Crimson Hands

1.

In l964, my friend Tom Mabie house-sat on Covarrubias Street in Madrid, an apartment that belonged to a Spanish artist named César Manrique–who was in New York.  In the bedroom, a large-scale copy of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” stretched across a wide wall, a forbidden painting in Franco’s Spain.  Manrique may have painted the copy himself.

Curiously, Manrique, born in l9l9, had served in an artillery unit for Franco in the Spanish Civil War in the late l930s when he was eighteen.  He had such a terrible experience that, when he came home to the Canary Islands, he immediately walked up the stairs to the flat roof of his family home, took off his uniform, doused it in gasoline and burned it.  He refused to ever speak of his experiences in the war, and he was a militant pacifist the remainder of his life.

Manrique died in an automobile accident in l992.  Ironically, he hated cars and their effect on the environment.  In the l930s, with a teenage friend, he destroyed billboards along his native island’s roads.  He was a painter, sculptor, visionary architect and ecologist who has been called the “Father of Lanzarote Island” for his conservation work.  He also planned towns, designed gardens, houses, and created earth sculptures in the volcanic landscape.  This was after his return from New York in l966.

Manrique may have gone to America in l964 because his wife Josefa (“Pepi”) Gomez had died of cancer in Madrid in l963, and he needed a change.  He had met her at Atocha Station in Madrid in l946.  She was separated from her first husband, so, forbidden to divorce and re-marry under the repressive regime, they lived as companions together.

One night, asleep in the apartment alone, Tom woke up.  A woman walked across the room, past where Jesus sat in a chair in a white robe, his decapitated head under his arm, and then she walked through the wall.  Tom pulled the covers over his head.

Covarrubias Street could be named after a village, near Burgos, founded by the Visigoths in 7th Century Spain.  Or it may be a member of the illustrious family of architects and scholars, two of whom were painted by El Greco in Toledo around 1600.  One of these brothers, Antonio, has an opened book on display at the El Greco museum in Toledo, a book on Greek philosophy with Antonio’s fine, ink comments about paradoxical philosopher Zeno and his thought in the
margins.  El Greco’s portrait of Antonio Covarrubias is a severe painting in black and gray, maybe suggestive of Antonio’s discriminating mind as well as his age.  They were humanists, epitomes of the Renaissance.

Perhaps the oldest human cave painting was recently found on the Cantabrian sea coast of Spain at a site called El Castillo.  The artists may have been Neanderthals who blew red ocher through their lips and onto their back of their hands flattened against the cave wall, creating playful hand stencils 40,000 years ago.

Covarrubias means “red cave.”

2.

The collector collected from the years of the dictatorship and decorated his flat with propaganda posters, furnishings of the period, rugs woven in labor camps, badges punched out of tin from heroes that never happened, framed poems from those who wrote on the insides of envelopes, and other assorted detritus, including eyeglasses, gas masks, and sets of metallic
teeth.

“And a hail and hardy good morning to you,” the collector said over his cup of Joe.

“Did you enjoy pissing in the period toilet with the period pull-chain?”

He was also running a B. and B. to help offset the expense of such an elaborate collection, not to mention the opportunity to practice foreign languages with his myriad guests. We felt quite privileged to visit his famous city, where bibliophiles ate the glue from the bindings of their books because they loved their national literature so much, interior decorators
ate wallpaper because they loved their surroundings so much, pet owners ate pets, housewives spiders, and then they ate each other because the Germans had surrounded them.

“And what do you have planned for today?” he asked.

“The Czarist palace? The World War II museum? A boat ride over to Kronstadt? How about a Kalashnikov for breakfast?”

3.

In the backseat (although you can’t see him) the poet sits, with whom we drove west to Los Angeles.  He’s a shadowy figure, his arm in the window, slightly distorted by the slanting light of the sunset.

It was a difficult trip across the prairie and onto the plains with the scattered towns and long stretches of nothing.  Somewhere in Missouri, out of money, we robbed a donation box for the March of Dimes, because of which God smited the crank shaft and cracked the block.  We abandoned the vehicle as fast as modern poetry ditched the sonnet and hitch-hiked on into the provincial night, the poet in a dusty beret with a lute over his shoulder, singing: “Some Other
Time.”

Ethereal light at midnight somewhere west of Oglala, it might have been the aurora borealis or a rocket’s red glare.  The poet said it reminded him of the fireworks over the fields of the battle of Orleans.

I asked, “New Orleans?”

“No,” he said, “Old.”

4.

She did an independent study with me, on Faulkner.  It was in the mid-eighties at UC San Diego, and she was a graduate student.  We met once a week and spoke of the fiction–The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, Go Down Moses, Absalom, Absalom.  Not only was she much older than my usual students, she was much more precise–perhaps because she read in a second or third language.

Near the end of the term, she invited my wife and me to dinner.   She lived in graduate student housing with her husband and two children.  We crowded into the living room and ate what she called, “A typical meal in my country.”  Her husband and her children were very gracious, and it felt as if we were being honored.

On the last day of her study with me, we reviewed the amazing characters that inhabited Faulkner’s fictional realm in Mississippi.  We talked of his techniques, his sense of place, his dramas of crumbling dynasties, arrivistes among the departures, the unpredictable twists and turns of family chronologies and their bizarre psychologies.

“And now you will return to your country?”  I asked her.

“Yes,” she said.  “It is time to return.”  She smiled, stood up, thanked me, and left.

I wondered about her life in Baghdad, and, through the years, I  felt the weight of what could have happened to her and to her family.