Thursday, October 17, 2013

convincing proof

There are valleys that wander through these hills, following patterns all their own. As a student, so many years ago, I was taught that the valleys follow the paths of the rivers, that they eroded the softer soil and left behind the hills and canyons. But as a child, before I had ever ventured into the mountains, before I had followed the paths of the valleys, I was taught that the hills and valleys were the shape of the fingerprints of god, and if you could go high enough into the sky, you would see the shape of his hand.

"Why, then, why," I asked, "were valleys places of darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, when it was valleys that were fed by rivers, and mountains that were cold and barren?" My teacher ignored my question, for it was inconvenient, and returned to her lesson. When I returned home, I asked my mother why valleys meant death, and she said it was because from way up in the mountains, valleys look like freshly dug graves. I had never seen a grave of any type, much less one freshly dug, for we in those days sent the souls of the dead into the afterlife on funeral pyres, the smoke ascending to heaven.

I asked my mother: who used graves, and why, but she was making dinner and pushed me aside, saying, "Ask Grandmother. She will answer your questions."

I was afraid of Grandmother, afraid of the woman covered in black shawls, who sat in shadowed corners of our house working her prayer beads. I had never seen her leave the house, except on the day of her brother's funeral, and I was struck by how ancient she seemed, how frail. Her tiny hands were swollen into claws, and she almost disappeared in the crowded room. Her face was worn and wrinkled, and even though I did not think she could see, I also did not really think she was blind. Maybe I thought she was god, or she was turning into god or absorbing god as she became older and older. Even mother didn't know how old Grandmother was, and told me not to worry about things that didn't matter.

My mother's advice to ask Grandmother about valleys and graves made sense, but I was too afraid of Grandmother to ask her, and then she was too old to talk, and then, when I had moved away and forgotten my questions and forgotten my fear of her, she died. She was burnt on a pyre, the smoke of her soul ascending to heaven, weeks before I found out about her death. It had been many years since I had been back to our village, and I did not visit now, but the death affected my memories more than I expected.

She visited me in my dreams, night after night, and all she did was sit, quietly in the corner, working her prayer beads. She never spoke in these dreams, although, awake, I can recall her voice, the texture of autumn leaves, the sound of the rustle of the wind. In my dreams, she was silent, but she watched me with her eyes, dark and intense. Their intensity would awaken me out of the dream, and in the silence of my room, I would watch the curtains billow in the night breeze and feel that my Grandmother was there, with me, although this was a land she had never visited.

No one else in my family had ever appeared in my dreams, not my father, lost to a stampede of oxen in a drought summer, nor any of my other relatives, not even in those early years when I would wake up disoriented after a restless night's sleep, expecting to smell the acrid boiled bark tea, confused at the tidiness all around, the pulverized leaves that I poured kettle-boiled water over every morning, their insipid flavor. Even in those long days of never quite understanding what to say or who to say it to, I never dreamed of my family. But now my Grandmother had actually died, and I wondered how old she must have been, how many lives she must have lived.  She haunted my dreams, and I felt I must do something to honor her spirit.

In those days, I spent my free hours high in the hills, following old bridle trails and paths through forests and along fields, because as much as I did not understand the world around me, I knew there must be some sense to it, and I found the woods less unsettling than the city streets. As I was following one path around the edge of a smaller mountain, suddenly there was a clearing, and although I was not at the summit, the valley stretched away from me, following the network of rivers. It was breathtaking, and I stopped for a moment, to orient myself in relation to the layout below.

It was autumn, and the leaves rustled in the wind, and in the leaves I heard my grandmother's voice, and then, suddenly, I looked again at the valley before me. I remembered, from so very long ago, that valleys form the fingerprints of god. I continued up to the summit point, curious and eager, feeling both fearful of it not looking at all like a fingerprint and embarrassed that I cared so much. Adults are expected to be well past these diversions, especially in this land where science and mythology are so very far apart, but as I climbed higher and higher, I felt the years slipping away until even the urgency of the question returned: why do valleys mean death? Except now i understood what graves looked like, now I had seen the end of life in earth as well as in fire. Yet still: the deep curiosity was there. I had to know, and my thoughts slipped more and more into my earlier language, and as my language shifted and the leaves around me rustled, I heard my Grandmother speaking, heard her prayers as they were repeated throughout the day.

I had never learned the older language that she has spoken as a girl, for the land that she and my grandfather came from was not the land of my birth; we are many generations of statelessness, finding and shedding countries as a snake sheds its skin. The earliest prayers my Grandmother was taught were in a language I did not understand, that I never learned. When I was young my mother taught me the simplest prayers in my own language, and, when my grandmother realized I would never translate between them, she also spoke to me in the adopted tongue of our new country. Yet now, as I climbed higher and higher and heard my Grandmother in the leaves, I realized what I heard was my Grandmother in her original language.

