Isabella; or, The Achiote Bush
From the Series: Decameron Relived
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.
It was a Monday, at five minutes after noon, when the bodies started floating by. Later, Beatriz would be sure of that fact, because she always opened her tienda at precisely five minutes past noon. As she stopped sweeping to push open the shutters of her storefront, her eyes snagged on something moving in the water. One . . . two . . . three, she watched the bodies float by, her right hand frozen in mid-air, its thoughtless arc from shutter back to broom, interrupted. As the bodies passed out of sight down the river, she moved her hand to her forehead to see if she might have contracted the dengue that old Pancho had come down with the week before. Just as she was beginning to believe that the bobbing corpses were a trick of the noontime sun beating on the tin roof, more bodies followed, and then still more, until she could no longer just stand there watching. She ran soundlessly from her storefront to the spigot where her sister was washing dishes and yanked her down the path to the river. Angelica protested, demanding to know what was going on, saying she had things to do, but by then the sounds that were spewing from Beatriz’s lips were like the foam from the mouth of a crazy dog.
By the time Angelica got to the river, there were no more bodies, just the odd branch or two bobbing up and down in the turgid water. Beatriz pointed to currents of blood streaking the river water, but Angelica looked away and told her to close up the shop, go home, drink some hibiscus tea and try to sleep. She promised to come by to check on her after she finished up the dishes.
* * *
It’s a little before noon when I finally hear the crack of the pistol. The sound tunnels through time; it’s the sound that I have heard every minute, waking and sleeping, for the past three days. My body has been tuned to its frequency, and all other sounds have disappeared. I didn’t hear the macaws as they passed high overhead in the evening, looking for a place to roost. I didn’t hear the insect chorus rise up, or the wild pigs routing in the sandy soil. Why do they leave us here, hands tied, half dead, but not all dead, moving in and out of their world? I shouted into the night air, I hurled insults, I demanded to know the truth. But even the sound of my voice had been reduced to the sound of a pistol firing. And the fact is, of course, that they have no plan. This is something I know all too well, because only two weeks ago, I was one of them.
As I float down the river, I’m astonished to find that the world has not disappeared, but has instead crescendoed, the intensity of its beauty a kind of reprimand. I am caught in its radiance at the very moment I feel my life should be seeping away. The scent of a bauhinia tree, its petals drifting lazily through the air, forms a musky halo over the river. Every waxy forest frond bathes me in its green life, and the call of every bird—the oropendulas, the wood rails, and the caciques—swirl like silvery lullabies inside my ear. As the river sweeps our flotilla of bodies closer to the village where I was born, I strain to catch a glimpse of a familiar face. In the distance I can hear the sound of an outboard motor, but the only person I see is Beatriz streaming out of her store, her braids flying behind her. I call out to her as she flies up the concrete path away from the river, but no noise seems to result. I shout and shout at her receding figure but the current insistently carries me along.
I search the shore for my mother, though there is no reason for her to be at the river at this time of day. Most likely she is in the shade of her rose apple trees, peeling potatoes or washing dishes. But there is something I want to say to her, before these dancing lights, whatever their uncertain origin, go out. I call out to Beatriz again, hoping she will hear me and turn back to the river, but there’s nobody there.
It had swept over me suddenly, the decision to escape. I was lying in a muddy shelter dug into the side of a hill and obscured with a pile of sticks and vines. I was cold and wet. The ambush planned for the next day was audacious, and even reckless. One thing I knew for sure, when my body struck the forest floor, or fell into a stream, or collapsed onto a field, the men in my battalion would just step over my body and carry on. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, exactly, it was more that the whole thing had gone too far, and no one could stop it now. In that instant, I realized that I didn’t care really how long I lived, as long as I could see my mother once more. I wanted to tell her something I didn’t know how to say. But they found me in the shack at the edge of her patio before I had managed to tell her I was home.
When my body finally washes ashore, I am several miles below the village. It’s teeming with rain, and it must be cold, but I don’t feel it. Some canoes with long-legged children pass by, poling furiously upriver to get home and get dry. I don’t bother to cry out to them, it seems pointless now. If only my mother would pass by, on her way to her garden.
Eventually darkness falls—and falls and falls again—its body shuddering over the forest paths, the gardens of yuca, the canoes drawn up on the beach, and finally it comes to rest like a shroud over the bodies strewn along the shore.
The next sound I hear, as I can see nothing in the darkness, is the laughter of a young girl who has come to the beach with her lover. The man trips over my left hand, now angled rakishly above my head. He barks in surprise and then kicks at it again to see what he has stumbled over. When he realizes he is kicking the bruised hand of a cadaver, he tries to draw the woman back into the forest, but she insists on seeing for herself. Gently, she puts her face to my mouth to see if I am breathing. As she does, tears fall onto my face, though I don’t recognize her and don’t know why she would care so much. I think distractedly that perhaps she had something else to cry about, and my breathless corpse has given her due cause to weep. Or maybe, and suddenly this strikes me as important, it’s difficult to separate one pain from another. As I am reflecting on this possibility, the lovers move off, back along the forest path, and I wonder distractedly about what happens next.
