Friday, June 24, 2022

Chapter 25

The rains seemed endless.  Storms howled in from the east shredding moss from the trees and petals from the bloom, savaging every tender thing.  But one day, the gloom broke for a moment and sun sliced across the sodden ground.  Muleki, grown day by day more cranky and claustrophobic, ran from the house with the excuse of replenishing their stores of firewood. 

Every green thing dripped and glittered.  Every bird and bug rejoiced.  Muleki picked his way on the jungle path gathering fallen branches when suddenly he heard the frantic wail of the little goat back behind him.  He ran to her where she thrashed, black with ants, by a rotting log.  He grabbed the writhing goat under his good arm while her tiny hooves scraped and flogged his chest and her screams split the forest din.  Ants immediately streamed up his good arm and soon covered his face and arms and chest in a veil of stinging.

He splashed into the swollen river with ants crawling into his ears and nose.  They seemed to sizzle all over his skin like hot metal in water.  They climbed him trying to reach higher ground in a single molten black body, like the burning ooze of pitch, from the goat up his arm and chest and into his face and hair.  Muleki howled like an animal.  He dunked himself and the goat in deep water, yowling when he came up for air and scraping ants wildly from skin and hide.  He blew ants from his nose, he spit them from his swelling tongue.

He clamored from the water, the goat slippery wet and still wailing under his good arm and stumbled blindly back towards the garden screaming for Old Auntie.  She met them at the gate, understood all with a glance, and rushed them to the ash bin where she rubbed great handfuls of soot hard into the goat’s hide and face and ears.  Muleki did the same to himself, howling and wildly scraping and slapping at his burning skin until both he and the goat were black and choking.  At last they both collapsed, completely spent.

Meanwhile, Old Auntie carefully sharpened her best knife and with great care sheared the goat of her blackened hair, then rubbed more soot deep into the welted flesh, brushing and pinching stray ants between her hard fingertips.  She rubbed soot into all the goat’s soft spaces—carefully clearing ants while she rubbed ash into nose and ears, into tender mouth and gums.  The little goat panted and wheezed in ragged gasps.  

Old Auntie sharpened her blade again and did the same to Muleki, shaving the hair from his head and rubbing soot deeply into his swelling wounds, the softest and most powdery ash she saved for the sockets of his stinging eyes which were swelling quickly shut.  

When satisfied, she turned back to the little goat now fighting for each breath and gathered its sooty little body into her arms and took it to rest by the fire in the house.  Muleki followed like a black shadow and curled himself next to the shivering wretched thing.

Old Auntie hovered over them rubbing balms into their ravaged skin, prying swollen lips apart to slip a hollow reed into their mouths for them to painfully swallow water and vile tasting tea.  She rocked them in her ample lap by turn, singing one of her ancient healing songs.  Muleki could hear the ragged choke in her voice though his eyes had swollen shut and knew she wept.  His skin burned and he and the goat clawed at it continually until Old Auntie finally bound hooves and hands in linen rags.

At last the tea worked its wonders.  A dead calm slowly snaked through his veins, his racing heart slowed, the rage in his skin cooled.  He felt the world slip away bit by bit until there was only the comfort and heat of the old woman’s arms and a vague smell of smoke that seemed to swirl around and through his dead limbs, his swollen nose and ears and eyes.  

The strange words of her songs wove themselves dreamily into pictures—pictures of the earth shimmered across his fevered mind.  Beckoning.  He could hear the trees calling, the glint of fish under pond lilies, the jaguar’s golden eye watching from the grass—all of it encircling, embracing his slow heartbeat—the drum beat tethering him to this world.

In the fog of dream Old Auntie’s touch was his grandmother’s as she swabbed the ash from his eyes and ears and tilted his head to the light to check his swollen tongue.  The warmth in her hands was his grandmother’s as she rubbed balm into the fire of his wounds.  Her voice, his grandmother’s voice as she sang prayers.  Her love, his grandmother’s love seeping into his burning skin like salve.

He woke at times to sounds of his own groaning or wheezing, or gasping for breath, or at times to the thin whining agony of the little goat, or to Old Auntie’s singing.  Seeing him stir, she’d stop and spoon water into his cracked and swollen mouth.  She’d gently stroke the wounds on his scalp and whisper into his throbbing ears, “Child, my only child, please don’t leave me.”

He woke at last with strength enough to open his swollen eyes to narrow slits.  The room smelled dank and stale and a light rain fell on the thatch.  Old Auntie dozed at his side, the pathetic little goat cradled in her sooted arms, new streaks of grey in her messy hair, her face thin and drawn.  She woke when he stirred and smiled with a great sigh.

“You have decided then to live, my son,” she said and quickly swiped at tears escaping down her dirty cheeks leaving their jagged trails of clean.

The strength of both boy and goat gathered bit by bit as the rains diminished.  Each day brought a better chance of blue and also a fever of itching.  Old Auntie laced their chores with elaborate stories to take Muleki’s mind off his crawly, scabbing flesh, but the little goat had no diversions.  They were both skinny and pink with pocks and welts.  Their itchy hair sprung out in halos of tangly rays.

The world returned slowly to blue and green, smelling both of rot and growth.  Birds flew from their places of sanctuary in great dancing clouds to feast on newly winged bugs rising from the mud in feathery smokes and on fish stranded in the shrinking shallows.

There was much work to do in the rain damaged garden.  Thoughts of Layla or the Man of Light were quickly dampened by any glimpse of the sorry little goat or his own reflection.  He dreaded the look in Layla’s eye.  The pity for his dead arm had been bad enough, but now he looked a monster.  And the little goat, his hoped for offering to the Man of Light, once beautiful and white and free of blemish, was a ragged pink pocked misery.

Rather than the arc of the dog star or the holy mountain, he charted the days now by the redness of his flesh or the receding of his swollen lips and eyes and by viscous itching.  By the fleece beginning to cover the little goat’s scabs and scars.  One day, with great relief, he finally noticed a bit of dance returning to her step, the waggle returning to her tail.

His skin healed more slowly.  Old Auntie rubbed aloe sap into his scabs and oiled his wild hair to coax it flat, but it seemed to do little good and his spirits sagged.

