Category: ~ New Stories of Mexico and Elsewhere

Japanese Class

I’m studying Japanese again. I tried it at 55, but was too old. Now I’m 82, and it feels just right. This is a little like saying I’ve started practicing standing on one finger again. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be a good student. My teacher is young and patient with me. We meet one hour a week, one on one. She’s a long-distance runner. There is a special word for it, unless I’ve misunderstood: Ha shi ru, to run through the mountains. Don’t hold me to it. I may have misunderstood. But it’s a word I could adopt to describe my task at being confronted by the Japanese language.

She introduces a concept: ga ski des (“e” as in nest). It means to like/love something or someone. She says, “Homework, five example sentences.”

I go home and set to work. I write my sentences vertically, top to bottom, starting on the right side of the page, one hiragana letter after another. Top to bottom, right to left. I’m a writer, so I’m not satisfied until I’m telling a story. I plunge in. A male figure tells a female voice that he loves her.

He: I love you very much.

She: You love the idea of love, not me. Men hit or pout.

My teacher protests, aside from making massive corrections in red ink.

“We don’t think that way. In marriage, the woman often walks behind her husband. Three to five paces.”

I say, in Spanish or English, “But you might not think that way” — walking behind a man.

She says, “We don’t write it that way.”

She continues reading my play. I’ve plucked words out of my electronic dictionary. It’s like reaching into a box blindfolded and pulling out a raffle ticket.

He: “That’s not true.”

She: “You fear women. You’re incapable of intimacy.”

He: “I like looking at you. I like looking at your smile. You are warm-hearted.”

She: “Incapable.”

He: “You are kind and funny.”

She: “Very strange. All of it.”

He: “I am happy when I see you.

She: “Really?”

My female character is coming around. It appears my man is something more than just hitting or pouting.

The verb to like someone turns out to be an adjective. (I may revise this opinion later when I find out more.) My assumptions about Japanese psychology and culture are also off the mark. I’m having trouble looking across into my teacher’s culture, not to mention her language.

We speak in English and Spanish. I am more advanced in those languages. I don’t correct her very often. I used to be a language teacher and know better. We are also separated by the pronunciation of all three languages. That places a burden on my understanding of things. She can’t say “r”. I can’t reproduce the sounds she makes in hiragana.

I write down corrections or examples in my notebook. I use a 5mm lead in my Parisian mechanical pencil made in China. The lead breaks just when I’m writing down a key point.

It’s hard for me to believe a woman still walks behind her husband. While running through the mountains of Mexico, does my teacher run behind her boyfriend?

I don’t know the answers to these things. If I did, I would write them in my notebook where my teacher could correct them with her red ink. And there might be a brief moment where I would enjoy the illusion of balancing on one finger, or at least on two — when it comes to understanding.

We move on. Last Tuesday, my teacher taught me a new concept.

“Do you like Coke?” she asks.

I say No, then Yes. “Well, yes, I like it but it’s poisonous.” I hold up my two index fingers, making a cross to block the power of the Devil.

“What about beer?” she asks.

“Not very much,” I say. My brother has just died of bladder cancer. I have decided alcohol is not good for my bladder.

My teacher, who is at least forty, if not fifty years younger than me, returns to Coke.

“Say you friend offers you Coke.”

I nod.

“Your friend asks, ‘Would you like a Coke?’ She has just taken two Cokes out of the refrigerator. Clearly, she likes Coke and is assuming you might like one, too.”

She explains the situation. “You don’t want to drink a Coke, but it would be insulting if you said, ‘I don’t like Coke.’”

She writes quickly in hiragana on the whiteboard. It’s a long string of words with no separations between the letters, written this time from left to right and horizontally. “You have to write it this way, say it this way. You have to say: ‘I don’t dislike Coke.’”

It’s a double negative, with a positive meaning, written with a felt black felt pen, and the letters pass through a reflection from an overhead spotlight, momentarily disappearing. I’m squinting on several levels. I don’t know how the verbs are conjugated, or even if they’re verbs.

“Wa ta shi wa coca-cola ga ki rai ja nai (like eye) des.”

Wa ta shi = “I”
The second Wa = signals that that Wa ta shi is the Subject of the sentence.
Ga = signals a second Subject, although she sometimes calls it an Object. The signal for one or the other is Ga.
Ki ra-eye means Dislike.
I don’t know what Ja is, nor whether it’s connected to what comes before it or after it.
N-eye means Does not.
And Des means something exists.

She asks whether I understand. From my frowning it might appear I don’t. Maybe it’s a more comprehensive squint. I say I don’t understand what the sentence is communicating.

“You’re being polite when you say it this way,” she says.

