Again, I turn to observe the face of the man sitting across the narrow aisle of the bus that carries me once more somewhere across the backlands. I saw him through the window when he appeared at the edge of the road and waved, coming out of nowhere, no human dwelling in sight, emerging from the desert and the dense tangle of brambles and cactuses. The bus stopped with a wheeze, and he got on: a big, stocky man, smelling like tanned leather, sweat and tobacco, and I guessed he was going to come sit next to me despite all the other empty seats.
That smell certainly drifts from my memory, because the man next to me is dressed like a rodeo cowboy and smells like cheap perfume. Since he sat down he’s held his back erect, his hands resting on his knees and eyes fixed on the back of the seat in front of him. It’s hard to stop staring, especially when his image, seen against the light, morphs into the silhouette of a man in leather chaps, jacket, and hat—a statue encased in leather that stirs up old memories. Now that the sun is behind the ragged clouds just above the horizon, shading the world in tones of red, the cowboy stands out, black like a woodcut against the scarlet background. I realize I feel a mix of suspense and expectation: I hope and expect him to finally start singing his cattle call. For over forty years I’ve been carrying this image and song in the deepest recesses of my soul, which now lights up.
The headlights of the old bus are so dim that we can’t see anything on the road. Nothing distracts me from those images I saw on the afternoon I arrived in that other sertão. I let my memories wander while everything else—the cowboy, the bus, the caatinga landscape, and the road—plunges into darkness.
I turned thirty on the same day I arrived in these barren lands for the first time. Back then, the illusion of cheating time and indefinitely delaying ageing—through calisthenics, surgical techniques, chemical formulas, self-persuasion, mantras, injectables, prostheses, tears, and incense—hadn’t spread all over the Earth. That illusion could only be achieved by turning ourselves into heroes, martyrs, myths, and symbols. We bet our lives on something we believed to be larger than life itself. It was urgent to make time meaningful because it was so fleeting, and we lived with the urgency of leaving our mark on the world, even if we risked cutting our lives short. To turn thirty meant crossing the threshold between youth and adulthood. It was then the exact midpoint of life.
I see myself young again, sitting on the fallen trunk of a coconut tree that lay in front of the house where I was going to live in that remote little village whose name explained its very reason to exist: Wellspring, like so many other miniscule oases across those vast arid lands. I rested my back against the whitewashed wall where the sun had been hitting until just minutes before. Sitting like that I found the only relief available from the heat that had struck me since early morning, when I climbed down from the rickety truck that brought me to my exile.
Maybe it’s those memories that increase my discomfort and make me shift, trying to find a better position for my back. I struggle with the handle in an effort to recline the seat with no luck; it’s stuck. I insist, and my efforts bring the cowboy next to me out of his immobility for the first time. He leans across the aisle and easily lifts the handle to recline my seat. I thank him, but he just nods, returning to his statue-like position, calcified as I’d been by the heat in my first afternoon in those arid backlands.
In that distant evening, after having spent all day lying in the hammock exhausted from the long trip, I couldn’t do anything beyond dragging myself to the front door. There I stood, staring vaguely outside through a filter of salty liquid about to dissolve and run down the dry, brittle parchment that my face had become. The few white houses, their windows and doors shut, clung together as if scared of the vast and arid space all around. Between the houses, the wide street of white sand looked more like salt flats than like the Northeastern sertão, while sparse, almost diaphanous mesquite trees insisted on passing for the only green in that grey and white scenario. Right then, I seriously doubted those backlands would ever turn into the ocean as people used to say. All the hopes I’d brought in my luggage seemed more fragile than those squalid trees, unable to stand even one day in the bleakness of that place. The hopes I’d brought with me on that first trip were greater and more futile than the expectations I bring now, which impelled me to climb on this bus. I was invited to come back to the sertão to talk about hope, but I think my own hopes have changed; they are fainter and less ambitious than before, perhaps just older like me. They began to change on the day I first found myself in this harsh, thorny landscape.
