“The Shepherd” by José Cruz (7845 words)
No Spoilers: Carlos returns to a church, to the place where he experienced something...strange and terrible when he was a child, and where something new and terrible has happened in his absence. The piece explores Carlos’ past and his present, his feeling of being incomplete because he never knew his father, because he’s been cut off from a culture that people assume of him because of his name and how he looks. And so he’s tried to fill in the blanks. All of that, though, has become a way of running away from his past, from his feelings. It’s a messy story for a messy situation, poking at the hurt that has long weighed on Carlos, and the strange trauma he’s suffered in a church, though it’s possible that part of the narrative is caught up in the dreams that Carlos has been struggling with of late. It’s a story about haunting, both the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of the present mingling and in need of exorcism, which seems to be the trajectory of the story, Carlos cleaning out his ghosts in hopes of forging into a better future.
Keywords: Parents, Religion, Dogs, Churches, CW- Abuse, CW- Domestic Violence
Review: There’s such a weirdness about this story, an aching movement that revolves around the ways that Carlos feels his past, his childhood, is something best avoided. And it seems true that it wasn’t exactly...the best. His home life was less than ideal and his absent father was something like a burn on the fabric of what he feels his life should have been. Idyllic and affirming and almost magical. Instead what he got was a mother who tried but wasn’t exactly the greatest and a church experience that even years later wakes him up with nightmares. I get the feeling from the story that he feels detached, driftless, unmoored from the meaning he’s been told to expect from life. He doesn’t seem unhappy, as he’s married and seems pretty well adjusted overall. But there are things that gnaw at him, weigh him down in ways that he’s not facing, that are just piling up until they come tumbling out in this moment in this church.
For me, the story has a dreamlike quality to it, flitting between domestic scenes and an intense and disturbing sequence in the past, where Carlos is a child among other children and what they’re made to do is...fucked up. Whether that’s what literally happened or rather (as I suspect) a more metaphorical way to show how the church attempted to fill the gaps in the children’s lives with a dark and mercurial God. For Carlos, God could take on the guise of his father, could be anyone, but it was all false, all in service of trying to make Carlos docile and obedient. A lamb being led to the slaughter. But without that false idol to hold to, he’s left having to figure things out on his own, something that he’s not exactly been the best at. And I love how the story slowly reveals the past as Carlos moves through the church, dredging up what happened and all his conflicted feelings, his fears and his hopes and the things he can never recover.
The prose is full of tension and a creepiness that builds and builds, until all the different threads come together into an intricate knot that Carlos has to try and unravel before it traps him, fixes him to the past in ways he might never escape from. Instead, I feel that the story brings him to the point not where he’s healed from what’s happened, but where he can begin to heal. Not where he’s okay with the traumas in his past but where he’s faced them, recognized them for what they are, and can move forward, or in any direction he wants. For me it’s a story about facing your demons, and it definitely has that feeling to it, of going into this dark dark place and pushing through to the light. A fantastic read!