Of the roads on la mapa, the one that I choose is minor. It begins a wanderer along the coastline, then frails off from the seaports into a lonely, nervous line, braving through the intense map-green of charted agriculture. From here, it shivers up and around the slopes of bronze-based, white-capped Sierras where landslides are cautioned against. Caused, I imagine, by racing melting, sun-flecked snow—purest, speeding icicles that are erosive as augers.
Past all that high excitement, my chosen route bumps along, threading together a few black-dot villages, bridging a river named Mia Sangre, ‘as red as from blood’s vine,’ asterisks on the side brag. Further on there’s an iron mining town, then a vineyard with vintage winery, and by the legend in a fine roman print, mas y mas.
Yet the best offer is what’s not stated: it’s the take-yuh-own-time that my winding passage promises. An indolent way, which as it winks at me, hints temptingly, “Come on ready enough, and maybe, we’ll surprise up some adventure together.”
I sit watching their hands walk up the beach. Used hands they are, joined into a proper team. They know each other’s finger-finest moves. When one stumbles, the other’s balanced offer is immediate, holding tight and strong just for the brief, unstable moment.
Then they relax again, swinging on, smooth like the unit they are. Ah! they do look well together; grown well-matched, one wrinkling where the other bulged.
Talking both together, they listen too same way. With patience grown poised from habit, they are able to pause mid-thought and accommodate the other’s interrupting introspections.
Just so, stable as the sea and shore, these veterans mull on slowly, footprints pairing up the beach.
And I am really glad to see them go. In need of the cover, I intend to steal their oversized beach blankets.
Ocean waves remain in motion. Ole Man River gone big-time, but also born-again militant, and rumbling with the shoreline. Full of aggression, they shard themselves on the hard rocks to gain a few grains of beach sand, the slick rocks’ loss in bits of time.
Are these weary pebbles ever, as now suddenly I am, crashed-out, diminished, and subdued by this patient struggle?
One unsentimental breaker abandons its pet sprat in a jagged, shallow cup of rock. There’s a moment of stranded confusion—a stunned quiescence, a flashing splash of wriggling. Then the same two-faced wave plays Savior, and adopted by the backwash, the fry’s a-swim again. Though still uncertain it had indeed rested on such a solid, alien place.
The wet war goes on. Beach-long, gravid valiants surge and roar in furious assaults, attacks of water-sculpted lace that disintegrate to a million mistules. On and on goes the booommming, again and again, and again, the sea flies on a wind turned carter of evanescent rainbows, of fleeting wreaths that last as long as magic lets them. A wind turned porter of drenchings of salty half-bitterness that I tongue from my lips, a taste that makes me feel I don’t know which. A wind brisk as salt and pepper, whisking by with whistles, leaving a frown on my face to match its sting in my eyes.
But I simply can’t take this dousing anymore. Neither can my lean-to of two poles that peg down two beach blankets. So I leave this be-weathered rocky point to search for a gentler camping spot.
On the beach, in the last of night, the dogs run the show. If you jog early in the morning before anyone is out, you see them peeing on the sunbathers’ deckchairs, reserving them for the morrow’s fertility rites.
In the gleaming dawn sky, the gulls scud by, spying on everything. They investigate each ripple on the wrinkled face of a patient, opaque sea. They follow each briefly floating shift of sand. They examine me with fixed eyes, wondering maybe, what am I racing from? Puzzling maybe, about why five tired-looking scragglies are sniff-tailing that tired-looking bitch?
These black-eyed gliding gulls, where do they rest when far out at sea? Do they sleep-paddle over the dark currents of endless wetness, dreaming of the airwaves? Do they sleep those quick, marble eyes at all?
The dogs, meanwhile, become shy under the vigilant gull scrutiny. And with day lighting up, they retreat from staking claims, and slink off to bark spitefully at anybody.
‘Midst smirking at their lot, I’m suddenly challenged by a thought. Anxiously, I reverse direction and add power to the stride. I had left them airing where I’d slept on the grass, lee-side of the jeep. So! Were my bed blankets even now some butch dog’s smelly territory?
The sea looks hungry; the crisscrossing waves cutting about, churning white, chomping and tripping over each other with their rush to gobble up the beach. Watching its appetite from my craggy point shivers me with contentment that I am safe from it. Caribbean man, I do prefer my sea body-soothing warm, and tropic balmy.
