Friday, February 27, 2009

Jakamo

There's a few reoccuring themes in my life that enfuriate me every time they pop up. One of them is when an abusive or neglegent person says in reference to the person he's abusing or neglecting "They mean the world to me," or "I love her more than anything else in the world." I hate it because they know that that is how they should feel about a spouse or child, but they say that so they can excuse their behavior, as if to say, "I just can't help it." The fact of the matter is, if they were really the most important thing in your life, you would go to rehab, you would stop beating them, and you would get a job. You would put them first.

Anyway, I decided that since I was in Provo with all this free time, I would touch up some of the stories I wrote for my freshman year in Creative Writing. My favorite, just because I'm the way I am, is "Jakamo and the Ghoul." I'd love feedback.

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As he was walking through the shell-covered dirt paths, he felt something different. He felt possibilities arise. He felt individuality. He felt glory. He felt chances to change himself. He felt something in the air. A crossroads. When he turned the corner, there it was. Under the night, illuminated by stars and moon Jacques saw a crossroads and the devil.

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Jacques knew she wanted him to bury her by the little green onion and tomato garden next to their bayou hut. But it was four o’clock in the morning, and a garden in the dark is a different place. He did not like it. As he looked towards it, the fog and the Spanish moss had conjured up in him an awful despair and something like terror. The twin emotions hung from his chest like a great beast with its claws sunk deep into his heart. But that garden spot was the only place dry enough to put a coffin in without it popping back up as soon as he had put the last of the dirt back on the grave. With a grave to dig and a coffin to build, he had plenty of work to do. He grabbed his shovel and Coleman lantern from beside a barrel on the porch of his shack and headed for the plot.

As he dug, he hummed a song his wife would sing to him. “Jakamo fino a-na-ney, jakamo fi-na-ney.” The memory of her shaking her head at him and sighing out “Oh, Jakamo,” came back to him with a sting. She was Irish by descent, but fell in love with everything Cajun when she fell in love with him. She had learned that song from his mama, and would sing it just too close to his face with just too much garlic in her breath with her hair just too soft and her eyes just too lively. He thought of her lifeless eyes yesterday afternoon and sobbed. Every shovel-full of dirt was a “Hail Mary,” and every grunt an “Our Father.”

He had shoveled all through the morning, and well into noon before he realized he had eaten neither breakfast nor lunch and was only half done. He put down the shovel and wiped his blistered hands on his trousers, but after looking, the trenches in his hands were still full of soil. The sulfur of the swamp was in his nose and in his mouth. It tasted like a match head, and he waited for it to burst. Although he knew he could not eat, he also knew that the heat and humidity would soon dry him up if he did not drink something. He lifted himself out of the hole and walked towards the rusty hand-pump well. He pumped out several shots of tea-colored water until it started to run clear, then filled his canteen and started to drink. The water smelled like a jar of pickled eggs gone bad and felt gritty in his mouth.

He filled and drained his canteen twice and then sat down on his porch’s rocking chair. The exhaustion and sickness of grief fell on him and conquered his consciousness. He had hazy dreams full of little quips she had thrown at him from a few days before.

The relative cool of evening roused him from his drunken dreams. His right leg gave a spasm as he tried to stretch it out. He was dead—just moving, that’s all. He got up from the chair and walked over to the hole. He stepped back in shock. The grave was almost done except for a little patch in the back left corner, and there was an ornate oak coffin lying open in the grave. The wood had been stained dark and the interior was lined with purple velvet. He did not know anyone had known about his wife’s death, and the only people close, the Heberts, would not have had the money or time to buy such a fine coffin. He would investigate later. With gratitude, he realized all he needed now was to finish out the back left corner, and then coat it with the lime and gris gris he bought.

When the corner was done and the lime poured, he took out the little sack of herbs and sprinkled it on the walls. With the sack half empty, he let it drop to the soggy floor. His back ached, his arms ached, his head ached, his heart ached. He crept back to the house to get his wife. There she was, cold and limp and beautiful on the bed. To feel her that unnaturally relaxed in his arms gave him a chill altogether terrible. As he carried her out of the door and to the grave, the moss was sighing with him in a dirge. But at the same time, it did not seem to be really happening. She could not really be gone.

The old oaks standing tall and the dead oaks rotting on the ground were different today. Those were the real trees of good and evil—evil Jakamo still standing while his angel wife was about to fall down into a spongy grave. The swamp stank.

