S H O R T S T O R Y
NOTES FROM THE CONCH MOUNTAIN
b y c h r i s t o p h e r w o o d s ~ h o u s t o n , t e x a s
They were obsessed with dreams. Each morning, islanders would gather in the plaza or at the conch mountain, taking turns telling dreams. Usually these dreams were fresh, from the night before. Sometimes they were fabrications, or dressed up versions of earlier dreams that had failed to ignite imaginations. This was allowed, as it was considered wrong not to make use of a dream that had even an ounce of worth.
On the island, one was considered a fool or a lunatic if he dreamed little. Or worse, if he never dreamed at all. Some found it necessary to invent dreams to retain a measure of self-respect. Upon waking, much time and effort was often given to this pursuit.
Dreams were a test of both will and imagination. One was forced to delve deeply, even into the soul, for a dream magnificent enough to impress others. No one discussed this individual process with anyone else. Dreams and their origins were considered a private matter, between Maker and dreamer.
Old Mendoza, the island Elder, was down near the docks at the conch mountain every morning. He would hold dream court. Like the others too old to go out fishing, he spent his time mending nets. Most of the menders were blind, as was Mendoza.
Islanders respected Mendoza and the other menders, placing them just below the Virgin Mary in their deity. In Mendozaís case, this was because of age, but there was another reason as well. They held him in such high esteem because of all the songs he knew by heart. Thousands of songs, more than anyone else. He was revered most, however, for the fact that he dreamed more than anyone else on the island.
Old Mendoza claimed he had as many as a hundred dreams on a given night. He could easily relate a dozen dreams in a row, just as he sang all those songs without forgetting a word.
Once, and no one could remember when, Mendoza declared that, the older a person is, the more he dreams and the better he can recall the dreams.
Each morning, dozens of children ran through the sandy streets to the conch mountain. They fought for a place to sit nearest the old man as he recited his dreams from the night before. The children, as well as the adults, learned more from old Mendoza that they ever could from books. At the school run by Maestra Gabriella, the same material was taught year after year from the same book, the only copy of which belonged to her and was a Bible she had received from a now deceased uncle who once lived on the mainland.
In her own way, Maestra Gabriella was considered learned. She was revered for her knowledge, much the same as Old Mendoza was for his memory, on an island where there was so little learning to be had.
And while these two never agreed on anything, their opinions were often sought. Islanders carefully weighed what they had to say on a given subject, allowing it to volley back and forth until it landed in a place of decision. For more serious disagreements, Maestra Gabriella had been known to bow to Old Mendoza, for she too revered his age and was too young to compete with it.
This is why the matter of the child was brought to both of them. An island woman had borne a child which her husband said was not his own. Violence erupted in their house, and soon included their entire street. The Indian priest, who was summoned to baptize the child, was the first to enter the house. Unwilling to act alone, the priest summoned Maestra Gabriella and Old Mendoza. Together, the three of them would decide how best to settle the fatherís grievance.
While a crowd of curious onlookers waited outside in the street, the tribunal inspected first the mother, then the enraged husband, and finally the newborn child. The Indian priest said it made no difference who had fathered the child as long as the baby was created by the Maker.
Maestra Gabriella was next to give her opinion. She said she saw no reason to be any more excited by this particular birth than any other on the island. Given the fact that everyone looked alike, it could surely make no difference. She concluded by saying that the real father was Juan Cantos, an island man known for his paternal prowess.
She also told the husband of the unfaithful wife that he should forgive her, and that he should thank Juan Cantos. After all, he now had a namesake who might be as virile as Juan Cantos himself. The husband seemed agreeable to all this until Old Mendoza stood up to give his opinion.
Mendoza said that since the child was made by parents not joined together by the Maker, it could never become a child of the Maker, or anyone else. The baby would have to be put to death.
The mother wept in the small room where they all stood. She said she knew that Old Mendoza was right, and that she knew this was going to happen. The night before giving birth, she had dreamed of wolves feasting on a newborn lamb.
No one in the room could question a dream so vivid and so very timely, so they all agreed to do away with the baby. It was covered with a small mountain of pillows and suffocated. Each of them took a turn holding the pillows in place so that no one person would be held responsible in the eyes of the Maker.
When this was finished, the tribunal carried the tiny blue corpse through the streets for all to see. They told the milling islanders that the Maker had seen fit to let the child die in peace rather than live in a world where it would be damned. Once the crowd was dispersed, the tribunal was left to decide how to dispose of the small body.
The Indian priest thought it should be cremated, and the ashes placed inside a reliquary in his church. It would be a visual reminder for those contemplating adultery.
But Old Mendoza and Maestra Gabriella disagreed, and said that island custom should be observed. This meant offering the tiny corpse to the sharks, as was always done with stillborn babies. This situation was nearer to that than any they could think of.
The custom of making an offering to the sharks was so that a stillborn child could then be reincarnated as a shark. The corpse was wrapped in colorful shrouds and flowers, then dropped from a boat in open water.
If the sharks accepted the offering, it was considered a sign of benevolence. A fiesta would be held in the plaza. The family of the child accepted by sharks would be immune to shark attacks for the rest of their lives. This protection extended as far as third cousins, but did not include spouses coming into a family after the offering was made and accepted.
Many an island woman prayed for at least one stillborn child sometime in life. Two stillborn children in the same family was considered extremely good fortune. Not only did it protect the other family members from shark attacks. But it also passed that luck to the following generation. Naturally, this all depended on the good faith of the sharks themselves.
The Indian priest stood his ground regarding cremation. A murdered child is not the same as a stillborn one, he said. To offer a murdered child to the sharks would violate their pact with the sea. Besides, he added, sharks were wise enough to discern the smell of infanticide from the pure, embryonic smell of a stillborn child.
Maestra Gabriella and Old Mendoza saw the truth in what the priest said, and they deferred to him in the matter. That afternoon, the corpse of the infant was cremated. The ashes were placed in a reliquary on the church altar.
Down at the conch mountain for the next few mornings, Old Mendoza was astounded how many dreams were told about fire. It seemed to him that everyone had slept in flames.
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