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Posts Tagged ‘Erongaricuaro’

We first heard of the espectáculo, the performance, when we were walking hand in hand on the marsh field in front of the village—a place of calm, soggy pastures, reedy waterways, and reclusive white egrets – in short, a place where for the most part things move slowly and are pretty much the way they seem. A fine drizzle was romantic, and eased the way.

A bridge of two planks led across an ooze of black sewage coming from the village. A calf bellowed from our side of the bridge. Her mother, who was on the other side, had no intention of returning, perhaps having found a clever way to wean her calf. When we crossed the bridge, the mother approached, then turned away when she realized we weren’t the farmer she belonged to.
A loudspeaker blared out over the marsh. We shook our heads in disbelief. We generalized, a gringo lament. Who would shatter the tranquility of this Saturday evening, wet and soft, after six and a half days of work?

When we climbed the lane, a man on horseback approached, probably the cow’s owner. He wore rubber boots in his stirrup, a milk bucket was slung from one side of the pommel, a thin sack of grain from the other. He held a short length of rope, to hobble the cow. I wondered how much milk he thought he would get with the calf around. On his head he wore the traditional Michoacán woven straw hat, flat on top, with the black tassel hanging from the brim in back.

The loudspeaker continued to overwhelm the evening. The authoritative voice, in a state of great agitation, warned that the espectáculo would not be in the village forever because of the great demand in the period before the 16th of September, Independence Day. A light rain had begun to fall again. Villagers moved past us toward the loudspeaker. My love Alicia, who is less suspicious than I, pressed forward.

The tent was an elaborate affair, with two massive metals center poles. We put our fingers in our ears and approached. It seemed unlikely there would be many spectators. Who could afford the announced fifteen-peso fee? The manic loudspeaker voice, now overhead, proclaimed the wonders of the espectáculo, and practically scream the need to attend, even in this time of economic downturn.

We paid our tickets – they charged us twenty apiece – and entered, just behind the town mayor, whose face seemed stuck in a permanent smirk. He wore alligator cowboy boots. He was overweight and about a head shorter than me. He soon stalked away, out of our view. We surveyed the rows of folding chairs, looking for a place to sit, but also to see if we could spot any of our English students. It was past the starting time. People whistled with impatience and, I thought, skepticism. After all, what could this traveling troupe possibly provide in terms of distraction to people who were used to television.

Finally, the show began. Strobe lights blurred the stage, and the curtain behind it, with flashes of red, green and white. The exotic Yopana – “Mexico’s only” – salsa-ed and twisted across the stage from right to left. Her strong slightly bowed legs were armored in banana-colored Spandex that reflected back the strobe lights. Her mouth was over-painted, in lopsided Vermillion, her brows Frida-dark, her rouge unbalanced. She wore a leotard top, long sleeves, in black, with silver spangles rising up the middle of her barrel-like stomach and possibly padded chest. It was hard to determine her age.

“She’s not even dancing,” said Alicia, in my ear.

But I disagreed. For me, her intent, her lumbering frame, created perfectly the illusion of seduction, suppleness, and skill. Her steps fell within an acceptable range, in matching the music’s rhythm. She wagged her tail, one hip rose while the other fell. Her dance steps showed little variation. What she offered, she offered innocently, and so I accepted her and approved of her, and thought she was perfect.

Alicia looked at me, and I at her. The crowd whistled and writhed, children pushed each other, tried out different seats, and slipped through the metal cattle fences of the loggia to sit closer to the stage. The hidden announcer warned us about shocking events that were coming. The blasts from the loudspeakers mounted on either side of the stage vibrated things in our chests. And then the magician appeared, a short man with a broad face and shrewd eyes, He wore a black coat with tails, a white pleated shirt, a black bow tie, and red pants. He made eggs appear and disappear. A bantam rooster appeared prematurely, we thought – perhaps as a ruse to increase our doubts as to his abilities. He made a rose out of bunched toilet paper. With two empty cylinders, one in each hand, he made a bottle disappear, then reappear. A cigarette disappeared from his hands and appeared in his mouth. He placed two strips of cloth in his mouth, chewed them thoroughly, and then pulled them out—hand over hand—in a long, continuous spaghetti. He dropped burning toilet paper into a cage-like box, which he had shown to be empty, clapped it shut, opened it, and a white dove flew out, accompanied by only a few sparks.

An assistant appeared. Her name was Jazmín. A pretty woman, in her forties, in white high heels, a jungle-pattern dress, in browns and reds, that came to just below the knees, with a slit on each side. The dress was cut excitingly low in the back. In front, it had a square neckline. A cupping action lifted her breasts in a way that was eye-catching and modest at the same time. She handed the master a plaster of paris mannequin of a Mexican campesino, who wore a sombrero and the white frozen face of a simpleton.

The master spoke, ventriloquist-style, asking Quico a series of questions. Did he know, for example, the points of the compass, and Quico would hesitate and give the wrong answer, mentioning the names of lizards, water birds, and snakes – to which the master would shout No! with such force and regularity that it no longer mattered that his lips moved when Quico spoke.

“Do you understand el norte? the master asked. The north?

“Los norteños?” Quico asked. “Sure, those are the ones right there, facing the stage, the ones who have gone north and abandoned Mexico.”

“No, Quico!! Don’t say such things!” in a controlling reprimand – to the delight of the audience. “And el sur, Quico, the south, do you know where that is?”

A careful pause by Quico. Well, that’s us here on this side – by which he meant below the border. The ones who spend their whole lives here in our sureños.” Which he confused with sueños, dreams, and said therefore. We are the simpletons who stayed here and have nothing but our dreams.

