Welcome To The Harem
Ofrenda by Shahara Zade
Summary: "The word, `death', is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips...the Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love." (Octavio Paz) F/F slash, Marita/Monica, Implied K/M, D/R. For the Harem Halloween Challenge.
AUTHOR: Shahara Zade
ARCHIVE: Just Harem for now
KEYWORDS: F/F slash, Marita/Monica, Implied K/M, D/R
SPOILERS: Assume anything through "The Truth"
DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Not beta-ed either. Sorry.
SUMMARY: "The word, `death', is not pronounced in New York, in
Paris, in London, because it burns the lips...the Mexican, in
contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it,
sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his
most steadfast love."
John and I split in El Paso. He went back for his fellow Marine,
still MIA, because "...you just don't leave a guy behind." I headed
south alone, reverse wetback, trusting that he would follow as
soon as he could. As the radio news from del norte got
progressively weirder, I drifted back into the mountains, trying to
remember what it was to be Mexican.
Not that it mattered. It wasn't like I could really hide.
El dia los muertos is coming to the village. In Mexico, on the Day
of the Dead, the people celebrate the lives of loved ones who
have died. Gravesites are cleaned and adorned with flowers and
candles. There are parades and mariachi concerts and feasting.
I once heard that the average family here spends one sixth of
their yearly income on decorations and food for this one holiday
- sort of like Christmas in the States. Mexican culture recognizes
death as an implicit consequence of life. From an early age,
children make, play with, and eat candy skulls and skeletons.
They embrace the symbol of passage.
Different categories of the deceased are believed to visit the
family at different times. Children return first, and offerings
specific to their tastes are made. Generally, the children visit at
noon on October 31st. At noon on November 1st, when the souls
of the children depart again, the family focuses on providing for
the adult souls. Adults remain with the family until noon on
November 2nd, and although they do not consume the offerings,
they absorb their essence.
I buy marigolds and purple cockscomb. The fragrance is
supposed to guide returning souls to the feast, as is the copal ?
evergreen resin incense. Traditionally, the ofrenda is
constructed in the home, ornamented with candles, pan de
muerto, photos of the deceased, as well as some of their
favorite objects, or things that represent their daily life. For a
musician, you would add a guitar, for a smoker, a pack of
For John, I have a cell phone, with its long-ago drained battery.
There are no graves for us to sit by in vigil, but in our little room,
the nightstand serves as a makeshift altar ? our ofrenda. The
only photograph I have of John, a faded and slightly out of focus
snapshot is propped against a can of Tecate. We traded for the
miniature bottle of duty-free vodka. The seventeen-year-old
Finnish backpackers had, apparently, never encountered
Nicorette gum before. I hope I haven't hooked them.
I don't think she really understands why I need to do this so
much, construct my own ofrenda. She indulges me in her silent,
elegant way. She doesn't believe the spirits of our loved ones
return to us.
Four candles are placed in a cross formation, illustrating the four
cardinal points to serve as a kind of compass. White candles
signify hope; purple candles are for pain. We have both here.
A cross is also formed at the foot of the ofrenda with earth and
ashes. When this is stepped upon, the spirit is said to expel all
of its guilt. The feast ? mole, tamales and rice is set out in clay
pots, always with a dash of salt, which is considered to be an
element of purification.
I never expected her to join me in the ritual, never expected to
see the amber bead rosary there, half-hidden under a plate of
tamales. I can't bring myself to ask her who it belongs to, but I
think I can guess.
How she ended up staying, I don't know.
Maybe it was just that I had a place ? a room with a creaky bed
and slouching mattress, and a door that locks properly if you
close it while holding your breath. In Mexico, when you open the
door to someone, you must at once bid him come in, whether
you know him or not. It does not do to let him stand on the
threshold ? this is considered a dangerous and unhallowed
I remember walking up the street that ran like a river through the
crumbling haciendas, down into the fields of corn in the valley
below. An ancient green bus with most of its windows broken
stopped across the street, filling the intersection with billowing
exhaust as children and women with baskets gathered to climb
The bus pulled away and the fumes cleared and I saw her, in
her crisp black suit, carrying her black valise in one hand and a
string bag full of oranges in the other. Her back was turned to
me, but I knew the voice. I stood watching, as she baffled a
woman selling tortillas from a cart with her perfect Castillian
Here, I thought, here, finally, is my executioner. The angel of
death, with her white-gold halo of hair streaming down her
shoulders. But when I approached her, she only held out a silver
chain with metal id plates clinking at the bottom.
She is a harder person than she first appears to be, sleeping
with a Sig tucked under the leather jacket she uses as a pillow.
The bullets are tipped in magnite. But she is softer than she
seems too. Most nights, I hear her crying in her sleep.
It is All Saints Day before I have the strength to be angry with her,
she seems so lost. But resentment tightens my chest when I
see the old FBI badge, the image of the earnest traitor and his
signature scrawl she has left beside John's dog tags. It feels
confrontational, political, though she hasn't said a word.
