Buitre

“Buitre,” Alberto says, squinting at the sun-drenched sky and pointing to the vulture as it makes parabolas in the bright morning. It’s nine o’clock, and we’ve been on the road for two hours.  Alberto is seated to my left in the rear of the big convertible—Nuri’s convertible. Beside Nuri, riding shotgun, is his friend Milstein. We met Nuri and Milstein only several days before, but that chance encounter turned out to be a lucky one, because it provided us with a place to stay for our weekend in Acapulco, and a free ride back to Mexico City.

It’s summer in Southern Mexico, and most people that Alberto and I have met have been friendly. After all, it’s the season to relax and a place where you don’t have to feel guilty doing so, although Buzz, who is sitting to my right, has had an anxious expression ever since he got into the car.  Even though he’s been asleep for over an hour, his eyelids and mouth show signs of tension.  Maybe he’s having a nightmare, or maybe his unconscious is dealing with real life fears. Or maybe it’s both.

Besides the vulture—a dark speck framed by a blue sky—there isn’t anything else that’s of much interest, although the desert in its sameness, seems to insinuate a furtive expectation—as though adventure and intrigue are bound to be the pay off for having to endure so much monotony. In Acapulco, we saw throngs of iguanas, basking in the sun or racing along the sand dunes. I’m not talking about puny pet shop lizards but huge five-foot long monster types.  We also watched scorpions making their determined way on the sand or across the road, and in the evening, we walked with our heads bent towards the ground, so we could look in front of us to avoid coming in contact with one.  But all that is past.

Now, a caravan of indifferent cumulus clouds drifts above us.  Nuri is turning the dial on the radio. A cacophony of sounds blares from the speakers: music, news reports, and tacky advertising jingles in Spanish. The two-lane highway we’re on is lightly traveled, although now and then a vehicle approaches from the opposite direction and then passes.  Whenever one gets close, we turn our heads and gaze to see who’s behind the wheel, as though someone interesting will reveal himself. A celebrity, perhaps.  Or maybe we’ll see a van transporting mysterious artifacts, like headstones or statuary. There are also trucks. Most are delivering live chickens, and are driven by farmers wearing straw cowboy hats.

“Hey, Nuri, man,” Alberto says, “Why don’t you find a station and stick with it.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Nuri says, turning the radio dial. “Mexican rock and roll!”

“How about the Rolling Stones?” Alberto says.

“Do I look like a deejay to you?” Nuri laughs and glances to his right at Milstein who begins singing in an off-key voice: “You gotta tell me you’re comin’ back to me…”

“Milstein, you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the car,” Nuri says. Milstein laughs and shuts up—as much for his own sake as ours.

We met Nuri and Milstein on Friday, about fifteen minutes after we got into Acapulco, shortly after we completed the last leg of our hitchhiking journey, courtesy of a wall-eyed guy in a red pick-up truck.  We had begun to casually stroll around town when Alberto sees two tall guys with straight, dark hair, standing in the middle of the sidewalk and bickering in English. The heavier one—who turned out to be Nuri—wore dress pants and a white wrinkled business shirt. He was lighting up a cigarette when Alberto walked up to him.

“Mind if I bum a cigarette?”

“What are you? A Jew?” Nuri asked.  We were both a bit weirded out. But then Nuri laughed and offered Alberto a smoke. After Alberto pulled one out of the pack, Nuri held out the pack towards me.

“I am a Jew,” I told him.  “Does that matter?”

“Just kidding,” Nuri said. He shook his head in mock exasperation. “This is Mexico.  You need to have a sense of humor.”

“I guess I’ll have one then,” I said, “even though I am Jewish.”

“I’m a Jew,” the guy with Nuri said. “Alex Milstein.”

Nuri took out a small box of matches, and lit our cigarettes.  I tried to pretend I was enjoying mine. It wasn’t easy since I didn’t smoke.

Alberto is my roommate for the summer back in Mexico City. We’ve been taking a program in Spanish language and culture at the Universidad Autónomo. Alberto is from Queens, New York, and doesn’t know Spanish any better than I do. But he has been using his name to advantage when socializing with the local senoritas. Nuri and Alex had rented an ‘hacienda” on a dingy beach, inhabited by elderly sun worshippers, packs of abandoned dogs, and lots of scorpions.  It had the beauty and charm of Brighton Beach, but to Alberto and me, it didn’t matter.  We were having an adventure.

Nuri and Milstein invited us to stay over at their rental. It was the last weekend of their month-long lease, so they didn’t mind a couple of extra bodies over for a few days. The place was big enough. It had a huge open-air living room with tropical vines growing along the adobe walls and two unused sofa beds that Nuri said were reserved to use for “chicks.” They were heading back to Mexico City in a couple of days, so we had a place to stay as well as a means to avoid the frustration of hitchhiking back.

When we climbed into Nuri’s convertible at seven a.m., he warned us the car couldn’t go over forty-five miles an hour because of the steering. That was OK with us. We’d still save a bunch of hours in travel time. Standing out in the sun with your thumb extended in the desert loses its romance pretty fast, as Alberto and I discovered on our trip down.  Nuri also told us he had to make a short stop along the way to take care of some legal business, but that too seemed a minor inconvenience, considering that in hitchhiking from Mexico City, we got stuck four or five times at isolated gas stations where all we got were suspicious glances when we asked for rides.  We even resorted to showing our student IDs to drivers that were filling up on gas, while we swore in the most humble and dignified tones that we were serious college students. Alberto even began reciting a poem by Garcia Lorca, which, if anything, proved to be detrimental to our cause, especially when one heavy-set guy pulled a 9-millimeter pistol from his glove compartment and trained it on us because he thought we might be lunatics.

So driving in a broken-down convertible in the heat felt like a luxury, even though we weren’t out of Acapulco more than five minutes when Nuri slowed to a stop and offered a ride to a hitchhiker. He was sporting a blonde crew cut, a t-shirt, and cut-off blue jeans. His standard hitchhiker uniform ended there, however, because he also had a cardboard sign pinned to his shirt that read “Mexico City” while between his thumb and forefinger, he stolidly held a glinting silver crucifix. His pose reminded me of the homeless people in Spain that would kneel frozen, and stare at the sky, their palms pressed together in prayer.  I thought that maybe it was a scheme to impress passersby that he was a member of some religious order.  He also had an iguana with a red kerchief tied around its neck–peacefully stretched out behind his head and over his shoulders.  When I absorbed the whole picture, I decided he wasn’t scamming. No one would go through all the trouble.

The stranger said his name was Buzz, and that he had to get back to Mexico City, fast, for his studies.
“Just like us,” Alberto had said. Buzz looked baffled, as if to imply, “What have I got to do with you.”
Nuri told Buzz to get in back, but said there wasn’t enough room for the iguana. Buzz stared at Nuri, hesitated, but then carefully pulled the iguana from his shoulders, and set it down by the roadside.  Then Buzz climbed into the back seat, next to me. As Nuri started up the car, Buzz turned and regarded the lizard wistfully, and stared at it until it was out of sight.

“Hey Nuri. You sure this car is going to make it back? I don’t want to end up being dinner for those buitres.”  Alberto points to the vulture again, which had now been joined by two companions.

“This goddamn car will get us there. It’ll take a bit longer, that’s all,” Nuri says.  He pauses a moment, then looks over at Milstein.  “What do you expect from a Jew car salesman? Right Milstein?”
Nuri has a playful grin on his face. We’re all supposed to know this is a game that Nuri and Milstein play, but it still feels uncomfortable.

“Salaam alechem,” Milstein says.  “You got a lot better deal on this car than Nasser got on those crap Russian tanks.”

“Next time…” Nuri begins, but Milstein interrupts him. “Next time it’ll take five days, not six.”

“What will? Alberto asks.

Milstein turns and looks at Alberto. “The war,” Milstein blares out, as though it should be obvious. He says it so loudly he startles Buzz awake.

“The war?” Buzz snaps. He looks around the car, trying to figure out who just shouted. He figures its Milstein.  “You talking about Vietnam?”

“The Six Day War in Israel,” Milstein says, with more exasperation than volume.

“Six day war? What war lasts six days? Are you fucking crazy?” Buzz says.

“Hey, relax.  You just woke up. We were just having a conversation,” Milstein says.

“What war you talking about?” Buzz says.  Now he leans forward toward Milstein.

“It’s too complicated. It’s nothing,” Milstein says.  “Relax.”

“You mean I’m too stupid?” Buzz says.

“It’s too damn hot to argue,” Nuri says. “Nothing to argue about, anyway.”

“They killed my brother,” Buzz says.

“Who?” Milstein says.

“Vietnam. That’s who.” Then Buzz is suddenly silent. I look at him. Something he’s considering makes him upset, something which he could never resolve. Everyone is quiet and tense. We’re all trying to figure out how to calm things down, but no one wants to be first.

“I’m so sorry,” Milstein says.  He turns and looks at Buzz.  Buzz is leaning back in his seat now.

“Hey,” Milstein says. “Hey, Buzz.  My man.  I’m really really sorry. When did it happen?”

“It didn’t fucking happen,” Buzz says.  Silence again.  Buzz looks at the sky, and the arid surroundings. There’s about five or six vultures now.  Buzz takes his hand, and configures his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a gun, then aims in the direction of the vultures.

“What I mean is, they killed him.  The U.S. government killed him. Sending him off to some bullshit country for some bullshit war.”

“I agree with that 100%,” Milstein says, his body twisted so he can look at Buzz. “The whole thing.

Bullshit.” Milstein puts out his hand. He’s offering it as a peace gesture. Buzz looks at him. He takes both his hands, and wraps them around Milstein’s, revealing a trace of appreciation as he does so.

“Are we almost there?”  Buzz says. “I’m going to have a heat stroke.”

Nuri glances at us in the rear view mirror. “You could have a lot worse things happen to you out here.”

Nuri returns his gaze up ahead, focusing on the cracked, paved road. The highway looks like a painting, rendered to suggest the viewer is streaming towards an undecipherable future.

“Like marrying a Mexican?” Milstein says.

“Funny man,” Nuri says. “Better than marrying a Jew.”

Milstein is about to respond, but instead points at a road sign, and reads it aloud.

“Tolu. Five kilometers. Isn’t that it?”

“That’s the place.” Nuri says, and sighs.

“What place?” Buzz says. “I thought we were going to Mexico City.”

“We are going to Mexico City.” Milstein turns around and looks at Buzz. “But first we have to stop off in Tolu, thanks to our A-rab friend over here.”

“What the fuck is that all about?” Buzz says. His confusion seems to have escalated. The  hostility in his voice causes the rest of us to fall silent again. The pause begins to stretch, like the long length of road. A small knot of tension seems to move from one of us to the next.  For the first time, I feel the heat. My pants feel stuck to the seat.

Milstein sighs, then blurts out, “Because Nuri has to put notices in the local papers because he just got divorced.”

“Notices?  What notices?” Buzz says.   He shrugs, and pulls out a switchblade and starts pressing the button release. A shiny blade spring out. He closes it shut with his right hand, and then repeats the action.

Finally, Nuri explains. “I have to place public notices in the local papers, stating I am no longer accountable for any debts my ex-wife incurs. It’s the law here. Have to place the notices in two newspapers published in the county where I got divorced. Right, Milstein? Milstein’s my lawyer.”

“Legal advisor,” Milstein corrects him. “I’m still in law school.”

“Goddamn,” Buzz says. “The only reason I took the ride is because you said you were driving back to Mexico City today. No one told me this was a broken-down car, or that we’d be taking a side trip. You already made me give up Michael.”

“Who’s Michael?” Nuri asks.

“My iguana.” Buzz emphasizes as though it should have been obvious, and for us to realize what a grim sacrifice it was.

“No one made you,” Nuri says.

“Nuri, shut up,” Milstein says. Then he and Nuri exchange hostile glances

“Time is of the essence,” Buzz says mechanically. “I have to be in seminary by tonight. Otherwise I’ll be in deep shit with the priests.”

“Priests?” Milstein says.

“Don’t mind Milstein,” Nuri says. “He’s a Jew.”

“Priests,” Buzz says “the guys with the white collars.”

Milstein stares at him quizzically.  He’s thinking the same thing I am, probably the same thing the rest of us are thinking. This guy is studying to be a priest?

Buzz becomes quiet, nods his head in disgust, leans back, and closes his eyes, but keeps the knife held in his hand. I wonder whether he’s going to nod off again and drop it on the floor, or worse, lean over in my direction, and accidentally stab me with it.

Another sign appears. This one simply says “Tolu” with a curved arrow pointing towards a turn-off. Nuri makes the turn, and we proceed down a narrow side road.

“Son of a bitch,” Nuri says, in a voice more to himself.  “Get myself into this mess.”

We arrive in town.  It has a zocalo with shade trees and a few shops and lots of outdoor vendors.  Nuri drives around for a few minutes, and then pulls up in front of a gray building with metal bars running vertically down the front of its two windows. A sign is displayed on the door that reads La Tierra. I smell the acrid odor of ink and hear a sound like a locomotive dynamo.

“The presses,” Alberto says.

“Me and Milstein are going inside. “ Nuri says.

“I’m his witness,” Milstein says.

“Witness for what?” Alberto asks.

“Witness to vouch that I’m me,” Nuri says. “I know as much as you do about it. It’s the law here, right Milstein?”

“Two forms of ID. One witness,” Milstein says.

“How long will this bullshit take?” Buzz says.

“This is Mexico. Who knows? You guys can take in the sights meanwhile,” Nuri says, as he and Milstein climb out of the car.

“What sights?” Buzz says.

“Try the municipal building. They have some kind of historical museum,” Nuri says,

“What about a church?” Buzz says.

“Ask Milstein,” Nuri says.  “He’d know. Milstein, where’s a church in this town?”  Milstein gives Nuri the finger as they ascend the five or six steps to the newspaper office, and disappear inside.

“Museum?” Alberto says. “Sounds good. That will make us bona fide turistas.”

“I don’t need to see any museum,” Buzz says, and just starts walking away.

“Where you going? Alberto says. Buzz stops and turns.

“Taking a walk. I’ll check back with you at city hall in a while. Don’t leave without me.” He offers a nod and continues walking, as though he has an apparent destination.

“Let’s buy some cokes and find a cool spot,” Alberto says.

We find a tiny store with a refrigerator and a small counter that serves as the cashier area. The interior is painted a drab green. We buy two cokes, and hand the money to a squat man that stands by an old cash register. I pull off the bottle cap on a metal opener secured to the refrigerator. Alberto follows suit and we both chug down the contents. Alberto takes another one from the refrigerator, and pays for it.

“In case this takes longer than it should,” he says.

“I’m going to be an optimist,” I say. We’re about to leave when Alberto turns to the owner.

“Museo?” Alberto asks. “Museo histórico?”

The man just shrugs.

Soon, Alberto and I walk through an archway, and find ourselves in the courtyard of the municipal building. We begin ambling along the walkway that frames its perimeter. The yard is just pebbles and dirt, and one forlorn tree, about the height of a man. The building is two stories high, and made of adobe. There are tall wooden doors placed about six feet apart, providing access to the various departments of the local government. Each door has a small sign indicating its sector.  We pass the first door whose sign designates “Impuestos,” and the second that states, “Seguros.”  We head over to a wooden bench that abuts the inner wall, and sit down.

“This has probably been in use since the time of Zapata,” Alberto says.

Seated, I notice the second floor has a walkway that juts out from the facade and helps to provide some shade. The side opposite us is baking, and I wonder if the sun will make its way to our side before Nuri gets done. A door opens at the far right end of the second-floor catwalk, and a man in a green uniform steps out. At first, he gives me the impression he’s a soldier. He walks slowly along the railing, his hand gliding along the handrail until he reaches the center, directly opposite us. He stops and stares down at us. I notice he has a badge pinned to his shirt, and figure he must be a police officer. He has a hint of wariness in his eyes, which belies his casual demeanor.

“We have company,” Alberto says.  Alberto takes a coin from his pocket, and manages to bend open the bottle cap with it.  He brings his coke bottle to his lips and gulps down the contents in two long swallows.

“Guess we’re his entertainment,” I say.

Alberto regards his empty coke bottle, and then places it next to him on the bench.

“This place could use a few trash cans,” I say.

Alberto looks up at the sentry. I can judge by Alberto’s eye movements that he’s examining the man’s weaponry.

“I wonder if I threw this coke bottle in the air, he’d pull out a gun and shoot it before it hit the ground,” Alberto says.

“You’ve seen too many Westerns,” I say. I try to imagine Nuri and Milstein at the newspaper office, and wonder how long they’ll take. I think about Buzz roaming the town, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine what he could be doing.

“Be ironic if it turns out they all leave without us,” Alberto says.

“Why don’t we save the irony for literature class?” I say.

Suddenly we hear a door creaking open and slamming shut.  We turn our heads and look above us. Between the walkway slats, another sentinel has appeared

“Turistas!” the guard across the yard shouts at his partner, as he points to us. Alberto and I look upwards, and see the face of the second guard staring down at us, his head peeking out from the railing. He seems taller and slimmer than the first one, and sports long sideburns and slicked-back hair—like a Mexican version of James Dean. He looks up towards his companion and shrugs.

“Cigarrillo?” he gestures with a victory sign across the open space. The first officer reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and begins to retrieve a smoke. He seems to change his mind, returns the cigarette to the pack, and calls towards me.

“Oye, muchacho,” he says, then gives a “come closer” motion with his hand.  I get up and walk towards his side of the square.

“Give him it.” He nods to indicate his buddy, then tosses the pack over the railing, and luckily, I catch it.

I look at Alberto, shrug, and walk back across the yard and look up.

“Aquí, chico,” the guard above us says. I make an underhand toss.  The pack just manages to reach the top of the railing, and he catches it with one hand. He smiles, extracts a cigarette from the pack, puts it between his lips.  He takes out a small box of matches from his pants pocket and strikes up.

“Hey,” he calls to me. He points a finger at the cigarette pack and smiles down at me, a gesture of offering me a smoke.

“No fumo,” I yell.  He nods, then takes a deep inhale of his cigarette and exhales slowly, a show of how much he is enjoying it, and how much I’m missing out.

“I guess you’ve become their valet,” Alberto says.

“Oye,” the guard says. I look up again and he tosses the pack down to me. Then he points to the owner of the cigarette pack.  I walk across the yard again, toss it up. The first officer nods, puts the pack back in his pocket, and I walk back to the bench, and sit down.

“What about that museum?” Alberto says. He seems hotter and more fatigued.

“What about it?” I say.

Alberto stands and shouts across the quad at the officer.

“Museo?” Alberto asks.

