Inca of the Maya
The closing time of the park was ten minutes away. But there were no gates. Erik was tired, since we had walked feverishly around Tikal the entire day; he went back to our cabin just outside the park entrance. I decided to press on to Temple VI.
Earlier in the day I had overheard someone say that once it gets dark in the jungle, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. The sun would set in ten minutes, but I figured it would be half an hour after that before darkness set in. I knew the temple was an outlier, some distance from both the entrance and the main cluster of buildings we’d been exploring all day. I decided to walk as fast as I could for ten minutes, then no matter where I was, I’d turn around and walk back. Back to my husband and the small hub of tourists at the park lodgings. We had all been imported into the heart of the ancient Mayan territory on planes and buses, into the lowland northeast corner of Guatemala, imported into a dense, lush dream of the past; we’d been left to wander and conjure the royal city, to pit ourselves against the force of forgetful obscurity.
The path I walked was hard stone, often smooth and slippery in places. It was wide, but hemmed in on each side with dense growth of trees and vines and scrub. Earlier in the day, we’d tried to walk through some of the jungle, off the path, just a short distance to a tree we’d been looking for geocaching. We’d been strangled with leaves and tendrils and spider webs, and we coughed our way back out. Snakes, my sister-in-law told me, slither through these trees in the Petén Basin of Guatemala, silently stalking prey, stalking even people.
After ten minutes I was nowhere. I had no orientation. I had no knowledge of how far it was yet to the temple, or even of how far I’d come. I’d seen no sign of any sort, and no other people. I couldn’t turn around yet, not when I knew nothing. I stepped up my pace to a shin-splintering half-jog. I didn’t know where the Maya were in this little hide-and-seek we were playing. Structure after structure we had stepped into that day, but no one was there. A handful of tourists, occasionally. But where were the Maya? Where was the epiphany of their existence, the view of their rituals, the kiss of their kings? I had to press on.
After five more minutes I came across a sign pointing down a side path to Temple VI. Here’s where the inscriptions were supposed to be, missing from most of the rest of Tikal. Writing and symbols on the central panel of its roof comb — he intricate, bulbous hieroglyphs with their curved lines, full of circles and ovals and dots, that I’d only so far seen printed in books. The recorded dates on the panel are reported to extend over a period of 1,900 years, back to times that must have been to the Maya mythological in nature, like Noah and the flood, and continuing to its construction date in the 700s AD.
Darkness in 25 minutes, with a 15 minute journey back. I couldn’t help it, I had to go on. I ran down the path. “Where are you?” I asked out loud to myself.
“Where are you?” I asked louder into the jungle. It was silent all around me. Oddly, there were no birds calling, as they had been incessantly all day. There was no unnerving distant roar from the howler monkeys. There was no breeze through leaves, no rustling in the jungle floor of coatimundis pushing dead leaves with their long snouts. There was only my breathing and my footfalls.
Then I stopped my feet and stared forlornly at my watch. Twenty minutes until dark, until the man said I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. I had no flashlight or torch, or biochemical luminescence like creatures of the dark ocean, or like the lightning bugs flashing all around me. Twenty minutes to retrace my steps at the same fevered pace I’d come in on.
“One more minute,” I pleaded to the sun to slow down and the temple to speed up, to move closer. I was tired, defeated, and for one more minute I stepped sluggishly forward. Very, very dimly ahead, I could make out a wall of grayish stone.
So it did exist, Temple VI. Barely, only barely, just at the edge, just a gray wall. I couldn’t see the writing, the pictures, I couldn’t see the shape of the building or any features, the size, the height. Just a spot of gray. But I knew, I knew I had to turn around. “Let’s not be stupid,” I said to myself as my feet tried to move forward. “Please, let’s not be stupid.
”Fireflies were flittering all around me, their lights shining brighter by the minute as the darkness increased in contrast. For a second, it was magical. It was delightful. I turned around and headed back down the path. I walked as fast as I could. Sweat was running down my temples, my neck, my sides and my arms; my back was wet beneath my daypack. I swiped at my face with my wet hands. Bugs were landing on my legs and arms and sticking there in the dampness.
I feared I had taken a wrong turn off the forkless path because I hadn’t made it back to the main trail yet, to the sign that had pointed me down this side path. I felt panic rising. I’ve taken a wrong turn. Though that was ridiculous; there were no turns to take. I began running. Soon after that I came to the intersection and turned left, back down the main path. Relieved that I now knew where I was, I slowed down to a very fast walk.
But the light was dimming measurably by the minute, even by the second. The jungle was clamping down. Now when I passed beneath a thick arch of trees, I couldn't see the smooth, stone path, I could only feel its hardness beneath my feet. I still had a long way to go to the safety of my cabin and my husband waiting inside. I could hardly make out the rotating stems of my watch face in its betrayal of me. I starting running. My legs stretched out in front of me, my pack bounced up and down wildly on my back. I began pacing my breath. I started singing a Bruce Springsteen song in my head because that’s the only way I know how to judge time without a watch. I know how long it takes to sing Born to Run and Badlands and Johnny 99.
I ran through the jungle, trying to outrun the darkness.
The Inca kings in Cuzco, Peru, ate fresh fish, over 300 miles inland from the sea. The fish were caught off the Peruvian coast and handed over immediately to the runners, or chasquis. A relay of chasquis, who lived in huts about four miles apart from each other along the Royal Road, ran for two days straight to lay it at the table of the king, 11,000 feet above sea level.
When the Spanish marched in from the coast to conquer them, the Inca, who were more curious than afraid, didn’t understand that the Spanish would keep coming at them relentlessly, that they were there for a final, total and ruthless victory. The Incan army was formidable in numbers and ferocity. They could have inflicted much more damage on the Spaniards than they did, could have conceivably wiped out the Europeans completely when they first started down the Royal Road, but the natives egregiously underestimated the Spaniards, not only in their numbers which lay across the ocean on a continent the Inca didn’t know existed, but with regard to their lack of principles, their treachery, their horses and steel weapons which were veritable tanks against the Inca foot-soldiers armed typically with a wooden club and stone slingshot. It seems the soldiers were not appropriately alarmed, didn’t realize they should be.
Francisco Pizarro marched to the heart of Peru in 1532 and seized control of the Inca throne by betraying his grant of safe passage and capturing the ruler Atahuallpa. The Spaniards blasted cannons at the Inca and charged through their terrified ranks with cavalry, slaughtering every Inca in the king’s entourage except the king himself. The weapons of the European military so frightened the Incas, they climbed on top of one another in fear – to such an extent that they formed mounds and suffocated one another. With uncompromising swiftness, the Spanish clamped down, and it was inexorable: the coming of darkness.
The Inca ran. They ran into the Andes. They ran into the low jungles and high cloud forest, they ran to the hilltops, to the valleys. They ran, literally, down the stone paths they had built and then leapt from them across rivers and into the trees, running headlong into the deep.
The Inca themselves were a relatively small group of people centered around Cuzco. Their empire was inhabited primarily by tribes which they had conquered and subverted or pushed into treaties. They did not treat their conquered citizens very well, and the Spanish were seen by many as saviors — hatred for the Inca ran far deeper than for the unknown Spanish. So when Manco Inca led the last of his soldiers from Cuzco into the hills of the Vilcabamba, through Ollantaytambo, he was betrayed by his own empire and the fleeing Inca were hunted down by their own subjects who had allied with the Spanish.
The Inca ran. They ran faster and further. They ran until they morphed into animals. They hid in the steep mountains and forests and became nocturnal, coming out at night in the bitter cold to bathe in the stars which haven’t changed, which tell them the same stories they always have, and show them the universe is eternal.
Centuries later in this eternal universe, Erik and I, before going to bed one night, pushed open a courtyard gate to make our final visit to the outhouse, which clung to the island hillside above Lake Titicaca. Like the rest of Peru, the steep terrain had been terraced centuries ago to support thousands of varieties of potatoes and other subsistence crops. We left the single candle that lit our room burning, while we held hands walking through the silent courtyard. Our breath was crisp on the cold air; we had four layers of clothing on, while our hosts wore knee-high skirts and open-toed sandals. We looked up and fell beneath the weight of sky. Our knees buckled and we sat on the terrace wall, astounded and speechless. We were drowning in stars.
The night sky in the 14,000-foot high altitudes of the Andes and Lake Titicaca is resplendent. It is so dense with stars that the mythical figures outlined above are not drawn from the points of light, as in our Orion, Big Dipper and zodiac animals, but rather from the patches of empty space between the pools of stars, the “dark clouds” of the Milky Way, conspicuous vacancies. The animals of night are composed of absence. Llama, fox, snake, toad.
The Inca looked to the night sky and saw these black animals, which had no need for all the gold and riches the Spanish stole from the empire. Only for food, to feast. So the Inca ran up into the dark clouds, and as creatures of absence they infiltrated into new territories and spread out like a net over space and time — some of them stalking the future like pumas, waiting to pounce, to jump up from their cover and use their claws and teeth.
