Death: In Celebration
A Short Story by Orion Petitclerc
Inspired by Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman
The colors are what strikes me most. Everywhere there are bright colors, dominated by yellow and orange. Beautiful, yet morbid: skeletons, skulls and the dead parade dance and sing in the streets. The smell of sweets and the general decorum fool me with memories of Halloween, but it is a day too late and a world too far away to compare. It all seems so savage: the colors; the dancing; the shrill screams of trumpets and the erratic blabbering of guitars; the worship of death in familiar, yet alien tongues. Nothing at all like Northern California.
My mom and dad were in a festive mood on this particular night, and decided it would be best if we all went out and took part in the celebrations. They "encouraged" me to go my own way with a few pesos in my pocket and no exact curfew to give them some time together – alone. They also forbade me from wallowing in our apartment the entire time, forcing me to get "better acquainted" with the culture of my new home. It's not like there was anything more exciting back in that decorated dump; no internet ("yet"), no videogames, and nothing on the age-old TV but a hundred channels of Telemundo. Oh, and no friends. As if I had a life of luxury to hide myself away from the world.
I spent the last half hour meandering the third-world streets with no plans and no destination, dodging little kids that ran around with deathly painted faces and skull-shaped sugar cookies. Almost everyone, young and old, in Oaxaca dressed in bright colors and painted their faces transparent to their gaunt cheekbones, skeletal grin and deep, dark gaping eye sockets. A culture of death-worshippers celebrating their "dee-uh day lōs moo-where-toes", or something as foreign. I remember this holiday being mentioned at least once in my history class back in seventh grade when we touched on Mexican culture, and some Latina named Rosalina and her mother brought in sugar skulls for everybody, but that was four long years ago. All I remember was the holiday had to do something about dead people, and I always equated it to a Mexican version of Halloween. This is obviously not a Mexican Halloween. (Do they even celebrate Halloween?)
I continue my wandering through market streets that sold nothing but the festive candies and pastries. Girls my age and older spun and danced with long multi-colored dresses and painted faces while tall, slim boys in skull masks and ponchos tapped and gyrated to the mariachi bands.
They dance and twirl, dance and twirl
From melancholy to smiles unfurl.
They are all so beautiful – the girls, I mean – but the ever-present images of death are a real turn-off. I muse about picking one girl off from the crowd to ask if she'd like to dance with me, but the language barrier and my teenage-virgin cowardice plants me in place with an invisible apple down my throat. Three months in my new home country and I can barely ask to use the bathroom in Spanish, and my parents are withholding me from continuing school until I have a better grasp of the language. Where I had a booming social life back in America, I have absolutely none in Mexico. If my social life could be measured in percentage, it would be negative three-thousand right now.
Ashamed, I continue down the streets and cut corners into alleys to find more fruitful prospects in Dirt Country. As I go deeper into the honeycomb of alleys between shops and homes, the din of the city-wide party starts to fade. I must be getting further off track than I thought. I finally come to a complete stop in front of an adobe dead-end and resolve to turn and head back into the noisy, bright alien world. The trouble is, I took so many different turns on my way to the dead end I forget which way I came. Carefully listening for a change in the volume of the distant celebration, I begin once again to traverse the maze. As I turn a corner, my foot suddenly loses the ground and I stumble and fall into a dark pit. My startled yelp echoes away as the shadows consume me.
I awake what seems only moments after my departure from the surface above with only a dull pain on the back of my neck. I check to see if I am bleeding: nothing, not even a scratch. Just the dull pain. I wobble to a standing position on top of an uneven semi-solid dirt floor and look up. A square window of the star-specked night sky loomed about twenty feet above me and an old wood ladder with one or two rungs missing leans against the shaft. I must have fallen into some sort of service tunnel or something, because ahead and behind me were long, dark passage ways roughly tall enough for me to walk comfortably through. I admit, I'm pretty cranky right now: who in their right mind wouldn't mark a dangerous ditch in the ground for someone to fall into? I resolve to attempt the ladder and find that son of a bitch to give him a piece of my mind in good ol' American English! As I start to climb, the old relic creaks and moans under my weight. About half way up one rung gives way and starts a comical domino effect as my feet fall through the ladder. I land on my ass with a big "UNFH!" and look up. There is no way I will be able to reach the remaining rungs from down here. I get back on my feet, defeated and pissed, and begin to yell for help up to civilization above. I first try in English, then, embarrassed, I attempt in broken Spanish. I try for a couple minutes with no results. I reach into my jeans pocket and pull out my flip phone. My eyes squint at the bright LCD screen as they adjust from the darkness, and I speed-dial my dad's cell. After an absence of ringing, I check the screen again: no reception signal.
