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Welcome to my Blog!

Monday 17 May 2010

On my Grandmother, the wisdom of Indian women, and Three Magical Words...

My Grandmother was a wonderful story teller. She was a small woman, with gnarled hands and a bent back from years of sewing, but her eyes were young, bright, vibrant. When she spoke the air tingled and the world grew quiet. I think she would have liked this story.

Belem, Brazil

The night was long and the girl, afraid of the mists and the incessant pounding of the rain on the zinc roof, could not sleep. Moreover the pestilential heat had excited the savage gnawing of the mosquitoes, and as usual, the girl got out of bed and made her way through the great dark house full of furniture and books and ancient rugs to the Indian woman's room.

When she opened the door She had to feel her way to the bed. She looked to where the woman lay. She couldn't see her: the cut across the woman’s face, which the girl had imagined to be shaped like a map of the Amazon; or her missing ear that the other servants said had been eaten by rats. As much as she tried, she couldn’t make out the picture of Jesus with the gold heart that hung on the wall next to the door, looming over a tall bureau covered in candles and rosaries and crucifixes. She only knew where they were instinctively, for she had been here many times. When she climbed into bed the leftover smells of lie soap, lemons and hot sun on sheets, the aroma of ripe dirt outside the window, were all mixed with the woman’s musky scent and it comforted her. Now under the sheets, the sounds of the insects, the twitter of night birds, the growth groans of trees made soothing pictures in her heart, not ominous ones, and that is when the woman’s raspy voice came into her ear.
‘Mimosa? What do you want, child?’
‘I can’t sleep,Tutú.’
The woman sighed. ‘As if I haven’t got enough to do looking after you all day and running this big house…do I have to look after you at night too?’
But the girl could tell there was no anger in her voice, so she snuggled into the woman’s ample arms. ‘I want you to tell me the story of the three words.’
‘Now? Why do you wish to hear it child?’ The Indian said.
‘Because I always fall asleep just before you tell me the words.’
The Indian sighed, ‘No. Not again. Go to sleep!’
The Indian woman was not young but she was strong and unlike the other servants of the household could read and write and so she had a stubborn streak, which my Grandmother much admired. She knew she would only take a little cojoling.
‘Come Tutú, please…tell it to me.’
‘Your father will cut off my other ear!’
‘Please Tutú, I won't tell…’
‘The priest will call me a witch and he’ll drag me from the house by my hair and burn me alive in the town square before your eyes, girl!’
The girl shuddered, ‘I won’t let that stupid man do anything to you! I’ll bite him on the hand until he lets go of you and then you can run into the jungle to be free!’
‘Mimosa! Don’t say silly things. I am happy how I am, and the priest is a man of God!’
‘Please Tutú, I promise I won’t tell...’ the girl pleaded.
In the gloom the girl saw the woman’s broad white smile but she did not speak. She paused for a long time, as if the space between telling and not telling was a threshold beyond which perils awaited that only her Indian ways could understand, then she took in a dark breath and said, ‘The day you were born a wind came from the jungle full of voices from the past, full of whispers in my ears.’
‘That’s the day you were worried?’
‘Yes…’ she yawned, ‘I was worried that your birth might not go well, child. In those days there was only one road to this town and with the rain it would take the doctor long to get here. I was the only servant and with these hands I took you from your mother’s belly myself…ah Mimosa! You were so tiny! I covered you and washed you with soap in a bucket and then your mother, Donna Francisca fell to sleep holding you and your father went to see to his books in the study. It was when I was throwing out the bath water that I saw three Macaw feathers on the back step…that is when I knew for sure, something bad would happen, when I came back to check on you and your mother, your mother was so quiet that I put my hand over her face and I saw she wasn’t breathing.’
‘What happened?’ the girl asked.
‘When the doctor came all the family were already around the bed sobbing.’
‘But your mother wasn’t dead, child.’
‘She wasn’t.’
‘From a child your mother had always seen things, she had what we call a second eye. The priests tried to take the spirit out of her soul but they couldn’t and so she came to this place with your father, who loved her. On the day she died she saw something. When she came back into her body she told no one what she saw. Her soul was squeezed from so much seeing, child, that she couldn’t bear to see no more and she shut herself up in her room with all her shutters closed and never came out.
‘What did she do in her room all that time?’ the girl asked turning to face the woman.
‘She was writing.’
‘What she saw. She wrote and wrote and wrote…she wrote so much there was not enough paper in the town, not enough ink in the world to feed the hunger of her words. Every week I had to go into the town to buy more paper, more ink, new quills…you see child, words are living things that can eat you up if you haven’t got enough food to feed their hungry mouths when they come out!’
‘My mother didn’t have enough food to feed her words, is that why she died?’
The woman leaned in and whispered it, ‘No child, her time had come.’
‘How do you know what she wrote?’
‘I was leaving lunch outside the door to your mother’s room as usual when she opened it, it was the first time in a long time that I had seen her and she had turned from a young woman to an old woman almost overnight, she asked me to come in and to sit down.’
‘Were you afraid?’
‘No child! Your mother was as gentle as a newborn kitten. No I wasn’t afraid, I was surprised and I was curious too, it’s the Indian blood in me that always wants to know things…’
‘What did she want?’
‘She asked me to help her.’
‘And you said you would?’
‘Yes, child, in this job there’s no such a thing as saying no.’
‘So you helped her to finish the book?’
‘Night and day I helped her, until my hand was all cramped up and the oil ran out in the lantern and had to be filled many times…days and days until it was finished.’
‘What was in it?’ the girl yawned.
'It was something for you.'
'Yes...yes...' her eyes closed and she sighed. 'tell me again.'
'Your mother wrote just three words.'
'How can three words fill a whole book, though?'
'They are magic...that's how.'
'Yes...' the girl said, sleepily.'They are magic.'
'They are her gift to you and she said that one day you will be ready to know them and when that day comes, you will weave them into a great many books.'
The girl yawned and her voice was very faint,'Yes...I will...tell me the words...Tutú, I still don't know what they are...the words...'
The woman drew close and whispered into the girl's ear:
'Your Grandmother told me the right combination of these three words has the power to transform all the evil and injustice in the world...they are...Faith...Love and Hope.'
But there was no response and so the Indian woman leaned in and listened to the girl's soft rhythmic breathing and smiled that white smile to herself.
The girl had fallen asleep again.

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