Halperin came into San Simón Zuluaga in late October, a couple of days before the fiesta of the local patron saint, when the men of the town would dance in masks. He wanted to see that. This part of Mexico was famous for its masks, grotesque and terrifying ones portraying devils and monsters and fiends. Halperin had been collecting them for three years. But masks on a wall are one thing, and masks on dancers in the town plaza quite another.
San Simón was a mountain town about halfway between Acapulco and Taxco. “Tourists don’t go there,” Guzmán López had told him. “The road is terrible and the only hotel is a Cucaracha Hilton—five rooms, straw mattresses.” Guzmán ran a gallery in Acapulco where Halperin had bought a great many masks. He was a suave, cosmopolitan man from Mexico City, with smooth dark skin and a bald head that gleamed as if it had been polished. “But they still do the Bat Dance there, the Lord of the Animals Dance. It is the only place left that performs it. This is from San Simón Zuluaga,” said Guzmán, and pointed to an intricate and astonishing mask in purple and yellow depicting a bat with outspread leathery wings that was at the same time somehow also a human skull and a jaguar. Halperin would have paid ten thousand pesos for it, but Guzmán was not interested in selling. “Go to San Simón,” he said. “You’ll see others like this.”
Guzman laughed and crossed himself. “Don’t suggest it. In Rome, would you make an offer for the Pope’s robes? These masks are sacred.”
“I want one. How did you get this one?”
“Sometimes favors are done. But not for strangers. Perhaps I’ll be able to work something out for you.”
“You’ll be there, then?”
“I go every year for the Bat Dance,” said Guzmán. “It’s important to me. To touch the real Mexico, the old Mexico. I am too much a Spaniard, not enough an Aztec; so I go back and drink from the source. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” Halperin said. “Yes.”
“You want to see the true Mexico?”
“Do they still slice out hearts with an obsidian dagger?”
Guzmán said, chuckling, “If they do, they don’t tell me about it. But they know the old gods there. You should go. You would learn much. You might even experience interesting dangers.”
“Danger doesn’t interest me a whole lot,” said Halperin.
“Mexico interests you. If you wish to swallow Mexico, you must swallow some danger with it, like the salt with the tequila. If you want sunlight, you must have a little darkness. You should go to San Simón.” Guzmán’s eyes sparkled. “No one will harm you. They are very polite there. Stay away from demons and you will be fine. You should go.”
Halperin arranged to keep his hotel room in Acapulco and rented a car with four-wheel drive. He invited Guzmán to ride with him, but the dealer was leaving for San Simón that afternoon, with stops en route to pick up artifacts at Chacalapa and Hueycantenango. Halperin could not go that soon. “I will reserve a room for you at the hotel,” Guzmán promised, and drew a precise road map for him.
The road was rugged and winding and barely paved, and turned into a chaotic dirt-and-gravel track beyond Chichihualco. The last four kilometers were studded with boulders like the bed of a mountain stream. Halperin drove most of the way in first gear, gripping the wheel desperately, taking every jolt and jounce in his spine and kidneys. To come out of the pink-and-manicured Disneyland of plush Acapulco into this primitive wilderness was to make a journey five hundred years back in time. But the air up here was fresh and cool and clean, and the jungle was lush from recent rains, and now and then Halperin saw a mysterious little town half-buried in the heavy greenery: dogs barked, naked children ran out and waved, leathery old Nahua folk peered gravely at him and called incomprehensible greetings. Once he heard a tremendous thump against his undercarriage and was sure he had ripped out his oil pan on a rock, but when he peered below everything seemed to be intact. Two kilometers later, he veered into a giant rut and thought he had cracked an axle, but he had not. He hunched down over the wheel, aching, tense, and imagined that splendid bat mask, or its twin, spotlighted against a stark white wall in his study. Would Guzmán be able to get him one? Probably. His talk of the difficulties involved was just a way of hyping the price. But even if Halperin came back empty-handed from San Simón, it would be reward enough simply to have witnessed the dance, that bizarre, alien rite of a lost pagan civilization. There was more to collecting Mexican masks, he knew, than simply acquiring objects for the wall.
In late afternoon he entered the town just as he was beginning to think he had misread Guzmán’s map. To his surprise it was quite imposing, the largest village he had seen since turning off the main highway—a great bare plaza ringed by stone benches, marketplace on one side, vast heavy-walled old church on the other, giant gnarled trees, chickens, dogs, children about everywhere, and houses of crumbling adobe spreading up the slope of a gray flat-faced mountain to the right and down into the dense darkness of a barranca thick with ferns and elephant-ears to the left. For the last hundred meters into town an impenetrable living palisade of cactus lined the road on both sides, unbranched spiny green columns that had been planted one flush against the next. Bougainvillea in many shades of red and purple and orange cascaded like gaudy draperies over walls and rooftops.
