The new anthology Mexico, A Traveler's Literary Companion takes us deep inside the imagination of a country through its fiction. The compilation of more than 20 short stories — many of which are translated to English for the first time — includes comic works, coming-of-age tales, love stories and even a horror yarn. Editor and translator C.M. Mayo tells John Ydstie about the book.
Teresita del Nino Jesus Rodriguez made this phrase immortal, for she said it in front of the whole world on the most important day of her life.
As a girl, Tere had been marked by the death of her older brother. They were young and she barely understood what had happened. But she suffered from her father's grief, for he had the misfortune to live yearning for this son who would have been his heir, successor, and companion. Certainly, he would have been a superb horseman, masterfully wielding the lasso to perform the most audacious stunts: not only would he have roped cattle; he would have been cold-blooded enough to execute "the pass of death," that is, to ride out of the corral bareback alongside a bronco and, coming up close to it, leap from one to the other, hanging on only by their manes.
Manuel Rodriguez had been destined to inherit the best ranch in the region, with hundreds of Holsteins, quarter horses, enormous hogs — which were slaughtered on the premises — and a flock of sheep fed and cared for on a whim: to make the smoothest and most delicious cheese to spread on the Sunday hors d'oeuvres.
But Manuel died in early childhood, attacked by fevers his small body could not fend off. Teresita, his sister and five years his junior, then became the erroneous heir — erroneous because she could never be the agile and authoritative horseman her father needed to preserve his lineage.
Nevertheless, little by little, time cured Senor Rodriguez of his grief, and his daughter's laughter had the desired effect: it was a balm for his wounds, a tiny tinkling bell that rang all through the house. In unexpected moments, there was the music of her piano, and she was the first of a bouquet of her friends, darling girls who came to spend their vacations at the ranch, when Tere was let out of her convent school.
When Tere finished junior high school, her parents decided to buy a house in Queretaro, right on the Avenida de Independencia. Her mother, Dona Laura, could attend mass at San Francisco Church, pray at La Congregacion, and practice her Spiritual Exercises in the convent of Santa Cruz de los Milagros: furthermore — of course — here the girl could study, make quality friendships, get married, and perhaps soon, with God's help, have many children. And then, with her large family, she would return to the ranch to live in the big house and oversee the planting, the peach harvest, and the care of the livestock.
"Your daughter is a gem," the very proud mother would say to her husband, knowing that there was something of a trade-off.
"She has made me happy," the father would say. "For an old man, there is no better love than that of the women in his house."
Tere learned so much in so few years that others could not help but notice: she became an expert at embroidery; she could play Chopin as if Polish blood ran in her veins; she spoke French with Monsieur Aubert, a descendant of Maximilian's photographer and the founding teacher of Queretaro's Alliance Francaise. Tere knew that she was at a disadvantage in life. She lived with the oil portrait of her dead brother presiding over the dining room. And what's more, between her soft, honeyed eyes and the curve of her beautiful lips, right next to her nose, Tere had a wart that would have ruined the life of any other girl.
In those days, there was no plastic surgery. And men, as if they were perfect, they were exacting and domineering with their girlfriends. Never mind how they were with their wives.
So Tere had to content herself with being doubly studious, diligent, pleasant, and merry. She had to accept her role as bridesmaid when her closest friends married. And when Juvenal Monraz stepped into her life, she gave thanks to San Antonio the matchmaker, and to Santa Rita de Casia, the Augustinian nun who grants the impossible. Santa Rita was in fashion; she had been canonized in May of 1900 and now, thirty years later, she did not yet have so many prayers in Heaven and thus she had time to perform the most spectacular miracles.
"Juvenal is a miracle," said Chole and Maru, Teresita's best friends.
"I'd like one like him for my aunt, Yola," lamented Chole, sincerely grieved by the misfortune of her good, home-loving, and hardworking aunt.
"He's handsome, Tere. I like his square chin, well-cut ears, almost aquiline nose; a very Arabic look," said Maru, whose husband was of Turkish descent and had a penetrating gaze.
According to the "old boys" who met in the cafe in front of the main square, the suitor was nothing more than a loafer in search of a meal-ticket for life. They knew Juvenal well: he was one of them.
