"The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living."
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
Losing faith happened in a trinity of blows. First came the death of my husband. Then the discovery of his affair. And finally, there came Mexico.
Red-bricked houses like scars in the night. The shy oaks showered in moonlight. Children with skull-painted faces running through the noisy evening. Music played from a distant plaza as the first night of the Day of the Dead kicked-off.
Nights on another continent have a habit of casting a veil of fear over strangers. Emilia felt it, truly. Despite the lights on the street, the music, the happy children, the bars buzzing in the swarming plazas—Emilia felt the thousands of miles she had travelled in the marrow of her bones.
She walked street after street looking for the house she was told had a façade of terracotta tiles and yellow paint. She got the description from La Santa Gula; a traditional Maltese bakery in the heart of Mexico City's Coyoacan neighborhood. In the warm patio of that stolen pearl of home, she had felt momentarily safe. Now the night was a foreboding flower once again.
All along the neighborhood she saw houses with front doors wide open, and inside colorful altars were set up to welcome the dead. Altars lit up like fireworks, bursting with yellow marigolds, images of the Virgin of the Guadalupe looking somber in their midst. The photographs of the departed were surrounded by flowers, candles and candy. It looked like a Sisyphean carnival.
Emilia thought they got their colors wrong. Death isn't about yellows and pinks. It's about the grey hospital walls, the green of the dying ECG monitor, and the gelatinous white of death-shot eyes.
Thoughts of her husband's deathbed scarred her mind now. A girl inside one house with a small, humble altar looked outside her window and saw a foreign woman biting down on her fist as tears jetted out of her olive eyes. The girl shrugged and went back inside to eat some of the candy on her brother's altar.
Why did he have to die like that? I've spent all my life praying for mercy, for compassion. I've eked out every ounce of goodness inside me—and still you take him from me? Emilia felt like screaming out in the middle of the road. But no matter how hard she screamed, God always remained silent.
A few minutes and a few blocks later she found it: a yellow-painted façade with terracotta tiles. She feared now what screaming answers she'd find inside that house. The mistress lived there.
"Yo soy..." Emilia had rehearsed her lines so rigorously but her Spanish failed her at the key moment. She felt like a bullfighter overcome with pity as the bull charged him. No, she couldn't say the words. Her heart felt like a shriveled cactus, even its thorns dried and punctured.
And yet, this woman, she has such a gentle face, really, she's like a girl with roses in her pupils. I was always thought faces never lied. This isn't the face of a slut.
"I'm Emilia Calleja. And I think..." Emilia's words failed her again—she wanted to swear but it was easier for her to whimper.
"You're Cayetano's wife." The woman with the girl's face spoke in a smoker's voice.
"Cayetano?" Yes, I guess that is how you say my husband's name in Spanish. "You know who I am, then?"
"I recognize your surname. I really love your dress."
"Your dress, I love all the butterflies. It's so colorful."
"I didn't come here to talk about fucking dresses!" Emilia recoiled at her own words. It felt as though it was the first time she'd swore her entire life. She couldn't remember if it was. To hell with it.
"I didn't think so." The woman laughed. "Even so, it is beautiful."
That laugh, why did it make Emilia feel grateful? The woman's focus on her dress was insane, so Emilia tried to find some meaning behind it. Some meaning behind that laugh. What is it?
"Can we talk?" Emilia said.
"Of course. I was just going out. Come with me."
She disappeared inside her auburn home with the large, airy rooms and Moorish arches with yet more terracotta tiles, and she emerged, like a wave from the surface of the sea, as quickly as she had disappeared. She held in her hand a large, professional camera with a long, telescoping lens and a brown leather strap.
She was a photographer, Emilia remembered. That's how Esperanza met him. She was on an assignment in Malta, covering a refugee summit, and Emilia's husband ran into her when she was exploring the streets of the capital. So the story went, Emilia thought. So goes the history.
"Where are you going? Can't we talk here?" Emilia said in a voice whose softness betrayed her.
"It's the Day of the Dead, chica, what kind of photographer would I be if I stayed home tonight?"
Emilia followed the woman to her car, and once inside a silence as thick as a Van Gogh brushstroke fell between them. Emilia felt herself drowning, but even through the desperate void, she noted the woman's clothes.
