Dying in Valparaiso

"That's where they take you when you die."

It looked like a place you would go when you died the young boy thought. It was a low, gloomy, stone building with a slate roof covered in moss and it stood hard against a high wall in the shadows of a twisted tree. It was a small place with tiny blackened windows up near the gutter. It looked so still.

Not that he knew anything about death. Only it was like sleeping and you never woke up. Never. And, if you were a dog, your mouth gaped open and your tongue dropped out. Or, if you were a mullet on the bottom of Dad's fishing boat, you pooped yourself if someone put their foot on your belly. He hoped his tongue didn't drop out and he hoped like hell no one touched his belly.

"In the morgue they cut you open with a knife and see what's inside," said the older boy in the matter of fact way of a hospital veteran.

He believed everything he heard. He accepted it as inevitable that he was to die. The overwhelming weakness that pressed down on him and made it hard to breath and impossible for him to move must be part of dying. But, oh, he couldn't bear to think about being cut open. When he was asleep he woke up straight away if anyone touched him. His Mum always said he was a restless sleeper. Surely if he was cut open with a knife it would hurt enough to wake him up. Even out of death. It had to.

Although nothing was certain for him anymore. The times when he had raged through each day with the intensity of a bush fire out of control had ceased. He was confused and bewildered by the sudden changes. Whatever was happening he didn't like it and he longed for things to be the way they were. He sensed they never would be and, with a feeling of panic, he struggled to cling to the lifeline of memories and will things back to the way he thought they should be.

He was totally disorientated, a stranger in a world of strangeness. Unsettled in a body that was no longer his and apprehensive at the touches of giants in white coats who invaded him with acts of intimacy but not of comfort. As his body detached itself and became an appendage to his brain, his seven years old mind began to search for answers he could understand. This wasn't just being sick. Being sick was spending a day in bed eating chicken soup and drinking lemonade and reading Golden books and Mum patting you on the face with caring and a soft, cool cloth. Why am I like this, he thought? What is happening?

No words, if there were any spoken, were the right words for him.

This might be a punishment for being bad, he thought. He flicked through his mental catalogue of misdemeanours and sins.

He remembered the day he had wanted to go out fishing with his Dad and friend Detective Roberts. He didn't want to go to school so had run off in protest and taken up a crouched position of defiance behind a foundation support under the corner shop. No threats or entreaties could budge him from beneath the floorboards. All suggestions from a gathering crowd had brought a response from the subterranean darkness of high pitched, childish profanity. Delivered with the ferocity of a trapped feral cat. Someone, unwisely, had said, "This policeman out here has got a gun."

"Tell him to shoot himself in the bum, you bloody bugger!" he'd screamed back with reckless, desperate bravado.

Later, pressed close in behind Gran's apron, nibbling on a wedge of cooking chocolate, he couldn't help thinking grownups really were funny buggers sometimes. There was tiny Gran telling big Dad and his friend to go off and leave the poor little fellow alone. And they did. He knew he shouldn't swear but as Gran had said, they had upset him and he did love fishing.

But this was not punishment, he decided. This was a time for discoveries and they were all bad.
One thing he learned was that pain didn't always happen on the outside. Inside it felt like he was breaking apart and filling the empty spaces was a sadness creeping over him like a fog.

At night he dreamt of his small body, dressed in baggy pyjamas, stretched out on a slab in the morgue. Hanging from the walls were hammers and saws and chisels all covered with stains and dusty cobwebs.

He called out, "No knifes!"

He always woke up in time.

Once, in half sleep, he heard a car door slamming in the distance. His brother going to work. Relief surged through him and, eagerly awake, he looked about only to see through the hospital window the spherical shade of a street lamp shining like the moon from an alien world. A world of no familiar landscape where everything was foreign and turned awry and reality was dislocated. Without sense or meaning.

Sometimes in dreams, in special dreams, he could feel his body alive and vibrant, pulsating with energy and vigour. In the fields of his imagination he ran. Exhilarated, hurtling through the air at full gallop with his feet hardly touching the ground and the tingling off exquisite goosebumps all down his back thrilled with the sheer bliss of the moment.

The worst nightmare did not visit at night but came upon him in the full light of day. Taking advantage of his uncertainty of the future and the dread of pain and death to come, intangible, unidentifiable spectres and phantoms haunted him. They coaxed and drew him into a realm, a world, of horror and monsters, bloodied and grotesque and infinitely terrifying.

That is when he discovered South America.

