by Nelson Disla
Artwork by Jack Savage
This tale begins in a lone village in the corner of an Aragonese valley. Population density, slightly less than the Sahara Desert. The burnt orange hills to the north and west are littered with a dozen abandoned villages. Its neighboring valleys, the same.
There’s only one road to Ayerbe and it was built long ago. Forty-five miles out, its pavement shatters into crunching gravel. It winds and weaves, climbs and cascades. There are no tributaries. It’s a hallway, a tunnel, a portal. The town itself is made of clay, with cobbled streets seasoned deep red. Its church bell is silent and dusted. The only snow flurry on Christmas Eve which never melted. Hushed bees sway in lieu of the clergy; thorns in the duvetyne breeze. Buzz-buzz.
The road to Ayerbe intersects Rio Cuello so frequently that years ago people couldn’t reach the village after heavy rain. It doesn’t matter now- no one enters Ayerbe anymore. Ever. They slip away, one at a time, for Huesca or Barcelona or Zaragoza, and never come back. Ayerbe has the gravitational pull of a shrinking pebble.
Yacob was the last person to move into Ayerbe, but that was a long time ago. Naturally, when he first arrived, divergent stories of his origin sprouted in the villagers’ imaginations before infiltrating the architecture of their collective unconscious. Those five letters- Y. A. C. O. B.- were scrawled across the blueprint in any number of ways, often quite disagreeably. Yacob was raised in the mountains by a trio of wolves, Yacob was hiding from city authorities on account of his violent streak, Yacob was born in Ayerbe and only came back when all of its original inhabitants had died or moved on. So on and so forth. These fictions missed the most important point: Yacob was a prophet. His message?
“Mente sobre la materia.”
It was two weeks after his sudden immigration into the village when he stood in the cobbled square and performed his first live act. Reaching for 5’5”, with a white beard and chipped, porcelain nose. It was the beginning of a ritual that would last for years. The shirt came off and the knives out. First was the skinny filet knife. He unsheathed it and started slicing across his stomach. The brushstrokes were thin and the paint red. Ice skates dancing through water. He hadn’t advertised the event, so it was pure coincidence for those initial voyeurs. There were six of them in the square that day. And one dog with the snarl of a hellhound. They saw the skin break on Yacob’s stomach and they saw the blood slide into the waistline of his pants. Stained and staining. He wiped his abdomen with a rag and walked towards the group. “Mente sobre la materia,” he echoed, closing his eyes. The tracks on his stomach stitched themselves, scarred, and faded into his cappuccino skin. The dog persisted.
In Yacob, the six villagers saw a man alone, encumbered by insanity and self-mutilation. They glared through tunnel vision, while dangling in the periphery was the truth. The message: Mind Over Matter. His charm was self-control which only masqueraded as self-mutilation. Nor was he alone. Rather, he carried Death itself as his constant companion and plaything. He was a manifestation of life translated to death and back to life.
By the time of his second demonstration, everyone in Ayerbe was invested. To discover the truth of the matter, they said. Just what was his trick? It was one week later when he appeared. And again, he sliced his stomach. Only next, instead of walking towards the crowd, he grabbed a nipple between thumb and forefinger. Pulling it away from his body, he pierced his breast. The knife slid in one side and out the other. No blood. “Mente sobre la materia.”
Yacob left the square and watched as human nature took over, as the villagers began cordoning off the boundaries of each camp. That Yacob was a fraud. That Yacob was given a divine gift. That it doesn’t matter how- he’s disrespecting God above. None provided evidence and no camp was established in defense of the message; in defense of mind over matter. Instead, the villagers rode their questions into the ground and the debate began to stagnate before them. Behind, for yet another week, more potent questions lingered.
The church bell began to ring.
His screwdriver wasn’t sharp enough to penetrate the eyeball with only a gentle push. It demanded a thrust and so he delivered. Deep inside. He tapped his foot allegrissimo. When he pulled the screwdriver out a young girl began to cry. By their nature, all children are at one point or another surrogate mourners for an elder’s loss. Her grandfather tried to pull her away from the crowd but she wouldn’t budge. The tears were anchors fixing her to the ground. Shudders swept Ayerbe as he thrust the screwdriver into his other eye. The first eye was a cenote, a sinkhole with pooling liquid. Microscopic fish might swim in their depths, blind from the dark. He tapped his foot moderato. One of the braver men, Nabil the butcher, muttered something about the lack of blood. Of course, with the right accuracy there will never be blood. The space between the lens and the retina is a waterbed with neither water nor blood. That’s not how human eye was designed.
Vitreous humour sweated from where his healthy eye used to be and he tapped his foot andante. When he pulled the screwdriver out again he didn’t need to close his eyes. Standing before the crowd he only said the words. “Mente sobre la materia.” Four words, nine syllables, nineteen letters, and a single moment that spanned six days. On the seventh, his foot tapped lento in time with the metronomic church bell. His hollowing eyes turned towards the sky, the villagers’ followed his. Light punctured the haze of his world and the sky refocused. Clear, crisp, cerulean. His foot tapped larghissimo, until it didn’t tap at all. He looked down at the flock and, just as they had the week before, they took a step towards him. This time it was belief, rather than disbelief which couched their soles.
Ayerbe’s church bell rang steady. A heartbeat.
Once, this tale’s middle section was drafted. Ayerbe’s days lined up here, in carefully constructed chapters. Then they were discarded. And as the village’s weeks became months, as months became years, those chapters decayed. Thank God.
