In a small room bathed with sunlight, Nana and her mother had spread out herbs to dry on pale blue nylon netting. The room was filled with magical scents: aromas of earth, of bitter sage perfume, of sweet grapes and citrus, and of rich, ambrosial incense. Dark roots lay in careful rows like market vegetables. Sprigs were spread out flat so that their leaves did not touch. They looked like tiny children’s drawings of trees. A few large leaves were laid out singly, resembling lance points, bronze-age artifacts turned green by the work of time. Nana was enchanted as she sat before them. Her mother had told her a few minutes earlier about certain plants on the island that had never been identified by botanists. They were species and varieties without a Latin name. Her mother knew them only by the names given to them by generations of San Carlos Islanders. Those names were poetic and sometimes enigmatic. They were symbols, signposts to be read by illiterate peoples; wisdom handed down by her and her mother’s own forebears. They were part of her heritage, her herencia, that wonderful Spanish word which means both heritage and inheritance.
Nana went to the window and looked out toward the untamed forest that grew a few meters from her home. Most of the nearby trees had great multiple trunks and branches covered with fibrous, dark-brown bark. They belonged to the genus Prosopis and were called feather trees. Their abruptly-pinnate compound leaves looked a little like dark green feathers. Below the nearest tree, a cluster of bamboo-like shrubs with flowers resembling great white pinecones took shelter from the tropical sun. Those shrubs were wild members of the ginger family. The islanders called them soapy ginger. Nana started back as a red grasshopper the size of her thumb leapt onto the mesh screen of the window. A flock of birds settled on the grass that lay between the trees and the house and began to peck for seeds. They were midnight black and the size of doves, except for a few with bright wings the color of raspberry-ice. Nana remembered a stanza from a poem she had read. The lines seemed nonsensical to her:
At twilight a bird fell,
to trouble my sleep
like pink ice.
There was certainly nothing troubling about the scene outside the window. She loved the natural world surrounding her. The secret magical plants, the fiercely gaudy birds, the grotesque and playful fish, the awesome, sacred thunderstorms—they were all as much a part of her as the soft, clipped sound of the islander’s speech.
The grasshopper darted away from the window. Its ancestors had been carried to the island by tropical storms, and there they had found their Eden. The same was true of the black birds. Perhaps the male birds had not developed their raspberry-ice wings until after they arrived—on an island with few predators, they could be as gaudy as they pleased. For the animals that colonized the island hundreds of thousands of years ago, their greatest predator had only recently arrived. The people of the island were wont to treat them as a nuisance or as objects of sport. They had also brought animals that escaped and became feral; destructive hunters and scavengers who lived off the native wildlife. Nana marveled at the lack of respect for the island’s creatures that she so often encountered in her daily life.
She remembered a story that Father Daniel, a Canadian missionary, had told her about a visit to France he had made in his early twenties. Father Daniel and his friends spent several days in Paris, and on their final day one of them remembered in a panic that his parents had told him to be sure and see the “Mona Lisa” during his visit. He asked for Father Daniel’s help (he was just Daniel in those days), and he took him to the Louvre, where the “Mona Lisa” could be found. The young man asked an attendant at the door for directions to the “Mona Lisa.” The attendant explained in detail how to find it, and the young man sprinted through rooms and corridors until he came to the spot where it hung. He stared at the “Mona Lisa” for a moment, as if in shock. His face wore the expression of someone on whom a cruel joke had been played, and he murmured to himself, in total disbelief, “It’s just a damn painting,” before stomping off in anger. Nana could imagine hearing someone on San Carlos saying, “It’s just a damn bird,” after shooting a brace of them for sport.
A pair of small gray birds with white crests joined the black ones on the grass. They pecked at the ground for a moment before suddenly taking wing. Nana watched as they flew off toward the forest. In some bright clearing, grass and mosses were already overtaking fallen branches and trunks. And beneath them, in the rich, silent earth, her impenetrable ancestors slept.
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Stonecoast Review.