Soul of development, reason, warmth; inhabits the skull.
To cross the threshold that splits the living world and enter the City of the Dead, we must first pay the Tlamatini. Nine pesos wrapped gently in a bundle of maize husks is what I hand him. The pesos are the real kind, stamped in gold with a gleaming silver trim, the way they don’t make them anymore. Taken from the black box Mom kept in the back of her closet, behind her coats, and Dad’s old folded up wheelchair, and other useless things. The pesos she made us promise as kids to never ever use unless it was for the most severe emergencies.
“Because there are so few of these left in our family anymore,” she’d said. Fewer now.
But here in the Tlamatini’s apartment, on this back Mexico City street, where the evening light hangs lethargically and the furniture smells like incense and leather and burnt bones, he gathers his items: bone splinters, owl feathers, delicate spider legs plucked from a glass vial. A tooth plucked from a coyote skull. He drops them into his oil lantern, the flames wafting the smell of orange marigolds already curling within the glass—what we’ve purchased. I know these scents, I recognize the black bars outside the window, same as the ones from Mamá Cuca’s home where, once Dad was gone, we’d visited for the first time. And where Mom and Mamá Cuca had whispered their incantations and shown us how to flow out Tonalli from our fingertips and flex shadows like all the brujas before us had.
Each of us drop totems we’ve brought in anticipation for this into the lantern. Mine’s the pestle of the molcajete Mom gifted me the day I moved out—so full of mine and her Tonalli that through my grip it hums a mariachi tune. I drop it into the lantern, which blazes full of my bit of soul. Because the soul doesn’t just stop at your skin and bones. Your soul is trisected into your Ihíyotl, Teyolía, and Tonalli. Tonalli is the soul that flows into you, out of you. It travels realms while you sleep and promises to make it home each morning. This is your essence, and your essence sticks to others, and places, and domestic objects too.
Mom always made sure we knew that part. Domestic objects.
Quint’s object is Dad’s Éric Gagné Dodgers jersey—his fingers lock into the white fabric sainted beige. He stands with his arms crossed as if he’s the tough guy here, says, “This is a waste of fucking time,” when the Tlamatini clips a corner off the sleeve.
Emiliano’s been behind all of us, saying nothing as always. He’s got those lost puppy eyes I want to slap dry. I translate the Tlamatini’s Nahuatl, telling him to give up his object: a photograph of the five us when there had been five of us. He drops the whole thing in, and the candle flame laps it up. Then the city’s orchestra outside stops.
And the streets are dead.
And it’s night.
And the dog splattered against the harsh sidewalk edge outside the window—I’d ignored it on our way in here while Emiliano couldn’t look away—laying under the halo of a streetlamp jerks. Flinches. Lurches itself upright, leaving its intestines as knots behind it, and rattles towards the apartment in loose skin and bones. Its paws tik-tik-taping up the steps outside the paint-peeled door. The Tlamatini lets the dog in and in the lantern’s glow etches the raw, exposed bone of its face.
“Xoloitzcuintle will show you the way,” the Tlamatini says. He blows out the flame, rolls the ash into a joint and holds it between cracked lips. “You’ll have until the sunrises, lest you never find your way back. ¿Están listos?”
I think of the note I found in Mom’s apartment:
He came for me, now He’s taking me home. I love you all.
I think of summers when broken people would line up outside the pueblo and whisper “buenos días” to us as they waited for Mamá Cuca and her potions.
I think of Mom ripping out the stars in the Los Angeles skyline the night she told us Dad was sick, and I’d thought it was a joke and laughed.
I think of hospital beeps.
I tell the Tlamatini, “Sí.” He blows the ash in our faces, and we’re blown away with the gust of ash. Away from the room and its smells—Mom’s smells—and the ash carries us into blackness.
“I’m having dreams of her,” Mom had said to me over dinner one night. Just the two of us, because I was the only one who made the time to visit. “In this dream Mamá Cuca is in her courtyard, and she’s looking at me with those tired eyes of hers. It’s funny. When I think about her, she’s still who she was before I left home. But this time she was little, and old. She said she was looking for me. Wondering why I wasn’t home.” From across the sea of an empty table, I wondered if Mom would look just as brittle to me in a few years. “When I moved here with your father, I always promised I’d go back home. It was never a goodbye, you know? Just a see-you-later. I didn’t mean to stay.”
