When you are driving to work and arrive at an intersection, sometimes, if you come out of your daydream for a moment and notice what you’re doing, it can be difficult to turn in the same direction you did yesterday.
When your mother locked you in the cupboard while she entertained three soldiers and your father came home, he was afraid of what they would do to him but he got you out of the cupboard anyway. You don’t remember any of that but one day when you were older your father left the legal proceedings where you would find them as a way of telling you. Your mother always said what a liar your father was. Thinking about it, you figure he probably could convince a court. You asked him about that day:
“I was scared shitless. Here I was a civilian and most I’d seen were a few punch-ups. I was out of shape because I hadn’t played footy for years. No time for footy with work and looking after you. So here I was going up against these three cocksure soldiers and they’re all trained killers and full of themselves. I thought those fellas could kill me and no-one would ever know because those army blokes look after their own. I’d be swept under the carpet. But I couldn’t just leave you there, so I went in, and the way I got away with it, I said to them, ‘Now just wait a minute. I’m no match for you blokes. You might kill me but I swear one of you is going to lose an eye.’ They cracked a few jokes to save face but it must of worked. That’s one I walked away from.”
Since then you’ve seen that line about the eye in a movie and heard the same story told here and there, except the way that story’s usually told is with some gangsters trying to collect drug money. Even so, maybe he really did say that to the soldiers, just because he’d heard that story before. For all you know it might have been him who started that whole story in the first place. You’ve long since given up trying to figure out the truth. Too much trouble for nothing.
It must have got to her after a while, the joint custody, or she foresaw what your father had in mind, because one day without warning your mother took you to Proserpine.
You lived in a tent for a while at a camping site, then in a small fibro flat. You went to the school there for a few months. Everyone there loved cricket but you hated it because standing out there in the hot sun waiting for a ball to come in your direction for an hour was boring and gave you a headache. It was stinking hot and humid. Every so often light flakes of black ash from the sugar refinery would drift down like opposite snow. The flat was crawling with huge cockroaches. Ones bigger than any you had seen before. You would lie there on the bed on hot afternoons watching the geckos chase them up the wall and across the ceiling. Sometimes you woke up suddenly in the night – geckos were chasing cockroaches across your bare chest.
Once you were in a shop and watched a quiet old man buy a bottle of milk with a twenty- dollar note. You were sure he only got a few coins in change and were confused. How could he let himself get ripped off like that? How could someone rip off someone who looked like they didn't have much money? You weren't sure of anything so you said nothing to anyone.
When your father caught up with you and asked if you wanted to go to America, it didn’t really matter to you much either way. Now you think back on it, it’s hard to understand how or why you were so ambivalent. Maybe you thought you had spent some time with your mother so you could spend some time with your father. Maybe you missed him a little. Maybe you did think going to America would be a great opportunity like he said it would. You didn’t care either way about Disneyland, but you were curious about why he said Americans were arrogant because they had good reason to be. They run the world.
But when all is said and done, you know at the time you didn’t really think about it all that much at all. You just went along with whatever. You were too preoccupied with the cockroaches and geckos and black ash and hating cricket and wishing you had a model Mitsubishi Zero to glue together to go with your Messerschmitt and fight the Vought Corsair and Spitfire. Your dad explained that because of the law courts and so on, you might not be able to go if you told your mother, so you didn’t.
In North America you were always driving. Not living anywhere really, unless the road is a place. You didn’t think about whether it was good or bad, fun, or a good learning experience or whether you got homesick or any of those other things people asked you. In retrospect it’s odd you didn’t want more answers about things like that. You just went along. It was only when you were older that, living in the car for so long or sometimes in a construction site or some abandoned place on the side of the road, you realised you must have been in hiding. Once or twice he said you better write a postcard to your mother so you did. It said you were alright and things were fine.
Last night I ate the biggest piece of cake I ever ate. It was mint chocolate and the chocolate was the strongest I ever tasted. Everything is really big here and the cheese is fluorescent orange. There are all these beggars. They always say, ‘Buddy can you spare a dime.’ I am collecting all the coins I find. I have a lot of quarters and have saved up $5.35. Once we found a newspaper machine that when you pushed the change button it always gave you some money, even though you didn’t put in any. I am ok.
Sitting in the back of the car all the time made you think about different things. If someone asked you where you lived you could say, “Nowhere.” It was good at least to be able to be so enigmatic. If anyone asked though, you still said nothing to anyone. Yet it was a place because you could live there, the road. “A Place Called Nowhere” sounded like the title of something. The story of your life when you had grown up and done something interesting.
At first you had hitch-hiked. Your dad was tickled pink that the first hitch you got was with a North American Indian in his beat-up orange car. Though he tried not to let on, even at your young age and even though you didn’t know a word for it, you sensed it was a bit patronising of your dad to feel like that. That was all you found out about the driver though, since he was a quiet North American Indian.
Then you and your father got a station wagon of your own. You stayed in truck stops all over America and sometimes motels if you were living it up. Truck stops had good bathroom facilities and no-one usually bothered you. They were pretty much the same everywhere – brick toilet block, grassy area with park benches, some cars and trucks. Once in a while you saw something that freaked you out, like once you saw a big hole in the door to a cubicle peppered all around with small holes, like someone had taken a shotgun and shot a hole in it. Like someone had got their shotgun, walked in and picked a cubicle with someone in it and just shot a great big hole straight through the door and killed the person sitting there without even knowing who they were. It could have been anyone sitting there. It could have been you.
You were glad to finish your piss and get out of that place. And somebody had to clean it up. Somehow that was the saddest thing. That person with a mop and bucket. You could picture it all – the cops standing around scratching their heads and writing in notebooks, the body being hauled onto a stretcher and wheeled away, the journalists coming round asking questions and all the people with their important jobs bustling off and the hubbub dying away, all right up to someone with a big mop and bucket cleaning the blood away. It was thick sticky stuff blood and hard to clean. That person who no-one spoke to because they had more important things to do, like catch the crook, or write newspaper articles, or be shocked about what happened. That one who mopped up the blood because he needed a job, going home after work to have dinner. The same boring dinner he had most nights because he couldn’t afford anything fancy. Watching TV and going to bed and waking up and going to clean up another pool of blood.
It could happen anywhere, any time to anyone. They probably never caught who did it. How can they track down someone who drives up, shoots someone, then drives off in the millions of cars on the freeway? You were afraid to die like that, so pointlessly. You wanted to kill someone who would kill someone like that. With a shotgun. When they were on the toilet. You didn’t put that stuff on the back of postcards. You said nothing about it to anyone. Sometimes you ate in Denny’s for a treat, maybe once a week, mass-produced-standardised-fast-food-home-cooked-meals: minute steak, potatoes and apple sauce. But mostly it was cans of baked beans or ham, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.
It was a long time you lived like that, between truck stops and municipal libraries. Your dad would go off and do whatever he did to make money while you were in the library. You were never really sure what it was he did and you never asked because you figured if he wanted to tell you he would have. The library must have been the safest sort of place to leave you. There was no-one to say what was right or wrong for a kid to read, so you knew a lot of facts about American Indian nations from Yaghan to Inuit, about Asterix and Obelix and Tintin, the Punic Wars, Gauls, Goths and Vandals and Marcus Aurelius, Descartes and Camus and Robert Ludlum and Jean M Auel, silver working in India, stick insects, chimney sweeps, Dutch canals, angler fish, pilot fish and all you could understand of the physics of time travel without the maths. You read Damon Runyan and Jerzy Kozinski and Mark Twain and dreamed of running away and living as a guttersnipe stealing bread for a living. You knew how to make a Rokkaku kite but you never made one.
Eventually a woman scratched his knee. You slept in the front passenger seat while they were in the back. Your dad sometimes muttered about the normal state of peasants in the olden days and in some countries in one little room and politically-correct-social-worker-secret-police. One night you were in a motel and for no reason, before dinner, without saying anything, you went out and left them to it.
It was night and there’d been rain so the motel lights glimmered on the car park tarmac. You stepped over a concrete gutter into the woodchips between two shrubs to a footpath by the main road. You looked one way then the other. You took a good deep breath of cold air. It didn’t matter which way you went. You went left, crossed the road at the lights and went down the next street off the main road. There were mainly small warehouses or factories, a few old brick ones but mostly new prefab ones. They were all closed down for the night, but each of them shone a solitary fluorescent light out the front over their little car parks. Smash repairs, tile warehouse, pool supplies.
You got a bit bored of walking along the road and saw down in the darkness between two warehouses a ladder. There were no cars coming either way so you went through their car park, wood chips and bushes and ducked along to the ladder. You were surprised there was no locked gate or chain on it. You went up three levels and came out onto the roof. It was a series of angled metal sheets in a sawtooth pattern. You walked along in one of the gulleys to the other side. There wasn’t much below, just a dark space between the two buildings. There was a good view over the tops of the warehouses. Above, the clouds were clearing. You sat there for a while, looking at the stars.
You had read somewhere that to time travel you would have to go faster than the speed of light so you figured that to time travel in the one place – so you didn’t end up a billion light years away – you could set up something that travels faster than the speed of light within some sort of donut shaped container, round and round, and to travel faster than the speed of light, you’d just need to figure out something that didn’t just go, like most machines, but the thing about it was that it would just keep accelerating. And if its container would spin in the opposite direction neither would have to go faster than the speed of light relative to the world – only half the speed of light because relative to each other they’d go the speed of light. Then you could time travel. You wondered why nobody else thought of that before and wondered if you would actually be able to invent something like that when you grew up.
You thought your dad might be missing you and gone out looking, going crazy, as if you would just let yourself die. But tonight he could go rot. You climbed over the angled roofs of the warehouse to the back of the building. The building behind had been demolished so there was a vacant lot, but one of its walls was still standing, connected to the building you were on. It was about a foot wide and three stories high. You went and sat astride it.
It wasn’t that you wanted to die but to feel like you could die was good. Legs dangling either side, you edged your way out till you were about six metres from the warehouse. There was a book called ‘Birdy’ where a boy had fallen off a building and because he was fixated on watching pigeons somehow managed to sort of fly to a safe landing. You always liked watching swallows weaving those long curved lines around the sky. You still do. You thought about how sad your father would be if you died so you edged back to the warehouse and went back to the motel. Everything was normal there. They didn’t say anything. They just started heating up some baked beans and chopping up lettuce and tomato. When you were eating your dad said, “Where did you go?”
“Just for a walk,” you said, looking at the wood pattern laminex. You were sad because if you were in a book you would have gone somewhere without him. You would have just left. You would have hitched your own ride and you would have met someone and something would have happened. But you knew it would make him sad if you disappeared like that and maybe you just didn’t have the guts so the next day you were in the back seat again, looking out the window and pressing fingerprints in the degraded foam under the ripped lining on the ceiling.
It wasn’t till Alaska that you really made proper friends with death. It was when his knee scratcher was driving and he was dozing in the passenger seat and you were looking out your side window. You were daydreaming about what you’d read: kids in the dust kick a rubber ball, four owls perch on a wall, monkeys play flutes, brothers lost at the crossroads, the black road saying, ‘this way’, laughing demons, cigars in the darkness, father decapitated, words falling from a skull into the hands of Lady Blood … You were coasting along beside a big semi-trailer. Its wheels were so big that the bottom of the trailer was at about your eye level. The car started drifting over towards it. It wasn’t unusual for a car to drift that much in its lane but normally the driver would set it straight. This time she didn’t.
Everyone realised at the same time what was happening. Your father yelled out and grabbed the wheel, jerking the car back into its lane, waking up his fiancée who also cried out and took back the steering. Your father yelled at her about having almost killed us, about his son in the back seat.
In the hours that followed, knowing that you had been only one instant from being crushed to death under the wheels of that truck, knowing that there hadn’t even been time to decide whether you should mention the truck to the people in front, you knew that when you died, there would be nothing you could do about it, and that because there was nothing you could do about it, you had better accept it. No use worrying. In that moment you would have done whatever you had done in your life and there was no use missing the future you wouldn’t have because you couldn’t have it. You pictured yourself dying however it happened, having no regret whatever you had done, feeling no loss for what could never come. After that you weren’t afraid of death, except that it might be painful depending on how it happened. You could die any time and you didn’t care. Whatever happened from then on, it was ok.
You stopped for a chocolate thick shake and drove down to Mexico. The border was all angry glaring heat and dust and traffic but looking over the tops of clouds in the mountains near Oaxaca was the most beautiful thing you ever saw. Your Dad said he had to go to Nicaragua. He said that all the media hype might be bullshit and that if it was safe enough down there that’s where you’d be going next. The way he said the words “Pan America Highway” made it sound like a holy pilgrimage.
He left you in a motel in Mexico City with his fiancée. When he was gone you stewed for a day. Then when she had gone out for groceries, you grabbed the one tomato that was in the fridge and your orange juice bottle full of the small change you’d found on the streets of America, and the Mexican coins, one of every kind, that you’d been collecting from your father as a coin collection, and left a note that you’d be back so that no-one would panic and start looking for you, and snuck out. You had read all about Teotihuacan and you wanted to go there and you didn’t want anyone’s opinion on anything and you didn’t want permission. You knew how to find a tourist information centre easy enough and you’d been studying basic Spanish in a tourist book, so you could count and say, “Buenos Dias” and “Cuanto Cuesta?” It wasn’t hard to get on the right bus.
You never felt so good, climbing to the top of the Temple of the Sun and looking all across the land all around, walking down the ancient Avenue of the Dead to the temple of Quetzalpapalotl and examining the intricate designs, putting your hand inside the stone mouth of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Feeling the eerie chill from deep inside the stone run up your spine you were convinced that what the guide book said was true, that human hearts put in there would be preserved like in a refrigerator, even on hot days like this.
When you got back your father’s fiancée was angry and tried to lecture you, asking what your father would say, telling you you were too young to imagine the things that could happen to you. You weren’t answerable to her and you didn’t like her patronising tone so you shrugged it off. She sensed soon enough her words counted for nothing and said, “You’re just like your father.”
That night in bed before sleeping you made plans for Chichen Itza. In the darkness, “Chichen Itza” echoed in your skull the way “Pan American Highway” had sounded in your father’s mouth. You’d read in a book that warriors who wanted to make a surprise raid would drink lots of water before they went to sleep so they would wake up needing to piss before dawn. You went to the bathroom and guzzled plenty from the tap.
While your father’s fiancée still slept, you woke, found your shoes and clothes, stole the money from her purse and were gone. You got on the first bus to Merida and from there to Chichen Itza. It was a long trip but easy enough to sleep on the bus. You watched the shape of the pastel village houses change from rectangular cornered to round cornered. It was good to be surrounded by strangers again, to wander where you wanted. Why did Chac Mool recline in that position? What was on his plate? You wandered up the pyramid, around the observatory, through the ball-court …
The way from South Chichen Itza to Old Chichen was down a long path through the jungle. Half-way down, a little way off the track was a local boy, a few years older than you. He must have come from a village nearby. He had an animal that looked like some kind of anteater hanging upside down from a tree with its legs tied together. You couldn’t stop and stare but as you passed slowly, he picked up a rock and added it to the ones in his hand. He sat down and, looking bored, started throwing the rocks at the animal. You couldn’t figure out why he had caught it and tied it up there. Maybe he wanted someone to buy it for smuggling. Maybe he wanted a tourist to pay him to let it go and he’d catch it again for the next tourist. Maybe he just wanted to throw rocks at it.
Everywhere hieroglyphs swirled with detail. You took your time trying to decipher them – what was this row of dots? Did that spiral coming from someone’s mouth mean breathing, or life, or the spirit escaping in death, or speech? What did it mean that this arrangement of feathers was different to that? Was this a king or a god or both? How many skulls were on the platform of skulls? How could anyone kick a ball through that narrow hoop so high up? Why did snakes spew from the decapitated body on the ball court?
And there, in the circle, the ball at the centre of the game, of the universe, there were the spirals again, wafting from the mouth of the skull. This was a language you wanted, more than anything else, to read. If no-one had translated it by the time you were free of parents you would be the one to do it.
When the men in uniforms started coming around telling any stragglers it was time to leave you managed to slip into the jungle without being spotted. Near Akab Dzib that night you ate bread and tomato and practised sitting in the position of Chac Mool. You put your money in your shoes and, using your shoes as a pillow, dreamt you were under the world with feathered snakes writhing and hieroglyphs flowing from the mouths of talking skulls and you somehow understood them but couldn’t put it in words what it was you understood. You noticed you weren’t breathing. You hadn’t been breathing since this began.
You woke up. Someone was kicking you. There was more than one of them, kids a little older than you. It was still dark. You tried to get up but they pushed you down. They grabbed at your pockets. When you tried to hit their hands away they kicked you again, in the back and the head. They must have thought you were a tourist and had some money. You might die out here, you might as well die out here – you were friends with death so you were ok with it but it hurt to be kicked.
“No habla! No habla!” The words finally came to you. They stopped for a moment when you said that and you managed to get up to your knees and turn out your pockets. They pushed you down, kicked you in the mouth and spat on you.
Still, something felt good about that fat lip on the bus on the way home. You stayed at the motel after that. It had been a few days you were away and that was long enough. You didn’t know when your father would return and you didn’t want anyone to worry too much. You didn’t know what your father would say when he returned but if it came down to it, you figured you could always leave and sell chiclets like all the other kids.
When he did come back and heard what happened he just said, “cheeky bugger” and left it at that. You all went out and ate enchiladas with limes and bottles of coke and he told a story about Nicaragua. “I almost had my head cut off. I hitched a ride in this old open truck, with the peasants and chickens. We were driving up through the mountains on this old dirt road when these guerrillas came out with guns and stopped the truck. They made everyone get off the truck and line up. Then suddenly one of them, from behind, yelled out something and they dragged one poor bloke off into the jungle. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but back on the truck this guy explained, with a bit of English and hand movements and so on, that they’d called out ‘Attention!’ If anyone flinched, they’d know he’d been in the army, so they took him into the jungle and cut off his head.”
You didn’t go any further south. Instead you got in the car again and when you came to a T-junction, your dad asked you, “Right or left?”
“I don’t have the map. Where are we going anyway?”
“We’ll see when we get there. Now, right or left?”
People laugh because I’m naked. Next to my brother, I write the best glyphs this side of the mountains, turquoise, blood red, corn yellow, bone white and ash black. I play flute. I work jade, gold and silver. I climb trees and sleep on people’s patios. Let them laugh.
A long time ago we were tired of idle work. So we got up and played batey against our father and uncle. With a life of its own the ball bounced from foot to foot, brother to brother, two brothers against two brothers. We didn’t notice the owls until they were already perched on top of the stone walls. We stopped to look at them settling their feathers. One of them spoke.
“The Lords of Xibalba hear you stomping and shouting on their ceiling. They’ve noticed you’re skilful enough to challenge them. Gather your feathers and masks, your ball and yokes. The Lords of Xibalba challenge you to play against them.” Our father and uncle could not refuse.
Grandma’s tears made small dark spots in the clay floor of our house. Our uncle was gathering the batey gear. By that time we had no mother for them to say goodbye to. “Don’t worry,” our father said. “We’ll come back. We’ll put our ball up here in the rafters. I promise we’ll play with it again one day.”
“You’ll never come back,” Grandma said.
“While we’re gone, Batz and Chouen will play their flutes for you. They’ll keep you warm with their singing and writing.”
They followed the owls away down the track that goes past our fields and into the forest. We followed them as far as the gorge. It’s steep there and the path winds back and forth. We watched them follow the owls down until they disappeared in the shadows of the forest.
We went back home to Grandma. My brother played flute while I remembered what happened in turquoise, blood red, corn yellow, bone white and ash black.
My brother broods in the dark. He’s been sitting for a long time. Like he’s trying to think of something. The thumping over our heads has gone on too long for him. He suddenly stands up. “What’s that thumping on our ceiling again?” he says.
“Whoever it is, they have no respect.”
“We’ll teach them honour.” He calls for the owls.
Passing the cornfields I stop and pick a few weeds out of habit. The dirt is dry. If I leave them the weeds could overrun the whole field by the time we see them again. My brother calls out from up ahead, “The owls are flying away. We have to keep up.” We might not see the cornfields again at all.
In the gorge they fly straight down while we lug our gear around the winding path. We push through green shadows until we don’t know where we are anymore. The owls are flying in the mist over a river. The river seethes in a way that isn’t water. It’s crawling. It’s a river of scorpions. The owls are perched in a tree on the opposite shore, waiting. There is a canoe at this river crossing. We know it’s for us. We load our gear in and push it into the river of scorpions. Arriving on the other side without a sting we see the owls have already flown on, small dots in mist. Next we cross a river of blood. After the river of pus we lose sight of the owls. We continue, lost. We find a road and follow it until we arrive at a crossroads.
One road is yellow, one red, one white and one black. Not knowing which way to go we look around and at each other. The owls are nowhere. “Whichever way we go, this is the beginning of the end,” my brother says. As soon as it is said, a voice comes down the black road, saying, “I am the road.” We look at each other. There’s no other choice. We go down the black road, walking all night. We arrive in darkness, exhausted, at the Court of Xibalba. The place is quiet and deserted. As we approach there are dim god-like shapes so we greet them respectfully, “Good morning Lords of Xibalba.” There is laughter in the darkness from all sides. Dim figures roll on the floor, laughing, gripping their stomachs. We see that the shapes we greeted are only wooden statues. The Gods are laughing at us.
Two Lords, we can’t be sure of their names, step close enough for us to see them. They have no flesh. There are large black spots on their skin, stretched over their bones like a drum. Their spines are jagged ridges.
“Welcome! We’re glad you came,” they say. “Tomorrow we’ll put those batey yokes and arm guards to good use. For now, please sit down.”
We sit on the stone but it’s scorching hot. It burns us and we jump up in pain. The Lords all around us break into laughter again. Again, the two Death Lords come forward, “Don’t worry. You’re our guests. Go to the House of Darkness for some sleep. Someone will bring you cigars and torches.”
I look at my brother and he looks at me. We follow the servants to the House of Darkness. They leave us there waiting for a while. I can’t see my brother but I know he’s there. We don’t say anything. A messenger brings torches and cigars. The faces are flickering shadows and orange light. The servant says, “These must not be used up before dawn.” For a long time my brother and I sit, trying to smoke as slowly as we can. My cigar burns out. The torches go out. For a moment I can still see my brother’s face in the dark orange glow of his cigar before it too runs out and there is only the dark. My brother says, “Why are they doing this to us?”
When they’ve gone I say, “They won’t even make it to Shivering House, Jaguar House, Bat House or Blade House.” We laugh again. Will we get tired of this laughing?
“They won’t be playing with a ball tomorrow,” my brother laughs. “They’ll be playing with the white dagger.”
My father’s late home. He looks like he’s seen something he doesn’t understand and he doesn’t know if it’s good or bad. He’s saying, “… Lords One Death and Seven Death killed them on Crushing Court. They buried Seven Hunahpu but the other one’s head they cut off. They took it to a tree by the side of the road and hung it there as an example. Now this tree has been there for a long time. No one has ever seen it bear fruit before but as soon as they hung the head in it there was fruit all over. They were all white calabash fruit, like skulls, and as soon as they hung this head it also became like a calabash. Nobody has seen anything like that happen before. No one is allowed near that tree. Do you understand me Lady Blood? Do not go near that tree.”
The tree is full of large round white calabashes. There’re so many there’s no way to tell which, if any, might be the skull. What if I ate one? Would it poison me? They look ripe. Would anyone hear me if I took one and ate it?
“Why do you want this fruit?” One of the fruits is talking. It’s the skull.
“Because I was told not to.”
“Then show me your right hand.”
I hold out my hand. The skull opens its mouth as if to speak, but its word is white, like spit, and it lands in my open palm.
Her feet turn outwards. I can’t ignore it anymore. She’s so large now. That belly isn’t fat with food. I’ve known for long enough. I don’t want to believe it. What father wants to admit his daughter has been scratching knees? But I can’t ignore the shape of that belly anymore. One Death and Seven Death have told me what I must do. “Look to see if her feet turn outwards,” they said. “Try to dig the truth out of her mouth and when she lies, send her away for sacrifice.”
“Lady Blood. My daughter! You’ve been scratching knees. Who? Tell me who is the father?”
She’s upset. Now I know it’s true. She’s trying to think of some excuse. “I’ve seen no face of any father of my children.” A lie. She paused too long.
“So you’ve seen no man’s face?”
“No face, no.”
“I’ve seen no father’s face.”
“Owls! Take her far from here. Sacrifice her. Take her heart to One Death and Seven Death.”
Their claws pierce my skin, digging deep into my back and shoulders. Blood weeps. Pain stabs. Tears fall from my cheek, vanishing into the sky far below. We fly higher and higher above Xibalba. The owls’ wings flap powerfully and silently. I look down on Xibalba. We have risen quickly. The land is unfamiliar and I can’t see where my house would be any more. It’s hard to talk through the pain. “Don’t sacrifice me,” I say. The owls say nothing. “Don’t sacrifice me. I haven’t been scratching knees. I haven’t told any lies. I only went to look at the skull in the calabash tree from Crushing Court. It has no face.”
“We have orders,” they say. “What do you think will happen to us if we don’t take your heart to One Death and Seven Death?”
“If you help me you will be loved by everyone above. You won’t need to sacrifice anyone anymore. Take them the blood of the Croton plant instead. Burn that sap before their eyes.”
The owls lower me into the forest. We search for a while until we see the red and green leaves we need. It hurts to move my arms but I make a rough bowl from a broad leaf and squeeze the Croton sap into it. It congeals into the shape of a human heart.
I wait for the owls in the forest. I go downhill to a stream and wash the blood from my back and shoulders. Lying in the cool damp underneath the leaves, listening to the water, looking up at the sky through a gap in the trees above the stream I catch a hint of the sweet aroma filling Xibalba and I know it has been done. Their claws grip me again and we fly up above the underworld. They set me down beside a dusty road. I sit and rest for a moment. The sun is bright and it’s hot. “There’s a house down this road,” one of the owls says. “Your mother-in-law lives there. You’ll know it by the flutes of her grandsons. They’re always playing.” I hear the song of distant flutes and the owls are already flying away.
“Here come the owls.”
My brother put his hands on his hips and watched. When they landed at our feet he said, “So you failed? Where is the heart?”
“No,” one of them said. And another, “We succeeded.” And another, “Here’s her heart in the bowl.”
“Bring it over the fire.” Over the fire the heart begins to smoke. The smoke drifts up, filling Xibalba with a delicious aroma. I breathe it deeply through my nose. Other Lords come to see where it is coming from. “Stay where you are,” I say. My brother and I lean over the smoking heart to smell it deeply. The smoke stings our eyes. The stinging doesn’t stop. We are on the floor holding our burning eyes. We are blind.
The sound of Batz and Chouen’s flute stops. I listen and hear nothing more. No talking or moving. Just the hum of the insects. I dust the flour from my hands and go to the door. Batz and Chouen sit on the porch, their flutes in their laps, their colours and paper and writing tables beside them, staring up the road. A woman is walking towards us. As she comes closer it’s clear there’s more than one person coming – she’s pregnant. She comes right to our doorstep and says, “Mother-in-law, I am your daughter. Here are your sons, inside me. Welcome them home.”
I can’t let just any girl come and say she’s carrying my grandchildren. I already have two to feed and since my sons went away there’s no one to care for the cornfields.
“One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu are dead in Xibalba. Batz and Chouen here are the only trace left of them. Today’s a good day for goodbyes. Goodbye.” I turn back inside but she stays on our doorstep.
“One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu are still alive,” she calls out. “You’ll see for yourself when the sunshine sees their faces.”
“You’re not my daughter-in-law. You’ve just been scratching knees and now you say the children are mine.”
The net is hanging there by the door. I go out and look at her again. “If it’s true then go to my grandsons’ field and fill this net with their corn to feed them.”
Near sunset she’s standing in my kitchen again with the net, overflowing with fresh picked cobs. “Where did you get it? You can’t have picked all that yourself. You must have stolen it.” I go to the fields to see for myself. There’s nothing in the field. I can’t ignore it anymore. She wouldn’t have done all that work if she weren’t honest, if it weren’t Hunahpu’s children inside her. I go back and say, “Welcome home.”
The strange girl is standing on our doorstep and Grandma says, “Go and fill this net with corn.” Me and my brother laugh quietly at each other. We don’t tell Grandma there isn’t any corn in the field to gather. We follow her to the field to see what she’ll do. She sees that there’s only one stalk and falls to her knees crying. “I’m in debt,” she says.
We watch for a while to see if she’ll give up or what she’ll do to get the corn for Grandma. When she’s finished crying she calls out again, “Four Guardians of Food! Rise up!” She lays the net under the ear of corn and pulls at a strand of silk on it. The more she pulls the more corn there is, cob after cob, filling up the whole net with corn. She leaves the field, leaving that one cob standing.
You drive the car to work. It was to get to work that you first learned to drive. You were in a new house in a new town with a new job to pay your first mortgage and your first kid was starting school.
The public transport wasn’t so good so to be where you had to be on time you had to drive. Driving was hard at first, especially since you had to use the wrong leg.
Like everyone does at first, you had to concentrate on every little thing – what order to put on the seat belt, turn the ignition, check mirrors, indicate and accelerate. You would over steer and under steer and stop and go in jerks. Everyone else had been through that long ago, so it was a bit embarrassing to learn so late but since it was for the kids there was no question. You had tried to learn to drive once before, but that’s a story you try not to remember, even though you can’t forget, especially when your leg does something unexpected.
It was an old car when you first got it – your grandfather’s car passed on to you by your father, already a little rusty back then and the plastic controls already brittle. Now you’ve lengthened the tears in the vinyl seats, let the rust go a little further and added to the greasy, dusty dross that fills the passenger side floor and the ashtrays:
The annual service was costing more each year but you couldn’t scrap it.
Once when your grandfather still owned it it had been hotwired by joyriding teenagers. The police had said there wasn’t much chance of catching the thieves but he should count himself lucky he got the car back at all. They’d usually burn it. “The electrics have been playing up ever since, bloody kids,” your father had said when he gave it to you, and there’s lots of burned out fuses among the crap in the tray near the handbrake to prove it. So when you were learning and the indicator didn’t seem to be coming on, you thought it was because you hadn’t pushed the arm up enough. You forced it and the whole thing snapped off in your hand.
After a while you didn’t need to think about what to do, you just needed to think about where to go and the car would go there. It was like your kids learning to walk. Your synapses were properly wired up to your arms and legs and levers, pedals and wheels. You, the car and the road all fused into one fully automatic bio-electro-mechanical-bituminous system. It’s gone even further than that.
You’ve done the trip so many times you don’t even think about where you’re going at all. Your mind just wanders like when you’re lying in bed staring at the ceiling or standing in the shower and then you notice you’ve stopped because you’ve arrived where you are supposed to be. Then as you walk from the car to work and even as you do your job, sometimes you can become so automatic your mind wanders so far it’s like you’re not even there.
But you drive with your left foot instead of the right on the pedals because ‘Jules’, your right leg, hasn’t behaved too well since the crash. You don’t remember much about it. All you remember is one afternoon, staring at the ceiling of your room in your mother’s house when you were 15, you got a call from Jules.
He asked if you wanted to go for a drive. You organised to meet him around the other side of the block. Your mother was watching something mindless on TV. You grabbed your pipe and film canister, said, “I’m going round to Chris’s,” and left.
When he turned up and you got in he gave you a big cheeky mongrel grin, saying “Hey man! Check it out, motherfucker!” In typical style he used a hunting knife in the ignition to start it up. You asked him how you get a car to start up that way, with a knife. He tried to explain but you couldn’t quite figure out what a slide hammer was from his clumsy description.
As you drove out west you packed a few cones for him and yourself. You lit the pipe for him so he could keep one hand on the steering wheel. The suburbs went on for an hour at least. “Where are we?” you said.
“I don’t know.”
“You know if you get stuck in a labyrinth, you can always get out by just keep turning left. It always works.”
“It always works?”
“Keep turning left? But we’d just keep going round the fucking block.”
You pissed yourselves laughing but then, watching the houses and the cars and shops float by, you couldn’t puzzle out how such an ancient and eternally mathematically true solution to every maze could be so simply thwarted. You worried quietly if it were theoretically possible to ever get out of the suburbs.
You gave the finger to some dickhead waving a fence paling at you when you did a donut up a cul-de-sac. When you finally found a way out it was good to cruise at 180 round the winding country roads. You talked him out of starting a bushfire, then when you were passing a pineapple plantation with all the little fruits standing up on their stalks with their spiky crowns you said, “Stop.”
“Pineapples, man, let’s get some pineapples.”
“I’m not stopping for pineapples, you fucking conehead.”
“Imagine what they’d taste like though. Yum! Look at all those fucking pineapples! When else are we ever going to get to go stand in a field of pineapples?”
“Alright, ya fuckin fruitloop. But not too long. What if a cop car comes along?”
So you got out, climbed over a fence and up through the spiky plants to the top of a hill. It was pineapples all the way down the valley and over the opposite hill.
Sitting overlooking the valley, you borrowed his knife to chop one up into chunks. They were a bit under ripe and even more sour than usual but it was good. The whole world was pineapples.
“Fuck this shit stings,” he was saying.
