“Water” continues… but there’s drought here

(There’s a problem revising this section now, and it has little to do with the text itself but with the gap between the historical incidents, about which I have really nothing to say – it is all history and someone else’s history, as I said in the beginning, and they will tell their own story.  They have.  There are several versions.  No, my problem is that I’m writing about water and a watery land while sitting in a terrible heat wave, drought conditions, in Los Angeles, trying to imagine/remember the quality of the air, the mood, the reality of so much water that is the metaphor of this section of the book. Metaphors rely on the quality of one thing juxtaposed against another.  There’s the rub.  And here’s the rub.  It’s so far away, the humidity, the revolution…

Enough with the excuses.  I need to get on with this project.)

Vida recalls Mrs. Williams’s expression:  Curiosity is a man’s curse and in a woman it’s ten times worse.  No one has seen Arthur since the crisis, but those people Vida spoke with, even Claudia is said to believe that Arthur has gone up into the hills with Theodore.  Some suppose Art might have been captured with Theodore.  He was seriously wounded; that much is known.  He was shot through the leg up there at the fort, so he couldn’t run.  But he did run.

Of course, he must have been taken.  Vida imagines Arthur being dragged in between two husky marines, dragged into a big white room with his legs dangling limp, head bowed so that at first when he opens his eyes he sees his feet, although he doesn’t recognize them as his own, they seem so far away and all feeling is gone.  She imagines that he is virtually poured into the room, without words but again the sound of a body hitting the floor.  He moans and licks the blood dripping from his nose, sees red on the back of his hand after he touches it to his chin.  He examines his naked chest beneath the ripped fabric of his shirt.  The wound next to his nipple has already started to fester.  He doesn’t try to move.  Move, Art.  Be okay.  She imagines his blood pooling on the grey floor, wants to cradle his head in her lap.  Hey, Art, hey, bleed here.  She can only imagine cradling Arthur’s head; there is nothing else she has to offer.

It is worse in her dreams.  Arthur is shot, bullets through his chest cavity opening him up to daylight, like the paintings she’s seen of St. Stephan, her black man’s head hanging toward the white martyr’s, talking like his body is glass.

– I have broken through the second ground.  I have climbed the second level.  See, the ground lies in splinters.

– My body is all eyes.  Look at it!  I look in all directions.

So his name now circulates.  So he is listed on the enemies’ list.  Vida straightens her legs and starts into town, sees a faint sliver of moon still visible ahead.  It looks like a hammock.  She walks down the street toward the center of town, the buildings and walls, stone on stone and brick on brick so nearly as they have always stood, except there is smoke.  Smoke fills her nostrils that flare.  The spring rain should have quelled any fires by now.

She looks down the street, and her breath catches in her throat.  There is nothing there, a hollow in the row of buildings and what is left of the police station is smouldering.  The wing that contained the prisoners’ cells is burnt down to rubble.  She closes her eyes against the fear of having lost Arthur for sure.  It is a blind fear that passes with sight as she opens her eyes and her mind slowly clears.

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“Water” continues…

……. (“Water” continues….)

Vida walks through the back streets, to get to the far side of the harbor before the sun completely rises over to the town.  As she reaches the break between low slung buildings, rough stands and brush, she catches a glimpse of the first pink rays on the bow of the dark grey battleship in the bay below her.  The water is still dark grey, as grey and cold as the ship’s metal hull.  Vida wonders if maybe Arthur is being kept out there, not at the police station at all.  Maybe she is heading in the wrong direction.  She had wondered if the police might think her crazy, and Mrs. Williams had suggested as much, if she were simply to walk into the station and ask, “Where are you keeping my husband?”  And Arthur isn’t officially her husband; the local police will know that.  Vida is not sure if the police are there at all, whether they will ask the General whether Arthur is alive at all, or whether any of them will know how it is that Vida had distinguished herself in the revolution.  It wasn’t much but Claudia made a big deal of it, because Vida was a woman, a country woman.  She set up a cooperative so they could cut out the shipper.  Big deal.  It was actually.  Then they could set their own prices.  That’s what she figured and that’s what they did, and Claudia made like they were farmer warriors.

