by Diane Root
In this country of myth and mystery, both brutal and beautiful, death is celebrated. The Day of the Dead fiesta lasts from dawn to dawn. Death is literally gobbled up. Sidewalk vendors display macabre wares, the most popular of which are candied skulls, adorned in gaudy frostings.
Entire families make their way, joyous and jaunty, to the cemetery, toting striped serapes, an abundance of tacos and tortillas, pulled pork and hot peppers, bottles and flasks full of tequila and mescal, guitars, small drums and flutes. Once there, they spread out their picnic baskets on the broadly banded rainbow blankets at the grave site, where they eat, drink, sing and dance throughout the night. At the break of day, they rise wearily to trudge back, replete with food and drink, filled with song, hearts and souls swollen with stories oft-repeated and embellished with each retelling–ancestral memories to which they cling—ever-present lifelines. The line between the two, they like to say, is thread-thin, either one or both poised to strike at any moment.
Quetzalcoatl, the plumed snake god, lives forever.
He had left the remote finca where they lived, a few days earlier, bound for Taxco, to find a jeweler who would accomplish his “mission,” as he called it. The town was famous for its silver, gems and artisans who worked both silver and gold.
He was fond of side streets, those alleys less travelled and usually totally ignored by tourists. There, he knew, he would find the best craftsmen at the best prices.
It didn’t take long. A narrow, shadowy shop seemed to beckon.
Its owner, obviously of Indian descent, was rotund, cherubic, and short of stature, at once both respectful and solicitous. He flashed a brilliant smile, broad-toothed and porcelain white, accented by a single gold incisor. After the customary opening banter, the husband unwraps his wife’s wedding ring nestled in a small square of velvet, followed by a ring-sizing chart. He points to the smallest circle, manifestly destined for a pinky finger.
“But senor, your wife must be tiny! This would fit a child! Are you sure?” He stares at the golden circle laid on the counter before him. There was no getting around it; she must have had tiny hands.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The ring no longer fits her. She lost a lot of weight after our marriage.”
This explanation clearly delighted the shopkeeper, who winked and broke into an “I gotcha” expression of enlightenment, obviously enjoying what he perceived to be the sexual innuendos of the conversation. He gave his 6’4” customer who towered over him a top-to-bottom once-over, even though he stood ever so slightly bent in a shop not meant to contain a client of this man’s height. Un hombre muy poderoso y, por supuesto, muy potente, without a doubt.
“Si, señor, ahora entiendo. Pasado mañana a las doce—que le parece?
“That’ll be fine. Day after tomorrow. Noon.”
He liked her to sit in her favorite chair, next to the floor-to-ceiling window, that gave onto the garden, where she sat today, their 10th anniversary. Despite her French origins, she preferred English gardens—stylishly unkempt, with a slightly devil-may-care attitude, but nevertheless planted with a secret order not immediately obvious to the eye. So unlike the English themselves, she mused—unless, of course, you counted the eccentrics.
The French favored those formal gardens, clipped and stiff, precise layouts, unnatural—so unlike her countrymen, unless you considered the academics who still instilled draconian principles of logic. Odd, she thought, that their gardens were so diametrically contrary to the character of the people who planted them. Perhaps they represented an acceptable release from culturally stringent constraints.
Summer was his favorite time, when the sunlight stroked her face, so finely wrought, so beautiful, he thought. Still now.
He never let her put the wedding dress in storage, only allowing it to be packed in a carved chest sculpted by her grandfather, upstairs in the attic. (In those days, it was called a hope chest.) Every anniversary, he would gently unpack it and insist that she wear it on this special day as she did now, facing him. Hope, he thought, springs eternal.
He loved the Alençon lace veil that framed her face, which he had bought on a trip to Europe and brought back to her when he proposed. It seemed to accentuate the dark pools of her eyes, almost cavernous, shadowed by the pronounced brow. Now bleached by the slanting sun of the late afternoon, the gown gleamed satin, matching her.
“Do you remember our wedding day?” he began. “You came to me, virginal, more beautiful than ever. You never lost that luminous beauty. It will remain with me forever in my mind’s eye, in my dreams.”
He leans toward the bouquet of white roses on the table—white is the color of mourning in India, he thought—adjusting a stem, changing the vase’s position just a tad, so as to see her without a bloom blocking his view of her face. The glasses of champagne glowed gold, splintered sunlight in the glass, as they always did at what was a holy hour for him, a sacred space, a shrine in time, an altar in his soul. Later, he thought, I will light candles for her. She always loves them.
The champagne–Don Perignon (nothing but the best would do)—stokes his memories of their lives together. Most of them were deliriously happy, considering the years spent in each other’s company. They rarely argued, both of them being of even and forgiving temperaments. And then, of course, there was the fact that they were deeply in love with each other, a gold-patina love burnished bronze with every passing year.
It was only when their baby son died at 18 months that things changed. The depth of her distress caused her to distance herself. Not just from him, but from everything. She became as remote as the place where they lived in the hinterlands of Mexico. That is, until his best friend came to visit them. He listened to the story of the son’s death, went to the child’s grave with her, bearing flowers. Held her hand. Brushed away her tears. Spoke softly.
“Only later did I realize that he had stolen your wounded heart. He gave you a kindness that I no longer knew how to give.
