Día de los Muertos

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

I was in the Chiapas in San Juan Chamula—the place the water fled. There was a drought when I was there: El agua huyó—the water fled. A painting of a horse hung above my bed in the room of the small posada where I was staying. It was a crude and amateurish painting, but the haughty turn of the horse’s head had been well rendered. The body was slightly twisted as though the horse had broken into a trot and then suddenly looked back. The head showed in semi-profile, the eye startled, looking back.

Because of the drought a small herd of wild horses came down from the hills to drink from troughs that had been filled for them. Horses are revered in Chamula and it is a duty to fill the troughs from remaining reserves. I used to walk to the edge of town to watch them drink. I would see the ripples on the horses' haunches, the shivers that ran through their bodies, the flare of their nostrils, the shake of a head and then a sudden rearing up. Maria Estela Castanos Gonzalez, the Mexican woman who ran the posada, always told me when she knew the troughs were filled.

The painting that hung over my bed had been executed in long, heavy strokes, the eye like a huge dark nebula, the horse breaking into a trot, then rearing up with its head looking back, the eye staring, startled. What had startled it? What had made the horse look back?

I met him at a dance club in New York City. He approached with two drinks and handed one to me. I’ve been watching you, he said. I want to know you. Then he leaned close and he asked me my name. It was that gesture that lured me, his voice close to my ear. We stayed talking until the dancing ended.

During the drought there was a required abstinence in Chamula from bathing more than once a week. Visitors, like everyone else, had to comply. A thin layer of dust lay on my skin and had embedded itself in my hair. I thought about the Aztec priests in the time of the Spanish conquest—the way Cortés found them during the fasting periods when washing was forbidden, caked with dirt, their hands stained with the blood of the sacrificial victims.

We left the dance club together—out on the street it started to rain. The rain came down suddenly, falling hard in an immediate downpour; there had been none of the large, infrequent drops that usually precede a rainstorm. Soaked, we found a taxi and climbed inside. I could still feel his hand on the small of my back where he had guided me into the taxi. His fingers were long, those of a sensitive man; I felt myself yielding to the suggestion of his sensitivity.

I liked to spend my afternoons in the front sitting room of the posada, which was usually empty and faced out towards the square. Maria would bring me a small glass of atole, a liquor made from cornmeal. It was a delicious and powerful drink. I would sip slowly, making it last for at least an hour. Halfway through I would begin to feel the light-headedness, the drifting, the separation from myself and from the world; all my thoughts and my memories disappeared. I would float that way for as long as I could, sometimes not bothering with the main meal that was served late in the day; although Maria would try to persuade me to come into the dining room to eat. I'm not hungry, I would say. I have no appetite for eating. I had told her when I arrived that something happened to me involving a man, something I had come here to resolve in my mind, or to try to forget. Later, when I would go up to my room, I would find a tray, a plate on it with two tamales and a cup of lukewarm tea. And late at night, late, late in the night, I would chew and swallow and drink down to the leaves of the tea.

By morning the rain stopped. My bedroom was warm, a stream of light poured in through the window. He was asleep with his face turned towards mine. His hair was matted and his skin moist—there were two deep lines, one on each side of his mouth; the lines were markedly visible in the daylight. When he woke up we made love again. He squeezed my flesh hard at the sides of my rib cage. At first I held myself back, but then I gave in. The gesture of roughness excited me.

