Yet, even after many decades, I could see Jaime and Tony vacillating between branching corridors, retreating into the inner topography of memory before disappearing behind a blind bend. Many of the conversations I recorded on tape were purely indicative: “Let’s go there” “Not later,” “And where is Javier?“Crosstalk, muffled laughter. Jaime told me that sometimes they came across the skeletons of goats that died lost in the labyrinth. We learned to listen to each other’s voices.

“I was crazy about her,” he explained helplessly.

In Cave Horse, Jaime exclaimed, “They stole it, Tony!When we found him, he was kneeling before what appeared to be an empty altar. La Cabeza – a glittering stone shaped like a skull on a slender neck – had been carefully decapitated. There was a market for that kind of thing: Manuel said he had seen small roadside roadside scammers in the Dominican Republic selling stalactites. Even in the dim light of our headlights, I could see Jaime’s face turning red, and I feared he might cry. “I adored her” he explained helplessly, using the word that blurs the line between love and adoration. “If I were Indian, this would be sacred to me.”

The older men in our group often spoke as if they had taken the place of the indigenous people. Jaime wore a necklace strung with three finely polished shell and stone beads that he had recovered from a cave years ago. Chito analyzed our dynamics as a ‘clan’. And Quique evoked scientific theories: had I heard of epigenetics? How Native Americans transmitted the traumas of hunger, displacement, and genocide from generation to generation? Puerto Ricans, he continued, must carry our own spirits with us. I was wary of these analogies, but I could also understand their emotional logic. Our guides had “the map”, the US government’s campaign against the Puerto Rican independence movement, when activists were surveilled and imprisoned, when close comrades turned out to be informers. They were nostalgic for what happened before the colonial encounter, when the islands they loved were sovereign. When we got back from Mona, Quique gave me a USB stick with scientific documents and a short essay he had written himself, simply titled: ‘Colonies are there to be exploited.’

I struggled to absorb the intensity of the information aimed at me. Elisa, who was often by my side, said it was like standing next to a fire hose. Buried treasures, political intrigues, grand theories, deaths and disappearances. I missed so much, but at least I was able to capture the poetic names and properties of local plants: tourist tree, because of its red and peeling bark, the cactus called snowball because of its crown of white down and thorns, called the plumeria bighorn wallflower. In the mornings when it bloomed, you could close your eyes and almost find your way across the island by following its fugitive perfume. Sea tobaccorolled and smoked, can get you a little high. Pork rind, prickly pear, fake coke. Jaime and Tony often returned to the same refrain: “That’s nothing from here.” Only on Mona. Some of these species immediately stood out: the Mona land iguanas were enormous, with the terrible dignity of dinosaurs, and we had to fight them every time we took a sponge bath at the cistern. Others seemed modest, enchanted only by the spell of our attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *