EBRO AND THE ALTAR
Against the rail of the Santiago Bridge I watch the lights shimmer across the ripples of current. The water moves like a thread pulled tightly through everything—from the Romans to where you’re going, if you haven’t yet arrived.
Even now, the events blur into one another. Someone gave you my name; someone who knew me, who knew I was here. You contacted me. I was contracted to simply help you pass through. To translate. To express that which you did not understand. I present you to my colleague Vanessa, and she takes you away. And in having been taken away, you’ve taken something from me.
Yet now, while the Basilica lights tumble down over the river and the newspapers debate whether to dig up and identify the bodies Franco put underground, I light one of your cigarettes and watch the water rise. I can only imagine what’s become of you.
When the train shot out of Sants Station, bullet from the barrel to Zaragoza, I told you that in Spain the cathedral bells beat against the march of time, that maybe it was Franco’s, or the Depression’s fault. Then, you seemed timid, watching the desiccated landscape pass us by. You held your silence as a fragile object in your hands. You had only been here for five hours, and I understood that silence.
Later, in the Basilica, you could’ve been thinking anything. While I imagined the Nazi bombs coming down on the roof, you were off somewhere else, in some other place. You seemed distracted, missing the finite, troubled by some thought circling in your labyrinth mind. You were speechless when accosted by the armless man who hopped in the air to jingle the cup of coins clamped in his jaw; and the ranting man, who paced back and forth before the statue of Caesar Augustus. You watched silently as he spilt his soliloquies and politics to the emperor.
In the Basilica she touched your shoulder. We all stood, quietly staring off at once-sacred objects. I saw her touch you and thought of Nixon shaking Franco’s hand, and perhaps, the rain of camera flashes in that moment. Had you been thinking of her, sitting in the rust-brown pew, her head tilted back to view the plaster saints and angels along the white cross-beamed ceiling?
She speaks, knifing Spanish with her accent, eating inflections with her Parisian tongue. She waits to return to Paris, where she has left her withered boyfriend.
I remember. She pointed her shivering pale hand at the Latin inscription on the wall above the Pillar, and spoke. I did not translate. Instead, I said, in her language, “I wonder how many slaves it took to build this thing.” But she didn’t listen. She had you fixed in her corner-eyed glance, smiling at your stilted silence. “A marvelous display of pride, no?” I continued. But when I took my eyes off the wall, I saw the two of you walking off toward the steel-studded gothic door. In my trailing footsteps I watched her put her arm into yours, before the door slowly creaked shut on me.
I am thinking, perhaps we’ve simply been born into it all, having no real mode to express it. No words; just bombs and miracles; Galileo refutes his heliocentric universe and the papacy plays hop-scotch until the whole thing falls in through the ceiling—protestants bleed out the seams, German and Italian soldiers wear Spanish insignia; Nixon’s hand, divine texts, genocide and Derrida. We are all stuck here. Just as we were stuck before in the sawdust spectacle—sepulchral history in diffuse candlelight—haunted by somber shadows of hymns ejected and bent along the Basilica walls. Vanessa’s long trembling index finger references a dead language carved in the wall. Later, that same trembling hand pulls you into the static mass of bodies suspended over the dance floor.
She also led you by the hand across the river and into the darkness, and I followed. She took us to Caesar Augustus, where her students sat in a circle around the statue, awaiting the alcohol. Then they led us to an old flat, gutted and reduced almost bare, a sofa and a few chairs on the third floor of a building hidden in the gypsy streets. There you sat on the arm of the half-decomposed sofa, ashing your cigarette on the floor. I watched her watch you in silence. Through the smoke-saturated haze you watched the schoolgirls dip their plastic cups into the mop-bucket of sangria. The dangling light bulb above them flickered erratically, its cord running up into a hole in the ceiling. The girls, now with stained red hands, yelled and laughed wildly as music throbbed, bodies stirring the surrounding filth.
She spoke to you. Then I spoke for her. “I am writing a novel,” we say. But you mused silently as though you weren’t there, as though there were a danger in the spoken word. And without language you had no identity; you were only a phantom, a hollow body.
“Everyone in the world is writing a novel,” I said with some disdain. But it fell deaf in the green mint leaves she stirred in her mojito. I said it in your language. You couldn’t have known if they were my words or hers. She chewed the straw in her glass, and drowned herself in your eyes. She doesn’t speak our language. You do not speak hers. Yet she smiles, laughs, exaggerates her gestures. She acts as though I do not exist.
She preferred you. I came to accept in the bar later. There you put your cigarettes on the bar top and bought me a Budweiser. You slapped me on the back as if to say, “No hard feelings, old sport.” You smiled, all white teeth and honesty, like you’d seen it all before: the same story, same words, the same pauses and moments of silence. Perhaps it was your smile, that expression of assurance, which made me lean forward and ask, “How have we gotten here? Has it all just fallen in through the roof? The Pagans, Catholics, Conquests and Dictators?” I am yelling now, over the music. “What I mean to say is…” I scream, “Where are we? In what space is all of this possible? I mean, has it always been this way—falling apart from unraveling threads, just suspended here on strings?”
You prepared to speak, your mouth slightly contorted, an expression so anxious you seemed almost blind. But her swollen white knuckles pulled at your arm and led you, almost violently, onto the dance floor. I watched your bodies press together as metallic shadows shimmering under the disco ball. It appeared purely carnal, the both of you stumbling and drunk. You laughed and kissed and disappeared, swallowed in the mass of bodies, and have not returned.
It’s now becoming light. The ascending sun presses down upon the water while the river pulls forth, on to Tortosa. Still I find myself here, wondering what’s become of you. I can only imagine: the open window and pages filled with French words swirling along the walls, sunlight stabbing the darkness of her room. You awake, cold and naked, inexpressibly painted in dry blood, your body stretched along her stained canvas sheets. You are covered in pages. Pages cover the clothes on the floor. A red handprint marks your chest. You think, “My God! I have murdered her!” Then you hear her quiet breath. The alcohol and cigarettes have made you sick; your thoughts have become cracked walls and chasms. Both of you murdered the language, a knife for every spoken word. It was violent and noble, and bled into the substance of the darkness, into the sheets, into your skin.
You feel empty, close your eyes against the light. She pulls the sheet over her face, awake now, and slides her hand across your chest. She grunts, a response to the pain in her head. You try asking, “What do you want?” yet falter. You fail to fully pronounce, and instead say, “I love you.” She rises quickly, sitting up next to you with her back against the wall. “What?” she responds, “What have you said?” Then you repeat yourself, but she no longer listens. She regards her work: bloodstained, trampled, and floating dissembled about her bedroom. And although she doesn’t listen, you continue to repeat yourself. Again and again and again until the curtains fall in over you both.
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