Authors: Harry Steinman
The trip southeast to Abuela’s home brought them to a quiet haven. They took a shared taxi, a
out of crowded San Juan to an area just outside of Fajardo, in the northeast. As dusk fell, they passed a glowing bay, lit from within by microscopic creatures. Marta was too tired to consider the natural wonder before her. Its cold, green glow looked to Marta like an entrance into a world beyond. A chorus of tiny tree frogs peeped a cheerful welcome to the unhappy girl. Marta stumbled behind Abuela along a path that seemed invisible until the old woman pointed the way. She barely noticed Abuela’s cabin as the old woman helped her into night-clothes and then into a narrow bed. Marta was asleep in an instant.
Despite the quiet night she slept fitfully. Her face was a mask of pain, and her fever waxed as full as the equatorial moon. The next morning Abuela prepared a simple meal, cornmeal cereal, fruit, and coffee. Marta picked at her food and stared at the bowl.
The small, wizened figure stood still save a crooning voice.
the old woman intoned, stretching out the vowels: child. A single word carrying six decades of love and wisdom.
Abuela touched her hand to Marta’s heart.
“At my shirt? At the button?” The girl’s voice cracked. She regretted the sarcasm.
“Estás tan airada.”
You are so angry.
“I’m just tired.”
Abuela pointed to Marta’s clenched fist.
“Why didn’t you come, Abuela? Mom needed you. Now Dad is, I don’t know, lost. He doesn’t think straight.”
Abuela said nothing. She took Marta’s hand and began, gently, to uncurl her fingers.
“There’s nothing you can do! Look at me. I have JRA. Do you even know what that is? It’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and it’s not going to go away.” She sobbed into her grandmother’s bosom. “What am I doing here? I miss her so much.”
Abuela reached into the same leather pouch that she had worn at Rafael and Elena’s wedding. It was the size of her fist and as worn as her sun-wrinkled brown skin. She took a handful of herbs she had picked at dawn—bright green leaves and deep lavender flowers—and placed them into boiling water as the girl’s tears spilled. A savory fragrance enveloped Marta.
“Drink this,” she commanded gently. Marta drank the liquid with a grimace. Warmth soon suffused her legs and they seemed to unlock, as if from their own volition.
Marta felt herself relax. “What was that?”
“The plant is called by many names. Here we call it
or false garlic. It helps with swellings. The pain will leave you for a little while and you can walk with me in the forest to meet Yocahu. Hija, come with me,” Abuela beckoned.
“You will meet him. El Yunque is his home. It is named for him.”
Marta felt lighter. Her legs lost their unsteady gait and she moved more easily. The two women entered the rainforest. A lush green canopy stilled the wind, and the sea’s gentle lapping was a distant obbligato, rhythmic counterpoint to the caws and twitters of the forest’s exotic birds. The ground was covered by soft mulch, centuries of decayed leaves that muted their footsteps. Golden sunlight refracted through the trees overhead, bursting here and there into a rainbow of colors. Angle lizards skittered across the ground and up the trees. Marta could taste salt in the moist sea air and her skin cooled as the fever abated. She drew in an easy breath and was no longer hunched in pain.
“What’s happening to me?”
“The pain leaves you and you are free to know yourself,” Abuela said. “It is a gift from Yocahu.”
“Who is this Yocahu?” Marta repeated. She felt lightheaded.
“He is the god of the forest, El Yunque. His healing plants are here.”
“Will this cure me?”
Abuela walked in silence before she spoke. “I do not know. I will tell you the names of Yocahu’s plants. I will tell you their stories. The rest you must find out for yourself.”
“Are there other gods here?”
“There are many, including the enemy, Juricán. He is the god of the hurricane. He is an angry god and even strikes those who walk with him.”
“I haven’t felt like this in a long time. I wish my doctor knew about your medicine.”
Abuela laughed, a pleasant sound, curiously basso. “It is not my medicine. But you are right. Hospital doctors do not know much about Yocahu’s plants. You could teach them.”
“Me?” objected Marta. “I’m just a kid.”
“Yes, but what becomes of children? They become adults. What becomes of adults? Do they follow their hearts or are they filled with discontent? Why not do what’s in your heart?”
“That’s a kid’s question?”
“Hija, it is the most important question. It is one that adults lack the courage to ask. Yes, this is very much a child’s question.”
They walked amid the plants and insects. Abuela touched Marta’s arm. “Be careful not to step on
the ant. He is a friend to the forest, but he can bite you.”
Now Marta laughed, thin and reedy. “I’m not worried about an ant.”
“Look at it. Why would I care about something so small?”
“What about you? You are small. Your legs give you pain. Why would anyone care about something as small as you?”
“I’m a person, not an ant,” said Marta.
“Is there a difference?” asked Abuela.
They walked further. From time to time, Abuela pointed to a flower or a shrub and explained how she used the plants’ healing parts, the bark or leaves or roots or petals.
“How do you know all this?”
“I am a bohique. A medicine woman. I am Taíno,” the old woman said.
“I thought there were no more Taíno people. Didn’t Columbus wipe them out?”
“Perhaps we are another part of the forest’s secrets. Columbus was the first Spaniard to find our island but he did not stay here. It was Ponce de Leon who enslaved us and caused so many deaths. He traded disease for gold. When we rose in protest he slaughtered us.”
“Did he kill the Taíno?” Marta asked.
“But if there are still Taíno, why do the books say that they’re all gone?”
“If there are no survivors, then there is no one to demand justice. So the records say we are no more. The records do not mention the places of the Taíno, like Orocovis, Caguas, or Yauco. Even in New Jersey and Florida you can find Taíno. The scientists say that there is Taíno blood in the Puerto Rican people, but they do not admit that the Taíno still live.”
