Jangle Around, Chapter XII, Incremental Repetition




Duncan spent the first day after Linda left with her family playing the bean game with the Indians in the plaza. Late in the afternoon the oldest man said to him in the Indian language, "Your woman has gone." Duncan was not really sure his word meant woman. It might mean spouse, or companion, or lover, and he thought he'd heard it used for aunt. What after all did it mean to the old man who used it? Something wholly other than any translation could mean to Duncan.

"Gone," he replied.

The old man had never spoken to Duncan outside of the game. Suddenly he put down his pieces, put his thin, blotchy hand on Duncan's and undertook a verbose plea. Duncan could not understand it very well, it came out with such a rush of stinking breath from the old, brown, tooth-stumped mouth. He gathered the man was begging to bring his family (Duncan had no idea how many that meant) to live with Duncan in Linda's house. As Duncan squatted, silent and dumbfounded, the old man went on and on, repeating and rewording his plea like an incantation, pressing against him as toward a priest. Duncan finally was so frightened he got up without a reply and walked to Linda's house without looking back.

In the house he found himself stunned out of fear or sadness, out of thought even, as if the old man's desire had been a leech, which had bored to his heart and sucked away all that had ever tried to dwell there.

The servants were gone. The house was alone. He ate dry tortillas for dinner and then walked from one room to another without turning on lights or touching the walls or furniture. He was afraid he could not sleep in the bed he'd shared with Linda. He found rushes, which a maid had left in a small room beside the kitchen. He lay down and wondered where he might go now. He felt that the walls were dangerous to him; he got up, drew the rushes into the center of the room, and lay down again. He felt he had to go to someone and ask him for help. The mayor would not help him because he was an American. A powerless American in rural Mexico is a bear for baiting.

Senora Apretado might hire him for some quiet task, but the doctor would be around. No one else had to do with the real world except her brother, Moreno. Duncan felt he had to appeal to a world more real than the Indians’. Going to Moreno would be like giving up. The rain on the roof sounded like crowds whispering against him. Yes, he really wanted to give up, to give up trying even the smallest tiny part of living. He could look for Moreno, get lost, and die. So he might die, what did it matter? That would be an answer to the real world. It would be the one last try he owed and it would almost be like not trying at all.

In the red dawnlight he found a boat at the quay and began to pole east across the wide, shallow lake. As he pushed himself across the water, the people and acts of his life began to fall away from him like the V of ripples behind him on the smooth surface, as if they had existed only to depart. They were only fragments of old skin he left behind to divert his enemies. As the people and events of his past diminished, objects around him augmented themselves in vividness. His most comforting companions made dear by his gravest longings ran away from him as the waves colored by dawn and deserted the stem of the boat towards subsidence.

Duncan pushed himself north and east up the long axis of the lake. He struggled over the deepest part where he had to drive his pole so far his hands on the butt almost touched the gunwale. The hard going confirmed bittersweet desperation. His shoulders and knuckles ached. At any moment he would no longer be able. He imagined the quietness of being a stone in the deepest part of this lake. He imagined the bottom of this lake as covered with large, distinct, round stones lying next to one another. But the end of his pole would break in on them. He imagined the stillness of the life of a stone lying in the Java trench and wished that stillness were he. He wished immense black water pressed him completely on all sides without motion. The blackness and pressure would be like his nature of a stone.

The lake was misting over and fine rain began to fall on his face. The bottom was rising and now there were reeds and cattails. The reeds grew thicker so that they were like long grass and he was forcing the boat over them as if it were a sledge. The bending stems at the prow were like the succession of convenient choices that guide a mediocre life. Finally the going got too heavy; he dropped the pole, left the boat to itself, and started wading, sloshing through the marsh grass with heavy feet. The rain thickened and then poured in sheets. The veils of drops were like architectural trellises or the stems of towering, insubstantial grain.

