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Roy Kesey

The Holidays Here

It does not seem fair that Halloween and the Día de la Música Criolla with its attendant competitions and All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead and my daughter’s birthday must all be dealt with in the course of only three days, but this is how things are, and for now I must buy candy, and will, though I am exhausted--in two of three classes today I taught the set phrases of functional language. These set phrases are of course mainly irrational and incoherent and I hate them. For example, the phrase ‘Now then.’ Now? Then?

Even my one non-functional-language class went badly, the students giddy and loud and slipping through my fingers like eels, my listening exercises worthless given the new wooden platform on the lawn at the center of campus. All day long there was music--tondero and marinera and landó and festejo, though true criolla means only a guitar and a cajón and at least one voice. Sometimes there are also spoons, and the jaw of a burro, and do not ask what the spoons sound like: it is impossible to say.

The lyrics are patriotic, nostalgic, enamored, defiant, and the only thing that saved me was my students’ occasional overflowing joy at pretending to be what they are not. In my Intermediate class we drilled the hateful phrases chorally and individually, and then I assigned the roles: customer and manager and waiter or waitress. They wrote and memorized their lines, and recited them for me, five scheduled minutes per group but they went to ten and fifteen; they delighted in improvisation and would have continued for hours if I’d let them, serving each other plates of delicious imaginary fried chicken. They laughed at their mistakes and cheered at each idiom well used, each cleverness, each deft performance. It was heart-rending. I mean this. It rends one’s heart each time.

I stop now by the store, and all they have left is individually wrapped Halls throat lozenges. This will not be a cause for concern: in the cities and towns of northern Peru, Halls are considered candy. I buy enough for a year’s worth of sore throats, step outside and am assaulted by unaccompanied children, and perhaps there is not a problem, here, with madmen who slip razors into apples, who dust candy corn with rat poison. Perhaps the insane--and there are many, riding buses, driving taxis, in CREMPT and shouting on the corners--perhaps they all go suddenly benign on Halloween.

The children do not wear readily identifiable costumes, and are not content with knocking on doors. They demand candy from passers-by, and cars stopped at stop signs, and drunks collapsed in alleys, and one must give them the candy they ask for or they will say, No seas malo. Do not be evil. This is what they say regardless of whether or not the person to whom they speak is guilty of any evil large or small.

Also, these children do not shout Trick or Treat! Instead they shout Halloween! I fight through them to my house and promise their candy will soon be ready and slam the door in their painted faces. Then I take up my daughter and hold her. I thank Casualidad for her good work today and every day, pay her and escort her to the entryway. I eat the dinner she has left ready on the table, bite after slow bite until the pounding and screaming can no longer be ignored.

I put Mariángel in her new baby-backpack. It would appear that she loves Halloween, or perhaps she loves only to ride on my back, the spinning as I turn to the door again and again. In spite of the quantities I purchased it is not long before my Halls are gone. ‘Agotado’ is the word for that here. It is the same word one uses to express exhaustion.

And now there are only a few hours of second-round dancing left to be seen at Club Grau. I lock my front door, shift Mariángel around to my chest, fight back through the children in the street and flag down a taxi. I observe the taxista carefully as he could well be the one I am looking for, but it turns out that he is not: instead he is an excessively tall man who hunches over the steering wheel, his head almost touching the windshield.

There are many costumed people spilled in the parking lot of Boby’s. Each year the club hosts a Halloween party, all one can drink for twenty dollars; only beer is served, with only one man serving from beside a single keg. There is a contest as well, with a plane ticket to New York as top prize for best costume. My friend Reynaldo spends weeks designing clothes and appendages that will enable him to impersonate an alien from the year’s most popular science fiction movie. He invests unreasonable sums in his materials, and loses annually to an engineering student from Trujillo who entered the university nine years ago and has three years at least left to go. Second prize in the contest is always an electric sandwich-grill. Reynaldo has given me two. At some point the student will either graduate or be expelled, will move back to Trujillo, and then, Reynaldo says, the ticket to New York shall be his.

#

There are hundreds of other spectators like me, so little right to be here, though we have been invited, we have all been invited; the small coliseum stepped in cement is full, but in Peru there is always room for one more, I have found. There are small twinkling lights strung across the open space above us, mostly red and green bulbs though Christmas is still two months away. There is much gold- and silver-spangled bunting, and the spectators have sorted themselves into groups, each from a specific town and dance-club: Sullana, Chulucanas, Chiclayo and Trujillo, even Lima. They have cowbells and horns and tambourines, and the noise as they cheer is a vicious abyss.

