People of the Mist 7

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7:30 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mario shrugged.

 

People of the Mist 2

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People of the Mist
6:00 AM

… dream worlds circle outside the window in a starry sky where two moons float …  inside the bedroom, grey scalpels shaved from black obsidian inscribe red gashes on white-washed walls … the slashes turn into tulips that scrape sharp fingernails across the paint and send blood scuttling down to the floor … against a background of granite and trenchant shadows, twisted dancers, themselves old warrior kings bend themselves into pipe wire shapes as they struggle to escape their carved imprisonment … around and above them, the temples of Monte Albán tower and threaten … high priests in long black robes gape at the sky from their sanctuary in the observatory as three young women walk at an angle up the pagan 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 three women descend the temple steps, ageing as they walk … they enter the tomb’s dark mouth … an old man in a faded suit follows them in … the grave swallows them and buries them in the hidden depths beneath the mound …

Down below, in the courtyard of Tim’s residence, the handy man tumble-dried a TV ad in the washing machine of his song sparrow throat. He gargled with gravel and churned stony lyrics skywards until they grated at Tim’s bedroom window and tried to drag him from his dreams.

… dream shadows back themselves into a cul-de-sac, a wilderness of harsh black scars … Tezcatlipoca catches Tochtli the 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 fire’s red light … the second sun loses its fire and turns into the cold stone of the moon …  Tochtli’s face, the rabbit  face of death, simmers in the moon’s dwindling pool … a white rabbit, pursued by death’s hounds, scampers down a narrow escape tube through the deep dark tunnel of an earthen throat that allows him to escape from the hunter’s teeth …

… with a clicking of claws, knitting needles come together to lift the dreamer outwards and upwards towards death’s golden guillotine floating in the sky … the moon sharpens its knife edge on the keening wind and sets the dreamer’s blood tingling from toes to head … the dreamer desires to be free, free from those nightmares, those nocturnal visions that rise up from the past and stalk him as he lies in bed … he longs for the alarm clock to shuffle its pack of sleepless hours and to waken him with its piercing shriek as it tears him from these winding sheets, these grave clothes in which he lies … he  waits for the sun to shine into his window … he wants it to waken the bright jungle parrot that sleeps in the yard so that querulous caged voice will scatter night’s drawn curtains of clouds and drifting dream ….

The first waves of sunlight broke over the houses and Tim’s dreams began to fade. As the new day dawned the black bat of night flew back to its distant cave. Light fell, in the yard below, on the parrot’s cage where the bird clung to the bars, and “¡Loro, loro! I’m a parrot!” the caged bird shrieked at the sky.

New visions crawled out from the vellum codex left open last night on the table and red and green gods with black and white masks crawled through Tim’s drowsing mind. He linked them together with lines and arrows and made a silent vow that his life would never again be scarred by their furrowed frowns and secretive smiles.

The day’s first rocket climbed its ladder of sky to fizzle and smash at the gods’ front door. A second rocket extracted him like a tooth from the socket and drew him fully into daylight. The third explosion sounded much closer and a fourth rocket soon surged skywards. The fifth and sixth rockets were two fiery giants with arms reaching up to claw with their fingers at the sky.

Tim thought about getting up to see if the rocket delivery mailman was one of his neighbors, but last night’s mescal still swaddled him in lullabies and he couldn’t get out of bed.

… whoever the man is, the half-dozen rockets he has purchased have been expended now and he’ll soon be home ... maybe I can roll over and go back to sleep …

As Tim thought this, he heard the swoosh of the seventh rocket.

“Seven,” he said out loud, sitting up in bed.  “That means five more. Nobody buys a dozen rockets, unless it’s something very special.”

Tim pulled back the sheets and swung his legs out over the side of the bed. He looked out of the window. Down below him, in the street, his friend Alonso, the archaeologist, walked side by side with El Brujo, the witch doctor. Alonso held a bunch of rockets in one hand while El Brujo opened and closed a box of traditional Oaxacan wax matches. Alonso readied a rocket in his right hand and El Brujo scratched match against sandpaper and applied flame to the rocket’s blue paper. With a flash and a whoosh, the rocket soared into the air.

Alonso and El Brujo stopped, looked up towards Tim’s window, and waved.

“Come down and join us, Tim,” El Brujo called. “We’ve got a surprise for you. There’s something we want to tell you.”

