Our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014 is coming to a close. We have been furiously writing this week, opening up to truth, reality, powerful voices, memories, love, comfort and despair. Tonight, we will speak at a reading. Tomorrow, most will return home. Today, I share this creative non-fiction piece with you as homage to life’s randomness.
Market Town Sunday in Oaxaca, Mexico
First, getting to the bus.
The green bus they call Turtle is two blocks ahead of us. My impulse is to run after it and I start to squawk: Stop. Stop. Let’s catch it, I say to the women who walk beside me, as I step out in front. Uneven cobblestones underfoot slow me and I feel my ankle twist as my foot lands on a crevice between two stones. I think, don’t trip and break a hip; don’t anyone else fall either. It’s a silent prayer for Suzie and one for the women who trail behind me now. Accidents happen and I’m not ready to deal with another one. I look back reassured they are taking it slow. Still, I speed walk, pulling the old lady rolling shopping cart behind me, stopping every few steps to catch my breath and my footing. The stones are slippery after years of others running before me, smooth from the beat of sun, the polish of rain, the tread of tires and tired feet. The bus honks, hurry up. I imagine it will pull away any moment and the next one to carry us to the market town will take forever or thirty minutes. Impatience is my cultural predisposition unlike this Oaxaca village where time drips like a leaky faucet. The driver waves. You take this as a signal and dart ahead like a bullet sprinter. Your hair comes loose, flies away, sways like a tic tock pendulum with each leap until you reach the bus. The rear lights flash red. Now, I know it will wait for us. We climb aboard, take our seats, look at each other, smile. We made it. There are no seat belts.
Second, woman in a gingham apron.
She boards the bus at the next stop. All the seats are taken. She stands in the aisle next to me, leaning tight against the seat back, an anchor. The gingham apron she wears is brown and beige, a pattern of small checks that could be called plain, boring, undistinguished. She is tidy. As she turns to face forward, I see that each of the three buttons down the apron back is fastened with a matching fabric loop. A perfect bow is tied at the back of her ample waist like a package ready to present as a gift. Embroidered white daisies with deep yellow centers and green stems crawl across her bodice from elaborate baskets that mimic real life. One of the two deep pockets on either side of the skirt likely contains the small purse with market money for rice, beans, chicken, roses for the empty vase on the altar room table. This is the uniform of Zapotec housewives. The bus lurches forward as the driver lets out the clutch. The bus sways. Her moorings loosen. It is hot, though it’s only mid-morning. In unison, she and I wipe our brows and our eyes meet. Her mouth opens into a wide smile. Her fillings are gold and sparkly, reminding me of how the ancients drilled their teeth to embed precious stones and bits of gold, signs of wealth and prestige. In that time, this was ample protection.
Third, buying tablecloths.
Do you mind? She asks, careful not to want this particular one too much. Oh, no, says the other, I like either one. You choose. Both are blue, though one is the color of ocean and the other of sky. I imagine the click, click, clack, clack of the flying shuttle loom that wove the threads into whole cloth, soon to drape a table, a bed, a comforter, all the comforts of home. We concentrate on cloth, stroke the nubby cotton surface, admire the combinations of peach and minty green, plum and ash, rose and cream. I am surrounded by sound: a hurdy-gurdy accordion, a raucous laugh, screeches of children playing tag, the cheep, cheep, cheep of chicks caged, the thunder thump and beat, beat brass of salsa. I hear Suzie’s sweet voice at lunch, excited about the trip, making plans.
How much, the shopper asks? Doscientos pesos, says the vendor, plump, matronly, seasoned at sniffing what a buyer will pay. The two hundred peso notes are green with the image of Sor Juana, Mexico’s high priestess of intelligence, women’s rights and devotion to study. Just like us. Just like Suzie.
Fourth, barrage of smells and sights.
Blue awnings, tarps spread across the sapphire sky, pillow clouds float by. Guava, orange, apple, papaya, mango sit on tiers, altar to goodness and fulfillment to whomever worships here. The scent of fruit mingles as if this is a secret potion mélange that will cure all. I want some of that for Suzie, I think as I drift along the pavement inhaling the next sensation: smokey wood fires where chickens roast and red meat sears. Do you see the red coals where fat drips? Do you hear the sizzle? Watch the faces of women, flushed red, turning the red meat with tongs not quite long enough to keep their eyes from tearing up. Women sing in mezzo soprano: tomates, tomates, ajo, ajo, diez por diez. Scarves wrap their heads or carry babies, squash, flapping chickens, eggs, a bundle of kindling, dozens of lilies. The scarves are intense turquoise, violet, magenta, black, cerulean, stamped in a Chinese factory with images of chrysanthemums, pansies, peach blossoms, lush green vines. Perhaps, they are blue and white ikat made by a weaving machine in a far distant Mexican town where made-by-hand is only a memory. Do you see their braids dangle down bent backs, wrapped in a tangle of red or purple or green ribbon? Do you notice the ones whose barefoot feet are calloused or covered with worn leather huaraches, worn soles, souls seeking redemption, something to eat, shelter from intense heat?
Fifth, going home.
Together we pull the cart and carry the burden. We are overloaded with a day of waiting for money to dispense from the magic machine, then spending money, enough to make a difference in another’s life. Buy a whistle. Hear the police whistle direct traffic, the vroom-vroom motorcycle starting up and taking off, churning cart wheels propelled by human feet and the grunt of the effort. We make one last stop for art, for clay, for the hand-woven basket, for a perfectly ripe, ruby-red grapefruit. I speak a warning: Watch the speed bumps in the road, look out for that wheelbarrow filled with dripping honeycomb coming straight at us. Swerve around the gaggle of crouched women peeling nopal cactus paddles. Do you see those peddlers on bicycle carts careening toward you? The barriers are soft, not concrete. We are not catapulted forward at sixty miles per hour.
We shift loads, trade our burdens, find a taxi driver to carry us home. Three of us climb in the back, two of us wedge into the front alongside the driver. No seat belts today. I am wary, though we don’t have far to go. Go slow, I tell him in Spanish, drive on the right shoulder. Suddenly, up ahead smoke bellows, a vapor of grief trailing skyward. A car on the highway is aflame surrounded by fire trucks. An ambulance whizzes by. Our driver downshifts into second. His hand on the shifter pushes into my thigh. Don’t goose me, I say, wiggling, giggling, knowing he doesn’t understand. Then, again in Spanish, please use only first, third and fifth gear. He laughs, reddens. I am straddling the stick and it is almost up my ass. My knees are jammed against the dashboard. I tilt my head back into the space between the two front seats and know that with one stomp on the brake, my head would bounce forward, then back, forward again into the dashboard.
I think of Suzie in a coma and make a wish for life, full and unedited. Today, I hear she briefly opened her eyes.
-Norma Hawthorne, March 3, 2014