But before I could remember the name
of these angled white birds, the way
they filled the skies above our rented
house in Mexico, I had to first anoint
a camel spider in great chuffs of poisonous
oils, unfair really, being trapped as he
was in the terraza corner writhing like
the possessed I remember from my child-
hood church, when I believed men could
call God down from the rafters. And there
were also the dogs to deal with at night,
their barbed cries stringing the air
like broken Christmas lights, tuneless
and savage, unnerving in their confident,
dreamless yaps, envious of their brother
coyote running free in the desert, chained
only to his boundlessness, leaping brush
and cacti and the tiny scorpions which glow
under a black light like absinthe, creatures
we fear the most when strolling our garden’s
dahlia or slipping on our unchecked shoes.
But the birds, stork-like and mute, moving
above in clumps like highway traffic: first
four, then three, then the lone flyer I feel
the most for as he has no one to share his day.
They are dependable every 12 hours, a clock
punching numbness glued to their expressions,
if that’s what birds have, expressions.
The common sparrows will go rustling
in the nearby bamboo, gossiping the green
leaves past frenzy, but these white ones,
their wispy legs dragging useless behind
them, glide silently above us, joyless
and sober, forcing our daughters to point
while splashing in the pool, marvel these
bright tufts made brighter by the desert’s
retreating light, all going home, all done
for the day. Yes, that’s right: Snowy Egret.
Excerpt from the essay "The Lost" from Ordinary Gods: Truths, Lies, & Exaggerations Built South of the Border
We walked for over an hour to get to the airport. A few wild dogs bounded about, skittish. Men and women curbside sold bananas, thick tortillas topped with beans and coleslaw, coffee served black and sweet from stockpots bubbling over fires. Busses, motorbikes, and cars filled the streets in metallic waves, then dispersed, one smoggy crush after another.
Getting inside the airport lobby required walking through a gate, around a couple of barriers, and then past a sandbag-fortified bunker, soldiers squinting out of their darkened fortresses with automatic rifles poking up in all directions.
The inside of the terminal was surprisingly small; really just a circular two-floored room that resembled a low-rent food court. We spied some benches and my heart sank: the seats were of the hard, scooped variety lined brightly in rows. Trying to sleep across them would be impossible, like trying to sleep across a giant, plastic egg carton.
But we were happy. We finished our trip relatively unscathed. Sure, we’d had our close calls: the half-sticks of dynamite thrown at us by laughing 12-year-olds on the Caribbean island of Utila; my stupidity of buying drugs on more than a few occasions; the scary ex-military dude who threatened to disappear me in El Salvador because I was asking around about the “body dumps” made famous during that country’s civil war.
I didn’t care. I fashioned myself some kind of brazen adventure-journalist a’ la Oliver Stone’s movie Salvador, and courted danger incessantly, romantically. As one of our last detours on this trip, Lisa and I traveled to the colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico on the one year anniversary of the Zapatista uprising. The city was empty of tourists and little girls on the streets tried to sell us hand woven dolls of the rebel leader Marcos. One night, we heard the extended report of automatic gunfire reverberate from the hills and jungle as we sat writing postcards on our terrace. Things got real when I finally had an M-16 put in my face at a military checkpoint and almost pissed my pants. I understood then I was not an adventure-journalist.
And now, exhausted, we dropped our bags near a cluster of airport pay phones, (something we’d not seen in Guatemala before). I told Lisa I was going to call home and she said she needed to find the bathroom to wash up. She smiled at me and went wandering around a corner.
My older brother Brian answered the call, accepted the charges. Not having spoken to anyone in my family for so long had me prattling nonstop—I couldn’t help myself. Brian kept trying to interrupt me. He kept saying it was important. I was telling him about Tikal, the largest Mayan ruins yet discovered, and how Lisa and I saw the sunrise from the top of Temple #4, both of us standing above the jungle canopy, and about how it was one of the most transcendent moments of my life as I watched a flock of toucans fly by as the howler monkeys unleashed their resonating yawps and the sun burned away the pre-dawn mist.
“Chris, I need to tell you something,” Brian said again, his voice serious.
“Wait, wait,” I pleaded.
“Chris, are you listening? I need to tell you something.”
“What? Okay, fine. What is it?”
“Are you listening to me right now?”
That’s when I first felt panic, like the onset of a powerful fever, crawl my skin, the back of my neck, my arms. My throat constricted.
“Chris, Lisa’s brother…”
Lisa had two brothers, but I immediately knew what he was going to say. And I knew which brother he was going to say it about.
“Brian, please don’t tell me…” I started crying. Right there at the cluster of phones in the Guatemala City airport.
“Lisa’s brother Paul is dead.”
“Stop telling me this.”
Across the way, Lisa came out of the bathroom and saw my face. She immediately came over, stood in front of me. She was angry. “Who is that? Is that Brian? What is he telling you?” Lisa knew Brian and I had had an up and down relationship over the years.
I looked away, waved my hand at Lisa to turn away too.
Brian explained to me that there was a car accident a few weeks ago, that no one back home knew how to reach us; that the funeral had already taken place. He said Lisa’s family would be waiting for us in Boston tomorrow.
I finally, somehow, said okay and hung up.
Lisa was looking right at me. “What? What did he say?”
I was thunderstruck, unable to process what just happened.
“Lisa, you need to call home.”
“Why? Why do I need to call home?” Her eyes softened a bit.
“I can’t…” I was terrified, overcome. I couldn’t believe I had to say this to her. Here, like this. It was an impossible proposition.
“Lisa, just call home.”
“Did something happen?” Lisa’s face went slack and her eyes welled. She knew. In fact, a few weeks before, she woke up in the middle of the night, screaming, a nightmare about her father dying. As we would discover later, that was the exact same night her brother Paul died.
“Is it Paul?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. And then, helpless, I watched the love of my life bury her face in her hands and begin to cry.
Poem and essay excerpt are copyright © Christopher Locke 2017