My grandmother, her memory, was a seed that bloomed in someone else’s garden. This is a truth reluctantly expressed with the grief of not being able to prevent it. My grandmother’s last wish was to rest in peace, to see fulfilled the expectation that I, her granddaughter, would find mine. “I leave the world I brought you into,” said a letter found inside the casing of her jewellery box, “Keep me close enough to see it has treated you better than me.” These words are not mere poeticism; they recall a very well-known tradition.
In pre-Columbian times, South America was ruled by a tribe that the Spanish explorer Francisco Orellana later called the Amazonian Matriarchy. The tribe believed they had been sent by Venus, the goddess of fertility, to share a semiotic relationship with the Earth. The energy that flowed through their veins ushered them towards keeping the Earth’s reproduction cycles in sync with one another. Landforms, animals and plants would, under their guidance, multiply, evolve and diversify.
Mama Agua, the original caregiver of life on Earth, seeing the fruits of their labour, would become their ally, offering herself willingly to their project of growth and preservation. Along with this, in return for their duties on earth, she would grant their descendants three lives. The first, the story of creation, was a life guaranteed. The parable of the lost daughter, a story about retrospective insight, would inspire the lessons of the second. And the third would be a celebration of life itself. This life cycle was sometimes called the Song of Peace or Life Everlasting. Whether their descendants reached their second and third life depended on the guidance granted to them as they confronted and adapted to the complexities that arose in newer times and places.
In the time of the Amazonian Matriarchy, it was believed that womaness was an essence that first emerged in the natural world. The first woman of their tribe was not human; she was made from a hungry volcano that had eaten three meteorites. One would become her mind, another, her body, and the last, her heart. Many centuries ago, pieces of extra-terrestrial debris from Venus strayed from their orbits in outer space and caught in Earth’s gravity. As they neared the Earth’s surface, friction in air transformed these particles into an enchanting incandescent performance; a thick row of shooting stars cascading downward, in search of their destiny. The ones that survived the flight through the Earth’s atmosphere were believed to have fallen onto the foam margins of the Napo River, a large river mouth in charge of singing lullabies that would keep dormant volcanoes asleep. The impact of their landing made the Earth shake. Sensing that these foreign guests might try to entertain her neighbours out of sleep, the Napo River sang louder and for longer than usual. All returned to their slumber, except one.
Cotopaxi was a crater that formed part of the shoreline on which these stars had fallen. The radiance of these tiny firecrackers, still sizzling from the scars of their audacious escapade, fascinated her. They reminded her of the days she too was a plume of light writing her own destiny, in the opposite direction. They smelled good too; it was a metallic temptation so similar to the burnt silver that decorated the ovoid bodies of the freshwater piranhas that the Napo river poured into her belly during rainstorms. She watched as they danced on the edges of her mouth, bouncing up and down the cushions of her lips like a freedom dance. She turned to the Napo River, paused for a moment, then swallowed.
It was believed that all women of the tribe were created in similar circumstances: by interrupting, inheriting and sustaining the dreams of a variety of landforms, as well as communities of fauna and flora. Like Cotopaxi, some women roamed the Earth in the skin of vast terrestrial landscapes, adding distinct shapes to its surface. Some were as steadfast as mountains. Some were as white as the Patagonian ice fields. Other Venus sisters had acquired the strength and velocity of the animal world. She might have been seen flying in the disguise of the Harpy eagle, or marking the hunting trail of the elusive Puma.
My grandmother was Mujer Orquídea, a late descendent of the Venus sister that had inherited the care of the largest family of plants in the entire world: the orchid. She was a self-sufficient flower that could survive days without water. Being an epiphyte, she was rootless and agile, and could often be spotted in Amazonian forest, climbing towards the top of tall canopies for a generous dose of sunlight.
One day, Mujer Orquídea made a life-changing mistake. After weeks spent at the top of the canopy, she was overcome by heatstroke. Her body already weak from dehydration, struggled miserably to hold on onto the trunks and vines elevating her. Soon, she found herself plummeting without constraint towards the ground. On the forest floor, walking straight under my grandmother’s downfall, was Hombre Ego. He was a hairless, barebacked Homo sapien– a late descendent of the Mars brother who had inherited the care of the Hominidae family.
When Mujer Orquídea fell onto his right arm, sliding effortlessly down his shoulder, up, over and down his firm biceps, and into the soft palm of his hand, my grandmother thought her first life on Earth would soon end. She didn’t mind. The animal would eat her and nourish itself; it was part of the cycle of life. She was wrong. This creature was not hungry; he was a curious loner who had been roaming the forest in search of trouble.
‘Are you dying?’
‘Yes. If Mama Agua doesn’t help me soon…’
‘Who is Mama Agua?’
‘The rivers, lakes, oceans, the springs…’
‘Oh, you need water, I can fix that.’
‘No, you need to ask first…’
`No I don’t. I have all the water in the world.’
‘But that’s impossible! If you have all the water in the world then…’
‘Where I come from,’ he’d interrupted, ‘we do not ask permission for anything. We take what we need and that’s that.’
At this point, he had leaned onto his back leg, turned his left arm into a side triangle that rested on his left waist, pushed his shoulders back, accentuating as he did, the outward curve of chest, and moving his right nipple closer to the palm in which my grandmother languished. It had stared at her straight in the eyes. My grandmother had stared back, surprised at how freely it offered itself for observation.
