“Rain, we need rain.” The bruja whirls her rain stick. Rain drops patter one by one, then fall faster and faster until her bamboo sky fills with the sound of rushing water.
An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus beats against its wooden prison walls. Heavenwards, zopilotes float beneath gathering clouds. Rain falls in a wisdom of pearls cast now before us.
Scales fall from my eyes. They land on the marimbas, dry beneath the zocalo‘s arches where wild music sounds its half-tame rhythms, sympathetic music released, like this rainstorm, by the musician’s magic hands.
Comment:Bruja: witch, witch doctor; Oro de Oaxaca: mescal, the good stuff; Zopilote: Trickster, the turkey vulture who steals fire from the gods, omnipresent in Oaxaca; Marimbas: a tuned set of bamboo instruments. But you knew all that!
Water: does it remember when the earth was without form and darkness lay upon the face of the deep?
Water gathered into one place and the firmament appeared. Then light drifted apart from darkness and with light came The Word, more words, and then the world …
… the world of water in which I was carried until the waters broke and my life sustaining substance drained away ejecting me from dark to light.
Here, in Oaxaca, the valley’s parched throat longs for water, born free, yet everywhere imprisoned. It languishes in bottles, tins, jars, and frozen cubes, its captive essence staring out with grief filled eyes.
A young boy on a tricycle pedals past my apartment. He carries a dozen prison cells, each with forty captives, forty fresh clean bottles of warm water. “¡Peragua!” he call out to me. “¡Super Agua!” he holds out his hand and asks me to pay a handsome ransom to set some of these captives free.
Real water yearns to be released, to be set free from its captivity, to trickle out of the corner of your mouth, to drip from your chin, to slip from your hand and seek sanctuary in dust and sand.
Real water slips through your hair and leaves you squeaky clean. It is a mirage of palm trees upon burning sand. It is the hot sun dragging its blood red tongue across the sky and panting for water like a great big thirsty dog.
Are they half-grasped dreams that wake, wide eyed, to a new day’s sun?
Or are they alive and thriving when they fall from the tree?
Does the carver fish their color and shape from his own interior sea, or does he watch and wait for the spirit to emerge from its wooden cocoon to be reborn in a fiery block of color?
Daybreak: in a secluded corner of my waking mind, my neighbor’s dog greets the dawn with sparks of bright colors born from his bark.
My waking dream: dark angels with butterfly bodies, their inverted wings spread over my head to keep me warm. In the town square, the local artist plucks dreams from my head and paints them on carved wood.
A statue of St. Francis stands in the corner of the roof garden. He holds out his hands for Plaster of Paris birds to settle upon them.
St. Francis wears a brown, sack-cloth cassock bound at the waist by a knotted, white cord. Living birds would come to him, if he called, but he is silent. He knows the birds by their names, not the Latin or Spanish names, nor their names in Mixtec or Nahuatl. He knows their true names, their own ineffable names that grace each of them and brightens their songs of colored glory.
Brother Sun, by day, and Sister Moon, by night, bless him with their soft-feathered gifts of light. Alas, he is bound to this earth by Brother Donkey, the flesh and blood body he once wore and now wears in effigy. Of the earth, earthy, his thoughts are bent on beating this sackcloth body down and raising his mind in birdsong that will reach up, higher and higher until it achieves his Kingdom Come.
In front of him, the Bird of Paradise offers him that which he most desires, a return to earth in avian form, winged like a miniature angel armed with a golden harp and an aura of song.
I cover my face with a white mask of soap and carve intricate patterns with the razor.
… painted masks … death masks … the masks the priests wear in the pre-Columbian Oaxacan codices … the prisoner struggling … not yet fully understanding his fate … around him … animal masks … priest masks … the jaguar cult of the regiments … they strip him down … paint his body … arm him with flowers … place him on a pedestal … from there he will dance his last dance … fight his last fight .. his destiny … like the bull in the bull ring … to die bravely showing no fear … he strikes first with the flower … his opponents strike back … one by one … with their obsidian knives … each wound a flesh wound on legs and thighs … the heart pounds … the blood flows .. faster and faster … more flowers … more knives … more blood … until almost bloodless the prisoner weakens and stumbles … rough arms seize him by the arms and legs … they carry him to the sacrificial stone … bend him over it … chest exposed … and tear the living beating heart from the cavity the carve in his chest … the severed arms and legs bounce down the temple steps to the waiting crowds … tomorrow his spirit will return as a hummingbird … and dance around the sun … for now his torn heart sizzles in the sacrificial fire … a horse’s head … teeth bared … grins from the temple walls …
My razor, held like a flower, slips and I gash my lip. The slow blood seeps through the soap streaking my mask with faint shades of pink. I shiver and stare at my reflection in the mirror. It’s a very plain face with a nose slightly larger and more hooked than it ought to be. I think of it as the prow of a ship or a bird’s beak: an eagle perhaps. My nose is very much like the nose of the man who died in the flower dance. In spite of the warmth in the room, I shiver again.
He told me to read, and plucked my left eye from its orbit. He slashed the glowing globe of the other. Knowledge leaked out, loose threads dangled. He told me to speak and I squeezed dry dust to spout a diet of Catechism and Confession.
He emptied my mind of poetry and history. He destroyed the myths of my people. He filled me with fantasies from a far-off land. I live in a desert where people die of thirst, yet he talked to me of a man who walked on water.
On all sides, as stubborn as stucco, the prison walls listened and learned. I counted the years with feeble scratches: one, five, two, three.
For an hour each day the sun shone on my face, for an hour at night the moon kept me company. Broken worlds lay shattered inside me. Dust gathered in my people’s ancient dictionary.
My heart was like a spring sowing withering in my chest It longed for the witch doctor’s magic, for the healing slash of wind and rain.
The Inquisitor told me to write down our history: I wrote … how his church … had come … to save us.
Inquisitor was also a requested reading last Saturday. My promise, to put it up on the blog, with a reading in my own voice is now fulfilled. I love this poem: it speaks volumes about the Catholic Church in Oaxaca and the relationship of the Dominicans with the local people, aboriginals all and inhabitants of the Valley of Oaxaca for at least 10,000 years. The numbers represent the approximate date, 1523, of the arrival of the Conquistadores in Oaxaca, about three years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, now Mexico City. The poem, Inquisitor, can be found in Sun and Moon and also in Stars at Elbow and Foot, both available through this link.
hard baked loaves of stone hot cobbles beneath the feet the burning street forced upwards through shoe leather to scorch our soles the sun’s orb an irresistible hammer beating the strength out of the sweating body heart sucked dry lungs shriveled
inside massive stone walls candles crucifixes paintings of saints statues carved wooden images outside in the sunlight alebrijes staring eyes wagging tails protruding tongues their spirits breaking through the wood turning from darkness into light
impressions a nose here a pair of eyes there long black hair a tree trunk swaying to the music a black bible banged on a wooden table a Cubist nightmare of detached body parts
multiple pin balls released in a rush by an errant slot machine stained glass reds blues greens smoke from a candle twisting in air light filtered from high windows
once open doors slowly closing keys no longer turning in locks unwound clocks no longer ticking cobwebs gathering in forgotten rooms flowers on the altars nochebuenas with their single and double petals crimson and cream cempasúchiles marigolds lighting their golden walkway to guide the dead loved ones returning to visit the living
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