“This.” He showed you the palms of his hands. They were covered in tiny fine little cuts. The pineapple juice was getting in them. “Fucking dermatitis.”
“What the fuck is that?”
“I got it from my dad. He got hit with agent orange in Vietnam.”
You shook your head over it. “I got my Dad’s tinea. He got it from his dad who got it when he was a commando in New Guinea. His whole toenail on his big toe went all manky and peeled off once.”
He threw the pineapple away, stood up and licked his hands, “Let’s go. This is freaking me out. The farmer might have a gun.”
“Oh yeah. Do they really shoot trespassers?”
When you got back to the car he asked if you wanted to drive.
“I don’t know how to drive.”
“It’s ok, it’s automatic. When else ya gunna learn?”
So you got in the driver seat and he fished around for a water bottle to wash off his hands but there wasn’t one. He ended up just saying, “Arggh” in frustration and holding them in the air to let the spit dry. “Let’s go back,” he said. “I gotta find a tap.”
You still had the knife so you put it in the ignition and got it started. You’d watched enough to know it went in drive next and you lurched forwards. You managed to turn around and head towards town. Soon enough you were going along fine. You needed to concentrate on the steering and the pedals but there were no other cars on the road so it was all working out. You got faster and faster until you reached that bend going up a hill that was sharper than you thought and instead of hitting the brake you hit the accelerator and because you didn’t expect to go faster, you tried to brake harder so you went faster.
The pain in your leg woke you up. There didn’t seem much time to think but you knew he wouldn’t want you to go to jail so you moved him into the driver’s seat and limped through the state forest for a long time till you came to some houses. Then you limped for a long time until you found a railway and limped along it until you found a station. The police must have been happy to accept that he’d driven himself to death on his own because they never knocked on your door. You didn’t get your leg seen to because a doctor might be able to tell it wasn’t from whatever you might have said it was from and you might have caved. You didn’t let your friends know you were doing anything other than staring at the ceiling at home at the time it happened. Neither of your parents ever asked you any questions they didn’t want to know the truth about anyway.
So you didn’t learn to drive for a long time, until you had to for your kids, and you tend to keep a bottle of water in the car, and your leg twitches every so often and doesn’t always move when you tell it because its electrics are shot, like it’s got a mind of its own, so in your head you think of it as ‘Jules’.
9 years and 6 months, give or take, minus 4 weeks a year for holidays … it takes a while to do the maths in your head but it comes out to about 3183 times you’ve driven to work like this. Today you get a flat tire.
Sleepless, the King rose from his bed.
Memory, he said, Listen. Kongo is not Kongo.
Look at this carving. Songye. In this wood the sculptor found power. Look at these languid eyes, this serene face. Power has a smooth forehead. The soul in this wood will be here long after my head is white and smooth. It lives as long as you do.
I can see 30 days in all directions. I have a hundred thousand hands. A hundred thousand hands give to me. I give to a hundred thousand hands. I meet my enemy holding a hundred thousand spears. When a stranger sees my skull, will my grandchildren’s grandchildren know what to tell them? Memory, I’ll tell you something worth the time. About how Lavinia pointed without hands, spoke without a tongue.
Remember when the country was alive with people? All the raffia of the East, all the copper from Katanga, all the salt from the Coast, all the nzimbu of Luanda, all the slaves from every border passed through these crossroads. Mbanza Kongo was the centre of everything. Now our Kingdom’s knees are bent. My life has been a long war. I brought leopard skins and slaves to strengthen our provinces. Now the provinces plot against each other. Coming back from the campaigns, I saw our fields run wild, yams rotting in the soil, eleusine uncut, mounds unseeded. Weavers and carvers forget their craft and only buy and sell instead. Copper disappears down new roads untaxed. Pombeiro’s ply the rivers and roads. Nzimbu buy half as much, while half as many arrive in tribute.
No one can sleep, afraid his neighbour will sell him in the middle of the night. Once we made slaves of enemies and criminals. Now fathers brand their free children to look like slaves, so no one will take and sell them. To keep peace we must make constant war against Jaga, Ndongo, and Portugal. Our own province, Sonyo, fights us like another country. When the locusts have finished, the plague follows. The Kimpasi say we must follow the kitome law to restore mbumba harmony. The Capucins say God is punishing us for superstition and false idols. The Capucins burn nkisi. The Kimpasi burn churches. Our hands have no time to sow. Too busy harvesting blood.
Memory, when I returned victorious from our Southern border, the nobles in the capital and the governors in the provinces were always drunk.
The Governer of Sonyo was rich from trade with Portugal. The rhetoric of riches dies quickly. When a man who only has riches dies he has no heirs, only hyenas. When a stranger sees his skull his grandchildren’s grandchildren can’t tell who he is.
Afonso’s faction said, by our mother’s line, they had a better claim than my sons. The Afonso faction would say the sun is guilty of usurping the day.
When the time came for the Mwissikongo council to choose the king, in every Kanda my name was on a hundred thousand tongues. But I was already too old. I was made for war, not plots, and my sons were their father’s sons. The time had come for me to pass on the staff.
I said, “Give me a kingdom united against its enemies. Peace puts me at war with myself. War puts me at peace. Honour the 21 sons who died by my side. Give me a staff of martial honour, not a staff to rule.” So they asked who should be king. I said, “Afonso will be king. King Afonso, take the hand of this daughter of my first wife. Lavinia will be the best of wives and the best of mothers. Many times, I’ve seen her with her young brothers in her lap, filling their bellies with food and their heads with stories. When she sings, the stones listen, the leaves dance. Her touch on the harp commands all that strength cannot. I pass these hands to you.”
My youngest son, too young for war, had been raised by Lavinia. He said, “You have been away too long. You don’t know your own daughter. Give her to the man she admires. Give her to Sonyo or you will dishonour Marriage.”
“She should not have taught you to speak if you speak against your father.”
As soon as King Afonso had accepted Lavinia he forgot her. I also gave him, first among my captives, a princess of Matamba, her two sons and the Portuguese ambassador. When he saw among the new slaves the Princess of Matamba, King Afonso fell under her spell. He couldn’t see anyone but her. She was water, moving without bones. Her face was serene but her breath shook the earth. Her Portuguese ambassador spoke to Afonso as she danced, “King of Kongo,” he said, “We have all lost many sons in this war. The Princess has only these two left. Kill her and you will fight another war with the next King or Queen of Ndongo and Matamba. All our children and their children’s children will fight the same war, again and again.”
The Princess’s sons continued, “Make her your loyal wife and your children will know peace. We will be brothers. Who would challenge the children of our wedded nations? Soldiers will be farmers again. Yams will grow. Markets will prosper. Mothers will keep their children.”
The Princess commanded, “Do as you please. I am a princess of Matamba. I am your slave.” This was how King Afonso became her slave.
There was a leopard hunt for their marriage. That’s when I found my daughter, Lavinia, not dead, not alive, covered in blood. She had no hands. She had no tongue. Next to her lay Sonyo, murdered and she could not say who had killed him and done this to her. I would never hear songs dancing from her tongue, hear her hands on the harp again. I wanted to cut off my own hands. Why had they conquered? Why had they defended us from anyone? These hands had done nothing for Lavinia. We moved our broken house from the centre to the edge of Mbanza Kongo.
One morning, after breakfast, I sat in the courtyard looking into my empty calabash. Calabash, two hands forever cupped, receiving food, giving food. Better for holding things than these two hands. The sun edged over my feet and up my shins. Through a window across the courtyard I could hear my youngest son. The one who had said I dishonoured Marriage, who knew her best because he was too young to come to war. I remembered, when she was small, Lavinia had heard the story of Princess Calabash from a slave from the East. She must have told it to her brother when he was small. Now, he repeated it to her.
“What was that one you told me, Lavinia? The one from the East, about Calabash and the Drunken King … There was a girl, a princess, called Calabash. Although she was the daughter of the King her brothers and sisters always teased her about her common name.
“You aren’t really a royal child,” they said. “You’re just a slave. ‘Calabash’ is the name of an ordinary thing, not a princess.”
When she grew up she asked her mother, “Why do I have such an ordinary name, when my brothers and sisters have royal names?”
“Calabash, you’re a woman now. I’ve seen you with that blue hunter. It’s time you knew the truth.” Her mother said, “My father, your grandfather, was not from this kingdom but lived far to the west. He came to pay tribute to your father, the King of Luba. When he came and was drinking at court the calabash he was drinking from cracked. The King ordered my father to give him a woman to pay for the damage to royal property.”
“My father agreed but while he stayed at court the King tried to trick him again and again. He challenged him to chop down a tree and burn every part of it. My father cut it down and burned every part of it. The King said it would be an insult if my father or his men shat on royal land. They kept all their shit in baskets. The King had a trap dug under a mat and invited him to court to dance. During his dance my father thrust his spear through the mat into the trap. The crowd cheered when they saw how he’d uncovered the King’s trick. My father was a noble man. He could not be tricked but he honoured the King’s request for a woman as payment for the broken calabash. That woman was me and so you were named Calabash, after the broken cup that brought you here.”
“Can I go to see my Grandfather?” asked Calabash.
“No, he’s dead. You mustn’t go to Nkongolo. There’s a terrible king there now. He’s rainbow coloured and where ever he goes the land turns red. He’s rude, cruel and a bad judge. He laughs at serious things and takes offence at nothing. He punishes too hard or too soft. He married his own sister. When he rises from his throne, he has someone placed under his spear and leans on it to stand. He’s always drunk.”
Calabash was tired of her brothers’ and sisters’ teasing her so she decided to go to her grandfather’s country. Her mother had forbidden her so she could tell no one. She couldn’t even tell her lover before she left.
She travelled west for a long time, crossing the Luembe and Lubilash rivers until one night she came to a fire where someone had been burning palm branches to make salt. No one was near by so she rested and fell asleep near the warmth of the fire. When the salt maker returned she was amazed at the beauty and royal clothes of the sleeping stranger. She went to the chief.
No one could be sure who the the stranger was until an old chief from another village who knew Calabash’s grandfather recognised who she must be. He told the story about her father and mother. A third chief broke eggs in front of her to check her blood. He said, “Welcome mother, come into the house where it’s warm.” He beat the lips of the talking drum and called everyone to see the beautiful woman. Everyone was happy to welcome a real princess from Luba. They accepted her as chief.
As people brought her gifts, she named the people after their gifts – Meat, Beans, Broadleaf, Fish, Chicken. She named those who brought Palm Sticks to braid her hair, ‘Palm Sticks’ and she named ‘Hair Braiders’. She named everyone.
Soon her lover in Luba, the blue hunter, Mwamba Ciluu, missed her. When he finally traced her to her new ancestral home the old women guarding it blocked his way, but Calabash welcomed him. They entered her hut as man and wife and ruled together.
The Drunken King, Nkongolo, heard about Calabash and her husband and how much the people admired her. He was angry and came to challenge her, saying her husband couldn’t rule because he was only a hunter. Mwamba Ciluu’s face was smooth. The blue hunter quickly killed the Drunken King. Soon Calabash had a son, Shimat.
Everything went well until Calabash planned to host a great feast for the people. Vast quantities of cassava, meat and calabashes of palm wine were carried to her capital. Just as everything was ready and the people had assembled, Calabash began to menstruate. She went into the forest for 6 days. Her husband also couldn’t be the host because he had no royal blood. Her son, Shimat, although still a child, became the host. From that day on, only descendants of Shimat can take the throne.
So said my son to my daughter as I stared into the smooth white empty calabash.
When the clots had cleared from Lavinia’s mouth and wrists, her brother tied spoons and knives to her wrists. She could cook and move things. In the evenings after dinner, with her knife, she began plucking the strings of her harp again.
For long hours every day she practiced until one evening I heard her speak again. With two knives, one fastened to each arm, plucking strings, she shaped their tones and rhythms into words. The more I listened the clearer those words became. She could see that I heard the voice of her hands. She named the two sons of the Matamba Princess and cut the strings of the harp.
I sat in the diviner’s house. With the smell of burning palm leaves from somebody’s fire in the air and the wind spinning leaves in the dust outside the door, the doctor brewed the substance in the belly of the nkisi. With my surviving sons, that moonless night we followed the doctor and his nkisi. It led not to the two sons of the Matamba Princess but to the ambassador from Portugal. Portugal had strayed far from his bed. We followed the nkisi from Portugal’s house through Mbanza Kongo and into the forest to a Pombeiro camp. There by the light of a fire he crooned over a Pombeiro baby. We crucified him and asked for the truth.
“What does it matter what I say?” he spat. “You’ll believe anything.”
My son held the Pombeiro child up to him.
“See this child? Like you it’s pale, hanging half way between life and death.”
“Don’t touch it! It has royal blood!” he said.
“Give us the truth and it will live.”
“It’s the Princess’s son. It’s my son.”
We demanded that he tell us everything.
“What happened to your daughter you brought upon yourself,” he said. “You killed her first born son. His brothers, two fools, talked and talked about what they wanted to do to your daughter but they only ever talked. It was me who planned it out. Me who pushed them to it but they were glad to have their mother’s vengeance on you. You who killed their brother.”
“What more? Name the crime and I am the villain. I set fire to granaries to watch innocent men punished. I killed cattle to set friend against friend. I sow seeds of mistrust and harvest the slaves. I’ve poisoned chickens to see men burn their wives as witches. I’ve dug up the dead and placed them at your doors to watch you dance. And I’ve done much much more. I’d do it all again. The devil is my master. How many times I’ve laughed in the dead of night! Just let me live again and I’ll do it all again and again!”
“Only evil can come from you,” I said. “Look at your son. Watch it wave its helpless hands while its father’s hands are helpless. Listen to the babe scream. Its father hears and does nothing.” I cut the sorcery out of its belly.
The next day word came that the Princess’s sons were going hunting. In the forest we caught them, her two sons, Rape and Murder. That same evening I went to the King and Princess’s feast with my youngest son and Lavinia.
“King, Princess, I’ve come to pay my respects,” I said. “I hope you will accept this small contribution to your great feast from my small household.” I gave them a large calabash of spiced stew that Lavinia had specially prepared.
“We remember the honour you brought to our kingdom,” the King said.
Once they had eaten well I said, “King, Princess, I have come to ask for justice. I’m old and humble now, but you’re as great as the Earth from which all wealth comes, on whose fruit we all depend. There is a witch in Mbanza Kongo.”
What could they do with everyone watching but to promise justice? The doctor danced and the crowd followed his footsteps. His feet followed the fetish to the witch’s house. Under her bed, for all to see, the doctor found the two heads of her children. Everyone saw a witch where once they saw a Princess. The Princess knew then that her sons were buried in her belly. “Princess, you are the Earth, whose fruits always return.”
The Mwissikongo elected me King again. The smooth face of this carving isn’t mine any more. No Kings have this face any more. They’re all drunk.
Kongo is not Kongo.
Standing there down the alley in the fresh blue morning air outside the thumping techno Matt ground his teeth up to you and with his desperate paranoid I need a private conversation with a trusted friend now looks pulled you away from the sparkle huggy kids down from The Beat he’d introduced you to who were still trying to get you to sniff from their Vicks inhaler saying it was really just Vicks but it felt so good but you were still not sure though and though you didn’t want to insult this cute little gang of ecky monsters by not trusting them, if it did turn out to be cleverly concealed amyl or something else you really didn’t need any more shit in your system right now, you needed whatever presence of mind you could cling to and you didn’t want to end up a casualty, because Matt explained to you that the cops were up the top of the alley with a sniffer dog stopping people and searching them as they came out and he had a whole sheet of purple ohms in his bag and there was no other way to exit the alley, and he couldn’t just dump them because that was a lot of money, and you read in his anxiety that he owed it to someone, it was bad, bad timing because he was starting to come down, sensing unreal threats in every peripheral fleck and now here was a real threat, although his girlfriend wasn’t yet, only 5 minutes ago, she came up and handed you an icecube and with her own icecube started rubbing it on your lips, saying, “Do this, it feels nice” so you did and it certainly did feel nice, too nice, and her lips slightly parted and she looked at the ice on your lips and her head tilted back slightly and it took every last ounce of your presence of mind to turn away and throw the ice on the concrete because that one moment could have ended so so badly for everyone, the whole idea of kissing your best friend’s girlfriend while he was off having a psychotic episode somewhere, maybe even observing you, and your own lover, Molly, how could you even consider betraying her, and just a moment ago she’d already been asking you suspicious questions about that woman who’d spoken to you on the dance floor and she’d had to explain that the woman might have been trying to pick you up because she was over from the meatmarket and you’d asked why anyone would want to pick you up and the conversation hadn’t gone too well, now Matt needed your help, though you lost sight of him now he’d wandered off and it looked like Charley needed help too, since he’d had a hard time all night on some bad speed, he’d been trying to talk but going so fast he couldn’t actually get a word out though at one point you’d heard him manage to rant about protein kinase synthesis of sugar cane but mostly he’d ended up sitting down making strangled noises trying just to speak, but luckily though Emma, whose freak was cleanliness, whose clothes were always impeccably tasteful, in well coordinated, understated tones and always spotlessly clean and she even always brought her toothbrush, and she sometimes brought an esky of fresh fruit for everyone in the morning too, where was Molly, and a girl you’d met earlier, where on earth was Molly, she’ll be jealous again, that girl who’d explained that her mother was a prostitute and asked you what you did, and you’d said nothing, studying economics, and she’d asked if you thought that people end up doing whatever they were brought up to do, because it seemed to her that sooner or later eventually she’d also end up a prostitute like her mother, so you explained to her now, that Emma over there, her mother was a 50s housewife and wanted Emma to be a 50s housewife too but Emma was no 50s housewife, and that that guy over there, who was nicknamed Rat, because he was a Rat, and his friend with him A, poor A was shooting up now, the last time you’d seen him before this he’d been hanging out with Rat in the Westfield shopping town foodcourt hoping to run into a dealer and as much as you tried to talk about other things the only thing they could talk about was how good that batch of beige had been, and what a shame it had dried up because someone had got busted and the last they had of it, see look at the baggy, you could always tell this batch because it was this beige colour, it was so good, there was never any like it, had degraded to clear liquid and wasn’t any good any more, which was all such a sad terrible shame because while Rat was a rat, A was a really sweet guy who just needed the stuff to prop up his sensitive personality and couldn’t get by without it any more, he was a mouse, a mouse and a rat sitting side by side, strange bedfellows, and you worried not just for A but for yourself because you could see a little of A in yourself, you couldn’t speak much without speed either which was a warning to you, you didn’t want to be a slave to anything, you had to mind not to get addicted, on the other hand you could see a little of Rat in yourself too, a little of everyone was in everyone, Averroes, I and I, if all the flies were one fly, when it comes down to it and just as somewhere in the back of your mind sitting out the front of a forgotten petrol station is an old man in a rocking chair, and another down the road shouting at you that you’re a worthless no good washed up waste of human life, while there is a hermit in a cave in the mountains, and a fucking genius and another saying, hang on let’s not get carried away, and another, another some way up a skyscraper looking up from the screen, at the day out the window for a moment, now middle-aged, unable to quit because he’s making too much money, always putting off what he always wanted to do when he was young, you can’t give up that much money, the opportunity cost is too great to do anything but make money, and everyone would laugh like it was a mid-life crisis, economics is the religion of our theocracy, yet hardly anyone, beyond a select priesthood, gives a second thought to the central tenets of this faith, to the almighty one and only law of supply and demand, to this blind faith in the free market, can anyone say, what is the marginal productivity of a whore to a pimp, how are you differentiated as a unit of labour in a monopolistically competitive market, what is the marginal utility of living one more day? a chiclet boy on the streets of Oaxaca understands the pragma of economies of scale better than any theory will ever teach you, Economics 101, Sally has a surplus of wheat and not enough fish, Jack has a surplus of fish and not enough wheat, if they trade, they both benefit, Economics 101, if Sally is hungry and Jack takes all the food she will do whatever the fuck Jack wants, you must quit economics as soon as possible so you will never have so much money you can’t afford to lose it, never have too much money to do what you want, you must lose your mind and become unemployable, anyway, just as I contain multitudes, so each of us is one of those multitudes in the great hive mind of the city and they think that machines make them see further, go faster, live longer and fly, make them more powerful but they don’t realise they are all just components of the great cybernetic control system sending them money and desire signals that automate the movements of their bodies to work and it’s growing and growing stretching its road and electronic tentacles fusing itself with other towns and cities into a vast super-intelligent octopus being infesting cancerously across the planet, you weren’t sure if you had said any of that out loud or just thought it, but you could see she was not listening, which was fair enough and you wanted to get away anyway to find Molly, so anyway those guys, Rat and A both of their fathers are salesmen but that doesn’t mean that either of them have to be salesmen, so you don’t have to be a prostitute, although on the other hand there is Jason whose father is a stockbroker, and the plan his father has for him is that when he’s given up his wild youth there’s a job worth loads of money waiting for him doing stockbroking in Sydney, so maybe you’re right, but things don’t have to be this way or that way, you can do what you like, what do you want to do anyway? anyway, I’d better go and help my friend Charley over there, bye, where on earth, so you went and spoke to Emma who’d had her hand on Charley’s shoulder most of the night, to see how he was, and agreed that the best thing would probably be to get some milk
to help him detox, milk is always good, and there must be something open by now selling milk now that it was daybreak, and you ran into Matt again and he explained he was going to ask Emma to carry his bag with the sheet in it when they left to walk past the cops because the cops never search girls, so you said, “That’s not really fair on Emma. I mean if the cops do search her it puts her in a difficult position of having to either get busted or to dob in her good friend. You should let her know that if she get’s busted it’s ok for her to dob you in. I mean you just can’t put someone in that position, you see what I mean? Look I’ll do it, give me the bag and I’ll get it past the cops.” “Oh, um, er, no.” “Look it’s alright, you’re coming down. They’ll search paranoid looking people, but I’m still going so I’ll be fine. I’ll just walk right by like nothing’s wrong. Acid doesn’t smell anyway. Those dogs are trained for speed and smack and coke and ecky but you haven’t got any of that shit have you?” “No, no don’t worry.” “Look, I’ve got to go get Charley some milk from a corner shop or something, so I’ll walk past them with nothing, and I’ll get an idea of the scene, and see if they’re searching everyone or just paranoid people ok?” “Ok.” so you went up the alley and round the corner and sure enough there were 4 cops and a german shepherd, notorious phone bookers these cops were, once they got Charley up against a cyclone fence one night and one held a phone book to his belly while the other clubbed it with his torch, it doesn’t leave a bruise that way you see so no evidence, they rummaged a little through one person’s bag and let them go and they didn’t stop you at all so out in the real world you crossed the road to avoid drunks throwing up in gutters like dogs shouting blithering shit and trying to fight unable to walk, trying to speak unable to think, this piss head mob is what you, if you are to be an ordinary bloke, are supposed to be, these are the majority people populating the city stretching out miles around you throughout the whole country, it was no wonder Matt’s girlfriend said once, like all the girls do, that they’d been worried when first invited thinking it would be a dangerous circumstance with everyone on drugs but everyone was really nice and it was much better than pubs and other clubs which are always full of assholes, oh god it was a horrible ugly, ugly world out here in the beautiful blue light of dawn, you were standing exposed in the unforgiving light of the 7-11, longing for the sanctuary of the ecky kids, afraid these swarms would smash your teeth in the pavement, afraid they’d grope your girlfriend’s arse, forcing you to decide whether to kill them or, humiliated, nobly ignore them, afraid you will have to kill them, you need, need, the unreal world down the alley, the cool gentility of acid, ecstasy and amphetamines. But now even the kids were starting to crumble, getting gritty and craven as mephistophelian grip got on them. No wonder Emma was on her clean freak. You too, you too were getting gritty, gritty, your jaw hurt but you couldn’t stop chewing nothing, gritty and itchy. Not just that but starting to enjoy being all fucked up and guttery. What after all was separating you from those fucked up scrag junkies moaning and whining and having domestics at the station cause they couldn’t get on? Maybe a lot, maybe a fine line. Hungry ghosts, their bellies large and their necks narrow, insatiable, craving poison of mad torment, unable to distinguish pain and pleasure, visceral psychotic, craving ecstatic agony, lust and guilt, living dead, never alive unless dying, recognition too late, coming back to the point of no return, suffering desire, desiring suffering. You made it back to the top of the alley with the milk worried they might bust you because a normal person would be blind drunk and not have anything to do with milk, you couldn’t be seen by the cops carrying milk, it would look very suspicious to be carrying milk at the end of the night, a proper drunk person wouldn’t be anywhere near milk, damn it you hadn’t thought of that on the way out, so you surreptitiously held it in your right hand behind your leg so they wouldn’t see it and smuggled the milk past the cops ok again, you paused to ask the ecky kids from The Beat for a sniff of Vicks to make peace and trust with them, you went to give Emma the milk for Charley, but they weren’t there, they were sitting at the bottom of the fire escape now so you went over and offered Charley some but he refused so you just sat there for a while, pretending to absent mindedly drink it casually so he would ultimately feel ok about it, since it’s a common politeness when people are suspicious to taste of food before offering it to demonstrate it isn’t poisonous, just as The Beat kids had done with the Vicks, and as you chatted Charley was saying nobody knows what these new drugs do, at least he could talk now, ecstasy for example was such a recent invention that no one had yet been alive long enough for anyone to know the long-term effects, it could do anything all these people here could be vegetables by the time they’re forty or it could make them permanently e-ing, or maybe in a permanent catatonic state like to be constantly in a nitrous oxide nirvana absence, but they’re all so beautiful it would be a shame for that to happen and the best people too, imagine them like that can you imagine being like that it’s terrible oh god the horror, and you suggested that maybe what he’d taken that night wasn’t speed but PCP since that creates a dissociation between the hemispheres of the brain that makes you impulsive and your thoughts disconnected, just as he had described his experiences earlier on, in any case it was a bad batch and nobody should touch that shit again and Emma said that it was better when everyone used to be on acid, it was fun and the worst thing people got were stomach cramps, you agreed though the comedowns did get worse and worse until most of it was coming down and she said there were only so many times you could understand the meaning of life the universe and everything before you got bored of it, and you laughed and said to Charley you remember that time we had too many mushrooms and that you were worried about Matt because he seemed to like valium a little too much after a night out and it’s addictive and people who like that would like heroin and the trouble with that is you don’t realise you’ve had too much till it’s too late, and Charley said nothing is ever the same as it was the first time, but look at all these people chasing that first time again and again and again, like a beat, like the sunrise sunset, every weekend, sometimes on Wednesdays too, like dogs vomiting because they eat more than they can eat and he finally took a sip of the milk you had strategically put in his hand in the midst of all this as if it was nothing and you were just all sharing it, and you gave Emma a nod and said you had to go find Molly, and ran into Matt instead who said he’d put his bag up on the fire escape and Emma was sat at the bottom of the fire escape to stop anyone going up, or at least keep an eye on if anyone came down with the bag, so she couldn’t get busted with the bag but was helping him keep an eye on it, and you went back up the stairs to the club and once more into the burst of beats, a whirl of limbs, a mass of hands flailing, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the turmoil of strobes and colours. You grooved slowly along the edge of an ultraviolet haze, a laserlit, black incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric cyborg was cursing you, praying to you, welcoming you – who could tell? You were cut off from the comprehension of your surroundings; you glided past like a phantom, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, the blindness of last ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign and no memories, of ages never to come, with empty promises and no trace of hope. You foresee pasts that never were. You remember futures that will never be.
You couldn’t count how many people in this room alone had spent the equivalent of someone’s annual wage on their sneakers, rubber souls infused with gel and air for added bounce on the dance floor, or on their ephemeral dose of synthetic jubilation and instant epiphany and you were that man in Metropolis gallivanting in the exotic garden seeing for the first time what is happening among the machines hidden below. Looking down from a balcony overlooking the frenzied thumping laserlit electro-chemical meat machine mass, you couldn’t get it out of your head that with the amount of people in the world that someone somewhere right now was looking down the barrel of a gun, and each moment there was a different person pulling a trigger and a different person shot, out of hatred, contempt, for fun, following orders, what was in the head of that person looking down the barrel and that person dying, and as much as you tried to put it out of your head and as much as you knew it was the psychosis starting again, and as much as it felt grotty and disgusting and you didn’t like yourself in such a debased state without any style at all, you just couldn’t stop the fear, the sensation that someone was just on the brink of whacking a machete into the back of your neck. It grew in intensity and the back of your neck bristled and sweated and the muscles tightened up but you knew it was your imagination so you didn’t turn around, still you couldn’t stop that feeling, but you knew if you spun around that you would then just feel like the person had dodged around and was still behind you stifling a laugh about to swing that machete in the back of your neck and that as much as you turned around, like an obsessive compulsive you would never be able to be sure that there wasn’t a machete on the very brink of being swung into the back of your neck, just millimetres away from the first moment of contact with your skin as it came hurtling in to sever your spine and roll your head on the floor but most of all you would look like an idiot ducking or turning around, round in circles like a dog chasing its tail, so you just stood there tense full loathing the world, loathing yourself, so you went down into the darkness and light, and holding on to the god’s eye hexagon you’d learned to craft in primary school around your neck made of insulated wire woven around three crossed pieces of a coat hanger you tried to dance it out, and with each touch of your rubber sole on the floor another glow-in-the-dark plastic crucified Jesus rolled off of a factory conveyor belt in China and another Paraguayan child said their prayers to Jesus suffering the suffering of every single person in the history of the entire world and eating his flesh and drinking his blood every Sunday for thousands of years ever after, while these people all here, what do we worship, worship Hephaestos, the child of Aphrodite and Hephaestos sparking from his anvil sex-machines metamorphosing into an organobot iteratively designing and upgrading itself into unprecedented Babylon, Great Moloch devouring the manic, orgasmic innocent sacrifices … the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed. Hug me till you drug me, honey, Kiss me till I’m in a coma, Hug me, honey, snugly bunny, Love’s as good as soma.
and someone touched you on the shoulder, thank Jesus Christ and Holy Mary Mother of God it was Molly and she had in her hand a cup of liquid black, and she offered you the cup and you took the cup from her, and sipped it, looking at her as she looked at you and it was the carbon dioxide bubble infused cola nut flavoured, sweetened with the sugar of Proserpine, blood of sacrificial slaves, sweet decadent ambrosia, nectar of the Gods. The word went round that the cops had gone, everyone went in a taxi but you went on the back of Matt’s Akira bike. He said he was worried because he’d been seeing purple all night, and wondered what would happen if all the traffic lights were purple, but that he’d figured out that green was the bottom light, so he’d go if the bottom light was on, he dropped you home and you went under the house to avoid people and saw the esky Emma used to use for fruit and opened it and saw that nobody had emptied it since last time and the fruit had fermented into yellow stinking liquid in which a few bloated inch long white worms floated so you went up stairs and became catatonic, unable to move with fear, fear someone was watching you and would laugh, fear that you would kill yourself, fear of your own hands, just pure fear and nothing else, remembering with disgust the stupid shit you said to everybody, dancing like an idiot, how agonisingly good everything felt, how much you loved them, loved them all, but couldn’t bear to face them, to be near them, you had humiliated yourself and betrayed everyone, those beautiful people, that moment was gone, would never be again, they would all die, the match that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and all that was left was this craven horrible little slime creature yourself who could not be near any of those holy, holy people, that beautiful innocent naiveté in that moment as exquisite and fleet as that single flutter of a butterfly wing, your fingers were around her neck, squeezing more and more until you thought suddenly it was already too late and let go and she gasped for breath, alive in your hands, we keep coming back to this point of no return, afraid of your own hands, was that even a real memory, why didn’t she leave, afraid of your own hands, there was a regular dripping outside, sounded like a creaky bed, and the traffic had its rhythms and so did the planets and the moon, the whole universe was made not of atoms but rhythms, the rhythm of a creaky bed, all sex, the universe was made of sex, all just to shame you, wanting everyone but entirely untouchable, you deserve everything you get, there’s nobody to blame, betrayal, betrayal, finally realising that nobody really wanted you there, you spoiled everyone’s good time with your cautiousness and inability to communicate, and they only ever had you along in the same way they would patronise a disabled person out of sympathy, you felt the suffering of everyone yet you were only one person so would need to multiply that sensation again infinitely, yet still hadn’t suffered properly, just a whinger, you brought it all on yourself and had nobody else to blame but yourself, what kind of idiot would keep taking something that made you feel like this, you lusting, vomiting dog, oh the agonising, ecstatic crash of innocence and experience, the passion of a dark-in-the-glow Jesus, the wealthy airs of bon vivants, the stupid faces of drunkards, the glistening cheeks of dancers, the dementia patients in closets, the abortions disposed of, the day forgets them, tries not to think of them, lying wide eyed far from success stories and still, the contented spring from their beds … awake, dawn pierces me, I see that I am hideous … and I see that what is not me is hideous I hide under the covers … empty gifts in glass towers decorate glass towers of empty gifts … whoever hasn’t had enough, puts people in coffins … we are their gambling chips, and they think us proud to have the most pips … we endeavour far up the garden path, they point the finger at us, and save themselves … divided we stay, misguided idealistic individuals with only dirges and contemplations … I was an honest man … an honest woman … a donkey … a judge that stayed out of court … always nobody, forever nemo … brightness you are harsher than hatred … her thoughts are dry and indifferent, our legs are crossed … I stay awake far from the others gathered to watch I see in the clear light of day all them in the world I am catatonic … they dressed me when I awoke… now, paralysed, I know my place … I know that it doesn’t matter how things should be, they are … quiet down here … I am the ponderous moment … it is old sun at midday … I reveal scuttlebugs … I hear rocks be still when I sit close …
Through thick foliage Luuk peered along his gun sight at the village, hoping a head would appear, an arm, some movement, some sign of life. Sweat ran down his forehead and formed a droplet hanging from his eyebrow. He was sure he’d only need a moment. He needed the inducting officer to see his marksmanship for himself. Without bragging, to casually pick off a spot in the distance. To hear his congratulatory, “Shot!” But the village was desolate. The inducting officer slapped him on the shoulder. “Never mind. They must have heard us coming. Some other day.”
