The Purple Robe

The Purple Robe

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Publisher: Tumblar House
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Format: Paperback
Pages: 328

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Rumors rising out of the Yucatan jungle report healings and miracles attributed to a holy relic. Father Pablo Diego Corellas discovers that even his own parishioners are making secret pilgrimages to the decrepit plantation where it is held. There, Doña Josefa, a mysterious woman who is either mystic or mad, possesses an artifact that she claims is a fragment of the robe worn by Christ at his trial. Guarded by armed Mayan farmers, she holds sway over an ever-growing number of pilgrims desperate for the healing power of the Purple Robe. Much against his own wishes, young Father Pablo is dispatched to the interior to investigate, while a police captain and a vacationing American couple make plans of their own for the robe. But when the relic is stolen, they soon discover that miracles have unforeseen consequences, and that no one is beyond their reach.

Read the First Chapter Now

Sexuality: Moderate

Two married people have an affair. The man thinks to himself about how American women give themselves so vigorously. There is some physical description of the woman.

Violence & Gore: Moderate

There are some scenes with mobs and guns. Some people are seriously injured and others die.

Profanity: None Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking: Mild Some characters drink on certain scenes.
NOTE: This guide may be incomplete.

1.) What inspired you to write this book?

The idea for “The Purple Robe” came to me over a decade ago. I was working with another writer at the time (he was coaching me in my writing skills) and we had met in a coffee shop. During the discussion he asked me if I had any ideas for a novel—most of my work had been in short fiction up to this point. After mulling his question over for a moment, I outlined the plot to “The Purple Robe” almost exactly as it came to be written. I hadn’t known it was there until he asked. He looked at me and said something to the effect of, “That’s a great idea—I’d love to read that book! How long have you been thinking it over?” I shook my head, and replied, “I’m not really sure—my brother and I spent some time in the Yucatan recently and I guess it inspired me.” That certainly explained the setting of the book, but I wasn’t at all sure where the characters and plot came from; I had given the idea no conscious thought that I remembered. After our meeting, I jotted the outline down on a legal pad and didn’t touch it for several years. It was only during the actual writing of it that it occurred to me that I might not be working entirely on my own. I like to believe that the Holy Spirit had a hand in the creation of the story, and I hope that that is true.

2.) How much of the book is realistic?

As I mentioned, my older brother, Danny and I, took a trip to the Yucatan some years ago. We spent time in Merida and the coastal town of Progreso. Much of the story of “The Purple Robe” occurs in Progreso, though I’ve taken liberties with some of the geography. However, I trust that anyone who’s been there, or who is lucky enough to live there, will recognize many of the locations. Beyond the locale, I’m afraid nearly everything else (characters, events, etc…) is the product of my imagination, though I will happily admit that the kind residents of that town certainly provided a spark for all that followed.

3.) Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

See above answers.

4.) What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological) in bringing your book to life?

Research was made easier by the time I spent in the Yucatan. My local library, and the internet, proved useful for tidbits concerning the region, and insight into the broader spectrum of Mexican history which informs some of the action. It was the literary, and psychological, challenge that was most daunting in the beginning—how to write a novel featuring a different culture and peoples without being either condescending on the one hand, or fawning on the other. Several times I considered placing the story somewhere in the U.S. But each time I discarded the idea. Mexico is still a predominantly Catholic Christian nation, and one in which faith plays a large, and active, part in the daily lives of its people. If I had placed the story in the U.S. the plot would have been forced by that to include a lot of distracting elements that I didn’t want to dominate the story. The characters of James and Brenda Arbor (vacationing Americans) provide the worldliness and cynicism that I needed for the “The Purple Robe”, but not so much as to overwhelm it, which would’ve been difficult to accomplish, sadly, had I set it in the States where talk of miracles is generally greeted with derision. No, it had to be Mexico, the nation where Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego at Guadalupe. I needed a locale where the possibility of such things would not be instantly decried as medieval nonsense, but be considered with anticipation and joy; which is not to say that I think of Mexicans as simple and unquestioning zealots, but rather that their great faith allows them to keep a truly open mind when it comes to matters of science and God. I think that is equally true of most Catholic believers, though here in the U.S. we lack the comfort of numbers in which to express it. It was this shared Catholic faith that provided me the answer to my concerns about characterization: instead of allowing the differences of history and culture to separate me from the people I was writing about, I had our mutual faith and shared Catholic history to inform me. Once I realized this, I believed that I could do them justice and never looked back. I hope that this is true, and pray that no one will be ill-served by my words.

