Cutter Ulhorn is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in La Guajira, Colombia.
It is night, and along the mountains is a rim of light. It is the spoor of stars melded in cloud cover, the ghostly orange of street lamps flashing in and out of the silent plains beyond the town. The trees retreat into a mess of green that hangs about the slopes like a leaden jacket, whose glow tumbles into park below with the neon of algae in brine.
You are caught in this green light, the men and you, as you slam into one another.
You take a running start, shoulders pointed forward, lunging and tensing as you gain momentum, hitting one another. You do not miss.
You are wrapped in the kevlar of youth. But when you hit, their heads stays steady and your’s snaps back. You feel your teeth clatter in your jaw. You feel the resin of plaque flake away as the back of your neck swivels perilously on your spine. The chords of your neck flex and snap like sails in a tempest. You fall to the floor. Your head throbs. For a second you cannot remember your name.
Profe, are you alright, the men ask you.
I am fine, you say. I have a weak neck.
Profe, you are not as strong as you look.
You are not as strong as you look.
You are not strong. The specter of the future looms. The one year slump is real. One day this will be gone: this town, your presence in it. One day what you run into will not be a man half your size but a moment, some unforeseen trial, and you will collide with it and your head will snap back beyond its tinder and you will not get up again.
And you wonder what lies after here.
Because here is so pressing, so violently immediate. You walk into the mountains and from your mouth comes nothing. There is no room between your teeth to fit your petitions. You stare up at the sky and wait. There has not yet been the hand, the hand that slips between the clouds and grabs the words lodged in your throat. Your mouth is filled with a humming and it is the humming of the insects in the grass, the burning sinews of the tires in the trash fires outside of town.
He knows what you will say before you say it. Your needs have been met. You look to your right and there is a flower, it’s petals a hard matte of violet. The base of it’s roots strangle the dark soil poking through the asphalt. A hawk soars through the sky. With its talons, it intercepts a pigeon in mid flight, splattering the ground with droplets of blood and viscera.
The people live in the middle of this clatter of life and death, seemingly unphased. There is joy and they dance and they stare. In the caseta they erect a pico from the capital. It is a derelict crane arm tied to a tree trunk. On its rusted neck fifty feet above the ground, hangs a stereo stack, swinging in the high breeze rolling down the mountains. The speaker boxes are battered, dented, presumably from falls of such heights when the water logged ropes holding its base gave way. On its face, someone has painted an Aztec warrior. His arms are bulging; his face is a mess of sharp lines and plumage. He stares at a skull in his right hand. As the speaker swings above the ground, it catches the red disco lights sweeping the dance floor, and the skull looks caked in blood. It is the speaker, and from its black mouth blasts the screeching accordion peels of vallenato, the crushing brasileño bass that shakes the bricks loose from their mud daubed casings. Under it, the people pull each other close as if in a gale, bracing themselves against an onslaught that is all around them, and the DJ lifts a half naked seven year old from the crowd and has her press her hands against the base of the crane and twerk in the beam of a search light and the boys from the mountains throw fists in the corner, and the floor is strewn with teeth and broken glass, everyone doused in maisena and out of their throats gallop cries and screams and appeals to God for joy, for His son, for more whiskey.
They call the speaker The Invincible.
You are reading your way through the Bible. You are reading a history of things that came to pass long before you were born, that will come to pass long after you have died. The men of this book are caustic. They are afflicted with a fear of the divine that appears about them, that whispers to them through their tents at night. Some of them are nomads; many are exiles, their mouths polluted with foreign wine and foreign words. They have never seen the Ark. They have never seen His face. In the dark, visions stalk them, voices rise up from the floor of the world and shudder in their bones. They pray. They sacrifice goats and pray. They kill Philistines and pray. They tear their clothes and walk about Jerusalem in ashes, wailing at the skys. About them a tempest is blaring, a gale between righteousness and that banal sort of evil that veneers our every action, our apathy to suffering, to denial, to neglect, to dreams, to premonition, to the thundering crash of love. It is a storm and they are caught in the middle, buffeted like a palm forest, their bodies bending this way and that. For them there is no way to evade the wind. From Him there is no escape, no rock under which to wait out their own natures. Their plight is noble.
Tossed by the wind, they sway and sway and sway.
The storm builds. It is a wind that grows, but does not crash. You think of the States. All of those times up to now have been practice for this bigger storm, for waiting out yourself, waiting for Him. Practice; it was all practice. You got sick at restaurants when you found yourself thinking of the future over dessert. You stood against the wall in the bar as the music blared because you had seen yourself naked and were convinced that everyone else could see it too, in the way your body moved less like a body and more like a collection of limbs sewn together. You hid in the bathroom at your significant other’s family reunion, because as you looked another great aunt in the face and said the name of your dead end minimum wage job and watched the light fall out of their eyes, you fathomed a million seven story windows and your body lazily sailing out of each of them in a sea of glass.
