Barely A Crime (novel)
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First Chapter: Dayspring

October 14, 2015 6:09 pm | Leave a Comment

firstchapter_dayspring

Read the first chapter of the novel Dayspring by Harry Sylvester. If you like what you’re reading, visit the novel’s page to learn more or order! You can also read the Foreword by Philip Jenkins here on this site.

I

HE SLEPT AWKWARDLY, in the attitude of complete exhaustion, his cheek pressing through the thin mattress against the wooden sidepiece of the antique Spanish bed, his body turned downward and out toward the edge, so that his rather long arm depended from the bed straight down, the fingers half-closed where they touched the floor. A dirty sheet covered all his naked body but the shoulders, and the quality of the body showed clear: lean, rather strong, but now quite thin. His dream of the moment was an old one, undisturbing and without point. Even his friends, the psychiatrists back east at the University, gave little or no meaning to it: he was in the classroom, lecturing soundlessly and wordlessly to a class in anthropology. They were attentive, but he had a sense of guilt, possibly from advancing one of his own theories that had not been proven. There was a knocking—as sometimes in this dream—and he knew it was Schapper, the head of the department, who had been listening at the keyhole and found him teaching a subtle heresy.

The knocking grew louder and, about this time, Bain crossed the—now to him frequently—vague border between sleep and waking, and he knew it was not Schapper knocking in the dream, but Mirabal at the door of the house. So that now Bain was awake, but his body remained in the position of exhaustion and of sleep, his eyes as yet unopen, his lips unopen as though glued to his teeth. From the white-flaked adobe wall, at the bed’s head, there looked down Santiago, Saint James, in one of the crude religious paintings on wood, the santos of New Mexico. The saint seemed cheerful and pleased on his small horse: dressed like an old Spanish grandee, he carried his sword as though it were a bouquet and without evil. His beard was pointed and his eyes merry.

From wakefulness Bain drifted back to the edge of sleep. The dream of the classroom did not return, but it seemed to him that he was back in the dim bedroom at Penasco by night with the sounds, stylized, of the next-door bar in his ears. And only now, near sleep, did he know clearly that he had taken the room, so located, to be near the bar should one of the town’s periodic killings occur. The three nights were one to him now, the last night, and the girl, she too restless in the arms quickly grown indifferent, and saying, half giggling, in bad English, “Say, Meestor Bain, what you doing in town here, anyways? Prospectings, maybe?”

“Sort of”, he had said.

But only now, knowing he had waited in that town three nights for a killing to happen, where ordinarily he would have stayed but one. And the fornication on the third night. But not that, either. Adultery. Yet the terminology was not his, either. He moved uneasily and heard the knocking again.

It was not loud, but it persisted, so that Bain, still unstirring, wondered what Mirabal wanted at this time of day. Bain had disciplined himself over a long period of time not to show annoyance with people he was observing, so that now he rose slowly, using all his strength and the counterweights of his feet swinging downward to the floor to pivot on his hip upward to a sitting position. “All right, Joe”, he called, his eyes still shut. “For God’s sake, stop banging.”

The noise stopped and Spencer Bain remained for a little while seated upright on the edge of his bed. He was exhausted, he told himself again: an occupational disease of the work. Rubbing his eyes, he glanced downward. Not that exhausted, though: you hardly ever became that exhausted. He thought resentfully of his wife in Los Angeles and how he wouldn’t see her until Christmas.

“Hey, Spance,” Mirabal called, “you fall asleep again?”

“No. What’s your hurry?” He resented petty things now, such as Mirabal making the e in his name into an a. But it is the Spanish value of the letter, he told himself. By stressing the obvious to himself, he frequently dulled his annoyance with the natives. He stood up, his weakness making him sway, and reached for a pair of crumpled shorts. He found his glasses, put them on, and went into the next room to unlock the door leading outside.

