Canto del Camino

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Murmurations, cane juice, ivory cattle, corrugated rooftops, dust, the estuary, black macadam, howler monkeys, carambolas,
an adopted tongue & the jungle.


Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.
—Antonio Machado (trans. Willis Barnstone)

 

In the early morning we drove out of the hills filled with coffee and horses and the village asleep in weak light, the stillness amplified by the rusty crow of a cock, scrape of palm leaves, a dog limping on the broken road. Semana Santa. Domingo de Ramos. We threaded our way south out of the cool hills toward la mar, in search of a cross like a star with its bar honed, torqued and pointed as Triton’s staff.

It was too soon to write about any of it. The words came and went in their dance like murmurations of las mariposas and no log-handled net to dip in the currents of air electric with the carnival of a thousand wings. As if to hold, to pin, to paste and keep could somehow capture the strange meaning of the thing that was unfolding in that country half-dressed in first light. Letting go the urgency left us nothing but everything to embrace. Que bueno.

The low country when it came was everywhere burned to dust. The riverbeds were waterless gaps where grey rocks lay bleaching in the opened light and ivory cattle with hooped necks huddled under the embroidery shade of a few trees. The road descended in its slow time through wrinkled hills the color of brown paper, through clusters of corrugated rooftops and fenceless fields in which children sat thin horses like proud warriors watching over the kingdoms of chickens and dogs. Wordlessly they gazed over the dusty land where nothing changed, or maybe a few things, but very slowly with the patience of the rains that might be coming or not to fill the parched beds of the rivers one warm drop at a time.


They made a sound in me like the soft thunder I heard sometimes in the night—faint notes of a song in a language I knew before my beginning in the spinning pageant of the world.


I was thinking about Marquez as we crossed the estuary with its bridge cables soaring like the flight lines of birds, suspending the road over the water that was nickel-plated and smooth in the flat light of the afternoon. We drove on in silence, watching the forest thicken. We looked for the last town with its low bustle and its final offering of provisions. The hymn of the peninsula drifted up to us in a song of the world before dominion winkled its thrum and buzz from the pried shell, devouring the music whole. We were travelling deep down in the present tense, the unmarked road drifting and winding in the dust, losing itself, emerging again.

Then the road died. Abruptly its black macadam blood ran out. Absent the least fanfare, it abandoned any intention it may have dreamed at its beginning that was a thing too far away now to be remembered. The road quietly disappeared, as if the machine that never surrenders could no longer resist the rampant will of a forest so adept in the green arts of war. Thick undergrowth snugged up from darkness, hemming the ragged edges of what carried on—hard-pack seamed and rutted, all the time laughing the way chaos does at an overthrow of the mind.

Drifts of goats and sheep ebbed like woolen tides in and out of the narrowing path. Once a bull like a great horned king stood its ground, demanding a king’s homage in return for safe passage, and we bowed our heads, avoiding the royal eyes that held no knowledge of fear. In the hot stillness we listened with heads bowed to the tawny breath coming until at last the king sidestepped in slow hauteur, leaving a space just wide enough for us to pass beneath the pointed blades of his crown.


Someone said the road had been faithful and it was true.


It was slow travelling after that in the dust raised by the motorcycles of men carrying women and children and a week’s supply of beans and coffee and rice in rough sacks. Occasionally we lost the way. We stopped in villages and asked after la mar, where it lived at the edge of the forest and which way to get there and how far now before we reached its treeless deeps. The eyes and the brown hands burled with work were sometimes blank and sometimes kind when they told the news in a language not born in la selva but nonetheless at home there after so many years—an adopted tongue that could say as well as any other what it was to be a jungle.

On and on down the giddy way that was no longer a road anymore but a passage, sometimes just a thin promise through the scouring and windless heat of the afternoon. We were far away now from the cool hills of our beginning with their coffee and horses glimmering at first light, their stillness replaced by the rage of howler monkeys in the heat announcing the sex of their kingdom in which we were alone and lost until the sea appeared suddenly on the left, a vast expanse fringed in palm thatch. Nothing dramatic, just an opening of sky that closed again, and a few moments later a widened glimpse, lost again quickly behind heavy vegetation. The road was everywhere damped now with cane juice to keep down the swirling dust. It lay puddled in the rutted road, sweet as molasses in the heat.

The house when we reached it stood at the top of a tall hill, the forest canopy falling steeply behind it like a genuflection and then the ruffled altar of the bay far below, enclosed by elegant headlands like commas gathering the whole swooped clause of the fine sand beach from either end.


The eyes and the brown hands burled with work were sometimes blank and sometimes kind when they told the news in a language not born in la selva but nonetheless at home there after so many years—an adopted tongue that could say as well as any other what it was to be a jungle.


It was much cooler at that height. Mornings the wind blew west out of the mountains and in the afternoons swept up from the sea. The house with its windows and doors wide breathed in and out beside the guacimo tree, amongst fruiting mango, the carambola, papaya. Birds came and went through the wide main room—hummingbirds and magpies, once a turquoise motmot very early when everything was still and smelled of salt and coffee. The close beating of wings was like the pulse of the first day of the world but was a thing that did not surprise us in that country of gifts.

All that time I felt words gathering like rain, like butterflies, like a sea. They made a sound in me like the soft thunder I heard sometimes in the night—faint notes of a song in a language I knew before my beginning in the spinning pageant of the world.

We were tired and hungry at the end. A dog stood quietly waiting for us at the top of the steep hill to shepherd us up the last incline, dog eyes luminous in the dusk before vanishing behind an elbow in the road as the sea emerged below, set out before us now like a feast.

We were mostly silent. Someone said the road had been faithful and it was true. Since very early and far away the road had led us down into the beating heart of a country that had already begun to take up a secret life inside us the way some places do until you come to realize they were inside you all the time only waiting to be recognized. We stopped finally. We stood up at last with the miles on us deep and sweet, each of us swaying a little under the first stars, the steady moon. There was the sea, shining through the worn parables of time. The world settled its breath then. Darkness descended slowly and with it came the loosening, the forgetting, the sweet dream of unending and the rest.


Chris Morgan’s writing has been published in a variety of literary journals in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, including Welsh Writing in English, North Carolina Literary Review, Red Wheelbarrow and White Horses. His book, R.S. Thomas: Identity, Environment and Deity (Manchester University Press), explores the life and work of the modernist-environmentalist poet R.S. Thomas. Chris holds a PhD in poetry from the University of Wales and is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins MA in Fiction Writing Program. He can be contacted through his website at jchristophermorgan.com.

Lead image: Alexander Lam

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