Dia de Todos los Santos by Anna Marie Laforest
Caught in a sea of sequins, skeletons, and Spanish, Eleanor Pert from Portland, Oregon, held tightly to her daughter’s arm as her daughter and a boyfriend navigated the bobbing, zesty Day of the Dead crowd, in the middle of a town somewhere in Mexico. The early evening air was heavy with the scent of cempasuchil, oversized yellow and orange marigolds that attract ancestors’ souls, and with the many resins of copal incense that hung in overlapping clouds, like the layers of pre-Hispanic heaven.
A wooden skeleton on wheels rolled by, and a performer wearing a skull mask, with ribbons flapping as he howled and turned, came very close to Eleanor. She was unexpectedly thrilled by his large masculine neck, his cry pulsing his vocal cords, so opposite to the bare cervical spine of the ancestor he lamented. Did he miss her so, Eleanor wondered, or was this just for show?
A flash of a tourist camera dissolved her view, and her daughter and the boyfriend were forging ahead.
“We’ll stop up here at the café for a bit, and then follow everyone to the cemetery,” her daughter shouted. Somewhere in the distance rocket explosions sounded, and everyone seemed “high on noise,” as Octavio Paz had once described them.
Adjacent to the crowded café were tables laden with market-seller’s fruit, beeswax candles, clay incense holders, and all the colorful paraphernalia for celebrating the festival. Eleanor, relaxing her grip, noticed her fingers were leaving a red ridge on her daughter’s arm. She indicated that she’d browse these tables while they waited for their spot in the café.
She took her small, and unobtrusive (she hoped) camera from the purse wrapped around her neck, and walked slowly, snapping the shutter, along the tables. It was November 1, and already too dark to catch the full vibrancy of the colors, but her viewfinder showed she was getting something, at least.
There were tables of candied fruits, fruit paste, tamales in corn husks, maize cakes, bread formed in the shape of bones. Other tables groaned with piles of the yellow marigolds and a second Day of the Dead flower, the magenta mano de leon. Such colors! The food and flowers were alive. She would show these pictures to her new friend Dave, himself a café owner in the Pearl district of Portland and the one who had urged her to take this trip in the first place.
“But why don’t you go,” he had said. “It would be different and fun, and it sounds like your daughter really wants you to.”
“I know she’s trying to think of ways to break me out of my fear mold.”
“What does that mean,” he had said. “I see you as a fearless lady.”
Dave did not know that Eleanor lived on the extreme eastern end, just this side of Gresham, so that when the big earthquake hit in the night, when it sliced through the middle of Portland and everything west of 11th Avenue tipped into the Pacific she would still be in her house, scared but safe. He did not know how overprotective she was of her daughter, a professional singer, who, every time she traveled to perform in a different country, Eleanor spent three or four hours of every day on her knees in prayer to the Blessed Mother and the saints. He did not know she carried a St. Christopher in her coin purse and had rubbed it faceless until it looked more like a foreign coin than a medal. He did not know…
“Go,” he said, “and when you come back, I’ll mix you a Modernista.”
Eleanor went, but all she had succeeded in doing so far was to annoy her daughter by giving voice to all of her worries. Was she sure the airplane was not the model they grounded because the lithium ion batteries were catching fire? Was she sure the town she was singing in was safe? Had she really been hired by a musical society and not by a drug cartel? Should they not stay in after dark? Did this new boyfriend have any street-sense? Should –
“Mom, stop it. Enjoy this! Everybody’s celebrating, full of life, color!”
But Eleanor did not hear, she was busy scolding herself for not checking where the American Embassy was, if it was, in this town…
Now she approached a table that compelled her to take the camera from her face and stare with her naked eye. On a bright red cloth were skulls, piled a good two feet high, some large and some small, some with well-defined cheekbones, others flat, some with very few teeth, others with as many as 48 teeth. The skulls were a bright white and, as Eleanor moved closer, made of sugar! Ah!
The eyes of the sugar skulls were fringed in metallic green paper and they stared up at Eleanor as she stared at them. Their heads were iced with sugar squiggles that had been piped on in yellow and red, and their cheeks had been brushed with a bright magenta that matched the manos de leones and looked like something that would never have gotten past the FDA .
The vendor smiled at Eleanor out of crescent shaped eyes and held up a hand in greeting, her fingers glistening as though she had powdered them with bold eye-shadow from Vogue, but of course it was the sugar. The woman’s skin was crinkled all over, from her forehead down into the ancient cleavage that the apron over her dress did not hide. She seemed very grounded. Eleanor said hello, unable to recall the few words of basic Spanish she had read in in an article on the plane, and tried to ask about the skulls.