Halperin saw a few old Volkswagens and an ancient ramshackle bus parked on the far side of the plaza and pulled his car up beside them. Everyone stared at him as he got out. Well, why not? He was big news here, maybe the first stranger in six months. But the pressure of those scores of dark amphibian eyes unnerved him. These people were all Indians, Nahuas, untouched in any important way not only by the twentieth century but by the nineteenth, the eighteenth, all the centuries back to Moctezuma. They had nice Christian names like Santiago and Francisco and Jesús, and they went obligingly to the iglesia for mass whenever they thought they should, and they knew about cars and transistor radios and Coca-Cola. But all that was on the surface. They were still Aztecs at heart, Halperin thought. Time-travelers. As alien as Martians.
He shrugged off his discomfort. Here he was the Martian, dropping in from a distant planet for a quick visit. Let them stare: he deserved it. They meant no harm. Halperin walked toward them and said, “Por favor, donde está el hotel del pueblo?”
Blank faces. “El hotel?” he asked, wandering around the plaza. “Por favor. Donde?” No one answered. That irritated him. Sure, Nahuatl was their language, but it was inconceivable that Spanish would be unknown here. Even in the most remote towns someone spoke Spanish. “Por favor!” he said, exasperated. They melted back at his approach as though he were ablaze. Halperin peered into dark cluttered shops. “Habla usted Español?” he asked again and again, and met only silence. He was at the edge of the marketplace, looking into a chaos of fruit stands, tacos stands, piles of brilliant serapes and flimsy sandals and stacked sombreros, and booths where vendors were selling the toys of next week’s Day of the Dead holiday, candy skeletons and green banners emblazoned with grinning red skulls. “Por favor?” he said loudly, feeling very foolish.
A woman in jodhpurs and an Eisenhower jacket materialized suddenly in front of him and said in English, “They don’t mean to be rude. They’re just very shy with strangers.”
Halperin was taken aback. He realized that he had begun to think of himself as an intrepid explorer, making his way with difficulty through a mysterious primitive land. In an instant she had snatched all that from him, both the intrepidity and the difficulties.
She was about thirty, with close-cut dark hair and bright, alert eyes, attractive, obviously American. He struggled to hide the sense of letdown her advent had created in him and said, “I’ve been trying to find the hotel.”
“Just off the plaza, three blocks behind the market. Let’s go to your car and I’ll ride over there with you.”
“I’m from San Francisco,” he said. “Tom Halperin.”
“That’s such a pretty city. I love San Francisco.”
“Miami,” she said. “Ellen Chambers.” She seemed to be measuring him with her eyes. He noticed that she was carrying a couple of Day of the Dead trinkets—a crudely carved wooden skeleton with big eyeglasses, and a rubber snake with a gleaming human skull of white plastic, like a cue-ball, for a head. As they reached his car she said, “You came here alone?”
Halperin nodded. “Did you?”
“Yes,” she said. “Come down from Taxco. How did you find this place?”
“Antiquities dealer in Acapulco told me about it. Antonio Guzmán López. I collect Mexican masks.”
“But I’ve never actually seen one of the dances.”
“They do an unusual one here,” she said as he drove down a street of high, ragged, mud-colored walls, patched and plastered, that looked a thousand years old. “Lord of the Animals, it’s called. Died out everywhere else. Pre-Hispanic shamanistic rite, invoking protective deities, fertility spirits.”
“Guzmán told me a little about it. Not much. Are you an anthropologist?”
“Strictly amateur. Turn left here.” There was a little street, an open wrought-iron gateway, a driveway of large white gravel. Set back a considerable distance was a squat, dispiriting hovel of a hotel, one story, roof of chipped red tiles in which weeds were growing. Not even the ubiquitous bougainvillea and the great clay urns overflowing with dazzling geraniums diminished its ugliness. Cucaracha Hilton indeed, Halperin thought dourly. She said, “This is the place. You can park on the side.”
The parking lot was empty. “Are you and I the only guests?” he asked.
“So it seems.”
“Guzmán was supposed to be here. Smooth-looking man, bald shiny head, dresses like a financier.”
“I haven’t seen him,” she said. “Maybe his car broke down.”
They got out, and a slouching fourteen-year-old mozo came to get Halperin’s luggage. He indicated his single bag and followed Ellen into the hotel. She moved in a sleek, graceful way that kindled in him the idea that she and he might get something going in this forlorn place. But as soon as the notion arose, he felt it fizzling: she was friendly, she was good-looking, but she radiated an offputting vibe, a noli-me-tangere sort of thing, that was unmistakable and made any approach from him inappropriate. Too bad. Halperin liked the company of women and fell easily and uncomplicatedly into liaisons with them wherever he traveled, but this one puzzled him. Was she a lesbian? Usually he could tell, but he had no reading on her except that she meant him to keep his distance. At least for the time being.
The hotel was grim, a string of lopsided rooms arranged around a weedy courtyard that served as a sort of lobby. Some hens and a rooster were marching about, and a startling green iguana, enormous, like a miniature dinosaur, was sleeping on a branch of a huge yellow-flowered hibiscus just to the left of the entrance. Everything was falling apart in the usual haphazard tropical way. Nobody seemed to be in charge. The mozo put Halperin’s suitcase down in front of a room on the far side of the courtyard and went away without a word. “You’ve got the one next to mine,” Ellen said. “That’s the dining room over there and the cantina next to it. There’s a shower out in back and a latrine a little further into the jungle.”
