In Which Life and Death Arrive, and a Girl's Destiny Hangs in the Balance
Life sauntered into town on a wave of heat. He looked quite dapper in his black suit and matching vest, with a crisp white shirt and the tiniest hint of red peeking out of his jacket pocket: a crimson handkerchief, monogrammed.
His tall short-brimmed hat provided little shade from the blinding white sky, and his walking stick left cracks on the dry and brittle land. The high-pitched whine of cicadas pestered him incessantly.
Life raised his walking stick. With a tap, the stick opened into an umbrella that shaded him and his companion, a skeletal figure in a bright pink dress delicately embroidered with flowers and birds. A crown of roses rested on her skull; a few petals trailed behind her, plucked by a curious draft of hot air.
“Shall we?” Life asked.
“We shall,” his companion replied, brushing dust off her sleeve. She may have been Lady Death (though she preferred to go by the name Catrina), but that didn’t mean she was immune to the allure of beauty.
Catrina placed her bony wrist, clinking with gilded bangles, upon Life’s outstretched arm. Together, they walked up to the main plaza in front of the Santo Domingo cathedral.
“I wonder where everyone is?” Life asked.
“Taking shelter, no doubt,” Catrina replied.
It was already one of the hottest mornings on record in the hottest summer anyone in Oaxaca City could remember. People burrowed deep inside their houses shaded by the massive branches of purple-flowered jacaranda trees. Exhausted fans made eddies of hot air bloated with lethargic mosquitoes and flies. The ceramic tile floors, usually so cool to the touch, radiated an infernal heat. Jugs of water steamed like pots on a stove.
Catrina’s bracelets rattled against her bones as she flicked her bangled wrist, spreading out a fan. Made of black lace and glinting with tiny white pearls, the fan was a gift from one of her admirers--of whom she had plenty.
It had been left for her on one of the many marigold-covered altars that blossomed around the Día de los Muertos celebration, tucked between candied skulls and photos of lost relatives. A note attached to the gift read, “Por favor cuídalos.” Of course I’ll take care of them. Catrina watched over all her wards with a fierceness matched only by Life.
“Well, let’s get to it,” Life said.
“Let’s,” Catrina replied, and she began to fan herself. A cool breeze spread out from the black lace, a welcome relief in the searing heat. Strings of silver frost emanated from the fan, drifting out like so many wishes.
Beneath their makeshift parasol, Life and Death followed the silver strands unfurling before them.
They peeked into a doorway where a little boy played with a kitten in a box while his mother made a batch of tortillas to sell later in the day. The kitten meowed at the intruders, and the little boy looked up. He saw a handsome, well-dressed man and a beautiful woman with creamy brown skin and long dark hair.
Life nodded at the boy. Catrina smiled.
The two companions moved on.
Next they passed a peeling wall painted with a faded mermaid clutching a basket of fruit. Bold letters above the mermaid spelled the store’s name: la frutería sirena. It was run by a wrinkled man who had been there longer than anyone could remember.
The man and his wrinkles were fast asleep on a hammock strung up in the middle of the fruit shop. A strategically placed fan spun endlessly beside the slumbering man, its blades in a losing battle against the heat.
Catrina took extra notice of the old man; his light was fading, and he would soon be joining her. But not today.
They walked past La Rosa hair salon and the aptly named nursery La Maceta, the Flowerpot. Meaty cacti bursting with fruit stood sentry on either side of the door. Towering palm trees shaded the owner while he read a newspaper.
At the end of the street, they approached a small church. Life gazed up at the brightly colored papel picado--paper cutouts--tied from the bell tower to the lush trees surrounding the church. Each cutout depicted a scene of love. Crushed flower petals clung to the papers and stained the ground.
“There was a wedding,” Catrina said.
“May the couple live long and well,” Life replied, briefly bowing his head. The couple would indeed go on to live long and well, never knowing they owed their good fortune to the blessing of this strange visitor. But that is a story for another time.
Catrina fanned herself again, sending out a new wave of silver strands.
At that very moment, on another cobblestone street, a young girl in a small house with walls painted robin’s-egg blue looked up. With an urgency she couldn’t quite explain, she turned her gaze toward the window.
