NOVEMBER 01, 2013
EL NOCHE DE LOS MUERTOS
So anyway, Pedro went out during the uncertain weather time of autumn in his boat El Borracho Perdido, accompanied only by his faithful labrador, Tugboat. He motored through a brief bluster bit of weather and then the waves settled down to a rate and unearthly flat sea, a dead calm at night under the new moon. The moon, being New, remained as silent as would be expected. But the gentle, nearly imperceptible swells remained brightly lit by way of the broad band of stars that some say is the real heart of where our haunted planet spins out on the edge. Out there the whisps of the fog scraps glimmered by the light of stars and pilot house lamps, specters wringing their hands, lamenting, or simply passing from one room to the next.
It being calm and there being time before he arrived at the grounds, he took out his dogeared copy of You de Pongyou Pong Zi Yuen Fong, an anthology of translated classical Chinese poets and poured still hot black coffee from a thermos into a cup. Some people may express surprise that a relatively uneducated fisherman would pass the time reading poetry of any kind, let alone ancient Chinese, but those people probably lack some education as well.
drinking without a friend
I raise my cup
the bright moon
With my shadow
we make three . . .
Well, the moon being new, the yardarm spotlight would have to do as a surrogate for the moon. Tugboat, always black and beside him dogging his heels would have to be his shadow.
For the moment
I'll make do
with moon and shadow
This year El Dias de los Muertos had been filled with cacophany as the kids built their ofrenda in the livingroom for their abuelta, gone now some five years. Now the kitchen was littered with sequins and clipped No. 22 wire used for armatures, modeling clay, acrylic paints -- a purple swash of which made itself into the carpet -- the scattered efforts to make sugar calaveras. In a little while , it would all get cleaned up by maman and the dead would go back to whatever place they inhabit the rest of the year.
Beyond the boathouse the spectral whisps continued their march across the black water, all heading back, all going home to the clouds above.
Meanwhile, Denby drew the shortest straw once again, thus restoring Tradition and giving poor Jose a reprieve. And so the musician was sent out by the Editor on his special mission on the night when the normal flow of things reverses itself.
Every year, the Editor assembles the staff in the Island-Life offices at night after the sun has gone down to draw straws by candlelight, all according to tradition. Every year, first the one, then the other approaches the cup and, trembling, removes their little stick. Every year, Denby approaches the cup, draws a straw, and every year, according to strict tradition, Denby draws the shortest straw.
He has tried drawing first. He has tried drawing last. He has tried drawing in the middle and he has tried to avoid the ritual altogether, but tradition is very powerful when the spirits are at work. It is 14 times now that he has suffered this bad luck.
And so it was he put on his coat and he put on his hat and so walked out the door, this year the same as the last, with people gathered in fearful little knots, whispering among themselves as he went. "Sure glad it's not me."
As in all Traditions, there is a sense of repetition, of revenance, each time the ritual is repeated.
From the offices he walked along the path that borders the Strand and came to a stone wall. He could not remember a stone wall being there, about two and a half feet high and extending for infinity in both directions, but this one seemed to have been there for eons, with scraggly weeds crowding up against lichened stones. There was no gate or path through but something called from the dim otherside and so, hesitating a moment to leave the relatively well-lit path, he slogged through the sand before the wall and stepped over into a dark mist and a voice seemed to echo in the darkness, "Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!" and the words flamed inside the skull as if poured in molten steel.
As per Tradition. Crap.
A large owl, about two feet tall, perched on a piling and looked at him with large owl eyes.
On the other side the ground sloped down as usual to the water for about thirty yards, but he could not see the far lights of Babylon's port facilities or the Coliseum. In fact, the water had the appearance of extending out beyond to Infinity. But all up and down the strand bonfires had been lit, as is customary among our people in this part of the world to do during the colder winter months along the Strand, and towards one of these he stumbled among drift and seawrack.
A small child, barefoot and wearing a nightdress ran past and disappeared as quickly as she had come.
At the bonfire's edge a bright familiar voice greeted us, "Denby! Back again so soon?"
A sort of pale glimmer drifted over the dark sands, a woman dressed in white with frizzy platinum blonde hair. She reached out with her left arm. But her hand went right through his arm, leaving a clammy, cold sensation.
"Almost crossed over a few times during the past year, Penny," he said to the apparition.
"I know; I could feel it in my bones." She laughed. "Don't be so lugubrious! Come along, meet some people . . .".
