The shadow clung to the ground with every step, heel slowly rolling on outside edge to toe, lifting to take flight, then returning to begin again. Advancing by absorbing all objects underneath. His black sweatshirt barely separated his body from the night, while his black jeans made his legs invisible. One gloved hand carried a tank of gasoline. The other hand was wrapped around a backpack’s shoulder strap. His wide-open eyes scanned upward through the portal of a black ski mask until they reached the night’s keeper. His eyes remained fixated on the large rising disk. It guarded the sleeping town and watched over the small church that fed the village spirit.
On the dark side of the church, he found a place to hide from the meager light and looked around, carefully verifying his solitude. The river rushed in the background and a slight breeze rustled some dry leaves still sticking to dormant branches, but his only company was the sky and its millions of stars. They looked down and said that he was alone.
“But why should you care?” He asked out loud.
The stars remained quiet.
And the church’s adobe wall felt strong to his touch. He rubbed the building as though it were a baby’s head. He searched for a soft spot, but felt none. Resolute mud and straw rose from the ground and lifted a cross to the sky. He looked at the cross. It was set against the backdrop of a circumscribed moon. The cross reached from each of its four corners to the edge of the circle like a child rolling inside of a tumbler.
Images of playful children began to form in his mind. They laughed and teased. They sang songs about El Coco, and how El Coco would eat them if they were bad. He remembered being one of the children, happy and blissful. But lightheartedness had no place in the matters of men, he thought, and besides, El Coco was just a silly song. A chill climbed his back. He shrugged it off, but dropped the tank and the backpack. They hit the ground with a dull thug. Startled, he looked around for some reaction to the incongruous echo…
He turned his gaze to the perpetual reminder of a savior who died so that others could life. It seemed to glow with its luminous outline. But how could a savior allow an innocent death? What kind of “God” allows a mother to die? A rush of anger reached his hands and they became two tightly clenched fists. What good is faith if it fails, why believe in a merciless God? Burning in hell is the punishment for not believing, but what good is believing if we’re damned on earth? His thoughts were a cacophony of questions without answers, but he let his actions flow from the well of hatred that had grown deep.
He carefully unzipped the pack and removed four bottles wrapped in rags. He unwrapped the bottles and placed the rags on top of the backpack. The gas tank let out a slight hiss to relieve the pressure as he twisted the cap away. He poured gasoline into all four bottles until they were three quarters of the way full.
The rags were dry and thick enough to hold a flame. He stuffed one into each bottle, deep enough to reach the liquid, but allowing enough of the rag exposed for a good-sized fuse.
One last examination of the small church revealed its soft spots. The windows were low and faced the river. Made of ancient stained glass, they would break easily upon impact. The wooden doors at the entrance to the church were another obvious weakness. He soaked the doors and the door jams with the remaining gasoline.
An owl cooed from somewhere in the dark.
Fire jumped off of the tip of a match. He watched the flame become steady then held it to the tip of the exposed rag. One bottle was lit and ready to attack the first target. He launched it and it exploded through the window spraying shards of broken glass and fire inside the church. A wooden St. Anthony statue was the first casualty.
Another crashing bottle impacted the doors, immediately bursting into a raging collection of flames.
A light appeared from one of the surrounding houses. Then another house lit up.
“Mira, la iglesia!”
“Donde ‘sta ‘l Padre?”
Villagers called out from their front porches.
“Ay, Dios mio.”
“Ave Maria, Madre del Dios.”
The shadow flung the third through another window, causing a more violent explosion than before. The river of fire found its way to the alter engulfing wooden pews along its path.
“Mata ese diablo!”
The fourth bottle found its mark at the top of the church. The cross began to burn, and liquid flames poured down the steeple.
“Kill the son-of-a-bitch.”
“He’s heading for the river.”
“Sueltan los perros.”
“El Padre? Is he OK?”
Fire swallowed the ancient structure and acrid smoke filled the air. Dogs barked as they tried to pick up the arsonist’s scent. The darkness was lost to the thermal light.
