Baku, otherwise known as the ‘Dream Eater’, is the mythological being or spirit in Chinese and Japanese folklore which is said to devour nightmares. The Baku cannot be summoned without caution, the legend warns, for if the Baku is not satisfied after consuming the nightmare, he may also devour one’s hopes and dreams.
A war-torn country of staggering beauty backdrops the untimely loss of a boy’s innocence and the end of his childhood longing scuttled by his father’s plunge into bipolar madness, his mother’s slide to addiction, and his brother’s Midas touch.
Set on a stage swarming with prostitutes, guerrillas, death squads, martyrs, and slain peasants under the boot of one dictator after another with a little help from the CIA, The Age of Baku chronicles the first eighteen years of my life and how I shunned my right destiny for a life of wealth and spurious approbation with disastrous consequences.
A cautionary tale for fathers raising boys, a warning to those living inauthentic lives, and a scathing indictment of America’s foreign policy, Baku’s pages are steeped in blood, tears, and treachery, yet dusted with humor and insight.
The story begins thirty years before my birth with a dagger thrust into the belly of a dove and its blood spilled onto the chest of a naked woman tied to a wooden table inside a lakeside mansion in Germany. Among the hooded men surrounding the woman thrashing against the confines of the ropes was Ernst, my grandfather.
That night, a sinister ripple was cast loose. By the time it reached the shore of my birth, it had grown into a lurid maelstrom.
The Age of Baku, the Dream Eater
A life’s story does not begin at conception. Long before you wail your entrance onto the world’s stage your ancestors have already written your prologue.
In the theory of chaos, the behavior of a system is highly sensitive to initial conditions. The delicate flutter of a butterfly in a Central American rainforest, for example, might explain the formation, path and fury of a tornado weeks later and thousands of miles away.
But what if your story begins badly? If that first flutter happens to unleash a curse. What if a life takes so long to climb out of it wrong beginnings that it may never, as poet Philip Larkin warns?
The story begins thirty years before my birth with the thrust of a dagger into the belly of a dove and its blood spilling down onto the chest of a naked woman tied to a wooden table inside a lakeside mansion in Germany.
Let’s call it a stormy night, and imagine a cold, cavernous dining hall lit with torches casting phantasmagoric shadows on its blood-red, wallpapered walls. Among the hooded, chanting men surrounding the woman thrashing against the confines of the ropes that bound her wrists and ankles, was Ernst, my paternal grandfather.
He abandoned his wife and only child to join a band of gypsies.
That child was my father. He was only three years old.
CHAPTER 1 – ANIMAL BONES
Summoned by her high-pitched whistle, the boys, carrying brooms and burlap sacks, marched single-file behind the stern figure of first-grade teacher Fräulein Lise Jhort into the school’s courtyard.
They had completed their duties: swept the neighborhood streets and stopped at butcher shops to collect animal bones later crushed for oil to lubricate the planes of Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe.
Dressed in short pants and a white short-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way up, my father lined up with the rest and stood in tight formation.
The boys watched four officers march in. The heel taps of their high black boots struck the concrete floor filling the courtyard with beating metallic echoes. From all the photos hung in shops, lampposts, hallways, and people’s homes, my father immediately recognized one of them. It was Adolf Hitler.
“Sei ruhig!” Fräulein Jhort yelled, shushing the boys.
My father nestled the broom handle between his jaw and shoulder, looked down, and opened the heavy sack hoping his cache of bones would please the Führer. He winced at the stench of marrow and blood.
While few years shy from joining the ranks of the youngsters in the Hitler Youth, the boys, standing squarely in two short lines with their brooms and sacks, were beginning their march towards becoming soldiers. One day, they too would fight to ensure the glorious future of Nazi Germany. The year was 1937. My father was six.
“Pass auf, der Führer kommt!” Whispered the boy standing by my father’s side, nudging him with his elbow, then adjusting my father’s red armband emblazoned with the black swastika they all wore while on duty. My father closed the sack and pressed it tight against his chest along with his broom. He kept his gaze cast at his scuffed shoes.
