By Night the Mountain Burns

Like all the inhabitants on our Atlantic island, we lived in the big village during the rainy season and went to the settlements in the dry season, to eat whatever we could find there.

The house in the big village was full of women, my grandparents having had only daughters. We children were the offspring those women had brought into the world and, as they were all about the same age, and saw that their mother, our grandmother, was still fit and strong, they had us believe that grandmother was really our mother. We never spoke of our fathers. If we needed a man to comfort us, we went upstairs to talk to the only one we had, our grandfather, who sat staring at the mountain.

Fish was for us a product of primary necessity; if there was no fish, you didn’t eat. What I didn’t realize as a child was that the whole island suffered from disastrous shortages. Yes, they can be described as such. And maybe I didn’t realize the island suffered disastrous shortages because I didn’t wash my own clothes or light the lamp in our house. Therefore I didn’t know there was no soap on the whole island and I didn’t realize that kerosene was in such short supply that at a certain time at night we had to switch the lamp off or turn the flame down to preserve what little we had. Reducing the light’s intensity was a tricky operation and only grandmother did it well. It seemed like such a simple thing but really it wasn’t and if you hadn’t mastered it, and we little ones never mastered it, nor did our aunties, it was better not to get involved. Only grandmother did it well, and this was significant, for it might happen that the lamp went out in the middle of the night, leaving the house in total darkness, all because whoever had reduced the flame had not done so with a steady hand. Then grandmother would have to trouble herself with getting out of bed and calling for a neighbor in a low voice, asking if we might relight our lamp from hers. And grandmother did this because she believed that so many children under one roof ought not to spend the night without any light, in case something happened to one of us and some problem needed resolving. And why did she call on the neighbor in such a situation? Because the neighbor shared her sentiments and also kept the light on low all night. And because we didn’t have any matches in the house.

When the lamp went out before we’d gone to sleep for some reason, it constituted something of an education for me: I started to learn about our life and started to realize that things weren’t the way I’d always seen them. I started to realize that we didn’t have it so good. That kerosene, the liquid savior, was scarce, that we had no matches and possibly no soap either. But how did all the kerosene lamps in our big village get lit? The same way the fires were lit. You took a coconut shell, with its leftover kernel, and went to the neighbor’s house, or to the neighbor’s neighbor, and asked for some burning embers. And you went back home and got some kindling you kept in the house and added it to the embers and the cuscús, which is what we call the kernel when it goes dry after all the oil is pounded out, and you’ve lit the fire. If your neighbor had matches but already had a fire going in the stone tripod, she saved on a match and sent you into the kitchen to light your lamp. You had to kneel over the ashes, and this always betrayed what you’d been doing, though some people were able to squat and avoid getting dirty.

If your immediate neighbor had nothing to make a fire with, you went to the next one, and from the next one to the next one, a hundred yards, two hundred, it didn’t matter, you might walk two hundred and fifty yards until you found someone with smoke coming out of their kitchen. Often what you did when you were sent out with the lamp was peer over the rooftops looking for smoke. Then you headed straight for where you saw it, avoiding having to go from house to house singing “Mom says can we have some fire?” That’s what you said in our island’s language.

What with going from house to house asking for embers, a matchstick, or a fireside to kneel over and stain your knees on, I realized that the adults on the island were exasperated by our situation and sought solutions in everything they could lay their hands on. But they could hardly lay their hands on anything, for our island was all alone at sea and there was no other land we could join forces with to combat our lack of everything. It was around then that I realized we islanders had no one to depend on but ourselves. That’s to say, we were on our own out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. People had given up hope of the boat ever coming back—the boat from the place where our fathers were. And in this great solitude, they stared out at the horizon all day, looking for a boat to appear that we could go and ask for things from. As children we saw how they rushed out to sea whenever they saw a stick on the horizon, thinking it might be a boat full of everything we needed. And they set off chasing after it with such conviction that they persuaded themselves the strength in their arms was equal to the power of the motor on the boat they were trying to catch. In any case, they tried, and they came back looking so disappointed it was as if they’d received confirmation that our situation was hopeless.

©Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. Translation © 2014 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.