It’s the air that I remember most when I think about the story of the two cousins long ago on that balcony above Mexico City. There, high above the Federal District, I had looked down and seen the Cuauhtémoc borough, where the poor lived; there, in the visible distance, the open-air markets, or tianguis, of the failing Tepito barrio tenements is where our story happened long ago. I also remember on a very clear day, when the smog was not as intense, one could see Laredo to the northeast and, with very good eyes or binoculars, the faintest insinuation of Los Angeles was a mirage to the northwest.
The tale I shall relate took place many years after the earthquake that had leveled most of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century buildings in Tepito. I had taken ill with an alleged parasite and was convalescing in the home of Diego Reyes, another famous writer. Surrounded then with the musky lemon air of epazote tea in my head and the distinct breeze above the city bathing my face and hair, Diego told me the legend of the two boys, as I sat swaddled in my blankets, recovering. We had sat there talking for some time as Diego entertained me with an oral account that I now surrender to you with some trepidation, as I’m a rational man not given to the mystical and mysterious.
Diego had said that he was also a man of facts and not of fancy; but this tale that he was about to tell me, as most legends do, had begun with some bare bones that had then acquired flesh and clothing over time; he had no way of knowing where the truth ended and the embellishments started; but he would try to keep faithful to the story as he had heard it.
It is said that Cristián and his cousin Jesús had been playing in the open-air market all day when the policeman came to Alfarería Street to tell Cristián that his mother had been found dead. The two boys, about 8 years of age, were sharing a cherry refresco outside the shrine on the street, watching an elderly woman say the rosary for Santa Muerte, while the faithful came and went buying their votives and making other purchases as the mariachi and marimba bands played. The policeman who had found the boys was a big man with an offensive paunch and unkempt beard and a pockmarked face. He had felt no need to be gentle with Cristián and had ignored Jesús. He marched right up to the two boys at the shrine and yanked Cristián away from his cousin without explanation. Poor Jesús with his bottle and straw yelled at the man in uniform dragging his cousin away. Witnesses say that that the policeman swung around and backhanded Jesús in a manner so vicious that the boy fell to the ground and his soda bottle broke into several shards and the cherry soda spilled on the pavement.
The old lady of the San Muerte shrine yelled out at the policeman and soon a crowd of Tepiteños started to form around the man and the fallen boy. Clutching the standing boy by the crook of his arm, the policeman cursed the old woman as both ignorant and as a meddlesome hag. Those in the crowd, hearing these vile pronouncements, crossed themselves and indistinct murmurs undulated through the crowd. This cursed old lady asked the man why the boy was being taken away; he had committed no crime; he was known in the neighborhood as one of the kindly, playful ones. What the elderly woman had said was true, since both cousins were too young, too naive, to be involved in the darker trades of the barrio. She charged the man to reveal his purpose; the crowd then pressed around him to squeeze the truth out of him.
The policeman cleared his throat and announced that Cristián’s mother was dead; and since he had no father that he would become a ward of the state. A sense of sadness and pity rippled like a ribbon through the gathered crowd as Cristián shrieked and rebelled against the man’s arm at this horrible news. He broke loose and rushed to the old lady, who took him into her skirt and her arms to comfort him. The policeman, trying to be respectful of the dead, took his hat off and declared to the crowd that the woman, Cristián’s mother, had been strangled in her own bed. He explained that his task was to take the boy so a home could be found for him.
At this point Jesús stepped forward from out of the crowd to make himself known and said that he was the boy’s cousin; and that surely his mother and father would take the boy in. The policeman asked the cousin his parents’ name and, upon hearing it, his face blanched, making his whiskers all the more unintentionally sinister. Another silence fell and a need for explanation lingered over the crowd.
The policeman cleared his throat again and said again that Cristián’s mother had been killed in her bed, strangled with her own rosary beads, but with a painful pause added that the killer was Jesús’s father. The revelation provoked a unified gasp of horror from the crowd. Jesús screamed “Liar! Liar! —Not true.” Jesús stood there with a halo of dirt around him opening up there on the pavement, protesting to the open air that his father was good, that it was all lies and slander. A hush of shame and sorrow fell over the crowd, who believed the boy’s naiveté. The policeman walked solemnly over to Cristián and to the old lady, so he could take the boy’s hand and fulfill his duty. The old lady is said to have declared that Cristián was now one of San Muerte’s children and that the saint would take care of him now.