Crested by a visor cap, a long shadow slithered across the courtyard floor, then stopped. A cold, bent finger lifted my father’s head by the chin. His blue eyes slowly swept the six feet of Hitler’s towering presence clad in a simple light brown uniform, ending at the sun-god symbol on his cap. The midday sun was blinding, making him squint, unable to discern any of the Führer’s features except his dark, toothbrush moustache.
“Zeigt mir, lieber junge.” Hitler said, smiling thinly, staring at my father’s darting eyes like a hawk examining his talon-gripped prey.
My father rested the broom handle on his forearm and opened the sack with a light tremor of hand. Hitler pried it further open and inspected the bones. Without blinking, he looked at my father again, holding him in his gaze for a few, excruciating seconds.
“Gut gemacht!” He praised, nodding at the others while tousling my father’s short, wheat-blonde hair. He raised his hand in salute and marched away hailed by the boy’s single shout of “Heil Hitler!”
I can picture my father letting out a deep sigh of relief, then filling his narrow chest again with a prideful breath sensing the envious stares of his classmates.
I will die convinced that his bipolarity, which would wreak havoc in our lives later on, had nothing to do with faulty chemistry or the black-magic rites performed by my grandfather Ernst, but with an evil current zapped into his brain by Hitler’s fingers that spring morning.
With Ernst gone, and left penniless, my father and his mother moved in with his grandmother, Henriette, to her apartment in a small tenement on Hofweg-21 near Lake Alster in Hamburg. The same apartment where some years earlier, Erna, my father’s twenty-two-year-old aunt, returned early one day when no one was home and set the parlor’s gramophone to play Schubert’s Ave Maria at its highest volume. She then walked into the kitchen, turned the knob of the gas oven, kneeled, stuck her head inside and killed herself. A stunning, young woman and aspiring actress, she had fallen in love with a married theater doorkeeper who dumped her soon after they began their affair. For the rest of her life, my grandmother assured my father that Erna was reincarnated in him and would spare him from danger, illness, and injury. After every death brush experience, my father held fast to the idea that Erna was looking after him. The arrival of his real guardian angel, however, would come much later in his life.
Germany at the time was making an impressive recovery after being crippled, first, by the steep reparations it was forced to pay after World War I under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, and then by the lasting effects of the American Great Depression that began with the October stock market crash in 1929. By 1932, over thirty percent of the German population was unemployed. Even before the Treaty of Versailles, the economy was in a tailspin. At the start of the First War in 1914, four German marks were needed to buy a dollar. By November of 1923 you would need a staggering four trillion.
I remember old household stories of people heading out to buy a single loaf of bread pushing a wooden handcart full of marks and of families burning them in fireplaces to keep warm. This devastating event would forever guide the severe frugality that reigned in my grandparents’ household. Growing up, my father was instructed to pound toothpaste out of its tube with a heavy shoe to extract the last drop, then tear-open the lead-based container and scrape its insides. When returning from a bike ride, he was handed a toothbrush and rag to thoroughly clean its wheel spokes before allowed back in the house. As this Herculean task took longer than the ride, my father gave up his bicycle except for getting to school.
Having paid dearly in life for my profligacy, I regret not having learned this discipline. But to my defense, the austerity was rarely modelled in my house growing up. Perhaps, in unconscious rebellion against the thrift imposed on him, my father swung to the other extreme. My mother’s spendthrift ways, on the other hand, could have been her way of compensating for having been raised in relative poverty after being given up for adoption.
My great-grandmother Henriette was a furrier but had lost her job a few months before my grandmother and father moved in. She survived by restoring fox neckpieces, mink coats, and other furry pieces they brought to her makeshift shop. This consisted mainly of combing-out the fur with tortoiseshell combs. She and her husband lived apart for reasons we do not know.
