Emissary to the Volcano

       A war chief named Popocatépetl promised to prove himself worthy of the emperor’s daughter by returning from combat with the head of the emperor’s greatest enemy. After the battle, a messenger told the emperor that Popocatépetl had cringed in the fight and died like a yellow dog. The emperor ordered his daughter brought in.

       Adorned as a bride in embroidered cloth and golden bracelets, her black hair burnished with indigo, Iztaccíhuatl listened as her father ordered her to forget the dead coward and marry a braver warrior. She bowed her head and backed away from the imperial presence. She slipped out of the palace unseen and ran into the wilderness, away from the tall columns and turquoise floors and jade bathing tubs, away from the aviary and menagerie and sculpted waterworks, away from the guards, servants, priests, artisans, and prisoners of war. As she ran, she stripped off and dropped her finery until she was no longer a royal bride but only a bare virgin. At a cold, rocky place, she collapsed and wept. Her tears froze, encasing her body in a shell of ice, and there died Iztaccíhuatl.

       When the emperor heard of his daughter’s disobedience, he ordered that her body be left untended in the wilderness for scavengers to tear apart. The spirit of Iztaccíhuatl would wander forever disfigured through the afterlife, forgetting that she had ever been beautiful and beloved.

       That messenger had been wrong. Popocatépetl returned victorious from battle, showed the enemy’s head to the emperor, and asked for his bride. When he learned that Iztaccíhuatl had died alone in the wilderness, receiving no funeral honors, his body swelled with rage. He hurled the decapitated head at the emperor and stormed out of the palace to find his love.

       Running, he followed her trail of discarded finery, stripping off and dropping his jaguar-skull helmet and body armor and weapons so that he was no longer a war chief but only a desperate bridegroom. When he found Iztaccíhuatl, lying naked and cold among the jagged rocks, her flesh ripped by coyotes and buzzards, her black hair no longer shining with indigo but dirty and tangled with thorns, he crouched and wept. His tears covered his body, encasing him in a shell of ice. But his rage continued to boil inside, erupting whenever it became too much for him to contain. 

       Eons later, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl are still out there, giant volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico. She has been dead for thousands of years, her ice-shell of frozen tears covered with dirt, rocks, and snow. He lives on, eternally grieving, his tears dropped as rainfall onto the pastures and fields of the villages on his slopes. This rainfall deposits volcanic ash on those pastures and fields, creating some of the most fertile soil in the world, enriching the villagers with bounties of tomatoes, corn, peppers, avocados, and beans.

       Every once in a long while, the warrior’s pent-up rage explodes, hurling fire and boulders, shaking the earth, and swamping the countryside with creeping, smoldering lava. In his greatest fury, he engulfs whole fields or neighborhoods in pyroclastic flow, a lightning-fast deluge of boiling sulfur gas and deadly rock fragments. But most of the time, he keeps his fury under control, rumbling and smoking just a little each day to keep from blowing apart. The villagers need his blessings of rainfall and fertile soil, and he cares for them—usually—as for the children he never had.

       They, in turn, revere him as a father but also pity him as a bereaved lover. Each spring they climb the slope to his cave, one of the many mystical portals between the surface of the earth and the interior, the land of time and the land of eternity, the living and the dead, to celebrate his fiesta. They call him by several names—Turquoise Lord, Fire Father, Spirit of Duality—but most affectionately by Don Goyo. Inside the cave, they light candles and arrange lilies and fuchsias on the stone altar. Kneeling on the cold ground, they pray for a fertile and quiet year. After the amens, they offer Don Goyo the first drink of pulque and the first bowl of spicy turkey molé before helping themselves. Mariachis play and sing while blindfolded children try to break the volcano-shaped piñata, showering everyone with coins and candy. As a final gesture of respect and love, the villagers set on the altar a beautiful new charro suit, black with silver buttons and embroidery—a perfect outfit for a bridegroom. 