“No, Quico! NO!!” And the audience laughed appreciatively.

And did Quico know the difference between the police and the governor of Michoacán?

Long pause, Quico tilted his head in thought. And then, innocently, like the schoolboy trying to do well, offered – too quickly to be stopped – “Yes, the police are the pendejos who disappear the people, and the governor is the güey who governs the delivery of the ransoms – to the police. Which they then split.”

From the master an instantaneous, “No, Quico, NO, NO, NO!!”

The audience responded with a roar of tight laughter. It was clear Quico had said too much. Shaking his head in disappointment, the magician handed him back to Jazmín, who until that point had stood with her hands clasped in front of her, dignified, pretty, and not smiling.

Mexico’s one and only Yopana returned to the stage to dance, wearing white soft cowboy boots, black fishnet panty hose, and a tight black mini skirt, with a silver tirade slung like a watch chain under her belly. I admired her strapless top, her sheer-covered arms and shoulders, the purple frills hanging worm-like from the arms, the long white gloves, and the black flat-topped cowboy hat, with silver studs around the brim.

I thought she looked quite wonderful.

She didn’t seem quite as massive with the short skirt and white booties, the cowgirl look. They went well with the dull sultry look. She held the fake mike to her mouth and lip-synched to the music being hurtled through the loudspeaker. She raised and dropped the hand holding the mike, as the degree of her passion rose and fell. With the other arm she made wide sweeps, as if clearing away swarms of mosquitoes or swimming one-handed in a kind of half breaststroke, or polishing the hood of a car. She did her steps, but only minimally, because the music really didn’t require it. And all the while, the crowd whistled and jeered, but this time I thought, partly out of appreciation for the total package: the languid, numb, almost cute vaquera —doing what could be done with the blasting, formless music, the seizure-inducing white, red, and green strobe lights, and the perpetual hard economics times.

Jazmín and the magician—the mago—returned. He tied a silk scarf around her eyes and, turned the lovely sweeping openness of her back toward us, perhaps so we could read her vertebrae for some indication of what was to come. Then the mago came down off the stage and approached a man wearing a yellow shirt. He lay his hand on the man’s shoulder. He spoke quickly, as if there was much work to do.

“Jazmín, what color shirt is this man wearing?

And Jasmín, who was holding a real mike attached to a real cord, said in the steady clear voice of a seer, “Yellow.”

“And this woman, on her left hand?” He stood in front of a woman now.

“A silver ring with a green stone.”

“And the age of the man I’m standing in front of now?”

“Fifty-five,” said Jazmín. The man nodded, astounded.

The mago fanned out playing cards for a young woman to choose from. “Jazmín, what card is this woman holding?

“The queen of clubs,” said Jazmín.

The mago held up the card. It was the queen of clubs.

“And how old is this same woman, Jazmín?”

“Twenty-two.”

The young woman nodded and grinned in a mixture of embarrassment and astonishment. I looked for mirrors, perhaps a small microphone that he was signaling through.

“How is he doing that?” I asked Alicia.

“He has a prepared list, she’s memorized everything. His picks match the sequence. They’re plants, the questions. There’s only five of them.” She said this, as if in appreciation for the added level of skill.

“Jazmín, who am I standing in front of?” the mago asked.

“A young woman.”

“Tell me about her,” the magician asked.

“She’s twenty.”

“What else?”

“She is pregnant.”

“What else?” the mago asked.

Jazmín hesitated. She’s in her eighth month.”

“What else?” Jazmín hesitated longer.

“It’s a boy.” The young woman flushed, and looked as if she had received bad news, as if she had wanted a little girl.

The mago moved on to a woman well on in her years, of modest means, dignified.

“How old is this woman, Jazmín?”

“She is seventy-two, perhaps seventy-three. I’m not sure.”

The woman nodded, marginally, her neck stiff.

“Jazmín, tell us about her. Is her husband alive?”

“No.”

“And what did he do?”

“He rode his horse up into the mountain behind Acutín and made charcoal for people to cook with.”

“And what did he bring her from the mountain?”

“He brought her estrellas.”

“Why did he bring her estrellas?”

“The six petals meant he would love her for six times ten years,” said Jazmín. Her voice was lower, with feeling.

“What else, Jazmín?” Jazmín paused for a moment.

“She has two sons.”

It was the mago who hesitated this time. “Is there more?”

“One son is with the purépecha delegation of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples, on their way to meet with the EZLN, to decide on a possible protest march to Mexico City.”

“Tell us about the other, Jazmín.”

“He was disappeared.”

The mago paused. “When, Jazmín?”

I saw the old woman drop her head and look at her hands.

“Eighteen months ago.”

“Where?” asked the mago.

“In Pátzcuaro, in the big square, by the fountain, sitting with his wife and two little girls. Like his father, he would bring her estrellas.”

At that moment a small boy approached the mago. In his hands, held out in front of him, he carried the dove that had been loose on the tent floor since its escape from the cage and the burning toilet paper. He handed dove to the mago, who leaned forward to receive it, smiling and nodding his head in thanks.

He straightened up. “Jazmín, what am I holding in my hands?”

“You are holding a dove.”

The mago looked at the audience wisely, then gave the dove back to the boy, and motioned for him to take it to people behind stage.

“And do we know who was responsible for the secuestro, Jazmín?” The kidnapping? Silence fell over the crowd. A teenage boy, who had been tipping back in his metal chair, two rows in front of us, lost contact with the earth and crashed over backwards. There was some nervous laughter around us, but it died out quickly. The boy got up meekly and sat down in his righted chair.

