War is a flower.
Is the recorder on? Yes, I see the blinking light. Sorry, I’ve never been interviewed before. Oh…oh yes.
War is a flower. It’s a line in a book that belonged to Don Fermin.
If you think about it, it makes sense. After all, Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of War and patron of the city of Tenochtitlan, was the Hummingbird of the Left. The souls of dead warriors return to our world in the shape of hummingbirds. Why shouldn’t war be a flower?
No sir, I have never seen a ghost. I’ve worked the night shift in downtown Mexico City for most of my life, spent time in centuries-old houses, convents and shops, and I never bumped into a spook. Nevertheless, the House of the Hummingbirds was haunted.
No, sir. There is a difference between a haunting and a ghost. The well in the house was haunted.
The house? It was at the end of the Alley of General Manuel Mier y Terán. Every street in the downtown core once had a different, far more interesting name. Sometimes you can see the faded plaques on the corners of some streets revealing their lost histories, like smudged fingerprints. The Street of the Burned Woman is the 5a. Calle de Jesús María and the Alley of the Dead Man is now a section of Calle República Dominicana, probably because government officials think is best to name streets and buildings and bridges after notable figures instead of referring to half-forgotten suicides, criminals and lunatics.
The house at Mier y Terán was known as the House of the Hummingbirds after the tin-glazed, ceramic tiles decorating a thin strip on the uppermost part of its façade. Thanks to these tiles the whole street had once been known as the Street of the Hummingbirds.
Spooky? No. It was a typical colonial house, just like many in downtown Mexico City, with the only difference that it was in good shape compared to some of the other old buildings in the area. Because, I must say, this was in the 70s, when the whole downtown core was falling to pieces and palaces were turned into slums and garbage-strewn monstrosities. Street vendors would be bullied out in the 90s, but at that point they owned the streets and you had to club your way home through certain areas because the merchants of chaquiras and cigarettes blocked doors and windows when they sold their wares. Pickpockets stole with abandon. The streets were uneven, cracked, with outdated drainage systems. Windows which had been bricked during the reign of Santa Ana – to avoid paying certain taxes – were still blind more than a century later. It was a sad sight.
But the House of the Hummingbirds remained in its spot looking whole, dirty tiles and all, even though the viceroys and the viscounts had long departed from its street. Like all large colonial houses it had a tall, great wooden double-door which opened into a large interior patio chock full with massive potted ferns. When I worked in the house the building had been converted into the headquarters of a political magazine. After crossing the patio one reached the house proper, its rooms now turned into offices. There was a central hallway which led all the way to the back of the house and to a smaller patio – this one without ferns – and what had once been the stables, now serving as a space for the photography department.
It was here that you would find the well.
Mexico City was built on a lake and a well is not such an unusual sight. One time, when I was working as a guard at a construction site, the crew digging new foundations was shocked to discover water bubbling to the surface. They thought they had struck a pipe. It turned out there was a spring beneath the building site, long forgotten, and they had to bring in special machinery to drain the soil dry.
When you think about it, it was all this digging of wells and the extraction of water which has caused the city to sink. I once read in the papers that the Metropolitan Cathedral has sunk 12 metres since it was built three centuries ago. We are, literally, slowly descending into the muck from which the city was born.
So yes, a well, and so what? Nothing, really. It was made of stone and someone had taken the trouble of carving it with lots of birds and wings and feathers. Whoever had done the job was a poor artist because the birds looked very ugly and some didn’t look very much like birds at all. Maybe people who know about paintings and such might disagree, but I only made it to the first year of high school and I’ll say it looked like an ugly mess. The well was covered with a heavy stone slab and this also had more hummingbirds – or whatever type of bird it was supposed to be – carved on its surface.
Don Fermin, more educated in these matters than I was, told me the Aztecs did not have an alphabet and used pictograms to tell their stories. The well, I thought, might be narrating a story without words.
I didn’t like the well. When I was doing my rounds I used to walk by it very fast, crossing the courtyard with a determined strut. When you work nights as a security guard the dark ain’t scaring you. But there was something about the shape of the well as I emerged from the hallway and onto the courtyard; something which made me press my lips together and hold my flashlight very tight.
I’d walk by and I’d remember that I had no gun, not even a club; only my keys and my flashlight. It seemed damn close to being naked.
I also had some funny thoughts when I went by the well. Like once I thought it seemed so dark… like ink. I thought somebody had painted it with a marker; that it wasn’t really there. It was a black doodle on a piece of acetate. Then another time I got thinking about my history class and a morning when I was half-asleep, my head resting on top of the books, and the teacher started talking about the Mayan cenotes, the sacred waterholes where they used to fling young men as sacrifices to the gods.
