Susurros de Recurrencia
by Franco Strong
She dreamed an endless, labyrinthine dream where shadows stretched over the abyss, where vivid colors sank into her skin, where the memories of the entire world were contained in a single drop of water that trickled down to the bottom of a forgotten riverbed. She dreamed because the liquid images were all she had left, all she could grasp with any certainty. Corrosive, dry years—along with too many days peering at the sun with her blue eyes—left her blind. Her vision had disappeared in gradual phases, like the moon, until the sliver of light finally faded and never returned. Muscles followed soon after, evaporated and useless in the perpetual drought of old age.
Yet the immobile darkness had its own landscape, its own dense valleys and open vistas for Quetzali to navigate. And in these unlocking, shifting, intertwining spaces her dreams were much more than simple reveries, they were her memories, pieces, fragments of a life that continued in a realm devoid of time and space.
She dreamed and remembered the days of spices, herbs, and roots, her young yet calloused hands pulling treasures from the desert soil and turning them into potions, remedies, and medicines. Those were days before the incursion of the intruders, the Spaniards, marched upon the land with skin white like cream and destroyed ancient cities only to rebuild atop the ruins.
In her life before the darkness she had been a healer, a woman of earthly medicines. The desert plains had whispered their secrets to her long ago and they still echoed faintly within the caverns of her dreams.
As the liquid images of her mind began to solidify, as she felt the sun against her skin, as the granule scent of the plains filled her nose, as she saw the receding horizon once again, her memories came alive…
Quetzali arrived at the entrance to a hut made of dried mud-bricks, her young hands armed with the ancient secrets of the earth. Her medicines were the last line of defense, the last barrier against the encroaching hands of death which consistently swept in like the western winds.
A man greeted and welcomed her in. He glanced over her with eyes that seemed like two shallow trenches dug up but quickly forgotten. The man wasn’t too old, but his joints and neck moved slowly and deliberately as though every split second he mentally measured out his movements. The adobe walls were cracked and splintering, clay pots were strewn across the ground, some broken, others half-filled with rotting liquid and food.
“I don’t leave her side,” he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t see much of the sun. Your hair, it’s so bright.”
Even though Quetzali already knew the answers she still asked: how long has she been sick? How often did she eat? Was there blood in her vomit? When was the last time she spoke? Are the blisters on her skin peeling off yet? When was the last time a Spaniard had been to their home?
After the man answered all the questions, Quetzali asked one more, “And your children?”
“They are gone now. Their mother lasted the longest. But even she hasn’t opened her eyes in days.”
The man led her to a small room, windowless, dark, a twin to the man’s hollowed eyes. The man’s life-partner, his spouse, lay huddled on a mat with a woven blanket pulled to her chin. Quetzali knelt and felt the sick woman’s burning face. She told the man to fetch fresh water and food if he had any, and then to leave her alone so she could work.
The heavy, monolithic air tasted of sickness and made the scar above Quetzali’s brow line ache a bit. She lifted the blanket to examine the dying woman. Her body was covered in leaking sores with blotches of skin that resembled creatures only found in nightmares. Nothing could be done for this dying woman, she was a breathing corpse, a human-sized piece of mucus ready to be dried out and then claimed by the desert sands just beyond the adobe walls. So many had already been taken, young, old, woman, man, child, the coughing-storm passed through the village with a blistering indifference, and it returned every year, hungrier than before. Quetzali had been spared, and sometimes she thought the plague had chosen her to be its eyes, to see and watch and remember all those who died. This sickly woman would be yet another, the herbs and medicine could do nothing except offer a few moments of comfort before another life slipped away.
Quetzali’s hands worked some of the remedies onto the woman’s boiling and blistered skin. Thick, coagulating human liquids covered the reed mat the sickly woman lay on. Quetzali started to clean the unconscious body.
The man, the sickly woman’s life-partner, reentered the room with a clay pot filled with water and a few pieces of dried meat in his hands. “This was all I could find.”
Quetzali nodded then said she needed to work here, alone.
“Can you help her?”
“With the blessings of the gods, maybe,” she said. “Take this blanket, wash it.”
The man gave one more pleading glance with his cavernous eyes before leaving again.
Using only the water of the clay pot, Quetzali washed the sickly woman’s mouth, cheeks, and hair. A spectral echo of life returned to the dying face, but that was all. Her breath remained shallow, like ripples on a quiet lake. Quetzali patted more ointments, nectars, and pastes of dried leaves onto the swollen blisters. The woman let out a few unconscious moans, pure animalistic reflexes. The soul had already left the body, escaped though cracked lips and muffled breaths, and now it was wandering through the abyss, a lost murmur in the desert night.
Quetzali worked the dried meat between her teeth and spat it back into her hands before mixing it with a few roots she pulled from her leather pouch. Then she massaged the mixture into the sickly woman’s mouth and made her swallow with a gulp of warm water.
“Rest,” she whispered. “Let your soul find its way now.”
After a short time the woman’s breaths began to diminish like puddles of rain left behind after a storm.
Quetzali struck two pieces of chert together and ignited a small pile of sage. The scent and glimmer of light was for the lost souls, to help them find their way. She had done this too many times, ushered too many through the valleys of nothingness. She wondered if they’d be waiting for her when she died, a small army of souls smelling of burnt sage and eyes casting distant reflections of smoldering embers.
The soft glow died out, and the room reverted to obscurity as the earthy scent siphoned into the cracks of the walls. Silence arose. Quetzali knew that the woman had inhaled her last breath some time ago, that another bleak finality had arrived. A consuming fatigue descended upon Quetzali’s bones, the same one that followed all the other nameless faces, but she clasped onto the small notion that the earth’s immortal sin—suffering—had somehow been reduced, lessened. She uttered prayers over the lifeless body and reminded herself that her work was good, her hands were clean, that they would remain clean. Against the weight of the earth’s cruel providence her own trespasses meant nothing, her hands were only there to gather whatever fragments remained, delicate and invisible.
