Ghosts in the air laughing at fools in the bar.
But somewhere inside, this river don’t run to the sea no more.
Give me a sign, amigo, can you tell me,
Did you go down laughing when you finally fell?
—“Ashes of San Miguel,” by Roger Clyne
Let us begin with death. That is the place that, for me, everything seems to begin in Mexico, or at least the place where everything eventually winds up. In San Miguel de Allende, behind every elaborately carved wooden door, the specter of death lurks in one if its guises, which are many. Sometimes death menaces. Sometimes it mourns. Mostly, in Mexico, it laughs.
To understand why this matters, it is necessary to rewind, let’s say two years, to the onset of my mid-life crisis, which is not, it turns out, the variety that induces one to acquire German sports cars and sculpted 25 year-old Adonis husbands, but is instead, the true-blue, perhaps distinctly American, variety that induces a crippling fear of death. There I was, sequestered in my sanitized home, diligently fondling my breasts for ominous lumps, making friends with my freckles and moles, watching them for oozing or weeping or creeping, jolting awake in the middle of the night certain the pain in my right arm was a sign of a heart attack even though I could distinctly remember slamming it against a rock during a volley ball game, eating my veggies, riding my bike, slathering on sun screen like a mad woman, when the universe, that mother with an elegant appreciation for beauty but a sense of humor that can only be described as sadistic, decided to plop me in the middle of Death-Ville for a month long writer’s workshop.
I first dubbed San Miguel Death-Ville when I dropped my suitcases in my hotel room, which was strangely elongated and sparsely decorated, but made up for these defects by boasting a gorgeously tiled bathtub. Also, it featured a heater that resembled an archaic toaster, with an article posted beside it titled, “Carbon Monoxide: Secret Killer That Takes Sleepers before They Awake.”
In addition to this melodramatically worded literature (though I’d be damned if I dared try to turn on the heater, even if arctic winter hit), I saw a painting. I say “saw a painting” as if I had the option of missing it. I didn’t. It was an oil original the size of a sofa, hung over my narrow bed, painted by some authentic Mexican named Smith in 1994 according to the signature. It boasted five figures, four disturbingly happy clowns and a cackling skeleton (at least I think she cackled—she seemed to do so mostly at night) wearing a crown of flagrant orange flowers. If you want to get your blood going, try waking up in a bitterly cold room, shivering in a narrow bed, to the sound of church bells clanging and strange birds squawking and the sight of four clowns and a hippie grim reaper leering down at you in the moonlight. It’s a page right out of Stephen King.
Death has a long and honored tradition in San Miguel. Well, death has a long and honored tradition in all places, whether we like it or not, but in San Miguel, they like it. They celebrate it. Little laughing skeletons are everywhere, dressed up like whores and window washers and Elvis, reading and dancing and laughing. Mostly laughing. Why are Mexico’s dead so happy? It could be because they are never forgotten.
Over margaritas, a Mexican painter told me that death, for the Mexican, is not an ushering out of the land of the living. Rather, it is a change in form, the way a river, say, might turn into steam on a hot summer day. The Mexican dead are still citizens of their communities. On Dia de los Muertos, the living wander up into the hills where the dead are buried. There, they offer them gifts, sing with them, laugh with them, dance with them.
In the next town over, Guanajuato, they celebrate Dia de Los Muertos as well. But there, every day is death day, for every day, their museums display gape-mouthed mummies and their churches flaunt the yellowed bones of saints. In Diego Rivera’s house, the guides will tell you that Diego ate human flesh for inspiration, that he went to cemeteries at night and filched meat from corpses. He did this because he wanted to get in touch with his Aztec history, which is featured a few hours away in Teotihuacán, in the form of crumbling pyramids.
