Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Maps, Epiphanies And Narrow Escapes

I stepped out onto the small terrace of my grandmother’s house and I walked over to the white ledge that overlooked the street. It was early morning and the sun was already high up in the sky. All along the edge there was a long spiral of harsh barbed wire. Over that, there were two long wires that would give you a strong electrical shock if you touched them. Extreme protection for dire circumstances and only merely adequate in this city of thieves. I stood next to the ledge, my right hand on the faded white surface of the white cement wall, and I looked up and away, towards the sky, towards the volcano, towards the world that was broken into places far and near and threaded with pockets of understanding and vast areas of wonder. I looked at it all and I felt the strangeness of being here this morning. I remembered being here before, many times, many years ago. I remembered standing in this very spot, tracing thoughts that I couldn’t quite remember, wishing for things that I didn’t really want any more. I knew it was me who had been here, but then I didn’t quite understand who I was, not now, not then. As I looked at the wide green leaves that hung over the sides of my vision, I pictured myself as an empty vessel, a strange structure made of nothingness, able to carry packets of nothing within it, able to sometimes take them to their intended destinations, but unable to hold them for long. I looked across the street at the huge houses, at the barking dog behind the metal fence, at the three levels of garden of the mansion to the left, at the blackened windows of the mansion to the right, at the white walls, at the red pillars of naked brick, at the waving palm trees, at the trails of invisible sadness that seemed to extend from the highest secret rooms to the dirty gutters that lined the edges of the broken asphalt, sadness so thick, so tangible, that I could almost reach out and caress it with my fingertips. I had seen these very places so many times before but maybe I had never truly seen them, maybe they escaped from me as I lost myself in chains of thought that never finished, maybe they hid behind the corners of my vision and only came out when they knew that I was gone. Maybe as soon as I stepped away, the houses would change, and what I had seen today, I would never see again. But what I saw I would carry with me, no matter how ephemeral, no matter how unreal, no matter how forgotten. I was a carrier of maps, of myths, of tragedies, of quiet moments, of faded memories, of facts and of fictions. I would deliver them at one destination only to pick up some more in the voyage and go on to the next. They passed through me like water and food and they left some traces of their short stay in the tenuous fabric of my being. There was nothing else. Not that I could see today. I would never fully know what life was like for the dog behind the fence (even as I stared out the fence and barked at the bearded man that stared at me from across the emptiness) and I would never know how the world looked from behind the blackened windows in the uppermost reaches of that lonely mansion (even as I opened my eyes in a dark room, my head throbbing from a terrible hangover, and resisted the impulse to open the curtains and look outside). From my very own hands to the most distant little caves at the top of the volcano, this place was full of unknowns. I knew today that the questions could only grow larger and multiply into infinity and the answers could only shrink into dust and fade into the past, the remains of liquid cargo that had already been delivered.


