Winner : Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Fiction
It dates to José Guadalupe Posada, 1852-1913, who started it all with his telling lithographs of the upwardly mobile ladies of his time creatively enhanced in terms of decomposition.
Somehow older women aren’t drawn to it, the impersonation of overdressed skeletons still doing their best to appear as ladies of class even after sufficient years have passed to claim all flesh from their bones, leaving eyes and nose mere black holes with which to take in more recent absences.
Young women and girls, however, can be spellbound, possessed it would seem, with a kind of foreknowledge, coming out of the beauty shop with convincing death’s heads where somewhat livelier expressions had played yesterday and would again tomorrow.
Nadia, for whatever reason, had blackened only one eye and one nostril and stitched, with black and white greasepaint, only half her mouth shut.
Did that imply her participation in the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, was but half-hearted, or did it mean that she, as of this moment anyway, was only half dead? Though Nadia knew it was in her to be the liveliest of all, twisting, prancing, gesturing, a dancer determined to celebrate her last moments on this earth. Or was it her best attempt to assume a burden she knew that, once shouldered, could never be put down?
In any case, when it came time for the slow march around the plaza, when the deceased ladies assumed all the dignity of the dead, head high, blackened nose hole raised accordingly, Nadia was stateliest of all, not even deigning to look down upon those of us hopelessly stuck, for a while anyway, in the careless land of the living.
And her family altar was one of the finest. It must have taken her and her sisters all day to construct a life-size mound, large enough to cover their father head to foot, had he been there, and to sprinkle the inevitable cross, the bones, the abstract designs—some, in red, probably tears, though they might as well have been drops of blood—in sand and salt and colored sawdust. And to add, of course, at the head end, on either side of his last known picture, a bottle of his preferred tequila, Pueblo Viejo, along with plates of his longtime favorites: his mother’s tamales, his wife’s tortilla soup, and an offering from the youngest, now fatherless, daughter: a handful of once hot, at least body temperature, candy and bubble gum, perhaps the treat he appreciated most of all.
For the slow walk, fully half the population of Pueblo Viejo was, like the unwed boys and girls of yesteryear, circling the plaza in opposite directions, admiring each of the altars, the artwork on the flagstones, taking in the (usually formal) photos of the men, the women, the youth, not all of whom had died that year. One boy, dead at 19 some time ago, was not forgotten. A hand-lettered account of his short life and good character was pinned beside his picture. It seemed, from the obituario, that he would have been one of those who grew up, pulled themselves together, and actually left.
Pueblo Viejo, if you were a young man or even a young woman, was still a very good place to leave, though not all who were probably meant to actually did. If you have any doubts about this, take a look at some of those who didn’t or, at least, haven’t yet.
There. You can see them in odd corners of the plaza, standing with their buddies around a bottle of the tequila of choice, taking turns lifting it, setting it down—young men who worked the unrewarding fields from dawn to dusk and would probably do so until death sent for them. They were the ones who would make the most of our life here, choose the girls who chose them and keep Pueblo Viejo a step or two away from the pueblo fantasma it was always on the point of becoming.
There were others, of course. Young men who weren’t bone tired, communing with the spirits in the plaza, or who hadn’t already left never to return, and were at this moment, alone or in pairs, checking to see which cars had been left unlocked, which houses left open. One deadbeat duo who, it was said, got their supplies from the narco heaven to the north were cruising their low, unwashed coupe past known points, ready to hand a little something out the window for a handful of dirty pesos.
Dirt going both ways as their fathers, figuratively and, one hoped, appreciatively, lay still as statues beneath their mounds of sawdust and scattered marigolds, enjoying, one hoped, the unusual warmth from the surrounding candles, the scent of their favorite dishes, not to mention the yearly harvest of their favorite tequila. Fathers who had, as the sons who followed them into the fields were bound to, literally worked themselves to death.
As for Nadia, the half-hearted, or at least undecided, half dead girl—yes, though a year or two older than her sisters, still a girl—surely would have been queen had she been just a little less restrained in her manner, Queen of the Night of the Day of the Dead, who had no brother standing around, breaking in or cruising, for she had only sisters, and of them… all of whom were perfect… she was the most perfect. Tonight, though she might have allowed herself to be freedom incarnate, an unattached girl on the brink of womanhood, was a night to remember that with her father gone, his brothers gone before him, no brothers of her own and her mother, if full of love, even compassion, in a seemingly permanent daze, to realize it was up to her now.
But what better night to frolic with other girls, perhaps even take a soft secret swallow—of what, of time?—from one of the young men who had already perfected the art of standing around as if the months and years which everywhere else, if at varying speeds, seemed to pass in Pueblo Viejo?
