On the Day of the Dead
Mathias Mori stirs; his body stiff from the chill night air. His nose twitches under the old fedora covering his face, as an ant becomes separated from the detachment marching purposefully across his hat and finds its way into his moustache. Cautiously he raises his head to look around himself and winces with discomfort as the pistol tucked into his belt presses against his lower ribs.
Midnight is approaching and the little graveyard is quiet in the darkness. Here and there Mathias sees the low glow of still-flickering candles. Their light picks out remnants of food, sugar skulls and elaborate floral tributes. He sees a few remaining hushed and huddled figures: the weathered faces of the elderly, the painted faces of the young, craving the company of revenants.
Pale moonlight throws nearer marker crosses and stone memorials into black relief.
Fully awake, Mathias rises to his feet beside the headstone of his wife, Lavida. His single candle, almost spent, illuminates the small, oval photograph from which she smiles serenely at him in shades of sepia. Her image, immortalised and sealed in its mount, sits above the flimsy brown skeletons of past bouquets, now, no more than bundles of kindling dried under the hot sun.
Tonight, Mathias brings fresh marigolds. He scatters their petals to entice lost souls. They are withering on top of the marble slab. The Day of the Dead is almost at an end.
That morning, while early light bled upwards from the line of the horizon and shades of blue and gold outlined the sharp spears of the peyote agaves encircling the village, Mathias said goodbye to his empty home. He said goodbye to his old bentwood rocking chair, sitting motionless on the flagstone floor, to his two hens roosting on a faded candlewick bedspread thrown over a wooden settle, proudly crafted by him in his younger days.
Outside, through the open door, where a single tap dripped into a chipped stone sink, he said goodbye to a shabby turkey which sat in the dust. The turkey, with no name and a broken wing had followed Lavida everywhere. It was generally regarded as a measure of the family’s prosperity that the bird continued to live on, fiesta after fiesta.
Mathias walked past the family’s little plot of land, past straggling tomatoes and chilli peppers, past prickly pears and lavender, past husks of maize and wizened sunflower stalks.
He will spend this day of celebration walking and talking with old friends and neighbours.
As the farmer marshals his flock to pasture, Mathias hails him.
‘Buenos Dias Señor Ferrer! How are your goats today?’
‘Señor Mori! They do well, but… today’s fiesta affects them. They sense things. They sense the spirits abroad on El Dia De Los Muertes. It affects the animals. Who knows if they can see and hear things outside our experience? I tell you Mathias, while we honour our departed and feel their presence around us, I think the animals see them.’
‘Ask your goats if my wife comes back here. I have kept faithful vigil each year since her passing, but have seen nothing. She vowed to return, but I am tired; my bones grow old and my shadow is thin and bent.’
‘Mathias, I am sorry for your loss, as are many here, but do not joke of such things. People believe the departed are awake and free in the domain of the dead, while we, the living, remain trapped in the dream of life. You must be patient in your dream of life. Do you sleep hombre; do you sleep?’
‘Sleep? Those days are gone, my friend. And you?’
‘Farmers? We sleep like those in the churchyard. But I tell you Mathias, this is a strange day.’
‘I know. And I must be on my way. Adios Enrique, my old friend. Buena suerte.’
‘Vaya con Dios. Stop by later for my wife’s good cooking. She worries about you.’
‘Si, si; adios.’
The dirt roadway leads Mathias between uneven limestone walls, washed in pastel pinks, blues and ochres. He sees they are flaking and bleached like bones in the sun, cast with sharp black shadows. Now, daylight crosses wrought iron balconies with their pots of yuccas. It seeps in slivers between faded shutters, their paint peeled back like scorched skin. It stretches to touch the hardwood beds within, some with their still slumbering occupants.
In the village square, where an ancient well trickles clear water into a roughly hewn trough, Pinot the baker piles grotesquely decorated, grinning sugar skulls and pink iced pan de muerto onto a stall set out on the pavement. His wife sets out bistro chairs and little tables with festive cloth covers.
‘Buenos Dias Mathias, mi amigo, will we see you during today’s fiesta?’
Mathias nods. ‘I wait each year for the visit of my wife but I do not see her. I fancy I hear her calling to me, but…’
‘Madame Pinot and I would have to travel to the edges of Marseilles for a reunion with our ancestors. They must celebrate alone, ha, ha! And here… I do not wish to encounter the dead but I will bake for their descendants. They make me good business.’
Mathias shakes his head. ‘It’s true; not everyone’s relatives lie buried here. Did you know, my wife and I had a son? He rode away to seek work. We understood his decision; we waited for his return. He was killed they said, in a farming accident on a ranch somewhere out in the Rio Grande. There were no remains to commemorate. My wife, I believe she died of grief.’
