BY COLIN THORNTON
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS still dark when the first rooster crow yanked Nick out of his dreams. He stared at the ceiling hoping the bird would go back to sleep and let him do likewise, but one rooster woke up another, they sent the message to the monkeys, and once they started howling no one was going back to sleep. He pushed open the window shutters and looked out over the town. The sun was just peeking over the rooftops. Light low. Shadows long. A scrawny dog loped down the street, nose to the ground, hunting for scraps.
Loneliness on any other day of the year doesn’t come close to the dark emptiness of being alone on Christmas Day.
Back home, his mom and dad would be drinking champagne and orange juice, eating warm apple strudel, roasted chestnuts and smoked salmon on melba. He could see his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, still in their pyjamas, tearing around the house in a candy-cane sugar-high, ripping open presents, leaving paper and ribbons strewn all around the tree.
While they were up north celebrating, he was alone in a cheap Mexican hotel in a small town with an unpronounceable name surrounded by strangers, 10,000 kilometres away from anyone he could call a friend.
Sulking wouldn’t improve anything, so he dressed and went out into the streets hoping to find someone or something to lift his spirits. Aimlessly, he followed his feet through narrow lanes and alleys until he found himself standing at a fruit stand in the zócalo — the public square at the centre of town. A banana smoothie cost eight pesos, an extra peso for an egg, sugar and vanilla free. He gave the man ten pesos and sat on a bench under a mango tree to drink breakfast and watch the show.
On the far side of the square a man and woman played Christmas melodies on a large marimba. Nick was surprised to hear himself singing along . . . three French hens, two turtle doves . . . music he’d always found so cloying sounded comforting that morning. While they played, a little girl in an embroidered floral blouse, their daughter perhaps, carried a basket through the crowd collecting tips. A brown-skinned woman sold bundles of white lilies. Shoeshine boys criss-crossed the park scanning for customers because no self-respecting man would wear scuffed shoes on Christmas. Church bells began to ring. A flock of pigeons fluttered up through the trees and circled the church steeple while the people below streamed into the church through the open front doors.
From the far side of the square a young woman spotted a gringo sitting alone on a bench drinking from a paper cup. Watching, not participating; completely surrounded by people, yet utterly alone. She could feel his loneliness all the way across the zócalo. Yes, she thought, him.
Nick was watching the crowd disappear into the church when a vague shape appeared directly in front of him, blocking his view. When he narrowed his focus he saw a young woman walking straight for him, smiling, eyes fixed on his — bold for a Mexican girl. She reached out, shook his hand, introduced herself as Rocío, and in broken English managed to say that she wanted to improve her English and guessed that he might need to learn some Spanish. After tossing the few verbs they knew back and forth, sprinkling them with misplaced pronouns, mangled pronunciation, a flurry of hand gestures, and frequent references to her Spanish/English dicionário, they agreed to practice on each other.
They spent the morning at the Mayan ruins, just outside of town. It felt eerie to be walking through an ancient city where a hundred thousand people once lived and today, except for Rocío and Nick, was empty.
By noon it was too hot to climb pyramids. The air was silver with humidity. Impossible even to think about moving without sweating. They cooled off in the shade, dangling their feet in a stream that ran from the hills past the ruins into town.
Animated with circular scooping motions to her mouth, Rocío asked Nick, “Where tonight you eat?”
He shrugged. “Quien sabe?” Who knows.
She flipped her index finger back and forth between them and said, “You eat my house. Con mi familia.”
No, Nick thought, no, no, no. That would be imposing on a private occasion. He tried to decline, but she insisted. It was a double celebration, she said. Christmas and her father’s birthday. Everyone will be there. “Vienes.” Come.
Shortly after four o’clock, washed and shaved, wearing his cleanest dirty clothes, Nick wound his way through a maze of streets without names, and houses without numbers, out to the edge of town looking for Casa Rocío.
Although he understood Spanish for turn left, turn right, straight ahead, and around the corner, none of the directions people offered seemed to help. One campesino would say left. The next one, right. The third, straight ahead.
He was lost.
On the verge of turning back, a faint shrill of laughter lured him around the next corner. A young boy, blindfolded, was swinging a stick at a pink and turquoise piñata dangling from a rope overhead. Off to the side, an old man in baggy white pants and a loose white shirt tugged on the rope raising and lowering it just out of the boy’s range. Peals of laughter followed every wild swing. Then the next child would try, and another, and another until finally one split the donkey, spilling its belly full of candy onto the street. The kids dove on the treats like pigeons on breadcrumbs in the park. The scene reminded Nick of his younger brothers and sisters back home opening presents.
When the old man saw the stranger he called out to Rocío.
She appeared almost immediately, as if she was waiting. She gave Nick a brief, chaste hug and introduced him to her father.
Nick gave him a big bottle of mescal and a handful of cheroots, bought from the only tienda he could find that was open on Christmas day. “My mother would kill me if I arrived without a gift for the host.” Although Ramón didn’t understand any English the look on his facet told Nick he was welcome, his gift appreciated.
Rocío took Nick by the arm and introduced him to her cousins, friends and neighbours. No way he could remember all their names. On top of that, everyone spoke at once and so quickly he couldn’t hear the gaps between words. Every few minutes he thought he recognized a word or two and tossed a phrase into the conversation. Too often, one neighbour would turn to Rocío and ask, “Que dice?” What’d he say?
As the sun began to set Ramón called everyone into the courtyard. He pushed a shovel under a piece of tin covered with dirt, carefully peeling it back. A rich, savoury aroma billowed out of the hole in the ground, rolled across the yard into the street. With their mouths and pockets stuffed full of candy, the kids abandoned the broken piñata and raced into the courtyard to watch Rocío and Ramón lift Christmas dinner out of the ground.