“Cómo?” the guard says, and puts his hand to his ear.

“Museo?  Museo Histórico?” Alberto shouts.

The guard looks at him oddly, then shouts to his partner.

“Museo Histórico!” They both start laughing. Then he turns around, unbuttons his pants, and manages to lower them, gun belt and all.

“Aquí!” he says, pointing to his butt. I can hear hilarious laughter from his friend. The guard pulls up his pants and buttons himself and laughs.

“Museo Histórico!” he shouts to his friend again.

“Fuck. Maybe somebody inside knows,” I say.  I get up and walk to the closest door.

“That’s the police chief,” Alberto says, pointing to the sign by the door.

“Well, he should know,” I say.  I get up and walk up to the door. Before I open it, I look to see whether the guards are observing me, but we seem to have exhausted our entertainment value for them. However, I notice a few black specks high above us. Vultures. There seem to be a lot of them now.

I open the door marked “Jefe de Policía,” walk in, and carefully shut the door behind me. My eyes struggle to see something besides shadows. It’s like suddenly entering sunlight after being in the dark, but in reverse. As my eyes adjust, I notice that on the opposite wall there are two gun racks. One has about a dozen ancient rifles mounted vertically inside it. The other rack is nearly identical, but the guns appear to be of a newer vintage. I hear papers shuffling. I turn and realize I’m less than six feet from the Chief of police, who sits at an old wood desk spotted with burnt cigarette marks. He’s stopped his routine and stares at me.

“Dígame!” he says.

“Museo? Museo histórico?”

“Está loco?” he says. He holds his side holster as he rises from his seat.

I point at the antique guns, but this just makes the Chief more wary.  I try to think of something clever to say, but suddenly I hear gunfire outside. Then screaming and shouting. The Chief stares at me, then bolts from his desk and runs to the edge of the doorway. He glances outside, then pulls out his revolver, and starts running in the direction of the commotion. I wait a few seconds, then run outside as well. The bench where Alberto was sitting is deserted except for the empty bottle of coke. I look at the second floor landing. The police officers are gone as well. I see a glimpse of the Chief as he reaches the open archway at the end of the square, and disappears to the left.

I start running in the same direction until I’m outside the quadrangle. A few feet from the outer walls, the two deputies have Buzz on the ground, and incapacitated. Buzz’s face is pressed into the dirt while one guard has his knees pinning Buzz’s shoulders, and the other one is handcuffing him. Alberto is standing a few feet from the struggle. When he sees me, he points to a spot about four feet from Buzz’s left hand, where a revolver lies in the road.

The Chief sees me; he pulls out his weapon, and motions me to the wall. I move towards it unhesitatingly. Then the Chief spins me around, until my face is against the wall and he frisks me. He lets me go and starts talking to his men.  The three of them are talking very fast, and I hear the words “pistola,” “disparó,” “hijo de puta,” and “hijo de la chingada.”  With his face in the ground, Buzz can’t say anything. The Chief picks up the revolver, smells the barrel, opens the cylinder, and knocks out the shells, then sticks it in his waist.

“Friend?” the Chief asks Alberto. Before Alberto can answer, Nuri’s convertible suddenly approaches, pulls up, and stops. Nuri and Milstein get out.

When the Chief sees Nuri, he displays a look of recognition. Nuri shakes the Chief’s hand and begins to talk to him in a way that suggests they’re acquainted. The guards pick up the handcuffed Buzz and lean him against the wall. He’s got a slow trickle of blood running from his nose, but otherwise looks all right. The Chief is in a huddle, conferring with Nuri in Spanish. After a few minutes, they both walk over to Buzz.

“The Chief wants to know what you were shooting at,” Nuri says.

Buzz looks at each of them, and then he looks at the rest of us: Milstein, me, Alberto, and the two officers.

“The vultures,” Buzz says. “I was shooting at the vultures.”

Nuri turns to the Chief and translates. The Chief laughs, says something to Nuri.

“The Chief says there’s no way you could hit those vultures. He wants to know if you’re crazy.

“I’m not crazy,” Buzz says. “I want justice, that’s all.”

Nuri confers with the Chief, then looks at Buzz.

“Justice for what? Nuri asks.
Buzz breathes deeply. He looks at the sky. The vultures are gone.

“For my brother,” Buzz says.

Now Milstein joins Nuri and Buzz.

“Your brother?” Milstein says. “You told us what happened to him.  How can you get justice for him out here, man?” Milstein for the second time puts his arm on Buzz’s shoulder.
Buzz and Milstein look at one another for a minute. No one is talking. Then, Milstein starts nodding.

“OK, I get it. I get the deal,” Milstein says.

“I’d sure like to know the deal,” Nuri says. So would the Chief. Milstein looks at Buzz. He widens his eyes, a signal that suggests he’s telling Buzz to start talking.

“Justice for the bastards that killed my brother. I looked at those vultures, and I thought of those bastards in Washington, and then they merged together. So I started shooting, imagining I’d get revenge for my brother.”

“How could you…?” Nuri begins, but Milstein cuts him off.

“He was pretending,” Milstein said.  Then to Buzz, “Right Buzz? You were making believe.”

“Of course I was pretending. You think I’m crazy? I know I can’t save him. I know I can’t pay back the people that sent him away, but I can imagine it, can’t I? I can at least pretend. Maybe he’s looking down at me from someplace up there, and wondering what I’m thinking.  Maybe he’s watching me, and now maybe he understands how I feel, how I’d do anything to bring him back.”

“Hey Buzz,” Milstein says. Buzz looks at him.  “I understand, man.  I understand.”

“How come?” Buzz says

“Because I’m Jewish.”

Buzz looks at Milstein. He hasn’t a clue.

“Yeah, why not?” Buzz finally says.

Nuri walks to the Chief and begins conferring with him. He’s explaining the situation. The Chief is listening and as he does, he glances at Buzz. The Chief nods with dawning enlightenment. He shakes his head, indicating how crazy he finds the situation. He says a few words to Nuri, who then walks over to Buzz.

“He wants to know where you got the gun.”

“Some street vendor. He said I could own a part of old Mexico,” Buzz says
Nuri tells the Chief. The Chief pulls out the gun from his belt, looks at it, laughs, and says something to Nuri.

“The Chief says it’s an old Russian gun. And he says it’s a piece of shit.”

Buzz shrugs. The Chief signals one of the guards to uncuff Buzz. Key in hand, the James Dean guard turns Buzz around, and unlocks the handcuffs. Buzz rubs his wrists. The Chief takes something from his pocket. It’s a coin. The Chief looks at it, massages it with his thumb and forefinger, and then hands it to Buzz. Then the Chief turns and speaks to Nuri so he can translate.

“The Chief says to take that as a souvenir. It’s a Zapatista coin. It’s like 70 years old. He says it’s a part of Mexican history. It’s money the revolutionaries coined when they were trying to liberate the country. He says it brings good luck.”

Buzz takes the coin from the Chief’s extended palm, and examines it, as Nuri and the Chief cautiously watch. Buzz nods, and looks pleased. We all begin to calm down, until Nuri and the Chief start a conversation that soon escalates into an argument. I can see each of us has the same thought: “Now what?”

“Let’s get out of here,” Nuri says suddenly. Then he turns to Buzz.

“He’s letting you go, Buzz.  He just wants for all of us to get the hell out of town, fast.”

With that, we climb into Nuri’s convertible—each of us resuming the same seating arrangement–and

Nuri starts pulling away from the municipal building.

“Son of a bitch,” Nuri says.

“Who?” Alberto says.

“Tell him, legal genius,” Nuri tells Milstein.

“The notices. We couldn’t get them approved,” Milstein says.

“You mean we stopped for nothing?” Alberto says.

Buzz mumbles something, but none of us can make it out.

“What?” we all say simultaneously. We’re all concerned about him, and a bit wary.

“Not for nothing,” Buzz says. Everyone becomes silent, each of us thinking about what Buzz is saying.

“Two forms of ID and a witness, right Milstein?” Nuri says.  “But the witness has to be a Mexican. A Mexican citizen.”

“Hey, I’m just a law student,” Milstein says.  “I didn’t know about the citizen part.”

“Prick,” Nuri says.

“You could have asked the Chief to be a witness,” Alberto says.

“I did.  He told me he had his fill of doing favors for us. He told me to come back another time—by myself,” Nuri says.

“That’s it?” Alberto says.  We’re back on the two-lane highway now.

“He also said ‘that’s what I get for marrying a Mexican.’”

“What does that mean?” Alberto says.

“How the hell do I know?”

Then Nuri focuses ahead on the road, and just drives in silence. No one else seems to have anything to say either. The car sputters ahead at 45 miles an hour.  I look at the expanse of sky.  It looks pretty much the same.  Only there aren’t any vultures. At least none for the time being.




The Devil’s Backbone

He had warned us. This wouldn’t be your travel agent’s Mexico, no rent-a-moped-and-go-out-for-margaritas vacation. This would be diesel-town, country-poor and don’t-drink-the-water. And I’d better brush up on my Spanish; most signs would warn “no se habla englais.”

Bob—our wiry, red-headed, internationally-known birding expert friend—wanted Rich and me to join him in rural northeastern Mexico for the 1991 El Naranjo Audubon Christmas Count. Plus, he reasoned, it made sense to spend another week on the west coast, between the old-time-Mexico towns of Mazatlan and San Blas, with an excursion into the Sierra Madre Mountains along the infamous Durango Highway.

Rich and I were veterans of Christmas Counts—the annual world-wide event that turns birders into citizen-scientists, documenting the quantity and variety of birds seen in a given area.

And we had heard about the Durango Highway, Mexico route 40, at that time one of only two paved east-west roads crossing the country. It was a dangerous place. Not just the ten thousand-foot elevation, treacherous two-lanes with hairpin turns, canyon-like drop-offs, and lack of guardrails. Or the rockslides, washouts, fog and occasional ice. This was the ‘outback’ of Mexico—the land of Pancho Villa—a remote backcountry, inhospitable and lawless. Even by 1990, birders had been robbed at gunpoint for their high-priced optics, and a thriving drug trade in the isolated mountains fueled grisly murders by rival fledgling drug cartels. Some books called the road El Camino de Tres Mil Curvas, the Road of 3,000 Curves. Others referred to it more darkly as El Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil’s Backbone. Author Richard Grant would later name the region “God’s Middle Finger” and the State Department would eventually recommend “to defer all non-essential travel to the area.”

In contrast, we knew the highway held some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country, cutting across the spine of the Sierra Madres where rivers have carved deep valleys and dramatic canyons through volcanic rock, and the serrated ridges of the deeply-forested mountain range drift hundreds of miles to a hazy blue horizon.

But most importantly, the Durango Highway had become renowned in birding circles; it was home to an abundance of birds, many found nowhere else in the world.

Rich and I compared the pros to the cons and decided: we had to go.

The whole idea was crazy enough to appeal to another friend, Brian, a soft-spoken guy who, with his long hair and wire-rimmed glasses, looks like a gentle throwback to the ‘60s. It didn’t take much convincing; he was in.

January 2, 1991: The second week of our Mexican adventure. Perched atop the roof of an old mountain guesthouse, the three guys and I were enjoying our cervezas and the last balmy breeze of a t-shirt-weather day. We had an unobstructed view—down dusty foothills, across a rolling plain, due west about 50 miles to the Pacific—to the sun setting over the sprawling city of Mazatlan, the jumping-off point for the old Durango Highway.

Halfway up the highway’s first mountain, at about 4000 feet, we were settled into Villa Blanca—comfortable, accommodating, owned by a German couple who filled it with ferns and knickknacks and encouraged us, as the only guests, to climb out the third-floor window for sunset-watching from the roof.

I leaned back on the worn, brown, sun-warmed shingles, taking a more comfortable approach to roof-sitting than my travel companions now straddling the peak.

“Why don’t you sit up here?” one of them called down to me.

“No way,” I said, laughing.

My ‘condition’ had become the butt of the day’s jokes—literally—since a small lapse in judgment two days prior made it uncomfortable to sit. On ‘count day’ in El Naranjo we were afield before dawn. By late morning it was time to pee, but hiking an old forest horse trail, we were miles from any facilities. Not thinking clearly, I struck off deep into the brush, eager for privacy and not minding that the flannel-lined jacket tied around my waist was resting against the bushes where I squatted. That night, as I leaned over the old hotel’s claw-foot bathtub, my husband, with tweezer in hand and all the love he could muster, had pulled 38 tiny ticks from my behind.

Evening settled around the rooftop and I reached for my now tick-free jacket. A pair of nighthawks swooped low over the pines in front of us. Talk turned to the previous week’s count where we had logged 177 species of birds.

“How many of those were life birds?” asked Bob, referring to the special list most birders keep of all the birds they have seen in a lifetime.

“Sixteen for us,” Rich said holding a thumbs-up like a dark silhouette against the sky. We had birded extensively in the Yucatan two years earlier; many of the El Naranjo birds were already on our life list.

“Double that for me,” said Brian, who had never been to Mexico.

Bob, who had seen most of the Mexican birds, wasn’t expecting any life birds, but we knew he would be thrilled by anything unusual in the days to come, especially the endemics—the birds unique to a particular place.

“You might get as many as ten new ones tomorrow,” said Bob, “but we’ll concentrate on three targets: two jays and a hummingbird.”

The Mexican jays might be even more beautiful than their North American cousins. The exotic tufted jay is found only in Mexico’s western mountains. The other endemic jay, the black-throated magpie-jay, is two and a half feet long; his tail alone is longer than a crow. The hummingbird in question, the bumblebee, at 2.8 inches, is one of the smallest birds in the world.

I pulled my jacket tight over my chest and shivered, the shingles against my back suddenly free of their solar properties. I wondered about the upcoming adventure. What would it be like to cross the devil’s backbone? Already we had endured one robbery in Mazatlan; someone had slid open the trunk of the rental car and made off with Brian’s backpack and our telescope. Did that event presage our foray into wilder areas?

We were out before dawn in the bracing mountain air, deep-breathing the earthy smells of the forest. As we squeezed into our smaller-than-compact car, one lone nighthawk glided through the pale light of the parking lot. Rich, sharing driving duties with Bob, climbed into the driver’s seat, and Bob, as navigator, took the passenger’s side. Brian and I settled into the back, the foil-wrapped package of breakfast tortillas between us, warm against my leg, as the car filled with the savory aroma of hot scrambled eggs and pungent chilies.

The quest was on.

The road ascended immediately and driving was slow, winding through the dark oak and pine forest. At each bend toward east we spotted another pastel layer of daybreak, then a sharp curve plunged us again into dim shadows. Grateful that Brian had the drop-off side, I steeled myself against the twists and turns, focusing out the front window on the thin mist hanging over the distant peaks.

We found our first stop, a pull-off for a sign marking the Tropic of Cancer. But there was nothing tropical about the morning. Huddled in small patches of sunlight, hopping from foot to foot for warmth, we strained our ears to distinguish specific calls through the din of birdsong—the scream of parrots, the constant trill of towhees, the plaintive notes of the flycatchers.

Suddenly, in the distance, a raucous squawking alerted us that jays were on the move. Flying in boisterous noisy packs, called a party, they streak through an area—you need to be quick to get a good look at one. We stared through the woodland toward the invisible ruckus. I raised my binoculars, alert for any movement.

“Here they come,” Rich whispered and pointed toward some dense vegetation about 50 yards away. I spied something—just a blur—an indistinct flapping of wings and rustle of foliage. Then the whole party burst into view: at least a dozen tufted jays. One broke off from the pack and, with a loud raaaaaak, flew directly toward us. I caught him in my binoculars, fiddled frantically with the focus, and gasped. He was stunning. Intensely black, white and deep rich blue. A shock of feathers splayed like a mohawk along his head. He shot past my face, close enough for me to glimpse his vivid yellow eye.

Three of us let out a “whoop!” while Bob smiled, scratched a checkmark in his pocket-sized notebook and said, “Success number one.”

We drove higher in elevation. Every now and then, a break in the forest revealed a vast canyon, wider than a city block, the walls of its far side glowing brick red in the sun. At one opening Rich spotted a pull-off, barely large enough for us to step out timidly and peer over the edge to the rushing stream below. As if on cue, a small party of jays squawked into view. Huge as hawks, these were sleek and blue with black plumes sweeping back from a crest on their heads, and as they spread their wings and tails they floated across the valley like parachutes. We watched in silence as our second target bird disappeared across the distant ridge.

Back in the car, we zigzagged again up the mountain, adrenaline pumping, confident in the luck of the day. More hairpin turns taunted us to choose: look down into the barrancas (the steep-walled ravines) or across the rugged vistas to the jagged peaks against the sky. Finally, the wooded areas thinned into meadows. More people walked the roadsides here, bent and burdened. We passed a couple of dilapidated shacks, a few campesinos hunched over their land, scratching a living from the rocky soil.

“This is the place,” said Bob, signaling Rich to pull into a small parking area.

In the distance, up the slope, the hillside was undulating, waving like a breeze over wheat fields. We slowed to a creep. The waves became colors—brilliant blues and greens, and shimmering black. The movement was birds. Hummingbirds. Hundreds of them.

Standing at the side of the road, scanning the hillside, we could see every size and color of hummingbird. Chunky green violet-ears, glittering fork-tailed emeralds, star-throats with ruby blaze and bills as long as their bodies, and magnificent hummingbirds—purplish black and twice the size of the others. Each flower seemed to have its own, hovering, zipping into the air above or across the field and back. Some trilled like insects, others buzzed like band-saws as they whizzed up and down, back and forth in a manic flight pattern through the fragrant wildflowers.

“Bumblebee!” Bob shouted, and instantly we all spotted it. There, above a gaudy pink flower, it floated, no larger than an insect—a perfect miniature hummingbird. The tiniest bird we had ever seen.

A shiver of excitement surged through me, a rush of pure delight to witness that exquisite bird. I glanced at my companions, three grown men grinning like kids. We lingered—the sun warm, the buzz of the hillside mesmerizing, the thrill of the morning settling into contentment.

For the rest of the day we hiked at higher elevations through the heady scent of pine. The sun was warm; birds were everywhere. In contrast to the previous week, often running into fellow birders, we shared the wide paths with no one, our footsteps muffled by the thick forest floor. We identified Mexican species, new for the trip, plus dozens of North American migrants that depend on the Mexican forests for survival. Like us, they might have spent their summer in Virginia but now were relishing this equatorial winter. By late afternoon, exhausted and elated, we decided to head back to Villa Blanca. Bob, always open to a chance for a few more birds, suggested one last detour up a small gravel back road that runs to the village of La Pateca.