“Jazmín?” the mago prompted.

“He is here in the tent,” said Jazmín.

The audience remained absolutely quiet. A few babies squirmed and whined. There was a hum in the sound system. The popcorn popper was popping. Its two attendants stared at the stage, frozen. People began moving their heads, slowly, looking for someone, but trying no to be too obvious about it. People they had never been quite sure about. A good many of them looked our way. Alicia is dark-skinned, and so it was clearly me they were looking at. Even Alicia, who is quick to spot an oppressor, was looking at me in a way I hadn’t seen in a while. The mago approached us and held his hand on my head, as if to bestow a blessing, or about to denounce me.

“Jazmín, whom am I touching?”

“A gringo,” she said.

“Is he the one?” The teenager who had fallen backward with his chair twisted around, gawking at me.

“No,” said Jazmín.

The mago’s hand slid off my head, but in a lingering motion, the hint of a caress, of protection perhaps, and then he moved away. After a few steps, he stopped and put his hand on the top of his own head.

“And who is this, Jazmín? Whom am I touching now?”

The boy who was carrying the dove and who had not quite reached the back stage area, lost control of the bird, and it fluttered back down onto the tent floor and waddled away between the chairs, perhaps looking for popcorn. The bantam rooster, which was also still loose, after its premature appearance at the beginning of the magic show, attacked the dove, but then shrieked when a spectator interrupted its attack with a kick. Jazmín had not spoken. The pause lengthened.

“Jazmín?” the magician prompted. She still didn’t answer. “Can you tell me who it is?”

“No, I can’t.”

“You can’t tell me?”

“No, I’m sorry. But I can’t.”

And with that, the mago winked at one side of the tent, then at the other, and asked for the applause Jazmín deserved. It came in a wave and filled the enclosure, then swept back again, into silence.

The hidden announcer, the authoritative voice we had heard from the marsh, announced the intermission, and that the mago and Jazmín moved among the audience and distributed fortunes, organized by the signs of the Zodiac, for five pesos each. When they came by, I bought one, as did Alicia. When he handed me mine, for Cancer, he winked and said, “Pretty good, huh?” in English. I said, “Very good” also in English, and gave him a thumbs up. I meant everything, from the premature bantam to Jazmín’s puzzlement. I was not sure what he meant.

My fortune, a carbon copy of an original, said, “Perhaps you will make some sort of promise to your partner.” I liked my fortune very much. Alicia would not tell me what hers said. I began a frown and started to say something, but at that moment a group of teenagers—mostly girls, late arrivals and unaffected by what had gone on before, mostly middle-class and non-Purépecha, swept into the tent and altered the mood with their bright, more privileged chatting.
They plopped down, like sea gulls, sometimes sitting on each other’s laps when there weren’t enough seats, then rose again as a flock and landed somewhere else, looking only at each other, but aware of everything, and consumed by a great excitement.

Alicia slipped away to buy popcorn. This left me somewhat exposed. A clown with floppy shoes and a red nose began the second half of the espectáculo, and this seemed to weaken the audience’s interest in me. His companion burst on stage. They kicked and hit each other, to much laugher. The first clown delivered a blow which appeared to kill his companion. He wailed, and lamented his crime.

“Why did you do it?” the mago asked him.

“He offended my wife,” said the clown.

“How did he offend your wife?”

“With his burro.” The crowd sucked in air, gave a tight laugh.

“How with his burro the mago asked.

“It passes without speaking to her.” The old joke, now remembered. The crowd laughed, much relieved. After some homophobic grabbing and exchanging blows, the clown raced off the stage. The crowd seemed happy. They appeared to have sipped from two of their favorite things: simulated violence and homophobia.

A handsome, tall young man in a dark suit with a cream-colored turtleneck entered from the left, holding a real microphone. This part of the espectáculo, he said with a voice of authority – the voice we had heard all the way from the marsh – required the willingness of intelligent, adventuresome people, whose personal dignity would be protected at all times.

Before he could finish, the teenagers rose against the wind they had been waiting for, circled, and landed on the thirty or so metal chairs that had been arranged on the stage. They were a mixture of secundaria girls, high school, and what appeared to be working-class boys, who were a little younger. The lights went out. The man in the dark suit was now not just handsome, but also a hypnotist. The sound system played the Ave Maria, at moderate range. The hypnotist put his lips close to the microphone. His voice grew raspy. He hissed with persuasion.

“Respira profundamente, breathe deeply, duerme profundamente, sleep deeply, escucha mi voz, listen to my voice.”

He led them downward, counting. He dismissed those who resisted. Only eight teenagers remained, four boys, four girls. The lights went on. The handsome hypnotist issued a series of commands. The Ave Maria ended. The loudspeakers gave a popular rock tune. He asked the eight to play the tune on their guitars. They made strumming motions. He had them hold each other, girls holding girls, and boys holding boys, then awakened them with a raven-like click of his tongue, close to the microphone. He played on the audience’s homophobia.

“Were you holding her?” he asked a girl, who quickly released the other girl.

“Of course not!” she answered, with conviction.

The audience howled with delight. Then he woke two boys holding each other, but kept them locked in that position. More laughter. He asked individuals what popular singer they were and had each stand up and strut and lip-synch to the music playing.