The footing firmed up and slowly rose to a stretch of small hills like dunes covered with grass and clumps of small trees. He sat down by one; the weather had lifted and he could look back the way he had come. The trees beside him were low with fat little branches. They formed a thicket hard to penetrate. They seemed solid to the point of animation; their twigs were grasping hands intercepting the freedom of the air. Back down the slope the grass was high, yellow, slick, and bending from the recent rain. It seemed as ready to pass any traveler as the thickets were to obstruct him. His attention was carried down the grass blades to the shore as a sled is carried to the earth by weight. There was the small, black boat. It was unaccountably distant as if his traversing acted optically, as if traversing were a reversed glass to make the boat distant out of all reaching and to make it diminish frighteningly from moment to moment. He was afraid of the distance between him and the boat and of the way it shrank across the grass, diminishing from moment to moment like the fading of a musical note. Perhaps the grass was whispering against him in the increasing space.

He raised his eyes to the sunset. The whole western sky was red, the water below it was red, the mountains between them hung in an unspeakable red distance. He began to think that everything was red, as if redness were being and in seeing everything red he saw its being. The lower edge of the sun touched the mountain and its disk began to diminish as the boat had diminished. Perhaps the solar system was that more real world to which he must appeal. He watched the mountain eat the sun so very slowly that he thought watching it would never end, and at the same time, seeing it pass quickly like the circling of a second hand. The moment motion ended with the extinguishing of the upper edge of the sun, everything changed color as in the sharp sunset of seascapes. The mountains, the valley, the lake, the grass, and the low trees lost their redness and took on dark greens and gray browns. The world was immersed in dark browns and olives like the ocean water where it swings in the evening against weedy cliffs, shadowing them finally away. The boat was lost in the darkness below him.

Duncan felt his senses restored. He wanted shelter for the night. He could see nothing but the low trees. He crept around the trunk into the thicket where the stiff branches touched the ground. He found a hollow that seemed protected and cuddled down in it. He felt twigs and small stones underneath him. He was afraid they would keep him awake, that they would seem larger and larger as he lay still but in a moment he was asleep.

In the morning he awoke to water splashing on his face. Outside the thicket, fine rain was falling through mist, but inside it collected on the stiff twigs and fell in heavy drops. He hated the splash of the drops and the cold tracks they made on his face and neck. He was hungry and wanted to go on. Moreno’s must be further east. He struggled out into the misty rain and began hiking over the slowly rising land. As it got higher and less marshy he came to clumps of prickly pear cactus. He had learned to like the red, sweet fruit, which the maids had brought to Linda. The tiny barbed spines would stick in his hands if he were not careful.

He took off his shirt, draped it around the most available of the spiny fruit, and pulled it off the bush by holding the cloth bunched up around it. Then he unrolled it onto the ground where he squashed it open with a stone. When there was a rent in the skin so that he could touch it without risking the spines, he dug out the sweet flesh with his fingers, swallowing the seeds in his hunger. In the same way he picked and ate all the four or five ripe fruit he could reach. Some of the barbed spines, as tiny as cat hairs, got into his fingers and smarted. When he was done, he realized that the inside of his shirt was alive with them, that he could not wear it or even tie it around his waist. Very gingerly he stuffed a wadded corner into his hip pocket and let the rest hang out behind him. Still he had more spines in his fingers, many so fine he could not see them.

The land continued to rise irregularly in dunes like building waves. After a time the sun broke through. He stopped and held his fingers up against the first patches of bright blue to see the hair-thin smarting barbs. He thought if he could see them he could pick them out with his teeth. The spines were silver and the sun transfigured them in silhouette into something around his finger like the painted corona of the Angel of the Annunciation. Perhaps the radiating spines were themselves the smarting pain as if they were the pen tracings of an electrographic device coupled to his nerves. When he had picked them all out, the smarting ended, but he had lost something to think about as he walked. When he climbed over the top of the highest hills he saw a field of bright flowers. They spread out below him red and purple and white like a body of water. The hill sloped down to them as to a beach. Going down hill he began to run because of the pull of his own falling, and he ran on in among the flowers. When he got well into the field he was breathless and dizzy from running, from little food, and from the emptiness of his desertion. His flight was ever more plunging. He went slipping in the mud, his arms spinning for balance, his head thrust forward. He fell headlong among the flowers, crushing brittle stems and making brilliant petals bleed. Within himself Duncan fell a great distance in complete, subvelvety darkness, then lay at the bottom in black stillness for a long time as if on the floor of a deep, peaceful pool. He opened his eyes lying on his back among the flowers. Far away blue divided the black, because a patch of light filled with hairy green stems covered with half globes of water

