Note: These stories are solidly grounded in events from my life, and in that sense are true. However, I sometimes alter factual details for lyrical reasons and to let the truth shine through.
Part I: The Dance
Years and years ago – five hundred more or less, if we believe the history books – Cristóbal Colón stepped ashore a beautiful island he found slumbering beneath the tropical sun, lapped by the soft, sensual tongue of the Caribbean. Today, if you peer beyond political strife and frantic tourist resorts, you can find her slumbering still. Hispañola: a single island fractured by colonial history, war, genetics, language and religion into two unfriendly neighbors; French-Creole Haiti and Spanish Dominican Republic.
But all that is a large story, sweeping across land and sea and down through long stretches of time. This is a very small story, which carries us into a hidden pocket of the Dominican mountains and into a single afternoon.
If you leave the coastal city of Santo Domingo, and drive north along the country’s main highway through rice paddies, fields of sugar cane, and banana plantations, you will come, after perhaps two hours, to a narrow winding road that leaves the humid lowlands and climbs into the Cordillera Central. There in the mountains at the northeast end of a small, fertile valley lays the town of Jacabaroa.
With pickup truck, motorcycle, mule or your own legs, you can cross a rickety bridge, turn left, and follow a rutted track that meanders for five miles through the hills that border the Yaqui River until it unravels into the yards of a scattered collection of shacks and farmhouses. These dwellings, nestled into a soft fold of the hills or rooted in the rich soil beside the river, are simply constructed with thatch or tin roofs, dirt or concrete floors, and walls of rough boards sawn or split from the pine and royal palm that fleck the pastured hills. Late in the day, multitudes of silent cattle egrets flock across fields of corn, beans, and cassava to roost high above the coffee plantations and blanket the tropical trees in snowy white. It is peaceful here beyond the reach of traffic, electricity, and piped-in water. The sounds are chickens cackling to each other in pride and congratulations, the wheezing bray from a donkey, and the sough of a dying breeze through the pines.
Sometimes in the spring, if there have been no deaths for several months and no one is in deep mourning, the local people have a dance. Of course poor farmers living close to the earth and embedded in her rhythms are never far from suffering and grief, but that’s another story for another day.
So it was that early on a Sunday afternoon in April a band set out on foot from Jacabaroa carrying their instruments with them. It was a warm sunny day, steaming mud drying to dust, and as they strolled the drowsing hills, they didn’t begrudge the lazy hours carved from their lives.
About the time the band began its walk, the last young women finished washing their laundry in the creek beside the schoolhouse and left for home to change their clothes, to take the curlers from their hair, to paint their faces with shadow, rouge and lipstick.
Soon after, the band still far away, the first young men rode in from distant parts. They dismounted and, careful not to scuff shined boots or stain white shirts, tied their horses beneath a giant Amapola tree among its fallen blossoms that lay like glowing coals in a corner of the schoolyard. Relaxed, as young men are only when apart from women, they joked and laughed together, waiting for and greeting friends as they arrived. A bottle went round, Bermudez rum, and all took turn; no matter that some were too poor to turn about.
At last they heard … no, not yet … Yes! the first, faint drift of music from around the curve leading into the village. The band was playing as they came to call the people from their homes and set their spirits free. By two thirty, the players owned one corner of the large, empty schoolroom.
The leader worked a button accordion and sang the lyrics of the songs; the others backed him up, singing the same words a second time. The format never varied. A second man sat on his wooden bass-box and plucked the same four deep notes from four tuned metal prongs, over and over again. The youngest, a fiery youth, swayed to rhythms he coaxed with a stiff-tined brush from his small metal güira. From the neck of the fourth man hung a two-headed drum. His left hand slapped out the main beat while he whanged the hell out of the other head with a wooden stick, cracking the rim for accent whenever the fancy struck him.
Lured by the music, the single young women began to appear: the juicy ones at first, hot and ready for action; and then, after a decent interval, the more proper ladies just back from Mass in town.
