The Medallion

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The Medallion (Solace 7, 8, & 9)

7

St. James, Santiago, the patron saint of Spain and of the Conquistadores. Pale, egg shell blue walls, darkness ruling inside the church. It will do so until the sun peeps in the stained- glass windows and awakens all the sleeping colours. I bow my head, then my knee, and kneel at the back. Ahead of me, I recognize some of my neighbours who concentrate on the gestures of the priest as he mumbles to himself before the altar.

The early morning shadows creep across the walls until a single beam of sunshine descends and shatters the altar into a thousand tiny chips of fragmented light. My hands are pallid butterflies fluttering in the sun’s rays and a rainbow halo adorns my head. I shift away from the sunbeam and move to the side-chapel dedicated to the statue of St. James.

… St. James the Moor-Slayer … Santiago Matamoros … he stands on the severed heads of the Moors he has killed … behind him hands tied behind their backs dusky skinned warriors march away into slavery … my eyes are level with those severed heads and I stare eyeball to eyeball at a decapitated Moor … beside the statue stands a photo of the Gate of Glory, la Puerta de la Gloria, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain … … generations of pilgrims have laid hands upon the Tree of Jesse, imprinting their fingers into the stone … human hands clasping rough granite in a search for comfort and warmth …

8

When I leave St. James, I find the witchdoctor squatting, in a trance. His fire burns low and a strong scent of copal rises from the coals, hangs heavy on the air, then slowly dissipates. I stop for a second to study El Brujo and the witch doctor speaks without opening his eyes.

“I spoke to your mother yesterday.”

“That’s nonsense,” I replied. “My mother’s dead.”

“What ails you, my son?”

“I’m not your son.”

“It’s a wise man knows his own father,” El Brujo opens his eyes. “One night, many years ago, Jaguar crept between your ribs and took your heart into his mouth. When he closed his jaws, your heart was as heavy as stone and Jaguar broke his tooth upon it. He cursed you and your heart remained a rock within your chest. At night, when you sleep, you dream of dust and ashes.”

“You speak in riddles,” I try to remain calm yet the words fan a sorrow within me that I thought had died a long time ago.

“Perhaps, but my words speak true.”

            … curses, stone, dust, ashes, broken heart, rock, heart in mouth … a marigold path, zopilote, high in the morning air, fire-red his wing-tips, and then an old stone bridge, a river below it with the snow floating down to be carried away by the current, three crones dancing on the steps of an orphanage, three beautiful ladies dancing on the temple steps, an old man, dead, then alive and walking in his burial clothes … hummingbirds dancing round the sun … red slashes of blood … tulips against a white-washed wall … an old man vanishing into a tomb … death’s face simmering in the moon’s dwindling pool …

“You must make a sacrifice, my friend.”

“I don’t do sacrifice, not like that boy this morning.”

“No, not like that,” El Brujo shakes his head. “You must sacrifice your beliefs and allow me to bless you.”

“I have no beliefs.”

“Even that is a belief.”

“Then I am sacrificing nothing.”

“If that is what you believe, it is so. Here: take this. It’s yours by right,” El Brujo offers me a medallion on a braided leather thong. “This is your mother’s gift to you.”

“You’re crazy. I told you: my mother’s dead. She didn’t leave me this.”

“I tell you that she did.”

“Did you know her?”

“I did.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You may believe what you want. But tell me, does the medallion call you?”

“I like it, yes. I can’t say it calls. How much?” I put my hand in my pocket.

9

“You do not have enough money to buy it, and if you did, you wouldn’t be the man I think you are. And in that case, I wouldn’t sell it to you,” his eyes took on a faraway look. “However, it comes from your mother and I promised your mother I’d give you this.”

            El Brujo’s eyes hold a power that disconcerts me. I lower my head to his fire and the copal makes my eyes water. I cough and my vision blurs. My lungs fill with perfume and El Brujo pushes me closer to the incense. I inhale deeply and break out in a sweat.

“You must wear this always. It will protect you,” El Brujo places the medallion round my neck. I place my hand upon it, feel its rough edges, and see through my tears that it is incomplete, for it has been broken in half. What remains shows half a cross with some broken roses where the crucified Christ would normally appear.

“But it’s broken.”

“Not broken, but divided. You must find the missing half.”

“Did my mother tell you that?”

“Your mother is dead.”

El Brujo lapses into silence and stares me down. Then he breaks into a weird, wailing chant, using a language that I do not know. As he sings, he leans forward and brushes my eyes with an eagle feather that he draws from his pocket.

“Now, you will be able to see.”

