Mrs. Xabela’s Wake (La Vetlla de Donya Xabela)
From Gent de l’Alta Vall
By Pere Calders
Mrs Xabela, coming back from the market one morning loaded with groceries, fell off the bus and sustained such grave injuries that she died soon after. She was already very old, and her crippled, withered corpse was on display to the curious public until an ambulance came around to collect it and bring it to the Hospital Juárez.
That’s where her son and her daughter-in-law, Marga, awaited her. Marga, upon seeing the corpse and having proof of the death, felt an ineffable sensation of relief. The two women had not only never gotten along, but had hated each other with all the hatred to which a lack of understanding gives rise in such cases. Since her wedding, Marga had never quite felt like the mistress of her own house, and, lo and behold, thanks to an unexpected twist of fate, the nuisance that had seemed ingrained in her daily life was gone. She cried from joy and pleasure and took advantage of the tears to feign condolence. She squeezed the arm of her husband, whom grief had left in shock, and set in motion the necessary formalities.
She asked a doctor if they could take the deceased to hold a wake at home, as was due, and when she was denied – because they still had to undergo the legal procedures surrounding the autopsy – Marga was taken by surprise.
“Is she not good and dead? Is there still something to be done?”
While confirming that she was indeed dead, the doctor placated her. So they went back home and, the man was struck by the strange impulse to construct a bier. He was a carpenter, and they lived and worked in the bottom floor of an apartment building, by Santa Maria.
When the neighbors found out that Mrs. Xabela had died in an accident, they began to file through silently, or talking in quiet tones. Almost all of them asked if they were going to bring Mrs. Xabela home and hold a wake. And Marga always answered:
“Of course we will! We’re decent folks. She’s Apol·linar’s mother, after all…”
Apol·linar, the carpenter, seemed not to notice anything around him and was assembling his bier as though divinely inspired. He brought some quilts and curtains, one of his wife’s shawls, some vases from Oaxaca, a large print of Santa Isabel, some glass balls and garlands they had been saving for the Christmas tree, and he managed to arrange everything harmoniously. He selected and arranged things, stepped back to appraise the effect, and did not tire of fiddling with it until he was pleased with the result. He sent a helper boy to buy flowers and candles, and meanwhile prepared some candlesticks with remarkable dexterity.
Around noon, his friend Xon, who already had heard the news, showed up, and upon seeing the preparations, shattered his illusions in a couple of words:
“They won’t let you hold a wake for Mrs. Xabela here. Since she died in an accident, she’ll most likely go straight from the hospital to the cemetery.”
Apol·linar was devastated and could not accept it. He said that since forever, all the wakes for the deceased had been held at home, and it couldn’t be that his mother, of all people, should be left out of that tradition.
His friend Xon answered that he had a certain influence and that with fifty pesos, perhaps, he could set everything straight. The carpenter took a couple of bills from a snuff box that he kept in a wardrobe, counted them, and said:
“I’m five pesos short. You put them in and we’ll handle it later.”
The friend had just left when the apprentice arrived with the candles and the flowers. Apol·linar, after placing the candles in the candlesticks and arranging the new elements, put some tools in a cloth bag and sent the apprentice to go pawn them. Marga warned that they would have to buy drinks and food for the friends and family who would come to the wake and so the man took an electric motor out of one of the machines in the workshop and handed it to the boy, for him to add to the tools’ fate. He also handed him his wristwatch and the boy said that with all that, they wouldn’t let him onto the bus or, in any case, he wouldn’t be able to carry it. Marga borrowed five pesos from a neighbor of hers and gave them to the apprentice to take a taxi.
People came, attracted by the news. If Mrs. Xabela had passed away from natural causes, few would have even paid their most formulary respects. But now everyone wanted to know what had happened, if it had been the driver or the woman’s fault, if they were going to sue the transit company and if the woman had ceased to exist right there on the street or in the hospital.