She never slept well. That was not unusual for the times. Still, she couldn’t sleep well. Perhaps she missed her home. But others were also far from home and they didn’t spend days staring at something far away so that their children had to bring them food and water. When people asked her about it afterwards, she didn’t know what they were talking about. Everyone knew she was sick but doctors were in great demand and short supply. Times were so bad even doctors couldn’t heal themselves and suffered the same fate as everyone else.
In those days, if someone came and went in a good mood, smiling and laughing like everyone’s old friend it was only because they were afraid that all the malice going about the world would touch them. So when a doctor arrived with a grave and serious look, everyone knew he was no charlatan. Her children asked her to see him but she refused to go, saying that doctors were for sick people. When they asked her again, she said that doctors sow sickness to harvest their dinner. That’s how they build their prestige. It wasn’t until she began to stare again, sweating, not leaving her hut, that the doctor came to her. It was not the work of a witch, he said, but of a child that did not want to come into the world.
No one but the doctor knows what was in the medicine he prepared in his horns out of town at the crossroads at night. After he had placed it in her mouth, he put charcoal in the fetish, sang, and with a single blow struck another nail into the fetish. She stood and walked alone into the forest. She walked through the bush for a long while, it might have been hours or days or a hundred years because each step was like the last, until she came to her old home village. It was burned to the ground. She remembered the gold necklace she had left in her house and went to those ashes that had been her house. She knew it was risky to stay there but she kept running her fingers through the ashes looking for that necklace. In the middle of the ashes a lump began growing. It swelled and swelled until it had the form of a small ashen child. Its hair, skin and eyes were all ash white. It said, “Take me with you.”
Afraid, she tried to run away but it blinded her and said, “Take me with you.” Still she tried to run away, but it choked her breath and said, “Take me with you.” She returned. The child climbed up and clung to her back.
She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew the ash child couldn’t walk on its own. She wondered if it had ever been able to walk and it said, “I have been this way forever.” Although it was a child it spoke as an adult would.
In moonlight she walked on for a long while and the child said, “Ah, here are the plantains,” and soon enough she was among plantains. When they came into the fields, just as she began to wonder if she could let the child down to the ground and rest it asked, “Why? Am I heavy?”
“No,” she replied, embarrassed that the child might think she wasn’t strong enough.
It laughed and said, “Soon enough I’ll be heavy.”
She walked on and on through the night. “There should be a crossroads near here,” the ash child said, and she came to a crossroads. She stopped.
“Go to the left,” the child said, but in that direction the road led into a forest, darkened with more shadows than any other road and any of the forest she had so far come through.
“Don’t worry,” the child said. “You will be safe.” But as she went down the road the child became heavier. Through the forest she came into open fields again, then to a village in daylight. But though it was mid-morning there were no signs of people. The village was desolate.
“Go on,” the child said. “Just a little more.” The child was heavier than stone. “It was a day like this.” She staggered under its weight.
“What was?” she asked.
“You know. Keep going.” So she struggled on, through the empty village, across the fields and into the forest once more. They were not far into it when the child said, “There it is. There, among the roots of the Bouma tree.” She went over, between the roots. The weight was unbearable. “It was here wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she answered. “All of you were here with me, hiding. Your brother and sisters kept silent but you were too young. You cried and cried. They would have killed us all.” The weight of the child brought her shoulders to the ground.
“What do I know?” you ask yourself. You drive to work every day. You go to the supermarket to get groceries – asparagus from Peru, pineapples from Queensland, frozen Vietnamese Hoki fillets in Idaho potato crumbs, cooked in Malaysian palm oil, and drive home again. Some days you go via Chichen Itza, sometimes via Baghdad, or Osaka. Sometimes via some thing you should have said or done, or some future you long for. Sometimes remembering conversations with the dead, resurrected from pages on the shelves.
It is a sad old cliche, to be driven to despair by this old routine, of work to pay off a mortgage, while you wish there was more to life. You wish you had some idea to get rich, or maybe pack it in and do something, anything, but even if you did have some great idea, you don’t know the secret handshakes to get it up and running without some corporation capturing the market while you’re still scratching your head. You’ll always be a negligible pip somewhere on the vast scale from rich to poor, vastly richer than the world’s poor, vastly poorer than the world’s rich, and you could work all your life noon and night, and only shift a pixel. You remind yourself you should count yourself lucky you even have a job, a roof over your children’s heads and food in their bellies.
This is the same shit every 9 to 5 schmuck thinks. There’s nothing new about that. Everyone has always been bored of their mundane existence. Don Quixote made a knight’s helmet of a barber’s bowl. Everyone everywhere always wishes they were in another time, another place – Paris in the 30s, London in the 60s, Berlin in the 20s, San Francisco in ’67, Greenwich Village in the 50s, the Elizabethan court, the Florentine Renaissance, Edo in the Floating World, Arcadia long ago, Utopia to come. “If only things were different, then things would be different.” So fuck all that. What is happening right here, right now? What do you know? What does it all come down to? What are the presuppositions that make this possible? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for this moment, this moment that so many people everywhere find themselves in, that their life depends upon every day, without even thinking about it, driving the car to work, to get food?
Here is your hand on the steering wheel, your foot on the pedal. The points you make contact with the car. It’s a control system. Controlling what? The internal combustion engine. That’s the main thing about a car. But what is the main thing about that? The piston? The carburettor? The universal governor is the thing. But what is all that for? To turn the axle to turn the wheel. The wheel, the icon of technology, first used in ancient Sumeria, the first settled civilisation, first to farm, to write, to stock-take inventories of trade, with its base-60 mathematical system extrapolated from the circle, by which we still measure time. Sextant, quadrant, compass and astrolabe. The cogs of the marine chronometer for the discovery of longitude at sea. The wheel of technology, of the cart, the potter’s wheel, the spinning and orbiting of celestial bodies, the days and seasons, always repeating, always the same and never the same, the rise and fall of fortunes, the cycle of life and death, generation after generation. What about this wheel then? There is a moment of contact with the road, where a point at the edge of the wheel is stationary, the axle resting just above it, before the point hurtles around again. Infinite points each after each other, on the edge of the tire, gripping the road, carrying you along one brief still moment after another, on a cushion of air. All this speed rests upon the tire’s friction in that series of still moments. It all comes down to the rubber tire. Without it there would be no cars. No driving to work. There are engines in other things, but nothing would be the same if it were all rail or horse, or some other contraption. It’s only because of the tire that the city is shaped the way it is, with it’s patchwork of wide roads, that it can be so spread out as food and everything we use can be trucked to shops. Perhaps other parts are also necessary, but it’s all built on the tire. What made these tires possible? Where do they come from? Who do they come from? How did you end up here? What is the history of this every day moment? What happened that you find yourself here now, in this mundane and strange situation, driving home, to work, to shops, to home, in a succession of so many stationary points, always the same, never the same, turning slowly into a dead body?
The internet says that John Dunlop’s son was riding his bike in the cobbled streets of Belfast and got a headache.
JOHN BOYD DUNLOP, OF BELFAST, IRELAND
WHEEL-TIRE FOR CYCLES
Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 435,995, dated September 9, 1890.
Application filed March 11, 1890. Serial No. 343,445. (No model.) Patented in England March 8, 1889, No d, 116.
To all whom it may concern:
Be it known that I, JOHN BOYD DUNLOP, of 50 Gloucester Street, Belfast, Ireland a subject of the Queen of Great Britain, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Wheel-Tires for Cycles and other vehicles, and in means for securing the same to the wheel rims, (for which I have obtained a patent March 8, 1889,) of which the following is a specification.
My invention has for its object to provide a hollow or tubular india-rubber tire for the wheels of cycles and other vehicles which is inflated with air or gas under pressure and surrounded with cloth, canvas, or other suitable material to adapt it to withstand the internal pressure of the within- contained air or gas and to allow of its being maintained securely in position on the rim of the cycle or vehicle wheel...
From the foregoing description it will be obvious that a hollow air-inflated india-rubber tire constructed according to my invention possesses serveral important advantages over the solid india-rubber tires at present in use, inasmuch as, while being equal in strength to those ordinarily made, it is more elastic, all vibration and shock when riding or driving over rough roads being intercepted between the rim of the wheel and the ground. Consequently little or no jar is experienced by the rider or riders of the cycle or occupants of the vehicle to which my improvements are applied.
What do I know? Every day before dawn, I light my lantern. I take my .44, my tapping knife, machete, tigelinhas and set out on the circuit. I cut over my marks in the tree and it weeps into my cup. Back to the beginning, a cup of coffee, and around again, collecting the tigelinhas of milk in a pail. In the afternoon, dribbling the caoutchouc on the spit over the funnel of massaranduba and urucury nut smoke. Choking and coughing and a swig of Cachaça. Another pela for the stockpile. Formiga, we are the same, doing our rounds, but there’s no need for you to choke.
You crawl up the pole and across the spit, confused in the smoke. Here, step on this leaf. I’ll take you back to this Inga tree, little Castanha Formiga da Selva. Or else we’ll both end up dead, choking on this smoke. You’ve lost your way, like the Englishman. That damn Englishman didn’t know how to read. It was funny at first to see him, wasn’t it? Perhaps you and your brothers have seen him wandering around. He’s the one looking lost all the time. Pointing his blue eyes here and there, like it’s the middle of the night. He said he was a book keeper. He can read as much books as he likes, adding how much was paid to who, and who owes how much to who, and who must work for who, but when his company went broke all that did him no good. They paid for him to come all this way from his beloved city, he reads their books, he reads their letters. He reads that his company is broke, that they can’t even afford a ticket for his boat to London, or even to Pará. The poor bastard is stuck here like the rest of us.
At first it was funny. Remember how he tried to explain, with the few words he knows, to us everything we already know? That we could work from dawn to dusk for the rest of our life and never pay it back. “The company store!” he said, “machete, this, and this, and lantern, bucket, knife, ammunition, beef can, oh and booze, booze and tobacco, and all, all too much! And boat go, boat go. 150 pounds! Cost much. How much rubber sell for you? How much? Not much. Today pay this much, today get this much. This month, this year, pay this much, this year have only, only this much. Not 150 pounds. Always pay more, get less. So forever, pay! Never free! To die!” He was tearing his hair out, repeating himself as if we didn’t understand, standing there outside the store, babbling like a lunatic. But it was him who didn’t understand. He’s the one who can’t read, Formiga.
He said that he would run away because he is not a slave. Said we should all run and damn the debt. He can run, he has nothing more important than himself. He can afford for the police to shoot him. He has no family and he has his London to hide in. I made him run.
He was always writing in his book. One day I asked him what it was he was writing there. “Japanese!” he said, “Japanese in Riberalta and down the Beni. Japanese is sober, serious, clean. Japanese make fish for town, vegetables, rice, beans, bananas, tobacco. Japanese carpenter, bang metal, hard work, hair cut, fruit sell, and some seringuero. Yes, also seringuero. Very good. Wait! But! Japan, too much people. Japan no food. Japan hungry. And Japanese go in ship in Amazon. Japanese plus Indian baby is perfect seringuero. Hard work plus good health in Amazon. Japan plus Indian baby. Hot jungle. Japanese hard work. Indian no fever.” And then, then he says our wives and daughters are all whores and this will save them. “Seringueros, no more slaves,” he says, “women no more whores.” He thinks the rubber tree will save Japan and England and America. He thinks Japan and England and America will save the seringueros and the whores. But he couldn’t even read the trees.
Too worried about the world to see what’s in front of him. Always serious. But once I heard him laugh. I tried to explain, “You’re in debt, I’m in debt, every péon is in debt. Your company was in debt and now it’s dead. The Patrão is in debt to the house in Manaos, to pay for his Seringal. And now, you say that England and America will have a debt from their wars. You say they can pay their debt by harvesting rubber.” So, I said, “So, now the whole world is a péon. Even England is a seringuero.” That was the only time I heard him laugh.
What do I know? If you live here you are in debt or dead. I don’t need a book keeper to tell me that. Everything I learned I learned without a teacher. I told him he must learn the marks of different serinqueros, so that he never taps the wrong tree. You tap the wrong tree someone will tap you. Even my kids can figure that out. I made him run. They all heard him say he would run on his debt. The police will get him. They would have shot him in the end anyway, the way he was. The Englishman couldn’t read whose scars are on the Shiringa, but he won’t tap my circuit any more.
What do I know? To the Englishman there was a forest. He didn’t see all the members of this family. Shiringa, Barrigona, Huasaí, Huicungo, Palla, Cashapona… He saw a forest and in it he only looked for Hevea Brasiliensis. A fish on his plate is a fish. A leaf is a leaf. When a bird calls he wouldn’t know who it is. He has no name for you, Castanha Formiga da Selva. You’re all ants to him. Go back to your nectar and your nest.
The red crepe paper and black pipe cleaner poppy is still planted in the air conditioner vent to the left of the speedometer. Your daughter made it at school for Remembrance Day, lest we forget. The aged paper flakes away if you touch it and the sun has faded it pink.
With your cousins at your grandparent’s place, you nailed old bits of wood together in the shed to make Tommy guns and play at killing Nazis.
He didn’t speak much about the war. Late one night sitting by the kerosene burner in his dressing gown with a cup of tea, he said he watched his friend get shot off a bridge and fall into the river. He wasn’t killed instantly by the shot. He was shot and drowning to death at the same time. Dying two deaths. One morning at the dining table he gave you a juicy fruit lolly and said, one night, he and the other commandos were way out in the middle of the jungle, in the mountains, far from anywhere. At night they could hear bicycles. Bicycles in the middle of the jungle, in the mountains, with no roads anywhere. They thought they were going mad. “Can you hear that? Is that bicycles? Can you hear bicycles?” It took them a while to figure out the Japs had dug tunnels and were riding bikes around inside the mountains. There were 300 of them to 3000 Japanese and their job was to make them believe there were more. He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Though they had some help from the locals. Your father passed on that part after your grandfather died, “The Japs reputation was for being cruel. We were fair but our reputation was that our punishments were worse. Like the Japanese might torture you to get information, but we would just ask and if we found out you’d betrayed us you’d be shot. Which would you prefer? What they couldn’t get over though, was how the locals used to play soccer with heads. Sometimes they sent just two or three men on a mission and you’d walk into a village and they’d be kicking around their enemies’ heads. Mostly other locals, but sometimes Japs, and sometimes us too, because some of them worked for the Japs. They were such lovely people otherwise, except they’d kick people’s heads around.”
He was looking after you while your father did something or other. He took you to Westfield Shopping town to buy a model Vought Corsair and stopped and stood for a moment in the middle of it, looking around at the shops and people and said if you used a flamethrower in here, all the way up to the supermarket at the end, all these people, and he shook his head.
Even though they were much cheaper, his children couldn’t convince him to buy a Japanese car. That’s why you drive your kids to school in his old Holden Commodore.
In Japan they use paper cranes instead of poppies. School children make them and send them to Hiroshima. They’ve been doing this since Sadako Sasaki, dying of leukaemia from the radiation, tried to fold 1000 paper cranes. The school kids at Hiroshima were caught outside because they were working on clearing demolition sites when they dropped Little Boy. In the museum there is a letter written on the morning of that day by a girl, the same age as your daughter is now, about how she didn’t like swimming lessons. As you walk through that museum it shows, step by step, from the epicentre outward, what remains of people: the outline of the shadow of a man burned into stone steps; a pair of glasses; a lunch box; the people trying to reach water with their burnt flesh falling away; the people running, so overwhelmed with thirst they drank the black rain even though they thought it was petrol; the woman whose kimono pattern was burned onto the skin of her back because dark absorbs heat more than light colours; the girl who died of leukaemia years later. When you were her age, a Japanese student was staying at your house. Your father had found her looking lost in the Valley as night was falling and showed her to a hostel. She ended up staying at your house for a while and taught you how to fold paper cranes.
Kosei lived in the share house in Sydney with you for a while, when you were an Economics drop out, and he’d been out trying to flog his photographs by the side of Oxford St to make a few extra bucks, but someone had spat on them.
“Do you think it’s racism?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” you said. “Those people would spit on anyone. They don’t care who you are. Maybe racism, maybe not.”
He said he planned not to go out on ANZAC day because his friend had told him he’d get beaten up. You wondered why your grandfather fought the war if there are Nazis running around all over the country. Kosei talked about peace and who cares what they were fighting about, he’s him and you are you. So you both stayed in on ANZAC day, had another smoke and listened to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Later he got a job at a Japanese graphic design company a few blocks away. He didn’t want to work in Japan or for a Japanese company. Too strict. Your whole life planned out. That’s why he left Japan and came here but he was flat broke and had no choice. They got him in the end.
You went with him to his work one day, you can’t remember why. The manager there, off the cuff, asked you if you wanted a job there. How cool would it be to work for a Japanese graphic design company? You could get work in any design place if they knew you had learned the Japanese way. And since every Graphic Design job required 3 years experience to apply, how else could you ever get to work in Graphic Design but through some freak of luck like this? It was a one and only chance. And if it’s true about all that Japanese discipline you’d get some serious, proper skills to shut up any condescending bastard who thought you were some half-baked two-bit wannabe. Like those wood block prints, imagine if you could do those prints.
That print by Yoshitoshi, is that his name? From New Forms of Thirty-Six Strange Things. Some mornings, after you drop the kids off and do the next leg to work, you get lost thinking about it.
An autumn wind whispers.
Grass grows in Ono’s eyes.
No more to say.
… says the poet, the ghost of the great poet Ono, capricious young lover, enlightened in old age, who died while crossing Musashi plain. The poet of the Tales of Ise who rested one evening on his journey across Musashi plain and heard the first lines of a poem whispered in the pampas grass and added the final line, and found the skull the next day, pampas grass growing through its eye sockets. In the Noh play, Unrin-in, a young man on stage is the audience to the ghost of the poet, outside of time, reciting. The poet in that Ukiyo-e of Yoshitoshi listening to the past. In the Meiji era, Yoshitoshi, the last master of Ukiyo-e, for a long time lived in poverty, his mistresses prostituting themselves to support him, dying in madness. Beautiful violence, sex, ghost stories and poetry. Vulgar and aesthetic.
It’s hard to know where to start, you could say it this way or that way. Either way, it all ends up meaning everything else. And so everything ends up meaning everything else. And so means nothing. The poppy, the paper crane, the print. The air conditioner vent. No more to say.
When you first had the privilege of seeing Unrin-in, that final act where the manifestation of Ariwara no Narihira dances, it went on so long that some of the audience were nodding off. Even the flautist and the older drummer on stage were struggling to keep their heads up. As it went on, so slow, a single step, a long pause, a drum beat, a flute peal, you lost sense of time. You couldn’t tell any more if it had been 10 minutes or hours. At first it was funny that the play was so boring it put people to sleep but then you slipped into a daydream yourself. The dancer paused. The mask stared into you, unsettling and transfixing you amid the overall tranquility. This play, Unrin-in, about the ancient poems, Tales of Ise, has been performed in this way, witnessed by audiences, for generations. In that liminal state you understood that without you, without the performer and the witness here and now, re-enacting this ritual, without you and him, it won’t exist anymore. You are humble and important at the same time. Afterwards you read a translation and learned that this sensation was the intention of the dance. The embodied Ariwara no Narihira says, “Like the stories of the Tales of Ise, this dream dance transcends time.”
The Japanese graphic design manager said, “Ok, you draw some meat. If you can draw meat, you can work here.” He left you with a pencil and paper. Meat? What kind of meat? You tried a T-Bone. You never knew drawing meat with a pencil would be so hard. The damn thing was an embarrassment – it ended up looking more like a child’s drawing of a penis than a piece of meat. When he came back he politely said not bad, but not good enough. Finally a job you could have loved, not the telemarketing purgatory the Department of Social Security sent you to all the time, but you blew it.
Why didn’t he ask you to draw a hand? You can draw hands and you can draw them because your art teacher in high school said they are hard to draw. Why the fuck didn’t she say, “Drawing meat is hard.” Why didn’t someone say – “Hey, you know, in the industry, a good test of someone’s natural skill is if they can draw meat.” Then you would have been prepared. If anyone had said, “The day will come when your future will depend on your ability to draw meat” you would have practiced every damn day till you could draw a piece of meat so good you could serve it up for dinner. But no.
Still you can’t complain. Really, if you really wanted to, you could have quit school and saved up money by chopping tomatoes and washing dishes to go to Japan like a proper person would have who got it in their head to put their mind to something. Maybe your dad was right. He always said you should wake up to reality, pointing at you with his middle finger, calling you “James Dean”, but you could never figure what he meant by “the real world”. When you looked around all you could see was Gyprock. All you knew was you didn’t like Rugby and you didn’t want to sniff glue at Oxley station. There must be a third way, so after buying some hash from the skinhead who lived under a Queenslander around the corner, you went into a second-hand bookshop down the road and picked the bottommost book from a pile of sci fi paperbacks because it was the book least likely to ever be read, and it seemed like such a miserable waste of someone’s effort if you didn’t read it. It was Ise Monogatari and because you had no idea what that was you bought it.
The little yellow dot shrivelled up and the machine beeped. The boy turned to the old woman looking over his shoulder, not sure what someone a hundred years old was doing in a video arcade. He figured she must be mad, but politely answered her questions.
“What is this yellow dot?”
“Is that all it does? Eat?”
“Yes, but you also have to get away from the ghosts.”
“What if the ghost catches you?”
“You die but you get 3 lives. If you eat a big dot then you can eat the ghosts.”
“What if it eats all the dots?”
“You go to the next level, it’s the same but the ghosts are faster.”
“So it’s always hungry?”
“Ahhh.” She held out her bowl. He rolled his eyes and put a coin in.
“Chiyo,” Kentaro said.
Chiyo put her ear close to her dying husband’s mouth. “Yes, Kentaro?”
“I always thought, when I was dying it would all become clear. I would know what I should have done. What I should do in the last moments.”
“Yes.” She stroked his thin grey hair.
“But I’m no wiser. What words are the most important?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
Chiyo wrapped her arm around his shoulder and, hugging him, rested her head on his chest.
“Chiyo,” Kentaro said.
Chiyo moved so she could feel his shallow breath against her ear. “Yes, Kentaro?”
Chiyo went into the kitchen and prepared a broth of Air, Land and Sea but when she brought it back he was gone.
She went out and walked without direction until she was exhausted. She sat on a stone. An earnest young monk passing by stopped and said, “Excuse me, but you’re sitting on a stupa.”
“It’s a rock.”
In front of the machine Chiyo stood, one in the line of factory girls, fingers raw from the pupae killing hot water troughs. Never pausing, they picked cocoons and teased off the dross to find the single thread that bound the whole till the end, spooling each onto the ever spinning six sided reels. They chatted and sang to the rhythm of the machine:
Has anyone been outside? What season is it?
There’s only clocks. This season is 4:00pm to 4:00am.
In this wicked world
I’m just a silk-reel girl,
Just a girl who wants to see
The ones who gave birth to me.
They sent me a letter,
said they’re waiting for the year to end.
But are they waiting for me,
Or waiting for the money?
The supervisor walked by. The women fell silent but no sooner was he gone than they returned to filling the monotonous hours.
The overseer is a demon. The accountant the devil.
He looks like a frog that one.
Ah, remember hearing the frogs croaking on a quiet night …
I wish I could go back home today and bring sake, and serve it to dad and mum. It’s been so long, their tears would fill the cup.
Chiyo had heard it all before. The reels spun. The day passed. The same poems, the same songs, the same laments, varied a little each time, added to occasionally, the order rearranged. It was something familiar and warmer than the relentless reel, but she wondered if they would ever tire of saying the same things. Usually she remained silent, too afraid to contribute to the repertoire. Today she was so bored she didn’t care what they thought.
Every cocoon unravels like the last.
Every day unravels to the last.
How long will this last, our threads unravelling?
For a moment only the machines made a sound.
Chiyo reached into the hot water for another cocoon, “Ouch! My hands are raw.”
They all chimed in at once:
Do you think my hands haven’t been red all these years?
You won’t keep up by complaining.
Don’t worry, Chiyo, you’ll get used to it.
Don’t coddle her Kama, we all know why you get the high pay.
Yes, it’s just because you’re pretty.
So the floor manager thinks.
I wish he didn’t.
Is this a factory or a brothel?
In Suwa geishas get thirty-five sen.
Common whores get fifteen.
Silk reel girls get one potato.
They all laughed until a workman came, dumped a fresh batch of cocoons in the water and took the dead grubs away. Again they were silent till the man had gone, and began in a whisper,
Don’t fall in love with workmen.
You’ll end up like tea dregs.
When parting you are a fan in autumn,
Left alone when a breeze isn’t wanted.
The reels spun and they sang their songs again and again.
Kentaro stood still among the dead pampas reeds in the small plateau near the top of a forested hill. The end of winter lingered longer this year, with no sign of spring. The sun shone cold and low in the sky as the long afternoon shadows reached for the approaching evening.
He toed the ground and watched little black spiders scurry through the thick weave of dry grassy leaves the reed stalks had shed. It was a dry, brittle world. He picked up a spiked husk and scrutinized the nutshell inside. It was hollow with a small wormhole on the side, the worm long gone. He picked up another the same. He knew they’d each be empty, each with their own wormhole. At this season he’d seen them all that way every year, his whole life.
There was no fresh water. All the small ponds on the way up were green and stagnant and no streams flowed but he went on. He could bear a little thirst till he returned home. He followed a small track up the hill for no reason other than to be away from below. There was no trace of anybody on the barely suggested path, only a few wild pig and deer prints. He stepped over, around and through broken old branches on the brown pine needles until, away from the path, lying on its side, was the glass bottle. Tired of walking he went over and sat by it, leaning against a tree.
It was an old bottle and time had half buried it, half filling it with soil. Whoever had been up there, hunting or collecting firewood, drunk from their bottle and forgotten it, it must have been a long time ago. He idly crushed a green pine needle and smelled it.
Inside the bottle was another world. Moss and other plants grew like tiny trees, green slime and mould grew like grass. There were miniature hills and valleys in the accumulated soil. Moisture condensed on the ceiling like mist and clouds.
In the middle of it all, a caterpillar had made its way through the narrow opening at the neck of the bottle, now almost sealed with soil, and formed a glossy black pupa. When it hatched there would be nowhere for it to go. Its wings would be too large for it to escape through the bottle’s neck. It would awaken, beat its wings against the glass and live and die sealed inside the ancient bottle.
A raven cawed in the distance and two woodpeckers made their way through the pines, stopping at one tree and the next, tapping at the bark. The wind soughed in the pine leaves. Its soft whispering sounded far away and the more he listened the more it seemed to form into words, words he couldn’t quite discern, compelling him to his feet to find their source. The closer he came to the pampas grass the clearer the words resolved and the more fascinated he became. He was sure it was a human voice, a woman reciting poetry.
He approached in secret, hoping to hear clearly the words of the poem before he was seen. At the edge of the pampas reeds he crouched low, peeking up above them, but could see no one. He listened intently but still could not make out the words. Drawn further and further in, he crept through the reeds, sure now that the speaker must be able to hear the crackling of the dead grass under foot and his body rustling the stalks. Suddenly, the sound stopped. He kept still, listening for something in the silence.
He heard nothing for a long time. He stood up from his hunched over position and said, “Excuse me. I mean no harm. I heard your poetry and came only to listen.” Still there was no sound. Turning then he stubbed his toe and looking down saw something white and smooth. It was a skull, the pampas reeds growing through its eye sockets.
The reeling women struck up their song again.
If a woman in an office is a willow,
A poetess a violet,
And a female teacher an orchid,
Then a factory woman’s a calabash.
They toyed with Chiyo’s contribution.
Each unravelling cocoon like the last,
each day like the last.
How long will we last?
They throw us out like unravelled worms.
How long till our thread is spent?
Each cocoon unravels on the reel,
Each day unravelled to the last.
The days to years unravel.
How long can we last?
Unravelled worms outcast.
Chiyo was happier than she had ever been at the mill. That night in the dorm room they lay exhausted, some talking quietly, some already sleeping. Kama said to Chiyo, “You’ll get used to it.”
The other dark lumps in the darkness chimed in, “What choice is there? Who can leave before the debt is paid? My mother would have starved without the advance.”
“Just be careful not to get a fine or they’ll carry your debt over till next year. There’s no telling how long a girl could get stuck here.”
“Listen to Kama, Chiyo – she knows how to get the performance bonus.”
“There’s no way out but to marry some man, and who can you meet stuck in here?”
“No-one wants a factory girl anyway, except those gangsters at the gate, and they’ll only take the clothes off your back.”
“Sssh, I’m tired.”
“The longer you stay, the harder your hands, and with these meals you’ll be a skeleton soon enough. If you’re pretty you’ll get paid more, but you earn it in a different way.”
“Don’t worry Chiyo. If you like mushrooms you won’t mind it.”
“More flavour than the slop they call dinner.”
Kama ignored them, “If you’re plain looking, you have to work hard to get more money …”
“Don’t work too hard Chiyo. We all want promotions too.”
“… but it amounts to nothing if you get fines.”
“Duty to the family, duty to the emperor.”
“Shush all of you. Sleep. Work tomorrow.”
Kentaro resolved to go to Unrin-In temple at Kyoto to understand the skull and those vague words among the pampas leaves. He explained his intention to his parents and, sensing he would leave anyway regardless of what they said, they reluctantly allowed him to take the bicycle.
Passing through Osaka, he rested under a plum tree. Down from the mountains spring arrives earlier and the blossoms were just beginning to peek from their buds. Half asleep, he was stirred by a hand reaching up to break a sprig from the tree. The words came so immediately to mind he spoke them without thinking whether or not he should speak, “What scatters the blossoms? Do they fall from the breeze of a nightingale’s wing?”
The girl stopped and, turning her face away behind her sleeve, apologised and replied, “They’re a long way from scattering at the breeze of a bird’s wing.”
“Then what bird is this scattering them?”
“They will all fall eventually anyway.”
“Let them fall in their own time.”
“Must I only tell others of their beauty? I want the women locked in at the mill to see them.”
“None of your business. Excuse me.”
“Excuse me.” He turned away from her, sorry to have embarrassed her. She took the sprig and left.
That afternoon reels spun and spun and he kept reappearing to her, his words echoing through the evening shift. As the workers all lay in their room talking a while before they slept, the others, seeing her distraction, guessed at her preoccupation.
She confessed she had met a young man while fetching the sprig for the girls locked in their quarters. They laughed and teased her, telling her to get married straight away. She could leave the mill. He could pay her family debts. The rates for favours to a husband were better than a sweet potato from the overseers. The next morning they kept up their teasing, reciting in mock melancholy:
Thinking about him
I slept, only to have him
Appear before me–
Had I known it was a dream,
I should never have awakened.
Although it was cold, the weather was fine and Kentaro slept outside. In the morning he rode for 15 minutes before a flat tire stopped him. Seeing the road to the capital before him, he hesitated. There was something about that girl. Something small that he could not define – without intention she had idly plucked a string that still resonated.
He turned back and at midday was under the same plum blossom tree. Feeling a fool he glanced at every passerby, waiting for her return. He glanced up at the sky.
Every bud is a promised bloom
and every bloom a Fall.
When he looked down again she was there, walking by the tree, not looking at him on purpose. He thought, each moment is gone in a moment and every moment changes everything. If she turned him away, he would be gone tomorrow.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“Well … Yesterday we met, and I was rude.”
“You might not be able to reach the best sprig on the tree. May I fetch it for you?”
She smiled, “Leave them for everyone to enjoy.”
He looked at his feet and turned to leave, but she stopped him. She found nothing to say, so smiled and looked away.
“Once there was a man who picked some Wisteria flowers. He said,
Though I got wet,
I was determined to pluck them,
That of this year
Few spring days remain.”
“I’m Chiyo,” she said.
“You’re not a city boy.”
“Why are you here?”
“You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
“Don’t tell me a lie and I’ll believe you.”
“The other day, I was walking in the mountains near our village and stopped to rest in a pine grove. It was near a small clearing high up, full of pampas reeds. A voice came drifting from the reeds so I went to see what it was. The closer I got the clearer it became. I couldn’t hear the words but it sounded like poetry. Eventually, once I was in the middle of the field the sound suddenly stopped. I looked down and there was a skull. A human skull.”
“What did you do?”
“I ran away.”
“So would I.”
“But when I rested I thought about it. The reeds were growing up through the eyes of this skull. It reminded me of Ise Monogatari. I have always loved Ise Monogatari. Do you know them?”
“Maybe some. Tell me some.”