From her perch, the girl could just make out the twin crosses that crowned the cathedral’s blue-and-white cupolas. A lone white dove beat its wings against the hot sky.
The girl rose and opened her window.
The church bells tolled.
“Clara,” the girl’s mother called. “Come.”
A hint of cool breeze entered Clara’s room. Hesitant at first, the breeze tentatively explored the confines of the space, just big enough for a child-sized bed, a two-drawer dresser, and the girl herself.
The breeze wrapped around the girl and tightly wove itself into her braids. A shiver ran down Clara’s back, and she shook her head, trying to dislodge the breeze from her hair. She tugged at a stray strand of silver.
“Child, I need you,” her mother called.
“I’m coming.” Clara set down her sketch, a messy doodle of a horse with eagle’s wings.
Clara was not a good artist, and she knew that. Perhaps with more time and resources, she could develop this interest into an actual talent. As it was, she could sketch only on weekend mornings before her parents awoke. The rest of the time she spent in school and helping her parents run their small restaurant, La Casa de Juana.
The restaurant had started off as just a few tables in their living room, where Clara’s parents liked to host dinners for friends. However, as word of Juana’s talents in the kitchen spread, more and more tables were added. Their guests insisted on helping cover some of the costs of the food and preparation, and the living room was gradually transformed into a restaurant.
“Clara!” her mom called.
“Okay, okay,” Clara called back, and made her way to the kitchen.
Juana was Clara’s mother, and by all accounts the best cook in Oaxaca. Her tamales were light and flavorful. Wrapped in banana leaves, the cornmeal patties were stuffed with mole, corn, chicken, and black beans, or pineapples and raisins, then steamed and sold still hot to the touch.
Juana also made the best tlayudas: large, thin, and partially toasted tortillas covered with a spread of beans, cheese, lettuce, and avocado, topped with beef, pork, seafood, or, Clara’s favorite, mushrooms.
Juana’s specialty dishes were many: tasajo, chorizo, cecina, guacamole, dozens of salsas. But what made La Casa de Juana truly special was the hot chocolate.
Clara’s mother had inherited the recipe from her mother, who had in turn received it from her mother, and she from her mother . . . and so forth for generations.
At some point, Clara had taken it upon herself to sample hot chocolate from every vendor in the city, just to see if what people said was true. There was no contest. Her mother’s combination of hand-ground cacao, almonds, cinnamon, and sugar was unmatched.
“She must have a touch of magic!” the other vendors speculated, and their words felt as true as the sharp bite of cinnamon on Clara’s tongue.
Clara walked into their small kitchen to find her mother bent over a large ceramic pitcher bubbling on the stove, surrounded by a swirl of scents. A long wooden stick jutted up from the thick dark mixture. The molinillo was a wooden whisk, specially designed to yield the frothiest hot chocolate.
“Gracias, mija,” Juana said. “We’re meeting with your cousins later today, and I need to pick up some things for the picnic. Can you keep an eye on this while I run to the mercado?”
“Sure.” Clara stepped up to the stove.
“What’s that in your hair?” Juana asked.
Clara looked down at her braids and marveled at the dozens of thin silvery strands interlaced with her own dark strands of hair. She pulled at the ribbons at the ends of her braids, loosening the plaits. Her hair spilled out, releasing the silver strands. She watched them slip gently to the ground.
“Strange,” Clara said, retying her hair.
But the deed was already done. She had been chosen.
Clara took the molinillo from her mother.
“I won’t be long,” Juana said.
“Do not stop stirring that,” Juana added, giving Clara a stern look. “It’ll burn.”
As she stepped outside, Juana stumbled over a bottle at the threshold of her house, discarded the previous evening by a drunken man.
Had the bottle not been there, Juana would have noticed the pack of stray dogs sitting quietly beneath Clara’s window. And she would have remarked on the unusual flowers that had suddenly sprouted along the wall of the house. And she surely would have paused at the sight of a festively clad woman on the arm of an impeccably dressed gentleman watching her from across the street. But Juana saw none of that.
Not that it would have made a difference.
“It’s settled, then,” Life said.
“And so it is,” Catrina agreed, gathering the silver strands of frost that had, in one instant, changed Clara’s fate forever.
