2 – WALK TO HUAYAPA
Curious is the psychology of Sunday. Humanity enjoying itself is on the whole a dreary spectacle, and holidays are more disheartening than drudgery. One makes up one’s mind: On Sundays and on fiestas I will stay at home, in the hermitage of the patio, with the parrots and Corasmin and the reddening coffee-berries. I will avoid the sight of people enjoying themselves’–or try to, without much success.
Then comes Sunday morning, with the peculiar looseness of its sunshine. And even if you keep mum, the better-half says: Let’s go somewhere.
But, thank God, in Mexico at least one can’t set off in the ‘machine’. It is a question of a meagre horse and a wooden saddle; on a donkey; or what we called, as children, ‘Shanks’ pony’–the shanks referring discourteously to one’s own legs.
We will go out of the town. Rosalino, we are going for a walk to San Felipe de las Aguas. Do you want to go, and carry the basket?’
‘Cómo no, Señor?’
It is Rosalino’s inevitable answer, as inevitable as the parrot’s ‘Perro?’ ‘Cone no, Señor?’–‘How not, Señor?’
The Norte, the north-wind, was blowing last night, rattling the worm-chewed window-frames.
‘Rosalino, I am afraid you will be cold in the night.’
‘Cómo no, Señor?’
‘Would you like a blanket?’
‘Cómo no, Señor?’
‘With this you will be warm?’
‘Cómo no, Señor?’
But the morning is perfect; in a moment we are clear out of the town. Most towns in Mexico, saving the capital, end in themselves, at once. As if they had been lowered from heaven in a napkin, and deposited, rather foreign, upon the wild plain. So we walk round the wall of the church and the huge old monastery enclosure that is now barracks for the scrap-heap soldiery, and at once there are the hills.
‘I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my strength.’ At least one can always do that, in Mexico. In a stride, the town passes away. Before us lies the gleaming, pinkish-ochre of the valley flat, wild and exalted with sunshine. On the left, quite near, bank the stiffly pleated mountains, all the foot-hills, that press savannah-coloured into the savannah of the valley. The mountains are clothed smokily with pine, ocote, and, like a woman in a gauze rebozo, they rear in a rich blue fume that is almost cornflower-blue in the clefts. It is their characteristic that they are darkest blue at the top. Like some splendid lizard with a wavering, royal-blue crest down the ridge of his back, and pale belly, and soft, pinky-fawn claws, no the plain.
Between the pallor of the claws, a dark spot of trees, and white dots of a church with twin towers. Further away, along the foot-hills, a few scattered trees, white dot and stroke of .a hacienda, and a green, green square of sugar-cane. Further off still, at the mouth of a cleft of a canyon, a dense little green patch of trees, and two spots of proud church.
‘Rosalino, which is San Felipe?’
‘Quien sabe, Señor?’ says Rosalino, looking at the villages; beyond the sun of the savannah with black, visionless eyes. In his voice is the inevitable flat resonance of aloofness, touched with resignation, as if to say: It is not becoming to a man to know these things.–Among the Indians it is not becoming to know anything, not even one’s own name.
Rosalino is a mountain boy, an Indian from a village two days’ walk away. But he has been two years in the little city, and has learnt his modicum of Spanish.
‘Have you never been to any of these villages?’
‘No, Señor, I never went.’
‘Didn’t you want to?’
‘Cómo no, Señor?’
The Americans would call him a dumb-bell.
We decide for the farthest speck of a village in a dark spot of trees. It lies so magical, alone, tilted in the fawn-pink slope, again as if the dark-green napkin with a few white tiny buildings had been lowered from heaven and left, there at the foot of the mountains, with the deep groove of a canyon slanting in behind. So alone and, as it were, detached from the world in which it lies, a spot.
Nowhere more than in Mexico does human life become isolated, external to its surroundings, and cut off tinily from the environment. Even as you come across the plain to a big city like Guadalajara, and see the twin towers of the cathedral peering around in loneliness like two lost birds side by side on a moor, lifting their white heads to look around in the wilderness, your heart gives a clutch, feeling the pathos, the isolated tininess of human effort. As for building a church with one tower only, it is unthinkable. There must be two towers, to keep each other company in this wilderness world.
