Like Gods to the Slaughter
1976 | Mexico City, Mexico
"We call him Lobo or Wolf." The Guatemalan boy whispers with his face pressed into the thin down pillow.
"Lobo Olor," A spirited kid blurts out a few beds over, making the room quake in quickly controlled laughs that turn to hushes.
"He does stink, but he has claws too and teeth."
"Teeth? What do you mean teeth?" I asked confused.
This was my first night here, and these kids were trying to test my mettle. To see if, like most of them I'm sure, I'd break and start crying for my mommy. I've never done that.
"VA dormir meninos." Father Francis whispered into the room. "... Nao pense em elefantes...." He then made a soft elephant trumpet as he slowly closed the door of the big room, which began to emit a soft chuckle. Just before the door latch touched the frame, Father Francis' elephant sound became a brilliantly timed fart noise, and the room of boys from every corner of the globe erupted in Tower of Babel-building laughter.
I didn't speak Portuguese or Spanish, but any time one of these priests would throw an unfamiliar word into this hive of boys from every tongue, it would be carried around and translated to its root until everyone had a reference for it. I just got here and I was already relying on the hiveworks such that before the chuckles ended, and against Father Francis' request, I was already thinking of elephants.
This was my first time abroad alone, but I don't admit that to any of these kids. They all look like men already. There were a few smoking after lunch, but unlike me and my friends in D.C., they weren't doing it to be bad or get a head rush; they looked like they needed to smoke. Eleven years old and "thinking of cutting down."
It was a good night’s sleep, though, probably because of the heat.
"Get your shoes and let's go!" The kid telling the wolf stories rushed me into the line that was forming around the perimeter of the room. I tried to stand next to him, thinking he was trying to befriend me, but he and every boy I tried to squeeze between moved me down along the line like I was on fire.
"Suficiente!" A thin but roasted voice swirled into this room, which was painted aquamarine from foot to about 11-year-old high and white-washed everywhere else. It was like we were just below the surface of a pool, as this head priest waded in.
I know now why I was passed along like a collection plate. I was the "new kid," The Target. What better way to dominate a target than to show him what it looks like right next to him were he not to submit?
From behind wired frames, the man's colorless gaze scanned the line, hit me, squinted hard, then shot right to the kid to my left. The kid's elbow stabbed my arm when he seized up, giving me a Charley Horse.
"Ow!" I couldn't help but yell and buckle over, gripping my arm. The kid glared down at me with such fright that any pain I felt vaporized with my confusion. "It's okay, I just...," I began, trying to get that look of horror out of his eyes with a smile, but just as I was going to give him a playful nudge on one shoulder, both were grabbed by the head priest.
"Why did you hit this boy?!" he snarled at this poor kid, who burst out in a scream laced with so much spit and tears and snot that this Lamb of God, this Shepard of Souls, hurled the kid to the floor behind him, then used the huge sleeves of his sacred robe to wipe his face.
As the younger priests tended to the poor kid, I looked up at this guy and, without thinking, just started explaining, "It was an accident. You scared everyone and he accidentally...."
"Did I scare you? Oh, dear." he bent down to my face. "I am sorry if I did. We all just wanted to make such a good impression on you."
I was already flat against the wall but was now trying to press the skin of my skull against the sharp stucco to get farther from him, and to have some pain to distract me from whatever just did or was about to happen.
"You've got spit on your ear." A raspy, American and slightly southern voice came from behind the priest. I watched his pupils contract as he leaned into me, but in reaction to the kid’s comment, his face shape-shifted and, like a lizard whose tail was just grabbed, his eyes widened and whiplashed away.
"Father," he hissed at the kid in a reminder of how he was to be addressed. The kid looked at the man's shoes and slowly up. By the time his eyes demanded the man's full attention, he repeated correctly, "You have spit on your ear, Father."
It took a good eight seconds before the man could get his head back into whatever game this was. When he did, however, the utter calm that replaced the awkwardness was somehow worse. In a nod to the younger priests, they ushered the sniffling, wet-faced kid down the only hall in here.
The man looked back at me, smiled and, with a wave of his hand in front of his face like a cross vexing me away, he said, "Welcome to Legionarios de Cristo, son." Then they filed us all down the other direction of the hallway.
As tense as that moment was, there was levity in this place during the days. The younger priests were like camp counselors and seemed to really like it here for the week that each would stay. They were from all parts of the world and cycled through on some exchange program that meant none of them spent more than four days with the same group of seminarian/counselors before being shipped off to some other mission somewhere.