During the depression, her husband worked as a stevedore, unloading and loading ships at the sea port on the river Elbe which might explain his dark skin in the only surviving photo of him sitting on a white bench wearing a terry-cloth robe, white shoes and beret. To supplement the diet of his wife and two teenage girls he stole food from the ship’s cargo and smuggled it taped around his waist past the port’s checkpoints and through the Elbe Tunnel that connected central Hamburg with the docks and shipyards.
Had I known before that my great-grandfather stole food to feed his family, I probably would have felt less shame when dumpster-diving in my late forties to do the same for mine.
After the war ended, my father learned that the Nazis had euthanized his grandfather as part of their campaign to rid Germany of those who did not measure up to their concept of a master race. Wartime, Adolf Hitler suggested, “was the best time for the elimination of the incurably ill.” The physically and mentally handicapped were viewed as useless to society, a threat to Aryan genetic purity, and, ultimately, unworthy of life.
CHAPTER 2 – SEXUAL AWAKENING
From my own experience, I submit that the way in which a boy’s libido is first stirred, will color his future relationship with the feminine.
A love triangle at a circus sparked my father’s young sex drive.
One afternoon, his grandfather took him to an ice-cream parlor for his favorite treat: a langnese, or long nose, an elongated ice-cream that looked like a sausage on a stick. On their way back home, they passed a movie theater. Next to the entrance door was a large poster showing a lion attacking a man holding a whip. On one corner of the poster was a blonde girl on a trapeze. My father had never been to a theater so begged his grandfather to take him inside. He agreed, figuring the movie was about daring performers and obedient animals.
While a mangy lion and dusty elephant did make a cameo appearance, the plot centered on the lion-tamer married to a bossy old woman who kept demanding he end his torrid love affair with the young trapeze artist who performed her flying act under a slack safety-net lying thirty feet below on the sawdust floor of the circus arena. Lust-crazed, the tamer refused, so the old shrew hatched a plan to rid him from temptation.
Every night, to raise the audience’s anxiety before her final triple somersault, a kabuki-faced clown, dressed in a black trench coat and top hat, would slink into the dimly-lit arena and hide behind one of the posts of the trapeze platform while a calliope played a discordant tune. He’d pull out a shiny revolver and point it at the girl as she prepared for her final, daring jump. Visible to the crowd, the spectators would start murmuring and then screaming at the girl to warn her of the clown’s murderous intentions which she pretended not to hear. Coming out of the triple somersault, she’d purposely slip her grip from the bar of the oncoming trapeze as the blank shot was fired, signaling that the safety net be quickly raised to cushion her fall. She would then jump onto the floor with arms raised, to the relief, loud applause and flying popcorn of the wide-eyed, delighted audience.
At the end of her wits, the lion tamer’s wife replaced the blanks with real bullets one day and so ended the love affair in a bloody final act. My father can still recall the black stain that bloomed on the chest of the falling dead girl when the clown fired the gun.
While the tragic, final act shook my father, the furtive encounters between the lion-tamer and young trapeze artist inside her dressing room were the ones seared in his memory.
My own awakening was caused by a worn paperback I found hidden behind the scholarly series of Collier’s Encyclopedia lining one of the many bookshelves in the downstairs living room at my childhood home in Guatemala. (Should’ve picked a better spot, Dad. I enjoyed your Colliers set).
Its title was irresistible: Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.
I must have been seven at the time, but can’t remember if it was before or after our father began taking my brothers and me to Club 45, an upscale bordello in the city. I hid the book inside my shirt and raced the three flights of stairs up to the door that led to the roof of the house.
This was not an ordinary roof. It served as my refuge from the gathering storm down below. Almost every afternoon, when returning from school, I would toss my leather satchel in my room and run for the safety of its open space. My mother was usually in bed, knocked-out by her habitual, potent doses of painkillers.
