The assignment was to write a short-short fiction piece imitating Ron Hansen's Nebraska. This morphed into a very (very) rough sketch for the novel I've been wanting to write—a drastic reworking of my first attempt at a novel many years ago, based on the real-life theft that devastated Santa Fe. It's stalled because there are several versions I'm equally taken with. I don't yet know which might be most compelling.
Sometime during the night of Sunday, March 18, 1973, the willow-wood Madonna which was Santa Fe, New Mexico’s beloved patron saint was stolen from her altar in the locked cathedral, no clue but a set of footprints left behind.
The town was stunned, bereft. Grown men and women, said the front-page news reports, wept when they heard. It was a crime particularly terrible in that Catholic town, an act of sagrilege, a sign of the incalculable times. And far more personal, besides—a loss somehow much closer to the bone than any ordinary theft. As if appealing for the safe return of an abducted child, Santa Fe mayor Joseph E. Valdes vowed to "do anything in my power to be sure that La Conquistadora is found."
Lucy was only sixteen at the time, busy with boys and theatre and chess, and not especially interested in religion. She didn’t see that it had much of anything to do with her. But she sensed even then, in all her inward-focused innocence, that the theft of the little holy figurine was pivotal for Santa Fe—and for them all. That nothing from then on would ever be the same. And before the whole thing was over (entwined as it was with her weeks of playing Juliet in the school play, and feeling as she did woven-about with marriage, loss, and death), she had begun to understand that she'd been led up to that empty altar curious and hesitant as a young bride, and been transfixed there. She would, forever after and however many thousand miles away, keep coming back to the silenced cathedral, finding it her touchstone.
The theft of faith, she’d write one day. Having worn herself senseless writing about selling one's soul for knowledge, the black arts, treating Faust in Marlowe's play and Prospero in Shakespeare's for her dissertation in religious studies at Columbia, she'd found herself in the small hours, senses fumy from a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea, scribbling down a counter-argument to blessed ignorance—a story with a heroine almost as innocent as she herself had been, doomed by the damnation that comes of not knowing, no longer being sure of anything. (The keystone of her first collection of stories, that The New Yorker would call "elegiac and exquisite.") One way or another, that would always be her theme.
The cathedral, St. Francis de Assisi, was downtown in what seemed in that high desert country a vast, deeply shady park of elms and box elders, though if looked back at later while walking dogs in Central Park or waiting for your married lover every afternoon beside the aviary in the Borghese Gardens, planted with trees that could be found in ancient sacred woods, you'd realize wasn't much more than a smallish city block, really. Behind the park was St. Vincent’s Hospital, where Lucy had been born—and where, almost exactly twenty years after the theft, the night after she moved into a rustic in-law cottage on a sprawling property in the foothills above the Stanford campus, the famous writer who had lived just up the road would die, after a car crash there in Santa Fe during a trip to give a lecture.
Catty-corner from the cathedral on the east, the side closest to the Santa Fe River (dry most always, except in early May when carrying snow melt, and up above the reservoir on Upper Canyon Road, where on the campus of the prep school that had taken over a compound of low-roofed science labs you could find watercress growing in it as Lucy would discover during her three blissful school-years there from seventh to ninth grades), was La Fonda, the inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. You could stop on snowy days to warm yourself at the huge open fireplace in the lobby with the polished flagstones and the worn leather settees, breathing the fragrance of the piñon wood crackling with sap and then left smoldering all day; and check the newsstand for your favorite books by local writers Oliver La Farge or N. Scott Momaday, Tony Hillerman or Donald Hamilton (whose children went to Lucy’s school and, she discovered one morning, stricken with awe, kept homing pigeons in palacial cages in their patio with high adobe walls). Where, Ernie Pyle the journalist from World War II wrote, “You could go … any time of day and see a few artists in the bar … a goateed gentleman from Austria or a maharajah from India or a New York broker … You never met anyone anywhere except at La Fonda.” Where you could write bad, heartsick poems in a spiral notebook while consoling yourself with crèpes of sweet apricot jam or cinnamon-dusted café au lait in the French Pastry Shop around the side, across from Packard’s Trading Post, with its green-hearted copper kettles and cozily steamed windows, pretending that you were (as you would some years after that day be, remembering) in Paris, writing your bad poems in French instead.
On the opposite corner, across Cathedral Place, was the old post-office, which would in the early 1990s become a museum of contemporary American Indian arts, where the young Hopi, Cliff Nequatewa, would (Lucy would decide in a story) hang his first juried painting, of a ceremonial mask, the colors of the sacred Landers Blue turquoise his father set in heavy silver pendants, and of the earth in the canyon behind the dance plaza at home.
