I want you to find it," he told me. Initially, I wasn't interested in accepting the mission, but his arguments were convincing: from journalistic responsibility to the wide open door.
So, I started my search with the only clue available, the postmark. I studied the envelope. Useless. The paper looked old, the seal was a faded plum-colored blot. The letter mentioned the town of Chalma, but who knew if this Michel Asperges person would still be there. There was also reference to "academic reasons" being the grounds for the author's trip. Perhaps he (or she) was a researcher or professor. My job was precariously balanced on this preposterous assignment, and I had next to nothing to go on.
I began asking friends for advice, but they only offered formidable opinions on literary projects and discussions concerning their most recent conquest of girls. My confidence was diminishing. Nights turned into marathon sessions tossing and turning between sweat-soaked sheets. I began frequenting solitary park benches during the wee hours. Finally, I went to visit my old sociology professor, Santiago Romero Peregrina, who was also an expert in metaphysics.
"Ritualistic processions like these," he said, "tend to endure. The individuals who participate in such ceremonies are usually stable characters; the collective experience reinforces the social structure of the community."
"Professor," I agonized, "what I want to know is whether or not you think this person might still be in Chalma."
"Well, I really couldn't say, but the spirit of the solitary individual often interlocks with that of the collective group during these pilgrimages. It is not uncommon for the individual participant to pass into another plain of consciousness."
"Yes, Professor, but... what I need..."
"So, you see," he continued, now speaking to my back as I grasped for the door, "this is how they preserve their identities. In this sense, the pilgrimage is one of the most important religious manifestations of faith. I have partaken in these processions in Mexico. Each year, millions of believers temporarily abandon their daily activities to traverse to the sanctuary or cathedral of a revered saint or virgin. They embark on this journey to fulfill a mandate, ask for a special favor, or to simply express devotion to a spirit which they believe controls their destiny and the well-being of their community." The professor was hollering by the time the door slammed shut behind me. I could still hear the grumble of his voice as I turned the corner.
The following week I remained missing-in-action from the office. There was only one thing left to do. Arguing that I had a hot lead, I asked the office for an expense account and headed off to Chalma, in the state of Mexico.
The bus pulled into town during the dead of night. "You coming in from Guadalajara?" a man asked as I descended the steps. "Yes," I answered, trying to hide the now-empty bottle of tequila I'd smuggled aboard. Making a half turn, the man proceeded down the street. I followed. At this point he was the only prospect I had.
"Good morning, friend. How are you, amigo?" he called out upon ducking into a humble adobe structure. Soon others began calmly filing into the room. There was a large, homemade altar towards the rear of the alcove. I realized this must be the meeting area for those involved in organizing the Chalma ceremonies.
The room was lined with long tables laden with steaming tamales, white atole and strong coffee flavored with cinnamon. I had another bottle of tequila hidden under my coat, which I placed on the table. It is good etiquette to bring one's hosts something, especially as I was an uninvited guest. Well... maybe just one more drink before going off to look for this Asperges person...
A rooster pecking on my arm revived me. I awoke to find myself sprawled out in the middle of an unfamiliar patio, shivering in the chilly morning air. My mouth felt like an old gym sock. Wishing I could forget my idiotic anecdotes of the previous evening, I sat up as a smiling, robust woman walked into the courtyard.
"How are you this morning, counselor?"
Remembering that I had introduced myself as an attorney, and that I had promised to help the woman with a local land dispute, I forced a weak grin. "Great," I croaked.
"Come inside, get a bite to eat, it is still hot."
The wooden table was laden with plates of rich mole and rice. One of the clay pitchers contained homemade spirits. I started drinking again. "Counselor... counselor...," a large moustache and sombrero leaned towards me, the face came in to focus, the words seemed to drift in my direction, "let's go watch the procession, counselor. This is your home, perhaps we can help you find what you are looking for."
After finishing breakfast, I vaguely remember watching the town people form into two lines, headed by a wooden statue of the city's patron saint. The procession was about to begin. Cut paper danced in the breeze above the street, reminding me of prancing girls. I closed my eyes...
v v v
"...We moved in two lines, walking towards the town's cathedral where a brief Mass was said. Following the saint's image, the procession advanced from the sanctuary into the village's dusty streets. Music drifted through the air. Other pilgrims joined in as we threaded down different avenues. Reaching the town's limits, the procession's two lines branched so each would pass the large, concrete-base mounted cross which guarded the city.
We continued on to the village of San Juan Tlautla, near San Pedro Cholula, Puebla, where I noticed an unusual looking person join our caravan. Dressed in religious garb, which wasn't remarkable considering the nature of our stroll, he held the hand of an auspicious young girl. Nobody seemed to notice them, but the girl looked at me and smiled. I walked at a relaxed pace as they joined in beside me, keeping step and nodding hello.
I told him my reasons for being here. He grinned and answered that his reasons were quite different. After a short lull in conversation he asked if I was interested in the history behind this pilgrimage. I nodded yes.
Since the 16th century, the Malinalco Augustines have overseen the Chalma church. They erected their cross over the temples dedicated to Oxtotéotl, a prehispanic god whom the local people were accustomed to making pilgrimages to.'
In 1623, a hermit named Bartolomé de Torres, son of a Spanish father and indigenous Huejotzingo mother, arrived. Hailing from the nearby town of Jalapa, the hermit was famous for his ability to cure afflicted people. His skills not only reminded the local shamen of prehispanic practices, it also called the attention of the new religious order. Friar Juan de Grijalva approached de Torres, and soon the miracle maker was seen wearing Augustine robes. Brother Bartolomé de Jesus María, as he was thereafter known, became mentor to an eight year old, mixed race boy who had been left by his parents to the new church. This young disciple, Friar Juan de San Jose, dedicated his time to collecting alms in the surrounding villages, and to expanding his revered teacher's fame.'
When Friar Bartolomé died in 1658, Friar Juan de San Jose inherited his position. Thanks in large part to Bartolome's curatives, which were performed in the name of Christ, Chalma became one of New Spain's most important centers for pilgrims to visit.'
The ringing of a church bell interrupted the man's discourse. When I turned back to ask him a question, he was gone. I kept an eye open for him during the rest of the journey to the cathedral, but he was nowhere to be found. Upon reaching the sanctuary of Señor de Chalma I began asking others if they had seen my new-found friend. No one remembered a man dressed in religious attire walking with a young girl.
Disheartened, I decided to take a look inside the cathedral. A funeral Mass was taking place and a small open casket sat in front of the elaborate alter. I glanced at it, and was paralysed with shock. The young girl who had accompanied the man lay inside, dead. Turning quickly, I headed for the door when a large painting caught my attention. Hanging on the wall was a 17th century portrait of a man dressed in religious garments, it was the man from the procession..."
v v v
...I awoke to find myself in the same room I had enjoyed breakfast in that morning. "Good day, counselor. Did you rest well?" asked the robust woman. My head was pounding. From my expense account, I had only enough money left for today's meal and a beer for my hangover. I was exhausted by the thought of returning to Guadalajara to face unemployment. "Someone dropped off a note for you, counselor."
It began, "Dear friend, We moved in two lines, walking towards the town's cathedral where a brief Mass was said. Following the saint's image, the procession advanced from the sanctuary into the village's dusty streets. Music drifted through the air. Other pilgrims joined in as we..." At the bottom of the page was the unmistakable signature of J. Michel Asperges. I returned to Guadalajara that afternoon, completely hungover.