A Year in the Life
Chapter 1: New Arrival
Santa Cecilia was a postcard.
That was Nell’s first thought as the cab wound its way through the small town. With its colorful buildings and half-paved streets, it could have belonged in any decade at all from the last hundred and fifty years, with only a few hints of modernity. This was a place that moved at its own pace, that respected tradition as much as convenience.
This was exactly the atmosphere Nell was looking for, the perfect setting for her next novel. Well, graphic novel. With a mini-series, a stand-alone graphic novel, and a recently-complete web-series under her belt, Nell was more than eager to start her next project.
There was a kind of familial nostalgia that brought her to Mexico from her home in western Canada. Her great-grandparents had emigrated north at the turn of the century to settle in Montana. Their own children had continued the journey, living a couple of years in Vancouver before eventually settling in Kelowna. Though the small village that her ancestors had once called home no longer existed, Nell could feel the spirit of them here and hoped that the months she planned to spend in Santa Cecilia would help her reconnect with her roots as well as provide the inspiration she needed for her upcoming book.
She had the look of her grandmother when she was young, with soft brown skin and thick chestnut-colored hair. She’d gotten the color from her mom’s side, but the unruly waves of it definitely came from her dad. Most of the time she kept it tied back with some thick ribbon or in a braid of some kind, just to keep it out of her face. The light scattering of freckles that dotted her face came from his side as well. She dressed for comfort as much as style in a pair of cropped blue floral-print leggings and a white sleeveless tunic with crocheted lace insets. The sky-blue sweater she had worn for warmth on the plane was tucked away in her purse, unneeded in the heat of the late-afternoon sun.
Her fingers itched for her pencil as the taxi’s route took them through the town square, her toe tapping to the beat of the song that played through the crackling radio. The driver turned left down a street marked with a shoe, reaching to turn the music down as he did so.
Nell shifted in her seat, moving to gather her purse and carry-on, thinking they might be close, but the driver turned down another street and turned the volume back up again. His passenger gave him a strange look as she released her purse strap. What was that about?
The driver must have caught a glimpse of her expression in the rear-view mirror as he gave a casual shrug. “Better safe than sorry.”
The man shuddered and said something about “la chancla”. Whatever that meant.
Nell’s Spanish was passable, the result of a few solid months of binge-studying and review with her mother’s parents. Slang, however, was something she still struggled with. She was pretty sure that a “chancla” was a sandal, but why would someone be afraid of a shoe?
The cab slowed to a stop in front of a three-story building painted a cheerful orange. Nell checked the address on her phone against the map she’d been following and smiled. She was finally here.
Nell stepped out of the car as the driver moved to the trunk to retrieve her butterfly-printed suitcase. She’d packed lightly for this leg of the trip, taking only one piece of luggage with her on the plane. The old steamer trunk that carried the rest of her things she’d shipped off a few days ago, and would be arriving later in the week.
She paid the driver, then moved to knock on the front door, trading the sunglasses that she was wearing for the regular prescription glasses that she had stashed in the case in her purse.
The woman who answered it barely came up to Nell’s chin. She was slight, almost birdlike, the image only enhanced by the bright peacock blue of her day dress. Her dark hair was streaked with grey, tied back in a loose tail.
“ Si ñ ora Montero?” Nell asked.
“Si!” The woman smiled. “Ah, you are Penelope, yes? Bienvenedo ! Please, come in.”
Nell tried not to flinch at the use of her full name. “Ah, gracias. And please, call me Nell.” Only her grandparents called her Penelope. Growing up everyone else had called her “Penny”, but she decided to start going by “Nell” once she started university. But Señora Montero had refused to call her anything but her full name since seeing her identification early on in their correspondence.
Her landlady continued to chatter cheerfully as she led her inside. “I see you made good time on your flight. My son, he lives in Mexico City, and he flies all over for work. I do not like planes. I would much rather keep my feet on the ground. Come, I will show you to your room.”
“Thank you, Señora .”
Her landlady waved her off. “No no no. None of this formality. You will call me Tia, or Tia Caro . We are family while you stay with us.”
“Oh, um…. Okay. Gracias, Tia. ”
The apartment she would be renting for the next few months was on the second floor. It was more like a bachelor’s suite, with the bedroom and living room sharing the central space, and a small kitchenette off to one side with a stove and a sink and a small refrigerator. If she needed any more space, Tia Caro told her, she was free to use the main kitchen on the ground floor. Oh, and she hoped that Nell would join them for dinner, as the tenants all ate dinner together most nights.
The furnishings were simple, with a wood-framed couch set against the end of the double bed in the center of the room, a couple of end tables, and a kitchen table with two chairs off to the side. The walls were painted bright white, contrasting with the muted orange of the floor tiles. A pair of hand-knotted rugs framed the bed, a third spread under the coffee table in front of the couch. The windows, Nell was told, could be opened, but did not have a screen. She should make sure that they were locked overnight, or if she was going out for the day.
