The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
A woven, moving arch of brilliant-colored paper flowers gleaming over the heads of the crowd drew me near the gate of the cathedral as the great bells high up began to ring—sharply, with shocking clamor, they began to sway and ring, their ancient tongues shouting notes of joy a little out of tune. The arches began to leap and flutter. I managed to draw near enough to see, over the fuzzy poll of sleeping baby on his mother’s back. A group of Indians, fantastically dressed, each carrying an arch of flowers, were stepping it briskly to the smart jangle of the bells. They wore tinsel crowns over red bandanas which hung down their necks in Arab fashion. Their costumes were of varicolored bits of cloth, roughly fashioned into short skirts and blouses. Their muscular brown legs were disfigured with cerise and blue cotton stockings. They danced a short, monotonous step, facing each other, advancing, retreating, holding the arches over their crowns, turning and bowing, in a stolid sarabande. The utter solemnity of their faces made it a moving sight. Under their bandanas, their foreheads were knitted in the effort to keep time and watch the figures of the dance. Not a smile, and not a sound save the mad hysteria of the old bells awakened from their sleep, shrieking praise to the queen of Heaven and the Lord of Life.
Then the bells stopped, and a man with a mandolin stood near by, and began a quiet rhythmic tune. The master of ceremonies, wearing around his neck a stuffed rabbit clothed in a pink satin jacket, waved the flagging dancers in to line, helped the less agile to catch step, and the dancing went on. A jammed and breathless crowd and pilgrims inside the churchyard peered through the iron fence, while the youths and boys scrambled up, over the heads of the others, and watched from a precarious vantage. They reminded one irresistibly of a menagerie cage lined with young monkeys. They spraddled and sprawled, caught toeholds and fell, gathered themselves up and shinned up the railings again. They were almost as busy as the dancers themselves.
Past stalls of fruits and babies crawling underfoot away from their engrossed mothers, and the vendors of images, scapulars and rosaries, I walked to the church of the well, where is guarded the holy spring of water that gushed from beneath Mary’s feet at her last appearance to Juan Diego, December twelve, in the year of grace fifteen and thirty-one.
It is a small darkened place, the well covered over with a handsomely wrought iron grating, through which the magic waters are brought up in a copper pail with a heavy handle. The people gather here and drink reverently, passing the pail from mouth to mouth, praying the while to be delivered of their infirmities and sins.
A girl weeps as she drinks, her chin quivering. A man, sweating and dusty, drinks and drinks and drinks again, with a great sigh of satisfaction, wipes his mouth and crosses himself devoutly.
My pilgrimage leads me back to the great cathedral, intent on seeing the miraculous Tilma of Juan Diego, whereon the queen of Heaven deigned to stamp her lovely image. Great is the power of that faded virgin curving like a new moon in her bright blue cloak, dim and remote and immobile in her frame above the soaring altar columns.
From above, the drone of priests’ voices in endless prayers, answered by the shrill treble of boy singers. Under the overwhelming arches and the cold magnificence of the white altar, their faces lighted palely by the glimmer of candles, kneel the Indians. Some of them have walked for days for the privilege of kneeling on these flagged floors and raising their eyes to the Holy Tilma.
There is a rapt stillness, a terrible reasonless faith in their dark faces. They sigh, turn toward the picture of their beloved Lady, printed on the garment of Juan Diego only ten years after Cortes had brought the new God, with fire and sword, into Mexico. Only ten years ago, but it is probable that Juan Diego knew nothing about the fire and sword which have been so often the weapons of the faithful servants of our Lady. Maybe he had learned religion happily, from some old gentle priest, and his thoughts of the Virgin, ineffably mysterious and radiant and kind, must have haunted him by day and by night for a long time; until one day, oh, miracle of miracles, his kindled eyes beheld her, standing, softly robed in blue, her pale hands clasped, a message of devotion on her lips, on a little hill in his own country, the very spot where his childhood had been passed.