“I couldn’t bear going to the cemetery, remember? Not even with you. I blamed myself for the child’s death—incompatible blood—a child. born on Christmas Eve, defective, without even a fontanelle. No amount of medical ministrations could save him. In my guilt, my heart had turned to something darkly nebulous, a storm cloud within. Yours had turned to stone. I no longer knew what grief I was suffering—they both melded—the child or you. Probably both. I couldn’t really love the child, imperfect, a living reproach during his brief life—worse yet, once he had died. I grieved because of your loss–but I knew I loved you above all. I still do.”
He remembers their laughter that night, their handsome faces illuminated by the candlelight. No reason why a lethal libation can’t come with tiny bubbles, he thought.
Both died in their drug-induced sleep, soundlessly and peaceful in their beds.
The summer breeze wafted through the French doors, blowing ripples of lace across her face. Again, he leans forward, rearranges it, so as to see her in her entirety once again, then sips the champagne. He moves her glass closer to her, gently closes her hand around the crystal stem.
“We loved to go to the Caribbean. You delighted in the turquoise and emerald waters, and I delighted in seeing your shining magnificent body, tanned and golden, rising out of the waves, my very own Venus. My Botticelli. Your hair, so thick. Ropes of gold cascading over your body, sometimes covering a breast, curling over your rounded belly, draped over a nonchalant shoulder. (Those tresses are thinning now, slightly russet with age, but no matter, I shall brush it as I always have.) We should go to that island again.
“When your mother died, we spread her ashes there. Yes, we should go there again. Pay our respects to be carried by the azure ocean to her resting place.
“Once the urn was emptied, you tossed that enormous bouquet of scarlet roses into the sea, one by one. You had to order them specially, since there were none on the island. The town’s florist said that she would get them for you. It would take a couple of days, she explained. She was true to her word and announced, not without some pride, that they had to be flown in from southern France by plane. You asked from where. ‘From Grasse,’ she responded. ‘Good,’ you said. ‘Where they grow acres of flowers and make perfumes. Not far from Nice, where my mother was born.’”
Carried by an invisible tide, the roses set sail toward an anchored boat offshore. The crewmen shouted each to each, summoning those below decks, mystified by the sudden tidal wave of cadmium flowers on a cerulean sea.
“You always kept her perfumes after she died—vintage bottles that you couldn’t part with. There was that angular gold one—your favorite– once filled with an attar of roses. You could still smell it years later, even though the perfume was long gone.”
When she left, no one questioned the circumstances. Not the neighbors, not the police. Her grief, everyone said, had driven her to distraction, to looking for a calm somewhere. She would be back, they predicted. Just give her space and time.
Eventually. she was listed as a “missing person” as indeed she was. Above all, to him–her husband, her lover, her partner. She was his missing heart. Stolen by his best friend, his buddy, his surrogate brother. He, too, disappeared, probably to whence he came, but no one knew just exactly where that “whence” was. There again, nobody asked or seemed to care.
He, of course, never told anyone. He knew exactly where they were, but he waited. When he thought it would be the right time, he went to get her, hidden in the distant forest. “Asleep, awaiting her prince’s kiss,” he thought.
And then, suddenly, she was back. Not that anyone knew.
As always, every time on this special day, he served the dinner. This year, avocados, precisely at the creamy ripeness she liked, followed by a curry, one of her favorite dishes, redolent with spices. Strawberries and raspberries nestled in a custard cream for dessert. In the future, he would make paella, bouillabaisse, or whatever came to mind—those dishes they learned to love during their travels together.
He had inherited gold-patterned china from his parents, delicately decorated with vines and floral designs, which he saved for only these “special” occasions. This was certainly one of them.
By now, the afternoon had begun to deepen into a lavender evening. The fading light still glinted off the facets of the crystal, the gold of the plates, the cutlery. the stemware, the table settings.
But something was still missing—a finishing touch without which the tableau before him would be incomplete. He stepped out into the sun-streaked garden; the late afternoon breeze wafted wisps of perfume rising from the flower beds, enveloping him. Wrapped in its cloak, he stands still, then bends to pick two intensely blue bachelor’s buttons and one white zinnia, a favorite of hers, ever so slightly tinged with a spring green, near odorless, but redolent of the earth from whence she came.
Once back inside and before he sits back down at their banquet table, he tenderly places the zinnia in her hair, the bachelor’s buttons in each of the now- empty orbits of her eyes, mimicking the brilliant hue of her living gaze.
“This year,” he told her, “I have a very special gift for you.”
Still bereft, just as he was on the very first day, he held out the resized wedding ring in his palm for her to “see.” Since her long fingers were now stripped of flesh, as was her body, he placed it very carefully on the fourth digit of her left hand.
It was a perfect fit, gleaming gold in the setting sunlight, against her bare bleached bones swathed in ivory satin, now tinged with the encroaching twilight.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” he said.
Diane Root, a dual-national, was born in Paris of an American father, the journalist and writer, Waverley Root, and a French mother. Primarily known as a painter, she is, as she describes herself, “an accidental writer.” She never sought to be published but that notwithstanding, she was nonetheless published in the New York Times Magazine (“The Artful Dodger” about lunch with Picasso) and various other venues. View her art: http://matakia.com.