Actually, it is Arthur’s fault that Vida distinguished herself.  Art is the second man Vida fell in love with, the second to find her beautiful, but he was the first man to speak with her about things Vida had known all along.  Her nose had smelled them, her fingers had touched them, her cheeks were flush with them; now with Art her ears heard them and her mouth said them.  And the miracle was, he said yeah.  He said okay, do it.  And now Arthur is gone and the sun is already lighting up the sky.

What her first husband gave Vida was a baby and a name different from Vera’s and different from Arthur’s last name, which could cause her grief now or it just might save her; Vida doesn’t know which.  The officials may only count her first love as her husband.  They might not be willing to tell her anything about Art.  Yet what she knows she knows and she will find Arthur unless he be dead and if he is dead, even if he is four days dead she will have his body.  And if he is not dead she will find him, somewhere in this town best known for its ugliness and its unhappiness.  If not here, then at the prison.  If not at the prison, then hiding on the mountain.

 

She moves quickly down the road toward the harbour, scavenging with her eyes for something lovely to carry with her, anything to conjure him back.  When she stops to catch her breath she looks up and then down toward the harbor, hoping to catch sight of a bird.  One bright feather will help, but dark silhouettes of vultures haunt the shore and in the trees where she hopes for orchids there is nothing.  Anxious even for just a colorful beetle, she turns over a board that lays at her feet in the road.  A black roach scuttles away, big as a mouse.  She hurries on.  Further along the road there’s a snack shack boarded up, but on top of a box is a piece of overripe fruit.  She picks it up, ashamed but suddenly famished, and peels back its skin.  Nothing is subtle here; they call this food Mamma, its flesh wet like labia, and her hands are sticky now with its juice, but she is almost to the harbor.  She hurries down to the water as the juice begins to dry, and when she bends down, leaning into the ocean to rinse her hands, a fish head bobs on the surface, her hands reaching towards its jaws.  This is hopeless.  Everything is ugly now and nothing will appear to relieve her eyes for a long time. Eventually the sun will rise and then the air will be heavy with heat.

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Body of Land – Water (the twins)

(There’s a descriptive passage giving some of Vida’s background that I’m not publishing as part of this blog.  At least not yet.  Maybe we’ll get come back to it. Here’s the story of how Vida wound up at Mrs. Williams’ house with her two children with her twin sister up at the top of the mountain in a mental institution, an institution with … well, read on...)

Vida pulls the sheet up over her two children, patting Mary’s head as Mary falls back to sleep and as Vida herself rises, crosses the room to the sink to splash water on her face and body, gently towelling herself dry.  Vida’s body and its shadow are like two bodies dancing together in this light, a grey light through the window as the sun tries to rise through the mist. She is neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat.  Her skin is dark, nearly blue black in this light, and her dressing gown is light.  Her hair is pulled back in a tight band.  She sighs as she sprinkles water on her hair to pat it down.

It is still dark.  The rooster’s crowing sets off the cacophony that grows as it spreads through town, the sound of their crowing bounding off the larger buildings into the centre of town, the sound of the crowing echoing up into the hills.  Then the dogs start barking and the roosters, hens and dogs together shatter the morning stillness.  Mrs. Williams’s dogs are also barking.  The old woman keeps several dogs, always tan dogs small enough to step over but loud enough to protect her.  There is only one dog who doesn’t bark and doesn’t bother anyone except that British man who has been staying over at the guest house, the man who is always threatening to chop the troublesome mutt with a machete if it bites him again.  It bites only him, then runs back home so that this particular man knows where to come looking.  He has given Mrs. Williams an awful time about the dog, but now all is forgotten in the nightmare of the past four days.  No one notices that the man has gone and that the dog remains, so that the dog isn’t barking now.  Momentarily all the dogs stop barking so the quiet closes in again down the road this early morning, as if nothing has happened.

