Archipelago of Eve

 

Some pockets of water along the Brazilian island’s shore were not just warm, but actually hot.  The waves were a gentle size along the nearly flat ocean floor, and I ran down the beach, into the clear, undulating waters, my five friends and I splashing each other and screaming, all of us momentarily transformed into six-year olds.  After awhile we disbanded and fell into our own worlds.

I walked and walked along the water’s crystal edge and truly felt like I would walk off the end of the earth.  The white-sand beach stretched on out of sight; I was completely alone on its surface.  I began to wonder if I had been born again near the first moment of creation, a solitary creature born from the ocean, its great salty womb still forming the rest of life; and the sun was all mine, along with the sand and the sky.  I ran and skipped, and laughed out loud.  I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, then yelled out to the ocean, “I’m alone at the edge of the earth!”

I thought for some time of never turning back. Of abandoning the world.  Never before had I felt it would be so easy.  I could just walk away on powder-soft sand. But I have yet to follow through on any of my grandly romantic ideas.  So I walked back to the group, collecting handfuls of perfect sand dollars along the way.

We sat audience to a marvelous sunset, melancholy over our imminent return to our cement house on the mainland, in an impoverished fishing village, where we were conducting an anthropological survey.  I wandered off again in the dusk and gazed out at the ocean.  I had come to Brazil to see and learn of its people, but the only things in my field of vision were pure white sand, water and sky.  I felt as if the heavens could pour down on me all the secrets of the universe, as if the condition for such a gift was this particular solitude, locked in a time-constrained body, amid this particular trinity of planetary elements, persisting in time before and beyond comprehension.

In the darkness the sun left behind, I moved my limbs to remind myself that I was human – not necessarily because I wanted to remember, but more through a feeling of obligation to all that I had been for 30 years.  I moved through the slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi, parting the air like water.  My arms and hands traced out circles with supple shoulders, elbows and knuckles, while my feet calculated a square box with measured steps anchored at the heel.  I put my hand to my ear in the “monkey listens” pose and tried to hear the sand.  I tried to hear the sound of humanity in the footprints that meandered through its grains like the sound of sea in a shell. *


* Many ages ago, Abel made a blood sacrifice to God the Almighty, slitting the throat of an innocent animal bleating in protestation. His brother Cain sacrificed a pacified tassel of wheat, a quiet murder with scythe slicing through stalk. When God made clear his affinity for the more violent act, Cain succumbed to a fever of jealousy. Burning up and restless, unable to sleep, unable to accept God’s disfavor, he vowed to kill his brother – to destroy the ways of the hunter and avenge the little lamb’s death. Though perhaps deep down, Cain merely thought that if God was so happy with a slaughtered lamb, he’d be even happier with a slaughtered man. Perhaps it wasn’t jealously but a deranged and desperate zealousness, a burning desire to be loved.

In either case, God was unhappy over this turn of events, but bowed to realism; there was no stopping Cain and his wheat. If God smote Cain, another son of Adam was bound to carry forth the staff, to lead the inexorable march of agriculture: the new world. There have been many subsequent new worlds, but perhaps this first was the hardest for God to accept.

So unfamiliar was death in the first world, the grieving parents of Abel didn’t know what to do. They sat forlorn beside the body. A raven, more wise, alighted in their pool of sadness, and counseled them to bury the body. He showed them, in solidarity, the lifeless body of a fallen chick: his own who had tumbled from the heights of a tree. He gouged a hole in the ground with his feet, laid his son in the wound, and mounded the loose dirt over him. Adam and Eve followed the example, making an earthen grave for their fallen son, Abel. They buried his spear with him and mourned while Cain left and wandered the earth with his scythe and seed – cursed, some say; pardoned, others say. Inexorable either way. The raven flew back to his nest, fed his chicks, fertilized eggs, repaired his home, year after year, just as he’d always done. *


* In the fishing town of Pirabas we hired a small boat to ferry us out of the bay, skimming across the turbulence of shadows and secrets. We stopped at the long, narrow uninhabited island of Fortaleza. The two teenage boatmen who were driving us through the waters in their father’s fishing boat led us on foot across the island; they were going to take us to see a boy-shaped rock, but when we got there they pointed out that the rock had toppled over in the last year and no longer looked like a person. Legend says that a boy was killed there, drowned by the angry waves of the sea, and the rock formed in his image.  The formation was deemed to be the work of God, of miracle.  It had become a shrine where people make offerings. When our housekeepers in Pirabas heard we were taking a boat there, they gave us adamant warnings that we not mess with any offerings. “Once, a boy from Pirabas ate a chicken that had been left there as an offering,” they told us, their dark eyes so intent, searing, the consequence hardly needed to be spoken … “and he went insane.”