On a crystalline day, they delivered a flower blanket to the pyramid and decided to visit the floating beds for seeds and flower slips and sprigs to repair the damaged garden.  The sun had dried the stone road of all but the most stubborn mud and puddles and all along it traveled people newly freed from their damp houses.  Muleki saw the alarm when their eyes fell on him.  Each look of surprise or pity felt like a slap.  Their eyes were Layla’s eyes to him and when any look lingered too long or a child pointed and whispered, he felt the blood rise to his cheeks and ducked his head as far down as it would go.  

Old Auntie felt it too and laced her sturdy arm through his dead one as though she needed him for balance.  At her touch, her face suddenly became his grandmother’s face and he could not duck for looking at it.  His grandmother’s wise eyes.  Her gentle smile.  Even the smell of her the same.  

He found himself leaning into Old Auntie as they passed the vendors and the children who stopped their monkey play between the sellers of sweets and bread and flowers to stare.  They passed old men whose rheumy eyes slid over him while they sat in their patches of sun, balancing walking sticks on boney knees and women gathered like happy hens around carts stacked with cookpots and baskets whose whispers trailed him.  Old Auntie drew him in close beneath the armor she’d spent a lifetime crafting against such looks, such whispers, such scorn.

The lake, when they came to it, was glittering and blue as the sky.  Reed boats skimmed across its face dragging their wakes through reflections of clouds clean and brilliant white.  He helped Old Auntie into one of these boats and she took the paddles and charted an almost effortless glide out into the lake’s center.  

The busy glee from the shore melted into the hush of water slipping past and into the soft song Old Auntie sang for the rhythm it gave her paddle strokes.  He turned to catch her looking at him with a joy unrestrained and open and she was Old Auntie again.  To see his grandmother in her face had been a rare and wondrous and desperately needed gift, but he was also glad she was Old Auntie again—because Old Auntie also loved him.  And because he loved her.

He understood in that shared glance, something so large his words and heart struggled to hold it.  Her face, framed by sun shimmered water was a kind of perfection.  A perfect moment bound within its tiny frame of time—and he, who for so long, had belonged nowhere and to no one, belonged to this moment completely.  And finally, after all he had been through, to this person.

The relief of this, the pure joy of it—the blues of it, the jangled red and yellows and purples from the floating gardens, the sift of butterflies and the chitter of green parrots, the croak of spotted frogs, Old Auntie’s toothy grin—all, all of it, a gift that seemed placed with great deliberateness into a palm pried open by the gods so that he could receive it.

They slid up against one floating island then another.  With great care, he climbed the woven walls and ventured onto each to gather seed pods and cuttings—never too many, never all in one spot.  He crept within the thick waves of color and scent lost in the music of flowers and felt, in their joy a kinship.  Acceptance.  They didn’t care about his arm.  They didn’t care about his welted and frightful skin.  He belonged to them.

In the hard heat of the day, they tied the reed boat to a mangrove root jutting up from a real island, one with rocks and tall trees casting shadows out onto the water.  Old Auntie slept in this soft shade, rocking in the cradle of the boat while Muleki swam out into the cool shallows among lily pads and bobbing ducks.

As the day waned, they turned back towards the city and its din.  They walked again past the temple in the gathering purples of a twilight thick with the smell of roasting onions and garlic—dinner smells.  Instead of the raucous jumble and chaos of the morning, the air seemed almost hushed with a strange anticipation.  Every eye turned heavenward in the gathering dark towards the holy mountain and the dog star, both aligned and waiting on the evening star.  The anticipation rippled like a wave and scattered the last crowds.  The Man of Light was coming—not yet, but very soon.

“We have much to do with these seedlings before we can leave on our pilgrimage,” said Old Auntie.


Friday, June 17, 2022

Chapter 24

They gathered together potions and pastes in small pots and packets.  They gathered strings of dried seed pods and leaves wrapped in linen and tied with flax.   But as they did, Muleki felt joy leak through a crack forming in his heart.

He went out to where the little white goat nibbled on a stand of tangle vine and gently removed the silver bell in the shape of a flower from the collar around her neck.  Then he rummaged through a basket Old Auntie kept of odds and ends until he found a cord of blue linen and looped it through the bell.

He ate that night in a heavy silence and watched the orange firelight dance on Layla’s face.  He watched it fleck her eyes with gold.

They woke to a morning thick with fogs.  The old woman bound a satchel heavy with all the collected tonics on Layla’s back and touched her leathery cheek to the girl’s soft one.  Muleki was afraid to meet Layla’s eye lest she see his cracked heart, but she took his dead hand and he felt again the sudden warmth.

“We will meet when we make our pilgrimage to Tulum,” she said, “And it will be my joy to see you again.”

He gathered courage and placed the silver bell in her hand.  She smiled and hung the cord around her neck.  He watched her long braid sway as she walked down the path to the stone road where the mists swallowed her.  He watched until the tinkling of the flower shaped bell grew more and more faint and then dissolved.

He felt empty doing his morning chores.  The white goat followed close behind him nuzzling at his leg whenever he paused.  There was much to do, but he worked as a blind man.  When the storms came, as Old Auntie predicted, they came first as soft showers.  This didn’t help his mood.  But soon the big rains came, slashing at the thatch and rattling the doors, filling streamlets to pools and sogging the grasses flat.  They littered the flowers and spattered those bedraggled that remained with red mud.  

Muleki and the white goat hunkered under the eaves during the day and slept curled together by the fire at night while the wind howled and the rains tore through the garden.  On these fierce nights, while Old Auntie snored softly on her pallet, Muleki stared into the thatch and wondered about the bell on the blue cord.  Wondered where it rested—by what warm fire, on what warm skin.

The rains came day after day, but on the rare clear night, he went out into the wet garden to search the sky for the dog star, but the sky seemed a damp grey lid.  He paced the tiny house and eased his restlessness with small repairs and chores and when he felt the stone walls shrink to a cage around him, he ran out into the rain drenched forest where pools and puddles masked the known paths and thick mists made a dream world of everything familiar.