I also had the idea that the air near the well was colder than the air around other parts of the house and Doña Adela, the owner of the guest house where I lodged, told me this was a sure sign of ghosts.
I didn’t like the well but in the end it was a minor annoyance. The job paid steady and paid well, and it was far less work than patrolling the department store where I was also employed part-time. Plus, Don Fermin had never seen no ghost in the house.
Don Fermin was a half-deaf man who worked through the weekdays while I took the weekend shift. Pushing seventy, he was the son of an escribano – a letter writer – and quite educated in all sorts of books and histories, the kind of stuff I never got to reading because I had to leave school and start working. It was he who told me Santana Ana levied a tax on doors and windows, and that people bricked most of these to evade it. He also said the house had once belonged to a guy named Fray Bartolomeo de Rivera, who’d ended up before the Spanish Inquisition for some thing or another.
I liked talking to Don Fermin and on my night off I’d often go to see him, catching him lolling in front of the little black-and-white TV set we kept in the night guard’s office. I’d bring him sweet bread from the bakery three blocks away and he’d talk about the city in the times when men carried swords at the hip and ladies rode in carriages.
Ah, Don Fermin. When he retired they gave me the weekday shift with five days of full-time work and I had to find and train my replacement for the weekends.
That’s when the trouble began.
If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have hired Salvador Machado. He was a student at the UNAM, working on his bachelor’s degree and looking for extra cash. I think his aunt in accounting got him the job, probably guessing it was easy work and he’d have plenty of time to read.
I don’t think he cared one bit about the job, about the house; his swagger and his indifference struck a sour note with me. Everything I showed him: the paperwork, the nightly tasks we had to complete, was met with indifference or a condescending smile.
I suppose most people think my job is easy, though them people wouldn’t last two weeks in my shoes. The mere shift in schedules, having to sleep with the day and get up at dusk, is enough to upset most folks. Then there’s walking in the dark, making the rounds in the hot summer nights or the chilly winter. The shit that happens at nights: homeless men sneaking into a construction site and having to chase ‘em off, people trying to dump garbage onto your lot, a prostitute deciding she’s found a perfect site to service her clients. One time when I was working in a building that had an old neon sign hanging outside a group of kids tried to steal it. I swear to God. These six or seven punks with their screwdrivers and hammers trying to run off with a six foot sign. Night duty takes a certain personality type and Salvador didn’t have it.
The first night, when I was showing him the layout of the building and taking him through the house, he smoked a cigarette and walked with one hand in his pocket, an eyebrow quirked like he owned the joint.
“Now we go to check the photographer’s studio,” I said, leading him across the small courtyard.
He stopped all of a sudden. “What’s that?” he asked.
“That,” he said.
“The well,” I said.
There was enough moonlight to half-sketch its shape so that it didn’t look like ink on acetate, but it also didn’t look too pleasant to me in the silence of the courtyard.
Crickets never nestled in this courtyard and maybe that’s part of why I didn’t like the well: it seemed to hush everything in its vicinity.
“Can I take a better look at it?”
I didn’t want to arch the flashlight in the well’s direction, feeling that wouldn’t be right. I shook my head. “We’re doing the rounds.”
He took out his lighter and stepped forward, a little flame blooming and offering a dim halo of light.
“Look, have the flashlight,” I said because it seemed even worse to be looking at it by the light of a flame.
He took the flashlight and stepped closer to the well, leaning down to run his hands over the carved birds, something which I had never done or had a desire to ever do. I shivered and tugged at the cuffs of my shirt.
“I didn’t know there was a well in this house. It’s not mentioned in any chronicles.”
“In a what?”
“I’m doing my thesis on Mexican legends of the downtown core of the city. I think I would have heard if there was such a well.”
“There’s lots of old stuff ‘round these streets,” I said.
“I know that,” the young man said petulantly. “I’ve picked half a dozen different sites for my studies. This house is one of them and I had never read of this. Do you know how old it is?”
“No. We have to do the rounds.”
“Yes, the rounds,” Salvador said sounding irritated.
It didn’t look like he wanted to move but then he simply shrugged. He handed me back my flashlight and we continued walking.
The second night of our training Salvador brought a camera with a big flash bulb and some very heavy books. He wanted to take pictures of the well. I thought it was a terrible idea and told him so.
“It ain’t your house for you to be taking pictures of it,” I said.
“What, like I need permission to take a few crummy snapshots?” he asked sounding offended.
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“They’re not going to fire you because I took photographs of the house.”
