The night my mother died, a deep stillness sank into me: there was nothing to do. She needed me no longer. Arrangements and phone calls would happen in the morning. When the stillness had moved through me, I went, instinctively, into El Yunque.
The moon was small, making it and her stars brighter. The rainforest pulled itself into a grayscale that made new and unfamiliar the paths I could walk blindfolded by day. My eyes registered shapes of dark and darker. Some other part of me recognized a something I could feel but not name. My ears were alive to every sound in the silence, as if I were afraid. Perhaps I should have been, but I was not. I could feel the life-pulse of the trees and plants, crowded around me, each of us sharing space in a temporary flare of survival.
She took nothing with her. Just her best dress for the funeral, and the rest— the house, a lifetime of collecting and protecting possessions in her home on the hilltop- was left to me and my sister, who wanted none of it because she hated antiques, and her childhood. Anita was wasted neither tears nor time when she picked up her phone, crisp voiced even with her head still on the pillow.
We’ll rent it, she decided for us. You’ll stay with me when there are guests, she said with a big-sister firmness. I said nothing, nodded on the phone, feeling the vacuum of our mother’s cooling body, her house, and my living, already spoken for. I worried, without naming it, a low level hum of a backseat worry— that something in me was loose, needed tightening, a swift turn of a wrench that would align my insides with the way other people seemed to be by nature, firmly resigned to the lives we are meant to live as proper citizens of the modern world. I could go through the motions. But I felt unconvincing.
Airbnb suggested that we secure our valuable possessions in a locked cabinet or closet. I looked around. What makes a possession valuable? I had been wondering for months, what drives humans to possess anything at all, to first see something of value and desire, then obtain it, and protect it. My gaze swept the heavy wooden furniture, the paintings that covered the walls, carpets still thick and bright. If all of it was of value, was none of it of value?
I couldn’t remember if I had these thoughts before Mami began shrinking into her housecoat, walking unsteady laps around the rooms, touching her things without looking at them. Such a big house for such a small woman, I would think when I first came to watch her, before normalcy closed my eyes, when I could see the way her things owned her and not the other way around. Alone now, I felt no ownership. Was this freedom? This untethering from people and their things.
My father left when I was young, moving into the house of another woman to start another family and presumably to the same to them another restless seven years later, setting off chain reactions of children with empty evenings and women with empty halves of beds. My mother, to my knowledge, went on like the drum-line of a marching band, neither skipping beat nor breaking formation. She seemed rather glad when we left her for school.
If she missed my father, she never spoke of it. If I missed my husband, I never admitted it. Sometimes I thought of the way that he was very kind when he was not inside of me. Considerate, compassionate, not like any of my friend’s husbands who wouldn’t help with the housework lest their masculinity be dampened by women’s work. Gabe was a feminist until he had me in bed, pulling my hair, calling me his property, a thing to be owned, slapped, and beaten by belt for my own benefit, an act of love, of sacrifice on his part, the duty he said men owe women. I told him in sobriety, when his penis was soft and safe in his pants, that I did not want to be beaten, was his wife and not a thing to be owned.
That made him laugh.
He rarely laughed.
You like it, he would assure me, as he gently guided my head to rest on his shoulder, as if I were a child daytime-complaining of a nightmare. I do not, I would say in a voice that sounded pleading even to me.
I avoided sex as much as I could. Still, I was surprised he left. He had told me so many times that he wouldn’t. I had believed him. What did you expect from a gringo, bella? My mother asked, when I told her. He did only what he knows how to do: be polite with one hand and rob with the other. He’ll do it to you, his government will do it to ours, their countries will rob the planet of all that is beautiful, so that we can have more plastic toys to keep their pockets lined with dinero. She found only one point unforgivable: Shameful, she said, to beat your wife without giving her a single child.
Mami had become an old woman in the few years I had been married, prone to outbursts of anger like the brief thunderstorms of El Yunque, where her house on a hill overlooked a deep valley that dropped into the city of San Jaun, and then, visible from our verandas, the expanse of ocean that gifts us rains. When I went back to live with her, care for her, I felt my childhood was waiting for me, standing out on the veranda and dreaming sometimes of life in the city, sometimes of the horizon beyond. The land had grown wild though. Vines wrapped up the banana trees, the bridge over the creek had rotted, the slopes of the property were obscured by grasses and creepers so thick they winked and insinuated: I could swallow you, too.
