Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Illusion of Bliss

The photographer pointed towards the dark open mouth of the tunnel and started walking faster. The bride followed, picking up the long tail of her shiny white wedding gown with both hands, trying to avoid the grass and the dirt and the mud that threatened to soil it. The groom followed, imposing in his rented black tuxedo. He was a tall, thick man with closely cropped hair that revealed a big white head in the shape of an egg. His eyes were pressed together, trying to avoid the sunlight, and his hands were restless, fixing a button on the tuxedo now and then. The bride was also a thick woman, shorter than the groom. Her arms were fat strong pink pillars that glowed with color in contrast with the white gown. She wore high heels under the thick layers of white fabric and they clicked and clacked as they walked down the paved path towards the tunnel. The photographer, who was ten feet ahead of them, was wearing jeans and a crumpled brown jacket. His black hair was unruly and greasy, and some strands of it clung to his forehead. He carried a black tripod and several large cameras were hanging from his neck.
"Over here… just follow me… this is the perfect spot…"
The bride turned to the groom and frowned as she whispered: "I hope so… because my gown is about to be ruined…"
The groom shrugged and pointed to his shiny black shoes. "This is all rented you know. We’ll have to pay extra if we bring it back dirty…"
She shook her head, as if the comparison was ludicrous. "I’m talking about my gown… whatever… let’s just go and take the picture…"
The photographer stepped into the dark tunnel and for a moment the shadows closed in around him. There was a homeless man leaning against the curved inside walls, staring up at him with eyes of vague hope.
"Spare some change?" the dirty man on the floor said, barely raising his hand in a demonstration of low expectations.
The photographer shook his head and kept on walking. Inside the tunnel, it was very dark and there was a strong smell of urine and mold that permeated the walls and the floor. At points, the ground seemed slippery with fresh mud and he hoped the bride would not slip on the tricky surface. At least not before his job was done. At the end of the tunnel, the sun was shining brightly and the light seeped inside like a shower of golden rays brightly caressing dark opaque clouds of green haze. The photographer approached this entrance and started to set up his tripod. He had done this many times before. He had heard about this spot from other photographers. It was a place he would have missed if he didn’t know the park well. Behind him, the bride was making her way through the darkness of the tunnel.
"Spare some change?" the homeless man said again, looking up at the frowning woman with the long gown in her hands. The bride just looked away, avoiding the hobo’s eyes, as if that mere contact could get her dirty in some way she couldn’t describe. She felt the slippery mud under her heels and walked more slowly. Without turning, she called to the groom:
"Be careful in here… there’s mud… I don’t know what we’re doing here…"
The groom, who was right behind her, also ignored the homeless man who didn’t even bother to raise his hand this time.
"Well… he claims it’s the perfect spot…" and a smirk flashed across his face. Then his foot slid across the moldy moisture and he just barely managed to remain upright. He stepped faster towards his bride and put his right hand on her naked shoulder. "We really have to be careful here…"
"I know… that’s what I’m saying…"
Once again, they both almost slipped and managed to stay standing by holding on to each other. The photographer called to them just then.
"We’re almost done… come and stand in front of the entrance… right here…"
The photographer stood close to the open half circle of light and mimicked the position he wanted the groom to take, with his back towards the wall and his eyes looking to his bride before him. The groom understood the instruction and went to find his place. Here the floor was drier and it was not so difficult to maintain his footing. Still he walked slowly. He turned his back to the wall and faced his bride who looked up at him, still holding the tail of the gown in her hands.
"You’re gonna have to let go of that…" the photographer said, "just let it flow behind you…it will look really beautiful in this light."
The bride hesitated for a moment, then opened her hands and arms and the gown dropped behind her. The photographer walked over and pulled the tail back, creating a curve that flowed towards the muddy floor.
"Hold each others’ hands…"
"Now we’re getting really romantic…" the smirk crossed the groom’s face once again as he reached up to hold his bride’s hands.
"Shut up…" she said with the frown that had never left her face. She could smell the strong stench of urine all around him and she tried to breath as little as possible.
The groom held both her hands in his and looked towards the photographer. "Like this?"
The photographer looked through his lens at the portrait that was slowly forming before him. "Yeah, almost right… let me just get the light here…" He set up a small light behind him quickly and turned it on. Then he came back to his camera and looked through the lens again.
"Ok, almost right… now just look at each other…"
The groom smirked once again and the bride looked at him with impatience.
"You’re both in the right position… just relax your faces… look up at him, with eyes of admiration…"
"Yeah right…" she said and the groom giggled slightly.
"Just do it… for a moment… it’s a single moment that will last forever… look at him… remember how much you love him… look at him with that love… right now…and you, look at her with all the tenderness that you feel for her…"
The groom looked down at her and his eyes softened and she looked up at him and her eyes widened. And just as she saw something strange in his pupils, something that maybe she had never seen before, the flash went off and there was a loud click that echoed through the tunnel.
A voice came from the other side, a rough raspy voice soaked in bad alcohol: "Yeah… look at him…like you love him…"
The photographer clicked once, twice and one more time. "Keep it up… just a little longer… you’ll be glad that you did…"
She shuddered and looked at him again but the strangeness was gone. He was upset about the homeless man talking. He wanted to do something.
"One more and we’re done!" there was one more click and then the photographer sighed loudly. "That’s it! We got some good ones."
The bride released her groom’s hands immediately. He stepped back and turned towards the homeless man. The bride placed her hand on his shoulder and whispered: "Let it go… now’s not the time…just let it go, you will ruin everything…"
He shrugged his shoulders once again and waited while the photographer put away his equipment.
The old raspy voice came from the dark entrails of the tunnel once again: "To happiness. To bliss!" The groom turned towards the darkness but the voice was lost in the shadows. The bride examined her gown for any signs of mud or dirt. The photographer methodically folded his tripod while making calculations in his head.
"Let’s get out of here…" the groom said, trying to avoid breathing as they started to walk back from where they came. The bride’s heels clicked and clacked as they once again walked through the slippery dark tunnel. "To the happy couple…" the hobo whispered as they passed, sipping the last drop of whiskey from his metal flask. Soon it would be time for him to make his way back out into the world once again. For now, the tunnel was cool and it kept him away from the sunlight. For now, that was all he really needed.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Couple Holding Hands

The woman walked out of the museum first, with a steady movement that clearly embodied confidence. She had black hair, long enough to barely touch her shoulders and fall in soft curves around her cheeks. She was wearing small glasses and her face was hard, as if the skin had ossified into permanent features that now would hardly move at all. She wore a long white shirt and blue jeans. She walked with the decisive manner of a soldier and her mouth was pressed together into the promise of a frown. She turned around to look at her boyfriend as he crossed the glass doorway and stepped out into the sunlit sidewalk. He was taller than her, thin and wiry. His hair was also black but cut much shorter. His eyes had a sense of calm that bordered on sleepiness. He wore a long brown T-shirt and blue jeans like hers. He walked toward the woman nodding, as if to say without words: ‘Now, that’s done.’ After him came her friend, a younger woman in a flowery dress and medium heels. She held a camera in her hand and she walked towards them with an enthusiastic grin drawn from cheek to cheek. The three of them came together at the top of the stairs and then walked down the gray cement steps. The boyfriend looked over towards the wide open plaza, covered in thin little trees and the sound of kids playing and birds singing. The woman looked straight towards the sidewalk instead, ready to move on. The friend smiled some more and looked towards a dark sculpture that stood in the middle of the lawn that surrounded the museum.
"Look at that… what is that?"
The sculpture had the shape of a black inverted funnel. The surface was shiny and polished, making a deep contrast with the grass and the gray sidewalk around it. The inverted funnel was covered with little angels, cherubim, who climbed up the slippery surface and over each other, trying to reach the top. Each of the angels was different and each made its effort in a particular and distinct way. Some were falling backwards, some were almost reaching their goal. The friend walked ahead of the couple and examined the sculpture carefully, even running her fingers over the angelic bodies, trying to feel their struggle through her hands.
"Look… they’re angels… they’re climbing and climbing…"
The man nodded and the woman looked at her friend and at her boyfriend with a sense of growing impatience.
"Well… we should be going back and…" she said, trying to sound as if it meant nothing, as if anything that happened would be fine with her, but she was unable to betray a bit of annoyance, a touch of cold impatience at the edges of her words.
"Just a second… I want to take a picture of the two of you… right here… in front of the sculpture."
The woman looked at her boyfriend, looking to see how he would react. He shrugged his shoulders and his eyes looked more sleepy than ever. Then, in a voice that was barely loud enough to be heard, he said:
"Sure… why not?"
The friend, lifting the camera to her eyes, looked at the woman and nodded towards the large black funnel that rose up from the green grass. "Well?"
The woman shrugged her shoulders like her boyfriend had and said: "I guess it’s ok…let’s just do it quickly."
The two of them walked towards the sculpture, which rose to three times their height. They stood in front of it, about a feet apart, waiting for the friend to take the picture. The friend made a gesture with her free hand and said:
"Closer you guys! You have to get closer!"
She stepped back slightly, trying to make sure she got them both into the picture as well as the dark shiny figure that rose behind them. The woman stepped closer to her boyfriend and he stepped a bit closer to her, without looking at each other. Their shoulders bumped together awkwardly and they both looked towards the friend, who was still getting ready to take the photo.
