Some years ago a friend and I were all suited up and, with business plan and letters of introduction in hand, were a day away from flying to Los Angeles to chew the ears off half a dozen weasel-headed entertainment executives in the hopes of scoring some backing for an “entertainment property” we had created. Walking down the street in the Oregon city we lived in, blind with planning and stress, one of us turned to the other out of the blue and said: “Fuck this, let’s go to Spain and live with the Gypsies.”
And we did.
Ian and I sat on a stone bench in Granada’s Plaza Nueva, shaded from the sun by the spring leaves of a fig tree. It was, with the cool wind of the still-snowy Sierra Nevada blowing up the Darro, like sitting still inside a lime. Outside the light was liquid. Like mercury. Ian was stabbing away at some difficult run of notes in soleá on his guitar, a beautiful old flamenco guitar made in Valencia in the ’30s by the Ricardo Sanchez family, cypress wood, slanted pegboard, ivory bridge. Each note struck hung ringing in a doorway or window. This was our soundtrack: Ian’s ceaseless playing, my ceaseless smoking and incantatory mumbling trying to chip out some stubborn line or phrase: “I shall climb through the silence of cypress …”
A Gypsy stopped in front of us, the sun behind him, Mephistophelean silhouette, long black hair, black pointed beard, leaning on a knobby cane wrapped in maroon leather and studded with carpet tacks. He looked like the devil. Or a king.
“That tree has a great deal of wisdom.”
“That tree you are sitting under has much wisdom.”
“Can I see your guitar?”
He sat down on the bench next to Ian and took the guitar gently, like handling another man’s child. He strummed the strings lightly with his thumb, lurching quietly, awkwardly through soleá, then handed it back to Ian.
“Can you play for a singer?”
“I don’t know.”
The wind blew leaves in skirls along the polished paving stones of the streets, over bridges, along dirt roads, past empty cisterns …
“Now move. No, here. Now here. See? Eso. That’s it.”
Ratón sang, low, in a voice between a sob and the rasp of a wood lathe: The limbs of cypress trees stretched out over graveyard walls at night, the limbs of olive trees like dancers …
That was the first time we met Ratón.
In his youth, Ratón toured, as do many Gypsies, with a flamenco troupe. He toured Austria, which he loved with its magnificent Gothic edifices; Belgium with its canals; France with its strong wine and women. But flamenco falls in and out of fashion — which drugs, largely, do not. So, with a wife and son to feed, Ratón became Granada’s on-street hash connection. To watch him operate was a marvel. He would stand in the Plaza Nueva and one of his lieutenants, either Miguel or the Guy with the Long Hair or the Guy Who Does Palmas, would saunter up, avert his mouth and whisper something. Ratón would nod and the lieutenant would disappear again. And with this he had new shoes, a car and an apartment with two bedrooms. Hash was not illegal to smoke in Spain, just to sell. So after the Arab sheiks in Marbella or the Castellano businessmen in Madrid got off the phone with Syria, they called up a Gypsy to do their dirty work for them.
Evening, and clouds had turned Granada the blue-gray of the sea. The torn sky shuddered and the rain ran cold in streams down the air. An hour previous it had been hot enough for shirtsleeves, and Susan, Ian and I had walked down the Cuesta del Chapiz from the Sacromonte, where we were staying in a huge house on the Camino del Sacromonte. We walked down the narrow street where all the old whores sat against the ancient walls in short cane chairs, their doors open onto tiny, threadbare and extremely tidy rooms filled almost entirely by a large bed and night table. Susan always tightened her grip on my arm when we hit Conception, the cross street whose blue and white enamel sign marked the beginning of this silent gauntlet. I’d hoist up my artificial smile and the three of us would take a deep breath. There was really no reason for apprehension, but there was something so sad in the little rooms and the silence that we never became inured to. This string of chairs and doors ended at the equally ironically named cross street, Calle del Aire.
