a straight stitch, or, the sad archaeology of Francesco Ariza

It was just another dig to the academic community, but to the dying eyes of Francesco Ariza, it was the discovery of a lifetime. The site was in a clearing deep in a sparse forest of mulberries in the Eastern mountains. An undercut, the previous party’s absent-mindedness visible in scattered diagrams, etched onto the boulders surrounding the area, gridlines inspired by everything from the Fibonacci sequence to the golden ratio.

The forest was not a place for him, he thought, he who preferred dusting sabertooth skeletons at the edges of deserts, surrounded by analysts who debated on the placement of every joint and juncture–one group claiming the hind legs needed to be longer for pouncing, the other positing the need for longer forelegs for the chase–which debates he shrugged off as squabbling over remnants of God’s mistakes in creation.

He only stumbled onto the site when he dreamt of a row of wands, burning on one end as if torch, through which God spoke to him, telling him that an even brighter fire awaited him there. Such Divine Providence could not be doubted, for it came with a calm he had not felt since the last Ash Wednesday, where the thought that we would all return to dust comforted him in inexplicable ways. Dreams, however, were frowned upon as unscientific and outside cultural ethos, for which reason both the National Academy and the Anthropological Society refused to fund his expedition, leading him to withdraw the remainder of his earnings from lecture honoraria to hire a sculptor-turned-digger and a pack of horses to traverse back and forth the mountains.

“Barbarians, they must have thought the past was this numerical,” explained Tarocchi, the fortune-teller who appeared before Ariza’s house on the morning of the expedition, claiming that he received the same dream, and that Ash Wednesday should be more sacred than Black Friday–a blasphemy whose logic only Ariza understood–as he looked at the etchings.

The dig was, for what it was worth, fortuitous, mostly due to the artful work of the sculptor-turned-digger, whose care in chipping around the past excavations revealed a hewn stone vault about four fathoms square, filled with sheets of pressed bamboo leaf–much more brittle than desert papyrus–bearing glyphs that appeared to be a mix of hanyu pinyin and baybayin, the former’s sharp corners intertwined with the gentle clam-curves of the latter. Two corners of the vault were piled high with the sheets, enough writing for an academy of linguists to quarrel over for at least a full year. “A treasure for our time, thank you God!” exclaimed Tarocchi, who was so taken by his own profession of faith that he later took to incorporating scripture into his readings.

None of this caught Ariza’s attention, though, as much as the corpse: a young woman, lying in the northwestern corner, half-buried beneath a pile of the same writing-covered sheets, as if blanketed with the words themselves, mummified face possessed of an expression that, for the third time that year, made him feel that the world could be much quieter than he worried. It was the expression of one who faced death with neither resignation nor anticipation, a calmness that evaded even his scholarly vocabulary.

She must have been a Scorpio; look at her haughtiness, to have buried herself in words, he thought. “Look, her feet are facing southward. Clearly, an ill omen,” commented Tarocchi.

He signaled the fortune-teller to be quiet. The corpse could not be moved, to his chagrin, as she was as brittle as the sheets covering her: the slightest movement caused months of knowledge–or wisdom, linguists later argued–to disappear into dust. He lost two of her fingers when he touched them, and would not let his breath or the fortune-teller’s words take away anything that remained.

To mask the discovery of the corpse, which the academic world would only be aware of on the first anniversary of Ariza’s death, he had the sculptor-turned-digger cover a canvas with gravel and cement, and then string up the canvas to mask the corner. He later opened the rest of the vault to the academic community, which, true enough, spent the better part of the next five years extracting every sheet–every bit was precious and worth the high degree of precision they could only achieve in an archive, they said, betraying their love for sustained adversarial relationships–and overlooking the concealed corner.

