Abandoning oneself to the landscape, seeking the rapture of merging with it, being entered by it, and emerging from the union amazed and transformed, one is in the mood for rapture of all sorts. Breathe the air, smell the wind, drink the water, taste the dangerous wine of wild berries, move to the music, sleep under those supernatural stars on that curious bed made of—what?—, caress the children, bathe with the women, thrill to the touch of a man with whom you share no spoken language, taste his secret skin on your lips, fall into the simplest kind of love.
My African lover takes me through his landscape and beyond it, into its ancient past and into its texture and into my own impossibilities. I couldn’t have dreamed this world, couldn’t have entered it through any old door. In our dark hot room, buzzing with magic and insects, we move on the rhythm of this man’s childhood, we receive and know the village priestesses who taught him woman-love, we weaken with the power of his history. Using my body’s way of becoming one with this place, this whole other planet, this man who has it all inside him, living in his movements into me.
Traveling man: all man. (Explorer, conqueror, hero on a quest, missionary, messiah.) The woman, traveling the same route, say through an interminable blonde desert, over green mountains which shelter coughing antelope and other dark beasts, into jangling marketplaces and sparse villages and monolithic, disease-ridden cities, the woman traveling is hermaphrodite. Hermes, Aphrodite. Unfaithful Aphrodite, lover of all, seer of beauty; Hermes/Mercury, messenger, god of trade, travel, communication, thieves. What is a traveler if not inconstant? Winged, to soar and glide from love to love, place to place, seeking beauty, truth and messages.
Hermaphroditus: all in one, self-contained, you travel alone, fertile and unarmed. You need no one. You are an arrow adrift, you float gracefully. You are dangerous, endangered. The traveling woman wants no shoulder to lean on, no strong back to wield her trunks—she has no trunks—, no map-reader to diagram, plot, and point. She has a man in her, a dream-man; she has his power and his spirit. Her style, however, is all female; she is always in danger. (What woman has not walked on the danger-edge, felt the smoldering volatile arousal she provokes, moving exotic, womanly and vulnerable through a place not her own?) She journeys away from her shelter with only her body and its magic otherness—she is innocent to the ways and the contracts and the conversations and the negotiations of the new place. How can she embrace it? What does she mean here? What does the narrowed eye mean, the way it sees her? What are five sets of narrowed eyes; get the dictionary, quick. The dictionary is useless, it answers only the known.
No Meaning, Know Meaning
Can I smile? What might it mean? My own smile is no longer known to me; I cannot predict its result. My body transmits a simple message: woman. This is woman, it says. I too feel it—this is my definition, the outline around a mystery. I know a delicate fear. But being woman, I have some skills and wisdom: I sense, I blend, I have quicksilver method for grasping the new ways, learning the limits of give and receive. I move through the misty landscape and enter into a thousand small communications, engage in a thousand subtle negotiations, often dealing in such goods as life and body. Ownership is a common dispute. I may be perceived as a gift, an item available for trade or sale, a service to be rendered, an offered potential. I learn: to trust my inclinations, to check the shadows, to find friends, to attract protectors (guardians, uncles, grandfathers, brothers), to tread the deep universal human currents, to heed the nuance and music of languages, to know meaning without knowing words. I am never out of danger, but protected by the magic of the very thing which makes me weak.
The main thing about travel is that it is movement. Movement over the surface of the earth, usually, but one supposes that interplanetary and sub-oceanic might be just as likely, merely trajectories of different direction: upper or outer, lower or inner or downgoing types. We become fish, seaborne. We are birds in blue space. Walking is the only form of travel natural to man—swimming too, but distances are a problem. We engage animals—horses, mules, dolphins, giant turtles, elephants—and vehicles that imitate these animals, and with them, we become mythic: Pegasuses and mermaids and lizard-men and gods and goddesses of all sorts.