       This was the story I used to beg my father to tell me. He was the Emissary to the Volcano—the voice of the village to the heart of Don Goyo. Every morning before breakfast and every evening before bed, he walked outside the house to face the volcano, crossed himself, and gave thanks for another day under its protection. When the rain was scanty, the hail destructive, or the locusts inordinate, he requested intervention. When the sun was plentiful, the breeze refreshing, the morning frostless, he gave thanks. If he awoke in the night with his mind knotted about the weather or the crops, he knelt on the floor, clasped his hands in prayer around his rosary, and disburdened himself. His prayers were always delivered in Nahuatl, our ancient sacred language. (It was well known that the sound of the conquistadors’ Spanish enraged Don Goyo.) Every spring, together with the priest, Papí headed the procession up to the cave, carrying the new charro suit. At the altar, he lit the candles while the priest prayed to the Virgin and asked that Papí be allowed to serve for another year as Emissary to the Volcano.

       This was honorable but dangerous work. Many times Papí climbed the mile to Don Goyo’s cave in rain, snow, or hail in order to light candles on the stone altar and pray for the easing of the storm. Even more often did he make that climb to ask for the calming of the volcano’s rage. The villagers were accustomed to Don Goyo’s daily displays of emotion—steam and gas emissions, rock fragments hurled from the crater, eerie nighttime incandescence, earth-rumblings—but the preservation of our houses, animals, crops, and lives required my father’s powers of persuasion.

       The villagers’ gratitude to Papí for performing this important service did not take the form of money—few of us had any to spare—but some mornings we found fresh eggs, ripe tomatoes, or caramel apple empanadas left on our porch. Often we found a new ex-voto retablo, a small painting offered to commemorate a miracle. Most of these miracles involved a crop saved from freezing, a child from drowning, or a car from crashing, but some were more unusual. My favorite showed Don Goyo in the background, dark blue and snow-capped and smoking against a pink-streaked sky. In the bottom left corner, a woman cringed and pointed at a silver sombrero in the upper right corner. Our Lady and Papí stood together on a cloud, calmly watching the silver sombrero, unafraid. The inscription read Luz Pacheco went to tend her goats and saw a UFO fly out of the crater of the volcano Popocatépetl. She was stunned and prayed to the Mother of Mercy and the Emissary to the Volcano. She gives this as a testimony to what happened. Tenango, 1953. 

       The ex-votos dedicated during Papí’s time as Emissary were added to the older ones and displayed in a shrine halfway up the slope between our house and the cave. Rock-built and conical, the shrine had an open top—like a volcano—to let in light and one open side for the devout to enter. Besides the little paintings, it housed the usual things: statues and pictures of Our Lady and El Niño, candles and incensers, framed prayers and vases of flowers. Every day after school, I walked the mile up the dirt road from our house to the shrine carrying rags and a pail of vinegar water to wipe the dust from the statues, replenish the candles and matches, and replace the wilted flowers with fresh ones.

       I loved praying at the shrine, imitating Papí’s communion with Don Goyo, but I hated cleaning it. Vinegar and dust in my nostrils, dirt and mud on my clothes, soot and plant-stem-slime on my hands. The long walk back and forth, the heavy pail, the dead chrysanthemums that smelled like sweaty socks.

       Mamí was not sympathetic. “Everyone in this family works. Would you rather do chores here in the house with me?”

       The same dirty tasks, just more of them. Plus cooking for hours only to watch it all vanish in minutes. Bearing and caring for ungrateful children like my brothers and me.

       “Would you rather work out in the fields with Papí and the boys?” 

       I hung my head.

       “Be satisfied, then.” She turned, arms full of soiled laundry, and left the room.

       Papí inherited his vocation from his father, who had it from his father, and so on, back for generations. None of them died peacefully in their beds. Our consolation was that an Emissary who died while performing his duty would bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven. There he would join his forefathers, the other Emissaries who had gone to God before him, and together they would continue their work, invisibly aiding the village’s earthly Emissary in protecting and perpetuating our life under the volcano.

       In my first memory of any talk about the succession, I am about six years old. We are at breakfast: Papí, Mamí, my two older brothers, and me. Eggs and chorizo, tortillas and green salsa, coffee and cinnamon-flavored hot chocolate. Tolo asks why Papí became the Emissary instead of one of his older brothers.

