by Brenda Webster
The central square in Oaxaca is bright with Christmas lights strung in the trees. Flocks of multicolored balloons strain against the light strings that hold them back from the fading sky. It is the Night of the Radishes and even at this early hour—it is barely dusk—the line curls snake-like around the square. Women holding infants tied to their backs with cloth slings of brilliant red and blue, old men’s faces worn under sombreros, all of them, including Rachel, the grandmother, stand patiently waiting for the gates to be opened and the viewing of the radishes to begin.
While they wait, the two boys –they are five and seven– play catch with their balloon and the little girl sits patiently on her father’s shoes sucking on a lollipop and resting her back against his legs. The grandmother is grateful that she gets to see them like this, natural and relaxed, simply living their lives. Living and working in another city as she does, her visits to them in Santa Monica are always too short and there aren’t enough such moments. But on this trip she is happy because they are together day and night.
She shifts her weight from one foot to another to ease a cramp and thinks about their visit to the church that afternoon. None of them is religious. Neither her scholar husband, nor her artist children. They visited the church because it was supposed to be the oldest church in the area with its decoration intact. Its facade had blue and white flowers that played a duet with the blue sky and there was a white bench in front, overhung by bougainvillia that gleamed in the noon sun. A sign in Spanish said “Please tell your children not to climb on the bench.” Her daughter-in-law explained the Spanish words—she was just beginning to study the language seriously– and the boys, soaking in the words like little sponges, happily chanted “por favor.” A second sign said “please do not piss in the church.” The grandmother noted that her daughter-in-law didn’t translate that one but instead, beckoning them to follow, went into the church . The three children followed her inside shyly and walked up the aisle. Tommaso, the oldest one stopped in front of a wooden figure of Christ crawling on his knees, his head twisted to one side, blood dripping into his eyes from his crown of thorns. “What is happening? What is this?”
“ It’s Christ, he’s suffering” their mother said quickly, urging Tommaso forward with a gentle push. Brought up a Catholic by her Mexican grandmother, she remembered how much these images once frightened her.
Then she scooped up her little girl. “I’m taking Frida outside,” she said, as the little girl snuggled against her, hiding her face. “It’s a bit overwhelming.”
“But with all that blood, how is he still alive?” Tommaso asked, riveted to the spot. For a minute the Grandmother sensed that he saw the image as vibrantly living as himself.
Eli, the younger boy, continued silently up the aisle, sat facing the crèche. The figures were gorgeously dressed, the virgin in blue satin with a gold crown, angels flying above, tinsel wings outstretched. The little boy leaned forward and stared at the manager with the tiny Christ child, at the mother bent tenderly towards him, at Joseph standing guard. His face took on a far-away look. Then suddenly he seemed to grasp something. His body quivered. He bowed his head and put his hands together in a gesture of prayer.
The father seeing this, shrugged his shoulders…bemused. The Grandmother remembered her son saying that Eli was passionate about church music. And once, on the way to the airport she’d heard him and Tommaso arguing about God. She had missed the beginning of it, but then the boys’ voices rose and she’d heard Tommaso insisting that God doesn’t exist.
“Spaceships went up, and there’s nothing there, really, Eli, nothing but planets and stars.”
“Tommaso you don’t understand,” she heard Eli say calmly, “God can be there and not there at the same time.”
“Oh no!” Tommaso said and she could hear him flouncing on the seat, turning away. “You’re a religious fanatic!”
Tommaso had always been a rationalist. When he was three, he’d heard some people singing gospel in the park and had asked his grandma what they were singing about. Little by little it had come out that they were singing about God and that some people—“though probably not your Mama and Papa,”- believe that God created the earth. Tommaso was intrigued to hear that God made people—maybe even the birds– from clay. The Grandmother had been very nervous about telling him all this without checking with his parents.
“Grandma,” he’d asked her finally, “What’s the matter? Is God dead?”
“ I just don’t know if your Mama and Papa would like me talking to you about this.”
“Don’t worry, Grandma,” he’d said. “We’ll just go home and tell them what we know and if they don’t like the subject, we won’t talk about it again.”
Tommaso now, at seven, was just the way her son had been at that age. He too used the image of the space ship when he argued with his father. The only difference was that her first husband had insisted on giving their son a Jewish education, and after telling his father that there was no sign of God in outer space, her son had refused to pray to a God that didn’t exist.
Now, they walk single file, the parents, the children and grandparents along the narrow wood platform. Each village and small collective has its display. The radishes are fed special nutrients so they are enormous, bigger than footballs. These become demon heads with open red mouths and eyes against the white skin or suffering Christs with red radish blood. Bigger figures, shamans or fertility gods are made by adding radish limbs. The skirts of the radish women are filigreed; they have the lightness of real lace. There are mangers and bicycle races, huge white radish cathedrals, markets with real dirt and tiny cornstalks heaped in radish carts.
The Grandmother is thinking: how patient the women look, the Indian women with their long black hair braided with red ribbons and their callused feet, some without sandals. How harsh the land they till, how hard. She thinks of all the effort it took to carve these roots, how by the next day they will be dry and withered. Even now the women are spraying them with water to keep them alive until the prize- giving later that night. She finds herself thinking against her will of black soil piled beside an open pit quietly waiting. She wonders how many Christmases she will see–it hurts to be able to number them. So much life around her, instead of sating her, makes her greedy for more. She wants to see her great grandchildren’s faces, smell their warm flesh the way she does these children now.
The girl, the smallest of the grandchildren, sees a radish carved like baby Jesus. “I have a baby in my tummy,” she tells her grandmother. “It’s very tiny now,” she holds two fingers apart an inch. “very very tiny. “
“Is it a boy or a girl ?”the grandmother asks.