In our last months with the Bureau, I stopped assuming that
John and I would live through the war we had joined. But I *had*
assumed, had known as instinct, that we would die together. I
always thought that we would have the chance to say goodbye.
She had been there instead, in that office for vengeance, to kill a
man for the first time. They just happened to beat her to it. John
understood this, but he protected her anyway and they ran
together. So it was she who listened to his last words, who
cradled his body on the pavement, whose blouse turned red with
his blood. It was she who received the little metal blessings,
pressed into her cool palm. It was she who he told to find me.
It was on All Saints Day that I could finally hate her a little.
I fill soda pop bottles with water for the ofrenda from the tap in
the bathtub. Water, is considered to be a fountain of life, as well
as an elemental symbol. Pan de muerto, the bread of the dead,
represents the earth, and the sating of hunger.
I light the candles. Fire purifies everything. I watch the flame and
as it slowly melts the wax, it melts the bitterness in my heart. A
soft breeze moves the colored papel picado I have hung in the
window. She returns from the market with another armload of
flowers and a bag of sugar skulls glittering with sequins.
She offers these things to me without speaking, and sits on the
bed, facing the window. In the street, four men in dark robes
carry a coffin. The coffin opens and a skeleton slowly sits up,
rolls its eyes and waves to the bystanders, who wave back,
laughing and calling.
Three candy skulls go onto the second row of the ofrenda,
typically, to represent the Holy Trinity. On the third level or row, a
larger skull is placed to represent the Giver of Life.
It is almost dark. I go to sit beside her on the bed with a bottle of
tequila to watch the parade and our combined weight on the
edge of the mattress causes it to sag almost to the floor.
Unease twists through me, knotting in the pit of my stomach.
She shakes her head when I offer her the bottle. She isn't really
looking out the window anymore, but at some non-place
between the floor and the wall.
Copal is thick in the air.
Revelers outside are celebrating three thousand years of history.
They celebrate the only thing that truly matters ? the living spirit of
their ancestors. No one here really dies until the last person who
can remember them is gone. High in the tower above the crowd,
a solitary bell begins to chime, reverberating against white
washed walls, rolling over the cobblestone streets.
"How long does it last?" She whispers.
"All night. About every thirty seconds. The bell calls the spirits."
She shudders. The bells continue and I see that, with each
chime, she flinches, her head drooping.
There is so much space between us. The bells echo in the
street. I scoot closer to her, slip an awkward arm around her
shoulders and she lays her head against my chest. It isn't
enough. She begins to shake.
She seems so fragile, this perfect golden china doll. I don't think
I can stand to see her shatter. Her breathing is so fast and it's
increasing as the sound repeats. If I let her break now, I don't
think anyone will ever be able to glue her together again.
She looks up at me, lips parted, and I don't even understand it,
but I kiss her. I suck the rising screams from her lungs. Her
hands move around my waist and up my back as she pulls me
I have offered and she takes, frantic and heated and full of rage.
How can I talk about loss, she asks with her teeth and nails.
She pulls me on top of her, stronger, fiercer than I ever
imagined. How can I celebrate death and pain, she demands,
her fingers rough inside me.
Every peal of the bell is a gunshot. She pins my arms. She
grinds against my mouth. She tastes like smoke and sorrow.
How could I possibly know anything about grief?
When my head finally begins to clear, she is still on top of me,
her knee between my legs. The bells has stopped and every part
of me is sore.
"I must be crushing you." She doesn't look at me as she slides
off. She is becoming an untouchable porcelain thing again.
I find my voice. "And you must be freezing." I stretch aching limbs
to reach the blankets, jumbled at the foot of the bed. I pull them
over us and kiss her cheek. The sky outside is still dark gray.
Leftover candlelight flickers over the exposed skin of her
At last she says, "Did you come here to die, Monica?"
"I don't know. No one gets out of life alive, you know."
Her voice is soft in my ear. "Do you think our dead came to visit
"Well...I think there *is* a point where simple belief can be
confused with faith...a magical moment in which whatever's out
there and our own world reconcile. I mean," I raise up on my
elbow, "It's as though the crying and the ache of loss is ? I
dunno - transformed for a while...so yeah." I found myself
grinning. "I think body and spirit are reunited on dia los muertos.
Seriously, how often do *you* find yourself rolling around like
some Penthouse babe-on-babe fantasy? John was always a
gentleman. He probably turned his non-corporeal head, but I
know he was looking a little."
The corners of her mouth twitch and she chuckles. "Alex would
have just watched...probably jacked off, too."
I giggle too, because it is a funny image, but also because it's
even funnier hearing Marita use a phrase like "jack off" It is, after
all, the season of dia los muertos, and we greet Death as the
Mexicans do, not without fear, but laughing in its face all the
Notes: lots of shameless appropriation here. Go to: http://
www.inside-mexico.com/oscar.htm for great Dia los muertos
stuff. Also here: http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/
If you're really interested, I've got tons more site bookmarks to
share ? just let me know.