At dawn the long-limbed shadow
that all night had blocked a northern
slice of stars
takes on color, changing minute
by minute from black to indigo,
from indigo to ochre,
from ochre to flaming red.
Takes on a kind
of substance, part earth,
part sky: a middle term
without which either side remains
Even in the heat of noon–he muses,
watching the camp come to life–
these desert mountains remain
in a semi-liquid state.
More than mere mirage
or bank of cloud: something
none of the languages he’s learned
can quite encompass.
A substance perhaps closest
to quicksilver, which the alchemists
personify as Mercury,
messenger of the gods.
Or like molten glass:
not much of a stretch, considering
how the mountains resolve
into frozen layers of sand
at one’s approach. He recalls
the view from the slave
quarters in Azemmour,
how the distant hills
hung in the southeast
like the shadow of a smile
on the lips of a not-yet lover.
If mountains didn’t exist,
Esteban starts to murmur–
& breaks off, a sudden recollection
rising into view. When
had his mother ever
mentioned mountains? In all
the boundless lands south
of the Sea of Sand–where mountainous
islands made fortresses, bandit
lairs for the Blue People–
nowhere in that vast savanna
can he remember hearing
rumor of sierras. Tales
of mighty trees, yes–
some fat enough, if hollow, to house
an entire flock of goats, others
with crowns that shaded villages,
tasted the clouds.
But the biggest of trees can’t give refuge
to a persecuted people.
(To be continued)
none of the languages he’s learned: Cabeza de Vaca makes it clear that Esteban had served as the main translator for the Four, though evidently they were all fluent in Native American sign language. This, combined with the obvious fact that Esteban probably grew up trilingual in the Portuguese colony of Azemmour and would have learned Castillian after being sold to the Spanish, influenced my portrayal of him as proficient in many languages.
Sea of Sand: The literal meaning of “Sahara” in Arabic.
the Blue People: The desert-dwelling, nomadic Tuareg, so called because of their distinctive, deep blue robes.
some fat enough, if hollow: This is no exaggeration – some baobab trees do grow that big!
others with crowns that shaded villages: This is a reference to the kapok tree, revered as a representation or hypostasis of the mythic world-tree in parts of both Africa and Mesoamerica, where the species is known as ceiba.