He got to his hands and knees and shook the mud and dampness off his face. He felt weak but relaxed. When he got to his feet he saw how far he had run since the low hills. They seemed, like what people had done in his life, as far behind him as he could see, as if his awareness were stretched out to the tiniest possible thread through which news of the horizon reached him only as a thin, high note like the note of the tightest piano string. Ahead across the flowers he could see a square white object like an island. He set out toward it, feeling heavy but with a pleasant, lethargic sense of enfranchisement as if he were really traveling very fast. At times he imagined that he hung suspended from his outspun lines of sight between two poles of real objects as a fish might be suspended underwater in a net between two boats, or as an insect immemorially suspended in amber, connected to ever-existing life only as a shadow of skin hinting at the irrecoverable past, which, when a blow is struck, is loosened by the resulting network of cracks, which obscures it. It was not an island at all, but a high, whitewashed wall hovering on the field. He lept, got his hands on the top of the wall, and scrambled and heaved himself up onto it. There he could look down into an orchard where clear streams ran among oranges, pomegranates, and persimmons. He dropped to the soft earth within and pressed his mouth first to the water, then to the puckery fruit, then he had time to peel the sweeter fruit, and finally, satisfied, he took time to separate the hard little sacks of the red fruit and break them with his tongue against his palate. He saw motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to go to the courtyard of a building in the center of the orchard. On shiny flagstones a young woman was turning the bar of a wooden wine press with three old women The said something in a language he did not understand. He shook his head.

"Who are you?" she asked in Spanish

"I am Duncan Reeve and I came from Cuculán because I no longer had any home there."

"Are you going to another home?"

"I have no other home," he said.

"Would you work at our press?" she asked.

"I will," he replied. Everything gelled around him; everything was really simple and orderly.

The press was shaped like the great seal stamp of a nation resting on its base. The grapes were broken by a horizontal stone disk like a millstone about three feet across, which was raised or, lowered from the pad of the press by a perpendicular wooden worm-threaded column like the handle of a seal. The column was threaded through a socket in a heavy wooden frame, which squatted over the press. A crossbar extended out horizontally from the column above the socket. One of the old women was lowering the press by pushing the cross bar before her as she walked around the base. The lower stone was notched so the juice bled into four jars arranged on the ground.

Duncan walked to the press and took her place. As the morning went on he lost himself in memories, which felt so distant he could examine them as if they were not his: listening to the pretend programs on Saturday morning as a child, the first time he saw Laurilie Higgins in her own house, waves running high on a hot afternoon at Santa Monica. He found it tiring, but not overwhelming work. The women veiled in white against the heat of the day poured in grapes when Duncan held the stone high, or carried away full jars and scraped away must when he brought it down. He could hear white voices like singing calling back and forth in the orchard and in the fields beyond. Without really seeing them, as if his eyes were closed, he could sense all the activity going on around him like the coordination of music.

When the early afternoon sun was pressing so hard on his back it made him dizzy, everyone began to stop and drift toward the stream. His hostess came and gestured for him to come with them.

When he sat down by the stream he began to feel light-hearted and gay. He thought his masculine strength was so needed by these people that he could do no wrong. His hostess was pale, with long heavy blond hair, Swedish-looking. She was wearing: trailing white clothes like the figures on Roman vases. Her pale, graceful mouth, her voice, the conversation of the old ones, the wind in the trees, were like the flowing of the little stream, the growth of the fruit, the progress of true work, like thoughtless welcome.

Here was the sound of the water as it ran away over the rocks and branches in its bed. He dropped some of the wine into the brook and saw it become pale, fly away, and be lost.