The view from the front of my house revealed the solid silence of a late Sunday afternoon in a world that had nothing, not a soul and, it seemed, not even a Creator. I was the only one there, immersed in an absolute void, immobilized, embedded within that thick heat like a fossil on a stone. Was this the end of the world where everything stops, and any struggle becomes meaningless? Reason told me nothing while my body was overcome by the lethargy of a lizard on a rock, ready to accept that nothing was going to change. I felt no drive, no desire to attempt even the slightest movement. I could already see myself drowning in tears from the disappointment of finding nothing at the end of a very long and risky trip when suddenly a far-away song reverberated in the air, a distinct sound, completely different from everything I knew and yet familiar, which I recognized after my initial surprise: a human voice. Ooohhhhooohhh ooohhh! Eeehhh ooohhhooohhh ooohhhooohhh! The horizon now looked as if the song had sent up a geyser of crimson color into the air, filling the sky all the way to where, until then, I’d been alone and morphed into mineral, coloring me and everything else in shades of red.
Someone in the seat behind mine turns on the radio, forcing me to listen to fragments of evangelical sermons, funk music, and commercials, finally settling on a show of melodious duet songs—the higher voice three-octaves above the lower one—and punctuated by the shouts of a rodeo announcer, “Hold on, cowboy!” The cowboy at my side stirs a bit, maybe moved by his own hopes of winning a motorcycle or a car at the next rodeo. I wonder if he can still intone a cattle call. Or is he one of those that round up the cattle using only the roaring of their motorbikes? The radio begins to crackle and the person behind me can’t get any reception. Good, I think with relief, and return to that remote afternoon of my long-lost memories.
The first melody I heard that nightfall long ago was coming from so far away that I wasn’t sure if it’d reached me through the air or if it was my memory and nostalgia tricking me, bringing back to me the Algerian muezzin’s voice, which only a few months before flowed down from the tall tower in Beni Izguen to wake me up. I’d rush to my room’s mashrabiya, which sat right below the minaret, to imbibe the daybreak’s first light and hear the first call pour over the M’Zab Valley. I knew of the muezzin before I ever heard his call; but no, he belonged to another time and another, more distant desert. Later, I made the decision to return to my country, only to be welcomed back by a sense of estrangement deeper than what I’d felt in any of the foreign lands where I’d traveled.
As the sun set, a voice and then another and another echoed the first one I’d barely noticed. They reached me from all sides as if flowing down from the almucantar in successive waves, each one stronger than the other. Who’s singing? Who, if all I see is a deserted road that disappears as the crimson sunset darkens? Whose song is this? Is it coming from my imagination exacerbated by the heat, the aridness, and the estrangement of my exile? Then I saw them, one by one, right in front of me, black silhouettes against the sky like cutout figures from a cordel pamphlet. They arrived on their horses with their cattle, their herding chorus accompanied by the rattle of the cowbells, majestically moving about in their rustic leather armors: sheer beauty made of shadows and sounds. Ooohhhhooohhh co’ boss! Eeehhh co’ boss ooohhhooohhhooohhhooohhh!
Night in the caatinga and the monotonous sound of the bus running on the asphalt envelop me now, and it’s easy to think back to that other journey and the small village at the end of the road. I don’t want to fall asleep on this trip, like the other passengers snoring around me.
I can hear in my mind the cattlemen’s song and imagine myself there, waiting for the wind to chase away the heat of the day. The moon is rising on the horizon, and I, taking advantage of the faint moonlight that pierces through the gaps in the roof, drink up two full cups of fresh water, almost depleting my night ration of potable water in the clay jug. I feel my way back to the bedroom door, find the wooden hooks on the walls, hang up the hammock, and let myself be taken by its movement, unsure of whether this is where my dream begins or ends. I can see everything as if it were today.
In my imagination, I see again the discoveries I made that first morning in Wellspring. I woke up hearing a cacophony that could be either human or a chatter of birds, faint at first, then more distinct as I shook off my sleepiness, until I heard clearly, “Maria, Maria.” It took me a while to remember it was my name they were calling, and then an enormous effort to get up from the hammock, put on some clothes, and trudge through the sweltering distance between my room and the front door, which bellowed like a newborn calf as I opened it. And then I saw them, their eyes like bright lamps on dark faces replicated in clay of sweat and dust.
A group of kids stared at me. Their visible ribs lined their chests like perfect piano keyboards; bony protuberances stuck out on either side of their backs, hardened stumps of wings that had been severed before they even saw the light for the first time. They were just about as naked as they’d been when born; naked and innocent, not because they were unable to do evil, but because they were ignorant of the evil that could be done to them. They laughed around me, happy like someone who sees the hippopotamus at the zoo for the first time in their life. I knew how they felt; not very long before then, I too had laughed myself silly the first time I came across a camel roaming freely in a palm grove in Algeria and getting too close to me.
