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WARRIOR - The Musical


                                   by Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier

    In my next life, I will be a man.  One who runs before the bulls.  In the narrow streets.  Of Pamplona.  No!  I will be a man who does not run.  I will stand in a broad arena and hold a sword, and with my cape dazzle the bull.  After long minutes of turning and study, the bull and I will have a moment to consider.  Then, I will thrust the sword into that part of his body that yields, the flesh just between the shoulders. The tip of the sword will slip straight through to the heart.  The beast, on its knees, will make a bow and die quickly.  
    Hemingway said that a bull learns more in fifteen minutes than most men learn in a life time.  Hemingway took a gun and put it in his mouth.  When he pulled the trigger, what filled his brain? What hit the wall, the ceiling?  What had he learned in his life time?      
There was a real man.  In my life time.  I actually met him.  In Las Vegas.  I had gone to see him fight.  I’d gone there with my (married) professor of Myth and Magical Thinking in World Literature.  I fell in love with the professor first semester of my freshman year, and, of course, he noticed me.  I have a strong intellect, and that is something he genuinely admired.  I also have big brown eyes and, at that time, blood filled cheeks and line-free lips.  My nose is perhaps a little too large but it’s on a scale with my eyes and my intellect.  In spite of all my attributes, it was not until the second semester that I managed to find my way into his heart.  I knew it would have to be through his mind, but he was so subtle it took me all those months to become aware of his intellectual weakness.  That’s what I would attack.
The professor lauded the strength of all the male characters we studied, but he found that same quality sinister in the female characters.  Mothers and virgins were fine.  But a formidable independent figure, even if a deity, someone like Kali, for example, who hunted and destroyed egos…someone like that, he spoke of with disdain.
I wrote a paper that I knew would get his goat.  He would give it more than faint praise, but he’d want to point out some basic problem with my research or my reasoning.  I need not describe the paper as the gist of it was in the title:  “Mother Earth and Tangled Tresses - Feminine Sources of Strength for Antaeus and Samson.”  
“Here’s your paper, young lady” he said, looking appreciatively into my eyes as he  held my paper out to me.  Just as I reached for it, he pulled it back, close to his chest, pretending to have had a spur of the moment idea:  “If you have a little time after class, I’d like to talk to you a little about the thesis you’ve put forward.”  My thesis indeed. 
We ended up in his office where he explained the problems of my paper to me in language so pedantic and esoteric and lacking in punctuation (in its delivery) that I really couldn’t make any clear rebuttals.  I simply knew I was being unfairly attacked and deeply desired at the same time.
    “The male,” he explained “throughout history has not been animated by the anima but by the desire to overpower the animus as Father or to protect the animus as son.” He went on, naming hero after hero and strength after strength.  “None of it,” he pointed out more than once, “had anything to do with anything feminine like ‘mothers or hairdos.’” 
    It had to be a man-to-man thing.  “It continues today in only a few sports.  Boxing, for example.”  He now took on the relaxed smugness of the insider, part of a very hairy tribe:  “We say some punches knock you out, but the important ones are the punches that knock you to.”  I liked that idea, and, in spite of his posturing and pedantry, I genuinely admired him.  Besides having fallen in love with him.  He could see all that, and he was pleased to learn that I did, in fact, like boxing and other non-team sports.  One on one.  That’s what appealed to us.
When he took me to the fight, we had to be discreet, not only because he was married but because he was a little embarrassed that he liked boxing, and he had the absurd idea that he was well known.  Someone might see him ring-side, take his photo and put it in the tabloids.  He taught Literature for goodness sake, and he was not a writer like Faulkner or Hemingway.  He wrote articles for obscure journals that universities subscribed to and hardly anybody read.  I read his articles.  I was fascinated really by everything he wrote and by his lectures.  So were a lot of students, but news he wasn’t.
He could find ways to explain his love of boxing or the competitive or even violent things that spoke to his primal needs; he loathed, within himself, any demands beyond (or below) those of the intellect.  He was conflicted about sex. Something like that. I didn’t really understand him.  I was obsessed with him and rather suspect it was some primal need of my own that kept me going after him.  I think I wanted to kill him, or at least break his will.  Whatever it was, I called it love.
The prize fighter.  Though he could dodge blows and fake out his opponent with his fancy foot work, he was a man who did not run, who stood and faced whoever and whatever opposed him.
When I was in Spain the first time, I was very young, and I’d gone to the plaza de toros every day for at least a month. I was enamored with the grace and style and courage of the matador.  But this fighter’s courage, his style, his grace--his footwork alone---was more dazzling than any whirls or swirls of a matador’s cape, and the outcome was far less predictable. 
 I admired the fighter for many reasons, the greatest of which was that he was not afraid to fight yet he would not fight in the war.  He was punished for his stand, for his integrity.  They took his heavyweight title away from him.  He was not defeated, though, and he won it back, and they had to let him have it.  I wonder if I’d have been as gallant as he.  I’m sometimes so mean-spirited that I might have burned that big belt they gave him or thrown it into the ocean or thrown the boxing commissioners into the ocean.  He couldn’t be bothered.  He startled people with his rapid-fire pre-rap poetry and in-your-face challenges, but he was clearly a champion, the champion we all saw float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.  
     I believe he won the heavyweight championship the first time because of his strong mind; he had, as my students would say, “psyched out” his opponent. His opponent was a thug, but thugs--I have observed in the classroom and elsewhere--are afraid of psychos, and that young fighter scared the thug, truly psyched him out, well before their encounter in the ring.  
I met him the night he defeated that strange guy who dressed up in disguises and, now and then, was arrested for drunk driving and odd misdemeanors.  My married man had gained entry for us to the reception for the fighter that night.  We had not sat together at the large table where he and his friends gathered for dinner.  All of us pretended I was not with him.  After dinner we did not stand in line together to shake the champion’s hand, and when it was my turn, the fighter apologized because he couldn’t oblige me with a handshake.  I was young and flirtatious and a little out of control over this married man; maybe I was also a little drunk, so I said, “Why can’t you shake my hand?  What have you been doing tonight?”    
