Ece Doğrucu and I have been collaborating on this photo-and-text-fragment webcomic since 2008.
With an enduring love for SIGGRAPH Ece Dogrucu and I created these three animations in Maya, which I present to you in reverse order of their completion:
The Oblivious, the Awkward
Quizá no puedas armar silencio con palabras, pero he aquí luz hecha de sombras. No es como las ojeras alrededor de sus iris azules. No es como la sed que me asegura que cuando la haya saciado, el mundo entero dejará de ser un lugar tan árido. No es la noche sobre esa sierra hace dos semanas que, habiendo echado la luna, nos mostró desde un cielo muerto y turbio la Pequeña Nube de Magallanes. (Una de las únicas dos galaxias ajenas visibles desde la tierra, ¿viste?) Tampoco es la mugre escurriéndose por el desagüe, ni la cara detrás de la máscara, las cenizas ante el fuego. Ni las sombras estampadas en la calle alrededor del farol en la lluvia.
Hay multitudes y trato de contarles todo. Aunque me presten atención, pocos entienden inglés y menos castellano. Mi novia traduce a turco.
[Escrito con unas palabras de Alejandra Pizarnik]
As I was eating my breakfast cereal I heard the thudding and rustling of loaded horses galloping through the bushes to stop in our backyard where my father was gardening. My spoon hovered high above my bowl, brimming with wheaty stars floating in their lake of milk. Peering over the spoon I could see my stepmother’s pregnant belly shuffle around the kitchen.
Moments later my father came in the backdoor, his face hidden in stubble and spectacles.
“How is everything going sweetie?” my stepmother asked, painting croûtons with garlic at the counter with her back to him.
“There are a lot of weeds. I’m going to be out there all day.” He rubbed his face with the back of one wrist.
She turned around with her little brush in one hand and a croûton in the other.
“Oh Nick, look, you’re getting dirt everywhere!” she complained, as he took his gloves off and the dirt caked on them crumbled to the floor. She popped the croûton into her mouth. “Also take your shoes off before you come in from the garden.”
“Paul,” my father shouted up the stairs as she returned to her croûtons, “Could you come out back for a bit?” He walked over to the sink to get a glass of water.
I heard a muffled response followed by unevenly rhythmic footsteps coming down the stairs. The gangly, large-headed Paul entered the kitchen with a wifebeater clinging to his hairy shoulders. Paul was a friend of my dad’s visiting for the week; whoever was on the horses in the backyard must have wanted to see him.
“Sure,” he said, “it’ll be nice to get some fresh air.”
“Here,” my father said, gesturing out into the backyard, “come on out.”
“Honey, are you going to plant my gladioli while you’re out there?” she shouted to my father after he was out the door.
“What?” yelled back my father.
“Paul, can you ask Nick to make sure he makes time to plant my gladioli?” she called.
“Of course, Phoebe” Paul, at the doorway, returned.
I tilted my spoon slightly and milk wrapped around the edge, dripping off the bottom into the bowl. My stepmom put a tray of croûtons in the oven and busied herself with organizing a gazpacho, occasionally stopping to hold her abdomen (a girl) with one hand. I remained immobile at the table in the middle of the kitchen. Tilting the spoon more I watched each piece of cereal march fatally off its ledge into the bottomless cereal bowl like lemmings. My stepmother opened a window and warm May morning wafted through the white kitchen in the cross-breeze from the open back door. The breeze brought murmurings in from the backyard that seemed almost like intonations of some ceremony. I ate my cereal at a rate of about one soggy spoonful per minute and decided it might not be a ceremony, it could be Paul initiating a treaty with traders on horseback from far away.
Phoebe, with a groan, always groaning, walked over to the kitchen table to sit down. She leaned on her arms and let out a sigh. I watched the birds dancing in the tree outside the window behind her.
“Eat your cereal, Jacob, you’ve been sitting there for an hour. You promised you’d help your dad in garden later,” Phoebe informed me eventually, sliding her head towards the table running her hands through her straight brown hair.
“Mmm,” I replied, and picked up the bowl to slurp milk loudly. Phoebe got up again and began to put a salad together. From the backyard I heard a horse galloping away and moments later Paul walked into the kitchen, hunched and bony, over to the sink to wash his hands.
“What did they need you out there for an hour, Paul?” I asked.
“Oh, just doing some digging. Nick’s doing a great job with the weeds,” he said. “Still working on that cereal?” he asked me with a grin.
“Mmm,” I said, pushing my spoon slowly into the milk until it suddenly flooded.
After I finished my cereal and finished reading the back of the cereal box, I put the bowl in the sink and the box away and sat back down with my book. I read about anthropomorphic rodents defending a monastery and my stepmother looked through a giant pile of mail after clearing up. I leaned my chin on the table and held the book with my arms outstretched.
“Phebe! Look at this!” yelled my dad from outside, a little later.
“What?” yelled my stepmother.
He entered with dirt on his forearms, holding a muddy mass in one hand.
“Look at this,” he said. Over my book I tried see what he had brought in. My stepmother bustled to the closet to get the dust buster.
“Nick, you’re getting dirt everywhere,” she complained.
“Look at this, Jacob,” he exclaimed to me, ignoring his wife. “Looks like some old glove made of metal or something, what do you think it was doing buried with the weeds in the garden?”
“Mmr-o-noh,” I said, with my chin still on the table.
“You don’t know? Neither do I, hey come outside, you can’t stay in all day, there’s some more stuff buried out there I think.”
“Okay,” I said, putting my book down, ready to unearth a trove of ancient armor. I tripped over a crib packaged in a cardboard box near the table. We walked outside with my stepmom dust busting the floor behind us.
My dad had found some kind of glove. I imagined the glove crawling though the dirt and pulling up all my stepmom’s gladioli, chewing them up in its fingers.
Amongst the wreckage of weeds and overturned dirt there was one enormous, thick and prickly weed, the roots of which had torn a giant clump from the earth. In the hole left behind you could see something that was once shiny but now dark and covered in mud. A little further, where the trees in our backyard began to congregate, I could see the hoofprints and broken branches left behind by the horses I heard earlier. My dad was tugging at the thing in the ground.
“Dad, what was the horseman doing with Paul?” I asked.
He paused and looked up at me.
“The horseman that was here before,” I reminded him.
“Oh, yeah, I’m not sure, Jacob. Look here, why don’t you get the big shovel and we can try and lever this thing out.”
I brought the shovel and with skinny elbows pushed it into thick earth just under the edge of the shiny object and jumped onto the blade with both feet to drive it in. As I leaned backward on the handle and he tugged, a large muddy lump as big as me burst free of the earth and I fell onto the weeds.
My father held it up in his two grimy gloves in wonderment. He started patting it slowly and hunks of earth fell crumbling, and then thick chunks of dirt and white tumbled out from inside it. It looked like a long vest covered in lumps and knobs and strips, but it was hard to see so caked in grit. He placed it gently down on the ground.
