What We Do for Love
fiction by Tim Chapman
Frank Mosley was alone in the little room behind the chapel as he inspected the collection of crutches, photographs, and testimonial letters that covered the wood paneled walls. It was early, and he was the church’s first visitor of the day. He read the yellowed letters from people who had been cured of arthritis and stomach ailments. He studied faded photographs of grandmothers who were able to use their gnarled hands for the first time in years and children who were walking again after a crippling injury. He fingered the crutches and the discarded artificial limbs, though Frank couldn’t imagine that the holy dirt could grow back an arm or a foot.
The church was in a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and was well known for the miracle of its sacred earth. People journeyed from all over the world to scoop the healing earth from the hole in the sacristy floor. The hole itself, el pocito, was miraculous. Pilgrims came and scooped earth out of the hole all day long, but no matter how much was taken, the next morning el pocito was full again.
Frank had driven all through the night from Sausalito to get some of the sacred earth. While he drove he thought about the miracle. It was ridiculous. What sort of person believes in holy dirt? Why would God make such a thing in the first place? If He wanted to heal someone He wouldn’t have to fool around with dirt. It was mass hysteria or some kind of mind over matter, the power of positive thinking. The whole thing was probably bullshit, but Frank needed to believe in it. He had tried to imagine a world without Gloria. The idea was too terrible. Frank was kneeling over the little hole, spooning dirt into a plastic, sandwich bag, when Father Leonard tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir,” the priest said. “May I have a word with you?”
“Frank stood up and brushed dirt off the knees of his trousers. He was a full head taller than the priest and had to duck as he followed him through the little arched doorway. They walked out a side door, around to the back of the church, and stopped next to a mound of black dirt. The church was on a ridge, and several small houses and trailers dotted the landscape on the mountainside below. Frank offered the priest a cigarette and, when it was refused, lit one himself. It was a crisp, winter morning and the smoke he pulled into his lungs was made sharper by the mountain air. He had bought the pack at a gas station. He hadn’t smoked in years, and he thought how upset Gloria would be if she knew. He had quit a lot of things on account of Gloria—smoking, drinking, breaking people’s legs. Fortunately, Papa Bennie hadn’t been angry when he left the Organization. He’d even offered to pay for Frank and Gloria’s wedding.
“My wife has cancer,” Frank said. “What do I tell her to do with the dirt when I get it home? I mean, how does she use it?”
“Has she started chemotherapy yet?” the priest asked.
“No. She goes in for a radical mastectomy next week. They’ll start chemo after that.”
“Some people take the dirt home to bathe in, some eat it or put it in liquid to drink, others rub it on their afflicted limbs. I suggest putting a pinch in a cup of tea. Make sure you give it to her before she starts chemotherapy, though. You don’t want her to be eating dirt with a suppressed immune system.”
“No,” Frank said, “I suppose not.”
Father Leonard cleared his throat a few times before he spoke again, as though he was trying to decide the best way to phrase a difficult question.
“You don’t believe in our sacred earth, do you?”
It was more a statement than a question, and Frank was surprised by its directness. He thought priests were supposed to encourage faith. He took another drag and snapped the cigarette away. It sailed out over the precipice and down.
“No,” he admitted. “I think it’s pretty much a crock. Why? Do I have to believe to take some dirt?”
“Not at all,” the priest said. He motioned toward the mound of dirt. “Take all you like.”
Frank picked up a handful from the pile. It was the same color and consistency as the dirt in his sandwich bag.
“This is the same stuff?” he asked. “I thought the hole in the floor miraculously filled with dirt every night.”
“I fill it,” the priest said, “every night, three hundred and sixty five nights a year for the last seven years. I have it delivered once a week from a local nursery. Twice a week around Christmas, because of the crowds, you know.”
“So you don’t believe in it either?”
Father Leonard giggled and covered his mouth with the back of his hand. It seemed an inappropriate sound for a priest, and it occurred to Frank that Father Leonard might have started his morning with booze instead of oatmeal. He inched closer and caught the familiar scent of malt.
