Tag: urraca

Painting at Night

When the mountains grow cold and dark around my Mexican city, when night pours into this urban canyon and the wind begins to shake the tall small-paned windows of my house, deep down I feel there is something wrong, and I cannot sleep. This happened a few nights ago, and so I edged away from my sweet wife, bundled up in my warmest coat, and shuffled into my studio to paint.

I had been working for several sessions with a young model, slender and lovely, with urraca – black hair, and mouth tissue – a kind of pout – which stood away from her upper teeth and mandible.

I sat for some time sipping a hot coffee substitute of ground and roasted European grains, grown on Polish fields just downwind from Chernobyl, staring at the painting on the canvas, and pondering the difficulty of catching the essence of Mariana in Venetian Red, Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue, and Flake White Replacement. Catch her youthful contours, her intelligence, the dark eyes, the downward twists in the corners of her mouth, the lower lip.

The windows rattled, and I was barely able to hear Dawn Upshaw singing Schubert lieder – the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Something stirred in the corner where Mariana usually sat. It was Lilus our black cat, I assumed, who ghosts around and irritates me with silent messages that I should restore the nocturnal order of snuggle and endless sleep and return to my place under the goose down, beside my softly breathing spouse.

I glanced again at the corner, at Mariana’s stool. There was a form, but it was larger than a cat and seemed to grow as I squinted through my sheepdog eyebrows. I turned down Mr. Schubert and looked again.

Apparently, someone had entered the room without me noticing.

“I didn’t see you enter,” I said, to my love.

“Guten Morgen,” said my visitor, in a voice of undetermined gender and, I suspect, from a hemisphere further east. “Noto que no puedethh dormir,” he said, in lisped Castilian, perhaps something older, less distinct or known. “Waz wirret dir?” he continued , mocking me with Wolfram’s medieval lingo, suggesting nether things, the prostate, the cusp of matters septuagenarian.

I cleared my throat. “Well, which will it be? German or Spanish? What century shall we settle on? What, modern languages out and doggerel in? Plus, uninvited? Whatever happened to introductions? Speak now or has the cat got your tongue?”

“I am your neighbor,” he exclaimed. “Dein Nachbar, vecino, fellow painter – pintor, Mahler, specializing, like you, in the faces of women too young for you. Pretty damsels.” He sneered a grin.

The wind howled, the windows rattled. I took a sip of my un-coffeed drink, now grown cold. I thought a bit and assessed my foe. “Insolent as well as trapped in babble,” I said, “I did not ask for your advice, you know. And it’s not my way to consort with rabble.”

He waved a dandy’s hand across my canvas. “There’s something missing, a je ne thais quoi. Like playing Mozart out of tune. The clarinet pure, the strings verstimmt, a quintet wrecked upon both sharps and flats, the smell of fish, the howl of cats.”

“An artist finds his way, solang’ er strebt,” I rebutted, in Knittelvers, a clever reference to Faust, “Prologue in Heaven,” the translation a little free, from the tip of my tongue: Eric Trunz, Hamburg edition, sixth printing, page twenty-three.

“But it takes so long, “ he said, with garlic breath. “There’s no guarantee. Arbeit macht den Brei. Qué sopa amarga! What scat and mess! I can show you a trick, if – behold the model – you lightly press.” And then, with a carny’s wink and a jab of his elbow, he said, “Pay a little attention, and I’ll do the rest.”

Immediately, I saw what he meant. Mariana’s right eyebrow had risen in a question, her lower lip trembled. The eyes followed me when I walked. My mouth hung agoggle, my face agawk.

“You’re not really young anymore,” he said. “Not much time to come at these things. Unlikely you’ll be known, visited by acolytes, let alone shown.”

He wagged his head at the painted cloth. Again I looked. It was better than Corbet, Manet, Morisot, Van Gogh. My head spun. Then Mariana gave a half-sneezed gentle tubercular cough.

“How would that look to your friends in their studios? Their knees would quake. You’d be compared to masterpieces pilfered by King George and Goering. You’d be in the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Frick, and on TV. And the ladies in pearls and tight dresses, you’ll have them stirring. You’d be the rake.”

The wind blew from the sierra. The doors clattered. “Alright, you ass, I admit I’m hooked. Let’s hear your price, your terms. But everyone knows, you consort with the devil and your goose is stewed, your knight gets rooked.”

I saw him smile, I’m not sure why.

“I like your rhyming, the suggestion of purse, not at all like a fly wrapped tight by his own Knittelvers. And as for the price, ” he said. “I give you perfect likeness, something essentially living, except to the touch. That too, if you think you’re a man, as much as such. But being successful and famous I think is what you want. Life is short, die Kunst ist lang. Just sign here.” He pointed to the bottom of the canvas. “You can’t go wrong.”

“I think I would feel better, if we switched back to prose,” I said. “A mistake could be costly, heaven knows. What’s the gimmick? I assume it’s my soul you’re after.”

“Well, right to the point,” he said. “I give you this, you give me laughter.”

“What?” I said. “Say that again. “

“I repeat,” he said. “I make you Rembrandt, then – no laughing thereafter.”

