Last summer, in Oaxaca, Tom bumped into his father. Candles flickered on the engraved glass panels of the cathedral’s main doors illuminating the old man’s face as if it were that of some long gone saint. Tom’s father wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie. In the funeral home, Tom had had dressed him for burial in just that outfit. Both the suit and its wearer had perished the following day in the crematorium.
Tom and stared at the man who appeared to be his father, but neither of them spoke. Tom’s neck-hairs bristled, his mouth ran dry, and his hands shook. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, but words stuck in his throat and meaningless sounds emerged.
Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of Tom and struck him with the large black bag of knitting that she held in her hand. Thin threads of red wool spilled out as she pushed him away. The second old lady threatened Tom with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand, jabbing them repeatedly towards his eyes. The third produced a tailor’s measuring rod and, using it like a cattle goad, prodded Tom’s father in the side. Tom’s father nodded, smiled sadly, and then the three women shepherded Tom’s father away, hurrying him out of through the cathedral’s glass doors and back into the square. Tom stood motionless for a moment and then as the doors snapped shut he pulled them open and ran out after the group.
The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that. It was as if the earth had shaken, a hole had appeared in the cemetery wall, and a whole generation of dead people had walked out of the cemetery to gossip beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. Tom stood on the cathedral steps and called out his father’s name, but he could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.
Tom ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or mist so thick one could almost lean on it. He ran as far as a side street that led away from the square and there he stopped and let out a loud cry of grief.
Real people, flesh and blood beings, turned to gaze at him. Villagers carrying the banner of a small town in the hills stood in a group behind their village band. An elder, deep lines scarring his face with living shadows that danced by match-light, put the live match that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger to the taper of the rocket that he held in his other hand. The taper caught fire and the rocket soared upwards with a long-drawn out whooooosh. The village band marched forward and struck up a traditional country dance tune as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.
Afraid of grasping at shadows and scared by this living phalanx of men that now marched towards him, Tom retreated across the main square and hurried back to the cathedral where he knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Tall wax candles stood before her altar. He inserted fifty pesos in the slot, took a taper, lit it, and applied it to candle after candle.
He knelt before the virgin and started to cry. Tears ran down his cheeks, his breath came in short, sharp bursts. He clenched his fists so tight that his finger nails gouged into his palms. He looked into the Virgin’s eyes and prayed for his father, and his mother and, above all, for himself.
Then, for the first time since the funeral, he allowed himself to mourn.