by Ares Demertzis (Jan. 2007)
The inauspicious birth occurred at the midnight hour in late March, during the vernal equinox, when the day and the night, the sun and the moon, are considered in an established ambiguous deception to share the earth as equals.* The event took place in a one room mud brick hovel that protruded like an unsightly pustule on that wide and barren desert plain extending from the base of a snow capped mountain range to the end of the earth at the horizon. The original inhabitants had, it would seem, misnamed this land as the “Valley of the Gods,” although verbal chroniclers, if they are to be believed, allege that during a very distant past this place had been lush with vegetation fit for human consumption, and colorful, decorative flowers; a veritable paradise of transparent, flowing rivers and gurgling brooks inhabited by an endless catalog of now extinct creatures in a zoological garden coexisting serenely with mankind.
The pregnant woman squatted at the edge of a reed mat, her distended stomach flanked by trembling thighs as her hands forced apart her legs at the knees. She pushed hard to eject the unsolicited object that had been growing within her body for the preceding nine months, and the infant finally appeared. When the midwife swiftly pulled the blood-spattered, sodden creature into life, it did not utter a sound, refusing to cry even after receiving the obligatory sharp slap on its bare backside. In time, it was determined that this newborn female was intended to reside on the earth as a deaf mute. The baby was also disfigured. The right and left sides of her lip and the roof of the mouth had never connected, the unsightly gap extending upwards to the edge of her nose; a genetically provoked cleft lip and palate that marred a permanent, curiously mysterious, albeit handsome smile.
As a very young child she was obliged to remove rocks from the hard sand on that small parcel of land her family unproductively attempted to cultivate for their tenuous survival. The sand would thirstily absorb the rivulets of blood running from her small fingers as they tore at the ground, grasping the sharp edges of the rough stones, plucking them from their millenarian repose. Over time, it became obvious to the little girl that the soil gave birth to wicked rocks, just as the occasional trees populating her desert produced succulent fruit, for both never ceased to be unvarying companions to her existence. She preferred the sweet fruit to the heavy stones, and although her difficult labor seemed endless, she never lost the riddle of her engaging smile.
Her father eventually gathered the stones she retrieved, ultimately using them to mark the limits of their property, in this way restricting access to those others, even less fortunate, who might covet for themselves his meager, humble possessions. In due course he also deposited the rocks one on top of the other, in tall mounds which appeared to the little girl to have no immediately obvious purpose. It was only much later that she understood them to be her father’s feeble imitation of the surrounding mountains where the invisible spirits dwelt; those who were said to possess the authority to alleviate their painful suffering. The rocks were her father’s unambiguous invitation for those spirits to partake of his hospitality, in anticipation that they would respond to his generosity by reciprocating positively to his meek supplications.
When some special favor was required of the spirits, she was obliged to ascend one of the stone mountains where her father would perform a ritual that made her blood run in what appeared to be crimson torrents across her diminutive body, only to cascade in thin rivulets across the accumulated, indifferent grey stones. On these occasions she did not cry, she was, in fact, incapable of any audible protest. Her mother would bow her head in acquiescence, permitting, no, more than that, taking part in the brutality. Her mother was an accomplice, and in spite of the acknowledged perfidy, the young girl continued to twist her cleft lip into that enigmatic, silent smile.
Every year the mountains of stones increased in what appeared to be an equation directly related to the unpremeditated rising and falling of her mother’s abdomen, as each new year produced another sibling to claw the harsh sand, dislodging its obdurate lithic inhabitants. With each new addition to the family, notwithstanding the exponential growth of the stone mountains which were designed to guarantee the supportive cooperation of the spirits, the family’s misery and wretchedness did not abate, but surprisingly appeared to increase. And it wasn’t only they who were the forgotten of the spirits, for the Valley of the God’s infection of a few insignificant pustules evolved over time into a plague of unsightly lesions cutting into the unforgiving epidermis of the desert.
This intolerable situation forced those closest to the horizon to emigrate, despite the risk of falling off the end of the world. What those intrepid pioneers discovered on reaching the horizon was the existence of another horizon, and beyond that another horizon, and another horizon after that; the end of the world was extended beyond the imaginings of even the most clairvoyant.
