CE/UNO

From the spaceship, I watch smoke plumes dance across Tezcatlipoca’s surface. The rippling smoke continually veils and unveils the planet’s volcanic landscape, veils and unveils again, in a never-ending game of cosmic peekaboo.

I crouch there, palms cradling my face, silhouetted fingers fanned out before my eyes. I hold my hands there, smothering away the world outside, waiting.

And waiting.

Finally, I lift those fingers from my eyes, with my hands unfurling aside. I still see Tezcatlipoca waiting outside, and I whisper one word.

“Peekaboo.”

Tezcatlipoca’s shroud of smoke flickers, melting away across its horizon, and churning smoke gives way to jagged terrain below. Blackened crags and peaks jut out towards the stars, like obsidian knives slicing the sky, while crimson lava trickles down serrated mountains like splattered blood. Before me is a landscape of sacrificial knives offered to the heavens, blood and all.

OME/DOS

Long ago — long before this spaceship left Earth to escape the cocoliztli plague — Tezcatlipoca was the smoking-mirror god. The god of jaguars and shape-shifting nahualli shamans, of obsidian and war, of the earth and night sky.

“Tezcatlipoca was the god of all those things, and more,” my grandfather once told me, when I was a girl in Puebla.

“What do you mean, Nocoltzin?” I’d asked, while watching the night sky overhead, which throbbed with twinkling constellations. Below, a lake glistened with wispy reflections of the stars, their outlines scarred by kisses of wind.

“Tezcatlipoca was the god of change, conflict, rebirth.” As my grandfather spoke, the lines on his chocolate-tinted face deepened, and, illuminated by our campfire, those wrinkles looked like scattered strokes of forgotten hieroglyphs.

YEI/TRES

Behind me, a mechanical voice says: “Food prints are ready.”

I turn away from the planet Tezcatlipoca, and see a serving robot approaching with a tray. Atop the tray are a sugar-skull and a bun decorated with bone-shaped bumps.

I examine the calavera and pan de muerto — a bit rough around the edges, as expected from the spaceship’s low-res food printer, but they’ll do.

NAHUI/CUATRO

Another memory of Puebla, another night gilded in starlight.

My grandfather and I sat amid rows of marigold-encrusted gravestones. Around us, an ocean of candles bobbed and flickered, while seashell swirls of copal smoke unfurled up into the sky.

“Nocoltzin,” I said, holding a calavera, “why do we celebrate today, Día de Muertos?”

My grandfather gazed at the three gravestones facing us, before saying: “To remember the dead, the spirits visiting tonight.”

“Nana, Tata, Nocitzin?”

Nocoltzin smiled. “We might not see them, but they’ll visit, and we’ll feel them beside us.”

As he spoke, a gust of wind rustled by, swelling with the scent of copal incense and marigold flowers — a flurry that caressed our faces and tousled our hair and left us breathless in its wake, suspended there in a glowing ocean of candles and copal, in a smoking echo of the star-studded heavens above.

MACUILLI/CINCO

I set the calavera and pan de muerto on a table, and add four photographs. No candles, no copal, no marigolds, but at least my makeshift ofrenda has photographs and food.

Eight unmoving eyes stare at me from the four photographs as I say: “I’ll visit soon.”

CHICUACE/SEIS

I don’t know how Nocoltzin caught the cocoliztli.

I remember a hospital, a glass window, everything enveloped in the scent of disinfectant. Behind that window, Nocoltzin shuddered with coughs, blood erupting from his mouth into a steadily growing mound of speckled tissues.

I remember him waving through the glass. I waved back, and then his hands wrapped around his face, fingers transforming into a woven canopy that concealed eyes, nose, mouth.

When that canopy split apart, fingers falling away like an avalanche, Nocoltzin’s face re-emerged.

Peekaboo, he mouthed to me.

Then he coughed up more blood.

CHICOME/SIETE

Back on the spaceship, I turn away from the ofrenda and grab a helmet. It’s black and smooth, like polished obsidian, and inscribed on its surface is a name: Nahualli Remote Robot.

I settle into a chair, slip on the helmet, and close my eyes as Nahualli’s circuits whirr into life.

CHICUEI/OCHO

I remember pressing my face to the glass. I remember a flurry of motion, the moment flickering by both quickly and slowly, lingering as if in a half-remembered dream — figures in yellow hazmat suits flitting like neon ghosts around Nocoltzin’s bed, a blue curtain unravelling in waterfall ripples over the window’s other side, nurses’ footsteps clattering across the tiled floor like a torrent of rain.

I remember watching a curtain that refused to move. I remember a sudden silence, a stillness settling into the air.

I remember hearing the word muerto.

CHICNAHUI/NUEVE

I’m back on Earth, in Nahualli’s robotic body, and before me are four gravestones adorned with holographic recreations of candles and marigolds.

Nana. Tata. Nocitzin. Nocoltzin.

On the altars before the gravestones are calavera and pan de muerto holograms.

With robotic hands, I cover Nahualli’s visual processors, shutting out the cemetery, plunging everything into darkness.

When the fingers of those robotic hands slide away, I see four gravestones again.

“Peekaboo,” I say.

MATLACTLI/DIEZ

I am a little girl again, sitting with Nocoltzin before three gravestones.

“The world,” he says, “is a shape-shifting nahualli, an ever-changing smoking mirror, always playing peekaboo. You, I, Tezcatlipoca are its masks, patterns traced from swirling smoke, dimples on the fingers hiding its face.”

I look into his gaze and see two sets of eyes glinting back — my grandfather’s, and reflections of my own.

“But even in change,” he continues, “something endures. Behind the smoke is the same mirror. Behind the hands, the same face.”

And so we sit there, watching the twinkling night, suspended in time and memory, never too far from the ghosts of home.

The story behind the story: The smoking mirror

Richard Wu reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale.

I recently studied abroad in Mexico, where I had the opportunity to learn not only Spanish, but also some Nahuatl, better known as the Aztec language. Nahuatl is still spoken today by about 1.5 million indigenous people (many of whom are bilingual in both Nahuatl and Spanish), and this language is the source of the words ‘chocolate’, ‘tomato’, ‘chilli’, ‘avocado’ and ‘coyote’, as well as the name ‘Mexico’.

Interestingly, just as the Nahuatl language has endured through the Spanish conquest and subsequent ups and downs of Mexican history, so too have other elements of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic heritage. A prominent example of this is the celebration of Día de Muertos, which traces its origins to Aztec festivities that honoured the dead. Although Día de Muertos evolved through time and blended with Catholic religious practices, it did not die out, and many elements of this celebration — including the skull imagery, marigold flowers and copal incense — have held spiritual significance since Aztec times.

With all this in mind, it is interesting to think about how long-cherished traditions such as Día de Muertos might adapt to future technological and social developments. What might change? What might remain the same? And from a more general perspective, how will we strike a balance between moving towards the future, versus preserving the memory of the past?

Of course, we won’t be able to answer these questions with complete certainty until the future arrives. But if history is any indicator, human culture and traditions have a remarkable capacity to endure and persist through time.