La Cara de Piedra
by Steve Schlich

"!Es un milagro!" It is a miracle!

Father Sullivan hadn't known any Spanish a week ago, but he was learning fast. Especially the phrase, es un milagro.

An ancient woman in a dirty shawl spoke these words with the certainty of a true believer. Her family hovered around, grooming her as if preparing her to be married. She shook them off and hobbled toward the huge face of stone on a cane as old and gnarled as her body.

Sullivan could not see it in the shadows, but he knew that a divine light illuminated her features as surely as it filled her voice. He also knew that he could not bear the ending to this little ceremony.

What could he tell this woman? What could he say to any of those who had come before, and would surely follow her? They knew what they were about. Clergy collar or not, he was a gringo, an outsider in this strange land. That he was here on his own, without the approval of the Church, undercut his position further.

And the milagros were real. He could tell them nothing.

"Ven aqui, mi nina." Come here, little one.

The stone face was weeping. A large drop of blood traced a slow path down the valley where nose met cheek. It hesitated at the nostril, then streamed around and coalesced on the upper lip. Pressing herself against the stone, the woman blotted the moisture with her shawl and hair.

The massive stone lips, impossibly pliable and soft, caressed the woman's face with a whisper only she could hear.

Colleagues had warned Sullivan before he came to Mani. The village was in Yucatan—Mayaland—and the normal rules of behavior did not apply. History held that the Spanish conquered the peninsula and converted the natives to Christianity in the 16th Century. But the Maya were a strong-willed people. As with the Toltecs before, the ways of the conquerors were assimilated into the culture, modified and integrated, but never adopted wholesale.

Temples to the various Maya/Toltec gods were scattered all across the peninsula and farther south, carefully carved from limestone and erected with a geometric precision beyond the capabilities of many modern cultures. Some had stood almost as long as Christianity itself. And sacrificial blood had been spilled upon nearly all. No one told these people what they should worship, or how.

The face reposed on a wall of the old cathedral, perhaps fifteen feet high from chin to brow. Neither Sullivan nor his colleagues, knowledgeable and secure back in the States, had believed it could be real. Simply not possible. Now it was before him, as solid and undeniable as his own hand. A villager had described to him in broken English how the face grew in the ancient limestone over the past year. Being close enough to touch it made his skin crawl.

The old woman's cane clattered to the floor and broke Sullivan's reverie. She backed away from the statue with her arms raised in supplication. Her aura of supreme peace spread through the room. She stood erect, probably for the first time in years, and wept. Her family surrounded her and joined in the happy wailing.

Es un milagro.

Nothing remained but the conclusion. Sullivan had to stop watching, but could not.

The woman stepped forward again and caressed the huge lips. They opened, revealing a maw that reeked of mold and age. She climbed inside. The mouth closed around her and Sullivan rediscovered the ability to turn away. The woman's family began to chant. Their song mingled with the crunching sound of bones being splintered, and swallowing.

After the family left, crying and laughing, Sullivan studied the stone face. The features became dull and lifeless again in a gradual metamorphosis that was not seen as much as felt. Its expression did not change, but the face seemed less beatific than it had moments before. It looked like an ordinary—if exceptionally good—stone carving.

Beatific! How could he use such a word to describe that abomination in the wall?

He got a cloth from his chamber and used it to wipe blood from the lips. His hands trembed. The frigid limestone repulsed and drew him at the same time. It went so beyond reason.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."

Sullivan jerked away as if the words had burned his fingers. The rock lips were pliable and alive again. He studied them in the deepening afternoon shadows. The massive silence of the ancient church was broken only by his own ragged breathing. Unable to look up, he could feel the eyes regarding him.

That it spoke to him in English should have been disturbing. Up to now he'd only heard it speak to the locals, in Spanish. But its voice was the soft, gentle tenor he had long imagined Christ's to be.

"I'm afraid," he said finally.

The stone lips pursed. "Do not fear the truth."

The words broke a dam inside him and all the outrage poured out like vile, steaming urine from a sick man. "The truth? I'll give you the truth! You kill people. You eat them! You're a horrible, impossible thing. You can't exist, or you shouldn't!" A painful pause. "But you do."

"All worship is sacrifice," said the face. "Christ died for your sins. And you consume Him at your worship."

