then the sounds begin to reach her, the violent beating of wings,
a breeze rising up, a bird gliding on wing...a vision of mouths, footsteps
on the gravel on the walkway, the kicking up of stones, the shifting
weight from left to right, vibrating deep into the earth, and moving
past...a vision of something sweet, of something sugary, or of a soft
secretion, she is folded in upon herself, like a leaf which has fallen
and curled...a vision of the garden's weedy waters, of its ghostly
portico, its statues, the Dutch moat, a sunflower, roses and other
flowers...a vision, a vision, the cry of a bird again, on wing nearer
now, furious spasms in her abdomen, the bird on wing higher, higher,
then out of view...a vision of longing, a burning up, a flap of skin
to which she must affix herself, to which she must hold fast, hold
fast, there is a high wind coming, there is the danger she will be
Sometime in the
night a sound wakes her: a thud as of a heavy object falling, and
then someone moaning. Maria Sibylla Merian sits up, but can hear nothing
more. The night is long, too long, and the air is stultifying. Down
in the hold of the ship the insect moth, Phalaena tau, is dreaming,
day or night, it makes no difference, though now it is night. The
moth is in chrysalis with the other specimens that Maria Sibylla has
brought with her on the journey.
Awake she finds
she cannot breathe, her cabin is airless, and the odor is foul even
here at the stern so close to the captain's quarters. She comes up
to the deck to breathe the air, in the dead of night, alone, a forbidden
female figure, solitary, silent, and all the while the ocean reticent,
the waves just barely lapping.
The fragmentary themes that drive her night. The ocean. The Atlantic.
The crossing to Surinam. It is an allegorical crossing like the crossings
of Moors. The dark faces of the men. The ship, The Peace, just
She recalls the
ritual dances of certain insects. The way the female becomes bloated
and huge. And gives off an odor that is strong and pungent, but at
the same time sweet, and the males pick up the scent and approach,
half-flying, half-crawling to the female.
Now she stands
on the deck of the ship. Induced by her God. Under the ceiling of
Heaven. Beneath the planets and the stars. The constellations -- Lepus,
Monoceros, Eridanus. Love of knowledge. Travel and changes. Danger
of accidents (especially at sea). And a danger of drowning.
it is Your will that guides me. It is Your will that guides the entire
universe, that binds all forms together. Heavenly God, take me into
that self-same will and guide me to Your perfection.
Does she know
Plato's Sea of Tartarus? Where all the waters pierce the earth to
the Sea of Tartarus? The sailors believe that if they come too close
to the equator they will turn black like the natives who live there.
Or that if they sail too far to the north their blood will congeal
and turn to ice in their veins. But tonight there is nothing but the
black of black waters, the sea of darkness, the stars in the heavens.
Pale woman. Defined
by your sex. By your birth. By your birth right. When did the door
first open? It was her father's influence, no doubt, the artist Matthaus
Merian the Elder. She was a child when he died and her memory of him
is imperfect. Papa. Papa Matthaus. The safe, the clean, the eminently
sane smell of him.
She holds the
cast of the head of Laocoon.
Observe the way
she holds the giant head.
Sirs, I will hold
this head, the head of poor Laocoon, who warned against the Trojan
She is exceptional,
her father tells the men.
Stand over here,
Maria Sibylla, over here, stand and hold the head.
It is a plaster
cast and heavy for a small child; it weighs at least seven or eight
pounds, but she holds it.
She holds it as
though it is not heavy, as though it does not weigh seven or eight
and the canals
below the windows
the dead level
of the waters
the canals that
one can see in all directions
It is the light
reflecting on her cup of liquid. A small plate next to it with crumbs.
It is one of the mornings in the Netherlands before she makes her
ocean crossing. A child brings her insects from the Kerkstraat Gardens.
It is a ritual they perform: the child arrives at the door and calls
out to the woman, "Mistress."
Ja, what have
I brought a moth
Did you pluck
Where did you
I found it in
the Kerkstraat Gardens.
Here, come, let
The child, a girl,
holds out the inert brown shell of the pupa.
Ja, I see, rolling
it delicately over on the palm of her hand.
The child's eye
is becoming sharp, a love for precision is developing, a satisfaction
in identification of the insects. She is just one of the children
who lives around the Kerkstraat Gardens, but Maria Sibylla has taken
an interest in her.
Sibylla is the
woman's middle name, the name passed down to her from her mother.
And the Sibyl
closed her eyes and saw events unfold before them, in the darkness
a horse falling, its rider going down in battle, and then many horses
falling, and many riders going down in battle, and rains, and plagues
to cleanse the earth.
Make way, make
In Amsterdam it
was all excitement and exotica. That was how the fire took hold inside
her; it was from what she saw in Amsterdam, brought back by the science
travelers. But they were hobbyists compared to her, compared to her
deadly seriousness. The fire took hold from what she saw in Amsterdam
in the interiors of the museum rooms. The creatures floating as in
dreams. The creatures in their cases floating.
There are creatures
that no one has seen. Creatures that have not been classified, counted,
entered in the journals and the record books of science, whose shapes
defy the patterns of logical construction, whose colors are as if
from other worlds, self-regenerating, pure, infinite variety and complexity,
sketched by God, painted by angels, life miraculously breathed into
them, life, alive, free, that no one has seen, that she, she must
The air is cold
on her face, cold through to her bones.
The night is bearing
down on her and she thinks that it will crush her. The way the night
bears down on her.
The night bears
down and makes her think of dying oceans, of vast bodies of water
slowly releasing and losing breath, and of all the life contained
down in the oceans' depths, down in those fathomless deeps, and of
all the life carrying on with the business of living, and with the
business of feeding and mating and dying.
The air is cold
on her face. Cold through to her bones. She is out from her cabin.
Out on the deck. Wrapped in her folds of black twill.
The ship has slowed
down almost to a standstill. There is no wind, light or moderate,
no fresh and strong wind, no scant wind, no aft, no large, no quartering
She is steady
on the deck, steady on her feet, she has her sea legs, she can walk
on them, she keeps her back straight.
The sailors will
not look at her. They believe it will bring bad luck to look at her.
They believe she is a witch -- die Hexe, bezaubernde Frau.
She is a woman
traveling alone under the protection of the captain, in her sight-line
the insects of Surinam.
There will be
land soon. She can smell it. It is a sweet smell in the air, mingled
with the smell of salt. Anticipation of arrival. The first rays of
the sun. Thin and tentative. The slow lifting of the darkness.
i nam. State of the kingdom of the Netherlands on the northeast coast
of South America. 55,144 square miles. Capital, Paramaribo.
word. Sweet as the sugar cane that grows there, sweet and savage.
Birds tear towards
the sun. Their wings on fire like the wings of the Holy Spirit. Tongues
aflame for all the earth to see.
She wakes gasping
for air, her body bathed in perspiration; her hair is pasted to her
head by the perspiration. She pulls the bedsheets off her body, lifts
into the mesh netting that envelops her bed, it is the mosquito netting,
she lifts her face into it and it feels like a spider's web. She thrusts
her hands out in front of her, remembers where she is, what this is,
reaches into the blackness to find the seam and lifts away the netting.
She locates the candle on her bedside table and lights it. Is guided
by its sallow light to the window where she stands looking out, again
the night, the moon a harsh orange sliver in the sky.