He smiled his mischievous smile, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Beating up little boys.”  He has a space between his teeth that I don’t think I quite appreciated before this meeting.  I bet he never had braces.  Made me feel as though he had some extra sort of freedom represented there.  “Beating up little boys,” he repeated, tickled I think with what he was saying.    I was tickled too.  It was a great moment in my life and one that contributed to that tiny but fulsome seed within me that said I could be a champion, a winner, at something.  Make a name for myself.  I could have power, not mere brute strength but power like this man’s.  
 They say about this particular man that two nights before a fight he’d get a certain member of his entourage to cuddle him just the way a mother would.  He’d get someone he trusted, a man, to hold him through the night while he slept.  The next night and then the following day, the day of the fight, no one could so much as touch him…till he got into the ring.  That cuddling, though, told me that he had learned something about his sources of strength, and at least one of them was clearly anima in nature.  
That’s what I think, but what do I know.  I am a woman who has not risked much since I risked fighting for the married man.  This was my main event.   It left me on the mat.  
Now and then, as with the professor, I tried again to know them in the flesh, to lift myself up high enough to receive a blow that might knock me to, but it simply didn’t’ happen.  The men were not gallant like that young fighter had been. They did not truly engage.  They presented, performed, and then went quietly into a newspaper or a television or back to their wives.  Or to other women, women who would not mind it that they were not cherished.  There was sex.  It could be called nothing else.  Men taking care of a physical need.  Sometimes running their hands through your hair.  Sometimes saying practiced words.  The professor told me that I kissed by the book, a line from Romeo and Juliet.  I thought then that he meant I did it well.  Now I think he meant I was unnatural, all form, no fire.  Maybe, but what did I know?  I was a girl.  I wanted to be respected and then shown how to make love, how to make sex an expression of love.
I learned, a little, how to relieve a man of the terrible pressure that builds up in him.  Sometimes I did it out of kindness, sometimes because it was easier than arguing, sometimes because I thought this time it would be different.
    A girl on assignment for our on-line high school paper interviewed me, her digital camera in hand.  The occasion was my retirement.  It was a little more news-worthy than most retirements because I was so young, only 46, and it seemed a wonder to some that anyone would want to stop teaching before they’d earned full retirement benefits.  I should drop dead at the blackboard, I supposed. 
    I had been a high school teacher for twenty-five years and was inured to the cheekiness of teenagers and practiced in responding quickly and aptly to anything they might say.  Usually, I knew how to protect myself.  However, perhaps because of the camera or because of the freedom I was anticipating, I felt as if I were in a foreign land, talking to a stranger, the kind you tell your secrets to because you know you’ll never see him again.  Whatever the reason, I dropped my guard.  When the girl’s question came, I answered honestly.
    “What,” she asked, “is the one thing you did not do in your life that you regret?”
    “I did not run before the bulls in Pamplona.”  I heard my words and felt the racing of my heart.  I hoped I was not blushing.
She heard my words clearly but could not make sense of them.  I’m sure she could not imagine me running at all, much less in front of bulls, much less somewhere that was possibly beyond our beloved campus.  The teacher in me, the kinder aspect of the teacher in me, rushed in  to rescue the student from her from her predicament:  “My parents had given me a round trip ticket to Madrid as a graduation present.  I’d done very well in college and I was going on to do my doctorate, but something happened in Pamplona--that’s a city in Spain, north of Madrid--that changed all that.”  Nothing I’d said had 
made things easier for her.  She was still dumbstruck, so I dutifully turned to the camera and asked, “What was it?”  Dutifully I answered, “My failure to run before the bulls.”  (By this time, I had caught up with myself and would reveal no more, but I clearly saw in my mind’s eye the Dear Jane letter that I’d held in my hands just after I failed to run before the bulls.  The letter from the married man.  I certainly wasn’t going to say anything about that.)
The girl was still frozen.  I had already said more than enough.  I waited.  Finally, she stirred and without segue moved on to other subjects, the ones I call “my favorite colors.”  We were both happy with that and stayed safely in that zone to the end of the interview.  
When the interview was over, my heart began to race, again.  I could not help but recall how confident I was when I arrived in Spain, sure of myself and sure of the professor .   He had been weakening (or as he would put it “getting stronger”),  had even moved out of his house, but had not yet found the courage to take the last step.  I would give him time.    I was much younger, prettier, and, from what I’d heard, much smarter than his wife.  What could he want with her?  Perhaps she was kind, patient, generous.  Well I could be all those things, too, and this trip to Spain was the perfect time for me to reveal those noble qualities.  He would realize how much I meant to him. 
After the interview with the high school student, I went home and called a travel agent.  I told her I wanted to go to Spain, explaining that I’d been there before and wanted to see new places, have an almost entirely new experience.  She told me about a motor coach tour of Spain and Morocco.  North Africa!  I would go to Madrid, where I’d been before, but then I’d see the Al Hambra in Granada and flamenco dancers in Seville and, beyond anything I’d have thought to ask for, I would go to North Africa, to Morocco and I would…what?  I didn’t know, but I knew I would see or do something extraordinary.  And then I remembered my paper about Antaeus and Samson and, of course, the professor.  Somewhere in North Africa--Tangiers I think--Paul Bowles started his literary magazine.  It was called Antaeus.  
My professor had asked me to continue our after-class conversation in his office for the ostensible purpose of showing me the magazine.  And I was impressed.  The copy was autographed by Bowles himself.  The professor had been in North Africa many years before.  He had thought of staying there, being part of the growing expatriate group of writers and artists who were living there.  “I couldn’t leave the university, though.  I was on a tenure track, and I was married.  Had to step up.  Be a man.  Act responsibly.”  I didn’t understand his decision until much later.  He was a coward.  