       “The succession doesn’t go by age, mijo. It’s whoever gets the calling,” says Papí.

       Adán’s eyebrows rise. “I thought your calling was farming.”

       “That’s just a business, a way to support my calling. Being a farmer keeps me close to Don Goyo, puts food on our table, and lets me raise sons. One of you will become the next Emissary when I go to God.” Papí smiles at my brothers. 

       Tolo does not smile back but looks down at his plate. “Why does it have to be one of us?”

       “It’s our family’s promise to God,” says Papí. “One of our ancestors swore long ago that a Mejía descendant would always serve as Emissary to the Volcano.”

       “But the next Emissary must also get the calling, yes?” says Tolo. “How will I know if it’s me?”

       My parents exchange a glance, and Mamí speaks. “You’ll know. It’s like falling in love, mijito. When it happens, you won’t have any doubt.”

       Tolo traces his knife through the pool of brown molé on his plate.

       Adán makes a rude noise with his mouth and grabs a handful of tortillas. “Well, it won’t be me.”

       No one speaks. I decide to interrupt the bad silence by telling them what I have always known. “I have the calling.”

       All four stare at me. 

       Tolo laughs. “Lunática.”

       Adán snorts and chews tortillas with his mouth open, staring out the window.

       Mamí smiles. “Your calling is to be a bride, Sarafina.”

       Papí pats my hand. “It’s only for boys, chiquita.” He looks regretful. I’ve accompanied him during his devotions ever since I could walk. I spoke my first words while kneeling at his side, bowing my head to Don Goyo: Notatzin, tlazocamati hue ipalnemoani. Our beloved father, thank you for giving us life. 

       They don’t understand, any of them. I remember every one of Don Goyo’s spring processions since I was born—going up the volcano strapped on Mamí’s back, being pulled in a wagon, riding a burro, hiking in new Keds. I even remember the year that Mamí carried me inside her belly. As she climbed up and up, I turned and pedaled inside her womb to adjust to the shifting angle of her posture. When she stubbed her foot on a rock and caught herself before falling, I kicked and punched in protest against the rapid tilt of gravity. The garlic and anise in the food she ate at that year’s fiesta popped my eyelids open and my tongue out. Most of all, I remember the sound: the volcano’s subterranean rumbling combined with the whooshing and gurgling inside Mamí’s body. Sound-armor. Safety and peace. I am sure that this is what having the calling feels like.

       Nothing more is said about the succession at this breakfast. Shortly after, Adán says he is going north to find work, and we never hear from him again.


       Ten years later, after the funeral with the empty casket, I skipped class to hike up through the rocky terrain to where the pyroclastic flow had swallowed crops, buildings, and animals along with my father. No one else had died. Before going up to pray, he’d made sure that everyone obeyed the evacuation warnings. Now he was looking down from heaven with his father and grandfather and all the Emissaries before them. They watched over me as I picked my way along the margin of the destruction and gazed at the towering columns of welded volcanic glass, the still-glowing boulderscape of lava, the raked and hardened flows of pumice, the endless sea of ash. Spare me, Mother of Souls.

       I’d asked Tolo to come with me to see this holy place, but he’d refused. He left home some weeks later. A friend of his had promised him work at a big garage, so he was off to Mexico City. Unlike Adán, he sent us his new address and wrote us a quick note every now and then, so at least we knew where he was and how he was doing.

       Now that all our men were gone, Mamí and I worked harder than ever. She arranged with other families to swap her labor (and mine) for help with our farm. Little Adelito Almeido came by daily to feed and water our burro and other animals. The four big Encinas boys split up the work on our fields, doing the ploughing, planting, harvesting, and packing. Rigoberto Cuamatla stopped by once in awhile to patch up leaking feed troughs, broken rungs on ladders, and new cracks in our adobe walls. In return, these good neighbors took home clean laundry, homemade pineapple beer, all the chilis and tomatoes their families could eat, sometimes even a fresh-killed chicken. The farm continued to do all right.