“The food isn’t bad. You know enough to watch out for the water. There are bugs but no mosquitoes.”
“How long have you been here?” Halperin asked.
“Centuries,” she said. “I’ll see you in an hour and we’ll have dinner, okay?”
His room was a whitewashed irregular box, smelling faintly of disinfectant, that contained a lumpy narrow bed, a sink, a massive mahogany chest of drawers that could have come over with the Spaniards, and an ornate candlestick. The slatted door did not lock and the tile-rimmed window that gave him an unsettling view of thick jungle close outside was without glass, an open hole in the wall. But there was a breathtaking mask mounted above the bed, an armadillo-faced man with a great gaping mouth, and next to the chest of drawers was a weatherbeaten but extraordinary helmet mask, a long-nosed man with an owl for one ear and a coyote for another, and over the bed was a double mask, owl and pig, that was finer than anything he had seen in any museum. Halperin felt such a rush of possessive zeal that he began to sweat. The sour acrid scent of it filled the room. Could he buy these masks? From whom? The dull-eyed mozo? He had done all his collecting through galleries; he had no idea how to go about acquiring masks from natives. He remembered Guzmán’s warning about not trying to buy from them. But these masks must no longer be sacred if they were mere hotel decorations. Suppose, he thought, I just take that owl-pig when I check out, and leave three thousand pesos on the sink. That must be a fortune here. Five thousand, maybe. Could they find me? Would there be trouble when I was leaving the country? Probably. He put the idea out of his mind. He was a collector, not a thief. But these masks were gorgeous.
He unpacked and found his way outside to the shower—a cubicle of braided ropes, a creaking pipe, yellowish tepid water—and then he put on clean clothes and knocked at Ellen’s door. She was ready for dinner. “How do you like your room?” she asked.
“The masks make up for any little shortcomings. Do they have them in every room?”
“They have them all over,” she said.
He peered past her shoulder into her room, which was oddly bare, no luggage or discarded clothes lying around, and saw two masks on the wall, not as fine as his but fine enough. But she did not invite him to take a close look, and closed the door behind her. She led him to the dining room. Night had fallen some time ago, and the jungle was alive with sounds, chirpings and rachetings and low thunking booms and something that sounded the way the laughter of a jaguar might sound. The dining room, oblong and lit by candles, had three tables and more masks on the wall, a devil face with a lizard for a nose, a crudely carved mermaid, and a garish tiger-hunter mask. He wandered around studying them in awe, and said to her, “These aren’t local. They’ve been collected from all over Guerrero.”
“Maybe your friend Guzmán sold them to the owner,” she suggested. “Do you own many?”
“Dozens. I could bore you with them for hours. Do you know San Francisco at all? I’ve got a big old three-story Victorian in Noe Valley and there are masks in every room. I’ve collected all sorts of primitive art, but once I discovered Mexican masks they pushed everything else aside, even the Northwest Indian stuff. You collect too, don’t you?”
“Not really. I’m not an acquirer. Of things, at any rate. I travel, I look, I learn, I move on. What do you do when you aren’t collecting things?”
“Real estate,” he said. “I buy and sell houses. And you?”
“Nothing worth talking about,” she said.
The mozo appeared, silently set their table, brought them, unbidden, a bottle of red wine. Then a tureen of albóndigas soup, and afterward tortillas, tacos, a decent turkey molé. Without a word, without a change of expression.
“Is that kid the whole staff?” Halperin asked.
“His sister is the chambermaid. I guess his mother is the cook. The patrón is Filiberto, the father, but he’s busy getting the fiesta set up. He’s one of the important dancers. You’ll meet him. Shall we get more wine?”
“I’ve had plenty,” he said.
They went for a stroll after dinner, skirting the jungle’s edge and wandering through a dilapidated residential area. He heard music and handclapping coming from the plaza but felt too tired to see what was happening there. In the darkness of the tropical night he might easily have reached for Ellen and drawn her against him, but he was too tired for that, too, and she was still managing to be amiable, courteous, but distant. She was a mystery to him. Moneyed, obviously. Divorced, widowed young, gay, what? He did not precisely mistrust her, but nothing about her seemed quite to connect with anything else.
About nine-thirty he went back to his room, toppled down on the ghastly bed, and dropped at once into a deep sleep that carried him well past dawn. When he woke, the hotel was deserted except for the boy. “Cómo se llama?” Halperin asked, and got an odd smouldering look, probably for mocking a mere mozo by employing the formal construction. “Elustesio,” the boy muttered. Had Elustesio seen the Norteamericano señorita? Elustesio hadn’t seen anyone. He brought Halperin some fruit and cold tortillas for breakfast and disappeared. Afterward Halperin set out on a slow stroll into town.