He walked into places made new and strange with mosses and the music of dripping water—dark and thick with swelling life.  The smell was ripe and full, yet oddly silent.  The bugs were gone, the monkeys hiding, and birds, that in other times filled the jungle air with a ceaseless tide of noise, had flown to new homes.  He walked the eerie, dripping quiet and the only sound was the suck of the thick red mud on his bare feet.  Still, the drench calmed his restless heart.

He came home muddy and sodden at the end of these small journeys—back to Old Auntie’s fire and soup cooking.  She always met him with warm blankets and a twinkle in her eye.  “There will be an end to the rain,” she said, “and perhaps then a time for journeys.”

They sat in the warm fill of their meal and Old Auntie told stories—histories of places and peoples Muleki had never heard of.  Wars, miracles, famines, kings.  Before sleep they made their own private prayers. bowing to the four directions, Muleki’s thoughts swirling through a list of the lost—his mother, his sisters, his people.  Layla.  He prayed that the rain might wash the blood from his killing hand, cleanse its stain from his soul.  That he might someday soon meet the Man of Light with a clean heart, though he feared that such a thing might not be possible.

“Go you to Tulum?  Make you the pilgrimage to see the Man of Light with all the others when he comes?” he asked one night as they sat beside the fire.

“And just what others might that be?” 

Muleki blushed and the old woman giggled.

“I suspect you’d like us to travel with my sister’s family?” and she giggled again.  “Of course my boy, if I’m still able.  But who know’s when that will be—much can happen.”

“Go I with you and you shall ride the donkey that you tire not.”

After a long silence, she looked at him keenly.  “What do you really seek from the Man of Light?  Your arm healed?”  He was suddenly shamed and covered his dead arm with a blanket.

“No,” he said after a long and thoughtful silence.  “Paid I the price of  disobedience with my arm.”  He stroked the head of the little white goat curled in his lap.  But even as he said the words, he struggled to tamp that secret wish, that wish that bubbled up unbidden like a hidden spring—that wish to feel life in his dead fingers once more.  The wish to braid the long thick weight of Layla’s hair with them.

Then another picture bubbled up in his mind—a rock bloodied and sticky with bits of hair and flesh.  Shame suddenly swallowed him.  No matter what anyone said—there could be no penance for such a crime.

He looked deep and long into the dancing flames of the fire.  “Want I nothing from the Man of Light—only to see him as I was called to do.  Only to know him.  To know his nature.”

Old Auntie sipped at her tea.  “Hmm—his nature.  Well, what gods do you know already?  What do you know of their natures?”

“Worship my people the great god like a jaguar whose nature is cunning and silent and secret—mysterious as a jaguar.  A phantom god who rules the land of ghosts and the destinies of men.”

She took much time sipping her tea then said, “And of the pink man’s god—the one who required of you a new name, made you drop by the wayside your people and history—what is his nature?”

“Of the pink men’s god, know I little.  He seems a god of rituals and runes and rules and of great power.  A god the pink men say is above all others.  A god who brings good fortune to those he favors, to those who worship him with correctness.”

“And ruin to the rest?” sighed Old Auntie, the smile gone out of her eyes.  She sipped again thinking.  “No doubt he favors pink men.”

“I suppose.  Know I only two pink men—one learned and dead, one devout and goodly.”

“Hmmph!”  Old Auntie sat quietly, her face stern.  Finally she said, “Well, sit with me a little while longer my boy.”  She refilled her cup with tea and poured him one as well.  

“I’ll tell you what I know of the nature of the Man of Light—but keep in mind, it’s only second hand since I wasn’t there myself when he came.  My sisters were.  You’d think there’d be splendor or pomp—but they said no.  There was just this beam of light slicing through that thick darkness and a man coming down with it.  And a voice—a quiet, gentle voice calling all the people to come.  All—pink and brown—all.  Not one first and then the other.  All.  And he had them touch his hands so they could feel that he had living skin just like theirs.”  Old Auntie looked wistfully out into the darkness.

“And this is what you have to know my boy—he didn’t sit on some fine throne to judge.  He sat on a big rock.  He didn’t look down on them, didn’t scold them or rank them or divide them by color or wealth, but had them all gather in close.”  Old Auntie’s voice broke and fell to a whisper.

“They said he spoke such wondrous things that those who heard wept.  Their hearts burned.  Their minds bloomed like flowers.  Such wondrous things that they couldn’t repeat them because our words were just too small.”  Tears welled in her old eyes.  “Oh how I wish I’d been there too my boy.  We both missed him.”

Old Auntie looked long into the dying fire and sighed.  “They say he looked out over the crowd and saw all the ones wounded by the great destruction and he asked all the injured to come up close.  Men, women, children, pink or brown, learned or simple, rich or poor, filthy or clean—it made no difference to him.  He put his hands upon each and healed them all.”  

Muleki thought, with a blunt and pummeling sadness, of burnt and blind Mishna and then of his lost village—all those pious women bloated and drowned, of his devout father burnt alive, of the burnt villages he’d passed through, the stench of death and rot that hung over them—of all those who weren’t favored, who weren’t there to be magically made whole.  What he really wanted to ask the Man of Light was—why?  Why some and not others?  Why did he destroy first, then heal?

“Then he prayed to his god for them,” Old Auntie continued.  “He fell to his knees and prayed to his god and wept.  He wept.  He wept for us.  This is the nature of the Man of Light my boy—he weeps for us.”  She reached out and took his dead hand in hers and held it.  “He weeps for what being requires of us.”


Friday, April 29, 2022

  “It’s time to learn the jungle plants,” said Old Auntie one morning and tied the white goat to a post inside the garden gate so it wouldn’t follow them.

Muleki trailed behind the old woman and Layla on an overgrown red dirt path winding up into hills shrouded in heavy mist.  The little white goat bleated after them as they plodded their steady way up through dense thicket, Old Auntie hacking the trail clear with her long knife.

They climbed up and around one hill, then down into a ravine choked with biting flies.  They wrapped their faces and hands with strips of linen soaked in sour chaxcha peel and ventured deeper into the jungle until the air grew still and dim and thick under a tangled roof of branches and vines.  The wet air and stew of bug voices and bird and monkey talk filtering down from the high canopy washed a wave of homesickness over Muleki and his thoughts roamed to his childhood river and all the lost faces he loved.  He walked in a cloud of biting flies and memories.