“What about all the testimonials and discarded crutches on your wall?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” the priest said. “Maybe those people would have gotten better anyway. Maybe some of them just think they’re healed.” He stopped speaking and looked around, as though he was afraid of being overheard. “Maybe some stop taking their medicine and get really sick or die. I haven’t got a clue.”
“That’s awful. They’d be better off if they never took the dirt.”
“Probably,” the priest said.
“Do you tell everyone who comes here about the dirt, I mean, that the replenishment miracle isn’t true?”
“No, you’re the first. They wouldn’t believe me, anyway. The pilgrims who come for the dirt are mostly poor people, uneducated. All of them are desperate for a miracle. Occasionally, college kids stop in. They’re usually just curious or think it’s funny. I don’t often see someone with a Mercedes and a six hundred dollar suit scooping dirt out of the hole.”
“How do you know what my suit cost?” Frank felt himself getting angry. “What difference does that make, anyway? Are you saying that only poor people need hope or that you’re stupid if you believe in miracles?”
“No. Hey, I’m sorry,” Father Leonard said. He pulled a letter from the waistband of his cassock, handed it to Frank and plopped down on the pile of dirt. “Read the last three lines,” he said.
Frank read: Daily insulin injections are very hard for a five year-old boy, and we really can’t afford them any more. We’re so happy that the sacred earth has cured his diabetes. Thank you, Father Leonard, and praise to God.
“It came in yesterday’s mail. There’s no name or return address,” Father Leonard said. “This family has stopped giving their child his insulin, and I don’t know how to get in touch with them. Even if I did, what would I say? ‘Take your child to the doctor because it’s all a fraud’? ‘Give up your faith’?” Father Leonard’s hand shook as he took the letter back and put it in his pocket. “My life is a lie. I’m going to shut this place down, and if the archdiocese sends in another priest to run things, I’ll show this letter to the press.”
Frank put his hand in his pocket and felt the bag of dirt. He wanted to explain to the priest what it was like to walk with Gloria after dinner in the cool evening air. How, when she smelled the night-blooming jasmine, she would stop and close her eyes, and how seeing her like that made him feel as though someone had reached into his chest and wrapped a warm, comforting hand around his heart. Gloria was counting on the dirt. What would she think if she saw in the papers that it was a fraud? He couldn’t let that happen.
“It doesn’t make any difference whether you or I believe in this crap,” Frank said. “My wife believes in it. She read an article in some magazine. I’m sorry about the kid with diabetes, but my wife needs this miracle. If you go to the papers…” He looked at the priest, still sitting on the dirt. “Can’t you wait awhile before you do anything? Give me six months, please. That’s not too much to ask.”
“I can’t promise that. In fact, going to the papers may be the only way to save this boy’s life. If his family hears that the dirt is a fake perhaps they’ll get worried and take him to the doctor.”
Frank grabbed Father Leonard’s sleeve and yanked him to his feet. He felt like punching him, but instead he shook him, hard, hoping the violent action would sober him up. When he released the priest he was embarrassed and couldn’t look at him. Instead, he lit another cigarette. He composed himself as he watched the smoke curl away and drift up into the unclouded sky.
“Look, I’m sorry I got rough,” Frank said, “but every night I wake up, maybe three or four times, just to stare at her. I can’t get back to sleep until I see her move or hear her breathe. I need to know she’s there.” He reached out a hand to smooth Father Leonard’s rumpled cassock, but the priest pushed him away and walked unsteadily back to the church. Frank looked down at his cigarette for a minute, then let out a sigh. He knew what he had to do. He followed the priest inside.
By the time he returned to his car the flames were licking the wood beams above the windows of the old church. By the time he got to the highway it was just a pale glow in the eastern sky.
Tim Chapman is a former forensic scientist for the Chicago police department who currently teaches writing and tai chi chuan. His fiction has been published in The Southeast Review, the Chicago Reader, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and the anthology, The Rich and the Dead. His first novel, Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, was a finalist in Shelf Unbound’s 2013 Best Indie Book competition. In his spare time he paints pretty pictures and makes an annoying noise with his saxophone that he claims is music.
This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.