MADRID:  I didn’t feel compelled to do much in Madrid, except to revisit some of the places I had discovered as a youth.  The highlight then had been the Prado, and I remembered thinking that I would need months to take it all in.  You could wander the place endlessly and see things you never saw before or had briefly glimpsed in passing as you rushed on to whatever exhibit it was you thought would really enchant you.  And there were always new ones.  But the Masters, one could never go wrong re-visiting them.
Why had I never before seen, not even in a book, the grotesque painting of Saturn Devouring his Child?   I’d read that Goya had been very affected by the prospect of death during his last years on earth.  What better time, I suppose, but why?  There was no percentage in dwelling on the inevitable; in fact, you’d only be encouraging it.  (That’s really the only crime of any murderer, isn’t it?)  Why die constantly?  Why not live?  
Well, I was a fine one to talk.  Don Quixote said, “Hasta la muerte, todo es vida.”  I had not lived as if all is life until it is death. I had begun to suspect that I was just killing time. (Thoreau said that killing time was an affront to Eternity.)
The painting was here the first time I came to the Prado, but I didn’t pay it much attention.  Now I could hardly move away from it.  A gnawing fear of death?  It was simply too literal.  It would have embarrassed me, made me laugh.  Maybe it helped assuage his fears.  But why Saturn eating a child, his own child?    
I’ve never had children of my own.  Just my students.  There were many occasions, though, when I encountered parents who devoured their children, especially mothers, who nibbled away while they kissed and patted and whispered fear into their children, especially the girls, “for their own good.”
I shrugged and moved on to a more sublime bit of butchery:  David Victorious over Goliath.  One of Goliath’s fists is off to the right of David’s slender leg, the fist curled like a pickled ham hock.  Goliath’s forehead reveals the crevasse where the stone cracked into his flesh. His brow is furrowed, his eyes half closed, his mouth open, an expression of surprise and understanding.  Another moment of consciousness and he might have laughed. Caravaggio’s David is very calm, going about the business of severing Goliath’s head from his body as if he were carving any piece of meat for a family dinner.  There is a balance and normalcy in the painting accomplished by what is spotlighted and what is obscured, but it is also the matter of factness in David’s demeanor that makes the whole thing seem like nothing out of the ordinary is going on.  What he was doing, and especially the way he was doing it, was more grotesque to me than Saturn eating his child.  I shuddered and moved on.
I don’t remember much more about the Prado, even less about Madrid.  The tour had us rushing from here to there, filling us with facts, never yielding an experience of the people we saw beyond the windows of the motor coach, not enough time to feel the place, to dwell or reflect or even form an intelligent question about the history or politics of a place.  Maybe these things can’t happen on demand. The rush put me out of sorts.      
AVILA:  All out of balance was the chapel of St. Teresa in Avila.  I was irritated by the ostentatious show of gold around the statue of this modest saint.  I am not a religious person, but I do feel a certain respect for the dead, and she was a reformer of the opulent life style the clergy had adopted.  She didn’t even wear shoes or allow her Carmelites to wear shoes.  She must shiver with outrage or tremble with shame as she lies, I assume shoeless, in her coffin.  (Or had they put high heels on her by now?)  I recalled a photo I’d seen in a book of religious sculptures. St. Teresa was swooning.  An Angel had pierced her with a spear.  It was a depiction of one of her great ecstatic moments with God which she described as a great pain and a great sweetness, a caress.
I believe St. John of the Cross was her…cohort?  lover?  Did they share ecstasies?  Body and soul?  Soul only?  Intellects, most certainly. They were both reformers, worked together in what they must have felt was an urgent and great cause.  How did they discover each other?  He wrote The Dark Night of the Soul.  I read it when I was in college.  Seems to me he was put away in a tiny dark cell for years and years where he created and memorized his poems, where he made even stronger his connection, one to one, straight to the Divine.  Maybe before that, before they became the scourge of the church, maybe before that they were lovers.  I felt tears in my throat as I considered the two and the possibility of their union with each other and with God.  Could they not have found God through each other?  A triangle is so much stronger, so much more elegant, than a single line from one point to another.  The Hindus know something about that.  About reaching the Divine through sexual energy.    
As I remember it, the Inquisition almost put an end to Teresa, but someone, a King I think, intervened.  I love the thought that it took great mounds of money and power to keep her in poverty.  
I think it doesn’t bother most religious people that there is no homage paid here in her chapel in Avila to her belief in poverty as a path to God.  They no doubt like her biography but don’t give a fig about her message…unless they can twist it into a punishment of some sort.  They’re all for that.  Well, lots of teachers are that way, too, and I understood it very well at times myself.
On those days, when the longing in you for the students to actually learn something is nearly unbearable, you can almost bet that they will show up not having done their homework, so they’ll be busy consulting with each other over the answers to questions they don’t quite understand because they now don’t have time to read them properly, to think, to reflect.  It’s a low hum, a drone, and the teacher knows, immediately, what’s transpiring.  It’s disheartening.    On those days you understand the desire to eat the young or to resort to violence if it will penetrate their brains.
Does the gold surrounding St. Teresa somehow inspire the religious?  Strengthen their faith?  Does it create religious ecstasy in their souls?  In their bodies and in their souls?  What would living modestly, if not in poverty, do for them?  Anything?  I would think about this chapel again when I encountered the beggars in Seville.      
I left the Chapel of St. Teresa still troubled by gold.  I don’t remember much about the rest of the city.  We were only there for an afternoon.  
PAMPLONA:  About the bulls.  I’ll tell you now.  
I had arrived in the city feeling very free and ready for anything. The night before the running of the bulls, my spirit of adventure was slightly inflated by the spirit of the grape.   We--the other young people and I who had come to experience the Hemingway heart of Spain--had all had a little too much to drink, and we eagerly made our mead-hall promises to run before the bulls the next day. 
