they tap us
on the shoulder
to our sleep
from battlefield mists
grave their faces
hollow their eyes
they keep life at bay
forcing us to move away
from what we know
to face life
in an unfamiliar way
The mask I wear has strings
attached. Two I have tied,
two more hang down like
pigtails, swaying as I walk.
My tongue pulses round
my mouth in search of
that tooth I cracked, yet
afraid of its sharp-edged scar.
It feels as if I have lost
a part of my life and I am
running in circles looking for it.
I guess I’ll catch up with it
someday, and when I do,
I hope it will know me
and tell me who and what I am.
Meanwhile, the mask clings
heavy to my features
and prompts me in the new
role I must play. My friends
walk past me now
and do not stop to talk.
When I look in the mirror,
I no longer recognize myself.
All my ID is fake. The success
of my disguise fills my empty head
with a sudden sense of shame
and I know the sound of sorrow.
19 June 2017
Full sail, the sailing ship, clawing
into the mist. For a moment, only
mast-head showing, then hazy at
last, vanishing, appearing again,
doubt in the beholder’s mind: is she
or isn’t she, real or apparition? So
easy to believe in ghosts and ghost
ships when mist deceives and eyes
grieve for the subtlety of a clear
day, not mist enveloping the bay,
holding the boat back with tenuous
tendrils, ghostly fingers, damp music
on sails and cordage, shallow the sea,
the channel through sand banks and
pebbles, half -seen, yet known about,
both sensed and scented, heard from
water –sound, wave-pitch changing
and lost again the schooner, grey ship,
grey camouflage blanket of clinging mist.
When I walked in through
the hospice’s glass door
I met myself walking out.
A curious sensation:
seeing two separate versions of me
side by side in sympathetic union.
When I got to my room,
I looked in the mirror:
how long had I been like this?
My two-faced, double head
joined at the neck,
a Siamese twin of myself,
never knowing which was which
nor whether I was coming or going.
What grief there will be
when the mirror shatters
and nothing remains
but a black space
adorning a broken
wall in an empty room.
Bare knuckles rapped against the frame of the open door and Mario stood there, blocking out the sunlight.
“Come in, Mario,” Tim said, hiding the medallion under a serviette that lay on the table. For some reason, he didn’t want the handyman see the medallion; but it didn’t matter, for Mario shook his head.
“It’s a pig day,” he announced from the doorway.
“Why is it a big day, Mario?”
“Not a big day, a pig day, you know, the day when you collect all your left-over food and I take it home to feed my pig. Sure, you remember.”
“Ah yes,” Tim sighed. “A pig day it is. When are you leaving?”
“I leave in about an hour. I just want to give you time to gather all your scraps. Then I will put them together with all the other people’s scraps and I will offer them to my pig.”
“How is the pig?”
“She is well, very well, and getting very fat,” Mario choked back what might have been a sob. “Soon I’ll have to sell her. I can’t stay, I must go now.”
Mario ducked his head and huddled away to the next apartment where he knocked on the door and Tim heard echoes of an almost identical conversation.
The sánate bird again scraped his knife-blade along the grindstone outside the window as
Tim divided the kitchen waste into two different bags, labelled edible and non-edible. When the bags were packed, he took the edible waste down to the courtyard.
Henry, the American missionary who had arrived here several months ago, stood by the container that Mario had left out for the pig food. Back in the States, Henry had made a fortune from the evangelical trade. Thousands of ardent listeners sent him the money he needed to build special projects in the good name of the Lord. In the Lord’s Name and to do His Good Work and spread His Holy Word, Henry owned a TV station and a Radio Station. With money to spend and the good word to spread, he had already involved himself in several financial transactions here in Oaxaca. The local people asked many questions about him, more often than not behind his back.
His latest plan was to develop The First Temple of the Rising Prophet. Nobody knew what this sect did and to find out, one had to become initiated into it and swear the vows of obedience and secrecy. Henry was founder, chief preacher, and high priest of the First Temple and he every day he tried to persuade all the foreign tourists who owned American money to join his new church.
“Are you feeding Maritormes, too?” Henry raised his hat as he greeted Tim.
“Yes, Maritormes, that’s what Mario calls his porker. Do you think it’s named after his mother-in-law?” Henry’s accent made the name sound like Merry Torment. “It’s a funny name for a porker.”
“How is the pig?”
“Doing fine,” said Henry, “and almost ready to be slaughtered and sold. Sssh! Here comes Mario. He gets weepy about his porker, you know.”
Mario walked across the courtyard and took the bag full of edible garbage from Henry’s hand.
“You don’t have to sell the porker, Mario,” Henry had held this opinion since he first heard about Mario’s pig. “You could raffle it. Then you could slaughter it and you could sell tickets for that too. I’d help you to sell the tickets. After the slaughter, you could do a barbecue, real American style, and my fellow First Templars could come round and eat. At ten bucks, US dollars, for each Templar, plus the lucky people we’re in the process of converting and persuading, we’d make a load more money barbecuing than selling, you know.”
