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The Rains of Abracadabra
By Ken O'Steen
It began to rain in a very persuasive way, stripping away the lingering leaves from already nearly barren limbs. I said to myself the storm could last for eternity for all I cared. And then it did.
After several days, I finished a rather long book by the Bulgarian author Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, an exhaustive and galvanizing examination of the way in which human beings, and populations often are controlled, the aspects of human nature that can render populations subject to domination and manipulation.
The hotel bar was filled when I passed it on my way out, and certainly inviting enough. But I continued on. The awning protected me from the falling rain, then I crossed the road, running across it quickly, even though headlights were nonexistent in both directions.
I set off across the dampened sand on the other side, the patch of desert, though one that made a long, slow descent for a mile or more. Even falling lightly, the rain slowly began to saturate my clothing. Carrying an umbrella struck me as unnecessarily prissy under the circumstances, and I resigned myself to getting just as wet as the locals were.
When I approached the bottom of the long decline, a bazar came into view, filling the length of the muddy street as far as one could see. I slipped through between vendors, coming out of the dark behind them, into the busy street.
A kiosk was selling live chickens, another cooking meat and onions, and an even larger one chocked with baskets and pots. The locals in the street remained unhurried despite the rain, which was nearly inaudible in its gentle persistence, except when striking metal pots or the plastic tarps that protected the wares.
I continued to walk until the street vendors all had been left behind, reaching an ordinary commercial district, though at this time of the evening all the shops were closed. One of them had an aquarium prominently displayed in the window. I moved closer in order to get a look. At first it was difficult to believe, an aquarium full of nothing but Strawberry Fish, yet there it was, berry-red fish filling up the window, as they darted and swiveled in the little room they could find to swim.
I turned back around and walked in the direction of the bazar again. I could see the nearest kiosk, bright striped fabric hanging down from the side. I had almost reached it, when I noticed a commotion up in the street ahead. One of the kiosks had gone up in flames, the fire burning through the merchandise and snaking up the corners of the structure, looking as though it would engulf it all. The woman who owned the kiosk was furiously swatting at the flames with a brocaded quilt, but to little avail. Water was summoned, but there seemed no readily available source of it, or much of a point of finding one.
There was a peculiar resignation apparent in the crowd. The fire had drawn an audience, though not a response. They observed it as though a story were unfolding, with an expectation of revelations perhaps.
I couldn’t help but think of the astuteness of the Elias Canetti book I had just completed. In the book, he had utilized the power of a burning fire to draw an assemblage of people. The larger the crowd became, the more people were attracted to it. The more people there were in the crowd, the more the behavior of the individual members began to mimic that of the crowd as a whole. The will of the individual was gradually subjugated to the will of the crowd.
I had yet to explore the other end of the street, but after some consideration, I decided I would save it for a future excursion. Instead, I passed between two of the vendors into the dark again, and set off back to my hotel.
In the morning the sky was sullen, and the rain continued. I pushed the chair away from the window so that I could watch it pour, beating the weathered pavement, bouncing off the hotel awning, splashing the balconies and the roofs of cars, inundating the brown wasteland beyond the road.
I ordered breakfast, and a pot of coffee. Then I began to read. I finished the novel, Pan, by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, a little after eleven in the evening. I fell asleep thinking about it, a man living in the forest remotely, who meets a woman for whom he has an immediate and effulgent attraction, and who in turn, is fiercely attracted to him. The story of how the two attempt to navigate a romance through the conventions of the world that they inhabit, the struggles of the isolated Thomas Glahn, to contend with the community of people around Edvarda, the woman he loves, affected me quite a lot.
In the morning, I had no desire to leave the room. I decided on another relatively slim book, Contes et Paysages, journal entries of the free spirit, and writer from the turn of the century, Isabelle Eberhardt. An insular person, she mostly travelled alone, which for a woman of those times and in those circumstances was extraordinary. She was an uninhibited and prodigious hedonist, whether the pleasures derived from drugs or sex, and as unlikely as it might seem, a convert to the religion of Islam. She was as competent riding a horse as the Bedouins with whom she travelled.
I finished the book somewhat early in the evening, eight or nine perhaps and decided that it was time that I resume my explorations beyond the hotel. I was about to leave the room without the umbrella as I had the night before, but I thought, to hell with that, I’m taking my umbrella with me this time. True, I’ll stand out more as a pampered Westerner perhaps, but the rain is falling down in buckets.
