Was the waking part of the dream? Reality appeared to be flowing at its normal pace, and I could tell I was in the guest room, and that my body was not a separate entity from my mind anymore (but was it ever any different?). Groggily, I turned in place, and the furry presence lying next to me made me jump and shriek in surprise, and I almost fell off the bed. But again, I was alone.
Outside, the rain was falling hard.
Little by little, the dream came back to me, and with it the understanding I had experienced within it. I dressed up and went to the storage room, took out the shovel and a large machete, and made my way to the grave I had dug just a few days before.
The cempasúchitl flower was big and beautiful, almost unnaturally so, and I could not refrain a tingle of sadness as I tossed it aside to start digging up the grave. Soon, the smell let me know how close I was to the body, and I would rather not describe in detail how I pulled out the decomposing flesh, how I hacked at it with the machete until I separated the head from the body, how I seemed to be possessed by a force far beyond me, a force that didn’t let me gag or puke or hesitate. I dare not say how carefully I cut open the scalp, and how from underneath it I pulled out a perfect, beautiful human skull.
“Nahual”, I remember whispering, holding it in front of me, the rain washing away the blood, cleaning it. I had to look again at the body to reassure myself that it was that of a coyote. Even though I was sure of what I would find, I was still surprised.
I put the skull next to me and reburied the rest of the body. I have no idea how much time I spent doing that; the sun was nowhere to be seen between the dark rain clouds, and I was so invigorated by having a purpose, an understanding and a solution to my predicament, that time didn’t matter anymore.
It had been wrong of me to take the corpse in my trunk, to bury it where it didn’t belong, so far away from where it had lived. I could go as far as saying it had been wrong of me to drive at night and space out and hit the coyote in the first place, but that part felt like it had had to happen. I knew this just now, though, and there’s no way I could have known before, no other way than to have it shown to me.
The rain had washed away the pawprints on the Chevy, and I jumped in the car ignoring the dent and the broken headlight, irrelevant as they were now, as everything was, and I put the skull on the floor of the passenger’s seat. I didn’t think I would be driving on the highway out of San Felipe a mere week after arriving. I didn’t think, really, that any of what had happened to me in the past few days could have ever happened to anybody, and I drove for a couple of hours before I realized I had no idea where exactly I was headed.
I spotted a figure in the rain to the side of the highway. It was as if it had read my thoughts and answered. I stopped next to it and unlocked the doors. The old man went into the back seat.
I kept on driving, and his old eyes just stared to the front, unblinking. The rain had not stopped at all. The music of the drops beating against the windshield, the coming and going of the wipers, it all seemed to add to how surreal the situation was. But I didn’t for one second question what I was doing, still possessed by the force that had taken over when I dug out the body, the force that had nullified my anxiety and made me somewhat normal for a while. I wondered what Dr. Magaña would say about this whole ordeal when I told her. I had to tell her, after all, she was my doctor. I stopped thinking about it, enjoying the peace in my mind. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
As we came close to an exit, the old man looked in that direction. I recognized the area, somewhat, but with the rain everything looked different. I turned my signal on and took the exit. The road I had taken kept going straight for a long time, and eventually the asphalt gave way to a muddy dirt road. Again, the old man reacted to a fork in the road, and again I turned to where he looked. He seemed at peace, not bothered at all by his skull resting in front of him.
We arrived at an area surrounded by wheat fields — not cempasúchitl, my mind protested; and I realized then that it was not at all the season for the flower to grow. Amidst the fields sat a town, to which the entrance was a tall, concrete arch that read “Welcome to Santa María”. I turned to look at the old man for approval, but he was gone. I figured that was as good a sign as any, and I drove into the town.
I drove in a straight line through the town’s main road, not surprised at the lack of paved roads, or at the faces of people peeking out of their houses, looking at me drive by. I wondered how often they got visitors. I wonder if they were expecting someone else, and if they would be grateful to me for bringing back one of their own, to his final resting place.
I recognized the hut as soon as I laid eyes on it, and as I parked in front of it and got out of my car, the rain seemed to fall harder. I put the skull under my arm, locked my car and ran for it. I got slightly discouraged when I saw the lock on the door, but when I put my hand against it, it creaked open, and I took shelter from the rain.
It was like coming back to a place long forgotten. The stove, the chair and the table were there. I saw a few extra details that made me uneasy, too, like the pictures on the wall that portrayed my not-dad (exactly as he was in the dream, exactly like the old man downtown) standing next to some young people. I felt sadness wash over me. There were empty beer bottles on the floor. A strong dog smell coated the place, and there were claw markings on the floor.
Peeking out of the window I saw that a few people were leaving their houses and walking in this direction, and I figured I would not want to be here once they reached the hut.
