Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read “(Irrelevant) Mass Delusion in Cajas” by Mauro Javier Cardenas with art by Jenna Ransom.
on the other hand if someone were to ask Leopoldo about his pilgrimage to Cajas, where according to everyone the Virgin Mary had been appearing to a sixteen-year-old girl from Cuenca, Leopoldo wouldn’t assume a resigned facial expression or shake his head as if about to relay and unfortunate incident that happened to some other studious teenager from San Javier, but instead he would claim, in his most matter-of-fact voice, or perhaps in a voice that conceded how ridiculously unbelievable what he was about to claim was, but also underscored how commonly accepted phenomena like gravity or photosynthesis were kind of unbelievable too, that he didn’t care if what he’d witnessed in Cajas had been real or not, didn’t care if it had been mass delusion, as some had called it later, he’d been there and had seen the sun move, hundreds of thousands of believers who had pilgrimaged from Guayaquil, Quito, Cuenca, Machala for what had been announced as the last apparition of La Virgen Del Cajas had gathered in a cold altiplane in the cordillera and had seen the sun move (how many times does the Virgin Mary need to appear to remind us of what we already know? how many times do we need to induce ourselves into believing she has come to warn us again that we’re on the wrong path? in how many places around the world does she need to appear for no one to disbelieve anymore or are her recurrent appearances what perpetuate disbelief?), and because so much time has passed since Leopoldo and hundreds of thousands of believers saw the sun move, he has had plenty of time to think of ways to describe it to those who were lucky enough not to be there (because their first question is likely to be what exactly do you mean the sun moved?), searching for the most accurate descriptions by associating the sun’s movements with everything in the world (
), no, this isn’t true, he hasn’t been able to associate it with anything, or perhaps he has not associated it with anything because he doesn’t want to steer it away from the world of phenomena and into the world of metaphors, or perhaps he doesn’t need to associate it with anything because tracing stochastic patterns in the air with his index finger would probably be enough to describe to others how the sun moved, and on the bus on his way to meet his friend Antonio, whom he hasn’t seen since Antonio fled to the United States almost ten years ago, he still doesn’t feel the need to associate it with anything (
), the sun moved and that was that, the sun as agitated as a firefly no not like a firefly he hasn’t even seen a firefly up close, as if the sun was angry, as if the sun had burned itself on a stove, as if the sun wanted to remind everyone below that the lord was among them and that the lord can manipulate his creation whichever way he pleases for the benefit of those who’d come to venerate the mother of his only son (whatever happened to those thousands of people who’d arrived in Cajas after an interminable uphill procession on that cold mountain? to those thousands of people who had been waiting for something celestial to happen and who had seen the sun moved and who had cried like he imagines mothers must cry upon the irreversible death of their children? whatever did those thousands of people do with their lives? did they disseminate her message through good deeds or did they, like Leopoldo, simply—simply what, eh? what have you done with the memory of what was given to you?—forgot her), and yet since the people who might ask him about his pilgrimage to Cajas are likely to be or have been devoted Catholics, they aren’t likely to disbelieve him too much or probe him further about this concept of mass delusion, a concept he has, surprisingly, never researched, although perhaps it isn’t surprising he hasn’t researched it because what difference would it make to him to discover that indeed scientists have concluded that when thousands of believers gather in one place expecting the same unbelievable event to happen, that same unbelievable event is bound to happen, the exact same sun moving inside everyone’s heads at the exact same time, the exact same process inside everyone’s heads unearthing devotional images from movies about the Virgin of Lourdes or Fatima or Guadalupe or Medjugorje (but not from those other movies where processions to honor the Virgin Mary are streamed as the quaint backdrop for worldly protagonists who know better, although of course these kinds of movies are part of it too), unearthing sorrowful images from scapulars or from those thousands of hours praying the rosary out loud, when you were sure you could sense her presence nearby, the exact same process so overwhelming that on that cold altiplane it triggered the same delusional process in one person and in the next person and in the next and the next and the next and then in Leopoldo, and then in Antonio, who had been there too, who had embraced Leopoldo after the sun moved, everyone crying as the sun moved (why were they all crying? because god had finally appeared to because all those hours imagining a personal relationship with god had not been in vain?), no, he didn’t know why and didn’t care to know why he was crying and embracing everyone nearby, searching for his father who’d been the one who had insisted on this pilgrimage but instead finding Antonio and embracing him, thousands of people in a cold altiplane in the Andes crying at the exact same time, embracing at the same time, sure, he knew it was possible a few hysterics had cried first, leading