She is in the
bedroom in her suite of rooms at Surimombo -- Surimombo is the plantation-lodging
house owned by the spinster, Esther Gabay. At the time of her stay,
there are these three others: Francina Ivenes, the widow, a permanent
lodger at Surimombo since the death of her husband some years ago;
the physician, Doctor Peter Kolb, who has his practice in the township;
and Mathew van der Lee, the young settler, who has come to profit
in the sugar trade.
is a chorus from the slaves. The race to the end. Surimombo.
Surimombo. Monsoon rain, water washing down the Parima, the fabled
river that ran through Paradise. It is the place that was Eden when
God expelled Adam. And Eve had no choice but to follow. And now the
Parima with its current, the way Maria Sibylla looks in the canoe,
she looks large in the canoe, with her back straight, a giantess carrying
And from the river
a disturbance, from deep down under the greenblue bowl of agitation
Surinam is all
rivers: the Nickerie; the Saramacca; the Coppename and the Suriname;
the Commewijne and the Marowijne; the Para; the Cottica; the Maroni;
and all around
the rolling fields of sugar cane, the way the stalk breaks so that
the sweet pulpy insides come dripping out, inviting you to bite, to
it is impossible
not to bite, to suck, the rich sweetness.
The sun throws
glints of light that catch from time to time the defensive pose of
a pupa; still, still, breathless, nothing that moves, nothing that
will give rise to movement. It looks like the dropping of a macaw,
or like a piece of wood, a bit of broken twig, the pupa waiting to
It is at the end
of the dry season and many times throughout the day, she must wait
before she can move on. She must take shelter and wait for the rain
The jungle forest
is open to her, and she keeps step with its pace, with its drifting
and continuous movement.
What looks like
a centipede, or a snake curled on a branch, is nothing more than the
branch itself, its curve, a thickness in the growth of its bark, a
guest shrub growing in an enclave of its formation. Meanwhile the
creature that she seeks is there, no more than an arm's length in
front of her, its eyes focused in her direction.
She is with Marta,
her Amerindian slave, who is hardly a slave at all, though one of
a dozen slaves included in her lodging fees at Surimombo. Marta knows
the names of the trees, the leaves and branches, the larvae feeding
on them, the moths they will transform into. She knows the frogs,
the spiders, the snakes, the birds, hummingbirds drinking the nectar
of flowers, the buds, the fruits, macaws screaming in the trees, winged
and magnificent, their colors streaming like the colors in flags,
the flags of the homelands, the welcoming flags of homecomings.
Back in Amsterdam
she has a friend, a woman who has grown a giant pineapple. From all
around people have come to see it, and Mr. Caspar Commelin has written
an article about it for inclusion in his science journal. Maria Sibylla
writes to Caspar Commelin, and to the other Amsterdam naturalists,
the men who are part of the scientific exchange.
Sirs, I have
had the satisfaction this day, the 21st of January, 1700, to witness
the transformation of a caterpillar, gold and black striped, which
I found soon after my arrival here; to witness it become these months
later, a butterfly.
She works in watercolors
Her vellum is
the finest there is, made from the skin of lambs, the lambs unborn,
taken early, violently.
Suppers at Surimombo
are served each evening at six o'clock. Esther Gabay takes her place
at the head of the table. On the side to Esther Gabay's right are
seated Doctor Peter Kolb and Mathew van der Lee. Maria Sibylla is
seated opposite them, next to the Widow Ivenes. The food is always
plentiful and rich: large bowls of mutton and fricassees, platters
of Guinea fowl and vegetables, mullets and snapper, fruits and tarts,
alligator pears, guava and shaddock. Nut meats and oranges are brought
to the table last, along with pastries dripping with sugar. The meal
is served from left to right. The conversation is animated and jovial.
your insects are," says the Widow Ivenes to Maria Sibylla. "Do
they ever crawl upon your hand or your wrist? What does it feel like
when that happens, the sensation of your insects crawling on your
Sirs, the quickening.
Life appearing in the egg and nourished there. And then ferocious
biting through. The pede, the stage at which I plucked it, plucking
too the leaves on which it fed until its transformation into pupa.
Profoundest rest. A rest that angels yearn for -- and for that time
asleep and dreaming. Then beckoned by the dream it starts to stir,
the slightest stirring, and then a parting of the cotton that protects
the shell, and a splitting and a chipping of the shell itself, until
the transformation is complete from pede to winged creature; emerging,
blasting, to fly dazed and free and glorious.
Out of a sky filled
with sun, out of air that is still and filled with the scent of flamboyant
and sugar cane, storms rise up without warning and blacken the Surinam
sky. A breeze begins to blow in the darkened light, a moist breeze
that takes hold and the sweet smells are carried stronger, and the
moisture in the air bathes the face; but then the breeze gathers strength
and becomes a wind, and the wind a raging gale, and the gale gains
hurricane force. There are signs if one takes notice. Everything becomes
quiet. There is a cessation of the sounds of the birds and the insects.
is out behind the Surimombo plantation house when her first storm
forms in the stillness. She is studying a species of potter wasp which
has built its nest upon the ground. She is intent upon recording her
observations, and writing the notes that will accompany her drawings,
so that she does not take notice of the darkening light. It is Mathew
van der Lee who comes running to fetch her -- frantic his running
-- shouting something she cannot hear, stopping just short of knocking
into her, he grabs her sketching papers and her charcoals, and, though
now quite on top of her, he continues his shouting. They are not back
inside the house five minutes when the walls begin to rattle, and
the whistling of the wind becomes deep and throaty like a lion's roar,
and she huddles low with Esther Gabay, and with the Widow Ivenes and
Doctor Peter Kolb, and with Mathew van der Lee, she huddles low.
The storm subsides
and the sounds start up again, the rasp of insects, the calls of birds,
the screeching of monkeys.
Mathew van der
Lee inquires if he might accompany Maria Sibylla on a collecting expedition
she has planned to the shoreline in the aftermath of the storm. It
is his speciality, he tells her, the seashore; he had been a collector
himself back in the Netherlands.
She packs her
vellums and her charcoal, her nets and her collecting jars.
She walks erect
and keeps her back straight, her shoes are caked with mud, the bottom
of her skirt is wet and dragging.
It is light. The
sun completely broken through. The hills behind the shore heavy with
what the winds have brought, invisible but present, the air laden
says Mathew van der Lee. He wears a hat in the style of the day, black
felt and rimmed. He wears a jacket also in the style of the day, three-quarters
in length and black like the hat, and his shirt is white beneath the
jacket. They are on the edge of the shoreline along the Paramaribo
coast. Maria Sibylla is walking ahead of him. "Madame Sibylla,"
he says again. "You shall outdistance me if you walk so quickly,
Madame Sibylla." He is teasing and young, pleasing and handsome
in his white shirt, in his hat, in his jacket.
Sirs, we sing
the creature's praises! The pede perceives the visual impressions
around it, not by means of rows of eyes located down along the sides
of its body, but through distinctly tiny simple eyes, ocelli, placed
on each side of the head.
For a minute she
is breathless. Her breathlessness exaggerated in the intensity of
the heat. It is so hot she almost cannot bear it.
The Widow Ivenes
beckons her to visit in her suite of rooms. The Widow is sitting with
a metal plate against her forehead, alternately placing it against
the back of her neck. The drapes are drawn. There is a bowl of water
on the table by her bed. "I would like to tear these clothes
from my body," the Widow says point-blank to Maria Sibylla.
has come into the Widow's room with a fan with which she is fanning
herself unrestrainedly. It was hand-painted in Italy, but she purchased
it in Amsterdam. She offers it as a present to the Widow Ivenes. The
Widow takes the fan and heaves and sighs, and heaves and sighs again.
