The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
The Cedar Tree Child
Based on a legend from the province of Napo in Ecuador's Amazon region.
On the banks of the River Napo, known to local people as the Jatunyacu, because it is the biggest and longest river in the area, there lived a community, whose name has been forgotten with the passing of time as the story passed from each generation. The habitants lived by hunting on the riverbanks and fishing in that immense, snake-like river that dominants the area.
One such inhabitant, whose real name has also been forgotten but in modern times has been called Lisa, had grown into a beautiful young woman, as delicate as a flower. Her neighbour and childhood companion, Abel, whose original name has been lost, began to watch her each day with his dark, ocean-deep eyes. A great love had awoken within him.
Time flew by like arrows raining in and piercing each sun at dusk. Abel went down to the river everyday on the pretext to go fishing, but in reality, he went only to stare hopelessly at Lisa as she came to the water's edge with a handful of clothes and a rock to wash them with, oblivious to his attentiveness. But, as often is the case when a man falls in love with a woman, she also began to see in him something that she had never seen before. First she felt flattered by his attention, then realised that she became annoyed whenever he was too busy to show her attention, having been called away to hunt. And so, little by little, Lisa became aware of the fact that she too felt joy in his presence and that it was not merely out of gratitude, for others had paid her attention in the past and she had ignored them with ease. Lisa began to see all of Abel's good qualities: that he rarely spoke harshly to anyone, that he was hard-working and kind to others. A deep passion stirred within them and their love took on all the fierceness of the rushing current.
Everyone in the community learnt of their love, except their own parents. And that which happens when love is strong and true came to pass. One day, at twilight, the two young people joined their bodies together at the foot of an immense cedar tree with all the youthful hope of their tender years.
Lisa woke the next morning singing.
One morning, Abel decided to hunt on the other side of the river, even though the water had risen treacherously high and all had warned him against it. He was spirited and liked to challenge himself against nature and so went ahead anyway. He found the waterside empty and abandoned by all people and animals, but still he was not afraid. He knew that the other side would be teeming with animals who had not dared brave the fast-flowing river and that he would catch enough to feed himself and his family for weeks to come. So he strapped his raft to his back, climbed down the riverbank, using tree roots as footholds and railing for his hands to clasp, waded into the water, careful not to lose his balance and be swept away, and placed his fragile raft on the waters before leaping onto it.
He then saw how turbulent the water was, and half of him began to wish that he had not been so fool-hardy and had waited until the next day to go hunting. He saw how the river carried along branches, and even whole trees in its unstoppable path. Rapids raged and a whirlpool was soon fast approaching poor Abel. He had not brought with him an oar, since it would have weighed him down on his journey from his choza to the river, and he believed that if an oar was necessary, he would have time to break off a branch from an over-hanging tree. But now there was no time, and he lay flat on his stomach so as to be able to paddle with his arms thrust deep into the water. A panic now rising in his throat, he put all the strength of his youth into those arm strokes, desperately trying to outrun the vortex that was sucking everything in its path into its epicentre. But he did not turn around to see branches, fish, leaves, stones, sand, and rocks get twisted and lost inside the whirlpool, he just kept on paddling and paddling ahead. At first, he had some success at swimming against the current and seemed to be putting some distance between himself and the whirlpool, but then after a time, as his arm muscles grew tired, he found that he was merely keeping himself from being thrust backwards and was only managing to stay stationary, until at last, he was too weary to even keep himself still and began to be dragged helplessly backwards, towards the ever-growing whirlpool. Both man and boat disappeared into the watery vortex.
Lisa knew before anybody told her. It was as if love itself had communicated directly to her, some spirit of love had carried a message from Abel's lips right to her own ears. She heard him say, “I am sorry my love, but do not despair.” That was all. She waited expectantly, hoping that that spirit would have mercy and give her more of the message, but it appeared that her love had not had time to elaborate, and that those nine words were all she would ever have. She asked the spirit if she could see his body, if there was...anything left of him, but there was no reply, and she knew that the spirit could not bring itself to tell her the horrible truth that there was no trace left of the man or his raft on the unfeeling land.
Her sorrow was inconsolable. She wept and wept as if her very heart would fall out. The river had been her confident and friend in concealing the truth from her parents until they were ready to reveal their love, and now it had betrayed them both. The cedar tree had been her comfort and shelter and yet that same tree had watched her lover die so terrible a death. And, to add to all her woes, the poor girl now carried new life within her.
