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Kirk Marshall


Wonder and Whisky Sour Off Tapachula Bay:

A magic realist fable



It was Christmas, and the air sang of the sweat on necks, the pink exhalation of the sky. He couldn’t recall feeling the sand between his toes last, and he suddenly pondered upon why that was; certainly, it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, digging one’s feet into the strata of dead centuries. It followed that sands, like continents, shifted gradually over time, and thus it struck him as monumentally epiphanous that perhaps he’d stood in these exact same sands before, contemplating similar thoughts. Still, he’d never been to Mexico until now, and that induced shame, because beneath the tidal heat and Tia Maria sunset he felt new and silly, a depthlessly old child, a body of untameable thoughts and hollowing sadness now basting beneath the cosmic coppery pastels of morning, celebrating his birthday.
           Shirtless and beaming, Jesus fell knee-deep into the greeting waters. Baracho, his loyalistic guide with the inhuman moustache that danced when he spoke, waded in also, his back radiating the asphalt sheen of an olive-skinned native. The grey sea embraced their lower bodies entirely, and Baracho found that it was necessary to stand on aquiline tippy-toes to ensure his evil-smelling, hand-rolled cigarette avoided being doused. Embryonic smoke carpeted its meandering way behind them as they pushed forward on stringy cold legs, and the alcohol searing within their stomachs and eyes burned like a festivity of moon-white moths, inspiring stupid hoots of laughter.
           ‘Aw, shit,’ Baracho wheezed through glorious dirty yellow teeth, ‘You gone a crazy, man! You gone all crazy! You come to Tapachula to go all funny, man! Baracho, he knows fanciful thoughts in avian eyes, he does, and that only mean one thing, you all-crazy padre: you drunk like fat American soldier!’ Baracho collapsed fitfully into the next wave in a sputtering, demonic choir of laughter, only to have his cheroot extinguished and matted into the spidery weave of his beard. Jesus barked aloud.
           ‘Okay man, that not funny. You think funny? That not funny.’
           Jesus bit pensively onto his lower lip, sucking diligently upon his teeth. ‘Sorry.’
          Baracho narrowed his eyes.
          ‘Look, honestly, I don’t find your, er, predicament remotely humorous, Baracho.’
          ‘Do you see me laughing, Baracho? I’m not.’
          ‘Okay. So I’m laughing. But not at you, you understand, it’s the alcohol.’
          ‘Alright, it’s you, but you’ve got tobacco smeared all over.’
          Baracho sighed censoriously. His scarlet eyes exchanged temperamental daggers with Jesus, then fell to tears of mirth once more. Arms locked around each other’s shoulders, they staggered onwards, inebriated and birthed anew. The horizon was mottled yellow, like the innards of a broken passionfruit, and the world felt small and homely, as though it contained nothing but the desolate, visible coastline. There was a solitary palm tree weeping in the phosphorous blue poetry of water and mangrove fifteen metres distant, and a sea-shell pink dolphin amused itself in the farther depths. Jesus liked bourbon. He was aware well enough that he probably shouldn’t, but exploration was the thirst of humanity, and all that. Plus, it melted sorrow momentarily, painting the air with a weary happiness that made laughter, sun, fruit flies, creatively-cursing Mexican people, all the more easily cherished. Yeah, this day was perfumed with equatorial joy.
          ‘Go under,’ Baracho instructed, wheezing a hot couscous laugh. ‘Swim, like John Cheever story. Please, go. Go under, fat soldier. There’s magic.’
          Submerging into the meniscus of the waves, Jesus began to feel awed. Here, below, there were bristly, rose-red starfish torching alight the pockets of deepening dark within the green, glass-blown membrane that was the sea; there were sands like weightless rice grain under foot; and there were sea cucumbers probing the surface of the water like fragments of some mythic oceanliner’s dead luggage, or the dismembered limbs of flailing militia men-at-war, or like someone’s memories of childhood – playfully resurrecting themselves, detached and free-floating, in the mind of a person as ageless as the receding tides. It humbled him that here, alone, was a realm rewarded an earthly protection of sorts, always untainted; that you could be half-naked and unquestionably ripped on an assortment of exotic liquors without names, and act with abandonment and even disrespect, still the sweeping arms of the bay would stroke all decadence into but whispers, and the world could be clean again. And guilt would disappear like suds into the singing sweep of the wind’s blade. And people could be happy. And people could be people.
          Jesus bobbed up, once more, gasping. ‘Shit,’ he murmured quietly, wading.
          ‘Magic,’ Baracho smiled. ‘Um.’ He groaned. His head was bowed in reverential concentration, and he was walking sideways with tremendous theatricality, in the milieu of a crab. ‘See, for me, for Baracho, this is shit thing about doing Baracho’s business in the sea. If Baracho is drunk in public toilet, he has wall to steady himself on. If Baracho is drunk in sea, he has no wall, so he dances sideways all over shallows ‘till he falls over.’ He wavered on elastic legs momentarily. ‘Oh. Here come sandbank.’ Baracho, staggering, keeled over in a feat of peerless ineptitude, right cheek embossing itself directly into the cement-hard seabed.
          Jesus made his face hard, to prevent unneeded laughter.
          From his inert position beneath the lapping tongues of the ocean, Baracho lay motionless, an entirely humourless expression dictating his face. ‘I am aware of belated nature of this announcement, but it is emotional catharsis when Baracho say, “Oh fuck.”’
          Jesus smirked, wildly. This was untouchable. This birthday. It was the first time that he could recall, in which he felt as though he was experiencing Christmas as others must, a day of festivity, a day of family, a day of indulgence, a day of people; distanced from why Christmas, itself, existed; simply swimming in the notion of why Christmas should continue to do so. The importance of a specific event tended to inflate its human wonder with a pomposity, he found. But now, for him, this day wasn’t about any one specific time; it was about new times. He was frenzied with glee.
          ‘Do you think we should sleep, Baracho? We’ve been drunk since 2.’
          Baracho brayed, timorously rising on his haunches. ‘But, sergeant, we must not! Are you not wanting to do tonight?’
          Jesus swallowed a mouthful of pearl-grey salt water. ‘Baracho. What’s tonight?’
          The dolphin crested the breaker and leapt to the sound of Baracho’s seismic howls.


