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Athena brings us a tale about some folks who have a real issue with closure...
Mictlan is Not Only for the Dead
By Athena Workman
“He will not be lonely,” she muttered. “He will not!”
The old woman stood at the iron gates, her cracked mosaic fingers wrapped around the black bars. She was a wizened crone hunched under a colorful shawl, an aged bird struggling for flight as strands of her brittle hair came undone and fluttered in the wind. Her daughter Clarita stood five paces behind her, and could hear the tears—salty rivers flowing between deeply carved crevices—breaking her voice. But she didn’t go to her, wrap her arms around her shrunken shoulders, whisper useless encouragement or silly words of wisdom in her ear; she simply stood under the muddy, threatening sky, Alejandro’s fingers laced tightly with hers, and waited. They were the last ones left at the cemetery, the last of the crowd to depart: Clarita and her husband, and Mama. The winds began to whoop through the wide, flat street behind them: a wind tunnel to carry the invisible gods.
The wooden sign hanging on a chain strung across the front gates banged the iron, making a stiff, slapping sound that made Clarita jump and Mama wail. The noise was so final and so ominous that it overwhelmed the young woman, and she winced, drowning out all the sounds of that terrible morning, even the words that Mama uttered before she collapsed onto the strip of tall grass before the gates and Alejandro ran to her, worriedly calling her name.
“You leave him to wander!” Mama cried, her hands releasing their grips on the bars, and had Clarita heard, she would have wondered whom Mama was crying out to. “You’re killing him again!”
Clarita’s eyes opened, and the black letters painted upon the single square of wood swam into focus, changing the muted noises into a rushing sound heard solely in her ears, became a warning sign that dulled all other sights in the small Oaxacan village of her childhood.
No Trespassing, the large block letters stated. Cemetery Closed Until Further Notice.
Alejandro was the first to voice his suspicion, the first to give birth to the disobedient thoughts that Clarita had never been brave enough to utter in their two years of gestation. He spoke them in her ear in their chocolate shop, a small place off the main zocalo and across from the governor’s palace. The sweet scent of the tempered chocolate in silver-and-fuchsia wrappers and foil always set her as close to serenity as she thought humanly possible, the sun shining upon the central square was yellow and golden, tourists were flocking in and out of the shop as if they’d never tasted heavenly sweetness before, yet when Alejandro’s lips brushed against her ear, she was again plunged back into the turmoil of the previous day.
“This is going to send her over the edge,” he whispered, and Clarita stiffened, her hands gripping the edge of the service counter. “We need to start seriously thinking about what we’ll do.”
Clarita couldn’t face him, couldn’t meet those sienna brown eyes, so much lighter than her own, so she stared at the counter and relived the morning they had been summoned to the village, to join the assembled crowd in front of the graveyard and hear the mayor speak while the thunderheads brewed overhead, amplifiers giving voice to the gods’ grumbling disapproval.
He was squat, the buttons of his red vest straining at the end of their threads, and his thick black moustache quivered above his upper lip. He looked nervous, and gripped the portable microphone so tightly his brown knuckles shined white. From her place in the back of the crowd, standing next to her muttering, seemingly oblivious mother, Clarita was absurdly reminded of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. If he disappeared down a hole she would not have been surprised.
“The cemetery has been vandalized four times in the past two years,” the mayor said, his high-pitched voice quavering. “Last night marked the fifth time that our loved ones’ graves have been desecrated.” A wave of shocked murmurs spread through the crowd, cresting with shouts of fury and religious offense. The mayor nodded at this, his moustache twitching rapidly several times, and held up a hand, calling for silence. When the crowd dissolved into low rumbles, he went on.
“Markers overturned, the lids of tombs shoved aside, our loved ones’ names forever made filthy by spray-painted obscenities. It is as if the vandals took every dirty trick and employed it under a cover of darkness.” The mayor paused then, several of his sausage fingers rising to play with his taut buttonholes. “Although the police continue to search for the criminals, they have yet to catch them, and they only fear that this… this vandalism will escalate through the holiday. It is for that reason that… I, as mayor, have decided to… close the cemetery.”
Another kind of shocked stillness fell over the crowd; a group of one hundred and fifty that were knocked into confusion and disbelief instead of rage. Clarita frowned and glanced at Alejandro, who shrugged, shaking his head. Between them, her mother’s face slowly rose to peer across the crowd.