Alicia pointed out that everything was rigged; otherwise they wouldn’t have had the recorded cuts ready. I was confused and not sure. I suspected the teenagers had a wide knowledge of popular tunes. We watched them imitate Gloria Trevi, Alejandra Guzmán, and Luis Miguel. The middle class girls took risks, the working class boys were more catatonic. Still, one of the boys said he was Juan Gabriel, which meant that he was gay. This caused a great stir among the audience. He lip-synched well enough, but seemed to be unable to imitate even the hint of stereotyped gayness in his movements. The hypnotist asked him if he had a companion. He said yes and pointed roughly toward us. Blow him a kiss, said the master, and the boy did. Then he brought him out of the trance and asked him if he was throwing kisses to a man. The boy denied it, with a frown. The hypnotist touched his forehead, made a raven click, and returned him to his trance.

“Take him a kiss,” the master ordered, and the boy went down the stage stairs and approached a group of young men, who jumped out of their folding chairs in fright, while the audience whooped. The boy continued, turned toward us, and stopped in front of a smug overweight man, two seats to our left, whom I recognized as the mayor. He did not jumped up. Instead, his smirk deepened. The boy kissed his own hand, then pressed the hand on the man’s forehead. He stepped back. He pointed at his victim.

“Este, this is the one!” he pronounced, solemnly.

A hovering attendant – was it Jazmín? – led the boy back up onto the stage. The audience gawked, waiting. The mayor – unamused – sat with his legs crossed, left over right. He leaned forward, an engaged smirking observer. His right arm rested across his upper thigh, and slanted downward. The hand held a small bag of popcorn – like the one I was holding. The Ave Maria returned and swelled to full volume. From where I was sitting I could look between the heads of the heavy-lidded teenagers on the stage. Something metallic, muzzle-like, the tip of a rifle, 39 Steps, peeked through the curtain opening. The first shot – unheard in the din – exploded the mayor’s popcorn. I looked left. His expression, originally sour, took on the openness of man who realizes he has a problem. Some of the popcorn – still in the air – landed on Alicia, who turned toward me with a frown and snapped: “What are you doing?” The bantam cock, pecking nearby, startled by the popcorn, flew by the mayor’s head, who flinched at what he thought was a second phase of the attack. He lurched backward in his chair. The chair collapsed. The mayor rolled sideways, facing us. The second shot, again unheard, and ignored by the entranced teenagers on the stage, blew the heel off one of his alligator boots. I looked at Alicia, who was saying something angry at me, and then I looked at the stage. The muzzle of the old rifle had withdrawn. In the opening, I saw Yopana, Mexico’s one and only, with her head quite bald, and displaying a masculine intensity. I was aware that the mayor was crawling toward the side of the tent. Yopana looked straight at me. Her face softened, she winked, and she held up a thumb in the gesture of “Very good!” I did not return the gesture because I didn’t think Alicia would understand. The curtain closed all the way, and Yopana was gone.

The lights went on. The hypnotist made various hand motions and raven clicks around the heads of his subjects, and, one by one, they blinked, looked innocent in their disorientation, got up, stretched, and stumbled from the stage, to the applause of their companions in the audience. Alicia and I joined the flow of spectators leaving the tent. Outside, we saw the flashing blue and red lights on two police trucks. One was the town’s Seguridad Publica pickup. The other was a new Dodge Ram Judicial pickup, which by coincidence, it seemed, had been in the area carrying six AR15-armed Judiciales. They wore black paratrooper boots, black jump pants, black T-shirts, and gold chains around their necks.

A group of villagers stood around listening and making comments. The mayor was there, and I saw a graze wound on his forehead, apparently from a third shot that had escaped my attention.

More and more of us gathered around the flashing lights and heard the two town police explaining to the grim looking Judiciales that the wound was from a fall the mayor had taken during the performance. Not from any shooting. No one came forward with a variation on this testimony. One of the Judiciales was talking to someone on the truck radio. The town police argued that the mayor was in fact a suspect in a crime and that they were going to arrest him. One of them took out his handcuffs. The mayor had recovered his smirk. The Judiciales closed in around him. Over the protests of the town’s Seguridad Publica, they led him to the front seat of their truck. With door open, the interior light went on, and we could see the waves of smirks that passed over his face. The villagers and the village police shook their heads in disgust. The Judiciales – two in front with the mayor, four in back, with grim looks all around – drove away, in their new Dodge Ram.

In the dark, someone took my hand and pressed two five-peso pieces into it, I assume for overpayment. I was fairly sure it was Jazmín. By then Alicia was pulling me away from the crowd and telling me she was tired and needed to go home. The drizzle had stopped, and one or two of my English students said hello to me. The moon was up and moved in and out of the clouds like a child peeking from behind curtains. I thought I heard the calf down on the marsh, bellowing for its mother. And that, for some reason, made me wonder how everyone was doing backstage, in the tent.

Alicia took my arm pulled herself close. She began to talk about how much she was beginning to love Mexico, and how quiet the town was, and how wonderful the frogs in the marsh sounded, and how good it was going to be to get into bed and sleep. “Profundamente!” she added, finding my hand and giving it a squeeze, with what appeared to be a wink, with meaning. And I who am open to many things accepted it for what it was – or at least for what it appeared to be.

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(A finalist story in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award)

Alain Duprés, a student of musicology and great passions, son of a wealthy patrician, and a distant cousin of mine, left Paris for Morelia early in 1913 in search of the Claude Laurent crystal glass flute that had belonged to Mexico’s French Emperor Maximilian. That poor man had so treasured the instrument that when he was facing his firing squad on a hill above Querétero, the Cerro de las Campanas, on the 19th of June 1867, he asked Juarez, head of the rebelling power, to have the flute placed on a velvet-covered table to one side, so he could be watching the morning sun fall across its silver keys at the moment the bullets took away his breath.