Though it was early, the plaza and surrounding marketplace were already crowded. Again Halperin got the visiting-Martian treatment from the townsfolk—fishy stares, surreptitious whispers, the occasional shy and tentative grin. He did not see Ellen. Alone among these people once more, he felt awkward, intrusive, vulnerable; yet he preferred that, he realized, to the curiously unsettling companionship of the Florida woman.
The shops now seemed to be stocking little except Day of the Dead merchandise, charming and playful artifacts that Halperin found irresistible. He had long been attracted to the imagery of brave defiance of death that this Mexican version of Halloween, so powerful in the inner life of the country, called forth. Halperin bought a yellow papier-mâché skull with brilliant flower-eyes and huge teeth, an elegant little guitar-playing skeleton and a bag of grisly, morbid marzipan candies. He stared at the loaves of bread decorated with skulls and saints in a bakery window. He smiled at a row of sugar coffins with nimble skeletons clambering out of them. There was some extraordinary lacquer work on sale too, trays and gourds decorated with gleaming red-and-black patterns. By mid-morning he had bought so much that carrying it was a problem, and he returned to the hotel to drop off his purchases.
A blue Toyota van was parked next to his car and Guzmán, looking just as dapper in khakis as he always did in his charcoal gray suits, was rearranging a mound of bundles in it. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he called to Halperin.
“Very much. I thought I’d find you in town when I got here yesterday.”
“I came and went again, to Tlacotepec, and I returned. I have bought good things for the gallery.” He nodded toward Halperin’s armload of toy skulls and skeletons. “I see you are buying too. Good. Mexico needs your help.”
“I’d rather buy one of the masks that’s hanging in my room,” Halperin said. “Have you seen it? Pig and owl, and carved like—”
“Patience. We will get masks for you. But think of this trip as an experience, not as a collecting expedition, and you will be happier. Acquisitions will happen of their own accord if you don’t try to force them, and if you enjoy the favor of amo tokinwan while you are here.”
Halperin was staring at some straw-wrapped wooden statuettes in the back of the van. “Amo tokinwan? Who’s that?”
“The Lords of the Animals,” said Guzmán. “The protectors of the village. Perhaps protectors is not quite the right word, for protectors are benevolent, and amo tokinwan often are not. Quite dangerous sometimes, indeed.”
Halperin could not decide how serious Guzmán was. “How so?”
“Sometimes at fiesta time they enter the village and mingle. They look like anyone else and attract no special attention, and they have a way of making the villagers think that they belong here. Can you imagine that, seeing a stranger and believing you have known him all your life? Beyond doubt they are magical.”
“And they are what? Guardians of the village?”
“In a sense. They bring the rain; they ward off the lightning; they guard the crops. But sometimes they do harm. No one can predict their whims. And so the dancing, to propitiate them. Beyond doubt they are magical. Beyond doubt they are something very other. Amo tokinwan.”
“What does that mean?” Halperin asked.
“In Nahuatl it means, ‘Not our brother,’ of different substance. Alien. Supernatural. I think I have met them, do you know? You stand in the plaza watching the dancers, and there is a little old woman at your elbow or a boy or a pregnant woman wearing a fine rebozo, and everything seems all right, but you get a little too close and you feel the chill coming from them, as though they are statues of ice. So you back away and try to think good thoughts.” Guzmán laughed. “Mexico! You think I am civilized because I have a Rolex on my wrist? Even I am not civilized, my friend. If you are wise you will not be too civilized while you are here, either. They are not our brother, and they do harm. I told you you will see the real Mexico here, eh?”
“I have a hard time believing in spirits,” Halperin said. “Good ones and evil ones alike.”
“These are both at once. But perhaps they will not bother you.” Guzmán slammed shut the door of the van. “In town they are getting ready to unlock the masks and dust them and arrange them for the fiesta. Would you like to be there when that is done? The mayordomo is my friend. He will admit you.”
“I’d like that very much. When?”
“After lunch.” Guzmán touched his hand lightly to Halperin’s wrist. “One word, first. Control your desire to collect. Where we go today is not a gallery.”
