I ate a tamale loaded with magical lard and mole rich like the earth, and now I can see the ghosts in this town. To most Oaxaqueños, the ghost-people are invisible because the sunlight reflects off the pale pink and green limestone in a way that blinds them. Or maybe the locals avoid the tamales from the Mercado Xochimilco altogether.
In just a week, I encountered three ghost forms: the selling ghosts, the jumping spirits, and the spook-ghouls, who have been scorched by the burning or freezing stones of these village churches and cannot find ointment to fade their scars. Their salve is likely up in the mountains, made of agave, or turtle, or armadillo, or a mixture of all three.
The girl in an orange and white striped shirt, always with one finger in her nose and the other in a bag of popcorn, leads the way for the meandering, murmuring, mercantile ghosts. She establishes the path of movement for all the rest: the floating woman selling tamarind juice or bags of pumpkin seeds piled high in a basket atop her head; the paleta men selling popsicles; the balloon ladies; the sisters with long plaits who repeat chicarrines chicharrines chicharrines like an incantation advertising their fried pinwheel snacks.
The child-leader in the creamsicle shirt knows the most profitable paths (along the restaurants, and shaded benches, the band stage near the market stalls). I think she inherited this knowledge from the elderly matriarch of the Zocalo: the immobile cotton candy vendor. This ancient woman sits in a plastic chair with two long poles on either side of her, each one like a staff with puffs of blue and pink cotton candy branching out. Each day, crowds of kids approach her—if anyone has the ability to notice ghosts, it’s children—because she sells each puff with a sticky toy, a little sticky monkey that the purchasers can fling on walls and at the limbs of fellow children. “Viene con un monito que se pega!” is her golden pitch. It comes with a little monkey that sticks.
Nobody seems to notice these ghosts except the children. Nobody says: dear boy selling roasted peanuts and pumpkin seeds, where were these nuts prepared? Over fire in a back garden, or in a kitchen, while a cauldron of turkey soup steams? Did you women practice balancing baskets on your heads like runway models with books? And the vendor selling chapulines: how do you gather such large quantities of grasshoppers? And you, ghost-nurse who makes her rounds dressed in white, offering to check one’s blood pressure…what was nurse training like, and did you every deliver a baby? Crust punks, you, who offer henna tattoos, using toothpicks grabbed from the corner restaurant…what tattoos are imprinted under your clothes? Nobody asks these things.
Their songs are peaceful and they play in my head like a cradle song: paleta, paleta, chapulines, chicharrones, paleta, papa, pepita, coca, pulseritas para’l pelo, chicle, papa, papa, papa?
The jumping ghosts are nimble, vivacious. They gather like thunder clouds at the Plaza de la Danza at sunset.
The young dancers in this limestone square remind me of antelopes and jaguars when they spin, prance, jump to traditional istmeño songs or mixtec chants. They raise dust, they chase. Women form an outer circle with men in the middle. Twists, hops, turns and swivels on one foot, a crouch and a run, a thump, a crouch, a hop again. The step-work reminds me of line dancing I saw once in a Mississippi sports bar. But more than mimicking line dancers, these spirit-people emulate the movements of my circulation and my expanding lungs, and the tendencies of migrating animals, on land and in water. Circular ebbs and flows dictated by a single drummer, increasing and varying pace like the sun and the seasons.
The boys who play futból and ball games are also jumping spirits. These young men scale up walls and tumble and shout and quick, quick, quick! They gallop and trot and are swift, even as they move close to the ground. These ghosts are unfazed by the pink sky, so utterly gorgeous; they are absorbed in the movements they make as a unit, an orchestra. And when the church bells ring, the game is over and the teams shake hands and they send the young ones to go fetch four liters of soda and they come back with styrofoam cups, too. They always remember to bring bags of peanuts (purchased from the patient selling ghosts). And they gulp and breathe and buen partido. Even as they rest, before getting up for more, jumping spirits talk and brush back their sweaty hair in a pulsating rhythm.
Some spooks are cheeky and playful, but most are ghoulish. Vengeful. They sit and bob their heads on the avenue of Alcalá, never too far from the Santo Domingo church where tourists wander and quinceañeras are celebrated in turquoise and fuchsia ball gowns. The haunting ghoul manifests in the form of a young child, now and then accompanied by a mother with a hunched-over back and a baby suckling her breast. They all have sleep in the corners of their eyes.
The spook-ghoul who wanted to teach me a lesson looked like a girl of about five or six, with yellow stains on her shirt and missing teeth. She asked me for a piece of gum and then, Anda, Señora, don’t you have some pesitos for me? Buy me a chocolate bar. Buy me an elote? She had the mannerisms of a grown woman and was squirting anti-bacterial syrup all over her hands and arms as she spoke. I gave her a yellow rose I had bought from a selling ghostand placed a five peso coin in her hand. The gesture seemed quaint and sentimental, but I thought the living-dead liked flowers. She took the coin and said, “I bet your husband gave you this flower.” Then she proceeded to take off each petal, first delicately, and then in tiny fistfuls, digging her fingernails into the pollen center. She threw the petals at my face and the petals turned into pebbles and stung as they hit my cheeks and chest.
The ghoul-girl ran away and I saw a version of her only once more, sleeping on the side of the road late at night. I watched how cars whizzed past her and exhaust from buses plumed onto her face and gravel scattered and spattered and bounced off her body as buses nearly ran her over. If only the gravel were confetti from a yellow rose. I felt embarrassed because I don’t know what it’s like to sleep like a ghost.
I went to buy more tamales from the lady at Xochimilco but she said she didn’t have any. Pero tengo tejate, she said, flicking a pincher bug off her arm. She offered me a bowlful of the warm drink, made with maize flower and mamey pits. The powder from the rosita de cacao formed a foam on top, and she said to be careful, that if I drank the foam I might start to hear the words of the pigeons and parrots and insects and snakes. “Y no suelen ser buen conversadores,”she warned.The tamale lady was right. Animals proved to be not the best of conversationalists. I began missing my ghosts.
“You’ll see one again, one day,” a street dog said, before disappearing behind a limestone wall.
Olaya Barr has lived in NYC for six years. She studies fiction and translation at Columbia’s MFA program. She writes, photographs, speaks Spanish, and stares at people when she goes on walks. Her photography website is www.olayabarr.tumblr.com