"Well? Go ahead and take it!" the woman said, feeling her boyfriend’s shoulder against her own.
"Just a second…" the friend said, and she stepped a bit farther back. "I think I got it… but you guys need to smile more… why don’t you hold hands?"The boyfriend sighed lightly and the woman couldn’t stop a burst of nervous laughter.
"Just take the picture!" She looked sideways at her boyfriend whose eyes were squinting against the sun.
"I want you to hold hands. It will look much better that way!"
Again a burst of nervous laughter came from the woman’s lips. She turned towards her boyfriend who was still just squinting into the sun and she grabbed his hand in hers and pulled both their hands, now pressed together, in front of them.
"There! You happy?" her voice dripping with a forced nonchalance.
The friend shook her head. "No, it doesn’t look right. You both still seem very awkward…. Like something’s wrong. It will come through clearly in the picture."
The woman tried to press closer to the boyfriend, feeling the tight muscles of his left arm against her shoulder. She rearranged the hands again and she smiled towards the camera. The boyfriend just stared ahead.
"You have to smile too!", the friend said to the boyfriend.
"C’mon! Just take the picture!" the woman said, feeling that there truly was something wrong but completely unsure of how to fix it.
The boyfriend turned to her then, looking steadily into her eyes. His pupils opened up slightly and he pulled on her hand and turned it over, so that his own hand was secure on top of hers. Then he pulled her closer to him and turned towards the camera with a smile. The woman smiled then, but it was not for the picture. The smile rose from her like mist from a clear lagoon in the middle of summer. It spread across her face like a transparent cloud barely touched by blue and pink, and her face became softer, and her cheeks became red and her eyes became brighter. Her body suddenly seemed to acquire curves it didn’t have before. She could feel her right hip barely touching the edge of his thigh and the sensation sent shivers all over her now relaxed body.
"There!" the friend said, and the camera clicked a couple of times. "That was good!"
The friend put the camera away. The boyfriend released the woman’s hands and the woman stepped away from the touch of his upper thigh and his wiry forearm. He started towards the sidewalk and the friend followed. The woman looked up at the shiny surface of the inverted funnel and at the angels that still struggled to climb to the peak. For a moment she admired their effort and she wondered at the nature of their plight. She wondered if it was love that propelled them forward and she wondered at the power of such love, love that could last a lifetime, love that could last beyond. For each of these angels, she thought, there must be many down in the darkness, unable even to start. She felt sympathy then for the lost ones, the ones that would always live in the shadows, the ones that would never make it up through the ground. When she turned back to the sidewalk, the friend and the boyfriend were already a hundred feet ahead. She rushed to catch up with them. In the distance, a violin was playing a strange sad melody. A car passed by and a group of teenagers were laughing loudly inside.
The friend turned around to see if the woman was coming. The friend smiled brightly when she saw the woman walking towards her, but the woman’s smile was gone again, along with the softness of her body and the brightness of her cheeks. The sunlight was too bright just then and the woman had to look down, away from her smiling friend, away from the shadow of her boyfriend, away from the bright light that would make her cry.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gifts From Faraway Places

Her face turned an angry red when she learned the market was out of rice. She had tried several shops in the neighborhood and no one knew when there’d be more. Her face was hot, her chest heaved as she took intentionally slow steps and long, extended breaths. Her limbs vibrated softy, it was an almost imperceptible shaking to anyone watching, but it affected her speech and walk in subtle ways, and in recent months, she had begun to move slower in an effort to disguise her constant state of fear.
It was almost a year ago since the first bomb was dropped; it was that day, while the night was heavy with the heat of August, that she became familiar with the sensation of panic. Terror traveled through her open window, wrapping itself around her like the thick arms of a possessive lover. That night became a stain in her memory, its edges dark and black, leading to the open well of wounds which tunneled deeper each passing day.
Before that horrible day in August, she had led a modest life. She was raised by deeply religious parents who sheltered her from the influences of the world. She spent her childhood confined to her home and small family garden, her mother taught her to cook, (so one day she could please her husband) and her grandmother showed her art of embroidery (so she could decorate the clothing of her children). Now, she was the young mother of an infant son and the obedient wife of a much older man. She had been introduced to her husband by an aunt during a New Year’s celebration, and after a short courtship of shy hand holding and quiet conversations, they were married. Before the one-year anniversary of their marriage, the bombs began to fall.
Now, she looked back with nostalgia, recalling the naivete of her former self, nearly unaware of the global politics that would lead to the reality shattering destruction, the ever present booms and human cries which would soon become a daily occurrence. Her husband had watched the news each night, but he rarely spoke of politics with her, he rarely spoke at all, and even though she spent most of her time in the house and the small courtyard outside, she never turned on the TV. She preferred talking with her neighbors, whose windows opened into her bright courtyard. Her small garden was full of sweet smelling flowers and overflowing with the mint she used to prepare tea. During the day, she loved sitting on the small bench made for two, letting her bones rest beneath the young tree that had begun to bear sweet fruit. In the warmth of the ever present sun, she relished the luxury of resting in the sunshine and filling the small square space of the garden with female laughter and gossip.
When the first bomb struck the earth, only a mile from her house, she was awoken from the sweetest of dreams. Even today, she could not recall the details, but she remembered smiling, remembered the feeling of lightness and air. As she was jolted awake by sirens and the sound of splintering metal, she felt the softness drain from her consciousness. Before her brain could catch up to her movements, she was already running for her son. After gathering the crying infant in her arms, she ran for her husband to ask what was happening. "The Americans" was his only reply, and then he left them to turn on the TV. She spent the rest of the long, black night alone in bed, trying to console her crying son and failing once again with the sound of a new explosion. His cries lasted through the night, never ceasing, never slowing, as if he already knew what was coming. As dawn broke, the sounds of explosions continued.
She thought of the "Americans." A vague place and people. She had had a Mickey Mouse toy once, she had seen pictures of the Statue of Liberty in a book, she could recognize the American flag and her grandfather had bought her a hamburger once, despite the objections of her strict father. Once, while shopping with her sister-in-law, they had passed an electronics shop, and she had glimpsed a TV show with people in red bathing suits running along a beach. She had never known an American. She had been raised by very strict parents, they were conservative in every sense: dress, religion, politics, manners. "Western," was a word her father used with disgust. He said it often and she feared its implications. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but she knew it was bad and she knew she would never want to be called "western." In the darkness of that first night, she wondered what her country had done. She knew nothing of the world, and for the first time, she wondered if that was a problem. What lay beyond the boundaries of her immediate community was as foreign to her as the strange faraway country which now dropped bombs upon her land.
The days passed with more reports of bombings, and with them, her fears multiplied. After a couple weeks into the conflict, her husband returned from work to tell her he had been fired. He said his job had been "dissolved," which was the official term his boss used. She watched TV with him and saw the images of destruction mounting. Burning oil fields, decimated bridges and hospitals. She saw the crumbled remains of their water plants, the hiding place of women and children that had been bombed accidentally. The shocking images of bodies left to rot on the road filled her with dread. How long would she remain among the living? The fireworks continued each day and night. All her friend’s husbands were out of work too, the faces of the women with whom she had once chatted so happily not so long ago, all their faces were now dark with worry. The neighborhood now lived in a state of constant worry, teetering on the edge of hunger, thirst and desperation. With each visit to the market, she noticed the price of rice and milk steadily rising. Soon, she thought, they would not be able to afford the basics needed to survive…thousands of black thoughts clouded her mind.
Her husband announced he was leaving to join the resistance against "the Americans." As she sobbed, he told her she would move in with his brother and his family, which was only a couple blocks away. Although her husband seldom talked, through her tears, she could see the regret in his eyes; but she could sense his courage, his need to act. He told her there was no option. There was no work, there was no money. Without action, there would be no future for his son, he said. Soon, he lamented, there would not even be any food…the Americans had to be stopped. "I cannot just watch my brothers dying, I must move." He held her all night as she cried. And at dawn, as the sun broke over the horizon, as strong and as a fiery as a bullet, he took them to his brother’s house and said goodbye.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Harmless Intruder

We were driving down a gently twisting two lane road of paved black tar, slowly descending from a series of elevated hills down into a lower, flat valley. The land on either side of the car rolled with small supple hills; the gentleness of the hills was a reflection of the softness in the wind, which moved constantly like a controlled breath, cooling our skin with the grace and strength of a woman gliding across an empty dance floor. The unclouded sun was working to dry out each stalk of grass. There was still evidence of some green, although light gold was the predominant color of the landscape. The sun was high overhead and the light around us was bright white and crisp and we all wore sunglasses to protect ourselves against its radiation. The paved road was black and warm, it accepted us into its narrow passageway and we hugged the tight curves slowly, trying to capture every detail with our pens and lens.
We were alone on this stretch of road. We passed pale colored houses every now and again. Light blue single story houses with white curtains, cream colored barns and small family-sized vegetable gardens. We passed a few large pickup trucks in the driveways of the houses and American flags on the porches, but never an actual person. In this small stretch of country road, we seemed to be alone. These were small farms, miles away from the large industrial farms that extended their tight geometric rows of almonds trees for miles. This was family land and the houses were long ranch structures, built years ago and slightly beaten by the elements.