President James Madison had once owned one of these flutes. So had Napoleon. So had Emperor Franz I of Austria. Alain Duprés, my distant cousin, loved things that were historical, beautiful, and fragile. He abhorred violence and was glad to be leaving a Europe that was cantering joyfully toward war. That he chose Mexico is not entirely comprehensible because not far south from Morelia’s central plaza, the rugged volcanic mountainsides were astir with revolution and banditry.

Still, he rented a room for a few pesos a week and looked for a teacher, so he could improve his Spanish. He found Miguel Angel, a medical student, who wanted to improve his English. They walked along the old city aqueduct and talked about Cervantes, Rousseau, and Goethe – in a mixture of English, French, and Spanish. After a few months, they spoke only in Spanish.

Miguel Angel told him about Claudia and showed him a daguerreotype of a young woman who he said was the most beautiful woman alive and that there wasn’t a poet alive who would not fall in love with her. That is when Alain Duprés started to write things down, convinced that he too – since he was so affected by the photograph – must have traces of literary talent.

Miguel Angel liked to visit his Aunt Elena in Erongarícuaro, a mostly Purépecha village on the western shore of Lake Pátzcuaro. Sometimes he and Alain took the train from Morelia to Ajuno, then the Ajuno-Pénjamo line to Erongarícuaro. Sometimes they got off early and walked along beside the shimmering lake through fields of corn, wild cosmos, sunflowers, and marigolds.

Miguel Angel rode in the hills, sometimes with his aunt, sometimes with Alain. When he wasn’t riding, he studied the rich bird life near the lake in front of the town. Claudia lived in a large adobe house at the edge of the marsh. Her mother was Mexican. The previous year, her German father had died of tuberculosis. Claudia liked to sit on the balcony of the house overlooking the lake. Men in carriages and on horseback took detours away from the center of town and followed the dirt road between the walls of the house and the marsh, looking up under the broad brim of their hats, hoping to catch a glimpse of her high cheek bones, dark eyes, and light skin.

Miguel Angel said they had been brought together by technology. He watched the birds with a marine spyglass, a birthday gift from his father, purchased in an antique shop in Le Havre. Once, following the flight of a Lesser Black Egret, he swept the glass past the big adobe house and caught a glimpse of her on her balcony – combing her long chestnut hair. The next time he looked, he saw that she was looking back at him through another spyglass, also made of brass and glinting in the sunlight.

They looked at each other. He touched his hat, put down his glass, and wrote large block letters in his notebook, with many dips in his ink well, Estoy observando los aves, no espiándole, “I’m watching birds, not spying on you.” He held it up but saw that she had stopped looking. He took off his jacket and pinned the sign to the back of it, then put the jacket back on. When he looked again, there was a sign propped up on the wall of the balcony, “Do men really carry pins?” Miguel Angel replied with, “Do women carry spy glasses?” He pinned this to the back of his jacket and entered farther into the marsh.

He asked his aunt to accompany him bird watching, and she agreed to go, because he spoke with such passion about the birds he was painting. But when they had set up his easel and watched the great squawking Blue Herons and the Lesser White Egrets for a while, and when she had watched him sketch a heron quite badly, she thought, compared to his usual work, two women – one older and one younger – approached them. In the younger one’s eyes she saw the same intensity she had seen in Miguel Angel’s eyes; and in that moment she understood that she had been invited as facilitator, decoy and, probably most important of all, as trustee of a young man’s love.

Over time, and with the help of his Aunt Elena, Miguel Angel began to court Claudia. And over still more time, that young woman gave him a thick lock of her chestnut hair. With a wry look that unnerved him, she said there were other things to give him, but that this was what was available now – a token, so to speak, of what would soon be his. In a moment nearly religious for him, he tucked the hair into a vest pocket, where it made a slight bulge over his heart.

Miguel Angel liked to ride in the hills above Erongarícuaro. He followed the carriage tracks to the railroad tracks, crossed them and often continued on up the mountain rather than turning right to go to the station. One afternoon, while riding high above the town and approaching the tracks, he happened on lumber merchant Doña Herminia, who was hauling four of her prized pine boards behind her donkey Burra, dragging them at a slant, their ends on the ground bumping over the ties of the railroad and the blue-grey gravel underneath.

She was a handsome woman of forty with flashing dark eyes and an ironic twist to her mouth, and the afternoon was bright and hot. She noticed the bulge and asked him whether his heart was swelling and whether it was creating complications. He explained it was a thick lock of his love’s hair. None of which she heard—because she was deaf—but understood anyway, through lip reading and inference.

She said that was good, especially since he didn’t have to stuff it somewhere else, which some men sometimes did out of pretense; and that he had discovered the true way to use one swelling to produce another. And the whole time she talked, she stroked Burra’s haunches with her hand, or caressed the tooth marks on her boards that gleamed yellow and new in the afternoon sun.

The sound of the bees and the fields of wild marigolds, the pine pitch from the boards, Doña Herminia’s bright teeth and her square goat’s eye pupils, the way she touched Burra and moved her hips when she talked about the connection of one thing to another—all this made it difficult for Miguel Angel. And then she tied Burra to a tree, brought out tortillas and an avocado and ripe nísperos – loquats – and arranged all these on a Purépecha shawl with stripes in cobalt and cerulean blue, all this in the shade of pirules – pepper trees, in a place overlooking the lake but hidden from the railroad tracks, the station road, and any path.

Miguel Angel tied off his horse and sat down to eat with her. She took a níspero, put it in her mouth, and chewed till she had extracted the two of its shiny, smooth, almost indecent looking seeds. She spit them onto her hand and passed them to him, then with a finger slowly pushed them back and forth across his palm. With her mouth full and chewing, her fingers explored first the bulge with Claudia’s hair and then the spot she claimed was influenced by it.