They walked with care, Old Auntie telling of each tree and vine, but Muleki only half listened.  He was drawn by the jungle trees reaching like indifferent gods far up into the mists that played in their crowns and feeding off the rot and chaos at their feet.  He stilled himself to hear their voices beneath all the other chatter.  A deep low chant—that of many voices woven and braided to one, intertwined by threads of sound into one great being.

As Old Auntie walked on ahead, Layla slowed to place her palms upon the trees, against their woody skins, and Muleki did the same.  Their song entered into the very bones of his good hand like the rumble of a hive.  He could feel the multitude of colors in their music, the intersects of light and shadow.  As his ear and heart grew attuned, he felt the fugue, the music of their root tangled with the very ground and the branch tangled with that of the creatures living in its woody arms.  With his hand on their rutted skin, he felt, under it all, the very breath of the earth itself—its inhale from the mists at their tips and its great loamy exhale.  And, connected by his palm, he was a part of this huge thing—no longer Muleki the boy, but a thread of song woven into the whole of created beings.

For a moment, he was lost in a kind of joy—that particular joy he’d felt in his dream with the wild man.  When at last he looked up, spent and grinning, he saw Layla’s eyes on him.  Her face reading his face, her soul reading his.

“The great lie behind all evil,” she said softly as he caught up to her, “is that we are individual, distinct.  We think too small.  We think in a cave, in a pit--in a room with no windows.”  She said no more and the two hurried to catch up to Old Auntie who waited far ahead of them on the trail.

“Take no medicines here.  This place is sacred to the Nahuati.  Take care not to defile their hallowed ground nor offend their hospitality,” cautioned Old Auntie as they wound through a meadowed clearing. 

Suddenly they came to a great breach—a gash of sky now hot and blue over a gorge where the little path fell off a cliff of jagged red rock.  So far below as to be barely seen, a river churned.  Three braids of rope spanned the deep gorge—one thick for walking and two narrower to hold for balance.

Old Auntie removed a small pot from her satchel.  “Honey for those who keep the bridge,” she said.  She looked at the rope bridge and then at Muleki’s dead arm.  “You may wait here my boy, if you want.”   Her voice was kindly and tender, but the look and her words slashed him like a blade.  She saw this and turned quickly away then stepped gingerly out onto the widest rope, grasping a thinner one in each hand.  She stepped easily across, her sturdy body swaying in a kind of a dance with the teetering bridge.  When she stepped onto the other side, she turned with a worried squint.  “Careful!” she said.

Layla followed.  Muleki watched the long braid down her back sway as she easily stepped across.  He watched the easy movement of her hips, the sure grace of her strides.  As she reached the other side she turned, and nodded to him and smiled.

Muleki took several deep breaths then edged out onto the thick rope grabbing a smaller rope in the white knuckle grip of his good hand.   His dead arm hanging like useless baggage at his side.  After two or three wobbly steps, the thick rope began to buck beneath him, slowly at first and then wildly.  

His feet slid off, first one and then the other.  He dangled by his good hand and swayed, his heart in his throat.  He looked down past his flailing feet at the ripples and rocks of the river’s rapids far below and his mind went white with panic.  He couldn’t move.  He couldn’t think what to do.

“Muleki!” Old Auntie yelled, “Hang on!  I’m coming!”  But Layla grabbed her sleeve and held the old woman back.

“Wait.  He must do this.  He must know he can do this,” she said softly to Old Auntie then turned and watched Muleki intently as he dangled.

He looked up and saw her watching and the moment his heart moved from the rocks below to her, he felt the wobbling ropes steady, felt in his legs an answer, an action.  He kicked until he found the thick rope with his feet then carefully worked it back under him and pushed and centered his weight over his feet and slowly stood.

His heart raced.  His mouth soured with the metal taste of fear.  He walked in tiny steps, one foot eased slowly in front of the other, eyes pinned to the thick rope in front of his toes.  His mouth like chalk.   Layla stood at gorge’s lip, her eyes locked on his feet.  Muleki felt her calm, her stillness.  He felt her steady the rope beneath each step.  As he neared the far edge, she reached out and grabbed his dead arm and pulled him to the safety of the good red dirt.

“You walk a rope bridge like a true jungle boy!”  Old Auntie laughed—but it was a laugh with no mirth in it, only relief.  The old woman turned and walked on into the forest but not so quickly that Muleki didn’t see an anguish in her eyes.  

        Muleki dared gasp once there was solid red dirt beneath him.  Layla smiled and let go of his useless arm and it swung stupidly at his side as they ran to catch up to Old Auntie.  He was shamed.  Shamed by the pity of Layla and yet somehow grateful for his need of her, a need that on the bridge had been urgent and physical as an embrace.

“We go to find the medicine trees,” said Old Auntie when they reached her, her voice still a little shaky.  They walked deeper into the darkening jungle where she cut strips of curare vine.

“Very poisonous as tea—but ground fresh as powder and mixed with spit to a paste will cure snake bit.  Also a poultice for swellings and poisonous wounds.”  

She gathered leaves for aching joints and an oily sap to repel insects which they smeared on their arms and legs and the backs of their necks.  She gathered clusters of the beautiful flowers from the twining burabura to ease pain.

At last they reached a strange clearing, a place that seemed almost tended.  It was encircled by a grove of the tallest kapok trees Muleki had ever seen and beneath them in tiny patches of filtered sun, coca trees and the beautiful cinchona.

“Come now and kneel,” whispered Old Auntie and she knelt with a wince in the quiet center of the grove.  Muleki and Layla knelt at her side while she sang in an ancient language that Muleki did not know.  She rocked gently then and prayed in a whisper.  Muleki could not hear her words, but felt her prayers rise like mist.  

He opened his eyes and peeked over at Layla.  Her eyes were also open and gazing into the tree tops, her palms flat on the mossy ground.  A thick column of light seemed to both fall toward and ascend from her.  And in that moment, she seemed somehow lost to him, the opposite of when he was on the bridge.  It was a different divide she crossed now—and he could not follow.  A pang rang through him—a misery.  Self pity.  Jealousy.  Longing.  

