A Life in Mexico: Being Dead

Banda music, the Latin-flavored polka music, played from the center of town.

Lupé was thinking about Maria. Maria lived down the path from Lupé. She walked by the lower part of his yard every morning about 7:00 AM. She worked at the small tortilla shop on the main block in town. Tortillas were one thing the little rancho made that could always be counted on to produce an income for those who worked there. It wasn’t a big income, but any income in this rancho was a good income. The money is why he thought of Maria. She hadn’t been going to work.

Lupé thought maybe her hours changed when he stopped seeing her walk to work. Lupé began to notice a few strangers walk from the main road down the path toward Maria’s house after a few weeks. By the time he identified the strangers as a doctor and a few family members the rumors about Maria had spread. Some said she had cancer. Others said she had fallen prey to demons. Others say a curse had been cast.

Whatever the story was about Maria’s illness, he was shocked to see the doctor and Maria’s husband help her out to the main road. She was so thin. Lupé didn’t recognize her. She’d always been a pudgy, matronly figure. Now her dress hung on her. There was a man on each of her arm directing her down the path to her husband’s truck. Finally, her husband had to pick her up and carry her the remaining distance to the truck. She placed her head against his chest and almost disappeared in his arms.

Even though he wasn’t religious, Lupé crossed himself. He heard his mother’s voice say a prayer as she too watched with concern as this shell of a woman walk down the path.

“She doesn’t look good,” Lupé said to his mother.

“She is dying,” his mother said.

“How do you know that mother?” Lupé asked.

“I just do,” she said. “Old women know these things. As you get close to death, you recognize your fellow travelers.”

“Mother,” he said. “Be quiet, you will live to be a hundred.”

“That is not far off my dear,” his mother said.

Lupé knew his mother was right about her age and time on this Earth. He shuddered at the thought of having to care for his brother alone.

“Are you scared of dying mother?” The question came as a shock to both of them. Lupé was not one to ask probing questions and his mother was not one to dwell on her own mortality, even though it consumed most of her thinking.

“I’m not scared of dying, mijo” she said with assurity. “Being dead will be good.”

“Good?” he asked with some alarm in his voice.

“Yes,” she said with simplicity. “I’m tired.”

Lupé ignored the response.

The truck with Maria and her husband sputtered to life. He heard it complain as it chugged uphill the two blocks until he could turn left and descend the long road down the mountain.

“We will not see Maria again,” his mother said.

“How do you know that?” Lupé snapped.

“She told me,” his mother said matter-of-factly.

“When did she tell you this?” he said slowly, watching his mother at the stove.

“Just now,” she said.

The hair on Lupé’s arms tingled. “What do you mean, ‘just now’?”

“Just now on the way down the road. In the truck,” she said softly.

Lupé didn’t know what to say.

“Being dead isn’t the end, mijo,” she said. “She’s free now. She’s home.”

“But how do you know?” Lupé asked a bit at a loss for words.

“My dear boy,” his mother said, still stirring the beans and lard. “I am near that occasion myself, and as you get closer you see things and hear things from beyond the veil.”

Lupé stood there consuming what his mother had said.

The banda music in town stopped, almost as if to give him time to digest what his mother had said. The silence rang through the streets in the absence of the music. The wind came down from the mountain, warm and humid. His mother turned her head into the breeze.

“Adios, Maria…mi amiga. Vaya con Dios,” his mother whispered to the wind.

A Life in Mexico: Signs

Mom was in the doorway. It was Sunday. It was her big outing. Auntie Pia was coming to collect her to go to Sunday services. The church was only three blocks away, but the stones and the uphill path was too much for her old feet and bones. Pia was younger by twenty years and drove a blue pickup truck. During the week Pia hauled bananas and other fruit she grew to the markets nearby.

Mom always stood in the doorway a good hour before Pia arrived. She wore her almost white dress. It used to be white, but years and years of washing had faded it to more ivory. I never asked her why she stood so early in the doorway. Was she so eager to get out of the house? I wouldn’t blame her. All she did was cook for me and care for my brother who was plagued by the devil. All my brother did was lay twisted on his bed all day. His arms were contorted into odd angles and his left leg was stiff too, toes pointed and all. I thought it was ironic that his name was Angél. Mom’s life wasn’t a very good life, but that was what life was like for a poor, old lady in this part of the world: caretaker.