I paused, listened, realized I could understand this tongue that had always been so foreign to me. There was something specific that my Grandmother was saying; it was the folktales, the stories from her own childhood, the stories I had never learned, because I had been allowed to go away for school, where we studied erosion and plate tectonics and giant volcanoes under the ocean and long division and geometry. In the story my Grandmother told through the wind in the leaves, rivers were snakes that had been caught and tethered to the earth.

Snakes had once been water spirits that flew through the air, swimming in their natural home, the clouds. The snakes were curious, mysterious tricksters, full of mischief, but not ill-intentioned. They followed the dragons, playing games of tag through the smoke of volcanoes and the dark cymbals of thunderstorm clouds, until, one by one, they were captured by the tails by humans, who would scale mountains in hunting parties formed for just this purpose.

The humans were driven by drought, by a desperation for water to nourish their crops, for the gods had grown angry, and withheld rain. The years of snake-hunting began, and bands of men would scale mountains, cling to the tails of snakes passing overhead, until the snake, grown too heavy for flight by the weight of men on its tail, fell to earth and became sinuous, land-bound rivers.

I had reached the summit of the mountain, and, in all directions, lay the network of hills and valleys that make up this land. The afternoon sun caught the river moving between the hills, the water glistened, like scales, I realized. I looked more closely. The curvature of a snake's spine followed the shape of the valley, and I felt the life of the river and the death of the snake coexisting together. It is not that the snakes had died, so much as they had been caught and ensnared. Not the ridges of the handprint of god, but the handprint of man, as we tethered the life of the flying beasts to the earth, so that we could survive the drought.

Clouds passed overhead, their shadows falling over the landscape. There were fewer trees here, almost none with leaves to rattle in the wind. I wondered what other stories my Grandmother wanted to tell me. I wondered what else I had forgotten to ask, and hoped she would stay behind, just a little bit longer, so I could listen.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

at the fair

No, I saw it. It was right there. I even touched it. Really and truly. I don't know why you don't believe me. It's not like I go around telling inflated stories that aren't even a little bit true. And I've never lied to you. I tell it like it is. You know that. So why are you being so weird about this? No, I don't think you're gullible, some country bumpkin fresh off the apple cart. I have nothing but respect for you. This isn't a con, it's the real deal, and I'm telling you, I saw the thing.

I walked right up to it and that was that. God, the stench, you wouldn't believe how much that thing smelled. It was like going inside a garbage dumpster on a hot summer day when the trash truck was due three days ago but there's a strike. That gross. That strong. But, like, I was right there. You have no idea. It's nothing like in the pictures. The pictures make it look glossy and ferocious and huge, but it wasn't like that at all. If it weren't for the smell I might not have even noticed the thing. And none of the descriptions mention the smell, so it's not like that's how I knew what it was. It wasn't sleek or glossy at all, more like, like a sheep with dreadlocks. That's how its fur was. Thick and matted and it smelled something awful, so I wondered if it was diseased or a reject or something.

But I'm telling you, it was the real deal. I looked it up and found out that it smells that way because it has to ferment its food before it can finish digesting it, but like how a cow has all those stomachs, it only has one, so it basically sweats like a drunk. Which is totally weird and totally gross and totally true. Apparently that's why it has all those dreadlocks, too, its fur is just a reflection of what it eats, the same way flamingoes are pink because of what they eat, they aren't born pink or anything. So this thing gets all matted if it eats a lot of seaweed or fish. It's some weird chemical reaction to iodine that comes out in its fur.

And you know how the pictures make it look absolutely huge? Like elephant-rhinoceros-hippo-huge? Apparently that's just National Geographic and their obsession with the telephoto lens. It wasn't huge at all. And it wasn't just a baby, either. Nah, it was full grown and about the size of a dog. Just a normal dog. The type every kid has. Not a Great Dane or anything, more like a beagle or a cocker spaniel. You know, just dog-sized. So on top of all this, that thing didn't even growl. Didn't bare its teeth.

It was just hanging out, lounging by a tree. There were squirrels running around that it didn't even seem to notice at all, there was even a little kid that kept staring at it, and, I'm telling you, if a little kid stared at me that way, I'd hit him for insubordination. Teach him some manners. But the thing there didn't bat an eye. I wondered maybe if it was old, blind or deaf maybe, but that didn't seem to be the case. When I snapped my fingers, it looked over, it noticed, but it didn't really care. No, it wasn't catatonic, or drugged, although, yeah, I thought about that. Like maybe it got into the Xanax or something. But there was a breeze and the wind was blowing leaves around, and it seemed to be paying attention. It was more like one of those Zen monks on top of a mountain, it had transcended everything.

