On a Tuesday afternoon, I was sifted into a terracotta urn hand-painted by my mother. I watched her from the center shelf above the sink, dipping her coarse brush into acrylics called sunshine and tangerine, and wondered if she’d ever known my favorite color was turquoise. I had never been a candle until right then, listening to the sink run and bristles scrape clay, but the wax warmed in silvery sunlight, and I quite liked how the wick fit against my soul’s incorporeal backbone.
“I bought you a casket, mijo,” she said, suddenly, to no one and to me, to an empty house and to the orange-breasted finch pecking at the window. “When this is all over, I’ll make it right.”
I’d never given my casket much thought. I would’ve been happy with oak or chestnut, maple or walnut, pine, maybe, like an American soldier. I’d never given death much thought, either. But when it’d come upon me, I’d had no time to think about which box I’d be buried in, or who would attend my funeral, or how far I’d have to walk from Hanan Pacha or crawl from Uku Pacha to find my way back to Písac. In the end, my lungs tried, but they stopped, and my heart tried, but it stopped, too, and I became another body that needed burning. The government called it safer—see, the virus still lingers beneath his fingernails, they’d said, still clogs his sinuses and clings to his windpipe—but my Catholic mother knew better, and she grieved for me. She embellished my little vase, and prayed that my ashes would become bone, and my bone would grow new skin, and when God snapped his mighty fingers, the dead would rise again, and I’d rise, too.
Ah, Mama, I wanted to say, put my ashes in the mouth of a jaguar and let me return as a child of Inti. Put my ashes behind the teeth of an anaconda and let me return as an incarnation of Yacumama.
Before this, she would’ve laughed and swatted my rear with a spoon. Now, she rubbed the sore spot on her wrist and painted a smiling ocelot on the lid of my urn. I had never been a candle until after I died. I had never been a shoe, either. But yesterday, I’d fit myself into the rubber sole on my mother’s sandal and went with her to the garden. The day before that, I’d decided to be a curtain, billowing as my father carried a newborn lamb through the living room, and before that, bundled wool my sister had crocheted into a hat.
For a long time, I thought death meant waiting for another chance at life. I was wrong.
My mother tucked away her paint-tubes and placed my urn on the shelf next to me. How strange, I thought, to share space with elbow and ankle, collarbone and condor nose. I remembered myself, somehow. Shape after shape, I was still Emilio who manned the Saturday market, selling vegetables to locals and trinkets to tourists. Emilio who carried albuterol, always. Emilio who made ceviche at cookouts—lime, mango, more lime, shaved onion, sea bass. Emilio who was born on a full moon, who died on a full moon, too. I was Emilio. I would always be Emilio.
I slipped into many hollow places in my familia’s house, but most of the time I decided to be the candle. In the kitchen, my mother fixed arroz and braised beef and chicken stew; propped on the counter with her back to the cabinet, my sister dogeared pages in an English romance novel; each night at the wobbly table, my father read from Genesis. He prayed for me, for our village, for Peru, for the world, and I wanted to tell them how the first breath and the last weren’t much different, how I’d never met God but I myself had become a shapeshifting miracle, how the world might’ve gone quiet yet life was still loud. Still heaving and thrumming. Still beginning and ending. I’ve seen the future, I wanted to shout, I’ve seen us start again.
I sat beside my painted urn, voiceless and impatient, and waited.
When I wasn’t the candle, I was a doorknob, holding fast to balmy warmth after being grasped. I was loamy hay, spread beneath our livestock in the pasture. I was my mother’s dainty crucifix, my father’s Saint Christopher pendant, my sister’s river pearl necklace, memorizing heartbeats. Sometimes I was the chilly handle on a pitcher of sour lemonade, or the metal mouth on a shovel, or the loose button on a coat. Sometimes I listened to my sister talk to herself, to me, to the stray dog on the empty street outside her bedroom window. Sometimes our neighbors shooed the loneliness with song, a chorus rising like rainfall. My mother delivered sticky picarones and jerky to the young couple down the street, and my father strapped a scarf to his face and ventured across town to fix a broken hinge on my abuelo’s screen door. I was the basket on my mother’s arm, the hammer in my father’s hand, but when the future I’d prophesied came to fruition, when the world began to turn anew, I was once again the candle.
“Don’t let it burn,” my mother said, batting my sister away from the oven.
They frosted the baby bread with rosy cheeks and etched the shape of a horse into a caramel cookie. Sizzled duck breast in a hot pan with onion, raisins and wine, and set an overflowing plate next to me, Emilio, the candle, the ash. They wept, and I wish they hadn’t. Wish they’d heard my laughter in the popping wick, in the bustling market, in the spring wind, in the puedo abrazarte and the es tan bueno verte de nuevo.
My mother held me. Her baker’s fingers, with their grease-scars and dough-ripened skin, clutched tight to white wax I’d come to call me and mine. She shielded my flickering flame with her palm and sang in the crowded street, sandals kicking dust, brown-brimmed hat settled over fishtail braids, beckoning the moon to light our way on the cusp of Día de los Difuntos. People danced, polleras twirled, children grinned and hollered, and prayers filled the evening laced with names never forgotten. María. Alejandro. Jacob. Matthew. Diego. Fernando. Emilio, my mother said. Emilio, my sister said. Emilio, my father said. I wanted to tell them I loved them, but I burned brightly instead. It was all I could do, burn and listen, burn and understand, burn and begin again.
Wooden crosses speared the sky in the cemetery. Celebration chimed like a church bell, echoing between headstones littered with votive candles and sweet treats, covered in lace and liquor. Vendors sold doughnuts and skewered meat, vibrant bouquets and droopy balloons. Puppeteers made skeletal marionettes dance in the dirt, and the thin, mountain air rang with cries of hope and vindication. Souls dangled from keychains, wrapped tight around shoulders, clung to wrists and necks on chains and rope, and we spoke gently to each other. What will become of us? Do you smell that? Praise God, who is almighty. Is your family inoculated? Cuídate. Our ancestors are waiting. There we all were, carried and cradled, lovingly placed in gravesite shadow boxes alongside photographs and wildflowers.
My mother upturned my terracotta urn into a casket—cherrywood, polished—and said a prayer over the powdery ash settled atop cheap satin. That night, I left the candle and drifted into the box. Watched the sky slip away as the lid was shut and buckled. Listened to my people cheer and mourn and sigh, relieved. I waited until the silence came, until the footsteps ceased, until the world began anew, and then I slipped through the wood, and eased into the dirt, and made my way to the mouth of a jaguar, the teeth of an anaconda.
Emilio, someone said, this way.
Freydís Moon (they/them) is a diviner and creator with an affinity for quirky, speculative storytelling. A lover of culture, mysticism , history and poetry, they constantly find themself lost in a book, trying their hand at a new recipe, or planning a trip to a faraway place. Find them on Twitter @freydis_moon.