JAN GARDEN CASTRO has published two small press poetry books, Mandala of the Five Senses and The Last Frontier. Her nonfiction books include Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne and The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe.
Jerusalem: A Fable in Four Movements

by Jan Garden Castro

    1. The Root Garden

           Where are we going? Where does anyone go on such a day?  To the docks to watch the mariners loading fish, to the boardwalks to drink whiskey and beer, to the market.  And while everyone is breathing in salt air and gathering around stalls piled high with fruits, produce and sacks of coffee beans and peanuts, we will visit the cave.  
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FINALIST
Fulton Prize
  I found it as a child.  I know someone lives there because the pictures inside tell a story, and the story continues.  There are eight rings now, only six when I was younger. Each ring has different pictures.  The two sand ponies in the center are my favorite.  I want to show you!  Come!

     We sail to a rocky cove by the sea.

     Waves crescendo against stones etched with shell, insect, frog, lizard, and tortoise skeletons.  A cascade of mauve sea anemones, orange and scarlet hibiscus, and green-black mosses and ferns clings to the rock forms, dressing their gnarled, pocked, gray-green visages in gay colors.  Myriad eyes peering from the hibiscus search the roving cloud blanket for the sun underneath.  Two doves coo.

     Silver spume ripples into circles of laughter that soak into bare sands.  A purple marlin slides through the milky air.  Strands of puckered seaweed in loosened ribbons skip across incoming waters, then slip up and down the wet sand.

     "Tell me, Alcest, did you grow up far from here?  Do you know how to dig roots like I do?"

     "I grew up on an estate near a grand palace. It is far away, in a country known for its cold winters and hardships. My father, Gabriel, was a gambler. He had books, tools, and gold. He told me his story once, as I will someday tell you. My mother died when I was young. My father never remarried, but there were many women in his life. Until I was ten, he used to read the Qur’an with me each evening by the fire. He would often site one verse: “He who kills one ‘being’ – meaning ‘self,’ from the root nafas, breath -- kills all humanity, and he who gives new life to one being revives all humanity.” Starting when I was young, I worked. At ten, I became a stable hand at the palace. Training horses came naturally; the horses became my world...One day when the land was frozen, I escaped over the Sea..."

     The sea murmurs. We have slept and now are watching high tide.  Twilight beams through the late afternoon fog. I say, “In my dream your hands are the sun's rays; you cup my belly in a basket of fingers. And…do you like our nest of seaweed and moss, witness to our sleep? What dreams are laughing under your tongue, between your lips, in your eyes? Oh? Three dreams?  Tell me!"

     "In my first dream, I was on the island.  My father's voice was calling to me, `Your mother has a gift for you in her mouth. Be careful. The gift has two faces and eight eyes.' In the second dream, you were outside a cottage --  our cottage -- by the sea, talking to your root garden. Your toes discovered a stone with a face, your face; you held it before your face like a mirror, looked into it, then began touching the lines. The third dream I don't fully recall. A fish, a very large fish, pink and white with blue streaks and a yellow tail. The fish was singing a certain song I have heard before. I will make the sounds on my flute when the fish says I am ready."

     "Your dreams are good windows for this cave.  Now it's too dark inside to look at the pictures.  We'll return with candles.”

     "We should go home.  Let's leave a clove of garlic and this pearl in that high niche.  Perhaps a magician lives here and will someday show herself to us.  We will see.  She may have many forms, so we must look carefully."

     The sea cast its saline eye into the cave, occupying the animal-shaped stones where the fish girl and Alcest had dreamed of each other. He forgot to ask Alma about her dreams.


2. Mongoose and Cobra (Alma's First Dream)

     On a rock beside the rushing waters, Mongoose was watching reflections of her delicate ribcage covered with sleek brown fur multiply in the eddies and currents.  Her saucer eyes spied a cobra in the dry dirt and grasses along the shore.  She admired his diamond-shaped yellow-and-black head, wily forked tongue, supple, iron-hard neck and body.

     "Come closer, friend," she said. "Look at your beautiful eyes in my mirrors."

     He stared at her boldly; she noticed that his eyes, instead of reflecting the yellow-green of the land, contained the blue of the sky. "This is a magnificent cobra," she figured to herself.  Aloud she said, "Let us lie on our backs and watch the tiny clouds and tell stories."

     To Cobra she smelled juicy.  He could eat her in one bite.  He slithered over and lay in the sun, letting the light warm his scaly skin. He eyed her body, mumbling,

     "What's your story, mongoose?  How did you come to this riverbed?  This is my territory."

     "I followed the route from the North. You know how fast I run.  Those woods are drying up; many left or died. Here the winds send sweet invitations.  The climate is good.  Contests keep me amused."

     "Contests?"

     "Yes. Races, endurance, hide-and-seek."

     "Do you want to race?"