“There’s so many, let me remember … Once there was a man who fell in love with an inaccessible lady. One night he crept into her room and ran off with her. As they passed a stream she caught a glimpse of a dew-drop on a leaf and asked what it was. She had never seen such a thing before, but the man hurried on. It was dark and a thunderstorm came, so he put the lady in a ramshackle storehouse and stood guard at the doorway. He didn’t realise the storehouse was haunted by demons. They ate her up without a sound. At dawn he peered inside and saw she was gone. He said,
When my love asked,
‘Is it a gem?’
I should have lived
no longer than the dew.
Since Chiyo looked interested, he went on. “They say the tales are from Ariwara no Narihira. There is a story about Ariwara no Narihira: once he rested for the night while travelling across a plain. In the middle of the night, as he sat, unable to sleep, he heard the first lines of a poem in the night saying, ‘Every evening, when autumn winds whisper, my eyes cry in pain.’ It was too dark to venture into the reeds, so he waited till morning. When he went into the pampas grass to see where the voice came from he found a skull so old the reeds had grown up through its eye sockets. It seemed strange so he told a local man about it, who explained that it was here that Ono no Komachi died. Ariwara completed the poem he heard in the night, ‘It’s not I, Ono. Only pampas reeds whispering.’
But you were not in the same plain. I think you were dreaming.
Perhaps. But it was so vivid and because I have always loved Ise Monogotari I knew I must go to the Unrin-In temple.”
“So you won’t be here long?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Where are you from?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“What do you mean?”
“I barely remember it, I was so young. Nothing was standing in my first home. Nothing was standing there but me and an old date tree.”
“What about your family?”
“My old grandmother was there. My old grandmother, she was stooped and crooked. Her burdens trained her spine sideways like a manicured pine. Even my mother was always bent towards some work. My father worked but was never home, even at night. I don’t remember much of him, except that we all must do as he says. My grandfather had gone to sea long ago and never returned. After the harvest was no good for too many years, because of the weather, and after the government took my father away for work, there was no food. Then he didn’t come back at all.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
“What did you do then?”
“I work at the silk mill now. For most girls their father takes a loan from the silk men, and they work in the mill to pay the debt. But since I have no father, my mother took on the loan.”
“The mill? Is it true what they say about the mill?”
“I don’t know what they say but if it’s bad it’s true. It’s hard, but our families can eat. But there isn’t much time before I go back. There’s enough work at work, tell me more Tales of Ise.”
So they sat beneath the tree and Kentaro told Chiyo more tales.
The evening dance transforms time
time fades in the evening dance …
There’s no end when telling this tale.
The needles of the pine
are never scattered and lost.
Through the generations they will know this love.
There will be evenings to tell
of the Tales of Ise,
of the past that leaves
words like tender grass
cut in a moment.
This tale came from an evening long gone.
Was it a dream I awake from?
It’s a dream from which I wake.
Whenever you see a vending machine you fall in love with her description and the city gives birth to your daughter.
Once, when you were unemployed in the recession, they sent you to work for a telemarketing company. At first they had you selling personal alarms. The script tried to scare people in the kindest possible way. The target market was old women, the most likely to stay on the phone, the most likely to feel the need for a personal alarm. It made your mouth say they were selling personal alarms for charity, so if they hadn’t hung up already, you had to lay guilt on them too. You asked the manager how much of the money went to charity, in case anyone asked. It was 5%. It didn’t seem like much but you doubted conscientious objection would be a valid excuse for the Department of Social Security since you were supposed to think yourself lucky to even have a job. You were always free to quit but then you wouldn’t have any money for food and rent, books, port and chocolate. Fair enough. It wasn’t nice to waste your life in a job but, for now anyway, it seemed better than living on cheap food like carrots, and maybe Salvo dinners. You knew junkies who could make two hundred dollars a day by begging, and you figured if a person didn’t spend that on drugs, they could really do something, really go places with that kind of money, but you didn’t like begging. And although it was easy to find a place to sleep, and it was good to be free, to wake up without a friend to worry you, just the ants and sparrows, to look at the bits of concrete and the weeds in your own good time, to watch old newspapers blowing around in the vortex of a stairwell, listening to the pigeons cooing and the traffic, and just wander about wondering what particular problem each of these people was rushing to attend to, it was a bit tricky when it rained. People were more likely to seek out the same shelter, like that guy who offered you a drink and ended up cutting his hand on the bottle he broke and wiped some of his blood on your lip when he got you in a headlock, making as if to cut your throat, saying, “You’ve got beautiful lips.” And if you didn’t have money, it was difficult to walk past all the baklava in a bakery window without wishing you had money.
Each morning, as a break, you went to get yourself a Coke from the drink vending machine. You always chose Coke but it always took a long time to make your selection. Once, instead of reciting the script at your cubicle, you stood there remembering helping your friend’s flatmate load his drums into his van. He was talking about this girl, “She works in publishing. She’s got black hair in this cute bob. And her dark eyes give her face this unusual intelligence.”
“You’d like her,” your friend said.
“I’m already falling in love. What else?”
When you first met, she was that old riddle of beauty: a crow pierced by an arrow, a splash of blood on the snow. In her living room you agreed on your dislike of Dostoyevsky. You disagreed on Kerouac and Austen. You discovered a mutual quiet appreciation of Simon and Garfunkel. Her abrupt changes in temper woke you from your soporific disposition. She was a sudden electric storm breaking the listless torpor of summer afternoon. She was …
What would a good looking, intelligent, accomplished, self-possessed, noble, eloquent woman such as this want with a bum like you? You resigned yourself to pining for a few weeks before relinquishing hopeless hopes.
One morning you stood in front of the soft drink vending machine forever.
The drink vending machine in the kitchenette had 8 rows and 10 columns of drinks. As each drink was purchased the queue moved forward from the back of the machine. The entirety of row 8 was Coca Cola. To purchase a drink, you inserted coins or notes and typed in the number under your selection. The robot then moved to retrieve that can and dropped it in the chute where you collected it. Any change was returned in a coin catcher.
You wanted a Coke but you had to select a number from 80 to 89 (row 8, columns 0-9). Not long ago, at your friend’s place, where she also had a room, you argued. What was it got you started?
“I can’t remember what it was,” she was saying. “An old Catherine Deneuve movie, where she’s talking to this guy in some place with all these columns, and he says that there’s always something to make you choose. However much the same things are, like these columns all lined up, there would be something to make you favour one over the other, to sit under or whatever.”
“… it’s like that paradox, where … they call it the ‘thirsty donkey’ … where a thirsty donkey stands exactly in the middle of two buckets of water that are exactly the same. Since there’s nothing to make it choose one over the other, it can’t choose and dies of thirst.”
“Yes, but this says that even if they are identical, one becomes your favourite anyway.”
“Yes but no two things are ever exactly identical. One might have different scratches. At the least you have the column on the end, the fifth one along, the one on the left …”
“Would you stop contradicting everything I say.”
“I’m not contradicting you, I’m just saying.”
“Yes and I’m just saying. I didn’t say things can be the same, I’m just saying I saw it in a movie, because of what he said. It’s called a conversation.”
“Yeah, and I’m just saying something because of what you said. It’s called a conversation.”
“It’s not a conversation. You’re sniping all the time.”
“But, it’s not the case that anything is exactly …”
“I’m just saying what was in the movie.”
“Ok. I’m just saying it doesn’t happen to be the case.”
“You insufferable, arrogant, pedantic …”
You both had held your peace, not wanting to cause any more of a scene in front of the others. There was an awkward silence. Her opinion of you then was clear. What could be more contemptible that a washed up loser with no prospects who nevertheless thinks he’s somehow everyone’s intellectual superior?
Now, confronted with 10 identical cans of cola, you continued your line of the debate to yourself. If you made two things occupy the same space and time, you would say there were one, or if you noticed it weighed twice as much, and so was not identical with one, you would say there were two occupying the same space, and if you can distinguish two they are not exactly the same. Like two lovers, each struggling to be so close they are in the same place at the same time. Everything ultimately is a euphemism for you know what. After all, the only reason anyone is even here to select drinks from vending machines is loneliness.
Not long after you first started you had to go into the IT department to get a security swipe card encoded so you wouldn’t have to buzz in. On the way down the hall you briefly eavesdropped on two managers talking in the tea-room, picking up snatches about staff and four-wheel-drives and then, “They’re like tires, wear them out and replace them.”
As you waited in the IT room for someone’s attention you overheard some of them trying to find a solution to a system problem. “But if one of the girls goes out to get the morning milk, that’ll register as her start time – we need to factor in the morning milk.” You gathered they were integrating the security door electronic swipe card system with the timesheet system.
“You know the directors can access that from their mobile phones – they can just open it up and look in on everyone at work,” one of the programmers said. He looked disgruntled. You looked up at the black security camera dome and wondered if someone was looking back at you looking at the camera instead of working. “They say it’s only for security, but you know different.”
“Does it have audio?”
“Yes, but no. You can switch it on, but it’s switched off.”
The team leader around the corner of the windowless L shaped room put down the phone and announced, “Actually the whole thing’s turned off at the moment. Shit, don’t tell anyone I said that though. They’ll muck up! Anyway, sorry guys but I’m going to have to postpone the lunch at the pub today. We’ll go at 1 instead and we can play Battlefield after. I’ll be in the server room.”
“What do you think of working here so far then?”
“Those surveillance cameras are a bit much.” Then you recognise this whole thing is a set up – the manager makes a point of loudly announcing the cameras aren’t working and leaves. The underling asks probing, in-confidence, questions about your opinion of the place … “It’s pretty good though. The work is good. It’s just different.”
“Yeah, we’re not happy about the cameras either,” the programmer said.
The other explained, “They put them in after they redid this room. This used to be two rooms and there was a wall between this bit and that bit. It was the funniest thing – when they were going to remodel it, Alex made a bet with David that he couldn’t punch a hole through the wall. So he did. His arm went through up to his shoulder and he punched the guy on the other side in the back of the head. They put the cameras in after that.”
So instead of reading at lunch you wrote down what had happened to you that day. You wrote it all down in a work notepad with the work logo on it. Then, realising what you had done, you carefully tore out the page, afraid they might come across it and ask questions: firstly, why you were spending time writing at work; secondly, what it was about; and, if they read it, thirdly, they’d bust you for painting the company in a bad light. That was against the terms of employment you had signed. It was a spiral bound notebook and after you’d torn out the page and folded it and put it in your bag, you noticed the little strip of paper still left stuck in the spiral binding coil. You sat picking the little pieces of paper out of the spiral binding in case they noticed them and started speculating about why you might have torn a page out. Just take a look at yourself sitting there tearing little bits of paper out of the spiral binding coil.
While the survey and admin staff sat around the kitchenette bench chatting, you stood at that vending machine forever, died of thirst and decomposed, leaving only a pale skeleton for staff to step over and around on their way to flirt and/or gossip until the director identified your bones as an OH&S tripping hazard and brought in a cleaning consultant to remove it.
So you chose the Coke at number 84, after the year 1984. You wondered if there were others who did the same. If all the Cokes ran out in row 84 before the others, it would be the secret message you shared with the others that there was someone else out there who understood what was going on. You went back to the phone, computer and script. Somewhere in this world there was a crow killed in snow and you must forget her.
Over the first few weeks they recorded and analysed your voice across a range of surveys and found its deeper, slower qualities more suited to longer surveys, so they put you on a government health questionnaire. Back on the phones, some people told you to fuck off. Some just hung up. Some begrudgingly gave you their time out of recognition of its importance to public health. Some seemed happy to have someone to talk to for a change. It was extraordinary: the intimate confessions people would make once they knew it was anonymous.
She sat on the hospital bed, a monitoring device attached to a belt strapped around her waist, connected to a machine pipping regularly, displaying the graphs and numbers of the baby’s vital signs. A doctor entered with a large screen on a trolley. She squeezed gel on her belly and moved the ultrasound handset around, watching the glimpses of feet, ribs, brains and fluttering heart on the screen. The doctor took the machine away again. She groaned more and more, sucking on the tube connected to the cylinder of pressurised nitrous oxide, saying it did no good. She sat in the shower for hours as the waves of agony increased in frequency and amplitude. You hoped you wouldn’t need to push the red button at the bed to call the nurse in case of dire crisis. The nurses came in to check on progress and inserted a needle in her wrist, connected by tube to a bag of clear liquid on a stand. For another two hours every wave of pain seemed the most extreme pain anyone could possibly bear, yet each was worse than the last. They moved her and the machines to another room. The anaesthetist arrived and inserted a needle into her lower spine. She declared her love for the anaesthetist and listened to the nurse explain that now she could not feel the pain, she would need to pay attention to the monitor. When it picked up her contractions on the screen she must push. Another doctor with strong arms came in to the room, inserted large metal levers, cranked the baby into position and pulled. The blue child began life dead. They took it to a small table, inserted a tube, sucked its airways clear, pumped air into its lungs, clipped its umbilical cord, attached a monitor, strapped an identification label to its wrist and returned it, living, to its mother’s breast.
We have always lived in the mountains, as long as we can remember. We blowgun birds and take them down to Grandma’s table. One day my brother says, “Why do Batz and Chouen live with Mama and Grandma, when we live up here?” We make plans.
We make sure we have a bird for the table every day for a while so that when there are none, Grandma will ask, “Why aren’t there any birds today?”
Lady Blood’s sons, our half brothers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, were born in our house. They screamed constantly. If they were not asleep or eating they were screaming, any time of the day or night. Nobody could sleep. Grandma said they must go up the mountains. Their mother couldn’t disturb the ancestor’s with an argument. We took them on a long walk up there and threw them on a thorn bush. That’s where they grew up, in the mountains.
Each day we play our flutes and sing on the porch for Grandma, carving and writing, as our father asked of us. We do all that Grandma asks and we do it well. Hunahpu and Xbalanque table their blowgunned birds from time to time. They’ve been doing this every day, but for three days there’s been no birds on the table. Grandma asks them, “Why aren’t there any birds today?”
“We shoot the birds but they don’t fall down from the trees. They’re too tall. We can’t climb that high.” Next day my brother and I go up the rainy mountains with them to where the trees grow tallest. “In those canopies” they say, “are the birds we killed yesterday.”
My brother and I start to climb but the higher we climb the further away grows the ground. “This tree grows faster than we can climb,” we call. “We’re too high to get down.”
“Rope yourself down by your loin clothes.” they say. Each tied to a branch, we lower ourselves slowly down. Before we reach the ground we are naked. I look at my brother. He is a monkey. Seeing how he looks at me, I see I too am a monkey. I see the fur on my hands and legs. I see my tail stretching up to the branch above.
Our brothers leave us there. We stay that night in the mountains, trying to understand our new joints, our long sharp teeth; learning to tail grip until we can move in the canopies better than we once moved on the ground; balancing on branches, dangling, leaping and swinging among the leaves; swallowing fruit whole, until we sleep among macaws and honeycreepers, to wake and howl in the clouds.
In the morning we hear fluting and singing from down below and remember our Grandma. We go down and see our brothers Hunahpu and Xbalanque where we once sat, singing and fluting. We dance down to the porch, joining in the singing and fluting. Grandma stands at her door, surprised. Then she laughs at us so much we have to go away. It happens four times like that, we hear the singing and fluting, we dance. We do everything well but every time she laughs.
Two of them come into the field carrying blowguns. They are in a good mood, talking and laughing and hitting each other on the shoulder. They put down their guns and start pulling out weeds. They haven’t raised a sweat before they get bored and sit in the shade at the edge of the field. The turtle dove flies across the field, not knowing they are there, and perches near them. They speak to it and it flies down to the path. They take their blowguns into the forest, taking pot shots at birds.
While they enjoy hunting, their axes and hoes start moving on their own, chopping down trees and digging up weeds and roots with no-one holding them.
When the turtle dove calls they run back to the field, cover themselves in dirt and woodchips and pick up their axes and hoes and start clearing the field again. An old woman comes up the road, greets them and gives them their lunch. They stop, wiping their foreheads as if they have been working all day, unwrap their leaves to eat and the old woman leaves them.
The sun has set and in the twilight the two brothers are walking away down the path. The jaguar is beside me and the puma. Deer and Rabbit are here too. There’s Peccary and Coati, and all the birds big and small crowd around. We all set to undoing the work they have done by day. We plant the weeds. We raise the trees up again.
In the morning from the forest, we watch them gesticulating and talking and scratching their heads and holding their chins. They must clear the same part of the field they cleared yesterday but they do the same as they did before. They don’t work. The axes and hoes work without them. They post the turtledove lookout again, while they go blowgunning birds. When the old woman comes, they make themselves dirty and pretend to be working.
Under the stars again we are raising the trees they felled, bringing the weeds back. The heart of night is reaching its zenith and suddenly they are here. First they see Jaguar and Puma and try to catch them. Jaguar and Puma are fast and fierce. They get away easily. They try for Deer and Rabbit but their tails break off. They scramble everywhere for everyone. I run. Glancing back I see Fox and Coyote escape safely. Peccary and Coati are running past me. A firm grip clutches the skin at the back of my neck. I kick and writhe but can’t get free. They almost strangle me holding me down while they make a small fire. They hold me over the fire and burn my tail. It hurts so much I would tell them anything. I know that no one can be blamed for anything they say or do when something like that is done to them. They burn my tail until it’s naked. I think of something better than the truth to tell them. It’s a truth that they want to hear. They say they will take out my eyes. I tell them, “You are not meant to farm here. That’s why we did it. You are expert blow gunners. You aren’t made for farming.”
“What then? What are we supposed to do?”
“First, let go of me. The words are in my belly and I can’t spit them out if you’re choking me. Put a little food in my belly first, then you’ll get the words out.”
“Tell us first, then we’ll feed you.”
“You don’t know your fathers. They are One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu. They were great batey players. They played all day long with Batz and Chouen. They were so good they were able to challenge the Lords of Xibalba. But they died because of what they did. That’s why your Grandmother doesn’t tell you.”
“You’re lying. You’re lying just to get away from us.”
“If you don’t believe me look in the rafters at the back of your kitchen. That’s where your fathers’ batey gear is hidden.”
They give me more than I can eat, corn, squash seeds, chilli, beans, pataxte, cacao. “Gnaw on these,” they say. “And if ever you find any of this in the dust and sweepings, you’re free to take it.”
I stare into the reflection in the red bowl of chilli sauce. The rat is in the rafters. Carefully I follow him in the reflection until he stops at the end of the kitchen. The rat silently heaves and pushes, until at the right angle I can see, hidden in the rafters, some yokes and feathers and the edge of a ball. I pass the bowl across to my brother and he moves it to his side, gets the angle right and sees it too.
“Grandma.” he says, “This chilli mash is making me thirsty and we’re out of water.”
Grandma mutters something, takes the pitcher and Mama with her, and goes down to the water. A mosquito lands on my arm. “Go put a hole in Grandma’s pitcher,” I tell it. It flies off. A leaky pitcher should keep them busy fetching water for a while. My bother is already trying to climb up the post to get to the rafters but he can’t reach. I stand on a chair but also can’t reach. He climbs on the chair. I cup my hands together, he puts his foot in them and I heave him up. He reaches the gear and throws it down. There isn’t much time before they get back. We take it out and hide it in some long grass by the track. We go down and help Grandma and Mama patch the hole in the pitcher.
The sun is at its highest. We dig the rubber ball and the gear out of the long grass. There are heavy arm guards and hats with quetzal and macaw feathers flowing from them. It’s beautiful. We put it on straight away and understand immediately that the open space up the path with walls on each side is the best place for it. We run along the path to the open court. We run and kick the ball for hours never thinking about what we are doing or how much noise we’re making, just kicking the ball and running, learning the game.
Four owls appear at my door. I didn’t hear them. I just turned around and they were there. The boys aren’t inside. They’re nowhere to be seen. I can’t hear their voices outside. I don’t know if it means they’ve already gone, or if they’re working or blow-gunning somewhere far away.
One of the owls speaks, “The Lords of Xibalba challenge Xbalanque and Hunahpu to a game,” it says.
“They’re not here.”
“Where are they?”
“Tell them they must come in seven days to play against the Lords of Xibalba,” it says.
“Owls, they will go as summoned.” What else can I say?
The owls fly away. I turn back into the house. My legs can’t hold me anymore so I sit on the floor. I don’t know how to tell them they have been summoned. Their father never came back. The more I think about it, the more madly my head itches. I scratch and scratch until I find a louse caught under my fingernail. “Louse,” I say, “help me. I can’t tell them they are summoned to Xibalba. You go tell them.”
The boys are in the kitchen. They have the gaming gear from years ago and are organising it into packs to carry. I don’t know how they found it. I don’t know when they found it but it’s all too late. It is all happening again.
“Don’t cry Grandma. Look, we’ll plant this ear of corn in the middle of the kitchen. While it stays alive you’ll know we are alive.”
They sling their gear and their blowguns on their backs. From the door I watch them disappear down the path. I’ve seen this same scene before. Ahead the owls are leading them on. What good is corn without people to feed?
Off the side of the muddy track, Luuk Baert tipped the helmet back from his forehead and scratched his sweaty scalp. Waiting with the inducting officer, he looked up at the wet sky for a moment, at the long grass and at the men hauling packs across the stream and around the broad leaves on the other side. With foresight, through the mud and blood, it was clear the tremendous difference the railway would make.
The Force Publique soldier had secured the man face down, his arms and legs tied to stakes in the ground. He raised the chicotte and looked to the inducting officer.
“What are those lumps, those raised lines on his skin?” Luuk asked.
“Ritual scars. It is sometimes possible, for the experienced, to read where a man comes from by these scars. It’s part of the initiation to have those patterns carved into them when they become a man. These patterns are passed from father to son.”
The man on the ground turned his head and set his eyes on Luuk. The inducting officer nodded to the Force Publique soldier. The chicotte drew the first of sixty red lines across the man’s back.
“Like a hazing?”
“I suppose so. Some of these fellows also have their teeth chipped into points. They say it gives them the gift of sweet speech. These are tough men. Tough men with dull brains. That’s why they need these harsh punishments. Can you imagine the shop-keeper in your local patisserie? You’d only need show him that whip to have him. But nothing gets through these fellows’ thick skin.” The officer suddenly took a graver tone. “Now look here Luuk. There is a thin line between us and them. Look at how many they are compared to us. If they all got together they could murder you and me in a moment. What keeps them in check? What makes them think twice, eh? It’s called ‘prestige’ and it’s a line we draw with the chicotte. When there is trouble, a white man walks towards it when everyone runs away. They all know that. They see it and they remember. That’s ‘prestige’. Luuk, so long as you are here you must make an impression. Our nation depends on it. Look at us, surrounded – Holland, Germany, France and England. All great empires and us in the middle. Well, we’ll give this fellow some scars to add to his collection. We’ll wipe out his ancestors. He’ll be calling us his father when we are done.”
The man’s back was slick with blood. Flies swarmed and dust clung to it as it clotted. Luuk felt something crawling on the back of his neck, a fly or caterpillar – his hand flinched up, carefully felt for it, found only another trickle of sweat. He asked, “How can he flog one of his own?”
His colleague laughed, “Does an Englishman call a Frenchman one of his own?”
Luuk bit his lip. He would not ask any more stupid questions.
My wife in chains.
My brother without hands.
My life is not mine.
Everyone born will die.
Everyone dead is born.
I was born but cannot live.
Don’t let me be born.
The man had begun chanting but soon stopped. Luuk’s shirt and trousers clung to him. If a man could live through that, he could surely manage to stand still without being driven to distraction by the sticking sweat. The chicotte continued cutting through the mass of clotted dust and flies. The smell of it made its way into the rotten fruit air, something fresh, like spring rain on a dusty mown meadow.
Luuk remembered the hard wooden bench, the scratched desk, the slate, the ink–pot and cane. All those days, all the same, had by now fused into one memory of a day like that. His teacher droned while he looked out the window and daydreamed of Africa. Out of the usual blank drizzling sky came visions of lions, elephants and savages, stampeding down from the sky, smashing through the window, clawing and sinking fangs into everyone, splashing the walls with their warm blood, the elephant sweeping the desks aside with its great tusk, the teacher impaled on the savage’s spear, amidst the chaos he’d be dodging death, finally free, and then the cane again, the cane, again and again, until it just didn’t hurt any more and he didn’t care what the teacher said or if he got the cane for what he did, this teacher who knew nothing beyond his books and his cane. It’s nothing like in the books, standing here.
The inducting officer and the other Force Publique soldiers looked bored. Even the workers continued on with their routine. Luuk looked forward to the day he could be as nonchalant. This place would make a man of him.
Once the flogging was done, two Force Publique men untied the man and helped him stand.
“Now he must salute.”
The man did not salute but chanted in his own language. He returned to before he was born.
In the hottest part of the day, seated against the base of a broken column one slave spoke to another, “What’s this pattern on this stone?” One gestured at the circle crossed with three lines, dividing it into 6 parts.
“I think it’s the wheel of Babylon.”
“But carts can’t cross this land. It looks to me like a star and the sun. It’s night and day.”
“It could be for teaching mathematics. The circle is naturally segmented in 6 equal parts. It could be for counting goods and prices.”
“There was a game we used to play as kids. We could play with this and a few seeds or pebbles. Who were they who made this? Why did they make this mark?”
“Whatever they wanted for us to know, we can only guess. There was once a city here. Long, long ago. Full of green gardens and fountains. The goods of all the world were traded in its markets. These lines are all the roads of the world that lead to Babylon. The richest city of the world. And the most wicked.”
“How could green gardens grow here? It’s all sand and dust. For days we’ve been walking and nothing but rocks and sand and dust. And how far is there to go?”
“It’s another 9 days away. But that is what they say. There was once a city here. Babylon. There were gardens upon gardens, flowing with fresh water.”
“Like the baths in Zanzibar.”
“A thousand times the baths in Zanzibar. All turned to sand.”
“I wish I was in the bath in Zanzibar. Clove picking is hard, but there was always the bath at the end of the day.”
“Now we wash our hands with sand. Wash our faces with sand. This sand gets everywhere.”
“I’m wet with sand. If I could be anywhere now, I’d be in the bath at Zanzibar.”
“Everyone has their bath in Zanzibar” They paused for a while. There was no need to say anything except what came to mind. “I remember once, on the way to Ceylon we stopped at a small island. On it lived only one man, his wife and children. There were fish, bananas, coconuts and a small boat. There were no land birds except for two crows. Why were those crows there? Maybe one was waiting for the man, the other for his wife.
“My master said, ‘I envy that man. I wish that island were mine.’
“‘Master,’ I said, ‘you could pick any one of your wives and make such an island your own with her. Why don’t you give up your wealth?’
“He said, ‘And what would happen to my slaves, my wives, my family and all the others who live on my profit? Your mouths would be empty’.
“‘Don’t worry about us.’ I said, ‘I’ll take care of the trade and the slaves and the wives.’ He laughed and that was all. He didn’t find an island for himself. Here we are, still between islands, still between oases.”
They fell silent. There was a distant sound of steady thumping. He could hear across days and months and years, the steady thumping of a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle of his mother making food. The moon and stars had come. The sound must have only been the footsteps of the camels moving, or maybe the beating of his own blood, resonating in his dream. The memory of something so far away he had forgotten it for years. There was a town where the streets were paved with skulls. That was all. He was only a small child then. Then the memories of the baths began. He took his place and said, “Each night we depart again. Every next step the same as the last. Footprints washed away in a breathe of wind. Bismillah.”
In the shade under the copper sunlight-edged fronds of the shelter’s roof they drank a little palm wine, talking, the drummer visiting his friend the sculptor.
The drummer watched the chips accumulate at their feet. “How do you do that? There’s just enough work in it to make it a mother and child. You haven’t even finished and look at the mother’s cool forehead. If I carved wood, it would still just be wood.”
“Every shape is in the wood already. You just need to take away the other parts. And never cut away too much. You can’t put it back.” The sculptor moved on from the adze to the chisel.
“No sooner is my wife pregnant than she wants another wife,” said the drummer. “She says we’ll never be rich without another wife.”
“Another wife is a good thing isn’t it? My wife wants to be the only one.”
“But I can’t afford it. All that work, work, work, just to save enough for another wife. I do all the work I can, already, and being pregnant my first wife can’t work too hard.”
“That’s how you get to be a somebody. Some inherit it, some work for it.”
“But I’m not somebody. I make the drum talk better than anyone. It’s something and that’s enough. And a drinker. She knew that when she married me. The toto-nti made a flute. I planted this tree here to get the most reverb for my drum.”
“A crab without claws has no defence.”
“The other morning she brought my breakfast pot, and she used her lid that shows the woman sitting in front of three stones.”
The sculptor chuckled and said, “‘In the morning, I stretch my legs because you give me nothing to cook.’ But she’s the one who thinks she has too much work to do. Why do you think she wants another wife?”
“She is right, though. I’m lazy. Do you think I could sit here with you if I had any more work to do? A cut-off ear cannot reply.”
“Be careful, one day she might say, ‘I, the bird, may have been caught in a trap but you only got the feathers of my tail.’”
“Yes. Everyone steps on the uprooted palm tree!”
“The cat fish is happy because its home is nearby.”
“But wealth only invites the envy of witches.”
The sculptor put his chisel and mallet down and turned the mother and child carefully in his hands. He took up his chisel and mallet again and shaved a few more chips from one of the arms. He looked it over one last time and passed it to the drummer. The drummer turned it over in his hands.
She sat on the old shore with her son and basket, watching the bridge building below, waiting, listening to the others talking about how it had happened to them, who lost who, who must be dead, whether it was better to be dead or a slave, how soon they would come, whether it would be finished in time, the right order of the families.
When the last of the mats had been strung out from shore to shore across the wide river no time was wasted. First the Mambuli, then the Balasa family crossed. Everyone carried as much as they could: food, jars of banana beer and children. As they crossed more refugees arrived, and more, waiting on the shore to walk across the floating bridge. But as the great eaters found only empty villages they moved swiftly and soon, as night fell, arrived at the crossing. She was still on the old shore.
The Azande killed without hesitation. She dropped her things and held her son, struggling among the crowd in the darkness. The frantic crowd pressed upon the bridge, straining the ropes until they snapped and the mats came apart from each other. As she fell, her son clutched a different mat. The current pulled it away. She tried to keep hold of his hand but everything was pulled from her grip.
Looking back, on the other bank was death and slavery. She clung to a drifting mat and saw on the far shore, in the moonlight, people grasping roots to drag themselves out of the mud, up the bank and vanish into the forest. In the river somewhere, her son was drowning.
“When they first came South they thought the moon shone with heat instead of cold.”
Reflected sunlight rippled on the ceiling. Listening to the water, they fell silent. There was a distant sound of steady thumping. She could hear across days and months and years, the steady thumping of a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle of her mother making food. The sound must have only been the beating of carpets outside, or maybe the beating of her own blood, resonating in her dream. The memory of something so far away she had forgotten it for years. There was a town where the streets were paved with skulls. There was the King standing before them, once blue, now red, a hundred spears behind him, with people around him, without ears, noses, lips. There was the sound of the gun, ‘tipputip’. That was all. She was only a small child then.
The water from the pitcher ran over her shoulder. “They say they never bathe, the people are filthy and starving, their towns full of smoke, and the streets with filth.”
She stepped out of the bath taking the silks from her hand. “My father provides for us all, for his wives, his sons and daughters, and for his slaves as if they were his own sons and daughters. And for all their sons and daughters. What’s wrong with that?”
She took the gold anklets from her hand and put them on her ankle. “Isn’t a slave trained in trades? And if a slave is good, don’t we send him to Oman? When he returns, isn’t he valued more than any other?”
She took the gold bracelets from her hand and put them on her arms. “My father gave me this gold, but do you think it’s mine? No. The harvest isn’t always good. The trade isn’t always good. But my father is wise. When trade is rich, he gives us things we enjoy but which never perish. When trade is poor, we gladly give our gifts back to him and he sells them for our needs. Has this household ever been hungry? This gold is yours as well as mine, yet it belongs to none of us. We might all eat this gold one day.”
She placed a drop of musk in her hair. “They say there must be no more slaves, but who will feed you? Where will you sleep? Who will harvest the cloves? How can we sell cloves to feed the slaves, if no one is left to harvest the cloves?”
She placed a drop of rosewater in her hair. “In that country it’s so cold they say for half the year the rivers turn to stone.”
She placed a drop of amber in her hair. “They said the Southern moon shines with heat. It’s the Northern sun that shines with cold.”
She took the chain of coins from her hand and put them over her head. “Bismillah.”
Three Force Publique officers each threw the hands they’d collected onto the pile.
“What do they want all these hands for anyway?” the new recruit asked.
One of the others elbowed his comrade, “You know those cans of meat they have? They take these hands to Belgium and fill up the cans and send them back to eat.”
“But those tins have pictures of cows. It’s beef.”
“That’s just to trick the people in Belgium. Why else would they need so many hands?”
It was written into your contract that during the busy period approaching that time of year when everyone’s tax returns need to be done, you may be required to conduct site inspections. So for one week you spent 10 to 12 hour days driving around Sydney, from the far west where the bush at the foot of the Blue mountains was a few blocks away, through Penrith and Parramatta to the beach at Bronte, north to Dee Why and south to Sutherland Shire.