For the suitor, it was relatively easy to conquer Senorita Rodriguez. In full view of the town, he strolled with her on his arm, serenaded her once a month, sent her white roses, then yellow roses, and finally, for her birthday, he sent her red roses. He bought her corsages of gardenias to adorn her hand on summer afternoons. In short, he fulfilled each and every one of the rituals of courtship with elegance and precision.
Tere knew that two square centimeters of misshapen flesh condemned her to rushing to accept this chance to marry, for it was a chance that would not come again. And for many years, she did not regret it.
For Juvenal was a good husband. He was considerate enough to allow her to have her own room, to visit her friends and attend their get-togethers every month, to buy an automobile and drive it three times a week to the ranch, while he would sit on the passenger side because she enjoyed driving and he did not want the responsibility of risking an accident that might scratch its brilliant finish.
When her father died, Tere suggested to her husband that they move to her parents' house to keep her mother company. Juvenal agreed with pleasure and this convinced Tere, as she told her closest friends, that she had truly won the lottery. By this time, the others had to put up with contempt, rudeness, brooding silences, infidelities (even with the maids), and sometimes beatings. Some had been abandoned for a while, and, after their husbands had finished with their adventures, had had to take them back, though the women hid this with discretion and lies. And what’s more, Juvenal had even forgiven Tere for being barren. Despite all their attempts — at siesta-time, at night, even at dawn, in traditional positions and others out of a circus — she could not get pregnant. Senora Monraz continued to endure the emptiness inside her. Nothing could allay her grief, not even her husband's goodness that had allowed her to keep her ranch, her house, and her car.
The doctors diagnosed an immature womb and suggested treatments that she followed to the letter. Finally, sadly, she had to accept it. She had no little ones to care for, no birthday pinatas to make, nor first Communion parties to attend, and so, no choice but to accompany her mother to say the rosary.
Yes, Juvenal generously forgave her for all of it. They only thing this good husband asked for was the free use of his own time. After breakfast, while she met with the old ranch manager in the office, he read the newspaper. Then, while they walked together to the Jardin Obregon (which was at that time the main plaza, flanked by three bank buildings), he would comment on the day's important news. Her briefcase in hand, she would leave to make the deposits and necessary transfers, always confident that her husband, the respected man all women should have by their side, was waiting for her nearby, or at a distance of no more than 100 meters, having his shoes shined.
After lunch he would have his siesta, and in the afternoons he would go out to play cards and dominoes. As did all the men.
Other husbands invited him to their houses for poker weekends. Sometimes the women joined them, trying their luck with Uruguayan canasta. There were couples who knew how to play the best hands, always defeating their opponents to rake in the chips. In that city of seventy thousand pious souls, one had to relieve the tedium with something.
Juvenal was so prudent and discreet, he had such respect for his wife and his home, that it never occurred to him to invite his buddies, for they might behave badly, disturb his invalid mother-in-law, or tell off-color jokes that might be heard by Teresita's delicate ears.
And so he met his gambling friends in different places until eight at night when his wife received him at home and served him his supper. They would then spend a pleasant evening, sometimes in the company of family friends, until they went to sleep peacefully.
Furthermore, as Tere would tell her friends — all of them envious of her good husband — Juvenal was an ocean of generosity: a good part of their produce went to some orphans.
"Do you know them?" one asked maliciously.
"Don't even bring it up. Juvenal doesn't like to talk about it. He says your left hand should not know what the right hand is doing."
And so it was that the Monraz's buoyant finances sprang a little leak: cheeses for the orphans, fruits for the orphans. And of course, there was also the money Juvenal lost at gambling. This man had no luck at cards. But he would docilely come home to his wife — his mind exhausted from so many calculations, Teresita thought, as she obliged him with a generous glass of sherry to begin the evening.
"Unlucky at cards...," her husband would say, giving her the chance to finish the adage.
Twenty years went by. Teresita buried her mother in the Rodriguez family tomb, and at forty years old, she began to ask herself what she could fill her days with besides hats, coats, and gloves, which were seldom worn in Queretaro. There were so few occasions: elegant weddings, bullfights with matadors of international fame, dances with full orchestras.
Then Santa Rita (who before becoming a nun was a widow) took Juvenal away with her. This husband of fifty-some years had a considerably expanded waistline, for he scarcely walked the blocks between his most pressing appointments. He had done no exercise, not even in the countryside, having given up riding at the same time as he had taken up the habit of smoking cigars.
