THE VOICE INSIDE THE CONCH SHELL
By Jaime Martinez-Tolentino
Awakened by the sun flooding the hut, Guanina remained perfectly still, breathing in the beginning of a new day. The warm morning air, scented with the smells of guásima, pitahaya and guavas, hummed with the mighty cry of life itself; like the moaning of a turtledove, or the songs of crickets and cicadas, the world was reborn as in the beginning of Creation.
The girl inhaled the aroma of the delicious manioc cakes that old Maguana was roasting, felt hungry and got up. As was her custom, she hurried to the river for her morning bath, and was soon back at the hut. She was happy and began to hum an old Taíno song as she tied her damp hair into two long, tight braids, but suddenly she remembered what day it was and grew sad. It was her birthday, and according to the ancient law, that evening she had to visit the bohique, the old medicine man Coabey, in order to learn what the future had in store for her. No one could refuse; it was the law decreed by Yukiyú himself.
In the course of the day, the work in the fields of the conuco, the spinning and weaving of wild cotton and the small domestic chores which old Maguana asked her to do, kept Guanina busy, but at sunset, after a dinner of fish and taro roots, the girl heard the distant, plaintive cry of a turtledove and her heart grew somber once again. Seeing her so sad. Mother Maguana decided that it was time to reveal the ancient legend to the girl, and poured out all her very old woman’s wisdom in an irrepressible torrent of words.
“In the beginning, Juracán ruled the world and all was chaos, storm and pain. But one day the earth shook with labor pains, and the good god we call Yukiyú was born. His birth angered the terrible Juracan, the agitator of the waves, who upon seeing his dominion threatened, decided to destroy the world. For three full days and three full nights, the mountains trembled, the skies were rent by horrible fiery flashes of lightning, and the seas beat against the shore unmercifully, but at the end of the third day, when the clouds dispersed, the world still existed and Yukiyú reigned supreme.”
“After the horrible battle, the good god felt a great fatigue come over him, and he lay down on a cloud where he fell asleep. He remained motionless for many moons, and when at last his body had recuperated, he rested and had a long, divine dream. He contemplated a land all bathed in sunlight, with trees, plants and hills; he saw birds, lizards and flowers; he bathed in limpid waters the color of the sky, and heard the gentle breeze whispering a sweet-sounding name: Boriquén.”
“When he awoke, Yukiyú saw that the land he had dreamt was real, and he felt the urge to explore it. He examined every comer of his beautiful island, he crossed mountains creating valleys as he went along, and he crossed meadows … but at sunset, the great god ceased his exhausting wandering and gazed upon the horizon. He saw how the majestic, golden sphere of the sun sank into the sea leaving a trail of gold, crimson and violet in the sky, and how it disappeared, blanketed over by darkest night. Then Yukiyú felt very lonely, and he wept bitterly. The torrent of his tears became a river which furroughed the verdant fields on its way to the sea, carving out forever the path of loneliness upon the earth.”
“The following morning, as he gazed at his face in the waters of a stream, Yukiyú was visited by a divine inspiration. He gathered clay on the banks of a stream, and molded two tiny dolls which he endowed with features in his own image. Then, he crowned the clay dolls with locks of hair taken from his own head and baked them on the coals of a slow, hot fire.”
“All of that day and the following night, the dolls remained in the fire, but at daybreak, when the god examined his work, he felt disappointed because he had not created living beings, but lifeless statues. Saddened, he thought of abandoning his project and made ready to cast the dolls aside, when suddenly, he had a revelation. He remembered that everything that lives upon the earth needs air, and then he inhaled deeply, drew the tiny figures to his lips, and in a long gentle kiss, endowed them with the gift of life.”
“When he placed the first Taíno man and woman in that garden, the god of good decided to remain forever at their side watching them prosper and grow, but out at sea, Juracán was spying on them, and in a fit of anger, he launched another attack upon Yukiyú. Suddenly, zig-zagging bolts of lightning lit up the skies, the wind roared furiously through the trees, and the sea made ready to cover the earth. Yukiyú protected his defenseless dolls and managed to repel the attack, but when it was all over, he grew sad and spoke thus to the beings he had created:”
“Taínos, life will forever be a bloody struggle between Juracán and Yukiyú. The evil god of the seas destroys; Yukiyú is all goodness and love. I have created you to keep me company, but I must now leave you alone upon this earth. Juracán pursues me, he lies in ambush at every turn, and if I remain at your side, you shall surely perish. I must return to my celestial abode, but I shall not abandon you. I know you are weak and ignorant, and that without my strong arm and my sure helm, you would soon succumb to the terrible forces of evil. That is why, once a year, on the day of your birth, I shall return to this earth and will reveal your future through my servant, the bohique.'”