5.) What books/authors have influenced your writing?

Answer: Where, oh where, shall I begin? My favorite authors run the gamut, I think. I have been influenced by the works of Joseph Conrad, H.H. Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Allan Poe, Joyce Carol Oates, Evelyn Waugh, and Ambrose Bierce, to name just a few.

6.) What do you think makes a good story?

Answer: Anything that touches on the human condition in a compassionate way has merit in my mind. Of course the writing needs to be good and the characters believable. This doesn’t mean it has to be a soft piece, far from it, but those works that stand the test of time contain that spark of humanity within them. Some of the cruelest stories I’ve ever read (many of O’Connor’s works would fit this category) illumine man’s struggle to rise above his own selfish, violent behavior, in search of the divine within, or outside of, himself. Others accomplish the same goal relying more on a gentle humor, and tolerance, of man’s frailties and self-absorption. “The Purple Robe” contains elements of both, I hope. The reader will be the judge of that.

CHAPTER ONE

Father Pablo Diego Corellas glanced nervously over the chalice at the scant gathering of morning worshippers, his consecration of the wine that would become the living Blood of Christ, halting in mid-sentence.  Several ancient faces grimaced in concern.

Since Monsignor Roberto De Jesus had suffered his heart attack and been swept away to Mérida, they had come to expect these precarious moments.  In fact, they were the topic of numerous conversations throughout the town, both humorous and vitriolic, depending on the age and piousness of the gossips.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Father Pablo focused hard on the golden chalice he held aloft.  As the sense of vertigo faded, the monkey-chatter in his head was soon replaced by the familiar words of the liturgy and he cautiously resumed.

“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation,” he piped, hoping that this was where he had left off.  “Through your goodness we have this wine to offer.”

Suspecting that wine played a large part in Father Pablo’s tribulations at the altar, it was said by some that he was allowed to run a tab at the cafés along the Malecòn.

“Fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”

A murmured response of “Blessed be God forever” rustled across the church like a dying breath.

Father Pablo, refraining from sighing aloud, thought, There, I’ve done it.  I’m back on track.  Lifting the goblet on high into a stray beam of sunlight, he then carefully set it back on the altar, stepped back, and bowed. 

When he straightened, he found himself staring into the basilisk gaze of Doña Marisa Elena Sáenz, whom he had privately christened “La Viuda Negra”, the Black Widow, in deference to her severe and unapproachable widowhood.  With her crippling dowager’s hump, she sat like a black question mark in the front pew and appeared to study him with a dry, inquisitorial air.  He would not have been surprised to see her rise in a whisper of dark fabric, level her knobby walking stick at him, and cry, “Heretic!”

It was she that had thrown him off earlier with the raptor-like fixity of her grey eyes.  Father Pablo found himself unnerved by those eyes, though he knew himself at least well enough to know that many, many things unmanned him, and with even less reason.  She joined a host of fellow priests, parishioners, bishops, functionaries (both civil and clerical), his parents and siblings, women in general, and sometimes even his altar servers, who intimidated him.

Even so, he blamed no one, as he agreed with the image of himself that he saw in others’ eyes: He was young, soft and pale, with a pebbled adolescent complexion, unimposing, nervous, barely competent in his duties, and lacking in the spiritual courage he had so admired in the martyrs of his seminary studies.  In a word, unfit.