The road was a washboard; we thumped along, a billowing cloud of dust stretching behind us, the shimmer of heat haze ahead. Almost to the village, we conceded that we might be done for the day. Time to turn around and head back down the hill.

Suddenly, around a bend in a switchback, two beat-up jeeps and a flatbed truck blocked the road. The jeeps were crammed with men. Another dozen leaned out over the long rickety sides of the truck. They all looked like the locals we’d seen along the road. Except they were armed with submachine guns.

Rich skidded the car to a halt. I grabbed Brian’s arm. We stared ahead.

No one spoke. My heart pounded in my ears.

A stocky, bearded man jumped from the first jeep. His gun flopped around his neck as he stomped toward us in heavy black boots, caked with clay. Rich rolled down his window and, under his breath, said, “Get ready, Cin. You’re on.”

I squirmed in my seat, my tick bites suddenly prickling, my mind suddenly blank. Brian shot me a quick glance. Shit. As designated Spanish-speaker, I had to explain to this guy what we were doing there.

He reached the car. His dark blue shirt and trousers were stained and ragged. He could have been a soldier or bandito—his weapon was formidable.

Gesturing with his gun, the man barked a few indistinguishable words. Rich cracked his door, leaning to get out. With a shout and a shove of one elbow, the man slammed the door. The other arm held the gun steady, pointed toward the open window. Right at my husband’s head.

“Wait!” I shrieked, desperately rolling down my window. The gun barrel swung toward the back seat. I couldn’t see the top of the man’s head, only a couple of yellow-stained teeth as two black, cracked lips curled into a sneer.

I pointed to my binoculars. “We are birdwatchers. We mean no harm,” I said to the gun, except I said it in English, and in that loud, halting voice people use when they think the other person doesn’t understand or can’t hear them. Or both.

Silence. I felt the cold sting of a tear on my cheek.

“Come on, Cin, say something!” Rich whispered.

Aves,” I blurted out, finally remembering the word for bird. I cocked my head toward his face. “Aves,” I repeated.

The man glared. Squinted. Sized us up. Then slowly backed away. The moment hung in the air, no one breathing.

He swung the gun right to left, low across his chest. “He wants you to go,” Bob whispered. The man swung the gun again.

“Okay,” Rich muttered, “here goes.”

He shoved the gearshift into drive and slowly inched forward. No reaction.

We inched again. The man continued to scowl.

We eased through the narrow gap between the ditch and the flatbed. Past the men lined up along the long sideboard. Their dark eyes trained on us, their guns followed the movement of our car. Some were just kids, waiting to shoot. At the back end of the truck Rich paused.

“Drive like hell!” yelled Bob.

And we did. Down the hill, slumped in our seats, terrified the desperados might decide to pursue. Even Rich hunkered down, trying at the same time to keep the car from spinning out on the gravel turns. All the way to the bottom of the hill we skidded, until Rich pulled to the side of the road and turned off the engine.

“Holy shit,” he said. We all nodded.

We sat in the stunned silence for a few minutes, hearts pounding.

Finally, Bob gestured toward the main road. “Let’s get out of here. Before they change their minds.”

As we drove on to Villa Blanca, we hashed and re-hashed the event, the terror gradually subsiding, replaced by a survivor’s giddiness.

“Maybe they were vigilantes,” Brian said, “and we looked suspicious.”

“Maybe somebody screwed somebody’s wife,” Rich added.

We suggested more scenarios, but the question lingered: what the hell just happened?

Back at the inn we grabbed Tecates from the cooler and climbed shakily onto the roof.

The sun was dropping toward the horizon, and suddenly, for just an instant, the sky around it flashed green. Then darkness settled around us and, in place of the setting sun, the city of Mazatlan was a thin string of lights in the distance.

“To the Durango Highway,” said Brian, raising his bottle.

I felt the relief of the icy bitter liquid drenching my mouth. I shivered, biting back the swirl of emotions rushing up from my gut. Dread of the desperadoes, anger that we had put our lives in danger, shock that we had survived, gratitude to be alive in this now-tranquil setting.

Rich put his arm around me. “To ticks,” he whispered with a chuckle, clinking my bottle.

“To birds,” said Bob.

“To life birds,” we all echoed.

“To life,” I whispered, swallowing back some tears.




Battle of the Abuelas

On a map find the southern point on the straight border where New Mexico nudges up to Arizona, set your odometer. Drive south and slightly east. At exactly 222 miles you will be in my hometown in Mexico. El Cielo. Population 2,600. When I tell this to my neighbors in Phoenix, where I have lived and worked since college, they assume my birth town is filled with violence due to the sad reality of supply-and-demand for drugs and the reputation of northern Mexican towns for such criminality. But this is not the case with El Cielo. No one dares bring disgrace on our town, fearing, as well they should, retribution from the old grandmothers, the abuelas, who hold great sway over the inhabitants. No drug dealer lasts more than a month. If they don’t leave, they die. The townspeople will tell you this is due to the Curse of the Moths, placed on them by the abuelas. They will tell you this is the most effective drug war.

Let me tell you about an instance of the Curse which contributes to El Cielo’s premier legend, known as the Battle of the Abuelas. As with most stories, opinions differ regarding the meaning of these events. In my required college literature class I was driven mad by the imprecision of interpretation: does the white whale stand for purity or evil; is his albino nature righteous or perverse? I am a scientist but I have since learned that the scientific method is difficult to apply to all the earth’s phenomena. Perhaps it is wise to withhold judgment until the outcome of this tale is fully determined.

Twenty-three years ago, in ’78, during Semana Santa or the Holy week before Easter Sunday Lent, a small girl by the name of Carlita was whisked into my hometown aboard a fin-tailed 1960 Desoto, by her father (my cousin), Lavin, a man who had grown up amongst us and who, when he was our town’s carpenter, had repaired the adobe walls and the tiled or metal or sod roofs of our homes many times over. Lavin appeared in town unannounced on a day of racing thunderclouds and stayed a mere three nights, repeatedly declining his mother’s entreaties to linger until Easter dinner. He left under cover of a vast star-sprinkled sky in a hurry, he said, to get back to his drywall business in California, which he boastfully reported to all who would listen, was going great guns. (I was just eleven years old, and how I wished to follow him and work in the glamorous and moneymaking drywall business!)

It seems that his former wife—I use “wife” loosely because they were never married (this distinction cited frequently by our gossips)—was once again “decompensating” as his de facto-mother-in-law put it, or “going completely loca” as Lavin put it, and he felt his much loved little girl, Carlita, needed the safety and warmth of extended family that El Cielo afforded. He left the girl, a small suitcase, one threadbare ragdoll, and $300 American dollars in twenties on the Abuela’s ancient nightstand.

Carlita was five at the time, and beyond the advantage of being slightly pudgy, hence huggable and cuddly, she had the attraction of thick, waist-length, honey-colored hair and radiant pink cheeks. Her power to enchant caused the mothers in town to swoon and give in to an inescapable desire to hug the little girl, much to the displeasure of the child who took to cowering behind her grandmother’s orange, yellow, and brown layered skirts, peeking out only far enough to avoid tripping on the cobbled streets.

At this time I was living between the houses of my Abuela and my uncle Daniel because my father had gone to Panama to build hotels and my mother had crossed to the U.S. in search of her lover. My abuela, who at that time still operated a shop on the town plaza, mostly selling food to the other shop owners, often needed me to take Carlita for a morning walk or to sit sentry while she napped in the afternoons.

Our town was a mix of people from different regions, including indigenous Tarahumara many of whom still live in villages far up the canyons of the Sierra Nevada Occidental; they were a people who successfully evaded the conquistadores and now simply wanted to live in peace. My family, like most families, was blended, as they say here in the States. My abuela’s mother was mixed Cuban and Yoruban. It was said my grandmother’s mother came to El Cielo to consult Niño Fidencio, the folk saint and curandero, to learn the old ways of healing and deliver her mother from a cancer of the thyroid, but instead of returning to Cuba she stayed and married Niño, leaving her sick mother to her fate. My abuela learned folkways from her Cuban mother. She learned native Tarahumaran ways from her father, a man with a mercurial temper who could run twenty kilometers (about 12 miles) to the nearest lake to catch a bass for dinner and arrive back in a little more than an hour.

Because we lived in a town, not a village, Spanish was the lingua franca. My English was good and Carlita’s (she was my second cousin) Spanish was still unformed so in this way I became both her caretaker and her interpreter. We often sat in front of our Abuela’s store, me reading to Carlita or sharing sweets I’d appropriated from the candy jars behind the register. My friends laughed, always calling me a niñera mariquita—a sissy babysitter. The loud lout of the pack, who has since lost his arm in a baling accident, taunted me daily, “Niñera, show me your tetas,” which always brought on guffaws even from my closest friend, Paulo, who avoided eye contact with me. But Carlita comforted me by promising to “spank those naughty boys,” and this somehow cheered me up.

The child warmed to and blossomed under the affection of the Abuela who was previously unknown to little Carlita, who had visited only once when she was eight months old, before the time of memory formation. Back then the happy parents had arrived to warm welcomes even though the infant’s mother was a gringa, wore her pants too tight, revealed too much cleavage, dyed her hair platinum, and did not speak a word of Spanish, much less the Abuela’s indigenous language.

Still, the Abuela was willing, for the sake of her son, to forgive many faults because the granddaughter was, everyone agreed, magnificent and bore a true resemblance to the Christ child (whittled in rosewood by a deaf town baker) that resided in the portico of our chapel, built by missionaries in 1649. Having grown up viewing this sculpted baby god daily on my way to and from our disheveled town school, I could see no particular resemblance beyond chubby cheeks and a full, rosebud of a mouth. But that is me; as my own mother, Carlita’s father’s cousin, says, “you have no imagination, Julio, and never will.” So, as it has been long established that I have no capacity for mental imagery, perhaps my word on this cannot be trusted.

It was in the sixth month of Carlita’s residence—by this time the people had ceased compulsively stopping to adore the child and now merely cast admiring smiles in her direction whenever she passed—chubby hand grasping her Abuela’s skirt—that the fracas began with the arrival in El Cielo of the other Grandmother. The wealthy gringa from Los Angeles.

The L.A. Grandmother flew into the airport in Espléndido on a private airplane she had chartered—a Piper Seminole no less; I saw it with my own eyes when I drove out with Manuel to pick her up. We shuttled her into town through a dust storm in Manuel’s suspension-less Chevy, the sole taxi in a three-town radius. She maintained her cool even as our potholes caused her head to bounce off the roof. She offended Manuel by complaining about the missing rear window which allowed a plume of dry copper-colored dirt into the car, ruining her hair, her silk dress, and exposing her asthma-ridden lungs to irritation. Still, when she arrived in El Cielo, she exited the car with a regal bearing and proceeded to book two rooms in our town’s only hotel, a pink-stuccoed, three-story former manse of a Spanish colonel that squarely faced the town plaza, Plaza de Oro (though silver, not gold, had been mined here).

Great activity ensued as she set up shop in the hotel’s small covered patio. She immediately purchased a hammock, wooden table and chairs, and a rainbow-striped umbrella to protect against the merciless August sun. A flatbed truck, rarely seen in the town, made three trips to deliver items which the townspeople had lived without for hundreds of years—bottled water, portable air-conditioners, thick new mattresses, spray-bottles to mist overheated bodies, tins of imported Russian caviar (though this last may have been an exaggeration). Two out-of-work shepherds were hired by the hotel to water the courtyards, rake pea-gravel, and tend the pink rockroses and ocotillo that bordered the stone walls of the inner courtyard.

There, in some of the best shade in town and amongst the landlady’s prized purple-blossomed bougainvillea the L.A. Grandmother and her interpreter-lawyer made their wolf den, intending to negotiate for possession of the cub. That is, of Carlita.

The Abuela was at first startled by the presence of the other grandmother, then gradually intrigued, irritated, offended, and finally incensed. Who was this fancy woman with no humility? For how could she be a morally sound person if she had mothered the flashy, non-maternal, cheating, not to mention loca, mother of Carlita? More to the point, why was she here?

The L.A. Grandmother wore many gold chains around her wrist. Pearls dangled around her thin neck and large topaz earrings stretched her earlobes. She also possessed suspiciously non-wrinkled skin on her face and neck, which, the Abuela exclaimed, displayed ungodly vanity and wastefulness. “Besides,’ she was heard to say, “why erase the wrinkles on your forehead and leave your arms to sag?” It was clear, she said, that this woman had not lifted a finger to work in the whole of her privileged existence. This last was criticism of the highest order. The Abuela had worked since she was ten years old.

Like most towns in this part of the country, El Cielo has a water shortage. We have enough for small home gardens and for drinking; the few cows and goats people still wish to keep have water and the babies get a bath daily, but the adults, by custom, resort to spit baths. It was rumored that in this, the driest season of the year, bathtubs were filled for the Grandmother twice a day with water supplied by a rancher who raised cattle fifty miles to the north. I mention this as proof of the Grandmother’s arrogance, though to be honest, if I had the money I might have done the same, so desiccating is the unceasing summer heat in my hometown.

The first encounter between the Abuela and the Grandmother was of a symbolic sort. The Abuela had long established notoriety in the region since, as a young mother in her twenties, she had invented a thirst quenching drink made from the planta de nube, or cloud plant. This plant produces berries in the late spring which—after cooking, sifting, and straining them several times over—form the nectar from which is made the sugary, tart concoction, known as Agridulce, or Agrio for short, for no matter how much sugar is added the tongue’s sour taste buds are kicked into overdrive when the beverage is drunk. Yet Agrio is surprisingly thirst quenching and very popular, and for decades made up a sizeable chunk of its inventor’s household income. The Abuela, shrewd businesswoman that she was, charged higher prices in hotter weather. No one dared complain.

One day the L.A. Grandmother was seen at our town store purchasing two bottles of Agridulce. It was reported that upon tasting the liquid the lawyer spit it out onto the sidewalk and the Grandmother was said to remark, “Suck it up Harold, it is slightly better than the mud they call water. You don’t want to become dehydrated. ” When she was informed of this comment the Abuela found it insulting beyond measure, not just to herself but also to the fine people of the town. Mud drinkers! How dare she.

The second volley consisted of the Grandmother sending her lawyer to visit the Abuela. The lawyer, a tall tomato-faced man with wide-spaced insect eyes who bowed as if the Abuela were a queen, set his dirty briefcase on the clean tablecloth and proceeded to negotiate. With sweet words and a checkbook at the ready, he offered “on behalf of his generous client” to provide a “better, more appropriate, home for the poor, traumatized child.”

That evening, when the weather had cooled to simmering from sweltering, and the crickets had begun their modulated evening chirrup, the Abuela marched over to the courtyard of the Hotel Dormilón and insisted that the Grandmother apologize for attempting to “buy” her granddaughter as if she were a cow, a goat, or rather more insulting, a pig.

“I’ve done nothing of the kind,” said the Grandmother, who held her skinny body stiffly as if to exude moral and fashion superiority. “Carlita would be better off in the States where she will be well provided for. I’ve seen the schoolhouse here. Surely you want more for her.” The Abuela was so angry she prayed a silent prayer to San Gabriel to give her the strength to keep her hands to her sides and squelch her impulse to scratch the Grandmother’s taut face, twist her earlobes, and scatter her pearls on the tiles.

“I can see, Grandmother, that you wish to engage in a battle. You will find me a formidable foe,” the Abuela said, although it was her nephew, acting as her interpreter, who had provided the lovely words “formidable foe,” which were nevertheless enshrined in legend as coming from the Abuela’s mouth (the Abuela had said araño viuda negra—Black Widow spider). And with that noble stance, she became the proud warrior of the town’s honor, whose powers came straight from the Eyerúame, the iconic “mother protector” according to the old people who still retained some of the old Tarahumara language and pre-Catholic beliefs.

The L.A. Grandmother was determined to have the upper hand and in a week’s time three more rooms at the usually empty hotel had been booked for so-called “advisors,” two men and a woman who wore what must have been impossibly hot suits (the woman also wore high heels and this caused snickers every time she hobbled to the corner shop for her afternoon popcicleta).

The days turned into weeks.

In the fourth week of the campaign the Grandmother decided to do an end run around the Abuela and sent her team of overdressed burros, as the townspeople had taken to calling them, to Carlita’s father’s two brothers, sister’s-in-law, and five of his second-cousins, one of whom was the head of the town council. The burros promised a new recreation center with air-conditioning, ping pong tables and a community television with satellite dish; an eight-thousand gallon, elegant cistern (12 x18”photos of a similar one in Nogales were displayed with gold push-pins on a cork-board); and a concrete block and tile-roofed pre-school building complete with a small kitchen for hot lunches and funding for two teachers for five years—this last to be named Escuela Carlita, presumably to stick in the craw of the Abuela long after the granddaughter had gone.

The stakes were now high and the Abuela, who had assumed the stance of a patient Gray-headed dove, now became a condor, bird of prey.

The Abuela consulted two of the longest-lived women in the town—the weaver of shawls, who now sold only to tourists, and the potter, whose wares were no longer in demand because of plastic—about the ethics of deploying the Curse of the Moths on her granddaughter’s grandmother. They, like her, guarded the secret of the Curse, handed uniquely to them by the Abuela’s mother who had come from an island in a sea the Abuelas had heard of but never seen.

“She is a devil masquerading in the guise of goodness,” said the weaver.

“Yet the benevolence is just a cover for her wicked plan to abscond with Carlita, a clear violation of Lavin’s wish,” said the potter.

“Would I be correct to invoke The Curse?” Abuela asked.

To which the two, whose ages added together totaled one hundred and eighty-three, shrugged and shook their heads as if to say the gringa grandmother had brought down the moth plague onto herself with her shameful plotting.

***

Let me explain the Curse of the Moths: In the ancient belief of our culture, moths represent the final state of the soul of a man, the state in which one enters heaven. It is therefore a good omen when the moths appear before or after the funeral of one recently departed—presumably they speed him on his journey to heaven.

But sometimes the moths swarm. My great-grandmother learned to harness this phenomenon, passing the secret down the generations to select women, her daughter, the Abuela, being one.

Speaking in my capacity as a scientist (I am a pedologist for the Arizona Department of Agriculture—I test and study soil) I can say it is a biological fact that every spring moths proliferate. Winter departs, spring begins and within days the moths arrive with their soft white and brown-stripped wings unfurled, enveloping the walls of buildings seemingly overnight. Many houses in El Cielo are overtaken with cocoons, which form under rafters, blackout windows, clog vents, and festoon the acacias along the streets. The cocoons and moths inhabit only the exterior of buildings, and only briefly—perhaps eight days, maybe two weeks—then decamp for their northern habitat.

