The camel, I had noticed, was passing, with great
difficulty, through the eye of the needle.
—Renata Adler, “Brownstone”
WHEN A GREAT RUMBLE of evangelism swept Brownsville, it left an unswept place around Noe as he worked in his shed. Noe was the artist, el artisto, in his family. Others looked at him that way. Uncles. Cousins. Neighbors would come to look in the shed. Strangers who had heard of Noe would peer in while he worked. Often Noe was unaware of them. His three sons started going to church with his wife. The house was abuzz with what was happening. The family had been Catholic since the Spanish invasion. Now there was an upstart iglesia. A church of their own.
In meetings that lasted into the night, it was said that angels descended to touch toothaches. Bursitis, arthritis, and cysts were healed. A baby who had coughed for days was quiet and asleep.
It was the girls who must be at church, Noe thought. Otherwise his sons would not have been eager to go. His dreams, ah! That was the origin of art. That was his iglesia. That was his Maker, El Señor himself, the road of open dreams. That was where he found his yellow fever. His yellow works. Canary. Finch. Yellow jacket. Noe also went to the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, the wetlands of Boca Chica, Los Ebanos Preserve—for images of the wild birds, insects, and small animals of his carvings, some of them surreal.
Did not the Maker speak of dreams in the book his wife, Hesta, read to him? In a dream, in a vision of the night, he opens the ears of men and seals their instruction. The Maker was the maker of dreams, she said, and not the dreams themselves. But Noe did not agree and brushed her aside.
Sometime later, there were three weddings. Not all at once, but over the year at the church, after the courtings and dinners and parties with the families, Roberto married Inez García. Domingo married Cornelia Gómez. Dagoberto married Elee Padillo.
At least his sons would not marry the daughters of unbelievers, Hesta said. At least they stayed away from the ungodly.
Now that Noe and Hesta were suddenly alone together, they didn’t know what to do. Noe kept at work in his shed, carving his wooden pieces, painting them, signing them. The curators fought among themselves for his work. Noe showed his pieces and sold them at the Brownsville Heritage Museum, the Art League Museum, Imagenes Studio, and the Festival Internacional de Otoño in Matamoros across the Mexican border. There had been an article in the Brownsville newspaper about Noe’s birds from the center of the earth. Another article followed about Noe’s “subterranean cosmos,” his ingenious “mythologies of inner aviaries.” Hesta sent the articles to their relatives who had gone north to Minnesota for work. She sent them to relatives still in Mexico.
Noe’s work shed sat on a hill near his house with its back to the setting sun. Roberto cut a window in the shed for him, to let in the evening light. After dark, Noe could work under a bulb in a metal reflector that caused the light to burn brightly and shine directly on his work. In the day, when the heat came in the window, Roberto installed a canvas awning.
After several years, no children were born and the three wives grieved. “There is a reason,” Hesta said.
In Noe’s dreams, animals began to appear two by two. When he told his wife, she was beside herself. Maybe God was getting hold of her husband at last. Maybe now he would go to church with her, just as she’d hoped. When Noe’s two-by-two dreams continued, Hesta said, “Maybe you’ll become a visionary. The end of days must be upon us.” She concluded, “There is going to be a flood. Make an ark. Gather animals. That’s why there have been no grandchildren.”
“This isn’t a shipyard,” Noe said. “This is the artisto’s shed with a tin corrugated roof”—where the grackles hopped, making scratching sounds that seemed at times to direct Noe’s hands.
“Then make the ark with a tin roof like your shed.”
That night Noe heard camels bellow. Muffled but recognizable in the distance. Had he fallen asleep in his shed? Wouldn’t his wife be coming to wake him or call him to bed? How could he tell? Male and female. That’s what they were supposed to do. Multiply. Replenish.
That’s what he did as an artist. Populate the barren world with his art.
“Camels. I see camels coming,” Noe said again as Hesta took notes. “A camel train. They are bearing weight. They are with merchants, or the merchants are with them.”
Eventually Noe’s dreams became darker, murkier. Where did his art come from? Though camels were the central theme of his dreams, he also was flooded with images of Mexican cattle, scrawny goats, lizards, snakes, stray dogs, half-starved horses. In spite of all, he continued work in his shed, three-sided, with the fourth a large door that pushed back so that the front was nearly open to the flat brown hills.