You sway and sway and sway.
You brace yourself for an onslaught that is all around you.
You walk through the Mercado Nuevo in the capital. Yucca rots in puddles of motor oil. The sun sets on a field of ruptured concrete, strewn with spent tampons and shopping bags. A tinny Martin Elias blares through a car radio. As you round the corner towards the colectivo stand, you see a bitch nursing her litter under a wooden cart. The donkey stands idly by, chewing hay, its owner nowhere to be found. You walk closer. You can see just how small the puppies are, each one no longer than a pea pod, yipping and crawling for space at one of their mother’s black and tattered nipples. Usually, the bitch looks back at her puppies with that forlorn resignation common to dogs, to animals that have seen their young taken away senselessly, or drowned in arroyos, or throttled by mange or starvation at far too young an age. But all dogs are good, if a little rough around the edges. But this one is not looking. She is eating something. You have walked past the cart now and turn your head to see. The meat is black and strangely slick. She pulls back her jaws and the meat snaps off a tiny thigh bone. She gnaws hungrily, oblivious to the pups drinking from her. You round the corner. Just then she adjusts her paws, and you notice that one of the nipples lies engorged with milk and strangely bare. You turn away before you can see her yellowed fangs tearing into that small canine face.
You are impressed with immediacy, with the beauty that lies mingled with evil. People walk down the unpaved roads, the shadows cast down by the hills are long and black as ink, and you are struck by the fact that this is no accident. Chance is a foo’ls errand. It cannot contend with the massive, the intricate or the small. For in the gestating silence before the world, these moments must have existed, simmering, simmering and waiting. Your students, who both surprise and annoy you, are intolerably ancient in origin. Their every breath, every raucously ill timed joke lives in the echo of a word spoken long ago, whose syllables have carried the ages and sent you, inexplicably, careening into each other’s lives, jolting your necks to look up at the sky.
A word: light, let there be light.
A white and burning light. The flame in the bush. The blazing pillar at the Mountain of the Law. The sun taught and fixed over the crumbled city. The unknown lamp illuminating the writing on the wall. The star, burning in the temple of the night, irradiating a pueblo with a deep and unearthly shine as shepherds watched their flocks.
You pray for light. You wish that the sky would open up like a vellum bound book and spills its ink on your skin, clotting you with cloud foam, with the iridescent fire of the sun. You think of the transfiguration, seeing Him burning in the white that is whiter than white, that is the collapsing of every color, the deadening of green; and you wonder if there are not moments in which we can be turned beyond recognition.
Where are the moments of surprise.
Where is that moment you have dreamed of, where you cease being you and start being the person you will be.
And so you start to barter with Him, seeing what you can give up, how much you can lay on the table until your skin peels off in a fit of starshine and you are exposed, your bones barren and aching in a puerile light as you are unwoven, scattered away and aloft by a loom of air.
You look for your own Isaac, search back through those things that you cherish the most, and as you pray, you offer this thing up to him with indifference, with nonchalance, and beg for Him to ask you to give up this thing, so you can feel the wasting away of that part of you that still clings to things. So you can look at it forlornly behind you on the donkey, so you can ponder the thick blade as the thing stumbles before you, gathering stones for the altar on which it will lay. You want that moment where you can raise the knife above its still beating heart, where every fiber in your being screams no, but your mind is a terrible and affirming yes. So when they look at you and you say the name of your dead end job, as your body heaves on some forgotten dance floor, as you vomit tiramisu in the toilet of a chain Italian restaurant, you can look up into His eyes and say I am fallen and I am wretched and I am blessed.
The blow will come but your neck stays firm. The light around you is green, but you are burning white.
You sway and sway and sway.
You think of subtraction. You think of the wasting away of your body, the grey matter in your brain mellowing and souring until sounds blend with colors and the preciousness of everything is lost. Until you cannot remember your own name, and the green fades to black.
You think of addition. Of all the things that will be added to you. Of your hand on the door, knocking, your first matted with splinters, blue with bruising. You think of promises, too. A big one, one so big it ruined you. And you cannot think through it, cannot decipher the words that describe that moment in which the storm crashed into you and wrecked you and washed you onto the shores of eternity. You unwind seamlessly into the fleshless palace of light, into this storm that was a man who was more than a man, and your skin will steam with newness and You will grab the torque of your tongue and wring out nothing but praise. And He will stand and you will fall.
With a snap, the electricity goes out in the pueblo. A branch has fallen on a power line somewhere up the road and there will be no one there to fix it until morning. For a moment, the town is dead in the darkness. One by one, candle wicks unsheathe tiny flames. The air curdles with the smell of stone, the irrepressible greenness of the forests above you. Dogs yelp at the onslaught of burgeoning stars. A wind blows the grate open; the flame flickers. It bends back and forth, it’s deep blue center blinking in the furling and unfurling of its amber edges. It burns.
It sways and sways and sways.