“It is Magellan’s mask,” said my uncle.

This Magellan’s mask was unremarkable. Crudely carved on asperous wood and probably painted blue in the past, it was now full of brown spots. Yet, it miraculously managed to keep itself together, perhaps by not being exposed to sunlight in the last hundred years.

“It used to have red feathers,” remembered my uncle, “but that was long ago when I found it as a kid -just like you- back in 1953.”

Any child growing up in Cotija during the 1970s learned that Mexico should be thankful to the Spanish Crown for selflessly sharing two precious gifts: their language and their One God. I never felt attached to the first and rejected the second as soon as I was able. I have no sympathy for conquerors or the more than five hundred years of destruction left in their wake. But I admit there is a certain nostalgia that I -that all of us- inherited from them. The act of burning ships and building churches was a violent rebirth. Their Old World left behind, inaccessible. This nostalgia was a fertilizing force that nurtured (it would take generations) seeds of independence from Spain. Oedipus kills his aging mother so he can continue to live.

But instead of living, they continued to mourn her death. They built a New Spain atop that suffering. They taught their children to cry tears of stone and quarry and crosses and sins, and these children had children, and eventually, my mother had me.

I felt it necessary to describe this yearning -this inherited longing for the old world- to justify the events that led to my story, and explain why one day, as a kid, among dozens of worthless antiquities and dust-collecting junk, I found my hand attached to the strangest of vestiges.

It happened on the top floor of my grandfather’s pharmacy. Doctor by the Sorbonne and only apothecary in town, Agustín Guízar established his business in one of the wings of a century-old house that still stands today. I was ten at the time and loved climbing to the rooms upstairs, lured by the fact that it was forbidden. Glass vials of all shapes looked at me from silent wood shelves, secret liquids of all colours swirling inside. But the true marvels were stored in a deeper chamber: hundreds of antiquities from the old continent, each ringing with a different aura. All whispering my name, one louder than the rest.

My uncle revealed the mask’s name but not much else.

“What happened then,” I asked, “after you found the mask?”

Not much. My grandfather appeared -as if conjured by the shadows- at the precise moment of my uncle’s discovery. The mask quickly returned to its box, my uncle got spanked and escorted out of the room, and a new lock was placed on the door. I couldn’t imagine an angry version of my grandfather, but they tell me nephews are magically immune to these things.

My grandmother corroborated the story and added that the mask was a gift from one Don Enrique Maldonado when my grandfather returned from France at the onset of the second world war. The story goes that he and Enrique met in France and returned on the same ship (the Mexican government had provided a transatlantic ship to bring back as many nationals as possible). Agustín placed the mask in the safest place in the house and kept a watchful eye on it.

My poor grandfather, somewhere in his seventies, was just now entering the tragic penumbra of Alzheimer’s and could not provide much information.

I took to Cotija’s small library. Ferdinand Magellan was not Spanish but Portuguese and had travelled all the way down to what we know as Argentina by the year 1520. Financed by the Spanish Crown, he went as far as the Philippines with mortal consequences (the natives had a spear with his name on it). However, it was not Magellan’s role that caught my eye. Another curious character in this story was Lapu-Lapu, then king of Mactan, Visayas. When he would not convert to Christianity, Magellan tried -and failed- to destroy him.

Magellan came from Europe, making Lapu-Lapu the first warrior to withstand and repel a European invasion. The king was said to be invincible because of a strange artifact that granted him eternal life. Antonio Pigafetta, his only chronicler, mentions that this same artifact was stolen by Magellan’s personal servant after his master’s death. Where Magellan failed, centuries of other conquerors prevailed.

But what became of that artifact, and of this servant? I imagined him returning to Europe carrying the most precious treasure of all and then surviving up to this day, much like a vampire, thanks to this secret possession. Could that object be my grandfather’s mask? My imagination ran wild with theories of everlasting life and magical relics. I decided to investigate further and, fortuitously, the previous owner of the mask, Enrique Maldonado, was alive and well.

I took forty minutes to get to his house on my small bicycle. Enrique was drinking mezcal in the ‘solar’ (a sort of inner patio); I could see the dome of Cotija’s cathedral from where he was sitting.

“You are Don Agustin’s nephew,” he said, with the tone of someone who spends more time establishing facts than asking questions.

“How old are you?” I asked. Right to the point.

“About the same as your grandfather,” he said, then winked, then drank some mezcal.

“Why did you give grandfather your mask?”

Almost as if waiting for my grandfather to appear from behind a tree, saying, “Surprise! I just dropped by with my nephew to share a drink.” Enrique smiled and looked around. Then glanced back at his drink and spent ten very long seconds like that, no longer smiling.

“I didn’t give him the mask. It was his.”

“But grandmother said –”

“I was returning it. We’ve been sharing it for a while; it’s a game we like to play.” He smiled again, for just one second.

I didn’t know what to do with this information; I decided my best option was to sit down and look at the sun setting behind the cathedral’s dome.

Neither of us said anything for a long time. Enrique finished his mezcal, and I started noticing the evening’s chill under my light jacket. The whole thing was becoming uncomfortable. Eventually, I stood up, said my goodbyes, and went for my bike. I’d have to look elsewhere for answers.

“You know,” started Enrique as I was leaving, “Agustín never really wanted to return to Mexico. He had a good life in France.”


“You are too young to know about wars” he continued. I remained silent, as if to confirm my youth. “When we returned I left many things behind, but Agustín lost the most.” he said, gazing at his empty mezcal glass as if hoping it would magically refill.

“Oh,” I offered, making a mental note to explore that story some other day. Enrique poured himself another glass of mezcal, and took ten additional minutes to finish it.

“When Agustín is gone…” he finally spoke; there was a strange flicker of old candles and salt behind his eyes. He wasn’t talking about death either; that much I understood “keep the mask, but take good care of it.”

He didn’t say more, and so I left.

Eight years went by. We moved to a different city (the first of many moves for me, eventually bringing me to Edmonton), and life continued undisturbed. We would go back to visit my grandparents now and then. On one of those occasions, I realized with sadness that the time had come. I climbed up the stairs into a dark room that hadn’t been opened in a long time, reached inside a specific box, and took the mask.

Its magical aura had vanished along with my childhood (perhaps we only yearn for our ancestor’s past until we lived enough to start yearning for our own). I think I kept the object because it had some emotional value. It also gave me a particular feeling, like rain falling over an old abandoned city, that I could never entirely shake off. I wondered if my grandfather would recognize the object when I said goodbye, but his mind had set sail to seas far from our reach.

One day, a most curious thing happened. I was already on my own, attending university. I had been looking for one of my notebooks from back then. After turning the whole apartment over, I remembered a box where I kept most of the things I had brought from my parent’s place. This box was placed atop a tall closet; in my clumsiness, I knocked it to the floor as I tried to bring it over.

With some horror, I opened the box and discovered that the mask (which somehow managed to end up there) was broken.

My mother phoned two days later to tell me that my grandfather had finally died. Enrique was found dead in his home the same week.

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