On the other side she’s there with me too. But not in this way, amongst these salts, with this compact touch. We come to the same room of the same house at the same hour, to inhabit the same translucence…
Was there any doubt? Of course I would come back to this seaside town. Lucky I got here when I did, two days after the storm that made waves lash the shore, ripped precarious habitations from the sides of the hill, filled hallways with water, swept away kiosks, dragged the mayor before bobbing cameras to speak the expected set phrases in his low voice, changing nothing. We watched the scenes of destruction on television, and this formed part of our romance.
Now, cracking open shells and forking out the rubbery flesh, rolling our tongues over these fruits of the sea and washing them down with the cherries, blackberries and spice of a good Carménère, I ask myself: Is life sensuality, and death silence?
Visible from the window of our home, two dogs, one black and one beige, lie with their noses poking over a sand cliff. At home on the beach, oriented by instinct toward the sea, they don’t even open their eyes at a stranger’s approach, just turn over with complete trust for a scratch of the belly. Matilde covers my hand with hers, and we watch as an intrepid young man and a young woman in raincoats ruffle the canines’ fur with affection, before continuing on their way.
The two of us used to have a chow-chow named Panda. A ridiculous ball of fur, that creature. He went straight to heaven, not even stopping briefly in this half-here, half-not-here place where Matilde and I spend our days, apart, together, waiting for a storm.
Matilde is there in the other life too, of course, but it’s not the same. There we are together as minds, not as bodies. When we move toward each another, it is as if we are in a dream. But the rains allow us to move in a different way, one that is capable of grasping, one in which our glistening opacities, our half shells with their lustrous insides revealed, enter into irresistible contact with the pearl of life between us.
For me, the relationship between life and non-life is something like the relationship between the ear and the sense of hearing. In non-life, the flesh is guided by reason; in life, it is guided by instinct. In non-life, the self becomes pure abstraction, while in life the whole body is receptive, an ear. An oyster still alive and in the sea, capable of movement and thrashing fury.
A pigeon lands on the beach, and from far off I can see the gleaming waves come in, the colored blocks of the Hamburg Sud storage containers. It’s the hour to make scratches on paper, to stretch out, to listen for the barks of the sea lions taking shelter. On a sunny day I might hop the bank and go down to the beach to pile sand into a mound. Or perhaps I’d choose not to descend, and just stay here, where I want to be.
Our forks scrape the plates. I remember just how I felt when I wrote my poem ‘The disinterred’, with its line about the ‘furious oyster’. At that time I was quite taken by the Count of Villamediana, a Spanish poet born in the 16th century. I was living in Rangoon, and in despair because for the first time in my life, I could not understand what I was living for, in such loneliness, in a place so far from where I was born, spending my days sunk in alcohol, filing piles of paperwork that mattered to no one, grappling with a local woman who was violently and jealously in love with me.
The Count of Villamediana did not suffer from these doubts. He knew how to live well; he wrote satire and carried on the business he liked at the theater, at court, at dinner parties, at the brothel, not caring for social norms. He was murdered under suspicious circumstances by those jealous of his relationship with the queen, and was buried a knight. I couldn’t help but think about him and the contrast between his brilliant life and the quiet of his existence afterward, under the earth. My poem imagines his restoration to life amidst ‘brimstone and turquoise and red waves and whirlwinds of silent coal’, a clanking return to sensuality.
I want to see a flesh waken its bones
and a special smell run in search of something,
and a sight blinded by earth
run after two dark eyes,
and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts,
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.*
It can only be obvious that I wrote this poem with a sense of anticipation for my own end and what follows. In the poem, the Count rises up on the Day of the Dead, a fanciful holiday that I have always liked. I didn’t know then about the other life and its in-between way of being, incorporeal but capable of returning on certain days, when in the heavy rain and wind, the flat expanse of the Pacific surges up to push great masses of water onshore.
When the count is resurrected, he is also given back the ‘furious oyster’, his sense of hearing. All at once the flesh of the ear opens up, and unblocked of dirt, it is enraged and delighted by the rich variety of sounds available to it after so long in silence. Something similar happens when the power is cut and one’s hearing begins to sharpen, one sense replacing another in a forced transition to a different way of understanding. The oyster is unhinged to reveal the nacre, the waiting treasure, the ability to pursue sound as well as other senses…
Matilde and I move into the other room. Three times during the night, her face turns to mine. It’s always the face first, or is it the hands, so subtle they make the drawing near of all else both possible and necessary. One body pressed to one body, subtle axis spin, angular momentum of composite particles. Beneath my hand her hair is wire fluff; beneath my other hand, her belly firm elastic. Metatarsal joints, cuneiforms, fibulae, all the parts of her feet meet with mine in the search for heat.
Her legs are pure cold bone, torque and scissor. Like that, yes, it does take a few moments to ease the way in. Slight fatigue after travel sharpens every sensation; warm and soft in my hands, all at once she is tense: what is living is both delicate and firm, hard exoskeleton and tender inner mussel. My salt flesh gives out a substance of pearl capable of vanishing with no trace, dissolving within to form a part of her essence. Outside the window, a soft gray smears into white, an oil of flowers, an anointing that lulls us into sleep.
Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time? It never happened just this way, yet it is always happening. This is our collective dream, the dream I share with Matilde. A dream into and not away from life; a vivid picture drawn in aquarelle crayon, so intense that when made possible by the rains, it brightens into reality.
She rustles in her sleep, waking when she feels my presence. Her kisses alternate soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know. I know, I know. And with a swift change of the tide, we are back in the other life.
* ‘The disinterred’, an homage to the Count of Villamediana by Pablo Neruda, appears in Residence on Earth, translated by Donald Walsh
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French, currently in Santiago de Chile. @jess_sequeira