This article is from the August-September 2003 The Mexico
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by Mary Ellen Sanger
Mary Ellen Sanger lives in San Pablo Etla, just outside Oaxaca city, where she consults with an ex-hacienda that is getting started as a retreat center. She has worked in tourism in Mexico since 1986, but for the past two years has gotten back to the Mexico she loves as a freelance writer, editor, Spanish teacher, and hotel consultant. She contributed another piece of creative fiction for our December/January 2002 issue.
From the mud at the bottom of Lake Hemet to his final destination was a short distance for Fernando who crossed the dark dividing river with the help of his black dog. From under his downy comforter in his king-sized bed, he heard a tolling of bells from many, many churches. Now the bells no longer reminded him of a painful past. Nothing was painful now. Everything was brilliant and beautiful as one would expect.
A certain profile of grey clouds made Fernando think of his mother, and beside him into his billowy bed crept a small yearning, but not a painful one. Fernando knew that back there, the corn harvest had been barely enough to feed the bulls. The rains hadn’t come. He saw that the beans stored from the previous harvest were so full of weevils and that his mother ate them and ate them, without bread or salt. He knew that his mother was hopeful for more rain next year. She was like that.
He was looking forward to the chance to visit her on the Day of the Dead that was drawing near. She would make a pretty path of marigold blossoms and wildflowers to welcome his soul home for its yearly visit. In spite of the austerity in her home, Fernando was sure that his mother would make his favorite mole with sesame seeds and serve it in his blue bowl. He expected a nice cup of chocolate on the tiny altar that would be set up in the living room of the house he had left behind. He could not expect his mother to go so far as to provide his favorite Marlboro Lights and a nice bit of smoky mezcal de pechuga – but it was nice to dream.
Fernando was from Ocotlán, in the state of Oaxaca. Inside the town church of Santo Domingo with its gold and blue facade, Fernando’s photograph had been tucked at one time inside a slender cord around the waist of a Jesus cradling a lamb. It was a passport sized photo in black and white, from when Fernando was 18 years old, from when his face still looked child-like. His mother put it there to remind Jesus. Before Fernando left Ocotlán, she braided a cord of strips from his yellow work shirt. She tied the braid around the waist of her favorite Jesus and tenderly inserted the photograph of her only son. Jesus that knows the pain of a mother who would lose her only son.
After leaving the photo, she kissed her Jesus on his plaster feet and returned home to kiss her son on his forehead, and they said their goodbyes without tears. Fernando fled from the bells of the church of Santo Domingo. His mother had told him (with what he thought was a misplaced pride) that the bells were from the time of the Spaniards. For Fernando those bells were echoes of a past that he would sooner forget. A past of menacing Spaniards without faces, the biting hunger of his childhood, his desperate “if only” adolescence. He decided to grab onto a particularly vivid “if only” he once saw on the television in the café in the zócalo...
And so it was that Fernando left his dog and his mother and went to the US with Jaime, his best friend from high school. They were going the hard way, with no help, with their pockets empty but for a small savings and some blue lint – to a place where the hoped hunger and lost opportunities were not an accepted everyday occurrence. They crossed the border with difficulty, but they crossed. Shortly after crossing, Jaime became gravely ill in the heat of the desert, and there in southern Arizona, Fernando carved a hole in the red dirt and buried his friend. It took him six hours to dig a grave with a dry stick. Another hour to find pricker bush. After reciting one Our Father and a Hail Mary, he covered Jaime’s inert body with earth, then a layer of prickers and more dirt. Fernando had watched his uncle bury burros. A hungry dog can always smell dead bones. The thorns would protect Jaime from any insistent dogs.
But pain doesn’t always stop the very dogged...
And Fernando continued alone. For six months he worked in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant called “El Indio de San Isidro.” For six months he wrote to his mother every week. Mamá I am well, Mamá I miss you, Mamá if only you were here to see how beautiful everything is... And Fernando lied and lied because he knew that she prayed to her protecting Jesus every night he was gone. Because he knew that if she read on those pages of how he ate plain flour tortillas and slept without mattresses and without starlight, her dear heart would break into a thousand one hundred and eleven pieces.
