Sun and Moon 6

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Sun and Moon 6

“Wake up!” says Serpent. “Knock!
I knock and the door swings open

Old Woman sits spinning at a ghostly wheel
she draws me to her with a string of starlight
I squirm on the fishhook of her eyes
when I blink I fall gutted to the ground

herringbones knit me a tangled destiny
lost people wandering in a tapestry of dreams

as I read my story in the sky around me
Moon scythes my heart into tiny slices
a fishbone slides stitches into my side

dice click
two snake eyes stare into my eyes

 

 

 

People of the Mist 15

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9:00 AM

Back in the apartment, Tim opened the bottle of mescal and poured a large shot into a glass. He gulped it down and the mescal burned as it rushed down his throat and into his gut. It relaxed him and he felt less haunted. Its swift invasion of his brain left him stunned for a moment and he sat down at the table, picked up his medallion and held it in his hands.

…  papier-mâché figures sway in the square … a cacophony of traditional music … massed village bands … the rhythm of rising rockets thumping into the air … dancing trees flap miniature limbs in time to the music … eyes flash from the trees’ waistbands … dryads and satyrs cavort carved and painted …  liquid motes of fiery tunes float in the air … music visible and almost tactile for a moment or two … stamping feet … stilt dancers … the music stops … young children … boys and girls … emerging from the trees … live dryads bark-skinned brown-eyed … a nymph walks over eyes open in invitation …

Tim’s mind clicked back into gear. Of course, that’s where he had seen the girl from the paper kiosk: she had been dancing in a papier-mâché tree, in the zócalo, and when the music stopped,  she invited him to join her in her tree.

            Colibrí, the tiny bird with the warrior’s soul, whirrs its wings … twin windmills, sun-dog ear-rings, draw circles round a suddenly-clouded sun … a flock of tiny feathered angels as bright as postage stamps sit in the trees in the courtyard to raise their voices in their afterlife of praise …

Tim checked his watch: if he wanted to visit the baths, it was time to get going. He got up from the table, slipped his medallion around his neck, walked out of his apartment and closed the door behind him.

People of the Mist 14

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8:40 AM

Tim headed for the mescal sellers who inhabited little shops in a long line over by the market and went straight to his favorite stall. The shop seemed empty, so he rang the little goat bell that dangled there for customers. The owner, an old lady with greying hair, emerged from the darkness at the rear. She looked at Tim, blinked, gave a half-smile, turned it into a scowl and announced: “It’s not here.”

“What’s not here?”

“What you’re looking for, of course. I know you’re looking but ….” she stared at Tim examining him with great care. “You don’t know what I’m talking about do you?”

Tim placed his hand on his chest but the medallion wasn’t there. He felt its absence like an open wound and remembered that he had left it on the table in his apartment.

“Of course I do: I am looking for some mescal, that’s what you mean, isn’t it?”

“Of course that’s what I mean,” the old lady smiled. “ And that is why I am here, to sell you some mescal. How much do you want?”

“Just a bottle.”

“I have no bottles prepared this early in the morning. There’s some in the barrel. I can always siphon some off and give that to you. You know that ours is the purest and the best. Even El Brujo says that. We come highly recommended. It won’t take a moment,” she shuffled away and returned with an empty four litre wine bottle that had once held Donini. She held it up. “Will this be enough?”

“That’s much too much,” Tim shook his head. “I’ll never drink all that.”

“And a good thing too,” she added. “We don’t want you ending up like Alfredo.’”

“Alfredo?”

“The man you saw in the street this morning. Now: this is what you need,” she held up a two litre plastic bottle that once held Coca-Cola. “How about this?”

Well, I, uh …”

“That’s all right,” the old lady nodded her head. “I’ll just siphon the mescal out while you’re making up your mind.”

She took a thin plastic tube, inserted it in the top of a large tin container, and sucked up some pure white liquid. Then she pinched the tube, lowered its end below the level of the barrel, and carefully placed the tube in the bottle’s neck.

“There,” she said.

Tim watched as the pale colourless liquid filled the bottle. When it was full, she handed it to Tim.

“That will be ten pesos, please.”

“Aren’t you going to seal the bottle?”

She looked at Tim as if, like the guajalotero of recent memory, he had just made some nasty and indecent smell. Then she searched behind the counter and held up a bright red rubber band. She twisted it on her fingers to make it smaller. Then she tore a piece of plastic from a long roll and placed it around the bottle top. She stretched the rubber band over the plastic and handed Tim the sealed bottle.

“There aren’t any worms,” he complained.

“Worms are expensive this year,” the old lady frowned. “You want worms, I sell you worms. But I sell them separately. How many worms do you want?”

“How much are they?”

“Three for five pesos,” she replied.

“Give me five,” Tim said.