When she’d finished her prayers, Old Auntie drew another small pot of honey from her satchel and left it in the cleared place at the center of the grove.  Muleki rose with her and they both waited for Layla who still crouched, palms on the ground, eyes fixed on the treetops, her face luminescent.  At last she rose and shook herself, smiled and took up her bundles.

“Shall we go now?” 

Old Auntie gave Muleki a look that was weighted with something, but he was unsure what exactly.

They began their return home and Muleki’s heart began to pound wildly as they neared the gorge.  That sour sick fear rose again into his throat and when Layla stopped and turned to give him a reassuring smile, his cheeks burned.  

They reached the rope bridge and she took his dead hand in hers.  He could feel their warmth, their softness through his lifeless palm.  He turned a startled look on her and again she smiled.  When she let go, the deadness returned, but a great calm washed over him like warm water rinsing away a sticky self pity.  He felt a new steadiness in his legs.

“It is in you to do this,” she whispered, but as she began her teetery walk across the rope, fear flooded back to fill her wake.  

When she reached the other side, Layla turned and cast a look on him that felt like a rope itself.  A rope anchored to her smile, a thing somehow more sure even than the cliffside.  His legs steadied.  A stillness rose slowly up from his feet.  One foot, then the other—like the sure pulsing of his heart.  He felt her will draw him across, felt it steady the rope beneath his feet.  Felt it damper the tremor in his legs.  When he finally reached the cliff face where she stood, she reached again for his dead arm to pull him to sure ground.  She nodded and smiled, but said no more.

The next days were filled with the making of potions, the mixing of poultices and balms from the medicines they’d gathered in the jungle. They learned the brewing of teas and the fermentation of nectars in the sun striped shade of the stone house sitting amongst clay pots and linen parcels.  They wove flower blankets when the need arose, but took no time to dawdle in the city—a sense of urgency hung over the little house.  One muggy afternoon, there came a change in the wind.  A briny lurid breeze swept in from the eastern sea, a ribbon of cold running through it.  Old Auntie looked off to the east, to the thin clouds gathering around the hills.

“Our lessons are over.  Layla will leave tomorrow before the storms come.”

Monday, April 18, 2022


Chapter 23

There came a day when the wind carried a new smell—something clean and crisp like a stripe of yellow woven through a blanket.

“Harvest time,” grinned Old Auntie, “the rains are coming.”

They worked day and night until all was gathered and drying—maize, beans, chotle, coca and smoked plantains were strung from the roof beams under newly repaired and weighted thatch.  Berries and figs dried on racks near the fire and in clay pots sealed with beeswax, honey from the hives.  Bundles of dry stalks and grass for the animals leaned against every wall.

When the rains finally blew in, they fell in great sheets for days bloating the little streamlets in the garden, washing over their banks.  The roar from the river and its falls could be heard in rare moments of quiet.  The trees sagged, their leaves torn and limp.  Lakes of mud in the garden drowned all but the tallest lilies.

“It’s the way of the world,” shrugged Old Auntie at Muleki’s distress.   “This is what the flowers know—there’s no fighting the storm.”

After the rains, the star child came to the house—Old Auntie’s niece.  She was not older than Muleki, but nearly as tall with skin the color of dark glowing honey—as though she might shine in the dark.  Her dark eyes also had something golden in them, something like firelight flickering behind shards of mica.  Her long black hair was gathered into a thick braid laced with colored cords and tiny yellow flowers picked at the road’s edge.  Muleki looked at this girl overlong and then turned quickly away when a flush rose to his cheeks.  Her name was Layla.

Layla was sent by her mother to learn the healing arts and brought bulbs of tuberose as gifts.  They made room in the little stone house for one more.

Now Old Auntie’s garden lessons included which flowers for fevers, which herbs for stomach ailments and toothache, which leaves boiled for melancholy or relief from pain and childbirth.  

Muleki walked in a fog of words about poultices, teas, balms and scented smokes.  He trailed behind Layla as she followed old Auntie on the narrow path.  The girl moved like the soft ripple of winds over a pond’s still surface.  He watched how she tilted her head to listen and how it moved her long braid.  He noticed other things too—small things.  How the flower heads quietly moved to follow her as she passed.  How birds shyly drew near.  He felt a stillness about her, an easy welcome that surrounded her like a mat spread for sitting on damp earth.  

One day Muleki’s mind grew weary with the effort of remembering the link of every plant part with its malady and he allowed it to rest.  To let Old Auntie’s voice wash over it like the lap of water over stones.  Instead, he listened to the trees and flowers as they worked among them.

It was then he heard what the girl Layla heard when she tilted her head just so.  He heard the trees and flowers and birds whispering to her heart.  But he was amazed that he could also hear what her mind said to them in return.  Never before had he been able to hear another person thinking to plants—not even the crones of his village.  Layla turned abruptly as if interrupted.  She smiled.

Since a child, Muleki had been able to hear the souls of plant and animal, rock and wind—but always in the stiff and clumsy words and thoughts of his own mind.  The awkwardness of his thoughts, his words, trying to squeeze them into something understandable.

But listening to and with Layla, a knowing seemed to bloom within his own thoughts.  An understanding of the soft whisper of the plant’s own language.  It was a kind of music—though not really.  Woven through it also was the quality of smell and taste and memory—something deep, loamy and familiar.  Each plant exhaled wafts of this melody like a scent, the song of every plant different—some with stray wayward bits of harmony trickling away from a tune, some pining and lonely like a reed flute, some with bubbling songs, some proud, some filling the soul with pity—but all had a a common quality.  A searching.  A yearning.  A thing his own soul knew.  And Layla’s attention, her care, her notice, seemed to quench this yearning.  A deep content trailed her in a wake and Muleki, like all else, fell into its spell.

He followed behind her curious—letting his mind slip into hers while Old Auntie’s lessons washed through his thoughts like a school of fish in a clear stream.

Trailing behind Layla, he heard more than the music of trees and flowers and grass.  As he practiced this deeper listening, he found he could also understand the thought language of birds and insects, whose thought music differed from their ordinary clicks and chirps.  Their thoughts resembled the music of water—again, all different.  Some with a rush and motion, others with slow drips and dribbles.  Some with the soft plopping of pebbles cast upon a pond, some like a boiling pot.  But here as well, a press of longing beneath the surface that eased like a sigh when Layla turned her eye to them.

