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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Erica de la Palabra de Dios

A foreign journal mentioned the rail spur in a letter for travelers, and cited villages along the route by name but after the failure of Banco Universal the health of the area deteriorated. Few visitors were willing to cross a semi-destroyed jungle without basic services.

The haunted outposts embarrassed the state. In 1965 twenty-one settlements in the district were listed to receive post-offices, grade-schools, and with them, new names. In a trial program Sombra de la Muerte was re-christened Cama de Flores, but that immediately led to confusion with the next village dubbed Garden of Eden.

The old monikers clung, for whatever reasons one imagines. Pies sin Suela hosted a silo for fertilizer. There was a taqueria, and a couple of speed bumps in a paved track that leads to the highway from the station. 'Feet without Soles' refers to the peeling of a man's feet, if he refused to work.

The promised schools were shoddily constructed. European lessons were so unattended that most the teachers quit after a week.

Riffs of Quolé, the native tongue thought extinct by scholars, were heard by locals. Even the smallest hamlets coveted caches of documents from an indigenous past written in native script on papers pounded from bark. Who planned on attending classes? The post-offices were bogged by theft and inefficiency, and roads remained more or less useless. Electronic signals flew over the heads of settlements beyond rescue, with histories impossible to forget.

The railroad company tried to reinterpret town names into something more cheerful, more modern. The natives could tell their history since Europeans arrived, but no one asked. Most lived in thatched huts beside small plots of corn planted amidst the scrub.

The Solitary Traveller, Perth, 1979 dismissed the district with one short phrase: "Don't go there", the entire area deemed too hazardous for foreigners. The region remained a featureless blot on maps, details open to speculation. By 1950 scheduled trains dwindled to two round trips a week and remained so until the mid 1970's.

Beneath a spurge of trash trees, lianas and scrub, a vicious limestone pan tore the bottoms off vehicles and shredded tires. One kilometer from the railway, a few improvements to the state highway system provided access for a small cadre of landowners who, with government funds, attempted to establish beef as an export. Deliveries of state-subsidized feed and fertilizer increased and kept the rail service alive.

Forests were cleared to make fields for livestock, large trees felled to pay local officials. Rats took over, and with them snakes. After storms in the rainy season, walking at night on dirt paths was hazardous due to 'quatre nez', seeking refuge from the floods.

Carne Quemada had been a staging ground for hardwood trunks. Limbs from these trees provided fuel for curing rubber. But it was said the name was first given because the place smelt of burnt flesh.

Workers who made trouble in Sin Agallas had their bowels pulled from a slice in the lower abdomen. Then their entrails were placed in a bag tied round the victim's hips. He could stuff his intestines back in if he so desired, either way he was released, and usually had strength enough to return to his village before infection set in.

Somehow the horrors perpetuated on the lowlands tribes were absorbed by images of ritual purification, as the railway gained elevation.

Time, abhorrently neutral, forgets acts of kindnesses and cruelty both. Time persists, though forever it is running out.

At La paz de los Muertos burnt scrub and banana plantations broke way to cocoa and coffee, then a succession of deserted settlements with European heritage were also swallowed by jungle. The train lurched past these places.

Pasada Sorbo held a spring that had dried during the Conquest. Perhaps a dying man walked towards the mountains, hoping to drink clear water. He had a vision of Christ before succumbing to thirst. A spring burst from the ground where he fell. Was his thirst because there was no water? Or was he simply pleading for a drink?

The railway spent a few minutes in these hamlets, each more haunted than the last. Ghosts seemed to peer through the grime of railcar windows. The drained faces flitted across shadows of overgrown ficus.

Ritos Finales or "Final Rites" had a main street with four structures and a garden zocalo with immaculate flowers set about a statue of Orozco de Aguilar holding a sword. A gardener on state salary maintained appearances. There was even a museum, where a guard looked after books papers and portraits, and told stories of the Conquest, doing his best to soften the bits about torture. Those grisly details lay buried in the stacks of Biblioteca Nacional.