The masks of San Simón were kept in a locked storeroom of the municipal building. Unlocking them turned out to be a solemn and formal occasion. All the town’s officials were there, Guzmán whispered: the alcalde, the five alguaciles, the regidores, and Don Luis Gutierrez, the mayordomo, an immense mustachioed man whose responsibility it was to maintain the masks from year to year, to rehearse the dancers and to stage the fiesta. There was much bowing and embracing. Most of the conversation was in Nahuatl, which Halperin did not understand at all, and he was able to follow very little of the quick, idiosyncratic Spanish they spoke either, though he heard Guzmán introduce him as an important Norteamericano scholar and tried thereafter to look important and scholarly. Don Luis produced an enormous old-fashioned key, thrust it with a flourish into the door and led the way down a narrow, musty corridor to a large white-walled storeroom with a ceiling of heavy black beams. Masks were stacked everywhere, on the floor, on shelves, in cupboards. The place was a museum. Halperin, who could claim a certain legitimate scholarly expertise by now in this field, recognized many of the masks as elements in familiar dances of the region, the ghastly faces of the Diablo Macho Dance, the heavy-bearded elongated Dance of the Moors and Christians masks, the ferocious cat-faces of the Tigre Dance. But there were many that were new and astounding to him, the Bat Dance masks, terrifying bat-winged heads that all were minglings of bat characters and other animals, bat-fish, bat-coyote, bat-owl, bat-squirrel, and some that were unidentifiable except for the weird outspread rubbery wings, bats hybridized with creatures of another world, perhaps. One by one the masks were lifted, blown clean of dust, admired, passed around, though not to Halperin. He trembled with amazement at the power and beauty of these bizarre wooden effigies. Don Luis drew a bottle of mescal from a niche and handed it to the alcalde, who took a swig and passed it on; the bottle came in time to Halperin, and without a thought for the caterpillar coiled in the bottom of the bottle he gulped the fiery liquor. Things were less formal now. The high officials of the town were laughing, shuffling about in clumsy little dance steps, picking up gourd rattles from the shelves and shaking them. They called out in Nahuatl, all of it lost on Halperin, though the words amo tokinwan at one point suddenly stood out in an unintelligible sentence, and someone shook rattles with curious vehemence. Halperin stared at the masks but did not dare go close to them or try to touch them. This is not a gallery, he reminded himself. Even when things got so uninhibited that Don Luis and a couple of the others put masks on and began to lurch about the room in a weird lumbering polka, Halperin remained tense and controlled. The mescal bottle came to him again. He drank, and this time his discipline eased; he allowed himself to pick up a wondrous bat mask, phallic and with great staring eyes. The carving was far finer than on the superb one he had seen at Guzmán’s gallery. He ran his fingers lovingly over the gleaming wood, the delicately outlined ribbed wings. Guzmán said, “In some villages the Bat Dance was a Christmas dance, the animals paying homage to little Jesus. But here it is a fertility rite, and therefore the bat is phallic. You would like that mask, no?” He grinned broadly. “So would I, my friend. But it will never leave San Simón.”
Just as the ceremony appeared to be getting rowdy, it came to an end: the laughter ceased, the mescal bottle went back to its niche, the officials grew solemn again and started to file out. Halperin, in schoolboy Spanish, thanked Don Luis for permitting him to attend, thanked the alcalde, thanked the alguaciles and the regidores. He felt flushed and excited as he left the building. The cache of masks mercilessly stirred his acquisitive lust. That they were unattainable made them all the more desirable, of course. It was as though the storeroom were a gallery in which the smallest trifle cost a million dollars.
Halperin caught sight of Ellen Chambers on the far side of the plaza, sitting outside a small café. He waved to her and she acknowledged it with a smile.
Guzmán said, “Your traveling companion?”
“No. She’s a tourist down from Taxco. I met her yesterday.”
“I did not know any other Americans were here for the fiesta. It surprises me.” He was frowning. “Sometimes they come, but very rarely. I thought you would be the only extranjero here this year.”
“It’s all right,” said Halperin. “We gringos get lonely for our own sort sometimes. Come on over and I’ll introduce you.”
Guzmán shook his head. “Another time. I have business to attend to. Commend me to your charming friend and offer my regrets.”
He walked away. Halperin shrugged and crossed the plaza to Ellen, who beckoned him to the seat opposite her. He signaled the waiter. “Two margaritas,” he said.
She smiled. “Thank you, no.”
“All right. One.”
“Have you been busy today?” she asked.
“Seeing masks. I salivate for some of the things they have in this town. I find myself actually thinking of stealing some if they won’t sell to me. That’s shocking. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. I’ve always paid my own way.”
“This would be a bad place to begin, then.”
“I know that. They’d put the curse of the mummy on me, or the black hand, or God knows what. The sign of Moctezuma. I’m not serious about stealing masks. But I do want them. Some of them.”
“I can understand that,” she said. “But I’m less interested in the masks than in what they represent. The magic character, the transformative power. When they put the masks on, they become the otherworldly beings they represent. That fascinates me. That the mask dissolves the boundary between our world and theirs.”
“The invisible world. The world the shaman knows, the world of the were-jaguars and were-bats. A carved and painted piece of wood becomes a gateway into that world and brings the benefits of the supernatural. That’s why the masks are so marvelous, you know. It isn’t just an aesthetic thing.”
“You actually believe what you’ve just said?” Halperin asked.
“Oh, yes. Yes, definitely.”
He chose not to press the point. People believed all sorts of things, pyramid power, yoghurt as a cure for cancer, making your plants grow by playing Bach to them. That was all right with him. Just now he found her warmer, more accessible, than she had been before, and he had no wish to offend her. As they strolled back to the hotel, he asked her to have dinner with him, imagining hopefully that that might lead somewhere tonight, but she said she would not be eating at the hotel this evening. That puzzled him—where else around here could she get dinner, and with whom?—but of course he did not probe.