“In my village we raise our pigs by hand and we don’t barbecue them,” said Mario with a great sadness in his voice. “That would be like sacrificing a friend.”
“There’s a first time for everything, you know,” Henry rubbed his thumb across his index finger and held the imaginary money up for inspection.
“I don’t think you’d all turn up. Once you saw the pig being slaughtered, you wouldn’t want to eat it. It isn’t everyone who can witness the slaughter of a pig.”
“He’s right,” Tim said. “I’m still tormented by my first memories of a pig slaughter and I can’t forget the anguished human squeal it gave as the knife pierced its neck. Lots of tourists feel sick as soon as they see the first drop of pig’s blood dripping off the knife-blade.”
“Anyway: how could you eat my pig?” Mario’s voice held a rebellious note. “You’re not cannibals. And you all might as well be related to it because you’ve been eating the same food.”
Henry considered this remark in silence then the First Temple Preacher shrugged his shoulders and tried again.
“For you, Mario, we’d all buy tickets. Then you could roast the porker and we’d all come to the party. No mescal, mind. I don’t want any of my people tempted into the evils of alcohol, you know.”
“But you drink alcohol. I saw you with an open bottle of wine the other night.”
“Well, what do you know? You saw me drinking wine, did you?”
Mario nodded his assent.
“You know what, Mario, that must have been Saturday night,” he hummed and hawed for a second. “You know, that’s right; I remember now. I was testing the altar wine. The Prophet’s blood flows thicker than water, my friend, as you well know. And remember, the first miracle that The Prophet performed turned water into wine. But the members of my Temple don’t drink wine anymore, not outside church, not now that we know it’s the Good Prophet’s blood, you know.”
“You eat blood pudding. You eat pig’s blood,” Mario flexed the muscles on his forearm. “Anyway, I can slaughter my pig but I couldn’t eat her. I feed her every day. For me, she’s like one of my children,” Mario took a tissue from his pocket and dabbed at the corner of his eye
“Wait a second, Mario,” Tim forced himself to sound positive. “Cheer up, Mario. You’re selling the pig in a good cause.”
“I don’t know about that,” Henry resembled a dog with a bone and he wouldn’t let go. “After feeding it every day, he sells it to be slaughtered. Then it’s turned into bacon and sausages and blood pudding, to be consumed by strangers. I heard tell once of a man who was sold to strangers for 30 pieces of silver. When you get your 300 pieces of silver, Mario, or whatever you get, I hope you won’t hang yourself from a tree.”
Mario’s face turned very red. He wiped his eyes in his tissue, took Tim’s bag of edible garbage and shuffled away with the two bags in his hand.
“Henry,” Tim stretched his hands out, palms up, towards the American as he spoke. “That wasn’t a nice thing to say. I think you’ve upset him.”
“I wonder if he kisses the pig on the cheek before he turns it in?” Henry stood there scratching his head with one hand
“Isn’t there something about charity in your church along the lines of ‘faith, hope, and charity, and the greatest of these is charity?’”
“You know, now I think about it, there is. And now I’m going to be very charitable to you. I know how much you’ve been suffering, don’t ask me how; and I know how lonely you are; again, don’t ask. Why don’t you become a Templar and join the Temple? You’ll be in on the bottom floor and there’s plenty of money to make. And this should get you interested: we’ve been signing up some great looking women. I know for a fact Marisa would like to see you there,” Henry gave Tim a wink and a nudge, but Tim didn’t wink back.
“She’s a fine woman, Henry, and one day she’ll make somebody very happy; but today’s not the day and I’m not sure that I’m the man she deserves.”
“Look: we can double everything up. Think about it: we buy Mario’s porker and then we barbecue it; and then we celebrate your joining the Temple with Marisa, all on the same day. All your friends, all Marisa’s friends, the people from the compound, Mario’s friends, the Templars: we’ll make a fortune. Tell you what: marry her and become Templars together and you can have half the profits from the barbecue as a wedding gift. What do you think of that?”
“And what, pray, does Marisa say about all this?”
“I haven’t asked her yet; but I reckon she’s up for it. She’s as ripe as a plum and boy, you do need a woman; believe me, I can tell.”
“Henry, if I need a woman, which I don’t, I am quite capable of finding one for myself, thank you. I don’t need a marriage broker.”
“That’s not what Mario thinks; and for once I agree with him.”
“Henry, please tell Mario to leave well alone. And as for you … and your charitable offer … well … I must admit … you have left me speechless with your, ahem, charity and, uh, generosity.”
