THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ

 

BOOK SEVEN:  CUAHTENOTL EPACT

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

 

          "Now," said the jaunty policeman, "we all shall pay respect to the ancestors. Most of us, that is... I have no family buried in this place, they are all reposing in Jalisco, except for a few in the capital. But these others..." and he gestured outwards towards the villagers in the plaza, walking one way, than the other, swaying and moaning like men and women not fully roused out of sleep... and some horrible, premonitory dream.... heedless of the rain pouring down on their heads and shoulders. This rain had washed the blood from Patricio's lips and chin, though not its memories from the Major's intellect, and José spoke cautiously now, as a newly-birthed lamb among many, many wolves, howsoever torpid.

          "Are they simply going to stand around, here?" he asked, shaking his head in dismay and disgust.

          "Oh no... as soon as the Padre makes his appearance, he'll lead them on to the cemetery and they will do as Mexicans of even the blessed places do. Make conversation with the spirits, clear away the stones and the weeds and whatever else may have fallen from above... you can easily discern those families which have died out by their untended graves. And most will bring food, candy and tortillas, those biscuits shaped like a ribcage when the flesh has been torn off by wild beasts, sugar skulls. Luis and Eliseo have directed the preparation of a particularly savory stew... I do hope that there will be sufficient left over for the living," and the jefe militar who (being, also, the jefe politico, coroner and warden of the jail) rewarded his coffee-trading friend with a queasy smile, which had José worrying about the nature of that stew. "And drink, of course!"

          A line of villagers... bearing cups of tin and fired clay, even a few old Napoleonic goblets (perhaps looted in the days of Maximilian, when mountain people of Morelos and Puebla with nothing better to do joined the Republican armies of General Francisco Leyva and secured, besides their liberty, some few souvenirs from the French)... snaked through the plaza from the doors of El Gato Vasilante. "Limón and Whelk... the both of them... are selling caña from the barrel for ten centavos to those who bring their own drinking utensil. The dead appreciate their liquor as do the living and, by now, I guess that most are not particular about its quality."

          "That black cat is not the only creature staggering out of the taverna," José observed.

          "Well, if an observer can manage to drain the contents of his cup in one draught where he stands, in line, Limón and Whelk will draw another for the sufferance of the ancestors," revealed Patricio. "Some of them can toss off four copitas, even five, but if their glass is not emptied at the one gulp, they must go back to the end of the line."

          "Why are we here?" José appealed to the jefe, again, to remind him, and Consuela, of the reason for their soaking.

          "Because I do not know of this Moscoso family. We'll put the question to Eliseo Martín... if he does not know of them, you have certainly been given bad information by those gachupinos of San Sebastien. (In fact, most of those townspeople were of as mixed heritage as the villagers of Cuahtenotl, but the term had survived to draw distinctions of caste, as well as race. If San Sebastien Alto looked, literally, down upon its poorer half south of the railroad tracks, neither looked up towards the village of the scavengers with anything resembling the respect that "looking up" implies! And the villagers, in turn, glared down their mountain at the town with a contempt that was none the less for the envy it hosted.)

          Finally the priest emerged from his sanctuary, having pulled one of those salvaged brown robes as filled the choza of Armando and Doña Alberta over his vestments and donned a conical sombrero that gave him the aspect of a blond Zapatista friar. He passed José and Patricio with the vacant stare of an actor who has just given the performance of his career, and so lost himself within his character that there is nothing remaining, after the show, but the shell of a man devoid of animation... literally a walking suit of clothes, with nothing inside. "He must be thinking of his precious Filomena," the jefe winked, lowering his right hand and making a pulling gesture. "No offense intended," he added... still, Consuela's eyes narrowed and her tongue flickered out from between her lips, like a viper contemplating some amusing rat. She wiped some rain that had gathered in a hollow beneath her left eye and, as it seemed to the Major, the skin crinkled and sagged at the touch of her finger.

          "Damned Maggots," José swore, condemning both the drug that still afflicted his senses and those who had provided it to him.

          Martín followed his employer out of the church in a serape and unobtrusive straw hat, carrying a rough package in an old sugar sack; Patricio drew him aside, and all four retreated to the top step of the church, where there was at least some protection from the rain and wind. "My great amigo here, Señor Bustamente, is seeking information after someone who left this pueblo many, many years ago."

          "Ah," said the old sacristan, with a wink, "el cafetero! Is the secret of the magic beans to be revealed at last?"

          José choked back an impulse to insult the dotard, and perhaps draw his Browning (although he had no estimation of the damage it had suffered by the soaking it had received overnight!). Instead, he showed a confidence-man's smile and said: "Perhaps you are not so far from the truth as even you think! There was a boy of the name of Gerardo Moscoso, who joined the Army at sixteen... it was either that or prison. His father, Guillermo, picked through trash as did the mother, Ana, when she was not too sick to work. There were several children, but no other ones survived... not around this place, at any rate..."