Though the attendant priests were transitory, there was a definite caste structure among the boys and steward priests. It was clear who was heir to a name or the spawn of neglect. Regardless of the level of sophistication of the individual child, it was the station of their parents, or lack of, that determined where they slept, what they ate and who they could play with. This being a Catholic Mission, there was a strong atmosphere of caring more for the suffering or poor than the fortunate, which is why the poorer kids slept nearer the chapel, I supposed.
The wealthy of many nations expose their children to this experience. Nothing helps children appreciate their future more than a few weeks below the poverty line. At 11 years old I understood that. And I'll admit that I got downright terrified and homesick many of those earlier nights. But while this experience could easily have made me “appreciate all I have been given," as Father would say, all it really did was make me aware that there is no "home" to be sick for, only of.
"It's The Wolf." I heard one of my group alert us. I pretended to be asleep by twisting myself into a position only a sleeping boy would adopt. And by folding my shoulder over my face, I could spy the whole room from the dark cranny without squinting. The room got silent. It really was as if a wolf had come into a herd. Even the Inconsolables were playing dead.
The Wolf was not familiar. He wasn't among the priests and attendants during the day. I could see the shadows of his long fingernails stretch to the reflection of the metal bed frames as they tapped and scraped along the rows of toes and tufts of hair from under sheets. I expected someone at any moment to say what long claws he had. Father Francis was the comic warm up, and this guy must handle the ghost stories. As I tried to figure out what the game was, The Wolf knelt down near the chapel door beds.
"No, Father." I hear the boy say three times to as many whispered questions, and then The Wolf left. After 10 seconds, the boy got up and walked into the chapel with his pillow in hand. This happened two nights in a row, and both with the same boy. When The Wolf came back the third night, that boy was gone. I recognized the voice of the kid in his place, though: the boy who pointed to the spit.
The Wolf knelt beside his covered head and the boy quite agreeably answered "No" to each whispered mystery. Now I knew this was a game. A kid who stood up to the main guy wouldn't play along like that unless all of this was a prank.
After he went into the chapel, I waited 10 seconds and followed. It was dark and still, but the Giant Cicadas' screaming outside hid every barefoot smack on the cold concrete.
I made my way through the pews to the lit office on the other side, where they must have been staging the prank. The fact that I figured this out in three days was going to warrant them letting me in on it. I never get left out of pranks. I'm usually the instigator, but I just got here.
I peered around the door of The Wolf’s den. It was the Spit Kid, and he was sitting in the desk chair, squinting at a bookcase to his right. His head cocked sideways while reading the titles.
"Hey. What's going on? I want in." I whispered and then performed a formal lookout maneuver behind and around me to let them know I was a skilled prankster who understood discretion.
"I'm Emit Archer; U.S. citizen and ward of the Armed Services," he said flatly. He was glaring at me with grey eyes.
"What? No, hey, it's cool. I know you guys are ... who's that?" I said pointing to a mound of faded yellow and gray fur on his lap.
"This was Father Peroculo. Some called him The Wolf," he informed me as he craned his neck back to title-reading posture.
After a moment, he took a deep breath, looked down at the hair and stood up straight with a gesture like dusting off his lap. Doing so smacked The Wolf's lifeless head against the metal desk with a crack, and in a heap, his fat, smelly frame slouched toward Babylon on the concrete floor. He was dead.
I was frozen for a second, trying to put together the scene. "Was he trying to ...," I began.
"Yes. He thought I was going to let him, but I only pretended because it made it easier to get to his neck." He said in full voice.
I snapped my head around the corners, this time for real, and tried to hush him. "Shh! You just killed The Wolf...," I began, but I suddenly felt dizzy and wondered if I was dreaming, because this kid was looking at me as if he had just finished a chore and was now going to hit the hay.
"Yes. I did. It was the only way to be sure everyone would answer ‘No.’ Also, I didn't want to be in his mouth. He didn't care what I wanted. I'm stronger than Emanuel and not as nice. Emanuel didn't want this either but couldn't stop him. I could. So I did. Now everyone can say 'No' three times. I'm taking the pillow."
On our way back through the beds, he grabbed Emanuel's pillow. Every boy in the room was now somehow sound asleep. Emit lay back down with his reward for a justice: a second pillow for his knees.
Trilogy One of Two