The main roof was vast. Mostly flat, but curving slightly, sloping on a light incline as it projected towards a second roof of the carport shielding my mother’s favored Ford Station wagons (black or white, alternating between wrecks) and my father’s champagne-colored Buick we nicknamed ‘Brigitte Bardot’ because of it many dents making it curvy like the actress’ body. Only later in life would I connect the dents with my father’s boozy breath. This section of the roof overlooked the street and the neighborhood’s open market and park. It ended in a rectangle concrete enclosure about four feet deep. A foxhole of sorts, in which my brothers and I hid with our BB-guns to shoot at passing buses, the market’s many windows, and at unsuspecting shoe-shine boys.
At the other end of the main roof one could climb down to a third one over the kitchen and maid’s quarters. This roof was also accessible from the sliding glass window of the bedroom I shared with my middle brother.
For months, before being caught, I would lie awake in my top bunk-bed waiting for everyone to fall asleep. I would then slink out and tiptoe towards the ledge overlooking the window of the maids’ bedroom. Barefoot and in pajamas, I’d lie on my stomach on the cold cement ledge, breathing lightly, and watch them through the dusty panes as they took off their sky-blue uniforms and bras. Once unleashed from their restraint, their native breasts – nipples as stubby as the erasers I bit off my school pencils and crowned by large areolas resembling crushed figs – succumbed to gravity and dropped heavily. The black and white television screen cast flickering shadows against the walls of the maids’ cramped quarters. I would then wait for the wails of the always-betrayed protagonists of the soap opera to be loud enough to drown the sound of my footsteps as I raced back to my room.
These nighttime prowls ceased when the maids caught me red-handed. The following day, waving a large butcher’s knife, the cook chased me across the house screaming, “Ahora si Canche, se la voy a cortar!” Mental images of this enraged Indian woman severing my juvenile penis briefly chilled my prepubescent fever.
If I ever opened a museum of my life, one of the exhibits would contain the four knives which carved deep ruts in my psyche. Next to the cook’s butcher knife and the dagger used by my grandfather to slice the bellies of doves, I’d hang the switchblade I saw wielded by a plump wharf whore in a short and thin flowered dress, involved in a catfight with one of her colleagues on a mud puddle, while a portly Cuban man ran circles around them under the warm rain and egged them on yelling ‘Lechonas! Cochas!’ I was about nine years old. The fourth would be the twelve-inch Bowie knife once held by my father inches away from my face as he demanded I decipher the message ‘encrypted’ in the buzzing static (snow) flashing on the television screen in his den.
Towering over the roofs were four old avocado trees with thick mossy boughs and broad canopies blending into an emerald awning. One of them afforded a relatively easy but thrilling climb.
I placed Fanny Hill inside a cardboard box set on a rope-cradle tied above by a second rope slung over a branch next to the bough on which I used to lay until the peal of bells from the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe marked the hour of six, or the maid’s screams, calling me to dinner, shook me from my reverie.
I climbed up, hoisted the box, and read:
“By this time the young gentleman had changed her posture from lying breadth to length-wise on the couch: but her thighs were still spread, and the mark lay fair for him, who now kneeling between them, displayed to us a side view of that fierce erect machine of his, which threatened no less than splitting the tender victim, who lay smiling at the uplifted stroke, nor seemed to decline it. He looked upon his weapon himself with some pleasure, and guiding it with his hand to the inviting slit, drew aside the lips, and lodged it (after some thrusts, which Polly seemed even to assist) about half way; but there it stuck, I suppose from its growing thickness: he draws it again, and just wetting it with spittle, re-enters, and with ease, sheathed it now up to the hilt, at which Polly gave a deep sigh, which was quite another tone than one of pain; he thrusts, she heaves, at first gently, and in a regular cadence; but presently the transport began to be too violent to observe any order or measure; their motions were too rapid, their kisses too fierce’ and fervent for nature to support such fury long: both seemed to me out of themselves: their eyes darted fires: “Oh! oh! I can’t bear it. It is too much. I die. I am going,” were Polly’s expressions of extasy: his joys were more silent: but soon broken murmurs, sighs heart-fetched, and at length a dispatching thrust, as if he would have forced himself up her body, and then the motionless languor of all his limbs, all shewed that the die-away moment was come upon him; which she gave signs of joining with by the wild throwing of her hands about, closing her eyes, and giving a deep sob, in which she seemed to expire in an agony of bliss.”
