By Matthew Gavin Frank
In spaces we can’t see, so many of mystery moths wake up to the Mexican night—owlet, noctuid moths, future bat food, tucked into the crevices of the acacias. Drooling along this avenue named for Oaxaca’s early-1920s governor, Louisa and I try not to consider the things we can’t see—for this reason, we decide not to uncover a phone card, not to call Chicago, to maintain the tightness of the lid of our peanut butter jar world for a bit longer, to ignore the symbolism of Oaxaca’s many Ascalapha odorata—the hungry Black Witch moth, harbinger of death, mariposa de la muerte, the real evil attracted to our light bulbs, if only folklorically, rendering the mal de ojo Evil Eye superstition benign by comparison.
The Aztecs named this malevolent moth, Miquipapalotl (Death Moth); the Mayans call it X-mahan-nail, or Borrowed House—its presence evoking the transience of our time on earth, or haphazard coffin-for-rent. Like me, these Death Moths love bananas. According to legend, should this moth fly into the home of a sick person, and visit all four corners of that person’s room, death is imminent. (In Oaxaca, we find that a popular moth-based joke stresses that if the Death Moth flies over a person’s head, baldness is imminent…). Oftentimes, in spite of their sixteen-centimeter wingspan, they are known to hide beneath people’s ears, attracted to the scent of rotting fruit and alcohol (a perfume which Louisa and I may very well be bearing, given our diet over the past few days). July 15, 2003, Brush Freeman of the Lepidopterist’s Society witnessed, in Texas, thousands of Black Witch Death Moths lazing in perfect I-Told-You-So fashion in the eye of Hurricane Claudette. Scientists believed these moths, having just emerged from their pupal state, hitched a ride when the hurricane made a rest stop along the Yucatan Peninsula.
The only other instance of more than five Black Witches found in a single location in 2004 involved hundreds sighted in Grand Isle, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a region along the Gulf Coast plain that, strangely, does not have much in the way of food plants that would typically attract these beasts. The initial sighting report was dated June 15, 2004, Night, and the moths remained in the area, in abnormally large numbers, until approximately August 23rd. Exactly one year later, to the day, Hurricane Katrina collected herself over the Bahamas. Katrina, only a few days later, entered Louisiana via Grand Isle, ripping the island to shreds, severing it from the mainland by destroying its only connective bridge. One can imagine the residual Black Witches—the ones who didn’t flee, but stuck around, self-sacrificial, to check out their handiwork—driven to the sidewalks in Katrina’s winds, downed like tiny drops of mashed potato with wings anchored into them, shuddering like tiny sails, losing their powder to the weather they conjured. Harbinger of death, indeed…
As such, many folklorists tie the Black Witch to the Book of Genesis and the Great Flood, and the survivors who, speaking a cornucopia of languages, migrated to Babylon and began to build their great tower. In fact, the Book of Genesis is believed to possess what has been dubbed by pictographologists as The Moth Code, revealing hidden secrets about the true natures of good and evil. Further, in Genesis 2:16, Adam is warned that if he should eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, he will, according to the Hebrew, moth tamuth, or “die a death.” Around us, many of the shops closed for the night, the once-bright stucco becomes antagonistic, the wind carrying the secret codes of all linguistics. Overhead the clouds seem to thicken.
In my hand, perhaps due to this over-thinking of all things deluge, Louisa’s fingers feel more wet than usual, in a sticky sort of way. Chugging along García Vigil, our mouths lighting their own tiny vigil votives for our fallen tlayuda dinner, the light of them perhaps stirring the Death Moths from their rest, Louisa must notice it too, for she pulls her hand from mine to reveal a palm-ful of blood.
We should be surprised at this sign, but somehow, here, post evening bacchanalia, it seems, in these trees and flowers who must certainly be warriors and soothsayers, oracles and sacrificial lambs reincarnate—Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Spaniard—the ghosts and grand-ghosts and great-grand-ghosts of the region, Louisa’s impromptu bloody hand seems par for the course, burning bush, water from Moses’ rock. Oaxaca itself must embody the special glasses through which we can decipher the world’s secret codes. Still, this innate acceptance doesn’t prevent me from uttering (yes: merely uttering) a downright too-calm, “What the fuck?” Louisa answering with a drowsy, “Shit…”
“What happened?” I ask.
“I have no idea,” she says, but there it is, a ragged gash along her right pointer, going infected yellow-green at its borders already, coughing blood.
