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What are the perils of writings? For a storyteller, it’s when reality is more frightening and bizarre than anything you could ever invent. Or is it that historical violence has become no longer historical in that it is just around the corner, down one block, behind the garden gate, driving slowly by the building on whose roof you do yoga and wish all mankind peace of mind? Once, it was interesting living in a country where the rule of law was not something you could take for granted, was not a concept widely understood. You had to rely on your fellow citizen to protect you, to offer you cordiality, advice and warnings regarding where it was not safe to go at night, or even during the day.

 

Violence and lawlessness are less interesting now. It is just a matter of time before it touches you. Or hits you, as the case may be. It will come again after a long period of civic calm. It will be a policeman, or three, with dark glasses. A troubled young man, or three, twisted with resentment at those who have an education, a job, and, most important of all, respect. It will be Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil—no longer just limited to this beautiful old land of forgotten mines and ancient trails, of hidden springs and clumps of shade-giving trees, of great painters and gifted musicians. It will not come from a hungry man walking a distant trail, carrying a frayed knapsack, moving over a non-Sierra Club trail between two small towns whose streets are dirt and whose pickups are old. Evil will come in a brand new pickup that has never had a shovel thrown in its bed, or in a black limousine followed by black SUV chase cars.

 

Or it will come at the end of an instructive index finger, ordering you to step out of the line at Customs, because the computer has shown you to be man critical of two, maybe several, governments. You know what it’s like to be singled out. You have already had a passport application “lost” in the time of Reagan, or what it Bush? Your privileged education and therefore your expectation of just treatment as a citizen allowed you raise a hue and cry with your Senator and Congresspersons. Through its obedient Kafka-esq Intermediaries, the State claimed that someone with your exact name and paper trail owed the Foreign Office, the State Department or some other governmental Auslandsamt, a sum of money. Your elective representatives intervened, raised questions and parted curtains. Grudgingly, the anonymous they’s gave you a passport, not for ten years, but for eight months. But what would have happened to you if the Representatives could not part curtains, since they themselves languished on lists?

 

But now the they’s have gotten a lot smarter. Their machines hear more, pluck it out of the ether, record it and compile it for future reference. The people in power are renewing the old game of looking for political enemies. This was always the case in most of the countries in the world. East Germany comes to mind. There, one chose one’s friends carefully, you laughed together over food, but quietly. Important information was exchanged in lowered voices in a modest greenhouse, while you admired the host’s crop of English cucumbers, a luxury in his gray country. And yet, it did not matter. There were always ways to coerce one friend against another. Inform, they would murmur, or your daughter cannot attend the university. A harmless bargain, citizen.

 

And yet writers kept writing, books were banned, and the few contraband copies, hidden from the censors, traveled from hand to hand, until they grew stiff from Scotch Tape and were held together by rubber bands.

 

You write a letter on behalf of a writer held in solitary confinement in Azerbaijan. He was critical of his government, and so they arrested him and gave him nine years. He is not allowed to see his wife and children. He has tuberculosis. You hope your letter will help stone-faced men decide to let him go. You argue that a government wins more respect by not imprisoning writers. But governments have trouble hearing this. That is because its ministers are also afraid. You wonder whether this writer, if he survives, will one day have to write a letter for you. To a camp in Cuba or a salt flat in Utah.

 

And so the question is can a writer write when he is afraid, when he knows they’re listening? Can a storyteller tell stories? Stories that warm the heart, or give hope, or speak of love? How brave they must have been, the writers in the time of dictatorship, who have written at the peril of ending up in a cold, small cell without light, cut off from those they love and who love them.

 

I know this is dark. I am sorry, but the banality of evil seems to be on the upswing, and storytellers must write about it.

I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

IMG_2108.jpgMy friend has escaped from the local prison where we had visited him nine or ten times. He was there for eleven months, and then he could no longer bear the thought of a capricious ten-year sentence. What he loved most, beside his family, was his horse and riding in the mountains with his companion horsemen. They went on cabalgadas, seeing themselves as cavalry battalions in the war against Lucifer, led by the Saints San Miguel, Cristo Rey, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin of Guanajuato. Sometimes, on such rides, as many as 1,500 men will participate. This afternoon, as an exuberant church band played and the afternoon sun beat down, we watched as a graveyard mason sealed my warrior-friend into a crypt at the Panteón (Cemetery) of the Pueblito de Rocha. My friend died of a broken heart. A heart that broke.

For more context, please scroll down to the post titled “Returning to Mexico and its Forgotten Prisoners,” published here on April 15, 2016.

ibarra

Te conozco, mosco, por tu zumbidito.