As we walked along the beach, the boatmen suddenly squealed and ran toward some bushes inland.  They came back, quite excited, with handfuls of a small, oval-shaped fruit with a thin, bright red skin and a pit in the middle.  They bit into one with overt delight and bid us do the same.  I was taken aback by its unpalatably pasty and flavorless flesh. When the boys weren’t looking, I dropped my fruit on the sand behind me.

I thought of a folktale I read describing the origins of guaraná, which has recently become popular in America as an ingredient in energy drinks.  The highest god gave a beautiful baby boy to an infertile couple.  The god of darkness eventually became envious of the boy and turned himself into a snake, biting the boy with poisonous fangs while he was alone in the jungle gathering fruits. The boy died instantly.  The mother came to understand that she was to plant her dead son’s eyeballs in the ground.  She did this, and from these eyes the guaraná plant grew.  (The pits of the fruit are black, surrounded by white flesh.)  I wondered briefly if eyeballs would taste much different from the mushy ball of paste I had just thrown away.

Our guides, short and lean, bronze and energetic, then took us down the beach further and pointed vaguely, off in the distance, to where it is said that a reincarnation of a 14th century Portuguese hero lived for awhile.  He was so valiant and courageous that even after his death, his name was invoked to rally troops.  People in Pirabas believe he has been incarnated several times throughout history.  One of our boatmen, Cleumo, with some degree of pride, said his grandfather met this incarnate hero in person here on Fortaleza.

I didn’t hear of many mythical legends or spirits residing on the mainland, where in the poor fishing village the people were shedding their past, sacrificing everything to own a television, celebrating only with the kind of spirits that were distilled, and propagating legends of stereo speaker wattage and firecracker power during festas. But out on the islands, the mystical seemed to blossom and endure, with sturdier trunks and long branches under which people still sought shade, shade from the ever-increasing glare of the modern Western world and its stoic denunciation of all things magical.

We left Forteleza and traveled further on, beyond the edge of the world. We landed on Ilha do Buraco: Island of the Hole. A hole in time. We docked on a page ripped from the tome of antiquity. Once we hit sand and couldn’t go any further, we were stranded there for about six hours until the tide came back in.  As we walked through the shallow water against the receding tide, it pulled at our legs, pulling us backwards, as if trying to keep us from discovering the island. The water here was not bright and clear, but brown and opaque like a cloak.

Not far above the water line, along the white sand beach, was a cluster of one-room palm-leaf houses on tall stilts.  Several men were repairing a roof, passing enormous palm tree leaves up a ladder to be strapped down to the roof.  Underneath the raised floors were small fire pits in the sand.  Chickens pecked aimlessly and dogs drank out of tin cans.  Large woven baskets hung from the floor boards, swinging in the breeze above the sand.  The houses were completely open on the ocean side, with half-height walls on the other three sides.  I could just make out pots and pans hanging from the ceilings inside.  A hundred yards behind the thatch huts, the jungle rose abruptly in a wall of foliage, as if it were meant to hide something.

The islanders lived primarily off the bounty of the ocean and secondarily the land; they lived apart from any modern “conveniences.” This was not through happenstance or misfortune, but in fact through choice.  Not far from their cluster of houses was a little “resort” owned by a hotel from a city on the mainland that hosted sport-fisherman.  It consisted of six tiny sleeping huts (just room for a bed), one loo, a small kitchen hut and one larger hut with tables, benches and lounging chairs, all the shacks atop slim wooden stilts and connected by a narrow wooden walkway supported by even slimmer twiggy stilts.  The resort had a generator to run the kitchen.

The islanders didn’t work at the resort – the two workers were shipped over from the mainland.  The islanders tolerated the tourists, but kept to themselves and their own way of life.  They didn’t buy their own generators nor did they ever ask to utilize in any way the one at the tourist kitchen.  They had one community well from which they could pump by hand the rainwater that seeped down into the ground.

