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It happens in a matter of weeks. At first Benito hardly notices. It falls like forest dusk; the grosbeaks’ harmony fades and the high-pitched file of the grackles is silenced. But perhaps it’s less like nightfall and more final, like the disappearance of woodpecker vibrations.
Nestled in a canyon, a couple of hours’ drive from Condesa where Benito was born, is the small town of Chignahuapan. Its people, gifted at hand-blowing esferas de Navidad (glass Christmas baubles), decorate them in as many ways as their imagination allows. Those with cruder brush-skills daub earthenware, hanging knots of brown mugs and piling stacks of large-handled pots on their doorsteps. The potteries jostle with guesthouses that line the main street, an extension of the Chignahuapan-Tlaxco road that cuts from the south-west toward Zacatlán. It follows the Sierra Madre extending a thousand kilometres from the wetter peaks of Veracruz to its drier ridge at the Texan border. Repeatedly cleared by logging and grazing livestock, the balance between humankind and nature grows ever more fragile.
It was exactly the Chignahuapan-Tlaxco road that the Gutz family drove along almost sixty years ago, when Benito was little, in their vocho, one of few Beetles back then. As Señor Gutz cruised down their street, he tooted the horn, echoing the VW ad that parodied the Apollo moon landing.
“I’m ugly, but I get you there!”
“No, no!” his baby sister, Araceli, cried, “You’re not ugly, Papito!”
“Yes, yes! Ugly!” Benito yelled. Mamá giggled.
Out of the city, the siblings drank in the world beyond their Condesa lives through the open car window; the barefoot women with baskets balanced on their heads, men in sombreros bent over crops of maize or village boys balancing a pole across their backs, a pail of water rocking at each end. Caught the clip of donkeys’ hooves, thunder of wooden cartwheels, vendors’ parrot-calls or mariachis’ frenetic beat. The streets grew broader, the buildings sparser, the sky unlaced. They could not know then how that landscape would dwindle, encroached on by miles of sprawling half-built homes, how that same sky would fasten down on them.
Benito would attend the Colegio Alemán, study medicine at UNAM and stay on as a professor. He returned to Chignahuapan for family weekends with his first, and only, girlfriend Paty. Araceli drove up with her fiancé who became her husband, and soon their kids. When Paty broke their engagement, Benito’s visits tapered, till absence yawned over two decades. Benito’s fears felt foolish in these more tolerant times; he might so easily have brought Max up to stay. But it was easy to forget how Mexico lagged back then. After Papito died, Araceli inherited the other house in Vera Cruz. The casita by the thermal waters was Benito’s. One weekend, while Max was rehearsing, Benito took off, intending to return the next morning.
He was struck as he drove along El Nigromante (The Exorcist), running a level west-to-east, two cuadras south of the lake and the open-air theatre, by how he’d missed the place. He slowed past the town’s best bakery, La Garita (The Sentry-Box), the Azomalli (Nahautl for Tranquillity) General Store, the Santuario del Honguito (Little Mushroom) and the clutch of guesthouses and cabañas that lie closer to the river’s mouth. The moment he arrived, the house laid claim to him, like father to a prodigal son.
He’d pushed away all the memories. Of neighbours’ chickens pecking in their yard and barefoot children running on the red dirt. Of clouds, kept in check by the mountains, composing themselves around their peaks. Of the sky’s immensity. How Araceli carpeted their hideaway house with cascading tangles of bromeliads that swathed the oaks they called old men’s beards or witches’ hair. Locals sold its tresses to factories that stuffed car seats with it or made it into swamp coolers. He recalled an old campesino knocking on their door with the gift of a rabbit, kicking paws braced. And the aroma of the stew Mamá made of it, with nopal leaves from the scrub beyond their garden. How sulphurous steam rose from the brook into the clear mountain air. And the magueys that threw their flower up, higher than their roof, till a campesino sliced it open to drain it of its honeyed sap. He’d all but forgotten Papi’s tales of Tlaloc’s linear rivers taking new twists when he got drunk on pulque.
Now he fell in love with the house as passionately as he had with Max. Waking at dawn that Sunday, Benito strode down to the hot springs, skinny-dipped, returning to a breakfast of mushroom tlacoyos. He followed the familiar path to the waterfalls, past sheep, cows, strays and hillocks of sweet fermenting fertilizer. Coming back in the late afternoon, every aspect of the run-down casita charmed him, the adobe walls, shuttered windows, clay roof, overgrown yard and stone pila with its cold-water spigot. Unspeakably happy, he delayed his return to the city, sending Max a conciliatory text that his childhood summer home was brimming with surprises.
On the drive back Benito considered relocation, triggering five years of toing and froing. The only place he truly unwound was Chignahuapan, far from the city’s restlessness and reminders of work undone. Benito bought several manzanas at the outskirts close to the thermal waters. He began discussing an idea with an old architect friend, Ulises, who grew so enthused he bought adjacent land. But there was a twist. In real life, there is always a twist. One evening, as Benito discussed selling his Condesa flat with Max, a moment of truth arrived.
“I can’t,” Max’s eyes locked onto the dilapidated art deco façade across the road, as if he’d only just noticed it.