The idea of becoming a priest had not been his, but rather an inspiration of his mother’s, or as she would have it, a revelation, the Blessed Virgin appearing to her in a dream as the unborn Pablo rested in her womb.  In the holy Mother’s arms she carried a babe, but not the infant Christ as might be expected in such visitations, for there was no halo to proclaim his divinity.  No, his mother had insisted, this was a mortal child, red-faced and squalling.  

Appearing a little out of patience, the Queen of the Universe had thrust the burden into her arms, saying, “Return him to me when he is ready.”  At these words she was awakened by the breaking of her water. 

Later that day, as his exhausted mother had taken him for the first time to her breast and looked into his face, she proclaimed that this was the child of her vision, the selfsame infant delivered into her arms by the Mother of Christ.  Thus a dream had decided Father Pablo’s fate before he had even had a chance to escape the womb, and being the final child of five boys even his father had been content to give him up.

In any event, he had grown from a fussy baby into a flaccid youth, and the idea of fighting his mother’s energetic obsession required more spirit than he could muster.  Allowing himself to be carried along by events, he now found himself washed up on the somewhat hostile shores of Progreso.

At this moment, however, Father Pablo congratulated himself; he had progressed to the reception of Communion without further mishap.  Holding aloft the Host, he proclaimed as confidently as he could in his high, thin voice, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are those who are called to His supper.”

The few worshipers responded almost jubilantly, for they were as relieved as he that their uncertain pastor had finally stumbled to the climax of the Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Placing the Host in his mouth, Father Pablo prayed that he would not choke and begin to cough as had happened two weeks before during a packed Sunday Mass.  On that occasion, an altar boy had slapped him on the back several times before he was able to proceed.  Red-faced and watery eyed, he had served Communion to a line of parishioners who could no longer look him in the eyes.  Several had broad smiles on their downcast faces, and shoulders that shook with barely suppressed mirth.

Several days later, the same altar boy who had come to his rescue rather meanly informed him that he had been awarded a nickname by some of his parishioners—“Padre Tomate”—Father Tomato, in commemoration of his flaming red face during the unfortunate Mass.

Feeling a familiar dryness in his throat at the memory, he reached hastily for the chalice and set it to spinning with his fingertips.  With a second lunge, he rescued the cup before a drop was spilled and then, ever so carefully, brought it up to his lips in both hands.  He could feel the tremor in them transfer itself to the goblet and so carefully set it down after his drink.  No harm had been done.  Perhaps no one had even noticed, he thought. 

Refraining from looking out at La Viuda for confirmation, he busied himself with the Hosts that he must now bring down from the altar to his few communicants.  It being a weekday Mass he had no altar servers or Eucharistic ministers to assist him.

The first in line was, of course, La Viuda.  Standing impatiently at the foot of the altar she watched him disapprovingly, and he hurried to her, hoping to avoid looking into those cold, wintry eyes, yet finding it irresistible to do so. 

It had been the same when he had been a child on his father’s ranch in Chiapas and discovered a hornet’s nest beneath the eaves of the stables—terrified of their painful stings, he would return again and again to stare in dread fascination at their comings and goings, listening to the angry hum that emanated from the grey, papery ball they dwelt in—the same grey as La Viuda’s eyes and beehive hairdo, he thought irreverently. 

The beginnings of a smile lifted the corners of his mouth, but La Viuda’s eyes had their usual effect of dispelling all levity within their bleak scope.  He froze with the Host in his hand before her.

She waited for the words that had flown from his head as the line of old women behind her shuffled impatiently.  At last, she glanced down meaningfully at the Host in his pudgy fingers and Father Pablo, recovering himself, whispered dry-mouthed, “The Body of Christ.”

Answering, “Amen,” in such a way as to convey her disapproval, she then stuck out her tongue.  He carefully placed the Host there, quickly withdrawing his fingers as if from a trap.  With bowed head, she moved on as the next person came forward.  The older parishioners insisted on being administered Communion in this manner.  Father Pablo, decades younger than most of his flock, found the ritual distasteful as well as archaic, and though he strove not to show it, his inability to control his facial expressions betrayed him with grimaces and pursed lips.

