Sunday, July 4, 2010
Flatman Crooked - "Guatemalan Streets"
FlatmanCrooked (now defunct) sponsored a general fiction contest. I entered this entry to the writing competition and I think it is a little raw yet. It was inspired by a trip I took to Guatemala. I've always been inspired by the Aztec and Maya cultures that faded into history. This story plays with the idea of the ancient rituals still being alive, but going on behind closed doors.
My arm was sleeping, I am more aware of it when it sleeps than when it’s awake. The cause of its drowsiness was also asleep. I could have readjusted, but the last thing in the world I wanted was to disturb her. Unlike my angry arm, sleep brought her such serenity. Those legs. Sweet, soft and stretched like caramel candy.
A tickle came through the window. It swirled around the room, eventually settling on her bare back. The tickle inspired a roll, releasing my arm. I left a kiss on top of her head and made my way out the door. I suppose I could have left a note, but a note in isolation isn’t very representative to the song in which it belongs. She’ll understand, she usually does.
The air was tight and cool. Wisps of clouds hung in the air like unanswered questions. The sun seemed reluctant to crawl over the horizon. I made my way down the lumpy streets, still unmolested by the diesel burps of busses and tuk-tuks. I ambled past red, yellow, blue, coral, lemon and teal until I reached el Mercado in the heart of Antigua, the primordial point of the day.
The shopkeepers were unfurling their shops, like rows of opening eyelids. A round bodied, flat faced woman stood over a boiling cauldron.
“Un café por favor”
Two scoops through a strainer, and the scalding morning motivation rested in my hands. I took a sip savoring the dark quemado taste that came first, immediately followed by a forgiving sweetness.
The sun had finally crescendoed over the volcano San Pedro. I continued past the church crumbs and their freshly painted replacements, noting how the Mayan deities played and hid among the colonial saints.
I turned off the road and stepped onto a small dirt trail. I twisted my way along the jungle garden mountainside until the vegetation hiccupped and revealed a bungalow of wavy tin. I clanged on the side of the shack. “Abuelito!”
From the shed emerged a relic of a man, stooped over as if he carried the very mountain on his back. Taking tiny steps, he smiled a toothless smile and raised his hands towards me.
“The wind is always refreshing on my face”
“Yes abuelo, it is good to see you too.”
“The breeze tastes like the salt of the ocean today.”
“Yes, abuelo, I won’t be staying long. I’ve come to say farewell and thank you.”
The ancient sage paused and after a few moments looked up at me with glistening quemado eyes and quivering lips.
“Sweet wind, leave me a kiss.”
I walked over and pressed my lips to his forehead. “Le vaya bien”
“Breath. It is the smallest wind.” He whispered.
I pondered his words as I wound down the mountain. When I first met him, I thought he was crazy like everyone said. I’d visit and he’d always ramble about the wind. Once I realized that he was referring to me, the babble became poetry. Bringing him food and water each week, I listened to his verses. The recluse inspired me and I lingered on his lips, knowing that soon the final stanza would emerge.
Back at the road, I hopped on a bus headed to my second stop. The stumbling vehicles rumbled past each other, still a little groggy. The early stillness was replaced by the morning buzz. At the end of town, I entered the tortelleria.
She was standing over the hot iron plate, dusted in maiz, clapping her hands with wet dough, the rhythmic percussion accompanying her angelic voice. Moments later, the jovial rotund woman limped over and had me engulfed like a python.
She handed me a papusa, broke it, and said “here, eat this. You look like you could use some food.”
The gritty corn mixed with hot wet cheese traversed along my tongue and teeth. She smiled as she watched me eat. It was that smile I came to see. When the accident happened, when she thought she would no longer be able to care for her children, when she was ready to let go, I somehow found that smile and she pulled through. Now, even though she had to sleep in the dirt, had to hobble 2 miles for water, and cried at night missing her husband and kids, the sensation of dough in her fingers felt like satisfaction. “Gracias” I offered as I rose out of my chair.
“I can’t stay.”
“Very well, I see there is no point to argue.” She smothered me in another enormous hug. When she let go her cheeks were damps with tears. I brushed them with my thumbs.
“Little oceans, tears are.” She said. Then she turned and pat-pat-pat-pat, resumed the rhythm and later, the song.
I found a corn farmer who let me ride in the back of his truck. I lay in the bed watching the alert sky race by. My destination, the crater lake called Atitlan, was a sapphire surrounded by a fortress of gray stone. Some steps chiseled into the rock led me to a group of cabanas. The owner of the retreat emerged with freshly washed white linens in his arms.
“Cha!” I called
“”Cha!”He echoed. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”
“Am I in your way?”
“Yes, but so what? Come have a drink with me.”
He took a bottle of mescal and poured a small glass of the pure clear liquid.
“Here, drink this. Let us remember this moment.”
The agave based beverage slid down my throat, sweet, spicy and sharp.
“What brought you to this place?”
I took another sip.
“What do you think of sacrifice?”
“Well, we all make them in our lives. I’ve sacrificed money, time, and relationships in order to get this place. You know this very well, you’ve been here in the hard times. Sometimes the best things in life require some sacrifices.”
“Sure, but what about real sacrifice?”
“Like slaughtering an animal?”
“Or a person.”
“Seems barbaric to me.”
“Perhaps. What about all those heroes of history who have paid the ultimate price for their cause?”
“What about them? How are they different from the nameless ones that didn’t have an observer to put them in the history books? Being martyred or murdered seems to be just a matter of circumstance. And people are killing themselves everyday for less than noble ideals. I think there is a thin line between suicide and sacrifice.”
“What’s this all about anyway?”
I hid nothing back. I explained about the meeting with the Shadow Man. I told him how for once I felt like there may be a way for me to truly help others. Years as a social worker were marked with so many painful things happening to too many good people. Then there was the depth of love I had experienced that I wanted others to experience in their lives. The Shadow Man offered me an option to bring good fortune and happiness once and for all by committing a willing act of sacrifice.
“And you are actually going through with this?”
“You believe this will actually work – that this isn’t just some lunatic who’s got you crazy?”
“What about how useful you could be still alive?”
“I’ve come to realize that my abilities are extremely limited, that things I fight are beyond me. A breath is nothing compared to the wind, tears are insignificant compared to the ocean.”
“She’ll understand, this is for her as well.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like this. There’s only one outcome here that for certain if you do this. Death.”
“I must.” I stood to leave. He kissed me on the cheek, but said nothing.
The circular door has the Mayan calendar etched in the wood. The room is scented with incense. The stone walls have slits near the roof to reveal strips of starry sky. The Shadow Man enters chanting, feather plumes on his head, robe over his shoulders and blade in his hand. The moment is here, is now. Breath is wind. Worth dying for. Tears are oceans. Worth dying for. Caramel candy legs. Worth dying for. Worth living for. Worth living for. Worth living. The blade comes down. My hand comes up.
The moon washes the streets in silvery blue. An amber window glows. I enter the door. She hears me come in. “I missed you mi amor” She says, as she rolls her wheelchair towards me. She notices the crimson soaked rag in my palm, and looks at me with concern in her eyes.
“What was once asleep, is now awake.” I explain with a grin, and I begin to tell her about my journey though the Guatemala streets.