As he stepped out of the sawgrass area to the hardpan of compacted sand, he looked up and down the beach to see a myriad bonfires arranged in a broad arc off into the distance. Strange words in another language reverberated inside the skull: "si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta . . ." the words echoing and echoing down long hallways of mirrors into eternity. None of this seemed to make any sense at all. It never did each time, even though this same thing happened time and again, like an old fashioned stuck record on a phonograph.
"I sure would like to know who's the big voice who keeps shouting things in Italian," Denby said.
"What are you talking about? Don't be silly," she said, skipping down the slope.
"Well . . . nevermind."
Another child, dressed in a private school uniform, but barefoot, ran between them laughing. She too, disappeared into the darkness.
They came to the bonfire where a number of people sat around on logs, pillows, blankets, talking.
An elderly, harsh-looking woman with flaming red hair sat in a straight-backed oak chair and glared at him.
"You reprobate. Have you made anything of yourself?"
"Olga." Denby said.
"You disgust me," Olga said. "You should have joined the Army or the Marine Corps."
"I was underage, Olga. When you tried to sign me up."
"Makes no difference. Plenty of others got around the rules. If they cared at all about what was happening at the time. You could have joined the Children's Crusade! The Crusade against Communism! History was on our side!"
"Olga, I would have been killed right away."
"So what! So what! You would have earned honor to yourself and the family. All those hippies -- I spit on them. We could have won that war. Save for weak ungrateful scamps like you. The Army would have made a man out of you!"
"A dead one, I assure you. Not very useful to already grown men in combat."
"I got others in there! I pulled strings and got them to Saigon! I did my part -- all through the Senator's office," Olga said.
Two figures wearing tattered army fatigues came jogging up to the camp there.
"Hello Johnny. Raymond."
They were arguing about something.
"It was at Ba Ap," the heavier fellow said. That was Raymond.
"No it was not . It was Ap Ba." Johnny said.
"O for pete's sake," Raymond said. "What difference does it make where you died? All the villages were the same and had nearly the same names."
"Now listen, I happen to think it is very important to know where I died. It is important to me."
"The village is meaningless!" Raymond exploded. "They were all meaningless except people died fighting for them! I don't care WHERE I died, the end result is the same!"
"Or we destroyed the village," Johnny said. "That made them really meaningless. Heck, for me its personal. I have to know."
Here I am, Denby thought to himself, listening to two dead people in hell's waiting parlor argue about where they died and how important it was.
Olga broke into this discussion with her own opinion. "The important thing is that you grabbed your bootstraps and you made yourself men through the forge of military service. All the others can go to hell!"
The two soldiers looked at her.
"You know, Denby," Raymond said. "That woman is really a bitch."
"Hey," Denby said. "That is my aunt you are talking about."
"Nasty little sniveler! Your mother had no right to haul your broken casket around to the church when she did. She was supposed to endure stoically the way a soldier's widow should!"
"Now you are talking about my mother, you old harridan you," Raymond said.
A couple translucent girls in nightdresses ran laughing through the crowd and vanished.
"Hey, that is my aunt . . .", Denby said, meaning Olga.
"Things do not seem to be very smooth this time around," Penny commented.
"What did she think she was going to find using her dead husband's powertools to crack open that casket sealed in the tropics? Some waxy figure with a pale face? Even so, she had no right to drag what she found, a body killed in the hot tropics with the casket wide open to the church! To the church!"
"I suppose it was because she found three arms in there," Raymond said calmly.
"So what! So what! War is ugly and hell. Everything she did ruined the nobility of it. The valor."
"I think, when my buddies had to go around and fetch body parts for several guys and toss them into a bag because the CO says do that, that is the thing that ruins valor for me. Just saying."
"You ingrate! Wretch The more that died, the better! All for our Country and Honor!" Olga was winding up for one of her famous diatribes, when suddenly she paused. She spit out a gold coin into the palm of her hand. It was the obolus.
"My time has come! I get to cross over! At last! At last! Good riddance to you ignorant people who still have something to learn! I am crossing now. . . ".
Indeed the glimmer of the ferry could be seen rapidly advancing toward the landing.
"I don't understand any of this," Penny said. "It sounds like the Vietnam War."
