It has been two hundred and seventy four days since I last saw my family in the flesh.
Two hundred and seventy four days since I stood on Earth, since I inhaled the buttery Guatemalan air, since my fingers brushed the marigolds in Mama's florist shop.
Two hundred and seventy four days since I died under Gautemalan dirt.
But two minutes, the clock will tick to 6:00 a.m., and it will be November 1st for us, the dead.
Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, will officially begin, and the Gates will open for us to tread the dirt of the living for a precious two days.
"Attention, dead souls." Mr. Graves's voice cuts through the uproarious noise in the premises. The violet lighting inside the Afterlife cabins casts ghostly shadows over his face, flickering across his gaunt cheekbones and skeletal nose. He shifts his polished boots on the high metal podium.
It's usually ridiculously loud on holidays like these when the Gateways are open, and today is no exception. Everybody is congested in the banquet halls in eager anticipation of the Gate opening.
The white Calavera Catrina skull makeup dusted thickly across my face itches my skin, but I don't dare touch it for fear of ruining the traditional design. Besides, it gives a certain opaqueness to my normally diaphanous ghost body; I almost feel like I'm alive again when I twirl in the mirror.
Vibrant tapestries spun from gold silk hang from the looming walls on either side, and tangy spices of pastries and appetizers linger in the air. Girls decked in multicoloured silks and boys clad in polished suits stream around me, chattering nervously. The scars marring their skins - the ones that caused their respective demises - are covered up today, and the gash on my stomach is no exclusion.
The Afterlife, ironically, feels alive today.
"The Day of the Dead Gates are opening in two minutes. If you have purchased a ticket, please bring your ticket and all other forms to the Loading Dock. This is the only passageway between the Afterlife and Earth in an entire year, so I highly suggest taking this chance to see your family again," Mr. Graves states pointedly. "Other than Day of the Dead, you deceased folk will never see your friends and relatives again. And I repeat, departure is in two minutes."
I can't resist a grin briefly glossing over my lips. I will see Mama and Papa again. Soon. So soon.
Instantly, everybody begins shoving toward the Loading Dock, a floating platform bobbing at the left side. It hovers midair above a dark chasm. They file slowly onto the Loading Dock, one by one. The assistant admits me into the platform after receiving my ticket, tearing it up, and throwing me a perfunctory nod.
I step onto the platform. More people fill up the platform until it is brimming with souls. Masses of dead folks are still not boarded, standing on ground and clawing at the Loading Dock. Mr. Graves steps up onto the platform, and he is utterly unfazed by the frenzy below him.
"Happy official Día de los Muertos, everybody," he says smoothly. "The clock has ticked six. The Gateways are open."
A buzz of whispers and yells rolls over the crowd like a cloud of incense, sparking instant conversation. Most screech in anticipation, others shuffle reluctantly, and a few remain indifferent. All the same, the air enveloping the crowd crackles with tension.
"This is the first trip," he declares, voice dripping with commanding steel, and the shouts fall to murmurs. "Each trip will ferry seventy-five dead souls to Earth. In five minutes, I will drop this load off. Another five minutes later - for the trip back - I will be here again to ferry another seventy-five dead souls to Earth." When ghosts continue pulling at his feet, he looks down. "Patience. We'll be back."
Then he yanks a lever, and the platform drops so quickly that my stomach plummets to my feet. Wind rushes past our ears like a miniature tornado inside our eardrums. The girl beside me lets out a shriek of fear - I would scream, too, but my mouth is frozen shut. Glittering funnels of white air blast all around us, blinding our vision, and the alien feeling of my bones being compressed to dust tingles through my body. When my eyes adjust, I find winding floating Corinthian columns and alabaster archways flashing by. Each glistens with a plethora of shimmering lights - the Gateway to its designated world.
"Don't worry, this is all part of the process," Mr. Graves shouts over the wind. Contrary to the rest of us screaming souls, his expression is flat and bored. "Now, when you get there - to Earth, I mean - you're going to exit from wherever your bones were buried, or wherever your official grave is. If you know where your home was, then fantastic. If you don't, there will be marigold petals that your families have placed in a trail from the cemetery to your respective houses, so follow the abnormally sweet scent if you don't remember where your house is."
Nearly there. Nearly home. He clears his throat. "Remember, nobody can see or touch you, no matter how loud you shout. We dead souls, and we are still in a different layer of reality from the living. Do not try to make contact with your family members." He fixes us all with an iron gaze. "It will be incredibly tempting. But do not, in any context, try to make contact with your family members. It may alter the threads of reality, and the repercussions will be devastating for everybody."
