Letter from Spain, July 2018 by Emily Rapp Black

Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, April 1st, 2019

"This is not an argument with God or about God or for God..."

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Personal Essay by Emily Rapp Black

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Me falta tiempo para celebrar tus cabellos.
I don’t have time enough to celebrate your hair.
-Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XIV from 100 Love Sonnets

Fundacion Valparaiso, Mojacar, Almeria, Spain
June, 2011

Dear —
I am at my great wooden slab of a writing desk in paradise, looking out over a hump of mountain crowned with lights, and I don’t know where to begin, so I don’t know where to end and I don’t want to end or begin or figure out which is which and why or how. Today, dropping through the thick layer of clouds, a hoop skirt of sunshine opened like the bones of a parasol but offered no shade. Tonight is summer solstice. A change in season. There will be a bonfire on the beach and free sardines (gran sardinada!), live music and booze and “treats for kids.” Noche de San Juan. Equinocio – the equinox. People will throw what they want to cast off into the fire, little sins or sadnesses scribbled onto slips of paper and scooped up in the blaze. I have nothing to burn and everything to lose. I am not in the mood for fiestas. I’d like to avoid all ritual. I don’t want to sip the ocean air or feel sand scratch between my toes. I want time to stop. Flames, stop. Water, stop. Sun and moon and stars, just quit it. Carefully crafted narrative finally fractures, which means that what is today is no longer tomorrow is yesterday and was never and is beyond and was before and is and is not. What is behind is already in front or perhaps to the side or underneath or nowhere at all. Dates blend. Nothing belongs to no place and lives inside no body.
*
Kafka said that “writing a letter is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters, where one letter corroborates another and can refer to it as witness.” This book is a love letter. It is very earnest in that way, very Alpha and Omega. But I am afraid to witness, afraid of dividing lines I am afraid of punctuation my baby is dying
*
Walking into Mojacar pueblo a dog trots past with a fly attached to his nose; he tries, in vain, to shake it off and eat it. It flies up and lands, flies up and lands. This requires his full attention and makes him too hot to bark. “Are you one of those dogs that barks all night?” I ask. He bites the air. If I could catch the fly I’d feed it to him. A thumbprint of gray is pressed to the end of his nose, like an accident of paint, a tiny flag of age waiting to flutter further and faster up his face. “Perro?” I ask the Spanish dog, trying to recall the lesson about animals from high school Spanish class. Yo me llamo Emilia is all I get. Hace much calor. Hola! Wind lifts dust from the road; it swirls in eddies behind me as if I’m being followed. Not by the dog, he’s disappeared behind the gate. The staccato chatter of crickets is interrupted by a little van moving down the road that’s cut into the soft mountain, a finger sliding carefully through a mound of frosting so nobody will know that the cake has been plundered before the party begins, before the candles are pushed in and lit. Babies with Tay-Sachs don’t live to be three, I hear the doctor say. The van is a child’s toy and it blurts a message from a single crackling loudspeaker: uno nino cinco anos. Two hours later, walking in the other direction, the same van going the other way, bearing the same message: uno nino cinco anos. I know the translation but what does it mean I am afraid to ask the question
*
Where I’m writing from there is only one phone box, in the hallway beneath the echoing rooms. If I call my child and he is eating lunch, I will cry and everyone will hear me and if he is not eating lunch I will also cry and Ronan, I have a song for you
*
Today, 5,000 miles away, Ronan is alive. My son, on this day, is alive. I am reading Kafka.
*
In April 1920, Kafka wrote to Milena Jesenska: It occurs to me that I really can’t remember your face in any precise detail. Only the way you walked away through the tables in the café, your figure, your dress, that I still see. This was a P.S. He loved her
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The evil eye cannot find you during siesta. Your eyes are closed and it is forced to find someone who is awake, stupid nasty roving stinky old dripping eye I fear you. The wind relays softly through the trees like a skinny, fragrant monkey. The day dozes, drops its head. I need a witch to poke the eye out with a witch stick. People who run into fires are not brave; they have no other choice. Oh where are you
*
Milena’s letters to Kafka did not survive fire and censor so she walks through his but without a voice he answers still
*
The streets in Mojacar were built deliberately twisted; it helps the wind move more efficiently, cooling streets, tempers, dogs, and now tourists from Northern Europe. I hear the goats now (cabritas!) their tiny goat bells softly tinkling the way they’d talk if they had words instead of weary bleats. Every hour, on the hour, the bells ring out from some unseen cathedral. 10987654321 seconds later another cathedral telling a different time rings out the “new” new hour. Which one is the real one which time is the real time come quickly
*
It couldn’t look better, the doctor said after the final ultrasound, all those tests. Why
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Fireworks explode over the hills outside my window, over the empty luxury hotel full of abandoned furniture and half built rooms. A limp and distant pop pop boom. People and lizards are living in the hills. A man runs into a shop to buy bread at the “Crises” price of 1 Euro; it’s a crisis, it says so on the bag. A dog stops barking. A baby sleeps. A door slams in the wind. An empty drawing table on a sun-drenched porch. Someone says, “I want to talk to you” in Spanish behind a screen door. “Urgent,” they say. The bells are ringing they are stuck
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How long does your son have to live? I need a lantern or a candle something hurry
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I forage for food at night in the kitchen when everyone is asleep. The only face I want to see is yours
