-An homage to the “Magic Realism,” style of fiction that I grew to love during the 27 months I spent in Latin America-
THE MERRIMAC VALLEY is in Northern Massachusetts. It’s an unimposing valley, with hills that turn blue and purple in the sunset through the pine trees, in the view from our small porch. It has nothing of the foreboding size of the great valleys and heaving mountains of the West. It doesn’t even compare to the jaggedness of the granite walls that spire along the roads of New Hampshire, a mere 20 miles north. The Merrimac River has been harnessed in too many places to seem wild. It spills over dams, splashes through the gears and turbines of hydro plants, and finally washes murky and tranquil through the low-lands out to sea in the east. I once took sailing lessons, in a big open bend of the river. The boom knocked me straight in the water. My brother got a good chuckle, but even as I bobbed in my orange over-sized life vest, helpless in the loose tug of the current, the river never seemed ominous.
My Merrimac Valley never seemed like a fitting stage for a good adventure, its sulky river and round hills weren’t the stuff of mystery or danger. That was to be found in the boggy woods of Maple and Birch trees, that spread everywhere in my memories of the land that connects my cousin’s house to my own. Our imaginations loosed the bounds of reality of those woods, and the banks of the slight streams that whispered through them.
My grandparents, on my mother’s side, were both in the Navy. I remember wrestling with my grandfather when I was very young, maybe six years old, before he died. He was rougher with me than my dad was when we were playing around. There was a realness to our rough-housing that startled me. I remember going to taddle-tale to my mother, “Granpy hurt me,” I probably had a slightly sprained finger or something to that effect. “Your grandfather doesn’t know how strong he is,” was all the consolation she gave me. My grandparent’s Navy, “no bullshit,” attitude had an interesting effect. Their children turned out to be complete hippies. Their eldest daughter, Paula, the aunt who lived a brief woodland trail from my house, was the hippiest of all. Her hair fell in drifts of chestnut brown all the way to her ankles. When we were very young we would play in her hair like it was the gateway to a magic wilderness and then run ecstatic into the outdoors on an adventure of the utmost urgency. We were on the Oregon trail in a blizzard, or had to find mud to poison the evil boy who lived down the street.
That was along time ago now, before I arrived in this Carribbean mountain village. At dawn, as the sun barely begins to reach into the valley, I run into the hills. I don’t need to pretend so much anymore, these ridges are new to me, and my story in this country unknown, to me anyways.
After my morning jog, before going to work with the young men that the Peace Corps sent me to train as nature guides, I drink coffee with my neighbor. Sometimes, she’ll ask me to sit a while after I’ve finished, take my cup from my hand and gaze into the grinds left in its cracked and uneven bottom. “There,” she’ll tell me, “I can see what is waiting for you in the day and the year.”
“That would ruin the surprise wouldn’t it?” I always respond. Then she smiles, then I wink, and I am gone for the day.
Miyaya’s kitchen is a shack made of uneven cuts of palm wood nailed together under a zinc roof that sings in the rain. When her husband goes out to tend to their cows he collects their firewood and piles it in the firewood corner. There’s also the corner where a mother hen’s skinny leg is tied to the wall by a dainty piece of yarn and seven chics peep and scurry in nonsensical circles. There’s the corner with the ferel kitten. There’s the corner with the clay stove that leans against the wall on four legs made of the wood that the husband collected.
Miyaya is gap toothed and big bodied. She makes loving jokes at her large husband for having such black skin, but she is also want Americans would refer to as black. Her hands are the hands of a constant gardener. She smiles and arcs her back to take in the breeze that crests our hill in the early morning. But this morning, as she came out of her house in her night gown and rounded the shack there was no wind, and she had something in mind.
“Issaac,” she called me, because everyone in my community calls me by my more biblical middle name, “ven, el café casi está.” I was already on my way over because I could smell the coffee the second it started to boil. I ducked my head under the low doorway and took a seat next to the clay stove on a wooden chair that could’ve easily served as a make shift outdoor toilet because the thatch-work seat had been thoroughly worn through. Just as the coffee started to steam Miyaya’s daughter slipped through the doorway at a frantic pace. I stood up to kiss her on the cheek, as per usual, but she barely noticed me. She took her seat in the plastic chair that serves as the hen’s cave and diligently started back at the work I’ve seen her labor at, almost manically, every morning since the day I arrived.
That first morning I introduced myself to Miyaya, her husband and her odd looking brother. I went to introduce myself to her daughter but Miyaya stopped me, “she doesn’t speak,” she told me. So we didn’t talk, but when she looked at me she looked into me. And when I reached for her hand to shake it she stood unmoving. Just as I let my hand drop back to my side, perplexed, she reached forward and grabbed it. She unfurled my fingers, gazed at them as if they were crystals refracting the light into never seen before colors, closed them again, and finally, softly, kissed them.
Ever since that day, more than a year and a half ago now, as Miyaya and I drink morning coffee, the daughter opens her sack of broken beer bottles, chips away at their necks with a stone, then grinds the neck away against another stone until what was once a broken beer bottle is turned into a perfect green, or brown, or black ring of glass. She must have thousands of those rings, but on this day, she took to her work with a severe urgency.
