The Parade

by Fred Miller

In the cosmic scheme of things, this day holds no omen of remarkable change within the structure of the universe as far as we know, but in the life of one small boy who lives in the tiny village of Puerto deep within the deserts of old Mexico, today will be different.

Roberto has yet to be aware of any shift in the simple routines of life here. The morning sun soon nips at his soft cheeks, washing away a dream of free tortillas and fruit so plentiful it falls from trees into one’s lap.

Sensing the brightness of the new day, he pulls a tattered serape over his head and rolls into the shadows of a wall in the marketplace square. Hours ago he established residence here beneath a warm blanket of stars along with a mangy dog who has long since begun his eager search for daily sustenance.

Summer heat now begins to grip the desert floor here where life has survived for more years than anyone can remember. And Roberto stretches and yawns and licks his dry lips, eyeing each path that curls into the deserted square, and wonders where to start.

The widow who lives in a shack near the well on the north end of the village gave me a pepper last evening. Perhaps she will be good for something today. No, he decides, she has little else and will ignore me now. Ah, José, who tends the livery. Did he not allow me to slip into a stall last week and pretend not to notice me? And did he not see me steal an apple? But today is Saturday and last night José was paid his wages. He will have spent it all on drink and Lola, the village whore, and will now be asleep in her arms. This is for sure, he nods with confidence.

This is market day in the village and farmers will soon come from the south through the arch with goods to be bartered or sold in the square. And if I am there when they arrive, perhaps one will show mercy and give me a tortilla in exchange for a wish for luck in their dealings this day. Yes, that is it. I will offer them luck in the marketplace in return for a breakfast treat. This will surely work.

Roberto shambles down a dusty lane, his eyes now wide with anticipation. Little does he know that Providence will soon gaze down from the heavens and bless him with untold importance. Something of grand and momentous design will soon befall young Roberto, the child of no one we know, as no one in Puerto has ever laid claim to him.

At the arch with a sombrero held close to his chest and his large eyes blinking, he dons a smile, a very sincere smile, for each passerby. Roberto stands tall, all four feet of him, nodding and grinning at the droopy-eyed farmers who lumber by, carrying loads on their backs or pulling carts with treasures for the people of the village to consider. The boy greets each with words of a masterful salesman. “A small tortilla for luck in the market today?” Or “one tortilla for a prayer for good sales in the marketplace, Señor?”

Most, tired from their journey or preoccupied with other worldly matters, ignore this small shadow of village life. One or two offer curt nods, nothing more. Aiee, he says to himself, will no one will be generous today? This cannot be. Later, when the morning shadows have all but expired, one train of burros remains on the south trail toward Puerto just minutes from where the small boy anxiously waits.

Three, four, no…six burros roped together with generous loads across their backs. What can this be? No farmers in the valley have ever arrived with so many goods for the Saturday market. So much to be sold! This farmer must have luck and a prayer for success in his dealings this day. He must!

A broad-shouldered man with his face hidden by a wide sombrero kicks up dust with his boots as he pauses by Roberto. And he jerks on the rope tethered to the burros, bringing the caravan to a halt. With double chins, he gazes down at the boy, his eyes squinting as if calculating the worth of this waif from his stubby toes to the black eruption of hair on his head.

Roberto blinks, but a sudden lump in his throat prevents him from reciting his litany of pleas for a tidbit. A tiny chill tiptoes across his scruffy neck as he faces the silent man who continues to stare at him.

“Señor,” a deep voice barks at the boy.

“Si?” he replies. No one has ever referred to him as “Señor.” He’s accustomed to the words “boy” or “you there” from the people of the village and especially the children who taunt him.

“Señor, I am in need of assistance for a very important task. Perhaps you know where I might find a strong young man to accompany me and my burros in the annual festival and parade tomorrow?”

“Si,” Roberto says, still unsure of the job at hand, much less the gravity of the request being made. The stranger peers at Roberto, who now stands with a slight quaver in his short legs.