       Still, Mamí was often sad. With all our men gone, the family had no candidate for Emissary. The Mejía family would have to break its promise to God . . . and sooner or later, our village would be wiped out by the volcano.

       I’d been angry at Adán for years, and now I was angry at Tolo as well. Fury rumbled inside me all the time, just as it did inside Don Goyo. I continued to clean the shrine and do my other household chores, but I also took over Papí’s CB radio and notified our neighbors that I was temporarily acting as Emissary until the succession could be sorted out. I collected observations from the villagers who acted as volcano lookouts and transmitted daily reports and periodic warnings. Once I even conducted an evacuation drill for the school. After it was over, Señor Uvalde, our village’s headman, complimented me.

       From Papí’s books and notes and binoculars, I learned to recognize the difference between steam and gas emissions, to estimate the speed and track the direction of drifting ash plumes, and to understand words like tephra and caldera and lahar. I made flash cards with Nahuatl vocabulary words and quizzed myself every day. I’d even climbed alone up to Don Goyo’s cave to see it without the distraction of the other people and the ceremonial trappings of the annual procession. I’d stood in that heavy darkness, my eyes shut, slowly turning my body to feel the humid air, to hear the small cave-sounds, to smell the clean volcanic rock. I smoothed the damp fabric of the charro suit that Papí had put on the altar the previous year. And, of course, I prayed—for my brothers to be safe, wherever they were. For Mamí’s sadness to leave her. For Papí and the other ancestors in heaven to help us all. And for me to be recognized as the next Emissary to the Volcano.

       All this new work on top of my housework meant that I had no time for classes. The morning that I told Mamí I’d quit school, she got angrier than I’d ever seen before. I tried to explain, again and again, that I’d received the call and wanted to serve, but she wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t even let me speak. When I raised my voice to make her hear, she slapped me across the face so hard that I staggered and almost fell. We stared at each other for a moment—she had never before hit me—before she crumpled onto the floor and lay sobbing.

       Disgusted and hurt, I didn’t try to comfort her. I ran to the kitchen, picked up the sugar canister, took the emergency money, and left the house. With some vague notion of tracking down Tolo, I walked the village road to the highway and thumbed a ride with the first trucker who stopped. While he drove, I wept, so he talked to distract both of us. His name was Jesús María, he’d been married only six months, his wife was pregnant, they lived in the north part of Puebla in a town called Zacatlán, and so on. He gave me water to drink and made me eat one of the chorizo and egg burritos his wife had packed for his road food. By the time he dropped me off near Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, I was composed again.

       I walked and walked through the smelly streets of a busy shopping district, hands in pockets to keep my money safe, ignoring the calls of the hawkers and the wolf-whistles of the pendejos, but there was so much eye-confusion—pottery pigs, tiny dolls of wire wrapped with thread, miniature sombreros—that I was near tears again. I stopped to ask a few people if they could help me find the address of Tolo’s garage, but none of them knew the location of the district or the street. The city was a thousand times bigger than I had imagined it. Needing to escape the noise and the crowds, I turned off the main road down a tree-lined avenue leading to the park.

       As I walked, I read a tourist brochure saying that parts of ancient temples, roads, and aqueducts pushed up into the light from underneath the city—eternity protruding into history, markers of portals into the Inframundo. In the Tlalpan neighborhood, for instance, the tip of an ancient pyramid rises above the ground no more than sixty feet, a distance not even twice the length of a city bus. Residents and tourists walk by it thousands of times a day without giving it a glance, not knowing or caring that the rest of the pyramid extends far down into earth, along with an entire ancient city that surrounded it three thousand years ago before being entombed in volcanic lava.

       Another page of the brochure showed photos of mummies in a museum. These were people whose bodies had been naturally preserved by the dry air in the mines or caves where they’d died. One mummy-man’s mouth was wide open—in a scream? Heathenish thought. Rather a song of praise or a full-throated prayer of thanks. My first thought was to pity these dead trapped between worlds, neither here nor there, but then I began to envy them their existence in the everywhere. Most corpses deteriorate in dirt, silence, and loneliness. These mummies would live on, glass-protected and temperature-controlled, world without end, even after the city was once again shrouded in lava. 

