Mon 1 Aug 2011
Georgina met Death when she was ten. The first time she saw him she was reading by her grandmother’s bedside. As Georgina tried to pronounce a difficult word, she heard her grandmother groan and looked up. There was a bearded man in a top hat standing by the bed. He wore an orange flower in his buttonhole, the kind Georgina put on the altars on the Day of the Dead.
The man smiled at Georgina with eyes made of coal.
Her grandmother had warned Georgina about Death and asked her to stand guard and chase it away with a pair of scissors. But Georgina had lost the scissors the day before when she made paper animals with her brother Nuncio.
“Please, please don’t take my grandmother,” she said. “She’ll be so angry at me if I let her die.”
“We all die,” Death said and smiled. “Do not be sad.”
He leaned down, his long fingers close to grandmother’s face.
“Wait! What can I do? What should I do?”
“There’s not much you can do.”
“But I don’t want grandmother do die yet.”
“Mmmm,” said Death tapping his foot and taking out a tiny black notebook. “Very well. I’ll spare your grandmother. Seven years in exchange of a promise.”
“What kind of promise?”
“Any promise. Promises are like cats. A cat may have stripes, or it may be white and have blue eyes and then it is a deaf cat, or it could be a Siamese cat, but it’ll always be a cat.”
Georgina looked at Death and Death looked back at her, unblinking.
“I suppose … yes,” she mumbled.
“Then this is a deal,” he said, “Now, have a flower.”
He offered her the bright, orange cempoalxochitl.
That first encounter with Death had a profound effect on Georgina. Fearing Death’s reappearance, and thinking he awaited her behind every corner, Georgina took no risks. While Nuncio broke his left arm and scraped his knees Georgina sat in the darkened salon. When Nuncio rode wildly on his horse or jumped into an automobile, Georgina waited for him by the road. Finally, when other girls started swooning over young men and wished one of them would sign his name on a dance card, Georgina refused to partner up and join the revelry.
What was the point? She was going to die any day soon, why should she fall in love? Death would come to collect her tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow.
She selected the dress that she would be buried in and asked her mother for white lilies at the funeral. She walked around the mausoleum and inspected her final resting place. Morbid scenarios of murder assaulted her. She wondered if she might die struck by a carriage or by lightning, or in some other more remarkable fashion.
This is how seven years passed.
On the seventh year grandmother died and they took her to the cemetery in the great black hearse, then gathered in the salon to drink and mourn. Georgina was standing by the piano, considering death and its many possibilities, from a bullet to an earthquake, when Catalina came over with a satisfied grin on her face.
“You’ll never guess what I heard,” she said. “Ignacio Navarrete is going to marry you.”
“I heard him speaking to Miguel. He’s going to ask for your hand in marriage.”
“But he can’t.”
Georgina craned her neck, trying to spot Ignacio across the room and saw him in his double breasted-suit, hands covered in white silk gloves. Reptilian. Disgusting.
“I wish I would die,” she whispered, angrily, like a bride that has been left at the altar and only now reads the clock and realizes the groom is late.
When Georgina woke up it was dark. A rustle of fabric made her sit up and a man stepped out from behind the thick velvet curtains. He wore a long coat, a burgundy vest and sported a little moustache. Though different in attire, and looking younger than she recalled, she recognized him as Death.
“I didn’t really mean it,” she said at once, all the scenarios of her own demise suddenly pieced together in her brain.
“Today, during the party. I didn’t mean I really wanted to die.”
“You sounded rather honest.”
“But I wasn’t.”
“Then you want to marry that man?”
“No,” she scoffed. “I don’t want to die either.”
“Good. I don’t want you to die or marry him.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You sound disappointed.”
“What do you want then? I mean, if you haven’t come to kill me.”
He produced a bouquet of orange cempoalxochitls, his arm stretched out towards her.
“I’ve come to collect a promise. Any promise, do you recall?”
“Yes,” she muttered, uncertain.
“It’s a promise of marriage.”
Georgina stared at Death. It was the only thing she could do. She was not sure if she should laugh or cry. Probably cry and start yelling for her father. Wouldn’t that be the natural reaction?
She pushed her long pigtail behind her shoulder and pressed both hands against the bed.
“I don’t think I can marry you,” she said cautiously.
