Excerpt from The Undiscovered Island
The evening was incredibly clear, the air tremulous, palpable, and so finely tuned, I was left thinking it was possible to send or receive desires and thoughts across hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles.
I stood on the stone steps outside my room and held my breath. I touched the rough, worn stone of the building, thinking of all the times over the years I had spent here. My parents had breathed the fragrance of these hillsides, the thick gardens beyond the yard, gazed upon these same stars, as did their parents before them. Friendships endured, not merely between individuals but between families, just as animosities and hatreds continued from one generation to the next. And if my grandparents and great-grandparents had been here, who else before them? Dom Fernando de Castro, returning from his failed expedition to capture the Canary Islands in 1424? Columbus, Luís de Camões, Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias? Was it possible that time only visited the islands now and then, that, rigid laws of nature be damned, the islands eluded or bent time to its will?
I walked down the steps of the building, lured by some inexplicable presence in the air, a hum, or buzz, a fine current that pulled me through the night air, as if I were on a tether.
I skirted dense shrubs and flowering crocosmia, to where some cryptomeria trees grew beside a wall of piled stones. Hearing a trickle of running water and the sounds of birds, I made my way through the trees, until I came to a clearing. It was a garden, and at the far end I could see the side of a large stone house. I stepped toward the building and paused in the shade of a eucalyptus tree. Leaning unsteadily against the trunk of the tree, I heard the mellifluous, hypnotic voice of the old woman, Maria dos Santos, who lived in that house, and whose words, though she spoke barely above a whisper, were incredibly clear, as if she stood right beside me: “Only here, my children, are we completely alone, and yet, somehow never alone.”
The old woman’s voice awoke in me the taste of something long‑lost, forgotten, yet hauntingly familiar, as if those rich tones held a secret knowledge, music from another time and place. I tasted the salt spray from the waves that broke against the rocks, the air saturated with the smell of a fine rain, which had fallen less than an hour earlier. Clouds skimmed unimpeded over the sea, the land acting like magnets, drawing the clouds like covers, hiding the isles from sight, as so many mythological islands throughout the Atlantic had appeared and just as quickly disappeared over the centuries.
As night fell, stars and planets appeared, shimmering like waxy droplets of light that might be swept farther by the warm wind. The moon hung like a pale, swollen fruit, ripened, ready to burst, surrounded by clusters of starry leaves that looked close enough to touch. Locked in its eternal struggle to summon the tides, the moon trembled, drawing closer to the earth as the dark waves climbed higher upon the black sand and rocks of Praia do Almoxarife.
Drawn out of my thoughts by Maria dos Santos’s words, and above all else, by her voice, I listened to the old woman:
“The universe has certainly gone mad here on this tiny strip of land we call Água Zangada, though why the water should be so angry I cannot say. Here, where tears fall from the skies, masquerading as rain, which the two of you caught in that glass there. Taste it. Go on. You, Manuel, that’s it. Don’t make a face. The skies are all cried out now. And you, Maria Angelina, don’t look so sad.
“It’s true, of course, that something isn’t right. Perhaps it is only the cry of a cagarra out there, wandering, lost, for like the milhafres, those birds might well contain the souls of those who have died at sea. But, no, I don’t believe that’s what it is. That sound, that cry––the saddest sound in the world. Is it not?
“Everything is topsy‑turvy. There’s no need to get upset about it, for nothing can be done. Not when all the universe is out of sorts. So much so, in fact, I can’t begin to tell you. How can I speak to you of the girl who comes to me at night, for instance, a mere child, out of nowhere, it seems, as cold as the sea, and trembling from head to foot? She nestles like a kitten looking for a little warmth, and in the morning is always gone again. What am I supposed to do? Leave her alone out in the cold?
“Perhaps she’s lost, too, or is only some poor unfortunate soul who died too young and hasn’t had time yet to accept her fate.
“If these eyes of mine weren’t so weak I might tell you what she looks like. Sometimes I think she’s a ghost, she’s so pale. I don’t know who she is, or why she’s chosen to grace me with her appearance, but all of life is nothing more than learning to accept the things we cannot understand.
“We can sit here all day and all night, and say nothing exists beyond the horizon. But beyond sight, beyond memory, beyond the little we know, in the deepest, darkest corners and chambers of our hearts, who knows what we might find, if we took that solitary journey?
