Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S P E C I A L   P R O S E   S E L E C T I O N
FRAGMENTS OF A HISTORY
b y   m a r i a   l e m u s   ~   m i a m i    b e a c h ,   f l o r i d a

Cloth-bound manuscript discovered by wayward angler. Circa seventeenth century wood and gold coffer lodged in porous limestone bank, on edge of Atraves island reef, ink well-preserved, but parts missing due to salt decay. Translated by experts in native and old world hybrid speech: cultural and linguistic origin of manuscript unknown. According to documentation, the original manuscript of the first fragment burned the skin of its possessor, much as the man-of-war does when it comes in contact with human flesh. Manuscripts currently on display at Museum of Natural History.


Fragment I: Caliban's Dance

LONG BEFORE our dreams, long before, a creature who could not speak spoke a language not of sound nor of writing but of movement. Asleep and awake he spoke the language of dreams before any sound echoed from his lips, before he traced the first word on sand. His dance was the dream. Asleep and awake the dream was the dance, the dream was his body sinking, the outline of his melting flesh vanishing beneath every passing wave.

This is Caliban, the first dancer, inventor of language, for whom language was not a dream such as ours but a dance


Long before our dreams, long before, now we only dance in our dreams.

This is Caliban, who moved, moved as the wind does when it barely stirs the whisper of skies, who moved as the tide does when it disappears to unknown places in the sea.

Some do not know the sea. Some have forgotten Caliban's dance, these are speakers of the dreams who have forgotten dreams asleep and awake. They do not speak, because they do not know the sea, they do not know memory


Between the blinding sun and gleaming sand the tide rose as it had never risen, thrusting Caliban fiercely, far from the shore. There, on the edge of the mangrove, the first awakening. Caliban saw his shadow. Caliban spoke the first word, our language. We who do not dream asleep and awake.

When he saw his shadow, Caliban spoke from his body, the first word a whirlpool spiraling. A sound from his lips embodied the sadness and hunger of his flesh.

We who no longer dream asleep and awake do not know the first word, but we know and forget that Caliban could not touch the sea, so vast and so distant. We know and forget that the first word contained the sea's betrayal, for in the gushing fall of blue, Caliban had never seen his shadow.

The sea, it had once caressed Caliban, dragging him nearer and nearer its faceless horizon. The sea, it had once cradled him with its lilting, winding currents. In the unfathomable liquid heaviness of the sea, Caliban had danced, spoken the language of dreams asleep and awake, long, long before our dreams


We know and forget as the sea forgets, retreating, swallowing the shallow waters. We know and remember as the sea remembers, returning the gift of memory through its redeeming pulse.

Caliban spoke the first word of betrayal, and his word shook the sea, glided across its depths, traced cursive symmetries on the sand, diluting sounds ever widening until the first word crashed against far away rocks and returned, the sea returning the first word and its gift of memory

The exhausted limbs of Caliban dreamed the first dream, a dream such as ours, a dream only possible after the first word, after the sea's betrayal


Years. . .the second awakening

Caliban picked up a mangrove seed and etched the sea's betrayal into the sand, now yielding, near the shore, where Caliban returned to ask the tides where it hid its language of dreams asleep and awake. The tide responded, its foam covering the sign Caliban traced into the sand. As the wave inhaled the sign, it hid the first word forever from Caliban's eyes


This is the first word, a word we forget, a word the mangrove seed dispersed as it sought root in the first book, Caliban's book


Fragment II, a scroll found rolled within a conch buried under an abandoned plantation. At the same site, archeologists discovered primitive navigational tools and a map of a stream stretching from the archipelago surrounding Atraves island, to the straits of the continent, marked by drawings of feathered fish in vivid hues. Conch was stolen from display case at Museum. Theft attributed to exhibition guard, who claimed that a faint breath and whispering voice distracted him from preserving the artifact's security, forcing him to return the conch to the sea.

Fragment II: The Air Spirit's Testimony

He lies buried somewhere, perhaps, under fans and anemones, his body nothing more than a coral city shadowed by sargasso clouds floating in the heavens. Yet another sky lies above this one, my sky, the air spirit's. I live these days in the empty conch shell that once saw Caliban sinking to death, after a storm, a mutiny, I do not know, sinking so slowly that his curved back touched the sea floor before his arms, his arms following his body gracefully, his palms praying upwards to indifferent frigate birds and gulls whose screeching the conch never hears.