Unless the Curse has been invoked.

The guilty are cursed for breaking God’s rules or man’s laws. For instance, the Curse has been called down upon people guilty of lying and cheating (the guy who sold bad car tires and batteries) trafficking drugs (the tattooed maleantes—thugs—who set up shop in the former rail shed), wife or husband beating (both and several), stealing cars (my uncle’s included), and tempting young boys to entertain a life of crime (me and Paulo amongst others). The moths stay until the perpetrator repents and turns themselves in, or flees, or expires.

In such cases the moth infestation can last a month or more. When the Curse is implemented, swarms of moths as large as thunderclouds overtake the guilty person. The “clouds” produce panic in one unaccustomed to seeing these thick, fluttering swarms. The proliferation of moths invades the interior of homes and businesses of the guilty, their automobiles, and every fold of skin. An infestation is evidence that one of the old women has, after careful deliberation, decided to protect the town’s purity. Once cursed, there is no chance for eternal rest; the moths become the emblem of hell rather than a harbinger of heaven. With the exception of certain approved and life-long acts of penitence, forgiveness is rarely granted.

Everyone in town believes the curse exists, even those who will not admit it. My uncle Ramos says to me, “the evidence lies before you, evil visits the town. The abuelas curse transgressors. If they don’t leave with their forked tails between their ass cheeks, they die.”

Me, I am a scientist. How can I believe this?

As for the moths, a common species of Lepidoptera (the order that comprises butterflies and moths), they abound and thrive in El Cielo as do old women, who statistically live much longer than their miner husbands. The temperature in El Cielo can reach a stubborn one-hundred-and-twenty degrees in the summer yet it is not unusual to see abuelas quick-stepping along the streets in their block-heeled sandals and colorful head scarves, shopping and visiting under the nearly shadeless Mesquite trees as if the sun were a ball of white ice rather than of fire, while I, on my obligatory quarterly visit, am reduced to lying with a wet rag on my forehead hoping for the rare high-dessert breeze.

Entomologists, including amateurs like myself, account for our town’s surfeit of moths by describing the perfect intersection of weather and habitat—dessert winds, low bluffs, and el planta de nube, whose thick and spiny branches provide a safe home for the reproducing moths. Others speak of the loss, because of drought, of their preferred more northern habitat—specifically the Huachuca Mountains of Southern Arizona.

Technically the moths, even when swarming, pose no risk to human health. Yet, some of those cursed actually die. Do these evildoers smother? Do the moths expose them to a virus? Do they die from fear?

As a scientist I have asked other questions: What conditions prompt the moths to nest exclusively inside the homes of rule breakers? Which invites other less scientific questions: Don’t each of us in some way transgress, if only on moral grounds? Who is not worthy of punishment? Is the Curse a proof of an alternative reality in which mysticism exists? A spiritism which, let’s face it, my countrymen have embraced from before the time of our Catholic conquistadores? Correlation does not imply causation, as any scientist knows. Still, something is fishy here.

Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be cursed.

Regardless of how one explains it, the outcome is that crime has always been pretty rare in El Cielo.

***

Having reached consensus with her fellow matriarchs, the Abuela prepared to execute the curse. A covert ceremony was undertaken in which certain words were chanted and ancient Bare-throated tiger-heron tail feathers were laid over bowls filled with berries from the planta de nube. One king snake, three lizards, and a Leopard frog were sacrificed on a flat-topped boulder in the gully behind the gas station, after which a tissue paper lantern was set aloft on the warm air stream that pushes upward over the bluff where the town sits.

Spent, the Abulea sat on a boulder watching as the lantern dipped side to side like an angry ghost down the length of the arroyo, losing sight of it as it wafted out over El Cañón Triste—the Sad Canyon.

It was now up to the spirits of the desert.

The moths came the following afternoon. Giant waves of susurrating moths could be seen approaching on two fronts from the arroyos. The postman’s car careened down tortuous town roads like a fuzzy bunny with two windshield-wiped eyes. The town square was a soft undulating nest for a turkey hen the size of eight houses. Quietly buzzing moths covered the Church of San Gabriel’s two stuccoed spires and coated the solid door with soft, riffling fur.

However—and this is where differing interpretations arise—the Abuela’s own house and patio as well as the cart from which she sold her tart drinks on special occasions appeared as if buried under drifts of fluffy sand.

That night, as she intermittently slept the Abuela dreamed of angels coming to her aid. The two angels carried chalices of molten silver and presented her dream self with two golden swords, one called Vengence and the other called Circunspección. The message was, even for a dream, confusing at best.

She awakened to find the moths had invaded the interior of her very own house. How did the she-devil accomplish this feat? Who was the hoodlum, who the violator, whose purpose was evil here anyway! The Abuela was forced to flee to her store.

Her fellow abuelas, including the weaver and the potter, stopped by in the late morning to report that the hotel, with the exception of the drunken gardener’s potting shed, was devoid of moths. The Abuela was incensed. She was finding it difficult to apply the principle of stillness and patience with regard to the spider in their midst (as she would readily admit in subsequent recountings).

Word spread house to house in record time—faster than it would’ve taken to dial the town phone tree. That night at my uncle’s house I imagined I heard a murmurous vibration filling the air above the houses. I believed it was the sound of everyone in the town talking amongst themselves, questioning the meaning of the backfired curse. Shocked. Surprised. Baffled.

That night the Abuela lost her dignity, or, because she had always been considered the wisest muki´ in the town, some say the Devil collaborated with God to test her. Other’s say she lost her mind. My friend’s father, the town’s postal clerk, believes that she went to the church to pray and came across the tesgüino, a corn-based beer used for the Sunday service, and, finding herself thirsty, imbibed, not realizing how disruptive this would be to her spirit of self-control. My uncle Ramos believes she went to the church in search of the brew, having given in to despair thinking she was losing both her granddaughter and her honor. Others believed the Abuela considered it a done deal that the town council would vote in favor of the improvements offered by the L.A. Grandmother and—sure they would pressure her, browbeat her, and generally freeze her out if she chose to retain custody of Carlita over the proposed communal benefits to the town—she meant to drink herself to oblivion. The devout believed she went to the church to ask the pardon of San Gabriel for administering the ancient, heathen Curse in hopes it wasn’t too late to rectify her actions.

She did not know how to drive. That is what her sons said after the fact, but this did not stop her from driving the priest’s jeep through the flimsy gate, into the courtyard of the Hotel Dormilón. The moment she started the car, the Abuela would say years later, the night road turned to velvet and a bright beam shown as if the Moon herself was guiding her from heaven towards the evil interloper. Righteousness gave strength to her feeble old legs allowing her to keep the gas pedal pressed to the floor. At one point she imagined herself cupped in the palm of the Virgin, padded with soft writhing moths.

No one else was hurt, although the ancient fountain built with imported marble and golden glazed tiles, which sat in El Dormilon’s courtyard, required specialized repair at no small cost. The hotel’s occupants were in bed by then, with their fans on, running up tremendous bills for the hotel and causing brownouts at the two town bars as they had for several nights running.

The Abuela cracked two ribs, broke her left tibia, hit her head on the dashboard, and suffered extensive bruising of her face including two black eyes. She was unconscious one week, Sunday to Sunday.

She awoke a calm woman. While not admitting defeat, the Abuela sat up in her bed and directed me, as her interpreter and now, sadly, her body stand-in to pack the small red suitcase Carlita had arrived with. At dusk, after much hugging and crying, as well as the formal placing of a silver locket around the child’s frail neck, I walked hand-in-hand with Carlita up the winding, cobbled road to the hotel.

The transfer was smooth. Carlita did not cry; she seemed dazzled by the Grandmother’s pearls, gold bracelets, and spicy gardenia perfume—a fact I did not disclose to my Abuela.

They say the Abuela’s recovery in the months following was impeded rather than helped by the crayon drawings and photographs of Carlita that the U.S. Grandmother sent regularly from Los Angeles, whether out of guilt or the pleasure of giving graphic jabs of pain to the Abuela.

The people of the town, on their way to the recreation center, or to drop their toddlers off at the new day-care—everyone fresh from their abundant morning ablutions—would regularly stop by the home of the Abuela to leave sweet treats, handmade paper flower bouquets, poems written in flashes of inspiration, or a pot of hot pozole on the front stoop. Every citizen was appreciative of her spunk, her loyalty, and, I would guess, afraid of her wrath.

The Abuela spoke to no one but me the first six months. Thereafter she spoke enigmatically to her fellow abuelas about the brief flame marking the days of man, and forecast vague afflictions to come in the lives of unnamed people. To some these were the mumblings of an old lady.

She emerged from her self-sequestration two years later, to attend the baptism of her grandson, my uncle Paolo’s, firstborn to whom she gifted a hand-crocheted baptismal cap and romper, a costume commented upon by every woman who saw it as inspired by God in its delicacy and seamstress virtuosity. Her newfound qualities of kindness and long-suffering guided her interactions with the townspeople—she cooked meals for the feeble sweeper, repaired the priest’s hassock, rocked the possessed (i.e., colicky) grandniece at midnight, and showed forbearance and generosity toward the sick and stupid. When I asked if she missed Carlita her answer was invariably, “she is connected by a thread from my heart to her heart. In this way she is here, Julio. Never doubt.”

People say that in the matter of the Battle of the Grandmothers, it may have been the wealthy grandmother that won the golden granddaughter who looked exactly like the rosewood Christ child, but it was our mukí, our wise protector, who, despite her possession by the Devil for one single evening, was the true victor. For despite the temptation of riches, she had never for a moment failed to be true to her granddaughter and had bravely stood as tall and straight as the rich grandmother. She never once, in the many years since Carlita was spirited away, admitted that her granddaughter was better off in the land of crazy mothers who show too much cleavage and of grandmothers who dare attempt to buy their own granddaughters.

Though she could not read or write, the Abuela sent a letter each week, penned by me and, when I left for college, by her niece, in which she told Carlita stories of the monsoon rivers cutting deep scars in the land; of the famed Tarahumara, or as they call themselves, Rarámuri, the light-footed ones, whose distance-runners run barefoot or in huaraches while “foot throwing”, that is kicking a ball (the men) or while flinging and catching hoops with sticks (the women); of the beating of goat-skinned drums to keep God from dozing during the vulnerable time before and during Semana Santa when the Devil lingers close by; and, of course, the stories of the many sins of the sinners who’ve brought the Curse of the Moths down upon their heads.

The townspeople tell the Battle of the Grandmothers story with slight variations each passing year, but the aspect of the tale that never changes is this: the Abuela’s purer love ensures that Carlita will be with her in heaven, while the L.A. Grandmother will spend an eternity running in place, or alternatively, as some speculate, circling the sky in her private airplane, never allowed a landing strip in heaven.

As for me, I have lived in the U.S. long enough to know the power of the dollar that lies at the heart of the tale.

***

I visited Carlita in L.A. one time only, when I was asked to deliver, in person, a gift for her quinceañera—her fifteenth birthday. The Abuela had sewed a traditional costume for her granddaughter: skirt embroidered with pink bougainvillea around the hem (tiny black beads forming the pistils) and an openwork shawl, delicate and shimmering with gold and silver threads. It was an outfit I knew an L.A. girl would never wear.

When I arrived at Carlita’s house, the Grandmother said I would have to visit Carlita at the eating disorder rehab center if I wished to see her, which I did. The Grandmother would call ahead to approve my visit. I drove north out of Malibu in my rented car and waited an hour for her group session to be over.

I recognized the eyes and the silver locket, but not the nervous girl before me whose eyelashes and eyebrows had been picked clean; alopecia is a common occurrence in these disorders. She took tiny sips of water every few seconds, told me she remembered me, and asked why her Abuela had never written to her over the many, long years.

Piles of letters. Intercepted. Does the Devil know no bounds? But of course, being an atheist I know there is no such thing as the devil. It is normally self-interest that drives evil. I regretted leaving the birthday costume with the L.A. Grandmother.

After seeing Carlita, I personally lobbied two years for her return. When she turned seventeen she was “allowed,” to move to El Cielo for a “reconnection with her familial roots,” as the L.A. Grandmother put it. I believe she had had enough of Carlita’s persistent problems by that time.

To her delight my Abuela is now a great-grandmother several times over. Carlita married Manuel’s son who now owns a fleet of three taxis and they are expecting their second child—a boy they will name Julio, after me.

But before I finish the story, I must mention here a natural occurrence that began twenty-one years ago, a few months after the Abuela emerged from her self-imposed isolation.

Peculiar entomological phenomena began to overtake the farms along the southern border of California and Arizona. A slightly variant version of the moth that inhabits my hometown of El Cielo began invading the lettuce, cotton, and hay crops, particularly eviscerating the melons. To this day it affects crops all along the southwestern states. Federal and state Departments of Agriculture have pressed with urgency for research on this peculiar pestilence, but so far there does not seem to be an explanation for the devastation. Scientists have no solutions to offer and fear it will continue to spread west as far as Los Angeles stopping only at the Pacific Ocean. Whether it will proceed north to California’s Central Valley is anyone’s guess.

On a recent visit back home, I spoke to my Abuela of this continuing plague. Tapping me once on the forehead and once on the chest she said, “Certainly even a man with no imagination knows in his heart why the moths have invaded the land of the wealthy Grandmother.” To which she added, “Mi tonto! Más vale tarde que nunca,” roughly, My silly boy! Better late than never.

I am well aware of the human tendency toward apophenia—humans see connections where only random or meaningless data exist. As a scientist, I believe that every occurrence of nature will someday be explained, however far in the future.

As a boy from El Cielo, I have to concede that it may be impossible to explain, much less measure, a grandmother’s love.




Cenote

“I’m going by myself.”

I hadn’t known many people who’d ever spoken those words. The idea of a solo vacation smacked of long evenings watching Jane Austen movies, cups of chamomile tea, and a phone bedecked in cobwebs. Everyone’s well-meaning advice to remain in Toronto had its own rationale, but most had to do with jungle heat, tourist decapitations, and undrinkable water. After I postponed Mr. Solomon’s root canal for two weeks, he cautioned me about drug cartels. I explained Cancun was a well-policed tourist destination.

“Oh, there are never any drugs in a tourist trap, Dr. Woodson.” He chuckled on his own irony despite a mouthful of cylindrical sponges.

“It’s four days.” I pushed the suction probe into his mouth, propping it against the wall of his cheek. “I promise I won’t come back like this.” I swiped gritty toothpaste across my upper lip. “Or perhaps we could just do that root canal as scheduled, sir.”

Yet another refusal, but at least this one made relative sense, though his mouthful of dental equipment made it difficult to translate.

No poor attempts at irony or well-meaning advice tendered to me around my parents’ dinner table at Christmas altered my plan. I arrived on December 27. In less than six hours, my prospects had ascended as the latitude descended; I left a frozen -2 degrees C. for a toasty 27. The tang of limes and scent of coconut sunscreen had replaced candy cane scented candles, and not a moment too soon.

The air-conditioned shuttle jerked through traffic on overbuilt thoroughfares into a safe, pathetically normal tourist Mecca. Figures of tanned Santas in sombreros and swaying palms decorated with Christmas lights lined the route. The hotel lobby’s rear window faced a horizon of endless turquoise. At 4 P.M., I jumped into clear ocean water, and bathed in a tsunami of my own brilliance. As I stepped out onto my tiny hotel balcony, I looked down at a middle-aged couple on a Bali bed. The bed’s flimsy curtains shimmered in the breeze; frozen drinks were delivered to their pasty bodies on a tray. Equally pale was I, the woman who fought envy nearly to a draw before taking myself out for margaritas.

After three frozen green vats of insight, I figured a single, thirty-one year old needed not an outdoor snog on a vinyl-covered bed, but an adventure. As I explored, the hotel district yielded to huge bars, quaint pseudo-authentic restaurants, and overpriced Laundromats. Past the picture-taking opportunities with the “Most Interesting Man in the World” look-alike, I found Cancun Adventure Tourism.

The fast-talking salesman watched my eyes run down the list of options and prices. “You’re a fit woman. You could do the Ultimate Jungle Package.”

Though I was tempted by Mayan ruins and the trip to Chichen Itza, blasted white stone pyramids and ball courts, I agreed to zip lines, ATV’s and a jump in “the most remote cenote in Quintana Roo.”

Soon, the well-tended hotel district was a memory. Couples swapping honeymoon kisses twinkled all about me. I continued to wage my battle with the joys of the single life as I sat next to a handsome Latino in his late 30’s, the only other solo on the trip. When the shuttle driver left his seat and insisted my seatmate autograph his t-shirt with a Sharpie marker, I was intrigued.

“You give autographs?” I asked.

He bowed his head. “Miss, I am not as famous as I once was, so when someone is excited to see me, I am grateful.” His accented, rapidly-spoken English forced me to concentrate. “But now, I’m merely another dinner theater act in Distrito Federal. I’m a baritone.” He smiled, cleared his throat, and hit an arpeggio dead-on.

The bus driver yelled over his shoulder. “He’ll always be El Lobo to me.”

The bus scooted into morning traffic as El Lobo, a.k.a. Armando Eduardo Luego Sandoval, proudly explained his history of telenovela stardom. “I starred in El Lobo y Las Tres Cerditas.

“The Three Little Pig-girls? Were you a werewolf who enjoyed pork roast?”

I had anticipated an interesting story, and got one as Armando explained his novela was shown late at night. “I had three voluptuous girlfriends.” His hands curved the silhouette of a female figure into the air. “I had to keep them all happy for thirteen weeks despite their many troubles. Best job any man ever had.”

Soon, he had me chuckling; he told me to call him Lobo. “Melissa,” he whispered, “I have an interesting snack.” He took out a small bag of dried brown bits. “I grew these myself.”

“What the blazes is that?”

When I smelled the musty contents, he offered me a few grams. “You’re going to zip-line, drive an ATV, and dive into a cenote after taking mushrooms?”

“These are mild compared to the ones Carlos Castenada took. This is not my vacation. It’s my vision quest.” He made a fist and stared at it. “The way of the warrior. Actors who commit themselves to the walk of power find fortune again.”

“What kind of macho madness is that?” I mumbled. “Castenada was a hack and a fraud. Everyone knows that.”

For every objection I brought up, Armando had an answer. “Mystics through the centuries have all found the same answers. He is just the latest…”

“In a long line of charlatans. He plagiarized from Hindu mystics. There was never a don Juan Matus.”

Armando, who got a little louder with every defense of Castenada’s genius, was not as stoned as I expected when he hopped out of the bus. “The zip line teaches that ‘the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length,’ as don Juan said.”