“So you’re choosing politeness over truthfulness and clarity and your own preferences,” I say.

“You don’t understand,” she says. “You have to be polite.”

I write down the sentence in my notebook. The 5mm lead breaks a few times. I squint the whole time at the hiragana sentence I don’t understand. The reflection from the overhead spot light adds to my need to squint.

“You understand?” she asks.

I’m locked into my frown. I’ve done that all my schoolboy life, especially in algebra classes. I get stuck in Don’t understand.

“You think too much,” she says, encouragingly. “You already know this.”

Actually, there are two elements that are new: “dislike” and “do not.”

“We need more time,” she says. “One hour a week is not enough.” She is sweet and very kind.

If I could have, I would have chosen that moment to say, “I don’t dislike more than one hour a week.” But the truth is, I need a whole week to think about and practice all the things I don’t dislike. Like the sentence on the board. Because the truth is I don’t dislike Japanese. I like it. I don’t dislike not understanding. I don’t dislike a challenge, or even when she says, “Don’t think so much — in Spanish or English. Or: that “dislike” and “do not” hover between adjectives or verbs. I don’t even dislike the reason for saying “I don’t dislike.” Because it seems to capture my New England upbringing, where indirectness was a virtue. One never came out with what or whom one liked. Or even loved.

Eight months before my father died, he had a heart attack. In the emergency room, leaning over his bed and the tubes entering and leaving him, I said, “For all the mistakes I’ve made, I want you to know I’ve always loved you.”

It was a momentary lapse in how we spoke. My father, near Death’s door, replied, “I want you to know I feel the same way.”

For many years, I criticized his inability to speak as directly as I had. But now, with the help of my wonderful young teacher and the Japanese language — and being much nearer to the point my father was at then — I have to admit that I don’t dislike the way he said it. I knew what he meant.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kidneys

Let me imitate the New York Times’s propensity for little articles on how to, say, get the most out of your cats. In this case, I offer valuable advice on the best way to communicate with your kidneys. And I refer to them in the singular since I suspect they are working together in a, at first glance, female conspiracy.

She is not finished with me yet, my kidney. Only this morning I received a note from her, saying, “For all your ills, I counsel laughter. — Rabelais.”

She wrote this in Morse Code.

It is unlikely, I’m thinking, that she would be reading a 16th Century writer. Except that he was also a physician. One I suspect over-prescribed leeches and cupping. The latter sealed with fermented goat urine.

I had no way of replying, except by resorting to this same code, one I had fortunately learned while stationed off Bangladesh on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga during the Vietnam War. My bunk was in the bow near a porthole, so you always heard the bow wave thundering like Niagra Falls.

I suppose you’re wondering how it’s done, this encrypted kidney-talk? Well it’s done with densities, that is, by shades of Mexican herbs used to treat any number of illnesses. Tail of Horse (Cola de Caballo), Stick of Blue (Palo Azul) and, most recently, Tea of Sapo. The plant, not the toad himself.

Of these, Palo Azul, left in water long enough, assumes a gloomy orange. While Tea of Sapo soaks to a lighter hew only a little darker than the belly of the above-mentioned creature.

Rather than tap a telegraph key, you click teaspoons as you pick them up and set them down on your dyed cement counter or, as in this case, the rim of the bathtub.

It goes like this. Dip out a teaspoon of Cola de Caballo and pour it down your throat. That would be a “dah.” Then a teaspoon of Sapo. That would be a “dit.” The number of spoonfuls of each will depend on the code pattern. For example, S.O.S., the international distress call, would be dit, dit, dit. Dah, dah, dah. Dit, dit, dit. Or: Sapo, Sapo, Sapo, Co-la, Co-la, Co-la, Sapo, Sapo, Sapo.

Perhaps because of my sensitivity about my kidney’s intentions, whether kind or not – the bit about laughter – I began with a little innocent chatting.

“I read before sleep,” I wrote. “Usually about my dilemma.”

I pause while she filtered my message.

I spread my legs and backed up a little on the toilet seat. I know that’s graphic, but where else would you think I would be able to read her notes?

She replied in discreet spurts of turbid and less turbid, easily read.

“What dilemma?” she wrote.

I clicked back, “Whether to go allopathic or homeopathic. That is to say die by folk swindle or by the side effects of government-approved poisons. What do you counsel?”

My telegraph path hung silent, expectant. A little chilled by the proximity to whirlpools.

Sensing advantage, as an aspiring dominant male, with such a clever question, I continued.

“It appears that government-approved treacles turn resistant when they reach you. Suggesting – you know – the matter of loyalty. That is to say your willingness to apply them, hence undermining the host system. By which I mean me.

