ON THE COOL OCTOBER MORNING when Cayetana Chávez brought her baby to
light, it was the start of that season in Sinaloa when the
humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and
falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the
corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.
On the big Santana rancho, the People had never seen paved
streets, streetlamps, a trolley, or a ship. Steps were an
innovation that seemed an occult work, stairways were the
wicked cousins of ladders, and greatly to be avoided. Even the
streets of Ocoroni, trod on certain Sundays when the People
formed a long parade and left the safety of the hacienda to
attend Mass, were dirt, or cobbled, not paved. The People
thought all great cities had pigs in the streets and great
muddy rivers of mule piss attracting hysterical swarms of
wasps, and that all places were built of dirt and straw. They
called little Cayetana the Hummingbird, using the mother tongue
to say it: Semalú.
On that October day, the fifteenth, the People had already
begun readying for the Day of the Dead, only two weeks away.
They were starting to prepare plates of the dead's favorite
snacks: deceased uncles, already half-forgotten, still got
their favorite green tamales, which, due to the heat and the
flies, would soon turn even greener. Small glasses held the
dead's preferred brands of tequila, or rum, or rompope: Tío
Pancho liked beer, so a clay flagon of watery Guaymas brew
fizzled itself flat before his graven image on a family altar.
The ranch workers set aside candied sweet potatoes, cactus and
guayaba sweets, mango jam, goat jerky, dribbly white cheeses,
all food they themselves would like to eat, but they knew the
restless spirits were famished, and no family could afford to
assuage its own hunger and insult the dead. Jesús! Everybody
knew that being dead could put you in a terrible mood.
The People were already setting out the dead's favorite
corn-husk cigarettes, and if they could not afford tobacco,
they filled the cigarros with machuche, which would burn just
as well and only make the smokers cough a little. Grandmother's
thimble, Grandfather's old bullets, pictures of Father and
Mother, a baby's umbilical cord in a crocheted pouch. They
saved up their centavos to buy loaves of ghost bread and sugar
skulls with blue icing on their foreheads spelling out the
names of the dead they wished to honor, though they could not
read the skulls, and the confectioners often couldn't read them
either, an alphabet falling downstairs. Tomás Urrea, the master
of the rancho, along with his hired cowboys, thought it was
funny to note the grammatical atrocities committed by the candy
skulls: Martía, Jorse, Octablio. The vaqueros laughed wickedly,
though most of them couldn't read, either. Still, they were not
about to lead Don Tomás to think they were brutos, or
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