Our hosts on the island disappeared at night after earlier they had played music for us with flute and drum, had held our hands and danced with us; after having led us to the top of Amantani to the crumbled altars for Pachamama and Pachatata—Mother Earth and Father Cosmos—to watch the sun set into the waters of Titicaca, the waters from whose shores the Inca believed the world was created in the hands of Viracocha.
Erik and I walked to the outhouse strangely alone. When we looked up into the thick jungle of stars, it dawned on us why our hosts had seemed so pale, why they squinted in the sunlight. And we feared them in their nocturnal hunting grounds, waiting for us in ambush. Like a Dr. Jekyll who knows the danger of his Mr. Hyde, we were given a padlock for our door that afternoon in the daylight. “Use this at night,” Santiago told us, as if they might break in and steal our materials and supplies to rebuild their fabled lost cities. (Ettigar had, in fact, asked us for the batteries from our flashlights.)
In the morning, when Santiago heard me coughing, he pasted Eucalyptus leaves onto my temples. He put the tips of the leaves in his mouth, chewed them briefly into a coarse paste and then pressed them to the sides of my head. His hands smelled of emptiness, of dirt that has no mass.
I ran past the park map, just before the tiny hut where the man collects the entrance fee. The structures so far uncovered inside the six square miles of the ancient city of Tikal are represented and labeled beneath glass. It was too dark now to make them out, and I was dizzy from the space of history—the strangled path from the grayish spot of 700 AD to the abstraction of oversized pins stuck in a labeled corkboard 1,300 years later.
Now on the main promenade into the park, I remembered there was a shortcut to my cabin. With just a few minutes before there was no natural light left, I squinted along the side of the road until I made out the narrow trail that cut through the grass into the trees. At last an electric light bulb reached out to me and I sighed away the grip of darkness. I had imagined my husband to be frantically worried about me, but I found him asleep on the bed. I rested and showered, and we had dinner beside a swimming pool with a Canadian couple we’d befriended on a guided tour of the park we’d taken in the morning. I was dinner myself for the mosquitoes.
The hotel shuts off the electricity during the night, and sells candles in the gift shop (which we didn’t buy). I was startled awake in the very middle of the pitch black night by a loud thwink on our thin metal roof, as though something had fallen from a tree onto it. Then another even louder thud, followed immediately by a cracking thunk on the wooden shutters of our window. Something was throwing things at us.
Before I had time to think who or what might be the perpetrator, I was engulfed in an alien wind of sound, something beyond ferocious, like the devil’s breath blowing out the souls of his domain. I was paralyzed by the loudness, by the unearthliness, by the voice of some powerful, cold arctic wind filled with a distant chorus of screams — the sound of some unimaginable monster roaring at me, roaring outside the shutters trying to get inside. I felt distinctly like prey. I huddled in my bed, and a barrage of croaking and snorting, warbled barking and snarling hit the window shutters along with the sticks and fruits being thrown, along with the sinister breath.
Howler monkeys wander through the forests of the Petén Basin, high up in the trees. Males in a group perform long calls, amplified by a hyoid bone that acts as a resonator. Calls can travel up to eight miles. The strength of this call was focused right at my cabin from a few feet away. I remembered earlier in the day our guide saying it was mating season for the howlers, and they were particularly active and aggressive now. Even knowing what was making this deafening, frightening sound, my heart was still beating furiously inside my paralyzed body.
I recalled, in my paralysis, how we had noticed the previous morning that the back corners of all the temples and structures we’d been in smelled of urine. We asked the guide why that was.
“People piss in there,” he told us. “They sneak into the park at night, think they’ll have some spiritual experience sleeping in the temples, think they’re big brave men sleeping out in the jungle. The howler monkeys come through and they’re too scared to go outside to piss.”
Indications are that Tikal, once a sprawling suburban home to as many as 100,000 Maya, dissolved gradually, that the Maya rather quietly disappeared, slinking off into the jungle to hide from famine or civil war, that they collapsed under their own weight. By the time the Spanish arrived in the Petén in 1523, Tikal was long abandoned and the Maya were a scattered and tattered handful, many of the traditions of the Classic period already lost.
The Spanish Conquest of their territory was a lengthy process taking well over 100 years to complete. The lords of Tikal were long dead, and the Maya had no single leader such as the Inca of Peru. Instead they lived in numerous independent states, some of which fiercely resisted foreign domination. Also, the land had no gold or silver except for small amounts acquired by trade, so many early Spanish conquistadors were attracted instead to central Mexico or Peru, which seemed to offer quicker, easier and more fabulous riches.
Few historical events have been as dramatic or cruel as the conquest of Peru. In less than a decade, the splendid Andean world was firmly in the grip of the Spaniards, its glories stripped and its people virtually enslaved. Motivated by intense greed and unfettered from the restraints of compassion, the Spaniards were repeatedly able to trick their way into the confidence of the Inca rulers and nobility, only to betray them. Again and again, the Incas forgave the ruthlessness of their foes and fell more tragic victims each time.
Like the Maya, they were also degenerated by civil war by the time the Spanish arrived in their territory, however they were still cohesive enough to stage a drama. And the Inca who fought the last battle for their capital of Cuzco, at the fortress Saqsayhuaman above the city, battled aggressively in the thousands. When the magnitude and certainty of their defeat became apparent, they threw themselves off the high stone walls of the fortress in droves. But there were so many who did this that the ground began to pile up with dead soldiers, and some of those who jumped last did not, in fact, die, because their fall was cushioned by the other dead bodies. So they got up screaming and howling, and ran in all directions.
The remnants of the Inca regrouped, and for about 35 years after the fall of Cuzco, they survived deep in the Vilcabamba Valley behind an almost impenetrable series of narrow gorges. Under Manco Inca, the leader of the last battle at Cuzco and brother of Atahuallpa, they mounted occasional attacks on their conquerors, and constantly retreated and returned to their exiled city of Vitcos. But Manco was murdered by Spaniards who presented themselves as exiles. Manco took them in warmly and was stabbed while he sat playing a game with them.
No matter how far the Inca ran, the Spanish followed and hunted them down. When the Inca’s last hold-out in the Vilcabamba was finally invaded and captured by the Spanish, the Inca ran and scattered to the four corners. The last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was pursued even as he ran into the thick of the Amazon jungle with his nine-months pregnant wife. He helped his wife along as best he could as they scampered into the jungle. The Spaniards pursued for days until they finally spotted a small campfire in the rain forest and pounced on the Inca ruler, capturing him and bringing him back to Cuzco with a golden chain around his neck, where he was executed.
Those who escaped had to keep running forever. They could never stop or they would be killed. They ran into the sky, into the holes in the Milky Way, and there some of them thought maybe they could run all the way back to the edge of the universe, back to the dawn, to the creator Viracocha. They took off upstream, fighting the current. They stretched out their legs, gathering centuries beneath their strides, and ran as best they could upriver until they were exhausted. At last, unwillingly, they had to lie down. And where they stopped to rest, they fell out of the sky. They fell back into the current and were swept off their feet and carried down through the ravines.
Popular conception now of the Maya is of fierce and bloodthirsty people, obsessed with sacrifice and ritual, with spilling blood for the gods and handing out terror to enemy tribes. The truth is, this was only a part of their lives and only one of their obsessions. They were advanced thinkers, the only New World civilization to conceptualize and use zero as a place holder. They were phenomenally advanced and obsessive astronomers as well, with keen insights into solar, lunar and galactic cycles, having built viewing platforms to rise up above the jungle treetops, knowing a whole world existed above their canopy, somewhat like knowing the ocean exists below us. They could bathe in the Milky Way, in that starry sea where the animals of absence swim.
And the animals of black, with their black coats in the black night, fell out of the sky and filtered down through the trees. They came down crying in anger and fear, they howled in desperate breaths: “Run!” “Fight!” “Hide!” Sacrifice each other if you must, before it’s too late. They breathed from their lungs into the lungs of the sleeping Maya. Breathed the taste of blood, still staining their tongues where they had coughed it up or where they had swallowed that of their comrades who were piled all around them. The Maya woke in fear of the taste, in fear of the howling breath, ready to fight back. They woke with their muscles taut, their spear points sharpened.
The Maya became known for the scale of their human sacrifices. In addition to offering prisoners of war and sacrificial children, a Maya king used an obsidian knife or a stingray spine to cut his own penis, allowing the blood to fall onto paper held in a bowl. A king’s wife took part in this ritual by pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue. The blood-stained paper was burned, the rising smoke directly communicating with the Sky World, so the nocturnal beasts still running above in the sky would be able to smell the blood, and they would know not to stop there, to keep going and not rest. “You are not at the edge!” the fallen yelled up.
