Scrambling

The mountain was watching me as I strolled confidently to its base. I had studied it intensely over the last few weeks and I knew its outer layer well. I was here to get acquainted from the inside out. I had no gear, save a helmet and soft-soled shoes. I did a bit of calisthenics, to warm up and settle my nerves. We would soon be entering into combat, and I wanted to come out of it alive. A camera crew was in place. Some of them would be climbing alongside me, in the traditional way, with ropes and so on. They were trying to blend with the rock as much as possible. I blocked them out of my mind’s eye.

Preparation is key, yet it is mostly preparation of the self. The goal is clear: summit alive. You can plan your route ahead, but you will have to readjust on the details. There may have been a slide or other recent phenomena. Your mountain is a living, breathing beast. I was still feeling antsy after stretching so did the next best thing. I ran full tilt to the mountain and jumped. I was strong, with powerful arms and legs. I grappled the wall and pushed and pulled myself up a few meters. It felt good. I could feel the rock pulsating under me. It was daybreak and the surface was not yet warmed by the sun. My assault had woken the behemoth and were now both aware of each other. I settled into a rhythm.

I am keen on meditation and scrambling, as I call what I do when scaling a mountain, is a form of meditation I love. I call it “extreme meditation” because you need to trust yourself fully, relax into the present, yet be aware at all times of your mortality. A drop from the wall is not advisable. If I did fall, I would see that as a failure to make friends with the mountain. The mountain would have shrugged me off. Mountains are friendly, and love company, as long as you treat them with respect. I was being playful when I ran to it at its base, and wanted to establish our relationship on those terms. In the same way that I roll on the floor with kids or dogs, playfully tickling, biting, and tussling, the mock fight is just that, mock. We know when to stop and are careful not to hurt each other.

I am relying heavily on my nose to know if the rock has been infiltrated with water. It will alert me to rot which could undercut its ability to bear my weight. My skin informs me of changes in temperature, sharp edges a recent scar and potential for falling rocks. I go for rounded textures, sculpted by wind and time. If you press your ear to the stone and you hear it sing, you must beware. The tiny vibrations that are so enticing mean the rock is brittle. You learn to trust silence and project yourself in that void.

The crew told me later that their vision of me flipped early on from me tackling a vertical surface to me moving on all fours on the ground. It is true that early on, my weight was no longer a consideration. I felt bound to the wall, my fingers strong and sensitive to the changing surfaces. I could anticipate the bumps and cracks, reading the surface and as I would read a friend’s expressions. We were communicating pleasure and displeasure. I felt the mountain holding me and guiding me. The last meters to the top were more arduous, and I think now it is because the mountain could sense my reluctance to have our association end. I was enjoying the tussle and occasional nip, leaving a few drops of blood as proof of my passage.

I was getting tired and wanted to summit. I knew I must guard against any type of hurry. There was a path, like one goats might have used if they had lived in those parts. It was tempting, with tufts of grass that would cushion my tired feet. But grass means moisture, water infiltration and possible rot. I looked up at the overhang and decided to get down from the ledge and around. From there, it was a cakewalk. Before I knew it, I was hoisting myself up and rolling on top. Summit! The sun was shining and the breeze cooled me down and dried my sweat. I could see another mountain in the distance. I still had many friends to meet.

The wind, the sea, the horses

It is a day of wild frolicking horses, droves of them crashing on the beach. There is nothing to be done but watch in awe as their hooves lift the sand in swirls that the sea greedily gulps. The wind is blowing hard. I am laying down flat in the dunes, sheltered in the high grasses, from which I watch the spectacle. The rain starts. It is pelting the sea’s surface angrily, prodding it, taunting it, but the giant pays it no mind. It is playing with the mighty wind and together they are creating horses. The rain’s contribution is to keep the voyeurs at bay while they unite and procreate. Yet I am here and see it all. When I leave, soaked through and through, the sand under me miraculously dry for a moment, grasses flattened under my weight, my heat evaporating from the ground as I get up, I can see that neither are spent and leave them to their night of passion.

The next day, the drove is still there but they are not as wild nor restless. The wind has died down, the horses no longer frenzied under its whip. I watch the sun rise under gray skies, the sea still moody, lashing idly to move the horses around. I am wearing a warmer sweater, dressed as I should have the day before, too warm for today. The horses are grazing, big liquidy eyes, fretful ears. Seagulls are calling from on up, seaweeds are littering the beach. Men arrive with boards. They are suited up in black. They lie on the boards and paddle to sea. They wait until a tamer horse comes close to see what strange beast lies in wait. They hop on the first tame horse they can catch, riding it safely to the beach and repeat with progressively bigger and riskier mounts.