Into my squint strays five skinny strokes in a purple bath-suit, a little girl. O Dauntless Youth, she’s jumping breakers. Over if time enough, but four times straight she’s under-ed, and is totaled with insane joy from the dunkings. Upturned yet again, she emerges gasping, afoot, unhurt, over-thrilled by the great game with the big, rough sea. And still screaming glee, she challenges the breakers again.
And on they came, fierce and frothy, unwary of her fun.
At the top of the inclined beach, a Big Man looked out at her and the sea while he preens and props up his chest with a deep and long held breath. His attitude is ‘I’m a looking-good, six-foot-two, solid-fleshed macho man.’
The girl, meantime, is watching the first breaker swell before her, ballooning up, surprising like a bullfrog’s throat. It’s a mountain of swirls rushing at her, white as popping cotton pods, curling forever like her granddaddy’s nappy hair, and roaring so.
Her keening delight pierces the growlings of the sea, “A bigggieeeee!!” she screams.
Then her raucous celebration is suddenly drowned out.
As maybe she forced her lips shut tight, and swells her tiny chest its fill, and dives into her game, daring the busy sea.
As all the while, and louder than all others, this one breaker roars in.
Her timing seems fine as she plunges under with confidence and air enough to hide until the graybeard’s fury has waved past. But this second wave is well-timed too. For right as she surfaces, it swamps her under again. . .
. . . and she does not come up!
The Big Man, watching for attention, loses his macho pose and freezes in a stupor, his hand clutching to his heart as his belly sags like a teardrop.
Very much later, under the stillness of the vast night sky, I fall asleep. Then, I’m on a new bridge, crossing a gorge. And all at once, in mid-step, there is no span, no other side. Just gorge and I dangling in the vacuum, cut off, feeling squeezed and diminishing, and alone.
I awake stifled and sweating from this dreadful realization of forever. I feel betrayed and tears from a hurt heart flood. That kid, she was only playing and having so much fun. While a cold, old sea had none.
After a bit, I have to squint from tender eyes drained of salty pain and sleep. It’s not so nice a seaside anymore; even my dreams go awry here.
So, I take up the blankets and steer the jeep through the gloom towards the mountains.
It isn’t until I park the drone of the open-backed jeep that I realize it never gets silent in these evening hills. It just gets quieter while daytime rests.
Now I can eavesdrop on the action of a summer-eve’s world. Here comes the start of the roosters’ roll-call. They’re checking in from far a-field and near. One distant cock-a-doodle is quite some time calling in. And a very faint crow it is too! Was he cooped up, or merely pooped out and piqued at interruption from meeting the domestic challenge?
Shifting the focus: the nearby almond trees are actually shivering with a chorus of trilling and tweeting. My first amazement smirks away as I close my gaping mouth and re-see what really caused the awesome twitter. Numerous as leaves, it’s all those—Swallows? Swifts? Sparrows?—back home from swooping and pecking all day, and every beak is shrilly squeaking its piece. It’s bedlam to the highest screeches.
With the gloaming, the valley below has assumed patterns like a patchwork bedspread. The olive trees—are they everywhere?—now hinted at order as scattered clumps highlighting glimpses of bare, dusky squares of suckled earth.
The harder darkness of the mountains’ shadows march leisurely up the hillsides and wall around the valley’s fertile green. Their siege is vast. Unbroken except for sentinel clusters of white houses on the hill faces that show spattered stars of electric yellow light. Sparks of defiance to blackness. One shiny shack perched high, like a beacon over-doing its apartness, summons up a flight of fancy. . .
. . . maybe a nowadays Wise One is studying all from up there.
The twilight air becomes a dampened haze, skin-warm reminder of the gone mountain sun. With some distance, the mist is like a curtain filtering between violet and blue, rippling like a bistro’s velveteen shades.
But, here Sierra bound, city pictures are distant as forever. Barred away by mountains that alter after nightfall. Ranges that now betray novel silhouettes of lurking notions—hard nippled breasts, enormous crouching beasts, and other menacing nameless things that leech into my mind with the cool, pure, night air.