The mayor’s hand left his vest to hold it, palm out and fingers splayed, to the silent crowd. “If we are unfortunate enough to lose one of our villagers, the gates will be opened. But until the criminals are caught, the gates will remained locked.” He stopped then, blinking rapidly and giving the spectators a worried look, and he began to visibly relax after a moment, perhaps thinking he’d gotten off easy. But the village—poor and uneducated like so many other Oaxacans—were entitled to a brief elevation, an escapism that served more than themselves, and they had not forgotten.
“Dia de Los Muertos is in two weeks,” a middle-aged woman called from the depths of the crowd. “Will the gates be unlocked for the celebration?”
“I’ve already begun my ofrenda,” a man in a battered Fedora shouted. “We’ve harvested all the zempasucitis and celosia—“
“What about Dia de Muertos Chiquitos?” A young woman spoke up, and with her voice the slow murmurs that had begun halted as one. Her voice cracked as she stepped forward, the crowd parting for her. She stopped before the temporary dais and said, “My daughter is in there. I’ve always spent the night with her; I know she’ll be lonely without me. Are you telling me that I can’t spend the night with my angelito?”
The ensuing silence was broken only by the winds rattling through the trees bordering the graveyard. Finally, the mayor cleared his throat and whispered, “I know that the celebration has gone on for hundreds of years; that as well as the ones we knew in life, we honor ancestors that we have no memory of. It is more than tradition, it is part of who we are and who we should be. But this year, I’m afraid, there will be no Noche de Duelo processional, no overnight stays, no decorating of gravestones or tombs. From this day forward until the criminals are caught, no one will be allowed inside. Even if they aren’t caught before October 28.” He grimaced, his wide face flushing scarlet. “I’m sorry.”
Clarita looked around, and saw that the others were envisioning the same things as she was: a ghost town without the blaze of orange and yellow marigolds; a barren place without the teasing cackles of the false calacas dressed in their flowing Grim Reaper robes; the spirits returning from Mictlan, the place of the fleshless and their silent home after death, expecting mole and mescal and sugar calaveras but finding a cemetery as quiet and lifeless as the plane their souls were sentenced to. Brown eyes mutely questioned one another, and then turned to face the mayor.
Mama was the first to scream, and she was also the last, shrieking long after the grieving, angry crowds had departed for their broken adobe homes. Recalling it all in a rapid strip of darkened memory, Clarita again gripped the counter and shuddered, and not even Alejandro’s hand on the small of her back could warm her.
“She’s never been right after Papa killed himself,” she whispered, thankful that at least she was spared the memory of her father hanging from a rafter in the barn, his neck snapped into an impossible angle, his dark brown skin tinged an ugly, mottled shade of blue. Yet Mama had not been spared—how repeatedly taunted was she by the vision?
Taunted was the wrong word for it. Throttled and eaten were more appropriate, for her deteriorating mind was visible, embarrassing, humiliating.
“We’ll take her in,” Clarita said, drawing herself out of her depressed ruminations and straightening her back. Alejandro’s hand dropped away. “When it gets too bad for her, we’ll take her in.” Decisively, she nodded. “She’ll get better living with us… not rattling around in the house by herself.”
Her husband took her chin in his hand and turned her toward him. In a somber voice that was so unlike the cheerful one that had made her love him, he asked, “What if she doesn’t, though? What if being unable to honor your father finally, fully breaks her?”
For that, Catrina had no answer but hope, and she prayed Alejandro could see it in her eyes, for she was unable, and afraid, to speak.
Dia de Los Muertos was not dependent on the accessibility of the cemetery, although it was the denouement of the extended holiday. The villagers still could have molded, decorated and set out sugar skulls to admire and give to small children as treats. They could have continued to build their ofrendas: roping sugar cane in an arch over the altar tables and weaving zempasucitis around the trellis; setting out fat candles, incense, water and framed photographs amidst their loved ones’ clothing, toys and favorite foods; stringing gaily-colored papel picado banners around it all as the yeasty scent of pan de muertos filled the house and drifted out the windows. Outside the village and within the bustle of Oaxaca, Clarita and Alejandro built their own altar—for her father and his grandparents—and added chocolate skulls from their shop and plenty of mescal to imbibe the spirits. The streets were clogged with tourists and residents alike as they searched the stalls and carts for great bunches of cheap marigolds and small trinkets for the children, and through the entire bustle wove the homey scent of dead bread. Plans were made for the processional on la Noche de Duelo, and Clarita and Alejandro agreed to walk with their church, and to help clean and whitewash the tombs in the days beforehand. It was because of this heightened activity that Clarita could see how easily the villagers had given up, allowing the mayor to keep the cemetery locked, unwilling to do anything about the resolution. The packed dirt streets of the village were bare, children with dirty feet and faces walking alongside them, their eyes as hungry as their mouths. No sugar skulls adorned windowsills, and the tombstones inside the graveyard were dirty, caked with the dust of nearly a year. The villagers’ initial protest had not sustained them, and to Clarita, the despair was palpable until she stepped inside her mother’s small house and saw that out of all of them, Mama had remained untouched.