Time’s hypnotic cadence rose and fell as the villages surrounding Ayerbe were uprooted, one after another, subjects conscripted into urbanity’s mission, ewes on perpetual pilgrimage; they seeped from Estrada and Bolea and Esquedas, behind them the roofs of their homes swooned under the affections of pagans’ Mother Earth, Mother of none; and all the while Ayerbe clung to itself, it was coagulating and clotting and clumping, caking and curdling, communing; and as time trickled by, the village was washed clean off the map, left alone to endure invisibly.
In the spring, children played footy in the cobblestone square late into the night, every night except Sunday; they divided themselves equally between Real Madrid and Barcelona, girls watching on as Valencia; and all together they whispered about the noises coming from their parents’ bedrooms, noises they hadn’t heard before. Some of them wouldn’t have sounded more than once or twice since the children were old enough to recognize them, but now they were regular. High fives and invocations.
It’d been six years since his entrance, six years since he’d come down the hills and six years since he built his home and pushed Ayerbe’s border a stone’s throw back. He was the same, reaching for 5’5” with a chipped, porcelain nose; towering over even Nabil and a permanent fixture in the town’s anatomy. In another time or place he would’ve been a totem pole, markings included. And still, he was human, though Ayerbe would never understand that. From his beginning to his end, he was manifold in their minds- an instrument or a paragon or an illustration. Saint was popular, too. And yes, he was a saint. But he was also a human, when he came and when he went. When she came.
Lucy’d convinced her boyfriend that an adventure through Spain, hunting the ghosts of deceased Aragonese villages, would be romantic. Hiking boots, backpacks and a borrowed tent. They saw tree rings being shaven into dust. Ayerbe was their base, before the trip was cut short.
He was thin. Not tall not short. Not memorable. Ayerbe forgot. Green eyes. Brown hair. Sunburnt skin. Clothed in smiles. Possessed by them. Pedestrian. Lucy? Out of his league. Beauty never before seen. Never. Couldn’t walk normal. Leg braces. Giant toothpicks. Splinters in her calves. Purple dye. Long hair. Cut short. Razor sharp. Burning mouth. Cavities’ sanctuary. Glowing. Hypnotic.
It happened fast-
It wasn’t the first time that Ayerbe had watched Yacob in the rain. Both adults and children splashed in puddles while they waited. The rain tickled and their faces ached from both smiles and cold. Finally Yacob came out, shirt off, knives out. The rain intensified but he stayed dry. It was a trick they’d all seen before. Mind over matter.
The same old hellhound of a dog, arthritic and amnesiac, barked as Yacob loosened up. Ice skates moving through thick liquid- mind over matter. Bloodless nipple- mind over matter. For his final demonstration he readied his saber. One baguette’s length, not width. Lucy and her boyfriend entered the cobbled square, just in time to catch the show. A souvenir from another world, something to carry home to friends and loved ones.
Yacob held the saber against his chest and began pushing. Plunging into his chest as his lips frowned, eyes flickered and brow scrunched. It seemed to move slowly at first, as if his body was trying to force the blade out. But he wouldn’t let it. And in the end, after the 15 seconds that lasted a lifetime, he turned around and showed the crowd his saber, sticking clean through his back. Bloodless. Turning a couple times, satisfied, he pulled the blade from his torso and sat on the cobblestone ground. “Mente sobre la materia.”
But something was wrong. He was looking at her, smiling. Her eyes of Spain, the color of Castillo Loarre in a bloody sunset; skin drawn of the full moon and shade-splashed milk; all the valley’s lakes which surrounded Ayerbe, reflecting light from thousands of miles away; storm-drenched silence. He was looking at her, smiling. And she smiled back. Burning mouth. Glowing. Hypnotic. And then he was soaked. A cloth rag in the Atlantic, a dog in the bathtub, a man in a storm. There are only so many ways this tale can be told.
He was mind suffocating under the weight of matter.
The blood bubbled. A bubbling brook in the corner of an Aragonese valley. Spanish villagers suddenly trying to plug the spring. They tumbled into each other, disoriented. Deer, no headlights. Wrestling against wet, clay Ayerbe. Adults and kids stampeding through puddles. Ponds. But they couldn’t reach him, couldn’t even touch the fountainhead. And he didn’t try, as the life drained away. Mind, a castaway in a storm of rain and blood. All he did was sit there, with his thirsty eyes clawing for one last look. Those dying, dehydrated eyes. Lucy in front of them, Lucy behind.
Ayerbe eventually gave up, for good, on Yacob. After they left, the rain stopped and all of its sounds percolated through the cobblestones. A chorus of shy, mumbling bees. Whispered woodwinds and bleating brass. Violent violins.
No percussion at all.
Lucy and her boyfriend didn’t end up exploring as many abandoned villages as they’d planned on. Somehow the trip wasn’t romantic enough for either of them. A quest with premature climax and expedited exit. When they left, Ayerbe’s more permanent fixtures weren’t far behind. Yacob watched on, no longer able to live in between but still quite capable of leering through the cheap, metaphorical curtain which introduces the afterlife. He who was in this world but not of it. A saint. A mystic. And more than that, he was the last of them. He watched as Ayerbe disintegrated. Never more than three or four abreast. Along the gravel road which jells so quickly at forty-five miles.
It’s the only road to Ayerbe, built long ago. And its tale, like this one, is nearly over now.