Blip Magazine Archive

 blipmagazine.net

 

Home : Archive : Links

Suzanne Kamata 

Sacrifices 

 

If she has enough grant money remaining after Asia, Solange will go to Peru. Just this morning there was a picture in the Japan Times of Hillary Clinton observing an encased mummy shipped from Mount Ampato to Washington D.C. Juanita, they are calling her. She was beaten over the head and presented to the Incan gods. For the past five-hundred years she has been preserved in ice, like some kind of polar Sleeping Beauty who will never wake up. 

Now, Solange is riding in a car down the narrow streets of Tokushima in Japan. Professor Tanaka, from the local university, is at the wheel. In earlier small-talk he explained that Tokushima has the largest concentration of hospitals and coffee shops in the country and the fifth largest concentration of yakuza members. For the past few minutes, she hasn't been listening. She's been thinking about Juanita. 

"This is the bridge I was telling you about," he says, as they approach a ramp. "As you can see it is very old and narrow, but if we build a wider, more modern, bridge the descendants might object." 

Solange nods, embarrassed that she hasn't been paying attention. She has waited for this chance for a very long time and she does not want to squander it in a muddle of jet lag. The grant couldn't have come at a better time. This project is just the thing she needs after the divorce and her failure, as a once-again single woman, to adopt a Bosnian war orphan. She has been drained not only psychologically, but also financially. Now, for the first time in a long time, she feels impassioned. 

She has plans to write a book about human sacrifices. For the past two years she has been lecturing to anthropology students , showing them slides of faraway altars, when all along what she'd really wanted was to be in those places, to feel the spirits of long-lost maidens. 

Professor Tanaka takes her to a quaint little shop for kaiseki ryori. As they nibble tiny, portions of exquisitely prepared food - a beancake presented on a perfectly formed maple leaf, fish eggs in a hand-crafted pottery cup - Solange wonders if Professor Tanaka is flirting with her. 

"Try holding your chopsticks like this," he says, reaching across the table to touch her hand. She's been managing just fine, but he repositions her fingers higher on the lacquered utensils. Solange feels a spark shoot from fingers to groin. 

Professor Tanaka ("call me Yuji," he says, after another drink) isn't her type. Solange has always gone for Slavic hunks. Nordic ski bums. Take Eric, for example. Her ex-husband was a perfect Aryan specimen with bleached blond hair that made him look like an aging surfer, and bright blue eyes. All he lacked was height and width. Though pleasingly proportioned and still as fit as he'd been from collegiate lacrosse, Eric was only slightly taller than Solange. 

Her taste in men has been developed through reading GQ in her teen years. Professor Tanaka - Yuji - would have been too "ethnic" for its glossy lay-outs. His longish hair gives him a bohemian look and his narrow chin is vulpine. At first glance, it would not have occurred to her to be attracted to him. Still, she is enjoying the slight pressure of his hand on hers and the way he seems to be peering into her soul. 

His left ring finger is bare, but Solange knows that wedding bands are a Western custom, not entirely adopted in the East. Anyway, marriage often means something different here. The Japanese are not caught up in romantic fantasies of everlasting love like Americans, like Solange. She knows that marriages are still sometimes arranged here, that even young people consider lineage, income,and a potential bride's ability to serve tea properly before they enter nuptials. 

She wonders if Professor Tanaka has children and, if so, what are their names? What do they look like? What kind of silly or precociously wise things do they blurt out at the dinner table? 

When Solange sees a baby, even in a photograph, she feels a little ache in the region of her heart. Eric hadn't wanted children - at least not within the next ten years and/or not with her. The child issue was one of the things that had wedged between them. Like an infection blossoming around a sliver of wood in skin, their troubles had expanded from there. 

That night Solange beds down in her narrow hotel room and cocoons under starched sheets. Not even the neon flashing relentlessly in her window can keep her awake. She is exhausted. 

At first, all is still and peaceful. Then she wakes. She pushes back a heavy comforter, breathes in the sweet straw smell of tatami. In another part of the thatched roof house, a woman is humming. Solange is no longer a thirty-five-year-old woman inclined to don Donna Karan power suits, but a little girl wrapped in indigo-dyed cotton. 

Although the sun is just rising, her mother and father have already been up for hours. They have eaten rice gruel and pickles, have dressed in field clothes. In another couple of years the girl will be expected to join her parents in their daily labor, but for now she is permitted to indulge in childish pleasures - chasing butterflies, gathering wildflowers, staring at clouds. 

The little girl takes her time folding her bedding, running a comb through her hair. In the mirror she sees a budding beauty with blue-black hair and wide-open eyes the color of barley tea. She hopes to marry a prince. She is conjuring the prince's brocaded robes, his noble brow, his gentle white hands, when a visitor announces himself in the courtyard. A shadow looms against the paper walls--a man. 