I wasn’t thinking about getting fired. I shook my head and grabbed my clipboard, glancing at it and then up at the grainy image on the television set. Tin Tan was playing a caveman, complete with a loincloth and a big club.
“Look, the Aztecs called Huitzilopochtli the left-handed hummingbird and they thought warriors who died in battle reincarnated as hummingbirds. The carvings on that well seem Prehispanic to me. They might have been taken from an older site.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, though I remembered Don Fermin had told me the Spaniards had used the stones from Aztec temples to build their houses and churches. Was Salvador talking about something like that?
“Of course not,” Salvador said with a huff. “Listen, I’m going to take photos of the well.”
“You do that and you’ll end up with a bloody nose,” I said.
One time Don Fermin told me about filth-death. It was the concept of sin among the Aztecs, sin which would not only affect the person who committed the sin, but which could rub onto others. Like a disease.
I’ve always gone by the numbers. I do right. Follow the rules. I suppose part of it is because I believe some of this filth-death thing. That if we are not careful, we stain our souls and the souls of others.
I always thought we ought to respect the well. Otherwise we risked staining our hands.
Of course, Salvador did not understand. But he shook his head and raised his hands in a pacifying gesture.
“Fine,” he said.
“Let’s do them rounds,” I said.
Salvador seemed rather irritated but I didn’t care much what he thought. When we walked by the well he flicked his cigarette away, like a child trying to get back at me. I looked at it as it burned like a single yellow eye upon the ground and frowned.
“Pick it up,” I ordered him. “We’re not paid to litter.”
“Oh, bullcrap,” he said.
He picked it up all the same.
Salvador Machado smoked like a train and did as he pleased. That I learned quickly. During the first two weeks on the job I stopped by to check on him and found him with his feet on the table, his papers all spread out, puffing happily away. The radio was at full volume. The music made the walls shiver.
“Hey,” I said, “what’s the idea?”
He turned around and didn’t even attempt to look worried, simply lowering the volume and frowning at me.
“Just some entertainment, that’s all.”
“You can watch the TV on mute,” I said. “That’s the rules.”
“The rules,” he muttered tossing his cigarettes into the dregs of his coffee cup. “The TV doesn’t work.”
“Of course it does,” I said.
He went towards the set and turned it on, flipping the dial. There was a lot of snow. He moved the rabbit ears trying to get a signal and quickly gave up, returning to his seat.
“It doesn’t work.”
I approached the television set and tried my hand at the rabbit ears. A black and white picture emerged. Pedro Infante on a motorcycle.
“There,” I said.
Salvador did not seem convinced. I looked down at his papers and saw that he’d made some drawings of the well. There were other things as well.
“What’s this?” I asked, lifting a piece of paper.
“A rubbing. It’s normally used for gravestones. You rub charcoal across a clean sheet of paper and it leaves an impression.”
His choice of words disturbed me. I thought of the rubbing as a piece skin or a nail which has been stripped from a corpse. I dropped the paper.
“I didn’t say—”
“You said I couldn’t take photographs,” he replied.
“That I did,” I said.
Nothing much happened after that. Salvador was working the weekends while I worked the weekdays. It was December and the nights got chillier so I started wearing my blue sweater. On Saturday evenings I went to visit Don Fermin’s and we drank coffee while he told me about Tenochtitlan, its ancient web of canals, the arteries of the city on which floated thousands of barges; canals which had been paved by the Spaniards.
Don Fermin took out the dominoes, his wrinkled hands slowly shuffling the tiles round and round. Sometimes I thought about the well while we played. The black spots on the white tiles seemed like little holes in the night sky, yawning and oozing darkness.
I thought about asking him about the well. I thought he might know more about it, like its age or who’d carved it. Our conversations about the well had always been…well, I don’t want to say we avoided talking about it, but we circled around the topic. He might show me his history books or mention something about the Aztecs, but we did not directly speak about it.
I never did ask Don Fermin anything about the well. I don’t think I really wanted to know.
One Saturday, shortly after I had stepped into my room, the phone rang. I thought maybe it was Don Fermin. Maybe I had forgotten something at his apartment. Instead, it was Salvador.
“Hi,” I said. “How you doing? Are you having trouble with the antenna again?”
“It’s got nothing to do with the damn television,” he said, his voice clipped. “Listen, I need you to take the rest of my shift for the night.”
“You feeling sick?”
“Yeah. Maybe. There’s something…How fast can you come?”
“An hour or so.”
He hung up. I decided to let the brat sweat it and spent a good amount of time parting my hair and shining my shoes. I packed my lunch and filled my thermos with coffee and off I went to catch the bus.