They kept you on a tight schedule. Sometimes it took more than an hour to get from one place to another, speeding over the limit of 110, and you missed the appointment anyway. By the time you had scanned your forms and uploaded them with the photos to the central server for the producers to process there was only time to get some food and go to sleep. They put you up in an apartment in the City, which you shared with another guy who said he’d been doing it for 6 years, one week on one week off.
A green haired woman with a nose ring opens the door.
“Hi, I’m Bill from the Taxable Asset Assessment Agency. I have an appointment.”
“You came last week,” she says, rubbing her eyes.
“This is my first day … Is this 26A?”
“A is round the back.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Around the back a thin old couple live in a small prefabricated shack with a toilet, a small kitchen-dining and bedroom. The woman’s arm is in a sling and the man says nothing the whole time, looking anxious. “I got in a fight with some Islanders last week, now my arm’s in a sling,” she says, as you point your laser across the kitchen-dining and write the measurement on your form, 2.5 * 3.2. The man anxiously watches your every movement so she says to him, “Don’t worry Darl, I’ll put your dexies up here.”
“Don’t mind the washing up. I told you we shoulda washed up,” she goes on.
“Don’t mind me. Where’s the hot water system?”
“Round the back. I had to wait 10 days for them to put this in. Lucky my daughter lives down the road. She got sick of me going down for showers.”
In Bronte: “I’m from the tax assessors. Sorry, I’m late.”
“Come in, come in. Could I ask you to take your shoes off? We just had the carpets redone.”
You go through all 4 floors. Not many places have ducted air conditioning. Mostly it’s one or two split systems. You only manage to eavesdrop on a small snatch of his phone conversation: “ … I don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe some kind of regional pilot. It doesn’t make sense though. It’s bad for business …”
In a new office block three levels are empty. On the top floor a small group of people sit at computers at desks huddled at one end of the room. The agent chats with the young boss about iPods. She explains they are a business making games for iPods and are moving into the Android market.
In the evening you inspect a woman’s flat. Her son and daughter are there. It’s her daughter’s birthday. Soon her sister arrives with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend gives you the evil eye, as if to say, “Who the fuck are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” They all hug and wish happy birthdays as you take photos of the oven and rangehood.
Two estate agents meet you outside saying they had tried to ring the tenants and had sent a letter to the tenants but received no reply. They knock and wait and knock and wait until one says, “We’ve waited long enough, let’s go in.” They unlock the door and enter. There’s no dead body or psycho killer. It’s empty. “Yes! They’ve moved out already.” As you measure the blinds you overhear them pass the time chatting, “My dad’s all like, ‘You just do well and be happy’, but my mum’s the typical, ‘Study hard, get a good job, get an arranged marriage.’”
You pick up the keys from the agent. The place is empty and quiet, plasterboard mostly, linoleum kitchen dining, carpets in the living room and bedrooms, two toilets, two exhaust fans. At the back there is a main road and diggers preparing to build something across the road.
It doesn’t take long to go through 1 bedroom with two beds, another with a double bed, the small dining and kitchenette. There is nothing much except a picture of the Madonna and child with writing in Arabic around it. You are about to leave when she says, “Drink? Coke?”
“Oh … yes please.”
“Um … Tax … The landlord …”
“You write. My son read.”
She gives you a pen and paper and you write a brief account of tax depreciation.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh? Do you like Australia?”
“2 month in Australia. 50 days. 5 years in Syria. Iraq. 5 Years in Syria. 50 days in Australia.”
“Does your husband have a job?”
“No. Doctor. At doctor. I at school. 3 home. 3 o’clock home. 1pm to 5pm. 3 o’clock home.”
“You not … School 1pm to 5pm. 5 days. Today. Teacher, 3pm, home.”
“What are you studying?”
“Is your husband studying?”
“Does he speak English already?”
“Yes. No. ABC 123.”
“Thank you for the drink. I must go. Thank you.”
The keys are in a Hungry Jack’s cup in the garage under the house.
Buddha is on the wall. Playschool is on TV but the two children watch you instead.
Plastic carpet protectors. Gold earrings. “Can you take your shoes off? We like to keep our carpets clean.”
With the satnav you can forget where you’re going. You don’t need to know how to get there. You just need to type in the address and go left when it says left and right when it says right. It’s easy to drift into a trance as the street-lights and your headlights reflected in the cats eyes slowly speed by. Trailing the swarm of red tail-lights, you become a passenger in your own body.
A young woman in her pajamas watching a daytime TV show about the Spice Girls and working on a Mac. She just had an operation and holds her stomach when she gets up, walking awkwardly. You say you need to see the carport and she offers to take you down because it’s complicated. You insist she not go to the effort. She draws you a map.
A woman goes over the bills and says to the eldest child to put something on that the toddler likes to keep him quiet. It’s the Wiggles. She changes the nappy on the baby and hands it to the eldest to hold while she goes back to the bills.
As you drive it’s boring. There is nothing happening now, it’s all automatic. There’s only memories, daydreams and premonitions. Things that might have been if things had been different, or if you were somebody else. Then you arrive places and wonder, ‘How did I get here?’ and in the morning you drag yourself out of bed and into the car and wonder, ‘How did I get here?’
The tenant isn’t home. You ring the number and she says she is 10 minutes away. You are already late and will miss the next one, so you get in touch with head office to reschedule it.
It’s because of these roads, this engine, these tires. Then there’s your mortgage. There are your ancestors. It goes all the way back to Babylon.
At the flat the agent isn’t there to meet you so you go to the agent’s office which is only a block away. They are frantically looking for keys. The agent leaves, ignoring you and you make your enquiries. You go back to the flat and meet the agent. He says, “I’m sorry, I thought you were the IT guy because we’d called someone in.” He lets you in. The two tenants are out. He leaves you there to finish it alone because he’s busy. You haven’t had a chance to use the toilet all morning because the tight schedule doesn’t leave time to divert to a shopping centre. You use their toilet, hoping the tenants don’t pick that moment to come home and find a strange man in their bathroom.
It’s a good thing there is a drink holder in the car because if you need to use your lunch break to fill up on petrol, you can get drive through and eat in the car as you drive to the next inspection. The other guy back at the unit in town where you’re staying said they offered him more money to trial the in-car toilet. They were concerned there was a health risk if inspectors didn’t regularly go to the toilet when they needed to. They are researching ways to enable sleeping in the car so that rental accommodation won’t need to be provided. The intention is to have the car idle slowly around quiet suburban streets overnight, since petrol is more cost effective than real estate.
A new development. All houses are similar with a stylised modern look. The estate is designed so that the family homes all overlook a central park area with a skate bowl in the middle, so that the mothers can watch over the skinned knees of their children. The agent had thought the meeting was on a different day but arrives in a few minutes to let you in anyway. She notices a puddle in the basement and says that it doesn’t bode well. It will have to be looked at. She wears a white quilted jacket, matching the clean Scandinavian engineered community aesthetic of the development.
Sometimes something catches your attention by the side of the road, something you hadn’t seen but is just at that point where if you swerved a little carelessly, or if it were a dog or a child running onto the road you would crash into it. It turns out to be nothing – a post, a piece of rubbish blown by the wind. In that instant though, once it has passed, after you have made the split second decision as to where to steer, there is always a recognition that there was a choice, a choice whether to avoid it or crash right into it. There is always that temptation to impulsively crash full speed into something. After ten years of doing this job, driving, once they’d advanced so much you slept and ate and went to the toilet in the car, one day you will give in to that impulse, you will try to crash into the steel pole of a street light but the sat nav, with the address of your next appointment downloaded to it from head office, will know this is not the correct course and will steer you away from it. You will be saved for another appointment.
You disturbed the little girl’s nap-time. The mother tucked her back in. They have a dog out back. You pat its head and avoid stepping in its shit.
It seems that the most important thing is being overlooked as you shoot your measuring laser across the carpets and photograph the kitchen appliances. At every place you visit, you write a few lines on the back of the asset inspection form. Funny how you can sum a person up in just a few lines. How would someone describe you if they came into your house for 10 minutes? You find that if you don’t write down your impressions of people immediately after the inspection it only takes a few hours to forget them.
“He locked these doors. He doesn’t normally lock the doors. He’s taken the keys. He doesn’t normally take the keys.” A small child inflates a balloon with a pump and lets it deflate again, constantly smiling, following you everywhere, watching you, smiling. He comes home just as you are taking a parting photo from outside. He is a tall and strong man in high visibility work gear.
The daughter is sick in her bedroom but her mother gets her up anyway. The girl says, “What’s that?”
“It’s a laser, see?”
“Cool. What do you need a laser for?”
“It measures distance.”
“Oh.” She went back to bed.
You are late and knock three times. A young man answers the door, rubbing his eyes. “What do you need the photos for?”
“Assets … I’ll just do the ceilings if you like.” He seems worried about his mess of things.
“Yeah, good. I’ll go around the rooms with you.”
He has guitars and a bird in a cage.
“The washing room smells because washing smells doesn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“You know the worst thing about this place is no privacy. All the windows look onto someone, so, seriously, all of them and those people on that side are housing commission, and my kids run around naked. I’ve been here since I got divorced but I don’t like it. You know, every Christmas someone comes around and breaks in to all the car-ports. That’s why mine has big locks on it. Other people just leave it open to say, ‘Nothing to steal, don’t break in.’ Even at Easter too sometimes.”
In the flat adjoining the doctor’s surgery. “I just need to take some photos too.”
“Of light fittings, smoke alarms, and so on.”
“Oh not of me. Ok.”
The white-haired man works at his computer while you photograph and measure his bathroom and bedroom. He has a bed and a rack with shirts and jackets hanging from it. He has a fire extinguisher and a small bookshelf with On The Road, The Soft Machine, Howl Remembered, Spandau by Albert Speer, Paul Frolich, When the Wind Changed – The Life And Death Of Tony Hancock. You imagined that on his computer in the living room he was writing what he thought of the asset inspector, a little character sketch, inventing some life for the inspector, what happens to him driving around to all these houses, counting and measuring ordinary things.
At the Estate Agents’ office the receptionist asks you to wait. You sit in one of the three chairs in the small waiting area. The chairs face an office, walled in glass on all sides. An older woman, the boss maybe, sits across the table with a younger woman who’s very upset and talking on the phone. It’s impossible not to look directly at them due to the position of the waiting area seat. As the conversation progresses the young woman breaks down. You try to sit sideways but however you turn, you can’t face discretely away. The phone call ends and the boss leaves the glass office. The young woman is alone in the glass box crying.
Although it was exhausting work, doing the late hours, sitting in the car non-stop, they are always looking for people to do it so you took on more work, one week on one week off. It was good for the mortgage.
Once you met a man who said he was from the Democratic Republic of Congo. You asked him why he was here and he said he was a school teacher and that when the soldiers came to his school he locked the children inside and refused to let the soldiers in. They said they would be back the following day and if he did not let them in they would kill him and anyone else who got in their way. He left that night.
“If you go there they will kill you because if they don’t know you they will think you must be selling guns to their enemy. The young people are turning to old technology now. The new technology doesn’t work for them. The old technology can protect against bullets. You can have one man who knows this technology, and anyone who is touching him, or someone touching someone, all joined together, no bullets can touch them. I know you won’t believe me. You don’t believe this do you?”
You knew he’d see through a polite lie. “No, but it’s interesting … Why does this keep happening?”
“It is a very rich country but very poor. It has many natural resources, the best minerals in the world, fertile soil, but the rest of the world knows that if we can use it we will become a strong country. They don’t want a strong country in Africa. All we need is a strong leader who can stop the fighting.”
Once, driving around Sydney, you heard on the radio that somewhere in Africa, the police receive constant complaints about the theft of penises. They investigate these complaints and sometimes the penis is recovered. In other news a soccer team refused to play because they were certain the other side had used witchcraft to curse them. Funnily enough, two weeks later the next story you heard from Africa was that lightning had struck during a game of soccer, killing one team while leaving the other unscathed. That was all the news from Africa – there was no high profile famine at that time, though sometimes Somali pirates cropped up.
You don’t hear it on the radio, or see it on the television, or on the internet news, or read in the paper, the 5 million people dead in the war in the Congo. That’s the population of Sydney.
Just think of Sydney as you drive through it, from its edge to its centre, every single one of those people in the cars driving past, every single man, woman and child in every single one of those houses you pass by, block upon block from Bondi to the Blue mountains, all of them dying one by one over 10 years.
5 million in 10 years, dead due to the war, makes 500,000 every year.
41666 a month.
9615 a week.
1370 every day.
152 per hour.
2.5 per minute.
… till everyone in every house, in every car, is dead. Consider your own memory, every single thing you remember. Multiply by 5 million.
How strange it’s not in the news. If you go looking you can find it on the internet, but still, why hadn’t you already heard of King Leopold II when you had heard of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot? Why does anyone you ask if they heard of it say, “Who? Where? That’s somewhere in Africa isn’t it? I think I heard of some trouble there.” Why doesn’t anyone know about the worst war since World War Two, this event of historic proportions, happening right now?
11:31:12 Going over bills, changing nappies, toddler watching TV.
11:31:34 Indifferent mother. In the daughter’s room, photos of two best friends around the mirror, each friend a mirror to the other.
11:31:50 White-haired man in a shack by a surgery. A few beatnik books and clothes.
11:32:21 People are outside the window on every side. My children are naked.
11:32:48 Holding her stomach after the operation she draws you a map to the basement. The Spice Girls helped a generation of women feel empowered.
11:33:05 If you are a landlord let me live in your place. Thieves come every Christmas. We don’t bother with locks any more.
11:33:27 There is another one of these printers not here. The carpets were redone before this refurbishment. These crossed out assets all exist. All under this business entity, not the other.
11:33:52 Take off your shoes please. We keep our carpets clean.
11:34:17 Mothers surround the skatepark watching over skinned knees.
11:34:46 Happy child, inflating a balloon.
11:35:11 In a white quilted jacket she sells homes around children playing in safe danger.
11:35:30 Take off your shoes please. The carpets are new. It looks bad for business What’s their strategy?
11:35:53 In the engineered community, safe and humane, they will want blood.
11:36:19 It’s not much but it’s all you need. They didn’t put on the hot water for ten days. Don’t worry love, I’ll put your dexies here.
11:36:49 A story about the white hair man. A story about the inspector. A story about the white hair man.
11:37:01 From Iraq in Syria 5 years. In Australia 5 months. What is ‘lanlor’? You write why. Write you why.
11:37:26 In the high visibility vest he looks up from the ditch and says, “What makes you better than anyone else?”
11:37:58 We keep our carpets clean. Are you taking a photo in there? I wasn’t expecting you to look in there. It’s full of things.
11:38:15 A girl crying in a glass box.
11:38:41 Under so many rooves, only the refugee offered a drink and a seat.
At every place you go to there is always, in the back of your mind, the thought that maybe behind this door will be the lonely woman who tries to seduce you, the nutcase who kills you, or the dead body. It usually turns out to be perfectly ordinary but at one house, an ordinary brick veneer circa 1985, you smelt a foul smell. It reminded you of a smell coming from the garage one hot summer day when you were a kid. It was so rank everyone spent a full hour looking for the source of it before giving up. The next day it was you who found it, opening the cupboard and glancing up, there was a skink, flattened, dried silver skin and blood, squashed up there from when someone had closed the door on it.
You could just turn and walk away. It could be someone else’s problem. You could call in and say no one answered the door. But it might not be what you think. You knocked a few times more before going around the side, passing by the hot water system without photographing it. You peeked in under some two by one metre blinds and saw a pair of white sneakers, motionless a few inches above the linoleum. You rang the ambulance. They said they would not proceed with the call unless you gave your name and agreed to pay for the call out. You told them the address and hung up. Let it be on their head to let them rot or not. They might trace your call and catch up with you for the money later but right now you could not acknowledge financial transactions. You drove away. It left you with a little extra time before the next appointment to get some food.
One person, unarmed, can lock school children in a classroom and tell the soldiers they can’t come in and so be forced to flee with his family that same night. Another person, in a country where everyone can get food, a comfortable place to live, education and health care, kills themself. Yet another person drives from place to place counting air conditioners and light fittings. Looking at all these people driving hither and thither you wonder why they don’t all just stop and demand an answer. But it’s not fair on them to assume they haven’t asked themselves the same questions. Maybe they’re all driving around wondering why they don’t all just stop. You’re hungry and nauseous at the same time. You don’t have much time so you get drive through.
Rounding the bend in the river, smokestacks rose from the jungle.
The birds and insects were joined by the sound of people rising from slumber, grinding manioc, talking, dropping something by accident. An occasional whistle sounded from the canoes paddling in through the river mist. The second work bell sounded. Kentaro punched his card in the clock.
The foreman gave instructions to chop down all the rubber trees with leaf blight on the plantation.
The Yankee women gave Chiyo instructions on the laundry.
Kentaro put windows in the new houses. As each was finished he wondered why, in this heat, they wanted people to live in hotter houses.
Chiyo planted potatoes, wondering why they had banned chickens and goats and must plant flowers, when they could live well from their own gardens.
Kentaro swept the carpenter’s sawdust out of the new shoe shop wondering if he shouldn’t just go fishing instead, and maybe pick some fruit from the jungle. There were others who’d breached their contract. They didn’t seem to try to catch them if they’d gotten well enough away.
Chiyo wanted new shoes from the shoe shop.
Kentaro wanted a haircut at the new barbershop.
In the common hall they watched a film showing cars coming off the Ford production line and another about lions and mountains in the Congo.
Kentaro helped dig the car out of the muddy road he’d helped build.
Chiyo did the laundry.
Kentaro cut down the rubber trees with leaf blight.
Chiyo and Kentaro learnt to dance at the compulsory community dance.
Chiyo and Kentaro were bored so they went down to the rum boats.
When Chiyo got home from work Kentaro wasn’t there. When he came in he was drunk. He said he lost more money than he had and passed out.
When Kentaro got home from work Chiyo wasn’t there. He went down to the rum boats. “You owe us,” Paulo said. They showed him the berth where Chiyo lay asleep. He dragged her home, promising to pay in two days time on pay-day. Chiyo took some jewelry from her mistress and once Kentaro had his pay they went into the jungle, heading upriver for two days before they hailed a boat. It took them as far as Iquitos.
“¿Cuánto cuesta la princesa japonesa?”
“No habla Espanol,” Chiyo replied to the men drinking and shoulder slapping on their veranda over the channel. They soon went back to their drinks as she paddled on to her own veranda and unloaded the groceries.
Kentaro was inside, lying on the mat, cooling himself with the fan she’d made from an old flour bag. “It’s so hot,” Kentaro said. “Come sit here and I’ll cool you down.” Chiyo put the hessian shopping bag, full of fruit, in the corner and sat on the mat near him. He kissed a bead of sweat off her forehead and began fanning her.
“It’s strange,” Kentaro said, “to be here. I want to be here but I don’t want to be here. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes. I miss Japan, but I am glad we left. Things were so hard.”
“Things are hard here too, but it’s different. No rules and regulations for once.”
“That can be bad sometimes too.”
“Everything is good and bad. Like this heat. Sometimes it is beautiful. The smell of ripe fruit on a warm breeze when the sun goes down.”
“The stench of rotten fish at midday.”
“The lapping of the water at night when the streets flood.”
“Vultures fighting dogs in the rubbish when the streets are dust.”
“It’s better than the Fordlandia plantation too.”
“It was the best thing we ever did to run away. From Fordlandia, from Brazil, from Japan.”
“Despite the stench of fish and the dust?”
“Falling asleep with the sound of birds whose names we don’t know in the distance, we will drift into our dreams tonight.”
“Only a frayed rope to anchor us.”
“Sometimes just to breathe makes me sweat and I wish it were winter. But I know if it were winter I’d wish I was here, so I imagine it’s winter and I’m dreaming I’m here.”
“After everything, sometimes I’m just glad we’re not dead, whatever the weather.”
“Do you remember that first time, in the kitchen in that house your mother worked in?”
“How lucky she was out that day. My friend at the mill, Kama, she always said it tasted like mushroom.”
“Really? Does it?”
“Yes, fried mushroom.”
“You know what you taste like?”
“I don’t know how you thought of the egg.”
“You know. It was there.”
For a while there was only the sound of birds across the water and the occasional shout of a child in the still heat and their memories were both there, standing in the kitchen of the family her mother cooked and cleaned and washed for. Her mother had cried when she saw Chiyo return from the mill, and both of them were soon full of confusion. Her mother couldn’t pay the debt, yet she didn’t want to send Chiyo back, yet she must send Chiyo back. Chiyo could not shame her mother, yet she could not go back to the shame at the mill, knowing she could never pay her fines. Neither of them knew what to do, so they agreed Chiyo should conceal herself in the kitchen while her mother accompanied the household on a trip away.
Chiyo didn’t tell her mother about Kentaro but once they were gone, he moved in. One afternoon, as the day drew near for them to return, Chiyo began boiling a pot of broth. Kentaro picked up an egg and tossed it in the air.
“You’ve been cooped up in here too long. Haven’t you heard there’s a famine?”
“The master won’t miss it.”
“They might be rich but what good is money when there’s no food to buy?”
“You and your mother cook it all. Will they really know if there’s one egg less in the Tomago?”
Kentaro saw Chiyo was crying.
“Alright, I’ll put the egg down.”
“It’s not the egg, you fool.”
“Chiyo, tell me what’s wrong. You can tell me anything.”
“They say that when a customer falls in love with a prostitute … and he can’t afford to buy her and they cannot bear their troubles any more … they sometimes commit suicide together.”
“I suppose for some people it seems like the only way.”
“Do you think that will happen to us?”
“You’re not a prostitute.”
“I’m worried that’s what will happen to me. I can’t think of any way out of this situation. I’ve been away from work so long, if I go back, I’ll be there the rest of my life paying off the fines, or I’ll be arrested. Whatever happens, the rest of my life will be worse, and it’s all my fault.”
“No, it was because of me. I shouldn’t have spoken to you so long that day.”
They held each other for a long time. “Speak to me again,” Chiyo said.
“There was once a girl who fell in love with a traveller. She said
Better it were
To be a silkworm,
Though its life soon ends,
Than to be tortured to death
By a rash love.”
“How did they know about us so long ago?”
“and she says
When daylight comes
I shall kill him
crowing too soon
sending my lover away.
But her lover replies
If the Pine of Kurihara no Aneha
Were a long-awaited love
Come with me as a souvenir to the capital.”
“But that also means, ‘I don’t love you. You’re hardly even human. Of course I won’t take you.’”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“It was my fault. I wanted to stay too long that afternoon. I couldn’t stand that factory any more. Maybe it was because that one afternoon seemed enough for one life, and I didn’t mind losing a life spent in that factory. I only feel sorry for my mother. I’ve made things difficult for her. Kentaro, don’t leave me.”
“Chiyo, I don’t know what we’ll do either, but I won’t leave.”
She turned and with his arms still around her, carefully separated the yolk from the white, pouring it from one shell into the other over a ceramic bowl. When the yolk was done she turned around and smiled at him. He smiled back. She held up the egg shell between their lips and opened her mouth. He mirrored her. She tipped the whole yolk into his mouth. Gently he held it there without breaking it. He took the shell from her, crushed it and cast it aside before slowly moving his mouth to hers. The soft yolk slid from his tongue into her open mouth, and she in turn held it there, gently, without breaking it. He moved down to his knees and lifted her clothes, kissing his way up her thighs until the yolk broke open in her mouth. They kissed in the taste of egg and brine. The big steel pot boiled on the gas burner, turning the broth cloudy as a train rattled by outside.
The following day Kentaro’s mind was empty. He could not think of anything in the kitchen, so he went outside, wandering the city, looking for something, when he saw a poster. It was a man holding a hoe and pointing to a map of South America, to Brazil. In the crook of the arm holding the hoe he supported a miniature family, a wife and child.
Kentaro admired a caterpillar crawling on his trouser leg. “You know, why don’t we just throw those things into a bowl of ramen or rice – mushroom, egg and seaweed.”
“We’ll put it on the menu.”
“Buenas Dias, Señor,” Kentaro said. “Chiyo, bring Señor the special.” He poured Señor Guzman a glass of anisette.
“Gracias, Kentaro. I am forever in your debt. Come, come sit.”
Kentaro joined him. The man spoke closely to him, grinning, “I thank you again and again. And so does my wife!” he slapped Kentaro on the shoulder. “You must tell me this time. What’s the secret?”
“No secret, Señor. Just simple Japanese cooking.”
“Come on, there must be more to it than egg, mushroom and yuyo. I still don’t know what witch stole it, I still don’t know who paid them for it, but I tried” (he counted them off on his fingers) “porpoise oil, chuchuhuasi, cocobolo, clabohuasca, huacapuruna, ipururo and viborachado. I tried shaman. I tried doctors. I have been at the crossroads in the middle of the night with Ogum,” he shuddered. “But it wasn’t until I ate your soup that I got my mojo back. Whatever you do is good magic my friend.”
It was almost a year ago now that Señor Guzman, after an evening drinking at the cafe behind Pantoja’s Billiard Hall, had wandered drunk down an alleyway towards Belen. Only the devil and Señor Guzman know what he was doing in that district and it is probably better not to ask – for one thing he can’t remember, and for another, it’s never safe to ask what men with money do in the poor part of town. After one turn and another, he wound up in a dark and quiet laneway, full of mud and stinking of shit and rotten food. Approaching a T junction where his lane met another, he heard a strange high-pitched ‘Aiee! Aiee!’ At first he thought it must be a sick pig or a rabid dog and prepared to scare it off if it attacked, but the closer he came to it the stranger it sounded. It was no pig, no dog, chicken or any bird he had yet heard in Iquitos. He saw a human shape – an old woman, caked in mud and the filth of the street. She must have been demented, he thought. Her breasts were so saggy she had slung them over her shoulder, but as he looked in disgust, she pointed at him and let out a scream, ‘Aiee!’ that chilled the marrow in his bones. Fear took hold of his legs and sent him back the way he had come.
From that evening he had lost his libido. This was of no consequence to his wife, who had already turned to her own amusements, but to his mistress it was a disaster. Before long he had lost her, and with her the desire to get out of bed in the morning. He spent his evenings alone in his study with only the dead for company, resurrecting from the pages, Cervantes, Oviedo, Góngora, Quevedo, …
He suspected everyone. His promotion at the rubber firm had been an awkward reward – he had more money, but his colleagues now despised him. He was sure that one of them, out of envy, had placed a curse on him, causing that old witch or spirit, or whatever the devil it was, to steal his libido. Over five months he had at first fretted, then sought help from scientific doctors and shaman, even the Chinese herbalists. None of them worked. Finally, one day in the dry season, attending to some business in Belen, he had been walking along and, suddenly noticing his hunger and thirst, stopped at the first restaurant he saw. It was Kentaro and Chiyo’s cane and tin hut.
After first quenching his thirst, he was curious and comfortable enough to lunch there, despite the humble nature of the place. Following an impulse to try something he had never tried before, he ignored the usual Iquitos fare they offered and ordered the house special. Kinmutsu passed the order to Chiyo and Chiyo cooked the mushroom, seaweed and egg on rice. Señor Guzman found the taste a little unusual, but otherwise agreeable.
That night however, consoling himself in his study with works of fiction, trying not to dwell on his lost mistress, he finally struck his hand on his desk, said, “Damn her to hell!” and, seized with an irresistible passion, sought out his estranged wife, took her in his arms and kissed her.
“What are you doing?” she said. “You’ve been gone for years. It’s too late for this.” He declared he would murder any rivals and kissed her again. “Where have you been for so long?” she said. Their affections resumed.
The following morning, over the morning coffee and chocolate, congratulating himself on having the wisdom to marry the woman across the table, he wondered what it was that had done it. The only thing that he had never done before, that was in any way new or different, was the Japanese meal. He returned. “What is the name of this restaurant?” he asked.
“Kentaro and Chiyo.”
“Hmm? What does that mean?”
“That is our name.”
“Hmm … pardon me, but nobody will understand. You won’t get customers that way. I think you need a better name.”
“Si, Si Señor.” Kentaro called out in Japanese: “Chiyo, the customer thinks we need a better name.”
“What is wrong with our names?”
“He means a better name for the restaurant. What shall we tell him?”
“Ah … Ukiyo!”
“Yes, yes of course! Señor, nombre restaurante es ‘La Tierra …’, ‘La Tierra …’” replied Kentaro in his poor Spanish. He gestured with his hands for a while, pointed at the river and the houses outside, but it wasn’t until he resorted to getting a glass of water from the kitchen and floating a cork in it that they were both sure they understood each other – “Ah! Flotante!”
“Si, flotante. ‘La Tierra Flotante.’”
“In Spanish it’s ‘La Tierra Flotante’!” Kentaro called out to Chiyo.
“La Tierra Flotante!” she called back.
“Bello,” Señor Guzman said. “And the name of this dish?”
“Chiyo!” Kentaro called. “What will we call the egg, mushroom and seaweed?”
“Air, land and sea!”
“Nombre es … ‘Tierra, cielo, mar’.”
Chiyo served the air, land and sea then as she did every time Señor Guzman came, and as she did now.
The man took a quieter tone. “But I am serious, too serious this time old friend. I need to know what you put in it because we may never meet again.”
“What is, ‘serious’?”
“Bad news, Kentaro, I’ve come to tell you, there is bad news. War is everywhere in the world. Trouble is brewing. I know that you know many Peruvians don’t like the Chinese and Japanese here, just as in Brazil. I know that with things getting worse, things won’t be looking good for you and Chiyo.”
“Don’t forget I work in a government office. Someone in your position, if they knew what I knew, would be getting on a boat. Between you and me, you understand.”
“When soon? Today? One year?”
“Soon. I can’t say. It depends on when things will happen. You must know Japan has big plans. You may know better than I do what they are and when they will happen. Peru knows something will happen. When it does, Peru will have a problem with Japanese.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“I have heard from people who know people. Japan will bomb the United States Navy. We know this because of the rubber.”
“To make war machines – tires, electrics, aeroplanes. You can’t make an empire without it. So soldiers will die for it. Malaysia has rubber. Peru has rubber. Japan needs rubber, Britain needs rubber, United States needs rubber. Malaysia is a big British rubber plantation. It is difficult to sell rubber from Peru now because Malaysian rubber is too cheap. But all this war will be good for business, that’s why we know. Japan will have Malaysia so Peru will sell rubber to the United States.”
“So, bad news for Japanese in Peru.”
“It’s good news for me, but not for you. Look at the newspapers now. People are saying they want Peruvian blood to be European. They say your people stick to yourselves and are a foreign colony on our land. If you stay here you’ll find yourself dead or in jail. The only place safe for you is back in Japan. I’m warning you because I like you. You are a friend. All I ask in return is the secret of this dish before you go.”
“I am ignorant. I know this not. This is bad news. Thank you tell us. But there is no …” Kentaro stopped. He could see that Señor Guzman was serious, that he would not believe there was nothing special in the soup beyond mushroom, egg and seaweed. “Excuse me, one moment.” He stood and went behind the curtain and spoke with Chiyo in Japanese.
“Did you hear what he said?”
“Yes, we have to leave.”
“I don’t want to lie to Señor Guzman but I don’t want to disappoint him. He’ll be offended if we don’t tell him something about the soup. He really believes there is more in it than mushroom, egg and seaweed.”
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt him. Tell him this. Get a piece of paper, write a spell on it, fold it up like a prayer and put it in the cooking pot.”
“I’ll show him.” Chiyo took some paper, brush and ink to him. She showed him how to write an offering to hungry ghosts and to fold the paper into a knot. She spoke to Kentaro, who translated into Spanish, “She say, ‘You keep. Make soup, make this. Same. Write this. Fold this. Burn this. Put ash in food.’ Hungry ghost eat this, not eat mojo.”
Señor Guzman thanked them and put the paper safely in the little bag he kept tied around his neck under his shirt.
“Thank you, Señor. So, we leave Peru because Japan fight British for rubber in Malaysia.”
“It is a crazy world.”
They all shook each other’s hands and said farewell.
“I don’t know how we’ll find the money,” said Kentaro. “I don’t know what we’ll do when we get there.”
“We can start like we did here. Buy food, cook it, sell it. We can start a food cart.”
“Things are different back there. Here we are poor and it’s dangerous but there you are nothing more than what you must be. I don’t want to go home.”
“It will be good to see my mother. I hope she’s still alive.”
Chiyo looked in on Kentaro. The room stank of solder. He had fallen asleep, lying back on the floor, his white shirt untucked from his creased slacks, barefoot, a driblet of saliva sliding from the corner of his mouth, among the tangle of multicoloured insulated wire and dismembered carcasses of salvaged electronic goods. His project had grown up the walls – wires and components mounted on garden trellises he’d brought in. A few tendrils crossed over the ceiling and the gloomy winter sun shone through a chaotic crisscross of wires over the window. The Bakelite casing of an old radio was his pillow and an electronics periodical his blanket.
She had carefully made ebi nigiri sushi for him, but since he was asleep she picked her way through the debris and laid them on a bare patch of floor near his head. As the dish tapped on floorboards, he sat up suddenly, wiping the drool from his mouth, surprised he’d been asleep. Chiyo sat with him and they ate.
“I read in the paper,” she said, “that they think the seafood from the water around Hiroshima may still be contaminated. They say there may be mutations and cancer.”