In the white sunlight of the place, Mirabal certainly did not look like a sorcerer, much less a diabolist. It was a thought Bain often had at this time of day, both a joke and an annoyance. There were no diabolists, he knew, and yet the name Mirabal had as one was a help to himself in the work. Bain said, now in English: “You certainly get up early. Come in.”

“Well,” Mirabal said, ducking his head slightly to one side, “you say I should wake you when I get ideas that would help.” His voice was slow, slurring a little. “Also, you say you don’t like to sleep late, but you will if no one wake you. When you get back?”

“Late last night”, Bain said quietly. “Have breakfast yet?”

“Long time ago.” Mirabal sat down in what could be called the living room, with its scattering of creaky chairs and low tables, santos leaning against the wall, half-empty gallons of wine, and good Indian rugs. He watched Bain, now fully awake, dress quickly in rough clothes, finish one cigarette while dressing and light another with the butt of the first as he turned on the current in an electric plate and put a percolator on it.

Bain sat down and asked Mirabal if he wanted a drink. “Too early”, the Spaniard said. “You take your pills yet, Spance?”

“No”, Bain said. “You think of everything.”

“Well,” Mirabal said in his slow English, “that’s what you say I should do when I work for you.”

Bain reached for the bottle. When he thought of it, he took a whole day’s dosage with each meal. He sat down again and said: “What’s on your mind, Joe?”

banner_dayspringMirabal contemplated him and smoked a cigarette. His face was a curious one and puzzled Bain more than the anthropologist knew. It was flat, with flaring nostrils and a full upper lip. The hollowed cheeks were lined and marked with a scattered and uneasy red under the pale, rheumy eyes. The quality of the face came principally from the eyes; they looked through one in an unfocused sort of way and could easily be mistaken by the credulous or superstitious for those of a diabolist. Mirabal knew the eyes were an asset, one of the many things by which he supported his family, and rather unconsciously he had cultivated this pale, mild glare.

“I been thinking about that thing again, Spance,” he said, “and like I tell you before there’s only one thing for you to do.”

Bain was slowly and without emotion shaking his head before Mirabal had finished. “That’s crazy.”

“All right”, Mirabal said, with exaggerated resignation. “You find out. If it was hard, it would be something. But it’s easy. Father Nunes is always glad to make a convert.” He smiled as he put the cigarette to his mouth. “You say in your work you do anything to find out things. Well—” He shrugged.

“Look, Jose,” Bain said, rubbing out his cigarette, “that’s right. But there’s no use making more complications than we can help. And I think I can find out all I have to know about los Hermanos de Luz without pretending to become a Catholic. Why, every lady tourist that happens to be here around Easter time gets to be an expert on Penitentes. If they find out as much as they do, even if most of it is wrong, I ought to be able to do better.” He wondered why his words sounded lame.

Mirabal shook his head and drew in his lower lip. The other man’s conscience could amaze Mirabal, with its balking at seeming trivialities, the more so since Bain had no religion. His own people had the right kind of conscience, Mirabal knew. What concerned the Spaniards was the important verities: God and the Devil; hunger and food; killing and adultery; not such petty things as a little dissembling. He said: “You say you want to really know about these people. They’re a Catholic people. So you become a Catholic.”

“Like hell”, Bain said. He got up to pour the coffee.

“All right”, Mirabal said, in resignation. “You think you know all you want to know?”

Bain didn’t speak. Mirabal had deliberately struck where it hurt. “No”, Bain said. “I haven’t been here a year yet, and I’ve got over a year to go.” He poured coffee for both of them.

“You ought to eat something”, Mirabal said. “I can’t eat in the morning.”

They smoked and drank the black coffee without speaking. Behind his glasses, even in the rough clothes, Bain looked as a scholar is popularly supposed to look. It had once been an old joke with him that he wore the glasses to appear intelligent. Mirabal gave no sign, but he knew with satisfaction what Bain was thinking. He said, presently: “What you going to do today, Spance?”

