My essays have appeared in Best American Essays (Notable Essay), the Christian Science Monitor, Hungry Mind Review, and in anthologies including The House on Via Gombito: Writing by North American Women Abroad, and An Inn Near Kyoto.
Excerpt from “The Days of the Dead”
In the Valley of Mexico,
human beings feel themselves suspended
between heaven and earth.
Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
Driving down the valley of Oaxaca, between the Sierra Madre of the east and of the west, I see yellow flowers growing in ditches, shooting up among corn stalks, taking over fields.
“What is the name of that flower?” I ask. Pedro can’t hear above the roar of the bus, so I shout. He still can’t hear, so I shout again, then everyone in the seats in front of me chants,“What is the name of that flower?”
Pedro laughs. Our guide from the Oaxaca Cultural Center, he is a young Zapotec man in studying medicine at a nearby university. He raises the tour bus microphone to his lips, but the mike doesn’t work. He tries to say the name over the noise, then shakes the mike and frowns at the bus driver who apparently is in charge of the bus and all its accoutrements. The driver peers more intently at the road.
Pedro unscrews the microphone handle, presses a ballpoint pen into the bottom, and holding the pen there says through the crackle,“It is called ‘socheeteel,’ the death flower.”
I already have my notebook out. Pedro sees me trying to write the name of the flower. He laughs and stumbles down the aisle. The yellow flowers streak by on both sides of the bus, some six feet tall, a blur of color. He takes the notebook out of my hand and writes “xochitl” and “semposuchitl,” two names as everything has: the original Nahuatl name—from the ancient people—and the Zapotec name, and sometimes a third, the Spanish name affixed by Cortes.
“Yellow is the color of the fields in November. The xochitl bloom every year for the Días de los Muertos.”
I sit back, let my head rest against the cushions, and watch the fields. This pilgrimage, which I have longed for and dreaded, will begin with the xochitl.
It is odd that I have come alone, odd that for this celebration, which draws families together, I have had to leave mine. It was wrenching to kiss four-year-old Peter in his bed and surprisingly painful, regular traveler though I used to be, to say good-bye to my husband.
For some years the Días de los Muertos has intrigued me. During the days surrounding November 1 (elsewhere Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls Day), many in Mexico prepare to welcome the souls of those who have died. It is a time of carnivals outside village cemeteries and merry-making among the graves; a time when death is mocked with skull-shaped sugar candies and tiny, palm-sized sculptures of skeletons dancing or driving cars, playing in a band or sitting in a dentist’s chair. Families prepare beautiful ofrendas, home altars of fruit and flowers, setting out the favorite foods of a deceased father or sister or child to invite their spirits to return. In the corner of any house, over sprays of xochitl and offerings of tangerines, pan de muertos, chocolate, mole, two worlds meet. What if the notion of family included the living and the dead?
The mountains move slowly past, blue in their nearness, and I turn toward the window. I have come a long way with my own grief. After seven years, I thought I would no longer carry the son and daughter who were born prematurely, each dying at birth. I thought time and distance would absorb them, as the invisible wind disperses small clouds at the horizon. But they do not disappear, the lost children, the twins of birth and death.
I hoped this trip would ease the ache in my heart. I had no idea that it would send me on another journey—into my own deep spiritual past to the place where my ancestors cut themselves off from art and ritual. Why did they reject everything the fiesta embraces? In the gathering of flowers, the wild night of the comparsos, the carnival outside the graveyard, the silent vigil at the ofrenda, the Días de los Muertos stages an encounter with the creative forces of life and death.
But for the moment, I am on a bus riding down the Valley of Oaxaca. The yellow flowers streak past my window. The mountains hold villages and rainstorms in their pockets. The radiant fields zigzag away from the road.
“The xochitl,” says Pedro softly. “You do not have to plant them. They spring up everywhere.”
Excerpt from “The Days of the Dead,” by Margaret Todd Maitland, published in An Inn Near Kyoto: Writing by American Women Abroad. Copyright 1998 by New Rivers Press. Reprinted with permission.