Papier-mâché: 11 September 1973

this is a story i was told by a drunk woman
at a wonderful day of the dead party,
as we danced, men and women holding hands,
the circle of the dance of the dead 
in an already dewy backyard
full of mole holes.

because it is important to celebrate
as much as one can at any time,
we were also fêting halloween
and she was a pregnant nun.

i was a tampon, an easier costume
than you might think.

this is the story she told us as we drank, danced, and fell
in mole holes, and as she kissed the sweaty
heads of every young one who tumbled by,
and today i imagine her saying, or maybe
holding the words back behind her beautiful
pursed lips -- as red as you'd expect a pregnant nun's to be, 
in the full bloom of health and impending motherhood:

(there were other september elevens before
yours, you know) there were other september elevens
before your sad and ashen new york city,  there
are september elevens today, this october day
of the dead for 1988 in this nice, safe backyard,
on this drunken festive night
in the southeastern united states.

i cannot remember all the details
there was such a swirl of panic
(of silence) of silence, of radios, of televisions
airing patriotic song after song,
but in each house a hush
after the initial rush to hang the flag
and draw the drapes.

my husband had a government post
not a job a position a name a known
function he was visible he was a part
of the government shot dead that day
(call it suicide). call it suicide, we know 
the truth of sudden danger, always expected
but still never believed but here we are,
two children in a hushed house
with panicking radios and other mesmerized
electronics, and me.

they always said they'd come and we always raised
a glass, hoisted a laugh, at the thought (let them come!) --
let them come!  the children have found a voice
that removes the protective cover to my nerves
and for the first time in my life
i want to hit them -- let them come!

i cannot call him; he cannot call me, though
the phones are working (it's what we know)
it's what we know. this is his day at university, 
and we long ago decided, if apart, that he would go
straight away to mexico.  i could not remember
what i was to do, with little iago, little emilio.  
with me.  how did we ever believe such simple things
could hang on to truth, how dumb to think:
"you will take the children and go to your mother's
home on the water in valparaiso." 
oh, dear god, valparaiso was over run by dawn.
i hear her, gustavo, i hear: "¿mi niña?"

papers, it was papers, they would come for papers.
(even idiots want proof) even idiots want proof to rub
between thumbs and index, to copy, to sort, to file.
they love files, and so paper, paper, paper
is all that i could think, and i screamed it at the children:
"paper, paper, paper," and they began to think,
god bless the children, and a neighbor man
came by shrieking about the soccer stadium, and 
all that i can say is "i fly the flag, i fly the flag,"
screaming at him as he shrieked on down the road.

tug, tug, little hands, little nerve deadeners, the little ones
we said it was all for.  papier-mâché, mama, paper mush --
and i stared at them in wonder, wondering where in this hell
did they come from?  (mi vida, mis hijos) mi vida, mis hijos, 
a game, we'll play, a game, and papa will love us for it.  
we emptied every  filing cabinet, notebook,
checkbook; we emptied every drawer of every scrap, receipt,
reminders, and i merrily cut up thick manila file folders until my hands
bled for trying to cut through five, six, seven at one time,
until we had enough for three, three i-did-not-know-whats,
three paper mushes, three graces. in the silence, again,  "¿mi niña?"

we had to stop for bread and juice, my sustenance
was gone, (my lacks were catching) my lacks were catching,
i was a communicable disease, did he catch a train, a bus,
did he jump onto the open bed of a truck, maybe
with chickens and other teachers, spitting feathers
out his mouth, speeding north?  and we hauled three bags,
equivalent amounts of bits of this and that in each, dividend,
a percentage of destruction, and torn enough,
i prayed.  i prayed loudly over the quiet of the radio
and that sycophantic idiot box we dared not turn off,
we hauled three bags, equivalent, to the small hallway
outside the small bathroom.  i cheered on my babies,
said, "what are you waiting for, run water in the bath,
we have dangerous functionary paper mush things 
to make of your father's plays, thoughts, and poems,
of his love letters and his arguments against traffic fines."