I was entranced, not so much by the antiquity of the islanders, but by their choice to shun what modernity had come to their corner of the world. Our translator walked over and spoke to them in their second language of Portuguese to learn of this. He said they were “stand-offish” but conveyed to him the basics of their existence.

I desperately wanted to walk up to their palm huts and have a look, climb inside and have a sit. But I felt almost extraterrestrial there – the gulf between me and them was huge. It seemed impossible to make a connection.  Yet I spied on them from a distance through the zoom lens of my camera, sheepishly focusing on them with intense fascination.

How have we walked such different paths from Eve’s womb, from Olduvai Gorge?  Is it worth believing there was a beginning, a single point that grew?  I imagine reaching my hand down through the floor of the earth, beneath the topsoil to the heavy mantle and into the fiery core, and finding other hands groping around in there, too.  Our fingers will touch, we’ll pull back at the shock, and each find our palms dripping with milk.  If we put our tongue up to it, we’ll find the sour taste of an interminable fermentation. *


* Adam and Eve buried Abel; when the great flood of Noah came, Abel’s grave was washed open and his body floated away. For many days and many nights it floated on the swelling surface of the floodwaters. It passed near an enormous wooden ark sailing the waters. Noah spied the body as it crested waves, disappeared in troughs and crested into sight again, but there were no ropes, no life preservers or emergency rafts; the ark was not equipped for, nor even built with any inclination to rescue the drowning. The body of Abel floated past and eventually disappeared.

After an epic journey across the submerged earth, as the water receded, the body finally beached on a small sand bar, not far from a primeval mainland. Birds flew over and perched on the body to rest; tiny seeds of the mainland’s bushes and trees dropped out of their feathers and in their feces. Plants grew. Insects flew or floated over; they stayed to propagate and they flourished. Birds stayed amid the bounty fit for their diet, eating bugs as well as the fish and armored critters crawling on the bed of the surrounding sea.

From Abel’s body sprouted an island. Once established, its inhabitants wandered to other sand bars, transforming the sterile silica and skeletal coral into a spectrum of life. Eve had given birth to the flesh of humanity, and by her sons turning one against the other, from these seeds of her womb she also spawned an archipelago. Eventually, the human descendants of Cain sought sustenance and refuge on the decay of Abel. They settled, integrated, and unknowingly made peace between the brothers. It was as though the world began again. *


* There was no one staying at the resort on the Island of the Hole the day we visited, so the two workers there allowed us to hang out in the big hut.  Cleumo had emptied one of his father’s fish traps as we left Pirabas.  There was a little barbecue pit at the resort, so the teenagers deftly skinned and gutted the fish and grilled it for us.  We didn’t have any silverware so we just ate the fish hot off the grill with our fingers.  My eyes rolled back in my head when I tasted it.  We were each momentarily stunned by our first mouthful.  Then we became consumed in pulling the soft, white flesh from the bones and savoring each bite as it melted in our mouths. We ate in complete silence.

When the fish was all gone, we thanked the boatmen and retreated back into the silence.  We each picked a chair and sat motionless. There seemed to exist no sound on the whole earth except for that of the wind stirring the dead leaves of the roof. One can find moments of peace at home, but there is always the hum of technology surrounding you, even in the mute threads of carpet, the digital panel on the oven.  Here was an immense quietude, as though we lounged on a sandy star at the edge of the universe, silently twinkling. Wind, sand, and water held us aloft, floating and bobbing, like a buoy anchored to the millennia. There was a profound comfort knowing of the islanders down the beach, knowing that ancient ways of life, though anchored to the past, had an enormous coil of rope and could still move forward on the shaft of time’s arrow.

When somebody finally spoke, it was jarring and alienating.  The sound hurt, and we all jumped back.  There was a moment in which we were unsure how to proceed.  But once the silence was broken, it didn’t seem easy to regain, so we pulled ourselves from our introspection, and let the beach tease out our youth.

