Martha had insisted we visit Chimayó-El Santuario de Chimayó, the Lourdes of America, 30 miles outside Santa Fe--and she came to pick us up armed not with candles or headscarf, but an old tablespoon and a pink plastic grocery bag. We were going for the miracle dirt. "I use it for my hands, and my leg," she said gaily as we sped by green-dotted hills, dramatic billows of white clouds scudding across the blue sky over our heads.
It was a glittering June day. The little church rose up before us, basking in the sun. Like all of the old chapels we'd seen, it looked slightly melted, askew, like a sandcastle washed by one primordial wave, then left to bake for 400 years. Resident Indians had revered a long-buried stream there as a source of miraculous healing. Just as a chain store might spring up across the street from a popular independent, the Catholic Church settled its large posterior comfortably down on the spot, started booking Virgin appearances, and took over the distribution rights. Now, dirt taken from the floor of the chapel is credited with healing powers, and thousands of pilgrims visit yearly.
Stepping through the ancient wooden doors and onto the smooth-worn, wide-planked floor was like shoving our heads into mildewed black velvet hoods. Ninety outside, here it was cool and musty as the bottom of a well. I smelled dirt, or clay. The flickering candles at the front--masses of spilt-over wax and dusty glass votives--looked like 2 a.m. at some ancient cocktail lounge. Scattered retablos, colonial era folk-art portraits of saints on wooden panels, were the tipsy patrons. A carved and painted crucifix lurched from the wall high above the altar, his eyes blinking in the shivering candlelight, as if he too had just stepped in from the glare.
To the left was a squat doorway: I idly registered a sign reading, "Watch your head," and bashed mine as I slouched into a narrow grotto full of Jesus doll-babies, yard-gnome Virgins, and St. Francis statues. One wall was lined with painted icons, cheap plastic bearded Jesus/baby Jesus 3-D pictures, graduation photos, typed and handwritten thank-you notes, and unidentifiable clutter; the other wall was lined with crutches, leg-braces, false limbs, eyeglasses, and dentures left behind by those precipitously cured of whatever had brought them there. A doll in a stained satin prom dress lay on its back in a glass box, its arms raised come hither. The fusty room reminded me of a carnival. Instinctively, I felt for my wallet.
Earlier, at Doodlets, a toy and folk shop a few blocks from the town square in Santa Fe, I had tenderly fingered tin and silver limbs and organs--milagros, miracles. Giant tin hands and torsos, tiny silver lungs, eyes, feet; a heart like a turnip sprouting blood; cheerfully macabre and profoundly hopeful, they fairly hummed with import. They made the body sympathetic and lovable in each of its parts. One thing at a time, they seemed to say.
"Through there," Martha whispered now, pointing to a rounded hobbit-doorway at the front corner of the narrow room. I went on my hands and knees through the keyhole after Richard's disappearing bottom and feet. I felt like I was fetching a lost pet from the crawlspace under an old house. I had that same slightly panicky feeling of knowing I could only back out the way I'd come in.