Ah well—why not? And I passed on to the steep winding ascent to the chapel of the little hill, once a Teocalli, called the Hill of Tepeyac, and a scene of other faiths and other pilgrimages. I think, as I follow the path, of those early victims of Faith who went up (mighty slowly and mighty heavily, let the old Gods themselves tell you) to give up their beating hearts in order that the sun might rise again on their people. Now there is a great crucifix set up with the transfixed and bleeding heart of one Man nailed upon it—one magnificent Egoist who dreamed that his great heart could redeem from death all the other hearts of earth destined to be born. He has taken the old hill by storm with his mother, Mary Guadalupe, and their shrine brings the Indians climbing up, in silent groups, pursued by the prayers of the blind and the halt and the lame who have gathered to reap a little share of the blessings being rained upon the children of faith. Theirs is a doleful litany: “In the name of our Lady, Pity, a little charity for the poor—for the blind, for the little servants of God, for the humble in heart!” The cries waver to you on the winds as the slope rises, and comes in faintly to the small chapel where is the reclining potent image of Guadalupe, second in power only to the Holy Tilma itself.
It is a more recent image, copied from the original picture, but now she is lying down, hands clasped, supported by a company of saints. There is a voluptuous softness in her face and pose—a later virgin, grown accustomed to homage and from the meek maiden receiving the announcement of the Angel Gabriel on her knees, she has progressed to the role of Powerful Intercessor. Her eyes are vague and a little indifferent, and she does not glance at the devout adorer who passionately clasps her knees and bows his head upon them.
A sheet of glass protects her, or she would be literally wiped away by the touches of her devotees. They crowd up to the case, and rub their hands on it, and cross themselves, then rub the afflicted parts of their bodies, hoping for a cure. A man reached up and rubbed the glass, then gently stroked the head of his sick and pallid wife, who could not get near enough to touch for herself. He rubbed his own forehead, knees, then stroked the woman’s chest. A mother brought her baby and leaned his little toes against the glass for a long time, the tears rolling down her cheeks.
Twenty brown and work-stained hands are stretched up to touch the magic glass—they obscure the still face of the adored Lady, they blot out with their insistent supplications her remote eyes. Over that painted and carved bit of wood and plaster, I see the awful hands of faith, the credulous and worn hands of believers; the humble and beseeching hands of the millions and millions who have only the anodyne of credulity. In my dreams I shall see those groping insatiable hands reaching, reaching, reaching, the eyes turned blinded away from the good earth which should fill then, to the vast and empty sky.
Out upon the downward road again, I stop and look over the dark and brooding land, with its rim of mountains swathed in layer upon layer of filmy blue and gray and purple mists, the low empty valleys blackened with clumps of trees. The flat-topped houses of adobe drift away casting no shadows on the flooding blue, I seem to walk in a heavy, dolorous dream.
It is not Mary Guadalupe nor her son that touches me. It is Juan Diego I remember, and his people I see, kneeling in scattered ranks on the flagged floor of their church, fixing their eyes on mystic, speechless things. It is their ragged hands I see, and their wounded hearts that I feel beating under their work-stained clothes like a great volcano under the earth and I think to myself, hopefully, that men do not live in a deathly dream forever.
THE FUNERAL OF GENERAL BENJAMÍN HILL
December 16, 1920
Under a brilliant morning sky, clean-swept by chill winds straight from the mountains; with busy people thronging the streets, the vendors of sweets and fruits and toys nagging gently at one’s elbow; with three “ships?
Life, full and careless and busy and full of curiosity, clamored around the slow moving metallic coffin mounted on the gun carriage. Death, for the most, takes his sure victories silently and secretly. And all the cacophony of music and drum and clatter of horses’ hoofs and shouts of military orders was merely a pall of sound thrown over the immobile calm of that brown box proceeding up the life-filled streets. It sounded, somehow, like a shout of defiance in the face of our sure and inevitable end. But it was only a short dying in the air. Death, being certain of Himself, can afford to be quiet.
