Lamentation in Chiapas (cont.)
A graveyard dream
The next day, we arrived early at the aunt's house in preparation for the removal of the casket to the cemetery and the burial ceremony there. The flowers had begun to wilt a bit in the heat, and ice water was constantly being brought in to keep them cool and wet. This was a lost cause. They were doomed to the same fate as the young man in the casket.
I longed to be able to help do something, to keep busy, to avoid sitting in the front room with the silent mourning women whom I felt I was somehow disturbing by my mere presence. Where were the men, I wondered? I made the sign of the cross a few times, hoping that would be taken as a sign of my solidarity with the grieving women. I wanted desperately to join them, almost felt that it was a necessary thing to become one with this wave of intensity and emotion, and yet I knew it impossible. The aunt and one of her daughters spoke in hushed whispers for a few minutes, the only break in the silent morning vigil.
I tried to signal in to my friend in the kitchen that I needed some more coffee, but she did not see me and, despite myself, I began to nod off. I remember hearing someone lightly singing some plaintive melody in that state of half-sleep, half-wakefulness for a period of time of which I cannot be sure, perhaps two minutes or perhaps half an hour.
Finally, a caravan of vehicles arrived noisily outside and the absent men and boys reappeared to gather up the dead man and the mourners and transport them to some other place. I quickly revived myself and tried to help with the casket, but I got in the way more than anything else, so finally desisted and just waited to climb onto one of the trucks with everyone else. A plump little woman asked my assistance in getting on, then thanked me profusely afterward. There was no gate at the back of the flatbed truck, so I took up a post there with several of the men of the family and helped form a human gate to keep people from falling off. Another of the many cousins, a young man of about 25, grinned at me as he held fast to my shoulder to brace himself, and another held to his shoulder, and so on. I was inordinately cheered by this little comradely, masculine display.
The late morning sun was beating down fiercely on our heads, especially on my newly-shaved pate, and the road was dusty and heavy with exhaust fumes. Two of the young men to my right, quietly spoke of the work done and still to be done in the matter of the boy's death, in that way that confident, uncomplicated men speak of the labor life sets them, the labor that winds up being the meaning of their lives.
The caravan of trucks and cars stopped finally at a big cemetery on the fringe of the city, neatly separated from it by a two-lane peripheric highway that circled Tuxtla. I had never seen palm trees in a cemetery before, and this somehow seemed an incongruous thing to me. I read headstones as we walked toward the little open iglésia just inside the cemetery where the formal funeral ceremony was to be held.
Compared to the lengthiness and somber weight of the wake and the various ritual activities that had taken place at the house, this was an exceedingly brief event. The whole funeral mass was recited in about twenty minutes, punctuated here and there by low sobs from the womenfolk. Despite this brevity, the cool shade of the little church and the breeze that entered through its nearly non-existent walls easily lulled me into a drowsy stupor, still uncaffeinated as I was, and I hallucinated again in that stage between waking and sleeping toward the end of the mass, half hearing the words of the celebrant and the responses of the congregated as a drifting veil of sound.
A strong wind rose from nowhere and swept into the church. I was borne aloft by this wind and carried wordlessly out of the building, seemingly without anyone else noticing, for the ceremony continued just as before.
In seconds, I was floating weightlessly over the cemetery, looking down at the tombstones and palm trees and at the scattered mourners here and there who were just starting to exit the church and who failed to realize I was hovering above their heads just as they had apparently not seen me take aerial leave of them in the church. I stabilized in my flight for a time there, and the mourners silently began walking toward the gravesite of the boy. I was by now perhaps fifty feet over their heads.
The mourners walked slowly, somnambulistically, and I could hear the whisper of their speech from my vantage point, although that should not have been possible. Suddenly, I started to drift higher and away from the cemetery. I began to call out to my friend, ineffectually. I was now heading outside the city limits, drifting vaguely toward the south, getting farther away from the church but still capable of seeing the mourners distinctly, though, again, I realized that this was against all laws of human sensory capability, as the distance between us now had to be very great, perhaps a mile or more.