All this made the afternoon lie heavy and spinning with first the sound of bees, then the rumble of a passing train, then the sound of hooves moving over trails they could not see—the wind whispering in the upright swaying drying corn. With her large brown eyes fixed on him, she bent his head toward her. She smelled of roasted corn, chewed avocado, níspero juice, wood smoke, and lavender. From her long, smooth, black Purépecha braid, which she laid around his neck, came the smell of burro and something older, much older, that he couldn’t identify. When she laughed, her body jiggled like congealed chicken blood. Globs of tortillas and avocado appeared and disappeared in her opening and closing mouth. Then, beneath him, she packed everything into one cheek and crooned, “She’s my Burra, but you are my burro!” – all this to encouraged his snorting, which she could see but not hear. Her own half-choked calls of Jale!—the command for a horse to move forward—drew out and became a soft braying. Soft, because this was still a dangerous countryside to be lying about in, and having your mind on something else.

Afterward, as Miguel Angel slept a drooling deep sleep, Doña Herminia slipped out the balled lock of the chestnut hair, put some of it in a pocket of her dress, and replaced the rest. The four newly sawn pine boards were for Silvestre Vernal, who was an enemy of the great hacienda that occupied the broad mountain basin three miles above them. This was a Spanish family that had ruled in the area as long as anyone could remember. The revolutionary chieftain José Inés Cháves García also operated around Pátzcuaro in 1913, defying federal troops under Huerta and causing concern at the hacienda, to the extent it felt compelled to raise its own militia.

Silvestre Vernal was not a revolutionary. But he was a man with a strong sense of justice. He worked alone, breaking horses and mules for people of modest means. At night, when his sense of justice grew keener, he was a bandalero social who took cattle from the hacienda owners and distributed the meat to the hungry. He was about Miguel Angel’s size, but darker. He cherished his wife and his ten-year old boy Marco. When he and his son rode together, bareback, he would reach back and pat the boy on the thigh and feel a great surge of love for the boy.

By day, the hacienda’s private troop, federalized by the Huertista government, descended on the town, looking for conscripts – boys fifteen and older – beating those who refused, occasionally hanging anyone suspected of revolutionary activity, and always looking for Silvestre Vernal. Sympathetic railway workers stopped trains and unloaded one or two steers at a time in places where they knew Silvestre was waiting. Soldiers, with their horses and Mauser rifles, began riding the trains, to protect the interests of the hacienda. The leader of this contingent was the handsome Lieutenant Solorio Cortés, the son of the hacienda owner, who felt God had meant him to have the lovely Claudia for his wife. Claudia’s brother Ruben disliked Miguel Angel because he was a medical student with a future more certain than his own, and for that reason he argued for the candidacy of Solorio as his future brother-in-law.

It was not long after this that Miguel Angel invited Claudia ride with him, but her brother Ruben would not allow it. There was no engagement, he said, and there never would be. Besides, the mountains were filled with soldiers and bandits. It was no place for a young woman of good family; that Miguel Angel continued to ride there showed lack of judgment and said a great deal about his character.

Miguel Angel asked Claudia to be his novia, fiancée, and she put her hand on his chest, above his heart, on the somewhat diminished bulge of her chestnut hair, and nodded her head yes, and then crossed herself – but not before looking around to see who was watching, because such things were still dangerous. The former Díaz government had declared it illegal to practice Catholicism. Plus, she was superstitious and feared that a private act done publicly could bring the civil war to her doorstep, along with yellow fever and cholera and knew what else that drifted in on the lake’s mist.

If they were to be together, said Ruben, it had to be in front of the house, between the lower garden wall and the marsh, where he could watch through the spy glass and that way protect her virtue. And so that was where they walked, beside the lake, each time pressing farther into the reeds, choosing areas where the marsh cane was the tallest and thickest. They found an old dugout canoe that Miguel Angel caulked with tar and kept hidden. The marsh was laced with channels, and they used the canoe to reach a hidden floating island made from a mass of dried cane. It was here they spent afternoons when Ruben was away. They lay on their backs, hand in hand, floating, listening to the rustling of animals they could not see. Once, when they had begun to explore each other, a young Black Angus bull waded nearby, grazing up to his belly in the dark water, snaking his blue tongue out to the lilies he could otherwise not reach. They listened to chickens back on land laying eggs and to burros braying songs of love and distress.

Claudia’s long chestnut hair began to replace the power of what was left of the lock he carried in his vest. It had the usual effect on him but also greater because there was so much more of it. And so they placed their clothes in the canoe, where they would be dry, and lay entwined on the floating island. The warm swamp water seeped up to touch their bodies. When she looked up at him, she saw the clear Mexican sky, strange sounds came out of her mouth and brought out in him what Miguel Angel supposed was the burro – and sent rings of waves rippling far into the marsh.

One afternoon, when the sun was warm and the wind in the pines sounded like a distant train, Miguel Angel dropped down from the mountain and came out into a field of marigolds above the railroad line. Far below him he saw the adobe church tower of Erongarícuaro. Closer in front of him, in the middle of the train tracks, he saw Doña Herminia moving south with Burra toward Ajuno, dragging four of her fine boards, with her colt Burrita trotting along behind. Farther to the right, hidden by the curve, he saw the “Porfirio Díaz,” coming from Ajuno, billowing out black smoke as it accelerated on the last stretch before the curve. Burra had stopped, perhaps because she felt the railroad ties trembling. Doña Herminia was upset and pulling on the lead rope. Her back was to the train. Because she was deaf, she could not hear it. She was craning her neck to see if the boards had caught on something.

