THE GIRL WHO APPEARED
IN A TREE
When Salomé finally wrote to her daughter—by then a young woman, a stranger, thousands of miles away—she said everything that disappears is somewhere, as if physics could turn back time and save them both. It was a maxim she'd learned in school: energy is neither lost nor created. Nothing truly goes away. People are energy too, and when you cannot see them they've just changed places, or changed forms, or sometimes both. There is the exception of black holes, which swallow things without leaving even the slightest trace, but Salomé let her pen keep moving as if they did not exist.
Her skirts were wet and clung to her legs and her pen moved and
moved without her hand seeming to push it, forming the spires and
spikes and loops of cursive words, sharp t's and j's, y's and g's with knots
at their base as though to tie themselves together, tie women back
together, and as she wrote the loops grew large, as if more rope were
needed to bind what had blown apart inside her, and not only inside her
but around her, and before her, in her mother's days, her grandmother's
days, the hordes of stories Salomé had not lived through but that came
to her as stories do—copiously, uninvited, sometimes in an easy sprawl,
sometimes with a force that could drown you or spit you up to heaven.
Other stories had never come; they went untold. They left hollow silence
in their place. But if it was true that everything that disappeared was
somewhere, then even those still breathed and glittered, somewhere, in
the hidden corners of the world.
The first day of a century is never like other days, and less so in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, a speck of a town, known for starting centuries with some peculiar miracle or another. And so the townspeople were primed that morning, ready, curious, tingling, some drunk, some praying, some drinking more, some stealing gropes under bushes, some leaning into saddles, some filling gourds of mate, evading sleep, peering at the slate of a new century.
A century before, in 1800, when Uruguay was not yet a country but just a slice of colonial land, huge baskets of purple berries had appeared at the altar of the church. They came from nowhere, succulent and perfectly ripe, enough to feed the town twice over. An altarboy called Robustiano had watched the priest open the door to find the gift sweltering under Christ's feet. For years Robustiano would describe the priest's face when he saw those berries sweating in the stained-glass sun, three baskets as wide as two men's chests, the fragrance rising to intoxicate God. Robustiano spent the rest of the day, and the rest of his life, describing the way it happened. "He just turned white, white as paper, then he went pink, and his eyes rolled into his head, and—páfate—he collapsed onto the ground! I ran over and shook him, calling, Padre, Padre, but he was like a rock." Years later, he would add, "It was the smell that was too much for him. You know. Like the smell of a woman who's been satisfied. El pobre padre. All those nights alonehe couldn't take it, those berries hot from the sun, in his church, too much for a priest."
Women, gauchos, and children came to feast on the berries. The pews were not accustomed to such a crowd. The berries were small and bulbous, ripe and tart, different from anything that had been seen growing in these lands. As the town lay down for a digestive siesta, an octogenarian stepped up to the altar and told the tale she'd heard in her youth, of the miracles that came to Tacuarembó on the first day of each century. "I'm telling you," she said, "this is our miracle." Her bearded chin was stained with convincing purple juice. Miracles are miracles, she said; they come unannounced and unexplained and have no guarantee of giving you what you want; and yet you take them; they are the hidden bones of ordinary life. She told them the story of New Year's Day one hundred years prior, in 1700, exactly as it had been told to her, and no one had a decent reason to doubt this: on that very day, songs in the old native Tupí-Guaraní language had haunted the air, from one sunrise to the next. Though most tacuaremboenses had native blood mixed in their veins, even back then many had lost the tongue. But still, the sounds were unmistakable: the guttural clips, the lilt like a stream shocked by stones. Everyone could hear them but no one could find the singers; the music rode, disembodied, potent, broken, on the wind.
Excerpted from The Invisible Mountains by Carolina De Robertis Copyright © 2009 by Carolina De Robertis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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