My heart sinks and a cold sweat dampens my scalp under my curly black hair. Crap, I'm stuck in some forgotten hole in the middle of a labyrinth in South Mexico with no means of communication and no one who knows my whereabouts. No one's going to find me down here for a million years and a half, and I'm never going to see my friends ever again! Why the hell did we have to move to Mexico in the first place? Why couldn't my dad just get another job in California – where all my friends are, where my life is – rather than move his entire family for a big promotion? Dammit, it's all his fault! And my mom's, too, for not stopping him from ruining my life! It's all their fault that I'm stuck here in this God-forsaken hole in the middle of this God-forsaken country!
I take a few full breaths and pull myself back together. Dammit, I'm an American! I'm better than this! I can find my own way out; I just gotta get level-headed is all. I close my eyes for a few seconds and think in silence. Then it comes to me from the silence: the faint sound of mariachi music, not from above but from the tunnels. I open my eyes and face down one passage, listening. No, it's not coming from down there. It's coming from the other way, which must be the direction of the celebration. I decide to try my chances in the tunnels, and flip my phone open again to light my path. I walk and stumble, stumble and walk as I repeatedly close and open my phone to refresh the light. It doesn't travel too far, but shines just enough so I can see the ground ahead of me for about five feet. For five minutes I continue at a good pace through the tunnel, tripping to my knees only three times along the way until the music becomes faintly louder. I close my phone for a moment and stare into the darkness, and my suspicions are finally confirmed: a dim, orange light glows a distance in the inclining tunnel. I must be getting closer to the exit! I begin walking again, this time at a confident, brisk pace toward the light, habitually flipping open and close my phone for guidance. I walk for what seems like hours with nothing to show for it: the music doesn't appear to get any louder, nor does the orange light get any brighter. Just how far away did I wander from the celebration? I stop in my tracks and rub the back of my neck. That dull pain returns with a soft beating, and then, just as suddenly as it returned, it disappears.
Before the command from my mind to my feet to begin walking again is issued, the hairs on the back of my neck creep into a standing position and I feel a shiver down my spine. I suddenly get the feeling I'm not alone in this tunnel, and I turn from whence I came and stare into the abyss. The abyss returns the stare, and with a trembling hand I raise my phone and flip it open. The light shines down a little further than normal and bends around a sinister shape in the middle of the path. A tall humanoid figure imposes my sight, draped in a black cloak with fire-orange streaks and skin as pale as milk. Where its head should be hangs a strange bone-like gas mask of alien origins with large, round black eye sockets and a spiny tube hanging from its mouth. Its eye sockets stare vampirically at me and into my soul with an arctic chill, and it raises one thin arm my way and points its bony finger. I begin to back away, still staring at this nightmare when my phone light fails. The tunnel is engulfed in black once more, and I quickly refresh the light. Without the slightest noise the grim ghoul has moved much closer to me than I care to allow and I stumble on my ass again with a yelp. I'm transfixed for a moment more, eyes wide open and skin perforated with goosebumps as the figure's inhuman mask slowly pivots down at me, still pointing up the tunnel and with the other hand begins to reach for me. Regaining my senses, I spring to my feet and into a sprint toward the exit of this tunnel of terror, running and running and running without tripping and without the guide of my phone's light; daring not to look back in fear of finding the creature looming over my shoulder, feeling his cold, awful presence ever on my tail; running and running, my lungs burning and my breath wheezing from screaming; feeling those deep, empty eyes in my heart, the long thin fingers curling on my shoulder; feeling the dull pain in the back of my neck keeping pace with my heartbeat.
Before I know what's happened, the orange light and mariachi music overtake me and my foot catches hold of some low impediment. I stumble and crash into someone, throwing them and myself into a pile of rough dusty blankets next to a wall. "Owow! Jeez, kid, watch where you're going," says a voice under me. "Do you mind getting off?"
I smell her before I see her: sugar, flour, and cinnamon. For a moment I think I'm still in the tunnel, because all I see is black and feel an unnervingly comfortable coolness. I only realize after I feel a soft, breathing pressure against my face that I'm laying face-down on a black-shirted belly. I immediately scramble off of her in embarrassment, for a moment forgetting why I was running in the first place. My heart gives a leap when my eyes fall on her face, for it is painted in the festive, yet colorful skull pattern. Yet it doesn't take X-Ray vision to see her exceptional beauty: only a little shorter than me and just a little older looking, her body is perfectly innocent, yet mature for her size. She wears black skinny jeans with a black, metal-studded belt and a black sleeveless shirt (must be into the Goth stuff). Her long raven-black hair flows stylishly, yet naturally in a part down her neck, pinned to one side with a single red rose between her ear and head. Her eye color is too dark to distinguish a single hue, but they see with a gentle, understanding, wise kindness. Beneath her make-up lay smooth hills and gullies that form a strangely perfect face, and when she smiles warmth fills my previously chilled heart. Around her long, smooth neck and down between her shapely – breasts – hangs a string necklace with a strange, yet vaguely familiar silver cross-like charm.
"Hey, are you okay?" she asks, snapping my mind back into reality.
"Uh…uh, you speak…English?" I ask like an idiot. Stupid friggin' idiot!
