An orange sun burns the Santa Fe, New Mexico sky, setting fire to its adobe walls. The peach colored desert sand infiltrates into town, carried bit by bit on the footsteps of each visitor. Embedded within each grain is the seed of a fable that takes root upon the city soil and flourishes into a full-grown allegory. Lost treasures and haunted roads whisper of buried histories underneath the town. Dying desperadoes and weeping specters people the dusty streets. A shadow flits through the garden, causing the leaves to shiver. Is it the ghost of Black Jack? A thin wail ascends from a barren alley, fading against the sun-dried facades. Is it the lamentation of La Lllorona? The locals clothe themselves in the innumerable folklore of Santa Fe. Questions are answered with tales which breed other tales, until we are enmeshed in a tangle of sagas. In this city of “Holy Faith,” facts slink into corners, unimportant and unregarded.
Inside a Gothic house of worship in an unlit corner stands a staircase, a work of legend. In the late nineteenth century most small churches had wooden ladders to access the choir loft. The Loretto Chapel nuns wanted a staircase instead, but found that no architect could build them one which would fit inside the small space. They prayed nine days for an answer to their problem and on the tenth day a stranger appeared. He announced that he would create a staircase if they would allow him complete privacy. With the blessing of the sisters, the mysterious carpenter locked himself inside the building. After three months, when the church doors opened, the nuns discovered a complete set of spiral wooden steps. The stranger had vanished without asking for payment or giving a name.
“This is the cynosure of the church, its riddle encircling the helix shaped stringers like a halo.”
We circle around the risers, vultures searching for the chink in its miraculous armor. The Loretto staircase is erected on both physics and exemplum. Like other Santa Fe fables, something else lurks within its bizarre framework. Why would anyone make up a story about the construction of a staircase? In a world relentless for truth, what purpose does a fairy tale serve?
Myths are ambiguous, adaptable, and pervasive across cultures. They may seem like the leftover products of simpler times, but they are powerful and tenacious. Every modern horror story and urban legend has its infancy in saga. Many idioms have their origin in folklore. Across all belief systems is a triumvirate of essential narratives: the formation of the first humans, the first flood, and the reason for our mortality.
“Fables play with ideas of illusion and reality and reflect life’s paradoxes in story form.”
The more I think back to the parables and folktales I grew up with the more I see that while they may appear puerile, they explore fundamental human principles. Myths exist because reality cannot be fully told through facts. “Logic and sermons never convince,” Walt Whitman writes in “Leaves of Grass,” “Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so, only what nobody denies is so.” As a science devotee I have always believed facts to be of supreme importance. At Loretto Chapel, I begin to see that sometimes fairy tales are preferable to proofs. Some profundities are beyond the ken of science.
Pulling apart the outer threads of the supernatural shows me the Loretto parable is about the kindness of strangers and the hopeful humility of asking. It sings a similar strain to many other allegories around the world: generosity does not seek reward. By keeping the tale alive, perhaps the Sisters of Loretto wanted to remind themselves that such benevolence should inspire their own charity towards the community. In this way, the story of the Loretto stairs transcends facts about who built it and how to confront issues about human morality: altruism, hope, and reciprocity.
I leave the chapel and walk towards San Miguel Mission down the road. Inside its courtyard I hear about the miraculous bell which gifted sight to a blind penitent and the phantom of a murdered child who haunts the mission’s enclosure. Across the street, tales of convicted criminals and violent deaths while away the hour.
“These ghosts and the objects they leave behind are reminders that even after death we yearn to tell our stories.”
Native American folklore or Spanish saga, much of what I hear within this city echoes the mythology I learned in childhood. Little Red Riding Hood, The Parrot Prince, Ali Baba — these fed my juvenile imagination and shaped my view of the world. For years they lay half-forgotten, put aside with the broken toys and infant clothes. Inhaling the narratives of Santa Fe, walking among its wraiths, they return to me again in eerie similarity. The jejune realm of shape shifters and ogres, of good and evil lives in Santa Fe. Through chronicles, like the one about the Loretto Chapel, we attempt to speak about the eternal certainties with which we are all born. There is a time for substantiation and a time for fabrication. Santa Fe has reopened the door to the house of myth I shut years ago and I intend to walk through it to find some timeless truths.
At the crossroads of the Camino Real and the Santa Fe trail, this capital of New Mexico is a haven for both artists and scientists working on complex interdisciplinary projects. The “Art of Systems Biology and Nanoscience” is an annual exhibit sponsored by the Gerald Peters Gallery and Los Alamos National Laboratories that showcases this connectivity. In Santa Fe the old and the new continue to inspire each other, to give way to each other, and to transform Santa Fe from a static tourist backdrop into a living experiment.
Do you have a favorite myth, folktale, or fable that has affected you? Let us know in the comments below.