In the stone courtyard before the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, three children—2 boys and a girl—take turns with an elm branch, poking a small beige dog who looks about dead. In its eye, the wetness of the doe-eye, the reflection of a coming fly. Its tongue-tip rests on the stone, leaving a dark salival mark, some small oasis of shade for the molecular things we can’t see. The girl kisses one boy on the cheek, who raises the branch and beats her between the shoulder blades with it. The dog’s flank rises just slightly, as if assuring us he or she is still breathing, with us.
We can only guess the branch is elm, something about it, and this scene, is truncated, no more than three letters long. Louisa and I weigh our tree options. Elm, Box, Fir, Cat, Oak, Ash. We close our eyes, the sun shadows dappling us into mid-day irrationality, and think about trees and conspiracy theory. Elm, Box, Fir, Cat, Oak, Ash. We unscramble the letters. Mexico. Mexico Ash. We wonder what’s burning down. When we open our eyes, the dog is gone, the children are gone, just some wet sludge on the stone—proof of the vision.
“Three lettered trees,” Louisa says,
“Tree lettered threes…” I lean in.
She kisses the craziness from us. We’re incredibly thirsty in a thirstily incredible city.
“What if it were ‘Nightmare on Fir Street?” I ask.
“And the killer was Hans Christian Anderson?” Louisa follows.
We have to stop ourselves there. We might leak. Lose ourselves in the lovey-mourning dovey prattle of overseas marital goofiness. The stuff we should keep to ourselves. But the sun is so tempting. Our eyes want to burn. In early dehydration, we wonder if we hallucinated the dog. We best find clean water. We have to fly tonight.
Inside the cathedral, the purple robed preacher shouts something about Dios! the pipe organ underscoring him with all good dissonance, lending some version of God the fangs of the vampire and lush black cloak. Along the southern flank of the Zócalo, the stone pedestrian alley seeming to rise just slightly like the ribcage of that fallen dog, plumes of vendors peddle elemental wares. Each item seems a talisman of sorts that will protect us from staring into this Medusa sun. This alley smells of dead water, ancient salt, the healing properties of all extinct things, bridges the dry clay bed where an old river once ran. Perhaps this is a former canal of the Xochimilco system, or perhaps it isn’t a riverbed at all, but a deliberate excavation.
We’re drawn to a toothless old woman in a black kerchief, squatting on the stone, arranging mysterious bottles on her green blanket, and waving to us with her left hand. Her knuckles look like a twelve-year-old’s, miraculously smooth, laminated. Louisa walks to her first, my wife’s blonde hair so out of place here, swaying over her shoulders like canary feathers, that temptress sun.
“Hola,” she says to the old woman and my heart leaps again at her accented Spanish.
The old woman merely grunts like a lawnmower engine trying to turn over—err-err, err-err—and prepares her show. On a foot-tall tubular gray stone, she grates a disc of silvery-pink abalone shell into a dish of skin-cream, mixes the resulting powder with her pinky-tip, and takes Louisa’s arm with her cream-less hand. She draws my wife downward until she too is sitting cross-legged on the green blanket. Instinctively, Louisa leans with her face, until her cheek is about two inches from the old woman’s. With a long-practiced swiftness, she rubs the gritty elixir into Louisa’s cheeks, forehead, chin, taking soft care with her eyelids, soft care with her ears. In less than ten seconds Louisa is completely masked, the old woman growling her err-err, err-err, to which Louisa responds, “Bueno.” Here, the old woman laughs like the queen of the witches, the headmaster of cackling school, “Bueno, sí, err-err, err-err.”
Eventually, I sit down and she masks me too, the sandy lotion somehow fortifying me with enough hydrogen and oxygen that I don’t feel thirsty anymore. This is street-exfoliation of the highest order, this alley-spa, this slow dance of these impossibly worn fingers over my face. Her touch is the touch of baked suede. In my lopsided Spanish, I ask her about the dry riverbed. She laughs again from her agonized throat, and tells us that it’s no river, but indeed, an archeological dig. In 2006, beneath the Templo Mayor, archeologists uncovered a gargantuan carved stone monolith, potentially housing a burial chamber and ancient Aztec treasure. The board of the Mexico City’s Urban Archeological Program believes that it may house the tomb of Emperor Ahuitzotl, who ruled just before the famed Moctezuma (who in turn was killed by Hernán Cortés’ Spanish invasion).
“Ellos no han terminado. Ellos todavía están excavando,” the old woman crows. “They still have to do a lot of digging,” I tell Louisa, “Most of it is still buried.”
The old woman continues to tell us of the gods carved into the altar—Tlaltecuhtli and Tlaloc, Aztec Earth Goddess and Rain God, respectively. Coupling in this supernatural square, they are surely making holy, mythological mud. The old woman mutters something else about how this may be one of the most important digs in the history of Mexico, then, referring to Tlaltecuhtli, musters her greatest Bela Lugosi, and howls, “Se comió los cuerpos de los muertos, err-err, err-err.”
“Oh, no,” I say, my face absorbing abalone dust.
“What did she say?” Louisa asks, the sun heating our scalps, guitar music somewhere, the slapping of barefeet on flagstone…
“She says the Earth Goddess eats the dead bodies.”
“That makes perfect sense.”
The old woman goes on with the story, saying something about blood, the Goddess’ favorite beverage, and how one carving depicted her with outsized claws, wearing a skirt and sipping from a necklace of human skulls. Oh, sweet Mother Earth!
Her vocal lawnmower finally turning over, she cuts our grass, telling us about past digs here; how, in 1978, a team of Mexico City’s electricians, while laying a network of subterranean wire, came across an eight-ton tablet of the Aztec Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui (directly translated as She Who Wears Bells on Her Cheeks), which reputedly marked the spot of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan’s staircase landing, which served the function of catching the limp bodies of the sacrificed as they tumbled down the pyramid. So began the periodic excavations, still underway, which have already yielded over 10,000 ancient artifacts. Sadly, the digs have been less than vigorous, slow-going (and occasionally abandoned—though local archeologists continually lobby the federal government for funding) due to lack of money.
I look to the dig-site, my ears filled with cream and shell, our own cheeks ringing their song, and see the machines sitting there, defunct. Louisa slips the old woman a few pesos, buys two tubs of this strange balm. We stand from her green blanket, stretching our legs. There is no wind. Behind us, the Zócalo’s giant Mexican flag hangs listless from its pole.
Tucking the crumpled bills beneath her black kerchief, she flashes us her speckled gums and sighs at the sight of the motionless cranes and tractors. Without another err-err, she says, “Espero que cavar de nuevo pronto,” Quiero ver lo que hay antes de morir.”
I hope they dig again soon. I want to see what’s down there before I die.