The ballet goes on for hours, until the riders are exhausted and easily dismounted by an unexpected kick. Most head home. A solitary rider is still out there, one with the sun and the wind and the sea. He rests, lulled by their presence, then paddles and rides. Eventually, the horses want a rest and settle in for a nap, the sea cradling them and whispering sweet nothings. I want to ride the horses and I come day after day to watch. I get a cheap Styrofoam board, on which I approach the horses. I lay still on the sea, let them smell and taste me, until I am just seaweed they can safely ignore. I watch the young ones break and re-form under their mama’s watchful gaze. I am no threat. I lay for a long time, then sit, then stand. I ride my first colt and feel its skittishness under my feet. He lays me down gently on the beach.

I return again and again to my friends. On stormy days, mama opens her mouth wide, swallows me whole, tumbles me over and spits me out. I gasp for air, look for light, roll with the punches. They cannot rid themselves of me. I scour the beaches to discover new droves. Some like wilder, rockier terrains. Those are tricky and dangerous, exhilarating to master. Not that I strive to tame – that would be my downfall. I wish to feel the power, be a small part of it as the wind is, the sea, and the horses.

 

Lightning Strike

The lightning flash briefly lights up the room and shows me curled into a ball on the bed. There follows a thunderous noise, o so close. I am whimpering, holding a pillow up against my belly. Suddenly, I remember to invoke Charlie, my dear long-lost child, braver than most and gone too soon. As soon as I do, I feel the pillow’s weight dissolve my fears and his soothing presence fill the room. My insides feel warm.

Another lightning crash – the sky splinters, the winds lash the trees, then the mighty thunder roars. As for me, I laugh in the warmth of my bed. Nothing can touch me under my child’s protection. He is the ultimate lightning rod. When he was alive, he protected me from his father’s wrath, deflecting the blows, redirecting them or changing the mood. A careless fever took him away, all of us powerless to stop it, and the world was never again the same. The other children got half a mother. They accepted their half-crazed mother, doing the best she could. The lasting absence never let me forget.

I got better after I saw the psychic. I became calmer, more able to look around me and appreciate the other children. They recovered part of their mother, a little love, a little warmth, a little twinkle in her eyes. When their father died, I was suddenly free. Shackles dropped. They were older by then, the others. Years had gone by, without me noticing. Some were away at school, others were working or pregnant or married. It had been a blur. I came out of the fog to find a vibrant world, full of colour and life. I did not know my place in it. I had been groping in the dark, unable to see ahead more than an arm’s length, which is where I kept everything.

One of them took over the mansion. I was grateful to keep my bedroom and let someone else run the show. Now new kids peek in. They call me granny and play with Charlie’s ghost. He’s glad for the company.  The wild winds and thunderstorms are things of the past. I keep to my bed, my refuge. This is where Charlie comes to me. I must never leave that room. I am content in the semi-darkness. The light chases him away. His soft white translucent body dissolves in the harsh light of day. I long for the day where I will join him, both of us light and airy, free as angels. I stop eating and drinking. It makes no difference. It upsets my helpers, but I am happy I finally found a gentle way out. I am looking forward to an out-of-body life.

I die smiling. The world I am now in is as beautiful as I imagined it would be. Little Charlie is by my side. I have the vague feeling he is free of me too. I realize I was hindering his progress, but he understands and says there’s nothing to forgive. I am content, I don’t look back. Life on Earth was not for me.

Land

It’s a tiny piece of land, a peninsula of grass between two roads – mine a crescent, the other a straight road joining others like tributaries feeding a main road. In winter, that’s where they dump the snow, until most of my view is blocked by this white giant. We’re in the countryside so it stays mostly white. It becomes an ephemeral feature of the land. It sets me dreaming about Antarctica and the great explorers.

The land stands there undeveloped across my house. The neighbour mows it, though it’s not his. I reckon he wants to keep the value of his house up. He drives his lawn tractor up and down, a drink in the drink holder though he never takes a sip. I think he likes the idea of a drink more than the actual drinking. Sometimes, a cat tries to chase something, but the grass is not tall enough to hide so he ends up licking his paw and grooming himself. There is not much life on that patch. No trees for birds, no vegetable patch. Someone tried to grow a few flowers once, but the neighbour paid it no heed, mowed the whole thing down.

