Three Short Works
By Margarita Engle
When he was little, the boy used to stand on Havana's sea wall and watch an old man who had figured out how to catch fish by flying a kite. The wiry fisherman perched on a dark coral rock just beyond the sea wall, then sent a wing-like diamond of newspaper sailing out over the water. As the homemade kite flew, the man pulled a clever string that made a line of fishhooks drop into the sea.
The boy thought the strange fisherman looked like a magician or a marionette, putting on a show for an audience of dolphins and flying fish. One day, he found the courage to ask the man why he didn't fish from a floating inner tube like everyone else. "Are you afraid of the water?" he ventured. The kite-flying fisherman laughed. "Afraid?" he echoed. "Ay, no, little boy, I'm not afraid of anything as simple and natural as water. It's the mermaids that keep me out of those waves. Haven't you ever seen them dancing on top of the sea?"
The boy nodded. Yes, he had seen shimmering, fishtailed dancers during storms, but he had always been afraid to say it out loud, imagining that people would think he was lying or crazy.
"The things we love," the old man concluded, "can be more dangerous than those we fear."
Many years later, the boy, now a marine biologist, finally understood. If the old man had joined those dancing mermaids on the waves he would have been reluctant to come back to life on land. His wife and children and grandchildren would have been abandoned and hungry. The only way to avoid being consumed by enchantment was to remain perched on familiar ground, while inventing new ways to probe the beloved unknown, searching for dinner, or mermaids, or truth.
Sailors brought the giant Aldabra tortoise to India in the eighteenth century, a gift for a nobleman's garden. More than a hundred years later, still thriving, the creature was moved to the Calcutta Zoo, where he calmly survived, undisturbed by the nuisance of time. At the end of his slow, patient life, he was already three-quarters of a century older than Harriet, the giant Galapagos tortoise who still lives in a zoo north of Brisbane, Australia. She was taken from Isla Santa Cruz in the nineteenth century by Charles Darwin. At two hundred and fifty years, in 2006, Addwaita, the Aldabra tortoise in Calcutta, was the world's oldest documented living animal. When he finally passed, it was easy to imagine all the hares of every continent, sighing as they realized that no matter how swiftly they raced through life, the unhurried tortoise would always win.
Certain types of bamboo grow so fast that a person sitting still can watch the height of a hollow green cane increase more than one inch per hour, creating a towering forest without trees. When chopped down as lumber, the bamboo forest sprouts, returning again and again, undiscouraged by people who eat the young, tender, white shoots, or use the mature golden canes to make fences, chairs, toys, flutes. Nothing but a fast-growing grass, the bamboo's persistent height makes it possible to imagine a world filled with giant, placid beasts, bending down to graze the tiny forest.
In a remote desert, a 12-year-old girl was kidnapped and beaten by seven men. It was their way of trying to convince her to marry one of them. When she was rescued, three lions stood like sentries, guarding her. The sound of her weeping resembled the mew of a newborn cub. The girl recovered. Four of her abductors were arrested. Three are still at large. Three black-maned lions have been spotted tracking the fugitives. Only one thousand of the endangered black-maned lions remain in the wild. At least three of them provide scientific evidence supporting ancient legends about a beauty and a beast.
We were strangers seated around a shared campfire in the High Sierras, trading stories about our livelihoods in the lowlands. Only one of us turned out to be a local. "I move mountain lions," she admitted. "I'm a wildlife biologist." She was young and soft-spoken. I tried to imagine her wrestling a cougar into a cage, or shooting it with a tranquilizer gun and slinging it over her shoulder.
"I run teams of trappers," she clarified. "Old-timers. They used to get paid to kill the cougars, now they're hired to move them. Especially when a cat stays near a town too long...schools, you know...neighborhoods." She went on to explain about radio collars and tracking systems. Global positioning satellite technology allowed her to pinpoint the location of any cougar in her territory.
"Aren't you afraid?" another young woman asked. She had already shared tales of her experiences wrangling long-haired ponies on wilderness trail rides in Iceland. She didn't strike me as the type who would spook easily.
"I'm not scared of mountain lions," the wildlife biologist said, "but the trappers, some of the older guys, independent sorts, outdoorsmen. Taking orders from a college kid, you know? From a woman. Sometimes when we're camped way out in the backcountry—" Suddenly she glanced up and scanned the circle of faces. We were all strangers. Humans. Men and women. Creatures far more dangerous and less predictable than mountain lions wearing GPS collars.
The thought must have spooked all of us, because one by one we stood and made our excuses. We drenched the campfire with water from a nearby stream, then headed out into the forest in different directions, back to our tents and lanterns, back to the friendly trees and familiar moon.
Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of several books about the island, most recently The Poet Slave of Cuba: a Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Henry Holt & Co.). Her short works have appeared in a wide variety of anthologies and journals, including VerbSap, and she has been awarded a Cintas Fellowship, a San Diego Book Award, and a 2005 Willow Review Poetry Award. Margarita lives in California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog-training program.
Photo "Boats 1" (Cuba) courtesy of Geoffroy Magnan, Liège, Belgium.
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