Dawn casts mountain waves on the small window above my bed. Once the sun rises, the sierra will look so sharp you can count the trees on it, now it’s a dark blue shadow. I lie half asleep deep in the valley, in the city of Oaxaca.
I wake up to the sound of a street truck selling gas to the neighborhood and bawling an advertising tune through a megaphone, the chains holding the tanks to the rear of the car clinging like bells. I could ignore this call and go back to sleep, but I’m trying to meet my friend Henry today, so I get up to have some breakfast and maybe get some reading done before we go. I chase a goldfinch out of the kitchen, whom every morning I find feasting on broken tostadas and breadcrumbs left on the stove by careless guests. I slice the breast of a papaya, and I catch a glimpse of the moon in my coffee cup, as a skein of smoke gets caught in my eyelashes. I check my phone, no news from Henry yet. I decide to go for a walk. On my way to the centro, I stop by the laundry, a small door facing the street. I glance through the fence, a caged parrot sleeps above a pile of ironed pants. Rosi is not in sight; I will drop my laundry off later on en la tarde. The street smells like burnt flour and dark chocolate as I walk along the purple wall, past the shadow of a barking dog.
I’m getting to know my street through my daily walks, and name the houses by their colors. Blue, mustard, bouganville, fig, azul replaced street signs in the map of my mind. On my way to the centro, there is a short aquamarine house, the bell tower of Santo Domingo lurking behind breaking the sky. A woman in a blue shawls sits cross-legged and prays, waits for passerby to buy agua fresca. I walk past her, the hint of a shiver in the shade of the hour, then the burning sun lands on my face on the other side of the street corner. The houses open their doors: bakeries, cafes, shops, gardens, bookstores spill on the streets. I walk past the balloons and the children in uniform rushing downstream to school. I venture into one of the markets. While I wait for Henry, I’m going to find a cup of tejate, a pre-Hispanic local maize and cacao beverage that I’ve quickly developed an addiction to. As you wander deeper in the alleys of the Zócalo, you will see many wide ceramic bowls, filled with what looks like a thick layer of foamy paste. From underneath, hands of women pull up wooden spoons and lift up a stream of ebony liquid that stretches like dough. The higher up the elbow, the better the quality of the drink, because of how the gestures help mix the fermented beans with the flour. Henry taught me where to get the best tejate. The secret ingredient is la florita de cacao, minute with thin red stems, like the flower of myrtle. I get lost in the maze of the stands and turn around the same corner a few times before I find the lady sitting underneath a line of leather bags and sewed pouches hanging from a wire. She serves me the liquid in a wooden bowl with parrots. I drink all of it, scoop the grind of flowers in my mouth.
Henry says he will take me to Mitla, to the city of the dead, built on an old Zapotec burial ground for wealthy and noble people, which I think also witnessed some incidents of human sacrifices in its heyday, though I’m not sure. My Spanish is still young. Henry also told me something about a cosmic serpent which wanders around the graveyard, and were you to stumble upon it, it would tell you all about your past lives, or about past universes, or about the cosmo itself. Again, I’m not sure I’ve understood correctly, though I’m trying very hard. I walk back to the Zócalo, the cathedral square, and sit under the shade of a palm tree tree. It’s past noon now and I light a smoke. As I start to lose faith in the day’s plan, I get a message from Henry. He tells me to meet him at the market. I take the walk up Benito Juárez, past the crowd and the boulangeries, past the embroidered colored dresses flapping out of the store windows.
Como estas? Henry gives me a hug and hands me his cup of coffee. Quieres? When Henry and I walk in the street, he always makes sure he’s walking on my left side, the side that’s closer to traffic, and that I keep on the side of the street that’s closer to the wall. It’s the polite thing to do when a man walks alongside a woman, something I’m getting used to. On my first night in Oaxaca, Henry and I had a few shots of handcrafted double-distilled Mezcal, followed by an eerily spot-on tarot reading. He’s been my guide and my best friend since. He takes me to the Central de Abastos, home to a wholesale market which resembles his own city in size and noise, but not a city I’ve ever seen. When I ask Henry what abastos means, he replies something I can’t fully understand, except for the word “todos,” accompanied by a wide opening gesture of the arms. Even this didn’t not prepare me for the sight of literally “everything.”
Corn, aguacate, melon, burlap sacks brimming with all sizes and colors of seeds and beans, baskets filled with blackberries ripe as a cow’s eye, plastic bags of cut up papaya dripping syrup on my feet, steaming iron pots covered by rags, wide bowls heavy with chocolate clay, women kneading flour, mixing flour with tomato paste, cutting cactus leaves, taking orders, filling orders, their gestures careful as swords in the ever tighter space they inhabit among bags, forms of cheese, live chickens, sleeping dogs, wandering cats, and thousands of humans, who, unlike me, aren’t lost or confused.
