Authors: Aaron Thier
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Ghost Apple
The ancient mariner got up at dawn in order to drink the dew from the hibiscus flowers that grew in what he called the lee of his house. The sky was a dusty pink and the yard was still dark. I saw him through the gauzy walls of my tent. I heard him singing.
“We have to film you doing this one morning,” I said. “Drinking your nectar or whatever it is. It’s a significant detail.”
He was wearing wide sailcloth trousers, no shirt, no shoes. He had a white beard and long white hair and he was bald on the crown of his head. He was still sinewy and strong but he had shrunk so much that in certain positions his rib cage brushed against his pelvis.
“This morning I want to explain to you about pig toilets,” he said. “They were an important feature of life in Goa. The latrine was built over a pigsty. Actually that’s all there is to say about pig toilets.”
“And the answer is yes. They did eat the pigs.”
He called it the lee of his house not because it was the habit of an old seafaring man to refer to everything in nautical terms, but because his house was a boat. He’d been anchored out in the lagoon, he said, just inside the reef, and then an enormous end-of-the-world storm blew up and carried the boat half a mile inland. So providential was his deliverance that he’d felt it was only proper to carry on living in the wreck. Over the years he’d replaced all the original wood, he’d opened windows in the hull, he’d burned the masts for firewood, but he hadn’t altered its shape. It looked like what it was. It was a Bermuda sloop run aground.
“Another thing about Goa,” he said. “There was a plant that bore as its fruit a tiny lamb, perfect in every detail except that it had no teeth or
hooves or eyes. The animal grew inside a seedpod on a long stem that attached just below its shoulders. It would graze and keep the area clear of weeds. The meat was edible, it tasted like crab, and the blood was sweet like honey. You wonder why this plant was never exploited commercially, this meat- and wool-bearing plant, but I think maybe it was condemned by the Inquisition.”
Azar and I had come to Key West to film a documentary about him, but neither of us had any experience with filmmaking or, more significantly, any special interest in filmmaking. I’d written the ancient mariner a letter to suggest the project after I saw an article about him in the Travel section of the
New York Times
, but from the beginning I was only looking for some pretext to leave New York. I hadn’t expected an answer, and I hadn’t expected Azar, a friend since college days, a listless and detached young person like myself, to insist on coming. I certainly hadn’t expected to be here, sleeping in the yard and fumbling with an expensive little video camera.
And there was something more: The ancient mariner had agreed to participate in the documentary on the condition that we help him with some digging. He would not say more than “some digging.”
“We used to drink feni,” he said, “which was made from fermented cashew fruit, and we’d wander around the old city, and the moon was huge and red, and the air smelled like pepper, and we’d pet the little eyeless hoofless toothless lambs and feel ourselves very far from home.”
He told us that he was something like five hundred and sixty years old. He told us that his name was Daniel Defoe. He told us that for most of his life he had been searching for a woman named Anna Gloria, whom he had seen in Spain as a young man and had vowed to marry. I could not understand whether he believed these things himself or whether he was making fun of us. He had cautioned us several times against revealing our true names so freely. A name was something to conjure with.
And now he had to scramble up the rope ladder to the deck and speak his prayers. I sat down at the little wooden table in the yard and put my
head in my hands. Key West, the middle of May, seven o’clock in the morning, seventy-five degrees. I was not hungover. I was not unhappy. I’d been a graduate student for a little while, but it didn’t take, and then I’d worked for an environmental advocacy group in New York, but that didn’t take either, and now I’d given up my apartment and left my job and I was nothing. I was staying with Azar and telling people I was on sabbatical. I was trying not to be so gloomy all the time. I was twenty-seven.
First I was only an Indian. I was a Pirahao girl from the city of Anaquitos, which the Christians call El Dorado. My mother was dead and no one said anything about her, and then my father was dead also and I was sold to the traders on the river. I was loaded into a canoe with the dyewood, the Brazil nuts, the bundles of dried monkey meat, the flying dog wool, the rubber toys. I was sent down the river to the city of Omagua, and then to another city, and then to another. Then I arrived here, in the small Christian city of Santa Inés, in the New Kingdom of Granada, where the Pirahao River plows into the Caribbean Sea. The ocean does not exist in Pirahao, and I could not see it until I learned to say the word in Spanish. I was a slave and then, because I am so beautiful that men become drunk when they look at me, I was sold to the Señora at the brothel and I became a whore.