The neighbors shook their heads, some in genuine, others in feigned pity as the toddler sprouted into a child, evolving swiftly into an adolescent, to finally mature as a woman with a comely body. “She is such an ugly creature,” they would whisper amongst themselves conspiratorially, deliberately indicating with a hasty gesture of one finger their upper lip in a secretive, meaningful, well understood signal.
It was during this time that a volcano capriciously burst forth in the far distance, erupting without warning at the horizon to emerge as a portentous monolithic silhouette against an expansive, temperate azure. The passionate fury of the ensuing fiery explosion initiated a devastating conflagration that consumed everything in its sinuous, deliberate course. A plume of menacing black ash followed, dispersing vast, surging dark clouds across the sky, shutting out the sun. From the invisible heavens, thick soot slowly settled across the earth, arousing amongst the villagers an unspoken anticipation that this alien coating would fertilize the sterile ground. The calamity provoked an expectation that this essential aggression, as with that fortuitous primordial violence of which not even a memory remained, would inflict a benefit that far surpassed the lament of temporary destruction.
Shortly after the smoke evaporated, and after the sky, the earth, the air, and the stars fixed to the heavens ceased their deep crimson precipitation that stained the earth, she was betrothed.
The stranger arrived within their midst, taking up residence. He came from those unfamiliar lands said to exist far beyond the shadow of the volcano. He appeared unconcerned by the young woman’s deformity, and was likewise indifferent to her muteness. Insolently he would banter, even while in her uncomprehending presence, that a man could find no better spouse than one that lacked any possibility of verbal complaint. And through it all she continued to modestly display her humble, soundless smile.
Betrothed, she was relieved to imagine herself free of the bloody domestic beatings, for the stranger had dismantled the stone mountains that occupied the parcel of land bequeathed to him as dowry; nonetheless, she curiously felt a deep melancholy at the abandonment of her familial traditions. Notwithstanding these reservations, there now appeared a flicker of expectation in her eyes in anticipation of a new life where she would find affection in the arms of this stranger who was ostensibly her beloved. In fact, what lay in store for her was not much better than that which had been recently discarded, for her husband also beat her, albeit with less ferocity than she had been accustomed to by her father. And the inscrutable smile curling across her disfigured countenance continued wordlessly immutable and self-effacing.
The first act of the man she had betrothed was to sell the burro which, in addition to the parcel of land, he had received from her father after the wedding ceremony. He claimed he had no need of a burro since he now had a wife to perform the beasts work. Her husband would wrap a thick rope around her waist for her to pull the primitive wooden plough he guided, as they made the long vaginal furrows in the earth in expectation that they would burst as long, green stalks from the swollen belly of a now more fertile soil.
She accepted his arrogant, boastful infidelities, his constant, public, verbal abuse, and the beatings with the same impenetrable, persistent twisting of her blemished mouth.
In the dark of night, when he would reach for her, his breath thick with the stench of alcohol, she naively suspected that it was possible he actually liked her; when she found herself with a swollen abdomen, she imagined this mutually created child about to enter their lives would provoke in him a more respectable liaison. However, after her daughter was born, she discovered that the only difference in her life consisted in the additional burden of caring for her helpless infant.
As the years passed, it became increasingly commonplace for strangers to visit the Valley of the Gods. They were invariably jovial, overweight individuals wearing bright colored clothing and shorts that revealed hairless, blanched legs with protruding knees. These foreigners were boisterous and loud, projecting an indisputable, conceited self assurance. On an overcast afternoon, the sky wept with compassion when her husband sold their most recently conceived infant daughter to a group of passing strangers. He claimed the purpose of his action was to have one less mouth to feed, although she suspected it was for the two bottles of liquor he received in exchange.
This unexpected and disheartening act was so notably overwhelming, it provoked her to assume an unheard of disobedience by extending her body its full length on the reed mat of her and her daughter’s birth, there to patiently wait for the death which she assumed would alleviate her unremitting anguish. That enigmatic smile which had characterized her silent torment disappeared from her disfigured lips, leaving only an ugly, repulsive scowl. She neither ate food nor drank liquid, and she suffered in silence the unabated whippings without any visible effort to escape the violence of her husband’s blows.
