A Story for Tonantzin Guadalupe and the People
Nighttime prayers to Tonantzin Guadalupe. Photo by author.
Nana Coyo never slept on the night before the day of remembering. As soon as the sun had dropped with certainty behind the western mountains, she arranged herself on a folding chair outside in her backyard. She placed her feet on a hot water bottle and heaped a mountain of wool blankets over herself. At her side, she kept a thermos of steaming atole with piloncillo and chocolate for wakefulness. There was nowhere she’d rather be.
This year, the cycles of Earth and Cosmos arranged for the Moon to be wearing her darkest cloak. Nana Coyo hummed and muttered. She sang as the sky revealed what people nowadays would refer to as secrets. Nana Coyo knew better. Secrets are simply memories retained, she’d tell her adoptive son Lázaro.
When Lázaro was younger, he’d furrow his brow and complain about Nana Coyo and her ways of explaining things. Why can’t you just talk like a normal person, he’d say. She would laugh and tug at his ear.
“Te estoy entrenando a los oídos, hijo mío.” One day he would know how to listen.
Now that Lázaro’s hair was greying and Nana Coyo was practically old enough to join the stars, he felt a longing in his bones to sit outside with her. He could barely make out Nana Coyo’s silhouette against the blackness of the night. He followed the sound of her voice, a trail of vocalizations beyond any language he recognized. Clicks and trills. Hoots and whistles. Murmurs like the wings of hummingbirds. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw how starlight outlined her huddled figure.
Without a word, Lázaro set up his folding chair next to Nana Coyo. She patted his knee. He could feel a smile in the warmth of her hand. She poured him a cup of atole. He breathed in the smells of roasted corn ground into flour, boiled in water, and whisked into a frothy porridge. As he raised the cup to his mouth, he could practically taste the hints of cinnamon and chocolate. He felt Nana Coyo’s bony fingers gently intervene, pulling back his cup before he could take a sip.
“Antes de todo, una pruebadita para la Madrecita.”
Like she was assisting a child, Nana Coyo held Lázaro’s hands in her own. She guided them down to the ground, where she tipped the cup and spilled out a taste of atole onto the cold and hardened dirt beneath their feet.
She whispered to the ground and sighed with satisfaction.
“Ahora sí, mi amor. Drink up.”
And he did.
They sat for hours. Nana Coyo sang. She stretched her legs. She clapped her hands. She stomped her feet. She settled into a chorus of sounds that only tall grasses know how to make in the wind.
Together, they drank the atole.
Without even intending it, Lázaro turned over his consciousness to the dark sky. He forgot that he was awake, staring into the starry abyss, with only the smell of corn and the tug of gravity to remind him that he was still a terrestrial creature. At some point during the night, he realized that he could understand the sounds being spoken by Nana Coyo. Was she speaking Spanish? Was it English? He couldn’t quite tell, but the words began to descend into him like the warming spread of awareness through his body.
“The Corn Mothers came to us long ago, mijo. They seeded themselves into us, generation after generation. Beings as big as the stars became morsels of nourishment. In Madre Maíz, they came as clusters of constellations, all the colors of light, the energy of nuclear fusion—the glow of blue, yellow, red, orange, white, and every glimmer in between. They joined with the stones and made their way into our bones, our cells, the spiraling ladders of the fabric of our being. They fed us with the food of remembering because they knew a different kind of darkness would descend on the land. It is not the blackness of the night but the disease of forgetfulness. They knew there would come a day when we would eat and never be satiated. Ravenous, we would devour everything in our path, as if we had no memories.”
Nana Coyo poured the last of the atole into Lázaro’s cup.
“The Mothers are as close to you as your body. On this night before the day of remembering, drink and eat, mi amor. See them adorned in starlight and radiating with power. Receive their ripened bellies. Be filled by them.”
With that Nano Coyo cupped Lázaro’s head in her hands. She turned his gaze toward the Eastern sky. Against the mountains, the horizon began to define itself as the black night softened. A shard of light pierced through the worlds and illuminated the shoulders of the mountains.
In that moment, Lázaro felt his own clenched heart cleave open. His body spilled to the ground. In heaving sobs, he wrapped himself around Nana Coyo’s feet. He gave his waters to her body and to the body of the Earth. He offered his tears, his spit, the vapors of his breath.
When he finally came to stillness, Nana Coyo pulled out her left foot and gently rested it on the small of Lázaro’s back. She applied the slightest pressure, and he breathed in deeply, as if reacquainting himself with air.
They rested this way, the two of them. Together at the precipice between worlds, they greeted the day of remembering.