The Devils Arrive
To begin with, Mom and I had the island to ourselves, save for our companions the quail and the cuttle-fish, the supple ocelot, the sloth, the pouch-billed crane, and the great-combed hoopoe.
And of course Ariel.
Son. That’s what Mom called me.
She told me she had a name for me, a majestic one. She too had a name, one that her tone-deaf parents had cursed her with. Too late, she said, to do anything about that except not use it.
Before the devils came, there were no names on the island. Mom and Son weren’t names. They were grunts that grabbed the ears and eased open their clefts so you could pour in your message.
“We don’t use names here,” Mom said.
I asked her what names were.
“This is a mud hut. That’s the moon. Those are stars.”
“Why don’t we use names, Mom?”
“Because we’re banished,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head.
“It means we’re free, unlike those who banished us. There are no stuck places here, no clefts, not for us.”
“What about this cleft?” I asked.
“It’s yours. And it’s mine. That feels good. Oh, all right.”
Such was the island before the devils glided in from the sea. I wandered everywhere. Through turned gnarls of trees. Up mountain slopes. Idling away long mornings by the rock-stream with its icy fish. Breathing air a-brim with the lazy sea’s lukewarm brine.
For others, there were clefts. Ariel got shoved, a twelve-year, into one for being slow to carry out Mom’s orders. Mom often shoved herself into a hard old cleft of hatred for the Algerian monster, beating her fists against her temples, close-eyed, as she rocked and cursed upon the stump outside our hut.
But for me, the only cleft was the yummy one back home beneath the covers.
Mom was the earth. Deep scores. Abundant tucks and cracks where the rainfall of her soul runneled and pooled. Brown as mud, mossy in the dark places. Her eyes were as hard as granite. But sometimes they would go soft, like logs long-dead that peel back their bark to reveal moonwhite innards.
Mom did things. She babbled weird words that made little sense. The pipe of a pithless elder-joint did she cut, blowing through it the scream of the jay. With a branch, she grooved patterns in the dirt and danced among them. Her fat fingers darted down into those patterns, then shot up into the heavens.
Sometimes when she danced, winds rose and swirled about her. Spirits assumed shapes. If one dropped into visibility, it might tower and bellow. That sort of spirit Mom at once sent packing, no matter how much they promised. “Badly would they behave,” she said. “Were I to free them from their cleft, you and I would be at their mercy, of which they have none. Those are devil spirits. Avoid them.”
Others were gentle.
Whenever Mom called up spirits, the bellowers or the compliant kowtowers, their true faces blared through.
Ariel was a compliant spirit. He put on shows of wind and rain, of sun and clouds, the kind that billow, wisp, or scud, or the dark ones that rip open and spill rain from their ragged guts.
Ariel also boasted a special touch, a thing of bed-intimacy and focus. When I thickened for the cleft, Mom ordered Ariel to fondle us. He touched us everywhere like a soft sweep of hands a-bristle with fingers. Between our bodies they moved, inside us and all over, increasing the sensual joy in what we saw, what sniffed and tongued. But Ariel, moving among our intimacies, was not moved.
One day, in her fury, Mom tucked him away. She never told me why, though I supposed he had hesitated too long in carrying out her wishes.
It was fun to squat there, elbows on knees, head in hands and watch Ariel struggle in his pine cleft like a bumblebee caught in a spider’s weave. It amused me. It made me sad too. When I tried a command on him, a silly boyish imitation of my mom, he made a face or pretended he didn’t hear. So I shouted mean things at him and cried. If my hands had been able to seize him and not pass through, I would have broken his bones.
Mom called me impetuous. High strung.
She was right.
Everything changed when the devils came, the ones in the boat with the rip in the bottom, the old man and his daughter.
Mom wanted them here. She longed for their arrival. Until I found her journal and could read it, I had no idea why.
I hated her for bringing them. I cursed her name, which Prospero told me was Sycorax. When he stuffed me into slavery, a cleft from which there was no escape, he pronounced with scorn her name. That was the only time he spoke Berber, haltingly, so thick and misshapen the words that I scare could understand him.
“You lie,” I said. “My mom has no name.”
For my defiance, he had me pinched and poked.
But I knew he was not lying. Hearing Mom’s name made her small in my mind, not the woman who lived in all ways outside her skin, who welcomed in the world, who let the world be her and be inside her.
“Sycorax,” said pursed-lipped old Prospero, the wicked magician. His words dripped bitter honey. “She’s one scary ox.”
I knew not what an ox was.
But I understood scary.
“My mom is not scary,” I retorted, and though I suffered further pinches, I stood high and proud in my backtalk.
“Was,” said he. “Not is. Sycorax is dead.”
That burst my defiance. It made me blub, right in front of the devil Mom had ferried across the sea.
Mom could see what went on in foreign lands.
She peered south, beyond the rocky cove, her stone-cold glare penetrating into distant Algiers. Algiers, she told me, was the stink-hole that had kicked her out, bound her with ropes, stopped her mouth, and left her here, big-bellied with me.
But more and more, she peered north, beyond the bay whose outlying reefs bore the brunt and pounding of waves. Toward Italy. Toward Naples and Milan. Uncountable cove lengths did Mom’s grim brown gaze stretch, growing hard and distant.
I imagined those places as islands, identical to our own but with larger mud huts. They had huge fantastical animals, and people just like us but with cloth on them, not sun-draped.
Mom had some cloth, so I knew what it was, tatters she had on when the bad men of Algiers tossed her on the island.