I tramped across the muddy stretch of desert, and came out into the street from behind the kiosks as I had the time before. This time I walked in the direction opposite that of the previous night. It was no different at first, kiosks, busy with browsing or haggling customers. Near the point where the kiosks began to peter out, and people gradually disappear, the street began a steep decline. Unlighted buildings, absent any markings or signage, or any visible signs of life, was all there was. The farther I went, the more the buildings were interspersed with desert. A shack was occasionally present, sometimes beneath a cluster of fig trees.
Otherwise completely dark, I began to see flickers of light farther down the hill. When I was close enough I could see that the lights were the product of tiny fires. Around the fires bunches of locals sat, talking, or at times laughing, though their voices quickly became whispers when I was passing by. Though most remained underneath their lean-tos, near their fires, and protected from the elements, one or two remained standing, stationed nearer the street. Some were men, others were women.
Occasionally there would be another muddy street intersecting the one that I was travelling on. Near one such intersection, I approached a woman. She was near the street, but still in sight of the fire where the others were.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello. My name is Zina.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Is there something you would like?”
“Something I’d like?”
“Tell me what you like.”
“I’m not sure I understand you.”
“Do you like hashish? Do you like boys? Do you like girls?”
“Nothing like that. Not at the moment at least.”
“Not really, no.”
“I don’t believe so.”
After thinking a moment, I said, “Listen though. Is it possible I could hire you for something else instead?”
“What do you mean, hire me for something else?”
“Pay you to perform a service. Not the things you offered before.”
I don’t understand. Perhaps.”
“What would you pay me to do?”
“I don’t know. To show me something interesting. Take me somewhere interesting. I would pay you for that.”
She thought about it, and said, “Yes. I can do that. Yes.”
We then discussed the amount I would pay her, and when I took out my wallet to give her the money, a man approached. He was young too, but clearly older than Zina.
“My brother,” she said as she counted the money.
“You’ll be nice to Zina, yes?”
“Because, if you aren’t, you know I am going to find you”
“I am very serious,” he said.
“Right. I’m going to be very nice to Zina,” I said.
“No reason to worry at all,” I added.
“Okay,” she said. “Come.”
We walked several yards to the muddy cross street, and turned right, the only direction you could go. At first there was nothing on either side but barren land, or meager dunes. Before long there were houses, in the local style. Every house lay behind a wall, courtyards visible through their lattice gates, and sometimes, colorful mosaics of tile.
As we walked along the puddled street, both of us under my striped umbrella, it was deathly silent. At times a dog would bark, or the splashing of a fountain could be heard behind a wall. There was an olive tree here, a palm there, a fig tree somewhere else.
After a mile or so, we turned into a paved, narrow street going steeply upward. There were rocks on either side of us as we walked, where the street had been carved from hillside. As we passed the crest of the hill and gradually began to descend, another neighborhood came into view, this one altogether different.
There was a familiarity, and then I realized that it was a very Western neighborhood, even resembling a suburban American neighborhood. The streets were paved, there were houses made of red brick, and all with grassy yards.
I followed her up a leafy street. Then we stopped. We were in front of a house set back in a grassy yard, slanting gently upward. The house was made entirely of glass, the part that was visible anyway. There were long, narrow panes of glass running from the floor to the ceiling, divided by molding, so the walls of the house were simply windows. The inside was completely open to view. You could see that a grand, spacious room with very little furniture, comprised the entire floor. From the way the house slanted, it appeared another level might exist below. The room was ablaze in light, and filled with people.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“You mean, go inside?”
“I’m not invited. Are you?”
“You will be welcome. I am sure.”
“How are you sure?”
“Everyone is welcome here.”
“What do you mean here?”
“Here. The house,” nodding toward the house as she said it.
“I don’t know.”
“You asked me to show you something interesting. You asked to be taken to somewhere interesting. You have paid me for that. And now we are here.”
“Looks to be a party,” I said.
“Okay. Thank you. I’ll go inside.”
I turned and began to cross the yard, walking around to the side, seeing an entrance there. A patio was adjacent to the entrance, a patio in the back of the house as well, though neither of them was occupied. I could see a walkway, which appeared to lead to a lower level.