The Blue-Green Seas Of Forever
Travel is metaphor, too, of the most idiotically simple kind. What are we doing when we travel? Crossing boundaries of reality, enlarging the spirit, exposing oneself to the unknown, discovering, being endangered, being infected, escaping, conquering, getting lost, forging a path, taking on the world, abandoning native origins, freeing oneself, asking questions, looking for something, finding oneself, going native, falling apart, experiencing the multiplicity of existence. Digging a tunnel to China. Sailing off on the blue-green seas of forever. Following a siren’s call, following a drumbeat, getting away from it all.
Traveling, we lose all our possessions. We leave everything behind: vistas, seaside cafés, lovers of one night or one year, memories embedded in the walls and rocks of where we stayed for a time, money lost and spent, good meals with Italian wine, strange quarrels in invented languages, nights of retching, pieces of clothing washed into the sea, tropical dance-music, angry belly-dancers, insane border guards with Russian guns, the threat of cannibalism at dusk. A five-year-old girl named Ama, smoking a cigarette naked, one morning by my bedside, that was once a moment in my possession.
One of the things I try to do: memorize the smallest, most mundane and ordinary, unprepossessing, and virtually invisible of physical moments: the look and feel of a certain wall at a certain time on a certain day. Those walls, those little shacks, those cats in the sun: all that is lacking in self-consciousness I seek to hold in vision, memory. (Simple composition, color tints, a wash of light, crumbled brick, cold shadow, stillness, rose-color dirt, a twitching whisker.) Not knowing why, but thinking I may want it later, I try to keep it and I never can.
Places I Don’t Know
Photographs: moments preserved, often of travel. Who wants them? I have never liked trophies, souvenirs. (Taking a picture, in the moment and decision of that act one ceases to live, saying: this is already a memory; I grasp the present too tightly and make it past, to preserve it for the future, also nonexistent.) I prefer my memories out of whack, confusing, ever-changing, nonchronological. I like the images evanescent. Photographs are fear of death, that’s all. I have them, of course, like everybody else. But the ones I have torment me. They puzzle me, shock me; I don’t trust them. They make me stare stupidly, like a monkey. They pretend to be memory and remove the soul from true memory. When I think of Ama my mind is trapped by that image, her photograph. The moment, fuller, more fragile, escapes, fades, is obscured by evidence.
I like photographs of people and places I don’t know, times I didn’t live. I’d like to own a lot of unknown people’s pictures, that could fill me with longing. With those as clues, I could make new stories, mysteries.
Deep night, Haitian hotel. There is a hurricane, and the hotel is immersed in wild tearing sound, a beating beating sky of black wind and flinging water. The sea seems to be rising up into the night, no more horizon, and it sounds like bleating, shrieking pigs and crashing sea-monsters out there. The room we’re in is a kind of tomb, small and narrow, all concrete, a tiny iron bed; we lie jammed together in it covered by a plastic sheet, sweating, cold, while the rain flies down upon us from the chink high in the wall (a prison window). Flapping on the window, another sheet of plastic: flapping, flapping, letting in the monstrous sky. Fatigued by the wet and sleepless huddling, we leave our rainy chamber and wander into the dark dining room; it booms metallically. In the midst of the tables and chairs sits the hotel’s owner, Madame Sandrine, and she cries. The tin sheets of her rooftop, blown off by the storm, are at this very moment being carried away by thieves. The next morning, in sunshine, we sit; we have bread and butter tartine and black coffee in the roofless hotel.
On a train in Botswana, on the map a place in middle Africa, a place residing deep in the unconscious, the unknown primal Africa of the imagination. Stopping slowly at a station, looking out the window: small boys sell oranges. At this moment, seeing these oranges held out to me like glowing round suns, seeing these smiling children so real and familiar, so strangely remembered from a time before history, there is something I know. This is the birth of my world, this is my ancestry, this is the beginning and the heart and what the rest of the world has lost. It is fearfully good here; I sink into it. This is the source of the blood in my veins. This is the land of my body, the home of my soul. How gentle you are, children with oranges, ancient land, source.