A shuffle of approaching footsteps and muffled voices broke through the dense silence of the room. The man entered, followed by another man, taller, whose broad shoulders reminded Quetzali of tree trunks with eyes reminiscent of leafless trees of a cold winter.
His low voice echoed between the small walls. “Get her away. She’s done nothing here, nothing good flows from her.”
The spousal husband dropped to his knees and cradled the limp body of the sickly woman. “She’s dead. She’s gone.”
Quetzali’s eyes scanned the room “Who is this man? Why have you brought him here?” she asked. “The work isn’t done, I must finish.”
The first man, the spouse, didn’t reply to Quetzali’s words, only cursing himself, the walls, this sickness, before muttering, “You’ve killed her. You came here to kill her, like the others.”
“Yes,” the tall man said, “She’s killed them all. None make it alive.”
Quetzali stood and faced the tall stranger and held his gaze. “You speak of things you do not know.”
The tall man said nothing, only swayed slightly as though caught in a breeze.
The other man, the husband, shook the limp, sickly body, delicately, quietly.
“Do I know you, stranger? Have I wronged you? You come with venomous words,” Quetzali said.
The husband, still clutching the lifeless hairs of his wife, spoke. “He found me. He came to me and warned me about you, about this. You leave a trail of death.”
The tall man moved closer and added, “How many have survived? How many men, women, children, have been taken?”
“Sickness is sickness; it has no preferences,” she said. “Its frigid hands reach everywhere.”
“No, it doesn’t take you,” the tall man said, “It doesn’t take them, the invaders of our lands.”
Caresses of distortion lurched within Quetzali’s mind. A warm sensation gathered, then slipped and stretched over her brow line. Her fingertips reached up to the scar beginning to tear open, the wound beginning to leak blood.
The tall man approached, looming over, “Blue eyes, from your mother or father? Or do you even remember where your blood comes from?”
Quetzali cursed and lunged at the tall man, but he easily grasped both of her wrists and held. The herbs and potions fell from Quetzali and scattered across the dirt ground.
The tall man spoke as though his tongue was coated in a thick poison and spat the heavy words, “Mother of the plague.”
The vapors of the man’s words lingered in her nostrils, but then the memory evaporated, her previous life vanished, and Quetzali was plunged back into her withered and blind body. The opaque dreamscape surrounded her once again, the steady ache of old-age lurked in her joints. She dreamed of a blackness that morphed into the night sky, empty of stars, then one, two at first, and slowly more gathered, points of light rupturing through the veil of darkness, then each star began to drip with light, until the brightness overflowed and fell out of the sky, down to earth, like tears forming into an ocean, and Quetzali felt herself sinking, gasping for air, drowning on the churning chunks of white foam. Then, through the waves, she felt the comforting and familiar sensation of hands, calloused yet young, holding her body, grasping her fingers, caressing her hair, and for a moment everything became calm once again.
If he peered at her face long enough, he sometimes saw the faint outline of the woman he had known in his childhood: blue eyes, skin carved by the sun, light-brown hair like the roots of the mesquite. His calloused hands caressed her gray hair, now brittle from a lifetime of soaking in sunlight. Her withered and blind body lay on one side, curled upon itself like a child. She opened her eyes—white with cataracts, two spheres of pure sunlight—then moaned, the sound reminiscent of a summer rainstorm over the barren plains. Her long fingers reached out, and he held them, gently. Blood began to trickle from the scar cauterized upon her forehead.
“Grandmother, I’m here,” he whispered in her ear. “Quetzali, it’s your grandson, Surem. It’s all right, rest now.”
Her blind eyes lulled from one side across to the other, searching. The moans slowly subsided, but her fragile grip remained on Surem’s fingers. Her lips moved, faintly, as though they tracing over an echo, and Surem leaned over, trying to make out his grandmother’s words, but he only felt the subtle, distilled warmth of dying breaths against his ears.
There was little time left for her. Days ago the Spanish holy men had come to give her the final Christian blessing, but the old woman still fought for life, almost as though she were mocking them and their feeble Christ-Child. No one else had come to see her though, none of her own people, none of her own tribe. It seemed as though the entire village had forgotten her, a stain scrubbed from their collective memory. Soon she’d join Surem’s parents in the wasteland of the forgotten. He possessed only a few corroded images of his mother and father, spectral images devoid of faces. Their deaths had come suddenly when he was only a small boy, and the task of raising Surem had been left to this woman, his grandmother. Her austere, blue eyes had guided him through the lessons of becoming a man more so than any of those forced upon him by the Spaniards’ schooling. She had knowledge of a time before the arrival of the crosses, whips, caballos, iglesia, and those thunder-sticks which can strike a man down in an instant, a time before the sweeping plague, a time before death. Even as she lay there inert, her blue eyes washed-out in white, he felt she still had more to teach him, that there were too many holes riddled throughout his mental landscape that only she could fill. If she had one more day with a clear mind and a voice that didn’t crack like dead leaves. He dribbled a wet cloth upon his grandmother’s peeling lips so the dead air wouldn’t seize her throat.
Piled high against one corner of the adobe room were bones, hides, stones, each engraved with a tangle of symbols. Surem shuffled through them, examining, rearranging pieces, fitting one against the other. He recalled watching his grandmother as a young boy, her slender fingers scrambling over themselves to engrave the strange symbols, whether in the early morning light or the glow of the full moon, her lips silent, never releasing the secrets she so carefully etched out. Now, as she was dying, and Surem spent countless days beside her, he studied those engravings, desperate to find a remedy, a cure, something to regain lost time, lost health, a way to decipher those secrets that died in her shadows. It had to be somewhere in there, in those shambles of symbols, in a language he couldn’t fathom.