As we drove slowly along a tight curve in the road which veered to the right, I saw a cluster of decaying oak trees out the right back window of the car. I jolted upright and moved to grab my camera, but the vision went past before I could push the button. I couldn’t let it become a fuzzy thought in my memory, so we turned the car around and pulled the car over on the other side of the road, about fifty feet from the trees. I stepped out of the car and onto the soft earth. The ground was the color of white corn and fine as dust. The ignition was turned off, and we were left with the silence of the land. There were no motors, no voices or engines, just a soft buzzing of distant insects and my footsteps crunching small rocks on the pavement. I crossed the road and walked up the right side along a short fence. The fence was made of graying wood beams and barbed wire.
As I walked closer to the trees, I saw a cluster of cows on the right that I had missed as we drove past the first time. There were at least three dozen, all of them were adult and a shiny reddish brown color. Some were standing and eating, others were laying down, making larger imprints on the grass. There was a large oak tree close to them and a couple of cows were resting in the shade. They were large and their strength was impressive and I felt small as I approached the herd. They heard my approaching footsteps and turned to locate the source of the sound. Three dozen sets of eyes turned towards me all at once, each one seeking eye contact. Those whose bodies were turned from me twisted their heads in my direction. Some, caught chewing, watched me with blades of grass spurting from their mouths. Whatever they had been doing, they all found me and watched me walk. I was an outsider, walking through their world. Like the new arrival in a country western movie just stepping into the town’s saloon, they all turned to size me up. They looked at me, silent, observant, and feeling no threat, because none of them made a move to flee. They swooshed their tails and flies continued to land close to their eyes. I kept walking, a bit nervous, a bit self conscious in front of so many eyes. They stared, I stared. Behind low barbed wire fence. I passed them by a couple dozen feet and walked past them to the cluster of oak trees. Last I saw them, they were still looking at me, still examining the strange intruder that trespassed the silence of their quiet lives.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Rock Beyond The Fountain

In the middle of a large open plaza stood a dry circular fountain. The sun was shining intensely that day, making the surface of the fountain shine like a giant mirror. People walked through the plaza, in little groups of two and three, talking without pause and only sporadically looking at the trees that surrounded the fountain or at the fountain itself. A couple of older women sat on a green bench a few feet away from the edge. They talked in whispers and looked around every so often, as if to confirm through direct observation their soft little statements. In the middle of the fountain, there was a smaller fountain that held a bird bath. The bird bath was dry and there were only a few black birds that came to play in its concave surface out of habit and inertia. The air seemed to be touched by the brown color of the dirt and the little dry trees and the surface of the fountain; the brown made the air a little thicker, a little more opaque, as if a very faint cloud sat on top of the plaza, surrounding all the people that moved through it. The sound of cars could be heard in the distance, only partially covered up by the music of an old man playing a strange violin.
Inside the fountain, there were three children playing. One was a thin little girl with long blonde hair tied in a pony tail. She was wearing a long pink dress, tied around her waist with a soft belt of the same color. She also wore little white shoes that clicked and clacked on the hard surface of the fountain as she ran back and forth. Another was a little boy with blonde hair and lost eyes. He wore a pair of blue jeans and a checkered blue flannel shirt, which was mostly unbuttoned. The third was a little girl, smaller than the first, with long black hair, also tied in a thick pony tail behind her back. She wore a blue and white button up shirt with long vertical stripes and blue jeans. Her eyes were bubbly and bright as she scanned the many fun possibilities that opened up around her.
At this moment, they were holding hands near the bird bath. The little blond girl would say "jump!" and all three would jump together, or mostly together. One of them might stumble and then they would all laugh and get back into formation. Then the little blond girl would say "jump!" again and it would all repeat and the laughter would be just as fresh and free as it ever was and, after the sound of their voices had faded off into a faint echo that bounced off the distant corners of the plaza, all three of them would return to their original places and the game would start all over again. Without any warning, after one of the rounds of jumping, the little blond boy walked off and started to wander around the fountain, flapping his arms around like a marionette cut loose from its guiding strings. His head would also shift back and forth, as if the muscles of his neck had been released from their normal functions and were now moving in all directions without cause or reason. When the girls saw him move like this, they laughed harder than ever and the little girl with black hair said: "Look at him! He’s crazy!" The little boy did not respond but just kept on shifting around aimlessly around the perimeter of the circle, wandering close to the short little curved wall that formed the edges of the fountain.
As he moved around and around, his head sometime shifted so drastically forward that he would look momentarily over the edge and his eyes would focus on a leaf or a pebble or a piece of wrapper that was lying on the ground. The little girls kept on laughing and the blond girl said, as if she had just thought of it: "He’s gone crazy! Look at him!" The little boy kept on circling and his body was swinging so wildly that he came to rest his full stomach on the curved edge of the fountain. Then he stopped and the little girls looked at each other, wondering what had happened.
The little boy extended his whole body over the edge and reached out with his hand toward the ground outside the fountain. There was a little rock there that was shining in the sun. He reached as hard as he could but his arm wasn’t quite long enough and he couldn’t quite reach it. He pulled back and looked around himself to see if there was any other solution. Coming to the conclusion that he couldn't leave the fountain, and also realizing that he had to get the rock, he extended his body over the edge once again, trying harder this time, grunting with the effort.
The girls looked at each other once again. The little girl with black hair said: "I wonder what he’s doing." The little girl with blonde hair said: "I don’t know what he’s doing. I want to sing." The little girl with black hair responded: "Yes, if you sing, then I can dance. I will get him so we can dance together while you sing!" The little girl with blonde hair nodded happily and watched while her friend ran towards the grunting little boy.
"Come over here! Leave that alone! We want to sing and dance and I want you to dance with me!" she said and, as she said it, she tugged the little boy by his left hand.
The little boy did not respond but he did not give in. Instead, grunting harder, he extended his little body even farther and he moaned softly with the pain of stretching his right arm so far. The rock was still a few inches away from his fingers.
"I’m telling you! Come with me! I want to dance with you! Leave that alone! You can’t reach it! Come and dance!" and she tugged on his left arm a little harder.
But the boy would not budge and he leaned over so far that it looked like he was about to slide over the edge and land on his head on the ground outside the fountain. The two older women looked over with a slight look of alarm on their faces. The little girl with black hair turned to look at her blonde friend who shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. Then the black haired girl released the little boy and walked away, shaking her own head in disbelief. As the little boy felt the release on his left hand, he reached even farther and his finger closed around the shiny surface of the rock. He immediately pulled back with one swift motion and he landed on his feet inside the shining circle. He dropped the little rock inside his shirt pocket and smiled with satisfaction. His shirt was covered in light brown dust and his face was covered in thick sweat which made his eyes water.
He turned around towards the bird bath but the girls were gone. He could see them walking down the path towards the big buildings beyond the plaza. He burrowed his forehead, wondering why they had left. Then he heard the sound of his mother’s voice, coming from the opposite direction and he started to run. He skipped over the edge of the fountain easily and he ran past the two older women and the man with the strange violin. He was smiling as he ran and the little rock was rubbing against his sweaty chest through the thick fabric of the flannel shirt. The fountain was lonely once again, except for the few birds that still came, out of habit and inertia.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Demons and Passengers

The creatures were lined up in three rows, each a little shorter than the one preceding it, so that their formation was pyramidal, pointing straight toward the relic. A large milky white stone, the relic was as tall as three men standing upon one another’s shoulders, making it just slightly taller than the creatures themselves. A bell was struck and those in the short row nearest to it lowered to their knees and knelt before the stone, and when they were all bent to the earth, those in the two rows behind followed suit. One of the creatures stood behind all the others, posted at the mammoth double doors at the end of the chapel. The doors of gray stone, etched with swirling designs, had been opened, and the creature stood guard ensuring that they remain so until the ceremony was complete. Like the others, its face was waxy and featureless, its forehead broad and flat. The bald head was webbed with traces of the blue veins just beneath the thin skin. Its flesh was pale and glossed over with a silver sheen. The tip of its scimitar was planted in the crevice between cobblestones on the ground in front of its clawed feet, its long sharp fingers were knotted as they rested firmly over the hilt. Light shone through the windows beyond the relic, passing through shards of stained glass of black and white and crystal hue. The bell was struck again and the creatures began to hum all together. Ahead of them, the stone glimmered faintly as though a light were flickering from within its opaque depths. Slowly and silently, the creature which stood at the door lifted its blade and eased its way towards its prostrate brethren. The hem of its own dark robe brushed softly over the ash colored stones of the floor, making a whispering sound whose warning was drowned out by the humming. With a growl, he leaped over the first row and landed for an instant with both feet upon the back of a startled creature kneeling in the second row. Then bounding gingerly forward, it drove the great scimitar downward into a creature that knelt in the center of the third row. The humming ceased, broken apart by startled cries that sounded like giant icebergs tearing the hull of a metal ship. A murmur of alarm and confusion boiled over. Those creatures nearest the attacker spilled away from the murder like the waters of a stream parted by a boulder, scrambling upward and outward at once to see what had landed upon them. There was a shout of,"The Elder, the Elder is slain!" as the assailant pulled the bloodied blade up and out of its victims bony old back. It wiped the steel clean upon the old creature’s black robe and the Elder fell over sideways and lay in a crumpled heap. Another creature flung itself recklessly at the murderer in an attempt to grapple the blade away, but the guardian of the door cut it down with hardly an effort. In a swift sweeping motion, the blade slashed across the belly of another that rushed at it from its right. The robe of that other parted as a male human tumbled out and hit the ground trembling. It was he that had absorbed the blow and blood was soaking through his white garments causing it to cling to his wounded breast. The creature that had housed him beneath the folds of its robe had a moment to cast its eyeless face downward, regarding its lost cargo with shock before attempting to block the attackers next blow. The one who had been the guardian threw the other creature back with a forceful shove and buried the point of its great scimitar into the center of the man, nearly cleaving him in two. The creature that had harbored the man shrieked, doubled over and collapsed.