I flushed the toilet and waited, relishing the idea that I might have dealt a blow.

The squirts began again, and she wrote, “You understand the part about the host?
That I am one? In fact, to millions.”

“To hostiles,” I wrote back. “Aliens, who must be stopped. Bacteriae hostiles.”

My fingers were tired from clicking spoons.

I flushed, waiting for her reply, warmed above the waistline with male glee. My bit of Latin.

Finally – a wave of slow pulses through my urethra. “You must consult my cousin Señor Próstata.” A pause in the transmission. Then, “Do you have his address?”

It took my breath away, the cruelty of it. As you know, I cannot bring that name across my lips – even in a whisper.

I flushed again, assailed by porcelain drafts.

A series of slow, passive-aggressive turbidities followed.

They said, “I counsel selfies, perhaps a sonogram of Señor Próstata. Perhaps one of me and my friends. And one of where my messages are stored – a sort of womb. Then we can talk some more. To open the conversation, enter the code word – ‘Rebelais’. Followed by ‘Girls rule, boys drool.’ ”

Shooters and Tigers

In the book Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the author explains that young tigers in India and other places, whose mothers have been shot, have a much greater chance of becoming people-killers, because they don’t receive the socializing education their mothers could have given them.

I have been trying to understand how the U.S.’s young shooters arrive at their sad, empty places. It’s confusing because there are always at least two issues: one, our incipient fascism that does nothing to restrain the shooters through the responsible rule of law; the other is the state of mind of these young men and how they arrived at their numbed hostility toward others, especially toward young successful women such as the four young Congresswomen called the squad. Much of it coached by older misogynists.

We are already in a low intensity civil war where we have to make some decisions about how we will save the Constitution and how our children and grandchildren will be able to walk to school and sit at their little desks without fear of being murdered. What do we do? Shall we forgive our disaffected rebels with their 100-round AR-15s and invite them back into the family fold? Or shall we hunt them down and annihilate them with our own violence. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advocates bringing them back into the family, and I am with her. Continue reading “Shooters and Tigers”

Tail of Horse

I follow my translator’s recommendations in all matters. He says drink teas of pelo de elote (hair of corn) and cola de caballo (tail of horse.) This is for my kidney infection, which, it appears has grown worse and invaded other areas. Possibly the hippocampus, where trauma is often recorded and rarely forgotten.

Translating what? you may ask. My first novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, from English to Spanish, now with the transfixing title: El Pianista de Pancho Villa.

I know. I have asked myself the same question. If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, why not leave the book alone? Continue reading “Tail of Horse”

Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory

“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”

A Letter from Mephistopheles to His Mother, the Snake

Last night, precisely at the hour that the cucarachas in my house rose from their daylong slumber, I wrote a poem for you, Mother, celebrating my origin, when I slipped past your scaly loins and gave my first half-throttled scream. In spite of what others say, my skin was tender and the edges of your eggs, ragged and unforgiving. I cannot tell you how long it took me to unwind and find my tail. To see it quivering with new strife. I, your young Fliegengott, God of Flies, charged by you to bring war and darkness to all of life. An honest offering, when compared to the promises of the Bearded Fellow in the sky, whose plans you say I am tasked to disrupt. I, Lord of Rats, patron saint of the Long Tails of New York, Southern District, who pressure me with their Rule of Raw and the Triumph of Tooth during this Age of Lies. To whom I respond, Wouldn’t it be too bad if I asked you, my Mother, to drop down into the electric soot beneath Time Square and make lumpy digestive juices of them all. I have tried to tell them they are mistaking me for someone else. That it is not I whose squinty sun rises puffed and orange over Manhattan each morning, breathing in its own self-delighting smells. That we and they and the Old Man in the Sky are the only ones who stand between this bloated Faust and the sweet fifteen-year-old’s of our democracy. And so, Mother, I ask you to hold your snout and approach this high-rise, stale, bedpan stink and enter that chamber where humans purport to think, and swallow his dark pulp, make it your own, so that the status antequam can return to when it was mainly you and I and the Man in the Sky who determined the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and not this amateur who would supplant us all. Therefore, let us ally ourselves with the Long Tails of the Southern District and, after you have supped, let them finish off what is left in the cup.

Much Love,

from Him who aims to please,

Your Devoted son,

Young Count Mephistopheles.

Where I Confess to Being Mephistopheles

(Take a meditation pose)

Excuse me,

You’ve caught me at the hour of my meditation,

the moment my mantra and I meet each other

halfway.

Diese schwankenden Gestalten

These swaying approaching forms.