Raymond explained. He signed up on urging of his family and family tradition for the Marines. He was killed in combat and his body shipped back to Reston Virginia in a sealed coffin, where it resided prior to burial in the family garage. His grandfather had served in World War II and had died at Malmedy, been shipped back and buried with full military honors. His father had served in Korea, been wounded at Choisin Reservoir and died of complications from injuries a couple years afterwards and then buried with full military honors at Arlington. His two brothers had died in Vietnam, and both had been buried with full military honors. This left his mother as the last family representative and in that dark night of the soul only god knows what dark energies, what demonic emotions came to play in tat grieving mother's breast, for with herself alone in that house with that casket, she had used the power tools belonging to her husband to force open the metal casket lining in a kind of frenzy that only a deprived mother can understand, some kind of mindless, insane rage, to discover body parts for more than one person in that box. Sort of jumbled together.
So she hauled the casket and contents into the back of the station wagon -- they still made those things back then -- and drove to the church where she declaimed, "This is what your wars have done to my children!"
There had been something of a brough-haha then, for one of the arms had been distinctly Black.
That meant somewhere a Black soldier was unaccounted for. The resulting furor did have the positive effect of easing race relations in that district.
As for Johnny, he had been able to sign up underage because his father was a colonel and thought it a very good thing the waifish boy finally became a man, tempered by fire. Instead the firefight used him up.
Olga strode down to the ferry dock with her flaming red hair, her eyes aflame with triumph and desire, confident her final reward was at hand. At the landing, the Ferryman with eyes that were wheels of fire, sorted out the souls, pushing some of them back with a long hook. Others he seized and threw into the skiff, roughly taking their obolus. The dog snatched some of them who tried to escape, and they began to wail, for now, too late, these souls knew that their destination would not be the City of Light. They had not learned anything during their time on earth or in Limbo. They had retained intransigence, contempt, scorn. The Ferryman hooked Olga with his gaff and tossed her in among the rest of them who began to wail, for this passage would not go West, but South, to the land of Dis, the lake of fire.
"Hey! That's my aunt!" Denby said. They ignored him.
"Well that is a funk," Penny said.
A tall man with grizzled hair came up to Denby and greeted him just as a bevy of girls ran by with their skirts flapping, their girlish laughter easing the air which lately had been so acrimonious.
Denby looked at the man, not remembering him precisely. He reminded Denby of the actor Morgan Freeman.
"Bin lung tyme sin eu spik da gullah," the man said.
"You Geechee-Gullah," Denby said.
"Ah, you remember."
"I don't know you," Denby said with wonder. "How are you meeting me?"
"Your great grand-uncle sew the wood as if cloth. He made things and he helped us in the early days. Because he could sew the wood he helped the trade between the Island and the Carolinas. That is the connection working its way through the blood down the generations. And you remember but do not remember me."
"This is amazing! This goes back generations, for hundreds of years and the escaped slaves of Sierra Leone!"
"Yes, the Dias de los Muertos are that way. I have been waiting for you a long time. Long time I wait."
Another girl, translucent, ephemeral, the way certain girls are of a certain age, light footed and quick, she ran between them off into the darkness.
"I remember a man named Vincent. It was the Carolina coast . . . but why now"?
"Vincent; that is me. You know we have an Island. Just like yours. Now time is come and all Gullah there lose homes. Carolina wants tax levy, even though we always independent, never slaves since Sierra Leone. We been there five, six, seven generations now. Young ones go away and sell the house to Ofay. Now the property tax and we lose it all. Island becomes the place of the wealthy, not the Gullah. The daughters of the dust go blow away through the world."
"Um okay. And what does this have to do with me?"
"You must see the Gullah is you. You will lose your homes same way. All passing now this age. You must tell about this. Or you surely lose your Island."
Vincent started and removed a gold coin from his mouth.
"You have carried your message, Vincent. Now you are free to go."
"We Gullah always free," Vincent said. And with that he strode down to the landing where the skiff had pulled up to take on more passengers. It became clear that by the means the passengers were gently herded and others kept at bay by the dog, Cerberus, that this passage would head due West where a faint glow indicated the City of Light.
"Well," Penny said, "This has certainly been an unusual and educational visit, Denby. Have you any more delightful surprises?"
"I just saw a member of my family get dragged down to Hell. What more do you people want of me?"
"Unfortunately," Penny said, "There is always something more asked of you. We are a non-profit enterprise you know."
A figure walked past them dressed entirely in black and singing to himself.