The road I’m traveling on tonight runs less than three miles away from that place. Maybe it’s still called Wellspring and is now home to freer men, women, and children. Maybe next to every house now sits a cistern like those I saw earlier today before it got dark: brand new white cisterns scattered along the landscape, shaped like a mother’s breasts, collecting water from the roof tiles during the winter months and feeding it to their children in the summer. Maybe. But maybe this same road has been the escape route for all those people. Who knows, maybe Wellspring is no longer home to the men who, as kids, used to call me Maria and greet me with a smile.
When they called me Maria for the first time, and I hesitated, “I, uh… Good morning,” every single one of them repeated “Good morning, Maria.” Laughing, they hid behind each other, surprised at their own audacity. I realized then that a stranger probably hadn’t come to live there for many generations, in that village lost in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the road where no one traveled by a place standing in the opposite direction to the flow of migrant lives. In Wellspring, nobody ever arrived; people only left.
[. . .]
“Maria, Maria, Maria,” they kept calling me, and each time I more easily recognized myself in that name. “Good morning, Maria.” That was certainly one of my names, but until then I’d only heard it at roll call in school or in my mother’s voice whenever she got upset with me. That was the name I gave when I first arrived, I don’t even remember to whom. It was meant to serve as a password, to make me just another Maria among so many others in that place where I was supposed to blend in, become one more fish in the ocean, and lay the groundwork for whoever was coming later. We looked at each other with curiosity, those children and me. I didn’t know what else to say to them, and neither did they; we all felt intimidated. So, they began again, awkwardly, one by one, “Good morning, Maria,” then burst out laughing and took off running down the white street.
* * *
[. . .]
All those years ago, as my eyes followed the kids running away like skittish little animals, I came upon a stunning surprise. The evening crimson sky had been the last shade of color my eyes saw before night fell and before the incandescent white sun of the scorching Northeast summer practically blinded me. Now that same deep red split in numerous, long strands of multiple colors filling the space between the houses and the mesquite trees. “What is that? How did the coloring dyes that mesmerized me in Ghardaïa, those rich hues made by the Mozabite women artisans when preparing the wool to weave their ancestral rugs, turn up here? How did the colorful dresses of the women from the Zacatecas Desert, most of them named Guadalupe, find their way here?” I closed my eyes and tried to organize my thoughts. “Why do I come up with delusions to convince myself I’m back at one of the places where I’d been offered exile, instead of accepting the fact I’m in this hidden, washed-out village,” I asked myself confused. When I reopened my eyes, the colorful strands seemed even brighter.
The colors moved about, and slowly I began to distinguish among them human forms weaving an immense multicolored web. I saw no other way to clear my confusion except to approach them, sustain their curious, surprised—and perhaps suspicious—stares, answer their timid questions and ask them to answer every single one I had, therefore revealing my complete ignorance. That was my first, short step toward some sense of humility, an essential quality for me to survive in that rudimentary world of which I knew nothing. I’d traveled through all the places where people who had to escape or hide seemed to converge, but never wanted to stay in any of them. When I decided to retrace my way back to my country and entrench myself in the Northeastern sertão, I was choosing a sort of internal exile. I was then intent on learning everything ahead of time, what had happened and what was still to come, and I read all the books I could put my hands on. But immersing myself deep in the land and opening my eyes to what lay beneath the surface allowed me to witness the most ordinary, yet unexpected, form of existence, lives that never made it to the pages of a book. A new surprise awaited me every way I turned, forcing me to ask questions of anyone and everyone.
[. . .]
* * *
It was hard for me to walk on the loose white sand that covered the street, just like when I walked on the Sahara dunes that first time I dared wander off the narrow strip of asphalt that traversed them. I felt a sense of déjà vu and almost expected to see the same man who had appeared out of nowhere as if carried by his burnoose billowing in the wind and walked away to pray on his sajjada rug. My heavy feet sank in the sand, and my eyes blinked, confused, blinded by the brutal sunlight unfiltered by the lack of humidity and dust.
I followed the kids to a place where many people had gathered. Slowly their blurred contours became clear, and I saw distinctly every single one of the human spiders that had woven that colorful web.
The early morning silence began to acquire a new tone: the hubbub of voices, the sound of bubbling water, distant mooing, the rustling of leaves, the beating of wood against wood—sounds that I couldn’t yet identify, nor did I know where they came from, and so they made no sense to me.
