Death is the mother of all Beauty.
What tribe did she belong to? What Gods did she sweat during her scream from this terrain of scrub-brush into the all-congealing-tar?
The skeleton of the woman was once displayed at La Brea, dug from the pits that had concealed bones of the squat, and now extinct, Californian horse or camel. Radiocarbon-dating reveal her remains date to 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. Fracture to the skull…she was the victim of a skirmish…or execution…dumped in the tar lagoon, her flesh still warm, still sweat-slick, the frenzy of lozenge-green and winged beetles over her limbs and breasts, ants knitting shut her lips and black eyes. Crows cawing. Coyotes, wolves, sniffed the deliquescence of decay, trod the same carboniferous glue, and were trapped.
It is not unlikely that while she lived there still roamed that terrible cat. Immense, stalwart cat, it hunkered among the sage-brush, the chaparral and hills that roll over into the Los Angeles basin.
The Sabre-Tooth Cat: Smilodon Fatalis. Scythe-sleek, seven inch incisors rent flesh and muscle in one blow: ground sloth is tackled and pinned against the dirt by the cat’s two-ton body. Claws stabbing deep into the prey´s haunches. Sloth heaves. Cat opens maws wide, shreds jugular while the herbivore’s hind claws shake and kick against the parched ground, its dull teeth for leaf-grinding open, emit howls, black and blood-specked nostrils quiver, then inhale a final stream of white heat, as the eyes, bloodshot and hard, dilate terminally. Obsidian wings and crooked pink necks of condors circle above. Arabesques inscribing mouths that open unto other mouths in a feeding frenzy.
Many tar-caked fossils dipped in solvent, scrubbed with tooth or shoe brush, reveal Smilodon Fatalis with chipped or fractured canines. Sometimes, one unearths a fang that had snapped off, as if it were a stalk plucked perfectly whole and in one swoop, a Paleolithic needle or hook used by human hands. A freshly lacquered fang in the laboratory’s brightness takes on the luster of rare tool or talisman of soapstone quarried from Catalina, part of the cargo on a canoe paddled for miles back to the mainland, passed from hand to hand, during generations, as by the Tongva and those tribes that existed for a millennia before the arrival of the Tongva, and who died out, due to drought or ambuscades.
Canoes were waterproofed with tar collected from those seepages that had swallowed animals which the Tongva would never hunt: the mastodon of russet fur, the Californian camel, the dire wolf with yellow eyes, and ancient bison, hundreds of herds grazing by the foothills of scrub-oak and chaparral which conflagrated and blazed as they do now.
The most lethal part of that cat was the weakest and most beautiful. Like the exact venom of the black-widow, a potent commixture of neurotoxins which causes vomiting, sweating and pain, siphoned through sluices in fangs often too short to pierce human epidermis.
Those canines…sanguineous, yellowed from usage, longer than steak-knives, were not enough to wield against the turning of seasons, the change in prey and precipitation. The tar that ate the bones now bubbles as the commixture of asphalt, sealing highways from the incessant teeth of rain, erosion and landslides, yet the asphalt endures less than a human life. But the tar itself may devour the last of our nation, if not our species. Just as the tar swallowed her, but preserved her bones for our eyes.
Like the teeth of exhumed Chumash or Tongva, her molars were worn to the gums. The daily acorns were ground with stone; shards and hard bits would blunt the teeth, and also pass through the digestive track. Excrement flecked with stone-shards, like our morning ablutions congealed with xanthan gum, carnauba wax, and glazes. Her smile would have been a gummy glisten of misshapen teeth.
Her skeleton was ensconced in a Plexiglas display. Every few seconds—like the flayed skin of a victim for Xochipilli stretched over the dancing priest—a hologram of the Tar Woman would glaze over the reconstructed bones, and then this eidolon of a russet-complexioned woman would blur, etiolate, revealing the skeleton. The bones were not white like the teeth of a child, but dun, due to solvents and lacquer used to rinse the tar, and to strengthen her remains.
Beside the display, an artist’s rendition of her on the wall, along with information about her approximate age at the time of her death—twenty-five to thirty years old—her height, the date when she was discovered. Standing in a field of chaparral and oak-brush, she gazed at the viewer, with empty basket in her right hand. Cloudless sky of Southern California, weather so hot the horizon was a smoky shimmer, just like the condition outside the air-conditioned museum. Six, eight years old, I was thrilled and ashamed to stare at her nakedness. Small conflagrations erupted along my limbs and tingled at the base of my tongue. Apart from a Playboy Blonde hidden under the bed at a friend’s house, this was my first nude. My Maja desnuda.
Thousands from the late 70’s until the turn of this past century viewed her. By now, there are more dead than living who have viewed her. They, too, have descended into the carboniferous earth, into the holography of some other stubble fields of brush-oak and haze perhaps only slightly different than our own. That other terrain which, according to the Tongva, glistens beyond the porpoises and the islands.
There exist only three themes: love, death and islands. In the desert dunes, the islands are made of water. In California, in this ocean of chaparral and stiff weeds, the islands were seepages of hip-deep tar. The marrow hasn’t dried in my bones; the soul, that feverish salve, has yet to be drained from my body. This morning I woke to the smell of coffee and peeled an orange while seated on my Saturday balcony; I stared over the treetops and at the foothills drying under the sun, at the stands of chaparral suicidally secreting their combustive oils, itching for brushfire. Beautiful and sundrenched. How many vistas have I left? A decade’s worth? Several? When my breath rattles out my slack jaw, will foxes and crows lead me to the horizon past the shore, the whales, the islands? Which isle of tar?