“Why not?” he asked.
“I’m one death.”
He grabbed the lilies that were next to her bed and tossed them to the floor, then placed his cempoalxochitls in the flower vase.
“A few hours ago you were calling for me and now you refuse me.”
“I was not … even if I was … it’s late,” she said, reaching towards her embroidered robe. In her white cotton nightgown with the ruffles and lace trim Georgina was practically naked and she didn’t think this was the best way to confront Death, or anyone else for that matter.
“Just past midnight.”
“Please go,” she said, quickly closing the robe, a hand at her neck.
“I can not leave without the promise of marriage.”
“I will not marry you!”
Had she yelled? Georgina pressed a hand against her mouth and immediately feared the maids would come poking their head inside her room. And what would she say if they found a man in there?
“We have a problem. We made a deal and now I must head out empty-handed, which is impossible in my line of business.”
“Sorry,” he said and smiled, white teeth flashing, “Sorry does not suffice. No, dear girl. You are indebted to me. You exchanged seven years of life for a promise”
“It isn’t fair! I didn’t now what I promised.”
“A promise is a promise,” he said and pulled out his black notebook. “What do you have that you can give? A cat. That is no good. A parrot. Well, they do get to live for a century but I don’t think I can stand …”
“I don’t want to marry a dead man.”
“I’m not dead. I am Death. Particularities, details,” he said scribbling in the notepad. “As you can clearly see your hand in marriage should solve this debt of ours.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Let us be reasonable. Would you like to discuss this tomorrow? Shall I meet you around noon?”
Georgina was sure she could hear her mother’s sure footsteps approaching her door. Terror greater than death seized her. She wanted the stranger out of her room, out the house before anyone realized there was a man there.
“Yes, just go,” she whispered.
Georgina went to the door, her ear pressed against it. She waited for the door to burst open. It did not. The house was quiet. Her mother slept soundly. She let out a sigh.
Georgina looked around the room. He was gone. The flowers remained but in the morning they turned into orange dust.
Georgina’s pigtail was carefully undone and her hair just as carefully swept up and decorated with jeweled pins. She descended the stairs in a tight-waisted blue dress and sat quiet at breakfast, fearing Death would knock at the door and ask to be invited in.
“Will you look at this?” her father said, brandishing the morning newspaper up. “It’s deplorable. Who does this Orozco think he is? I am telling you Natalia, it is simply deplorable to see such people causing a fuss.”
Georgina’s mother did not reply. Her father was not asking a question, merely stating his opinion and he expected no replies. He had been a Porfirista before, now he was a Maderista and God knew what he might become the day after. At the table his wife and his two children were supposed to nod their heads and agree in polite silence: father was always right.
“So then, what are your plans for today?” her father asked as he tossed the paper aside.
“I want to get some new dresses made,” Georgina said.
“Nuncio, will you be accompanying your sister?”
“Father, I’m heading to the Jockey Club today,” Nuncio said, slipping into his childish, thin voice even though he was a year older than Georgina.
“I want to go alone. I don’t need him with me,” Georgina said curtly.
Everyone turned to look at her, frowning at the tone she had just used.
“Young ladies do not go out of their houses without proper escorts,” her mother reminded her, each word carefully enunciated; a velvet threat.
“This is hardly going out,” Georgina countered, knowing well her mother would scold her later for using such a tone with her.
But it would be worse, much worse, if Death were to show up at her home. Perhaps if he found her outside of the house she might speak to him quickly and get rid of him for good, her family never the wiser.
“I’ll meet you at El Fenix in the afternoon,” Georgina said. It wouldn’t do at all if Nuncio kept an eye on her all day. “Rosario can accompany me to the seamstress.”
Rosario chaperoned Georgina, but she was old and tired. Most of the time she would just stay inside the carriage with the coachman, Nicanor, while Georgina hurried into a store. That day was no exception and Georgina went alone up the narrow steps that led to the seamstress. Death, his dark coat spilling behind him, appeared at her elbow.
“Good day,” he said, tipping an imaginary hat towards her. “Is today a better time to talk?”
“A little better,” she muttered and quickly hurried to the ground floor, where they stood beneath the stairs, hiding in the shadows.
He reached into his pocket and took out a dead dove, trying to hand it to her. Georgina shoved it away. The dove fell on the floor.