“Oh well,” said Kentaro, “we have to eat.”
“Yes. They also say it may cause infertility.”
“Oh well, after all this time, we must be infertile anyway. So eat.”
They were quiet for a while.
“Kentaro, I don’t know what you are thinking any more. Since the war, you have been at work all day, and after work, all this.” She looked around at the wires and components, all assembled with a hasty order.
“I don’t know if it will come to anything, but if it does, it will be important.”
“But why? You never explain. I want to know what you are thinking again, like it was in Iquitos.”
“I don’t want to bore you with the technical details. You wouldn’t understand. You don’t want to.”
“Maybe I do.”
“You want to know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking I am a sweet potato vine, so I need to grow these sweet potato vines. I’m thinking I need to adjust the frequency modulation in the feedback filtering for amplification control and it’s going to be a lot of work, because it affects everything on that whole wall. I’m thinking that we are all bundles of electro-magnetism. That like the universal governor on Watt’s steam engine, we are a system of self-controlling electromagnetic mechanisms. This is all about signals. You know I learnt some electronics in the war. Now I’m going to do something with it. What else do I have? I worked the radio. I fixed the radio because I had to. I figured it out because I would have been killed if I didn’t and never would have seen you again. I didn’t know I was smart enough to do that but I had to so I did. I am an Imozuru! We are all Imozuru! What is in the brain? Nothing more than microscopic wires all connected to each other. And somehow we can think. Everything, pleasure and pain, is electric – electric motor control signals. And here, here I am figuring out how it all works, how we work. That’s why it’s important. And if anyone can figure it out I can, because I’ve figured things out before, because I had to. Understand?”
He rummaged among his equipment and brought out two insulated wires, one red, one black, connected to a large battery. He gave Chiyo the two wires, one to each hand. “Here, connect the ends to each side of my face.” She touched the wires to his cheeks. His face instantly contorted into something that was both smile and grimace.
“Here we are eating. Hunger is electric. It’s an electric signal that tells our muscles to move to get food to eat. In the war we invented control systems. There are feedback loops, positive and negative. These happen in the brain too, and it’s how we learn and think and act – because of the electrical signals connecting neurons. In the war we found how to understand code and transmit information in ways that people never imagined before. The Americans have invented this thing called a transistor, and well, it’s all possible now. I know it is. Look at how the West has beaten everyone. The Western way of doing things is the best in the whole world. And see how all these signals are flying everywhere now, on the radio, in the newspaper and telephone. In this way the West has made itself into one huge brain. It is smarter than us, and like we did before we have to be better than them. Smarter, faster, more advanced. What you see here is as big as quantum physics, if it works. It is an electronic mind. I have figured it all out, the first tests work, but I need to go through and remodel things to make it more powerful. I need a way to make feedback signal adjustment more flexible. It might be hard to understand but it is even more difficult to believe. It won’t be very powerful, but if this works, it will actually be a thinking machine, and maybe, one day, because it is all electro-magnetic, we will be able to connect ourselves to it, to fuse our own neurons to these wires, to control machines with thoughts, or to connect our cognition directly into cities’ communication systems. I know that other people in Europe and America are working on this already. Wiener, Turing. It’s here, written in these journals. They’ve been thinking about it a long time. If they can, why can’t I? If it works, I will be the one who made it.”
“You were right. I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you think it must be you who does all this. But it’s not healthy to work all day and all night. How long can you go on like this?”
“I’m tired of moving papers from one box to another. I don’t like it. I’m not good at it. I’m tired of being a grasshopper. You can’t get promoted unless you pretend to like it. To do it faster. But I’m no good at pretending. If I can invent this, the company will have to promote me to a position where I can do useful research work, and then I … well I know I sound crazy, but it really is possible and if it is possible, then I must … How can I just shuffle paper when I could …”
“Kentaro, I have experienced bad things too, but I just go on living. You don’t have to do this.”
He was silent for a while, “I’m sorry Chiyo. I am a weak man.” The energy his ranting had stirred up suddenly dissipated. He slumped with his head in his hands. She tried to comfort him, but he said, “No, leave me alone. I don’t deserve your kindness. I hardly speak to you. I can’t find a good job. I have dreams I can’t fulfil. I think I’m smart but I’m stupid. I’m a useless, weak man. I have never loved my country. I should be happy I have a job when so many others are hungry. I can’t even pull myself together for you now. I am no better than the people I despise. Shomohin. Yuhei. Maybe one day I’ll be better. Pi chosen-jin. Go to a piya. Call me Jjokbari. I don’t blame you if you leave.”
“I will say it now. Honestly, it is difficult to love you sometimes, Kentaro. But I love you so I’m not leaving.”
Chiyo collected the plates and washed them in the sink.
After three months work washing clothes at an orphanage near Hiroshima, Chiyo returned to visit Kentaro. Taking her seat on the train she found a book someone long gone had lost. It was Soseki’s Ten Nights Of Dream and as the train travelled, she read about a man who went to see the 13th century master wood carver Unkei at work carving guardian gods at Gokoku temple. He remarked to a bystander how amazing it was that with a few unceremonious strokes of mallet and chisel, Unkei could create a perfect nose and eyebrow from a formless piece of wood. The bystander explained that he was not creating the god from shapeless wood, but was excavating the form of the god already hidden in the wood. With this insight the man went home and tried to carve his own guardian gods from logs of firewood in his backyard. After working through the whole pile he still could not find the god in the wood of today and finally understood why the ancient Unkei was still alive.
Once home, Chiyo tore a strip from one of Kinmitu’s electronics periodicals and bookmarked this story with it. When she left for the orphanage again she left the book on Kentaro’s pillow.
Three days ago before dawn I woke up and couldn’t sleep. I could see the day wasn’t far away so I took the last crust of bread from my pocket and chewed. I was living by the grace of God. From down near the Portada Barbones, a woman came with a bundle on her back. As she passed I asked her, “Excuse me. Can you spare a coin?” She said, “No.” So I asked, “Please, all I have is this crust of bread. One macuquina?” She walked a few steps and changed her mind. “I’m in a hurry,” she said. “You carry this for me. We’ll be walking all day. You can have a Real.”
“Thank you. My name is Recuerdo.” She didn’t say her name.
All morning she said nothing, walking at a fast and steady pace towards the sunrise. When we met other travellers on the road she covered her head and left it to me to make the passing greetings. A Real is good eating for a day or two. I know when not to ask questions. When it was too hot to walk we moved off the road for a way to rest. She had tamale in her pack and we ate one each. She looked tired. That afternoon she spoke like someone dying.
“It’s hot,” she said. “I can’t walk all day like I used to. I never expected I’d grow this old.” A light wind nudged the leaves and flowers a little and cooled our sweat. She adjusted her skirts and sighed. “There was a time once, when I was young, I walked all day and all night for three days. I didn’t stop. I didn’t sleep. I need to walk like that again now but I can’t. I can see you’re wondering why, but you’re too polite to ask. Recuerdo, the way things look I may as well confess to you. At least you will know the truth. The inquisitors will be looking for me soon, looking for the truth, but they only find lies. They wouldn’t believe the truth if they heard it. The more they seek the truth, the more lies they’ll find. Even you’ll lie to them. You’ll tell them you didn’t know anything, you were just a porter for an old woman. In the end, they will choose which lie will be the truth and write it in their book.”
“But I’ll give you another Real if … there is someone, if ever you meet him, a slave called Simon, in Lima. I kept him for too long. Tell him what I tell you.”
“Early one morning last year, around Calles Mariquitas, I was going to the market. A man, coming from Portada del Callao stopped me. He said, ‘The sun rises in Guinea.’ I knew he was running away, trying to go home. It seemed a hopeless journey but I showed him the way to Portada Barbones. Maybe he would find a palenque and settle down. ‘This is the road,’ he said, and walked towards the sunrise. We’re going the same way as that man. It’s been a long time since I saw Matamba. Maybe things are different now.”
“What was it like there?”
“I was a naughty girl. I climbed up into palm trees without singing to watch what our neighbours were doing. Most of all I liked to watch the doctor. He could do many amazing things and I wanted to do them too. I tried to remember the songs and sayings and dances, but when I went into the forest to practice them they didn’t work. He was always killing chickens. He could put a nail through their head to kill them and then resurrect them. Once, at night, I snuck into his yard to check those chickens and see for myself. I saw that in every chicken the nail went through the head in the same place, near the front behind the beak. It looks like it goes right through the head but it misses the brain. I practiced on one of my father’s chickens and it worked. My father found his chicken wounded like that and nobody knew why. I said nothing. He spent a lot of time worrying about witches then. He gave the doctor a lot of his precious wine to get protection from that witch. He didn’t know it was me. I guess that’s where all this started, why I’m sitting here telling you this now.”
“But it wasn’t all like that. It was a bad time in Matamba. Some of it’s too hard to remember. Before I was born my father was well known as the best palm tapper. That’s how he made his living. I only remember him when he was drunk, too drunk to make a living, or teach a child right from wrong. I didn’t have a mother. I was too young to remember what happened but my father told me. He spoke about it only once. You’ll understand why. One day when my mother was getting wood in the forest three soldiers came and did what soldiers do. After that day my father couldn’t look at her anymore so he sent her away to her mother’s house. After that day he always drank more than he tapped for others. My brothers looked after me, but there was nothing but boredom, debt and poverty in my father’s house, so one by one they went away to fight. One day I did too.”
“I was sitting in the church. It was a wedding and everyone was still waiting for the bride. Is it yesterday or a hundred years ago? I sat with my friends and thought they were ridiculous. I was listening to them talking. They were saying things like,
‘It will be you next time.’
‘I just wish I knew with which man.’
‘You’re so late. Where have you been?’
‘Look at my hair. You dumped me yesterday.’
‘You dumped me. I spent all afternoon and couldn’t finish my hair. In the end I had to go with whatever was best.’
‘I had things to do. I helped you first. I also have hair, my sister has hair.’
‘You dumped me!’
“…and so on and on they went. I was thinking how silly they were when there was a lot of noise outside. I could hear my father was drunk and arguing with some men. I was embarrassed. But it wasn’t just my father outside. The Imbangala came. They came to the church where everybody was and blocked up the doors. The men in the church had no weapons. They stood in front of the Imbangala but were too afraid to fight them. A tall Imbangala man said, ‘Who’ll join us?’ We were all afraid they’d kill everyone. These Imbangala have no children of their own. Any baby born with them they kill. So how do they make more Imbangala soldiers? They go from village to village killing everyone and taking their children. No one can stop them.”
“I thought a lot of things all at once. I wanted to do everything my father said I shouldn’t do. I wanted to be like my brothers. I thought about my mother and how she couldn’t defend herself. I thought about these girls who want a husband but what good was my mother’s husband to her? In those days everyone said the Queen’s brother was weak and Queen Nzinga was the only one strong enough. Once the Imbangala had fought with the Portuguese against Nzinga. Now they were fighting for her. I was hungry. The Imbangala had everything they wanted. They might kill me anyway, so I decided things might go better for me if I joined them.”
“It might have been better to die that day. I won’t say what I saw and what I did. Only people who haven’t been to war can think war is a good thing.”
“It was the law that if any woman had a baby it must be buried so that we could move quickly, so that we’d have nothing to care about, so that we’d fear nothing. After my first child I learned to fight better so no one could do just what they wanted to me, so that I wouldn’t have to bury another. When one day we were attacking a village I came to be alone with those two men who were the father of my child. I killed them both. I ran and ran and kept running and running and didn’t go back. I walked for three days and three nights without stopping. I was starving and hungry when I came to a fire someone had made. It looked like they were burning palm leaves to make salt. No one was there, so I slept near the fire. I was so exhausted that when they came back they captured me. They fed me so at first I was just happy to be alive, happy I was their slave because I could eat. Like you are happy carrying my things for this Real. They sold me and here I am today.”
“I came here on the boat and stayed a slave in this town for a long time. Mostly just domestic work every day, cleaning and cooking and washing, until María de Huancavelica, an Asante woman, lent me enough money to purchase myself back again. So I had my deed of manumission but I also had a big debt to pay to María. I didn’t know any work that wasn’t slave work and who’ll pay for work a slave will do? If I couldn’t pay my debt I would go to prison. María let me do her domestic work to pay my debt to her. She didn’t pay me enough for me to buy what I needed and to pay off my debt. It was just as if I was her slave. I needed more money.”
I remembered the girls I knew when I was young. I remembered what I learned from watching the doctor in my village. That was how I started making love potions and other things for people in this town. María always said, ‘Don’t do that. Pray to the Holy Virgin.’ So I said, ‘You don’t want me to make money so I can never pay you back.’ So I made my money.
“If someone came and said, ‘I don’t believe it. This is fake medicine,’ I killed a chicken and brought it back to life again. Over the years everyone in town took my medicine. I knew all their business. They are all guilty. That’s why all their fingers point at me. The Inquisitors would take them all if they knew what I knew.”
“I paid my debt to María with money to spare. I started a business selling bread. But those who are rich get more than nice furniture and fancy clothes. They also get the envy. I know because, more than potions for lonely and jealous lovers, I made charms against malice for shopkeepers, bankers, brewers, money-lenders. One way or another, I’ve sent the whole town to the crossroads with rum and tobacco. But no charm could make Simon love me.”
“My charms couldn’t protect me from envy either. I kissed a baby once. I was happy to see him, as everyone was. That was a mistake. Now they say I killed a baby once. I was at the Baratillo near Notre Dame de las Cavezas and Maria Estrada, the mistress of Isobella, called me into her house saying that Isobella was crying because her baby couldn’t feed. I checked the baby and saw it had a swollen belly, so I ground a poultice of lavender in the mortar. I tied it to the baby’s belly and kissed it. Now they say that first I kissed this baby’s belly and then a swelling arose there and that it was witchcraft. That baby died. Soon everyone was afraid and everyone remembered their own reason to call me a witch. When I kicked my toe and said, ‘To the devil’ they said I was making offerings. Someone even saw me digging for bones in the graveyard. Now every sick child is my victim. But it’s only because they see me in the good clothes I can afford. So the wheel turns. I’ll keep going towards Matamba. Maybe I will find a palenque. Recuerdo, please take this to Simon and his wife, Jacinta, and tell him I’m sorry. I should have freed him long ago. Of all the things I had, he was all I ever wanted.”
“That’s what she said, Señor Simon. She gave me this copy of her Will.”
In the name of god, amen, in whose beginning all things have their just, praiseworthy and fortunate end: Know those who read this last will and testament, that I, Agustina de Palmiera, a free black woman of the Congo nation, native of Ethiopia, resident of the City of Kings in Peru, daughter of Juan de Palmiera, being close, by the will of Our Lord God, as I believe in the mystery of the most Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in one true God, and in all the rest that the Holy Mother Roman Catholic Church believes, confesses, and teaches, under whose faith and belief I have lived and I profess to live and die as a Catholic Christian, and fearful of death, which is consubstantial to all human creatures, I hereby make and declare my last will and testament in the following way and form:
First of all I entrust my soul to Our Lord God, who created it and redeemed it with the infinite price of his blood, and my body shall return to the dust from which it was formed.
And fearing death, which is a natural thing for all living creatures and so that this death may not take me until I have arranged matters for the sake of my conscience, I make and order this my last will and testament.
I beg you then please, by the power,
Item. A mirror that is worth about two pesos: two pesos
Item. A new copper frying pan that is worth about: three pesos
Item. A wheat-coloured shawl that is worth about ten pesos: ten pesos
Item. And a worn, iridescent skirt that is worth about: four pesos
Item. I declare I have a shawl of black flannel that belongs to Rafaela Zapata. This should be returned to her.
Item. Two small double-handled bowls of silver.
Item. A box from Panama and a trunk.
Item. A length of lace underskirting that amounts to: twenty reales
Item. Also a small piece of false gold jewellery mounted with stones of amethyst, ruby, and diamonds of alchemy that is worth about four reales with another four stones of alchemy, that is worth about another four reales, and the two together amount to: one peso
Item. Also a bedstead that is worth twenty-five pesos: twenty-five pesos
Item. A round whetstone and its mechanism.
Item. An ordinary wooden bedframe.
Item. A wooden stand from in front of the bed.
Item. A used wall cushion.
Item. Four ordinary, new mats.
Item. One table and a screen, and two benches and two large ordinary chairs.
Item. A large mortar and a skillet, and a new pot, and another used one, two grills, a large shallow pan for watering, and three brass candlesticks.
Item. Also a canopy that is worth fourteen pesos: fourteen pesos
Item. A small statue of the Most Pure Virgin with its little silver crown, that is mine, that is worth three pesos: three pesos
Item. A piece of the True Cross adorned in Prince’s metal with its glass cover that is worth about: eight pesos
Item. I declare that Veronica of the Congo nation is indebted to me in a certain amount of pesos. I order that only 210 pesos of eight reales be collected from her and paid to Jacinta Folupa, and I forgive her the rest on the condition that she pray for me to God.
Item. I declare that Jacinta Folupa owes me 50 pesos of the 800 pesos that I lent her for her manumission and that debt shall be paid from the 210 pesos from Veronica of the Congo nation.
Item. A Simon Folupa, on payment of 160 pesos, he be given the deed of manumission and should not be sold for more.
I hereby revoke all former wills and testamentary dispositions of every nature and kind heretofore made by me in word or in writing or in any other way and I do not want them to be valid nor can they be used in or outside court, except for this one that I now declare as my testament, and I want it to be carried out and executed as my last will in the way that best follows the law. And I testify that this testament is done in the City of Kings of Peru, the sixth day of the month of January of the year 1666. And the testator, whom, I, the notary, certify that I know, seemed to be in complete possession of her judgement and natural memory, judging from her answer to the questions that I asked her, and this is what she ordered, and she did not sign it because she said that she did not know how to write, and at her request a witness signed it.
Everyone gets in kitted out for the beach. Towels, sunscreen on, thongs, togs. You come down the driveway into the street and approach the T-junction slowly.
“Whichever you want.”
“I’m inclined to just go the way I don’t have to think … but the other way might be better. What do you think?”
“Either way, you choose.”
“I wouldn’t go that way.”
The plane stopped in China in the early morning. They took your passport for checking and, with all the other non-nationals on connecting flights, directed you to wait in a corner of the airport at the foot of a motionless escalator. While you waited for an hour, wondering if they would give your passport back in time to make your connecting flight, you exchanged glances with the young, smart, hip guy next to you until it was awkward not to make conversation.
Where are you going?
I’m just coming from there, going home to the States.
What were you doing over there?
How come you’re going home?
I want to finish my PhD. I’ve been there for years. I can’t really progress without my PhD … and it would be good to go back home for a while.
Is it hard to get work there with the language?
Not really, they encourage everyone to speak English where I worked anyway.
Did you learn Japanese?
Some, I tried, but it’s kind of hard to study with all the distractions.
Oh! (You smile and politely give him a knowing nod.) But doesn’t that make it easier – having someone to talk to in Japanese?
Not really, you need to study.
Past the people sleeping in boxes, coming up the escalators from the Umeda underground city, you paused by the buses and hung your head. An old woman in rags came to you and put out her hand. You thought it was to ask for money but this time you didn’t hurry on by. You looked her in the eye. Her eyes were grey and glazed and you saw she wasn’t angry or miserable but smiling. There was something far away about her eyes, serene and holy. She must be mad or on drugs. Finally, you saw she wasn’t making a cup of her palm. Instead she presented a coin to you. You accepted it, her rough fingers pressing it into your hand, and she moved on. The beggar gives the business man the money.
Not completely sure of the routine you browsed the pictures of variations on noodles, rice, chicken, pork and beef. The one roughly translating to $4 looked good so you pushed the button. You could eat cheap in Japan if you wanted to. This trip wouldn’t impact too much on your mortgage after all. The machine provided no user feedback. After some hesitation you inserted coins. A small LED reassured you. You pushed the button and the machine ejected a small ticket. You sat on the red vinyl seated stool at the U-shaped bar and put your ticket on the counter. Soon a chef came and took the ticket back to the kitchen. You tried not to stare across the bar at the three tired men in business shirts and loose ties. The youngest heaped pickled ginger onto his noodles. The middle read a paper. The eldest still wore his suit jacket and simply ate. They were arranged as a comic strip titled, “Lifecycle of the Salaryman”. It was a magic mirror reflecting you in time instead of space. You waited, inspecting the faint scratches of your empty red and black plastic miso bowl.
Only a few Japanese words still stuck in your mind from when you read up about Japan before making the trip. There was ‘Konnichiwa’, ‘Sumimasen’, ‘Ramen’. You couldn’t remember the words for chicken, pork or beef but you could remember ‘Shachiku’ – corporate livestock. ‘Kaisha no inu’ – corporate dog. ‘Datsusara’ – escaping the corporate lifestyle to pursue a dream of personal independence, such as starting a restaurant or self-sufficiency farm, or becoming a traditional artisan or web design contractor, running tour boats or teaching sky-diving.
At Shibuya intersection you stopped to watch two young jazz musicians. The bebop drummer was the best, fizzing with intricate, infectious variations. The sax was not so hot but made up for it with pizzazz, sky-larking and passing out the promo pamphlets. This is it. The only time in your entire life you’ll be in Japan. The only time you’ll be standing here now, listening to these kids blasting. You have finally worked yourself into a position where they have rewarded you with an international business trip. The paper is tomorrow. You better get back to the capsule hotel. You better know your stuff. Be well rested. On company money, there’s no time for anything other than what they send you for. You better get a good night’s rest. You better go over it. You better know your stuff:
[_ Advances in information technology today place us in an unprecedented position to increase efficiencies in taxation, benefiting both government and taxpayers. As capital goods depreciate over time, for everyone from home owners to businesses, billions of dollars are lost annually in potential reduced taxable income and to the government in administrative overhead. Utilising already existing APIs, my employer, CyberTax and Associates, has developed middleware solutions that will usher in a new era of real time, on-demand efficiency._] [next slide]
_ By registering every purchase made by citizens and businesses at the point of sale with the taxation department through CyberTax Ltd. software, a permanent record of the decreasing value of those assets, from toothbrushes to cars, can then be used to calculate the total loss for tax returns each year. The information goes directly from the checkout to the tax department, leveraging existing online transaction security and identity validation infrastructure. The adoption of these technological reforms may even become an election issue for governments as the hip pocket is directly affected. As these projections for an average income householder indicate …_ [next slide]
You looked up at the tower of neon, waiting for the traffic to stop. At the top the promise of more new levels were gift-wrapped in green-screened scaffolding. You’d seen all you’ll ever see of Japan. You better know your stuff. Be well-rested. They were paying for this privilege. They weren’t paying you to fuck it up.
Missing home, you closed your eyes for a moment and pictured the details of the scene when you returned, coming in through the back door into the kitchen:
Your phone rang. It was your wife. It was a bad line and you couldn’t hear well but you could hear she was unhappy. She put your eldest daughter on and she said something but you had to ask her to repeat it three times and you still couldn’t understand and she started crying. Jesus fucking Christ is everything ok? You ask your wife, “Is everything ok? Is anyone dead?”
“Is everyone fine? Is anyone hurt?”
“No!” She shouted. “We’re fine now thank you!” and hung up.
“Thanks a fucking lot,” you said, turning off the phone. The people around understood your tone and ignored you. So much for absence makes the heart grow fonder. Prolonged proximity doesn’t apparently work either. What the fuck am I supposed to do? She probably thinks I’m over here laughing it up fucking Japanese girls. What? That crooked toothed old prostitute propositioning me last night? Those backlit panels of glossy girl selections like so much plastic sushi? Couldn’t afford it anyway. And why the hell would a cute Harajuka record bar girl want to sleep with a boring old computer programming taxation accountant for anyway? After all these years how could she not know me enough to know? Ridiculous. That can’t be what’s eating her. Why won’t she just say?
Some things people you knew when you were young had done:
No wonder she was bored of you. You hated living with you too.
The night was cold so you went into a book store. The bottom floor was the biggest book store you’d ever seen, all in a language you couldn’t read. You went up the escalators and there was another level of illegible books as large as the lower one. You went up again. You went up another level and another. Here was an unending expanse of information, the thoughts of countless people, on every subject, from all over the world, from every period of history. You had lost count of the levels and there were still more. All in a language you didn’t know. You were suddenly illiterate. Why did you bother? You took the opportunity to use the bookstore toilet and left.
At the end of the day, all you had to do to be able to live with yourself is not die. On the other hand everyone you cared more than two cents about would probably be better off without you anyway. It would be much more pleasant for them all not to have a boring old bastard moping around the house all day, dragging everyone into the yellow wallpaper.
Maybe the only reason she tolerated you, after all, was that she couldn’t afford to live without you, which, as miserable as that must be for her, also meant you were nothing more than a mortgage paying apparatus. The longer you dragged it out the more everyone lost in years wasted putting up with you when they could have been furthering their happiness. They would get a payout from your superannuation that would cover the mortgage, so they’d be free. Free of you, free of debt. Free. You were the price of their freedom. All things considered, the cost benefit analysis showed a significant profit from your death. Losses would rapidly decrease over time as everyone forgot about you. And anyway, you no longer wanted anything to do with yourself either. Death was clearly the only rational option.
You walked until you were so far away there was no chance you could make it back for your presentation. By then it was day so you slept in a suburban park under a cherry blossom tree. A security guard woke you in the afternoon. It was cold still so you went into the subway. You were the only one without a box. Yes, that was the solution for a salaryman at the end, to renounce all worldly possessions and live in a box. You wouldn’t have to die, yet you would be assumed dead.
You spent the day seeking ideal boxes. Most were too small, but eventually, next to a pole in a suburban alley, you found a washing machine box relatively clean and undamaged. You walked around with it over your head, looking through a slit cut in the front. Inside the box no one could tell you weren’t Japanese. No one troubled you at all.
You spent weeks walking. You walked out of cities, across the country and into cities. You ate from rubbish bins behind restaurants. You were training your mind to desire nothing, your thoughts to have no contents.
You had no friends, no possessions, no family. You congratulated yourself: “I don’t have a salary to tempt me. There is no friend to reproach me for my laziness, to get me back on my feet when I only want to sit and sleep. There is no desire to sit and sleep when I am hungry or want to move. I move and find food. Why depend on others’ strength and energy – whether they are servants or superiors – why make others depend on you?”
You don’t remember much of that time. You were eliminating the distinctions between yourself and the landscapes in the cracks in the pavement, the roads, carparks, shop windows, bottle tops, a blade of grass, the torii pedestal of an overpass under construction, rust blotches on the side of a barge, a piece of dry mud, pampas grass growing from a drain, the abandoned spider web between an aluminium window frame and a ceramic pot, the bolt at the foot of a coffee vending machine, the joint in the leg of a toy spaceman.
Since nothing was useful to you any more you saw things you had never seen before. You would see the bus stop and the willow tree beside it. The number on the bus was no more important than the black smudge in the shape of a hat on its fender, the price of something no more or less significant than the dent in the stainless steel rail beside the conveyor belt.
You saw things, beautiful things: a rubber glove with a missing finger, cement that had gotten wet and hardened in the bag, an umbrella with holes in it, a folded piece of aluminium siding.
The washing-up glove was difficult to ignore. It reminded you of your daughter. She wanted an iPod but didn’t have enough money for it. You took the opportunity to teach her about earning rewards and lent her the extra money. She promised to pay it off by washing-up. She washed-up every night until her debt was gone, then stopped. There was no other way to make her wash-up each night.
What are things that are not useful? Things that are not a means to an end are the reason we do other things: beauty, happiness, pleasure. Things without purpose. What are all useful things ultimately for? Things that are not useful. You are a flat tire.
You floated along the footpath beside the river to the mouth of Hiroshima harbour. Islands lay flat and grey in the distance. Grey sky-filtered sunshine glinted on the girdered bridge. Steel ships stacked with multicoloured containers coasted across the mercury sea. Reaching the end of the promontory at the mouth of the harbour where the rivers merged, four sublime walls of featureless steel shining in the diffuse daylight towered over you. Two men jogged by as you wondered what could possibly be inside this vast box. You sat on the concrete fencing by the breakwater to admire the mystery. All boxes reveal that something is hidden. Smug enigmas, they are all asking you to beg for their secret to be told. To be outside a box is to desire.
You were inside a box and outside a box. You enjoyed being a box and so to be in a box was a desire, a lingering desire you had not yet annulled. You had not succeeded in becoming the box, because you desired to become the box. The ascetic life is gluttony. You must learn to be outside the box and inside it so that nothing matters either way. If everything means nothing, nothing means everything. Then there’s no difference. Then you are a box.
Yet there are differences. There are caterpillars, bottletops, salarymen, hunger, food, angst, envy, folly. Things are similar to each other. So what?
A woman walked up a small flight of steps and down a wheelchair ramp again and again at the edge of the lawn in front of the great box. A man lay on his back in the sun with his arms flung wide.
Hungry, you dug into the bin behind a diner. Under greasy paper and plastic wrappers, you happened upon a cracked black and red miso bowl. It had been used and washed until its inside was misted with countless scratches.
The infinite mist of fine scratches in the perfect contours of a cracked impervious plastic black and red miso bowl is countless salaryman meals.
In infinite sequence the salaryman meals mist the perfect impervious contours of a cracked red and black miso bowl with countless scratches.
Scratched contoured infinite miso bowled plastic red and black countless mist eating salarymen.
Infinitely scratching contoured mist countless salarymen eat their meals in a cracked red and black plastic impervious miso bowl.
Once upon a time there was a salaryman who lived in a bowl of miso soup. He spent his days making lists of things in people’s houses. Carefully he wrote down what each thing was worth each year until it was not worth anything anymore. There were toasters and air conditioners, fire alarms and garbage disposal units. There were automatic garage door motors and sandwich presses, curtains and washing machines, towel racks and rugs. When the things were worthless, the people threw them away, and the salaryman took them all back to his miso bowl. When his hand wore out he replaced it with a sewing machine. When his feet wore out he replaced them with air conditioners. When his legs and arms wore out he replaced them with remote controls, blenders, sandwich makers, television parts and towel racks. When his stomach wore out he replaced it with a microwave oven. When his head wore out he replaced it with a cash register. When his heart wore out he replaced it with a vacuum cleaner.
You lived for a hundred years in that bowl. One day you woke to find someone had dropped coins in it. The last time anyone had touched you was the crazy old woman who gave you the coin at the crossroads near the train station. You looked for a place to spend the coin, thinking someone might touch your hand as you gave it to them. The first place you found was a noodle diner where you put coins into a machine and push a button to place your order. You took the coins home, apologised for your ridiculous folly and gave the coins to your wife and children as souvenirs.
“We want you to come back to work.”
“Are you kidding? After I left you in the lurch? Why?”
"You are a valuable employee. There aren't many people in the world with your knowledge of the industry, and of our business in particular. It's hard to keep people in this line of work. It is tax depreciation after all. Most software developers run off to London or San Francisco after a while. To make a long story short, we are prepared to offer you more money. When you left we realised how seriously we had undervalued your commitment, and we appreciate you must be under a lot of stress. We don't want to lose you again. How does a 10% pay rise sound?"
After work you told bed-time stories to your daughters.
Once upon a time there was a man who lived in a miso bowl. He collected worthless things that nobody wanted anymore and built palaces and cities out of them inside his bowl. One day there was a washing-up glove going for a walk when it saw some torn curtains. This glove loved torn curtains more than anything, but these curtains were hanging high up on a bent towel rack on top of a great, huge, massive, towering pile of other things. The glove jumped as high as it could but it couldn’t reach them. Other things began to watch and the glove got all embarrassed, so it said, “I don’t want torn curtains in my house anyway.”
Everyone gets in kitted out for the beach. Towels, sunscreen on, thongs, togs. You come down the driveway into the street, and approach the T-junction slowly.
“Whichever you want.”
“I’m inclined to just go the way I don’t have to think, but the other way might be better. What do you think?”
“Either way, you choose.”
“I wouldn’t go that way.”
On Saturdays Kentaro went riding. They would always end up at the little food bar near the water at Minamiuozaki where he would insert coins into the vending machine, collect the tickets and they would sit at the counter, side by side. The man would collect their tickets and they would wait for their tonkotsu ramen. While they waited they didn’t talk much so he would glance at the boy now and then, each comfortable in their silence. He would remember things about the war and wonder if the boy remembered anything of Hiroshima or if he had been too young to remember a thing.
They would sit near the wall and he would sit in such a way as to screen the bad side of the boy’s face from others but every so often someone would catch sight of his missing cheek and lips. They’d flinch automatically at the row of bared teeth that would normally only be seen on a snarling dog or skull. And both he and the child would notice that flinch and sometimes look at each other. Although they didn’t talk much, both knowing what had happened in that moment, neither was alone.
Saturday, 10:30 am
They didn’t speak much. The boy would eat in his sideways way, so the food and soup wouldn’t slip out, and Kentaro avoided looking at the other customers, gazing at the laminex bench, the pickled ginger pot and soy sauce bottle, remembering sitting on the mat with Chiyo wondering if it would be the last time he ever saw her, if he would die a year away at the far frontier of the empire. He held her in his arms and she held him. He had it in his mind that it would be like that first time again – that thinking they might never see each other again, with death so close, their love would be perfectly unconstrained and complete. That they would hold nothing back and discover every pleasure in each other that there was to discover, each revealing to the other things they could not alone have imagined feeling. But Chiyo was withdrawn. “Chiyo,” he said, “what is the matter? This might be the last time we ever see each other again. All the love we have left, for the rest of our lives is here and now.”
