The Altar boy (Translated by Steven Gómez)

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When the senility of Monsignor Alberto Jaramillo Loaiza had taken its toll, the old priest, head bishop of Medellín, became fascinated with an ape, an orangutan from Borneo.

The year was 1935. Monsignor was 62. He slept very little at night. He felt tired. Restless. His diet was frugal, and left him unsatisfied. The old priest swapped his readings from the Bible for the volumes of Pliny’s natural history and Virgil’s Eclogues. He fell asleep during services and complained about the cold all day. He had a sister and a cousin. He spent his days at the Metropolitan Cathedral, which came into operation four years ago. He felt a strange longing for the imperial grandeur of Rome.

The cathedral was a tall building, with three large naves and three floors. It was designed by Émile Carré, the same architect who had drawn up the plans for the largest market in the city, without anyone finding it to be ungodly.

Monsignor was short. Heavy. He had an absent-minded, jolly countenance, but lately, he seemed perpetually angry. While he read, he made involuntary grimaces with his eyebrows and lips, revealing his perpetual state of deep thought. He moved slowly and his voice was soft, almost feminine. He had developed the habit of passing through the covered market of Guayaquil, where he had become a fan of the stalls of exotic animals which popped up without approval from the authorities. In shoddy cages made of iron or wood, there were birds and felines of a variety of shapes and sizes, small monkeys in chains and tiny outfits, wild boars, medium-sized rodents, and exotic fish, brought from the country’s rainforests, both near and far, and even from foreign lands.

            But Monsignor only had eyes for a strange creature that he could barely see behind the thick planks of an old wooden crate. They told him it was a big ape, but despite the vendor’s best efforts to describe it, he couldn’t picture it. The problem was that he always stopped by at times when the owner wasn’t around to open the crate, and the owner was the only one with the keys. The mystery ended up being more important to him than the tenets of his faith, and, not infrequently, he surprised himself trying to imagine the elusive figure during mass. Finally, tired of waiting, he made an appointment with the owner, one Don Chepe Restrepo, who received him on an early Tuesday morning, a little before the first mass of the day. The man, a local rancher, set about opening the crate. Monsignor stepped back.

            Inside, gazing down its own feet, as if trying to recognize them, Monsignor saw a small ape the size of a three-year-old. it had an oval-shaped, hairless head, a scraggy coat, and an undefinable, gentle expression that moved the old man, who felt the loneliness of the animal as if it were his own. it had small, but expressive, black eyes. Almost melancholy.

            An orangutan, said Don Chepe, seeing the priest’s surprise. It came from Borneo, in Africa, by mistake.

            Nothing happens by mistake, the bishop responded, regaining his composure. Though we rarely realize it in time.

            He tried picking him up with his arms, but the animal resisted violently. The bishop gave the rancher an inquiring look.

            It’s been caged for two years, said Don Chepe.

            I’ll take it, Monsignor responded, on the brink of tears.

            Four novices took the animal to the cathedral and left it in the diocese library, where Monsignor enjoyed taking his siestas and completing his tasks for the day. Day after day, Monsignor slowly went about dismantling the crate, plank by plank, until only the bottom ones were left, leaving the animal to grow accustomed to the enormous height of the ceiling, the columns of books, and the dim lights of the electric candelabras. The animal looked up with amazement and, though fearful, little by little began getting acclimated to its new home, which granted it ample space the likes of which it had never dreamed of. Thus, for the first days the ape stayed motionless in its spot, until it began exploring with its hands, and later its feet, the areas it could move around. It liked to watch its hands wave around in the air, how they were able to extend beyond the sides of its torso.

            Monsignor sat observing it for hours. It’s like watching a child learn during his adolescence. What have you come to teach me? He marveled that he saw in the animal none of the satyr that Pliny described, only the touching innocence of Adam before his exile for eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. He named it Elías, because he felt that the monkey had come to teach him something.

            He arrived at the church on a Sunday, holding the animal’s hand. It looked like he was leading a shy altar boy. They proceeded down through the main nave, from the park gate to the altar. There, he lifted the creature up and explained to the congregation how he had saved the innocent life from a horrible fate. The women crossed themselves. Some left the temple to spread the rumor. At the hour of the gospel, Monsignor preached about the events of the last few days in the most didactic manner he could: he spoke of the notable resemblance between the characteristics of the animal with those of Adam, before the episode with the tree, without taking into account that by making this connection, he was allowing evolution into the temple.