He dined with Guzmán. The distant sound of music could be heard, shrill, alien. “They are rehearsing for the fiesta,” Guzmán explained. The hotel cook outdid herself, preparing some local freshwater flatfish in a startlingly delicate sauce that would have produced applause in Paris. Filiberto, the patrón, came into the dining room and greeted Guzmán with a bone-crushing abrazo. Guzmán introduced Halperin once again as an important Norteamericano scholar. Filiberto, tall and very dark-skinned, with cheekbones like blades, showered Halperin with effusive courtesies.
“I have been admiring the masks that decorate the hotel,” Halperin said, and waited to be invited to buy whichever one took his fancy, but Filiberto merely offered a dignified bow of thanks. Praising individual ones, the owl-pig, the lizard-nose, also got nowhere. Filiberto presented Guzmán with a chilled bottle of a superb white wine from Michoacan, crisp and deliciously metallic on the tongue; he spoke briefly with Guzmán in Nahuatl; then, saying he was required at the rehearsal, he excused himself. The music grew more intense.
Halperin said, “Is it possible to see the rehearsal after dinner?”
“Better to wait for the actual performance,” said Guzmán.
Halperin slept poorly that night. He listened for the sound of Ellen Chambers entering the room next door, but either he was asleep when she came in or she was out all night.
And now finally the fiesta was at hand. Halperin spent the day watching the preparations: the stringing of colored electric lights around the plaza, the mounting of huge papier-mâché images of monsters and gods and curious spindly-legged clowns, the closing down of the shops and the clearing away of the tables that displayed their merchandise. All day long the town grew more crowded. No doubt people were filtering in from the outlying districts, the isolated jungle farms, the little remote settlements on the crest of the sierra. Through most of the day he saw nothing of Guzmán or Ellen, but that was all right. He was quite accustomed now to being here, and the locals seemed to take him equally for granted. He drank a good deal of mescal at one cantina or another around the plaza and varied it with the occasional bottle of the excellent local beer. As the afternoon waned, the crowds in the plaza grew ever thicker and more boisterous, but nothing particular seemed to be happening, and Halperin wondered whether to go back to the hotel for dinner. He had another mescal instead. Suddenly the fiesta lights were switched on, gaudy, glaring, reds and yellows and greens, turning everything into a psychedelic arena, and then at last Halperin heard music, the skreeing bagpipey sound of bamboo flutes, the thump of drums, the whispery, dry rattle of tambourines, the harsh punctuation of little clay whistles. Into the plaza came ten or fifteen boys, leaping, dancing cartwheels, forming impromptu human pyramids that promptly collapsed, to general laughter. They wore no masks. Halperin, disappointed and puzzled, looked around as though to find an explanation and discovered Guzmán, suave and elegant in charcoal gray, almost at his elbow. “No masks?” he said. “Shouldn’t they be masked?”
“This is only the beginning,” said Guzmán.
Yes, just the overture. The boys cavorted until they lost all discipline and went pell-mell across the plaza and out of sight. Then a little old man, also unmasked, tugged three prancing white goats caparisoned with elaborate paper decorations into the center of the plaza and made them cavort, too. Two stilt-walkers fought a mock duel. Three trumpeters played a hideous discordant fanfare and got such cheers that they played it again and again. Guzmán was among those who cheered. Halperin, who had not eaten, was suddenly captured by the aroma from a stand across the way where an old woman was grilling tacos on a brazier and a tin griddle. He headed toward her, but paused on the way for a tequila at an improvised cantina someone had set up on the streetcorner, using a big wooden box as the bar. He saw Ellen Chambers in the crowd on the far side of the plaza and waved, but she did not appear to see him, and when he looked again he could not find her.
The music grew wilder and now, at last, the first masked dancers appeared. A chill ran through him at the sight of the nightmare figures marching up the main avenue, bat-faced ones, skull-faced ones, grinning devils, horned creatures, owls, jaguars. Some of the masks were two or three feet high and turned their wearers into malproportioned dwarfs. They advanced slowly, pausing often to backtrack, circling one another, kicking their legs high, madly waving their arms. Halperin, sweating, alert, aroused, realized that the dancers must have been drinking heavily, for their movements were jerky, ragged, convulsive. As they came toward the plaza he saw that they were herding four figures in white robes and pale human-faced masks before them, and were chanting something repetitively in Nahuatl. He caught that phrase again, amo tokinwan. Not our brother.
To Guzmán he said, “What are they saying?”
“The prayer against the amo tokinwan. To protect the fiesta, in case any of the Lords of the Animals actually are in the plaza tonight.”
Those around Halperin had taken up the chant now.
“Tell me what it means,” Halperin said.
Guzmán said, chanting the translation in a rhythm that matched the voices around them: “They eat us! They are—not our brother. They are worms, wild beasts. Yes!”
Halperin looked at him strangely. “‘They eat us?’” he said. “Cannibal gods?”
“Not literally. Devourers of souls.”
“And these are the gods of these people?”