Only Esther Gabay
seems to never mind the heat. She carries on in it with the running
of Surimombo. Even during the hottest hours, she carries on in it,
just as the slaves carry on in it with their work in the sugar fields.
The African slaves
go about naked. Or mostly naked. The women naked from waist to neck.
The young ones with their breasts taut, their skin the deepest browns,
their nipples black, like black cherries on the trees back in Holland.
The older women stand with their breasts below their waists in the
late day sun. There is a dance the African slaves perform and Maria
Sibylla has witnessed it -- the Winti, or Dance of Possession -- their
hips roll as they pass the calabash, drink from the bowl, smoke the
tobacco, and then here Miss, here Miss, holding out the worm
for her to take, here Miss, here Miss...
That evening there
is smoked salmon arrived by ship from Amsterdam. With the salmon is
turtle and king fish, grouper and snapper. A beverage is served made
of coconut and lime. Hands are washed between courses. The evening
meal is like a prayer. Like a service in the church in Paramaribo.
late at night
she hears the doctor snoring, she hears him through the walls of the
suites of the house, his breath coming in snorts and gasps.
and in the eaves
around the house -- spiders.
and in her room
the smell of the salve she uses to protect her skin. It is something
Marta gave her made from the sap of palm leaves. And blood oranges
in a bowl. And grapes in another bowl. Her hair is wrapped in cloth.
The cloth is cut in strips and woven through her hair. Blood oranges
in a bowl next to the grapes.
and what she feels
is the heat. The relentless bruising heat.
Sirs, it has
been thought the thickened lines of wing venation are veins like those
that comprise the network of our own fragile bodies, and through which
the moth's blood (made up of a dense white liquid) flows outward each
to body parts dependent on receiving it. This proves not the case.
The wing venation are solidly composed and act as brace cords for
She is in the
small forest behind the Surimombo sugar fields. They call it Surimombo
Forest because its edges border the plantation. The light is green
and indistinct. Her eyes must make an adjustment. The light filters
down through the branches of the trees and through the flowers that
grow along the tree trunks. A flatworm glides on a moist trail of
sludge on the leaf of a giant acacia. The worm is red and iridescent.
When she tries to lift it, it dissolves.
God stirs. In
any case impels. Nettles. On which the creature feeds. The Mora branch.
And its leaves. The Yucca with its red fruit.
Mathew van der
Lee has followed her into the small forest where she is working along
its edges. It was by chance, he says, that he caught sight of her,
from the sugar fields where he had been observing the harvesting technique
at Surimombo. He could not resist, he says, but to see after her,
to inquire of her while at her work. I have seen many such plants
in the botanical gardens in Amsterdam, he says, pointing to the crimson
blossoms of the bougainvillaea, but none in the gardens compare to
It is said that
there were no lovers, only a husband who wound up by menacing -- the
rumors of his vices -- and the whispers of the word cruelty -- a husband
whom she fled in retaliation and defense. A daring act then, at that
But history shall
have it there was a lover.
is not a child. No. She is a woman already of some years. Though she
was little more than a child on the day of her marriage to Johann
Graff. But she fled that husband.
On the 21st day
of November in the year 1685, Maria Sibylla gathered what was hers
and set out for the Protestant Pietist colony at Freisland, and for
the colony's home at the Castle of Weirweurd, and for the prefect,
Petre Yvon, who then presided there. She set out to join those pious
men and women who lived each moment in the love of God and in the
denial of the worldly influence. She took her vellums, her charcoals,
her specimens, some articles of clothing, some personal effects.
On the morning
of the 23rd of November, her husband appeared outside the door of
the Castle, where he bellowed out the name of his wife, and where
within those walls Maria Sibylla remained silent.
She was staring
out her window when he arrived, thinking of the creatures she might
find there, wondering how she might conduct her work from this new
home, she was seeing God in all she saw, and trusting in God to direct
Graff sought audience
with his wife through the personage of Petre Yvon. He demanded that
he be admitted inside the walls of the castle. She is mine, he shouted,
mine, I will not let go what is rightfully mine.
Only silence for
And though he
went down in a rage on his knees and pounded on the rock-strewn ground
for three days, eating nothing, and not even drinking water, and though
the ground was cold in the strong November chill, and though he made
supplication and implored, and beseeched and importuned, and alternately
begged and bellowed, she would not yield.
now. Sweeter than the sugar cane. Sweeter than the syrup dripping
from the stalks cut and bound for refining. Blinding sun. Blazing
heat. Leaves of plants so delicate they wither in the sun.
Sirs, the female
is fussy in her decision as to where to lay her eggs; she grades each
leaf for suitability, rejecting one leaf after another before choosing.
approaching hungry and curious, the jungle forest stretches before
her, sounds, the occasional glimpses of birds. She is on her way to
Rama, farther down along the Saramacca. The African slaves walk ahead
of her, unsheathing knives flashing, cutting a path through the dense
growth of the forest, hacking down the weeds and the sawgrass so she
can pass through. She has with her bottles half-filled with brandy
to preserve dead some of what she finds, but also the mesh cages lined
with bolting cloth to take other specimens alive, and to retain for
them the natural conditions of their environment, to study their transformations
without interrupting them, to observe for herself all the stages of
their development. Her head is covered with a wide-brimmed hat. A
few beads of perspiration run down from beneath the hat. She wears
a shirt under the makeshift overall that she has sewn for her work
in the jungle. The Surimombo slaves call her medicine woman. The women
bring her chrysalids that they promise will open into moths, and butterflies
more beautiful than any she has ever seen, creatures which will whisper
certain truths to her, endow her with certain powers. But everything
now has begun to draw her attention. It is no longer simply the larvae,
the moths and the butterflies. Now she wants to know frogs, toads,
snakes, and spiders, hummingbirds, the parrots and red monkeys screeching
in the trees, the habits of the grasses that grow here, the invisible
creatures that inhabit the air.
Sirs, for each
there is the head, the thorax, the abdomen; the surface of the body
divided into plate-like areas; there are the mouth parts, the antennae,
the feet; and the special hairs that are sensitive to sound.
are so delicate, Dear," the Widow Ivenes tells Maria Sibylla
that night at supper, "one would never guess from looking at
them you are a scientist."
Pastries and puddings
are brought to the table, jellies and preserved fruits, fruit tarts
sitting in transparent syrups, cakes made from nut meats, sweet oranges,
yellow pineapples, alligator pears, guava, shaddock.
After supper Matthew
van der Lee asks permission to enter Maria Sibylla's study. It is
in a ground floor room at the rear -- attached to but distant from
the other rooms of Surimombo. "Mr. van der Lee. Here, come."
Before he is able to say a word, he is directed to a brownish shape
in a mesh cage that looks at first as though it might be a curled
bit of bark. But then there is the slightest movement. A kind of weaving
from side to side, a tear in the wall at one end, a small but violent
movement, the tear opening a little larger, and then a little larger
still, until a shape is visible inside, pushing forward through the
tear, a damp and matted little thing pushing its way through the opening
until it has pushed itself fully out, and then sits and rests there
for a time. "There, you see," is all she says.
is a heart, as well, I have found it lodged in the frontal vessel
suspended from the wall of the abdomen. The tiny heart can almost
not be seen. But it is, I assure you, there, and it does beat, good
sirs, as does our own.
