Obsidian’s Edge

Obsidian’s Edge
From morning to night
a day in Oaxaca

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Obsidian’s Edge started out as At the Edge of Obsidian and was the second volume in the Oaxacan Trilogy (Sun and Moon, At the Edge of Obsidian, Obsidian 22). When I republished it in Create Space (now Kindle / KDP) I rewrote the last two volumes and turned them into a single book, Obsidian’s Edge, so that the Oaxacan Trilogy is now a Oaxacan Duology. My apologies to those who are eagerly awaiting the third book in the series.

Early Morning in Oaxaca

… 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.

Sun and Moon

Sun and Moon
Poems from Oaxaca, Mexico

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Introduction to Sun and Moon

Oaxaca

A city of legends where the dead walk among the living and the stones beneath your feet come alive and talk to you. A city where the animals have voices and the songs of tree and leaf can be clearly heard. A city of hallucinations and spirits, of mystery and myths, a city, young in itself, built on land so old that memories clutch at you with treacherous fingers and lay siege to your heart claiming you for their own. This is the land of Sun and Moon. Come, enter its world. Join me there, if you dare.

Meeting my father in the main square

I saw my father yesterday evening, in Oaxaca. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through 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: 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 and thrust towards my face. The third smacked a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head.  He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.
            Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. 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 gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as 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 that marched 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 lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from another’s flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself.
            On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.


           
     
           
          

Sacrifice

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Last night, a cataract of flame
flowed down the cathedral wall.
A wooden bull danced in the square,
sparks struck fire from his horse-hide hair.
A red speck on my shirt burned through to my skin.

Today a heart of fire burns in an iron barrel:
who will be chosen for the daily sacrifice?

A sharp blue guillotine poised between
buildings: this slice of morning sky.
Scorched circles, open mouths:
wide-open butterfly eyes burn holes
in the crowd’s dark cloud of a face.

A street musician stands in the shade
beneath the arches playing a marimba.
Sun tip-toesits danse macabre
across bamboo tubes. Sunlit bubbles
float dreams across the square.

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Dreams

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Dreams are important throughout mythology. Do we create them ourselves? Or do they come to us as celestial messages? Can they exist without us? Or do we form a symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other?

Dreams

I once stole the nose from a sacred statue.
Today I watch it cross the square attached to a face.
Eight Deer walks past with a fanfare of conches:
you can tell him by his donut with its little tail.

A shadow moves as zopilote wings his way across the square.
I spoke with him once on a midnight bus.
He begged me to fold his wings and let him sleep forever.

gringa called Nuttall sells tins of watery soap.
Her children fill my days with enchantment
as they blow bright bubbles through a magic ring.

Eight Deer, eight years old, sets out on his conquests.
Nine Wind births nine of his people from flakes of flint,
or was it from the magic tree in Apoala?

The voices in my head slip slowly into silence.
Sometimes I think they have no need of me,
these dreams that come at midnight,
and knock at my window.
Other times I know they cannot live without me.

Dreamer

Dreamer

A once-upon-a-time god struts past the table where I drowse.
Once I stole his nose, breaking it from a sacred statue.
Now I watch it cross the square: a proud beak nailed to a face.

Casting shadows on the cobbles, zopilote flies over the square.
I caught him once, dozing on a local bus filled with love-birds:
he begged me to fold his wings and let him sleep forever.

The balloon lady sits in the square selling tins of liquid soap.
Released from school, the children charm my days
blowing colored bubbles that seek freedom in the skies.

Eight Deer, eight years old, sets out on his conquests.
Nine Wind gives birth to his people, releasing them
from their underworld prison by carving a door in a tree .

Faces crowd the trees above me, as long-dead friends
come back to life, chattering like sparrows in the branches.
Roosting time and their voices slip slowly into silence.

Sometimes, at midnight, they scratch at the window
in my head and tumble through my half-awake mind.
They need me, these dreams, for I bring them to life.
Without me, the dreamer, they would surely fade and die.

Deer Dance

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Deer Dance

They came with the snow, of course. Last year there were seven, this year six of them sniffed their cautious way, step by step, into the yard. I looked out of the bedroom at 3:00 am, and there they were, standing beneath the mountain ash and reaching up to the lower branches to snaffle the berries. They also dug into the snow and ate the fruit that had fallen beneath the tree. The night was cold and dark. I didn’t want to risk the camera and have the flash or the laser beam frighten them so I just stood and watched.

Next morning, I wondered if it had all been a dream. Then I saw the dance-steps in the snow. They have been back a couple of times now and this morning Clare spotted seven, in the early morning light, ghosting their almost perfect camouflage through the trees. So now we have a couple of questions: are there two groups this year, one of six and one of seven? Or had the seventh deer from last year rejoined the group?

We think the group of six has larger deer while the group of seven has two seemingly smaller ones. But this may be a trick of moon light and shifting moon shadows. Climate change: the local deer at sixes and sevens. What would Ocho Venado, the Oaxacan / Mixtec King known as Eight Deer, think of it? Ah, a conundrum indeed. And when and if I work out any answers, I will let you know.

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.

Codex

Ay Ay Ayeres

Codex (Solace 3 & 4)

3
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.

4

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

 

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Dream World (Solace 2)

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.

Yesterday

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Commentary:

Ocho Venado / Eight Deer is a legendary person who is described in the pre-Columbian Miztec códice known as the Zouche-Nuttall codex. He lived from 1063 to 1115, the date of the codex. The códice describes his life and conquests. I brought a facsimile copy of this códice home in 1995 and my beloved started reading it on Boxing Day. It took her two days to decipher the first page. One day for the second page and, by my birthday, she had read the whole thing. She inspired my love of the codices and they figure largely in my writings from that time, especially The Oaxacan Trilogy (Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, and Obsidian 22, the first two available on Amazon).

Eight Deer appears frequently in my poetry, partly because we have a family of deer, often as many as eight (!) that walk through our garden in Island View. The joining of the Canadian natural world with the Oaxacan historical and mythical world brings me great joy and it is wonderful to weave stories and poems where the two worlds mingle and become one. Hence the dream world of the prose poem that figures above. Chocolate beans, incidentally, were one of the cash currencies used in Oaxaca at the time of the arrival of Cortés and the Spanish. Oaxacan chocolate (xocotl) is something wonderful.