In the Casa Azul

A Novel of Revolution and Betrayal

Meaghan Delahunt

St. Martin's Press

SENORA ROSITA MORENO COYOACAN

JULY 1954



That house: the cradle and the grave. The colour of it azul and - a deep matt blue to keep evil away. We say it is a blessing to be born and to die in the same house. Now that she is gone I imagine the birth and remember the death. It rained much on both occasions. Rain on a coffin tells us the person is happy. Rain on a newborn tells of a difficult life. The senorita loved the rain, the tears of the sky. Between her birth and her death, the sky cried many times.

Without tears she journeys now to Tlalocan, the Southern Paradise. Here the god of rain, Tlaloc, watches her progress. In this land of springtime she will run through the colours, moving easily, gathering them with her skirts for a palette. The other souls will see her and smile. They will sing her arrival and the dry branch near her funeral urn will turn green.

For she wanted this journey, spoke of it often.

At her funeral, so many people. And after, the senor, my patron, presenting me to them with eyes swollen, Senora Rosita Clemente Moreno, he said, the Judas-maker, the artist. And I had to move away then. For I had looked into the flames as her body eased into the burning. At the last moment, a gust from the furnace blasted the body upright, fiery strands of hair across her face, the eyes in the centre of the blazing hair. Like the face of a flower. Like something from her own hand. As if she had painted herself, one last time, a still life that was never still, to sit upright like that, with eyes that saw through fire.

Shortly before her death, the senorita showed me a painting which had her face at the centre of a sunflower. She looked at this painting for a long time. As she lay in her bed, the red plaster corset supporting her spine, blankets piled over the stump of her leg, she slowly scraped the paint off the canvas. `I am drowning inside that damned flower,' she said, and kept scraping away at it, destroying it.

Drowning inside the flower.

The flower of her own life. Brilliant and short. The energy of a flower. Even in death, an energy.

When a friend dies, what is left? The name that you can repeat so that they will not be forgotten. La senorita Frida. The name of my friend. She had a talent for friendship. `I have an open door for a heart,' she once told me. And it was true. So many passed through that doorway. To feel the warmth of that heart was special. Big people, famous people, but also the small people, the campesinos, entered the places of her heart. All of us flowed through her. El Viejo, for instance. Flowing - like the story of oceans and rivers. For what is one life but the record of other lives?

The first meeting with the senorita, I was at my stall, the last baby at my breast, although at the time I did not know that baby to be my last. I was watching the movement of the crowd, watching the people at my stall: the extension of a hand towards the fruit, the bend of a knuckle around a pear, the line of a nose as a person bent to inhale. Each day, I memorised these lines and angles of faces and bodies, and at night I worked on my figures from the memory of them.

I looked up. There was a sudden disturbance of air, as if birds had risen from branches, and there she was, moving towards me, a pink rebozo over her shoulders, hair braided with red ribbon, colour everywhere, a woman in Tehuana costume coming towards me. The senor was with her and they spent a long time at the stall, looking at my papier-mache figures, and I kept looking at this couple, too tired from the baby to speak, silently measuring the girth of the senor, how much flour and water I would need, how much wire for the jaw, how long it would take me to model a Judas on the scale of the senor, the biggest broadest man at the market that day. I was thinking all this when she spoke to me and asked me to make a model of her husband, a huge Judas-figure for burning, did I think that would be possible? As if she had looked into me and interrupted my thoughts. I nodded, yes, it would be possible, but a big work, and how much would she pay me for such a big work? I indicated the height and breadth of the senor, who, from that moment, became my patron. They laughed and offered me two hundred and fifty pesos, more money than I had ever seen. They bought some apples and prickly pear that day. As she counted out the money, I noticed the track-lines of her palm. `You have no head-line,' I said, as she extended her hand. `You must be careful. With no head-line, there is only the heart.' And that was the beginning of our friendship. I looked at her dress, the way other people pointed and stared as if she were a bird freed from a cage. I asked her: What is the occasion? For no one outside of Tehuana dressed like that then. I repeated my question. So, what is the occasion?

