Months before the disaster I stood at the vista above those squatter huts. I imagined myself inside, feet on a dirt floor in the windowless dark, the corrugated tin roofs pounding like a thousand bongo drums when the afternoon rains came. What a way to spend a life, I thought. Se vende, for sale, read the realty sign by the road. Back then I thought the sale would be nothing short of liberation from misery for those people. Zapata himself would rise from his grave and shake the seller’s hand. The property beckoned its own demise, waited a row of pastel colored condos, gardens manicured with bougainvillea and tropical blooms.
But mostly I remember the quiet of the place, as though its inhabitants had suddenly abandoned the site for no apparent reason, other than poverty itself. It waited its new era.
I passed by the settlement many days over, during my morning jogs, but this time I stopped, and that is where my story begins.
It was a third way up the hill, along the old salida a Querétaro road. Spray paint had scrawled jamas, never, over the for sale sign along the road. I looked both ways, and then walked in between the shacks to the ridge on the edge of the property. A panorama of gothic spires, ochre domes, cypresses and shade trees between houses opened up before me. I scanned the horizon. Vast open plains led to the Guanajuato hills.
A door hinge squeaked behind me. I turned around. A boy had come out of one of the shacks, looked at me. He stared at me until I smiled, then ran to his mother who stood at the end of the hut. He buried his face against the side of her dress. The mother looked at me, smiled, wrapped her arm around the boy. Her long dress embroidered with colorful flowers enveloped his silhouette. He looked back at me but held onto his mother.
‘¿Cerraste la puerta, hijo?’ she asked, ‘Did you close the door?’
She smiled at me once more. She had piercing hazel eyes that invited a thousand voyages to exotic lands. Lipstick covered her full lips, her hair was tied into a bun, long silver earrings dangled between waves of jet black.
Mother and son turned away, walked between the houses to the road. Her figure, a wisp of fabric that waved like curtains in a breeze, faded down the hill.
I stood there, as though another apparition was going to make its way through those squatter walls. But only the silence returned.
I walked to the ridge, turned and looked at the property. A row of about twelve shacks stood in two rows. Some of the wood walls looked new and were tightly interlaced. Others were worn fence boards with cracks that didn’t stop the neighbors from peeking. Some homes had more planks as roofs, but most had corrugated tin, Mexico’s signature brand for the poor.
The irony of the place was the view. Below, colorful tiles covered turrets, vaults with archways led to courtyards with water spewing from gargoyles into stone pools, church domes jutted between houses, cypresses pointed above rooftops, grand ficus trees spread through villas.
I turned and walked between the houses back to the road. As I passed the door of my new acquaintances I noticed a crack; the door lay un-latched. I stopped. The drone of a car engine rose and faded.
Then I heard them, distant clanging, but loud, church bells that echoed through the valley. I wondered if I’d imagined them, they seemed to appear like a dream, but they were loud and made me shudder. That sound that beckoned one to some unknown place, but there was something about my footsteps here, before this door, that seemed familiar.
I looked over my shoulder, put my foot to the door, pushed it open. Light shone onto a table, like a baroque painting. The church bells continued at intervals. I searched for anyone looking. Even then as I stepped through that door, I thought I had crossed some unknown precipice, like a hint of a distant dream one cannot remember.
I left the latch open, scanned the darkened room. Two framed beds, pots and dishes in a large plastic bowl appeared. A small beam of light shone between two wallboards onto a pine table. The light beam ran along the table’s edge, as if scanning an important object it couldn’t find. I moved closer, knelt down. Before me was an oil painting of a woman in dress. I slid the tin retablo to the edge, into the beam of light. I moved my finger along the white muslin shawl of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her eyes were closed and her hands were crossed against her bosom. I ran my fingers down the length of her dress. Beside her lay a candle and two roses in an earthen vase.
I crept along the perimeter of the walls. A dark frame enclosed a picture on the wall. An outline of a mother and child. I grabbed the frame, lifted it off the hook, and moved it to the beam of light. It was the woman and child who left the hut. As though they had just left the picture; the flowers on her shawl, her arm wrapped around the boy.
I placed the picture back on its hook and walked to the door. Another shadow appeared on the wall. An outline of a young man wearing a traditional serape. I couldn’t make out his face in the dark. Several buttoned shirts lay across the metal headboard.
Voices from outside the hut broke the silence.
