Travelers Welcome

Travelers Welcome

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


by Claudia Rey

The baby lies still on the cave's floor, on a bed of flowers and palm branches. Six days old, but his heart couldn't beat regularly, his lungs couldn't pump enough air into his frail body and he died this morning. His tiny face is as white as ivory, nearly transparent. He looks like a porcelain doll - small, so small. All around him, white candles and bowls of copal burn in the heavy air.

The cave has been dug centuries ago on the side of the hill, up over the village: a ten minutes climb in the humid night, with a man guiding us by the light of a flickering candle. The dirt road is quite steep, and after a while we don't feel the cold any more. Chanting voices waft towards us. A group of people has gathered in the cave: the baby's father sits near his head, the mother opposite him, and they sing a wailing prayer, each one answering the other with a verse. They sing in the local, ancient language called Ocotlán, but we understand some words - jiho, chiquito, mi corazón. Around them, sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor, the closest relatives. Dressed in white tunics, resting their heads against the cave's walls, their eyes closed, they follow the prayer with a low humming. On the father's knees rests the baby's sister, three years old. Her face is quiet, almost smiling, as she breathes deeply in her sleep.

It all looks like a cruel, reverse Nativity scene. And yet, what a profound peace: no crying, no shouting in despair, only this sad song, this last lullaby, wrapping the dead baby in waves of love.

A lady offers us some yellow flowers, and following her example we each kiss a flower and put it on the floor, near the baby. Then we go.

How pure, how genuine this ceremony is, I think as I follow our guide down the road. What a dignified, noble way to express their sorrow. How consoling, in its own way.

The vigil will go on all night long. At dawn the little corpse will be cremated, and the ashes will be scattered from a high rock overlooking the sea. Then the father, shaman and sculptor, will start carving his lost baby's face in a stone to be set on the cave's threshold. Other ancestors are waiting there for him - he won't be alone.

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