For my friend Brian who says, “write the Mexico book.” This is the story of how I was called to live in Mexico, at least the first part, but it’s long form, so prepare.
It began with rain. Well, no, of course it didn’t begin with rain unless it was raining when my parents conceived me, but that addendum added to all my other life addendums may be over-complicating things. If we stick to the day in question, the day when my life unexpectedly and unknowingly turned ninety degrees, more or less, depending on wind and the force of water, it began with rain. A desert rain, sheets of rain, pouring off the balcony roof, sealing me inside the motel room where I’d lived for several weeks while making the movie that took me to Mexico. The shoot was on hold. That call, the call waking me to tell me I didn’t have to get up, arrived at the same moment a crash of lightening coupled with shattering thunder jarred me from a deep sleep. I grabbed at the phone and sent a pen skittering off the edge of the night table.
“Janet, right now, the shoots on hold. I’ll let you know if it’s cancelled.” I hung up the phone and peered over the bed’s side. The pen remained hidden.
Groggy and deep down weary, I dragged a blanket around me and slumped to a chair, facing the balcony’s open French doors. A whisper of mist brushed my face. I was too close to the edge. I waited, emotionally unresponsive as the rain shuddered and spit lightening.
The day before, I’d plowed. With a horse and a single-blade plow, steadying the handles, holding the reins, stumbling over clods, and mindful of the child actor clutching my skirt. Before I arrived on the set, wranglers did the hard work and plowed several rows. I only had to follow the furrow. With a horse, and a plow, and a boy hanging onto my long skirt. No problem. Yeah. Right. I knew how to plow, too much of my childhood was spent plowing, row after row after row, my hands on the wheel adjusting to the tractor’s dip and pull. But on foot, I stumbled and wobbled. After a few flubbed takes, I learned guiding a horse was about the same as guiding a tractor. It didn’t take much pressure. The horse knew what it was doing. The boy and I were simply moveable props. Stumbling props, but nonetheless, props.
My arms were tired. Legs stiff. I flexed my fingers. The muscles in my forearms ached. I dropped my hands into my lap and curled them into the blanket’s folds.
The phone rang. I hobbled to the phone with the blanket wrapped around me.
“Hi Janet. We had to reschedule. You’re off. We’re doing the night scene.”
When I hung up, reprieved, I fell across the bed in a tangle of blanket and tossed sheets, an open script, a shirt I’d worn the night before at dinner, and towels from the previous night’s shower. I slept immediately.
Sunlight inched through the open balcony door when I woke. The storm was over. No sound came from the garden except for a regular lap of water at pool’s edge. Disentangling myself from the blanket, I rolled over to look at the clock: 11:40. I’d slept almost five hours. With the unexpected luxury of a whole, unstructured day ahead of me, I stared at the ceiling—what to do—swim, lie in the sun, study my script. None of that sounded particularly enticing. The image of a magic corner in the downtown market slid into my memory. The Saturday before, several of us had gone souvenir shopping and I’d seen it but hadn’t stopped—something about the shadowy corner called to a solitary journey. Open burlap bags spilled herbs or bark and hidden shelves begged discovery. I showered and dressed and left the motel through a side door.
Thick green leaves stooped over the sidewalk. My passage disturbed some fine balance and water drops slid from leaf tip. The sidewalk bent and hunched over tree roots. In some places it disappeared altogether and reappeared with no more reason than it had disappeared. I passed a farm implement shop ringed with new, bright-green John Deere farm equipment, the same machinery Dad bought. Fresh bread smells, home smells, pulled me into a bakery. I bought a still warm roll stuffed with thick chocolate. Returning to the sidewalk and staring toward the center of town, I ate, smearing my fingers with chocolate. After licking off what I could, I wiped my fingers on my pants. I’m always wiping something on my pants.