In the morning, though, I woke up with a bit of a hangover.  It got considerably worse as I sat in the stands remembering my promise.  I looked across at the balconies full of young men readying themselves.  My temples began to throb, and I could feel panic numbing the back of my head.  My mouth was cotton, and my legs would hardly support me as I took a few slow steps down the stairs and then over to the group of men at the balustrade.  They did not easily make room for me to find a place for my hands on the railing. Once I did manage to curl my fingers around the rail, my hands were frozen to it.   I did not belong here, not just because I was a woman but because I was terrified of what I was about to do.  They might have been terrified, too, but they were laughing and singing and hitting each other with soft fists of affection.  I would not have been able to say a word or do anything in the least convivial even if they’d wanted me to.
Then came the moment.  There was no mistaking it.  I heard the yells coming from the top of the street.  Then I heard the hooves and understood in the weakness of my legs and the rigidity of my arms what panic actually feels like.  Death was thundering down the street toward me.  They were here, now.  One more second.  I bent my knees and my legs nearly collapsed, but I kept them there, trembling, readying myself to leap…when I heard someone yell from the street, “Atencion.”  It was a Spanish policeman yelling and he was yelling as me.  His arm was lifted high and he was wagging his finger at me.  “Atencion,” he said.  “mujeres, no!”
“Mujeres, no?” I cried in indignation.  “Porque no?”                       
I don’t know what his answer was, and it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that I would not have to--actually wasn’t allowed to--jump.  I turned on my heel, my body suddenly strong and sure,  and        I mumbled a convincing outrage as I climbed up the stairs to my seat.             I looked back down to the balustrade.  All the men had jumped.  They did it.  I sat down trying to not feel grateful, trying to avoid the truth, but it came:  I was not brave.  I was nothing.  I was nothing but a woman.
       When I got back to the pension, I saw there was a letter waiting for me.  It was from the professor.  Someone had picked up my mail from American Express.  Salvation, I thought, tearing the letter out of the envelope.  
    “My dearest,” he wrote, “I have decided, for the sake of my career, to attempt reconciliation with my wife.  I do not regret a moment spent with you.  I will always care for you, and hope this is not a blow, but if it is I hope you find the strength--the animus within you--to understand and to recover quickly from any hurt I may be causing you.  Hope you have a wonderful time in Spain.”  Animus!  He had the nerve to use my own argument against me, to use Latin even while he broke my heart, to use his career as an excuse to dump me.  Nobody cared about his marital status any more than they cared about his going to Las Vegas.  Oh, I went into a rage, all right, and I was using nice short descriptive Anglo-Saxons words.  It wasn’t long, though, before I realized it was not the professor I was yelling at.  I was the one, even less than a mere inferior being in a world of men.  I was the coward. 
    By the next morning something leaden had fallen into my broken heart and it stayed there all this time…until my last night in Marrakesh.  
    SEVILLE:   The beggars sat just outside the Cathedral at the Door of Forgiveness. They sat very still on the frozen ground, frozen themselves, sitting as still as the statues looking down on them.  As I approached the door, they extended their hands, open and outstretched, palms up.  It was then the gold from St. Teresa’s Chapel came flashing back to me.  These beggars weren’t asking for gold, and I had a great urge to put something into their hands, yet I could not bring myself to give them money.  What then? 
    I had passed through a great grove of orange trees before I encountered the beggars.  Now I returned to it, not sure what to do or what was bothering me.  I sat down on a bench and read a little more about the Cathedral.  There was a sentence or two about the orange trees.  No one picks the fruit because it’s too sour, not fit for eating.  They are merely decorative.  But, I asked myself, wouldn’t I eat a sour orange if I were truly hungry? Maybe the beggars weren’t hungry enough.  Maybe they had rent to pay.  Troubled by gold.  Troubled by oranges?  I plucked an orange from a tree, peeled it and ate it.  It tasted fine to me.
I continued to read.  The city itself is 2700 years old.    Centuries passed with first one group and then another taking control and maintaining control over whoever had been there before them.  This is mine, the conquerors said, time after time, with each new wave.  It started with the Tartessians.  Then came the Carthaginians, the Vandals, the Swabians, the Visigoths and then the Arabs in the 8th Century.  The last group, the Christians, came in the 13th Century and is still here.  
They are still in the United States of America.  We aren’t even an embryo among these ancient fathers and mothers of civilizations.  How is it we have managed to take over so quickly?  (I thought of Saturn, and for a split-second I understood why he devoured his child…before the child devoured him.  And Goliath.  He had to be brought down.  He was too big and powerful.  Was that what they thought they were doing when they crashed the planes into the World Trade Center?  So much fear in men.  At least as much as there is in women.  No one is immune.)
My experience of Seville was all there in that Orange grove outside of the Cathedral.  If it weren’t for the beggars, I might not have remembered this much. Tours are something like cattle drives.
MORROCO:  My luggage was lost between Seville and Marrakesh.  They located it in London, but they would not attempt to get it to me until I was back in Madrid.  This was a big turn of events for me as I’d hidden some money in the secret pocket of my suitcase.  Our guide in Seville had suggested we split our money up and put it here and there so that if our wallet was stolen, for example, we’d still have some money somewhere else.  Well, now I had just half the money I’d thought I’d have.  I did have a credit card, but I used it only for real emergencies.  Anyway, I soon found myself actually enjoying the situation, taking it as a challenge.  I bought odd things at little shops in the day and a half we’d already spent in Morocco, clothing I’d never have dreamed of wearing before. I was looking forward to finding something really extraordinary the next day in the Old City.
A tour bus stopped by the hotel to take us to the Medina.  We had a new guide for this portion of our trip.  An attractive man.  Our first stop was just outside the old walls which I hardly noticed as I was so enthralled by the huge birds sitting on top of the walls and on the rooftops of nearby houses.  The birds looked like pelicans except that their beaks were shorter, sharper, and more pointed.  
“Those birds you see” our guide was speaking to us, “are storks.  They used to visit us only two or three months of the year, but lately large numbers of them stay year-round.  The ones that do leave return to the same nests the next year.  They are attached to Marrakesh.  Who could blame them?”  He smiled, a really disarming smile, and looked at me.  “In Ancient Egypt these storks were associated with the human soul, the ba, the unique character of each human being.” 