“Call the fire department.”
“Where’s Father Jacoby?”
The town was now fully awake and sirens overtook the din. The shadow jumped into the river. It wasn’t long before his legs were getting heavy with the weight of the wet jeans, and numb in the December water. But he kept moving.
He looked back to watch for a second. The roof collapsed and the cross atop the church was now nothing more than a memory searing in the ashes.
Dogs growled and their breath added to the stench overtaking the town.
A gun sounded a cracking explosion. Bullets sailed past him, ricocheting off of rocks and trees. He ran and never again looked at the inferno behind him.
“I see him, he’s in the river.”
“Get that pinche jodido.”
The shadow looked back and saw figures appear through the haze. His breath became heavy with swallowed smoke. A rock gave way under his step and he fell face first into the near freezing water. The water, cool and fresh, revived him, but the figures grew closer, their voices louder.
“There he is, shoot him.”
Bullets pelted the water around him.
He picked himself up and ran. Sweat dripped into his eyes. The water rushed through his legs. He again lost his footing in the current. This time, he stayed down.
“Chingao.” Jose said. The smoke enveloped the valley reflecting the light from the truck’s headlamps back into his face. The flames danced in the distance. He wanted to speed up, he wanted to find the source of the inferno. But the haze was too thick.
“Andale, Papa.” Johnny said.
“I can’t see, pendejo.” He negotiated his way through the smoke, anxious. He hoped that none of his compadres were hurt.
“Quieres una?” Johnny handed a small flask to Jose.
Jose refused. His eyes were focused on the flames. He could now feel the heat through the windshield. “Mira, Johnny, the church…”
“Holy shit, the Padre finally got drunk from the wine and knocked over a candle, uh?” Johnny laughed.
Jose looked through Johnny.
“Just playing, Papa. Damn.”
Jose pulled in to a lot near the church and shut off his truck. He listened to the voices for one that he’d recognize. He heard the cocking and firing of weapons and felt the residual mist from the hoses spewing water at the smoldering building.
“Que paso?” He asked the first person he could.
“Some asshole burnt down the church. I think someone finally shot him.”
“Chingao.” Jose said, breaking out the syllables.
“Boy, that’s one SOB with balls.” Johnny said.
“Cay ate, Johnny. Have some respect.” He turned to the villager and said, “Where’s the Padre?”
“He’s over helping hold the hoses.”
Johnny couldn’t move. He was mesmerized by the flaming building. He watched a crucifix burn into nothing and took a long drink from his flask.
His head sunk, through the safe blanket of darkness he found in the water provided the shelter he needed. He dove deeper into the pool, his hands feeling the rocky floor. The Braille codes on the objects led him to a large, black rock. It climbed out of the river and formed a crevice against the shore. His body fit like a wedge in between the immovable stone. His alligator eyes poked through the river.
Two men sloshed their way towards him, both carrying rifles. Their movements were slow; their eyes focused.
“You got him, que no?”
“Quisas, pero-shit, I don’t see him.”
“He’s around here somewhere. I can still smell sulfur.”
His companion made the sign of the cross.
“Ay, Padre, que lastima. Is there anything we can do?”
Father Jocoby shook his head. He smelled the alcohol on Jose’s breath.
“They said that pinche son-of-a-bitch is dead. I’m glad.”
“Con cuidao, Jose. It is hatred that burned down the church. We cannot answer with hatred.”
Jose bowed his head as if to ask for forgiveness.
“Jose, I’m going to need your expertise to rebuild the church. Will you help me?”
“Si, Padre, I’ll help. So will Johnny. And Miguel.”
“Maybe some good can come from tonight.”
“Maybe,” Jose searched himself for what the Priest really wanted to hear. “Padre, I won’t drink anymore. It’s what Maria wanted.”
“Then God has been served.”
Smoke rose from the ashes. Nothing inside the church was spared.