Rumpus Original Fiction: Day of the Dead

By

Octavio can’t remember the name of the fruit he holds in his hand. He examines it, turning it over and over—crimson, speckled green, a small crown on one end like a king. El rey de frutas, he thinks, but that is not its name. The fruit has split from over-ripening and two tiny pincers poke through the opening. An ugly antennaed creature climbs out and scurries up his arm. Earwig. The gardener flicks the bug away with his forefinger and watches it fall to the ground from his place on the ladder.

Octavio cracks the fruit open on the ladder’s rung and holds the ruby-filled shards in his upraised palm to sparkle in the sunlight. Red juice traces a vein down his weathered brown forearm. Beautiful! One of the seeds falls between his fingers onto the pile of yard clippings lying on the tarp beneath him. He opens his hand and lets the rest of the fruit follow.

He shakes his head. Such waste! He goes back to his work, pruning and tossing, pruning and tossing. For ten years he has cared for this unloved garden and for ten Novembers has plucked rotting fruit from stubborn branches, pulled up withered tomato and pepper plants from the summer garden, planted and then forgotten. Every year he has recommended fertilizers to the garden’s neglectful owners, helped them choose plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, replaced thirsty plants with drought-tolerant ones, created microclimates next to sunny walls, so the wife could have the jacarandas and bougainvilleas of her southern California childhood in her frostbitten Sacramento backyard. He is their beloved gardener and the beloved gardener of more families than he and his crew have time to work for. He has a waiting list and holds thirty years of expertise in his head, but lately the labels of his life’s work have been blurring like a tree line in the valley fog.

Most days the fog lifts, as it does today—Pomegranate! Eso es! Granada!—and the words come back to him, but still, the forgetting is worrisome. Granada, granada, granada, he recites silently as he climbs down the ladder, burning the word into the forefront of his skull.

Yesterday it was the garden shears. “Pass me those, those things for cutting.” He pointed as Joe, the flustered college student who works for him when he can, between lectures and labs, tried to grab the right tool. And before that it was the rake. “Esa cosa, Pablo.” That thing, that thing.

And Pablo, his longtime friend and employee, provided the words for him. “El rastrillo, jefe,” and touched him gently on the back as he handed it to him, because Pablo’s kindness was infinite and Pablo was the one person in his life who understood that not forgetting was the thing that kept Octavio upright and breathing these many years.

“El rastrillo,” Octavio repeated. “El rastrillo, el rastrillo.”

*

Arriving home after work, Octavio removes his dusty work boots and leaves them on the porch before entering, because his wife would have scolded him if he’d worn them inside. He walks to the mantelpiece covered with the blue tapete that she brought with her from Guatemala over a lifetime ago and lights three candles, as he has every night now for twenty years. One illuminates a black and white photo with curled edges—his Isabela in her wedding dress. The other two frame a faded color photo of two boys, his sons. The taller one, Emiliano, wears his high school soccer jersey—so proud, so proud—only fourteen and already a starting Varsity forward. And the smaller boy, Benito, twelve, has his arms wrapped around his black dog. He’s giggling, because he’s just named the dog—who will never grow to be any bigger than a cat—Maximo. The dog looks like he’s trying to escape from the boy’s arms, which he does shortly after the picture is taken, but even after wiggling free stays next to Benito, never willingly leaving his side, even at the end.

Octavio walks to the kitchen and opens the package he’s brought home with him from the Mexican bakery. He arranges tamales on four plates and next to them, pieces of sweet bread crossed with images of bones—pan de muerto. He heats chocolate on the stove and pours it into four small earthenware cups. He carries the food on a tray to the living room and sets the offerings on his makeshift altar, then sits on the sofa with his own plate and cup. It is November 2, Day of the Dead. Tonight his family will come to him. He drinks his chocolate slowly and waits for their return.

*

At midnight Octavio awakens on the sofa. He doesn’t remember dozing off. The heavy scent of copal hangs in the air and the smoke burns his eyes. He doesn’t remember lighting the incense, but there it is burning in the green bowl made from the clay dug from the banks of the Oaxacan creek he waded in as a child. He rises and lays his plate over the bowl to extinguish the incense. A moth flies between his face and the candles and he shoos it with his hand to keep it from reaching the flames. He chases it to the end of the hallway, opens a window and tries to coax it outside.

The bedroom door of his younger son is ajar. Octavio looks in. Benito has flayed his toy horses. He sits on the bedroom floor in nothing but his superman underwear, surrounded by plastic corpses and ragged pieces of synthetic horsehide, the child-size scissors still in his hand. He picks up one of the pink corpses and blows the fluff off and then examines it from all sides.

“He worries me,” Octavio tells Isabela as she passes him in the hallway.

She opens the linen closet and sets the freshly laundered towels she’s holding inside. “He’s curious, mi amor.” She closes the closet door and gives him a peck on the cheek. “He wants to see what’s inside, that’s all.”