I surprised myself by responding to this stranger (and in front of all the strangers around us) in a somewhat flippant way:  “I’m sure you know that we believe storks bring babies to us. In Sweden they say the number of babies born is highest when storks return.”
He liked that.  “No other cause?”
I liked that.  “None.”
There were six of us on his walking tour, and just after he’d assembled us, in the square, the guide warned us not to lose sight of him once we went into the Medina.  He joked about the tourists in the souks who, last year, strayed off and had not been heard of since.  It did seem entirely possible that without a guide I would never find my way out.  Maybe I’d even be kidnapped.  A ridiculous thought.  But that world was exotic, something apart from any experience I’d known.  It was not rife with history. It was history.  It was a thousand years ago.  No ransom could reach anyone here.
I liked the guide’s way of speaking, gesticulating, catching the eye of one, the ear of another, accustomed to being paid attention to and enjoying it; aware, I think, of the effect his smile had on all of us.
The square just inside the walls was full of people, hundreds, maybe thousands.  One part of it was devoted to performers:  acrobats, snake charmers, people with trained monkeys, though there seemed to be a lot of wild monkeys racing around as well.  There were dancers and singers and musicians, but it all seemed hokey to me.  Meant only for tourists.  We could have been learning the hula.  
There was one group of men who did interest me:  the water sellers.  They carried large leather pouches of water slung over their shoulders.  Their costumes were from some distant century.  Their hats looked like sombreros, brightly multi-colored and with tassels.  The men met in twos and threes for a few minutes, but would suddenly take off in different directions at a rapid pace, and people had to catch up with them and make them stop so they could buy some water.  It tickled me.  Reminded me of kids running after an ice cream truck.
 “Would you like some water?”  I turned and saw it was the tour guide.   I smiled and shook my head and looked back into the square, away from his penetrating brown eyes and his quick smile.  He bore a really strong resemblance to the prize fighter.  He had a space between his teeth like his, and he had that same mischief in his eyes and the same smile around his eyes, and the North African robe he wore had a hood on it very much like something a boxer would wear.  The color of his robe was fitting, too.  It was purple, the color of royalty.  Of someone great.  The greatest.
He repeated, “I’d be happy to get your some water.  Introduce you to one of the water sellers.”
“No.  No, thank you.  Their hats, the tassels.  It’s all so historic, so enduring, your culture.  I see it in the water sellers.  It’s so strange to me. So interesting.”
“More interesting than the snakes and the monkeys and the acrobats?”
“Funny, but, yes, to me they are.”
“You are funny to me,” he said.  “Strange and interesting.”
I didn’t know what to say.  I might have blushed, but I’m not sure.  I was sure that I needed to distance myself from the guide for a few minutes.
“I’ll be right back,” I said as I turned and walked a few steps over to a shop that sold jewelry and small mirrors and some odd things I wasn’t sure of.  I feigned great interest in the shop’s contents, and that attention brought something peculiar to my sight.  It was a flat piece of bright metal shaped like a hand, and it had a turquoise eye in the middle of it.  I’d seen something like this on Buddhas, I thought, but these were different, not connected to anything.  Just these flat hands hanging like pictures on a wall.  
A woman wearing a head scarf and a small black veil across her face took one of the hands and placed it in mine.  It was cold and sharp.  Then she gave me a piece of paper that had been cut out of a book.  It said something to this effect:  In some countries along the Mediterranean there are apotropaic phalluses, sculptures or drawings, and something like apotropaic hands, suggesting perhaps a vulva, hammered out of silver or copper or tin.  These are meant to protect you from the evil eye.  However, the vulva, it is thought, as a symbol of female power, is a dangerous and threatening thing, so it is stylized into a hand.
And I thought:  Why fear the vulva?  If there is an organ to fear, one full of raging needs and violent demands, is it not the phallus?  Is it not a dangerous and threatening thing?  I handed the paper and the metal piece back to the woman and thanked her.  I wanted to buy it, actually, but I didn’t understand the money yet, how it compared to dollars, and I also didn’t have much of it, and I really didn’t understand why I’d want a thing like that.  I turned back around, empty handed, and joined my group.
The streets that ran through the souks were too narrow for even the smallest of cars; donkeys, the guide told us, were the primary means of transporting things.  Salespeople and tradesmen perched themselves along the winding alleyways, and some beckoned through a doorway or a low arch that looked like it might lead to another set of alleyways or to a harem or a rabbit hole.  The noise and smell of the place pressed us all very close to each other in the dim light that gathered beneath awnings and plastic tarps that stretched across from one side of the walkway to the other, creating a canopy overhead.
What gave me the courage to enter that world, I do not know, because even the donkeys as they pushed their way past me, frightened me.  Possibly it was the way they took up space, assumed it.   I could be slammed against a wall, crushed, if I didn’t move as soon as I heard the donkey masters call, “Atencion.”  Quickly, though, I was able to accept the danger, the smells, the cats everywhere, all the live and dead animals.  I understood that I was a stranger here, and I decided to learn as much as I could.
The colors of the spices, piled in pyramids, were the same as the colors of the carpets displayed on the walls.  Turmeric, saffron, anise.  Ochre, red, black.  I bought a long skirt and light sweater.  They had all three colors in them.  The guide, I felt his eyes on me, approached.  He had a pair of earrings in his hand.
“These will look nice with your sweater, I think.”  He held out his hand.  His palm was very pink, as if his hand were blushing.  The earrings were gorgeous, exotic for me, very colorful. Yellow amber and turquoise.   I took the earrings out of his hand as deftly as I could without touching his flesh.  I’m sure he could see how deliberately I was avoiding that touch.
I put the earrings on and looked at myself in the mirror.  I did not look like a school teacher.  I was alive, vibrant, a little wild-looking.  The shopkeeper told me the price in English but my uncertainty about the dirham and euros I held in my hand made me hesitate.
“May I?” the guide asked.