Tonight was a boat called Espersiza, a brazen ornate oceanliner, white like the head on a flagon of ale, with a motor that clipped the verdant growth of forested sea with the same burbling sounds of hunger a lawnmower will make upon fresh grass. People, attired in clothes woven from the souls of fireflies, remained the only lights upon the vessel, manoeuvring back and forth across the decks in a festival of wine, inexpert and improvised choiring, and lavish feasting, maintaining it all via the steps of a deranged, Mexican lizard dance. Jesus and Baracho were engulfed in the rapturous alcoholic bubbles of a song as hot and smouldering as Tapachula’s winds, and they fretted their way through swarms of people, food and suffusing love – holding each other’s wrists and murmuring muted exclamations of wonder – wonder that bugled throughout the night like the trumpet of a lone troubadour – whilst tripping and crying and smiling and soaring and shining and burning, in their ponchos, in other peoples’ arms, in this boat upon the sea.
          ‘Baracho!’ Jesus was holding a woman by the hips, tasting her lips, the wind-blown salt of the shore, the fevered electricity of the steaming Mexican cuisine. He had lost his guide, though; the man who had invited him into this realm of culture and serenade, and without him Jesus began to drown, scared and now without a preordained, comprehensible direction. ‘Baracho, I’ve lost you, I can’t find you! Can you hear this! It’s me, y’know, the guy responsible for improving your artifice in mockery, the, the, the human piñata! Baracho! Baracho, buddy! It’s your mate, the drunk – the fat American soldier! Shit, man!’ Jesus began to sob quietly, pirouetting about the deck, losing the hold of the woman under hand, losing sight of the strip of beach so comfortingly near, losing the stars overhead, now somehow in the water over the side of the boat, pluming like weird reef creatures in the Pacific’s clammy grasp, yellow firework anemones. ‘Fuck, I’ve left you!’ Jesus fell to the deck’s railing, peering into the wispy fire-red waters. The tears were hitting his chest as though each single one were made of stone, scoring lines down his pained and pale face, hurting the flesh of his palms as he caught them and continued to cry.
          Here was Christmas, then. Somehow the music of night’s progress began to sound like the congress of ravens’ wings, and the Espersiza was just another damn cross, wood carved to deliver a man already defined as dead before he’d even closed his eyes. And God did that sting, being embraced by fleeting memories of birthdays occupied with caring for other people, even though he knew how the world would play out, even though he was expected to act human, be born human, flower in the knowledge of human people. Yet no Christmas day for him had even been recognizably human; things were – and had always been – designed as transcendental on his birthday. Here were gifts of all earthly kingdoms; here was the suffering borne of human wrongs as soundtrack to the day; here was the end of learning to feel for oneself as a fucking little boy, in compromise to heal the emotions of much happier families. It was never pleasure, for him, to be impressed with the weight of the universe’s crippling woes. And centuries on, here it was in repetition once more; a Christmas robbed of life, replaced by fear.
          Baracho had told him, though, that if you surrendered yourself to the sensual kiss of Mexico, you’d be free. You’d never have to tramp once more in forgotten footsteps. But, but that wasn’t the truth, though; not when you’d never learned what freedom was. All he could claim to be was an impostor; a tourist looking for a way to breathe in a fuller, better, more authentic Mexican way, a deluded Jew sick of his own precious religion, struggling onwards to find a new family. Jesus, gasping in the fragrance of a dying drunkenness on the good ship Espersiza, knew this to be gospel.
          A Tapachula Christmas inspired dreams. He wanted a brother named Baracho, and a birthday signposted by sex, laughter, and weak mortal love. Experiences you could photograph, wax elegiac about, find flawed but perpetual ecstasy in. Something real.
          And a bottle of scotch, that certainly wouldn’t be remiss, either.