“Well?” the man growls, raising his bushy eyebrows and pushing his hat to the back of his head. Still not knowing a proper reply, Roberto grips his sombrero tightly and nods.

“You, Señor? You wish to assist me in the grand parade tomorrow?” The man smiles, removing his hat in a dramatic flourish, and extends his arms wide. The lead burro raises his head rises from the dry grasses beside the path, flicks one ear in Roberto’s direction and eyes him menacingly, then returns to his late morning snack.

“Si!” Roberto squeaks expanding his chest to augment his growing smile.

“Very well then. What is your name, Señor?”

“Roberto!” he shouts, hoping this man is not just a mirage in the desert heat.

“Well, Roberto, it is my pleasure to appoint you to the position of Chief Ministerial Custodian of the Burros for the Grand Cinco de Mayo parade tomorrow afternoon in front of the village church. Are these terms acceptable to you, Señor Roberto?”

“Si, Señor,” the boy chortles, masking his bewilderment over unknown details of this important assignment he has yet to understand.

“Then grab the rope of the lead burro, Señor Roberto, and follow me to the village church.”

As the sun sets across the purple mesas to the west, Roberto is busy with one of many tasks assigned him in this new adventure. With care he pokes stalks of hay, one by one, into the hungry mouths of the six animals. What great appetites they have, he says to himself as he scurries from a small stack of hay to each of his new charges.

The day has gone well for me, he thinks. “No, it has been splendid,” he says aloud, though no one is about to hear him. Today he has been blessed with three tortillas and an apple from his new employer. Never, ever has he eaten so well. All this in addition to the biggest challenge of his young life: Chief Ministerial Custodian of the Burros for the Grand Cinco de Mayo parade. Though it must be added here that a small boy can hardly be expected to remember all the words in this fine title, but he knows it must be a position of great importance, and he is sure that the other children of Puerto will now acknowledge him with great esteem.

A pocket mouse scampers across the desert floor and disappears under a rock, and, from a hole in the arm of an ancient saguaro somewhere in the flats, baby woodpeckers cry out. Leaping from a pile of hay adjacent to the church where he has slept by his troupe of grand parade burros, Roberto ferries sloshing buckets of water from the village well to his new friends, his heart racing with pride.

While men and women of the village scurry about the square festooning walls with flowers and greenery gathered that morning from the surrounding countryside, the church bell announces the news of the festival and parade. Excited children race about, shrieking over the preparations for the grand events to come.

Now by tradition the village priest decides who will march in the grand parade with the mayor always chosen to lead with his ministerial baton. Small children then follow with colorful streamers whirling atop long sticks cut for them by the men of the village. Then come the older boys and girls carrying votive candles and crosses from the church. Next the carved statue of the Holy Virgin that rests behind the altar is carried by men selected by the priest for fine deeds noted during the preceding year. Following this are the other officials of the village: the Minister of Agriculture, who drives a cart over the mesas to the east to a larger village where he buys seed corn for the planting season to come; the Minister of Water, who carefully measures the depth of water in the well several times a year and ponders the possibility of droughts and potential consequences to the village; the Minister of Forestry, who directs the village children in gathering dry mesquite for the fireplace of the priest each winter; and, finally, the Minister of Animal Husbandry, who assists farmers when requested with new births of lambs and calves, and tends to an uncalculated number of chickens that chase insects here and there in the dust of the lanes and alleyways of the village. And, of course, he maintains a count of the dogs and cats about, the number reflecting the pluck and skill of coyotes in the flats nearby.

Finally come the six burros, all festooned in silken splendor with flowers and bright ribbons attached to their manes and bridles. And behind them, stepping high, marches Roberto, his sombrero perched atop his head at a rakish angle, a style he imagines to be that of his hero, Pancho Villa. A long sack secured by a rope to his waist drags behind him, and a small shovel is gripped in his hands.

And what a fine parade it is! Roberto hears the people far ahead cheering as the throng flows into the square and disperses to cheer others as they proudly advance.