I cried out at the top of my lungs. Nothing.
Something strange, though. I shouted again. I realized that I now could not hear my own cries, as though I were myself too distant from their source for the sounds to reach my ears. Of course this makes no sense. I then began to be afraid for the first time, the fear jolting through me like an exceedingly cold liquid drunk too quickly on a hot day. I was getting dizzy, the distance between myself and the ground increasing much faster now.
I somehow realized without any explicit consciousness of cardinal direction that I was drifting out of Mexico and toward Guatemala, toward the south and the jungle, toward the deeper, darker unknown mysteries of these people that I would see without knowing or being known. I soared still higher into the sky, further and further from the jungles and the people and their churches and their houses of plain stone and bright colors. Far away, down there on the earth's surface, I saw my friend and the other mourners, standing in a graveyard, many of them had their faces in their hands. Their sobs reached me even in my atmospheric perch at the top of the world.
In the background, somewhere at the periphery of my attention, I could vaguely hear a babble of human sounds, a language I couldn't recognize, neither English nor Spanish. I imagined it was Nahuatl or Zapotecan or some other indigenous language, and I somehow sensed that things were being recounted in that tongue I did not know that were essential to my escape from this predicament.
A palpable terror grew in me from this ignorance. It was hopeless, I could understand nothing and I was unable to make myself understood through word, gesture or touch.
In that moment, a void appeared in my stomach as I was gripped of a sudden, without warning, by the emptiness that is all that we call communication. We do not hear the others, nor do we understand them, nor do we touch them, nor can we even begin to make ourselves transparent to them, though this is the most desperate desire we have, this desire that consumes us from within and constitutes the very ground of our being. Do we even begin to comprehend the gravity of this?
I suddenly became aware that I was inexplicably falling. The jungle treetops began to come into distinct view as I hurtled toward them at a velocity that I was sure would be sufficient to kill me instantly. In the absence of any witnesses, alone, I watched the ground rush toward me.
Then I came back to my senses, and I realized I had been in that indescribable space between sleeping and waking that is the source of so much of what terrifies us and gives us to wonder. At the grave, we all crowded between other plots and stones, some shaded from the sun under trees, others bearing the brunt of the late morning sunlight. An older male of the family said a few words of goodbye to the boy and thanked the mourners for their support, then closed his remarks with some rather cryptic political statements that I could not fully grasp.
All the while that he was speaking, and afterward, my attention was distracted by the sight of a young man in a torn Oakland Raiders T-shirt who was mixing the concrete for the tomb. His dexterity and mastery of the art was simply stunning. In a little spot of flat ground between two plots, he mixed the substance, then expertly shoveled up successive bucketfuls that he loaded effortlessly onto his shoulder and carried to the gravesite. It was an economy of movement and effort that moved me tremendously.
Here was one young man being buried, his life ended, his family here to weep and lament his passing, and another young man still in the prime of his life, artfully and manfully carrying out his task of preparing the resting place for his fallen fellow.
His seeming indifference to the events around him (the weeping, the mournful words of the family member at the grave, the sight of the casket and the other tombs around us) transformed him in my eyes into a heroic figure, above the fray, wiser than the rest of us embroiled in the frenzy and turmoil of lament and the gnashing of teeth. Here was Hercules mixing the cement for the cousin's grave. A slim Mexican Hercules at the Aegean stables, performing unbelievable physical tasks without breaking a sweat, and clad in a dirty Raiders shirt and a baseball cap.
The sun was at its apex now and shone down on us intensely as he finished his labor. He smiled sheepishly at me when he realized I had been watching him, and I shook his hand on our way out of the cemetery, looking for a sign from this clear emissary of the gods. The emissary just smiled at me again and then went back to clean up.