A Place to Live

Rodrigo has sold the pig. People say his wife is ill, that she has a strange wasting disease, but the homeopathic doctor doesn't know what it is. The homeopath says he treats the mind as well as the body. But the wife's body seems to get no better. I have never actually seen Rodrigo's wife, but he always talks about her. However, while he refuses to talk about her illness, everybody talks about it behind his back so I know that things aren't going well. As for the pig, Rodrigo bought the pig for 200 pesos and yesterday he sold it, for 3000 pesos. Now he can buy medicine for his wife. And pay the doctor's bills. I want to tell him that he should raise ducks. Then he wouldn't have to pay for his quacks. But with his wife so ill, I only tell these jokes to friends I trust.

Rodrigo sells the pig every year about this time. Some people seem to think that I should say that Rodrigo "sells a pig" but he always refers to these pigs as the pig. It is as if he were always selling the pig, the same pig, every year; and I do not want to change the shades of meaning inherent in his use of the definite article. After he sells the pig, Rodrigo spends a week in mourning; then he goes down to the central market, the abastos, and buys the new pig. During that week of mourning, when he is unconsolable, his work standards drop and I have to pack my own garbage, carrying the neatly tied bags to the pedal cart in the yard which Rodrigo pedals to the municipal garbage dump. Rodrigo simply forgets to collect my garbage when he doesn't have the pig to feed. When he has the pig once more, he comes to the apartments every day and I neatly divide the garbage into two categories: edible for the pig, non-edible, ipso facto not really for the pig, though the pig seems to be omnivorous and actually eats anything and everything. Really, it is surprising what the pig will eat, and sometimes I can see Rodrigo busily transferring garbage from one bag to another.

He calls the pig Maritormes, but the American tourists who live in our compound make the pig's name sound like Maritorment. The American minister who comes from the Southern States confesses that he doesn't know why. He says it seems a strange name for a pig. And, as he points out, they're all called the same. And they're all called the pig. Perhaps, he suggests, it's the name of his mother-in-law?

This minister speculates endlessly about this strange, unchanging name for a seemingly endless succession of pigs. Another of my more educated American friends, who apparently holds a degree in the Liberal Arts, says the name comes from a character in a famous novel called, and, as he says to me, with a knowing smile, "I hope I am pronouncing it correctly, Donkey Hotay." Sometimes I wonder if he knows anything about anything. And as for the Liberal Arts... Some of these Americans are the most illiberal men I have ever known. Everything is wrong unless it bears the stamp made in America or cooked in America, or frozen in America and transported here to be cooked (translate: heated) in the American style. These men won't even eat the Mexican hamburgers that are made in the American burger joint I eat in on Wednesday nights because the meat doesn't taste the same as it does in the United States and the Mexican ketchup is spicier.

Rodrigo tells me that the Americans who live here leave very good garbage, especially the missionary who apparently is omnivorous, yet wastes lots of food. The Americans waste lots of water too and the sound of their taps running and their toilets flushing is constant from morning to night. Clearly they are good people and believe in baptising themselves regularly and washing away their sins frequently in the shower. I hear them there several times a day. Rodrigo says that the missionary in particular has left so much good food lying around, going to waste, that this year the garbage has gone straight to the pig's waist with the result that the pig has gotten very fat very quickly. This makes Rodrigo very happy and he smiles at me, his wide mouth opening and his gold teeth flashing. He explains that the more garbage the missionary leaves, the quicker he can sell the pig; the heavier the pig, the more profit there is in the deal. He also says that when he sees the pig lying flat in the sunshine, overladen with a pig's joy in pigging out, he imagines that the pig is actually in the missionary position. But I am not exactly sure what he means by that.

Rodrigo can sell the pig at a profit. But every year, when he sells it, he looks sad. For a couple of days, everybody in the apartment complex is nice to him and, to keep him happy, they make helpful suggestions. "Hey, Rodrigo!" The American missionary said just yesterday, "You don't have to sell the pig, you know! You could sell tickets for the pig. Then you could slaughter it and you could sell tickets for that too. I'd help you to sell the tickets. After the slaughter, you could do a barbecue, real American style, and all my fellow missionaries and their congregations could come round and eat. At ten bucks a convert, US dollars, you'd make much more money from barbecued pig by eating it (American style) than by selling it (Mexican style)."

"In Mexico," says Rodrigo solemnly, "we don't barbecue pigs."

"There's a first time for everything!"