Noodles, Noise, Light
The street-corner in Tokyo: Shibuya. This future-place, this gourmandise of neon, grand brilliant colors, every color but mostly blues—royal blue, blue-green, violet blue—high nested buildings, hives, lights on and blinking everywhere, giant screens with soundless images, or perhaps, more likely, sounds that insert and bury themselves within the antagonistic rushing harmony. The mass of people is like insect-life. With the absence of danger and the illusion of vitality, there is something else, something harsh, explosive, edged with madness, a collective seething hum. Always, always, it moves. Swarms, multi-level swarms. There are no smells. Traffic is fast and blind. One imagines this to be the confusing dreamed future of primitive man. In this future, we eat noodles.…
Pink Soap: Kenya
I am living in this enormous house, many rooms and windows, the walls are thick, carved coral. There is a green breeze that runs through the house like a river, from room to room and down the wide halls. There is no glass in the windows. The rooftop is another large room; leading up to it, steps cut into an outer wall. That cosmic surface belongs to the wild night: stars and full moon give the only light, strange sinuous insects with sharp red legs and horns and secretive shifting movements inhabit that place. In the trees around this echoing dream-house grow cashew nuts, mangos, coconuts. During the night, wild donkeys roam the silver-lit jungle garden, galloping through tall grass, bumping over fallen coconuts, crashing into watermelons, seen only as shadows. Where I bathe, down the hill from the house: a stone bathtub sits by the well. My pink soap, left in the fork of a tree-branch, is eaten one night by the donkey tribe. Scattered everywhere, teethmarked bits of it.
The Dreams of Crocodiles
In the deep sky of Africa, where at evening the sun spreads molten like scarlet-gold lava, where the full moon gives cold silver light so sharp you can set a desk in the sand and write, in this supernatural sky one is not surprised to consider the spheres as gods. One night, walking through the sprawling sandy village-town of Maun, Botswana, whose edges segue into swamps and then lagoons where crocodiles rest and listen, a place of huts and small wooden houses scattered at random in the sand, where outside almost every shack sits a record player on a little table, playing the music that courses through all of Africa, a music rising from the dark happiness of sex and jungles and beer and never any money, a music that turns breathing, walking, even thinking into a rhythmic hypnosis, a crazy lilting dance, there, all day long, all the different songs float out from all the record players, and all (belonging to the one mother-body of sound) pulse together in a fine way, in a perfectly confusing brimming-over of unreasonable harmony. Anyway—before being pulled away by that music that sill runs its melody in my blood, I meant to tell about the night in Maun when I saw the ball of fire; I watched it float down through the black sky far above. A fantastic blazing sphere with a billowing train of flame. I fell to the cool sand, as if my body too was pulled down by the downward-falling vision, magnetized to Earth. Around in the village, mostly quiet then, with cooking fires smoking the air, the sound of a Bushman woman’s singing, eerie and punctuated with click-tones, made a fine, cool tremor on the air. This was just one small moment, a tiny rich instant, when I looked up to see a witch’s vision, fire-sphere moving through sky, as if a child of the sun had lost its way, visiting forbidden night.
Give me a reality with holes in it, one that fits me loosely, with plenty of negative space, one that crumbles and sloughs off at every opportunity, with the first drop of rain.
Travel is magic. Stepping through the doorway to another world, a reality guided and formed by different rules, we encounter enchantments, illusions, multiple realities, strange distortions of the laws of physics—cause-and-effect, for example. A man I knew in Cape Palmas, Liberia, cooked rice (in that hot, sun-washed town of pastel wooden houses, pigs, and one rusted, fallen traffic-light) every day for more than 20 years, but he never could say how long it might take the rice to cook. On any given day, things might be different. He was not about to presume anything.
Do you know the song?
Chicken is nice
Chicken is nice
Chicken is nice with
Palm butter and rice.