Maria's oldest son, Braulio, sometimes served as my guide to see the archeological ruins surrounding the town. Once he took me to an Aztec burial site at the foothills of Chiapa de Corzo. It’s not so far, he said, we can hike. As we were leaving town, I saw a half-eaten papaya on the street, the fleshy, rotting pulp with the teeth marks still visible. The ruin was small—Braulio said it was at least a thousand years old. The funerary chamber was set back in a cave. When Braulio flashed the light into the cave I could see that the stone wall at the rear had a mural painted on it depicting a procession of the gods of death. The gods had fierce expressions, but the colors were subdued: soft pastels in shades of blue and coral. The skulls and the bones had been carried off in the excavations. The tomb was still there but the human remains had been taken away. Braulio pointed to a winged insect that looked like a butterfly carved into the flat side of the wall. When the warriors died in battle, he said, it was believed their souls were transformed into butterflies. What about the women, I asked him? What happened to their souls when they died? The women who died in childbirth, Braulio said, were transformed into goddesses with their hair flowing wildly, and with their breasts bare, but no man could touch them; they were angry and their hands were like claws. He formed one of his hands into a claw and held it up for me to see. What about the other women, I asked? Braulio shrugged. Well, I said. Bueno.

On our way back into town we saw the horses drinking. The troughs were muddy at the bottom, but at the top the water sparkled. The horses stood at them with their heads lowered and their coats glistening. What would happen if the troughs were not filled, I asked Braulio. They would run to Tlatilco, he told me—but even so we must give them to drink. We stood watching the horses for a few minutes longer. I’d like to ride one, I said. Braulio laughed. They are too wild, he said. All the same, I said, I’d like to ride one. Then we were silent as we walked through the town. When we got back to the posada, Maria said she had made pejelagarto. It is a fish with the head of an alligator. Maria was talking about how lucky she had been to find pejelagarto in Chamula—how strong the taste was, how sweet the flavor of the fish. I would like to see the wild horses in the hills where they live, I told her—the entire herd in a full gallop.

The house was large, three stories high. He led me into one of the second floor bedrooms. The bedroom had an adjoining bathroom; the water came out of the bathroom faucet brown when I turned it on, and then it cleared. The house had been a small inn at one time operated by his family, but he was the only one who now used it. The bedroom window was open, behind it a screen. I lifted the screen to see the stars; I put my head out the window to see them. The stars are more luminous here, I said, without light to diffuse them they give me an overwhelming feeling. He pulled me back to the bed and lowered his body onto mine. The first time we were there, I became a little sick; it was nothing serious, but I ran a slight fever. The fever did not interfere with our lovemaking; it seemed to only make it more intense. He had been unshaven the entire weekend. Irresistible.

One day fifteen horses came down from the hills to drink at the troughs in Chamula. The same number that Cortés brought into Texcate. They were perhaps the descendants of those earlier conquistador horses.

We soon spent all our weekends at the house. He liked to cook and once he made roast goose—he worked most of the afternoon at his preparations. I watched as he pulled back the skin on the bird’s breast to reveal the wishbone. He used a small sharp knife to cut around the bone; then he removed it and inserted the onion stuffing. Once the stuffing was in place he trussed the slit back up with string. A few hours later, he discarded the trussing and carved the meat from the bones. The dining room was musty from lack of use. He sat me down like a guest in a chair at the head of the table. I wore the black dress he had requested I bring, eating fastidiously so as not to remove my red lipstick. He ate methodically, cutting his food into small pieces; he held the knife somewhat daintily as he cut. The room was lit with candles; after we finished eating he extinguished the candles. In the dark he led me up the stairs.

A new colt appeared among the horses. The colt looked in my direction, perhaps sensing my gaze. Later, Maria breezed by me at her chores. I mentioned the colt to her and she said something in passing that I could not hear clearly. But when I turned to ask her what she said, she had already left the room.

The doors were never locked and it crossed my mind someone might get into the house—without our knowing it there might be someone in one of the rooms. Or else in one of the empty cabins behind the house. The cabins, like the rooms of the inn, used to be rented out by his family. He laughed when I mentioned it. It's safer here than anywhere, he told me, but if you're afraid we don't have to stay. No, I love the house, I said. I'm not afraid.

Afternoons in the front sitting room at the posada. I sat facing the window. I could see the people coming and going in the market in the square. I could see chickens; there were chickens everywhere in San Juan Chamula, wandering around the dusty streets. I watched a chicken followed by her baby chicks, all of them pecking around at the base of an old iron fence. The chicks were tiny and determined, pecking in the little clods of dirt.