He had asked her once, as a child, what they were for, what those enigmatic symbols meant. She only replied that they were for her memories, for the ones that she could never recover because they lay buried beneath the dry land, memories of a past, memories of a future. She forbade him to look upon the engravings and told him it was best to forget, to never see what she had gazed upon.
Surem pulled out a few more bones alongside another rawhide and looked them over. Desert sand clung to each crevice of the engravings, as though the earth were already reclaiming something. He carefully laid out the pieces, trying to reassemble the complex web of connections, his busy hands a pale, lost reflections of his grandmother’s from years ago. The white cataracts of her eyes dripped with a veil of milky white. Surem’s fingers worked to peel back the layers of gravel accumulated atop the years, to renew these echoes, to listen to the shadows of the desert—the ever-absent sea—whisper its secrets once again.
The tremors grow in violence until you are engulfed completely, like a great chasm has suddenly opened up to swallow you, a dead region between spaces. Then everything is dark and silent, except for the slight vibrations behind your ears. You cry out, just to drive away the silence, and you hear your own voice, tiny, frail, ready to crumble like the ash of a fire. The voice is that of a child, you, this lost child. It takes a moment for your mind to register that yes, this voice is your own, that you are nothing more than a slight youth. You try to move your arms, legs, torso, anything, but a cold pressure suffocates you, holds you down, renders your attempts less than useless. Your eyes gather nothing, only an infinitely long shadow that swallows the moments, a shadow that seems hungry to devour time itself. Your lungs cough up the vaguely familiar taste of earth and dust. You cry out once more, but this time to fill the void that has burrowed into your mind, into your thoughts. You have no memories, no recollections of a time before the darkness. A burning sensation creeps across your head and cheek. Tears soon follow, and you feel them fall from your face, claimed by the echoing nothingness that claims you. They were your tears, tears without memories and therefore tears like those of a newborn, plunged into the sublime terror of life, severed and separated from your own past.
Quetzali knew that she was dying, that she couldn’t lay claim to her life much longer. Her soul was leaving her body through the pores of her ragged skin. She wandered through the barren dreamscape, a desert of forgotten time, as clouds gathered above. The wind blew stronger, rain fell to the ground. The storm coalesced into the images of another life, another memory of her youth…
She silently waited for nightfall and the cover of moonlight. Soon they’d arrive, all of them, nocturnal creatures of the night, with paws and snouts ready to unearth the sins buried beneath the dirt. She foresaw it, written there and inscribed in the symbols she had etched out in the bones and rawhides she kept, whispered to her by forgotten voices in the winds.
Her grandson, Surem, lay submerged in sleep, his adolescent body of skinny limbs reminded her of leafless tree branches. They were more than blood-relatives, more than simply grandmother and grandson, their existences intertwined within the prismatic, still waters of time. She uttered a prayer on his behalf, asking the gods for protection for both her and her grandson, before leaving her pueblo.
She crossed through the domain of earth and stars as she had done countless times before, but her tired hands weren’t carrying the usual medicines and remedies. Instead they clutched a spear and a small dagger made of wood, sharpened stones, tied together with dried roots. She ran farther away, out to the dead lands, where the soil was too dry for life, the place where the village buried their dead. The earth cracked and sighed beneath her feet as though it had been waiting for her. Mounds of soil stretched out in every direction, forming an outline of the subterranean labyrinth of dead souls that lay beneath. How many had she put there? How many had she led along the journey just before death? How many sins could the desert hide, stored away and buried, but never forgotten?
She stopped and listened. The exhaling winds carried yelps, howls, and animalistic laughter of the beasts gathering in the distance. The sounds grew louder, closer, a sea of paws shuffled through the ancient gravel, descending upon Quetzali. Her hands gripped the spear and dagger as she silently mouthed one last prayer.
They were watching her, she sensed them, circling, a writhing mass of fur, saliva, and teeth. Their collective howl turned into an unwavering drone before dying down once again. Then Quetzali heard their paws beginning to dig, scratching away the surface of those loose mounds of dirt which kept more than just the dead sealed within. Her eyes focused on a shadow in the darkness, one directly ahead, and she lowered the spear. Her arms jerked. The sharpened tip found its mark, plunging deep into fur and muscle, the fatal blow delivered followed by a yelp of pain and a string of soft whimpers. Her hands—almost possessed by another spirit—repeated the action again and again, the yelps of pain identical as three coyotes fell to Quetzali’s feet. Warm blood trickled down the spear and gathered on Quetzali’s fingertips.
An ocean of glimmering eyes and yellow fangs faced her, their hot breaths pressed upon the cool air of the night. The coyotes gnawed on the decayed flesh and bodies they dug up from the earth, their primal, ancient instincts subsumed by the night. The scent of saliva and death haunted her, a reminder of her failure and the bleak misery she had brought to these people, to this village. Soul after soul had been lost because of her, because of the blood which flowed through Quetzali’s veins and kept her alive throughout the plague-ravaged years. These coyotes wanted to burrow into the past and remind her of the sins she carried, the burden of her existence, and the impossible atonement she craved every aching moment.
No, Quetzali wouldn’t let these pack of beasts have their way. Her spear pierced through flesh once more, then again, and again. A set of jagged teeth punctured and tore through her own skin. She grunted and lashed out with the stone dagger, driving it somewhere into the attacking animal’s neck, its final breath spilled into warm liquid upon her knuckles. From out of the darkness more fangs pierced and tore at the flesh of her arms, shoulders, legs. More fatal blows unleashed from her hands, but her attacks slowed, tired, the fatigue in her forearms turned her muscles to useless, dangling stones.