Allergic, my left pocket perennially housing a wad of clean tissues (or toilet paper), my right housing the soiled variety, I dip my hand to my pants. I reach for the left and Louisa twists the Hotel Las Golondrinas’ so-thin-it’s-transparent shit paper around her finger like junkyard hospital jewelry. Overhead, crow morphs back into swallow, swallow into Black Witch, and suddenly, all flying things seem to disappear, hibernating the day away until they can hang in the cloak of night from our ears, whispering to us of our deaths by mystery gash and cancer, blood poisoning and hurricane.
Trying to find our way, any way, back to Las Golondrinas and the smiling antidote of The Perm at the front desk, and garden and trees and birds, we pass a cavernous restaurant, now closed, serving, at dinnertime, six different moles, and further, a tiny closet of a bar advertising live music. Par for the course: The crooked sign over its doorway reads La Nueva Babel.
We’re Not in Ipanema Anymore
Just as the colors of the out-of-body experience are purple and orange, our blood is red, as evidenced by Louisa’s finger as it keeps opening and closing like a midnight-snack-seeking microbial refrigerator door—lighting up the things on the walls that don’t at this hour, want to be seen—domestic cockroaches, a stopped clock—the moon is black and white, resembling tonight some fish-out-of-water Humphrey Bogart finally losing his cool, and our drinks in the middle-of-the-night blue stage-lights of La Nueva Babel bear the shade of some Ty-De-Bol ghost plumbing.
Louisa and I sit cramped in the tiny back room of this breadbasket bar, the three-piece as-advertised flamenco-tango trio cramped even further onto a stage the size of a loveseat, the standing-room-only bar area filling up on the other side of the passageway to our right—the passageway that is now blocked with the hip night crowd swaying, this inebriated fire hazard of people pressing, like some Indiana Jones booby trap, closer and closer to us, until we will, most certainly, be pressed like oranges from our tiny backless stools at the foot of the stage, to the opposite wall. Through the sipping and howling and elbowing and rump-shaking, the band plays a music that tickles the thermostat upward with a satanically painted fingernail, and Louisa shouts something about sweat into my ear.
Indeed, there is something decidedly sweaty about this music, all Stan Getz filtered through a soiled gym sock—somehow cleaner and much, much dirtier at the same time, as if here, in the New Babel, sweat is the new bubble-bath, cleaning him of everything, however small, that made him angelic. Guitar, keyboard, and drum conjure him, all samba’d-out and closed-eyed, along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, the two of them doe-see-doe-ing unexpectedly in the cigarette smoke over our heads.
The trio—the guitar player short, stocky, and broken-nosed, resembling, according to Louisa, me, extracting his notes with thick fingers, thick arms drooping from black rolled-up sleeves, his dark bangs hanging like epaulet fringe from his black beret; the young, perhaps still teenage, keyboardist, concealing his youth beneath the brim of a grandfatherly white fedora with red silk hat band, headbanging in slow motion as he, with his knotted ropes of arms evokes a music as swirling as The Starry Night, if van Gogh were some Aztec ghost hell bent on revenge, the blue light of the room giving way to its own end and subsequent rebirth in a sound that’s first-cousin to FLUSH!; the sultry drummer in white tank undershirt, multicolored beads threaded into his armpit hair, his head-hair loose and long, squashed into the rear of the stage, room enough only for one multi-tonal drum pad, and a drum speaker box, on which he sits, spread-legged, playing at least two different sounds on the surface just beneath his cock—all of them confident enough to fix their gazes on the crowd, first one person, then another, until the audience, each in each, Louisa and I included, are forced to look away, sip from our glasses, then look right back, safe again. Into their pants, the “Girl from Ipanema” surely sneaks, kissing their asses, 1-2-3, with her tongue.