It was a clear morning of mid December. The sun was shining as intensely as it ever did but the winter wind balanced the heat with a touch of loving ice. Standing in the middle of the little dusty street I was neither cold nor hot. Ricardo, my friend who was my brother in those days, was standing beside me. He was shorter and thinner that I was, but his thin body was covered in finely etched muscle. He wore a simple white shirt and beige pants, and shoes without socks. We were engaged in furious discussion with three older boys who had come to give us the good news of the coming of our Savior. The three boys were dressed in simple one color garments, light green short sleeve shirts and brown pants. The one in the middle was a bit taller, maybe a bit older. His skin was a dirty brown and his hair was black, combed towards the back with just a hint of vaseline. He spoke with confidence and determination. I thought then that he was someone that was used to success in similar discussions and the respectful way that the other two looked at him confirmed my suspicion. They were smaller, skinnier and full of shyness. They would talk only to corroborate what the middle boy had said, to maybe add a detail or provide the correct chapter and verse for a saying in the Bible, then they would retreat to their assigned posts at either side of him, always attentive, always full of admiration. The street was quiet and devoid of any traffic. Instead of standing on the sidewalk, we stood right in the middle of the dark blue asphalt, etched with scars left from flooding, from traffic and from the decay that was already in evidence back then, but I was too much a part of it to notice. I paced slightly from left to right. My friend who was my brother didn’t pace at all.
"The crucial thing… the thing that I most want you to understand… is that you can only reach Salvation through Jesus Christ, our Lord," the middle boy said and the other two said "amen" in the background with complacent grins. "There is no other way. If anyone has told you anything different, they are wrong, they are sent by the devil to fool you…"
"But how can you know this?" I asked, looking at him, genuinely curious about his answer.
"It says it in the Bible…" as he said it, he raised the small black Bible that he held in his right hand, as if he was lifting a heavy weapon above his head," it says it right here and I have faith that this is the word of God…"
"And how do you know that?" I asked again, unsatisfied with his answer. A woman carrying a large bundle of wood walked by on the sidewalk in front of me. Her skin was blackened by soot and her dress was dirty and covered in black spots. She walked calmly and decisively. A shirtless little boy walked next to her. Behind me, my friend’s dog, from the heights of the terrace, was barking at the passersby, threatening to jump over the edge in a raw act of aggression, something he had already done before and would probably do again. I didn’t turn to look at him, but I could imagine his snarling teeth, dripping with thick saliva, as he pushed his head through the holes under the ledge of gray cement that surrounded the wide terrace.
"I have complete and total faith in the truth of the Bible. If the Bible says that it is so, then it must be so!"
"But…" I was about to follow up, simply curious as to how he had come to believe in the Bible so fiercely. My friend who was my brother interrupted me, following a different approach.
"You have to understand that the Bible was written by men, men who had specific purposes, men like you and me, men with faults and problems…"
All three boys were shaking their heads as my friend spoke, again with wide grins painted across their face.
"You are wrong about this. The Bible is the direct and clear word of God. If someone has told you about this, then they are trying to fool you… they are…"
"How come the Bible is wrong about some things then? How come it never mentions evolution?" I said, following my friend’s approach.
"Evolution is a lie of the communists. They want you to not believe. They want you to renounce faith and become like animals. They want to turn everyone into godless amoral monsters."
"But evolution is a fact," my friend said, nodding his head as if to reaffirm his own statement. "Darwin showed that we are all like branches of a very complex tree that extends through the history of the planet, each species is a different branch… but we all come from a common trunk, we all come from the same tree…"
"But how can we come from a tree? That makes no sense!" the boy said it and the other two nodded and grinned again, happy that their leader had made a point that was beyond refute.
"No…it’s not that we… I don’t mean that…" my friend suddenly realized the boy’s complete misunderstanding. He turned to me with wide eyes of surprise. I turned to him and shrugged my shoulders and shook my head.
As they walked away, they were all grinning, very glad in their knowledge that once again faith had triumphed over logic and science, all three ready for the next battle around the corner. My friend and I sat on the curb of the sidewalk, playing with little sticks and stones, rolling them against the dirty edge of the gutter.
"What can you say after that?" Ricardo asked me.
I nodded. "I know… what can you say?"


We drove past a large ranch where many people were gathered. My Dad was quiet for a moment and I turned towards the crowd to make out what was happening. There was loud music coming from inside and all the people were clapping and singing and screaming rapturous hallelujahs. The people looked poor and thin and sad. The men wore old short sleeved shirts and old wrinkled pants. The women wore single color dresses, faded from years of use. Their faces were meant to invoke ecstatic happiness but all I could see was desperation in their wide open eyes, in their upturned faces, in their vibrant screams of exuberant faith. Someone somewhere had made some very big promises and now all these wrinkled faces were eager to see these promises fulfilled. The music was so loud inside that it overpowered the sound of cars and buses honking. I could barely see the shadow of two huge speakers towards the front. Among the thumping bass and drum beat, I could only vaguely distinguish the words: "Let’s go together, let’s go together, let’s all go together to the house of the Lord…"
My Dad shook his head and turned away with a single and final dismissal. "Idiots…"
I looked back towards them and I tried to open myself to their hopefulness. Maybe the God that they believed in would deliver them from years of hunger and suffering. Maybe it was the only hope they had left. It would then be cruel to remove it. Was it cruel to offer it if it wasn’t true? A woman with four kids made her way across the street, holding her black bag tight against her chest. She was late to the service. She rushed towards the ranch with a look of eager expectation painted across her round brown face. She had been given a map and she held on to it tightly, like her kids, like her bag. I felt a hesitant sympathy for her as my Dad turned the corner and the sound of singing faded into the loud harsh symphony of the noises of the city.