“No, not gods. Supernatural beings. They lived here before there were people, and they naturally retain control over everything important here. But not gods as Christians understand gods. Look, here come the bats!”
They eat us, Halperin thought, shivering in the warm humid night. A new phalanx of dancers was arriving now, half a dozen bat-masked ones. He thought he recognized the long legs of Filiberto in their midst. Darkness had come and the dangling lights cast an eerier, more brilliant glow. Halperin decided he wanted another tequila, a mescal, a cold cerveza, whatever he could find quickest. Not our brother. He excused himself vaguely to Guzmán and started through the crowd. They are worms, wild beasts. They were still chanting it. The words meant nothing to him, except amo tokinwan, but from the spacing, the punctuation, he knew what they were saying. They eat us. The crowd had become something fluid now, oozing freely from place to place; the distinction between dancers and audience was hard to discern. Not our brother. Halperin found one of the little curbside cantinas and asked for mescal. The proprietor splashed some in a paper cup and would not take his pesos. A gulp and Halperin felt warm again. He tried to return to Guzmán but no longer saw him in the surging, frenzied mob. The music was louder. Halperin began to dance—it was easier than walking—and found himself face to face with one of the bat-dancers, a short man whose elegant mask showed a bat upside down, in its resting position, ribbed wings folded like black shrouds. Halperin and the dancer, pushed close together in the press, fell into an inadvertent pas de deux. “I wish I could buy that mask,” Halperin said. “What do you want for it? Five thousand pesos? Ten thousand? Habla usted Español? No? Come to the hotel with the mask tomorrow. You follow? Venga mañana.” There was no reply. Halperin was not even certain he had spoken the words aloud.
He danced his way back across the plaza. Midway he felt a hand catch his wrist. Ellen Chambers. Her khaki blouse was open almost to the waist and she had nothing beneath it. Her skin gleamed with sweat, as if it had been oiled. Her eyes were wide and rigid. She leaned close to him and said, “Dance! Everybody dances! Where’s your mask?”
“He wouldn’t sell it to me. I offered him ten thousand pesos, but he wouldn’t—”
“Wear a different one,” she said. “Any mask you like. How do you like mine?”
“Your mask?” He was baffled. She wore no mask.
“Come! Dance!” She moved wildly. Her breasts were practically bare and now and then a nipple flashed. Halperin knew that that was wrong, that the villagers were cautious about nudity and a gringa especially should not be exhibiting herself. Drunkenly he reached for her blouse, hoping to button one or two of the buttons, and to his chagrin his hand grazed one of her breasts. She laughed and pushed herself against him. For an instant she was glued to him from knees to chest, with his hand wedged stupidly between their bodies. Then he pulled back, confused. An avenue seemed to have opened around them. He started to walk stumblingly to some quieter part of the plaza, but she caught his wrist again and grinned a tiger-grin, all incisors and tongue. “Come on!” she said harshly.
He let her lead him. Past the tacos stands, past the cantinas, past a little brawl of drunken boys, past the church, on whose steps the dancer in the phallic bat mask was performing, juggling pale green fruits and now and then batting one out into the night with the phallus that jutted from his chin. Then they were on one of the side streets, blind crumbling walls hemming them on both sides and cold moonlight the only illumination. Two blocks, three, his heart pounding, his lungs protesting. Into an ungated courtyard of what looked like an abandoned house, shattered tumbledown heaps of masonry everywhere and a vining night-blooming cactus growing over everything like a tangle of terrible green snakes. The cactus was in bloom and its vast white trumpetlike flowers emitted a sickly sweet perfume, overpoweringly intense. He wanted to gag and throw up, but Ellen gave him no time, for she was embracing him, pressing herself fiercely against him, forcing him back against a pile of shattered adobe bricks. In the strange moonlight her skin glistened and then seemed to become transparent, so that he could see the cage of her ribs, the flat long plate of her breastbone, the throbbing purplish heart behind it. She was all teeth and bones, a Day of the Dead totem come to life. He did not understand and he could not resist. He was without will. Her hands roamed him, so cold they burned his skin, sending up puffs of steam as her icy fingers caressed him. Something was flowing from him to her, his warmth, his essence, his vitality, and that was all right. The mescal and the beer and the tequila and the thick musky fragrance of the night-blooming cereus washed through his soul and left it tranquil. From far away came the raw dissonant music, the flutes and drums, and the laughter, the shouts, the chants. They eat us. Her breath was smoke in his face. They are worms, wild beasts. As they embraced one another, he imagined that she was insubstantial, a column of mist, and he began to feel misty himself, growing thinner and less solid as his life-force flowed toward her. Now for the first time he was seized by anguish and fright. As he felt himself being pulled from his body, his soul rushing forth and out and out and out, helpless, drawn, his drugged calm gave way to panic. They are—not our brother. He struggled, but it was useless. He was going out swiftly, the essence of him quitting his body as though she were reeling it in on a line. Bats fluttered above him, their faces streaked with painted patterns, yellow and green and brilliant ultramarine. The sky was a curtain of fiery bougainvillea. He was losing the struggle. He was too weak to resist or even to care. He could no longer hear himself breathe. He drifted freely, floating in the air, borne on the wings of the bats.