The ofrenda was built, standing flush against the wall of the front room. A large framed portrait of Clarita’s father in his younger, more handsome and dashing days stood within great bundles of scarlet celosia that most likely had been stolen, for Mama had not raised the flowers and could not afford them at the market. Fuchsia and yellow papel picado banners were strung from floor to ceiling, cut by Mama herself in her younger years and kept safe in a box. The smell of royal icing and sugar was cloying in the small room.
The sights should have heartened Clarita, but as she sat in the kitchen, staring at the colored glass bottles on the windowsill, their hues casting watery glows on the tiled floor while Mama bustled around the room, humming a marimba tune, the feeling that gripped her was uneasiness. Mama seemed to have no memory of what had happened a week before.
“Are you coming with us to the cemetery?” Clarita had asked, and Mama had smiled, straightening up from peeking into the oven, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Of course!” she said. “Remember to bring the mescal for your father.”
Clarita stared, and slowly said, “Mama… he’s not buried in the city.”
“I know that,” Mama said, pulling out a chair and easing her old body into it. The wood creaked underneath her, mimicking her bones. “Why would we go to the city?”
“Because… the cemetery here is closed,” Clarita said, and leaned forward, her gaze intent on her mother’s faded eyes, her hands anxiously clasped on the scuffed tabletop. “Mama, don’t you remember? They’re not letting anyone in because of the vandals—“
“Nonsense! Why would they close the cemetery? Where would the dead go if they didn’t have the graveyard to return to?” Mama scoffed, and pushed away from the table, but not before Clarita caught the momentary change in her eyes. It was a flash of emotion that the daughter had hoped to never see in her mother’s eyes; an emotion that had frequently occupied her father’s before he’d made the hangman’s noose his last comfort. She hissed as Mama returned to the oven and once again peeked inside.
“The rosquete is almost ready!” she sang, keeping her back to her child. “Don’t you smell it?”
“Yes, Mama,” Clarita whispered.
The streets seemed worse as she drove home; the cacti in the yards stunted and hungering for sustenance other than water, the children sacks of skin with empty eye sockets. Clarita stopped the car beside the cemetery and read the sign over and over until she was sure her mind would never forget. Someone—not the vandals, but most likely a villager—had painted their own message across the wood, and its chilling lettering lingered before her eyes long after she’d driven out of the village. They lingered long because Clarita suspected she knew who wrote them. Los muertos volverán, y usted no los parará.
The dead will return, and you will not stop them.
She broke down on October twenty-seventh, the day before those that died in accidents, suicides and homicides were to be remembered, the day before she usually went to the village cemetery and decorated her father’s tomb. The celebrations had already begun in the city, with Grim Reapers running about like big winged bats and tomfoolery in full swing, turning the city’s youth into even more raucous rabble-rousers. Joyful excitement permeated the city, yet Clarita could not hold back her tears as she scrubbed one of the last dirty tombstones in the graveyard, and Alejandro took her behind one of the upright gravestones and held her while she sobbed.
“She’s gone insane,” she told him. “She refuses to believe that she won’t be able to get into the cemetery tomorrow night. She thinks everything’s fine; that it’s the same as always.” Twice she’d returned to the desolate, broken village to persuade her mother, and twice she’d been rebuked. The last time, Mama had ordered her out until she stopped her blasphemy.
Clarita sniffled and told her husband about the sign. “I think she wrote it.” And then she voiced her suspicion. “I think she’s going to break into the cemetery tomorrow night.”
“They’ll put her in jail,” Alejandro said, and she nodded fearfully. What had happened in the village had caught the attention of the national news, and the television report had featured the stout mayor, his moustache still a-quivering, stating that anyone who attempted to enter the graveyard for Dia de Los Muertos would be arrested. There were even to be several off-duty officers stationed around the graveyard in case anyone broke in.
“Maybe they should have done that after the first vandalism,” Alejandro had stated, when they watched the report. “Then this mess wouldn’t be happening.”
