Day and Night
When the cousins spent their vacations in the house in Acapatzingo, the days had the clarity of a swimming pool and the ferocity of the sun; nights had the impenetrability of obsidian.
To the side of the church, among the sapodilla trees that splattered their black fruits in the garden, the mornings were golden like the beer their parents drank by the side of the pool. The girls would play "school" with the little girls from the town, as there was an empty pigsty that served as a classroom. The girls of house and the girls of the town cleaned it and brought in some tables so that the small girls could play student while the big girls gave explanations on the chalkboard they had brought from Mexico City. Getting to know the little girls who lived in Acapatzingo was such fun; it sustained them for the weekends and these long school vacations. Before lunch, they would come back to the house to take a dip. The boys would splash them and make fun of them: What was the matter with the girls? They had a pool to play in. Wasn't it enough to go to school every day? What business did they have with the girls from the town? To the girls, the boys seemed like insensitive dopes. The parents warned, Don't get us wet, while they balanced their sweating beer mugs and speared cubes of abalone with toothpicks.
The boys had tied a rope to a branch of the oak tree that hung over the kidney-shaped pool. They would climb its trunk, hang onto the rope, and swing until they could throw themselves right into the center of the pool. The boldest one would make a somersault in the air. They dared the girls: it was their turn. The girls threw themselves in clumsily. Then they would splash water in each others' faces or play "war." The biggest girls would carry the smallest girls on their shoulders, and the boys the same, and they would struggle until one of gladiators fell vanquished into the water. Panting, they would go drink cold hibiscus tea. On the terrace, the mothers would serve the girls and boys their lunch, which they ate in their still-wet bathing suits. The girls would then tell the boys about things they could not see for having been in the pool all day: In Marcela's house they have a she-ass; they have a well to get their water; their mother makes tortillas by hand and she gave us some; they keep scorpions in a jar; they have a black bow over their front door because they have a little brother who died when he was born. The boys would pretend they weren't interested. After lunch the boys would look for the bow and arrow, so they could shoot at the banana tree at the back of the garden and enjoy how that metal tip would bury itself in the milky shaft. The girls liked to shoot because of the way the bow would tauten so nicely, and when they let it loose, the arrow whistled through the air. Church bells called them to bring flowers to the Virgin. There go the little nuns, the boys would say, because the girls hurried to dress, chlorine still in their hair and their skin streaked by sun and water. Marcela was already at the door: they would go to the ravine to cut fresh flowers. They would go out jubilant in their white or honey-colored sandals, their wet hair pulled back with rubber bands. The boys would wait on the terrace for a while, bored, until they could get permission to once again throw themselves into the pool; the terrace felt wide now that the girls were at mass. How ridiculous: their parents never went.
Entering the dark church, the girls felt themselves part of that multitude of women of all ages. They thought the little bouquets they held in their hands would make them good. Avidly they waited for the moment when the songs they had not yet learned would be sung, so that they could come up close to the Virgin's feet and add their flowers to the fragrant mountain. In reverent silence each one searched the Virgin's eyes. They did not even glance at each other; it was as if they did not know each other, as if they belonged to the ritual, as if they had always belonged to the church of their country house.
In the afternoon, the girls would return, taking care not to disturb the grownups' siesta, and with the boys (who did not show any pleasure at their return) they would kill what was left of the afternoon with board games or charades to guess movie titles. And so the night arrived with its supper of grilled sandwiches they called flying saucers. Then the boys proposed that they cross the churchyard. The girls wanted to go buy something in the little grocery that was just on the other side.
"You can go around the church outside it," one girl said.
"That doesn't make sense. Could it be you're scared?" The boys teased.
"Not at all," the girls said and they left behind the bossa nova their parents started listening to after they gave the children coins to buy cookies with pink marshmallows.
They had to climb steps up to the churchyard, which was a vacant lot where they had seen Moors and Christians in ritual battle and Margarito the dwarf (who was small as a doll, but without a big head and arms like the ones in the circus) say in a high voice that he would conquer evil. It looked like a graveyard, flanked by the moonlit ochre church. To the back of the yard they could see the willow, the only tree in that desert. Next to it, though visible from this far corner, were the stairs that went down to the little store. They were going to cross the churchyard at night, but they were not used to doing it; their hearts were pounding fast and their mouths went dry. This darkness could be the territory of La Llorona, the weeping ghost-woman. It did not look at all the way it had a few hours ago when they were saying the rosary or swinging on the rope. No one wanted go first or be last. For unbearable minutes it seemed it was one or the other; for this reason the smallest ones did not have to participate in the coin toss to decide the order.
After an eternity of tripping over dark, dry ground, once on the other side, their fear turned to pride, which came out in nervous laughter. Each one thought it was the last time they would do that. The return would be at a full run and around the wall. Someone proposed collecting money to a buy a pack of cigarettes. And, they added, some Chiclets to hide the smell. The man in the grocery store gave them matches; it didn't bother him to be selling cigarettes to kids. Not wanting to be seen, they went around the corner of the wall, away from the man. The oldest boy lit the first cigarette. He took several puffs until the tip glowed red in the dark. He passed it to the oldest girl. She coughed a bit. She took a puff and let out a plume of smoke. She passed the cigarette, which made all of them cough and laugh and want it to go around again so they could take another puff. They lit the next cigarette with the stub of the last, the way they’d seen their parents do. And when they were finished, they weren't sure what to do with the rest of the pack; it seemed to them to have been enough. Already some of them were dizzy and their mouths had a disagreeable taste. They handed around the cinnamon Chicles and walked slowly and quietly back to the house to finish the day with some TV, all of them sprawled on the mattress in the master bedroom, complaining and laughing, until sleep overcame them.
