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Authors: Bev Jafek

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BOOK: The Sacred Beasts
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I told Bear that Elizabethan sailors believed the birds to be
possessed of the souls of their drowned comrades, but she said no, in light of
their violent defense of their behinds, they must be possessed by the souls of
those who had re-elected Bush. Of course, as she elaborated, their soul-less
bodies were still back in the States, torturing prisoners, waging war,
polluting the earth, stealing from the impoverished to line wealthy pockets.
What better embodiment of such souls than these multitudes of creatures braying
before us, having seizures over their tiny bit of earth? And perhaps, as she
neatly finished the tale, a suitable afterlife (for which a vision of heaven
was a moral impossibility) would be a reunion with these very bodies.

A stranger and stranger world it was, I thought, the meeting of my
beasts and Katia’s imagination, and yet it virtually exploded when the singing
nuns arrived. The nuns of Punta Arenas, Sisters of Santa Maria Auxiliadora,
take very long weekly bus rides along the coast for the divine purpose of
ave marias
to the penguins. Suddenly, there they were with us,
singing alongside the braying penguins and Bear observing that it all fit into
a storyteller’s scheme, since the nuns looked so much like the penguins, the
cape now a sea of thunderous black and white bodies.

Yet that was not the end of the exuberantly inspired nuns from
Punta Arenas, for we met them again at the Neolithic Cave of the Sloths near
Puerto Consuelo singing
ave marias
to, presumably, the departed souls of
the ancient giant sloths who perished there at the hands of early humans. The
cave—a disturbing, pungently magnificent mystery—has walls still covered with
the orange fur of the sloths and a deep floor of their compressed dung smelling
strangely fresh, preserved by the dry, cold, dimly apocalyptic air. The
reappearance of the singing nuns brought a smile of delight to Bear’s face; she
was almost beatific as she said, “You are right. It
a continent full
of monsters!”

But then, I thought as I lay on my sofa, idling the evening, why
was it not a home for you, my love? You, who were so much more excessive,
cherished, and rare than my beasts? It was painfully beautiful having Katia in
my world of memory, but it ended in tears. My last thought before sleep was
that this day was a monster in its own right yet I had not touched a drop of

My exhausted sleep was almost instantaneous and then, toward dawn,
suddenly turbulent. I was again swimming off Cape Horn, swimming and fighting
the black waters, cursing and shouting. Even through the dream, I could sense
the enormous exhaustion of my body and mind. In the fluid medium I seemed to
make progress, however, and the outline of Cape Horn rose up in the distance.
was the blackened ruin of a thing, the filthy wreck that had lost all
coherence, the awful death stone
. My teeth were clenching and my mouth
curling in rage and then it seemed I could see a strange, pale face upon the
rock. Its whiteness stood out clearly, but I could not identify it. It sickened
me that a living thing should be there. The chaotic surface rocks would tear
its paws. Yet it looked on; silently and premeditatedly, it watched me as
though it expected me to reach it and what, save it? I did not know. I fought
the water to reach it, fought and howled and woke breathless, full of bright
light and horror and strangeness. I hardly recognized myself or my

I did not want to be
in this glowingly perfect dawning
light, this house I had shared with
, this place I can tolerate in
dark and moonlight but not
in which
I am
, without her, still horribly
. I shuddered in
pain and horror. My first thought was that I was still very ill and weak, not
ready for the cemetery at all. I wanted nothing more than to creep into the
dark and then, inexplicably and gently, another memory of Katia came to me.

It was dark in the moonlight over the southern steppes, and we
were young, camping out. It was the first time she saw the stars and
constellations in the Southern Hemisphere. Beyond the great shadow of the
Andes, the flat land was so little present it seemed we could walk through
stars that were utterly new to her. We walked far beyond our campsite into the
stars as though, she said, we were taking slow, rocking steps into an unknown

Then the sound came, clear as a bell in the wind, which was
unusually soft and gentle that night, a musical sound like the beating of tiny
anvils by many creatures, full of medleys of chinks and trills. Katia was
astonished, wanting to know what it was, and I told her we were walking over
the burrows of tuco-tucos. In the morning, I had film footage of them from the
infrared cameras I leave around Patagonia: they are night foragers on scrub
roots. We had to wait until I could process the images into visible light
colors at home. The trip had yielded many such images—maras and even, toward
the mountains, clear pictures of the tiny pudu.