"Uh, duh," she mocks and giggles, but not menacingly. "What do you think I'm speaking, Mongolian? Are you okay?" My mind races to find out why she's asking if I'm alright, and then it returns to me:
"Hey, was there something chasing me?" I thumb behind me, glancing at the mouth of the tunnel coming up out of the ground in an alley.
"What do you mean 'something'?"
"I mean…I don't know, a ghost or something?"
"All I saw was some kid plowing into me out of nowhere," she smiles. "Here, help me up and we'll go see if that 'ghost' is still there." I took her smooth white hand and pulled her to her feet. She's stunningly light…are all girls this light and beautiful? "Thanks," she chirps and retrieves a small flashlight from her pants pocket. "Let's go have a look, shall we?" We amble over to the tunnel and she shines her light down into it, illuminating the passage much further and brighter than my phone could. Nothing but darkness and dirt was revealed. "Nope, nothing here," she giggles. "No ghosts, no monsters, not even the boogie man himself! You sure you saw something in there? It could have just been a trick of the mind."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Just a trick of the mind…."
"What were you doing in there anyways?"
"Oh," I blush, "well I got lost trying to find my way to a friend's house," I lie, "and I stumbled into a hole and couldn't get out, so I started walking down this tunnel and got spooked, I guess, so I ran…and here we are."
"Did you fall on your head or something? Are you hurt?" she laughs, partly in good humor and partly, I guess, in earnest concern.
"No, nothing like that. I think I bruised my neck or something," I reach back and rub it, the dull pain returning but a little bit stronger this time.
"Here, let me take a look," she says, putting a hand on my arm and turning me around, shining her light on my injury. "Nothing to get too worked up about. You'll survive for now."
"Yeah, I probably just need an ice pack or something when I get home."
"Oh by the way, my name's Delilah," she smiles and offers her hand. I take it and smile back.
"I'm André. I'm guessing you're not from around here, are you?"
"I was about to say the same. Judging by your fluency with English and your accent, you're American, right?"
"Yeah, what about you? Are you American, too?"
"Oh," she paces, "no…and yes. I'm from here and from there. I live nowhere, yet everywhere I go is home…in a sense."
"A drifter, huh?"
"You could say that," she winks. "I go where I'm needed."
"Ah, so you're a business traveler?" I squint my eyes. She looks so young! Is she really old enough to be in that kind of job?
"Yeah, I guess I'm kinda like a business traveler," she says as if defining it for the first time. "The best part about my job is the connections I make, though. It's a bittersweet business. How about you?"
"I moved here with my family about three months ago."
"For family, on a whim, or…?"
"Oh no, my dad's company promoted him, and his job required him to work at a nearby branch here…though not everyone was willing to move."
"Oh? Why not?" She looks so innocent.
"Well, for one I had so many friends back in California – where I was born – and had my life all figured out. And it's not like we have any friends or family out here, and everything is so…different. I still can't speak or understand Spanish, and my parents kicked me out of the apartment to wander the streets so I can 'get a little culture', and—."
"Hey," she stops me. "How about we get a drink and talk it over?" I blush, embarrassed that I didn't ask her for a drink first.
"Coolie-o! I know a great little vendor around here you might like. Here, come on." She takes me by the hand and sprints into the crowd of dancers in the street. With no choice (and almost no care), I follow her. We dodge and weave through the ghastly celebrators like wind through trees. The brilliant colors streak and blur, and everything but Delilah falls out of focus. A short time later everything seems to rematerialize around us as we come to a stop in front of a wheel-cart vendor sizzling with strips of beef and chicken marinated in a plethora of authentic spices and sauces. We stand in the relatively short line and after a couple minutes make it to the small counter on the cart. Before addressing the fat vendor with a black scraggy mustache, Delilah turns to me: "Pick your poison. You like tequila?"
"Oh," I blush. "Aren't we a bit…young to be drinking? I mean, I don't know how old you are, but I'm only seventeen, and—."
"André, tonight's a special night. I don't think anyone would mind if you just had one drink," she smiles reassuringly and dangerously. "This is what living's all about: taking chances and enjoying every moment life has to offer. I'm guessing you never drank before, then? Alright, well let's see how you fare with tequila." She turns to the vendor and orders in perfect Spanish. As the vendor turns to fill our order, I fish out my money. "Oh don't worry about that. Everybody's first drink should be free, so it's on me."
"Oh, uh thanks!" I can't believe my luck: my first drink for free with a really cute girl. I guess the night is just beginning. The vendor hands Delilah a small bottle with two shot glasses and she leads me away with her spare hand. I never noticed her giving the vendor his payment, but then again I wasn't really paying attention. We take a seat on a curb and Delilah pours out two shots of the clear alcohol and hands me one. I take it and stare at it like an idiot.
"So here's my suggestion: just throw it back. The entire thing. Don't let it linger for a moment," she smiles and demonstrates. Her eyes squint, her lips pull back in straining over her white teeth and she gives a little cough. "See? Like that." I hesitate one more second and follow in suit. The cool liquid scorches my throat as it goes down and I choke on the caustic fumes, coughing out my lungs like a century-old smoker.
