When the stars were created, they were blue, red, white, yellow, and speckled. As the evening star appears in the growing twilight like a tiny seashell, its whiteness a beacon, the tender face of Jesus, José Alonzo de Silva closes up his pottery shop. He walks past potted geraniums that are still blooming in late October, their flowers glowing like lit cigarette ends in the mounting urban twilight.
José’s wife sees devils. The uninvited demons have started unlocking the back door at night, coming into their apartment, and making terrible noise. She swears that they look like bears with huge fangs. When she says a prayer and turns on the light they disappear. Don Eliseo gave her an herb yesterday to hang over the back door, flor de mayo. José hasn’t yet asked her if it worked—banished the devils. He hurries home in the falling darkness, so she won’t have to be alone.
José loves the stars. At night he can nurse from them, eat their light like subsistence grain. They taste of smoke.
Close, close your wet light on us, pine torches in the sky, he thinks to himself.
The other stars surround the evening star like the beaded house of a precious queen. The evening star sent her daughter, maize, beautiful as a candle of white, down to earth in ancient times.
The milk of the stars is like atole. During the day, fighting, cajoling, begging the tourists and fresas who visit his shop in Tonalá to buy his pottery, the sour taste never leaves his mouth, the breathless feeling. He is constantly searching for cinders large enough to fill his own and his wife’s mouths, their bodies. Children of an evil age. But at night he can stand under the sparks and waterfalls of the sky.
Don Eliseo, his neighbor, has constructed an almost life-sized elephant out of wood, paper- mâché, and chicken wire. He attached cart-wheels along with a rope ladder and gives the neighborhood kids rides for five pesos. For some reason he painted the effigy elephant blue and gave it shiny red lips. He pushes it up and down the street, past the distempered adobe walls stained with soot and dusty spider webs, singing “Un Elefante,” in a loud, crisp voice. The pecan trees are raining pecans, and the orange trees are full of fruits that have swelled to their full size, although they are still green and won’t be turning orange for another month. The kids are more interested in making Halloween costumes than in taking rides on the elephant, but Don Eliseo still pushes the elephant up and down the street, its wheels making scraping sounds and his song in the air. Don Eliseo is tall and handsome, and his hair is still dark, even though he is almost seventy. He wears a straw cowboy hat and a thick belt of tooled leather.
“Buenas tardes, Don Eliseo,” José calls from the darkness. “Tu elefante es como un castillo de los tiempos pasados. ¿ Donde está la espoleta?”
“Que chistoso, Don José.”
His elephant does resemble one of the huge cane and paper effigies covered with fireworks that used to be built for feast days, lighting up the night with sparks like children of the stars. Don Eliseo continues up the street, gently helping along his pachyderm companion, going back to singing while the streetlights come on as if by magic. Both José and Don Eliseo remember a time before streetlights were installed in their neighborhood. They are mounted on tall metal poles and have been made to look like antique iron lanterns.
José crosses a vacant lot covered with bottle caps and broken glass. On one corner of the lot three enormous salt cedars climb to the sky like temples. A crust of alkali, or earthy salt, covers part of the vacant lot. José’s feet make a crunching sound, and fine, white dust rises up, barely visible in the darkness.
The lights of his apartment await him on the other side of the empty lot. His apartment is part of a one-story block of adobe dwellings, each displaying a single door and window to the street. He looks at the stars one last time before entering. The horizon is embroidered with dark trees, and the moon is as thin as a cactus needle. There is electricity in the air, the sound of palm trees rustling, or someone opening a parcel.
Even though the lights are on, the devils have already arrived. They smell overpoweringly of sulfur and urine. Foam pours from their mouths like amole suds. But there is no excess heat associated with them, which José would have noticed immediately, as he is familiar with the radiance of the kilns where he fires his ceramics. When they see José enter, the evil spirits start throwing food and dishes at him. He says a prayer to the Virgin Mary, and they disappear before his eyes.
His wife is screaming with terror. He helps her out of a fiberboard closet and pleads with her to calm down.
“Cálmate, cálmate, mi amor,” he says to her, gently stroking her shoulder.
He promises to have a priest come and bless the house. She quiets down, but her breathing is shallow. She is in late middle age, like her husband, but looks much older. There is a dark shadow around her eyes, as if they have been brushed by a black poppy. The flowered housecoat that she wears is wet with fear, and her hands continue to shake.
As the neighbors arrive, summoned by the shrieks of terror, they try to assure Catalina, José’s wife, that it was just some kids in Halloween costumes trying to scare her. Her own children are grown, and she is not kind to the other children on their street. José asks how, and why, the devils were gone so fast after he said a prayer. The neighbors are more concerned about this whole Halloween business, which started just a few years ago and comes from the children watching trash and commercials on television. They are mostly in agreement that they should ban the whole thing. Some of the children present start whining and one even begins to cry. José calmly escorts the crowd outside.