“It looks like some old piece of armor! Jacob, you remember in the museum the part with the Chinese warriors? Like those.”
I remembered horsemen firing bows and arrows at each other, and nomads with all the camels making cheese. “Maybe the man on the horse left it behind after talking to Paul?” I ventured.
“I don’t know, it must be a replica but—” brushing dirt away from what appeared to be the shoulder he looked at very closely, “—it does look very old.”
My dad studied Asian history, so he would know if the armor was old, or why a man would bury his armor after talking with Paul.
“How weird to find this in the backyard,” he continued. “Why on earth would anyone bury a replica of a suit of armor here? Look, it seems like there’s more.” I looked and there were more pieces buried in the earth.
“What’s this?” I asked, picking up one of the oblong chunks that had fallen out from inside the vest. It was pale under the dirt.
“That looks like a bone,” my dad said to me. “We’re going to dig this all up.”
I noticed then that amongst the trees, some fifty feet away where the shrubs overtook grass and the land sloped downward to a ravine, there was a man sitting with his head on his raised knees. Next to him a light brown horse lay as if dead on the ground.
I headed towards the man slowly, stopping every few paces to see if he had seen me. He was dressed in a loose brown robe that was huge at the wrists and was tied around his waist with a white sash. As I neared he looked up at me with his wide and weary face. He was Asian, and had a thin moustache and receding hair on his recently shaved head. He cast his eyes downward again.
“Mister?” I asked, standing a little ways from him.
“Good day,” he said.
“Is your horse okay?”
He turned to his horse and rested his hand on the horse’s flank. The animal’s skin was stretched tautly over its ribs and the top of its leg, too, jutted out awkwardly. I could see its side rise shakily as it breathed. Its mouth and eyes were open but blank and its nostrils quivered with each exhalation. A saddle with some bags had been cast to the side next to a sword and bow.
“She’ll be dead in the morning,” he declared. “We wore her out. It was a long journey.”
“What journey, where did you come from?” I asked. “And weren’t there more horses, and why did you want to see Paul?”
“Paul is a friend of yours?”
“He’s a friend of my dad’s,” I responded, turning to wave at my dad, who waved back, amused.
“Your father too must be a good man.”
“Why did you want to see Paul?” I asked again.
“I thought you wanted to know where I came from,” he answered, with a smile that still left sadness on his hard face.
“Yeah,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Are you like Genghis Khan?” I proposed.
“You know a lot,” he said, smiling more fully. “Yes, like Chingis Khan. I led our armies against neighbors from the red west. But two months ago I learned that our enemy had raided the camp where my family was and hurt my wife and children.”
“Did you save them?” I turned to look at my dad who had taken up the shovel and was gingerly poking around in the dirt with it.
“I left to return home, but…” he turned to look at his horse. “My three children were all hurt and two were very sick. I knew I had to find a shaman to help, someone like your father’s friend.”
“Could he help?”
“My son was too sick. We buried him with the blessings of spirits. In my armor, because he was going to be a general one day, and my armor was no longer of use. I’m sure my army has scattered by now. I only kept this gauntlet,” he held up his hand “to remember him by.”
I finally approached him and sat down on the stump of a dead tree nearby. I noticed streaks through the dirt on his face.
“Unfortunately Paul couldn’t help my two daughters. My youngest daughter, only a baby, is gravely ill and we sent her with my oldest child to seek an wise man named Chagan Enq. He lives in a small village high in the clouds called Rasa that’s several day’s journey from here by horse and boat, in the mountains to the North. This horse is too sick to make the trip and I knew that their horse would travel faster and live longer without having to carry my weight, too.”
“They went off by themselves?” I asked, incredulous. “How old is she, the older girl?”
“She is just older than you; she has been with us 14 years. But she’s a tough girl. I wouldn’t have sent her without Paul’s blessing. He whispered instructions to their horse so that he will know where to take them.”
We dug out a whole suit of armor in our backyard, helmet boots and everything, but it was missing one glove. There was a complete skeleton of a human child in there too. While my dad was talking to the police on the phone about something I went outside and took the one gauntlet. Under the faucet by the deck I cleaned it until the black leather was black again and the metal strips above the knuckles shone. I tried it on – it was giant on me and the huge black studded plate at the back of it extended halfway to my elbow. It was so stiff I couldn’t move my fingers inside it, and it was heavy too.
“–over tomorrow, then, you could have a look at it all? I’m still digging it all out,” I heard my dad say on the phone in the kitchen as I walked in wearing the gauntlet and still trying to bend my fingers. Phoebe was standing at the Formica island reading a brochure, and behind her back I picked up a catalog of baby accessories that was on the pile of mail and dropped it in the trash. I grabbed my book from the table.
“Yeah, we’re definitely interested, please let Jameson with Asian Peoples know I’m coming,” continued my dad. I walked up the stairs slowly. “All in separate bags? Sure. No, the coroner is coming to look at those, I’m not supposed to touch them.”
In the guest bedroom Paul, who always unnerved me a little, was reading. He had short black hair cut close to the scalp of his big head, and his long, hairy fingers caressed one edge of the book he was reading, There was a pile of papers by his side. His sudden joints seemed out of proportion with the rest of his body. He looked up when I waved at him with the gauntlet from the doorway.
“Hi, Jacob,” he announced, saying the first word slowly and my name quickly, cheerfully. “Nice glove you’ve got there.”
“Paul,” I said, “What’s your job? Are you a shaman doctor?”
“A shaman?” he smiled in reply. “Well, I teach,” he said. “I’m a professor of chemical engineering over in Pennsylvania. Do you like chemistry?”
“I… dunno,” I mused. “Did you help the man out there in the backyard, Mr. Khan?”
“The man in the backyard? Did you speak to him?”
“Yeah, the general, he said you sent his daughter and his baby off together to find a cure for the baby,” I said.
“What are you reading, there?” he asked, nodding to the book in my hands.
“A badger is trying to find this fortress where he can repair his friend’s sword.”
“Good luck to the badger then.”
“He doesn’t need luck,” I assured Paul.
“So are you looking forward to going to the Adirondacks with Phoebe and your dad?”
“Nope!” I proclaimed. “I’m gonna stay here and read.”
“I’m not sure if your dad will let you do that,” said Paul. “But besides, it could be a nice family trip.”
“But you’re excited about your sister coming along aren’t you?”
“She’s not my sister ’cause she’s twelve years younger than me.”
“You should help your dad pack up the armor,” he said. “I’m sorry, I have to finish grading these papers,” he rested his hand the pile beside him, “I’m going back to Pittsburgh tomorrow.”
“Whew!” I heard my dad exhale from downstairs as I left the guest room. “All this digging. It’s rough work – must be hard being a gravedigger.”
