Dance on the Ashes of Your Enemy

Dorothy, Ciera Land

A few hours before Ortega taught me how to dig a grave, he was visited by El Corte — the Cut One — but my friend didn’t warn me he was going to be murdered. All I knew on that chilly next to last day of October was that he was in a hurry to pass along his knowledge. “Now you do it,” he said, handing me his shovel as I stood waist deep in Señora García’s grave. “Dig, position, lift, throw. Then take one step over, and again. Do the whole level, then turn around and work your way back up the grave. Being methodical saves time.” 

Perching on the edge of the hole, crossing his rope-muscled arms over his chest, Ortega had me step hard on the shovel’s blade and loosen more dry soil. I adjusted my feet, slid my soft right hand down the wooden shaft, and lifted the dirt, then flipped it onto a pile forming on side-by-side plywood sheets. I couldn’t yet do it to his speed or rhythm: twelve rows per level, five digs per row, ten inches deep per shovelful. After digging twenty-one graves in eleven months, he knew all about making holes.

“I make these for my Luisa, to be perfect like her,” he said. “Do you see her, there by the cedar?” Ortega had asked twice already. “She’s a woman of ephemeral beauty.”

Ortega had begun digging Señora García’s final home when we arrived late that morning, having walked a mile out from the lower side of Trinity to our flat-land cemetery. He used tape measures anchored on boundary posts to position a spike just outside of what would become one corner of the grave, then found the other corners and connected the rectangle with yellow twine. Working to the music of meadowlarks, we finished at four, the grave deeper than we were tall. On the way back to the cemetery shed to store our tools, Ortega pointed out examples of his work. I had been to many of the funerals he talked about. Each hole, he said, had been precisely cut and was the same size — three feet by eight feet by six feet — measured square top and bottom, and each exactly three feet north or south from the last. His precision befitted a man who once was a bookkeeper.

Ortega, I thought, was seven or eight years older than I was, and I was twenty. At first glance, he looked like a hard man, but not in his eyes. He had not been born in our city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but Trinity had many new people like him, slender shadows who spoke Spanish first. These Latinos often kept to themselves even in our Latino community, not mixing at all with the Anglos. The Anglos ran the town and had their own cemetery filled with people who usually died in car accidents or of old age, not early of overdoses or gunshots in rental houses. Once in a while, Ortega walked across town to the white cemetery to watch a noisy backhoe rip holes in the sod.

“It goes much faster than I can dig, but it’s without a soul,” Ortega told me and Vicente, who owned the boarding house where we lived. I had been there for a couple of years, ever since my parents were deported, and Ortega was kind to me and acted as like my big brother. Vicente had helped Ortega get work at the cemetery to make money to pay rent on his small room on the third floor. Ortega’s journey here began near the border, and he said he was a migrant. “No kids,” he said when people asked. “Only my wife, waiting for me to call.” What he told me was different. 

“In truth, I’m an American citizen and my Luisa is dead,” he confided one day in his room. I had taken him apples to share, and he invited me in to see a shrine he had put together on his tiny nightstand. A framed birthday-party picture of Luisa rested behind a sprig of faded silk flowers and glass votive candles wrapped with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Santa Muerte. Santa Muerte is the saint of Holy Death. A lot of us pray through our beloved Virgen de Guadalupe, but narcos and even good people who are outcasts and need protection venerate Santa Muerte. Drawings of her, like on Ortega’s dollar-store candle of purple wax, usually show a robed skeleton holding a scythe and a skull. Her own skull shows from under the robe’s hood. 

He sat down on the tired bed and looked me up and down as I stood there. Elbows on his knees, he asked, “Keep a secret?”

I nodded.

“We lived in Arizona, in Nogales, and she was twenty-four. A cartel man came to our office and tried to get me to launder money. He asked twice, and I said no twice. Then he shot Luisa in the forehead. Now I pray for her soul every night. After I arranged for her burial, I packed my clothes and papers. I was afraid for my own life. A friend drove me up to Tucson, and then I took buses, hitched rides, and walked at night to get out of the cartel’s reach. Even here in Colorado, I know I have farther to go.” 

