Sunday, September 11, 2005

Return to Righteous City


The danger of the sickness was its contagion. For the first time, I realized it, but it was too late. My knees trembled involuntarily, my head filled with images I could not identify, and I felt my stomach sink. I leaned over to touch the grass at the side of my grandmother's grave, hoping it would snap me back into the here and now. My grandmother's headstone of red Tishomingo granite was exactly the same shade as the sky where the sun had just slipped over the horizon. The cemetery was on a bluff that reminded me of the Seven Sisters Overlook just a few miles to the west, Arbuckle Falls Creek.

For years, I had lived in fear of exposure and humiliation because of my seizure disorder. Since Marcus, since I was a teenager, I could not stand anyone to touch me, for fear of being catapulted into the trembling and buzzing of the seizure, or worse, into the terrible lacunae, the empty lakes of time into which my mind drowned itself while in a fugue state.

Stanton had found where his father had hidden Tara and the other precious jade artifacts smuggled from Laos. He also had known that his father had been driven mad by the loss and by fear that monks or others were pursuing him.

from puente las cuevas, south of los barriles, b.c., mexico - photo by Susan Smith Nash

Yet, Stanton had deliberately withheld Tara from his father. Would that cruel refusal provide him the kind of satisfying closure that revenge fantasies seem to promise?

Did the fact that Stanton deduced where it was, and then seduced me with the idea of a treasure hunt, prove a dedicated, unwavering love for me? Or, did it reveal a delight in playing my weaknesses, a thrill of knowing that you have a secret hold over another?

How was Stanton able to divine the degree to which I would identify with his tragic, troubled father? How could he have known how deeply I understood the man who was plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder, bullied daily by the voice of a god as yet unknown to humanity, but a harsh one who proclaimed him his first adherent in a doomsday cult of one?

I thought of Dad, laboring away in his basement, where equipment flickered, sizzled, and printers connected to sensors and computers produced charts and graphs. I could smell fresh-brewed coffee; I could hear my mother's soft voice blend with the voice of my grandmother: "She has such a pretty face, such pretty blue eyes."

flowers in Hotel California, Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico, september 2005 - photo by Susan Smith Nash

With a great effort, I placed the flowers I had brought with me on the side of my grandmother's grave, then stood up. More unwanted and unrecognizable images flashed inside my mind's eye. Where could I go to heal? Where could I seek refuge? Would I awaken from yet another fugue state, possessed yet again, bruised, manipulated, torn, the very life taken from me? Did I even care any more?

A camouflage-painted two-way radio crackled from a bamboo hut on stilts somewhere in Laos. Mosquitoes whined, monks in saffron robes chanted the heart sutra. My head was filled with radio static and chanting. Somewhere quiet, soothing voices spoke to me.

I would be safe as long as I followed the voices.

The Forgotten Soldier


statue in a park in reykjavik, iceland, may 2005 - photo by Susan Smith Nash

Captain Harville lovingly wrapped the jade statue in strips of thin cotton fabric he had purchased at the market in Ventienne. The thin hand-dyed batik was being to put a use he had never expected. Before, they were useful curtains, now they were dramatically-hued swaddling cloths for a goddess who glowed with pastel iridescence, even when light faded from the room. The jade was unlike anything he had ever seen, reflected Harville. The hundred or so pebble-sized carvings that illustrated the power of Tara to take away worry, pain, and despair were also of iridescent, multi-colored pastel jade, but they did not have the same intensity of the primary sculpture, a little more than a foot in height, with exquisite intricacy. Simultaneously the Green Tara, with all her gifts of fertility and bounteousness, and the Pale Tara of infinite compassion and protection, this goddess radiated goodness, light, and forgiveness.

The radio in the corner of the bamboo hut on stilts he called his base camp had been quiet for several weeks now. It emitted the occasional crackle, but Harville knew that it was inoperable and that he had no way to communicate with his command unless he openly defied orders and went to Ventienne.

It did not matter. Harville was in no rush to communicate with his command. He knew that by this time he had entered the bureaucratic limbo of officially MIA (Missing In Action), and that it would be annoyingly complicated to get himself off that list. He knew other pilots who had, after miraculously reappearing, been moved off the MIA list and to the Casualty list, rather than back to Active Duty.

With a jolt, images of his buddy Brecker intruded: Brecker, smiling and embracing his wife after graduating from officer candidate school; Brecker, drinking a beer with him in Saigon; Brecker, thin and focused, analyzing flight plans; Brecker, the side of his neck torn off, his ear and pieces of skull missing, still speaking, still entreating Harville to keep going. Harville jabbed the end of the pointed stick he was using in his task into his thigh. The pain would force out the intrusive thoughts.

Mosquitoes whined around the netting that made a pale shrouded cone in the middle of his room. To escape them, he sat under the netting and wrapped each piece of carved jade before putting them carefully in a teak box he had saved.

Harville startled at the piercing cries of a newborn baby. The cries were in the room with him, and he heard a nurse congratulating him while soothing the mother. "He's got some powerful lungs there," resonated a male voice. The cries became more piercing. "Your son, sir. He's beautiful. He has your eyes," said someone in the room with him. Harville felt his eyes fill with tears. Tears from a quiet cloudburst splattered against his hands, then, as suddenly as they had appeared, disappeared.

In his loving hands, Tara's firm, jade flesh became soft, supple, responsive. She inclined herself slowly toward him. Casting shadows on the walls like Bali shadow puppets, Harville saw his Tara come alive on the woven bamboo panels of his hut. Her arms moving gracefully, she beckoned him to come with him, to follow him into the shadow. Suddenly sick with the sweet-pungent scent of burning opium that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, Harville doubled over, extending his arm out to touch the shadow of Tara on the wall.