She smiled at him, showing gold teeth, and produced a packet from beneath the counter. There were five worms in it, not three, not six.

“Just what I thought you’d say,” she smiled. “You foreigners are all the same. I had them waiting in this packet, all ready for you,” she took the plastic wrapper off the bottle, opened the packet with the five worms in it, counted them out, and dropped them one by one into the mescal. Wrinkled and yellow, they had a life of their own, and they came alive as they sank and through the liquid, leaving faint yellow trails behind them.

“Your mescal will now turn yellow,” the old lady said. “But don’t worry about that. Also it will taste slightly different as the gusanos age and work their magic.”

“How much do I owe you?”

“10 pesos plus 8 pesos and 34 cents,” she does the reckoning in her head. “That will be 18.34, please.”

Tim gave her a twenty peso note and told her to keep the change. She smiled at him and bowed. He said farewell and left the shop wondering how many more times that day he would come across the witch doctor by deed or name.

 

People of the Mist 13

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8:30 AM

Tim felt the day’s heat starting to build as he walked to the newspaper kiosk. Cloud castles rose in the air and the sun’s kiln fired the clouds with warmth and color. On the sidewalk, the shadows grew stronger and a knife-edge, like a military crease, sliced a razor-sharp junction between light and dark, sun and shade. An occasional face smiled at Tim with its white streak of lightning flashing across the nut brown skin.

Musicians and jugglers lurched towards the central square to earn their daily bread and a circle of admirers surrounded a man who ate fire for breakfast, breathing it out in great gouts of flame. The music grew louder as Tim approached a musician who stood in the shade playing a danse macabre on sun-polished marimbas. Beside him, a heart of fire burned in an iron barrel and a young woman, her baby wrapped in a hand-woven rebozo slipped around one shoulder, prepared quesadillas and offered them for sale. The mother sniffed with suspicion when her baby wailed. She moved away from the fire, unwrapped the baby’s soiled nappy, wiped her child with a cloth, put on a new nappy, and threw the old one into a garbage can where the flies pounced upon it. Then, hands unwashed, she returned to her cooking.

An old half-ton, returning from the market to its home village, chugged by emitting a cloud of black smoke. People clung to the outside of this vehicle waving their hands and grinning at their friends. In the back of the battered pick-up chickens roosted on an old bed stead while a young man, astride a shining porcelain toiled bowl, strummed his guitar and sang to entertain the passengers. The intrepid travelers hung on for grim life as the truck rattled its way down the street. It almost ran Tim down as it clattered, half on, half off, the sidewalk, avoiding this and that, the donkey in the road, the old woman crossing, the policeman with his whistle who directed traffic. Tim jumped out of the way. El Brujo, with one arm around the old man he had rescued, sat in the front seat, next to the driver. The witch doctor punched the driver on the arm, ordered him to stop, put his head out of the truck window, and called to Tim.

“You have forgotten how to walk in the woods. You have forgotten how the dead leaf separates from the tree and tumbles earthward in its longing to be free.”

“I don’t understand you,” Tim said. “You speak in riddles.”

“Then here’s a riddle you must solve,” El Brujo scowled at Tim. “You must look for a young girl who will wrap your heart in laughter. She will feed you milk and honey. Your heart will grow roots and begin to flower. When the Bird of Paradise calls your name, your heart will grow wings and fly. A sunbeam on its plumage will fill you with glory. Your tears will disperse and turn into feathers; sun people will chase you through the clouds and crown your heart with a rainbow crown.”

Amid a cacophony of horns and hoots, bystanders bowed and raised their hats as they recognized El Brujo. The witch doctor included them all in a generous wave and a shouted ¡Adiós!, then punched the driver of the guajalotero in the arm. The engine revved and the old truck rumbled away, shooting a cloud of filthy black smoke out of its exhaust, and backfiring with a vicious last fart as it turned the corner and vanished out of sight.

Tim stood at the roadside for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and went to the newspaper stand where a young girl offered him a paper. He thanked her, counted out the change, and exchanged the handful of coins for the piece of newsprint. As Tim gave her the money, their fingers touched and sparks flew at the point where his skin met hers. She jumped back and Tim stared at her. He was sure he’d never seen her before.

“I’m so sorry,” Tim said. “That was quite a shock.”

The paper-seller had dark brown eyes, almost black, with the enormous depths so typical of the native born.

El Brujo spoke to you?”

“He’s mad, raving mad,” Tim told her.

“Don’t say that,” she said. “He’s a good man and a poet. They say he has visions and can predict the future as well as read the past.”

“You mean he’s a fortune-teller?”

“No, not a fortune-teller, not in the sense I think you mean. He told me this morning you might be passing this way about now. I came to see if he was right,” she gave Tim the shyest of smiles and cast her eyes down.