There are dozens of vendors, and I buy juice and a chicken sandwich though I am not at all hungry or thirsty. It would appear that the fifteen-to-eighteen-year-old tondero dancers are about to begin. I am sorry to have missed the youngest dancers. Most of them are not a great deal larger than Mariángel. Beside me sits perhaps the smallest of all, her thick mascara streaming from her eyes as she screams.

The dress for tondero is simple, yes. Both the boys and the girls are barefoot. The boys are in loose white trousers tied with rope at the waist, loose white shirts and wide straw hats. The girls are also mostly in white, knee-length dresses with bits of color here and there. Some of them bear clay pots on their heads. I have never seen one fall.

The music begins, minor-toned, a military band filling space with horns and drums in ways a guitar and a voice could not, and the dancers start onto the floor, one pair after another until all six are weaving their slow circle around the coliseum, seducing the judges and the crowd, seducing me, but as they draw close their mothers stand and block my view, their cameras and cowbells and shouting. The only way to make them sit down is to throw relatively heavy objects.

Mariángel struggles at my chest; I turn her to face outward, and now she is content. The word ‘tondero’ is not Spanish, I believe, but I am not sure what else it could be. It is also not Quechua. Could it be Malgache? And the three-part dance, glosa and canto and fuga, is modeled on the movement of chickens. There is nothing more preposterous or beautiful that I know of. The music is repetitive and suggestive, all smile and hip, all beseech and coquette. The boys wave vast handkerchiefs and sweep with their hats, inviting the girls to notice. The girls have their own handkerchiefs, equally vast, dipping and twirling; they lift their hemlines ever so slightly, mark the rhythm with their hips, scrape the outside of one foot back and forth across the ground, and this same movement, I have seen it in the villages outside of Piura, when a man or woman is embarrassed, or wishes to appear so.

The boys dance bent at the waist, spinning around their partners, hoping to catch their eyes, and the girls flee them, but slowly, slowly. Their gazes meet and fall away. They advance toward one another and retreat, her skirt lifted still higher, her bare ankles blurred in the dance, the handkerchief held high. A circle is made, him searching for the encounter, her keeping it not quite at bay. Both are now rasping the ground with their feet too quickly to be seen, and they spin together, spin tighter, gather into one another as the final beat of the cajón echoes off our sweaty faces.

That is only the first half of the dance. The drum roll ripples, rises and falls, and everything happens again. I watch until the music ends and the cheering bears down on me, cuts at my side, takes my breath. When it calms there is a time of waiting, and the winners are announced. I buy another chicken sandwich.

Now it is time for the marinera, but if I watch too closely all the women turn into my wife, and that is not something I am willing to risk. Marinera is more graceful than tondero, more urban somehow. The dancers move straight-backed, smiling but formal. The steps were modeled on tondero but have been smoothed and gentrified. The night Mariángel was born, the nurse took her away to clean her, and the doctor told Pilar to rest; I slept for perhaps an hour on a bench in the lobby, and then woke and went to the viewing room, and Pilar was already there, had dragged herself along the floor from the recovery room, calling to no one, trailing blood, had pulled herself up to the rail to watch Mariángel sleep.

The music progresses minor to major to minor. The women wear vastly colorful dresses, sapphire and teal and fuchsia with gold and silver braiding. The men are in something not quite like tuxedos, and there is a drum roll to start the dance, each pair face to face and I turn to the crowd. There are dancers who are done and others waiting to start. There are also many parents. And the mayor is here with his wife; the beautiful house he is building with municipal funds originally designated for sewer systems and law enforcement is almost finished, or so I have heard. Last year at this competition he danced with his wife during the intermission; he is a fine dancer, as is she.

Pilar danced every year at this competition and never won or even placed. It was in this coliseum that I saw her for the first time though she was at that moment my student, three months already in my classroom, and each day I had failed to see her.

Do not forgive me. I am unforgivable.

Here in the coliseum was a different thing. I watched how she danced, and she was too brusque for marinera, and still I could not look away. She would have been better dancing tondero, I am sure of it. Did no one think to tell her? And when she came to class the following Monday--her pronunciation as always indecipherable, her random use of the past and present and future, her insistence on the continuous forms as if there were no other option, her avoidance of modal verbs as if there were something to fear in could and would and should and might and will--now I could see her, because I had seen her dance.

How to explain that marinera steps so closely match those of the caballo de paso? These are horses that move in ways I have not seen elsewhere: no bounce or surge but pure smooth forward movement, the kind you have seen only underwater. They seem docile until ridden and are then exuberant, and flick their hooves to the side with impossible speed. Is this motion natural or taught? I have heard it explained both ways.

