Cachoeira

Marilyn Nelson

 
We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man
we’d hired as a tour guide, with a van
and driver, for the day. We were to drive
to Cachoeira, where the sisters live:
the famous Sisterhood of the Good Death,
founded by former slaves in the nineteenth
century. "Negroes of the Higher Ground,"
they called themselves, the governesses who found-
ed the Sisterhood as a way to serve the poor.
Their motto, "Aiye Orun," names the door
between this world and the other, kept ajar.
They teach that death is relative: We rise
to dance again. Locally canonized,
they lead quiet, celibate, nunnish lives,
joining after they’ve been mothers and wives,
at between fifty and seventy years of age:
a sisterhood of sages in matronage.
We drove on Salvador’s four-lane boulevards,
past unpainted cement houses, and billboards,
and pedestrians wearing plastic shoes,
and little shops, and streets, and avenues,
a park, a mall . . . Our guide was excellent:
fluent in English, and intelligent,
willing to answer questions patiently
and to wait out our jokes. The history
of Salvador flew past. At Tororo
we slowed as much as the traffic would allow,
to see the Orixas dancing on the lake
in their bright skirts. The road we took
sped past high-rise apartment neighborhoods,
then scattered shacks, then nothing but deep woods
of trees I didn’t recognize and lands
that seemed to be untouched by human hands.
We stopped in a village, where it was market day.
We walked among the crowds, taller than they
and kilos heavier, tasting jackfruit
and boiled peanuts, embraced by absolute,
respectful welcome, like visiting gods
whose very presence is good news. Our guide
suggested a rest stop. We were sipping Coke
when a man came into the shop and quietly spoke
to our guide, who translated his request:
Would we come to his nightclub, be his guests?
We didn’t understand, but shrugged and went
a few doors down the street. "What does he want?"
we asked. The club hadn’t been opened yet;
by inviting us in, the owner hoped to get
our blessings for it. Which we humbly gave:
visiting rich American descendants of slaves.
For hours we drove through a deep wilderness,
laughing like children on a field-trip bus.
We made a side trip to the family home
of Bahia’s favorite daughter and son,
the Velosos, Bethania and Caetano,
in the small town of Santo Amaro.
The greenery flew by until the descent
into a river valley. There we went
to a nice little restaurant to dine
on octopus stew, rice, manioc, and wine.
Then we crossed a rickety bridge behind a dray
drawn by a donkey, and wended our way,
at last, to Cachoeira, an old town
of colonial buildings, universally tan
and shuttered, darkly lining narrow streets.
A tethered rooster pecked around our feet
in the souvenir shop. At the convent
I wondered what the statues really meant:
Was it Mary, or was it Yemanja
in the chapel, blue-robed, over the altar?
Was it Mary on the glass-enclosed bier,
her blue robe gold-embroidered, pearls in her hair,
or was it the Orixa of the sea?
There were no Sisters around for us to see;
they were in solitude, preparing for the Feast
of the Assumption, when the Virgin passed
painlessly from this world into the next,
Aiye to Orun. Posters showed them decked
out for their big Assumption Day parade,
big, handsome mamas wearing Orixa beads,
white turbans and blouses, red shawls, black skirts.
The man in their gift shop was an expert
on the Sisters’ long struggle to find a way
to serve the Christian Church and Candombl .
The eldest Sister is called "the Perpetual Judge";
every seventh year, she becomes the bridge
on which the Virgin Mary crosses back,
sorrowing love incarnate in a black
ninety-odd-year-old woman facing death
and saying Magnificat with every breath.
We drove out of the valley looking back
on lightbulbs which intensified the thick,
incomprehensible, mysterious
darkness of the unknown. Grown serious
and silent in our air-conditioned van,
we rode back into the quotidian.
 
Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright © 2005 by Marilyn Nelson.

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