Vida dresses quickly, passes through the living room and takes an umbrella from the stand as she slips the latch open on the front door and passes through as quietly as a shadow.  The road is glassy from the rain and Vida sniffs at the air to take in the clean wet smells as soon as she reaches the road beyond the gate.  Mrs. Williams’ house smells like her cooking, not like Vida’s mom’s house where the kitchen was out back, the old cook stove and hot pots never offending the lemon smell of the small house where the whole family crowded to sleep and talk and from which Vera seldom ventured, small as the space was, scared as she was as a little girl, scared of everything but especially the large turkey in the yard and the heat of the day and the dark of the night.  Besides, the air circulating in the country kitchen there was sweet.  Not like Mrs. Williams’ bigger house with its inside kitchen and smells of fried fish and cakes and curry indoors that Vida got used to only slowly.

She passes by the gas station at the end of the road into town, then past the first stretch of houses where the smoother pavement absorbs the sound of her footfall which, now that the roosters have settled down, is the only sound disturbing the stillness of this early morning, a silence that closes back in behind her.  Her walk belies her agitation.  Her steps are steady and unhurried, like a dancer’s across a stage.  The smooth musculature that developed in her face, in fact, extends through her whole body, muscles stretched and smoothed from the constant exercise of rising again and again to meet whatever occasion arises.  No one would guess what she is doing up and about.

In the clearing along the road Vida turns and looks up the mountain.  She can see only the prison looming up over the trees at the top of the mountain, but what she does not see she knows is also there.  The forest, wet as jungle where the men, maybe Arthur, is hiding.  The first day there were lights up there, flickering lights, maybe flashlights, maybe army issue.  Maybe some men were okay up there, but there hasn’t been any lights in two days.  Beyond the forest, adjacent to the prison, stands the mental hospital where Vera stays.  By way of explanation for why these two buildings stand next to each other, out of anyone’s way, high on the mountain overlooking everything, a local historian has it that the asylum was to be a second prison, and that at the time the functions were confused.  Madness and criminality, there is always difficulty distinguishing the conditions, a difficulty that seems to have been compounded back then, according to the local authorities, by the fact that there were too many women slaves on St. Michaels.  Womanliness was seeping over the island, so much was its power, and the authorities’ answer was to build this large asylum with its long corridors where Vera is waiting patiently, Vera being a patient there now, waiting for her drugs.  If she refuses her drugs she will go mad because she is mad, or so they say, but she does not say because she never has spoken a word.  She too is waiting in line.  Staring, and waiting.

Vera’s eyes are Vida’s eyes.  The twins have the same eyes but it is not just their eyes; everything about them is entangled.  Years ago Arthur had given Vida a book by a South African poet who explained all this.  The Zulu call twins amakhosi or amawele, those who help each other across the river.   The two women did carry each other ever so long.  The sisters as infants looked very much the same, separating only slowly no matter what they say about how this happens at conception.  Vida and Vera didn’t conceive it this way, close as they were and talking the same language even though Vida learned adult talk and Vera learned no speech but what they had between the two of them for ever so long, hardly even now speaks.  Still, there is no identity without difference; Vida’s face is plain and Vera is crazy.  Vida and their mother took care of Vera for seventeen years, but eventually it was too much.  Their mother took sick and Vida had them both in the house and working at the clinic by day.  After a year it was getting worse, not better, and she saw no choice but to send Vera away to the mental hospital.  Everyone said so.  Everyone said as much at the beginning, but things got so bad even Vida had to agree.

The twins don’t look so much alike anymore, although they are said to be identical, and they still have the same eyes looking wide and way out into the world.  Not like Mrs. Williams’…

(Again I mention, I’m not telling the story of the US invasion of Grenada here; that story is being told by the people who lived the revolution start to finish… and it actually isn’t finished.  It’s their story to tell, and there are several important first-hand accounts, but what got me obsessed with this novel was the US bombing of the hospital near the jail, and the response in the media and the Catholic bishop in Grenada as well.  “Oops…”  As if this collateral damage is a small thing, these lives lost of little importance given the military objectives.)