Once I was in the house, I could see right away most in the room were Western, Europeans and Americans both. Furthermore, I could tell it was a modern group, a modern party, merely on the basis of the music playing: Quicksilver Messenger Service, from San Francisco, an album that had come out only recently, the end of ‘67. There were ample leather vests, fancy bell-bottoms, and fringe jackets, acquired at pricey hippie boutiques.
On a table just inside the door there were stacks of plastic cups, and countless bottles of wine. I helped myself, and began to circulate.
I stopped and listened to a tart exchange, the final words of an argument. Once, a man in a nearby group wearing jeans and a clerical collar, asked me, as a way of inviting me into the group, “Do you think McCarthy can win?”
“I don’t know. Can Lyndon Johnson lose?” I asked back.
“We’ve more or less decided he can, the three of us here that is,” and he nodded toward the man and woman standing next to him. The he introduced them.
Lois, he said, “works everywhere in the world just about, but keeps a home here.” The man was a biology professor, who I was told, taught at the American School.”
As for himself, he said he had volunteered to serve a parish here, assuring me he felt “blessed to receive the assignment.”
“I was telling Lois,” the priest said, “about the sorry record of Catholics during French colonialism. And about Ho Chi Min’s regard for the American Declaration of Independence.”
The more the priest talked, I couldn’t help but think of the priest in the Bernanos novel, Diary of A Country Priest. He shared little with the humble, unsophisticated, suffering, self-doubting and nameless priest in the parish of Ambricourt. On the other hand, he did seem to hold strongly to a principle of Christian pacifism, advocating for justice and mercy.
Eventually, each of us went our separate ways. More than one of my subsequent conversations was about the rain. One person referred to it as having a “biblical vibe,” several said it portended various other bizarre weather phenomena, though most merely expressed amazement.
“There’s never been anything like it here,” said a youngish expatriate man from Holland, who was a seller of knick-knacks in the medina on the other side of town.
With no prospective conversant in sight. I stood with my cup in my hand, feeling slightly adrift. Not far away from me, a woman was similarly standing alone. I walked to where she was, until I was nearly standing beside her. I decided that she was pretty. I awkwardly made my presence known.
“Enjoying yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered, with a pleasant smile.
The best I could think of next was to ask, “Do you like this album?”
She cocked her head, as if actually listening to it for the first time.
“Moby Grape. I kind of like them. Sound a bit like the Byrds. And I love the Byrds.”
“Turn, Turn, Turn?”
She said her name was Suzanne, and she told me where she lived in the United States. She had brown hair that rested on her shoulders nondescriptly. She was wore a denim dress.
She wouldn’t strike anyone as glamorous, yet the longer I was next to her, the longer I had to observe her, the more it occurred to me that she was incredibly lovely. A very unfussy beauty. Womanly beauty. A sensuous, gravitational beauty that put you under a spell.
She asked, “Do you know other people here?”
“I’ve had some conversations, but no, I don’t know anyone at all. It’s the first time here for me.”
“I was here another time. But I don’t know anyone who’s here either.”
She explained she had come to visit an “old, dear friend” who lived with her husband in a house in the neighborhood. That was how she ended up at the parties.
I told her, “Someone local steered me here.” Then I asked if she had read anything food of late, fishing to see if she was a fellow reader.
“I just finished reading Silent Spring,” she said, referring to Rachel Carson’s book about chemicals and pesticides, and the harm they are doing to the natural world.
She wanted to know something of me of course. No longer at all interesting to myself, l had little desire to tell her much. I explained that while I had been living abroad for years, I had not always been the wanderer I was at present.
“I needed to get away. I was tired of being surrounded by people," I told her.
"Did you have a family, wife and kids? Live in a commune, what?”
“It doesn't matter. It's not important," I said.
"Tune in, turn on, drop out?"
"I wouldn't go as far as that," I said, half-amused, half-annoyed.
We would remain standing there, in more or less more the exact same spot, for what had to have been a couple of hours. People would stop and say, “You’re still here?”
Finally she said, "I ought to be getting back to my friend’s house."
“Oh. All right. Of course.”
"Come outside with me for a minute, though."
I followed her out the door, picking up my umbrella from where I had left it. She walked out onto the patio, protected from the rain, free of others still. She sat down on the deep blue sofa at the back of the patio, and I sat beside her. Then she took my hand.
