[Protection] Dia de los Muertos
“Happy birthday, kiddo.” Elena hands me a sugar skull, its eye sockets circled in green icing, tin foil pressed carefully into its teeth. I try to mask my confusion but she sees it anyway. “November’s the month of the dead,” she explains, licking stray sugar off her long fingers before sliding off her sunglasses and tucking them into the collar of her shirt. Her eyes are so black you can barely see the pupils.
November 2. All Souls’ Day. The Day of the Dead. Dia de Los Muertos. My birthday.
I remind myself that last year, Morbid Elena bought me a python skeleton as a Christmas present. Compared to a set of reptile bones, a sugar skull seems tame. In fact, it’s almost cute. “Thanks,” I say, holding the skull next to my own and baring my teeth.
“Glad you like it,” she grins back, genuinely pleased.
Elena Romero has been my best friend since we were in first grade. Our first interaction went like this: On the first day of school, I came to class with a loose tooth. When I confided in her at lunchtime, she got this funny concerned look, as if I’d confessed to a rare disease. “Let me see,” she demanded, grabbing at my chin. I obediently pulled down my lower lip. “I see it,” she whispered, and without a prelude of any kind, she reached into my mouth and twisted it out. I was too shocked to feel any pain. I ran my tongue over the hole, tasting iron. “You’re welcome,” she chirped, and placed the tooth in my palm.
We used to stalk the Romero backyard, looking for rattlesnakes and then calling for Elena’s mom to decapitate them with a garden hoe. Mrs. Romero had one exclusively for killing rattlers, and she swore with gusto during the whole ordeal. I could handle lizards and spiders fine, but I’d still end up trotting over to the safety of a rusty trampoline until Mrs. Romero had tossed the snake’s head tossed over the fence.
One evening after a dinner, the three of us sat on the patio and listened to a pair of cats fighting each other in the neighbor’s yard. Elena’s mom was smoking a cigarillo and sipping delicately from her Modelo, the garden hoe propped against the fence behind her. “Mom, did you ever kill anyone?” Elena asked, real casual like she was asking for salt at the dinner table.
Mrs. Romero made a little growling sound and took a drag on her cigarillo. “What kind of question is that, hey?”
“You come on!” Mrs. Romero echoed, banging her heels on the concrete. She laughed. “Keep watching crime shows, m‘ija, you’ll make a great detective.”
“What.” Another puff, another swig.
“Tell us a scary story.”
“A scary story? Hm. A scary story.” Mrs. Romero eyed us sideways. The cats screamed again and she threw her bottle over the fence at them, sprinkling us with beer. “Okay then.”
“Maria Milagros was the most beautiful girl in Pasadena. This is before the Valley was the Valley, before Hollywood, all that. The most beautiful girl — long shiny hair, blacker than the oil her daddy got rich on, eyes flecked with gold. Maria rode horses bareback and made posole so good it could make a man cry. She wore dresses white enough to blind you for hours on a hot day. She dabbed rose water on her neck and like most rich girls, she was used to getting her way. So when she fell in love with some poor nobody from Granbury, Texas she didn’t bat an eye when her father said he’d never speak to her again. She packed up her good dresses, pocketed her mother’s ruby necklace, and bought herself a train ticket.”
“But Maria didn’t find a happy ending in Texas, no ma’am. Oh she got married, had children, sure, but she was never good with money, and soon it began to run out. She got a job as a laundress, but rich girls aren’t used to hard work, and all those hours at the washboards made her hands rough and her spine ache. Her husband turned out to be a bit of a louse — a handsome louse, but a louse all the same. He’d drink and gamble and smoke the night away while she stayed at home with her children, singing nursery rhymes and folding up the laundry — which is how she found a silk handkerchief mixed in with her husband’s shirts. A silk finer than anything she owned, embroidered with roses and some other woman’s initials.”
“Slowly, Maria felt something inside her crumble into dust. Who can say what it was? Who can say why she did what she did? What she did was this: Maria woke her children up in the middle of the night. She put on their shoes and ignored their complaints. She led them out of the house, past the latrine, past the houses with their shuttered windows. She walked with them all the way to the Brazos River. There was no moon, and the water was black. Maria put heavy stones in her children’s pockets. And then she pushed them down into the water.”
“I have to go home,” I said, too loudly. Mrs. Romero looked as if she’d just woken up. Her cigarillo had gone out. I stood up to leave and Elena scrambled up to walk me to the gate.
“Did you get scared?” Her voice was accusatory.
“It’s just late.” I rubbed my arm where a mosquito had bitten it. Elena grabbed my hand, pressed something into it. I flinched — the story had spooked me, and my mind conjured all kinds of things: a woman’s finger, a handful of baby teeth, still bloody at the roots. I uncurled my fingers. A rattlesnake’s tail shone pearly in my palm. I wasn’t sure if Elena wanted to disgust me or if this was her way of apologizing. I shrugged her off and stuffed the rattle into the pocket of my jeans.
“Got anything for me?” she asked. The telephone wires hummed in the darkness.
I felt trapped. Whatever game this was, I didn’t know it and I didn’t like it. I was scared, and angry at her for scaring me, and she knew it. I wanted to do something shocking, something she wouldn’t expect, something to show her I could out-crazy her, just for once. So I kissed her. Or tried to. She turned suddenly and my lips bumped against her jaw. She just stood there for a moment, quiet, before walking back inside. I listened to the electricity fizzle overhead before walking back to my house, pulse stuttering in my veins.