“It’s nothing, I’m sorry.” She tried to kiss him.
“Don’t hide anything. Tell me every thought you have.”
“I don’t like it. This is like that cliché moment, when the soldier is leaving and demands what is due to him from a young woman. Every woman must do her duty. I love you. I love you and I don’t want to take anything away from you. But my love for you has never been a duty. Now they are making it my duty. I don’t know why, I shouldn’t be like this but I don’t like it. I’m sorry I’m spoiling this moment.”
They held each other all night. Eventually they made love but it wasn’t like in the kitchen. It wasn’t like those floating days in Iquitos. Kentaro wondered if the boy was born of a love like that first time with Chiyo, or some other kind of love. There were as many kinds of love as there were copulations, and there were children of work and of rape. Was this a child of love or duty?
Saturday, 6:30 pm
Chiyo looked across the dinner table at Kentaro and the boy eating and filled her own mouth. When the laundry supervisor had said to Chiyo, “You have leave to visit your mother.” Chiyo knew it could mean only one thing. She left Hiroshima immediately without even saying goodbye to Kama. When she arrived at the kitchen of her mother’s master’s house the maid’s silence told her that her mother was already dead. There was a commotion upstairs and the maid went up to check. Chiyo stayed and looked around the kitchen. She had not heard from Kentaro in months. The maid returned and said the radio said a new type of bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, causing extensive damage, that her master had tried to contact his connections in Hiroshima but could not get through and that must mean it was totally destroyed so it was lucky for Chiyo that she had been called away to…
Saturday, 10:30 am
They didn’t speak much. The boy would eat in his sideways way, so the food and soup wouldn’t slip out and Kentaro avoided looking at the other customers, looking at the laminex bench, the pickled ginger pot and soy sauce bottle, remembering.
Kentaro didn’t wipe the sweat from his face. There would only be more. Behind the cycle in front, in front of the cycle behind, he peddled up the road till the white arches and verandas of the plantation mansion were in view. The corporal signalled the dismount. They hitched their bikes on their shoulders and concealed them among the rubber trees. They advanced under cover until the mansion was encircled. The area around the mansion was mostly clear, but at the rear, where Kentaro stationed himself, the trees came close to the building and there was an open door to a servants’ entrance. His gun was cocked, ready for the first British soldier to come into view, but there were none.
He was glad of the rest from cycling and, keeping a close eye on the house, stretched his legs a little and drank from his canteen. Looking in all the windows he saw nothing. He ran his finger across the coarse rows of diagonal scars on the rubber tree he squatted behind. Surprised by a noise he pointed his rifle to the house but saw no one, but there were now two bowls of water in the doorway. A high-pitched singing voice came quietly through the open back door. He looked from window to window, until, close by, he saw, above the sill, a head bobbing as it came towards the door. He aimed where the person would appear, but when they emerged and he found his aim had been too high he smiled. It was a small child, engrossed in a game. The child’s song moved back and forth from the doorway into the house, as the child laid bowls at the door and filled them with water. He glanced at each window again, and behind himself, then back at the house. It was a very young child, not old enough to understand anything beyond its game.
Smoke appeared above the roof of the house. Since no one had emerged, the corporal had ordered fire to force them out. Kentaro squatted and aimed his gun at the rear door, ready again, glancing from window to window. He waited and the child played. No one came through the servants’ door. There were no shots from other quarters. There was only the black smoke thickening above the white house and the quiet song of the playing child.
He waited still. The fire spread across the roof. The child sang from the rear room, deeper into the house and back again. No one came out the door. No one appeared at the windows. No shots were fired. The house was burning. Kentaro reached into his top pocket and took out the emergency ration. He unwrapped it and took out the boiled lolly, wrapped the sesame bar back up and returned it to his pocket. Flames had spread all over the roof and a wide column of black smoke soared above by the time the child came to the door again. Kentaro shouldered his rifle, clapped his hands and whistled enough for the child to hear. Oblivious to the burning above, the child looked over and saw him smiling from around the rubber tree. It stopped singing and stared. He held out the boiled lolly and beckoned with his other hand. He smiled at the child and pulled a face. The child hesitated. Kentaro reached into his pocket and held up the rest of the ration. The child smiled, left its game and walked over to him. He turned the child towards the house and when the child saw the fire and smoke it was frightened and held Kentaro’s arm. He wiped its nose on his sleeve. The child ate the boiled lolly and together they watched the mansion burn. Nobody else emerged.
The child followed him back to the bicycles. The men laughed and joked at the child as they put their feet back on their pedals to rejoin the regiment. The child held its hand out to Kentaro for another sweet treat but Kentaro had no more. He asked the man next to him, “Do you still have that British chocolate?” but the corporal was already ordering them to mount and depart, shouting, “… the houses of Singapore aren’t empty!” Cycling away, he looked back and saw the child still holding out its hand, crying.
Saturday, 6:30 pm
Chiyo looked across the dinner table at Kentaro and the boy eating and filled her own mouth. She wanted to say, “Kentaro, I didn’t know much about you when we first met, all I knew was that I must get married and you were my only hope, and you seemed like a good person. I was lucky it was you, Kentaro.”
Saturday, 10:30 am
They didn’t speak much. The boy would eat in his sideways way, so the food and soup wouldn’t slip out and Kentaro avoided looking at the other customers, looking at the laminex bench, the pickled ginger pot and soy sauce bottle, remembering looking through holes in a thick green leaf as big as his torso at a rope bridge suspended across a jungle gorge one misty morning. He sat quietly, looking, expecting nothing, but vigilant because, however unlikely it was, if the enemy came it could be death for him and his company. Then there he was, a movement of leaves across the rope bridge, a floppy hat and glistening face and rifle. He stepped out onto the bridge. Kentaro aimed his rifle, unsure at first whether to let him pass or to shoot. How many more of them? If one or a few came, when should he start shooting? If any made it across they would be captured. Kentaro had seen them tortured. It would be better for him to kill him now. The enemy had no chance of winning. Those unlucky enough to be on the island would be killed in fighting or tortured. The island had already been won. Killing this person would not change defeat into victory, nor would sparing him turn victory into defeat.
Kentaro took careful aim and shot. It was a good shot but once the man had fallen into the river, Kentaro saw that he was still alive, but not strong enough to swim. The opposite bank was silent. Kentaro watched the man die a double death, shot and drowning.
Kentaro wondered if the boy remembered Hiroshima.
Saturday, 6:30 pm
Chiyo looked across the dinner table at Kentaro and the boy eating and filled her own mouth. “Kentaro, last night I dreamt you were here. If I had known it was illusion, I would never have woken.”
Saturday, 10:30 am
They didn’t speak much. The boy would eat in his sideways way, so the food and soup wouldn’t slip out and Kentaro avoided looking at the other customers, looking at the laminex bench, the pickled ginger pot and soy sauce bottle. They came and swept the flamethrower through the whole noodle bar. The customers opposite screamed, arching their backs, running and rolling and writhing, and that group of three students in the booth over there too, the busboy, the cooks in the kitchen. The whole place flooded in flame and stinking black smoke. The laminex melting to the floor, the chopsticks in the container gone like matchsticks. That’s how it would be if they let one of those things off in here. The whole place gone in a moment. Kentaro had heard that at Hiroshima when the people were running, after the first flames, it started to rain black rain and they thought it was fuel for another incendiary attack, but some of them, the burnt ones, overwhelmed with insatiable thirst could not keep from drinking the black water from puddles anyway. Kentaro wondered if the boy remembered Hiroshima.
Saturday, 6:30 pm
Chiyo looked across the dinner table at Kentaro and the boy eating and filled her own mouth.
The Weaver and the Herdboy in the sky
Meet once on the seventh day of the seventh moon,
However hard it is to cross the Milky Way,
And never miss this yearly encounter.
But since he left me, left me alone,
What magic water separates him from me
And what makes him silent across the water?
Saturday, 10:30 am
They didn’t speak much. The boy would eat in his sideways way, so the food and soup wouldn’t slip out and Kentaro avoided looking at the other customers, looking at the laminex bench, the pickled ginger pot and soy sauce bottle, remembering when there was only him and Hiroyuki in the jungle on reconnaissance. They had been waiting out a thunderstorm, huddled in a sheltered spot beside a banyan root. Once the rain stopped they were able to take the back off the broken transceiver without its parts getting wet.
“If we can’t fix it, we can’t go back. We’ll starve out here.”
“I’m starving already.”
“I don’t want to die of hunger out here.”
“Well you can go back and die, or go to the Brits and die.”
“You better fix it.”
“It’s complicated. Do you want to try?”
“I don’t know how those things work.”
“Nor do I.”
They both looked into the radio parts.
“If it worked, I wish I could radio my wife.”
“You have a wife?”
“I have a beloved wife
Familiar as the skirt
Of a well-worn robe,
And so this distant journeying
Fills my heart with grief.”
“You have a good memory for the words but your tone is not good. I didn’t know you recite.”
“Hmmm. Look at all this white stuff on this wire. What do you think?”
“Yes, should we clean it?”
“I’ll unscrew it and clean it. Maybe it’s a bad connection.”
“I can recite. I worked for a Noh company in Kyoto.”
“Bullshit. They wouldn’t send an actor here.”
“Not as an actor, but I heard enough. Listen to this. This is a chorus part:
“‘Plants and trees, soil and sand,
wind sounds and water noises:
in each one the spirit harbours all things.
Springtime woods swaying to east winds,
fall insects crying in northern dews –
are not both song and poetry?
The pine among them towers, lordly,
green through a thousand falls,
and shows no hue of new or old …’”
“No, that hasn’t done it.”
‘Astonishing! Old people, I see
that you are a couple, together here,
though Takasago and far Sumiyoshi,
by shore and mountain a province apart
are, so you say, your homes.
What can you mean?’”
“Ah! Maybe this one, it’s loose …”
“And the Old woman says,” he held his rifle by the barrel and put the butt over his shoulder, “… and this can be her broom …”
‘Sir, you ask us a foolish question.
Though a myriad leagues of hill and stream
divide them, hearts truly in touch
do not find the way to each other long.’
The radio crackled. Hiroyuki slapped Kentaro on the shoulder and said, “You are a brilliant man, sweet potato!”
“Ha! We may survive the war after all.”
They tuned it until they found something and sat listening to a slow song from enemy radio.
“Listen it’s sad, but listen to that Latin rhythm. This band is good. It brings back memories.”
“I miss my mum’s tamago.”
“I miss lying on the pillow and smelling Chiyo, even when she’s out.”
“I miss sake.”
“Or seeing our shoes side by side at the door.”
“I miss Gion.”
“I miss my wife.”
“Yes, I miss the comfort women too!”
Kentaro wondered if the boy missed his mother or even remembered her. Had he seen what had happened to his mother?
Saturday, 6:30 pm
Chiyo looked across the dinner table at Kentaro and the boy eating and filled her own mouth.
Not even in my dreams
Can I meet him any more –
My glass each morning
Reveals a face so wasted
I turn away in shame.
Saturday, 10:30 am
They didn’t speak much. The boy would eat in his sideways way, so the food and soup wouldn’t slip out and Kentaro avoided looking at the other customers, looking at the laminex bench, the pickled ginger pot and soy sauce bottle remembering Chiyo, after the war, when she’d been down at a village outside Hiroshima doing menial work for an orphanage, washing clothes and so on.
“Kentaro, in all these years I’ve never become pregnant. You know what it means.”
“Well, I had an old friend, someone I knew at the old mill. Her name was Kama. She was good to me. The best friend I had in that prison. She was at Hiroshima. She is dead. Long dead. But her son is alive. He’s been living for a long time in orphanages. Just recently he was transferred to the one I work in. I’ve recognised him, despite … Well it’s a stroke of luck that we should meet. You have a stable job now. We have our apartment. We could look after him. He could be our own son.”
Not long after they found out that the boy had Leukaemia and would soon die they took him, on a sunny spring day, to the Tokyo National Museum.
They looked through the glass at the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts. People sat in their chambers, unaware of the ghosts around them as they plucked the strings of their instruments. A woman gave birth, unaware of the attendant ghost. Outside, the ghosts hovered around people pissing and shitting. Further on they picked over the bones of the dead, and at the end of the scroll, were cursed with flames. Their bellies were large and their throats narrow. The boy banged his fists and head on the glass. “Keichi! Keichi!” Kentaro said. “What are you doing, Keichi? Stop!” said Chiyo but he ignored them. When they held his arms to stop him, he began to scream, his eyes rolled back and his body convulsed. They tried to hug him to stop his uncontrolled movements but he fought against them. The security guards were coming, so they dragged him through the echoing halls outside. They went through the park and kept going, trying to get away from everyone who saw them, but the park was crowded on this sunny day. Everyone was shocked and stunned by this agonised convulsion staggering through the budding trees, the bright clothes and happy faces. They kept going, until Keichi was exhausted and couldn’t scream or struggle any more. They were near the moat and the great black stone walls of the imperial palace beneath a plum blossom with a cawing crow perched in its branches and cranes hovering over tall buildings in the distance. Not knowing what to do Kentaro stood and watched. Chiyo put her hand on Keichi’s shoulder as a jack-hammer started up nearby and Keichi sat in the dirt, steadily beating brown dust with a fallen stick. Kentaro and Chiyo knew Keichi remembered.
“Did you smoke a cigarette today?”
“Are you sure? I can smell something.”
“There were a lot of smokers on the train. Everyone smokes. Everyone but me.”
“You know what the doctor said.”
“Yes, yes, yes. If you keep up like this I’ll need a smoke just to stop losing my temper at all these questions.”
“Ok. Ok. I just worry.”
“I’m a grown man. I can look after myself.”
“That’s why you’ve been at the doctor …”
“Alright, alright, I’m too tired for another fight. We’ve had this fight before anyway.”
“So now we can’t even fight together.”
“All I’m saying is we’ve been through this before. Both of us know what we’re going to say, and how it will all turn out, so let’s just imagine we said it all already and made up.”
“Well if it’s that boring, why don’t you say something interesting?”
“Ok fine … Here’s something then. I haven’t been able to find the right time to say it … It’s a difficult subject, but I guess now is the time to say it, since it’s come up … You know where I work down town – you know after dark there is not much open?”
“I don’t go downtown often.”
“Well there’s not much open except here and there are one or two brothels.”
“You’re going to brothels?”
“No, no, no. Listen to the whole story. Now the reason those brothels are there is that it’s people downtown who have enough money to afford that sort of thing, after work, so that’s where they are. Now every so often I overhear at the office or at work drinks someone talking about going there, or laughing about having been there. Once someone even asked me if I was going. I said no of course.”
“Don’t let me get in your way.”
“Well, that’s not what I mean, don’t take everything that way … I’ve never been interested in that sort of thing anyway. I don’t think I could … anyway, that’s where all the real deals happen. Everything else is paperwork and ticking boxes and looking right. It’s when those guys run into each other at the brothel that they make friends, they do each other favours, they set up games and tricks and schemes, then the work they do in the day is making it all look legit. Well, Chiyo, I’m sick and tired of being a yuhei. I’m sick of being a naive little child and shoved to the side. I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to think I’m sneaking around behind your back. I’m going to go to those brothels but I’m not going to have sex with anyone. I’m just going there to play the game, get a promotion and make us some proper money for a change.”
“Fine!” Chiyo went to wash-up.
“You don’t believe me,” Kentaro called after her, “but it’s true. I’m doing this for me and you. We’ll have a better house. Don’t you want a better life?”
She didn’t answer but he did it anyway – he stood at the foot of the stairs in the brothel, a laughing colleague farewelling him up the stairs with the chosen prostitute. Up he went, her short skirt waving in front of his nose, to the room. He went in and went to stand by the window but there was none. He awkwardly stood on the other side of the bed. The girl smiled mock coyly at him, putting her hands together in front of herself, letting one knee give way a little, and looking at the floor. When that didn’t entice him she went over and touched his arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have a wife.”
“A lot of men have a wife.”
“Well yes, but I love mine.”
“But aren’t there things you need she can’t give you? Maybe things you can’t ask her for, because she is too precious?”
“We can just sit, or talk.”
“Is that really all you’re here for?”
“To be honest, it’s because I’m going for a promotion.”
“Ah, I see.”
“So what would you like to talk about? You can say anything to me.”
Kentaro put down his briefcase, took off his jacket, sat and said, “There’s not much to say.”
An hour later, he was crying, confessing, “… and when I let the pig escape, my mother took my book and threw it in the fire. She tied me to a post and beat me. And my father did nothing about it. Nothing. He never did anything about my mother. I wanted to be civilized. He wouldn’t do anything until she started on at him enough that he snapped, as if she wanted him to get angry, she must have or she would have stopped. That doesn’t make sense, to want to fight like that. But I hated it. I wanted to be civilized. I wanted to be a gentleman, all the time I tried to read but all I could hear was them fighting or fucking. So much for filial piety. If anyone wants respect, they should be respectable. Not that it amounted to anything, since now I’m nothing. I read Tales of Ise over and over again. Look I can still recite it off by heart.
Though I got wet,
I was determined to pluck them,
That of this year
But few spring days remain.
No wonder I wandered away as much as I could. I loved to go up in the mountains. No wonder I loved the ancient beauty of Ise Monogatari. No wonder it was easy for me to set out for Unrin In. That’s how I met …”
“I’m sorry, sir, you must stop. Time is up.”
“Yes, unless you want to pay more.”
“Oh, no thank you.” He stood, stubbed out his last cigarette and picked up his briefcase and jacket. “That should be enough. Sorry to talk so much.”
“That’s ok, you pay, you do what you like.”
Chiyo saw through layers:
1.An advertisement with a proud, smiling woman holding a fish in one hand and a frying pan in the other, stuck on,
2.the glass window in the train door, and beyond it on the platform,
3.plastic electrical ducting, attached to,
4.grey paint on,
5.a steel girder,
6.a line of people standing on the platform,
7.an open space between two concrete walls,
8.the symbols of a large company
9.the render and glass windows of the building behind them.
10.the parking tower topped with the blue Latin letter P beyond.
The flowers withered,
Their colour faded away,
I spent my days in the world
And the long rains were falling.
She had looked in his suitcase and found the cigarettes. If he lied about that, she guessed, he lied about what he did at the brothel. There was also another smutty comic. She had known he had them for a while now. If he were that bored of her … had she grown that old and ugly? She couldn’t help recognise that some of the girls in the pictures he had looked like her, but younger. He must have been in love not with her, but a memory of her. He loved the woman in his mind more than the woman in his bed.
This body grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I would go.
1.An advertisement with a proud, smiling woman holding a fish in one hand and a frying pan in the other, stuck on,
2.the glass window in the train door, and beyond it on the platform,
3.plastic electrical ducting, attached to,
4.grey paint on,
5.a steel girder,
6.a line of people standing on the platform,
7.an open space between two concrete walls,
8.the symbols of a large company,
9.the render and glass windows of the building behind them.
10.the parking tower topped with the blue Latin letter P beyond.
Her mother was dead. Kama was dead. Keichi was dead. Kentaro was gone. Now there were only acquaintances, colleagues and people she regularly greeted. She turned away from the glass towards the inside of the carriage. Sitting on the seats near the door with her mother was a little girl in a red and white dress with white stockings, black shoes and a little red and white polka-dotted bow in her hair, cut into a bob, looking at Chiyo. She sucked on her finger and was so astonishingly cute that Chiyo couldn’t help but be charmed. As the girl was staring at her she smiled and pulled a little face at the girl but the girl hauled her feet up onto the chair and hid in her mother’s armpit. Peeking back out at Chiyo she looked like she would cry. “Horrible old woman – the days of pleasing anyone are over,” thought Chiyo, so she turned and stared back out the glass again and there, silhouetted between the company logos was Kentaro.
He looked bad. She hadn’t noticed him before because he looked like a tramp. He was unshaven, his clothes were dirty and rumpled and he carried some plastic bags. She got off the train, ran down the stairs, up the other stairs and along the platform. His beard was thickly lined with grey. Dirt was in the lines on his forehead. His hair was long. He smelled bad.
“Chiyo,” he said.
“Kentaro, you look terrible. What happened?”
“Nothing. I didn’t need a job after you left, so I just …”
“I didn’t want to leave. You already left me long before I left you.”
“I didn’t mean to, Chiyo. I understand. I was a weak man. I was only working for you and Keichi. And Keichi was gone. Now it’s all gone.”
“I couldn’t talk to you any more. You wouldn’t talk to me.”
“Look at us. All our good days are done. Do you remember me, Kentaro?”
“There’s only memories.”
“Remember Air, Land and Sea?”
“Unkei. Sweet Potato.”
“You’re the only one left who I could say something to and not have to explain.”
“You don’t have to say anything. We can lie beside each other remembering and dreaming.”
“This winter has been long.”
“Few spring days remain.”
“Come on Kentaro, you stink like a Belen back alley before the rain. Come home and get cleaned up.”
In the Umeda underground city, in a small counter restaurant, a customer read the placard pinned on the wall behind the bottles on the shelf.
Is not the moon the same?
The spring of old?
Only this body of mine
Is the same body …
“I’ve been coming here off and on for 6 years now,” the customer said, “and some of these things on the menu change but this one has been here all along.”
Sweet Potato Picarones
Tacacho con Cecina
Air, Land and Sea
“Oh, really?” Kentaro said. “Which one?”
“Air, land and sea.”
“Oh yes, that one. Do you like it?”
“Yes, one of my favourites, but why has that one always stayed when others have gone? It seems more Japanese than Peruvian. What’s the story?”
“Chiyo! What’s the story of Air, Land and Sea?”
“Ah – that is an ancient Indian recipe, from long before the Conquistadors. They say it has magical properties.”
“Magic? What does it do?”
“Nobody is really sure any more, the real secret is lost in the mists of time, but one Peruvian we knew swore it would give you back your ‘mojo’.”
“Mojo? I’ll have that.”
With neither destination nor ticket, Chiyo was asked by a ticket inspector to get off the train at Okayama station. She changed platforms and got on a little two carriage train going west on the Tsukagawa line. It was afternoon and on the long bench three high school boys sat apart, sleeping. Opposite, three high school girls sat together talking. The city disappeared. A bamboo stand hung over the blue river. Plastic bottles gathered around a tin shed. In late winter there were only shallots and cabbage in the garden beds. Once the train seemed far enough away, not wanting to arrive anywhere, she got off at the next stop. ‘Kome’, the sign said. She walked around some coffee vending machines and through a motionless village. She followed a winding road up a mountain. A school boy walking behind her, knowing a shortcut, overtook her and disappeared into a country house.
Blue flowers no bigger than a little fingernail. A slate backed flycatcher with a brown breast and white flashes on its wing. Dusty fields still winter fallow. Impenetrable young bamboo thickets. The road winds up. Weary, she wants to rest, but whenever it seems the next rise will be the peak, there is always another just a little further on. Her bones and muscles ache but when finally the road is over the mountain and the way is easier, the unknown view beyond the bamboo or pine at the next corner draws her on. When will she stop? Perhaps on top of this slate cutting, but the young bamboo is too thick to find a comfortable sitting spot. Around another bend is a large pond with a stupa, she is thirsty but the water in the pond is green. Above it a pine grove. There, in that grove, the trees are mature and there’s no bamboo so the way is clear. She climbs into it and finally sits. It is quiet. A bird whistles. Sometimes a raven. Sometimes the wordless poetry of the wind in the pine leaves. No other person passes for an hour or more. A small caterpillar inches along her leg. The afternoon is almost gone. It seems too hard to make it back to the station, it doesn’t look like rain, and there is nowhere she wants to go. Woodpeckers flit from bark to bark.
With no one to hinder her whims, no friends to warn or reproach her, she sits as long as she likes and stands only when the whispering leaves move her and looks for a place to sleep and a water source. She follows a faint path etched through dead pine needles, the only tracks on it her own and the small hooves of deer. Among the pines she finds a glass bottle sunk into the ground with time. She lifts it out of the soil so she can fill it with water if she finds any, and sees inside, among the dirt and moss, a slick black pupa.
Higher up, a small flat reed bed, still stalks dead. Among the dry dead grass leaves tiny black spiders crawl. At the edge under a tree encased in spiked husks are nuts, each hollow with its own wormhole. She walks into the small dead reed bed. A scent of stagnation in the still air. Gnats floating in winter light. Across the reeds distant mountains float in a haze. She sits among the reeds and remembers Kentaro’s voice. She calls back his name, “Kentaro, Kentaro …”
The sun edging to the horizon, she leaves the dead pampas grass, thirsty.
Just beyond the reeds a mature bamboo grove looks a better place to sleep and the pond the bamboo grove wraps around is still but clear. It smells clean but is slightly turbid. She tips the pupa out of the bottle, laying it among the bamboo leaves, washes out the bottle as best she can and fills it with the bamboo grove water. The water is the clearest around but she is still unsure of it. She returns to the pines, gathers fresh leaves and brings them back to the bamboo grove. She crushes some of the pine leaves in her palm and puts some in the water. The taste is pure so she drinks deeply.
Dark comes. Bamboo creaks. She pisses in a spot outside the grove on the other side of an embankment and goes back inside her walls of creaking bamboo, beneath the ceiling of rustling leaves and lays on the carpet of fallen leaves watching the stars serendipitously glimmering through the slightly swaying leaves. For some time in the dark there is only soughing leaves, a frog, a fluttering bird, creaking bamboo. But it is too cold. She shivers and stuffs her clothes with bamboo leaves. She admits that she had come here hoping to die of cold but now, so cold, she only wants warmth. She wants neither life nor death. She sleeps fitfully thinking only of a warm train carriage.
A swaying glistening green canopy filtering golden sunlight. Two birds answering each other. Her aching body creaks upwards. She takes her bottle and climbs out of the bamboo into the open. She faces the sun and spreads her arms. The warmth melts the sap in her limbs and as it flows the aching eases away. She goes back to the pond, washes her feet, refills the bottle, crushes pine leaves into it and returns the way she came.
At the station the sun is warm. Ivy covers an old shack across the tracks. The crossing bell rings. A train comes in the wrong direction. A worker in orange gets off and waits by the road. The crossing bell rings for a train in the right direction but it’s an express. An ant crawls over a white line on the bitumen platform. The crossing bell rings but it is an express in the wrong direction. A man in a suit comes. A worker in a truck picks up his waiting mate. A young man comes and waits. A grandmother, mother and baby in a sling come. The grandmother takes a photo by the station sign, Kome. The train arrives.
Aeon shopping mall rises from the rice fields. When she gets off the train she will go into the first warm building she finds. A book shop. A department store. A video arcade. Her fingernails are dirty with different colours: black, yellow, clotted blood. In the industry of Osaka she is thirsty again. She drinks pine leaf water.
Oh lake in Omi with your dancing waters,
all the sands will vanish from your shore
all the sands will vanish from your shore,
still poets’ words have no end.
Green willow fronds grow on and on,
not all pine needles fall and die.
Remember, your pathos is the seed.
Times change and all things pass,
preserve these perennial songs
in the pattern of bird prints
etched again on the vanishing shore.
Your father’s old school friend has gone down near the road to talk on his mobile to his son from his first marriage, trying to arrange to meet him tomorrow. Your father flips the steak on the barbeque and says his old school friend worries about his son, he almost lost him to the drugs. You nod and swig your beer. Onions smell good on a balmy Queensland summer evening. You can smell a mango somewhere. You always can on a balmy Queensland summer evening.
You swig your beer. It’s in a foam cooler. You always get offered a cooler in Queensland. It has some rugby team logo on it. Your wife is sitting over at the table with the salads talking with the old school friend’s new wife from Kyrgyzstan and her daughter about learning English. They’re telling your wife she’s lucky English is her first language and she doesn’t have to learn it. Your wife says how embarrassing it is to know only one language, especially working with refugees. They are lucky they know more than one, three even, with Russian, Kyrgyz and now English.
Your father says his friend is working in Africa now, you should ask him about it, interesting stuff. You remember last time, you’ve only met him twice, and maybe once as a kid, you can’t remember, last time you met him he was an employment agent shipping workers from Kyrgyzstan to Dubai for construction. You wondered if that meant he was like some sort of latter day de facto blackbirder – ‘Human Resources’. He’d said they’re so poor in Kyrgyzstan, they’re keen to get the work, that they were treated like shit, and when he’d said that you remembered when you were in Baghdad, in the Sheraton because between the two wars it was as cheap as any youth hostel anywhere else in the world. You were 15 by then and you were coming up in the lift on your own and a man asked you to read a letter for him, from his girlfriend in Germany, written in English, because they both spoke a little English. In his room, with three other men, he showed you a folded photograph of a woman and the letter, in German so you couldn’t read it, and one of the other guys had put a video on the player, about a schoolgirl being chased by a big hairy blonde haired man into some warehouses where he started raping her. The man explained to you that if they were caught with this, in Iraq, because they were Egyptian labourers and Egyptian labourers are nothing, they are shit, the Iraqi police would just kill them right there. He put his hand on your leg. Without a word you stood up and went out the door and back to your hotel room and, deciding that you didn’t want them killed, you just wanted to read a book and think about the way that swallows fly in long arcs in the open spaces between buildings, and how the roast chicken in Baghdad is the best in all the world, and how drinking all that softdrink because the water was bad made your piss smell strange, and to draw the designs you’d seen on the mosque that day, when your dad asked where you’d been you just said ‘nowhere’. That was always a good story to tell people at dinner parties. People like stories of danger and adventure in foreign places.
Your wife always says you ramble on, can’t stick to the point to tell a story, so you grin to yourself and get back to the memory at hand, to the people at hand. Your dad’s friend had said, the last time you met him, that the King had decreed the labourers must set up unions. All the industry was against it, but what the King says goes. The great and good King. He knew things wouldn’t get better for these labourers without it. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree,” your father quipped. They made kids memorise poems when he was at school. “The boy stood on the burning deck, picking his nose like mad. He rolled them into cannonballs and threw them at his dad,” was one of his favourites. He knew all about the siege of Quebec and the Charge of the Light Brigade. You remember your father talking, last time they were here, about his friend’s daughter, “A uni type, you’d like her,” your father had said. “She’s studying in Moscow now. Very expensive over there though. He has to pay for a lot of it. Her mother knows which side her bread is buttered too I suppose, though it’s not all like that, no it’s not like that. He’s a cash cow for his kids. I guess he feels guilty because he’s away all the time. Anyway, she couldn’t take the mall, his daughter. She was disgusted by how rich it is and all the waste. Couldn’t handle it. If you go out for dinner in Kyrgyzstan, you just get a small bowl of, say, peas, just beans. So you can imagine what the Coast Mall looks like.”
He’s come back and says he’s sorted out his son, that his son always wanted to be a fighter pilot but missed out and won’t get his act together and do something realistic; that his girlfriend is on his back about it. “When they have kids he’ll sort himself out,” you say. “You don’t say much do you?” the old school friend says. “A lot of people say that,” you reply. The silence lasts longer than two swigs of beer so you ask him about Africa. He’s not quiet.
“There’s three things stopping Africa: tribalism, corruption and religion. It’s hard to get anything done. Some of these projects they say they’ll get done in six months. I say no fucking way it’ll get done in six months. But it’s all political, so it gets approved anyway for six months. Six months later nothing’s fucking happened. Not even a pipe in the ground. I come in, I work on it. I make progress, but still it’s not finished after 12 months. I’m always fair to everyone. Some blokes I’d trust with my life. I had one bloke come in with plans, I showed them to this other engineer, a bloody good engineer, from Ghana, and he shakes his head. Just as I thought. Bullshit. There’s no fucking way this will get done in six months. Some try to play the racism card. Not many but some. He says, ‘Oh, he doesn’t respect my culture. He’s racist.’ He makes a complaint, so I get called up and I say, ‘It’s not about the fucking culture. It’s about the man. And he’s fucking hopeless.’
“It’s worse in Nigeria. It’s a basket case. I was speaking to one bloke working there, his job was to, once a week, take two suitcases full of money, hop on a helicopter with an armed guard, the government, and fly out, and when he lands, they hand over to another armed guard, the other guys and, seriously, they have three shipping containers set up there. One for Dollars, one for Euros and one for Yuan.”
Your father’s new partner brings out more salads and, finally able to sit down, they talk about her cafe job. You figure you ought to get better at having conversations at barbeques, and your father said to ask about Africa, so you quiz him more, like it’s an interview.
Q: What do you mean by tribalism, exactly?
A: Well, let’s say, I’m a Smith and you’re a Jones. I hate you. If you get the contract and you’re a Jones and there’s a perfectly good contractor over here but he’s a Smith, you won’t give him the job. It’s like in Bishkek. There’s tribalism there too. If someone got elected in and he’s from one tribe, everyone in the post office for example gets the sack and all the jobs go to someone from his tribe. They move one lot out and the other lot comes in. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. You have to tell them how to do their job. Education doesn’t help. It’s like they say, you take a bunch of goat herders and educate them and you end up with a bunch of well-educated goat herders.
Q: There’s corruption here too. I guess it’s a matter of degree.
A: Yes, but here if you get caught you get punished.