“What are you doing?” she asked, staring at the mangled corpse of the bird.
“I thought you’d like a proper engagement present.”
“Engagement? You’re Death. I’m alive. Isn’t that a problem?”
“Of no particular importance,” he shrugged.
“Wouldn’t you like to marry someone who was dead?”
“Who do you take me for? Do you think I want to go dancing with a cadaver?”
“You don’t know me.”
“Easily solved. Let us go to a bar and …”
“Let us get to know each other somewhere, anywhere.”
“Nowhere,” she whispered, scandalized by the suggestion.
“Well, then it is back to the beginning,” he said and took out of his notebook and a pencil. “I guess I’ll have to take fourteen years of your life then…”
The pencil dangled in mid-air.
“Wait,” she said. “We can negotiate this.”
“What would you do with a wife? Have little skeletons and make me cook your meals?”
“Do you like to cook?”
“Look, it’s a simple matter. Balance and algebra. Duality and all that. Lord and lady. Do you know what I mean?”
She didn’t know what to say. She had to talk to the seamstress, had to meet her brother afterwards and maybe Rosario would wake up and wander into the building.
“It would be beautiful,” he told her.
Death wove a silver necklace around her neck with vines and birds. The dove fluttered back to life and landing on her hands transformed into a hundred black pearls which spilled onto the floor.
It was all wonderful.
He leaned forward, smelling faintly of incense and copal, of candles burning on the altars. His eyes were so very black, so very deep, and she thought she’d never seen eyes like that; eyes that were dark and quiet as the grave.
She wondered if his lips might taste like sugar skulls.
It was terrifying.
Georgina wept. She tried to hide her face, mortified.
“What is wrong?” Death asked.
“I don’t want to,” she said.
He frowned. With a wave of his hand the pearls melted away.
“I see. Very well Georgina, perhaps we can revisit our agreement.”
Georgina rubbed her eyes and looked up at him.
“I want a day of your life. One day of your heart.”
“Just one day?”
“Only one. Tomorrow morning tell everyone you are sick and do not leave your room. I will visit you.”
“Yes,” she said.
And then he was gone, gone into the shadows, and she ran up the stairs to the dressmaker.
Georgina told the maids that she felt sick and locked the door. She went behind her painted screen and changed into a simple skirt and blouse. Death appeared early and Georgina sat down in a chair, not knowing what was supposed to happen.
“Perfect. A phonograph,” he said, and ran to the other side of the room. “What kind of music do you like?”
“I don’t like music. My father bought it for me.”
“What about films?” Death asked as he fiddled with her recordings, picking one.
“I don’t watch films. I wouldn’t be going to a carpa.”
“People are rowdy and my mother … oh, she would go insane if she heard I’d gone anywhere near that sort of place.”
“I love films. I love anything that is new and exciting. The automobile, for example, is a wonderful method of transportation.”
Music began to play and Georgina frowned.
“What is that?” she asked.
“You like it? It’s ragtime. Come on, dance with me.”
She wondered what she would do if her mother came peeking through the keyhole and saw her dancing with a stranger. What her mother would do to her.
“I don’t dance.”
“I’ll show you.”
He took her hand and pulled her up, two steps in the same direction onto the same feet, then a closing step with the other foot. It seemed simple but Georgina kept getting it wrong.
“What?” he asked.
“I didn’t think Death would dance. I thought you’d be more … gloomy. And thin.”
“So I’m fat, am I?”
“I mean skeleton thin and yellow.”
“I don’t know. Or maybe red. Like in Poe’s story.”
“My sister likes red.”
“You have siblings?”
“Lots and lots of them.”
Georgina, busy watching her feet, finally got it right and laughed.
Georgina observed the glass of wine, the grapes and cheese and wondered if she should drink and eat. She recalled how Persephone had been trapped with only six grains of pomegranate. What would happen to her if she ate one whole cheese?
“You’re not hungry?” Death said and lay down on the Persian rug as comfortably and nonchalantly as if he were having a picnic in a field of daisies instead of her room. “What are you thinking about?” Georgina sat very neatly at his side, smoothing her skirt and trying to keep an air of decorum.
“What is your sister like?” she asked, not wanting to talk about Persephone.