"I don't think you'd all turn up." says Rodrigo. "I couldn't guarantee you'd be there. Once you saw the pig being slaughtered, you wouldn't want to eat it. It isn't everyone who can watch the slaughter of the pig he's hand fed since it was a piglet. And you're all practically related to the pig now, almost brothers, I'd say, as it's been eating your food."

There was a moment of silence as the American missionary considered this remark. However, he is a charitable man, full of loving kindness, and he cast all doubt aside: "For you, Rodrigo, we'd all buy tickets. Then you could roast the pig and we'd all come to the party. No mescal, mind. My people won't be tempted into the evils of alcohol."

"But I couldn't slaughter the pig. I feed the pig every day. It's just like a child." And Rodrigo bursts into tears.

"He's probably thinking about the pig he's just sold." says the American missionary. "After feeding it every day, he sells it to be slaughtered. Then it is turned into bacon and sausages and blood pudding, to be consumed by strangers. Sold, for 3,000 pesos." The missionary seems to treat it as a betrayal as grand as the one that cost thirty silver pence.

I am not a brave person and although I hear these conversations, I really don't like to join in them, neither to defend Rodrigo nor to question the terrible blind faith of the missionaries. After all, they have been called by the God in whom they believe, haven't they? In fact, so rarely do I speak out or turn my secret thoughts into actions that I can scarcely believe I have been brave enough to order the taxi for noon today.

Noon: when the sun is high in the sky and the shadows slice the sidewalks with the sharp-edged strokes of the surgeon's scalpel. Noon: the hour at which I will face my own destiny. Now I have made my choice and I will leave the apartment complex at 12 o'clock today: noon.

I need to be alone, so I go into the bathroom. What am I doing here? I ask myself. And I look in the mirror. Brown eyes look back out at me. I shrug my shoulders, raise my eyebrows, but there is never any answer. What am I doing here? What will become of me?

I leave the bathroom and ascend the corkscrew staircase with its iron steps that rise to the roof garden. Even if I don't know what is going to happen in the long term, I try to fill every minute with something that will relax me, take my mind off things. And so, here I am, standing on the azotea, the flat roof and flower garden of the apartment complex at 7:00 am. I'm standing on one leg, balancing. The figure is called the Stork or the Crane, but this early in the morning I feel like a duck, a mother duck, if you'll pardon the expression, standing here on one leg, shivering in the early morning wind. My eyes are open and I am looking towards the eastern horizon. The sun is just rising, but it isn't hot yet. That will come later. As I try balance on one leg I can hear the traffic sounds in the street below me and the fumes of the buses rise up and make my nostrils twitch.

The water seller has already started his rounds. His cries of "Peragua! Super Agua!" can be heard as he cycles along our street. The ruined temples of Monte Albán lie lazily across the skyline in front of me. There are some clouds and a slight haze, but the temples are clear and catch the low sun which makes them glisten. They remind me sometimes of washing strung across a sky line. On the surrounding hills, the green of the grass is moulded into humps and lumps waiting to be cut open and their secrets discovered. I imagine for a moment that moment of discovery: the opening of the tomb, gold bracelets glinting in the torchlight, painted pots throwing shadows on the walls, the two bright glowing eyes of tecolote, the owl of death, swimming towards me from the crocodile teeth of ... But the name of the death god has slipped my mind, and although I can see his goggling eyes and I know that he guards the entrance to the afterlife, I cannot remember his name.

And what, I ask myself, does come to us in the after life? The missionary, a Southern male, thinks he has a right to tell me, a Northern female, what to do and how to do it. He hammers me with words of wisdom from what he calls the "good book" which he bangs and bashes as he quotes it in a deep rolling voice. I remember the words, which I learnt as a child in grade nine, of the Spanish king's envoys: Obedeczo, pero no cumplo / I obey but I do not fulfill! Like those long forgotten men, I cannot be bothered to argue with this man who believes he holds authority over my spiritual welfare. So, while I may seem to obey him while he is present, I do not pay much attention to his words after he has gone.

As for the unopened tombs which abound in the valley, well, I think they should leave them unopened. People who are dead and gone want to stay that way. They don't want the treasure hunters breaking down the walls and stealing their treasures. And yet, the valley is full of ghosts who hang around restlessly while the authorities decide whether or not their earthly bodies will be exhumed. As I walk the streets at night, especially when it's misty, shadows of the dearly departed loom before me. I can almost hear their footsteps on the cobbles and I mouth questions in their direction, only for them to vanish just as they are about to speak.