He locks his door behind him and finds that his wife is already cleaning up the mess that the devils made by throwing things. What else is she to do? Under her breath she mutters, “Es un castigo de Dios.” A giant aloe, leaning a little forward on a snaking trunk in a red clay pot near the humble kitchen table, hovers over her like an archangel. May the angels protect her!
José wants his dinner, but it is now all over the walls and floor, excluding what Catalina has been able to scrape up and dump into the chipped enamel sink. He decides to leave her to her task and find supper elsewhere.
Tonalá was a quaint town of potters that slowly became engulfed and digested by Mexico’s second-largest city. Its population had grown like a conflagration over the years of José’s life. Once a poor, quiet village, it is now overrun with lights and vice and noise and strangers. When that new world arrived, everything suddenly needed mending, and tire shops sprang up everywhere—tire shops and shady tire repair shops smelling of burnt rubber.
Isolated melodies of autos on the boulevard fill the empty wallet of night as if with talking drums, a drone and a pulse that repeats over and over. The landscape is dominated by huge, garish signs intended to attract foreign tourists, including one for his own pottery workshop featuring smiling suns. Most were painted by the same fellow, a self-taught little man nicknamed ’Nano. He was fond of imbibing cough syrup, which he would claim to be brandy, stopping sometimes mid-letter to have a drink. One day he was found dead, partially eaten by his own Chihuahua, or so people said. His signs are beginning to fade.
José wanders over to a (bad) seafood bar a couple of blocks from his home. It is called “Sinfonía del Mar,” and is run by an asthmatic Dominican expatriate who does most of the cooking himself. Finding José staring at the stars before the doorway of his restaurant, he fans him inside with a green dishtowel. He is thin and extremely dark, with a peeling bald head and a cruel mustache. José follows this shadow as he puffs and wheezes audibly like an accordion.
“Buenas tardes, Señor,” José greets him. “¿Qué dice?”
“Aquí, no más.”
The lights of the place are very bright, and the walls are painted with crude representations of sea life. He is seated by the Dominican, whose name is Femoté, at a flimsy table covered with yellow oilskin. There are two or three other diners in the place, and a couple of teens smoking and playing a video game on an already outdated machine. Femoté smiles insincerely as he takes José’s order, his white mule teeth looking like a skeleton’s backbone.
José mulls over his troubling situation as Femoté serves him a limp shrimp cocktail and makes a little sort of bow. The stupid neighbors have probably told everyone, including the parish priest, that the whole story is just he and his wife’s imagination run wild. The priest won’t want to do a blessing, or if he does, he’ll expect an extra-large “donation” in return. He sips his coffee, hearing Femoté coughing in the kitchen. The old Dominican returns to the dining room and tells the lanky teens to stop smoking. They ignore him, and when he goes back in the kitchen, they imitate his labored breathing. There is something wrong with the coffee. It is too thick, almost the consistency of glue. José decides to tell his wife to spend the night with her sister, who lives nearby. He will stay in the house alone.
The cadaverous Femoté brings him a plate with a slab of breaded fish, some fried potatoes, and a pile of shredded carrot with slices of tomato and avocado on it. He finds the fish surprisingly fresh, and tender as a mermaid’s flesh. The potatoes are spicy, encrusted with chili, just the way he likes them. Usually, the food is terrible at the “Sinfonía del Mar.” He sprinkles salt on the potatoes. José is fat and shouldn’t be eating so much greasy food. He is satisfied with the meal until he goes to pay and notices how filthy Femoté’s hands are. It makes him want to throw up.
In the warm, damp darkness the comfort of the heavens returns. The stars are like crosses made of straw. When he was a child, he believed with all his heart that they were hung in the sky by angels, as his grandmother used to tell him. Most people don’t believe in anything anymore, so it is no surprise that there are devils running loose all over the place. And the way these kids dress. He shakes his head in disgust. A fast-moving object passes over his head, making a squeak as sharp as soft shoes on slate. An owl, José thinks to himself, or another demon of the night. The taste of fear has replaced the milk of the stars, bitter, bitter as bitter chocolate. He hurries toward his home, even though he knows it is no refuge from the terrors of the night.
Catalina sighs with resignation as José tells her to go and sleep with her sister. She puts a bit of clothing and her pills in a small bundle and leaves. Catalina’s sister lives across the boulevard, in a modest house surrounded by mesquite and scrawny sapodillas. She has never married and works at a good job with an American Express office in the city. During hard times she has lent money to José and Catalina.
As soon as his wife leaves, José kneels before the family altar. On the wall there is a straw crucifix from Tzintzuntzan and a number of framed holy pictures—the Virgin of Guadalupe, Saint Martin on a white horse in military dress with the beggar at his feet, the Holy Family, Saint Anthony—lithographs that he has purchased from stalls outside the temple of Zapopan over the years. The altar itself holds two votive candles in red glass jars, as well as a conch shell lying on its side, and is covered with an embroidered cloth. He prays to Jesus, Mary, and all the saints for protection.