“Bye,” I said to Paul, and headed back downstairs. A stroller sat at the top of the stairs. One more item for something that doesn’t exist.
“Did you get a chance to plant those gladioli?” asked my stepmother in the kitchen.
“Phoebe, I’ve been unearthing ancient treasure in the backyard.”
“They’re probably toys, Nick. You promised you’d plant them. It’s getting late in the season,” she said, coldly. “And we still have finish the trim in baby’s room.”
“What’s odd is that there’s still one gauntlet missing,” my dad mused. “Who would have buried this without a right gauntlet?”
“Dad, I think the horseman in the backyard has the other glove,” I said as I came in to the kitchen to get a glass of milk.
“Oh, Jacob, do you think you could help us finish painting the nursery?”
As it began to get dark my father was still digging around for the other gauntlet in the backyard, while Paul and I played Go in the living room. My stepmother was in the kitchen talking on the phone.
“He’s just so fixated, he’s obsessed! Like a kid with his toy soldiers – so what if it’s missing a stupid glove!” She jerked her free hand around as she talked.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. What’s that?”
“No, it’s in the Adirondacks. It’s like a destination wedding, you know? But a destination birth instead. There’s this beautiful spa resort up there called the Miraval. All the buildings are carved into the rocks and there’s a beautiful tower, like a Buddhist temple, where they have all the right staff and–”
“–oh yeah, there’s a hospital nearby and everything. It’s lovely.”
“No, it actually is some kind of monastery, the resort and birthing thing is on the side. Phil’s son, remember the one who dropped out from Rutgers? He went there for six months and is now in India wearing cotton shirts down to his knees and a beard.”
“Just over two weeks! Yep, we’re leaving the day after tomorrow.”
“What does he think? Oh, Jacob is really excited.”
I lost the game against Paul.
“I’m not going,” I revealed on the morning of the trip.
My father was still in the backyard digging. It looked like a construction site. The coroner had come and taken photos and left with the bones, and we brought the almost complete suit of armor to the museum. Everyone was convinced that armor was about one thousand years old, which my stepmother scoffed at but my father and I accepted, because the horseman seemed like he could be from a thousand years ago. But the missing right gauntlet was especially important, because it is always passed down from father to son and is each time inscribed with a name and dedicated to the current emperor.
“Oh!” said Phoebe in exasperation. “Look, Jacob, you don’t have a choice, we can’t leave you here. Nick!” she yelled into the backyard. “Will you forget about that glove for God’s sake and come in and start packing!”
“I know it’s out here somewhere.”
“And will you please tell your son that he’s coming to the Adirondacks with us?”
When he finally came inside to eat a bagel and start packing, he tried to explain.
“Jacob, this is a family thing and you have to come with.”
“But I don’t want to go anywhere, it’s boring,” I complained. “I’ll stay home and read.”
“No, it’ll be really exciting – it’s way up in the mountains and you can… you can bring your book and read in the mountains.”
“Mountains?” I asked. I wondered if it was near Rasa, which the horseman had said was in the mountains.
“Yes, mountains. It’s just about nine hours north on I-91. We’ll make the trip in one day, it’ll be fun.”
“Is that where Rasa is, where the old wise man is?” I persisted. I remembered the general said it was to the north.
“I don’t know Jacob, why don’t you come and see for yourself?”
“Can I look around and explore?” I asked.
Maybe I could help the general’s daughter and baby, I thought. What if they couldn’t find the wise man, or they didn’t speak the language in Rasa?
“Do I have to bring my jacket for all the snow?”
“No, it won’t be too cold, but maybe a little chilly in the evenings – why don’t you get that sweater your grandma made.”
“I’ll get my jacket.”
“Ugh,” said Phoebe to my dad, “you’re filthy, go get cleaned up and let’s finish packing.”
We drove on a small highway along the river. The grassy plain slowly gave way to a more arid steppe with shrubs and trees clinging only to the river, and the empty brown plain eventually stretched out to both horizons. I fell asleep some time after the Abbott was killed and weasels invaded the monastery, destroying the bell tower. When I woke up it was dark but we must have moved onto a boat because I could feel myself swaying. The general did say part of the trip would be by boat. Lights on the river banks passed us by, red on one side and bright, white lights on the other. I dozed.
Eventually we stopped by a brightly lit shelter and my dad spoke to a pointy-faced man with a wiry white beard who wore a hefty, dark coat and a black fur hat. I knew we weren’t at Rasa yet because the mountains around us that I could see were still small.
After my dad finished speaking to the man, he and Phoebe began to argue.
“Nicholas, you are absolutely not going to bring in an excavator to tear up the backyard.”
“It could be incredibly valuable, you know that. If this armor from the time period we think it is, it could be ground-breaking.”
“It’s from a period called the 20th century but more importantly, Nick, we’re going to have a baby! When we get back there is going to be no more of this bullshit. Excuse my French.”
Without asking I stepped onto the bank to look around. The wind whipped along the river valley and sometimes I felt like I would be carried up into the black air towards the mountains I could glimpse in the dark ahead. There were a couple small boats tethered to the dock and about ten men gathered around eating and gambling. A train of camels was nearby – shaggy, bulky, two-humped things I’d only seen in zoos before. They had long necks that stooped low before rising up to hold heads that stared stubbornly ahead. The pointy man spoke to one of the men tending to the camels in a language I could only compare to Chinese films. My dad called me back to the boat.
“Planning on taking a trip on your own, Jacob?” he asked me, turning around to look behind over his shoulder as I plopped myself into the back.
“Yep, to Rasa,” I confirmed.
“Nick, shut up and let’s go,” said Phoebe, deadpan.
The only thing Miraval had to offer me was an occasional swim in the pool. I knew I wasn’t at Rasa because although trees clung to steep rock faces, there was no snow and there were janitors with name tags on polo shirts walking the grounds. The resort resided in a valley among the peaks and the guests mostly stayed in one area, but elsewhere in the valley I could see men in red and orange robes congregating. I thought maybe this was a way station on the path up to Rasa, or maybe the people here traded with Rasa. There was no sign of the general’s children. Phoebe awaited her day like she expected the mountains to part before her footsteps, and I was free to wander as long as I was present when the baby came. “It gets done in something like a jacuzzi,” my dad explained. “You have to be there.” Why should I have to be there? I thought. One kid is enough and there’s sure to be one right at hand soon enough.
Every time I wandered the grounds I could spy a pagoda that topped one peak on the high horizon. It was small but the beveled levels of its tall, red roof questioned the clouds. I could sometimes see figures moving around under it. None of the janitors I spoke to had heard of Rasa, but I thought perhaps the people in the pagoda would know. I had decided I would help the horseman’s daughter and baby who were somewhere in Rasa looking for the wise man. My third afternoon at Miraval I took my warm coat and a $20 bill I had found down the side of my bed, and walked towards the pagoda. There was no path so I had to scuffle through dense woods and I was sure I was lost until, two hours after setting out, I arrived. The pagoda, more ornate up close, was in a clearing, and one path led farther upwards into the mountains. There was a train of camels like the ones I had seen earlier, and three men had built a fire and were cooking their dinner.
