Stone Coats

The latest page in my pocket notebook contains two notes. The first reads:

The loneliness of
forgotten deities

I jotted down this fragment of a thought three evenings ago. I have no idea where I was going with it.

The second is an observation recorded yesterday afternoon, as I sat in my parents’ kitchen eating a late lunch. (They’re away; I’m doing caretaker duty.)

Sitting in kitchen
staring out window
toward barn. A ladybug
crawls across window
through field of vision
just as a squirrel
climbs up the side
of the barn. They cross;
the beetle appears
twice as large as squirrel
and occludes it.

Everything that came between the first thought and the second – two whole days and nights – is represented by a single blank line in the notebook. What happened? Nothing and everything.

Three days ago the snow was soft and light. When I tossed apple cores out the front door, they disappeared into the yard without a sound. Then the temperature climbed above freezing and the snow softened and sank. Yesterday, my apple cores made plopping sounds. Then last night the temperature dove back down into the single digits. Today, apple cores bounce. (I eat a lot of apples.)

I sat outside between 4:30 and 5:00 this morning listening to the trees pop from the cold. The moon was just past full and shone brightly, making the tree trunks seem especially skinny and naked. Mornings like these have a beautiful kind of bleakness to them. I heard a deer crunching slowly along several hundred feet away.

Some Indians referred to January as the Wolf Moon, but for others, it was (and maybe still is) the Moon of Popping Trees. A story I found on the Internet gives the spotlight to Coyote rather than Wolf:

The Northern Cheyenne called the first moon of the year the ‘Moon of Popping Trees’ when the people hid inside their houses as the Frost Giant walked the land while striking the cottonwood trees so hard with his club that they cracked beneath the blows. The wise Coyote learned the Giant’s song and could sing him to sleep. So now the people hide inside when the Giant walks and the cottonwoods crack unless the singing of the coyotes assures them that the Giant sleeps.

Unfortunately, the coyotes have been silent lately, though their tracks are everywhere. So I guess it’s no wonder the Frost Giant is making his rounds.

But the Seneca, here in Western Pennsylvania and New York, had a slightly different conception. They referred to the frost beings as Genonskwa, “Stone Coats.” The Genonskwa are fierce cannibals, but because of their rigid clothing, they are unable to bend, unable to look up at the sky.

I thought of this as I walked up to the top of the ridge not long after sunrise, my boots making a racket against the snow. Golden light flooded the treetops, and the air was so clear that every branch and twig stood out against the blue as sharply as lines in an etching or frost on a windowpane.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is no joke; I know several people who suffer from it. Can you imagine how depressed you’d get if you you could never even look at the sky? Poor hungry Genonskwa!

Cibola 22

This entry is part 22 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (conclusion)

But the Franciscans & their ilk persist
in praying to an idol, a stern-yet-loving
Father Superior. They style themselves
apostles reincarnate, preaching holy poverty
to the dispossessed. Just like
his step-father the slave trader
piously calling himself a slave
of God
. A man who could tear
a child from his mother’s breast,
could keep for a wife
a woman worth
one camel-load of salt.

He spits.
The sand shifts, uncovers the shadow
of a claw, a whip-like tail.
In a land this full of heat & mirage
how much life, how much of reality
moves underground!

Then again–he answers himself–
how much of reality could anyone take
if part of it weren’t concealed?

This is the voice he hears
most often now: Rationem,
a ceaseless shadow-play of judgements.
Evenly pitched, like the drip from
a water clock. Though at times
he feels a pounding at
his temples, as if
from some belligerent emissary
of the Spaniard’s Lord, disinclined
to try & bend his ear. He pictures

nothing so substantial as
a creature with wings, coming
down to perch
on his right shoulder.

Or maybe the left, he mutters
with a shrug. A jinn can take
any shape.
These mountains move.


apostles reincarnate: The first missionaries admitted to New Spain, a year after the conquest of Tenochtitlan, were twelve friars, selected for their alleged resemblance in humility and poverty to Christ’s twelve apostles.

Rationem: The Latin word seems more suggestive here than the English “reason.”

A jinn: The jinni in Islamic belief are not fallen angels, but anthropomorphic beings created before humanity “from a smokeless flame of fire” (Qur’an 15:27, 55:15). According to the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), every human being has a companion jinn who acts as a tempter, but jinni can be tamed and even converted to Islam. Among Islamicized West Africans (including the descendents of former slaves in Morocco), non-Muslim gods and ancestral spirits are typically “converted” into jinni in order to continue invoking their powers, for good or ill.

These mountains move: Cf. Matthew 17:20, 1 Corinthians 13:2.


Handyman here! That’s right. Nobody ever confuses me with a bird or a plane. Besides, who needs a cape? I wear this blue union suit everywhere. You know I’d change in a phone booth if I could only find one. I’m kind of an exhibitionist that way.

When I come knockin’, the trailer starts a-rockin’. I’m no good with power tools, though, and palm pilots abandon ship when they see these yellow fingers of mine, these fine fat maggots with a single buck tooth. A beer for my thumb and four shots of whiskey! Line ’em up.

