Love Story–Gold Winner: Los Muertos

By Barbara Robertson

“The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.” – Octavio Paz

This is what I remember: White sheets limp with sweat twisted around his naked body, a low mattress in a small white room, sun streaming through a window above the bed, the musky smell of sex, briny raw oysters sliding down my throat.

I might not have remembered at all had I not found his letter in an old desk drawer. I read, “We shared something special…” and my eyes leapt to the signature scrawled across the bottom of the page. I couldn’t decipher it. I shook the letter as if that might cause it to speak. I checked the envelope. There was no return address.

I folded the letter back into the envelope and gazed out the window at my garden. The last rose of summer bravely held onto its petals as it wobbled in the light breeze. How could I not know who wrote such intimate words? Snapshot memories riffled behind my eyes. A woman patting tortillas. A copper-colored van. The silhouette of a small white hotel trimmed in blue. And in a flash, I knew.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Helen had said, all those many years ago. “You’ll love it.” She and Claire were planning a trip to Mexico to meet their friends and former employers, Paul and Lorena, who had retired in Guadalajara. From Guadalajara, Paul would drive them to the little town of Patzcuaro, high in the mountains of Michoacán for Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Claire explained that each year, on November 1 and 2, families throughout Mexico invited the spirits of the dead to visit them.

“It’s a fiesta.” she said. “I can’t wait to see it. People decorate the graves. They bring food and spend the night.”

I had traveled in Mexico, but only along the coast, to resort towns that felt American with a Latino accent and sometimes Mexican with an American accent. On this trip, Lorena exposed the interior. She led us into corners of Mexican culture, art and cuisine that I didn’t know existed.

At modern pottery studios, we admired hand painted tiles and bought vases. In a Guadalajara market, we found soft woolen shawls. My tongue explored exotic new flavors: Velvety, dark chocolate mole sauce from Oxaca that coated tender chicken, spicy salsa on fish from Jalisco served with icy crisp jicama, yellow squash blossoms wrapped in fresh tortillas from Uruapan. In the courtyard café of a small bed and breakfast, large birds with fanciful topknots strolled past our table as meat sizzled on a nearby barbecue. One night, Lorena took us to a popular tourist restaurant. She smiled at Paul and asked the Mariachi band to play her favorite ballad, a love song, and the raucous music turned tender.

When we left Guadalajara in Paul’s copper-colored van, the clanging energy of the city smoothed into a gentler pace. We drove through dusty villages and into lush tropical forests until at last we arrived in Patzcuaro. I felt like I had moved from one dream into another.

In Patzcuaro, narrow cobblestone streets wound past whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs. Lacey black railings enclosed second-floor windows rimmed in red. Wide plazas with splashing fountains, arched arcades, and ancient cathedrals affirmed the town’s Spanish colonial heritage. It was cool at 7200 feet. Tall pine trees curtained the town in one direction and spiced the air. When we looked the other way, we saw a lake so big that islands shimmered in the distance. One bump of an island supported an entire village.

Lorena, who spoke Spanish, had found rooms in a small inn. We ate pescado blanco, the delicate white fish unique to Lake Patzcuaro, and watched the Purépechan Indian fishermen toss butterfly-shaped nets into the water while balancing in tiny wooden boats. The day of the festival, we walked to a plaza where women wrapped in blue rebozos and men in straw hats displayed crafts on soft blankets in the prickly grass. Lorena explained that in the 1500’s, a Spanish bishop had convinced each of the Purépechan villages around Lake Patzcuaro to specialize in one craft. Four hundred years later, I saw the result in finely woven cloth, fragile straw figures and sturdy baskets. We fingered copper pots hammered by hand in Santa Clara del Cobre, and admired the elegant black on white pottery from Tzintzuntzan, a village named after the sound hummingbirds make.

But also, for Dia de los Muertos, the people brought skeletons and skulls, devils and snakes. Claire picked up a cloth toy, I cradled a sculpture, and Helen bit into a sugar-candy skull. Men wearing masks, white shirts and pants and long colored sashes performed the shaky Danza de los Viejitos, Dance of the Old Men. Giant bunches of orange and rust-colored marigolds hid the faces of women who walked through the plaza, their embroidered skirts as blue as the sky.

At night, we walked on narrow paths through a cemetery twinkling with candlelight. Families gathered around graves laden with fruit, bread and bowls of the deceased’s favorite food. We could hear murmurs and quiet singing as they waited for loved ones to rejoin them. Laughter, prayers perhaps. One family brought a band.