“Can one of you take me to Rasa?” I asked.
They looked at each other and spoke in a language I didn’t understand. I held out the $20 bill. I was sure that this was weird and dangerous of me, walking through the woods and giving money to strangers. But at the same time I was sure that this would get me to Rasa, and I was sure that at Rasa I could help the general’s baby.
One of the men took my money and gave me change: a string of dull metal coins with rectangular holes in them, and some slips of brown paper crawling with black stamps and scratchy patterns. He detached two camels from the train, and as he loaded them with saddles and saddlebags another gave me a bowl of stew with rice and meat. They continued to speak to each other, and when I had finished eating the man with the camels gestured me to come closer. He barked one word at one of the camels and it got down on its knees so that I could mount it, and with another word I rose, wavering, as the camel struggled to its feet. My new guide hoisted himself up on his camel and, instructing our steeds with one word commands, led us away on the path into the mountains. The approaching evening was lit by occasional lanterns.
At first my guide spoke to me, although I had no idea what he was saying. Maybe he spoke about Rasa and how it had changed, or maybe he spoke about his family and how to take care of camels. In the dark the swinging, heavy gait of my camel made my head thick with sleep Once we were silent and there was nothing to keep me awake but jagged dark shapes looming head and the quiet commands of my guide to the camels, I began to nod off. Strapped to one of the saddle bags was a thick woolen blanket I wrapped myself in and eventually I rested my arms and head on the camel’s hump in front of me and fell asleep.
When I awoke my back creaked and it was morning. Looking around me I could no longer see anything but mountains and the path carving and winding through walls and valleys of dirt. There was no sign of Miraval behind me. I began to worry that my dad might worry about me. The man ahead of me on his camel looked exactly as he did hours before. Hearing me sighing as I stretched, he turned around and pointed to my saddlebags. In it I found breakfast: a wedge of hard and pungent cheese and dumplings filled with tough meat.
As we rose higher into the white sky and mountains I began to see buildings clinging to each other and the cliffs ahead, all connected by rope bridges waving in the wind, and by around noontime we reached Rasa. Instead of the village I had imagined, I first saw two giant blocks of guardhouse on either side of the dirt path. After a brief exchange with my guide, two men (wearing ribbed cloth and metal armor like that in the Natural History Museum and my backyard) waved us in. My guide made a clicking nose and my camel lurched forward to kneel on its front legs, almost throwing me off, and then sat down entirely, allowing me to get off. He and his two camels descended, leaving me nervous but curious. I kept the blanket. It had begun to snow in tiny flakes as I entered the gargantuan city.
The street went straight for hundreds of feet before slowly curving uphill out of sight, lined by wooden and stone buildings painted white and topped with carved, sloping roofs. Red cloth awnings holding paper lanterns stooped towards the street from every wall, and beneath them I could see blacksmiths and craftsmen working. Farther down the street, with buildings getting taller at every block, the road turned into a kind of food market; yaks and wheelbarrows of fruit passed through the streets and stalls with noodles and stews spewed forth smells of roasting meat. Among the crowds around me, dusted with snow, many wore long coats in dark colors with big leather belts and four-sided fur hats. Some would stop and notice me, and a few even spoke to me but I could only communicate confusion.
I tried to ask people first about a girl with a baby on a horse, and then about the old doctor Chagan Enq but I didn’t learn anything. Eventually the great main street split off into smaller alleyways, and I continued wandering and looking, always taking the streets that led upwards. Here and there a little creek would run through the middle of a street and drop off the edge of a cliff when the street turned, joining larger rivers that I could see running beneath the wavering bridges that stretched over the occasional chasm. In the doorways of homes children with their staring round faces would watch me pass, and women doing laundry in the streets would glance my way. In the afternoon I bought a dish of noodles with two of the metal coins I was given – the meal was musty, earthy, and thick, and a little repulsive to me.
Into the evening the snow continued to drift through the streets, lit then by orange and red lanterns dangling off of ornate wooden beams. Unsure of what to do but exhausted I chose a dirt dead-end alleyway to curl up with the blanket I had, and with my thick coat I was almost warm. Even though the city was large and busy, it was never loud; the sheep bumbling through the streets made more noise than men. As I tried to sleep, the fear that I wouldn’t be able to find the general’s baby and bring her back lay heavy in my belly.
I woke with snow on my eyelashes and an idea in my head. I would find the tallest building in the city and climb it, and from the top I would be able to see everything. No doubt, then, I would find the daughters of the man crying in my backyard. As the morning sun dripped over the corners of buildings, occasionally blinding me, I asked the city dwellers going about their morning business about the highest building but I still couldn’t understand any answers I received. I took every street that went up the mountain, figuring that I would be going in the right direction. The wind grew as I ascended, howling and stinging my eyes. But I was right, and there was no doubt when I found the tallest building. Not quite at the top of the mountain that was Rasa, in a calm part of the city made calmer by the stiff, snowy breeze, one building of red and white stacked pavilions launched itself into the sky. The few people passing by seemed to have no idea that they walked beneath a majestic piece of engineering that seemed to conquer the whole mountain. The top, if what I could see was really the top, swayed.
The huge double doors at the front were partially rotted and one was falling off of its hinges. A thin beggar in red robes sat listlessly by the doorway almost sheltered from the snowy gales. When he spoke to me I understood him although I couldn’t decipher his individual words. Had I already started to learn their language? He told me that Chagan Enq was forced into exile when the foreigners came to populate and expand the city, and he is far away. It was for him that the palace I stood before had been built, and now it is empty and the people of Rasa have forgotten about it.
I gestured to ask permission to enter, and with one weak arm he waved me in. As I crossed the threshold he told me that a baby was coming, and my heart quickened – the general’s daughters must be inside. The entrance, dim and warm and covered in dark brown wood, seemed like a temple, with steps and pillars and an empty altar at the far side. It was quiet; the wind was muted and far away and occasionally whistling. The smell of old wood filled the building. I climbed up the creaking stairs behind the altar, through hallways of rooms that got smaller and smaller as each flight of stairs grew steeper. On one level very high up there was a door to a balcony slamming open and shut in the wind, and as I approached it flew off its hinges into the white space beyond. I stepped outside and had to hold on to the railing to withstand the numbing wind so deafening it was someone with their mouth open in a scream but silent. Below me I glimpsed shapes of brown struggling to be seen through the snow and clouds, but mostly it seemed like I had escaped the earth altogether.