*


Arms like these were framed with a musculature of undiverted, foreign madness; that energy in which an alien nation is founded upon, wrought of liquid iron; oaken and unyielding, they’re the arms of an entire fascinated populace, holding you on high; they’re Baracho’s embrace as he secrets you away from the humid clamour of this craft thronged with ghosts and tumult. Away through passages as claustrophobic and replete with foreboding as the obsidian alleys interrupting the metropolitan bustle of a Middle-Eastern bazaar. Down corridors that creak with every progressive footstep, tremulously cluttered with the gushing cascades of women moaning and the cynical soliloquies of the sea beneath the floorboards. There go glimmers of intersecting lives, other rooms occupied by mules and perspiring men as black as the soils of Nubia, quandaries of teenage girls dancing with breathless devotion to the garbled Mexican cover of an old Smiths lyric, solitary boys peering with avarice and repulsion at empty walls, agitated hands holding guns to their own sorry heads. Baracho doesn’t halt, though; and your meandering escort propels you, half-blinded, to a hard, heavy-set green door. His balled fist of bitten knuckles raps reproachfully upon the surface of the tattooed wood, and it opens with inevitable uncanniness, by itself, to a chamber illuminated only by paraffin candles sculpted to resemble the expressions of the minions of the undead. There he lays you, upon that bitter cold floor; says nothing; and leaves. The door closing once more with mechanical savagery, obliterating the dark with the sound of a drawing deadbolt, so unfaltering that all gothic stereotypes that you can possibly recall, depart.
          Jesus lies awake, eyes glistening in this room of wilding night.


