I wake up on my grave.
The humid soil is spongy against my bare skin. I breathe in and stand up, gripping the tombstone for support.
Shuffling toward the cemetery gate, I try to keep my balance. My bones click and shutter in their joints. It’s so early that nobody has arrived here yet. The buildings sing yellow and white, the color of buñuelos smarting golden when Mamá pulls them out of the oven. They haven’t changed at all. There is a woman just across the street whose earrings look familiar.
Speech grips me. “Mamá?”
She scoops a tottering child off the ground. No—not my mother. She can’t hear me.
Ana Lucía was right. The entrance is hard to adjust to. I enter a house and take some clothes off the clothesline. I’ll return them later.
Still, the threadbare clothing does little to protect me against the biting wind. Nobody sees me when I enter a little restaurant, pass through the counter of a coffee shop, and brew a mug of cobán.
My family is out watching the men set the kites loose into the sky. Last year I watched them ripple into the atmosphere as I placed marigolds out for our great-grandmother Carmen. This year, I am the one being welcomed back.
The coffee sluices down my throat, thick, rich, and dark. An old woman sits at a table, but the shop is empty. They’re all out celebrating today. A dove-eyed boy on a chair kicks his feet back and forth, studying a bowl.
His eyes snap to mine. I recoil.
For a moment I think he’s staring through me, but his gaze is sharp and golden. “Can you see me?” I ask softly.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Where are your parents?”
“They’re in the cemetery, helping with the kites,” he says. The Kaqchikel words gutter softly. “They’re going to get me once they’re done making it. I’m Guillermo.”
“Ximena?” he parrots. A broken tape recorder whirs with nervous energy behind the counter. “The Ximena.” The, the, the.
“Oh—oh, you are here because it’s the Day of the Dead.” The recorder snaps and hums. “It is a small town, and you are famous. My sister says you died in a car crash. My friend Carlos says you died of malaria.” He stares at me with question marks hovering on his face.
“Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” I tell him. “My white blood cells crowded out the hemoglobin in my bloodstream.”
“Did it hurt?”
I hesitate. “Not much.”
“Oh,” he says. “Do you want me to take you to your house? After you died, Papá and I went to your house every Thursday. We brought your mother platanos en tentacion.”
Plantains. I can hardly remember the tangy, buttery crust of them. I smile. “I’ve already gone there. My parents are at the cemetery.”
“Then let’s go there.”
“As long as your parents will still be able to find you.”
Guillermo takes me by the hand. His skin feels leathery. It glows like boiled sweets. We walk into the street, and Guillermo tells me stories about his life that feel like battered yarn-textiles. I want to close my eyes and lie among them.
His words drift away after a while, and Guillermo asks, “What’s your afterlife like?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it a room, or a house? Is it sleeping forever?”
“You fall asleep and wake up in the afterlife. It’s just like this world, only the canillitas de leche are cheaper and the quilts are softer than the ones that Señora Rita sells in the center plaza.”
“Do you think it’ll be hard going back there after the Day of the Dead passes?”
“I don’t know. But the girls that I share a room with in the afterlife are on their third or fourth cycles, and they say it’s easy, because death is only a passage.”
We are here. A few hours—or maybe days,there is no sense of time in the afterlife—have passed since I started my visit to Earth, and already the cemetery bursts with life. Girls dance like slips of ribbon. They are somebody’s daughters. An elderly woman ladles fiambre—meat salad—into plates; she is somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s mother. I see the kites in the distance, massive circles of marrow and fabric.
“Do you see your parents, Ximena?” says Guillermo.
We enter the cemetery. Eyes stare through me. I slip through a boy wrapping a sugary yellow bread and arrive in front of my grave.
There is yellow everywhere, tinting the edges of my vision and bursting in spots of gold. The marigolds are everywhere on my grave. The clean scent of them billows in the air.
Mamá crouches to place a sugar skull at the base.
“Mamá?” I say softly.
My mother stands up and accepts a chunk of sugar-bread from a plump woman. She is smiling. I reach forward to touch her, but I only pass through.
She laughs over a bowl of fiambre and helps another man with his altar. She pulses with red, blue, and green. White makeup traces the soft bones in her face.
Guillermo lets go of my hand.
I glance at him. “Where are your parents, Guillermo?”
“They’re somewhere around here,” he says. “They can’t be too far. Look.” He grabs my hand and tugs me forward until we reach an area that isn’t so densely packed with people. “That’s us.”
Anita Santiago, 1981-2017. Esteban Santiago, 1979-2017.
Guillermo Santiago, 2009-2017.
“How did it happen?” I ask. This is why Guillermo can touch me.
“Flight U890 to Tegus, Honduras,” says Guillermo. “It’s my first cycle, too.”
“Are your parents here?”
“They’re helping with the kites,” says Guillermo. “I’m going to go join them.”
I smile. “I’ll see you in the afterlife.”
He melts into the crowd. In a few minutes, I see the barriletes rising into the sky. Arteries of cloth as bright as stained glass criss-cross through the air.
When Mamá steps forward to dance, I meet her halfway.