|Chemistry 1: Catalyst
Author: Guede Mazaka
The first time he'd ever seen el fantasma, he had been nearly twelve and hiding in an old, tattered graveyard. He had been cold. His back had been aching from a beating gotten earlier, his feet had been sore from walking miles in worn-out shoes, his belly, having nothing to occupy it, had turned upon itself for nourishment. The wind had drawn sharp claws up his prominent backbone as he'd curled against a shattered stone cross in an effort to warm himself. And then something else, ice-silk and painful and soothing, like ice cubes melting on the skin during summer, had touched him. He had looked up, looked up and hadn't been able to look away. So much darkness, so much need. Shadows had shifted in the feeble moonlight and it had brushed his forehead in a whispering kiss, spinning him into the black.
When he had woken in the morning, the torn remnants of innocence that had until then fluttered from his heart were gone. Forever. It had taken his fear and his hope and guilt. But it had left him his happiness, his sudden joy in a dancing mote of dust, a little girl's smile, a sorrowful melody drifting in with the morning. And when he had risen and walked, trying to remember everything that he had seen and not seen, he had discovered that it had left him a new voice. A guitar, shining rich tan with glimmering strings and a wide, untorn strap of good leather depending from the neck.
He had taken it up in his hands and marveled; he had tried the strings and felt a chord deep inside ring in response. And when he had turned the beauty over and found the rusty stains, he had been unsurprised, and no less enamored. The blood had flaked off under his fingernail, and he had slung the guitar onto his back, and had set off on the road, head clear and heart unconcerned.
By the second time, he had gotten a name, decent clothes, a little money. He had been a gangly fifteen, playing on the street during the day and playing in a tiny but popular café by night. He had slept in a dingy hotel room papered with old ads for bullfights and for loose women. Remembering what had driven him to the graveyard, he had not yet made his acquaintance with the bottle.
If he had had a choice, the him that was then would have chosen to stay there. The him that was now knew no other life.
On the morning of the last day of the year, rising earlier than the cock's crow, he had picked up his razor to shave and had seen it in the mirror. Had felt it knock the razor from his hand and caress one stubbled cheek as it had melted against him, into him, freezing his bones into brittle glass.
When he had woken up that time, only a few minutes had passed. The cock had begun to crow. Nothing in the room had changed; his guitar had still lain in its case, the posters had still fluttered from the walls. Then gunfire had broken out in the streets below, and he had looked out his window to see the cartels crushing the town.
By nightfall, he had had no job, no room, only the clothes he wore and the guitar beside him and the gun, big and weighty and oily, dangling from one hand. He had been crouching against the lintel of an abandoned church in the next town over, trying to bandage one-handed the raw bloody wounds on his side and his arm, when he'd looked up and saw again. Not el fantasma this time, but its harvest. Ghosts, walking somberly and slowly in a double line, had paraded by his seat as he watched, stunned but unafraid.
The old woman who had come in every Saturday until her heart had given out.
The stillbirth and mother at whose funerals he had played.
The newly-dead, fresh from that morning.
And he had seen those that were not yet dead, and he had known that before the new year had ended, they would pass under the priest's sad eulogies. But none of them, none of the departed and of the departing, had turned to look at him as they passed through the closed door. None except the last, who at the last minute had flicked a glance at the boy, huddled against adobe.
But that had been enough. The look had seared itself into his brain and his blood, those piercing eyes, shaded as the raven's wing and burning as the fires of hell. They had scorched him to his bare skeleton, leaving only their memory behind.
He did not faint then. He did not sleep.
By the time dawn had dared to stretch its ribbons of blue and orange and purple across the sky, he had chosen his third name. He had known it would be his last.
Somehow, Fideo knew that the last ghost was the one he had to find, and he knew that it would not belong to a body sleeping under a blanket of dirt. It would be a living man, whose soul had died yet whose head and heart refused to follow. He searched for such a man, not knowing what he would do when he had found him. From one end of Mexico's harsh lands to the other, he looked. Sometimes, his searching led to violence. He learned how to use more than just the tricks of his boyhood and the looted gun to kill men. He learned to see ghosts in the day, under the bright light when they were little more than flickers on the edge of sight. He learned to hold his liquor, and then to not hold it when the ghosts crowded too thickly. He learned many things, which his soul told him would be useful to the ghost he stalked.
And one day, when the merciless sun lifted steaming wisps of mist, wisps higher than a man, from even the smallest puddles, he heard the strumming of a guitar and turned into the bar from whence it came. The music led him to two other mariachis, who carried the names of Campa and Quino. He could see their ghosts, still young, but quickly tugging themselves free. He laughed and joked with them, he traded stories and ran admiring hands over guitars and weapons. But they were not the man he sought, and so he turned his feet to their silent friend in the corner, face hidden in shadow and body hunkering over in apathy. Fideo looked for this man's ghost, and when he found it he began to think his hunt was ended. But then the man looked up, and Fideo knew it was not.
Campa and Quino called him by no name, but the others named the brooding man "El Mariachi," or "El" when they grew lazy. Fideo called him by no name, not when he tossed blankets over El's slumped body at night, not when he guarded El's back in a fight, not when El dragged him back from one of his drinking sprees. He knew his presence confused the man. Campa and Quino were El's friends, but they left as they pleased, though they always came back in response to El's call. He knew, one night, when after levering his nearly-unconscious form into his bed, El had bent close until their breaths became one. But Fideo had moved away, his ghosts telling him that this was not according to the wishes of el fantasma. But he kept their words to himself, biding his time.