Across Palace Avenue was Sena Plaza, named for the Palace of the Governors and for the Sena family, respectively—the museum that had the old carriages and the letterpress, and the stern goateed forefathers and black-lace-mantillaed grandmothers of José Sena, who Lucy’s father worked for at the Abstract and Title company. Uncle Joe, who had a cat named Saturday, who ate a fried egg on his enchilada, who gave her the garnet-red enameled jewelry box with the tutued ballerina twirling on one toe among velvet and mirrors, and dozens of Portuguese stamps with old sailing ships and Arabian stallions in cool dusty colors for her stamp collection; and who, among the musty ledgers of Spanish land grant records, taught her to use chopsticks—though the only place in town you could use them, in those days, was at the New Canton Café, whose waitress was Mabel, come from St. Louis and widowed young; whose egg foo young with crispy bean sprouts Lucy loved, if not as well if she was truthful as the glossy cherry pie.
Sena Plaza had been the family’s hacienda, dating back to 1692—seventy years after the arrival of La Conquistadora. The compound was made up of a series of uneven brick-paved patios and rickety dark wooden staircases climbing up out of the twining summertime embrace of honeysuckle to long narrow wooden balconies, worthy of Spanish Juliets, where there were appraisers and a dentist, a used-book shop, a soap merchant, the shop that wove the striped ponchos that Lucy and the other volunteer ushers would wear at the Santa Fe Opera that coming summer, her last summer before going away. And in the middle was The Shed, everyone’s favorite restaurant. The Shed had opened first in Burro Alley—where the donkeys of the firewood vendors used to be tethered—the year before Lucy’s parents moved to Santa Fe. In 1973 (and still now, more than thirty years later), you could buy your firewood from Jesus, as her father loved to say. At the wood yard of Jesus Rios, up where Camino del Monte Sol comes into Canyon Road, around the corner from the low-roofed studio where Lucy took ballet with Jacques Cartier, who did the fire dance each year for thirty years at the burning of Zozobra—he was the figure in red moving inexorably up the steps at Fort Marcy to set fire, at last, after an agonizing long approach, to the enormous groaning paper effigy, lighting the fuse that would eventually set off a fit of fireworks from its massive frowning thrashing head.
Old Man Gloom burned, and as the legend had it, with him all the town’s cares burnt too, for another year. But maybe not that year, and maybe never since, for some. The repercussions of the theft were maybe more than even Old Man Gloom could take away.
At night, especially in the winter months, downtown Santa Fe is pretty well deserted. Despite the many businesses around, no one saw anything at all that might lead the police to the thief or thieves of La Conquistadora. The cathedral sacristan, Della Garcia, had at 9:15 carefully locked the heavy outer doors with their sixteen carved panels (the arthritis in her hands, worsened by the icy March wind, making it an act of love, you have to imagine), and they had remained locked until just before 6:00 a.m. the following morning, when they were opened again for mass. When Father Miguel Baca, in whose care the souls of tens of thousands were, surely sank groaning to his knees on the cold stones before the uncommunicative altar, sending a prayer of desperation heavenward. Wondering how he could tell them, his trusting flock. Her confraternity. The women who dressed her. Those who knew well and others who would learn, in the papers, about the one hundred and thirty dresses in the Madonna’s wardrobe, and the valuable jewels that adorned her. The accounts that would in retrospect amaze Lucy. “One dress, made by Cochití Pueblo artist Dorothy Trujillo, is of Native American design and includes small silver bracelets and a miniature squash blossom necklace.” Her accessories, including "Castilian mantillas, lavish damask and gold lamé gowns and mantles, and even tiny Parisian lace handkerchiefs and ruby earrings."
Speculations flew. Leads were pursued. The police wondered if the crime were related to thefts over the past two years of other religious objects from churches and Penitente moradas around the state. On July 5 the year before, a valuable statue of San Miguel had been stolen from Santa Fe’s San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States, along with other statues and paintings. A handwritten note received by the Archdiocese office the week after the empty altar was discovered suggested that La Conquistadora had gone off in search of the lost San Miguel, because he’d been gone so long and clearly needed help finding his way back home.
Lucy went on blithely untouched—or so she imagined. That Sunday she was written up in The New Mexican herself. An oddity, a girl who played chess (to the death, she’d say), and most often won. She travelled with the others on the chess team to Santa Fe High, Las Vegas, Los Alamos. Took boys unaware, beating them easily. (A kind of mating game, she’d write ironically one day, when she'd learned irony.) She checked the mail for answers to her applications to far colleges—Wellesley, the University of Victoria, UC Santa Barbara; it didn’t matter where, really, just someplace far away. She felt the end coming. Despaired, feeling nostalgic for her past before it was even over. Could see herself an old, old lady, looking back, her executor (in lieu of children or grandchildren) finding a bit of brittle chamisa—what was called rabbitbrush—among her effects. A few Portuguese stamps. Her wistful poems which had that spring begun winning student awards, though she would give up poetry and chess both after her first year away from Santa Fe.