Don’t want no wife
from Cape Palmas
Don’t want no wife
from Cape Palmas
Don’t want no wife
Don’t want no wife
Don’t want no wife
from Cape Palmas.…
In another little town in West Africa, there was a splendid mansion belonging to the president off in the capital city. He was the one who had put in the traffic light, the only one for hundreds of miles. I was taken to that mansion by a kid called Toe—John Toe—and we walked through every room, through the black-tiled bathroom with 20 shower nozzles (visions of the president showering with his dinner guests), admired the usual dictatorial gold-leaf decor, gazed into the coffin-like freezers at the coldly steaming stacks of white-wrapped suspended animal/vegetable life. Servants made sure that electricity was always running, kept every light on all day, all night, checked daily that the shower nozzles produced the astonishing luxury of hot water on command. The house, kept humming with life systems, thus mystically invoked and enclosed the invisible, powerful emanation of man-symbol, leader as something more than his image, divine force, top witchdoctor whose magical body extended to the country’s borders.
In that same town, I was warned there was human sacrifice after 6 p.m. Not cannibalism, just ritual death for political reasons. The idea was that if you were, say, a post office clerk and you wanted to become mayor or even something higher, you could sacrifice something living, and that life force, with its own status in the hierarchy of power, would then accrue to you. So a goat would be okay, do some good, but a human would be better, and a human with power best of all. It was generally believed that anyone in politics had gotten there by sacrificing some human. What a mystique! I had to curb my inclination to follow drumbeats after dark…I probably could have gotten someone a pretty good job.
At dawn in Barcelona, I’m at a bus-stop with the beautiful Nigerian Iffy. Everything seems empty and arid in that particularly Spanish way, with undercurrents of secret evil and baroque ignorance swimming in the shadows between buildings, in doorways. We stand talking vaguely, disoriented, sleep-walkers in a strange city, feeling the white warmth of December sunshine. We are gradually aware that others have joined us at the bus-stop, and we turn to see five men, narrow faces, narrow eyes, eyes sharpened to slits of lightless animal seeing, five sets of male-animal slit eyes in dark burning unison, dream-hunting us in a daydream of desire.
I met the Marquis on the train from Paris to Basel. We smoked cigars, both dressed in white. It was hot golden August. We hit it off well in a flippant sort of way, and over the years I visited him at random, sometimes spending weeks in his hôtel particulier in the area back of Étoile. He had a quiet manservant; he lived a simple rough life steeped in gloom, tradition, and dust. He opened his mother’s trunks and gave me lace chemises, his childhood umbrella with an ebony dog’s-head handle, books by Baudelaire, a hand-painted fan made by his grandmother. We ate dinner by twilight on his balcony, I in transparent lace, he shirtless and tanned brown; we ate with knives and forks of heavy tarnished silver. I delicately tortured him; he bought me the finest croissants. I loved his coffee, rich and dark and bitter, which he brought to me in my bed, from a kitchen smelling of pears. He called me to watch him in his bath; he had filled the room with terrifying flowers, those used for funerals, that appear in nightmares, that use up all the oxygen in the bedroom of a sleeping person. I cooked mushrooms for his two daughters, grown married women with sweet childlike faces. I wandered in his rooms in the darkness, feeling the ancestral gaze of portraits, all with the same cruel blue eyes and haughty noses. I searched the rooftops of Paris for artistic visions. I wandered the streets and flirted with men, then returned to him. It was no love affair; he couldn’t have me. He was a connoisseur of women’s bodies, a gourmet of love, an aristocrat of the erotic realm, and he loved me with desperation. I knew, I knew somehow, in some young, shadowy way that to him the pain of wanting was the most exquisite of pleasures, and that pain is what I gave him, beyond his limits to endure. I gave him morsels, little bits, and then withdrew. It was a sweet game we played, those days and twilight nights in Paris, near Étoile.
