Our life is still a desert.
Yes, it is true: we are, for once, in a place where the sky shines blue and clear
And where we can sit and eat our dates, and throw the pits (biodegradable!)
Over our shoulders without the Angel of Death accusing us of killing his children.
But it is still the sort of place where the coral snake can take the place of the tree
But the tree cannot take the place of the coral snake.
It is not a real resting place. It is not our true inheritance.
Yes, it is true: for months, we have been on the move,
seeing nothing but dryness and sand,
eating nothing but dry bread and salt,
and measuring out our water mouthful by mouthful.
The dust collected on our skin and stayed there.
It became like
another piece of clothing.
Yes, it is true: we know that in the last place we camped, we behaved badly.
We cut down too many of the oasis’s trees to build our campfire
And we killed the butterflies that lived in them.
Their wings, even severed from their bodies, still shone like sapphire,
Like the pure blue of the heavens–
But that is no consolation to their brethren,
To those whose feelings really mattered.
We apologized to their brethren, and they said they forgive us
But there was too much pain in their voices, their
Words were the expression of a wish to begin a process,
Not the final hammer-clang that completes the process.
We remember how when we were children
A wise old woman told us that an apology was halfway to healing.
And indeed, when we expressed our regret and asked forgiveness, we felt pure.
But the purity was only temporary.
The next thing we knew, we were walking and sweating
And the dust had begun to collect
On our skin.
From our souls, dry and parched within our chests,
We sent forth the raven and the dove
And waited seven days and seven nights
(some say: seventy days and seventy nights)
But it felt like seven years (some say: seventy years).
And the birds came back, some carrying green-tufted twigs in their beaks,
pine, cedar, cypress, juniper, others carrying acorns of holm oak.
The green and its promise brought vitality back into our souls.
Reassurance. We are getting closer to the forests,
To the wellsprings of pure water, to the lovers the universe promised us.
But how much closer?
(A shadow comes over our hearts. A desolate wind blows).
And which is closer, the cedars and cypresses, or the oak?
Will we arrive in seven days or eight days,
Seven years or eight years?
Will we arrive thanks to the nature that fills the world,
Or will we need an intervention
from That which surrounds all worlds?
And we left that place and walked further to the east and camped in another place.
On our tent-poles we hung our memories.
Nights came, the great night, and the days were like short breaks in the midst of the night
And because of this our watchmen confused their watches in the night
And marauders came and stole more than half of our food, so that our bodies were diminished
And our spirits were diminished and we had no choice but to put our trust
In our innermost reservoirs of strength which are never depleted.
The only place we could find more water was in the rocks: there there is an infinite supply of water,
But one has to cut through the rock to find it and the rock in this place is that type of rock
Which does not respond to just any blow from any tool
And who has such tools at a moment like this,
And you ask: “But did you not pass by the house of that one sage who lives in the desert
About whom it is said that he is clairvoyant and can tell the future, and that he possesses the sort of power that can lift you out of your pain?
Were you not able to get advice from him? Was he not able to give you at the very least some amulet, some charm, some sacred honey or sacred wine which has the ability to perform miracles, however small and inconspicuous?”
Yes, we passed by the house of that sage. But that sage is not like the sages of our generation, the sages you know. That sage–a force emanates
From his house such that you must prepare yourself before entering, otherwise it will clog your soul completely and you will not withstand it.
You must purify yourself: you must fall on the sword of your bad memories, so that the memory of your sin pierces your soul and lets out all the hot, polluted air that puffs it up, so that you can receive the pure flow from the soul of the sage.
But at that time our spirits were diminished, and we did not have the strength to undergo the rigors of purification.
The hour was not smiling at us. We did not have the strength to confess how we killed the butterflies, to fall on the sword of their corpses within us and thereby release them and us…
The hour was not smiling at us.
For some nights, the demons chased Sleep,
And Sleep wandered away from our eyes and shoulders,
And we had strange, vivid dreams which we cannot remember.
And we picked up and moved again, and we trudged on slowly, and without energy.
We did not have the strength even to look to our right or to our left and take in
Whatever scenes the desert might have been showing us:
rock formations, sand dunes, cactus, the odd lizard or jackal.
You ask: “if you were so tired, why did you move?”