The morning is still early, the brilliant sun does not burn too much. Tomorrow is the shortest day. The savannah valley is shadeless, spotted only with the thorny ravel of mesquite bushes. Down the trail that has worn grooves in the turf–the rock is near the surface–occasional donkeys with a blue-hooded woman perched on top come tripping in silence, twinkling, a shadow. Just occasional women taking a few vegetables to market. Practically no men. It is Sunday.
Rosalino, prancing behind with the basket, plucks up his courage to speak to one of the women passing on a donkey. ‘Is that San Felipe where we are going?’–‘No, that is not San Felipe.’–‘What, then, is it called?’–‘It is called Huayapa.’–‘Which, then, is San Felipe?’–That one’–and she points to her right.
They have spoken to each other in half-audible, crushed tones, as they always do, the woman on the donkey and the woman with her on foot swerving away from the basket-carrying Rosalino. They all swerve away from us, as if we were potential bold brigands. It really gets one’s pecker up. The presence of the Señora only half reassures them. For the Señora, in a plain hat of bluey-green woven grass, and a dress of white cotton with black squares on it, is almost a monster of unusualness. Prophet art thou, bird, or devil? the women seem to say, as they look at her with keen black eyes. I think they choose to decide she is more of the last.
The women look at the woman, the men look at the man. And always with that same suspicious, inquiring, wondering look, the same with which Edgar Allan Poe must have looked at his momentous raven:
‘Prophet art thou, bird, or devil?’
Devil, then, to please you! one longs to answer, in a tone of Nevermore.
Ten o’clock, and the sun getting hot. Not a spot of shade, apparently, from here to Huayapa. The blue getting thinner on the mountains, and an indiscernible vagueness, of too much light, descending on the plain.
The road suddenly dips into a little crack, where runs a creek. This again is characteristic of these parts of America. Water keeps out of sight. Even the biggest rivers, even the tiny brooks. You look across a plain on which the light sinks down, and you think: Dry! Dry! Absolutely dry! You travel along, and suddenly come to a crack in the earth, and a little stream is running in a little walled-in valley bed, where is a half-yard of green turf, and bushes, the palo-blanco with leaves, and with big white flowers like pure white, crumpled cambric. Or you may come to a river a thousand feet below, sheer below you. But not in this valley. Only the stream.
‘Shade!’ says the Señora, subsiding under a steep bank.
‘Mucho calor!’ says Rosalino, taking off his extra-jaunty straw hat, and subsiding with the basket.
Down the slope are coming two women on donkeys. Seeing the terrible array of three people sitting under a bank, they pull up.
‘Adios!’ I say, with firm resonance.
‘Adios!’ says the Señora, with diffidence.
‘Adios!’ says the reticent Rosalino, his voice the shadow of ours.
‘Adios! Adios! Adios!’ say the women, in suppressed voices, swerving, neutral, past us on their self-contained, sway-eared asses.
When they have passed, Rosalino looks at me to see if I shall laugh. I give a little grin, and he gives me back a great explosive grin, throwing back his head in silence, opening his wide mouth and showing his soft pink tongue, looking along his cheeks with his saurian black eyes, in an access of farouche derision.
A great hawk, like an eagle, with white bars at the end of its wings, sweeps low over us, looking for snakes. One can hear the hiss of its pinions.
‘Gabilán,’ says Rosalino.
‘What is it called in the idioma?’
‘Psia!’–He makes the consonants explode and hiss.
‘Ah!’ says the Señora. ‘One hears it in the wings. Psia!’
‘Yes,’ says Rosalino, with black eyes of incomprehension.
Down the creek, two native boys, little herdsmen, are bathing, stooping with knees together and throwing water over themselves, rising, gleaming dark coffee-red in the sun, wetly. They are very dark, and their wet heads are so black, they seem to give off a bluish light, like dark electricity.
The great cattle they are tending slowly plunge through the bushes, coming up-stream. At the place where the path fords the stream, a great ox stoops to drink. Comes a cow after him, and a calf, and a young bull. They all drink a little at the stream, their noses delicately touching the water. And then the young bull, horns abranch, stares fixedly, with some f the same Indian wonder-and-suspicion stare, at us sitting under the bank.