He ebulliently reached out to kiss his hostess’ mouth. She laughed like an infant, bowed her head and pulled it away. He reached further; she laughed and struggled to her feet. He reached up; she turned her head to laugh and run away. He jumped up after her; he felt his feet splashing in the stream and then flying over grass. She became white flashes dodging from trunk to trunk in the orchard, her childish laughter filling the sky. When he came among the trees himself he flushed brilliant birds that shot up shirring through the air and coruscated silver, blue, and green. Their song around him was her laughter filtered among the trees. Ahead she dodged from trunk to trunk, more agile than he, a solid-footed man in this preserve of hers. His breath was harsh in his lungs and filled his chest like the exhilarating song of the birds. Now he saw between the trees her moving whiteness against the standing whiteness of the walls and he grinned because he was cornering her. When he ran into the clearing at the corner of the wall where the stream ran under and away, she was sitting in the grass trembling like a blown leaf. Eagerly flying at her he stumbled on something narrow in the grass and plunged onto his hands and knees beside her. The blow made the whole orchard tremble. He saw that it was a white skull half in half out of the earth. His desire turned to eagerness to know. He lifted his face to the lady of the wine press. "Who are you?" he asked.

She was suddenly still. He saw the desire shaking its wings in her breast dwindle away like an autumn flight of birds hurried away from the last summer fruit into the evening sky. She put her pale hand to his own lips.

"You must not ask me that," she said. But he did not hesitate, "Who are you?"

"My name is No Other, and I left the land of the living. There was no home for me."

"I must leave you; where can I go on except to the land of the living?"

"No, come down with me to my peaceful village."

"There are things I have put aside unfinished."

"What have you ever begun that you were not willing to put aside unfinished? You will never find that life you are hurrying to fill. Satisfy your own belly instead, drink the forgetfulness of your own pressing, let your clothes have the fresh color of your own spinning, bathe in the beauty of the brook every day and let it wash away the past, hold the hand of the one you love as if it were your own, and end yourself nightly in her arms for this too is human."

"How can I be silent and let go," he replied, words coming to him as they had never come, "when separation has always drained the wine of my loving from me, stealing all but the least. The lees of a life, feelings, promises, and acts lie rotting around me because I killed them without daring to bury them."

"Come down to my peaceful village," she said.

"Can you come with me to my city home?"

When she could only answer by stillness and silence he climbed a thorny orange tree to the top of the wall. The bark smarted his hands where the cactus spines had stuck. He jumped from the wall out into the field. He trotted on, running easily, knocking down from time to time the purple, crimson, or white flowers and staining his slacks with their sticky juice. When he approached evening he found himself at the edge where the field merged irregularly into low hills. Misty rain hid the sunset. He went to settle for the night in the lea of a bush or tree. He took his shirt out of his pocket and tried to arrange it over himself so that it would protect him without hooking the small spines into his skin. He was hungry, but the hunger was not painful. He felt lost and bleak, disconnected from everything, and was afraid he would not sleep. For what tomorrow was he husbanding his strength?

He fell asleep right after he lay down, but he awoke several times shivering in the rain and darkness. He wished he could see the stars. He could sense the transparent wires of falling rain. They drew up his imagination each to a star so he could recognize them all shining in the obscured firmament like the cut stumps of innumerable silver bristles new-scythed.

In the morning he again climbed over hills. Direction was lost in the mist and curtains of falling water. He did not know whether he was going back to the lake or on towards the mountains, but he thought that if he could keep on walking long enough he would have to come to people. As he trekked on, the weather slowly lifted as it had the day before. When he climbed to the crest of the dunes more of the same flowers stretched out before him, red and purple and white like a body of water with the hill sloping down to them as to a beach. Maybe they were the only things in the world, their colors the only property.

Coming down the dune sides he began to stagger with the weight of falling. When he reached the flowers he was breathless and dizzy from the speed, from the night and day without food, from the emptiness around him. His progress became ever more plunging, his arms spinning for balance, his feet slipping in the mud, his head thrust forward. He saw some low thing in the flowers before him. Before he could stop himself he stumbled over it and fell to the ground among the flowers. Within himself Duncan fell a long way in complete darkness then lay at the bottom in black as if at the bottom of a dark, peaceful pool. Far away blue divided the black and, without his willing it, grew toward him, became a circle of light, then blue among the green stems sparkling from the rain of the morning. The sun was shining now.

