a short story
On that last morning, anyone who came to visit me could
see that I was dying. I knew it myself. As if I had cotton in my ears,
I heard the voice of don Leandro saying to my wife, "Doña Susana,
I think it is time to fetch the priest," and I thought, yes, it's time.
We don't have our own priest, or even our own church, so someone has
to drive in a pickup truck to get the priest from El Puentecito. But
don't be fooled by what you may hear in Malpasa or in Palpan de Baranda.
Here we remain Catholic. Yes, we make pots in the old way. That's why
tourists come here. And it's true, as is sometimes whispered, that we
have restored certain other practices from the past. But not as they
were done back then. Those were bloody and terrible times, the times
of the Mejica. They say that the sacrificial blood covered the sun pyramids
from top to bottom. Thank the Virgin, we don't do anything like that.
A little after the priest came and went, I died. Word spread. People
came to our house. My family asked first for things of mine that they
wanted. Then the other neighbors. Don Francisco stood near my body and
said, "Don Ysidro, may I have your shovel? I need one, and your sons-in-law
can dig new clay for Susana."
I said, "Take it with my blessing."
Susana said, "He says for you to take it."
Next was doña Eustacia. She asked for one of my seguetas
for scraping pots.
I said, "Of course. Go with my blessing," and Susana said, "He says
for you to take it."
When don Tomás came, he asked for my boots, the ones of red leather
with the roosters in the stitching.
I said, "Tomás, you thieving rascal! I know very well that you took
two of my chickens that night seven years ago to feed to your whore
from Puebla. And here you come asking not for a segueta
or some wire, but for my good boots!"
And Susana said, "He says for you to take them." Because, of course,
she couldn't hear me. In any case, I would have let Tomás have the boots.
I only wanted to see him blush just one time.
They came and asked for everything that Susana would not need. They
asked even for things for which it was not necessary to ask. They asked
for things I had already promised to them. They even asked for permission
to dig white clay from the place where I liked to find it. They asked,
and I said yes, with my blessings. We are nothing if not polite.
Last of all, they asked for a few of my hairs to make brushes for
painting pots. They cut what locks there were with scissors. They asked
for my hands and cut them off with a knife for butchering goats. They
said, "Don Ysidro, we want your face." I agreed, and they flayed off
the skin very carefully and tenderly. They put my hands in a metal drum
and burned them. They dried my face in the sun. Meanwhile, they wrapped
the rest of my body in a shroud and buried it in the churchyard according
to the customs of the Church.
For a time after that, I was in an emptiness, a nowhere place. I didn't
see. I didn't hear. I couldn't speak. I wasn't anywhere, not in my house,
not in the coffin in the ground. Nowhere. But that would change.
All my life, I had taught the other people of my village to make pots
as I made them. That was nothing special. We all did this. I made my
own don Ysidro pots, except when doña Isabela showed me how to make
her little tiny ones, or don Marcos demonstrated how he painted his.
Then for a while, I would make little tiny pots just like doña Isabela
or pots painted in the style of don Marcos. When doña Jenífera had gone
to the capital to see the birds and animals on ancient pots, she imitated
those decorations, showed us, and soon we all knew how to do it. The
rest of the time, I made pots in my own manner, though sometimes with
a little touch of Isabela or Marcos or Jenífera that I had learned from
them and made my own.
Now for the week after I had died, everyone in the village would be
making pots as I had made them. Even the children, if they were old
enough to make pots of their own. They dug white clay from my favorite
place, soaked it, filtered it, let it settle, and poured off the clear
water from the slurry. When the clay was dry enough, they mixed in the
ashes of my hands. Then they made clay tortillas and pressed them into
big plaster molds for the base, just like the ones I used. Sometimes
they used my very own molds. They made snakes of clay, attached them
to the bases, wound them around from the bottom up. My pots didn't have
necks. Neither did these. The people --- my family and all the rest
of the town --- scraped these pots smooth, rubbed them to a shine, and
painted them with black paint, using brushes of my own hair and in designs
I would have used: lizards and rabbits with checkered backs, or else
just checkers that started big around the middle of the pot and became
intricate at the lip. Those were pots in the don Ysidro style. They
fired them. The ones that the fire didn't break, they brought to my
house. Susana put pots all around the front room, and even in the bed
where I had lain.
But I didn't see this. I only knew it was happening.
These pots in my house sat undisturbed. The people burned the brushes
made from my hair.
On the third day, there was a feast at my house. Probably there were
all kinds of tamales, some with olives and meat, some with seeds and
beans. Men and women drank pulque, and there was perhaps melon water
for the children. The sun went down. Candles were lit. A fire burned
in my fireplace.
At midnight, don Leandro opened a box and took out the mask made of
my own skin. He put my face over his face, and I opened our eyes. I
came from the place that was nowhere. I was in the room. I looked at
the faces, at the wide eyes of the living, at Susana holding her hand
over her mouth. I saw my grandchildren, Carlos and Jalea, Ana and Quinito.
And for the first time, I could see the pots in the living room. They
glowed in the candlelight. Together, don Leandro and I went into the
bedroom and I saw the pots there on the bed. We returned to the living
room, and I said with our mouth, "I see that I am not dead after all!"
"No, no, don Ysidro," they assured me. "You are not dead!"
I laughed. That's what you feel like doing when you see that you aren't
Then don Leandro threw the mask into the fire, and I wasn't in the
mask any more. I was in the pots. In all those round pots made by the
hands of my friends, my rivals, my family, my neighbors. I was there,
in each one. The people took me away from my house, pot by pot, and
I entered their houses with them. In my former home, they left only
the pot that Susana had made in my style.
From that night forward, I was all over the village. People stored
corn in me, or rice, or beans. They used me to carry water. And I spread
out from there, for if tourists came to buy pots and happened to admire
me, the potter would say, "Oh, that's don Ysidro." And the tourist would
nod and perhaps buy the pot that he thought was merely made
by don Ysidro.
I am still in my little village, but I am in Stockholm, too, and Seattle.
I am in Toronto and Buenos Aires. Some of me is in Mexico, the capital,
though I am mostly still at home here in the village where I grew up,
grew old, and died. I sit on Susana's shelf where I can watch her make
ordinary tortillas for her breakfast or clay tortillas for her pots.
She is old, but her hands are still quick as birds. Sometimes she knows
that I am watching her, and she looks over her shoulder and laughs.
Whether she can hear it or not, my answering laughter is deep and full
and round like a great big pot in the manner of don Ysidro.
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