Secundina Caldón, Nanny Caldondina, kept her rhythm in her planting, or, as folks all said: she had good hands.
Everything Nanny Caldondina touched would swell, flourish, grow thick and upright. For this reason, there was a time when it was thought that she could offer men treatment for a wilted cane. But Nanny Caldondina needed the earth as her element for making things grow: lush leaves, thick stalks, and erect canes could all be achieved, but only sprouting from the earth and remaining grounded in it.
On the banks of the San Juan river, in Samurindó, the village where Secundina was born, folks said that she had made Saint Joseph’s staff blossom.
The raised patio behind my house, under Nanny Caldondina’s painstaking care, was an explosion of color, blooming with snakewort, golden shower, heliotrope, and four o’clock flowers. There were incandescent yellow, almost orange flowers; all different shades of red flowers, even one that was red and black; flowers of the whitest white shaped like a cone with a yellow spike, known as baby-in-cradle. There were cape jasmine, dahlia, hibiscus, crown of thorns and a type of orchid called queen’s shoes. The milpesos was next to the glassywood tree, the breadfruit and the corozo, and in the middle of all of them grew the borojó. To make it grow, Nanny Caldondina surrounded herself with the magic necessary for sowing borojó: she buried two twigs, right next to one another, the female up against the male. This is the only way the borojó prospers: the female twig which produces the fragrant dark brown ball rubbing against the twig that shows off its long, pale yellow cap, with which it strokes her like a gentle cock until the borojó sprouts. The little plot on the patio, cultivated with magic, moved in the night with the back-and-forth of the rhythm of love.
Next to it grew some achiote shrubs, which Nanny Caldondina enjoyed at their peak, when all the little green heart-shaped boxes were ready to fall from the tree, full of the beautiful surprise which the achiote fruit offers: hundreds of small bright red balls, which the fragrant kitchens of Chocó would then keep in a bottle with oil to give the color of the heart to all kinds of foods, and to love.
Secundina Caldón, Nanny Caldondina, knew about the forest, the trees, their fruits, their flowers and seeds. She learned it all in Samurindó, during the years she spent working in the house of Floremiro Agualimpia Cañadas, a botanist by instruments, who fed the soil so the grateful earth would give back fruits and flowers, big baskets and small.
Floremiro lived on and for the land until he learned that Secundina Caldón didn’t know how to read. He decided to teach her using the only book in the house, a book about trees that said all there was to say about the different species. It was called Ciencias de la Tierra and it was a nonsense book that called the banana tree Himatanthus articulata if it had alternate leaves, a pointed top, white flowers with tubular corollas, and did not give fruit, but if it was the banana that erbody eats fried, it was called Musa sp. and it was in the Musaceae family. Great, I think you see what’s wrong here.
Nanny Caldondina thought that this stuff about learnin to read was super complicated. Why learn to read if the thang you’re readin is a pain in the ass that nobody could understand?
The book said that it’s said that corn has both male and female flowers at the same time, that it doesn’t need any other stalk nearby; and that papaya has female, male, and hermaphroditic flowers—an abomination!—and that Cativo prioria copaifera is a monosperm (only one?); that Cucharo colorado produces flowers with just one petal which is yellow, not red; that Vitex cooperi truntago has axillary inflorescences (armpit hair like people?), flowers with a cupoliform calix, a black drupaceous fruit up to 13 mm long (that’s not up to my people’s size!); that cork makes a black fruit called monkey’s comb; that Hura crepitans is the sandbox tree, also known as arenillero, the tree she called milpesos, which secretes a poisonous, irritating sap, that it has unisex flowers (how’s that work? Me with myself?), that its fruit is a disc-shaped capsule that erupts violently, producing a small explosion releasing flattened seeds that have a laxative effect. Sweet Jesus, what a wonder!
Secundina got to thinkin, trying to figure out what the hell these white folks’ readin thang was all about, why they’d use such silly words for somethin as simple as the birth of a tree. The eggfruit tree, with its orange fruit that she ate every day, they dubbed it Pouteria neglecta, how crass can you be? Lookahere, the leaves have ferruginous sparse hairs and the delicious seeds they call reddish velvety protuberances? Aye yay yay.
At night, when Floremiro Agualimpia Cañadas came home covered in dirt and smelling like flowers, he took off his rubber boots, washed his hands, nails, face, head and feet with plenty of water and soap, lit a candle, ate some plantain pudding and called Secundina to his side so she could dig around, page by page, through the endless book full of nothin but strange thangs. The important thing, Floremiro told her, is learning to read, so that later, with easier books, you can understand this stuff you call nonsense and get your thinker trained up.
They went to page five and Secundina read: vines. Hallelujah, she almost shouted, finally some serious nonsense, I know about this one! But as she read on, she found: Passiflora puritana, Passiflora adulterina. Don’t seem fair to me! Is this book tellin me that my vines are either nuns or hoes? I don’t know bout all dat. Seems like givin shrubbery names of boring or slutty women ain’t fair to me. Naw! I ain’t likin this book, most of it I don’t understand. And when I do get somethin, they be callin trees and flowers and even lil shrubs names like horny and chichi. Damn, don’t them white folks have anythang bettah to do?