And being trapped upriver in the Yucatán Peninsula and the Petén Basin, unable to reach a shore in the sky, these fallen tried to lure the inhabitants away, tried to split them into tiny parcels so they would have no gravitational pull, so the great ships with men and metal and horses would pass by and be tugged by some stronger gravity into a different realm. The great cities of the Maya disbanded; they walked away from the great buildings and spread out in small groups.
At first the tactic seemed to work astonishingly well. The first Europeans to land near the Maya, in 1511, were completely unintentional visitors, having washed ashore from a shipwreck on a nearby reef. A group of men made it to land in a small boat only to be killed or die of disease. Only two sailors survived: Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero were both captured and enslaved by the Maya.
Guerrero, while enslaved at first, later "converted" to a Mayan. He married a local noble daughter and had three children, reuniting in his offspring the Old and New worlds. Aguilar, however, was captive for seven years, and then he was purchased back by the Spaniard, Hernán Cortés. Aguilar learned the local language in his time as a slave and when he was bought back by Cortés he became an interpreter on behalf of Cortés' mission of destruction. Guerrero, on the other hand, is given credit for mounting an underground resistance against his former countrymen, setting ambushes and heading attack parties to kill those threatening his adopted homeland. But the tiny seed of the man Aguilar grew into something terrible and inexorable.
We got up in the pre-dawn to shower, and entered the park before 6 a.m. to watch the sun rise over Temple I in Tikal’s Gran Plaza. Erik and I were alone on the path. When we reached the Gran Plaza, the centerpiece and main stage of Tikal, its pyramids were crowned in mist. We would see no sunrise in the fog, only a gradual lightening of the gray air.
The plaza consists of two temple-topped pyramids nearly 180 feet high on opposite sides of a large courtyard, flanked by the North Acropolis of lesser pyramids and by the Central Acropolis palace complex of flat-roofed rectangular buildings. All of the stone is grayish-whitish, and tarnished with black. Away in the distance beyond Temple II, Temple IV, nearly 230 feet tall, and Temple V thrust up out of the mesh of jungle to swipe at the sky.
Erik and I were the only two people in all of the Gran Plaza. Alone in the mist. A multitude of birds were singing, the montezuma oropendola heard above all. While some flew around, most were hidden from our sight in the surrounding jungle, so it seemed it was just the air itself that was so melodious, orchestral. And despite the thick, tacky light, the sounds of the birds were so bright and crisp, the air felt like thin glass, absolutely clear. These misty Maya, they’re terrorized at night by the likes of howler monkeys, and cradled at dawn by the sweetness of birds.
I sat by myself on the steps of the royal residence, looking out over the plaza, the tops of the temples swaddled in the fog, only just visible in outline. The oropendolas flew in and out of their hanging nests that drooped down from the branches of the tall trees on the edge of the courtyard. All was green and gray, muted, with one tree of pink blooms. A hundred birds called out from the ceiba trees behind me which skirted the plaza.
All throughout the six square miles of jungle that have reclaimed the ancient city of Tikal, there are large mounds that are obviously man-made structures, but are completely buried in flora, being slowly consumed and digested. I sat at the Gran Plaza in a zone of reconstruction, where park employees have to regularly “shave” the structures clean of plant growth. Yet, as I sat alone, I felt as though I had stumbled upon this all on my own, that it just existed just like this, that only ghosts were its caretakers, and here is where the past came to rest, to lie down gently like silt, as though right where I sat was the vortex of all tranquility. Perhaps it was a singularity and the growing absence of the mystical in this world charted its event horizon — the mysterious and mythic, secret and sacred were all sucked in here, and this place was pregnant with presences, with the magical, with the indelible feeling that there is more, a depth for which there are no measuring instruments.
Ancient hieroglyphs usually refer to the city as Yax Mutal, meaning "Green Bundle." After the city was deserted around 900 AD, it became known as Tikal. The word “Tikal” is interpreted in some Mayan dialects as meaning Place of Voices, or Place of Tongues. Is it the voices of myriad birds to which they refer? Of terrifying voices in the night? Or the human voices of the past, the voices of kings who built pyramids and prayed to the gods on behalf of their people, the voices of the sacrificed? The voices of absence? Of some void of prophecy, of warning, or sadness and retreat? Who speaks in this jungle of strangling vines and feasting trees, of fearful night and delightful dawn, where the marks of men reach to us from the past with fingers of stone?
And who has listened?
Erik and I walked through the streets of Cuzco, coming up along the side of Koricancha, the former Sun Temple of the Inca, whose walls were once completely covered in gold leaf so that it radiated as an earth-bound sun. The Catholic cathedral erected by the pilgrims of Spain tried to erase it, to rewrite it, but the foundations of the Inca temple were indestructible. Earthquakes tumbled the Spanish bricks and left the impeccable masonry of the Inca, its stones fitted together so precisely that there was no mortar needed, no room, in fact, for even a sheet of paper between the stones.
Throughout the city, from the cobblestone streets rise the foundations of the Inca empire. A unique feature of Incan masonry is that not all stones were cut into uniform size or shape as those of most imposing stone structures are. When they were cut uniformly, they fit together so tightly that if you run your hand along the wall, the surface is virtually smooth. However, many structures, Saqsayhuaman being perhaps the most spectacular example, are built with stones consisting of as many as 12 angles along their perimeter, and yet even the most wildly irregular stones are impeccably sealed with surrounding stones along each angle. Some of the irregular rocks included in the masonry at Saqsayhuaman are 20 or more feet in height.
The city of Cuzco is said to have been originally laid out in the shape of a puma, with the fortress Saqsayhuaman representing the head of the nocturnal predator, its terraces of stone like rows of barred teeth. We sat there in the afternoon for the final stage of Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun. This revival of Incan tradition began early in the morning at Koricancha and moved to the main city square in Cuzco, and then up the hillside to Saqsayhuaman, where upon a stage in the field below the walls, an actor portraying an Inca king pretends to sacrifice a llama and asks the sun for its blessings in the coming year. We couldn’t understand any of the ceremony because it was all spoken in the Quechua language, the lingua franca of the vast territory ruled by the Inca, but that didn’t make it any less spectacular.
The terraces of the fortress were lined with flag bearers running along them; the open field was filled with musicians, offering bearers, soldiers, dancers, all dressed in colorful estimations of classic Incan attire. Small fires burned all around the field. The king stood tall in the middle of the stage with a plumed headdress. The surrounding hillside was covered in a carpet of people partaking as the audience. The sky was gray and overcast. When the pretend king held up the fake llama heart to the sun and asked it for good fortune, just at that moment, the clouds parted from in front of the sun so it shone a clear ray directly on the ancient battlefield. The thousands of Quechuans gathered as spectators all drew in their breath and gasped. A minute later, after the clouds resumed their cover, our guide turned to us to translate the king’s words and explain the good omen that had just happened.
Good omen? I wondered. I began to eye this crowd of people around me suspiciously, these people who took the name of their conquerors and never gave it back. They’ve gone through all this trouble to bring back the Inca ceremony, to call back the empire and declare their citizenship. They’re tired of their own submission, wondering if it’s destiny that betrays them or if they might yet have another chance. When the clouds parted, were they thinking of the future or the past? Of rectification or rebirth?
Good omen. How could they believe any sign from the sun? The sun knows the true Inca were lost long ago, knows they’ve been folded into the ghostly silence of abandoned buildings scattered throughout South and Central America, that they’re lost in the stars and trapped in history, trapped in futility, that they’ve already died twice.
Do these remnants of the past think the sun will keep its implied word to them? That after centuries of betrayal, now it would finally dry up all the blood that was pooled there on the field? That now in 2002 it would come back to its people and give them substance? That it would provide habitat again for the animals of absence, a place for them in their own time in their own puma city where they could reclaim good fortune? So the descendants of the empire could throw away their begging cups and shoe-shine kits and rebuild the storehouses of food that had kept their ancestors’ bellies so full? That they could stretch their legs out along the royal roads and run toward their cities instead of away from them?
A burst of smiling whispers and mutters rippled through the crowd. Maybe they thought the animals of night had finally reached the dawn, had somehow managed to keep running all the way back to Viracocha to tell him to start the world over again. One more time. One more chance to stay ahead of the darkness, to stay on the patch of the earth they loved, to stay down below, far below the stars that outline the vastness of an incomprehensible universe.
Published in The Florida Review
The Motion of Waves
Two princes of Heaven fell from a cloud; the king sent soldiers to close their eyes so they wouldn’t see how dirty and cruel the earth was.
At sunset, the small battalion of soldiers descended to Earth outside the Pilgrim’s Way in Xiahe, China. At night, 10,000 feet above sea level, it got very cold. They huddled together for warmth.
The next day at sunrise, they split up, setting off in all directions to look for the princes. But the earth was a much bigger place than they realized, and time passed quickly with no sign of the little boys. The king grew anxious. Until the soldiers were able to close the children’s eyes, the young princes would remain forced to endure the earth’s ugliness.