Up jumps the Señora, proceeds uphill, trying to save her dignity. The bull, slowly leaning into motion, moves across-stream like a ship unmoored. The bathing lad on the bank is hastily fastening his calico pantaloons round his ruddy-dark waist. The Indians have a certain rich physique, even this lad. He comes running short-step down the bank, uttering a birdlike whoop, his dark hair gleaming bluish. Stooping for a moment to select a stone, he runs athwart the hull, and aims the stone sideways at him. There is a thud, the ponderous, adventurous young animal swerves docilely round towards the stream. ‘Becerro!’ cries the boy, in his bird-like, piping tone, selecting a stone to throw at the calf.
We proceed in the blazing sun up the slope. There is a white line at the foot of the trees. It looks like water running white over a weir. The supply of the town water comes this way. Perhaps this is a reservoir. A sheet of water I How lovely it would be, in this country, if there was a sheet of water with a stream running out of it! And those dense trees of Huayapa behind.
‘What is that white, Rosalino? Is it water?’
‘El Blanco? Si, aqua, Señora,’ says that dumb-bell.
Probably, if the Señora had said: Is it milk? he would have replied in exactly the same way: Si es leche, Señora!–Yes, it’s milk.
Hot, silent, walking only amidst a weight of light, out of which one hardly sees, we climb the spurs towards the dark trees. And as we draw nearer, the white slowly resolves into a broken, whitewashed wall.
‘Oh!’ exclaims the Señora, in real disappointment. ‘It isn’t water! it’s a wall!’
‘Si, Señora. Es panteón.’ (They call a cemetery a panteón, down here.)
‘It is a cemetery,’ announces Rosalino, with a certain ponderous, pleased assurance, and without afterthought. But when I suddenly laugh at the absurdity, he also gives a sudden broken yelp of laughter.–They laugh as if it were against their will, as if it hurt them, giving themselves away.
It was nearing midday. At last we got into a shady lane, in which were puddles of escaped irrigation-water. The ragged semi-squalor of a half-tropical lane, with naked trees sprouting into spiky scarlet flowers, and bushes with biggish yellow flowers, sitting rather wearily on their stems, led to the village.
We were entering Huayapa. Ia Calle de las Minas, said an old notice. Ia Calle de las Minas, said a new, brand-new notice, as if in confirmation. First Street of the Mines. And every street had the same old and brand-new notice: 1st Street of the Magnolia: 4th Street of Enriquez Gonzalez: very fine!
But the First Street of the Mines was just a track between the stiff living fence of organ cactus, with poinsettia trees holding up scarlet mops of flowers, and mango trees, tall and black, stonily drooping the strings of unripe fruit. The Street of the Magnolia was a rocky stream-gutter, disappearing to nowhere from nowhere, between cactus and bushes. The Street of the Vasquez was a stony stream-bed, emerging out of tall, wildly tall reeds.
Not a soul anywhere. Through the fences, half deserted gardens of trees and banana plants, each enclosure with a half-hidden hut of black adobe bricks crowned with a few old tiles for a roof, and perhaps a new wing made of twigs. Everything hidden, secret, silent. A sense of darkness among the silent mango trees, a sense of lurking, of unwillingness. Then actually some half-bold curs barking at us across the stile of one garden, a forked bough over which one must step to enter the chicken-bitten enclosure. And actually a man crossing the proudly labelled: Fifth Street of the Independence.
If there were no churches to mark a point in these villages, there would be nowhere at all to make for. The sense of nowhere is intense, between the dumb and repellent living fence of cactus. But the Spaniards, in the midst of these black, mud-brick huts, have inevitably reared the white twin-towered magnificence of a big and lonely, hopeless church; and where there is a church there will be a plaza. And a plaza is a zócalo, a hub. Even though the wheel does not go round, a hub is still a hub. Like the old Forum.
So we stray diffidently on, in the maze of streets which are only straight tracks between cactuses, till we see Reforma, and at the end of Reforma, the great church.