“Well, getting stuck in the middle of a zipline wouldn’t be entertaining, would it?” I watched Armando climb the tree and completely expected his howling response across the void as he jetted through stubby trees and raised his fist in triumph at each of the three platforms. When I spanned the space, I laughed as my small frame shuddered in the loose harness.

Since there were only enough ATV’s to ride two in a vehicle, I insisted on driving ours out to the cenote. The rocky ride on dusty, boulder-encrusted roads excited me more than the zipline. Armando quoted the don again: “All the paths lead nowhere,” he pontificated over the roar of the ATV engine.

“Then why are we out here?” I wondered if I should have told the guides that he’d been shrooming. Then again, it was Armando’s vision quest, and he was committed to it. After he stripped off his shirt and showed off some nicely carved abs for a man his age, I put on his life jacket.

The rustic wooden diving platform was 25 meters above the black watery abyss of the cenote, which was heavily buttressed on all sides by scrubby bushes that squeezed their way from between gray rocks. Stone steps up the side of the cenote enabled the divers to return back up from another go at a near-death experience. I kept looking over the platform and listening to instructions, not planning to jump. Ever.

“Couples should not jump in together,” the guide advised. “It’s romantic, but it’s not safe.”

As one of the husbands demonstrated his bravado by cannon-balling into the pit to a round of applause, I noticed Armando was missing. I found him completing his bizarre series of meditation gestures held behind the van and asked him about his pseudo- Tai Chi. “I am communing with the spirits of the jungle and the dark water.” But when he was ready to jump, he was unstoppable. “Don Juan says the superior man learns by experiencing the world. I am not a wolf, but an eagle.”

Before listening to my reminder of how eagles actually could fly, not drop like a granite block, he took a running leap, arms up, into the cenote. After he hit the water in a beautiful arc, he emerged. “Dying and living are but two sides of the same coin, Melissa!”

Yet, as he climbed the wet stone steps, Armando stumbled. He toppled back into the water, and cried out: “Mierda!”

A small red streak was visible on the rock.

“Ay! Mi pie!” The narrow passage and the dampness of the stone steps made help ineffective. By the time he rose, it was clear some stitches would be required to close the small, deep cut near his arch. The bumping of the reckless ATV ride would only make the bleeding worse, or so said the guides as Armando claimed he could not stand the sight of his own blood.

“We’ll get the jeep. Man, his bleeding ain’t stoppin’.” One of the guards ordered me to stay with him while he remained lost in his drowsy, pained euphoria.

“Yes, run away while the warrior remains!” Armando shouted as the last ATV drove away.

“Warriors know when to quit,” I told him.

He took a flask from his backpack and drew deeply, then hobbled back to the diving platform.

“Don’t do it, Armando!” But, of course, vision quests are what they are: not subject to the advice of anything but the higher power or sham prophet who recommended them. This time, he hit the water feet first.

“The cleansing!” He swam toward the stone steps, but by the time he arrived, he’d realized he’d made his problem worse.

A bright woman would have left him to his own devices. I, however, jumped right in, headfirst. I paddled over and helped him push his way out onto the steps. With every two feet, curses tumbled from his mouth. I remained a single step behind, for two reasons: to assure myself of my Good Samaritan-ism, and because jumping into a cenote to rescue Armando, warrior king of Cancun, hadn’t been prudent. The water left me shivering as I climbed the slippery rock steps.

When we rose, I counseled Armando with an open hand hard across the face, a gesture he enjoyed far too much. It gave him the false impression that don Juan Matus had the potential to be Don Juan the lover. After explaining that slapping him and kissing him were not two sides of the same coin, I used the priceless Barcelona Soccer Club jersey he’d brought in his bag to stem the tide of blood from his wound.

“Silencio!” I commanded above his protests.

As I tended to him, my phone’s one precarious bar displayed the Wikipedia version of the many perversities of Carlos Castenada: plagiarism, his cult of womanizing and other vices too numerous to mention. “Do you see? He was in the UCLA library, not wandering out in the desert.”

Armando sighed, pointed and mumbled, eyes half-shut. “You can’t see the woman I see floating above my head, but she doesn’t agree. Ah, she glows, just Castenada described. You need to relax, Melissa. Try the juice in my thermos.”

Naturally, Armando’s “juice” was three parts tequila to one part pineapple. Five sips were enough to take the edge off. Armando continued to relate his visions until he passed out for a half hour. The thick, iron stench of blood filled my senses while the mushroom-induced women kept Armando entertained.

When two hours later, the jeep had not arrived, I called the travel agent. It was the only number I had, and it was busy. The cenote’s cold bath had not stopped our clothes from drying in the jungle heat. Dark clouds massed above. I saw four undernourished coyotes pass, noses lifted. Naturally, Armando took it as a sign.

“Coyote! A visit from the trickster!” As one of the scrawny beasts approached, I scurried around and found a thick, brown palm frond, prepared to beat the creatures back and lose. The only optimistic thought I had was that the blood attracting them was Armando’s. Just then, I heard the jeep in the distance. The coyotes howled, ran back into the thick woods, and the jeep parked upon the rocky pathway.

My gratitude led me to hug both the driver and his assistant. “Tire problems,” one whined as the spitting rain began. Since none of the jeeps had roofs, the journey was bound to be long, wet, and full of Armando’s ramblings.

All the way back, coated in the warm strike, then chilly aftermath of tropical rain, we dodged low-lying branches as we drove over the dirt and gravel road; little more than a path, it intersected dangerously with a main road that seemed absent a speed limit. The pumping of the engine and dumping of the vehicle into ruts and pits left me nauseous, but I kept applying pressure to Armando’s foot. We drove all the way out to the Hospital Galenia together. I wanted to leave, but a vaguely sober, whiningly-in-pain Armando insisted on my presence in the Casa de Emergencia. After they gave him stitches and an oxycontin, I left Armando to sleep his troubles away.

The next day, I woke determined to stick to the usual tourist attractions, believing that I’d been utterly mistaken about the road less-traveled, but fate intervened. I was called to the front desk only to find two EMT’s accompanying Armando, who was propped on a crutch.

“He says you are his traveling companion, and a medical professional,” one of the EMT’s explained.

“He’s mistaken. I’m just a dentist on vacation.” Over my protests, the EMT’s drove off, leaving Armando in my care. He claimed he hadn’t been given the opportunity to retrieve his money, so his meals were on me. He sat by the pool and I brought him drinks while a group of bikini-clad chicas begged him for autographs and tales of telenovela stardom. After a nice dinner at El Mariachi, Armando told me he needed to take a nap before calling a cab. Unable to rouse him, I slept on a barely upholstered bench atop every damp beach towel in the room.

In the morning, two complementary tickets to Isla Mujeres were delivered to my door by Cancun Adventures for my trouble two days before. I dressed as silently as I could, but escape was impossible. After Armando finally issued me an apology for the mushrooms and all else that had followed, we enjoyed a boat ride and picnic in an authentic Mexican graveyard. Riotous colors, fantastic gravestones, and niches of ill-fated dancing Caterina figures accompanied by their skeletonized orchestras led to more of Armando’s painfully mundane reflections on the meaning of life.

“When we find ourselves in the next world, we will look upon this world with disdain. What comes next is the superior path.”

I asked Armando who’d returned to provide such important information. Since he had seen it all in the water of the cenote, he assured me it was a done deal.

Under a cracked ceramic figure of Jesus, Lobo guzzled some rum punch, then requested me to “explore the depths of the jungle” with him. Though the semi-drunk Lobo was more entertaining that the mushroom-enhanced version, I begged off, and insisted I had a headache. After the boat trip back and a few more drinks from my room’s refrigerator, Lobo’s actual intentions became apparent. He agreed to leave only after depriving me of the pesos left in my wallet, explaining that Castaneda believed that superior people like himself were entitled to live by different rules, and then reminding me he had no cab fare.

I told him superior people could usually find their way home without begging or stealing, but my spot-on insight didn’t give me my last few pesos back.

So, leaving for the snows of Toronto seemed the lesser evil after all my adventures. I boarded the plane back to my New Year’s Eve destiny, a family party laden with “I told you so.” Sitting next to me? Sebastien, a middle-aged Latino obstetrician who’d spent his days in Cancun at a medical conference. Since all he had time for was a quick expedition to Tulum’s ruins, he found tales of my adventures perversely fascinating. Nothing like watery pits that terminate in Hell, an over-the –hill novela star, mystical rantings, a pack of hungering coyotes, and petty theft to make for a memorable Mexican vacation.

So, in an interesting twist of fate I interpreted as my reward for dealing with El Lobo, Mexico brought me someone worth dodging snow banks for, an escape from my parents’ New Years Eve Party, and a new respect for sobriety.

Yet I still felt the urge to toast at the one-guest New Year’s Eve party Sebastien and I enjoyed at his comfortable suburban home. “To las tres cerditas,” he said. “Must have been fine swine.”

I lifted my champagne glass to meet his and laughed. “Y a los lobos.” We howled, sipped, then howled again.

As our glasses clinked, Sebastien gestured to an end table full of travel brochures. I told him I preferred root canals.




Litro #142: Mexico

Contents:

Foreword by Diego Gómez-Pickering

Letter from the Editor by Jennifer Clement

Pigeon by Chloe Aridjis

The Crab’s Back by Natalia Toledo

The Nest by Daniel Krauze

The Street Seller’s Song by Samuel Noyola

Every House Learnt How to Burn by Sara Uribe

Constantinople’s Jacket by Álvaro Enrigue

Crab by Luis Miguel Aguilar

Fedra and Other Greeks by Ximena Escalante

The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection by Aline Davidoff

 

This is only a taster of our Mexico issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.





Litro #142: Mexico – Foreword

The Power of Words

When I met Eric Akoto, a few months back, I did it through words. A letter received at the Embassy and replied the same way. From the very beginning it was fairly easy to be on the same page and within a blink of an eye we were talking words rather than writing them; words about the English and Spanish languages, about literature as an effective way to build bridges of understanding amid peoples and countries. They were words about authors and their work, British and Mexican, past and present; authors that represent the best of their cultures. So when he pointed at the possibility of dedicating a Litro Magazine edition to Mexico and its literature, both of our eyes sparkled; just like words do in novels, essays and poems.

As the Ambassador of Mexico to the Court of St James´s, and as a writer, I fully acknowledge the important role literature plays both in Britain and Mexico; a relevance perfectly reflected by this wonderful Litro Magazine edition dedicated to celebrating and sharing Mexico’s literary creativeness with British readers, editors and writers.

During the last few months, while preparing this edition of Litro, I had the opportunity to exchange points of view with poets and novelists, as well as young writers, about Mexico’s main literary assets and renewed creative vitality, about literature’s links to politics and diplomacy. For many years, diplomatic life has been linked to literature. Great Mexican minds like Alfonso Reyes, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Sergio Pitol fostered brilliant diplomatic liaisons between Mexico and the rest of the world, based on our country’s imaginative power and rich culture.

Throughout 2015, as we celebrate the ‘Year of Mexico in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Year of the United Kingdom in Mexico’, literature will again be at the forefront of our efforts to strengthen the ties between Mexico and Britain. On the one hand, Mexican publishing will be showcased at the London Book Fair. On the other hand, the United Kingdom will be the guest of honour at the Guadalajara Book Fair, the world’s largest Spanish language book fair and the second largest globally. As the famous campaign says, “literature is – definitely – great”.

Literature has always been part of this longstanding relationship across the Atlantic Ocean since both countries first established diplomatic ties back in 1825. Octavio Paz, our Literature Nobel laureate, spent a year in Cambridge while Carlos Fuentes lived for over two decades in London. Through the carefully curated pages of this Litro Magazine edition you will find what lies ahead. Brilliant young novelists, playwrights and poets who represent the future of Mexico and that will undoubtedly become the new bridges that connect both of our countries through the power and beauty of their written words.

Diego Gómez-Pickering
Ambassador of Mexico to the Court of Saint James
Guest Translator
March 2015




Litro #142: Mexico – Letter from the Editor

litro142_cover_bannerDear Reader,

When I say or write the word Mexico, I always think that the word itself is an enchantment. It sounds beautiful, looks striking on the page and always makes me feel I should salute or kneel. The word represents the country perfectly, as Mexico has produced some of the world’s great art and literature and continues to do so.

This special Mexican issue of Litro Magazine speaks to the many voices writing on Mexico in different languages and forms. For some reason, playwrights and screenwriters are so rarely included in literary magazines. Here, however, we include a short dialogue by leading playwright Ximena Escalante. This edition also showcases Chloe Aridjis, a Mexican writer who writes in English. Aridjis, like myself and others such as DBC Pierre or the screenwriter and director Rodrigo Garcia, is a part of a tradition that can claim the English language inside a Mexican context.

Litro #142: Mexico also represents Mexico’s indigenous world thanks to a poem by Natalia Toledo, who writes in both Spanish and Zapotec, her mother tongue. Aline Davidoff’s piece on The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection honours the unique bond that painters and writers have always had in Mexico. This is the very first time an article on the unique collection has appeared in print.

As a former President of PEN Mexico during the time when the killing of journalists began to escalate, and as the author of a novel on stolen girls, I care about the lost and disappeared voices of Mexico. Therefore, this issue contains an unpublished poem – unknown even in Spanish – written by Samuel Noyola, whose work was admired by many poets including Octavio Paz. Noyola disappeared in 2007 and it is presumed that he died homeless on the streets of Mexico City. The poet and journalist Alicia Quiñones gave me this poem. The cover photograph by Miguel Calderon of a vulture on a highway sign that spells Acapulco was chosen for Litro before the recent violent events in Mexico’s State of Guerrero. Now it feels prophetic.

There is such a great wealth of talent among the emerging writers in Mexico that it is hard to decipher and recognize the voices that will take a place in the canon; but here we include the works of poet Sara Uribe and fiction writer Daniel Krauze to represent the younger, newer voices emerging in Mexico.

Lastly, while it is obviously impossible for a small selection of this kind to represent the diverse voices writing in Mexico today, it is interesting to note that, months after the selection for these pages was made, two writers were awarded important literary prizes. Alvaro Enrigue was given the Elena Poniatowska Prize, and Luis Miguel Aguilar was awarded the Ramón López Velarde Prize for poetic excellence.

Jennifer Clement
Guest Editor
Mexico City, 2015




Pigeon

She tried to straighten her thoughts, give them some order and linearity, and when that didn’t work she tried to imagine herself elsewhere, on a mountain or coast far from the city, rather than on the Central line with its erratic movement and office-bound passengers and the prickly silence of those torn from sleep. She and her mother had been lucky to find seats; at that hour the tube was nearly full, a geometric overload of skirts and suits, and wherever she turned she saw freshly combed hair and painted faces and newspapers and briefcases all vying for space.

“You know, you could have died.” Her mother lowered her voice in the hope that none of the other passengers would hear.

“Well the point is, I didn’t.”

“You nearly did.”

“I’m cold.”

“Don’t you have a sweater in your bag?”

“I gave it away.”

“You gave it away?”

“This morning. To one of the nurses.”

With something close to nostalgia, N. thought back on the small room she’d just left behind, its itchy grey blanket and sweat-faded sheets, and the dent in the wall, courtesy of a former patient, in which her own fist had fit perfectly. Now that she’d left she found herself missing the kind female voices that roused her each morning, voices that for a few seconds invoked the promise of a new life, voices she preferred to that of her mother’s. And she thought back too on the strange dreams she’d had, dangerous and ornate, dreams unlike the ones outside. And then the wallpaper: red and white stripes connecting floor to ceiling, heaven to hell. There was a window, always locked, but as a view N. preferred the walls and the ceiling since they didn’t present any mocking beyond.

In the seat in front of her sat a boy wearing headphones. She hadn’t heard any music in five weeks, she realised, not a note. As soon as she got home she would listen to… everything. Thousands and thousands of songs. She’d go through them all, one by one, day and night, an endless carousel of memories, welcome and unwelcome, round and round, that melodic loop of acceptances and rejections, tiny triumphs and huge disasters. In the clinic, what she’d feared the most was the loss of her memories; now, she was willing to keep them all.

“Which sweater was it?

“Hmm?

“Which sweater?”

“Just a sweater.”

“I hope not one of the nice ones I bought you last month.”

She shrugged.

“They won’t be on sale again. You won’t have one like that again.”

She shrugged a second time.

“She must have been a very nice nurse to deserve a sweater like that.”

“Yes, she was nice and kind and brought me tea whenever I wanted.”

“Shouldn’t they do that anyway?”

“Well, they don’t.”

Her mother shook her head and mumbled something to herself, as if running a few mental maths, trying to assess whether she had possibly, in this latest guilt venture, been taken for a ride.

N. looked down at her hands, which had nearly recovered their delicate form. There’d been a point when she hadn’t recognized them, they were so purple and swollen she feared they would break off and drift away, the palms puffy and indistinct, a fortune-teller’s nightmare. And then she wondered, as she rubbed them together, what had happened to her gloves, a beautiful pair her grandmother once knit, dark blue with grey borders. They’d begun to feel tight so she’d stowed them away, but where? Well, it didn’t matter, what was gone was gone. Just as long as no one touched her records, the only belongings N. swore to herself she would never sell off. This past year everything, pretty much everything, had gone up in smoke, part of an amazing alchemical transformation of base metal into gold.

She couldn’t help but keep an eye on the doors. Instinct. Each time they opened and closed at a station, an opportunity came and went.

At the next stop two men clutching paper bags from McDonald’s got on. The carriage filled up with the tantalizing smell of french fries.

“I’m cold and I’m hungry.”

“I’ll make you something when we get home.”

“That’s ages away.”

Her mother looked up at the map on the wall. “Only twelve more stops.”

“And then the bus.”

“There shouldn’t be traffic at this hour.”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t take a cab.”

“A cab would’ve cost the same as a day at the clinic.”

“Then think of all the money I’m saving you by leaving now.”

“I just hope Dr. Reid knew what he was talking about when he said you were ready to come home.”

Coming home: once upon a time, quite a while ago now, this phrase was like a magic potion, but the word ‘home’ had now been attached to so many spaces, it’d lost all currency. Each year it had referred to somewhere else, to a different scenario, a different roof, a different set of faces: the rented flat in Bow, the rented flat in Seven Sisters, the family house in Mexico before her mother went off with the Englishman, and of course the string of clinics where she’d been sent after the first so-called intervention.

