Day of the Dead

by Peg Alford Pursell

When I was a child, Day of the Dead meant sugar skulls, staying up past midnight, marigolds, burning copal, blazing votives. I didn’t recognize any of the faces in the photographs on the altar. Now I have my own dead – and no sweet bread, hot wax, or tequila to lure them, no fancy papel picado. The dead come anyway, in fragments, perforated memories. My grandmother wearing a man’s fedora, a secret greeting card folded into her dress pocket. My grandfather, who burned basura in his basement fireplace, sending obscene odors throughout the neighborhood, whose last act was to eat a bowl of strawberry ice cream in the middle of the night. The crush I smoked pot with behind the brick chimney in the attic of his parents’ home, wrapped up with me in his sleeping bag. He confessed he had no plan for after graduation, and he laughed, and he never needed the plan. The stillborn girl who looked like a baby bird with bulging eyes curled in a nest under the acacia. The man I’d once thought was the one who wasn’t and whom I couldn’t live with once I understood that, who on a tear of amphetamines put a gun to his head.

The dead. I want a belly of bravery. I want to know the kindness sent out of the cage of the heart. An eye that never becomes insensate to the invisible spectrum, an ear that never dulls to the song of the pulse. The night grows long until it’s short, and the sweetened tongue kisses the breath, and the breath is the breath is the breath.

Peg Alford Pursell’s stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Emprise Review, Staccato Fiction, Joyland Magazine, among others, and her work has been short-listed for the Flannery O’Connor Award and nominated for a Pushcart Prize (Annalemma). She founded and curates Why There Are Words, a monthly lit reading series in Sausalito. For more info,