I’d gambled the money away Mom gave me to get eggs and potatoes so breakfast was beans, tortillas, and jalapeños- again.

I heard Pia’s truck pull up outside. She and Mom started talking loudly, Pia through her car window and Mom at the doorway. They would continue talking the entire trip to the church. They had known each other a lifetime yet still chatted as though they were school girls.

I heard their car doors slam shut, waited for the truck to pull away, and picked up my satchel. I left just a few minutes after mom and began walking down the central pathway of the rancho. The old adobe homes were painted all the colors of Easter. Some were newly painted, other were scarred with time and erosion. Skinny, feral dogs ran through the street in packs. From this vantage point, Lupé could see the Pacific Ocean. It was a good 10 km away, but it might as well be 1000 km for all the times he had gone to it.

Once he got to the edge of the rancho Lupé held back the jungle and walked down a small path. His machéte hacked at the encroaching foliage as he made his way down the path. It wasn’t long before he was wet with sweat from the humid air and physical activity. It took him an hour or so but he finally arrived at the Rio El Corte. It was summer so it was running full fueled by the regular monsoon rains they experienced every other day or so.

He had heard the rush of the river long before his eyes saw the river. He loved that sound.

Finally, he broke out of the jungle and his eyes took in the power of El Corte, water rushed dangerously from the mountain system behind him on its way to the Pacific. The river didn’t have beaches; rather, large boulders formed the banks. There was a large flat rock that he sat upon whenever he made the trek down to the river. He reached into his satchel and removed the home rolled joint and searched for the lighter with his other hand. His felt along the bottom of the satchel and searched again. He pulled his hand out and let his head drop. He’d forgotten his lighter. After a pause,  he thought he left it sitting on the concrete block beside his bed.

He swore under his breath.

He swore under his breath again.

He put his hands behind him, propping up his body. His fingers felt the rock below him and he turned to look at the engravings that covered most of the rocks. No one knew where the engravings came from, they’d been there longer than his town had been there, and that was a long time. Every once in awhile gringos would come to their rancho with new clothes and shiny cars. They’d pay someone in town to lead them to the engravings. Those were good days. They would sometimes pay 200 pesos, an entire days’ wage for the hour walk down to the river.

He looked at the carvings and wondered where they came from or what they meant. The gringos would talk about the carvings being called “hieroglyphs”. That was a word 

He looked at the carvings and wondered where they came from or what they meant. The gringos would talk about them being something called “hieroglyphs”. That was a word he’d heard and largely forgotten. To him, and the people in the rancho, they were just signs. The old people, higher up in the mountains, who called themselves The Cora, had said from time to time the carvings were signs.

Lupé wondered for a few seconds about what kind of signs these carvings were. Did they mean their town would be given gold from the gods? Did it mean they would be lifted up into the sky with aliens? Lupé laughed to himself and thought ‘maybe they could tell him where his fucking lighter was.’

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René Moreno, State of Nayarit, Mexico

A Life in Mexico: The Witch

Lupé flipped his hand in front of his face to shoo the fly. The grey of the morning had begun to creep into his room. He smelled the beans his mom was cooking. He’d brought home a satchel of eggs for his mom yesterday so he was looking forward to them this morning. He swung his feet onto the ground slipping them into his sandals. He tossed his small pillow back onto the small foam mattress atop the wood plank bed.

He pulled back the curtain of his doorway and saw his mom standing in front of the small stove. Her face was ancient with lines and her eyes tried to focus through cataracts. Her mouth was puckered in because her teeth had been stolen by Chica, the black cat that ran atop rooftops and fence lines pilfering food and things from the neighborhood.