At Oxford Circus half the carriage disembarked, leaving room for the dozens of passengers who clambered on. Nearly everyone found a seat and those who didn’t grabbed onto the bright red poles and handrails as the tube began to pull out of the station. N. rubbed her arm and thought back on the handsome new patient who’d arrived at the clinic two days earlier. She could still visualise him perfectly, ambling down the corridor with his combed-back hair and long-sleeved turtleneck, no track marks visible, only the familiar scent of melancholy. It was his fourth time there, the nurses said, and they doubted it would be the last. He’d looked over in her direction once or twice, at least she thought he had… If her mother hadn’t arrived so early that morning they might have spoken.

“Twitch, twitch, twitch,” her mother interrupted the reverie. “Twitch twitch twitch. I thought they’d ironed all the twitches out of you.”

“I set some aside for the journey home.”

Yes, her mother had tried. But only for a few months and not hard enough. Her attempts were half-hearted, mechanical, and she’d been careless – forgetting to dispose of expired medication, leaving earrings and banknotes within view, passing on phone calls that should have been screened: endless temptations for the easily tempted. She hadn’t tried as hard as some of the other mothers, at least according to the stories people shared, and she certainly hadn’t been very present in the early days, when N. had desperately needed her.

It was at Chancery Lane that the pigeon flew in, right into the carriage in a clean diagonal sweep, a whisk of all four seasons compressed into one. It was a large pigeon, slate grey with reddish eyes and white-tipped wings, and it entered at the last possible second before the doors banged shut and the tube recommenced its journey.

One moment it had been on a vaulted platform with friends, the next, it found itself alone with the other species inside a closed space in motion. Almost immediately, with the first awkward movements of the tube, the bird turned into a dervish of feathers, panic and confusion. People ducked and dispersed yet it still managed to graze a few heads and shoulders. Two startled young women rose from their seats and hurried to the opposite end of the car. Someone waved a handbag.

The pigeon flapped this way and that and N. caught a glimpse of its underwing, of an inverse serenity, light powdery grey. Each stroke of its wings released a slight breeze, the breeze of hundreds of flights across the city.

“Ssssss,” someone hissed when the bird came too near.

After about a minute or two of useless histrionics, the pigeon seemed to calm down and landed on the floor with a thick, clumsy thud. It surveyed the area and then headed enthusiastically in the direction of the men with bags from McDonald’s. One of them stamped his boot and muttered something in a foreign language. The pigeon backed off.

N. and her mother watched on. The other passengers watched too. No one spoke, no one moved. All eyes were on the bird.

At St. Paul’s, a station N. rarely used, a woman with a dark ponytail got on and took an empty seat near them, straightening out her skirt as she sat down. The woman pulled a novel out from her bag, cracked the spine wide open, and turned to the first page. When the pigeon pecked at something near her feet, she simply moved them a few inches to the left without looking up from her book.

When had she last read? She couldn’t remember. She’d started countless books, of that she was sure, novels and biographies and even some poetry. But despite the warm glow that came out of the pages she would doze off before long and find herself, hours later, with the book in her lap or at her feet, and she’d put it aside and pick up the next one, and this too, she realised, was an endless carousel, though instead of a whole variety of memories the main memory the books brought back was of herself as a student before she dropped out of university, and of her prodigious concentration, remarked on by everyone, and her proud rows of 10’s.

Swoosh, swoosh. The pigeon was back in the air and had begun flapping more frantically than ever. It circled a pole, zipped down the carriage, zipped back near where N. and her mother were sitting. People would hastily make way for it, clearing a path for its desperation, but it didn’t want to see. At one point mid-tunnel it flew into a darkened window and was thrown to the floor for a few seconds before resuming its flight.

At the next station N. grabbed a sports section that had been left behind and tried to usher the bird out but it grew even more flustered and headed in the opposite direction just as the doors were closing.

“He prefers it in here, where it’s warm,” someone said. No one laughed.

At Liverpool Street a serious-looking man in a pinstriped suit strode on and sat directly across from them, the aroma of McDonald’s replaced by the confident reign of cologne. The man was hefty, with cheeks bearing the flush of countryside and pale blue eyes that with one glance sized up the other passengers. He set down his briefcase, wedging it between his polished black shoes, and unfolded the newspaper he had under his arm. Soon all N. could see were shoes, large knuckles and knees and the outspread wings of the Financial Times.

“By the way,” her mother turned to her, “We’ve decided you’re going to Mexico for a year.”

For the first time since her last fix, she was aware of the blood circulating through her body.

“A year?”

“You’re going to live with your father. We’ve discussed it and agree it’s the best option.”

“I’m happy here.”

“You know you’re not. This is your last chance.”

There’d been many last chances; she was nearing the end of her supply.

“What will I do there?”

“You’ll live with your father and start thinking a little more seriously about the future.”

“Of course, the future…”

Little by little, it had come to represent nothing more than a shadowy road lit by fireflies, lined on either side by the silhouettes of people and possibilities that would remain just that: silhouettes.

The woman reading the novel let out a small cry. The pigeon had flown past a little too close, brushing her cheek. In a delayed response she waved a hand in front of her face and leaned back as far as she could but there was no need, it had already flapped away. A grey feather zigzagged to the floor.

“Three more stops,” said N.’s mother.

It was shortly after she said this, N. would never forget, that the pigeon flew right into the centre of the Financial Times. Without blinking, the man in the pinstriped suit lay down his paper and within what seemed like a fraction of a second, grabbed the bird – the whole carriage was now watching – and with his fat knuckles snapped its neck. It was a clean snap, expertly done, as if he’d been snapping birds’ necks his entire life.

One second the pigeon had been tense and aquiver, the next, an immobile lump of grey. Whatever its journey across the city had been, it ended here. The man deposited the corpse on the empty seat next to him, picked up his paper and continued to read.

The act was met with silence. Everyone simply stared at the dead bird, just stared and stared, as if pooled together the intensity of their gaze might resurrect it.

For a few seconds N. fought the impulse to pick up the pigeon and take it outside to bury – the sanitation people would surely just toss it in a bin – but the thought of touching the thing made her queasy. She imagined what it would feel like to hold the feathery corpse, still warmed by its recent life force, and wasn’t sure what was more overpowering, her distress at witnessing such brutality or the guilty flicker of revulsion she’d begun to feel.

As if in quiet defeat, the pigeon’s head lay to one side like the emblem on a fallen coat of arms. Its eye had almost immediately turned white, or perhaps it was the eyelid that had closed, and its legs, already stiff, looked like little pink twigs that could easily break off.

N. turned to look at her mother, who continued staring at the bird, willing her to say something, anything. But no, she kept whatever she was thinking to herself, hands in lap, fingers interlocked.

At the following station, which was open air, the businessman folded his paper, picked up his briefcase and stepped out. The doors of the tube took a few moments to close, and as they stuttered N. gazed out at the sky and the platform and the spaces in between, seized by the urge to grab her bag and run for it, in whatever direction opened up to her. But she remained in her seat and with one strong tug unzipped her jacket, for the temperature inside the carriage suddenly felt very warm




The Crab’s Back

A possum crosses my house’s sky

His hands smell of sandals,

Describe a nocturnal gladiator

That touches and smells women’s sex.

In my dream, someone on the right side

Throws silver coins into a pristine bucket

Oh! Childhood’s sounds.

You will dream of shit and your ancestors

Will say it is good fortune,

Keep that hand on your left pocket

Music on the wrong side;

I was born with two aspects: the written word

And Zapotec’s melody, in order to love

I’ve always used my two hemispheres.

I miss you and all you know

Are the dark woods of ephemeralness,

The click of an eye that opens to take away a piece of something

Just to close again immediately,

Like a shell closes down on feelings;

A hot coin on your back

Or laughing astride

Mockery’s culture

A free animal, or not,

Animals oblige to their fate

Repetition without a reason,

The moon with its milk drawings

With its rabbit looking upon disgraces

Right there, where gaze at a distance seems to unite.

A thorny monkey,

Like taking away thorns after bumping into a cactus,

By taking away spikes you get more splinters.

Was I ever happy?

Yes, when it rained and a dark hand served me

Bean soup on a plate from the crops outside

The golden bowls’ town,

When someone named mirror stayed by my side,

When I flew a kite and lost sight of it,

It’s true, whatever goes up comes down in your face;

When I escaped Uncle shoe-maker’s belt,

When the sun raised and the only thing I had

Was a pig’s yell, previously seen, legs tied,

Next to death’s funny gorge

Stand in line to be sacrificed?

Lightness for paper,

A tyre passes marking your shoes for ever.

I know about spells:

I know how to get rid of sadness,

How to get rid of obsession, of fear:

If I bury myself next to a river

And someone rubs up his testicles against my head,

If I sit looking at the sea

And they find my lost pulse: lylyly, pé, pépé,*

If they spit anisette into my face

If wind takes away sand from my eyes

If they fill me up with toads,

If I lie belly down on the earth while it trembles.

If I read my dreams as predicted by the old lady

Who used to sing to me in childhood: name your sadness,

There’s nothing like knowing what you long for,

To talk about melancholy you need to hold

History and stories on your hand,

You need, amongst other things, a hammock

And loose hours like a pendulum,

What is time?

A dying mother

A wretched father

Destitution turned into stone,

A mountain prayer,

Make love to the one that doesn’t peel you.

I looked at your cat eyes

Savouring an unbuilt possibility,

I just wanted to run away,

Just wanted to run away.

Because my exodus started at eight years old

And where I lived wasn’t barren,

There was a community, fireworks and their shuddering,

There was freedom and mutual trust.

I quarrelled with my tradition

Didn’t allowed it to deflower my hand full of alcohol

Didn’t want to show nothing:

I was never a virgin,

I was always inhabited by ghosts

That assaulted my jute cot,

I never wanted my blood to be pure.

I know about Conquest and its promises

I fought chocolate and mole,

To get rid of the sewing closing my eyelids

I had to hold a torch born from my guts,

I burnt my body so that I could believe in justice

And bumped into ignorance instead,

The news I was eager to embrace showed me their glitz

And my back gave me back the crab’s rear.

Leave in order to always come back

What happens if one sticks to one’s ignorance?

Isn’t it better to suffer one’s inventory?

Now, without haven, nor boat, nor dwelling

I took refuge in silence:

A comatose state.

What does my happiness look like?

I am a fly,

A dot on an almond’s leaf

About to depart, about to deliver,

I’m a buzz in memory’s ear

I tattooed memory too.

A crack through which levity shall not enter

Through which innocence shall not walk

What does it mean to be indigenous?

Firewood ingenuity,

A bet, sails of grown beards

Cliff

Never again a place,

A spider looking leather sandal attached to my feet,

A little accumulated salt,

What’s world history?

An eye crying for its neglect.

Flowers know it, as well as peoples

The day happier stories were told

That day we left behind our sufficiency

To give ourselves to a never ending repetition,

Now I know

It is too late.

 

*Lylyly, pé, pépé.
Sixteenth Century Zapotec onomatopoeia equivalent to the sound made by pain when it walks inside the body.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




The Nest

In the house where I was born and grew up, the final unexplored frontier, the last stronghold of the old west, the ultimate wild territory was my father’s study, a narrow annex attached to the rest of the property, with olive-coloured walls and moth-eaten furniture, that he used to sequester himself away at night and drink when we lived beneath the same roof and which, after he abandoned us to go to Cancún to work as the manager of an “all inclusive,” my mother filled with chairs, tables, sofas and bookcases, as if that chamber were a mouth she had to muzzle. Then she closed the door, locking it with a key, and didn’t speak of her husband again.

The house belongs to my mother. She inherited it and she decorated it, with the compulsive attention of the unemployed, choosing identical sheets for our beds, the same tapestry wallpaper for all the walls, and baskets full of plastic fruit for the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. If my brother or I took just one of those fruits and moved it from its position, my mother noticed in less time than the blink of an eye and took us to task. Where did you put my peach? What have you done with my lemons? That melon goes upside down. The pineapple goes in the other basket.

My father left without taking anything with him. I always imagined his flight in fast motion, as if it were part of a caricature, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. A few months after abandoning us, he sent a letter in which he asked our forgiveness for not having said goodbye, assuring us that this new work opportunity would benefit all of us and promising to visit us in February, the off season. Months later we received another letter, congratulating us because soon we would have a little sibling. He had just met his new wife, he told us. Come and visit. You’ll like her, you’ll see.

My mother didn’t touch this subject, but my aunt Elda lost no time in offering her opinion. First he goes off with that slut from work, he knocks her up, and then invites you to Cancún, is that right, Sergio? she asked me, as if I knew what she was talking about and had also drunk four tequilas. Those are chingaderas, my boy. On your heads if you go to see that cynic.

We didn’t go to see him, nor did we talk about the matter between us. My brother began to sleep in my mother’s room, on the carpet on one side of the bed, whereas every afternoon I snuck into the study through the window and, more than delving into the things my father left behind, I inhabited that space as if it were mine. I kept comics, my homework notebooks and sweets in my knapsack, and tried to entertain myself there, among the mountains of furniture and appliances.

I never managed to last more than ten minutes before running back home. At twelve, I was certain that something malignant dwelled in there and that the only way to face it was to have an accomplice who accompanied me.

I convinced my brother to venture in there with me during a family meal one Sunday afternoon, while my mother and my aunts played cards and drank in the living room. Elda’s two daughters, her newborn baby and a two year old girl who had not learned how to talk, slept in my room, and the daughter of the recently-divorced Beatriz had gone on a trip with her father. My brother and I were the only children in a house where the adults paid no attention to us and we were forbidden to watch television. Bored, I challenged him to go into the study with me.

Four years younger than me, my brother was always stick-thin and stuttered, with the sharp features and nervous gestures of a squirrel. He was a boy wracked by incomprehensible fears. My mother couldn’t leave him alone in the car for more than a minute without him beginning to whine like the teakettle, not even the juiciest bribe managed to convince him to get onto the swings, and he wouldn’t eat anything but roast beef and rice with ketchup. I also had fears (what boy of twelve doesn’t?), but they weren’t as obvious nor as absurd as his. He cried when he was left alone; I asked my mother to get out of my room and leave me alone. He trembled in fear the moment he placed one foot on a carousel; I got into the first car of the roller coaster. He refused to try anything new; I asked for a double portion of giblets – even if afterwards I went to the bathroom to throw them up in secret.

Where are you going, kids? Elda asked us when she saw us heading toward the garden. She clutched a small crystal horse in her hand and played cards barefoot, the soles of her feet grey with dust.

We’re going to climb the jacaranda, I answered. My mother looked away from the game and asked my brother to put a sweater on. She asked me to take care of him when we went out. Don’t force Carlitos to climb if he doesn’t want to.

The jacaranda, denuded and dying, was two metres tall. Perhaps it would have grown higher if the garden, a muddy space hardly larger than our bedroom, would have allowed. Behind it, through a narrow hallway where my mother kept the pruning shears, a shovel and a pitchfork, was the study.

Why do you tell lies? my brother asked me, stuttering, as if asking a question were an aggression.

They don’t care what we do, I answered him, without looking him in the face, while I pushed the cold glass of the window inwards.

Barely inside, my brother tensed all his muscles, beat his hands against his chest and began to whine: let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky clear of clouds, and the light that filtered through the window revealed a thick patina of unsettled dust. The room had the smell of a public lavatory, barely disguised by the scent of a chain smoker.

Did you piss yourself? I asked my brother, although I knew that the scent of urine was too persistent and rancid to have come from him. He patted his crotch. Of course not, he said, his tongue stumbling on the consonants.

We walked between the furniture along the route that I had opened, myself, on those afternoons on which I escaped from the house to go to the study to eat sweets and read comics. I asked him to be careful, time after time, as if the objects around us were still in use: a torn wicker armchair, a wardrobe with the doors open, plastic bag after bag filled with clothes, and, on the floor, under one leg of the desk, my father’s college degree, in Accounting, with his hair gelled back, his cheeks clean-shorn, and his eyes wide open, possibly surprised by the camera’s flash. I didn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. My father always laughed, he was always telling jokes, tickling us; he was always disguised as a smiling dad.

Did you hear that, my brother asked. I placed my index fingers to my lips and asked him to be quiet. I listened to the distant murmur of my mother and her sisters chatting in the living room as they played and, then, I heard a short, sharp squeak, the acoustic equivalent of a pinch. The moment we became quiet, the squeaking multiplied. It sound like a choral tantrum. In miniature, the sound reminded me of my own brother, crying like a little girl because my mother had forgotten to come pick us up from school.

He begged me not to look for where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I put my shoulder to the wall, facing the chair where I always sat, full of crumbs and candy wrappers, and with an effort I pushed it toward the middle of the room. Suddenly, the squeaks became clearer. What was crying was there, inside or beneath the leather armchair, just one metre from us.

I slipped into the gap that had opened between the back of the chair and the wall, I crouched down on my knees, stuck my hand in between the ground and the bottom of the chair, rested my cheek against a spongey mat and peeked at what was under there.

I pulled back immediately, so quickly that I banged my neck against the wall behind me. What is it? What is it? What is it? my brother asked, also moving back like a crab, his foot breaking the glass frame of the diploma.

Come and see, I told him. Take a peek.

I don’t want to.

Don’t be a sissy, dude. Come on.

I let him pass by, so that he was closer. Then we crouched down at the same time. This time I didn’t stick my hand inside the chair, out of fear that those things might bite me. I only stretched out my index finger and pointed to the mound of tiny little bodies, all pink and skin, piled one on top of the other on a bundle of paper and cotton. Each the size of my pinkie, the animals moved in restless spasms, with a repulsive clumsiness. They didn’t look like newborn animals but instead creatures in their final throes, about to die.

What are they? he asked me, placing the palm of his hand over mine.

I withdrew my hand, pulling away from him. What do you mean what are they? They’re rats. What else would they be?

We need to tell Mom, he said, standing up.

What for? You want her to yell at you for coming in here?

My brother assured me that rats were dangerous. They infect you with rabies, he said. That’s what Michael, his only friend, had told him.

They’re just babies. They’re not going to do anything, I told him, trying to calm him down, but I couldn’t convince him. He climbed out through the window and headed straight into the house. When I reached him, he was in the middle of recounting the anecdote. Exaggerating, like always, my brother swore to my mother that the nest was immense, that there were hundreds of rats, that the entire place reeked of animal excrement.

I thought that my mother would get mad when she discovered that we had gone into the study that she herself had locked with a key, but apparently the nest was a more urgent problem to deal with than the mischief of her sons. Elda went to my bedroom, to check on her daughters, while Beatriz and my mother left their cards on the table and went out into the garden.

We followed them towards the study.

My mother opened the door, followed by her sister, who pinched her nose shut with two fingers. Jijos, Beatriz exclaimed, those damned rats have already gotten into everything. You can tell just from the smell.