Behind me I heard a woman say something. She was talking about the baby I was looking for. I turned around and only then noticed that there were several women in the room, speaking words of encouragement. Chagan Enq the wise man is gone, but this old woman, stooped and wrinkled like parchment, beckons to me. She says I can help with the baby if I will go up the last flight of stairs. What happened to the other daughter, the one who brought the baby here? She was pale and ill and left. I go up one more flight of stairs and a fire is noiselessly burning; the room is only light and shadows. In front of the fire, curled in a white blanket sucking on her thumb, there exists the child, with flesh, rosy and pink. She has eyes that can see and they look at me. There is nothing else in the room.
By the time Jacob neared his 40s, GPS navigation had become accurate enough that he could use his cell phone to track down his memories, and that was how he ended up in the second largest island in the eastern Mediterranean.
“But you’ve never been to Crete before, you said,” a woman reminded him from behind her shiny, sweaty forehead and sunglasses, “so how are you retracing memories here?” Jacob ran into her and her sunburnt boyfriend hiking in a gorge in the mountains. She pushed a lock of hair behind an arm of her sunglasses.
“You’re right – sometimes I get the wrong memories.” Jacob had to shield his eyes from the fireball sun that barreled along the gorge, silhouetting the two hikers. “I’ve always liked deceptive technology.”
“Sarah, we should go,” said the boyfriend. “The guide here says we still have four k to go before the peak, and the sun’ll set soon.”
“Good luck,” Sarah said to Jacob.
“See you,” said the boyfriend.
“Have a good evening,” said Jacob.
The two strode past him towards the rising night in the east. Jacob walked over to the one wall of the gorge that glowed orange and felt the smooth heat of sunset with one hand.
“How the heck do you get the wrong memories?” murmured the boyfriend to Sarah over the receding crunching of their footsteps on the small rocks.
Jacob checked the GPS on his cellphone. When it first pointed him to Crete he imagined it was being unhelpful, even malicious, again. Since he had been on the island though, he thought that maybe the GPS did know what it was doing. It had led him to an old tree on a cliff above the water. It was white and gnarled, almost cancerous, and seemed dead but for some tufts of dark green sprouting from its crackling fingers. That was a true memory: the same tree was rooted in his childhood backyard in the U.S., and he used to climb it and take naps in its many-armed embrace. Sometimes, when he woke up, the shy dryad that lived in the tree would be watching him, and smiling.
At that point his phone was pointing him towards Nikolaos, a city on the coast at the foot of the mountains. Years after selling his personal collections (journals, address books, planners, correspondence) to the archive at the University of Texas at Austin, it became difficult for him to make sense of his life. Now that his memories belonged to a university – in an archive open to the public – he didn’t feel it was appropriate to barge in and ask for them back, even for a moment, please, just to look at them. The marvel of modern technology, he thought, was that he didn’t have to construct his life from his memories, because his GPS would figure it out. Like a peasant who needs no memories to know what his life is – he lives in this village, wakes up, goes to the fields – Jacob felt liberated, which was why his wife left him.
At the end of the gorge the view opened up, and along the expanse of beige and white mountains even the smallest rocks and shrubs cast long shadows. The sky was a pale, creamy orange, and the red sun began to land in the small white clouds that dotted the rim of the horizon. He could see peaks over the water from whence sirens once lured ships onto the rocks. Jacob’s cell phone informed him that he was nearing a fort where Daskalogiannis, a Cretan who famously rebelled against Ottoman rule, was skinned alive and executed in June, 1771.
He took a path back to the road where he had left his rented scooter, and followed his phone’s directions into Nikolaos. Night rose quickly, and by the time he had parked his vehicle near the harbor the sky was a uniform purple. The dim facades of the buildings on the waterfront were outmatched by the bright, vertical lines of light wavering in the water in alternating colors: white, orange, white, pink, yellow, white, yellow. Small yachts swayed gently.
The GPS led him away from the harbor along streets with cobblestone the color of bones, and it finally stopped him in front of an apartment building squeezed in between an art gallery and a nightclub. It was two windows wide and three stories tall, white with troughs of flowers hanging from some windows. Passersby filtered into the club next-door, and when the door was opened slow, thick beats spilled out onto the sidewalk. Jacob looked up at the apartment but all six windows were dark and empty, and its green door was silent. He opened the door and peered into the vestibule, wondering if he should try ringing each of the three apartments. The light was off in the vestibule and it was cold. He could still hear the music coming from the adjacent club. Perhaps the GPS was off target, and that was where he was supposed to be. He closed the door.
The nightclub’s name was above its entrance: “The Hive” in black letters backed by a yellow honeycomb. That building too was several stories tall, hulking and pulsing. Jacob put his phone in his pocket and stepped away from the apartment building. When he opened the door to The Hive he saw its dim interior with walls covered in red velvet; the music and heat reached out and pulled at him. He entered like Jonas into a fish.
People stood in the hallway at the entrance, holding drinks; some danced slowly to the heavy, minimalist music. A few turned to look and smile at Jacob, who smiled uncertainly back. They seemed vaguely familiar, like guests his ex-wife invited to a cocktail party thrown in his living room whose names he should know. The hallway split into two corridors which each split further, lined by open archways to small hexagonal rooms. As he walked deeper into the club along the padded carpet, he saw that each room, lined with cushioned black benches, had different lighting and its own music that matched and added to the beat in the hallway.
As he passed one room a face caught his eye. He looked in and saw in the nearly black blue lighting the face of a woman he had been neighbors with in the house he owned a decade ago. She looked young. He put his hand on the jamb in the entryway. She didn’t see him, but he could hear over the throbbing music rolling out of the portal the conversation she was having with a man he couldn’t place.
“No, it’s not easy, but you just need a stroke of luck,” she said. She took a bite out of a piece of baklava she held in a plate.
“You’re right,” replied the man sitting next to her.
“Like my neighbor, he just had his first book published two months ago.” She wiped some crumbs from the side of her mouth and continued. “It was really pretty good – it’s about Israel, and the Palestinian Problem, but through the eyes of this guy, a Jew, who had to fight against Jewish paramilitaries after World War II.”
The book he wrote 12 years ago wasn’t about the “Palestinian Problem,” thought Jacob. It was inspired by his own grandfather. Most of the book is about him after World War II, lying in orchards and falling in love.
“Huh,” murmured the man.
“Yeah, and later in the book he goes back to Israel when he’s 80 and sees how things are,” continued the woman.
Jacob put one foot on the threshold. The book’s protagonist returns to see his granddaughter who moves there. If Jacob wanted to write about the “Palestinian Problem” he would have written a pamphlet.
“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find a publisher eventually,” concluded the woman.