Those who read page 32 column 3 of the San Diego Tribune on August 8 knew of Fernando’s death before his mother did, although she suspected something terrible when the black dog did not come home that day. It took them four days to bring the notification from the State Commission on Migrant Issues. When the triplicate form arrived, Fernando’s mother asked his little sister to read her the words, remaining silent as she heard of how her son drowned in Lake Hemet. An accident. Then she rose and went to Santo Domingo church where she marched straight for her Jesus, and spit at his plaster feet because she was not brave enough to spit at his face. She untied her yellow cord and carried the small photo of her only son to another, larger Jesus. This one was not carrying a lamb, but he had his hand over his heart. She placed the photo around his delicate waist with the thin braid, and prayed again so that this Jesus would receive her beloved son with open arms in paradise. Her Jesus who must understand a mother’s loss. She kissed the cold wood of his dark, blood-stained feet.
On the appointed night, they scattered. One by one the angels went to be with their loved ones as they were beckoned back by a particular scent of marigolds. Alfonso’s aunt, for example, always used eggshells in her fertilizer, and her marigold smelled somewhat of laying hens. Carmencita’s grandmother watered her entire garden with soapy water to control the bugs, and the little marigolds that were resistant anyway, ended up bathed in bubbles and smelling somewhat of Ivory. Fernando’s mother gathered wildflowers from the mountains, and the petals of Santa Teresa, muerto flower and old man’s beard combined with her marigold that smelled of tear-stained earth. The scent that Fernando had not realized was familiar, tickled his nose and he leaned back into the living world.
En route to his home, Fernando heard the brass band of musicians who crept through the streets of Ocotlán. Brightly dressed as devils and brides spattered with sequins and mirrors, the musicians played joyous, raucous music that made everyone around them dance. Even the timid. Even the weary were moving their feet along in time with the booming oom-pah-pah-oom-pah. Everything was golden. Their trumpets and tubas were brilliant with a burnished reflection of moonlight, street lamps and altar flames. Everyone awaited their dead with drums and whistles – with bells and glad shouts. The band had already been playing for hours, and would not stop until well after dawn.
Fernando arrived at his mother’s house and found her at the foot of the altar that was just as he expected – there were even two cigarettes. She was embroidering a large napkin for keeping tortillas warm. The tiny candles on the table that served as an altar made her grey hairs shine golden as the fine ochre threads she laced between her fingers. She was sewing flowers. Everything was glowing.
When he saw the napkin in his mother’s wrinkled hands, he saw that it was the one that they had always used at their table. His mother was sewing over the petals of the original faded azucenas. Fernando remembered the hunger of his childhood. The faceless Spanish past. His adolescence of “if only.” He thought of his soft, cushioned bed and the eternal lilting angel-song that waited for him on returning to paradise. He thought of Jaime whose bones were scattered by hungry dogs and tangled now in the tumbleweeds of southern Arizona. He thought of the hunger for future and in his mother and in her trust in a Jesus that heard her.
He saw the dogged of the earth and he recognized the fuel of hope that drove them. Awe doused a tiny ember of pity. No, pain does not always stop the very dogged. To some it’s just another thing to get over. Do you know what you have here on earth? Hope for a bone and you get prickers. But do you stop? Hope for gold and comes a storm. Do you stop then?
His mother had hoped Fernando would come to her that night. With everything prepared, she kept silent vigil to listen for his footsteps along the marigold path. But she heard only the insistent needle pushing its way through the cheap cotton cloth.
Fernando wanted to tell his mother that he had fallen gently, gently to the bottom and little fish nibbled his toes. His dog had come soon after and Fernando held tight to the white tip of his tail and they crossed the dark river together. It was what he had hoped for. An easy crossing to a place where there would be no lost opportunities (as lost or otherwise, opportunities did not exist in paradise – just a same, eternal softness). Do you know...?
Fernando sighed and a candle blew out and a drop of blood fell from his mother’s finger where the needle slipped in surprise. Pain is just another thing to get over.