In front of the church is a rocky plaza leaking with grass, with water rushing into two big, oblong stone basins. The great church stands rather ragged, in a dense forlornness, for all the world like some big white human being, in rags, held captive in a world of ants.
On the uphill side of the plaza, a long low white building with a shed in front, and under the shed crowding, all the short-statured men of the pueblo, in their white cotton clothes and big hats. They are listening to something: but the silence is heavy, furtive, secretive. They stir like white-clad insects.
Rosalino looks sideways at them, and sheers away. Even we lower our voices to ask what is going on. Rosalino replies, sotto voce, that they are making asuntos. But what business? we insist. The dark faces of the little men under the big hats look round at us suspiciously, like dark gaps in the atmosphere. Our alien presence in this vacuous village, is like the sound of a drum in a churchyard. Rosalino mumbles unintelligibly. We stray across the forlorn yard into the church.
Thursday was the day of the Virgin of the Soledad, so the church is littered with flowers, sprays of wild yellow flowers trailing on the floor. There is a great Gulliver’s Travels fresco picture of an angel having a joy-ride on the back of a Goliath. On the left, near the altar steps, is seated a life-size Christ–undersized; seated upon a little table, wearing a pair of woman’s frilled knickers, a little mantle of purple silk dangling from His back, and His face bent forward gazing fatuously at His naked knee, which emerges from the needlework frill of the drawers. Across from Him a living woman is half-hidden behind a buttress, mending something, sewing.
We sit silent, motionless, in the whitewashed church ornamented with royal blue and bits of gilt. A barefoot Indian with a high-domed head comes in and kneels with his legs close together, his back stiff, at once very humble and resistant. His cotton jacket and trousers are long-unwashed rag, the colour of dry earth, and torn, so that one sees smooth pieces of brown thigh, and brown back. He kneels in a sort of intense fervour for a minute, then gets up and childishly, almost idiotically, begins to take the pieces of candle from the candlesticks. He is the Verger.
Outside, the gang of men is still pressing under the shed. We insist on knowing what is going on. Rosalino, looking sideways at them, plucks up courage to say plainly that the two men at the table are canvassing for votes: for the Government, for the State, for a new governor, whatever it may be. Votes! Votes! Votes! The farce of it! Already on the wall of the low building, on which one sees, in blue letters, the word Justizia, there are pasted the late political posters, with the loud announcement: Vote For This Mark (+). Or another: Vote For This Mark (-).
My dear fellow, this is when democracy becomes real fun. You vote for one red ring inside another red ring and you get a Julio Echegaray. You vote for a blue dot inside a blue ring, and you get a Socrate Ezequiel Tos. Heaven knows what you get for the two little red circles on top of one another Suppose we vote, and try. There’s all sorts in the lucky bag. There might come a name like Peregrino Zenon Cocotilla.
Independence I Government by the People, of the People, for the People! We all live in the Calle de la Reforma, in Mexico.
On the bottom of the plaza is a shop. We want some fruit. ‘Hay frutas? Oranges or bananas?’–‘No, Señor.’–‘No fruits?’–‘No hay!’–‘Can I buy a cup?’–‘No hay.’–‘Can I buy a jicara, a gourd-shell that we might drink from?’ ‘No hay.’.
No hay means there isn’t any, and it’s the most regular sound made by the dumb-bells of the land.
‘What is there, then?’ A sickly grin. There are, as a matter of fact, candles, soap, dead and withered chiles, a few dried grasshoppers, dust, and stark, bare wooden pigeon-holes. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Next-door is another little hole of a shop. Hay frutas?–No hay.–Qué hay?–Hay tepache!
‘Para borracharse,’ says Rosalino, with a great grin.
Tepache is a fermented drink of pineapple rinds and brown sugar: to get drunk on, as Rosalino says. But mildly drunk. There is probably mescal too, to get brutally drunk on.
The village is exhausted in resource. But we insist on fruit. Where, where can I buy oranges and bananas? I see oranges on the trees, I see banana plants.
‘Up there!’ The woman waves with her hand as if she were cutting the air upwards.
We go up the Street of Independence. They have got rid of us from the plaza.
