Never heard a man speak like this man before - Moses, 9th July, 1997
Never heard a man speak like this man before
Moses – 9th July, 1997
He’d got into the habit of drawing her. Between shifts at the gas station and pool games at the bar with whoever was there to play him, he’d taken to sketching. Wrestlers mainly, particularly the Mexican ones. The luchadores, with their glistening muscles and their masks hiding emotions and identities. Moses reckoned his grandparents would compare him with a masked luchador if they ever bothered to compare him with anything; or if they knew what a luchador was in the first place.
They sure as hell didn’t know he could draw and to be somewhat fair to them, he thought there was no reason they would know. He only ever drew in the bedroom his Grandpa never ventured into and which his Grandma cleaned, but didn’t spend any longer in than the time it took to do a cursory dust and pile fresh laundry on his bed. Anyway, he always locked the sketchbook - bought along with Twinkies and drain cleaner from Coop’s Convenience in town - in the top drawer of his tallboy, placing it alongside the collar of the dog he killed and the photograph of Delarosa his Grandma used to display on the kitchen drawers.
When he drew Delarosa, Moses always started with her hair. In the photograph, it was long and loose, partially covering her face. In his drawings of her, he would restyle it – sometimes tying it back in a twisting pony-tail, sometimes piling it high and imperious on the top of her head. Whatever the style, he would add the only colour he ever did to his monochrome sketches. A flame red like his hair, reproduced from the one image he had of her and fashioned with the pencil crayon he’d stolen from school many years ago. It had occurred to him a few times lately that Delarosa’s hair would no longer be red. But in his mind’s eye, he saw it as it may have become – faded, rust strands, like seaweed in the wet base of a coffin deep in the ground of an unknown country.
Drawing Delarosa pacified Moses. It kept the Black Dog, his old friend away; at least for a little while. God, but the Dog was faithful. Tenacious in its devotion, never leaving his heels, its bulk weighed him down rendering him exhausted and still. Sometimes it was so heavy, he could only lie on his back in bed, eyes wide open looking up at the ceiling while the Dog pressed the covers down, shroud-like around him. At these times, it was only his need to piss, the inadvertent acknowledgement he had a body to service, that made him get up at all.
On days when the Dog finally moved from his side, Moses had no doubt it would be there by the gate of his grandparents’ house, waiting to catch up with him. The Black Dog with its awful patience and slobbering jaws.
Worse though than the Dog was the Silver Monkey. When it showed up, Moses knew he was in for it. It would appear from nowhere, the zigzag line at the edge of his vision growing into a jagged, silver form. It would throw its rictus grin at him and if there were objects at hand, it would throw them too. Balls, vegetables. Fruit once - pomegranates, oranges and raspberries. The fruit had hit him, hurt him as he fell to the floor, hands arched over his head to protect himself. The juice ran copious and red on the sidewalk. It mingled with the blood that was streaming out of his ears and his eyes. Ruby juice and blood swimming on the sidewalk, into the sewers. Him sinking in it, knowing for certain he was going to drown.
The Silver Monkey was a screecher. Loud and long in a syncopated rhythm, blocking out any rational thought. The Monkey would not be ignored, jumping around the room, springing up and down from its default squat; throwing its arms out - a wizard casting spells.
On some days, Moses could keep both the Black Monkey and Silver Dog at bay for a few hours by thinking of himself as a little boy. Not the boy he had actually been, but an imaginary boy. The one he was certain he would have been if he’d grown up with Delarosa by his side.
This boy was about five years old and beautiful. His eyes were pale green and he had a serious expression on his heart-shaped face. This boy sucked his thumb, one hand wrapped around the other, an index finger rubbing the corner of his eye. Under his left arm, he held a ginger tiger. Or it could have been a bear - it was hard to tell, it was so threadbare, dirty and loved. One ear hung half off and the other had big, inexpert stiches holding it in place where Delarosa had mended it for him. The tiger-bear’s fur was matted with who knows what, but the expression on its face was a happy one.
The imaginary boy always disappeared in the same way. He took his thumb out of his mouth and dropped his toy. He held his hands out to Moses, as if in entreaty; as if to stop him falling.
And if he could admit the truth of what he felt to himself, it would be this. Moses didn’t entirely believe Delarosa was dead at all. Of course he knew she wasn’t with him and never had been, but did that definitely mean she was no longer on the earth? He knew too the little his Grandma had told him about her dying peacefully somewhere just as she’d given birth to him. Sleeping, as his Grandma had said - but he had never totally bought it. How could his grandparents bear to live their lives with the death of not only one daughter, but a second?