The blood of her wounds spilled out and mixed with that of the dying coyotes before the parched earth sucked down the warm bits of moisture, impervious of its origins, thirsty for more. The fangs became relentless, unforgiving, as though they were an extension of the night itself, thousands of razored teeth lined across the horizon, sown together by squeals and howls, a monolithic maw that precedes the absolute void. Quetzali staggered though the piles of whimpering coyotes, her bleeding body surrendering to the onslaught, collapsing onto the mound of loose gravel, waiting for the desert to claim her.
Face-down, her lips tasting the particles of earth, Quetzali whispered another prayer, urging the words to reach the labyrinth of bodies below. Finally, she could give her wretched blood to all those lost souls, to the desert, and her sins would finally be finished.
A small, indistinct glow appeared somewhere in the distance, approaching, splicing open the night of jaws and fur. The coyotes howled in pain as the light grew stronger, brighter, closer. It reached Quetzali, and she peered up and saw a silhouette with two eyes, human eyes, eyes that made her shiver because they were colder than a winter out in the open plains. She recognized them, they belonged to a man, tall, the man who knew exactly who she was.
The man waved a torch and his voice echoed, “Get up. These burial grounds are not your own.”
Massive arms, the arms of a nocturnal giant, pulled Quetzali onto her feet. Her dry and bloodied hands still gripped the granite dagger, and in the smoky haze that enveloped her consciousness she lashed out, her hands still searching for flesh and fur.
The voice came through like an ancient command, “Stop fighting, stop struggling. It’s useless.”
Quetzali watched as the tall man used only the torch and his bare hands to beat down the advancing coyotes, grabbing coats of fur, throats, snouts, and heaving the animals to the ground, the reflection of the flame cast in the innumerable sets of translucent, yellow eyes.
“We must defend them, these dead here, their memories. You have to help me,” she cried, her desperate fingertips reaching out past the light of the torch and into the darkness searching for more animals to slay, more blood to let flow into the parched earth.
“These are not your dead. Not your ancestors. Not your people.” His forearms lashed out at the wild, screeching animals. “It was you who brought misery and death. These coyotes only followed the scent, your blood, the wake you leave behind,” the man shouted.
Quetzali’s hands still prowled through the darkness, her blade slicing only the solid night-air. “I came to help. I foresaw it.” Mocking howls of the coyotes descended against Quetzali’s temples.
Palms—massive and unmoving—seized and held her, these hands and fingers which she intimately knew, their touch familiar. Her face met his in the epicenter of light and she peered at his eyes, two bottomless wells devoid of water.
“You don’t know,” she whispered to him, “You can’t comprehend.”
The torch-fire danced between the man’s wrinkled lips. “They’ve whispered your secrets, they’ve revealed it to the land. The earth has already tasted your blood.” Then he added, “You child of Christ. You Spaniard.”
Those words burrowed themselves into Quetzali, into the scar that ran along her brow line, and the keloid skin seemed to unravel, and her blood, Quetzali’s liquid sins, spilled onto the desert and the ground seemed only hungry for more.
Then the world seemed to be suspended, unmoving and placid. First the man disappeared, then the light, like disseminating ether. Then the coyotes followed too, their yellowed eyes extinguished. And then the mounds of earth crumbled, flattened, until nothing of the memory was left and Quetzali’s body turned old and sour. She returned to the nocturnal, barren lands of her dying dreamscape. She found herself in the middle of a dry lake bed. It was a starless night, the horizon missing as though it had lost the ancient battle with existence. Cracks riddled the ground, and slowly they widened beneath her thin feet, growing larger. She tried to run and escape. but the gaps only opened further, just ahead of her fleeing steps, until a great chasm swallowed her into a frigid, timeless, eternally black moment.
The two crossed lines—sitting atop the Spaniards’ iglesia—loomed above Surem’s head. The wooden cross stood in defiance to that other god, the sun. The Spaniards had taught Surem that their Jesuscristo had risen from death after three days. But Surem thought that mattered little because the sun lived a daily death, plunging into the fiery evening-horizon, only to arise anew each morning.
The day had just begun as Surem descended the flight of stairs that led into the basement of the Spanish church. Other men followed, their faces like his, forlorn, deep-set creases, eyes which held invisible scars. Despite the perpetual shade the sun’s slithering heat still reached the cramped corridors below.
With few words the men filed into a loose line, the corridors scarcely larger than the men’s shoulders, and began their routine of passing bundles of corn, beans, and squash, storing them into the farthest reaches of the cellular chambers, those regions with small traces of relief from the omnipotent sun.
Disembodied calls of, “Wait!… Pass!… Hold!…” issued from the dimmest corners. Surem worked with his hands leading him, brushing against leathered-skin and callouses heavier than stone. The work was grueling, oxygen seemed to slowly siphon out of the corridors as breaths grew heavy, leaving Surem to inhale the sour perspiration of others. But the work here was better than being out in the fields, toiling beneath the unforgiving sun, where men constantly collapsed out in the open, choking on the purified light as the Spaniards gazed with indifference atop their four-legged beasts. And in these catacombs there were whispers, glimpses and echoes of a time before.
The subterranean network of passageways had been built long before the arrival of the Christ-God. The Spanish had erected their own temple atop the ruins of the old, the ancient gods had lost the battle against the Holy Trinity and were driven into hiding below ground, lurking in all that was left of their once towering home: subterranean passageways winding through stone foundations. At times Surem felt he was passing through the ancient gods themselves, but their voices went unheard, their whispers softer than smoke and almost forgotten. Surem possessed other memories though, more than just his own, those inscribed within the engravings of his grandmother, future memories that seemed to direct him as though her hands were present and guiding him.
