The Day of the Dead

Michael Ortiz Hill

For a Latino child the Day of the Dead is an exciting event, similar but with different poetry than Halloween. Calaveras are everywhere – skulls, skeletons, skeletal nurses and doctors doing surgery on a skeleton, farmers plowing with a skeleton of a work horse, skeletal priests raising the host in their bony hands, calavera hunters taking aim at the skeleton of a deer, and los novios swooning cheek bone to cheek bone. Little putty figurines or candy. And then there’s the picnic in the graveyard where the old ones are buried. Horchata and tamales for the children, beer and tamales for mom and dad, and wine and tamales for your mother’s uncle under the ground.

As an adult I’ve only been a part of Dia de los Muertos twice. Once in El Salvador in 1986 as a nurse. Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless from an earthquake that shattered the capital and from the carpet-bombing to the north. After sunset on the Day of the Dead I see a skinny boy in black full bodied leotards and a skull mask but scurry soon to the next homeless campfire and from there I quickly move on. After nightfall the death squads come out and kill their political enemies. And I’m further from my hotel than I want to be.

The last Day of the Dead I honored was much darker than my time in El Salvador though in truth it was just the doorway to the bitter blue dark of being stripped to the bone by tragedy. The police had found a plastic bag with my brothers wallet, some xeroxes of “How to Survive in the Wilderness” and his bankbook. “The trail is cold,” the Tesuque tribal policeman told me. Paul had been gone three months and winter was coming. So I headed from the end of the cold trail overland towards my grandfathers’ ranch trying to find my little brothers corpse.

A mind emptied of hope for years can still find the dregs of hope to spill in the dirt. I knew I would find nothing and that I must suffer whatever I must to come up with nothing and step by step the land I’d known as holy since I was a boy was simply cold with hunger and pitiless to anybodies soul. I looked and looked exhausted by heat. Finally as I approached the ridge bordering my ancestral land I sang a Yoruba song to Ochossi, the Yoruba spirit of the hunt who can follow the scent of prey anywhere and makes trails through whatever welter. I was quickly startled by the cackling of a single pinon jay and after he got my attention he spurted to the ridge of an arroyo and then into scrub oak.

I walked down into the dry riverbed trembling of course, knees week of course and dizzy with nausea. When I parted the scrub oak I suddenly saw it, exposed, a stunning white: the jawbone of a mule deer. How much like a deer Paul was, lithe and nervous like a fawn frightened of the cars at night. I took the bone to place on my ancestors’ altar. Alive or dead I would pray for the passage of his soul. I looked at it and gently said, “This may be the last I will ever see of little Paul.” I knew it would be a long time before the tears would run.

Paul was the smallest of the six of us, born with his cord wrapped three times around his neck. Some attributed his strangeness to that, being suffocated at the moment of birth.

The invisibles were always a part of the family. My mother’s visions and dreams. The poltergeist that came when my sisters were first bleeding, turning the washing machine on at three a.m., plastering the inside windows with mud.

And that strange but useful new technology taking over the neighborhood. Perry Mason didn’t explain our household but the Twilight Zone certainly did. What with all these disembodied ones along with Elvis, Bonnie and Clyde, Ed Sullivan, and the Beatles, the house was a hive of incomprehensible others.

Into this Paul brought his own retinue of shades. By eleven Officer Krupke was a virtual Nazi trying to whip the two street gangs into shape. He’d put on Westside Story barking “Officer Krupke you at it again, these boys don’t need a shrink they need a year in the pen.” It isn’t a matter of misunderstood, deep down inside him they’re no good and with the refrain “they’re no good, they’re no good, they’re no stinking good,” Paul Krupke would hit us with a stick. I don’t recall whether, being biracial, Krupke was beating the Latino Sharks or the White guys. Anyway it hurt.

Paul’s invisibles changed when he got Jesus. At 15 he knew the exact day Christ was returning and that it was soon because the star wormwood had poisoned the waters of the earth and he could taste blood in the faucet water and had my mother change water filters every few days. He felt compelled to tell all the Christians in Santa Fe about it and most thought he was mad for some reason – except the Later Day Saints. They listened.

Paul carried his conversion with the perfect presence of a staid and earnest missionary (he yearned for a few years teaching tribal people about Joseph Smiths vision in New York, the angel Moroni and how Native Americans are the lost tribe of Jews). He also, often, pulled off a rather tight rectitude, a 19th century Later Day pioneer in the backcountry of Utah. He was taken with the alarming idea that practicing Christianity was actually possible in the twentieth century and cast his lot with the homeless, sometimes bringing them home for a bite to eat. The hour was short. He knew that. So why withhold Christ’s generosity from anyone?

I began to get worried when I went outside late at night and found Paul standing on the roof of my car in full baritone singing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” to a circle of spaceships hovering above his head. Paul saw Don Quixote as a patron Saint (he once told me quite soberly that my grandfathers ancestry hails from La Mancha, Spain).

