A binational and bilingual writer from Mexico, Estela González tells stories from both sides of the border. Her work includes novels Limonaria (in Spanish), and Arribada (in English), a finalist both for Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether Award and Triangle Publishing’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Awards. Her short fiction appears in anthologies and magazines including Barcelona Review, Best of Solstice, Coal Hill, Flash Frontier, Latino Book Review, LatineLit, Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea, Sinister Wisdom, Feminine Rising, and Under the Volcano.
Estela divides her time between Mazatlán, Mexico and Vermont, where she teaches Latin American literature, culture, and creative writing in Spanish. Her current project is a historical novel about gay ghosts, of which “Machado” is an excerpt.
One: A Lizard for a City
It splashes its rugged tail; it frolics by the mangroves. The widening tail forms a body of boulders tangled in vines and bushes, sprinkled with palms here and there. The lizard’s belly is a pink beach. The head is that hill, its eye blinking.
“Mazatlán,” says the flight attendant as she points to the rocks, the promontories, the mansions, the huts, the tangle of greenery. Then she pans to the blinking light.
“That is the second tallest lighthouse in the world.” She looks at me. “And you are Mayte? The Parkour Girl?”
That is what they call me, with capital letters. But I am not a girl: I am eighteen. I run on buildings and climb posts, leap above crevasses formed by streets and alleyways. I have trained for years to dominate, to look down on cities and people, to keep them from doing that to me.
That happens when I am on the ground. I am small—very small. But not of mind or heart or muscle. My brothers call me the midget when they try to be kind . So, it is true. On the ground, I see stomachs and breasts better than faces. But now, from above, the entire city is at my feet. The plane readies to land on the green dragon. Crestón Hill , where the lighthouse twinkles. I see the beach mansions: Olas Altas. I like the sound. The sun hits the plane window, then we touch down. As we approach the gate, I send a few quick texts.
Má: Ok, tell me when you get to the hotel
Don’t talk to strangers! People there are temperamental
Pá: Don’t eat on the street
Watch out for dogs—they might have fleas
Did you know there was a bubonic plague outbreak in Mazatlán years ago?
Per the Parkour organization’s instructions, I have to take a prepaid taxi from the airport. But I can’t find the voucher, so I catch an Uber. Standing on the curb at the airport, my phone’s apps stop working. Across the street, some travelers climb in the back of a pickup truck fitted with wooden benches. A man carries a tuba, others black cases. A lady holds a cylindrical case like a a huge hat.
“Hotel Raíces, on Plazuela Machado.”
The lady with the hat case offers me her hand. “Come here, plebita.”
Soon the two benches fill, the pickup starts, and the music blares from the speakers installed for the passengers’ enjoyment: Ya llegó el que andaba ausente. ¡Se me concedió volver!
Everyone adds their voices to the song. But me.
The breeze is brisk but warm. It smells of hot moisture, of palm tree, of sweet sweat. The green landscape whizzes by. Many people walk. Behind the houses, I see a marsh with egrets and pelicans and, further back, a hill seems to catch fire. The day dies down. The streetlights go on, then off. They try again, and it sticks. The music pounds my ears, and a twitch on my left calf marks the rhythm. I scan my muscles and try to control my leg’s dance.
As we near the city, the road narrows and we hop with every pothole. I see fewer cars, more pedestrians. Some people carry large loads on their backs, strapped with a long cloth to their foreheads. I remember my pre-Hispanic Mexico class: tlamemes.
The streetlights hesitate again. Off. On. Off again. Then they stay off.
The lady with the hat case cuddles closer to me. The music continues, the voices, the twitch on my leg. Then the truck coughs, throws a plume of smoke. The song ends, and the truck goes on strike. The driver hops out of the cab.
“My apologies, ladies and gents. The auriga won’t go on.” He takes several coins from his pocket and distributes them among us. “Your reimbursement. Have a good evening.”
And just like that, he walks away. My coin covers my entire palm. It shines like polished copper. I brace myself for the ire of a crowd dropped in the middle of nowhere in a dark city.
One says, “Ah, cabrón,” and swings a backpack the shape and size of a walrus’s coffin onto his shoulders.