On the ceiling of the hospital wards were murals of all the continents of the world. Huge and colourful maps of different countries. Above him was South America. He was fascinated by the unusual shapes and intrigued by the words. He gradually learned the names of those exotic places and, in time, without realising it, developed a habit of reciting them quietly to himself. He curled his lips around the words trying to achieve the correct accent. Valparaiso, Cape Horne, Argentina, Montevideo, Rio Grande, Bolivia, Brazil and Rio de Janiero.

Softly he mouthed them, those magic sounds, magic names, over and over to himself until South America was absorbed and filled his mind. There was no room left for fear or scary visions. No ogre could gain a foothold. If a particular worrisome image was persistent he would recite with extra fervour, PERU, VALPARAISO, BOLIVIA, MONTEVIDEO. His incantation of names occupied his whole mind.

South America was keeping him safe.

When he was attended to and bathed and felt otherwise assaulted, he riveted his attention on the ceiling and, with all the concentration he could muster, recited inwardly his mantra.

It wasn't long before he discovered South America was not a painting on the ceiling but a vast land stretched out beneath him. He was floating above it. He could fly so easily all around the edge of this great land. He could tip toe down the Andes from one end to the other. Play high up on the plateaus to the sound of a flute drifting breathily on the chill Antarctic wind.

He learned he had favourite sounds. Bogota was good. It sounded a bit like swearing. A bit rude.

BOGOTA! He liked Lima and Peru because he was told that is where the Incas lived and they were all short, sharp words together. But his favourites, his most treasured and powerful protectors were Peru, Valparaiso, Bolivia, Bolivia and Montevideo. He always repeated Bolivia. It felt good against his lips. He did not think much of Brazil. From up there in the sky all that rainforest looked just like bunches of broccoli. He didn't like hospital food, especially hospital broccoli. So he would say, "Rio de Janiero and Broccoli Brazil!"
He played games with the words. Desperate games. He made deals with fate and bet against the future. In the corridor he could hear footsteps approaching and quickly he'd think, If I can go from Cape Horne to Rio de Janiero before they come through the door, they won't get me. If they did want him he'd say, If I can say from Caracas to Lima before they touch me then they won't hurt me.

He found out about Indians and Conquistadors and Cities of Cold. And he found out about Condors. He was excited by the idea of Condors. He decided he was like a Condor travelling, in control, all around his world on the ceiling.

At the Iguacu Falls, that place where the waters of thirty great rivers fall off the edge of the world, he learned about clouds. As the mighty falls cascaded over the edge and crashed down, roaring into space, clouds were born. From the rising mist they drifted up into the sky like ribbons to all parts of the universe. Streamers, bridges between the lost and bewildered and the haven of loved ones and sanctuary.

Why, if he looked at a cloud pointing over the horizon and his Mother looked up and saw it, and he knew she would, then he was with her, really, and not abandoned or alone.

Clouds were lovely.

But the loveliest time of all was when Girl Child arrived. He didn't see her at first. She was there on the ceiling right by the water falls. He was surprised and delighted. Was she a picture? The more he looked the more clearly he could see her. She was delicate and fragile, and pale with hair of yellow gold shining in the lemon light of the morning sun.

And her eyes! Oh, her eyes! Blue and clear and sparkling with all the light in the world. Eyes that could see forever and see all things. Girl Child had eyes of the Condor. She looked back at him with a level, uncompromising gaze that unwrapped his secrets and shared with him his memories. Who was she? She could be anyone, he thought. There had always been a Girl Child. An infant companion. Someone who made him feel contentment in his heart.

She began to fly beside him on his journeys. The more times she flew with him the stronger, more fearless he became. He talked to her, confided in her his words. She was inside him. She became part of him. Terrors were held at bay and pushed aside. Dying and the morgue was denied.

Days passed and if he was not really happy, then at least he did not feel so lost. He didn't feel so strange being in bed in the middle of the day and he could ignore the sickening institution smells.

He smiled to himself as he thought of clouds as huge lumps of fluffy fairy floss and he and Girl Child floating around in it eating as they went. Then swooping down to startle long neck llamas and giggle at Indian ladies in funny hats. In the rarefied atmosphere of the highest mountain peak they climbed aboard a rainbow and slippery-slided all the way across to Rio and didn't get one blister on their bottoms.

In the lost cities of the Incas they played. Racing along the stone walls and hiding and seeking amongst the ruins. Girl was at home near the pyramids. She might have been a child of the Sun God. And all the time she shone brighter inside him. She beat in his heart as love itself.

