Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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Ixta’s been climbed by the Puebla English

Ah, but the rain always brought with it subversive feelings. There were some things we couldn’t put aside. The memory of darkness in the afternoon and a taste of cold in the air. Bonfires, hearth fires. Nettles and apples and mud. The rain rubbed at something that the sun never touched, even if there was a weakness in admitting to any nostalgia for the other country. The place we almost never called home.

The old man was a gargoyle, standing in the shelter of a bus stop and staring up into the water, which poured down over his face and had already soaked his jacket and shirt through. It spilled over the lenses of his glasses and plastered the thin hair to his scalp. The streets trembled black under the water, and the two of us were the only people to be seen. I crouched in the doorway where I had been trapped by the downpour, trying to stop the toes of my trainers, which were not my trainers, from getting wet.

I’d never seen him before, but still I knew who he was. He was the Welshman—El Gales—and I can still remember twisting the collar of my T-shirt under my chin into a useless seal against the weather as I stepped out into the rain toward him. I remember the ankle-deep puddle, glistening with rainbow swirls, around the corner of the road, where the tarmac had sunken in. The reedy sounds of a combi bus horn, and the wild thought even that everything here had been left to soak in the water and was close to being ruined. The whole dream city. Calloused, rusted, rotten. The memory is as perfect and simple and smooth now as a pebble. Anything that doesn’t come immediately to mind has been ground away by time and is lost forever. Where had I been and where was I going next? It doesn’t matter.

One of the others living in the house before I came out told me about the Welshman a day or two after I arrived. He said the old man was a sailor and had married a Mexican woman and now lived here on his own.

“He’s a recluse,” the boy had said. Teeth clenched, eyes shining with spite. “He’s a proper old villain, El Gales.”

We thought we were worldly and perhaps we were. We couldn’t hear the clocks ticking, but I knew that something was happening. Deep in the night, I told people that I had begun to feel the quivering of life in my new wet wings, still wrapped around my body. I would put down my drink and spread out my fingers in the air and say that we would soon find out whether I could open them and fly. And whoever I was speaking to would nod back and point at me with their cigarette and say, “Absolutely fucking right.” Or else they might only touch me on the arm or shoulder and raise their glass as if there were always enough truth in that gesture alone. “Ándale, güey. Salud.” And all of it only made me feel more crooked and aloof, even as it made the words taste more watery on my tongue.

Up close, the old man was surprisingly small, and there was an unripe smell from the wet tweed of his jacket. He had drawn himself back under the canopy of the shelter, but he didn’t look round, even when I was standing right next to him. He just kept on staring ahead, swaying on his legs against the brace of his arm. His heavy, misted-up glasses were the same kind that my grandad used to wear. National Health glasses. But even though he was shivering, he wasn’t soft at all. His face was sinew pulled tight over bone and it gave him a certainty that was more than just stubbornness or fear or brutality. He was like a dog that had grown used to living in the streets, and I had no idea what to say to him now that I had pushed my way in. So I pointed out weakly into the weather.

“We’re sinking,” I said. “It’s from the Bible.”

But I was too young, and he was so old. The words sounded mocking as soon as I had spoken them.

He scraped about with his fingers at the post he was holding to tighten his grip and coughed, but still he didn’t react, and I wondered for the first time if I’d made a mistake by assuming we spoke the same language. I couldn’t tell what currency I had. His silence showed that we were in his world, not mine, and when he did move, it was only vaguely, lifting his head in my direction, as if in search of some distant sound. His mouth hung open, but his brownish lips trembled together and apart, so that they might have been forming the shapes of silent judgments. This close, I could see the patch of hair under the line of his jaw and the looseness of the boiled-seeming tough skin on the left side of his face. He took a sudden step sideways but still held on to the shelter with his other hand so that he only seemed to stamp his foot at me. I was starting something that I didn’t understand, and I wondered all in a rush if he had killed people. Was he going to touch me? Or maybe take out his teeth?

A muscle fluttered a couple of times in the roll of skin above his right eye, tensing like the hopeless leg of a trapped frog, then, with only the slightest of shakes of his dipping head, he swung the furious lamps of his eyes back to stare out again into the flowing road.

“It’s a fucking mess,” he said suddenly, a pearly dewdrop of spittle greasing the broken hinge of his mouth.

The words hung between us. A grey seeping of sound that was like silt or grease, covering everything that he might mean. He breathed in and out through his mouth, the swallows of air deepening, building toward something, each one making his whole body rattle. Then abruptly, he shoved with his arm against the shelter and lurched forward and away. He had considered me and decided that the rain would be better than whatever I had to offer.

