These stories I am about to tell are true stories (or so I have been told) from San Juan Cosalá, the small Mexican pueblo where I have lived for 22 years. Those foreigners who live in the village would say, perhaps, that I am not really a part of it, and maybe that is true, for in truth I live on the mountain a half mile or more above the town, and perhaps that is why, although I am told they are stories everyone knows, I heard this first one only today. Now, I am going to share it, as well as the rest I know, until I run out of them or until people stop telling me new ones.
Everybody Knows I: The Drunken Dog
As in any small town, there were those in San Juan who liked their drink more than their lives and those men in our town were known to congregate under a pier that extended over the beach out to the lake. How those men earned their keep no one knew, for they did not work, but spent the day drinking under the pier. Perhaps their families supported them, or perhaps they earned money by nefarious means or begged for it in town. But most days they could be found from sunup to sundown under the pier, and sometimes they lit a fire and remained there far into the night.
Most of the men in town, however, were hard workers, earning their keep by construction work or road work or toiling in the raspberry fields or other farms or as gardeners or repairmen. All of these professions were given a break midday for comida. There were a number of small stores in the town that sold beer by the bottle, and during the rest period for comida, as well as on their way home from work, men would gather on benches or lean against walls or sprawl on the ground nearby for a beer as well as for talk of the day.
There were many stray dogs in the town. Some were thin and almost starving, but they survived by raiding unsecure garbage cans or shredding garbage bags left in the streets for collection. These dogs were seen to be nuisances and sometimes cruel people would throw hot grease at them, burning scabs into their flesh beneath their clotted hair. But others, because of their personalities and winning ways, were fed by certain townspeople or by scraps from restaurants or butchers. One such dog became a favorite of the townspeople. Children would feed him strips from their tortillas and restaurants would set out the remains of meals on their back doorsteps when he made his daily visits.
Unfortunately, he also became a favorite of the men of the town on breaks, who would feed him beer. He quickly became as fond of it as they were, and they would pour it in their hands or into a cup as his demands became more and more insistent. Finally, he became known as the drunken dog and, as though he knew his place, he ceased his daily rounds and went to live with the human members of his sort under the bridge.
Disclaimer: Although certain details have been added by me to flesh out the story, its general subject, i.e., the drunken dog and men under the pier, is as true as stories handed down by word of mouth tend to be. The fact that I have written them down does not make them any truer but simply spreads their audience. Whether they are legend or fabrication or truth is a mystery shared increasingly by tales told on the internet, which adds to their fame if not their veracity. You might say that you know San Juan and that there is neither a pier nor a bridge there, but perhaps there was once a pier of sorts or perhaps they are taking about the pier a bit to the east of town by the fish restaurants. Whatever the ultimate truth, this is the story as it was told to me and so I am staying as true to its truth as possible.
Everybody Knows II: The Martyr Dog
There was a pothole in the road that because of neglect got larger and deeper every year until it had swallowed most of the road, leaving only a space on one side large enough for a car to pass. People in the pueblo said it was dangerous, and everyone said that it needed to be fixed. But as is often the way, everyone waited for someone else to do the task and no one ever did anything about it. Then one day, a little boy fell into the hole and was unable to climb out of it because by then it had grown too deep. It had filled during the rainy season and although he could not swim, he was somehow keeping his head above water by thrashing about and digging his hands into the mud and stones on the side, but there was no one close to come to his aid. There was, however, a stray dog in the neighborhood who heard his cries, but somehow he realized that even if he had jumped into the hole to save him, the sides were so steep and straight that he would not have been able to carry him out, so he went up and down the street barking and barking until at last a man came to see what the problem was and pulled the child from the hole.
What happened then was very strange, but it must be true because many people have told the story which has been passed down over the years, reporting that once the dog saw that the boy had been saved, he ran through the town directly to another hole even deeper with straighter sides and when he reached it, he jumped in and drowned. And people all say it was as though the dog had made a promise to the gods that if they spared the boy, that it would sacrifice itself in his stead. And to this day, if a dog wanders into a church during a service, no one ushers it out or makes any fuss. I have witnessed this myself on two occasions. In one case the dog even walked up onto the stage where the priests were standing and no one took notice. It is my idea that the story of the martyr dog has something to do with the fact that both the priests and the people accept the rightful presence of even dogs in the church. No one has told me this. It is my addition to the story that no doubt others have added to, as well, over the years.
