He had spent his life looking for spirits in the blue water of the Xochimilco canals, and if he had not found them he had certainly created them. Few who came to the island disagreed that it was haunted. From every tree dangled the mutilated bodies of the dolls, their pendulous baby cheeks blistering in the sun, their parched eyes following the visitor around. So many of them, lashed to the trees with rusty wire, staring opaque and vacant; tufts of hair matted dark onto their forehead, or golden tresses dangling mud-spattered over their suave, inhuman shoulders. These were the spirits he had collected, the guardians of the place.

In the magical early morning stillness of Mexico, which seems to lap right into the canal bottoms and the black roots of growing flowers, was when he felt closest to them. Then each plash of the paddle seemed to break the shimmering surface of our world and plunge into the unknown, parting its heavy swirl for a moment and allowing a glimpse into its depths. This network of canals was all that remained of the ancient lake Xochimilco, once home to the Aztec, Toltec and Teotihuacanos peoples, and the water seemed to Don Julian like a murky mirror into time, in which he could view everything that was still alive but forgotten by its owner. In the quivering, translucent colours, the hum of Mexico City some 17 miles north, far away, he would see and hear what was happening to the unborn and just-born all over the world.


Like a male Llorona, who must dredge the river for her drowned babies for ever, Don Julian was said to fish the canals for doll after doll. But they were never live when he pulled them out, water pouring from their eye sockets and mud from their nostrils, which dried into eternal smears. It was a wonder where they all came from, how many careless children there were, who dropped them over the edge of the trajineras, the big, bright gondolas slowly pushing their way through those wide, hazy green Sunday mornings. Don Julian took their arrival for granted. He said he could hear their voices calling and singing in the canals. And again and again he found them, plastic heels and bellies protruding from the green scum, the water babies who had not quite managed to live. How did they all find their way there, to his watery corner of the world?


No one could remember, not even his own family, if it was his own daughter who had drowned in that place, or who was the spirit he was seeking to appease, for Don Julian had been there 50 years, living in his primitive hut, the vegetables and dolls his only company. The former, which grew abundantly, his garden or chinampa built out onto the lake onto a bed of twigs and mud in the traditional way, he exchanged for the latter, and the Mexicans who came to trade handed over their offerings in silent respect, for they could see he had been touched by the gods. In this place of eerie fertility, where floating gardens had been cultivated for centuries, was one of the secrets of life, like one of the world’s ova. Here what had not been allowed to live came to be loved into being, and was nurtured by Don Julian.


He accepted everything: dolls from refuse, dolls broken and abandoned beyond repair. The dismembered, the hairless, their skulls pricked all over as if with a fork. Those whose bodies ended in two open ovals where their thighs should have been, and those who were just an anonymous trunk. He had an especial tenderness for those born dead, with beautiful rounded heads, plastic curls traced onto them, and eyes gravely closed. Some he repaired, with ill-fitting arms that dangled queerly; others he allowed to remain as severed heads or just legs, with chunky, fat-grooved thighs, dangling thick and dirt-browned in dreadful plastic rigor. Dolls hunched and strung up by the neck, faces pitched forwards and overhung by string hair, dolls gazing serene and sightless on the air, their mild rictus open to all comers. The sun burnt away their smell and the breeze set them dangling softly from the nooses and washing lines looped around the trees. Now everyone could hear the whispering, as of a thousand dolls on the island breeze; the locals said it was a desecrated place.


In this area of waterways, there was a pervading smell of damp and of warming mud as the remnants of the lake rose softly into the hot air each day, and the silence was thick, unpenetrated by the shrieks and chatter and music from the passing boats. The island was off the beaten track, two hours from the main landing stages, and on weekdays, without the weekend crowd, it was very quiet. You could make the pilgrimage to Isla Muňecas in solitude, if you call a thousand little effigies solitude, to see if it was true, what every visitor said, that their eyes moved, following one around. The proverbial richness of the soil – Xochimilco once grew fruit and vegetables for Mexico City - seemed to wither at the island’s edge, which had the bare, guarded look of a high-security prison. The lake gardens bobbed lush as they had always done, but when you stepped onto land, it was as if the dolls had blasted the grass, which grew long and yellowed and sear between the gnarled trees. Heads bulging from branches like obscene swollen nuts, fabric bodies grey and grimy, skin peeled away by sun and wind and rain, leaving faces scarred and pallid, as if merging into time itself. There the yellow tiger-striped spiders, swollen like a bead, did their dance and straddled the silent uncomplaining faces and necks, swathing them with cobwebs.