But Octavio is not convinced. He opens the window and sees the fig tree there in the backyard. Underneath, Benito has created a small graveyard for what Isabela refers to as “his research.” Hermit crabs, goldfish, a songbird killed by the neighbor’s cat, all stored in plastic bags, labeled and dated. While Octavio works in his vegetable garden, Benito digs up his tombs, each marked with a popsicle stick crucifix, and examines the deteriorating bodies. In a small black book he takes notes and draws pictures of the bones, the claws, the tiny bird feet still clinging to rotting bird flesh, then returns the bags to their graves.

It is morbid, Octavio thinks and then goes to find his wife in the kitchen and tell her so.

“No,” says Isabela as she stirs a pot of pozole at the stove. “Your son is intelligent.” She tries to reassure him. She’s seen an interview on the television with a woman who’s just written a book. “A forensic scientist,” she says. “She did the same thing as a child. Buried things. Dug them up. Tried to understand what happens to a body after death.” She says this like this is a completely normal education. “Now this woman is helping to excavate the mass graves in Guatemala. Giving names and voices to the disappeared. Bringing comfort to their families.”  She holds a wooden spoon up to his mouth. “More chile?”

He blows on the pozole, tastes it, and shakes his head.

“Your son is not morbid. He will help to restore justice and make sense of tragedy.” She looks at him with the green eyes that set her so apart in the brown-eyed world of her childhood—a childhood wracked by war and violence and the death of her own family.

Octavio loves his wife. He loves her green eyes. She wants so much for him to believe in the goodness of humanity. She has survived by believing that the evil that exists in the world can be overcome by hope and love, that by being good and loving parents, their own son will be part of the solution. Octavio doesn’t believe these things, but he loves her for believing them. He takes the wooden spoon from her hand and tastes the pozole again, a Mexican dish that she has learned to make just for him. He returns the spoon to the pot and caresses her cheek with the back of his hand. “It is good,” he says. “I love your pozole. Thank you for making it.”

*

The moth flies through the kitchen. Ay, he’d failed to chase it out the window. Octavio picks up a broom and follows it to where it lands on the knotted embroidered tail of the kite hanging on the dining room wall. This kite is round, not the traditional diamond shape of kites flown in this country. A rainbow of colors, it is decorated with emerald quetzals and Mayan ruins and trimmed in gold and crimson fringe. As Octavio approaches slowly with the head of the broom raised, the kite begins to quiver. It lifts itself off the pale green wall and rises up into a clear blue sky. Octavio follows the kite upward, watches it shimmer in the sun as it dances in front of seagulls and wispy clouds. He feels a hand on top of his. He looks down and sees Isabela’s long fingers. They are at the beach, seated on a blanket, surrounded by a half-eaten picnic.

Isabela beams. The kite is a smaller version of the giant kites flown in her hometown on the Day of the Dead. “In Sumpango,” she had told Emiliano when she gave him the kite, “the whole town goes to the cemetery and the giant kites reach all the way to our ancestors in heaven.” But then she bent down closer to him as if she were sharing a secret and added, “But we’ll take our kite to the beach. The Americans might think it strange to see a kite flying in the cemetery here.”

And now Emiliano skips and jumps as he tugs his kite across the sky. Benito runs after him, Maximo at his heels. Octavio is panicked. The kite is going higher and higher. There are no electrical wires for the kite to catch on, no broken glass to cut their bare feet. He has walked the length of the beach to determine its safety before allowing his family to spread their blanket. There is no reason for this fear he has, but every time the kite plunges, his stomach plunges as well. Emiliano is reckless. “It will crash,” he says.

“Yes, it might,” says Isabela and taps his hand again, unconcerned. She tries to bring his attention back to her, but he can’t take his eyes off the kite. The veins in his neck bulge as it rises and dives over and over. “He’s doing it on purpose.”

“Yes, he is. Of course he is. That’s the fun of it.”

Octavio doesn’t see the fun. He stands up. The kite rises and plunges, twirls and dives. It is so high now and its dives more extreme. If it crashes, the boys will have to go a very long way down the beach to retrieve it. It’s too far. He will have to go with them. He imagines the tangled mess the string will make if it falls from such a height and the hours he will spend unraveling it. His wife rises from the blanket. She wants him to walk with her closer to the water. He can’t leave his spot. The kite might fall. She shakes her head at him, disappointed, and walks away without him to dip her toes in the sea.

*

Octavio sits upright on the sofa. Was he sleeping? The room is filled with smoke. His eyes sting. Copal is burning in the green bowl. He doesn’t remember lighting it. He extinguishes it, laying his empty plate on top. The photo of Benito and Maximo sits next to it. Is the dog in heaven? Pope Francis recently proclaimed that pets can go to heaven, but Octavio does not know if that applies only to pets who have died since the proclamation or to all pets that have ever existed on this earth. Has Benito been waiting for his dog all these years? More likely he would have refused to enter heaven until his dog could enter with him, such was his stubbornness and Emiliano, the gentler of the two, would have been persuaded to wait with him. It comforts him to believe that his family is together, intact, waiting for his arrival.