The summer night had been cool; there had been a drop in temperature. We had a fire going in the fireplace in the bedroom. His skin glowed red in the light from the fire. Naked he got up and added a log. When he came back to the bed, he kissed me. Then he said softly: Give in. His hands gripped my arms and held them pinned to my sides. He said he wanted to make love while my body was motionless. I remained still as he moved above me—passive while he moved for both of us.

My room in the posada was like a monk's cell with its single bed and sparse furnishings: a wooden chest, a wooden chair, the little table next to the bed always with its vase of fresh cut flowers. For a period of time I seldom left it. Maria would enter silently to leave a tray and then go out.

It was a foolish game, I thought, when he suggested it. Foolish on my part, too, allowing him to bind me. He pulled my hands above my head and tied the cords around my wrists. With my arms spread wide, he fastened my wrists to the bedposts. He spread my legs as well, and fastened them. I want to feel every quiver of your muscles, he said. Do you know you are fragile? I want to feel that fragility.

I dreamed that the horses were stampeding the city, the thunderous sound of their approach, their menacing gallop, and nothing anyone could do to stop them, they were wild following only the bay horse which led them, the eyes of the horses in the heat of a full gallop, tearing up the ground with their massive hooves.

I started to speak, to ask a question; he placed his fingers over my mouth to stop me—the night, the room, his face, the insistence of his body, my wrists testing the restraints, but not resisting.

The religion in Chamula was a mixture of Catholicism and Indian rites. The statues in the church had been painted in bright colors and draped in fabrics—flag-like garments. The statues wore elaborate headdresses.

We were in the woods behind the house. I stood looking at the row of empty cabins. I think they look creepy, I told him, the way they’re sitting there empty. A flock of birds flew overhead. The moon was visible in the late afternoon sky. He slipped his arms around my waist. Is it too cool out here, he asked me? He said it sweetly: Is it too cool out here? No, I answered, I'm fine.

A woman was reading Tarot cards in the square in front of the church. She was reading from a pretty Spanish deck: El Pequeño Tarot Español. The table next to hers was piled high with white sombreros. She was telling fortunes for two young girls, fifteen or sixteen years old; they were giggling because the fortune was about love. The girls wore white tissue cotton blouses, cut low with billowing sleeves and the brightly colored shawls worn by the women in Chamula.

One night he came to me proposing a refinement to our game. It was simply this, that in addition to being bound, my eyes should be covered as well. He said it was a small thing: to add a blindfold. The long black scarf was in his hands. My body tensed as he placed it over my eyes. He pulled at it and then tied it securely behind my head. I felt a prickling and a heightened awareness and expectancy. He touched my face with his hands; his mouth opened to mine, his tongue licking and searching.

Behind the Palacio, a thatched hut with mud and straw walls: the Museo Etnografico. On the rear wall of the museum the detail of a human sacrifice: the woman's upper body naked; the heart exposed in her open chest; her lower body twisted away from view.

He led me blindfolded through the house—up and down the stairs and in and out of the rooms. Unable to see, I was unsteady on my feet. I had no clothes on and my feet were bare—my toes curled into the floor to keep my balance. When we got back to the bedroom, he sat me down on the edge of the bed. I remained sitting while he lit a fire. I could hear the snapping of the kindling as it took hold in the fireplace and burned. And then a metallic sound—perhaps the poker hitting a metal surface. He put music on, an eerie, modern piece. And then he returned to the bed, I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. His hands were on my shoulders; he slid them down my arms, and then he drew my arms behind me. I’m afraid you’ll hurt me, I told him. I don’t want you to hurt me. Why would I hurt you? It's my responsibility to take care of you. He lowered his voice as though to sooth me: I'm not hurting you, am I? I don't want to hurt you.