He’s got family. They’ve got kids. The kids sometimes play tag quietly on the tongue of land. As soon as a parent sees them, they shriek in alarm. There are roads! We told you not to play there.

There are roads, but no cars. The kids know it, the parents know it. I wonder if the whole charade is for my benefit or for the detriment of the children or the glory of the parents. I don’t say anything, but I watch by the window all day. The children resent me because they can’t hate their parents. They are too young. They have not yet learned it is allowed, a natural progression through independence and adulthood, via the necessary years of analysis.

I used to worry someone would buy it and dump an unsightly car there. Or that a dwarf would build a tiny house for his family on it. I used to appreciate the barrenness of that strip of land, its stark austerity. I used to boast about the view, the quiet, the privacy.

I have grown older. I was old to begin with, and it hasn’t gotten any better with time. Now I wish I had bought that strip of land and built something outlandish on it, maybe a sculpture, maybe planted trees. Even a few fruit trees would have been nice. I would have been busy chasing away the birds, putting nets over the fruits, hoping for honeybees, chasing the kids away with brooms. I would have made compote, marvelled at the blooms in Spring, worried about hail pockmarking them. The cats and squirrels would have frolicked in their branches, maybe even built nests. The cat would have had something to chase. But I might have fallen down a ladder, have had to tend to it, had too much to eat and not enough people to give the food to. It would have gone to waste. Better to have this barren piece of land peopled by dreams…

 

The Hangman

The gallows were hungry. The hangman had to feed it its daily pasture of petty thieves and miscreants.

The hangman knew his trade was a dying one. Simon, his own son, did not want to learn it. He couldn’t blame him. He himself had misgivings. The hangman led a lonely existence since his wife had left , leaving the boy Simon, “spawn of the devil.” His only friend was a botched hanging, when he first started. Harry escaped the noose because of the hangman’s inexperience, and later was found innocent. In the process, his windpipe had been crushed and he was rendered mute, but his intellect was intact. The hangman and Harry played chess together, signing to indicate “check” or “checkmate.” The hangman was grateful for Harry’s silent companionship.

When a hanging was required, the magistrate would be roused. He would sign a paper authorizing the deed and would usually attend the hanging as well. The spectacle did not sit well with him, and so, after years of attendance, he turned to the bottle and gradually shirked his duties. He trusted the hangman’s skill – there had been no other botched hanging – and realized he could no longer stomach watching the wretched die. He used to be plagued with horrible nightmares. Now only the bottle could quiet his night.

As for the hangman, he had perfected his technique to avoid unnecessary suffering. He worked quickly, knowing from observation that anxious waiting turned men into boys. He wanted a dignified death for his charges and had a gentle touch with the noose. He was kind soul, prone to introspection, who haunted the cemetery with its windswept headstones. On older ones, the mosses had eaten away all inscriptions, creating its own lettering.

At the time of his marrying, he was a day labourer. His wife attracted mud, and bees, and sunlight, and rain, her house a disheveled collection of eclectic eccentricities, gathered like dust, no one knew where from and never to be swept away. She bore him a son, unlike either of them. Simon seemed to them innately vicious and ill-tempered. He was difficult, colicky, taciturn and moody. He cared nothing for the noose, his father’s new occupation. He was not interested in labouring. He loathed his father and his work, did not fall into it easily. He thought himself protected from harm, and boasted of his immunity. He was not well-liked by decent people, was friends with vagrants and the destitute.

And so came the day, as the hangman feared must come, when his son was presented to him for the gallows. His heart stopped, his blood froze in his veins. Simon was eyeing him defiantly, watching his strong father shrink before him. The hangman’s head was swimming as his stuttering hands were going through the motions. He could not think, only do. He secured the rope, placed the knot gently on the vertebra. He had stopped breathing, but had not noticed, overcome by emotions as strong as on his first hanging. He remembered having thought at the time, “This man is somebody’s son.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he secured the knot. His son was staring at him, a slow cruel smile spreading on his face. The hangman thought, wildly, “I will botch him,” moved the knot slightly, and smiled back.