Continue reading “Where I Confess to Being Mephistopheles”

A Huevo

Only a fool would choose the desert entrance to Real de Catorce, when they could take the 2-kilometer long wormhole through the bedrock instead. I’m talking about the one-lane tunnel that was unlit on a recent weekday, when even cell phones weren’t working. Events triggered, according to superstitious locals, by up-coming tectonic clashes or political upheavals. Or both.

And so now you had to take the baton from the man at the entrance. And if, God willing, you came out the other out the other side, as most people did, you handed the baton to someone else. A rational system, and democratic like the tope, where even the President of the Republic has to observe the laws of physics. If not necessarily any others.

The Governor of an unspecified state arrived on that Wednesday. The poorly paid tunnel attendant greeted the first car, a bodyguard with a bull neck and expensive dark glasses, and explained that the tunnel was in use and, after that, it was the other side’s turn to come through. The bodyguard checked with the Governor, a man of ample girth, who was hungry and had been looking forward to a long meal at the little Swiss-run hotel at the other end of the tunnel, renowned for its thick steaks and fine wines. And afterwards, to a nap in the usual charming, top-floor bedroom along with his adoring, young, light-skinned secretary.

“Aren’t I the Governor,” he asked. And gave the signal to proceed.

His security men were Mexican ex-Marines, but not all-knowing. Because, with about the same frequency, the odd narco warlord also liked to eat thick steaks in the little Swiss-run hotel—and to wash them down with 100-Euro Spanish Riojas, which he brought along in his black Ford Expedition—while his bodyguards, in their SUVs, carried equally generous supplies of lightly greased 7.62 x 39 mm rounds for their Chinese-made AK47s.

The difference was that the Governor, though married, was hungry and in love, and “Chuy,” our narco warlord of the Soft Waist, was already full of steak and premium Rioja and drowsy with satisfaction—when the lead car of each party spotted approaching headlights and had to come to a stop. The guards got out. The Governor ordered that the citizens blocking his way should reverse direction and clear the tunnel. And so his Marines, holding all kinds of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, approached Chuy’s group. While the latter’s sicarios kept their AK-47s out of sight, so as not to alarm any citizens who might run out the other end and phone the Army which would then happily descend on the Chuy from both the East and West with their nopal-green HumVees and mounted Browning heavy machineguns that fired .50 rounds as long as your hand.

In the meantime, the poorly paid attendant on the Swiss hotel side, who had stood back as Chuy’s group entered the tunnel, decided to seek invisibility among his goats higher on the inner canyon wall. And so he was not present when the Butane truck from the Sonigas rumbled up to the tunnel. Its driver—the father of four hungry children under the age of ten—was eager to get out of Real de Catorce and away from the pinche tourists and their fat wallets. With no one to warn him otherwise, he entered the tunnel, and used his powerful headlights to fill the darkness with Butane-generated brightness.

By that time, the gunmen from both caravans were brandishing their weapons, and the Governor and Chuy, from behind their over-sized SUVs, were screaming obscenities at each other, forgetting that they had cooperated with each other over the last three years and belonged to the same moño-waitressed country club. Their respective lieutenants begged for calm. A significant current of mountain air was sucking through from the Swiss hotel side, they said, and would serve as God’s own bellows, if their military-grade bullets hit any of the eight, nearly full gas tanks and ignited the white fire that would cook them to termino medio in the singe of an eyelash.

That was when word spread that a Butane truck had pulled up behind Chuy—upwind from all of them, with enough explosive power to blow them all out the Governor’s end of the the tunnel, along with their SUVs and what remained of Chuy’s 100-Euro Riojas and the Governor’s unfulfilled condoms, Sico brand, Ultra Sensitive, “designed to let you feel the warmth of your partner,” in a bursting grand finale to the sound of a soprano’s wavering high C and an impressive short-lived roaring between the ears.

Chuy had just screamed something like “A huevo y, si no, a balazos!”

Which was something like “You’ll back the fuck up, or I’ll blow your heads off!” Only stronger. A getting-to-yes formula perfected during the Mexican Revolution—just as he began to understand what the Butane truck meant, and remembered that he had the Governor’s number under Contacts on his new iPhone. Which he smashed against the tunnel floor, when it didn’t work under the one thousand meters of peña above him. Instead, in the light of his headlights, and though his hands shook and affected both his syntax and spelling, he scribbled a note to the Governor—in which he apologized for being a pendejo. And ordered the bodyguard he trusted the least to deliver it, hoping some good might come of the attempted negotiation. But that man returned without bullet holes in him, and delivered the reply, in which the Governor also apologized and said they should have drinks at the Country Club and discuss what they could do to make sure that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that corrupt Communist shit, didn’t win the Presidential election in July and legalize drugs and grant a general amnesty to narcos everywhere.