Marga answered all the questions patiently and repeated the same responses, added little details here and there in hopes of fostering a local legend. She, who had always led such an insignificant life, began to discover the pleasure of being the center of such widespread attention.
In the afternoon, the friend Xon showed up with two lads carrying a wooden box containing Mrs. Xabela. Apol·linar, locked in stubborn silence, tirelessly assembling on the bier all the colorful or just shiny things within his reach, received the corpse with genuine and moving grief. He ordered them to uncover the coffin and to place it appropriately on the bier. Now, with all the items necessary to achieve his final goal, the carpenter removed some ornaments and added others – more of the latter – and all the necrophilia of their people began to spread through the neighborhood through this filial homage. People presented themselves, transcendental, almost on tiptoe, and everyone was helping out. Someone lit the candles and others brought more flowers, or pictures, or little oil lamps that they placed respectfully around the monument Apol·linar had constructed.
Mrs. Xabela looked dreadful. She had a repulsive expression, and her face was swollen and turning purple. A friendly woman came up beside her, gazed at her for a while and then, in an exaltation of politeness, said:
“It’s good. Good that she’s… She doesn’t seem dead.” Marga, lowering her eyes as though she were the object of undeserved praise, answered: “It’s an honor, ma’am,” and immediately covered her face humbly with a shawl.
The boy arrived, with money from the pawn shop. So they bought fruit wine, pulque, a couple of bottles of tequila and some edibles, and with all that the daughter-in-law prepared everything which was necessary for the proper treatment of the guests.
Then, she received two old women who offered, in keeping with tradition, to weep during the wake. They were asking for ten pesos and food, but they settled for less and started to cry. Apol·linar, suddenly exasperated by the laments, said that if they didn’t cry softly he would kill them, and the friend Xon led him into another room and made the necessary remarks: life and death, always hand in hand, and resignation as the only defense to face them both.
“It’s just so terrible to see that saint stretched out there, unmoving, and me, unable to do anything,” said Apol·linar.
He had been applying the word “saint” to his mother for a while now, and he himself began to be taken in by the adjective. And it ended up spreading to the others, and now around the bier people were already speaking veneratingly of saintly Mrs. Xabela. They were praising her spirit of sacrifice, the tenacity with which she had always remained celibate, to dedicate all her care to her sons, who as adults hadn’t returned what she deserved.
For lack of chairs, the bedroom, workshop, and kitchen were full of people standing, and there was already a small group outside the door of the house. Many of the people were strangers: attracted by the funeral rites, they had joined willingly, and were eating, and held a glass, and wore the same face of compunction as everyone. Some, better at adapting, were praising Mrs. Xabela.
Marga went from one to the other, filling glasses, serving hors d’oeuvres and orchestrating the tragedy of the wake. She felt happy, important, and didn’t envy anyone. She had always wanted to have people at her house, for a party, or whatever it might be that allowed her an illusion of society, and now she had achieved it for the first time, after dreaming for so long. At one point, she surprised herself because, while passing around with a tray, she found herself thanking Mrs. Xabela for having died and granting her the pleasure of doing the honors as mistress of the house.
The more they drank, the louder the guests talked. One of them, a timid man whom no one in the neighborhood knew and who had ended up there by accident had a guitar and his entire aim seemed to be to not touch the strings, for no one to approach it, so that no sound should break the solemnity of the proceedings. The first glass of tequila he drank made his eyes turn ted. He took one or two more and kept on going from one side to another, keeping his air of solitude. He got bumped from side to side but he kept protecting the guitar, with impenetrable sullenness. Without realizing it, he ended up next to the box and stood still, gazing at the corpse, with impressive stillness. Suddenly, he lifted the guitar with both hands, cried out “Cursed old woman!” and brought the instrument down with all his strength onto the deceased. The guitar was in pieces, and the air displaced by the swing extinguished a candle. The shiny handkerchief Mrs. Xabela wore to cover up an incision they had made in the hospital fell to the side and in an instant, the painstakingly achieved order, the solemn and funerary tone that Apol·linar had worked so hard for, took on the appearance of an uncivilized party. Someone threw themselves on the timid man and the battle was going to spread when Marga grabbed the stranger by the belt and dragged him to the street.