She is near Para
Creek. Marta is with her. They are searching inside the edges of the
forest wall, looking for unknown genera of blossoms and strange chrysalises,
looking and describing and collecting.
Marta walks ahead,
hacking with a machete at the dense overgrowth, the frequent surfacing
of sawgrass. She points to a branch on a tree. Maria Sybilla approaches,
rapid and silent, ah, yes, ja, ja. There is a red caterpillar with
yellow stripes crawling along the top of the branch. It is feeding
on the leaves that grow there. The movement of Maria Sibylla's hand
is sure and quick, scooping the caterpillar from the branch and placing
it firmly and unharmed in a jar with a bit of the bark and some leaves
from the tree. The caterpillar will be brought back to her study to
be kept with the others, the numbers of her specimens growing, in
jars with mesh tops, in wire cages, in bottles stoppered with cork.
They turn a corner
of the forest into a lush growth of rafflesia, the plant is called
the corpse plant because it smells like rotting flesh, the flower
is enormous, glowing bright orange, the diameter measured in feet,
the thick tubular stem. The Indians extract a liquid from the stem
that is used to stop the flow of blood. Marta tells her that it is
also used to counteract the bites of snakes, that it quickly reverses
the effect of the poison in the bloodstream though the flesh has already
grown dark. Marta tells her that the seeds of the peacock flower are
used to bring about the menses, that the female slaves swallow the
seeds to abort their fetuses, to preserve the unborn child from a
life of slavery like their own.
and scrape in the breeze, airy and delicate, twisting and turning,
continually changing direction, and the shrill shrieks of the howler
monkeys high above, flying, torsos twisting and turning, arms outstretched,
teeth bared, panting and screaming.
The old woman
appears as if out of nowhere, she is all bone and sinewy and nerves
cells dancing on the coarse, black flesh of her neck and shoulders,
and down along her arms, the heavy bracelets on her wrists, the nerve
cells dancing into the bones of her fingers. She is speaking in the
Creole that the Dutch call Neger-Englen, and Maria Sibylla can understand
some of the words: tree, hanging or suspended?, comb, bird.
And all the time the old woman is speaking, a sack near her feet is
screeching and humping. The old woman reaches inside the sack and
firmly holding its neck pulls out a brilliantly colored, huge young
macaw. She hands the macaw to Maria Sibylla, who, avoiding its enormous
stabbing beak, takes the frantic bird and covers it with a net to
calm it. The old woman points to herself and says, Mama Cato, Mama
Cato. Maria Sibylla repeats the name, Mama Cato. The old
woman wants to trade for the macaw. She points to the sack filled
with supplies that is slung over Maria Sibylla's shoulder, indicating
she wants it emptied on the ground. Maria Sibylla tells Marta to take
the sack and empty it on the ground. The old woman points to a bright
blue piece of salempouri cloth and a green tree frog in a stoppered
jar of liquid. Maria Sibylla nods her agreement to the trade. The
leave-taking is abrupt; the old woman quickly disappears back into
the jungle. Marta steps forward and begins putting everything back
inside the sack, while Maria Sibylla continues holding the now-silent
and puncture her skin.
Beads of blood
form on the punctures.
The blood is trickling
where the mosquitoes have bitten.
And then another
and another puncture in her skin.
Sirs, a most
uncommon discovery. A butterfly exactly one half male and the other
half female, the rear on one side being male, and on the other female.
In the Kerkstraat
Gardens there had been butterflies, benign creatures, but not so beautiful
as these. These are more beautiful, but not benign.
ants are taking down a tapir. The pig does not stand a chance. As
the ants dig in. As the flesh falls away. As the spirit of the beast
rushes out through its head. The slight whoosh of sound each time
she pins an insect. Her back stiff and straight. Inside the house,
the light glows from the candles.
"I have looked
at several cane pieces for farming," Mathew van der Lee announces
during the evening meal. "There are some acres south from here,
at the mouth of Sara Creek."
"So far to
the south, Mr. van der Lee," the Widow Ivenes responds with alarm.
"We will never see you if you move so far to the south."
visit often, Widow Ivenes, and spend your time much as you like."
Creek region is not thought safe, Mr. van der Lee," says Esther
Gabay. "The runaways are settled near to there."
"It is said
the numbers of the runaways are few, Madame Gabay."
may be few, Mr. van der Lee," says Esther Gabay, "but the
assaults on the sugar farms are many."
expeditions of our soldiers fail most often in their efforts to recapture
them," adds Doctor Peter Kolb.
are slaves recaptured everyday, Doctor Kolb," says Mathew van
day there are more runaways," counters the Doctor, "and
more violence against the plantations."
is not likely to continue," insists Mathew van der Lee. "How
many slaves will risk the punishments if caught? -- the beatings,
the mutilations. There is one of your colleagues in Paramaribo, Doctor
Kolb, whose job it is to amputate limbs from recaptured runaways."
do not deter the runaways," says Doctor Peter Kolb. "Their
sensibility is not as ours, Mr. van der Lee."
"I am not
persuaded of that view," says Mathew van der Lee.
"Nor am I,
I would agree, Mr. van der Lee," says the Widow Ivenes. And then
turning to Maria Sibylla, "What has science to say on the subject?"
not a matter for science, dear Widow Ivenes."
your work then?" the Widow persists in drawing Maria Sibylla
into the conversation.
progresses, Widow Ivenes."
work it is, Madame Sibylla," says the Widow.
extraordinary," says Esther Gabay, "is that so much effort
should be taken in the interest of insects."
greater fortune to be made in sugar cane," says Doctor Peter
here is not in sugar, Doctor Kolb."
interest is to witness nature and not to mine for its material potentiality,"
says Mathew van der Lee, staring openly at Maria Sibylla. "She
is an artist and a scientist, Doctor Kolb, and those are the interests
which occupy her. Much as my own interest in collecting has occupied
me. It is true I now seek fortune here in sugar, but I have not lost
interest in the creatures of the natural world."
spoken," says the Widow Ivenes.
Mr. van der Lee.
Come see. He moves closer to her and he sees. It is the moth pupa
she brought with her other specimens on the journey from Amsterdam
so that she might witness the completion of their transformations.
There in a cage in the Surimombo study. The moth has broken through
its shell, broken out at last from chrysalis, after these months since
its ocean crossing. The small, delicate moth clings to the wires of
the cage with its wings wildly flapping. It is the Phalaena tau,
its wings appearing moist in the light from the candles, and the flames
flare up and cast shadows on the wall. Of the moth. Of the woman.
And the man.
The next day she
has an accident. She reaches out for a caterpillar on the leaf of
a tree in the forest near to the main house. It is a vibrant blue-black,
inky and depthless, two ruby stripes along the sides of its body.
Sensing her presence, it lifts its head, raises it high as if surveying,
then lowers and lifts it again, and then it stops with its body rigid
and its head raised. She quickly cups it in her palm and is met with
a stinging pain so severe she can barely open her hand to release
the caterpillar into the cage. Her body flushes hot. Her hand swells
to twice its size and she can hardly remain standing. There is the
feeling of sinking, of wanting to let go to the ground and let sleep
come, of wanting the floor of the forest -- green and lush like the
sofas of dowagers, thick and soft in rich velvets and muted shades
of olive -- to receive her. She sinks down to the bottom of the tree
trunk and waits for the dizziness to pass. Almost immediately an apprehension
wells up inside her. She feels a sensation on her legs. She pulls
the fabric of her clothing up and sees small black wood ticks that
despite the layers of her skirt have in seconds covered the flesh
of her lower legs and are swarming towards her thighs and her abdomen.
