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I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.
I was therefore burdened with unfamiliar gear—a large carrying case of Japanese cameras, some of which could photograph swift action occurring at a distance—and as my rickety bus trundled across central Mexico I wondered what I could do to protect these cameras if I followed my inclination to walk into the city from Kilometer 303.
I knew no one in the crowded bus and the cameras were far too valuable to entrust to strangers, so I resigned myself to staying on the bus and guarding them the seven remaining kilometers into the city. But as we approached Kilometer 303 the inchoate longing that had always possessed me at this curious spot in the highway surged over me with terrible force, and I was tempted to jump out and leave my cameras to chance.
Fighting back this childish impulse, I slumped in my seat and tried not to look at the road that had always haunted me, but I was powerless to keep my eyes away from it. Like many Mexican boys of good family, at thirteen I had been packed off to Lawrenceville School near Princeton, “to learn some English,” my father had grumbled, and sometimes on the green lawn of that excellent school I had stopped and gasped for breath, choked by nostalgia for the road I was now on. Later at Princeton, where there were also many young men from Mexico, I would sometimes seek out boys who had known this area and I would ask haltingly, “Have you ever seen anything lovelier than the view of Toledo from that gash in the hills where the road winds down from Kilometer 303?” And if my friends had ever seen this miraculous spot for themselves we would indulge our homesickness and think of our city of Toledo, the fairest in Mexico, as it displayed its golden iridescence in the late afternoon sun.
As a matter of fact, I think I became a writer because of this scintillating view. It had always been assumed by my parents that I would graduate from Princeton as my ancestors from Virginia had been doing since 1764, and that I would then take one year of graduate work in mining at Colorado and return to the silver mines of Toledo, which my family had been operating for many years. But all this changed in my junior year at college, when I wrote a prize-winning essay that occasioned much favorable comment among the English faculty. It described the view of Toledo from a point just beyond Kilometer 303 as it might have been seen in sequence by an Aztec district governor in 1500, by Cortés in 1524, by a Spanish priest in 1530, by a German traveler in 1660, by an American mining engineer in 1866—that would be my grandfather—and by General Gurza in the revolutionary battles of 1918.
Actually, it is not correct to say that I wrote this essay that was to have such influence in my life. I started it, and the visions came to me so vividly, so directly from the heart of Mexico and from my own memories, that I merely recorded them. In a sense, this prize was a damnable thing, for long after I had become a professional writer I remembered the ease with which I had composed the essay. And I was never again to experience that facility. But the visions I conjured up that day have lived with me forever.
Now they possessed me, and I surrendered myself to them, my glowing memories of Toledo, and I was reacting to them in my sentimental way when I saw through the window of the bus a sight that captured my imagination. Two young Indian women wearing leather sandals, rough-cloth skirts and bright shawls, and with their hair in swaying braids, were walking along the road toward Toledo. Obviously, they were heading for the Festival of Ixmiq, the site of my assignment, and the soft rhythm of their movement, from the undulating braids down to their slim ankles, reminded me of all the Indians I had ever seen walking home from my father’s mines, and I wanted to be with them as I had been forty years ago, and I found myself impulsively shouting in Spanish, “Halt the bus! Halt the bus! I’ll walk in from here.”
As the surprised driver ground down on his ancient brakes and as they squealed back in protest, I looked hurriedly about the bus in search of someone to whom I could entrust my bag of cameras, and it may seem curious to a typical American who might have a prejudiced view of Mexico, but I could hear my Mexican mother saying: “In other parts of Mexico evil men may steal now and then, but in Toledo we have only honest people.” Deciding to rely on her judgment, I quickly studied my fellow passengers to identify someone I could trust.
I saw in the rear an unusual-looking fellow who was watching me with aloof but sardonic amusement. He was about twenty-five years old, blond, quite handsome and dressed in what young people called a Pachuca sweater, that is, a huge, woolly, loose-woven affair that looked more like a shaggy tent than an article of clothing. It was much favored by Los Angeles beatniks who were infesting Mexico under one pretense or another and had come to serve as a badge of distinction. Even if the young man had not had his conspicuous blond hair the Pachuca sweater would have assured me that he was an American, for no self-respecting Mexican would have used this sweater for other than its original purpose: to keep sheepherders warm in the mountain pastures.
“You want somebody…” the young man asked, leaning slightly forward.
“I wanted to hike into town.” For some unaccountable reason I added, “The way I did when I was a boy.”
“Memories?” the young man asked with amusement. He reached out with an indolent gesture to indicate that he was willing to carry my case and assured me, “I’ll sort of…” His voice trailed off.
At this moment an older man seated behind me intercepted me as I started passing the cameras back to the American youth, and in excellent Spanish asked: “Aren’t you John Clay’s son?”
“I am,” I replied in Spanish.
“I thought I recognized your father’s bearing. You want me to look after the cameras?”
I considered the question only for a fleeting moment, during which I compared the undisciplined young American lounging in the back in his ridiculous Pachuca sweater with the Mexican businessman in his conventional dark suit. In Spanish I said, “I’d deem it an act of kindness if you took care of them for me.” Thus the motion of my arm, originally directed toward the young American in the backseat, was easily diverted in flight, as it were, to the Mexican closer at hand. To the American I apologized: “He’ll know where to deposit them.”
The young man laughed—insolently I thought. With three chopping movements of his palm as if delivering karate blows, he dismissed me.
“Where are you stopping?” the Mexican businessman asked.
“At the House of Tile,” I replied. “Please leave the cameras with Don Anselmo.”
“He’s dead,” the man said simply. “His widow runs the inn.”
“She knows me,” I replied, starting to dismount, but then I realized that I was about to hike into the city with no camera at all, and it occurred to me that if the event I was concerned about did take place, I might profit from having some good background shots of the festival to provide local color. So I begged the disgusted bus driver to wait for an additional moment while I retrieved one of my rapid-fire Japanese cameras, and with this slung around my neck I stepped down onto the highway at Kilometer 303. The bus accelerated swiftly, leaving a hazy trail of exhaust, and I was alone at four o’clock on an April afternoon at the spot where, above any other in the world, I wanted to be.”