In Which Life and Death Begin a Game of Chance
After Catrina collected all the silver strands, she and Life found a cool patch of shade in a small plaza not far from the blue house. In the center of the plaza, a stone fountain defied the heat with a cascade of bubbling water.
Gnarly trees, as ancient as Life, encircled the plaza. Their rough trunks split five, six, seven times, like fingers reaching up to the sky. Their branches interlaced in a tangle of leaves so dense no sunlight could penetrate. Birds hopped from branch to branch, calling to each other, while cicadas thrummed to the pulse of the sun.
From his jacket pocket Life pulled out his handkerchief. He unfolded it neatly, then spread it out in the air before him, where it lay perfectly flat, suspended like a magic carpet in flight. The handkerchief grew, expanding on all four sides until it was the size of a small table.
From another pocket Life extracted a single card displaying the image of a man in a suit with a top hat and a cane. “El Catrín,” the card read.
Life set the card on a corner of the table and tapped it. Beneath El Catrín fifty-three cards materialized, each with a different image. He shuffled the deck of cards three times, then placed it facedown in the center of the table.
From her skirts Catrina produced a delicately embroidered bundle. She tugged at the ribbon around the bundle and pulled out a small circle of glass framed in silver. Catrina placed the glass on the table between them. In the clear oval, Clara’s image materialized, a small window into the girl’s life.
Next, Catrina poured out a handful of frijoles--beans as black as night--and gathered them into a pile in the center, beside the cards.
“You won last time,” Life said, holding out a spread of tablas, cardboard placards with a different image printed in each of the sixteen squares.
“And the time before that,” Catrina replied, selecting one of the tablas.
“I do hope this isn’t becoming a trend,” Life added, choosing his own tabla.
“I suppose we’ll have to see.” Catrina smiled.
The two laid out their tablas on the handkerchief table and placed a handful of black beans beside them.
“Let the game begin,” Life said.
La Lotería was a simple game of chance. The first player to get four cards in a straight line--horizontal, vertical, or diagonal--would win. A win by Catrina would deliver Clara into her hands. A win by Life would spare the child, granting Clara a long life.
And so it was that the fate of a child tending to a pot of hot chocolate hung on a pile of beans and a deck of cards.
The players had three days to complete the game and deliver their prize, after which they would part ways for another year, meeting only to play another round. The rules were clear: if they failed to complete their game in the allotted time, it would be their final round, and they would never meet again. Those thirty-six hours were a rare gift, and one the friends cherished deeply.
Catrina pinched a black bean in her knobby fingers.
Life flipped over the first card. “El que le cantó a San Pedro no le volverá a cantar,” he said.
“The one that sang for St. Peter will never sing for him again.” Catrina repeated the riddle as the two friends studied their tablas. “The rooster.”
“That it is,” Life replied, discarding the card in the center of the table.
“Alas, no rooster for me,” Catrina said.
Life drew a second card. “El que a buen árbol se arrima buena sombra le cobija.”
Catrina laughed, pointing at the branches overhead. “How fitting! He who approaches a good tree is blanketed by good shade.”
She placed a black bean on the image of a tree on her tabla. “And so it begins!”
In Which a Failure Leads to Unexpected Consequences
In the blue house, Clara looked up from the chocolate she was diligently stirring. A sudden and invisible weight pressed upon her shoulders. The chocolate became impossibly thick, and she strained to move the molinillo. Just as quickly, the feeling vanished, and the molinillo flew out of her hand, splattering chocolate all over the wall.
As Clara reached for a cloth to clean up the mess, she could not shake the feeling that something important had just transpired.
A noise in the restaurant interrupted her thoughts.
“Hello?” she called out. “Papi?”
She listened closely, but all she could hear was the bubbling mix on the stove.
“Is anyone there?” Clara stepped through the beads that separated the kitchen from the dining room.
Six square tables were draped in plastic tablecloths, with salsas for centerpieces. An old radio tucked behind the counter burst into a lively canción norteña. Clara jumped.
“Sorry, mi hija,” her father said, appearing behind the counter. “I didn’t mean to startle you. This old box was giving me a hard time.” He walked over to an even older TV bolted to a shelf in the corner. The black-and-white image on the screen showed her father’s favorite luchador, El Apache, locked in the grip of another beefy wrestler.
Copyright © 2021 by Karla Arenas Valenti. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.