there is an art to papier-mâché but we cut corners, and though
i am known as a precise baker, a magnificent baker, not of homey "messes,"
but of finely sifted cakes and intricate caramel bird cages.
so tired now, so hot and cold at once, my recipe approximated
weights of sorrow, and eye-balled measures of thickened fear.
i sent iago to two homes on our right for flour and emilio
to the left, and in lieu of a fine whisk or my inherited wooden spoons
so good for batters, two ancient field hockey sticks
held stead.  (we stirred, tossing) we stirred, tossing in the heavy scraps --
cardboard, files, rolodex entries -- and then the finer papers,
from onion-skinned airmail stationery to razor thin carbons,
and the linen envelopes of momentous invitations.
i cried when words would climb to the surface of our dough
ball, like the child's magic toy that could answer any question.
democracy, revolution, a new world...

hair glued together, more pasty white than melanin allowed,
our dungarees a mess, we dared a giggle, a guffaw,
and stared at our three balls, at the paste on the walls.
the boys played at keeping them slowly rolling, not wanting
these three planets to nave flattened poles, (still believing
earths were round) still believing earths were round,
and then boom came the sound, boom, boom,
and the bread and the juice were back in my mouth,
i was gagging, boom, boom, boom.  my boys' eyes
so round, and i could have killed myself for not covering 
them in careful strips of bright colored papers, smoothing
paste over their eyes, their mouths, their beautiful faces.
but i smiled, made my eyes smile, too, and my boys
whispered, saying, "what do we do?

i said, "get the water colors and paint these worlds,
starting with the oceans, huge swaths of greens 
and blues, it doesn't matter if paint bleeds,
these worlds are mostly wet with seas, rivers,
and tears, and almost everyone has swimming pools..."
i yelled (¡ya voy!) ¡ya voy! and smiled my way to the front door,
seeing the shadows cast of what looked a multitude
but were only two uniformed men, and i had the stupid
thought, why are their uniforms so neat, so trim, why aren't
they dripping blood, why is their hair so damned coiffed under
those ridiculous caps, and when in hell did evil become so elegant, 
anyway? and i welcomed them into my humble home.

"passing muster" is the phrase, i believe, when meeting military protocol,
exceeding standards, bouncing quarters off of well-made bunks, all that.
they destroyed our home, tore the offices apart, yelled
as if yelling could make me vomit incriminating papers
(in my bile) in my bile, while i regurgitated memorized lies, with odd
moments of a housewife's laughter when i realized some were true:
my husband was in the process of transferring files
between home and office, office and university, 
it was all, oh-so-beyond-me, i've been so busy with the kids.
there were eighteen different ways of explaining the absence
of paper in the home of a playwright and novelist
and cultural adviser to a dead president, though wallace
stevens found only thirteen ways to see a blackbird.

they gave my kids a glancing glance, and i reeled
backward, almost falling against a ravaged bookcase,
breathless, my breasts aching as if waiting for milk to come 
rushing in, when the two not-even-grown-themselves men
swiftly eyed my sons, standing dirty, proud, smeared with paste and paint,
framed forever in my mind by the bathroom door, peeking up,
peeking down, peeking all around, and emilio even
winking. (i could have killed him)  i could 
have killed him had i not loved him 
for doing what his father would have done.
the military might leaned over my little ones
and admired their globes, asked how much candy
three such piñatas might hold, and all three of us thinking
how each watery planet must weigh twenty kilograms
already.  the boys never budged from the threshold,
the men never tried to breach it.

and that, she said, twirling suddenly in the black
choir robe that was her vestment, is where (i end my story)
i end my story, not with the falling apart, the wounds,
the dead of the aftermath,the years
of separation, the journey from home to exile --
that flayed skin, fascia, meat from my body's bone.
no, that day begins and ends with a recipe 
for paper. we had horror that day
but we did not die, we lost words that day
but made worlds in our bathtub
and we did not die.  now here i am with you,
dancing the dance of the dead at three of a morning,
a pregnant nun on halloween, years before your eleventh
of september, years after mine, and though
your sweet hearts try to understand
the idea of never going home,
you cannot.

my tale is just of water, flour, and paper, 
mis queridos, binding, hiding, and rewriting
a treasured trove of words: peaceful words,
hopeful words, new world words.
ordinary words.

the photo is from freedom from torture -- a medical foundation for the care of victims of torture. the image is from a poster of the disappeared under pinochet.
to read the basic story of what happened that day in chile, HERE is a link to the wikipedia entry on the coup d'état.