It was as if his dreams, looking into the center of the earth for the birds that flew there, for the animals that burrowed there, had found hell instead. What was hell? What was his definition? His understanding? The absence of dreams and visions? Surely such an important place should have a concept in his mind.
“Hell is when you don’t know God,” Hesta, his wife, said.
But Noe’s theology was a man’s belief in God. He just wasn’t enthusiastic or evangelistic. Noe knew that the Maker, El Señor himself, as himself, was there to be reckoned with at the end. Noe would live his life, do good where he could find it to do, be faithful to his work, his art. He would love his wife and family, even when he heard Inez, Cornelia, and Elee scrapping.
What else could Hesta’s God, her Maker, her Señor himself, want?
Then why these dreams of animals? What was shaping his visions? What journey was ahead? He penciled the shapes from his dreams on a roll of brown paper. He unrolled more of the paper as he drew. He had dreamed more than he realized. What were these shapes? Camels, strange and exotic, he had never seen except in the Gladys Porter Zoo.
He felt something was pulling out his eye.
His sons came of an evening with their plates of flautas and refried beans. Roberto and Inez. Domingo and Cornelia. Dagoberto and Elee, who was never ready, always late. Once Dagoberto arrived without her. She came ambling in later, quiet and subdued, feeling shame. She had to make certain of everything. Nothing stayed the same for her. It moved. Her shoes. Her little anklets edged with tatting. Whatever she needed, she had to look for. Find. Her world was watery as the gulf and ever moving. Her dark sullen eyes moped about the room. What disarray the lives of Dagoberto and Elee would be when the children came. How loose. Unwired.
Noe continued work on his figures, painting them the yellow of a papier-mâché dog he had seen in Mexico, trying to find the essence at the core of yellow. The yellow that turned the eye into it and would not let it go. If he could look straight at the sun, he would know it. He would have it. An electrified yellow. The electrification of yellow. Even the sun could not fade it for years. The sun was what they had in Brownsville. Licking everything dry. Dulling it. The brown hills, the brown land, the bottom of the page, the dropping off into Mexico.
Long ago, he visited his grandparents in a barrio south of Matamoros in the Republic of Mexico. Inside his grandparents’ house, where the adobe walls were a foot thick, it was cool. The house was built for the heat. Why didn’t Noe have an adobe shed for his workplace? Why was it a shed made of wood with a tin roof that sat out in the middle of the sun? The heat waves sometimes rose in his eyes. The whole earth wavered with Elee’s indecision. What had been there in the relationship with his grandparents—those brilliant days? The irretrievable past was the ache at the core of yellow.
Noe’s grandfather’s name had been Lamech. His great-grandfather had lived long enough that Noe remembered him, whittling on wood with his bent and swollen fingers, his aching hands. His language the waltz of the gulf waves. Those days crushed in the past—those words bled yellow in Noe’s memory.
The heat of Brownsville. Despite the large ceiling fans in his shed. The canvas awning. Despite the spray of water he hosed over the tin roof in the early evening so he could work after supper when his family had left for the ongoing revival at the growing new iglesia. Where had it come from? Why had it started? Why did it continue?
Noe thought of an ark with rooms for the animals in his visions. A narrow window running the length of the ark, just under the tin roof. One door. A retractable ramp. How would the rain sound when it pecked on the roof? Maybe like a thousand grackles walking there.
Sometimes Noe was still at work in his shed before dawn under the bulb in its metal reflector that accentuated the light. Sometimes at noonday, after lunch, he slept in a hammock in the shade of his yard until the heat subsided a degree or two and he could return to his shed as the sun began to dive into the darkness that waited for it. The sun was the originator of light. The clouds were a garment over it. Garments it seldom wore. Usually it was heat and light and more heat and more light in Brownsville.
Besides camels, Noe’s dreams continued with coyotes, foxes, wildcats, the fowl, the creeping things. Snakes in abundance. Scorpions. Fire ants. Termites. Brown spiders with the deadly mark of a violin on their back. How slowly he must pass over words, over visions, over those dreams to see what they were about. They were dangerous. Quick.