After the blessing and dismissal, and as he was gathering the implements of the altar, a cough interrupted him, and he looked out into the church to find La Viuda awaiting him.  “Oh,” he cried out like a small boy caught at mischief.  “La Viu…” he halted just in time and then continued rapidly, “Doña Marisa!  I hadn’t heard you there.  Have you been waiting long?”  Once again, he hurried to join her.

Awaiting his attendance with the same impatience she had shown during Communion, she didn’t bother to answer.  When he arrived she sat down in the front pew, as it was more comfortable for her to sit than stand, though she was forced to lean forward by the hump on her back.  Father Pablo was not invited to join her.  Turning her rather long face awkwardly up to his, she spoke, “Señora Alcante is wondering about her boy’s whereabouts, and whether you’ve seen him of late.  He uses heroin,” she added dryly.

Staring down at the small, black lace kerchief that rested on the improbably large hairdo of La Viuda, Father Pablo tried to appear pensive, though in fact he had no idea of whom she was speaking.  “God forgive him.  Let’s see…Alcante.  Wasn’t he one of Monsignor Roberto’s altar boys before…?”

She cut him off with a look, “He’s the cripple that always sits in the back and never comes up for Communion, though I don’t wonder at that.  As soon as Communion starts, he hobbles out the front and lies in wait for everybody so that he can beg some change; must do pretty well too, to support a drug habit.  His Christian name is Juan…got his legs crushed in a car accident several years ago, so I’m told.”

Suddenly he did remember—a young man about his own age, thin and dirty, smelling of dried urine and sour wine.  He had given him money on several different occasions out in the plaza.  Though the young man had been on crutches, his movements had been quick and facile, placing himself directly in Father Pablo’s path.  Each time, he had demanded money in a lazy, surly manner, while offering no deference whatsoever to the priest’s collar, nor had he attempted to elicit any sympathy for his plight. 

Father Pablo had found his long, brown rat’s teeth and slitted black eyes intimidating and frightful, and he took every pain to avoid him.  He recalled, with some guilt, his great relief that the crippled Juan Alcante never brought himself forward to participate in the Eucharist with his dangerous rodent teeth.  

“How long has he been missing?” he inquired.

“Several weeks, she tells me.  Haven’t you noticed his absence yourself?” she asked with a sniff.  “Even the incense can’t hide his odor when he’s here.”

“Ah…ah,” he stammered, feeling the familiar heat rising to his face.  “I thought so…at least two weeks,” he lied unconvincingly.  Once again La Viuda had exposed his faults as a priest.  “I will keep an eye out for him and inform Señora Alcante the moment I have any news.  The poor woman must be worried sick.”

Arching an eyebrow at him, La Viuda struggled to her feet, “That won’t be so easy, as she stopped coming to Mass several weeks ago.  I only see her at the market from time to time now.  It seems she’s had a crisis of faith and fallen in with those Assembly of God people in the east end of town.”  Swinging her cane suddenly to illustrate the direction, Father Pablo stumbled out of harm’s way.  “Do you know them?” 

Naturally, he was vaguely aware of the competition, but had given them little thought, and nodded. 

“You may find a few of your flock have strayed there—it seems the last few weeks have tested many in their faith,” she added pointedly. 

Father Pablo understood her to mean the untimely departure of Monsignor Roberto De Jesus, and his own inability to fill the beloved pastor’s shoes.  It wounded his heart to think that his shortcomings as a priest were as obvious as he had feared, but worse, that those failings were weakening the very fabric of the church with which he had been entrusted.  So wrapped up in his own struggles to master the administration of the Sacraments, their reality had been lost to him, and it was this, he could see now, that he communicated to the faithful like a venereal disease.  How could the wine and bread be transformed into the actual Body and Blood of Christ in the hands of someone like himself? 