‘Jesus,’ I whispered. I paced the floor, as though an escape door was about to miraculously save me. The muffled voices continued. I knelt down, slid on my back across the hardened dirt under the bed. The voices seemed to crescendo near the hut. My breathing and pounding ears drowned them. Saliva stuck in my dry throat.
The door latch creaked. Black shoes stepped forward, shuffled and turned before the corpse crashed onto the bed above me. The coils gave way, pressing against my chest. The man made a deep sigh, then lay lifeless for several minutes as I lay and tried to breathe without making a sound.
Soon the body rose. Clothing shuffled against skin. I saw the movement of shoes. The door swung open, the man stepped outside.
I lay there and listened. Silence. I lay for a long time, listened to my now heavy breathing, then inched sideways across the hardened dirt, until I was on open floor.
The silence of the place returned, as though I had witnessed the last intrusion of a vanquished ghost.
I stood up and walked to the door, opened it slowly, peeked my head outside. The passageway lay empty and quiet again. I closed the latch behind me and stepped along the shacks to the ridge, then kneeled down. Breathed deeply, listened. The place was quiet again.
‘Jesus,’ I repeated, shaking my head.
I looked down the hill, to a grand villa with pink walls covered in orange trumpley vines and purple bougainvillea. My breathing subsided. I saw an enormous mesquite entranceway of a villa, an arcade through the archways along the front entrance, a cobbled road that meandered into town. She’ll want that, I thought, that’s why we came to San Miguel.
Voices broke my reverie. I listened for a while, but the sounds were faint. I stood up, walked along the ridge to the end of the squatter huts. I placed my ears close to the wall of the last hut.
‘Hijo, hijo, my child, my child, not again,’ came a hoarse, tired woman’s voice. ‘We left this misery, and now you want to start again?’
‘We did not leave everything to be.’ The voice paused. ‘I need to do something. For you, for papa. For the family. For everyone here. There is no other choice.’
‘Hijo, hijo, have you forgotten your savior?’
‘When these people take over, there will be no savior helping us.’
The female voice broke into choked sobs.
‘Please don’t, hijo. I cannot lose another son.’
Silence. I waited. Finally, the man’s voice broke,
‘We will not lose our home again, momma.’
‘Marco, Marco!’ The woman’s voice was now only a helpless plea.
A door screeched open. I turned and rushed along the ridge, veered around a hut and waited. A man passed between the houses in front of me. He was short and stout, had raven hair. I edged forward and peeked around the last hut. The man walked down the road towards El Centro. I turned to the woman. She appeared frozen in her long dress and leathery wrinkled skin, as she watched her son as he disappeared down the street. Dark circles covered her drooping eyes that looked on as though staring at a deceased loved one moments before the coffin closed.
The silence returned, the walkways between the huts lay empty. I crossed the street. The figure had diminished as it descended. I walked along the sidewalk until I was half a block behind my new acquaintance Marco, then kept pace with him as he descended. The road curved, Marco turned, walked onto Calle de la Grita. I walked to the corner, peaked around a mortared wall. The man continued at a steady pace, zigzagged through an intersection to Calle Hospicio. I followed, on the other side. He never turned back. He turned another corner to Calle Recreo, then darted across the street and stopped before a grand pine door, rang a bell. I looked at him, out of the corner of my eye. Marco waited, then turned suddenly. I sensed his eyes on me.
At the end of the street I turned around. It lay empty, save for a pick up truck near the door where Marco went in. I could wait, I thought, till he comes out that door, but it may be a long wait. I peeked around the corner, and then decided to walk the street for a while.
It was a street of many in San Miguel. Meandering cobble roads, mesquite and pine doors, ironed grill covered windows, pastel pink, burgundy and white walls. This street veered to Parque Juarez where grand pecan trees towered to a small flock of egrets that landed for a rest. Above, the October sky was blue with a hazy stretch of dissipated cloud. Rows of pink and purple bougainvillea covered wrought iron railings. The warm breeze blew down the street against my face and the rippling leaves of the trees sung the song of eternal spring that brought so many gringos who sought refuge from cold winters. I walked along the bougainvillea vines for a while, then returned to Calle Recreo, towards the house the man had entered.
A motor revved around the bend. The truck that had been parked came down the street towards me. I kept my eyes straight ahead, but as the vehicle approached I shifted them towards the cab, locked glares with the man from the shack. My heart banged into my throat as I looked away. Where had I seen that face before? My mind raced through places I had been, but couldn’t make the connection. And after the truck passed I thought it may be better for both of us, or at least for me, that we not meet again.