The Medallion

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The Medallion (Solace 7, 8, & 9)

7

St. James, Santiago, the patron saint of Spain and of the Conquistadores. Pale, egg shell blue walls, darkness ruling inside the church. It will do so until the sun peeps in the stained- glass windows and awakens all the sleeping colours. I bow my head, then my knee, and kneel at the back. Ahead of me, I recognize some of my neighbours who concentrate on the gestures of the priest as he mumbles to himself before the altar.

The early morning shadows creep across the walls until a single beam of sunshine descends and shatters the altar into a thousand tiny chips of fragmented light. My hands are pallid butterflies fluttering in the sun’s rays and a rainbow halo adorns my head. I shift away from the sunbeam and move to the side-chapel dedicated to the statue of St. James.

… St. James the Moor-Slayer … Santiago Matamoros … he stands on the severed heads of the Moors he has killed … behind him hands tied behind their backs dusky skinned warriors march away into slavery … my eyes are level with those severed heads and I stare eyeball to eyeball at a decapitated Moor … beside the statue stands a photo of the Gate of Glory, la Puerta de la Gloria, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain … … generations of pilgrims have laid hands upon the Tree of Jesse, imprinting their fingers into the stone … human hands clasping rough granite in a search for comfort and warmth …

8

When I leave St. James, I find the witchdoctor squatting, in a trance. His fire burns low and a strong scent of copal rises from the coals, hangs heavy on the air, then slowly dissipates. I stop for a second to study El Brujo and the witch doctor speaks without opening his eyes.

“I spoke to your mother yesterday.”

“That’s nonsense,” I replied. “My mother’s dead.”

“What ails you, my son?”

“I’m not your son.”

“It’s a wise man knows his own father,” El Brujo opens his eyes. “One night, many years ago, Jaguar crept between your ribs and took your heart into his mouth. When he closed his jaws, your heart was as heavy as stone and Jaguar broke his tooth upon it. He cursed you and your heart remained a rock within your chest. At night, when you sleep, you dream of dust and ashes.”

“You speak in riddles,” I try to remain calm yet the words fan a sorrow within me that I thought had died a long time ago.

“Perhaps, but my words speak true.”

            … curses, stone, dust, ashes, broken heart, rock, heart in mouth … a marigold path, zopilote, high in the morning air, fire-red his wing-tips, and then an old stone bridge, a river below it with the snow floating down to be carried away by the current, three crones dancing on the steps of an orphanage, three beautiful ladies dancing on the temple steps, an old man, dead, then alive and walking in his burial clothes … hummingbirds dancing round the sun … red slashes of blood … tulips against a white-washed wall … an old man vanishing into a tomb … death’s face simmering in the moon’s dwindling pool …

“You must make a sacrifice, my friend.”

“I don’t do sacrifice, not like that boy this morning.”

“No, not like that,” El Brujo shakes his head. “You must sacrifice your beliefs and allow me to bless you.”

“I have no beliefs.”

“Even that is a belief.”

“Then I am sacrificing nothing.”

“If that is what you believe, it is so. Here: take this. It’s yours by right,” El Brujo offers me a medallion on a braided leather thong. “This is your mother’s gift to you.”

“You’re crazy. I told you: my mother’s dead. She didn’t leave me this.”

“I tell you that she did.”

“Did you know her?”

“I did.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You may believe what you want. But tell me, does the medallion call you?”

“I like it, yes. I can’t say it calls. How much?” I put my hand in my pocket.

9

“You do not have enough money to buy it, and if you did, you wouldn’t be the man I think you are. And in that case, I wouldn’t sell it to you,” his eyes took on a faraway look. “However, it comes from your mother and I promised your mother I’d give you this.”

            El Brujo’s eyes hold a power that disconcerts me. I lower my head to his fire and the copal makes my eyes water. I cough and my vision blurs. My lungs fill with perfume and El Brujo pushes me closer to the incense. I inhale deeply and break out in a sweat.

“You must wear this always. It will protect you,” El Brujo places the medallion round my neck. I place my hand upon it, feel its rough edges, and see through my tears that it is incomplete, for it has been broken in half. What remains shows half a cross with some broken roses where the crucified Christ would normally appear.

“But it’s broken.”

“Not broken, but divided. You must find the missing half.”

“Did my mother tell you that?”

“Your mother is dead.”

El Brujo lapses into silence and stares me down. Then he breaks into a weird, wailing chant, using a language that I do not know. As he sings, he leans forward and brushes my eyes with an eagle feather that he draws from his pocket.