“Now what?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I thought you were going home?”
“No, I mean after tonight.”
“We see each other tomorrow?”
She beamed, and said, “That’s a deal.”
“Give me your address and I can come and fetch you.”
“Let’s meet here again instead. That way, I can spend time with my friends, and then come here as soon as I’ve finished. We usually have dinner together, but after that, they prefer to be alone I think. They were the ones who told me about the parties here.”
She began to caress my hand. Running my hand gently through her hair, I kissed her. It was the kind of kissing that made you feel as though all you were running a fever, the initial stage of a virus perhaps. I put my hand under her dress, but only to caress her thigh, and only because the skin was incredibly tender and silky.
The door opened, and we jumped apart. It was like school kids suddenly caught out by adults.
Laughing, she said, “Okay. I had better go.”
“I should walk you home.”
“Don’t bother. It’s only several houses down.”
“I’ll walk you down to the street.”
When she was gone, I followed the paved street back through the series of hills I had crossed with Zina. I passed through the silent neighborhood, its houses and fountains behind the walls. I turned at the intersection, and then retraced my steps along the muddy street, noting most of the fires were out, though a few still continued to flicker. I slipped between the kiosks, and off across the long, barren stretch of desert again.
The hotel was quiet, and the bar deserted. I turned on all the lights in the room just as I always did. I nibbled at the scraps of food left from the afternoon. But I didn’t feel at ease. The unexpected had happened. The good kind, that left you furiously, helplessly spinning reveries.
I turned the lights, out and stood at the window looking, rain falling still through the leafless trees, yellow ovals from the streetlights still reflected on the shiny pavement. I pictured Suzanne until I fell asleep.
In the morning I started to read again, a book in German about the writer and the enigma B. Traven. His novels described the lives and brutal exploitation of indigenous Mexicans, especially in the Mahogany fields. His origins were forever murky. From Germany almost surely, related to the Kaiser perhaps, no one knew for sure, nor how he first had ended up in Mexico. His wife hadn’t a clue in fact.
That evening as I was leaving, the bar was as bustling as I had seen it. I hustled across the puddled street, and set out across the swath of scrub and mud again. The bazar was extraordinarily lively. I passed through the section of ramshackle and ambiguous buildings, and arrived at the intersection where Zina had been. Perhaps because it was early still, I saw no sign of her there.
The long, slim street with the walled houses was as silent and dark as the night before, once again, the only sound, that of the fountains splashing in the courtyards.
When the destination came into view I hurried along at a hastened clip. The house looked from the street exactly as it had the night before. The enormous room was brightly illuminated and similarly filled with people.
At the table, still chocked with bottles and cups, I poured myself a wine, and then strolled through the crowd looking for Suzanne. There were faces familiar from the night before, though most were not. The topics of conversation were exactly the same.
I moved around the clusters of guests, until certain Suanne was not among them. I posted myself near the center of the room where Suzanne and I had talked so long the night before. I could keep an eye on the door from there as well.
Near me, a man who might have been a diplomat judging from his demeanor, said to the group he was conversing with, “The Czechs are all about reforming, Tito does whatever the hell he pleases in Yugoslavia, and the Russians let him do it. But every town in America still tests its civil defense sirens every other Saturday afternoons.”
A middle-aged man in a white shirt and khaki pants, answered him, “Chairman Mao is bearing down with the Cultural Revolution, and Algeria is turning hard line. So maybe keeping a wary eye isn’t such a terrible idea after all.”
“I’m not talking wariness,” the man with the diplomat’s demeanor answered, “I’m talking foolish paranoia.”
Sensing an opportunity to join in, I poked my head ever so slightly from behind the man in the khaki pants, and asked the group, "Where would De Gaulle kicking NATO out of France fit into your discussion?"
The man in the khaki pants, along with all the rest, merely stared at me in stony silence. Then the man in the khaki pants swiveled back around and turned his back completely.
Confused, I said, “I don’t understand what is so…”
Before I could finish he had whirled back around, and pointed behind me, indicating I should move away. I looked at him in amazement, but said no more.
Disconcerted, I wandered over to the refreshment table, wondering what the hell had happened. I desperately wanted to see Suzanne coming through the door.