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Body of Land – Fiction and non-fiction

Currently working on two book projects, I’m writing the non-fiction (Kenny in Infinity), finishing a novel (Body of Land), and blogging about the process.

Both book projects entail research, of course. Yesterday I ordered one book for the non-fiction research and today two for the fiction project. That’s just the tip of the iceberg; I’ve been researching both projects for years.  It’s the two-to-one ratio with this book order that struck me as funny, almost poetic, though. For me, fiction generally does require twice as much research as non-fiction.  It’s always been thus.

Writing my first novel, Vigil, I was simultaneously writing the non-fiction Ending Violence in Families when this paradox was explained to my editor of Ending Violence. As I submitted the revised (and re-revised and revised again) manuscript for Ending Violence, I sighed and said aloud, “Here you go.  Now I can get back to my real work.”

Frank smiled while I grimaced and apologized, “That’s how tired and messed up I am. Sorry. Fiction as real, and non-fiction as unreal; what was I thinking?”

He shook his head, “Don’t apologize. What you are working on here is real, but what you’re working on with your novel, that is really real.”

That’s certainly the goal.  Fiction can be like Plato’s forms, where getting it right is getting at what is really real, coming out of Plato’s cave, today a deep cave of information where truth seems buried alive. In the allegory of the cave, Plato shows himself to be a poet that he himself would exile from the Republic.

Maybe we all live in a kind of self-exile, retreating into a swamp of information to avoid the harsher light of being that our stories reveal.

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Body of Land, Part I. Water

 

(I began researching this novel in the aftermath of the US invasion of Grenada, while covering the trials of those accused of murdering Maurice Bishop there in Grenada.  Here’s some background offered in Wikipedia, but as I say in the introduction, what I’m writing here is fiction; the people of Grenada will write their own histories:  The Wikipedia entry under: “People’s Revolutionary Government (Grenada)” reads:  The People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) was proclaimed on 13 March 1979 after the New Jewel Movement overthrew the government of Grenada in a revolution. The government suspended the constitution and ruled by decree until a factional conflict broke out, culminating in a United States military intervention on 25 October 1983.   

 

I  Body of Land – Water

 

 

Start again here, with a man thirty-two years old gone missing after the mayhem, a woman with his mother and her kids asleep there, asleep right beside her, a revolution on a small Caribbean island off the North American continent, a continent, another death, emigration.  Then start again.  That is the point.

The point is a place off St. Michaels where the heroes built a modern airport to encourage tourism.  It was soon occupied by a foreign army, pasty men whose skin is already blotchy red from the sun, and the leaders here, their bodies have gone missing.

Among the missing is Arthur, gone.  That is some distance from Mrs. Williams’ house, a dry place with better visibility whereas Mrs. Williams house is surrounded by trees and catches the rain coming in from the sea, where you can smell the cinnamon trees especially when the bark’s been peeled and where Vida is lying on the sofa.  Vida stares up at the cracks in the ceiling, her dark skin almost blue in this light, her two children asleep on a pallet spread out next to her on the floor.  She is not in her own home, but at Mrs. Williams’s because of the curfew, and has lain awake most of the night, sometimes raising herself toward the window to stare out into the dark.  It is before sunrise.  If she sits up now she might catch a glimpse of light through the wood slats of the louvred window.   A few wide wet leaves press in between the slats, moisture beading on the surface just as it beads on Vida’s face.

Occasionally a flashlight flickers on the mountain, a soldier signalling to the captain, drowsy and bored.  Capturing Fort Henry proved too easy, the island, the nation’s entire population fewer than most suburbs of New York or LA, the revolution over before the marines landed.

It used to be that lights went out one by one in town so that Vida and Arthur, if they were up early or still awake after a night together, would watch from the house until only a few lights remained lit in windows.  At that hour a silhouette of two bodies might be seen leaning against each other under a dim light on a veranda, or the light would glare all night on weekends in the rum shop, gradually blending into the blue sky as it lightened toward pink as the sun rose.  But now under martial law the population has embraced sleep hungrily.  Only the lights on the ship offshore glare as do a few lights up at the prison, far up the mountain.  The prison lights cast a glow and Vida stares up at them.  Lights that bright must spread deep shadows into the yard of the mental hospital that stands just beneath the prison.  Vida’s twin sister is an inmate at the hospital.  Perhaps her twin is still awake, sitting in the hall outside the nurses’ station where the night nurse waits, looking at nothing, looking like nothing is in her head because her head is full of drugs and disappointment.  Vera never got used to the place, and Vida never got used to the idea of the place, that her sister had to be there, black arms and legs sticking out of a blue shift getting skinny as a chicken.