I accompanied them inside, happy not to be alone and, above all, happy that the most boring afternoon of the week had turned into a hunting expedition. My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. He remained outside, standing beneath the jacaranda, as if he were hugging himself.

I’ve seen them now, my mother said, peeking under the chair. Sergio, go to the kitchen and bring back a broom, a dustpan and a plastic bag, OK?

Excited, I obeyed. I returned with my hands full, stumbling against the broom my mother had asked for. My brother remained outside, while Beatriz and Elda shifted the furniture around the armchair.

What are you going to do? I asked them.

My mother spoke. We’re going to stick them in the bag and throw them out into the street, she told me.

The operation consisted of four stages. First, Elda and Beatriz moved the armchair away from the wall. Then, my mother put the dustpan on the floor and swept the nest toward it. Finally, she lifted the dustpan and dumped its contents into the bag. From the moment my aunts pushed the first piece of furniture, the little things didn’t stop squealing, sounding increasingly more pitiful with each cry. As my mother took the bag out to the garden, I saw them moving backlit against the plastic, indistinguishable from each other, like an amorphous and pulsating mass. I didn’t stop smiling, but I began to feel disgusted.

Elda, grab the shovel, my mother said.

The shovel? What do you need the shovel for? I asked.

By this time, my brother had already hidden behind the tree.

My mother tied a knot in the bag, placed it on the ground, took the shovel with both hands and, in a single circular movement, lifted it upwards and then let it fall, directly on the tiny animals. You could hear a damp, squirting sound, like a tomato squished between your fingers. A tiny squeak could still be heard, until my mother lifted the shovel again and, with the flat side, banged and banged and banged the bag until its contents no longer seemed to be made up of tiny rats but instead a puddle of brown paint.

The friction of the shovel against the ground had torn the bag. Chunks of viscera and purple foetal skin poked through a hole. My brother began to cry and ran inside the house, covering his eyes with his forearm. My mother pushed her hair behind her ears and asked me to help her throw the remains into the trash.

I picked up the bag, surprised at how little it weighed, and carried it to the garage, leaving behind a dribbled trail of blood along the way. I thought to open the bag before throwing it away. It wasn’t the morbid impulse of someone who looked out of a car window when passing a traffic accident. I wanted to see if some rat were still alive. I untied the knot, I couldn’t help it. Inside, the bodies were all mixed together in a bulbous paste of skin, sinew, organs, and a fresh red, almost warm. I saw the little feet of one, the grey eyes of another, the tail of a third. I don’t know why, but I felt a tightness in my throat. Then I threw the bag into the garbage can, among the scraps of food and empty milk cartons.

When I went back inside, my mother congratulated me for having found the nest. Elda served herself another tequila. Beatriz lit a cigarette. My brother cried in the bathroom.

I stopped visiting my father’s study, even when my mother turned it into a game room, a guest room, a gym, and finally, now married to my stepfather, a bar.

Many years passed before I could break free from the memory of those rats. First I imagined them alive, wandering around the nest, and then dead, asphyxiated, rotting in the bag. Then I began to think of their mother, who we never found. I was sure that she was still there, enormous and hurt, hidden among the pipes of the house, spying on me from a corner of the living room, ready to exact vengeance. I dreamed that she slipped inside my bed and, little by little, with patience, she gnawed away my fingers while I slept.

Carlos died at 17 in a highway accident.

I graduated with a degree in Accounting. I got married. Had two daughters.

I should be afraid of human beings, but the only thing I’m afraid of is rats.

Translation by Lawrence Schimel




The Street Seller’s Song

Forget the shameless clocks

Return the contortionist fish to the sea

Romp on a mattress of wild leaves

Inhale with the mind in an indigo zero

Deposit silence in a ballot box

Congregate a circle of holy water

Step on the grapes of your wine

 

Accustom yourself to fly with crutches

To cover the rough weather of her eyes

To descend a mineshaft

 

Become friends with a panther in heat

Awaken as a witch on the weekend

Create a moneybox for sleep

Donate your fingers to domestic fire

Fast on language in the middle of a fast

Dance barefoot in the dark

Spell out your sins aloud

Translation by Jennifer Clement




Every House Learnt How to Burn

One: Is it possible that I once..? That I? That before?

Two: Yes, it is possible that your name.

One:

Two: It is possible the bodies.

One:

Two: It is possible that your name and the bodies. That you once. That before.

One: And the isles? The conversations? The delay?

Two:

One: The houses we abandoned? All those patios?

Two:

One: Did we leave the lights on? Did we leave the doors unlocked?

Two:

One: Were we the ones that on escaping..?

Two: Yes, it’s possible we were the ones. It’s possible; all the patios and all the doors, and all those abandoned houses with the lights on. The delay and the conversations; but not the isles. Those belong to fiction and asylum.

One: Let’s say, was there ever an isle bearing your name? Was there a before? Was there an I?

Two: Yes, there was a name and there were the bodies; a before and an us.

One: There was an I, then. Isles.

Two: It’s also possible that I was lying and that the isles, and the I, and the could have.

One:

Two: It’s also possible that I wasn’t lying and that in present tense there are no hurries and no escapes. No nothing.

One:

Two:

One: Is the isle of us possible?

Two: Yes, it is possible. The journey and the delay. Yes.

One:

Two:

One:

Two:

One:

Two:

One: But, is it also possible you are lying?

Two: Yes, it is possible; the name, the I, the isles.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




Constantinople’s Jacket

It’s the type of business where those with a PhD are the unprepared ones; they had to go to school and waste their time while the rest embraced universal culture without aides and from an early age. Frankly, there are assistants who are quite simple and accountants with mental retardation but overall employees have a terrific intellectual calibre.

The best are those who didn’t even finished High School. As an example there is this one who wanted to become a professional football player. He had some success at a youngster’s league team but his father, an engineer, prevented him going further. He then read every book, admired every painting and listened to every record he bumped into; just to contravene his dad. He ended up incapable of joining any other sort of industry. There is this other one, who retired yesterday in a hurry, who is able to translate in six different languages; she’s invented two perfumes and during her free time she writes advisory papers for the development of Brazilian aerospace programs. There is a Chilean who sees series of figures in action where for the rest of us there’s only a bicycle, for example. He asks: what is the basic ingredient in your bike’s alienation; titanium or aluminium? One responds: Aluminium, why? He looks up, closing his left eye, and adds: 28.3 kilometres an hour without considering slopes; not bad. He’s spent his life turning cultural entrepreneurs into millionaires; by visiting their shops and studying the relevant yellow pages he is able to advise on investments since he already knows how much will be sold during their first year. However his true speciality, in which he never fails, is Thomism; he discusses Councils as if discussing restaurants and he’s a Jew. There’s a physicist who invents motors at his own place. He can distinguish errata just by looking at a document and left the movie industry at 20 after concluding Godard, for whom he worked doing research, was Maoist not out of conviction but stupidity.

It was on all those people’s computer screens that the decisive email inviting the entire personnel to attend the Second Evaluation Meeting on ISO 9000 advancements appeared. In the company all of us understood the partners’ upsetting fixation with our way of getting things done and the sad confusion of the Director General, recently arrived from his MBA and Milky Way’s rotation; so we were polite but condescending and foolish at the same time. Nobody spoke on time to stop the Certification process, maybe it was never possible to do so since the Director had learnt through his private university ministerial teachers those communication strategies of the revolutionary General type that sometimes are mixed up with political ability. When we realized it, the several thousand dollar contract was a reality; a deal with the most unlikely basic group of hustlers on Earth. We had nurtured the monster with a funny attendance at the Total Quality workshops and when we were called to attend the First Evaluation Meeting many amongst us had something else to do. Only the accountants, the secretaries, the janitors and the Director General attended; hence the scarcely veiled ferocity of the Second Meeting invitation. We thought of our kids, of our medical insurance, of the gas coupons, and ran to them en masse.

As usual, there were coffee and nibbles at the entrance. Apparently that’s part of every hustler’s manual: you don’t have to be a charmer just badly pretend to be one and offer coffee and nibbles. We ate them happily chatting in the auditorium’s hall while waiting for the Director General to arrive, always behind his tie which he would wear tomorrow to Wall Street and the one he wore yesterday to the City of London, we proved that scientifically. None of us conceived entering the auditorium before the Meeting started, busy as we were eating the hustlers’ nibbles. Had we done that the smartest amongst us might had given an alarm signal and we would have escaped in order to form an ironic resistance, this time around voluntarily speaking. The tornado Director passed in front of us ten minutes late for the Meeting, cooling our coffees, and we entered the auditorium behind him.

Seats were displayed by Project or Management Offices. There were groups of seats labelled under handmade banners: a broom stick with a paper note announcing Humanities, Sciences, Cutting edge Research, Philosophy and Arts; or Maintenance, Finance, Purchases. Each banner included a crowning, ferocious animal. In our case it was a wolf, we envied the Humanities team, the favourite ones, who had the jaguar. You were to sit under your banner next to the rest of the team of your office, which in our case included a secretary, an errand boy, two assistants and a sizeable group of doctors and people way too illustrated to deserve a PhD.

It started with an extravagant speech, apparently inspirational, by one of the hustlers, who showed very weird images on his computer. Cartoons of Americans, or people of the sort; all were either blonde or black; measuring graphics or working in front of their desks next to what seemed like a ventilator at top speed. What the speech really inspired was laughs, but all of us restrained ourselves because we are quite polite and because the previous afternoon we thought of our kids, our gas coupons and our medical insurance. We were invited to commit to Top Quality as if it was really hot or cooked great. At the climax of the speech, the General Director looked at the sky – or at the ceiling since we were inside an auditorium – and asked who were we tied to. Tradition? noted someone from the Arts Office timidly. An uncomfortable silence followed. Surely it was one of the seven people that failed the anonymous ISO exam the previous week. No, he said, we are tied to our client. Then I remembered one of the workshop sessions where we were told there were internal and external clients. For over forty minutes we discussed who was whose client within the company. At a certain point someone gave the example, if I go for lunch to my house at the end of the month and bring along my monthly salary who is the client? Me or my wife? The hustler said it was the wife; someone from the Human Resources Office thought it was the husband; a somewhat naïve and disoriented girl from the Cutting Edge Research Office said it was actually the children. What if there are no children? insisted the sensitive one. The Chilean intervened to calm the waters, and ask us to continue – the hustlers, like parking lots, charged on an hourly basis – and answer the following question as homework: how may clients fit onto a pin’s head?

After the Director’s speech we listened to those of the managers, quite funny frankly; it was obvious none of them had a clue except for the sales manager who was always clear about who was whose client. Later on, they organized an award ceremony in which the guy next to me got a pen without really knowing the reason for it. We applauded vigorously.

It was then that we learnt how to stand on our own feet; we who thought so highly of ourselves. We were buttoning our jackets and getting ready to go back to our cubicles to share ironies when they turn off the lights. There was confusion, a feeling we were getting used to. Then there was fear, not because of the dark but because of our medical insurance and the gas coupons of the technicians in charge of the event. The screen lit up with the company’s logo, Wagner was coming out of the sound system and we watched images of ourselves in our desks mixed with images of athletes breaking world records and climbers dominating mountains. Jesus! came out of the mouths of the most agnostic Philosophy fundamentalists. A spotlight set on the centre of the podium illuminating the hustlers’ leader, the only interesting one of them because of his obvious hypocrisy. He asked us for a war cry; he asked it of us, who thought heaven looks like a library. The downside of it is we thought again of our cars without gas and of our kids deprived of insurance and then we gave in. Once more, he said, and we followed suit. Once again, another one, once more. Now close your eyes and hold hands with each other. No, one of the oldest ones yelled. Yes, he said; feel the power of music, feel the power of music, feel the power of music. And we did. After three or four minutes of this nightmare during which the only thing we felt was the sweaty hands of the secretary and the errand boy, he screamed: synergy has been done. Lights came back. Those who believed in the miracle applauded.

The rest of us lined up and left the auditorium in pain, following our banners. We were prisoners of war. What we had always been and never noticed for thinking so high of ourselves, immersed in our books. Or maybe what everyone knew but no one dared to tell us: the radiant loot of a secular faction.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




Crab

When the crab advances towards the moon

The sea of love crashes into mirrors

And there are readers filled with fortune.

 

Filled with fortune, the readers

Arrive at the love of mirrors

When the moon falls towards the crab.

 

The moon falls. The sea crashes. Mirrors

Are dying of love for the crab

That risks its life for the moon.

 

Then the moon fills up. Readers,

Before the moon, are like the crab:

They fall, they rise, towards mirror love.

 

May you have crab, readers, and moon.

May you find yourselves in the sea of mirrors;

May you be filled with the sea and with fortune.

 

May you crash into new seas, may you be crabs

In mirrors of moon and readings.

And love in excess, filled with mirrors.

 

Let’s fall towards the sea of crabs:

There the seas overflow with love,

There begins the reading of the moon.

Translation by Kathleen Snodgrass




Fedra and Other Greeks

NAXOS’ BAR. A FASHIONABLE BAR IN TOWN.

 

CHARACTERS

ARIADNA
MAN

 

MAN: Hello

ARIADNA: …

MAN: Do you smoke?

ARIADNA: …

MAN: Do you come here very often?

ARIADNA: …

MAN: Don’t you speak?

ARIADNA: What do you want?

MAN: I can make you happy, you know.

ARIADNA: You?

MAN: Yes, come with me.

ARIADNA: To your bed…

MAN: …Well… If you put it that way…

ARIADNA: How am I supposed to put it?

MAN: You look lonely. I can keep you company.

ARIADNA: Between the sheets.

MAN: …I love the way you say it… Yes, I can make you have a wonderful night.

ARIADNA: I hate nights.

MAN: Let’s wait for sunrise.

ARIADNA: I hate sunrises.

MAN: Why don’t we have a drink, we laugh and have fun?

ARIADNA: Your way of conceiving fun bores me.

MAN: What’s your name?

ARIADNA: I couldn’t care less about all names in this world.

MAN: Yours must be beautiful, just like you: (HE CARESSES HER LEG)

ARIADNA: And yours disgusting, just like you: (SHE PUSHES AWAY HIS HAND)

MAN: I’m only trying to be nice to you.

ARIADNA: I don’t like your pleasantries.

MAN: That’s because you don’t know them well: (HE TOUCHES HER BREASTS)

ARIADNA: (PUSHING AWAY HIS HAND) They repel me anyhow.

MAN: Wow! I love your temperament. (HE KISSES HER)

ARIADNA: (SHE SLAPS HIM)

MAN: (HE KISSES HER AGAIN)

ARIADNA: (SHE SLAPS HIM AGAIN)

MAN: How funny! I’m mad about you… I want to get to know you better…

ARIADNA: Get to know me better? Look at me: this is me. This is my head; you know what a head is? It’s an organ that makes a constant hideous noise. You must believe it’s used for thinking but no, don’t believe so. It’s not used for thinking but for making noise. This is the heart; you know what the heart is? Do you know it’s a beating organ? Its constant ta-ta-ta-ta-ta reminds me I’m alive because sometimes I forget. Does it happen to you too? It’s horrible to have noisy and beating organs inside the body. These are my hands. Look at them closely. Notice how they suffer from amnesia, they don’t know what to do. This is my chest, divided in two. It doesn’t work. I don’t even know why I have it. The stomach is destroyed. It was pushed so hard that it burst. Kidneys, liver, bladder and all those things inside; they are there, waiting for the time to pass by. This is my sex. I assume you know quite well how uncomfortable it could be. Sometimes it betrays me. And, well the legs and the feet are the basis of all the rest. My tongue is acid, look at it. And that’s it, there’s no more. I am useless; useless because on top of everything else I carry with me an unbearable suffering. Does it hurt to you? Have you ever experienced the feeling of feeling? If you think it is something that comes and goes you are mistaken, because it isn’t. Suffering doesn’t come and go it remains, always. You are born with it, it’s innate. You might think you suffer because of a loss, or you might think you suffer for abandonment, or even think you suffer for not being capable of changing things, for being incapable of cutting into pieces your disgrace. But that is not the case. Once you suffer reasons stop mattering; you can feel it, name it the way you want, but suffering is suffering and that’s it.

MAN: …mmh…are you a poet? How thrilling! Really, listen…what was your name again? Let’s go together. That way you can keep on reciting your poetry to me… keep on talking about your body…

ARIADNA: For how long?

MAN: What do you mean how long?

ARIADNA: Minutes, you can only give me a few minutes. You know what you are? You are a cheap guy, you are not willing to give, to share nothing other than a few minutes. Minutes are nothing, they come and go. Watch, listen how they go away. Minutes are nothing, and that is what you want to give me: nothing. In that case you’d better leave.

MAN: Hey, you know what? You are sort of… I don’t know, you are making me nervous. (HE COUGHS). Why do you say those things about me? What did I do to you? It affects me you know. I feel bad you see? (HE COUGHS). You made me feel really bad… You are sick, really. There’s some people that… What’s wrong with you? (HE COUGHS AND LEAVES)

ARIADNA: …Good bye…

DARK.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection

Every time I visit the Herrera-Harfuch art collection, every time I’ve gone up – because there is an ascent, never as dangerous as the descent, even though, often, during the climb one is filled with a glass or two of wine or some other intoxicant, a couple of tequilas or whiskies on winter nights – every time I am under the impression that I have seen only a small fragment of the collection’s great body of work. A slice of an enormous landscape wisely folded into the furrows of the collection’s archives. These wines and spirits consumed before going up accompany the greatest delicacies of Polish cuisine found in Mexico. Everyone knows what their favourite dish is – perhaps a few juicy slices of duck in a sweet-and-sour sauce, fish cooked just right to retain its tenderness and not lose the vigour of the sea, or minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves drenched in the most delicious red sauce that is orange, really, due to the way the mix of tomatoes and paprika gel during the process of cooking. This is served on white dishes with colourful puréed roots that are so much a part of survival in northern Europe. But back to Mexico City, the Condesa neighbourhood to be exact, where you can eat on the terrace almost year-round. The caloric impact of the delicacies served by Gabriel Herrera take on other dimensions, and I’m not speaking only of the shapes of the diners’ bodies, but of what happens to the perceptions and the minds of those of us who dine here.

The first time (and I don’t know why each time seems to be the first) I passed through a tiny alley next to the restaurant kitchen and went up under the light of the stairs’ bare bulb, a light that undresses the eye in preparation for what lies behind the apartment door. I had moved only a few metres, but found myself as if in another world – the home where the collection lives.