Giddiness runs through my veins. I shift in anticipation, barely hearing his words.
I will have what I lost once again, just for today. "Remember to return to your grave at the designated time you purchased on your ticket. If you purchased an eight-hour ticket and forget to return at eight hours, we won't let you on the twelve-hour-return ferry, and you will have to find your own way back to the Afterlife. But most likely you'll be carted off by the Corpse Intelligence Agency, otherwise known as the C.I.A. of the Gateway world, and then you'll most likely undergo..." Mr. Graves pauses, tilting his head. "Not important. Just get back on time, and it won't be a problem."
His words fade to an intelligible murmur at the back of my mind. The Loading Dock's pace is slowing down - So close. "With that said..." Mr. Graves pauses and smiles, though his gaunt, skull-like face twists it into some semblance of a grimace. "Enjoy your time with the living. Have a wonderful Day of the Dead."
With that, the platform plunges to the ground with a ricocheting thud. My feet rattle with pain from the impact. Plumes of thick dust are rising around us, and the force of our descent has created a basin-shaped depression in the dirt below us.
Once the dust dissipates, I gasp. The dead souls that were packed around me are gone, and so is the metal platform. Underneath my feet is soft, brown dirt, and the sky above is still swathed in an ashen blue. Rays of pale light strike the ground in pinpoints of glinting white.
I flex my fingers as my eyes adjust. Desperately, I step forward, my eyes hungrily absorbing my surroundings. A little adobe shop. The cream-coloured building labeled Ayuntamiento in peeling black letters: Townhouse in Spanish. The cracked brown rooves and billowing chimneys. Then, ever so slightly, the invigorating scent of marigold stirs the stagnant air.
I am home.
I am home.
I cry out in delight and skip towards town eagerly. My home town of Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, a small town nestled within Central America.
The cemetery is saturated with the saccharine scent of marigold petals, but none are leading to my house, I know that for sure. It isn't because Mama and Papa forgot. It's because we have a different tradition.
Mama and Papa will be out at the Cliffs, a sloping precipice where all of us Santiago citizens gather each year to fly our barriletes, our enormous kites of colour. That is our town tradition, and my parents would never stray from it. I smile in anticipation of standing once again on those grassy grounds, the chartreuse strands grazing my calf, my family's laughter surrounding me. With that thought firmly in mind, I begin a determined trek toward my newfound destination. If it's the last thing I do (no pun intended), I will get there again.
My quiet footsteps echoes quietly as I cautiously enter Santiago. The warm embrace of chimney smoke sputtering from the first building cools against my skin. I can detect the aromatic spices wafting from the bakery - and when I close my eyes, I see old Nilo's smiling, rubicund face and his two little daughters clinging to his leg.
I keep walking. A restaurant whizzes past me. I remember that restaurant and how Papa used to visit the owner often. They would smoke pipes in the back and laugh about the things men do.
A house. Another shop. I duck under a clothesline swaying in the wind.
A restaurant, and a store, and an empty merchant stand with the neon signs Los Pescados del Lago Atítlan - the fish of Lake Atítlan, a massive lake west of our town.
More memories, so many that they flood my mind. I press my fingers to my temples as my eyesight pans. The chopped grass and stucco walls, the shingled rooves and tinted windows, the smiles and laughter. Adora and her husband, the two little Herrera twins, weekly dinners with Sr. Ernesto.
Everything is shrouded in darkness now, but if I squint my eyes, I can see it under the brilliant sunlight of a year past.
I keep up a brisk pace to the Cliffs, the wind brushing past my skin. The white skull powder decorating my face itches terribly now, and I want to wipe off the ruby liquid that stains my lips, but I can't just yet. When I enter the clearing, not many people have gathered at the Cliffs yet, only a small, exceedingly dedicated portion. Most arrive from seven to eight in the morning, but those who care enough, they are here now. I would have been one of them. Everybody is bundled in a tight circle and talking in rapid-fire Spanish. Their conversation is occasionally punctuated with short barks of laughter and hoots, and some begin setting out plates of pan de muerto, or a sugary bread specifically made for this holiday, and decorated sugar skulls. As I near them, I realise everybody is eating fiambre, a traditional Guatemalan dish consisting of assorted cold-cuts and vegetables, only for the Day of the Dead. I would have been eating Mama's home-made fiambre.