He took secret trips to the dig weekly–this time without Tarocchi, whose fortune-telling business had become so lucrative that he started to train local choirboys as apprentices–to spend hours staring at the corpse, studying every detail, creating rough sketches of her form from different angles. He brought these home to Florencia, his wife of three years whose passion for long ferry-rides made her bored at the mere thought of visiting the same place again and again, who pretended to study each sketch while her mind saw other women reflected in his eyes’ sparkling enthusiasm. Ariza never doubted her passing questions, so caught up was he in his fascination for something which, to him, transcended the victimizing temporariness of human relationships.

In a few months he had memorized and mapped every one of the face’s seventy-seven wrinkles, with a hypothesis for which lines came from her natural features, and which ones came from the mummification process.

In a year, he had written a scholarly paper on the health benefits of Nirvana and a novella about a village that lived in constant hallucination, but switched the addresses of the publications he sent them to by accident, leading the academic community to believe he was hallucinating in a most unscholarly manner, and the literary community to praise his Nirvanic prose.

For the fifth-year anniversary of the discovery, he released a treatise that tackled the theory that we recreate the past when we stare into its remnants, with the problem that we revise it to weave neatly into our present, the prevalent consideration being that our narrative is a straight stitch that must be kept straight, lest we reel from the universal horror of discovering that our lives, ultimately, became stagnant long before we expire.

The submission of this manuscript, and his wife’s later discovery of the document when it was returned rejected, became the shock that realized in her mind that he was more faithful to his imagination than to her. This resulted in her boarding a Southward ferry with their two children, leaving him only two days’ worth of boiled potatoes, and a sack of raw ones–in the hope that hunger would bring him back to earth, and he would be compelled to grow his own–on which was an impeccably-written note: I hope this is what you prayed for.

Ariza grieved for a minute when he found out, even asking God if this was part of the divine patience that He espoused, but then he remembered his theory, and dismissed her departure as her attempt to straighten her own stitch, telling himself that perhaps that was all some people desired.

He spent the rest of his days withering away, his shriveled countenance looking more and more like the corpse which consumed his attentions. His time was spent locked in a small living quarters he erected near the site, writing amid malaria-rich mosquito bites and rumors that he was apprenticing young men for a pagan school of archaeo-philosophy that relished in the blasphemous idea of death without resurrection.

“I was not obsessed with death,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, a mess of chicken scratches leading up to his death by dementia, waking up one morning to find out his mind had forgotten how to make his heart beat. “I was obsessed with the life that enabled such death.”

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like a tight hug, like trying to squeeze it all out

Three days overdue at this point, but writing comes harder these days.

Thank you, first of all.

It takes me a while to reply to all the birthday greetings because I like to make a ritual of it: trying to make every ‘thank you’ a little different than the others, just to show that I really, really appreciate the effort, Facebook-prompted or not (the Internet can be such an unfeeling place, after all). It also gives me a chance to–forgive my little ego trip here–just take time to breathe it all in, to bask in the warmth of it all, the general outpouring of love for someone who never feels he deserves any of it, yet needs it like any normal human would, and probably needs it more than ever these days.

It’s also taken me longer to reply than usual because these past few days have been a beautiful whirligig: a trip to the mountains, walking until legs and feet turn sore, drinking excessive amounts of coffee in between; meeting up with good friends over fruity beers, conversations about life and work and adulting and television circa 1990s to early 2000s, and even more coffee; and reading everything from untouched textbooks to board game reviews in between. Tiring yourself to sleep is different when it’s because you sincerely want to make the most of the dark and the quiet, trying to squeeze every second for what it’s worth, searching for color.

Somewhere in the middle of that hot mess, I turned a year older. But turning thirty only sounds significant because we’ve long since clung to to a decimal system of counting and conceptualizing anyway. The number of years starts to not matter when things just, despite appearances, contributed to a long, slow spiral downward.

At this point, I can’t even pinpoint when everything started becoming so… drab. When color only comes in short bursts, spontaneous as the unplanned moments, set up only at the last second just to trigger them. When stories and emotions do not come as freely as before, which may be the biggest of the tragedies thus far. I miss the old me.

