31 October 2006

Learn to Die Safely


Almost everyone has family they grieve for; that they pay respects toward. He had no one. No one here. He wasn’t here himself. He couldn’t be seen in the graveyards. Couldn’t be seen at the roadside memorials where the tragedy of travel had take someone to the final destination. Couldn’t be seen in the market or a convenience store buying cigarettes and mineral water. Couldn’t be seen in a café having a coffee: domestic or espresso. Couldn’t be seen talking with anyone because they would be seen by others to be talking with themselves.

Today felt like it was the dullest, deadest Halloween ever imagined, barer than a Scrooge Halloween. But that came of being so near the land of Transylvania, and not revelling in some post-Puritan city or town in North America. There were no pumpkins in windows with faces carved in them. No decorated buildings or offices. No workers in costume, Halloween costumes that is, going about their usual work, with a bowl of molasses kisses beside the cash register.
        The closest things seen to anything in the spectrum of Halloween spectres looked like good harvest tokens or tributes. Miniature smiling straw and corn husk stuff scarecrow men in shirts and pants sitting in wheelbarrows or on wreaths with small corncobs and dried flowers, occasionally with tiny, brightly-coloured gourds, plastic grapes, and replicas of apples, pears and other fruits.
        Some expats in the capital had their embassy’s Halloween party last Friday: a walking pumpkin, a handcuffed prisoner, high-steppin’ mamas—some in drag, Arabs in caftans drinking beer, naughty nurses and French maids, cowboys, courtly ladies, dead rock stars and actors, actresses, hayseed farmers, movie creatures, witches, skeletons, the grim reaper . . .
        Halloween in the middle of the week makes for more parties on Friday. This far north, where one has almost left one country, one culture, for another one, the local Catfish Bar wants a wild Friday night weekend kickoff: DJ Dawg on turntables, special drink drink specials, prizes for the best . . .
        Today’s farm market, at the end of the last day of October, at dusk, was still busy with vendors. Mostly sellers of flowers—singular and bunched . . . some of them plastic made in china—and farm and forest garlands—garlic braids, dried paprika strings, woven wicker and pinecone wreaths. The market busy with townsfolk who had left it until the last possible moment to buy the symbols they haven’t grown themselves, or otherwise made.
        Usually, by one o’clock, the market would have been empty of everything except a few squashed tomatoes and dropped eggs (except for that one toilet paper and plastic bag seller backed onto the vendors’ coffee booth—they bring their own cups/mugs to take their hot drink back to their own booths.
        Unless you’re serious, don’t get too close to the flower arrangements. Don’t appear so interested that you’d be read by the sellers as needful . . . The locals all know enough, or too much, about each other and their families: the living and the dead.
        Tonight, one could be painted, greased, wearing all black with metal—polished stainless steel stud and chain jewellery, hand-forged ironware, or from the hardware store or pet shop garden-variety pieces with purpose—for a multiple goth band and DJ underground Samhain party in the not-so nearby city of Sumbad.
        Could be sitting costumed in the livingroom or front porch of a decorated house with a bowl of “trick or treat” candy or something for the neighbourhood’s costumed children going door to door, cutting across lawn and through hedges, their footprints dark holes in the thin crust of icy snow on still green grass. Tomorrow it will melt and one would rake up chip bags and candy wrappers with the accumulated maple, poplar and birch leaves.
        Could be gathered with others of a similar spirit in a hilltop grove of trees. Everyone would have put something troubling them in a wooden box. After the homage, the blessing, the best wishes for a rapid journey to the faraway halls of untroubled afterlife, the box will be collectively lifted like a coffin to be placed in the bonfire. Consumed by flames taller than anyone standing in the circle around it, sparks will shoot even higher into the clear sky night. Always there will be a few passing airplanes on great circle routes to and from Europe and the occasional satellites winking between the people and their fires sparks and the so distant stars. The people will see similar bonfires on other hilltops. A bottle or two of uisca beatha will passed hand to hand around the fire, around the grove, heart to heart.

Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead. A big holy day. The biggest after Christmas and Easter. Some might say that it’s bigger . . . maybe in México where it’s especially celebrated. Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans is likely their biggest. But they have their dead there too. They respect them, and the man leading the parade.
        It will be more congested than rush hour at the cemeteries. Finding parking will be a nightmare. There’ll be no place for all the old bicycles and scooters to park. Misty-eyed families will walk hand in hand across the streets, between parked cars. The gates will be crowded with extended families festooned with gardens of flowers for their deceased family, and to be laid at the feet of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the monuments to locally celebrated saints and heros, fallen colleagues and friends. The gates will be clotted by flower vendors for the truly last-minute griever, or for those whose arms empty before their grieving and respects are done. The air will be filled with the smoke and the scent of chestnuts roasting in with metal boxes perched atop orange propane tanks. The graveyard will be as crowded as midnight madness sales before Christmas. For many, this will be the only time in the year that they’ll be certain to meet the families of their dead’s neighbours. The handshakes will go on forever. The constant hugs will warm the coldest person. Bottles or flasks of homemade brandy carried in the inside jacket pockets of the men will be shared and discreetly nipped. There will be such a flock of perfectly ironed handkerchiefs that they’ll outnumber the doves and pigeons.
        Every year, before they arrive they know that more people have died. More people they know are in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God. More people who left before their time. And people who slipped away quietly in their sleep, God rest their souls. May they find peace in the hereafter. More people who died in domestic situations. Who personally failed Who were victims of meaningless, senseless, pointless violence. Who died in war. Who died elsewhere and never made it home. Who died because someone else liked killing. Who died because they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every year, the discovery of the loss of someone unexpected will catch them off guard.

“Before you can be approved to play, you must learn to fight safely. How to hit with a sword. How to use a shield to ward off blows. How to two-stick. How to pole arm. How to use a dagger. A mace. A great axe. You must learn to recognize when and how you’ve been hit and know how to call out your wounds, especially the loss of and arm or leg. You must learn how to fight with one arm. How to fight with no legs. You must learn how to fall. To die and to stay dead. You must learn how to die safely. You must keep your legs together. Never cross your ankles when you’re dead! You must keep your arms tight to your sides. Your shield on top of you can me good, but only if you die with it in hand. We can’t be having unnecessary broken limbs on the dead before play stops. Once fighting stops, the dead must leave the field. Some of the big battles with thousands of fighters have only minutes or seconds of live fighting time. Removing the dead fighters makes for a cleaner battle. Don’t have watch as closely for their bodies. Them’s the rules.”

I’ve seen a ghost shadow of myself standing in a flat-bottom boat on the River Csardas.
        A ghost I not yet am. A boat I’ve never owned or been a passenger on. A river I’ve only once waded in. Nothing more. Never immersed myself in the sandy water. Never swam.
        I never drowned. My body was not found downstream, bloated and ensnared on fishing lines or boat ropes. My body wasn’t lost in a mass grave, or the fires after a bombing, train wreck, or volcanic eruption. The earth didn’t crack open and swallow me alive. My body wasn’t swept into the ocean.
        No one grieved my passing. Not my parents. Not my siblings and their families living elsewhere. No flesh of my flesh. No one said, “So young. Why did have to die so soon? Such promise.”
        No one spat on my grave and walked away. No one danced on my grave. No one celebrated. No one said, “Good riddance!”
        Nothing happened that way.
        But today I saw myself as a boatman ghost.

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