Closer, back among the calmer olives, the senior resident has ejected a trouble-making quintet. For seconds they linger, hovering in flapping formation, singing their final slicing sallies. One, doubly-defected, begs forgiveness and returns penitent to the flock. The others, less fickle, fly on to a new retreat to brood on it.
About me now, it gentles down to quiet. Not noiseless, but a clear suggestion to fade out. So, I spread my bed and idly wonder how I’d explain two beach blankets and a thin sheet of sea-sand, up here on a mountain side, in the middle of somebody’s olive field.
“If at first they don’t understand, shout louder. Smile a lot. Then talk sign language to them in a foreign rhythm!”
That’s what their parents must teach them to do. And when I falsely plead, “Okay, okay, I got it. You’re very thanks. Kind a lot” by way of my translation book and try to split, they follow along just to see how badly I’ve lied. Amused because they well know es claro there was no-way Yo could’ve compranded.
Of the band of grinning youths, one stalwart brigand demands to carry my duffel. Then they take me on a display tour all through the rustic village. We trek through an active kitchen with soup steaming on the fire, and highly amused smiles, cracked as the rude earthenware, all around the waiting table. We shove on through a backyard, despite the poking snouts of its free-roaming investigative porkers. We pick across another confine out-housing several dozen standoffish, well-fed table hens.
Whenever meeting each other, the Friendlies consult with the cheerful loudness of country neighbors. Inquiries shouted down thin stair-ways return varied citizenry stumbling up in interest. As the news, Me! is paraded past daintily curtained windows, their embroidered V’s sprout bare heads, dark eyes, and many a merry greeting.
By the by I gather it’s a translator they’re seeking on my behalf. A certain sailor —I caught marinero—who, as I understand it, is el hombre de muchos lingos.
Pointed by a solid tip, my ever-smiling company finally herds me into their public hangout place—cobbler/barber/grocery/beer-garden/ whatever—it’s the lair of my well sought champion. Honored by the attention, he becomes generous, offering new wine and more to the happily smiling. He claps my back like long-lost friends. Naturalmente, I pay the bill.
After all was said and done though, it turns out we really can’t comprand each other at all.
So. They draw me a map of the country. And what a map! What X’s and arrows! What sketches by which a baby idiot might follow his mindlessness! Then my Hero explains it all to me in gibberish, showing me many times where I am, and daring me to get where I wish to be. Finally, congratulating each other, raising drinks, they release me. Somehow, the great merriment as I walk away suggests the smart money’s betting I’d soon be back.
Still, I’m on my way again, except for the plan of their land in my hand, unfettered by their graciousness. Grateful, I stride off back to my ride, munching on the bread and cheese somebody’s aunt-behind-the-counter had slipped me while they mapped my way.
The duffel resettled for the hike back up the goat track, I ruminate on my good fortune at having the ease of motored travel. A pair of dew-dampened blankets weighs a lot.
Get high. If you want to see their secret faces, watch when it’s just right, when the shadows of setting sun make their character stand out. Look from the right perspective; not from too close, nor quite far away as another mountain’s stance.
Then cracks and ridges become severe frowns and glances lending impassive cliffs new faces. This visage in repose is never tender, nor pleased. Its gloominess looms harsh over the ending day. Its veneer is tough and cold as unconcern. Everything, from echoes of screams to evening sun’s sheen, rebounds from it. Its hardness is a chill breath stretched to weird shadows by nightfall.
In this cozier crevasse where I will sleep, it’s all different. In my snugness, I’ve discovered the Sierras’ secret. Their sternness is just posture. Theirs’ is a humor unseen as a warm night’s wink. They need this opaque darkness to be amused in—by the mite who scrambled about on them hurling noises, making canyon echoes, and who today, dried a two-blanket bed on their rocky backsides, and tonight is intimidated by his littleness.
The idea is from those dogs: how they mark their turf by a special intimacy with car tires, tree stumps, a standing pant’s leg—anything caught by their fancy. Still, that is a dog’s invention, not cool enough for me. So I devised a better branding.
After climbing atop the highest hill, I stand in the sun at the dome and, all around, ascertain my isolation. That done, I remove my clothes, putting them aside with manifest neatness, until I am basic as a bare lip.