The dance builds now, the seduction and love, the smiles never faltering, the bodies held erect, all color all movement all grace, and the final flourish as Mariángel begins to cry. She wants simply to be home. That is enough for me. I beg the pardon of everyone on my way down through the stands, I brush their shoulders and they turn but are too surprised by my size to say anything at all. Here my bulk is astonishing, even to people who know me well.

Past the mayor and his wife, the vendors, and past the dancers still practicing: these are the oldest ones, beyond the age for such things. Their make-up cannot hide what time has done to them. Perhaps they have been dancing since they could walk and still have never made the winner’s podium, and even now it is so very unlikely, they do not dance well, but still for some reason they hope.

I wish them well. They know the odds, and still they hope. How could that be anything but beautiful? It is also heartbreaking, of course. I smile as I edge past, a smile for each of them, then out through the gates. The streets are not so full now; there are only a few children left, a skeleton standing on a corner, a ghoul hunched in an alley.

There are several individually wrapped Halls scattered on the floor. Perhaps I was not careful enough. I sing to Mariángel and set her in her crib; I return to the entryway, gather the spilled lozenges and go to the back patio. The almond tree is nearly barren, and there is a lechuza, silent and watching. I eat the lozenges one after another, holding them at the back of my mouth until my throat is numb.

#

Saturday morning is not a comfortable time. Mariángel does not want her juice, and my singing, four straight Silvio Rodríguez songs, has no effect. I put her in the backpack and twirl around the living room until I am dizzy. This also has no effect, and perhaps she is teething again. There is in fact swelling back along her gums, and there is a cream I have bought for such occasions; I daub some on my finger, rub as indicated, and she bites me, draws blood and quiets slightly.

Now it is time for the cemetery. Past the Virgin in her glass case, past the empty warehouse where the rats breed and breed and occasionally climb the walls and drop into my back yard. Rats do not see well in bright light, or so it would seem: more than once I have been standing in the kitchen and watched them run from the back patio into the house. If I remain still they run straight toward me, and it requires no great effort to kick them against the wall and beat them to death with a broom. Even when I miss, which is often, they are not hard to track down, as once indoors they always run along the edge of the closest wall. Perhaps they are guided by their whiskers.

Past a chifa and a primary school, past the enthusiastic nuns and sad but willing schizophrenics playing volleyball in the dirt yard of CREMPT, past houses that must have been beautiful once but are now in ruins. In front of the cemetery gates is something of a carnival. There are dozens of vendors: most sell flowers, and the flowers are beautiful, every possible color and size, flowers from the coast and the mountains and the jungle, roses and orchids and sunflowers and hundreds of others whose names I do not know.

In addition to the flower vendors there are people selling pastries and cookies and cotton candy, ice cream and snow cones, soft drinks and beer and many varieties of emoliente, a sort of tea made with roots and vines and spices. One kind of emoliente is said to cure liver ailments, and there are others for the kidneys and bowels and heart. Each has its own distinct taste, and they are all equally repulsive.

The other vendors lining the outer wall sell candles, shrouds, cardboard images of saints and angels. I push past them, and the cemetery is vast though the dead are no longer buried in single plots. Instead they are buried in niches set in great structures of whitewashed cement. The structures reach ten and twelve stories high, and each niche has a ledge where flowers and candles may be set. There are also great lengths of extension cord, so that electric lights may take the place of candles for any who wish.

Past the small chapel, and now there are dozens of young men with bamboo ladders. For a small fee they will take their ladders to the niche one needs to decorate, will wipe away the year’s worth of dust, will place flowers and candles in whatever pattern one desires.

Pilar’s tomb is on the lowest level, just off the ground. Mariángel and I sit for a while beside her. The ground is not comfortable, but tonight we will bring blankets. I sit and watch the young men and their ladders. I place my hand on the large smooth cameo that bears Pilar’s picture, then go to the flower vendors and ask for one of everything.

They smile when I say this, smile and nod and say, Very well. When they are done with their gathering I have more flowers than can be carried in one trip, so I pay two small boys, too young for ladder-work, to help me get them to Pilar’s tomb. They laugh and joke as they stumble under their loads, but not a single flower falls. When we arrive they ask how I want them arranged, and I tell them that any arrangement must be my work alone. They are happy to hear this, and thank me when I pay them, and run back to the gates.

Arranging as such is of course not something I can do. I simply stack, and Mariángel helps me, and she is as good a stacker as I am. We do our best not to worry about color or size or shape, and the mound of flowers rises until it has covered the front of the niche, all but the picture. It is what we can do for now.