“Now, you will be able to see.”

… an old woman dressed in black, pushes at a young man … colored threads hang out from her basket … they flap like flags in the single ray of sunshine that breaks into a million tiny sparks of fire … hummingbirds, tiny warriors, wing their dance around a sun that bears a man’s  face … a pair of scissors snips at the string that ties a child’s balloon to the earth and it floats away up into the air high above the cathedral tower … fire catches its wings and it flares like zopilote, the trickster, in the dawn’s early light … the cathedral spire is a notched measuring stick conducting the clouds as they dance and weave their patterns … within the prison of the sky … trenchant shadows, twisted dancers, old warrior kings bend themselves in and out of shape as they struggle to escape … an old man  wrings his hands, then vanishes …  a soap bubble floats away on the wind … a young girl stands on a bridge in winter … snow swirls and  draws a curtain around her body as she falls into the waters below … an old crone wrapped in rags carries a bundle of clothes to a set of steps and leaves it there …

            “The medallion vibrates, it’s heavy and warm.”

“It knows you.”

“What do you mean, ‘it knows me’?”

“Did you feel nothing? Did you see nothing?”

“I saw nothing,” I cough and clear my throat. “I saw nothing at all.”

El Brujo looks at me long and hard. He opens his mouth to speak, then shrugs his shoulders.

“Come, you have accepted the medallion your mother left you. Now accept my blessing.”

“Why?”

“Because I ask you to. Are you such a coward that you cannot accept a blessing from an old man? Here, kneel beside me,” El Brujo taps the ground at his side and, wondering what on earth I think I am doing, I kneel beside him.

El Brujo

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El Brujo (Solace 5 & 6)

5

I light the gas stove and run water from the tap into the coffee pot. Some things, especially the stupid ones,  are so automatic.  I am in a dream state, still half asleep, not thinking, half-dreaming, still influenced by the mescal. I turn off the tap and open the fridge. I take out a plastic bottle of cold water and pour into an open saucepan that I place on the gas.

Thoughts tumble through my head, night thoughts, crazy thoughts, hallucinations fuelled by last night’s mescal.

… the man in the moon now wears my father’s face … he perches like a scarecrow on the dead stick of a returning rocket … and the Mexicans  launched a rabbit to the moon before the Americans ever went there, well, a rabbit to the sun anyway, and he put it out and caused the moon to be formed, moon-raker, moon-maker, jack rabbit, rabbit pie in the sky … and the second sun sizzling, then put out, staring now, like a blinded eye … death’s face simmering in the stew-pot moon and everyone doomed as the white rabbit scuttles down his narrow escape tube and back into his burrow … high flames flicker on zopilote’s wings and bring an end to darkness … Zopilote, the Trickster, the bringer and bearer of the sun’s early morning fire … Lucifer, the morning star, the bearer of light, a new star rising among star-crossed generations … red scars of tulips, casting shadows on white-washed wall, twisting shadows, shadows dancing as they struggle to take shape … three women, dancing in the limelight, and the old man, standing there, wringing his hands, then vanishing, a soap bubble, borne away on the wind that catches children’s balloons and floats them away, up into the air … to where the returning warriors play their hummingbird games around the sun, returned from their death like all the dead, here in Oaxaca, are said to return … and the people placing food and drink on altars in their homes for their dearest beloveds to return once a year … down the moonlight’s marigold path, to feast and be fêted by their families … all the dead … returned …

“All the dead …?”

But this is nonsense: I can’t believe I saw my father last night. I couldn’t have seen him. I buried him a long time ago, a long way away. What did I see then, a living man, a man who looked like him? But he was wearing the suit in which I buried him. It had to be my dad.

I just don’t understand. There must be someone I can ask, a priest, an elder, someone who knows all about the local customs and what happens here. I can’t believe it was him. Do things like that happen? I’ve got to find out, I’ve got to know. There’s so much I want to know.

6

A solitary bell that hangs in the tower of the church of St. James.  Every day, an altar boy climbs the tower steps, with a hammer in his hand, kneels beside the bell, and beats it. The bell lurches into life and lets out the cry of a struck anvil in a hot forge where the farrier tends the horse’s hoofs. Six times the hammer strikes to warn the parishioners to hurry along, because morning mass is imminent.

A sudden urge to go to mass sweeps through me. I dress quickly, hurry down to the courtyard, and meet Mario, the handyman.

Buenos días, señor.”

Buenos días, Mario.”

“It’s peeg day, señor.”