The body weighs more than air. How I envy Caliban's body

Caliban's tattered clothes rose around him, muted man o'war tentacles reaching for air. I saw a belt buckle disappear into the sand, its sheen brighter, at these depths, than the sun's. I saw a fish poke curiously about his body, this fish with enormous eyes, its stare as empty and deadly as the scabbard that stuck out from Caliban's sleeve.

Those were not pearls that were his eyes. I never saw Caliban's eyes, but I saw his blood, as it poured from a salt-washed wound, a soft cradle for a dying body.

The blood stirs more than air. How I long for Caliban's body

A darkness swept above the sea's sky, its keel murdering below, its mast reaching the light in my sky, yet hopeless. The din of men's voices, hopeless. The sacks full of gold, hopeless. The skins full of wine, hopeless.

A mirage, a shoal, somewhere, perhaps, a shipwreck, a sea bounty. Those were pearls that were their eyes.

A river flows around the shoals, no ship can pass it without moving here, there, everywhere. The sea's raging arm a whip lashing into wooden beams of galleys.

I waited for Caliban's blood to disappear, before the sharks would arrive, before the frenzied feast of Caliban's body, but having no eyes of my own, my shell only witnessed this: that a current dragged me for thousands of miles, laid me on an island where psalms are read through leaves, through green and wind.

From above the sea's sky I see now the river formed by Caliban's blood, a stream from land's end to land's end, where whirling water sinks down to meet the earth's embrace. Caliban's blood murmurs endlessly through its endless return.

I am an air spirit longing for the sea. . .

Change, foretold and foreseen, from Sycorax's thighs to my pitiful lightness. A body twined about islands makes history, and even my tricks turn the tides against the hopeless din of men's voices.


The third fragment has continually vexed the translators, who have lost all hope of unraveling the fragile pages as they were found, torn, mixed, and unintelligible. After spending countless hours compiling and categorizing in logical archival sequence what appeared to be a collection of distinctive, separate sheets, the translators would rest their tired eyes, only to discover these fragments could reassemble themselves over the course of the night. Some magnetism between the dialects, perhaps, accounts for the chemical cohesion of the tattered papers, which, according to the translators, were of all the fragments most marked by oily fingerprints. The ashen color of the paper, marred by flames, conceals a marking some experts have likened to a stamp, and yet, despite these puzzling attributes, the translators believe this epistle was never sent because the postal system of Atraves island was constantly beleaguered by tempestuous weather and international conflict.

Fragment III: Powder Wig's Dance Lesson

Dear Sir --------,

We have buried the drums as you have recommended under the cane fields and yet we still hear them every night, without fail. Either our ears have succumbed to the effects of the heat, or the natives are deceiving us quite docile since we implemented the security and vigilant measures you designed. Don't go into de circle, don't go into de circle, de circle of fire, burn you, dat circle, boy, move in squares boy dat is de way

Don't hear dose drums, boy, don't hear dem, dey will change you each night the supervisors bind them to their cots, and yet, inexplicably, the drums are unearthed don't hear dem drums, dey will take you back, back, hear my voice boy, dat is de way the financial accounts have a mold about them sir, you see, the humidity unreadable, but

we pray you send the best doctors who are able to treat this condition. Failing that, send more supervisors to supervise our supervisors, as we have no way of knowing oui la la what poison may linger in our foodstuffs that may effect our hearing so profoundly oui la la, oui la la , don't

A twitching of the muscles, accompanied by violent fits, unprovoked except perhaps by the ghosts who haunt and don't stomp on de earth wit you bare feet, don't let de heel beat de earth, don't let dat mud get into you boy get into you like part of you skin the cliffs are practically insurmountable given the profusion of ferns and bromeliads, the late sir --------- claims are carnivorous but only the flora emit an offensive odor and don't let you voice sing, don't let you mouth smile even our most expert guides fall hopeless and helpless their limbs limp in the evenings to the deafening noise, a sound that drains the human spirit, sir, don't let you soul smile, don't let me know you be smiling, dat is de way, let me see you teeth, boy, dat is de way, sir,

With all due respect, sir, the enterprise we engage I teach you to dance boy, dat is de way, dat is de way, here may result unprofitable as the climate is under control by the natives whose drums albeit an honorable condition of employment