Jacob shook his head and decided to move on. He pulled out his phone but its screen was blank. It could have been broken, or out of batteries, but probably it was being unruly. In the room across the hall were two women he had met in a restaurant in Laos during a break when he was in college. They were twins, from Belgium, and both exactly resembled Natalie Portman, but with different hairstyles. In the room they were drinking bright mixed drinks and laughing with a third girl. They looked like they did when he met them 20 years ago, when he could only speak to them for about five minutes before he had to leave to catch a train. Then, they both had held their drinks in their hands on the table and looked him in the eye, smiling and laughing, laughing just like they were now in The Hive. He opened his mouth to speak, to say hello. Holding his breath he paused, words pushing against the back of his throat.
He passed another couple rooms and avoided looking into them, looking for a bar or a bartender so that he could get a gin and tonic. Suddenly a smell hit his memory. Brandy and cherries, chocolate. A woman was standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall eating something dark from a small plate with a fork. Her face was turned away from him and shadowed by her hair, but she was talking with a man and touching him on the arm sometimes. Black Forest cake. His ex-wife made it all of the time. It was her recipe and her Black Forest cake, the chocolate and brandy and cherry blood red spilling out from the black chocolate. Jacob’s skin tingled: the woman must have been her, the shape of her body and her hair. The music, its beats growing repetitive in the murky, numbing light, prevented him from hearing her voice. He wanted to grab her on the shoulders, roughly turn her around to face him and knock the plate from her hands. He began to raise his arms but then she laughed. She laughed at the man and it was her laugh, its tintinnabulation and the indrawn breath at the end.
Gritting his teeth he walked past her without looking at her face. Finally, at the end, several corridors joined at a bar – a few people with their backs to him on stools, and his college roommate manning the bar and grinning at a patron. Jacob walked up to the bar and was about to ask for his drink, but stopped before the bartender recognized him. Hidden in the beats and swooning bass of the music he caught snippets of a tune that he knew. Tiny sharp notes, separate from the music, glittered through the air and wavered into his ears. His fingers knew the tune, could see the black and white keys and how to move along them. The image of his mother landed in his mind’s eye. She had been gone since he was seven. The tune kept drifting out of hearing and suddenly he felt desperate: he wanted to take it and hold it in its hands, wring it out, and consume it.
He stepped away from the bar back into the corridors, checking every room, the tune dabbling on the edge of earshot. In one room he saw his third grade teacher who taught him what poetry was. In a corridor he bumped into his first girlfriend and she looked him straight in the eyes before he hurried on. Finally he found the room, a room with dim white light and only that simple tune, cutting through the hallway music. He could picture his mother, sitting on the piano bench next to him, teaching him that song.
At the join of two walls on the far side of the small room a naked woman sat on her feet on the velvet bench. Her chin was turned up a little and her thin eyebrows arched up to the high bridge of her nose. She held a lyre in her hands, draped in her long, wet brown hair, and slowly plucked out the tune, each note plucking at his insides. In a fine, clear voice she hummed along with the tune. Jacob took one step into the room and the woman looked up at him without pausing her music. Inside the room, with his hands on the edge of the threshold, all sound had stopped but hers. He stood for a moment and finally she ceased playing, putting her lyre down beside her and staring at him with no expression on her face. Jacob curled his toes and his knuckles clenched the wall. He wished he could plug his ears from the silence, but it was invincible. After taking a deep breath and pressing closed his eyelids he pushed himself away and back into the corridor. The beats first entered his body, then his ears, and without looking back into the room he turned away. Eyes down at his feet, Jacob walked along the hallways back to the entrance, not stopping even when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He pushed open the door and escaped from the red light into the chill gray outside.
In the street the cool air pulled at the sweat on his face. The quiet throb of the music leaking out of the club seemed like a memory, and Jacob imagined the city street to be silent. He looked next door at the apartment again. The window at the top and to the right was lit by the flickering glow of a television screen. A woman sat inside on the window ledge with her back to the street. Jacob stared for a long time.
“Do you know her?” asked a man with a Greek accent and pomade in his black hair. He wore tight jeans and a loose, white dress shirt.
“When I graduated college I was seeing this girl Catherine,” returned Jacob, without looking at him. “That’s her. We dated for three years.”
“What happened to her?”
“She’s changed a lot.”
Behind the spice bazaar at midnight on the first of every month, the four orphaned quadruplets would reunite to share their stolen spoils and wax their moustaches for the upcoming festival. The sharp and gritty scents of cumin, saffron and nutmeg would leak out of cloth stalls and dance around the young men: Azad, Akçay, Adnan, and Akar. They would all sit on their heels under the metal moon, remove their fezzes, and converse.
The first of November: the air was still and cool, and sails of ships could be seen rocking gently in the harbor. The four brothers had just, as was customary, finished waxing their moustaches with beeswax and tallow. Azad’s was thin and sharp; needles curving up to his cheeks. Akçay had a moustache that was short and lively like a rabbit’s tail. Adnan wore his long and solid, framing his mouth and curving to the vertical at the edges. Akar had, most severe of all, a short, narrow bristle with only a slight curl to the sides of his nostrils. Akçay laid a hand on Adnan’s shoulder.
“My brother,” said Akçay, pulling one silvery glove from his embroidered green coat. “Here I have the hand that loved a thousand women, stolen from the bedchamber of the great Emir of Abi Bakr.” Adnan received the glove and held it, glinting, in the light of the moon.
“Ever the romantic, brother,” Adnan responded with a smirk, sliding the glove over his hand. “What better relic to grasp with this gauntlet than the knife that slit a thousand throats, lifted tenderly from beneath the pillow of the Seljuk prince Nasir ad-Din while he slept?” From his belt Adnan drew a short dagger, ornate of green and red gems.
Azad brought in front of his brothers a large sack full of edges and clinks, and from it withdrew a squat, lumpy candle.
“I have the most romantic of all,” intoned Azad. He gestured to Akçay, saying, “This one’s for you: a candle that can be lit only in the Sultan’s mother’s bedchamber, and only during the penultimate year of her life.” Three of the brothers guffawed, prodding and shoving Akçay, who merely grinned.
They had much to share resting beneath the stars’ blue-black dome, as they only saw each other during the monthly festival and the night before it. Mostly they boasted of the month’s exploits, pausing occasionally to chew hazelnut and pistachio lokum in silent reminiscence. Akar told of the blind man who gave him a gold coin bearing the face of Genghis Khan in gratitude for helping him recover the ivory walking stick he had dropped into the gutter. Azad told of his evening stalking the Partridge of Perseverance that he had accidentally released from its cage in the Sultan’s topiary garden; the evening ended in failure.
Their stories finished, Akçay confessed that he was silently falling in love with the girl who sells him plums in the Wednesday morning market every week, falling in love based solely on the way she picks each plum from her basket. He did not know her name and had never heard her speak. Then he pulled a plum from a pocket and displayed it longingly, wiping away the blue resin coating the purple-red flesh. The smooth shine: the one groove and smooth curve and shine. He held the marvelous stonefruit before his face and bit into it, red drops running down his clean shaven chin.
“The girl, her name must be Esma,” ascertained Akar.
