Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Wake

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Wake

Article excerpt

Mama's fingers hurriedly tied into a bow the white ribbon on my braid.

"Hurry up, or we'll be late," she said, her voice solemn.

I obediently finished fixing my hair, and together we went out to the street, which still radiated the heat of a summer day that had been insufferably hot. Mama's voice broke the silence of late afternoon.

"Don't forget, now. Say hello to the grownups when we arrive. And don't even think of moving around ... sit beside me until it's time to leave ... we can't let those people down ... After all, we owe them a lot ... Chino Chao fed us many a meal when we would have gone hungry, and without him we wouldn't even have had the ice bag you needed every hour when you had typhus... "

The truth was that I'd forgotten all about that old disease. All I knew were the details that mama told me now and then as she remembered them. I was only four when the epidemic came through the town, mowing down rich and poor alike. In those days, according to mama, daddy would leave the house at dawn with his scissors and razors wrapped in a white cloth, and spend the day looking for someone to give a haircut or a shave. But since times were hard, nobody had any money for such luxuries. Once in a while some moneybags would do him the favor of giving him a few "reales" for a haircut. Other days, when daddy got home, downcast and with the scissors still wrapped, mama knew she would have to ask Chino Chao for credit.

Chao had arrived with his wife and children some years before I was born. He had set up a shop on the comer of my block, and succeeded in making customers of everybody in town. He was a serious man, but good-hearted and in the habit of giving credit to everybody without worrying about when they would pay him back. He gained the respect of the people, who affectionately called him "Chino" Chao.

" . . . And don't forget: nobody smiles at a wake. If you feel like laughing, hold it in. And be careful of your dress--it has to last till your aunt buys you another."

We soon arrived at Chao's house. On the porch the men of the town, dressed in freshly starched guayaberas, leaned on their stools against the wall and conversed animately in a cloud of smoke. In a comer, old Changa, the best cigar roller in town, caressed the tobacco leaves with pleasure as he prepared the shredded mix and rolled enormous Havana cigars. Chino Chao's eldest daughter, dressed in linen, made the rounds of the porch, tray in hand, dispensing fragrant cups of coffee.

When I entered the house the scent of lilies and roses made me sneeze. Mama looked at me reproachfully, took me by the hand and half pushed me toward the living room. Through the smoke of the candles and incense, I made out the women of the town dressed in mourning from head to foot and gently sobbing in unison. Among them was Maria, Chino Chao's wife. Mama approached Maria's wicker rocking chair and in a low voice said something that I couldn't hear, but which seemed to remind Maria of the tragedy because she immediately burst into tears. Some tears welled up in mama's eyes, too, and she dried them with the tip of a linen handkerchief that she used only at weddings, baptisms and other solemn occasions. She immediately sat down in a rocking chair, and I wiggled into the one beside her.

Once I was seated I dared look to the center of the room, where a small blue box rested on a metal pedestal painted grey. "Huevito" Zuluaga had gone to some trouble, I thought, remembering the pranks we neighborhood kids had played on the poor owner of the Zuluaga Funeral Parlor. Though I never knew who gave him that nickname, I always thought it fit him very well. He was a tiny man, with large mustaches and a thick beard, but completely bald. When Huevito walked through town we would all hunker down and shout:

"There comes Huevito to measure us for a coffin!"

Despite our cruelty, Huevito was always willing to let us into his workshop at the back of the funeral parlor, a perfect place for playing hide and seek. …

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