The Works of Khaled Mattawa, Part 7
BEFORESomewhere between faith and grace there is the footprint of logic lost in the purest light. Not hidden at all, but a vehicle, a necessity, neither mop, nor bucket, but whatever gives the floor its shine. The sun through the window pours on the floor, and the wood glistens as if in praise. As if a child breaking into a run. That is what I see through the window now. A child breaking into a run for the simple flame that must burn and because there are such words as "snuffed out." I could be wailing because the child is not a memory, only a gesture on my part. Yesterday, I fed a friend's cat and talked to her because the town has been emptied and filled with snow embroidered with tire tracks. I fed a friend's cat and she rubbed her sides against my calves. The thing to say now is that I am in the middle of a life in a house with the owners on holiday. Or to say a car engine hums (the owner forgetting the keys inside), and is on its way to a crystalline loss. Here deduction is howling at an oncoming storm. The thing is I fed a friend's cat and later poured a bowl of milk for her and she sniffed it, barely licked it, and left. The thought is. The life is. I've visited graves--tombstones ten feet high. I ran through the cemetary and laughed my Cairo laugh. I wanted to be arrested by the police, wanted someone to take down what I had to say. Whatever I would have said would have been the truth. But there was no one there. Only dust and a shitload of romance. Only dust and the dry tongue of the interstate. Detroit, Toledo, and the befores that follow the firtst before. Billions of snow flakes in between. I slam the brakes. I veer. The radio plays a Nigerian song. I feed the cat and talk to her and I take the milk away and begin to forget. This was before. The first before. Days later I dissolve in the fumes of Houston. There are no snow flakes in Texas and Muzak fills the emptiness in between. Your father died last week I said. No one stares at the cat and the cat now stares at the missing bowl and he stares at the after beyond before. Repeat after me. Repeat after me. A Nigerian song fills your town, fills the betweens with a billion befores.
BREAD & BUTTER
1What lies beyond sorrow belongs to feet, automobiles, and the distances they cover. When leaves change color no one will say "True, true, again." Yes, steps in an endless ladder, conjectures about the size of infinity, deviations from the arrangements of our best composers. You must ask sopranos about this; they will tell you all there is to know.
2I begin with warm ground under my feet. It's the old argument about progress, how today's bakers deprive us of the dialectics of tooth and grain, earth and tongue. In kneading, only the palm is happy meeting one of its own. There are times when such encounters end up in the food chain, the body always longing to retrieve them for its endless famines.
3There is no escaping the white rose, the wish for shade on hot summer days. Such longing may explain the mystique of dying words. Before knowing the possibility of redemption and the credibility of the redeemer, we must consider why grave diggers refuse to dig alone. Some of us die before asking questions. Some of us consult witch doctors who decipher the lines on zebras' backs.
4We turn to bakers and ask what do they deprive themselves of. At home they comment on the rice, the grilled meat or beans. No mention of bread. You may say that is the stamp of distance, the transparent nature of the world's soul. Yes, I know we live by the apotheosis of pleasures and sufferings. Then you and I share a dream of drowning. In it we cry for help to the shape in the distance. Though we want to be saved, we hope it is the bakers who sail by us on a raft.
5I too am surprised by our neglect of butter. Can anyone provide a better answer than birds who live without keys? It is said that a man with many keys its trustworthy. Locksmiths are continuously tested by the authorities. Divorces deny them access to safes. A glass of wine limits their clientele to people locked out of their cars. Standing in parking lots, these people soon learn the minute difference between the familiar and unfamiliar, the freedom granted by self-effacement. They begin to reflect on melting and solidifying, and on the hedonistic gesture inherent in the whisper of salt in Norwegian butter.
DAYS OF 1932He collects his coins to the crowd's sparse clapping. No children that want to pet the monkey today. He whisks Noosa, who has grown arthritic the last two years, carries her home in his arms. As he reaches his house, he opens the door to a small room. Three young monkeys, fresh from the Sudan, are huddled in a corner, their eyes taken by the sudden light. The trainer walks in, his steps uncertain. He was told this would work. He takes a deep breath gathering courage and suddenly yanks one of the new monkeys--the one on the right--, throws it in the middle of the room. He shouts "Dance!"