You may find this hard to believe sir, don't listen to de drums, don't listen to de drums, don't listen, dey speak, dey move but I make no exaggerations. We found one of our women swallowing clay after the manner of the dey move you to speak

and a man with hands blistered by flower petals

Northeasterly winds have become cool, in contradiction to our sense the chart maker confounded by the rift in the sea, it seems a stream dragging our sturdiest vessels although the fear is an advantage in times of war, sir, with trustworthy mariners , but twisted compasses

My superior, whose courage is admirable, has assured me that don't look at de sky, don't look at de earth the interview with has proved ineffective. He has been exiled accordingly to the noise look at me boy, dat is de way, is nothing more than the copulation of crickets and don't cringe at de whip, boy, although secrecy these are difficult times, sir,

Don't let de knee bend, don't let de hip sway, boy, don't heave de chest, don't let you arm swing, don't let de finger point, boy, the scarred keel of the ship was mutilated bodies beyond repair, but we could expect no more from her maiden voyage, oui la la her galleys pregnant with oui la la the men survived on rotting fish oui la la your cargo was spoiled, boy, dat is de way, and we are remiss for this most grievous accident, sir, yet profits this year amount to

Others say that a man's body prevents us from leaving the island, but these fantastical stories let dose hands bind, boy, let dem bind, dat is de way, dat is de way We know that storms have wrecked ships before we were able to make what was our own perilous landing. If you send doctors the fog unlike the mother country please sir tell the navigators not to enter by the bay, rather tell them to skirt the peninsula, and seek the red current,

spilled by the current onto the shoal, his body was never recovered my lady's coral necklace

I regret to inform you sir that my wife has disappeared since the first unearthing of the drums. Since that night her parrot no longer chatters don't drink de rum boy, don't drink de rum make you sing, but there is a silence about the home. Our servants look at me with suspicion, as if I, and not they, were responsible for her disappearance. As you know sir, boy, my wife, was with child, and I therefore implore you to send more soldiers to protect our interests in order to drink de sweat off you brow, boy, dat is de way, dat is de way, sir,

Don't let you skin glow the coves gulls' nests don't let me see dat light on you skin, black anhinga let dat skin be transparent so I read you like book, boy de white egret exports less that is comforting news

We have nothing more than the interests of the boy, sir, dat is de way, sir, dat is de way, boy

accept the tortoise shell as my

dutiful servant,

-------


The translators view the fourth fragment as evidence of their physiological effects. Most of the field notes about the archeological expedition were lost to a recent hurricane. The director of the expedition refuses to reinscribe these notes from memory, but he promises to write a book as soon as the feeling in his right arm returns.

Fragment IV: Caliban's Book

10 November 1996

Today we discover a skeleton. One of the assistants finds it lodged up against the maze of branches. We had been sleeping under this banyan for months and no one had noticed it. The skeleton is unlike any other I've seen, perfectly normal human structure, but its bones marked by strange hieroglyphs. Nonsense, the director says, the markings are nothing more than the tiny holes carved by insects that bore into bones and eat marrow.

I imagine a body made of skin, flesh, and bones, but no ordinary skin, flesh, and bones. This body is as white as the stars and as black as the sky illuminating them. This body is as smooth and taut as the distance between memories of laughter easily recalled. This body is strong, virile. This body frightens me, beckons me. It is not my job to imagine. I must sing myself to sleep.

12 November 1996

I haven't been able to concentrate since the discovery of the skeleton. The assistant who found him claimed naming rights, so now we affectionately call him boy. I say he's no boy, but the others shrug their shoulders. He's a man, I say, a man with words etched onto his bones, a man who was once beautiful, still beautiful. Look at the eye sockets, I say, they're focused, smiling. The director tells me to go home, I've been in the forest too long. Maybe the mosquitoes, but it's not the rainy season. The others say I need to climb up the banyan, and live in boy's tree house.

13 November 1996

So I do. I'm not leaving the camp. They need me, since I'm the only language specialist here. They asked me to join this expedition in case they met any natives. So far, we haven't, and quite frankly, I don't expect we will. The natives know about boy and his bones. They know about the banyan. They won't come here. They probably haven't been in this area of the forest for hundreds of years. The diggers, they're mocking boy now. Boy rests in a box by the director's tent. Boy protects us. They don't know that.

20 November 1996

I've been sleeping up in the banyan for a few days now. It's peaceful up here. I don't hear the snores and grunts of humans. I don't hear the incessant buzzing that kept all of us awake the first nights after we set up camp. I hear nothing. Only wind. I have made a bed on a splendid stump, not far from where we found boy. It is flat, and wide enough to accommodate my entire body. The wood is hard, but no harder than the ground on which the others sleep. I don't need a sleeping bag. Somehow the tree cradles me, even if I sleep with my legs and arms spread, hanging over the forest canopy. I'm not afraid to fall. Boy knew what he was doing. He knew this was a good place to die.