“No, it is probably Ruya,” said Adnan.
“Or possibly Mari,” said Azad.
“We will call her Susina, for it means ‘plum,’ ” concluded Akçay.
The festival is about sounds. Sounds of song and music and sounds of merchants selling their stock, sounds of families and children and sometimes sounds of speeches and sermons. The festival is about smells. The spices of course, and the smells of pastry and cinnamon, the smell of roasting lamb and tahini for shawarma enough for a thousand hungry men, and towards the harbor the sharp smell of the sea’s catch: heaps of scaly glistening fish all startled with their mouths and eyes wide open. The festival is about tastes. Syrup and nuts, hummus and mango pickle, olives and apricot cheeses with fruit wines. The festival is about touch. The fortune telling rabbits soft as silk and sand, pashminas of red blue and wool, the press of the crowds between cobblestones and clouds. The festival is about sights. Monkeys dance on the shoulders of men dancing with swords, the dervishes whirl their white robes into rippling circles, the freaks poke their noses between iron bars, and everywhere are elderly men playing chess with ebony and ivory queens.
And the four brothers ply their trade: each young man identical save for their moustaches – all dressed in curly-toed white shoes, white pants, embroidered gold and green coats, and a red fez topped with a yellow tassel. Between the old woman selling thirty-three kinds of olives and the fat man hawking illuminated pages from ancient copies of the Shahnameh, the brothers stood around a giant wooden table laden with the spoils of their adventures and thievery. A pair of falcon’s wings, a quill of endless ink, a tooth from the mythical stallion Rakhsh, a board game stolen from Tutankhamun’s tomb, a pillow still holding three hairs of Rapunzel, and other treasures. The brothers employ a special kind of trade, a two-for-one deal, Akçay calls it: as one brother deals with a customer, a second sweetens the deal by picking his pocket.
Past noontime, Akçay spied the girl of his plum fascination behind the man to whom he was selling the golden Genghis Khan coin. She emerged from the crowd with a basket of apricots looking slowly and curiously around, and smiled at the deferential Akçay as she walked by him to the brothers’ table. The thief met her eyes just barely, and returned to his customer distracted. The three other brothers instantly knew that this was Esma, Stephanie, Mari. She was a slight girl of warm skin and jet black hair that cradled her shoulders in braids. Susina. Her cheeks were full, her lips bright, and her eyes strong, dark, and liquid. Her blue and white dress was fastened and decorated with flat metal ornaments, and a white flower edged with red was nestled above her ear. As Akçay completed his transaction and Azad lifted a satchel heavy with other rare coins from the customer’s belt, Susina approached Adnan. She picked up a jar of snow off of the table, white, bright, white in the sun snow.
“Why doesn’t it melt?” she asked.
“This snow is from Mount Ararat,” answered Adnan. “This snow may very well have fallen upon Noah’s ark in the days after the flood, and not melted since.”
“My little brother has never seen snow before,” said Susina, holding the jar up to the sun. “How much would it cost?”
“Take one of your apricots, and give it to my brother over there,” answered Adnan, pointing to Akçay.
“Are you sure?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.
She placed the jar of snow in her basket and felt for a ripe apricot, her lithe fingers moving across the heap of fruit like each velvety globe was a piano key. Her fingertips would hover momentarily on one apricot, press gently, and then clamber on to the next, searching for one whose flesh yielded only slightly to the pressure of her hand. Suddenly inspired, she dove down with two fingers and plucked one apricot from deep within the pile, sending several rolling to the sides of the basket. It was perfect, heavy, and smooth. She stepped around to face Akçay, who had been watching her. Not blushing, she handed him the fruit with her slender outstretched arm.
Some years earlier, I was riding in an open carriage through a pale, skeletal forest. The sky was slowly falling apart and drifting as snow flakes in many straight lines down to the earth. When the snow in the carriage had risen to my ankles, I saw crouched on the road ahead a smudged figure. I asked the carriage to stop and stepped off into the snow. One boot. The other. It was not cold. From the east, beneath clouds on one horizon where the sky was open, the sun burned and lit up the air.
The wiry figure wore a red and white kimono, and a sword was tied to his side with a gray sash. He was on his hands and knees, with his head buried in the ground up to his neck. I stumped through the snow. When I approached, he lifted himself up, and I saw that he had no head at all; he had been holding the white bony stub of his neck to the snow.
“Good morning, sir,” pronounced the figure in a cool, smooth voice as he stood up in his sandals.
“Thank you,” I said. “How did you lose your head?”
“I lost my head in the Headless War,” explained the figure.
“What did they do to you?”
“I was a slave for so long I no longer needed it, and so they took it from me.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “None of us are whole.”
The pale figure bowed slightly, clasping his gaunt hands together at his waist.
“Perhaps I could help you, if you could retrieve my head,” he told me.
“Where is your head?” I asked.
“If you had lost a head, where would you have lost it, if I may ask?”
“In a lady’s bed,” I said wryly.
The figure spread his arms graciously. “Somewhere, my head is smiling.”
“Can you see from this ‘somewhere’?” I asked.
“Unlike you, my eyes are sewn shut, my ears are stuffed with ash, and my nose and mouth are filled with stones.”
“Then I will bring you your head,” I declared.
“Thank you,” said the figure. “Be careful, there is one demon near here. I have sparred with this demon since before the War, and have followed it here. It is like a young man with long gray hair, a blank face, and stormy eyes.” He then stepped to the side of the road and returned to his hands and knees in the snow.
I had always thought my cousin would be the person to ask if I lost my head, and so I hoped he would be able to help with someone else’s. It was still snowing when I arrived that night in town with two thin tracks drawn by the carriage wheels snaking off behind me. The town rose up a hill, with the scattered yellow lights of wooden homes burning through the snowfall. I left the carriage at the gate, and strode towards a road that led up the hill. I passed two soldiers with machine guns in gray and white camo who nodded at me. Triangular piles of snow topped every big, carved street sign. In twenty minutes I made my way through the sheen of cold to where my cousin lived, near the top of the hill.
Inside. In round spectacles and plaid flannel, my cousin mulled cider in the kitchen, while his wife showed me around their house: fireplaces, rugs and throws. She had her brown hair in a ponytail and wore a loose, patterned red sweater. With hot mugs the three of us sank into a couch. By then the snow’s cascade had ceased, and through the floor to ceiling window we watched the starry blue night swallow the town.
We talked about Wars and Headlessness.
“Are not, in fact, all wars headless ones?” I ventured.
“The problem,” said my cousin, taking a light slurp of cider, “in modern times, is that wars are many-headed.”
“The problem,” insisted his wife, sipping her cider, “is more often that they are wrong-headed.”
“If there are many heads then some are bound to be wrong,” I offered. “This cider is really great.”