Noosa jumps from his arms and dances, three hops and a twirl, three hops... The other creature whimpers frozen in place. The trainer grabs a whip hung from a nail on the wall and lashes it behind the neck. He shouts "Dance" and the whimpers turn to screams and the whipping continues until he feels a streak of sweat run down his face. Noosa keeps on dancing. He pulls a hatchet, and with a single swing severs the new monkey's head. His swiftness startles him as the head flies, hits the mud walls and lands like a bruised pomegranate. Blood from the monkey's neck shoots up as high as the ceiling. The two monkeys in the corner scratch the stone floor screaming. Their eyes have turned the color of dark plum seeds.
Noosa stops dancing. She has danced enough today, the trainer thinks wiping blood off his cheek and carefuly placing the whip and the hatchet back in their places. For a minute he begins to think of other things, how he forgot to pay the milkman, and how the milkman's cow reminded him of a good water buffalo his father had, a healthy calf every two years. Then he remembers that he needs to bring leftovers for the monkeys (the new ones prefer carrots to bananas). And in the evening, tea and checkers with his friends. But when he locks the door to the cell he thinks again of the matter that has occupied his mind for months, mainly--what will he do now that Noosa has grown old.
MUD, MUDBoth here and in other traces footprints and droppings, cobwebs and the blackened stones that bank all fires. Someone will resist, and words will scatter like the beads of a rosary suddenly breaking. The scene is afternoon, my favorite time of day, a tantella veil, an underbelly of light, darkness lurking in ovens sharpening claws. What will my mother say? Sunflowers in the fields. To watch them is to ask for dizziness by its other name. Time ticks--on the wall, on your rest bones, it flashes mercurial on the empty roads of the Middle West. Someone will resist and a new song will nest in our heads and a river will run between hands as they shake to guarantee a separate peace. A long time ago I hid in a bean field. A long time ago a story was waiting for its evil twin, a plot. Worms glistening in sunlight. Mud on my knees and red mud and a life spent panning the stream bed. The shrapnel of a life--ligaments and filaments, a gun fight, a piano, ragtime bubbling from the fingers of a whiskered man. She lights a cigarette. She is a young sought-after prostitute. But I did not know that till later, till I saw one, a fifty year old Maltese. Later, later. I told him to pick up my bag when I run. I punch him in the face and run. You understand. The preacher coughed bitterly. Is he dying, I ask. It happened in London and the story waited for its merchant husband to return. She was old and naked and smoked a cigarette and said you have a chipped tooth and you are young. You must be terribly careless in bed. How did it happen. I told you wait. Pick up my bag and run. How did it happen. I waited in the mud in my favorite time of day and I know someone will resist. Was it me. Someone will look if such things are to be found. We could not find and we thought of glue. No glue for your chipped tooth. We tried, God knows we tried. I put the books in the oven after the baking was done. But the glue did not hold. He did not pick up my body. I punched the kid and ran and he was scared and ran too. You idiot, I said. All of this happened later. It all began with mud, said the preacher I loved. It all began with mud, and coughed.
SELIMA!My cousins had a parrot. He called only the name of one girl. Whenever the parrot called her name, he would then close his eyes, and roll his neck as if to swallow or to clear his blue throat. I would run to the kitchen to bring peanuts which he ate slowly and deliberately, the peanuts he picked from my palm clicking against the insides of his black mouth. I would then plead with him, calling out my cousin's name, calling all sorts of names. The parrot would look past me as though the call, which took him too by surprise, was a burden he had to suffer, a noise that had come from a house which that was hopelessly shut.
The parrot was never named and that may explain why no one mentions him now. The girl whose name he called, married years ago and fought her husband through two pregnancies, but did not divorce. Sometimes when she cooks his meals she begins to feel a dull hate tighten a fist inside her. When this happens my cousin sets out on her own. She walks carefully to avoid stepping on porcupine carcasses or wild artichoke spikes, and looks at the ground for snake and scorpion tracks, listening for the wild wolf-dogs that lurk on the outskirts of the city. She walks for hours to sit under a eucalyptus tree, to dip her feet in the stream that sometimes runs past the house deep in the lost parrot's heart.