The fat older woman looked down on us from the heights of the front of the classroom. Her manner was soft and cheerful. She wore a flowery shirt and dark pants. Her hair was artificially arranged into a curly blonde ball that surrounded her face like an opaque halo. She paced a little while she talked but she mostly concentrated on the drawings she was making on the blackboard. We were all seated on small wooden desks, each one of us with a small mostly empty notebook, a pen, a regular pencil and many color pencils and a small rubber eraser. She would write down specific phrases on the blackboard and she would ask us to write them down, exactly as she had written them. She would make drawings on the blackboard and color them with chalk. We were supposed to copy these drawings just like she had made them. Ideally, our notebooks should have been replicas of each other. But it was never quite so. The maps changed as they traveled, even in the short journey from the blackboard to my notebook, from her lips to my ears. I wrote some of what she wrote and made little figures on the edges of the notebook when her back was turned towards me. Large monsters scaling up the sides of great castles. War planes swooping down to destroy a line of tanks. Soldiers making their way along the side of a river, guns out and ready. Whenever she would turn back towards us, I would look up and stop drawing and act as if I had been writing what she said all along. A skinny boy with glasses and a brown checkered shirt was seated next to me doing the same thing. He was my friend and we would look at each other every once in a while, smiling mischievously, sharing a rebellious secret. We were here, forced to stay after the regular hours of school, forced to seat in the same little cramped desks and told to still remain quiet and still. At least we would get to draw and fly away on the tips of our pencils.
There were some other kids in the class that I had never met. They might have been a grade above me or a grade below me. To me the school was still a vast world of strangeness and unknown kids were like aliens from a distant galaxy. One of the alien girls had long pigtails and thick brown glasses. She would constantly raise her hand and ask questions of the teacher. The teacher would turn then, forcing me to stop my drawing, and answer the question slowly and calmly. I looked at the girl hoping she would just run out of questions, or at least keep them to herself. I had my own questions but I had learned already that it would make no difference to ask them. Not of this woman. Not of anyone in this classroom.
"How did Moses get the commandments then?"
The teacher turned around with her usual smile and walked a bit closer to the girl with the thick glasses.
"He walked up to the mountain and God spoke to him."
I wondered then how it was that God spoke, if he spoke in a language that everyone could understand or if he switched languages depending on what country he appeared in. I wondered if he had ever spoken in Spanish. I thought that if he had never spoken in Spanish then Spanish must be a poor language, a language that even God did not love. I wondered if he had spoken in Spanish sometime and maybe that perfect Spanish divine communication had yet to be revealed.
"What did he say to him?"
"He told him the rules that his people were supposed to live by. There were ten of them."
I wondered then if people had never heard of these rules before, if before this day people had killed and robbed without punishment or guilt. I wondered what a world like this would be like and how I would have fared in it. I saw myself as a possible victim to the school bullies that I had grown to fear and hate. I saw myself getting a machine gun and ripping them into little soft bits of bloody flesh, grinning like a maniac as I did it. But then I remembered that there were no machine guns back then. But there were probably bullies anyway.
"And what happened when he came down the mountain?"
"He found that the people had forgotten all about God… they had gone back to their old customs and their old Gods… they were worshipping a ram!"
I pictured a big crowd of people, all sweaty and dark-skinned, playing strange noisy music and screaming in delight. I pictured some of the women, almost naked, their brown skins covered in sweat and wine as they writhed in the orgiastic pleasure of the strange ritual. I pictured the golden idol of the ram and wondered what it was they wanted from it. I wondered where it came from. I wondered what the world was like back before Moses and his jealous god of nothingness, when everyone worshipped the eerie golden ram and everybody was sweaty and half mad and there were no rules and the music was strange and the drums were deep and resonant. I wanted to know more about the ram and the old world before the coming of God. But I simply stayed quiet and listened, picturing naked people dancing madly over each other while a golden idol was shining triumphantly above them.
"What happened then?"
"Moses was furious and he slammed the commandments down above them! And the people cowered in fear, realizing that they had done wrong by worshipping their old idols!"
I pictured the angry face of Moses (or Charlton Heston, as that would be the face that I would see in my mind’s eye when I thought of Moses) and I saw the people run around in fear and beat themselves for having been impatient. I saw them destroying the beautiful ram. I realized that the golden idol would be lost forever. But I still wondered what it was that they were doing and why did they want to go back to doing it. I felt afraid then because I was curious about the ram and its rituals, more than I was curious about anything this teacher had to say, and that could probably mean that I would be going to hell along with all the bad people, the ones who scurried in the shadows and stole and killed in the night.
The next time the teacher turned around and away from us, I drew a pit of fire at the bottom of the page. I wondered how long it would take for me to get used to the flames.