A bell in some church tower rang once. But not yet the long two-hour break in the middle of the afternoon when everything stopped. I hurried down the street until crowds filled the sidewalk and dodged a hand-cart piled high with firewood. My abrupt move bumped into a woman carrying two full buckets of tomatoes. I apologized. She smiled and nodded. Cars honked in the street. Across the street, the market stretched down the block, and sunlight slapped against the tin roof.
The sun’s hot beat dissolved as I stepped across the threshold. As my eyes adjusted and shadowy forms became more distinct, I noticed a woman staring at me. I nodded. A blond gringa probably wasn’t a common sight, especially one wandering in Durango, far from the tourist trails. I passed bridles and saddles hung on partitions between stalls and smelled the heavy scent of oil and leather. The scent followed me past the harness section and I stopped, pretending to know where I was, as I examined a stall full of huaraches, wide strips of interlaced leather attached to rubber soles made from car tires. Ahead an aisle crossing. To the left, stacks of fruit and food stalls of cheeses and bacon and unfamiliar vegetables. But if I went that way, I would be mired in food. My memory placed the magic corner off to one side, opposite the food, and my Kansas-farmer sense of direction rarely let me down. I turned right, walked past plastics to a juncture of familiar-looking pottery and turned left. Stalls held hammers and wrenches and mysterious bits of metal.
An old man, grizzled white hair curling between the tops of his ears and hat brim, watched me. His hands looked like they’d held more plow handles than I ever would but his bent fingers moved lightly, rearranging a tray of nails. I nodded.
“Buenas tardes, señor.”
“Buenas tardes, señorita.”
“Donde están las yerbas?” My halting Spanish worked most of the time for “where is…” “how much is…..” standard phrased I’d learned from the Argentinians who taught Spanish in New York as they passed around steaming cups of yerba mate—although I was pretty sure the “mate” part came from Argentina.
The man tossed a gesture over his shoulder. “Allá,” he said. Over there. I nodded and smiled. “Bueno. Gracias.”
“Para servirle, señorita.”
The approaching mid-day break had pulled shoppers home and a dim stillness grew in the market aisles. Silence breathed in my ears. Two rows past the nail man, I again turned left. Ahead, light shafted from a roof opening into a yellow pool on the floor. I made out the twisted form of a tree trunk from my earlier visit and knew it marked the boundary of the magic corner. Four feet tall, the sentinel stood carved and sanded by an artist’s gentle hand. Near the bottom, a face looked up from the natural creases, its beard formed by roots.
What would it be like to have a face uncovered? Not the face shown to the world or to lovers, but the one molded to who I really was? Maybe the first task was to figure out who I was. I ran my fingers through rough leaves in an open burlap bag. What was this stuff? It seemed like all I did was question and wonder. What is this? How does that work? I looked up. A boy with deep brown eyes stared back at me from the edge of shadows.
“Buenas tardes,” I said.
“Buenas tardes,” he answered, ducking his head, not meeting my eyes.
But I’d lifted mine and the head chatter stopped. Candlelight glittered on a shelf. A votive candle burned at the base of a ceramic Virgin and highlighted the blue robe’s drape, leaving her face in shadow. Two shelves filled with virgins—statues of all sizes and tall glass candle jars painted with her image. She was everywhere: calendars, statues and necklace medallions, painted on a wall, on stray slips of paper. A large painting of the Virgin standing on a crescent moon hung behind the hotel’s front desk. I knew the story of Juan Diego—how he’d gathered roses in his cloak and how the image of the Virgin remained on the cloth. The Lady watched from a hundred gentle eyes. Whose face lay behind the face of Guadalupe?
Beyond the candle shelf, I spotted a tray of plastic pouches about two inches long. A colored paper picture covered the front of each, on one, a man on horseback reached down to help a man on the ground. I picked it up and saw the title, Martin Cáballo. Layers of pine needles interspersed colored powder. I picked up another and read San Miguel. A warrior angel, holding aloft his sword above the scaly tail circling his legs. That powder layered with bright red pebble-sized chunks. The pictures reminded me of my old children’s Bible, one person tormented and the holy person kind and generous. At the base of the images I deciphered words for luck and money and family. Beyond that shelf lay another shelf filled with Buddhas, all sizes, all grinning, hands folded in a satisfying gesture over fat bellies. One tiny Buddha sat alone, a tiny smile, tiny red stone at his navel where the robe draped open. A Buddha to fit in the cupped palm of my hand.
