We had come to Sante Fe because I wanted to show Richard the sky--and the famously clear, high-altitude light that razored the red hills, the hunter-green clusters of juniper, and buttery, Flintstone-brown adobes so sharply into focus: as if that clarity, 7,000 feet above sea-level, could restore the blurring edges of his advancing illness. And we came at the urging of the retired movie actress acquaintance I'd gotten to know when I edited her memoir. A cool, intelligent blonde, Martha most often played the rueful girlfriend who knew that Cary or Bill really loved Audrey or Sophia. She was charmed by Richard's Kentucky courtliness, and forgave him when he innocently asked if she'd known Chaplin. ("He was a little before my time, dear.")

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.

A shadowy mix of tourists and old Latina women sat on the couple of rows of pews, or knelt at the altar. Had any of them walked or crawled all the way here on their knees for extra mileage points, as Martha had told us many did?

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.

It was cold and dank as a cave. A cluster of red-glass votives flickered around a simpering Mary statue, who seemed to be batting her eyelashes. There was an artless gash in the floor with loosened red earth spilling out. ("They have to bring it in from outside and bless it," Martha noted back in the car.) There was something both earnest and furtive in the way Richard quickly spooned dirt into the suddenly noisy shopping bag. I had no idea what he was thinking. Somebody was nudging impatiently at the back of my thighs, pushing after us into the cramped bowel. I felt I was breathing the dirt itself in the airless tank; the guardian Mary seemed to twitch with impatience. At the precise moment my scalp itched and I erupted with a violent sneeze, an overheated votive shattered with a shot, as if the Mother of God had curtly snapped her fingers. I jostled my way back out into the first grotto to lock eyes with a dirty Kewpie in a tiara housed in a tiny phone booth.

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