THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS
- Mexico City, fifteen years ago...
THERE IS A WOMAN LYING on the stairs down to the metro. She is wearing a dress and has long black hair spilling from her body. She is broken, disfigured, and bleeding. Not one of the hundreds of people passing by the woman seems to know what happened to her. Or maybe everyone knows, because no one stops or seems to care. She might be dying or dead. No one stops to ask if she is dying or dead for fear of seeming naïve before a corpse. No one wants to be mocked for not knowing the difference between a corpse and a person in a private moment.
The stairs descend from a plaza into a tunnel. The plaza is in the sun. The tunnel disappears into the dark. Boys and girls who look like boys, sitting with their backs against the walls, hold black rags to their noses. Their heads are tiny. Most children’s heads are growing, but these children’s heads are not growing. Their heads are bird heads—black kidneys, set very close together, for eyes; swollen noses; chemical blue and jaundiced skin. They are oblivious to the people passing in the tunnel, yet seem to be the expression of the inevitability of the woman lying broken, disfigured, and bleeding—a cautionary fragment of her neglect.
There are people on the stairs—along the railing, in the plaza, in the tunnel—looking at the woman with the half-mesmerized, half-indifferent expressions of spectators at a bullfight.
Their attendance is in passing.
No one stays to the end.
The woman’s body on the stairs composes a shape—a branch of black lightning or an anachronistic letter twisted into a medieval instrument. It is the shape that is offensive. Her body is in the thirteenth hour of infancy. It is bound; she is being removed. All the other shapes—the bird-headed children, the people up and down the stairs, the long black hair spilling from the woman’s body, the blood—have the supplementary quality of weeds or outer space.
That the woman is more enduring than the people passing by her is an essential part of her shape; it is not complacency that keeps the people passing, nor fear, but fascination—for the ruins, which make everyone and everything a fiction, however tangible, material, movable, and accomplice.
To the destruction of the fiction.
The exchange of energy between the ancient ruins and gleaming buildings is imbalanced. The gleaming buildings, new, exploit their proximity to the ancient ruins, which nevertheless master the exchange.
Destruction satisfies the eternal lives of ancient ruins. Glass turns everything it reflects into liquid. Steel, glass, blue, sky blue, black, sky black, white, sky white, surreptitious shadows—predatory, unwanted and unsound—the more distinct, the more ravenous, and the more ravenous, the more insatiable and without direction.
My family was driving one night through the Italian countryside. We had been driving all day. The road was long and straight, though we could see, far in the distance, where it turned: lights, a small town; it would take an hour. Night was black without space. Distance formed the limit. From out of the starless ceiling of night came a branch of white lightning. It traversed the sky, right to left, following an invisible vein, then plunged into the country. At the point where it reached the earth, the white lightning struck something: a white fire flashed, sparks erupted in the dark. When we reached the small town, there was no evidence of anything having been struck. No fires, no split trees, no burning houses—no smoke, no ashes, no white sparks spinning in the dirt.
The first time I attended a bullfight, I cried. I did not imagine how distressed and exhausted and confused the bull would become. The ring loomed like a fortress, but precarious. It was only a matter of time before it would collapse. The bull was eager and enthusiastic through the gate, because it was joining other bodies in the promise of open space. Its confusion was instantaneous. The bull threw one of the matadors over the wall, which is what the people wanted—not drama, but retribution—even as the consequence was to want the opposite. The contest was intensified. But humans never let themselves lose. I cried because I was startled. I could hear, above the crowd and the isolated voice of the matador, the breathing of the bull. Its blood was dark and stuck like cellophane. It had been pinned with bouquets of wilted, blood red roses. Then it was dead. But I was not as startled that I cried at the killing of the first bull as I was that I did not cry at the killing of the second.
A common assumption: that the people who are in a place when you arrive are local, and that the people who just arrived are not. The proof is the fact you just arrived and are not local, therefore representative—the emissary—of optimistic ignorance.
The people passing by the woman are afraid, but invigorated, because maybe they are looking at a dead body.
Every so often one of the people notices me noticing them.
The judgment the woman’s body passes on the people is the contemplation of a scene towards the recreation of that scene in another medium later.
First, I spent a week on the coast. I slept in a shack and was bled by settler insects. I consoled myself with beer and raw fish. It rained and the drainage ditches filled with dead dogs. The dogs had not developed a system. Birds can fly, cats can leap, lizards can withdraw into the walls, but dogs are destined for the sewer.
The best view of the ocean was from one of two facing cliffs where young men dove into the breakers. There was a church and many generations of people whose eyes looked half their age—fixated children, grandchildren of the ocean and rain.
I do not remember anything of the week I spent in the city.
Were the buildings gleaming?
Were the ruins ancient?
My memory has been distilled into the image of a woman lying on the stairs down to the metro.
Before I visited Mexico City, a friend said it was the most postmodern city in the world. I did not know what she meant, though she said something about rupture, and I thought:
The people fell into the earth.
Fifteen years later I asked my friend if she remembered what she had said:
Yes, I remember . . .
It had to do with the collision of ancient and modern; dirt-poor and filthy rich; indigenous, colonialist and touristic. The walls of the cathedral were made from stones of an ancient Aztec temple. The soundscape of the city too, was like a crazy mix-tape.
Stratigraphic palimpsest . . .
The city used to be a lake, with an island in the middle, sort of like a moat. Over the centuries it was filled in. One can only imagine the strata of fill material. One story and timescape on top of another, layer after layer. Ripped apart periodically to build subway tunnels and construction projects. Cut and paste. A pastiche.
I remember stands in one of the open air markets selling mattresses with Star Wars–printed fabric next to handmade dolls of shrouded Zapatistas laid out on a blanket next to fake (or real?) pre-Columbian artifacts next to marvelous sweet pastries with bright-colored sugary frostings. A country in constant revolution. The bloody depictions of Christ, the stacks of skulls carved on the temples, the ladies selling Milagros.
You can get away with having a small body more easily than a small head. The children’s small heads were not congenital; they exhibited the ghastly, unknowable phlegm of the pituitary body. Huffing rags, turpentine or gasoline, is what was stopping their heads from growing. The children were not begging, they were not holding out their hands, but they were desperate, their desperation disguised by intoxication and oblivion. I looked into the shadows expecting to see thousands of bird-headed children piled on top of each other, sleeping off the gasoline.
When a person dives from a high cliff into the sea, it resembles suicide in all but form. The dive possesses a gracefulness and timing to which suicide aspires, though rarely succeeds. Gracefulness and timing are the aspiration of the suicide that fails. If a person falls from high enough to die, it is an accident, whereas a suicide is composed, even if not entirely graceful; it possesses an idiosyncratic grace that is between no one and finally no one else.
Street dogs live and sleep in the drainage ditches between buildings. When it rains, there are floods. The dogs catch on buildings and pipes and window ledges and stairs and other dogs, and collect in the ditches. Dogs are swept with the force of the floods to the beach, some of them into the waves.
BRANDON SHIMODA is the author of several books, most recently Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions). Other recent writings, poetry and prose, have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Felt, Hyperallergic, The New Inquiry, and No Tokens Journal. "The Woman on the Stairs" is part of a book (unpublished) of bodies, graves, and transitional states. He lives with the poet Dot Devota in the desert.