On the Boot of Ukraine

The standoff is startling
pale-faced, clean-shaven
as patient as snow
on the boot of Ukraine

Meanwhile, bones grow in babies
floors dirty themselves
muttered grumbles repeat
between broomstick and brain

Men are ranged in steep banks
as though cliffs ploughing on
to raise slow-cresting mountains
against foreign terrain

But at home, the plates sit
crusted with rice and cheese
the washing needs taking in
safely out of the rain

Whispered terrors of war
thread through emails and towns
ignite testosterone
fan a wildfire chain

But the people still pee
move their bowels most days
dead leaves, soap and hair
still encumber good drains

That momentous decision
of conflict or peace
raises all of our stakes
queries what is humane

Yet food and clean water
still need to be sought
foraged, stolen or bought
hunted, fished, caught and slain

Ambulances are readied
tanks and great submarines
great causes flush hot
in the president’s vein

While his mistress is ironing
silk slips that he gave,
asks the housewife next-door
what works best on wine stains

Rallied shouts float above roof-
tops: “Fight for your rights!”
though the war’s still a theory,
immanent the campaign

Housewives beat their rugs
water aubergine plants
beetles creep inside bottles
herds of goats block the lane

The diplomats clinch it:
troops retire to barracks
blank and brotherless for bread
and soup to soften pride’s pain

Cotton sheets heave and snap
tangled children’s hair is brushed
trumpets polished, glasses too
doors opened and closed
cats, dogs, rabbits fed
compost bins evacuated
trees and roses are still pruned
bowls of oranges arranged
the Names of God mentioned as stars
set into violet dawns
planets drift the way they always do
deaf to all of mankind’s bluffs

while here on earth the grass grows green
and green it will remain

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Is She Dreaming? Or Is She Dying?

Aside

Farewell, Rambinos.

It’s been a pretty intense time on the El Cura ranch. The heat of August soared to 46 degrees centigrade (that’s 115 Fahrenheit to alla y’all), and while some of us were metaphysically dying in the heat, three of the sheep we are looking after on our house farm-sit literally died from it.

The first one I found in the bunker underneath the alberca/swimming pool. It was dusk, and I had left Caveboy with my parents to take down to the Sufi watering hole for iftar (yes, there were actually people fasting from food and water in this heat). Usually I give the sheep food (hay or ‘forraje’, dried herby grass, plus oats and water) at sundown, and put them into their shed to keep them safe from wild dogs.

But while counting them up, I kept trying to make them add up to eight, and getting confused at only finding seven. Cavegirl was meanwhile yawning and rubbing her eyes, hungry and dinnerless, but nevertheless determined to ‘help’ me. I was in a rush to get to the iftar meal, and ended up running up and down the hectare of land looking for the last lost lamb.

Finding the prostrate woolly figure of the poor beast under the swimming pool sent me into a state of total panic. What the heck…?! My husband was away working at a festival in Portugal, I was on my own, my kids needed to eat…in a mad flap I ran about looking for the right course of action. OK, ring the sheep’s owners…and then what? The only sensible answer that came back was to go have something to eat and wait for morning.

Dead sheep number one buried, I thought my turn as sheep-sitter was already looking pretty bad, when a few nights later, just as I had just got my kids to sleep, I heard a tremendous clattering and baaing going on in the barn.

Still in my stripy PJs, with a pitifully small bicycle lamp in hand and a swell of trepidation in my chest, I crept out to see if someone was trying to steal the animals, or a dog was eating one of them alive.

But the most peculiar thing confronted me. One of the lambs (a full-grown ewe, really) was lying on her side, running like a stabbed bull. Her hooves scraped the wooden sides in a hollow, futile gallop; her teeth were grinding, her head thrown back, eyes swivelling up in white-striped terror, foam frothing at the side of her mouth.

Stunned, but strangely set into pragmatic mode, I went back to the house in search of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the only thing I could think of that might calm her down as it has done a hundred times on my tantruming kids. It did the trick; the gallops started coming in waves, interspersed with peaceful lulls in which she panted in a a paralysed trance.

I also did the other thing that comes to mind when trying to calm my kids down, which was to sing them the last few chapters of Qur’an in a lullaby voice. Slowly the gallops became less insistent, the pauses for breath a little more protracted.