… an old woman dressed in black, pushes at a young man … colored threads hang out from her basket … they flap like flags in the single ray of sunshine that breaks into a million tiny sparks of fire … hummingbirds, tiny warriors, wing their dance around a sun that bears a man’s  face … a pair of scissors snips at the string that ties a child’s balloon to the earth and it floats away up into the air high above the cathedral tower … fire catches its wings and it flares like zopilote, the trickster, in the dawn’s early light … the cathedral spire is a notched measuring stick conducting the clouds as they dance and weave their patterns … within the prison of the sky … trenchant shadows, twisted dancers, old warrior kings bend themselves in and out of shape as they struggle to escape … an old man  wrings his hands, then vanishes …  a soap bubble floats away on the wind … a young girl stands on a bridge in winter … snow swirls and  draws a curtain around her body as she falls into the waters below … an old crone wrapped in rags carries a bundle of clothes to a set of steps and leaves it there …

            “The medallion vibrates, it’s heavy and warm.”

“It knows you.”

“What do you mean, ‘it knows me’?”

“Did you feel nothing? Did you see nothing?”

“I saw nothing,” I cough and clear my throat. “I saw nothing at all.”

El Brujo looks at me long and hard. He opens his mouth to speak, then shrugs his shoulders.

“Come, you have accepted the medallion your mother left you. Now accept my blessing.”

“Why?”

“Because I ask you to. Are you such a coward that you cannot accept a blessing from an old man? Here, kneel beside me,” El Brujo taps the ground at his side and, wondering what on earth I think I am doing, I kneel beside him.

El Brujo

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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.

Breakdown

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Commentary:

This was the first time I had been to the baths in Oaxaca. These came highly praised  by family and close friends and the combination of mist, steam, and herbs, combined to loosen the body and soothe the soul. The Mixtec baths and massage are very highly regarded, incidentally, and one can go to the equivalent of sweat lodges in order to enjoy a day at an ancient historic spa. The masseur himself was incredible. I lay face down initially. When he want to turn me over, he got a bucket of cold water, threw it over me and flipped me in mid-air as I reacted to the ice cold water. Hard to believe now. I also remember having to buy a small bar of paper-wrapped soap. And locking my valuables up in a little chest to which only he had the key. These baths feature in my novel, People of the Mist. Unpublished, alas, but I may get around to revising it one day. All I need is some encouragement!

 

Monte Alban

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Funny things, photos. When I updated my I-Mac, and I-photo became Photo, I lost some 10,000 photos, or more. Thanks to some hard work over the weekend by one of my good friends, we re-established contact with the missing photos. Skimming through them, I found this one, my words and Clare’s  computer art. I wrote it a long time ago, sometime after 1995, when I first visited Oaxaca. This piece records a visit I made, with Hayden Leaman, another good friend and an Oaxacan savant, to Monte Alban.

Under a hot sun that weighed us down and struck us like a hammer on an anvil, we wandered around the archaeological site and met with many vendors, some of whom seemed to have genuine artefacts, while others obviously offered us fakes. I couldn’t believe how the old men first discovered and then sat in the thin lines of shade emanating from a post, an edge, or a corner, la grata sombra / the welcome shade, as they say in Spanish. This one gentleman, who told us he had walked over from Arrazola,  some six kilometres or so away, asked us for nothing, chatted with us, and proved to be a wonderful source of local information. It was a pleasure to share our water with him. He was the possessor, he assured us, of a genuine green card, and didn’t believe in illegal immigration.

The words in the picture above summarize my thoughts at the time. I asked Hayden later where he wanted to go. He looked around at the temples, the monuments, the tombs, the ball court, the observatory … “Who wants to go anywhere?” he replied. “I am happy right here.”

I visited this and other sites later with Clare. She too proved to be very adept at finding the shade and just sitting still. Look and listen carefully: you too may be able to see and feel the beauty and the silence.