"Like swallowing nail polish," I gag. My head suddenly feels a little lighter, like someone's pumped helium in it. "Woah…I feel weird…."
"That's the buzz alright," she giggles. "Brave enough for another round?" I wave my hand, eyes squinting.
"No, I had more than enough, thanks. I'll stick to non-alcoholic beverages for now."
"Suit yourself," she shrugs, takes my glass and pours herself two more shots. She downs each one back-to-back, giggles out a small cough, and gives me a smile. This girl is something else!
"You seemed pretty fluent in Spanish back there," I change the subject, unable to think of something better to say. "You sure you're not from around here?"
"I already told you, I'm from here and from there," she pours herself one last shot, emptying the bottle. "I pick up different things. You could call me omnilingual. It just comes with the job."
"I also noticed you didn't pay for the drink. You didn't steal that, did you?"
"Oh no, Francisco said it was on the house when I told him it was your first. I'm also a loyal matron 'cause when I'm in Mexico I only go to him for the tequila. He's the best and he likes to treat me on special occasions."
"So you have friends around the world? Must be nice to go anywhere and have someone to talk to." She stares out into the crowd of dancers and running, laughing children.
"Yeah, that's one nice part about my job: all the connections I make. I have so many friends around the world, but there are also those who aren't too friendly with me." I look at her in disbelief.
"Who could possibly hate you? You're the nicest girl I've ever met!" I immediately blush at my naiveté. "I mean, we only just met five minutes ago…well, actually I bumped into you, and…well what I mean is, you're nice in that you helped me out and treated me to my first drink, and—." She giggles at me, but again not in any offensive manner.
"I'm flattered," she smiles. "You're a pretty nice guy yourself, in a clumsy, shy kind of way." Oh great, she thinks I'm shy and clumsy; she thinks I'm some sort of ditz, a loser. Good first impression, jackass! I think she noticed my embarrassment and uneasiness, so she changes the subject: "So tell me about yourself. Tell me about the epic tale of André," she smiles. Her smiles are always warm and welcoming.
"Well, there's not much to tell."
"Nonsense," she waves her arms in exaggeration. "No matter how boring and uneventful a person's life seems to be to them, there's always much to tell. Even babies – if they could talk – would have a world of new thoughts and impressions to talk about. No one is ever without a good story," she winks. I don't know if it's the tequila or her friendliness, but I suddenly feel chatty and airy.
"Well…alright then. I was born in Redding, California on March 18, 1994. I'm an only child and my best friend for the first nine years of my life was my dog, Bill. I wasn't exactly the social butterfly I ended up being in junior high at first, but then BOOM! I got more friends offline than Paris Hilton on Facebook. The football and baseball teams in high school fought over my friendship and more girls slobbered at my feet than Hugh Heffner on a good Monday." At this point I'm convinced the alcohol is messing with my sense of modesty. I don't mean to exaggerate or seem conceited, but I can't stop my mouth from blabbering and I start to get worried that I'm putting Delilah off. "And then my fucking dad goes and fucking gets that stupid promotion, and all of a sudden I'm being dragged off to this shithole country. My fucking parents have no idea how that feels, to be forcefully separated from everything you love and care about. They have no fucking respect for me and don't care about me or my future. What the hell am I gonna do in fucking Mexico? Even the fucking Mexicans are trying to escape to America, 'cause they damn well know hic…damn well know there's nothing in Mexico. There's no future for hic…for me here! And it's…sniff…it's all my parent's fault! They go and drag me to Mexico hic…and then fucking abandon me in the middle of the night! And…sniff…and—!"
At this point I start sobbing like a friggin' baby. Damn, I'm a mess; a lightweight drinker with his first and only shot of tequila, and I'm crying about the unfairness of life in front of a totally cute chick. Forget about my first impression: if she doesn't bail now—. "Hey, there, there," she wraps an arm around my back, smiling warmly. "I'm sure your parents care about you."
"No they don't," I heave. "All my dad cares about sniff…is his fucking job, and my mom just lets him do what he wants. They don't love me!" Delilah removes her arm around me in recoil. Oh great, now I've done it. Now she'll leave and I'll be all alone again.
SLAP! I fall back on the sidewalk with my cheek stinging and cold. I stare at Delilah without knowing what to say or feel. "Your parents love you." She emphasizes each word heavily, but not coldly as if she was disgusted with me. "Did you ever stop to think that everything they do is for you? You said your dad could have gotten any other job, but he chose to take that promotion. He cares about you and your future, and yeah, moving away from your friends is a real tragedy and all, but he took the responsibility and risks for you. Your mom isn't to blame, either: she supports your dad's decision, despite knowing what it meant for you, because she felt this was the right step, too. Tell me, when were they ever cruel to you before?"