Reluctant at first, I finally began to wander in the crowd again, having nothing else to do. I couldn’t help but listen with interest when I overheard a group chattering on about the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Like everywhere, the movie was acclaimed as brilliant filmmaking, or a glorification of criminality, depending on the person talking. Everyone had an opinion, whether they had seen the movie or not.
“Bogie’s criminals were romanticized too weren’t they?” I interjected in a cheerful voice.
Each of the others seemed to freeze in place. Again, no one uttered a word, conveying antagonism only with pained expressions. I made no attempt at protest, and hoped to slink away. Perplexed, I cowered near the wine again, and noticed many in the room were glaring at me.
A man in madras pants approached, and said, “I think you should go.”
“I think you should go,” he repeated, sterner than before.
Everyone in the room continued to state. I put down the cup of wine in my hand and left.
Outside in the yard, I vowed I would stay until Suzanne arrived, no matter how inhospitable the crowd had been, or inexplicable this behavior. Startled by footsteps, I swung around as a man and woman were walking past me on their way to the house. The man turned, and said to me as they passed, “You really oughtn’t be here.”
“Why?” I asked.
But the man ignored me, and the two of them continued on their way.
I had no intention of giving up on Suzanne in any case. My alternative was to stroll through the neighborhood and hope to see her. Maybe I would stumble on the house by happenstance.
The houses were practically identical, and I scrutinized each of them as best I could, looking for any promising sign. When the street dead-ended into another, I turned to the left, and proceeded on. After another turn, and yet another, it occurred to me I should re-canvas the streets I had canvassed before.
I must have turned right, when I should have gone to the left instead, for soon I was beyond the neighborhood altogether. I had arrived at what appeared to be either a college or a medical campus given the architecture. I circled it a number of times, seeking anyone who could provide directions. The place however was completely deserted. There were several choices of streets to take, and I had no idea which if any was the correct one.
I made my choice, climbing up a hill on the paved street, trees along the sides, and grass, though not any sign of houses. Soon, I was in a ravine, towering walls of rock, and huge boulders on either side of me. Then I began to descend, going down a long, steep hill. When I had reached the bottom I was in a familiar place, or it looked familiar in any case.
It appeared I was on the street leading back to the bazar again, though farther perhaps into the desert than I had been before. I set off toward the hotel, eventually seeing the fires flickering off in the desert again, and finally, I came to the intersection where Zina had been. There was no sign of her, only the fires burning off in the distance. For an instant, I thought of turning back, and trying to find Suzanne. But I resigned myself to the fact that it was pointless, for the night at least.
I walked along the muddy street in the rain, the drops thumping against the umbrella. Jerked back violently, garroted by the neck, I dropped the umbrella. Someone behind me was attempting to strangle me. In front of me, another man had begun to rifle my clothing. The person who was throttling me had enormous strength, and as the other continued to search my clothes, I accepted they not only intended to rob me, but to kill me too.
Out of nowhere came another man, charging at me from off to the side. I thought why in the world do they need another one? This man however, lunged instead at the man strangling me.
The man who had been rifling my pockets, took off into the desert fast as he could go. I turned around and saw the man who had had his hands around my neck lying on the ground unconscious, bleeding. The third man was rummaging through his pockets, robbing him. When he was done, he got up and stood in front of me, and then I could see it was Zina’s brother.
He took my wallet out of his pocket, removed the money, and handed me back the wallet.
“I thought you people were rich,” he said.
I kept most of my money tucked away in the hotel room, but I didn’t tell him that.
“Thank you for helping me,” I said to him.
“You should go home,” he said.
I retrieved the umbrella, but already the rain had drenched me to the bone. At least the rain managed to wash the blood away.
I dried myself, and relished the warmth of the room. I decided to read in bed a while, if for no other reason than to keep from dwelling on the disappointment I had about Suzanne. I retrieved the Saturday Evening Post in my luggage, sent to me several months ago by a friend in the States. He had recommended an essay, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by a writer named Joan Didion I had never heard of.
In the end, I drifted off to sleep before I could read a word, drained by the night's excitement. The magazine was on the bed beside me when I awoke in the morning. I got up slowly, and I could tell right away something had changed. When I looked out the window the sun was out. There were big, pillowy clouds floating by, not remotely threatening. The rain was done.
I ordered breakfast, and ate it slowly while I read the essay. When I had finished, the essay and the breakfast both, I got up and began to pack my bags. I was heading elsewhere.