On the Saturday of the April vacation that their cousin Elena arrived with her mother to spend the day, the boys and girls tried to keep to their routines and schedules. Elena was already thirteen years old; she refused to play "school" with the neighbor girls. Neither did she want to throw herself from the rope into the freezing-cold pool. With her long blond braid that divided her back in two and in her navy-blue bikini, she lay down on one of the chaises.
The girls returned quickly from classes in the pigsty and the boys stopped playing Tarzan, so as to not splash their cousin’s svelte body. They ate their snacks around Elena, who joined them so she could reach for a jicama. With their legs and torsos so close, the boys and the girls could see that her calves were smooth. Elena shaved them. At once, the girls wanted to get rid of the fuzz on their own legs; the boys, to lean into those bronzing thighs.
They ate with less commotion and without showing each other their food. Elena spoke little. Slightly bored, she asked if they would spend all of their vacations in this place.
The girls and boys turned back to their plates of lentils, feeling the coming days as a jumbled-up burden. Bells in the distance enlivened the girls. They invited Elena. She said she only went to mass on Sundays. This pleased the boys, as they assumed she would do archery or play with the BB gun, but Elena lay down with a magazine in the livingroom, where it was cooler. From the terrace, the boys looked at her from time to time without being able to tear themselves away.
The girls tossed flowers at the appointed hour, feeling a certain haste to return and less devotion to the porcelain statue's saintly eyes. They asled if Elena wanted to go to the churchyard when it got dark. The boys had already proposed it to her. She liked the idea of getting out of the house, and while they were walking, now that the sun has gone down, she seemed more agreeable. The boys and girls were thrilled that she would venture to cross the churchyard and not think they were stupid.
"Are there any men around?" she asked them in the darkness when they were deciding the order.
They had thought of La Llorona and other varmints. Men did not cross the churchyard at night.
"Not even drunks?" she asked.
They tossed the coin. It was Elena who had to go first. The oldest boy exchanged places with her. She would be second. The others watched this, perplexed; he had never done anything like that before. When they all reached the other side of barren space of the churchyard, Elena already had the pack in her hands. She gave a cigarette to each one. This time they did not bother to stay out of the shop owner's sight. They smoked there beneath the willow, with their wisps of smoke challenging the churchyard's black emptiness, which they had mastered. Elena explained that in order to smoke properly, you had to inhale, and she gave a demonstration. She took a puff on the cigarette and opened her empty mouth, so they could imagine the smoke swirling around in her lungs. Then she made two smoke rings, which they watched in amazement. They tried to do it but it made them dizzy; no one thought of those handy cinnamon Chiclets.
They returned to the house with a light step and with Elena in the center because she knew how to smoke and had not coughed and walked upright as if the smoke that had made arabesques in her lungs had given her a certain pride. They forgot the TV and went into the children's room, the one with the foldout beds, which opened onto the terrace. In the narrow space between the beds they were sitting on, they played spin the bottle. Yes, kisses and slaps and then passing the lighted match: whomever dropped it had to answer a rude question. And then they couldn't think of anything until someone switched off the light, and the oldest boy turned on the lantern and asked the women to make a show for the boys. In a crowd, almost falling over each other, the boys climbed up onto the high bed. And the girls thought of a dance. The oldest boy held the lantern like a spotlight on each girl and Elena lifted her leg as if it were a cancan. Then they traded places, and the boys made a pyramid, one on top of the other, but they all fell down when one of the girls shined the lantern in their eyes. Then the boys asked Elena to do a show by herself. The girls also said yes and they climbed onto the other bed, the one without the lantern, for the boys had taken possession of it. Elena went to the corner by the door so that everybody could see her, and she began to sway like a woman, her hips one way, then the other, her waist making circles. She pretended to take off her shoes and pantyhose, though she wasn't wearing any, and she turned her back to the whistles of the boys and the girls who were pretending to be customers in a cabaret. And she pretended to be taking off her dress and unbuttoning her bra and tossing it off, though she still had on her red-striped T-shirt and khaki shorts, until the oldest boy dared to say: Lift up your shirt. And with their silence, all agreed. And he shined the light on her waist as Elena held the edge of her T-shirt and slowly raised it to show her stomach and then, like a surprising landscape, her budding breasts. They did not whistle; they did not even applaud. The oldest boy shut off the lantern, and it was a good thing Elena's mother knocked on the door to say they were leaving.
The next morning they sunned themselves on the chaises and went in the pool. The girls did not answer when Marcela came to knock on the door for class, nor did the boys pay any attention to the rope that hung there, useless. The girls did not respond to the church bells or the women's footsteps as they went to the ravine to gather flowers. The bow and arrow did not sing through the air, nor wound the plant. They laughed less and played little. They were merely waiting for the night, which they had already confused with the day.
Translated by C.M. Mayo.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.