“Leave… I’ve still work here, my mother’s here and…”
“I’ve met someone, Benito… I’m sorry.”
Benito examined Max’s profile carefully. Max, implicated in his life at every turn, had imagined himself into another’s. Benito had considered such a thing and told himself he would be fine. But rehearsals are just that. Stepping into the street to buy tortillas or vegetables from passing vendors Benito felt distanced from his own life, like a cinematographer filming his own biopic. Unresponsive to long slants of morning sun hitting his pillow, he pulled himself out of bed late in the day. After Max had left, things got easier. Benito drove up one weekend to Chignahuapan. Arriving, he fell into a deep sleep. The following morning, he set to work tidying, washing linen and stocking the larder. Things he’d never addressed resolved that day. By evening, when Ulises came around with a bottle of tequila, Benito had moved on; Chignahuapan would be his new home. He sketched his plan on a sheet of officio.
Benito had thought of himself as a professor, a partner to Max, a citizen of the metropolis. But up here in the mountains, survival tasted different. He rebuilt himself, assumption by assumption. He courted the small community, forged alliances and spoke with builders and carpenters. Land was bought, woodland cleared, foundations poured, wood cabins and clay rooves constructed. Four years later, the sign “La Misión” went up. He took on staff. Fair and plump, Ixchel was his forthright and dependable cook. Her Junoesque daughter, Monserrat, assisted by the tractable Maria and Martha were housekeeping. The self-effacing campesino, Jesús, in his Wellington boots and baseball cap, chief concierge and gardener.
Word spread slow and sweet as honey. A storm struck the electricity tower the first rainy season and La Misión was without light for six weeks. Ixchel, adept at magicking local dishes and replicating foreign ones, conquered her savage fear of the espresso machine. Married to a sour drinker whose chickens contracted scissor-beak pox and whose rabbits died of myxomatosis, Ixchel ploughed her hope into La Misión, as if to be wedded to it. Monserrat was persuaded to change guests’ towels each day. Jesús trailed Benito like a famished stray, but fell to pieces if a customer complained. Subtle differences in approach were needed, some visitors wanted privacy, others craved attention. By the third year, La Misión was flourishing. Benito took himself off each day on walks along dirt roads that led from the town to the falls, or the mouth of the Almoloya.
Till twenty-twenty. Towards the end of February, a dozen or so returnees from Italy brought it with them. The eighth case appeared in Puebla, a hundred- and thirty-miles south-west, as the chachalaca flies. Being a people steeped in faith they paid little heed. At the start of July, Tristes Tigress’ El Corrido de Coronavirus topped the charts as Mexico’s deathrates soared to sixth highest in the world. By the end of the month, it was third. But it was the lesser mentioned footnotes that bothered Benito; the uptake in suicide, a burgeoning dependency on technology, children schooled on television, scads of teenage pregnancies. The great hush that had fallen over all of them.
The owner of the thermal baths was the first to come down, expiring within weeks. Few mourned the man who cordoned off the source, charging locals to bathe in their birth right. However, the virus slipped silently from house to house, neighbour to neighbour. The deaths were few the first month, a couple the next, then a few each fortnight, till they lost count. Everyone watched for signs: a feverish flush, the rasp of a cough, burning sinuses, blandness, an overriding exhaustion. The roads emptied. Visitors thinned to memory. La Misión hadn’t had a booking since New Year’s Eve, the prelude to a barren unknown. Ixchel and Jesús barely lift their eyes to Benito’s, knowing as they do, he will have to let them go. He keeps them close; his survival as woven to theirs as theirs to his. The day he can’t pay them any longer will be the day La Misión closes for good.
When Monserrat knocks on his door in tears, he guesses before she can get the words out. A builder she’s known all of five months, working on the house across from them, is the father.
“Do you love him?” Benito wonders if this is even a question.
Monserrat looks at him through tear-bright eyes.
“I think so,” she whispers, “but how can I know? I mean… if it will last?”
Benito nods. He suspects most of us are conceived this way, growing up as that moment of passion recedes as in a rear-view mirror, the distance lengthening. Though Paty had taught him a great deal, conception’s emotions are sealed off from him, abstract.
“What is it, Monserrat, that you want from life? I mean… what do you hope for?” He’s wise enough not to project.
“I want to, just, you know, be normal. Finish school. Keep working for you. Maybe study… engineering.” She surprises herself with this last.
“So, it’s not the right time, then, to be… a mother?” he asks, gently. “Do you want me to talk to Ixchel?” Monserrat heaves a huge sigh.
“She’ll be so angry…”
Benito promises to talk the fury out of her.
But when he goes to the kitchen that afternoon to find Ixchel, it’s empty. Just a few coals, tossed from the fire, still glow on the dirt outside the back door. There’s no sign of Jesús either, so he walks down the drive and onto the road. The building site is quiet but for the builder’s radio.
“Buenos Dias?” Benito shouts up at the open window but no-one answers.