Salvador wasn’t in the office when I arrived, though his books and papers were spread over the table. I figured he was doing the rounds and sat down to wait for him, switching on the TV set. I waited for thirty minutes for him to come back before I decided to look for him.
I started thinking maybe the guy had gone out to drink before coming to work and had passed out in a hallway. The poor bastard might have stumbled down the stairs and hurt himself. Unfortunately, there was only one flashlight and Salvador had taken it with him.
I made quick work of the lower floor and then went upstairs, poking my head into the empty offices, calling for him.
Eventually it became obvious I’d have to look in the stables.
I’d have to cross the small courtyard.
I decided to be quick and direct about this. However, once I stepped into the courtyard I felt my courage fading. There was no moon that night. No stars. The sky was smooth as velvet black.
I felt a great desire to return to my room and spend the rest of the night watching old movies on the television set.
But I knew the way. I must walk the path. I edged close to the wall, fixing my eyes on the old stables, avoiding the sight of the well.
I was halfway there when I heard it.
It was a whisper. It trailed up my back and reached my ears, the voice buzzing like an insect. Then there was a soft scratching and the shuffle of a foot upon stone.
The buzzing increased and I thought maybe it wasn’t an insect. Maybe it was the flapping of wings.
There came another footstep upon the floor. The sound echoed and bounced around me. I lowered my head and pressed my hands against the wall.
I thought about a poem Don Fermin had read to me one time.
All the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it, nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
I whispered that line half a dozen times, with my hands glued to the wall.
A loud boom caused me to turn. I saw the flashlight rolling towards me across the floor. Instinct made me scoop it up and I held it, aiming the beam in the direction of the well.
Salvador was on the floor next to it, staring at the sky.
I rushed towards him and stared at his face, which was streaked with blood. His eyes seemed glassy and unfocused. He was breathing very slowly, his chest hardly rising. I stepped back and bumped my foot against something. I looked down: it was the well’s stone cover.
The courtyard grew quiet.
There was a great deal of fuss about Salvador Machado after that. His family hired a lawyer and started arguing it was the magazine’s fault that this had happened. The accident only took place because the premises were so poorly maintained. They claimed that Salvador had tripped or fallen, hitting his head. The magazine talked about a nervous breakdown brought on by an excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol, typical of the circle in which Salvador moved. Others said Salvador Machado had been trying to commit suicide by jumping into the well. An eager cop even looked at me with suspicion, perhaps thinking I had attempted to murder the student, but they dropped that theory pretty quick. I mean, Salvador hadn’t really been physically hurt. He’d just gone a bit loopy.
The well’s stone cover caused a smaller amount of concern, though it also came with its own set of problems. The thing was very heavy and it took three men to lift it back in its place, but that was only after two other men simply quit and refused to do the job.
Several years ago I took my son to the Museum of Anthropology to do some research for a paper. We walked by the exhibits, he took notes and every now and then I leaned down to read the little white placards explaining what I was looking at.
There was one typed card which said Aztec instruments for ritual bloodletting were often in the shape of hummingbirds, their needle-sharp beaks piercing the skin.
When we left the museum I stood under the shadow of the tall statue of the rain-god Tlaloc. Don Fermin once told me about the night in 1964 when they dragged the statue to its current place outside the museum. It rode on a gigantic wheeled platform, in a steel harness, from its home by the town of Coatlinchan where it had been carved. It rained that night, as though a storm followed the statue.
We are shocked when we think about the Aztecs sacrificing captives at the foot of their temples, consecrating their buildings with blood. But I’ve known of more than one man injured, maimed or killed at the construction sites where I’ve worked.
The foundations of buildings are drawn with blood.
Once you accept that, you know certain places must be haunted. Our City of Palaces, by its nature, must have more than its share of hauntings.
As I said at the beginning, I can’t speak of ghosts but there was something in the House of Hummingbirds. What exactly, I cannot say. I think Don Fermin knew but never told. I think I’ve been close to understanding it but I will never speak it out loud.
Oh, you need something more concrete than that? Well, I’ll tell you this: Look around carefully when you walk these old city streets at night. Whatever was in the House of the Hummingbirds, I’ve felt similar things brush by in other places.
You can turn your recorder off now.
Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia writes speculative fiction, from magic realism to horror. Her short stories have appeared in places such as The Book of Cthulhu, Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. She also edits fiction, including the brand spanking new Fungi anthology and the upcoming zombie-themed Dead North. Her first collection, Shedding Her Own Skin, will be out next year. Find her at silviamoreno-garcia.com or on Twitter: @silviamg.
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Story illustration by Stjepan Lukac.