“¿Que le pasa a ella?” I asked Miyaya. I had grown accustomed to talking about Miyaya’s daughter in front of her and referring to her as the “Muda,” like everyone else did, because I had never been told her name and she was deaf, or mute, as people as people in our community tended to call those who couldn’t hear and therefore didn’t speak. Early on in my service, Miyaya informed me that she wasn’t born like that, that something had happened to her when she was very young, but she never told me what exactly. I assumed that she must have suffered some kind of traumatic head injury because her incessant glass grinding seemed to me the sign of general brain dysfunction. Miyaya gazed at her daughter then peeked her head outside of the shack and looked towards the mountains. “What’s going on with her?” I asked Miyaya again, as the poor girl actually started to sweat; the intensity of her grinding hit new levels.
She typically approached her daily activity with a dull, almost morose energy, as if it were just something to do to pacify her body so that her mind could wander in thought. If I didn’t know better there were times when I would have thought that she was listening to our conversations.
“Do you know what it means when it rains despite the sunshine?” Miyaya asked me, seeming to avoid my question. The girl stopped grinding the glass. Her and Miyaya smiled at each other. The girl held up a brown glass ring. She was breathing heavy, panting even. Miyaya poured me a cup of coffee in a small clay mug. At this point I was thoroughly bewildered. She gave me a look that said drink up, so I took a sip. “Issaac,” she said to me, “I’ve got an idea for you.” And that’s when she told me what had been on her mind since she saw that the grass was still that morning, that the wind was not coming over the hill. What I didn’t know, but she did, was that in these lost Carribean mountains, a windless morning means a special kind of evening.
Miyaya took the cup from my hand, swirled the grinds, and held the cup up to her face. She stuck her thick finger in the cup and rubbed the grinds onto the walls of the cup. “Isaac,” she said, lifting her gaze from the cup in her hands, “the Muda is going to take you into the mountains to meet my uncle.”
I was perplexed. “That’s very kind of you, but I have to work…” I started.
“Your work is to show those boys how to explain to visitors about nature. Correct?”
“Yes, of course,” I responded.
“Well, there are some things that even you don’t know, Americano. My uncle is going to show you how to ask something of mother nature and get her to listen to you. When you can do that, then you’ll really have something to teach those boys. Understood?”
I did not want to lose another day of work with the guides. Our trail building had been slowed down because of the rain in the last month. But Miyaya had never asked something of me so directly before. And it might be an interesting aspect of the local guide’s tour to be able to tell tourists about local farmer’s folklore. So I agreed.
“Okay, Miyaya. I’ll go. But how do you expect us to get there?”
“The Muda will take you.”
“Okay, but how?” I asked. Right then the roar of a motorcycle bellowed out from behind the kitchen shack. The Muda had left without my noticing and was already waiting for me to climb behind her on the motorcycle.
“Does she know how?” I asked Miyaya.
“She knows more than me,” Miyaya responded, which was only semi-reassuring. But I didn’t have any more points of argument. So I ducked out of the shack and threw my leg over the motorcycle.
“Adios! May god bless you,” Miyaya called out to us as we bumped down the slight drive-way out the main road.
On the road into town we passed one of the guides walking to join me for trail work. He threw up his hands as we approached to say, “what’s going on!” I shook my head and raised my hands to say, “I don’t know,” then spun my finger to say, “tomorrow.”
We gained speed as we passed through town and into the lower reaches of the mountain roads. There was nothing to do but hold on so I grabbed her tighter around the waist. She placed a hand on one of mine for a moment. I pointed to a small valley that is tucked away on the highest peak of the mountain-side, where I know some farmers have small plots established. She nodded. The whole range is technically within the park’s boundaries, but that often doesn’t mean much. She jerked the bike into its lowest gear and we tugged up the steepening road.
At each bend in the road I clinched tight to the driver, certain that a pick-up truck coming down the mountainside was bound to knock us into oblivion. But in the straight stretches of the trip, my mind wandered. I thought back on the year and a half of work that brought me to that moment, on the back of my neighbor’s motorcycle with the Muda at the wheel. It was difficult to imagine my time in the Carribean coming to an end. All of the project challenges, bouts with stomache illness, and time spent by myself just reflecting had forged a strange bond between me and the island. Even more prominent in my mind were the many meals shared with neighbors, days at the river with the local kids, and chasing horses through the passion fruit thickets with guides. As the air grew cooler in the wind wiping past us I found myself becoming strangely nostalgic.
An hour into the motorcycle relay up the mountainside and the bike suddenly seized up. The Muda pulled off the road. I stepped off the bike and motioned “what’s going on?” She pointed to the gas gauge. We were on empty. I checked my cell phone. We were out of range. I shrugged my shoulders to her. A year and a half ago this kind of circumstance would have really stressed me out, but by that point I’d become accustomed to the kind of behavior that I’d refer to as reckless, like taking off on a trip without sufficient fuel. I started for the other side of the road to hail a ride back down the mountain when a pebble hit me in the back. The Muda was parting some thickets on the side of the road. I raised my hands, bewildered. She pointed to beyond the thickets, which was just woods. I raised my hands again and shook my head.