Just look at the little bastards, tap dancing on the graves of diamonds they’ll never be able to afford. Bony cilia, asexual penises, refugees from a gorgon’s hair piece. Hey, have you ever known a stone that wasn’t cold?

Now look closely at their second pivot points. See how these knuckles make such happy little faces? Slit eyes, slit noses, slit mouths: masks that come to life every time a fist falls flat. Don’t worry, be happy! Slap yourself all over, babe. Over my dead body.

If you’re this beautiful, I must be drunk, I croon, peering now at my nails as if into ten blank screens. Can I get a witness? Hell no! I can’t even get a signal. This is a job for Handyman! Don’t let your evening be spoiled by a faulty wireless connection. Gimme five.

Cibola 21

This entry is part 21 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

He studied Aztec medicine
at Motolinia’s school
across the lake in Texcoco,
learning plants–each one filling
a page with its name alone.
The spellings, he found, were archaic
even to native speakers, translations
told him nothing. In half a year
he just made it past the threshold–
& quit in disgust.

Once deciphered, their skeins
of dead metaphors turned out
to be cunning traps, snares set
for the heart-breath of a patient.
Of a piece with the half-
demolished temples, the deposed
aristocrats nourishing
dreams of reconquest, priests
deprived of their diets of blood
whispering bloody apocalypse.
The peaks ringing the Valley of Mexico’s
beggared bowl reminded him
of nothing so much as
an old man’s ragged teeth.

If mountains didn’t exist,
people would conjure them up:
the need is too great.

Gods give blessings, people feed the gods–
when, at what place
was that ever enough? At Sinai
the universe convulsed into
a singular
No: the strongest,
the most unknowable of words.

And behold, this flame became a tongue,
said to Moses: Don’t use my name
with this, you bastard,
you murdering slave.


Motolinia’s school: Toribio de Benevente Motolinia was one of the first twelve Franciscans to arrive in Mexico. The religious school he established in Texcoco included instruction in the Nahuatl language almost solely for missionary purposes.

skeins of dead metaphors: Esteban is conflating names with spells – a not unreasonable association, given how many spells take the form of an elaborate naming/praising/summoning of the being whose power is invoked. Many Nahuatl incantations were collected and translated by Ruiz de Alarcón in the early 17th century, and have been re-translated into English by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hartig (Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1639, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

Don’t use my name with this, you bastard, you murdering slave: Combining the sense of Exodus 3:14 with the import of Exodus 4:24, where God’s mysterious attempt to kill Moses as he re-entered Egypt has been most plausibly explained as a response to the bloodguilt incurred by the act of manslaughter that precipitated Moses’ original flight from Egypt.

Harmonious wok

The word for “peace” in Mandarin Chinese is a two-character compound, heping. The second character, ping, is the one most often cited by Westerners as the character for peace, and perhaps it does most closely approximate our notion of peace as a calm, settled condition. As a meaning element in various other compounds, it connotes equality, ordinariness, steadiness, or flatness (as in pingmian, a mathematical plane).

The first character in heping expresses a more active conception of peace. I was struck by the following analysis, which I just discovered in the glossary of Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall’s Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation. This is the book I wrote about last week in Primordial wonton. Apparently, the influence of culinary conceptions on Chinese philosophy is more pervasive than I realized. Since most people won’t have Chinese characters ennabled, I lifted a graphic from a commercial site:

he. He is conventionally translated “harmony,” and we follow that rendering. The etymology of the character is culinary, harmony being the art of combining and blending two or more ingredients so that they enhance one another without losing their distinctive flavors. Throughout the early corpus, the preparation of food is appealed to as a gloss on this sense of elegant harmony. Harmony so considered entails both the “integrity” of the particular ingredient and its “integration” into some larger whole. Signatory of this harmony is the persistence of the individual ingredients, their full self-disclosure in their collaborative relationship with the other ingredients, and the aesthetic nature of the resulting harmony – an elegant order that emerges out of the artful contextualization of intrinsically related details as they maximize the unique contribution of each one.

As Chapter 55 of the Daodejing illustrates, this he may not always be compatible with ping. In Ames and Hall’s translation:

[A newborn baby] screams through the entire day
And yet his voice does not get hoarse:
Such is the height of harmony.

This is in the context of describing an infant as “an image of the fullness of potency: a robustness that makes it immune from environing evils,” as the translators explain in their commentary. “What gives the baby its vigor is its capacity to respond from the center, being supple yet firm, flexible yet potent. The baby, unconsciously and without motivation, is the embodiment of harmony and equilibrium.”

In modern Mandarin, he appears in words such as hejie, reconciliation; hejian, a tie or draw in a contest; heqi, gentle, friendly, good-natured; and hejian, fornication. Actually, I have no idea how widespread that last term might be, but the fact that it exists and is common enough to list in my Chinese-English dictionary (published in Taiwan in 1971) seems significant. After all, what preserves “both the integrity of the particular ingredient and its integration into some larger whole” better than sex?

Cibola 20

This entry is part 20 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

He’d met a palmer once who told him
that Mount Zion itself–Jacob’s ladder,
the zero point where three religions
intersect–that holiest
of holy spots, he said,
was nothing but a bump.
A little hiccup of earth, overtopped
by forests of minarets.

