Lady with solar lantern. Photo by author.
The people set out on their pilgrimage. They came from all directions. Some only had to walk across the street or drive across town. Others came from cities hundreds of miles away. They traveled by plane and by car. Some caravanned and others journeyed at their own pace.
If they were coming from the north—as many of them were—the only way to their final destination was through that odd stretch of highway that ran 102 kilometers from Tucson to the international border at Nogales. It was the only length of highway in the U.S. that was measured in kilometers. The highway wound through the Santa Cruz River Valley, where the contours of mountains and river had been guiding the movements of creatures for thousands of years.
In the days leading up to their journeys, the people kept a close watch on the weather. Their bright screens reflected back to them a perplexing forecast: a string of sunny, even balmy days followed by 36 hours of rain, wind, and frosty temperatures. After that, a return of the sun. The people furrowed their brows at their phones, refreshing the weather screen every few hours, only to see the chance of rain increase from 30 to 60 to 80 percent. They shook their heads and wondered aloud what the santitos were thinking to bring bad weather on just the two days of their pilgrimage. But the people knew better—even if they didn’t say it out loud. Deep down in their hearts they knew what the weather did—that it wasn’t just every day that one of the great troubadours died. How could the people expect that theirs would be the only ceremony? The elements would be gathering too.
So it came to pass exactly like the weather reports said. Between the 9th and the 10th of December, a cold front moved in, and it rained all along the Santa Cruz River Valley in southern Arizona. It wasn’t a downpour, but rain that was steady and sure-footed enough that the riverbed ran wet with rivulets. The winds roused the yellowing cottonwoods into a chorus. Wisps of clouds veiled the peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains, like the lacey head coverings of viejitas who’d lost their beloveds.
As their travels funneled them onto that final river valley stretch, the people didn’t need signs or kilometer markings to tell them how close they were to arriving. The profiles of the mountains and turns in the road were as familiar to them as the creases on their palms. Their eyes grew moist, and their hearts began to swell the nearer they got. They could hear their troubadour’s voice in their ears and his melodies in the wind.
The troubadour called them all home, down the familiar streets of this city named after a walnut grove that had vanished long ago. Some drove the long, slow route along the train tracks and arroyo. Others emerged onto Western Avenue and traveled through the old neighborhoods, along the hills that, a century ago, had hosted a camp for Buffalo Soldiers and infantrymen that numbered in the thousands. Finally, there were those who stayed on the highway until it came to an end near the border wall. They all found their way to that road where the church was poised on the top of the hill. Where the people—now fully peregrinos—gathered in their dark coats and sweaters, filling every available seat and aisle. The troubadour’s guitar, now silent, stood at the foot of the altar, surrounded by flowers.
The people sang for seven hours that day.
They sang for the troubadour.
They sang for themselves.
They sang in grief.
They sang in joy.
They sang to their memories.
They sang to the ache in their hearts.
They sang to the old ones.
They sang to the young.
They sang to the saints.
They sang to the sinners.
They sang to life.
They sang to death.
They sang to the space in between worlds.
They sang with the mountains.
They sang with the rivers.
They sang with the wind.
They sang with the vultures.
They sang with the crows.
They sang with the cypress trees.
They sang with the sunset.
They sang with the night.
They sang to the stars.
They sang to the bright crescent moon that rose in the black sky.
They sang to the wise man who’d lived with a fool’s tender heart.
They sang to the voice that had always sung to them.
They sang until they could sing no more.
After all the tables had been cleared and the leftover food sorted and stored, the people packed their bags. They stepped into the dark and made their way onto the steep stairway that led up the hill, back to the church parking lot. For a moment, they stopped in their tracks and looked at each other. "Did you hear that?" they asked. In between flourishes of wind, they heard tendrils of song drifting through the night. With their senses piqued, they continued their march up the stairs. When they reached the top, they stood before the church on the hill, its candles ablaze and the doors wide open, voices pouring out. They smiled and nodded. Of course! These were the nights of song to the Great Mother. La Reina. La Virgen. These were her times.
Then, the troubadour’s eldest brother spoke the words everyone knew:
“Aquí estuviera mi hermano.”
A soft recognition descended upon them like starlight. It shimmered and it fluttered down into their hearts.
Because on this dark, cold night warmed by candles, filled with the mingling of red roses and music, their beloved troubadour—even in death—had gathered them together in song and delivered them to this threshold of days. There they stood, perched on a hill, under her crescent moon. There they stood in this strange town poised between uncertain worlds—a place they called home, regardless of where they lived now. There they stood exactly 490 years into the story of another earthen-skinned man—most likely a troubadour in his own right—who had greeted this Lady with his raw and broken heart.
That’s when they knew their troubadour would be their guide in the times to come.
Night by night.
Day by day.
To Be Continued...