I stepped into the old church with a sense of hesitation, as if I was walking into someone else’s home without knocking or asking for permission. There was nobody inside and there was a soft silence that was lightly caressed by the colored light that streamed from the stained glass windows. The roof was as impressive as I remembered it, a sequence of curved concrete columns that simulated a long tent. The main altar was surrounded by statues of the Virgin and the Saints and there was a wide stained glass window behind it which bathed it in golden light. At the top was the figure of Jesus, the King of the Jews, forever dying slowly on the cross. I walked around slowly, noticing little strange symbols, the chalice on the altar, the shocked look on the face of the Virgin Mary, the indentations in the pews made from the weight of a thousand knees that had pressed down on them to pray. As I walked out, I noticed a bulletin board, announcing a Catholic Youth Band playing for a festival, and a meeting for Bible study (every week on Wednesdays, "everybody welcome!") and a special meeting for women on Friday afternoons. Outside, a barefoot boy in ripped pants and a dirty shirt played with little pebbles by the side of a parked car. A peasant woman across the street was selling fruit and vegetables to a woman in an expensive dress. A tall man in a suit, wearing dark glasses and a somber face, stood silently by a shiny brand new silver car, parked a few feet from the church’s entrance. I turned one more time to take a picture of the giant white cross that was sharply outlined against a gray sky covered in dark clouds. Inside, Jesus would continue to die as long as the church remained standing. I made my way across the street to find my Dad’s red car in the little empty parking lot.


He walked into my room with a smile and a handshake. I was just short of twelve years old and my room walls were covered with posters of KISS and scenes from fantasy comics. I had a stack of books on my nightstand, most of them in English, and very tall stacks of magazines and comic books in the closet. There were several bookshelves full of more paperbacks along the edges of the walls. The walls of the room were curved as my mom had designed them, avoiding any corners, any disruptions of the flowing space. The furniture of the room, the desks and the nightstands, were designed to fit precisely with the curves of the walls. There was a small balcony that was just for me, that looked out over the garden, the tall wall of octagonal bricks to the left and the large swimming pool to the right.
I looked up to see him walk in and he was an apparition from another world. His name was Orbeliz and my mother called him Orbeluz ("orb of light"). He came from a place where there were no special walls, and the walls that there were, they were not made from special bricks or from bricks at all. He came from a world where there were no private balconies, a world where there was hardly any privacy at all. He came from a place where one book was a luxury and two books meant that one must have been stolen. He was thick and brown and unshaven. His hands were marked with years of hard work and his fingertips were round and flat and strong, like harsh tools made of flesh, designed for rough labor. His eyes were gentle but firm and his voice carried a sense of easy friendship and a skill for cold decisions. I sat up on my bed and shook his hand as he offered it and he sat on the little chair next to one of my desks.
"Did you bring the guitar?" I asked.
"No, I didn’t get it… but I will get it for you next time. I promise." He nodded with only a slight sense of guilt.
I smiled, picturing the electric guitar in my hands and long colorful trails of energy flowing from my fingertips like a shower of rainbows. I had never played an electric guitar at that point. I didn’t know what the two words together ("electric" and "guitar") really meant, but I was eager to find out.
"I wanted to talk to you about the work we’re doing…" he said it and he leaned closer to me, taking out a small book that said "The Bible" on its cover, written in big black letters. The book had a soft green cover and it was wrapped in transparent plastic. "This is a very important book, it is full of truths… but people don’t understand it."
"What do you mean?"
"They think it talks of a heaven somewhere else… somewhere above the clouds…" he made a face that let me know that such a thing was impossible and I smiled with him, letting him know that I agreed. "But it’s really about this place… right here….where we live…" And he reached to touch the desk, and he pushed his weight against it to confirm its reality. "This is what we need to fix… it is this place that can be heaven, it is this place that is now hell…"
"Why is it hell?""You don’t live it… but you have seen it. You have seen the way people live, the way they beg for food, the way they walk around barefoot on the hot pavement…"
"The poor people…"
"Yes, the poor… you’ve seen it. You know it. That’s hell. That’s what we need to change. That’s what needs to be cured in this world. That’s what this book is truly about. This book is not about complacency and fake gestures of brotherhood. This is the real Bible, the one that was never censored. Here you will find the hidden story of the Maccabeans, the brave people who rebelled against an empire. Like we do today. This is the Bible of rebels, of people who never let their lives just pass by without struggle. This book is for people that are willing to fight until the very end."
I nodded seriously and looked at the book once again. I had seen the Bible before, I had seen several kinds of Bibles, but this one looked different and, after hearing him talk in his voice full of memories of hardship and constant struggle, it resonated with the promise of a new discovery.
"I want to leave this with you…I want you to read it. We’ll talk about it more the next time I come back."
He placed it in my hands and I held it and looked up at him. My body resonated with gratitude, with a shifting mass of visions that transformed a guitar into a book, the colors of loud music into the radiations of secret knowledge, the strength of a man raised in hardship with the beauty of privileged art and silence. I held it tightly and said: "Thank you."
He winked and walked out of the room, saying: "I’ll see you next time."
I stared at the soft green cover and the thick black letters and I marveled at the mysteries that waited inside.