24 November 1996

They're looking at me. I can feel their breathing. Where have you been? I say I'm tired. You've been missing for three days, the director says, we've been worried, we're responsible for you. Look, let's just forget about all of this. Here's a clean, new notebook. Maybe you can write a chronicle of our expedition. I don't think you'll be doing much translating anyway, I mean we've been here for three months and we haven't seen anyone, so forget about all that boy stuff and play historian until it's all over. Thanks, I say, but I've been writing history all along. Is there any food left in the pot? Don't tell me cook stewed more iguanas. I'm hungry.

I spend more time on the tree now. I tell the director it helps me record history from a bird's eye view. Fine, he says, but don't forget to eat once in a while. We laugh. He's not a terrible man, really. You've got to be strong out here, so I've given up chronology, that's the director's job.

Boy is still resting in his box. They mean to take him back to the lab eventually, with the other artifacts from the dig. I haven't told them the hieroglyphs on boy's bones are also etched into the tree. I'm not really writing their history. From time to time I satisfy the director with a few paragraphs on the day's progress. He believes it. Anything I say he believes is history, a little fact, a little information, a little summary of events, this is history to him. They're finding history on the ground. They're not looking up, they're not looking at the tree.

I'm not digging, they say, I spend the day up here. What can I know about history? The director tells them to be quiet.

There's a sequence to the hieroglyphs.

Boy returns to me in my dreams. If I look at his body, he says, I will understand the hieroglyphs. They're not really hieroglyphs, boy says, they're not words either, but they speak all the same. Did you write them, I ask? He never answers my questions, and so I look. I see an arm as thick as these branches, sinewy, marked by blood vessels, rage, a back supporting the world, angry thighs clinging to speed, running somewhere. Boy, I say, you're not that skeleton, you deceive me, you deceive them.

My body is trembling. I wake up clothed in sargasso weeds, but we are miles from the shore. Salt crystals tangle my hair. The director says there are abnormal quantities of sodium in the lakes here. He says don't bathe in the lakes, they're full of piranhas.

The expedition ends in a week. I must say farewell to boy.

Last night, a snake, or was it a dream? The assistant director died of a snake bite after the first week. I feel strange, a warmth coming from me, it can't be poison.

I could hear them looking up and saying, didn't we just have full moon? My skin, glowing, I was licking the sap from the tree. It can't be poison. Now, boy says, I will never be hungry. Something is moving under my skin.

I am peeling the bark off the tree. The bark is tough, but if I work diligently I might succeed. Boy is angry at me. I know I'm destroying the tree, boy, but I'm saving your book. Stop it, boy tells me. You don't need the book, he says.

I stepped down to sit by the camp fire. I promised I would extinguish it before I went to sleep. I was the only one awake. Boy came before me, dancing. It wasn't a dream. I was afraid, but I understood. I no longer possess my body. The book possesses my body. The body is my book.


The fragments end here. Archeologists have requested assistance with recent discoveries, but the translators are exhausted.

MARIA LEMUS was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico of Cuban parents and within a few months was living in Miami, Florida, where she has resided most of her life, except for a three-year stint in Venezuela. During her residence there, she was blessed with the opportunity to see many of the landscapes that she would later read about in one of her favorite books, Alejo Carpentier's The Last Steps. Caribbean history courses in her blood, starting with her grandparent's emigration from Spain and with her own deeply-rooted, almost visceral relationship to everything tropical—sea, plants and air.

On a more professional note, Maria completed doctoral exams in Caribbean Studies at the University of Miami under the guidance of scholar Sandra Paquet. She also taught composition courses in Caribbean literature and participated in one of the Caribbean Writers Summer Workshops, studying with authors George Lamming and Robert Antoni. After graduate school, she worked as a Caribbean correspondent and editor for a travel magazine, during which time she traveled quite extensively throughout the region and became fascinated with Caribbean archeology. Currently, she is working on self-publishing a collection of literary erotic love notes, which include, among drawings of frangipani flowers, an essential oil distilled from many tropical plants. Inspired by a moonlight-filled and jasmine-scented evening in the mountains of St. Lucia, the project intends to take the reading experience past the intellect and into the realm of the senses.

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