The two men share a respectful silence before Mathias speaks again.
‘I go now to seek the advice of the priest, Father Murphy. I wish you a prosperous day.’
On the outskirts of the village, the little whitewashed church has a cool limestone interior. Shafts of sunshine slant through the window grilles onto rustic pews and a roughly hewn baptismal font. Father Murphy is occupied replacing the pooling stumps of spent candles with fat new ones.
‘Ah Mathias Mori! We don’t see you in the congregation; not since your wife passed away. People worry about you.’
‘I know Father, they’re good people here.’
‘This morning I prayed to the Almighty for the safe conduct of the spirits of our loved ones. Soon it will be over for another year. There will be a surfeit of food and tequila, followed, I hope, by peace in the village.’
‘Father, do you see the dead return here?’
‘My son, the church cannot be held responsible for what people here choose to believe. Certainly, I have witnessed things I can share with no man, they are between me and my maker. Now I am returning home. I shall have a mug of tea, and if a drop of good Irish whiskey should find its way into the mug, then I shall give thanks to the Lord for His bounty. I’ll have none of this local brew, and that’s a fact… but you look troubled.’
‘I’m sorry, Father.’
‘What ails you Mathias? I know the fates have not been kind. Will you return to the church?’
‘You may find me here tomorrow Father, after the early bell sounds.’
‘I do not take part in today’s festival but you should join the procession. Or, go home, give thanks and pray.’
Mathias continues his walk.
At home, the clock ticks above his workbench where his tools lie dull and rusting. The tap drips. The hens pick over the old maize husks and the shabby turkey ruffles its feathers in the dust and gobbles up any remaining sunflower seeds.
Later, Mathias drinks in the square beneath fairy lights strung amongst the tree branches. He watches as villagers celebrate the fiesta. He follows the procession to the cemetery where he sits alone with his memories of happier times: times before Lavida, the love of his life, moved on without him, left him behind, gone, some said, to join their son.
At last, as darkness closes in from the surrounding desert, beneath a million stars, weary revellers find their way home. Many remain around the little limestone church to keep a graveside vigil. Mathias too remains in the small cemetery.
Here he waits each night on the second day of November. Lavida promised to return.
He looks again at his wife’s grave, seeking signs of disturbance, evidence of another’s presence. He sees nothing.
The sound of a single gunshot reverberates; it bounces off the walls of the tiny church; it ricochets off the gravestones and echoes into the night air.
The hard-working ants halt in confusion as they carry their precious cargo of sugar-crumbs from yesterday’s fiesta towards their colonies’ home beneath the church steps. Their leader marshals a wide detour around the pool of blood spreading slowly about the head of Mathias Mori.
Those who have stayed on there, the weathered elderly and the painted young, will be begged to repeat what they witnessed that night, year after year, over and over again.
The shock of a gun-shot, then a silence so absolute that they believed themselves to have been deafened. The unmistakable scent of marigolds; a smell as enticing and fragrant as sun-warmed nectarines, heady and sweet. It charmed their senses and whispered to their souls. Then a disturbance in the perfumed air, ethereal colours dancing and blending: a shape-shifting chimera coalesced, lingered in amethyst, opal and moonstone. Some say they heard the voice of Lavida, others, that they heard an angel singing. Time and belief were suspended in wonder.
Mathias drifts through cold unlit olive groves, reputed to be home to the monachichi, spirits of children who died unbaptized. They reach out clammy gossamer fingers and whisper to creatures of the night that raise their heads and sniff the air. Where is this place?
Then Mathias detects the scent of marigolds. Gradually, familiar sensations permeate the gloom and he hears Lavida; she is recounting the story of their lives together. He sees her face, it melds with that of their son, hollow-eyed but smiling. He smells once more the wood-fire in their hearth in winter and the rich earth of their garden under the sun. He feels the fabric of the home his great-grandfather passed down through the generations. They are all here; they have been here all the time. They welcome Mathias into his afterlife.
Together they look out from within the adobe, at the sunrise, at the sunset, at the stark silhouettes of the agaves that have framed their lives. Their community is complete.
In the graveyard where Mathias’ bones lie beside those of Lavida, some may see the priest pause as if deep in thought. He may raise his eyes, look around himself; he may walk more swiftly on into the sanctity of his church, closing the heavy wooden door firmly behind him. Ecumenical duties take him far away once each year, always around the time of El Día De Los Muertes.
The life of Mathias Mori was unremarkable but in Pueblo Peyote the story of his death is repeated in hushed tones on every second day of November.
Published, (and title of anthology) Black Pear Press, On The Day Of The Dead, 2017
Published by Tacchi-Morris Creative Writing Comp, The Page is Printed, June 2016
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