And it was of an aggressive cancer in the center of his right lung that, one Saturday at midday, Juvenal died.
Teresita cried oceans. She called together her notary, her confessor, her manager, and the expert cook who had prepared her banquets. She arranged to have the casket taken to to the new funeral home on the Calle Hidalgo. It was the latest fashion in a town used to mourning their dead at home. On some matters, Teresita was in the vanguard. She made an arrangement with the sacristan of La Merced, ordered a lavish display of white flowers, and brought in the chef of the Grand Hotel to take care of the friends who came to offer their condolences.
That night, in a black suit — meant for a trip to the capital for a concert in Bellas Artes — and a black high-collared lace blouse, which made her skin appear even whiter, Tere told anecdotes of her life with her husband over and over again. She emphasized his kindness, his acts of generosity.
The next morning, she received her mother-in-law, her brothers- and sisters- in-law, and Juvenal's nephews and nieces, the only children who had enjoyed the new swimming pool at the ranch. She was a most gracious hostess to all, the most upright widow, with a strength shown only by the most spiritually advanced.
Then, at one o'clock in the afternoon, a woman in mourning arrived sobbing and shuddering, and followed by two boys and a girl, all of whom had square chins, well-cut ears, almost aquiline noses — in short, a very Arabic look. The children drew close. The boys were wearing well-cut suits made of wool and cashmere; the little girl was in a dress with white ruffles. They did not need to say anything. In the expectant silence, the crowd of neighbors and friends parted to let them pass. They all watched as the woman and her children took their places at the four corners of the coffin, each beside a flickering candle.
Teresita, once having recovered from the confusion and with all her questions answered, rose from her seat, walked five steps to where Juvenal lay in his box, and said in a loud voice: "It is nothing of mine." She went out into the sunny street followed by her faithful manager, leaving the dead husband in the hands of his secret family.
All of Queretaro could draw its own conclusions about the case that was, for more than a year, juicier than anything on the radio soap operas. They knew all the details, both real and made-up, about the doings of Juvenal Monraz. His widow, meanwhile, had a long stay in Paris, where at last she practiced the French she had learned from Monsieur Aubert.
When the cousins spent their vacations in the house in Acapatzingo, the days had the clarity of a swimming pool and the ferocity of the sun; nights had the impenetrability of obsidian.
To the side of the church, among the sapodilla trees that splattered their black fruits in the garden, the mornings were golden like the beer their parents drank by the side of the pool. The girls would play "school" with the little girls from the town, as there was an empty pigsty that served as a classroom. The girls of house and the girls of the town cleaned it and brought in some tables so that the small girls could play student while the big girls gave explanations on the chalkboard they had brought from Mexico City. Getting to know the little girls who lived in Acapatzingo was such fun; it sustained them for the weekends and these long school vacations. Before lunch, they would come back to the house to take a dip. The boys would splash them and make fun of them: What was the matter with the girls? They had a pool to play in. Wasn't it enough to go to school every day? What business did they have with the girls from the town? To the girls, the boys seemed like insensitive dopes. The parents warned, Don't get us wet, while they balanced their sweating beer mugs and speared cubes of abalone with toothpicks.
The boys had tied a rope to a branch of the oak tree that hung over the kidney-shaped pool. They would climb its trunk, hang onto the rope, and swing until they could throw themselves right into the center of the pool. The boldest one would make a somersault in the air. They dared the girls: it was their turn. The girls threw themselves in clumsily. Then they would splash water in each others' faces or play "war." The biggest girls would carry the smallest girls on their shoulders, and the boys the same, and they would struggle until one of gladiators fell vanquished into the water. Panting, they would go drink cold hibiscus tea. On the terrace, the mothers would serve the girls and boys their lunch, which they ate in their still-wet bathing suits. The girls would then tell the boys about things they could not see for having been in the pool all day: In Marcela's house they have a she-ass; they have a well to get their water; their mother makes tortillas by hand and she gave us some; they keep scorpions in a jar; they have a black bow over their front door because they have a little brother who died when he was born. The boys would pretend they weren't interested. After lunch the boys would look for the bow and arrow, so they could shoot at the banana tree at the back of the garden and enjoy how that metal tip would bury itself in the milky shaft. The girls liked to shoot because of the way the bow would tauten so nicely, and when they let it loose, the arrow whistled through the air. Church bells called them to bring flowers to the Virgin. There go the little nuns, the boys would say, because the girls hurried to dress, chlorine still in their hair and their skin streaked by sun and water. Marcela was already at the door: they would go to the ravine to cut fresh flowers. They would go out jubilant in their white or honey-colored sandals, their wet hair pulled back with rubber bands. The boys would wait on the terrace for a while, bored, until they could get permission to once again throw themselves into the pool; the terrace felt wide now that the girls were at mass. How ridiculous: their parents never went.
