Jean Johnson



Who would not fear demons who lived
in these bone-dry, bone-bleached, wind-
scourged valleys where winds ravage
prayer flags into rags and wealth is counted
in the thickness of thorn sticks stacked
on the roof to light dung cooking fires?
Fields of wheat and barley are watered
by the glacier that every year recedes.
Already the hills bear empty villages.

Houses are flat-roofed white-washed cubes
with rammed earth walls dense as rock
plain but protected by amulet and prayer.
Down the walls streak wide bands of color —
henna, gold, and gray-blue— whatever clay
the desert gives. These invoke and honor
the Three Protectors. On one side of the door
hangs a ram's skull dyed yellow and stuffed
with tiny offerings of silver and turquoise
effigies of all the people who live inside.
On the other side is a dog's skull— blue—
hung with thread nets to catch demons.
The yellow skull closes the earth door
and a blue skull guards the sky door.

How should I face the people who live
at the highest edge of the world where
winds prophesy and fanged demons prowl?
What should I say, I who prostrate
to the same Three Protectors as they
but on a soft rug in a warm room?

To live up high and tight like this
with earth door and sky door closed
against demons seems safe, but remember,
where snow leopard takes the horse
from the paddock, where wind strips
barley from the field, where even
the king chains a mastiff to his gate,
demons are as real as faith.


Tonight monsoon clouds blot out
every light in the sky and wrap
the village in heat like a turban,

so I can walk unremarked for my white face
through narrow cobbled paths between
tiny houses whose eaves almost meet

just above my head. A young couple
sits on a low bed and eats from one plate.
The glow of a single candle falls golden

on her black hair, outlines her curve of cheek.
An old woman feeds twigs into a brazier
whose fire bronzes her knobbed face

like a Rembrandt. And in a smoky hovel
a tin lantern flickers weakly
across the faces of men around a table,

hunched over mugs and smoking, silent.
I am looking at interiors by the Flemish
painters, hung on a museum wall.

At that moment I slip, reach out a hand
and clutch the hair of someone asleep
in a black doorway. His harsh cry

is a stone thrown through that wall. I look up.
There at every dim window leans a woman,
and in every doorway someone stirs.

In the crowded dark a woman laughs.
Now I know what the painters were after:
not some trick of light or shade
but the body of our ordinary lives.


In monsoon the gods desert us
Then we sit together and make
puppets in their image to teach
our children the old lore.

As we lacquer the small masks
and put in each wooden hand
a sword, skull cup or drum,
we call out that god's name and powers.

We tell how once the gods were nine spirits
who lived in the ancient forest
killed and ate in gleeful orgy
every traveller who ventured by

until a Tantric priest changed them
into dolls —like those we make —
and locked them in a secret room.
But his jealous second wife,
seeing him dance before the door,
let them out.

So now, after the rains, when
wheat is ready to be planted,
whirling and leaping to gong and drum,
crying out inside great staring masks,
the gods return, gods dance again
under the white gate of Bhaktipur.

We dance too, throw marigolds,
but no one knows if the gods
will be kind or angry, to the child
in the belly, wheat in the field.


Moonlight pours off the stupa's white dome,
leaps the encircling rank
of prayer wheels and pools
on a rough stone path
where a lone old woman in a black chuba
and striped apron
is going around the stupa
doing prostrations.
She goes face down
rises advances one step
and goes down again
flat and hard.
When she lifts her clasped hands wound
in prayer beads to touch the crown
of her head her lips and her heart,
the moon uncovers her upturned face
It is wet.

all day I have stood in the shadows watching
the village celebrate Buddha's birthday.
Men have scrubbed the white dome
of the stupa clean and, swinging
copper vats like censers, regild its yellow
scallops with saffron dye.
Chanting like sailors rigging a ship
young men haul ropes strung
with new prayer flags up, up
to the stupa's golden spire

All day the slow dense crowd of
white-shirted villagers and
men come down from the hills in brown
tunics and felt boots, of children
and women has flowed around and
around the stupa to the hum
of prayer wheels, bray of horn.

I ache to move out from the shadows and
go with the old woman facedown,
in the cowpats, down by
the beggars' reeking feet
but I am held back by her tears.
I have not yet learned to weep like that.

Jean Johnson is the author of Forgotten Alphabet (SCOP Publications, Inc.), a collection of poems. Years ago she lived in Germany and Austria, where she taught, travelled and raised a family. Formerly, she taught at Walt Whitman High School; she has three children and five grandchildren and lives in Brookmont, Maryland.

Published in Volume 1, Number 4, Fall 2000.


To read more by this author:
Jean Johnson: The Whitman Issue