We sat on the very sofa where I now lay sickened, barely able to
move, and Katia looked at the faces of tuco-tucos
small rodents with
astonishingly orange, prominent front teeth. She laughed and gasped in pleasure
at the face of this tiny wonder that had made the sound of anvils and possessed
such amazingly huge orange teeth. Then we turned to the mara, another small
rodent with such long, slender legs it nearly resembles a deer, and indeed it
can gallop twenty-five miles per hour over the steppes. Now we saw it sitting
on diminutive legs, eyes large, liquid and expectant, waiting in its small
perfection for the world to become a revelation. Again, her breath came fast in
pleasure and astonishment.

We then looked at the smallest deer in the world, the pudu, no
bigger than a hare. There it was, the creature that, in its diminutive
loveliness, declared the world an ungainly aberration: there it waited in its
immense delicacy and refinement. These small faces are vast secrets from the
morning of the world, and we treasured them, as was proper.

The photos now cover my walls, as well as many other photos taken
by the automatic cameras and sensors I have left all over Patagonia and then
retrieved to view the wide-eyed, peering, tender and graceful beauty of the
world in its nativity. But that was the first time
saw them, my
beloved, the one to whom I most wanted to show them. What joy it gave me to
remember her gasp with wonder, breathe quickly, live. I closed my eyes and a
wild horse of love and wonder cantered through my heart, reached every cell of
my exhausted mind and limbs.

Yes, there it was again, the rushing thing of wonder and beauty,
the new process that was living in me. I could eat and I did so quickly without
thinking and I could walk out into the blazing sunlight and work all day on the
sculpture. I did not give another thought to myself: this was reflexive, pure,
like my work with my beasts, the shape of my life, what I loved as I loved her.
Here we were together. When I finished, looking at the sunset from the top of
the chassis, I realized my body was less fatigued, growing in strength. I
smiled at the expanse of orange light, the sliver of moon, the clear blue air.
Where had I been all day? Here and yet with her. I jumped down from the chassis
and noticed that it bore little resemblance to the mess I had towed up the
lawn. I could not say it was art, but surely it was other, a strange unity,
beginning to speak.

I went inside and began to prepare my dinner and then walked
through the still, empty house, noticing for the first time that it was
beginning to show dust and disorder. Well, cleaning would have to wait. Then I
was back on the sofa, beginning to accept my solitude. Or perhaps, it was less
solitary, for there they were, my beasts, staring from their animal perfection
at my human waywardness; and there were my memories and my art touching me at
the most painful moments, protecting me in some inexplicable way. How little we
understand, either of pain or healing.

I stared out the window at what was no longer a wreck but a thing
in transition beneath the moonlight, and then I quickly sat down again in
astonishment: there was a girl out there, moving her hands confidently over the
surface of the Thing! I would have to call it a Thing now, for it had truly
achieved Thingness and was no longer a wreck. How carefully she touches it,
sometimes with her eyes closed, a kind of trained, intelligent touch as though
she had knowledge of its entirety, perhaps greater than my own. Now she turns
and I can see her face more clearly: it’s the French girl! I’ve seen her many times,
mainly as a child living with the French family two streets away. But
apparently, I have not noticed her in years. She’s grown up! I must ask her in.
I walked rapidly through the house and was thoroughly repelled by its disorder.
I surely have no time to clean it now. What can I serve her? Here’s wine and
the remains of the casserole.

I walked out the door and found myself alone with the Thing: she’s
gone. She was just here for a moment to spy, typical of Patagonian fauna, after
all. How amazing: that the Thing should be drawing the most interesting fauna
of Ushuaia to it.

