THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK TEN: THE BOOK of SKULLS
"I do wonder what happened to José," Bravo’s ancient Doctor, finally pardoned and returned to his home state, would reminisce, and if a child or mistress would reply with another inquiry, Rosario... if the afternoon was not damp, bringing to his old bones memories of uncomfortable hammocks and marrow-chilling fevers... would tell them of that officer who had killed... as he believed... in impishness, then made a formidable patriotic tzompal to bury his crimes beneath a wall of infamies.
For his part, don Antonio often unfolded the last of his letters from Elena Villareal-Macias, a missive which he returned to, now and again, usually late on summer afternoons when he had become sentimental with aguardiente, and when the peninsular clouds had gathered - squeezed into thunderheads to blotch and blot the sky. Electricity gathered about his skull as a devilish halo, prickling his spine, setting even his old arthritic soles to nervous tapping... but the rage of vital men had leaked away from the patron, leaving behind only a dull, nostalgic sadness that he'd picked at, again and again, like the small void portion left by the extraction of an abscessed tooth. Such hallucinations of abomination would not leave his thoughts until a curious sight enabled don del Muerte to creep up behind the old hacendado and slip his gossamer cord about the neck of the distracted don Antonio.
"Dearest Father," Elena had written... for Senator Villareal had crossed the bridge of skulls, as had her brothers and beloved Tia Joséfina, among many Campecheños... "I am aggrieved to bear distressing tidings, but the doctors here regret that I have but a few more days in which to make my peace with God. Poor Antonio departed three days ago, also taken with the Spanish influenza, and Gordon Mitchell has kindly arranged that we be interred together in Chicago, and has provided money for the service which you may repay if circumstances allow. I regret my lack of affection, either for Yucatan or Campeche... such memories as mine are grievous and, if you do not agree with my conclusions, I ask only that you try to understand them."
Don Antonio merely skimmed the next page of Elena's last composition, wincing on occasion, nodding with such passages as expressed Elena's appreciation of the man from Wrigley's who had been her protector and... the Patron suspected... might have take her in marriage had time and fortune agreed. It had been a good thing he had done, inviting the American to Idznacab, one of the few good things.
He ground his remaining teeth together in anticipation and hastened to the crux of Elena's letter.
"Father, I absolve you of culpability for that which I now reveal; the influence of parents is formidable, but secondary to the workings of God, or of the Devil. Were such not the case, I would have granted young Antonio a stronger constitution and, perhaps, you and I might, together, have turned Berto away from the ruinous path of politics. But even Americans are mortal, as the poets here acknowledge, all that awaits the ending of our struggles are cool tombs.
"A plain, cool tomb will be a Godsend... for the winters of this region are intense, fearsome beyond all we have been given by experience; even in comparison to those on the Continent, by which I mean London and Paris. While I was taken to the Swiss mountains as a student, also the north of Italy, it was as an excursion... you cannot comprehend the fury with which blizzards blow off of Lake Michigan, nor understand the equanimity with which Chicagoans endure their weather, seemingly as a rite of passage befitting Roman Legionnaires.
"It was the American week of the dead; by which I mean that between the Holy Day and the commencement of the New Year, during which all commerce slows almost to ceasing. Antonio was away with friends, a blessing I still count, and I had braved the trenchancy of the winds and snow to acquire warmer clothing for him. Laden with packages, I somehow pushed against the door of our bungalow... for that is what they call most dwellings in Illinois, though they be formidable homes of brick and stone, and not the bamboo hovels of Malays as the term would infer... and was so grateful to be inside that I had no thought of imposition...
"He faced me, then, seated in the armchair that Mr. Mitchell had thoughtfully provide us for our Christmas. He was smoking a cigar, and I remember that he kept his hat on; a battered, evil old brown slattern of a thing, an imitation of that old Huerta used to wear, but without a spine, it seemed... if one can say that of a hat. You may think it lightheaded of me to so fix upon that hat, perhaps a delirium induced by 'flu' as they are calling it here, but... he never removed that hat, and that is why I cannot force it from my thought or, now, from my pen, no matter how I try!
"We had not seen one another since... well, it was somewhat before Halacho, I vow. And as he rose, keeping the hat on, but shedding his coat as if it were a reptile's discarded skin, he began speaking... but all that I heard were words, words loosely strung together or isolate, but devoid of intellectual resolution. Desire had supplanted coherence as mineral substances petrify some fallen branches... only after would something else supplant desire.