We plunged into the soft sand and built a large castle. Imaginary sand soldiers laid siege on the castle and a battle ensued, each side throwing tiny granules at the other, back and forth over the castle wall. Peaceful coexistence crumbled.  Attack! From the castle watchtower invisible eyes scanned the horizon, searching for a memory. *


* The very first day I had come to Pirabas, my friend Kelly and I wandered to the edge of the village pier. Several men were sitting on the deck of a small fishing boat drinking beer. We said hello to them and they began an excited discourse of chattering and gesturing that we didn’t understand. Then one of them stood and held out his hand, the first thing we understood: "welcome aboard the boat." Kelly and I each accepted the hand and the men began rummaging through the boat’s cabin until they produced two dingy yellow plastic cups covered in dirty fingerprints, the inside coated with rings of dried beer foam from days past and days aplenty. They gleefully poured a bottle of beer into a cup for us each, and with a relish handed them over. We were obviously getting the swanky treatment.

“Obrigada! Obrigada!” we said and everyone was smiles and cheers. At length, we came to understand that the men were offering to drive us over to the closest island to see a large house there, the “mansion” of a foreigner (a German, it turned out). With no real concept of what we might be getting into, with pretty well no mutually intelligible words between us (besides “obrigada,” thank you), Kelly and I decided to accept. It was a comical exchange, but at both ends we appreciated the comedy that none of us understood what the other was saying. Though we had accepted rather warily, as the men unwound the ropes and pushed the boat away from the dock, Kelly and I shrugged at each other, “What the hell!”

My wariness turned to giddiness as we raised our cups to their beer bottles and the little boat rang out with “Cheers!”  We all tried to talk to each other. The men asked if I was married, and then if I had children.  I showed them my wedding ring and said I had no kids, but that I had a cat.  They didn’t seem to understand, so I started going, “meow, meow, meow,” and they all fell over with laughter. The wind curled my hair around my face, and my lips were moist with salt water and beer, framing bubbles of laughter over my marginal success.

Once on shore, the men helped us jump down from the boat deck and showed us around the island in their bare feet and long shorts.  We were all pantomiming as our major vehicle of communication.  They were very leery of the large house perched alone on the island. They tried to convince us that large, vicious creatures like caimans once swam in a concrete wading pool. They seemed to view the island inhabitant as a Dr. Moreau-like figure, using the creatures for his own sinister amusement, fearing that he could possibly capture us as well.

As long as we kept our distance from the house, the men were enthusiastic tour guides, practically manic.  We were only half-way around the island before we were all hanging our arms around each other’s necks, as if we were long-time buddies, and posing for pictures, passing the cameras around so everyone got a chance to snap a shot.  Verbal comprehension was irrelevant to our hasty and amiable bond. One of the men picked a flower for me and I stuck it behind my ear.  When it came time to re-board the boat, one of the men swept me off my feet, carried me through the water and lifted me up on deck.

When we arrived back at the dock, the four men stayed on the boat. As Kelly and I walked to the house we were going to stay in for two weeks, enormous buzzards were landing in the backyard eating the trash the villagers threw there rather than in the ocean or a bin, and a platoon of small children, malnourished and scaly with skin lesions, waited eagerly for us to return so they could continue inspecting us. This was my first trip to a location that was truly exotic to me, a place I had entered with great trepidation, not knowing the people, their culture, their ways of living and communicating. In the wake of that brief adventure, I felt myself sliding into place. It was not that I felt “at home” or that I belonged, but merely in place, a fitted piece in a puzzle.

Though separated by language, a wall of mutual unintelligibility, the gang of fishermen – our cousins by Cain – had led us to an island playground where hibiscus grew into giants with flowers the size of rain caps, and their children had led us further, to the hole in time, to the island of brothers. We followed the archipelago that grew from Eve. *


* After many generations, after the great flood, after the island sprang from Abel, people decided to build a spectacular tower back near the homeland of Adam and Eve. They learned how to quarry stone and shape it, how to fire bricks and to mortar, how to engineer a massive architectural feature to rise up from the plains and swipe at heaven. With a single, unified, unprecedented vision, the masses of people worked together. Once again as the world began to change in character, to move on to a new era, God was displeased.