We drove down a long narrow street, littered with pieces of paper and bottles of soda and beer, grimy with the weight of years of poverty and neglect. In the distance, I could see a red flag waving in the wind, like a beacon of hope across a dire landscape. On the flag was the Che’s face, looking triumphantly out towards the world, letting the people know that the revolution was coming soon. His eyes still promised the same revolution that never happened, at least not here, at least not yet. His eyes still held on to the pure hope of another era, when the future was just around the corner and if you held on just long enough, you would be there to see it arrive. That future was now in the past and most people here could only see before them a present that slowly fell forward by inertia, a present where they slowly got old and the streets got dirtier and the jobs got harsher but nothing really ever changed. As we drove past the giant red flag, I saw many red posters with the faces of the left wing party candidates, ready to win in the coming election. Their smiles looked forced and painful, but that could have been the artist’s mistake. A couple of young pretty women stood by the posters, wearing red shirts that simply said: "FMLN". They waved red flags at every car that passed and screamed loud slogans in unison: "Now is the time! Real change is coming!". In their glowing eyes I could see a touch of the same hope that I remembered, and it was shining like a young fire starting to flare over an old stone tainted with centuries of ashes.

I sat on the old little chair, feeling my body press uncomfortably against the frail wooden backrest. I shifted a bit and then shifted again, all while keeping my attention on the man moving from side to side on the small stage about fifty feet away from me. There were many people there, about sixty to eighty, most of them much older than me. Ricardo was also there and a few other young adults. Otherwise, most of the audience was composed of middle aged women and men, who mostly managed to maintain their eyes open and their mouths shut through a talk that could last more than three hours. The man onstage was short and stocky. He talked in the loud clear voice of an actor and he emphasized his points with practiced movements of his hands, arms and body. He had a wide clear bald spot that reached back towards the crown of his head and long black hair around it that fell to his shoulders. His white pants were tight and pulled up several inches above his waistline. His smile was friendly but defiant, as if to say ‘I have a secret, but we’re all friends here anyway. Maybe I will share it with you if you stay a while.’ And it was precisely to get a glimpse of this secret that the people came.
This man was well known through El Salvador as a stage magician, an illusionist and a worker of miracles, a semi mystical figure that the people both feared and admired. In his youth, he had made his name through daring escapes in which he reproduced all of Houdini’s stunts, all except for the one that finally took his life. I had seen pictures of the young man in swimming trunks, water dripping all over his thin short body, emerging from the Lake of Ilopango after escaping from a straightjacket, a trunk wrapped in chains and certain death from drowning, surrounded by photographers, reporters and people who stared at him open mouthed. I had watched the reports on TV when he had laid for over a week on a bed of nails and people then came to see him, and they would cross themselves and pray, unsure of what this vision of calm endurance and strength could mean to them. Was it a sign from God or temptation from the Devil? He finally stopped the experiment when some people decided to come and pray at his feet, as if he was some kind of ancient idol. He said he didn’t want people to see him that way. But the mark had been made, and there were not many marks like that one in the history of El Salvador. So week after week the people came to listen, to watch him move, to laugh at his jokes, both new and old, to try to grasp from him some tiny bit of his deep knowledge and evident courage. And week after week he talked and talked, for hours without stopping, without questions, without rest, without a clear direction or theme. He would talk and the sentences would simply flow out, one after another, and people would sit and nod their heads in affirmation. I sat and listened, restless in my little wooden chair, but unwilling to leave, unwilling to let go of my curiosity, of my eagerness to learn.