A few hours later, a group of women dressed in black and without flashlights arrive. The rain has cleared the air and the moon is large. Beatriz has dragged them grudgingly to see the bodies. One of them quietly retches behind a tree. The women go away as quickly as they came and return later armed with wheelbarrows and shovels. One by one they haul off the bodies that continue to wash up on the beach. They use long sticks to pull the others out of the water. I recognize the women as the mothers of children I knew growing up. They treat each body tenderly, talking to us as they roll us and drag us, telling us they are here now, and they will take care of us. I want to tell them not to worry, it makes no difference now, but I’m not sure it’s true. More importantly, I want to tell them that we knew. At the last moment we all knew.
I am the last to be carted away. Beatriz and another woman load me into the wheelbarrow, talking to me consolingly as they bump me along small narrow paths through the forest. “Don’t worry Lorenzo, it shouldn’t be long now.” Finally, when their strength seems to fail them, they sit beside a stream to catch their breath before beginning to dig. Only then do I hear their stifled sobs and again I am amazed. I hardly thought they noticed me growing up, there were so many of us and they were so busy with other things—the cooking, the cleaning, the gardening, and the incessant talk about the war. The women dig and dig for what seems like hours. Then they carefully roll my body into the sandy hole they have prepared and cover me gently with earth and rocks. They pat the earth before they leave, as if to reassure me of something. Their kindness, superfluous, still puzzles me.
When the sun rises the next morning, it takes me a few minutes to realize that I can still see, that I am still in the light of the world. I am puzzled by my consciousness but decide not to let it bother me. I wonder how long these lights, this exquisite afterimage of life, will last. I try to absorb what I can of my surroundings, trying to draw it inside me, supposing that it will soon disappear. My eyes travel up a dirt path, packed hard by bare feet and rubber boots, and come to rest on the kapok tree with its swinging vines, its bark like the skin of an old man stretched tight with tendons showing. There are two white moths, flittering in the shoots of the morning sun. The moths advance and recoil while beating their wings incessantly. Suddenly, I realize I have seen this path, these trees, this river, hundreds of times before. They have buried me beside the rushing stream near my childhood house, the place where we washed and swam and bathed.
* * *
Down by the stream in the forest, in the last light of the day, Isabella washes her body. She goes there every day, to the same eddy beside the galloping water. In the bank of the creek, in a hole made in the roots of a tree, she keeps a bar of soap and a rough piece of cloth. Her thin pink towel she brings with her, wrapped around her waist so that she can use her hands to pick her way down the rocky, root-lined path that becomes slippery when it rains. She has washed in that same spot since she was a child, when she could submerge her whole silken body under the water and let it float to the top, her girl-eyes taking in the layered green canopy that makes a roof of leaves above the river. When the sun is high, it bursts through the canopy in shoots of light, like the shoots of water that cascade over the boulders in the water. She used to float there, her body submerged, watching the insects dance in the sun, until her mother called her to hurry up. But today the sun is setting, and she no longer submerges her whole body in the creek but uses a tin pot to pour the water slowly over her head. As the sun disappears, it makes the air grainy, as if the world were slowly disintegrating.
The villagers think she goes to the creek to bathe, but in fact she goes to check on the achiote bush that has sprung up at the creek’s edge. It grew quickly, turning from a seedling to a bush in a matter of days. Then a profusion of delicate pink flowers with yellow stamens erupted all over the plant, so quickly it reminded her of a pox spreading on a baby. She collects the seed pods to make dye. And then Isabella begins to sing the songs she used to sing to Lorenzo. She never had much musical sense, and her voice has become coarse with time, but as she sings the plant seems to grow before her very eyes.
As she sings, she remembers the difficulty Lorenzo had in being born. The midwife predicted he would have a difficult death as well. Her friends said he wouldn’t survive—scrawny and yellow as he was born. They warned her not to get too attached. They kept him in the clinic for days and fed him with a bottle, refusing to let her take him home, refusing to let her stay. They taped her breasts to stop the milk from flowing. At home, and without her baby, she ripped off the tape and let the milk pour down her body. When they finally, reluctantly, gave Lorenzo to her, she felt her chest swelling, and a warmth she had never known before spreading through her lungs and into her throat. She tried to remember the midwife’s words, not to get too attached, but it turned out she loved Lorenzo as she loved the world. From that day on, loving could not be separated from Lorenzo, just as all suffering seemed to lead back to him.
As the water from the tin pot pours down her body it mixes with her tears. The tears and the water make tiny waterfalls over her breasts. When she is finished washing, she carefully dries her body and her eyes and then reaches down to touch the closing petals of the achiote bush. Her tears start again, and they fall, like shining droplets in a shower of sun, onto the petals. She’s noticed that each day the bush is a little larger, the flowers more profuse and she wonders, in her despair, if the salt of her tears is good for it. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Her mind returns to the night Lorenzo first left her. She had been sweeping the patio of the rose apple blossoms and her broom caught on the edge of the potato sack sticking out from beneath a bench. Inside the potato sack she found the uniform and the boots. Unwillingly she tears herself from her memories. The musk of evening, of peat and crushed grasses and damp, is rising, and she needs to attend to the soup she left on the stove. She turns around and moves quickly up the steep bank of the river.
