“The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder, but when I think of the fine known gradations, my reason tells me I ought to conquer the cold shudder.” – Charles Darwin, 1860.
Cassandra arrived at Puerto Mazátlan at low tide, watching as bird guano mixed with the sandy ocean waves, and ruddy-faced men swam through the reef breakers. Her friends’ warnings about returning to Mexico tumbled in her brain like cerebral pinball, but Cassandra wasn’t afraid of back alleys or crowded streets. She was numb, the kind of woman who could sleep through hurricanes and eat during dissections.
“Mexico is a pit of thieves,” her American boyfriend had said when she told him she was writing a piece about Mazátlan for the travel magazine. All poor people were the same to him. “Aren’t you afraid of being robbed?”
“I have nothing worth stealing,” she’d said. She had wondered briefly what he would do if he knew she was born in Mexico.
Cassandra wandered along Mazátlan’s beach, taking notes on her worn legal pad and feeling more like a specter than a spectator. She was hollow inside, a scarecrow with no Dorothy. Still, she counted the fishermen’s black teeth, and the holes in the childrens’ shoes, and the number of sunblock-caked tourists. Anything readers would find gritty.
Further up the beach a group of boys kicked a soccer ball around and fought over an American candy bar. At one time, so long ago now that it felt like a past life, she had been just like them: rail-thin, waifish, angry at the world, digging through dumpsters and begging for scraps. She’d been poor and passionate, but passion didn’t fill an empty stomach.
“¿Necesitas direcciones?” asked a middle-aged man with a gray beard and a mouth set in defeated lines when she paused near his seaside trinket shop. He was selling imitations of Mexican cultural treasures like Mayan masks and talavera ceramics for 20 Pesos. Cassandra watched as a tourist held up a particularly beautiful red mask and left Cheeto fingerprints on the wood.
“Si, al pub,” she said. She used to hate men like him who ran trinket shops, men that sold history for a meal and culture for a coin. Traidores, her mother had called them. Better to starve than sell your soul. But her mother had been naive. Hunger and weariness corroded the strongest of convictions.
The man pointed a finger at the road into town. “Por allí.”
Cassandra thanked him and followed the road until Mazátlan’s buildings were towering above her, stacked up like concrete Legos. Some were short and squat and others tall and shiny, a bizarre fusion of history and modernity. The sound of her footsteps on the hot asphalt echoed like the word trai-dor-e. She needed whiskey.
Mama is too dead to be disappointed, Cassandra reasoned with herself. You crossed the border to survive. And yet, she couldn’t shake the image of her mother starving on the side of the road while Cassandra wrote unfortunate increase in the female homeless population on a yellow legal pad.
Finally, she spotted the open door of the pub up ahead, the entrance dark like a mouth or a cavern, and her hands itched to hold a shot glass. Her gaze was locked on the familiar flashing of a neon sign, already imagining the burn of alcohol in her throat, and then… there was a child blocking the door. He stood there like a ghost, his dirty hands clutching at her skirt.
“Let go,” she said.
Cassandra tried to shake him off, but he only held on tighter, his thin arms shaking. Almost against her will her eyes slid to the window glass, a slow horror overtaking her numbness, and at the very moment that her eyes locked with his, their reflections seemed to swirl together, her snow-white blouse against his black rags, and the wind rushed in her ears and sang traidore in her mother’s voice.
Something inarticulable passed between them then. He had a look in his eyes that would haunt her, an infinite afterimage of his gaunt, sand-scored face, his irises glassy with hunger.
Cassandra gave a cold shudder. Then he was gone.
Necesitas direcciones – Do you need directions
Si, al pub – Yes, to the pub.
Traidores – Traitors.
Por allí – Over there.