Then, playing this Natural-man on mountaintop, I plant my naked claim. I pantomime a shower, air-washing and breezing the brown skin clean. I attend each particular area. Carefully exposing those hidden spots where the smelly germ-types gather in force. I am most thorough. My sense of achievement grows towards euphoria as, for ending flourish, I pose the bod to all directions. I’m tasting now the honey of a conqueror’s gluttony. Then flushed with victory over rank commonness, I weaken. I overdo.
It begins as the preening strut around. Then it’s the prancing dance with many hops and kicks. Warming to it, I grab a rhythm from a bounce, and put the body in motion to the beat. I work it up. Uh-uh! Uh-uh! Uh-huh!
Halfway into a three-sixty spin with high kick, there comes a brief imbalance, after which a spread backside is surprised by the hot, hard, pebbled ground. Other than startled breathlessness, though, there’s no more damage than a raw hip-bruise. But by Dignity! it’s been enough. This Cool-Jam man must don his threads.
Clothed again, and perked by grand accomplishment, I feel lighter than before. Is this the bliss? Let a dog beat that! I gloat. The only rub to it: only the welkin was witness. But what to do?
I shake out the blankets and grant their gathered grime a brief float through mountain air. Watched while, just like the dust it was, it settles into insubstantiality. And, with my brand new laving, off I go.
It’s just past dawn in the little village park and they’re sitting in the children’s swings. They barely move. They hardly talk. They share a thousand wrinkles, maybe six teeth, and a bottle of wine. All four wear faded black suits and black small-brimmed hats. Everything about them seems used up and dull; as if theirs’ is a life of stale time. Each night is like a death. Each dawn they celebrate the wake.
A woman passes by, walks as if praying. She is rod thin. Naked, she’d be all ribs. She, too, wears black faded old to graying. Her shabby shawl has a thicker darkness to it, suggesting sleepless hands knitting away forlorn midnights. It hangs forward over her shoulders, shredded ends draping down her scrub-board chest. Behind, it makes a drab mane separating rigid shoulder-blades.
The rusted old men sally and hoot as she passes on her way to matins. Pointing, wheezing, they snort and challenge her with nastiness: “Her thing’s a dusty wrinkle!” “She’s old as a mote!” “Lightheaded, too!” “She’ll nevermore know a slippery crease!”
With each snipe the bottle passes, shakily but quick, from dirty hand to grasping, stubby fingers ready with unsteady protection.
The peak of the woman’s shawl droops over her bowed head, a black pool hiding her features, but for a crescent of trembling chin, just visible, like a bobbing lure being worried. A few hesitating paces, then the woman stops. She turns towards the men. She speaks distinctly, “You ugly faces. Ughh! You meat of assholes! You sapless weeds! The best is that you will die too soon. The worst is that you will suffer too little!”
Her voice has the passion of a zealot’s prayer.
Now, neither swings nor men make noises. Even the bottle on its rounds has been paused mid-pass, and its slosh is the only thing shaking.
Four wrinkled mouths pull tight as if zippered shut. Lips worrying against naked gums make the withered faces prudish, drawn-tight purses of disapproval. The old men’s sockets gather back-up wrinkles that crowd and fringe their glinting eyes as the woman’s footsteps proceed on to morning mass.
From my vantage in the jeep, I cease my peering and settle back down to search for a comfortable doze. I fix the warm blankets about me, but the film of sleep is gone. My eyes return to stare at the old gray men watching that new day clear.
These tugging memories of Home slip into my head at night to play with me as dreams. And yesterday, while cruising on, I plainly saw a face that could be only hers. Or, can two different people look so close alike?
Now the bunched white houses of little rustic villages snuggling in the hills repeat themselves. As do the monotonous olive trees, and the twittering evening birds, and the mountains’ odd shapes and colors. I am wanting basics, essentials, and could never as a stranger know more.
So that’s how vacation’s ending, me eagerly airport bound.
I won’t be needing them tonight. I’ll leave the blankets in the jeep.
Trinidadian-American Kelvin Christopher James earned a B.Sc. from the UWI, Trinidad; and a Doctorate from Columbia University TC, NY. He lives and writes in Harlem. 1989, awarded a NYFA (Fiction). 1996, an NEA (Literature). Has published 5 novels, 5 short-story collections, and many fables. www.kelvinchristopherjames.com.