When we return tonight there will be fewer flowers; many will have been taken by others who lacked the means to buy them, or the inclination. Unless something is protected by armed guard, here, it is considered public property. This is not the problem it might seem to be, not today: there will be fewer flowers, and still enough.

#

Mariángel loves to walk unsteadily toward any movement: the leaves and flowers swaying, the birds that land, occasional butterflies. She walks toward the birds, and her presence does not seem to bother them. They will not let her touch them, but they wait until she is inches away and reaching before flitting up to the wall.

When it is dark I dress us both. Out into the street, and a taxi to Club Grau for the finals. But something is not right; the night feels loosely hinged. Twitchy and sad I watch a round of tondero and a round of marinera, children nine to eleven years old. The lights flicker overhead, and the announcer’s microphone fades in and out, and all we have are fragments.

I push down the steps, begging the pardon of those whom I bump, ignoring their stares. Back at the house I pack a large bag with blankets and pillows, with sandwiches and bananas and a bowl of warm oatmeal, with juice in cartons, with diapers and plastic bags. I take out an aluminum pan, and into it I put the smaller of the two birthday cakes that I have baked.

Again we walk, and there are more people now than before. At the gate I buy three dozen candles. They are slim and white, but joined together four at a time they will not be put out by the wind.

Inside the cemetery is something of a solemn circus. The honeycombs are lit with electric bulbs of many colors. There are clusters of candles, and flowers have been woven into wreaths and hung. The chapel is filled with people. Each mass said for the dead plays into the following one, they become a swath, and the swath will not end until sunrise.

Couples walk arm in arm, calling to old friends. Along the walls of the niche-clusters there are people seated on the ground. They are mostly very old. They pass bottles back and forth, and rarely speak.

In places also there are babies; they cry from time to time, and are quieted. Their older brothers and sisters cannot be made to stay still, and have sorted themselves by age. The youngest run shrieking from one place to another, gathering melted wax into large grayish-white balls that later will be used for games, the rules hewn mid-play. Other children, slightly older, gather in circles to wish that they were elsewhere. Still others, still older, have already met their boyfriends and girlfriends, are gathered in pairs to kiss deeply in the long and flickering shadows.

I find Pilar’s niche and spread the blankets on the ground. Fewer flowers are missing than I had thought. I prop Mariángel up on the pillows so that she will be able to see everything, and she goes immediately to sleep. I nod to those at the niches to either side, and wave to friends from the university as they walk by.

One is allowed to sleep here, and many do. Those around me pray and drink and whisper. I wonder why Pilar’s parents and brothers have not come up from Chiclayo--perhaps it is a facet of some custom with which I am unfamiliar.

The candles burn slowly down. Reynaldo stops by; he is here for his parents and grandparents. I ask if he is going to be able to make it to Mariángel’s party, and he says that he will, and I believe him because he does not pause before answering. A Peruvian who pauses before saying Yes is in fact saying No. This can be a cause of great frustration, but does no harm once everyone involved knows the code.

Reynaldo pats me on the shoulder. I must look sadder than I feel, because he says this:

- The first one is the hardest. The rest are not so easy either. But they are easier. A little.

I say there is nothing to worry about. He nods. He rubs his eyes and gestures at those around us, the old men and women now gone quiet, drunk or asleep.

- This must be very strange for you.

- Everything is strange.

- Yes. Did you hear about what happened at Boby’s?

- The contest?

- You know Máximo Yerlequé, the engineering student?

- The one who always--

- Yes. He went as the Phoenix. Weeks ago he told me how it would work, as he always does, to make me suffer. His wings were all possible colors, and inside them he put fireworks of some kind that would explode and burn away the feathers. Beneath that he had another suit, the gray of ashes. And below that was still another layer, the same as the first but even brighter than before. It was unimaginable.

- And you?

- I went as an alien from Men in Black. It was among the best I have ever done. Beautiful leather work. You should have seen it.

- Which alien? The giant cockroach?

- No. That was the most remarkable alien, yes? But I am not sufficiently tall. So I went as another--a sort of large armadillo. How do you say armadillo in English?

- ‘Armadillo.’

- Ah. Very similar.

- Yes.

- Do you remember this creature?

- No.

- Of course you do. From the beginning of the movie. The one that pretends to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico. It has the immigrant’s head on a stick, and when it attacks, Mr. Tommy Lee Jones shoots it with his special gun, and the creature explodes. There was a blue substance all over the border guard. Marvelous.

- I remember now. The armadillo.

- Yes.

- Was it good enough to--

- It was a marvelous costume. The eye-stalks of different lengths, they were perfect.