Disjointed, I know. Like I said, writing comes harder these days. Losing vibrance tends to do that.

Like I have also said, countless times before–but with an even greater need and urgency than ever: I have to start making this–all of this: the writing, the stories, the colors–a habit again.

up close, the view from the distance

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It’s our third anniversary today, but the first one where we aren’t together. Plane tickets become absurdly expensive the closer they are to their flight dates, and we didn’t plan this out enough.

True, you made the decision to return to Cebu to be with your family in your new home, but remember that we made the decision to make this work. Long-distance relationships, they say, have a knack for screwing up, with only the question being the when of it; people already get themselves into so much shit even when they see each other everyday, what more for people who don’t, relying on nothing more than a few chat messages and Skype calls for assurance?

If anything, though, this relationship has taught me one important thing: how to appreciate time, to focus on the short presence rather than on the long absence, to take it all in while it’s there.

They say that the best way to truly understand something is to look at it from another angle; seeing the things that lurk on the dark side of the moon, and if they’re friendly enough to hold a conversation with. I think this is what this distance has done: given us another dimension with which to frame things through. I notice that when I am with you, I am fully alive, fully present–body, mind, soul–as opposed to those times when people reach the point where they simply force themselves to be together, squeezing themselves into mental and emotional spaces that are only good for one. This space also gives us both time to wander, to learn more about ourselves and re-frame everything every now and then, and I think it’s doing us both good. I am reminded of a new-age philosophy I once read, which described human interaction as a form of sharing energy–I am tempted to call it The Force because of the appropriateness of it all–and this system falling prey to two people’s addiction to each other’s energy, which runs to both their detriment after some time. I think that our relationship, because of the space we have, has culminated in a sort of steady comfort, a feeling that you’re all the better for the simple fact that there’s someone to “come home” to, in a manner of speaking; that you’re not THAT worthless a person, no matter how big a depressed misanthrope you’ve become.

They also say that the awareness of death is what teaches us to come to an appreciation of life, that those at the pinnacle of this awareness regress to the ancient religious concept of sleep as a little death, and waking up again as a little resurrection, akin to the cycle of day and night: Ra vanquishing the crocodile, Amaterasu coming up when Tsukiyomi isn’t around, Shamash doing his regular patrols as guardian of both east and west. Thankfully, this awareness of ours comes at a cost that isn’t as permanent, though there are times when all I can do is count down the days to the next flight out, or your next flight in, whichever comes first.

This distance sucks, and I see it in how you bawl your eyes out right before we part in the departure area, which I think sees more than its fair share of tears on any given day. But, in a way, I think this is one of the healthier things we’ve done so far, until the time we’re sure we can settle down in a more comfortable galaxy, whether here or far, far away. I’ve told you what I plan to do with my life, and I assure you that we’re getting there.

The Fourth is with Us, as it has always been.

Happy Anniversary, dear. I love you.

do ut des

o108.0.108

 

“Equivalent exchange. I’ll give you half my life, so give me half of yours!”

“Argh, why are alchemists like this? What kind of idiot are you, going on about the law of equivalent exchange? You want half? I’ll give you all of it!”

a farewell to Marquez

To my idol, hero, and teacher:

Last night, I dreamed that my two front teeth were grinding against each other, trying to push each other out, the pain so intense that I woke up with a sweaty start, to a text message telling me that you had died. Perhaps there is some truth to the superstition, I thought as I read. Few, after all, believed in the power of belief more than you did.

Thank you, for teaching me about a great many things: the volatility of memory, the magic of science, the repetitiveness of history.

How light from a lamp can be like water from a spout, if you keep the windows closed.

How birdcages can be the most beautiful things in world.

How a rabid madness and the love that springs from it, can both be a demon’s work.

How wind can get people to remember, or to forget.

How every one of us, deep down inside, is scared that nobody will come to weep at their funeral.

How love can wait for fifty-one years, nine months, and four days into a lifelong cycle of running, and still be happy with the outcome.

