When we entered the small adobe house, the baby lay on a table wrapped in a thin, torn blanket. Standing around the table were the dad and several brothers and sisters. The mother sat on her bed almost out of sight. I asked the father to expose his child's face. It had a purple color with wrinkles and pinched lips.
After I said the prayers and blessed the tiny body, I gave the holy water to the dad who blessed his little boy. Each of the brothers and sisters did the same, then finally the mother. I asked Marina if she wanted to. She took the holy water and said a blessing too. When we left the home Marina said to me, "That's the first time I ever saw a dead baby."
"Terrible, isn't it?" I said. "I've seen lots by now, but I never get used to it."
"What happens to them?" she asked.
"I wish I knew," I said. "We used to say that if a baby died without being baptized he went to a place called limbo. The baby was happy, but he didn't see God. But limbo was just a theological teaching, never an accepted doctrine."
"Well, I guess there must be some place for all those babies," she suggested.
"Ya, but right now I'm going to join them if I don't get something to eat. Why don't you come over to the rectory and I'll heat some soup for us?"
"Sounds good," she said. Soon we we were sitting down at the table. I placed a pot of chicken soup in the middle. She dipped out some. A horrified look came over her. "I can't eat this. The claw's in it and the head!"
"Oh, come on," I said. But it was no use. She left without touching it.
That night I dusted off some of my old theology books to see what they said about the fate of unbaptized babies. Besides the rather clear teaching that baptism is necessary to go heaven, there wasn't much agreement on what happens to their little souls. All night long my dreams were filled with faces of tiny babies I'd blessed.
But my sleep was cut short. Before the sun rose I heard a rapid knocking on the door. I threw on my clothes. When I opened the door, it was Marina. I was shocked to see her hair tangled, her face smudged with dirt, jacket and pants torn. "What happened to you, 'Rina?" I asked.
"Father Phil, you promise you won't think I'm insane?"
"I promise, Rina. Just tell me." I went in to put on some coffee while she sat at the table.
"Well," she said, "I was already in bed. The lights had gone out in the town. I heard a sound kind of like a baby breathing. You know, real soft."
"Ya," I said offering her some sugar for her coffee.
She took a sip, then continued, "I grabbed my flashlight, shined it around the room. I saw this frog on the floor. He stared at me, puffing his throat in and out. You know how they do."
"Those frogs are everywhere." I said.
"Well, this one just stayed in one place, kept his eyes fixed right on me. I got out of bed to chase it away, but it didn't move. I was going to throw something at it. The last thing I wanted was to share my bedroom with a frog. I put on my clothes so I could chase it outside. Well, it started to jump toward the door on its own. Now this is the strange part," she said. She made me promise I wouldn't laugh at her.
After I reassured her, she continued, "Each time the frog jumped it got a little bigger. I didn't notice it at first, but when it arrived at the door, it was about like a kitten. I was going to close the door, but it just looked at me. I decided to follow. Sure enough, with each jump he grew slighly. By the time he got to river he was the size of puppy. Splash. Into the river he lept. I watched him for a second, then joined him. I didn't realize how deep the Ilave River was. I thought I could wade across it, but it reached my knees, then my waist, then I had to swim. When we got to the other side, his eyes were shining. He stood on his strong hind legs, then extended his webbed hand. You know how squeamish I am."
I nodded remembering the chicken claws the night before.
"I expected his hand to be cold, but it wasn't. When I took it, I forgot how cold I was. He led me a few steps, then sand began to move under me. I wanted to step back, but pretty soon it was up to my neck. I took a deep breath. Plop. I fell into something like a cave. It was warm. I clung to my little friend's hand. Then I let out a scream. Next to him was a small man about half my size.
"'Welcome,' he said, 'I'm glad you came.' He led us both to where it was lighter and lighter. Now here's the really weird part. You gotta believe me."
I didn't say "yes" or "no," just, "Please go on. What was in the cave?"
"A whole bunch of shapes. Some crawling along the floor, some moving on the walls, a few even hanging from the ceiling. The small man motioned for me to sit down. It was the most comfortable chair I had ever sat in. It seemed fit right around me. When the shapes noticed me, they all started coming toward me."
"Were you scared?" I asked.
"Sort of," she said. "But they moved soft like little clouds and were all different colors like a rainbow had been splashed over them. At first they seemed curious and shy. Then my frog friend lept right up into my lap. He cuddled up against me like a puppy. Some of the others started rubbing against my legs. Then something like a house-cat jumped up next to the frog. It wasn't a cat, but a minature lion. Then something slid around my neck--a chubby snake!"
"I would have screamed," I said.
"So would have I," she said. "But its beautiful colors and warm body soothed me. It stuck out its snake tongue and licked my cheek. Pretty soon they all wanted to climb on me. Minature deer with soft feet, eagles with padded claws, even a porcupine, only its quills were like colored yarn. Then little chimpanzees started bringing me the only food they seemed to have, a kind of thin milk. But it was sweet. I drank until I forgot about the horrible dinner you fixed."