She leaps up, surprises a giant macaw on a branch not far above, the
bird lifts its wings and shrieks, the shrieks soar up through the
branches, and the bird follows. She leaps up and walks as quickly
as she can, though she is still unsteady and somewhat dizzy from the
poison still in her body. Breathing is difficult. The air is thick
with moisture, it is all moisture, the air turned fluid, a substance
not breathed but swallowed into the lungs, the chest cavity fills
and congests. She is moving forward, returning to the Surimombo main
house, in any case she wasn't far, had not gone far. And to the bathing
house where she applies an ointment to her legs and her belly following
a washing treatment with a brush and harsh liquids. The skin red now,
scrubbed raw. Reclaimed. Clean. The bathing house is cool, the water
strained through sieves to keep the sand out, the floor polished stone
and cool on the bottoms of her feet, and the small black parasitic
insects, all to the last one, fallen to the floor, inert, a little
pile at her feet, then washed, washed away by the water. She balances
herself, holding on with one hand to the wall of the dressing room
in the bathing house, the dressing room with its conveniences, small
round soaps in smooth clay dishes, jars of salts for soaking, fragrant
oils, fresh-cut peacock flowers, a bath sheet for drying her body,
a white muslin robe for wrapping up in, the bathing house itself shaded
by palmetto leaves falling like folds of fabric over the wooden structure.
Now a lizard appears on the outside of the window, it is one of the
small lizards that are everywhere in Surinam. Its body is pressed
against the mesh that serves as a screen, the sun's rays make it glow,
crystalline, the body transparent, shot through by the sun so that
she can see the insides clear and shining, and the long thin vein
that runs from its head down to its tail and extends out to each of
its four legs and to each of the toes of its webbed feet. Dear lizard,
remarkable beast, lit by the afternoon sun, pierced through by a ray
of white light, human eyes are blinded by so much light, by so much
heat and brightness. She goes over to the window to view the lizard
more closely and sees Mathew van der Lee off a ways in the distance;
she sees his figure in the white sun, against the bleached out grasses
near the sugar fields. He is walking with his hands clasped behind
his back. Later, he will ask if he might accompany her again up the
coast to the ocean on one of her hunts there for shells. They will
set out as if on a picnic, carrying charcoals and vellums, specimen
boxes and killing jars. They will walk over sand strewn with branches
and mollusk shells, nests of seaweed, dead fish, ghost crabs heaped
together on the shore. She will walk erect with her back straight,
with her shoes caked with mud and the bottom of her dress wet and
dragging. Mathew van der Lee will make a light-hearted comment about
the mud on her shoes, and just as he does his own feet will sink some
inches into the ground. He will reach out as if to touch her when
she looks down at his feet, but then will quickly withdraw his arm.
And a running
off of water in the bath house, her legs good, her waist narrow, her
feet long, slender, somewhat bony, a running off of water, scented
powders, the tortoise comb, her hair undone and hanging down below
her shoulders in dark wet pieces, like a witch she thinks, die Hexe,
She descends the
staircase from her second floor suite of the Surimombo main house,
the interior copied faithfully in the style of her adopted city of
Amsterdam, her city of Amsterdam with its cold nights, and with its
gabled, corniced structures, and with the canals with their bodies
of dead waters. And the German township where she was born -- Frankfort
am Mein -- where she spent all her early life and formed her identity,
is distant now, and she will never return there again, and will have
no cause or wish to return. She is pale and fatigued, and the last
of the light is fading; night is falling, and a blanket of blackness
will soon cover the house while the lodgers are gathered for the evening
meal. The candles in the dining room will draw to the window pale
moths, as pale as she is, unable to resist the fiery center, and their
wings will beat against the glass, pounding and bruising their plump
bodies; they will look like ghosts in the dark, eager and hungry,
seeking their shadow selves there in the flame. And all the while
the other moths, the specimens she has collected, will remain safe
in their cages, quiet in the darkened room. And when the night has
fully fallen, the lantern flies will come out with their lights glittering.
She lifts her
hand to the back of her neck to wipe the beads of perspiration away.
She drinks boiled water left to cool, dips her fingers into the water
and touches her brow, her neck. The heat is draining her of blood
and spirit, sucking the marrow out from her bones and leaving them
to ache at night, her arms and her legs ache each night and she is
restless on the bed. She no longer sleeps well from the aching and
She descends the
stairs now down to supper, to where the others are already seated
in the dining room.
pale, Madame Sibylla. Are you unwell?"
"It is nothing,
Doctor Kolb. It is only the heat. No. Nothing. Or if anything, the
heat. How is your work progressing?"
hand? Has it healed from the accident?"
"I am a physician,
Madame Sibylla. Will you permit me to have a look at it? You would
not want it to fester."
"It is nothing,
Doctor Kolb. It was only a reaction to the pathetic creature's venom.
As you see, it has completely subsided."
Drums are beating.
Drums are beating in the night. The sound of the drums comes from
the forest beyond Piki Ston where the runaways have erected their
settlements. The drums cannot come from the plantations; on the plantations
the black slaves are forbidden to drum, forbidden to send their rebel
messages. She has seen what happens to those who disobey. She has
seen the bloody stump where a hand once was, and the body flogged
skinless, and a raw, pulpy mass where the flesh once was, and the
body kept alive in ruin.
She is fatigued.
It can be seen on her face, and in the way she comports herself, in
the way her breath comes labored, and her eyes appear clouded and
It is the heat.
And the poison still in her body from the caterpillar's sting. Night
has fallen and the window is covered with moths that are drunk on
the light from the flames of the candle. The moths will die, just
as she believes that she will die, that the heat of the sun will kill
her, that the harshness of this place will end her life. She is still
weak, and still vertiginous from the caterpillar's venom.
The venom in her
body has increased her fatigue, and her nights are beset by dreams,
and by visions that appear and disappear, alternately beautiful and
In a dream she
is menaced by an animal, it comes around in front of her, an aggressive
look in its eyes.
She is standing
listening to the river, the still, glassy surface shining in the sun,
the sun's rays rippling on the surface, she is standing looking out
to the bend in the river, a distance farther and white waters start
to form, the current goes crazy with white waters, a little while
more and rapids, a little while more and the water gushing and pounding,
crazy water, a little while more and crazy water, dashing against
rocks, the falls to take you to the bottom, and the devil's egg, the
rock that is perched above the water, the dashing crazy water, the
falls are Piki Ston Falls, along the river bank the monkeys with their
perpetual screaming, is it with warning? is it with ill intent? the
violent screams of the monkeys, but here where she is standing the
river is still, there is no ripple, the sun shines in streaks on the
than the alligator pear, the sweet red fruit of the yucca.
are made of feathers. She points to all the tiny little feathers.
In her drawings
her themes come slowly into focus, a merest outline, a shadowy creature,
and then she adds light.
The theme of primulas
with nun moth, plum branch and pale tussock, cotton leaf jatropha,
mimicry moth, antaeus moth.
The theme of the
lantern fly, meadow larkspur and pease blossom moth, various beetles
and a harlequin beetle.
