By Maryanne Chrisant
After I lost Sébastien and my baby to the fever, I found myself on a bench in El Trebol bus station. I knew I was waiting for the bus to Antigua, where Sebs and I met. We weren’t of Guatemala City. His ghost won’t walk these streets. I don’t know the time or how I got to this bench, but I must be on that bus. I check the inside pocket of my jacket. I have my ticket. Its presence is reassuring.
The bus pulls in, rolling to a stop in front of the benches. It’s an old U.S. school bus, painted over in electric blue with white waves, the name “Blanca” elaborately scrolled on the back. I join the clutch gathering at the narrow steps. The women wear traditional Mayan clothes, their richly-colored huipils heavy with embroidered flowers. Some have babies slung over their breasts and hold the hands of anxious children or the hands of men in worn jeans and shirts carrying small sacks or chickens. One carries a baby goat. They are dark-skinned, dark-haired. I have blond hair. Una canche. My skin is pale, even with a tan. I’ve lived several years in Guatemala, but I’m a foreigner in this land.
The driver, middle-aged, portly, and whistling, stands at the door. He glances at my ticket and waves me on board. The bus fills quickly. I unstrap my backpack and take an empty seat directly behind the driver.
“Eso es todo,” he grunts as he sits, adjusts his brimmed hat, glances in the rearview mirror, and finds my eye.
“American?” He points to me and smiles. He has one gold tooth in the front of his mouth.
“Yes. Sí,” I say and smile.
He looks at me again and pulls his right earlobe.
“Solo tienes un pendiente.”
I reach my hand up to my right ear and feel that, indeed, I’m missing an earring. My left is intact. It’s a silver serpent circling back to bite its feathered tail—a round Kukulkan, the powerful Mayan god of knowledge. Sebs had given me these for a birthday long ago.
The driver nods, starts the engine, drives. He is reckless, keeping the speed pegged at sixty even around the narrow mountain roads. After an hour the delicate asphalt hum is replaced by a cobblestone rumble. Antigua. Ancient. Earthquake ruins share streets with salvaged houses and vacation homes. Some time ago we lived here.
At the station the bus doors open with a thump. I rise to exit, wanting to be the first off. The driver takes my arm, I think to help me down the steps, but he tilts his head closer.
“El bus sale al amanecer.”
“Dónde?” I ask.
“Chichi,” he says, nodding and passing me on to the level ground.
Chichicastenango. We live there. I’ve been sleepless the last many nights, thinking about Sebs and my baby. Thinking I had to get to them. Now I have a ticket on a bus that leaves at dawn.
It’s coming on dusk. Mount Agua is gray-purple, sitting in a smoky ring of clouds. I walk from the station to the square, thinking streets are familiar but never certain. Sébastien feels closer here. I see him in the crowd of people moving through the square, the Plaza Major. I follow the man but as he turns, I see it’s not him and look away.
The electric lanterns are coming on. The crowd thins, absorbed by the bars and restaurants. I have no money. I sit on a bench. Soon I’m one of a dozen; then I’m alone. I listen to human sounds—laughter, music, singing— and pull my denim jacket closer around me as the cool mist of Mount Agua settles down for the night.
A clock chimes. Midnight.
I feel invisible. I don’t know what day it will be when I awake. I fall asleep on the bench.
A rooster crows just before dawn. Restless morning sounds wake me. I wash in the fountain and walk, quickly, back to the terminal for the bus to Chichi. The same driver waits for me at the door, smiling.
“Buenos.” He smiles, touching the brim of his hat. He helps me up the steps. “Llegas tarde!”
I nod. “Sí. No dormi mucho.”
The bus is full. They look like the same people who got on the bus in El Trebol. The man with the chickens, the man with the baby goat. The women with their children. They are all silent. Even the chickens. They’re all looking at me. My seat behind the driver waits for me. The driver looks in the rear mirror and nods.
“You sleep not much. Sleep now. Ve a dormir ahora.”
I sleep, immediately.
The trip takes two hours, up the mountains to Chichicastenango. I wake as we pull in. Buses pick up and drop off passengers in the parking lot of a gas station. This town, these streets weren’t meant for buses, for tourists.
A few blocks away, the white cupola of Iglesia de Santo Tomás Apóstol hovers in a pure blue sky. The church was built in the sixteenth century atop a pre-Columbian temple. We had a little house nearby.
I don’t recognize the streets.
“Al mercado,” the driver tells me as he helps me off the bus. He nods and points. “Mira a donde vas!”
He’s not smiling.
I must walk through the Plaza y Mercado. It’s crowded. Hot. Noisy. Stalls, some covered by blue plastic tarpaulins or umbrellas, are set up in haphazard rows. They display flowers, woven clothes, vegetables.