"To materialists then I say: ‘Have you looked within yourselves? Have you not understood what you are actually made of?’" He turned and looked over the crowd, his eyes aflame with intense clarity. "Do you? Do all of you understand what you are truly made of?" He grabbed a piece of his own flesh, a bit of the skin that covered his thick arms. "This only seems to be real. It gives that appearance. But it is not real at all. What seems to be solid and strong and firm, it’s all an illusion. Remember: ‘What you believe to be true, that is not true! What you don’t believe to be true, that is true!’ You should always remember that!" There were whispers in the audience, quick attempts to restore caution, to listen and understand and know not to take these words too far. "This is all an illusion!" He knocked hard on the solid surface of the small desk behind him. "It only seems to be stable and firm. It is all only vibrations. Only vibrations. And that’s what you are! Only vibrations! Do you understand that?" I saw a dark skinned older woman nod and whisper to her friend: "Yes, he’s right. That’s all that we are. What else is there?" I pictured my body as a swarm of fireflies that constantly shifted position, maintaining the illusion of my own body, but never staying in one place. I imagined the rest of the room, the rest of the people sitting there, also composed of millions of tiny fireflies that buzzed and flew and jumped but always managed to maintain the apparent forms in place. The man on stage walked over to the edge of the stage and looked over his audience with eyes that turned up towards the ceiling. "Listen," he said in a voice that was still loud enough to be heard across the room but that gave the appearance of a whisper, "once you understand that you are only vibrations… and you should understand it now… then it should be clear that it is your inner vibration that determines your reality… isn’t that clear?" Again people muttered and I felt that something had clicked within me, something that I would not be able to explain a few hours later but that was clear right then as I sat on the little old chair. "If you do good, the world will be good to you. If you do evil… well?" He shrugged his shoulders and people laughed and clapped. For a moment they had been unsure of his real meaning, for a moment they had hesitated at the suggestion that what they believed was not really true, but now things were clear and bright again and they could now return home with a sense of deep satisfaction. In my mind, I wondered what "good" really meant, and I wondered what was the real color of "evil". I knew enough not to voice my questions but I would let them ring within me as people clapped and Fanci, the Magician, my old Teacher, descended from the stage to shake people’s hands and answer random questions about money, health, love and politics.
A few minutes later I stood outside feeling the cold winter wind and I still held on to that flash of realization, that fleeting moment when the golden door had opened and I could vaguely see within the hidden chamber inside. But it was still too dark. I could not see any colors and I could not step inside. I needed to fill in my maps. I needed to complete my mostly empty notebook. And my questions were still flying around my eyes like a small swarm of fireflies that refused to coalesce into a definite shape.


"Have you seen him?" the Old Woman asked me and I shook my head.
"No, I haven’t. I left a message for him. I don’t know if he will call back."
"He probably will…he’s not an ordinary man…"
"I know… I have always seen him as something else, something different and special… but I have also seen a side of him that is not so different. I just wonder which side will come out with this…"
"He will rise up to the occasion. He will let go of all resentment and greet you as his son."
I nodded and smiled at her. There was a part of me that wanted to believe her.
"I hope so. We will see."
That night I dreamt of a garden where I played with my current friends, the ones that I worked with day in and day out. We were having a party and we had invited other people to come. Etanna was playing the elegant host. Lydia was playing with the children by a pool of clear blue water. My Old Teacher showed up but his face was not happy. His eyes were pressed tightly, his forehead was traced with lines of worry and anger. His wife tried to pull him towards me but he walked away, breathing hard and shaking his head. I resisted the impulse to follow. The garden was shining with the green of the grass and the many colors of the flowers. The party continued unabated. I woke up knowing that my Old Teacher would not call, not that day, maybe not ever.