There, you can climb the narrow stairs to sit in the place where priests cut out the hearts of human sacrifices, offering the still beating organs to the gods in hopes of warding off apocalypse. Macabre, yes, undeniably so, but history tells us that many of these sacrifices were volunteers. According to Aztec religion, the honored dead—warriors who died in battle, women who died in childbirth, and those who died as sacrifices—became gods and goddesses. These honored dead visited the living again and again, in the forms of butterflies, hummingbirds, bright things with wings. The dead still visit the living in Mexico. In fact, it seems they never left. Mexicans maintain an intimate relationship with death.
Since I am old enough to have acquired a mid-life crisis, I am also old enough to have made a certain personal acquaintance with death. I wouldn’t say that I know it exactly. It mystifies me, haunts me, the way that men did when my skin was smoother, my limbs leaner, my body making an ascent into full bloom instead of gradual descent to dust. I saw death first when I was twelve. I think, perhaps that acquaintance with death was the most positive I have had, for I was not afraid, only fascinated, as I stood over my grandmother’s embalmed body, poking her skin, entranced by the waxiness of her skin, the way her face had morphed in death into that of a stranger.
Later, at the age of 21, I stood over another body, my beloved father’s this time, minutes after his heart attack, horrified at the bolts of purple that had crept along his skin, at the stillness of his cold chest pressed against my cheek, at the cuts on his fingers that would never heal. We had planned a trip to the zoo that day.
Five years later, I encountered death again as I stood beside the tiny grave of my favorite kindergarten student, two days after a horse’s wayward hoof stopped his heart. I was enraged as I watched his mother scream, “My baby, my baby,” while they lowered his pint-sized casket into the ground. I wanted to kill death.
I have met death, and though our first acquaintance was cordial, I have come to view him as a thief, a plunderer of lives. Never have I stood at the bedside of an ailing loved one, watching him suffer, begging for the mercy of death. For me, death has shown no mercy. He has always crept in on jaguar’s feet and stolen suddenly what, in my mind, was not his to take. And I have hated him for his work.
If I could, I would pull that leering skeleton from the painting over my bed and slap him. “Who do you think you are?” I would ask.
And I suppose he would laugh, maybe adjusting his flowery crown with knobby, skeletal fingers. “I am death,” he would say, offering no more explanation than that. He would only laugh again, the way he does in the little figurines that stare out at from the carts of street vendors in San Miguel. In a fit of peevishness, I yanked the painting off my wall and thrust it behind my dresser.
But death is persistent. He appeared to me over and over in many forms, in the face of the Aztec god Quexocoatl, whose macabre visage was carved on the walls of the pyramids in Teotihuacán. In the skulls of sacrificed humans displayed in Teotihuacán’s museum. In the final tortured works of Frida Kahlo displayed at the Heart of Frida Museum in San Miguel.
The site of this museum is lovely, holding at its core a peaceful courtyard in which one can sit and peruse one of the many featured Frida texts. Around this courtyard, various rooms flaunt a collection of Frida’s letters and a handful of her drawings, scrawled on the backs of losing lottery tickets. As a self-proclaimed Frida enthusiast, I had placed a visit to this exhibit at the top of my “San Miguel to-do List.”
My first exposure to Frida was in my mid-twenties, when I was more than open to being impressed by wanton displays of fetuses and feminine sacrifice. As a college sophomore, my teacher, an avid feminist, showed slides of Frida’s paintings, and I wept quietly in my desk as vision after gory vision flashed in front of my eyes, each painting doused in blood and buckled with pain. Later that semester, I gave Frida a mental standing ovation and wrote a fiery paper dedicated to the power of her work.
So years later, when I, now a tenured Frida acolyte, wandered the halls of the Heart of Frida exhibit, I was surprised by my reaction to her childish love/hate letters and scrawled Crayola protests. I was surprised, most of all, however, by the fact that I would label anything created by St. Frida as childish. And yet, the only thing with which I walked away from The Heart of Frida exhibit was a resounding sense of pity. No. Pity is too kind. Disgust. I am ashamed to say, I was disgusted with Frida Kahlo, that celebrated painter of indelible images, for her abominable lack of vision, her crippling lack of imagination, her ignoble inability to see anything in life but pain.