I started wondering what on earth was wrong with her; I was reminded of an experiment on cats I’d seen a film of in which scientists had removed the part of the brain responsible for paralysing the body during REM sleep. Sleeping cats were filmed acting out physically all of the actions it was obviously dreaming about – running, biting, hunting. The thought crossed my mind: Is she dreaming? Or is she dying?

Despite the puny LED light shed by my torch, what struck me about the musty, dung-perfumed atmosphere of the scene was its primordial, almost Biblical nature. How many times must this have happened in the past, in exactly the same way? The other sheep were absolutely calm now that their shepherdess was there (oh, how naïve sheep are!) and carried on munching their hay blithely. Meanwhile, her legs became stiffer and stiffer – presumably the root of the Spanish expression for ‘kicking the bucket’, ‘estirar la pata’ (to stretch out one’s leg). Perhaps that’s where’ kicking the bucket’ comes from too.

It was abundantly clear now that she was dying. A powerful peace descended on us, and I was overcome by the sensation of what people describe as an angelic presence, in that way that precedes the verbal formulation of it being angelic. In my tearful, sleep-deprived state I felt almost as though I was witnessing the birth of Jesus, in an anachronistic barn that had landed on the wrong continent in a malfunctioning time machine.

I finally left her to her dying stupor, and somehow the peculiarity of the experience ebbed to the sort of stoical acceptance worthy of a weather-beaten peasant farmer, or even, perhaps, a sheep. The lamb had been born in that barn, so it seemed kind of sensical for her to die there too. Life and death are, after all, both threshold experiences, opposites ends of the roll of film but double-exposed, different panoramas both taken with the same lens.

“Only ewe….”

Now slightly inured to the visceral, animal vision of death – this time, according to the vet, it was caused by septicaemia – I was better prepared (though pretty dismayed) to see another lamb wobble dangerously on his feet as he came down to the barn a few evenings later, collapsing as he arrived. I had to grab him under the belly and hoist him into the shed to be able to close the door, but he stood there in a daze, not rooting around int he boxes of hay like they usually do.

The kids were picked up by their dad at 10pm that night; I had to get him to heft all 50 kilos of the poor beast out of the shed onto the cool ground in the light of the car headlamps before they went (much appreciate it, ex-Caveman). I then put on my gingham lycra campesina superhero outfit and sprang into action, making phone calls and racing into town to find rehydration salts.

En route I co-opted a few friends who gave me packs of salts and sugar, and another who obligingly came down with her son at 11 pm to help lift the lamb’s head up while I shoved a syringe of salty sugary liquids down its throat. Over a litre went down in 40 ml doses, sometimes trickling out straight away as he had lost the strength almost to swallow. His teeth chattered against the plastic of the syringe; a heavy fever had already set in. He lolled his head back, panting, dragging his legs back and forth across the grass, making straw angels in the dirt.

At midnight we all withdrew. There was nothing else to do, short of sleeping on the manure-imbued earth beside the barn to keep watch over him, but I’m afraid I couldn’t muster up the saintliness for that. In the morning I went straight over to see if he was OK, but he was exactly where I’d left him, immobile, eyes dusty and frozen, his oily wool coated in icy dew.

Dramas aplenty for one week, you might think. But no, this is the Alpujarras, land of pirates with green moustaches and hippies selling balls of enchanted mud in the market – anything that can go weird, will!

So two days later, due to various bureacratic headaches, and probably a truck-driver who has just now decided to go on holiday, the carcass of Rambino number 3 is still lying under a plastic window blind on the edge of the land, rotting (I am waiting for the campsite next-door to start complaining of the stench). Yes folks, now is not a good time to come and visit Cavemum.

And to top it all off, in the midst of that bubonic hum, together with my new friend Ricardo – a seriously cool old man from the mountains who doesn’t bat an eyelid at this sort of thing – I helped sheared the remaining five sheep this morning…with my kitchen scissors. Actually he used my kitchen scissors, I used my sewing scissors; I had to wash off the greenish lanolin with Ecover afterwards.

Shearing a sheep by hand is quite an amusing experience. Pinning them down is one thing; one of the feisty mamas carried Ricardo halfway across the land while he clung onto its collar for dear life. Then we had to tie three of its legs (leaving one free so it can still breath alright), and get to work snipping away a two-inch deep layer of wool so dense and encrusted with mud and God knows what else that it seems we were chopping up a very unsavoury hippie’s foam mattress. Twice a sheep protested by spontaneously pooing all over the mounting heap of wool.