Apol·linar hadn’t realized anything and was explaining to the friend Xon that if he had had gypsum, he would have added another layer to the bier. He ceaselessly extolled the virtues of the dead woman and said that when worries would push her to drink too much, the saintly woman would lock herself in her room and try to cause as little commotion as possible.
As darkness fell, the gossiping died down and the less enthusiastic funeral-goers began to retire. Marga wanted them to stay, explaining that soon the burial agency employees would show up, whom she referred to in a veiled manner, as though they were an attraction worth seeing. However, a good portion of the visitors filed past the bier one last time and some said one final gallantry to Mrs. Xabela.
A little while later, an envoy from the funeral home arrived. Marga had imagined that at least two people would have shown up, and was somewhat disappointed. The man, with an air of silent efficiency, gave two or three turns around the bier and asked who had built it.
“Me,” replied Apol·linar with pride. “I’m a master carpenter.”
The employee wanted to know if he was inclined to make biers by commission and how much he would charge, but he replied that the creative impulse had to be from the heart and that these kinds of things had no price. In any case, he carefully kept the card that the mortician handed him, in case one day he thought better of it, and right away they got to work organizing the details of the funeral. They agreed that the next day, bright and early, the agency would come by to pick up the corpse.
In the night hours, a new pattern of behavior emerged. The people kept holding their glasses and chewing and swallowing tirelessly. They were at the point where reason still tries – less and less enthusiastically – to temper the effects of alcohol, giving everyone an affectedly serious air. Countless small fortresses of common sense were on the verge of capitulation, and the warning signs began to lose their initial timidity. A neighbor started to sing a sad song, which could have appeared appropriate because it was about the mourning of two deaths and the return of mortal remains to the soil. Regardless, the tune aroused in someone else the memory of another song, which exalted the feats of a knight who, without dismounting, had ridden through the door of a church to abduct a married woman. So he started to sing it, and a couple of voices accompanied him. Apol·linar followed the beat with his right foot, and, trying to do so with his arms, spilled his glass, and the friend Xon filled it up again.
Marga was experiencing the birth of a universal love. She gazed at the faces of the visitors and felt that she loved them all very much, and that she could hardly live without them close by. Flitting from side to side, her eyes bumped into the Mrs. Xabela’s inert corpse, and suffered a new jolt of tenderness. If she had always been as she was now, calm and silent, how she would have loved Mrs. Xabela! From the soles of her feet, an vague bubbling sensation spread up through her body, and her eyes moistened. Overpowered by an impulse, she knelt at the foot of the bier and put her arms around it, so impetuously that it caused the detachment of a string of glass balls, which fell to the ground and broke.
Apol·linar leapt up and jerked his wife by the hair. His vaporous inner happiness had given way – with the grief at his mother’s death like a beloved landscape hidden behind fog – to inordinate indignation. He pushed Marga away with a kick, and set about restoring the bier with the same loving concern as before. He took a couple of oil lamps from the headboard and put them to one side. But now, he did not have his original lucidity and his inspiration did not help him. Seeing the poverty of the results obtained, he sat down once again and began to sob, covering his face with his hands.
The night hours passed, alternating between exaltation and dejection. Twice, Apol·linar wanted to beat his wife, but they ended up hugging, while she murmured:
“Your poor mother, such a saint, such a saint!…”
The light of day entered through a crack, moved forwards slowly and crept up the bier, setting it atwinkle. The friend Xon had fallen asleep and a neighbor aroused him, because his snores detracted from the desired gravity. Marga began distributing food and drink, as there was a general awakening, and felt again her importance as mistress. Some of the wake goers felt ill, and so she gave them home remedies and had words full of social aptitude for everyone.