And, everyone who ever had a heart
They wouldn't turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
Oh wouldn't turn around and hate it!
Sweet Jane! Whoa-oh-oh! Sweet Jane! Sweet Jane!
He walked right down to the landing and nonchalantly gave up his fare for the passage.
"So how does this guy get a direct pass to the Other Side?"
"I suspect," Penny said. "He has suffered enough in this life."
A young girl ran up to Denby and stared at him with big dark eyes and he looked down at her with a mixture of feelings, of frustration and somekind of loss. "Papi?" she said. A faint odor of cinnamon and cloves wafted over him. Her eyes were large and deep as deep Carribean pools. And then she turned and ran off into the darkness.
An iron bell began to clan.
"Time to go back, Denby," Penny said ruefully. "I was hoping we could talk more this time."
"Not much these days seems to go according to what I like," Denby said.
Penny took him back to the wall, which he would not have found otherwise, as sight seemed to have become blurred by some saltwater carried on the air.
"Oh, you'll be back before long," Penny said. "Try to enjoy your stay where you are at for now. Fling yourself into Life while you still have it; at this point I don't regret a thing except waiting far too long to take up skydiving." She paused at the wall and looked with big eyes, a half-smile on her face. "And practice your singing. You really need lots of practice." A wet something touched his cheek..
"Didn't you say something like that last time . . ." Denby started, but she was already gone. Ephemeral and evasive as she had been in life.
And after he climbed over that low wall, everything back there receded into a mist and there was only the stretch of water out to Babylon and the lights of Bayview and Hunters Point and the ring of the Coliseum. One by one the distant bonfires winked out until there was only the long and lonely empty length of beach with the lights of the apartment houses behind him.
Instead of going directly back to the Offices to make his report he wandered back to his own apartment cubbyhole. The sparse mite of a place now allowed by the savage landlord in his overweening greed in this time. There he poured himself a glass of wine, delaying the inevitable, thinking about those gone to the Other Side. Thinking about the moon.
and the moon
wavers to and fro
and my shadow
gets all mixed up
Eventually, he made his way back to the to the Offices where only the Editor sat there behind his desk, his eyeglasses perched on his nose and his remaining hair flying about in an aureole about his head.
"How was it this time," the Editor inquired, not expecting any sort of rational answer from someone who had just ascended like Orpheus from the Underworld.
Denby remained silent. The Editor went to the cabinet and broke out the Jamesons. He clinked several cubes of ice into the glass and splashed a goodly amount of whiskey in behind, then did the same for himself.
"Any idea how the midterm elections will go?"
"Somehow", Denby said, "That did not come up."
"I have seen the world of the entire world's misery pass over the transome of this desk, you know," said the Editor. "Murder. Torture. Mutilation. The most horrendous crimes against humanity. The salt bread of exile and many things worse. And the average day-in-day out insensitivity and obnoxiousness we all take for granted. Sometimes I am convinced that the misery of the world is a bottomless pit, an ocean into which our tears blend without a trace. Always I hold out hope that there will be some sign that things will get better."
"I am not the person to say," Denby said.
"Taciturnity does not become you." The Editor relit his permanent cigar. "I am thinking about somebody now who is very far away, so far I doubt he even knows I exist any longer and some days I wonder what I would say to him or he to me. Probably no more than a joke. I had another friend who was a great practical joker. They tell me on his deathbed he opened his eyes wide and called someone over to whisper in his ear, 'The treasure chest of jewels and gold is located precisely under the . . .". and then he just closed his eyes and in a little while he passed away with a smile on his lips."
The two of them remained silent for a while with their drinks and the cigar, the unseen presence of another in the room. Or just the blank moon and the shadows. The mists gathered among the trees in the backyard, keeping Company in the hours before dawn.
will meet some day
in the clouds up above.
The long howl of the throughpassing train ululated from far across the spooky water where the spectral gantries of the Port of Oaktown stood like metal demons with glowing arms, it quavered across the black waves of the estuary, the riprap embankments, the grasses of the Buena Vista flats and the open spaces of the former Beltline; it moaned through the cracked brick of the old abandoned Cannery with its ghosts and haunted railbed, it keened between the interstices of the chainlink fences as the locomotive glided past the shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off to parts unknown.
That's the way it is on the Island. Have a great week.
That's the way it is on the Island. Have a great week.
BACK TO STORY INDEX