“So it is. I won’t forget,” I slip out of the front gate and hurry down the street.

Outside the church door, two young people squat on the ground in front of El Brujo, the local witchdoctor. The young man, eyes closed, threads a cactus thorn through his lips. Dark blood oozes and El Brujo catches it in a little earthenware bowl. Beside him the young girl carries a flower-filled basket on her head. The aroma of the incense El Brujo burns on his fire tickles my nostrils.

            … light are the flowers … heavy cruel stones lie beneath them and weigh the basket down … twelve girls in floral dresses stand outside the church of the Soledad… they pick up their baskets … place them on their heads … hand on hip, one arm swinging free they wait for the high priest to bless them … then they start their pilgrimage … twelve girls … twelve churches … each will leave a floral tribute in a church … the twelfth … the petitioner … will continue to the cathedral .. alone … the petitioner frames a question as she waits for the blessing … will her mother live? … and her lips whisper an answer … please let my mother live …perhaps …  if   her brother sheds enough blood … if her daughter carries a heavy enough weight for long enough …

            El Brujo looks at me and snaps his fingers. I shake my head and my dream flees. El Brujo closes his eyes and hums a rhythmic chant. I walk past the group and enter the church.

Breakdown

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Commentary:

This was the first time I had been to the baths in Oaxaca. These came highly praised  by family and close friends and the combination of mist, steam, and herbs, combined to loosen the body and soothe the soul. The Mixtec baths and massage are very highly regarded, incidentally, and one can go to the equivalent of sweat lodges in order to enjoy a day at an ancient historic spa. The masseur himself was incredible. I lay face down initially. When he want to turn me over, he got a bucket of cold water, threw it over me and flipped me in mid-air as I reacted to the ice cold water. Hard to believe now. I also remember having to buy a small bar of paper-wrapped soap. And locking my valuables up in a little chest to which only he had the key. These baths feature in my novel, People of the Mist. Unpublished, alas, but I may get around to revising it one day. All I need is some encouragement!

 

Crocodile Tears

SD 16

 

Crocodile Tears

         The crocodile lives in the wind-up gramophone. The gramophone lives in the top room of the house. The boy winds up the gramophone with a long brass handle, round and round, till the spring is tight. The tight spring frightens the crocodile and he sits quietly in his cage. But as the record goes round, the spring loosens up and the crocodile roars and demands to be freed. He’s the Jack that wants to jump out of the box. His long-term dream is to eat up the witch who looks out of the window and watches the boy as he plays in the yard.

         Last week the boy decided to dig. He picked up a spade and dug a deep hole that went all the way down to his cousin in Australia. The little dog laughed and joined in the fun, scraping with his front paws and throwing earth out between his back legs like happy dogs do. The witch in the window cackled with laughter and the rooks in the rookery rose up in a cloud and cawed in reply. Only the boy can see the witch and he only sees her when she sits in the window. But he knows she wanders through the house, and the air goes cold when she enters and exits the rooms, especially when she brushes past the boy and sweeps his skin with her long, black gown.

         When the boy gets tired of digging, he drives the spade into the ground and leaves it standing by the hole. When his father comes home after work, it’s dark and he doesn’t see the hole but he does see the spade. So he doesn’t fall in to the shaft of the coal-mine that goes all the way down to Australia. No free trip to the Antipodes for that lucky dad. He beats the boy for that, for digging that hole. Then he beats him again for lying: the hole doesn’t go to Australia. Australia is too far away and the angle is all wrong. The boy laughs when he sees that his dad doesn’t know where Australia is.

         “Ha-ha,” he laughs and his dad beats him again, this time for laughing.

         Sometimes at night the boy can hear rats running through his bedroom walls. They scuttle and scuffle as they hunt through the guttering. The crocodile growls from time to time in that upstairs room. The witch cackles with laughter. The boy puts his head under the blankets and cries himself to sleep. Sometimes he wishes the crocodile would come and eat up his dad. But he loves his dad like the dog loves his dad even though his dad beats both the boy and the dog. Sudden beatings, they are, beatings that arrive without warning: hail and thunder from a sunny summer sky.

         “Well, you’re not laughing now,” his father announces.     When the father beats the boy, the dog cowers beneath a chair. The boy hears the crocodile growl and smiles through the tears as he wipes salt water from his eyes.

         “Are you laughing at me? I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your face,” the father taunts the son and beats him again.