"He spoke of how we were meant to be together, not I and Rigoberto, and he blamed others for setting us on separate paths... people I knew nothing about and cannot remember to-day. I tried to dissuade him by recalling, to him, our youth... the Caballeros, with their boyish patriotism and mumbo-jumbos, but he only laughed in a most insolent and humorless manner and recited the Bible... Deuteronomy, of course. Not a line of Leviticus! What strength had I to cry... Antonio still lived; José would certainly have taken his life without affect, if he was sincere in his justification. So I consented... endured, rather... his worldly affections; I excuse myself only in that it might have distracted him from violence towards young Antonio, against whom he seemed to hold some sort of resentment on his father's cause. No... this is another lie, it also was because there was a time that I loved José, or thought I did, and now I must own up to it!
"He kept the hat on... as I must have repeated myself... and he also drew an object from the pocket of his coat. A mask! It was badly stained, and torn in several places, but I recognized it as the white death's head of the Fin del Siglo, and I thought he might remove the hat to place it over his head. But what he did was a thousand times the worse... he drew it over my face! It smelled fearsomely, but he thumped my back and said 'there, I have made a bride of don del Muerte, he is no more than a whore to me now'. And I knew, then, that his visit was not out of affection, nor even the common lusts of men... there was such hatred in his coldness that even the Spanish Influenza is a cordial companion, by contrast.
"I am nearly finished with this confession, as cruel life is nearly done with me. He rose from the bed and gave the hat a tilt... as though there yet remained a flickering of conscience or only vanity, that he protect me from that which shone in his eyes. He asked if I had need for anything and all I could reply was that I wished a stick of gum. 'Gum!' he retorted, quite out of proportion to his word, then added that he hadn't any.
"This was the visit of that being I cannot yet bring myself to name. If your shame at having given such a son unto the world can admit my small measure of mortification that he was my husband's brother, I thank you from whatever place that is which waits beyond this life and, to anticipate your questions, I must add that I did not learn more of him than that he is alive and in a sort of health... of flesh, if not of spirit. Wait... there has come something. Knowing not what to do, I prepared him coffee... which he did not drink but mentioned as how he’d found a friend among Villistas, surely a man of depravities to match his own. This was an adventure-seeker, an American amusing himself with our revolutions before going back to California to make his fortune acting in the nickel cinema. Edison's empire in New Jersey is not what it was, that industry has all gone West and this American told José he could make a lot of money, also. 'All you need do is ride a horse and shoot a gun, or even appear to, and they'd make you rich and famous in a fortnight. Granted you'd have to change your name; people out there look down on Mexicans... but...', the man opined, "...'you could pass for an Italian, or better, for one of the French.' So José... I can write his name now that he no longer uses it!... acknowledged that he had changed his name, he had a whole billfold of false identities, in fact, but would not reveal any of these to me. He swore he had no interest in money for himself... and this I understand to have been true although he'd kept the funds earmarked towards Berto's uprising and so he had a hand... an indirect one, as I gather to be customary with José... in precipitating the death of his brother and my husband.
"He grinned, most hideously, and boasted of his allegiance with great powers... men of secrecy and dominion whose names may not even be uttered. He was of them but, at the same time, using them... channeling their wickedness into outrages that would call down the ultimate wrath of Juan de la Cruz. This being he related to the wrathful God of Sodom and Gomorrah, in one breath, to implacable Mayan devils in another. Soon... maybe not even within his lifetime (certainly not within yours, or mine), but what are decades, even centuries, to immortals... soon, there will come an end to life itself, a final judgment without resurrection. Nothing should be left save the blasted remains of cities and villages, the planet a cinder, stars blotted out from the sky. And he laughed and swelled again... donning the filthy hat and stinking mask... and I shall write no more of what he did, after..."
"That vengeful thirst must certainly be slaked now, for I have seen nor heard nothing more of him and so believe that he has gone to other infamies, perhaps in California. Even if he has not, I soon shall be beyond his reach... here is a knock! The bungalow is quarantined but Gordon Mitchell brings soup and bottles of Dr. Mayson's Remedy; I do not think that it holds any prospect of a cure, but it alleviates my stomach pains..."
Don Antonio put down the letter... Elena had resumed it at some further hour, but the handwriting was nearly illegible and the sentiments incoherent; what he could make out seemed mostly to be appeals to persons in Merida and in Campeche who, themselves, rested amidst the rows of the tzompalli. So the patron gathered that she had availed herself of the Remedy and the next that he would hear would be embodied in the brief telegram of notification from Gordon Mitchell. Don Antonio had only recently buried his wife, submitting to the gaudy lamentations of her Spiritualist friends; besides, his own health did not permit him to make the long journey to Chicago. He borrowed against his lands and sent money for expenses and a decent monument to his daughter-in-law and only grandson, and returned to his porch and his copita, tobacco, his library of Romans and Romantics and his memories.
But, as we have mentioned, don del Muerte would hold one last surprise for don Antonio.
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