As the other men worked, Surem slipped away and descended farther into the small network of corridors. He went searching for a hidden piece, one that his grandmother mentioned in passing, a stone that held the old and new worlds in place, a promise of new life amongst the ancient. He allowed himself to be guided by her aura, yet he thought of her back home, alone and withering away in a useless body. Her salvation could be found down here though, the fragments of a shattered existence could be reassembled. In his grandmother’s engravings there were references to a clear stone, a sort of prismatic gap that contained all the memories of the world. This stone was the center-point, the epicenter, an exact middle that held everything together, right in the heart of the old temple. Through the convoluted mess of etchings and engravings that his grandmother had left behind, one message kept reappearing: a new life, a new salvation was to be found amongst the crumbled walls of the world, memories would regain a vivid existence, a return to a time and a place where sin and salvation meant nothing.
He stumbled through room after room with his hands groping across the darkness, at times stumbling over his own feet. The corridors seemed to open farther, bend, shift, unfold upon themselves, like a mute, slow dance of twisting walls. His fingers finally fell upon a set of stones stacked atop each other that formed a simple, unassuming arch. The stones were cold and his fingers blindly climbed upward until they reached the apex which was exactly even with Surem’s eye-level, though he couldn’t see it, only caress blindly. At the center of the apex lay a triangular stone, the one he had been searching for, the minuscule prism that contained the unforgotten memories, the stone that saw all and remembered all.
Surem pulled his hands back and his mind contemplated all the possibilities inherent within the triangular stone. He thought of his grandmother, of the words she’d never say, of the stories she’d never reveal, but they were here, contained only within this stone. He contemplated his own past and if it was also inscribed within those three points, running parallel to his grandmother’s. Her life had always been shrouded in silence, unexamined, as was his own. Was he prepared to retrace those years that had passed so easily in silence? Maybe his grandmother never spoke of their past, joined and separated at times, because the keloid scars were better left closed than opened to bleed once again. For a moment he doubted his grandmother’s engravings, the loose, convoluted shards that had no chronological order and only repeated the same notions in an infinite amount of series. No, her ghostly hands had guided him this far, led him to this place, this stone, there was no denying it now. Time wasn’t ripe yet though. His fingers touched upon the center-stone once again. He needed them, the Spaniards, to be gathered above, witnesses to the new horizon that would accompany the crumbling of their wretched walls.
Surem left the black chamber and retraced his steps through the darkness, back towards the light of the sun, and joined the others just as their exhausting work came to an end. Every last bushel of harvested crop had been stored away, and the men began the trek out from their temporary tombs. Topside, the sun had already fallen below the horizon but its heat still clung to the air as though the sun was still claiming what it was rightfully owed. A few of the Spanish holy men handed out meager portions of dry cornmeal, and Surem grabbed his small ration in silence.
Then a voice pierced the air and disturbed the comfort of the sun in freefall. Clouds of dust rose into the sky with more voices chasing, then surpassing, the upward flight. A Spaniard atop a four-legged-beast wrenched a worker from the crowd with a rope firmly set around the man’s neck. Another Spaniard atop a beast proceeded to whip the bare back of the worker out in the open for all to see. The leather line traced out a curve through the evening air, and the separation between this world and a bleeding oblivion seemed to be concentrated on the very tip of the whip which split open naked flesh. The man cried out, and his voice hung in the air a moment as though it carried the collective pain of those gathered, a pain that only doubled as the seasons washed away. A screech of the whip, then flesh torn open, again, again, again. Then, just as easily, it was over, the man was released, free to internalize the pain as the land and the sun returned to their implacable indifference. The Spaniards rolled up their ropes and spoke in that slithering tongue of theirs before riding off atop their massive beasts.
Surem watched as the injured man lay motionless and bleeding, his prostrate arms embracing the ground, his blood offered to the arid soil, as though he were willing himself to become a part of the earth, as though his only desire at that moment was to become just another memory buried within the earth.
Your mind is a dry lakebed, a starless night, devoid of orientation. You have forgotten everything. You only know with a fleeting certainty that you are young, trapped in darkness, helpless. You try to push through the fog that has entangled your thoughts, your mind, your being. The buzzing in your head grows like winged insects in the early stages of flight. All you can remember is the terrible noise, the severed sounds, the great tremor that has fostered you, that created you, that has endowed you with existence, your very life has arisen from that single pulsation, a nameless daughter of a nameless calamity.
You try to move your body, but your frail limbs are still held down by a great, dense, black pressure. You feel the tears fall from your face, down into a quiet expanse, and that makes you shed more tears because those intimate, liquid pieces of you are falling to the wayside, lost and subsumed by that void.
Suddenly, over your own whimpering voice, you hear traces of echoes, slight vibrations, stirrings of life beyond. You scream, a primordial scream, and your vocal chords are slowly shredded as you push them to the upper and highest registers possible. Voices, human voices float through the black and you listen, but there are others also, ancient voices endowed with the rasp of the endless sands, joining together in a quick succession then dying off once again. Through it all you hear that other voice, a human voice, calling out, and you answer back. Then a pinpoint of light pierces through the darkness, flickering, trembling, like the first star amongst the heavens struggling for life.
Dreams escaped Quetzali for a long time, and she experienced nothing except her own approaching death in complete blindness. Her memories, too, had taken leave of her and fled from her dying presence. The drought that is old age had arrived with its slithering, choking finality. What more was left for a blind, immobile old woman? She was ready for her body to be reclaimed by the desert winds, for her impure soul to join the wasteland of the forgotten, to face all those souls with embers of burning sage within their eyes. Yes, they would be there, all of them, she could hear their calls already. The voices joined together in unison, a rolling chorus, and they sang of sin and atonements long forgotten, of one last memory…
It was a time of innocence, a time of beginnings, a time when the name Quetzali meant nothing to her. She had another name once, a Castilian name, taken from the Virgin Mother, the name given to her at birth had been Maria-Valentina. Small, adolescent hands gripped the stem of a vanity mirror, and she gazed upon the face of a child with round, reddened cheeks, a jawline and chin reaching out from a young neckline, brown hair with hints of infant-blond, and morning-blue eyes, the centerpieces of a child’s face, a face she recognized as her own.