"You like my top? It's Santa Lupita—you know her? Great Mexican designer that promotes local artisans. This is a Huipil Maya top. I love the colors."
"Where are we going?" Emilia asked, turning her gaze away and looking out of the window at the street moving like a nocturnal treadmill.
"The cemetery, of course."
The closer I get to you, the farther away I get from everything.
Don't you feel guilty about your wife?
Why should I feel guilty for loving? God made the world deplorable and instructed us to love—so why should I feel guilty for doing what I was made to do?
Those words, written in one of the many emails she had found after her husband's death, rang in her head as she looked out at the cemetery whose gravestones were lit up like a constellation.
He's not wrong, she told herself. God made him fall in love with her while he was engaged to me. My husband never spoke of God, He wasn't religious, but he wasn't joking. God did make him love two women. And then He killed him. As if punishing him for doing what He asked of him.
A sudden cold shiver passed over Emilia's skin. "Are you alright, chica?" the woman, who in the car had introduced herself as Esperanza Ruisanchez, asked softly. A name which, Emilia of course already knew.
"I'm fine. I just felt a sudden loneliness come over me."
The napping silence in the cemetery was broken by a symphony of cooing voices. People prayed at the gravesides of their loved ones. They cleaned the headstones and placed bundles of gladiolas and cempazuchil flowers on the graves.
Laughter was carried on the breeze as people shared funny stories about the deceased. Emilia was glad she didn't understand Spanish too well—she would feel ill-at-ease listening in on the intimate memories of people's grief. Esperanza Ruisanchez walked through the kneeling crowds taking photographs with the calm of a marigold in the spring.
Emilia followed her in silence, as if in procession, not daring to talk to her, not in such a somber place. And yet, didn't she come to speak to her of the dead on a night when the dead come down to earth?
Around some graves there were families drinking tequila and chatting, most of them dressed in traditional Mexican clothing—similar to the high-fashion version Esperanza Ruisanchez wore. Others were singing—"the favorite songs of their departed," as Esperanza Ruisanchez explained—songs whose guttural nature seemed to emanate from the very soil.
As they walked around, Emilia and Esperanza Ruisanchez were approached by a mariachi band. Emilia didn't understand what they were asking but Esperanza Ruisanchez explained they wanted to play a song for the spirits of their loved ones—for a fee. Emilia hastily asked, "Do they know You'll Never Walk Alone?"
To her unending surprise—they did. She listened to the tunes that swayed from comical to haunting. She felt her skin standing on edge. How many times had her husband sang that song at the beginning of a Liverpool match! And yet, despite her shivering, she couldn't help laughing to herself.
Laughter that, as the song finished, made Emilia feel enormous guilt: Why should I be here on our honeymoon while you're six-feet under? It's not fair. A corrida of hopelessness suddenly overtook her. She turned to Esperanza Ruisanchez and asked her, "Do you believe in any of this?"
"I'm just a photographer, chica. I think these people are wasting their time. But, life ends in death, doesn't it, so it's all a waste of time. At least these people are wasting their time in the most intimately beautiful place on earth."
"Hola amor, que tal!"
Esperanza Ruisanchez bent down to kiss an elderly woman wrapped in a blue blanket set beside an elaborately decorated grave.
They spoke for a while and Emilia tried to listen in. But she wasn't concentrating on the words. She was concentrating on Esperanza. She was charming, her face animated by a thousand and one happy gestures, which, Emilia imagined, could so easily be turned sexual, and she permeated a viscous confidence that clung to every part of her being.
She was everything that Emilia was not. Is this the kind of woman he wanted? If so, did he marry me out of convenience, or worse, pity? While I took care of the house and lived as a fortified housewife, did he secretly crave a woman like Esperanza?
What is it that drew him to her? I have to know.
She wanted to get it over with but Esperanza Ruisanchez switched to English and introduced Emilia to Yolanda Garcia Marquez. The old woman shook her hand fervently and smiled an aunt's smile. "And this," Esperanza Ruisanchez said pointing casually, as if modeling, towards the grave, "is Yolanda's son Carlos. Que rico, no!" She laughed, showing her neon-white teeth that created a chiaroscuro effect on her dark, indigenous face. "He was killed last year."