Late afternoon sun bounced off windshields as I stepped out of the market. A line of taxis parked at the corner, so I tapped a window, roused the napping driver. He nodded when I told him the hotel’s name, said nothing all the way back on deserted streets, and accepted my pesos with a nod. The hotel was as quiet; the garden deserted. Everyone must have gone to the set. The costumer emerged from the far wing, a loop of dun-colored clothes over one arm.
“Carmen, what are these?” Fishing the packets of incense packets out of my pocket, I held them on my palm. Carmen glanced over her arm in passing. “Ask Gloria. She knows.” She hurried on to a waiting car.
Water lapped at the end of the pool. I felt suspended, the world breathing in and out, turning its own way, rolling in no-time, while I held two packets of powder. I unglued myself abruptly and went to my room. The maid had cleaned; nothing for me to do. Left behind, my sense of humor dissolved into abandonment.
“Snap out of it!” I said aloud. “Go do something.”
I called the front desk, ordered a rental car, and drove out of town, north on the highway leading to the set, watching for the unmarked turnoff to the road leading into the mountains, a road pitted by ruts worn into the trail and marking the boundary between one century and another: tarmac to dirt and city to pueblo. I found the turn. The road looked dry. Loosening my grip on the steering wheel, the car nosed its way over the bumps. At the crest of a ridge, I stopped. Ahead, the road forked into two down-slanting tracks: sometimes the drivers took the left one and forded a rocky creek, and sometimes they crossed on the narrow, wobbly, plank bridge to the right. Some choice. Risk a punctured oil pan by driving over rocks or brave the spindly bridge and risk falling in. The rain made a difference in the creek even if it hadn’t on the road and deep water tumbled around the rocks. I chose the bridge.
“Bridge over troubled waters,” I sang to bolster my courage, inching the car forward. Simon and Garfunkel probably hadn’t known about this bridge.
On the other side, at the top of a ridge, a pueblo sat with its back to the sky. In the mornings when our caravan came through, young goats, giddy, budding horns pushing through tousled white heads, pranced the stone walls circling the pueblo. Laughing children ran to open gates. We were a traveling circus come to town. But now, as evening pressed across the land, no one came to greet my solitary car. The shuttered pueblo allowed no gleam of life. The gates wide—the goats somewhere else for the night. Were families eating supper? The road opened onto an arid range. Home and family. Running toward freedom and wanting it to look like family. “Freedom isn’t free,” Bob Dylan said, but sometimes the cost wearied me.
Beyond the pueblo, the road widened across a plain, and I passed the ruins of an old adobe fort. The fort another movie set although I wasn’t sure which movie or how many. One of the rovers who spoke English told me The Tall Man. I’d smiled and nodded. I didn’t remember much more about it than the name. At one time, a lot of westerns shot in Durango.
Around one last curve, I saw the cabin. Nothing said “movie set.” The trucks with generators, wardrobe, makeup, missing. Just a brown cabin on the brown plains that dropped away to a creek. Usually I looked forward to this view, felt like I was coming home, but today too many ghosts followed and I needed people. A quarter mile down the road I found the vehicles and pulled in behind them.
“Juanita!” a driver shouted as I walked into the camp. I grinned and waved, feeling safe again. Home.
Unlike the cabin, this location looked slapped-together with trailers scattered along the base of a prickly hill. I saw Miguel halfway up the side, guiding Holly Lynne around stunted trees. She could be my daughter—same blond hair, same cheekbones, wide smile. Rehearsals must be starting. Sharp streaks of red and gold spiked the sky. A flare of campfire appeared beyond the trees on the ridge. My hairdresser Gloria stood outside the makeup trailer. The rocky, uneven ground made for treacherous footing, but Gloria wore her usual high platform shoes. She still barely came up to my shoulder. I pulled the incense packets from my jacket pocket and showed her. “Gloria, qué es?”