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Mini-Mums

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Permit me to introduce you to my two Mexican mini-mums, in the market square in Oaxaca, with their mini-mums. They sell them at minimum price, a giveaway for tourists who arrive with the all-powerful dollar and yell and holler about how this year’s prices are so much higher than last year’s prices. The flower girls giggle and smile. They have heard it all before. They know where each of the prospective purchasers comes from. They now how they walk, talk, slur their words, cajole, bully, and offer absurd amounts of money, either much too much or much too little. Those tourists: they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Meanwhile, in spit of appearances to the contrary, the cakes are on sale and the flowers are on sale, but the flower girls, Mano y Petate, and no, those are not their names, those things are definitely not for sale.  “Everything,” the tourists say, “has its price.” True, perhaps, in some circumstances. But people are not things and it’s brutally cruel to put a price on people. Occasionally, a tourist will recognize these girls. They are the ones who decorate the altar in the main cathedral in the square. They have also been known to sing, in Spanish, Latin, and Mixtec, along with their mother, before the high altar in Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo, the church with more than six tons of gold and gold leaf layered throughout its magnificence, a true treasure of humanity and an internationally protected building. Once, though, a long time ago, God’s Dogs, as the Dominicans were then called, ran baying through the Valley of Oaxaca, gathering workers with promises of heaven and visions of paradise. The work, they said, was the Lord’s and the Lord wanted them, the people of the Valley of Oaxaca, to build this temple in his name. And here they would stay, under lock and key, until the Lord’s work was done. El Cristo de la Columna: Christ tied to the pillar, stripped to the waist, and flogged. This symbol stands in every church in Oaxaca, and all the People of the Valley of Oaxaca knows exactly what it means, fr it is the punishment meted out to those very people if they do not work hard enough, long enough, fast enough, at their vision of heaven, their taste of paradise, this building of the Church of a Lord who is not even theirs. The tourists marvel at the church, the gold, the paintings, the statues. They praise the mother and her children singing at the high altar: “what beautiful children, what beautiful voices.” But they know nothing about the blood, and the sweat, and the tears that went into the temple’s building.

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Gazunda

Gazunda

Gazunda
for John Sutherland

John and I were talking about the rare Gazunda tree the other afternoon. I had forgotten that I had indeed written abut the Gazunda trees that flourish in the zócalo in Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is a magic place, full of mystery and myth and the myth of the Gazunda tree is not well known outside the confines of the city. I was so pleased to discover this account, written many years ago, when I first became associated with the Escuela de Idiomas attached to the Unversidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO).

Much remains to be written about my experiences in Oaxaca and I hope to have a collection of prose poems completed fairly soon. They are golden oldies, but like many golden oldies, they are also golden goodies. The Gazunda trees are very welcome when it rains, but they should be avoided, for obvious reasons, during thunder and lightning storms. Then, nobody Gazunda them. By the way, if you do visit the zócalo in Oaxaca, or anywhere else in Mexico, after heavy (or light) rain, be sure to test the seat of your chair before you sit in it. If you don’t, you will soon find out why all the waiters and waitresses have that open, friendly smile the tourists love so much.

Yesterday

Ay Ay Ayeres

Digging around in the photo files that I transferred from my old computer to my Google drive, I discovered this golden oldie composed of my words and Clare’s images. What a revelation: I had completely forgotten that this group of work existed. I’ll dig them out ne by one and post them from time to time. Ayer is the Spanish for yesterday, hier in French. The title “Ay! Ay! Ayeres!” with its multiple plays All our yesterdays and its reference to the old song “Ay, ay, ay, canta no llores” draws together a series of memories, some in the past and some in the future. ‘How can we have a memory in the future?’ you ask. By recognizing a present moment, or one that lies just ahead in a future that ill become soon enough a present, as one that has already occurred in the past, thus confirming the circularity of our lives and the idea that all time is time present, one of T. S. Eliot’s recurring themes.

Ocho Venado: Eight Deer is a central figure (war leader) in the Zouche-Nuttal, a pre-Columbian Mixtec Codex. He is the war leader in the Conquests recorded in the codex (circa 1050-1100).
Quesadillas: Oaxacan tortillas filled with cheese and flores de Calabaza, gourd flowers.
Reyes Magos: the three wise men or kings who visited the Christ Child on January 6, the traditional Spanish Christmas.
Murcielago: the bat and a symbol of death in Oaxacan mythology.
Nueve Viento: Nine Wind descends from heaven to separate the sky from earth and its waters. Nine Wind at Tule meeting with Cortes is mythical not historical, though the meeting of Cortes with the Mixtec chiefs (caciques) did happen.
Apoala: The Mixtec nation was born form a cave (sometimes a tree) in Apoala, Oaxaca.
Spinning the wheels in the snow: a reference to Jean Chretien and one of his famous images.

The piece is written in a surrealist style that mixes historical fact with creative writing. The distant past is recalled (1050-1100), then the middle past (1525-1530), and finally the present appears. This mixing of time and place (Mexico and Canada) is also related to the surrealist movement. Surrealism creates a dream world in which images float and change shape within a time-space conundrum where dream is more real than reality and creates its own new meanings that are individual to each reader.

Any comments on this rediscovered piece will be warmly welcomed.