Story Slam — Teeth
One of my short stories, broadcast in a podcast out of Vancouver.
Just click on Teeth in the link above. Turn up your volume.
By all means, copy and send to your friends.
Story Slam — Teeth
One of my short stories, broadcast in a podcast out of Vancouver.
Just click on Teeth in the link above. Turn up your volume.
By all means, copy and send to your friends.
The Medallion (Solace 7, 8, & 9)
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 …
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 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.
“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.”
“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 (Solace 5 & 6)
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.
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.
Codex (Solace 3 & 4)
Down below, in the courtyard, the handy man wakes me as he tumble dries a TV ad in the washing machine of his song sparrow throat. He gargles with gravel and churns stony lyrics skywards until they grate at my bedroom window and drag me from my dreams.
My ears fill up with a crackle and roar. Wave after wave of sunlight breaks over the azotea. Blind with music, deaf with light, I am awash in the sea-surge rhythm of this surfacing sun. My dreams break up like biscuits and between my fingers I feel a sandstorm of crumbs.
Morning blows fresh colours into each corner of my waking mind. An early breeze shakes cobwebs and dust from my brain. New visions crawl out from the vellum codex I left open last night on my table. Red and green gods wearing black and white masks crawl through spaces still alive in my mind. Sometimes they move when the eye doesn’t watch them, but when I concentrate, they freeze in intimate poses. I link them with lines and arrows and vow that my life will never again be scarred by their secretive smiles.
The red glare of the day’s first rocket climbs its ladder of sky to smash at the gods’ front door. A second rocket draws me back to daylight. Awake, I lie there, counting. A third explosion is much closer. The fourth rocket surges skywards and the fifth and sixth rockets are two fiery giants exploding above my apartment. I pull back the bed clothes and swing my legs over the side of the bed. My day has begun.
The codex lies open on the dining room table I use as a desk. I scan the interpretation I made late last night, transferring the visual to verbal.
“Two breasts: one green, one yellow, symbolic of the hill where the church stands; the church itself bi-coloured, strong stone walls, a spire. A large red heart symbolic of the love we bear for you, our masters. Two feet walking the path of enlightenment you opened before us are accompanied by two hands pointing the way. The feet below the heart; the hands above the heart, like wings; and the heart becomes the body of the new place you have built for us. And in the heart is our sacred symbol: the Earthquake, a sign of leadership and power used only by those of Royal Stature and the Noblest Blood. Attached to the heart is the Numeral One which means Lord of the Earthquake; for you are Number One in our Hearts. Attached to the heart is a speech scroll showing felicitous words of praise; below it is the sacred earthworm, and beneath that the serpent head of wisdom and the flint knife promising strength through sacrifice.
But be wary: for our symbols are double-edged! The colors of the hill are divided, as the hill is divided, showing strife and division. The church is on top of the hill, for the symbol has conquered the people, and the people are starving, subject, and destroyed. The feet are pointing in opposite directions, for the people are stalled. They have no forward movement, nor will of their own, for they are conquered by the sword and not by love. And the hands are pointing in opposite directions; for the right hand knows not what the left hand is doing. And the hands are reversed showing anguish and distress. The sign of the heart is the sign of the disembodied heart, torn from the heaving chest of the vanquished and thrown to the dogs. The sign of the earthquake is also the sign of movement. And that movement is a bowel movement. And one movement in the middle of the sacrificed heart is the victor excreting on the vanquished and treating them with scorn and contempt. The scroll protrudes from the nether part and says that the victors are speaking words of excrement, that verbal diarrhoea issues from their lips. And the serpent has no feathers; it cannot fly. It is as a snake treacherous and bitter, crawling on the ground. The head of the serpent is two tongued and tells of treachery and of deceit. The flint is attached to a heart; it speaks of the heart that is as hard as flint, knowing no mercy. And at the end that heart will receive no mercy in its turn.”
Figures on the codex page take on a fresh life. They walk and strut, nod their heads, move their limbs. The sun climbs in the sky. Shadows shorten. Footsteps march steadily across the page from right to left. I blow a kiss to the piggy-back bride and she waves back.