Now, sitting with Clarita encircled in his arms, he said, “We need to get her, bring her home with us.”
“She won’t come,” Clarita said, and sorrowfully added, “She won’t listen to me. I doubt she’ll even open her door to me.”
“Then I’ll talk to her,” he said, and kissed her forehead. “I’ll get her to see that what she’s planning is wrong. If that’s what she’s planning.”
“I hope I’m wrong,” Clarita whispered.
They walked home shortly afterward, and an hour later Alejandro left. Clarita watched from the window as the tiny blue car chugged away, wishing mightily that her husband had the words that had so far failed her; that Mama would see the light and come to what senses she had left. Fearfully, she paced the house, the light streaming from between the slats in the blinds crossing the floor with her. Two hours later, Alejandro returned, but Mama was not with him. Wordlessly, he collapsed onto the couch and motioned for her to join him.
“I talked to her,” he began, and turned his head to face her. “I know what we’ve thought—that she’s slowly losing her mind—but she seemed fine this evening. She gave me hojaldra and chocolate and smiled almost the entire time. She said that she’s not planning to go—that she and her friends are visiting one another’s houses and celebrating that way. When I asked her if she remembered the closing of the cemetery, she did, and she said it no longer bothers her. That she was upset for a week, but now she’s better, and knows that your father’s spirit will find her, no matter where she is.”
Clarita frowned. His words didn’t alleviate the tension roiling in her stomach. She clutched at his shirtsleeve and asked, “She didn’t look or sound insane at all?”
“No,” he said, and smiled gently. “Maybe we overreacted. Perhaps she was just depressed for a little while. But she honestly seems fine now.”
Clarita let go of her husband and recalled the old crone who had been muttering to herself for three years now; the wrinkled woman who had let the goats die and the chickens run away; the wizened widow who could not seem to let go of her grief, so profound and ingrained that it had taken over her soul. “No,” she whispered, and looked at her husband with eyes that could not clearly see. “No,” she repeated.
Murky and with a howling wind, October twenty-eighth dawned, but despite the weather, the city-dwellers were not thwarted. Although the festivities would not officially begin until the thirty-first, Clarita still saw a few people heading to the large cemetery, pulling carts and lugging picnic baskets, their bodies bent against the strong winds. Others carried entire ofrendas in the backs of cars and trucks, moving slowly down the wide streets, honking so they could safely pass. These were the desperate, families who most wished that the return of the spirits was not symbolic but real, for these were the ones who’d lost their loved ones most violently and suddenly. For them, there had been no sign, no forewarning. Clarita watched them pass from her shop window and knew she was a part of them, that they were all joined together by a cruel, unbreakable thread, and as she watched, the tremors that had shook her through the night grew until she was visibly trembling. She couldn’t stop thinking about Mama and her conversation with Alejandro, and how all the relayed words had rung false. If she had only seen for herself, instead of relying on her husband, who was kind and had been concerned but really did not truly know how much Mama had changed: from a vibrant young weaver to an embittered old woman, she had long since lost her true meaning of self.
When the church bells across the zocalo rang at noon, their jarring clanging became portentous, and Clarita found her feet moving, urging her onward without a signal from her brain. With jittering hands, Clarita untied her apron and rounded the counter. Alejandro emerged from the back room in time to see her open the door.
“Clarita?” he called, his smooth brow furrowed. “Where are you going?”
“I have to know,” she muttered, and left him, running to the car as the first of the raindrops began to spatter the ground. A calaca across the square screeched at her, but she ignored him, jamming the keys into the ignition and stomping on the pedal, the furious squeal of the tires against the bricks silencing the reaper. Along the ten-minute drive her breathing heightened until she was panting synchronously with the rapid swish of the windshield wipers, and her hands hooked around the steering wheel, aching by the time she entered the village. Certainty gripped her just as the tremors had, and as she drove down the deserted streets that had quickly muddied, she fought the knowledge and willed up the hope that Alejandro had seen correctly; that Mama was inside the house now, lighting the candles and solemnly honoring her dead husband, awaiting her friends so they could travel from house to house, feasting on molé and pumpkin baked in brown sugar and raising a toast to their husbands and brothers and sons.
“Please, Mama,” she whispered, as the car bounced over a pothole, water spraying onto the windshield, disappearing under the wipers. As she turned onto the little road that led to her childhood home and saw the yellow glows of candles in all the windows, Clarita remembered that her mother, in addition to truly believing the spirits returned on Dia de Los Muertos, also believed in metaphysical familial ties. That the gods provided it in return for worship, that those of the same blood felt hurt, knew of pain even if they were a thousand miles away. Clarita had always thought it a load of rubbish, but as she splashed into the dooryard and pulled to a stop, she realized she finally believed. For there was no other reason for the terror squatting in her heart, stampeding through her veins.