When Maguana finished her tale, she disappeared inside the hut, only to return a minute later with a beautiful flower necklace and an old cemí. She adorned Guanina’s neck with the lovely maga flowers, placed the three-headed stone charm in her hands, and solemnly warned her:
“The god Yukiyú constantly watches over us; Guanina, fulfill your obligation. With these flowers, you will please the Father of the Heavens; with the cemí, you will drive away the maboyas, those frightful spirits of the night. Go and listen to the divine words of the bohique, for he will reveal your past and your future to you. And above all, follow his advice, Guanina; do not fall into the trap of He Who Raises the Tempest.”
That evening, an uneasy Guanina crossed the village, trying to ignore the curious glances, not wishing to hear the voices that followed her. She abandoned the village hastily, skirted the conuco and the sleepy fields of corn, and entered the dark forest. Her heart resisted the divine obligation because the medicine-man inspired fear, and Guanina was already afraid of him, but the law decreed that she had to go see Coabey, and Guanina would obey.
At the top of a hill, in a cold and gloomy place, the girl spotted a hut and approached it slowly. She stopped for a moment and shivered as she heard the almost human cry of the coots and the moaning of the wind in the distance. Then, suddenly, she was terrified as she heard a voice coming from the hut.
The girl wondered if she had really heard the voice that cracked like firewood in a bonfire, and she stood very still. Then she felt a sudden urge to flee when she realized that the wind seemed to be whispering her name. Guanina! Guanina! All her soul and body urged her to flee, to get away from there as quickly as possible, but Guanina did not flee. She controlled her fear, took three steps forward and entered the hut.
The place was in semidarkness, lit only by the weak moonlight that filtered through an opening in the roof and fell squarely on the ashes of an dead fire. With only that shaft of light to guide her in the darkness, Guanina was able to scan the floor of hardened earth, going beyond the hearth to the far wall where the heavy mass of an enormous tortoise shell rested. She then fixed her gaze this side of the hearth, and discovered two objects she hadn’t noticed until then: a sacred rattle to the right, and to the left, a huge stone cemí.
Suddenly, as she stared at the objects, Guanina perceived a strong smell of tobacco and noticed tiny clouds of blue smoke spiraling in the shaft of light, rising towards the ceiling of the hut and disappearing into the night. Sensing that she was not alone, she turned slowly until she found herself face to face with a lit cigar, and beyond the cigar, the penetrating stare of Coabey, the medicine-man.
“Welcome, Guanina, heart of star. Welcome, and be not afraid, for Yukiyú awaits you,” he said.
To her surprise, the feared bohíque was not at all as she remembered him, but rather a small, swarthy old man hunched over by the years. For that reason, the girl felt no fear when she faced him, nor when the old man walked towards the shell dragging his tired feet, and let himself down heavily. At a signal from him, Guanina approached and sat down.
“I see that Maguana has not forgotten that Yukiyú likes all beautiful things,” he said to her, staring at the flower necklace. Then, reaching behind the shell, Coabey produced a gourd filled with a thick, white liquid which he handed the girl, saying:
“Here, Guanina; drink some of this sacred cusubí and your senses will transcend the barriers of this world. Drink, for only by ingesting the nectar of the yucca root will you be able to understand the message that Yukiyú will pronounce through my lips.”
Guanina drained the contents of the small gourd as the medicine-man had ordered, and she immediately felt the brew burning her insides. Then she felt an intense cold which made her shiver. She noticed that her pulse was quickening, and she grabbed at her chest in a futile attempt to quiet the furious beating of her heart, but she felt so strange, so far removed from her own body, that her hand seemed foreign, and she studied it at length, as if seeing it for the first time. Then, while her head floated in thick clouds of tobacco smoke, she had the sudden impression that all her senses had awakened
from a prolonged sleep, and she was deliciously and intensely able to distinguish each one of the odors floating in the air: the smell of earth and humidity in the hut, the green juices of its walls, the distant memory of the sea incrusted in the shell, and the intense, inebriating perfume of her own body bathed in the vapors of the maga flowers. And over all the odors, over the thousand-times brighter glow of the moon, over the whispering of the leaves swaying gently in the night outside, Guanina perceived, as if coming from afar, the old man’s voice, serenely mellifluous and strangely youthful.