everyone else to cry as well, and it was also possible a few Catholic lunatics had shrieked and said look the sun’s moving, leading everyone to believe the sun was indeed moving (because if the sun was moving and you weren’t seeing it, that meant you weren’t one of the chosen ones, which could perhaps intensify your need for self-induced visions of the sun moving?), and although he doesn’t remember too many particulars of his pilgrimage to Cajas, for instance how he arrived there or how he descended from there or what his father was thinking during the entirety of the trip or whether the sun moved before or after nothing happened during the specified hour in which the Virgin was supposed to appear for the last time to a young Patricia Talbot from Cuenca (that silent hour in which the Virgin was supposed to appear and him not seeing or feeling anything and yet seeing and hearing people around him convulsing as if Mary had touched them and him wondering if they were the typical Catholic lunatics for whom everything’s a sign from god or if Mary just didn’t love him?), he does remember what followed the week after, when he returned to San Javier, for instance the intensity with which Leopoldo and Antonio disseminated her message, a message he doesn’t remember anymore (and yet that he doesn’t remember her message doesn’t diminish the memory of the intensity with which Leopoldo and Antonio disseminated her message), organizing daily rosary prayers during recess, promulgating to their classmates that joining the apostolic group was imperative not only to their salvation but to the salvation of the world, how are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice, teaching catechism in Mapasingue as if indoctrinating an army of children destined to overrun the land with her words, debating with Antonio the specifics of their duty to her and god and the future of their country, and then one day it was over, one day like any other day that intensity, which had expanded inside of them as if making room for everything god wanted from them, went away, leaving behind so much empty space that even in dreams they couldn’t escape what later father Lucio told them was called desolation, which is a test from god, father Lucio said, omitting that this test might never end, as in fact it hasn’t, a test they were too young to handle or perhaps no age is a good age to handle desolation, and yet it wasn’t true that he’d forgotten her: one day you’re building a pyramid of sand and pebbles inside a cave in Punta Barandua, one day you climb a mountain and see the sun move, one day you’re on a jampacked bus en route to meet a dear friend you have not seen in years who will not ask you if you remember what happened to them because of Cajas, although if they were both women they would be allowed to bring it up and cry inconsolably about the love they felt and the love they lost, and yet I haven’t forgotten her, Leopoldo would say to Antonio or to the domestic crowded next to him inside the bus, I just didn’t know what to do with her after I graduated from San Javier so I relegated her to the farthest possible space, where she’s probably still shining her Llama de Amor, which is what the Catholic lunatics came to call the intensity they’d felt, although this isn’t quite right, Leopoldo would say to Antonio or the domestic next to him (if that domestic looked in any way interested in listening to him), I didn’t relegate her anywhere, I didn’t participate in her banishment or at least I wasn’t aware of my participation, this is just how it happened and is still happening, and if I could talk to Antonio about it I’m sure Antonio would understand why it makes no difference to know what scientists have discovered about mass delusion, you feel what you feel and that is that, Antonio would say, thousands of people witnessing the sun moving and then descending from that mountain and then rejoicing at the intractable mud on their sneakers and then a year later prostrating themselves in complete desolation, but don’t exaggerate, Antonio would say, don’t make it sound like we suddenly found ourselves inside a dark place wailing and despairing, it wasn’t that bad, we didn’t really spend weeks prostrated in bed, or we did but not anymore, Antonio would say, we, having no alternative, went on, flattening what happened to us into the daily inflow of our lives, and yet what would be the point of asking Antonio about Cajas except to bring it all back so that once again they’ll be forced to suppress what is likely to surface to their chest and face and eyes? (I know you aren’t supposed to be able to look into the sun but that’s just how it happened, Leopoldo would say, of course I wouldn’t believe it either and would now be glad to concede it was mass delusion, but what good would that do me if I still have all these feelings I don’t know what to do with or do know what to do with, which is nothing?).
Mauro Javier Cardenas is a fiction writer. “(Irrelevant) Mass Delusion in Cajas” is an excerpt from The Revolutionaries Try Again, his novel-in-progress. Excerpts have also appeared in The Antioch Review, Guernica, and Witness Magazine. Interviews & essays on/with Javier Marias, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and Antonio Lobo Antunes have appeared or are forthcoming in the Believer, The San Francisco Chronicle, BOMBlog, and the Quarterly Conversation.
Jenna Ransom is a Brooklyn artist originally from Boston, MA and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She holds a BA from Roanoake College and received her MFA from Pratt Institute in 2005. You can see more of her work, including graphite drawings, here.