We wandered around the so-called Muslim district, past the Saseteria with its Castellano convert tailor, the Al Faguara Teteria, or teashop, the “Arabic” Teteria. We passed the Restaurant Boabdil and La Bodega, coming out opposite the Cathedral, where Ferdinand and Isabella are interred, down from the Banco Santander on the Via Colón, where Gypsies were murdered by the hundreds when fascist forces took Granada from the loyalists. We spent our last money on ice cream and started back up. (“Vais a subir?” came the constant call. Yes, we are ascending.) When the rain broke it fell in blue-black sheets and our shirts sucked around our backs and our hair fell down our heads like running ink. Shaking and hooting, we rounded a corner. Standing beneath the veranda outside a cafeteria stood Ratón, the Guy with the Long Hair and Ratón’s son. He shouted to us.
“Come here! Get over here and get out of the rain, you fools!”
He ushered us in to the steamy cafeteria where they gave us bar towels to dry off with.
“You want coffees? I’m buying.”
We drank sweet cafe con leche in the warm cafe and chatted while the rain poured blue into black outside the large glass windows. The dark smell of cheap cigarettes coiled up in blue smoke. Everything was blue.
CASA DEL PUCHERO
We had rented a large house on the Camino from Juanillo, the richest man in the Sacromonte, restaurateur and unofficial mayor. Besides his restaurant he owned a Le Car and a house, and had a beautiful wife and several handsome children. Due to childhood polio he was known rather ungenerously as Chickenleg. The curious thing about the house, and something we did not figure out until later, was that its absentee owner, an Italian, had left Juanillo the keys to oversee the place, not rent it. But rent it he did — to us. For about $200 Susan and I and Ian rented the largest and most lavish house I have lived in. Susan and I had a bedroom, each of us had a studio, and Ian had the large bedroom. There was a bathroom upstairs as well. On the ground floor was another bathroom, a bar/kitchen and a huge living room/salon, or sala, with a fireplace.
Casa del Puchero had been for many years a flamenco bar and the rooms upstairs had housed many of the greats as well as contemporary stars such as Paco, Cameron and Pepe Habichuela. This imbued the place with a magic. Ian was certain that this magic assisted him in his drive to improve his playing.
The fact that we were a guitarist, a poet and a painter did not hurt our standing in a community in which everyone was either a singer, guitarist, percussionist or dancer and for whom wealth was an occasion for jealousy but virtuosity in art a reason for respect. These were the people after all who said, “Hay que tener arte.” One must have art.
One afternoon as the three of us sat talking in the kitchen, watching the Swedish and Japanese tourists peering into the windows hoping, I suppose, to see real Gypsies, Ratón happened by with the Guy Who Does Palmas. We were soon sitting around in a circle in the resonant kitchen drinking coffee and talking. Ian started playing a bulerias. Ratón started singing, a racket of boot on tile as he spun about in the center of the circle, a maelstrom of controlled explosions caught in the net of the guitar. The internal rhythms of the palmas, the complicated clapping patterns of flamenco, held the whole expressive riot in order. When he saw my tentative hands, the Guy Who Does Palmas yelled, “Yes! Like that! Come on, everybody must do something!” So we clapped off each other, a staggering ratcheting gallop like two men on black horses at night.
Soon, Juanillo’s two beautiful young daughters were peeking in the doorway.
“You have no dancers!” they protested.
Like huge silk flowers they whirled about, enchanted in the circle of chairs — the forest. Ratón in his chair again, eyes closed, hands on knees, elbows locked, head thrown back: a chirping, diving, grating howl, like a bird, soaring, then, wings flat, falling, exploding out across the waves, the brilliant spray, the shadow and echo of the grotto. And soon the girls were pulling an unwilling Susan from her chair: dance, dance! And she did. Arm extended, wrist cocked, her hand turned: a white bird; eyes over the shoulder to follow the little girls, little women, sure in the movements, strong, sexual, fearless, and assumed that pose herself, found herself for the first time in that gesture.
We passed the afternoon that way.
After that a dark brilliance surrounded the Casa del Puchero.
Deep in the velvet of summer when the night sky spread its jewelry out on cloth Susan made a fire in the fireplace. We were out of butane for our little stove and Ian and I had plunged ourselves into a black resignation. I sat at the wooden table in the kitchen smoking, thinking bitter thoughts: Life is pain. Ian was drowning in a well of rumbling arpeggios. It was times like these in which Susan truly showed her mettle. While we glowered blackly at each other and all the invisible numerals God in his hatefulness had scratched on our minds, Susan moved officiously out of the room with a determined stride.
“Crack! Smack!” A sharp noise from the echoing sala.