Suddenly, there is a hummingbird right in front of me. I am turning my arms, slowly, clockwise, with clenched fists, trying to keep my shoulders level, trying not to hunch my shoulders, breathing regularly: "In two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight."

The hummingbird is churning his wings, whirring away, right in front of my nose, almost between my eyes, as if he thinks I'm a flower or something, And I'm staring at him, eye ball to eye ball, and I'm balanced on one leg, the Stork or the Crane, maybe the Mother Hen, and I'm thinking: "What in the name of the Lord am I doing here?"

Up here, on the azotea, the neighbours' dogs often bark at me. Sometimes they catch me by surprise and frighten me. Then I want to take flight and fly. My thoughts wander: I have never been interested in weaving. I must go to the abastos one of these days, or to the mercado de artesanías, the little craft market, and see how the tiny women in their country dresses solve their weaving problems. I am particularly intrigued by the tiny triques in their bright red clothes whose language trips over the tongue like the chiming of foxgloves in the wind or of miniature floral bells. I have tried to talk with them, but they always revert to their own language and will not discourse in any of the tongues in which I speak.

I finish my exercises, go back down to my apartment, and come to a decision: I will go out and buy a newspaper. Also, while I'm in the yard, I'll make sure, once again, that Rodrigo has confirmed the taxi that I ordered for noon.

But no! Before I go out, I must wash my clothes and so I gather my dirty linen, and the soap, and the clothes pegs, and I head once more for the roof. I walk along the passageway beside the balcony overlooking the yard, and up the caracol, the spiral staircase that leads to the azotea. On the roof garden, which some friends of mine have named el recinto de san Francisco, there is a stone wash stand and here I place my clothes. I run the water and fill the basin. Beside the deep trough there is a scrubbing board, concrete, with a row of rippled lines. When my clothes have soaked, I take them one by one: my blue blouse, my tee shirt, my socks, my smalls, and I scrub them, rubbing them up and down on this concrete washboard.

I think of all the outstanding athletes with whom I have trained. My tummy hangs out over the edge and the splash from the scrubbing gets my belly wet. Was I once that fit? Did I once have a stomach that rippled like a washboard? Yes, once upon a time I suppose I did, but now such things are only possible in my dreams! The soap is getting thinner, day by day, and so am I. The food is rich and I cannot eat much of it any more. Rodrigo isn't worried. He just scoops up more and more scraps and feeds them to the pig. As for the soap, I'll have to buy a new bar soon. I have come here on my annual pilgrimage to relax, to stop thinking, perhaps to gain a little weight but, like Rodrigo's wife, I am slowly wasting away.

I drain the water from the tub and prepare to rinse my clothes. The sun is now peeping over the roof and I can feel the heat of the day shaking my shoulders. I soak my clothing, item by item, in the fresh, clean water. Then I wring it out. Next I take my plastic pegs and peg my garments on the line. Three red pegs for my blue blouse. Three yellow pegs for my green tee shirt. One green peg each for my little cotton socks. Two blue pegs for my undies! I have two pegs left. I put them in my pocket, take up my dry towel, and head across the roof to the spot where I do my Tai Chi. Below me, the town is coming awake from its dream of... What do they dream of, these people I have lived with, on and off, for these last five years? I refer to them as these people, yet these people have inhabited this valley for the last five thousand years. They were here when the Aztecs sent in their messengers. They were here when Cortés and his soldiers came to talk to them of peace. They wove his soldiers' clothes and built those palaces and still I refer to them as these people. They gave him their loins to breed fresh children, a nueva raza, and still I refer to them as these people.

Last night, a full moon rolled its round of bright yellow cheese across the tightrope of this line of hills and I looked down at my shadow, walking beside me, and I was afraid. I was afraid of what lurked in the shadow. I was afraid of the dogs that barked bright colours from the rooftops. I was afraid of the rockets as they climbed the sky and woke the sleeping gods in the people's hour of need. I need these people. And yet, I am afraid of them. I am afraid of their power over me, of their power over my body. I wake at night, thinking of them, and then, when I awake, they will not let me back to sleep.