Tim saw three women and a man in a suit turning the corner at the end of the street. The shadows they cast in the rocket’s red glare were those of sinuous worms slithering along the cobbles. Tim shook his head in disbelief and moved away from the window. A sudden nausea gripped him. He went to the bathroom, gagged, knelt before the toilet bowl, put two fingers down his throat, and threw up. Six wrinkled worms swam round and round leaving a thin, yellow smoke trail in the flush’s whirlpool.

Tim got to his feet and hurried back to the window but the street was empty. Before he could turn away, rockets number eight and nine climbed out of unseen hands and soared upwards to knock in mockery on the doors of the celestial gods.

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).

Monkey Throws Away the Keys

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Monkey Throws Away the Keys

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

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

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

Tomb 104, Monte Albán: Sun & Moon

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Tomb 104, Monte Albán

 Crocodile wraps bat in the carved
crocodile jaws that open the doors to hell.

Cocijo clutches Owl’s feathers.
He wears a feathered headdress
as he flies on Owl’s back.

 At the back of the tomb,

a darker world hides in the shadows
beyond the finger of our flashlight:
hidden galleries,
carved and painted bones.

 Our torch
plucks faces from the dark.

 Brought back to life by our unsteady light,
shadows walk grey bristles
across cheek and jaw.

We blink like owls as we ascend
from the underground darkness.

Up here, in the false world,
the one we know and love,
our hearts sing like wild birds,
caged between red ribs.

 Above us,
the pocked skull of the moon,
bares white rabbit’s teeth.

 Tochtli
knows that life’s only reality
lies in wait for us

underground.

Sun & Moon

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Sun and Moon was published on Amazon and Kindle today. This is the second (revised) edition of Sun and Moon, the first edition having been published in 2000. Although this is the second edition, I have returned to and revised the original manuscript. It is clearer, stronger, and better than the first edition. Here is the description of the book as it appears on Amazon and Kindle.

“They tore down our walls,” Mono whispered, “stone by stone. A new church they built on the land they stole from us.” These opening lines begin the verbal adventure of Sun and Moon. Written in Oaxaca, Mexico, between 1995 and 1999, the poems tell some of the tales  of the voiceless, of the conquered, of the displaced, of the survivors, of the people who eat and sleep in the streets of Oaxaca, spinning their myths and legends and recalling their oral histories and memories. Sun and Moon traces the relationships between two civilizations, the indigenous and the conquerors, from the first contacts between Europeans and the people of the Oaxaca Valley up to the modern day interactions between locals and tourists. In these pages, some of the ancient ceremonies and beliefs, as described by indigenous people, are brought back to life in vivid images and colorful metaphors, so sharp, they can be grasped between the fingers and examined by the light of the sun by day and the moon by night. The multiple voices in the poems are those of human beings who, like the author, himself an émigré, find themselves in exile, lost, abandoned, and displaced. As the final character cries out in the final poem: “You do not worship at our sacred places … you don’t know even know the meaning of my name.”

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At the Edge of Obsidian

“everything burns, the universe flames,
nothingness burns itself into nothing
but a thought in flames: nothing but smoke”

Piedra de sol
Octavio Paz

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“todo se quema, el universo es llama,
arde la misma nada que no es nada
sino un pensar en llamas, al fin humo:”

At the Edge of Obsidian is the second book in The Oaxacan Trilogy. It was published in 2005 and outlines the events of a single day in the City of Oaxaca (Mexico). I have always loved the Medieval Books of Hours and wondered if they would transfer themselves into a book of hours based on a day in a place with which I was familiar. This is my effort to do just that. I will publish regularly from this book, beginning at the beginning with the church bells and the early morning light that waken the sleeper from his dreams.

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6:00 am
church bells

1

The alarm clock shuffles
its pack of sleeping hours:

a clicking of claws,
needles knitting outwards
towards dawn’s guillotine;

a knife edge
sharpened on this keening wind
sets my blood tingling in my toes.

Bright jungle parrot,
its querulous caged voice glimpsed
darkly through dawn’s looking glass.

2

Tochtli was caught by the ears
then thrown against the second sun
sizzling in the sky.
His sharp teeth burrowed,
burying themselves deep in the fire’s red light.
The second sun turned into the moon;
now we can see Tochtli’s face,
simmering in its dwindling pool.

Old myths, like languages,
grow legs and wander away.
They gather in quiet corners,
in village squares
where the night wind weaves
dry leaves in endless figures of eight.

 An old man now,
I dream of white rabbits,
running down tunnels,
escaping the hunter’s hands.

 3

When my dreams break up,
they back themselves into a cul-de-sac:
a wilderness of harsh black scars.

