by B.E. Seidl
In the absolute darkness, where even the faintest light dared not enter, she lay on her bed, carefully wrapped in her feather duvet, her eyes wide open. A tightly woven horse blanket had been fixed in front of the old wooden door, to shield her from what might have been lurking outside. Though unseen in the flawless black, it seemed as if she could sense it slightly moving with the hissing breath of something waiting for her outside, eager to get in. Uneasily she searched in the dark, looking for traces of other living creatures, where there was nothing but insects, crawling in the scars of the walls; hidden like herself from the prying gaze of the world.
From beyond, like an echo from deep inside the mountain, she could hear the drunken songs of men, telling tales of heartache and pain; their voices coarse from rum and cigarettes, yet still so full of beauty and pureness, oiled by decades of suffering. The chants were accompanied by a wild pulse of clapping and enthusiastic shouts of encouragement, framed by the soft mutters of foreign female voices; giggling, enjoying the attention of these strange, rough men. Listening to the animated party, Marie sighed heavily. It was still early, hardly a quarter past midnight. The singers were merely warming up their voices. Many hours would follow. Hours of passionate celebration, frenzied singing, losing themselves in the blaze of the moment. Rum, whiskey, joints. Swiftly they would turn to stronger drugs, as soon as sleep and exhaustion started to take its toll. Restlessly, they would waltz through the night, selling their souls to the Duende*, who would help them to rise above their common lives, where they were merely roughening their hands by building houses they would never be able to afford, or disposing of the waste others had carelessly discarded. Mesmerized, they poured out their hearts in a trance of lamenting chants, and sought to forget their wives who were waiting for them back home, sleeplessly lying in cold empty beds, surrounded by walls covered in mold. Their wives had been beauties once, with shiny black hair falling down in waves, following the line of their curves. Now, after giving birth to too many children, their bodies were bloated, shapelessly stretching the tight clothes. How different they were, those bitter, always complaining wives, from the neatly made up tourist girls, who were vying for compliments and male acknowledgement, as if they had never been cherished before. Greedily, they were seeking these exotic men’s attention, bewitched by the glistening blackness of their eyes, dreaming of dark and risky adventures, drawn to the magic of the unknown.
Marie had watched them, a dozen new ones every week, streaming into the caves, getting lost in a haze of smoke and heartbreaking songs, lyrics they could hardly understand. Sometimes she thought of the singers as they were teasing these desperate women like sirens, dazzling their minds, misguiding them on their quest to find a way back to themselves. She could see these foreign girls through the walls, diving deeply into vicious fantasies, not wanting to see beyond the misty clouds of drunken excess, not wanting to know about the other life, under the rays of the boiling sun that would highlight every wrinkle carved into the tanned faces, every vein of their bloodshot eyes.
The repetitive rhythms of the melodramatic singing, the clapping and rasping of fingers beating the un-tuned strings of the guitar, lulled her into a fragile slumber. Lightly snoring, her nostrils widened, quivering under the moist air, heavy with the smell of the old rock, that was embracing her, both like a shelter but also a bit like a grave. The mountain always seemed alive; breathing, shedding little tears of water through holes that opened up like pores in the thick layer of white chalk that had been painted over the raw stone to tame its roughness. Little spiders crawled busily over the cragged surface, invisible even to the sharpest eye, mocking their human companion, biting and tickling her at times.
Under the whimper of her lonesome pondering, Marie had drifted off into a deep sleep, where she was helplessly exposed to threatening dreams. Her breath came heavily now. The air became thin in the tense isolation of the cave. Like a cold shackle, panic took hold of her heart. A sheer unbearable weight pressed against her face, like a dusty rug forced upon her by invisible hands, muffling her groans underneath. Horrid images flickered through her mind of lawless creatures intruding her retreat, murdering her under the cover of darkness, greedily demanding her possessions. Small crumbs of chalk dropped into her panting mouth, tickling her throat. Her shoulders shuddered, crossly. Gradually she was rising, out of the dark waters of deep drowsiness, floating close beneath the surface of perception. Out of hidden chambers in the fortress of her memory she recalled disturbing stories she had heard somewhere, of people she knew, whose families had been buried alive within caves like hers. Caves that had suddenly crumbled, been squeezed by the reckless rock, that had no longer been willing to comfort its uninvited guests. Imprudently, people had dug into the mountain, which had been sacred once. A shelter for those who had no other place left to go, hunted down like animals, murdered and executed in cold blood if they failed to disappear into the warm bosom of stone. Quite a few of her neighbors had unearthed some unpleasant surprises as they forced deeper into the mountain, hollowing it out like an anthill, carelessly weakening the rock which had so generously granted them a place to live. Crooked skeletons greeted the greedy diggers, as they hacked blindly into the walls. Dirt-covered skulls grinned at them, as if they had been waiting there patiently to welcome their new housemates. Like decayed travelers they were, visitors from times long past; their mouths still wide open in a silent scream. They had sought to escape the slaughters of the Civil War, some of them even as ancient as the last Moors, running from the blood-spattered arms of the Reconquista**. All of them had come here, hoping to save their lives, hiding inside the mountain that eventually became their grave.