Cristián’s mother, Magdalena, had been a laundress, and a seamstress, who had worked out of her modest house. She had been a beautiful woman, with long black hair and shiny Argentinean eyes, a proud face and in possession of long, vigorous legs with which she had danced the tango of her native land. She had married young but her husband died after a series of illnesses. With no relatives in Mexico and her family in Argentina having disowned her for running off with a Mexican, she had resorted to odd tasks to support herself and her child, since she was destitute as a widow. Unfortunately, her beauty and those legs had been her curse; and it was not long before she had men serenading her. Since she had deeply mourned her dead husband she rejected their offers of marriage. Her landlord, however, was a calculating man who would let the rent slide but he tacked interest onto the debt, insinuating that there were always other ways for her to settle the debt. Her brother-in-law, her late husband’s brother, no less, had also taken a fancy to her; and he did have money.
Backed into her own bedroom out of necessity, it did not take long for Magdalena to realize that it was easier to relent, easier to rationalize ‘just this once,’ and easier for her to lie back with her skirt caught up for those few moments with her brother-in-law. Unfortunately for her, once had not been enough for him because the laundry and sewing never covered the rent. She did excellent work but she would not cheat her customers, who were often poor. Her landlord, outraged that she had paid the rent in full, raised his interest rate higher when the rent had slipped again. Magdalena was caught again in the whirlwind of poverty. She would send Cristián out to play, after which Jesús’s father would visit and they would repeat her humiliation in her own bed. With time, however, his lust demanded more of her. One day he tore at her clothing to paw at her flesh and she turned to crawl away. Enraged at her denial as he continued having his way with her and seeing those beads hanging from her bedpost, he placed the rosary around her throat and began throttling her as she tried to crawl away from him on her own bed. In this heated battle of wills, her will to escape had failed; his to dominate, had won. When he had finished, he realized what he had done to her. He left the rosary around her neck, pulled down her skirt, leaving her in repose, and quit the bedroom.
The investigation was blatantly simplistic for the police. They found the woman dead and sought the landlord first. He was easy to exonerate because numerous witnesses had testified that the man was across town on other business. When the police arrived at the other house, the crime, of course, was denied, but the evidence was clear. The man’s accounting for his day was vague, but the more damning sign of guilt was the man’s hand, for on it was imprinted, deep into his flesh, the small shape of Magdalena’s crucifix from her rosary. The man’s wife slapped him hard across the face, calling him a whoremaster, and for that insult he sent her reeling across the room with a resounding backhand and would’ve done more violence to her had not the police inspector and his men intervened. Arrested, his statement taken at the precinct headquarters, he was then released: He had money: He was a man of influence.
As for the matter now of Cristián and his need for a proper home, the police sequestered him temporarily at the rectory of San Hipólito, where Cristián stayed and witnessed the romería, or religious feast, of St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. It was there the small boy prayed, promising life-long devotion to whoever would give him sanctuary and deliverance from the orphanages. Sometime between the Feast of Jude, the 28th of October, and Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the 2nd of November, Jesús’s father had financed his flight from prosecution and invoked his right to avenge his brother’s honor, since his sister-in-law had defiled the family name in resorting to prostitution. While nobody knew of any other men that Magdalena may have taken into her bedroom, it was known that she had male customers visiting her house; but all these men, when questioned, swore in court that she had been an honorable woman and that they had visited only with clothes to be washed and mended. With her husband cleared of wrongdoing, Jesús’s mother, Maria, negated the possibility of Cristián’s adoption, saying that he was the son of a whore in open court; and so, it appeared that the boy would be sent to the orphanage.
As news traveled and people gathered into the district for the feast days, word of what was happening to Cristián overshadowed the religious celebrations. There was speculation and there were rumors and in all of it there was truth. As the dirty silver seemed to move through hands to corrupt justice the old lady on Alfarería Street directed a procession of the devoted to the precinct courthouse. On that very day when the judge was to decide the boy’s fate, a crowd of thousands began to converge upon the courthouse, parting as they did when the old lady appeared with the statue of Santa Muerte behind her. The skeletal icon with its scythe in one hand and globe in the other, accompanied by the bust of the bandit-saint Jesús Malverde, moved with her, asking for justice from the street. Two young men carried the statue on their shoulders. Santa Muerte seemed to be moving slowly and surely toward the hall of justice with empty, conquering eyes; silent beads hanging from her neck; the stately crown on her head trembling but not falling, and colorful flowers strewn at her feet and sticking out from her ribs from under the flowing robe announced her fragrance with each step forward to the courthouse. The occasional follower would step out from the sideline to blow the purifying smoke of marijuana across her face or place a kiss upon her bony cheek. When they stopped and the judge was called out to the front steps, the old lady said that she was there to take what was San Muerte’s since there was no justice among men. She did not explain or justify herself. The throng quieted itself for her to utter her request, “El Niño.”
And Cristián was led out to the faithful, while Jesús watched helpless, and disappeared into the crowd, becoming, like many in that city, one of the children of La Santa Muerte, the lady of death. Now, this part, as Diego had relayed it to me, is the uncertain part. As always happens with young boys, Cristián initially had sought revenge for his mother’s murder, praying fervently to his new mother, the one who would not leave him ever, even in death, because she was Death; and Jesús, burdened by the guilt of his father’s crime, sought to do penance by devoting himself to St. Jude, becoming a priest.