The door opens and one puts one foot after the other into a territory whose first effect is the sensation of having flown a thousand miles away from the Condesa. Simultaneously, one realizes that what has taken place is that one has landed in the very entrails of the neighbourhood. In a place where one can see the pictorial interior of the artists that inhabit the span between the second half of the 20th and into the 21st century. And also the visual touch and flow of a man and of Consuelo, his wife, who have lovingly put together the ripest fruit of these artists. Collecting, let us not forget, is a term that originates from the harvest and also from the time before humans harvested; it is a term derived from the foraging for food in forests, near rivers, in lakes and seas. In what the world was then, in the bounty of the earth.

Behind the door there are works on every centimetre of wall, provided there is space enough for the eye to see. There is art in every nook and cranny, pieces in every corner – to surmise, there are pictures and objects everywhere.

Basically, the collection brings together artists born after 1950, with the exception of Gilberto Aceves Navarro, Pedro Friedeberg, Jose Luis Cuevas, Brian Nissen and Arturo Rivera. Each of these older painters can be seen as an important tributary of a great river that will be discovered in decades to come. These four artists had already started to produce work and gain recognition while the younger generation was being formed under their influence.

Gabriel Herrera says that his interest in art first came from impressions he had at a young age. His mother learned to appreciate painting in her hometown of Tecoh in Yucatan, where she grew up, “humbly, surrounded by orchards, Mayan culture and the Popol Vuh. I remember seeing art as a child,” recounts Herrera, “I don’t remember my level of interest, but I liked it and sensed that I was facing something exceedingly important.” Years later, on a visit to the Met in New York City with his mother, he realized she really knew the paintings, and even identified them: author, subject, everything. “‘Look!’ it appeared she said from one narrow hall to another, ‘that one there is a Brueghel. Brueghel – The Elder. The painting is called The Harvest’”.

That’s how the first seed was planted. Years go by, during which Gabriel Herrera creates the Specia restaurant. In 1995, the collection is born. This collection is now eighteen years old and already has 700 original works and approximately 100 prints and etchings. The collection owes much to the exchange between the collector and the artists without which, Herrera says, it would have been virtually impossible to grow at this rate. Eighteen years are few for the consolidation of such a significant gathering of work. And, as we know is the case in the nascent stage of these endeavours, the exchange that occurs between collector and artist can go far beyond the material sphere, even if the barter happens through it: a canvas, pigments, oil, objects, things that get put together and mixed inside the kitchen of each particular artist.

“I think there are two ways of collecting: the kind that’s done for the love of art, and the sad kind that’s done for financial or social investment. Many of today’s collections are formed by wealthy people who hire dealers and curators who predict what will be important in the future. The last thing these people have in mind is consistency in the quality of the objects gathered. They buy signatures and acquire artists that will help them gain social status regardless of whether the work excites or transmits something. What matters is that it is fashionable. That cold indifference is felt and makes the collection something soulless, without historical reason and without poetry.

“It is a fact that collecting art is a reflection of the desire to possess beauty. What is more enriching for the soul than beauty? That’s why I wonder what collectors of empty boxes and balloons must feel,” Herrera says.

The experience of exchanging is different from the experience of buying. “I never set out to be a collector. One day I realized that I already had many paintings and other works of art. Museums and exhibits started to request pieces, and I understood something important had happened through my friendship with these artists. These relationships have developed naturally. Much of what I’ve collected is related to the endless conversations I’ve had with the artists.

“Artists are different kinds of beings than you and I; they’re in constant turmoil, their soul on tenterhooks. Gabriel Macotela and Gustavo Monroy are both artists with whom I’ve developed strong bonds of friendship. They are an essential part of the collection. Gustavo Monroy is a painter who works with unpleasant themes and is one of the greatest artists I know. It was with him that I understood that people don’t like to be confronted with difficult works because, in most cases, it confronts them with themselves, and that is not easy – especially if you don’t know who you really are. I don’t like collecting landscapes and still lifes; I think art should make you shudder, make you think and analyse the reason for existence. Jorge Alzaga (now deceased) for example, was one of the painters who, although perhaps not a great artist, was an extraordinary human being who taught me to look at art with watchful eyes.”

In the apartment that the collection and its meticulous records and files inhabit, there is a flavour – the inevitable result of the confusion between sight and taste under these circumstances – which is elusive, hard to grasp. I explain it to myself by inventing a story: Someone extraordinarily careful from the aforementioned generation had the good fortune of living in the same nice, spacious apartment since the Eighties and stayed there. He stayed there without collecting dust, or old shoes, or dead files filled with decades of phone bills and extinct bank accounts. Neither did he gather burnt pans, nor synthetic clothing turned to shreds that hurt the skin. No, this person even bottled the light coming through the window during those years: particularly dense but not devoid of beauty. And he collected the images and forms born of that light. He meticulously recorded the history and provenance of each piece, simplifying art historians’ lives. A silence envelops the visitor. A silence that is not reverential but contemplative, inquisitive. Perhaps the gaze of Gabriel himself. The love of having gathered the voices. Forgive me, synaesthesia wins: the gathering of flavours that are images that are voices that make up the collection.

Over the years, stories have come to hang from the paintings that hang on the walls. Captions or narrative records that adhere to the image and enrich the texture of the object, as if adding another layer of depth, of sense, of significance.

Gabriel recounts, “One afternoon I visited Gabriel Macotela, who was painting a boat onto a beautiful fabric for a collector from Valle de Bravo. I told him I’d like to have something similar. He told me he’d paint me an entire fleet. I had a frame of 1.98m by 1.98m made. I had the finest linen I could find stretched over it. It didn’t enter his study so he worked on it in a warehouse I have next to the apartment. He painted it there. It’s called Sea of Our Lives. I documented the creative process photographically and now the painting hangs in front of Consuelo’s desk. It’s one of the dearest pieces in our collection.”

These works seem to have a life of their own. The paintings develop close relationships and converse among each other. We are talking here about a crude reality, a group of artists who look at the exterior and interior world without any prohibitions and without trying to please anyone. For example, the large paintings by Daniel Lezama don’t correspond to any official version of the nation’s history. They correspond with his story, his own. His visions hit you hard and are not easy to digest. Herrera appreciates raw truth.

The four children of the Herrera-Harfuch marriage grew up among the collection and the challenges it faced. Herrera recounts a beautiful story of how one of his daughters offered to leave college when she found out he couldn’t raise the money to keep an incredible painting of Daniel Lezama’s, The Prodigal Mother. She suggested he use her tuition money to pay for it. The father didn’t accept his daughter’s sacrifice. The painting went to a European collection.

A man and a woman unite, create a family, and find a way to provide for that family. Art enters the construction through a natural opening. The collection grows with dedication and a special spice that visits the Specia restaurant. There’s something easy about its growth, similar to the way plants grow with water and sunlight. What matters most in life is the life lived – the collection of precious moments that occur and in which we shift from one group of people to another in the passing of time and generations. There are cases in which images adhere to families – images produced by primitive tools, animal hair attached to pieces of wood and securely fastened with string or wire, which allow pigments to glide over fabric. Or images created with the help of chisels, rasps, sandpaper… Images that will survive us all and which the collector lovingly rescues from the studios of those who need to register the liquid flow of the visual.

Translation by Sylvia Blackmore




Extract from Tequila Sunset

Tequila Sunset is out on 1 November 2012 in the UK, in paperback, from Serpent's Tail.

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez sit across the Texas/Mexico border from each other. One gang claims territory in both: Los Aztecas. This single criminal organisation is responsible for most of the homicides committed in Juárez, and Felipe Morales is one of them. Recruited in prison, and now on the streets of El paso, "Flip" has no choice but to step further into that world, but he has a secret that threatens his life. A witness to murder and intimidation, he tries playing both the cops and the outlaws in a bid to escape. On the American side, El Paso detective Cristina Salas struggles to balance the needs of single motherhood with those of life in the city's anti-gang unit. When her path crosses with Flip, their relationship will spell the difference between a life behind bars for the young gang member, a grisly death, or freedom.


In the summer it was hot, in the winter it was cold and all year round the halls and cells of Coffield Unit were busy with the business of incarceration. This day it was not so bad, teetering between two extremes. The ceiling-mounted fans did not turn and the big heating units that blew and blew, but did little to chase away the chill, were silent. Flip lined up with the convicts, dressed in their white cotton uniforms, waiting for the COs to open the door and let them out onto the yard. Barred windows let in sunshine to compete with sallow fluorescents. It would be good to be outside. [private]When the door opened the COs counted them off. Already they had been counted before getting into line and they would be counted again when it was time to go back inside. Counting was a constant and if ever the numbers didn’t jibe everything stopped. They went out mixed, but as the cons distributed into the yard they broke into their component parts. White boys congregated by the weight pile, blacks by the half-court basketball blacktop and the Latinos by the handball court. Within each division were individual cliques, but the most important grouping was by race. The colors approached one another’s domains only when certain dictates had been observed. In this way the facilities could be shared without it coming to blows. Flip was not the youngest Latino on the yard. That honor went to Rafael Perez, eighteen years old, doing four for sexual assault on a child. He was shunned, and when anyone took notice of him it was bad news. The other Latinos didn’t even let him find a corner to hide in; he was forced to stand away from the walls in the no man’s land between handball and basketball courts, exposed to everyone. He seemed smaller now than when he came.

Today Flip stood with Javier who was doing thirty-five and Omar who wasn’t ever getting out. Both men were old enough to be his father. They kept close and they let no one touch him, not on the yard or on the inside, because he was one of them. Flip was an Azteca. They called each other Indians. Javier was tattooed from his navel to his collarbone and on his arms, too. The marks showed on his wrists where his cuffs pulled back. He had his initials over his left eyebrow. Many of his pieces he had done on himself. He did good work. Flip hadn’t ever gotten anything from Javier, though Javier offered more than once. None of Javier’s marks were a gang patch and he didn’t do gang patches. They were Aztecas, but no one could prove it. That’s how they all stayed out of Administrative Segregation, where gang members went and never surfaced again.

If anyone asked, they were all just good friends. Old-timers watched out for new fish and new fish did favors for the old-timers. There was nothing the COs could say about that. No Indian would give up another Indian. From time to time one of them would be picked off, sent to Ad Seg, but that was just bad luck. In all there were two hundred and fifty men out of four thousand in Coffield on the yard. They were watched on the ground and from the towers. Double rows of thirty-foot cyclone fencing and yards and yards of densely coiled razor wire stood between them and a tall concrete wall. There were flatlands beyond. It was two hundred yards from the wall to the first tree and the COs in the tower were excellent shots.

Enrique Garcia was one of the last out. He’d been in the hole for sixty days and now he was free of the belly chain and ankle cuffs. His size was intimidating though his waist was thick. The COs were careful watching him when he came on the yard because there was trouble before and there could be trouble again. In the time Flip had known him, Enrique spent more days in the hole than out. The sun reflected off his bald head. When he came close to the others he smiled from under a mustache that made him look like a bandito. He rapped knuckles with Javier and Omar and Rafael and César and all the other Aztecas. And Flip, too. His fingers were tattooed. Under his shirt he had ink of an Aztec warrior in full headdress and a bare-breasted maiden beside him. Flip had seen it once. A scorpion crawled up his neck. That one didn’t stand for anything.

“What’s the word?” Enrique asked.

Nada, jefe,” Omar said. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to be seen. Flip, ¿cómo estás?”

“I’m doing my time,” Flip said.

“Not much longer, right?”

“Another week.”

“A week? So soon.” Enrique looked up at the sky and let the rays of the sun fall on his face. He breathed in the cool air like he was thirsty for it. Flip had never been in the hole, but he could understand. A group of convicts took over the handball court and broke out in pairs. They did not mix with the Aztecas because they were La Eme. There was longtime peace between their cliques because Enrique had brokered it. Flip stepped off the corner of the court to give them all the space they needed. Before long they were playing, the echoes of the ball bouncing around their corner of the yard.

“How’s that motherfucker Danbury?” Enrique asked.

“He got out of the infirmary, took protective custody,” Javier said. “Ain’t nobody seen him since.”

Enrique showed his teeth. “Teach those negros to talk shit. He shows his face again, it’ll be his ass. ¿Sabes lo que quiero decir?” Flip looked across the open ground to the basketball court where the blacks held together. They were watching Enrique and talking among themselves. There was no peace between the Aztecas and them. There could be no peace. They had Danbury to answer for and Danbury to avenge and there was no easy way to work that through. Flip was glad he would be out of it soon.

“Flip,” Enrique said and his put his hand on Flip’s shoulder. “The first thing I did when I got out, I made some calls for you. When you get home, you’re gonna be looked after. Everybody will know your name.”

Gracias, jefe,” Flip said.

“It’s nothing. Blood don’t stop at the gates. José, he’s my boy, he’ll watch over you like I would. You got no worries.” The blacks weren’t looking their way anymore. Some of them shot hoops.

“No worries,” Flip said.

Enrique squeezed Flip’s shoulder, shook him gently. “No worries.”


Number ten!” the CO called. Flip got out of his bunk. He had the top, Daniel the bottom. When Flip was gone, arrangements would change. Flip’s things were in a white cloth bag with a string tie.

“Time’s up,” Daniel said.

Adiós,” Flip said. “See you on the outside.”

“Not if I see you first.”

They laughed. The CO stopped at the cell door. He was one of the new ones and Flip didn’t know his name. “Number ten, open up!” he yelled down the line and somewhere a buzzer went off. The CO put his key in the lock, turned and pulled. “Step out.” Outside the row of cells there was a yellow line painted on the concrete. Flip grabbed his bag and walked over the line, stood facing the wall while the cell was locked up again. When he felt the CO’s touch on his elbow, he turned and marched, the CO at his back. The convicts in their cells called out to him. See you, man. Hasta la vista. Good luck, hermano. Flip raised his hand to them until they came to the end of the line.

“One prisoner coming out,” the CO said.

Danny Mascorro worked the gate. He buzzed the lock and the CO used his key to get them through. Now they were in a dead zone between gates, Mascorro behind reinforced glass. They were under the eye of closed-circuit cameras. Flip nodded to Mascorro and Mascorro nodded back.

After the second gate they proceeded down a long hall with no windows. At the end was a steel door. A CO peered through a slot at them and there were more buzzers and more locks. They left Flip in a big cell with benches along three walls. He was in there for a long time, until finally another CO he didn’t recognize came to get him. The CO took him down a passageway to another, smaller cell adjoining a large room with desks and computers. Women in TDCJ uniforms were at work there, clicking away on keyboards, and they ignored him. Flip sat down and waited. There was a window in the room beyond his cell and through that window he could see a tree. He didn’t know if he was looking at something beyond the walls or if there was a garden spot just past the glass. In his imagination it was a yard with concrete benches and flower beds and a flagpole flying the American and Texas banners. Maybe there was a little plaque dedicating the space to somebody or the other. Quiet and peaceful. He was daydreaming when one of the women called his name.

“Huh?” he said.

“Felipe Morales?”

“That’s right.”

“Let’s get you out of there.”

Flip waited until a CO could come and unlock the cell, and then the woman had him sit in a plastic chair by her desk. She was black and had extra long nails. Her hair was straightened and braided.

“I’m going to do your release processing,” the woman said.

“There are a lot of questions, but we’ll do them just as quick as we can so you can be on your way.”

“Okay.”

“All right, let’s get started…”

The whole interview took an hour and a half. The woman gave him an envelope with bus fare and a few extra dollars besides. He had to sign his parole certificates. After that Flip had to go back into the cell again for another hour. He could see a clock from where he sat. It made time go more slowly, the sweep hand going round and round, and the minute hand edging forward. His palms itched and he wanted to be out of there, but everything in prison took time, even getting out. A CO brought him a bag and pushed it through the bars. When Flip opened it up, he saw the clothes he wore on the day he went inside. He hardly recognized them. No one looked as he changed out of his uniform. The clothes fit loosely on him because he was leaner now. He folded up the uniform and set it on the bench beside him. The CO did not come back to collect it. “Felipe? It’s time,” the woman said at last. “Kurt, could you take him? The van’s out there.”

The CO, Kurt, let Flip out of the cell and walked him out of the room. They passed through two short hallways and into a broad area with rows and rows of plastic chairs locked together, lots of fake wood paneling and a big counter. On one side there was a security station set up with a metal detector and a table for searching bags. Two women were going through the process right then. In the plastic chairs there were more women and a few men and a bunch of kids, from babies on up. On Flip’s side there was just a velour rope like the kind that closed off the line at a movie theater. Kurt unhooked it from the stanchion and let Flip through. They moved past the rows of plastic chairs into a relatively narrow foyer. When Kurt opened the door for Flip a blinding crash of sunlight rolled over him and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The sky was cloudless and pale blue and the sun was like an unblinking eye. On the yard there was some grass, but it was patchy and mostly trod away to dirt. Out here there were two squares of neat green bracketing a concrete walk. Here was the flagpole with the banners waving and here was a wrought iron fence that could keep in no one and an open gate. A tan van with the TDCJ logo stamped on the passenger door waited on the asphalt roundabout. The driver was an older man. He came around and hauled open the van’s cargo door. The windows had metal mesh on the inside. “Hop on in,” the driver said.

“Good luck,” Kurt said and he offered Flip his hand. They shook.

Flip climbed in the back of the van. There was more metal mesh between the seats and the front of the cabin. The cargo door locked from the outside.

“Next stop, Palestine,” the driver said.

“Where’s that?” Flip asked.

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be seeing much of it.”

The van carried Flip fifteen minutes through greened country until they reached a scattering of houses along the little highway. They passed a sign that said TENNESSEE COLONY, POP. 300. They passed a simple white church with a mobile home next to it. The letter board out front read: PASTOR ON VACATION. GOD ON DUTY!

They found a bigger road and even some traffic. Flip just watched the miles slip by. Palestine seemed to grow up right out of the countryside, a busy small town with broad streets and clean buildings. The driver navigated without pause. He had done this a thousand times before. “Bus station,” the driver said and they slowed to the curb. The building was compact and had a Greyhound-logo sign on the front, benches for people to wait out of the sun and a snack machine. The cargo door was pulled aside and Flip stepped out onto the sidewalk. The driver shut the van up behind him. “And that’s it. Get your ticket inside. You’re headed to El Paso?”

“That’s right.”

“Long haul.”

“I’ll be all right.”

The driver produced a little clipboard the size of an open hand.

“Just sign off. Here’s a pen.”

Flip put his signature to a green form and got a yellow receipt back. He crumpled it up and put it in his pocket.

“Stay out of trouble.”

“No problem.”

The driver got into the van and pulled away. Flip stood on the curb with his bag and watched him go. When the van was out of sight, he went into the ticket office. No one looked at him strangely at all.[/private]