“Isn’t that marvelous?” Lorena pointed to an arch of marigolds above a grave.

“I love the cross on the one next to it.” Claire said.

“Do you think they eat the food?” Helen asked.

I grew uncomfortable. We weren’t the only tourists, but even so, I felt like an intruder. I drifted a little from my chattering friends to get a better sense of the place, the people huddled near gravestones outlined with candlelight, the smell of tortillas and chilies, the sound of a woman gently shushing a child. A trace of sadness feathered through me like leaf shadows on a windy day, a shiver of a memory: A friend had died some months earlier. More than a friend. I had loved David. How do I explain this now? It was a time and a place when people moved in and out of relationships easily and we had chosen to live with other partners. But when we were in the same room, no one else existed. We’d look into each other’s eyes and talk. For hours. And then, one day he died. He’d been sick and I hadn’t paid attention and he was gone and I hadn’t even said goodbye. Oh, I envied these families sitting in the candlelight waiting for their ghosts. I wanted my own midnight visitor.

I didn’t say anything to Helen and Claire when I rejoined them. The feeling had caught me by surprise; I didn’t know I was still grieving. I stuffed it back inside.

The next day, we all bustled into a van now loaded with serapes, copper pots, and devil sculptures. The grand adventure had ended; it was time to fly home. Or, maybe not. As we neared Guadalajara, Paul turned on the radio. We heard the news announcer say “aeropuerto” in an excited voice. Lorena translated. A strike had closed the airport. We couldn’t fly home.

“Great!” I said.

“Oh no!” Claire anguished. “I have to go to work.”

“You hate that job.”

“I need the job. Maybe I can take a train. Or a bus.”

Lorena called, but there were no seats available. She offered to let us stay with them, but it was a weak offer. Paul’s son and his fiancé had arrived.

“We need to find a hotel.” Claire said.

“No, wait.” I said. An idea had popped into my head. “We’re on vacation. Let’s go to the beach.”

“Now that’s a dynamite plan.” Helen said.

“I don’t have enough money.” Claire said. “And we aren’t near a beach.”

“I have American Express.” I said. “We’ll rent a car.”

We left the next day. Claire drove. We barreled downhill, past ghostly blue agave plants that cast spiky shadows in the fields, past white egrets perched atop tall dead cornstalks, until we reached Barra de Navidad, the closest beach town on the map. We had reserved a cheap room in a small hotel on the outskirts of town.

A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling on a greasy cord. Flakes of sickly green paint curled off the walls to reveal a layer of putrid pink beneath. Rust and mold coated the sink. The floors were bare. The dream vacation had slid into a nightmare.

“I can’t stay here.” Helen said.

“We have to.” Claire said. “I can’t afford anything else.”

“Well, you can stay, but I’m leaving.” Helen huffed.

They sat across from each other, one on each bed, glaring. Claire gripped the car keys in her fist.

“We can always come back.” I offered, “if we have to.”

We drove into town and by sunset had checked into a tidy, blue-trimmed white hotel on the beach. We bought ripe melons at a fruit stand and ate them on our deck. Juice dribbled down our chins. Waves plashed softly. Helen made margaritas. We toasted the airline strike gods and American Express.

“Do you think the people in the cemeteries really believe that the dead people come back?” I asked, squeezing fresh limejuice into my drink.

“God, I hope not.” Helen reached for the tequila.

“They might.” Claire stretched her feet onto a spare chair “They are very mystical people.”

During the day, we body surfed in the warm waves, melted into the sand, and daydreamed. The beach was ours. There were no tourists, only a few fishermen. And one ghost.

He walked out of the sun when I was on my way to the market. People say that everyone has a twin. This man was David’s. The same golden hair. The same moustache and dimples. The same teasing eyes. The same size.

He had come to the town, as he did every autumn, to fish. He had a room with white walls and a low mattress. Sun streamed through the window over his bed. I stroked his chest and I held his face and I looked into eyes that could have been David’s. I poured all my grief into acts of love.

And then I left.

I still don’t remember his name. I tucked the letter inside a musty journal and pushed the old desk drawer closed. It was nearly sunset. I walked outside and put summer’s last rose in a Mexican vase. My husband was calling me to dinner.

Barbara Robertson’s work as a journalist covering visual effects and animation has provided the ticket for journeys to many countries over the years. When she’s not peeking behind movie-making curtains, she hangs out at home with her husband and her dog. She’s won national and international awards for her articles, and writes regularly for The Hollywood Reporter, The Bark, Animation Magazine, Film & Video, Computer Graphics World, and other publications.

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