Turning from Doña Marisa, he was confronted by the now-barren altar and, as if further reproach were needed, the unfinished Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe that lay to the north of it.  Monsignor De Jesus’ beloved project remained neglected and untouched since his departure, as the monies for the craftsmen had become depleted weeks before and Father Pablo had been unable to organize a drive for funds or convince the workers to return without them.  From her shadowed alcove of stacked bricks and colorful, dust-covered tiles, the Mystical Rose of Tepeyac peeked out at Father Pablo with an expression of firm and luminous hope—she too, appeared to expect much.  

“Well, if that’s all then.  I’ve got duties to attend to,” he said quietly.

“There is something else, perhaps,” La Viuda spoke gently, sensing that she had gone too far, yet never one to be put off by emotion.  “Have you heard anything from the Archdiocese about what’s happening in the countryside?”

Father Pablo was well aware that there had recently been an exchange of gunfire between the State Police and some insurrectos not far from town.  It appeared the police had stumbled onto a checkpoint set up by the rebels, or bandits (depending on who you talked to), and a brief and inaccurate exchange of gunfire had ensued, yet why the archbishop in Mérida would be concerned, Father Pablo was at a loss to understand.

“No,” he replied rather hoarsely, regaining his composure and turning to her with wet eyes.  “The Church does not normally concern itself with police matters, Doña Marisa.”

“Who said anything about the police?” she responded.  “I’m talking about the rumors coming out of the country.  Shouldn’t they be investigated?”

“What rumors?” he asked petulantly, suddenly tired and wishing to be rid of the old woman.

She affected not to notice his tone, but remained squarely planted in front of him.  “Country people are coming into the market on Saturdays with nothing else on their lips.  They’re saying miracles are being performed on some old sisal plantation, that the sick are being healed, the blind made to see.  Can you believe it…in this day and age?”  

Doña Marisa had grown more animated on this subject than Father Pablo had ever seen her.

“And don’t think those Assembly people aren’t making the most of it, no sir,” she continued.  “Those holy rollers are preaching that it’s Papist superstition and worse—demon worship, and have forbidden their people to attend.”  She halted abruptly, appearing to await a similar pronouncement from Father Pablo.

The priest could think of nothing to say—the idea of his parishioners wishing to attend some sorcerer’s chicken beheadings struck him as comically ignorant—undoubtedly Doña Marisa was overreaching herself on this one. 

Smiling, he said, “Now Doña Marisa, surely to even bring this up is to give it a dignity it doesn’t deserve.  I’m confident that none of our parishioners would give any thought whatsoever to tramping out to some God-forsaken farm for occult rituals.  It’s just some kind of superstitious fad.  In another few weeks it will be forgotten.”

She peered at him for a long moment before saying, “You are so young in the world—how, in God’s name, did you ever become a priest?”

The flatness of her statement was like a slap, and the smugness of his smile flew off like spittle.  He felt like a chastened child standing before this woman who, in this moment, appeared much younger than he had previously thought.  She could not be more than sixty, he now realized, though her widow’s black, and the deformed spine, gave the impression of long years.  In fact, she was rather handsome.  “Doña Marisa I didn’t mean to give the impression I…”

Turning away, she shuttled down the long central aisle to the entrance doors with surprising rapidity, calling out over the great protuberance that rode her back, “Look to your flock, Little Father.  Have you not noticed the empty pews of late?” 

With that said she dipped her fingers in the font of holy water, crossed herself, and was burned away like a conscience-stricken dream by the brilliant sunlight that shot through the opening door.

David Dean's Biography:
David Dean

David's short stories have appeared regularly in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE, as well as a number of anthologies, since 1990. His stories have been nominated for the Shamus, Barry, and Derringer Awards and "Ibrahim's Eyes" won the EQMM Readers Award for 2007. His story, "Tomorrow's Dead", was a finalist for the Edgar for best short story of 2011. He is a retired Chief of Police in New Jersey and once served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.