OW! DAMN. AND she’s yanking me again. Always in such a rush at this hour, ready to start the jog up the steps and onto the hill. I’m already breathing hard, looking at her expectantly, and at the same time keeping an eye out for the stray cats that dot these stairs, thin and bony and mean as hell but oh-so-delightful to chase up fences if I get a chance. She doesn’t like it, though, because then the señoras with tough black braids and brooms come out and give her those stern glances.
The air here in this mountain valley is fresh and strong, with character and depth and presence. It smells like cool, dry pine needles and sweet flowers, the big pink and orange flowers that look like loosely pursed lips and have the goofy tassles in the middle. Between the leaps up the stairs I also distinguish the faint stink of exhaust from city buses, the smoke of cooking fires, and the warm, grainy scent of tortillas puffing up on the clay grills they call comales.
We make our rounds on the Fortin, up the steep mountain path fringed with herbs – fennel, thyme, rosemary – and then gently back down and around on the dirt road, kicking up little poofs of that ubiquitous terracotta dust, taking in the wide-rimmed bowl of bristling city beneath us. I take glorious flying leaps at the birds and almost get a gecko.
At 8 the sun here starts to pound from the sky like an opera singer going full force, and I have to steal moments in patches of shade when I get a chance. The light comes barreling down out of that cocky blue sky all pride and confidence and fills the landscape with great heaps of itself, pouring in under tree branches and blasting walls with high notes.
We go to the market. Here I smell furiously, as much as I can as I’m dragged along towards the juice stand. There’s the sharp ticklish smell of cherry tomatoes; the intense perfume of mint and basil; the vague, earthy scents of squash flowers and zucchinis. The blackberries practically sock me in the nose, fat and fresh and cloying with sweetness. The mangos are a balm, plush and lovely, their scent gentle and soft like a blanket.
I wait while she gets her juice. It’s green and blurry, full of stuff. I think there are raisins and pecans in there, and spinach. She sips it from the bag while we walk home. Traffic clots in the streets and cars honk and occasionally people gape out their windows at me and I gape back and secretly chuckle. She chuckles too. A man whistles nearby and I turn sharply to look at him. Knock it off, buddy. He does.
Kids in school uniforms come in loose knots up the sidewalk, estorbando as they say in Spanish (blocking the way, but there’s really no translation. Estorbando conveys a different kind of blocking, one born of the type of lingering and eventually-getting-there behavior they don’t really have in the U.S). The girls are pretty with long wavy hair and black Mary Janes, and they laugh. Their white shirts are wrinkled and tugged loose from the confines of their plaited skirts. They eat chips out of a bag. The boys make ridiculous sounds, like monkeys or wild pigs, trying to impress them. They have dark hair whose waves they try to exaggerate or suppress with gel.
The sounds make me want to paw at my ears: the gas truck, with clanging chains dangling from its bumper and its crackly tinkly jingle – “Gas de Oaxaca!”; the Agua Super Agua, Agua Super Agua, Agua Super Agua through the bullhorn of the water truck again and again, the rickety pick-ups and chugging VW bugs and old motos all taking a tope (speedbump) at the same time. The church bells’ sad sing-song.
I’m grateful when we round the corner to our cobblestone, dead-end street and head uphill. I give a glance or two back, catch the sprawling grid of narrow streets, the buildings in fading turquoise and maroon red and sunflower yellow, the distant bulk of mountains looking old and purple under the morning’s bright light, and I think I can almost make out the plumes of meat-flavored steam from taco stands. Sigh. I wish. Maybe tomorrow she’ll let me have one. Today, I’ll settle for a few sips of water and a nap at her feet.