I know who you are, fly, by the way you buzz. (Mexican saying)

~

 

Yori ~ Yaqui word for Mexican non-Yaquis,

those who do not give respect;

conqueror, whip, killer of the people; stealer of water.

Yoreme ~ Yaqui word for themselves;

those who win and give respect;

those who respect tradition; humanity;

those who give life.

Torocoyori ~ Yaqui word for

those who do not respect their own tradition;

those who emulate or go over to the Yoris.

Chapter 1 ~ Tears

 

“Five years after Bácum, Yaquis found my father—a former irregular in the Republic’s guerrilla war against the French—floating face down in his favorite stream, where we used to fish together. The two Yaquis who brought him to me had tears in their eyes when they laid him out on our kitchen table.

He had been investigating something at the American-owned silver mine La Cándida twenty-five miles east of Guaymas—he never told us what and left no notes. He had spent the night in a small hotel there and then come back alone the next day. He had stopped off to fish awhile and give his horse a rest. A large-bore rifle bullet struck him in the back, just to the right of his spine, between the scapulae. It appears he fell into the stream, but then managed to get back to the bank. When I went to the spot to investigate, I saw claw marks that got weaker and weaker as they approached the water and knew that someone had followed up on the attack by forcing him back down into the stream with a hand or boot on his head.

My mother died a year later, having no desire, she said, to go on without him. Federal detectives made inquiries, but withheld any results. Yaquis told us that, shortly after my father’s murder, a man with the mine’s security force had gone north and had not returned. That was twenty-seven years ago. My father was forty-five years old. As far as I’m concerned, the case is still open.”

It occurred to me, while walking along through my little colonial city again, that Mexico could be described with a few words: impunity, the absence of just law, corruption, the gracefulness of its people, kindness, cordiality, and the seamless connection with history. My friend is still in prison. There were several dates that he was supposed to have committed his crime. After eight months of captivity, he finally had a hearing. The prosecution dropped all but one of the dates, because of the lack of credible evidence. The one date, for which he could serve ten years, he was off on a cabalgada. That’s when sometimes hundreds of men mount their horses and head off into the mountains on pilgrimages. They camp, talk together, tend their horses, worship at this or that shrine, enjoy each others’ company. These rides can be as large as 1,500 men. It is one reason an invader should think twice about undertaking an infantry incursion into Mexico. One of the meanings of cabalgada is cavalry raid. There are thousands of Pancho Villas and Emiliano Zapatas living in Mexico. My friend is one of them. There is nothing he loves more than to mount his horse (kept in a stall near where our car is parked) and head off with a few of his friends into the mountains that begin five minutes from our house.

The point is that there are a great many witnesses who can testify that he was with other horsemen, many of them his friends, at the time he was supposed to have committed his crime. And yet the State prosecution is reluctant to admit the testimony of these riders and friends. To save face? To keep the prisons full, their jobs necessary? Out of spite? Because they can? Because they are lazy? Because someone has gotten to the judge? The way things work, it could be another eight months before he has another hearing. Mexican judicial procedures were supposed to have been modernized by a law passed in 2008. Cases would be handled by open oral argument, and there would be the presumption of innocence. But things have not changed very much. The State prosecutor collects statements, the hands of the clock turn every so slowly, months go by, there is no speedy resolution with burden of proof on the prosecutor. In fact, over time, and because the prisoners sit in prison, the burden is perceived to have settled on him. After all, he would not be in prison if he weren’t guilty of something.

 

And so my friends is desperate, anxious, feeling trapped, forgotten and feels doomed. His daughters and grandson visit him daily, bringing him food and encouragement and love. They have become his most reliable and, in my opinion, capable lawyers.

He is one of Mexico’s many victims of corrupt law, uncaring law—law without justice.

It seems it’s easier to talk about death if we make light of it, speak indirectly or make metaphor.
Hence: Some examples