But almost straight away, with the jolt of his step down from the high pavement into the road and the momentum of the next couple of steps, something gave out and he stumbled to the side instead of keeping on in the direction he had started. For a moment, he hung there and then seemed at a dash to begin descending through the lake of the puddle in the road. His knees had both dipped down into the water before I reached him and caught his arm to stop the fall. There was almost nothing to him. The space of his jacket closed up under the grip of my hand, and his body jerked and then dangled slack against mine until I slipped my other arm around the back of his waist to hold him.

He was too weak even to flinch and accepted my arms while we crossed the road, our faces almost pressed together, so close that we were breathing each other’s breath. He even took my hand when we got to the far curb so that I could help him climb up sideways to the pavement. But then straight away he pushed against me roughly and was off again, with his right shoulder forward and his limp left hand shaking against his thigh. It was no game for him.

I watched until he was almost out of sight, but when he stumbled again and had to hold on to the roof of a parked car to stop from falling, I started along behind. He turned off the main road and onto one of the side streets behind a mall, and I held back so as not to get too close. Sometimes, he stopped and stood motionless in the middle of the path. Once he stumbled sideways against the lid of a bin as if to catch his breath, but I saw him rummage about inside it too, and by the time he moved off again he was carrying an empty, plastic bottle tucked under his arm and what looked like a coat hanger or a stick in his hand.

We went on in lunges and halts, moving slowly, and the rain slowed to a drizzle around us. Through a tarmac square with a redbrick church at the centre, and on the other side, down a very narrow road, leading off into a cluster of concrete buildings. I waited at the mouth of the road to make sure he didn’t see me and then followed him down into a small yard. There was no other way out, apart from the alleyway I had just come down, and the whole place was already empty when I got there. Just a half dozen haphazard apartment blocks joined together by rows of washing and power cables and hoops of barbed wire. There was no sign of the old man, but in the far corner of the yard, an enormous assortment of clutter and junk had been piled up around one of the front doors. Too many objects to make sense of or even fully take in. Empty beer bottles, car tyres, pieces of metal. A bike frame. There was industry to the act of gathering these things into groups, but otherwise no sense at all and no value to the junk that I could make out. Toys were set together on top of and inside a fridge with no door. Figurines in sitting position and standing position, without heads, without other limbs. Teddy bears in pink and yellow with opened seams and missing eyes. Piles of sodden, bleached paper. A battered desk drawer piled up with chair legs and old metal tools brined in thick rust. Hammers, screwdrivers. An electric drill with the casing removed so that its wire innards splayed out. Everything and nothing. I touched out at one of the piles and then leaned over it and pressed my face right up against the dusty glass of the apartment’s front window. The room behind was dark, but I could see that the sprawl continued inside too, and out into a dimly lit corridor at the back. Mirrors and pictures in deep stacks. Newspapers, notebooks. Human matter.

Once or twice as I stood there watching, a shapeless shadow fanned out blunderously from the back room into the corridor. And then it was gone and there was nothing else.


Everything we knew had the flow to it of myth. Experiences became stories to be cherished and, in turn, passed from person to person whenever anyone new came out to live with us and teach at the school.

Nothing had weight or value or consequence beyond its own novelty. We worked together and lived in the same few places, mixing with the same Mexican friends. So far as the rest of the faculty was concerned, the English teachers were as mysterious as wandering holy fools and there are dangers to living like that for too long.

In the house, we called each other by the Nahuatl names for the stranger gods and let a coin toss tell us what we would do next, and nothing was at risk. We told ourselves that it was Eden, and we didn’t let that stop us from taking whatever we wanted. Even the name of the place seems outlandish. Puebla de Zaragoza. Puebla de los Ángeles. The city is a sweet-stale smell I can’t separate out but would know again in a second. It is blooms of dahlias and orange marigolds twisting around the echoing dream horn of the water truck passing by outside, or the fussing, rumbling of pigeons, or the shouts of children. It is the line of mountains, icy blue and beautiful in the distance, more real than all of the concrete and tile and jagging wire of the city roofs. It is the people I lived with intimately and who I no longer remember by name. It is who I was then and that is not the same person as I had been before. Of course, it isn’t the person I am now either.

For Revolution Day, we shut up the school for the whole week so that the others could go to climb the volcano, because the last time they had tried, they had only reached the snow line, just above where the road stopped. That time, they had taken peyote in their camp on the first night and the next morning, someone called Ben who I never met slipped on some loose pumice and broke his wrist. None of them knew what they were doing.

I told them that I liked the house more when it was quiet, and they didn’t try to convince me. It seemed like an act of independence, even of boldness, for me not to go along, but as soon as they had left I realized that I could think of nothing else better to do instead. I spent the mornings drinking coffee on the roof, among the jars of burnt-out candles and cigarette butts and empty beer bottles. We’d set up all of the plastic chairs to face the volcanoes but mostly I turned the other way, toward the east, so I could close my eyes and feel the sun on my face. Sometimes I stayed up there, smoking and sunbathing until it started to rain.

