San Xavier del Bac
It isn’t a beautiful structure, Father Kino’s “White Dove of the Desert”, and this both surprises and perplexes me. For all its baroque ornamentation it should be, and yet this is not the word I would choose for it. On the road map, it is a brown cross on an otherwise white plot of barren land. From the highway, a white speck on an otherwise brown horizon. Even as I stand before it, a beat-up Chevy blaring mariachi tears across the desert floor, blanketing the white facade of the 18th century church in a brown flurry of dust. We stand almost under the arch of the mission’s massive wooden doors now, passing in between two worlds—inside, the dusky glow of prayer candles; outside, sun and stone and sky. A white cloud drifts past the unfinished white bell tower above us and I wonder if there is a word in Spanish for it, this subtle contrast of white on white.
watching the sky
deepen into blue around
that white cloud
There is something vital and vibrant in this place, a quaint mixture of the celestial and the mundanely terrestrial. The honeysweet, lingering scent of O’odham fry bread overpowers the incense of liturgy and ritual in the aisles. Oblivious to tourists, the faithful pray at the gilded retablo mayor to cross-eyed madonnas who implore heaven on their behalf with upturned, centuries-old hands, fingers without fingertips that end in grey plaster stubs. Here and there a cactus wren pecks indifferently at the foot of a saint. We continue through the sanctuary. I run my fingers slowly along the mission’s ever-peeling plaster coat, relentlessly determined year after year to strip itself down to its very core, down to the very land it was built upon. San Xavier is full of these little ironies and cosmic jokes.
“What did you think?” my husband asks me as we leave. I shrug.
But as we drive off the reservation, I cannot help looking over my shoulder.
a pile of sun-bleached bones
in the arroyo