“Get back here! Rata sucio!”
My feet slid along the dirt road as I turned a sharp corner. I fell onto my hip, bumping into an old lady with a bouquet of marigolds, which flew up into the air. I looked up from where I lay, my face already white with flour and now printed by the pollen of a thousand yellow flowers. The baker turned that corner, ushering two men in uniform towards me. I struggled to get up, shoving the old lady back onto the ground as a distraction.
Once I was up, I ran for the hills. Under my arm was a tattered bag with an assortment of fresh bread sticking out the top, enough to last me the next three days. Their sweet sticky smell made my stomach do flips as I passed neighbour after neighbour, trying to get away.
At the next corner, I found a set of crates lined against a brick wall. I hopped up on top of them, one by one until I was on the jagged roof above. I slid down the opposite side to avoid being spotted, waiting patiently for the sound of footsteps to recede into the setting sun. I held my breath, counted to 20 then carefully peeked over the top. No one was there.
I settled, leaning my head against the hot slate. The sweat was cooling against my face as the sky grew darker with every passing moment. I closed my eyes and heard the voices of children echoing from every direction. I heard the mariachi bands playing and people shouting into the night sky, “Happy Dia de Los Muertos”. I opened my eyes just as a hand came up one side and pulled me down off the tiles.
* * *
“Nickolas! What were you thinking?”, yelled my older brother.
He stood in the doorway of our old house watching me being held up by two men, one on each arm, who were both twice my size and weight.
“Monsieur Martinez,” said one officer, “if we catch him stealing again, I can promise you, he won’t be coming home. Do I make myself clear?”
My brother nodded, as the two officers handed me over to him, closing the door behind them.
“So,” I started, waiting for the wrath of my brother to fall upon me, “what’s for dinner?”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.””
“How can you say that? Mama and Papa would be so disappointed in you!”.
As he said these words, I could see the anger welling up in the shape of teardrops below his eyes.
“Okay look,” I mumbled, “I know what I did was wrong. But look at it this way, if those policemen had just let me go, you wouldn’t have to spend your whole life babysitting.”
He stopped dead in his tracks and turned around to face me. I lowered my head to appear unworthy, waiting. Then, he spoke.
“Come,” he ushered me.
“Where are we going?” I asked, a little scared for the answer.
* * *
La Calavera Catrina stood proud in the center of a graveyard that stretched out for miles. The statue was wet with mildew, something you could strongly smell when you walked through the big metal gates. Candles lit a path straight down the middle, as families got on their knees scrubbing the cemented plates that were etched into the cold ground. Baked good and marigold flowers were laid beside the candles, while the bitter smell of Tequila filled whatever was left of the oxygen.
Just as I was starting to feel light headed, my brother reached a hand out in front of me.
“We’re here,” he whispered.
Before us lay two graves. The only ones in the yard that were dark and bare without a candle or a memory to brighten them. We couldn’t afford enough to make an ofrenda. I looked away in anger, while my brother got down on his knees and started to pray. I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but somewhere between “please watch over them” and “we will always love them”, he tugged at my vest and pulled me down right beside him.
I sat there on my knees, remembering the faces that once belonged to the bodies we were praying to. They were happy. My father was a shoe shiner in town who fell in love with the village beauty queen with the biggest heart. They went on to have three kids, but only two were here in the physical world. I can still hear their screams as the house burnt to the ground before their eldest sons, who’d just got back from the market.
Now, they were dead. I looked over at my brother, who was still lost in his talk with God. I got up off my knees and walked off into the night.
* * *
I tripped over a pillow that had been left on one marker a few rows away. I kicked it in anger, wiping the remaining tears from my own eyes. I picked up a piece of bread from one of the grave markers and tore into it. The closest tequila bottle called out to me, as I swiped it from a basket carried by an older man. I shoved what was left of the bread into my pocket followed by the bottle. I needed to get out of here, I didn’t care what anyone else said.
That’s when I actually tripped and fell flat on my face. Frustrated, I kicked my way across the ground only to look back and see what I thought at first was a snake, curled up behind the closest gravestone. It was a long striped snake of black and orange. Then I heard it growl. I looked up slowly and saw it sitting upon the gravestone, staring down at me like it’s next meal. It was the biggest tiger I had ever seen.
* * *
I could hear myself breathing heavily. I wanted to scream, but it was caught in my throat. The tequila bottle and bread now lay stranded on the path, but I couldn’t bring myself to collect them with its eyes on me.
Then slowly the tiger climbed down, sitting in front of me like a dog.
“Relax my friend,” he said simply. My mouth was hanging open. He reached over and with his paw and pushed up my chin to force my mouth closed.
I got up and put my now dirty hands out in defense.
“Who…what are you?” I stammered. The tiger chuckled.
“It does not matter what I am. What matters is what I am going to say.”
The tiger stretched all four legs out, curling his back in the process. When he looked back at me, I could have sworn he was smiling.
“I have come to show you something,” he said.
“Please tell me it’s something that doesn’t involve a four-course meal.” I whispered, as he walked off towards La Calavera Catrina.
I followed behind at a fair distance, allowing myself enough time to run in case he changed his mind. Once we arrived at the statue, I noticed something moving on his back.
“They are my wings, child,” he replied simply, as if he read my mind.
Of course he had wings. Tigers always have wings.
“What exactly did you want to show me?” I asked.
“This” He nodded towards the statue as he said it.
“The Lady of Death? What about her?”
“Do you know what she stands for?”, he looked at me as he asked this.
“She stands…for us to look at her?”
The tiger sighed, rolling his monstrous eyes.
“No. She stands for family and remembrance. She is the reason that we celebrate this night.” He gestured to the families who were smiling and laughing while awaiting their ancestors. The man I’d stolen the tequila from sat beside a single grave, setting the flowers neatly against the stone. He kissed the hard cement as a tear fell from his cheek.
The family I’d stolen the bread from had plenty, but they didn’t seem to want to eat it.
They stared up at the night sky, an arm around every member to keep them all warm.
“Yeah, well in case you haven’t noticed Mr. Tiger,” I sighed “my family is dead. This day, means nothing to me. My family once celebrated it with open arms, welcoming strangers. But that’s all gone. I have nothing.”
“Ah, but child, your family isn’t all dead.”
He lifts my head up and points out my brother in the crowd who is calling out, looking for me.
“Your family is right there. And it doesn’t matter what else you have. As long as you have the ones you love, then you are the richest man alive. I should know, I’m dead.” He seemed to think that was rather funny, and to be honest so did I. We sat there laughing for a moment, then suddenly I spotted my brother again and I watched as he came towards me.
“Go to your brother child and remember, nothing is forever.”
I got up and ran. I don’t think in the past few months of thieving, I ever run that fast. But I didn’t care!
“Nickolas?”, my brother called, as I jumped into his arms.
“Where have you been?” he asked starting to weep, “I thought you tried to run away…”
“Not anymore,” I sniffed, “I promise.”
“Good. But who were you talking to over there? I saw your mouth moving, but no one was talking back.”
“You don’t see the…”
As I looked back, I too saw nothing. I got up and looked around but there wasn’t a tiger in sight.
I waited for a moment, remembering what the creature had said, nothing lasts forever.
“Forget it. Now come on, I have some stuff to return. Plus, I want to say hello to Mom and Dad.”