Hazily, I had already started to look at the things that we did in something like disgust. Or maybe it was self-pity. I talked a lot about leaving but really I didn’t have anywhere else yet to go. So I made plans that were vague and rhapsodic. I decided to visit all of the churches in the city. On a whim, I bought an accordion from the street market near the Zócalo. I had my nose pierced and I ransacked the house. The others had more things than I did. There wasn’t even a bed in my room, just a mattress on the floor and shelves made out of wooden crates stacked on their sides. When no one else was about I could take off my clothes and wander the place. I could sleep wherever I liked and take whatever I needed or didn’t need from their cupboards.

The maid woke me one afternoon by opening the door to the bedroom where I was sleeping and coming straight in. She wrinkled her nose and stood watching me in the dark.

“Huele feo aquí,” she said and then crossed quickly to open the window, with the whole of her hand pressed over her mouth.

Her manner wasn’t triumphant, but there had been some kind of tiny change between us that excited her. She could see why we really were here after all.

“Murió el Viejo,” she said suddenly.

And straight away I knew who she was talking about, although I can’t imagine we had ever spoken about the old man with her before. He was a European and so were we and we lived in a place where all Europeans stood out. We were put together, whether we wanted to be or not.

She turned to leave the room but then lingered a moment and rubbed the back of one hand with her other palm.

“Es muy triste,” she said with a profuse shaking of her head.

I tried to ask what had happened to him, but she carried on walking and I couldn’t follow her straight away until I had found some clothes so that we spoke at first from different rooms, calling out to one another. She said that all she knew was the old man had died in the night. She told me that her cousin was capillero at the church and that he had rung her first thing in the morning. She said proudly that she was the first person he had told.

In the kitchen, I asked her who the old man was, and she shook her head in irritation as she filled the sink. But then she did reply, speaking down into the bubbles. She said that he had lived in the neighbourhood for a long time, longer than anyone else she knew, and that she felt sorry for him. She hesitated while she thought and when she spoke, she left long pauses after each word and nodded her head at the fullness of their meaning.

“Era un original,” she said and rubbed at the surface around the sink with a grey cloth.

She seemed almost to be glowing with the news and, for the first time, I understood that she was someone else my own age. I imagined her walking through the streets by the evening dressed in white and gold on her way out to go dancing, and I asked her suddenly if she would drink coffee with me on the roof. But she only laughed and shook her head, as if it was obvious to both of us why she could never do that.

The sky was already thick and grey with clouds settling about the city. In the autumn, the rain came in suddenly each afternoon. It must have meant snow on the mountain. Or perhaps the clouds would only have been rolling by underneath sun-sharpened rocks. I never went to the mountains. I am only making it up now. We were not much more than children, frightened of missing out or of just being wrong and of being seen for what we really might be—plain and irrelevant in this exotic place we had come to by accident. Why did we even have a maid? When I finally went out, she was still there in the kitchen, taking the full dishes from the fridge and throwing away the uneaten food.


The yard where the old man had lived was a different place entirely in the evening. People stood talking on the stairs and balconies. A gloaty, gritty hum of voices, threaded through with the sounds of music and televisions, drifted down from the buildings like cooking smoke. The first droplets of rain started to fall about me as I picked my way carefully across to the untidy apartment in the corner. Heavy, dusty taps about the flagstones of the courtyard.

The junk piles looked the same as they had the last time I had been there, but all of the individual things that my eyes picked out were different. An uneven row of chess pieces from different sets, some of them plastic, some wood. A brass lamp. A deflated football. It could have been anything. I reached out to touch a hammer, and I knew that something poignant must surely catch my eye. Something that a Mexican might not pick out from this mess as if my countryman could have chosen it just for me. A raindrop landed on the back of my hand, and I put down the hammer and poked at a stack of car number plates to see what was beneath them, kneeling on the cobbles.

But when I lifted my head, I saw what I somehow hadn’t noticed until now. The front door to the apartment was open behind the pile where I crouched and there were sounds coming from inside. Things were sliding and changing. There wasn’t time to think. More desperately now, I grabbed at whatever I could reach from where I was. A blunted saw, the head of a child’s doll. A statuette of a naked swimmer mid-dive, standing as a stop to hold open the door. An Acapulco diver? A piece of erotic art? It was something poignant as well as ludicrous, and I reached for it. A greedy grasp, prodding with my fingers. But as I stretched forward, leaning out over the hand I was using to balance, I began also to tip forward, so that the only way to stop myself from sprawling into the doorway was with a tiny galloping out of my hands in front of me on the ground. Out lurching into the room. Into the midst of the people who were sitting there, grouped around a television balancing in between the crates and piles of newspaper.