I was getting a bit hungry at this point so I felt a bit short on patience. The Muda waved and waved for me to climb into the thicket, but I was simply not up for bush-wacking my way up the mountain side in hopes of happening upon her uncle’s farm. I wagged my finger “no” to her and stood with my back to the thicket, deciding to wait for a truck that might pick me up, with or without the Muda.
I waited for two minutes when a violent tug on my shirt pulled me into the thicket. It pulled me over sprawling roots and through thorned branches. I shouted and flailed at the tugging arm, but I didn’t hit anything and just tripped on my face on account of my own momentum. I started wildly cursing at the Muda but she was no where to be seen. I picked my way through the thicket back towards the road, but after a few minutes of walking I stopped. I became worried. I should’ve arrived at the road. There should’ve been light coming from the opening, there was only shadow and a flat gray light dispersed throughout the thicket. I tried walking in another direction at a frantic pace. Again, nothing.
I sat on a thick root, somewhat frightened, pondering the absurdity of my situation. The branches opposite me started to shake. Something in me told me to get up and run, but as I leaped to my feet I saw the Muda peering at me through the foliage. Naturally I was quite upset by the whole situation and she recognized that. However, somehow her facial expression was disalarming. She waved me to follow her, and despite my being very flustered I started to follow her without any argument. The longer we walked through the thicket, which turned into woods, the more calm I felt, which was odd because I could tell that we were not heading back towards the road.
A sharp sound pierced the steady crunching of our steps on the leaf litter. We both stopped in our tracks. The Muda reached behind her and grabbed my hand. We both gazed up into the branches above and I squeezed her hand harder. The sound rang again, but more melodious, with other sounds, like a violin kind of sound, and voices. Singing.
We continued walking hand in hand as this strange but luring music drew us forward. The woods gave way to another thicket. We had to crawl on all fours to keep following the music, which grew louder. Then we came to the edge of the thicket and stepped onto the grassy knoll where the string band was playing.
The violinist was a short bearded man, dressed in red stripped shorts held up by suspenders that draped over his bare chest. He extended a hand to the Muda and then to me to help us get up. I went to thank him but he was fully occupied hugging the Muda and kissing her cheeks.
We’d been pulled into an oasis of sunshine. The thickets spread around in an arena of shadow. We were at a party. No, we were at a wedding. The violinist’s other band members, also dressed in red stripped shorts and suspenders, were now ladelling wine out of an enormous wooden keg directly into each other’s mouths, spilling most of it across their faces. A group of young men ran frantically around the grassy knoll after some chickens. Young women and old women dressed in white dresses sat in plastic chairs comparing each other’s cleavage. Other women defended the pies and cakes from the daring fingers of the oldest men, who stood around the long food tables grumbling over their walking sticks. There was a large willow tree in the center of it all. From it dangled long willow vines that nearly reached the tree’s curling roots. The children swung in great arcs from wooden swings that had been tied into the veins. The band merrily took the stage and started to play. All of the young men and women danced. One of the older children, a fat boy, maybe 13 years old, loomed at the edge of the dance floor and tried to take a young mother for a dance, but she just laughed. The clouds above glowed and darkened, one after the other, as if night and day had shattered, leaving shards of light and dark strewn across the sky.
The violinist pulled the Muda and I onto the dance floor. We danced until we were sweating and drank honey wine. When we finally took a break he walked us under the willow tree vines. “ I’ve seen so many beautiful things here” I told him as he poured me another cup of honey wine. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the party guests organize the plastic seats into neat rows. Thunder cracked on the horizon.
“Wouldn’t you like to stay with beautiful things forever?” said the uncle.
“Maybe,” I said, smiling.
“But wouldn’t you, really,?” asked the uncle
“Of course,” I said. Because it’s true. I would.
“Well then, you shall,” said the uncle. “What should we call the beautiful things?” he asked.
I laughed and took another sip of my wine. “Life,” I said, “Just life.”
“Well, Issaac,” said the uncle, “meet Vida.”
Vida slipped the ring that she’d been working on for a year and half onto my finger. Then she grabbed my face with both of her hands and kissed me.
Rain blew through the willow tree vines in playful gusts of wind. But it was warm, and the sun shone brightly.
The party guests stood up from their seats and let out a roar of applause and shouts and whistles. The band members played loud and nonsensical sounds. The children turned their faces up and ran to catch the raindrops on their tongues.
“Wait,” I started to say, but she hushed me, placed a hand on my chest and leaned on her tip-toes to whisper into my ear, “you’re doing just fine.”
The party guests danced. One of the oldest men, a man who reminded me so much of someone, took a tambora from one of the musicians, stood on a chair, and played away.
I turned to Vida and gaped as I recognized the fact the she’d just spoken to me. “You’re doing just fine,” she said to me again, with a giggle. Then she winked her mother’s wink and said, “it’s a special kind of day.”