The theme of four
dead finches. The birds are pathetic the way she portrays them. There
is no question they are dead, quintessentially and permanently dead.
Flight no more. For the small brown birds.
And the sun breaking
it sears the flesh,
the ground, the wooden frame of the Surimombo main house.
In a clearing
in the forest Marta has wrapped herself in salempouri cloth, and the
bright blue of the fabric is shining, and she is dancing, she is spinning
in front of Maria Sibylla. The dance can stop the fierce thunderstorms
and the torrents of the rains, and Marta is dancing to bring an end
to the rains.
But the sky is
gray, and the heavy rains are again threatening.
There is a crocodile
somewhere in the meh-nu bushes with its jaws snapping. There is the
sound the leaves make when the wind blows through them. A storm rising
up. The scream of the toucani. In the Surimombo jungle there had been
a trail of dead toucani. Or had they fallen randomly? And the crocodile
is creeping out from the swamp onto the jungle floor. And the rain
will cause a lake to form in the jungle.
The leaves of
the Ku-deh-deh fortify the heart. Marta holds the fingers of her right
hand outstretched above her heart, her eyes are dark and excited as
she picks the waxy leaves and crushes them.
And all the while
Maria Sibylla is searching among the vines and the creepers.
But what about
the moth, the newly hatched Phalaena tau? Ah, the Phalaena
tau has been recently transformed. Has broken through its shell
and been released. It was Maria Sibylla herself who released the moth.
Into the heat. Into the harshness and the freedom of the jungle.
tau has flown to make her own way in the jungle.
And Maria Sibylla
is searching for the new moth, the stranger.
Among the vines,
the creepers, the rosettes of leaves, the night-smelling orchids,
the mora excelsa.
Along the branches
of the unnamed tree.
The blossoms are
red and the tree is unnamed. And the roots of the tree are buried.
In the jungle earth that turns to water. The ground is soft, the leaves
And she is silent
now and waiting. The voluptuousness of the time of waiting.
She has been walking
for so long her feet are burning, but her eyes are searching everywhere.
For you, the stranger, for the promise of what she has come for.
She is looking
for you, bewitched by you.
In the green,
indistinct light of the jungle. That filters down through the branches
of the trees.
birds, their calls harsh, piercing.
The jungle orchids,
the delicate tree orchid, the air-borne orchid with its tentacles
dangling, and covered in small white flowers, its musky scent, its
mouth that never opens.
She is breathless
and her heart is beating rapidly.
The heat pours
down but she no longer notices, she is intent on finding you.
You are her loadstone,
her wish, her temptation, her consummation.
is looking, in a fever she is looking.
For the slanted
traces that will lead her to you.
The small paroxysms,
the silent heartbeat, the throbbing.
But where is it
that Maria Sibylla finds you? So quiet. On the branch of the unknown
tree? It is a secret tree, so secret even the Amerindians do not know
its name, the Tree of Paradise? The tree of the fall from grace? The
tree the serpent wrapped itself around and whispered, offering its
fruit, and the leaves stinging like nettles, and you clinging with
your tiny feet, having taken hold to suck the sweetness, the snake
there with you all the time, all wound around its branches, and you
as you had always been, from that first hour, when you were the first
one, the first to take hold upon that branch, the first to nourish
on that unknown, unnamed genus, and having had your fill of eating
to spin and spin the silk that would enclose you, and keep you safe
inside that first of all enclosures, protected and unharmed, to sleep
for the season of your transformation.
There is a beast,
there is a beast in Surinam. A white beast seen prowling in the grasses
near the sugar farms. The Indians say it is the jinn of a demon that
lives under Piki Ston Falls. That it will come and slash slash with
its teeth as large as Waha leaves. That it will come to take its dwendi,
its lady mama girl, to make its wild monkey bride, to make its wild
monkey bride girl running. It has hair that is white and sticks out
like the shoots of white copal; it has hands that are claws and it
stands on its legs like a man.
The beast stalks
the sugar farms while the day steams with heat, or at night stalks
the shanties of the slaves.
It is the slaves
who see the beast, but sometimes it is one of the Europeans. Like
the white overseer at Plantation Davilaar. The man was relieving himself
near the edges of the sugar field when he saw an animal crouched a
distance from him. The beast reared up and the man turned on his heels
"It is only
an hysteria of the Africans and the Indians," Esther Gabay tells
the others over morning meal.
The serving girl
brings trays to the table, sets out platters of ham, baskets heaped
high with breads, eggs, cassava cakes, green tea, coffee, chocolate.
"It is only
an hysteria," Esther Gabay repeats, "or a fabrication that
has been hatched by the runaways."
to what purpose, Madame Gabay?" asks Doctor Peter Kolb.
unrest among the slaves, Doctor Kolb."
"It is more
likely a wolf, Madame Gabay," says the doctor. "It would
not be the first time that a lone wolf, displaced from the pack, or
with its instincts otherwise upset, has been known to attack at humans."
no wolves here, Doctor Kolb."
"It is a
species capable of turning up, Madame Gabay, of one day simply making
an appearance. There are many forces that will drive a pack, or that
will provoke a lone wolf, to wander into a new territory."
"I have lived
here all my life, Doctor Kolb, and have never heard rumor of wolves."
been known to turn up, Madame Gabay."
never had wolves, Doctor Kolb."
"We may have
one now, Madame Gabay."
your opinion?" the Widow Ivenes asks, turning suddenly to Maria
Sibylla. "Do you believe it is an hysteria?"
we should not waste our days with speculation on a creature that may
or may not exist. I, in any case, shall not waste my days on it. We
must trust in the will of the Divine Being, Widow Ivenes, and in our
Fate, and I in my work that it is necessary I continue."
continue in the forests?" asks Doctor Peter Kolb.
continue as I must, Doctor Kolb."
not be wise, Madame Sibylla, to avoid the forests?" asks Mathew
van der Lee.
dissuade me, Mr. van der Lee?"
safety it would be cautious, Madame Sibylla."
"For my safety,
Mr. van der Lee, I should never have left Frankfurt am Main for Amsterdam,
and later Amsterdam for Friesland, or Friesland for Amsterdam once
again, and now made this journey to Surinam. Safe, inside my house,
Mr. van der Lee, might I still not fall ill and languish and die?"
She prepares after
morning meal to travel with Marta into the forest right outside of
Paramaribo. The other slaves have begged not to have to accompany
them, apprehensive as they are now of the beast.
Marta, who has
begun to copy the makeshift style of Maria Sibylla, wears an overall
that she has sewn, and under it a shirt Esther Gabay has given her
left behind by a previous lodger. Both women wear hats. Their feet
and their legs are well covered.
Marta is perspiring,
the perspiration runs in large beads from beneath the brim of her
hat and down her face, down her Indian nose with the hint of a bump
in it, her nostrils flare, her lower lip protrudes.
brings her hand behind her own neck, and reaches down along the back
of her left shoulder, she digs her fingers into her flesh, a relaxation
from the heat, an easement from the weight of the vellum, the charcoal,
the brushes, the nets and the killing jars.
The women are
in a small patch of clearing where the light shines down unfiltered
and blinding. They raise their hands above their eyes to see.
crimson. In vibrant purples and greens. In vests of metallic colors
that gleam and change as the light hits them, or as the birds shift
the positions of their bodies. The birds are barely larger than the
butterflies. Hovering above the branches and singing in unison. There
are some sixty of them at least, and they are singing a mating song.