Dusk had brought out the mosquitoes, but he did not pay them any mind as he wrapped her body tightly in some old gray table cloths and slid into the grave with her. He laid her in the oak coffin with a kiss and climbed out. He lifted his shovel and turned around to fill the hole, but froze. On the other side was the translucent body of a ghoul, waiting on the ledge of the grave. He was a fleshy, rotting man with a skull-head and long bone hands with fingers like rapiers.

“Whutcha doin’ here? I done made peace wi’ dat boy.”

In his mind, Jacques heard a voice rattle, “Oh, Jakamo. You don’ know.”

Jacques glared, but he knew it was no use talking to a ghoul. He knew why he was here, and began to pile the dirt back into the grave. With each shovel, the ghoul seemed more and more solid.
“I put in gris gris and lime. You can’t get in.”

In his mind, Jacques heard, “Oh, Jakamo. You don’ know.”

As he continued to work, the ghoul grinned at him with that empty smile skulls have. As the dirt in the grave rose back to ground level, the ghoul stuck a bone-finger in the soil. Jacques looked up and saw it. He threw the shovel at the ghoul’s finger. The finger snapped, and the ghoul shook his head with his black greasy hair flopping all over the place. But then it reattached the bone perfectly back in joint. Jacques felt a cold laugh shake his body. He wanted to take the shovel and rip off the green streaks of flesh that still hung on the ghoul’s chest and arms.

He snatched the shovel and stabbed the mound of dirt next to the hole. He took the dirt and slammed it on the top of the amassing pile in the grave. He hoped that the ghoul would not be able to stick himself too far in the grave. Jacques kept snatching, stabbing, and slamming until the hole was almost finished. He realized that he was not thinking directly about her anymore. He was acting out his own voodoo on the ghoul. But he was no sorcerer. He felt like his gut had been ripped out, stewed, and poured back down his own throat. He laid down the last bits of dirt on the grave.

He watched the ghoul as it shuddered in a perversion of passion. It sank its two bony arms like fangs into the loose grave. It was too pleasurable for the ghoul to bear. Jacques fell on the ground and grabbed the dirt with his hands. He threw himself on the ghoul and wrapped his hand around its neck-bone. He screamed as the bone sliced into his palms. He squeezed tighter and tighter until he could no longer take the pain and the blood and the dirt. He fell back.

“Why? I done all I could for her, and why you have to come and… why?!”

The ghoul looked confused and annoyed. “Jakamo, you really done all you could? Mais, je pense que non. Maybe you done too much,” Jacques heard in his mind.

He was always so weak when he knew he was wrong. All he could do was nod to the grave and crawl back to his shack.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Subbing

So, I'm going to break with the tradition and NOT mention food as a prominent part of this post.

Hattiesburg is more diverse than I give it credit for. Today at work I spoke four different languages. It started when I was signing in with the secretary. She said, "I hear you can speak German."

"Ja, ich habe gehört, dass Sie auch Deutsch sprechen können." Then I defended my bad German by saying it was "viel zu schwer," plus I'd just learned Chinese, so I'd naturally forgotten a ton of German.

Then in class, the kids wanted to know what I studied, so I told them Linguistics. Then they asked what languages I spoke. I started out with Chinese, but they wouldn't let me continue, because there was a Ruby Liang in the class, and they insisted that I talk to her in Chinese. So I did. She was terrified.

Then one student said, "Puedo hablo Español."

I said, "Yo puedo hablar Español tambien." Then there was a Mexican girl who went nuts.

This post sounds kind of self-celebrating up to this point. Apologies. It was all way basic stuff.

4th/5th grade Art is a nightmare for classroom management. When I'm actually teaching, it's okay. I think I'm pretty dynamic in a teaching setting. But when it's time for them to do stuff on their own, it is so hard to keep the peace.

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I made my first pot (of many) of red beans and rice the other day! It was awesome.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cornbread

I just had lunch today with my grandparents. There really is something to be said for having a meal of nothing but vegetables--stewed tomatoes, blackeyed peas with chunks of bacon, squash and potatoes pan fried in a touch of butter and three pieces of cornbread with a glass of milk. It's underscores a beautiful simplicity you just can't find in a restaurant.

I realize today that I go there to listen to stories. I answer questions when they come or toss in my own addition to a conversation, but mostly it's just to hear them relive their lives. I love it when I see a flash of emotion come across my grandmother's face as she relates tales of an old villain from when she first moved to Louisiana. I love to hear about the rumors circulated over thirty years ago about so-and-so's bad run-in with the mob, or hear for the forth time why they call my birth place "Bloody Tangipahoa." That's actually my favorite--to hear a repeated story. It shows that it either is important to them, or there has been something recent that has summoned the experience back to the present. I also hang on every word to see if the story will deviate at all from previous tellings. Most of the time it doesn't, but I wonder if it's because there's a spouse always present to correct the details.