The gardeners are unreliable, my mother explained in a fit of clarity. An island of unemployed men who refuse to keep showing up for paid work, she shook her head, threw up her hands in a practiced drama, not bothered really. And the gardener from when I was small? I asked, remembered suddenly the man who was my friend, of sorts, favoring me over my sister, showing me the secrets of El Yunque in a way that still made me smile from within my body. That old man? My mother said, cocking her head and one eyebrow, her hands tucked into her waist, elbows winging out in askance. Probably long gone, Alice, my niña.
But he arrived two days after I did, Don Pablo. He hadn’t aged a day. Old as ever, smiling like a child with a plan, he came to the back patio with his hat in his hands. I jumped to give him a hug, as I always did when I could only reach his knees. You’ve gotten fat, he observed aloud, with good humor. And shiny. My mother came out, and I could suddenly see how she had desiccated in her old age. She and I smiled side by side, same faced, prune and plum.
Don Pablo had told me, when I was small, that the average human uses his eyes like predator, a hunter, zeroing in on a center spot, a focus on objects and people that he wants to possess or destroy. I never asked him what the alternative was— I remember that was when I liked to play as if I were one kind of dinosaur and then another, because the rainforest looked just like the dinosaur picture books I had. And even after the influx of mansions, and destruction of hurricanes, El Yunque looked primordial and I was sure that Don Pablo was not an average man, not really a gardener, but I did not know why he had come to care for our place, and for me.
We walked quickly towards the peak of the small mountain that housed my home. Much of the trail was virtually vertically, barely clears of the vines that were willing, as we saw, to sallow entire cars and school busses left alone for too long. It seemed both momentous and childish, our human instance on making space for ourselves, our civilization, the houses descend by the snappish for their far tamer country. We emulated them as best we could, keeping our need for color and chaos, houses painted in deep blues and oranges, second floors and extensions built haphazardly, the way that families tend to grow, unplanned, one on top of another.
It was difficult to keep up with Don Pablo, who never looked down, which is all I could do if I wanted to keep up. When I lifted my eyes, I’d drift off into marveling at the beauty I’d missed for decades, the kind of nourishment that seeped into me, making me feel both full and lightheaded. You’re indulging in fantasy, Don Pablo noted. And later, while waiting and waiting my ginger tip-toe walking down small and rare downhill, he said, you’re keeping too much energy in your eyes. You need to use your hearing for something other than listening to your internal dialogue. Spread out your ears, and your gaze, as ini you were the least dangerous being here, because you are. He laughed fully, from his belly, then turned to walk at a speed astounding for what his age must have been.
I tried to do as he said. It was much more challenging than the physical work of the first climbing. I kept slipping into my thoughts, reflecting backwards and inwards, hearing what felt to be revelations. Pains at losing Gabe. Self-hatred for allowing his behavior as long as I did. Sadness in realizing that I had felt I deserved his abuse, that I couldn’t’ have had the strength to leave him first, or to do anything other than come home to my mother, a prodigal daughter with a virtuous cover, sacrificing her single life to care for her aging mother, the praiseworthy old maid. Shame that my body was bloated with all this, my mind persistently self-obsessed. I was desperate for the plant, the cure that Don Pablo promised. A paste to pull me back together into the woman I could have been.
The plant he led me to was common, growing as a weed in many unkempt yards. This, I asked, incredulously, sweating, short breathed. This, Don Pablo grinned. Always a trickster, I remember form childhood, how. He’d tell me a straight faced truth then laugh like a boy. You never pick the first plant you find, he said, make sure there is another. The first will tell you where it is. the work you do to find, to harvest, to prepare the plant is just as important as the plant itself. That’s why you’ll have to come here daily to find what you need.
The least dangerous thing? I wondered to myself. What else is here? All I saw were the vines, the damp blue skies, and Don Pablo, walking ahead. There was a silence to him, a litheness like the coiled up energy of a big cat’s back legs, roaming with ease because the power was sitting just below the surface.
I rose early the next morning, searched out the trail we had descended. Take the energy away from your eyes, I thought.
Over the following months, I began to see the way I saw. Objects with names, my possessions, my mother’s possessions, plants and rocks that faded quickly from my mind, nameless because I had no desire to own them. I began to feel closer to trees than to people, stopping to linger near the oldest, climb up onto their roots and silently ask their stories, which came slowly, and in feelings that coursed though me, from the feet on up. When I did see people, it took me time to gather words, to understand why they were speaking, using so many words, so quickly, so empty of feelings.
The further I drew away from feeling normal, the more attention I received from men. I didn’t understand why. There were enough full length mirrors in the house— mother hated seeing her figure— and neither did the office bathrooms show anything lower than m sternum. Was something different in my face? Whenever I caught sight of it, brushing teeth or washing hands, I found a laugh lurking around my mouth. Whatever that was loose inside of me was beginning to show.