          Martín, nodding, stuck a long-nailed finger up his right nostril and seemed to be pleased with what he found there. When he removed it, he said "I did not know the children. Polvo, señores, dust... blown by the wind. The father and mother, pobrecitos. They died of affliction of the lungs... it is quite common, here, and the wild grasses grow over their bones. Nothing is more abhorrent to Juan de la Cruz than an untended grave!"

          "And how long ago was it that they passed away, Tata Eliseo," said the Major, wondering if the fellow would recognize the Maya term of respect and be inspired, thereupon, to share what he knew of the miserable family."

          Eliseo began counting upon his suspiciously grimy fingernails, then shook his hands and his head and said: "Bah! The father died in the year that the centuries of Julian Caesar changed guard."

          "Nineteen hundred?" the Major presumed. "Nineteen hundred one?"

          "And Ana survived him three years," Eliseo Martín added, proud of his memory. "At any rate, a long time gone. Long gone!" repeated the Padre's sacristan in that stentorian baritone that would not have been out of place at a fine theater like the Peon-Contreras, in Merida, or the Colón in Mexico City (from where, by the drollery of Juan de la Cruz, various ill-favoured carrels of Porfirian scenery had been sent up the mountain and dumped down over Cuahtenotl).

          "Had he schoolmates?" challenged José. "And the family, what of their neighbors? Did they have friends?"

          "Basureros have no friends," Eliseo replied, and the jefe nodded sagely at this advice. "All of their lives are hard with work and hunger, and one will rob another for a libre of tin that can be sold down in San Sebastien."

          "What of their home?" the Major persisted. "Do you remember the place where they lived."

          "That I can help you with," the old man promised, "but after I have completed my duties to the parish. Padre Luis awaits." And he picked up his burden... the sack had sagged open and José discerned such devotional candles as were commonly sold for two or three cents... and started to follow the cupbearers up the northwest hill, in the opposite direction of the Jackal's choza. "If you assist me," he called back, "I will be able to guide you to the place of the Moscosos so much the sooner."

          "Go to the choza!" the Major ordered, and Consuela hesitated... he thought he saw a glance pass between her and Patricio and raised an angered fist; her face closed to him like prison gates and she turned and began following the path that led up the hills, towards the east. Keeping her in sight, with an occasional glance at the retreated sacristan, he pointed across the plaza to El Gato, from which the villagers still streamed, many more of these stumbling, now, but holding their cups tightly between their hands as if they held the Grail itself!

          "I believe that many of the dead will be fortunate if there are more than a few drops poured over their graves," said the jefe. "But I do not know the physiology of ghosts... if they are of essence, than a single drop should suffice to diffuse to the whole of the essence, shouldn't it? A Federal battalion might, conceivably, remain drunk for whole year on a single bottle of caña, eh, cafetero?"

          "I warned you not to speak to me as a tradesman... I am an agent for the powerful Sanborn combination and, besides, why do think I should know anything of Federal battalions?"

          "Did I imply that you did?" The jefe shrugged. "My apologies."

          "I suppose you have no idea where those three foreigners went," José inquired, caustically.

          "Where that thief, Moscoso, and your amigo, Señor Kanegis in his red shirt went, no doubt. Down the mountain to San Sebastien. And then?" He spread his arms wide and let his fingers pop outwards, as a magician might do... but there was no exhalation of doves, nor fireworks, only the rain and a drab spot low in the Western sky that was the sun, already deserting the valley for more cordial destinations, in Morelos or, perhaps, the capital.

          José left the all-powerful jefe standing in rain on the steps of the shabby church, and ventured first into El Gato, eyes ravaging the dark, smoky taverna for a gleam from Ferriday's ringlets, or the smoke rising from Doktor Krankenhauer's pipe. Nothing! Nada! It was only a poor bar in a poor village, doing a rare, exceptional trade in libations for the dead, paid for and carried by the nearly-dead. He pushed several villagers aside to situate himself at the front of the queue and commanded Limón to draw him a copita of brandy, which the patron did without even acknowledging that he knew this important, dangerous fellow standing before him with a scarred, twitching hand.

          "Pay Whelk," said the day patron, pointing, and sliding the glass and its contents across the bar.

          "Forty pesos," said the night patron, standing before a metal cashbox of odd coins and paper money from a dozen countries and two dozen regimes. There was a Webley in his belt.

          "I thought you were charging thirty for the Mexican swill," José challenged him.

          "Supply and demand," the cadaverous Whelk responded. "When the demand for a commodity exceeds supplies, prices go up. Juan Bautista Say, economist, Lyon."

          The Major dug a fifty cent coin from his pocket and, placing an arm around the cupbearer standing behind him, said "Then let me also paying for the ancestors of this amigo here. Jo... Jorge Bustamente, Sanborn's."

