Puerto Rican Coqui
My Father's Island Home
In my fondest memory, my father stands in a stark white tee and faded jeans, against a rapidly darkening sky. In that one moment, emblazoned on my retinas still, his small sturdy form gazes out to the purple and green mountains across a small distance behind his concrete house. His back is to me and I can see his dark and sinewy leathered hands in his back pockets. He does not know that I am there. Lightning, huge and frightening forks of it light up the white, bare branches of a dying mango tree just below and I am transfixed upon the sight; my father contrasted in a darkend blur of blue and gold and green. I feel the wind, I hear the jungle, still...
It is hot and my senses are exhausted: too much heat, the colors all too bright, the smells too vivid, as if they had all turned into brilliant colors too. They invade my senses: Bananas never smelled like these back home, even the breakfast egg shells were too strong to crack and made me feel there was something rather wrong with the eggs than right. I ate the toast instead and left the eggs for heartier appetites.
This is my father's jungle home in the roof of the forest, it was his father's too, and his father before him, whom I never knew. And I have come to Paraiso de Dios, in the mountains of the rain, to take him away from it all.
My Father's People
It is odd to hear it said that the Tainos of old are gone forever. There, in El Yunque, the tropical rainforest of Puerto Rico, a few Tainos remain, defiantly living where they are no longer supposed to be. El Yunque is a lush and blossoming forest, it is the sole location of its mellifluous two-note frog, el coqui and the only American Rain Forest. It houses millions of insects shrieking in the night as well as those ancient few who remember still how a bohio hut, high off the ground, was made. My father's hamaca under his bohio was slung alongside that of his brothers and sisters as a child. He said that he lived there until hurricane Cyprian blew it away. Hurucan, it is a Taino word, like
My father's illnesses, which made me come there to take him away, were several. He had congestive heart failure and prostate cancer and had begun to have dangerous seizures, relics of a long past stroke. I had come to be with him at first, then cared for him long distance, guiding him, from the mountains where he lived, through the mountains of hospital red tape, until I had cancer too. Then I was too ill to care for him from far away. I took him away at last, after hurricane Hugo's devestation. I chased him from his star-lit home, forever.
In the midst of tropical storm Hugo's greatest fury, my father had watched in amazement as pink and blue and yellow bathroom sinks whirled in flight, randomly blowing in circles around his house. Wherever did they come from? he wondered. Days after the storm was over, the Red Cross got through, and helped him to phone out. He was shaken.There were no birds, he said, or insects. This frightened him almost more than the storm: It was the first time in his life that the nighttime jungle was nearly silent. He said that in the closest village and everywhere, people were homeless but that his house, exposed and at the top of a mountain, had withstood the furious storm. He said that God had protected him: even the flowers of his garden, alone among so many tumbled acres, survived the devastation.
"God has covered me with His hands," he said in a trembling voice, "and blown the world away."
I followed everywhere, sweating and climbing down behind him, to see the ancient Taino rock art, fabulous birds and drawings, ubiquitos, down in the dried out riverbeds below. He never sweat at all, and never seemed out of breath. I tried in that short time of change to record the plants and herbs my father grew to make people well and heal their wounds, but it was too much for me, too hot and humid and exhausting to toil after him trying to catalog the masses of green all around us.
I followed hot and sweaty through his garden of bananas and herbs. The impossibly spongy grass,like shredded lily pads under my feet. "The banana trees are beautiful! How do they grow from such little seeds?" He looked at his poor stupid child with mild frustration, "Bananas, do not grow on trees." He said patiently watching me sweat. He bent and showed me the fallen purple pods from which the sweet plants grew, "This, is how they grow," he said.
It was all alien and strange: bananas grow from pods? He had moved on, fingering his precious herbs with the bent and twisted fingers of his capable hands... "This one is for headaches and this for people with sugar and this for pain." I chewed it as he said to do and he was right; I was too busy throwing up through swollen lips to take much notice of the pain.
Man of Faith
So many came to him for plants and herbs and wisdom. They came for steel shelled eggs and orchids of the most facinating and miniscule varieties. They grew, it seemed, upon nothing, upon air, and they grew everywhere in coffee cans and biscuit cans and in the crook of tree branches; hanging over the edge of the porch, and gorgeously, precariously cascading from the moldy back staircase. He did not think much of the fact that everything he touched or planted grew to impossible size and abundance.
His little forest farm was his whole world. He rose to pray, his relationship with Christ always intimate and read his precious Bible every single day of my life; he ate lightly, left his hat on a hook and spent his entire day away from the house, out among his plants. The jungle grows a foot a day. He regarded it as a respected intruder in his well tended compound, and respectfully slashed every bit that dared to encroach on his land with his machete, which was never out of his scarred hand.
The day we left I took him to a new place in the jungle, El Portal, a visitors center, in the middle of El Yunque. It was my father's first awesome opportunity to see how vast the forest was, what other things grew there and that his captive birds were rare and endangered parrots. There were tears in his eyes as he completed the tour and we were about to leave.
He straightened his small frame and took a deep and ragged breath, then laughed and shook his head. Using his awkwardly bent thumb, muy macho, he proudly pointed, at his puffed out chest, "All this was here, right under my feet," he said, "and all mine. " He turned his thumb to point at me, fixing me with his gleaming, tear-lit eye, "All of it: all mine... and yours."
"Don't forget that," he said softly, and walked away, hatless in the noonday sun.