She was seated at a desk of mahogany. Above, a small marble Christ presided over the young girl and the stifling heat of the small room. His stone body hung to the cross against the wall, His head downcast with a crystal and unwavering gaze. It was almost time to go see Him, the man who always watched and silently kept track of the world’s sins. Those were the things that they taught her in Sunday school at the holy church, sin, atonement, impurity, salvation. They also taught her that she needed to look her best on the Day of the Lord, so Maria-Valentina softened her hair with a few more brush strokes then tied a blue ribbon atop her head. She peered up at the marbleized Christ, forever frozen in that moment of agony, His suffering a constant renewal, and she wondered if her appearance lessened His pain. At times she had to fight the urge to pull the suffering Christ down and whisper to Him that no one needed to die for her sins, that she couldn’t stand the thought of anyone dying just for her to live. But her hands never reached out to Our Savior, Jesuscristo, and His presence remained on the wall as a simple reminder of all things.
A wispy voice called out to Maria-Valentina and then her mother appeared in the doorway. Lace hanging from a beige dress ruffled at her mother’s feet. She spoke in a wet, Castilian tongue, “Are you ready, Mija? Vámonos. We’ll be late.”
Her father waited outside beneath the unforgiving sun, sweating, his great brow line offering the only vestiges of shade to his blue eyes, eyes that he had passed down to Maria-Valentina like water trickling downstream. The three walked together—father, mother, daughter—along the dirt path, the earthen ground wheezing and exhaling small plumes of dust beside their feet. Her mother spoke, her Castilian lips complaining about this miserable town, about the incessant heat of the land, how dry it was, how only savages could make a life here, how she missed home, España, its roads paved in cobblestones, the churches around every corner, and those evening rains of Madrid. Her father only nodded his head in agreement, saving his words for a later time.
Maria-Valentina had never been to her parents’ homeland. She was a child of here, born in this parched earth which they called the New World, Nuevo España. Though whenever Maria-Valentina looked out across the plains dotted with beige boulders and the lethargic mountains in the horizon, this land, its colors, its people, appeared more ancient than anything else. It was España with its castles, grand churches, endless roads and endless lights that seemed like a new world to Maria-Valentina’s young imagination, a foreign land built atop a dream.
As they made their weekly pilgrimage to the House of God they greeted others like themselves, castaway Spaniards, Spaniards who answered the call of The Church to domesticate a savage continent, but they also passed those that had already learned how to forge a life in this merciless land. A few of the indigenos bowed slightly while others kept their gaze focused on the cloudless distance, their forlorn faces and nocturnal eyes a stark contrast to the open sky. Maria-Valentina felt her father’s arm guide her closer to him like she was the only precious treasure to be found in the desert.
The iglesia of Our Lord lay on the other side of town, and it slowly came into view along with its cross which loomed over the rest of the town’s dismal buildings. No man and no building was allowed to rival His Glory. A steady, monotonous echo rang out from the church bells, prompting the family to hasten their pace. But Maria-Valentina noticed that the sound had no effect upon the passive faces of the indigenos. Maybe they were only accustomed to the whispers inherent within the empty plains and their ears couldn’t register the alien, metallic chimes. Maria-Valentina had heard those whispers herself on quiet nights, when la luna left a ripple as it passed through the liquid night sky. Sometimes those voices called out to her by name, a different name, one she couldn’t comprehend but undoubtedly knew was hers. She never spoke to anyone about the desert voices outside her windows, especially her parents. She told herself that some secrets were better kept buried.
Before passing beneath the arched doorway of the iglesia Maria-Valentina followed her parents’ lead and crossed herself with holy water and the bit of moisture felt nice against her warm head. The midday sun shined upon the stained-glass windows, and Maria swore that the brilliant colors came straight from Heaven. Her mother sat them close to the front because it was better to be closer to God’s word. Maria looked back to the mass of indigenos standing outside the doorway, a sea of eyes and torn rags barely covering naked bodies. Their blood was still impure, they hadn’t been redeemed by blessings so they were barred from His grace and His body.
The Priest took his place at the head of his parish and a hushed quiet settled between the walls. He only uttered a few opening words before an almost ephemeral tremor crossed over the ground, a yawn from the earth. A collective gasp escaped the throats of those gathered. The tremor subsided for a moment, the Father attempted to speak once again, but the tremor returned, stronger this time. The quivering earth grew more intense, turning violent, and the walls of the iglesia creaked in distress. Precious metals, candles, prayer-books fell to the tiled floor in echoing succession. The Father tried to yell over the crowd, urging them to remain calm because they were in God’s temple, but his voice was drowned out. Maria reached out and clasped her mother just as the crucified Christ fell to the floor. Scattered cries for help bounced through the air as people scrambled to escape. The trembling grew into a consuming roar, as though the earth was splitting open within its innermost depth to reveal the gaping, mauling void that lay at the center of all things. Maria’s father grabbed her and her mother, but a writhing mass of desperate bodies separated them from the doors that led outside to the safe, open air. Cracks spread through the walls and shards of stained-glass rained down upon the trapped victims, slicing the worshippers below with a thousand miniscule slashes upon their skin, crystal prisms of red, green, blue, yellow, lodging themselves within soft flesh.