People worked harder there than I ever imagined anyone could work. The truck arrived every Saturday loaded with raw cotton yarn. On Sundays, everyone except the few cowhands holed up in their homes—either in strict observance of the divine law that dictates weekly rest, or in obedience to the law dictated by their physical exhaustion. The street then became deserted like the holy cities in the M’Zab Valley on Fridays. But the next day at dawn, in this sandy valley on the other side of the world, an eternal cycle started anew among the houses’ white walls: old, cracked agate bathtubs with strange animal-shaped claw feet and speckled with rust, rescued from some junk yard of a remote urban existence, served as vats to dye the yarn. It boiled for hours in brackish water full of corroding aniline, over a fire fed by softwood, which burned quickly, forcing the kids to run back and forth like a line of frenzied ants scurrying on two feet.
The men’s job was to constantly stir around the yarn in the boiling dye; remove the steaming dyed skeins using two poles and place them to dry over a row of rough sawhorses; untangle and roll the yarn into big balls once it had dried; next, thread it through the heddles, braiding together the various colors to form long strips, finally turning the village into that amazing, unusual rainbow. The men started their work at the first signs of sunlight, in the middle of the village’s only street, and continued until they could no longer see their own hands, and the sound of the cattle calls announced the workday was over. Their only break was when the sun reached its zenith; then everyone disappeared for about two hours, exhausted by the heat and hunger. Within one week, the weaving process that turned the raw cotton into hammocks was finished; hammocks that had rocked me in my childhood and whose softness didn’t give away the superhuman effort and suffering they exacted.
The women’s job involved performing the strange dance that set in motion the huge looms. These were remarkable examples of woodwork, with dovetail joints and not a single piece of metal: brackets, beams, wedges, combs, cotters, and pegs made of jacaranda, a wood even more precious because it came from far away. The women’s feet skipped back and forth between four pedals that alternately raised the heddles, while their arms moved about so quickly, they seemed to have many more than two, as if those Northeastern women had metamorphosed into Hindu goddesses. They sent the shuttle back and forth, pulled the thread, and stretched the strips of color, and from their dance emerged the checkered pattern of the hammocks I knew so well, hammocks turned into cribs on my grandfather’s porch or sold among the narrow rows of vegetables on the avenues of the metropolis.
The women’s and everybody else’s work followed a certain cadence sustained by the rhythmic beat of the heddles and of the women’s feet, by the whistling of the shuttles and the combs’ scraping—a symphony that escaped through the doors and windows of the weaving rooms occupying most of each family’s home. The melody—when there was one—came from the old women and young girls’ monotonous singsong, as they sat on stumps of scrawny tree trunks under the mesquites’ sparse shade, weaving fringes and loops for the hammocks.
The women were also responsible for the endless task of fetching potable water from the only spring nearby, which flowed lazily among coconut trees. The site was a small oasis, a smudge of green halfway up the lonely hill in the area. They were also in charge of leading the donkey in circles to move the windlass and raise the clay buckets from the bottom of a narrow well. Its brackish water was the only wealth the remnants of the ocean that had once laid across those lands, but dried millennia ago, offered them faithfully. The sound of their singsong under the mesquite trees meant that the water jugs had been filled; the goats were tied to some scraggly bush, and the fire lit under the shed that sat between the houses and the corrals; it meant the corn had been milled, the early morning meal of couscous eaten, and the beans were cooking in blackened clay cauldrons. Or it could mean that everyone had already cleaned up their meager plates of beans and manioc flour, at times enhanced by traces of flavor from the meat of a wild guinea pig or a dove that a cattle hand happened to have in his saddlebag. Those were jobs I had to learn too.
The bus seems to slow down, and the engine rattles suddenly; I open my eyes and look out the window. A house standing alone on the side of the road is completely lit up, in a prodigious show of abundant electricity. We drive by very slowly because of the potholes that seem to reappear almost instantly on the asphalt that not so long ago was as smooth as new. I can see practically everything inside the house. There is so much furniture and other objects, many more objects than people. Plastic-covered sofas and armchairs reproduce the bad taste displayed on the TV screen emitting its bluish light. Its volume is set to the maximum, and I can hear its jarring sounds competing with the rumbling of the old bus. The refrigerator is topped by a crocheted doily and a heteroclite collection of knick-knacks and bottles with bright, new labels, while the refrigerator door is lined with kitschy magnets of all shapes and sizes. On the walls, three or four large images show snowscapes, the Arc de Triomphe, and a Nordic cabin near a creek that feeds a water wheel—the types of painting reproductions that are sold door-to-door under the guise of an aesthetics claimed to be better and richer because it is foreign. A stereo system sits next to some of those infamous CD racks. Over a door, a hot-pink polyester curtain is pulled to one side, offering a glimpse of the bedroom where a bright lamp hanging from the ceiling allows me to see half of a brand-new particle-board armoire with white Formica veneer and mirrors. There’s also a bed, decorated with a ruffled bedspread, pillows of fake satin, a stuffed animal, and two huge blond dolls. Everything looks like what we find in those flyers that plague any city, advertising endless sales of trinkets and knockoffs. The sertão is no longer what it once was and has yet to turn into the ocean.
