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Calavera
Toby Olson



There are stories handed down through generations, not because children desire and are in need of them, but because their parents now understand them and can remember sitting at the knees of their own parents, listening to the telling. I sat at the knees of my mother, my child, hearing this one, and I remember how old she seemed to me then, though I had no conception of the passage of time. Her face was waxen there above me, her eyes closed remembering her own mother telling the story, and I must have feared that she was drifting away from me. And so I listened hard and didn’t fidget, trusting I could hold her close for a while in that way. So, my daughter, I tell you this story not so much as I remember it, but as I remember my mother telling it, most probably knowing I would not really understand it until I too became a mother, one who had a need for keeping her daughter close for a little while yet.

      Once upon a time there were two children, a boy and a girl who were farm children. They passed through a shadowy wood on their way home, and at a turn of the trail in the wood they came upon a fallen oak tree and a calavera sitting on the trunk among branches, and they were not hesitant because they were children and had no fear of death.

      This calavera wore the uniform of his last engagement in the dances of the dead, the vestments of a bishop who had sold the votes of his diocese for money. His grinning skull face stared out from the folds of his robes, his head cocked arrogantly to the side in remembered gesture. But there was a certain look of longing in his teeth and hollow eyes that the children noticed immediately as they climbed among the branches to sit beside him. Calaveras are skeletons, my dear, the dead come alive again long after their moldering, and their dances, which are often stories of the foolishness in life left behind, have become fixed images in the works of many artists, in papier-mache figures, and even in marzipan candy shaped into bones and skulls in Mexico on the Day of The Dead, a holiday that reminds us of our mortality.

      And in these stories all calaveras have their parts, from the politician vomiting words out over the crowd, to the culpable business man at his elbow and the henchman at the platform’s edge. And each in the crowd too is an actor, in gesture of agreement or of disgust, varieties of pantomime, and the raising of weapons in the bony hands of the military at the periphery.

      And yet, on rare occasion, in the image of a foot soldier, a carpenter, a provocative virgin to the side of a gathering of other virgins, one finds the empty skull gaze, the figure in ambiguous gesture beyond the story, head tilted in longing toward the might have been. These are the traveling calaveras, and whether they are few or many is not certain, for one may see the same one seen before without knowing it because they all look the same, being skeletons, and because of the traveling, that search for a proper circumstance in which the dance can be mindlessly entered, which is never found, because the skeleton is the free essence beyond longing or nostalgia, and these are the aberrant calaveras who can’t believe their luck in being alive again, even as bones, and long for their living selves, dragging the memory of the flesh and desire with them. Be not afraid, my child. This is only a story. Remember the children?

      They had climbed into the fallen oak tree to sit beside him, that calavera dressed in the vestments of a bishop, and the girl asked him, Are you lost? He said he was lost, but he was grinning, and they were not sure of the meaning of his answer. They could see his bare clavicles where his garment opened at the neck, and they thought he must be cold wearing only his bones under his clothing at the start of winter. The boy reached up to raise the hood of his cloak, and it fell down to cover his face, guarding against any clear view of it. They helped him to climb free of the tree’s branches, and then they walked beside him, holding the bones of his fingers as they led him home.

      It was a farmer’s home, one large room with a big wooden table and a stove and sink and a larder and a stone fireplace. There was a double bed in a corner and pallets on the floor, and their mother fell back at the sight of the bishop in the doorway, flustered and honored, and she led the calavera to the table and put food and drink before him that he could not eat. He said he just needed a little rest, and she placed a chair near a window, and the calavera sat in it, the children gathered on the floor at his feet. And once he’d answered the few questions the mother put to him, she went about her business of cleaning and cooking, and he sat still in the chair in his spectral garments, watching her.

      Then, at day’s end, the farmer came home from his labors. He held the children up in his arms and kissed his wife and bowed to the bishop. Then candles were lit, and the family took up the routine activities of their evening. All was action and gestures of interchange, and the calavera thought of the possibilities in the dance of life he was witnessing and thought nothing of the next leg of his journey, the search for that future circumstance in which he might find his proper place.

      The mother was at the stove baking. The farmer had lifted a block of wood and was whittling the face of a man out of it, shavings cast in the fire, and the children sat on the floor a few feet from the bishop’s hem, fitting paper clothing on small anonymous figures. All faces were lit in the waves of candle light, and the calavera watched them dissolve and reconstruct as heads turned on their axes and words drifted in lazy half senten­ces throughout the room. And in a moment of silence he saw the mother’s face pause in its animation, her hands sunk deeply in dough. She was looking at the night-darkened window and her gaze was vacant where it met the glass, and the calavera was stunned to see that same look of longing in life that he was aware of in his own face in death, and he recognized it was an avenue of possibility she was looking down. It was as if between her and the window were her life’s actions and the meaningful assumption of them, but at the glass itself was nothing, just her desire for a place beyond where the terms of her longing ended. And when he saw the same vacant look in the farmer’s face as he glanced down to the floor in his whittling, he found he was seeing into the human condition with a new understanding.

      He sat in his robes in the chair watching these manifesta­tions as he mulled them over in his mind. He thought then of life as a central artery, running parallel to the spine, and each vein and capillary, extending out along bone to the exuberant ex­tremities, as those possibilities of alternative bloody avenues down which one might glance but never go. He thought of his own life, before he was a calavera, and its necessarily stunted quality, though it had been a life of satisfaction and fullness, and he had walked its broad and easy causeway free of any care.

      He’d been a journalist, this calavera, privy to the hidden corruptions of government, present at the forefront of shipwreck and devastating fire. On his bicycle he’d ridden to the brink of individual illness and family happiness and difficulty, often into cir­cumstances of possibility where he might have stepped from the saddle into another life. Each of these lives had been ripe for engagement, but he had simply written their stories and moved on, life’s longing recorder. Now his bones shook under his bishop’s garment as he silently articulated his proposal.

      All men and women, my daughter, long for the might have been, those avenues of life they didn’t take, and in the recog­nition that each one was a possibility, held in the memory as vision grown hazy at terminals beyond all bright beginnings, longing becomes empty nostalgia as the veins dry and collapse along the bones and the broad gestures of the body wither at the outer reaches. Devoid of the animation of living, all come narrowed and regretful to their deaths, since of the many pos­sible lives, only one was lived.

      The calavera saw it all in the look of the farmer’s wife and in the farmer, and though the children glanced up from their play and down those first narrow byways only with bright eyes and curiosity, he knew their time too would come.

      And he knew now that the living he’d longed for again as a calavera held its own profound longing, and that when he reached a new circumstance the force of his look would be doubled in the intensity of its longing, drawing the eyes of the viewers to a bloody familiarity, and would overwhelm the dry extravagance of the dancing bones.

      There was no sound, but the children turned to him as he fell down, the dark robes of the bishop collapsing to a pile of dusty fabric on the chair’s wooden seat. It was bone dust, and it puffed through the weave, then settled into a haze, obscuring the chair’s legs. And the farmer was rising, his wife turning, and the children’s faces were invisible behind their bodies. But the face of the farmer was intense, as was that of his wife. Their jaws creaked open, the blocks of their teeth visible to the pink gums. All paused as they reached the chair, as if gathered around the last event in an old story. A wind came in at the window. It blew the door open and blew the fine dust of the dissolved bones of the calavera out into a final burial in the night.

      And that is the end of the story, my daughter. An odd and frightening tale, there’s no doubt. But do not be afraid. For though I’ve grown waxen as that calavera in my sickness, I’m not going anywhere soon. I’m not leaving you. Stay close for a while more. This is the best story I can tell you. Please remember it until you understand it, then tell it to your children.