His fingers graced the fringes of the shadow, and as he did so, a sharp shock entered him. Flashes of light exploded in his head, like fireworks in the same iridescent hues of the jade statue. Closing his eyes, he felt his mind go into an unmapped territory, a place of madness and healing, of hurt and succor, of thirst and of eternal, quenching springs.

He was now truly lost.

statue in a park in reykjavik, iceland, may 2005 - photo by Susan Smith Nash

Postcards from a Dream


"Stay back, Ophelia!" Dad's voice was echoed and amplified by the gray-blue walls of the cave which I realized was the entrance to a never-developed mine. I could tell by his voice that he had found something. Perhaps it was the cache of coins and jewelry hidden by the notorious Captain Endes-Wicker and Miss Rosamund MacLean, also known as the "Pink Lady Bandits." Displaced when their homes were burned to the ground during the Civil War, they moved west where they found it convenient to thieve from the thieves who regularly robbed settlers on the California Trail as they passed through this remote part of northern Arizona and southern Utah.

"What is it?"

"Don't come in. It's bad. You won't like it," said Dad.

It was too late. Curiosity had already gotten the best of me, and I was fast on Dad's heels. If he had found the treasure, I wanted to see it.

"Don't worry, Dad. You can trust me. I won't break or disturb any artifacts." The air in the small cave was cool, and the rough-hewn walls had a blue-green sheen as the sun's rays hit the limestone matrix, interspersed with azurite, malachite, chysacolla, along with chalcopyrite, which flashed a glittery metallic color.

"What kind of treasure? Where is it?" From where I stood, I could see Dad leaning over a wooden crate of some kind, and what appeared to be a broken chair.

"I'm not sure if it is what we had hoped to find. But, someone definitely was here, and, from the looks of it, it wasn't very pleasant," said Dad. "Brace yourself, Ophelia. It's ugly."

My head immediately filled with ghastly images of bones, knives, manacles, implements of torture from the Spanish Inquisition. An "Iron Lady" for the Pink Ladies?

"Really?" I asked, leaning forward, trying to make my way around a large rock.

"Really, Ophelia. You needn't sound so ghoulish," admonished Dad. "But you have to remember these were not calm places or times."

Crawling over the rock, I felt ashamed of my curiosity, and of the fact that I half-hoped to find something shocking. What confronted me gave me pause, and I wasn't quite sure how to react. In the crate were dishes, cups, cutlery, and neatly stacked mason jars with rusty lids. A pile of old blankets and what appeared to be what used to be a mattress until the chipmunks, squirrels, and mice liberated the stuffing from it for their own constructions. A tobacco tin lay open, empty. Then I saw what made Dad ask me to hang back. It lay next to a crumpled, half-chewed up wool blanket.

"Are those what I think they are?" I asked, in a gagged, choked voice.

"It depends on what you think they are," said Dad. His voice had deepened, and it was no longer so harsh.

"Oh no. They can't be. Is that human hair? Scalps??" I asked. To my annoyance, I could feel myself growing tingly, my hearing muffled, and a strange buzzing and twitching. I was starting to go into the dissociative state I had learned accompanied a seizure.

"These are a couple of old fur collars." Dad's voice was calm and I could hear humor coming back. I could feel my stomach begin to untwist itself.

"Yes? What? How?" I struggled with my body.

"It totally had me fooled. From a distance, they look bad."

I looked at them and could feel myself coming back to the presence.

"Ick," I said. "The mice got to them. Is that a coat next to the blankets?"

"Yes. Do you want to take a closer look?" asked Dad. "The dishes are basic but in pretty good condition. I think they're old, but probably 1890s rather than 1870s. Someone must have holed up here for part of a summer or fall."

I moved closer. It was easy to see how Dad had mistaken the gnawed scraps of fur for scalps and the idea made me smile. I would enjoy teasing Dad about this on the long drive back home. I knelt next to the wooden crate and started to lift out the dishes and to look at them carefully. In the meantime, I was watchful for spiders or scorpions.

Una Puerta de Madera en Todos Santos, B.C., Mexico - photo by Susan Smith Nash

Between two plates I found a small New Testament, but no evidence of individual ownership. It reminded me of looking through the contents of a box of merchandise, and not the contents of one's temporary home. Then, removing the last plate, I encountered a small packet of postcards, clearly Victorian. Although they were faded, they were in surprisingly good condition and the colors were still vibrant.

"Dad, look. Postcards from Marrakesh," I said.

"I went there once," responded Dad, wistfully.

"You did?" That statement temporarily distracted me, then I returned to the half-dozen postcards that depicted a magical, Moorish fantasy of minarets, intricate tile, fountains, arched doorways, veiled women.

"Dreams of Marrakesh," I read. "This is amazing. Look, there are several scenes. Here's the Kasbah. Also Medina, Riyadh, Mosques, Al-Moor-Avid Palace," I said.
"I really found North Africa to be interesting. I used to feel sorry for the dockworkers, though. The French were hard on them," mused Dad.

"Can we take the entire crate? It's not very big," I asked, as I began to replace the plates.

"Let's be sure to put it in the back, just in case there are spiders or scorpions we haven't found," said Dad. "Then we'll go by a U-Haul store and get proper packaging for the drive home."

"Sounds great." I leafed through the postcards again and wondered how a person intrigued by Marrakesh would find himself or herself in northern Arizona on the Kaibab monocline, north of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The drive back to the hotel went quickly, and my mind joined that of the former tenant of the Blue Cave, lost in dreams of Marrakesh.