"When did they ever tell you they didn't love you, or keep you from seeing your precious friends, or did anything to punish you? I bet they didn't! I bet they loved you and supported you and thought only of the best for you! You had it better than so many other kids, and I know; you think I haven't seen my fair share of sob stories? Theirs are at least twice as heart-filled and truthful as yours! So quit your griping," she lifts me up on my feet rigidly, "and have a little perspective!" I'm still speechless, still processing what just happened. The mariachi band a short way down the street finishes their song and the crowd of dancers cheer and clap. Delilah looks into the cheerful crowd and returns her gaze with a bright smile and glittering eyes. "Hey, I know just what you need," she catches my hand while I'm rubbing the back of my sore, throbbing neck and pulls me into the crowd. "I see the tequila wasn't my best idea, so maybe a little dance will do you good!"
"I…well…okay," I stutter, stunned at how quickly her demeanor changed, as if nothing just happened. We bump and pass through the laughing and chattering costumed men and women as a trumpet player of the mariachi shouts out something jovially in Spanish. Delilah cheers and turns back to me.
"My favorite dancing song!" As the music and dancers begin, she takes my hands in both of hers.
"I don't know how to dance!" I shout over the music and cheers. She laughs bodily.
"It's alright," she shouts back. "Just follow my lead and don't step on any toes!" Her feet begin to tap and slide, her slender hips begin to snap left and right, and she sways our arms all to the popping beat of the maracas, grinning, whooping and laughing all the while. "Come on!" she cheers. I look around us at the other dancers, taking quick notes of their movements and the pattern of the beats. I begin tapping my feet, keeping in time with the strange and frivolous music. My stomach and heart start jumping in time with the tune as well, and soon I start swaying my hips in tandem with Delilah's. I can't resist a smile and chuckle; as quickly the tequila took hold of my mind, the music takes hold of my body and spirit. Part of me is trying to resist, telling me I don't belong out in this crowd and to run from Delilah for preaching me earlier and for her potential danger. That part reminds me she's wild, that she served alcohol to a minor, and that she's capable of getting me into further trouble. I look deeply into her dark eyes that burn with a warm, friendly, inviting fire of adventure and untold possibilities. Her smile tempts me to stay and have fun – with her. I dismiss my gut feeling for the night. I let loose and twirl Delilah with one hand, bouncing her from my body out into the crowd and back like a rubber band, tethered together by mutual happiness and the moment.
The trumpets giggled, the maracas sang
To those still living, forbidding pain.
We dance and cheer and laugh and embrace. This is the most fun I've had in…well, ever! Here I am in the middle of a crowd of happy strangers, in the middle of nowhere in particular, dancing with the most beautiful, mysterious, dangerously fun girl in the world, without a care in the world. This isn't me at all; André Donatello Manson doesn't hang out in strange places with strange people and have fun doing it! André Donatello Manson would much rather be with friends he knows, doing things he's comfortable with in the safety of his hometown. This whole experience is changing me – has changed me – and it's all thanks to this stranger from nowhere and everywhere. No – it's thanks to my dad for his promotion, for my mom agreeing to this life-changing relocation, and for both of them kicking me out of the house on this strange and wonderful night. Yes, it's all their fault – all their glorious, wonderful fault. Delilah was right: my parents love me and want only the best for me. I would have never found such happiness like this in California! I would never have let myself go like this…I feel so free! So alive! If I never came to Mexico I would have never met her, I would have never….
The song ends with a strong defiant squeal from a trumpet. The dancers around us throw up their hats and flowers with a grand cry of mirth and fulfillment. Delilah and I reach for the stars and moon with a great upwelling of emotion, and for a moment – with closed eyes – I feel one with these people, the earth, and the universe. So this is what they call a "religious experience". My head falls back to the streets and as I open my eyes, I jump with my heart. Wide gaping eye sockets and stretched, toothy grins greet me in the dazzling kaleidoscope of highlighted colors. Skeletons in dresses, suits, ponchos, hats and shoes laugh and sing and dance in morbid merriment before me, babbling ancient alien tongues, sipping sweet and bitter beverages and eating sugared candies and breads. One in all black and a single red rose pinned in its wavy, sable hair places a bony claw on my forearm. The back of my neck stings once more with a stronger, pounding pain.
"André, you alright?" I squint close my eyes for a brief moment to regain my focus from the spinning colors and sounds. When I open them I return to the festival and Delilah.
"Sorry, yeah. Just my neck bothering me again."
"Here, let's go take a break," she says, leading me along to our curb. The empty bottle and shot glasses have disappeared (the chubby vendor must have cleaned up after us), but indeed this is our spot. The mariachi band begins a new, faster-paced set and the dancers continue their gyrations. I take a seat with Delilah and stare out into the crowd, waiting to spot the deathly forms once again but see only humans with painted faces. Delilah rubs her soft, cool hand on the back of my neck, checking it. The pain disappears once more with her gentle touch. "Doesn't look too bad. How're you feeling now?"
"Much better, thanks. It comes and goes, getting a little stronger each time. I must have really twisted my neck back in that tunnel." I take hold of her soothing hand and stare in wonder. "You've got some pretty magical hands: I always feel so much better when we touch." I must sound like a real dork, but who cares? I'm having the time of my life!