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
I shake more Tabasco onto my fries and the sugar skull watches, its icing dripping slightly in the heat. “I was thinking we should give him a name,” I say, thoughtfully biting into a fry that managed to escape the flood of hot sauce.
“Who says it’s a he?”
Elena would dispute the gender of a sugar skull.
“Her. What should we name her?”
“She doesn’t have any eyebrows.” I raise my own.
Elena sighs and drums her knuckles on the table. “Fine. Jesus. How about…Rosario? Rosarrrrio.” She turns it into a purr, putting extra trill on the r’s.
“Rosario. Hmm.” It sounds less sexy when I say it. “Okay, Rosario it is.”
Rosario’s tin foil teeth flash dully on the Formica table.
A tiny bottle of tequila dangles from Elena’s fingertips. She raises it to her lips and downs it easily, like she’s been doing it her whole life. I take a nip and fight the urge to gag. I’ve hated tequila ever since I graduated from Loyola. I swallow again and again, trying to purge the taste, the memory of sweat, spit, bodies. Elena laughs at my expression, starts to say something and then doubles over, cackling.
“Man, Catholic school!” she chokes. “It ruined you, dude!”
“Fuck off. We’re Jesuits, we’re barely Catholics.” I spit, discreetly.
“Oh fuck you,” she drawls. We’re not drunk yet, but we’re getting there. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” she says.
Elena’s mom died when she was sixteen. Throat cancer. I remember a buzzing somewhere in the rafters, an urn that seemed too small to hold a whole person. There was a mariachi band at the reception, the smell of masa and beeswax candles. I offered my condolences to Mr. Romero and received a watery smile in response.
“Have you seen Elena?” he asked, his eyes roving over the mass of people crammed into the dining room. I shook my head and moved away.
Instead of going outside, I ducked into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. I didn’t even bother to turn on the light, just sat there for a moment, feeling suddenly exhausted and grateful for the dark. As my eyes adjusted, I realized there was someone lying in the bathtub. I reached for the light switch and then thought better of it, hearing the slosh of water. A cricket chirped from behind the sink, its song echoing slightly off the porcelain tile.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Elena slid downwards until she nearly disappeared, eyeing me like a crocodile. Expertly, she flicked a drop of water at my face. It hung on my cheek, a little false tear. She sighed.
“Yeah. Everyone’s sorry.” She crossed her arms over her chest, more in irritation than modesty. “Grab me a towel?”
The cemetery is a maze of ofrendas, barely lit by candles that have nearly drowned themselves in their own wax. Almost everyone has gone home for the night, but one family gives us a look as we stumble through piles of pan dulce and trip over pots of marigolds. I crush one in my fist and let the petals flutter out like feathers. Elena tucks another one behind my ear and then lifts a bottle of expensive tequila from beside a gravestone.
“There, you’re the prettiest pumpkin at the ball.”
“Don’t, c’mon — ”
“It’s okay,” she laughs, crossing herself before unscrewing the tequila. “Catholic school,” she scoffs, looking at me and taking a long drink. I’m suddenly hypnotized by the dip in her collarbone. I can almost see her skin flickering erratically with each pulse.
She tucks Rosario among another family of sugar skulls and turns to me, starts to sing:
Dicen que no tengo duelo, Llorona,
Porque no me ven llorar.
Hay muertos que no hacen ruido, Llorona,
Y es más grande su penar.
Her voice breaks off.
At first I think she’s crying, because of the way her shoulders are shaking. But she’s laughing quietly, the same uncontrollable, terrified laugh she’d start making every time Mrs. Romero pinned a rattlesnake under her hoe. I put a finger against her lips and she stops, watches me warily with those eyes of hers.
“Scaredy cat,” she says, curling her mouth. She steps closer, carefully avoiding knocking over a picture frame. Her mouth tastes like tequila and smoke, like ashes. We sway on the spot, breathing fast with fear and something else, deeper than the darkness of bones beneath the earth. Elena stops suddenly, grabbing at my shoulder.
“Wait,” she hisses.
“What?” The darkness presses against my eyelids.
“Shh. Listen.” We hold our breath, waiting.
“Elena — ” I can feel the frantic chug of my heart in my fingers, in my throat. Blind stupid fear.
Elena’s head is turned toward the far end of the cemetery, the old part. There are no families sitting there, just broken gravestones and long grass. She stares, listening into the dark as though it’s a language she could learn.
Her hand on me tightens, and I do hear, just for a moment.
No sé qué tienen las flores, Llorona,
las flores del camposanto,
Que cuando las mueve el viento,
Llorona, parece que están llorando.
Elena starts walking. I can’t bring myself to follow her, but I can’t allow myself to leave her, either. I’m afraid of her, of her laughter, of the way she never even turns to see if I’m coming, just before the dark swallows her up.
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Kayti Lahsaiezadeh is a graduate of Boston College, a 2014 alum of the VONA/Voices Workshop, and a volunteer at Black Ocean Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Post Road, Pea River Journal, Kweli, The Blueshift Journal, and Maudlin House. Born and raised in San Diego, she currently lives and works in Boston. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.