Wednesday
Jun162010

The Turn

Monica Zarazua


 

The beginning of the first inversion of the mountain was marked by when the clothes drying on the line hung at an odd angle to the ground. Our feet ached from walking on a slant we were not yet aware of. As night fell and our hair hung the wrong way, we realized we were upside down. The mountain hung from the clouds by its base, no longer touching the earth. Below us was the sky, above us the valley. Quietly, we looked up at the valley that we were so used to always looking down on with its small houses, green fields, and thin rivers beside which people sat and worked and into which they immersed their feet to cool off from the heat of the day. We held each others’ forearms and waists until impatience emboldened us. The water running in narrow canals between our houses continued to flow, which comforted us and made us believe we wouldn’t fall. We scooped handfuls of water and tossed them up, which was down. They fell to the valley, loose raindrops. This worried us. We threw flat stones up in the direction of the valley and they came back down to us. This comforted us, until we launched them full force. It was then that they became dense objects falling through the air.

We crept past the fowl and llamas still sleeping and breathing out wisps of warm air. They showed no signs of disturbance, as if this position were natural. Only their tails and ears stood resolute. Our fingertips pressed into the ground to steady us as we looked up and down, as we swiveled our heads and crept along together, heading upwards towards the base of the mountain. Our ankles rotated outwards and inwards as we distributed the weight of our torsos onto our limbs. The weak ones fainted, unable to bear the tension of being pulled by two opposing forces: that of the center of the earth, which the mountain was now detached from, and that of the center of the mountain, which was now located in the middle of the sky.

My head and body felt close to exploding. I imagined my innards bursting out in bright, glowing pink while my face remained partly intact, laid across the rocks. Nobody comforted us, the children, because everyone was being ground like seeds between two calloused hands. With the wonder of reaching the bottom of the mountain, the pressure eased at last. One by one we forgot everything except the sky, so close we could squat down to touch it. All night we ran our fingers through it, made circles in it with our feet until we drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, we were right side up again with no damage suffered except that those of us who had gone to the bottom were now in the valley and had to climb back to the top. Before leaving, we looked for dislocated areas where the base had broken from the surface of the earth. Naively, we thought we could lift up the edge of the mountain as if it were the edge of a dress, but it was as it had always been, heavy and impassive.

We made up theories about why it happened. We argued about it and stood on our heads in imitation. We didn’t believe such a thing would happen again until it happened again one year later, then again, another year later. Finally, we accepted the Turn as a natural unsettling and resettling of the mountain. It became a normal part of our lives, the way we’d always lived.

 

Two

Ariana sucked her tongue at me, saying my dress wasn’t tight enough to draw attention to my body, but I told her the black lines she marked around my eyes were what mattered, right? The sweat dotting my skin when we sat around the fire was what mattered. She nodded, then looked out the window: hexagonal and small. I’d experienced her heavy silences before, so I shook away her hostility and changed into the flaming orange she had pulled out for me. She loved crookedly, but it didn’t make her need for love any less pervasive. I offered to braid her hair, so thick a person could keep warm beneath it. With each stroke of the brush, her happiness increased. Better than her sullenness, it came naturally, a flame catching flame.

The next day was the Turn. This was the first year we wouldn’t be rolling up and down the terraced sides of the mountain or drinking while standing sideways, or running upside down, sweeping our hair through the space between the valley and the sky. The night would mark our complete potential to seduce and exist. We prepared ourselves by rubbing oil into our skin until it glowed. We soaked our feet and palms in boiled petals. With sharpened picks we cleaned between our teeth and parted our hair into zigzags, braids, and hemispheres. We outlined our eyes with black ink, all this for the evening and for the fire by the light of which we would examine the shapes of other peoples’ toes, the sizes of their hands, the lengths of their torsos, the way cloth laid against form. Fingers would trail lightly against each other, bodies would pass without staying, and flitting eyes would watch the shadows made in bodily crevices. The rough palms, the smooth palms, the song: Which song? Who to dance against? Where to rest our limbs and insert our breaths?   

All day we prepared. By the time it was dark we were ready. Unable to help ourselves, by verdict of nature and of the mountain itself, we were upside down, different for that night. In the early part of the evening we stayed close to the people we knew, but as night deepened we split off into newly formed pairs and moved away on lightly treaded paths that disappeared around shadowed bends. Ariana and I were among the few still sitting around the fire, just as we had planned. As she put it, the ones with the most to offer waited until the end.

Apaec examined me from the other side of the shrunken circle, but I was too scared to look him in the face. I focused on the spirals inked into his skin and the thin band of metal around his wrist that flashed when he moved his arm across his torso and as he lightly rested his fingers on his ribs. At the start of the night he had stood at a distance from everyone else. His back was to us. He was looking up at the valley in the same way that I looked down at it on normal days when the mountain was right side up and when Ariana and I would race to the top. While she lagged behind, I would already be looking down at the valley. It was flat. It split apart and chased the river that stretched onward out of sight and that had houses nestled contentedly beside it. I was at the highest point looking down. From there, it was hard to tell if the people in the valley had their faces tilted up or not, but I raised my hand at them in greeting anyway. It was my way to acknowledge them from up there on my perch, where I could see that what we lived in were tiny cubes, and that where we planted were simple lines in the earth that could easily be erased. A thin stream of panic shot through me, but just as quickly elation replaced it as I thought of thousands of cornstalk leaves reaching their green bellies up to the sun, their tips drooping down like the healthy tongues of well-fed animals.

I knew about contemplation. I understood Apaec as he waited on the edge while everyone else laughed around the fire. All of us saw how he was alone before joining us, but I was the only one who understood completely the beauty of solitude, the ability to inhale in one breath the present and the future. I knew I was the only one because when he came back to us he walked towards me. He sat perfectly placed across from me beneath a hexagonal crisscross of branches.