As the dispatches from the soldiers came in each day with no news on the whereabouts of his sons, as the soldiers wandered farther and farther apart from one another like spokes on a wheel from the hub of Xiahe, the king became frantic. He didn’t want his children to see the insatiable hunger haunting the land into which they’d fallen—the hundreds of millions of people starving to death, lining the roadsides like weeds, left in piles on the city streets where they came to sell their children for a morsel of food. He had tried to shield the princes from knowing of the naked and deformed men pulling boats upstream against the current of the mighty Yangtze, men whose lives were deemed unworthy of clothing. He didn’t want them burdened by the sight of millennia of unspeakably cruel and tyrannical emperors, of senseless beatings justified as a “cultural revolution,” of the horrific deformity of women’s feet, every bone in them broken and bound into useless appendages of unending pain. What the king feared most of all was that the princes would learn the length of history, the breadth of deprivation and poverty that had held the land in the perpetual shadow of sorrow.
One day, at his wit’s end, the king sent messengers to his soldiers.
It was chilly but pleasant enough as my husband and I sat on the rooftop drinking local beer and Tibetan tea—a tall glass filled with leaves, sticks and berries, and things that looked like rocks. Below us, as the sun set behind the walled city of monks, local artisans and sellers packed up their goods from the ground and rolled them into large blankets for overnight storage. The sprinkling of tourists was thinning; they headed inside for dinner, as we had done. But a steady stream of the humble, the seekers, continued around the monastery’s perimeter along the Pilgrim’s Way, turning prayer wheel after prayer wheel. Scattered up the mountainside above the monastery walls were small, white-washed hovels where monks stayed for solitary meditation. One man after another, lifetime after lifetime. I wondered how many of them were fading into darkness alone with their chalice of silence while I drank my bottle of beer.
The Labrang Monastery is the most populated of the Buddhist Yellow Hat sect—the sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs—and one of its six most important monasteries. Red-robed men and boys fill the streets in Xiahe, the small town built around the monastery, their tennis shoes sticking out from beneath the folds of traditional cloth and cell phones in nearly every pocket. Inside Chinese-occupied Tibet, the Chinese government has instituted caps on how many monks can reside in any one monastery, fearing the potential for revolt. However, Labrang is inside China proper, nestled in a valley beside the thick, cold Daxia River, high in the mountains of Gansu Province in the Gannan Tibetan Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, so it is not subject to this cap.
Built in a crook of the Daxia River three hundred years ago, it sits at the foot of Phoenix Mountain, facing Dragon Mountain. If you stand quietly alone in this scenery, in this legendary portrait of Chinese iconography—the phoenix and the dragon—you can imagine yourself on the canvas of a painting as an accidental, inconspicuous droplet of ink where the artist meant to sign his name along the bottom.
Large Tibetan monasteries like Labrang are not solely compounds for meditation and spiritual contemplation. They are, in fact, like universities. Labrang has six colleges. The nearly fourteen hundred resident monks can choose a specialized education in any of these colleges which represent the cultural continuity of traditional Tibetan knowledge, such as traditional medicine, advanced Buddhist theory, and astronomy based on the Tibetan calendar system, as well as schooling in the Han (Chinese) calendar system. Teachings in governance are reserved only for high officials such as the Dalai Lama. The monks also operate their own printing shop.
Underlying and suffusing everything at the lamasery is the dedication to the Buddhist doctrine and practice. Walking through the large, dimly-lit meditation hall, I tried to imagine what it must smell like when the long rows of cushions on the floor are filled with close-shorn men seeking enlightenment from within their own intuition and self-reflection. A series of skylights and high windows allow natural light into the hall, but it’s absorbed by the rich-colored draperies and circular banners. The heavy material bulges with the weight of the light spectrum, leaving the air thin and anemic.
The various side rooms that hold the Buddhas and other deities have no windows; the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, cast in smooth, silky gold, sit on the cusp of light as if they have just been born into a new world—as if light is still being formulated, the calculation begun but not finished. Despite the elaborate gold-work inside these windowless rooms displaying the statues and statuettes and offering tables—a trove of visual brilliance—the niches are solemn, hushed into austerity. To stand quietly in these dim inner recesses borders on the magical. The Buddha is softly illuminated by tiered rows of shallow golden dishes, each holding aloft a golden, oblong flame on a pool of clear yak butter. Here, the air is heavy, absorbing stillness and quietude. The flames flicker in this dusky atmosphere with an ethereal clarity, licking the dim light as crisply as if they were hand-bells piercing an eon of silence.
Nearly two miles above sea level, even in the middle of summer, any air not directly warmed by the sun carries a chill. (The air is cool enough year-round to support the monks’ yak-butter sculptures, which remain solid inside an exhibition room until, at year’s end, the butter is melted in a ceremony and new sculptures created.) While we were there in August, the Daxia River ran icy cold; all the nooks and crannies and pockets of shade reminded us that we were inching toward the top of the world. I had put on as many layers of clothes as I could fit—T-shirt on top of T-shirt, pants on top of shorts—and yet I shivered at dinner, at tea, in our hostel room. And particularly while trying to take a shower, an adventure I decided to embark upon the second morning of our stay in Xiahe.
Posted hours for hot water in the communal showers were nine to eleven a.m. and eight to ten p.m. Figuring the “hot” would be marginal by the end of the two-hour period, I got up one morning at precisely nine a.m. I imagined an ancient hot water heater with a little on-off switch, excruciatingly slow to warm water and costly for the proprietor. I imagined he probably flipped the switch at the crack of dawn to have the water heated by nine.
I was alone in the shower room, which consisted of three large, square shower stalls with thin curtains. I took the middle one, peeled off the layers of clothing I’d worn to bed, and stood naked in my rubber shower sandals while water fell from the pipe above my head onto the cement floor. It was ice-cold. I figured there must have been a significant length of pipeline the heated water would have to travel before reaching my shower stall, so I huddled in the far corner where the water couldn’t touch me, and waited for a sign of steam.
I shivered violently in the corner, staring helplessly at the clouds my own breath created. I glanced at my watch from time to time to monitor the second-hand creeping across the numbers.
My breath was the only thing condensing on the walls of the shower. I was small and vulnerable, like a newborn rodent birthed on a winter’s night, tiny and hairless.
I was now a painting separate from myself. Rather than being inside the stall with my eye looking at the walls and the water coming out of the pipe, I saw the whole scene from outside and above, as if looking down into a diorama. The scene was ghostly: my pale, blood-starved skin inside the gray cement stall, white breath, icy-clear water. I was a plastic doll in the corner with a dollop of red paint on my feet—the pair of red rubber sandals I had bought for two bucks at a Yulin City grocery store the previous year, when I had first come to China. I stared intently at them; they were the only suggestion that color existed in the world. The cold and the red intertwined, infiltrated each other, and grew inextricable as a philosophical representation of existence. They were the key to triggering the hot water. If I’d been wearing brown or green, things would have been different. Instead I was frozen in red. I began to fear it would be my tomb. It was undignified for my spirit to exit the world through a lonely shower stall, yet I was strangely attracted to such a humble and inevitable death. When molecules slow down and stop moving, temperature drops, eventually below that at which a human form can sustain the enigmatic thing we call life. Brilliantly simple.
I decided the hot water was a hoax, but I was so cold I didn’t know if I could get my clothes back on. I wondered if my husband would come looking for me at some point if I didn’t return. He was still fast asleep on the other side of the courtyard, up on the second floor.
I struggled to move toward my clothes, which were hanging on a peg next to the curtain. Like a sleepy sloth, I took two steps and extended my arm to brush weakly at them. A piece of paper fell from a pocket onto the cement floor. I had picked it up the day before outside the monastery. The writing was indecipherable, and yet I had kept it. I contemplated pushing it toward the drain, letting the water carry it down through the dark pipes that burrowed through the earth beneath the city. Behind my chattering teeth, the taste of salt and sulfur suddenly rolled down my tongue, and I perceived a sign of warmth in the water. I stood still as the water grew warmer and warmer, until finally it sputtered steam into the crisp air. Overtaken with relief and joy, I left the paper where it was and entered the clear stream. I was back inside the scene, my sandals squishing in the water; I stared blankly at pockmarks in the cement wall in front of me as the water hit the base of my neck and streamed over my shoulders, down my back and chest, following the contour of my legs down toward the red, bouncing off my rubber feet and splashing onto the floor.
Finally clean and reasonably warm, I dried myself, got dressed, and put the piece of paper back in my pocket, then went to wake my husband. We went down to breakfast at the hostel dining room next to the lobby. Afterward, crossing the courtyard back to our room, we came upon a tiny tractor emptying a load of coal in the corner of the yard. A bucket brigade of women handed the large, black, angular chunks of coal to each other down the line until they reached the furnace room, where a sweaty man with a large poker stirred the yellow-hot coals in the open furnace and made room for the new chunks as they were dumped in. I thought back to my shower and widened the aperture to see beside my cold, huddled body a line of women dressed in blue, handing over coal into a raging fire. There was no little switch. While I had waited in intense cold, somebody had been working in intense heat trying to reach me.