I felt perpetually plagued by an indefinable sense of dis-ease, a something that felt missing. My mind wandered again and again back to the questions— what is missing? Am I under nourished in some way? Yes, was the answer, always, yes. Week to week the answer shifted, mirage-like, as I went about all that was prescribed: rise from bed, prepare myself to leave for work, sit, wait, sit, wait, return again, days punctuated by meals and meetings and weekends trying to recover what was lost but never quite accomplishing perfect health before time was up and Monday rose, scene to a herculean effort towards city civility.
The commute was not as bad as the thoughts that accompanied me. I have always been sensitive to confinement, I would think behind the steering wheel. Within me lives the need to live free, really free, without boundaries in the vastness of a natural world, I would think while sitting in meetings, looking at my google calendar of color coded blocks of commitments stacked up like Tetris pieces without any space to breathe in between. I would look around as I walked from my office to the women’s restroom, smiling, wondering how everyone seemed fine, happily complaining about the same shallow things they’ve always complained about. Who else was wondering what it would be like to rebel? To just get up a leave without notice, to disappear into the forests, leaving behind pencil heels and pencil skirts and the pencils themselves. We could do it, you know, I wanted to tell everyone who would care, which was no one.
I avoided seeing myself, leaving open the silver framed medicine cabinet above my bathroom sink at home, looking deeply into the water flowing over my hands at work, willing a connection between the wetness of my hands and the vastness of the streams, rivers, oceans, clouds that also could run hot water, or cold. Shoes began to feel confining and I took to brushing my hair outdoors, far from mirrors, where I could watch the birds find my fallen hairs, fly them back to nests I would find later, homes for babies wrapped up in what was once me.
Mami stopped wanting to speak at all, except to herself, or Jesus. I didn’t worry until it became difficult to tell the difference. She would sway from one painting of Jesus to another, all around the house, not admiring the artistry but engaging with the subject of the portrait itself. There were enough portraits to give her most of a day’s activity. I cooked every night but she ate little, shrinking into her one housecoat, and her delusions. I couldn’t see how the image of a white man bleeding to death, or performing miracles, or simply standing, could inspire her as it did, when all she had to do was look outside, into the mountains and valleys of El Yunque, to see the only god I knew.
I climbed the mountain every morning in the first bird calls of dawn, the raucous celebration of every sound every flying creature could make all at once. In staring down at the trails, I would listen to them, as Don Pablo taught me, decreasing the burden from my eyes and listening to the sounds of the world. Gradually, my sensory perception shifted even when I was not in the jungle, but also while I was at the super market, or the office, or with my mother.
The world of the city grew stranger as I began to witness, as if from the outside, everyone around me as a rush of rushing people, all wearing watches, checking phones, needing more time to do more things to feel more in control of the lives they lived, day in, day out.
It was easier, back when I did not feel my whole self, grown steadily stronger with my moonlight wanderings and sunrise hikes into the trails Don Pablo cleared for me. The more the land nourished my whole-self, the sharper I felt the divide within, the thinner and hollower other people became. Even my mother became someone I saw at a distance, to be visited with the same reservation I had in stepping into a meeting I was assigned to attend. But anything that had previously felt like work also became easier. I enjoyed everything far more— the meetings, the paperwork, the dinner obligations, the weekly sermons that were my mother’s only outings, the tea and cakes afterwards. It was all a delightful game, performed by the small-me, while the whole-me quietly witnessed the absurdities of what others called reality.
As soon as I came home, and Mami was safely back in her housecoat and her room, I would strip my clothes, go barefoot to lay flat backed below the sky, baptized again and again by the light of the moon and the darkness of the jungle.
Mami’s death was both burden and relief, as were the last days of her life. She began a withdrawal, refusing food, choosing not to see me even when I was just next to her, preferring instead to continue her ever-increasing dialogue with the Jesus whose portrait was the the foot of the stairs. She refused to sleep at night, wailing out, banshee-like, shuffling around the upstairs landing, falling back to bed at dawn, a complete reversal of the natural rhythm of lie that had claimed me. Don Pablo said she was fighting death, as every warrior must, but he was sad for her— not because she was dying, but because she had lived without trying to change, sinking deeper into her ways.
There comes a time when each of us must face our deaths, he told me, splitting open a medicinal plant we had searched out together, and at that moment, we must dance the story of our life, each of our unresolved victories and defeats laid bare for death, who accepts only truth.