- But was it--

- Of course not. Not in a fair contest. But the Phoenix never made it to the stage.

- I don’t understand.

- The fireworks went off too quickly and were too strong. They burned through the suit of ashes and into the new plumage. He’s still in the hospital.

- Is he going to live?

- Nothing is certain. He probably will. But the scarring will last for all his life.

- And so you--

- Yes. When classes end in July I will leave for New York. You should come with me. We could start again, together.

- What?

- I will not be coming back. I will take a bus to California. There are buses, yes?

- Of course, but--

- And in California I will find a job teaching chemistry. There will be women, and basketball. You have told me so yourself.

- Reynaldo, they aren’t going to give you a work visa just because you won a contest. You’ll be going as a tourist. They won’t let you stay.

- I will not ask their permission. I have months to find work there before I go. And if nothing comes through, I will simply go and stay. There are thousands of illegal immigrants there, perhaps even millions.

- That is not the life you want.

- How would you know? Who are you to tell me what kind of life I am to want?

I wait for his anger to dissipate. Two history teachers from the university walk by, stop to say hello. When they are gone I try again.

- Reynaldo, I am happy for you. I am very, very happy. But you must plan this. There are jobs but you must have them arranged before you leave, or you will end up picking grapes for the rest of your life. Is that what you want?

- It would be better than what I have here.

- Perhaps. But remember what happened to the armadillo.

There is nothing more to be said. We watch the candlelight. Then without smiling he says goodnight.

Other people come and go. They are generally not unhappy. When the bells ring for midnight mass, I kneel in the flowers and place my hands on Pilar’s picture. Then I take out the birthday cake, set a candle deep in the frosting, light it, and wake Mariángel in order to sing to her. There is a lovely custom here. The night before someone’s birthday is called the quema, the burn: at midnight one’s friends gather in order to sing. They sing "Las Mañanitas," and they sing "Happy Birthday" twice, first slowly and solemnly in English, and then vigorously in Spanish. It is splendid and incomprehensible:

Éstas son las mañanitas
que cantaba el Rey David,
a las muchachas bonitas
se las cantaba así:
Despierta, mi bien, despierta,
mira, que ya amaneció.
Ya los pajaritos cantan,
la luna ya se metió.

These are the words, and they lie: there are no birds singing, and the moon has not yet set, is still razor-like above us.

This does not matter. The first line I sing alone, but as I begin the second line I am joined by other voices, only a few at first, then many, the song gathering strength as those to my left and right join in, and others come, drawn by the song, twenty or thirty people, there are harmonies slipping up and down, and it is impossibly beautiful.

When the song ends they draw even closer. Some have brought candles, and they place them in a rough circle around the pillows that hold Mariángel. Someone starts in with "Happy Birthday." We plod together through the English version, and sprint through the Spanish.

Mariángel leans to the candle, and I blow lightly past her. The flame gutters and goes out, and there is applause from all over the cemetery, rippling through the clusters, echoing in waves around us. I lift Mariángel, and we are both kissed by each woman, and the men pat my shoulders. I break the cake with my hands, tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces until there are only crumbs in the box, and I give a crumb to each person, and they take it on their tongue like communion.

When this is done they wander off, smiling, calling to one another. I sit back down. Slowly the crowds thin. Soon no one passes by at all, and there is snoring coming from either side, a new sort of chorus.

I remember a dream from a week ago, or perhaps more: I dreamed of this very night, we were all here, hundreds of us, we were buzzards come to feed on the dead. The niches were open and the bodies laid out as if in state. We fed, I fed, my face wet with blood and bile, pressing down into the ribcage of the body I had chosen, and the rule was that one could feed only on those one had lost. I’d thought I was breaking the rule, was feeding on someone I had never known, but when I pulled back, my hair caked with gore, it was Pilar’s body, and I could not stop eating, I plunged back in, my teeth tearing at her intestines, the ragged fringe of skin around the hole in her abdomen, the blood black in the candlelight, and the others in their hundreds crowding around me--all the other dead had already been eaten. I tried to fight them off but their great black wings beat me down, and I woke to the sound of wind keening through a thousand wingtips.


Roy Kesey was born in California, and currently lives in Beijing with his wife and children. "The Holidays Here" is an excerpt from Pacazo, his novel-in-progress. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Georgia Review, Other Voices, and The Iowa Review, among other magazines. His dispatches from China appear regularly on the McSweeney’s website, and his "Little-known Corners" meta-column appears monthly in That’s Beijing. His first book, a novella called Nothing in the World, won the 2005 Bullfight Media Little Book Contest, and will be published in May of this year.

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