In William Mayne's The Jersey Shore, there's this passage - the inhabitants of a coastal fenland town have been disturbed by voices calling from the sea:
At night it seemed there was a light far out to sea, and the bailiff of the estate came down to the village and said a fire was to be made on the sea wall. There was a difference of opinion about this, with men going from house to house and taking one side and another, and waking and crying from being frightened all day by voices, and hearing threats by night and quarrelling. But the bailiff was firm, and wood had to be brought and a fire laid on the parish wall. By the time it was done the light at sea had begun to fade and with it there faded the voices. The villagers stood around their fire until the mist lightened wthout thinning, and they went home through a frosted stillness. There were no more voices. By that night the mist lifted, that had hidden the distressed mortals or immortals, but there was nothing to be seen . . .
In the middle of that [next] night, in a close darkness, the man came from the sea. He walked in among the houses dragging a chain and calling out in his own words, that meant nothing to anyone there. He was naked, and his eyes glittered in the light that was brought towards him. He bowed himself down and the long chain rattled again. One end was at an ankle, another at a wrist, and from a middle link another length ran to a bolt that was driven into a wooden beam, but the beam had been burnt away, and that had been in the fire at sea.
He was locked into the church all night, under the tower, and in the morning came out trembling and jangling his chain, as naked as he went in, unashamed, strong, smiling and courteous. The priest came and tried a prayer on him in church Latin, but it was nothing to him. He had a different religion. When the sun came up over the sea wall he bowed himself to that and knelt, stretching out his arms, a shining dark man, expecting to be killed.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
The Yukon is a big river
A friend in Whitehorse who was preparing to paddle down the Yukon River with seven other women in a big canoe wrote to say that she was feeling uneasy about paddling in the stern, especially, as she put it in her own words, “when the river gets big after Minto.” Their goal was Dawson City, about five hundred miles from Whitehorse, and my friend and her fellow paddlers planned to make the journey in three or four days by paddling non-stop and sleeping in shifts for an hour at a time. The Yukon River is marked by a thin blue line in the atlas and when you get curious about what might happen when the river gets big after Minto, you can follow it with a fingertip from Whitehorse into Lake Labarge and then up to Minto, a tiny dot where indeed the blue line thickens perceptibly into a wider line that carries on to Dawson City and beyond. Along the way you can make out innumerable fine blue lines feeding into the Yukon River, no doubt making it swell up in that muscular way that rivers have when they begin flexing and writhing and it’s probably a good thing that the river gets wide where it does, although what that would imply for a paddler in the stern of a big canoe is beyond my understanding. I was peering into the atlas on dry land sixteen hundred miles south of Lake Labarge, and as I moved my finger farther up the map I recalled that my friend had said that she would be paddling down the river and I was thinking up instead of down, and I remembered reading somewhere that “down” was the northern way of saying “up,” and in the moment of confusion that followed, one thing that remained clear was how little I would ever really know of rivers that get big after Minto.
Street musicians--shenai and drums careening down alleys of inching life. Banaras, holy city of the communion of death, an opera of sounds (fifty different bell tones), pure skies. Craftwork from pottery to ball bearings requiring more than human hands and feet. The birthday of a god--Lord Krishna, dark imp--the full moon of Shravan. Dance through paved streets and (more properly) fields of fellow cornstalks. In the middle of this field is a huge marble temple complex featuring pictures of heroic episodes in the lives of the gods. Full of giddy romance, the shy law student from a distant village tells me that Shiva Abankar is the god of Anti-Lust. He is very full of playful Krishna, his personal god. Each panorama depicts another aspect of Krishna's story--now a naughty baby, later a teasing cowherd. Sing a song of your beloved' for this is the night. A magnificent black lingam looms up from the marble floor of the sanctuary. Oozing with life-jasmine, marigolds strewn about--we take a touch of creamy Ganga water as prasad to our lips. All is gelatinous expansion. A fluid, slow-motion leap to clang a temple bell clapper. JAI JAI RAM, JAI JAI SITA RAM. Sandalwood paste, dyed red, dyed orange smeared and sweaty ecstasy.
The everyday scene of funeral processions in the streets of Banaras become an indication of the weather. If the sun stays behind clouds for two or three days in the winter, or if the fierce furnace wind of May lasts longer than an hour at a time, then the number of funeral processions increases proportionately. Also true if the country liquor gets made with kerosene. Shocking pink or orange body bags, secured at the feet. The eldest son carrying one end of the bamboo death stretcher leads the chant: RAMA NAMA SATYA HAI. There is a resoluteness, a weariness of purpose, sometimes a shenai accompaniment.
The fierce antagonistic stare of washed out children's faces as they chance upon me. Sadhus, faded orange cotton vestments, gray-black beards and rudraksha rosaries on their necks. The ritual washing of the dead, complicated by the gray mud, marigold garlands floating downstream. A tiny noseless boy takes a rose and swallows the petals.
Banaras has a deep desert sky. The endless pantheon of stars.