Marie could feel their presence now; could hear the whispers of hundreds who were still hidden somewhere deep inside the walls. Sometimes they would come to her. Offer a blurry glimpse of their bodiless figures, usually moving too fast for the human eye to catch. They were seeking her attention, eager to tell their stories. Most times she didn’t mind. Let them tease her, hiss into her ears, brush over her back. She didn’t loathe them or seek their company, unlike some of her friends who would call them in sinister séances, like hysteric teenagers playing with a Ouija board. Many local women despised the persistent spirits, convinced of their evil meaning, lighting white candles to scare them away. Not always was Marie convinced of the harmlessness of the ghostly visitors. Some of them gravely disturbed her, not knowing their strength, uncertain of what they might want to do to her. Once she had seen a carriage drawn by two white horses. The coach itself had been vacant. In full speed it had been dashing towards her. Her heart beating wildly in sheer terror, she had jumped out of its way, landing hard on the street; her knees bleeding from the sharp edges of the pebbles, dirt all over her clothes. Too late she had realized it had just been a vision, nothing but phantom horses rushing downhill, back into the time they had come from.
Bravely, she managed to calm herself, humming a song her mother had sung for her when she was just a little girl; to hush the distressed spirits, still dancing in the dark. The foreign words of the lullaby broke into the flawless obscurity, taking her away to places she hadn’t seen in a very long time. Her roots lay deep in a soil utterly different from the cactus pear covered hills surrounding her, on a continent far away. She had had a life fully scheduled once, with long working hours in an office overseeing the harbor. Her days had been neatly divided between work and family obligations, with little time to pursue her only true passion –dancing. It had been her major at university, her lifelong dream that never seemed to come true: to fill the emptiness in her heart with graceful choreographies, to fly over a stage, expressing with her body, where words had gone lost. Only when her parents had passed away unexpectedly, torn out of her life one after the other, hardly leaving time for her to cope, she became aware of her long abandoned emotions that lay frozen within her numb shell. Awkwardly, she had stood by their graves, attracting the disturbed looks of her brothers who mistook her flowery dress for juvenile indifference. The truth was she was desperately looking for the life inside her where the blood seemed too lazy to pulsate through her veins, her juices too dry to shed a single tear. As if in a trance she had quit her job over night; packed her bags in haste; plundered her bank account. Without a particular plan she had bought a one-way ticket to a city on the other side of the world, a city she hardly knew, chosen by her finger sliding blindly over the map of Southern Europe. Ever since she had cut off her rotten roots she had started to bloom again in the shadows of illegality under the hot Andalusian* sun. She spent her days dancing to the fierce rhythms of a people, proud and full of hunger for life, who had been persecuted for centuries by others who soiled them with imprudent prejudices. Here she was a stranger among outcasts, chatting to ghosts, in a cave deep inside the core of a sacred mountain. Still, she stood strong, determinedly pursuing what she thought to be her meaning in life.
Sleep had overcome her again; the drunken songs had faded away. The singers would finally stagger back to their wives, nuzzling into the soft bosoms, ignoring the women’s grumbles about the heavy scent of smoke and liquor covering their sweaty skin. Forgotten were the bell-like giggles of the foreign girls, and the soft waves of their golden hair.
