|Fri, 30 Oct 1998
Death/Dreaming: "Dia De Los Muertos" 1/1
Disclaimer: Death and any aspects of the Dreaming which appear in this work of fiction do not belong to me. They were created in part by Neil Gaiman and belong to DC comics. I am not making any money from this so please don't sue. Inez Gonzales and her family, however, are my creations. Please don't use them without my permission.
Note: This story's characters are Spanish speaking. But since Spanish is not my native tongue and I am nowhere close to fluent,the story is written in English, except for some song lyrics and a few words. As well, I opted not to use "spanglish" this time around. Also, there are more notes at the end.
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Dia De Los Muertos
Inez Gonzales wakes groggily to the sound of her mother's voice. As she groans in protest to the light streaming into her bedroom's tiny window and covers her head with a pillow, her mother sighs heavily and shakes her by the shoulder in another attempt to rouse her.
"Inez," she calls. "You can't sleep all day. We've got a big day ahead of us."
Inez groans again as she sits up in her bed, her dark hair matted and tangled, sleep filling her eyes. She blinks cautiously at her mother who says playfully yet sternly as she pushes the hair out of Inez's tanned face, "You ate too much candy yesterday. I told you you'd get a stomach ache."
Smiling weakly at her mother, she hopes to avoid yet another lecture on the evils of candy on a young metabolism. Luckily, her mother only pats her cheek reassuringly and says, "Now get up and wash your face and brush your teeth. I'll brush your hair afterward."
As she stretches her arms in an attempt to shake the last of the sleep from her bones as she sits on the edge of her bed, Inez looks longingly at her pillow. Her mother sees the yearning on her face and scolds, "No. I let you sleep late enough as it is."
Inez knows that she is beginning to push the bounds of her mother's patience which is not the most appropriate of things to be doing on this of all days. So she gathers as much dignity as attired, sugar-worn ten-year-old can and scampers off to the bathroom, hoping to win back her mother's good graces. Minutes later, she emerges, squeaky-clean into the apartment's tiny kitchen with her large horse-hair brush in her hand.
"Did you brush your teeth?" asks her mother as she places two pieces of bread into the toaster.
Inez nods in affirmation and smiles an awkward smile, bearing as much of her teeth as possible for inspection. They always play this game every morning, her mother asking whether Inez remembered to brush her teeth and then examining them for cleanliness. She is never sure if her mother can actually tell if she hasn't brushed them, and she is planning on putting her eye to the test one day. She just keeps forgetting not to brush. She tells herself to remember tomorrow.
Her mother nods her approval and retrieves a quart of milk from the small refrigerator. Attempting to impress her mother even further, Inez volunteers, "I even washed behind my ears this morning, Mama."
Her mother smiles as she fills a small glass with milk, and Inez sits happily in her seat, glad that she has turned the morning to her advantage. As Inez drinks her milk and eats her toast, which her mother promises will help to settle her stomach, her mother begins brushing her hair. Inez yelps as a large tangle snags in the brush. Her mother eases her grip, lessening the tension on Inez's tender scalp.
After a while, Inez asks, "Is abuela coming today?"
"No. She is tending Papa's grave."
"Why aren't we going there? We go every other year."
Inez's grandmother, a widow for longer than Inez has been alive, and many of her aunts and uncles live northwest in the town of Ojocaliente, just south of Zacatecas. Her mother was born there and moved to Mexico City years ago, looking to find more than her home could give her, looking to find the success the large city promised. And she did well. She became a nurse and met Inez's father and they had a nice life in their small, crowded apartment, a little piece of the world that was all their own. And they were happy... until the accident. It has been close to nine months since Inez's father died, but for her and her mother it feels just like yesterday. Sometimes Inez will even think she sees him as she walks home from school or plays with her friends in the park. But it is never him. Her mother tells her that soon these urges will pass.
But soon has yet to come.
Inez hears her mother sigh almost wearily as she puts aside the brush and begins to braid her hair. She makes sure to keep perfectly still as her mother's nimble fingers work their way through the braid and she says quietly, "You know why we stayed here for the holiday."
Her mother ties an elastic at the end of Inez's braid and she spins in her chair, turning to face her mother as she says, "But I thought we already said goodbye. At the funeral. At mass last night."
"Inez. You know how this is, you know it's never really goodbye. This is the way we let him know we still love and remember him. This is supposed to be a happy time. Our time to celebrate your father."
Looking into her mother's eyes, Inez asks, "Then why does it still hurt, Mama?"
Inez's mother kisses her gently on the forehead and holds her close as she says, "I promise, someday you will understand why this is so important. Someday this will all be easier."
After a while, her mother releases her embrace and asks, "Are you finished with breakfast?"