And as I walked down the narrow cobblestone streets that led back to my hotel room, with its resident manifestation of oil paint death, I wondered if death had not, in fact, already shown me some small mercy. Breathing the gardenia-perfumed air, listening to the laughter of children dressed in red, watching the slow progress of a mongrel dog contentedly sniffing its way past Kool-Aid colored buildings, I wondered if my current obsession with death had, in fact, endowed me with an unprecedented ability to appreciate life.
Of all of Frida’s paintings, the one that is most applicable to my current state of mind is the oil painting entitled Thinking about Death. I have been thinking about death incessantly, whether I like it or not. And yet. And yet. Something about the way Frida thought about death, the way that she exulted in the macabre and doused her metaphorical body in pools of blood while her physical body was still working, more or less, made me want to slap her.
“Frida,” I want to say to the painting, “you are still alive. Why all the death talk?”
She only stares, frozen in agonized thought, with a little skeletal manifestation of death sneering from the center of her skull.
“Frida, your eyes still see. There are butterflies and bananas and blazingly blue beetles to be admired, and all you do is ruminate on the sewage in the street. Your ears still hear, and yet, you drown out the sounds of the wind flutes, craning for echoing screams. Your skin still feels, and you ignore the cool rain trickling over your shoulders, the wind licking your throat, the sun slipping its fingers up under the hem of your gorgeously colored skirt. I know what you think. Life is pain. Life is ultimately pointless, ending, as it inevitably does, in death. And I know what you mean. I get you, Frida. I am almost as old as you were when you wrote those tortured letters. I am old enough to have made an acquaintance with death. I am old enough to know that life is not all butterflies and wind flutes and cool rain. And yet. And yet. Along with the sewage and the screaming, those things are here too.”
My most recent acquaintance with death came only two years ago. It was perhaps, the most brutal encounter I have had thus far. I could argue, probably accurately, that it induced my aforementioned mid-life crisis. My last encounter with death began with a phone call.
“Hello,” I said, and the on the other end, “Tawni, Dea is dead.” Just like that.
Dea was dead, and I threw the phone. Dea, the beautiful one I remember best hip-hop dancing during a lightning storm, wearing a gauzy yellow dress and flowers in her hair. My Dea, the one with the Grumpy Dwarf tattooed on her calf, the Dea who sang like Macy Gray and did a dead-on pterodactyl impression. Laughing Dea, the girl stood beside me in blue at my wedding, the girl who gave me the honor of standing beside her while she gave birth to her son. That Dea. She was dead.
I had seen her the day before, and she had laughed, like always. I had seen her the day before, and hours later, she had hanged herself from a porch, at night, watching, I imagine, as she died, the dancing of Van Gogh stars. Thirty years of life reduced to a can of ashes, and at the funeral, I saw my own bewildered rage mirrored in the eyes of her nine-year-old son, who found her hanging. Dea was dead. Dead from impetuousness and impulsiveness and unadulterated self-pity. Dead from exactly the kind of self-indulgence Frida Kahlo displayed in those letters at the Heart of Frida exhibit. Dead from a lack, perhaps, of ever having bothered to live.
The day after Dea’s death, I awoke to see a jade-colored hummingbird flitting outside my window, and I wept, because it occurred to me how lucky I was to be there to see it. A hummingbird, the Aztec symbol of everlasting life hovered outside my window, and I knew that because Dea had never bothered to live, I would live for both of us, sucking up, along the way, enough color and song and sun and love for two.
It turns out that Dea’s death has given me, along with a fear of death, an irrepressible love for life. Every breath is a miracle. Every morning I wake to hear the whir of hummingbird wings, I am keenly aware that this day could be my last. And I am thankful all day, for the blazing of the morning sun, for the banging of the lunchtime boom boxes, for the meandering of the evening traffic jams. Yes, even for the traffic jams, I am grateful.
