The Friar’s Camp: Song Contest
Sated with flatbread & venison,
men & women laughing
in a half dozen languages
fall silent when the chief elder stands up
beside the newly erected cross.
He speaks in a low voice,
just above a whisper–wind
in mesquite leaves, rustle of the first
fat raindrops in the dust. The sound
of power. The crowd stops
being a crowd; listening is a thing
each person does for herself.
Hands lie still in laps. At length
the elder returns to his seat, his last
few words breathed rather than spoken.
Then the town crier–a much
younger man–gets up, wielder
of plain words. His speech takes
half the time, even allowing
for rhythmic pauses. Each phrase
passes from language to language
around the square.
Your coming has honored us.
Here although we are poor
you have made us rich in blessings.
Your god the Always-Present is generous.
Already the medicine people see
great storms approaching with wind
& rain from the east,
the little arroyos running brown,
rivers heavy with silt leaping their banks,
weaving through the fields like a man
too full of pulque.
Already the Corn Mother
bulges in the belly,
Squash & Cotton & Tobacco
make a rumbling sound in the earth.
We wish to offer, besides those
who will share your road for four times
four days & nights, our friendship–
to pledge a covenant between
our medicine & yours.
is a thing our grandfathers knew,
but we’d almost forgotten it.
When your shaman, the black man, first
approached with all his retinue,
our hearts shrank.
But he gave us this cross & we rejoiced.
Then we knew he saw
beneath its mask of stone & soil
the true face of this Land:
place where the four winds come together,
where the worlds below & above
sprout & blossom from a single stalk.
Now we wish to inquire if, in token
of our friendship, as a mere precipitate
from your overflowing medicine power,
you might favor us with the gift of a Song.
For it is only through songs
that the hearts of all creatures
open fully, flowers for night-
flying moths . . .
With this, the polyglot susurration
swells to a hum: A singing contest.
The rest of the speech is lost
in gathering excitement.
The friar’s party gathers in a knot.
A nobleman from Texcoco
agrees to join the three oblates–one
a half-breed raised in Spain, the other two
donados: given to the Order as children
for what their terrified parents assumed
would be a sacrifice.
They have between them songs enough
to challenge the town’s best.
Meanwhile the women too
have been whispering: now
a grandmother stands up & says
that since none of their number
wishes to compete, they’ll be willing
all together to act as judges,
hold the stakes.
Relieved murmurs sweep the plaza.
This way each side will be able to save face
& munificence alone will shape
the outcome, it seems,
since women have never been able to agree
on a single thing since the world began–
a fortunate thing for men
& all their whims, their roguish heads
aswarm with desires, the lice of envy
itching, itching, grown plump
with the scalp’s own blood.
* * *
Marcos slips off to begin his evening prayers
while all eyes are on the singers
gathering at one end of the plaza.
Six translators sit in a semicircle at the foot
of the cross & pass a reed cigarette.
The smoke spirals to the west:
May your words
strengthen all hearts.
(To be continued.)