"Killed? What happened?"
The old woman, explained and Esperanza Ruisanchez translated. "He was gunned down on the highway by the Zeta cartel. He was shot twenty times and then his feet were dismembered and left outside a police station. Tied to his feet there hung a cardboard sign saying, 'You want a war, you have it.'"
Emilia gasped and reeled in horror as if she could see that handsome face depicted lavishly on the grave being mutilated and butchered. She felt nauseous. And yet, Yolanda, his mother, was smiling.
"This was her second son to be killed by the cartel. Her eldest died a few years ago. That's where I met her."
"You met her at her son's murder scene?"
"Yes, I gave her some tequila that night and we became friends for life. We meet in this cemetery every year."
"How can she be so calm about it?"
"It's either her faith or tequila. I don't quite know yet. When I figure that out I'll win a Nobel prize of some sort." Esperanza Ruisanchez smiled. "Besides, in this cemetery, she's not alone. Her story is a common one. Here, she has support."
"How god awful! Is it really that common?"
"Amor, most nights of my life are spent photographing the victims of the cartels. It's what keeps me going as a paid photographer. I've seen it all. A woman's decapitated head turning up on someone's computer with a sign saying, 'This is what you get for blogging about the cartels.' I've met parents who saw their six-year-old daughter being hacked to pieces by an axe whilst she was still alive. And..."
"Enough, please. I feel sick. Why the hell do you do this job? Can't you be a fucking fashion photographer!"
"Fashion makes me happy, chica, but to be happy in this country is to be either guilty or threatened. I want, I want to, well—come with me, chica." Nearly on the verge of tears, Esperanza Ruisanchez bid good night to Yolanda and began walking deeper into the cemetery.
She stopped finally at a plain, unadorned grave. No flowers, no skulls, no candy, not even a picture. "Here she is, chica. My mama."
Emilia knelt down and read the small lettering that was her name. Adela Ruisanchez. Emilia instinctively wanted to make the sign of the cross, but she held herself back. She couldn't feel any solemnity. Only absolute horror. What had happened to her husband was a luxury. Dying of cancer in a safe hospital surrounded by his family was sheer luxury.
The rest of humanity was dying by the dozens. Like pigs at an orgy of slaughter. Dying as if the Middle Ages had never ended. And all the while, God remained silent. Is He simply indifferent or cruel?
Or maybe, He wasn't there at all.
Emilia felt a cold emptiness crawl all over her. Doubt had entered her mind, a virus that, inch by inch, eventually kills off the cells of belief When the belief dies, what's left? I'm scared, I'm really scared. What do I do now? Who the hell am I without the faith of my parents?
"You want to know why I do my job, chica? There it is." Esperanza Ruisanchez bit down on her lips as she spoke. "My mama was a poor woman, a Zapotec. She moved to Mexico City where my father was from when they got married. She never wanted anything except to have a family, to cook, to be healthy and safe. But for me, hell, she wanted the whole world. As much as she loved her roots and her lifestyle, she wanted my life to have purpose. She wanted me to make a difference.
"I remember, just a few weeks before she died, I had my first photograph published in a national newspaper. This stoic, sickly old woman came up to me, kissed my cheeks, and whispered in my ears, 'I'm proud of you, daughter.' I have to keep making her proud, you know?"
"Esperanza, how do you know when you've found purpose?" Emilia asked.
"I don't fucking know!" Esperanza Ruisanchez laughed like a thunder-clap. Why is she laughing? Is it that hard a question to answer?
"Oh no," Esperanza Ruisanchez said from behind her hand. "Here comes another mariachi band."
"Come on, let's have some fun. Hey, chicos, vengan aqui!"
"What? No, don't call them over."
She did call them over. When they came, Esperanza Ruisanchez whispered something in the ears of the guitarist. As soon as she moved away, like a vital organ ignited by oxygen, they sprang into song.
"Come on chica. Baila!"
Esperanza Ruisanchez took Emilia by the arm and pulled her close. She twirled her, put her arm around her waist and began to dance the salsa. Emilia was surprised but she let herself go. Just let herself go.
"That's it, guapa, let me see you."