‘Has anyone told you how beautiful you are?’
My grandmother had looked up at his mouth; distracted by the sound of a word she had always heard sparingly, consciously.
‘Yes. You are very, very…’
This is how Mujer Orquídea, my grandmother, ended up far away from home, in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador. Here, she lived in a green baroque style house that reminded her of a suffocated garden. Vines, orchids and other plants were wrapped around the necks of concrete pillars like gold necklaces, trapped inside ceramic wombs and rooted in tight soil filled squares bordered by bricks and wooden fences. Unable to leave, she was coerced into a life of servitude. She would spend most of her first life, the one designated to constructing oneself, cleaning white walls and pushing against the body of a man who had already broken hers. When Hombre Ego’s wife found out Mujer Orquídea was pregnant, she offered her a premonitory gesture of goodwill that would haunt her till her death. In her hands she had placed the equivalent of a year’s worth of savings and told her, ‘Mi casa is not the place for a second life’.
This child would be her second life?
What of the parable of the lost daughter?
Would her daughter be condemned to a life of redemption?
Was Mama Agua trying to punish her for leaving the tribe?
My mother grew up unaware of her destiny. My grandmother had thought that if she avoided it, it couldn’t affect how her daughter saw herself and her place in the world. My daughter will not be used by Mama Agua to teach me a lesson, she had thought. Instead, she hoped her daughter would carve out a new identity in the Patriarchy, the original name of the city to which Hombre Ego had brought her. There she would educate herself into the ways of this tribe and it would, in turn, treat her as one of their own; as an equal.
Unfortunately, this was an idealism inherited from her days with the Amazonian Matriarchy. When everyone and anyone that worked hard was rewarded with a place in the community. My Mother remembered feeling lost and alone. Like the hero of an unwritten story. Unable to diagnose her mother’s silence to recurring questions about her heritage:
Why do people say I am the daughter of a flower?
Is it true?
Why then is my skin green?
Why do gardens grow in secret places?
Why does the river song sound like a woman crying?
She decided to search out her father and ask him. She located him but never really found him. In the place of her father, a figure she had dreamed about ever since she had noticed other girls idolize theirs, she found the knife of my grandmother’s pain, the one she had intentionally erased from her life. She found a man irreversibly conditioned by the permanency of having travelled beyond reason.
‘I will make him rot for this,’ Mujer Orquídea had decreed, clenching her right fist and motioning it towards the giant globe growing underneath her daughter’s breasts. In response, my mother, bedridden and sore, had turned her head defiantly towards the only window in the rickety room my grandmother rented since her eviction from Hombre Ego’s mansion. Feeling a tidal wave of hot tears surge up her throat and peak on the edge of her eyelids, she had closed them shut, tightened her lips and breathed in heavily.
‘Como va ser. How can it be,’ my grandmother had pleaded, ‘this isn’t how things…’
‘Por favour Mama! Please Mama! Please stop!’ My mother had interrupted, her eyes still sealed, her head still turned away from her mother’s gaze as her right hand, vertically drawn, cut through each of her mother’s words, mercilessly.
Mujer Orquídea had been repeating this scene, every Sunday, for nine months, with the same wallowing and unrestrained grief that only a mother can understand. Over time she had learnt to act out her soliloquy like a flawed anti-hero praying to be absolved of her fate. That particular Sunday, as the feverish energy of her unfinished lines spoke through her hands like the wings of a condor in full flight, she had walked in tight circles around her daughter’s bed mapping the revenge with which she would reclaim her and her daughter’s honour.
At first my mother had thought grandmother was performing an Andean translation of what you might call an exorcism. But before any unwanted spirits could be evicted, she’d made herself dizzy. After the ninth cycle her small frame had begun to sway, the unsteadiness took hold and soon her body fell onto the bed at the end of my mother’s swollen feet. Against the squeaky orchestra of old mattress springs expanding and contracting, an unbroken stream of tears had erupted from within her as if on cue. The push and pull of repressed sorrow, heard in the rise of faint whimpers through an air heavy enough to suppress their release, decorated her fragility with a poetic sentimentality.
Sensing her mother’s reluctant surrender, my mother had opened her eyes and let the blue swell cascade over her face. She had leaned forward and cupped the amnesty on her mother’s face. The fact that this Sunday could have been just like any other Sunday had suddenly dawned on Mujer Orquídea.
She had looked up at her daughter, wiped her tears with her sleeve, turned sideways and silently stared at her womb. As she let her hand climb this manmade summit, she felt her body reverberate the silent roar of a pain she too had once felt.
Days before I was born grandmother tried to return to the Amazonian forest. After many years of trying to avoid it, she would finally confront her pride and ask Mama Agua for forgiveness. Overwhelmed by the subtlety of her daughter’s strength, she had left the room singing the song of her newfound peace:
Forgive me for thinking that your intention was against me.
Forgive me for not listening, for believing I knew better.
Forgive me for trying to heal pain with pain.
Thank you for my daughter.
Thank you for sharing a wisdom that transcends.
Thank you for a love that is endless.
May my granddaughter live on and on and on.
I leave the world I brought you into.
When I return, and I will, keep me close enough to see.
May this world treat you better than it treated me.