He continues along El Nigromante, past closed pottery shops, shuttered hospedajes and dark restaurants. The houses are stilled as though under a spell, the pavement empty, the road quiet. A sweet smell of yeast wafts from the empty La Garita. The spry notes of a funeral march crescendo and a procession overtakes him at a clip. The hearse, chased by half a dozen masked mourners, is trailed by musicians playing trombone, sax and guitar. In the hospital yard, a stir of discharged invalids and relatives await paperwork. A handful of subdued patients queue, as harried chemists dispense drugs. A truck loaded with oxygen tanks rattles past. The parque central with its pretty white colonial church and dusty fake Christmas tree has had no market since el Dia de Reyes. Defeated, Benito takes a battered white taxi back. He barely hears the driver’s muffled low-down on the shrinking supply and exorbitant price of oxygen.
When he gets home Benito disrobes. He steps into the shower and stays till the pestilence is rinsed from him. Ever since Biblical times, he thinks, epidemics have dogged us; but this time technology has cowed us into unthinking terror. Roosevelt’s words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seem a prophecy. Since his late thirties, when every gay man he knew had embraced chat rooms, and later Grindr, he had resisted. His friends nicknamed him el hobbitcito, after homo floresiensis, the large-footed, small-brained hominoid destined for extinction. After a few years they started to ignore him. Max compensated for his reclusiveness, while Benito sadly watched his lover turn into a tech-addict. Like a security blanket Max’s phone went everywhere – from bathroom, to kitchen, to work, even bed. Max’s thoughts never disconnected from the miniature, myopic world of fashion, music and muscle curated beneath the surface of his glass screen. His newfound world packaged everything into safely distanced soundbites, aligning Max’s opinions with his cohort, coached into generic oversimplifications Benito found unbearable.
But this was child’s play in comparison with what happened of late. Though Max was no longer part of his life, Benito was in touch with their theatre friends. Accustomed to late night parties and busy social lives, a rift grew between those who persisted despite warnings and those who retreated indoors. Benito observed the schism from a distance. Away from the city a decade, he’d finally grown into el hobbit, more Gandalf than Bilbo Baggins, with dark ridges beneath his eyes and a sun-burnt complexion flecked with moles. Yet for all his estrangement, the urban, lesser hermits seemed more isolated. Though they still posted their dinners or dogs in sweaters on social media, their internal lives had stalled. The disease arrived to fill the vacuum. It was not the plague that was destroying them, but a collective receptivity for escalating drama. Craving to fill an intolerable lack, first one, then another welcomed the nineteenth covid in.
Privately, Benito believed nature was the great equaliser. Was there anything to lament in the passing of strangers? No-one wrung their hands over the twenty-five million lost to the Justinian plague, or three times that number to the black plague, or twice to Spanish flu. Mexico barely missed a beat when Ebola struck Africa, or Zika, Brazil, never mind looming climate change. In the past pestilence felled the impoverished through lack of food, but today as many suffered from surfeit.
Benito sinks into the armchair he’s placed by his sitting room window, wrapping his parents’ large bedspread around him. From here, the forest carpets the mountainside down to the Almoloya. The all but full moon is rising, casting silver light on the peaks. He sits as still as the mountains but his thoughts bubble like the spring’s mouth. When he wakes, the sun is high and has warmed the room. His mind is clear. He descends, floating almost, to the empty breakfast room but the kitchen is locked. He walks back up and out, follows the red path to the end of his land; Jesús is still nowhere to be seen. Retracing his steps, he comes back to the road. The building site is still. The comedor, shuttered.
He walks towards town, pulse fluttering, heart billowing.
“Ixchel? Monserrat? Jesús? César? Ulises?”
Up on the hill, sheep graze by the church. But there are no voices, no music playing. He walks past the pulquera, the tortilla-seller, the butcher and gas shop. There are no children on the street.
“Araceli? Mamá? Papá? Max? Max?” his voice high and cracked.
He wakes with a start. Ember-red, the moon is sinking behind the mountain. Benito limps stiffly to bed. Under the covers, he grows attentive. He listens. The silence is profound. Overwhelming.
Perhaps, at sunrise, the tank won’t gurgle without Jesús to water the plants.
Ixchel’s hum won’t drift up from the kitchen below.
Maybe the Almoloya’s mouth dried up, the river’s swirl halted.
What then? What then will carry him?
About the author: Cassandra Passarelli is currently travelling overland from Guatemala to Mexico City. She’s wandered between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, run a bakery, managed a charity, sub-edited, set up a children’s library foundation and taught yoga. She has a creative writing PhD from Exeter University (on short fiction) and held a lectureship teaching creative writing. She’s published stories in Cold Mountain Review, Ambit, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Cost of Paper, Exclamat!on, Question and Riptide and contributed five stories to the anthology Five by Five. Her latest story, ‘How to Preserve a Butterfly’, appeared in the fall issue of The Interpreter’s House. ‘Ready or Not’ will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Lakeshore Review. Her stories, born of moments where art and spirituality converge, synthesise the recurring themes of impermanence, suffering and no-self (Buddhism’s so-called Three Marks of Existence) that underpin her own reiterative obsession with change, dissatisfaction and identity. She understands stories as invitations to cross from one subjective experience to those of others.