Emilia remembered all the times she danced the salsa with her husband, and then something inside her broke. She erupted. A smile painted itself across her face. Her hips grew wings. She danced almost violently, until her smile dawned a full-fledged laughter.
"That's what I want to hear, amor! Let it out—you can't live life without shouting 'fuck it!' to the winds every now and then!"
"Fuck it. Fuck it—fuck it!"
This is insane. I'm dancing to a mariachi band—in a cemetery—with my dead husband's mistress. This is absolutely insane!
But fuck it!
After the song finished and the mariachi band went on their way, the two women sat cross-legged near Adela Ruisanchez's grave. Esperanza Ruisanchez was smoking a cigarette and drinking from a tequila bottle she bought from a stall outside the cemetery. Emilia was looking up at the night sky wondering if it looked any different from the other side of the world.
"Esperanza, the song you told the mariachi band to play—that was the Guantanamera, wasn't it? The Cuban song?"
"That song was Gejtanu's favorite song. Did you know that?"
"Claro, of course I knew He always told me that he loved to dance the salsa with me, because, with you, he never could."
"He wasn't lying."
"Que? But Emilia I just saw you dance, you're amazing!"
"I know, I know. But we hadn't danced together for six years, ever since we first dated."
A lonesome smile dragged itself out on Emilia's lips, as if they had been quartered. She knew, deep down, that before they got married things had become passé between them. Excitement had pupated into wedding-cake, house-cleaning, car-buying maturity. And yet, still, with his mistress, all he wanted to do was to relive our first days together.
He wasn't cheating on me after all, he was cheating on what we had become. Deep down, still, nothing mattered more to him than our first near-perfect days together.
Emilia felt a distilled peace ferment in her heart.
"Esperanza, can I have some tequila?"
Esperanza Ruisanchez passed her the bottle and Emilia took a big swig.
"You're full of surprises tonight, chica."
"What is this tequila?" She examined the bottle and twirled it like a ballerina in her hands. "Tequila cabeza. Cabeza means head, doesn't it?"
"That's right. That tequila brand has been distilled by the same family for over five generations. Five generations of dedicated tequila farmers, can you imagine? And uniquely, this particular tequila has been fermented with Champagne yeast."
"Gejtanu always used to drink Jose Cuervo. He didn't like it but it was the best, most affordable tequila you could find back in Malta."
"Jose Cuervo's not bad. It became popular during the prohibition era as black-market liquor when it was smuggled into America from Mexico. And these days, all we smuggle is people."
"The Pope was here recently, wasn't he?" Emilia asked, as she remembered her husband mentioning that their honeymoon—the one he never got a chance to take—would follow-up the Pope's visit.
"Yes, hijo de puta!"
"Why'd you say that? It's funny, Gejtanu didn't like him either."
"The man has the face of a pedophile, no? I've seen a lot of horrible, dead faces in my life, but nothing as evil as the face of Pope Francis."
"But he's a good Pope!"
"Popes are only as good as their secrets. And the more saintly a man is, the worse his crimes. Trust me, I know. The best priest is a dead one."
"I don't th..."
"Yes, I saw Pope Francis, I took a picture of him for an assignment. I got him right before he was about to sneeze. He looked pitiful. No one published that photograph, of course, so I hung it up on my wall at home. Framed, claro."
"I believe in God, chica. He's my greatest inspiration. I've lived my whole life in Mexico, a country torn apart by drugs and violence. But the greatest murderer of them all is God. No wonder the narcos worship him. No wonder they pay to have churches built with their names etched in the stone. God is far worse than los Zetas or the Sinaloa or El Chapo—worse than all of them! And I get no greater pleasure in life than being happy in spite of him."
"Fuck it, eh."
Emilia smiled, patting Esperanza Ruisanchez on the back. They both laughed like a Baroque symphony in the Gothic night. Emilia felt at ease with Esperanza Ruisanchez's blasphemies. She wasn't wrong. She'd been sensing this all along. If God did exist and He was as omnipotent as I was taught, then He is responsible for all the misery and suffering of everyone on earth. That's some Father.
But even when a daughter hates her father she follows in his footsteps. So how do I make a life for myself away from all that?