“Nonsense,” Tim waved the paper and brushed away any trace of magic that might be lingering in the air. “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”

“No,” she kept her eyes down. “He said you were an unbeliever and would need much convincing.”

“Well, thank you for the paper anyway. It was a pleasure talking to you.” Tim crossed the road and hurried away from the paper stand.

“Well?” said the girl’s uncle, emerging from the inside of the kiosk where he had been listening to the exchange. “Is he the one?”

“I don’t know,” the girl’s eyes clouded over. “He might be. I’m not sure. I didn’t sense anything special about him and I couldn’t sense any medallion. But we’ll soon find out,” she put her hand to her chest. Her eyes lost their focus as she gazed into a distance of time and space.

“Could you get close to him?” the man asked.

“I doubt it,” she replied. “He’s not meant for me.”

People of the Mist 11

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8:00 AM

… the sky is a sharp blue guillotine, poised between twin roofs … a winding metal staircase … a caracol … a snail-shell cork-screwing up to the roof garden … a butterfly in the grapefruit tree opens and closes its painted wings with their wide-open peacock eyes …

Tim went up the stairs to his apartment and sat back down at the table.

Betrayal: the word shocked him and he meditated for a moment on its multiple meanings. He opened his journal and thumbed through the pages looking for a recent conversation he had shared with Alonso, the historical anthropologist. He sighed as he found it and started to read.

… early morning … Sunday … I was on my way to church … I walked through empty city streets … I was lost … I gazed from side to side … closed doors … barred windows … an old lady dressed in black emerged from a doorway in front of me … a lace mantilla covered her face … she carried a basket full of bright wool … I wanted to go to the Church of San Vincente … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing in the direction I was walking …  “Yes,” she said, and started walking in the opposite direction to me … I continued on my journey but I was still lost … I met a second lady … she walked towards me leaning on a walking stick marked like a slide rule with numbers and measurements … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked her … she nodded and walked right past me following in the tracks of the first lady … still lost, I stood there doubting … a third lady who looked like the local hairdresser approached … she was carrying an open basket with knives and razors and scissors within it …“This is … can you … will you tell me how to get to San Vicente”  I asked. “Of course,” she said. “Follow me.” … I turned and walked with her in the same direction as the first two ladies … we turned one corner, then another, and there was the church of San Vicente … I slowed down and the third lady went ahead and joined the other two ladies of whom I had asked the way … they seemed to be waiting for me on the church steps … so I walked up to them … I opened the door for them … “All roads lead to San Vicente,” they said in chorus … and they went inside … I sat down on a pew at the back … I looked for them … but there was no sign of them in the church …

I asked Alonso, my anthropological friend, about this weird behaviour. Alonso has a vast store of archived knowledge and seems to be able to locate the strangest facts and discover whatever hidden truth lurks behind almost everything.

“It’s simple,” he told me. “You’re a North American. No native person corrects a man of European descent. You said ‘This is the way to San Francisco, isn’t it?’ and the first two ladies said ‘Yes, it is.’ They’re not fools. They’re not going to put their heads in a noose and correct you by saying ‘No. It isn’t.’ And remember, the older they are, the more steeped they are in the traditional customs. Now, you addressed the third lady in the correct fashion and she gave you the correct answer. That’s what life’s like around here. You must learn to accept the culture and to ask the right questions. Otherwise, in your innocence, you might get misled.”

Tim sat at the table and thought about the day that lay ahead of him. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

… evening … Monte Albán for the ceremonies and the dances … a dance group who dance native legends by torchlight …. something they say I mustn’t miss … this morning I must go shopping … more mescal … more groceries … must go to the baths …. not the Baños de Oaxaca … those other baths, I forget their name, on Reforma … Alonso told me they were good … and clean … no tourists … all locals … up by the Post Office … Alonso wants to take me to Mitla … late this morning … or early this afternoon … before we go to Monte Albán … it’s going to be a very busy day … I’d better sort it out …

He looked up. Then he stood, walked into the kitchen and looked for the mescal.  None left. He went back to the table, sat down, picked up his pen, unscrewed the cap, and continued writing.

9-11, shopping and los Baños;

1-4 Mitla, with Alonso;

5-8, Monte Albán with Alonso;

8-11, procession with a castillo and dancing

… it’s going to be a tight squeeze to get it all in … I’d like to go back to the cathedral … just to see if that man who looked like my father turns up … if I go there I can walk to Santo Domingo and listen to the old lady who stands alone at the altar and sings … such a beautiful voice …

“Yes,” Tim announced to the room in a loud voice. “I should just be able to manage it, provided Alonso arrives on time.” He stood up, pushed the chair away, clicked his fingers, and started to dance.

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).