That night, I dreamed of red: red skies and earth, red clouds and grass, trees and insects. And I was a paper dove. White and light, I couldn’t cut through the air; I had to float on the shifting currents. I rose with the heat and sank with the cold. In a moment of stillness, I tumbled from the sky, fearful, as the ground below me undulated and morphed, forming into a skull, and I plunged through the black space of an empty eye socket. Inside the skull, I could hear the gentle lapping of water, like the sound of a forgotten river disappearing into a cave.
The Pilgrim’s Way is a covered corridor nearly three kilometers long that encircles and encloses the Labrang lamasery complex. The entire length of it is lined with prayers wheels, each one five feet tall and over a foot in diameter, mounted upon a continuous cement shelf a couple of feet high. The four handle-poles of each wheel are painted bright orange on the top half; in the middle they are gray-black with the grime built up from countless human palms gripping them; the bottom third is bare wood, the paint having eroded over the years from the brush of clothing. The square-sided cylinders themselves are painted with geometric and iconic images in orange, blue, green and gold, the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum lettered in gold on each of the four sides in the ancient Indian Ranjana script. Thick lines of black oil stream down the cement from the bottom of each prayer wheel, as they are turned so often they need to be oiled constantly.
This was the primary reason I had chosen to come to Xiahe as part of my second journey through China: I wanted to see a sacred place; I wanted to see the “pilgrims” and their prayers spinning on wheels. I don’t have this spirituality myself, so I like to watch it in other people.
The majority of the pilgrims were Tibetans, fingering beads and turning each of the wheels purposefully while softly chanting. Old women, with silver hair hanging in braids down to the small of their backs and tied together at the ends, shuffled down the streets and along the Pilgrim's Way, turning the hundreds and hundreds of prayer wheels. Old men in tall, padded felt boots made their way around, too, along with elderly Tibetans who limped and hobbled with crutches as healthy monks in red robes wove in and out among them, the perpetual procession like a wave in motion across a boundless sea.
As my husband and I sat on a rooftop drinking our beer and tea in the evenings, I studied them all from afar as they grabbed a wooden pole on each wheel and set it spinning clockwise, hurling the painted words, om mani padme hum, into the air like a whirling dervish. I imagined a huge xylophone with six tones set up along the length of the corridor, with each syllable of the mantra striking one tone of the xylophone whenever it faced squarely outward into the corridor. With all the wheels spinning around at different speeds, it would sound like the beginning of the universe, like the birth of chaos, from which we would eventually be distilled and separated from Heaven.
Two princes of Heaven fell from a cloud. The king sent down soldiers to close their eyes, but the soldiers couldn’t find the princes. So they closed the eyes of everyone on earth.
“Everyone!” The messengers relayed the king’s instructions to his soldiers. He thought the princes, wherever they were, would be safely sheltered in blindness until the soldiers could find them.
What the king didn’t realize was that his children were naturally curious. The princes had fallen from their cloud in the first place while peering down at Earth. Many of the other children regularly snuck down from Heaven to poke around. The king had no idea. So when he ordered the eyes of everyone on Earth closed, many of his children were lost in the darkness and could not find their way back to Heaven. Stranded, they cried out for each other, trying to gather into one group. The soldiers couldn’t recognize their voices from the din that perpetually rose up from the Earth. But the siblings knew each other’s voices intimately, and they stumbled toward one another, groping, shouting one another’s names, and when at last reunited, in a unified voice they yelled up to Heaven, “Open our eyes!”
But the king had long ago closed his ears to the mournful torrent of earthen sounds.
Eventually, the children decided to split up and search for the stairway to Heaven. Whoever found it was to call out to the others. Alone, each child wandered the Earth blindly, silently, searching for the way home, while the soldiers gradually spread out across the land.
Our first morning in the Tibetan enclave of Xiahe, my husband and I had climbed the hill across the river from the Labrang monastery. We could look down on the whole complex. The pilgrims making their way around the perimeter became too tiny to see. The gold cap of the grand sutra hall gleamed intensely in the sun, unearthly above the small city of whitewash and red brick, of sparsely green mountains whose colorful prayer flags were barely visible on the summits.
As we climbed, we came across pieces of white paper, about two inches square, with line-art drawings of horses in black ink. They were scattered sparsely on the ground, like haphazardly discarded tickets. I thought at first it was litter. As we walked farther uphill, there were more and more; great clumps of them were caught up in tufts of grass. They were paper wind-horses—printed on the monastery’s printing press and released during prayer, left to the wind to carry the thought. Untethered, unlike prayer flags, they were free to find their way anywhere at all, to seek out new nooks and crannies where power and spirit might lie.
We stood in the middle of three tiers of prayer: prayer flags high up above us, prayer horses on the ground next to us, and the prayer wheels at the bottom of the valley.
We stopped to rest along the western edge of the ridge and looked out across a wide gully populated with tall pine trees. Two raptors circled in the air, almost level with us in the empty space above the gully, gliding and riding the air currents. Around and around, silent and smooth, gradually spiraling downward through the crisp air. One of them landed in a tree and we heard a chorus of chirping. The other continued to circle, working his way back up and sometimes disappearing briefly over the ridge opposite us. I wondered if the birds used some of the wind-horses to build their nest, puncturing them with their beaks and talons and nudging them in among the sticks.
I log-rolled my body down a small section of the mountain, as it is my strange goal to log-roll all over the planet. When I came to a stop and stood up, my pants and shirt were smeared with grass stains. My husband promised he’d wash them out for me, but the grass seemed to stain my skin and muscle as well, and to turn my blood a bluish-green. That was beyond soap. It was as if the earth had heaved up so violently, just as I laid down on it, that it pressed its maiden colors all the way into my core, like a thumb pressing into soft clay. With green blood coursing through my veins, I could feel my eyes bluer than ever. The babies chirped, and printed horses rustled beneath the pressure of the wind.
We came back down to the monastery. When we crossed the river, a family of tiny black pigs foraged along the riverbank. Suddenly the world lifted, briefly forcing us to tread in our respective realities, while an arduous momentum passed beneath us, beneath all of us there in the valley. Few people, if any, seemed to notice. Outside the monastery, a steady stream of people moved along the Pilgrim’s Way, turning wheel after wheel. Some of the younger people spun the wheels in latex gloves, isolating themselves from the grime of the countless meditations that had been chanted before them. I was dizzy for a moment from the motion I had felt. Not even my husband seemed to have noticed it. Before me, on the ground, the corner of a yellowed piece of paper rested on my hiking boot. I picked it up. It was a hand-written note, but I had no idea what it said or even what language it was written in. The characters that filled the space were like nothing I’d ever seen. I tucked it into one of my pockets.
Outside the south corridor of the Pilgrim’s Way, near the river, a man had consigned himself to some enormous number of kowtows. In order to keep doing them without bloodying his palms and knees, he knelt on a small padded mat and had outfitted his hands with little skates, strips of smooth wood with four wheels on the bottom, strapped to the palm of his hands. So when he put his hands on the ground after kneeling, he could roll his hands out in front of him until he was prostrate, and then roll them back to his kneeling position, from which he stood up and began again. He was there all day, as we passed by him occasionally in our meandering. How many days had he already spent there, and how many more would he? He was not a young man by any means. As I watched him, I felt conspicuous and irreverent, a gawker, but the man had no notion of anything going on outside the length and breadth of his own body. Chanting in an earnest mumble, his mental focus was tangible. The kowtows passed the time while he concentrated on his mantra. His heart was beating inside his mouth, pumping blood through the veins of his words.
Many of the pilgrims at Labrang make an excruciating three-kilometer journey around the Pilgrim’s Way, prostrating themselves over and over every few steps. This humble sincerity of prayer was almost embarrassing to watch. I felt curiously hollow as a witness. The thing about spirituality today in a place like China that makes it utterly different from its practice in a place like America is that many of our Christians, and even our Buddhists, can financially afford insincerity and hypocrisy. Few things, if any, have humbled them to a state of unbounded sacrifice. They have the luxury of being indifferent to things that other people desperately want and more desperately need—not just nonessential things such as a chance to acquire even a rudimentary education at a rural primary school, or of more important things like having health restored by miracle rather than money, but need of the most basic of necessities required to lift one out of demoralizing poverty: a pair of shoes, a well with water in it, enough food to keep from selling a child. I have this privilege also. I turned the prayer wheels for the novelty of it. In my own way, I felt a solemn purity of purpose; I forced a simulation of spirituality to the surface to grip the prayer wheels with. I don’t normally have much to pray about. For me, spirituality is an academic reflection on the nature of our existence.