There were about seven or eight of us. We ranged in age from fourteen to nineteen. We were seated around him in flimsy plastic and wooden chairs. He was seated on a old couch with thin beat up cushions, all fading into the final stages of grayness. He was a tall dark skinned man, with long black hair and a bushy black beard and a thick moustache. He wore a long orange robe and a turban of the same color. His body was thin but looked very strong. His hands were wiry and moved in intricate shapes through the air as he talked. His black eyes were full of intensity as he placed them on each of us, one after the other. He talked in a mixture of English, Spanish and Hindi. A pale thin man was sitting next to him, acting as his translator when needed. Mostly he just sat and listened as the man in the orange robe was not completely pleased with his translation and he did not like to leave anything to chance. He talked in a soft voice that allowed for many gaps of silence, many moments of pregnant expectancy that fluttered between us like waves of cool air in a hot afternoon.
"You will breathe slowly for some minutes, you will bring yourself to a space of very deep relaxation. You will imagine yourself leaving your body, flowing out of it like water, flowing up and out, towards the sky, up into space, towards the shining stars. You will let yourself fly freely among the stars like an eternal bird. You will fly like that for quite a while. You will come to see in the distance a globe of light. Fly towards it. Move towards it. Join it as it floats in space. You will flow into it just as you flowed out of your body. Now you will flow into the globe of light and become one with it. Feel yourself become the light. Feel that your body is gone, left far behind on the surface of a forgotten planet. Let the globe of light become your body. Pulse with it. Feel it breathe. It is alive with potential. It is alive with love. Be within it. Stay there and feel yourself become inseparable from it. Know, here in the middle of empty space, that you are the light. That nothing has happened before this. Nothing will happen beyond this. You are the light and this is all that there ever has been or ever will be. After some time has passed, return to your body and relax within it. Feel yourself back within the influence of planetary gravity. Open your eyes and be here again."
I took it all in, trying to remember every detail and realizing that I would forget a lot. A couple of my friends were writing notes on their notebooks. I felt that this would be more of a distraction. I couldn’t look at him if I was writing and I felt that it was important to look at him as he talked. Something was happening in the way he moved his hands, something was happening with his eyes, something I could only barely trace while looking straight at him, something that would surely be lost if I looked away. I settled in the flimsy chair, reassuring myself that it wasn’t about to break. My eyes fell momentarily on the bookshelves, the same ones that my brother who was my friend and me had arranged not too long ago, the ones that were full of knowledge, of ideas, of legends, of myths.
"One thing that is very important. You should not combine this work with anything else. Baba has given us this method as pure and as perfect as possible. It is our duty to keep it pure and perfect. Don’t try to combine it with anything else you have heard or learned. Set everything else aside and use this method. It will work when other things haven’t."
I nodded and so did the rest of the group. The man in the orange robe still slowly scanned us, one by one, making sure that we had listened, making sure that we were not holding on to questions or doubts. When he was satisfied, he stood up and signaled to his helper.
"That is all for today then. Practice this every day, morning and night. This will change you from the inside out. This will bring about transformations within you that will affect every aspect of your life. You will see results very soon."
We reorganized the chairs in silence, each one of us full of calm curiosity. One more time I looked at all the books and wondered what was really waiting within them. I resolved to follow the Dada’s instructions. I would keep the knowledge pure. I would set aside all other knowledge and work exclusively on the path that he was offering us. My strong resolve may have lasted a week. I believe now that it was even less than that.


Ana leaned sideways, as if struggling to remain calm in the face of so many sad and frightening memories. "We would shiver all night, in the little hut. We would hear gunshots outside and screams and people running. We knew that soon it would be our turn. We all get out turn sooner or later, right? So we just shivered and prayed all night, hardly sleeping at all."
I could see her, thick and brown and trembling, pressing against her mother who was probably just as thick and just as brown but more wrinkled. I could see her three brothers, all skinny, all shirtless, all equally afraid but trying not to show it. I could see the wooden windows and I could feel the cold currents of air that slid their way into the hut through the many open holes. I could hear the gunshots, the machine gun fire, the cars rumbling by on their way to another violent encounter.
"It was God that saved us. It was God that intervened for us and kept us safe. There is nothing else. God is all we have. We can’t ever turn away from him. We have to pray to him always and he will keep us safe."
I nodded and smiled. I wondered if the others, the ones who were now decomposing in the ditches around the little town of Izalco, had simply not prayed hard enough. Maybe they had turned away from the path, like I had, maybe they had forgotten about God and had turned to the ram, or to a little Old Teacher in a decaying house filled with little old wooden chairs, or to strange men in turbans who spoke with alien accents. Maybe they had simply rolled the dice at the wrong time, maybe they had left their doors open, maybe someone in the family had taken the wrong step and all of them had paid for it. Maybe there was no clear reason for what had happened to them, but we would have to find one, as quickly as possible, or we would lay awake at night, trembling, forever fearing the monsters that roamed outside. Maybe if I surrendered my need for reasons I would become one of them, forever doomed to roam beneath the moonlight in search of innocent flesh.