My mother, I objected, was reconciling with Jesus, not with death. Don Pablo smiled and said that the Catholics chose not to name death but that doesn’t remove its existence. Meeting death is an honorable moment for an honorable human, he said. But if that person has been negotiating with Jesus all her life, that will be the only way she knows to meet death: as a negotiation, instead of a bare faced battle.
Her final expression was one of pleading. What were your terms, I wondered, and what is to be done with the remnants of your life?
They began to irk me, her things, without her. Their weight, their solidity, their insistence on being defendable and dependable, their refusal to assume a lighter, flexible, form. I wanted to change and they would not let me.
I didn’t lock up the valuable possessions. I had planned to, to follow the reasonable Airbnb guidelines, but looking at everything, assessing what was worth how much, tired me more than climbing mounting peaks. It would only depend on how badly some else wanted it, or didn’t. Instead, I wrote that guests that they were free to take what they liked, that they could leave cash for what they considered the value of the valuable to be. The average person, Don Pablo had told me once, does not know how to show gratitude for abundance. They will drain a river dry unless you charge them for each sip.
I wondered what would go first. Something small? Something electronic? Nothing we had was very new. Would they leave cash at all? I was curious, from this safe distance, about the people of the world, and I pictured an endless chain of homes, the cosmic dance of renters and vacationers and the working women who changed the sheets, folded corners of toilet paper rolls, swept away their presences for the next round of guests, an infinity mirror of escapees and their empty destinations. Where was the beginning and where was the end of running from the lives we built ourselves?
His eyes shone when I told him that I wanted to build a small cabin in the woods. I didn’t tell him that it was dismal to ship myself from my mother’s house to my sister’s and back again, that I was tired of the car, of people and the surface they skated on. He knew. We’ll have to find a power spot, he said, where you can rest and recharge but also be safe. And again, I wondered, safe from what?
Some days later, he came with a truck full of materials and four boys that all that had same rangy look of high on land and far from careers, families, women. My assistants, Don Pablo said with a showman’s sweep of his hand, all of us laughing along with him.
The boys followed silently, well trained in Don Pablo’s arts, as we walked to my favorite places on the property. There was one place i would lie for hours as a child, a large slab of rock that made a small ledge over the creek. It became the foundation for my one room home.
Why did I presume they were building me a shack? The cabin was built quickly, simply, precisely; a testament to traditional knowledge long lost from universities but alive in Don Pablo and his assistants. Each piece of wood fit seamlessly into the next, the small windows let air and light through, the lofted ceilings kept the place cool without fans or electricity. Still, I couldn’t keep tabs on airbnb without the internet, and the main house was too far to run a cable through, even if I trusted the land to not swallow the cables with vines. I set up a small water turbine at the stream, pulling power to my stove and wireless router. I was officially my own grid, which peased me but made Don Pablo shake his head. He built me a fire pit out back. Sit in the dark, he told me. Humans have been escaping the night for a hundred years and when it catches you, you will wish you had taken the first step forward.
Sleeping in my single roomed cabin, the nature of my dreams changed. I had always been plagued by the normal— not the ones of finding myself naked, because I loved my skin in the sun, but the normal late-for-work, forgot-to-study for an important exam, unprepared-and-harried normality. I’d wake exhausted, as if I’d been scrambling instead of sleeping. I couldn’t tell you if the shift was gradual, or all of a sudden, but I had a first different dream.
It started nearly the same, some vague setting in which I need to catch a flight, had three hours before I needed to leave, was with some vague, familiar people doing nothing terrible memorable when I suddenly realized the time was 5pm, exactly my flight’s departure time. I was aghast, or mystified, or what ever serves as the middle ground between the two— but I short of just didn’t care. I didn’t know where the time went, I knew that I didn’t do what I was supposed to— the security, the waiting, the boarding, the waiting, and the arrival to the place where I was expected. And I was just at peace with exactly that, exactly where I was, and exactly how I had spent my time, though I hadn’t done anything of consequence. There was no need to be close to the tangible reward for having had a mother. When I woke, I knew. Something in me shifted. I wasn’t deeply worried about given a good performance for society. I could just be where and how I naturally was.