Entering the dark church, the girls felt themselves part of that multitude of women of all ages. They thought the little bouquets they held in their hands would make them good. Avidly they waited for the moment when the songs they had not yet learned would be sung, so that they could come up close to the Virgin's feet and add their flowers to the fragrant mountain. In reverent silence each one searched the Virgin's eyes. They did not even glance at each other; it was as if they did not know each other, as if they belonged to the ritual, as if they had always belonged to the church of their country house.
In the afternoon, the girls would return, taking care not to disturb the grownups' siesta, and with the boys (who did not show any pleasure at their return) they would kill what was left of the afternoon with board games or charades to guess movie titles. And so the night arrived with its supper of grilled sandwiches they called flying saucers. Then the boys proposed that they cross the churchyard. The girls wanted to go buy something in the little grocery that was just on the other side.
"You can go around the church outside it," one girl said.
"That doesn't make sense. Could it be you're scared?" The boys teased.
"Not at all," the girls said and they left behind the bossa nova their parents started listening to after they gave the children coins to buy cookies with pink marshmallows.
They had to climb steps up to the churchyard, which was a vacant lot where they had seen Moors and Christians in ritual battle and Margarito the dwarf (who was small as a doll, but without a big head and arms like the ones in the circus) say in a high voice that he would conquer evil. It looked like a graveyard, flanked by the moonlit ochre church. To the back of the yard they could see the willow, the only tree in that desert. Next to it, though visible from this far corner, were the stairs that went down to the little store. They were going to cross the churchyard at night, but they were not used to doing it; their hearts were pounding fast and their mouths went dry. This darkness could be the territory of La Llorona, the weeping ghost-woman. It did not look at all the way it had a few hours ago when they were saying the rosary or swinging on the rope. No one wanted go first or be last. For unbearable minutes it seemed it was one or the other; for this reason the smallest ones did not have to participate in the coin toss to decide the order.
After an eternity of tripping over dark, dry ground, once on the other side, their fear turned to pride, which came out in nervous laughter. Each one thought it was the last time they would do that. The return would be at a full run and around the wall. Someone proposed collecting money to a buy a pack of cigarettes. And, they added, some Chiclets to hide the smell. The man in the grocery store gave them matches; it didn't bother him to be selling cigarettes to kids. Not wanting to be seen, they went around the corner of the wall, away from the man. The oldest boy lit the first cigarette. He took several puffs until the tip glowed red in the dark. He passed it to the oldest girl. She coughed a bit. She took a puff and let out a plume of smoke. She passed the cigarette, which made all of them cough and laugh and want it to go around again so they could take another puff. They lit the next cigarette with the stub of the last, the way they’d seen their parents do. And when they were finished, they weren't sure what to do with the rest of the pack; it seemed to them to have been enough. Already some of them were dizzy and their mouths had a disagreeable taste. They handed around the cinnamon Chicles and walked slowly and quietly back to the house to finish the day with some TV, all of them sprawled on the mattress in the master bedroom, complaining and laughing, until sleep overcame them.
On the Saturday of the April vacation that their cousin Elena arrived with her mother to spend the day, the boys and girls tried to keep to their routines and schedules. Elena was already thirteen years old; she refused to play "school" with the neighbor girls. Neither did she want to throw herself from the rope into the freezing-cold pool. With her long blond braid that divided her back in two and in her navy-blue bikini, she lay down on one of the chaises.