         The crocodile growls. The old witch cackles. The rooks in the rookery rise up in the air and the father’s hair stands up on end like it does when lightning lights up the sky, and thunder rolls its drums, and the sky rattles like an old farmer’s cart whose iron-rimmed wheels have not been greased. The veins stand out in his father’s cheeks as the old man raises his hand to the boy.

         The old man tells the same old jokes again and again. The boy must always remember to laugh at them as if he had never heard them before. If he doesn’t laugh, his father gets angry. Some of the jokes are good, and the boy likes the one about the Catholic who goes into the bar in Belfast and asks the barkeep if they serve Protestants. Or is it the one in which the Protestant goes into the bar and ask the barkeep if they serve Catholics … anyway … one night, the boy has a dream and it goes like this. The crocodile escapes from the gramophone. The witch hands the boy a leash and a collar and between them they restrain the crocodile.

         “Walkies?” says the boy.

         The crocodile nods his head and croc and boy walk down the street to the Kiddy’s Soda Fountain on the corner.  When the boy walks in with the croc, the waitress raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth.

         “Do you serve grownups in here?” the little boy asks her.

         “Of course we do,” says the waitress.

         “Good. I’ll have a glass of Dandelion & Burdock for myself and a grown-up for the crocodile. Please.”

         The witch says grace, the boy sips his Dandelion & Burdock, and they all shed crocodile tears as the boy’s pet crocodile chomps on the fast disappearing body of the boy’s dad.

Water 2

15 May 2002 Pre-Rimouski 277

Rain Stick

The bruja turns her rain stick upside down.
Rain drops patter one by one,
then fall , faster and faster
until her bamboo sky
fills with the welcome
sound of rushing water.

An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus
beats against its wooden prison walls.

As I look heavenwards,
clouds gather,
rain falls in a wisdom of pearls,
cast from dark skies.

The scales fall from my eyes
and land on the marimbas,
dry beneath the arches
where wild music sounds,
half-tame rhythms,
sympathetic music
like this rainstorm
released by the bruja’s
magic hand.

(bruja: witch, witch doctor)

Comment: Every afternoon, in the rainy season, as regular as clockwork, the clouds build up and by five o’clock, the rain comes tumbling down. Nothing can describe the welcome smell of cool rain on dry dust and hot sand, the sound of raindrops pittering through the trees to splash on dry leaves, or the hiss of water on hot cobbles.

When the rain doesn’t come, then the Oaxacans who believe in the ancient traditions resort to sympathetic magic. They ask the brujos for help and the witch doctors bring out their rain sticks. Sympathetic magic: the sound of the sun-dried  cactus thorns falling through the hollow rain stick imitates the sound of the rain falling on the rain forest leaves. The clouds gather in sympathy and, sooner or later, the skies fill up with clouds, and down comes the rain.

 

People of the Mist 18

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11:00 AM

            … hard baked loaves of stone … hot cobbles beneath the feet … the burning street forced upwards through the shoe leather to scorch the feet … the sun’s orb an irresistible hammer beating the strength out of the sweating body … the heart sucked dry … the lungs shriveled … a man dehydrated … already dried up by the baths … from the inside out …

Everything seemed different to his distorted vision. Translucent people, pale ghosts of themselves, passed before him and wandered across the street, shadows in a dream cast against a cave wall. Tim walked to the central square and entered the cathedral through the same carved glass doors in which he had seen his father’s image, but his father was no longer there. Wary of flames and flickering candles, Tim stood in the dust-laden beam of sunlight that fell from a stained glass window high in the roof.

Wave after wave of colored light broke across his face and played fragmented games upon his hands. He inhaled sunshine and felt the sea-surge of a body being reborn. A new man, he emerged from darkness into light, a spiritual being, neither of this world nor yet of the next. The colored light danced its chiaro-oscuro upon the surrounding walls and he felt soft sunlight flooding into him.

            … inside massive stone walls … candles … crucifixes … paintings of saints … statues … carved wooden images … outside in the sunlight … alebrijes … staring eyes … wagging tails …  protruding tongues … their spirits breaking through the wood … turning from darkness into light … within the man’s head … once open doors slowly closing …  keys no longer turning in locks … unwound clocks no longer ticking … cobwebs gathering in forgotten rooms … flowers on the altars… nochebuenas with their single and double petals … crimson and cream … cempasúchiles … marigolds lighting  a golden walkway to guide the dead … loved ones returning to visit the living …

Standing in the cathedral, drenched in a rainbow shower of light, Tim’s mind drifted in and out of sun and clouds. All around him he saw secret worlds opening like oysters before his eyes. Flames through the candles made hard, crisp sounds, hissing and sharp, like the inside of an apple when strong teeth penetrate the outer skin. Candlelight brought an unexpected peace as its yellow bees’ wax light wandered over the altar.

