We slept Tuesday night with the scent of marigolds and the candlight of the altar. Well before dawn, we got up, dressed, and slipped out into the night to meet our fellow travelers. It was time for the Return of the Souls--the vigil in the graveyard.
In other parts of Mexico, the graveyard visit takes place on the night of Nov. 2. But in Quiotepec, the evening winds make this impossible; the vigil is held instead before dawn.
We walk quietly in the darkness and the stars. We stop when we round the curve in the road that led to the graveyward. The night air mutes the sounds--the swish of a machete, cutting brush for a fire to keep warm, the soft clop of a burro's hooves, a low murmur of voices--most of the village is there before us. We see the light of hundred of candles, and the silhouette of the mounds of marigolds. The air is sweet with copal incense.
We wander the graveyard, strangers here, yet welcome. They may not understand why this group of strangers has come to pay honor to their dead, but they accept it. Some graves are large and showy monuments, some with tiny chapels, some are merely neat mounds of earth. Not all are remembered--this is a very old village--but all are honored. I see three tiny mounds, barely two feet long. A woman decorating a nearby tomb sees me looking at them, and pauses to lay an armload of flowers on each one. No one remembers these lost babies--but their spirits are welcome back.
The flowers are laid in armloads on the grave. Flower heads are plucked off and placed in rows. I watch one man lightly scatter a drift of petals.
Dawn breaks over the mountain. The light reveals the colors--the brilliant gold and pinks of the flowers, the colors of the tombs and decorations. People are talking more now--the ones whose homes we visited last night greet us. The spirits, welcomed home through the altars last night, return to their own world.