“How come nobody knows about this?” Marta asked.
“I know. Now you do, too.”
They walked farther into the forest, past waterfalls and flowers, trailing coral reefs, beaches, lagoons, and mangroves. Marta heard the gentle cry of birds and the song of the tiny
frogs that had greeted her the night before. Abuela paused and Marta considered the old woman. A faint smile crossed her wrinkled face, and Marta saw something profound in her eyes.
“Listen well,” Abuela explained. “Remember bibajagua, the ant. If you learn how to care about him, you will learn how to care for yourself.”
“But that’s just an ant,” Marta said. “And he’s such a little thing,”
“He’s a little thing but precious.”
“I don’t know much about ants. They seem to do okay without me taking care of them.”
“A bohique does not have to care
everything. If you are going to care about the little precious things, then you must even care about the little deadly things.”
“What? Like, snakes? If I see a snake, we’ll find out how good your medicine is. I would run so fast!” Marta laughed again.
Abuela smiled with her. “How will you know the difference between the precious things and the deadly things?”
“I know what a snake looks like.”
“Can you see the snake’s heart?” Abuela asked. “What about bibijagua? Is he precious or deadly? His bite is painful. A colony can strip the leaves from an entire crop overnight. But bibijagua brings fallen leaves underground and makes the soil rich. So if we try to stop bibijagua because of his bite, then we lose the life in the soil. You must be able to see the whole of bibijagua to know if he is a precious thing or a deadly thing. It is the same with people.”
Abuela stopped and faced her granddaughter. She put her hands on Marta’s shoulders and held her firmly. “The precious things and the deadly things grow together in this world. They grow together inside people. Can you destroy one without destroying the other? Look at yourself. Your mother was so sweet, but helpless. Your father is so strong, but confused. But could you exist without both of them? Your father’s strength will give you courage to cope with your pain, and your mother’s blood will help you be a healer.
Marta walked and considered her grandmother’s words. Would she be crushed by her pain and her loneliness? She had no real friends. Other children ran and played but she was slow and lumbered. Her mother had the patience to walk with her, but her mother was gone. Maybe she was just an ant. But the tiny ant was powerful.
As Marta considered bibijagua, she felt a small change inside herself. It was as if the tumblers of a lock within her began to move. Their movement was fractional, but the distance they travelled was unimportant. It was their alignment that would let her grow despite her disability. Without realizing it, Marta determined that she would survive. She would find a way to thrive.
The old woman continued. “Here is the almacigo tree. You can use it to cure a stomach ache or diarrhea. And see this one that grows right next to it? This is the tartago, also for your stomach. Here is the cojobana tree. Her seeds will give you a vision to see the future.”
They passed through the forest, returning as the shadows lengthened. While her grandmother prepared supper, Marta fell into a pain-free sleep, her first deep slumber in months.
The hours and days and weeks passed for Marta. The soles of her feet toughened and so did her will to survive. Her skin had bronzed and radiated health. Marta was an apt pupil, hungry for knowledge. She learned the names of the flowers and trees and birds and animals and insects. She learned what leaves might cure a headache or fever and which ones might still a child’s crying. She watched intently as Abuela prepared breakfast and dinner. Soon, Marta prepared the meals, then the medicines. She was becoming a bohique.
As the pain in her legs diminished, she stood straighter and walked with confidence despite her awkward gait. Her neck looked too slender to support her head but Marta held her upper body erect, perhaps to compensate for her limp. She tossed her raven hair and it danced on her shoulders. Soon she would brush it to a luster and experiment with style, but for now she treated it with a child’s abandon.
As the pigment in her skin deepened under the equatorial sun, her teeth shone all the whiter. A beautiful smile escaped the custody of a once-perpetual frown. Marta radiated delight and unrestrained curiosity as she learned the lore of her people.
The days shortened just a little as the tropical sun moved to what passes for autumn so close to the equator. The temperature remained constant. Most of the season’s changes were subtle but Marta saw them. As the summer waned, Marta’s stay with Abuela drew to a close.
“Abuela, I don’t want to leave.”
“But children must go to school,” Abuela said. “And you will have a special school.”
Marta had been chosen to attend a charter school in East Los Angeles. Students from around the world would join Marta in an experimental school program created by the Hidden Scholar Foundation. It sought children who had two things in common: poverty and brilliance.
“When will I see you again, Abuela?” the girl said, choking back tears as she packed for the long flight home.
“You may come and visit anytime but you can see me whenever you look at the trees or the sky. I walk with Yocahu and so do you,” the old woman said.
Marta embraced her grandmother and hugged her fiercely. “I love you so much, Abuela. Thank you for teaching me.”
“You’re welcome, child. Remember what you learned. Remember bibijagua, the ant.”
“I promise I will. Abuela, before I have to go, please tell me one thing. When you married Mom and Dad, they had a vision. What did it mean?”
Abuela took Marta’s hands in her own. The carro publico was waiting to take her to the airport but Marta would be the first passenger and the driver was in no hurry. Marta could still hear the coquí frogs and the rhythmic whisper of the Caribbean’s small waves.
“Juricán will touch you,” the old woman said. “I do not know how. This is the meaning of the golden vine with the black strand. Juricán will come, not as a spirit, but in flesh and blood. You will have your own protector with his own knowledge and he will be tempted by Juricán. He may follow the hurricane or he may not. And a golden strand will grow from you as well, one that will know both Yocahu and Juricán.
“But you must take the knowledge you found here to the doctors of your world. These plants will disappear and the knowledge of the bohique will be lost. You must bring Yocahu’s gifts to the doctors of your world.”