The roosters are just now beginning to crow.  This is a place to start.  Start here although this is not history.  There is no telling what actually happened, is happening, will happen; it only feels as if everything is past, history.   One can start anywhere but Vida doesn’t know where to start.  They say Arthur may be dead, and if not when he is caught they will hang him anyway. The leader is certainly dead, the revolution as dead as its heroes, but this is no eulogy for them and there is to be no funeral; the bodies have gone missing.  That is that.  Vida is missing Arthur’s body.  People lose their heads, their minds, their marbles, their revolutions, but to lose a body – how then is one to believe a man is really dead?

In dreams that will not be remembered in daylight, people all through town are still being bombarded, planes scream over the mountains and helicopters hover over their heads.  They still do not know whether to run and hide or to cheer.  They don’t know what is expected, so they plunge even deeper into sleep. But not Vida.  It is not rest for her.  Her questions during the day are her questions at night, and her fears grow larger without her consciousness alert to resist them, so she waits in a half-sleep until morning and looks over at her daughter whose eyelids also flicker like moths.

There’s an astonishing stillness between them.  Vida doesn’t want to disturb her daughter who drifts back and forth between sleep and morning.  Vida wonders if the girl sees the same animals in the ceiling cracks as she does, or if the girl sees those animals Vida herself saw when she was a girl, but Vida doesn’t ask because she is hoping her daughter will drift back to sleep.  Then Vida might slip out of the room and out of the house before the children rise, to do what she has to do.

Among the many things Vida has to do this day is to check up on her sister, her cretin sister who sees through eyes like these, eyes that are the same age almost exactly, that cannot stay closed in sleep at night so that days are topsy-turvy.  Vida thinks this is how her sister is, that this may be a shared madness between them.  She looks up at the ceiling, at the cracks in the ceiling to distract herself, to calm herself, to prepare herself for what she has to do.  She has no idea what she has to do really, and what she sees are sheep.  Once she sees a sheep in the cracks, she can’t see anything but the sheep, and that seems like a pity to her now.  She must get up.  She says to herself, get up now, Vida.  It’s daylight.  Get up now.

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Body of Land; this novel begins…

…. as a blog. I’m going to blog at least part of this novel A BODY OF LAND from here in Los Angeles, after attending a conference at LA EcoVillage last weekend where some of the issues I address are being lived out in real time, on real soil with water…

(http://laecovillage.org/2018/03/06/the-soul-of-soil-and-the-ecocity-future-of-los-angeles-sat-sun-july-14-15-2018-at-l-a-eco-village/ )

Feel free to leave a comment or question about this work in the dialogue box below.   And so it begins:

Foreward

Call it a protracted war or you can call it peace.  Most likely you won’t speak of it at all.  You wouldn’t think of it probably if I hadn’t brought it up just now.  It wouldn’t otherwise be noticed.  I’m not exempting myself from this not noticing tendency.  These things happen, keep happening, and I wound up here in this little intentional community with some chickens in the middle of Los Angeles, and it all feels rather random.  Oh yeah, there’s a postage stamp featuring one of the buildings mentioned in the novel; truth’s stranger than fiction.

