Cibola 32

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 32 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

So now (he murmurs) if I still lack
the equipoise of an elder–the requisite
wisdom of a presbyter in the Order–at least
I’ve found a sort of key to one
small puzzle: why Francisco seemed
so elated there at the end. Lent,
the season when a true Christian
should mourn, especially
with all his fellow villagers dead.

Hadn’t he been shunned when Marcos
first arrived? Hadn’t he kept
his medicine bundle (as it turned out)
ensconced under the altar, complete
with the friar’s long-lost mirror
& little tufts of hair
from each of the corpses they’d buried?
Sentimental, Marcos had thought
at the time. But now . . .

The village had followed Francisco
into baptism, as if afraid to let
him keep that grace to himself.
And their loyal servant
of Christ–Ha!–still ready to believe
he’d truly helped save
at least one soul–however
he might dislike the man–
                                            right up
until Good Friday morning,
when he entered the chapel & found
Francisco hanging, God (or the Devil)
knows how, from a new cross
in front of the altar,
crimson teardrop-shaped
flowers sprouting from his brow,
& more blossoms–yellow,
white, violet, blue–festooning
the arms of the cross, clusters
of thorns impaling wrist & palm.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The eight inches of soil covering my buddy L’s septic tank were, surprisingly, unfrozen. Here I had come all this way with pick and wrecking bar, expecting to be of at least some use, and it turned out that the only tools we needed were ordinary shovels. In less than fifteen minutes we were able to clear all the dirt off the aluminum panel that had been placed over the decaying hatch last time the tank was pumped. I insisted we make sure it was removable, so L. got a crowbar and we levered it up.

“Yep, that’s a full septic tank, all right. Damn.” Flump goes the cover back in place. “Mission accomplished,” L. says.

We had known it might not be too big a deal, but L. had decided to take pity on me. This was my first extended time off the mountain and my first real social interaction in over two weeks. And if there were ever a safe time to shirk my caretaker responsibilities, the afternoon and evening of Super Bowl Sunday would be it.

So we talked, looked at books, talked some more, did a minor wiring job, rustled up some supper, and talked. But ’round about 6:15 we found ourselves gravitating toward the back room – the one with the television in it. Hey, why not see what we’re missing? L. is a bit of a pop culture maven.

It was all there, everything I detest about America: the kitsch, the glitz, the adulation of celebrity, the extreme sexual dimorphism, the militaristic triumphalism, the graceless display of brute force. Look, the Tuskegee airmen! A bunch of mentally handicapped people doing a heartwarming rendition of “America the Beautiful”! Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush marching shoulder to shoulder! Live video feeds of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, watching us watching them and standing, for some reason, at attention! Everyone fixed his or her gaze on the giant video screen when instructed. Everyone held up his or her little laser light and swayed in unison when instructed. Everyone loved Sir Paul McCartney when instructed. It was like a dumbed-down version of the Triumph of the Will.

And then there were the ads. My, my, my. Every time I watch television anymore, I am dumbstruck by how painfully skinny all the supposedly hot babes are. I guess it’s human nature to worship what we are not. You want self-fulfillment? Drive a convertible. Drink Bud Light. Have some more tostitos.

Toward the end of the halftime, L. suddenly said, “You know what? I don’t think I have a chip in the house!”

“Let’s go make some, then,” I said. I do love potato chips.

A little later: “Have you ever done this before?”

“Nope. You?”


It’s not like we needed more food. My belly was still comfortably full from supper – Indian dal soup and several slices of L.’s outstanding sourdough bread, followed by Irish coffee and some imported chocolate. It just felt good to get up and do something.

And the chips came out surprisingly well. Keeping the temperature of the oil as close to 375 degrees as possible turned out to be the single most critical factor in getting a good, crunchy chip. Since I was unable to make each slice precisely 1/16th of an inch thick, there was some variation in crispness, but that was O.K. Lack of uniformity is always a good thing in my book.

We never did get back to the game. At some point this morning I guess I’ll click on Yahoo News and find out which patriotically named team carried the day, and which Eastern seaboard city erupted in jubilation. But first, I gotta go take a dump.

Cibola 31

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 31 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

                    The old woman
points back to the pole they’d passed
at the center of the village, bedecked
with dark tufts he’d taken for raven feathers.
I danced with it–Me,
in my old rags, my dry
breasts flying,
she says, half
in pantomime,
at the white man’s grimace, his childishly
transparent face. The interpreter
tries to explain it: a widespread belief
that if you keep the crown
of the head in your possession
the soul of your slain enemy can’t leave
for the Land Below the East.
After the ceremony & the sixteen
days of separation, its owner–
this man–can fashion the scalp
into a homunculus, a slave
small enough to live in a basket
in the corner.

And reading de Niza’s expression
the interpreter signals an end to it, but
the friar steels himself,
persists: How do they make it serve them
without escaping–or slicing their throats
while they sleep?