Palpable absence of personal information. Her name, her apprehension when she first menstruated, the men staring at her through the smoke of the bonfire; her reveries when she lay on a hammock or bedding of deer and jackrabbit pelts, her brown nipple feeding the gurgling of a babe who now rests beneath our soles. The stories she heard on warm dusks of violet. She looked up at the stars. And did her people, like the later Chumash or Tongva, regard the crow and knew it advised them of approaching strangers? Were the Pleiades her ancient sisters as well? Who were the men had felt her fingers on their skin, fingers now bone, lips long dissolved, even hair—that strongest thread of our frail plant—part of the dirt, long after her eyes had dilated, but not before satiating the teeth of pupae?
They dug her up, like they dug up the sabre-tooth cats, the mammoths, the diminutive horses that once grazed in the San Fernando Valley and the basin of Los Angeles. They unearthed her from the adhesiveness of the Earth, from the hunger of tar, from the pitch that swallows everything into an umbraic, subterranean gloaming and glue. A decade ago, local tribesmen of a culture alien to her century of 10,000 years past, buried her with rituals and words which would be as indecipherable to her ears as a peasant—who was accustomed to the Anglo-Saxon alliterations praising Woden—hearing the Lord´s Prayer.
I awaken in slow descent through that pitch, protected by a nimbus of black fire, with a live crow flapping in my clutch. Shades approach me, rise from their pelts, from their pitch-sealed baskets of shrub-oak acorns, and step off their canoes. I grab the crow´s head, twist it free; the soil gluts on blood. A cool, yet mucid soil. Would they rub the blood over their weathered, black teeth and numerate her transgressions, or would she, too, approach, pry her dark shape through the gathering of men who may have murdered her?
Reverie within a dream as I sit on my San Fernando Valley balcony. Just now, one of those cats shimmered past a field of parched weeds, clearly, one fang chipped in half. A sloth is felled. Dust, bellows and obsidian wings and crooked pink necks of condors inscribing circles in the categorical blue of the San Fernando Valley sky. Arabesques like mouths that open unto other mouths in feeding frenzies.
Confabulating from another cut of California, sick of wars and humanity, Jeffers sought succor in the moonshine and night-herons flapping home. When the human race has been rubbed out, the storms, ocean and the birds will still be here, conveying more beauty than La maja desnuda. But even that trope is false: moon will escape from Earth´s gravity, and the tides by then will have evaporated or boiled away from the surface, and this sphere will be a cratered field with hellish climate, and the sun will have dimmed and bloated like an orange speckled with flies. There are other chemistries of animal life besides the slow oxidation of carbohydrates and amino-acids. Sun will extinguish, its satellites long consumed in death-throes, nothing but cosmic webs of radiation, dark energy, with flecks of rock and vapor, isolate flecks which will contain—if I may hyperbolize—a molecule of this spit, these nerves?
Looking from my balcony in the San Fernando Valley, I view the terrain and hills via selective presbyopia. I discern the dome-shaped huts with the opening for smoke to escape. This Valley of the Smokes, as Portola baptized it. I see the indigenous chaparral, and not the telephone cables, the stucco apartment complexes, the mini-mall billboards, not the eucalyptus trees and jacarandas. Dream within this dream: I discern the basin over the hills, now the Miracle Mile. Through a haze, I regard her carrying a whisker basket glazed with pitch to retain water. She makes her way to the huts; from the water source to her village, she´s halfway home.
What happens next? An ambuscade? Does she trip, fleeing from some cat or wolf pack, does she then fracture her skull? What rises, or is unearthed from the ground, thrust back into the light, must not be buried anew. The humus thickens more each day; the bones will no longer prove salvageable.
The world below the pitch in the vacant lot, below the asphalt coagulated at this soil where I pause midway in my journey: by puddle-edge, the obsidian-eye´d wolf spider drags an egg-sack from sluggish spinneret, beetle digs through topsoil, and an ant mandible-hauls a sliver of butterfly wing colored like a transept rose, cobalt, amber, flickering like sun-shimmies on water; deeper, worms the color of dried mustard thread their tracery through dirt, then deeper still, mites no larger than pencil´s blunt tip pepper themselves over seeds that would burst moistly between teeth. Then the disparate galleries of shards, arachnid exoskeletons; deeper, more viscous pockets of oil, earth the blackness of coffee-grounds salted with random rodent jaws and claws, pollen grains invisible to the eye if dug up; deeper, mollusk bits, wood and plant remains from 10,000 years in the past, silence weaving with other silences there; deeper, dire wolves in packs compressing under the weight of eras beside a sluggish ground sloth; other mixtures lacking all sense of phyla: millipedes preserved in tar beside bison bones, snails, thighbone of a native who hunted and breathed the blue heat above the surface. Deeper still, the rib-cage of Gothic-arching-heights, the mammoth, and then the change suddenly thence to the surface of this puddle the size of a dinner table where methane escapes, bubbling as if the fossil stew were boiling, here, where I stand and gaze at the vacant lot, light streaming over the brittle weeds and oleander bushes, smell of dust, and the Valley spreading around me, hills, billboards and haze. A grey cat leaps from a junked Cadillac and onto the cinder brick wall, and my sight changes to that of a crow overhead, and some sight thence, past the smog, past the thinning atmosphere and radiation, beyond the blackness to another sphere; its frigid and thin atmosphere of dust and carbon-dioxide, its rust-red regolith, topsoil cold and heavy with water, traces of methane, and deeper, the change onto the spores and gnat-sized shells, wispy centipedes fossilized and who had threaded their life there; the change thence in sight onward to other life on other spheres, some perhaps not of carbon, and others who may outlive our species, our adhesiveness?