Another black hut with a yard, and orange-trees beyond.
‘Not an orange, nor a banana?’
We go on. She has got rid of us. We descend the black rocky steps to the stream, and up the other side, past the high reeds. There is a yard with heaps of maize in a shed, and tethered bullocks: and a bare-bosom, black-browed girl.
‘But Yes I There are oranges–there!’
She turns and looks at the oranges on the trees at the back, and imbecilely answers:
It is a choice between killing her and hurrying away.
We hear a drum and a whistle. It is down a rocky black track that calls itself The Street of Benito Juarez: the same old gent who stands for all this obvious Reform, and Vote for (o).
A yard with shade round. Women kneading the maize dough, masa, for tortillas. A man lounging. And a little boy beating a kettledrum sideways, and a big man playing a little reedy wooden whistle, rapidly, endlessly, disguising the tune of La Cucuracha. They won’t play a tune unless they can render it almost unrecognizable.
‘Then what is happening here?’
A sheepish look, and no answer.
‘Why are you playing music?’
‘It is a fiesta.’
My God, a feast! That weary masa, a millstone in the belly. And for the rest, the blank, heavy, dark-grey barrenness, like an adobe brick. The drum-boy rolls his big Indian eyes at us, and beats on, though filled with consternation. The flute man glances, is half appalled and half resentful, so he blows harder. The lounging man comes and mutters to Rosalino, and Rosalino mutters back, four words.
Four words in the idioma, the Zapotec language. We retire, pushed silently away.
‘What language do they speak here, Rosalino?’
‘You understand them? It is Zapoteca, same as your language ?’
‘Then why do you always speak in Spanish to them?’
‘Because they don’t speak the idioma of my village.’
He means, presumably, that there are dialect differences. Anyhow, he asserts his bit of Spanish, and says Hay frutas?
It was like a posada. It was like the Holy Virgin on Christmas Eve, wandering from door to door looking for a lodging in which to bear her child: Is there a room here? No hay!
The same with us. Hay frutas? No hay! We went down every straight ant-run of that blessed village. But at last we pinned a good-natured woman. ‘Now tell us, where can we buy oranges? We see them on the trees. We want them to eat.
‘Go,’ she said, to Valentino Ruiz. He has oranges. Yes, he has oranges, and he sells them.’ And she cut the air upwards with her hand.
From black hut to black hut went we, till at last we got to the house of Valentino Ruiz. And to I it was the yard with the fiesta. The lounging man was peeping out of the gateless gateway, as we came, at us.
It is the same place!’ cried Rosalino, with a laugh of bashful agony.
But we don’t belong to the ruling race for nothing. Into the yard we march.
‘Is this the house of Valentino Ruiz? Hay naranjas? Are there oranges?’
We had wandered so long, and asked so often, that the masa was made into tortillas, the tortillas were baked, and a group of people were sitting in a ring on the ground, eating them. It was the fiesta.
At my question up jumped a youngish man, and a woman as if they had been sitting on a scorpion each.
‘Oh, Señor,’ said the woman, there are few oranges, and they are not ripe, as the Señor would want them. But pass this way.’
We pass up to the garden, past the pink roses, to a little orange-tree, with a few yellowish-green oranges.
You see; they are not ripe as you will want them,’ says the youngish man.
‘They will do.’ Tropical oranges are always green. These, we found later, were almost insipidly sweet.
Even then, I can only get three of the big, thick-skinned, greenish oranges. But I spy sweet limes, and insist on having five or six of these.
He charges me three cents apiece for the oranges: the market price is two for five cents: and one cent each for the limas.
‘In my village,’ mutters Rosalino when we get away, ‘oranges are five for one cent.’
Never mind! It is one o’clock. Let us get out of the village, where the water will be safe, and eat lunch.
In the plaza, the men are just dispersing, one gang coming down the hill. They watch us as if we were a coyote, a zopilote, and a white she-bear walking together in the street.
‘Adios!’ comes the low roll of reply, like a roll of cannon shot.
The water rushes downhill in a stone gutter beside the road. We climb up the hill, up the Street of the Camomile, alongside the rushing water. At one point it crosses the road unchannelled, and we wade through it. It is the village drinking supply.