"I'm sorry for what I did to you, chica." Esperanza Ruisanchez spoke suddenly. Emilia turned a quizzical look at her. "I'm sorry for having an affair with your Cayetano. I know how that feels so I should know better."
"Did you love him?" She finally asked the question that was burning like a funeral pyre in the deepest recess of her conscience.
"Yes, I loved him. But I also love this cemetery. I love this tequila. I love chocolate. And, fuck, I love your dress. I love too much. I never stop to ask myself why I shouldn't. I just say fuck it and I dive in. But with Cayetano, I went too far."
"And do you think he loved you?" Emilia asked the natural corollary question as if all her teeth were falling out of her mouth.
"He made himself love me. At first, he was just attracted to me because I was Mexican. But then, when we started having fun together, he began to manipulate his image of me. Your husband," she sighed, smiling. "I'm sure you know, was a very self-doubting man."
Was he? Emilia thought. She remembered him now as being confident, opinionated and unflinching. Self-doubting... what did she mean?
"And when I began showering him with this illicit kind of attention he made me out to be a greater woman than I was just so he could say to himself, 'Yes, a woman like her is attracted to me!'"
"It's how I feel."
"So I wasn't enough? He never said that about me! Why fucking marry me then?"
"I know how you're feeling, chica. It's not nice to feel that you've got no control over your life. Life is a slave-master relationship and we can't possibly hope to come out on top."
For the first time after his death, Emilia had begun to harbor feelings of animosity toward her husband. Was he really that shallow, that vain—and worst of all, did he just stay with me because he was too much of a coward to leave? How lucky for him cancer came when it did and solved all his problems.
"When Gejtanu told me," Emilia spoke with her eyes bowed like a twilit horizon, "that after we got married he didn't want me to work, he wanted me to stay home, I thought he was being a gentleman."
"A housewife? Hijo de puta, what's this, the fucking Middle Ages?"
"What's wrong with being a housewife? I was happy to do it. Spend all day cooking, which I loved. I hated cleaning, I'll be honest, but Igot used to it. I'd read, watch television; it was ideal for me, in control of my life. What else could one person hope for? But, all along, it was convenient for him to have me at home. That way, he could lead two lives. The life of a married man at home, and the life of a single man the rest of the time. And I fell for it."
"No woman should have to be made into a housewife."
"Of course she should—if that's what she wants. But Esperanza, let me ask you: do you think it's possible to love two people at the same time?"
"For a man, yes. It's how they're made. Oh, wait a minute, chica."
Esperanza Ruisanchez's phone was ringing in her pockets. She answered and began speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Emilia tried to pick up a fleeting word, any word, to make sense of what she was saying, but it was like trying to catch debris buffeted by a hurricane.
"That was work, Emilia, I have to go."
She got up suddenly and began walking away. Emilia felt panic consume her. "Go? You can't leave me here! I have no way of getting back to Coyoacan—I don't even know where I am!"
"Then come with me."
"The murder scene is near Coyoacan. I'll drop you off after."
Murder scene? Emilia's heart was beating fast And yet, she had no choice. Once again, life was in control.
Driving through the earthquake of darkness that were the nocturnal streets of Mexico City, Emilia felt a ghostly cold air crawling over her skin. The full moon shone on a skyline of cables, fly-overs and a dark circus of silhouettes. Esperanza Ruisanchez maintained a correspondence with her newspaper over the radio as they drove. How does she do it, Emilia thought to herself, how does she do this horrible job?
And why am I so cold?
Before they arrived at the scene there was a convoy of flashing police cars. It was as if they marked the border between the city of the living and the city of the mutilated, drug-frenzied dead. Emilia crossed that border. Esperanza Ruisanchez showed her press card and told the indifferent police that Emilia was with her.
"Ella esta conmigo." I'm with her? Fuck me, Emilia thought, still shivering.
In the centre of that deathly continent there lay a car. A black car with the windscreen and side windows shattered by swarms of winged bullets. The passenger door was wide open. And on the seat there lay a man, on his back, his arms outstretched like a limp Christ, his body pockmarked with crimson bullet holes.
