November 1, 2012
The Crossing This Time
So anyway, now was come to the end of October and El Dias de Los Muertos, the Days of the Dead. It is Tradition to hold that in this time those who have departed walk again among us for a short while. At Island-Life it is the Tradition of drawing of straws to see who shall be given the charge to cross over to the Other Side so as to bring back a special message.
Again according to tradition, Denby always loses this contest, so 13 times he has crossed over alone and then returned to speak with the Editor.
This year, because of Denby's broken leg and the way is through deep sand, another drawing was held. As it turned out, Jose drew the short one and so to him was given the charge to push Denby's wheelchair as far as he could and to go no further.
But when they got to the seawall where the crossing usually took place, there was nothing but the usual unbroken line of fence and the wind coming in off of the Bay. They pulled over off the sidewalk to a place near the toilets.
"Something is wrong," Denby said. "I think it is because there are two of us this time."
"Maybe I should go now," Jose said. "I feel very strange, like something is about to happen but it is waiting."
"I'll never get back up the beach. Last time it was very difficult even with two good legs."
"Well amigo," Jose said. "I suppose I could do something here. I came prepared from mi abuelito." Jose reached down into his bag hung on the back of the wheelchair. He brought out an abalone shell, a lighter, and what looked like a bag of pot.
"Jose, this is no time to get stoned!"
"Mi gabacho amigo, this is sage incense." Jose then lit a wad of the incense in the shell. Holding this aloft, he began to recite something in a foreign language that was not Spanish.
can niman aman
"What the hell was that?" Denby asked as the lights from the apartment buildings started to grow dim as if a veil was passing between the two of them and what was across the street.
"Okay now amigo, I turn this chair here to face el Norte. El Norte is the el tierras del Muertos, the lands of the dead. I call on them and then we say "tahui". Donde esta?"
"Sure, donde esta whatever."
"Empezaremos con el Norte, ahem, Nuestros antepasados
que vinieron antes de nosotros.
Okay, say "tahui" four times. Repita!"
Denby did as he was told and then Jose wheeled the chair a quarter turn.
"La dirección El este, donde el sol se levanta todos los días. Este es el sentido de nuestro nacimiento, de nuestra niñez y juventud, de pasión. It is the direction of youth and passion. Ok. Tahui!"
Ok pasamos, pasamos again," Jose said, grunting as he maneuvered the chair over the ramp slats near the toilets. He picked up the shell with the burning incense where he had left it and recited, "Del Sur -- que es la tierra de la lluvia, de maíz, de jitomatitos, frijolitos, y chilitos. Esa es la tierra fértil donde mi familia antepasados vinieron de. The South is the fertile land of water, of sustinance. Tahui."
"Tahui. I know you like those frijolitos. Tahui."
"Ok pasamos. Last time. El Oeste! Esta es la dirección en que el sol se pone al final del día. El Oeste también representa el fin de nuestro viaje de la vida. I call to the West, the place where the sun descends, which represents the end of all life. Tahui."
Jose then came around the chair to face Denby with the smoking bowl of incense.
"La quinta dirección es usted," he said as the smoke from the incense snaked around his face and body. Something was happening to the lights. The distant lights of Babylon across the water had disappeared. In Lak Ech,in Lak Ech, in Lak Ech, in Lak Ech. Tahui."
"Tahui. Porque, um, 'usted'?" Denby asked, struggling with his Spanish and whatever strange other language Jose was using.
Tú eres mi otro yo," Jose said. You are my other I".
"Well I'll be your eyes and you be my legs," Denby said, misunderstanding him. "What means 'tahui?"
"Heck if I know," Jose said. "Mi abuelita told me to say it just like that."
"I think I see something over there," Denby said. "Wheel me in that direction."
As they wheeled along the path, Jose said, "Hey, I don't remember there being a stone wall along here."
"Just keep on truckin', amigo," Denby said.
It was true that now a stone wall about two and a half feet high now extended for infinity in both directions where yesterday there had been only hummocks of sand bound by sawgrass, but this wall seemed to have been there for eons, with scraggly weeds crowding up against lichened stones. They came to an old wooden gate through which something called to them from the dim otherside and so, hesitating a moment to leave the relatively well-lit path, Jose opened the rusty latch and slogged through the sand and wheeled over almost immediately into a dark mist and a voice echoing in the darkness, "Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!" and these words flamed inside the skull as if poured in molten steel.
Now, again, Tradition. The path was as it had been before. And the time before that.
"WTF was that, amigo?" Jose said, quite startled.
A large owl, about two feet tall, perched on a piling and looked at them with large owl eyes.
"You understand those words, Jose?"
"Is Italian. I think I am afraid I do."