I thought about that, as quick as I could. It was what it was. A laughing matter.

“I don’t think I like it,” I said. “I couldn’t live without being funny.”

“Alright,” he said. “We’ll settle for something more like money.”

“You could take my soul,” I suggested, planning my pin. I had him here, perhaps even bested. For the simple truth is, though I’m in Mexico, I’m not theological. If I don’t have a soul, he really can’t take it. So when he gives me fame, I just fake it.

“Okay,” he said, and began receding again. “The interview’s over. We’ll talk more later. A little less Knittelvers eases the strain. The truth be known, a four-foot rhythm goes against my grain.”

I put down the brush that I’d held all along. I rubbed my eyes. And all that was left in the corner was a furry lump that swished her tail. It was Lilus our Mexican cat, on top of the stool, eyeing me rudely, staring too long.

“Go to bed,” she said, with mental telepathy. “The night grows pale. Forget what he said, and leave it at that. The Devil is nothing compared to a cat. Your place is in bed when everything blows. There are no short cuts to anywhere, as everyone knows. We do what we do, we snuggle together. Better we sleep the long sleep and stick to small things. By that I mean petting, then painting, then aging, love, purring and prose.”

[In the name of pedantry]
Mephistopheles is making an appearance in Mexico. As Goethe’s creation, he remains German, but of course can speak other languages: here, phrases occur in German, Middle High German, Spanish, and once in French.

Guten Morgen – German for Good Morning!

Noto que no puedeth dormir – Phoneticized Castilian Spanish (for puedes), or does the Devil simply lisp? I notice you can’t sleep.

Waz wirret dir? Medieval German: What is your distress? The ethical question Parzival does not put to the ailing Grail King in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic “Parzival,” It is unlikely here that the Devil’s concern is one of ethics.

Dein Nachbar, vecino: German, your neighbor; followed by Spanish, (your) neighbor.

pintor, Mahler: The first word is Spanish for painter; the second, German for painter.

Je ne thais quoi – A phrase that has to be said in French, in this case with a lisp (thais for sais): A certain something.

verstimmt: German for out of tune.

solang’ er strebt: a famous line out of Goethe’s Faust: Der Mensch irrt solang’ er strebt: A person errs as long as (s)he strives.”

Knittelvers: German for a type of four-beat line used in Goethe’s Faust.

Arbeit macht den Brei: A cynical echo of “Arbeit macht frei,” the slogan written over the entrance to Auschwitz? Here the final word is Brei, the German word for hot cereal, or simply a mess – suggesting that what this painter is producing isn’t very good.

Qué sopa amarga! Spanish: What a bitter soup!

Sierra: Spanish for mountains.

Die Kunst ist lang: Part of a famous phrase. Das Leben ist kurz, die Kunst ist lang, used by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: Life is short, art is long. More babble to confuse and ensnare the neophyte.

Mr. Bobanosa and the Great-Tailed Grackles

The urraca of Mexico, known by some as the clarinero, is loved by some, despised by many. Mr. Bobanosa belonged to the first group. He found the birds bold and irreverent, mischievous and – fitting for a city with a passable symphony orchestra – so gifted in their song that, in his opinion, the musicians could only learn from them.

Mr. Bobanosa liked to sit in a particular outdoor café under an arching acacia tree that shaded cappuccino drinkers and smoking students from the penetrating mountain sun, and provided a meeting place, indeed a parliament hall, for the Great-tailed Grackles – the English name for the Mexican urraca.

Mr. Bobanosa – unlike the clarineros – was shy and could not begin to meet the gaze of the woman he found staring at him one day, perhaps because of his dignified middle-aged bearing, perhaps for his kind brown eyes, or even because of the smile that often lingered on his lips as he listened to the unrestrained gossiping of the grackles.

He was sitting under the great acacia, in a moment when he was not thinking of his deceased wife, and looked up to see a woman with dark eyes looking at him, as her husband or lover berated her for some real or imagined trespass. Her stricken eyes seemed to be asking him, Mr. Bobanosa, for the understanding that her companion appeared to lack. These eyes, now flooding, remained on him so long that her companion turned in his chair and gave Mr. Bobanosa a dark inspection.

Mr. Bobanosa did not finch, nor did he lower his eyes, but smiled at the man and tipped his hat respectfully, as if greeting an only semi-distant acquaintance. The man, scowling, nodded and turned away to face the woman again, but this time with diminished vehemence.

Mr. Bobanosa lowered his glance finally. He had never done such a thing before, interpose himself in the affairs of others, no matter how great the injustice before him. His usual restraint in the world had left in him for a moment, and this surprised him.

In a while, the couple stood up and passed him – the man impatient and in front, and the woman behind – her eyes sweeping up from the ground and meeting those of Mr. Bobanosa. And he, Mr. Bobanosa, held her gaze and smiled, as if she were someone he already knew, or might come to know, there in the shade of the spreading acacia, in the din of the incorrigible urracas.