“The one that wears red.”
“Oh, her. She’s trouble, that one. Hot-headed and angry and crimson. She’s definitely not a lady. Or maybe a lady of iron. Tough girl.”
“And your brothers?”
“Well, there’s one who is like water. He slips in and out of houses, liquid and shimmering and leaves a trail of stars behind.”
Georgina tried to picture this and frowned. But she couldn’t really see his sister or his brother as anything but skeletons in papel picado, pretty decorations for November’s altars.
The clock struck midnight, chiming and groaning. The twenty-four hours he had asked for would come to an end soon. Georgina wouldn’t see him again. Well, hopefully not until she was a very old and wrinkled lady. Probably a married lady; Mrs. Navarrete with five children and sixteen grandchildren, bent over a cane and unable to dance to any kind of music.
“And then I’ll die,” she muttered.
“Pardon me?” Death asked, his hands laced behind his head.
But now that the idea of old age had taken hold of her, now that she could picture herself in wedding and baptismal and anniversary pictures, grey-haired with time stamped on her face, suddenly she wasn’t afraid of death. She wasn’t afraid of death for the first time in years: she was afraid of life. Or at least, the life she was able to neatly see, the cards laid out with no surprises.
It was horrible.
“I hate my hair,” she said and she got up, standing before the full-length mirror and she had no idea why she said this or why the silly chignon made her so furious all of a sudden.
Her fingers tangled in the curls at the nape of her neck and she pulled them, several pins bouncing on the rug.
“I like it,” he said, looking over her shoulder and at her reflection.
He smelt of flowers and incense. She thought Death would smell of damp earth and catacombs and be ice cold to the touch. But she’d been wrong about many details concerning Death. Curiously she slipped a hand up, brushing his cheek.
No, he wasn’t cold at all but warm and human to the touch.
In the mirror their eyes locked.
“Don’t touch me,” he warned her. “Or something in you will die.”
“I don’t believe it,” she replied and kissed him on the lips, even if she half-believed it.
He tasted sweet.
Death is sweet, she thought and giggled at the thought. He smiled at her, teeth white and perfect and then his smile ebbed and he was serious. He looked at her and she thought he was seeing through the layers of skin and muscle, looking at her naked skeleton and her naked self.
“If you touch me again I’ll take your heart,” he whispered.
“Then take it,” she said with a defiance she hadn’t thought she possessed, wishing to die a little.
She slept in death’s arms, naked over a rug of orange petals.
Georgina had spent the last seven years of her life thinking every day about Death. But now she did not think about him, not even for an instant. This does not mean she thought about life either. In fact, she thought and said very little.
Like a clockwork figurine she rose from her bed, ate her meals and went to mass. But she wasn’t really there, instead, she lay suspended in a sleepy haze, resembling a somnambulist walking the tightrope.
Sometimes Georgina would stir, the vague sensation that she’d forgotten something of importance coursing through her body, and then she shook her head. The feeling was insignificant, a phantom limb stretching out.
Georgina rode in her carriage down Plateros. Rosario snored while Georgina observed the men in top hats walking on the sidewalks and the cargadores shoving their way through the crowds. She’d gone to her fitting with the seamstress that morning. Her wedding gown. Now she thought about that day almost a year ago when she’d met Death underneath the stairs.
There was something she was forgetting.
There was something else.
But who cared? Wedding gown. Marriage. Life pre-written.
She was getting married in a month’s time. Ignacio had bought her a necklace crammed with diamonds from La Esmeralda and her mother had cooed over the extravagant purchase. It would be a good marriage, her father said.
Georgina did not care.
And now she sat so very quietly, so very still, like a living-dead doll staring out the window.
Something caught her eye: a woman in scarlet, her dress so gaudy it burned even among the other prostitutes who were now starting to sneak into the streets as night fell.
Georgina had been in a trance for twelve months and she had not even realized it. In a little coffin of her own making, Georgina dreamed pleasant dreams. Now she awoke. Apple dislodged, glass crashing.
“Stop!” she ordered Nicanor and the carriage gave a little jolt.
Georgina climbed out and went towards the woman.
“I know your brother,” Georgina said when she reached her.
The prostitute smiled a crimson smile, a hand on her hips.