Maria’s blue eyes watched as the iglesia collapsed and crumbled around her, great pieces dropping from the ceiling and smashing into the poor, ensnared souls below. And amidst the catastrophe, a vague notion seized Maria that she had dreamt this calamity before, in another life, in another name, that a chorus of forgotten voices had already sung these scenes to her, those voices she heard out in the desert on silent nights. Her young mind tried to reach out and give shape to that mental landscape she envisioned before—somewhere she heard her mother’s cries, she saw her father’s outstretched hands—but the roaring seized her soul, a chasm of echoing nothingness seemed to open its jagged jawline and consume Maria, replacing her collection of memories with a dripping, black saliva.
A petrified sorrow sank into Surem’s hands then slowly crept into the rest of his body, like roots groping through arid soil. Three days had passed—he counted each painted-sky fall into the evenings—yet he hadn’t moved. He remained focused on that body which lay before him, inert, still, devoid of life: the body of his grandmother Quetzali. In her last moments, she exhaled simple, almost painless croons as though the eroding wind had already claimed her voice. Her opaque, crystalline eyes still lay open to the world, its sky, its horizons, its faces, a world she hadn’t seen in years, a world she’d never see again.
He had left her body untouched after her last breath had fallen because there was no use, the vital spark of her soul had been lost to the wastelands of the remembered. It mattered little where her body lay, whether beneath a mound of earth or beneath the eviscerating sun, inevitably her flesh would be reclaimed and possessed once again by the desert sands. The raw, carrion stench reminded Surem that the process was already underway.
The trace amounts of moisture found in the morning air gave way to the stale, midday sun just outside the walls of the hut. Surem tried to recall time spent with his grandmother, but the only vision that came to him was that of her blue eyes and the way in which they seemed to comprehend the world differently than all the others of their village. What had those blue gems seen? What memories lay behind which injected her world with something unseen by others? And when her eyes had become blinded and sun-streaked what world did she inhabit, a place of perpetual light or immobile shadows? Or maybe she lived in the boundaries of both, a convergence of harsh oblivion and somber tragedy, a collapsed perspective of existence and oblivion in equal measure.
Pieces of her still remained though, in those scattered engravings of bones, rawhides, and colored stones she left behind. Surem stood, his back and knees aching, to examine the intricate web of symbols once again. They were his undertaking, a reconstruction of his grandmother’s work as she lay dying. He had deciphered bits and pieces, enough to understand their full significance, symbols which conveyed notions of a return, a time without sin, a closing of circles, the collapsing walls of the new gods. Others needed to witness what Surem already knew, what only he possessed, the knowledge of the forgotten time was to return today—he had seen it, there, repeated in the engravings—three days after his grandmother’s death.
Outside the foreign, metallic ring of church bells echoed through the distance and announced the day of worship for the Spaniards. They resonated, but the sounds seemed to transform over a great distance, change, take on another dimension, like a chorus of voices calling him. And those voices were almost familiar, like he heard them before, in another lifetime, voices that reminded him of childhood, but not his childhood, that of another’s, someone he had known intimately well. They called to him, to be renewed, to be reclaimed, to be purified but never forgotten, whispers and voices. Surem uttered his own prayer before leaving his grandmother in the stale sunlight of the adobe room and walked outside, his first sunlight in days.
He made his way to the center of town and followed the dirt path towards the bells, the huddled masses, and the temple of the Spaniards. A sea of faces gathered outside, those like him, impure within the eyes of the Spanish and therefore barred from entering the Holy grounds on this day. But Surem didn’t come to set foot upon the grounds of the Christ-Child. Instead he descended into the empty cellars below, to the foundations of the temple which lay beneath in total darkness. The chambers of the miniscule labyrinth were empty, and Surem groped through the dense silence that contained the hushed memories of the old gods. Their sterile presence seemed to guide Surem along, retracing those steps he had already taken, a preordained trajectory, returning him to the small arch and the stone that lay at the center of the old temple. His calloused palms hovered over and then stroked the cold walls until his fingertips finally touched upon the stone arch. His hands ascended to the top, to the apex where the triangular center-stone lay, the peak of the arch, and the granite felt tiny and fragile against Surem’s palms. He sensed something after a few moments within the stifling black, a steady thrum and vibration emanating from the three points of the stone, like the hushed breaths that must precede life. Here were those memories, the forgotten records of the past, a transcription of everything that had been lost to the amnesiac hands of time, a promised renewal, salvation, his grandmother’s salvation. It had only been three days yet he longed to see her again, to swim in the vision of her blue eyes. That’s all he could remember of her with any intensity, blue eyes, calm, cool, the opposite of this boiling earth.
He dug his fingers into the cracks of the arch and clawed, pulling with his remaining strength. The stone remained placid, unaffected by the calloused hands around it. Surem kept pulling with taut shoulders and forearms, muscles which were accustomed to toiling in the ancient gravel, now yanking at this stone, wrenching the past from its subterranean roots, bringing it to light once again. And then it moved, in increments smaller than the invisible steps of the moon across the sky, and he could feel the stone almost loosen, and through the blind darkness he heard an inhuman echo growing, as though a deep chasm was opening and the dead gods were yawning at the bottom.
