A Novel

            “We’ve done it, Carlos! We’ve done it.” Hector loomed over Carlos’ back as the secretary finished adding his figures. Carlos bent over a desk littered with splinters. Smoke from two candles at the desk’s edge mingled with the sweaty aroma of a dozen bodies gathered in the warehouse.
            “No more of the Sickness.” Carlos and Hector spoke in unison.
            “No more of the Sickness,” a dozen voices echoed.
            “A hundred thousand pesos, Father.” Carlos’ voice trembled. “El Hidalgo has entered the twenty first century. Not as much as with tomatoes in a good year. But enough for next season’s seeds and fertilizer and a dividend to get us through the year.”
            The men around Hector and Carlos laughed, slapping each other on the shoulders. They reached in to pat Hector, a few hands reaching his shoulders, one patting his lower back.
            Hector had never felt so delighted, at least not since his ordination twenty years ago. His years as an undergraduate studying agronomy and extension services had paid off. The work in El Hidalgo proved that poor Mexican farmers could make a living growing corn and beans rather than tomatoes or strawberries shipped to the North.
            Without intensive application of insecticides, and whatever other poisons their contracts with Cultiva Grande called for, the villagers were free from the Sickness.
            “We’ll announce official results to the village in the morning,” Carlos said. “My wife is preparing a feast. Tomorrow night we’ll celebrate like never before.”
            “I’ll go to Hermosillo for fireworks,” Hector said. Given the results, he felt less guilty about using grant money for a few cheap rockets if he could find any in Hermosillo. A celebration would accelerate the village efforts at sustainable agriculture, ending dependence on large growers who contracted for cash crops.
            Hector’s dreams of becoming an agricultural missionary had been fulfilled. He could spend the rest of his life in surrounding villages, proving to Mexican farmers in the highlands that they did not have to raise chemically dependent crops for export. But for the moment, he’d have to survive the dancing and feasting of a village festival.
            Hector left early the next morning for Hermosillo. It wasn’t far, but since the washboards in the road only stopped when canyon size ruts took over, the drive took hours. He believed he knew every one of the ruts, but a gap between two of them caught him unaware. He shifted his jeep into four wheel drive to escape the road’s clutches. The gear shift trembled in his hand.
            On the outskirts of Hermosillo, he stopped at his favorite store. The owner checked off Hector’s list and joked about the order having an “abundance” of sacramental wine. When Hector asked for fireworks, the man scratched his head. He stocked them but didn’t remember if any were left. The owner disappeared into a back room, then appeared in a few minutes with a dusty box. “Some rockets. A Roman Candle. I don’t remember its colors. A few pinwheels. I can’t guarantee any of them.”
            “I can’t afford much anyway,” Hector said. “How much are they?”
            “You can have them. I’m glad to get rid of such a fire hazard.” He brushed his hands together producing a dust cloud. “Besides, for a customer who buys so much wine why shouldn’t he have a bargain once in a while.”
            Hector’s sneeze hid his own laugh. “A thousand thanks,” he said. “Come out to El Hidalgo tonight. We’ll feast you, and you can watch your fireworks.”
            The man chuckled. “I’ve driven that road, Father. It’s bad enough during the day.”
            The two smiled their goodbyes.
            Hector returned to the village and shuffled to his office that served as his bedroom. He stood before his desk wondering what could go wrong. No matter how many successes, he always anticipated misfortune if not disaster. His misgivings were interrupted by a dozen aromas from the nearby plaza. He scrubbed away the grime from the trip just before the El Hidalgo band called people to the plaza.
            “Band” was perhaps an exaggeration. Two elderly men, whose hats must have been even older, sawed away at violins. An even older man plucked at what passed for a bass. Hector knew that a young man would join them in what he claimed was a mariachi outfit. He called his trumpet “the horn of a thousand notes” but everyone else called it a thousand dents. Hector noticed he found more right than wrong notes until his second drink when the ratio reversed.
            Hector saw the musicians had taken their places on the plaza bandstand. Its platform lacked a roof, but the rare politician who found his way to El Hidalgo promised money for a proper gazebo. Villagers would have voted for anyone who paid to paint the platform.
            Hector rinsed out his enameled plate and cup, decided his fork and spoon were clean enough, and rummaged through a drawer for a bandanna to serve as a napkin if the need arose.
            When he reached the plaza in front of the church, he found it ringed with green, white, and red banners except for a gap filled with red, white, and blue pennants. The banners did a better job of catching the breeze than did the pennants.
            A long rickety table graced one side of the plaza. A platter of roast corn was followed by pails of stew. No doubt, the women would assure him that the bits of goat meat savoring the blend were beef.
            He took an ear of corn and stood with Carlos who munched one ear while holding a second. As Hector peeled the husk, steam rose to his chin. A golden brown grain with flecks of black stared back at him. He marveled at the villagers’ skill to roast corn to perfection. He was half way down the ear when Carlos turned to him.