The morning she died he summoned a physician. The healer searched for a pulse, shallow breathing, or any sign of life. Finally, she was pronounced dead and a certificate to that effect was signed. By late afternoon, the holy man from the house of worship she unfailingly attended every day to pray for her life to be transformed arrived. He helped her husband roll the reed mat around the cold, rigid body, tying it firmly in place along its entire length with a strong cord. Some villagers were summoned to assist in moving the corpse to the cemetery, where a deep hole had been excavated to receive her in what was considered to be the appropriate setting for an eternal repose.
Suddenly, from within the reed mat there was raised an anguished wail. A threnodic shriek. A grief-stricken howl unidentifiable as the wretched, comfortless verbal discharge of either a human or a beast. A sustained, hoarse roar of complaint. Her abiding silence was finally shattered.
The chilling cry evolved into an inconsolable, grief stricken moan that launched into an unstoppable litany chronicling unspoken accusation and protest. The unrelenting grievance continued into the evening and through the night. The voice spoke in tongues; indecipherable language that continued until dawn and prompted the villagers to request the assistance of the maximum academic resident of the village. Initially, this grade school teacher was bewildered by the complexity of the sounds emanating from within the inert reed mat, but finally declared that what they were hearing was the intimidating language of the aggrieved nations of the entire world; the postulant infection that silently commenced in the Valley of the Gods had ultimately evolved into the plague of unsightly lesions cutting into the unforgiving epidermis of the entire planet.
The village found no rest from the wailing recriminations which continued throughout the following day, and the day after that, and the following week, and the week after that. There was no rest to be had by anyone. To end their intolerable predicament, the community informed the mayor, in turn the Governor was advised, and he passed the responsibility on to the Maximum Authority. An officer was dispatched to the village from the local military barracks; he arrived with a group of soldiers shouldering rifles and bayonets. It was the officer’s intent to silence the lament by perforating the reed mat with the bayonets, but the soldiers were prevented from carrying out their orders by the villagers who considered unreasonable the incongruity of slaughtering that which they, as civilian laymen, confidently assumed had been declared lifeless.
After forty days and forty nights, precisely at the midnight hour, the obstinate cacophony abruptly ceased, the rage seeming to have extinguished itself. A sepulchral silence engulfed the village, where instantly everyone fell into a profound, uninterrupted slumber; the only perceived sound being a thunderous concert of exhausted, sleep deprived individuals snoring.
Just before sunrise, a figure emerged from its funereal enclosure in the reed mat, a disfigured lip curled into a vicious snarl. She packed some meager belongings into a small, colorful bandana and drifted out of the shack, never to be seen again.
Some later claimed that she had been recognized roaming the earth, attempting to encounter that elusive, unrepressive place where all people share the day and the night, the sun and the moon, as equals; ignoring the as yet unfamiliar reality which postulated that if the universe is incapable of creating egalitarianism, obviously her aspirations were destined to failure.
It was reported that she had at one time confidently dressed with great anticipation of an incipient triumph in the uniform of a classless promise, which by force would impose what was mendaciously promulgated as a more equitable world order. She subsequently realized that she had transferred her loyalty to another, even more offensive oppression; one committed to an imitation of the serfdom she had for so long endured in that misguided society of her father’s sanguineous stone mountains.
Years later, when they found her, she had surprisingly drowned in an unsuccessful attempt to cross what she apparently considered to be a shallow creek, whose waters proved to be deeper and more turbulent than an ocean. On her body was concealed a shred of crumpled, ink stained paper that had scrawled on its surface, in an unsure hand, a final declaration verging on an attempted incipient poetry: “In that never-ending circle known as time, for us the numerous, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
*During the vernal equinox, it is technically correct that the sun remains an equal amount of time above and below the horizon, however the day is always longer than the night since the atmosphere refracts the sunlight even when the sun is not visible, making the day always longer than the night.
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