Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

The Box
by Carmen Baca

The box haunted me throughout my childhood and adolescence. It bore the scars of its years in the many scratches and stains which marred its exterior. When I was a child, I personified the box and imagined it didn’t care that it was damaged; instead, I fancied it was proud. Its flaws were a sign of how much it was used by the many handlers who opened it to reveal a portal to another world and closed it to curious minds like mine who had no business rifling through its contents.

The box was made of wood, not exotic mahogany, not pricey redwood, just old planks probably fashioned out of a pine log, chopped and split, cut and sanded by one or more of the very men who crafted it. They used it to save their prized and sacred possessions. There was nothing remarkable about it, other than that it was always padlocked. No matter how many times I asked my father to let me look inside, he gently but firmly refused. Because of this, the box became a fascination for me, the way anything private makes us want to know exactly why it’s secret.

The wooden box was a perpetual fixture in the middle room of the morada, los Hermanos’ sacred prayer house. It sat beneath a small table under the only window of the room which connected the kitchen to the prayer room. Every time I went from one to the other, I passed it. Like Pandora, I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me and imagined it was full of all sorts of horrible things—implements of torture I couldn’t even visualize. Like many of us Hispanics who grew up in New Mexico, I’d heard the horror stories of how los Hermanos Penitentes hurt themselves when they were enclosed in this very morada. My father was Hermano Mayor, the leader, of la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno—the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth. The men of the rural community all belonged to the religious brotherhood and performed charitable acts and community service year round. But their most active time was la Cuaresma, the Lenten season.

When Lent approached, the Hermanos met to plan their Friday services, the Stations of the Cross. Las Verónicas, the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, did their part as auxiliaries to the brothers. They cleaned the capilla, the little church, and the morada for the season. They prepared the foods every Friday for the men during the most blessed forty days of the year. I, learning my role from my mother, knew I had an important part even at the age of five when I began assisting the women and accompanying them to the prayer sessions performed by the men.

When I went to college and began taking courses in bilingual education, I began researching los Hermanos in earnest. The internet was full of page after page of articles and photographs which depicted the harsh acts of penance los Hermanos performed, on themselves and on their fellow brothers. The sensationalism horrified and dismayed me—my father was nothing like the men in the photos. I never witnessed any of this on the part of our own Hermanos who were all either my tíos, compadres, or primos. No wonder so many people not of our culture felt these men were barbaric and misunderstood their motivations, their actions, and their devotion to Christ.

The photos haunted me; I dreamed terrible pesadillas where scenes played out like an old movie I found recently about los Hermanos. An unmistakable Anglo narrator seriously reads script like a documentary where a scene plays out for obvious shock value as the men’s backs glisten with blood that looks dark in black and white. The half-clothed and bare-foot Penitentes travel up a steep mountainside lashing the man in front, like some kind of brutal prisoner of war procession. For years, my nightmares persisted, especially when I attended a presentation of how such Lenten rituals and processions occur in Spain. Looking at the slide show, I went cold with the images before me—the very same which haunted my dreams, and during Lent, haunted my days. Because I was allowed to stick my very big nose into all of los Hermanos’ business, except the box, its appeal grew with my curiosity.

Twenty-five years would pass before I would discover what it held. My father, one of the last remaining Hermanos, had passed the previous winter. The following spring, instead of performing their usual Lenten cleaning and preparation for las Estaciones de la Cruz, the few community members who were left cleaned out both the morada and the capilla for good. Although enough people remained in the valley to keep an eye out on both structures, by that time, most had already moved away. They’d heard that some abandoned churches and moradas in rural areas around them had been robbed and vandalized. So they’d met on that occasion to disperse the artifacts: los santos, the candleholders, the crucifixes crafted by los Hermanos, los retablos—all must be kept safe.