Floremiro Agualimpia Cañadas cracked up at Secundina’s remarks, but told her to keep on reading. “Euphorbiasis, euphorbiaceae: does not have family patterns with defined characteristics.”
“Lookahere, they talkin about people now? You tellin me that people are euphorbiaceae?”
“Keep reading, Secundina,” said Floremiro, “You’ll waste the whole candle talking so much.”
And Nanny Caldondina went on: “Machaerium moritzianum, family Fabaceae, a thorny bush, flowers with a bell-shaped calyx, emarginated and rounded at apex, inflorescence composed of racemes with tomentous spines, pubescent, with seminal organ arched and flattened and shaped like a machete.”
“Bless my soul, don’t go scoldin me now, but this tree must be from the euphorbiaceae family, look what I’m learnin, somethin had to get through to my noggin,” and before Floremiro had time to get impatient with her chattering, Secundina said, “Let’s keep going: ‘Conocarpus erectus, winged fruits grouped in spherical peduncles, known as the black mangrove;’ aye yay yay, they talkin bout men again, look Floremiro, you gonna have to explain to me all this gibberish about putería, puritana, adulterina, tomentous, pubescent, and especially this thang about erectus.”
Floremiro was perplexed by Nanny Caldondina’s associations, but more than perplexed, he was agitated; he’d never thought about these questions regarding the names and characteristics of species. He found an ally in the candle, which was about to go out, and was the perfect excuse to close the book and leave the questions for a distant other day.
But Floremiro Agualimpia Cañadas felt embarrassed that Nanny Caldondina was infecting him with the problems of a thinker that didn’t know how to respond, and that she was starting to provoke certain species’ characteristics in him, in particular species Conocarpus. He slept poorly, sweated a lot, rolled back and forth in his bed, and at four in the morning he got up and felt exhausted from having spent the whole night like a black mangrove.
He left quickly without eating breakfast. He didn’t want to see Secundina, didn’t want her to read in his eyes that what she’d read in the book was true. He spent a day of fear without being able to look at trees, flowers, fruits, leaves, or vines with the same eyes as before; now they were erectus, pubescent, tomentous, adulterine, puritanas or puterias, but for him, they all had an underside that was completely tormentous. He was afraid of having to go back through the nightly routine of washing, eating, candlelight, but above all he was afraid of the reading. What other things might appear in this book that had gotten Caldondina’s questioner and thinker worked up, not to mention his own sweat glands and the conocarpus of his black mangrove?
He got home and said to Caldondina, without looking her in the eye, that he wasn’t feelin well, that the wind and the downpour had him burnin up. He didn’t bathe, didn’t eat, didn’t light the candle, just lay down on the mat writhing with everything, his body and his conocarpus.
Secundina didn’t understand that what he’d shown up with wasn’t fever but a tormentous underside; she lit the candle, took the book and started reading: Ochroma lagopus sw, balsa tree: smooth trunk, open branching forming umbrella-like structures, flowers with funnel-shaped calyx, tomentous exterior, sericeous interior, with erect fruit surrounded by abundant silky yellowish-brown hair.
Bursera simaruba: called “naked Indian,” secretes aromatic sap.
Brosimun utile: cow tree or milk tree, secretes white latex, has large woody inflorescences in the form of spiny tassels, but solitary.
Without knowing it, she was reading the torment that was torturing Floremiro Agualimpia Cañadas, all covered with sweat and alone on the mat; for the first time, she didn’t make the connection. She blew out the candle and went to sleep.
The next day and all the days that followed, Floremiro’s tomentous agony got worse and worse, got so bad that they had to speed him away in the boat to the hospital of Quibdó.
Caldondina stayed in Samurindó to take care of the house and the trees, flowers, fruits, vines, all the puterous, pubescent, tomentous, adulterine and puritanical plants, without suspecting that she’d made Floremiro’s conocarpus sick because it was all at once balsa wood, Bursera simaruba and Brosimun utile.
Floremiro never went back to Samurindó, and when a new botanist came to replace him, Secundina packed a knapsack with two blouses, one skirt, thousands of little pieces of everything she was sowing, and the book Ciencias de la Tierra, and set off for Quibdó.
She came to work at my house, filled the patio with rhythms of light, movement, color, and fragrance with everything she planted, and only when folks started to notice the sultry swayin where the borojó trunks rubbed together, only then did they understand that her rhythm got out of whack when Floremiro Agualimpia Cañadas taught her how to read, brought her to learn that hotness, lovin and lust have the same rhythm in men, women, trees, flowers, fruits, and—most revelatory for her—in Conocarpus erectus, and not only on the underside, but also on the tomentous spine. From then on, she always dreamed of becoming like the eggfruit, of finding Floremiro and bearing some fruit with him, with the steady rhythm of his calyx.
Translated by Jeffrey Diteman and Shanta Lee
From the book Vean vé, mis nanas negras (2001)
Image: Nutmeg tree, from an album of forty drawings made by Chinese artists at Bencoolen, Sumatra for Sir Stamford Raffles, c. 1824, watercolor.