Seasonal rites had been enacted. I had been reading about them in the library at Na Bolom Museum in the nearby town of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The books were not for loan, but I was able to sit there and read them using the Spanish I had studied in New York, and with the help of the museum’s dictionary. The rituals were bloody, even the grain ceremony for the harvest of corn. How hungry the gods were, what was to be made of so much hunger? Each year a young woman was selected from among the tribe. The priest had to steal her fertility. Her beheading was merely an expedient way to kill her. The crucial act was the removal of her skin, which would be donned like the skin of an animal by the naked priest. It was a true transgender act; in putting on the woman's skin he became the Xipe Totec, now in the guise of the Mother of the Sacred Ones, the fertility goddess who would guarantee the earth's flowering. Still wearing the slain woman's skin, the priest would pick up the broom and begin to perform the rite known as ‘The Sweeping of the Roads,’ an emulation of the rush of winds that marked the beginning of the next year's harvest. With the broom he began sweeping down the stairs of the temple, sweeping like the wind, sweeping down the stairs, sweeping, sweeping, out from the temple and through the streets.

Maria shrugged it off when I mentioned it to her. It was just an ancient Indian ritual, she said. What does it have to do with anything now? It’s not so ancient, I told her. They were still doing it when the Spanish came. Oh, the Spanish, Maria said, they were no better.

He covered me with a sheet and for a long time touched me only through the sheet. When he removed it, he remained still with his body on mine. You have to trust me, he said. There can be nothing between us without trust. If you want me you have to allow me everything.

There are monstrosities of art at Na Bolom Museum. Grotesque creatures with two heads, the heads with three eyes, with multiple noses, multiple mouths in rows, in layers; the clay mask with its tongue protruding.

The blindfold tight against my eyes; it was pushing hard against my eyelids. I told him it was too tight, but he insisted that it stay. I’m frightened, I said. He whispered back: There’s nothing to be afraid of.

I went with Maria to the market. I preferred to go with her because she knew all the best bargains. I wanted to buy the sandals I liked so much—the ones that are called huaraches. The stalls were overflowing with them, and with local produce and live turkeys, and flowers and candles and wool. It was just a few days before Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, the day the families celebrate the life of the souls of their departed loved ones. I bought a dozen or so pairs of the sandals. I don't know why I bought so many. My green mesh bag was filled with them. I then went off by myself onto a side-street that flanked the south end of the market. A man rode towards me on a bicycle. A long, pointed metal object jutted out from the front of the handle bars. He was riding very fast and I jumped out of the way. As he rode off, I yelled, Hey, Hombre! You could have killed me! You could have stabbed me with that thing on your bicycle! When I rejoined Maria, I told her about the incident, but she seemed to have little interest. Then I showed her my bag of new sandals. She looked into the bag and opened her eyes very wide. ¡Dios Mio! she said. So many!

He said the emotions were more real this way, layered with fear and sexual excitement. I shivered as his fingers probed my flesh. He said the more you give in, the closer we are. Remember, often what you want is not what you think it is.

An Albino stayed a few days at the posada, a woman who was traveling with her husband. She was white, white, pale as a ghost. While she was there I could not get enough of looking at her whiteness.

I heard water running from the faucet in the bathroom. First slowly, then running hard. As though the faucet had been turned all the way on. The water pouring hard into the sink. I could hear the crackling of the fire in the fireplace. The thud of a log dropped in, and then another. The sound of the fire being stoked, the pushing around of the logs, the rise of heat, warmth, the sound of a log giving way in the fireplace. A few minutes passed; I wasn’t sure where he was. Then I heard him coming back to the bed.

The Day of the Dead began with a mournful song in the cemetery at the old abandoned burned-out church on the outskirts of town, followed by a carnival and dancing in the streets throughout the day and night. All the children were eating the sugar skulls and even the adults were eating them. I ate one too, the rush of sugar making me light-headed. Everyone wore skull masks, the hollow eyes staring out far above the movements of the hips and the legs of the dancers. It is said that when all the masks are removed, for some there is only a skull left beneath it. The cemetery was filled with children and yellow marigolds. I wore my skull mask and one of my new pairs of sandals.