There are nine realms in the underworld that you journey through when you die. Mom had told us this years ago and I’d etched it into memory with the rest of our history. Kept it alive in me, because without it, what would I be?
Cross the Apanohuaya—you’ll find your spirit guide.
Skirt through the ravine of two rival mountains—hope that they won’t argue, then stir, then crush you in another of their spats.
Climb the obsidian mountain—you will get cut.
Through the icy winds—if the shards did not cut you before, the wind will now.
Through the place of flags—you’ll leave yours here, whatever symbol you bare.
Between the crossfire of arrows—if you’re at peace they will not hurt.
Pass the Alebrijes, who lurk in the dark, who crave your human heart.
Cross the last narrow path of this city of dead—the last threshold
And when you’re stripped down to the core of you, you’ll stare down the Lord of Mictlān himself, the Scatterer of Ashes, the Lord, and He will give you rest.
The ash drops us into a river that grabs and won’t let go. It’s liquid—not water—the Tonalli of every had-lived being tugs the strands of my being, wanting to rip me apart. It rushes down my throat, swelling my lungs. Voices crowd my ear whispering Hold on, and Join our eternal oneness, and I think I’m going to die. I scream for Emiliano, for Quint. For Mom—I remember the first time I’d siphoned Tonalli from a marigold. How I’d wrung out its color to snap a flame in the palm of my hand. Never mind that my fingers were bruised raw from snapping all through the night and exhaustion hung from my eyes, the flame was there. Flicking alive.
“Why now?” I’d asked Mom when she found me there in the morning, the fire still cradled in my hands. It had come so naturally for Quint. “I don’t know what I did different.”
She touched my forehead, sticky and hot. “Brujería is not forced, mijo. It’s a natural feeling, a letting go.”
Right. Let go.
I stop my gulping—Tonalli need not breath. I stop my thrashing. I let the current of cosmic energy rushing all around me, carry me instead. I bend with it. Twist it. Then flow with it as the moon grabs water until I’m not drowning, or falling—I’m rising. The Tonalli lifts me up and out until I’m high above the red river where I find Quint at the lip. The river spits him out, and drops me beside him, breathless and gasping, but alive. Finally arrived in the Land of the Dead.
There is no true ground in the Land of the Dead. Just more layers of city stacked over the next with Mexica pyramids or modern skyscrapers. The Xoloitzcuintle from the living world leads the way. Her face still a ragged skull, but now links of femurs and hooked ribs armor her body. The space where her guts had been is full again, and across her throat blooms a necklace of fat and glowing marigolds.
I’d spotted other Xolo dogs like her at the river. They ferried across the liquid small boats with weeping figures, or bargainers—those who think they deserve more of life than everyone else. Some of the passengers sat quietly with peaceful resolve. Our Xolo had found Quint and I bickering—Quint about how he didn’t need my help getting out of the river, me saying that next time I’ll let him drown. The Xolo’s bark was what shut us up. She said, “Can you see you’re missing one of you?”
Fuck!—the river had taken Emiliano. Because of course, this would happen to him. Always stumbling or lagging behind—complicating what should have been a simple journey. Quint was already heading down the river shouting for Emiliano, but Xolo barked at him. “You’re still living souls,” she said, “with so much Tonalli flashing like a beacon for the Alebrijes that must now be following our scents to eat you whole. We can make it, but we must hurry before sunrise.”
She scampered up the slope and waits in the mouth of an alley between two pyramids, the residents of which are watching us like confused little Día de los Muertos skulls. I followed but Quint hesitated, his jaw knotted, eyes fixed on the river. I was ready to leave him too when a roar split the clouds.
“There’s no time!” Xolo barked. “We must leave now.”
Quint followed, saying nothing for a long while as we’d hurried after Xolo, deeper, deeper into the city’s maw.
Now the streets of Mictlān bow above and below us, the sidewalks carpeted with flower petals red, yellow, purple, blue. We follow Xolo like the candles that orbit her, bending around corners, and skirting down dense city streets, our foot falls dropping, lifting, making no sound on the cobblestone. I never look up for more than a glance; too long and my human eyes would crisscross until there was no up or down, and near and nigh would cease. Some blocks are dense concrete buildings, others wide open prairies with plazas and pueblos—we pass through one where the skeletons that live there hang out their mortal memories to dry. Xolo tells us not to touch them, or we could get stuck within them and forget that we ever were our ourselves.