The barriletes kite designs are half-stitched onto the enormous kite skeletons, and it looks barren and empty without the bright designs decorating the bulky, jagged hull. But despite myself I smile in pride. Santiago is reknown across Latin America for its majestic kites, and we will never do them shame: not this year, and never in the future. The kites will be up in hours, and at the end of the day, the young men will heave up the ropes and let it fly through the backdrop of pale blue sky. I would have been cheering them on with Mama and Papa. My hands start trembling slightly when I come in closer proximity of the people. Faces zoom into focus, and recognition creeps into my mind. There, Estaban Jr. and his wife, and Sr. Ernesto, and... Oh, there are so many, each one's face adorned with neon Día de los Muertos makeup. They look precisely the same, just more smatterings of wrinkles here and there, leaner legs, more rotund bellies; small, physical changes. Something pricks at the back of my eyes as they amble inches past me, smiling into the distance, never to see me again.
When I died, I left a life behind, and I - I want it back, so much. So much that it stings my chest and drives needles through my shoulder blade and crushes my ribcage into gasping rivulets of air and díos Mio I can hardly breathe. Just gazing at their faces, unseeing, staring straight past me, when last year we shared that same firework-like beam during celebrations.
I tear my eyes away from the sight.
But I want to see Mama. I want to see Papa, and little Adolfo. Desperately, I push through the crowd, each person floating right through my insubstantial body. Where are they? I need to see them. I survey my surroundings, looking for the pink-embroidered dress Mama wears each year. Where? Frantically, I swing my head around, reaching out for my family.
I find them by the edge.
Two figures are sitting cross-legged, back-facing the celebrations. My heart hammers wildly inside my ribcage like a jackrabbit. Although I know they can't hear me, I involuntarily soften my footsteps and quietly step up beside them.
Mama and Papa have not changed - except for crinkles around their eyes and on their forehead. Mama has twisted her thick black tresses into the same chignon at the nape of her neck, just like she used to, every day before I died, and flawless skull-like makeup coats her face. Papa's jaw is covered in stubble, the same amount Mama and I used to tease him about, and his raven hair is combed and glossy. And in their arms lies baby Adolfo, a sleeping toddler of age two snoring in Mama's lap. The waxen morning light casts a seraphic light across their solemn faces.
I kneel down beside Mama, so close that her satin sleeve brushes against my arm. She can't feel me, but I can feel her,.
Mama smiles serenely into the distance and finishes pinning something up. She doesn't see me, but for a second I think her comely hazel eyes pause on my figure. "Te amamos, Itzel," she says, smiling.
We love you, Itzel.
"Los amo a todos demasiado," I cry out: I love you all too. But of course they don't hear me. Mama continues smiling angelically in the distance, her helenite eyes glassy, and Papa places a warm hand on her shoulder. It is silly, I know, to try and reach through the fabrics of reality - but I must try; I must.
"I love you too!" I call brokenly again, in spite of the rule Mr. Graves established about no contact attempts. It is too much, standing in front of my family and home. Maybe if I just yell hard enough, they'll feel my presence, or see the flicker of my outline, or hear it carried in the breeze. Anything for them to know I am here, for us to be a family again, for at least one perfect moment to recreate a millisecond of raw, unadulterated memory.
Heat prickles at the back of my eyes, and my voice breaks, the stilted English shattering. "I love you too!"
But they do not hear me.
They do not hear me.
Papa murmurs to her about joining the others in celebration, and she nods. Lifting Adolfo in her arms, Mama and Papa stride away from me. In the idyllic morning light, the backs of their figures are bathed in milky darkness, and their violet shadow stretches across the ground behind them like a residue of their footsteps.
I make to follow, then stop.
I cast a furtive glance at the object Mama was pinning in the light. My family does not like to make ofrendas - altars - inside the house; instead, we place them ceremoniously beside the Cliffs so as to shed natural light on them.
It is a single papel picado quavering in a transcending breeze, a light, thin yellow paper fluttering, a golden mesh. A little chunk of my family's heart. I catch ahold of it with gentle fingers to gain a better view of the elaborate shapes cut out in it. Mama always had artist hands. Las caléndulas. The marigolds: slender stalks, soft petal shapes, svelte leaves, dancing in the wind.
And then, ever so slightly, I can detect a hint of marigold bleeding into the buttery Guatemalan air.