December 20, 1999
near Atotonilco, Guanajuato
We struggle up the hill, short of breath at the unaccustomed altitude of 6500 feet. It's hard to walk and talk at the same time. The sky's a bright blue and the desert spreads harsh around us. There's nothing soft or gentle about this land, but I admire the thorny mesquite and spiny cactus that has the will to live through the long dry season, clinging rooted in the white, dusty soil, called "caliche". On the road the dust lies thick as velvet, a fluffy, powdery soil that clings to clothes and skin like chalk. In the rainy season the mud must be as deep and sucking as the winter's polvo is deep and soft. The only thing soft about this country is the white dust of the road.
The wind soughs through the thorny mesquite and blows the dust down the road before us like ghosts.
As we near the cross on the crest of the hill I tell the girls it is customary to bring a rock as offering to leave there with one's prayers.
"I wish I'd known," says Churpa.
"You can just pick one up now, " I say. "You don't have to lug it all the way from somewhere. Here's a good one." I bend to pick up a rough rock with one flat, polished surface of gray veins, looking as if it has been sliced and worked. I place it on the white cement altar of the cross.
"This is for my girls and me, for a good road, safe journeys and happy reunions down the line." I move away to stare at the vista of low trees and the belled dome of the Santuario of Atotolnilco distant below us while Abigail & Churpa silently and carefully lay their rocks with their prayers beneath the cross. I point out to Abigail the rough rope whip coiled among the stones like a serpent.
"Penitentes," I say. "We've seen long lines of campesinos, men carrying cloth bolsas full of their clothes and blankets. They go into the Sanctuary for a week of fasting and prayer. They beat themselves with those whips to atone for their sins and wear crowns of thorns in imitation of Christ. Men have even been sacrificed, put up on a cross."
We head back down the hill. As soon as we start our return Xuxa leaps in front of me, demanding. Long traditions is that she gets bits of cookies, dog biscuits, on the way home, whether in Deadwood or the desert. I feed her a piece, and, hardly has she crunched it down, when she is before me again, leaping, begging, gamboling for more cookie. Our trek back to the chapel and our campsite is measured in bites until all the cookies are gone.
Tomorrow the girls will be gone, my camp empty of their loud and excited presence. They have filled up the space so completely, and, for a few days, I have felt almost normal, connected, family, not just blowing in the wind alone. They've declined my invitation to ride over to the Pacific with me.
"I just have to be on top of a pyramid for the millennium," says Abigail. "It's my dream."
In the morning Churpa asks me to braid her hair. Just as when she was a little girl, I inevitably run into a tangle, and she yelps. She has discovered a treasure, a new story about her father from "The People's Guide to Mexico." She reads aloud to us as I braid her hair from "Parrot Fever", the story of Steve's acquisition of Arturo and Far Out in a Guatemalan market. When she finishes her reading of this fond story, she and I carry the black box of Steve's ashes to the old campsite on the land, where Steve and Allan and Jacques and I camped together last year. She looks grave, long braids hanging below her new black "bad guy" cowboy hat, tears on her cheeks, clutching a handful of her father's ashes as we sing "Meulenburg County" together. Then we fling ashes into the air, where they spread and blow down, blessing this place, this little piece of earth. New dust added to old.
In the afternoon after dropping them off at the bus station I keep busy with chores to keep the pain at bay. When will I ever get good at this?! Short of cash and ignorant of bus schedules they are off on their adventure to the Caribbean, hoping their money will get them there and back, gambling their resources on reaching a high perch, either in the jungle of Palenque or over-looking the blue/green seas at Tulum to usher in the year 2000.
In the evening, my neighbor Rosalia invites me to go with her to this evening's posada. I'm delighted to be invited. We wait in the small church while the couple encargada with its care set up the cresche and decorate, hanging plastic greenery and gray moss. Dona Chui finally arrives, and we can begin. At the small house perched above the road dozens of children and devout adults gather. We are all given candles to light. Dona Chui leads the prayers, and then the Virgin is carried on her litter, a crude wooden table with poles for handles, down the road, all of us trailing behind singing and trying to keep our candles lit in the maverick wind.
It takes a series of songs, request and answers, for the Virgin and her pilgrims to gain entrance at the next house, which will host the village Madonna for the following day. Dona Chui kneels on a ragged rug before the litter, set under a panoply of rustling balloons, and begins her long liturgy, the monotonous recitation of the rosary, Mary's mantra. It seems to go on and on, but finally we are released to go sit against the wall of one of the houses and await our hot punch and riccos tamales . I greet Don Octaviano, the respected elder of the village, and he commiserates with me on Steve's death. "But, " he says (as they all do) "we none of us know when our time will come." I agree. What else is there to say?
Then the feast is over, and as we file out, I am handed a plastic bag full of cookies, a kind of giant animal crackers, along with the other children and adults. Rosalia says that by the end of the nine days of Posadas her family will have enough cookies to eat with their morning coffee for a month. We walk home under the almost full moon and say our quiet, "Buenas noches. Hasta manana."
....Continued with The Geography of Ghosts