Sometimes we pass skeletons sitting on porches of empty homes while others dance together through the night. Their hollow grins telling me that they’re waiting for something still. I wonder if that’s how I looked on bus rides back home, hollow eyes and all. Never moving out of LA, because I couldn’t abandon Mom—couldn’t just drop off my family’s history behind, because then what would I be?
Stars bend across the sky, the night shifts from black to heavy purple. Quint bitches about how much time we have left, and I snip, “How about you leave it to me and the dog and just chime in when we need help, okay?”
He clenches his fists. All these years later and still the oaf can only feel through them, lest any other sign of emotion be deemed Pussy Shit, echoing Luis, Dad’s father, like a kid in an adult’s jacket.
Of course, I was the idiot who thought I could rely on my brothers now, even when I never could before. I was the one who proofread Mom’s emails, who helped with her taxes. Who moved, but not far, far away like them. The only one who can do what needs to be done.
“She’s in the ninth realm with all the other souls,” I tell him.
Quint laughs. “And what makes you so sure? Lemme guess, you read about it in a book?”
Funny. For once I don’t need to be smarter than him to know; it’s just a gut feeling.
He came for me, now He’s taking me home. I love you all.
There was no home in Mexico to go back to. Mamá Cuca’s house crumbled with no one to tend it. I’d thought of her dreams and knew the Lord of the Dead took her. Why would He bother with the route of mortal souls? No, she’s in the city’s heart.
“I just know,” I tell Quint. To Xolo I ask, “We’re almost there, right?”
She nods but Quint’s still going. “And the journey back? Or did you forget about Emiliano?”
I haven’t. But he’s going to think his way is right, still trying to squeeze into that void that Dad left to be the Oldest Brother. Never minding that he calls himself American first and Mexican second, that Quint fits more comfortably over his bones than Cuetlachtli. I could tell as soon as we got here that he does not belong. Then the realization slaps me. “You swam to the edge of the river,” I say. “The river didn’t try take your Tonalli.” I thought we were at least still family. “But you don’t have any Tonalli to take, do you? You closed yourself off.”
No, that’s what stings—he is still family.
I clench my jaw. “Oh, you fucking bastard.”
That’s what starts it—our clash of verbal blows all over again. Lacerations so familiar they might as well be artifacts. My stronger brujería; his accusations of Mom favoring me; my hate of his tokenization of us, his immaturity, his shame of us.
Our shouting catches the curiosity of the ever-bored skeletons on their balconies until a roar breaks us apart again—the Alebrije. An amalgam monster with eagle feet and eyeballs blinking in its wings. It crashes down between the buildings—claws at us with talons. Xolo barks and we follow her, weaving through the narrow streets of the dead around corners and archways, the walls pressing in. We vault over steps and carts, the Alebrije’s teeth scraping the gaps of air behind our heels until Xolo kicks open a door to a house that maybe looks like Mamá Cuca’s before it crumbled to dust, and we spill inside, shut the door. Hold it there while the beast pounds-pounds-pounds on the other end.
“What the hell are you doing?” a woman calls from the dining table across the room.
“You know, hell is a rather a poor choice of words,” I huff.
“Always a smart ass,” she says and immediately I know that voice. Still holding the door shut as the beast rages outside, I look across the living room to the table in the kitchen where she sits with a mug in her hands.
Soul of passion, knowledge, community; inhabits the heart.
When Camilo had called me last week to tell me the Lord of the Underworld had taken Mom, I was drunk. Drunk and sticky at a queer bar, so far gone that I couldn’t feel the buzz-buzz-buzzing in my back pocket, let alone hear my thoughts; the brujería pounding against my skull. Mom, Camilo, or Quint never saw me like that, knees scrapped and drenched in glorious glitter. Not when our family dinners had been only full of jokes or chastising, none of us opening up or exposing our feelings the way we could a corpse’s ribcage with our magic.
We didn’t talk about these things. If I’d started it, then all their eyes would be on me. Drinking me in.