“Don’t thank me now,” Henry rested his hand on Tim’s shoulder. “I’m just getting started, you know. You haven’t seen anything yet,” he winked at Tim again. “Trust me. But don’t trust them, any of them. Mark my words, they’ll betray you. And then you’ll be in trouble.”
He started to whistle and walked towards his apartment. Tim shuddered as he put words to the tune: “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.”
Sunlight crept in through the open window and the room started to warm up. Tim fingered the leather cord that dangled from his neck and the medallion throbbed with the rhythm of a heartbeat. Tim took it off, held it between his fingers, and examined it with suspicion. Unlike anything he had ever seen before, it still contained the warmth it had taken from Tim’s body. The cross seemed to be a typical Oaxacan cross, except that it was rather stubbier than usual, more like a Maltese Cross. The red of its roses replaced the body and blood of the dying Christ. In the centre of the roses Tim could make out half of a tiny human heart. A jagged tear ran on a diagonal across the medallion. It carved through cross, heart and flowers, leaving the remains grieving for what was absent. The cross was wounded and Tim imagined it throbbing and sobbing as its life blood seeped away. A pedestal of broken stones stood at the cross’s severed foot. The roses that clung where Christ’s body should have been hanging stood out like spilled blood. Tim closed his eyes and tried to recreate the scene in his mind, as if it were whole. Warmth filled his body and he knew that he must find the missing portion.
As though a switch had been flicked and a light turned off, the positive energy stopped and the medallion felt cold and lifeless. Tim traced the edges of the flowers with the tip of his index finger and nothing happened. He wished now he had questioned El Brujo about his gift. However, here in Oaxaca questions were often dangerous and one couldn’t always trust the answers when they were so often double-edged and as sharp as glass. Tim thought of the codex drawings and of the multiple meanings that eccentric experts and squabbling specialists had bestowed upon them.
He placed the medallion on the table and opened the facsimile codex that lay there waiting for him. The priests who accompanied the conquistadores had hated these indigenous books. Works of the devil, they had called them, and they had tried to destroy, by burning their writings, the history and culture of the people they had conquered. Alonso had told Tim that although much was lost, some things had survived thanks to an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation. This preserved the lore and culture of the older peoples who had for five thousand years inhabited the Valley of Oaxaca. The facsimile copy that Tim possessed still bore the burn marks where a believer had snatched it from the Inquisition’s flames. When Tim touched the burn he could feel in his heart the surge of anguish of the man who had snatched it from the fire and spirited it away. He had so much to learn and grasped at each new world as bubbles of meaning rose from the brush-stroked pages. He knew a multitude of secrets lay in there somewhere, if only he could stumble upon them and shuffle them so they made sense.
… how do you translate a picture into words … he thought … how do you capture line and colour with a few brief strokes of black ink on white paper … what about movement … and perspective … and what cultural perspective steps out from these flat drawings that adorn the page … can you capture in words the smell of cool rain on warm dust … or the scent of the gourd flower when it floats on the surface of hot spicy broth … or the crunch of the mescal worm between the teeth … or the bitter bite of salt and lime …
The flowing lines of the ideographs wrapped Tim’s day-dreams in colorful hand-woven shawls. The risen sun, a golden treasure trove, gilded the roof of the nearby church and pigeons posed, framed in the window, flash-frozen in an instant of silence. Tim grasped at each new world as it raised bubbles of laughter from the brush-stroked pages, but the speech bubbles quickly faded, faltering on failing air, and he had difficulty in grasping their multiple meanings as they drifted away, golden leaves gliding downwards on an instant of breeze. So many secrets waited to be discovered, if only he could find the key. He looked at his medallion as it lay on the table and listened to the sounds that surrounded him.
… the tongues of the trees whisper as the slow wind stirs them into speech … the white egrets sigh as they rise from their overnight branches … the strengthening light channels their wings while they shuffle their intimate dance steps …
Last night, the lady who takes her balloons from the square at nine o’clock held a secret within her eyes. It floated in the curls of the children’s hair as they fled to their homes before the coyotes began to prowl. Tim saw them with their cell phones and the synthetic happiness that they peddled in the cellophane packages they carried in their pockets and sold with lies.
Incandescent eyes had blazed from dark doorways in cheap hotels.
“King for a night and a father for the rest of your days,” a young girl whispered to him as he passed by. Her lips beckoned and her dark eyes tried to draw him.
“I’ll always be your love, my love,” she sighed. Behind her, a table lamp cast the dark shadow of a man with a knife in hand.
How simple it would have been to have followed the snake path, to have slipped sideways and downwards into the welcoming darkness of her arms. But at the end of that trail would come betrayal, the threatening thunder of words, the lightning bolt of the knife with the night sky sliced apart.
… Tochtli leers from his home in the moon … the Owl of the Underworld flaps his wings … drawing near with his gift of subterranean grief …