Yet the family was hers now, hers alone, and Nadia must have been thinking about that as the mother Ángela sat nearly as still as her dead husband in one of the darker corners of the plaza, just where she’d been placed by the daughter.
“Don’t go wandering,” said Nadia. “We can’t go looking for you. Not tonight. Just sit and watch the world go by. Father will appreciate his altar. It’s one of the best. We might win a prize. Even if we don’t, the family has something to be proud of.” Suddenly, her hand on her mother’s shoulder, Nadia added, “Look, you can see it from here!”
At this Ángela looked slowly up, but Nadia was already gone, circling with those who for whatever reason were twice as dead as she, even while turning something over and over in her head.
Would this be the night the daughter, like the mother in the long ago, began the long slow process of throwing it all away? Though life does have a way of going on and it may have been on a night of the Day of the Dead, not that many years ago, that she had been added to her mother’s burden. Nadia could almost see herself, the first born, walked out in her father’s arms, shown off to neighbors up and down the barrio.
But the man was dead, whatever moments of pride he’d had of her he’d taken with him, and it could hardly matter now whether his first-born went on to do whatever it was she had in her to do or…
… or bent to lift the burden that was now hers or…
… or, improbably for her, went on to spend her nights like so many others, giggling on the corners, their futures as featureless as those painted on their faces tonight, eye holes, nose hole black and open as if the skull had never hosted a human face and all that went with it.
But the slow march ended and, her sisters having skipped off, the day that had begun as a very special one melded slowly into one of the hauntingly silent, hauntingly empty nights to be expected in Pueblo Viejo. And Nadia found herself looking around a plaza that seemed always to contain fewer of all shapes and sizes, of all ages, even if she had looked around it only moments before.
Perhaps it had been a whiff of his favorite foods or the nearness of his tequila of choice, but about midnight, as she made her way home alone, her mother having hopelessly disappeared yet hopefully home ahead of her, Nadia felt her father’s presence—almost as if he were walking at her side, offering the counsel he had never had time to when alive.
“Hija, that is daughter, you have thought enough of your mother, your sisters, the house you were born in. Have you not thought it might be time to think of yourself?”
“Why, papí…” She would have addressed her father so even if she were a grown woman and he the decrepit old man he had never lived to be. “Why think of myself? Even if I do matter, even to you, it seems to me that everyone else, everything else, matters more. Did you see the altares tonight? There was one off in a corner that couldn’t have been made in your day. That is, it could have been, and maybe it should have been, but no one would have thought of it. Not here. Not in Pueblo Viejo. An altar, with the most beautiful little figures of clay and sawdust, to the animals, the animals who have gone extinct, died out, this year.”
Nadia had thought, perhaps, her father would not have had time, in the never-ending days of bending to the dirt, to pick up the word extinct, but her fears were groundless.
“Extinct!” he exclaimed. “Really? They were all there last time I looked. The cow, the chickens, the dog…”
“Oh, papí,” said Nadia, “I don’t mean our animals. And I know, there are others, the survivors: the crocodiles down in la tierra caliente, the vultures circling overhead. But, still, there are whole species, ones we never saw very much of in Pueblo Viejo and now we’ll never see them. They’re gone. Unless someone finds one somewhere, on some island…”
All at once, Nadia glanced around her.
She had been so engaged in the conversation with her father she had forgotten that he wasn’t, couldn’t possibly be walking at her side. And that, if the streets of Pueblo Viejo could be relied upon to be so empty so much of the time, still someone—a woman looking out, taking one last glance at the street it seemed no one would ever come down, certainly not the one she was waiting for—might have seen her, Nadia, gesturing with conviction, pointing out extinct species here and there, if not circling overhead.
Nadia restrained her arms, lowered her head and spoke in a voice more suitable when speaking with the dead.
“I was going to ask if you were still here but I guess if you hear me and you’re talking back, you are.”
“I’m here. For a while. Not long in the scheme of things I suppose, but then, looking back, I see I wasn’t here all that long when I was here.”
At that moment Nadia realized that, though her father had been taken swiftly, unexpectedly, before he was really old enough to go, that he had been, in that very instant, painfully aware of it—but he was still talking to her.
“By the time you get home, hija, you’ll be all alone again, alone as I am, except, of course, for the others.”
“Oh, papí,” said Nadia, and for a moment her voice was that of the young girl she could no longer, not for an instant, allow herself to be. “Don’t go.”
Perhaps Nadia had realized that, however lonely she might be, he, being dead, must be yet lonelier. But she spoke as if she expected him to assure her that he wouldn’t, just as he did when in the night, not that long ago, she’d had a nightmare and awoke screaming. Maybe it had been, she thought, a nightmare about not just her father or her mother or even her sisters, but about everyone, everything, even the animals…
“Have you spoken to the others? I mean my sisters?”