Things began to happen that made the people of Tepito say that the two saints were at war with each other, that these two cousins, representatives of Holy Death and Desperate Situations had a feud that enveloped the district, if not all of Mexico, and migrated into the United States. This feud of theirs was said to have reached the tables of the narcotráfico cartels, known to claim both saints as their protectors.
Some say that Cristián’s prayers were powerful ones heard in the other world. While others say that Muerte claims everything eventually. Cristián, it was said, destroyed his cousin’s wealth and distributed it among the poor in the name of Santa Muerte. Little by little, his uncle’s holdings were taken. His stores were robbed. His workers were not safe in their business errands until it reached a point that nobody wanted to work for the man; and with his wealth fading and debts mounting his wife, Maria, was said to be cavorting with other men, hoping to find one who could sustain the quality of life that she had grown accustomed to having — mountains of clothes, the jewelry, the never-ending line of credit at the expensive stores, the cars, the villas, and the vacations. After the infamous affair, her revenge was to spend her husband’s money to every last peso and to let it be known in their social circle that she had made a cuckold of him several times over with younger men. Maria continued in her materialistic and indulgent ways until she disappeared one day.
Jesús’s father, humiliated by his wife’s rash spending and flagrant infidelities, was the prime suspect in everyone’s eyes. It was whispered all around the barrio that he had hired thugs to dispose of her body, but with no body there was no crime. Numerous dramatic stories had been spun like dark cotton candy in the shadows: one said that he had violated his own wife; another said that he had strangled her; another said he had used poison or had shot her; but the most poetic one was that he had stabbed her with a Muerte dagger he had bought at a botánica known for selling merchandise for both saints. This last rumor was popular because it was La Santa Muerte’s revenge. Jesús had ignored all these innuendos and sickening stories until he heard this one about the dagger.
While Cristián loved his cousin and missed him terribly, he could not hide the shame that he felt inside his heart that his cousin, Jesús, in having lost a mother, would want him also to lose his mother. Driven by confusion, by hate, by madness and maybe — who knows — a son’s grief, Jesús confronted his father. The man produced the dagger, denied it all, saying Santa Muerte was to blame for his mother’s disappearance.
Jesús had gone to San Hipólito to pray to St. Jude. He then went to Alfarería Street where Cristián began the evening ritual for Santa Muerte. It was approaching 8pm that sultry evening. The offerings of skull candy, chicken with mole, and lit candles surrounded the sacred lady of black bones. Cristián was fixing flowers around the statue when Jesús arrived at the shrine. The faithful know that the black manifestation of Muerte is said to ward off both psychic and physical attacks. Cristián was about to begin the novena when Jesús charged him, screaming at him about the idolatry of Santa Muerte and waving the dagger around. The outburst had parted the crowd but Cristián stood his ground, asking for peace in a sacred space. When Jesús asked whether Santa Muerte had made his mother disappear, Cristián is said to have replied that Santa Muerte comes for all and discriminates against none.
Holding the knife high, brandishing it in the air for all to see, Jesús had come forward, had made his way through the crowd, and, with an irrational jump forward, had sunk the dagger. Jesús and Cristián fell together, one living and the other wounded; and in dying, Cristián unfolded his hand for Jesús to see the rosary without the crucifix that he had kept as the only memento of his earthly mother; and upon seeing this, it is said Jesús let out a terrifying wail, realizing what he had done, realizing his father’s trickery.
It is not certain how, but the dagger that had killed Cristián was found later, buried to its hilt, inside the chest of Jesús’ father. And what of Jesús? Not much is known. Some say that he walked into the desert swearing that he would return one day when all impossible situations had been resolved. Others say that he died of grief; the point remained irrelevant ever after, for he was never seen again. It is said that some pray to Cristián while others pray to Jesús. One thing is certain, though: from that evening forward, the black statue of Santa Muerte was completely white; and it is said that this meant that there was peace, for now; that Santa Muerte had whispered to her brother, the Devil, to make sure that he had his due.
Gabriel Valjan works in Boston as a nurse. His story, ‘Back in the Day’ will appear in the 2010 Fish Anthology this July, after it was selected as Runner-Up in the international 2010 Fish Short Story Contest. His story, ‘1967 East’, about the Newark riots appeared in Inman Review this spring. Copperfield Review published his short, ‘Road to Rome,’ story about a Nazi tried for insubordination. Wings of Icarus has tentatively accepted two pieces: a short-story, ‘Going North’ told from the perspective of a farm animal, and a flash short story told in one sentence of 111 words. Gabriel is editing two of his novels in search of a publisher.