Small and glittering like precious stones. All hovering and in song.
Maria Sibylla surmises they are males, it is the striking colors that
tell her, the males wardrobed for mating and singing in chorus. The
voices are not beautiful -- their song does not have the sweetness
of the helabeh, nor the lyric quality of the thrush. They make a rasping
sound, a thin, high-pitched tone such as stone scraping metal.
The birds come
into focus like the details on the canvases of certain paintings,
at first mere abstract shape and color and then gradually sharpening,
A little deeper
into the forest and again they see hummingbirds, but these, though
alive, are not singing.
They are caught
in the traps that the shamans have set for them, their bright metallic
colors gleaming in the nets in the sun, but their bodies are limp
now, no longer hovering, the birds are caught in the shamans' nets,
the blur of wingbeat has stopped and they are trapped, forty or fifty
at least, perhaps more in the nets of the shamans.
The shamans have
set traps for the hummingbirds. That is their diet, Marta tells Maria
Sibylla -- to be fed exclusively on the flesh of hummingbirds.
And the mating
song is deadly for the hummingbirds, to be caught in the nets of the
The sugar farms
veer off in all directions: Machado; Castillo; Alvamant; Cordova;
Davilaar; Boavista; Providentia. The plantations with their yearly
harvests. With the intense heat of their boiling houses and the slitting
of the cane to test for sweetness. And the sugar that is dripping
from the stalks. It is the wedding at the Castillo Plantation and
it has brought all of the township of Surinam out for the celebration.
The bride is the daughter of Castillo and the groom is the elder Alvamant.
She is seventeen, while the elder Alvamant is forty-three and twice
a widower. The bride is virginal and sweet like the sugar cane.
It is from the
Castillo wedding that the famous portrait of the men derives: twenty-two
of them in all, posed like the Officers of the Militia at one of the
banquet tables. Doctor Peter Kolb is in the portrait, seated looking
towards the left, and gesturing with his hands in conversation. Mathew
van der Lee is also shown in the portrait, his expression animated
and turned in semi-profile facing Doctor Peter Kolb. The eyes of the
other men stare straight ahead, the groom at center expectant and
From this wedding,
too, comes the portrait of Maria Sibylla dressed in garden silk and
satin capuchin. Her mood is high and her skin glows in the heat. She
is fresh from one of the wedding dances, it was a cotillion and this
done in turns, each with a different partner. She has had several
of these turns with Mathew van der Lee.
The Widow Ivenes
tells the wedding party her dream of the white beast. In the dream
the Widow is a child again. She is leading the beast on a chain and
the animal is following docile and quiet, trotting like a little dog
behind the Child Ivenes. But then a wind starts up and the fur of
the white beast begins to ripple like a lion's mane, and the Child
Ivenes and the beast move steadily against the wind, and the beast
lets out a ferocious roar and throws its head back, all the while
roaring, and the Child Ivenes' hair blows free from her cap.
But the beast
is not a dream at the Providentia Plantation. A female slave has been
mauled and her infant snatched from her. The woman had given birth
the night before, and in the morning fell behind the others at the
edges of the sugar fields. The beast appeared out of nowhere and sprang
at the woman and tore at her flesh, and the woman dropped her baby
to the ground. When she did, the beast stopped its attack and let
go of the woman, then grabbed the baby from the ground and ran into
The black men
are crouched outside the flap door of one of the shanties.
child who was witness to the attack, is brought by the men to tell
what he saw. He was in the bushes at the edge of the sugar field where
he saw the woman resting with her infant. He saw the beast nearby
as if in hiding. The beast came across the field on all four paws,
like this, and Jama-Santi moves forward in a crouch to show the men,
and then it slashed at the woman, rising up on its two legs until
it was taller than a man, and then it knocked the woman to the ground
and ran off with her infant.
monkey man, alligator man.
There is a bristling
on the backs of the black necks; it goes unnoticed for the moment
by the Dutch. There are the words that are repeated in the shanties,
by the black slaves speaking in their Neger-Englen.
mystery man, crocodile man.
But what more
is to be said about the wedding party, about the feasting and the
dance, the endless rounds of the cotillions? Or for that matter what
more is to be said about the wedding couple? The chaste bride. The
expectant groom. Shall we call attention to them now and to the coming
of the night with its sweet outpouring like the liquid from the sugar
cane? The stalk is slit deep, and the syrup of the sugar is dripping.
has gone out behind the main house of the Castillo Plantation and
has been followed by Mathew van der Lee. "Mr. van der Lee,"
she says when she sees him. "Here, come." Her black hair
is piled high upon her head, and her shoulders are bare, and she is
thin in her garden silk. "Madame Sibylla," says Mathew van
der Lee as he approaches her.
They will be returning
soon to Surimombo.
It is early evening,
just before the nightfall. The day of work is over on the sugar farms.
The slaves talk about the beast, they say its eyes are malignant,
flashing. And the land moves out from the sea down into the jungle.
It is her desire
that is driving her. To seek beyond the limits that would otherwise
constrain her. In the morning she goes out alone into the fields,
behind the house, into the small forest, alone into the jungle.
From a distance
she thinks they are large birds, but as she approaches she sees they
are monkeys. There is a brood of them on the ground in the clearing.
The monkeys are curious, especially the youngest ones, they approach
without fear to smell her out. A baby grabs at the bottom of her overall.
But when she steps forward, the baby lets go and runs back to the
rest. The adults approach menacing, their shrieks deafening, then
all at once they pull themselves into the trees.
When the monkeys
clear, Maria Sibylla sees the old black woman, Mama Cato. She has
brought cowrie shells and beetles to trade for fabric and a sheet
of vellum. Mama Cato is running back and forth in front of Maria Sibylla,
shouting something that the Dutch woman does not understand. Then
Mama Cato stops her shouting and her running and throws her head back
and makes a call like a bird. Her call brings toucans. The toucans
are flying all around her, the toucans in flight, flapping their wings
above Mama Cato.
When the trading
is finished, the old woman moves back into the jungle and the toucans
disappear above the trees.
else is moving now, a hint of something moving among the trees.
Or is it only
the way the land moves out from the sea into the jungles. And the
swaying of the branches in the trees.
Are there footsteps?
Footfall? When Mama Cato has left her alone in the forest? The sound
of thrashing against the jungle growth.
Is it the beast?
The white beast stalking? On its diurnal ritual? The heaving and sighing
of the beast.
And in the distance
the cracking of the whips, the whips cracking back on the sugar farms.
That evening at
supper the five of them gather. How familiar now the sight of them
gathered. The plates are passed from left to right, the way they have
always been passed since the first evening of her arrival. And the
lodgers are seated where they have always been seated since the moment
they first sat down. The talk tonight is of the beast, of the incident
at Providentia Plantation. Since the attack on the female slave there
has been talk of little else at Surimombo. And Esther Gabay, for all
her fears of its effect to stir unrest among the slaves, is unable
to control the conversation, to stop the steady stream of discourse
on the beast.
called a beast is sometimes merely a deformity," says Doctor
Peter Kolb, "such as the deformity of the mystery people, the
Ewaipanoma, who are born without a head."
Ewaipanoma are not a real people," says Esther Gabay.