One saw the bedroom where Aguilar passed during his sleep. To maintain discipline and quell an incipient uprising, his lieutenants ordered fifty Quintole men and women disemboweled. That was cited in a 1980's guidebook from Germany, but omitted in official state documents.

Sombra de la Muerte, was deserted. The name was all that lived. Off this tiny intersection, a dusty spur led to the state highway. It was rumored you risked God's judgment if you touched foot there.

The train wheezed on. A conductor shouted the next stop, then mumbled a bad translation in the native tongue, Quolé.

In 1930 the last fluent Quolé speaker, Doroona Ti-nassa, a woman whose name meant "Flower who Remembers” transitioned to another life without event. She recorded no specifics during her hundred plus years, nor did she recount simple memories of the Conquest as told to her by her grandmother, except that during old age, she said she would die when her dog, a short-hair of mangy appearance, also passed away. She claimed the dog held the souls of her departed husband and four children whom she had already outlived by thirty years. When her pet was shot by an angry neighbor, Doroona met Jesus that same evening, mumbling unintelligible words, to a cousin, who happened to be visiting.

Ti-nassa Doroona's importance to the town is noted by a brass placard affixed by the Cultural Office to a post in front of her house, which today stands vacant.  The engraved paragraph with a Quole transliteration is one of few officially rendered texts in a language all but destroyed by a conqueror.

Quolé is not written or studied as a living language. One crude transliteration exists, rendered by a early 20th Century botanical scholar from Saarbrücken. Referred to by botanists as the Rosetta Stone of Plants, the field notes of Oleg Kohlman provide a glimpse into a secret Quolé past. Though his revelations about plant families were overshadowed, his records of Quolé healing were invaluable to ethnolinguists. In the region today, where few European words are spoken even by natives, a linguistic treasure exists in multiple pidgins and creoles that evolved there.

Five hundred miles, two thousand meters up from Los Azules, the rail line terminates in the small hill settlement of La Palabra de Dios. The inhabitants are a mix of hill tribes, potato farmers, herders and descendants of rubber workers from the lowlands. There also lived a few descendants from Aguilar himself, his lieutenants, and native concubines. These grey-skinned ghosts exhibited signs of heavy inbreeding. Their heads sloped, with long ears, and pale skin. They flitted through quiet streets, spoke little, and kept to themselves.

It is said that if the train engine cannot breathe in La Palabra de Dios how can people? The air is so thin that water is precious, it is forever evaporating away.

The church at La Palabra de Dios today holds images of twenty-two saints. Two rows of retablos flank either side of a tin-enameled sculpture of Jesus soaked in blood and wrapped in thorns from his head to his waist. So many nails are driven into his extremities through the painted tin, he resembles a Central African votive doll. Some of the saints were more animal than man, or had breasts as well as male organs. One of the saints was a child. The saints' names were spoken in untraceable dialects and a few seem to have no history at all.

The only guide in Palabra de Dios, a long-haired arrival from the capital, waits for a curious tourist. If one pays him a few coins, he will attempt to link each pagan image to a popular Christian saint. Only two connections were easy, Saint Francis, who in addition to being surrounded by animals, wore the skin of a jaguar and St. Sebastian who had a European spear run through his gut and another through his head.

Paintings on the wall told the same story. It seemed saintly feet were burned at the slightest provocation with red-hot cast iron, or legs lashed until the skin hung by flayed shreds. Women and children were impaled on stakes. Painted images of merciless angels courted the dying with heads of serpents and lizards.

Padre Gomé's father, Señor Antonio, died when Gomé was just eighteen. The following morning approximately one hundred Quolé speakers, most of whom who had never been seen in church, stood at the door with silent faces. They waited for Señor to open the chapel. One of the boys fetched them water. They stooped on the floor. Around the images candles flickered and cast undulating shadows. They set down offerings, of chickens, the heads of goats, fruits, flowers.

Of mestizo blood, Gomé as a baby was refused baptism at the basilica in Los Azules.

