Sharp October light. There is birth, life, death, of course. It is all I can think about. Still, it’s grainy, all encompassing; as frustrating as trying to isolate a strand of white noise. What creatures were we that floated soft in white milk, gulping down fluid in a flawed, practice breath? Preparation for life is so close to the experience of death. Our bodies, now: conflicted, gnawed upon. The welcomed sites of rupture and supine defamation. We exist as gentle bursts of gun fire, precarious as geode bullet holes. Pain exists in the concave, the convex, the hard formation of rock.
One hundred years before me, the British sent Indian workers to Kenya to establish the Kenya-Uganda Railway, Lieutenant John Henry Patterson leading the way. I open the tent to an image, its perspective all wrong. How do the mountains look, flattened? Is that small blue square someone’s cigarette pack on the grass? It is post-meaning and the fruits are oversexed. Alarming. The bees are fatigued. It’s not blue it’s yellow, formless. Shapes unidentifiable as language recedes. My orange tree is in blossom (again), indicating that it’s time to mature. Still, I can’t vanquish the pen. Nature Morte, whispered someone as teeth sank into their calf.
One hundred years before me, a pair of maneless Tsavo lions stalked the Indian’s campsite at night, dragging workers from their tents and devouring them. In the sun we feign calm, speak robust; watch the road cook its kill, a divine omelet of life. We are adrenalised, black as olives in the shadow of the half finished bridge. The men swat at the flies which pool around their face. Lieutenant John Henry Patterson has had enough of their fear. He charges into the brush, reemerging triumphant, dragging the carcass all the way back to camp.
Suppose we aged backwards, sifting through treasure in vanities housed in New York. Found ourselves re-birthed in tenements salvaged before the deluge. “SIR – We, your Overseer, Timekeepers, Workmen, Mistaris (Urdu for ‘lined’, for ‘ruled’), present you with this silver bowl as a token of our gratitude to you for your bravery in killing two man-eating lions at great risk to your own life, thereby saving us from the fate of being devoured by these terrible monsters who nightly broke into our tents and took our fellow-workers from our side.” We find telephones and insert them into our holes, uniting common points of resistance.
At dawn, ceremoniously stroke the lion with golden fur. Reaching, touching something from before. Crepuscular fantasy, Nighthawk. Patterson laying his pelts down for rugs. His soft feet treading—————————-I am minutes and simply admire your ankles,
as they slip into educator’s shoes. Rogue shoes from Spain, from the rump of a wild horse roaming free in Cordova, paper clay smeared with red dirt.
The server is not responding.
Arroyo de Los Pinos, a vortex in the desert, sand and the Central Banking System: We are concerned. Patterson always said that he considered the silver bowl to be his most highly prized and hardest won trophy. He said nothing of those people, the ruled, their broken backs beneath his feet. Today the information is shared, the palm trees are passed back and forth, all the little broken things. Perhaps it is to avoid some great tragedy, a child spreading her legs for those shoes, that we dismantle narrative, weave rugs from synthetics. The beaches here are splendid but the people are crying in broad daylight, in the sun weeping like seals.
I am tired of dead dogs on the freeway, the slippage of fingers, the dislocation of bones and hollow eye sockets. I try to imagine her female, with small, pert breasts looking up to the sky. Her hair like: remote; like a flat bottomed cloud; like a cat pressed hard to a window and wanting inside. Lieutenant Patterson is dead now, and buried some place far away. Perhaps dancing, now. Perhaps crouched with his back to us all; spitting venom, extinguishing lights with a septic thumb.
This body, like ungulates on the tips of their toes, able to sustain their entire weight while moving. I stare again at your muscular thighs. Think hoofs, picture you smashing guitars and antique floral plates, setting fire to the storage container, blowing smoke across the atlantic, an outrageous, mimetic volcano. The images of palm trees are bodies, some squat, some impossibly slender, cut-out from their surroundings and presented boldly as if floating alone in deep space. I turn to face the open window in an empty house, to feel nothing more than a breeze unmarred by human breath.
From hereon I’m unable to define the material of things: Is there any real difference between cement and alabaster? I refuse the vulnerability of shopping carts, full as they are with plastic.
Everyone is at work in this cave. The leaves get up and lay down voluntarily. Everyone is working so hard for you, Lieutenant, and we still can’t get in.
The lion makes peace on the couch only to be skinned with his own claws after death, sucking hard on the fingers of Heracles, nibbling the belly, fluff falling away like dandelion hair. I just finished a book about post-war rewards: the LP record, the Porsche 356 and the creased tassel loafer. No one mentioned those lion pelt rugs, the broken railways, the trajectory of Patterson’s life. In the First Great War he was appointed commander of the Zion Mule Corps. He experienced extensive, ongoing anti-semitism toward his men and retired from the British Army after 35 years of service, occupying the same rank as before. The lion on the couch is still blinding. It must be the way words expand into forever. The way time isn’t real.
I left when I couldn’t find you ratios, in bodies mute on the street. The things we love stay and spread like disease. I see our fate in the acceptance of speed cameras and homogenised milk. I see why magic is scorned but faith remains in the stars. It’s the last golden rule. Surely some revelation is at hand? The age of Leo was molten, an ancient global warming. Deglaciation and the modern world. The aching cry of ripped ice. A seashell harmonic. A motion which navigates and propels the burial stone up the steep gravel hill.
After his military career, Patterson continued his support of Zionism. He stayed a strong advocate of justice for the Jewish people. He sold the lion pelt rugs to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, kept the silver bowl on his table for spitting pomegranate seeds. In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Hemingway details Patterson’s formative years but we find the lion transformed into a girl. Today there is death in Texas, dying in Spain. The iridescent oil slick of parakeets screaming above the unimaginative L.A river; dogs; a child leaping from her window to land bent in the grass. We find telephones in the cave now, but we’re full and infested with flies. We hold time like a cherry pit, pink rubbing off on our hands. The straw hat is brittle, stabbing my eyes. Still, I demand a rug from morocco and tiny hangers to peg the wasted flesh from. All artists are necrophiles. It doesn’t help much that I understand the meaning of cucaracha, scrawled on a mattress abandoned in the street. It’s too late for linguistic conversions, statistics, vaccines. Try telling the bears that nuisance flooding is on the rise. We are all male like and breathing, seeking revelation, a Porsche 356 and a pair of creased tassel loafers. Reading the paper last week I came across the announcement that the remains of Lieutenant Patterson and his wife will be re- interred at moshav Avihayil in central Israel, near Netanya, where many of the men he commanded are buried.
All photographs courtesy of Peter J. Cohen, selected by Melissa Catanese
A Few Palm Trees is an ongoing experiment in photography and literature, edited by Joanna L. Cresswell for Paper Journal.
Each month, a collector is invited to select a set of images for a writer to respond to.