“I think it’s the nutmeg, not everyone uses nutmeg,” my cousin explained
“You have to grate whole nutmeg, not the bottled, ready-ground stuff,” said his wife.
“Yes, whole nutmeg.”
“And there’s really no competing with hard cider,” she said, reminding him.
“Of course,” he agreed.
“How many heads do you think this war has, then?” I asked.
“Two,” answered my cousin’s wife. “Like Janus. One to look backward to see how we fucked up, and one to look forward to make sure we do the exact same thing again.”
“Amen,” said her husband.
I laughed. So before long, we were talking about Parenthood instead. It had gotten very late, and in that room in that house on the top of the hill we each were illuminated like the moon is in space: shining and surrounded by darkness. Red embers murmured in the hearth as we continued to drink cider, fortified by then with rum for extra warmth.
“One thing I always knew about you,” I said to my cousin, “Some day you’ll make a great dad.”
He and his wife grinned at each other.
“Well thank you. I really appreciate that, I do. What about me makes you say that?”
“You’re stable. At least externally,” I remarked.
He chuckled. “So you mean I can put on a brave face, well great. Does that also mean I’d make a great mom? Isn’t stability important for mothers, too?”
“It’s impossible for mothers,” announced his wife.
There were nods all around.
“About your friend,” my cousin said, leveling his mug at me.
“The man in the kimono?”
“Him. He’s lost his head? Maybe he’s like the Scarecrow on his way to Oz and he’s forgotten that he’s had it all along. No war, Headless or otherwise, is going to take your head from you. Just scare you into misplacing it. Right? He must have it somewhere.”
“But he said his eyes were sewn shut,” I protested. “And his ears were stuffed with ash, and his nose and mouth were filled with stones.”
“So what do you want me to do, get you a knife and a pickaxe? These are problems we all have. He’ll figure that out on his own time.”
I thought my cousin was a wise man. At the very least, he was brilliant with crossword puzzles.
When I returned to that spot in the road the next day it was morning again, and my tracks from earlier had been swept away. The sky was brisk and clear but shining flecks of snow from tree limbs drifted gold, drifted like tiny suns through the air.
Again the ragged headless man was on his hands and knees in the middle of the path. When I approached, preceded by the crudge of my footsteps, he stood up.
“Good morning, sir,” he pronounced. “Have you returned with my head?”
“I haven’t,” I admitted. “But I come with certain good news. Your head is not lost after all. It was never taken from you, could not have been. It was misplaced. You have gotten so used to headlessness that you have forgotten to look inside of yourself again.”
He made no motion for ten seconds. Then he merely said: “Of course. All this time, I have been fighting not one demon, but two.”
He clasped his hands at his waist and bowed.
“Thank you, traveler. How, then, may I help you as promised? You said that you, too, are not whole.”
I looked at the backs of my hands; they were red with cold. A duck, plodding carefully by in the snow some distance away, caught my eye.
“No, I’m whole enough.”
He bowed once more.
“Then I thank you again. I will find my head. And even though my eyes are sewn shut I will cut them open. And even though my ears are stuffed with ash I will hear again. Even though my nose and mouth are filled with stones.”
En la mañana, un hombre calvo se me acerca,
sus orejas poniéndose rojo en los copos de nieve.
Criaturas de aire frío están formadas de su aliento.
“Pienso que te has olvidado de algo,” dice.
Naturalmente, me he olvidado a mansalva,
me he olvidado de sierras y rascacielos,
me he olvidado de heridas y duelos,
y entonces no respondo.
“Hay alguien con que quiero que se encuentre,” dice.
Me lleva a una plaza de bancos desiertos,
una plaza de sol severo y blanco.
Me lleva a una estatua de cinco metros bruscos, y pregunta,
“¿Por qué hay una estatua con tu cara?”
El problema: es fácil levantar una estatua,
pero se necesita una guerra, golpe, o revolución para derribarlo.
“¿Estás responsable por esta anomalía?” pregunta.
Me acerco a la piedra; raspo suavemente con mis uñas a sus pies.
Los ojos de la estatua miran arriba, ignorándome.
Quizás me recuerdo haciéndola:
quería ser una sierra, una rascacielos,
quería ser el río y el puente,
quería ser la espada y el tridente.
La carne piedra es más fuerte que la de cada otra persona.
Quizás me recuerdo haciéndola.
“¿Salió bien, eso plan?” pregunta.
“No,” digo. “No necesité una estatua.
Necesité una caja de chocolates.”
“Solo tengo este naranja,” él dice.
i’m about to go to bed and she tells me
“write a fucking poem” but
i cry “it’s snowing outside,
the lamppost is being driven into the ground,
the cars are sleeping with empty faces,
the road is an endless feather bed.
write a fucking poem?”
i don’t know what it means that
the kid in my creative writing class
with the sam adams hat and stubble
got crushed by the tram in the middle of the road.
“what do you want me to do?” i scream.
“i was thrown out of the wheelchair and broke
my leg for the second damn time.
i can fly so why can’t i walk,
what am i waiting for?”
lights off, the monitor is white blaring blazing.
you know, i was half under the covers when she tells me
“write a fucking poem” but
i cry “it’s snowing outside,
and warm right here.
you’re a voice in my head;
it’s not my problem!”
Rain still slicks your face while
Philadelphia colors receding clouds
a mellow urban purple,
and puddles on the road glow ragged
ginger in the street lamps.
Alternating lights of the PED XING sign
throw our shadows back and forth.
Far-off headlights sweep across the wilting.
You off into the dorm and I quest for ice cream,
but I’m not quite sure where I’m going, and, worse,
I don’t know which flavor is our favorite.
My snow-crunching footsteps seem to precede me,
and I find tiny, overwrought poems in ice cream names.
We might die, but “Black Fudge Overdose” sounds delightful.
Room reorganized while I was out:
you’ve made a cocoon between bed and wall
with mattress on the floor;
white sheets ceiling held up by thumb tacks.
The moved bed exposes that colorful stash of bottles,
and your sobriety is in question.
Cajun shrimp is the best color, you’ve decided.
You walk with a beautiful stagger,
see pink when you close your eyes.
There we were in the middle of the room,
your hair swaying above me.
The blood was minimal, only just a foot or two to the windshield,
and I am sure splinters of bark were spread
no more than ten feet in any direction.
Perhaps shards of glass were sent out even farther,
shrapnel twenty, thirty feet through the air.
They say nothing travels faster than bad news;
well, nothing travels as far, either,
and so this range is always increasing.
Dinner table chatter, “did you hear?”s,
letters sent out to relatives, friends.
And everywhere I walk I bring it with me
carrying pieces of the wreckage
tucked away in the folds of my clothing
and in between the pages of this book.
But back at the center,
something that had yet to move at all:
a small bouquet of flowers
stapled to that still standing, shattered tree.
It was several years before one night’s wind
gently let it, browned, withered, and shriveled, to the ground.