Tim went to the chapel dedicated to La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. A girl knelt in front of the altar with a basket of flowers upon her head. With a click, wheels turned in his head and Tim realized that he had seen her that morning in the square in front of St. James. He didn’t want to disturb her prayers, so he tiptoed to the far side of the altar rail and started to kneel. As he did, the flower girl turned her head towards him.

Señor: I am so glad you have come. Please, I need your help.”

“My help?” Tim stood up and moved towards her. “Of course, what do you want me to do?”

“These flowers, I must place them on the altar. But the basket is caught in my hair. I cannot remove it. Could you …?”

“I saw you with a boy, this morning outside St. James, didn’t I?”

“Perhaps. My cousin walked with me until he slipped on the cobbles and could walk no more. He would have helped. Now there is nobody.”

“I’ll help. What must I do?”

“Take the weight of the basket and try to see where my hair is caught. You must untangle it, if you can. Then I can place the flowers on the altar as I have vowed.”

She knelt, motionless, an animal frozen in a trap. Tim lifted the basket and its weight shocked him: the stones within must have weighed at least twenty pound. As he lifted the basket, she winced and he saw where her hair had caught in the basket’s wickerwork.

“Can you hold the basket now?” he asked her.

She raised her hands and held it aloft. As she did so, Tim began to untangle her hair from the weave, a slow, difficult task. At last, the basket came free and the girl’s black hair fell smoothly into place.

“I hope I didn’t hurt you when I pulled your hair free.”

‘”Thank you and no, it didn’t hurt,” She took the basket in her hands and he opened the altar rail for her. She mounted the steps and placed the basket of flowers on the altar at the feet of La Virgen de la Soledad.

“There,” she bowed her head, crossed herself, and muttered a prayer. “My father will get better now.”

The girl returned through the altar rail and she and Tim knelt side by side in front of Oaxaca’s patroness.

“They say she will answer your prayers,” the flower girl looked weary and distressed. “She has worked many miracles for those who have walked the road. My cousin walked with me for a bit, but he was in great pain, so I sent him home.”

“Surely you could have finished the pilgrimage another day?”

“Oh, no, señor, it must be completed between the hours of six and twelve. My cousin should have helped, but I did it on my own. Señor, I must go now. It is time for me to change. I have completed my pilgrimage and now there is work for me to do.”

“Perhaps I can walk with you a little way?”

“Oh no, señor, that wouldn’t be right. I must go alone. But thank you.”

Tired, but full of grace, she got to her feet and walked backwards, away from the altar, not taking her eyes off the Virgin’s face. When she got to the chapel’s entrance she turned and left.

Tim knelt there in silence and thought of the strange things that seemed to happen in Oaxacan churches. Last Sunday he had gone to mass in La Consolación. The lady in front of him had opened her blouse and offered her breast to her youngest child who sucked there, greedily, throughout the service. The old man at the back held a roll-your-own smoke in the palm of his hand and closed his eyes in ecstasy as he inhaled the drug. Three dogs, tongues lolling, were pursuing a bitch in heat and she came into the church for sanctuary. The dogs chased her up and down the aisles as the high priest doggedly murmured the blessings that uplifted the hearts of the faithful: a bored acolyte passed the anointing oil and presented the sacred wine to the priest. Flowers and candles adorned the altar. When the old man from the back of the church stubbed out his smoke and knelt for communion, night breath lay whisky thick on the high priest’s tongue.

La Virgen de la Soledad stood tall on the altar wearing a black kirtle. Silver stars and planets swam through the dark night of the velvet that flowed down from her waist. Beside her, a young man with open, staring eyes hung from a rough, wooden cross. He recognized Tim and called him by his baptismal name, but Tim no longer knew how to answer. The young man had the jewel eyes of a flayed Mexican god, living forever, and never quite dead. Black blood flowed down the carved face and formed a river of coal dust waxed with carmine. The heavy smell of incense mingled with the smoke from the candles and transported Tim to an internal world in which time rolled on and on and lost all meaning.

… impressions … a nose here … a pair of eyes there … long black hair … a tree swaying to the music … a nose wrinkled in disdain … a black bible banged on a wooden table … a thin girl … a Cubist nightmare of female body parts … multiple pin balls released in a rush by an errant slot machine … light falling from high windows … stained glass … reds … blues … greens … smoke from a candle twisting in the air …