*


Depending upon the context, darkness can be an overwhelming, achingly beautiful thing. Submerged beneath an undergrowth of woollen blankets, at that time when the mind is still gymnastically toeing the line between the crystalline fervour of fantasy and the lucid pull of reality, when one finds themselves hiding from the swallowing maw of the world’s unfluctuating demands – when night crawls like the scurrying black footsteps of the lightning-beetle over the lintel – ensconced in a constructed darkness so alive it pulsates with a heartbeat, there’s a warmth that only comes of such lonely childhood nights amongst the impenetrable depthlessness. Retrospectively, then, Jesus might have been fleeing truth, or the arrows of judgement, or the job he could never faintly imagine asking to be allocated him, or he might have been burying himself beneath the luxuriating night of his blankets to evade those dangerous kid thoughts of demons, and blades, and flaming cities – but no matter the intention, in times similar to those, the darkness became his soul mate. Because it was in the hollow created by blanket and bed that Jesus found a man that he wasn’t quite; a man that he could aspire to be; a man capable of great stuff in the innocent murmurings of the sleeping child.
          Darkness was the cave that people inscribed with the twisted majesty of their dreams. And in this room, in the far corner prided over by fog and midnight, Jesus found an old friend, spawned of those fevered imaginings past, waiting with a precious, strange, poetical kind of love. He was born from dream, pain, and – for Jesus, when there seemed little but burden and expectation – maybe he was born from faith. When you’ve got no-one to believe in because the entire world wants to fucking believe in you, a shadow you can rely on to predict your steps, to guide your blind leadership, that’s a best friend, the soothsaying cricket to your wooden boy. Jesus knew him as he saw him, and the flood of crap and magic that was his youth, his Finn and Sawyer days, the dragonflies by the reeds after school, it all contorted its way back to meet him in bittersweet reverie. His eyes stung, as unseen rain upon naked skin is wont to do.
          ‘Jesus, my estranged brother, how the years have treated you, not torturing your countenance with the ugliness of wrinkle, but catching in your eyes and hair like confetti, as though to grow older is to stay longer in the throes of the party. Shit, I feel like a dead dream in comparison.’ His name had been Coco, which might have signified “sandman” in Spanish, or the piping cup of life’s sweetness that Jesus would once horde before sleep, or perhaps it was that phrase with the capacity to articulate best what craziness felt like; pragmatically, the genesis of this name didn’t mean much, anyway – but the smile was invariably worth noting, the smile was different, the smile was inspired.
          ‘Coco, what the, the fuck is happening? I’m, I’m drunk on Christmas eve, on a boat off Tapachula Bay, then I’m losing it completely, watching things happen as though my perspective’s filtered under water. I’m drowning, I’ve lost Baracho, and then, I, I dunno.’ Jesus ran his hands through his beard, attempting to anchor himself in the turmoil of the darkness. The luminescent skull-shaped paraffins were decidedly appropriate, because as their flames floated and wheeled about the cavernous interior, they illuminated Coco’s rueful grin with jack-o’-lantern precision. He was a bog man, green and black like St. Elmo’s fire carving through a midnight’s embrace, with a skeleton face that was horrible and brilliant, touched by the ebullience and honest laughter of the sex-hot Mexico of myth and story. In truth, Jesus had never forgotten Coco wholly, merely concealed him and the human flaws he represented beneath mid-life’s surge of independence and reason, suppressing any specious desire to call upon this phantasm of wisdom as time and feeling progressed on. And then inexorably, he had evolved into an adult, whilst the mystery and adventure of adolescence, itself, transformed into something as stupid and feckless as befriending a bog man named Coco; and that place where humanity and godliness touch, in the inflamed beliefs of a small boy, was abandoned. But Coco was here, now, years on, looking as untouchable and unaltered as he had hundreds of years ago, except it was Christmas, it was a celebration now seemingly in fruition; no death or denunciation, only reunion and the lunatic love of Tapachula all within his breath once more, and thus Jesus found bliss, insurmountable bliss finally in his birthday return to this giddy, wonderful human place. With elucidating clarity he found those lost years that he’d misplaced centuries ago, having sacrificed festival and fairytale to become that guy everybody seemed to dig, and he could only sing, in that room alone with his beloved dream-friend, and this song healed human agonies to a small and needed degree.
          The door flew open, Baracho’s silhouette emblazoning the passageway back to the Espersiza’s congregating revelry, a guide through the allure of the din and masses.
          ‘Come quick now, you alcoholic pig! Bring Coco along – the conga line is calling!’
          Jesus laughed, then. He could no longer feel any distinct trepidation; he was intoxicated on Christmas eve with marvellous, unimaginable friends. Perhaps sense comes with the lure of the conga line. Whatever the reason as to why, now, this day felt so excellent – it was of no consequence: there were people with hands on hips dancing. And this certainly was Mexico.