We hurry past the alleys, faster than my ability to double-take all the images that compose my surroundings, coming at and past me, and vanishing before I can blink. I see tortillas flying over my head, then trays of dried grasshoppers, over lime, over dynamite chili and salt powders, while a teal smoke rises above a row of animal guts, strips of melting wax hanging from a thumb. We elbow our way past rows of sugar canes, of shrimps, of flesh, of dried flowers, of fruits whose colors and shape I’ve never seen before; we turn the corner and I pivot on my toes, my eyes fixed on an oval of gold. A woman dressed in a red lace dress stirs her hand in a barrel of honey, a flotsam of beehive caught in the thickness of the molasses. A swarm of bees circles around her. Sitting there, she is a cactus in a thorn of stars. I stop, a dust of flour settles the air. I wonder how they don’t bite her. Henry smiles, bees are friendly, he says, before he pulls my arm deeper in the crowd where I can’t see.
We drive out of the city and into the countryside, sipping on a agua de maracuya and nibbling on chunks of mangoes sitting on my overheated lap, while David Bowie plays on the radio. Out the passenger seat an army of agave plants is still under the blaring sun, while here and there a hand-painted wooden sign flashes the word ‘Mezcal’ in the rearview mirror. Henry tells me how he makes a living selling his paintings in the streets where he grew up, of his adolescence spent in a military boarding school in Missouri, of how much he missed Oaxaca when he lived in Mexico City, and that he always wanted to come back and buy some land up in the country and have his own studio, maybe a family. He has a cat and a dog now and lives in a small house up in the north side of town. His street is paved and slightly up a hill, and under the streetlights at night, towered by the dome of the church, it almost looks like Montmartre. Henry talks fast, but he sometimes has a way of slowing down and making a point with a swift gesture of his hand as if he was picking a cluster of grapes. He says something about his father or brother. Then he turns to me and smiles, and in a perfect English accent which always startles me he asks: are you hungry?
Two vases of barley water appear on our table, shaded by a tier of thin wooden beams. On a flat iron surface an arm turns the half-moon of a drizzling enchilada. A piece of watermelon gets stuck in my straw as I take the first sip. We’re in a small restaurant in the countryside just outside the city. We came here to eat sopa de guia, supposedly the best around. When the waitress brings us two steaming bowls I understand that guia means squash. As I navigate the thick milky pulp with my spoon, I am happy to find some balls of dough in it. They’re called chochoyotes. The soup is mildly spiced and delicious, and I don’t mind its tepid warmth despite the heat. Henry tells me stories about nearby villages, his childhood, the trees, Benito Juarez, the one time he got arrested, the police, the corruption, who was killed where, his favorite foods, his mother, and I feel I’m in the Central de Abastos again, overwhelmed by a multitude of words I can’t always comprehend. The smell of freshly brewed, mountain-grown Oaxacan coffee reaches me and wakes me up, as if the day was just starting.
After our meal we drive to Santa María del Tule, another small town a few miles deeper in the countryside. We park and take a walk. We buy two fresh cream pastries from a stand. Henry wants to show me the biggest tree in the world and pay 10 pesos to get to see it closer. I’ve never seen a creature so big, and breathing so slowly. I watch it split at the core, its twisting knots like snakes crawling upwards. It makes me want to be quiet. We can’t touch the bark, fenced away in the courtyard of the church, but we graze at the dangling leaves and interlock our fingers with the tree’s. I think of an old friend. The wind brings a distant salsa tune mixed with Adele and the laughter of children to our ears. It’s never fully quiet in a Mexican town.
It’s getting late now and the light is fading. We drink more coffee, wander a bit more on the dirt roads. Families sell coal out of their porches. The wind wipes the day away. A kestrel names the dusk. We walk back to the car stepping on broken shells and shards of kites. We didn’t make it to Mitla, and we didn’t run into serpents. It doesn’t seem to matter much. On the way back the sun sets behind the Sierra, bleeds behind an ocean we can’t see. When I get back home, the laundry is closed and Rosi is gone again. In a niche above the door a madonna stretches her arms to the wilting flowers.
Linn Frank is a writer and a filmmaker, currently on the road in Mexico. Recently, she spent time in New York City, Oaxaca City and Iowa City. One of her short films screened at MoMa and she was a resident at the Blue Mountain Center last summer. She will start her M.F.A. in poetry this fall.