Too much, too early. I reach for the remains of last night’s bottle of mescal and gulp them down. Order is restored. The cartoon figures go back to sleep. Normality, whatever that may be, returns.
Dream World (Solace 2)
… dream worlds circle outside my bedroom window … starry sky … two full moons floating, one real, one mirrored in the glass … inside the bedroom, tulips inscribe red gashes on white-washed walls … sharp fingernails scrape across paint, blood red shadows trickle down to the floor …
… above the azotea, the temples of Monte Albán string out their sheets on the sky’s washing-line, glowing in the moonlight … against a background of granite and stucco, trenchant shadows sculpt dancers into grotesque, pipe-wire shapes as they struggle to escape their carved imprisonment …
… priests in long black robes gape at the night sky. From their sanctuary in the observatory, they plot how they will persuade the people to believe the future they will foretell as night’s giant finger herds the wild-cat stars …
… three young women walk at an angle up the temple steps … when they reach the top, a moonbeam holds them in its spotlight and they wax with the full moon’s beauty … the doorway to an unclosed grave opens its crocodile jaws and the three women descend the temple steps, ageing as they walk … at the temple’s foot, they enter the tomb’s dark mouth … an old man in a faded grey suit walks behind them … the grave swallows them all, burying them in the hidden depths beneath the mound …
… dreams back themselves into a cul-de-sac, a wilderness of harsh black scars … an ancient Aztec god catches Rabbit by his ears and throws him against the second sun that sizzles in the sky … his sharp teeth burrow, burying themselves deep in the sun-fire’s light … the second sun loses its glow and turns into the moon’s cold stone … the rabbit’s skull simmers in the new moon’s dwindling pool …
With a clicking of claws, knitting needles come together to pluck me outwards from my dreams and upwards towards death’s golden guillotine that floats in the sky. The moon sharpens its knife edge on the keening wind and sets my blood tingling. I want to be free, free from those nightmares, those nocturnal visions that rise up from the past and stalk me as I lie in bed.
Drowsing, I long for the alarm clock to shuffle its pack of sleepless hours and to waken me with its piercing call as it tears me from these winding sheets, these grave clothes in which I lie. I wait for the sun to shine into my window.
Hair of the Dog
I awoke to the dog’s tongue licking my hand. When I moved, he jumped off the bed, ran to the door, turned and barked. The hall clock chimed six times, early for me to get up, but I did because I needed a pee. The dog followed me into the bathroom, whimpering. Street noises seemed louder than usual. The dog started barking again and a voice called out from the hall below.
The dog clattered down the stairs woofing wildly. Still in my pajamas, I looked over the balustrade to see the milkman standing below.
“Hello,” he said. “The door was open and I just dropped in to see if everything was all right. Where’s your mother?”
“In bed, asleep,” I dug with my index finger at the sleepy crackling gathered in the corner of my eye.
“Not if I know her,” the milkman said. “She’s run off again and taken a bottle with her. You’d better get dressed.”
I scowled at the milkman, went back upstairs, and looked in my mother’s bedroom. Her red flannel nightie lay in a heap on the floor by the unmade bed, with its rumpled sheets and pillows all higgledy-piggledy. The bed felt cold beneath my fingertips and the clothes she had worn the day before had gone.
“I’ll get dressed,” I shouted. “I’ll just be a moment.”
“Sure,” the reply floated up the staircase.
“You’re right,” I said to the milkman as I met him at the bottom of the stairs. “She’s gone.” The first rays of sunshine touched the stained-glass windows above the door, and fragmented colors danced with dust motes, turning the milkman’s white uniform into a harlequin suit of lights.
“Not the first time she’s gone AWOL,” the milkman winked at me. “She’s got quite the reputation round here. You’d better go out and find her. I bet she’s in the park with the others. That’s where she goes when the mood takes her. I see her sometimes when I’m in the milk float. I’d take the dog, if I were you. He’ll find her. He usually does.”
The dog whimpered as we got to the end of the drive. I checked my watch: 6:30 AM. The early sun slowly sliced through the morning’s damp creating rainbows in the mist. I shivered. The milkman waggled his fingers in a silent good-bye and his electric milk float hummed then lurched out into the street with a clinking of bottles.