She would have sworn later that the search for the missing statue went on for the better part of a year. She would be surprised to learn it had been just a month. The time it took for the grape hyacinths to bloom. For tumbleweeds to collect on chain link fences around town, in the fitful early spring winds. For the crowded kitchen at The Shed to go through seven thousand gallons of red chili sauce. For her heart to be broken in three places, just when she'd learned she had one. For the boy she'd trusted with it to prove faithless, to leave what was between them, turn away and go places she couldn’t imagine let alone follow, talking as he sometimes did of slipping into strangers' houses, standing scarcely breathing in a track of moonlight on the threshhold of a sleeper's bedroom like a strange new skin; and (worse, maybe, confiding this as well), falling under the strong spell of a Swedish exchange student who would stay on after graduation and sing in the opera chorus, all but dropping out of school the last couple of weeks to take her to (and in) the ghost town south of town with the name of a Spanish city where there once were silver mines and now just lonesome godforsaken houses they could choose among and claim with his summer camp sleeping bag for an hour or two, a day.
On Saturday, April 7, things started moving, fast. Father Baca received a ransom note enclosing as proof of possession a cross from La Conquistadora's crown. The note stated in poor Italian that the Madonna would be returned unharmed in exchange for $150,000 and a promise from the Governor that those involved would not face criminal prosecution. If church leaders agreed to these terms, Father Baca was instructed to ring the cathedral's bells exactly 10 times at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11. If the bells were rung at the designated time, the kidnappers would deliver additional instructions by phone the following day.
And then on Saturday, the 14th, giant headlines. La Conquistadora had been found!
Montoya, Baca, Santa Fe police chief Felix Lujan and police captain
Alfred Lucero accompanied the 17-year-old to La Conquistadora's
location in the cold early morning hours of Saturday, April 14.
The minor, whose name was withheld because of his age, led police
to the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, east of Los Lunas. The small
group hiked about three miles, and, after crossing a stream, approached
a remote, abandoned mine.
Using only two flashlights, the men followed the youth about 200
yards into the mine. There the police finally found La Conquistadora,
safely wrapped in foam padding and secured in a large plastic bag.
Other stolen works of art were also discovered, including valuable
missing artifacts from the San Miguel mission church.
Word got around town like summer lightning, despite the disclaimer. The minor was the son of the Lieutenant Governor. The other boy involved had been in Lucy’s class the year before. A newcomer from out of town or state, a loner, someone who kept to himself, she’d thought—though later she wasn't sure about that, either.
She never did find out if the other stories she heard were true. If there was someone else involved. Someone she’d loved first for a mortal hour over a chessboard. Whose hand lingered on hers one spring day in the sun-silvered library in the school on Upper Canyon Road when they hadn’t yet left it, trying with a mute protest to stop her taking his queen. Quicksilver on her palm, again that final spring as the mercurial Mercutio (thinking only of him while Romeo breathed to her lips at their meeting "palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss," and choosing him instead, Romeo's moody friend, rewriting Shakespeare absolutely, if she'd just been given the chance). Who one day after algebra put the stem of lilac she’d used as a bookmark behind his ear, a flame of hope and possibility against his tawny hair; and then for thirteen magic days came home with her to study, write equations on the insides of her wrists.
“Tell her to call me when she comes to town again,” he'd told a friend of hers a year or two later, when he was back in town after Sweden, said to be studying medieval French and ancient Greek at St. John’s College, where an old friend of Lucy's family lived as housemaster and filled a hummingbird feeder of ruby glass and played mah jong, and once had taken her to see a film of Japanese ghost stories that haunted her strangely still.
But gone too far beyond those days in Santa Fe, beyond recall, to New York City and a brownstone on Columbus Avenue and then to St. Andrews and Rome and Paris for a month or two and back again, looking for nothing she could name, she thought about it sometimes with an ache of loss for what might have kept her home, but never got around to calling. Like the chance that he'd been there in the dark that night in the cathedral, the chance that something might have sparked between them turned to ash quietly in her roommate's hand-thrown ashtray with the phone number he'd pencilled on the inside back page of a Greek New Testament.
She didn’t want to know for sure, one way or the other. She’d learned too much and lost too much already by it. There was a world best left in the dim realm of possibility, breathy and fine as the cathedrals of green dappled light along East Alameda in the long-stilled time of love and lilacs, the high vaulted cottonwoods planted by the French archbishop along the on-again, off-again river, running with snowmelt.