The conga line resulted in the acquaintance-making of a group of sharp little men, all bedecked in craftily cut but unfavourably small hounds-tooth suits, all with the hearts of wasps in their respective grins. Therefore, as such impulsive happenstances so often do, especially when one’s native guide is a dissolute hero named Baracho, this particular rendezvous effected in an illegalised cockfight, lorded over with baying and gambling as intricate as some exotic foreign dance, down in a destitute brown parlour acting as a subterranean cargo bay for the Espersiza. It was an event as corrupted and morally bankrupt as any Jesus had ever witnessed, but it was also absurdly uniting to a barbarous, ambiguous extent – and the bantam cocks never hit each other even singularly, but ran about in a manic ceremony of projected wrath towards the many capricious onlookers. It was infantile gratification, decadence perhaps; but always refreshingly senseless, akin to catching thick, merciless strawberry jam all down one’s face. Essentially, it rather felt good to play dumb.
          Coco disturbed no-one; it was Christmas after all, and he didn’t instil as much intractable uneasiness into passers-by as the appearance of half the crew, in their demented but radiating pageantry, often did. Within hours, the three were sprawled over each other in such a meticulously-achieved, elastic composition of limbs and erupting giggles that it proved impossible to distinguish where each individual began, and each individual ended. They were a gestalt entity of alcohol-fuelled cheer, and it was thus that Jesus the deceased survivor, Baracho the ribald Mexican, and Coco the metaphysical bog man fell together down upon the feathery white shoreline of Tapachula Bay, viewing the Espersiza as it evaporated, a brazier ablaze with the countless lights of dangerous, seductive, resplendent people, out of sight.
          Baracho was holding a surfboard. It was a thin and narrow firecracker, long and scarlet like the new day, and he placed it directly into Jesus’ fumbling, drunken hands.
          The Mexican beamed winningly. ‘I place monies on the bird, so Baracho wins this. Now, go. Coco will watch, and Baracho, he watches too. Don’t you worry – we’ve got a bottle of whisky sour, so we shall be fine.’
          Jesus stood, immoveable, perplexed. Coco cocked his skeletal head quizzically, waving brittle green ivory hands about himself. ‘See, this is that—ehm, magic that humans feel on their seemingly inane celebrations, on their Christmases, their birthdays. This is how it is, how it will be. You get the memories, you get the indulgence, you get life moving in conflicting directions. The Espersiza took you to it, yeah? Didn’t it? You got to be as distanced from yourself, as ever could be made plausible. But shit, friend, you don’t want life to be like that forever, eh?’
          Jesus couldn’t utter a solitary retort. Coco’s words were infused with a truth. It had been transcendental in the tangible, malleable, real sense—it had been great. But it also had been put into effect simply for the visceral experience; for the chance to wear a blind man’s loafers for a day. There was brilliance embedded in this life, somewhere, but it wasn’t enduring. It came and went with the warmth of a kiss.
          ‘But it’s a memory, though, a fucking fine one,’ he said. Then he took the board and met the sea, relinquishing himself to its cold summery play, enjoying himself once more like people do. Two whooping sentinels applauded the melody of his passing, and the sun did its thing, bringing morning one more time.





Kirk Marshall is the Brisbane-born(e), Melbourne-based author of A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953, a 2007 Aurealis Award-nominated full-colour illustrated graphic novelette. He holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Creative Writing), with Distinction from the Queensland University of Technology, and a first-class Honours degree in Professional Writing from Deakin University. This year, he is working on both a novel and a short-story collection, and edits the forthcoming international English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal, Red Leaves.

 
 
 
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