Now I am both an Indian and a Christian. When I’m asleep my name is Xiako and I speak Pirahao and nothing exists that can’t be seen. When I’m asleep I want to return to Anaquitos and live as I did, among people and not among Christians. But when I’m awake I speak Spanish and God watches us from his heaven and my name is Maria. When I’m awake I know about vengeance and I want the Christians to destroy Anaquitos as they are said to have destroyed Tenochtitlan and the cities of Tahuantinsuyu. I want the Pirahao to die and I want them to know they are dying because of me, because they sold me like a rubber toy, because they took my life from me when I was small and alone.
At the brothel I meet soldiers and clerks and notaries and I tell them stories about Anaquitos so they will hate that place as much as I do. I say that the king and queen have regal titles so long that one lifetime isn’t long enough to speak them in their entirety. I say that they only eat
human flesh. I say that they make drums from human skin, and they make necklaces from human teeth, and from the skulls they make the ceremonial cups from which they drink manioc beer. I say that they pray to the mountains, which are their gods. Sometimes I laugh when I tell these stories. The soldiers are horrified by this. My stories are true in Spanish, in which everything is true, but they are not true in Pirahao. There are no gods in Pirahao. There are no kings and queens.
I can say whatever I like because the Christians believe in everything, even things they don’t believe in, even things that don’t exist. They tell me that everything they do is done in the service of God. There is no other god but God, and God is three gods, all of whom are the same, and there are many other gods also. Some gods exist and some do not. There is Maria, the mother god, who gave me her name. There are the saints and virgins and angels and there is the devil, Satan, who lives in the world beneath the world. There are so many gods that they are like the insects that scatter when a rotting log is disturbed, although none are as important as God himself, whom the Christians thank for every bee sting and fear more than anything else, more than Satan, more than death, more than the worst pain. In Spanish, it is because of God that the world exists. In Pirahao there are only things that exist, and the world, like things, exists for no reason.
For the Christians it is a sin to eat pineapple before taking Communion. It is a sin to change the bed linens on Friday. It is a sin to say that fornication with an Indian is no sin. However, it is not a sin to fornicate with an Indian. This is an enigma and a mystery of the Faith and the result is that many Christian officials have Indian concubines, although they do not say so. One afternoon two soldiers bring me to the alcalde mayor’s official residence and I become a concubine myself. This is very fortunate. It is easier to be the alcalde’s concubine than it is to be a whore, not only because the alcalde is a kind man, always trying to be better and do honor to God, always affirming that Indians are true human beings and not simply beasts, always fretting and worrying in his anguish for salvation, but also because his appetites are depraved and he never touches
me. His intention is to disguise his real desires, which have to do with animals, with young pigs, not piglets but young adult pigs. He does not touch the pigs either. He does not even touch himself. He stands in the pigpen and prays to God, poor man, and he mourns the fact of his desire.
I live very well in the alcalde’s house. I drink cashew wine until I am so stupid I forget my Christian name. I eat guava paste and porpoise pepper steak and seabird eggs. No one bothers me. When I need something I steal it from the alcalde or lie down with one of the guards at the residence. But my life is not my own. No one listens to me and I have no power to make things happen. I think of the Pirahao in their white city and my anger is a thing I can hold in my hand.
And then one day I see an opportunity. One day a wrinkled conquistador in a red Toledo cap comes walking out of the forest. His name is Daniel de Fo and he is one hundred years old and he is the only survivor of the Lopez y Barra expedition to the land of cinnamon, which is what the Christians call the inland forest through which the Pirahao river flows. The Señora gives him a room at the brothel and he sleeps for three days, and I am there visiting friends when he wakes up and begins to speak of a city in the forest.
Daniel de Fo can’t tell his story without speaking heresies. He says, “There are things in the forest that not even God knows about. An ant bit my foot off, or he bit me and then my friend had to cut the foot off, but it was fine because the Indians had a medicine to make it grow back.”
The soldiers put their hands over his mouth. They say this is witchcraft and they won’t let him damn himself by talking about it. They won’t let themselves hear the story. But he doesn’t care. He laughs and laughs, a sound like haha. I don’t care either because I know that in Anaquitos this medicine exists. I know that he has been there. I know that he wants to go back. I can see the web of God’s design shining in the sea light.