But the man with the hand-skates particularly touched me. I couldn’t let go of him, though he was not unlike others. I knew this man, or I began to know him, or I remembered having once known him. At first, I thought I hadn’t suffered enough to know him. I was snagged on the notion of time, of duration, but time measures nothing; it is merely a construct defined as that which we measure: minutes, hours, days, eternity, simultaneity. I shivered in a shower stall during the same time the man kowtowed with his skates, separated from him by fathoms, not hours. I desperately wanted hot water—not just any water, not the cold water of the sea, but the warm water of the belly. I was past creation; I needed to develop, to grow, to reach out from the static. I needed heat to loosen the bolts of time and self.
In that moment of ashen gray when my skin was white like wood ashes, tucked in among the thousands of prayers being sent heavenward at the monastery on wheels and paper horses, I had sent my only prayer whirling into the air on the color red. The arched piece of silver pipe perched on top of the cement wall had stared down at me like a gargoyle while I chanted my manta, not om mani padme hum, but please hot water, please hot water.
We left Xiahe one morning in the darkest, coldest hour that precedes dawn, catching a ride to the bus station from our hostel in a tractor wagon. On the bus, a family of three occupied the two seats across the aisle from us, and the young child had a scrawny pet kitten. It had no leash or carrying container; I was sure it would spend the ride roaming the bus. But it never left the family. The young boy was terribly carsick and vomited quietly into a bag his mother held open for him. He neither cried nor whimpered, nor even spoke a word. His mother held him in her lap while he held the kitten in his, and he puked his little guts out in silence while the bus carried us down from the heights of the monastery, following the Daxia River. I wondered what they had prayed for.
I dozed on and off in my seat at the back of the bus. I opened my eyes occasionally as we passed vast fields sprinkled with peasants wielding hoes and spades; in places along the road, women dressed in pretty, flowered blouses, polyester pants and loafers shoveled road-grade into empty spaces in the pavement. Had I opened my eyes and awakened, or had I opened my eyes into a dream? The kitty and the little boy sat like sentinels at the gateway of consciousness. I felt haunted, pushed, weighed down; but was I haunted by a nightmare in my sleep or by a ghost while awake? Something in the sky rested on top of me, as if I’d walked away with the roof of Xiahe, or pulled the clouds down for a cloak, something peculiarly formed to my back, to the contours of my spine and mine alone, for the pilgrims were all too laden to carry anything more. I searched through the layers of my clothing for the piece of paper I’d picked up outside the Pilgrim’s Way. Even though I couldn’t read it, I kept searching until I found it bobbing in my cargo pocket. As the four wheels beneath me lurched forward over the rough road, I held the message between my fingers.
I rode into the valley, down, down into the valley on the narrow rim of a coin that seemed to flip between two murky realms—fuzzy heads and fuzzy tails. I stretched and arched backward to mold to the circular shape of the currency. Pulled down by gravity, the illusion of self poured down my crescent-moon body; the Beginning dripped off the tips of my fingers and the End off the tips of my toes.
Two princes of Heaven had fallen from a cloud.
The tragedy of his missing children turned the king very old. He took to his bed and didn’t move for years. He ordered barricades built around Heaven so the remaining children wouldn’t leave to search for their siblings.
Eventually, feeble and frail, the king descended to Earth himself. He had no idea where his children or soldiers were, but he thought if he came down the stairway he might pick up their trail. He was startled by the beauty all around him: the mountains that rippled along the valley beyond sight, the crystal river, the golden rooftops glimmering in the sun outside, the rows of golden butter flames nestled inside, the wall of brightly colored prayer wheels that appeared to stretch on all the way to the end of the earth. Monks passed by him in silence. He drew his breath in sharply. Pilgrims—ordinary people—were humbling themselves in earnest to be worthy of the smallest desire. The blindness hadn’t deterred them; as long as they could feel another wheel ahead of them, they trod on. Thousands of hand-painted wheels spun mantras into a giant web of prayer, so silky-thick he felt he could lean his body backward onto the edge of his heels and not fall to the ground.
As he watched a wind-horse flutter down from the sky and land at his feet, he suddenly feared that the Earth wasn’t as terrible as he once thought. Perhaps blindness was not the blessing he had assumed it would be.
Stunned and terrified by this possibility, he set out walking and soon understood the magnitude of the soldiers’ mission. Distraught at the earth’s vastness, hopeless, in utter despair, he again summoned messengers to try to locate the soldiers. The king ordered everyone’s eyes open again, and another league of Heaven spread out across the land laden with the urgent decree. Then the king lay down next to the Daxia River while a constant stream of pilgrims trod clockwise around the divine Buddhas sequestered deep inside the monastery walls.
Here, he waited for his children.
Down into the valley. Down the Yellow River, on bus, plane, and bus again, down. I traveled down into the countless folds of the convoluted topography of China’s northern Loess Plateau. Here the peasants live much as they have for thousands of years. It is an ancient land. A simple land. One I have always known. The inhabitants coax meager crops from loess silt, raise a few sheep on hay and grazing grasses, dig up Chinese medicinal plants from the hillsides, collect scorpions to sell to the pharmacists. They walk across the main valley to collect water from a spring and carry it home in buckets. Their houses are man-made caves—yao—dug into the benevolent hillsides and insulated by the earth, with beautiful lattice-work windows facing the south or east, according to the advice of the feng shui master. In their courtyards they grind millet, soy beans, corn and potatoes into fine flour on a stone mill pulled by donkeys or by a pair of people. The fields are dotted with small family cemeteries amid the crops and the wildlands, the placement of which has also been advised by the feng shui master, who analyzes the lay of the land and the forces of wind and water within it to bring the greatest benefit to the ancestors. The tombstones are all built with tablets for offerings, where descendants lay food and water and burn tissue paper and spirit money. The village temple sits on top of the highest hill; its doors are never locked. At any time the villagers can kneel before the Holy Mother of the Ninth Heaven, who inhabits the temple wall, manifested in brightly colored paint, and ask her to pass their prayers to her eminent son, the Dragon.
In the daytime, people call out to one another across the gulches and valleys; sometimes they sing a folksong. At night, the village is intensely quiet. There are two hideouts, one built to hide from the Mongols, and one built to hide from roaming Muslim tribes. Though the peasants seldom think about it, the land is dramatic in its shape and color. They have wondered why they have been condemned to live in such a hard environment, with rough lines, steep pitches and damaging weather. As a visitor, I gazed with a different wonder at the splendor of the bi-colored land: deep, rich red on the bottom, rusty from iron suffused throughout the soil of the former seabed, and a thick cap of golden yellow loess on top, the color of ripened wheat, blown in from the northwestern deserts. The land has been shaped by wind and water into a profusion of gullies and spires, with as many fantastical shapes as clouds suggest in the sky: animals, ships and castles of exposed, compacted dirt tower over the valleys. It’s a landscape very different from the Buddhist strongholds of Tibet and Xiahe; here, Dragon Gods control the rain and fate, and Land Gods the soil.
This was the second summer I’d come to the peasant village to point my camera at the villagers’ faces, to watch their hands, and to scribble their words into my notebook, trying to explain to them the concept of “ethnography.” They smiled and nodded vaguely and complied happily with all requests; they hadn’t dealt with foreigners before and didn’t yet feel self-conscious and cheapened; they were just as curious about me. In the little village, I walked around a bit by myself. I explored abandoned yao, of which there were many. Remnants of the peasants’ existence still littered the floors: clay pots and jars, hardened leather satchels, scads of hemp shoes, children’s school papers, an old bicycle. On the high road north out of the village, there is a hillside of old abandoned yao, bereft of doors and windows, that look like keyholes in the steep hillside, as if God keeps his treasures hidden inside that hill, as if he has a set of giant keys that fit into the black holes: a quarter turn to the right – click – and he pulls back a thick slab of compacted dirt. What exactly God would hide, I couldn’t fathom. Maybe lost children, to keep them safe.
From the high road, following the curve of a section of plateau, you can see all around the complex topography: the endless terraces of crops banding the hilltops, the sharp spines of dirt exposed by the millennia of erosion, and deep valleys carpeted in dark green crops. It is a maze of long-winding valleys and dead-end gulches. Blind musicians traverse the countryside, visiting village after village to solicit their entertainment in return for a night’s room and board. How did they navigate this terrain? I wondered. If they walked below in the valleys, they could get lost in the mazes. If they walked on the plateau, one step too far off the path and they could tumble down a steep cliff.
And in this epic country, how on earth could a soldier ever find a blinded child?
One day, I walked along a dried-up seasonal riverbed with a handful of village children. We were just exploring. From quite far away, we could see that there was something incongruous with the sand in the riverbed, and that, from the peculiar texture of white, it was probably a bone. Getting nearer, we could see it was a bleached round hump, and soon we could discern the zigzag sutures across the top that indicated human cranial plates.