The track made a long curve around the field. Miguel Angel spurred his horse forward. For a few moments, at one point, he was rushing along beside the train. He could see in the windows. He saw Claudia, who was returning from Pátzcuaro. She was wearing Solorio Cortés’s khaki military hat, with its crimson band. He saw her laughing. He saw Solorio siting next to her. He saw Solorio look across at him. Miguel Angel cut the curve and reached Doña Herminia before the train. He told Alain later, he saw the recognition in her face, followed by her wicked smile. She dangled in his face the piece of Claudia’s hair she had stolen from him. The engineer saw two people, a burro and a horse on the tracks ahead of him, and pulled the brake with all his force.

Doña Herminia yelled, “Hey, Burro! Look what I have!” Miguel Angel leaned forward in his saddle to grab her wrist. Delighted, she fought him off and twisted away to keep the hair from his grasp. His horse wheeled and bolted free. The colt trotted away from the tracks. Burra stepped off the tracks. The engine hit the boards, now turned sideways, with the sound of a canon shot, and wood flew in all directions. Miguel Angel’s horse hurtled forward in panic. Doña Herminia disappeared under the train.

The train personnel found her under the last car of the three cars, where Solorio Cortés’ soldiers rode in one half, their horses in the other. One foot lay by itself outside the rails. Burra and her colt grazed on marigolds that grew beside the tracks. A splinter roughly the size of a machete had passed through the back of Doña Herminia’s head and come out her mouth, giving her two tongues. Her mouth had frozen in a smirk. Clenched in her right fist they found a nest of chestnut hair.

Miguel Angel’s horse eventually stopped running and slowed to a walk, then wandered unguided across the mountain. Miguel Angel thought about Solorio Cortés’s officer’s hat on Claudia’s head. That was when Silvestre Vernal, bareback and with Marco behind, rode out of the trees and approached. Miguel Angel knew who he was and was not afraid. He told Silvestre what had happened. They talked for a while and agreed that it was a terrible thing

The train personnel carefully moved the train half a car length forward. All fourteen passengers stood around Doña Herminia’s body. People presented conflicting stories, but the dominant one, supported by the driver, was that a man on horseback had been fighting with the woman now dead on the tracks. It had been a heated discussion, and she broken away. Then he had wheeled his horse and knocked her down intentionally and fled.

It was murder.

The locomotive driver was concerned for any responsibility he might have in the matter, and so he was relieved when he saw something in Doña Herminia’s hand and, playing the role of detective, plucked out the nest of chestnut hair and placed it in his own palm. No one said anything. It was not Doña Herminia’s hair. Hers was Indian black, the color of the urraca, the Boat-Tailed Grackel; and as for the other, there was only one person in the town who had chestnut hair.

Claudia – who had also been standing there – turned and walked away on a path toward town, by herself, without saying good-bye. The other thirteen passengers watched her leave and discussed what it all meant. Lieutenant Solorio Cortés agreed it was murder. He and his troops threw down the gangplank on the last car, led off their mounts. Far down the line, toward the station, Silvestre’s son Marco saw them mounting. Both Silvestre and Miguel Angel assumed they were coming for Silvestre. They moved into the trees. Miguel Angel also had a sense of justice, and he suggested they switch hats and vests. Silvestre thanked him, and said they should switch horses as well, for the full effect. Marco said he would ride behind Miguel Angel. And then they spurred their horses ahead. Miguel rode fast toward town. Silvestre raced on toward the station, where there was a trail that slanted up across the mountain.

When Miguel Angel looked back, he saw the troops pursuing Silvestre, and he did not understand. He stopped to watch. Marco gave a cry, then jumped down and ran across the fields toward the station. Miguel Angel heard the shots and saw Silvestre go down and cursed God for allowing such a lucky shot. He saw his Aunt Elena’s horse continue for a bit, then stop. Marco hurried on toward the station, leaping the furrows of the last the last ploughed field.

A few days later, in Pátzcuaro, Alain Duprés, my distant cousin, paid 2 centavos for the Saturday, November 1, 1913 edition of the Catholic newspaper La Actualidad. He found the article he was looking for. The author had not signed his name, probably because he was not sympathetic to the Huertista government, nor to the Huerta–sympathizing officer he was describing.

“Erongarícuaro: Last week, on a warm October afternoon, Federal militia under the command of the young, perhaps short-sighted Lieutenant Solorio Cortés captured a man who he said was the cattle thief Silvestre Vernal Blanco. His troops marched the prisoner, hobbled and wounded, through a brilliant carpet of wild marigolds, up to the wall of Erongarícuaro’s train station, where he slumped down to a sitting position, his hat falling forward over his forehead, waiting for the troops to have a late lunch of cold tortillas and avocado.

“According to sources, the lieutenant sat off to one side, attended by his orderly, as if he wished to avoid contact with a common criminal. The train from Ajuno, delayed by an accident, finally stopped in front of the station. Four passengers got off. The prisoner sat on the southern side of the station. He did not turn his head. The four passengers looked at him quickly and then climbed into the wagon that would take them down into the town. ”

“While they ate, not far from the prisoner, the young troops cut the tip off of the one bullet each would soon use, in this manner forming the blunted Bullet of Mercy. When they had wiped their mouths with the backs of their hands, they emptied the bullets out of their magazines, put them away, then levered the special bullet into their chambers, and stood up.”

“They propped Silvestre Vernal up against the wall he had been sitting against, smoothed his hair and arranged his hat. The prisoner held a hand over the wound on his shoulder. They saw him gaze left and right along the trees bordering the railroad track, as if looking for someone—where a face did appear, it is said, in a stand of pirules, some distance away, just as a ray of sunlight fell across it, as if God had chosen a boy as witness to what was about to happen.”