It was perfectly fine, I thought to myself. "Rina, you were dreaming," I said. "But tell me. How did you get out?"
She glared at me. "First of all, it wasn't like any dream I'd ever had. And you being a man I don't expect you to understand."
I was hurt. "Ah, come on." I said. "Give me a try."
"The truth is," she said, "I didn't want to leave. The little man that welcomed me had to force me out. 'It's getting close to dawn,' he kept saying. I begged for just a few minutes more. Even tho he was half my size he was as strong as a bull. He grabbed my jacket and pulled me out of the chair. The little animals, if that is what they were, kept tugging at my feet and legs, nuzzling me. I saw tears in my frog friend's eyes. The others were sniffling too. They lifted their paws and their wings. The snake pulled up half of his body. His eyes were bigger than an ordinary snake and they glistened with tears. Next thing I knew I was moving up thru the sand. I didn't swim across the river; I took the bridge, came right here. I had to tell someone. I thought maybe you would understand."
"I do," I said. "You had a beautiful dream."
"And I suppose I rolled in the sand and mud and tore my clothes," she said.
She did have a point. She was always immaculately dressed and her hair perfectly combed. "Look," I said. "This is a magic place. I've felt it a few times myself. I admit I don't understand the magic, but maybe I can take us to someone who does."
Her eyes brightened. "Let's go," she said.
"It's a long walk," I said. "Why don't we eat something first. There's still some chicken soup left." I served her a bowl.
I was sucking on a claw, when she said defiantly, "Give me one." When she finished it she said, "Not bad."
We got up and headed out. It was a long walk. There was no road, only a path. I had to keep asking directions. We finally arrived at an adobe house in the middle of a barley field. Outside was a line of people. At the door was an attendant. I told him who we were. "Wait your turn like everyone else," he said. The line moved so slow I was thinking about coming back the next day, but then I didn't want to lose our place.
About mid afternoon we were at the door. The attendant showed us in. I stared in disbelief. This was the wise man? He wasn't a midget, but like someone who had shrunk and shrunk, his skin all wrinkled.
Marina seemed right at home and extended her hand to him. He didn't shake, but felt it on every side like some kind of doctor. We sat down and Marina started telling him the whole story. She went into a lot more detail than with me, describing every supposed animal, the little spouts they drank from, and how when they weren't on her, they played with each other: minature lion with baby sheep, eagle giving turns flying, the chimpanzees amusing the rest by juggling plates.
When she finished her narration, the wrinkled man sat silent. Then he let out a laugh. It could have come from a fat man, four times his size. "It was a dream!" he said.
I smiled triumphantly. Marina blushed, sank back like a balloon being deflated. "They'd never a gringo down there," he said.
Marina turned red. I decided to beat her to the punch. "She not a gringa," I said. "She was born in a land where there's still some magic."
The wrinkled man looked at her serious. "Just be thankful you came out."
"Why?" she said. "I could have stayed there forever."
"Sure you could have," he said, "But don't you understand the creatures you saw?" Both of us leaned in.
"They seemed like the happiest, most loving things in the world," said Marina.
"So they are," he said. "At least in this world. But each one is a small form of what it might have been."
"What do you mean?" we both said at once.
"Well, the eagle he could have been a great writer. The chimpanzees entertainers who lifted people's spirits. The snake maybe a nurse or doctor and soothed pains. The lion, well actually a lioness, she was meant to lead. She may have been a senator or even president and showed us a way out of our troubles."
"I still don't understand," I said.
Marina looked at me like I was a dope. The wrinkled man urged her to explain. "You are the one who blessed so many babies who died," she said
I nodded my head, but I didn't want to look so dumb. "What about Marina's frog friend?" I blurted out.
"Ah," said the wrinkled man. "He moves in two worlds. He could have been like you."
I choked, "I'm afraid I'm pretty clumbsy in both of them."
"So's the frog," said the wrinkled man.
At that we left. I couldn't help ask Marina to take me to the spot by the river. It was now dark. When we got there, I asked, "Are you sure this is it?"
"Of course," she said.
"Let's go in," I said. "I'm dying to see those babies." We took a step, then a jump, but nothing.
"Guess you need a guide," she said.
We walked up toward the bridge. What appeared to be a small boy went past us, his face hidden. He was carrying a tiny bundle. We watched him go down to the river, the same spot we tried to jump into. As he began to sink into the sand, he removed the cover from his face. He smiled at us. We turned and went sadly across the bridge. "I wonder what that child would have been?" I said to Marina.
The next day I was called to bless another baby who had died.
The Condor, the Hummingbird and the Shepherd Girl.
Was Limbo Rescinded?