"Awe, thanks for that," she smiles and takes her hand back, patting me on the knee. "But I don't think it's just your neck; you looked pretty spooked for a second back there. Something on your mind?" She caught me red-handed.
"It's just…for a moment I forgot where I was." I look about, my brow furrowed and eyebrows high. "All these skulls and skeletons and celebrations…it's just not something I'm used to. I mean, what exactly are they celebrating? It's the strangest Halloween I've ever seen." She laughs at that.
"It's not Halloween, silly. It's Dia de los Muertos!"
"Dee-uh what? I heard about it once in school, but I have no idea what it is."
"In English it means 'Day of the Dead'. It's a holiday celebrated every year from the thirty-first of October to the third of November in Mexico for family and friends to gather and pray and remember those who have passed."
"But why is everybody in such a good mood if it's a day of remembrance? Isn't this supposed to be a time of sadness and mourning?"
"No, no, no," Delilah chuckles. "Death is not all that bad! These parties in the streets are just one way of honoring the deceased."
"Kind of morbid in a way, huh?"
"Of course not! Everybody has their own fashion of coping. Here," she takes my hand again and stands me up. "I wanna show you something." Once again we run into the crowd.
It's amazing how fast we seem to run through the populated streets. Again every color and sound seems to blur around us. I keep my eyes forward and on Delilah, the only other entity in plain focus, and though our race should have lasted a few minutes with the distance we apparently covered, it seems to me only a few seconds of a colorful lightspeed and when we stop I have no need to catch my breath. I can hear the celebrations about a half mile off toward the center of the city from where we stand now under the gate of a cemetery. Patches of green-and-tan grass speckle no particular graves, which are primarily illuminated pale blue by the moon and stars.
As my eyes adjust from the brightly colored tunnel-vision of our race to the midnight darkness of the city outskirts, I behold a sight never seen in American cemeteries: families huddled around ornamented tombstones with flashlights and candles. Delilah walks me along the worn stone path and behind the first family and grave. I peer over their shoulders: the tombstone is covered in flowers and paper decorations, and on the ground atop the grave lays a hand-woven mosaic blanket with various trinkets, handcrafts, foods, and beverages. In the middle of the ensemble sits a collage of photographs of a shaven, fatherly man. In every picture he smiled with a vast number of family members and friends, revealing him to be a homely cook in life. The family before this grave stands and sits chattering, mumbling, and chuckling, and every man, woman and child in attendance wear only smiles. No frowns or even tears of melancholy. Just warm, happy remembrance.
"You see, during Dia de los Muertos family and friends spend the holiday at the graves of their loved ones. They make the deceased's favorite foods and drinks, and decorate their graves with things that characterize what they did or were like in their lives." Delilah turns my body so I can see the rest of the families at the graves. They are all pretty much situated the same as the one behind me. "Not everyone may celebrate the holiday like the party-goers in the city, but the general happiness and remembrance is still there."
"I don't understand," I say, staring confusedly at every family, attempting to find a break in the smiles. "Their loved ones are dead, but they are happy! Aren't they at least sad that they can't be with the dead in life?"
"That's why I like Mexico on Dia de los Muertos so much," Delilah smiles warmly. "Every culture copes with death differently. You're so used to the Western management, that you don't even know how to react other than cry and mourn. When it comes to emotions of death, my sister practically rules the United States and all other Western nations." I turn my confused gaze on her.
"Your sister? What are you talking about?"
"Oh, nothing," she sighs. "Just saying that, generally, America is gripped by despair in the wake of death, whereas here, in Mexico, the people celebrate it."
"Think about it: what if the dying were suffering in life, or if the poor and homeless suddenly died? The prospect of peace and tranquility in an afterlife is both something for the dying to look forward to and for the living to happily believe once their loved ones have passed on. Basically the deceased have a chance to live out their afterlives in a sort of Heaven."
"But what if you're not religious or don't believe in the afterlife, or if people believe they or the deceased will suffer for wrongs they've done in life? What if people believed they were going to Hell?"
"Those people," her smile she wore previously falls a bit, "are the ones gripped by despair; they're the ones you'll find most often in Western society. Too many people are unable to envision a good afterlife or an afterlife at that because they're concerned with the possible impact their sins have on their death. But no one living knows for sure what happens after you die, whether there is a Heaven or Hell you go to for your actions in life. And again, this is why I love Mexico so much on this holiday: most people here want to believe that their loved ones are in a better place now, and so they celebrate the deceased's assumed happiness and call for them to join the living for a few days of happy remembrance and festivity. Another reason I love this holiday is it's also, in a sense, a celebration of life, for those who live on and endure the pain of loss. Because for all you know, and all you can assume, it's the living who suffer the most with death."
