Pan de los Muertos

By Dru Pagliassotti

Take-Man strolled past Elysian Park, leather collar high, keychain rattling, mirrorshades reflecting the wildfires that chewed the Malibu hills, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Mountains.

He was Take-Man, dark beneath the orange glow of the October dusk, which was now starting to darken into ash and shadow. Take-Man, his hair ruffled by the whisper of tires humming over broken concrete. Take-Man, his heartbeat the engine tick; Take-Man, his laugh the sickening crumple of metal meeting metal at 65 miles per hour on a 15-mile-per-hour residential street; Take-Man, whose teeth had the shine of razorwire and whose voice was the rattle of discarded brass casings on pavement.

Take-Man had come to Los Angeles, and this was his month, this was his night, this was his hour. He'd rattled in over desert roads in his run-down Lincoln, over multiple lanes of barren freeway, and finally over chewed-up inner-city streets that glistened brightly with shattered windshields, broken brake lights and fractured turn signals. Red and yellow, the colors of October, fire season in Los Angeles, panic season, sizzle season, the right season for Take-Man to drop his chewed-up boot heels on the pavement of the city and look around and whisper to himself, "I claim this."

Dry laughter greeted his statement. Take-Man turned his mirror-maze shades on the old lady sitting on a bus-stop bench, orange and yellow marigolds spilling from her dark-skirted lap, miniature bursts of flame. The wall behind her was covered with concert posters that peeled off the weatherworn wood like curls of dry paper from a broken piñata, stirring gently in the warm breeze.

"What are you laughing at, old woman?" he asked, voice as cold and sour as the flavor of a blued-steel gun barrel. The white-haired old woman looked up and smiled at him with yellow papier-mâché teeth and bitter pulque-breath.

"Just because you have spread your shadow over our lands doesn't make us yours." Her laugh was old, her eyes ancient, her face creased with lines. "I know what you are, Take-Man. You cannot take this city."

Take-Man took a step closer, and somewhere a child shrieked, a door slammed, a needle plunged into bruised flesh.

"Every city can be taken," he said, face moving in shadow -- first white, then brown, then yellow, then red, then black, then white again, an indeterminate color, the color of the many faces of the faceless crowd.

"The problem with mirrored eyes," she chuckled, "is that they reflect; they do not perceive. Lift your face, Take-Man. Lift your face and breathe my city."

Take-Man snarled at her. An empty beer can rattled down the narrow concrete sidewalk, fleeing before the gusts. She kept smiling. His nostrils flared as he smelled the burning-human scent of roast pork, the dry-adobe smell of sizzling masa, that surrounded her.

Take-Man straightened. Her scent was that of a foe. A foe, on this autumn night, this darkest of all nights, this night he intended to claim the city.

"Do you feel the heat?" she asked. "Do you feel the warmth? The states where you come from grow cold in October. In the cities that bred you, the people feel a chill. They sense the cold of the grave, and they fear your presence. But that is not the way here."

"All cities are the same," Take-Man growled. On the 101 a car spun out of control, tires screeching across four lanes before it slammed into the concrete center divider.

"But hearts do not freeze in El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles." She chuckled, a whispering sizzle of masa harina on a hot iron skillet. "They burn.

"October may be your month in the East, but here the rules are different. For the first weeks, maybe, there are days that drop into the '70s, and Los Angeleños begin to pull out their sweaters. But then, ah, then" -- the old woman gave her rictus grin -- "then the Santa Anas, the winds of la madre de María, blow in. They are Heaven's breath, as hot as an arcangelo's sword, sweeping over the mountains to bring desiccation and wildfire. Every year they come, and October is as midsummer again."

"What is your name, old woman?" Take-Man asked suspiciously. He ran a large hand over the stiff leather of his jacket, suddenly feeling uncomfortably warm. Santa Anas shook the palm trees around them. Dry fronds rattled like old bones. He looked up, frowning. The fire-scent around him smelled of burning chaparral, charred pine -- so different from what he knew: burning rubber, exploding jet fuel, smoldering insulation, molten glass, vaporized concrete. Gunpowder and asphalt, and the bitter fear of death's cold touch.

"Call me Calaca, Take-Man."

"Calaca." He sneered to mask a twinge of alarm. "Are you going to stand against me, Calaca? You -- what are you, in this city of eternal youth? I am young, I am powerful. I am modern, I am urban. I am the nightmare on your screens and the despair in your music. I am the ignorance of childhood, the restlessness of adolescence, the violence of young adulthood. Your Los Angeles already venerates me, old woman. You -- you are nothing to me. This city eats old women like you alive."

Calaca stood, and the Santa Anas swept around them, carrying smoke from the hills, exhaust from the freeways. Take-Man turned his face to one side as he caught the faint, sweet scent of melting dulces.

Marigolds fluttered from the old woman's black skirt and blew over the sidewalk, all except one. That one she held out to him. It was as orange as an ember, as orange as a pumpkin, as orange as October.