It wasn’t until Camilo’s fifth call that I finally peeled myself away from my friends—the first I’d ever had, who were all some flavor of queer too, and understood how in a normal setting with voices talking over me, how small I shrank—I answered the call outside in the night air that smelled like fresh rain. I told Camilo I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t even fucking speak Spanish, but he’d insisted. “We’ll need all our Tonalli, Emiliano. Together.”
Now I’m alone. Small again. Walking in darkness, desperately dragging a jagged, chewed up fingernail along my wrist, again and again until my skin splits and warmness trickles out. I suck it up, swallow the bitter metal flavored Tonalli and with its power snap a spark between my fingers. Gone in a flash.
I drag my nail again—again! Arm throbbing, and wetness dripping off my fingertips. I tell myself: Ignore the dark. Swallow your fear. Never mind that you still sleep with the night light on because even in your dorm room with another person there, you’re still afraid of being alone. I make my way through snap-shot glimpses of whatever temple the river spat me out in. Azteca ruins, tiled paths and narrow walls. I make a deeper cut this time, muscle screams and the snap blazes out! It roars through the ancient tunnels, I yelp, and the flame puffs away again.
I kick the wall and the whole temple rattles. Shudders and spits its laugher back at me: They left you. Forgot you. Useless you. Always in the back and ignored, Emiliano.
“Shut up!” I shout into the dark.
The echoing stops. But it’s right though, I shouldn’t have come. Not when my magic is weaker than Quint’s or Camilo’s and they just brushed me off the whole way over here anyway with Yeah, yeah, Emiliano, we know, if they even said that at all. I should have stayed away.
In the silence someone else’s sniffles reach me from the dark.
“Hello?” I mutter, then louder, “Are you okay?”
More weeping, a loneliness I know deep in my bones. I snap my fingers again for a spark of the narrow alleyway, and head towards the cries.
I find her among ruins and starlight. Her soaked white dress and long stringy hair. The weeping woman crooks up at me from across the emptiness and watches me with wet eyes.
“Ol’ Broken Face said I’d find you here.”
I ask her what she is, and she smiles with blood stained teeth. “Someone who’s ripped apart real men much braver than you.”
That should have terrified me, but I’d heard her sadness. I say, “You’re lost. Like me.” When she blinks, I tell her I’m looking for my Mom, my brothers.
She howls, “AAAAYYYEEEEEEE MIS HIJOSSSSSSSSSSS” so loud the sky quakes. Her voice tears open her throat, and between her sobs, she stares me down. “I lost my children once.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. She’s no older than I am. I close the space between us, close enough to touch damp flesh. “Maybe I can help you look for your kids while I look for my mom.”
Fingers inches from shoulder bone, she growls, “I won’t play no brujo tricks.”
I pull back, hands up like I have no gun at all, and truth is I don’t. Wouldn’t dream of it. “No tricks,” I say. I try and force a smile, “or treats. I’m not a real witch anyways.” I never was. I don’t share my family’s memories of Dad before he was sick, or Mamá Cuca in her twilight. I came too late and too young. Raised too American to understand the foreign brujería buzzing on my fingertips. Always on the outside of them looking in.
“You don’t want to go where they’ll be,” the Weeping Woman says, quietly with a softness in the glint of her eyes. An understanding. Or regret. “He wants you all there when the time comes. But you can still find your way back to the living while you can.”
I consider it. Then I think of all the fights between Mom and Quint, or Mom and Camilo, or Camilo and Quint, or any of them with me. How I just know we would all say “I’m sorry” if that phrase was as easy to conjure as spells and tricks.
“No,” I say, stepping back. “Show me my way to them, please.”
Tears dribble from grieving eyes. She points towards a dark and far away temple that scratches the sky. “That way. I’m so sorry.”
Soul of instinct, reaction, will; inhabits the liver.
Cigarette smoke had hissed through the cracks in his teeth, and his eyes watched me from the recesses of his skull, all his seventy-three years of life hanging off him in loose skin.
“Your mother will be drinking out a mug you’ll all think is champurrado.” His voice was breathless, rasping, like obsidian slicing stone. Luis. My Grandfather. I was broad shouldered, larger than most people with a gut Mom would poke, and lonjas she’d pinch always with her, “Ya necesitas hacer mas ejercicio.” But Luis was an arrow point of a man, standing taller than me. Skeleton-thin in his black suit, hat, shoes.