They lay side by side one afternoon in mossy shade while the fierce heat beat down on the garden.  Old Auntie snored softly on her blanket while Muleki and Layla stared up into the leaf dappled sky. 

“See you the Man of Light—hear you his voice?”  It was the question he’d been waiting to ask all these days trailing behind her and his voice came in a shaky whisper.


Muleki felt her clipped answer and the silence that followed like a wall, but since Old Auntie still snored, it was a wall he dared climb.

“What was he like?  What was it like?”

Layla turned to study his face and he felt the full measure of his life made bare to her eyes.  She stared at him thoughtfully, then smiled at last.

“A man like any other.  A man of flesh, but a flesh that shone so bright, it made all else feel dark as night.”  She squinted up into the leafy branches.  “And as he spoke, as he looked out over the people, his light swallowed all darkness in and around them, until all bathed in this light.  The people shone like amber.”

Then she turned to Muleki and smiled.  “It was the light from him that was different—like sunlight, but also like water.  It flowed through us and around us as though we were made of woven reeds.  Our language has no words for it.  Our language is too small.  The understanding in the light was so deep and broad, it would be like trying to hold the ocean or the jungle or the sky in our words.”  She looked back up through the canopy of fluttering leaves.  “It is that light you hear as you follow me.  The light that is in all things.”  She grinned and gave him a knowing look.  He blushed and felt his ears burn with it.

“His light washed over us the long story of the earth, its place in the story of the stars, so that we saw how very small men are.  The earth and our place in it tiny as the smallest fleck of dust in a great stream of sunlight.  How short men’s time here—the barest whispered breath.”

Muleki’s face clouded.  He thought on the destruction of his village, his father’s life snuffed out as though it were nothing.

“Are we worth nothing to the gods?  Our lives like grass?”

“Not like grass—like shooting stars.  Rare and precious.  We are glints. We are wondrous.”

The two stared up through the leaves lost in their separate silences.

“See I that you are different from others,” he dared say at last, “that the birds and flowers know this—“ and he could feel the blush blooming again in his face, “that all things yearn toward you.”  She turned again and looked at him frankly—a look that unmoored him.

“Some things remained when the light left—like when water recedes at last through a loose woven basket, it leaves within the warp and weave a bit of itself.  The basket is changed.”  She looked back up into the trees.  “It’s hard to know what that light left in me because it’s hard to remember how I used to see, how I used to feel and hear before.”  

Muleki dared to watch the afternoon breeze ruffle the wisps of hair around her face, the soft profile of her nose, her long dark lashes.

“Since then, it feels as though my skin grows thin—like the shroud of flesh I wore was a heavy coat that peeled away and I can finally feel the light that’s always been in everything.”

“This light in people too?” he asked and quickly looked away.

She turned and smiled at him and he blushed again.  “Yes—but people are harder,” she said twisting the end of her braid.  “Their will, their defenses spot them like a mold.”

Then, as though she had said too much, she looked back up into the trees and the two rested long minutes in silence while Muleki’s mind circled round these ideas like a curious dog.

“Called was I to find the Man of Light,” he said finally and in a whispered voice choked with remorse.  “Pulled was I by this calling like the tug on a butterfly to find his home trees, or a fish to find his home stream.  But heeded I the chatter and confusion of my own mind until distracted and defiled.  Heeded I the needs and words of others and I arrived too late to find him.  Betrayed I my call.”

Layla sat up and faced him, her look thoughtful and intent.  She took his good hand in both of hers and squeezed it gently and the warmth of it rose up his arm.  “But you have not missed him—he comes to Telum when the stars align.  It is promised.”

“But Old Auntie said that could be in my children’s time.”

“His return was promised.  All heard it.  All watch and wait for the stars to tell us when he comes again—this time to Telum.  There will be a great pilgrimage and you will come.”

“And where is this Telum?”

“It’s the city of the temple by the eastern sea just days journey from here—close enough it can be seen from the top of the Holy Mountain.  We will go to greet him there together.”  At this new hope, at the prospect of going with Layla, Muleki’s heart danced.  

Layla touched his useless hand with great tenderness.  She walked her fingertips over his dead palm and at her touch, he felt a small heat where he had felt nothing for so long, but it was gone nearly as soon as it was felt.

That night, he ran to his sleeping tree in the corner of the garden and collapsed at its base elated, his heart full of Layla’s words--with her being.  With a fresh hope.

Monday, April 11, 2022

And so day followed day—each filled with quiet labor in the stooped shadow of Old Auntie, her patience and steadiness like that of a goodly tree.  Muleki measured time by the slow upward whirl of seedlings grown to flower and the smell in the wind of the coming rains.  He watched the night sky, the course and phases of the moon, and with a small and bitter hope, tracked the dog star on its slow journey towards the holy mountain, but the sweet comforts of Old Auntie and her garden blanched the urgency he’d once felt to find the man of light.  

To be around the old woman, so much like his grandmother and the crones of his lost village—her mischievous grin, her sturdy walk, her gentle touch—scabbed over the raw wounds of his loss.  He felt his soul healing.  He felt himself taking root in this garden.  He allowed himself to find home, to feel home, even if it was only until the man of light came again.

They worked with quiet purpose—dunging, pruning, moving sick plants to places wetter or drier, with more sun or shade.  They thinned the lilies and the flax.  Old Auntie’s lessons braided through all their labors pointing out the generosity or stinginess in an open petal or leaf, the reasons for a color shy or boasting, the care each green soul took to defend or award its prize.

“See the water my boy—it flows like the love of God,” she said while turning a little streamlet to a new course.  “The water’s need is to bless.  That is why it needs to be kept moving.  Everywhere it flows—life and plenty.  Finding every crack and fissure to bless—even the hardest rock and the poorest ground.”

“But, like the blessings of God,” she said tamping a boggy spot of loam with her heel, “when the water defies its nature, when it’s dammed up and hoarded—ah, then it grows putrid and rots all it touches.”

“And see there,” she said, pointing her walking stick towards the gathering clouds on the far horizon, “it can also be like the wrath of God, scouring the land clean for a new start.”  Here she laughed and shook her head.  “We’ll surely see that when the rains come.”