And inside the rude shrine Don Julian had erected, darkness and chill, and waiting on her chair, the big doll of dolls, in hat and glasses, legs stuck straight out before her. Under her gaze, you could believe Don Julian when he said he felt the dolls were somehow still alive. At her feet she had her own dirty doll, swathed in a frayed baby bouncer piled with a bouquet of dried grass, a yellow plastic Xoloitzcuintli or Mexican hairless dog, a small square plastic shopping basket stuffed with netting, a blue wallet, a candle and an empty ornate photo frame, some sacking. It was so crude as to be almost meaningless. And on the floor before her, in a big, wide box, the creepy offerings from visitors – saints’ medals, coins, tiny dolls and figurines, candles, sweets, less in petition than to appease the influence of the place. They did not want to end up as little muňecas, pinned to trees. Or in a gondola whose flat bottom split open on the way back, the splintered wood ramming you beneath the wet black into a last off-key wailing of mariarchi bands and a confusion of limbs and death by crowding.


Don Julian would nod in acceptance at such sentiments, expressed most openly by visiting children and teenage girls. Maybe from long association, his own head had some of the worn, fragile look of an eroded toy, that life would not want to play with too roughly, the skin looking too thin, his moustache ragged as if cut by a child, a slightly bulged, wrinkled forehead, and in his eyes the speculative stare of a doll on the alert, with an odd, calculating squint at water and sky for the next arrival.


He was a timid soul who had found a life occupation. Always silent and shy, before becoming a hermit, in his early married life he would pad down to the village each day to sell the offerings from his chinampa garden himself; some big yellow courgette flowers to be made into fritters, perhaps, or green tomatillos, wrapped in their fine, greyish husk, their piquant smell lingering on the hands. He was one of the patient men you see sitting at markets all over Mexico, their little private triangles of coloured fruit and vegetables piled before them, as if for ever. He was no man to discover a drowned girl, to turn her wet face over in the shallows of his own garden; if the story was true. Small wonder if it had sent him unhinged, and in touch with the sorrows of the world. The voices he heard calling from the canals were not just infants incompatible with life, but the cries and laments of the mothers, which he sought to assuage with all the mummified babies, dangling stiff to the open air and here to be collected, if they did but know it.


Don Julian said that the dolls who arrived like buses, one after another, were manifestations of the drowned girl, that he was haunted by her spirit, and that his lost children were displayed in her honour. He said he could hear the goddess Cihuacoatl, snake woman, who last appeared just before Cortes invaded Mexico, returning to weep for the son she abandoned at a crossroads, that her hissing skirts meant another empire would fall. Maybe his grief was indeed too long for just one dead girl. Maybe in truth he was haunted by the spirit of old lake Xochimilco, that once spread its surface wide to the heavens, and his shrine was a shrine to the disappearing waters. Where once Mexico City or Tenochtitlan had been a small island in this vast lake, where once white herons had flapped and the sun glittered as from an inland sea, now the ramshackle breezeblock streets replicated across the lakebed like the long grey strings of a filthy cancer, and the buses surged and fought and spawned at their ends. Don Julian had lived on one of the last islands of a disappeared world.


Dimly, in his crazed, El Bulto way – El Bulto, he who carries one bundle and will show it to anyone or no one – Don Julian could see what was happening to his beloved region, where waterways grew foul and clogged with pollution and a stifling overgrowth of water-lilies, and the ugly indigenous amphibian the axolotl died in silence. People were spilling out of the city like water out of a bowl and drowning on dry land. If nothing else, the dolls would be witness, bound to their trees, to the day when the drained aquifer finally pulled the city down with it.

Don Julian Santana was found dead in the same canal in which the little girl had drowned, carrying his burden of madman to the last. The vulgar rumour was that he too had drowned, but the truth is he died of old age and an aneurysm, a broken heart, like any man.

© 2018 Fiona Marshall Vigo