Whereupon, both parties switched their assault weapons onto Safety and slowly backed out of the tunnel the way they had come in, bashing fenders as they went. A fifteen-minute operation, with headlight blinding everyone. Twenty minutes for Chuy’s group, because the Butane truck driver was nervous—given the extra dimensions of his truck—and because one of Chuy’s men, the one with half an ear missing, sat too close to him, holding a 9mm Beretta automatic up against his own perfectly in tact right ear.

Once outside, the Governor, his jowls sagging with resentment, repaired with his secretary to a modern, characterless Motel with a poolside bar on the main trucking route in Matehuala.

And Chuy, in a better mood than before, descended the lovely dirt road to the West, where it is said you can buy peyote buttons for meditative experiences and where small inns with nothing to offer still managed to get fruit to grow to maturity in clear glass wine bottles affixed to the pear trees that grow there in quiet courtyards. And where Chuy could linger a while, sip a lukewarm Coke by himself and breathe in the smoky scents of the Potosí desert and dream of the young, dark-skin beauty he would marry someday—and make as happy as he could.

My Goats and Andreas Scholl, Countertenor

Am I sitting in this table-wobble Bohemia café in a colonial Mexican town recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, embarking on the one sentence I am allowed for the evening, as I listen to Andreas Scholl sing Bach cantatas in his countertenor voice, which sounds like a castrato but isn’t, yet prompting my friend, a retired, down-to-earth officer of the British Royal Navy, to make silly, limp-wristed gestures with martyred, up-turned eyes as if appealing to God to join him in rejecting the whole idea of this kind of music, while of course the whole time the real target of his ridicule, his gentle jab, is someone close to me, if not identical, the one who loves listening to Andreas Scholl, about whom I know nothing at all, except that he has a long and distinguished career in the Music World and is surely one of the most talented in his field, again about which I know very little, except for once in an ancient abbey, Maguelone, on the French Coast near Montpelier when a another friend and I—he had painted the abbey many times in wonderful studies of light and dark, as if the building, surrounded by Maritime Pines were a ship of lesser tonnage, not English, approaching through a thinning fog, backlit by a weak sun that had forgotten that it was a Mediterranean sun—were sitting, he and I, in the middle of the empty pews, when a similar voice, carried on perfect acoustics, filled the abbey for several minutes, followed by a silence during which I waited for the mezzo-soprano to emerge from somewhere above and behind the altar, which happened, but as one of three young men—not a woman—grinning at their daring contribution as they passed by, and we, marveling, smiled right back at them, enchanted that a male voice could sound like that, in an abbey surrounded by dark Maritime Pines that had survived Roman shipbuilders—I’m talking about masts—all of which made me wonder whether the Roman soldiers, sitting around their campfires, wiping thick, heathen blood off their broadswords, had asked their own castrato or falsetto warrior to get up and sing a tune to relax his exhausted comrades, whose eyes would have been a mixture of Germanic Blue and Mediterranean Brown, or Cow-Eyed Limpid Umber—Homer’s phrase—if they were of Greek descent, and who didn’t think for a second of their singers as menso, zafado, loco, missing a wooden screw, or as someone whose goats had gone the mountains, hence Mexican for wacky, but just singing with vocal cords designed differently from yours and mine, hence completely undeserving of ridicule of any kind, least of all by me toward myself for going on like this without the usual punctuation, since Andreas Scholl, surely not dressed in a leather Roman battle skirt, has been stringing me along, as well as allowing me to make whatever I wanted to of his voice and of the mystery surrounding it, as well as of these Maritime Pines (gesture) made into tall masts, ghosting toward me, approaching off the coast of Montpelier, carrying a delegation of people I wouldn’t know but who are mezzo-sopranos and Hermaphrodites who can sing like Andreas Scholl and have been hoping for some time to find a writer wanting to write to their cantatas, which also go on and on, as their voices caress first the abbeys, then the Pines, and finally the mountains where my goats have gone when I listen to this music, which, as far I’m concerned, I wish would never end.

A Small Matter

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.

 

I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.

 

The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.

 

“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.

 

I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.

 

“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.

 

I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.

 

Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.

 

I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.

 

We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.

 

“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.

 

I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.

 

My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.

 

“Do you want me to call them?”

 

My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.

 

My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.

 

Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.

 

My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.

 

The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.

 

After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.

 

At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.

 

There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.

 

I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.

 

I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.

 

My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.

 

It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.

 

At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.

 

Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.

 

I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.

 

I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.

 

Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.

 

An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”

 

A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.

 

Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.