Old Auntie told of every tree and the different branchings of each and the soils they favored and all the birds and bugs and creatures that called each kind of tree home.  “See my boy—the branches so like rivers, so like families, so like stories, so like thoughts in the sleepless night.”

She told of the habits of the green flies, the wiles of the tangle vine, the great industry of spiders, the way the blood flower dangles its pollen out to the nuzzling bee on fragile outstretched arms.  She felt the packed earth for tree roots beneath.  She smelled the soil to know its need.  Her stories were not the fables others told of things and how they came to be.  Rather she taught the lessons the plants and trees themselves taught—what they liked and disliked.  What neighbors they preferred.  How they might fend off or use the bugs and birds and small creatures around them.

Always Old Auntie stressed the sacred care of the blanket flowers for the dead—a special song sung to them in bud and another in bloom and another at pruning.  She taught the stories woven into the difficult braid of stalks and stems—but other things also.

“The first time I came to the great city,” she said as they wove a funeral blanket one long evening, “I came with my grandmother to deliver a flower blanket to a pink man.  I remember him—a kind man and a maker of shoes.  He was a poor man but his love for his wife was great and his grief sore.”  Her look grew lost in the telling, though her fingers kept the quick rhythms of their task.

“This man sold nearly all to build his wife’s funeral pyre on the temple’s first tier—for it costs much to pay men to lift the body, its wooden bed, the tinder and sticks for the fire, up the steep stairs.  But it is the custom of the pink men that all within sight of the flames must kneel for their duration to honor the dead, and so the very grand and the wealthy all sought higher and higher levels of the temple for their pyres.  Only the king or chief judge might have his pyre at the very top—that all throughout the whole land would be made to kneel.”

“This poor man wanted all to know of his love and grief—that his wife, though a poor woman, was worth much to this world.”  Old Auntie shook her head sadly, then looked deep into the flames of the little fire.  “I still remember the face of that maker of shoes.  I remember thinking how wondrous it must feel to be so loved as that dead woman.”  She paused a moment, gathered herself and returned her focus to the stems in her hand.

“In those days, our people left our dead in trees or burned them by the river’s edge on large flat stones.  Though we worshiped the pink men’s God, their priests would not let us near the great temple.  Back then even the blankets we made for their dead were taken from us at the plaza gates as we were not allowed closer.”

“I remember the first time I came on the stone road to the great city with my grandmother—I’d never seen so many pink men.  I felt all their eyes on us—the careful kindness in some, the wariness and even hate in others—for surely many of those they loved had been killed by our people before we took our oath.  In those days I learned to make my face into a hard mask to fend off the lances of those looks.  But when I saw that maker of shoes, my hard mask melted at his grief.  I could feel the weight of his loss grinding his bones.”

Muleki stared into the fire.  He knew that weight.


Monday, March 28, 2022

 Chapter 22

Fog striped the weak morning sunlight threading through the trees, but the cool and damp kept the flower blanket fresh.  Muleki and Old Auntie still stopped at streamlets, as they made their way, to drink and sprinkle the flower blanket with cold water.  As they walked, each traveler they passed stopped and removed his hat.  Old Auntie did not seem to see them, but sang a low song to herself, her eyes lost in the distance.

The road grew crowded and soon the stone houses spattering the hillsides grew dense as well.  They rounded a bend and suddenly there it was—the great city.  Muleki stood stunned before buildings packed tight as kernels of maize.  The stone road they’d traveled broadened and like a river, was lined with trees.  Smaller paths and roads fed into it and cleaved into the center of each one was a ditch carrying water.  Some buildings they passed were small, their doors open like mouths spilling their stories out into the sunlight.  Others had great walls and Muleki glimpsed beautiful gardens within.

People clumped everywhere, all the women in different hats and dress—some with simple folded blankets piled atop their heads, some with hats like baskets adorned with feathers and flowers, some hats flat and round like a dish.  Women in doorways wove on foot looms and others worked at large wood looms strung with flax.  Some pounded maize while singing and laughing and shouting to neighbors.  The men wore no hats, only kerchiefs tied round their foreheads.  Some tapped at tiny anvils or worked their short knives into wood.  Hoards of children flitted about like brightly colored birds, their singing and chatter like the ringing of little bells.

All the tumult and activity stopped as the flower blanket passed.  Everyone grew quiet and still, some bowed their heads.  They walked through the crowds like a boat parting lilies afloat on the water.

The road curved around a low hill and opened onto a huge paved plaza and in its center, a tiered mountain rose up higher even than the low hills.  Muleki marveled.

“We’re here at last.” said Old Auntie.  She stopped at a ditch and sprinkled more water on the blanket and let the donkey drink.

Venders of bread and feathers and maizecakes crowded the plaza.  Women selling baby chicks.  Old men selling wooden spoons and gourds, pelts and beads.  Metalsmiths hammered their wares, potters whirled their clay on wheels they turned with their quick and clever feet.  Flute makers and drum makers played on samples of their work.  Women sold fruit and peppers, honey and coca and mugs of thin steaming porridge.  Muleki and Old Auntie walked, leading the donkey, in a fog of voices that melted to silence as they passed.

To the side of the plaza walls, water spilled into a basin and its excess spilled into another.  At the higher, women and girls in bright colored dresses gathered round the water like giant flowers to fill their clay jars.  At the lower, more women and girls beat clothes and wrung them dry.  Muleki gazed at all this industry astonished and opened mouthed.  He stumbled with looking. 

Evidence of destruction was everywhere.  Toppled towers and walls, cracks in the roads and plaza.  Broken steps and ruined thatch.  Men and boys clustered at repairs teetering huge stones and wood beams atop different sizes of perfectly round stone balls—first small and then larger and larger, guiding fallen stones back in place with ropes and metal levers.  Muleki dawdled gawking and many times the old woman and donkey stopped to patiently wait.

At the base of the temple, a small group gathered about what looked to be a very low table.  As they drew closer, Muleki saw that a young woman lay on the table, a tiny infant in her arms—both dead.  Suddenly his wonder blanked—in his mind, the picture of Mishna cradling the dead log.  That seemed so very long ago, lifetimes in the past.  Still, his eye rested on the baby’s soft bluish flesh with a kind of wonder.  Fragile as a blue petal.