On the other side the ground sloped down as usual to the water for about thirty yards, but they could not see the far lights of Babylon's port facilities or the Coliseum. In fact, the water had the appearance of extending out beyond to Infinity. But all up and down the strand bonfires had been lit, as is customary among our people in this part of the world, and towards one of these he stumbled among drift and seawrack.
A small child, barefoot and wearing a nightdress ran past and disappeared as quickly as she had come.
Jose noticed a stone jetty there and to ease their going he wheeled up onto what turned out to be a long wharf extending out into the dark, lightless Bay. A bonfire burned in the middle of this pier in a ring made of closely worked stones.
A figure with long flowing blond hair stood there to greet them.
"Hello, Penny," Denby said.
"Denby! I see you have brought someone along with you this time? That will not do you know!"
A sort of pale glimmer drifted over the dark stone tiles, a woman dressed in white with frizzy platinum blonde hair. She reached out with her left arm. But her hand went right through his arm, leaving a clammy, cold sensation.
"Oh!" She said. "You are not one of us quite yet! Well, come on and visit for a while. There are some new people here."
The girl flit back to the firelight around which a number of forms sat or stood.
"Amigo! I think I see someone!" Jose said. He was looking not down the pier but off to the right to the sands below where another bonfire was burning. Abruptly, Jose dropped down to the beach and ran over to a figure there, calling, "Abuela! Abuela!"
"Jose! Don't . . ."! Denby called out. But the boy was gone, leaving him there alone. Now he could see there were many thousands of those firelights all scattered along the beach as far as he could see.
Strange words in another language reverberated inside his skull: "si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta . . ." echoing and echoing down long hallways of mirrors into eternity. He felt sorry for bringing Jose here, but then, it was Jose who had opened the door.
He manhandled the wheelchair up to the bonfire. A bald fellow he recognized sat chatting with the figure he recognized as Lynn, David's mother. Lynn had two large lynx's purring at her feet and a full grown eagle perched on her shoulder. Hello Uncle Edwin.
"Hello Denby. You are looking alive and well." Uncle Edwin said and laughed.
"O that woman? She's off getting into trouble with your Aunt Jean. Such a pair of sisters."
The family was never very close.
"It's the Welsh in us," Uncle Edwin said. "By way of Ireland. God I loved Singapore . . .".
I seem to recall you got yourself into trouble there.
Uncle Edwin laughed. "Damn right! Life is not about behaving yourself! How did you break your legs?"
O climbing a mountain. People say I shouldn't have done that.
"Nonsense! Life's about getting into trouble. Imagine all the people who have never laid down on some trackless mountain among boulders and thin air, wondering if they would get out alive. There is something wrong with those people. Who have never ever done anything at risk. Take it from me. Go to Singapore. Sleep in a train station. Raise mountain lions in your livingroom like your friend here Lynn. Climb another mountain. And you want to know something?"
"What if the hokey-pokey is really what its all about?"
Lynn burst into laughter next to him and the eagle took off, soaring with scarcely a flap over the dark sands until the bird disappeared.
"Have you decided yet what you want to be when you grow up," Lynn said. A lynx licked its immense paw before setting down its immense head with a sigh.
Way down at the end of the pier two men sitting in chairs were entertaining a small crowd. One of the men held a banjo, the other a guitar. A woman stood beside them and from far off, he could hear hear her powerful voice singing.
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
Oh yeah yeah
The skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
I found a dream, that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known . . .
Denby turned to Penny.
Who is that down there?
"O that's a pair of musicians and some other people. Doc and Earl. And Etta. They get to cross over almost right away." With that last statement her voice nearly broke with emotion. All my life I lived in a well, an oubliette. I thought I got out, but . . . there was just more . . . of what life had . . .".
Penny . . ., Denby said, the longing in her voice tearing at him.
A figure appeared, a man wearing neck to foot, a full astronaut suit. He paused looking intently outward with the raptor's look of someone who had spent his life flying air machines.
"Bye bye, Neil," Penny said shyly.
The man removed a gold coin from his mouth, looked at it, then put it back in his mouth before nodding curtly and then striding down the dock.
A little girl tried to run past them both but Penny grabbed her up and swung her around before setting her down and letting her dash off into the weeds up the slope. Penny let out a peal of girlish laughter, her previous mood entirely erased.
Some people never change, Denby said to no one in particular.
"No one ever changes," a voice said. "Some of us just get older."
A sixty-ish man with straight, dirty blond hair and a beard sat in a chair wearing a brightly colored short-sleeve shirt, khaki pants and sandals. A ring on his left hand flashed in the firelight as he removed a cigar from his mouth. "You find a job yet?"
As Denby sat down two little girls in gingham dresses ran past.