If Nick understood correctly, Rocío told him that they built a fire in the pit yesterday, set a large ceramic pot filled with armadillos, water, lemons, chilies and wild mushrooms down onto the coals, covered it with banana leaves, covered the leaves with tin, covered the metal with dirt to hold in the heat, and let it cook overnight.
Ramón ladled the Christmas stew into bowls and everyone went inside to eat.
Casa Rocío was a two-room hut; concrete blocks for walls, a corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor beaten flat and smooth. Rocío watched Nick scan the room hoping he wouldn’t be disappointed in her modest home. An altar in one corner caught his attention — a wooden cross on the wall hung above a small ledge with a few candles, plastic flowers in a jar. Beside a statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe was a framed black and white photo of a woman who could only be Rocío’s mother. Rocío kissed her fingertips and pressed them to the photo, slipped her arm under Nick’s and took him to his seat. Everyone found a place on one side or the other of a long wooden plank propped up on trestles that served as a table. They sat on chairs, on stools, on boxes, on plastic milk cartons. Face to face, so close their knees touched.
Instead of forks and spoons, they lifted chunks of meat out of the stew with pieces of tortilla and when the bowls were empty, tilted them back to drink the stock. Rocío sat beside Nick and tried to translate the conversations for him. He really didn’t care what was being said, he was happy just to be there.
After dinner, the bowls were collected, table cleared. The kids crawled into hammocks in the next room. The bare bulb hanging over the table was extinguished and candles lit. Ramón passed Nick’s cheroots around the table. Soon a thick cloud of cigar smoke hung between the table and the rafters.
Rocío placed an empty shot glass and Nick’s bottle of mescal in front of her father. Immediately, the excited chatter in the room hushed. Ramón filled his glass with liquor, drained it and began to sing — alone, a-cappella. Fully immersed in the lyrics and melody, his croaky baritone filled the room with a passionate rendition of a Mexican melody. It could have been a lullaby, a folk song or a revolutionary marching tune. Whatever it was, it sounded to Nick like a hymn. After the applause and bravos, Ramón passed the glass and bottle to the woman beside him who repeated the ritual. She took a drink, poured her heart into a song and passed the bottle and glass to the next person. And so it went; each person took a shot, sang a song and passed it down the line.
As the bottle got closer, Nick began to panic. He wasn’t entirely certain that he wanted to sing in front of all these strangers. And even if he could squeak out a chorus or two, what would he sing? Oh! Come All Ye Faithful wouldn’t play well and he sure wasn’t going to sing La Cucaracha.
Rocío pushed the bottle and the empty glass in front of Nick, poured him a shot. All heads turned his way… waiting. Rocío squeezed his hand. His first sight of her that morning in the zócalo flashed through his mind.
He drained his glass, took a deep breath and sang the first line of El Condor Pasa — I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail . . . And as if they’d rehearsed it a thousand times, everyone at the table joined him for the refrain. Yes I would. If I could, I surely would. Their enthusiasm propelled him into the second line: I’d rather be a hammer than a nail . . . Once again they sang out loud: Yes I would. If I could, I surely would.
While he sang, Nick scanned the people around the table. Faces half lit by a flickering candle, half in shadow. But instead of seeing a dozen strangers, the group had somehow coalesced into one single being, one spirit. The line separating one person from another had vanished. They were all sharing the same moment, the same emotions, the same light, the same air. Spirits linked together in a way that Nick had never felt before. This magical night, indelibly etched in their memories would unite them all, forever. And then in a flash of dazzlingly vivid insight he understood why. And as if Nick’s sudden realization had been broadcast over the radio to everyone in the room, they all smiled and nodded. They knew he knew. Mushrooms. They had all eaten wild mushrooms.
Before he was aware of finishing his song, how he got through it, or how well he’d performed, he watched himself pass the bottle and glass in slow motion to the next person — a man he’d met only an hour or two earlier, but whose face and voice he would remember forever.
Eventually, they reached the bottom of the bottle, the ritual came to an end. Yawning parents lifted their sleeping children out of hammocks and slowly began to leave. Nick had the distinct feeling that if he stayed any longer he might stay forever. He said buenas noches to his host, wished him a happy birthday and hoped silently that he hadn’t mangled the pronunciation too badly. Ramón clasped Nick’s shoulder and embraced him. “Mi casa es su casa,” he said. The best Christmas gift ever.
Rocío walked him outside. She took his hand and led him through the meandering lanes until they came to a sign with a hand-painted arrow: El Centro. Finding his way back to the hotel would be much easier than finding his way out here. For a few minutes they stood on the corner silently, their fingers entwined. He said, “Mañana?” She nodded, “Mañana.” And they parted.
He walked alone through the tangle of unpaved streets, the air so thick with sweet tropical perfume it felt like he was swimming. In the distance he heard a faint echo of guitars and men singing. His ears filled with a symphony of insect chirps, trills and whistles. All nature is talking to me, he thought, if I only knew what they were saying. Church bells began to ring, thunderous metallic clangs almost solid enough to touch. A halo circled the new moon and the stars shone with a swirling fluorescent brilliance like a night sky in a Van Gogh painting.
As he crossed the zócalo angels began to sing. A familiar Christmas melody coming from the church, drifted on the breeze, floated across the square and lifted him up off the ground carrying him through the clouds into the silent night — Noche de Paz. Noche d’Amor.
Colin Thornton studied drawing and painting in college, played music for a few decades while he built a career in advertising. Today, his paints are dry, drums on a shelf, marimba locked in its case and his advertising days over, so he writes short stories.