  • • •

 “Sometimes I wonder about the value of life,” Ortega said two months ago as we drank beer on the front steps. “Maybe all we can hope for is a holy death. The death of my innocent Luisa . . .” He wiped away tears before stiffening up. “Luisa comes to me sometimes at night. I see her face on Santa Muerte’s body, and all I want is to be with her. Whatever it takes.”

I put my arm around his shoulders. My parents are still alive and I’ve never really known death; I’ve never understood why people worship death. I knew that people like El Corte brandish Santa Muerte like a weapon — he had a big decal of her on the hood of his car — and it made me think that he’d do anything to live up to her image. The story was told that El Corte got his scar when he was eight years old, after his father hooked him with a knife and cut him from lips to ear. The surgery to fix it was poorly done. Under the streetlights, the pale scar on his bony face makes him look like Santa Muerte incarnate.

Earlier this month, Ortega and I were walking to the grocery store. We passed a flier, stapled to a sheet of plywood covering a window, that advertised a Day of the Dead party on the first of November. “Dance on the ashes of your enemy,” the poster urged us. Ortega nodded. “It’s not enough to be holy,” he said. “You have to wish others to be dead.” At the store’s checkout, I saw Ortega rubbing his fingers over a silver Santa Muerte medallion. When he noticed me, he put it back and smiled, but his eyes were sad.

  • • •

After dinner on the night before Señora García’s burial, I wandered over to the cemetery to see how my first grave was holding up. In the morning, the undertaker and his helper would arrive with the sheets of plastic grass to lay around the grave and cover the pile of dirt. They would set up the rolling device that lowers the coffin on straps, then erect an awning over the hole and the folding chairs arranged for the family. This evening, the grave was a dark pit lit by a quarter moon.

Ortega was there, dangling his feet in the hole. “My young friend, you shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Bad things are going to happen. You should go help the Anglos celebrate Halloween.” I scoffed, but Ortega insisted. I looked around, saw no trouble, and stubbornly sat down facing him across the grave. He was nervous. He had brought his shovel. 

“El Corte gave me no choice,” Ortega said. “He’s going to kill some people and wants me to bury them below this grave, and after the coffin is put in nobody will know. Of course, if the bodies are discovered, the police will arrest me. But the way it works, El Corte will kill me if I don’t help, and even if I do this he’ll kill me so I won’t talk. You too, probably. He knows we hang out together.”

We didn’t have long to worry. When two cars came down the road, Ortega tapped me on the leg and motioned for me to get into the grave, and before he lay down between the dirt pile and the grave he handed me the shovel. I braced it in a corner and stood on it so I could see between the gravestones. The cars turned in at the gate, crunching their way to the end of the gravel road and turning around in an area where mourners park. Two more cars arrived within a minute. They parked head-on to the other cars, and everyone left their headlights on. 

Three men lined up on each side in front of the headlights. Five carried rifles or pistols, and one man tossed a duffel bag between the lines. He gestured at the other men, and fragments of conversation rose in aggressive voices. When the gunfire began, three men fell right away. Two more shot at each other from behind gravestones, and the sixth man dashed into the battlefield to scoop up the bag before swerving in our direction. The surviving two men shot wildly at the runner, their bullets glancing off the stones and some whinging over our heads. One man turned back against the other and fired into his enemy’s chest, and the fallen man’s last act was to pick up his pistol and fire back. Each killed the other, their bodies collapsing into dark lumps.

Ortega pushed my shoulder and said, “Stay down.” Lying flat, he lifted the shovel out and held it like a bat. I heard what he heard — heavy breathing and footsteps pounding toward us. When the runner clambered up the dirt pile and tried to jump over the grave, Ortega swung. The shovel hit the man in the leg, and he slammed down against the far lip of the grave and crumpled to the bottom. I had squeezed up against one end, and the man was at the other. The duffel lay between us. Ortega let himself into the hole, asking whether I was okay. I was unhurt but could only point at the scarred face of El Corte.

We crossed ourselves. The man was alive; at least, his eyes were open. “I think his neck is broken,” Ortega said. He pinched the man’s nostrils shut, and soon the body convulsed and sagged. In the grave of another person, it was an unholy death.