Hunting for Mermaids
When I found out about the mermaids in West Africa, I went all over the place looking for them. The word for mermaid is mami-wata, water-mother. I used to ask everybody about mami-wata, to get detailed information. I’ve always liked the idea of mermaids, the thought of something free, beautiful, powerful, a seductress of the deep, dangerous, long hair floating, enchantment, songs, something unknown, creature-like and feminine hidden in the dark salty ocean depths.…
It’s all so secretive; the men I talked to who’d met one wouldn’t say much. One guy told me that a mermaid’s voice flowed like liquid sugar, and then he said, “I can’t say more.” A taxi-driver friend told me that generally you’d meet a mermaid on the beach at night, when you were out walking by yourself. The mermaid would sit in the shallow sea, showing her pointed breasts and swishing her fish-tail, calling out to you quietly and making all kinds of wild promises. Men couldn’t resist this—she would give secrets and grant wishes in exchange for eternal devotion to her—and they usually agreed to everything. Of course, that was the end for them; they would never again be free, and they could love no other woman.
I went to a town called Axim in Ghana; people said it was a great place for mermaids and witches. The “x” in the name made it seem true. There was a little island there, visible from the beach, an island pyramid-shaped and of uncertain distance away. Depending on the time of day, it was sometimes near, sometimes impossibly far. A death-swim. I used to watch the island all day long, watching it approach and recede, watching it look friendly and green or harsh and remote. I had a vague plan to swim out there—I’m a strong swimmer, mermaid blood perhaps—but the island was unpredictable, and it seemed essential to time it right. I thought about it so much that finally I had a dream, and the dream took me there, just like that. Once I got to the island, I met the mermaid more or less, and it wasn’t long before I’d had enough.
The place was an old shipwreck all turned to ice, with ice-rooms and ice-stairs, and on the other side of the ice-island, out to sea, was black night and raging storms, whipping and sucking and howling, carrying sailboats away at a terrifying place. I heard, coming out of the ice and the storms and the dark, the sugar-water voice talking to me, so sweet and cold it made my teeth and brain ache. It slid liquidly, musically along, making almost-words with an underneath sense, words I couldn’t bear to hear fully, words which seemed to melt and chill my deepest heart. I don’t know how I did it, but after a while I got myself out and away from the cold sugary fish-woman and back to bed in my little hut full of fat malaria mosquitos, just in time to roll into the warm arms of my sleek-skinned man, just in time for a little sunrise lovemaking before the plantain lady stuck her head through our window to say good morning and give us our roasted plantains and oversugared coffee.
Traveling is living stories, entering unknown locales where unpredictably horrific, sweet, dangerous or maddening plot lines await you, wait to incorporate you, weave you into some saga or serial episode or novella, sometimes even tying you right into an epic drama of some sort. These stories might or might not have perceptible narrative consistency, logic within their own bounds, but almost always there are peripheral, illogical characters drifting in and out, proposing their own unresolvable plots, suggesting improbable changes of locale or adjustments to the style of enactment; all these constant wandering possibilities tend to obscure whatever basic narrative might be present. There are no beginnings or endings; just episodes connected to others, just partially perceived, partially participated-in larger, longer stories. The African prostitute walks into a bar and starts a fight with the seedy French expatriate, the lapsed priest, the alcoholic. And then, because you have blonde hair, the Frenchman starts shouting at you. “You wander all over Africa with blonde hair! Who do you think you are? Why is your hair tied up? Are you afraid of your animal, sensual nature?” The drunk prostitute sees you as a kindred spirit and asks you to dance; she strokes your hair like a mother and shakes her round belly against your hips. The guy gets madder than ever and starts yelling at some depressed government official who’s talking philosophy and analyzing all of our skulls. The evening drifts on like that, a curious scenario of angry men, rebellious women, dancing, skulls, Catholicism, beer, lust, and blonde hair. What do you think? Good topics? There’s a lot there to work this. Anyway, the evening drifts on like that, with the given themes interweaving in multiple ways. There are some climaxes and some lulls, and nothing is ever resolved. It doesn’t end; people get tired and go home. You run into them all again later, and the same topics are taken up again, looking different under a burning sun at noon.