He threw an enormous lightning bolt that parted the air with such a crack, the people were momentarily deafened by the thunder. When their hearing returned, first muffled, then with greater and greater clarity, they realized with horror that they no longer understood each other. They could no longer work together with this handicap; the people fled from the tower, disbanded and wandered back into the plains to begin a multitude of new tribes, each speaking their own language. A new dawn of fear spread over the earth. People misread each other’s intentions and deeds, unable to explain things with words. Who knew what others were plotting when their whisperings couldn’t be deciphered? Fear spread, actions turned more aggressive; once again God showed his favor toward blood. Blood of lamb; blood of man.

The descendants of Cain eventually covered the earth, filling countless nooks and crannies, vast plains and isolated pockets. The great tower fell into disrepair. Some of its crafted stones were carted off to make new buildings, others crumbled into pebbles and dust.  When there were three stone blocks left standing, a merchant loaded them into his cart and took them with him to a port on the seashore. There he began chiseling small pieces off the stone blocks and selling them as magic charms and aphrodisiacs and remedies for any malady of the upper body. When he was down to the last block, an anonymous fisherman offered to buy what was left of it intact. The merchant, a little tired from all the chiseling, accepted the offer.

The fisherman loaded the block onto his small boat. He sailed as far as he dare toward the edge of the earth. Several days he was at sea. When at last he dared go no farther, he heaved the block over the side of the boat. Then he returned with a favorable wind, back to his wife and his fishing nets, and his family to feed.

Slowly the last stone of Babel made an unlikely journey across the ocean; storms scoured the ocean floor and threw it along. Caught up in masses of driftwood, it floated across vast stretches, and eventually a fisherman from the island of Abel – the island of the hole – snagged his net on it. With the help of several men, he dragged and pulled and pushed the block to shore.

The islanders were immediately aware of the gravity of such a find, for large blocks of worked stone did not just appear on their shores. They hauled it inland into the jungle to hide it, and the elders contemplated it with diligence. The children sneaked up to it, as well, and ran their chubby fingers along the edges. Women came in secret to pray in front of it, hoping it was a talisman for the health of their children. Young men came in secret, hoping it was a talisman for strength and virility.  It was not in the shape of a boy nor anything but a plain rectangle, yet the islanders knew it was or had been a thing of power. They vowed to protect it in the river of jungle that stretched along the island’s spine.

They knew, with an instinctual conviction, they were meant to be the guardians. After the stone block of Babel, the last representation of mankind’s amicable comradeship, came to the island of the first brotherhood, it was rolled, a bit awkwardly with its straight angles, into a divot in the jungle floor. Through it, the islanders could sense their special unity and vowed to remain as one pocket of peace, tolerance and antiquity. An inviolable hollow to reflect the deep blue eyes of a long-lost mother. *


* God looked down with immense disfavor on the island of the hole. He shunned the sliver of land and its people. It was intolerable, the islanders living off the body of his favored son, making no heavenward sacrifices, and now harboring the last remnant of God’s curse on burgeoning mankind.

What delight I found in this disfavor! Imagine the peace so peaceful it’s not even disturbed by God. In an eddy out of sight, out of mind, the island God gave up on, turning his back and pushing instead further and further into the nearby Amazon jungle, slithering like a snake, tasting the air for tribal innocence, for people to swallow and digest and build churches for him.

When the teenagers came to tell us the tide was in and it was time to leave, their tousled hair hinting that they’d spent the afternoon sleeping in the sand, we all protested. But of course Cleumo needed to return his father’s fishing boat, and the three-hour high school class the teenagers attended would begin at 6 p.m.

The islanders had finished patching the roof and I couldn’t see them anymore. The chickens still roamed beneath the stilted homes, but while the battle of the sand castle had raged, the people had disappeared. Fishing for dinner perhaps? Gathering fruits somewhere inland? Lying down for a nap? I was victim of mere speculation because I knew nothing of the daily, yearly or generational rhythms of these island people.

Or perhaps they’d trekked through the wall of foliage to check on the stone, make sure we foreigners hadn’t somehow desecrated it. I could only imagine what it looked like there alone in the jungle, perhaps whittled to rubble now by rain and wind and ravenous vines. Perhaps lying with ironic majesty, like the head of Ozymandias – look on man’s works, look on God’s fury, ye mighty, and despair. The lone and level sands stretch far away, down the limbs of Abel, descending into the vastness of the sea, into the immeasurable, inalienable, archipelago womb.

*