The woman showed her a pottery mold that the high cheek-boned ones were made from and demonstrated, pouring sugar-water into the cast. She allowed Eleanor to take pictures with her camera, and picked out a skull for her, one with few rather than many teeth. She motioned for Eleanor to taste it. Eleanor feared the toxic-looking magenta, but she took a quick lick on whitest part of the skull. It tasted of lemons and perhaps a little chili pepper.
Eleanor thanked her (“gracias” at least was a word she already knew), as she heard her daughter’s boyfriend call her back to the café.
Her daughter had ordered maize cakes, two savory and two sweet, for them to share. She and the boyfriend were drinking beer, and they had ordered atole for Eleanor, a maize drink with unidentified flavorings. The waiter came out with heaping plates of tamales, chiles relleno, mole, barbacoa, and corn tortillas. He saw Eleanor’s sugar skull which she had placed on the table, and nodded, grinning. “Somos muy fiesteros.”
“What does he say,” her daughter asked the boyfriend.
“Something about enjoying a good party.”
Her daughter shot Eleanor a look. “See mom, they are not afraid of death here. The dead are just on another level of existence.”
“When did you become a philosopher,” the boyfriend said, and kissed her.
Oh, you’re doomed, thought Eleanor. My daughter hates public displays of affection.
Her daughter stiffened. “I just want mom to lighten up.”
We know each other so well, thought Eleanor. If only my mother were here to show me how to lighten up. How many hours have I prayed on my knees by my bed, to the Blessed Virgin, to have just one glimpse of my mother again. Is she “just on another level of existing”?
“We’ll never eat all this food,” she said.
“See what I mean?” said her daughter.
Other people pray to their ancestors and their ancestors talk to them… well, look at this Day of the Dead, the ancestors come back to eat and dance with them…
“Do the people here actually “see” their ancestors on the Day of the Dead?”
“I don’t think so,” her daughter answered her. “I think they sense their presence, though. I mean, they invite them into their homes and then walk them back to the cemetery.”
“Dig in, Mrs. Pert,” the boyfriend said, picking up a tamale and pointing to all the food.
Eleanor laughed in spite of herself and took a deep breath. At the door of the café was her sugar vendor, motioning to her. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. You guys enjoy yourselves… but don’t leave without me,” she called back.
The old woman touched Eleanor’s elbow with a gentle crinkled hand and led her to a stairway facing the back of the café, where Eleanor could see bunches of the yellow and orange cempasuchil growing in the yard. On their way up, the woman stooped and lit a candle on each step.
They entered into a kitchen, where there was a light switch, and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. They went into a second room where the old woman lit more candles. These candles were the tall beeswax ones Eleanor had seen on the market tables, and they were set into a banana plant runner on what looked like a roughly constructed altar, about four feet wide and five feet tall. Over the altar was an arch made from sugar cane and hanging from the cane were colored papers with the cut-out designs she had also seen at the market - saints and suns, flowers and skeletons, lots of skeletons. How on earth did they cut those out?
In the center of the altar was a photo of a woman even more ancient than the real one in front of her, but with the same crescent eyes. Crepe paper flowers surrounded the photo frame. On the altar ledge were little animal figures made of sugar and a loaf of bread in the shape of a femur. A pretty shawl had been carefully folded and set next to the bread.
“Ofrendas,” said the old woman.
“Is that your mother?”
“Si, es mi madre.”
The woman went out to the kitchen and returned with two bottles of water. She took a handful of knotted golden cords from the altar and offered a string to Eleanor, along with one of the waters. The cord, Eleanor saw now, was a rosary, and the old woman was kneeling in front of the altar to her mother. She began to say the rosary prayers.
Eleanor knelt with the woman and said the rosary too, making sure her English was not louder than the woman’s voice. After each decade they took a swig from their water bottles, which Eleanor was glad of, since it helped clear the copal incense from her lungs. After the third decade, Eleanor began to feel a little unsteady on her knees, which was strange because she was so used to praying on the hardwood floor next to her bed. Then she became unaware of which Hail Mary they were on, because the altar in front of her seemed to shimmy through the resin smoke, and then nothing mattered because – there she was.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to you earlier,” said Eleanor’s mother. “I just wasn’t ready.”
On the way out, the old woman gave Eleanor a handful of marigold petals to strew on each step as she went down.
Her daughter and the boyfriend were paying the bill at the front counter. They grabbed Eleanor and followed the professional prayer-makers who were chanting their way to the cemetery. People were less noisy now, and carried their costumes instead of wearing them. Many carried crosses, some new, some re-furbished with fresh solder or pieces of wood. In the cemetery everyone took off their shoes and danced with their ancestors at the graves.
“Maybe we should dance on Nana’s grave when we get back,” Eleanor’s daughter said.
I’m one ahead of you there. “Good idea,” she said.