Shy with each other at first, they all hung back. But as the rum took effect, one by one they started to dance. A pair, two pairs, until finally all of them were dancing. Slowly, other people began to arrive: young married couples first – some carrying infants; and the very old – grandmothers, grandfathers; then the middle-aged householders; until at last everyone from the village and surrounding hills was crowded into the one room schoolhouse.
The mood was electric. The band pounded out the powerful, one-two rhythm of the merengue as loud as they could. Vibrant, full of energy, and Oh God it was awful. But as the passing bottle oiled the musicians and loosened the dancers, the music got better and better. Or at least it seemed to. Almost everyone danced every dance. A simple-minded youth, wearing his baseball cap sideways (before it was cool to do so), asked the prettiest girl to dance. She smiled and said yes. She had to. It was the rule. Everyone danced with everyone else. If she refused, she couldn’t dance again until she danced with him. Drunken importunity was the only ground for rejection.
When they felt the moment right, the band left their corner and, still playing, snaked their way through the sweaty press of swaying bodies. This was the signal that at the end of this song, each man was obliged to invite his partner to the bar for a beer or a Coke.
Rum went round again. The men drank straight from the bottle, but the women, more delicate, daintily filled the screw cap, and then they, too, knocked it straight back. After a short rest and chance to cool down, the band returned to their corner.
Now everyone was dancing; four generations together. Sweethearts pressing close. Grandparents teaching children the basic step. Sisters showing younger brothers the fancy twirls. Parents with infants in arms setting the beat in early before the tykes could even walk. Even the very old, the ancient ones, scarcely able to move, leaned on their canes and shuffled their feet to the one-two beat of the perico ripiao. Here in this place, the people dance their way into life, and then dance their way into the grave. But now the grave was far away, lost in the deepening joy of the dance.
A disturbance at the door broke the spell, and a surge passed through the crowd as dancers gave way before the fat, rich people down from the hill. Don Pedro and Florcita (little flower). Leaders of the community, leaders of the church. They forged through the room like two barges forcing their way into a narrow harbor, and Florcita folded into a chair like a hog in a wallow. Pedro chose to stand. Someone politely asked after his health, and he replied, “Better, but not good.” Pedro, it seems, had a very large boil on his ass. This was important village news. After all, he couldn’t mount his horse and ride out to inspect his land, his cattle, his peons. After a short, obligatory stay, and not deigning to dance, they left and the people sighed in relief as the circle of energy closed again, gathering and holding them in its field.
Dancing. Closer and closer. Hips shifting. Bellies pressing. Thighs thrusting. Music pounding louder, stronger, more demanding. Schoolhouse shaking. Outside world forgotten. Time and space suspended. Fear, pain and sorrow conquered. Only the dance carrying them, carrying them away.
Yet beyond the walls, time still marched. A pickup came to carry the drunken band back to town to play another gig. They settled into the back, and some young men from the village – who wanted to visit dance halls, bars or whore houses – climbed in too. As the driver throttled up the hill, the band played on, and a crowd of laughing, shouting, children ran behind. When the band had gone, the older, more settled folks drifted to their homes to take care of chores, prepare dinner, and put the little ones to bed.
The youth lingered on in the schoolhouse, unwilling to free themselves from the magic. Someone owned a cheap, battery-powered record player, and one scratchy, old merengue record. They put it on, played it over and over and over, and continued to dance. Only the three or four closest couples could actually hear the music, but they picked up the beat and passed it on – sharing it with the others through the strong, one-two scrape of their feet across the concrete floor. The rest could hear only that, but it was enough, and they all moved together in perfect rhythm.
Again their joy soared as the light faded from the evening sky and the cattle egrets flocked to roost. The wind picked up and flung down a cascade of Amapola blossoms that swirled like sparks in the deepening night. Dark clouds piled up in the east, and the first, heavy drops of rain pelted the tin roof, completely drowning out the faint music. But the dancing continued and nobody cared. Nobody cared.