The girls returned quickly from classes in the pigsty and the boys stopped playing Tarzan, so as to not splash their cousin’s svelte body. They ate their snacks around Elena, who joined them so she could reach for a jicama. With their legs and torsos so close, the boys and the girls could see that her calves were smooth. Elena shaved them. At once, the girls wanted to get rid of the fuzz on their own legs; the boys, to lean into those bronzing thighs.
They ate with less commotion and without showing each other their food. Elena spoke little. Slightly bored, she asked if they would spend all of their vacations in this place.
The girls and boys turned back to their plates of lentils, feeling the coming days as a jumbled-up burden. Bells in the distance enlivened the girls. They invited Elena. She said she only went to mass on Sundays. This pleased the boys, as they assumed she would do archery or play with the BB gun, but Elena lay down with a magazine in the livingroom, where it was cooler. From the terrace, the boys looked at her from time to time without being able to tear themselves away.
The girls tossed flowers at the appointed hour, feeling a certain haste to return and less devotion to the porcelain statue's saintly eyes. They asled if Elena wanted to go to the churchyard when it got dark. The boys had already proposed it to her. She liked the idea of getting out of the house, and while they were walking, now that the sun has gone down, she seemed more agreeable. The boys and girls were thrilled that she would venture to cross the churchyard and not think they were stupid.
"Are there any men around?" she asked them in the darkness when they were deciding the order.
They had thought of La Llorona and other varmints. Men did not cross the churchyard at night.
"Not even drunks?" she asked.
They tossed the coin. It was Elena who had to go first. The oldest boy exchanged places with her. She would be second. The others watched this, perplexed; he had never done anything like that before. When they all reached the other side of barren space of the churchyard, Elena already had the pack in her hands. She gave a cigarette to each one. This time they did not bother to stay out of the shop owner's sight. They smoked there beneath the willow, with their wisps of smoke challenging the churchyard's black emptiness, which they had mastered. Elena explained that in order to smoke properly, you had to inhale, and she gave a demonstration. She took a puff on the cigarette and opened her empty mouth, so they could imagine the smoke swirling around in her lungs. Then she made two smoke rings, which they watched in amazement. They tried to do it but it made them dizzy; no one thought of those handy cinnamon Chiclets.
They returned to the house with a light step and with Elena in the center because she knew how to smoke and had not coughed and walked upright as if the smoke that had made arabesques in her lungs had given her a certain pride. They forgot the TV and went into the children's room, the one with the foldout beds, which opened onto the terrace. In the narrow space between the beds they were sitting on, they played spin the bottle. Yes, kisses and slaps and then passing the lighted match: whomever dropped it had to answer a rude question. And then they couldn't think of anything until someone switched off the light, and the oldest boy turned on the lantern and asked the women to make a show for the boys. In a crowd, almost falling over each other, the boys climbed up onto the high bed. And the girls thought of a dance. The oldest boy held the lantern like a spotlight on each girl and Elena lifted her leg as if it were a cancan. Then they traded places, and the boys made a pyramid, one on top of the other, but they all fell down when one of the girls shined the lantern in their eyes. Then the boys asked Elena to do a show by herself. The girls also said yes and they climbed onto the other bed, the one without the lantern, for the boys had taken possession of it. Elena went to the corner by the door so that everybody could see her, and she began to sway like a woman, her hips one way, then the other, her waist making circles. She pretended to take off her shoes and pantyhose, though she wasn't wearing any, and she turned her back to the whistles of the boys and the girls who were pretending to be customers in a cabaret. And she pretended to be taking off her dress and unbuttoning her bra and tossing it off, though she still had on her red-striped T-shirt and khaki shorts, until the oldest boy dared to say: Lift up your shirt. And with their silence, all agreed. And he shined the light on her waist as Elena held the edge of her T-shirt and slowly raised it to show her stomach and then, like a surprising landscape, her budding breasts. They did not whistle; they did not even applaud. The oldest boy shut off the lantern, and it was a good thing Elena's mother knocked on the door to say they were leaving.
The next morning they sunned themselves on the chaises and went in the pool. The girls did not answer when Marcela came to knock on the door for class, nor did the boys pay any attention to the rope that hung there, useless. The girls did not respond to the church bells or the women's footsteps as they went to the ravine to gather flowers. The bow and arrow did not sing through the air, nor wound the plant. They laughed less and played little. They were merely waiting for the night, which they had already confused with the day.