          The recipient of this charity was one of those small, brown men of indeterminate age whom, the Major recalled from the Territory, were as likely to sink a machete into your neck as accept a drink from you. Seemingly befuddled, in his white suit and Zapatist hat, the fellow backed away with many mumbled "graciases" and a wooden cup that might have been red once up on a time, but the Major followed, grinning, chiding "...not so fast, amigo."

          They left the Cat (without José's looking back at the patrons, who'd erased him from their memory as the days of Epact are erased from time), arm in arm, the one willing, the other not.

          "So, my good friend, tell me your name..."

          "Ricardo Silva, señor."

          "Ah... may I call you Rico? I know of a Rico, a very good man, a useful fellow. And where is it that you live?"

          The little man was holding one hand over the copita so that rain would not dilute his offering to the ancestors as he scurried, and the Major followed with long, self-important strides, towards the cemetery. Some of these people... they had four or five graves to tend, one after the other, some had up to a dozen. "Abajo!" and he inclined his head towards the path down to San Sebastien, meaning the vague, sprawling slum where José had collapsed his first night in Cuahtenotl, that was also the barrio of Eliseo Martín.

          "And how old are you... if you do not mind the asking?"

          This Rico did, but there was a quality of the Major's voice implying some status with the police or army, someone to whom the usual lies about trivial things precluded the greater lies necessary for survival.

          "Thirty seven years, señor."

          "Thirty seven!" José would have guessed seventy from the way this fellow walked, hunched over like one nearly a skeleton himself. Of course, it might have been the weather. He sighed. "Someday I hope to see thirty seven myself!

          "Probably you worked up there in the valley," José gestured. "Maybe played there as a boy? Those trains from Mexico and Cuernavaca... they have been dumping mierda here long before the Fin del Siglo, isn't that so?"

          "It is true," Rico admitted.

          "And, Señor Silva, I'd wager you knew plenty of boys around here who used to pick up a few cents finding and selling things in the valley? Now think, my good fellow... would you remember one, maybe a few years younger than yourself, one of a family of the name of Moscoso?"

          "Si, señor. I remember all the brothers. Malos hombres, señor, thieves.  Murderers!"

          Like all the village, Ricardo Silva knew of the imperious "coffee trader" whose questions about a thief, a deserter who had taken something of value, implied great wealth but, also, danger. Maybe magic beans, maybe something else. There were other people... not villagers, but outlanders like the giant with the foul temper, the foreigners and the man in the red shirt... "Jorge Bustamente" crossed their paths and suddenly they were no more. So it was safe to assume that if there was a Moscoso of this rather sinister man's acquaintance, he could not be a man of good character... Ricardo Silva wanted only to please, at this moment, and to arrive at the graves of his ancestors alive, himself, and with his free cup of caña intact.

          "Gone away," he added, "all gone! Dead or simply gone... who knows!"

          "Not you?" the Major chuckled.

          "Señor, we are a small village... a small, poor village. Those who aspire to commit great, infamous crimes, they must leave. There isn't anything worth the stealing here."

          "Except the odd soul or two?" José guessed, taking fun watching the poor fellow squirm, since he was of no other use, now. They had reached the perimeter of the cemetery, strangely quiet for so populated a place. Small family groups huddled around graves, making offerings of caña, tortillas and stew that Eliseo ladled out under the supervision of Padre Luis. Candles flickered next to tombstones or wooden crosses decorated with flowers and ribbons that had already lost most of their color... these survived for the unique shelter given them; a sort of tent, open to the leeward side, woven of palms that, like almost everything else in Cuahtenotl, had been brought up from a lower, warmer place.

          Rico bowed, recognizing the earth beneath which lay both grandparents on his father's side, and added a morsel of information so that the coffee trader would not think poorly of him and appear later, when it was dark. "The youngest daughter... I have heard that she went to Tampico."

          "Tampico?" The Major raised an eyelid. "I thought she went to Veracruz..."

          "Tampico, Veracruz... wherever the sailors gather, señor..."

          José left the little fellow to his duties and approached the clerical duo. An elderly woman, by all appearances a widow, held out a large brown plate of fired clay which the Padre blessed, Eliseo ladled a spoonful of the stew onto it, then another... for she held at least five smaller plates in her left hand, close to her stomach. She had no hat and the rain punished her face without mercy.

          "Some of these have four, five, six little lost ones besides their husbands, and nobody else to visit the elder ancestors," remarked the Padre. "What shame there is in an untended grave... but young people keep leaving to go down to San Sebastien or Cuernavaca or Mexico. Or to join one or another of the armies that are always busy around here."

          The mule that had carried the stewpots here lowered its head to nuzzle a weed growing through the rainm then determined that it was not worth eating.

 

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