A shadow falls across Isabela’s photo. It was raining when the car went off the bridge into the Sacramento River. The officer laid his hand on Octavio’s shoulder and apologized when he told him they found no skid marks on the road, when they lifted the sheet from her face and he confirmed her identity. “Si, si. Es ella,” he said, even though the long wet tangle of hair and color-drained face barely resembled the glorious fearless woman who he’d held in his arms every night since shortly after her nineteenth birthday.

Octavio feels the flutter of wings on his cheek. He reaches for the moth, but it escapes him and flies into the flames. He grasps at it, burning his fingertips. The wings of the moth are singed and it floats to the floor, spinning in circles at his feet. Octavio kneels down next to it. Tears stream down his face. He can’t save the moth, but he can’t bring himself to kill it.

He feels a hand on his face. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry, mi amor.” Isabela wipes the tears from his face.

Octavio turns and grabs her hands and kisses them. “Bela, I miss you. I miss you so much. Oh, my God, I need you,” he pleads with her. “I can’t live without you.”

“But mi amor, look at you. You are living without me. You do live without me. You are so strong.”

“No. You were the strong one. Why?” He looks into her green eyes. “Why did you leave me?”

“Oh, my Octavio. So many years and you still do not understand. I did not leave you. I would never leave you.” She holds his face in his hands. “Sins are as heavy as rocks. I ate too many of them, but I ate them for you. All for you, mi amor.”

The smell of the singed wings fills Octavio’s nostrils. Isabela smiles at him, releases his face, and then is gone. The fluttering on the floorboards stops. He takes the broken moth into his hands, runs his finger over the edge of its wing, and watches it crumble into dust.

She left him only a month after he’d found the bodies of his sons, facedown in the dirt, bullets through the backs of their skulls. Little Maximo stretched out like a blood-soaked blanket over the body of his best friend.

“A drug deal gone bad,” the police had said. “Your sons were in the way. A tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

But who had put them in that wrong place? Who had left them alone to clean up the weed-infested backyard of the empty rental home while he ran to the taco trailer to buy them some lunch—two tacos of adobo for Benito, a bean and cheese burrito for Emiliano? Who had taken an extra job on the weekend, agreed to put in a lawn and an irrigation system for the property’s new owner who hoped to renovate the place quickly and cheaply and flip it for a nice profit? Who wanted to teach his children the value of a dollar, to take pride in a day’s work, to feel what it’s like to contribute to your family? Who had taken his eyes off of them for a moment? Who had looked away?

He lays the fragmented moth on the altar. Isabela’s candle has already gone out. The sun will rise soon and Pablo will be there to pick him up. The wind blows through a crack in the window casing and Octavio cannot distinguish between its whistle and the sound of his own breath. The two remaining candles grow brighter and then dim, grow brighter and then dim, over and over again.

These are the things that never happened—Octavio never took his small sons camping on the beach; he never tried, unsuccessfully, to stop Benito from eating the salty sand; he never lay under the full moon holding Emiliano’s hand, wondering how lucky he was to be entrusted with something as precious as the small perfect life that lay beside him; he never scolded Emiliano when he gave his brother a haircut and then held him while he cried, because Benny didn’t look like Benny anymore; he never stopped himself from stepping in when a boy at the park called Emiliano a purple alien and Benito punched the boy in the stomach and knocked him to the ground; he never sat on the sidelines of the soccer field watching and waving back every time his sons’ small brown legs rounded the cones and each one in turn shouted, “Look at me, Papi. Look at me”; he never cried and held his wife’s hand as Benito crossed the stage to receive his high school diploma; he never danced with his wife at Emiliano’s wedding; he never watched Emiliano’s track meets or helped Benito train his puppy; he never held his granddaughter in his arms; he never panicked when his wife let Benito climb up the slide by himself although he was smaller than the other children and he was sure they would pummel over him; he never worried that Emiliano felt overshadowed by his younger brother—or maybe they happened after all.

Octavio is tired, tired of trying to separate what he remembers so vividly from the memories he can barely make out in the fog.

He returns to the beach and walks with his sons back to their blanket. Emiliano sets the kite next to him and Benito hands him the kite string, now a knotted, unusable mess. Maximo and the boys run off to play with Isabela in the waves. Octavio bows his head and follows the tangle of string looking for a way to make sense of it and return it to its spool.

He can’t find the end of it and no longer has the energy or desire to untangle it. He will be content with the memories that continue to exist past the time that words and labels fade—the silkiness of the first lock of a baby’s hair between his fingertips, the warmth of his wife next to him under clean pressed sheets, the smell of new soccer shoes just pulled out of a box at a birthday celebration. He lets the kite string fall from his hands onto the blanket and watches the remaining candles on the altar go out, one by one.

***

Rumpus original art by Nusha Ashjee.


Theresa Duve Morales’s stories have appeared in CALYX Journal, American Fiction: Volume 12, and online in The Adirondack Review. She lives with her husband in Woodland, California where she teaches middle school art. More from this author →