I look out across the town to the hills beyond. I see the palaces of Monte Albán floating like my washing across the line of the hills. Did the old ones really bury their beloveds in chambers specially excavated beneath the floors of their houses? Somehow, I am beginning to feel more comfortable with this death that walks beside me every day, that inhabits my body, that lives with me and talks with me and is mine and nobody else's. When will we meet? Will we meet in a public place, or secretly, like lovers, he and I? I do not know. I see the hummingbird, that gilded warrior of a neighbouring race's distant sun, and again I ask myself aloud "What am I doing here?"

Then, as I stretch, I think of the taxi that will be coming for me at twelve o'clock. I see that the bruising on my arm has become deeper. It is an angry purple with red streaks, like last night's sunset, seen late from the azotea. The American doctor has long given up hope.

"Six months maximum," he said, when I spoke to him last. "Six months, if you're lucky." My chest is tightening. The pain in my lungs grows every day and my right side is stiff and I find it harder and harder to stretch. Rodrigo says I should see the homeopath who treats his wife. But I cannot force myself to believe in that kind of medicine. Nor can I persuade myself to take the medical advice of a short dark man who hand feeds a pig called Maritormes and who hands it over for thirty silver pence for slaughter, then kisses it and weeps. Most of all, I cannot believe him when he is losing his own wife to a mysterious wasting disease and still cannot see beyond the imaginings of a homeopath. Yet, where can I turn?

The lady who sells mescal in the market suggested that I spend a couple of days with her family in the hills. She has knowledge, she says. At least, she says her family does.

"You must get away from this stress that shaves you down. You must learn to be light and strong, like a child. You must learn to float across the world, and decorate the grass like an early flower in the light of dawn."

She also recommends that I try the traditional mixtec thermal baths and she suggested yesterday that there is a cure for all ills. Including mine. My mescal lady also said that her friend, the brujo, would be present at the baths. As she spoke her face lit up and she awoke within me  inner dreams of the beauties of the brujo. I checked the word in my dictionary when I got home and my fears were not allayed. Brujo: witch doctor. Yet the massage and the steam can do no harm and the days the doctor has offered me will soon hasten to their end. There is really not much hope.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I decided two nights ago in the cool of the night when the great stars rolled bright above my window that I would visit the herbal baths and soak in their steam. I have opted for the herbal steam. I have opted for the traditional massage, naked the body, naked the soul, and the white flesh trembling beneath dark hands.

It seems so poetic, so romantic, yet these are steps I have never taken, perhaps will never take. And yet the taxi will soon be here and, unless I back out now, the first step on that journey will soon be taken.

Yes! The taxicab will call at noon and take me to the hills. The baths are already being prepared, the herbs gathered. The stones are being heated and the medicine man, el brujo, has started his spells. They have warned me that I will have to fast and that I will probably have to stay for at least three days, and maybe a week or more. People talk and the missionary has discovered that I am going away, but he doesn't know where I am going. I haven't told him. Nor anyone else. And yet people seem to be grasping at straws of knowledge. Just away for a couple of days, I say, and if I like it, I tell them, then I'll stay a little longer.

The missionary has warned me to beware of these people: sinners all, who have not yet received the waters of Christ. "Fear them!" He told me. "Fear to be alone with them." But what can I fear now, except fear itself? There is a purging process, they say. A sweat lodge. A native ceremony. A saying of communal prayers. And a commitment to ... To what? Each step, they say is another step down a road I am already walking which leads to ultimate darkness or perhaps to infinite light.

The sun is walking the sky overhead and the day is growing warmer. Each star last night was a pinprick of light that spoke in a voice I could not understand. My American friends, even though they do not know all my secrets, call me a fool. They would have me return to a major hospital, to the surgeon's knife, to the white-washed ward. They would have me faced by anonymous people in white gauze masks. Here at least I can see the eyes and nose and lips of the men -- why must they always be men? -- who will pronounce my doom.

I go down the winding staircase, enter my apartment, and pack my bag. Then I sit at the table and wait. Suddenly, there is a ring at the doorbell, a knock at the great iron door of the compound and I can hear Rodrigo saying that the señora is here, that the señora is ready, that he will get the señora now, but that the driver must wait outside until the señora comes out and that yes, he, Rodrigo, will carry the señora's bag, however heavy it may be.

I step to the door with my bag in my hand and close the door behind me. The sky is warm and the sun pens down. I have put on put on a simple, white cotton zapoteca frock. It is cool to wear and glows white in the sunlight. Around my waist I have a sky blue belt. Sky blue, signifying hope.

The Americans are all out, eating early lunches.

They cannot stop me. Nothing can stop me now.

The taxi is waiting.

My fate is upon me.

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