I grew up at the edge of the largest body of water on Earth. All the water we drank, cooked and washed with came from it as did the water with which we grew food. Its moods were our moods. Its currents massaged every continent and inland valley and – I imagine – it has a name in every language. Its name in English, “sky”, derives from an Old Norse word meaning “cloud.”
The rain that pounded the zinc roof of my family’s mountain-top home ran down its slopes and into gutters along each side. It poured into downspouts that guided it to the cement holding tank that was also our front porch and play area. Heavy rain on a zinc roof is like a long breath of thunder. Conversation becomes fragmented, only to resume when the drumming lightens to a manageable patter. At the edges of the roof heavy, twisted cables ran parallel to the gutters to disappear into the ground at the front and back. These were our protection from the reckless powers of the sky. They could deflect guide lightning harmlessly into the earth and hold the roof in place during hurricanes. A metal roof panel riding a hurricane wind can cut a person in two.
I lived in a three dimensional world in which the sky played all the angles. Some days we would look on the tops of the clouds, piled in the valleys. Farms and forest vanished and the sounds of mountain life -the clang of water buckets, the calls of roosters and the whine of jeeps climbing slippery clay roads at impossible angles – reached our ears muffled and distorted as though from another world. On other days when clouds hung low and heavy over our heads, the valleys would ricochet with the shrill cries of swallows, diving and weaving after their tiny insect prey, as it they headed close to ground in advance of the storm.
Every evening the sun plunged into the Mona Channel in the west dropping darkness on the mountain like a curtain falling across a stage. Silent cloud streams flowed across the sky and the land sank into a deep, regenerative darkness like that which has embraced the world since the beginning of time; the only light the occasional glint from a distant window or the flicker of a flashlight swaying along a forest path. The houses closed in on themselves, their wooden windows shuttered to hold the warmth of cooking rice and weary bodies.
On starry nights our ridge at the top of the cordillera afforded an unsurpassed view of our cosmic neighborhood, stars packed so densely there seemed barely a pin-width between them, let alone a million light years. We’d lie on our backs on the old coffee-drying surface by the house – a relic of the Spanish coffee plantation among whose bones our farm had taken hold – and trace the path of a satellite as it raced around the world – guessing at when it would reappear. Stepping into that night on the child’s errand of carrying trash to the garbage pit meant walking with eyes pointed upward to drink in that glorious spectacle of shameless indifference (even at the risk of being ambushed by a malicious tree root).
When the ocean above merged with that below, it could unleash a fury that would send us all, birds, humans, rodents and spirits, scurrying to our burrows. Massive cyclones two hundred miles across (twice the length of Puerto Rico), slamming into the fragile mountain barrier of our little world. Every home would be stocked with candles, kerosene, matches and canned and dried food for the long days and nights to come. Days and nights of raucous, howling winds and pounding rain. The excitement of us kids at the promise of a vacation from school would soon turn to boredom in the flickering eternity of houses boarded against the world. The electricity would have gone out on the first day, toothpick posts tossed carelessly aside by the invincible power of the sky. Then the silence. Roads blocked by derrumbes – tons of rain-softened clay released from their mountainsides; the occasional injured seabird hurled far from its hunting grounds.
When I was eleven I left the sky. The red-clay highlands of Maricao morphed beneath my feet into hard, grey Chicago sidewalks. My sister and I had read The Lord of the Rings and we named this new country “Mordor.” From the tar roofs of apartment buildings where we sneaked with new friends, we searched a craggy horizon of broken buildings and construction crane skeletons, fading into the streaked grey-maroon of a poisonous sky. To the south, the sleepless smokestacks of Gary pumped garbage endlessly into the clouds and the streets below rumbled with lines of soulless, steel gasovores, staring blankly from sightless headlights. The liquid song of the tree-frogs faded into the crackle of gunfire over on the west side and the thin wailing of goblin sirens.
It took me years to unravel the secret of this new Mordor: that its rulers do not believe in the rhythms of the land. They are ignorant of the ancient dance of forest and sky that brings forth the rain; of the deep, medicinal darkness of night; of the intricate pathways of insects and the sensual solemnity of burrowing worms. In fact, they distain the backwardness of those who know these things, this knowledge, that could threaten their insatiable appetites. Their water comes – on demand – from faucets, unaffected by drought; their food appears in packages, regardless of rain patterns or animal migrations; their waste disappears from their toilets and trash cans with never a thought wasted on where it went. For these reasons they believe that the Earth is a faucet, the land a vending machine and the waters a toilet.
When people ask where I am from I answer well enough. I might say that I’m from the Caribbean Sea, or from Puerto Rico, or the highland border of Yauco and Maricao. Maybe I’ll say that I live in Minnesota where the sky falls to the ground in the dark months. I might tell them that I’ve lived in various places or that my address at times has been a battered, green backpack. But these answers don’t satisfy. They can’t explain why my art is infused with the light of other worlds; why my feet tap to music that can’t be heard or why I fight so hard and so long and so fiercely for harvests I’ll never see. There’s another answer, though, one I haven’t said out loud before (you know how people look at you funny when you tell them things that are true). I’ll say it now. I come from the sky.