CHILDREN OF XOCHITL
Xochimilco is an Indian village of formidable history, most of which I learned and have happily forgotten. It is situated near the city of Mexico, and is in danger of being taken up by rich tourists. Spared that fate, no doubt it will continue as it is for a dozen generations longer. The name Xochimilco means in Aztec “the place of flowers.” In a way, the village is a namesake of Xochitl herself, the goddess of flowers and fruit.
There are flat roofed houses in it that have resisted destruction since the days of Cortes. The silver blue skyline is jagged with crosses and tiled domes of churches, for these Indians have suffered the benefits of Christianity to an unreasonable degree.
Some one tells me there are seventeen churches here—or more. A hospitable patriarch leads us into a small church dedicated to San Felipe, its portals open to the roadside, elbowing a pulque shop on the one side, and shows us a fiesta in progress, honoring the patron saint. The church is merely a quadrangle of walls, the roof having been blown off, whether by accident or design, in a revolution. They are collecting money for a new roof, and in the meantime a tent of white canvas clarifies the stone walls, dappled with mold and shell-powder. The lilies on the altar glitter like tinsel.
The saints support ponderous plush robes on their flattened chests, and the patron himself leans slightly to the wall. His face is yellowed with age and fatigue. They are all untouched, the man points out carefully, by the hail of bullets which swept the holy place. The patron is rich and generous, and moreover, the church is protected by four Virgins, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Pity and Our Lady of Help (de Los Remedios). If one Virgin did not answer a prayer, it was always simple to turn to another—and in this way it was often quite possible to get blessings from all four of them.
Quite incidentally he added, as we left, that the great Reina Xochitl was also a patroness of this church, and was often more abundant with her favors than all the others together. . . . Xochitl is the legendary Aztec goddess of the earth, of fruit, of abundance, who discovered pulque—especially the strawberry flavored kind!—and also made known the many other uses of the maguey plant, by which the Indians can live almost entirely.
“Xochitl?” we ask, for we cannot quite place her among this assembly. The Indian makes a slow gesture about the church; his pointed finger pauses a moment before each saint—“This one gives health after sickness, this one discovers lost things, this one is powerful to intercede for the Poor Souls (in Purgatory), this one helps us bear our sorrows—”
“What about Xochitl?” we must interrupt for eagerness.
He turned and flung his arm toward the wide portal, where the smell of the clean open world defied the grey mold of centuries prisoned in damp stones. “Xochitl sends rain. Xochitl makes the crops grow—the maguey and the maize and the sweet fruits and the pumpkins. Xochitl feeds us!”
He remembers that food is not spiritual. We see the thought in his face. “She is a saint of the body,” he adds, apologetically. “These are saints of the soul.” We detect the inflection of piety. It is most annoying. It is a good heathen putting on a starched shirt. Unendurable!
Of all the great women deities from Mary to Diana, Dana of the Druids to Kwanyin of the Buddhists, this Xochitl has been endowed with the most cleanly, the most beneficent attributes. In a race where the women sowed and reaped, wove and span and cooked and brewed, it was natural that a goddess should be fruitful and strong. We looked with intense sympathy and interest at the decaying and alien stronghold where Xochitl had set her powerful foot, there to compete with usurping gods in caring for her strayed family. We did not contribute to the roof fund, fearing influences other than hers at work in this business.
My memory of Xochimilco is always a drowsy confusion of wet flowers on the chinampas, the taste of cold sweetened pulque flavored with strawberries, the sting of the sunshine scorching my neck, the silent Indian girl in the wide straw hat, working with her bees, lifting the tops of the hives to find me a comb of honey; an Indian baby, in shape resembling a pumpkin, wrapped in red fibre cloth, kicking up dust in the road ahead of me. . . . things of no importance whatever, except that I love them. The pumpkin shaped baby is joined by several others, all friendly as chipmunks and as alert, who will walk with you, and smile at you, but will not speak or come nearer than arm’s length.