He remembered also a conversation when he was about fifteen, around the time he’d come back from the woods without the dog. Something hushed and halted when he’d walked into the den. Something about maybe Tijuana or San Juan Town. The idea that they’d lied to him grew bones and then flesh. It put on weight. The Dog and the Monkey worked in tandem to feed the idea, barking and shrieking as it grew fatter.
When his Grandpa was working in the yard, Moses had confronted his Grandma.
“Tell me about her. Tell me where she is. Fucking tell me.”
His Grandma had winced, as if she’d been hit.
“Not in my house. Not that language in my house. If you really want to know about her, I’ll tell you.”
But Moses had already shut the door and left the house. And in so many ways, he just kept running. Out of the town, out of the county. Outrunning his grandparents, outrunning the Silver Monkey who urged him to cut, cut, cut as he looked at the thin skin of his wrists. The blue of his veins.
Moses bummed car rides and train-hopped over the border to find the mother he had only talked to in his dreams. The mother his grandparents had kept from him. On the longest of journeys to Tijuana, to San Juan, to anywhere.
In Mexico, he found himself in a bar in a shit-kicking town. The earth in the town was hot and dry, cracked and secret. For Moses, the town held the atmosphere of buried bodies and red heat. Of skin relics – painted and bleached. He felt a directionless fear, but above all, he felt anticipation. While he waited for his drink, he imagined blackened bones poking through the earth, elbows and kneecaps mixed with the metal of coins, buttons and rings. Was this where Delarosa was? Would she appear out of the earth, zombie hand raised to the sky? Would she appear at the door of the bar?
Next to him, an old man was sitting and drinking beer. He turned to look at Moses and began to speak.
“You’re looking for someone? Well you won’t find her here. Here, you’ll find only beer and if you’re lucky, Sante Muerte. You never heard of her? Then I’ll fill you in.
She stands in her place in the centre of the shrine. And what a shrine. One loaded with flowers, fruit, incense, prayer cards and vodka, cigarettes and American dollars. Of course, there are candles too – white for gratitude, red for love, gold for prosperity. Black for vengeance and harm to your enemies and betrayers.
Sante Muerte’s face is that of a skeleton and the purple lace of her wedding dress is open at her neck, revealing the xylophone bones of her chest. In the bone of her hands, she holds a scythe and a globe. The crocheted shawl around her head can’t hide the fact she’s got no hair and an owl perches on her shoulder blade, peering out from the bottom of her shawl.
She stands up for the lost people, the people on the border. The drug dealers, the homosexuals, the prostitutes. She don’t judge. You might be looking for someone here, but it’s Sante Muerte you’ll find - the Bony Lady, the Pretty Girl, White Sister.
You ask her what you want and she’ll try to give. She’s not proud or mean. You see her, you ask.”
Moses listened, both unsure and compelled. He wondered what kind of offer, if indeed it was that, the man was making him. He wondered if Delarosa was Sante Muerte.
Two in the morning found him leaving the bar with the old man. At this hour, everything belonged to the darkness. The sky was vast and velvet with pinpricks of stars, holding no warmth and little light. As they walked to the old man’s house, Moses could hear the scrabble of the night creatures and the clink of bottles hanging as wind mobiles on stoops and in trees. The smell of the herbs – sage and lavender – mingled and drifted on the currents of the night air.
In the old man’s house under the bare bulb in his kitchen, Moses had a chance to look at him better. He was pushing eighty maybe, still hale with a sweet, tired face. In the bar, he’d told Moses his name was Arturo and Moses thought the name fitted him well.
When he’d gone to the bathroom, Moses looked round the kitchen in a way he didn’t feel he’d been able to with Arturo in the room. The air was stale, signaling a broken air-con. The kitchen table was littered with the remnants of breakfast – a coffee cup, a crumb-scattered plate and the halved skin of a pink grapefruit. The windowsill bloomed with vivid orange flowers and tomatoes in bright blue containers. In the corner of the room was Arturo’s shrine to Sante Muerte, gold and black candles radiating a soft heat on the bone of the effigy’s head.
They continued to drink, sitting at the kitchen table amongst the breakfast things; and when Arturo had asked him to blow him, Moses had done so. It had taken a while, but when Arturo finally came, Moses looked up and saw an expression of almost child-like wonder on his face.