I took this as a sign that the plant had fully worked its medicinal powers on me. I had never felt more alive, and when I next saw Don Pablo, I asked if it was necessary to still climb the mountain at dawn. He burst into joyous peals of laughter, as did I, not because I thought what I asked was amusing, but because it was impossible not to laugh with Don Pablo, who had doubled in half, his arms first wrapping his belly, shaking with laughter, and then standing to wipe the tears from his eyes. That plant was a common weed, he said after catching his breath. My face must have shown my immediate feelings of stupidity (for myself) and betrayal (for Don Pablo). He became serious now:
But you knew that. You knew it was a common plant the first time you saw it, and you knew, soon enough, that the point was not the paste you made but the work you endured for it, look at you. You were soft, shiny, weak with comfort. If you did not have a reason to climb that mountain, you would have destined yourself to a death like your mother’s. But now look at you. Your bones are closer to your skin, you gave your spirit a chance to fight its way to the surface.
Eventually, Don Pablo and his motley crew of magicians-to-be were the only people I saw, and infrequently at that. My sister was satisfied to receive texts and checks, Airbnb only ever needed me to be responsive online, and the houseguests came in and out through a lockbox. I would sometimes visit Mami’s house in the hours between a check out and a check in, to see what was gone, and take photos to update the site if necessary. It was becoming an underground sensation, the house, the concept. Travel bloggers picked it up, as did the antique fiends and those who were so wealthy they were bored. Rooms were emptying, the cash jar filled, and I would give much of it to the woman who cleaned. She had arrived, unannounced and unsolicited, just when I needed her. That, and the dark depths of her eyes, the lithe tonality of her body, made me suspect that she was a disciple or relative of Don Pablo. But I didn’t ask. Her work was immaculate and she brought, with each visit, a box of produce from her family’s farm, passionfruit and avocados, yuca and yams. I would cook simple meals for myself, drink water from the clear stream below my cabin, forage bananas and papayas from my property and the neighbors’.
The greatest gift the jungle gave was the absence of time. The day began when it was ready to begin, and no sooner than that. Sometimes clouds hung heavy at the mountain peaks, racing over distant neighbors who slumbered to the sound of selling silence. On those days, the sun would rise suddenly, appearing with a jump as a child playing hide and seek— a here-I-am!- sort of radiance. On other days, the horizon was clear, and there began a slow seduction of the night into ever paler shades of charcoal, slate, dusty blue, then the very shyest hints of yellows. Rarely did the rainforest sky blush, but when it happened, it was worth the wait, and over in. moement. The arc of the sun was proud, high, and the dip too sunset, swift, bowing out for the entrance of the stars. The moon, too, played her black and white dance, a choreography to be seen not all in a day but enticing a patience, a memory for how she was the previous night, an anticipation of the next night. Perhaps this is why the tainos saw her as feminine, beautiful in every state of fullness, or slimness.
There were no demarkations for when an hour or a minute had come or gone. What mattered was the light of the skies. A sudden midday storm Brough a darkness and peace that quieted all the birds and frogs, who, perhaps, took a nape as I did, after fighting the sleepiness of watching the earth drink the sky. There was little of humanity that felt important and nothing worth rushing towards. The phone, and email, and anything not present seemed very far away, after thoughts that flitted into new and out, as the dragonflies did over the small pools of water that pulled away from the creek running along the side of the house.
What felt pressing was the day itself, the life of the light, and the quests of how to step in and honor it with my own. I seldom wore shoes, lost all boundaries between what clothing should be worn inside, or out, finding that fewer clothes suited me best. I trusted the softness of the earth, the moss and vines below my feed, the receptivity of the world that had been the cradle for my ancestors.
I grew to understand that I was always at the edge of something unknown and when I stepped sideways into the light I would be gone, and no would would know where to look.
Megna Paula is a yoga teacher and artist living in the East Village of Manhattan. After leaving a career in Neuroscience to pursue her independent studies of yoga practice and philosophy, she discovered her creative passions: writing, painting, playing guitar, and organic gardening. You can find her free-spirited living on social media @megnapaula, and her blogs on megnapaula.com. She is 33, thrilled and honored, to share her first published piece of fiction with you.
New York based painter Keelin Montzingo occupies the space between domestic privacy and the vast expanse of the internet. Drawn to the moment where secrecy and exhibitionism merge, Montingzo’s paintings explore the authorship of the gaze and how this has changed within the context of social media. Using the motif of the cutout her figures are taken directly from instagram accounts of influencers, models and brands observing how the semiotics of the female pose exist in an echo chamber where the real mirrors the constructed and the constructed seeks the real – in perpetuity.
Referencing iconic male 20th Century painters, Montzingo observes how in a world of sousveillance where one has control over their own image, the power used to take ownership of identity also feeds into long established stereotypes. These paintings do not criticise the use of self promotion but question whether the female is collectively perpetuating the male gaze or rather reclaiming the body, defining a empowering narrative where the female speaks directly to the female in celebration of the divine feminine.