“When the lieutenant saluted downward with his sabre, two of the rifles misfired, but eight others did not, and the bullets of Mercy danced the bandit Silvestre Vernal against the station wall and left him sitting again, with a look of surprise, until his head fell forward, as if he wanted to study the marigolds which were all about him. “

“The lieutenant coughed asthmatically from the blue rifle smoke, waited for it to drift to one side, then walked slowly through the marigolds, in regulation boots, which were highly polished, so that they squeaked when, according to witnesses, he approached the sitting body. It is said the officer held his arm stiffly at his side and that it trembled. Then he raised his it up and pointed the long-barreled Smith & Wesson, nickel plated, at the soft top of the bowed head, took one large step back to keep from soiling his uniform, and pulled the trigger, therewith delivering the coup de grace.”

“Officer Cortés then leaned over, gripped the man by his hair and brought up the head to see whether the bullets of Mercy had hit their target, which was the prisoner’s chest. Then he leaned still farther forward, lifted his round metal-rimmed glasses with his gun hand – still holding the Smith & Wesson – looked more closely, and saw that the chest had been ripped open and that there was hair growing on the prisoner’s heart.”

“It is said, by the same witnesses, that he was at first moved that God had chosen this way to confirm the evil that had been resting in the man’s soul. Then he rambled along about how disturbed he was to see that the hair was chestnut colored and then, indiscreetly, that the man he had executed was in fact the cattle thief Silvestre Vernal and not a certain medical student from Morelia.”

“In less chaotic times, this writer would hope that a judicial authority would investigate these matters. But there is no such authority beyond Morelia’s city walls, and humanity is so much the worse for it. That the prisoner had hair growing on his heart, the Church, it is thought, on that matter is unlikely to take a position.”

The rest Alain knew because he was there in the back of the crowd when the body was brought into town. It had been tied over a saddle, and the wounds had bled over the face, making the corpse unrecognizable except for what was left of the vest. Claudia was already in front of the Presidencia where the body hung. Friends held her as she sobbed.
News had spread quickly that the murderer of Doña Herminia, the medical student from Morelia, had pushed her in front of the train during some kind of lover’s spat and had already met his fate and now hung head-down in the arches so close to the door of the Pesidencia that you could hardly enter without brushing against him.

Doña Herminia herself lay just to one side on two striped Purépecha shawls of cobalt and cerulean blue, her severed foot placed close to the leg it belonged to and her head on a child’s chair, to accommodate the machete-sized pine splinter that otherwise would have tilted her head forward at an awkward angle. Someone had placed the chestnut hair she was found with in her open palm.
People pushed forward to see the miracle of the hair growing on Miguel Angel’s exposed heart, the same hair – one could not help noticing – that could be seen in Doña Herminia’s hand. The famously flirtatious board merchant, everyone knew, was a few months pregnant, and the child inside her – people agreed – was very likely alive in side her at that very moment. Claudia listened to all this, and sank deeper and deeper into shock. She could not comprehend that the man she loved was dead, nor that her hair—a lover’s pledge—seemed to be everywhere.

Just when she was about to collapse, the boy Marco came up beside her, pulled at her sleeve and through his own sobs tried to tell her that those were his father’s hands and no one else’s. Then Marco’s mother appeared and confirmed, wailing, that it was her husband Silvestre Vernal who hung in front of them. The women who had held Claudia now held Marco and his mother – who held each other and wept.

The crowd ringed them, in silence, and waited while a bowl of water and some rags were brought to wash the corpse’s face to reveal his identity once and for all. And then, just when Claudia saw that it was not her lover, someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to see Miguel Angel standing in front of her, with tears in his eyes.

Alain said it was then he learned what passion was, for Claudia’s face turned from pale to blotches of red; and her right hand came out and slapped Miguel Angel so hard that he stumbled backward and had to be supported by the crowd to keep him from falling. Then she turned on her heel and marched home without looking at anyone.

She did not talk to anyone for a month. She would not talk to Miguel Angel for a year and only let him approach when she decided that the little girl she had given birth to—with chestnut hair—needed her father. Gradually, she forgave him. He became a doctor. They bought an old colonial house Morelia, with a lovely courtyard garden, and moved in.

Alain, my distant cousin, visited them from time to time. He lost interest in Maximilian’s glass flute, since the story around it seemed pale in comparison to the one he had witnessed in Erongarícuaro. Claudia and Miguel Angel had three more children, all of them girls, and all of them with chestnut hair. The man and wife grew very close to each other and lived into their seventies. In strict confidence, they sent Marcos and his mother money, and later sent Marco to the Escuela Libre de Derecho, in Mexico City, to study law.

Solorio Cortés kept his distance from Claudia after the events described above. The locomotive driver, when deposed, reported, in retrospect, that Miguel Angel had tried to pull Doña Herminia away from the tracks, and no case was brought against him. Two years to the day after Lieutenant Solorio Cortés executed Silvestre Vernal against the south wall of the Erongarícuaro train station, his own body, still uniformed, was found hacked by machetes into four pieces, each of which was suspended by a separate rope from the same beam from which Silvestre Vernal’s body had hung, and this time completely blocking the door to the Presidencia. Someone had stuffed two separate lumps of carefully arranged chestnut hair into his mouth, which led to years of speculation about whether it was, in fact, the original hair that had been found in Doña Herminia’s hand, as well as that which had been growing on Silvestre Vernal’s heart.

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