Because if we had stayed in one place, the demons of that place would have become more attached to us,
And the Low Spirits would have brought our low spirits even lower.
Indeed, though what we had endured through the diminishment of our spirits was not the type of suffering
That brings reward, nonetheless, the ministering angels decided to step in-
We do not know if it was because we had any merit
Or because they just decided to be kind-
But in the heat of the middle of the day they caused an oasis to appear before us.
It was small, but it was an oasis
It was not the forest, but there were date palms and sweet water.
Date palms: so that any demon who might be pursuing us would run up against them and burst.
During the day the green leaves fought to pull the tension and fatigue out of our bodies-
There were so few of them, and so much drab desert,
And they just barely prevailed.
And that first night in the oasis we slept soundly and had no strange dreams.
We were restored enough to withstand the insomnia that returned to us
On the subsequent nights: even the angels, kind as they are,
Are not all-powerful.
We were clarified. Our souls were clarified.
The angels were not all-powerful, but the feelings began to flow within us like fish in a clear river
And not like a plow the ox pulls with difficulty through recalcitrant root-clogged mire-
Such that when the terrible Ziz bird, the Ziz of the field, whose wings are vast as fields, dark as a hawk and fearsome as a vulture,
Came upon us and blocked out the sun, and tried to seize our children in its talons
to carry them high up and drop them to be crushed on the rocks that protrude from the sandy ground like giant teeth
we did not fear: our fear did not overflow, did not spread beyond the boundaries of its source in the soul and spill over into our shoulders or heart or head or knees–
the quietness remained on our limbs as we calmly and deliberately shot our arrows at its wings and body.
The arrows pierced the bird’s skin, and created a space between the outer layer of skin and everything beneath it, and the bird shed its outer layer of skin, feathers and skin,
And underneath, there were the exact same feathers and skin, and the bird looked exactly the same as before shedding its older skin.
And the bird smiled at us and said: “I was testing you. You cannot kill me, no one can kill me
Until the Messiah comes.
But that is a long time–
And I do on occasion have the need to be pierced so that the hot air which accumulates under my skin can be released. For that , I thank you.
Go now, and proceed to the forest, for we creatures of the universe have begun to smile upon you.”
That night, the moon shone through the darkness above our camp.
And for the first time, someone thought to bring out the musical instruments, the lyres and the drums, and to play music
And others had the idea to dance around our campfire as the music-players were playing music.
That night, we went to sleep happy. We went to sleep with energy
And woke up with energy
And found that the desert wolves had come and stolen more of our provisions during the night.
And the portals in our souls through which the demons can enter opened and bad thoughts came in:
“Evidently many creatures are not smiling at us…”
“The Ziz was lying…”
“We are going to die in the desert…”
And one of the wise old women said: “We cannot stop our journey now. No one will help us if we stay here.”
With fissured souls we set out, and though it was early morning the sun was already hot.
At midday we stopped to eat a few bites of dry bread, and drink a mouthful of water, and the smallness of our meal was at the center of our thoughts.
And we set out were like sick people who keep working even when they know they should not.
After some hours following our trail we saw that the trail led us to the center of a rock formation, so massive it would take hours to walk around…
But then a cool breeze blew–
We smelled a fragrance of green
And we lifted up our eyes beyond the wall
And saw the tops of cypress trees in the distance.
And into the midst of our group fluttered a light blue and yellow butterfly.
We recognized him: a kinsman of those we had killed.
In a clear voice, he said: “You have permission
To fully enjoy and absorb this moment.”
And it is from the mouth of that butterfly that we live.
And it is from the mouth of that moment that we live.
Los Angeles artist Robert Wilhite currently splits his time between California and Amsterdam. His career spans sculpture, painting, theater, design, and music. Recently, he designed and built the Bob’s Your Uncle bar, a perpetual artwork installed inside the Kunstverein in Amsterdam. He has also created a series of paintings related to the bar. Wilhite’s use of butterfly wings and feathers on colored sandpaper for “From the Mouth of a Butterfly” was inspired in part by Dubuffet and his “Art Brut” work.
Henry Wudl is a poet and fiction writer based in Los Angeles. He was educated at yeshivot in Israel and New York and has a degree in Middle East Studies from McGill University in Montreal. He works as a librarian for Hebrew Union College and also translates Hebrew poetry into English.