Tonight the radio is playing despechos and Isabella hums along to block out the thoughts. Her house is made of planks that have shrunk away from each other, and the floor is made of scrubbed earth. In the patio beside the house she planted flowering fruit trees, so that the sound of children playing and eating would always keep her company. Her favorite is the pomorosa, the rose apple tree. In bloom, its petals make a carpet on the patio in rose colored whorls and eddies.
From time to time she found small packages of eggs or a piece of meat at her doorstep. She liked to believe they were from him, but what were the chances, really? Isabella asked anyone who returned to the village, even if they had just gone into the nearest town to buy supplies, if they had seen or heard anything of him. Their response was always the same, they would shake their heads and turn away in embarrassment at the mother’s grief.
Isabella begins to go more regularly to the river to wash. The achiote plant continues to bloom, out of season, fed by the salt of her tears, and the plant continues to listen as she sings her hoarse songs. She looks forward to every chance to bathe in the stream and makes up excuses to leave the house multiple times a day. She walks toward the village and then circles back, undetected, to the river. She is so secretive about where she goes that people in the village wonder what she is hiding, what treasure she might be burying, what lover she might be hiding. One night, two boys follow her furtively through the forest and watch her as she kneels beside the achiote bush and begins to sing. “Loca!—You crazy old woman!” they shriek, not caring if she hears them.
One day, just as she was readying herself to make her third trip to the river, with her towel already wrapped around her waist, Beatriz-with-the-braids arrives at the door with two blond foreigners in red vests and three local teenagers with downcast eyes. Isabella doesn’t open the door all the way. She doesn’t want any news a foreigner has to tell. Beatriz insists that these foreigners have come all the way from Cali, and begs Isabella to let them in and to listen to what they have to say. Isabella doesn’t say yes and doesn't say no. Seizing her chance, Beatriz begins to tell the story, standing there in front of the half open door, Isabella’s eyes looking past her. She begins with the bodies washing down the river at precisely 12:05 on a Monday. The foreigners scribble in their notebooks. They nod approvingly at her precision. Isabella looks away knowing the story will end as ingloriously as it began.
The foreigners tell Isabella they would like her permission to exhume Lorenzo’s remains. Isabella, disoriented and disbelieving, wonders what good an unburial will do anyone. She agrees to accompany them and to identify the remains, just to make them go away. She prepares herself for the exhumation by putting on her best yellow dress, washing her face, and painting her lips with the powder from the achiote plant. She comes to the door, looking proud and frail, a few minutes later. The foreigners have been sitting at the plastic table in the patio drinking the juice of passion fruit she served them from her garden. They all stand when she enters the patio, out of respect for her and her grief. They walk toward the village square without speaking. Then, instead of proceeding further along the road, as Isabella expected, they veer off into the forest. When they reach the achiote bush, Isabella finally knows the end to the story that began at 12:05 on a Monday. She throws herself on the village boys begging them not to dig. But the foreigners in red vests assure the frightened youth that this Isabella is not feeling well and lead her home to rest. They pat her arm comfortingly and murmur their condolences with sad eyes.
Isabella wakes up with the damp sheet tangled around her, and the sense that Lorenzo is somewhere in the room with her. Blindly she pats the bed beside her, where she would put him down to sleep beside her when she first brought him home from the clinic. The mattress is cool. The darkness falls darker and then falls again.
After the foreigners have left the village, and there is a thin white cross in the cemetery with Lorenzo’s name on it, Isabella’s body begins to shrink. It’s as if a hole in her stomach has opened, and the sustenance of the world flows through it. She dies a few months later, alone, nothing but a bag of bones, according the villagers who tell her story. The reports of the foreigners with red vests don’t mention Isabella’s death nor the extreme difficulty they had separating the roots of an achiote bush from the eye sockets of the corpse.
This story, an invention, arose from a story a Colombian migrant in Ecuador told me about how, at a certain point during the Colombian civil war, bodies started to float down the river past her village in the Putumayo. It got to the point where it was too dangerous to give the bodies a dignified burial, so they would drag the bodies to shore with a stick and bury them on the banks of the river. Many of the witnesses to those burials are now dead, but the bodies are still there.
The story I have written borrows the plot of the fifth story from the fourth day of the Decameron, in which Isabella’s brothers murder her lover Lorenzo to prevent their love affair from continuing. Isabella discovers the corpse, cuts off the head, and plants it in a pot of basil. Every day Isabella cries over her pot of basil and her tears feed the plant. When her brothers grow suspicious and discover why she is so attached to her pot of basil, they take the pot away from her and Isabella dies of grief. John Keats also borrowed the plot of this story from the Decameron, more faithfully than I do, in his poem, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil.”