"Do not mistake the grimace of the careta, the mask, for the face that lies beneath it." She offered the marigold again. "Take this and leave. Cempazuchiles are all you can take from us, Take-Man."

Angered, uneasy, Take-Man slapped her hand aside. He stepped forward and wrapped a hand around her neck. Her skin felt dry and papery. She was warm, almost hot, against his cold flesh.

"If a wetback peasant like you is all that stands between me and this city, old woman, then I will own Los Angeles by midnight."

Dust and ash whipped up around them in an abrasive cloud. Chain-link and fence slats rattled. Faded posters flapped. Garbage shifted. Take-Man felt a furnace blast on his face and barked with cruel laughter.

"Heaven's breath," he mocked, fingers tightening around the old lady's sinewy neck. "A bunch of hot air."

The old woman pursed her lips and blew a quick puff at him. Her breath reeked of scalded sugar, copal, and agave. He recoiled, and the Santa Anas howled around them. Trees shook, palm fronds clattered, screen doors slammed, dirt flew. Sweat sluiced down the inside of Take-Man's leather jacket as the wind sucked all the moisture from his exposed flesh.

He released Calaca to turn his face away from the flying grit.

"I am not all that stands in your way," the old woman said quietly. "My fieles difuntos, my faithful dead, are with me." She held out a hand, and he saw the embers flicker across her fingertips. "Can mirror-eyes see my angelitos?"

Take-Man saw, and knew that the hot, dry October sparks, the autumn angels, thirsted for his blood, his lymph, his urine -- everything inside of him that was still wet and vulnerable. Mirrorshades and leather, the cold shields of the impersonal city, were no protection against their insistent, all-too-intimate thirst.

Take-Man felt fear.

Calaca lifted her face to the wind and opened her mouth. The Santa Anas rushed between her jaws, drying the damp tissues of her nose, her mouth, slicing down her throat like knives and eagerly drinking the moisture from her lungs. Her flesh dried, mummified: hard gristle, charred tissue, burnt caramel.

"What the hell are you?" Take-Man asked, and for the first time he took a step back, back toward the cities of his origin, where the searing Santa Anas never stirred.

"I am an old woman," Calaca said, in a voice that rustled like shifting sand. "And where the Santa Anas blow in the city of eternal youth, the old are the ofrenda."

"The ofrenda?" He took another step backward.

"The altar that celebrates death and does not fear it."

Take-Man mopped sweat from his face. Blisters rose across Calaca's arms, then broke open and peeled back under the heat of the October winds. The October winds, the Santa Anas -- the autumn fire-bringers of Los Angeles, which did not blow in the lands east of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. In Take-Man's East, All Hallow's Eve was greeted by winds as cold as the grave. These unnatural gales, hot and vital, repulsed him.

Calaca's blistered skin peeled back like ashes. The tissue underneath sizzled and then surrendered to fire.

Take-Man stripped off his leather jacket, unable to bear the heat any longer, a heat like none he'd ever felt before, not even in explosions, in arson, in terrorism: not Take-Man, the October man, the autumn walker, the shadow-stalker, the harbinger of cold flesh and icy earth.

"And youth like you?" Calaca added in death's dry rattle. "Youth like you are the offerings on the altar. You are our Pan de los Muertos."

She lunged with blackened, skeletal hands. Take-Man flinched, but her sharp fingers pierced him, drove through his camouflage tank top, sank into his cold, dense flesh, and touched bones as hard and lifeless as chrome.

Take-Man screamed as she pulled him open and let the hot October wind inside. His blood poured onto the sidewalk, liquid darkness as thick and as rich as motor oil, as raw sewage, as dark mole.

"Now, isn't that better?" the old woman asked, and he screamed as she pulled off his face like a mask. His bones melted in the Santa Anas as though they were made of sugar. Fat sizzled and ran from his open body like candle wax. Heat burned within him like fire licking the inside of a hollow, lifeless gourd.

Flesh and bone twisted together into a mummified skeleton, as hollow as a piñata. Calaca effortlessly slid inside, drawing Take-Man's flayed flesh on like a dress.

He screamed, but there was nothing left to scream with, and as she smoothed his face over her own, his teeth and tongue became hers, and then he was empty of everything but Calaca.

"In the East," she said, opening his arms, her arms, to embrace the hot winds, "beyond the mountains, they are afraid of October. They are afraid of the cold, of death. But here, Señor Take-Man, here death is warm, as warm as our autumn brush fires, our winds, our blood, our altar candles. Here, Take-Man, we do not run from death, but embrace it."

Then she let the wind take her, and all that was left of Take-Man was a run-down old Lincoln parked along the street and a leather jacket lying in the shadows.

Marigolds slowly covered the jacket, blown by a wind that carried the smell of October ash and burning marzipan.


Copyright © 2003 Dru Pagliassotti

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Dru Pagliassotti is a professor at California Lutheran University. She also runs The Harrow and obeys a grumpy iguana. Dru's story "Analogues" was published in Erratica; her other pubs are nonfiction. For more about her, see her website.