The overall form, all the stories put together in the line of your life, is postmodern Zen, with unfinished bits, broken-down realities, edges revealed, seams unraveled, but still, running through it all is the continuity of you. Don’t try to make sense of it; it’s all a maddening puzzle with pieces always missing, new pieces always being created from nothing.
The things I remember most, for travel is all vanished remembered stories, story bits, are about food, sex, music, and houses. These things in combination are especially good.
One night I walked into the dark calm sea at Mombasa; I remember clearly, I was wearing a pair of brown silk panties. The guy who was with me was a very handsome genius, an adventurer, a reckless pursuer of women, an undomesticated Scottish lord. (He kept his lordliness a secret, but I had found out; I kept that a secret.) He was young and strong, with big stocky Scottish legs, Indian Ocean blue eyes, and chopped messy blonde hair. I was addicted to how he made me feel. That’s another story.… I’ll try to stick to the main narrative here. (But tell me the truth: which story would you rather hear? Hmm?) Anyway, he, that glorious Zeus-like creature, was sitting at a desk on the beach, typing a letter by moonlight. Something came out of the night and hit me on the shoulder; I thought my divine lover was throwing rocks at me, some curious sex-game. I got hit by several more of these flying objects, so I screamed a little, but quite soon I saw by moonlight that what was zipping through the dark at me were wild winging flying fish. (A secret god typing a letter by full moon-light, a girl mostly naked in the sea with flying fish: a story about fish, flight, sex, night, salty skin, full moon, letter-writing. A surrealist tale of seduction, basically a mystery, with strong elements of danger and comedy, a suggestion of myth.)
I am sitting in a café at the Marché aux Puces in Paris, I’m probably having my usual café crème. This gray little man comes up to me, whispers in my ear: “I have a woman for you, dressed in leopard. She is a tigresse; I want to bring you to her…she will love you.” I was terrified by the tigresse; I ran away but couldn’t stop thinking about her, and she lives vividly in my imagination even now. You see, that dim little man was a poet-merchant of desire. Is not the whispered image, doubly feline, predatory, the invitation to dangerous, death-tinged love with woman more seductive for being invisible, yet perfectly, economically, conjured by hissing words?
Moon, Easter, Blood
I once lived briefly in Malta, on a tall ship, a schooner in drydock for repairs. Perverse, to live on a wooden ship, its sails furled, its hull still and dry, gold-gleaming wood of voluptuous form, barnacles clinging. A ship indoors, with electric lights and workmen and machines and vehicles running around. I went to a cathedral there (in Malta the religious fervor is deep and dark and thorny with penance). I went to a cathedral there on Easter Sunday, and when I stood to sing, when the effigies were going by and the purple banners waving, the incense smoking, crimson blood began to flow between my legs, big drops falling red on the marble floor, rivers coursing down my bare legs. Taboo!—this blood, this place, this day! Never before or since have I bled so abruptly and with such vehemence. Running to escape the cathedral, weaving through the singing people, I left a scarlet trail across the marble. Later, I watched the penitents, men carrying enormous timber crosses, wearing hoods, walking barefoot, wanting to suffer, to be seen to suffer. I was not raised Catholic, but throughout my childhood I had a terrible fear that I would grow up to become a nun.
Two Fat Brothers
There was once in Paris a tiny restaurant, only two tables inside, one out (where a cat usually slept), called the POURQUOIS PAS? The cooks were two fat brothers who just barely fit side by side in their tiny little kitchen. When you ate your meal they took turns coming out to watch you eat, making sure you ate it all. If you slowed down or couldn’t finish, they became most perturbed and scolded you. If there were diners at the other table, the brother cooks would get them involved in the problem, and of course the general consensus would be that you were extremely remiss in your behavior. The cat would sleep through everything; the food was always exceptionally good.