“What the fuck?” I asked no one in particular.
“What the fuck is she doing in there?” Ian looked up.
“Crackity-smaaaack! Crackle, crackle.”
Ian and I got up, suddenly and inexplicably panicked. We dashed into the sala. In the shadowy cavern of wall and chair a warm fire was flickering: Indonesian flames fluttering flags of light around the room. Susan had found scrap wood, broken it up and started a fire.
“Now we can have tomato and rice and coffee, you idiots.”
After we ate we had sweet coffee. No light in Puchero but the light of the fire. Three shadows darkened the frosted glass in the iron door. I swung the door in on its complaining hinges. Ratón and his retinue entered quietly, seriously.
In the circle of chairs and iron ribbon of the guitar, Ratón danced, dark head, dark heel, to the low wooden boom of hands and crackling branches. We were far away from the city in the dry vega where the crickets well up at night like a dreamed spring and knives get lost in the moonlight on their way from the kettle to the saddle: song, like each year of life, a wound never to be recovered from, all of us Jacob, each day an angel, each love, each word — worth it …
After Ian had forsaken his pursuit of the Black Widow, a dancer named Pilar, he directed his affections toward Belen, the robust eldest daughter of one of our dearest friends in the Sacromonte, Manuel. Manuel and his wife had three caves. We were never completely sure whether they were from Manuel’s family or from his wife’s. Women, though they stayed much closer to home, were very powerful figures in the Gypsy family. One night when Susan walked about the neighborhood upset, a clutch of large Gypsy ladies gave her a talking to about me and I was made to understand my duties and attend to them a little more assiduously. Gypsies were the least judgmental people I had ever met, but some things, well …
The main cave, the highest, was where the family lived, directly up the hill from the Rocio, the barrio’s largest tablao, or flamenco nightclub. It had a houselike extension complete with a terrace affording a nice view of the Moorish ruins on the hill opposite, the little Darro River running like bells in a sack beneath its wind-rushed greenery. Up the hill olive trees writhed poetically on the ridge by the cyclopean walls. Below the main cave was a smaller cave they kept their rabbits and chickens in and below that an unused cave. The whole complex was entered through a wrought-iron gate.
The Mother-in-Law had come to live with them after her husband died, bringing her rambunctious 14-year-old son in tow. She was thrilled to no end over the prospect of Ian marrying her granddaughter, one that Ian was not fully prepared to realize. One evening Susan and I went over with Ian to visit. We were served fried eggs and potatoes and afterwards Manuel prepared limonada.
“Because there are women present,” he proclaimed as he mixed the Fanta Limon with the white wine, “we will put no whiskey in.”
“Whiskey in the sangria?”
“When just men are drinking, yes.”
Manuel was one of the lucky ones, he worked a six-day-a-week construction job downtown. Andalusia had very high unemployment and what few jobs there were went usually to castellanos.
“Hey, hey, Manuel — don’t you think so?” Manuel’s primo asked him, jabbing him with his elbow. He hoped to drum up some support for one point or another.
“Humanos son humanos.” People are people. The typical Gypsy response. This “cousin” of Manuel was one of those wonderful and rare birds, a millennialist anarchist. Of the whole rancid buffet of political structures, quasi-religious Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, with its revelatory ecstacy and naive love of Man, is the nearest to my own impossible taste. We carried on a lively conversation about the Civil War, priests, the nature of human life; standard fare for the Sacromonte on a weekday night after dinner.
Ian, much to Susan’s amusement, grew increasingly uncomfortable under the Mother-in-Law’s ministrations. I did what I could to help.
“Did you like your food?” she asked him. “With a Gypsy wife, you would have food like that every night! You like to eat? You’re so skinny!”
“Oh, he loves to eat!” I told her. “There is nothing better to him than a good meal.”
“Then you should marry a Gypsy woman.”
“He should, shouldn’t he? You should you know. Perhaps there’s somebody …”
The conversation went on this way for some time, with an occasional imprecation from Manuel for his Mother-in-Law to stop her foolishness. Belen and her younger sister stood at the kitchen door, watching the strange goings on, Belen coyly averting her eyes when Ian looked her way. Her younger sister hid behind her, staring over her shoulder at these odd voyagers like old friends in her family’s midst. (Her young body the color of unfiltered olive oil, squeezed from the olives on the hill by the boy’s school, budding up in a promise of fruit, picked carefully by hand in the heat of midday and pressed in a cool stone magazine.)