“Why would I speak to them?”
“Why are you speaking to me?”
“To you, hija? Because I have a feeling you’re about to make a decision you’re too young to make, one you should wait a while, maybe even a year or two, to make.”
“How would you know that?”
“Oh, I always knew more than you thought I knew. I always knew your mother—like those species you mentioned, I suppose—was doomed. She’s more doomed now, so don’t waste your time. Take care of her, for a while, but don’t expect… anything.”
They walked a while in silence, unseen, unheard by anyone, the eldest, if still very young, daughter, and a father who had not been dead that long. Then Nadia thought—for we never, perhaps for fear of imposing ourselves, seem to ask what we should have of the dead before they’re dead—that she might as well ask.
“Do you want to tell me how she’s, how she was, doomed?”
But her father felt no imposition and answered.
“Well, she always had that… that feeling… too much, if you ask me, about life, the life around her, but she didn’t have that something else that has to go with it, that is if you’re going to survive or, perhaps, even flourish, yourself. You can’t just be a… a pair of eyes ready to… to… You can’t live always on… on the point of… of…”
“No, certainly not.”
“…not all of us want to be cried for…”
“I know what you mean.”
“… no… and she… she didn’t think any of us, even animals, should die… as it seems at times… so… so unnecessarily…”
It seemed his voice was weakening and it occurred to Nadia that her father was losing his energy and she worried he might be on the point of going, that this was the moment, given once again, as just before death, to ask that question, the one you always wanted to.
“Viejo!” cried Nadia, daring, for a moment, to call her father old man.
“Vieja!” Old woman, cried her father but this was just a joke standing between them, one that he had often played when she had spoken, as a child, with a wisdom beyond her years. But now she spoke, or insisted, as a girl on the point of becoming a woman.
“Before you’re gone. Tell me. You… You’re older than you ever were. You’ve had time to think about, well, everything. What you did. What you didn’t do. Tell me. This decision…”
Nadia stopped herself with a sudden certainty that her father was no longer there, and she thought, perhaps, before she went on, she’d better ask.
“Papí, are you still there? Papí…”
She knew, without having decided to, that she had spoken in the voice of a little girl, a voice she no longer had a right to, even for a moment, and corrected herself.
“Ah, you’re still there.”
“I was never gone.”
“Thank you for that. Sometimes, you know, I’m so alone I…”
“Nadia, Nadia, forget that…”
Nadia was, she knew, if not much older, at least no younger than she had been yesterday and might be again tomorrow, a girl with a decision to make… or not to make.
“There was something you had to say, something you wanted to tell me. Wasn’t there? Father..?”
So spoke Nadia, so she called out, words that, she realized, would be her last words this night for, even if he had been good enough to be there—who knew how much effort it had taken him?—for a while, he was no longer.
Nadia was alone once more on one of the streets it only seemed to make sense, especially on the night of the Day of the Dead, to walk on alone—and yet she heard, in her inner ear, the voice of a younger, healthier father bending over to whisper to a very young girl.
“… never forget, hija, you’re not nobody, you’re somebody, somebody…”
And she saw, in her mind’s eye, the humble kitchen of their humble house where they all had, not that long ago, eaten together, the worn table, the little Virgin in her niche on the wall…
The Virgin, the one she had grown up with, an intricately carved figure, a work of art really, her head held sadly to one side as she looked down on the many, oh so many, maybe even the animals who were, if not gone, on the point of going…
A Virgin that had, once upon a time, been carved by her mother, a strange accomplishment for a woman who, if apparently there, usually wasn’t.
A Virgin, certainly with good cause, always on the point of tears.
Never mind that, thought Nadia. Her father had been right: not everyone wants to be cried for.
And she saw, in her mind’s eye, the family gathered, waiting for the pot of pozole her mother was about to carry to the table. And she saw, clearly, not her mother’s face consumed with concern for every one of them… not to mention all the others, everywhere… but her mother’s, and her father’s, hands—hands worn to the bone, worn out with work but working anyway, knuckles oversized, skin like…
… like a parrot’s or a lizard’s… or a dragonfly’s… the skin of some animal who, if not yet gone, soon would be…
… and she realized in that moment who, doomed or not, when she had failed to keep an eye on her, must have made the little figures of clay, of sawdust, figures that would be, along with all the life-size mounds, the last known photos, the tamales and tortilla soup, the bottles of the preferred tequila, also be…
Read Michael McGuire’s story “Hernando and the Ever Widening Waste,” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo by Pixel-Shot, courtesy Shutterstock.