Although she is mildly curious, she does not pay much attention to the words exchanged beyond her chamber. She idly notes that it is an important visitor. Her mother uses words of honor and respect. She is no doubt on her knees, bowing until her forehead touches the rice-straw mats. 

The visitor's words, spoken gruffly, are unfamiliar: "...oracle...bridge...sacrifice." They mean 

nothing to her. But the news is not good because her mother begins pleading and crying. A chill sweeps through her body. 

Solange wakes in a cold sweat. 

 ==

"Some say the bridge is haunted," Professor Tanaka tells her later at lunch. They are seated at a counter, dipping chopsticks into steaming bowls of noodles. The food is good and cheap and Solange is grateful for this introduction to ordinary fare. 

"People believed that if a girl screamed or was afraid as she was thrown into the river, the spirits would not be appeased. The virgin had to be sacrificed willingly." 

Solange sips green tea from a handle-less cup. "It's hard to believe that anyone would ever go willingly." 

Professor Tanaka told her about the girls who were sent out to sea to quell storms or typhoons. Why always girls? Why not virgin boys? 

In other cultures, men in the prime of life were served up to bloodthirsty gods. Solange thinks of the Mayans. Druids. The Celts sometimes stabbed men just to divine from their death throes, reading the future in the last twitching of muscles. In ancient Marseilles, the poor were persuaded to volunteer to be sacrificed. They were offered a year of fine dining in exchange for their lives. In the end, they were heaped with invectives. Then, drowned. Or stoned. 

 ==

What is she doing here with her notebooks and pens and tape recorder? Why this affinity for altar-slain maidens? Why not study birthing rituals in tribal cultures? These are the questions that Solange has been asking herself. When Professor Tanaka asks, it's as if he's plucked the words from her brain. 

"I think I was sacrificed in a previous life. It would explain my recurring nightmares. I have these dreams where the sky is spread above. My hands are bound. I cannot move. Drums throb all around me." One look at Professor Tanaka's face tells her that she is being imprudent. Strange, at best. So she laughs and tries again. 

"I've always been interested in human impulses. What is instinct? Is killing innate or learned behavior?" She thinks of a man from her hometown who was arrested for molesting a five-year-old girl. The police searched his house and found a shrine in his garage. The newspaper article was not specific, but it mentioned amulets and the blood of a goat. 

Professor Tanaka nods slowly, thoughtfully. He raises his chopsticks to his mouth and his arm brushes against her breast. 

 ==

Much of the city lays on reclaimed land. In Tokushima, there are bridges everywhere. 

Every time Professor Tanaka's car creeps onto one of them, she thinks "Ophelia." She thinks "The bones of young women are everywhere." 

On one bridge she sees someone bent over the railing. It's an old woman with a hunched back and a sun-ripened face. She is peeling an orange, releasing the rinds to the wind and water below. Cars whiz by at her heels, but she seems totally unaware. It's almost as if she were in another dimension. Maybe she is a ghost, Solange thinks. Maybe she is feeding the virgins. 

Professor Tanaka drives by as if he hasn't even noticed. A few yards along the road, he swerves to avoid hitting an elderly man who is walking down the center of the street. They are like India's sacred cows, Solange thinks. The old do not change their ways even in the face of progress. They wander about as if none of it exists. 

 ==

Solange has been celibate for sixteen months, twelve days, and five hours. And counting. That last time had been the bittersweet post-paper signing, sayonara screw. She'd had bruises on her body for a week. It had been like movie sex. When the bruises faded, first to brown, then yellow, then to skin, she'd had a good bawl. A week later, she found out that Eric was banging a twenty-year-old film student. She was making a documentary about convenience stores. "A very intelligent young woman," he'd told the friend of a friend. Big deal. Anyone can shoot a home movie with a video camera. 

Now, in the cool of the museum, Solange cannot stop thinking about Professor Tanaka's hands. They are fine, almost feminine, and she is sure that they've never known the guts of a car,the gunk of a pipe. The fingernail of his pinky is long - signifying leisure class? Indolence? In ancient times courtiers used their lengthened fingernails to scratch on the door of a lover - more refined than knocking. What would Professor Tanaka's nail feel like scraping down her bare back? 

Later, after the museum, after dinner, there are fewer cars on the streets. Professor Tanaka drives wildly, recklessly, and this, too, excites her. On a sharp turn, she finds herself flung against the car door. "Are you trying to kill us?" she asks. Her cheeks and neck are flushed. 

"Oh, sorry," he says. And slows down. 

Solange feels oddly disappointed. This is her last night in Japan and she doesn't want it to end with a whimper. That bed is big enough for two. "Would you join me for a drink?" she asks in front of her hotel. 

There is just the slightest hesitation before he says "yes." 

