The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“I need them,” he said. “There’s a lot about ancient Mexican culture in them you didn’t notice.” I gave up. Perhaps the brink of destruction was his natural habitat.
A few days later, I went up the dusty stairs and, there, in a broad square of sunlight, the Old Man was sitting in a cowhide chair with a towel around his neck, and a woman was trimming his moustache with a pair of nail scissors. She was as tall as he, attenuated, with white hair, and the beauty of an aged goddess. There was an extraordinary pinched, starved kind of sweetness in her face, and she had perfect simplicity of manner. She removed the towel, and the Old Man leaped up as if she had loosed a spring. Their son, a man in middle age, a masculine reincarnation of his mother, came in from the next room, and we talked a little, and the wife asked me with gentle pride if I did not find the shop improved.
It was indeed in order, clean, bare, with the show-windows and cases set out properly, and tall vases of flowers set about. They were all as polite and agreeable to one another as if they were well-disposed strangers, but I thought the Old Man looked a little hunched and wary, and his wife and son gazed at him almost constantly as if they were absorbed in some fixed thought. They were all very beautiful people, and I liked them, but they filled the room and were not thinking about what they were saying, and I went away very soon.
The Old Man told me later they had stayed only a few days; they dropped in every four or five years to see how he was getting on. He never mentioned them again.
Afterward when I remembered him it was always most clearly in that moment when the tall woman and her tall son searched the face of their mysterious Wild Man with baffled, resigned eyes, trying still to understand him years after words wouldn’t work any more, years after everything had been said and done, years after love had worn itself thin with anxieties, without in the least explaining what he was, why he had done what he did. But they had forgiven him, that was clear, and they loved him.
I understood then why the Old Man never carried a gun, never locked up his money, sat on political dynamite and human volcanoes, and never bothered to answer his slanderers. He bore a charmed life. Nothing would ever happen to him.
IN Mexico, most of the birds, and all of the people, sing. They sing out freely and cheerfully, to the extent of the voice Heaven has endowed them with, in all places, and at all hours. The lover warbles serenades under the balcony of his lady, the children sing on their way to school, the truck drivers and pedlars whistle and sing, the beggars fiddle and murmur doleful songs about love and death. High pitched, untrained voices of girls murmur sentimental songs softly to the set waltz accompaniment of pianos, from patio after patio the music floats out as one passes along the bright streets. In a cafe across from my hotel, a set of lively youngsters used to gather almost every night in the week and sing at the top of their voices until the very sunrise. On birthdays and feast days, the guests begin singing at the windows of the celebrant a little after midnight, and sing until breakfast time. These charming songs are known as las Mañanitas, (morning songs) modern sister to the old Provençal madrigal. There are marching songs, dancing, wedding and funeral songs: no possible occasion for singing has been overlooked, and the gayest, freshest, most spirited popular music in the world can be heard in Mexico.
There is still another type of song, altogether distinct from these popular airs; these are ruder, lustier, they have a unique flavor. They are meant to be listened to; one could not dance to them, the measure is too erratic, and besides, one would miss the story. This type of song is called the corrido, and it is the primitive, indigenous song of the Mexican people.
The corrido is, in effect, a ballad. Mexico is one of the few countries where a genuine folk poetry still exists, a word of mouth tradition which renews itself daily in the heroic, sensational or comic episodes of the moment, an instant record of events, a moment caught in the quick of life. They are informal, copious, filled with irrelevant matter. The story wanders on by itself, filled with minute details, often with meaningless words tacked on at the end of a phrase in order to make the rhyme. But the form is quite definitive, four lines to the verse, eight syllables to the line, and a refrain. If the perfection of this ideal is not always achieved in the stanza, the music takes care of that by deftly crowding the two or three extra syllables into a note meant for one. The effect is hilarious in the extreme, and is usually deliberate.
These corridos are composed and sung by the people all over Mexico. The Indians, the country people and the very humble folk of the town, all know these stories. In them are contained their legends and folk lore. Most of them are handed on by word of mouth, and only a comparatively small number have been written down. But for the past twenty-five years the publication of corridos has increased. They are printed on spongy, luridly dyed strips of paper and sold, two for a centavo, in the markets.
The composers are usually anonymous, so far as the printed sheet is concerned. Theirs is the more subtle fame of the enlightened word spoken among the elect. Popular singers vend the wares during early mornings when the citizens crowd to the narrow cobbled streets of the markets. Among the open booths hung with streamers of bright muslins and thin silks, mounds of pottery and colored glass, the heaped melting fragrance of figs, apricots, mangoes and peaches, birds in wicker cages (those sweet-throated doomed creatures whose modest colors have been disguised with brilliant lead paints, which will shortly bring them to death), withies and mats of palm fiber, fowls whose legs have been broken to keep them from wandering, intricate foods simmering over charcoal braziers, soft-eyed, self-possessed Indian girls with small stands of brass and silver jewelry, a huddle of beggars and dogs: there, in some accessible corner, the singers squat, strum their guitars, and sing.
