​East Fork:

A Journal of the Arts​​

The Priest and the Dying Soldier
By: Eleanor Bishop

The man gripped his arm, unable to stand. He held on to him with a strength reserved for
the desperate. And the dying.

His legs were a mess, riddled with bullet holes. Even more pressing was the wound in his chest, rapidly spreading a deep red stain across his dark green uniform. A few words escaped from his lips.

“Father. . .please. . .”

His voice was raw and wavering, like a child on the verge of tears.

He was hardly more than a child, his youth marred by dirt and blood.

Father Sanchez had seen dead men before. One of his earliest memories was peering into the casket at the wake of a distant uncle. He had held his father’s hand and cried because it seemed to be the thing to do. He had seen it afterwards, death and the mess it leaves behind, in the waves of disease that swept through his village; in screaming mothers cursing him and his God when he visited the homes of the deceased, and in the quiet, decided way his own mother had left him, her hand in his when she passed.

In the last few months, as the civil war that had enthralled his nation spread its gnarled, bloody hands across the countryside, and he grew familiar with the sound of gunfire, he began to know a new kind of death. This was not the slow, fevered withering of disease or the silent departure of old age. This was blood and bullets. This was instant and loud. Undoubtedly there were still mothers screaming somewhere, still cursing God and Man, but their cries were drowned out by the sounds of war:

Gunfire. Then silence. More gunfire. Silence.

A conversation for when things have elevated beyond words, far beyond any sort of reason. The young man was coughing up blood, his grasp on the Father’s arm beginning to weaken. There was fear in his eyes. Fear, but also a resolute understanding. He knew what was happening, and what he wanted.

“Please. . .before. . .” A silver cross hung around his neck, glinting in the overbearing sun.

He was asking for his last rites; a final blessing to prepare his soul for death.

In the last few months Father Sanchez had given these to countless boys where they lay, shot in the street or in makeshift army hospitals, performing it the way he had been taught at seminary many years ago. But this was different. In the past he had always come to them​;  the wounded and dying, to offer what comfort he could give. He was prepared. Composed. He felt he could process the death; compartmentalize it in a way that it wouldn’t haunt him, if it was on his own terms.
He hadn’t been ready for it; the blood and death, not this time. It‐‐​he ​grabbed him as he was making progress to the shelter a few doors down, seeking protection from the impending gunfire that could be heard from off in the east.

Father Sanchez hadn’t seen the man until a firm hand grasped his right arm, so hard that he could feel their nails through the fabric of his shirt. The soldier had used the last strength in his legs to half‐stagger‐half‐crawl to the priest from where he laid up against a wall, abandoned by the rest of his men.

The Father looked around, furiously searching, thinking that there certainly must be more men, more wounded, maybe someone who could help. The man at his feet seemed much more alive than any other dead man he’d ever seen, and despite the deep, reddening wound in his chest he refused to believe that he was beyond saving.
“Please. . .”

When he asked Father Sanchez, his eyes red and swollen, face stained with blood and tears, to give him the last thing he would be likely to ever receive, the Father felt as if he had become frozen in place.

Here was this man, a dying man‐‐dead for what?

For war. Hate. Hunger. Anger; the kind that builds and builds until it explodes, until the only way to get it out is to lash out, until nothing is left but empty, scarred streets and the sound of gunfire. He was learning that is was not evil men who go to war, who shoot each other from behind crumbling buildings, but desperate ones, doing the only thing they know to cause a change in the lives they lead.

He found himself fixating on the man’s silver cross; it remained untarnished despite the general grime and desolation surrounding it, shining with an almost blinding glare that seemed to aim directly into the Father’s eyes. It struck him, not for the first time, to wonder how many of the men on the other side of this battle wore crosses of their own. How many prayed to the same God when they came face to face with death’s cruel reality.

The sudden sound of nearby gunfire broke Father Sanchez from his stake of shock. Closeby, the shots rang out like a hammer striking against a tin roof. He could feel every one of them reverberating in his chest, over and over, like a second heartbeat.

Instinctively, he hit the ground, pressing the wounded man and himself up against the concrete. Bullets chewed up the pavement, but they didn’t seem to be directed in their general area:  farther to the left a group of men had hidden behind a building to avoid the gunfire, their own weapons out and ready.

Father Sanchez lay on the ground, hearing nothing but the commotion around him and the labored last breaths of a dying man, remembering his uncle’s funeral. That day, the faces around him had told him to cry, to proclaim his sorrow. A sorrow he did not yet know to feel.

He needed no direction now, no one to govern his emotions. Father Sanchez wept, for the
man at his side, for the men crouched behind the buildings and the ones shooting from the rooftops.

Lovera, Hector R. ​Aid From the Padre​. 1962. La Republica, Venezuela. ​Rare Historical Photos​. Web. 1 Feb.