Another of the creatures from the furthest row had come fully to its feet and while many of the others were following suit, this one threw back its robe, revealing a pale haired woman. She sat within a concave space in the creatures center, hanging over its sexless pelvic mound so that her legs dangled between the larger ones of her carrier. The interior of the creature was a nearly perfect throne, its flesh encased ribcage opened around her head like a crown of antlers, and delicate tendrils reached from its own heart, pulsing beneath thin membranes of flesh above her head, where they rested upon her temples and snaked over her shoulders to touch the bare flesh over her own heart .‘Cardea! Stop this! What are you doing?" she cried.The one who had been the guardian pulled back one half of its own robe and revealed its passenger, a pasty man with dark circles under his eyes. He was fitted within the creature just as she was within hers, but he gazed absently with wide unseeing eyes as if he were asleep and dreaming. A trickle of clear saliva slid its way out of the corner of his gaping mouth."Cardea! Cardea!" The woman screamed at him to no avail. "Cardea control your demon! See what you are doing! Cardea!"But the creature only dropped the robe and let it cover its inactive occupant up again. Raising its blade, it took one step forward, then another, and another, closing the distance between them. The room was swarming like an ant hill which has had water poured over it, but the way between them was clear. The woman screamed, her voice cracking, and the strange reverberating voice of her creature bellowed in unison with her own,"Cardea! Do you hear me?" She and the creature in which she was perched held their ground as the killer closed the last little gap between them. A great noise thundered through the air, silencing all other sounds, as a gun was discharged. Cardea’s creature stopped mid step, the crown of its head suddenly absent. Under a rain of blood and guts, the blade slipped from its grip and clattered upon the stones. Then its towering bulk toppled over, lifeless.The doors had been thrown open and one of the sentries from the hall stood a few feet within the chapel, a smoking hand cannon held in its claw. A man with a bristling red beard leaped out of its belly and tore across the room. His vacated creature trailed close behind him. He looked up at the woman sitting in her demon, her face streaked with tears. He offered a hand to her and she came down from her creature. The man kissed her forehead, his beard brushing her face like the needles of a young pine tree."You’re alright then?" he asked her and she nodded. "The Elder." she said and they looked to the heap beyond Cardea. Together they rushed to the Elder’s fallen demon. Two more creatures strode over and gently rolled the large body out. The woman pulled open the robe, revealing a withered old man with long white hair, the top of his head matted with blood. Most of it had been spilled from the pierced heart of his demon, but his own skull had been cracked by the deadly strike. A sob caught in the throat of the white haired woman as she stepped backward. The bearded man stood behind her and gripped her arms to comfort her. A ring of creatures gathered about the Elder. More poured in through the opened doors of the chapel. An unrobed creature pushed its way through the crowd. Its passenger, a young flaxen haired man with thin and wiry arms, was clearly visible."There must be no crying here." He commanded. "All of you, retreat to your chambers for silent meditation. Only the heads of The Order should remain to help me to tend to the fallen" Slowly the mass began to shuffle back out the way it had come.The bearded man spoke up,"With your permission Reverence, I would like to conduct interviews in the great hall to ascertain the direct nature of this tragedy."The blonde haired man looked down from his seat at the other. After a pause he asked,"Aram isn’t it?""Yes Reverence.""So long as they are conducted quietly, one person at a time, then you have my permission.""Yes Reverence, I understand. It will be so." Then Aram turned the woman around to face him."You will be first Roan. Meet me there when you have collected yourself sufficiently." He gave her arms another squeeze and she nodded. Then they parted. He took his seat within his demon and strode out with the others.
Roan however, waited until she would not risk being trampled. Then she walked on her own two feet with her demon following several paces behind. She walked all the way to her quarters. The distance was greater than she had remembered. Years had passed since she had last walked it herself rather than relying on her demon. She supposed that this was the case for most. At the doorway, she paused to observe her demon standing tall and silent as a phantom, still dressed in the black ceremonial robes. Silently, she willed her demon to open the door and together they passed into their private chamber. Inside, Roan opened a small chest that sat upon her vanity. Within it, three vials remained undisturbed, held snugly in place by a sponge-like padding. There were empty indentations in the padding where the fourth, fifth, and sixth vial had been stored. Quickly she closed the chest and locked it with a brass key. After stowing the key in the pocket of an old coat hung within her wardrobe, she summoned her demon and took her place at its core. Back in the hallway she willed her demon to hasten the pace. She took care that they were not seen, turning once into an adjacent hallway and ducking into a doorway, and waiting there until the approaching footfalls echoed away into the distance. At last they reached the door that she sought. She silently willed the demon to lay its head against the door and through it, she listened to be sure that no one stirred within. Assured that the chamber was empty, she pressed the door open with her demon’s clawed hand and slipped inside.
Cardea’s bed was unmade. The wax of a candle had been spilled onto the floor and left to dry among cast off shirts and socks. A plate of partially eaten food stood upon the night table. There, near the plate, she spied what she was looking for. An emptied vial. One of those that she had given to him. Her demon snatched it up from the nightstand and deposited it in her own hand. After a careful search, she discovered the two remaining vials; one under the bed, another by the wash basin. Fingering the last vial, she recalled standing in just that spot, watching Cardea splash water over his face. She had offered him that first vial then."What’s this?" he had asked, taking it from her."Something that I mixed up. Something to ease your burden." She had told him.When the three empty vials had been placed into their spaces in the chest upon her vanity, she locked it and hid the key in the old coat once again. She smoothed her hair and checked herself in the mirror."Now, Aram, I have collected myself." She said quietly, her hand pressed upon the box. Then she mounted her demon and made her way to the Great Hall where Aram would be waiting. Any trace of guilt in her face could be hidden by sadness, any trace of shame could be hidden by despair. Her path was clear. Nobody would ever know what had really killed the Elder. Nobody would ever know that an attempt at rebirth had ended in destruction, that a simple wish for life had ended in sudden unexpected death. Nobody but Roan and the demon that carried her in its entrails, like a microbe of flesh in a giant body of stone.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Family From The Mountains

They came from a tiny village in eastern Slovenia, where the high mountains were covered in thick trees and the winters were long and bleak. Even the summer months had a slight darkness about them, as though all the native creatures simply couldn’t let go of the cold memories of winter. They held on to them even through the warmest days, letting the shadows cover the fleeting moments of light. It would be the darkness, the increasing severity of the winters, that would push them away, far from the thick boulders and tall green trees that defined the land.
It was Tadej, the youngest son of the family, that first packed his sack and began the family migration. He left without any thought of a destination. He knew nothing of the world beyond the large village that lay at the valley floor, a day’s journey for him on mule-back. What lay further than this was a hazy vision that only existed within his imagination. He dreamt of colorful women, sweet wines and great shining cities of gold.
On the family farm, Tadej had been chosen as a courier, delivering the seasonal crops to the small markets of the local villages. Small businesses had been sprouting fast, they catered to the people that had stopped farming and devoted their labor to the small factories that had also began flourishing in the mountainous region. In ten years, he had watched many of his neighbors abandon their farms to move to the larger towns at the base of the mountains. As he watched them leave, with their burdened animals laden with bedding and house wares, he could not imagine leaving. He believed himself to be a man of the soil, dirty with earth and sweat. He gave his blood to the land, and in return, she delivered carrots and purple skinned potatoes. Year after year, she provided them with everything she was capable of…she gave herself to them without reservation, and he loved her for this. No, he could never leave. He liked visiting the towns, he rumbled past the apartment houses and the buildings of administration. He liked talking with the shop owners and young women who brought up water from the wells, but as the sun began to cool, he liked riding back to his home, his land at the top of the world.
When he arrived home, he always needed to put his barrels in the cellars. The cellars were deep and dark, Tadej remembered his grandfather shoveling out the earth to create the dark havens to store the vegetables. He had been a very small boy, and he remembered eating apple pieces out of a small wooden bowl while watching as the piles of loose soil piled high, like replicas of the mountains surrounding them. After putting away his supplies, he would give his mother the small piece chocolate she always requested from town.
She was a large woman, very plump and round. She had been made big and tough by the hearty diet of potatoes and tough meat, by the thick, cool air and the life of constant work. She would haul wood and beat dust from the family’s collection of colorful woolen rugs. The small wood house was laden with rugs. Tadej’s grandparents had been collectors, and in the summer nights, it would be common for travelling gypsy caravans to stop by their farm to show off their latest creations. Tadej remembered nights when the stars shined with complete abandon, and a group of travelers would crowd into their home, surrounding the hearth, singing sad songs of persecution to the upbeat melody of an accordion. Tadej, always a bit shy around people with such bravado, would watch quietly from a corner of the room, while the foreign women danced with their colorful scarves and his mother served liquor to all the guests.