“I’m getting old, mijo. You gotta get that mug for me, your old man. Porque tu eres mi nieto.” He squeezed my hands tight with care when he said it—no hugs, no useless words, a solid squeeze.
My brothers didn’t get that about Luis. He was a man from a different time, a veteran, and with calloused hands. He never gave a shit about Latine or Latinx the way my brothers insist on, not when Luis was busy providing for his family. Sucking up his dreams. Becoming a man.
And Luis saw the man of the house I was working to be.
I’d told Luis where I was heading when he asked why I need to borrow money for a flight. Money was tight, and I’d be damned to ask Camilo for a loan. Camilo would peck at me until he so smugly got what was owed to him. And Mom owed Grandpa something big.
“When she married your father, her magic was to be shared with my half of the family,” Luis said, his cigarette stink curling up my nose. “But Mamá Cuca was a jealous woman. Jealous of the roles de hombres. But this is how. Things. Are. Brujas always try to keep from us the power that by blood right should be ours. She turned your mother against me, and when my son passed, she convinced your mom to hoard all that magic for herself and you three and drove you all away from me. But in the underworld, what’s left of her magic will be served in her champurrado. Bring it back, son. To me. And together we can help your magic grow strong again too.” His smoke hugged me, his trust, his pride.
“I won’t let you down.”
I’m watching the tazita on the table now, where Mom set it down. Camilo’s already on his feet beside her, urging her to get up now and go-go while more and more beasts claw at the walls from outside. But Mom’s not budging. She’s sitting with skeletons that must be Papá Ernesto with his bomber jacket, and Mamá Cuca in her black and red huipil flowing off her bone shoulders to bone toes. She’s between them, dark skinned still with night-colored hair, she’s there waiting for me. For a second, I think Dad. I search the room for any other skeleton but he’s not here. It’s only them.
The Alebrijes outside slam harder. The whole pueblo trembles. The tazita is still there, small and brown with little orange stones pressed into the clay. Steam rises from within, all that raging and powerful magic of my mother’s and abuela’s and so on, all right there in that little cup.
Camilo tries hauling Mom from her chair, shouting and swearing while tears slick his eyes. “We came all this way,” and “Mom, I’m not fucking around, let’s go.” But Mom half laughs, half cries, and says to us, “Mijos, I can’t go back.”
Take it and run as fast as you can! Back the way we came with the Xolo dog and fuck Camilo for dragging me down here. He’ll end up fine anyway, he always does. And maybe I’ll find Emiliano too and he’ll forgive me and I’ll give the tazita to Grandpa, let him drink Mom’s magic so that I won’t lose him either, and then we’ll rebuild the pieces of us together. Without the ties to the sentimental or soft or domestic. Camilo be damned. He never bothered to call once I moved out, and Mom’s already here. All those years of her telling me to lose weight, to be more diligent like Camilo, to stop it with the country music, the podcasts she called “basura,” my line of work she thinks is traitorous. I just have to take. That. Cup.
My fingers brush the pores of its clay handle when Mom finally shouts over Camilo, “Don’t you get it, mijo, I chose to stay here!”
For once Camilo has nothing to say. Then again, neither do I. And if I did, it doesn’t matter. The Alebrijes rip open the walls and pull down the floor. The whole house, with all those family ghosts, and memory portraits of my brothers and me as kids, Mom and her sisters as kids, Mamá Cuca as a kid and so on—the ones I’m just noticing now—all of it crumbles and falls.
And we all plummet down, darkness swallowing us whole.
The voice scratches through the darkness. I think it’s Luis at first.
STAND UP AND FACE ME, THOSE OF YOU WHO DO NOT YET BELONG HERE.
I open my eyes and find the strength to stand among the pueblo’s rubble, I look up and meet His: stars twinkling far away in the black hollows of His skull. His face a grin, tobacco smoke curling out between bleached teeth. I know who He is. Even when the Xolo dog bows and calls him Señor, I know the Lord of Mictlān. I’ve always known him. We all have. He watched us grow, He Who Bows His Head, the Scatterer of Ashes.