“All of them are dead,” I said.

“You go home right now. We can never say we were here,” Ortega said. “You understand what will happen if the cartel finds out?”

Before I could say goodnight, Ortega was opening the duffel bag. I didn’t see what he had found, but as he looked up his face was wide with amazement. “Go,” he said, boosting me out of the grave. “I’ll take care of this.” I was halfway home before a parade of police cars screamed out to the cemetery. Ortega got home shortly after I did. We nodded at each other in the living room and crossed ourselves again, and he climbed the creaky steps to his room.

  • • •

Señora García’s morning burial was delayed for two reasons. The first was the undertakers’ discovery of El Corte’s body and then the five others. The police investigated and made their minds up what happened, and then they lifted and bagged his body and called the death an accident despite the nearby bloodshed. The second reason was that El Corte’s family, arms linked around the grave, demanded to bury him where he had died. The García family, having come from the church and accompanied by Señora García’s coffin, argued in return that she herself had bought this plot and was ready to go. El Corte’s parents immediately called the church and bought the adjacent plot so their son could taunt Señora García forever. She was laid to rest by midafternoon on the Day of the Dead, and Ortega and I, who had watched all of this from a respectful distance, closed her grave.

The following morning, when Ortega was called to dig El Corte’s grave, he invited me to help. “My friend, this will be my last grave until I’m ready for one myself,” he said as he shrugged off his backpack. “I want you to know you’re ready for the job. I already asked the priest to make sure you’re hired.” He had me measure the gravesite, and over the course of the day I dug the hole. After I squared off the bottom, he dropped in and asked for the shovel. He surprised me by getting on his knees and chipping sideways, tunneling toward Señora García’s grave. He reached in as far as his elbow, twisting and pulling until the duffel bag came out. He refilled the tunnel, packing it tight and smoothing the wall.

“This seemed like a safe place to hide it. Four hundred forty thousand dollars,” he said, shaking dirt off the duffel. He pulled a dark trash bag from his back pocket and stuffed bundles of bills into it. “Watch now. I’m taking half for myself.

Holding the trash bag, he put the other hand outside the grave, and I boosted him over the edge. He left the duffel with me.

“You do like I did,” he said. “Dig a tunnel halfway toward the next plot, stuff the bag in, and pack the dirt. After El Corte is buried tomorrow, you cover him up and act like there’s nothing wrong. When you open the next grave, dig back to this one and claim your money. While you’re making plans, El Corte himself will protect the money for you. He gave me the idea.”

As we put away our tools, Ortega opened his backpack. He showed me eight bottles of water, the photo of Luisa, his clothing, and a map, to which he added his dark bag. “I’ll rebuild my life invisibly,” he said. “Every place I stop, I’ll get better clothes, a better job. You can do the same.” After we embraced, he hung a medallion around his neck and then one around mine. “Santa Muerte,” he said, patting it against my chest. “Our patron.” 

We crossed ourselves. Without a look back he strode off to the north, one man among the living.

About the Author

Leon Unruh · University of Alaska

Leon Unruh is a non-traditional student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he works for the Alaska Native Language Center. He grew up in western Kansas, where he dug graves with his father. He is a co-author of Final Destinations: A Travel Guide for Remarkable Cemeteries in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This piece first appeared in Ice Box. 

About the Artist

Ciera Land · California State University

Ciera Land graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art and Art History and an Interdisciplinary Minor in Humanities. Throughout her collegiate career, she studied abroad in England (2017-2018), Greece (2018) and Italy (2018), was initiated into The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi (2018), and worked in the Fresno chapter of the Prison Arts Collective (2019-2020). Her achievements include: The Edward O. Lund Scholarship (2017), The Adolf Odorfer Art Scholarship (2018, 2019), The Bertha and John Garabedian Scholarship (2019), Chancellor’s Gallery Awardee for CSU Summer Arts Drawing Outside the Box (2019), Best Painting at the Senior Student Art Exhibition (2020). This piece first appeared in Furrow. Follow her on Instagram @lacedrain. 

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