I went back inside and sat on what was becoming my perch, the
sofa. Like the night heron, I need a place from which to contemplate the world.
I remember the French girl from occasional glimpses during her childhood—as
rough a little hoyden as we let grow wild down here, perhaps somewhat like
myself. Now I remember seeing her as a young woman on our main thoroughfare,
too, then she vanished—probably to a university in France. It’s December, after
all, Christmas vacation in the Northern Hemisphere. I am delighted with the
Thing—a healing balm for me, a singular attraction for other animal life. What
else will come looking for oddity? I have unleashed something.

I was both expectant and serene as I dropped off to sleep—again
quickly, without alcohol.

Then the scene smashes to pieces; the shards rearrange themselves
into something that reverses my daylight world. Now nothing is new and
captivating but horribly familiar—the dark watery dank off Cape Horn. I am
stronger now, less overwhelmed. A purpose fills me. I must reach the rock and
the white animal that waits for me. I swim and fight the water naturally now:
my anger is perfectly channeled. The cape looms up and there, there! is the
creature that makes my whole being ache. There is its white face without animal
equanimity, intensely intelligent, perhaps desperate. It is hugely, unutterably
tragic; one who speaks for all its kind, animal and artist, the one I love.

I am there beside it. I grasp its massive head that is lowered to
me. I touch the wet fur and utter a wordless animal cry, something that means,
are you? What must you tell
me? I can stand anything! Tell, show me!
plunge my fingers into the thick, wet fur and hold on until it answers. It
begins to roar and I awake, breathless, in the shock of bright sunlight, my
heart pounding. I have finished a race through the water but have no idea
whether I am the better for it. But at least I reached the rock, touched the
animal and cried out to it. I continue to breathe deeply, feel the shock of
bright light and the doubly shocking question,
What are you? Tell me!
But, what am I questioning? I know this creature intuitively. It is intrinsic
to my self and my world. I both feel and know it. The question is the latter:
must you tell me

That is perhaps little to understand. But, more than understanding
has occurred, for I have touched the white, unknown creature. Yes, that is what
matters, the
of it.

Suddenly I am filled with the most intimate memories of Katia:
touching, lovemaking, feeling the pressure of her body, her arms and legs all
over me. She was taller and stronger, overwhelming. She seemed the world
itself—larger, more powerful, the only one who could tear me away from myself
and, like an artist, purely render me into nothing but passionate love.
Touching and caressing me is a lean Modigliani body, long and Greek,
small-breasted. She gained a great deal of weight during one of her worst
despairs, yet she was still very attractive. Huge, her breasts became full and
round, voluptuously moving with an undulant life of their own. I felt
hypnotized by a magnificent female animal, a lioness. She almost frightened me,
but I loved it. Did I tell her that? No. Yes, there were our bodies pressing,
touching everywhere, near desperate. Once we rolled over and over out into the
dusty steppe and fell into the stars, the stars a dense, rolling tapestry of
light, dark, flesh, and love. I would have been terrified but for that wonderful
body I grasped, the only thing I held onto as we fell into the stars. We
thought of endless steppes, death, flying, and the unknown.

Yes, that was when we were young, wild in our
love, having orgasms all night until we were unconscious from exhaustion. Women
are like that together. She was not the only one for that. She loved me to the
limits of my body. Later we made love less frequently, perhaps afraid of that
uncontrollable ecstasy, that exhaustion. But still, when the orgasms began, the
room vanished. We saw darkness, the steppe, stars, the unknown.

Yes, she was wonderful as a lover—and terrible, as with everything
else. There were times when she became too sensitive to be touched. It could
last for days, weeks, even months. It happened when she could not write. Her
emotions became so raw and uncontrollable that she had to lie still in the
dark. Even sunlight disturbed her. She went to bed at three am and woke up past
noon. In Ushuaia, the intense early morning light—cold, endless skies with their
ring of mountains big as gods—horrified her.

BOOK: The Sacred Beasts
11.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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