It took an hour and a half, during which time we bantered about life and drugs and divorce and farming and Kenya and brain tumours and all sorts. Nothing like a tough physical job and a conversation with a weather-beaten man of the earth to set you right. After a vigorous cold shower (my gas bottle is empty), I left for the market feeling on top of the world,remembering why I was drawn to a life on the land in the first place. It’s real life, in all its shiny, delicious, stinky, hilarious glory.

Well, I have blisters from the scissors on my writing hand, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to make for good material. (Writing material, I mean, not fabric. I don’t think I’ll be washing that wool to make felt with anytime soon.)

The Tiger and the Radio

A tiger stalks the cemetery.

He sniffs the stones, orange lichen
encroaching like ripples in water that
do not disappear but marl the granite
in a vivid quilt of living-on.

A radio buzzes in a distant house;
puzzled gentlemen are arguing over
what to call the Zeitgeist.

The acronyms are rude, the monikers
clumsy or just plain incorrect.
One says: “The whole idea is to
catch what’s real for us right now
and make a home for it inside a name.”

The tiger spies a grasshopper
springing between Josaiah Phipps
(May His Soul Rest In Peace Evermore)
and Mary McStephens (Beloved; Gone
But Certainly Not Forgotten).

A cub again, eyes sharp and green,
he tenses and pins the insect flat
against the grass with a paw as broad
as a china plate.

But his paw is too wide, the claws
set so far apart that when he tilts it
and splays them, the grasshopper
leaps off to land on Isobal Mulligan’s
memorial carnations.

The tiger loses interest and skulks off;
the sound of the radio scrambles on, their
argument unresolvable.

Fifty souls whose names have been
effaced by rain and wind
turn their faces and listen to
the grasshopper rustle away,

and they smiling at the sound
receding into oblivion
like them.

The Death Knell of Illusion

Shock is the death knell of illusion. The initial impact wakes us out of a stupor, and as the reverberations die out the stupor returns, only to be dispelled again with every remembered toll.

I had been given my neighbours, a retired couple from England, Spanish lessons for several months. The last time I saw him was at our lesson; I was drilling him on the conditional tense. He seemed distracted, in love with his garden, almost floating, but still badgering me to create a strict lesson plan so they could keep learning. Less than a week later, his wife and daughter came by to tell me that he’d died.

It shouldn’t be a shock to us that people do that. Has anybody ever heard of someone who didn’t die? Apart from the ones who haven’t yet? People get ill, parts of their bodies recriminate them for their former lifestyles, their unintentional neglect, or merely their genetic code.

But death is the sharpest revealer of our imagined state of permanence. If it weren’t for the illusion that we’ll be hanging around forever – from which we all suffer much more than any physical disease – death wouldn’t come as a shock at all. Mundane reality would recognise its own constant loss; it would see itself trickling away from the solid shape of ice into the clear liquid it was carved from.

Is it possible to maintain that clarity of vision all the time, aware of the true nature of being in the world without feeling sad or lost or robbed? Would it be a burden to keep it up, or does it come naturally with a certain realisation, hearing that death knell and never returning to the happy dream of immortality? Must it take a death to bring us out of the neat-fronted shops in which we stack up our merchandise for the world to see, the reassuring to-do lists of work and entertainment, the day as it’s defined by a plastic ticking tyrant?

If we saw a train heading for us full pelt, we wouldn’t shut our eyes and pretend we were ice-skating. As someone told me before the birth of Shamsie, it’s only the anticipation of some unknown event that creates fear, just as the anticipation of pain creates pain.

Once you’re there, fear is ridiculous; it’s a corridorful of marbles when you’re trying to get out the door on time. And when that self-concocted hindrance is gone, you can see the liberation of death, just as you can see the mind-combusting beauty of birth, over and above the pain and the inelegance of either.

I remember thinking during my labour with Shamsie, ‘I don’t feel anything, no great psychedelic experience, no overwhelming presence of the Great Spirit or anything!’ At first I thought I’d been conned. But a moment later I thought, Perhaps this IS God. The idea came as a shock, of course. My expectations had been shattered; my ideas about how God would be were, as all ideas about God are, my own creative nonsense.

It is at the thresholds of earthly existence that the no-thing-ness of reality sinks in. The birds keep singing outside. The cars keep beeping their horns. But something essential has been transformed on the inside, and there is nothing to grab onto. Words cease to be useful coat hooks to hang concepts on: it is all just as it is.