Tuesday, February 19, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The One Who Carries The Sun On His Back

The One Who Carries The Sun On His Back
Louise Young

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Sendero Las Brujas–the Witches’ Trail–climbs steeply through coffee fincas and sugar cane plantations toward the scraggly forest that crowns the Continental Divide. Veils of clouds swirl, alternately concealing and revealing the sensuous curves of the surrounding mountains. At the forest’s edge, the path takes a right angle turn and follows the sweeping crest of a ridge toward the volcano–Cerro Tutu–that gave birth to this landscape in the time before time.

The sendero is different from trails that I’ve hiked in the US, footways that wander through wilderness set aside purely for recreation. The Witches’ Trail is a community path. On any given day, its dust might hold the imprints of the bare feet of native Buglé children trudging to school; the rubber boots of campesinos–cane cutters or coffee pickers–with machetes in hand and lunches slung in string bags over their shoulders; and the slim sandals of women, their otoe and yucca and tomatoes bundled in voluminous rebozos together with one or two sleepy-eyed infants. A mile out of town, I was passed by two unshod horses barely as tall as I am, their panniers balancing paired milk cans. Behind them a young Buglé man wearing bright purple pants and the ubiquitous knee-high rubber boots answered my greeting with a slow smile and an even slower “Bue-e-e-e-nos.”

But that was half an hour ago: I haven’t seen a soul since the trail was swallowed by forest and clouds. This mountain isn’t high enough–or pristine enough–to support a true cloud forest, although today the dripping drizzle and thick mist provide a passable imitation of jungle. What surrounds me, though, is all young growth, disturbed and patchy. On the Caribbean side of the divide, the rainforest is unbroken except by small communities of Buglé people, isolated by hours of mountain walking from the nearest settlement, itself an island in the jungle of green that extends all the way to the Mosquito Coast. A true wilderness: yesterday, when I hiked through that jungle, I encountered a woman who hid her face in fear of my sunglasses.

Today I am without sunglasses. The mist that sits on top of this mountain and saturates the cotton of my t shirt is even more confining than yesterday’s constricted jungle terrain: in the milky atmosphere I can see an arm’s length in any direction, no farther. Instead of softening contours, the overarching clouds sharpen sensory impressions, rendering every sound abrupt and incongruous: the fall of an unripe mango is as startling as a gunshot; the whisper of water in a creek becomes a witch’s song.

PHOTO: Ken Mayer

And that’s why I almost jump out of my skin when I hear rustling in the leaves at the edge of the trail. I immediately look to the undergrowth for a clue to the origin of the sound. The scraggly leaves of the low bushes tremble and wobble not two feet from my two feet. Something is moving down there, something big: something amorphous, something that I can’t identify. It seems composed entirely of mist, of smoke and fog and–a smile.

That’s the first feature that I make out: a smiling face turned up to me. Calm, composed, at peace: it’s impossible not to smile back in return. But the smiling gray face displays no acknowledgement, no change in response to my greeting. The smile–now seeming more imbecilic than cheerful–remains rigid on the fog-gray face.

The rest of the animal’s body materializes behind the head: it’s a three-toed sloth. About the size of the cur dog that you played with as a kid, the creature is covered from head to toe with long, coarse gray fur that makes it seem more a part of the clouds than a living, sensate being. Perhaps this ghostly creature is the witch for whom this trail has been named: its frozen, non-responsive grin has begun to assume an almost spooky appearance.

The sloth’s attention seems to be focused entirely on me–or at least that’s how I interpret the blank stare in its heavily browed eyes. One lanky arm extends forward as if the animal is reaching out to me. But there’s no hand that I can see, only three scythe-like yellow claws that plant themselves in the dirt at my feet, anchoring the tip of the arm. In painfully slow increments, the rest of the sloth’s body is dragged toward me by the winch-like strength of that one arm. The charge–if indeed that is what the creature intends–is so deliberate that in order to escape all that I need to do is step out of its way.

Which is what I do. My flight seems to confuse the sloth: it pauses for a deliberate moment and then changes direction. Although “changing direction” implies an abrupt turn: the sloth’s reversal is much less defined. When its entire body has pulled up even with its first clawed anchor, the animal extends the opposite arm this time it’s the left one–ahead again. But the line of advance now points toward the other side of the trail: the trajectory of the movement has altered slightly. The sloth is no longer charging me: it now seems intent on crossing the trail.

It is four arm extensions before the sloth attains the vegetation on the other side of the trail, four drags of the limp, apparently muscle-less torso through the bare dust. I’m less than a foot away the whole time, so I can observe in minute detail the dynamics of the animal’s locomotion. The back legs, less than half the length of the forearms, act as levers that help to propel the stumpy body forward. The head remains raised, eyes focused on a tree at the other side of the trail–the goal: the place where the sloth can regain balance and footing and equilibrium. The animal is vulnerable on land, slow and awkward and defenseless.

But you’d never know it to look at its face. The features register no fear, no hope, none of the strain of moving in an unfamiliar terrain, no anger, no aggression: just the sad clown’s smile with which it will greet each dawn and noon and midnight from birth until the moment an eagle or a jaguar or a campesino’s bullet puts an end to its life.

I’ve seen sloths before, hanging pendant from the branches of cecropia trees, or curled asleep like a gray bee’s nest in a convenient crotch. But I’ve never had the opportunity to observe a sloth from this angle, and as I study the animal I am stunned by what I see on its back. Between the sloth’s shoulder blades, the jungle of lank gray fur thins. Like a parting of the clouds, the hair shortens and lightens to a rich cream color. A ridge of black defines the spine, flanked by half a hand of similarly dark dots. But most remarkably, in the center of the sloth’s back is a circle of yellow-orange fur, about the size of a Crusader’s cross, that stands out as bright and colorful and beautiful as the sun. I’ve never seen anything so incongruous, so unexpectedly colored, so incredibly beautiful on any animal in the wild. And seeing this, I now understand the sloth’s slow, deliberate movements, its inability to stand upright on four legs. Carrying the weight of the sun on your back–all of the world’s light and energy and hope, all of the dreams of this generation and of all generations for years to come–is a lot of responsibility for one small, hairy, perpetually smiling creature.

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