Dragging himself to the little bedroom, he lies down and pulls a red and white Saltillo blanket over his head. He thinks of Jesus as a little child, sitting on a bench in the garden of his mother’s house near a vine-covered doorway. The sun is shining, and a sparrow is chirping, calling to his bashful mate. The little Jesus eats white bread with honey and turns the sparrows into parrots with a wave of his miraculous hand. He preaches to the parrots, telling them about the kingdom of God. The parrots, splendid in crimson and gold like bishops, nod and ask him questions, and he offers them bits of his honeyed bread.
José turns out the lamp by his bed, but no devils appear. Lying under the blanket in the darkness, without sleep, one is neither alive nor dead. José begins to sweat. Grinding, grinding, like a woman preparing masa from nixtamal. He will need to be up early to fire the kilns. In the morning he plans to bake ceramics. Let sleep come, angels of the night who tend the bright stars and the great river of the sky.
José Alonzo de Silva has a dream. He has entered that solitary room, that cold, moonless city, where Jupiter burns itself out and illusions enter with fruit and butterflies. He knows that he is dreaming, but in the dream, he is lying on his bed in the darkness. Through the window the streetlight throws a little bit of blue, and he sees devils looking down at him. He asks them who their leader is. A particularly fat bear growls that he is Mammon, master of his legion. José addresses him, calling him mamón (sucker), and asks him what he wants. Mammon admits that he wants to scare José’s wife to death. José asks him why he has taken the form of a bear with fangs, and he brags that he can take any form he wishes. José mocks him, asking him where his horns and red skin and long tail have gone. Mammon transforms himself into an ugly, white-haired old man and laughs at him with a hoarse, grating laugh. His long, tangled beard glows in the dark like phosphorus. He is wearing nothing but a dirty, black soccer jersey on which his name, Mammon, and the number six, are printed—no underwear, no pants. José tries to keep his eyes on the old man’s face.
He asks the devil what else he can do. He takes out a mirror and shows José all the obscene sights that are reflected in it. José is unimpressed and realizes that even though this fiend has lived through eons and eons, he really isn’t very smart. He tells the devil a joke that is currently making the rounds, but he doesn’t get it, doesn’t laugh.
He asks him if he can really take any form, and Mammon gives him a look so proud that dream José can barely stand it. Perhaps he can transform himself into an ant?
The old man is gone, and it takes a moment for José to notice, in the dim light from the street, a red ant scurrying around the concrete floor. José gets out of bed and lands his foot on the ant. The tiny creature screams in fury and pain. He begs José to take his foot off him, but José presses down harder and harder. Finally, José tells him that he will not remove his foot until Señor Mamón Echadobajo promises to take his legions away and never return.
“¡Sí, sí, perdóname, perdóname!” the ant screams in a devil voice. José knows that all demons are liars, so he keeps his foot on him until he is sure that he has gotten the point. It gives José great satisfaction to hear him asking for pardon, a word that devils hate more than any other.
His heart racing, José groans and finds himself awake and alone. He felt no terror during his dream, but the wild beating of his heart makes him afraid that he is dying. Struggling to catch his breath, he feels the sweat pouring down his broad forehead. He turns on the light and goes to the kitchen for a cup of water. Returning to his bed, fearful, pensive, he gets no sleep for the rest of the night. If only everything could be as good and beautiful as heaven!
Father Efraín “Louie” Martinez sits on a brightly painted wooden chair in the sala of José’s home. With his delicate, holy hands he takes his glasses off and rubs them on a clean handkerchief. He is still wearing a purple stole from the blessing. Putting his glasses back on his long, fleshy nose, he takes a slice of sweetbread from the plate that Catalina has set before him. A napkin is tucked under his chin. She serves coffee with sugar and milk, and her husband and the priest make little sipping sounds as they drink it. Crumbs of the flaky pastry fall into Father Louie’s dark beard. The priest has a high, crazy voice like a horse, and a lisping Castilian accent. After a while it sets the teeth on edge. He offers Catalina an empanada from his plate. She takes it from him reverently, as if she is receiving communion.
Outside, the stars laugh in the heavens like grains of maize. Church bells ring out the hour. The devils have not made an appearance in two weeks—ever since José confronted their leader in his dream. He feels that the blessing was unnecessary, particularly since a “donation” is expected, but a promise is a promise, especially one made to the quiet, hard-working woman who is like the queen of the stars and his everlasting companion, and against whom the gates of hell will not prevail so long as he’s around.
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, Sierra Nevada Review, RipRap, and Stonecoast Review.
“Night” was originally published in FOLIO, Winter 2010.