Everyone knows this: when you travel, you get sick. It’s not a surprising idea, is it? It’s that foreign bacteria—we’re not used to it—and besides, it’s bad, dangerous, and dirty. We Americans think we are the cleanest of all cultures, but just ask any foreigner: he gets very sick when he visits America! The more different the culture is from your own, the sicker you are likely to get.
All Shook Up
In Africa, malaria got so familiar and personal to me that it was almost a friend. I recognized the subtlest early signs of its onset and accepted its coming each time with a mixture of resignation, anticipation, and fear. There is something soul-shaking and transcendent about malaria: you feel worse than bad, of course, you feel like death would be a relief, but you are also aware of being in the grips of a real force, something bigger than yourself, something that runs rampant in your blood like a divine visitation. The heat it brings is supernatural; you become fire. The cold too is otherworldly, lunar ice. The shaking of your shoulders is a possession, a helpless ecstatic frightening dance, the body moving, vibrating, to a perfect relentless beat. You are absolutely, horribly, caught in the here and now, in its depths, no escape. To me, malaria and Africa were one thing—I could not have loved Africa as I did had I not known bodily its deathly suffering, the more humble human place in the balance of nature equation, the intensity of all its life forms.
Living in Haiku
It’s summer: the persimmon tree in my Japanese garden is in full leaf. The fruits are all potential now: hard and green, squared spheres. Like the future, “furoshiki”—wrapped in green silk. The sight of the tree puts me into poetry. There are persimmons in my past. The childhood Chinese painting on some long-lost bedroom wall: in colored brushed ink, the eternal lone persimmon, the bare black branch, the backdrop of quiet snow. Seeing no ripe gold-red persimmon now, still I see the color that was, the color that will be, spiritual warm Buddha-orange, the color of monks’ robes on a sunset beach in Thailand. A life-force color, sun and blood.
In shadowy parts of my brain, long-ago persimmon conversations are revived; faintly, I taste the memory of the strange flat sweetness of first-tasted persimmon. I see, too: the star-flower when the fruit is sliced. I return to the doorway of a shepherd’s cottage in the French Midi, with one persimmon tree, ripe fruits, and a glimpse of the blue sea.
All persimmons gathered and together, the past, present, and future fruits, in the moment when I see this tree. I see it all, from the time now of the green baby fruit knobs which sometimes fall and knock the ground hard, to the fruit-becoming-succulent-and-fruit phase, to the bird-coming time, then the leaf-turning-red-orange-gold time, to the leaf-losing time with the wind tossing it, to the slow cold time when snow drifts down, to the final small sweet long-lingering moment (from long ago, from childhood, from a lost painting, from dreams of paintings, from memories of fruit, from tree-moments since, from a future foreseen): one persimmon, on the bare black branch.
In the mountains of Japan: autumn. Far off, gray mountain-forms softened by mist into rounded shadows. A gentle rain, so light it seems to hover instead of succumbing to gravity, makes the nearby hills and rice-fields a quiet, glistening green. Who am I in this? A woman standing, a small human figure in an ancient landscape, listening to the wind.
Evening, the outskirts of London. That day, I had run from a tube station with many others: a bomb threat, police everywhere. There had been explosions in the city for weeks; when I arrived, the airport runways were full of tanks, sandbags, roaming soldiers waiting to discover the end of the world. It was the time of the energy crisis. In the backstreets of London, lamps were low, burning yellow, the streets were wet with rain, the row houses dark grim bricked-up secrets. Small clusters of people scurried by, speaking Indian languages. And suddenly, I was inside the real London. I had been in the city many times, but its essence had eluded me (not that I’d noticed its absence) and finally here it was: the echoing past, the history that had been lived, the blood and badness and danger and lowlife and glory, the gloom and the mystery, the repressed scandals and the lilting street rhymes, all this moved in the air that night, bloomed in the shadows.