I was standing on the terrace, under the weakening sun of the late afternoon, under a vast sky covered in black clouds that surrounded the volcano like a thick necklace of black smoke. I was looking across the street once again, at the huge mansions that I had seen so many times before without ever really looking. I saw that I would never fully travel through the walls, but I would get closer and closer, inch by inch, to that dark room on the other side of the thick brown curtains. Somewhere back there I waited, lying on an unmade bed, staring at the ceiling, sinking into loneliness. Somewhere back there I sat in a little room where I rested for a few minutes before I had to go back to the kitchen. Somewhere back there I cleaned my shotgun carefully and wondered if I would ever need to use it. Somewhere behind the tall white walls, the pillars of red brick, the lonely terraces of cement and stone, the slanted gardens of green grass and deep purple flowers, somewhere back there I waited to be discovered. All the words I had ever heard, all the stories I had been told, all the final conclusions and the hidden knowledge, all of it could not even begin to trail the labyrinth of dark mystery that spread like bolts of lightning over the leaves that now shook lightly before my eyes.
All these maps of verbal wisdom, they were the liquid messages that I carried from place to place, from chamber to chamber, from one being to another, but the journey itself was the answer to the multidimensional questions that could not be spoken. Without the maps, I would have no sense of direction, I would be like a tiny discarded bubble gum wrapper flipping end over end as the wind took me from one corner to another corner in the noisy chaos of downtown San Salvador. But like Lorena said the day I got here, when I spread the map of the city over the thick dark wooden table: "Looking at a map like that, you can get lost." There were many maps lying behind me, discarded, dusty in the depth of my subconscious. There were still many maps ahead of me, maps that I would make out of dreams and golden thread, and maps that came as gifts from others that I would never meet, beings dead, alive and imaginary. But today, I had let the maps fly away and there was only a street and a few giant mansions and a curtain that remained closed and a dog that barked when cars passed by, old motors shaking with mechanical effort as they climbed up the steep hill. Without the maps, there was only mystery. And in the pure mystery, I could almost touch the hidden face, the heartbreaking tornado of raw creation that some had called the truth.
When the first few drops of rain started to cover the cement floor of the terrace in little moist spots of darkness, I walked back into my grandmother’s house and closed the metal door. I could smell the food cooking in the kitchen. I could hear the noise of the TV coming from my father’s room. I sat on the light brown sofa and smiled for no apparent reason. Nothing had happened out there in the terrace. Nothing would happen here inside the house.

As a child I would pray to be shown the truth,
unable to shake the suspicion
that the ones who claimed to have it,
had nothing but dust in their hands.

Jesus in the moment of Sacred Transmission
when his disciples' faith turned to knowledge
and the light of God descended into them
in an electrified shower of life.

Moses and the Ten Commandments,
the ten laws that would rule his people
and bring about the Kingdom of God.
In the valley below,
the people still remembered
their strange dark idols
and music, lust and ecstasy
still made the desert come alive.

Ricardo, my friend who was my brother, and me
back in the days of joking in the streets
while the world burned around us,
back in the days when arguments were a parlor game
and all disagreements were forgotten
by the early light of a new morning.

The Maccabean revolt of the 2nd century,
the Jewish Intifada which had been censored,
from the perfect Word of God
and which now became the inspiration
for new generations of rebels
in a legendary land very far away.

Fanci, the magician, my Old Teacher,
who sought to blast away our limitations
and show us the outer realms of reality.
With him I committed the simple sin
of walking way too far
and crossing the side of him
that still remained on land.

The man that came from far away
to give us a jewel that should have remained
pure and hidden,
untouched by curious hands
that would willingly smash it into pieces.

My Dad many years ago,
glowing with light and warmth
in the very same terrace
where I looked into the void,
and found it hidden by thick curtains.

"He who would come with me,
shall have to deny himself."
But how deeply would the denial reach,
at what point would the maps vanish,
and then there would be no further need to follow.

A picture of Christian heaven,
awash in white robes and empty smiles,
where lions have stopped hunting,
and men live without lust.
It was pictures like these that made me wonder
if heaven was truly what I wanted.

A dark window that marked
the boundaries of my knowledge.
Beyond the darkness, I could not enter.
Within the darkness, I could not leave.

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