On a warm evening, with a light cooling breeze rustling clothing, a gunfight broke out between El and Fideo, and the cartels, and a stray bullet from one of the thugs' guns caught a young girl hiding futilely behind a fruit cart. By the time the violence had ended, her life's blood had already clotted in the dusty ground, and her frightened ghost wailed dismally as it ran down the street. Fideo watched as El knelt down beside her shattered body and gingerly reached out his hands, cradling her head while he closed her eyes. When he looked up again, Fideo saw understanding in his eyes.
He left El in the morning, but not without extracting a promise first, that El would call him when he was needed. Because the eyes of his friend still were not a perfect match for the eyes of the ghost he remembered.
Like Campa and Quino, when El called, Fideo followed. He met Buscemi that way, Buscemi who always complained but in the end cared for El as Fideo had, as a brother would. Buscemi whose ghost had winked at Fideo as the two men shook hands. Fideo got drunk that night, so drunk he nearly collapsed at a crossroads, but then the raven cawed and he pulled himself up again, swaying into the arms of El who had walked up behind him. Two weeks later, he woke to the wind howling and left town immediately, arriving just in time to attend the funerals of Campa, Quino and Buscemi, and to retrieve two guitar cases, their leather torn and burnt.
He met other friends of the gunslinging mariachi, who was like the bright candles of midnight mass and could not do else but collect comrades. After a while, he stopped trying to remember them all; if they were important, their ghosts would remind him of their lives. No matter how he tried, however, he could not drop Lorenzo out of his mind. Lorenzo, who had gotten his first guitar from El and his first gun from Campa. The youngest mariachi of their little band, who had no ghost. He shone instead, white glow from behind a soiled veil.
He met Carolina as well: witnessed the marriage, stood by at the baptism of the daughter. For their sake, he refrained from drink when he visited El's family, but it was too difficult and he never stayed long. Their spirits hovered too close about them, sometimes draping their faces in gray translucent sheets. Fideo took to seeking out Lorenzo after such visits; the boy had also attended the wedding and the birth, but otherwise stayed away. When Fideo staggered in once to overhear the word 'el' moaned in masculine tones, as on the other side of the door the bed creaked and flesh slapped against flesh, he understood and spent the night in the hallway. He never mentioned the incident, and neither did Lorenzo, but on another night the boy came to Fideo's bed instead of leaving for the streets. Fideo waited, but no answer came and by that time, Lorenzo had already plunged himself onto Fideo's rearing cock.
The next morning, Fideo looked out the window to the church across the street and glimpsed the ghost of Carolina, holding her little daughter by the hand, pass through the doors. He knew then that the wait was almost over.
After they had saved the President, Lorenzo was as joyous as a new-foaled colt, cavorting down the road in his finery of fluttering pesos tucked into every fold of clothing. Fideo, though, was full of disturbance; it was good that they had kept an honest man from death, but when he had looked into El's eyes, it still had not looked quite right. Some essential shade, some fraction of fire, had been missing.
Fideo was tired of carrying his burden, and for the first time in years he began to hope for his death. A gust of wind stroked past his dropped chin, urging it up and he grudgingly looked forward. To the intersection of two roads, where waiting stood el phantasma. Fideo stopped, feeling unfamiliar surprise at being able to look without awe, to look steadily and calmly before him. It gestured, and the last part was revealed.
//Fideo, what's wrong?// Lorenzo asked, after noticing his friend's pause. Fideo nodded his regards and turned around, facing the city. //We have to go back//, he answered. //Something has been forgotten.//
Protesting, Lorenzo tried to convince Fideo with words and then with actions to stop, but Fideo only walked on, one hand firmly grasping Lorenzo's wrist. And in the end, the boy followed him, tracking his steps all the way back to a sidestreet off the presidential palace, where Fideo found a desperate man leaning against a wall, a man with a shadow the color of a burgeoning storm sweeping down behind him.
In a true legend, it would have all been over the first time the three men met.
Fideo had learned patience as the foremost of his lessons, however, and he waited silently for three days, while the ghost cradled the shadow, while the shadow turned its face to the wall but could not take a step without the ghost. He watched as the light began to flicker whenever the ghost came near, as the ghost circled the light. And on the night of the second day, the four men lay down in one bed, and while the other three slept, Fideo sat cross-legged against the wall and watched the ghost and the shadow and the light all tumble together, not yet melded but still bound too tightly together to ever go their separate ways.
In the car the next morning, El tapped Fideo's shoulder to ask for some tequila for Sands, and when Fideo turned he saw blazing back at him the eyes of his childhood vision.
Fideo made his excuses that evening, embracing his two friends heartily and even dropping a brief kiss onto Sands' unresponsive forehead. Then, taking up his guitar and his tequila, he made his way to an old, cracked cemetery, where he poured a libation onto the ground and drank the last swallow. He perched on the only unbroken tombstone and Fideo, eyes on the half-hung rusty entrance gate instead of the strings, plucked out a song on his guitar.
Just after the third refrain, he gained an audience. El fantasma did not move until the music had ended. And then it glided forward, and once again Fideo felt chilled fingers of air trace across his face. He closed his eyes to it, sighing.
When Fideo woke he no longer had winter running in his blood. He knew he would never see el fantasma again. He could no longer see the dead and the dying, and he knew that when next he saw El, he would only see his friend, a man walking the path of his second life. But sometimes, when the night was pitch and the wind blew, Fideo could hear voices singing in the quiet abandoned spaces: three voices, howling and crooning as they twisted together into a melody. And then he would raise his bottle in a silent toast, before turning away and seeking out his bed.