“Wacha vato,” says another. Everyone puts their coins away and hops off the truck.
Doña Chuy—the lady who has adopted me—slaps herself on the hip. “Válgame Dios, I’ll have to walk.” She braces herself on my shoulder to jump off. Then she opens her case and takes out a snare drum, straps it on with a leather belt. She taps a quick rhythm, and the tuba guy adds syncopation. The other travelers open their cases and take out trombones, trumpets, clarinets.
They stand in line and set off toward the city. At the front of the line, a cornet sends a lament; a trumpet responds from the back. They strike a melancholy conversation for a few measures, until the other instruments interrupt with a celebratory march, an homage to adversity.
“Do you like El niño perdido?” Asks doña Chuy. “Enjoying the evening?”
What can I say? The light has abandoned us. The truck dumped us who knows where. But the moon and the many torches guide us. People follow us. After “El niño perdido,” “El sauce y la palma,” and “El sinaloense,” we enter the foggy city, its few lights coming from wrought iron torches high on the walls. One illuminates a house through whose windows grow tree branches. I try to take a picture, but my phone has no power.
We arrive at a plaza full of people.
“This is Plazuela Machado,” doña Chuy says.
Setting up on the gazebo, the band serenades the crowd. Someone starts a bonfire, and people join in the singing. A man makes eye contact with a woman across the fire. She eyes him, circles the bonfire, takes his arm, and they dance without a word. Soon other pairs form and dance, without introductions or conversation.
Doña Chuy’s snare brings back the spasm in my calf. I can hardly stop moving.
“What is this music? What is this light step, this swaying?” I asked out loud.
“It is the tambora,” says a voice in the dark. Her hair is long with tight curls like wooly garlands. The wind blows several locks, and they tickle my face. She takes my hand. We smile, we embrace, and dance with the others.
Soon the musicians pause, and the crowd opens to a man dressed as a Napoleonic officer. A woman dressed in white down to her ankles follows him. Everyone watches them in silence.
The officer nods at doña Chuy, the band restarts, and we continue our revels.
Later, the military guy gestures to his woman and walks towards one of the mansions surrounding the Plazuela. She looks down and follows him. As she passes by us, Rosa lets go of my hand and grabs hers. She joins in our dance, and she smiles!
Then she drops our hands and follows her soldier.
The darkest night in my life was brilliant. No electricity, no phone, no Google. I danced under the spell of the tambora, that girl, my leg’s twitch.
She asked what I was doing there.. The word Parkour means nothing to her, so I took my sneakers off and climbed one of the buildings. I stood on the roof and waved as she applauded.
“I bet I can get to my hotel sooner than you,” I shouted. “Where is Hotel Raíces?”
“I only know Hotel Iturbide.” She pointed towards Carnaval street.
It was late, so I asked her WhatsApp or Insta. She gave me that perplexed look again.
“No worries,” I said. “We don’t have to—"
“No worries,” she said at the same time. “We can meet here. I come every night.”
Later, I found my group and the hotel. The staff gave us candles and apologized for the inconvenience. In my room, I had a gas lamp and a bed with mosquito netting, so romantic. There was water in a pitcher and the sweetest of soaps. I poured water into my hands and washed up. As the water fell into the ceramic bowl, it tinkled like a musical instrument.
I lied down. The street dogs sang with the band. They lulled me.
This morning cell service and wifi are back! There are cars on the street, aurigas blaring music, pulmonías. These are sort of open-air taxis, more like golf carts than regular cars. Are they called that because pneumonia is included with your ride?
In today’s practice, we explore the buildings around Plazuela Machado: Melchers, Canobbio, others. They are two stories high but seem double that. They are stone fortresses with carved ornaments, enormous windows with wrought iron balconies. When they open their portals—and by day every house opens its portal—you get a glimpse of the secret gardens inside. I saw them better from the rooftops: palms, lemons, guava, mango, flamboyan, orchids. The buildings may be hard to climb, but the streets are a gift to Parkour: narrow alleyways, I leap across as though fording brooks. People stop below to watch me fly.
“Mercurio!” yelled one. “You have wings on your feet!” That is now my nickname. My favorite streets have similar names: Venus, Ancla, Libertad, El Recreo. Other names are impressive in a different way, like El Sacrificio.
