Dear Girls and Boys, sorry for the long delay for chapter 3. I’ve decided not to use the I/You format and so have spent time revising. As usual, if you run across a clumsy sentence or an un-spotted “you” I’d love to hear from you.
“Freedom!” I sang in a bad imitation of Richie Havens as I thumped my hand against the car’s steering wheel. I repeated the word twice, couldn’t remember any more words so switched to a childhood song: “Yippee ki yi yo, git along little doggies. It’s your misfortune and none of my own.” My side window was open and the road stretched in front of me. It hadn’t been easy to convince Sergio to let me go even for the day. I’d wanted to drive across the mountains to Mazatlán and the sea for a few days, but he’d nixed that plan. There were bandits in the mountains, he’d said. And the dailies weren’t back. I wasn’t sure he was worried about me or about the film. Looking back, he was wise. Likely those bandits were the precursors of the cartels.
Franco, the location scout, had told me about a mountain balneario above Mezquital. I wasn’t sure what a balneario was except it was a pool where thermal water surfaced. At least it was water if not the sea. I left early, armed with maps and dire warnings: don’t stray off the main highway; don’t pick up anyone along the way; watch out for burros. Mezquital only an hour south of Durango, Franco said. But there you were, driving more than forty miles into the mountains with nary a sight of a pueblo or a solitary burro. No anything for that matter except a curving road and rock strewn mountains.
The road made a sharp switchback. A white cross reared from the rocks above. Farther on, two more crosses. Striations of ocher marked the sheer red rock looming on my right. On my left, the mountain dropped precipitously from the road and I could see a valley and a glisten of water. Around another curve, the road widened with a dirt turn out on a platform ledge, and I saw a blur of white against the rock wall. A shrine? I pulled onto the turn out and parked. Where was I?
“Probably not headed for Mezquital,” I muttered as I got out of the car and crossed the road. I hadn’t seen any traffic for miles. The shrine was a simple structure of gray and white concrete set on a pedestal and nestled into a niche carved from the rock. The glass-paned wooden door no more than a foot high. I peered through the smoky glass. A framed picture of The Virgin leaned against the back wall, a bouquet of white zinnias at her feet. Tiny woven baskets held something but I couldn’t make out what. Two small plates held a bun and two cookies. The plates had tiny, blue flowers around the rim and looked like something from a child’s doll house. Burning candles made a syrupy golden glow. I reached out to open the door, but my hand arrested itself. Solitude pressed against me.
The heavy growl of down-shifting gears rattled against the rock walls. Something big was coming. Flattening myself against the mountain, a wide truck nose loomed around the curve and a fully loaded logging truck thundered by, the driver’s expression startled as he spotted me. The back-draft whipped hair across my face and he was gone, rumbling down the grade. Was the shrine for truckers to make an offering on the way back from safely snaking heavy loads down the mountain? If so, they seemed to trust the Virgin’s good sense more than their own.
I stood in the middle of the quiet road and studied the shrine. This wasn’t about controlling life. This was about trusting the curving road to take you where you needed to go. I walked back to where the ledge dropped away. The glint of water below traced a river, winding along the valley floor. My gaze traveled across the valley and up the side of more hump-backed mountains against the blue sky; my eyes filled with sunlight.
The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows God’s handiwork. How unbidden those old verses popped into my head from time to time. The memory accompanied by a vision of standing with my sister, singing in church.
A long scream jerked my eyes up. A hawk circled overhead. My laughter broke the heavy silence.
“I’m not your prey,” I shouted. The long wings flapped once, lifting the bird on a higher spiral. I heard one more scream before it drifted behind the mountain at my back. In the silence, my heartbeat sounded loud. The space above me was so infinite and I was so small.
Where did I go from here? Wherever the road went, I decided.