So, Jim, you are not ready for the ferry ride yet, Denby said.
"Oh. I expect it will be quite a while for me. If at all. Might even be sent back for another go around. You didn't answer my question."
O, I put things together. Not living at the St. Charles Lunatic Asylum anymore. Doing a gig now at an orphanage. What is that about another go around? You mean reincarnation?
"Well yes. If you . . . if things end abruptly like they did with me, well, you might have to go back and live everything all over again."
He shook his head and relit his cigar. "No. To relearn everything and get it right."
"Well you certainly are looking well. Right now. Jim."
Jim grinned. "If you had never seen pictures of me when I was younger your mind's eye would have shown me as you saw me last. White hair, false teeth, and . . . everything . . . like the hills of California, eroding . . .". A spasm of pain, or memory of pain flickered across Jim's face and then he was himself again. "You know Denby, you never want to live with regrets, but then you never want to end up in a place where everything is leaving you."
A girl with dark chestnut hair flowing behind her ran up, put her hands on her hips and said, "Boo!" before running off.
"Boo to you too! Ha ha!" Jim said. "I kind of like those girls."
Those girls, Denby said flatly, knowing from previous visits what they were.
"Oh, some of them are mine." Jim puffed on his cigar. "Some yours. That girl, Penny can explain it better than I can."
"You know Sue is still pissed at you."
Jim meditatively flicked his front teeth with his thumbnail. "What I put that poor girl through."
You know Pat, your nephew, is getting married.
"I shouldn't say this, but I'll be damned. That boy was always a wild weed."
You run into that relative of yours that lived in a trailor? Kicked the drugs and finally got her life together selling hoity toity sausages or something like that for the holidays?
"O, her. She's crossed over already. Suffered enough I suppose, poor gal. Why do you ask?"
Well some people figured out how to patch up their lives, even as bad as it was, Denby said with sharp bitterness. Some people didn't have to effing just give up . . .
Jim examined the end of his cigar. "Some people sound like they are still angry. Some people need to get their own house in order."
There was a tension now between them.
"How is Doyle," Jim said.
Cranky as always. Still great with his heart and parsimonious with his pennies.
Jim laughed. "If the man paid your rent wouldn't you start to resent him? When money gets into the relationship, you know things will sour. Take this advice from an old man: don't let money muddy the waters of a relationship."
Well then how does it work between him an his handyman The Wiz. That guy works on his house painting and fixing the roof every visit. They have been friends for years.
"Because both Doyle and Wiz know it does not matter. Wiz and Doyle both know Wiz can tell Doyle to go eff off any day with no regrets."
Two girls in pinafores ran past the bonfire, giggling.
"I wish I had all eternity to talk to you about these things . . .".
"You could have been prolific," Jim mused. "I wish I had all eternity to talk to you about these things," he added.
Somewhere an iron bell tolled. "Anyway . . . oh heck, there is so much to say and now either an eternity or no time at all."
From far across the water came the glimmer of the approaching ferryman.
Penny was standing there. "Time to go now, Denby."
"I have a lot of questions to ask." Denby said.
"I am sure you do," said Jim. "But you know, I have a lot of questions too. The truth is, not everything is answered. . . ".
A girl ran up and would have leapt over his legs but Jim reached out and grabbed her by the waist to pull her down on his lap where she put her hands to either side of her face before blurting, "Boo!" and laughing. "Boo!" said Jim, laughing also.
Brief flashes in the darkness. Little girls wearing nightdresses running barefoot between the bonfires on the beach, playing tag with bright eyes. Wind brought sea spray across the tidal mud flats. A girl ran right up to Denby and stared up at him with big dark eyes a long moment before whirling about to run off with her long hair flowing behind in the air like a flag.
"Who are these", he asked.
"These are the Daughters of the Dust. They are the not yet and never was," said Penny, with a trace of rueful wistfulness not characteristic of her. "All the could-have-beens. Of Jim and his past. Of us two, and of others with you. And your friend Jose."
It took a moment to register, and then he remembered that she had said exactly the same thing the last time. And then she said to come with her now. Time was finished and soon the change of the hours would come. Remember the last time when he had looked into the Ferryman's eyes, despite the warning.
That had been terrible, Denby said, remembering with a shudder. He did not want anything like that experience again. Not in this life.
Penny took him back to the edge of the landing, which he would not have found otherwise, as sight seemed to have become blurred by some saltwater carried on the air.
"Oh, you'll be back before long," Penny said. "Try to enjoy your stay where you are at for now. Fling yourself into Life while you still have it; at this point I don't regret a thing except waiting far too long to take up skydiving." She paused at the wall and looked with big eyes, a half-smile on her face. "And practice your singing. You really need lots of practice." A wet something touched his cheek..