People out west don't understand cornbread. They bake it sweet so it comes out more like a cake, forcing the sweetness on everybody. In the south, we bake it plain, and then it's up to everybody else to add butter or molases or honey as they like.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

老家

So today I went down to Louisiana, where I was born. It's kind of strange now, after living two-thirds of my life outside of it, to think of myself as a native of Louisiana. But still, when we drove through those streets, I could feel that almost supernatural bond you have to the town of your nativity. It's a feeling deeper than nostalgia. I got it as we drove in to get our Chinese take-out, and I realized that my favorite pizza restaurant in the whole world is right across the street from my favorite Chinese restaurant. How are they so close??

Lately I've been reading a book about Louisiana called The Clearing. It's by Tim Gautreaux, who lives in my hometown. It's about a mill manager who comes down from Pennsylvania to retrieve a lost older brother who works as a lawman in a primitive cypress mill. Like in his other novel Next Step in the Dance, he digs a lot into the differences between Louisiana and the rest of the U.S.

The book has been of particular interest to me because I've just come back from a faraway place, and am seeing Louisiana and Mississippi in new light. Honestly, some things are disturbing--even terrifying--while others are like wounds being healed with a familiar balm. Like Randolph, I've come back to "ignorance and good food, poverty and independence."

In coming back to the South, I don't know whether I should be filled with satisfaction or despair. We pride ourselves on our ignorance and bad reputation. There are still sharp divisions between ethnic and economic groups. It seems like we've got a long way to go, but at the same time, we get so many things so right.

Example: You cannot underestimate the greatness that comes from living in a city where almost everyone is not just civil, but friendly--where the guy at Subway doesn't feel like you're breathing down his neck to produce your Sub Club 15 seconds faster. Because when you get to the end of your life, you won't care about the cumulative 15 seconds. You'll care about whether your life was overly stressed, and whether or not you dropped that stress, like acid, onto everyone around you.

I love the South, but we're backwards on some things. But at the same time, would it be the wonderful, rich place it was without the darker side of its mentality? Could a utopian-ized Oxford Mississippi produce a Faulkner? I'm not necessarily saying it couldn't, but could it? I don't know. I hope so.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

开始

So, over the few weeks since I've started my other blog, I decided I also needed a secular blog. I foresee a lot of reviews going down in this one.

I'll kick it off by talking about China.

Before I went to Toronto, I had these preconceived notions about Chinese people and Chinese culture that were mostly all wrong. I saw China as a country obssessed with antiquity. I thought I would learn a lot from them as a people, and it would mostly be in coded Confucian tid-bits that had to be digested over time to reveal their true brilliance. I thought I would learn hidden, counter-intuitive truths from Sun Tzu that all Chinese people had memorized and applied in their daily activities like grocery shopping and dining. I imagined I would meet a solemn, humorless, yet polite people.

I was so wrong. If the Chinese are about one thing, it's having fun, mostly through dining. I was totally not expecting that. Chinese people are fun! Way fun! They love to crack jokes, they love to poke fun at each other, they love to visit, and all of this over 18 different kinds of Tofu, pork, chicken, vegetables, fish, noodles and dumplings. Honestly, it seems what every Chinese person is working towards in life is not so much tapping into the wisdom of the Daoist sages, but eating and laughing. It makes for a pretty happy life.

I think I got all my misconceptions from movies like Hero and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. (which, I'm sure if my Chinese friends are reading this right now, they're gagging. I still maintain that those are great movies even if you hate them!) Most Chinese movies and literature we're exposed to are tragedies. It's always about the rape of Nanking or some tyrannical emperor or stuff where every main character kills themselves.

And the notion that the Chinese are obssessed with antiquity comes from an American-like arrogance and national pride. Both nations have achieved much, and remarkably so, and they don't hesitate to remind us. China really does have a huge history full of invention, art and thought. Plus, Chinese are thoroughly Chinese. They are not quick to try and lose their national/ethnic identity like the Japanese. Chinese immigrants typically try to acclimate to their new culture so they can be successful professionally, but they are not interested in leaving behind the Chinese traditions, language, and (of course) food.

总之, I love them, and if my experience with them has had any effect on me, it's just that I want to get to know them and their history/culture/language even more. (Oh yeah, I haven't even gotten in to how fascinating their language is. That would be the subject of another post. It's fascinating. However, English is still the best!)

--魏子 signing out!