The crone straightens, speaking quietly
the way an abbess he knew used to look
any time he tried to tease her
about her youngest charges.
They welcome him into the home like family.
Every day they feed him, even
sing to him at first so he won’t grow homesick.
He’s just like any servant–it’s only when
you forget to feed him that he starts
into mischief, seduces a daughter or a wife

The bloggers

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The universe
(tiandi) doesn’t play favorites;
it treats all phenomena as if they were straw dogs.
The sage doesn’t play favorites;
he treats the people as if they were straw dogs.

– Daodejing Chapter 5 (my version). According to the Zhuangzi, straw dogs were sacrificial artifacts, treated with the utmost deference before they were used in the offering, and discarded afterwards.


The found object: how did it come to be born here, in the hand & in the eye? What does it ask of us? What might it become?

It passes slowly from hand to hand. We speak for it, taking turns. “I fell from the sky.” “I was thrown.” “I was dropped.” “I was laid down.” “I formed here, like dew.” “I sprouted.” “I popped out.” (What a bunch of jokers!)

We still think we’re the only ones here. Our word people means “human beings only.” Animal, mineral, or vegetable, we chant at the start of every game of Twenty Questions. There’s a campfire, of course. We’re singing, A, b, c, double x, y, z. Cat’s in the cupboard & he can’t see me. (Schrödinger never really cared about that poor cat, but we do!)

Well, let’s say someone gets up and tosses it on the fire. Yes. She drops it in the hottest part of the fire. “Now we’ll see!” (Will it burn? Will it burst?)





(We pass the bottle, now. We fall asleep.)

Cibola 30

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 30 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

Only Francisco stayed strangely immune.
He outlasted what passes for a winter there
on nothing but thin gruel of maize
& for Ash Wednesday took a piece
of charcoal from the mission kitchen
& blackened the middle third of his face,
from eyebrows to upper lip, ear to ear.

That at least had always seemed to Marcos
a more-or-less Christian act–albeit taken
a bit too far–until last week, on the road
north from Vacapa.
                        As they approached
a farming settlement, the friar spotted
a figure sitting in the shade of a mesquite
next to the village dump, & left
the road to investigate.

The man gave no signal to acknowledge
their presence, motionless
except for his right hand, gripped
a scratching stick that seemed
to possess some heat-struck
consciousness of its own,
worrying an itch just below his wingbone
with such exquisite slowness, Marcos
felt himself blushing–put the apparent
parallel with Job to instant flight.

A clay bowl filled with thin corn gruel
sat untouched on the ground
in front of him, &
the bowed head, in shadow, hid
until they got quite close
the fact that this man, too, wore blackface:
a solid stain, perhaps
some tar or resin.

Marcos inquired (through two interpreters,
his own & a local woman) whether
the Indian meant thereby to pay
homage to his slave errant, Estebanico–
an object of superstitious fascination
among all these people.
But no, they said, He separates himself
from everything human
to atone, to get clean.
He has killed.
–Killed whom?
–Three of our friends the Enemy.
They loot our granaries
& kidnap our sons & daughters, so
we have to steal their medicine power
to stay alive.


Estebanico: The diminutive form was used to connote social inferiority. (In this poem, by chosing to call him by the more neutral “Esteban,” I risk some confusion since “Estebanico” – or “Estevanico” – is how he has been remembered.)

our friends the Enemy: In native North America, relationships between “warring” tribes did not preclude periodic trading and sharing of rituals, and even violent raids were often conducted with the aim not of killing but of kidnapping children for adoption into the other tribe. And as I will endeavor to show here (and elsewhere), even killing can be construed as a form of adoption rather than, for example, as an attempt to dominate, humiliate or obliterate an anathematized Other.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Here’s a poem that I don’t think I’ve posted here before. (If I’m wrong, please let me know and I’ll put something else in its place.)

A pile of shed
garments on
the hardwood floor
rising in layers
of ever thinner
                from denim
to lightest cotton
to breathless
silk &
a trickle
of sunlight
spilling through a crack
in the curtains.
the prim unwrinkled
bed, the generic nightstand
pinned under
a thick phone book
& the blank TV atop
a chest
          of drawers
all resist
engagement: nothing
to capture
the enchanted gaze
or even the bemused
              No stage
hand could stand
such inattention
to properties,
such utter abandon as
this room’s lone
occupant displays.

Cibola 29

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 29 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

Who but the Lord?
For idealists like Las Casas there’d be
few other options, denying Satan’s power
as they do. With a conjuror’s wave
Bartolomé used to dismiss all talk
of rivals to the Good Word:
Men need little help to lie,
to covet, to rebel. It’s
our conscious choice of the light
that makes us worthy of salvation.

He revisits the memory a second time
in a slightly different key, rehearses
the argument as it should’ve happened:
an articulate Marcos pointing out
that with malevolent spirits so strong–
their rites so various & seemingly ancient–
would it not rather seem the case
that these tattooed nations sprang
from none but Cain, first & most deceitful
of all marked men?

For not only sorcerers & idolatrous priests
but everyone, as he’d discovered–
everyone consorted with familiars.
In dreams they came chivvying,
dickering down the price of a soul
to little more than power
over a game of sticks,
success with women or the hunt.
And if not in dreams, in drugged trances.

Or merely through mortification of the flesh:
he remembered how as they died
they begged for hairshirts.


first & most deceitful of all marked men: See Genesis 4:15.