“Daca bohique, Guanina. I am Coabey, the sorcerer-medicine-man, and you know me well. However, when you entered my hut this evening, you felt afraid and looked at me as if I were a stranger. You should know that I’ve known you for a long time, and that I have always followed the course of your life with interest, sorrow and fear. You won’t remember it, but when you were small, you suffered a frightful fever which took you to the brink of death, and your worried parents (yes, Guanina, I knew them!),… your parents sent for me. For three whole days I was at your side putting compresses on your burning forehead, giving you infusions of soursop leaves, and untiringly shaking the sacred rattle so that our god would spare your life.”
“The second time I saw you, you were already a stubborn little girl. Right here, while you fretted wishing to return to your games, I revealed a very sad secret to you, a secret whose meaning you never understood because of your innocence. I saw how a spider pounced upon a kingbird, injected it with its terrible venom and dragged it towards a rivulet where it devoured it. And of course you know, Guanina, that several days later, the hut of your childhood was filled with grief when your father, out fishing in the bay, was captured by our enemies, the Caribs, and taken to the island called Bieque, from where he never returned.”
“The corn would ripen many times before I was to see you again, and once more, my eyes beheld a tragedy approaching your life. You had become afraid of me; I think you even blamed me for your father’s death, and you didn’t listen to me, you refused to believe this poor old man’s words, when I told you about the agony of a lovely dove being smothered to death by a liquid cloud. That was, Guanina, just before the great tragedy that still weighs upon you, just before your mother, the lovely Guaní, was dragged to her death by a surge in the river. Three planting seasons have gone by since that tragedy, and today, when your childhood begins to recede and you feel like a woman, you return to my hut to learn what the future of your brief, unfortunate life is to be.”
Hearing Coabey’s voice, the girl relived the painful memories he had awakened from their long sleep. Once more, she remembered the river leaping merrily among the rocks, she heard her own childish laughter, and saddened, she heard the loving voice that repeated, “Don’t stray from my side, Guanina, because the current is very strong.” On the heels of this memory, came another, even more remote. The darkness of the forest was suddenly replaced by the crude sunlight bouncing off the sand of a beach which she was seing for the first time, holding on to her father’s strong hand. That strong hand and its sure arm had disappeared forever, Guanina remembered, as two large tears ran down her face and settled on her flower necklace like dew drops.
The girl came out of her reverie, heard the dry sound of bones rattling against each other in a gourd, and saw how Coabey spilled them over the ashes of his dead fire. For what seemed an eternity, the old man scrutinized the patterns created by the bones as they fell, and then he closed his eyes, trying to decipher their meaning. Finally, he fixed his intense gaze on the girl, and in an ominous, strangely profound voice, pronounced the following words:
“Guanina, Daughter of the Sun, I was there when you were born, and I read your future in my necklace of ciba beads, but I never dared reveal it to anyone as I am now revealing it to you. Your mother brought you into the world on banks of a river, and according to the sacred legend, whoever is bom near the water is protected by Yukiyú. That is why you were saved from that terrible illness; that is why, though death has always followed you closely, you’re still alive. But remember that Juracán, too, is lord of the rivers and the seas, and that he has made all the tragedies of the Taíno people originate in the water. Your life, Guanina, is proof of that, and bears out the hatred that the malevolent god feels toward those protected by his rival.
Think of it, my child; water took your father away, and your mother also perished in the water. That element is your enemy, Guanina, and you should avoid it, but much to my dismay, I have heard that you feel drawn to it, and that it exerts a dangerous fascination over you. For a long time now, you have been seen by the river at all hours, bathing in its currents, or transfixed, watching its eternal flow; and lately, you wander all alone by the seashore, attracted by the enormous force of the ocean. Be careful, Guanina!”