We stand before him in the belly of His massive throne room. The Lord of the Underworld leaned forward in his throne, a lazy hand resting on his charcoal thigh, his headdress shifting slow and heavy with him. Owl feathers dragging against the stars. The symbol of the dead is sculpted into the crown’s center disk, each jewel gleaming around it heavy, large enough to squash us whole—us who’re so small in the shadow of True Essence.
Camilo is on his feet, helping Mom up. He shouts at the Teotl, “We came to bring her back.”
Mictlāntēcuhtli points one dagger finger to the sun burning far, far away at the ceiling of His temple. IT IS ALMOST DAY LIGHT, he says. ONCE THIS SUN LEAVES, YOU WILL BE MINE TO CLAIM. ALL FOR A MORTAL WHO CAME HERE WILLINGLY?
Camilo and I turn to Mom, and I realize how much taller I am than her. That down here in the darkness and bones she looks more like Mamá Cuca than the scared twenty-five-year-old who I imagined held me in her arms while another child was growing inside her. With a husband who chose to love her even after his father told him not to marry some immigrant girl. I see how tired Mom is.
And I’m disgusted with myself for having swiped the tazita into my jacket. I hand it back to Mom when I ask her, “What does He mean?”
Rootedness; the lived truth of self, extending through Tonalli, to community, cosmos. It is felt, and lived, and understood. This is love.
What to say to them? Your sons.
Like when they were babes and they’d ask you why the sky was blue—you didn’t know. Something about light refraction? You’d said it was because blue was the color Quetzalcoatl chose to paint it. Or like the time Cuetlachtli asked how it felt to be in love the day he confided with you about a crush—you thought you didn’t know. How could you have explained to him then what it was like to meet his dad? A man who was kind with his words but sharp with his wit. Who even after you showed him how you could fold the stars and sea still joked that you were full of trickery. Who reminded you of all the ways you thought men couldn’t be—gentle. Sea-shell coarse to finger touches then soft when your fingers pressed in. Sentimental for plants, and soil, and the pictures he took.
Gone before you knew what Love Forever truly meant.
How you’d wanted to die that night and journey yourself with your soul slung heavy on your shoulders down the mountains of grief here to the City of Bones. You, little Orpheus to find your Euridice. To look down the Teotl Lord of Death Himself, as you do now, and demand he give your lover back.
But you knew dead was dead. And you had your lifetime gift of him. And had three more lifetimes still, each with big brown eyes and soft baby fingers jittering with magic twine all looking up at you asking, “What are we going to do?”
You stayed. You trisected your soul into threes and loved each one. You brought them to your home you’d grown up in, to help them harness that gift you’d passed to them as your mother had to you. A gift of brujería—a power from the soul—and the soul is more than the self; it’s a pouring out, a pulling in. This is what their grandfather never understood—why he’d never look in to find what’s already there, waiting to be harnessed even if you’d aimed him to see it—that the soul is so much more than one body, one self, one life.
How do you explain all that to them? When they’re still so young?
Even though Cuetlachtli’s older than your love when you married him, and Camilo’s still trying so hard to be strong. How do you tell them that they grew up, and as they did, you’d cut away training wheels little by little without them asking, or noticing, because that was how to best teach someone to ride a bike on their own? Even if you didn’t always do it right. And they felt your cuts as lacerations now laid bloody and raw before the Lord. But you continued trisecting your life until you were splintered shards. You didn’t even notice the hollowness until Camilo visited your empty apartment like he always did and asked, “What would you do with yourself now that we’re all moved out.”
You let the question hang between you.
“You could open a restaurant,” he’d added. “Or finally go to Machu Pichu, or Europe.” All the things you were too old, too tired to do alone. And brujas cannot survive alone.
So you gathered your owl heart, bat skull, spider legs. You burned the masa and incense and whispered the Word to cast your spell and summon Him. He took up all your sight, from corner to corner of your Los Angeles apartment and you told the Lord of Death, “Allow me to become an Alebrije to find my love and my brujería is yours.”
His eyes shimmered in his sockets. I’VE SEEN YOU FROM BLOODY BABY, TO MASTER MOTHER. YOUR TONALLI RADIATES IN ALL THE COUNTLESS BEINGS YOU TOUCHED, RIPPLES OF LOVE STRETCHING WIDE. YES. I WILL ACCEPT YOUR DEAL.
You’d shaken that cold, bone hand.