Part II: This, It is My Home
A woodpecker hammering on an old snag across the lake woke me up. 5 a.m. I listened for the whisper of birch leaves in an early breeze. Silence. Pale blue, just showing through dawn’s pearl gray, spoke of a perfect day for wandering in the canoe. I went back to sleep.
A white-throated sparrow calling ‘Poor old Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,’ coaxed me back. I shed the sleeping-bag, glared at the waiting mosquitoes and hunched out of the tent.
Wet fingers wiped the sleep from my eyes. I stuck my nose down the neck of my T-shirt and snorted in pure Funk #5. Woof. Tuesday … at least three more days until a bath, but I could live with it and there was no one else around to offend. Time to get moving.
The food-bag came down from the tree where it was hanging out of bears’ reach. Birch bark, cedar twigs and spruce branches lit a fire under the coffee. By six I was paddling down the lake, mosquitoes left behind on the bank.
A slow steady stroke: forward lean, paddle dipping, push with the upper arm, draw with the pivot. Drag and hook out on the tail of the J to keep the direction true. Slow and easy. Breath flowing in and out as though the universe is using me as its bellows to keep Life’s fires molten.
New forms and beings come into existence and fade again into the morning mist. Plop. A perch rises for a moth then sinks back down out of sight. A squirrel scolds in the spruce trees and flings a cascade of flaming cone-chaff into the slanting sun-stream. And as I slip by their lodge, I can hear the beaver pups inside muttering and gurgling as they belly up to mom for breakfast.
Silently I paddle on down the lake, deeper and deeper into the present … feeling I’ve been here forever.
~ ~ ~
Suddenly, time shifts and I’m twenty years old again. Rising from deep inner water, like a perch for a moth, comes a song from my youth. I haven’t sung in years, and alone for three months on this northern Quebec lake, have spoken only to give myself instructions in a low mutter as I’ve gone about the daily tasks of cooking and tending camp.
Faint and wavering at first, the song fills me, takes me over, and carries me back to California and the Sixties. My rusty cords croak and my heart softens in the warmth and sadness of times and places gone now; gone forever.
. At the break of day when the earth turns warm
. And the night dew lays across the land.
. And the waking birds all greet the dawn
. And a whole new day’s begun.
. And this, it is my home. This is where I want to be.
. On the coast of California, in the Big Sur Country.
. Walk with me through the forest, and hear the pine trees call
. Whispering their tales so beautiful that all mankind should know.
. There’s rivers and there’s streams and they’re flowing,
. Flowing down into the sea,
. Eager to tell all the things they’ve seen in their pools of history.
. And this, it is my home. This is where I want to be.
. On the coast of California, in the Big Sur country.
. Rabbit Mackay
I’d left San Francisco with two friends for a few days camping down on the South Coast. Thumbs waving, pleading, cajoling. A young woman picked us up, carried us down, and camped with us beneath the pines along an icy stream flowing into the sea; she sharing my blanket and love in the night as we sometimes so easily did in those years.
In the morning she left and we stayed to do some LSD. It was a fine trip for me, but Susan nearly set the forest aflame by over-feeding the camp-fire. Then Jeff got a tick on his shoulder, which I tried to remove with the heat of a lit match; a tricky task since his shoulder, along with my hand and the rest of the world, kept dissolving into swirls of color and patterns of energy. By the time the tick had had enough, so had Jeff, and a two inch blister was rising on his shoulder.
The next day we, too, were back up on Highway 1, thumbs slung low, waiting. I on the west side headed south, Jeff and Susan on the east back to San Francisco. A pickup took them from me, and I was alone – standing on the edge of America, wondering where my life would take me. I dreamed of Canada and paddling hidden, northern lakes in the morning stillness.