He sat down at the small table as his mom spooned beans onto his plate next to two soft boiled eggs, several flour tortillas, and several pickled jalapeños. Lupé shoveled the eggs, beans, and peppers into the tortillas and ate in silence. His mom stood by the stove picking beans out with her fingers and eating every so often. She had laundry to do today, so she ate what she felt she needed and spooned her son’s plate full again.

Lupé had a day ahead of him. He was going to see the bruja about his mother. Just as he was finishing the beans and eggs, he heard the unmistakable popping and grumble of his friends El Camino. He pushed back his plastic chair, grabbed the satchel at his feet, checked for the thousand pesos and ran down the small path to the stone road where the El Camino was waiting, belching smoke and popping engine, as per usual.

Moy was waiting in the dark brown, heavily banged-up car. They exchanged greetings. Lupé reached inside the open window for the interior door handle and opened the dented door with a loud creak. Moy pumped the gas creating a huge dark cloud as the car lurched forward down the road. Several kilometers of stone road finally gave way to a paved road. They sped past the banana and mango trees that butted up against the village boundary. They stopped several times for friends walking down to the highway to hop in the back. A custom in the town was if you had room, you stopped for walkers.

They dropped their passengers off at the bottom of the road and turned left onto the highway. The highway was dotted with small businesses selling bananas, coconuts, mangos, and small trees. The pair laughed at the gringos in their shiny cars stopping into these shops where they would pay five dollars for a coconut when it was really only worth about a hundred pesos. But that was the way of things: there was the gringo price and there was the normal price. It’s how most of these folks made a living.

Moy slowed his car after twenty minutes on the highway. He turned, seemingly into the jungle itself, onto a nearly invisible road. Gigantic banana leaves and morning glory clobbered the sides of the El Camino. Small, globe-shaped passionfruit hit the windshield. The noise of the jungle around them shrieked with birds taking flight. After a few minutes of the melee, it subsided as the roadway opened up a bit to another stone roadway.

“Lista?” Moy said to Lupé.

“Sí,” Lupé answered,  thinking to himself ‘I’m ready.’

The El Camino slowed and turned between two jaka fruit trees with their enormous, warty fruit hanging low near their trunk. The road was lined with coffee and papaya trees. As they drove on down the roadway toward the brujería, both men fell silent. They weren’t afraid of the woman so much as they were cautious. No one ever got hurt or found harm while visiting the bruja, it’s just that very few people understood what she did. A lack of understanding though did not thwart them from returning again and again because her results were indisputable.

Moy pulled off the road and stopped before a tangerine colored adobe home with roof panels extending out enough to cover a small porch. From the eaves of the porch hung a menagerie of dried fruits, herbs, branches, bark peels, and bundles of unknown plants. There were numerous shelves pressed against the front of the house with jars of more nefarious looking items, some animal, others unrecognizable. There was a wooden table on the porch with a bloodstained cutting table, several enormous candles and a number of pestles with ground powders sitting in them.

“Esmeralda!” Moy shouted toward the home. “Lupé y yo estamos aquí!”

The harsh voice came from behind them startling them both. “Bueno.” she barked.

She stood just shy of five feet tall. She wore a plain, somewhat soiled tan house dress. Her skin was Michoacan dark. Her dark hair was infiltrated with large portions of grey. She fashioned many dreadlocks wrapped in a headscarf pulling it away from her face and down her back. In her left hand, she held a jumble of roots and her right hand held a machete.

“Siéntate,” she said and they both walked to the table and sat down.

Lupé spoke first. “Thank you for seeing me Señora. My mother’s eyesight is failing.” The bruja simply looked at Lupé as she tapped a short Marlboro cigarette out of a red soft-sided package. She lit the cigarette with a match she struck on one of the stone pestles on the table. “Well, can you?” he persisted.

“Sí,” she answered slowly, her voice husky from years of smoking unfiltered cigarettes. “Can you pay?”

