… the sky is a sharp blue guillotine, poised between twin roofs … a winding metal staircase … a caracol … a snail-shell cork-screwing up to the roof garden … a butterfly in the grapefruit tree opens and closes its painted wings with their wide-open peacock eyes …
Tim went up the stairs to his apartment and sat back down at the table.
Betrayal: the word shocked him and he meditated for a moment on its multiple meanings. He opened his journal and thumbed through the pages looking for a recent conversation he had shared with Alonso, the historical anthropologist. He sighed as he found it and started to read.
… early morning … Sunday … I was on my way to church … I walked through empty city streets … I was lost … I gazed from side to side … closed doors … barred windows … an old lady dressed in black emerged from a doorway in front of me … a lace mantilla covered her face … she carried a basket full of bright wool … I wanted to go to the Church of San Vincente … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing in the direction I was walking … “Yes,” she said, and started walking in the opposite direction to me … I continued on my journey but I was still lost … I met a second lady … she walked towards me leaning on a walking stick marked like a slide rule with numbers and measurements … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked her … she nodded and walked right past me following in the tracks of the first lady … still lost, I stood there doubting … a third lady who looked like the local hairdresser approached … she was carrying an open basket with knives and razors and scissors within it …“This is … can you … will you tell me how to get to San Vicente” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “Follow me.” … I turned and walked with her in the same direction as the first two ladies … we turned one corner, then another, and there was the church of San Vicente … I slowed down and the third lady went ahead and joined the other two ladies of whom I had asked the way … they seemed to be waiting for me on the church steps … so I walked up to them … I opened the door for them … “All roads lead to San Vicente,” they said in chorus … and they went inside … I sat down on a pew at the back … I looked for them … but there was no sign of them in the church …
I asked Alonso, my anthropological friend, about this weird behaviour. Alonso has a vast store of archived knowledge and seems to be able to locate the strangest facts and discover whatever hidden truth lurks behind almost everything.
“It’s simple,” he told me. “You’re a North American. No native person corrects a man of European descent. You said ‘This is the way to San Francisco, isn’t it?’ and the first two ladies said ‘Yes, it is.’ They’re not fools. They’re not going to put their heads in a noose and correct you by saying ‘No. It isn’t.’ And remember, the older they are, the more steeped they are in the traditional customs. Now, you addressed the third lady in the correct fashion and she gave you the correct answer. That’s what life’s like around here. You must learn to accept the culture and to ask the right questions. Otherwise, in your innocence, you might get misled.”
Tim sat at the table and thought about the day that lay ahead of him. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.
… evening … Monte Albán for the ceremonies and the dances … a dance group who dance native legends by torchlight …. something they say I mustn’t miss … this morning I must go shopping … more mescal … more groceries … must go to the baths …. not the Baños de Oaxaca … those other baths, I forget their name, on Reforma … Alonso told me they were good … and clean … no tourists … all locals … up by the Post Office … Alonso wants to take me to Mitla … late this morning … or early this afternoon … before we go to Monte Albán … it’s going to be a very busy day … I’d better sort it out …
He looked up. Then he stood, walked into the kitchen and looked for the mescal. None left. He went back to the table, sat down, picked up his pen, unscrewed the cap, and continued writing.
9-11, shopping and los Baños;
1-4 Mitla, with Alonso;
5-8, Monte Albán with Alonso;
8-11, procession with a castillo and dancing
… it’s going to be a tight squeeze to get it all in … I’d like to go back to the cathedral … just to see if that man who looked like my father turns up … if I go there I can walk to Santo Domingo and listen to the old lady who stands alone at the altar and sings … such a beautiful voice …
“Yes,” Tim announced to the room in a loud voice. “I should just be able to manage it, provided Alonso arrives on time.” He stood up, pushed the chair away, clicked his fingers, and started to dance.