I watch life from the rooftops. When people don’t feel watched they are wonderful; they are they. Like that woman dressed in white, hanging her laundry. Her skirt covers her ankles and she wears her hair in a big old-fashioned bun, reminds me of the woman last night. Her blinding sheets flutter like doves. She checks the monograms on her handkerchiefs—almost a caress.
“Elviritaaaaa!” That shout is like a song. As she hears it, the lovely lady undoes her bun, and her brown mane tumbles to her waist. Then she gathers it into a neater bun. She pinches her cheeks rosy, arranges her clothes, stands taller. She smiles with her whole face.
Steps approach on the roof next door: another woman. She is all ochre—dark golden skin and dark golden hair, all the same color. Her long, tight curls fly about with the breeze. Her dark skin is so polished, she glistens in the sun.
They hold hands.
When they let go, Elvirita holds a handkerchief. She brings it to her face and takes in its scent, her eyes on her friend’s. She kisses her ear.
“Elvirita!” This other shout is different: a man’s voice coming from Elvirita’s own house, and she loses her color. She tucks her friend’s handkerchief into her bodice, takes the basket with the clean laundry, and runs down the spiral stair.
As Elvirita flees, the iron steps shudder.
Training in Mazatlán is hard; this Neoclassic style is harder than Baroque and Gothic, with few protrusions to buttress toes and fingers. This house with the huge tree out back is all vertical lines, columns, polished glass windows. Inside, a person stands immobile at the window, pointing at a corner of the ceiling.
I walk to the door and take out the letter requesting permission to climb private properties. I knock, but no one answers. I peek at the interior, and the person is still pointing at the ceiling. I shade my eyes, look again, and realize it is a tree. Maybe the fronds I thought in the back are actually in the house! The tree’s limbs have grown everywhere, broken through the rock. There is no furniture, hardly an inner wall, only collapsed roofs.
Within the perfectly maintained façade the house is earth, humus, loam, soil, tree.
And music. A distant melody, continuous, insistent.
The outer wall is cracked too. The trunk has opened it and expands towards the street. The tree has a crack as well, ample enough to place a hand in—and an ear to hear the music from within. I feel my way through the smooth interior, a den with small objects embedded on its walls: marbles, rings? A folded handkerchief I try to pry out. I get a better grip. My arm is now in upto my elbow. The music is louder. It’s opera! Aída?
I stick my head inside the crack and the music swells. In my hand, what felt like a folded handkerchief now seems like a note. I hold onto it with two hands. I add my legs to the lever, stick my shoulders in to see better.
I pull, pull, pull. The den is dark; Aída grows louder. The paper budges some.
A church bell rings outside: my training starts in half an hour. I must go!
“Dear Tree. Please.”
And finally, the tree lets go. I sit in the dark den, a paper in my hands. Above me the tree grows like a tower, a tiny light far on top. I climb, pressing with arms and legs. The light grows stronger, and I glimpse a branch. Now my head is out, my torso, my legs. Under the brilliant light, the leaves of the ficus sway with the breeze.
I hop to the house’s roof, pat my giant friend and say “Nos vemos.”
In my hand shines a piece of paper, heavy and smooth like old linen.
Two: Rosa Among the Chamomile
From the day I discovered that a tree lives in that house ; that the tree opens and sings; that it shelters treasures, I returned to El Recreo Street many times, and my friend entrusted more of its secrets to me. Some are notes to Rosa: “thank you for braiding my hair so pretty.” Others seem like journal entries. They all have one thing in common—Rosa.
At Colegio Independencia, the days did not belong to me. We sat for hours before the table of our torments, filling notebook pages with the curly-topped OOOOOO, or the fashionably hatted processions of T T T T T. My hand ached with the repetition, my legs restless under the desk. But every week brought me the promise of Fridays: at nine o’clock we had Mass. We were thirty-three second-grade girls, freshly braided, formal uniforms ironed, shoes polished. Standing double file and led by Sister Ana, we crossed the school courtyard, then the sunny field. As our skirts grew covered with pollen, I received my reward: your soft hand, as fragrant as your name. You were tall, freckled, your caramel curls grazed your waist—no matter how much Sister Ana scolded you for not braiding them. I loved you for that. Your skin’s aroma mixed with the anise and chamomile growing around us. We chatted, letting our palms seal together with our sweat. I did not want more: in those twenty minutes the Rosa was mine. You.