So since it didn't seem vicious or anything, yeah, I touched it. I mean, I held my breath when I touched it, because it stank like a drunk hobo on a train, but it didn't mind me touching it. It wasn't really a side show, and it didn't seem to be anyone's pet. I couldn't figure out what it was doing there. These aren't even native to this area, and so I wondered if it was some wacko's escaped exotic pet, like those rock stars that have monkeys or those crazy New Yorkers with bobcats or those kids in Florida with Burmese pythons or that guy in, what?, Indiana? Ohio? You know who I mean. That guy with a private zoo who let all his animals out then killed himself. Land of the free, so if you want a piece of the wild in your subdivision, help yourself.

I thought maybe that's why it's so tame, maybe it was just used to being around people, and it was the right size to be a housepet, maybe if you've got a teenaged boy and a golden retriever and a drunk layabout husband, you wouldn't notice the smell. I mean, people get used to anything, the smell of gym socks or cigarettes or meth or burnt meatloaf, so maybe that wasn't really a problem for them. But it didn't really act much like a pet. It didn't really want to be patted like a dog, and it wasn't kind of stand-offish like a cat. I offered it a piece of hot dog, and, I dunno, maybe it was the mustard or the kraut, but it wasn't interested. And that was before I had looked up what it ate and knew that this one was more used to fish. Maybe it would have preferred the fried clams, but, you know, I had a hot dog. I didn't have fried clams. But it wasn't interested and, yeah, I was curious, but, wow, that was a stink.

And I kinda wanted to wash my hands after touching it, it was maybe a little bit gross, and I was still finishing the hot dog. Maybe I should have hung around a bit longer and tried to get some more information, but at the time, I didn't think of that. I just figured, huh, fair's different this year. Really, I left it there. I found a washroom which smelled of piss and beer and stale cotton candy, and I felt just as gross coming out as I did going in, and I rode the Ferris wheel and the hay ride and looked at the prize winning quilts on display and watched the tractor pull and the 4H kids leading their cows around the ring. Those cows were the cleanest things at the fair, I swear, some of them had been brushed and hair-sprayed just like a poodle at the dog show.

You know that I like to stay late, catch the last show and the fireworks, but the nachos had something weird in the cheese and my stomach was all gassy and I just wasn't in the mood. And I guess I felt worse than I realized, because, I swear, I didn't notice it again. I had seen it earlier sitting there under the tree and then I just didn't think about it again. I found my car in the field and drove home and pulled over once to throw up the rest of the nachos, and stumbled into bed. Maybe it was food poisoning, or maybe it was the flu, but I spent the rest of the weekend either asleep or throwing up. You should definitely avoid the Boy Scout nacho booth next time you're there. I still feel queasy just thinking about jalapeƱos.

But come Monday morning I felt okay enough to go to work, because you know how they've started using that software that analyzes sick leave, compares it to the baseball schedule and flags mysterious Monday and Friday calls, so I figured I was better off going in and feeling like shit and instead of staying home feeling like shit and finding myself fired. And, I swear, I am telling it just like it happened, but I'm running with a cup of coffee from the kitchen through the living room trying to find my keys, and I look over at the couch, and the thing is all curled up in one corner of my couch.

I didn't know if I was supposed to take it for a walk or feed it or what, so that's when I looked up what it to feed it, and left out a can of tuna fish by the coffee table. It looked at me as I went out the front door, but it wasn't interested in coming with me. It seemed happy there on the couch, so I left it there. And I was already gonna be late for work, so it isn't like there was anything else I could do. But I don't want it. I didn't try to pick it up or bring it back. I don't even know if it's legal to keep one around. Hell, I never even had a guinea pig as a kid, and now there's this smelly exotic that's settled in my living room.

What the hell am I supposed to do? Stop shaking your head. You know I'm not usually this confused about something, you know that I wouldn't kid about something so weird. I'm not trying to put one over on you. I really need your help.

Remember when I covered for you that time we swore we'd never mention again? Well, this is like that. I'm serious. I saw it, sleeping on my couch, in my living room, this morning, today, and I was awake, and sober, and maybe I had food poisoning or the flu but this thing was there. It was real. And now what? What the hell am I supposed to do? I need your help.

With god as my witness, I am telling you the truth and I will never ask for another favor again. Whatever you want, it's yours, name your price, just help me figure out what to do with this thing in my living room. Really, never again.

Thanks. I owe you one.