“Ah, but you are tired after your long trip. I will leave you to settle in and you will join us for dinner tonight, si ?”
‘Tired’ was a bit of an understatement. Flying was approximately equivalent to the seventh circle of Hell to someone like Nell, who was prone to debilitating motion sickness. The Gravol that she’d dosed herself with that morning had become her best friend by the end of the day, allowing her to sleep through most of the flight.
“Ah, si. Gracias, Tia Caro.”
“Ah, de nada! ” Caro smiled. “Here, I will leave your keys on the counter. The square one is for the front door, and the round one is for your apartment. If you have any questions at all, I will be downstairs.”
Nell saw her landlady out and locked the door behind her. She didn’t bother unpacking, didn’t even take off her little ballet flats. She barely managed to shuffle over to the bed and fall face-down on the covers before falling into an exhausted sleep.
Nell was awoken some time later by a knock on the door. From the sound of it, they might have been knocking for a while. She surfaced blearily, rubbing her eyes with one hand, knocking her glasses askew.
“Penelope, are you awake?”
“Ah…. yeah. Si. I’m awake.” Mostly.
“Supper will be on the table in a few minutes if you want to join us downstairs.”
Nell’s stomach grumbled loudly in response. “I’ll be right down. Gracias, Si--- ah… Tia Caro. ”
As the sound of her landlady’s footsteps retreated down the stairs, Nell glanced around. Some time during her nap she had kicked off her shoes and wrapped herself up in the covers like a human burrito. She ran one hand absently through her hair, finding it escaping from its braid in mad, staticy frizz. Nell released the braid with a sigh, combing through the tangles with her fingers. That seemed to only make it worse so she dug her comb out of her carry-on to attempt to tame the beast before she met the rest of the residents.
She knew from earlier emails that most of the people who lived in the building were related to Caro in some way. The non-family tenants lived on the second floor with Nell.
It appeared that most of them had already gathered in the dining room by the time Nell had made her way down. She could hear them from the stairwell, a cacophony of loud voices carrying snippets of conversation that she only half-understood.
Tia Caro reigned over the kitchen with a wooden spoon and a floral-printed apron. A younger woman -- her daughter? -- followed behind her with a giant tray heaped with tamales that she placed in the center of the gigantic dining room table. Three young girls, the oldest maybe eight years old, were seated between their parents at one end of the table. Two older gentlemen, one with a truly impressive greying moustache, sat across from them. There was also a middle-aged couple and another older women in a white blouse and purple skirt seated next to them.
The landlady grinned when she saw her. “Ah, Penelope! You are awake! Come, come! Join us. Everyone, this is Penelope, our newest tenant. Penelope, mi familia . My daughter Esperanza and her husband, Juan, and their girls, Maria, Anabel, and Lia. Across from them is Antonio, and Carlos. My sister, Lucia, is there at the end of the table with Nico and Renata.”
Unsure how she was going to keep all of their names straight, Nell waved. “Nice to meet you all. Is there anything else that needs to be grabbed from the kitchen, Tia Caro ?”
“No no, everything is here. Come, sit!” Caro insisted. “We will get to know you.”
The moment Nell sat down she found herself loaded with questions, her plate loaded with food.
“So Nell, what brings you to Santa Cecilia?” Lucia asked
“Do you have family here?”
“Of course she doesn’t, Carlos. If she did she would be staying with them.”
“You don’t know that. Maybe they don’t have room.”
“ Familia es familia. There is always room.”
“Why is your accent funny?” That one from the middle of the sisters -- Anabel?
“Woah, woah! One at a time,” Nell laughed. “First, please call me Nell. Penelope makes me feel like an old Victorian lady.”
“But it is such a lovely name!” Renata protested as she served herself from a plate of arroz con pollo .
“ Gracias-- Renata was it?”
“ Si. ”
“ Gracias, Renata.” Nell said with a nod. “I like it too, but I feel like it’s a little mature for me, you know? For now, I think ‘Nell’ suits me better. I came to Santa Cecilia because I’m doing some research for a new project. I don’t have any family nearby, or at least none that I’m aware of.”
“You are family while you are here,” Caro said with a kind smile from across the table. “Penelope is a very talented artist.”
“A real artist or one of the ones who scribbles on a blank canvas and calls it art?” Antonio asked from behind his giant moustache, flinching away with a sharp ‘ ay ’ when Caro clipped the back of his head with her hand. “Just asking…”
“I’d call myself a real artist,” Nell answered evenly. “But I suppose that would depend on if you consider graphic novels to be art.”
Maria, the eldest of the girls, raised her hand as if she was in school, waving it in the air. “Ooh! Ooh! What’s a graphic novel?”
“Graphic novels are like…. Como lo dices … big, fancy comic books. I have four out in total right now, and an online series that I’ve just finished that will be released in hard-copy volumes in a few weeks.”
“ Chido !” The little girl declared. “Can I see? I wanna read comics!”
