Men will tell you that the Republic had no faith in God; but then, why were the churches in the Capital full that day?
Some may have been there to display their gratitude (to their fellow atheists perhaps), or to ask forgiveness (from a God who they apparently did not think existed).
Ernesto Malego was there out of habit.
He didn’t half listen to the sermon, thinking instead about the price of beef in Spain and Portugal, and whether to stay in the cattle business or chose another form of commerce.
Would there be peace between his Republic and Napoleon? What would happen with Spain? Would the Yankees enter the war in Europe? And on which side? Would the blockade increase British demand for Venezuelan products? And Egypt, and Russia, and other far away lands, what did they want to buy, and at what prices were they going to sell?
What if the whole world became Republics? What would happen to the price of cattle?
Just then, as the priest began to bless something in Latin, the Earth began to shake. At first, Ernesto assumed it was the shot of a cannon, though whether it be Royalist or Republican he could not tell.
The people in the church heard it too, and felt it. Some ran for the doors, but many ducked behind the pews. Within instants, the Church collapsed on them all, the priests, Ernesto, and 40,000 others in churches throughout Caracas.
The crash did not kill Ernesto, no, nor did the trembling which came soon afterwards. He could still see though the rubble. For a moment, all was silent. Everything that could fall had hit the ground.
Then, though no human voice could reach him, Ernesto heard dogs wail, not howl but give out a terrible cry. Had he not owned a dog himself, Ernesto would not have known which animal was wailing. It was a wild mournful cry that he had never heard from that species of beast or any other.
Among the canine voices an important one was missing. Ernesto’s dog.
Where was Pedro?
Ernesto thought of his faithful friend Pedro, wondering if that Pedro were alive. He wanted to shout Pedro’s name, but he was stopped; by what, he knew not.
Ernesto could see a child, a young boy, who was closely followed by its little sister. They cried for their mama and papa.
For the first time since he himself was a child, Ernesto said a silent prayer. Ernesto hoped the children would find their parents, alive, that they would not be left alone.
Ernesto could not turn his head to follow the children with his eyes as they continued on their quest, but his ears heard their voices grow gradually dimmer. They were drowned out by other distant voices, children’s, parents’, dogs’, none of which he recognized.
Shouting for Pedro would be futile. Ernesto would then just add to the confusion.
But as the voices died down, as the mournful wails were replaced by quiet tears and exhausted whimpers, and as the searchers retreated further away, Ernesto could not help himself.
The quiet, the second silence, became too much.
Ernesto too began to mourn, to scream, for his faithful dog Pedro.
With that, he herd digging, or more like rummaging. No, it wasn’t Pedro, this was the sound of a man!
Ernesto now grew anxious to see the face of his would-be rescuer. “Soy Aqui!” he shouted, “I’m here!”
In the shadow of the rubble, Ernesto could see an arm. The arm reached out toward Ernesto’s face.
Ernesto could not see the shadow’s face yet, but he was happy. “Praise you!” he said, speaking more like a beggar than the merchant he was.
Standing in front of the sun, the heroic figure looked like an Angel. Not the Angels in the paintings, but some kind of heavenly being enveloped with light, like Ernesto had dreamed about as a child.
Suddenly, Ernesto felt a pinch in his ear. Then, the “angel” grabbed around Ernesto’s neck to steal his chain.
This angel was no hero, he was a thief!
Ernesto could see the human face on the “angel” as that man ran off, as that “angel” left looking for other dying victims to rob.
But it was futile to shout after him.
Some royalists were watching anyway, shaking their heads in disbelief at the thief’s base action, but doing nothing to stop it. They stood there, gossiping about the lowliness of the thief, and all his kind, then departed to leave Ernesto buried alive in the rubble.
As the days went by, Ernesto lost his voice. He could no longer scream. He smelt the burning bodies of other buried victims. Ernesto’s mind forgot to ask why they were burning, he was too tired to be troubled with such questions.
He saw a superstitious woman, one who had never been to church, one who had never lifted a finger to help anyone, shout the praises of the “destruction of the wicked.” She was following a procession, a procession led by a priest, a priest who Ernesto knew to be a womaniser.
The Priest shouted condemnations against the Republic, claiming that the earthquake was God’s judgement against the Godless. Did the priest not know history or science? Did he not know that there had been earthquakes in this land before, and there would be others yet again? Ernesto got used to speaking silent prayers now, almost as if he knew his mind were being read. So used was he, that he said an angry prayer against the preacher.
Then, though his first two prayers had gone unanswered, Ernesto’s third prayer, the least important one, was. He knew not where the children were, nor where his faithful dog Pedro was, but the old beast of a “priest” was directly in Ernesto’s line of sight. And a dog, not Pedro, but an ugly stray dog, bit that old hypocrite of a “priest” right in the womanising loins. It was a hard bite too. Maybe now at least the old hypocrite would be forced to keep one commandment, if but for his inability to break it.
However, the crowds did not rejoice like Ernesto did. They chased the poor dog away. They followed a procession, rich men with their prostitutes, arm in arm on their way to be wed. People “penitent”, the scum of Venezuela acting “penitent.”
The man who stole Ernesto’s jewellery, and the onlookers who watched, following other processions and proclaiming the destruction of the wicked! How vile a thing to see before one died. How unjust fate had become.
Ernesto asked, in his heart, how God could allow such villains to rejoice, as good people, as innocent children, suffered. Ernesto knew that he had sometimes been less than perfect, but he listened to his conscience. How ironic that by going to church, by doing what he was told God asked, and dying there, he should be the subject of the preists’s condemnation!
Ernesto asked God if there was justice in this life, or if at least there was mercy for the innocent.
And then, Ernesto could no longer hear his own breath. The pain, the pain of the collapsed building was forgotten. Ernesto saw his dog, his faithful dog, Pedro, run across the rubble in the distance. He saw Pedro dash forward to comfort that same little boy and his little sister. The little girl gave Pedro a great big hug.
Ernesto knew that her brave older brother would look after her now, and she would watch over them both. It was enough for Ernesto to forget his own suffering.
And as Ernesto died, instead of memories, regrets, or bitter protests, instead of remorse of things not finished or denial of things done wrong, Ernesto left this life, in the comfort of seeing that Pedro could be happy, and could make those children happy too.