“Oh, yes.  Thank you.”  I stuttered part of that reply, but I held my hand out to him and he showed no compunction at all about touching my hand, moving the coins around so that his finger marked my flesh and told me things I already knew but did 
not want to acknowledge.  It seemed he was having fun with my discomfort, and I was about to say something when he quickly gathered up a few coins and handed them to the shop keeper.  “There,” he smiled, “they look wonderful on you.  Beautiful.”  And I felt beautiful.  I felt desirable.  I felt desired.  
We turned into a leather shop.  Shoes that were long in the toes and pointy, handbags and belts.  Again the colors, the dyes coming from earth or bark or flower or fruit.  The shoes were comfortable.  I bought  a pair the color of the Medina walls, red ochre. Then I went up the stairs to the second floor where there were jackets and coats and boots.  I soon realized that I had been trying to ignore an exceedingly unpleasant smell which grew stronger once I acknowledged it.  I felt uneasy and decided to go up to the top floor and join my group.  
I spotted them standing in a doorway to a balcony.  I walked over and stepped past them out to where there was more room to stand, but then I saw the reason they had kept to the doorway and the wall.  The stench was nearly unbearable, but the shock was how high up we were and how steep and immediate the drop off was into what felt like a monstrous well or a quarry.  I felt a little dizzy and tried to anchor myself against the railing.  I felt it move.  I looked down again, more closely, and saw that it was not a quarry, not rocks being carved but animals.  Animal skins being cleaned and rinsed and dyed.   The men, almost all of them showing blue or dark red flesh from their faces to their legs, had their feet and ankles planted in the blood or dyes or rinses--I couldn’t know what they were standing in.  Some of them looked up and, I thought, gave us looks of defiance, looks that said “Don’t be so surprised.  Where do you think leather comes from?”  And the immense area the quarry occupied here  amidst all the cramped quarters we’d just filed through--that too was a shock.  It felt as though the pools of colored liquids,  twenty or thirty of them, had somehow pushed the rest of the Medina back into the tiny areas, the cramped souks and crowded passageways.  Everything had given way to this carnage.  
I tried to steady myself by closing my eyes and turning my head up.  I felt a breeze, faint but cooling.  I looked at the blue sky and breathed out and then in.  Without looking down, I turned and took the two or three steps that  led me back into the building, away from the height, from the smell, from the sight.  I covered my nose with my hand and made my way back down to the first floor.  I found the entrance door and braced myself there, trying to lose myself in the comings and goings of the people, the busy foot traffic, the understanding that I was here, in Marrakesh, Morocco, North Africa, Earth.
“Madam?”  It was the guide.
“I’m sorry.  I was suddenly…”
“Do not worry.  Sometimes young women are affected by the tanning.” He smiled.
The space between his teeth. 
    I smiled as best I could., a little embarrassed by my reaction to what I’d seen.
    “Our next stop will be very pleasant.”
    I offered another weak smile.
     “Do you like mint tea?”
    I nodded, hoping it might settle my nerves.
     “Good.  We will drink tea and view carpets.  You will find it relaxing.  The shop is beautiful.  Years ago it was the home of royalty.  That was when wealthy people lived in the Medina.”  He leaned forward and whispered into my ear, “If you find a carpet that appeals to you, do not pay more than sixty percent of the first price he gives you.” 
    “I have no need for a carpet.”  I said, aware of his breath on the side of my face, on my ear.
    He smiled.  I felt reassured, ready for something pleasant.
    The shop was beautiful.  We entered through a low doorway that opened to a two or three story home.  The central area had a small tiled fountain with several tiers that let the water cascade, making a soft soothing sound like a brook rushing over rocks.  It soothed the remaining disturbance in my mind. 
    We were seated in low wooden chairs with finely woven cushions.  All around and above us were balconies with carved windows. The guide gave us a short talk on Berber carpets and the processes involved in making them.  I was far too interested in him to listen to the carpet lecture, but I tuned in again when he explained the odd windows that were partially covered on the second story balconies.  In days gone by, young women stood at these windows and viewed the young men gathered at the central fountain for the express purpose of showing themselves.  The windows were partially covered, latticed, so that the women could not really be seen.  The men knew of course that the women were there. It struck me a little funny, sort of like a beauty contest with the men being the beauties and the women being anonymous judges. It seemed ultra modern, liberated.  Did the women then choose the men they wished to wed?  What could it have meant in their society that the women viewed the men?  That men stood around talking to each other as if they were not being looked over…like what?  like cattle?  like the hides?  like the shoes themselves?  
    Two young men came down a stairway, carrying carpets that they stacked up against a wall that already had dozens of carpets stacked and piled and laid against or in front of it.  Another young man poured more mint tea into our glasses while we learned even more about the carpets, this time from the shopkeeper.  The most expensive carpets were woven, knotted and embroidered.  We started, however, with the carpets that were simply woven.  I liked them, but it was the two process carpets--woven and embroidered--that brought out a completely new feeling in me.  I would have to call it unbridled greed.  I wanted that carpet. The design was simple, geometric shapes.  The carpet was filled, top to bottom, with triangles going sometimes vertically and sometimes horizontally in varying heights and widths and colors.  It was basically red, a color I’d always before found too showy.  It also had lots of that dark yellow that should have not have been called ochre; it should have had a name more like musk., like the smell of a skunk 100 yards away; or mustard, something that burns the nostrils and sends subtle pains up to the top of one’s head.
    “Only one thousand dollars for this beautiful tribal carpet.  As you can guess, this two process work takes many months to weave and then many weeks to embroider.  I will give it to you.  Only one thousand.”
    “It’s nice,” I said, trying to be nonchalant, but it’s far too much.”  I turned away.  “More tea,” I demanded of the young men standing near me, and my eyes returned not to the carpet I wanted but to the three-process carpets, to colors and designs that were merely pretty.   