Silent Story

On the model of a silent movie
*****

A dog is lying down in front of a fireplace. Close-up on glowing embers. The dog’s flank goes up and down deeply. The embers die. The dog twitches.

Close-up on a window with a round face framed by a fur hood staring in. An ungloved hand knocks on the pane.

Cut to a child curled up on stairs. It appears to be sleeping in a onesie. It is huddled with a blanket. It opens its eyes and goes to the window. The hand points to something. The dog and child file out of the room and outside through a doggie door. The man puts the child in a fur-lined pouch and slings him on his back. The child falls back asleep. The dog follows.

The same child appears now to be sleeping in the snow. It is still tucked into the pouch and is smiling. The dog is curled around the child, eyes open, watching the man deftly building an igloo around them. Flames lick firewood, a small, well-contained fire.

The man is now standing near a hole in the ice. He is very still but his eyes are open. We watch him do nothing for a good 30 seconds.

Back to the igloo. The child is awake and near the fire. The flames are higher, the child is tinkering. A kettle is suspended over the flames. Steam can be seen coming out of the kettle. All movements are slow. The dog’s ears perk up. The fat man crawls in. He fillets wet fish, throws the entrails to the dog. The man and the child eat the fish raw and drink a dark, hot beverage. The child is lost in thought, mouthing something. The man chews with relish.

The man, the child and the dog crawl out of the igloo. Shot of the night sky and what appears to be northern lights. Steam comes out of their mouths. The man fastens the child to his chest and wears his coat over it. We barely notice the head sticking out. The dog walks alongside the man. They walk in a barren environment until we see a church spire amongst smaller buildings. We see a milkman doing his rounds.

The dog crawls through a doggie door in a large brick building. The child hugs the man and slowly follows the dog through the small opening, blanket in hand.

The man stares at the door. We watch him do nothing for a good 30 seconds. He turns and walks away.

Obit – Django, the dancer

Django, the well-known Brazilian choreographer, died yesterday of emphysema, killed by air pollution in his beloved city of Rio de Janeiro, pictured in his masterpiece “Ciudades/Cities”. He was 61.

Revelled or abhorred, his work left nobody indifferent. I interviewed him in his heyday, in a café in Rio. He was 5 years my senior and had just had his major success, “Ciudades/Cities” performed in New York. I was fumbling with my questions and he, ever patient, was taking his time to answer, as though he had nothing better to do. He told me he was grateful for the breather. He said he loved to “study people’s expressions as they talked or waited, were bored or hopeful. The dance of the eyebrows, the eyes, the mouth a fascinating choreography of desire.”

He observed everything, from the fretful moves of pigeons in a park fighting over crumbs, to the longing pose of a vagrant just before he brought his lips to the neck of the bottle. The brilliance of emotions contained or unleashed dazzled him and inspired his best work.

I asked him about his latest choreography. He explained passionately that traffic lights lived to their own rhythms, repeated street after street, obeying a higher will. His piece was an ordered chaos ruled by syncopated graffiti. Garbage had its place, discarded papers were thrown in the air and floated on the breeze, or glass bottles were exploded on a wall, the forceful clash releasing coloured fragments in the light. He told me about the rain in the city, umbrellas dotting a busy street, the slow pace of people safe under them compared to the race for cover of the exposed ones. Everything was a joy to the eye – he stored millions of movements which he disgorged on the scene through the pliant bodies of his troupe. I sat mesmerized by his vision, enthralled by his movements as he mimicked the rain and the people running for cover. He called the rain “urban guerilla”. He laughed a lot.

He was a poet and a dancer at heart.

I asked him what his plans were, for his next work. He talked about sounds. He said he was interested in the rhythm of people coughing at the opera house. One cough started another, followed by a third, each bolder than the first. He revelled in the myriad of expressions the body revealed even though its bearer was unaware.  The whole was always greater than the sum of its part. He wrote feverishly, captured what he saw by any means. He turned to nature for inspiration and produced more dazzling work.

Then one day he called it quits. He had said all he had to say, was now happy to absorb and retain instead of constantly creating for others. He sought to transform himself. He was called selfish by the same people who claimed to hate his work. He paid them no mind. He turned to meditation, looking for stillness as another way to understand the world. He watched his thoughts, searching for patterns in their flow and colours. The quiet was bursting with energy, he was overjoyed by his findings.

He laughed his way into death as he had into life, capturing his essence as he danced into the next state, exuberant and free.