by Lauren Swift

west of Los Alamos is El Santuario de Chimayo
a not-large adobe church
that thousands journey to each year
during holy week. most go there for el pocito,
in the little room off the side of the altar, where they stoop
through the low door and kneel before the hole
in the ground and reach in to scoop out the
tierra bendita—the holy, healing dirt

the vatican takes no position on
whether Chimayo has seen miracles,
but people still walk hundreds of miles
to stoop there

my mother, she was born on leap year day
I went with her on her birthday to mass just yesterday
then after to listen to the priest give a lecture
on mercy. it’s a jubilee year, an extra one,
outside of the 25-year cycle
the iubilaeum extraordinarium misericordiae
called for specially by the Pope, because
look at what we are living in

this priest we listened to, he was good
he said mercy is where
compassion and suffering meet

in 2000, two 17-year-old Los Alamos high schoolers were
shot dead as they made their trek to Chimayo
for the holy dirt
in 2012, the shooter died of cancer in prison,
serving his life sentence

back when cameras still used film, people would
bring the little canisters or their delicate little etuis
and fill them with the dirt, or they would simply mark
the crucifixion spots on their palms with it, and then
write out their prayers, roll them up, place them in crevices
all over the church

in another prayer room to the side,
there are all the trinkets of those who say the dirt
has healed them of their ailments, of their cancers and their
bone pains and their depressions and their blindnesses

I would go to Chimayo a few times a year with my mother
she’d fill an orange prescription pill bottle with the dirt;
when we were sick, out it would come and there would be
holy dirt all over my forehead

I am still sick
I never complained about going
there was a little tortilla stand down the road
from the church, where they were freshmade and hot
with melted butter, and my mother, sated by
the proximity to talked-of miracles,
purse holding her vial of tierra bendita, would buy
me a buttery tortilla and I would stand in the snow and savor it.
that is what I know about mercy.

University & College Poetry Prizes Page