The rain, thick and unforgiving, pummeled her as she ran across the yard, barren in some places, patchy with weeds in others, and hammered on the door. “Mama!” she yelled. “Mama, open the door!” She began to say her name, thought twice, then realized there was only one person in the world that would call Juana ‘Mama’. “Mama!” she screamed, and almost doubled over from the fear.
Swiftly, a latch was turned and the door opened. Clarita stepped back, suddenly afraid of more than only her feelings, and blinked rainwater from her eyes as Mama stood in the doorway, enveloped in a yellow halo. Clarita misunderstood, thinking it a sign of her mother’s death by her own hand, and cried out.
“Clarita?” Mama asked, and stepped forward, leaving the glow for the brownish and silver patinas of the storm. “What’s wrong, bebé?”
“Mama,” Clarita panted, putting a hand to her chest to control the hyperventilating. “Don’t go to the cemetery. Don’t do anything foolish. Mama—“ She shook her head and stepped forward, holding out her hand. “Mama, just come with me now.”
“Why would I go back to the cemetery?” Mama asked, plainly bewildered, and took Clarita’s hand. “Clarita, come out of the rain. You’re soaked.”
Clarita began to tug the old woman through the doorway, then stopped. “‘Back’?” she asked. “You already went?”
“Yes. I went this morning. Stop pulling on me!” Mama yanked her bony hand out of Clarita’s grip, and that was when the daughter saw it; the same insane sheen that had brightened Mama’s eyes before, turned her into something no longer human but wholly robbed of a soul. Unable to prevent it, Clarita moaned.
“Mama, what did you do?” she whispered, tears of rain dripping down her skull, plastering her clothes to her body. The shudders that arose from the chill joined the ones brought on by Mama’s words.
“I went to your father,” Mama said, simply.
“But—but the guards—“
Mama sneered, but her faded brown eyes glowed brighter. “They’re worthless. They were drinking and playing cards in the grocery. They were blind to me the entire time I was getting your father.”
Clarita felt her heart stammer in her chest, a hard hammering that made her light-headed and wobbly. Weakly clutching at the doorjamb before a faint caused her to fall, she asked, “Getting Papa?” She didn’t want to ask, but she did. She had to. She couldn’t leave now without the answer. “What do you mean, Mama?”
Mama rolled her eyes and stepped back, opening the door wide enough so Clarita could see the entire room: the ofrenda, the archway leading to the kitchen and a room that held years of happy meals and memories, the dark, slumped figure on the sofa. And then she smelled it: a soggy, earthen smell that overwhelmed the freshly-baked scent of the pan de muertos, a warring scent of wet rot and dried, shriveled innards. Clarita gagged and stifled it with her hand.
Mama’s gaze was loving and warm toward her dead husband, propped on the lumpy sofa, but when she turned back to her daughter, her eyes were cool, devoid of emotion. “I knew he’d return, but I couldn’t let him wander. Not for one second, not after a year of loneliness in the Mictlan.” She smiled, but there was no emotion joining the insanity that fully gripped her. “Come inside, Clarita. He wants to visit with you—he’s missed you.”
“Mama,” she breathed, shaking her head, rainwater flinging off her hair.
“Come inside, Clarita,” Mama repeated, and stepped outside, wrapping her fingers around Clarita’s forearm. Her grip was strong, cold, made of thin, aged leather. She felt as dead as the corpse on the sofa. “Don’t dishonor your Papa.”
Unwillingly, Clarita felt forced to stare into the front room again, to find her father and examine him. He wasn’t something out of a horror movie, his spirit had not materialized; he was just a corpse that had been dug up out of the ground and hauled home by an old, hunched woman made preternaturally strong by her craziness. He wouldn’t say a word to her, nor would he attack her.
But would Mama?
Hiding the terror that drove acid into her throat, Clarita found her mother’s eyes, and knew the answer. With her free hand, she took one of Mama’s and squeezed it, all the while thinking of the future and making plans that most certainly would cost her a mother. Juana, Mama, was gone, and there was no returning from the old crone, now waiting with burning eyes.
“I’ll honor Papa with you, Mama,” she said. Mama smiled, and Clarita allowed herself to be led inside.