The reason for the refusals concerned a Papal Bull issued in 1795 itself a response to a bloody insurrection by native clergy, that resulted in the deaths of forty of God's faithful. The Holy Father pronounced the diocese a "A Sacristy for the Dammed". The entire congregation was ex-communicated in 1796 with the proviso that re-admission to the Body of Christ could occur in two-hundred years, pending good behavior. Then in 1940 a gruesome repeat of the violence, reinforced the Church's determination never to rescind the bull.

And so this little Church lived in a kind of Purgatory, and its faithful, in a kind of Hell. The town drew strength from beaten jungles that lay at its feet. The lineages of the clergy and stories surrounding the Gospels morphed into a cult and myth of suffering. In Rome they said the people grew horns. In the capital one crossed oneself before mentioning La Palabra de Dios, by name.

Priests traced a lineage to natives in the lowlands, and tribals from the hills, as well as a few white inhabitants who had no Catholic aspirations other than that of achieving forgiveness. It seems enigmatic and puzzling that such a diversity of laity should be obsessed with genealogy, or that any effort was made to trace descent from indigenous tribes. All who were associated with the diocese were devoted historians. In recent years, two Danish geneticists started a project mapping genes in the area bracketed by Aguilar's railway.

It could be said all who lived in La Palabra de Dios were possessed. By what? A desire to obtain forgiveness from his Holiness? To alleviate the guilt that clung like lichen to stones of the settlement?

With books, communiques and visiting laity cut off, congress with the church had severed.  Gomé encouraged native interpretations of Christian saints. Votive statues, first outlawed by the church Fathers, were tolerated. The images of the saints changed, morphed, and grew as sculptures of gods resurrected from stories grandmothers told about the jungle.

Bizarre perfumes scented the nave. Birds, rodents even monkeys made the church their home. A twilight chorus within blended with rainforest without. At candlelit services, held usually at dawn and at dusk, one heard fragments of fifteen different languages. The Fathers communicated Holy Words to tribal elders who made offerings of corn, semi-precious stones, amber, carvings of copal and perfumed wood. Penitents wore bags of mud about their necks. Others wore the entrails of game animals that had given their lives for food.

The theme of every service was pain. Suffering hung by a chain from the neck of the town. It rang, a noisy bell, and stank, a rotting beast. Even the forest creatures that attended services joined in cries of anguish. Parrots of La Palabra de Dios spoke another dialect. Their voices mimicked what was heard in church.

The tiny eglise persisted in efforts to forget. By force of the human spirit, it trudged through the slime of Purgatory, confident it had already experienced the flames of Hell. The confusion of oppressed and oppressor in the roster of saints reinforced their hopeful notions of forgiveness. You could beat a man's feet every day of your life, be forgiven, and then be sainted. There was even talk of sainting Aguilar, because his acts of oppression had taught the congregation so much.

Forgiveness from a liberal Pope in recent years was not forthcoming. Clergy and laity moved on. Services were punctual. So many candles were lit in the dark interior that even on the coldest of mountain nights when the frosty air of the snowcapped peaks bore into the gravel valley tucked between mountains like the breath of a dead angel, the interior of the tiny basilica stayed warm.

Once each month Gomé journeyed down the rail line to Los Azules to make his report to the Archdiocese, hoping to show that God's work was being done, and that the congregation was doing penance for its previous crimes. The Vicar would not admit him.

Gomé spent a brief moment in solitary prayer, though junior priests kept an eye on him from a chapel in the transept, less some of the silver objects at the choir suddenly go missing. Gomé left the report on a silver tray in the vestry. It was hand delivered to the Bishop after he left.

The Bishop's large ringed fingers bulged as he took up the request. He glanced at the perfumed letter, turned to the Vicar and scoffed. "These letters smell of the Devil, no? God has a right to live in Hell, yet he chooses not to do so."

The Vicar filed Father Gomés' letters, together with those of Gomé's own father, and the nine priests who had served before them, in a set of bindings that were not labelled. One could say what what one wanted about the Church, it kept everything, even works by the Devil himself.