They are uniformly hoarse of voice, but no matter. A certain sweated, rugged earnestness in the telling merely emphasizes the innate quality of the narrative. The corrido should be shouted. Shouted it is, and the presence of three or four rival vendors, each with the fixed intention of shouting down his competitor, makes a fine, exciting racket. The crowd collects, it takes sides, offers odds on its favorites. Sometimes an entire family, father, mother, and children even down to the five-year-old, sing turn and turn about, until all are hoarse as corn-crakes—and why not? But the bright colored strips of song sell instantly, everybody wishes the newest one, they go away memorising the story, humming the tune.
The homely, earthy soul of a people is in them: Gay, tragic, superstitious, devout, cruel, in love with life and a little desperate. The stories are always concerned with immediate fundamental things; death, love, acts of vengeance, the appalling malignities of Fate. They celebrate heroes. A hero is usually one who kills huge numbers of his enemies and dies bravely. He must be a bold, high stepping and regardless person, whether he gives his energies to saving his country or to robbing trains. Motives do not matter. They love deeds, concrete and measurable. They wield a truly murderous bludgeon of sarcasm, they have the gift of the grand manner in relating a love tragedy. An amazing air of realism is achieved through their habit of giving names, dates and places. The tune is composed or improvised on the spot, maybe, by the singer. Or they squeeze the lines of a new story into the measures of an old, familiar melody. Either way, they will be remembered, and sung.
A collection of these corridos which I have seen,* dating from about 1890, has a curious sub-historical value. Revolution after revolution has risen, broken and passed over the heads of these singers, and there is not a single revolutionary corrido. With the true temperament of the minor poet, the folk singer concerns himself with personalities, with intimate emotions, with deeds of heroism and crime. If many of their favorite subjects were revolutionists, it is because the men themselves possessed the admired qualities of nonchalance, bravado and quickness in action. Carranza was not loved by the corrido singer: Madero was loved as a saint and a hero. The difference was not one of revolutionary spirit, but of personality. Vict
Emiliano Zapata, the bandit general who made of Morelos the first genuinely socialist state of Mexico, was a popular subject of corridos. At the time of his assassination, hundreds of rhymed narratives appeared, reflecting every shade of provincial opinion. He was martyr, hero, bandit, a man who betrayed his friends, the savior of his state, a scoundrel who destroyed churches, all depending on the section of the country and the personal bias of the composer. . . but not one of them mentions that he revolutionized the agrarian system of Morelos, or was one of the first Mexicans to apprehend the principles of soviet government. . . . Such things are ephemerae to the maker of ballads. He is concerned with eternal verities.
The records of accident and murder are set down with a taste for explicit horror; after thirty stanzas the singer will break off by saying he cannot finish the sad tale for weeping. It is their habit to begin by asking the attention of those present, in the manner of the Irish “come-all-ye” and to finish by asking prayers for the soul of the singer, or less often, by mentioning the composer’s name, adding that he is one of the most talented corrido makers of his time.
Within two days after the death of Pancho Villa last year, the street singers were shouting long histories of the event, with melancholy insistence on particulars. “He was dishonorably killed, his entrails were out,” sang one, gayly, a literal fact proved by the photograph of the body printed at the top of the sheet. Villa was the hero of hundred corridos, and his exploits took on, even while he lived, that legendary character which is the very heart of romance. When going on raids he flew in aeroplanes at a speed of fifty kilometers a minute. He vanquished one hundred fifty thousand Gringos who came to capture Villa, looked about for him, did not see him, ate a great quantity of corn and beans, and so went home again. . . the subject was meat for their intensely personal kind of humor. One says that the poor Texans were so tired when they reached Mexico, the ones on horseback could not sit, and those on foot could not stand. So they all drank freely of tequila and lay down.
These ballads are saturated with faith in the supernatural. A very recent one tells of a man born with the head of a pig, who grew up into an extremely disturbing demon in his community. Devils are gravely accused of aiding a man in Guanajuato to murder a helpless female. Divine Providence in the shape of a white angel with wings intervened when two bandits attempted to rob a priest. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe takes place somewhere in Mexico, and endless corridos piously give the facts of the event. Illustrations sometimes accompany them, rude cuts used many times over, of strange devils, horned and tailed and saber-toothed, blood kin to those of Albrecht Dürer. They urge weak mortals into crime, usually murder or sacrilege.
Laments for the dead are often joined with the story of how the mourner has seen and talked with the ghost. Beautiful young ladies who died unwed are notably restless. They are always rising and frightening their families by appearing at the midnight hour, wan, covered with grave mold, bitterly complaining of their too-early fate.
The laments have passionate, grieved choruses: “Oh, Death, why didst thou turn thine eyes toward my little flower, the white rose of my heart?” sings one. “Oh, Death, thou monster, why didst thou take my child, and leave my step-daughter?” inquires another. And one sturdy souled singer counsels a ghostly wife to return to her tomb, and leave her husband, now happily re-wed, in peace.