Their move to the United States began five years before they voyaged by ship to the harbor of New York. The winters had been getting colder, Tadej first noticed it when the leaves of his favorite tree began to change colors in July. It was a mature tree that stood alone in a natural clearing of Silar trees. It was Tadej’s favorite tree and he visited it often. He sat and read at its base. Upon returning from his trips into town, he would come to it, tired and sleepy, and he would nap with one of its large roots in his arms. When his house seemed too small and the people within in just a bit too loud, he would bring a heavy rug and a thick blanket and spend the night outside by the base of the old tree.
He was dozing off in mid July, and a falling yellow leaf brushed across his face. With sleep filled eyes he gazed at it, simply observing its shape and color, without any thought to interrupt his exam. He just looked, as he would have looked at a small spider tramping across his skin. But then, his mind began to piece together associations, the way that brains do, and he saw the color, yellow. Yellow, the color of an approaching fall. But it was July, there should be months of sunshine until then. He looked up and saw that the upper canopy of the tree had begun to change colors. Most were still partially green, but the threat of an early winter was real. And when it came this early, it meant that winter would be especially cold and brutal. He took the leaf to his grandfather.
The old man had seen early seasons, but never by three months. The omen of the yellow leaf, as they came to call it, was the beginning of the coldest five years the tiny county had ever seen. Within this time, the growing times and harvests became shorter. In the first year, most of the radishes did not have enough time to grow before the first freeze. Then nearly the whole crop of the small purple potatoes froze in the cold hard ground. The family tried to dig them out, but the ground was as hard as a rock. Each year, the summer seemed to get shorter and the winter months intensified and spilled over into fall and spring. The gypsies had not come through in several years. Tadej figured they had remained in the more temperate lower altitudes.
After five years, the family’s resources were exhausted. They had cleared so much of the surrounding land for fire wood that the land was unrecognizable. The mules and horses required food that the land could no longer provide. The men of the family agreed that they could not survive another frozen season.
Tadej packed his small sack and set out in the early morning. He walked down the little road that he always took to town. But as the sun rose in the sky, and he entered the town, he did not stop at the well or the markets that had become fixtures in his weekly routine. He continued walking, out of town, past all the landmarks that were familiar to him. He took the road that brought other traders from the towns of the low lands. He walked, knowing he must find a better place to bring his family.
He was searching for more farmland, a place where he and his family could raise sheep and pigs and once again reap the tender life of the earth. He knew that the earth had become angry at them. She had became cold and harsh, turning her pretty face from them. She had become like a dead statue. She would not give them life, and, as life begets life, they could not stay there much longer. Tadej walked fast, he was aware that the food reserves in the cellar were diminishing fast. There were barrels of potatoes and apples, and many, many jugs of wine, but after another freezing winter it would all be gone, and soon after, they would all starve. This thought, the picture of his thick mother withering from hunger, made him walk with more determination. If he happened to pass another tradesman, he would ask them about their land, and if they knew the land which the sun had begun to favor.
He walked for three days until he found a train depot. He had never seen a train, but a couple of the market owners had told him of an invention that moved people and goods faster than the speediest horse. When he arrived in this town, larger and busier than any he had ever seen, it was a scene beyond anything he could imagine. The landscape was teeming, reminding him of the ant swarms he would watch as a young boy. The streets were chaotic. Horses, mules and humans morphed into an undulating crowd that heaved and pulsated with a never ceasing force.
He heard a sound in the far distance, a screeching whistle that roared through the town, the land, and his ears with a deafening force. As it grew louder with each second, he looked around for the source of this unnatural sound. A woman was passing by him just then and he grabbed her arm with a firm grip. She looked at him, shocked and stunned by this sudden assault on her free movement. "What is that sound, miss?" his voice revealing his fear. "It’s the train," she said and she pulled her arm free, fleeing from his grip. As she ran away from him, he felt the ground rumble under his feet. He winced and he heard the blood curdling sound of another long whistle. It was the beast, made of black metal, emitting smoke like a blood thirsty dragon. Perhaps it was his sense of impending doom, but he knew then that mounting this other worldly beast would deliver him to another world, it alone could take him to a new fertile land. As afraid as he was before this terrible apparition, he felt his blood rushing through his veins with a force he had never felt before, he felt himself become truly alive and glowing with reckless courage.
Tadej had been gone seven months and the family had not heard from him. His father, fearing the worst, had decided that the family could wait no longer, they would have to leave their land before Tadej sent for them. This winter had been the worst yet. The snow piled and piled, the winds never ceased. It took all their strength just to keep warm. The animals were dying without the grasses they had been accustomed to and the cold was only adding to their misery.
At the end of March, they bundled together all their most beautiful rugs, their photos and the small set of silver tea cups that had been a family heirloom. The grandmother gathered her bottles of salves and her collection of sketches, a lifetime of landscape drawings. Each family member gathered the few things they could not part with and they bundled it all onto their four mules and two horses and began to walk the single lane trail into town. Arriving at the closest town, Grandfather was stopped by his old friend who managed the post office. A letter from Tadej had arrived the previous night. It urged them to come "west." He had found a small piece of land. It was in the valley of a land called "Mexico." The family, excited and nervous, followed the same path he had walked out of town. They walked to the large city even further down the mountain and boarded the great dragon he warned them about in his letter. After five months of travel, the family was reunited with Tadej in the San Joaquin valley.
After only four months, Grandfather was found dead in his bed. He had been very old when they began the descent from the mountains of Slovenia. The train ride, the boat ride, and the second train across the vast land they had come to, it had all been very hard on his old tired body. He had been made tough by years of work in the fields, but his age had truly begun to show when the cold winters began. The thought that kept him alive on the journey was the thought of seeing the new piece of land. Every day, before rising, he thought of this new bright land that Tadej had written about. Gold land and gold light, where the earth thrives with abandon. This was what pushed him forward, it allowed him to move and breathe. Before he died, and he knew it was coming soon, he wanted to see this land that his grandson had discovered.
And when he did finally see the golden land that nestled in the soft contours of this new mysterious mountains, and he saw his family living again from the earth that was no longer angry at them but loved them as it had so many years ago, his body finally relaxed and it allowed himself to depart peacefully. They found him in the morning, cold and hard, with his eyes closed and his wrinkled face calm. Leaving aside the day chores, the remaining family members walked around the circumference of their new land, holding a small white candle and chanting very old prayers.
Tadej found a new tree on which to rest every day, up on a hill of soft dry grass and sliding dusty pebbles. From there, he could see that the world was new and he was getting old. He would soon become Grandfather, and his face would be full of wrinkles and his arms would be brittle and weak, and some day, sooner than he could expect it, it would be time again to die.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sliding Down The Hill

Old oak trees and tall pines line the narrow paved street. I am only five miles from the heart of a big metropolis, but the trees and small abrupt hills of this neighborhood remind me of a rural community that is far away from the noise and pollution of the city. I am sitting in my car on a small dirt pullout. On either side of the street are artistically crafted homes. Each one has its own style, Spanish houses with soft white curves, modern homes with sharp geometric lines and flat roofs, romantic designs with wooden shutters, fit for princesses and fairies. None of them are very close to the street, rather, they sit comfortably removed, close enough to add their beauty to the whole, but also disguised slightly by the trees. The neighborhood is quiet. It is late afternoon on a Saturday, maybe all the families that live in these homes are out shopping, or still at the sporting games of their children. A random car passes me every now and then, but mostly, I am alone on this street. The black tar of the road is awash in the pale golden light of a late fall afternoon.
In another 15 minutes, I am scheduled to cater a wedding at a nearby address. With only a couple minutes to spare and miles from a Starbucks with a bathroom, I am changing into my work outfit in the car. There are no pedestrians and not a car in any of the driveways that I can see. In the small cab of my truck, I wiggle out of my tight jeans and panties. Carefully, I put on another pair of clean panties, smaller red ones to avoid panty lines, and the required uniform of a caterer: black pants, black socks, and black shoes. I am already wearing a T-shirt, so I tuck it into my pants and put on my button up black dress shirt. Pulling the rear view mirror closer to me, I put on a layer of thick mocha lipstick and add some pink blush to my cheekbones. I grab a handful of my thick wavy hair and pull it into a tighter bun.
Ahead of me, the road stretches for a quarter mile, then drops from sight down the hill. The oaks and pines continue down the narrow road, and the pale sunlight of the setting sun streams through the branches and leaves, creating soft rays of light that flow diagonally from tree top to paved tar. I am dressed and ready and I turn the ignition and start the car, I need to make a U-turn and look for the address I was given for the event. The road is narrow, and I will need to make a 3-point turnaround. I look carefully behind me for cars, then I look ahead and I see him.
About a hundred feet away is a man riding on a children’s scooter. Rising from the declining hill in the distance, he is silhouetted by the light. He is wearing baggy pants and a long Indian dress shirt that comes down to his knees. His hands are holding the steering bar of the scooter, his right foot is balanced on the narrow base and his left leg reaches down to the street every few seconds, pushing himself along. He is not coming too fast, he is moving gently, enjoying the soft light, the warm rays on his face, the smell of burning leaves and baking pine needles. He is closer now, I can see his loose dress shirt is brown and embroidered at the neck, cuffs and along the trim at his knees. He looks confident and serene. "He must be going somewhere special," I think to myself. I watch him as he passes and we make quick eye contact.