“Do you? Bastard son of a bitch-mother. Run along.”
“No. I mean … I thought … do you know me?”
“He’s got a babe on you, has he? Go bother someone else dear, I’ve got to work.”
Georgina was confused. For a moment she thought she had the wrong woman. How could she be mistaken? What could she do? What could she say?
Georgina took a deep breath.
“He is like flowers made of blackness and when he kissed me he tasted like the night.”
The prostitute’s face did not change. She was still grinning with her ample mouth but her eyes burrowed deeper into Georgina, measuring her.
“What do you want?” asked the red woman.
“Where is he?”
“He’s not here. Not now.”
“Where is he?”
“What does it matter? You don’t want anything with him.”
“I said, where is he?”
The woman, taller than Georgina, looked down at her as though she were a small dog yelping at her feet.
“You should head home and marry your rich man, little girl. Forgetting is easy and it doesn’t hurt.”
“I have already been forgetting.”
“Forget some more.”
“He has something of mine.”
The red death, the woman-death, sneered.
“He’ll be at Palacio Nacional in ten days but then he heads north. Catch him then or you’ll never catch him at all.”
She walked away leaving Georgina standing by the window of a café. Nicanor squinted and gave her a weird look.
“What are you doing talking to that lady, miss Georgina?”
“I’m doing nothing,” she replied and rushing back into the carriage slammed the door shut.
When Georgina returned home, her father was very happy and her mother sat on the couch, pale with watery eyes.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The cadets at Tacubaya are up in arms,” her father said.
“They’re fighting at the Zócalo,” her brother said. “They’re shooting with machine guns from Palacio National.”
And then she thought Death would be at Palacio Nacional in ten days. He had arrived early.
“We’ll get Don Porfirio back,” her father said, and as usual he was already changing his allegiances, Madero completely forgotten.
It was like a party. A small and insane party. Her father talked animatedly about the events of the day, foretelling the brilliant return to the good old days, to Don Porfirio. But then the chattering grew sparse.
They said several newspaper offices had been set on fire. They said many people were dead. The roar of the cannons echoed non-stop. It got underneath their skin as they sat in the salon. Very quietly, very carefully, the doors were closed, locked with strong wooden beams from the inside.
The electricity had gone out and Georgina lay in the dark listening to the machine guns. They seemed very near.
She pressed a hand against her lips and thought Death must be there, outside, walking through the darkened city.
Her father had the carriage packed with everything he could think to carry. Even a mattress was tied to the roof.
“We’re going to Veracruz in the morning,” her father repeated. “We’re going to Veracruz on the train.”
Was there even a train left? The streets were teeming with prisoners that had escaped from Belén and they said the Imperial had been destroyed. Would there be any trains for them?
“We’re going to Veracruz in the morning.”
“Your hair, pull your hair up girl,” her mother ordered, but Georgina did not obey her. It seemed ridiculous to worry about hair pins.
Her mother turned around to scream at the maids. Something or the other needed to be taken. Something or the other was valuable and they would have to pack it.
It was the tenth day.
On the tenth night Georgina tiptoed down the great staircase and stood at the large front door with the heavy wooden beam in place. Nicanor was sitting with his back to the door.
“What is it, miss?” he asked.
“I need to go out tonight,” she said.
“You can’t do that. They’re fighting.”
“I’ve got to go meet someone. And he won’t wait for me,” she took out the necklace. “I’ll trade you this for a horse and a gun.”
The necklace was worth a small fortune. That was what her father had said when he held it up and it shimmered under the chandeliers. Nicanor looked down, staring long and quiet at the jewels.
“I’ll be back by dawn,” she said.
“No, you won’t.”
“The fighting has ceased for the night. There’s no noise from the cannons.”
“What would you be looking for …”
“A man,” she said.
“Does he really mean that much to you?”
What a question. What did she know? How dare he ask it? How could she answer it? But there were so many things she never thought she might be able to do, and she’d done them.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I think he does.”
Nicanor took out a pistol.
The streets had transformed. The buildings had strange new shadows. It was a different city. Georgina rode through the night and the night had no stars. Only the barking of dogs. She turned a street and a horse came her way, galloping with no rider on its back. The air smelled of iron and there was also another more unpleasant smell: somewhere nearby they were burning the dead.