The loneliness of the men facing death far away from home and friends is the recurring motif of many corridos. They turn their eyes toward the sky, they invoke birds as messengers. A young soldier of fortune, finding himself back to wall and the levelled rifles at his heart, calls on a swallow to fly swiftly and tell his mother how they are going to kill him. The swallow takes the message, and the mother comes weeping to kiss her child goodbye. Ah, the weeping women of the corridos. No man can be so utterly brought down but there will always be left one devoted, steadfast woman to come, weeping, bringing what consolation her love can devise. “Pray for her who prayed for me,” sings a dying man after battle, “She who bound up my wounds and brought me water, she who will remember my grave when all others have forgotten!”
Corridos celebrating the executions of men taken bearing arms against the government are curious mixtures of admiration for valor come to a hard death, and cautious warning to all who revolt against the government.
This adding of a postscript, slightly moralistic in tone, is merely a gesture of good manners, a courtesy nod to convention. The story is the thing, and a deliciously terrifying ghost story will end with a warning against faith in apparitions and false miracles. The story of some glittering escapade in outlawry will conclude with a word of caution against hateful anarchy. This is done with perfect gravity, tongue in cheek, eyes beaming with charming, natural malice, all a trifle “edgy,” a little impious, perfect complaisant mirror of the popular mind.
A corrido still popular, with the wicked mother-in-law motif, has many marks of extreme antiquity. It is called “Marbella and the Newly-born,” and resembles the old English carol of Mary and the Cherry Tree, in which the unborn child speaks in defense of his mother.
Marbella, the corrido begins, was in the hard pains of birth that brought her to her knees. Her lord the Count was absent, and the deceitful mother-in-law advises her to return to her home, where she will be in more skillful hands. Marbella utters a moving plaint of homesick longing: “Oh, if I were once more in Castle Valledal at the side of my father the King, he would give me help and comfort. . . . But when my lord comes home, who will give him his supper?” she asks the mother-in-law.
“I will give him bread and wine. There is barley for his horse and meat for the sparrow hawk,” answers the wicked woman.
After Marbella has gone her husband comes home and asks for his mirror. The mother asks whether he wants his mirror of fine silver, or the one of crystal, or of ivory? He answers that he wants none of these, but Marbella, his wife, his royal mirror.
The mother tells him that Marbella has betrayed him with a Jew, and has now returned to her father’s castle to hide her guilt, and to leave her child there.
The husband, with the fatal credulity of all lovers in tragic love stories, sets off to Castle Valledal and finds Marbella there, surrounded by her maids, her newly born child at her breast. He commands her to rise and come with him. He places the mother at the pillion and the child at his breast straps. They ride for seven leagues without a word, so fast the horse’s hooves strike fire from the stones. Marbella implores him, “Do not kill me in this mountain where the eagles may devour me. Leave me in the open road where some merciful soul may find me. Or take me to the hermitage yonder where I may confess, for I am at my last breath.” At the hermitage she is taken down, dying, unable to speak. But by the never ending grace of God, the newly born child finds language: “I tell you truly, my mother is going at once to Paradise without a stain on her soul. And now I must go to limbo unless I am baptised, for I shall follow my mother into death. But my wicked grandmother shall suffer eternally for this work.”
Over their bodies, the Count swore by the bread and wine that he would not touch food again until he had slain his wicked mother. He placed her in a barrel lined with iron skewers and cast her over a mountain side; because, the song hints, he could invent nothing worse.
A race of singing people. . . used to sorrowful beginnings and tragic endings, in love with life, fiercely independent, a little desperate, but afraid of nothing. They see life as a flash of flame against a wall of darkness. Conscious players of vivid roles, they live and die well, and as they live and die, they sing.
Sor Juana: A Portrait of the Poet
JUANA DE ASBAJE, in religion Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was, like most great spirits, at once the glory and the victim of her age. She was born in Mexico in 1651, of aristocratic S
She was, in her beauty, her learning and her Catholicism, the perfect flowering of seventeenth century European civilization in the New World, a civilization imperfectly transplanted, imposed artificially, due to be swept away by the rising flood of revolution. But her own pure and candid legend persists and grows, a thing beloved for its unique beauty. She died in her forty-fifth year of a plague which swept Mexico City. This sonnet is almost literally translated.
TO A PORTRAIT OF THE POET
by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
translated from the Spanish by Katherine Anne Porter
This which you see is merely a painted shadow
Wrought by the boastful pride of art,
With falsely reasoned arguments of colours,
A wary, sweet deception of the senses.
This picture, where flattery has endeavored
To mitigate the terrors of the years,
To defeat the rigorous assaults of Time,
And triumph over oblivion and decay—
Is only a subtle careful artifice,
A fragile flower of the wind,
A useless shield against my destiny.
It is an anxious diligence to preserve
A perishable thing: and clearly seen
It is a corpse, a whirl of dust, a shadow,—
Notes on the Life and Death of a Hero