Wednesday, August 13, 2003


Susan Smith Nash

The serpent is hungry tonight. The boards creak in the wooden casita I’m sleeping in tonight, the lamp suspended from a chain sways gently. The air is damp and cool, lightning flashes so far in the distance the thunder never arrives in sounds detectible by me, a woman exhausted by the sadness of a life of monotonous loss punctuated by Dionysian abandon. I look at my flesh. It is damp and chilly to the touch, and I wonder if the serpent’s scales are similarly cool.

The damp, cool night is dangerous. Incapable of generating my own heat, my metabolism slows in response to my environment. I cannot move, even when my mind tells me to run, run, run. Instead, cool tears clatter like ice down my cheeks. I miss you. I miss your warmth. You are the sun hiding behind the cloud of ash from Pacaya. You are heat and light and purity. You have been obscured for thirty years. This is why I shiver. I will breathe deeply of these ash-laden breezes, even though I know that they contain acicular crystals like asbestos, mixed with cremains. We call it “ash” because we know that to tell the world that Pacaya has turned itself into a giant crematorium, pushed to overcapacity by the last thirty years, will sound like a political statement, and thus will be ignored.

The wind rustles the eucalyptus near my window. Deep and dark the night is cooler than blood, thinner than memory. I am entranced by the slow, warm sway of the light over my bed. I will not move. I will pray, if the proper words come to my lips -- lips still swollen by solitude.

Sew my lips together. Sew my eyes shut. Little do I expect the swelling to obscure my self-imposed stigmata; my crown of thorns is reduced to the embodiment of futility. It was all just a dream anyway.

The serpent is hungry tonight. It moves. It twists. It burrows itself deep into the earth, following the fault zone, preferring strike-slip because the twisting motion seems somehow more in concert with what occurs on the surface.

Did you know scorched earth had a smell? Did you know screams had color? Did you know my blindness carried the scent of red bananas and the drink made of boiled rice and sugar?

Yesterday I bought green mango from a young woman outside the Catedral of La Antigua. “Con sal y chile rojo, por favor” I ask politely. When I put the sweet-sour-spicy fruit in my mouth, my eyes water, my lips swell, my tongue spontaneously shapes the sounds of centuries past. The bones of Bernal Diaz del Castillo crawl into my wrists, my ribs, my heart. I am eighteen again. I am reading The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico in a spare classroom in the middle of a hot, Grapes-of-Wrath-tinged prairie, 5,000 miles north of the desaparecido-tainted land I will visit mere weeks later. The bones rattle, snap, vaporize. Pacaya breathes, holds its breath, slowly exhales. The cremains this time are not of a conquistador named Diaz del Castillo. They are of small Mayans who have just sacrificed chickens and burned candles to placate the demons of the forest. History repeats. Genocide has happened at least three times here in this millennium. The serpent is hungry tonight.

The world’s most beautiful places are its most tragic.

Unable to move, I lie on my bed and watch the slow sway of the hanging lamp gain momentum. The bed rolls under my back in slow, erotic waves I am helpless to control. I am alone, and more aware than ever of my solitude. It is existential.

Yesterday, a civil engineer specializing in earthquakes and landslides told me that it is widely believed in the Guatemalan highlands that earthquakes are the result of the movement of a giant subterranean serpent that moves when its normal diet of flowers and honey has been cut off or replaced by material it does not like.

And what is that? I ask. A long pause before the answer. The only food the campesinos have been able to set out for the serpent has been not to its liking.

And what might that be? I ask.

Bone, blood.

The serpent is hungry tonight. It moves, it burrows, it hunts. The earth moves, Pacayo erupts and dusts us all with a coat of ash smelling vaguely of my grandmother’s perfume, Maja, and pungent mango.

Tomorrow I will go downtown with the engineer. We will go to the central market, where I will regatear but without enthusiasm because I want, in my heart of hearts, to overpay. I want to be overcharged, ripped off, made ridiculous. Don’t I think I deserve it? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, I sip hot, sweet chocolate prepared from cubes of cocoa Mi Abuela and respond to the polite inquiries of two neatly dressed women from Chichicastenango, one of whom gently squeezes my forearm as she wishes me well. She leaves with her friend. My arm glows where she has touched me, my eyes fill with tears. Why must the serpent always be hungry? Can no one manage its, our needs – needs for delicate flower petals, honey, and a sky delicate and gray-blue around the corners, like my eyes, like my tears gently overlaying my own colorless irises.

The night thickens. My shoulders finally relax. I will not resist. The serpent is hungry tonight. To still its stomach will still these standing waves, that rolling, bending, contorting longing for sweetness and light. The longing is constant, albeit sticky and in the form of honey, or even the earth-black tar of molasses. I feign sweetness and light, as do all willing sacrifices.

Nevertheless and despite my best intentions, I am not accepted as the chivo expiatorio, at least not in the form I anticipated. The scent of carnations, tiny roses, and flowering jacaranda envelopes me. “No, not now,” is written in vapor in the air above my bed. Sweetness and light. Some day it will probably get to the point that it isn’t even an act any more.

The serpent is hungry tonight. Or, at least was. Now I see that it is I, citizen of the world, who must accept that it is I who is hungry.