Closer to the Zócalo she began to meet people, wounded men tottering by, and women. So many women. Tending to their wounded, with cananas across their chest and a gun at their hip. She wondered where they came from and who they were fighting for. They might be with Felipe Ángeles, called over to help Madero stall the wave of attackers. They might be anyone.
But he wasn’t there and his very absence struck her as unnatural. He must be hiding.
“I am not leaving,” she whispered, gripping the reins.
She rushed through streets that snaked and split and went up a hill. The city and the night had no end. She rode through them, not knowing where she was. Georgina believed she might be near Lecumberri or maybe going down Moneda. She saw a car pass her, shinning black, and kept riding.
She stumbled onto a wide street with a horse, its entrails on the ground, laying in the middle of it. A group of rurales were walking her way. Georgina hid in the shadows, held her pistol and watched them go by.
She thought of death; a bullet lodged in her skull. She wanted to go back home.
“I’m not leaving. Show yourself, coward,” she muttered.
And then she saw him, or at last he allowed her to see him, standing in an alley. He had a straw hat that shadowed his face but she recognized Death.
“What are you doing Georgina?” he asked. “You’re far from home tonight. Why are you looking for me? We’ve made our trade.”
She dismounted, staring at his face of grey and shadows.
“It was not a fair trade.”
“I was more than generous.”
“You didn’t warn me,” she said and she shoved him against the wall. “I’ve died.”
“Love is dying. Or maybe it’s not. It is the opposite. I forget.”
“Give me my heart. It’s of no use to you.”
“On the contrary. It’s of no use to you, my dear. For what will you do with this heart except let it grow stale and musty in a box?”
“You couldn’t have missed it that much. It’s been a year and you haven’t remembered it at all.”
“It was not yours for the taking!”
“But you didn’t want it. You wanted to die and you didn’t want it anymore.”
“That was before.”
He looked up, the shadows retreating from his face. He had shaved his moustache. He looked younger. A boy, and she a girl.
“I said a day and it was a day. What’s fair is fair. You had no right to sneak out with it.”
“I warned you,” he replied.
“You didn’t explain anything at all.”
“It was given freely.”
“For a day!”
“Sometimes one day is forever.”
“You are a sneaky liar, a fraud …”
“Go home Georgina,” he said. “My brothers are headed here. Madero dies soon and it’ll be very dangerous.”
“You’re killing him?”
“No. Not I. I’m killing an era. But one of my siblings will. Either way, you’ll want to go.”
The sound of bullets hitting a wall broke the quiet of the night. Then it faded. Georgina trembled. She wanted to run but she stayed still, her eyes fixed on Death and he looked back at her with his inky gaze. It was he who blinked and turned his head away.
“Persistent, as usual. What then? Oh, fine. Here, take your heart. Bury it in the garden like some radish and see what sprouts.”
He opened his hand and a flower fell upon her palm, a bright orange cempoalxochitl. She cupped it very carefully, afraid it might break as easily as an egg. She thought it would be difficult to walk all the way home with her hands outstretched, yet she was ready to do it. She’d put it in a box and ship it to Veracruz.
And then, unthinking, driven by impulse or instinct, Georgina crushed the flower against her mouth and it turned to dust upon her lips.
“I hate you,” she whispered. “You’ve changed the world.”
“They’ll build new palaces, Georgina.”
“I don’t mean the palaces.”
She kissed him, yellow-orange dust still clinging to her mouth. She felt a tear streak her cheek as the heart beat inside her chest once more.
The shadows shifted, turning golden and then swirling black. He rested his forehead against hers, quiet, eyes closed.
“I’m going to Chihuahua. I’m meeting with Villa after this,” he said. “It’ll be long. It’ll be seven years.”
“You’ll need me.”
He opened his eyes and these were golden, like the dawn.
He motioned to her horse, which went to them quietly. He offered her a hand and she climbed in front of him, both now clad in the ink of night.
Such is the way of death.
Such is the way of love.
Copyright 2011 Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. She also co-edited Historical Lovecraft, an anthology of historical stories inspired by the tales of cult writer H.P.Lovecraft. She is currently trying to find an agent for her Mexican historical fantasy novel. Invisible fans can follow her adventures at silviamoreno-garcia.com and Tweets @silviamg.