Paul was evidently in a state of abject ecstasy and extreme paranoia so I drove him to an acquaintance’s solitary cabin and decided to heal him. A la R. D. Laing. A la the miserable, sleepless, incompetent Nganga I always was. But alas he was a man mainlining ecstasy, truth, the book of Mormon, and the belief that extraterrestrials have come to take him from this place. A man awaiting rescue from the Mexican guy in the trailer park that wanted to kill him and even from the Devil doesn’t sleep much. Nor did I when he soaked our bed in urine in the cold cabin. I’d have thought nothing quite feeds sleeplessness as when big brother gets angry but Paul met it with surprising kindness and lucidity.

“You went through this when you were my age didn’t you?”

“Oh yes I did. And I pass Dad’s words to you cause he told me he went though it also. It’s a rite of passage, he said. It happens when you’re young and trying to find out how to be an adult. He said ‘you can trust it.’”

I knew I was lying. I knew Paul couldn’t trust what he was in and this was not the mad vision I had when I was homeless, probably not my father’s mad vision either. Nonetheless I made a fire in the woodstove, sang a traditional song and ritually went about scribbling things on paper, Paul giving them to the flames: Burning up the Paul that lived by the story of being victim.

“You don’t have to get crucified, Paul. Jesus did that for all of us. You are free. His blood spilt made you free. Sing freedom brother.” My hand still warm from the ash I knew truly that there was nothing I could do to stop Paul’s eventual crucifixion. He had an appointment to make. In fact a few years later he charged into the low chamisa, the edge where the high desert shifts to pine and then aspen. He disappeared a couple of months before his thirty-third birthday. Time to prepare, I guess. For years we didn’t know whether he was dead or alive, murdered, suicided or living in the backcountry of Utah.

For those years I went down to the place one must go when you’re served the indigestible. Bless those cultures that know that you place the forsaken in a hut of mourning for I effectively gathered such a hut around myself, a little island in time to pray, weep and scratch at my skin.

Eventually I went to a cabin in central Arizona to spend some time with Deena. The smell of the land and the flowers so much like New Mexico and mercifully far away. I could not yet enter the forest, that place of solace now in my mind dank with fear but I did spend a day at a lovely creek to sing, confess, make offerings.

I made a small circle from elk dropping and placed Paul’s jawbone in the middle and went to the bloody altar of accountability. Who killed Paul? Murdered or not he was nonetheless killed. Was it my father, posthumously? A seventh child, unwanted, not the bright light of intelligence that my Dad valued.

Or how about myself? Refusing to be poisoned by the extremity of selflessness after is first psychotic break I watched my heart thicken to stone. I was skilled at that simple confusion of gestures that will drive anyone crazy and sends a paranoid person over the brink – the perpetual twist of the hands. “Come closer Paul, you are loved,” coupled with “stay away. I don’t know what to do with you.” He’d approached me about living on the land with Deena and myself a couple of weeks before he disappeared and I refused him.

And was he in truth murdered? Some family members think he was. Is my story a fairy tale? Did he really follow a mad vision into the wilderness; did crucifixion bring his fragments together?

Some fairytale. Besides crucifixion is murder, too. Not knowing whether he was even dead I made offerings on behalf of his murderers. What hell they must live in where no one knew that for such as they, prayer is the fiercest of obligations. Besides I was of their company and I refused to lie about it. When a family is swallowed by a Greek tragedy each has their role. Weeping, I recognized the blunt truth: If it were all replayed, a second chance, we’d likely fail as we failed before not for lack of love but because we were aghast before the unhealable.

And then things turned mid-afternoon. What had been dark and accusatory softened to seeing the web of human frailty, much including my own. And I began seeing Paul in his astonishing strength and endurance, his kindness and solidarity with the homeless however much he suffered. I began to feel an affection for his crazy visions and ambitions, his Mormon screenplay about Mickey Mouse and a little human girl off to the planet Zot to confer with the disembodied elders of the church. To dream the impossible dream! Paul was good at that.

I placed a wildflower on a stone in the creek and returned just across the street to cook supper with Deena. I had been with her for perhaps a half hour while the sun went down when we heard the mewing of an elk cow just up the creek from where I had my conversation with Paul. Unearthly. Soon there was a chorus of them under the moonlight, a couple of dozen coming from the forest and browsing in the field. Deena rightly restrained me – I was momentarily adamant that I should be among them, join their tribe. “They’ve come to get, Paul,” she said. “It s not for you to join them.” I knew she was right. And I knew Paul was free. Resurrected would be his word for it.

Shortly after that (a month, a year I don’t know but it seemed short) my mother called. A deer hunter had found a cracked skull and half a human pelvis not far from where Ochossi had the jay send me to the underbrush for his jawbone. The DNA proved positive. Paul had arrived.

Flying to New Mexico to claim the remains and lay Paul down I cast the I Ching. I wanted to know how to stand alongside my mother, the grief of a mother who lost her youngest son to be honored next to my own. “Adorned in white. The culmination of the procession. White is the color of death and thus what is plain, clear, pure, and releases the spirit. Don’t hide things. Bring out the essentials. Adorn yourself with real virtue. Accept the difficult task. It releases bound energy and delivers from sorrow. The situation is already changing.”