Over our heads, the bottom corners brushing our scalps, a paper poster advertising a future show, featuring the jazz funk band Sutra, bears a video game rendition of George W. Bush, a Xeroxed shoe flying at his head, a faux ad for the new Nintendo Wii game, Zapatilla. The bare arms of the men and women at the neighboring table caress our own and, as the room fills, our shoulders touch, our knees, our ribcages, our bodies shivering against those of so many others as we move like snakes slithering in place, to the music. The drummer, eliciting some serious bass thumps from his crotch-box, wags his tongue at the crowd, at Louisa, at me, the silver stud at its center emblazoned with—I have to squint in this light to really see—either a crucifix, or a naked woman sunbathing, or a Speedo’d body builder flexing his biceps. The guitar player spins like Beat It Era Michael Jackson and I can see Louisa checking out his rear end, the keyboardist caught in his endless rhythm of headbang and writhe, headbang and writhe, headbang and writhe, headbang and writhe…
The music drops and drops, water spitting from a half-clogged cheap motel, room-by-the-hour showerhead, the barely dressed girls at the room’s rear standing in from of the open barred window, through which blows the scent of firework gunpowder, and the rank white-green blooms of some ornamental pear tree, stinking of old sperm, but still, somehow, in the face, or lap, of this twelve-beat meter, making everyone’s pants jump. Jumping with the rest, I dip my face to my snifter of Mezcal Tobalá, the ancient and rare Zapotec wild mountain elixir (originally called Duub-Bá-Lá, or housed maguey—maguey that grows like truffles in the shade of oak trees), whose mere mention in these parts inspires people to swoon and touch, with their fingers, their hearts or mouths, and sip, the rich tobacco honey of the stuff breaking over my ringless tongue with the seafoam of cinnamon, mango, the musk of mythological deer. Louisa drinks long into her glass of vino caliente, hot red wine spiced with orange peel and clove, and touches my thigh without breaking eye contact with the trio.
The rhythm builds—tertiary, binary, tertiary, binary, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12—the frequency jumps, and in this new pitch, the guitar player steps out of his shoes, an elastic, braless girl wraps her long arms around Louisa and me, breathing heat into our ears. The keyboardist rocks like shock therapy, the drummer nearly doing the splits, his tongue uncontainable now, his hands so fast they blur into the smoke. Stan Getz rips away the Loincloth of Death, tosses his saxophone to where my dead musician grandfather can reach it and tries, and fails, poor, horny spirit, to sip from my rarefied glass. Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, the original A Garota de Ipanema, surely lurks in the bar-back smoke, ready to inflame Getz further with the stretched sequined garter and white teeth of the still-alive and still-sexy.
Into his microphone the guitar player utters the only vocable of the evening thus far, the low static, sick-cow vibration of the letter V, held between his upper teeth and lower lip, breath-forced into the room until our glasses rattle, VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV… as the instruments begin screaming at one another, this dysfunctional sonic family, now coming together, making up, group-hugging with fingers crossed behind their backs, holding just enough acid to ignite the next song, and…OUT! The music cuts in a burst, I believe my eardrums may have exploded, the tiny hammers losing their heads, and in the brief silence before the clap, the girl leaves us, but her breath, like the pear tree, endures, other bodies charge into us like canned sardines making for the kitchen light at the end of the tunnel, and Louisa’s swallows her hot wine and mouths, Wow.
The applause is the stuff of an air-raid, of pissed-off storm-cloud, and I wonder if the gods have stuffed plugs into their ears, watching over us on MUTE, wondering themselves if in this strange human ceremony, hand coupling hard with other hand, we are trapped in ovation or some kind of violent prayer; if, there is, in the face of New Babel tango-flamenco, any real difference between the two at all.
Hard Penis, Soft Astronomy
We stumble beneath the streetlights, their gauzy orange conferring with the stucco facades, which are finally, at this hour—nearly 2am—dimming their colors. Two fireworks duke it out in the distance and we are one step closer to sobriety and sunrise. Before unlocking the door to our room, we bushwhack through the thick of the garden to the protests of the leaves and the swallows, find, hidden among the foliage, an iron spiral staircase, its entry barred by a locked fence. Beneath Andrómeda and la espada de Orión, we press our bodies through the bars and spiral to the open rooftop. *
At the risk of shoving frilly science up into the crannies of an even frillier “We are stardust, we are golden” view of ourselves, we are, if not golden, indeed stardust. Perhaps our seemingly outsized interest (and outsized budgetary spending) in space exploration when, as detractors so often wail, We need to fix the problems here on Earth first!, lies in the astronomical/evolutionary theory that we human beings, derive, in part, from the stars, making space exploration just another example of our self-interest.
According to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (which of course means their members likely derive from, or are former, hippie U.S. West Coasters—and we all know how they are…), “Astronomers today believe that a large fraction of the atoms in our bodies were once inside stars that became supernovae, and that they were ‘launched’ into the universe when these stars exploded. Furthermore, we believe the explosions of supernovae have flooded the Galaxy with high-energy radiation that probably contributed to the radiation background that produces mutation and drives the evolution of life on Earth. Also, in recent years, we have found intriguing evidence that the formation of our own solar system may well have been triggered by a nearby supernova more than five billion years ago.”
We are, literally, stardust. These scientists further stress that the hemoglobin in our blood carries the very same iron atoms that once belonged to now-dead type 1A supernovae, which themselves resulted from the violent explosions of white dwarf stars (which we all know were companions to the Bullet Star, which may or may not have had something to do with Kennedy’s death, but had everything to do with his life, it seems). Early Aztec stargazers associated various constellations, including what we now call Orion’s sword, with Quetzalcoatl’s erection.