With no one else on the road, I turn the car around and drive another block until I see the Women’s Community Building. I park the car by a wooden fence on top of a blanket of pine needles that have dropped from the tall branches above. The smell reminds me of summer camp. As I walk into the building, I notice that the wedding ceremony has begun. A wave of tears hits me as I feel the energy of the space. I look at the groom. I see the long brown dress shirt and the embroidered cuffs. His face is as calm and peaceful as it was when he was sliding down the hill, now enjoying the soft warmth that flows into him from the crowd, the friends and family gathered today for this warm and gentle invocation. I wipe the tears from my eyes and I walk towards the kitchen. I have work to do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Melody From Lost Days

The old man walked down the cement steps slowly, holding onto the metal rail with his right hand while he held the violin case with his left. As he leaned forward, the sunlight fell invisibly upon his short black hair, which showed long streaks of white and little spots of naked pink scalp in the strong clear light. One step at a time he moved, breathing slowly, while small groups of people walked past him in a rush. A Latin couple holding hands and talking in soft whispers, their heads almost touching. A proud middle aged man, his head up high and pulled backwards, examining the plaza as if it was his private kingdom, and his two beautiful brunette daughters in smooth elegant dresses, the thin fabric subtly tracing the outlines of their soft thin bodies. A group of three middle aged women talking loudly about the sunny weather in voices that echoed through the small trees, words that attempted to hide too many afternoons passed away in restless boredom and troubled vague angst.
The old man would nod slowly at each stranger that passed by him, whether they acknowledged it or not, and then he would continue moving at his own slow pace. He stepped down onto the light brown dirt path that led to the dry fountain and he moved a bit faster on the flat surface, carefully looking forward with slim, tired eyes. He came to an empty green bench, next to the short baby trees that were not tall enough or full enough to offer shade from the sun, and there he sat down, nodding his head back and forth in a simple affirmation of his actions. Placing the violin case on the bench next to him, he leaned back and took a few deep breaths with his eyes closed, his brow furrowed in a sincere effort at concentration. The sound of kids playing came from the direction of the fountain. The sound of cars honking came from the direction of the museum. The sound of birds singing came from the short little dry trees all around the path. After a few moments of darkness and deep inhalations, he opened his eyes again and he looked all around him, his eyes blinking at the light as if he had just woken up from a long sleep. Then he stretched his arms and took hold of the violin case.
He opened it carefully, unfastening one lock at a time. Very slowly and methodically, he took out the Gao-Hu, the traditional Chinese violin that his father had given him on a sunny afternoon much like this one, many years ago. He looked at it for a moment, examining its short, fat cylindrical body, its long thin neck, the two taut strings and the two large tuning knobs, all carefully polished, as shiny as the day he had first laid eyes on its delicate curved shapes. He leaned back once again, opened his legs and placed the instrument between them. Then he pulled out the bow and ran it softly across the strings. A thin ghostly sound emerged that echoed over the noisy plaza, trailing away into the distance to become intertwined with bird song. Two older women turned over to look at him. They were sitting on a bench much like the one he was sitting on, but closer to the dry fountain. Their attention held on him for a moment and then it faded and they returned to their conversation. The old man rearranged himself on the wooden bench. He propped up the violin case and left it open, in case someone wanted to pay him for his effort. Then he turned his eyes back towards the violin itself.
He allowed the sounds of the kids playing in the fountain to drift into him, like cool water sliding into a finely crafted vase. The laughter, the screams, the calls, they all resonated within him, and he could almost be a little boy once again, a little boy that could now hear his father calling, asking him to come and play the violin while he ran away into the woods, ‘no, no violin today. I want the creek. I want the forest. I want to run. No violin. No.’ And the kids screamed louder and their screams rang through the plaza and then he pressed the bow onto the strings, and he pressed the strings with his left hand. He closed his eyes once more and then ran the bow over the strings in a single decisive move, and the sound was now loud and present and full, resonating through the plaza with the confident beauty of folk tales and mythic legends, and the sound of running laughing children was like a tinkling counterpoint to the lilting melody that sprang from his hands, growing from a faint whisper to a soaring musical statement and then back again. Up and up, sliding into a higher octave that bounced off the sunlight like electrical explosions over a charged metal plate, he pulled his head back and the light fell on his closed eyes and it was as if the music had flared into fire and the fire was all over his skin and it ran like little incandescent rivers over the trees and up to the sky and the melody was slow and stately and sad and it was all coming from him, through him and around him. In the midst of clear resonant ecstasy and lost conversations that mingled like frenzied ostinatos under the vibrant power of the simple song, only he could remember. Only he knew that it was the same sad melody his father had played, back when time went on forever and no danger could stop a little boy from running into dark waters or jumping over dark holes in the ground. Only he knew that it was the same melody he never learned when he had his father for a teacher, and that he now learned when he only had himself in a cold land of ghosts.
He opened his eyes as the melody came sliding down to its original register. The ladies across the path were looking at him once again, smiling. He had made some mistakes, he knew the melody wasn’t perfect, not yet, it wasn’t quite the same melody that he remembered, but he was getting closer, a little closer every day. He nodded at the ladies as he played the final low note, making the strings rumble with grounded finality. He pulled the bow away from the strings and took a very deep breath. Two men in thick leather jackets walked by talking of finances. He looked up at them but their faces were turned away, not even interested enough to purposefully ignore him. He looked back towards the stairway and saw a teenage girl in a light brown summer dress walking by slowly, her half closed eyes turned towards the thin clouds and their clear blue background. Then he looked back at the two ladies and smiled and nodded.
He leaned backwards and pressed the bow to the strings. He heard the first strains of the little melody roaming through him once again, like the fingers of his father’s hand petting his little head, like his father’s voice telling him about the future, about countries far away where things would be better, about dreams, about disappointment and about sadness. He closed his eyes and slid into the melody with renewed commitment, with a sense of rediscovered passion, letting the notes take him far away, to a place that had no beginning and no purpose, a place where death was an illusion and loneliness was just a drink of cool water from a gentle lagoon in the middle of a meadow. The melody stretched and soared, bursting from his old wrinkled fingers like a flock of pigeons seeking the emptiness of the open sky. It was almost there. Maybe this time he would get it right. If not today, then tomorrow. Soon enough, the true melody, the one he remembered in dreams and hummed while he walked in the morning, the one that made his heart shiver like crystal tears about to shatter, that melody would come out from the old violin, soon it would live again and it would fill this sun soaked plaza in the middle of a noisy urban park, and it would touch it with the same gentle colors of melancholic hope that had once washed over that little wooden cabin, peaceful and delicate, sitting quietly by the side of the forest.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Running In Circles

The woman opened the door of the car, checking her watch before removing it and placing it in the glove compartment. She adjusted her loose gray shorts, pulling them up slightly, feeling the gentle breeze of the sunny afternoon on her naked white thighs. She hooked the small white Ipod onto the waist band of the shorts and she pulled the small headphones to her ears. She took out the keys, making sure the key chain was tightly hooked into a metal loop on the Ipod. Then she stepped outside and locked the car. Tall trees lined up the edge of the street, where a long line of cars was parked, one after the other in a train of shiny bright colors. She looked up at the thick brown branches that shivered softly in the wind, at the shadows that made dark spider webs around the translucent pillars of sunshine, and then at the cars that passed by behind her, some eager to find a parking spot like hers, some just passing through on their way elsewhere. She heard the songs of the birds coming through the shivering branches, lilting high melodies that sounded like little chimes against the continuous noise of honking, rumbling motors and people talking in the distance. She looked down at herself, at her bright white body that was partially revealed by the skimpy outfit she was wearing. She smiled, knowing that not too long ago she had been terrified to be seen like this. Now she was getting used to it. She stretched, pulling one foot back, up to her buttocks, then the other. She reached down to touch her toes over the sneakers. The tips of her fingers just barely grazed the rubber that covered her toes. An elderly couple, both crowned with bright white silver hair, walked by slowly and looked at her momentarily. She looked back and smiled in an attempt at friendliness but they had already looked away. She jogged in place for a moment, took a deep breath, looked at the long sidewalk ahead of her, turned on the Ipod and started to run.
A loud rock song came on, bristling with fiery dissonance and loud drumming. She felt her heart starting to race, from the sound of the music and the movement of her body. The first moments were always a shock to her system and she tried to breath as calmly as she could manage. She ran around a man pulling a cart full of gardening tools. Then she ran around two blonde girls who were busy trying to decide where to go, looking at a booklet and then pointing in all directions. The singer came on and he sang of actions that never stopped, of never giving up, of always moving forward, of never surrendering. The words faded into each other within her, but as they echoed within the dark halls of her haunted mind, she ran faster. The trees were becoming a blur around the edges of her vision and she could feel a thin layer of hot sweat forming over her soft skin. The discolored mark around her finger, the place where the ring had been, started to itch like it always did. She did her best to ignore it. She avoided a bicycle that was speeding towards her and she ran a little faster. As the chorus came on, there was a very loud chord and then the singer screamed with intensity and she almost jumped with enthusiasm. Everything was going to be alright. The singer said, the sunlight confirmed it and her body was vibrating with the clear knowledge.
