Monday, August 3, 2009

dies irae at the elmore ranch

Dies Irae at the Elmore Ranch

There's something wrong at the Elmore ranch. Back in town, everyone talks about it in hushed tones, afraid that uttering the rumors will make them real. The superstition of words is big in these parts. Besides, the town depends on that ranch -- it's the biggest one around here. So we speak quietly, cross our fingers, knock on wood. The Mexicans rub their Our Lady of Guadalupe medals. We wondered what it was we felt when the hot wind blasted up on us from the Mojave desert. Now we think we know. That wind carried disintegration. It carried fear.

That was how it all started. When we looked out the window and saw the dry leaves start to flutter on the trees, we hoped for a cooling breeze that would give us some relief from the blistering summer heat wave we had been suffering. But instead, it was a cruel desert wind, hotter than the sun and always present. At times, it lay low, stirring just enough to caress your skin with its burning fingers. Then it would rear up and bend saplings, carry away paper and hats, and blast everywhere the red dust that covered our land in the dry season. It was a mean wind and people stayed indoors.

But this apparently was only a thin reflection of what was happening at the Elmore Ranch. According to the rumors, the wind hit the ranch in full force, approaching fast in the form of billows of dust that the preacher compared to the wrath of God. It hit the fine Elmore ranch house and the outbuildings--the best maintained in the county, people would say--and stripped the paint off the walls, giving the wooden boards fifty years of weathering in twenty minutes. In the blink of an eye, the majestic and lordly Elmore homestead had been reduced to a gray, looming ruin.

When you could see it. Visibility was low, the wind never ceased whipping dust into the air. The general effect was that of an abrasive red fog through which only occasional shadowplay gave evidence of objects or life behind it.

Perhaps, for example, you might be standing in the yard of the Elmore ranch hose and only see it for an instant: first the hint of a shadow, then the looming gray house, then once again red nothing. You would see shadows of moving figures that made no effort to identify themselves, windburned-faced cowboys who were made almost motionless and completely useless by the heat and the dust. Scattered figures that would flee before the viewer.

And the cattle. If the rumors are true, then the Elmore ranch is done for. It's said that it happened when the wind first hit them. One of the largest herds of the fattest, healthiest cattle in the state was hit by the red dust cloud, and when it cleared enough for the ranch hands to see them again, all that remained were a few weak, spindly-legged animals whose skin hung like a slack bag around their ribcage.

The rumors also talk about the Elmore family itself. They say their skin, muscles, and organs were torn from their bones at the first wind blast and that their bones were sanded into tiny flakes that then joined the marauding cloud of dust.

I do not know this to be true, I'm only reporting the rumors. And they are only rumors, because no one we can name either went out to the Elmore ranch or came back from it since the storm hit. The ground for rumor is not very fertile here, since the wind impedes anyone from leaving their house unless it is absolutely necessary. Yet we know the rumors, we know them down to the last horrible details. Some say the wind itself carried the rumors, that they are true, and that this is only a beginning. The preacher is ringing the church bells, calling all the town to force their way to the church and pray for rain.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

the arab

The Arab hesitated, and then twisted the handle to the gate. No result. It was locked, as he had feared. This is called expected disappointment, a phenomenon that originates from an excess of hope or an excess of self-loathing. The Arab suffered from a paradoxical combination of both.

The Arab was six feet seven inches tall and had whisper-pale eyes. Not even he could remember why they called him "the Arab". His last name was Kallinski and he could not remember his first name.

Picking at his yellow-white beard stubble, the Arab turned away from the gate to the Duchess' estate and walked down the hill towards the village. He remembered the accordion player in his hometown cafe, and his eye rims glowed salmon-pink with incipient tears.

