Hot wax blending with the aroma of decaying roses. High-pitched wails. Snow cone vendors with cartons of condensed milk. Even drunk men thrumming out-of-tune guitars were expected, but not a body. A lifeless man’s left foot stuck out like an untamed hair in a tight braid, and a group of men surrounded him—attempting to lug him—with some success only for a few feet until the weight forced them to stop. So many limbs sped by it seemed like twenty men were hauling one man. His limp fingers spread wide with no dirt, but his face remained hidden by torsos and sharp haphazard movements, by a desperateness to leave him to the concern of others. I stood with my father in the heat as sweat trailed our spines, at the first right turn of the cemetery by my paternal grandmother’s resting place—an entombment vault aboveground—saying a prayer only she could hear.
I appeared behind my father, using him as a shield, not knowing how I got there, and unable to shrug the shock off. He laughed for far too long, the guffaws unceasing like perfect echoes in a cave.
“No one sent you to peek. What were your expecting, eh?”
“Why do they bring just-dead bodies here?”
“If people think the person is alive, they’ll take them to the hospital. If they assume they’re dead, straight to the morgue—here in the cemetery.”
I was half expecting him to bend down and wipe some dirt off his shoes, as if what we saw were nothing, like watching a pigeon hurry off with spilled crumbs.
I asked to see the morgue. It was a flimsy square near the entrance, a place I’d assumed was an office where people could inquire about the resting place of their relatives. I would continue walking by it many times almost every Sunday, refusing to look, hoping my body would never be brought to it. Most of the time I’d be there with my father, as I ventured from a teenager to a young adult, hoping only to be captivated by the intricate bouquet of flowers that vendors outside the cemetery gates arranged with banana leaves and blush-pink roses.
The stranger was the first body I saw.
Years later, my deceased grandmother became the second. But that time there was no skin, no unfurled fingers.
My grandmother’s bones were being moved to a fancier cemetery, one that actually bore grass and had no morgue. Extended family members and I looked on as a man chipped away at the concrete in the blazing sun. An uncle was reliving the funeral. His son and daughters stood by his side, just in case he fainted from the perpetual grief. People flinched when the man drew a femur, gray like the pages of a book left untouched for a generation. I wanted to feel more, but I had no memories of her. No recollection of her eyes, if she moved her hands when she spoke, or the weight of her voice, if her chin was the same oblong shape as my father’s. She died a few months after I was born.
The man pulled out her skull and some let out a gasp or shuffled their bodies, unable to stay still. It was the size of a child’s skull, and I supposed the years of equatorial heat had made it shrink. “It looks so small,” I said. Someone shushed me. In the absence of memories of her, my mind drifted to the Shuar’s tsantsa heads—how they shrank their fallen enemies’ heads after battle and carried them on their bodies. Shrunken skulls as trophies. And what were my grandmother’s bones but trophies of a long life? All that her children had from her that somehow still belonged to her. I looked at my father, no tears, no movement, his face stoic in sunglasses and a light-blue shirt. I remembered the dead man we’d seen together and thought about how much we’d changed since that day.
We lived in the same house, but it felt like we were strangers, maybe even foes. As I got older, I found myself hiding from him instead of seeking his protection. I wondered, as we stood grieving our ancestor, if other fathers and daughters talked about where they wanted to be buried. My father and his siblings didn’t share the same father, and now my paternal grandparents would be in separate cemeteries, not yards away but kilometers from each other.
I couldn’t imagine how my grandmother, in some other realm, would feel knowing we were staring at her. Nostrils gone, skin long-lost, the remaining mane of black hair tightened to skull twenty years after her death. Did they ever ask her what she wanted? To be moved as if her bones were pearls from one vault to another? Who did she want to be buried with? I glanced at Dad. He seemed like someone who’d prefer candles melted by heat on his tombstone as the hours dawdled on Sundays. Or maybe he didn’t want a burial at all. If I asked him, he’d probably take a deep breath and say Who cares? This meat will be eaten by maggots anyway. Maybe he’d say Mala hierba nunca muere. I knew I couldn’t ask him; I’d learned to prefer the neutrality of our silence. I thought then—as my grandmother’s bones were placed in a temporary box to rattle on their way to the outskirts of our town—that I needed to tell someone, or write it down somewhere, that I didn’t want a burial. That I didn’t want my bones roaming the streets decades after my death. That I should tell someone, anyone, maybe my dad, that all I’d like when this is over is to be scorched enough to become dust.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in SmokeLong en Español, Bending Genres, Lost Balloon, and other literary magazines. Her debut memoir-in-essays, A Body Across Two Hemispheres, is the 2021 Fairfield Book Prize winner and will be available in Spring 2022 by Woodhall Press.