Dream words:
scalpels carving
red slashes on white-washed walls,
trenchant shadows, twisted dancers,
old warrior kings
bent into pipe wire shapes.

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 Suddenly, beneath my balcony,
the handy man
tumble-dries a tv ad
in the washing machine
of his song sparrow throat.

Danzantes

My poem, The Dancers and the Dance, refers both to the danzantes and to Monte Albán. Monte Albán was the capital of the Zapotecs and the principal city in the Oaxaca Valley (Mexico) between its foundation in approximately 500 BCE and its abandonment in approximately 750 CE. The White Mountain, thus named by the Spanish conquistadores, is justly famous for its temples, its tombs, and its carvings.

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Two natural phenomena affected Monte Albán and its population. The first was drought and the dried earth with its brown and yellow tinges is clearly visible in these photos. The second natural problem came from earthquakes, for this is indeed an earthquake zone with active volcanoes causing tremors at regular intervals. The temples, even today, sometimes need repairing as earthquakes have been known to destroy even the reconstructed temples.

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In fact, the abandonment of Monte Albán may well have been caused by an earthquake that cracked the enormous natural cistern in which the population’s water supply was stored.

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The Danzantes are strange, grimacing characters that have been carved into prisons of stone. They may be captured warriors awaiting sacrifice or the chieftains of conquered tribes humiliated, perhaps tortured, and then flash frozen into stone photographs where for centuries they have danced out their torment. Whoever and whatever they may be, they still dance on  Monte Albán.

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My poem, The Dancers and the Dance, captures a different form of dancing. It is taken from my book Sun and Moon: Poems from Oaxaca (2000) and contains echoes of the vibrant folkloric culture that thrives to this day both in the city of Oaxaca and in the Oaxaca Valley. Here, traditions are remembered and relived. Each year, on the Day of the Dead, for example, families place food and drink alongside photos of the dearly departed on altars inside their houses and their doors are thrown open to welcome their deceased family members as they return along the marigold paths that lead to their former homes.

The Dancer and the Dance

 1

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

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

thin copper bracelets
carved wooden mask

 only her eyes reveal
subversive flesh and blood

 2

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

 I too am tense like an instrument
waiting to be played

 the bones of my love
reach out towards her

3

when she makes her music
familiar spirits return to the earth
dancing in a sash of moonlight

 she recreates an ancient spell
gold letters plucked from dark scrolls
no wands no words
just water’s purity
flicked fresh
across lips and face

 she binds me with the string of notes
she undoes with her hair
our bodies form an open altar
we worship with mysterious offerings
drawn from wells set deep within us

4

rain falls from the sky
Moon turns his face away
suddenly in darkened alleys
clouds hold hands and dance

dense streamers of light
dangle from street lamps
shadows remember their forgotten steps

gently she draws me to her
I try to follow
frail whirlpools of withered leaves
fragment weak sunshine
in light’s watery pool

 5

her magic grows
I take my first step
an unmapped journey
into desert space

we move to old rhythms
across moon flecked clouds

raindrops fall more slowly
faltering drum beat
diminishing water

6

high above us
the ghost of a melody
shaking its head
wringing its hands

 we return at last
to light and air
the moon’s vacant face
scowls in an empty field

someone has plucked the stars
one by one
and threaded them like a chain of daisies

 now there are no sky flowers
to adorn the night

7

noche de rábanos
someone has taken a knife
and peeled an enormous radish

this cartoon moon face
this full skull hanging from nothing
this lantern lighting from above

 now my lover sculpts time
and space
into small chunks

 each sacrifice
a jewel between her fingers

 I pin to my chest
three small notes
and a skeleton of words

8

inside my dancing head
the fires have gone out

 without her hands to guide me
my feet have turned clumsy

 scars layer my wrists and ankles
star crossed bindings
cutting against the grain

 I gather a harvest of stars
she holds them in her eyes

 her fingers are grasshoppers
making love in my hair

when she kisses my fingernails
one by one
we both know our bodies will never be the same

9

together we weave a slender cage
she cuts out my heart with her tongue
placing it on an altar inside the bars

she locks the tiny door
a silvery key wrought from moonstone

 my fluttering heart grows miniature wings
next time the door is opened
my wings will fly me to her lips

my heart is a caged bird on a tiny perch
it chirrups a love song
its image in the mirror answers back

breathless it scrapes its wings on the moon
its body striving upwards to the stars

10

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

wind rustles the grass
moon casts sharp shapes

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

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

11

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

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

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

 the scent of our happiness
will cling forever to my fingers