The Dancer 10, 11 /11

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10

on Monte Albán the danzantes
sway to soft music
their shadows dance in and on stone
as they have danced for centuries

wind rustles the grass
moon casts sharp shapes

darkness ascends the temple steps
huge fingers grasping upwards
an owl’s feathers clutching at the skies

at dawn tomorrow
the sun will rise beneath our feet
we will squint down on its majesty
we will pluck the ripeness of its orange
in our outstretched hands

11

our last night together
I pluck a blossom from the tulipán tree
a final offering of my love

she gives it back
I place it in the pocket of flesh
where I once kept my heart

tomorrow when the flower breaks
it will stain my shirt
a damp splash of blood
no longer running in my veins

the scent of our happiness
will cling forever to my fingers

The Dancer 1&2 /11

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The Dancer and the Dance

 1

she comes here to dance for me
only for me does she dress this way

she shows me her dreams
unfolding them one by one
silk and cotton garments
drawn fresh from her scented closet

thin copper bracelets
carved wooden mask

only her eyes reveal
subversive flesh and blood

2

she orchestrates her story
skin drum
rattle of seeds in a sun-dried pod
single violin string
stretched across an armadillo’s shell

I too am tense like an instrument
waiting to be played

the bones of my love
reach out towards her

 

 

People of the Mist 7

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7:30 AM

Tim opened the gate and walked into the courtyard of his apartment building. A bird of paradise fluttered before him, its crested head suspended in mid-air. Earth-bound, it nested in a basket in the grapefruit tree. Mario, the handyman, and Marisa, the widow who did the laundry and cleaned the rooms, gestured as they argued.

Marisa had just caught an enormous chapulín. She grasped the grasshopper by its hind legs and held down its freckled, leaf-colored wings so it couldn’t fly.

“It poured with rain last night,” Marisa said. “I saw him here, in the courtyard. I caught him before he dry his wings and fly,” Marisa held out her captive for Tim to see. The chapulín had long grey-green antennae and the serious anthropomorphic face of a junior priest or a staid young scholar who would one day hold sway over a classroom filled with little children. Its wings vibrated as they changed colour adapting to light and shade.

“I’m going to call him Charlie Chapulín,” Marisa smiled at her own joke.

“Give him to me. I want to hold him,” Mario lifted the grasshopper from Marisa’s hand and trapped it in a cage made from his fingers. “I have kidnapped your Charlie Chapulín,” he said in a threatening tone. “But you can ransom him for a kiss,” Mario closed his eyes, puckered up his lips, and Marisa slapped him in playful fashion across the face.

“Thief,” she said. “It’s my chapulín.” She put her hand on the grasshopper that Mario now held and Tim wondered if he was going to witness the Judgement of Solomon.

“It will be our chapulín,” Tim declared, “un chapulín de equipo, a Team Tim grasshopper, first captured by Marisa, then recaptured by Mario, then accepted into the team by me: a veritable dream team chapulín.”

El Brujo would tell you to set it free, Mario,”Marisa smiled.

“Don’t say things like that, Marisa,” Mario frowned, drawing his thick, black eyebrows in together to form a crow’s wing.

El Brujo?” Tim snapped to attention. “What do you know of him? Tell me, please.”

“Say nothing, Marisa,” Mario urged her. “You know we don’t speak of that man, not in the presence of strangers.”

“But I’m not a stranger,” Tim protested.

“Maybe not a total stranger, no,” Mario conceded. “But you are a foreigner, and it is dangerous to speak to foreigners about our holy men.”

“Dangerous? Holy? In what way? Tell me.”

“We have already said too much,” Mario beckoned to Marisa. “Come, Marisa, we have work to do.”

“At least let the chapulín go,” Tim said. “It was born free. Give it back its freedom.”

“Born free, like those captive kings who now dance in stone prisons on Monte Albán,” said Mario, unwilling to relinquish his prize.

“Yes, Mario; born free, just like them,” Marisa smiled. “And one day their prison walls will be broken and they too will be free, as will we all.”

“Enough,” Mario opened the prison bars of his fingers and the chapulín flew.

“Ah well,” Tim said. “It’s time for my breakfast.”

“Your breakfast has just flown,” Mario flashed his white teeth and the gold filling sparkled.

“Mario, you are a brute,” said Marisa as Tim walked to the bottom of the stairs and climbed up to his apartment. “He wasn’t going to eat him.”

“I don’t trust foreigners,” Mario glared at Tim’s back and made a rude gesture with small and index finger. “He would have fried him in olive oil and eaten him with garlic.”

“Mario: stop that,” Marisa gave him a push. “Remember: it’s a pig day. You mustn’t be rude to foreigners on a pig day, especially those who live in the compound.”

Mario shrugged.