Then I drifted back into the now, shouldered my pack and started walking. The odd car passed me by, but no one stopped to take me along. The sun was sliding into the ocean when I stopped at a wide spot in the road. Some rattletrap trucks were pulled into the weeds, and down below I could see two weathered houses perched on a rock ledge 200 feet above the sea. As though waiting for a giant moth (with God’s eyes for wings) to swoop down from the Santa Lucia Mountains and carry them fluttering out across the heaving swells until they vanished into the void. Two shacks squatting there; silent and waiting.
I squatted beside the road; silent and waiting. Evening brought fog and hunger and fear, but no cars at all.
A sighing, hollow cry wracked the silence and a world died in me. I heard gravel crunch, mesquite brush rasp. A young woman drifted up from below. No, not a young woman, but pain and sorrow clothed in a girl’s body. I asked if I could help – a stranger’s ear being the wanderer’s therapist. She murmured, “No. Thank you.” And she faded into the dusk like the shadow of a moth.
Later I learned she was from the desert, down Saline Valley way, somewhere east of Lone Pine. Her folks had hid away out there on an old dirt road going to nowhere. They’d been young and in love when he was called away to Korea. She waited, but he never came home – not all of him. Part of his heart and mind died in the East, and so, like others, he needed space to suffer and, perhaps, to heal. She went with him and worked now and then at a truck-stop on highway 395 south of Independence to get what his pension couldn’t cover. The daughter grew up with the tumbleweeds, Joshua trees and wind. And she didn’t know the world that waited down 395.
But the wounds didn’t heal and the suffering got worse, until when she was 15 her father took his shotgun into the hills to hunt rabbits and didn’t return. Her mother hung on for a while, but like a tired and torn screen door banging in the desert wind without a latch, she sagged; first down onto one hinge, and then let go and collapsed onto the warped porch floor. At 16 the girl was on her own and soon vanished into the streets of L.A.
She reappeared from below Highway 1, and as she climbed into a rusted Dodge van said, “Go on down. Tell them you’re the hitch-hiker. They know who you are. You’ll be welcome.”
There was a light in one of the shacks. Shadows drifted in pools cast from coal-oil lamps. I knocked. The door opened to a stranger standing there. I said I was the hitch-hiker.
A storm was building over the sea; thunderheads roiling the sky and wind beating the flank of the Santa Lucia. New Year’s Eve. A time for gathering together. Night fell bringing rain and neighbors. They came alone and in groups, carrying wine or grass or mushrooms or peyote. They brought drums and flutes and guitars. They brought their dogs. In they drifted as the night settled deeper into itself.
The storm closed in. Rain hammered on the corrugated roof. The wind passed beyond reason, rattled the windows, and shrieked up the canyon. Two hundred feet below, the surf raged against the base of the cliffs, shaking the roots of the mountain and our shack with them. We hunkered down, dogs dozing here and there, each of us finding a dry spot between the drips from the roof.
The drumming began and picked up the pulse of the storm. Base conga setting the deep beat, tenor bongos sliding in and out. The flutes joined in, and the guitars laid down a steady three-chord background drone. Slowly the rhythms built and gathered energy. They pulled us with them, synching us with the rain on the roof, the window rattling wind, and the crashing surf below. All of us hooked up together and rising out toward the beyond.
Until … the dogs could stand no more. And as if an electric spark had touched them all off together, they started to howl and fight. Chaos, as dogs and people, all tangled in a heap, snarled and cursed at each other. The dogs got thrown out into the storm.
Later, more neighbors arrived, and the dogs looked so bedraggled and forlorn they were let back inside. Again the drums, flutes and guitars hooked us together with the rain and thunder, wind and raging surf. All of creation riding the same wild surge of energy.
Until … the dogs went berserk again, got thrown back out into the storm, and the turning wheel carried us forward down the roads of our lives and into the future.
~ ~ ~
Between two paddle strokes time shifts and carries me back. And now forty years later I’m in Canada, drug-free and drifting down a silent northern lake. This is where Life has carried me as it flows through me and uses my breath to feed the fire of itself within. Ahead, a circle of ripples reminds me that I’ve always been and always will be, exactly where I am.