“I thought I’d have you maybe check some of my new notes with me”, Bain said. “I’m kind of pooped and I don’t feel like going outside.”

Mirabal nodded, smiling his thin smile for pride. “And tonight you going to play poker over in Ranchos with Father Nunes.”

“Why, yes, I guess so”, Bain said with some annoyance. It had little to do with the work and was outside Mirabal’s province.

“The reason I ask you, Spance,” the Spaniard said, “Guadalupe is going to be there. She’s taking her instructions, you know, catechism, and I thought maybe you could bring her back with you from Ranchos.”

“I might be pretty late for her, eleven or twelve o’clock.”

Mirabal shrugged. “It’s better than make her walk six miles by dark.”

Bain almost smiled. Even diabolists, he thought, worried about their daughters having to walk in the night. He said: “How is it she’s going to be baptized? She’s how old—fifteen? That makes her conspicuous to be baptized in these parts, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that be bad for business, Jose?”

Mirabal didn’t like the kidding. He said, too elaborately: “I don’t mind. She just said she felt bad in school with all the other Spanish children Catholics. And then Father Nunes he got talking to her.”

Noticing Mirabal’s annoyance, Bain didn’t ask questions that could have followed. At times he almost believed Mirabal was a diabolist. “I know”, he said. “I want to read you some stuff.” He reached for a notebook, an elaborate loose-leaf one, and paged through it to his most recent entries. “You hear this story repeated all over the mountains without much variation. I got this version of it in Rio Arriba County. It’s an allegory on the relationship of Spaniard and Anglo here. You know what an allegory is, all right, don’t you, Joe?”

“Sure”, Mirabal said. He didn’t know, but he was a translator, too, by reputation. After Bain read the story, Mirabal might know.

“There was once a grasshopper”, Bain began in a curiously flat voice. He always read field notes in that tone, believing it helped in appraising the material objectively. “The grasshopper lived in a hole and was happy. One day a toad came along in the rain and asked if he might come in out of the rain. ‘Why, yes’, the grasshopper said politely. ‘You are welcome to.’ So the toad came in out of the rain. The rain stopped but the toad stayed on in the grasshopper’s hole. After a while the toad began to puff up and swell so that the grasshopper was crowded against the wall of his hole. ‘It is certainly getting crowded in here’, the grasshopper said. ‘Well,’ said the toad, ‘those that don’t like it in here can get out.’ ”

Bain looked up. The Spaniard had a twisted and embarrassed grin on his face. Bain wondered if Mirabal knew he had just listened to the history of his people for a hundred years. “You hear that story around here”, Mirabal said. “I was going to tell you it some day.”

“I picked it up in Vadito, too, a couple weeks ago”, Bain said. “I’d heard the story before then, though.”

“Nice girls there, all right”, Mirabal said. “Near there, anyhow, around Penasco. I go over there selling once or twice a year. When were you in Penasco?”

Bain shook his head, drawing hard on his cigarette and looking at his notes. By “nice girls” Mirabal meant anyone under fifty who would sleep with him. Bain said: “As far as you know, the morada at Trampas is the only one actually attached to a church? That is, in the same building as an official church?”

Mirabal shrugged easily. “Why, sure. Don’t the book say so, too? I—”

“You know I’m not interested in what that tourist-bait book says. There’s a lot of stuff in it, too, about the relationship of Penitente practices to Indian ones.”

In spite of the rebuke, Mirabal almost smiled. It was easy to see what was troubling Bain. Sooner or later, Mirabal knew, Bain would do as he had suggested, and Bain would continue to think well of him and continue to pay the five dollars a week. There was also the matter of prestige. Mirabal was a lot of things: an interpreter for the courts; a patent-medicine salesman; a professional diabolist; and now the native assistant to an anthropologist. His own influence in the region was waning, Mirabal knew, so it was important he continue as Bain’s helper.