Then there was confusion, turmoil, struggle. Halperin heard voices speaking sharply in Spanish and in Nahuatl, but the words were incomprehensible to him. He rolled over on his side and drew his knees to his chest and lay shivering with his cheek against the warm wet soil. Someone was shaking him. A voice said in English, “Come back. Wake up. She is not here.”
Halperin blinked and looked up. Guzmán was crouched above him, pale, stunned-looking, his teeth chattering. His eyes were wide and tensely fixed.
“Yes,” Guzmán said. “Come back to us. Here. Sit up, let me help you.”
The gallery-owner’s arm was around his shoulders. Halperin was weak and trembling, and he realized Guzmán was trembling too. Halperin saw figures in the background—Filiberto from the hotel and his son Elustesio, the mayordomo Don Luis, the alcalde, one of the alguaciles.
“Ellen?” he said uncertainly.
“She is gone. It is gone. We have driven it away.”
“Amo tokinwan. Devouring your spirit.”
“No,” Halperin muttered. He stood up, still shaky, his knees buckling. Don Luis offered him a flask; Halperin shook it away, then changed his mind, reached for it, took a deep pull. Brandy. He walked four or five steps, getting his strength back. The reek of the cactus-flowers was nauseating. He saw the bare ribs again, the pulsating heart, the sharp white teeth. “No,” he said. “It wasn’t anything like that. I had too much to drink—maybe ate something that disagreed with me—the music, the scent of the flowers—”
“We saw,” Guzmán said. His face was bloodless. “We were just in time. You would have been dead.”
“She was from Miami—she said she knew San Francisco—”
“These days they take any form they like. The woman from Miami was here two years ago, for the fiesta. She vanished in the night, Don Luis says. And now she has come back. Perhaps next year there will be one who looks like you and talks like you and sniffs around studying the masks like you, and we will know it is not you, and we will keep watch. Eh? You should come back to the hotel now. You need to rest.”
Halperin walked between them down the walled streets. The fiesta was still in full swing, masked figures capering everywhere, but Guzmán and Don Luis and Filiberto guided him around the plaza and toward the hotel. He thought about the woman from Miami, and remembered that she had had no car and there had been no luggage in her room. They eat us. Such things are impossible, he told himself. They are worms, wild beasts. And next year would there be a diabolical counterfeit Halperin haunting the fiesta? They are—not our brother. He did not understand.
Guzmán said, “I promised you you would see the real Mexico. I did not think you would see as much of it as this.”
Halperin insisted on inspecting her hotel room. It was empty and looked as if it had not been occupied for months. He stretched out on his bed fully clothed, but he did not particularly want to be left alone in the darkness, and so Guzmán and Filiberto and the others took turns sitting up with him through the night while the sounds of the fiesta filled the air. Dawn brought a dazzling sunrise. Halperin and Guzmán stepped out into the courtyard. The world was still.
“I think I’ll leave here now,” Halperin said.
“Yes. That would be wise. I will stay another day, I think.”
Filiberto appeared, carrying the owl-pig mask from Halperin’s room. “This is for you,” he said. “Because that you were troubled here, that you will think kindly of us. Please take it as our gift.”
Halperin was touched by that. He made a little speech of gratitude and put the mask in his car.
Guzmán said, “Are you well enough to drive?”
“I think so. I’ll be all right once I leave here.” He shook hands with everyone. His fingers were quivering. At a very careful speed he drove away from the hotel, through the plaza, where sleeping figures lay sprawled like discarded dolls, and mounds of paper streamers and other trash were banked high against the curb. At an even more careful speed he negotiated the cactus-walled road out of town. When he was about a kilometer from San Simón Zuluaga he glanced to his right and saw Ellen Chambers sitting next to him in the car. If he had been traveling faster, he would have lost control of the wheel. But after the first blinding moment of terror came a rush of annoyance and anger. “No,” he said. “You don’t belong in here. Get the hell out of here. Leave me alone.” She laughed lightly. Halperin felt like sobbing. Swiftly and unhesitatingly he seized Filiberto’s owl-pig mask, which lay on the seat beside him, and scaled it with a flip of his wrist past her nose and out the open car window. Then he clung tightly to the wheel and stared forward. When he could bring himself to look to the right again, she was gone. He braked to a halt and rolled up the window and locked the car door.
It took him all day to reach Acapulco. He went to bed immediately, without eating, and slept until late the following afternoon. Then he phoned the Aeromexico office.
Two days later he was home in San Francisco. The first thing he did was call a Sacramento Street dealer and arrange for the sale of all his masks. Now he collects Japanese netsuke, Hopi kachina dolls, and Navaho rugs. He buys only through galleries and does not travel much any more.
© 1982 by Agberg, Ltd.
Originally published in Twilight Zone Magazine.
Reprinted by permission of the author.