I was the youngest of the females who’d gathered that day. Standing by as several of the women chose one saint or retablo apiece, I fought back tears that things had changed so drastically, that all but one Hermano were gone, and that life would never be the same. After a short discussion amongst the group, my mother turned and asked if I wanted to keep the rest. As I was the youngest present, they decided I should serve as guardian of the entire collection so it would remain fairly intact. I could kick myself now, but I still feared the effigy of la Muerte who had haunted me even worse than the box throughout my growing-up years. I refused to extend shelter to her in my home. My children were toddlers and feared my old walking doll who resides in my closet. How could I bring la Muerte into my home? She is, in essence, a skeleton who perpetually holds her bow and arrow ready to strike whomever she chooses to accompany her into the afterlife. When I was young, no one could have made me ever stand before her. In fact, when I was very small, I remember ducking under that ready and pointy arrow. Even when I was taller, I vividly remember giving her a wide berth when passing from the altar to the door. She occupied a corner between them in the prayer room.
One of our comadres took her in, and all the rest came home with my husband and me. I enlisted his help to drag a dresser to an alcove where I took from boxes the altar cloths which my own mother had made out of white sheets. I can still see her patiently embroidering or crocheting intricate designs along the edges by the light of the kerosine lamp. When my father and the rest of los Hermanos were ensconced in the morada till well after midnight on those Lenten Fridays, she and I waited up for him in the two-room adobe house he made for her when they married in 1938. Located down the road from the capilla, it had a nice large window where I could periodically look out into the blackness of those Lenten nights to see whether los Hermanos’ lanterns and flashlights were visible across the meadows. This would indicate they were on their way after whatever business they conducted so late into the evenings. Most often my mother and I ended up falling asleep long before he got home.

As I set up my altar, I reverently touched the candleholders, both glass and wood, and  the saints, some hand-crafted and others made of jaspe which came from Maloof’s Mercantile in Las Vegas. I arranged my home altar like I used to those in the capilla and the morada, and I felt such a heartache for the people whom I used to do this task for so lovingly. The tears were already close by the time I finished and joined my husband in the library where he had put the wooden box down on the carpet. He stood over it, contemplating how best to open the padlock without inflicting more damage on the wood which bore its scars with honor.

My eyes were glued to the box as he opened the lid. To me, it seemed as if the act happened in slow motion. I think now it’s because the box was the focus of my thoughts for so many years. So when my husband lifted the lid and I knew its secrets were about to be revealed, I didn’t quite believe it. I half wanted to tell him to stop, but my unsatisfied curiosity to discover, once and for all, what had been denied to me for my entire life won out.

He pulled out a black shawl, one I recognized as belonging to la Muerte. Beneath were familiar objects I’d been privileged to hold throughout my youth. First came the matracas, five in various sizes. Then came the crosses los Hermanos used in their ceremonies. I moved close and sat cross-legged on the floor. As my husband handed each artifact to me, I caressed it and let the memories overcome me. I felt as though I was welcoming old and dear friends back into my life.

The prayer books belonging to my grandfather, uncle, and father came next. Those hand-written pages, ink-smudged and discolored by drops of melted candle wax, spoke to me; I could still hear the blending of their tenor and bass as they sang los alabados, the doleful hymns, the words of which always make me cry.
I was totally unprepared for the last artifacts my husband pulled out one by one in the silence after his initial gasp. First came several small, short trousers with drawstrings at the waist. They bore rust-colored stains in several places and the tears started welling in my eyes. They were exactly like those I’d seen in the slide show presentation in college. The same as those in that old movie. But I burst into sobs when several horsehair whips and one leather cat o’ nine tails met my hands as I’m crying now with the memory while I write. It was true; my father and all of los Hermanos I’d grown up with, worshipped with, respected above any other people in my life, lived their lives emulating Christ. Right down to experiencing for themselves the very punishment He received at the hands of mankind. In the folds of more of Doña Sebastiana’s clothes, other implements they used for penitence followed the whips. Objects I never imagined they would’ve used at all, one of which I’ve never read about anywhere, and another which remains a mystery to this day. My crying increased as they emerged. It all made sense: the time I overheard my father’s doctor cry of alarm before he asked what had happened to my dad’s back. Now I knew what the doctor had seen although I never did.

Over twenty-five more years have passed. I’ve retired and pray at my home altar every morning when I rise and every evening before bed. Not a day goes by that the people of my past, all of los Hermanos and all of las Verónicas, don’t come to my mind. They live on in my memories, and I’m grateful to have known them and to have worshipped with them in my youth.

As for the box, its influence on my life was so great that it inspired my debut novel: a tribute to my father and los Hermanos. I can only hope it’s just as content in its new haunt—the library of my home—along with all the precious relics which it had guarded since 1850, and possibly even earlier. The box can rest easy; I am the guardian of its secrets now.

Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels, over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Her knowledge of New Mexico Penitentes, traditions, and folklore enables her to tell the story of her father’s entrance into the secret society of the Penitente Brotherhood. Set in the early nineteen hundreds, El Hermano provides historical insight into the life of a rural community which embraced los Hermanos and welcomed their selfless acts of charity. She has also published nine short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs and is working on her second book.