Having uttered those words, Coabey removed the bones from the ashes, put them into the gourd, shook them again, and once more let them fall. Slowly, he studied their configurations again, but suddenly, he let out a cry, closed his eyes, and murmured mysterious words to himself, words devoid of all meaning for Guanina. A while later, trembling and quite pale, the medicine-man opened his eyes and beckoned the girl near so that she could read the terrible message. Guanina obeyed, and leaned over the shapes that had just fallen from the gourd, but try as she might, she could see only tiny bones stained with soot. Noting her bewilderment, Coabey decided to explain the secret meaning of those patterns that his ancient science allowed him to interpret.
“The ashes represent the earth; the floor of my hut is the sea. The straight, dark bones represent us, the Taíno people; those other white, twisted bones are our enemies. Observe, Guanina, that the white bones have fallen outside the ashes, and that they point menacingly towards the hearth, while the dark bones … us, Guanina, the Taíno nation … all lie broken within the ashes. But here, where the ashes and the earth meet near this tiny, broken bone, there is something which I can’t quite understand. It is a seashell which, without my knowing it, has gotten mixed in with the fortune-telling bones.”
Having said those words, the medicine-man closed his eyes, placed his hands on his forehead, and remained silent for a long time. At last, as if awakening from a long dream, he spoke again, in a tone that betrayed a deep concern.
“The message seems clear to me, Guanina, and terrible. A great tragedy looms over our world, bringing with it the destruction of the Taíno people, and that holocaust, as the bones indicate, will be brought to us by the waves of the sea. We might be facing a hurricane of such gigantic proportions that it will wipe out every man, woman and child on this island. It is certainly the worst calamity we can imagine, that is clear, but what I can’t understand, is the meaning of the seashell. Could it be, perhaps, a warning of the imminent danger that Yukiyú has wanted to send the tiny broken bone lying where the earth and the sea meet? I don’t know; I’m confused. I must reflect until I find the answer, because the very existence of our people depends on it.”
Coabey closed his eyes once again, and became lost in his thoughts. Guanina waited for him to speak to her again, but eventually she gave up when she realized that the old man was sound asleep. Free at last of the effects of the brew, the girl rose and left the hut, secretly glad that the horrible session with the medicine-man, his bones and his enigmas, had come to an end.
The following day, Guanina got up earlier than usual and ran down to the beach. Ever since she was a little girl, when, holding her father’s hand, she had first seen its immensity, she had felt an unexplainable fascination for the sea. Recently, in her loneliness, she had rediscoverd the ocean, and the mere sight of it was like a balm to her aching soul. She liked to come early, at daybreak, when the beach was still deserted, and she would sit on the rocks, her gaze lost in the distance. Later in the morning, she would remain transfixed watching the sun rise over the waters, and then she would feel small, very small, as she listened to the mighty roar of the waves beating against the shore.
On her frequent walks along the beach, Guanina had learned to value the delicate beauty of the gifts washed ashore by the waves, and she had begun to collect all kinds of seashells, algae and fragile starfish which she zealously hoarded in a cave she had discovered by chance one day. However, none of her treasures, not the starfish nor the lovely sea-horses, could rival the conch shell she had found in the sand one day. And that was because her shell, “The Great Conch Shell,” as she liked to call it, was no ordinary shell, for it possessed magical powers.
Guanina had discovered that the first time she had placed the shell to her ear. As she listened, she first thought she heard the roar of the sea, a thousand times louder, but then she heard something different; a sweet, harmonious music which was suddenly interrupted by a voice crying out, from deep inside the conch shell. Over and over again, on different occasions, she heard the same sequence of sounds, always wafting her away to distant lands with its gentle music, but which invariably always frightened her when she heard the voice crying out inside the conch. Guanina had tried and tried to decipher the bewildering message cried out, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not understand the words uttered by the voice because they were in a language that was not her own.
That morning, as the girl walked along the beach, she suddenly felt an urgent need to listen to the voice of her shell, and she quickened her steps, running towards the cave where she kept her treasures, but she searched every corner in vain, without being able to find the conch. Her shell, “The Great Conch Shell,” had disappeared.
Thinking that perhaps she would find it lying on the sand, she rushed out of the cave and began searching all over the beach, but then, all of a sudden, she noticed a strange dot on the horizon, out at sea. Slow and heavy, the dot grew and took on shape, until at last the girl was able to make out what it was: a huge canoe crowned with sails, floating over the waters, bound for the beaches of Boriquén.
And then, on the huge canoe, someone shouted out the words that Guanina had so often heard when she put her conch shell to her ear: Land-ho!