Below him, the village. A man towed a trailer full of indignant black-faced goats from a whining mud-splattered Fiat. The butcher and the greengrocer pulled rattling iron blinds down over their shop windows. Lamps began to go on in the town's low houses, making puddles of light in the seeping vibrant blue of late spring dusk. The church bells rang out the end of mass, not the beginning--a curious tradition of the village dating from the war against the Turks. Or was it the Teutonic Knights? Or was it the Aragonese? The Arab couldn't remember, but the deep bronze clang and vibrating hum of the bells did make him think of something else, though he didn't know what it was. A sort of pulling him towards the village. The knowledge of a task left undone, or the last words in an interrupted conversation. The lingering consciousness of something whose form has melted away, leaving only its undefined but insistent presence.

He arrived at the main street and began to walk through the village. Wrinkle-framed eyes of disapproving peasant grandmothers drilled from behind curtains but were incapable of tearing into his air of indifference. He approached the tavern, where two farmers with bulging pink cheeks and tremendous mustaches divided their attention between beer mugs, cigarettes, and the occasional word. He felt the flask in his pocket. Still quite full, no need to go in.

The pull on him became more suggestive. He quickened his step until he arrived at the church. Entering, his lungs filled with heavy damask incense air and his eyes sparkled with reflections of golden icons glittering in the light of the hanging oil lamps. The church was empty and damp. It was not long, but its four aisles in the form of a Greek cross were high, the walls covered with mosaics, gold, silver, ruby, lapis lazuli, agate, and sapphire showing lives of saints and martyrs--stories of devotion, violence, and suffering running up the heaven-sent walls until they reached the distant vault above. A priest came out of the sacristy and tidied the heavy books at the lectern, the altar candles casting weird shadows from his cylindrical cap and long black beard.

The Arab sat down, his gaze on the Virgin and child, their wood-dark faces surrounded by a blaze of gold. Their expressions cold and fixed, staring out past him towards eternity. He had a flash of understanding, then shed a few tears. Forgetting everything, he felt his head become heavy. He stretched out on the bench and fell asleep. His heavy snoring resonated off the mosaic on the Byzantine dome that floated above him, mixing with the ghosts of chants and whispered supplications of the faithful. He was at peace.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

the lion in the machine

The first roar was faint and distant and could have been mistaken for any one of the creaks and groans offered up by the strained metal and aging cogs of the big machine. We paid no attention to it and continued to play chess by the control board. Every so often, after moving a pawn or a knight, I would leave my hand beside the board and Paul would gently stroke it as he considered his next move.

The second roar was louder and more distinct. Paul and I said nothing, but we both turned to look over the dials and meters to see if they registered anything. Nothing. We sat back in our chairs. Then came the third roar, terrifying, echoing in the great metal cylinders of the big machine. The Greek cross hanging over the control board vibrated slightly from the sound. Paul motioned for me to stay at the controls as he put his jacket on. The lion roared again. God knows how long it had been trapped inside, it must have been hungry and maddened by the labyrinth of steel tunnels and the absence of sky. Paul said there was a good possibility this lion was St. Jerome's lion, and since he still had a few traces of religion left we had some reason for hope. He turned the turbines down to low, grabbed a copy of the Vulgate, and stepped into the hatch.

The sound of his boots on the catwalk slowly died out, but I could still hear the occasional roar. It might take him some time to find the lion, sounds were hard to track in the interminable tunnels of the big machine. I had to relax, be patient. I wandered around the control room, peeking in the cabinets. In the first aid kit I found, under some used gauze blackened with blood from long ago, a deck of tarot cards.

I knew nothing of reading tarot cards, but I was aware at least one card bore the image of a lion. I thought if I lay the cards in a particular form and the lion card appeared, I might be able to surmise something by the cards surrounding it. I laid them out in a square. No lion card. I continued to lay them out, this time in a circle over the square. Again, no luck. I laid them out in a cross, an octagon, a rhombus, like the numbers on a clock, like the windows of Versailles, like the flags of different African nations. How many cards were there in a tarot deck, I wondered? I kept trying and eventually succeeded in drawing the lion, which I placed it in the center of the pile. The mass of overlapping forms made any reading impossible --the lion was awash in a flood of swords, queens, disks, hanging men, cups, hermits, wands, lovers... I heard the roar again and shuddered.

