Pablo Antonio Cuadra

- translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White

The Mango Tree

The lips that kissed you also told you,
“It’s time for you to put down roots like the trees.”
But you know about trees.  You know about their different
        kinds of wood and growth rings.
Over the centuries, you’ve followed their slow caravans.
You’ve seen them in the jungles, by the great rivers,
their green hands covered with tangled vines and parasites,
fleeing into exile together with their birds.  Fixed in space,
they make their pilgrimage.  They are one invisible step
ahead of civilization.
You know about trees.  You know
the native trees that helped to lift the land.
        River shepherds.
Trees that are so deeply Nicaraguan, like the pochotes,
which, even when slashed for kindling, sprout up again
        from the land.
And you know the strangers to this place
such as Senegal’s abundant icaco tree,
or Algeria’s pomegranate, or the immense breadfruit
        tree from the Moluccas,
or the mango that arrived in Nicaragua from distant Hindustan. 
It was in Calcutta (or Kolkata) where the galleon reached
“A little more favorable wind and all of you will become rich    
        and blessed with good fortune,” 
says Captain Céspedes de Aldana.  Then they altered their course     
and crossed seven hundred churning leagues of the Gulf
of China or the Philippines in their galleon on the so-called
        “South Wind Journey.”
There, the Captain found ivory and gold brocatelles, taffetas
        and damasks.
And as he brought a plant on board with its newly formed leaves,
the beautiful Hindu woman told him, “Let this tree
        bear witness to your pledges.”
But people laughed and spoke about the affair in low voices,
everywhere, once Aunt Elisa and Aunt Mercedes had retired
    to their solemn chambers.
Aldana had rescued them from the gloom of spinsterhood
by bringing them to America, seasick, almost ruing
        their new bad fortune,
but bound for marriages of honor and profit.
At that time, Granada had two hundred inhabitants, mud-walled
        or lime-covered adobe buildings with ceramic roof tiles,
as well as a pretty church:
a fistful of salt in the vast tropical greenness.
And in Aldana’s house, there was an astrolabe, a compass,
        and rolls of maps stained by seawater,
and the first clock brought from Germany, which he installed
like a tabernacle in a formal room
so the time it kept could guide the schedule for mass and
        meetings of the town council.
And in the courtyard, the mango tree, the first mango tree.
"I have heard," he would say, "that the learned Muslims claim
this fruit to be the avatar of a mysterious bird
called Jatayu,
bird-king of Hindustan,
red and black because the sun scorched its wings,
which means that it must be from the genus of the phoenix,
        from the Arabs, because it nests in fire.”
                And the Indians
transmitted this legend, but changed it,
saying that Mango trees bear fruit to give back
the soul or yulio of the chichiltote bird,
the flaming votive bird of the Chorotegas.
And there was once a poet who sang of that fable:
“You can hear the song and laughter of the fruit
        beneath its skin.”
On his first sweltering nights in Granada,
Aldana, that old wolf Juan Céspedes de Aldana,
always dressed in leather and suede, despite the heat,
        and wore
the featherless hood of the earliest sailors.
And he would weep as he thought of his faithful
47-ton caraval, “The Greyhound,”
built and armed by him with the proceeds
“from the many taxes he levied on the land he owned,”
and of its masts from Moguer, and his father, Don Alonso,
patriarch of the Pinzón family,
and of Diego de Lepe and Juan Díaz de Solís,
captains and pilots,
who were among the first to cross the equator
and who saw not only new lands but new stars as well.
And every time he harvested his mangoes,
as he passed around the fruit on a silver platter
        to his neighbors,
he would repeat the stories of his travails on his journeys:
On the perverse Sargasso Sea filled with ship-swallowing
or on the passage through Guachinchina,
a gulf with many small hills and sandbanks,
replete with an Emperor and pearl divers,
or in the Philippines, where the women, Aldana said,
were incredibly chaste, with no conception of lust
or unfaithfulness to their husbands.
Then he would look at those who had gathered to hear him
and lower his booming pilot’s voice
(he had the round ironic face of the Aldanas,
and their instincts, too, while his smile was a half-smile, really –
the rest of his sense of humor was in his eyes):
“She planted the seed during the full moon
and married the tree in her pagan rites, joining two branches.
Ah!  She had the biggest and brightest eyes a man
        could ever see!”
But Felipillo, his knock-kneed dwarf servant,
added the detail that Yadira’s breasts were anointed
        with sandalwood,
which made the heat bearable for the navigator.
His somewhat disillusioned grandchildren
inherited confusing chronicles, but could still read
the name of the plant in Sanskrit
in his diary with its yellowing pages,
and see drawings in ink from the Orient
of its polygamous flowers,
and its lanceolate leaves, dark green and shiny,
and the red fruit shaped like a heart.  (“It will multiply
my heart,” predicted the woman.  And so it did,
        in thick bunches,
every time they made love.
With every heartbeat of the lovers,
more fruit came into being.)  Now
not even one stone remains to mark the old patriarch.
He chose an impetuous land of history, heated to the point
        of calcination,
and filibuster William Walker’s fires erased his name
when he burned the temple where Aldana
twice entered with bare feet to fulfill his pledges:
Once with a wax candle in his hand
when he lost his ship (after almost reaching home)
in a wind-whipped downpour on the Gulf of Papagayo,
and then again as a corpse,
wearing a Franciscan robe and hood.
The mango tree also burned its story in time:
and now you consider it from this place.
It professes a familiar green,
was born in your islands,
accompanies you in rows along both sides of your roads,
grows in the courtyard at home,
takes in
your native birds
as it interlaces breezes and the drone of locusts
like a hammock
for your siesta.

Granada / Gran Lago.  1978