Farther up, the land changed and the road wound into a tall pine forest—which probably explained the logging trucks. As I craned my head out the window to glance up at the tree tops, the car wheels thumped off the edge of the pavement and scuttled into deep ruts and loose rock. I realized the yellow and black sign I’d seen a few yards back, and which my less than fluent Spanish had failed to translate, had been a caution warning.
I braked. The car rolled to a stop nose to nose with a loaded logging truck. Two young men stopped tying down ropes to watch me get out of the car.
“Buenas dias,” they said in unison. Caution shielded their faces.
“Donde está Mezquital?”
“Allá,” they said, in unison, waving vaguely across the mountains to the east. Everything is allá in Mexico. First rule broken. I had wandered off the main highway.
There were no shortcuts across the mountains to allá. I drove down the winding highway and found the road to Mezquital branching off from the busy traffic circle I’d escaped from earlier. This flatter road ran straight, bordered on each side with cultivated fields. In one field, a farmer walked behind a horse and plow, the plow no different from the one I’d used in the movie. Someone should have been filming him: the freshly turned furrows uncovered a feast and a flock of black birds wheeled, settled, stalked, pecked, and rose again to circle the farmer’s head, wings glittering in the sun.
I slowed behind a horse drawn cart piled high with firewood where two small children perched. They waved. I passed burros grazing loose and another that resembled a stack of firewood propelled by spindly legs. A boy followed it. Cars and pickup trucks filled the road on the other side, heading for Durango. What an odd juxtaposition of 19th and 20th Century living.
My musing ended abruptly. A burro stood crosswise in the middle of the road, his head turned to stare at my approaching car. I slowed, honked, stopped. He wasn’t moving.
I honked again, bleating the horn in short bursts. The burro stared. A showdown between a burro and a car and the burro was winning. As I inched around his head, the burro turned his head to watch me. I left him behind and in the review mirror, saw his head turned to watch my receding car.
Passing a sign I recognized, a black zigzag line against yellow, I slowed. It warned of a tope ahead, a concrete hump across the road and high enough to scrape off the underpinnings of a too-fast vehicle. Low adobe buildings straggled alongside the road, the overhead sun cast deep shadows under an open portal roofed with poles. At one end hung a battered Coca-Cola sign. A glaringly white church, white steeple jutting into a cloudless sky, stood along the road. Villagers huddled in the sparse shade cast by church walls and watched the circle of dancers shuffling in the dusty yard. I pulled off the road and got out of the car to watch.
The dancers, strips of red and white fabric fluttering from their waists, moved in a circle. Shells, wrapped around their ankles, sounded a slow rattling cadence like a field of crickets on an August evening. A solitary dancer erupted from the circle, a blur of color from multi-colored ribbons around arms and legs. This dancer wore a mask and probed and taunted the others, who ignored him, and continued their slow measured tread.
The dance ended. Spectators drifted in and out of the church; the dancers gathered under a lone tree and wiped at sweat. The one in the mask sauntered across the yard and leaned against the front fender. I matched his casual stance, but mines was fake. His mask, covering his head, lent him anonymity. I felt bare.
“Buenas dias,” he said with customary politeness.
“Buenas dias.” The impersonality of the ritual a protection. He was slim, no taller than me. “El baile estaba bien.” Oh, ugh. What an inspired thing to say—the dance was good. His eyes measured me. What else could I say? I could ask his name.
“Comó te llama?”
“Hule,” he repeated and kicked the car tire. “El Dios.” He said something about trees, and waved his arm toward the mountains.
Trees? Car tires? He was the god of rubber? Here?
“Bueno,” I said. “Y el pueblo. Comó se llama?”
“Santa Gertruda.” Each time he spoke, his eyes laughed. If his job was to disrupt a placid, stamp, move, shuffle, he did a great job with me.
Villagers, made brave by their devil’s approach, crowed around. They knew Hule, weren’t intimidated; he was the gate for their curiosity. The interrogation began: who was I; where was I going; was I from the United States; why was I in Mexico? I answered in stammering, broken sentences. The clamor of questions was suddenly drowned by the insistent clamor of church bells. Words shifted. Come to church; come to the special service; a feast day for the pueblo. In the confusion of questions, invitations, and church bells, Hule disappeared. The flock urged me toward the church doors, but once inside, I was on my own. The villagers hurried forward.