When sleep falls upon men, in the slumberings upon their beds— He also had a troubling dream of a black angel, a Being, that roamed the hills, that had come out of the earth, that had escaped from hell, that lay in the sun all day because of the coolness compared to hell, the place that drove everyone mad with thirst. When Noe told his wife, she said it was a black angel, already seen by many in Brownsville. It is what had sent everyone running to church. They were nearly on top of one another there, so many people were crowded together in the small building, and the revival kept growing. What were they going to do? Hesta said the angel was a fugitive from the wars in heaven, who now lived in the center of the earth and would have to go back, who had somehow escaped to terrify everyone as long as it was able and to take back as many with it as it could. Just because someone didn’t say Jesus Christ was Lord, hell was laid out for them, Noe asked? Unbelievable. Unacceptable. Just Jesus without saints and priests and confession booths and candles? But Jesus alone was the message his wife, Hesta, brought back from church. Yes. In a dream, Noe saw someone chasing the Virgin Mary off with a broom.
His night visions continued. Bright yellow camels, not the fulvous ones in the Brownsville zoo. What was up? He had camelitis, someone said.
What if Noe had to build an ark not for the flood but the heat? “What if I dig a cellar? Submerge the ark?” Noe asked his wife one evening, wet with sweat, as they ate burritos in the yard. What if they had to flee from the heat that would flourish, that would rift, that would bake and transform the ingredients of the world? What if he was called to build a submarine? That’s what they needed. The subterranean places were cooler. Just step into the earth, not deep, but just beneath the surface. Weren’t Domingo and Cornelia sleeping in their basement that was always cooler? Didn’t Roberto and Inez join them on the hottest nights?
In the meantime, Noe wore his carpenter pouch with his hammer in its cloth notch. He was surrounded in his work shed with metal files, clamps, drills, sandpaper, turpentine, rags, small brushes with bristles hardened with dried paint, chisels, augers, little saws with metal piranha teeth. Whatever it took to file, to whack, to form. Tubes of yellow paint, some of the letters covered with paint, which made the tubes read, low, el, and others simply, yel.
Noe also built insect cages, aviaries for an imaginary ark. He drew plans for stalls for other animals, glass cages for the creeping snakes. What was this dry flood?
El Señor had given exact measurements, and Noe had not written them down. Then Noe was sombrero dancing in his dreams. He was at the 1840s Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Site near Brownsville. Noe was at war. He was brushed by the history of the Mexican American War that changed the shape of both countries.
The earth was filled with violence, hunger, and need. That was a clue. It was a game of Clue he had played as a boy. In the dream, the game had been in Spanish. When he was a boy, his grandfather, Lamech, had given him the game in English, so he could learn the language he needed. What Clue was El Señor giving?
God was giving hints in Noe’s dreams and Noe was losing them. His wife put paper and a pencil beside his bed. “Wake me,” she said. “I’ll take notes. I will do the writing. But I need measurements. Instructions. Why would they be given to you who work in your shed instead of coming to church with us? Tell me what you see.” But Noe’s dreams were like someone talking from under water.
One door. Windows at the top. A tin, corrugated roof. Grackles scratching there.
Word got out. Somehow Hesta let it slip. Noe was having visions of camels and other animals, two by two. The church went wild. Cornelia said it was an aviary itself. Inez said they would all want in. How could he build an ark big enough?
His shed was an ark, wasn’t it? A place of refuge in the flood of family and world events. He had sanctuary. He had been replenished. But once the flood started—if there was going to be a flood—would they all try to crowd into his work shed as Inez said? Was it the black angel playing tricks? Was it a ghost whose purpose was to confuse?
What was he supposed to do? Noe built birds, not arks. He sat by his light bulb in its metal reflector. The insects swarmed. Did they know they would die unless they could keep flapping their wings for as long as the flood remained? No, the rain on their wings would bring them down.
“Doors tall enough for the camels,” Cornelia said.
“And the giraffes,” Elee said.
Noe hadn’t thought of them. And of course doors wide enough for the elephants.