     "I can run much faster than you, so there's no contest. How did you get your blue eyes?"

     "I too came from the North.  By the way, I have double vision.  I see inside things."

     "Me?"

     "You."

     "So you see what I'm thinking."

     Clouds were dissolving in the twilight.  Rainbow colors crossed the shifting waters.  The wind sighed along the edges of the racing currents.  A few birds cried out.

     In the last rays of sunlight, the war of wills erupted. His glinting blue pupils fixed upon the fleet mongoose as she sank her razor teeth into cobra's neck; his raised jaws fell short of sucking in the tiny brown mirrors and body. The contest was over.

     Mongoose salivated along the edges of the thick diamond head, carving a meal of flesh, swallowing in undulating motions that once belonged to the elongated body, licking the edges of the wound, sucking the meat, taking and losing the companion of a sunny afternoon.

     "You got me," said the ghost of cobra.

     "You knew I would," said sated mongoose.  "You are fine.  I almost wish you would come back to life to play again."

     "I am inside you; let me out!"

     "That is a new game."  Mongoose yawned, satisfied and full, and cobra sprang out.

     Cobra knew he could not win, but he won anyway. And both creatures sank into the night as they had sunk into each other, leaving a bright stain on the gray rock.

3. Sea Spiral

     She watched the sea spiral and swirl around one up-jutting rock until the waters encircling the granite filled her eyes with drunken bubbles of time. She felt his head and lips and sea wind at her breast. Her grape nipples stiffened from the wet of his tongue, the warm cave of his mouth, the cool gray breath of the sea.

4. Leaving Jerusalem

     I don’t know what’s holy. I don’t even know Jerusalem except as a giant magnet sucking up the souls of people, plants, animals, machines, earth, water, air, and fire. Don’t laugh, Pablo! You were the first to enter her portals and be dusted with the pollen of the eternal pilgrim, the spirit of man and woman. Yet you disguised all of your women, dressing each with your trickster eye, leaving no one to be herself. Each had to be consumed whole: your kindling, your flame, your ashes. The world was small then. Now, eye to eye, soul to soul, the allegiances are memorized city to city, war to war.

     You saw Mecca too. The Jew in you saved many of the precious tablets, scrolls, inked and hand-printed letters, words, books, figureheads, seashells and masks, crucifixes in bottles, butterflies, and colorful handblown glass. You were saving your own life, covered in the blood of your country, weeping and laughing as you transformed death into dread beauty, beauty into dazzling caricatures of your lust, precious vessels without origins or recognizable faces, marking, as you found them, what was lost. What is the value of a nation whose diamonds and emeralds are stored in a mind that has turned to dust?

     I was traveling with Alcest. Because of the way the sun kept playing with his fair features, he seemed to be covered in gold leaf. The boys around him were tossing rose petals at his feet. Laughing women were blowing kisses. The music of the city rose in flute and horn adagios, spiraling up the towers of old stone, into open windows, sooty interiors, the jeweled nostrils of girls. He had his self, the one he had always known, and this spirit was bathing the throng of well-wishers with drops of water, musky and cool, that danced from his fingers as he spun in spirals, laughing. He was bathed in gold light as the moon rose over the desert, and then the sun. For a timeless day, sun and moon suspended, the waters of life flowed from the tips of his fingers. We were there for as long as it took to begin the new age.

     He stood on the cracked cobblestones of the oldest city in the kingdom. All of the treasons, wounds, and mutilations of past sieges and battles began to heal. He did not raise the dead. Peace was restored below, on, and above the land. Without words, he was accepting and forgiving. At the base of an old mountain, a new spring came forth, flowing from the blood-drenched stones of Jerusalem to the red dust of Mecca. Pilgrims of all faiths – Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Abyssinians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Buddhist tribes, Hungarian Presbyterians, Catholics, and more – found their ways to the holy waters. Women were seen in a new light and were accepted as equals to men. To be at his side was to be light itself. My feet were above the ground. I felt like a small yellow bird with amethyst wings and green eyes.

     We went to a mountaintop to rest. His hands were so large that he cupped me in them, and then carried me to the spring. As we entered the waters and swam together in a sky of memories, the past dissolved and the future appeared whole.

     Later, I gave birth in a cave in the Pyrenees. To celebrate, he drew footprints on the ceiling and gave this tiny heavenly body, Celestina, eternal life. We licked the baby all over and wrapped her in a lambskin robe. He took my eyes into his mouth and painted moons on the rims of my eyelids with his tongue. A forest grew outside the cave. We drank the juices of berries and thanked each other with our hands. The girl was dark and fair with olive skin and purple lips. Her first noise was a laugh that went cascading along the cave hollows, which answered back. Our ears filled with the echoes of mountains laughing. Then he was gone, leaving his golden shadow on the clay at our feet.