       The avenue ended at a wooded area framing a small building roofed by a half-dome that rested on eight slim pillars supporting walls of glass. I walked, the building gradually enlarging in my sight, until I reached the entrance to its grounds. In front was a vast concrete fountain and pool with some kind of underwater sculpture lying flat on the bottom. I couldn’t see what it was meant to represent. No guards, no fence, no signs told me to stay away, so I went up to the edge of the pool and walked around, looking at the sculpture from all directions until I finally made out its shape: a running man made of stone. The only part of his body that wasn’t completely submerged was his head, tilted up so that a river gushed from his gaping mouth. A giant he was, endlessly disgorging the waters of the world—Tlaloc, beneficent god of rain and fertility, maleficent god of storms and destruction, ally and enemy of Popocatépetl, lord of the watery underworld that is one of the many portals into the Inframundo.

       A woman came out of the palace and walked toward me, smiling. “You’re welcome to come inside to see another sculpture.” 

       I stepped back from the pool. “What is this place?”

       “It’s a pumping station for the city’s water system. This fountain was created by Diego Rivera.”

       I didn’t know who Diego Rivera was. “I have to go. I need . . . ”

       “Restrooms are inside.” She smiled again, turning her body toward the door and reaching her arm out to me.

       Trapped, I walked with her into the building. Moving from outdoors to in, light to dark, sound to silence, I thought of those portals into the otherworld—graves, caves, mines, oceans, lakes, rivers—all the places where the boundary between the surface of the earth and what’s underneath becomes blurred.

       The indoor exhibit was a three-dimensional irregular spread of translucent colors on a big table sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty room. It took me a minute to understand what I was seeing: a topographical sculpture in layered glass. Blue-green translucencies, silver clarities, pale amber opacities resolved themselves into valleys and plains, rivers and lakes, mountains. I saw into and through and around the glass layers. Every movement of my head altered the lighting of the thing, illuminating and shading it in different ways. Here a glint, there a shadow. Here a flash, there a gloom.

       And then I saw that the sculpture represented the Valley of Mexico. I was looking down, like God, onto the very place where I, Sarafina Eumelia Mejía, was standing. My eyes automatically searched out Don Goyo to give me my orientation, and there he was. Near him was Iztaccíhuatl, his dead bride. And there, invisible but present, was my village and Papí’s empty grave and the old car that Tolo had left behind and the house that Mamí was alone in right this minute. Mamí, worried and frightened because of me. Mamí, who’d lost a husband and two sons and was now wondering if she’d lost me as well.

       I looked away and tried to focus on the sculpture’s label. Most of what was written there didn’t mean anything to me—I’d never heard of the artist or the donor and I didn’t understand the title—but one thing did strike me: The thing had been constructed entirely of different kinds of volcanic glass. As I whispered their names, my mouth filled with water, and I thought of Tlaloc disgorging floods as a blessing and curse for all living beings. Olivine basalt, yellowish-green with specks of dark red. Glossy obsidian dusted with pale gray snowflakes. Sideromelane, palagonite, hyaloclastite, tachylite, and more. The taste of the names in my mouth left me hungry again.

       I looked once more at the two volcanoes. Both were capped with whitish snow-glass; both swooped upwards in curves of striated greenish-blue. But through their translucent walls I saw that their hearts were different. The core of Iztaccíhuatl was a teardrop of blackness, silvery on the surface but dark underneath. It quietly closed in on itself, bringing the eye to stillness. Don Goyo’s heart, though, was wildly alive, a fiery kernel of crimson. It seemed to pulse underneath the glass earth and throughout the above-ground cone, throbbing with angry golden lights. I watched and listened, mesmerized, my heartbeats gradually synchronizing with the volcano’s, my body etherealizing, my molecules mingling with those of the glass, penetrating that center. I was inside the volcano, and my mind heard a voice: Why give me a new bridegroom’s suit every year but never a bride?