Lupé reached into his satchel and pulled out the green, blue and pink bills counting them out onto the table. After arriving at one thousand pesos, she pulled off the top bill and struck another match burning it on the table. She pushed her chair back and walked to she shelves unscrewing the top on two different jars. The stench hit Moy and Lupé quickly but they tried not to wince. She pulled down one of the dried plant bunches and rolled the head of the plant as hundreds of small seeds fell onto the table. She turned and walked to the edge of her porch and ripped a portion of a banana leaf. She walked back to the seed pile and spat into it. She pressed the elements she’d taken from the jars into the seeds and spat once again into it. She picked up the combination of animal parts, plant seeds and spit and put them on the portion of the banana lea and rolled them up tightly. She tied the leaf with a measure of string so the contents would not fall out of the bundle. She set the bundle in front of Lupé.

“Put this in a pan on your stove. Put water in the pan. Put the bundle in the water. Cover the pan with a lid. Have your mother stand over the pan when the steam begins. Tell her to blink into the steam. Allow the contents of the bundle to completely boil away. Remove the lid. Remove the banana leaf and let the mixture cool. When it cools, it will be thick. Your mother needs to rub a fingertip full of the la poción into her eyes, blinking as she rubs to get the la poción right onto her eyeballs. She needs to do this until it is gone. It should take about a week to go through the poción.”

“And this will work?” Lupé asked before he thought about it.

The bruja merely looked at him as she pulled a long drag from her cigarette. “It will work,” she answered. “Do you doubt this?”

“No Señora. No not at all,” Lupé stammered. “Of course it will work.”

“Bueno,” she said, “Now, sobrino, take this to my sister.”

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– René Moreno, State of Nayarit, Mexico

Up the Trail

I’ve walked this road time and time again. My worn sneakers find the larger stones to step on as I make my way up to the mountaintop. The stone road has been here as long as I can remember. My mother can’t recall a time when it wasn’t here either. It’s the road that I and everyone else in the village walk up every day. Some are up before the dawn with the collection bags, others see their kids off first to the small school at the top of the town, and then there are people like me. My name is Lupe, short for Guadalupe. My whole name is Guadalupe Francisco Jimenez Sandoval.

 

It’s 9:00 AM before I start the walk up the mountain. My head is ripe with a hangover from too many Pacifico beers. Yesterday was Thursday when the bull is brought up from the pasture below the village. Each week the damned thing just stands there chewing its cud until Pachuko comes from behind and slams his head with the maul bar. The bull slumps down and Pachuko does his work as the stench of the slaughter rises into our noses. Thursday is the night we drink in front of the beer store until Pachuko is all done. We play cards, each of us pretending we have more money than we do. Sometimes I win, other days I lose the money my elderly mom gave me to shop with because she’s too blind to make it to the store.

 

I lost the money last night.

 

Today I have to pick an extra bag of coffee beans in order to make up for what I lost yesterday. Hopefully, I’ll strip enough of the red cherries from their branches in order to stop at the store in the village before I go home. I don’t want my mother knowing I lost again gambling. I have too much of a fondness for gambling and for drinking and for smoking marijuana. Everyone knows it. My mother knows it too. That’s just how it goes in a small town on the rainy side of a mountain in the lowland jungle of Nayarit, Mexico. We all lived here, far away from the cities like Puerto Vallarta. It’s only an hour or so away, but it might as well be ten hours. I can never afford to go there. On a good day I will make eight dollars a day, twelve it I pick an extra bag of cherry beans.

 

I walk the stone street that leaves the village. I wind up the mountain. Within minutes I’m wet with humidity and sweat. It takes a good hour to reach the coffee orchards under the enormous Kapok trees. The road up the mountain becomes gradually smaller. The road becomes a path. The path becomes a coyote trail. As the trail narrows, the mountaintop jungle becomes thicker and the bird calls replace the barking dogs in the village. Bromeliads as large as me cling to the trees. Orchids wrap their roots around the limbs of the coffee trees. The passion fruit is everywhere.

 

I find the orchard owned by the man in the village who has become too old to pick his beans. I reach up into the air and pull the cherries from the branch. It’s December, the month the coffee is ripe enough to pick. If I pick enough to cover my gambling and love of Pacifico beer, I can get my mother something for Christmas. She cooks on a dilapidated camp stove on a wooden table on the porch. It would be nice to get her a new stove.

 

That’s what I said last year too.