            The rumor about the ape in the temple spread rapidly across the city, which languished in the monotonous torpor of provinces far from the capital. Rivers of ink ran in the newspapers of the time. Lively debates were held in classrooms and cafes in Berrío Park, and no one could come to an agreement, though the two sides of the argument became clear. The more conservative people said that Monsignor had lost his mind, and that letting the ape in was a grave doctrinal error. It implied that the strange familiarity that existed between apes and humans was endorsed by the church. The more liberal people defended the adoption of the animal, reminding the others that compassion was, after all, the message of the gospel. As was to be expected, some bishops took it upon themselves to send letters reprimanding Monsignor. The Governor of Antioquia, the President of the Republic, and the Apostolic Nuncio also delivered their own, notably harsh, statements. He explained to each of them, with proverbial patience, that he was only following the gospel in its message of love and compassion for all creatures. He spoke of the Saint of Assisi, of Daniel in the lions’ den, of Saint Blaise, who cared for animals in his cave, of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs, and the beasts that kept the Christ child warm. He finished by explaining that if the ape walked on two feet, that was God’s doing, not his. Birds also walked upright, and yet no one had ever accused a dove of heresy.

            In any case, Monsignor did not relent, although from then on, he avoided making any reference to Genesis and spoke only of the need to treat animals with compassion. From that moment on, he stopped buying meat from the market, and no longer granted his blessings to slaughterhouses and livestock fairs.

            Elías quickly learned to keep a devout silence during mass, and to skillfully swing the censer and ring the cathedral bells to call people to church. Curiously, like all animals of its kind, Elías had a special sensitivity to bad weather, and would howl madly to warn of a coming downpour. As a result, outside of its official functions, the ape came to be the weather oracle for the residents of Medellín, who trusted its forecast.

            Elías led a peaceful existence. It like to spend his time chasing cats and dogs around the building. To eat fresh bananas and oranges. To jump off high bookshelves, windows, and ceiling beams, and to swing from chandeliers and the trees in the yard. It liked standing close to the windows, where it seemed to speak to the pigeons and turtledoves that visited the cathedral. And it liked to watch the old priest as he absorbed himself in his Latin texts, slowly forgetting everything he knew and cared about from the Bible.

            But then one day, during Holy Week, a fierce thunderstorm hit, and those attending the mass watched as the terrified animal climbed onto the sculpture of Christ on the cross and fell onto his back, dragging Christ as it crashed into the altar. The nuncio ordered the bishop to put an end to this disgraceful spectacle. From then on, Monsignor Jaramillo was not allowed to bring the animal to mass. But, despite being chained to a tree, barely able to hear the bells calling the mass, Elías held a position of rigid piety.

            Fortunately, or not, around that time, word came from Aeródromo Las Playas airport that a plane carrying Carlos Gardel had crashed during takeoff. 15 deaths that day. Another the following day. The news fell like the blow of a sledgehammer on the small city, which worshipped him. The confusion, anguish, and need to pay tribute to the singer-actor led them to completely forget about the entire Elías scandal. Medellín now only lived and breathed tango. Monsignor officiated the funeral and buried him in the city’s cemetery. Sometime later there was a call to bring his body to Argentina. Naturally, air travel was to be avoided, and so the journey, realized in stages, was travelled in cars, ships, trains, and even the backs of mules.

            A few months later, Monsignor suddenly fell gravely ill. His suffering was brief. A large tumor, the size of an avocado, had begun to grow in his abdomen. Near the end, he recognized no one and spoke only in Latin. Some could hear him lamenting Propertius’ lovers and asking for clemency for Ovid. The nuncio, though he detested the animal, did not have the heart to keep them from saying their goodbyes. He called for Elías in the patio, waited for it to climb down from the tree, and led it by the hand to Monsignor’s room, where the ape ran its large fingers over the sick priest’s forehead, before resting them on his chest, feeling the death rattle. It let out what sounded like a sob. Monsignor died a few hours later. With all the commotion of the funeral arrangements, it didn’t occur to anyone to find Elías or take the ape to the ceremony.

A week later, a young seminarian had an epiphany in cathedral yard. Out for a walk, he was dazzled by a light coming through the arches, and followed it to a single tree in the middle of a radiant dawn, under which stood a small, ape-like figure, staring down at its feet. The young man understood then that Genesis was real, with or without God. Two years later, he left the priesthood, scarcely without a pang of guilt. So it goes, miracles bloom in heaps for not a single soul to see.

As for Elías, it lived out its days at Don Chepe’s ranch in Guarne, where the rancher decided against confining the ape to a crate again. Instead, Don Chepe created a fairly large steel cage where the animal was left alone, waiting for the birds that visited it every day. It looked as if the ape longed to fly. If you stared at it long enough without contempt, you soon got the impression that it gazed at the world with eyes of mysticism. But Don Chepe didn’t understand. Sick of seeing the ape’s sorrow, he let it free midway through 1950. The animal came out slowly, like someone on his way home, exhausted after a long day at work, dragging its feet, and vanished into the undergrowth of the mountain.

Publicado por

Carlos Andrés Jaramillo

Poeta, narrador y filósofo colombiano.

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