There is no white like bones bleached by the desert sun. A radiance remained of Paul. Georgia O’Keefe could not do justice to. Lifting his skull from the blue plastic box I tried to recognize his face but could not. I ran my hand across his forehead and my index finger to where the skull knit in the center, remembered touching the soft indentation of his fontanel when he was a baby. When I handed it to my mother she unabashedly kissed it.

White radiance reduced to three or four handfuls of ash and that given to the red earth next to my grandfather. My God how we played on this land, I thought. I prayed in Shona and my mother read from the ragged missal she’d kept from her childhood: “Even as you have done unto the least of these my brethren you have done unto me.”

There is a Dine word that very much belongs to the understanding of Amor Fati but it doesn’t in the least translate into English. Hozro is usually translated “beauty” as in Matthew’s gorgeous translation of the Nightway Ceremony:

With beauty before me. Held in my hand.

With beauty behind me. Held in my hand.

With beauty above me. Held in my hand.

With beauty below me. Held in my hand.

With beauty all around me. Held in my hand.

Now in old age wandering. Held in my hand.

Now on the trail of beauty. Held in my hand.

Hozro is the core of Navajo medicine. Healing ceremonials like the Nightway Ceremony are about drawing the ill person back to hozro. When I lay out the cards of the Amor Fati oracle my intent is to lay out a little field of relationships the way a singer makes a sand painting with pollen, crushed flower petals and different colors of sand for the patient to enter into and be realigned with the pattern that returns him to hozro.

But hozro is not exactly “beauty” as the idea is conceived in English. Firstly Dine has nothing like the noun system that is the very fabric of European languages. Everything is effectively a verb, and activity, a way of being. Secondly hozro means beauty as a feeling tone as much as the visual display we associate with the word. It is harmony, balance, and physical well-being. It is right and generous relationships with family, clan, and land. My translation of hozro, no better than any and certainly lacking Matthew poetry is “right relationship” or perhaps “right relating.” But respecting the limitations of English I’d translate, sa’ah naghai bikeh hozro as “there is beauty in the making of beauty” or “the activity of right relating refines right relating.”

Adorned in white.

Would that Nietzsche were conversant in Dine', “fate” in Latin, German and English a noun instead of a torque of relatedness. “Amor” altogether insufficient and inexpressive of what a soul must submit to in order to make sense of the incomprehensible. To couple Amor Fati with hozro suggest that “closure” may be one of those fads that take America every generation or so. From the point of view of hozro the question is not how to live with an unbearable fate but how to dance alongside it. It is possible to find right relating to a tragic event.

When the indigestible arrives gather to yourself all you know gives succor – solitude, friends, faith – and when your ready give yourself to being digested by that portion of being human that belongs to the gods of sorrow. Let their truths work you and pray that bitterness cedes to a compassionate heart because it’s never been otherwise – suffering in the most reliable source of compassion. Amor Fati reveals itself in reflective retrospect yet the smallest statement of someone who knows tragedy is manna. Art Paterson a Pentecostal friend, who lost his brother in a drive-by shooting simply quoted scripture, “Though he shall slay me, still shall I praise Him.”

And Paul? What might he think of Amor Fati from his residence over there?

Paul wanted nothing more than his family be united and loving – we refugees from the explosion of the nuclear family in the sixties. I was mostly irritated by his yearning since it seemed to involve a very un-Mormon family transforming into something we could never be. But – big brother be damned – his martyrdom changed us all into a coherent and loving family unit despite great geographical distances and sometimes it seems little in common other than the happenstance of the same parents.

Speaking for myself I’m indebted to Paul for making a healer of me. His crisis coincided with my first initiation in Africa and as I walked the path to the spirit world he accompanied me. That education that any young man must submit to – that he shapes the faults and frailties that are the lot of us humans – became a crucial part of my training as a nganga. And sorrow? Well who could trust a healer that didn’t know sorrow?

I finish here with a poem for my two little brothers on the other side, Christopher died at only four hours old.

Velada for Christopher and Paul
(por mi familia)

Even now the ancestors
lay it all out:
red wine
the full feast

Along Ghost River
Flowers float white
so swift this passing on born ,
dead in four hours

birth, death
breath and the lack of it
Sacrament of pain
flooded red
Then dead cold blue

You sweet of face
have faith
take down this grace
nailed to the tree



And then the other brother
On the other side
no way to say it
Say grace gone crazy
And so the blade of night
Cut of the cold desert
ecstacy, fear and faith

coyote food
meat chewed from bone

Bones strewn
til deer hunter finds
the broken skull
mother kissed before burning little brother
back to ash and dirt

the mix of it

Sing release
Sing death berthed last blue breath
from the cross drawn back
to the first embrace

In light and dust and dawn
have faith

Sing amen
then again
have faith