She came to the busy intersection where she always turned, and she rain in place while the first cars passed by ahead of her. With her open hand, she thanked the next driver for stopping as she ran in front of him, across to the other side. She ran by the big open plaza where all the people were gathered and there was very little refuge from the sun. She ran in front of the tall dark brown modern museum where some young people were sitting on the grass in circles, talking and laughing. Other museum visitors were coming and going, moving in smaller units of two or three. The loud chord of the chorus rang again in her ears and she smiled triumphantly. 'So many years of waiting. So many years of putting things off.' As the guitar solo blasted through the headphones, she ran past a black sculpture. A couple were leaning against it, holding hands. They looked strong and tough, the kind of kids she would have stayed away from, back when she was younger. But in this world of loud guitars and half naked running, she felt no fear of their rejection. Instead, she felt a kind of indescribable sympathy and she wanted to reach across the empty gap that separated them as strangers, just to let them know that everything was alright. Everything had always been alright.
The song ended as she reached the main northern road of the large city park. She ran in place for a few moments, waiting for a few cars to pass by. Then she crossed the street running. Her finger was itching more and her whole body was hot and sweaty. Her mouth was starting to hang open and she had begun to gasp for breath. An Asian couple was sitting on a bench, eating a sandwich. They looked up at her momentarily then looked back down at their food. She turned left, just a few feet away from them and then a new song came on. This one was slower and it spoke of heartbreak. She had the impulse to turn it off, to fast forward it to another one. Her hand even sneaked its way to the waistband of the gray shorts but it just came to rest on the white surface of the Ipod. It was a good song. She would let it play. She kept on running as the new singer told of lost loves and sad nights of loneliness. Images of past sunny days came to her in a wave of unbidden daydreams. She could suddenly see him next to her, both of them walking hand in hand through the dirt paths of the park, laughing and kissing and talking and kissing some more, as if the day could never end, as if the path would go on forever. She shook her head and leaned it forward, focusing her eyes on the sidewalk ahead and forcing herself to run faster. But her body was getting very tired and she was actually slowing down. A couple of women in stylish short dresses and tall high heels walked by her, their heads leaning back in a sign of unspoken arrogance, their hips shifting back and forth rhythmically in a show of elegance and poise. She tried purposefully to avoid their gaze. She could feel the heavy sadness coming over her, like a dark cloud of dreams and memories. She imagined that the sadness was now painted on her face like a thick layer of badly applied make up. The two looked at her and quickly said something to each other. She turned away and kept on running, trying to forget the movement of their lips. It was as if they knew, as if she truly was naked in front of them, as if her skimpy, sweaty running outfit couldn’t hide the sad little misfit underneath. She had the impulse to return to the car right then, to drive back home quickly and sit in her room with all the lights turned down. But she was already past the halfway point. It would be just as far to go back one way as it was to finish what she had started. So she simply kept on running, trying to resist the grimace that was slowly taking hold of her face, trying to ignore that she now was feeling weak, slow, fat and ugly. The song ended with a slow melancholic piano and just as the soft little chords trickled out of the small headphones, she could see the bench where once she had sat with him, back in the days when every joke out of his mouth was the funniest thing possible, back when every move she made was a delight in his eyes. She fought the impulse to simply stop and look, to indulge in bright memories that would only sink her deeper into darkness. Instead, she leaned forward once again, feeling the thick drops of sweat sliding over her forehead, and she began to run faster, faster and faster, as if she could leave the memories behind her in a cloudy trail of dust.
As she saw the overpass in the distance, she heard the sound of fast acoustic guitar strumming and a ragged voice came on, telling of rebirth and renewal. Just then the sun seemed to be brighter and the sky appeared to clear up, as if the shadows that had lifted from her eyes were only reflections of much greater shadows that obscured the sunlight. She looked up at the overpass at the cars flowing by and it all seemed new and strange to her. The sweat was starting to accumulate around her eyes and she felt the sting of its saltiness. She rubbed it away with her right hand and, as she did, a smile grew upon her face. 'I have waited so long. I have lived in the past for so many years.' A girl in a slim bicycle rode past her. The woman greeted her with a nod of her head and she kept on running, under the shadow of the overpass and out the other side. The guitar chords grew louder and, as she ran up the curved little dirt path that turned left back to where she came from, a loud drum set came on and the singer’s voice was strong and thick and fearless. She ran around the curve and past a couple laying down on a towel, kissing under the shadow of a thick brown tree. The woman looked up at her in the middle of kissing, but she looked away, unwilling to hold her gaze, and she concentrated on the path ahead. A little dog ran up with a Frisbee in his mouth followed by a middle aged couple that smiled at her. She smiled back but kept on running. She was too close to the end. She couldn’t allow any more distractions. The song came to an end with the acoustic guitar strumming once again, fading slowly into nothingness.
She turned one last time and arrived at the biggest intersection of her route. Four full lanes of cars drove past her in a rough concert of mechanical noise. Here she ran in place for a while, waiting for the light to change. A young woman, wearing long brown shorts and a beige blouse, stood on the other side, talking on a cell phone. The young woman shook her head a couple of times while she kept on running in place, watching the cars speed by. The light changed and just then, a new song came on, this one full of electronic sounds and fast synthetic drumming. She ran past the young woman with the cell phone and then past a young skinny boy with glasses, who looked at her with a touch of eager curiosity. For a moment she wandered if she was attractive to him or if he simply looked at everyone. The music exploded her thoughts into ribbons of light and she let them trail behind her, like the tail of a comet, as she just kept on running, even faster than before. Her final goal was within sight. Her finger was itching more than ever but she kept her eyes on the sidewalk ahead, making sure she didn’t have a final stumble over an unfortunate crack in the pavement. There was a playground on her left and the constant beats of the music in her ears made the bright colors of the play structures seem like skinny dancing giants. Her face and body were now completely covered in sweat. She could feel it running under her clothes and forming large wet spots under her armpits and under her breasts. She pictured herself looking terrible. But she laughed it off and ran straight towards her car. He was gone and he would never come back. Like the people that she had just ran past in her little running route, he was just another stranger, someone to greet and nod to, someone to talk to for a few moments, someone to kiss and love and then say goodbye. And then the route continued and she could not stop moving. She just had to keep on running.
As she arrived at the waiting car, the electronic beats were winding down. She turned off the Ipod and took out her keys. The circle was complete. Some moments had been hard, some moments had been easy. But all the moments put together added up to a completed route, and the sense of completion overcame the individual instants of hardship like loud distorted guitar chords overwhelming the soft sadness of a little piano. She stepped into the car and turned on the ignition. As she turned her head to look for incoming cars, she saw a couple walking by on the sidewalk, hand in hand, lost in each other's attention. She looked away from them, purposefully avoiding the thoughts that their presence carried for her. She wiped some more sweat from her eyes and rolled the car into the street slowly. It was enough for today. He was gone but his shadow still remained. Maybe the sun could never be bright enough to erase it. It was a question that would not be answered today. Tomorrow she would run again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Gathering of Ghosts

It is a crisp San Francisco afternoon, with the sun and the wind balancing each other so that those who love the heat never get too cold and those who prefer the cold never get too hot. The wind from a passing white bus whips a long piece of hair from my loose bun and I feel the buzzing energy of the city streets. I am standing at a busy intersection, the long store laden Powell St. is behind me, and in front of me, across the busy Market Street, is the lavish Westfield Mall. Powell St never physically meets Market St. Between the two streets is a large island of cement which funnels into the two wide sidewalks that run from east to west on Market St. At the end of Powell St, right before the large cement island, is the main boarding station for the famous San Francisco trolley cars. There is a continuous long line of people standing around the curving roped poles that are there to keep them in order. Men with cameras around their necks board the blond wooden cars and hold on to the golden poles. I watch them lean out of the trolley as they make their way up Powell St.
Sharing the same cement space are a handful of street vendors. Their small wooden carts, which line the green metal fence on the periphery, are covered in metal jewelry made from forks bent into dozens of shapes, beaded necklaces and friendship bracelets. There are screeching buses and cars that zoom along Market St. An endless crowd flows down Powell street, laden with shopping bags. Here, in this land of consumer frenzy, is also the boundary between the world of opulence and the land of the destitute. Less than a block away, the street turns into an urban hell, where the red lights of old and dirty porn shops glare over the homeless drunks who sleep in the forgotten corners of broken buildings. The rag covered men and the shrunken faced women spill over into this clean, well ordered financial zone. On the strip of pedestrian concrete, an aging black man, with gray in his beard, holds a neon pink picket sign which says "Jesus loves You." People walk by him as if he was just inanimate feature of the landscape.
Next to me is a small card table with voter registration forms and Obama T-shirts and buttons. The table is staffed by a tough looking black man who is probably about 30 years old. His eyes are hidden by his black lens sunglasses and the image of Obama’s face on his shirt is outlined in gold. I watch him for a while, standing erect and proud, with his hands in his pockets. For most of the afternoon he folds and re-folds his pile of political T-shirts and constantly rearranges the contents of the table…moving buttons and making it all look more clean and organized. Next to him is a muscular black busker wearing sunglasses. He is topless and wears loose maroon basketball shorts, tap shoes and white socks. He has set up a small square of wood for his tap platform. There is a small amplifier right beside him, on top of which is a laptop, which he occasionally fumbles with to change his playlist. Every now and then, he tap dances, drawing a big crowd. When I first show up, he is dancing with an older blond woman, a woman who clings to her fading youth through gestures of fashion and makeup. He holds her tightly, dancing to an old tune and moving like an unlikely pair in an old Sinatra movie.