       I looked again at the two glass volcano hearts, hers black and dead, his red and alive, and felt the beating of my own heart. My own red, living heart.

       I had to go home. Seeing Tolo would have to wait.

       On the way down the avenue back to the main street, I stopped to wash my face and hands in the fountain to give me strength for braving the crowds and noise once again. I’d had nothing to drink since the trucker had handed me his thermos five hours earlier, so I drank and drank. As I refreshed myself, I watched Tlaloc spewing forth his flood and wondered how he could be both friend and enemy at the same time. No evil without good, Mamí liked to say. I wondered if that also meant no good without evil.

       Back on the street, I sought out a clothing vendor and asked if I could see her best ceremonial huipil. She showed me a beautiful one with red flowers and blue birds embroidered on the fine white cotton bodice and many rows of red and blue satin ribbons sewed around the neckline, hem, and cuffs. When she held it up against me, it came only to my knees, so she added a ruffled white petticoat to go underneath. I looked at myself in her mirror, imagining my hair braided with red and blue ribbons, a fiesta crown of flowers on my head. I’d have to spend nearly all the money I’d taken from the kitchen, but it would be worth it. The vendor wrapped up the dress and petticoat in paper, and I walked to the bus station clutching my package to my chest.

       At first, Mamí acted like I’d been gone a year rather than a day, embracing and kissing and weeping over me. After a few minutes, her heart shifted, and she began acting like she was sorry I’d ever returned, scolding and threatening. I waited through her confusion before saying, “I have something to show you.” 

       She sat with the huipil and petticoat on her lap for a long time, running her fingertips over the satiny threads of crimson and cobalt, listening and nodding as though hypnotized, while I told her of my revelation. After I finished talking and was quiet for a few minutes, she asked me how much the clothes had cost. When I told her, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. I froze, but she opened her eyes and smiled. My face must have showed that I still felt cautious because she laughed and held out her arms to me. After our embrace, she made me put on the dress and petticoat and carefully examined me front, back, and sides, pulling on the fabric here, pinching it in there. I stood for a long time while she knelt, pins in her mouth, to mark places where a pleat or an inch of lace needed her attention. After the pinning, she stood, held my face in her hands, and looked into my eyes before saying, “The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, Sarafina.” Then she ordered me to strip and left me standing bare while she whisked away the dress and petticoat for altering, washing, starching, and ironing.

       A week after arriving home, I woke up with a sore throat and fever. Mamí kept me in bed with anise tea, chicken soup, and Vicks VapoRub, but the sickness increased—vomiting, headaches, back pain, stiffness in my legs. We were both frightened because she didn’t know what to do. Señor Uvalde came to look at me. He showed us the headlines in his morning newspaper—Polio Outbreak in the Capital!—and said authorities were investigating the municipal water supply. I admitted washing myself in Tlaloc’s fountain and drinking from it. Mamí dropped to her knees and clasped her hands, but Señor Uvalde said, “Pray later. Grab the blankets from the bed and help me wrap her.” They swaddled and laid me in the back of his pickup, and he drove us the thirty-seven miles to the nearest hospital. There I watched as a rubber mallet tapped my kneecaps and stroked the soles of my feet. Nothing happened. People in masks took samples of my spinal fluid, stool, and mucus and sent them away for analysis. By the time the diagnosis came in two days later, I couldn’t move my legs at all. Worse, my breathing was going wrong.

       Gasping and panting, I was gurneyed into a room filled with horizontal steel cylinders, each six feet long, each with a living human head protruding from one end. A constant whoosh-phew noise, like a giant breathing, came from the mechanical iron lungs that were keeping their tenants alive. Two of the nurses inserted me into a vacant cylinder to lie on my back. They tightened the leather collar around my neck, switched the machine on, adjusted some valves, and stood back to watch.

       The relief was instantaneous. My lungs filled as they hadn’t been able to for days—filled and emptied, filled and emptied. Never before had I experienced such pleasure in simply breathing. The nurses nodded, patted my head, and left the room. I closed my eyes, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. Sleeping came easily inside the cocoon of the whoosh-phew.

