Death Comes for the Archbishop

Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up to him for the loss of those light-hearted mornings of the desert, for that wind that made one a boy again. He had noticed that this peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by man and made to bear harvests. Parts of Texas and Kansas that he had first known as open range had since been made into rich farming districts, and the air had quite lost that lightness, that dry aromatic odour. The moisture of plowed land, the heaviness of labour and growth and grain-bearing, utterly destroyed it: one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.

That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!
— Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I finished this little number at the salon today, while I sat waiting for the color to sink in, and lo how the tears trickled down my cheeks when I reached the last section, which was titled in stark italic letters, "Death Comes for the Archbishop." As if it were a surprise! And yet I was surprised.

It's a deceptively simple story with the detached air of a fairy tale to it, of the decades-long efforts of a proper French bishop and his little rabbit-like vicar to establish a Catholic diocese across the immense territory of New Mexico in the mid-1800s. The two men express their faith and friendship in fundamentally different ways, yet both attend to their task with an inherent respect for the customs of the Mexicans and Indians whose history they're nevertheless helping to overwrite. What meanders in plot is divine in the telling, not heavy with action but with happening, the happening of the years and miles and ages of a hard existence passed in the rough weather of a brutal landscape, and the depths to which they dig themselves into the earth and the air of the American Southwest suggests that even French Catholic priests have a little bit of cowboy in their blood.