I began to welcome the restraints, the blindfold too—the way they magnified every sensation. I was capable only of receiving his actions. When I pulled against the cords, they squeezed tighter at my wrists and my ankles. The harder I pulled, the more they tightened.

Maria had disappeared behind her mask. I looked at all the women's feet but could not tell which ones were hers. Someone handed me a yellow marigold. There was a small Mariachi band playing the festival music. They played on mandolins, and guitars and accordions and castanets. It was the kind of bouncy music that made you want to dance and everyone was dancing in their skull masks, inviting their dead to be with them. I wondered if I might find my own dead in Chamula on Día de los Muertos. I was thinking about my father. Perhaps my poor dead father had been watching all along; had been watching us at our games. I looked back in time through my father's sad eyes. My strange docility each time the restraints had been positioned and the blindfold secured at the back of my head. Something sugary was pressed between my lips. What was it? Something harmless? I swallowed and tasted the sweetness.

It was nearing the end of the summer. He had just finished covering my eyes. The blindfold was padded leather and thick; no longer the scarf we had started with. Once in place there was nothing I could do to dislodge it. It's for us and no one else, he said. This moment. Everything we do together in this house.

The children danced like the adults and brought their fingers underneath their masks to eat the sugar skulls. I thought I saw Maria with her skirt hiked up above her knees, dancing with her face hidden by her skull mask. There was the moon at three-quarters. And a rigged up ride, something like a Ferris Wheel. The faster the ride went around, the louder the screams from its death-masked riders.

Something dropped and then rolled a little way on the floor. It was a small sound, but I heard it plainly. As though something had rolled off the bed, or he had dropped something he had been holding. I turned my head in the direction of the sound and tried to imagine what it might be. It was the only movement I could make. My body was locked in place except for my head.

I drank tequila all night long through the hole in the mask where the mouth was. I was drunk and felt free. I joined a group of Mexican women on the stage of the bandstand and they welcomed me into their chorus of dancers as a sister. I knew that some were young and some were old, but they were all dancing suggestively, swaying their hips in time to the music. As I was passed along the line I called to each of the women the name, Maria, hoping that she would be among them and answer me. When I came to the end of the line I heard Maria say, Señorita. Back in my room at the posada I drank bottled water to dilute the effect of the tequila. On the walk home Maria and I had removed our skull masks, but later in bed I put mine back on and slept in it.

I heard the cries of birds outside the window. There were nests of jays in the trees around the house. They always got active around the sunset—noisy as they settled down for the night.

Maria said that if you go to confession and take communion on the morning after Día de los Muertos, it will cleanse you and give new strength and a special blessing. My Spanish was passable enough for the priest to understand me. I have sinned, Father; it has been many years since my last confession. When it has been so long, the priest said, it is enough that you acknowledge to me that you have sinned and then do penance, professing your resolve to sin no more. I insisted that I wanted to confess. But then when I started I said, Father, it’s useless for me to confess. I have wanted to kill a man. I still want to kill him.

He adjusted the cords tighter around my wrists and my ankles. When he finished, he gave a quick tug on the cords at my wrists. Are you all right, he asked? I answered I was fine. Yes, you’re fine, he said, and walked away from the bed. I was lying bound and powerless, deprived of sight—unresisting, as was required by the game. I heard a dresser drawer being opened and closed—then the sound of his feet on the floor, again coming near to the bed. I’m going out for a while, he said. What do you mean going out, I asked? Then with his mouth close to my ear he said: I want you to miss me. I heard small metal clinks that I knew were the car keys. The sound drained me. A few minutes later he left me alone in the empty house. I knew he was gone, but I had the impulse to call out. I want to stop now, I said. I pulled and felt the restraints dig into my flesh. A gust of air came in through the window. I was cold. The birds were quiet. The cicadas had started up with their shrill, vibrating sound. The house felt savage. I pulled with all my strength against the restraints.