       Waking was not so pleasurable. I was thirsty. My nose itched. I’d soiled my diaper. I wanted my mother. Electric lights went on and off randomly, not correlating with my sleeping or waking. I never learned the names or saw the faces of the other patients in the room. Nurses came in to feed and water me. Sometimes they extracted my cot from the machine, undressed and washed me, put a fresh diaper and gown on me, and slid me back in like a loaf of bread that needed more baking. Was I being punished? Or tested? Either way, I had to submit. Be it done unto me according to Thy word.

       Time never passed. I lay like that outside time, inside eternity. Like Don Goyo’s cave, the iron lung was a portal to the other world, the Inframundo, between here and there, in neither place, in both. My body was still, but my mind was busy all the time—thinking, remembering, planning, regretting, mourning. Papí’s cigarette-smelling mustache. The brown skin of Adán’s scalp shining through the top of his crew cut. Tolo’s fingers cupping his harmonica. Our old burro Romeo, whose love for a half-inflated beach ball knew no bounds. They were all inside my head, no longer in this world. And my old flesh body, too, was gone from this world, the iron lung my new body. Whenever a nurse adjusted one of its dials or leaned against its steel cylinder, I shivered, feeling that touch as on my own skin. Hoc est corpus meum; this is my body.

       The best part was the breathing. I’d never seen the ocean, but I imagined that being inside the iron lung was like lying in the surf at the beach, feeling the waves wash over my body, pushing and pulling, pushing and pulling. If only Don Goyo could feel this—or even just hear it. This was the sound he needed to calm his rage. I practiced forgetting my old flesh body and listening to my new steel body. The machine’s constant whoosh-phew sound reassured me, its alternating negative and positive pressure doing all the hard work of breathing for me. 

       When they finally let her in to see me a week later, Mamí spoke in Nahuatl so the nurses wouldn’t understand. “Your huipil is coming along well. We’ll be ready in plenty of time for spring.” She was combing out my hair, arranging it strand by strand on the pillow to radiate from my head, like the rays of a black sun.

       Studying Papí’s books and notes had greatly improved my Nahuatl, but my paralyzed diaphragm meant that I had to whisper, so they couldn’t have heard us anyway. “What about the iron lung?”

       “Señor Uvalde collected a tax, enough to buy it. It belongs to us now.”

       I sighed. “That’s too bad for the Morelos and Vivianos.” They were our poorest families. “I hope they don’t hate me for it.”

       She smiled and continued combing. “Not at all. They were glad to contribute. It’s a community benefit, after all.”

       “I hope so. But the machine needs a power supply.” Our village had no electricity.

       I felt her hands falter and stop combing. After a long silence, she said, “God will provide.”

       “God helps those who help themselves. Will you get Tolo on the telephone for me?”

       Another long silence. She still resented his leaving us. 

       “Mamí. We need him.”

       Her hands slowly began combing again. “Yes, of course. We need him.”

       “Don’t tire her out,” said the nurse who brought in the telephone.

       Mamí lowered her eyebrows and stared until the woman left us. She dialed the phone and spent a long time explaining everything to my brother. After starting in Nahuatl, she quickly switched to Spanish. I smiled, imagining Tolo saying, “Mom, talk like a human!”

       She held the phone to my ear, and I heard my brother’s voice say, “Hey, Lunática. I know you’ll do anything to get attention, but this polio stunt is ridiculous.”

       I’d missed him so much. Mamí saw tears in my eyes and barked into the phone, “Bártolo Fidel Mejía, watch your tongue! Your sister needs help.” Again holding the phone to my ear, she sat back and watched my face.

       “Hey, Tonta. I’m sorry I called you Lunática. I really meant Idiota. What do you need?”

       It hurt when I laughed, but Mamí’s face relaxed. “Get me out of here. I can’t go home until my iron lung has a power supply.”

       “Easy. This garage has tons of portable generators. I’ll pick out a good one and get you home from the hospital next week.”