Santa Maria de la Palabra de Dios was filled with flowers. Incense billowed from small silver braziers. The air was giddy with pollen, sweat and perfume. Haunted faces knelt, lit candles and prayed. Men and women wailed, their voices rose and fell, a chorus from a endless tide of pain. Tears from brown cheeks pooled onto the floor, and rows of worshippers replaced those who rose to give up their place. Machetes rattled against worn tiles. Tears were ritually gathered by flat copal wood spatulas managed by a priest who poured them over a fired effigy of the Holy Son. The statue brewed in a patina of green mould and salt. It resembled an excavated form of the Rain God, Chaak.

And so, with history as a backdrop, we come to the only daughter of Father Gomé, a young girl from La Palabra de Dios, who, through a bizarre quirk of fate, was adopted last year by an English family, and who now lives and studies in Mexico City.

Erica works as a tour guide in the Central Zocalo. With long straight hair impeccably combed she wears a slim black miniskirt and a long-sleeved white button down shirt, speaks English, quite well, tinted by an accent from somewhere else.

"I am not Mexican," she had said to me, shortly after we met. "I have a long story to tell you. Do you want to hear it?"

It was then she told me of the train ride I should take to better understand her country.

Ének a Vámpír Pennsylvania

Song of the Pennsylvania Vampire

On a feed through Pennsylvania,
I felt a need for my old Transylvania.
A Hungarian first of Czech descent,
It matters not, where those Magyars went.
I fled Romania after our war,
Fearing death, and butchery I abhor.

My dear wife is owed some transcription here,
Of life abroad, since I turned vampire.
An ache for blood, a thirst for souls,
Makes my curse much worse than coal.

I've had my minute in these United States,
Ran for Senate, won that race.
Alas one night debating abolition,
To a lovely woman, I became a victim.

That trip to Richmond I was young,
And that woman, seduced by her tongue.
By a coal black night, a butchery she made,
She drank my soul, and left this instead.

She let enough to quench her thirst,
The cruelest wench she ensured a curse.
"There now learn, you're just a slave!
"As all in life, senators, knaves."

Weeks no breath, not a crust of bread.
I hated water, was nearly dead.
I longed for salt, meat made me gag,
How I cursed that harlot hag.

My return to health, when at last I fed,
From a pool of blood by a train wreck death.
Just one drop touched my lips,
From a wound lifted by fingertips.

Police and medics shoved me aside,
And recovered the body of that poor child.
I knew at once what raced through my veins,
From my ancestral place, with the Hungarian name.

American life had realized,
What lurked inside all these centuries.
What the genes desire nourishes immortality,
And is exchanged for curses from humanity.

My limbs grew strong, power took hold.
I now longer bathed, my flesh grew cold.
The Senate I visited a few times more.
I did not speak, but even'd the score.

One dozen slavers met grisly ends,
In weeks preceding that rebel Congress.
By night I rampaged Virginian earth,
Slicing necks of hypocritical birth.

South Mason-Dixon I sought William Preston
Who advanced that bill for southern succession.
At Smithfield Mansion, his veins got bled,
To a pale husk in his plantation bed.

A lamplit shipyard one gloomy nautch,
Two Yankee mariners stood final watch.
The apparition that drained their youth,
Had pale skin while he robbed their truth.

Below decks the prisoners released,
But nicked all first so soon they'd feed.
Into the South a curse dispersed,
To catch their masters and quench their thirst.

I settled north of Philadelphia town.
A lover of humanity I was all round.
A giant mansion walls four bricks thick,
Unable to sell - ghosts inhabited it.

But I took no notice of the wailing wraiths,
Who screamed by night while I slept by day.
Terrified neighbors would not enter,
The well-guarded home of an absentee renter.

That great friendly city of men,
Much good living was gotten then,
A squalid hospital, filled with despair,
Souls who received more hope than care.

I avoided gangrene in those terrible hours,
As a midnight nurse with beastly growls.
Bedside doctors passed by early morn,
To find no pulses, the lads were gone.