When, at the break of day, the personnel of the funeral home showed up with a black truck which paraded carved wooden palms on the sides, Marga begged them to wait a little. But they, of course, were not in the mood. They knew the shifting dispositions of hundreds of wake goers after trying nights, and they got to work. The woman asked Apol·linar to procure a postponement of the formalities, and the carpenter – whom the diurnal light had imbued with a new type of transcendence – began to argue with the employees, who alleged that the delay had elapsed and they were under the obligation to take the corpse.
With the stubbornness common to indians and mestissos, they started a tedious verbal battle. In the end, since he was short of arguments, Apol·linar shoved one of his opponents and right away, a pushing battle started, thought cut short since the carpenter received reinforcements from his friends and neighbors to expel the men he himself had contracted. They dragged them to the street and shut the door, securing it from inside with all sorts of contraptions.
They were left in a belligerent mood and were visibly agitated. They agreed to keep the corpse at all costs, and set about making defensive preparations. But the others were not inclined to give in either. For them, it was a question of pride: a funeral placed under their responsibility never stopped halfway, and moreover, someone mentioned in passing that the law was their ally, which lent them great confidence. And furthermore, with their expert glance, they ascertained that Mrs. Xabela had no time for expansive sentimentality and that in the interest of public health, she should be buried immediately.
They warned the nearest police station on the phone, and, after a short while, a jeep showed up with a couple of men in uniform. Apol·linar told the sergeant who was warning him to give in that they would never get in with words alone. He felt as though this moment represented his life’s calling and a swell of heroism strengthened him.
One of the women began to cry and shut herself in the kitchen. The friend Xon was talking about similar experiences during the revolution and tried to take command two or three times. But Apol·linar didn’t let anyone surpass his authority, derived from being the son of the deceased and the builder of the bier.
Marga was the heart of the hopeless attempt. She observed everything and rushed around wherever she was needed. When she heard that they were roughly pounding on the door from the outside with some heavy object, she realized that the old wood wouldn’t last long. So she threw herself on her husband, and, screaming, told him:
“Don’t let them rob you of your mother, Apol·linar! You only have one mother…. Before they take her from you, burn her!”
Burn her! Everyone grasped the magnitude of her initiative, and when Apol·linar started to heap wood shavings around the foot of the bier, everyone helped out. From under a work bench, the carpenter took out a can of gasoline and sprayed it on the pyre. Then, he made a legendary gesture: with a box of matches in his hands, he addressed those outside and said:
“If you try to get in, I’ll set it all on fire!”
For a moment, the pounding on the door stopped. But then it resumed with even more force. So Apol·linar lit a match and threw it on the shavings. A huge flame leapt up around Mrs. Xabela and the fire spread rapidly. It burned the wood, the cloth, the ornaments on the bier, and advanced along every combustible path, with insectile avidity.
If, from the height she must have found herself, Mrs. Xabela had been able to see her funeral celebrations, gazing over the entire agitated neighborhood, the swarm of tiny figures in a frenzy, and hear the firefighters’ sirens and the humming of hundreds of voices, she couldn’t have helped but experience a reproachable feeling of vanity. She would gotten news of the fire from the arms of smoke pouring out of doors and windows, and the fire itself appearing suddenly on the street and seizing a fruit cart. And her son Apol·linar, led by two members of the Red Cross, thrashing and defending himself despite having his hair on fire. And her daughter-in-law Marga, with her clothes full of flames, running and screaming until someone smothered her in a blanket. And all the friends, relatives, and neighbors who had been such pleasant company, writhing in disgrace.
But what would draw Mrs. Xabela’s attention most especially would be to gaze down on herself in the center of the pyre, serene and absent, until the fire, stretching the muscles of her face, force her first to smile, then make a grotesque grimace, and finally adopt the face she always made when she turned on her children, when they annoyed her by the violence of their childish games or, as adults, by their difficult lifestyles.