How do you tell your children that? That you’re still on your quest searching for their father, your lover, somewhere in this sprawling other side of Mictlān, and that they cannot join you, not yet, because their lives are not yet lived?
You don’t. The Lord does for you and when He asks if He’s correct, you nod—gutting Camilo, his Tonalli which burns full of rage and passion. Fury he’s had since childhood. How do you tell him that he’s enough? How do you tell Cuetlachtli you’re sorry? Or Emiliano, wherever he is, that he’s the best of you. Speaking these feelings was never you, when handholds, hugs, cooking with fresh chiles and herbs said it better than you could. This time you tell him, “You have to go on your own, mijo.”
To the Lord above you, you look up and stare him down as you had the day he took you, and the day your husband died, and say, “Let them return home.”
Mictlāntēcuhtli laughs. EH-HE-HE-HE-HE-HE-AH escaping smokey teeth. His jaws snap open. THOSE WHO COME WILLING RISK TO STAY. THE STARS MUST RETURN TO ME, AND THE SUN TO BEGIN ITS DAY.
THEY’VE RUN OUT OF TIME. AND NOT ALL THREE ARE HERE. TELL ME, LITTLE MOTHER, WHY I SHOULD LET THEM RETURN TO WARMTH?
“Because I’ll wager you!”
His voice echoes across the empty hall. By the whisp of it, the fear quivering under his volume, you know who it is. How long has he been here? Emiliano staggers forward from the dark. Standing tall as if he too could take up as much room as the Lord of Death himself.
WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE? The Lord asks with curious eyes.
Emiliano askes the Lord about the mug in your hands—what’s left of your brujería the Lord let you keep, that keeps you from becoming bones like the rest of the spirits here—and says the game is simple: one of your sons gets to drink from the tazita. “On three, we’ll choose who get some of our mom’s purest magic. If you guess who we’ll chose, they stay. Here with you. But if you guess wrong, then you don’t really know us at all, and the three of us leave. Together.”
Camilo’s smiling, catching on. Cuetlachtli looking weary. The Lord shifts forward, folds himself knees to chest to get down low enough, his feather crown swallowing you all.
Emiliano stands firm. “I suppose I do.”
The Lord rises. Stands far and wide and drags up the macuahuitl resting against his throne. Long and heavy, He raises it above his head, the weapon’s edges glistening with hungry obsidian teeth.
You fight against every fiber in your body to shield your child when the Lord chops the sky—brings the macuahuitl down—crashing down at the base of your son. Not over him. He’s trembling, eyes shut with his breath sucked in, but he’s still there.
The Lord laughs again with a wicked grin. ALRIGHT, YES. I’LL PLAY YOUR GAME.
Your Lord taps a finger to your chest, sending his answer reverberating into your bones: Emiliano.
And so you watch the game; your three halves spreading away from each other over the rubble of your home, until they’re a perfect Mexican standoff with their hands at their sides, ready to point—to choose who’ll get your magic at the feet of the Lord of Death. Camilo who can’t seem to let him just be himself, who won’t let Cuetlachtli have it. Cuetlachtli who can’t look past himself. Emiliano who they’ll chose. You want to step in. You want to tell them STOP IT! Can’t bear to see him stuck here with you, but this is not your fight—all you can do is watch them shoot off their choices at the count of three—
Cuetlachtli points to Emiliano. Emiliano to Cuetlachtli. And Camilo—also picks Cuetlachtli.
You all sigh with relief—no. Not relief. With breath. Life.
Mictlāntēcuhtli laughs laughs laughs with his toothy grin. A LOVELY GAME! He declares, before giving Cuetlachtli the tazita and snapping his jaws open once more to swallow the stars.
BUT NOW THE NIGHT IS ENDED.
With a final look with those burning eyes, far way inside the darkness, He smiles and says, LEAVE. AND I’LL REMEMBER YOU THREE WHEN WE MEET AGAIN. IN DUE TIME.
Whiteness erupts from the room, swallowing the Lord, His throne, pillars, the rubble too, and slowly your sons. All of them turn to you. “Mom…” they say. But there’s no chance for a hug. No goodbyes either. They have the other side, and you have your quest, so you smile, and you wave, and you tell them, “See you later.”
A lifetime from now.
© 2022 Matthew Olivas