“I can tell you there are dreams out there bigger than anything you’ve ever seen; bigger than Pico even, which, after all, is nothing more or less than a mountain. Still, it’s often impossible to be sure what is real or only something we have clung to as a hope and thus believed. We could disappear, as well as these islands, and these dreams. Just like the young girl.
“Don’t worry your heads about it. Nothing can be done about it now. We are here, naked to the world. The worst is sure to come––you will see. It will seem like an unbearable eternity, then it will all be over with, and seem like no time at all. That’s how time makes fools of each of us.
“You too will have such dreams. So many, you couldn’t possibly count them all, and each so dear, so close, because your hopes are strong enough to make you see them before your eyes and want them so dearly. But then one day you will find your dreams have forgotten you, or you’ll have no time for them, and it will be left to your children or your children’s children to carry their dreams, which you will hope they are strong enough to bear.
“Ah, God, that sound! It’s enough to stop my heart from beating. Little Maria Angelina crying out, her sleep disturbed by troubling dreams, which may or may not be her soul attempting to escape from her body, as some people believe. I don’t pretend to know.
“I’m sorry, Manuel, if I close your mouth to stop your snores. I’m not a superstitious woman, but I believe it is safer not to take chances with such things. Who knows what may happen if one is too careless?
“The skies are clearing now that the rain has ended, and through the window, I see a cloud move across the smiling face of the moon. Such changes occur from one moment to the next. As they say, here on the Azores we have all the seasons in one day!
“Do you remember, Maria Angelina, when you made up your mind that somebody made the clouds, and Manuel, you got upset with me because I couldn’t tell you who made them? I finally said that they came out of the open mouths of snoring children as they slept. You said you didn’t believe me, Manuel, but that was the night I came in and found you had put a piece of tape across your mouth, to see if it was true. And you woke early in the morning, rushing through the house as if you’d burst, because there were no clouds in the sky that morning.
“It reminds me of a time long ago when a star fell into the sea. The starlight transformed a number of fish, and the birds were created.
“Can you imagine a million or more wild birds flying off in all directions, trying to find their way back to the heavens, but still chained to the earth, such as we are. At least they can fly, though being half fish and half star they can only soar between the stars above and the sea below, reaching neither one nor the other, as if they were our dreams and hopes, fluttering towards the heavens. This is what will sustain you through the worst of times, the hope that, like the birds, you will leave the ground behind and soar freely upon the wings of your dreams.
“Little Maria, you insisted, of course, that the clouds were created to keep the birds from seeing the stars they missed and longed for, to help them forget.
“Yes, things were truly different in those days. Then the dead didn’t sit still in a hole in the ground, nor did they wander sadly across the world, alone. They stayed right here with you to remind you of who and what you are. And you talked to them, told them your problems, and they listened, too, for what else could they do?
“Sometimes they would offer a word or two of advice. Well, not a word really, because as everybody knows dead people don’t talk, at least not in a way we can usually hear; but they nearly always gave a sign to show you what they thought. Yes, there were a lot more signs then, with the dead doing their best to interfere with the day-to-day affairs of each of us, as if once you’re dead you suddenly have all the answers. Sometimes there would be such a fuss. Families erupting in a big argument about some such thing, and so much carrying on, disturbing everyone’s sleep and peace of mind, until finally one half of the village would no longer speak to the rest. Family against family, brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor––and after it was all over and everybody settled down once again, someone would discover that the whole thing began with a dispute in the graveyard. Two dead souls disagreeing about one thing or another. Isn’t it just like them to bother the living with their spats, too? As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about. And it would take the kind patience of the good Father Alves, or Monsignor Pereira da Silva, that sainted man, to come and finally set things straight, so that two dead fools would stop their foolishness. Ah, to make peace between dead men. Perhaps this is what happens when there isn’t even enough soil to bury our dead, and everyone has to be buried on top of fathers, mothers, grandparents. One would think that a justly‑deserved eternity would be a bit more comfortable.
“We always say things were better then. I’m not so sure. Sometimes when you think back upon what used to be, you say, yes, it was better; there was much more love in the world, then, or so it seemed; the skies were bluer, there were more fish, and more friends. Certainly more hope, because of course, you were younger and there was so much more to hope for.
