First there was the smoke-hole, then the skylight. Early windows were paper-thin slices of horn, vellum, oiled cloth, parchment, seashells, selenite, mica, alabaster, or marble. In some places, the only window coverings were ice, or the wild, twining branches of vines.
When medieval nobles traveled from one castle to another, they carried their glass windows with them. The glass was installed in high towers, covering the oriels—bay windows where ladies sat to gaze down at battles below. Glaziers lived in deep forest, keeping the process of glassblowing secret. Surrounded by trees, they were close to the source of firewood they needed for perpetual flames. The glaziers blew long glass tubes, then cut and flattened them to make windows. The windows were green, colored by iron in the sand. Forest glaziers wore animal skins, hoods, and masks, to protect themselves from the fires. Children, seeing them as monsters, ran home with tales of half-human, fire-breathing beasts, manlike ogres with long, green glass tongues.
Once the slabs of glass reached cities, poets etched verses on the smooth, fragile surfaces, then gave the crystalline poems to maidens as gifts. Beauty accepted the delicate green rhymes. A process for making clear glass was perfected. Glaziers now blew glass in public, and window-making shops became readily available in every town. The green glass of forests was soon forgotten, along with smoke-holes and skylights. The fiery breath of wild man-beasts is remembered only in tales.
Two years before the Donner Party's infamous ordeal, a teenage boy survived the winter alone in a cabin on the same summit. He survived in an abandoned shack, simply because it was filled with hundreds of books.
Reading poetry, stories, and essays kept Moses Schallenberger alive. Physical hunger was not enough to make him swallow the carcass of a coyote, because it was a scavenger, and he found it repugnant. Patiently, he trapped foxes, consuming their rabbit-fed flesh while reciting rhymes, words grouped into stanzas, pages, volumes...each one numbered, syllables by the thousands, all those books providing as much sustenance as any burden of daydreamed meat.
Everyone knows about the Donner Party, but hardly anyone remembers the name of Moses—his survival was not shocking enough to become news. Moses was saved from the temptation to survive by turning to cannibalism. He was spared by the simple absence of other humans, by the absence of human marrow and sinew that might have been viewed with the desperation of inhuman hunger.
He was also saved by books, by the presence of nothing less mysterious than human words, the voices on paper keeping him company throughout his winter of loneliness and fear.
Engine failure, an emergency landing, the long delay. We miss the departure of our boat. A nun in a jeep helps us find our way to the docks on the headwaters of the Amazon. Vultures and shanties, a street vendor sells dried monkey hands, shops display jaguar skins...a crowded water taxi takes us downstream along the wide river, past villages where women bathe, and children play, right beside caymans with yawning jaws. In a dugout canoe, we glide upstream along a narrow tributary, into deep rain forest—black-water lagoons, fireflies at dusk, the screech owl at dawn...
At a remote village, a man whose daughter is paralyzed asks us for vitamins to cure her legs—the river doctor only visits twice a year, he explains. We have no vitamins, and it seems unlikely that they would be enough to heal such devastation. We feel helpless. There is nothing we can do, as the man and his daughter continue to drift in their dugout, hoping for miracles. To distract us, village officials show us a schoolhouse with no teacher. They show us a communal outhouse, shared by the entire town. Jail is a muddy corral beside the outhouse—stench and runoff, we are told, are effective deterrents, keeping the crime rate low. Suddenly, a hunting party marches by, a peccary dangling upside down from a long pole. To celebrate, first the men of the village play soccer, then the women, barefoot in faded cotton dresses, and finally the children, some naked, many with swollen bellies and open sores...
only one soccer ball
For two busy decades, all I remember of the journey is a vivid wall of immense, purple-flowering jacaranda trees along the wild river's shore. Then details begin to return, as if a tropical blossom in my mind is finally unfolding. Now, every jacaranda tree I encounter anywhere in the world remains connected to that day in a hungry, desperate village. Soon, a return journey to the same region shows me how much has changed, and how much is still the same. Logging has taken an irreversible toll. Oil drilling by foreign corporations proceeds at an alarming rate. Hunger, disease, and illiteracy are still endemic...
Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban American author of three books about the island, most recently The Poet Slave of Cuba, a Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Henry Holt & Co., 2006). Short works appear in a wide variety of journals, including previous issues of VerbSap. Recent awards include semi-finalist selection for the 2006 Nimrod Hardman/Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for several wilderness search-and-rescue dog training programs.
Photo "Violet Bubbles," courtesy of Gavin Wood, St. Annes, UK.
About | Contact | Privacy
Copyright © 2005, 2006 VerbSap. All Rights Reserved.