I close my eyes, and my memory brings back the modest beauty of my old sertão. Since when have the Northeastern homes gotten filled with junk? Only now do I realize that they have abandoned their aesthetic born from the bare essentials—what people today call minimalism—something I loved about mine and all the other little houses in Wellspring.
After I finished the painstaking job of cooking the meal, washing the pot, my plate, and my spoon with sand and two cups of brackish water, I hid in my room—my camarinha, as they taught me to say—where I hung my hammock to sleep at night. At that hour, however, the room was almost completely empty, and I waited there until it was time to go back to work. It had no windows, only a narrow doorway closed off by a curtain improvised out of a piece of wire and an old, faded hammock whose loops were torn. The walls had been bleached with white clay and were so bright in the morning, it was unbearable. While excessively white early in the day, the room was filled with an orange glow after the sun crossed over the ridge of the roof and the light bounced off the crooked roof tiles, flooding the place with the color of the desert, the same color that had dazzled me in the Sahara. The house’s dirt floor then turned into a sand dune in my own private desert.
That was the hottest part of the day, but I couldn’t fall asleep like everybody else. Instead, I set up my small stool, the kind the cattlemen used. It consisted of a tiny triangle of tanned leather whose angles fit into the tips of a wooden tripod; a beautiful example of the ingenuity of the people from the sertão in its simplicity and harmony. Before sitting down, I always stroked the shiny, soft leather with my dry, chapped hands and felt as if it gave me in return some of its essence, which restored a little of my skin’s old freshness. Those gestures had acquired for me the importance of a ritual, like the gestures of someone who unrolls and lays out their prayer rug before they bow down facing Mecca. As on the first afternoon I spent in Wellspring, I sat with my back against the whitewashed wall and stared into space, hoping to understand the Absolute.
The bus shifts gears and speeds up again. The lit-up house is almost gone from my field of vision when, out of the corner of my eye, I recognize Fatima at the window, wearing her usual faded flowery dress and a white kerchief on her head; her face looks serene and her arms strong as always, but everything seems entirely incongruous with the house full of knick-knacks from a different world. It can’t be the same woman from forty years ago… I’m having visions, but sweet ones, like only happen in dreams.
I remember the first time I met those people around the steaming bathtubs. As I answered one more time, “Maria, my name in Maria,” I heard, “I’m Fatima.” She was the only woman in the group of men silently stirring the dyeing tubs. She came to my rescue, speaking to me with courage and solidarity and explaining everything I saw. Then she grabbed my hand and took me to her post, where I stayed while she went to check on her kids and on her beans left cooking over a fire. That’s how she began to carve out a space for me among those people who hadn’t invited me there and didn’t need me. She gave me a place; a place out of place, like hers. From that day on, it was the two of us dyeing the yarn side by side with the men and getting hit in the face by the hot steam that rose from the tubs. Her arms were as strong as theirs, unlike mine which, although younger, couldn’t stir the heavy skeins with the same rhythm. My arms were practically useless, unable to sustain that effort for very long, and the embarrassment of quitting was the only thing that kept me going. Oh, my God! I can’t do this any longer. I can’t breathe; I can’t see anything. Help me, God! The heat, the effort, the embarrassment, the humiliation—Fatima’s hands saved me from all that. She released the pole from my numb hands, held me by my waist and led me to the shade of a mesquite tree in front of her house.
I had found work and a family in that hidden corner of the world. I was going to be able to stay. Overcome by a strange elation and suddenly free of a sort of blindness when faced with the unknown, I began to see each person, each object, and each gesture as a meaningful whole. By the hands of Fatima, I truly arrived in that village.
Translated by Cristina Ferreira Pinto-Bailey