    “Your tea, Madam.”  The voice.  I turned.  It was not the young man but the guide who was holding the carafe full of tea.  He smiled of course and looked into my eyes for just a moment before he poured the tea into my cup. I smiled and noted my hand was steady though my heart was beating rapidly.  I snapped my eyes back to the pretty carpet and began to bargain.  I did not let my eyes return to the red carpet or to the guide for a long while.
    Two thousand dollars the seller whispered, as I sipped my tea.  He whispered as if he feared someone might overhear him asking so little for so much.
    “I would love to buy it,” I said, “but I’ve already told you that I can’t pay even a thousand. I am sorry.”
    “Then, madam, we can negotiate, compromise, come to an understanding.”  He paused, to let me think things over, and then, with the same low whisper, said, “I will let you take it today for fifteen hundred.”
    “Really,” I smiled, “I love the carpet.  It’s beautiful, but it’s simply too expensive.  Perhaps we should look at the plainer Kilims, just one process.”
    He surprised me by agreeing.  I sensed, though, that he might have been on to me and was calling my bluff.  Soon enough, he no doubt thought, we would return to this pretty carpet in front of me…or he would have one of the young men bring it in to show me again.  Or I would give him another figure, say, one thousand dollars.  I would not.
    I finished my tea, put it down on the chair next to me, and stood.
    We all went into another room.  But it was not the simple one process carpets.  These were more of the knotted and embroidered stock, and the one I wanted was there, apparently carelessly thrown down without a hope of being sold to me that day.  Had I betrayed myself, somehow revealed with my eyes or some leaning or turning away of my body that I wanted that carpet?  No, I was sure. I did not do anything at all to let anyone know I wanted that carpet.
    “Is this the right room?”  I inquired.  “Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’d say some of these, at least, are two process carpets.”
    “You have an excellent eye, Madame,” the seller cooed.  “Excellent.  I brought you here as I believe we’ll be able to work something out in this room that will please you more than the simple old fashioned plain Kilims.
    “Some brighter colors to brighten your days in America?”  It was the guide.  He must be in cahoots with the seller, I thought.  Why else would he have taken us to this particular place?  A commission, no doubt.
    “I get no commission, if that thought may have crossed your mind.”
    I nodded slightly.  “How did you know I would like some brighter colors?”
    “It is because of the clothes you bought.  The delight I thought I saw in you when you put on the earrings.  Colors seem to appeal to you.”
    Now my hand trembled as I touched one of the carpets against the wall.  “May I see this one?”  I didn’t know what color it was or why I asked to see it.  Maybe it was a stall, I told myself.  That was the word I used:  “a stall.”  I never talk like that.
    “This carpet pleases you, Madam.”  It was the seller.
    “Yes.  How much are you asking?”
    The process began again.  Too much.  Too little.  Can we compromise.  No.  I felt I was exasperating the man.  I glanced at the guide.  He was, I was sure of it, intrigued and surprised that I had so quickly taken to the game of bargaining. He could not have been more surprised than I was.  I pretended, after several carpets had passed through our narrowing tunnels of price and counter-price, that I was becoming extremely bored with the entire thing. “I think it’s just not the right time for me.  And it’s too much money.  Maybe we’ll have better luck tomorrow.”  I turned to the guide.  “We’ll have enough time to stop by here tomorrow, won’t we?”    
    His smile was different, with a question in it, but he answered evenly.  “Yes, in the morning.  We could stop here again.”  He glanced away for a second, studying the carpet I had led him to assume I wanted.  “Do you make it a habit of not getting what you want?”
    Surprised by the intimacy of his question, I nearly shouted my response:  “Who do you think you are asking me a question like that!”
    He calmly met my eyes.  “I am your guide.”
    It was the carpet-seller’s turn to glance away.  He was obviously suppressing a smile.
    “And you!” I now focused my attention on the carpet-seller.  “You cannot get me to pay a high price for a carpet, especially as I have seen nothing that I desire.”   I thought I was going to leave the room, but found myself stomping over to the carpet I truly wanted, the red one with the triangles.  “This one.  I want this one, but I will pay you no more than half the price you asked for at the start.” I whipped out my credit card and offered it to him. “Half.”  He took the card very slowly and carefully into his hand.  “As you wish, Madam.”
    Soft applause from behind me.  I knew it was the guide.   I refused to turn and acknowledge him, so I stood still where I was.  Standing on legs that suddenly felt weak. I wanted to sit down.  I wanted to cry from relief.   Something remarkable had just happened and I didn’t know what it was but I liked it.  I loved it.  I had wanted something and I got it.  Maybe I had only got a fair price, but it felt like an amazing accomplishment to have bargained at all and then to have done so well.  I got what I wanted.
    “We await you in the other room.”  The guide.  “May I carry that for you?” He indicated the carpet.
    I could carry it myself, but I smiled a smile that felt a lot like his and said, “You are very kind.  Thank you.”    
    When we got back to the hotel, the guide brought my carpet up to my room.  He came into my room.  He shut the door behind him.  
    The way he shut the door.  He knows.  Something I have only suspected was in me.  He knows.  
    “I want to show you something,” he said walking toward the balcony.  I was silent, almost holding my breath, as I joined him.  He wanted me to look out at the city.  It was bathed in gold as the sun was setting behind us, casting light upon the buildings that turned the pale red ochre a vibrant pink.  The poplars and olive trees and palms were purple, and a few stars were already glittering in the early evening sky.
    Then he pointed out beyond the city.  “You see the Atlas Mountains?”  I nodded.  “Crossing them can sometimes be treacherous.  Beyond those mountains, to the south, is the desert, the Sahara.  It took us centuries to learn the way of passage.  We were studying it and all things even before the birth of Christ.” Here he stopped and smiled.  “I had a speech prepared.  It sounds false now.  Let me start again.”
    I was shocked to hear myself say, “You are asking me to cross the desert and the mountains with you this evening.”
    A look of wonder filled his eyes and formed his smile, softly upon his face. “Yes.  There is a gift I want to give you, something I wish to show you about yourself, something you have glimpsed, I think, in the short time we have spent together.”  