I noticed Paul had left his locker door ajar. I opened it and ran my hand down the stripes of his dress shirt, remembering the last party we had thrown, how we'd danced clumsy waltzes as Pepe played Strauss on the squeezebox, our steps resounding on the metal floor of the big machine dining hall. Then I saw the skull on the shelf at the top of the locker.

I was afraid. Even if we were lucky and it was St. Jerome's lion, how could Paul have a chance without the memento mori? What should I do? I couldn't go down the hatch, I had to watch the controls. Besides, what if I came across the lion before I found Paul? With my bad Latin and no religion?

Another roar thundered around me, shaking the coffee cups and the doorframes. I felt a tear fall onto my cheek. I couldn't listen to the lion, I couldn't. Fully knowing how much I was endangering Paul, I went to the panel and turned the turbine up to full. The control room filled with a deep rumble, and I sighed with relief. Any lion's roar would now be swallowed up by the unforgiving noise of the big machine.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Fog

The old man smoked under the arcade of the square in early morning, the sky only beginning to glow with dawn, a fog covering the lower part of the town. The boy who had been sent for bread ran along another arcade under the decaying posters for a circus that had never arrived. It was cold and his breath burst out in little clouds as he panted. He reached the church and darted down the small street where the light of the bakery beaconed to him from the place where the fog began.

The woman behind the counter greeted him. She was round and bundled, a sweater over her dress, an apron over the sweater. He said nothing, but put the two coins on the counter and waited. Wrapping the bread in a piece of brown paper and twisting the ends of the paper closed, she asked him about school, the priest, and if his mother's health were any better. The boy said nothing, took the bread and ran out, his shoe heels drumming on the cobblestones.

When he reached the square again, the old man threw his cigarette butt on the ground, spat, and called to him.

"Eh, Miguelito!"

The boy stopped, but said nothing.

"Come over here, I have to tell you a story about the fog."

The boy hesitated.

"I have to take the bread to my mother."

"Come back here afterwards."

"I have to go to school."

"I'll be here, waiting. It's a good story, the story about the fog. Like the one I told you last week about the river being a devil."

Without answering him, Miguel ran across the square to the street leading up to the ruins of the castle. His house was the fifth on the right, where the narrow street bent, opening the view to the half-fallen keep and the four round towers above it. He looked up and saw a thick fog embrace the massive gray stones and pour down the steep hill. He couldn’t understand why there was fog above and below, when it was clear in the square.
He ran into the house where his mother was trying to feed his baby brother, who cried and pushed away the spoon.

"Oh, good, Miguel. Put the bread in the kitchen and heat some milk for..."

Her voice choked off into a violent cough, and she covered her mouth with a handkerchief that was already spattered with blood. Miguel dropped the bread on the table and headed for the door.

"I have to go to school."

"Not for a half hour. Miguel I need you to help..."

Once again, he words were cut off by her cough, which Miguel heard even as he closed the door behind him.

The fog had swept down from the castle quickly and it was hard to see. He ran down the street, but by the time he reached the square, he saw nothing but gray mist. His foot hit a loose cobblestone and he fell, rolling over and scraping his knee. When he got up, he didn’t know what direction he was facing. He called out to the old man, but there was no answer. He started walking forward, his arms outstretched and his hands invisible, hoping he was going in the direction of the arcade.

When he finally hit something, it was the great oak door of the church, which swung open before him. The fog entered the building, covering the chapels to the Virgin, the main altar, and the center aisle, and then swirled up to fill the dome. Miguel cried out and walked forward, grasping wildly, and when he finally reached something it was the priest, who cursed him and slapped him for the despicable sin of pride.