More than a jolt to my budding libido, even though I could not understand much of what I read, I became enthralled by the magic of words and believe it was then that I first wished to be a writer.
CHAPTER 3 – THE DUTCH TRADER
Conchita knocked my step-grandfather down with one hoof blow.
Minutes later, he came back to his senses awoken by the loud brays of his faithful mule and her big-toothed grin inches away from his bleeding forehead.
“Kutwif!” he cursed at her in his best Dutch, adjusting his thin-wire glasses. He picked himself up along with his once-white aguadeño straw hat from the ground and continued removing the thick tree branch blocking the narrow road to the riverboat station still a day’s ride away.
He was to meet someone there. He checked his pocket watch. He was never late. Honor, hard work, and punctuality were the compass points by which he guided his life.
Feeling his muscles strain, he wondered if he’d been wise to accept the company’s offer to transfer him to South America instead of remaining an itinerant dry-goods trader in the Dutch colony of Surabaya, Indonesia. His stomach growled at the thought of the rijsttafel he had enjoyed there; those lavish rice-table-meals of over thirty dishes filled with egg rolls, sambals, satay, fish, fruit, vegetables, pickles, and nuts.
He pulled out a dry arepa from one of the side bags hanging over Conchita’s dusty flank and sat down to eat, washing down the plain ground maize dough with lukewarm water from his canteen. The brush of a tepid breeze made him aware his forehead and balding head were covered in sweat. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped them clean. He winced and pressed his hand over the fresh scar still healing from the crude removal of his ruptured appendix a few weeks before. One of the workers at the Colombian coffee plantation he managed for the Curacao Trading Company had found him unconscious that night and rushed him to the nearest clinic slumped over a horse.
While on my honeymoon, I would fondly recall that story of my step-grandfather, Jan, while riding on horseback across a jungle in Belize toward the Mayan city of Caracol with a broken rib – a harebrained expedition which almost led to an early divorce. It didn’t help either that I had chosen to read Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ on the beach one afternoon while my wife rested in the bungalow, nor the fact that I offered her portion of conch ceviche to a sultry redhead sitting at the hotel bar one night while she was in the bathroom. She seemed hungry.
Jan was in his early twenties when Conchita dealt him that knock-out blow. Prematurely bald and near-sighted, he was not an attractive man.
Fifteen years later, transferred by the Curacao Trading Co., he stood by the cage-door of the clanging elevator waiting to go up to his apartment at Hofweg-21 in Hamburg. Next to him was a shy, five-year-old boy.
The man wore clothes that were different from the ones used by other men in the neighborhood, my father observed. Two-tone shoes: black bottoms and white tops, he had never seen anything like them. He had a gray fedora hat on his head and wore thin-wire round glasses and a small tie that to his young eyes looked like a red butterfly.
Children were not allowed to ride the elevator alone, so he smiled, took my father by the hand, and said, “I’ll take you up.”
My father did not know that this dandy was already courting his mother. It wasn’t long before they married and he moved in, relieving my grandmother of the need to darn silk stockings to contribute to the household. She never had to work again.
At the time, my father resembled a cherub from a Renaissance painting. Ruddy cheeks, bright-blue eyes and hair flowing in a mess of short soft curls which seemed spun by a goldsmith when the sun’s thin shafts piercing through the window panels of the building’s front door set it aglow as he walked into the elevator ahead of the kind but strange man. Two days after my step-grandfather moved in, he took him to a barbershop to have them shorn, beginning my father’s training to make him a man. The shorn locks were followed by regular ball-kicking exercises during which he suffered bruises when unable to block the ball kicked with deliberate force by his new father.
This dilemma, of what it means to be a man, would needle me in my early fifties, unrelenting, until I arrived at my own answer.
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