    “I have glimpsed it, but I don’t know what it is or why you offer me this…gift.”    “I also do not know, but I do not question it.  Can you do the same?”  
    How easily I said the word:  “Yes.”
      He took me over to the long hall mirror. “You must see how beautiful you are.”  He lifted my arms and pulled my sweater off as if he were unveiling a painting.  He unfastened my brassiere.  It fell to the floor. He kept all of his clothes on, even the purple robe.  This was going to be for me, yet I heard his own excitement clearly in his breath, felt it in his hot hands.     “Look!”
    I hardly recognized the woman in the mirror.  Her skin was so white.  The dark hands that moved over her body, I did not know at all, but I knew they moved for this woman, for her pleasure.  He cupped her breasts in his hands, lifting them, showing them to the woman in the mirror, touching her  with his fingers.  She saw his blushing palms, bright pink.  She moaned as his hands moved with sure knowledge over her body, down through her legs to her feet.  His fingers were wise and sweet and absolutely sure. 
    “Keep your eyes open.  Look at your beauty.”    
    He kissed the back of her neck and bit gently into her shoulders, piercing straight through to the heart of her sexual self, her most intimate self.
    “No,” he said, “don’t close your eyes.  See what it is you are feeling.  Look.”
    She could feel his heart, his entire body, pulsing against her bare back.  “And you?” she asked in a whisper.
    “First, the gift.”
     He pulled the tie on her skirt and it fell to the floor.  She stepped out of her shoes.  He bent down, picked up her clothes, and flung them onto the bed behind them.  Then he picked up the carpet and unfurled it upon the floor.  They stepped onto it.  
    “Look,” he said.  
    She looked.
    I will not tell you more.  I can’t.  It’s mine.  To keep.  I can tell you that it was the first time in my life that I knew ecstasy.  I saw it and I felt it at the same time.  My guide moaned when I moaned, but when I cried out, I heard no other sounds, and I didn’t know who those people were in the mirror.  I knew only this.  This was all that mattered.  This.
~    ~    ~
    I did not want to sleep.  I wanted to be conscious of how my body felt, was still feeling, but I could not resist, and I slept for at least an hour after he left.
    When I woke up I was hungry.  I showered but I did not change my clothes.  I wore that sweater and that skirt and those earrings.  I looked in the mirror.  She was still there.  
    I reached the dining room just as they were beginning to serve dessert.  I did not look around for the guide.  I knew he wouldn’t be there.  I was seated and served, a special Moroccan dinner, and I ate everything on my plate. 
    Then came the evening’s entertainment.  Much more interesting to me now than they could possibly have been this morning on the Square were the musicians and singers and dancers and acrobats.  The last act was a snake charmer. 
    The flute and the cobra were beautiful in their attention and response to each other.   Then the snake charmer held the cobra out to the audience asking if anyone wanted to handle it.  It moved across his hand and then along his arm and around his shoulder.   A tourist, a young man sitting close to the stage, stood up.
    “Sir?  Do you dare to take the cobra in your hands?” 
    “I am a policeman in Columbia.  I dare.”
    I wondered.  Maybe he was just from the Spanish part of North Africa.  That would explain his accent.  He was probably a plant, part of the act.  But when the young man jumped onto the stage, instead of taking the stairs, I reconsidered.  Maybe he was genuine, and so afraid that he knew he had to act before he lost his nerve.  With that 
same swift intensity, he took the snake by the head and then stood quite still as it coiled  around his stomach and chest.  He seemed nailed to the floor rather than standing on it.  He was afraid, but he was standing there.  He did not run.   
    I left my table and moved toward the stage.  I had to see.  But I was too late.  The young man was handing the snake back while I was still too far away to see much.  I was about to return to my table when the snake charmer produced a scorpion.  He held it on his open palm and then passed it over the audience like a blessing.  
    “Who will come up and take the scorpion?” he asked. 
     I felt my breath go out of me as I heard myself say, “I will.”   
    He apparently didn’t hear me.  He repeated, “Who will take the scorpion?”  
    My heart now pounding at my temples, I raised my voice.  “I will.”  
    A current pulled me forward toward the stage.  
    He saw me now and quickly looked around.  Did he want someone to stop me?  Was he just making sure everyone was aware that I was approaching him?   
    I heard someone gasp, but I think no one moved.   
    He then looked away from me and spoke to the audience in a voice that sounded dull and distant. It surprised me.  I stopped and listened.  “Scorpions in Morocco are responsible for the deaths of at least 100 children every year.  Adults, too…”  I became impatient and started to move forward again, wending  my way through the tables nearest to the stage. 
    “Madam?” he said, holding the scorpion in his palm.  
    I stopped again and steadied my eye on the scorpion. It was a shiny brown color.  The tail was long and wide and arched up and over its body, making the insect appear to have two heads, one just an inch or so above and slightly back from the other.  The barb at the end of its tail could pierce the flesh of almost any animal, certainly the unprotected flesh of a human being.  
    “This particular type of scorpion,” the snake charmer continued, his eyes darting back and forth from me to the audience and then back to me, “is called a “Death Stalker.”
    I placed myself on the stairs.  There were only a few more and then the stage would be mine.  My legs felt strong under me.  My heart was thumping in my chest and in my throat. I moved up to the top stair.
    The snake charmer seemed frozen.  I almost laughed.  The look on his face was nearly identical to the look on the face of the student who’d interviewed me a thousand years ago in another world.
    Maybe I smiled.  
    I stretched out my arm.  My hand opened.  I turned my palm up and stepped forward.
I did not pass through the gate.  My sins were not yet forgiven.

The flute and the cobra were beautiful in their attention and response to each other.


The stench was nearly unbearable, but the shock was how high up we were and how steep and immediate the drop off was.

The Prado Museum - Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Child -

A gnawing fear of death?  It was simply too literal.

The insect appeared to have two heads.

He wanted me to look out at the city.  It was bathed in gold. . . .


All books by Bonnivier