I stood at the roundabout at the corner and didn’t know which way to go.
“Find mum,” I said and patted the dog’s head. He wagged his tail, put his nose down, turned right, and set off down the main road towards the city center.
Shadows danced on the lower ironwork of the locked park gates. A child’s swing creaked gently in the breeze. The dog sniffed at the gates, lifted his leg on them, gave them a generous squirt, then put down his nose and tugged at the leash.
I followed the dog as he went past the gates and pulled me towards a hole in the hedge, just large enough to squeeze through. The dog whined with excitement and pawed at the gap. I followed pushing aside the bushes.
The dog whined again and tugged me towards a sort of mound that lay on the nearest park bench. Newspapers offered scant warmth to the body that they covered. A hand hung down and the dog licked it frantically. I touched that hand and the dog’s lick joined us in an unholy matrimony. Beside the sleeping figure on the bench, an inch or two of what appeared to be whisky huddled at the bottom of a forty-ounce bottle. Other empty bottles lay on the wet grass, like spent cartridges, some of them pointing at the woman’s head.
Shuffling feet had worn down the grass where the woman lay. I saw traces of blood on bandages and empty syringes. Some needles had been wiped on the pair of torn pink panties that peeped out of the grass.
The dog continued licking at the woman’s hand then stopped, pointed his nose at the sky and let out a single, piercing howl.
I shook my mother’s shoulder.
“Mum, Mum,” I called, but she didn’t move. She was locked in a land where I dared not follow her. I took out my cell phone and called the police.
They arrived with a park attendant who opened the gates and let their car in. They took one look at my mum and called for an ambulance. When it got there, the ambulance men examined my mum, said she was alive, put her on a stretcher, and carried her to the ambulance. I told them I wanted to accompany my mum to the hospital.
“Not with that dog, you don’t,” the driver replied. He got in, started the engine, turned on the siren, and pulled away.
I took the dog home, called for a taxi, and it took me to the hospital. When I got to the room in which they had caged her, she was unconscious. She never woke up.
I buried what was left of my mum ten days later, after the autopsy.
I am as free as my father was free. He was free to walk on his walker, as far as he could go down the street. Free to walk in the wind and the rain. Free to sit on his neighbor’s wall when his legs and back got tired. Free to sit there, although it was raining, until he had recovered his strength and energy. Free to get soaked so badly that he caught a cold. And the cold was free to turn into bronchitis and the bronchitis was free to turn into pneumonia and the pneumonia was free to perform its assassin’s work as it tried to kill him. But my father was still free and strong enough to call the doctor and the doctor was free enough to call at the house and visit my father and write him a prescription for an anti-biotic that would free his body from the pneumonia that was free to leave when its time was up and it felt ready to go. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend, they used to call it, sitting there, in my father’s lungs, muttering away to him, day after day, louder at night, and my father slowly getting stronger and the pneumonia growing weaker until one day it left and freed my father from his immediate ills. Then my father was free to get up or to stay in bed. Being a free man, he chose to stay in bed all day and to listen to the radio and to read a book and when he got bored with reading he just lay there and counted the lines on the wall “one, two, three…” and “one hundred and seventy five” he told me one day when I was free to visit him, “though I have lost count once or twice and have had to start again from the very beginning. And the sun gets up at 7:03, and strikes the third line at 7:53 … and goes around the wall 33 lines a minute; and leaves that third line from the right at a 3:15 …” And there he stayed, day after day. But he was free. And sometimes the home help came and sometimes she didn’t, for she too was as free as the birds in the garden. And sometimes she remembered to buy him some food and sometimes she didn’t. And she was free to come and go, free to remember or forget. And my father was free to mumble or complain or grumble, though he rarely did. And he was free to eat, so long as there was food in the house. But I went there I often saw that the cupboard was bare and my father had neither milk, nor eggs, nor bread nor cereal, nor tea nor butter. And all those people, those acquaintances, those friends, they too were as free as the sea-gulls in the sky. But to find the time to set my father free from the hunger and thirst he seemed predestined to freely suffer, they were never free enough for that, not even at Christmas.
Neither was I.