These mountains at least
don’t require a steady diet of blood
to keep their power: see
how godlike, how impossibly complete
their shifts from red
to brown
to blue–
like actors changing costume.
No, like sorcerers changing shape
with the turn
of an unmoored phrase–
man into jackal, jackal into termite mound–
or rock, or colorful comb
for some maiden to find & carry
home in her hair.
                            The bread
& butter of marabouts, those stories.
La illaha illa’llah might be the All in-
All, but human ears
still crave a bit of spice.

Though Esteban, having read Avicenna
& Plotinus, Maimonides & Dionysius,
neither believes nor disavows
such wonders.
Three years ago he would’ve
owned himself a mystic,
firm in his faith.
Then Mexico:
tableaus of misery, cruelty,
sickness in every shape
& his New World visions faded.
Though he persisted there
as a curandero, the medicine gourd
& his heart-felt songs & prayers
had little effect. In every corner
of New Spain the Indians kept dying.
He felt again like the child
on the beach at Azemmour
learning his letters, scrawling
the lines of holy script
over & over for the waves
to erase. Let the ocean redeem
your imperfect words
his teacher’s favorite saying–
the one quarter of Creation
that was never cursed.


a palmer: A pilgrim to the Holy Land.

with the turn of an unmoored phrase: One of the distinguishing features of magical speech in West Africa (and elsewhere) is a sense of complete non sequitor. As a performative speech act, a charm or spell should never assume the quality of rote recitation. As with an effective prayer or curse, every syllable must carry the speaker’s full intention.

marabouts: The West African term for dervishes of various orders, who served a variety of social roles: entertainers, diviners, scribes and missionaries for Islam. (Below, I imagine Esteban having had a marabout for a teacher as a child.)

La illaha illa’llah: The pervasive Muslim confession of faith, “There is no God but God.”

having read Avicenna & Plotinus, Maimonides & Dionysius: In other words, having spent equal time studying the rationalists (Avicenna, Maimonides) and the mystics (Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius).

Mexico: Then only the Valley of Mexico, dominated by Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City – the capital of New Spain.

New World visions: The use of the term “New World” (Nuevo Mundo) carried a strong teleological flavor at the time, and was controversial. The idealists viewed the Americas as something of a blank slate whose inhabitants dwelt in pre-lapsarian innocence. According to this view, Spain’s divinely ordained mission was to lead the Indians in the construction of a Christian utopia. Cabeza de Vaca was an especially strong exponent of this view, so it’s reasonable to suppose that Esteban shared his enthusiasm, at least for a time.

curandero: A healer. The term is still widely used in Latin America to denote a Native or mestizo healer, though contemporary evangelical Christians and some devout Catholics may scorn curanderos (other than strict faith healers) as practitioners of witchcraft.

medicine gourd: A small gourd rattle, a prominent implement of African and Native American healers alike in the 16th century (and down to the present day). Esteban’s gourd rattle is described in some detail in contemporary sources.

the one quarter of Creation that was never cursed: I.e., by the Biblical Flood. This belief seems to have influenced the ancient use of a fish symbol for the Son of God.


The formerly 20-foot-tall juniper tree (a.k.a. eastern red cedar) that had stood proudly erect beside my front portico has been bowed and humbled. The big ice storm back on January 6 left it canted at a 30-degree angle from the side of the house in a pose that strikes me by turns as humorous, ominous or obscene. I still do a double-take every time I come back from a walk and see the thing leaning out like that. It’s very disorienting.

The last time my friend A. stopped by, in late December, she said that the house reminded her of a ship. Well, now the ship has a figurehead. That’s what I was thinking just now as I glanced out at the juniper swaying in the breeze with snowflakes swirling all around: it’s like a headless figurehead, green and maternal – at least to the birds that take shelter in it each night. It faces southwest, more or less into the weather, as I suppose a good figurehead should.

But actually, A. didn’t specify which side of the house corresponded to the bow in her mind. In my own view, the house has two fronts, or at least two front doors: the one just mentioned with its portico on the southwest side, and the other that leads out onto the front porch, facing southeast toward the woods. Like the other main buildings of this old farm, it’s aligned with the ridges on either side. Thus, to confuse things still further, the front porch of the main house, a hundred feet away on top of a little hill, faces straight back in this direction – toward my front portico and the leaning juniper. An older, larger juniper tree leans out from the side of the main house, as well, though not at such an extreme angle. It faces southeast. Back behind it, on the same side of the house, is the small back porch off my parents’ kitchen.

In other words, though both houses have precisely the same alignment, the back porch on one faces the same direction as the front porch on the other. And though the houses otherwise look nothing alike, these two southeast-facing porches are almost architectural mates. Each house sits within a large, right-angled bend of the driveway that passes between them. Some combination of the internal arrangement of rooms and the external orientation toward the driveway seems, in each case, to account for our sense of which is the back and which is the front. The hollow itself faces northeast.

So it’s no wonder I’m still resting at anchor here on the old farm. I couldn’t begin to chart a route out of the harbor.