When Marie finally awoke after hours of profound slumber, her empty stomach was growling a song of its own. Uneasily she staggered to the door to remove the horse blanket; reluctantly she opened the brittle wooden shutters, anxious to face the menacing strain of the world. Hot sunlight flashed into her eyes and made her blink; irritated her for a few moments before she became fully aware of what awaited her at the grill-gate that had been locked over night to dissuade curious visitors from entering. Obviously, not all of them had heeded its warning. There, winding provokingly around the bars, was a serpent: ashen grey with a decorative pattern shimmering in the sun. Its head, like a miniature dragon out of a cartoon, was thrusting into the cave; its eyes, that were nothing but greenish slits, were fixed upon her like a demon, ready to attack. At first she was uncertain, half convinced that she was still caught in an unpleasant dream. Again, the snake moved forward, observing her as if to calculate her next step. A cold panic grabbed her by the arms. Her eyes were urgently seeking a weapon to fight her intruder. By the door of her little bathroom, she discovered a broom leaning against the wall. Tiptoeing carefully towards it, eyes on the beast, she finally snatched the stick in despair. After taking a deep breath, with an uneasy feeling in her stomach, she approached the serpent. Over and over again she poked at it, trying to push it out into the street. The animal observed her clumsy attempts, its body smoothly following the movements of the broom, as if the two of them had been engaged in some bizarre dance. It seemed so harmless, so playful; its back drawn like the delicate plastering that covered the ceilings of the Alhambra* on the other side of the valley, enchanting like a beautiful witch. Unyielding, the beast clung to the bars, resentful of leaving or letting her pass. Terror was painted on Marie’s ageless face. Her legs felt weak and stiff from sleep, her slight fists were tightly cramping around the broomstick. She was a small woman, tiny, childlike almost. Nobody here knew her exact age. It seemed natural that others would want to protect her. Now, none of the nosy neighbors was close. The cave next door was shut. Only a faint scent of liquor flavored the air, reminders of the bender that had continued until dawn. On the other side, to her left, a savage garden laid abandoned, garbage scattered between leafless bushes. The owner would be snoring inside his tiny cave, in agony after a long night of heavy drinking, grinning toothlessly in his sleep, dreaming of a big platter of lentils with hunks of cured ham.
She was utterly alone; all by herself, as she had always longed to be, when she was hiding from her neighbor’s meddling eyes. Just now, her loneliness was leaning on her, pushing her back like a lucent wall, standing relentlessly between her and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, she started to scream, begging for help. For minutes she screamed, like a madwoman, until her voice cracked and her cords got sore. The drunken neighbor bowled back, telling her to be quiet. Nobody came. Unimpressed by her hysteric shrieks, the serpent was still entangled in the bars. “Just like this damn city”, Marie muttered, big drops of sweat covering her forehead, “once she has entered your life, she never lets you go.”
Again she attacked it, this time using the mop, which was soaked with water and bleach. Now, the snake seemed less eager to play. Repelled by the sharp odor of the bleach, it swerved away. Finally, it let go of the grill and slithered down on the street in a sudden hurry to seek a hole in the opposite wall to return to the river.
Marie was gasping, gulping in the warm air of the new day. She was confident now, almost proud of herself, for fighting the threatening beast on her own. Smiling, she glimpsed out into the sunlight, which illuminated the white cave-houses like props in a fantasy film. Under the warm rays of the sun she felt her heart fill with joy and childish excitement. The cave inhaled the bright light and enfolded its beauty. Here, like in a gallery of artful seclusion, was her little table, neatly arranged, covered with a green tablecloth that had a border of white lace and a heater underneath to keep her warm on cold winter evenings. On her shelf books and photographs were orchestrated to remind her of friends and family far away. In the back of the cave was her bed, its crimson colored bed sheets still unmade; next to it a closet, like a cabinet in a dollhouse. Everything was cunningly reflected in a big mirror that covered the length of the opposite wall. Here she would spend the rest of the day in peaceful solitude; practicing, rehearsing choreographies she had recorded, creating new steps. Now that the serpent had gone, nobody would come to disturb her, to distract her from focusing on her ambitions. The city and its people started to fade away behind her, half forgotten in dreamlike contemplation. “I might stay in for a while”, she muttered, a wistful smile in her eyes.
*Duende: El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to music. It brings the artist face-to-face with death, and helps them create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The aesthetics of the Duende had first been developed by Federico Garcia Lorca in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1933, “Juego y teoria del duende” (“Play and Theory of the Duende”). (Source: Wikipedia)
*Reconquista: When used as a historical period in traditional Spanish and Portuguese historiography, the term Reconquista has often been used to refer to a period extending from 718 (or 722 according to other sources) to 1492, when the last remaining Islamic state in Iberia, the Emirate of Granada, was defeated by the Christian kings. (source: Wikipedia)
*Alhambra: The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex located in Granada, Andalusia*, Spain. It was constructed during the mid 10th century by the Berber ruler Badis ben Habus of the Kingdom of Granada in al-Andalus, occupying the top of the hill of the Assabica on the southeastern border of the city of Granada.