Día de los Muertos
by Roger Ley
Other Stories by Roger Ley
It’s a Mexican thing. You have to be Mexican to understand the mixture of sadness, joy and resignation we associate with death. We don’t want to die, but we respect our relatives who have gone before us, we cherish them, they are not forgotten. The 2nd of November, the Día de los Muertos. Not the Carnival, the colourful, exuberant, uninhibited celebration in February. Not Halloween, the childish western celebration. No, the Day of the Dead is older than that, thousands of years older, first celebrated by the pre-Columbians, and now in many Spanish-speaking countries. Here in Mexico it’s a big event and when did Latins need an excuse for a fiesta? Unfortunately, somebody has to keep a watch on the festivities and this year my number had come up.
The night-time streets were crowded with happy, slightly drunk people, perfect conditions for predators, pickpockets, con men. All sorts of criminal activity would be going on. I was in plain clothes as usual, following the crowd past the cemetery, the dead centre of town. There they were, a typical gang of disaffected teenagers, hanging around the wrought-iron gates, climbing on the pillars, looking for the weaklings in the herd, skate boards at the ready and mischief in mind. I was impressed by their costumes, but then the new digital fabrics make almost anything possible. They were dressed as skeletons, as was traditional, but they were very convincing. You could still tell the girl skeletons from the boy skeletons by the way they moved. They all left faint residual splashes of stardust as they walked, it was exquisite, ethereal, but they were unusually quiet for that age group.
Some of the crowd were entering the cemetery, the men carrying the makings of the altars they would build on their loved one’s graves, the women carrying food and drink for the deceased. They even had sugar toys for dead children. The majority were making their way to the Cathedral for the special Requiem Mass. There was a lot of noise, singing, laughing, bocina horns and football rattles. The ‘Skeletons’ los esqueletos pushed off into the crowd and I moved faster, trying to keep up with them. Some were skating, some boarding and the rest free running. Where did they get the energy?
They grabbed at people as they passed them, pulling and poking them, turning and taking liberties with women’s breasts, licking people’s faces. The Skeleton girls were cupping men between the legs, but people mainly ignored them, shrugged them off or brushed them away.
By the time we arrived at the cathedral I’d lost track of them. I hung around with the people standing at the back, smelling the incense and listening to the service. Ah, there they were, hanging under the mezzanine floor, where the choir sat, and perched on top of marble statues. There were two on the altar mimicking the priest and crossing themselves, laughing and shouting to each other, although I couldn’t hear them over the ambient noise. Two more were pretending to copulate on the altar, but the priest ignored them and chanted his way through the Mass, calling out the prayers, waiting for the responses. The Skeletons meantime were drinking the communion wine, toasting each other’s health, pulling faces at the congregation.
Two of them, one taller than the other, walked up the aisle hand in hand and stopped at the altar rail. A third, wearing a black biretta on his head, seemed to be performing a wedding ceremony. The boy skeleton placed a ring on his partner’s finger and the rest of the gang applauded enthusiastically. Again, I couldn’t hear them, the choir were singing a hymn, and the congregation were joining in. The mass ended and people stood and gathered their belongings. The Skeletons were off again, running, leaping, skating, boarding down the aisle and out through the main doors. It was lucky they didn’t knock anybody over. I followed but they soon outran me again. The crowd moved on towards the plaza but the Skeletons had headed back towards the cemetery, against the flow. I moved as fast as I could, showing my badge and easing people out of the way. The Skeletons were already there when I arrived. Most of them were climbing on the gates or sitting on the gate piers, kicking their heels. The two who were newly ‘married’ walked up to the gates, still hand in hand, moving slowly, looking into each other’s eyes. Es muy romantico, I might have allowed myself a few tears if I hadn’t been on duty.
They stopped at the gates of the cemetery, and seemed to speak in sign language, their hands animated, shedding whorls and streaks of stardust as they ‘spoke.’ The boy took the girl’s hand, and they waited, while the rest of the gang dispersed over the wall and along the paths between the graves, then walked slowly after them. The boy led the girl to a grave decorated with sugar skulls, sweet bread, and flowers. They held each other for some time before he finally kissed her on the forehead. She stood, head bowed, as he turned and walked away. I watched as he walked towards a more elaborate grave nearby. I turned my gaze back towards the girl but she had disappeared. When I looked for the boy he too had vanished, leaving only a shimmer of stardust above the polished marble stonework.
I walked over to read the inscription, and suddenly remembered. About ten years ago, while I was still in uniform, driving a black and white, there’d been a motorcycle accident, with two riders killed. He was from a well-to-do family and thus the Harley Davidson. Too much, too soon. It had been big news at the time. His name was Martin Riley, his father owned several golf courses outside the city. She was Estella something, not exactly trailer trash but definitely from the wrong side of the tracks.
I walked to a bench some distance away and sat thinking about my report, the evening had been routine really, nothing untoward, no damage, no crime, no accidents. Just the usual youthful high spirits, and now the excitement was over for another year. I lit up a cigarette and stared at the grave ahead of me, the headstone read, ‘Police Lieutenant Arthur Rodriguez, hero of the state, shot in the line of duty.’ There was an altar with a sugar gun and holster, a sugar police badge and a blaze of orange marigolds decorating it.
The Sun edged over the horizon, its early, near horizontal rays probed the cemetery, highlighting the altars festooned with pierced paper decorations of all colours, now blowing across the paths. Feral dogs, tramps and bag-ladies were already eating the sugar skulls, sweet breads and piles of tortillas left on the graves for their occupants. Crows hopped as close as they dared and picked at the discarded food.
A homeless man picked up a half-smoked cigarette from where it lay on the ground near the empty bench and took a grateful pull. A last swirl of stardust lingered, but the Sun was too bright for him to notice.