Ariana was silent. She watched, encouraged me with glances. I knew that she would help bring him closer to me, because she knew about such attractions and how to casually draw one person to another. She would get him to say the first words that would begin a natural conversation between us, one that would last for many hours. By the time the mountain turned right side up again, the morning light skipping, he and I would be held precisely together in an hourglass.

She rose and moved in front of him, almost causing me to snort out loud with laughter, so I turned my head. She would charm him into coming over to me, because that’s what she said she could do for me. I was proud of her friendship and the way we were able to play this game: her bouncing questions off one edge of the circle and me bouncing answers back to her. You like that one under the tree? Yes. The skinny one? Yes. The quiet one? Yes.

People didn’t know we were a team. Their obliviousness made me want to giggle. The giggles wanted to explode from my belly. My head was turned. I had one face for the dark and one for the fire. I wanted to laugh so hard at the way we played with the boys. I smiled so hard. My teeth showed. My eyes squinted. Spasms of laughter pranced in my belly, gurgled in my throat. The only thing that quieted it was the thought of Apaec coming closer. I pulled the excitement out from the back of my throat, patted it into the ground, assured it that it could sprout later, but first Ariana needed time to sit by him, to motion towards me with her head. My friend, she’d say. He would listen with his gaze already spread over me. I told the laughter it could come out later when the hourglass melted away and I was back home combing the smoke from Ariana’s hair. Then I would laugh as we re-spun the evening and the games we played, the prize I won.

When I turned my head back around, his face was level with her stomach. If he thrust out his tongue he could lick her belly button that spread itself open to him, because it was a wide, embracing belly button with its edges smoothed down by Ariana’s tracing of it when she was lost in thought. Oily words I couldn’t hear spilled from between her lips, cascaded over her breasts and stomach, down into his hands, which were cupped in his lap. The fabric of her clothing was tight enough to show the sliver that split her into two thighs and legs reaching down, which was up. She fell onto him. Tongue, humid breath, hair that could wrap itself around his neck and blanket his face. She glanced at me over her naked shoulder before turning away completely.

That one I trusted to line the thin rims of my eyes. She would always do this for me, even when I no longer wanted her to. I no longer wanted her to, even though I understood. The way she loved was crookedly. When she reached out her hand to him she explained this to me, and she proved that he—the contemplative one, who answered as soon as she propositioned—was also false to me.  

 

Three

Nearly a year after Ariana walked around a bend with Apaec, I stepped outside into a morning that should have been filled with the sounds of running water.

Stories had been trickling over to us from places far past the valley, of long-limbed strangers, the ones with chicken claws strung around their necks. They arrived quietly, studied their surroundings in an impartial manner. They were scientists or travelers or barterers of some sort with baskets of copper pieces. They were harmless until night fell and everyone’s eyelids became too heavy to keep open. Then their numbers rapidly multiplied in the dark as if they were birds flocking to a field of exposed seeds. They swept through the villages, put axes through heads, lit houses on fire, and ripped up crops. They squatted down and ground up bodies with remnants of stalks and leaves until all that was left was a fine dust covering every surface. The strangers moved on to the next village, leaving some of their people behind to erect new homes on the burnt but fertile soils, to plant the seeds of non-native crops, to mate so that soon the ground was crawling with their offspring. These were the rumors but we laughed at them, at the idea of chicken claws worn like necklaces and the impossibility of grinding up bodies into dust.

Dust covered me. Putting my hand to my cheek, I felt it twitch. I licked my finger and immediately it was covered in dust again. Looking down at my feet I saw that the water in the canals had stopped flowing. The dust in them clumped like dough and formed into sludge. A woman began to scoop out handfuls, screaming Help me salvage the water! It ran down her arm in thin veins, this woman with her stooped back and silver braid. I pressed myself against the outside wall of one of the houses.

I blinked, shook the dust from my eyelashes, licked it off my lips. It coated my tongue and the taste of blood mixed with my saliva. Smoke rose from all around, burning my eyes and lungs. We ran to the lookout. There could be no doubt that the valley was on fire. The houses on the valley floor winked and the air rising from below smelled like burnt meat and hair. Nobody rushed to put out the fires, which burned steadily beneath the sky that was the same dull color as the dust that suffocated the plants and broke their leaves. Animals pounded their hooves and flapped their wings, which were too heavy to lift up in flight. Babies screamed and the ones holding them screamed. Men who prayed dropped to their knees. Their spit sprinkled their hands as they rapidly moved prayer beads between their fingers. I pushed past the people kneeling in the dirt and called out for knives, anything sharp to use against this imaginary enemy that was now real, now close to us.

 

Four

The strangers are coming, rumbling. They don’t know it, but their attack on us is timed with the Turn of the mountain. We know they don’t know. How could they? We know they won’t know how to stay on. The mountain will hold us to her, but she won’t hold them. I look up and draw precise lines that darken the edges of my eyes. Ariana watches me. She’s too pregnant to crouch outside where I’ll be positioned, but she asks me to draw the lines for her anyway. All of us are steadily getting ready for the strangers. In their minds, they’ve already smashed our buildings and flung our bodies through them. They’ve seen our faces and pushed them into the dirt. They think this, believe this. Already they see it happening as they move up the sides of the mountain, stealthily, the chicken claws around their necks thumping and scratching against the ground. We prepare the last true image that they’ll see before falling to their death: our marked and rigid faces, our hair hanging upside down from the sky. The wind brings their scent, light as dust. We clap our hands over our mouths and noses, denying entry to the finite particles. Waiting in the dark, we are complete potential. The mountain begins her slow turn.