At the juncture of the roads, where the water crosses, another silent white gang of men. Again: Adios! and again the low, musical, deep volley of Adios!
Up, up wearily. We must get above the village to be able to drink the water without developing typhoid.
At last, the last house, the naked hills. We follow the water across a dry maize-field, then up along a bank. Below is a quite deep gully. Across is an orchard, and some women with baskets of fruit.
‘Hay frutas?’ calls Rosalino, in a half-voice. He is getting bold.
‘Hay,’ says an old woman, in the curious half-voice. ‘But not ripe.’
Shall we go clown into the gully into the shade? No; someone is bathing among the reeds below, and the aqueduct water rushes along in the gutter here above. On, on, till we spy a wild guava tree over the channel of water. At last we can sit down and eat and drink, on a bank of dry grass, under the wild guava tree.
We put the bottle of lemonade in the aqueduct to cool. I scoop out a big half-orange, the thick rind of which makes a cup.
‘Look, Rosalino! The cup!’
‘La taza!’ he cries, soft-tongued, with a bark of laughter and delight.
And one drinks the soft, rather lifeless, warmish Mexican water. But it is pure.
Over the brink of the water-channel is the gully, and a noise–chock, chock! I go to look. It is a woman, naked to the hips, standing washing her other garments upon a stone. She has a beautiful full back, of a deep orange colour, and her wet hair is divided and piled. In the water a few yards up-stream two men are sitting naked, their brown-orange giving off a glow in the shadow, also washing their clothes. Their wet hair seems to steam blue-blackness. Just above them is a sort of bridge, where the water divides, the channel-water taken from the little river, and led along the top of the bank.
We sit under the wild guava tree in silence, and eat. The old woman of the fruit, with naked breast and coffee-brown naked arms, her under-garment fastened on one shoulder, round her waist an old striped sarape for a skirt, and on her head a blue rebozo piled against the sun, comes marching down the aqueduct with black bare feet, holding three or four chirimoyas to her bosom. Chirimoyas are green custard-apples.
She lectures us, in slow, heavy Spanish:
‘This water, here, is for drinking. The other, below, is for washing. This, you drink, and you don’t wash in it. The other, you wash in, and you don’t drink it.’ And she looked inquisitively at the bottle of lemonade, cooling.
‘Very good. We understand.’
Then she gave us the chirimoyas. I asked her to change the peso: I had no change.
‘No, Señor,’ she said. ‘No, Señor. You don’t pay me. I bring you these, and may you eat well. But the chirimoyas are not ripe: in two or three days they will be ripe. Now, they are not. In two or three days they will be. Now, they are not.
You can’t eat them yet. But I make a gift of them to you, and may you eat well. Farewell. Remain with God.’
She marched impatiently off along the aqueduct.
Rosalino waited to catch my eye. Then he opened his mouth and showed his pink tongue and swelled out his throat like a cobra, in a silent laugh after the old woman.
‘But,’ he said in a low tone, ‘the chirimoyas are not good ones.’
And again he swelled in the silent, delighted, derisive laugh.
He was right. When we carne to eat them, three days later, the custard-apples all had worms in them, and hardly any white meat.
‘The old woman of Huayapa,’ said Rosalino, reminiscent.
However, she had got her bottle. When we had drunk the lemonade, we sent Rosalino to give her the empty wine-bottle, and she made him another sententious little speech. But to her the bottle was a treasure.
And I, going round the little hummock behind the wild guava tree to throw away the papers of the picnic, came upon a golden-brown young man with his shirt just coming down over his head, but over no more of him. Hastily retreating, I thought again what beautiful, suave, rich skins these people have; a sort of richness of the flesh. It goes, perhaps, with the complete absence of what we call ‘spirit’.
We lay still for a time, looking at the tiny guavas and the perfect, soft, high blue sky overhead, where the hawks and the ragged-winged zopilotes sway and diminish. A long, hot way home. But mañana es otro dia. Tomorrow is another day. And even the next five minutes are far enough away, in Mexico, on a Sunday afternoon.Share It