A jazz program now. Every night. 7 p.m. Radio UNAM. Something saxophone climaxing. My radio receives only FM. This radio's also a pocket-size television. Dexter Gordon, the deejay identifies.
"Have you heard the wailing woman yet?"
Quite suddenly yesterday the guy from England posed this question, and quite out of any context. My fork between plate and mouth, my eyes intent upon his, my response came slowly, slowed by a logjam of associations.
The first of these associations was the "wailing woman" of Mexican folklore. La Llorona the Mexicans call her. She is said to wander the streets of Mexico City at night; to wander the lonely mountain paths of the highlands at night; to wander stretches of desert near northern cities at night; to wander riverbanks, and oceansides. Wanders and wails, she does, through the night, in search of children she has lost, seeking to reclaim them. Along the rivers the children have drowned, the stories go. In the deserts and forests her children have been stolen away by wild animals. In the D.F. they have been kidnapped. Everywhere the story rings similar, made distinct only by regional considerations. Everywhere the message rings the same. Do not go out at night, children. Be careful at night, children. La Llorona will get you. So when the guy from England asked if I had heard yet the wailing woman, I first envisioned this wailing woman, and my fork paused between plate and mouth.
The next association was of a stone idol I saw in the anthropological museum. It was a stone idol of the Mexica goddess of the night. The legend of the wailing woman has pre-Colombian roots. Exactly to where these roots go is not so clear. This Mexica goddess though was said to wander the night moaning and wailing. Many believe, thus, this goddess the legend's source. The curator of the museum mentioned this possibility in his printed description of the idol. I recalled this when the guy from England posed his question. But I recalled, too, a Mexican tour guide who strolled up to the idol just as I was to move away from it. I stepped aside. I waited to hear what he would say of the figure. In tow with him slogged an American family. Mom, Pop, two boys and a young girl. The girl gripped the tour guide's wrinkled brown hand. Bleary-eyed the family slogged. Only a quarter way through the vast museum and already they no longer saw anything, already they had been numbed by the volume of objects.
"Look at this one," the graying tour guide said to them in English, impishly grinning. The little girl hung onto him. "Now what do you think she would be the goddess of?"
The goddess of the night is a female figure, squatting. Her fists are clenched tightly, planted firmly on her knees. Her face is a horrible grimace, teeth outsized, gnashing. Her lips are retracted into an angry or a pained or a frightened snarl.
The graying jowlish guide paused dramatically. The family looked on carelessly, indifferently. Then the guide proclaimed, "She was the goddess of childbirth!"
And the mother's eyebrows hiked. And pop and the boys squinted, recoiling their heads. And the little girl contorted her face, "Oooh," crying, her eyes very wide, her grimace not unlike the stone idol's.
Again I read the curator's description. Unless this Mexica goddess of the night doubled as the Mexica goddess of childbirth, this was some private joke for the tour guide. And I looked at him. And, to be sure, his soft shoulders were quaking with inward laughter.
I inserted the forkful of mole into my mouth.
"...on the metro," the guy from England specified.
"Oh," I said. "No."
"They get on and just start wailing and want you to give them money. I thought, if you think I'm going to give you money for that...They see this white guy in the corner and think I have money and so come toward me."
I stomached the insensitivity. In a normal tone I answered honestly: "Yeah, sometimes they make up songs about their injuries and deformities. It gives me the creeps."
"I guess that's one advantage we have not knowing the language," he said.
And I heard then an older man from a couple days ago. He sang as he boarded the metro: "I have no eyes. I have no eyes. If you can see me give me pesos." And that old man from my first stay here in Mexico City, ten years ago. "I was hit by a car," he keened. He removed his cowboy hat then to reveal a most shocking head injury. The front quarter of his skull had been crushed. I've never understood how the man survived, how his brain could function. It was an image out of a nightmare.
I rode the pink line of the metro today. I rode it from its first to its last stop. The artificiality of its environment gave me a headache. Cool, was the air, yes, but smelling of steel, electricity, marble polish. And un- nourishing the light, weirdly stark and dim, turning everyone's tawny hue sallow. No oasis, this, ever. The whole place is too unnatural. Fluorescent. The echo of your footsteps even. The smooth whish whish of the doors open and close. Alarm buzzers. The false silence. Impersonal announcements. Roaring, colliding tunnels of air as trains meet. Chrome and half-darkness and stone and fiberglass. Blandness. Dulls the psyche. Gray and gray and gray. Even the bright billboards, the occasional art object, the bright trains, the occasional archeological replica, the bright dress of the straphangers--it all only accents the gray. Gray and gray and gray. A stunted colorless flower, you hold, a nubbin. Concrete and stanchions and girders and plexiglass. Recorded voices. The limbo look of the commute. A soup of black hair, of weary eyes. A soap advertised. A bit of gum peddled by a lone vender. That hum. That background hum. Droning machinery, vents. And the car rocks. And the rocking car pulls you forward with its momentum as the rocking car slows. Two tones. Whish whish. And you exit to a billboard hawking a new pension plan.
Then the taxi ride. I was nervous about it because of warnings I saw posted outside the anthropological museum the other day. They were posted in English and their source was the U.S. State Department. They alerted Americans to be careful taking taxis. Since the economic crisis began some years ago several embassy employees have been assaulted in taxis, apparently. The taxistas drive them out of the city, beat them up and then take their money. The posting advised against "free taxis." It advised to take only taxis from "fixed stations." This was a minor challenge for me. I did not know where to find a fixed station from the metro. So I deboarded at the Insurgentes station and walked that underpass to the Zona Rosa. I figured I could find a fixed station there because of all the tourists. I was right. I taxi-ed then to the corner near where I once lived, near that VIPs restaurant. That was all. I memorized a few observations as I rode and scribbled them down afterward. The driver had a laminated picture of the Virgin Mary hanging from his rearview mirror. He had Tom and Jerry stickers on his dashboard. I noted the "bahooga hooga" of his VW horn and the inexpensive odor of the interior leather. And then that ranchero song I haven't heard in a couple days played on the radio. The taxista turned up the volume. The two of us sang along under our breaths. I tipped him a little extra.
I've found small bugs in my hotel bed twice now. I think they may be biting me. I have an itchy rash.