There weren’t any pews except for two small ones near the front. I leaned against the back wall. A simple church, whitewashed plaster and washed stone floor. Pink and white streamers hung from the walls, the same twisted crepe paper we used in grade school. These had paper flowers spaced along the loops, the streamers draping to a peak above the altar. A blood red bouquet of fresh flowers lay at the feet of a statue of The Virgin set into a back niche. Sandals whispered across stone.
Stillness slid past the barrier of my skin. Layers of memory woke as if my cells were expanding into something familiar. What could be familiar in a little whitewashed church in a dusty little town where I’d never been? I was Hannah and Anna and Janet standing there.
More villagers entered and divided as they came in: men and boys on one side, women on the other. I’d stood on the men’s side so crossed the room to join the women. A black-cassocked priest entered from the door near the altar.
As the service began, I knelt and stood with others on the cold, stone floor. A girl brought a chair, but I smiled and shook my head. The girl took it to an old woman standing ahead of me. Women glanced at me and nodded.
I thought about the church I attended in New York, High Anglican Episcopal, swirling vestments, incense, ritual. I wondered if ritual defined a boundary or opened a pathway.
A dog wandered in at the back and flopped on the cool floor. Children meandered from one side to another.
In the middle of opening ceremonies, the dancers filed in, ankle shells rattling in counterpoint to bless us for we have sinned. The dancers carried baskets or clay pots or an armful of flowers. The two end dancers carried staffs of corn stalks. They arranged their offerings around the altar, the service continued. The priest raised his hands in blessing. The dancers filed out. You looked for Hule but didn’t see him. He had remained anonymous, refusing the safety of belonging.
A young couple stood in front of the altar, the woman’s arms filled with white lace and baby. The long trail of the christening gown streamed over the woman’s arm. Another couple joined them and the priest blessed the baby. Maria de la Luz they named her: Maria of the Light.
A boy and a girl replaced the adults at the altar, the boy dressed in a starched white shirt and black pants while the girl wore a miniature wedding dress and veil. All this white lace in a dusty town, treasures wrapped in tissue paper and stored in some corner of a small adobe house, treasures of anticipation and dreams. We buy the dreams. I’d married young in a white dress and veil, leaving high school, leaving the farm. And after fifteen years, left the marriage. But I hadn’t left the dream of being swept into the saddle of a true one.
If the boy dreamed of rescuing a fair maiden, at least he didn’t have to do it encumbered by yards of skirt. A starched white shirt and new black pants would do.
I felt a pressure on my leg and glanced down. A small boy leaned against me. The mother stood behind, holding a baby. I didn’t move. It didn’t matter who I was; I was a safe leg to lean against.
The service ended and I followed the others into the hard, bright light. The villagers wanted to talk again, their conversation fast and the words slipped from my grasp like weeds in a murky pond. I rescued myself by pulling out my camera.
“Por favor?” I said, showing the camera to the mother of Maria de las Luz. The woman nodded, stood formal and stiff, displaying the baby like a trophy. I took photos of the new communicants, expecting childish delight, but they, too, stood in unsmiling formality. I moved on to two old ladies wearing lace mantillas.
“Que bella,” I said, and they giggled.
Families left and I followed the old women back into the church. They began cleaning around the altar, re-propping flowers with square, sure hands, smoothing a corner of the altar cloth. Their bodies swayed under layers of heavy skirts. The petals on the paper flowers, formed of layered pink and white tissue, grew twisted paper stamens from the center. I remembered a Joseph Campbell line I’d hung above my desk in New York: “Divinity is pleased to regard its own glory and this pleasure is inducement to the act of creation.”