Santo Tomás sits at the top of the plaza. It must be Sunday. The Catholic Mass is being said. The heavy wooden doors are open. Holy songs sung by the Spanish-speaking ecclesia drift through. On the stone steps people kneel and pray over burning pots of copal incense, used by the Kʼicheʼ Maya for two thousand years. The heavy, sweet smoke stains the portal black.
Inside the shadowed church the ceiling soars above, impossible to see. The nave is lit only by candles and a small wood fire a young girl tends near the door. She is kneeling on a multi-color woven blanket, wearing a green huipil laden with sewn flowers.
The girl looks at me and says my name, or I think she does. She recites many names. I don’t hear my baby’s name, Santi, or his father, Sébastien.
So much I don’t understand.
She lifts burning branches and waves them toward the altar, then at me, reciting in Kʼicheʼ. Smoke fills the air around me—copal and wood smoke. I’m swept upward by the deep perfume. I smell like the smoke, the air, this town.
I go deeper into the stone cavern, where it’s cooler. The stone walls, heated on one side by the sun, sweat with age. Two dozen people kneel on the stone floor. A priest says Mass at the altar. I hear the words “Dia de los Muertos.” He is saying the Mass for the Day of the Dead. Then the priest recites in K’iche’, not Spanish.
The Santos populating the altar niches are unrecognizable, saints in poses and holding totems I don’t remember from elementary catechism. There is a Mayan god, present behind a bleeding Christ on a cross, more potent here in the state of Kʼicheʼ. Through the smoke, I meet the eyes of the effigy and see his tears bleeding down his face. I blink and the tears are gone.
The heavy air is suffocating. I try to walk toward the door, but my feet stutter over the stones. I pass an old woman. She’s sitting cross-legged on the multi-color blanket and wearing the same green huipil as the young girl. Her face is a wrinkled apple, black eyes disappearing in folds. She nods and recites Kʼicheʼ words. She says my name.
I stumble down the stone steps—uneven and long-used. The townspeople praying by the door don’t look at me. I lean into the shade, against the wall of the church. I breathe. I need a mental railing to hold.
Today is the first of November. Dia de los Muertos.
“There are three deaths, mi amor,” Sébastien had told me. “The first is the death of the physical body. The second is the burial, when no human will ever again see your face. The third and the most terrible is when you are forgotten. Every year, on Dia de los Muertos, we remember our dead.”
I remember my Santi and Sébastien in Chichi, sick with fever. How they looked when they fell ill or when they died—I can’t remember. I wasn’t with them. I couldn’t get in.
The quarantine. The town was closed for forty days. I came back as soon as I could. I wasn’t in time.
I shiver. I’m here now, on this day, to remember them.
I arrived on the bus maybe an hour ago. It was morning. I spent a few minutes in the church. Now the sun swings past the midpoint. An afternoon sun.
I’ve lost track of time.
Surveying the market, I find a face that looks like a tourist, a blond man in sunglasses with a pack slung over his shoulder. He’s about my age. I push my way over to him.
“Excuse me, do you speak English? Spanish? The quarantine—when did it end?”
He doesn’t seem to hear me or see me. In the press of the crowd, he pushes past me and vanishes.
I look at the market crowd, people moving and buying and selling and moving, always moving. I’m pegged where I stand. The crowd flows around me.
In the sky I see kites flying, a flock of bright, round birds.
The kites are over the cemetery.
Is this what brings me here?
No. A bus brought me here.
I walk out of the crowd and down the stone road, following the kites.
Chichi is a bit of a time warp. Like Brigadoon, bound to appear every hundred years, unchanged forever. A town out of time. I was talking about this with…
I can’t remember.
I walk through streets that aren’t as familiar as I want them to be. Every small street, narrow as a lizard tail, looks like every other street, and the houses don’t have numbers. You just have to know where you’re going. Without Sebs, I was always lost. Sebs would lead me home. I have no home without him and the baby.
I feel faint. I find an archway and stand out of the sun. I have no water. I’m not thirsty, just—faint. I’m wearing my denim jacket and take it off. I stuff it into my pack. I should be sweating. My white T-shirt is dry.
I start again, following the kites, ahead of me but closer now. Big, round, and brightly-painted. They’re beautiful. I stare at the sky and walk on. At the edge of town, I find the cemetery. There are raised mausoleums made of cement, painted pale green, blue, pink—like pastel marshmallows or Easter candy.
At the entry gate I stop.
Inside there are clusters of people flying kites, picnicking. It’s a celebration of the dead, for the dead. The kites are a link between worlds. They invite the dead to the feast.
I haven’t eaten since—when? Before boarding the bus at El Trebol.