The stone finally broke free, yet after a few moments it did nothing, only a dead weight in Surem’s hands. But the space it had come from, the apex and center of the arc, slowly became illuminated by something more pure than light. He peered into the empty, negative space and his pupils were bombarded with an onslaught of phantoms, apparitions, images. They appeared unsuccessive, simultaneously, in a single instant, but an instant that covered the solemn abyss across infinity, like a shattered crystal dragged through every point in time, then reassembled into a new prism with the images reflected through each fragmented piece, and he saw it all with an unwavering gaze: the roots of a cacti, a naked child paddling in the ocean, the stroke of a bird’s wings, clouds, rains, a land of ever-changing dunes, boats filled with people darker than shadows, eyes staring through a slit in purple cloth, temples hidden beneath a sea of green vines, a bleeding coyote, hands inscribing a foreign yet beautiful language, flooded roads, dry voices, boulders tumbling into water, water droplets falling from frozen leaves, insects flying, insects crawling through the skeletal frame of a dead bird, men clashing, wood and metal and stone piercing flesh, the silent atrocity of a child frozen in ice with its eyes still wide-open, the breadth of a starving hunter, arrows that miss their mark, cities of pure light, fire, smoke, burnt flesh, lesions of the skin, a mother’s hands, women with painted faces, oceanic waves, a tapestry of setting suns, the first light to pierce through the creosote branches, the vacant spaces between the sands of the desert…
Amidst all he saw, all those pristine images, he noticed a solitary figure pulling a child from a massive pile of rubble. The lonesome figure had eyes reminiscent of a cold, leafless winter. The figure’s long jawline and overbearing brows were familiar to Surem, a face he had only glimpsed in the pale reflection of clear waters, a face he knew, a face he recognized as his own. The other eyes, the child’s, were those of his grandmother’s, he knew instantly. A bleeding scar was freshly carved into the child’s cheek. Surem watched the figure—himself—take the child’s hand, and they left the rubble and continued past a mass of injured people in a dusty village, voyaging into the open expanse.
The two—Surem’s reflection and the child—crossed through the desert sands with thirsty mountains looming in an unreachable horizon. During the cold and indifferent nights the two huddled close together, their bodies kept warm by one another and nothing else. They finally made it out of the desert after many days, their path leading them to another tribe, people of the endless sands, like themselves, others who knew the hardships of a ceaseless sun. The two wanderers were welcomed into the village, and the child grew older between dried-mud walls. And Surem saw the figure’s face—his own, a phantom of himself—keep a steady gaze upon the blue-eyed child, caring for her, teaching her a new language, urging her to forget her slithering Castilian. As the child matured, her skin darkened to the landscape, but her eyes always remained like droplets of the sky. She learned to heal, to make medicines, to mix remedies perfectly, to amplify the healing nectars found across the land. The solitary figure—his pale reflection, his ghost, his echo—loved the child. Even when the child grew sick, a small cough, a fever, and the child survived the sickness, but the illness took others, ravishing the village, a cough, a lesion of skin at first, a disease which crept steadily through the town, lurching, always hungry for more. The plague had arrived, and death left nothing untouched with her spectral fingers which slid down throats and gradually choked the life from all those infected. The child had brought the sickness to the people, she was the harbinger of the plague, her sins lay within her foreign blood, blood that boiled across the sun-soaked lands, blood that made her the mother of the plague.
Years later, during one fragile night, the reflected figure—Surem’s own—abandoned the child and followed the light of the moon to live a solitary existence on the outskirts, across the borderlands. Alone, the figure grew tall, his voice deepened. He learned to only trust the call of the coyotes, the scents they picked up, their primal instincts that remained intimately attuned with the desert. His eyes absorbed every passing frigid winter, and his ears were haunted by the chorus stuck in the wind, the voices which sang to him of reminisces and remembrances, of memories and sins that could never settle into the desert sands.
Then the instant of kaleidoscopic images ceased, and Surem returned fully to the darkness of the subterranean chamber. He knew what he had seen, the memories that hadn’t solidified into the past, memories that were yet to unfold. He inhaled the sublime horror of knowledge, of a certainty that contained every possibility and excluded nothing, the preordained and reoccurring finality that perpetuated itself through him. It was a glimpse of his origin, the architecture that condemned him from its inception, a prison of reoccurring time.
A guttural roar issued forth form the blackness, the earth shook as though it had been cleaved open to its very core, to the center where the void lay within everything. His mind stumbled over itself and wondered if this was the cry of the old gods, of those buried and forgotten, the roar of those who found a bit of life for a moment and were now dying a second death. Warm breaths of a monolithic, unseen specter descended upon his skin, chasing him as he ran from the labyrinth, his body slamming into hardened walls, scrambling, until he finally caught sight of light, ascending, up towards the sunlight, finally reaching the open air and loose gravel ground.
The roar and visceral tremors continued amongst masses of bodies trying to escape disintegrating walls. The foundations had collapsed and now the Spanish temple imploded upon itself. The two-crossed lines atop the Spanish iglesia fell and finally rested upon the barren earth alongside the rest of the collapsed structure. The tremors slowly throbbed and disintegrated into the silent horizon, and all that remained was a pile of rubble, fragments, debris which Surem recognized, ruins he had already seen, a wreckage which he witnessed once again, a catastrophe he had remembered from a time before.
Strong and calloused hands pull you into the full glare of the sun. Your light-blue eyes shutter in pain, but you are free, your frail body is no longer trapped within the consuming black. You focus on the man holding you, and you notice a sincerity in his brown eyes, but they also seem cold, as though they were made in the purest of winters. Your slender fingers move towards the pain upon your face and for the first time you feel the bleeding gash upon your head. You begin to cry, but the man holding you in his powerful forearms hushes you in a language you cannot comprehend, words that mean everything and nothing in equal measure. His voice is a voice you might have heard once before, but you are not sure because you cannot remember anything, only the blind, roaring tremors that held you, incubated you, then birthed you to the world. The man takes you away from the rubble which you recognize, if only vaguely. You struggle to pull from the negative spaces of your mental landscape—are you reborn, or is it that you’ve died again and this is yet another life, a different one, one with another name, another voice—and then you hear it, yes, something is there, you hear it within the crevices of your soul, the faint echo of voices that you might have dreamt once before in another life.
Franco Strong takes his inspiration in equal measure from his philosophical studies and the almost ceaseless sunshine of Southern California/ Northern Mexico.