I went out the door and behind the hut, where the (grave) hole was. I could feel that my confidence and mental stability were starting to desert me, and I fumbled with the skull, almost dropping it, hating myself for it.
Carefully I put the skull in the hole, making sure it faced the town, and it was done. It was as if some weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I closed my eyes for a second, then looked around me and noticed that the rain had stopped. I could also hear the people getting closer, their voices not sounding friendly at all. I ran back to my car and got in just as they arrived.
I hastily locked the doors and saw one of them approaching the window with confused anger, and he started to ask me what the hell I was doing there, what business did I have in that house. He looked so much happier in the photographs I had seen earlier.
More people were coming from the town, and one of the others who had arrived first had knelt to grab a rock.
The spell was completely broken now. I was in full panic mode, and I started to sweat profusely watching the townspeople surround the car, blocking my way. I patted my pockets but found that I had left my phone back at Jacobo’s house. My breathing became frenzied. I didn’t want to look at the angry faces that yelled and stared from outside the car, nor did I want to know what they were about to do with the rocks and the sticks they had in their hands. Soon enough I could feel the tears rolling down my face, trying to explain what was happening, mumbling nonsense at the mob. I heard the back-door window crack and crash under the weight of a rock, I felt a hand reach in and pull my hair and saw another come in and unlock my door. The man outside my window was still yelling, and his face reddened when someone mentioned the skull behind the hut, he pulled me out of the car by my wet clothes. The people closed in on me, my world cast in shadows as it also closed in on me, and it was getting oh so hard to breathe now, I was going to pass out.
When I opened my eyes, the townspeople had backed off, a puzzled (terrified?) look in their eyes. I got up, trembling, and managed to seize the chance and stumble back into the Chevy, gasping, crying loudly. I thought the barking and the snarls had been part of my anxiety attack, part of my brain lacking oxygen as I was about to lose consciousness, waiting for the mob to beat me up. But the beating never came, and I managed to stay conscious. I started the car and sped away from Santa María, and when I looked in the rearview mirror I could see a dog standing in front of the crowd, watching me leave.
I laughed maniacally, tears still rolling down my face, exhausted and terrified. The adrenaline rush kept me awake while I drove, and it stopped the anxiety from taking over. I thought I would be followed, or that I would stumble upon a cops’ car, but neither of those things happened.
When I arrived back to the house, I stayed in the car for a long time, unable to move, even dozing off at some point. The garden looked normal again, no plants were wilting, and even the unrooted grass that used to be on the grave was back there, as green as ever, maybe even greener.
On top of the grave was, again, the cempasúchitl flower, its orange petals glowing under the sun. I got out of my car and went to pick it up, taking care not to hurt it. I went upstairs. The door was unlocked, and the alarm hadn’t been set, but all was fine. I filled a jar with water in the kitchen and put the cempasúchitl in it. Then I placed the jar on the nightstand in the guest room.
Looking at it, I felt a little sad that I had not had the chance to say goodbye properly. But that was done. Maybe now I could focus on the job at hand and take proper care of this damned house.
I locked all the doors and saw the messages in my phone: Mr. Sierra asking again how everything was and why hadn’t I picked up when his wife called, and Jacobo and my parents asking how I was. There was also a text from Dr. Magaña asking how I had been doing with the job, and that she was back from her retreat now, in case I wanted to talk. I replied to all of them with short, reassuring sentences, figuring that I could talk more the next day.
Sleep came, finally, and I surrendered myself to the void.
Nahual — (nah-wahl) Also pronounced “nagual”. A nahual is a shaman in various Mesoamerican cultures who can transform into an animal in the real or in the spiritual plane. Different cultures assign different traits to a nahual. The word comes from the Nahuatl nahualli, meaning (though there’s no consensus on this) something along the lines of to hide, to disguise oneself or to trick.
Cempasúchitl — (sehm-pah-soo-chee-tl) Known in English as the “Mexican marigold” or the “Aztec marigold” (and even as the “African marigold”), the cempasúchitl flower is widely known in México as the “Flower of the dead”, given its use to decorate graves and altars during the Día de Muertos celebration. Its original name is cempoalxóchitl, and comes from the Nahuatl cempohuali, meaning “twenty” and xóchitl, meaning “flower”. It has a very particular smell, and it has some medicinal qualities.
Zócalo — (soh-kah-loh) While it usually is the name given to the main square in México City, the word zócalo is used to refer to the main squares of various towns and cities throughout México. The zócalo in this story is modelled after the one in my hometown, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca.
Thanks for reading this short story! I wrote it in 2019 and self-published it for a convention that the studio I work for arranged at the time. If you liked it, you can get it as a PDF through my gumroad store. :) Have a wonderful day!