Her words leave a lasting impression on my mind and in my heart. I finally realize how wrong I was to assume the barbarity of Mexico and Dia de los Muertos, that there is much more to it than the parties and costumes and food. In America, we take for granted our own holidays and mostly forget what meanings they once had. I know I could never explain the significance of Halloween to anyone, because all it is now is another excuse to dress up, scare people, party, and eat obscene amounts of candy. What's the purpose of carving pumpkins, or going up to doors and asking "Trick or Treat?", or donning costumes? In Mexico, people can at least tell you the stories behind every tradition, regardless of the generation. Dia de los Muertos' purpose has and will resound for ages to come because of what the holiday represents. Look around, and you will see it in the treats, the colors, the costumes, the masks. Ask a child to translate the meaning of the holiday's name, and visit a cemetery and speak to the families and tombstones. The meaning is not lost, just ask.
I look from one grave to the next at each family. Yes, there it is: in their eyes, in their smiles, in their hearts. The happiness for the dead, the happiness for life. All happy for their loss.
They dined on graves, smiled and sung
Bidding the sleeping bones to come
And join them for just one more day
Before they annually must part their ways.
And then I catch something, something amiss: a tear? a frown? Yes: a single couple hunched over a tombstone scantly ornate, sobbing. I make my way to the grave to see the trouble, but I already know the fresh pain lamented over there in my heart: a father and a mother mourning the very recent death of their young child. I want to go and give my condolences to them, and perhaps inquire upon his death and hopefully impart to them Delilah's comforting words (or maybe even introduce her to them, since I cannot speak their language); but I stop in my tracks, squinting to verify the scene before me. Yes, it's no trick of the eye: there, pulling and pinching and pricking at these despairing parents chuckles and snarls a fiendish imp gray as slime with black, bulging eyes and sharp, jagged yellow teeth. The emaciated devil is covered in scars and bursting pustules, and what little lips it possesses is stretched far back into a sinister grin as it chortles indecipherable obscenities, all seemingly unperceivable to the victims of his malignant sport. Every stab and pinch is another tear fallen from the eye, and every bite another injury to the heart.
I turn back to Delilah. "Delilah, are you seeing this? What is that nasty little…thing—?" But she isn't there. I spin in place, looking everywhere for her. "Delilah?" The cry and moans from the mother drew my attention once more. Unable to stand the suffering anymore and unwilling to waste time looking for Delilah, I bound up to the imp: "Hey! Stop that! Leave them alone!" Only the imp's attention is directed towards me, and halted in his merry machinations the couple is miraculously released from their spell of heartbreaking sobs. The imp leaps from the shoulders of the father and gnashes its teeth hungrily at me. Okay, so it heard me…that can't be good. With a long howl of bloodlust, the imp dashes toward me on all fours. I waste no time in turning tail and running, at first hoping to lead it away from these people and now in terror of what it will do to me if it caught up.
Again I find myself running and running and running in terror of the unknown chasing behind me, not daring to look back in fear of catching the imp uncomfortably closer. Everything flashes before my eyes as I race forever to an indefinite end: my life in America, my friends, the fights against my family as they packed away our home into boxes to be shipped by plane, the strangeness of my new home, the moment my parents kicked me out of the house, wandering the alien streets alone, falling into the hole, meeting Delilah, my first drink, our first dance; and then her voice, telling me my parents love me, telling me the happiness in death and the meaning of these few days of celebration. Delilah's voice continually echoes in increasing volume until, at last, it makes sense.
I come to a stop. No more running, no more being scared, no more excuses. I turn to face my demon as it continues to charge me, only a little further behind than I anticipated. There is nothing here but me and this oncoming doom. I stand firm, arms at my sides, fists clenched and ready to fight this – to the end, if I must. The imp screams and slobbers in anticipation as it doubles its running speed. I put my fists up, bracing for war—
I don't know where it came from, nor do I know if it was always here waiting for me. My vision is filled with fluid darkness and subtle flames of light, and when I look up I only see two black holes imminently engulfing me. A stark white hand shoots out of the darkness to catch the leaping imp from behind, gripping its pencil neck with the rigidity of the dead. The imp gags and spits at the imposing figure before the hand crushes and burns its grotesque body into a cloud of sable ash. The white hand returns into the folds of darkness, and – regaining my heartbeat from the sudden startle of its appearance – I face the specter of my subterranean nightmare. As it stands before me (before now I would have described its proximity as "uncomfortably close") breathless and awesome – as if waiting for me – I take one step closer, eyes unblinking, and brave a sound: "You want me? I'm ready for you."
The smell of dank earth permeates my senses as I recover from the cold, oppressive darkness. At first I have no idea where I am, but I know what woke me: a familiar pain, increasing in intensity every moment of my consciousness, searing and cracking from the back of my neck. I find the ground and somehow manage to rise to a standing position. The darkness around me phases into a surrounding, cool beam of bluish light, and, my eyes still adjusting, I look up and see a square window into the moon-lit night sky. Something is very familiar about this window, yet its spacial distance is much further from my memory. Why do the window and the rickety ladder extending down from the nighttime heavens seem so familiar?