What would they do as they sat in the ark surrounded by the beasts, the fowl, the creeping things? Was that what El Señor wanted? In Noe’s night visions, the whole town sat crowded together in the ark as they waited for the rising waters. Weren’t the icebergs melting? Wouldn’t they raise the sea level? Wasn’t the sea coming up to claim the land? Yes, the gulf would rise. It would cover the Rio Grande. It already was rising, and no one knew what to do. Nightmares and hell were giving evidence of themselves. Was the overpopulation of grackles everyone noticed like the gathering of bad spirits ready for an impending decimation? How long would they float in a flood? And what if Noe built an ark and there was no flood? What if, after Noe’s death, his sons used the ark as a bait shop for fishermen on the gulf shore? What if his dreams were a deluge he couldn’t stop?
But there was not supposed to be another flood. He remembered a promise of some sort. Hesta seemed unconcerned.
In the night, Noe could hear the black angel rip the hills with its teeth, the mad Being that escaped from hell in the center of the earth. In the afternoons, Noe walked the brown hills. Would he be the last to catch on, like Elee, his daughter-in-law? As he walked the hills in despair, he was stopped as an illegal, but the border patrol brought him home and Hesta testified that he was a citizen and her husband. Despite his family’s fear of the black angel, Noe continued to walk the hills, following the quavering heat waves, this time with identification. He roamed for weeks. His feet swelled. Bushes scratched his arms. His face sunburned. His children pleaded with him. When would God let her husband go, Hesta thought?
Then the Maker, El Señor himself, appeared, wearing a yellow poncho. For a while he watched the hawks. The falcons. The predators. The helicopters from the border patrol. He listened to the upset world with its waters rising. Once in a while, Noe looked at El Señor, waiting for the Maker to speak. Soon El Señor announced that hell was dreams and visions without El Señor attached. The Maker said he had waited for Noe to speak to him. He wanted to tell Noe that he had confused his own dreams with the Maker’s, the giver of dreams, just like his wife had said. What would float then was a work shed, an ark of clear vision. Noe’s art was still his oar, his only hope, but if Noe would listen to the Maker’s dreams, he would understand that it was not an ark that El Señor wanted. He wanted Noe to build a church. “I want you to paint it the yellow of your birds and animals,” God said, rubbing his fingers together. “I saw your work at Imagenes and the Heritage Museum. I knew I wanted it for one of my churches.” It was Noe’s yellow that had drawn the Maker like flypaper.
Was it all a fluke? Or had the Creator spoken to Noe on the anklebone of America? Yes, that was Brownsville. No, the foot bone, the toe bone just across the North American border. God had the gumption to come, then leave as quickly as he had appeared—with a trail of burros in his wake. For a moment the sky seemed to open to let El Señor and his burros back into heaven, and Noe saw a light that sliced his eyes like a carving knife until he closed them.
Noe had misplaced El Señor in his own head, where the Maker was supposed to swim on the floodwater of Noe’s thoughts. Yes, Noe had seen himself as Creator. The Great and Old One. Noe fell down on his knees in the floodwaters of regret. When Noe returned to work in a heated fervor, the canvas awning blew up in a sudden storm-wind, and the work shed looked like it had a sail. The townsfolk came to watch. They knew Noe had a vision. What was he building? No, he was drawing—he was drawing plans for their church. In the end, El Señor was going to enlarge the iglesia. It’s what they had prayed for, Hesta reminded them. Noe saw the dimensions in his dream. This time he wrote them down. Noe, the repentant artisto, would be used to build a church, or draw it and show others how to build, or help build. The animals in his dreams had been the people, burden bearers, workers, men and women who carried the weight of their families—also the hungry, the sick, those who needed sanctuary, those who had been scorpions, who had wounded others and now sought redemption.
The ark was El Señor himself, Noe’s wife said as the family gathered with their chile rellenos and refried beans. Sometimes mystery turned up like a canvas awning. The ark was a type, a metaphor for safety on the floodwaters of the world. Once in an everlasting while, some dust blew up in the heat, stirred by the winds from heaven, and left a puddle of revelation—a downpour of sorts on a level Noe had not expected, nor even desired.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.