One of the children found a stick nearby and started digging in the damp dirt, exposing more and more stitched bone of a cranium. Another child joined in and as they dug around it, deeper and deeper, it became obvious that there was going to be quite a bit more to the artifact than what had been visible on the surface. Yet, when the children finally were able to wedge the stick completely beneath it, no one was prepared as the whole thing popped out onto the valley floor. We all gasped. A perfect human skull stared up from the ground. Its eye sockets were packed with dirt, which made them seem alive and brooding. Dirt was packed into the roots of its upper teeth, as if it had just been feasting on the interior of the earth. Only the lower jawbone was missing.
The soldiers were too late. By the time the king had ordered the eyes opened, his children were already hopelessly lost in the thick of the land.
The Earth eventually tucked the orphans into her bed, and this prince was folded into the river sand.
I circled around and around the head while the village children pondered its random appearance well outside of any known family cemeteries. An ashen skull in the rust-colored dirt. White entombed in red.
I was lifted up in a gentle swell, and again had to tread in the buoyancy of time and self. I reached for the weight I felt on my back, flailing my arms behind me to knock it off. But the weight fell through my body, like water falling through a sieve, and pooled at my thigh. I unzipped my cargo pocket, pulled out the yellowed piece of paper and read the hand-written message. This time, I could decipher the text. But it wasn’t meant for me; that’s why I couldn’t read it before. It was merely the debris of another episode, flotsam in the cycles of rebirth. As though one huge, powerful wave had passed through, a wave so laden with emotion, so violent and impassioned that it had scoured the ocean floor like a hurricane, throwing matter into the sea of energy. I had passed beneath the written note as it lay floating on the surface, littering the sea with its insufferable sadness.
Open their eyes!
Willow leaves fluttered in the breeze, reflecting the sinking sun’s light. Piled up from one autumn to another, the leaves carpeted the ground like paper horses. The king’s missing children had died lost; soldiers had died searching; the king had died after having given up the search and surrendering to his grief; and I had finally found one of the princes of Heaven. It had taken someone outside the story to close it, someone heaved and pitched forward from the same hub—from the prayer-soaked banks of the Daxia River. I had had only one single prayer, one brief mantra, a deficit that formed a cup deep enough to hold the overflowing despair, and I passed beneath the flotsam like a charged current pulling down a divining rod.
The wind lifted the message from my hand. I watched it gallop toward the west into the setting sun, hundreds of miles to reach the eternal corridor of the Pilgrim’s Way, dissipating bit by bit as it traveled in the late day’s warmth.
The ancient hills of seabed and silt loomed above the dry riverbed. Giant gargoyles grew out of them in the deepening shadows. I continued down the valley, leaving the skull to stare up at the sky with its earthen eyeballs.
That night I dreamed of clouds, as white as snow, and of golden hues like butter flames. I was a paper dove, lifted up and up by the motion of air, by the breath of dragons, higher and higher until I could no longer see anything around me. I awoke in the morning, chanting blue.
Published in The Indiana Review
I found Kafka in the canned foods section along with Borges, Camus, and Dante. Neatly packaged, with the clean, crisp succinctness of a generic brand. A black paper label with his name printed in thick, black block letters inside a tan rectangle. Borges was green, Camus off-white. I wasn’t sure if there was meaning to this. The cupboard was green. Maybe the significance of the canned authors’ labels didn’t exceed the chemistry and wavelengths of the light spectrum; yet Kafka himself often clothed his characters in symbolism. Up on the highest shelf, Franz Kafka, wrapped in black, did not reflect but merely absorbed light waves.
This was down in the basement, in Bratislava, Slovakia, in a crypt-like space of brick vaulted ceilings painted white. There were three perfectly straight rows of authors: Blake, Eco, Ezra Pound, Goethe, Poe, and others. There was no indication of what exactly it is that’s been captured, contained, and possibly condensed and salted. Across from the cupboard a camera gazed stoically at passersby, at me, routing the images to a small oval screen. I scrutinized myself in this glass eyeball – my bulging thighs, my thinning reddish hair and sun-spotted cheeks – wondering how it was that a few months shy of my 40th birthday, everyone I met in Europe thought I was in my twenties.
At the time, I hadn’t dreamed in over a month – not for all intents and purposes, anyway. I seemed to awake from nothingness, to emerge into consciousness as if taking shape from a primordial clay. On a rare occasion I would wake from a hazy, muted dream of utter plainness, where I did nothing out of the ordinary – brush my teeth, buy some groceries, put on a sweater. I was terrified by this normalcy. I typically have an extremely vivid and entertaining dream life, and traveling generally intensifies it. My dream world is one of the defining and most relevant features of my life. Generally, I can track my waking experiences through my dreams, identify all the quirky components of my dream world as representations, distortions and metaphors of my wakeful life. I spent two weeks exploring Prague all by myself before my husband joined me, each day amassing little secrets of beautiful sights and narrow passageways; I went to bed giddy from all the fun experiences. Where did they go after I fell asleep? My brain just abandoned them. During five weeks traveling from Prague into Poland and through Slovakia, I’d seen a lot of remarkable sights, learned a lot of interesting history, done a lot of different activities, but I’d been living only half a life—the waking half.
I was intrigued to run across Kafka again in Bratislava, after having spent all that time in his hometown of Prague. One can’t help but feel haunted by his presence in Prague, his legacy of forging new literary ground. For one thing, the city has really capitalized on him: Kafka cafes, Kafka bars, Kafka statues and busts, Kafka walking tours, Kafka finger puppets. You are reminded of his existence perpetually, though not in the sense of an incarnate ghost. It never occurred to me that I might see him standing on the Charles Bridge or walking across the Old Town Square. I didn’t feel haunted by him as a personal entity so much as by a general presence of something unique, by the potential for a rare access to a particular perception of the world, an ether subtly infusing the city air. So much of the city is unchanged architecturally from Kafka’s day, I felt compelled to vault myself into the past to see what he saw. It’s not really Franz making a spook of himself; it’s we visitors haunting our own selves, trying to see through Franz’s eyes.
Every day for two weeks I passed right by the house he once lived in above his father’s store, by the palace he studied in, the literary salon he frequented. The Kafka Museum explains how he was plagued by an unrelenting perception of duality and discord, of disgust at the superficial lives men must live in business and society, creating a schism between that world and their private worlds that was unnatural and destructive. Most people say he had a dream mind – fragmented, subtle, metaphorical. I might have imagined him a weird fellow to be around, perhaps intolerable, and that he lived a lonely existence. But that was not the case at all. He had numerous lovers and engagements and social circles, friends and associates. He was adept at maintaining his duality, at containing each self in its separate sphere, though this is precisely what tortured him.
I always wonder about geometry, about circles and lines. I’ve gone on several ghost tours in various cities, not because I believe in ghosts but because I like tales from the dark side. I like to look at the city and see the invisible scars of the past. On such a tour in Victoria, BC, the guide claimed his city to be the most haunted in all of Canada. He mentioned theories of “ley lines” running through the earth along which various paranormal or spiritual activities seem to lie. He pointed out the preponderance of ghost stories that happen in geographically straight lines. For instance, ghosts might live at 5, 18, 33 and 43 First Street, while over on Second and Third Streets there are no ghosts at all. Some ghost enthusiasts say that ley lines already exist in the earth and spiritual phenomena align themselves to them; others say that ley lines are not preexisting but are defined by the phenomena that seem to converge like ducks in a row.
I wonder if there could be different kinds of ley lines, attracting or producing other kinds of phenomena. Perhaps a line runs through Prague that’s not a spirit magnet, but some sort of creativity magnet, a subterranean meridian that could have fueled Kafka’s extraordinary mind. If so, it was draining the weird and extraordinary out of me, pulling the dreams right out of my head, as if absorbing light waves of my subconscious. Maybe this is the source from which he derived the potency of his thought. Maybe somehow Kafka was able to tap into this dark line of power running through the earth’s crust that sucked things out of other people—the dreams, the bizarre and undecoded symbolism inhabiting the minds of struggling men. But probably he couldn’t make much coherent sense of it, and it manifested in fragmented visions and augmented metaphors. I often wonder if Kafka himself knew precisely what he was writing.
Bratislava, where Kafka is now kept in cylindrical rest, is a pleasantly strange city with an intimate mixture of architectural decay and ritz, the sparkling and the decrepit peacefully coexisting. Here, the animate and inanimate have a fondness for exchanging places. All around the city, bronze statues masquerade as living people: emerging from manholes, clandestinely taking photos of diners at the Paparazzi café, leaning casually on a park bench. And people paint themselves (with varying degrees of mastery) into a metallic form, standing stock still all day long, occasionally spooking a passerby. Whatever axis of the city’s essence you consider, there is no uniformity, no stability.
My husband and I found a particularly charming bar in which a disheveled, wild-eyed Dali leans out from the wall in 3-D, clutching a liquor bottle in his hand which rests on a shelf screwed into the wall. A pair of legs are dangling from the ceiling as though someone is falling through the floor above, and other people in colorful costumes emerge from the drywall. This is the last of Bratislava I saw, because here beside Dali is where I really slid downhill and soon, barely making it back to the hotel, became violently ill.