No plague of death would decide the war,
Days would come without a God at all.
I brazenly gorged on rivers spilt,
After Shiloh's spoils, the ground ripe with salt,

From that moment on I drank to live,
And was mindful all life's a gift.
One small child with a small play ball.
Torn by polio, I thought might fall.

His joy was hot as plumes of smoke,
From a tiny match, that tiny bloke.
Tenderly, gratefully I seized that life.
And felt it multiply deep inside.

Ever green leaf nourishes a desire
Of not being consumed so to flower higher?
Though all beings must pass as food,
Features of life to make us brood.

Battles, hospitals, highways, schools,
Our kind followed blood in pools.
Waste no drops when it comes to drinking,
Won't spill essence or take more than needing.

Our kind loves water, despite the myth.
But live dry like vipers to conserve our strength.
We lie in places where Death can follow,
And trim the herd, like a wolf that's solo.

Was a lifetime battle ever won?
A victorious vampire, at Bull Run?
I'll hunt again, yet these poems I haunt,
So many I've penned, stay forever gaunt.

Where legions of brave mortals go,
Like me now lie forever cold.
Whose hearts once beat now have stained souls,
By a lust for fluids, stolen and drained.

From poor Antietam's hallowed ground,
An old soldier I bled in Gettysburg town.
The slightest count of lives I gored,
Crows over that frightful Civil War.

'Neath falling leaves I follow'd a wake.
Old oak trees blessed by souls to take.
On a Presbyterian, I soon would nurse,
Then swoon at her riverside funeral hearse.

By wars end my strength became legion,
From lives lost by that infamous region.
My fears of drowning dissipated,
Deep in rivers, I patiently waited.

And from the littoral depths one night
An unfortunate swimmer drowned in sight,
Her cowardly lover thrashed towards shore.
They found both bodies by early morn.

Up where Lake Eire's watery basin ends,
I took a mason's daughter named Jenn.
The next night, giving thanks for fun,
I dropped with fright, then drank her son.

And along the gorgeous Lackawanna,
I fanged a lanky gal named Joanna.
One lover tonight sings a randy tune,
Then died of fright, beneath a Brandywine moon.

Vampires love to sing and roam,
Though night ends with fangs and bright red foam.
Music is a way we have,
Of seducing lovers before their death.

As much as possible I try to spare,
The fit and healthy, those ardent at prayer.
Paralyzing pleasure, a yoga learned,
Drink then depart a miserable worm.

Now I tour rivers, streams, and lakes,
Backyard play sets, and outdoor bakes.
But alas our species can't decide,
What food shall nourish our soiled insides.

How I long for my damp bed in Most,
Where I long ago buried my old Czech ghost,
To his cellar dark and wet,
I won’t go there, at least not yet.
I long to sleep a thousand years,
How I've wept such poisonous tears!

I have mines to visit, shafts of coal,
Towns to blacken with my cursed soul.
To roam the rainy Allegheny nights,
And see what plain poetry can fright.
Hungry, thirsty, starved for more,
I can't be saved, except by metaphor.

My words grow pale, I've drained them all,
By my wolfen howl, and coyote call.
Alas I forage for inspired verse,
Pages dying from my curse.

My wit is sharp, I have teeth like knives,
I can't stop feeding upon these lives.
The tragedy is I can't drink enough,
Words like me, and I like words, like love.
Through restless hills, on an endless trek,
I caress my fill, from thighs and neck.

As banded trout run up Northkill Creek,
A freckled young one caught this week.
Where Schuylkill's waves burst the Delaware,
My depraved thrill was her worst nightmare.
When the swift Susquehanna floods at peak,
I shape shift my blood towards the Chesapeake.

When nighttime comes, my heartbeat soars,
Frightening doom with back street roars.
I hope and pray for a cure from God,
But as night turns day it ends in sod.
Come rosy dawn, I slink to my berth,
Cozy anon, in stinking earth.

To toss and dream with bowels aching,
Or howl and scream at my future staking.
The way to hunt me is to offer a feast,
Of words that stun me, my hope of peace.
But the touch of soil, my native mud,
Brings to boil, my lust for blood.

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