Nell hesitated. Her work tended to be a little more PG-13 than Maria’s parents might approve of. Shooting them a quick glance, she made a mental note to let them take a look before they let the kids read them. “Ah… I have a couple copies up in my room. But I can show you some of the pictures later if you want.”
Nell slept late the next morning. Having stayed up late into the night getting to know the other residents, she felt she deserved a bit of a lie-in. Today was for settling in and exploring the town where she would be living for the next few months.
And, she thought as her stomach growled at her, getting some groceries.
But first, a shower. After spending most of the day before travelling, Nell was feeling more than a little scuzzy and was eager to test out the shower in the bathroom that was opposite the kitchen. It was narrow enough that Nell could have rapped her elbows against each of the tiled walls -- something she did entirely by accident while she washed the soap out of her hair.
Refreshed, Nell stepped out of the shower to dry off. Drying her hair was a battle she simply did not feel like fighting today, so she did the best she could with her towel and spent the next few minutes muttering curses as she tried to fight a comb through the tangles. Then she twisted it up out of the way in a messy ballet bun, securing it in place with a large hooked hairstick.
That done, she pulled a bottle of sunscreen from the drawer under the sink. If she didn’t want to turn into a walking sunburned freckle within five minutes of being outside, she was going to have to make sure she covered herself before she left the building. With this in mind, she double-checked her purse for the smaller, travel-sized bottle that she had packed with her.
Her outfit for the day was a split-back apricot-colored tee-shirt printed with little rainbows, paired with mint green capris and a pair of heather grey ballet flats.
As Nell double-checked her purse, she heard the chime of incoming mail on her phone, and smiled when she saw that the message was from her parents.
Glad to see you’ve arrived safely. Loved the pictures of your new place. It’s so cute! I can’t wait to see how it looks once the rest of your stuff arrives.
Do you know when your trunk is supposed to get there? Dad is worried that it might get lost in transit. Do you still have your tracking number?
We have been looking up Santa Cecilia on google and it looks like such a cute little place! I am sure you will find lots of inspiration for your book there.
Dad’s been learning to use the Skype on his phone. He’s almost got the hang of it now. We will give you a call later tonight and you can give us all the details!
Have fun! Be safe.
Mom and Dad.
Nell chuckled, shaking her head as she typed out a response. Her dad was fairly helpless when it came to technology, her mom not much better. Until recently email had been the extent of their expertise. The idea of her parents im-ing or attempting a video chat was just funny.
I checked the tracking when I got up this morning. My trunk should be arriving tomorrow afternoon.
I’m heading out for groceries right now. My landlady gave me directions to the market so I’m going to grab some bruch and explore a bit this afternoon.
I will call you tonight and spam you with tourist pictures.
Message sent, Nell tucked her phone into her purse, grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter, and headed out.
She might have gotten lost once or twice but she did eventually locate the post office, the grocery store, and a little bakery that she couldn’t resist. With a paper bag full of breakfast pastries, Nell wandered off down the street.
She must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because instead of finding the grocery store, Nell found herself in a wide stone plaza with a large wooden gazebo erected in the center. A sort of farmer’s market was set up around the perimeter against the backdrop of an old church with a tall bell tower. There were people everywhere, haggling over produce, drinking coffee at the little cafe, or catching up with their neighbours on the latest goings-on in town.
Nell immediately lamented leaving her sketchbook at home. This was exactly what she had been looking for when she came to Santa Cecilia. This sense of tradition married with modernity, and a sense of timelessness behind the daily hustle and bustle. She could spend days sketching here, capturing the imposing sweep of the bell tower, the bright paper banners that criss-crossed between the buildings.
Oh, and the music! Nell’s exposure to mariachi was fairly minimal, but there was something truly incredible about seeing a performance in person. It was the perfect backdrop to the scene.
Nell immediately wanted to get a closer look at their costumes, drawn to the contrast of the gold braid against the deep blue of their charo suits.
All except for one, a kid who looked like he might have just started high school, dressed in worn jeans and a white tee shirt. His fingers flew over the strings of a pearl-white guitar, picking out a complicated melody that blended perfectly with the other band members.
He played well, she thought. For someone so young. And given the ease of which he played off of the other musicians and engaged the small crowd that had gathered to watch them, he was no stranger to performing.
But what really caught her attention was the glow.
An aura of golden orange surrounded the boy, flaring around him as he played, visible even in the bright glare of the sun.
Well, visible to Nell at least. Seeing auras was not entirely new to her, though it wasn’t something she experienced very often. But never in her life had she been able to see one so clearly, and never under direct sunlight!
Damn, who is this kid?
The band finished with a flourish and a series of loud, ringing gritos that had Nell jolting.
How did they even make that sound?
Nell shook her head. Not important. What was supposed to be doing again? Right. Getting groceries. Well, at least she was in the right place for that.
She left the plaza a short time later, wondering if Tia Caro would let her keep some of her purchases in the main fridge as she might have overestimated how much food her little fridge would hold.
And if she got turned around a couple more times on the way back home, well the only one who would know that was her.