One by one, the children in the room turned to look at me. Then the fat man sitting right in front of the television lifted his huge head, with a finger and thumb frozen halfway between his mouth and the plate on his lap.

I got up quickly and opened my mouth, but nothing came to me. The room quivered like a bubble, and for a breath, a heartbeat, none of us moved. The situation might never need resolve itself into sense and consequence. It would always only be warm food smells. The screen of the television blurring out gently with the shapes of people moving around one another, intently and so far away. The piled and jumbled fragments. A dim apprehension that the old man I had expected to discover was nowhere here. Not in the waist-high plastic statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe missing a hand. Nor the doll with outstretched bare feet and jutting pink arms. He might never have been.

“Oye,” the fat man said doubtfully, and he was reaching out into the air toward me, gesturing with his greasy hand. Beckoning?

But I could see that something else was here too, about to sweep through his good-natured frowning, and it came in a shuffle of footsteps from the other side of the room. The children all turned at once toward the woman who was standing in the doorway at the back, with a basket of tortillas held out in both of her hands.

“Chucho, quién es?”

But already her face was twisting into the panic of fear.

It was heartbreaking and everything burst at once. The fat man was suddenly jerking his immense body up from the pit of his armchair to the edge of its seat, his plate wobbling about in front of him. Huge and comical. I stretched my hands out even as I stepped back against one of the toppling stacks by the door.

“Sorry,” I said in barely more than a whisper, the oldest weakest word I knew, and whatever I was leaning on gave way, sending metal dishes and pots clattering about on the ground and tipping me back out into the yard.

The rain was coming down heavily, but I didn’t stop running or even look back until I had passed the church and reached the main road again and my heart was thumping in my ears. I ran without thinking where I was going and when I couldn’t run any more, I carried on walking until the rain had stopped and my clothes felt stiff to the touch. Somewhere on my way out of the house I had picked up a single curling huarache made from a slice of car tyre stitched through with bands of rubbery leather, and I pressed it into my chest with both hands. I had claimed a shoe.

The gleaming pavements clicked under my footsteps like ice. Lights were coming on along the quiet streets that stretched away forever toward the mountains in perfect straight lines filled with people. Lives that were exquisite and irreparable and entirely unremarkable. A dog barked at me from a rooftop and, when I paused to look up at it, I could make out also the desperate, comical sounds of sex echoing out from one of the houses opposite, gently, comfortably, as if responding to the dog in each of the silences while it caught breath to bark again. We were so tiny, almost nothing at all. The clouds had melted away and an afterglow of sunshine glistened still off the wet wires between the buildings. A daring low necklace of coppery droplets.

Was it too much to ask? I had wanted the ghost of the old man to lean in close and whisper something I could rush back to share with the others. A single magical word of knowledge that might glow moonlike for us afterward to mist the way. Enrapture. Or loyalty. Or grace. Or depravity. But all that was left was an old shoe I had stolen from a house where he hadn’t lived.


There was music spilling out from behind the front gate when I got back to our house. Warm and luminous sounds and they sent a shiver through me. A curling tumbling of excitement.

I pushed open the front door, and the others all turned to look up at me from where they sprawled beautifully across one another on the chairs of the room, powdered with volcano dust but filled somehow still with a tremendous lingering energy. We lived together for a year. We probably loved one another in a way and yet from here I can no longer even pick them apart, boys and girls alike.

Without getting up from the sofa, one of the Sarahs raised her arms toward me, pointing as if she need never be embarrassed of anything she did and welcoming me back to the house that had been mine alone in their absence. She had the fine arms of a statue. A young queen’s arms.

“Ixta’s been climbed by the Puebla English,” she said in wonder.

Her smiling couldn’t be contained. Life couldn’t be contained. There was so much of her. She laughed to draw me in toward them all triumphantly, ecstatically and the laughter gave me permission. I held up the dirty old shoe as a trophy that they must surely be able to understand. The seed of a story we were already starting to gather about in expectation. It might have been the only thing that I had in the world. None of them had noticed the clothes that I had taken from their rooms. The watch and the rings I was wearing too. Perhaps they wouldn’t. And in an instant all that I knew for certain was how the next few hours would roll out ahead. Evening slipping into night and then on in a dark rush toward the sharp distant lights of morning, when we might tiptoe up to look out at the mountains from the roof. Popocatépetl, Ixtaccíhuatl, maybe even if the sky was clear enough faraway Malinche.

The laughter in the room swelled up into an alarming clamour around me, then just as miraculously fell back into separate strands of whispering sound. It wreathed me and held all of us safe. There was no way to imagine that this could ever end. The idea even was absurd.

Outside the window, the street was dark, but the sky above climbed into a rich and soaring blue. It was the heaven blue of Neptune, or of freshly broken sapphire stone. It was throne silk.  

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