It was 10 o’clock. The lights had come on at the Alhambra and Generalife for the night tours. Beautiful though they were, golden against the deep Andalusian summer night, I always found myself following the crooked line of the darkening hill up the ravine to the broken tower of the Silla del Moro, always poetically extinguished at the sun’s departure. This is where Granada’s last Moorish emperor took refuge when his city rebelled beneath him, in the days before the Reconquista closed the doors on the lush reign of the Arabian kings.
“Should I get my guitar?” Ian asked me quietly. The clapping had begun from El Rocio.
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
The cave we were living in at the time was a short jog down the path. Ian flashed in and out of the copper spray of the street lights, returning with the guitar in one hand.
We poured ourselves another limonada and waited for Belen’s sister to descend and open the gate. I watched Susan’s eyes in the candlelight fixed on the burning cinnamon of the Alhambra. It was the moment, that special moment before the most important part of life: the Art. Hay que tener arte. Art is the transmutation of the everyday pain and suffering, the want, the desire of Life, into spirit; it is banging at the gates of heaven, wrestling with the dark angel, with duende. It can smile as it pulls a knife out of its own ribs. It can be genuinely happy and laugh with its children — but it always knows.
Manuel picked up the guitar carefully, held it with one hand.
He ran his rough hand over the neck, over the curves of the body; he peered down the fretboard. He strummed it, played a few measures of tarantos, stumblingly. Perhaps it had been too long since he sang.
“A very fine guitar indeed. Now I will teach you how to play tarantos for a singer.” He handed the guitar back to Ian. “You know tarantos?”
“Of course,” Ian replied.
Ian let loose with a strong rasquiado. The first chords drummed out. They rang off the walls of the terrace and swirled like currents of warm air, like smoke from a candle, rose and rolled over the walls spilling out and up into the ocean of the heavens like a man’s cry into the universe. Like Ratón, Manuel guided Ian’s hand, marked time.
“Eso. That’s it. Now hold it. Change. Again. Eso.”
A man stood at the mouth of the deep shaft of a mine. Below, the miners — small, grimy Jonahs, God-deaf and wounded. Their guitars’ solea echoed and twisted as it traveled up the shaft to where the man stood. The man at the mine mouth felt the stitch of pain between his ribs, a needle and thread that passed through the men below, now him, now the men again, making them one. He sang to the cry of the guitar that issued from the shaft: to send that message up to the green star. Their cry rose, his rose, they rose together to form the flower that seeks the light of life out: the Prayer (whether there existed anything to receive it or no).
Manuel was a bricklayer — 10-hour days in the sun or rain of Granada building someone else’s houses, offices, apartment buildings. As he sang, his white tank top glowed like the snow on the Sierra Nevada against his dark skin, his hair fell down from the top of his head like dark wings, darker than the sky over the broken hills. The broken glass and sand of a man’s life in the sudden flight of a dove. He had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. It stole our breath and the premeditation from our eyes. The song mounted, rose, grew louder, complex, arabesques in the air of muscles and whitewash, higher, nearer the broken golden throne of Desire — and exploded into tears, into blood that dried on our hearts like seawater on the hull of a battered ship, like silence on the heart of the world.
We stood, half out of our chairs, slack-jawed until Manuel’s wife’s face grew bright from inside like an alchemic flower with pride and love; the children, the Mother-in-Law, her young son, proud and somewhat surprised that someone they knew so well was capable of winning in that kind of a fight. He looked up into their beautiful faces.
Some months after that, we left Granada. Granada had made me a poet and, though I didn’t know it at the time, would also make me a husband. Living in Granada was like living inside fire. I don’t know if I will ever make it back to Granada, but it hardly matters. There are places in your life that you leave and there are places that leave you. But if you’re lucky you find a place that, no matter where you go, no matter how far from it you move, never deserts you. I imagine this must be the same feeling a religious man identifies as God’s love.
Because of Granada, I have the strength of 10 men, and am very rich.
(This story originally appeared in Salon and Emergency Horse.)
Gypsy, Granada, Spain, Sacromonte