We were staying in a tiny cell in an old communist hotel, whose many infractions against cleanliness included dead bugs smashed on the wall left hanging like hunting trophies. It’s the only hotel I’ve been in which provides a list of financial penalties assessed for a wide array of damages. The first ones on the list were “vomit disinfection” for tile floor (bathroom) and vomit disinfection for carpet (main cell area). I managed not to be charged for damages, despite some unfortunate decisions that had to be made when my body was expelling uncontrollably and simultaneously from both ends of my digestive tract. I could hear as plainly as if they were standing in the bathroom with me the pleasant conversation of a Chinese couple, the sound coming through the bathroom fan. They must have heard me as clearly, retching my guts out, so perhaps I myself was the topic of their conversation, as they listened to me whimper in exhaustion, in fear, not knowing how much more I’d have to endure. They might have been comforting me with their mild voices, “Hang in there, foreign devil, hang in there.” I wanted to call out to them, just in case they were Chinese pharmacists who could heal me, in case they’d brought bags of dehydrated scorpions and crushed seaweed, dried tiger liver and panda dung.
My husband went down to the front desk to ask for more toilet paper. The maid came to the room before he made it back. He was stuck between floors in the elevator; the door opened too far below the flooring for him to crawl out, and he was left punching buttons going up, going down, up and down until finally the door opened correctly at number nine. The maid was calling down the hallway as she approached our door, propped open to allow a breeze to draft through the stuffy cell, “Dobrý? Dobrý? Dobry Deň?” Inside the bathroom, bent over with my head in the sink and my underwear discarded on the floor, the Chinese couple talking amiably through the fan, I was gripped with fear that the maid would brazenly enter the room to deposit the toilet paper inside the bathroom and witness my completely demoralized state. Did I look anything like a human being? I couldn't shift my eyes from the sink drain to look at my skin; they were bugging out with compulsive efforts of retching what was now only dribbles of stomach bile. I had a terrifying vision of the Slovak maid with a wheelbarrow full of toilet paper building a wall at the bathroom door, chuckling malevolently as she entombed me into that pink-tiled hell.
During this eight-hour ordeal, when I lay on the bed between rounds of intestinal evacuation, my husband read out loud to me from Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven, which we’d started reading in a chata in the High Tatras in the heart of Slovakia. The title was inspired by Chuang Tse: “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.” The book was all about dreams – about a man, George Orr, who dreams, and when he awakens, discovers that his dream has become manifest and changed reality. I began to wonder if I was somebody else’s nightmare. Maybe even my husband’s. We’d had a minor spat earlier that day which was resolved by the eating of a kabob – his suggestion – as a quick late-afternoon meal. Every time I returned from a round in the bathroom he asked, “Why are you so sick? How could you go downhill so fast?” He insisted, “You shouldn’t be this sick. This doesn’t make sense; I ate the same kind of kabob as you and I’m not sick.” He was stuck in this loop, like those you get into in dreams, and I was stuck with him. Me expelling the entirety of my innards and he obsessed with explanation as if I were doing this on purpose and needed to account for my drastic actions. Me: barf, shit, want to die. He: why, why, why? Me: barf harder, shit worse, barf and shit simultaneously, really want to die. He: but why? Brazenly ignoring the explicit warning of the tale of George Orr, who dreamed a parade of new realities each time I took respite on the bed.
I swirled around that dumpy cell like a marble on glass, around and around until gravity mercifully pulled me to rest on the bottom. Finally, my last round of retching, my stomach and back muscles straining at their limits, produced two tiny strings of pitch-black material. Almost as if I had nibbled a wee corner of the black label on Kafka’s can. I watched the blackness slide down the sink into the drain, into a pipe that would eventually carry it underground. Then I lay back down into emptiness.
Those strange, nightmarish eight hours – about the length of a normal night’s sleep – were my only real contact with a dream-like world during five weeks of living and traveling in Central Europe. Only then did I regain a layered existence of incongruities, extremities and circularities, dead bugs looming over me from the wall, my husband repeating that he’d like to throw the tiny television out the window, just because he could: the unscreened window on the ninth floor opened wide enough to defenestrate a TV or a body. (The financial penalty for a damaged TV was listed far below vomit disinfection, at an incongruous three hundred Euro for a circa 1980 12-inch screen.) It was as though an echo of Kafka’s strange landscapes was reverberating in my hotel room, a sullen gift, like a half-penny thrown to a beggar on the street: Sure, here’s a dream for you. So what if it’s a nightmare, it’s a dream; take it or leave it.
People who say they’ve been abducted by aliens explain that chunks of their lives are missing. You know, they’re driving down the road at 12:35pm and then it’s 6:12pm and all that time is just missing from their consciousness. That’s what happened to me in Prague and its former Bohemian empire. There’s a large chunk of my life missing from my stay there – my dream life – as if someone abducted it. They could be dissecting it or just storing it, maybe smashing it to pieces. I could be the victim of some geomagnetic or spiritual phenomenon, perhaps a biological or space-time anomaly. I’m quite afraid of the sharp blade of a lathe, and truth be told, I’m even a little afraid of Heaven, so rather than risk being destroyed by some existential machine that loathes an incessant questioner, I’ve tried to limit my research to the discreet scribblings of methodologically-void empiricism.
So I wonder if, in addition to the mysterious current in Prague that can drain dry the deepest wells of subconscious creative and bizarre thought, there are other lines or currents intersecting this one, and the extracted material can shoot down one of these veins and end up in a cannery or someone’s bedroom, pooling on their pillow. Kafka’s gift may not have been literary in nature, but merely to be endowed with the properties of an intersecting line, ultimately an unwitting receptacle.
Regrettably, there was no list of ingredients on the canned Kafka. No vitamin A or partially hydrogenated soybean oil, no modified food starch, chicken stock, cockroach wings or Shara’s dreams. I guess this is what makes him so fun to contemplate. Once I played a practical joke on my mom in which I removed all the labels from the canned goods in the pantry. I didn’t want to get in too much trouble, so I marked some symbols on the metal with a marker and made a key to the contents. My mom threw away the key and preferred instead to shake the cans, feel their weight, and guess what might be in them. (She was impressively accurate.) So we’re left with the prospect of shaking and weighing Kafka’s can, though I didn’t actually, physically do it; it seemed irreverent. Would I have been able to feel the weight of my dreams if they had been in there? Could I have recognized their peculiar sound, sloshing around in the can with thousands of others?
I’m home now, thousands of miles from central Europe. And my dreams have regained their twisted vivacity. I wake up at night inside a castle and it takes me a long time to figure out how to reach my bathroom to pee. So I’m really wondering about the line theory. Let’s say there is in fact a ley line in Victoria that runs through the city giving people the power to be reincarnated as ghosts or something, perhaps improving the luminescence of unhappy souls. Now, how far do these lines run, do you think? Victoria lies at 48°25 latitude. Bratislava is situated on 48°09 latitude. This equates to a variance of about 18.5 miles. I don’t know precisely how straight these lines are supposed to be. A discrepancy of 18.5 miles across half the globe seems pretty mild. What if the closest afterlife ley line to Prague is this one at latitude 48 (Prague is at 50°05), so Kafka turns up post mortum, repackaged, in Bratislava? His naked metal can would have once been shiny, reflecting light rather spectacularly; blinding you, even, if it caught a sun’s ray just right as it attempted to penetrate the silver. For the brief moment that Kafka existed without clothing, a plain tin can, it must have been existentially quite painful. Again, a duality: locked inside the darkness of a can that’s radiating brilliance on its other side. Then at last the black suit, glued on tightly, seducing the light into its wood pulp to be absorbed into eternity, for it will never exit the label and return to its origin.
I mostly exist at latitude 39°57. My cabinets are some sort of golden brown wood with black grain, and a little grimy on the bottom. White shelves with flowered shelf paper. There’s nothing remarkable here except in my dream world, thankfully restored. There’s no George Orr to dream a Kafka-like world into reality: food here does not fall from the sky to hungry dogs. I must buy it and store it in the cupboard, then later open it with a tool, and if I’m at all civil, empty it into a clean bowl. Someday the canned Kafka might be hungrily opened with the same mundaneness, when the world runs dry of dream and bizarre and carnivalesque thought.
Maybe I’m packed somewhere far away in my own tin can and I don’t even know it. All my dreams from that Bohemian period might be stuck inside a capped cylinder. Maybe that can of Kafka contains his own dreams, his real dreams from when he was asleep, a life stolen from him. Perhaps it was the unique dissolution of boundaries in Bratislava—where metal and flesh share human form, abandoned decay shares walls with five stars, libraries loan their great authors to kitchen pantries—that created a temporary permeability. For there I was, sick as a dog, in the communist hotel, my mental state so weakened, George Orr dreaming other realities into existence in the hands of my husband, my physical state dissolved into such depravity, that for that brief time, that interlude in my travels, I didn’t have to sleep to dream.
Published in Cutbank 76
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