Inez nods in affirmation and her mother excuses her to get dressed. She walks through the apartment's small living area,past the altar surrounded by calacas.(1) Though she knows the statues are a part of the celebration, their hollow, vacant eyes seem to burn through her and she suppresses a shudder. Her grandmother would blame her fear on the "modern life" her and her family have tried so much to lead; while her mother would simply try to explain the sensation away with a folk-tale that seems very far removed from the life she tries to give Inez. When she is older, perhaps Inez will debate the struggle of cultures raging within her, but now all she knows is that the blank expression of the skeleton hardly makes her feel reassured.
After Inez dresses in the brightly colored dress her mother selected for her, they go to a nearby flower shop and purchase a wreath of brilliantly colored marigolds before they board the bus that will take them to the cemetery. On the ride there, they hold the wreath across both their laps and Inez gazes out the window. The streets are strewn with streamers, banners and confetti from the fiesta the night before. Inez thinks back over the night, her stomach still a little queasy from the marzipan candies and the skull-shaped chocolates. As the bus passes a corner where she and her mother listened to a mariachi band, Inez closes her eyes,imagining that she can still hear their music. She has been told that during this time, the dead walk among the living in spirit and the music serves as an invitation for them. She wonders if maybe her father was there with them listening to the music...and if he was, why didn't she feel him or see him? Why didn't he say hello or tousle her hair like he used to?
The bus stops and Inez and her mother walk onto the crowded street and then enter the stone Cathedral where they normally attend Mass. Inez stands by her mother as she lights two candles: one for her mother's papa, and one for hers.
A few minutes and a few rosaries later, they walk to the adjacent cemetery which is awash with color. Inez passes large graves and small ones, all constructed of different materials, some of fine stone, some of concrete, some of wood, some of iron, all adorned lovingly with bright wreaths of color. Many families are busy at work, clearing the grave sites of weeds and cleaning away a year of dust and grime.
Once they reach their destination, Inez's mother places the marigold wreath at the mid-sized, granite head-stone and the two remove a few tools from the bag her mother brought with them and begin to work. As her mother busies herself with a trowel,digging at the weeds that are beginning to invade the grave site,Inez wipes clean the grave marker with her bare hands. She traces her father's name, Luis Valencia Gonzales, with her fingers and sighs once before pulling the weeds from around the headstone.
As the hours wear on and their work is long finished, Inez's mother lights candles around the grave and sits on a bench at the its foot. She motions for Inez to join her, patting her hand on her lap and smiling with outstretched arms. Inez goes to her and sits on her small, but comfortable lap and rests her head on her shoulder.
Inez then asks, "Do you think he can see us, mama?"
Rocking her gently, her mother responds, "I know he can."
The two sit like this for a long time and Inez's mother begins to sing, the lyrics soft and sweet:
"Dela sierra morena
As she sings her voice turns the normally festive tune into a gentle lullaby:
"Ay, yi, yi, yi
Soon Inez is asleep in her mother's arms, drifting gently to the sound of her mother's voice. As she sleeps, she can still feel the security of her mother's embrace, her soft breath on her hair. After a while, the downy cotton of her mother's shirt begins to feel more and more like the soft kiss of flower petals and her mother's breathing like a balmy breeze. She hears a voice calling her name as if from a great distance. The voice then comes closer and closer until she finally hears it snap in slight frustration, "Inez!"
Inez blinks her eyes open and sees a bright, blue sky overhead,its clouds oddly-hewed in oranges in yellows. As she inspects them more closely, her vision clearing, she realizes those aren't clouds in the sky above her, but butterflies. Monarch Butterflies. There are thousands of them. (2) Confused, Inez sits up and examines her surroundings and notices she is in a huge field of wildflowers. The field is so large she can't see an end to the brilliant purples and oranges and reds that dot the landscape. It seems as if the whole world is covered in flowers.
"Mama?" she asks, suddenly aware of the fact that she has no idea where she is.
From behind her she hears an unfamiliar but friendly voice say,"I can see why she worries about you. You do sleep like the dead. If I wasn't me, I would have been worried myself."
Getting quickly to her feet, Inez turns to look at the person addressing her. She can't help but stare at the young-looking woman dressed in all black, with skin whiter than humanly possible. She studies her face from her large smile to her darkly and exotically lined eyes and finds no malice in it. So she timidly asks, slightly captivated by the sun glinting off the woman's large silver pendant, "Where's my mama?"
The pale-skinned lady in black responds with a warm grin, "She's not here. But there's someone else here who wants to see you."
The woman offers her hand and Inez accepts it, intuitively aware that she is perfectly safe here and the two begin to walk through the knee-high field of flowers. After they've walked a few paces,Inez asks the woman, "How did I get here?"
"You dreamed yourself here."