At a turn of the road a band of Indian boys clad in white cotton, wild heads crowned by prodigious straw hats, leap howling upon us. They clamor one question repeatedly. “Do you wish a canoa?” We do, but the choosing of it is the adventure of the day. It is not in our plan to be seized and propelled, with courteous finality, into just any sort of boat. A few visits to the gardens develop in one a discriminating taste in flower decoration. With smiles and dumb arm wavings and shouts above the shouting, we finally disperse all of them but one. There is a brown determined youth who lags along with us, his eyes fixed upon us hauntingly. He insists in low tones that his “canoa” is the most beautiful one in the gardens. It is also to be had for an absurdly small price.
We resign ourselves. It is written that we are to have a boat, and it will be rowed by this boy.
We are in the midst of a spare forest of straight tranquil poplars, lining the banks of the canals. The sunshine falls in long strips between these trees, and gardens grow luxuriously in the midst of them. It is March, but the foliage is lush as midsummer, the pansies and cabbages and chrysanthemums and lettuce glowing and drowsing in the benign air.
The earth is swept clean and bare before the thatched huts that line the waterside. They are contrived of sheaves of maize stalks bound together flatly, burned golden and sweet with year long sunshine. The leaning fences are also of maguey stalks and maize, woven with henequen fibre, dry and rattling in the slight winds.
In the enclosed places are placid children, playing inconsequently, without toys or invention, as instinctively as little animals. Women on their knees sweep their thresholds with a handful of split maguey leaves. Men sit, their legs straight before them, tinkering with boats or mending their rude farming implements.
Everywhere is a leisurely industry, a primitive cleanliness and rigor.
These Xochimilco Indians are a splendid remnant of the Aztecs. They are suspicious of strange peoples, with good reason. They have maintained an almost unbroken independence of passing governments, and live their simple lives in a voluntary detachment, not hostile, from the ruling race of their country. They get all material for their needs from the earth; vegetables and flowers from the chinampas are their wares offered to the outer world. The freshest pansies in Mexico are brought from the chinampas—a word that means an island with flowers. These islands do not float, but are moored substantially, girdled with woven branches.
Our “canoa” is decorated with chrysanthemums and cedar, the flowers woven into a flat background of the sweet smelling greenery. The awning is supported by arches of poplar, bowed while the wood was full of sap. We sit in benches along the sides, looping up the curtains back of us. There is something Egyptian, we decide, about this long, narrow barge of hand sawed wood, with legends carved along the sides. The
It is early, and the small boats of the Indian women are still moored to stakes before the thatched huts, while the women and their children are washing and dressing at the water’s edge. They are lovely creatures, the color of polished brown stone, very demure and modest. They spread their long hair on the rocks to dry, their heads thrown back, eyes closed before the light.
A child is bathing her feet, standing on a wet stone. We pass almost near enough to touch her. Mary throws her a few pansies. Her eyes are vague and gentle, the color of brown one sees in the native pottery. She is too amazed at the sight of us to pick up the pansies. She turns her head away, and blushes—arms, legs and curved neck suffuse. She stands fixed in a trance of instinctive modesty, one foot standing over the other, toes in.
The heat of the day rises in slow waves. Singly, the women come out in their tiny narrow boats, pointed at prow and bow, so shallow the rim is only a few inches above the water. They kneel before their braseros, small furnaces for burning charcoal, and cook their complicated foods, which they serve hot to the people in the be-flowered barges. In this limited space, the woman will keep her supplies, her cooked food and dishes. She will serve any number of customers, without haste or nervousness, in competent silence. Her face will be smooth and untroubled, her voice not edged. Primitive woman cooks the greater part of her time; she has made of it, if not a fine art, then a most exact craft. There are no neurotics among them. No strained lines of sleeplessness or worry mar their faces. It is their muscles, not their nerves, that give way in old age; when the body can no longer lift and strain and tug and bear, it is worn out, and sits in the sun a while, with the taste of tobacco in the mouth. It counsels and reminisces, and develops skill in tribal witchcraft. And dies. But the nerves did not kill it.