All gathered round this dead woman bowed their heads as Muleki and Old Auntie approached.  With great care, they took the flower blanket from the tired donkey’s back and gently covered the woman and child.

They sang a strange song in a language Muleki didn’t know, then the strong men among them came forward to lift the table and ascend the stair.  They strained under their load—those in front holding their heavy burden low, and those behind holding it high so that the dead woman and child stayed level.  In this way, they reached the first tier and continued on up the stairs until they reached the second.  There they set the table on a pyre of many branches.  All but one returned back down the stairs.

The lone man sang a mournful song from up above and those gathered below sang out in answer.  At his word, all knelt with their faces to the dust while he lit the woman, her baby and the flower blanket afire.

Muleki and Old Auntie knelt with the others as the fire burned and sent its sweet sick smokes out over the plaza.  All grew quiet.  The crowds of venders and buyers stilled while the fire burned.  The only sound was the mournful howl of the lone man by the fire.  At his word, all rose and the plaza’s noise and activity resumed while the smokey fire burned slowly to ash.

“Come,” said Old Auntie.  “Our work here is finished, but while we’re here, I’ll show you the floating gardens.”

They walked with the donkey beyond the plaza on a broad road lined with flowering trees and women selling fruit and came at last to a vast lake and a place where many canoes were tied.  They secured the donkey and climbed into one of the canoes and paddled, floating across the still water until the noise and busyness of the great city were only far off whispers.

“There is butterfly island,” said Old Auntie pointing with a knobby finger at a small island thick with trees.  “Each year on its holy day, the butterflies return from their travels and sheath the trees.  You will see it when they arrive if you wish—all come in boats to watch.  Now—paddle over there just around the island’s edge so you can see the floating gardens.”

They moved with ease through the still waters and once around the island, great swaths of color dotted the lake—more colors than Muleki had ever seen.  They paddled closer and then between these islands which were really long woven boats filled with soil and loam and spilling over with wild blooms.  A thick clovey perfume wafted across the water and everywhere danced butterflies and the thrum of bees.  Old Auntie grinned with glee—like a child.

Monday, March 21, 2022

He found a kind of peace working beside Old Auntie in the garden.  The white goat developed a strange fondness for prickleweed and so they taught her to nibble the young shoots and likewise the yellow heads of sprouting chokeweed as she followed behind them.

While they worked, Old Aunt taught him flower songs to sing as they planted and pruned.  The days passed pleasantly among the swaths of color and scent—just long enough for work and rest.  It was pretty work and gentle.  He repaired the ditches and little dams.  On afternoons when the rains swept in from the eastern sea, he repaired the trowels and other tools.  And afterwards, he walked through the dripping leaves and branches and fronds, feeling wet rejoicing on every side.

One afternoon a stranger climbed the path to the walled garden and told of a death in his family and Muleki learned the use of Old Auntie’s flowers.  She was a weaver of flower blankets for the dead.  After the man left, they harvested bundles of blue lilies and many baskets of the orange flowers and purple.  Old Auntie stripped off leaves here and there and cut the stalks to certain lengths, then doused their ruffled heads in a stone basin of water steeped with tobacco.  Through the afternoon and late into the night she wove the long stalks and bound them securely with threads of flax sitting on the floor of the little stone house.

She sang as she worked—a strange song sung to the delicate flesh of the  petals—each fragile as bugwing.  It was a song about the brevity and frailty of life—how like candle flame that could be snuffed by a breath, doused by a drip.  Yet it was also a song of wonder and praise—a song to honor the single small bloom, to honor the lowly and common among the throng.  She sang of a blossom overlooked in a field of glory, blooming and dying in a single day.  How it blessed the world with its small dot of color, its small scent.  How the adding of small beauties blessed the world.

“Sing you a song of your people?” Muleki asked when the tune ended.

“Oh—it’s a very old song,” she said, her fingers still working fast and sure.  “My grandmother told me it was sung by the first mother at the beginning of the world.  My grandmother also wove flowers for the dead.  She taught me the craft when I was even younger than you.”  

She grabbed another flower and gently shook the water from its head.  “She’s the one who taught me to see—not just flowers, all things.  To take God’s lessons from the habits of plants—how flowers and trees and earth and weather tell the true story of the world—the way the world is always trading this for that.  If you stay here, if you are willing and patient to learn—the garden may teach you these things too.  But now, let’s start with this.”

And she taught him to coax the stalks gently with her fingers, curving them with a soft touch to braid and bend them around and through one another without crimping or breaking the stems.  When the first layer was finished, a blanket of woven green draped over her knees and spread across most of the floor.  She then began to braid and stitch the flower heads into its surface in stripes and chevrons and spirals of color, explaining as her fingers flew.

“See this circle?  When green, it stands for the earth—our mother.  When blue, it stands for the soul, and when orange or yellow, the body.  All three a circle because the soul and body are eternally connected to the great mother by our very flesh and blood and bone.  Our flesh the birth cord connecting us to our mother.”

The fire’s flickering light gave the flowers a burning intensity and its heat heavied the air in the close room with clove and perfume.  It made Muleki dozy, as did Old Auntie’s hands shuttling back and forth, back and forth.

“And here the spiral—the sign of the moon, the earth’s firstborn.  And here—these arrows—pointing this way, they are the calling of the earth to sustain us, and when pointing the other way, a call to the earth to take our flesh back to itself.  To make new life of the old.  See this sword over here near the end?  Death’s cleansing.  See how it cuts that birth cord binding us to earth.  That always needs to be in the blanket over here near the edge.”

Muleki’s eyelids drooped.

When daylight was still a long way off, Old Auntie nudged him awake.  The flower blanket’s colors and scent seemed to fill the room with a strange magic and for a moment, Muleki thought he was dreaming.  

Old Auntie looked tired, but pleased and they washed and prayed.  They fasted in order to leave right after the morning’s chores—even before daylight.  Muleki helped gather up the flower blanket and plunge it into the tobacco water one last time, then they placed it still dripping atop the old woman’s donkey and set off down the hill to the stone road that led to the city.