"Beyond the gates, shimmering sweet plumes of
incense smoke rise from the graves, flickering candles dot the hilly terrain
like pinholes that reveal another world beneath, a world of light and
spirit, where we are not allowed, not yet. Broken lines of people weave
in and around graves painted turquoise and yellow and pink, bright with
marigolds and coxcomb and gladioli, bright with candles lit for the souls
of the departed.
I dont believe Ive ever seen anything so
de los muertos
by Michael Zadoorian
A man in his fifties, with coal-black
hair, dressed in a nylon windbreaker and khaki pants, stands up at the front
of the bus near the driver. He turns on his portable microphone and calls
for our attention, por favor.
Bienvienidos. Welcome. What you are about to see is an important ritual
of the Mexican people. We are welcoming our dead back from the spirit world.
Tonight, we prepare the graves. We clean and paint and decorate with many
flowers and candles. You will find it very beautiful at the cemetery.
Theresa squeezes my forearm. She puts the tip of her finger in her mouth,
sucks at it for a moment, then closes it in her fist and drops her hand
to her lap.
We move on, hand in hand, now part of a phalanx through the colored
lights and grill smoke and noise and crowd. Someone far ahead seems to know
where were going. We round a corner and catch our first sight of the
Xoxocatlán cemetery. Theresa squeezes my hand so hard it hurts. I
sense this is the moment she has waited for. I should be enjoying it through
her, but I am too caught up in my own astonishment. Our little group collectively
pauses. We stand there momentarily transfixed, not caring about the others
jostling us. The light of the candles mesmerizes us, a deep warm glow, as
if weve stumbled onto a place lit by embers instead of sun and moon.
Ahead of us, the iron gates of the cemetery, mottled gold, arc across the
blue-black sky, and I wonder what it is were about to enter. Beyond
the gates, shimmering sweet plumes of incense smoke rise from the graves,
flickering candles dot the hilly terrain like pinholes that reveal another
world beneath, a world of light and spirit, where we are not allowed, not
yet. Broken lines of people weave in and around graves painted turquoise
and yellow and pink, bright with marigolds and coxcomb and gladioli, bright
with candles lit for the souls of the departed. I dont believe Ive
ever seen anything so beautiful. I am not a religious guy, but somehow this
sight makes me think there might be something to the whole thing. I feel
the presence of something here. I look over at Theresa, her face shining
with candlelight and tears.
You okay? I say.
Come on, I say, leading her through the gate, up a path of flicker
and smoke into the dusty hillocked heart of the cemetery. We keep our heads
down as much as we can out of respect, trying not to gawk at the beauty
of what is going on, but its no use. Around us, families are gathered
near the headstonesapparently most of the cleaning has already taken
place, which has given way to vigil and gossip and subdued merriment. One
woman is even watching a small television. (Is she just passing time or
did she and her loved one always watch TV together when he was a part of
the living world?) The graves are parts of the families, it seems, people
sit on and around them as comfortably as on a davenport. Space is limited
only because of us tourists.
One grave is mounded with flowersso many you can barely see the plot
for all the purple and white and orange. The grave next to it is blanketed
with lit candles laid in intricate patterns of circles and grids and crosses.
It is as bright as afternoon, yet a young girl wrapped in a rebozo sleeps
peacefully next to it. (I worry she is too close to the flames. Rebozos
look highly flammable.) A few down, another plot has been meticulously airbrusheda
mural of a kind of groovy Jesus in front of a tall rainbow. The style looks
familiar, and when I spot the flowers arranged in old Bondo cans, I am certain
the person who did this also paints murals on vans. Descansa en paz,
it says, painted in jaunty two-tone letters. Rest in peace.
A few Mexicans seem fascinated by us, some mildly disgusted. One ancient
woman, sitting on a Fifties tubular kitchen chair with cracked yellow vinyl,
scowls right at me. But mostly, people just look straight through us as
if we are the useless spirits that accompany the welcome ones. I dont
blame them. Though we are bringing money into their town, we are not part
of their ceremony; we are observers, intruders, watchers of the deathwatch.
It makes me feel better lugging around the flowers and candle, as though
there is reason for me to be here, that I am of some small utility. When
Theresa puts her flowers down and lights her candle over an empty, forgotten
grave, I feel a twinge of guilt because I dont want to let go of mine.
Then I do.
Lets stop walking for a minute, says Theresa. I
just want to stand here. So we pause at the now glowing grave, and
it makes me wonder something. Since we decorated it, are we allowed to fill
it with whomever we want? Just for tonight?
Theresa turns to me. Thank you, J. For helping me to see this.
E xcerpted from Secondhand by Michael Zadoorian, Wabash guest
author in November 2001.
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