But things did not change for Mr. Bobanosa. His life continued as it had before. He played his cello, without the ability that he once had, nor the interest, as when his wife was alive and accompanied him on the piano. He walked in the parks that lay unchanged in his small city. He visited his children. His son was an uninspired banker with an ambitious wife. He took their young boy – arrested in his mental development – for walks, holding him in his arms until his arms ached, all the while unable to communicate with the boy’s indecipherable grunts and squeals. His daughter was a professor of Political Science, but spent most of her time accompanying the governor’s coterie of advisers. She was unmarried and, as Mr. Bobanosa had come to suspect, found the substitute for that kind of companionship in the governor himself, a man with big teeth and a conversational voice inappropriately loud. In short, Mr. B’s most pleasurable moments were spent, not with his children and grandson, but under the acacia at his favorite café, in the company of the exuberant urracas.

Winter passed, spring came with its heat, and then the summer rains began. The mornings were cool, the sun warmed the space under the great acacia, and Mr. B. took off his coat and loosened his tie, as if in recognition that it was a season to be less formal. At the beginning of July, she sat down at his table, took off her white cotton gloves, an affectation, he had to admit, and held out her hand. Her name was Margareta Villanova, her mother German, her father a cattle rancher in the state of Sonora.

They talked, haltingly at first, because Mr. B. was much less outspoken than she. For his part, he bathed in her warm eyes, her almost iridescent black hair, and the wit of her words, and finally in her voice, which he found creamy and seductive. They ate meals together, walked in Mr. B’s parks, even took turns carrying his non-speaking, unreachable grandson. They spent nights together, in tight embraces, and they went to the seashore. They made plans, went dancing, and took a trip to Vera Cruz, and then one to Cuba.

For Mr. B. it was like swirling along the level arc of a merry-go-round, looking here and there, craning his neck to see where she was, trying to close a certain gap in the distance between them, following but never gaining, always ahead or behind.

In January, she did not show up at the café. He called her and left messages, but she did not return his calls. He wrote her and got the letters back through the post office. She was no longer at the address, and she had left no forwarding address. He sought out one of her girlfriends. They did not see each other anymore, she said, and she had no further information. In February, he gave up. The sadness and loneliness he felt was well rehearsed, since it rested on the earlier loss of his wife, and now, once again, it was all really more than he could bear.

He took little comfort in the urracas, the spreading acacia, or the familiar conversational hum of his favorite café. He began seeking other neighborhoods, other parks to walk in, other outdoor cafés to sit in, where people would not know him. At the beginning of April, when the heat was beginning to build, he took a seat under a tree in a café in the better section of the city, where people dressed well and drove newer cars and held important jobs. The tree over his head was quiet, except for a dull sparrow or two. But the coffee was good, and the anonymity soothing. He spread out his hands, taking stock of their shape and the wrinkles on his fingers, and he decided that this – what he had before him, his hands, himself as he was – was what life offered, and it was best to accept what one had, and go on. He would finish his coffee, drink the water the waiter had brought him, pay, and go home.

He folded his hands and looked up, ready to see the world in a new way. Instead, at the table on the other side of the café sat Margareta, holding a handkerchief to her dark eyes and quietly sobbing. Her companion, the same man as before, was angry again, talking in bursts – punctuating this or that with his forefinger, which was aimed at but did not touch her breast.

She lowered her handkerchief. Her gaze fell on Mr. B again, but it was as if she did not recognize him. Then she shifted her glance to another single gentleman sitting closer, and her eyes softened, and the new gentleman shifted in his chair, uneasy but excited by the attention being placed upon him.

Mr. Bobanosa lowered his eyes. He supposed they might shut permanently, or that his heart might stop, or that his next breath would be his last one. He expected his vision to darken. He could hear nothing at all – but otherwise, nothing happened. His breath rose and fell. As if on its own, his right hand moved over and held his left hand, accepting its wrinkles, its substantiality, and its warmth. The air stirred around him, sunlight fell agreeably across his back, he lifted his glass of water, raised his head, and drank. He heard the water as he swallowed. He found it unexpectedly refreshing and new.

His gaze swept upward, past Margareta, up past her scolding, angry partner, up past the new man to whom she would soon turn for salvation. Beyond everything, an ancient tree rose up from behind the café, una laurel de la India, an Indian laurel, spreading its branches forty feet in every direction from its smooth gray truck, the top-most limbs moving slowly in the breeze. Then his eye caught something. He wasn’t sure. But yes. Birds – black, and familiar – with long tails flew in and out of the tree’s cool shadows, performing their usual antics, their usual exuberant social chaos.

He stood up. He paid the waiter. He put the change in his pocket, the paper money in his worn, magnetized leather money clip. He put the money clip into his pocket. In that moment of routine, it occurred to him that there was with as much carbon and therefore the stuff of life in him as in any acacia or urraca.

The result of this thought was that he approached the two tables on the other side of the café – as if to greet friends. He tipped his hat to the new man, who would be next to save her. He turned and tipped his hat to Margareta’s angry companion. He turned to Margareta, lifted his hat, leaned over and kissed her vigorously on the lips. He lifted his hat once more to all three of them, then walked away – listening only for the din of the urracas in the great Indian laurel above them.