"Welcome back, André." I jump at the sudden intrusion of sound, and trace its source with my wide eyes. Yes, so familiar: the black clothes, the dark eyes, the raven hair, the trinket around her neck. Only her face…something strange, something missing in its features. The skin is too clear and cold white, and the black sockets all but reduced to a single, curious pattern under her right eye. A consonant tickles my tongue.
"D-D-D-Delilah?" She smiles with beautiful black lips.
"Your face…the paint, it's…."
"Yep, no more paint, no more masks. Here I am," she extends her white arms, penetrating the darkness of the tunnel behind her. The charm around her neck glimmers one moment, catching my wandering vision. It feels like for the longest time I've been dying to ask her, ever since we met.
"What is that," I point with one weak hand as I hold the back of my aching neck with the other. The pain is sapping my energy, I realize.
"Oh this," she slightly lifts the charm from her chest. "It's called an Ankh, a sigil of life. But never mind that: I wanted to talk to you before you go."
"Go? Where am I going?" Argh, this pain is killing me. I need her to help relieve it with her soft magic hands. I try to take a step forward, but fall to my knees, drained of effort. I look back up to Delilah to notice the darkness of the tunnel shift behind her. Fire snakes up from the ground as the gaunt, masked phantom from before steps behind her. I reach out, and with as much breath as I can summon (for I have grown extremely weak in these last moments), I call out to her in warning.
"Don't worry," she smiles. "He will not hurt us. Tell me, who do you think this is?" she thumbs to the ghost behind her. I recall my last thoughts before I found myself returned to this tunnel.
"I guess he's here for me," I gasp. "He's the end, isn't he? The one everyone talks about: the Grim Reaper. He's Death." A moment of silence is broken by her laughter. Again, not at all a sinister humor, but rather friendly and, strangely, sage-like.
"Oh no, no, no, no," she regains herself. "This is my brother. Dream, take off that silly helmet. You're scaring the poor kid." By command, the gaunt figure's white hands appear from its black cloak and lift the alien contraption from its head. Black frazzled hair – the same hair from Delilah's fairer head – falls into a frenzied halo around a young, yet old and tired white face with dark patches where his eyes should be. The helmet is removed into his eternal flaming cloak, and he looks to his sister.
"I apologize," he says, exhaustedly.
"Dream?" I ask with what little strength I have. The pain blurs my peripheral vision so I can only see what is ahead of me.
"André, I want you to look behind you." Delilah no longer smiles. I struggle at her command and slowly, bodily, turn my attention to the ground behind me. A figure lies twisted in a heap at my feet. As soon as I set eyes on the body, my neck stabs at my soul. I don't need to ask who it is. I turn back to the siblings without a shred of remorse.
"So that was all just a…you and me, we never…?"
"My brother helped me with that," Delilah explains, still not smiling. "André, I didn't want you to leave unfulfilled and uneducated. It's your time to go, but I wanted to make sure you understood why I said what I said, why I showed you what I showed you. Yes, it was all just a dream, but it's also as real as it gets. I wanted to preserve as much realism for you to understand. Tell me you understand, André." My thoughts and memories spin about my turbulent consciousness, the pain giving me focus to deliver my answer.
"Yeah, I get it. I understand now. My parents loved me – love me – and it took me falling down a hole to figure that out. They only wanted the best, and I blamed them for ruining my life when they meant only to make it better. I can only hope they understand that I understand now."
"And the cemetery," she urged. "You know why I showed you that?" It takes me one more moment to figure that out.
"That imp thing…."
"One of my sister's Despairlings, very common in America."
"Don't let any of them get to my parents, will you? I couldn't bear to see them suffer like that."
"Mexico will teach them what I have taught you," she smiles. "They will only hurt for a little while, but I'm sure by next Dia de los Muertos they'll understand, too, and the Despairlings will leave them be."
"Thank—." My arms and legs give way and I fall to my back, unable to catch my breath. Delilah and her brother stand above me.
"You're welcome, André." She bends down and lies next to me, her dark eyes meeting mine with warm embrace. She places a cool, white hand on my cheek, her Ankh falling atop my breast and her raven hair encircling my head. The pain in my neck pounds in my ears, the sounds of the world failing faintly. "André, I had a great time with you. It's not often I get to hang around with awesome people, and you're one of the best. Maybe someday, somewhere I can properly treat you to your first, real drink. But for now, I only have this to give you to remember me by. Good-bye, André." She closes her eyes and gently, warmly kisses me full on the lips. I want to leave this wonderful, crazy, weird, lovely girl with something to remember me by as well, so I impart to her one last breath…
She stands up once more, the soul of the child long since departed. A couple wet drops pepper the dust from where his head once lay. She turns to her brother, wiping away a couple stray tears. "Thanks, Dream." He stands to one side, signaling into the long, dark tunnel behind.
"Anytime. Ladies first?"
The morning sun peers at the edge of the distant window, shining down a warm, glittering beam of radiance upon the cheek of André Donatello Manson, taking the very last glimmer in his eye forever.