He’s no longer on board (fishermen)
shipped his oars
feeding crabs
gone adrift
gone to Davey Jones
sleeping with fishes
assumed room temperature
cashed in his chips
counting worms
croaked
freed his horse
hopped the twig
pegged out
popped his clogs
riding the pale horse
taking a dirt nap
turned up his toes
wearing the pine overcoat
gone up the flume.
bit off the twig
gone out with the tide
paws up
won’t be down for breakfast
flown the coop
fallen off the burro (landed on his head)
smacked the liver
lost his shadow
stopped blinking
holding his breath a lot
visiting the worms
feeding the worms
Relaxing underground
Given in to the crows
Dedicated his eyes to the crows
Gone to avoid the sun
Caught the last train
Clothed in sea
Making the carrots jump
Pushing up daisys
Snuffed out
Got no wax left
Renting earth
On the last train to Memphis
Singing to the worms
In permanent meditation
Singing the Dirt Mass
Resting a lot
Kicked the bucket
On a pebble diet
Spitting out roots
On a dirt diet
In Donald Trumps case: a case of asses to ashes
Doing the long shuteye
Using the long hyphen
Has mud in both eyes
Be-earthed
Buried in thought
Clodding along
Clod-driven
A man clodified
Growing his hair long
Said the great good-bye
Enjoying the long silence
Kissing the Angels
Knocking at Heaven’s/Hell’s gate
Tanning below
Lying with the dogs he loved
Skidded to oblivion
Met his Maker
Suspended his creation
Supporting corn from below
Donating to worms
Given up the ghost
Dancing with worms
Having Thanksgiving with worms
Texting from below
Become the ring on his tub
Slipped on Death
King of Moles
Resting his bones
Played dead, couldn’t stop
Resigned his vertical position
Lingered among us too long
Got off at the wrong stop
At the very end, married below himself
Was breathless too long, got used to it
Sold his soul, then the rest
His clock has run out.
His sand ran out.
He’s no longer flapping.
He smells like pine.
Fluting through the last hole.
He’s thrown away his spoon.
Wearing a wooden skirt.
Wearing the green jacket.
Watching the radishes grow from underneath.
Crow food.
Gone to meet the Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. John Cheeves on the occasion of Graham Chapman’s (author of the Dead Parrot Skit) Memorial Service.
Withdrew as the final act
Still paused to gather his thoughts
Il mange les pissenlits par la racine. He’s eating the dandelions from below—Jean Pierre Buono

Left the glittering runway of life. Richard Grabman

Dissolute underground behaviorCame as carbon, lived as carbon, returned to carbon.
Had a molecule change.
Went from comma to period.
Disappeared in the final edit.
No longer takes messages.
Is on silent hold.
Rubbed out what he had painted.
Composting nicely.
On his last pair of shoes.
Staying in shavasana.
Joined the great majority.
Accepted into the big club.
Staying in the Horizontal Hilton.
Out of print.
Returned to sender.

 

Frida’s Earrings

It has not been easy to admit I stole Frida’s jade earrings when she was accompanying Trotsky on the armored train to Mexico City. Let me mention again that the President of the Republic, Lázaro Cárdenas, had entrusted me with the security for that entire moving fort of soldiers, sand bags, Howitzers and communist-leaning dignitaries. The President fired me for it, probably at the insistence of the fat painter husband. And that should be the end of it.

 

I had been had charged to ferret out the concentric rings of graft and extortion that would surely form around him. Which is precisely what I was doing and would have continued doing, had it not been for the independence of my fingers. I am talking about the common swindles learned from scam artists, then practiced by police. Beginning with the trickery at the bottom. Police selling magic bracelets, the kind with healing properties that last a year then have to be renewed through the purchase of a new one, even though you no longer believe in them. The seller gives you no choice.

 

Or swindles on a higher level. A man knocks at your door. He has a heavy package addressed to your neighbor. That person is not home, and the package is surely important, judging from its weight. Who will pay the cash on delivery since the owner is not home? The answer is: I, the good Christian. But when my neighbor returns, he denies all knowledge of the package. Together we discover it contains rocks. We have been taken. And you could say, with complete accuracy, that decency was to blame.

 

Newer technology brings more complexity. The local freezer allows you to continue receiving a dead relative’s pension by cutting off the proper finger and keeping it frozen—making it possible to continue supplying his fingerprint each time the government devises new and different ways of preventing fraud.

 

A trick I approve of less—because it tempts our venality—is the stack of ink-darkened paper money, in large denominations, that you can turn into clear crisp bills by using a special chemical. You demonstrate the procedure on a few of them. You explain that the original darkening is applied in order to get the money through customs. The victim buys the bills at a steep discount, given, you say, because you have to cross the border again, right now, in order to get more of the smuggled money. Later, when your victim repeats the procedure, the paper currency remains black and worthless. But I ask you, who in their right mind would not demand a random testing from deep within the stack of blackened bills?

 

As far as I’m concerned, God must have included scam artists and swindlers on his larger Noah’s Arc to keep us on our toes. Perhaps as a counterbalance to New Testament gullibility, so common in my own country—a ship of corruption that leaks oil, money and blood in a thousand different ways.