She glanced at the packets and then at my face, tipping her head as if measuring me for a new hairdo, or listening. “Momento,” she said, turning to put down the brush she held. Another woman joined us and spoke to Gloria. The woman worked in costuming with Carmen but their conversation in Spanish went too fast for me to follow. She pointed to a spot below her thumb. Gloria held the woman’s hand, pressed her fingers into the spot and her voice rose in a soft chant. The woman nodded her thanks and left. Gloria picked up a plastic bottle and motioned me to follow. A back corner of my mind put together another puzzle…the times between takes, sitting at Gloria’s table, a crew member would come to her, hold out a hand, an arm, point to a leg, and I’d hear the same chant. Absorbed in script’s pages, I hadn’t paid attention, but I did remembered quick conversations and the soft roll of words.
We walked west into the crimson-spiked sky and around a tumble of boulders as high as a house. The horizon poured blood while behind us, darkness settled like soot. My doubt quotient was high. What had I gotten myself into? I’d followed her when she’d motioned, turned, and stepped precisely over the rocky ground as lightly as the village goats pranced along stone walls. My feet felt unsteady and the rest of me felt like a six-year-old being led to school. Ask Gloria, Carmen said. So I did. And now I was wandering into the night with a woman carrying a water bottle.
Gloria turned to face me. A halo of red-setting light brushed her shoulders. “Aqui,” she said, motioning for me to kneel. “Agua sagrada,” she said, showing me the bottle. Sacred water? Where’d she get holy water? I knelt, holding the packets in my outstretched hands. Shadows hid her eyes in the folds of night.
“El Señor,” the whispered chant began. She walked in a wide circle, sprinkling water, closing us inside, stopped in front of me. Her chant lifted. Stars woke. The night listened. The words shaped meaning but slipped away, eluding my understanding. She dampened her finger with water and traced a cross on my forehead; one hand hovered above my head while the other slipped the water bottle into a side pocket. Freed from its burden the second hand took wing and floated across my face before joining the other above my head. It felt as though she molded air—an energy field grew between her hands and my body. The energy moved as Gloria’s hands moved and came to rest over the packets. Her chant curled inside my ears; wonder paused in the silence between words. A night bird flew overhead—then another and another—long wings slow-flapping in the night. Heat grew in my palms. Gloria folded my fingers over the packets and passed her hands once more in blessing.
“Guardelos,” she said.
“Keep them,” I heard. Keep them. Holding the packets, I struggled to my feet. Black sky cupped the last stain at the horizon and stars shone overhead. How long had I been kneeling? Shoving my curled fists into my jacket pockets, I followed Gloria back to camp. I thanked her. She returned to her trailer. I climbed the hill toward the beacon of campfire, feeling her eyes on my back but not knowing what else to say. I didn’t even know what had happened. I passed a ledge of rocks and saw the set ahead, dark figures moving beyond the circle of fire. Balancing one hip against the ledge, I studied the hill. I could climb above and watch unseen.
The desert night grew cold. The figures gathered around the campfire looked unreal, the murmur of voices muted as if the night pinned sound to the earth. The packets stayed warm; that was real. I sat on a rock and watched.
Below, lights came on and I heard “Action.” I didn’t move.
Stars flooded the sky – the moon not yet up. A deeper lightless black shaped the broken edges of mountains. Orion lay a bit farther north here and the Fish nearly overhead, but still, the same sky as over my childhood’s farmland. This sky an autumn sky: not yet hard, but not hazy either. The Milky Way like a big spider web sprinkled with dew flung from an unseen hand across the sky. Since very young I’d known there was a power bigger than any of us really understood, but I didn’t understand what had happened to me or why the packets stayed warm.