“Other times you shake your head, and remember that there was more sadness, too, more death and misery, friends and family dropping dead; droughts, famines, disease. You never saw so many ways to die.
“It’s easy for you children to drift off to sleep while you listen to a foolish old woman who is too afraid to stop talking. But do you know what happens when you’re asleep? Don’t ask. How can I tell you anything you don’t already know? Isn’t it enough that you fill your heads with all sorts of foolishness all day long so that at night, overcrowded and confused, your minds can’t make heads or tails of anything, and your tired bodies can’t help but fall asleep?
“It is said, however, that when the world of men and women, of grown‑ups and children, is asleep, then all the plants rise out of their deep slumber and dance like children. There is music, too, though from where we can only wonder. Joyous dancing and song fills the air of night, which everyone knows is the time when all true magic occurs, before the sun rises again and lulls them back to sleep. Just the way the ocean, which you can hear at this very moment, lulls each of you to sleep with the sound of its endless waves, which are the sighs for her lost children. For the ocean is, as you know, our true mother. These islands have risen from her deep womb, and each of us as well, for we still carry the sea in our tears, whenever we cry, which is often, longing to return to her breast. The sea is in our blood and in our sweat, too––each of us is a shell with the roar of the ocean echoing inside.
“I don’t worry that you’ve fallen asleep and can’t hear me; that I sit here and talk to myself, for I speak to your hearts, and your hearts can hear whether you are awake or asleep, or so Dona Maria Ana do Carvalho Freitas once told me.
“Who am I telling all this to, to you children now asleep to the world, to myself? Perhaps I speak to some great‑great‑grandchild not yet born. Or maybe each one of us carries everyone and everything that will be deep inside us when we are born, the way we carry our own death from our birth, until the moment when it is time for death to exist in the world outside ourselves, and we cease to exist for our own selves, but only in others.
“Then again, sometimes I’m ready to believe that the mute child, not yet a woman, who appears out of the night is who I might have been, had my life been different; maybe she’s come to mock me. But then I tell myself to stop being such a superstitious and irreligious old woman, to think that my life could have possibly been different from this.
“I only wish I could give each of you something more than the world. Not that the world is so poor a gift, but I am afraid our human world too often is. It’s sometimes such a disappointment, and if I had my way, I would certainly shake things up and change one thing or another around here. But I am old and weak, a poor woman, left a widow by a man who had the thoughtlessness—so typical of men––to die before me, leaving nothing but memories and the words to remember what I have lost. Such saudades, this aching and longing, to have so many words without the one person who could understand, who lived those words with me. Sometimes I speak aloud to him of those moments we shared a lifetime ago, and although it is terrible not to hear him laugh or speak, often enough I do hear him, just the same, a whisper from the past, so he is never truly gone.
“What can I do but continue to hope, if not for me then for you? And if not for you then the next to come along. And so on. What more can any of us do? For surely there must be some point to all of this. Unless it is true that we who are alive are merely the dreams of those who are dead. Since the dead must sleep for an eternity, they must therefore have countless dreams, which only seem more real to us since we are here, and the dead are where they are.
“Don’t ask me when these words of mine will cease. All things, they say, come to an end. I am ignorant about such matters. I don’t know if there is any difference between ending a tale and reaching the end of one’s life. It’s all nonsense when you realize neither has an end. Perhaps we are only here because the first tale was told by Adam and Eve to end their miserable loneliness, and each one of us keeps the story going in our own way. Perhaps, as long as I am telling you these words, we shall continue our struggles. And when I’m gone, each of you can continue to tell the stories, too, for my words will lead you to your own.
“As long as this story continues, we will escape the shadows which come creeping quietly at the end of each day. Sleep, children. Keep snoring, Manuel, you can’t expect that all those clouds will find their way back into your mouth. And you, Maria Angelina, dream to your heart’s content, for why shouldn’t your dreams soar like wild birds? Don’t worry, I will sit here and talk away the night while you sleep, until dawn, if I must.”
Maria dos Santos’s voice grew softer until it faded completely. Only then could I move again. Her words and the sound of her voice had kept me entranced. I stepped carefully back to my room, and knew I would return to discover more about Maria dos Santos as soon as possible, if only to hear that mellifluous voice once more.
Copyright © Darrell Kastin