To put this in historical perspective, though, even if none of the people in the story here are historical figures – I’ve made it all up – they found the bodies of some people dead there at the end of the revolution in Grenada in US body bags.  I know that was many years ago, several wars ago.  I’m just telling you, I read about it in the newspaper, not the same newspaper I was working for when I did the story about the murder trials.  I had a hell of a time getting them to let me do that story at all.  No one was interested, they said.  The rescue mission, or U.S. invasion as it was called depending on who you were talking to, was over and now the Middle-East is the news again.  But here in Los Angeles someone is still following that old war and this should be noted.  Jot it down in your notebook just to satisfy me:  Some bodies were found in an unmarked grave, in U.S. body bags.  I’m just saying…

But this story here isn’t about the Grenadians:  From the get-go, I said it:  let them tell their own story.  They have, in fact, done so.  Several different accounts.  You might want to read their accounts.  All I’m saying is that all these years after the revolution they finally found some bodies and the body bags were U.S. army issue.

I was there at the trial of the accused, and the Americans were all over the place.  At one point the judge called for a recess because the testimony could not be heard above the racket of U.S. helicopters overhead, right above the courtroom.  It was a practice maneuver.  What the hell were they practicing for?  All that’s happened since?  Maybe they learned a lot on that little field trip, about how to control the story.  Okay, but about the bodies.  During the trial the accused wouldn’t answer because they were, in turn, accusing the Americans of orchestrating the whole thing, including the trial (and in retrospect that doesn’t seem far from the truth. )  Here, in a court of law they were accused of murder and also of burning the bodies.  No one said anything different, no one said that this isn’t what happened, couldn’t have been what happened, not if these bodies were finding eternal rest (or whatever) in U.S. body bags.  Someone could have said something, even if the accused had in fact murdered these people and had just left the bodies for the Americans to find, left them there in the sun – I’m sorry but it could have happened – or left them in the morgue, then someone in the U.S. Department of NMWCSJ (Not Messing With Another Country’s System of Justice).  Someone could have come forward during the trial of the accused and said, “Look, these guys might have done the murdering – that’s for your jury here to decide – but for the record, we disposed of the bodies and you’ll find them here.”  It would have given the families some peace.  It would have been setting the record straight.  No one said any such thing.

No one came forward to speak the simple truth.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  No.  No one is wondering, well, except a few people, the families involved, families and friends of the accused and of the dead.  The latter wanted to claim the bodies when they were eventually found, even after all this time.  Okay, that’s another story, another element for another record.

Okay.  Did you know that this most American of words, ‘okay’, is probably derived from an African word used in the markets in the south of what is now the U.S., a mercantile expression that is passed on from mother to infant.  It involves continental shifts, the most simple expressions, as in:  Let’s just finish these biscuits, okay?

I’m just saying okay: so it goes.  So it goes and they all live happily ever after or not, meaning they do or don’t live and they are or aren’t happy, and their stories lead to this story I’m finally putting out there years after the fact.  Decades now.  After friends and family put up with this.  The Toronto Star paid to do the reportage, the Canada Council gave me a grant to write the first draft and the Ontario Arts Council gave me a grant to finish the book, thank you all very much.  We’ll start again now, here, we’ll start with Vida and her children and we’ll get to the rest eventually, and I wind up here to this nice little place we’ve got here in LA with some chickens but mostly people.  Some dreams come true, but you have to dream them first, and then you have to wake up.

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Body of Land

There is a cautionary tale behind this blog:  a night spent long ago with the poet Mazisi Kunene.  This part of the story I’d forgotten until just now.  The poets were droning on and I was appalled at the pretentiousness, but my publisher was the organizer of this reading and I was sitting at her table.  It seemed there was no escape.  He offered me an escape.

He told me how this lapse into inauthenticity, this extravagant display of inauthenticity we’d just witnessed, was a problem for North American artists.  As soon as you achieve any fame or notoriety you begin creating for and through that persona.  I told him I have totally escaped the trap by achieving absolutely no fame nor notoriety, but he shook his finger at me, warning, “It’s always a danger.  Always!”

The manuscript begins with another insight he shared in one of his epic poems:

“Death is an illusion, a transformation,

Whose truth is revealed to those who keep alive their bonds.

Through sacrifice the living continue to commune with the dead,

Yet how lucky we are they do not break through the gates of silence;

We could go insane from the challenge of two uncertain worlds.”

Mazisi Kunene, Emperor Shaka the Great

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