She spent many sleepless nights wondering if the spirits would have mercy on her and take away that new life, and with it, take away all the hurt that had crept into her heart and would not let her go. She had seen many women lose their half-born children before in pools of blood and tears; all had been unwilling to part with their offspring. And here was she, willing for the child to leave her, and yet it would not. Her parents and brothers and sisters noticed that she had grown despondent and sluggish, but knew not the cause, and the rest of the community pitied the young girl and did not let on that Abel's death was the reason for her sorrow.
After having given up on that idea, she then spent many a night asking herself whether her parents would have pity on her and her condition, but knew that even if they had, the community would ostracise her and she would have no peace. And she would still be left pining for her lost love, and her baby would be fatherless.
So, when she could conceal her ever-growing belly no longer, she chose to follow Abel into the next life with her growing child inside, so that they would be free to love and nurture the babe, away from the curses and taunts of the village. She climbed the cedar tree by the water's edge, which was some feat even the size of her belly, and the weight of sorrow in her heart. She cried with every upwards step that she took, so much so that the tears blurred her vision and made her slip a few times, and once she even fell off the tree altogether. But, she was determined to see her lover again and free herself from the pain of their separation and so she dusted herself off and began to climb again. When she reached as far as she could, for all the branches above her were too spindly to hold her weight and she had no more strength to probe them, she left go of the branch she had been clinging to and let her body slip and fall, plunging her ten metres to the ground and to her death.
An elderly woman from the village discovered her body the next day when she passed by on her way to her chacra. Lisa's body was thin and covered in leaves and sand. The woman had known of Lisa's condition long before it was visible to the naked eye, for she was wise and intuitive, but the girl no longer looked as if new life had been stirring within her. Perhaps her sight was failing her, but Lisa looked as if she had miscarried, given birth, or that she had never been pregnant in the first place.
So occupied was her mind with trying to make sense of that puzzling occurrence that at first she did not feel the immense sorrow of her neighbour's passing. But then as she watched the flies buzz around the girl's lifeless body, she felt a sinking feeling in her gut and sighed deeply. She clutched her machete tight to stop tears from welling in her eyes, for she had been fond of dear Lisa, and it was distressing to see so much youth and beauty wasted and sullied by the forest's dirt. It seemed wrong to her that she should outlive the girl.
With determination, she hurried back to the community as fast as her ageing bones would allow, and went to delicately inform Lisa's family of her woeful passing. Lisa was the only daughter of their eight children, and so the news would not be easy to bear.
She found Lisa's mother rocking the youngest son who had just tripped over a sharp stone. “Ok, ok, my son, it doesn't hurt any more, there's no need to cry,” she was murmuring.
Her father was hollowing out a chonta trunk to use as a canoe, and the old lady thought it poignant that he should be doing so, given the way in which his daughter's lover had died, though the father still knew nothing of the love between the two of them.
Summoning up the courage to speak, and knowing that never had she had to do such a difficult task in all her life and that she would not likely ever have to do anything so hard in the future, she drew nearer to the three figures.
No amount of explanations or consolations were enough to comfort the grief-stricken family. They thanked the lady kindly enough for giving them the information, but they could not rest easily. They begged her to take them to where their daughter lay, and although the old woman was at first reluctant, because she was not sure they were strong enough just yet to see the pitiful sight of their daughter crawling with ants, she had to agree when she saw the determination in their eyes.
Just as the old woman had left Lisa- slender and dirty- there she was. She breathed a sigh of relief that she would not have to reveal that Lisa had been with child at the point of her death. The old woman was right that their hearts would find it hard to bear the scene laid before them. Lisa's mother fell to her knees and beat the ground and tore at her hair, wailing all the while for her only daughter. Her father clutched on to a branch of the cedar tree to stop himself from slipping to the groun along with his wife. He wept masculine tears, and rubbed gruffly at his eyes with the back of his hand. The little son was no longer crying about his stubbed toe, but instead hung his head and shuffled his feet.
Lisa was buried under that same tree. The old woman asked them to do so, because the tree had been special to Lisa. They inquired as to why, and she realised that she would have to reveal the love between Lisa and Abel.
Lisa's parents felt ashamed that they had not truly known their daughter and not seen into her heart. They never forgave themselves for not having known about the love between Lisa and Abel. They wished they had been able to support their child when she had been mourning the death of Abel, who had always been close to their hearts. They never knew about the unborn child, and so the notion of their daughter's and her lover's innocence was sustained in their minds. Nobody in the community had the heart to tell them.
It is said that still today, if you cross the river at that very point by yourself, where Abel meant his fateful end, you will hear Abel calling out for help and you will see a naked child crying at the foot of the cedar tree.
© Helen Pugh May 2010
helencatherinepugh at yahoo.co.uk