I am wearing an oversized T-shirt, which I have tied in a knot along the small of my back. It’s an eggshell white color and in the center is a colorful picture of an idyllic farm. The image is set inside a large oval frame, over which is the name of the company: Cascadian Farm My hair is tied back and I have a matching baseball hat on my head. I glance at my unrecognizable image in a storefront window. My job is to introduce the public to the company’s new product: dark chocolate granola. There are two pallets full of mini sample boxes. It is my job to give them all away.
The set up is fragile. There are two pieces of wood, creating a three sided base which forms the bottom of the table, and a long white plank of wood which forms the countertop of the table. But today, the screw has fallen off the bottom, and our three-sided table base only has two sides. It works, but a little extra pressure will cause it to fall. The table is high, about four feet tall and about 6 feet in length. On top of the long flat surface there are two dark brown woven baskets. To keep up the appearance of abundance, as soon as supplies run short, I keep refilling the baskets with the smaller boxes of free cereal samples. In between the baskets are a high stack of coupons, worth $1 off the price of a large box of cereal. I have put a box of cereal on top of the coupons, to keep them from blowing away, but every so often, someone takes the sample box/paper weight and the little fliers blow away in the wind, scattering like colorful leaves over the wide gray sidewalk.
My job partner, Kelly, gives me a five minute training and the disappears. I am left to distribute the samples alone. There are a group of people in front of me. They all want samples. The more people want them, the more other people want to know what it is that people want and the small group multiplies geometrically. The crowd grows larger by the second, as more and more pedestrians stop to see the cause of so much interest. There are little old Asian women, college kids, city workers in their brown and orange vests, middle aged homeless men in smelly rags, all of then unified in their quest for a "free" something. The baskets on the table soon are empty, I can not fill them fast enough. People are grabbing five and six packets at a time.
I am holding onto a large cardboard box, full of 50 small sample boxes. I put two directly into the outstretched hands in front of me, their palms open in a gesture of obvious demand. I cannot hand them out fast enough. In the commotion, the old little Asian women that barely reach my elbow are taking boxes of cereal out of the larger shipping packages on my right side and filling their shopping bags with the free samples. The mob is pushing and pulsing, trying to reach me, the benefactor of free cereal. All I see are outstretched hands all around me. They have surrounded me like a hungry third world mob. They are not satisfied with two boxes, they do not go away after I fill their hands with another package. They open their other hand, asking for more.
In their push towards me, the crowd puts too much weight on the unsteady table top, and the long board falls over; the baskets and the coupons fall with the board to the ground. As I bend down to try and pick up the coupons, the crowd realizes the source of free cereal has moved, and they push closer to try and reach me. I am kneeling on the ground, trying to stand, but there are people on all sides of me, all of them with outstretched hands. I yell for the crowd to back up and they move away slightly. I dump an entire large carton of samples into the small woven baskets. The crowd makes an "ohhhhh" sound as the basket is quickly filled and the rest of the samples fall to the ground. I buy a couple seconds as people scramble for the small boxes on the street and others reach into the basket. The people are preoccupied for the moment, and I fix the table top and quickly put out more boxes of cereal.
The people still want more. Once they realize they can have one little box of cereal, they ask for two. When I give them two, they want four. Some people want entire cases. One man in a green floral shirt comes back every 10 minutes, taking three boxes away with him each time. I notice myself getting possessive, wanting to teach the people good manners. Somehow, for some unexplained reason, I don’t want to indulge their greed. I start to be more firm with my offerings. I only give each one two boxes, no matter how much they want. When someone asks for more, I say no, a polite but strong voice with the deep sound of finality. An older man, much shorter than me, stands by my side, unwilling to go away, unwilling to accept just two. He keeps on asking, he keeps saying: "just one more… that’s all I want."
A little more is never enough. We seek to fill what cannot be filled, with cereal, with clothes, with sex, with money, with love, with pleasure. This voracious form is never satisfied. It can swallow the world and still look towards other stars with naked desire. I see this in the open demanding hands and the eager bulging eyes. I see it in the discarded cereal packets and the arms cradling many shopping bags. I see it in myself when the day is over and, as I slowly walk to the subway, my body shivers with the waves of endless hunger that demand to be immediately satisfied.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

She Got A Job

The woman stepped out of the parked compact car and, turning back towards it, she placed one hand on the roof, her eyes momentarily fixed on the black metal fence on the other side of the street. She was about five feet and six inches tall. She wore a deep red top with very short sleeves and a short white denim skirt, leaving her thick dark thighs exposed. Her hair was curly, full and bouncing, creating a half sphere of radiant black thin tendrils that flowed freely around her deep brown face. She wore small silver glasses and her naked arms were thick and full, the dark brown skin jiggling freely with every little movement of her body. She tapped on the roof of the car, in a show of impatience, and then she reached down with both hands to rearrange her skirt. In a swift motion, she grabbed the lower end of her red top and tucked it in, wiggling her big round ass as she pulled the red fabric under the tight waist of the skirt. It was a bright hot day and her red top was shining like fire under the glare of the sunlight. Cars passed by in constant succession, honking every once in a while. A teen girl laughed happily in the distance beyond the metal fence and two thin men passed by in a blur of color, riding their shiny bicycles with a stern look of serious purpose and calculated intent.
"The thing is…well, look, I understand…it’s very clear to me, you know, but still…", she said it in a very loud voice that was vibrant with shrillness and a sense of defiant presence, as if the big sound of her words clearly communicated what didn’t need to be stated in language: ‘I’m here, whether you like me or not and, one way or another, you will have to listen to me!’
An older couple with shiny white hair, walking slowly down the sidewalk, turned towards her for a moment, their thoughts interrupted by the loud sound of her voice. They quickly turned away and kept on walking, passing right behind her while she continued to wiggle her ass and pull up on the waist of her skirt. Her friend stepped out of the driver’s side and looked at her over the roof of the parked car. She was a bit smaller in height and a lot thinner. Her black hair was pressed tightly over her head, giving her face the look of a complex dark brown egg. Her eyes were deep and insistent, her mouth was wide towards the sides but was kept tightly shut when she was not speaking and her lips were thin and seemed pale when compared to the dark skin of her cheeks. She wore a white loose shirt with colorful African style adornments and a pair of blue jeans, pressed tightly around her curved firm legs.
"It doesn’t… it’s just not the way…." The first woman continued in the same loud voice.
"I don’t see what’s the problem…" the friend answered in a voice just as loud, but with a deeper timbre.
"Here’s the problem…" the first woman tapped on the roof of the car for emphasis and then reached down to adjust her skirt once again.
A family passed by behind them, a tall man carrying a little girl on his shoulders and two other girls, slightly older, running around his legs as if he was a moving play structure that followed them wherever they went. The man’s wife walked behind him, her head lowered, her eyes flying back and forth from one running little girl to the other, making sure she knew where each one was, making sure they didn’t run into any trouble. The man never turned to look at the women by the car, his eyes were fixed on the path ahead, trying to make sure he didn’t stumble over one of his running daughters. The older girls screamed with the pleasure of running freely. The little girl on top of her father’s shoulders laughed with the pleasure of being carried.
"What is the problem then? What is it really? It doesn’t make any sense to me," the friend said it as she was closing the car door. She then looked directly at the first woman, who was still arranging her clothes.
"Here’s the thing… she got a job…."
"Well, I’m glad for her… I’m happy for her and everything… but it’s like…"
"What is the problem? Why can’t you just let it be?"
"I’m telling you… it’s like… so ok…she got a job but where’s my job? You know what I’m saying?"The shorter, thinner friend shook her head and started to walk around the car towards the sidewalk. A woman in dark blue athletic shorts and a sweaty white T-shirt ran across the street while two cars stopped to let her pass. She looked straight ahead and ran right past the two women.
"So what if she got a job… good for her, right?… what do you care?" the friend asked as she stepped onto the sidewalk. The first woman wiggled her large round ass once again, pulling up her skirt even higher, revealing more of her thick dark brown thighs.
"Don’t you get it… you know how she got it… you know the deal… it’s like good… you got a job… but where’s my fucking job? Huh? Where is it?"
The smaller woman stepped around the car as a tall bearded man walked behind them on the sidewalk. He was wearing a black button up shirt and black jeans. He had a camera in his hands and he stopped often, taking a new picture every few seconds.
"What do you care? You should just let it go already… so she got a job… so what? She does her thing… you do your thing…it’s like…"
The first woman wiggled her ass once more and stepped back and away from the car. Then she closed the door harshly, and turned towards her friend with eyes of barely repressed anger.
"No! It’s not that simple… look, she got a job… right? … so good for her… but where’s my job? Huh? Where’s my job?"
The friend shook her head. A young girl in a beige top and a loose white skirt walked by listening to loud music through thin headphones. She was shaking her head back and forth as she walked and the shifting rhythmic movements of her body responding to the music made the white skirt dance around her thin pink thighs. The friend stepped towards the car and made sure that the doors were locked. Then she turned back towards the woman who was still staring at her with big round angry eyes.
"It’s over. That’s all there is to it. It’s her life. She got a job. That’s good for her. Be happy for her. And let it go."
The woman in the red top turned away from the car and from her friend, she reached down to the waist of her white skirt and arranged it once again, pulling it up slightly over the edge of her red top and then wiggling it into place. As she did it, she shook her head, letting the world know that the matter wasn’t settled.
"It’s not over. Not at all. Look, she got a job… right… she went and got a job…"
Together, they walked towards the main plaza, while a thin man passed by in a shiny bicycle. In the distance, a young girl laughed.