Now Roberto, with no one to claim him, is accustomed to taunts and jeers from the village children, except in the presence of the priest. Roberto is afflicted with a snow-white occlusion in one eye and an upper lip deformity, exposing his front teeth—even when he tries hard to close his mouth. The priest, who found him in a basket on the church steps, has told Roberto that the white dot in his eye is a teardrop from an angel and the raised lip makes him one very special boy. Yet his peers poke fun at him at every turn. And since no family has room for Roberto as this is a very poor village, each shares foodstuffs with him when they remember and when they are able.

But today, well, today is very special. The hosts of heaven in their infinite wisdom and unbounded mercies have decided to smile on this small tad of life in the dusty little village of Puerto deep within the deserts of old Mexico. As the parade reaches the edge of the market square, chins are lifted high and the mayor steps forward to shake each hand, congratulating them on their fine job in the grand parade. The crowd then cheers as each new face beams and waves at friends and family gathered in the square.

Though stepping as high as any in the parade, Roberto’s chin is low, his eyes focused on the ground emerging beneath the burros to assure a clean path when the grand event has ended. When Roberto makes the final turn into the marketplace square behind the burros, the crowd erupts in unfettered noise and applause.

With his bright sash glistening in the late afternoon sun, the mayor quickly steps out behind the burros, blocks Roberto’s progress, and smiles broadly at the small boy. Bending at his generous waist, he extends his hand for Roberto to shake. The boy, now dazed at the roar of the crowd and the sudden appearance of this august figure before him, peers blurry-eyed around the marketplace as his tiny hand disappears in the mighty grip of this burly man.

A hush falls over the square, all eyes fixed on the small boy with the shovel and the lumpy sack that drags along behind him.

“Well, Roberto,” the mayor shouts so all can hear, “it appears you have been given a most important assignment in the parade this year.” Roberto’s eyes shine as he nods and beams at this towering image of village authority. A twitter of laughter rises and falls somewhere in the crowd, but the boy seems not to hear it.

“So, Roberto, what exactly is the title of your eminent position in the parade today?” Again the crowd grows silent. The boy, startled by the immensity of the crowd and the urgency of the inquiry, realizes his mind will provide no help in this time of crisis. He tries to swallow, but his tongue is thick and dry. A lone crested flycatcher perched in a nearby tree offers a single note of encouragement for Roberto.

“Roberto,” the mayor’s voice echoes across the adobe walls around the square and down the lanes, “please give us a description of this grand assignment you have handled so magnificently this day.”

Roberto’s lower lip extends and his small head drops, his eyes fixed on his dusty feet. Then his eyes rise to gaze on the posteriors of the six honorable beasts ahead and then on the lumpy sack behind him.

Now it is said that each of us has a guardian angel, some more than one. And no doubt this day a host of angels has been dispatched by heaven to Roberto’s side, all this happening in the blink of a puma’s eye.

“Tell them what you have done, boy,” the ruddy-faced mayor growls with moist exasperation in his brow. Roberto’s small chest fills with a rush as the throng awaits his reply.

“Si!” squawks Roberto, now suddenly feeling a strange new power over this universe of inquisitive merrymakers, “Si, love the burros!”

The mayor’s torso rises, his countenance displaying an unfathomable vexation, and all becomes still. Then the lone clapping of hands of the grinning priest can be heard across the square, and immediately a tumult of cheers and whistles fills the air. Roberto’s eyes begin to widen and the young boy’s life spills into broad tears of joy as the mayor once again grips his small hand in a token of gratitude for his fine work in the grand parade.

Throughout the world that day, as far as we know, the sun shone brightly while rains nourished fields here and there and rivers flowed undisturbed to the sea. And kings and queens and other heads of state made momentous decisions without the knowledge of this extraordinary occurrence in the small village of Puerto. But the hosts of heaven knew and smiled on a small boy whose existence would never grace a single page of history across the tomes of time. Yet it is said that the archangels of heaven would record this as a great day in the cosmos of all living beings. For on this day young Roberto became the Chief Ministerial Custodian of the Burros for the Grand Cinco de Mayo parade in the tiny village of Puerto deep within the deserts of old Mexico.

The End