Perhaps I’ll find Santi and Sébastien. I take a step in.
On the small rise I see a man holding a kite. He looks, he moves like Sébastien, but older. His long, brown hair is streaked with gray and pulled back in a ponytail. He’s not as lean as Sebs. He has a boy with him, about twelve. This boy is slender and graceful. His hair is light brown, almost blond. He runs sure-footed and pulls at his line as his kite catches the wind. He angles it on the breeze, keeping it aloft. The father cheers him on. I start to move toward them as a woman walks up and puts her arms around the man, cheers the boy on with him.
I stop and turn back to town.
I wander the streets and find the market. It’s busy, crowded. I don’t want to be there, but the crowd moves me forward. My backpack is jostled. No one seems to notice. I should need water and food.
Street corn is cooking; a young man turns the ears on a black pan over an open fire. In the pocket of my jeans, I find an American coin and place it on the cart, reaching for a cob. He raises his hand up and shakes his head. He holds out a cob with his tongs.
“Un regalo,” he says, but he struggles to make enough.
“No, gracias,” I say.
I walk, following the main paved road out of town past ramshackle homes. I come upon a cornfield where a toothless man prays in Kʼiche’ over crosses, Mayan gods, and more burning pots of copal. I do not know what he says. He nods at me and raises his hands to heaven, then he points me down a path.
“Mira a donde vas,” he says.
I follow it along to the other side of the cornfield. It opens onto a road leading out of town. I don’t remember this road. On the left there is the side of the mountain, cut to make way for the coming of the roads. On the right is a precipice, leading over diminishing trees.
Along the edge I find small gifts—a statue of Kukulkan. A single cross, then, in a few steps, more crosses and wilting flowers. Many crosses. Crosses stamped with the same date, over and over. Hard to read now. It’s been years since they were inscribed. Many people died here, all on the same day. It seems there was an accident.
I walk toward the cluster of crosses and look down. Something glints, half buried near the road. I squat and brush the dirt away. An earring. Kukulkan. The silver is tarnished. It’s been here some time to develop the hazy black patina. I pull but the earth won’t let go.
It can’t be mine but it’s identical.
I feel like I’ve done this before.
Looking over the edge, there’s a line of broken trees, damaged long ago. An old school bus lies on its roof. It’s rusty and badly mangled, metal torn and faded paint scratched clean off in many places. A shortcut taken by a reckless driver.
This scares me.
I back away from the edge, get on the road and head to town.
In the parking lot of the gas station, I see Blanca idling. My bus driver stands, whistling, at the door, his hands in his pockets.
“Ah!” he says as I approach. “Te he estado esperando.”
Why would he be waiting for me?
“To where? Vamos a donde?” I ask.
“Yo no se.”
He shrugs. He smiles.
He gives me his hand and I climb on board. The bus is full. The passengers are the same. The women with their babies and the men with their livestock are all there. My seat is waiting and I sit down.
The driver stands by the door. He sees me looking at him.
“Eso es todo,” he says, nodding, whistling.
I turn to look out the window.
Where do you suppose we’re going?
I shake my head.
I don’t know.
The fever. The quarantine. The bus.
The sun is tired and is hovering at the edge of town. The driver begins the slow meander through the narrow, cobbled streets. I stare out the window. Small groups of people are coming back from the cemetery, carrying kites and picnic boxes.
I see him then. The man who looks like Sébastien. He holds the hand of the boy in one hand and a food basket in the other. The kites hang across their backs. The woman walks next to him, carrying a baby. Their baby. Their shoulders brush comfortably. They are close.
The man who could be Sébastien looks directly at the bus as it creeps past. We are separated by just a few feet and the bus pauses.
He looks at me—
I see his eyes. His mouth. I would know his eyes, his mouth, in life or in death.
Sébastien is alive. He’s—older.
He takes a step and he raises his hand to me—
I put my hand on the window.
He steps closer and moves his open hand toward the window. For a fraction of a moment, our hands align.
Then the bus moves forward.
His hand falls. His eyes fall away.
He smiles at the boy, the woman, the baby.
When I look again, he and his family are growing ever smaller as the bus rolls on.
Sébastien and Santi survived the fever. My baby, my son, knew too little of me to remember. Each minute that passes I’m further away, but Sébastien will always remember me as I am now—
I will never be old.
I wasn’t in time. I’m not in time.
I’ll never be in time.
It is Dia de los Muertos. Each year the dead return but only for one day.
As long as Sébastien remembers me.
I take my hand from the window.
I look at the driver, his face set, driving now on the main road. In the back of the bus, the people, the babies, the goat and chickens are silent.
Copyright 2023 Chrisant