They’d slept then – comfortable with each other, spooning – in Arturo’s dark, carved wood bed. And Moses had dreamed.
In his dream, he was deep in a coal mine. Riding in a mine-cart down tunnels. At the wooden arch of each new tunnel section where the light was the strongest, he noticed curious little carvings in the coal. They were crudely cut out, angular figures that looked partly like men, but with the heads of animals. Vicious, wolfish animals.
It started as a distant rumble, becoming more of a roar the closer it got. In his dream, Moses felt a weight of huge pressure hit him in his stomach with the uncompromising physicality of an iron bar. Immediately after this impact, he became aware of absence and void and he found it difficult to breathe. He felt a rush of movement and then he fell to the ground. As he stood up, he heard a ringing echo in his ears followed by silence. But it was a strange silence – one that almost seemed full of the potential for noise. This potential left almost immediately and there was silence only.
Then the sudden, torrential raining down of stones and rock close by filled the air and he saw the roof props had fallen in, barring his way back.
The tight feeling of claustrophobia was weighing down on him on the outside and inside of his chest. He saw carvings on the wooden arches that he couldn’t quite make out in the elongated shadows cast by the still burning candle flame, so reaching across to the wall he moved the candle from the nook it was in and held it up above them. He supposed he was expecting to see more of the half man, half animal figures, but instead he saw words left by some previous miner at an unknown other time, ‘live riteous and die riteous’.
Moses closed his eyes and wondered what he could possibly do next. He sank to his knees and did what people do. He prayed. He didn’t know who to. It could have been God, it could have been the devil, but he prayed to whatever being, whatever force could help him escape.
His prayer was met by the deep silence of the mine. The silence of the abyss.
Then, something strange happened. The light altered, becoming less constant as the candle flames began to gutter furiously. He traced the length of the tunnel walls to see if something had opened up that had caused a new draft of air to shoot through, but he could see nothing that had changed. His shadow looked like it was dancing in the frantic flickering and it seemed to be joined by another shadow, another figure. He looked to his left and saw a woman. A woman with long, red hair. She looked at him and put her fingers to her lips, as though to hush him. Then she turned and pointed to where the roof had fallen in and the path had been blocked. Had been blocked, because it was blocked no longer. There was a clear way through, leading back the way they had come down.
What he was seeing, he knew was not possible. Yet, he blinked and the woman was still there to his side and now moving towards the opened up path. He followed her, focusing on her hair, on its length and redness. It seemed to be growing longer and coiling on the floor of the mine as she continued walking. In his dream, Moses thought of a seam of coal, straight, but also twisting as it followed the tunnel wall. Her way of walking was almost a glide and there was a supple grace to her movement that was in complete contrast to his stumbling footsteps. Suddenly, there was light. A speck at first becoming wider and brighter. With the woman in front leading the way, they had got back to the open mouth of the mine.
In the shadows, he saw the woman, her shadow seemingly blacker than any of the other shadows and in this, his dream, Moses thought the darkness in the end looks after its own.
The next morning, waking up in the early heat of Arturo’s bedroom, the dream was still vivid in Moses’ mind; but he had never believed in dreams or praying to anything either. Not God, or the devil, or Sante Muerte. It was all horse shit. Vivid horse shit, but horse shit nevertheless.
The comfort night had brought had disappeared by the time Moses left Arturo’s house. He’d said goodbye to Artoro while he was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and eating pink grapefruit. What Moses knew Arturo hadn’t seen was him touching the top of Sante Muerte’s head when Moses had walked past the shrine.
Moses had no particular plan and in this absence, he went back to the bar. The TV was on and he sat drinking beer and vaguely watching the images. It was some news report about bodies being found and dug out of the jungle nearly twenty years after something or another. In Jonestown, Guyana. He didn’t know why, but the words cut through him, a laser light into his brain. And if there was a moment of enlightenment, it was this moment. He was looking for Delarosa in the wrong place. Not Tijuana, but Guyana. Not San Juan Town, but Jonestown.
When it was evening again, Moses sat outside the bar, focusing on the point where the main street ended and the desert began. It was almost funny, his arrival in this town. In this place where Delarosa was not and had never been. And yet somehow, he felt closer to her here - his mother who he knew deep in his bones would have protected him against anything in the world. Delarosa, who he would find eventually.
Behind him, the street twisted away, like the back of a snake and above him, the sky was coal black and starless.