Remember the day of the Holy Host? One of those Fridays your unexpected silence taught me the fear of losing you. Then you stopped, opened your mouth, and pointed inside—the Wafer had stuck to your palate. The girls crowded around us: Pilar Melchers sermoned against blasphemy; Cristina Unger tried to dislodge the wafer by poking you with a twig. Sister Ana folded your hands with hers in a double prayer.
I glanced into your mouth. An O, a quiet exclamation, pink like the flower of your name. The tender cushion of your tongue. You regained speech. All done, you said. You swallowed.
“Blessed be Jesus!” exclaimed Sister Ana. She imposed order, and we went on our way. Minutes later, you asked if I was cold—my fingers trembled in your hand.
We were those girls, Rosa. As I write these lines, the chamomile and anise stir up the memory of your long, tight curls. Now we are adults and you want us to be like we were then: to walk on Olas Altas, holding hands. You do not understand what it means to be married. To be me.
You say you can help with my work. “Washing Antón’s shirts cannot be so hard.”
I correct you: “His name is Antoine.”
“You had to marry a Frenchman.”
“Not a Frenchman. I had to get married. My parents need me.”
You fixed your golden eyes on me. You shake your head.
Rosa is open to things I would remotely consider. When Antoine runs from the army headquarters to the house and back, when his mood worsens, we can surmise General Corona has a new plan against the French. Then Rosa runs around too, packs her bag with a shirt, a scarf, her brush, a book. I beg her not to go back to the Villa Unión front.
“Impossible,” she says. “We have to fight those frogs. People are finally rising up.”
“Don’t you see?” My heart is in its own uprising. “And Antoine?”
“Do not worry, reina. It is my job to protect you.” She pokes her chest with her thumb. “Your Antón will be fine too.”
Rosa kisses my head, lets me smell her crazy curls. She turns around, leaps from my roof to hers, and climbs down to her courtyard. Minutes later she runs down Principal Street like the madwoman she is, her carpet bag atop her head like a crown. My heart follows her to the estuary where she boards a rowboat with her compañeros, then paddles upstream towards Villa Unión.
I spend days embroidering handkerchiefs, shuddering with every cannon blast.
I too have guts, though mine are made of ink. Antoine never leaves the house without locking his desk. But he does not know I have a copy of the key. When he crosses our doorstep, I wait for half an hour. I run up to the roof and rummage through the laundry. With the key in my hand, I open his studio and the desk, take out the leather folder with the Aztec eagle imprisoned between the Habsburg vultures, run back upstairs. On the polished ironing table, I place one French document and, next to it, a clean sheet of paper that I slowly fill with Spanish words.
I will never forget my anguish as I translated General Castagny’s order: "Capital punishment without appeal to be applied to anyone belonging to the troops of armed criminals… punishment will take place within twenty-four hours after sentencing.”
Armed criminals! I struggle to control a tremor in my hand. Thankfully Rosa is a woman. They will respect her. But—her skin color? Her hair?
Today my heart takes a dive as I read Plan of Attack: War to the Death in Concordia. I write without delay. I fold my work into a cardboard envelope. I place that in a kitchen towel; that in a flour sack; and that inside a coal sack. On Plazuela Machado, Pedro opens his own coal sack to add mine inside. He ties it with twine, looks me in the eye and we both nod lightly—that means no new casualties. He whistles a melody, and soon his mules gather around. Pedro loads their packs as I feed them carrots and pat their necks. “Colorada,” I tell my favorite, “Take care of Pedro. Do your job and we’ll be fine.” She nuzzles my hand, and her bearded snout scratches me.
“Well, Señora,” says Pedro. “Off to get more coal in Villa Unión.”
“Concordia first,” I whisper.
“Concordia.” He gazes intently, nods, and I wave him off.
My only fear is that Rosa might not return. Or that one day she discovers the somersault my heart takes when her curls tickle my face.