Emilia stood back as Esperanza Ruisanchez, along with many other photographers and journalists, got up close to photograph that rotting emperor of no-life-land. Next to him, Emilia noticed, lay a single candle inscribed with the image of Santa Muerte.
This is horrible, Emilia thought, her teeth clattering. Where's the man's family? Why is no one mourning him? It's just police guarding him as if he was going to run away. Treating the dead man as a criminal. And photographers, like Esperanza, shoving their cameras into his cold, dead face like an elephant using his trunk to wake up a dead calf.
"Emilia! Come here, look." Esperanza Ruisanchez called Emilia over to the body. What is she thinking? Emilia wanted to turn away. But with so many police around she felt uneasy acting suspiciously. So she took those purgatorial steps toward Esperanza Ruisanchez and the body.
"Look, you see here. There's a note. 'Vaya con Dios.' Police told me they think the guy, a drug dealer, confessed a crime the cartel wanted to keep secret to a priest in a nearby church."
"And so they murdered him?" Emilia said, moving her hand from her mouth to speak. Her eyes had the sorrowful, isolated glimmer of a woman veiled in mourning.
"The poor man was probably feeling guilty about it all. Stupid son-of-a-bitch."
Esperanza Ruisanchez spoke slowly now, pronouncing every syllable with a marked effort. "I can understand him getting into the drug trade. He's just like thousands of others. A poor man wanting to make a quick dollar with the narcos. We all have our ambitions. But to waste your time with the church, and God. That's just criminal."
Emilia suddenly braved the darkness that enveloped the body and took a closer look. She gazed into his face and saw his right eye-socket smashed into blooded pieces. One of the bullets must have hit him through the soft eye. Emilia turned away in horror and disgust.
She couldn't keep it up anymore. The act. She was no journalist. She wasn't Mexican. She fell to her knees and wept. The police looked at her and assumed she was a family member. Little did they understand that inside another corpse was festering.
The cold I've been feeling on the way here, it's God's cold dead body inside me. I can't take it anymore. The kind, loving god that I knew as a child would not allow this to happen. Jesus died in vain. No, Jesus died for his own fame! God, Jesus, all the saints—they're men, just like my husband was. Yes, Esperanza was right: Gejtanu was a self-doubting man. He needed love not for the sake of it, but just so he could feed his crippled self-image.
I don't believe what Esperanza says. God isn't a demonic presence like the incestuous, murderous Greek gods. He is a figment of man's fearful and lustful imagination. There can be no god in such a fucked-up world. Sure there is beauty here but beauty, it just has to exist. It serves no purpose other than existing. The same with violence. A grand waterfall, or the healthy scream of a newborn doesn't make up for all this, it doesn't make up for Mexico.
"Emilia, chica, come on. Let's take you back to the hotel." Esperanza Ruisanchez helped Emilia up and walked her to the car. She sat her down in the passenger's seat and gave her a drink of tequila to fortify her nerves. Emilia squinted as she recoiled from the suddenly acidic booze. And when she opened her eyes again she saw the face of a woman untouched by Mexico. A woman that was happy, insanely so, despite what she was made to see. In that moment, Emilia could understand why her husband had fallen in love with her.
But Emilia's love wasn't borne from a weak self-image. It was borne from envy.
"How do you do it, Esperanza?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "It's what I do."
"It's what you do." Emilia repeated, as if she had heard those words in a coma.
Now that my husband is dead and my faith is in ruins, what the hell do I do? I feel cold again. I feel the chill of freedom creeping over me. I'm free. Purpose is now the world of my own making. But how do I begin to fashion purpose for myself if I don't even know who I am?
I'm free. I'm free! And I didn't even ask for freedom.
"Losing faith happened in a trinity of blows. First came the death of my husband. Then the discovery of his affair. And finally, there came Mexico."
"If you've lost your faith, my child, why are you here, in the confessional?"
"I wanted God to know that he's lost one of his sheep."
"God never abandons a single one of his lost sheep, my child."
"It's not His choice anymore."
"Life without God is a cold sentence to inflict on yourself."
"All of life starts with a death sentence, doesn't it? But from now on, I write the story of my life. No one else."
She left the confessional before she told the parish priest—the man who had baptized and married her—something she might later regret.
Title image "Yellow and Terracotta" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.