"Didn't you say something like that last time . . ." Denby started, but she was already gone. Ephemeral and unattainable as she had been in life.
Hey, I need Jose. He did not know what would happen if Jose were not with him at the crossing. He had that strip of sand to cross and the wheels of the chair bogged down right away.
"Jose! Jose!" Denby called as the Ferryman approached the dock, all the souls clustering down there at the end, the terrible wheels of fire circling his eyes illuminating the path of the skiff up to the landing. Denby saw the break in the wall up ahead and thought he might be able to crawl toward it, but he did not want to abandon Jose. The clang of the iron bell became insistent. The light behind him, to the West, became brighter. He dared not turn around. "Jose! For the sake of god where are you!"
Then he heard Jose's hoarse voice behind him and the chair began to move. "It's okay amigo, I am here."
Jose seemed to have a lot of trouble getting the thing up the slope of sand to the gate. Denby tried helping by thrusting on the guide rails. The iron bell gave way to a long wailing sound that wavered across the dark sands, chilling the heart. An alarm or a cry of despair. Birds, or some kind of dark shapes, began swirling around them. The gate up ahead started to break up in his vision.
"Amigo, what is happening?"
"The dawn is coming. We have to get through or we will be trapped. Shove man, shove!"
"Trapped? Trapped where?" Jose panted and wheezed.
"It's the waiting room of hell. They will not let us out until the end of Time. Push For the sake of god! Push!"
Jose cursed and called on all the saints and the blessed Virgin and a few unchristian deities to boot. Finally the wheels tipped up over onto the pavement along Shoreline. As Jose pitched forward beside the chair, as if shoved by an unseen hand, there was a tremendous clang! and the stone wall disappeared along with the gate.
They were back on the island.
"I cannot believe you have done this trip for the past fifteen years," Jose said, when he had regained his breath. "I think I would quit."
"Jose, believe me, its like the Blues. It is not a matter of choice. Let's go home now."
They were silent a long time on the return, trundling along the length of Shoreline Drive, remaining under the comfortable side with the streetlights and the apartment blocks with their well-tended, well-light entranceways, each wrapt deep in the thoughts concerning what each had seen. As they passed by the cars Denby could see in the passenger side mirrors that Jose had been weeping.
As they wheeled up Grand Street to get clear of the lagoon, Denby asked a question. "Say, how did you know what direction to turn during the invocation with no sun to orient you?"
"Chair is from Kaiser," Jose said. "It has a little compass." He paused. Silly amigo, the ocean is right over there."
"I am going to have to thank your abuelita some day."
"You can meet here," Jose said. "She is same age as you and very pretty some say." Jose paused. "She is not married, you know. I can arrange a meeting next week on Tuesday ...".
"Oy, weh iss mir!" Denby said. "Now my friend wants a match to be making! I do not think this will end well."
Back at the offices, the Editor sat there behind his desk, his eyeglasses perched on his nose and his remaining hair flying about in an aureole about his head. Jose fled to his desk where he kept a bottle of tequila. He poured himself three shots in succession before sitting there with his head in his hands.
"Good god, Denby!" exclaimed the Editor. "You both look positively awful!"
Denby shrugged, head down.
"Find out who is going to get the Presidential Election or when this damned Recession will come to an end?
"Somehow, those things did not come up."
The Editor sighed. "Jose looks a mess. I'd like to talk with him and find out how far he got."
"Leave the boy alone. He stayed behind on the street," Denby lied. "He just thought he saw somebody he knew. Turned out to be somebody else."
The Editor looked at him with keen eyes. "He stayed behind."
"Your employee obeyed his orders to the tee. It's just rough out there late at night. Lots of bad trade. Leave the boy alone."
"So nobody has any idea how this election will turn out?"
Denby said nothing. The Editor reached back behind him and brought out the traditional bottle of Glenfiddich with two glasses. "Probably doesn't matter. When the Recession ends and who gets elected. The way things are going, we all are going to need more than a stiff drink to get through no matter which character gets elected. Ice?"
As they sat there with their glasses filled with ice and Glenfiddich and as the watches of the night turned over to reluctantly start the next day, right on schedule, as the locomotive wended its way through the Jack London Waterfront the long wail of the train whistle ululated across the moonlight diamond-sparkled waves of the estuary, across the spectral waves of the Bay, across the humped hills of Babylon and through the high singing wires of the barren and traffic-less Bay Bridge, over the turreted antennae of San Bruno Mountain and the quiet plots of Colma where the dew formed out of the fog, falling softly through the universe upon all, upon all of the living and the dead.
That is the way it is on the Island. Have a lively week. Live today as if someday the sun will rise without you there to see it. And do not forget to vote.
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