            “You have worked a miracle, Father.”
            “It was your hard work and how the village worked together, my Son.”
            “But it was a miracle that you came here with your knowledge of plants and helped us organize a cooperative. I’ve never seen the people of El Hidalgo work together like they have the past year.”
            “You must have faith in each other,” Hector said.
            “And faith in God,” Carlos answered. “You’ve brought that, too. We seldom had a priest to serve mass.” Carlos reached to put a hand on Hector’s shoulder as he looked up into his eyes.
            Hector felt the blood rushing to his face. He blinked away a tear. He would miss the comrades he’d made in El Hidalgo
            “Let’s get our beef stew,” Carlos emphasized beef and the two laughed. “You must eat quickly if you’re going to dance with every woman in La Paz.”
            Hector gritted his teeth. At his first celebration he had been asked his favorite dance. He’d answered the polka, unable to think of anything else. Hector found himself dancing with every unmarried woman in the village and some of the señoras safely in seniority.
            Moments after he and Carlos finished gnawing their beef stew, the band struck up a polka. The young man with the trumpet joined other band members. He must have practiced. The first eight notes came out right.
            The señoritas waved pleated skirts of red and green in time with the music. Their laundered white blouses failed to hide their wear until the sun set.
            When a young girl started toward Hector, he found a place for his tableware. He knew she must have been teased into asking him to dance since she was so shy. The other young women lined one side of the plaza. From the way they were giggling and eyeing him, Hector knew he’d be avoiding toes the rest of the night.
            The next woman didn’t hesitate in beckoning him to the plaza floor. Hector guessed the girls assumed he couldn’t ask women to dance so it was acceptable that they approach him.
            She gazed up into his eyes until he felt his face afire.
            She laughed. “Father, where did you get such green eyes and red hair?”
            Hector brushed the reddish-brown mass back with his hand. He knew he needed a haircut. Even after a trim his hair appeared to need cutting.
            “They say my ancestors were French soldiers who deserted from Maxmilians’s army.”
            “Who was Maximilian?” The girl looked as if she were more interested in conversation than an answer.
            “He was sent here by Napoleon the Third to rule Mexico.”
            “You know so much, Father. You’re so educated!” The girl sighed her admiration.
            “But we Mexicans threw him and his army out because we love our Independence.”
            “Speaking of love, Father,” the girl stepped closer to bury her head in Hector’s chest, her face turned upward.
            Before she could say more, the trumpet saved Hector. Its dented notes ended the dance, and Hector sent the girl on her way with profuse thanks, welcoming the next in line.
            “You’re the tallest man I’ve ever met, Father. They say you had to be a priest because you’re so close to heaven.”
            Hector forced a laugh. The quip was funny the first time he’d heard it.
            “I’m six foot, six inches, my child. But we all have the same chances of entering heaven.” Hector spun the girl.
            “You’re not going to ask why I haven’t been coming to confession, are you?” The girl blinked long eyelashes. “I can explain.”
            “No need. Tonight’s a time to celebrate. Enjoy yourself.”
            The girl threw herself into the polka with abandon. At the next confession she’d beg forgiveness for stepping on Hector’s feet because she moved so close to him.
            The band reached the limits of its endurance before midnight. The trumpeter had deserted an hour earlier, or more likely passed out, judging from his final notes.
            Hector scurried to his fireworks along with Carlos. Both men leaped back when they lit the first rocket. It fizzled out with a whimper. The next five lifted off as if destined for heaven, bursting high in the sky into bellowing greens and reds. The last one included a series of explosions. A dozen dogs howled their appreciation. Hector lit the Roman Candle and held it as far away as possible. It shot out fire balls of green, white and red. The spectators cried out. “Long live the Tricolor!” Carlos sneezed in the cloud of fumes. Hector breathed deep, associating the acrid smell with victory.
            Carlos had nailed half a dozen cartwheels to wooden posts, and the spinning sparks concluded the celebration. There could not have been a more fitting conclusion to Hector’s success. Surely, now, nothing can go wrong, he thought.
            Hector finished correspondence while waiting for the bishop to assign him to other highland villages. The church hierarchy had failed to appreciate what he had done in El Hidalgo and assigned him to teach agricultural extension at a small university. At the end of a boring and unrewarding year, Hector came across a newspaper account describing a miraculous salvation for El Hidalgo. The government was paving the road to it, and a North American consortium intended to build a spa. Villagers would be trained as hotel workers.
            Hector cried. Surely the bishop knew of the development and had failed to notify him. He imagined a dozen different ways to confront the man, ending with threats to leave the priesthood. But in the back of his mind, his fantasies concluded the bishop would welcome his resignation. He turned to prayer, beseeching Divine help in convincing the bishop to make the best use of Hector’s talents.