At the center of an unnamed European city, a large park doesn’t open its gates until noon. People line up to get in and sit at round tables drinking wine, eating small cakes or playing accordions. Our friend who lives in the city says if they would only open at a reasonable hour — 7:00 or 8:00 — hikers could start their journeys there, setting off on one of ten long-distance trails, which were once the routes that pilgrims took to visit all the lost fingers of the national saint. It’s crucial, he says, to begin at the right place, like a ball that must be thrown from behind the head. I go in search of a conference dedicated to a book they claim I wrote, though I have no memory of it. By the time I find the venue at the far end of the park, the last paper has been delivered and they are pushing the tables back to dance. A tall, thin woman insists on showing me the steps, walking behind me, raising my arms as high as they’ll go. Slower, she says, slower! Let the steps find you. Eventually we are almost motionless except for a slight twitching of the hands. I turn around to face her and find she’s somehow slipped away, leaving in her place an elm tree full of sparrows.
Putting hands together in supplication — that unfamiliar gesture from the feudal era — it feels as if I am holding myself to account. Should the fingers interlace? It’s only me and me, baby! But now I am with Muslims who instruct me in their art of prayer: palms open, facing forward on either side of my head. God is greater. Body orienting to the Kaaba like a plant seeking the shade. They speak to God in a holy language, which doesn’t happen to be English. I move my dry lips, go down on my knees when they do, touch my nose and forehead to the ground. I feel small. The ground is almost without limit, and yet we dare to stand on it! This is nothing like therapy. Breathe in: There is no God. Breathe out: But God. I realize that I have never worn more comfortable clothes.
The wolves have finally come to me for advice. Avoid making eye contact with saints & ranchers, I say. Stick to the suburbs where no one else goes to hunt. The wolves are tired; their tongues glisten like red silk ties. In the window of the building opposite, a white cat levitates on a sudden carpet of arms. The Daily Mail headline reads, IS YOUR CHILD A PSYCHOPATH? IT’S MORE COMMON THAN YOU THINK. My love has taken five sharp sticks & begun to knit me a sock. What big toenails you have, she says.
The fire drinks oxygen with every one of its forked tongues, but it doesn’t spread. In fact, it doesn’t really burn. It rides in the back seat like a family dog. Someone else spots it and gets alarmed, so I get alarmed too. We run for buckets, dump water on the fire but it simply shakes itself and goes on speaking in its sophisticated way. We try to reply, but only barks and whines come out. Children, take note: This is what happens when you play with the fire in your belly, when you let it get away. I fill my bucket again at the outside faucet and carry the water as gingerly as if it were an infant, and peering in, I see that it has inherited my face.
In my last dream before waking, I was trying to explain why I felt that coherent ideologies, religions and philosophies do more harm than good: somehow, in trying to make the world make sense, they flatten out experience & dull the mind. It’s like salt, I said. Imagine if everything you ate had to be salty, to the point where you couldn’t taste anything else: no sweet, no sour, no bitter, no umami, no thousand subtle flavors.
Yet salt is so easy to worship, its crystals so translucent, such perfect little cubes. Ah, salt! I said, losing sight of my argument & waking up. When I used to watch sumo wrestling, my favorite part was the ritual tossing of salt, little guessing that this show of purification hid a culture of corruption. Meat that is already rotten can’t be cured.
Going to the shower, I thought of Grettir Asmundarson, the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, done in by sorcery and a gangrenous infection that climbed from his foot to his intestines, decapitated by his enemies & his huge head stored overwinter in salt, the whole story captured in a saga’s unadorned prose. Perfect cubes, inviolable rooms.
The world does mostly taste of salt, because much of the world is ocean, even our bodies, I said to myself as I got dressed. Then I fixed some breakfast — two fried eggs — & found myself reaching first for the pepper.
In my last dream before waking
I meet a version of myself
from an alternate universe.
We greet each other cautiously.
There’s a slight class difference:
while I flipped burgers at the diner
my alter-ego went to graduate school
& now teaches cultural studies
at the university. He takes me back
to his apartment, which he shares
with two housemates & a dozen cats.
I watch in wonder as
he gives a good-night kiss
to a woman black as coffee.
I gave up poetry years ago, he says.
He asks what I’ve done
to make my beard turn white.
The others have gone back down, and I am alone on the mountaintop with a strange young woman, dressed all in white, who shows me how to survive on nothing but snow left over from the long winter. The snow stands two feet deep among stone ruins built by a vanished race of miners, and it is gritty with dust from the atmosphere. Those are aerial plankton, she says, the microscopic corpses of our only real angels. The snow keeps them fresh. Eat it and live.
Like a bird swallowing pebbles to add to its bag of teeth, I am taking my dosage, a series of small disasters. The imbricated scales of a woman with the skin of a snake whisper against my fur, my lucky foot. I must save her from the clay-thick blade of the hoe. Her tongue is a verb, her belly is a burial mound, her knuckles are soft as the heads of plush dolls. She sets a trap for the sun, which wants nothing more than an eyelid it can close. Any jar will do and any minced knob of ginger. Rain from the nearest cloud. No honey, or the buds will burst into leaf, and what would you do then, oh walking stick?
What is this gift whose innocent acceptance precipitates the horror that we know is coming: our transformation after dark into mindless flesh-eaters? It doesn’t seem to matter. We cling to each other, the tattooed woman and I, instant lovers — until the knock comes from the top of the stairs and the searchlight finds us and we are history, one with the zombie masses swarming the gates. I turn in my sleep, not quite surfacing. Now we are in the Channel Islands, and there is a possibility of escape. Our helicopter looks for a place to land, fighting the wind, which is so strong all the trees grow parallel to the ground. In this conference room, we will be safe. Colonel Gaddafi and President Obama are here with their entourages, each making a great show of being relaxed and in control, preparing for a chess match that will end the war.
I am with two other tourists at a village market in Afghanistan, buying a slaughtered animal for a feast. I bring up the rear with my dad’s old deer rifle slung over my shoulder, imitating the other men. Everyone is twitchy about even the suggestion of an insult, but who knows what constitutes an insult? Fortunately, the sky doesn’t mind having guns pointed in its direction.
Our guide develops a sudden stammer. Oh great, I mutter. He leads us down alleys so narrow we each have to turn sideways — like cattle through a chute. The guy in front has the meat; we just need to get back to our vehicle. The vegetables that were thrown in for free as an incentive to buy mysteriously disappear, and I want to go find them, but the guide says no, forget it, keep moving. I meet each bearded glower with my own, trying to remember from high school how to say Don’t Fuck With Me in body language.
Night falls with appalling speed. We climb a steep bank to the road, and the guy with the meat trips and scatters it in the grass and dirt. We fumble for it in the dark, exclaiming over each little wet cube, ready for a gritty stew.