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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
- Ah. Very similar.
- Do you remember this creature?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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,
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
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
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
Nothing in the World, won the 2005 Bullfight Media Little
Book Contest, and will be published in May of this year.