“Like any object of grand passion, the volcano unites many contradictory attributes. Entertainment and apocalypse. A cycle of substance displaying all four elements: starting with smoke, then fire, then flowing lava, ending in lava rock, the most earth solid of all.” -Susan Sontag
Across the blackened moonscape of the volcano’s last expectoration, a strange outcrop of sullen, lonely houses had been erected. They dotted a wide desolate expanse where nothing else stirred except the low, new branches of hardy noni trees—here not reaching a stature much higher than brush—and the fast-moving island clouds in the sky above. The houses were a striking sight: glimmering white, bright blue, and pale green against the lava field, armored in solar panels. The Hawaiian islands were born out of fire, which formed solid land, which will one day again be subsumed by water. “Land” is increasing, and remains a precious commodity; aged dreams of life anew (off the grid).
I remember the tender closeness of a car backseat stuffed full of our week’s fare: papayas six for a dollar, avocadoes of varying shapes and shades, apple bananas, thai bananas, Cuban bananas, sweet fleshy longan. Their softness their ripeness gave proof to our oceanic location. Our days stretched from bay to bay: perhaps waking to a hundred rooster crows in the warmth of our tent on a still-deserted sandy crescent, and following to rest the sun at a county park humming with reggae and the laughter of a big family barbecue.
We drove along the dark, wet, almost over-grown Puna road with only our headlights spotlighting the way. Our hitchhiker Victoria sat in the backseat chattering excitedly, but I had only eyes for the rich red dirt along the road, the trees towering over us on both sides, covered thick in vines and leaves that hang from them like gigantic elephant ears. A quick white thing flit before our windshield. “An owl, an owl!” Victoria leaned forward and called eagerly. She told us: “An owl once gave himself to my friend. He flew over her and died, falling right into her arms.”
today osh was in a majestic mood. the evening was so gloomily stunning, haunting. dusk tugged at my spirit and i could hardly bear it. the sky was storm-grey as if snow was about to pound down. in other places it was golden yellow like the sad pages of an old book, but still it seemed to me uplifted and triumphant. in patches it was piercingly blue. then there was an angelic gate, with great wisps of rose-lit clouds. the whole atmosphere of this smoke-veiled land, the last bus passengers going to their warmly lit homes and waiting families made me almost dizzy with connectedness–connection through time and place. suddenly the october lanes of cork merged with the softening mahalla alleys, the glowing interiors of cracking soviet apartments, wood-carved homes, and tiny streetside shops became the brownstones in fort greene, candle-lit cafes on lorimer, corner bodegas on a crisp new york night. on the bus ride home i felt filled with too much, but i couldn’t even say what it all was. too many memories, too many senses of being, that were now no more.
on saturday i went to visit my friend muharram in her new marital village out past hissor right on the uzbek border. i was tucked into a wobbly marshrutka with her mother, father, aunt, younger brother who was visiting for the first time, and older sister and her year-old baby. we bumped along a slender sliver of a road that wound through hot dry hills, crackling salt beds, and golden fields of flax (we reached our hands out the window and pulled in crisp stalks, crushed the round pods between our fingers and munched on nutty seeds).
muharram, six-months pregnant looked tired, but beautiful. when i went for a stroll with her and her husband, erkin, she glowed in the warmth of the afternoon. we walked along the kofarnihon river and our feet became rust-colored and they said: the kofarnihon is very strange. every spring it wants blood.
every spring villages along its length we’ll slaughter sheep, or a cow, or maybe even a bull and throw it into the currents, because the kofarnihon wants blood. otherwise, it will steal children and other people.
how do you know?
every spring it becomes very strange. very very strange. the water becomes very high, and the river starts howling. we’ll hear it in the night–sometimes it will sound like the low moan mooooooo of a cow–and our fathers will know and they will go to the mullah and say, it is time.
later when erkin confessed to muharram’s mother that they hoped to move into the city after a year or so, she said, but at least you have a house by the river. there is a saying: those who find favor with allah will find a place by the water.
a week or so ago i took a trip to the city of panjakent tucked away in the fann mountains and not too far from samarkand, though separated by a now-impassable border. after some wandering about this sleepy town with friends, we journeyed into the mountains; the rest of the world suddenly felt so distant–was it really in this same life that i would walk miles and miles surrounded not by snowy peaks but lights and windows and rain-streaked bricks, feet tapping not this earth’s soft soil and sky-turned rocks but an impermeable layer of asphalt and concrete? in the mountains i felt an almost perfect contentment, a feeling of the vast impenetrability of the world, though in reality everything is always being chipped away.
in the mountains we met a bearded man with a black felt hat and hiking boots. his name was saidbek. he was a seasonal nomad and self-taught historian. he was full of stories and facts; he shared them with a sarcastic twinkle in his eyes. he knew why the once luminous silk road region fell into decay–the discovery of the trade route by sea. as we stood at the top of a high pass, he pointed to peaks all around and described the movements of armies during the civil war–this way mahmud khudoiberdiev marched with his men, saidbek traced with this finger.
tajiks are wild, saidbek said, i have great respect for karimov: he is holding central asia together; he is guarding the cities of samarkand and bukhara. my soul feels the same elation in samarkand as in the high mountains, he continued, these are the only two places where i feel such openness of spirit and complete freedom to breathe.
As soon as I got into the car with Dilnura and little Temur to leave for their village, I felt light and content, completely free and at home to be back in Tajikistan. Driving along the road to Vakhdat, still torn up and unfinished, dusty breeze in my hair, I thought of how little things bring tears to my eyes: when cupped palms smooth over face in the motions of omin as we speed past graves; when songs are sung about mothers, old beyond their years. Onajon, oyijon, ayajon.
In Vakhdat, longing for the haze over the Adolat hills at dusk, I walked out to the fields with Temur and his small brother Sardor. Temur ran with the other boys playing football while Sardor and I played with sticks and mud on the river bank. The rice paddies are glistening with the last colors of sunset, the air smells like cow dung and smoke. I am happiest in the village, I think, where life is simple. The swallows fly around every house, entering rooms freely, building their mudden homes.
Dilnura’s father quotes a poem after we talk about Christopher Columbus, and Al-Beruni’s India. He says, the lands not conquered by Amir Temur’s sword were conquered by Alisher Navoiy’s pen. Little Temur sits by us and quietly nods to these words.
(i am sitting at the airport united club lounge–free internet!–which is why i am suddenly and voraciously writing new posts)
i wrote this on 4 june, 2011 (over a year ago):
“and now once again as sure as any of nature’s cycles, ebbs and flows, i’ve said farewell to those who make life full, closest to my heart, the place i call home; i strike off and embark on another journey alone. life is strange, always full of goodbyes even though we all are whole when we are together, laughing. life calls for independence, and of course, we need it in our own hearts too, to go off into the world in pursuit of our populated minds. my mind churns through our times together–this week, this year, the past five years–and our past farewells. i guess it is true the feeling of “end of an era” inevitably reoccurs every year. i am sure when we all next gather we will only be filled to the brim with more affection and stories to share. i sincerely hope so.”
helped me regain perspective today. so true!