 

I prefer to look to the north, to a land with its own fair share of fools. Consider citizen Carlo Ponzi and his highly successful Securities Exchange Company, which offered 50% return in 45 days and 100% in three months. Or Philip Arnold, who planted industrial diamonds mixed with cheap garnets, rubies and sapphires purchased from Indians, and convinced bankers, generals and even the conservative Whig Horace Greeley to make disastrous investments in the worthless land.

 

Or better yet, George Parker, who sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years, before they were on to him. And then, the Baptist minister Prescott Jernegan, who announced he had a machine that could turn water into gold, planted nuggets in underwater collection buckets and attracted large investments from crafty New Englanders known for their common sense.

 

Then there’s the Great Florida Swampland Scheme, whereby innocents bought land that is underwater and teeming with long-toothed reptiles. On dryer land, all the federal money swirling around the construction of the U.S.’s transcontinental railway. Financial illuminati set up the Credit Mobilier, a clearinghouse for the many government contracts given. They skimmed a portion of it and invested it in Union Pacific stock. Then they sold shares of that stock to U.S. Congressmen at a discount, who then approved more construction grants and therewith fed the Credit Mobilier. When it all collapsed, investigations led to the highest levels of government, including to Vice President Schuyler Colfax.

 

Closer to home, at the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, marking the end of Mexican’s costliest War, our country ceded all or parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas to the United States. That government said it would honor existing property rights in the new territories. A certain James Addison Reavis, a man of keen imagination, claimed he was the hereditary Baron of Arizona and owned a large holding that spanned parts of Arizona and New Mexico, including Phoenix and rich mining areas around Globe and Silver City.

 

To back up his claim, he spent years digging up and altering various archived deeds in Spain and Mexico and even married a poor half-Indian in San Bernardino, California whom he had identified as the last heir of the Peralta family and now rightful owner of the counterfeited deeds. With these in hand, he demanded cash from those occupying his land, including from the owners of railroads and mines.

 

I must admit I am partial to schemes that defraud the rich and not the poor. I suppose you can persuade a man who is both stupid and poor, plus hungry, to buy rats that you swear are quickly proliferating Australians meat rabbits. But that is hardly fair. Poor wage earners also seem like they should be protected from either monetary loss or the humiliation of being tricked. The rich and their financial empires—Standard Oil, for example—seem to deserve being bilked, since they are involved in the same game, simply on a more massive scale.

 

As for the individual rich, I ascend the scale of tricks to include the Inexcusable. By which I mean the pilot Charles Lindbergh, the anti-Semitic ass who could find his way blindfolded for 33 hours across the Atlantic but could not keep an eye on his sleeping two-year old son. They finally found the German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann and, in April 1936, cooked him in the electric chair for extortion and murder.

 

The lesson in all this, I say, is to learn to see what is hidden. To be able to see the Brunos coming. To always test the river’s depth with one foot, not two. To understand that the mother of stupidity is always pregnant—most of all in oneself. As manifested by me not being able to keep an eye on my fingers when they were near Frida’s not very expensive jade earrings. Which I gave my wife. Whose love for me, if it still exists, is well hidden. I, the President’s detective, who was too dumb to know that one falsehood spoils a thousand truths. Well, perhaps more than one.

 

But I need to shake myself out of this spell. None of this ranks with the on-going mass executions of young democratic unionists and Trotskyites in the cold morning courtyards of fascist Spain on the one hand, or by the NKVD, Stalin’s leather jacketed secret police, on the other, who have come to Spain not so much to help the Republicans as to thin their ranks of their anti-fascist leaders who are not sufficiently Stalinist. Or who stay in Russia to execute Stalin’s enemies. First the show trials, then a bullet to the base of the skull, and then even a few more reserved for one or two of Trotsky’s own children.

 

Now, outside of Goethe’s Weimar, in Germany, witnesses report what they call the Singing Forrest inside the gates of the concentration camp called Buchenwald. What they hear, they swear, are prisoners—mostly Jewish or homosexuals—hung by their feet from scaffolds and left to slowly die. Governments, it seems, have agreed not to call this barbarity corruption. Even when it is its most venomous form: corruption of heart and soul. They are events beyond our control, we say, and we hurl no damning condemnations and gradually learn to profess ignorance.

 

By comparison, I must have sympathy for the harmless moral failings of my fingers. Stealing is the cleaner crime, especially when it is a few pesos here or there—or the un-extraordinary earrings belonging to a weekend communist idealist who owns another thirty pair just like them and whom I can help along the path to frugality.

 

 

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