2022 Short Story Competition

Viaticum

The car was not good in the hills. It popped! and sputtered as it wrestled its way along the rough terrain of the narrow, winding roads cut from the Spanish countryside. As it neared the summit, it pulled off to the roadside where it was quiet but for the steam coming off the hood. The midday sun bathed the dry and patchy sloping hills of the valley. Whitewashed outcrops dotted the landscape, and above in the sky floated a few clouds, but not many.

The man went around to open the hood while the woman walked to the cliff side and overlooked the valley. Across the valley was a small orchard, and the hills were all smooth and bare except the scattered bunches of Aleppos which seemed to sizzle from the penetrating sun. Looking south, down the summit of which they came, the woman saw her village planted at the bottom of the valley, a smudge the size of her thumb. Her church stood alone a mile up a hill from the smudge. It was white against the brown of the land.

“This is no good,” the man said.

The woman did not hear him.

“I said this is no good.”

“We will have to wait for someone,” the woman said.

“No one will come.”

“If it be His will, then He shall guide us.”

Waving away the steam, the man prodded around under the hood. The manifold hissed with each drop of sweat from his leathery skin. “Thank you for coming.”

“I wasn’t given a choice.” She drew her attention to a harsh sound from down the bank. It was a family of vultures feasting on the remains of something she could not identify.

“We didn’t have other options,” the man said. “Our priest is away on mission.”

The woman moved closer to the unknowing vultures. “You should know the church does not allow Viaticum to be administered by a Sister.”

“Por qué?”

“This is the way it’s always been,” the woman said.

“You should talk to them about that.”

 “Who is them?”

“The ones who make the rules.”

From somewhere distant across the valley a coyote barked. The vultures scattered and flapped away, then circled high above. Their dinner lay alone on the bank, inside out. Upon a closer look the woman saw that it was one of their own. “These are His rules,” she said, and walked over to the man. She could hear him banging his knuckles on the engine.

“After she makes her final journey, with your blessing,” the man said, “you’re free to go.” He smelled of old liquor.

The woman did not say anything.

“I’m not a bad person,” the man said. He grabbed the radiator cap and it hissed as he jerked his hand away. He cursed then apologized to the woman.

“What is she like,” the woman said, “su esposa?”

“She is like…” the man put his hands on his hips and smiled, then wiped his forehead with his greasy paw. It was the first time the woman noticed him stop long enough to try and form a complete thought. “She is like all the best things in life bunched into one. And beautiful. Rare beauty, like an Iberian Lynx. Have you ever seen one?”

“I’ve heard stories.” The woman dabbed her face with her handkerchief. “She sounds wonderful,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

The man now looked to her, almost defeated. “Somebody has to come.”

“Do you have any water?”

“In the car.”

“Would you mind?”

The man went around to the side door. When he came back the woman was hovering over the engine. She had wrapped her handkerchief around the radiator cap and loosened it off.

“Could you pass the water?” she said.

The man only stood there.

“Por favor?” she said.

He passed her the water. The plastic of it was hot from the sun.

“Stand back, please.” She dripped the water into the radiator. “I will help your wife,” she said. “It is my duty. But I am also here against my will, you understand. Like you, I wish to get back home.”

“After the rites.”

“Of course.”

They got in the car.

“Wait before you start it,” she said.

They both looked straight ahead in silence. The man kept his hands on the wheel in anticipation. The car smelled of hot leather.

After some time, the man spoke. “How could God be so unjust?” he said.

The woman sat sideways in her seat with her hands between her knees. She rested the side of her head on the headrest. She listened for him to go on but sensed he was revealing more than he intended. “God has no more control over this life than you or me,” she said.

“Then what do I need Him for?”

“He is the one looking after your wife at this very moment, is he not? He will guide her, and I will see to it that she has as smooth a journey as possible.”

“What will happen to her?” He gripped the wheel tight. It rubbed against his sweaty palms.

The woman reached across the centre console and held his hand. “Do you recall what Jesus said to Martha, after her brother died?”

“I don’t remember,” the man said. “I thought it was to Mary.”

“Mary stayed home.”

“What did he say?”

“Martha was angry at Jesus, blaming his absence for her brother’s death. When Jesus arrived, he said to Martha, ‘The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.’” The woman was unsure from the man’s blank stare if he understood. “Martha, too,” she said, “had lost belief.”

“He really said that?”

“John 11:25.”

The man nodded.

“We don’t need to be in control,” the woman said, “and either does God. We just have to trust Him to guide us.”

The man pulled his hand away and put it back on the wheel. The woman saw him pushing the thoughts around in his head, coming to some realization. Whatever that realization was she did not know.

With a nod from the woman the man turned the key. The car sputtered and a squealed, then the engine turned over and roared to life. The man looked to the woman in celebration, but she only stared out to the valley.

“I’m sorry for all this,” he said. “I hope you understand.”

The gears grinded and the car clunked forward as the man put it into drive. As he was about to pull out, a Ford came around the bend and the man did not see it. He turned his head to see, and at the last second stopped. He waited for it to go by.

“Someone came,” he said smiling. “Only a little too late, thanks to you.”

The car followed the Ford through the pass along the countryside, and as it reached the man’s village, the sun began to set behind the far reaches of the barren valley. The woman thought of Iberian Lynxes and what they must look like. Though she had never seen one, she imagined them to be just perfect.

This short story by Corey Morrell is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition. 

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