And she looked at me closely and at the baby in my arms and at the many around us, in the Mercado Abelardo Rodriguez. The pyramids of apples and oranges, the sharp cries of the vendors, the scent of bougainvillaea from the flower stalls, my Judas-figures set out in preparation for Semana Santa, Holy Week. `This is the occasion.' She spread her hands wide, taking in the whole market. She laughed, a few of her teeth slightly blackened, covering her mouth with her hand. And over the years, I learnt that for her every day was an occasion. Every time I saw her - the hair, the rings, the nails, never the same from one day to the next. It made everyone keep watching her: a walking festivity. She was the occasion.

Between friends, what is there not to say? `You drink too much. You smoke too much.' I used to scold her, more so in these last years when she would limp past my stall and I would check her pockets for the silver flask of mezcal or rum. She tried to laugh with her mouth shut. By then there was too much pain. Although in her paintings, the pain showed rarely in her face. Many times, in her studio, after I had brought her my latest figures, I would sit and watch her moving around, arranging objects and brushes, tiny flags in bowls of fruit. Hanging my black-and-white calaveras from ceiling hooks. I never saw her paint. Only Diego was allowed to watch. And I would look about the studio at her portraits cooling on racks. `The face is the same, always the same,' I said to her once, `but these paintings are of everything beyond the face.'

And at the end, an unfinished painting of a man with a heavy moustache. `Why paint that face?' I asked her. `He is not so beautiful as you.'

`But his moustache is beautiful!' She smoothed the heavy down, a dark crescent over her own upper lip. `You know I like a good moustache.' She laughed. She laughed a lot, the senorita. Even in the wheelchair.

I looked at this portrait and I remembered another man. With his white hair and small white beard. `El Viejo would not be laughing.'

Frida swung around to face me. `El Viejo made many errors - I see that now.'

`Errors.' I shook my head. `We all make errors.' I pointed at the easel. `But I am tired of this man and his moustache. This Stalin.'

La senorita was una comunista. People spat the word in the streets. Nuns threw holy water in her doorway as they passed. Outside the Casa Azul, bourgeois women covered their faces with rose-scented handkerchiefs. I said, `Stalin. My husband can think of nothing but Stalin and pulque. He spends more time drinking to Stalin than feeding his own children.'

`But that is the nature of the struggle,' she said.

`No, no,' I protested. `For me, the struggle is to get up every morning, to mix my paste, to fix my colours, to sell my fruit, to keep my children alive for another day. That is the struggle.'

`And for myself-' She paused, wheeling back a little, eyes fixed on the portrait of Stalin. `Who cannot get up every morning, the struggle is to keep on believing.'

She swung away from me, her amputated leg hidden by the coloured mass of her skirts. She moved to pick up a brush, turned back to her easel, started to block in the heavy outline of the man's face. She was crying. This portrait hung like an argument between us. I feel ashamed of it now, how I left that day.

I sit at my stall waiting for a car with the senor squeezed behind the wheel and the senorita next to him, her coloured braids snaked around her head. In my pocket are two gold teeth - a present from Frida many years before. The teeth I lost when my husband came back from the mines, thin and tired, swinging his fists, full of pulque and dreams of the Revolution. And now I gape as if my mouth is the opening to disaster, my gums as bruised as a landslide. I sit here, my hands closed over the bloodied gold, and I weep. I wish she could see me, my generous friend. For the senorita knew what it was to suffer a husband. She told me as much herself.

Five months since her death. I stand opposite her house, the Blue House, in the Avenida Londres. I see Senor Rivera come through the doorway of the Casa Azul, brushing past my work, the huge Judas-figures arching over him, red-andblue figures, framing his bulk in the doorway. I have come to see if he wants any works for Christmas; table decorations, toys, pinatas maybe. I have come also to check on my Judas-figures, those guards at the Casa Azul. And, I admit, to admire my work. To tend the colours. And I call to him, this day, from across the street, but he does not hear me, does not see me. And it seems that Diego is suddenly an old man, talking to himself, his clothes flapping loose around him.

I call and he does not hear me. For these are still early days, when his mouth tastes of ashes, when grief is a furnace, forcing the feelings upright, like the blast of her cremation.


Copyright 2001 Meaghan Delahunt