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Kafka was an insomniac. Writing to Max Brod: After a series of dreams, I had this one: A child wearing a little shirt was sitting to my left (I couldn’t remember whether it was my own child or not, but this did not bother me). Not a little child but a little shirt he couldn’t sleep heavy pains in my heart he said
*
In the darkness I am groping for your hand, your eyes, sweet belly, smooth flat back of the neck a thin stem
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Far away my baby is still alive his life a swiftly departing dream. Rones Bones, little king of my own bones I love the handful of earth you are (Neruda). The bells ring out on the unseen hill. Cars curve around the mountains, another finger tracing the sweet road, another long, shallow dent. Mojacar dogs bark all night. Spanish poodles patrol the mountainside terraces teeth bared tails wagging
*
The world we live in is a world where you live also are you ready to begin your baby day are you ready now
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Today I am going home. Tomorrow I am dreaming. Vice-versa and reverse
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In Germany they said that in Almeria, Spain, where I’m writing from, the cucumbers are rotten with disease and not even good for goats but we ate them cucumber psychosis they said and the women kept coming, each day, to cook our meals in ceramic pots the color of earth and wash our clothes and scrub bright coins of blood from my underwear. All day long doors and windows slam shut beneath me. The house is full of empty rooms. Green bugs with intricate Elizabethan wings fight roughneck flies on the windowsill and win. A spider the size of my palm runs across the roof as if to say Good luck! The birds at night don’t sing, they ask questions the goats are okay
*
Wait I will not leave the edge of this day closing sleep sleep sleep
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Dead flies drop into corners swept of dust oh Victor why didn’t you write a book why couldn’t you love him, your wretch, your it, your boy
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Simone Weil was right: When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know it is really a door. What I write is a lie what I write is a door
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This is not an argument with God or about God or for God
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This is a love letter it is for you
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It’s not a scary monster my dad explains when the book warns us about the one on the last page. I am five years old. Should we read about him? He has big eyes and soft fuzzy fur like a bear, a nice bear. He’s a sweet monster and he wants to be your friend. I nod okay and he continues. I like him I say at the end of the book
*
The bells bring in the animals but not all of them some were burned in the fire goats and also horses trapped in their barns. Thousands of almond trees and olives whole hillsides of nutty oil burning screams
*
This is the song: As I was walking down Twiddally dum street, I saw a monster with fifty-seven feet, he had big blue eyes and his ears were on his nose, he had eight big ears and fifty seven toes. He was weird. He had a purple beard. He had snakes. Wrapped up in cho-co-late cakes. He had hair. Worse than Tony Blair. He chewed gum. With his thumb.
*
Bliss, see also “euphoria, happiness, joy.” Summer has arrived. The trees wear soft lace undergarments of spider webs and I’m missing you. My room is a long corridor of wind. At night I leave the key inside the lock just in case
*
A one-word myth: Now. Another word: No. Up up up
*
A book from childhood: there is a monster at the end of this book so if it’s only a monster that would be good news that would be okay no ordinary creation you are my baby not enough time my beloved I won’t land your eyes your face my son your feet not yet your hair your fingers and toes mine and the wine glass is empty the wine is too and the bells are stuck ringing ringing ringing off the cord like dogs off the leash and gone gone gone Frankenstein go back to the beginning I run to you handful of earth which is the end and I’ll never touch ground fast as I can go you are mine there is not enough time for you and me even when I forget I promise not fast enough I will not take root I will be remembering believe it please wait see I am loose I am flying and the bells ring and ring and ring and they don’t stop ring-

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Header image courtesy of Haley Craw. To view her artist feature, go here.

A former Fulbright fellow and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir; The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller; Sanctuary, forthcoming from Random House; and Cartography for Cripples, forthcoming from Nottinghill Editions/New York Review of Books. She is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Winter Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence Award, in addition to other honors and awards. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, O, the Oprah Magazine, Redbook, the Wall Street Journal, The Sun, and many other publications, magazines, and anthologies. She has collaborated on several recent and award-winning books, including When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi; and I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Faith in Pakistan, by Khalida Brohi. In Summer 2019 she will be a fellow at the Kierkegaard Library at the University of Copenhagen. She is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside, where she also teaches in the School of Medicine.

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Acacia Blackwell

Acacia is a writer from Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She is currently completing an MFA, despite being recently told by Tom Spanbauer that to become a better writer, she needs to "unlearn all that grad school stuff." She listened, and it seems to be working. Acacia is working on a collection of personal essays that she really doesn't want to admit might be a memoir, and a memoir that she really doesn't want to admit might be a novel.