Sullivan felt dizzy. This is my body. This is my blood. "I...It's figurative," he stammered. Isn't it? Bread and wine, bread and wine, only bread and wine... His mouth was dry with a figurative host.

The face regarded him silently. Sullivan thought of the old woman. Es un milagro.

"Are you Christ?"

The face considered this. "Do you wish me to be?"

"You could be the Devil," Sullivan choked out, "or my hallucination!"

"I am real," the stone face assured him. "And I perform miracles. Perhaps that is enough."

It wasn't. Sullivan fought the urge to flee. Why was he here? He must confront this thing. It threatened to crumble the very basis of his faith. "You...grew in the rock," he told it. "You weren't here a year ago." A question framed as a statement.

The stone face sighed. A warm breeze that spoke of time and weather brushed Sullivan's face. "I am old. The church is young."

The church and adjoining monastery had been erected 400 years ago by the Maya, under the despotic direction of a zealous Franciscan. Nearby was a sacred cenote, a huge natural well where babies had been ritually sacrificed to keep the water flowing.

All worship is sacrifice. This land allowed The Church's presence, but had never belonged to it.

"Then where did you come from?"

"I was brought here when the church was built."

Sullivan realized that he had thought of the face as separate from the stone. "What are you?" he demanded.

Silence. The great eyes closed.

Desperation. "What do you want from me?"

"That is for you to answer."

The stone seemed to oscillate between pliable and hard, pliable and hard: an illusion that resembled breathing. Then the eyes opened again and gazed toward the rear of the room. Sullivan looked around.

A little boy came down the aisle haltingly, his arms extended in front of him like feelers. He was blind. Uncannily he found the priest immediately and faced him.

"¿DÛnde est· la Cara de Piedra?"

"I don't speak Spanish," Sullivan told him, and then realized how absurd he sounded.

"¡La Cara de Piedra! ¡La Cara de Piedra!" The boy didn't speak English. But his intent was obvious. The shy question had become an urgent demand. La Cara de Piedra was The Stone Face.

"Suffer the little children to come unto me," the face said to Sullivan. And to the urchin: "Ven aquÌ, mi hijito."

The little boy's eyes glistened, big and round. What different things are sight and vision, Sullivan reflected. He stroked the child's head and stepped back.

His faith was being tested. That had to be it. Could he believe in a God who took such a form? He had read the Bible's miracles with rapture and taught them with fervor. Seeing miracles before his eyes should reinforce, not disturb, his faith. But what god consumes the souls he has saved?

The boy tugged at Sullivan's arm and said something the priest couldn't understand. He felt numb. Gesturing vehemently, the child repeated himself. Sullivan understood. He couldn't reach the lips by himself. He wanted Sullivan to lift him up to them. What voice did he hear that Sullivan could not?

This is the test, the priest thought. Do I give the child to him?

He found himself leaning against the stone face, holding the boy aloft by his legs. The gray lips murmured softly and moistened the child's face. After a time the boy cried out in ecstasy and Sullivan let him down.

The difference was obvious. The child could see now. His eyes filled with wonder at their first view of the world and he whipped his head in every direction in an effort to take it all in. Then he looked at Sullivan and gestured that he wanted up again.

The stone lips parted and the mouth opened.

Sullivan's arms were lead, his thoughts quicksilver. He had dedicated his life to saving souls. If this is the Devil and I give him the child... But History was awash in the blood of perfectly pious souls who had not perceived the need to be saved. If it's God and I refuse...

"You are the body," murmured the stone face. "You are the blood."

He lifted the child and hestitated. Poised on the lower lip, the boy looked back at him. Doubt crossed his features. This is right, yes? Sullivan felt a supreme peace. He mounted the lip and, with the boy cradled gently in his arms, crawled onto the great tongue.

They waited. The mouth did not close. Salvation would not proceed. Sullivan prayed. As if in a dream, he left the child and crawled out. He leaned against the stone face and shivered, wet and alone. The boy locked eyes with him. Sullivan recognized the inner peace he had so recently felt himself. The stone face looked down with magnificent compassion and closed its mouth.

Where was the cloth he had used earlier? By the time he found it, the chewing and swallowing had ceased. He whimpered randomly as he wiped blood from the stone lips. After a time, he embraced them and buried his face in the soft flesh.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he sobbed.

copyright (c) 1989 by Steve Schlich