To know the essence of a place: this is the traveler’s epiphany. It is the frontier-crossing moment when the limits of time and present reality drop away, allowing in to consciousness all the lived past, all in one unutterably rich moment.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed; here comes a chopper to chop off your head. …
That Night, The Monkey Ate The Pomegranate
In Africa, I was in the habit of following drum-sounds. They were always at night, a tantalizing call through the darkness. Why did I follow them? I like the feeling, when you are close enough for the drumbeats to enter your body, when the pounding vibrations make you have to move, no choice but to dance. Sometimes odd things happened as a result of this habit. I wandered into witchcraft rituals, sacrifices, forbidden ceremonies, strange scenes of possession. Sometimes, too, more mysterious: I followed drums and never found them; the sounds drifting and changing direction and distance endlessly.
One such night was spent in a seaside swamp-forest, a place of twisted stumpy water-sucking trees with roots for branches, stark skeleton-shapes against the sky where they grew out upon the beach and rose from the water for a ways. It was not a place where people lived. The nearest village consisted of a long dock that smelled of dead fish, a couple of poor shacks, and a crazy, bewitched fisherman who lived alone.
After a morose dinner in my curious desolate house—two storeys, one servant-cook, one monkey, rudimentary electricity, an inner courtyard with one pomegranate tree, scavenger birds in the trees all around, I heard faint drums and set out to find them, finally never finding them, but hiked and circled for hours in the swamp-tree forest. The sea, when I saw it, gave off a dim gray light.
In La Ceiba, Honduras, there was hunger and violence and sex. A geographical id. The place felt like a careless blend of volatile chemicals, poisonous and sweet, just about ready to explode, sizzling. But there was a dark warmth to this—because volcanic danger was right there outside your window, sitting at the next table in the bar, walking towards you down the street, you felt both aroused by adrenalin and benignly tolerant, fatalistic. Fears were more real, more vivid, bigger than elsewhere, but there was a sense of fate, chance, destiny to it all. The gamble.
We stayed in a house on stilts, no lights, isolated from the town by jungle, a few feet from the waves. One sleeping night, harsh noises. We got out of bed to look: below us, in the space between the stilts, a car was parked. There was shouting, a woman laughing, gunshots. A simple lovers’ outing by the sea: inside the car, the woman drunken, sprawling, her legs out the open door, her dress falling to reveal shoulders, breast, fat thighs; her uniformed companion lurching and bellowing as he shot his pistol into the night, the bushes, the sea, the world.
Sultan, my fisherman friend, my simple wise man, my island sage in a thread-bare red sarong. He brought me gifts: pineapples, fresh fish, fine stories. We often talked about magic; his life was full of it. Genies were his specialty. Men had to be careful, he said, you never knew what a woman might be beneath her veils. A friend of his had followed a woman to her room one night; she had beckoned to him on the street during the night-hour when women came out to do their shopping and their banking. He was still too poor to afford a wife, so when he could be with a woman he was grateful. It was something to treasure—but since all women belonged to someone there was danger in it.… They got to the room, the woman removed her veil—she was beautiful, terrifyingly beautiful—and she asked him to come to her. He went to her, lay down beside her, and they began to kiss. But the window was open, and he felt cold. He told the woman; she said “Oh.” Then without moving from the bed, she raised her arm toward the window, which was high in the wall on the other side of the room, and her arm stretched and stretched until it had become long enough to reach the window and close it. Although the man could hardly gather the strength to move, so frozen was he with fear and desire, he managed to pull himself up like a sick man and stumble out of the room, away from the long-armed woman. He was lucky he discovered what she was before anything else happened. (I wondered: is this the way to test for genies? When you’re about to have sex with a woman, ask her to close a distant window…)
This piece was first published under the name Michelle Dominique Leigh in the anthology The House on Via Gombito: Writing by American Women Abroad edited by C.W. Truesdale and Madelon Sprengnether (First Edition 1991; Second Edition 1997).