In my mind’s eye, the Algerians and Italians were beings draped in tatters, their arms holding themselves inside stiff cloth cocoons.
Did they fear change, these caterpillar men? It seemed so to me.
When the devils came, I found out I was right.
In the days before their arrival, Mom spent hours staring north. Her vision shifted near and far. She muttered stray mumblings. Once, she rose in her worn body, scratched patterns in the dirt, and coaxed out of the air a spirit. Huge and puffy were its lips, its body as slight as Ariel’s.
“Will it touch us, Mom?”
She ignored me, addressing her full attention to the spirit she had summoned. At her behest, it nodded and sped away backward on a puff of expelled wind, leaving behind the pungency of sea surf and the sweet rot of pine.
I carried water to her lips and helped her to bed. There would be no clefting. I knew that. I wanted it, but by the age of twelve I knew not to pry open a shell shut tight.
In previous bouts of illness, Mom would often thank me for my care and devotion, placing a soft weak hand on my brow or neck. “You’re a good boy,” she said. “Cuddle with your mother.” It was only a cuddle, not a cleft, in her moments of fever.
That was all right, I didn’t mind.
But now, when I lowered her to the bed and pulled the covers over her, her eyes remained fixed on the distant bay. I melted a gourd-fruit into mash, adding honeycomb and pods. When I tried to feed her, she brushed the bowl aside.
“Go to the shore,” she said, a craving for something else than food in her voice. “At the first sign of them, run and tell me.”
From the ferocity of her gaze, I knew they must be wondrous beings. More wondrous than all the spirits she had called to enhance our clefting or fill our ears with exotic tales.
Her voice carried such urgency, I didn’t stay to ask who they were, or by what mode of transport they would arrive. Would they angle up from the beach like sand crabs and shake the grains from their legs? Would they swim like eels out of the sea; or like sleek-wet otters, lithe as leeches, twist and waddle from the rock-stream? Would they spiral earthward like seed pods?
How many would there be? As many, I guessed, as I had fingers. They would be soft and kind. With a wish, a whim, they would cure Mom. She would be as young and spry as when we came here. They would rekindle the fire in her eyes. Of my chores would they relieve me. With the crook of a finger, these divine beings would fell trees, split them, float logs through the air, and stack them neatly outside our hut.
I sped northward to the bay and hunkered down upon hot sand. The sun gave all things its harshest caress, stippling the wave tops with knife glances that marched and danced far out to sea. My eyes hurt for squinting, despite the shade-cup of one hand.
Our saviors will emerge from beneath the waves, I thought, or float in upon its surface. From the magic isles of Naples or Milan would they come.
My mind tricked me a time or two, picking out round faces in distant glints. Then the glints fell flat. I craned and scanned. My throat was parched, but I didn’t care. Mom never sent me on a fool’s errand.
Far distant, out beyond where the reefs took their punishment, the glints turned blue and silver, white and green. You could see anything you wished to in them. Because I knew not what to expect, I saw nothing and everything.
Then the white glints softened to tan, and some of the tan glints shaded into the dark browns of tree bark. I willed them white again. In time, they defied my will, staying tan and brown. They separated from the blue and silver, the white and the green, to take on the stubborn persistence of graspable objects.
When I could no longer deny that something bobbed way out yonder, so distant it was but a dot, I massaged the sleep from my calves and sprinted to my mother’s bedside. Though I slacked not, my body barely broke a sweat. My breath, deep to the lungs, remained as measured as if I had dawdled.
“I see them,” I said excitedly. “Far off, a mustard seed bobbing on the horizon.”
Her eyes, not meeting mine, stared out of her head, her skin golden-bronze, her long tangles of charcoal hair. “Good,” she said. “Go back. Give them greeting. They will not understand you, yet speak to them anyway. The little girl’s name is Miranda.”
“Miranda,” I repeated, liking the way the name felt on my tongue. “What means girl?”
Mom ignored me. “When she fills out, she will belong to you. The old man with her. His name is Prospero. He is her father. And he is . . . her father.”
“What means father?”
“Same as mother only less.”
“Prospero is mother to Miranda?”
“Close enough,” she said. “Greet them by name. Bring them here. Do not delay. I haven’t much time.”
She meant her illness. I knew that. I was smart. Mom always said so. That meant as sharp in the mind as a splinter. It meant my thoughts darted like minnows, deep and goggle-eyed.
These spirits, Prospero and Miranda, would take Mom’s sickness away, so that she bade farewell and good riddance to ill health, gliding along the earth instead of trudging upon it, far more often in a clefting mood than not. They would have the magic touch of ten Ariels.
I could not help picturing them as creatures of the air, obedient to Mom’s every whim, who would enrich our lives. But I knew in my head that they were Milanese or Neapolitans with bodies like mine, but pale of skin and cocooned in tatters.
I didn’t know they would be devils.
I never forgave Mom for not telling me.
I pressed my lips to her neck. One weak hand touched my shoulder, though she gazed toward the bay still.
“Go,” she insisted. “Greet them. Bring them here.”
Out of the mud hut I raced, speeding toward the bay as free as the wind. My skin opened to the glory of the day and laughed in tune with my easy lope.
Mom was in pain. That hurt my heart. But our visitors, the old man Prospero, the little girl Miranda, would make Mom well again, would delight us with stories as the other spirits did. From one of the enchanted isles of Italy would they bring great wonders.
But what did they bring?
The crush of burdens.
Clefts. Lashings. Pinches.
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