 ==

Months later, Solange is back in her Boston apartment. The notes, the photos, the taped interviews she has compiled, are all strewn across the table. She picks up a folder and sighs. Where to begin? What would Margaret Mead do with all this information? 

She wants to store it all inside her, keep it locked up like a secret. There is something indecent about flinging these lives into the public. She wants to throw a blanket over Juanita's body, roll her on a gurney to a quiet, private place. 

For the moment, she pushes her papers aside. She has a distraction. Solange lays a palm on her belly and thinks "How will I explain this to my parents?" A white baby - French-Canadian and German with a splash of Scotch thrown in for good measure - would be forgivable. They would understand the leftover urges that might draw her and Eric together again, the new life that might then take root. "In the eyes of the church you're still married," her good Catholic mother would say. But almond eyes, toasty skin, a thatch of crow-black hair - these will cause confusion, hurt, possibly anger. Solange may be spending Christmas alone this year. 

She'd always believed that a parent's love was unconditional and all-protective. For a long time Solange had imagined grief-stricken mothers tearing at their hair and fathers attempting to bribe the oracles: "I'll give you twenty pieces of gold if you pick that girl in the corner house instead." But Solange knows that being chosen was probably an honor. The girls may have been excited about the dazzling afterlife that awaited them and the parents may have been puffed up and proud. Is that really so hard to conceive of? Think of Jephthah who burned his beloved daughter. Think of Abraham who was willing to slice up his own son. 

Solange decides to call her own mother. When she gets her on the phone she says, "Mom, what would you have done if the voice of God had commanded you to sacrifice your only daughter?" 

There is silence, and then a short laugh. "I'd have gone to a head shrinker." 

"No, really, Mom." Solange's mother once made a pilgrimage to the Vatican. She wears a silver cross between her breasts and eats fish on Fridays. "What if you'd been absolutely sure it was God asking you to do this?" 

"Did you have another one of those dreams, cherie?" 

Solange is beginning to think that the idea of motherhood is fragile and arbitrary. Though she has stopped drinking wine and caffeinated beverages, she knows that this decision has nothing to do with instinct. There are parents in Southeast Asia who prostitute their daughters for televisions and refrigerators. Sometimes babies wash up on Brazilian beaches, victims of voodoo. For the first time, Solange is afraid of herself. How can she make sure that she will be a good parent? How will she keep her baby safe from harm? 

And what to call this child, this accidental wanted one, a stew of cultures in her womb? A name can be a curse or a talisman. In some Indian cultures children are not named until their personalities have emerged. In other societies, names change with the phases of a life. 

Solange sometimes thinks of changing her own name. She is no longer Mrs. Eric Lawrence and does not like to be linked even by a name to that man. (She has heard that he is currently in Baja with a nineteen-year-old violinist, the filmmaker having been traded in for new flesh.)Nor is she her sweet, unwed self, the girl who carried Indian arrowheads in pinafore pockets, the child who wanted to be a necromancer. What should she call herself now? Freewoman? Solange X? 

At night Solange dreams she is lying on a slab of rock. She can feel its grainy, cold texture against her back. Her hands are tied behind her. Her ankles are lashed together tightly. 

The rope burns into flesh. In the distance, llamas bleat warnings. The sky above is vast, blue, cloudless. A vulture slowly spirals and then glides away, biding time. 

She wants to close her eyes but she can't. She is damned to view it all - the bare-chested warrior who approaches at a measured pace, the sharpened stone in his fist, the circling vulture above. 

Her heart pounds in time with the drumbeats. On her tongue is the tang of fear. 

And then, suddenly, she becomes the warrior and she is no longer supine and awaiting slaughter, but standing and free. The heavy knife is in her hand. The girl lying on the altar is not Solange. She is costumed in ceremonial finery - striped blankets fastened with silver pins and a headdress fashioned of feathers. From underneath, her hair spills and shimmers like black liquid and her ochre eyes plead for mercy. They are surrounded by men with painted faces. 

Solange runs to the girl and cuts the rope. The girl is so surprised that she can hardly move. Solange screams at her. "Run, Juanita! Run!" And she saves her life. 

 ==

In the morning, chickadees twitter at the window. New snow scintillates in the early light. The world seems, if only for a moment, a wonderfully benevolent place. A calm has spread throughout Solange's limbs and she realizes that she will never have those dreams again. Her bare feet meet the throw rug beside her brass bed and she takes her first steps of the day. Even now she is moving toward her future, slashing through her fears to a wondrous new age. 

She feels compelled to make an offering in gratitude. She envisions carefully arranged pyramids of hothouse fruit. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Or bricks of time stacked on an altar. She would trade her car and all of her electrical appliances for hard labor in order to celebrate this moment. But even as she considers all these possible gifts, she rubs her palm over her belly and knows that nothing will ever be enough. 


Copyright © 1997 Blip Magazine Archive
 

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at www.blipmagazine.net

Copyright 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.