According to Elizabeth Hill Boone’s translation of the mid-sixteenth century Aztec Magliabechiano Codex, a pictorial exegesis of religious and cosmological beliefs, Quetzalcoatl “washed his hands and then touched his penis and caused semen to drop on a rock. A bat grew from this union of semen and rock who other gods sent to bite the flower goddess Xochiquetzal. This bat bit off a piece of her vagina while she was sleeping and took it to the gods. They then washed it and from the water that was spilled came forth flowers that smelled bad. This same bat took the flesh to Mictlantecuhtli [Quetzalcoatl’s father and Lord of the Place of the Dead] where he washed the piece of flesh and the water that he used brought forth sweet smelling flowers the Indians called xochitls.”
Brian Swann’s translation of the myth of Quetzalcoatl, from the sixteenth-century Aztec recorded by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, furthers the connection. In order to ignite his own cosmic resurrection, Quetzalcoatl whips out his own penis and wags it in the face of godly-Death, implying triumph and rebirth. It is believed that the Aztecs, in honor of this moment, “erected” a giant stone phallus, which has yet to be unearthed. About said phallus, which the devout believe was built by Quetzalcoatl himself, Sahagún’s recording stresses, “They say that anyone might have once pushed it with his little finger. It had indeed been set in motion, rocking back and forth. Yet, they say, when many pushed it, then it absolutely would not move. Though many together might make the effort, desiring to push it, it could not be moved.” Talk about the power of the individual! Must be all that star dreck in our bones.
Swann further speculates, “…lastly, the hero [Quetzalcoatl] exhibits his erect penis, as he does also in another version of the Quetzalcoatl myth, one of almost equal poetic merit, in which at the moment of victory over death we encounter the double entendre [worthy of Three’s Company, AC/DC, and the like], acoquiza in iyollo quetzaltototl, translated (1) “the heart of the quetzal rose upward,” or (2) “the inner part of the precious penis rose upward” becoming, if we are to connect the dots, a constellation with whom we share our atoms, our origins. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific leaves out the penis parts of the story, but believes that denser elements, such as gold, exist on earth due to the same exploding supernovae that belched Louisa and me onto this planet and onto this Oaxaca City hotel rooftop, which was of course created by folks who were similarly belched. So, fuck it: I hate to admit, but Joni Mitchell was right—we’re golden too.
Exhausted, we glance upward at the stars and reach vaguely for our crotches with one hand, our chests with the other, squinting to notice the connective tissue between them—the cosmos, the gods and goddesses, genitalia and the heart (which linguistically, depending on the translation, are the same thing), the mix of shit that birthed us. In the sky above, in our middle heartbeats, and in our pants below, our ancestors are screaming answers, but we can’t hear them over the night-birds and bats, moths and grasshoppers, our own stardust blood.
We stand into the night at the level of the iglesia bell-towers which will in a few hours be ringing, the lights of the city sprawling into the ether, over mountains and into valleys, spilling orange and orange as a workhorse. Up here, the things buried into the earth commune, electrically, with the things that fly over it, all bone and flying saucer, red wine and spiced milk. The wind tonight, panspermiatic, sways us like ships’ masts, all of our ballroom astrobiology concentrating at the tips of our tongues which, as passengers themselves, can only, in the face of it, at rooftop level, kiss and eat and kiss and eat. We falsify our memories (one of the primary benefits of the night), we star-children and thereby distant cousins of the Black Witch moth, the bat, the grasshopper, the god prick and goddess pussy, and the swallow, the garden courtyard in which the swallows sleep, the ancients who killed the swallows for their medicine and eye-stones—the same swallows who, in a stunning tweet of in-your-face bitchery, forsook Hernán Cortés, live, like all dead things, inside of us, connecting us—me to you, you to Newton, day to night.
About the latter, Louisa says, “It’s beautiful,” and she’s right, about all of it, as we balance, on two feet each, above the earth, stare out over the spines of Oaxaca’s roofs, the clay shingles downturned, giving way to the red light of a distant radio tower, blinking to warn the planes.
Matthew Gavin Frank’s latest nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2021, and as a finalist for the 2021 Heartland Booksellers Award in Nonfiction. His forthcoming book, tentatively titled, Submersed– about the amateur submarine-building community and our obsession with the deep sea– is forthcoming in 2025 from Pantheon Books. He is also the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast, Preparing the Ghost, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and two chapbooks.