He didn't tell anyone about his travels or about his companion. They were his and they stayed inside where no one could touch them.

He began to think about laughing out loud. (Only think about it!) He began to feel safe.

From time to time he was moved to other parts of the building and during those times of separation from his beloved scenery he had developed a technique for keeping South America and Girl with him. His mind focused on her eyes and his routine of mesmerising names.

The visit to the exercise room was no more frightening than at any other time, although he did feel his gums and the inside of his mouth get itchy. They always did when he was nervous. He felt the leather top of the table hard and cold beneath his back.

"Exercises," said the giant in a white dress.

"Are you going to bend my legs straight?" he asked.

That was his mistake. He should not have said that. He was caught out, distracted by her smile response. His mind was in Peru and he did not see the smile not reach her eyes.

He did not register the sensation as one of pain. All he knew was that he seemed to be falling. The walls around were swaying and moving away from him and he couldn't breathe. He didn't have the strength to make a proper noise of protest. He tried to call out, "PERU!" but from his mouth came only the choking, meowing sound of a silent scream.

He was being dismembered, torn from his body. He couldn't think. He lost the sequence of sounds. He forgot Valparaiso. He was falling over Valparaiso. He was dying over Valparaiso.

As he fell he finally knew death. It was the death of innocence. In one scream his childhood had ended and nothing was ever going to be simple or all right again.

Afterwards, back in his bed, he stared with a blank and empty look towards the ceiling. In the memory of the scream was the death of trust and hope and all attachment to his elaborate dream. His sense of identity with any world had been severed. He had been betrayed by a painting on the ceiling.

His disintegration was rapid. His ornate world of childish fantasy no match for the brutal onslaught of a dispassionate reality. All faith in the mantra was gone. South America had lost its power and the sounds became mere words. Words he never uttered again.

He descended into a nowhere place. A place beyond loneliness. With no embellishments and no exotic distractions where there were no dreams to dream. He could no longer trust dreams.

For the bold and boisterous one whose life had been coloured with excitement and adventure, his pallid sentinels became a beseeching sweetness and a timid, cringing demeanour.

And Girl Child? He avoided her. He could not look into her eyes and see the look of pity as she watched him banished and consigned to his solitary place.

Girl Child bore witness to his ultimate aloneness. Knowing all his secrets and holding his memories within her but not able to live in a heart growing colder, she turned from his mind and left him.

Sometimes, like the feeble note of a tremulous flute, I hear the sound of a scream echo down the years.
That is, on those days when I am in an Iberian state of mind. When city streets are like deserted canyons and slamming doors and sudden noises are like claps of thunder on mountain peaks. And the sound of car tyres sizzling by are blizzards roaring over barren Patagonian slopes. On days when I feel exposed and unprotected in the wilderness and am wary of strangers and empty rooms.

I shield my eyes lest I see a vision of loveliness sent to torment me in this moment of my fragility.

As often, fate has no compassion and I see you as you walk by. I observe you like a voyeur. I see your arms and the tiny hairs shining in the sun and soft curls on your neck. The delicate, pale beauty of your neck. You seen unaware of how beautiful you are and unconscious of the aura I see around you. With some shock I acknowledge I am one of your species. But right at this minute I do not feel I am. I am so far away from you and a world where people dance to a music I do not hear.

I am immobile, as if cast in a block of ice. As you move, air caresses you. It sings to you like a soft breeze blowing through casuarinas.

I am unsettled and shaken by a resurrected dream. I have been invaded by shadows re-incarnate. An arid, burning sensation at the back of my eyes makes me blink hard. As wind whistles past balconies nearby I hear the flapping of giant wings threatening in the sky overhead.

Now you turn and look in my direction. Oh, your fatal eyes destroy the last vestige of my stability. They see all the light in the world, those eyes. They have seen places that have been to me only in dreams past. I have no defences before you. I try tor un away but I cannot.

Now you slowly move off. It seems ages since I first saw you. You diminish slowly along the street. Your loveliness fades from my sight.

I have a recollection of being divided and rendered incomplete. I have a memory of being left before. You are soaring away to your world. You are returning to the South Land. You girl child, woman child.
I lift my face to the sky above but I find no ribbons of reassurance.

I am wounded. I feel a hollow coldness shift inside me. A glacial slide and I am transported to that melancholy place.

The air around me is chilling and I huddle in a doorway for protection against an icy Antarctic wind.

Huddle down like a rock buried in the earth.

Buried, so far away from Valparaiso.

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