Cempasúchil have a particular smell; and it isn’t until you’re dead that you can appreciate how different it is from absolutely everything else. That’s what they say, anyway. I myself spent an absurdly short time in the lower world, so I wouldn’t know what cempasúchil smell like for the living.
But to me, they smell like adventure.
From far off they look like cotton bolls, perfectly round and full. But instead of cotton they’re packed tight with tiny orange petals, and the green stalks and leaves seem too skinny to hold the bright, round flower.
In my town, they only show up once a year. They only show up today.
I’ve never seen cempasúchil before.
Namita, who went out early today to visit her altar, brought one back for me, although the path to the lower world is strewn with petals and you must go into your quiet home to get away from the smell. It fills the Timeless World with the air of the festival.
Día de Muertos, they call it.
Namita is taking me with her, so I can visit you. I don’t know what you look like, but Namita does, because she knew you when you were a little girl.
During Día de Muertos, Namita tells me, she usually goes early and returns early; she dedicated her lower life to the Timeless World, so her roots here are strong and unbending.
“I only have a bit to do in the lower world,” she says.
But this year she’s bringing me along.
“We can stay the whole night, Curioso, if you want.” She says.
And I do. I want to stay the whole day and the whole night. I want to watch México lit up with candles. I want to see you-I’ve waited a whole year to meet you, waited until today, my day, Día de Muertos. I wanted to see you from the first moment I rose to the Timeless World-but the Timeless told me you are my surprise.
I’m dressed as a charro, and Namita put the cempasúchil flower on my lapel.
I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.
Ghosts never reflect the age at which they die.
When they reach the Timeless World, they become their true age-the age which their soul decides to be. And the handsomely dressed pair that stroll through the graves and statues of the panteón could not be further from their earthly ages.
The ghost whose name is Namita died old and wrinkled, warmed by her habit and nearly voiceless. Now she leans on the charro’s arm only because she’s laughing too hard. She’s no older than fifteen and wears a festive orange dress with colored bands on the hem and chest. The cold wind plays with her raven-black, waist-long hair. She hums along to the mariachis’ violins.
The soul she calls Curioso- around twenty, tall, wired and sapling-straight- takes in the candles and papel picado with his wide green eyes, but strides energetically, nearly dragging the peaceful Namita behind him.
It is his first time, after all.
And Namita laughs.
It’s late-most of the people have gone to sleep-when Curioso finds the person searches for. He’s danced with Namita and played with the little children, and enjoyed himself with all the pranks the dead play on their day.
She’s alone, the woman in her early twenties, bent over a brand-new grave piled high with a seven-tier altar filled with cempasúchil. The altar is not for Curioso-it’s for her estranged father.
Carla can barely breathe for the tears.
No one told her Papá was dead-she found out from the obituary in the church her mother goes to, San Sabás. He died and he didn’t say goodbye.
Carla cries tears of rage.
It was her father who had disowned her, for running away with Cristobal and following her dreams. She’d longed to tell him that she’d made it, that she was a photographer at a famous studio now, and could live on her own earnings. She was going to tell him. That’s what she’d come here for, after all. After two long years, after the evictions, after the abortion, after Cristobal ran away with all her earnings. She’d made it.
Carla had asked Father Daniel about it. Papá had always been a smoker-he hadn’t lasted six months.
No one had told her a thing, not when they found out, not during, not after.
I should have known you would be sad. I should have known you would be crying. I’ve seen lots of people cry today, even though they smile.
You crush a cempasúchil bloom between your grieving hands. The smell curls among the candles and comes to me like a quiet hello. I know you are grieving, I know you shake with anger and you want to shove Grandpapá down, down deep into his grave.
But I’m biting my lip to keep from smiling.
You’re here, you’re here, you’re here.
“I’ll leave you with your Mamá.” Namita messes up my hair and strolls out of the cemetery, waving at the souls as she goes by.
Grandpapá is crying too. He’s pushed aside his ghostly ashtray and the half-drunk caballito, and he sits before you and kisses your forehead, over and over.
“Perdóname.” He says softly, soothing. “Perdóname.”
He sees me behind you, bouncing, bouncing, and smiles his Grandpapá smile.
“Come here, boy.” He says. “Give your Mamá a hug.”
I wrap my careful arms around you-don’t cry, I want to say. But you cry even harder, the cempasúchil in your hands shrinking small, the smell staining your hands, as if you’ve held me, caressed me with those hands.
Grandpapá tells me it’s okay. It’s okay if you cry-there’s more than one reason why they call this lower world ´Valle de Lágrimas.’
I try to be solemn, like Grandpapá. I hide my grin in the strands of your hair and whisper your name. There’s no altar here for me, like there is for Grandpapá, but I have something so much better.
You’re here, you’re here, you’re here. You’re even more beautiful, Mamá, than I imagined.
The two ghosts hold the grieving woman, until their peace returns to her, until she laughs her tired laugh and says her hoarse, quiet goodbyes. Then her mother finds her-Curioso’s Grandmamá, who hoped beyond hope that she’d come, who was angry, angry, angry for two years, well into her widowhood.
Camila sees her daughter spent of tears by Carlos’ grave. She kneels by her-they embrace, and Carla finds she still has some tears left for the living.
The two souls return to the Timeless World, Carlos nearly dragging Curioso behind him, who keeps looking back at his mother and blowing her whispers of kisses. The cempasúchil flower is missing from Curioso’s lapel.
The women leave the panteón together, Carla’s head on Camila’s shoulder, a fresh cempasúchil flower tucked behind Carla’s ear.