I recalled women sitting around a quilting frame in Grandma Sunderland’s living room, the rise and fall of needles punctuating conversations and stories. When I’d married at seventeen, no one approved, but Grandma didn’t say anything. She gave me a quilt as a wedding present, the pieced squares bordered in pink, the same pink as these Mexican paper flowers.
An old woman joined me.
“Muy bonita,” I said. The old woman smiled and touched a flower, trickling gnarled fingers through the stamen.
“Venga,” she said. She led me to a little niche on a side wall. Inside, a doll, a male child, dressed in purple velvet and lace collar sat on a throne. The doll’s velvet gown embroidered in tiny fine stitches.
“El Niῆo,” she said.
We moved down the wall to another tiny niche and a dark faced woman doll, dressed in white satin, enclosed in a glass box. I smiled. That was one way to stay safe: become a saint and live in a glass box.
“Tengo que ir,” I told her. I really had to go if I was to have any time swimming.
“Vaya bien,” she said, probably used to people leaving: children grew up; people came and went.
“Que le vaya bien,” she repeated.
As you drove out of the village, you wondered if you’d become part of another story: the day of celebration when the gringa came. At least, that’s what you’d call it. But the villagers wouldn’t know about a pink quilt, or about the dreams you kept packing away in invisible tissue paper.
The mountains edged closer to the road. From the map, I knew the road ended in Mezquital so when the car wheels bumped off pavement and onto a cobblestone road, I figured I’d arrived. I stopped and read Franco’s directions for the road to the balneario. Spotting the turn ahead, I drove onto a rough and rocky road, rising in switchbacks across the mountain face, Mezquital far below. Making another turn, the road topped the edge of a plateau and stretched out flat, losing itself in an expanse of brush. The far mountain peaks were almost at eye level. No sign of habitation, just wide, dry, empty space. I had no idea where the road led, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
An old pattern, following a road to nowhere. I used to follow cow trails in farm pastures the same way, not paying attention, my head filled with dreams. Nothing much has changed.
I spotted a hand-lettered sign nailed to a fence post: BALNEARIO. I turned onto a narrower track and stopped at the edge of a gorge. I got out to look. Far below, spread along the bottom of the gorge, five swimming pools stared back at me like round blue eyes fringed with trees. Flat-topped roofs crouched beneath the branches. A bigger building sat on slightly higher ground, its peaked and gabled roof resembling a misplaced Swiss chalet. Ragged red mountains cupped the site in an incongruous dream quality as if the collection of odd bits and pieces were meant to mean something else.
I plucked my sweaty shirt from my chest, shaking it a little, and got back in the car to drive down a track and through an open gate. One lone man worked alongside the road, piling up brush with a font-end scoop. He paused long enough to accept the pesos I offered from the car window, pointed to a parking lot, turned back to work. Mine the only car in the lot.
The swimming pools, graduated in size, were separated by narrow bridged walkways. The last pool the largest and on the other side, I saw a stone building that might be a dressing room, reached by a concrete bridge. Inside the huge building, my footsteps echoed in the emptiness. As I changed, I pictured young girls, preening at the bank of mirrors, flipping long hair over perfect shoulders.
The day played itself back as I swam in the pool’s warm water, a kaleidoscope of disjointed images. So many new scenes that seemed so familiar. I stopped at the far end and propped my elbows on the rim. A short waterfall bubbled from a cleft in the canyon wall, sending puffs of steam into the dry air. I pushed back from the wall to float on my back like a cork in the mineral water. A hawk circled overhead, riding the air currents as I rode the water. Why did Mexico feel so familiar? What was holding me, spinning me in a web as surely as a spider spins a fly? I’d be returning to New York the next day. That’s where my future lay. Stretching my arms sideways, I prepared to swoop them down through the water and propel myself, but instead, they rested idly as I tickled the water with my fingertips. Would I be different, now, in New York? Why did I feel I was leaving something unfinished in a land that did not belong to me? Flipping my body, I swam hard, pushing at the water.