“A girl baby,” she says strongly, and “then I’m going to marry the prince.” The Grandmother smiles down at her. Marrying a prince and having a baby have been her obsession since she turned three. Recently, the story became more complicated with the introduction of a witch who cuts the Sleeping Beauty’s head off requiring the prince to glue it back on before the ceremony. Christmas Eve at the Cathedral will be perfect for this child. If she can stay awake she’ll see the trucks decorated with flowers lumbering to the Cathedral with their crèches. Then inside the cathedral she’ll see the somber men with their mustaches and the women in their embroidered dresses all sitting with infant Jesuses on their laps. Baby doll after baby doll, all dressed in white woolen suits and knit caps against the cool night air. All waiting to be blessed and taken back home carrying the blessing to their villages. Going home to be born again, like the tufted white flowers dotting the hillsides, on Christmas morning.
The morning after the radishes, they all go to the museum to see the statues of Zapotec Gods. Her daughter-in-law, a painter, is fascinated by the simplicity of the forms, the powerful bluntness. They are made of terra cotta with heavy lidded eyes and full lips. Most of them are sitting or squatting quietly. They have elaborate headdresses and symbolic ornaments that show their status. To the Grandmother they seem disappointingly vulnerable—ungodlike–though she imagines that the one with the blatantly exposed penis is a fertility god. The boys regard him seriously.
“He’s nakee,” Frida observes and giggles. Tommaso, the eldest shushes her. He is looking hard at a figure with enormous round ear ornaments.
“Grandma, look, he’s got blasters right over his ears.”
“He’s a Super hero?”
“Yeah, they all are. They hide their blasters and rays in those disks on their heads, or their belts, or even in those weird things under their feet.” He runs around excitedly showing the Grandmother what he sees.
Later, in a run- down taxi, they go, children on their laps, to visit the great Zapotec ruins, Mitla and Monte Alban—the white Mountain. The ruins look as if they’ve grown out of the stone of the surrounding mountains. The Grandmother is strangely moved by the elaborate patterning of the small stones and the perfect symmetry of the temple leading step by step up to the pale sky. The two boys are walking round and round a small flowering tree, arguing fiercely. They seem unaware that she is moving closer, and under guise of taking a picture, listening.
“No, no,” the elder says, his face inflamed, nothing can hurt Diamond Alien , remember.”
“But Black jet threw…” begins Eli walking faster around the tree holding up his hand. His brother stops and faces him.
“The lightening bolt went through Diamond Man’s cloud. I know, but it closed right up again. It’s just like mist remember, nothing can hurt him.”
“Not even if the Black Ruby Race and the Crystal race got together with Black Jet and piled up all the mountains in the world and threw them at him, not even then?”
“No, No,” the elder says, not even if they piled up their black planets and threw them.”
“Not even all the planets in the universe?” asks the younger struggling to grasp the magnitude of his brother’s idea.
“No not even all the planets ….”
“But what can I do?” Eli asks. “Can I be Volcano man? Can I pour molten lava on them?”
“ No, silly, they could overpower you. Even as Star boy or Jaman the magic worker, they are more powerful than you. Only Diamond Man is strong enough to fight them. He will form a diamond wall around them and hold them like bugs frozen in amber.
“But what can I do?” asks Eli plaintive now, and the grandmother wonders whether she should intervene before he starts to cry. But there is no need, his brother values him too much as an audience.
“Remember you can imitate the powers of the others,” he says soothingly “you’re just not quite as strong. If the Black Race tries to turn people bad, Jaman the magician can help. You can sneak onto their planet and confuse their plans.”
Just then their father comes up and overhears the last bit of their conversation. “Hey, how about Snack Man?” he asks, holding out boxes of juice and a bag of pretzels.”
The younger brother giggles. “That’s good, Papa.”
But the eldest is mortified. “Papa, stop it,” he says fiercely.
“Or skillet man,” the father laughs. Then seeing that his son is about to cry, he puts his arm around his shoulder. “You’re hungry, Toma,” he says. “that makes you weepy.” The Grandmother thinks about the jewel man moving in his misty landscape studded with precious stones. Are the stones like beacons, bits of certainty in the child’s still uncharted world?
“Tell me more about your heroes” the Grandmother whispers to him. “I’d like to hear everything about them–how they were born, who their children are. What are their powers? I could even write it down for you, but it might be a little different.” The child’s face clears.
“That’s all right, grandma. “It would be your version. I wouldn’t mind another version. We could even give it to Eli. He’d like to have his own version.
They are passing an ancient Zapotec burial pit and he grabs her hand and pulls. He wants to climb down the rough steps and go inside. They will have to walk through a tunnel bent over in the semi-dark but the grandmother makes herself go forward. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s afraid of hitting her head, afraid of the dark. She holds tight to his hand—feeling for a moment that she is the child. Tommaso gives a yell and bursts triumphantly into the burial chamber. He points to a hollow in the earth.
“There it is, Grandma, there’s the place where his head went,” he says, proud of his knowledge.
The Grandmother looks. The hollow doesn’t seem so fearful. It seems more like a gentle cradle, or the place for a seed to be buried, than like a grave. She crouches down next to it and rests her hand softly against the dirt.
Brenda Webster is a novelist, critic and translator who lives in Berkeley. She has written ten books which include Yeats: A Pschoanalytic Study, Blake’s Prophetic Psychology; a memoir, The Last Good Freudian and four novels, most recently Vienna Triangle She is serving as President of PEN West and is on the Board of directors of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. (Her novel The Beheading Game was a nominee for the 2007 Northern California Book Awards in fiction.)