It started raining in Chamula. It is because of the prayers, Maria said matter-of-factly as she laid out the breakfast. It was raining and it would continue; the droughts usually gave way to a long period of heaving rains and flooding. Now the horses will not come, I said. Had it been a question? There will be no need for them to come, Maria answered, as though it had. I would like to have seen them one more time, I said, I would like to have seen the colt again. The laughter at the table had nothing to do with me. The new guests—two somewhat nondescript, middle-aged couples—were talking excitedly among themselves. The rain was heavy and I was thinking how the dirt would turn quickly to mud. Maria was busy with her endless preparations. There was a small but steady stream of people who came and went, staying one or two nights and then moving on. I had been there for a little over two months and the posada had started to feel like home. Even so, I had placed limits on my stay and the time for me to leave had arrived.

Indistinct sounds came from outside the window. I strained to hear them, desperate for his return. I was cold; he hadn’t lit a fire. I kept feeling my arms and legs fall asleep, and then the painful pins and needles sensation of them waking up and falling asleep again. The skin on my wrists was raw from pulling on the restraints. Too much time had gone by. I was no longer certain he was coming back. I couldn’t stop thinking that he had left me there to die. A while longer and I heard the car on the gravel, and the door slam shut—and then his footsteps coming up the stairs. He was talking to someone, not to me. I could hear another man’s voice in reply. I thought something had happened, that he had brought the police. They came into the bedroom. Then: You weren’t kidding, I heard the other man say. My lover came near me and said something; at first I couldn't make the words out. Then he repeated it: I'm letting him borrow you. He drew away and told the other man to go ahead. For a few minutes nothing happened. My lover prompted him. I heard a zipper coming down. Then I felt the weight of the man kneeling over me on the bed. His stomach touched mine and I started to scream. The man covered my mouth with his hand. He lifted himself slightly, adjusted his position, and then he sank his weight back down. If my arms and legs had been free, I would have ripped his hand from my mouth, caught hold of him and tried to break away from him. But when he entered me, when he finally removed his hand from my mouth, I was beyond screaming or protesting. He finished quickly; I never saw him. When the man was gone, my lover sat down on the edge of the bed. He removed the blindfold. And slowly he began to remove the restraints. You hurt yourself he said, referring to the broken skin at my wrists. Then he turned my hands up and bent and kissed them. You’ve done well, he said softly. Good girl.

The day I was leaving Maria made eggs with black beans for my breakfast. You have gotten too thin she said sadly, already nostalgic, I thought, for our shopping expeditions together to the market. I would be flying to Mexico City and then back to New York. That matter then, has it all been resolved? The way she phrased it I wasn't sure for a minute what she meant. Then I remembered when I first arrived I had told her I had come to resolve something involving a man, to settle it once and for all in my mind. I want to see the horses again, I told her. It's too late, she said, they won't come anymore now that the drought is over. Do you think the small planes at Tuxtla Gutiérrez will be able to fly to Mexico City in the rain? I asked. They fly no matter what, she said, the pilots like it when the high winds and the rain push the plane around in the sky. For a minute I considered what she was saying. And then: —No, it’s not resolved, I told her.

At the burial ruin I had been surprised when Braulio flashed the light inside the cave and I saw the mural on the wall: the procession of the Aztec gods. The gods had been gracefully painted in muted colors to accompany the dead—among them was the Xipe Totec, his face and body covered in flayed human skin. The gods appeared to be advancing towards the front of the cave. Everything else though had been erased from the tomb—the bones I would have seen if I had stumbled on it a millennium ago.

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson
Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson is the author of the novella “Insect Dreams” published by Rain Mountain Press. “Insect Dreams” has also been published in the anthologies:  Poe’s Children (Random House/Doubleday, edited by Peter Straub); and, Trampoline (Small Beer Press, edited by Kelly Link). Her short fiction has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana (Fordham University Press), and has appeared in literary journals including: Web Conjunctions, First Intensity, Spinning Jenny, Skidrow Penthouse, Italian Americana, River City, and Washington Square. Rosalind lives in New York City.