And yet. And yet. During my last week in San Miguel, I woke up in the middle of a black night ripped by gashes of moonlight. I woke up, and my liver hurt. I woke up, and even though death no longer stared down at me from that painting over my bed, I felt him in the room. I felt him, and I worried about the way I had been drinking while in San Miguel, about night after wild night of margarita after margarita after tequila shot after margarita. I wondered if one could acquire cirrhosis in a month.
Staring into the darkness, spinning and dizzy, I held onto my pillow like a drowning woman clutching a floating bit of wood. I held on and wondered if one could fall off the edge of the world. And I knew one could. I knew Dea had.
What scares me most about death is this. Some nights, I am standing on the edge of that dizzy ledge where Dea stood that one night when all of this—the pain and the pretty—became too much. I am standing, looking down, into an abyss that goes on and on into forever, and I am remembering the Sunday school stories about hell, and even now, even after all of these years, I am still that little girl kneeling by her bed, praying to a god that never hears, begging him not to throw his little girl into hell.
I wonder about my Dea. I wonder where she is now, if that night, when she was standing on the edge, and her foot slipped, if she just kept falling and falling, with no one to catch her. I wonder what will happen to me if my foot slips. I wonder if the god that judges after we die was even more cruel, to Dea, to Frida, than I have been, if he judged them more mercilessly, if he cared less about their pain.
I wonder if Frida is in hell. I pray that she is not, because for all of my pretty words, on those nights, after I wake up and research cirrhosis on the internet, after I wake up and stand, hands against the tile, crying in the shower of my little San Miguel cubicle, letting the hot water shatter my skin, after I stand there like that, the pain of my life, the pain of my impending death, washing over me like the water—in that moment, I am Frida. And I pray there is a god who is kinder than I.
The Aztecs, for all of their bloody sacrifices, believed, a tour guide told me, in a kind afterlife. There was no concept of punishment after death. Only heaven. Heaven for everyone, regardless of the lengths to which they were driven when the pain became too much. That kind of death is a death I want to believe.
The week before she died, Frida painted a different kind of picture, a lush montage of watermelons too beautiful to eat, and she called her final masterpiece Viva la Vida. And I wonder if Frida, in those last moments, looking back over her pain, knew something I didn’t know. Did death, standing there, staring over her shoulder as she painted those last strokes, whisper something in her ear, something sweet and warm that erased those years of agony and made her life, in retrospect, beautiful?
I wonder if Dea, while dangling and looking out over those Van Gogh stars, saw things that I had never seen, beauty unimaginable. I wonder if in that moment, life became bigger for her, if it was like all the stories say, if a tunnel of light stretched out in front of her, out and into forever, and she danced away, through that tunnel, into something too big and beautiful for words. That is the way I want to see it.
Those laughing skeletons, a museum curator said to me, do not represent death. They represent the life of one who has lived. On Dia de los Muertos, people build altars for their dead, altars laden with gifts that symbolize the lives of the dead ones.
For Dea, I would build an altar, an altar decorated with Grumpy Dwarfs and pterodactyls, an altar with a silver milagro of nine-year-old child’s hand, an altar to hold that yellow dress she wore that night she danced, laughing, flowers in her hair, under a night sliced by jagged lightning. I would build that altar, and I would sit by and wait for her to fly over, the way the Mexicans say she would, fly over and sweep down, maybe to touch me, maybe to sweep my face with a gentle kiss, a breeze or a raindrop. I would ask her questions.
I would say, “Dea, beautiful laughing Dea, broken bleeding Dea, how did you go down? Did you go down laughing? Are you laughing now? Was that laughing skeleton hanging over my bed a picture of your face?”
Tawni Vee Waters is a writer from New Mexico. This story won the Grand Prize Gold Award in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.