Everybody Knows III: The Caguama*
“I’d sell my soul for a caguama!” People heard her utter the pledge as she stood in the street that they had seen her traverse so many times in search of someone who would provide her with her compulsion: beer, or if she was lucky, perhaps tequila. Those who were standing near her then saw her look down, and there at her feet was a 20-peso bill, enough at that time long ago to buy the quart bottle of beer she had just said she desired.
So, she bought the bottle of beer she had wished for and, unable to wait to drink it in the privacy of her own home, she sat on a bench near the store where she bought it to drink it. But from that time on, or so the often-repeated story goes, she wandered the streets talking to herself, and she was never the same. It was as though she had lost some part of herself. A sad story, but then that was the bargain she had made.
*The Spanish word for a loggerhead sea turtle–caguama–is also Mexican slang for a 32-ounce bottle of beer, the connection being, presumably, the farther down the bottle one drinks, the more it comes to resemble its aquatic namesake.
Everybody Knows IV: The Night the Vet Died
Yolanda, my housekeeper, has often been my information line to happenings in the pueblo. Lately, I’ve been going through a lifetime of journals––thoughts scribbled down in bound books small enough to carry in my pocket or purse, and this is what I discovered today, told to me by Yolanda four years ago:
“The night the veterinarian in the pueblo died, the dogs, they all howled, and the cats scratched in the dirt and on the wooden door frames with their claws—every cat and every dog in town—two days ago when his car crashed and he died.”
Everybody Knows V: The Day That Death Came to Town
I do not know how long ago it was that the first person died. I was not told if it was a woman or a man, an adult or a child. I was told only that the person lived in the first house on the east side of town. Then, every day for 30 days, a new person died, always on the same street in a straight line from the first death to the last, as Death visited house by house. Sometimes he would skip a house or three or five, but every day, he would visit a new house on that street, moving always westward until at last, a month later, he passed out of town. Ever since, people have remembered the day the first death occurred as “The day that Death came to San Juan Cosalá.” I was told this story by someone who came late to San Juan, but she lived in the town for three years and she was told this story and repeated it to me.
Everybody Knows VI : Seeing Red—The Solar Eclipse
I was searching for the keys to take Yolanda home when she suddenly perched against the edge of the couch and stopped me in my search. Now, I must admit that we do pretty well on short, simple conversations, but she was excited and launched into one of those longer narratives where I captured about every tenth word. In this case, the first word I captured was “eclipse,” which is more or less the same in Spanish as in English. The second was “rojo” which I knew meant red.
Suddenly, I understood the essence of what she was telling me. After a few more questions and repetitions, I learned that I was to find or buy some red material to tear into strips to tie around all of my fruit trees: the banana and lime and papaya and mango. My lime tree was producing large fruit but my bananas were still in a period of gestation, about half the size they should grown to. And if I neglected to do this to protect them from the eclipse, all the fruit would fall off, or at the very least, my bananas and other fruit not ready to be picked would be stunted. As a last warning, she directed me to stay inside. Better to watch the eclipse on the television or on my computer.
Just last week I had read that a solar eclipse was to occur on October 14, and I had mentioned to a friend that years ago, they tied red ribbons to the gate of the chayote field across from the graveyard and I noticed red strips tied around the necks of horses and cattle and dogs to deflect eclipse rays. I remembered a race down main street and had wondered why I hadn’t noticed any of this during more recent eclipses.
Yolanda then explained to me that any animal or tree or fruit in gestation needed to be protected. Women of childbearing age were told to wear red garments or even red underwear. During the last eclipse, a woman in town who was pregnant had neglected to wear red and her baby had been born with a bent nose. Yes, a race would probably be run but I was not able to understand who would run this race. Perhaps pregnant ladies? It seemed as though that could present further problems. What if someone fell? Would it mean a baby with a bent nose in spite of red underwear or a red sash?
Nonetheless, on October 14th, although I am past the age requiring red underwear, I will be careful not to look directly at the sun and just in case—or perhaps just to please Yolanda—I’ll dip into my Christmas decorations in search of my reel of red ribbon.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com