Wrinkling her brows in confusion, Inez stops walking and the lady, still holding her hand, stops with her. Inez then asks,"None of this is real? I'm asleep?"
The woman leans down to be on the same eye-level as Inez and says matter-of-factly as she brushes a stray lock of jet-black hair away from her face, "No. You're dreaming. There is a difference."
They begin walking again and the woman remarks, "Awfully precocious for someone your age, aren't you?" She then smirks down at Inez, "But I like that."
Inez smiles, suddenly even more at ease with her companion. She looks up at her unabashed as they amble through the meadow, once again fascinated by the pendant swinging in time with the woman's gait. The pale skinned woman notices her attention and asks, "Do you like it?"
Giggling a little in embarrassment, Inez says, "Yes." After a few seconds of silence, she adds, "What is it? Is it a crucifix?"
Though they still forge ahead through the field, the lady holds it so that Inez can get a closer look and says, "No, it's an ankh. A symbol of fertility... it's Egyptian. Wait. Scratch that. It's mine, they just stole it."
As they walk farther across the field, the sound of mariachi music floats across the landscape, and ahead in a clearing are a large group of people dressed in bright, festive colors. From her vantage point, Inez can see that they are dancing.
She stops again as her courage grows even more and squints her eyes as she looks up at the lady and asks bluntly, "Who are you?"
Still holding onto Inez's hand, she kneels on the ground to be closer to a child's height as she says, "I'm Death, Inez."
Inez looks down at the ground for a moment before she meets the woman's gaze again and says quietly, "I thought you'd be scarier."
The woman smiles as she says, "What you see is what you get."
"Am I dead?"
Stroking Inez's hair reassuringly, the woman says, "No. Just dreaming, like I said."
"Oh." Inez furrows her brow again for a moment before she asks,"Then how did I get here? Is this heaven?"
"Sure isn't." The woman sighs slightly as she fills in the gaps she is sure Inez will ask, "...and it's not Purgatory or Hell or any of those other places priests talk about. It's the Dreaming."
"Then why are you here?"
Getting to her feet and taking a deep breath as she tilts her face up to the bright sun overhead, letting its radiance fill her with warmth, the woman then says, "Today is the Day of the Dead. La Dia de los Muertos. A long time ago, my brother and I made a pact. We made this day All Souls Day. Today the spirits of the living can visit with those of the dead, and what better place to meet than in dreams?"
"I see. So this is real?
The woman smiles again, "As real as you or I."
After a period of silence, the woman nudges Inez playfully and says, "So what are you waiting for? There's someone over there who wants to see you."
Twisting a finger in her long hair, Inez asks, "Really?"
"Why else would you be here?"
Inez takes a few steps forward and looks back at the darkly-clad woman, who winks at her and motions for her to go ahead alone. Inez walks closer to the group, following the cheery music of the band. As she nears the people, she turns her head once again to look for the woman. But she is gone. There is nothing behind Inez save the gently swaying flowers of the meadow and a few butterflies, gliding lazily on the warm breeze. Inez releases a sigh and steps into the dancing crowd, hoping to find whoever is waiting for her.
Once she enters the fiesta, she hears her name called excitedly,"Inez! Inez!"
She searches frantically through the crowd, her ears hardly believing the familiar voice echoing in them. And then she sees him and knows that she is not fooling herself this time.
He is really here.
"Papa!" she cries as she runs toward her father and throws herself into his outstretched arms. Tears streaming down her face, she exclaims, "I missed you so much Papa!"
Inez's father tousles her hair enthusiastically as he says, "And I missed you, little one."
They hug each other for a while and Inez's father calls notice to the tears on his shoulder as he says, "This is a party, Inez. No time for tears."
Inez sniffles as she says, "But, Papa. It's been so hard without you."
Kneeling in front of Inez, her father says, "I know it has. But you're with me now and I will always be looking out for you. That's not so sad is it?"
Drying her eyes, Inez shakes her head and her father says, "Good. So will you dance with me? Will you dance with your papa?"
Inez smiles and puts her hands into her father's and they join in the fiesta, dancing and singing like they never have before. And for the first time in many months, Inez is really, truly happy.
(1) Calacas are figurines popular at Day of the Dead festivities. They are often humorous depictions of skeletons in various roles and guises.
(2) Monarch Butterflies return to Mexico and Central America during the autumn months. Butterflies are often said to carry the spirits of the dead.
It seems as though I only get around to writing Vertigo based stories around this most bewitching time of the year. I had set out to write something entirely different than this, but something happened recently in my life that caused me to write this story instead. The loss of someone much loved is never easy and this story helped me in ways I'm not sure I can ever name. My greatest hope is that it helps someone else if only just a little.
Last but not least, I'd like to thank Tapestry for her encouragement with this story and Matt Nute and Indigo for helping me with the research.