 

People of the Mist 6

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7:15 AM

Tim turned the corner away from the church and on the next street a bitter sweet smell assaulted his nostrils. An old man stood vomiting into the gutter. Behind him, holding handkerchiefs to their faces with one hand and their white night-sticks with the other, two policemen prodded the wretch, pushing him onwards, out towards the city’s edge. A small crowd buzzed around him like a cloud of flies. He lurched forward and the policemen prodded him on again. He lurched forward, a stubborn donkey provoked by a stick. The people in the street parted like a bow wave from the ship-shock of his passing.

Stunned and vomiting, sick to the core, half-blind, stinking of the worst kind of cheap mescal, he lugged himself along his personal Via Crucis, step by painful step. When he fell, the policewomen closed in, kicking and tugging him back to his feet.

… quivering nostrils … the throat blazing with its desire for lemon and lime … the jag of the salt …  the chili’s burning flame … the healing kiss of the mescal …the harsh dried husk of the twisting worm … like grit between the teeth …

The old man stood there, nailed to the cross of the sidewalk, his arms hung out on the wind to dry. A scarecrow’s clothing would be cleaner than his clothes. A Guy Fawkes figure, rags and tatters leaked out from his flimsy frame.

… the sun hangs its tail-less kite in the sky … the moon dreams her way through the heavens … an old man washes his own brain … cleanses it of myth and memory … tries to drown himself in a dark river of tears … a sad hand rises from the waves to wave farewell … in the depths of the mescal a yellow worm glides like a shark to the bottom of the bottle …

The old man seemed to walk through shallow water with the millstone of the morning after tied round his neck, a personal millstone, made to measure and grinding exceeding small. If the wearer were to wander into deep water, then it would weigh him down and he would drown.

The street people taunted him, threatened to stand him in the stocks, to strip him down to his basic elements, the heart that beats, the lungs that breathe, the white flat rib-bones that can be scarred, like paper, with the wonder of words. They threatened to stretch him on an ancient altar. They shouted that his torso’s closed flesh was ripe for the sacrificial blade, his body bent backwards, his mind dreaming of the knife’s vertical descent and horizontal slash. People cheered as the policeman’s stick with a thunderous thump flashed white lightning and pierced the mist that lay thick on the vagrant’s mind.

… one quick swallow … then another … twin promises of summer’s sun and of hope’s renewal … each thimbleful of this mouth-burning treasure, drawing warmth into the gut forcing a tear drop from the eye … bringing oblivion …  

The old man soiled the newborn day by vomiting again and drenching the street in a paper bag reality of soiled clothes and running liquid. The street people closed in, creating a moving jail and the old man shivered with laughter and spread out his arms. His round wide eyes were those of an owl about to fly into the cockcrow sun face. Then the crowd drew too close and something snapped: he roared at the stabbing fingers and pissed at the people through the bars of his cage. A beam of sunlight picked him out and, for a moment, his eyes met Tim’s. They gazed into each other’s souls and a voice rang like a bell within Tim’s head: there too, but for the gift of the gods, go you.

The policemen again stepped towards the old man but a strong, dark figure appeared between the police and their victim.

Basta, enough,” El Brujo raised his hand and the officers backed away. “I will look after him.”

El Brujo turned to the old man, wrapped his arms around him, and hugged him tight.

“You must forgive them, brother,” he spoke in a loud voice so the crowd might hear him. “They know not what they do.”

“Come, come home with me,” El Brujo waved the crowd to one side and put his arm around the old man’s shoulder. “I will help you find what you seek.”

The crowd sighed and started to break up. El Brujo and the old man walked arm in arm down the street. The police officers followed them for a step or two but the crowd gathered in behind the pair and ahead of the police, blocking their way. With a shrug of their shoulders, the uniformed officers turned back. A voice in the crowd cried out:

“¡Viva El Brujo! Make way for our saint.”

… the medallion  awoke … it ticked back into life … warm around the neck of the wearer … it moved … a pendulum swaying … side to side … white lightning … a hammer blow falling … somewhere … falling … and the ground swelling up to shake itself out … an old man … an old dog with fleas … shaking …

Well aware of the warmth he carried against his chest Tim turned away from the street scene and walked towards the apartment he now called home.

People of the Mist 1

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People of the Mist
Oaxaca, Mexico

Prologue

 I saw my father this evening. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors, looked up, and there he stood, motionless. The lights shone on the engraved glass panels and illuminated him, as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie. This was the outfit in which I had buried him.

Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand. The third shook a tailor’s measuring rod in my father’s face.  He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.

 I stood there in silence. Then, as the door snapped shut, I pulled it open and ran after them. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.

 I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers grouped behind their band. I stopped as the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and as the rocket roared upwards the village band started to play a military march. Thus encouraged, the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.

 Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men marching towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric bulbs, as there are in some of the smaller churches. I put five pesos in the slot and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. For the first time in years I said a prayer, first for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from his flame, then for my mother, then for the real father whom I had never known, and finally for the man I had just seen.

 Tim closed his journal, screwed the top back on his Mont Blanc pen, laid it on the table, put his head in his hands and sat there, thinking. Then he got up, went to the kitchen, opened his last bottle of Sol de Oaxaca, poured the quarter litre that remained of the mescal into a glass. Six wrinkled worms floated down through the yellow liquid wriggling as if they were live. He pulled them out with a spoon, popped them one by one into his mouth and swallowed them whole. They tasted of smoke and garlic but he knew they would bring him visions and dreams. Then he wrinkled his nose and swallowed the mescal in three fierce, burning gulps.

He coughed, blinked the tears from his eyes and went into the bedroom where he undressed and climbed into bed. The ceiling fan droned on and on like a large propeller on a long-distance flight. Sleep did not come easily, nor did dreams, in spite of the mescal. When the dreams did come, they built like thunder clouds and he entered them with fear and a strange kind of joyous expectancy.

Comment:
This is the prologue from my first novel, People of the Mist. Following in the footsteps of my two blogger role models, Meg Sorick and Mr. Cake, I will publish People of the Mist, chapter by chapter, on this blog, as I revise it. I am a poet, rather than a novelist, as you will see. Your comments will be welcome as I start this venture in the old year (2016) and plan to continue through the new (2017).

Gorilla Drives the Zoo Bus

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Gorilla Drives the Zoo Bus

Gorilla drives the same zoo bus all day, every day,
same starting time, same finishing time, same route, same stops,
different passengers, but all passenger equally faceless.
Gorilla doesn’t want to know their names.

“Please tender the exact fare!”

Not a penny less, not a penny more, and he polices every penny.
Bus conductor and master of every passenger’s destiny,
he opens and shuts the door, letting passengers on and off the bus,
but only at official stops.

Every passenger has a ticket,
and Gorilla punches every ticket with a neat, round hole.
He never makes mistakes.
He grinds, like God’s own mills, exceedingly small.

He has spent all his life in uniform.
He has a belt and braces to hold his trousers up.
He’s always prepared for the worst.

Ten, fifteen, twenty years:
an anonymous wife; anonymous little babies;
at shift’s end, a pension, and another bus.

St. Peter’s at the wheel.
He doesn’t want to know where gorilla wants to go:
he wants to know where he’s been.

Commentary:

This poem follows on from my statement in Structure in the Short Story that “my greatest fear then becomes the gate-keepers, those anonymous figures who sit on shadowy selection committees, place ticks in appropriate boxes, and judge the quality of writing by consensus in committee.”

A long time ago, on holiday in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, we caught the bus from where we lived into the city center. I made a mistake in the name of the stop to which we wanted to travel and the bus driver insisted we got off at the place I had named. He would not let us travel to the stop a little further on to which we wanted to go. It was raining hard and so I told him that, rather than get wet, we would pay the difference in fare, but he said he had no change and insisted we get off the bus. I didn’t have any change either and had only a five pound note, so I gave him that and after a few curses and meaningful looks, he pocketed the money (more than three times the original fare), allowed us to stay on the bus, and took us to our true destination.

I have often thought about the “anonymous, shadowy people” who rule a tiny kingdom and insist, sometimes with the utmost vigor, that everything should be done exactly they way they want it done. There is no room in their lives for creativity, for adventure, for generosity, for a different way of life. More to the point, they seem (many of them, but not all) to enjoy bullying the people over whose lives they have for control for such a small amount of time. Some school teachers I have known fall into this category: utterly miserable people whose sole joy consisted in indoctrinating and dominating their young charges.

I think of them as the gate-keepers. They hold the key to a very small gate through which we all must pass, but their motto is a famous one “no pasarán” — you shall not pass.

Monkey Throws Away the Keys

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Monkey Throws Away the Keys

Monkey is tired of writing reports
that are never read.
He is fed up with frequently asked
questions and their unread answers.
To every lock, there is a key.
Monkey looks at the red and gold
locks of the last orang-utangs
and wonders how to unpick their DNA.

Monkey would give his kingdom
for a key, a key, a little silver key:
the key to a situation, the key to a heart,
the office key, the key to the door,
at twenty-one, the keys of fate,
the Florida keys, the key to San
Francisco’s Golden Gate,
a passe-partout, a skeleton key,
the key to Mother Hubbard’s
cupboard, where she hides dry bones …

On the last day, when monkey leaves work
he takes a lifetime of keys
and throws them down a deep dark well.
As they halve the distance to the water,
he listens to the sound of silence
and wonders if they’ll ever hit the bottom.