His wife calls out from the table, “Come get some salad. It’s good.” They all talk to each other about the relative merits of the two kinds of chutney and the mustard pickle. The mustard pickle is always there because your Dad’s mother used to make it. You remember, one of the first things you remember, sitting in the school yard, the taste of mustard pickle and margarine on white bread, a bit warm from baking in your plastic lunch box, running through the sandpit with Chris and Matthew, playing Star Wars. You never got to be Han Solo because you didn’t look like him. You’d be Chewbacca. Nobody looks like Chewbacca. The swarms of swallows wheeling around the embankments. The paperbark trees across the oval. The strange secret symbols some older kids had written that you could see if, when the teacher wasn’t looking, you crawled through the dirt under the office block up into the back corner that they said were magical spells from the dark ages. Someone once found a stone axe head there, so you sharpened sticks into swords and yourselves into Celts looking for Romans to kill.
Q: What sort of religion?
A: Well not the sort of religion like the old religions, Catholics, Islam, Methodists whatever, but it’s these new ones that anyone starts up. Someone will start carrying on, “Fire! Hallelujah!” and they get a congregation and take everyone’s money. It’s against the law but the government doesn’t stop them, and nobody’s game enough to do anything. There was one, near where I lived, one too many times, at two in the morning he’d start up, “Fire! Hallelujah! Fire! Hallelujah!” I was sick of it. I went round and said, “If you don’t shut up I’ll have you arrested.” He says, “You can’t arrest God!” I said, “I’m not talking about God mate. I’m talking about you.” and everyone around there was happy I called him out on it. They were sick of him too. A friend of mine says, “If I could do it over again, I’d find a good looking young man and start up one of these churches.” The good looking preacher attracts in all the young women. They want to marry him. And of course, all the good looking women bring in the men.
Q: Do the Chinese have much political interest there anymore?
A: No they just want the commodities. The contracts are open for anyone to go for. We don’t like it if the Chinese get it, but sometimes they do. They do everything on the cheap. That’s how they get the contract, but they always cut corners. And they’ll give you the resume of one bloke, but then on the day a different one turns up. He’s been replaced. So then you have to get the resume of the new bloke. They always use cheap Chinese labourers too. They’re not really paid. They do a deal with prisoners. They say, we’ll cut five years off your sentence if you go and work in Africa for a bit.
His wife calls again, “There’s salad here. It’s good.” Your wife calls to you, “You should try this chutney, it’s delicious.”
Q: If it’s an American organisation, why do they let Chinese get the contracts?
A: Well it’s not American. It’s international. It’s meant to be open competition. Though there is one organisation where Chinese can’t bid for contracts.
“What are they doing over there?”
Q: Why do they need irrigation?
A: Well it’s all rain based and they only get a few good months of rainfall a year. The rest of the time there’s no farming.
“Solving all the world’s problems again.”
Q: But they have been ok up until now, or maybe they haven’t – why do these farmers, who have been ok with rain based farming till now, need irrigation? Is it population increase?
“What’s wrong with our pickles?”
A: Yes, population increase. They are given land concessions, they don’t own the land but they can work it and derive all the profit from it. They work the land like any normal Australian farmer.
You try the salad and apologise. The chutney is delicious. You can’t decide which tastes better. You call the children and they all sit at the little table. You tell the oldest to get the plates and you bring the platter of meat your father has cooked. Everyone enjoys a good barbeque.
You must let your fingernails grow for a fortnight, that is the only way, he said, and feel them cut into flesh, the stench of morning light, putrid, look at these street hawkers, bananas, yams, little bundles of soap powder, what skerricks we survive on, they should sell bangi, everyone should sell bangi and then they’d all be rich, who can she be texting, who can care what she has to say, everyone has phones like they’re rich, any moment now all these rich poor could be panicking if the Kuluna block the intersection and take their things, they could all be screaming, look at these guys in this beat up old car, keeping junk running, we had better wheels than that out east, those were some days, so many people dead, better to have a gun than a pick, better, no fuckers can point their gun at me and make me dig up that shit for these fucking mobile phones, fucking mobile phones, and I learned to drive with him, a good friend, crazy, we drove like mad, and I have grown my fingernails a fortnight, I haven’t slept for, must be two days, it’s a long way walking, I’m not hitching, I hate everyone today, today the whole world is staring at me, accusing me, what have I done, I know what I have done, and it is evil, I have done everything wrong, I shouldn’t have been born, when I die I will be one of those babies who won’t come into the world again, I know what this world is, I don’t want any part of it and it’s worse off with me in it, and yet there is someone who stays with me, if she loves me she shouldn’t, if I could only dissolve into this concrete and dust, and be forgotten and be ignored the way everyone forgets the ground they walk on, the ancestors they walk on, look across the river, another city over there, Kinshasa Brazzaville, the river cut straight through the middle, two countries, this is a country without borders, this is a country with borders everywhere, cutting straight through the middle of everything, of everyone, like a machete, we are we, you are you and they are they and I am I, no I and I nowhere, wicked, wicked Babylon, the sun shines on the night, all those people dancing all night, showing their arses off to each other, dancing like the world was made of love, like the only reason anyone is in this world, at the end of the day, is because of love, love of man and woman, how many of our ancestors are children of rape, you ask me how can they all be so happy, you ask me, I tell you the only way people can be that happy is if they have been just that miserable that it’s the only thing they can do, the only thing that is left for them is happiness, there is nothing they can do so they dance and dance all night, forgetting the unforgettable, all this rot, smiling and suffering, making your peace with wars to make peace upon wars to make peace, protect from attack, attack to protect, these men with guns and machetes are weak, a strong man has a smooth forehead, everyone then was a leopard in a corner, the mud is thick here, I wish I was already part of it, the millions of years of millions of people all together in this mud, nobody notices the ground they walk on, until it turns to mud, sucking at their heels, ten million dead reaching up to pull them back into our eternal family, suck me in and leave me there, don’t let me be born again, there’ll be no mud over in the shiny new city, what a joke, oh but they take it all so seriously, big little rich men, old Kinshasa, new Kinshasa, poor Kinshasa, rich Kinshasa, in the new city it will all be paved in concrete with gardens and skyscrapers, look at the beautiful plan, look at the beautiful billboard, that is the plan but nothing planned ever comes out as planned, corruption, half measures, they will have this old city, and they will have a new city, an imaginary city built on a dream island, a city of glass, floating away from the putrid rot, with busy people on mobile phones, enjoying the trees and the river, half built, never finished, always a dream until they give up on the dream, a broken dream, always rotting dreams, they will build only a skeleton city,
and then more people will move in there, and clothe it with corrugated iron and anyway, beautiful nightmare, we measure our wealth in people, what if they did finish it, what do they think will happen, the Kuluna will turn their eyes to the island of concrete and gold and take a piece, then the island city will call everyone savages and call the police and the army and the bulldozers to wipe out the old city, and exterminate all the cockroaches, then the Kuluna will go from gangster to freedom fighter to revolutionary army and it will be another war made from the shining new island city of peace, they will make what they want to escape, they say it will make jobs, I’m so hungry maybe I could get a job over there, how hungry do you have to be, that’s if they don’t just bring over Chinese prisoners to do the work, they don’t want us to work because they say we are lazy, who wants to turn up on time to haul bricks anyway, lucky is the man with his own farm, he makes his own food, when he needs something he sells it at the market, I might need the work, I’m so hungry, better bangi than working anyway, who wants to be a slave for the billboard makers, sellers of promises, of putrid dreams, who wants to sell themself, to be a whore, who wants someone telling them when to wake up, lift those bricks, put them there, eat now, sleep now, wake up now, move those bricks, all of them, I hate those empty plains of dirt where they have flattened everything, and all there is is a plan that will already fail before it begins, maybe I could start up one of those Africell shops, but it’s too late, they are everywhere, I missed the opportunity, but these thoughts can’t be eaten, I’m so hungry, eating only keeps hunger alive, these words can’t come out of my mouth, every breath could have a word on it, a word that started something, or ended it, a word that changed everything, a single breath and the right word can change the world, and when we have nothing left, not even food, that is all we have left, one breath, but what is the right word, what are we doing, finding food, and when you have eaten, sleep, and hunger again the next day, look at this man, raving and stinking of shit and garbage and putrid flesh, saying anything that anyone thinks is better left unsaid, some people pretend to be mad to get away with things, to steal a little food, to be left alone by the police, it’s the only thing a sane man can do to save himself in this world, so many people here, so many, each with their own secret cares, each wanting what they want, each with so many million memories, as many as my own right now, but all different, and each could be snuffed out in just a moment, just like that, a machete in the back of the neck, a bullet from anywhere, there could be someone aiming at me right now, some men coming up the next street with their machetes, you get used to that, when you have to sleep you have to sleep even knowing you might never wake up, look at this man, talking on a mobile phone, like a rich person, but everyone has one now, all the poor people are rich now, I don’t even have a phone, does he know where that comes from, it comes from Kivu, made in China, sold by America and Europe, mined in Kivu and Katanga, with all these minerals we are the richest nation in the world and we are the poorest, look at all this mud, look at this fine Sapeur floating over the mud and concrete, what a well cut suit, red, and black shirt, with matching hat, red with a black band, and tall cowboy boots, a flower blooming in mud, such elegant manners. He said that it was by dressing as a Sapeur that he began, that he grew his fingernails for a fortnight, and in the market she saw him, she had never seen anyone so fine looking before, and when he knew she would follow him he strolled away from the market, pretending he didn’t see her following him, and he walked for a way for a while and came to the house where he returned the hat he had rented, and on again and returned to a house the jacket he had rented, and so on and on with his tie, his vest, shirt, trousers shoes and watch, until finally at the edge of the city where the fields begin he returned his skin and by this time, although she tried, she could not turn away but must follow her feet, her feet that were no longer her own, and she followed him into a cracked concrete building with no door or window, and down some damp stairs into cold, into darkness and stood and she felt fingernails digging into her flesh and he said that there is nothing in this world that tastes as good as warm blood, but he didn’t end the story there, he kept her there for as many days as it took for her to give up hope and when she had no hope left he came and made sounds as if he was startled by something, as if he were running away, fleeing, only to change his shoes and come back with the sound of different footsteps, different footsteps as if he were another person, chasing away the sorcerer, coming to find her and rescue her and he released her, asking her about her ordeal, promising to make sure no-one would do this to her ever again, and she cried, thanking him for rescuing her, loving him, then she was his. Sorcerers, there are no sorcerers, all this country is mad, there are sorcerers and doctors and priests everywhere, all of them are charlatans, giving hope when there is none, offering salvation when there is only contempt, lying when they speak the truth, every one, except, except one or two, a few, some places, sometimes, there are some, and when their power is on you, they are so skilled, you don’t even know it, so how can anyone know there are sorcerors when they know how to conceal themselves, they know how to arrange others to be blamed for what they do, all these sorcerers they find and kill are innocent, and all the people don’t even think to wonder if the guilty ones are guilty, they don’t even notice them, everyone everywhere is a charlatan, everyone makes lies truth and truth lies, so everywhere there is sorcery, look at all these people smiling in their misery, looking rich with their clothes and phones when they are poor, in this, the richest country in the world and the poorest, in debt to the world but to who the world owes everything, after what it has taken, I was no innocent child, I killed with hatred, hatred, I remember it clearly, everyone hates me, so they should, I was no innocent child, can I become an innocent man, it is me who is filled with the black sorcerer’s bile, it’s a stone in my gut and all these people don’t know it in their minds but they know it in their guts and they hate, and all that hate seeps into this bile in my guts, when everyone smiles I frown, an evil eye is an honest eye, these people aren’t smiling at me, they’re laughing, and the spirit in the wood, in the mud, in the concrete, the sun and the moon, the wind and rain, all laughing at me, I know they are plotting something but I don’t know what it is, and they laugh all the more, because I can’t figure it out, idiot, I haven’t slept for two days, but I know the difference, I know, I know what is the bangi and what is sorcery, my friend, you didn’t, my friend, you would have been, you could have been a great warrior in other times, but now everyone hates soldiers, but you didn’t know the difference between the bangi and the sorcery, you couldn’t read, at least I can read, if you can read you can see your thoughts, when you write you can put what you think there on the paper and look at it and decide if it’s right or wrong and eat it or throw it away, but you couldn’t control your thinking, it took control of you, you suspected everyone, you accused everyone, you thought Rat was poisoning you, that was the end of Rat, then everyone must have remembered how you had accused them of something sometime too, when you were suspicious, they must have thought you would come after them for revenge against something they didn’t do, in time, and they were all getting suspicious too, with more and more bangi and everything else, it was only a matter of time before someone killed you, you conjured up all that evil against yourself, you were gone from the beginning, always, dead, ah, now, here is the graveyard, home of the homeless, where the prostitutes live, the graveyard, where people live and fuck in the middle of death. Making more people to die, to fill the earth, for us to walk on. Here is our stone, here are her hands on my face, here is her kiss, how can she stay, what can she get from someone with nothing, less than nothing, what kind of living can come from these bloody hands, hands that washing won’t clean, alone and in love, she is stronger than me, strong enough to contain spirits, she can give the world another death, another ancestor to walk upon the world and for the world to walk upon, my fingernails in her throat, she can’t speak, but she does nothing, why doesn’t she struggle, why doesn’t she kick and scratch and try to run, easy and hard to kill, easy and hard to die, she can’t speak and I can’t understand, is she already dead, did she die long ago, we will keep dying, always living dying.
You buckle your child into her safety seat, get in the front seat and quickly choose a CD. There’s no time to dilly dally. You’re already running a little late because she couldn’t find a hair-tie. Today it’s Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.
“I forgot my homework.”
“We’re late enough as it is.” You drive around the block, down your street and up your driveway, go back inside, get her homework book and depart again. You notice the petrol gauge. You could run out before reaching school.
At a charity function in some wealthy person’s living room, since the inclement weather prevented the planned performance from taking place in the natural amphitheatre of the grounds overlooking the ocean, you, your wife and your daughter, being young relative to the retirement age of the majority of the audience, and there being a shortage of chairs, had the privilege of sitting on cushions directly at the feet of a live string chamber orchestra playing from the Brandenburg Concerto. In the tune up, two violas made a musical joke with the bass. The pretty second violinist returned the glances of the handsome cellist. The conductor introduced the pieces with wit and charm.
Sitting in the midst of the performers, you were transported from the violas at the right, over to the cellist, and along the row of violinists as each took their turn, and dancing again around the depth and breadth of human experience. How ingenious Bach was to not merely write beautiful music but to incorporate pragmatic humane generosity, ensuring that each person in the orchestra got their chance to come to the fore. Even the third violinist had a little trill here and there while the other instruments withdrew. Your daughter rested her head on your arm, watching the violinists’ intricate fingers blur.
You stole a glance past your left shoulder to your wife’s moonlit pond eyes, watching the musicians, unaware you were looking. What a piece of work. How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty. In form and moving how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension how like a god. The beauty of the World. To see a single twitch of the lip and know that inarticulable volumes were mutually understood in a moment … and here now, resting her head on your shoulder, this other creature that a delirious welcome had brought into the world, this foil to prophets and diviners, paused on the brink of the world, hearing for the first time this same music, just as you had once done, as so many others had done and would do. Here, now, everything was resting her head on your shoulder.
You stop the car, get out, put the petrol pump into the tank and squeeze. You don’t look at the price, it’s been going up lately but you can’t do anything about it, you have to have the petrol now so you’ll pay whatever it is. You look up at the big sign. It says CALTEX. You wonder if that is the company that was allegedly complicit in killing Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian soap opera star and author who started protesting about pollution and destruction of civilisations in the Niger River Delta – or is CALTEX the one allegedly complicit in killing Buddhist monks in Burma? You can’t quite remember. You know it was Exxon behind some big spill, because they called it the Exxon Disaster, and British Petroleum was the big spill in the Gulf of Mexico. You could try to boycott companies that do bad, but you do need to get your kids to school and to go to work to put a roof over their head and for that you need petrol so you can’t boycott them all.
There’s still a smell of smoke in the air from the bushfires days ago. Who lights them? This time the defence department on a training exercise, funnily enough. Once some eight year-old kids were caught trying to start one. Teenagers started one setting off a homemade bomb in a vacant lot. They tried to put it out though and rang the fire department. A man and a woman went round waking everyone up at 3am telling them they had to evacuate because a bush fire was coming. There was no fire, they were just on amphetamines and got fined for misleading the public. A fire fighter started one a while back. He wanted to be a hero and for everyone to feel the camaraderie of adversity again. How lonely can you be?
There is a guy who pulled up over at another pump at just about the same time you did. He also has a kid in his back seat. You wonder if he knows he is also pouring the blood of Ken Saro Wiwa in his tank, or is that the blood of Buddhist monks? He’d probably punch you out for being a bleeding heart if you brought it up. You are running late so as soon as the pump clicks off you walk as quick as you can into the shop to pay.
As you wait for the person in front of you to pay, the person behind you says, “Fuckwit”. It must be the other guy with the kid in the back who’s just come in behind you. You can’t figure out why he might be calling you a fuckwit and you really don’t want to get into anything, you just want to get your daughter to school without getting your head kicked in, so you choose to assume he must be talking on his phone to someone about some fuckwit and it’s none of your business so you keep looking straight ahead at the person in front.
But he doesn’t keep talking as he would if he were on the phone and the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. It feels just like that time when you were young, at a dance party and you’d all been going out speeding too many times and, looking down from a balcony overlooking the frenzied thumping laserlit human mass, you couldn’t get it out of your head that with the amount of people in the world that someone somewhere right now was looking down the barrel of a gun, and each moment there was a different person pulling a trigger and a different person shot, out of hatred, contempt, for fun, following orders, what was in the head of that person looking down the barrel and that person dying … And as much as you tried to put it out of your head and as much as you knew it was psychosis, you just couldn’t stop the fear and it went from that to having the sensation that someone was just on the brink of whacking a machete into the back of your neck. Those memories that surprise you with a sudden shock of loathing, memories scratched into the evolutionarily most ancient parts of the brain, reptilian, insect, moluscular memories in the amygdala and hypothalamus, below the control of the cerebellum, autonomic Saturnine fear, afraid of the numb tingling that now starts in your fingertips like accelerated gangrene, creeping from your fingertips up your hand making you think you might need to cut off your hands to stop it before it reaches your heart, afraid of your own hands, Madre de Dios!
Come to think of it there really were some nut jobs in this neighbourhood. Like that guy on the bus that time talking to his son about his present. There you were, sitting behind this guy who had swastikas and shit tattooed all up his neck, and you watched the touching father son scene as they discussed the model of a Nazi battleship he’d just given the boy as a present, explaining how great swastikas are because people only have to see them and they’re frightened. Sitting behind him, on the seat that’s a little higher up because it’s over the wheel, you were so full of hate you imagined garrotting the father with piano wire.
What’s more, it just so happened it had been in the news lately that there’d been a lot of amphetamines around lately so it was quite plausible that there was now a man undergoing amphetamine-induced psychosis right behind you calling you a fuckwit. You’d read in the paper only last year, that in the car park of that pub across the road and down one block on the corner someone had been murdered by a man with a machete. And there was that other case, not in the papers but you heard it from a friend where someone they knew woke up one night to find two people on their front porch going at each other with machetes. The police came and rounded them up but left this poor woman with blood all over her front porch she had to clean off on her own.
Is that what people do these days? Carry machetes around in their cars in case they meet up with someone else with amphetamine psychosis and need to have it out? Holy fucking shit. By the time you are entering in your credit card pin number your hands are shaking and you grin a very nervous polite thank you to the checkout person.
On the way out he’s not far behind you. He must have paid cash. As you walk across the concrete to your car he’s calling out, “Fuckwit. Oh, ignore me. Fuckwit! Now don’t you get in your car and yell at me when it’s safe to drive off. Fuckwit!” You don’t want your daughter to have to watch you die. What’s to stop this psycho killing your daughter too while you lie there dead. No motherfucker’s going to do that! What about his daughter? She’d probably be better off without a fuckwit like that for a dad. Everyone thinks Australia is a peaceful place but genocide is always around the corner. It’s happened here before. It happens all over the world and we’re not immune. How can he tell you deserve to die just by looking at you? Maybe that neo-Nazi is right and the only government is fear. We are all reptiles. There were plenty of innocent people dying all the time, all over the world, right now, so this shit for brains asshole would be no loss to the world by comparison.
You get in your car and lock your door. The back passenger door isn’t locked and your car isn’t new enough to have the central control system. The man is beating his fists on your bonnet saying, “Oh that’s right fuckwit, just drive off then. Who the fucking hell do you think you are? You fucking cunt!” Your daughter looks too scared to say anything.
“I just want to take my kid to school,” you try to say loudly and nudge the accelerator. He keeps bashing the bonnet. You can’t stop yourself anymore. “Ich mochte auf Bach gehoren, Shizerkopf!” you say in your bad high school German and drive over him. “I am a man of Peace!”
Bach has reached the harpsichord solo. Its first performance was a virtuoso improvisation, probably Bach himself, which was then transcribed to be played the same way thereafter. If the violin lessons worked out, maybe your daughter would play it one day. You turn up the volume and merge into the traffic.
“Why did you kill that man?” your daughter asks.
“Did I kill him? He wanted to kill us, honey, so I had to stop him. Just remember you shouldn’t kill people. Don’t kill anyone at school, ok?”
“Ok. Why did he want to kill us?”
“I don’t know, honey.” But now you realise he must have thought you were racing to get ahead of him at the cash register, because he’d come up almost straight behind you. Then you pissed him off by paying by credit card which takes longer. “Never mind, let’s just listen to the music.”
You checked your watch. “Dammit, now we’re late for school.”
We have come a long way across the Rivers of Blood, of Pus and Scorpions. We stand in the middle of the cross roads, not sure which way to go. There’s a white road, a black road, a red road and a yellow road. We haven’t seen the owls for a long time. A voice comes from down the black road, saying, “This is the way.”
“We haven’t seen these Lords of Xibalba before,” I say as we go down the black road. “We don’t even know their names.”
My brother summons the mosquito. “Mosquito,” he says, “go ahead and, just when we arrive, sting each of the Lords of Xibalba in turn.”
We arrive sweating, exhausted in darkness. We lower our packs and stretch our shoulders. All around us, one by one we hear complaints about a mosquito, each asking the other what is wrong, calling out each other’s names. As they move and speak we see their faces appearing in the darkness.
My brother nudges my ribs with his elbow. “Greetings, Lords of Xibalba,” he says.
One of the Lords steps forward. He has no flesh, just skin stretched over bones like a drum. He suggests we greet the wooden carvings.
“Why would we pay our respects to statues?” I ask.
My brother addresses the scratching Lords, “Good morning, One Death, Seven Death, Flying Scab, Gathered Blood, Demon Pus, Demon Jaundice, Bone Staff, Skull Staff, Morning Wing, Packstrap, Bloody Teeth, Bloody Claws.”
“Good morning,” One Death replies. “You are our guests. Please sit down.”
“Not on that,” I say “That’s not a bench. That’s just a hot stone.”
“Then rest in the house of darkness. You must be tired from the long journey.”
We follow the servants to the house of darkness. They leave us there waiting for a while. It’s so dark I can’t see my brother but I can hear his breathing. We don’t say anything. A messenger brings torches and cigars. The faces are flickering shadows and orange flame. The servant says, “These must not be used up before dawn.” We put out the torches and instead wave yellow and red macaw feathers that shine with their own light. We put out our cigars and set fireflies on the end of them.
We are standing in a wide walled court. The Lords of Xibalba say, “We’ll use our ball.” Even from a distance we can see it isn’t a ball.
“That’s not a ball, that’s a skull,” my brother objects.
“Don’t worry,” the Lords say, “It’s only painted to look like a skull.” They throw it. It strikes my brother’s yoke, splits in two and the bone white dagger clatters on the floor.
“We came to play batey, not to be murdered.” my brother is already shouting. And we both prepare to leave.
“Stay, stay! We’ll use your ball. You can name the prize.”
“Whatever you like.”
“Bowls of flowers.”
“One bowl each of Red, White, Yellow and Great flowers.”
The noise of bats starts far away. First one, then a few more and as the noise of those awake wakes the others, soon there’s the shriek of the whole flock. They come so fast there’s no time to think. There’s nowhere to hide but our blow guns. So we crawl inside them. The bats can’t reach us but we sleep fitfully, waking to the constant din of their flying and shrieking.
“Is it dawn yet?” I ask. I hear Hunahpu stir and go to the end of the blowgun. I wait and hear nothing. “What are you doing, Hunahpu?” Still nothing. “Is it dawn?” I crawl along the blowgun to my brother and shake his motionless body. I understand that, putting his head out to check, a bat has cut it clean away.
I stand before the Lords of Xibalba in Crushing Court. “Each day we have played. We have won some games and lost others. We sent ants to creep past the guards when we lost the first game, to fill bowls with flower petals to pay you your prize. In the house of blades we explained they were made for animals, not for us. In the shivering house we stayed warm. In the house of jaguars we gave them bones. You couldn’t roast us in the house of fire. Now you have Hunahpu’s head.” They hoist it high up the wall so it hangs there over the whole court.
The Lords are singing and dancing over their victory. I speak to the animals I have summoned, “Each of you must bring something that you eat.” They bring me leaves, stones and rotting things. Animals of all kinds, small and large. Last of all the coati came, rolling a large chilacayote squash. I thank the coati and take the squash. I carve it. Everything you might carve is already there. The trick is to keep carving until you find the spirit of what you are carving and then, sometimes, it is hard not to try to make it better but you must take away no more. I attach the sculpted head to Hunahpu’s body. I’ve carved it so well it says my name.
“Who are you?” I ask it.
“I am Hunahpu.”
We go straight to One Death and Seven Death. “What are you doing?” they ask. “We already destroyed you.”
Hunahpu challenges them, “Just try to hit the head you hung up yesterday.”
They try and miss. I kick the rubber ball hard so that it goes over the wall and bounces into the forest. While they run to search for it, I switch the heads. The carved squash is on top of the court. Hunahpu’s head is back on his body. When they return the Lords of Xibalba’s aim is good. The ball strikes the head, scattering squash seeds across the court.
We sit with two seers and ask for their help. “The Xibalbans will not be satisfied. We have survived the Rivers of Scorpions, Pus and Blood. We have survived their houses and traps and returned to play batey each day. They will now be wondering how to kill us. They have invited us to dinner. They will come to ask your advice. Tell them if they scatter our bones in the canyon they will see our faces again. When they ask if they should scatter our bones in the river, tell them ‘yes’. They must grind our bones as fine as flour and sprinkle us into the river in the mountains.”
After the banquet the Lords sit satisfied in the glow of the ground oven. One Death says, “Let’s play another game.” Seven Death stands, adds more wood to the pit and stirs the coals into flame. “See if you can jump over the pit four times.”
We are ready. “You can’t kill us,” my brother says, and we both leap into the pit.
Grandmother is in her kitchen weeping. The unripe cornstalk grows brown and dry.
It was down at the weir I first saw them. It was hot so it was good to be at the water. I wanted to dive in but I was there for fish. I walked out along the weir stones silently with my spear, looking to see if dinner was caught in there. There was a ripple in the water, just as there is for any other fish in shallow water, big fish, near the mouth of the weir. I walked along closer to it, slow. As I got close I saw through the reflections and ripples there were two fish. I startled them. Just as they were swimming back through the mouth of the weir I thought I saw a face. Those were smart fish. Fish don’t usually get back out once they’ve come in. I saw them again the next day, bigger, and this time I saw clearly they had faces. The day after that, I watched from the forest as they crawled from the water onto the river bank. They looked like two orphans without a mother or father to put clothes on their back. I followed them. As they went they danced like weasels and then armadillos and centipedes.
The first house they saw they burned to the ground. Nobody knew who they were or why they were burning the house. I explained to the people there what I had seen and they were too afraid to stop them. Once the house had become a pile of smoking ash these orphans put it together again, just as it had been before. Nobody could explain it. I came to tell the Lords. Waiting on their doorstep I see the owls fly out from their window.
Nobody has seen the two orphans before. They stand before the Lords of Xibalba, wrapped in rags, too ashamed of their poverty to show their faces.
“Who are your father and mother?” One Death asks them.
“We have never seen their faces.”
“We heard you burned down a house and recreated it again, as if nothing had happened. Show us what you can do. What is your price?”
“We ask no price. We stand before you in fear and awe. We will do all you ask.”
“Don’t be afraid. Show us your dances and resurrections.”
They began to spin and writhe, dancing like weasels, whippoorwills and armadillos. It’s difficult to see past the legs of all the Xibalbans crowding around.
“Sacrifice my dog and resurrect it.”
They both set their eyes on me. I try to look elsewhere but they come for me. I try to run but there’s too many people blocking the way. One of the orphans ties my legs together. The other draws his knife. They take out my heart. Though I’m not there anymore, I know it has happened. I hear them shouting “Arise!” and I must stand. My heart is beating in my chest. Every smell is new again. I lick my lips and can’t stop wagging my tail.
“Burn my house,” the Lord commands. The orphans burn the house there for all to see, and bring it back.
The Lords, like the crowd, are fascinated. “Kill and resurrect someone here.” The crowd shifts nervously as they come toward it in just such a way as to expose one person, caught on the wrong foot. They take his arm and lead him before the Lords. One ties his arms behind him, ties his ankles together and ties his wrists to his heels. The other draws his knife, cuts out his heart and resurrects him. The Lords of Xibalba are drunk with amazement. They can’t stay in their seats. “Kill us! Kill us and resurrect us!” One Death and Seven Death are both shouting.
“We are your servants,” one orphan says, “and only want to do what pleases you.”
“You are death,” the other orphan says, “so you must live again.”
One of them binds their arms behind their back to their ankles. They tear One Death and Seven Death to pieces. They crush them. When they don’t resurrect them the other Lords understand what is happening and all begin begging the orphans for their lives, “Let our faces still be seen,” they cry. Everyone is afraid, running from the orphans, crying. They drive us all into the canyon like ants.
“You killed our fathers!” they are shouting. “We will spare no-one. We’ll kill you all!”
Everyone, all the Xibalbans beg them for mercy and when they understand who the father of these orphans was they say, “We’ll show you where your father is. He’s buried at Crushing Court.”
“You Xibalbans must humble yourselves. You will get sap for blood. You will get no offerings but grass from wastelands, you will get old grills and worn out pots, broken things.”
Everyone in Xibalba hides their faces in shame.
In the beginning is the stories’ root. From it grow many fruits. Too many to tell.
In the tree in Xibalba flesh half forms on our father’s skull again until half his face is restored. “Your name will be remembered,” Xbalanque and Hunahpu say to it. “Hunahpu Seven, people will call upon you.”
Grandmother is in her kitchen weeping. The cornstalk grows green again.
Our father replies, “Hunahpu and Xbalanque, your story will be told again and again. In these words the dead live …
The smell of fresh tar and the sunscreen leaking in the glove box, the rattle of the dried mandarin, oyster shell, matches and blown fuses in the ashtray, a torn corner of the pink child seat in the crooked rear vision mirror.
As you drove away from the petrol station, you lost control. Your feet and hands were driving, not you. It crept up from your fingertips and toes, the numbness, through your hands and feet, up your arms and legs. For a moment you were afraid it would stop your heart, but it didn’t. It took control of every twitch of your eyes, so you could only see where they looked. But you were still there, unable to act, but still there. The pedal pushed you. The engine drove you. The signals blinkered you. The wheel turned you.
Your leg twitched with its own life, pulsing up through that half of your body. It turned you away, but it could only turn left, around the block, again and again.
“Daddy why are we going in circles?”
This book is influenced by literature related to the sources of rubber tires, an a ordinary thing on which many people’s lives and daily routines depend. In particular it draws on the literary traditions of Mesoamerica, the Congo region, the Amazon and Japan. Being sincere in researching these sources meant applying their aesthetics and poetics, as well as retelling and adapting stories from them. I would especially like to acknowledge the following people:
Ariwara No Narihira
The people in ‘The Asmat of New Guinea’
Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Filip de Boeck
Jorge Luis Borges
Ana de la Calle
Bartolomé de las Casas
Michel de Certeau
Child Soldiers c/- Rachel Brett and Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Belgian Congo Administrators c/- Marie- Bénédicte Dembour
Paula de Eguiluz
María de Huancavelica
Jacko Ross Jakamarra
Kamo No Chōmei
Comte de Lautréamont
Mario Vargas Llosa
Xavier de Maistre
Dresden Codex (Yucatecan Maya)
Popul Vuh (K’iche’ Maya)
Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus (Mixtec)
Edmund Dene Morel
Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo and Matamba
Ono No Komachi
Fray Ramón Pané
Francisco de Quevedo
Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Sony Labou Tansi
Silk Factory Girls c/- Patricia E Tsurumi and Yamamoto Shigemi
Woyo lid carvers
"What do I know?" you ask yourself. You drive to work every day. You go to the supermarket to get groceries – asparagus from Peru, pineapples from Queensland, frozen Vietnamese Hoki fillets in Idaho potato crumbs, cooked in Malaysian palm oil, and drive home again. Some days you go via Chichen Itza, sometimes via Baghdad, or Osaka. Sometimes via some thing you should have said or done, or some future you long for. Sometimes resurrecting conversations with the dead.