They went on throughout the morning, Bain checking, and rechecking—to the point of ennui and even a kind of nausea—the culture and customs of a people reduced to overcareful notes in a loose-leaf book. He wondered how many of his notes he would throw away or modify at the end of a year. His anger, oddly enough, was more than academic when he thought of the many inaccurate books, mostly the work of women excited by the altitude and by the promise of easy and unlimited copulation that formed part of the legend of the place.

Closing the notebook, he placed his hands over his eyes. It was noon and he was again very tired. Some business, he thought, and began to think of his wife. Mirabal said: “It’s like I told you, Spance, there’s only one thing for you to do.”

“No”, Bain said. In the silence he thought of a lot of things. You could dislike the Church, as he had always disliked it, but out here you could not ignore it. Where the others before him had made their mistake was in ignoring the Church, or everything about it except its almost heretical offshoot, the Penitente Brotherhood, and they had misunderstood and twisted that as the dictates of their own sick sex had prompted.

He remembered his first talk with Father Nunes about the Brotherhood and how he had asked the priest why the Hermanos de Luz were permitted to use the church in Ranchos when they were supposedly heretics. “They aren’t necessarily heretics”, Nunes had said. “And I always ask them what they think of when they punish themselves. They know they should be thinking of Our Lord’s Passion and of penance for their own sins. It isn’t often that their penance becomes gross. I don’t know, myself, of any time that it actually has.”

Of course, the priest had a naive streak, Bain knew, strange in a man who had been an archbishop’s secretary. It was, at times, as though Nunes refused to see evil where it indubitably was. He must ask Nunes sometime why he had given up that kind of job to come back to the mountains. One could be very blunt and direct with Nunes. Although not a Jew, he had the great, the almost embarrassing respect of the Jew for learning. It was how Bain had got the priest’s respect and confidence.

Mirabal said: “What about this afternoon?”

“I don’t know.” Bain opened his eyes. “I’m pretty tired. I might try to sleep. Playing poker with a couple of priests isn’t my idea of fun.”

Mirabal grinned. “Who’s the other one?”

“Some Irishman just come here. He’s the new chaplain at the hospital, or supposed to be, but I think he’s a kind of a troubleshooter to take care of Mrs. Senton.”

“Take care of Mrs. Senton”, Mirabal repeated in the slurred voice of his often terrible mirth. “How’s he going to do that? Only one way to take care of Mrs. Senton.”

Bain laughed because Mirabal wanted him to. “You ought to know Mrs. Senton better”, Mirabal said. “She likes to help people like you.”

“Oh, sure,” Bain said, “she likes fine to help them. For six weeks. Then she gives them the heave-ho.” He wondered what it would be like to have to go to bed with Mrs. Senton so that you could get up the next day and be sure of eating so that you could keep on writing or painting or studying. Some writing or painting, Bain thought, some studying.

“I guess I better go home”, Mirabal said. “Got to get the kids’ lunch.” He stood up.

“Have a drink before you go”, Bain said. “You ought to remarry, if only to get someone to take care of the kids.”

“All right, I’ll take a drink”, Mirabal said. He poured and drank in a gulp the cheap, white port that was almost the standard drink of the Spaniards here. “Soon’s I find a woman with a little money, I’ll marry her, don’t worry. You want me here again today?” He stood before Bain, hat in hand.

“I don’t think so, Jose. I have to get out a routine report to my boss back at school. See you tomorrow, huh?”

“Sure”, Mirabal said. “And you bring Guadalupe back with you tonight from Ranchos, huh?”

“That’s right.” Bain leaned back and, as the Spaniard left the room, closed his eyes. He was near exhaustion again. Of course, he knew and told himself once more, it went in a kind of cycle, and when he felt better again in a week or so, he would go back up into the mountains. He wondered how far he should go on food habits? Or whether he should let all the food-habit study wait on the coming of Mardaña, the Mexican from the University of Chicago, who would succeed him here. That was Mardaña’s specialty. . . .

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