Duncan got to his knees rubbing mud from his face, dizzy and uneasy. Getting to his hands and knees seemed rising a great distance. Feeling sick and frightened he looked behind him. He had stumbled over the corpse of a handsome young man. Everything was uncanny. The other lay face down flowers crushed under him as if he had fallen from the sky. He was not an Indian. His hair was curly dark blond. His back was tanned but his legs and buttocks here not. It suddenly frightened Duncan what an uncanny world this was; fear ran into his stomach, made him cold and sick; it brought him to his knees beside the other and made his eyes water. He had left Cuculán in despair as if he would never be afraid again because no further loss was possible, but now there was something he was stubbornly afraid to lose. The back before him brought to the tip of consciousness a clamor of memories like ghosts he could not bury. Finally he put out his right hand and drew the body over toward him by the far shoulder. For a moment the face, innocently handsome with a little blood dried around the mouth, seemed fretfully like the face of some half-forgotten friend, then he realized it was his own. The hand that unnaturally twisted cold on the ground was that right hand whose acts he had so long watched through the windows of his eyes. The dead blue eyes were those that had looked back from bathroom mirrors.

Overwhelmed, Duncan stumbled to his feet had began to run. He ran mindlessly, possessed by panic, scraping his knees in the mud, getting up and running, whipping himself with fear. His breath became like breathing thorns. At dusk he came with bleeding feet to the dunes again and stumbled a short ways up among them.

He dreaded the cold of another wet night. He took his shirt gingerly out of his hip pocket and spread it on a bush. Then he picked the new spines out of his finger tips against the orange of the sunset sky. Next he took off his belt and began to beat the shirt. The effort made him tremble, but he fell into the rhythm of the blows. Then suddenly he was very tired, too tired to lift his arm again. The sun had sunk and there was not light enough to see if his idea had worked. He put his hand on the cloth and felt nothing. He pulled the shirt on, crept under the bush, and fell immediately asleep.

In the night the cold rain woke him trembling. The image of death, which was his own face harried his mind. Other images of death crowded around it. He felt again the uncanny emotion he had when he saw his grandfather, but now without the hope that he could escape into a more confident adult world. He recalled Izzyís disappearance anonymous and alone. He thought of the lonely naked death of the Indian in the government house by the road, without past or place. He thought of the gaudy sham of Linda's mother devoted to some brilliant flowery death whose nature he could never understand. Duncan turned over under the rain. The names and faces of his dead squatted around him in a restless circle.

When light came through the mist Duncan got to his feet and began to climb slowly up and down the low hills through the morning rain, his arms hanging loose with exhaustion. The trees and grass and bushes seemed agitated with meaning as if they were billboards competing for his attention. When the sun came out he was over the crest of the hills and when it began to get warm he had cone again to where they sloped down to a field of flowers like sand to touch the sea. He did not run, but walked slowly down among them, the blossoms and stems gently brushing his legs. He was hopeless; he went on from no expectation, no despair, but only from determination.

After a short way he saw something sparkling silver among the green and gaudy colored plants. The stems and the large leaves were moving in the wind, the changing bright spaces between them moving in the wind as if the air blew the spaces themselves. Something made of light was among them moving with the wind. He went to it and found that it was a silver rose bush with silver stems and mirror-bright leaves and thorns, which were the shape of the spaces. Among the leaves roses as red as sunset or dawn appeared and disappeared. He wanted to have one. He wanted it more than he had ever desired anything before. He crouched down and caught a stem. His arms and shoulders were as weak as water. The prick of the thorn gave him a shock like electricity. The blood on his hand was the color of the rose. When, on his knees, he held the blossom up before him, he could see that its petals wore not solid, but moved within themselves like blood flowing. When he brought it to his eyes he could see that they were not static at all but fire, burning away their substance, turning and turning within themselves like the drift of transition from state to state. He was filled with desire again and touched his mouth to the intense flame. It ran into his lips, ran through him, consuming him. The silver stream dissolved his nerves and his skeleton. He himself began to fall into the field as if he had weight but no mass. He fell into the earth and was covered in darkness.