Wednesday, May 11, 2016

An Americn History Ch. 8: The Mad Doctor

The following is from a work-in-progress called An American History.  It's a novel.

As we approached the Mission, we encountered a man like myself, who saw clear-eyed the horrors.  His response was to go mad.  He was leaning against a live oak tree, dressed in tatters.  As we approached him, the sun was setting on the fields where Indian slaves were working the fields, this crazy bearded Spaniard kept quoting Dante:

""Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", !"

Being an nerd for literature, I recognized this as the inscription above the entrance to Hell: "Abandon all hope, ye you enter here."

William Wolfskill regarded the man indifferently.

"Who is that man?" I asked.

"That's doctor Aguilar, the mission doctor, or what's left of him.  The padres say he has a demon.  Me, I say he just went nuts.  This here land is not for the weak-willed.  It's a shame really.  I liked the doc.  Nice fella."

Seeing us with the bound Indian, Dr. Aguilar rose to his feet and gently placed his hand on the Indian's wound.  There were tears in his eyes and he began speaking in a native language, and then in Spanish:

"Lo siento, lo siento," he said softly.

And then, he fixed his eyes on Wolfskill and on me, and he asked with anger, "Porque?  Porque?  Porque?"

"See," said Wolfskill, "Crazy as a loon."

The doctor appeared to have lost his mind, but what he said seemed a perfectly sane response to this wounded, bound Indian, led by two white men.  

What the doctor had said was, "I'm sorry,  I'm sorry"  and "Why?  Why?  Why?"

We continued through the mission grounds, which I recognized from the times I'd visited San Juan Capistrano as a tourist.  And now there appeared in my mind two overlapping scenes: one of a middle-aged woman in a ridiculous-looking red hat with bangles and a red blazer, guiding a group of mostly white people on a "historical tour" of the Mission, and the scene of tragedy I witnessed with my own eyes.  The Indians were not living in some ideal harmony with the Spanish padres and soldiers--they were doing the lion's share of the work here--re-shoeing horses, building new barracks, tanning the cow hides, and pouring rendered pungent tallow into huge burning vats. 

"Donde esta Padre Serra?" William Wolfskill asked a random friar with an accent worse than mine.

"En el chapel," the padre replied, "Quien es el?"

"Another runaway, bringing him back to God's light," Wolfskill said, nudging the bleeding Indian.

"You cannot bring him to the chapel like this.  Put him in the barracks," the friar said, and we led our horses to one of the mission's buildings.  As we walked, I marveled at the magnificence and size of the Great Stone church, by far the mission's largest structure.  In my time, this was merely a ruin, leveled by an earthquake in 1812.  Unfortunately, my admiration of the architecture was quickly dissipated by the sight before me inside the barracks we now entered--rows and rows of dying Indians, laying on cots--some racked with the visible scars of smallpox, others sick with measles, syphilis, and other maladies.

This was more than I could bear.  I excused myself, ran out of the mission, past the fields of laborers, and reaching a grove of trees, I pressed a button on my wristwatch, and was back in the library.

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