       “Is the generator light enough for Romeo Jr. to carry up to the volcano’s cave?”

       He paused, then understood. “Yeah, easy. We can send up the gas supply at the same time. I know where I can pick up a gasifier cheap. It’s an old machine used during the war to power tanks and jeeps. Turns wood chips into fuel. I’ll call the sawmill foreman in Tenango and get him to deliver a truckload of free chips to Mamí’s house every week.” Among the badlands of rock and petrified lava on the volcano’s slopes were forests of cedar, mahogany, and oak.

       I was scared. My life would depend not only on the iron lung but also on these other machines. But they would come from Señor Uvalde and Tolo—and God—so I would have faith. Thy will be done. 

       “Can you stay home with us for a while?”

       “Yeah, sure. I’ve got an idea about installing generators and gasifiers for the whole village. Señor Uvalde might fund the project or hook me up with an investor. Hey, gotta go now. See you next week. Don’t stay out dancing all night, Lunática.”

       I laughed again, my chest hurting again, and handed the buzzing phone to Mamí so she could hang it up. She’d heard my part of the conversation and had inferred his, so we were quiet as she finished combing my hair into a dark fan around my head and held up her pocket mirror so I could see. “The Mojadura girls want to begin planning your flower crown. I told them it should be all blue and red—dahlias, morning glories, and chrysanthemums, just like the embroidery on your huipil. Is that what you’d like?”

        “Yes.” I could barely whisper now. “That sounds beautiful, Mamí.”

       She stroked my cheek. “Oh, my little girl. Mi chiquita. Just rest now. You’ll be home soon. The Lord be with you.”


       When Tolo and Mamí came to pick me up a week later, she wanted to kiss and cry and he wanted to joke around, but I said, “Let’s do all that later. Get me out of here first.” They laughed and wiped their faces and walked behind the iron lung—mine now, in law as well as body and spirit—as the orderlies rolled me out to Señor Uvalde’s pickup. Tolo directed them to set me in the middle of the flatbed and hook me up to his portable generator. They removed the bag-mask resuscitator that had kept me alive during the transfer from hospital to truck and restarted the iron lung. My chest expanded gratefully while Tolo and the orderlies chocked my wheels and secured me with bungee cords. While everyone worked around me, I lay on my back watching lady-bottomed clouds trailing wedding veils across my vision. Mamí held her pocket mirror above my face, tilting it so I could see a tiny Don Goyo smoking in the blue distance. “He’s waiting,” she said, and winked.

       They didn’t want me staring up into the sun while Tolo drove us home, so Mamí tied her black scarf over my eyes before we started off. On the road, the rhythm of the tires and the iron lung sounded over the steady drone of the truck’s engine and the portable generator, and I dreamed myself into Don Goyo’s cave. That’s where I will serve now. Down below, someone else will clean the shrine and operate the CB radio. New ex-votos will come, ones that show me up in the sky, floating weightless on a cloud inside the iron lung, shining like the sun inside a golden corona. The new paintings will testify to the gratitude of those whose cows I relieve of mastitis, whose crops are saved when I divert hailstorms, and whose children I cure of polio. In the annual spring pilgrimage up the slope of the volcano to the cave, villagers will bring me tribute of cacao and plantains for my nourishment inside the Inframundo. After Don Goyo’s old charro suit is replaced on his altar by a fresh one, I will be stripped of my old wedding dress and garbed anew.

       Inside the cave, the Inframundo, breathing will be my constant prayer, inhaling and exhaling my holy act of world-perpetuation. Singing, chanting, smoking sacred tobacco—these other prayer-breathings were used by my ancestors for thousands of years. Mine is the new way. 

       Hoc est corpus meum.

About the Author: Kathleen R. Sands has lived in Arizona, Scotland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, working as a zookeeper, laboratory technician, government writer, and English professor. Her short fiction has appeared in more than twenty magazines and in its own collection, Boy of Bone, which received an honorable mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival. Her novel, In-Between People, was a finalist for the 2017 Brighthorse Prize.