How people respond to widespread death by creating life, and how wonderful that thought is.

Rest assured that the world will be at your funeral: weeping, remembering you in the scent of bitter almonds and the touch of ice, whilst continuing to decline the end of man, creating and recreating that magical miracle called life.

Fare well, Sir. Again, farewell.

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One of my prized possessions: a 1978 edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

wandering aloud

Visited the school where I used to teach last Wednesday, because it was celebrating its 21st, and heck, I was bored. Also had a few good, long talks with some of the people who stayed there after I left, which I learned a lot from. For instance:

– There is a line between being a rockstar of a teacher and being a plain old jerk of a person. It is, however, not a fine one, and is usually only crossed after it is noticed repeatedly. Biggest factor to consider is when somebody’s “nocturnal amusements,” to quote ye olde Revised Penal Code, begin becoming detrimental to the welfare of one’s students.

– Apparently, the methods of teaching used in law school have long been criticized by those in the field of education. Makes a lot of sense really, since the trend in education has long been to cater to the needs of students in order to arm them with what they need in a certain field to survive in the outside world, not some ego-fueled, wishy-washy fiasco of a class. I mean come on, the real reason why the Socratic Method worked in the first place was because it allowed people to explore ideas which came from them as well, not only those from something they were required to read and comprehend in a certain way, one which they would not be informed of until their grades came. Plus, Socrates never needed to grade students.

– K-12 is a bit of a bitch, since you’re on the edge of tempting people to not pursue a college degree. People still need a diploma to get anywhere in life, barring the occasional exception. I mean, come on, not everybody is a Bill Gates or a John Steinbeck.

***

Saturday was a geek milestone: got to travel from QC to Tagaytay just to visit a fellow Lego collector and his collection. Makes me wonder where I’d be as a collector now if I kept all the sets we used to play with when we were kids in tip-top condition. That, and if I had started collecting with Lego instead of with Magic, Transformers and other action figures. And no, the trip to Baguio from Antipolo waaay back when for L5R Kotei (Nationals) doesn’t really count for me for some reason.

***

Am almost halfway done with going through A Storm of Swords alongside watching it in TV series form. Unlike the first two books and seasons, this latter is starting to deviate heavily from the former, which I do not really appreciate. The dialogue is still very faithful to the books, yes, but mixing up characters and all might give the series’ producers some pretty big loopholes to fill in the future.

***

I am starting to enjoy being a bum. This is dangerous.

REM-iniscing, among other things

– Wanting to write more, but faced with an old demon of a paradox: that stories need life breathed into them, life that can only be lived because the truth can only be so much stranger than fiction, while living life detracts time from w/riting life into one’s work. Placing faith in the old ritual: that of having a sacrament of absorption, of navigating a long, dark tunnel densely scattered with all manner of sensory images, in the hopes of stumbling into that ever-elusive “creative state” that has not been felt in writing for a long time now. Reading books put off for months, looking at old photos , old notes and drafts, picking up on lucid bits and pieces of dreams both ancient and recent, looking for more lives lived before and forgotten, searching for those which could use a little resuscitation in the form of another piece. The right distance from reality/ies, after all, is the secret to good literature.

– Meeting old friends, mixing them with new ones. Finding that some combinations work, while some don’t. A fickle chemistry, that of temperaments and desires: some mixtures turn acidic over time (a night, a week, a month, a semester, a year), while some brew into their own solutions to a host of problems, while even others brew into an unstable awkwardness, with elements neither growing closer nor drifting apart, with only the future holding what is in store.

– Turned 26 earlier. Supposedly past my physical prime. Still don’t feel like I’ve done anything useful with my life. Last year was supposedly the beginning of a new chapter, too abruptly ended. Am still in a state of limbo: floating along with the uncertainty of it all, jumping from one odd job to another, in the hopes of re-writing that chapter in a new setting when the opportunity comes around once more. Never knew that such a lack of direction could be so painful, perhaps because this is the first time it has been this glaring.