Hyssop by Kevin McIlvoy

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[hyssop (his′ ep) n. 1. A fragrant, blue-flowered plant (Hyssopus officianalus) of the mint family, used in folk medicine as a tonic, stimulant, etc. 2. A plant used in purifactory sprinkling rites by the ancient Hebrews]


Red Greet, the narrator of Hyssop, is in jail again, as he has been often in his eighty-seven years. As he gives his jailer a dance lesson, Red begins to share with him his life story. Struggling to learn the simple steps, the jailer listens to Red’s outrageous, incredible, yet utterly convincing accounts of the miracles he has witnessed and sometimes participated in directly.

Red’s stories center around several constants: his impoverished life as a guilelessly honest thief and grifter in Las Almas, New Mexico; his love for Recita Holguin; and, the miracle story dearest to him, his seventy-two-year friendship with Bishop Francisco Velasco.

Frank and Red met in 1924 as Red’s mother, a healer, worked her folk magic to help Frank’s family survive violence and devastating turmoil. The boys immediately formed a deep and abiding bond. Frank, who becomes a Catholic priest and eventually a bishop, remains Red’s lifelong confessor because he is the keeper of Red’s secrets, and Red the keeper of his.

The men are not only friends, but unlikely accomplices: they argue over Frank’s car, a Monte Carlo with cathedral windows airbrushed on the hood; they promenade, naked, through the middle of the Hatch Chile Festival; they work to restore a statue of the beloved Virgen de Guadalupe, which “miraculously” begins to perspire blood—blood that bears a suspicious likeness to red paint. Through it all, Red confesses his many sins to Frank, always returning to the mysteries of a sin he feels he cannot be absolved of: his courtship of Recita during his wife Cecila’s long illness.

In telling how he has loved and been loved, in confessing how he has sinned and inspired others to sin, Red Greet seeks hyssop, the substance that might wash his soul clean. Hyssop is a stunning novel full of magic; it is an inquiry into the nature of religious faith and belief and into the power of moral dilemmas embedded in loving friendships and in spiritually rich but materially impoverished lives. Reading Hyssop, you will believe again in miracles of healing and in the haunting power of memories of the past.


“Hyssop is a wonderful gift of faith to a cynical age. Only a book this smart, tough-minded, funny, beautiful and, yes, humble could burrow so deeply into both the doubting mind and the yearning heart.” —Richard Russo, author of Straight Man

“A radiant, mysterious novel, brilliantly lit by hard-won faith. Hyssop reminds us that we are all part of the last tribe of the unchosen: and that despite that we can be saved by the language of love.” —Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever: Stories


THE HEART IS MANY HANDS, one lifting up another like the petals of a flower.” My mother told me this. My mother knew. She also knew the healing methods and prayers, and she would tell them as soon as you asked, no matter who you were or why you asked. “They fell into my apron,” she said. “I swept them from the tables where I heard them. Crumbs!”

This was true, because she waited tables for many years at Gamboa’s Restaurant, a place all the saints and satans of Las Almas passed through for generations. They came to Gamboa’s, and many, but especially the women, asked if my mother would wait on them. “The priestess of Gamboa’s,” my father called her, who believed in her holy orders above all others. He had the faith, but he could not hold it, my father. His love for the One True Church of Stained Glass, Gold, and Imported Marble sickened and confused him, and he confessed this in tears to me many times, even when I was small, how the Church of the High Walls and Steep Steps and Closed Doors made him ashamed. That he and my mother had baptized and initiated me into the Church of the Poisoned Cup and Poisoned Bread made him suffer self-horrors he could not keep secret. After my First Confession, months passed before he returned to the church; and after my First Holy Communion and after my Confirmation, the same happened. Through Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter.

There are Catholics and fallen Catholics. My father was a falling Catholic. He would return to the Church in shame, sooner or later he always would. There he would make his confession in order to heal his covenant with the Faith, receive the Blessed Sacrament, be reconciled again to the ancient sacrificial rituals. His new state of grace never held. And God, whose sense of humor is everlasting, had given my mother charge of ministering to this one wandering lamb and Gamboa’s flock as well.

She would seat them, serve water and coffee, collect their menus, and ask, “You will eat?” When she served the food, she asked, “You have enough?” She stood back then, drawing you and everyone at your table into her eyes, which seemed to widen at the wonder she read in you. Her lips moved. Her hands fluttered from her apron pockets, her palms turned out, her fingers curved up, and like swifts writing their souls in the air, her hands fluttered back. She did not make a show of blessing you and your food in this way. Besides, the food was Maggie Gamboa’s, and it was already blessed, God knows.

For most people, this was enough: her blessing and Maggie’s enchiladas or tamales. But sometimes a person asked my mother if she would help with a personal problem.

This was all whispered, the same way it is in the church. You understand—can you see?—my mother’s altars over which she presided, setting the table, serving the food, refilling the cups and glasses, piling plates and platters atop each other. The soothing clicking of the china, the rattling of the silverware. You feel you can tell her anything. She rubs your table with her rag—you tell her that your son has threatened your ex-husband with a knife, that your mother-in-law will not forgive you for what she learned about that man in Vado. My mother’s rag, a child’s old undershirt, rubs at your table—you tell her a herd of ghost goats has come each night since Easter, all the innocents you and your husband ever killed for fiestas. Your secret is shared, already you begin to feel absolved. The rag makes the blue ceramic tiles on the table turn darker and then bright. “If I tell you, you will pray this?” my mother asks.

Yes, you say. I will. Yes.

“Only what I tell you—no more—not any different?”

Yes, Mrs. Greet. In truth, I will.

  • Published by: Untreed Reads

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