The moths have
come and are beating at the window, attracted by the glow of the candles
in the dining room, and the window is covered with moths, just as
each night since her arrival the window has been covered with moths,
and it is as though nature has conspired with its own ritual, and
the window is all movement and pulsation. But look who has come this
night to take advantage. It is the spider called a wolf spider because
it preys in the manner of wolves. It has come to hunt on the window
on which the moths have lighted with such compulsion that even when
the spider makes its presence known, the moths are unable to flee.
For the moths are transfixed there by the light from the candles,
bearded, with their bodies flattened, pressed close to the window.
And the window provides a feast this night for the spider.
Or later in the
salon, or in her laboratory, or in the bedroom of her suite of rooms
where the cocoon of the mosquito netting hangs all around her, and
the fabric of the netting is soft and silky to the touch.
Despite the layers
of the netting, the mosquitoes puncture her flesh, as they have done
many times since her arrival.
But who comes
dancing in these hours before she sleeps. Gaunt. Thin. He is thin.
Like an insect. Imagine.
Dancing in the
hours before she sleeps.
If the beast has
sport with you, you die, if the beast touches your mama woman, you
have babies that come out with heads like crocodiles, if the beast
touches you, you feel red pain rising in your loins. That is what
the Indians say. And that is what the Africans also say. The Indians
and the Africans are of one mind about the beast. It is only the Dutch
who say something different.
The beast is not
a joke. The beast kills you. Do you know the beast? Is the beast the
Ewaipanoma without a head? How can they live without a head? How can
they eat you without a head? It is a mystery. It is a question that
does not have an answer. The Ewaipanoma live in the deep jungle. But
no one can live in the deep jungle. Only the Ewaipanoma and the Africans
and the Indians when they are running. They are like dogs when they
are running and they are trying to flee their masters. They are running
from the slashing of the whip. The women running too. The women running
from the whip. And from the use that is made of them. As many times
as is desired. Though not desired by them. And they are like wild
dogs the women when they are running into the deep jungle, where the
Dutch man tries to follow but gets eaten by the crocodile. But if
he finds the dog, oh, no, oh no. If he finds the dog. In the jungle.
The beast has
struck and infected with fear the imaginations of the captive peoples,
the Amerindians with their russet faces, proud under the whip, and
the Africans, too, also proud, and watchful.
The white men
beat the slaves with whips, they do not care that they are descended
from the tribal princes.
The sudden raids
and the enslavements. The spirit cast down a thousand times, a thousand
times and gnashings...bitter bitter.
But what is the
beast? Is it the jinn of a demon hiding under Piki Ston Falls? The
falls are high and the water rushes.
Where did the
beast come from, appearing out of nowhere? How can the beast appear
out of nowhere? Out of nothing? It must come from somewhere.
Here is a white
beast: On the Cordova Plantation, Jacob Cordova is punishing a black
man for drumming.
But in the deep
jungle, past the Nickerie, along the Saramacca River, past the swamp
lands with its crocodiles, in the deep jungle that is thick with the
liana, there are the settlements of the runaways, there are the fire
hearths going and the women cooking at the fire hearths outside the
new shanties, and the Dutch man cannot follow here, cannot get past
the crocodile and the liana, and the black man is drumming and drumming
She is infected
now with the malaria from the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes have infected
her with the malaria.
The malaria has
her and her eyes are bleary, boiling, the heat has worn her down and
the mosquito has overcome her, and she is hollow, her bones are hollow,
and her skin has become rough and parched, and hot to the touch, and
glistening in the darkened room. Esther Gabay has ordered the thick
dark curtains pulled across the window to keep out the light from
the sun. And in the dark it is as though Maria Sibylla is glowing,
as though her skin is glowing. Her lips have swollen and are thick
now, and dry, and her tongue, too, has swollen, and is thick inside
her mouth, and her speech is slurred in her delirium, and her words
come out in fragments and make no sense. She is saying something about
a tulip in the Netherlands, or two river pigs, approaching, and sinking
down into silence.
where are you,
Maria Sibylla? Mari? Mari? in a thick Dutch accent.
she has a heaviness
in her legs, the slowing down of her pulse, the heaviness climbing
in her legs.
she cannot breathe,
the heaviness has made her breathless.
the fever has
made her pale, drawn, brought a dryness to her lips, as if parched,
faded, and the air filled up with water draws her body fluids like
a sponge, in drops it draws her body fluids from her.
she is in a place
that is uninhabitable, it is filled with a substance that she knows
cannot sustain her.
there is a tree
sloth in her path. hanging limp and in unimaginable pleasure in the
shade of a Mora tree.
and her heart
and her breath
she is on the
Cerro de la Compana, the mountain that is called Bell Mountain, located
south of the Savannah in Surinam.
white stones rise
up on the mountain, the boulders rise white and can be seen from all
directions, rising up on the mountain, where there are no trees, only
the boulders that rise up to the peaks.
or she is in her
father's study looking at the drawing table, at the scene for a still
life set on the drawing table.
it is the book
of flowers open
the book of insects
and she is sinking
down, inside her fever, and sinking down, and down inside her dreams.
its rolling fields of sugar cane, the way the stalk breaks.
and the pale emptying
of the darkness.
she is inside
the netting, the mosquito netting that is brushing against her like
cobwebs, when she tries to move, when she tries to lift up, when she
raises her arm, or turns from her back to her side.
or she is walking
with Mathew van der Lee along the seashore.
it is his specialty,
he tells her, the shore of the sea.
he is speaking
and his breath is continuous, it is the absence of pauses that allows
his breath to be continuous.
the African slaves
hiding in the old abandoned gardens.
amidst the screaming
birds, the macaws that scream loudest, the howler monkeys that roar
like the jaguars.
her eyes are black
with the dilation of her pupils, the bites have punctured her, have
left deposits deep inside her, the seeds of the malaria have been
planted inside her, and have left her forever assailable.
and Doctor Peter
Kolb with his bag of tricks coming in and out of her room, looking
now stern, now grave, now perplexed, now fatigued and hopeless, resigned
as though he has exhausted all that he can offer, with his bag, with
his hands, with his hands thick and sometimes shaking, and yet the
shaking is ignored as he, Doctor Kolb, puts his hands first on her
head, and then at the base of her throat, and on her neck and on her
shoulders, listening, to her breathing, listening to her labored breathing.
and Mathew van
der Lee inquiring of Doctor Kolb, often several times in a single
day inquiring, asking after the progress of her recovery, his own
face blanched and creased with his concern, or sometimes waiting outside
her suite of rooms for the doctor to exit, or at cards in the evening
but Marta, too,
has been coming into the sick woman's room, at night when the doctor
has left, and Esther Gabay is aware of it and does not approve, but
does not stop it. Marta brings liquids to drink and some to apply
as a compress, and some that have been ground into a paste, or infused
in a glass, and in the end these prove the cure.
In the end these
prove the cure,
and the world
again becomes visible,
and the sun breaks
through again completely, to sear the flesh, the ground, the wooden
frame of the main house at Surimombo.
As soon as she
is able, Maria Sibylla sets out with Marta, they go no farther than
the small forest behind the Surimombo sugar fields, the forest is
lush with peacock flowers.
Her eyes still
ringed with the tiredness left by the malaria, she wears no hat, her
hair falls past her shoulders.
The world again
the calls of birds,
the hum of insects,
on the branches
of the trees, caterpillars.
The world again
surrounds her and she is working in the forest,
the sweep of her
net across the jungle floor,
but while she
is working, the slaves are hiding.
The slaves are
hiding, wearing hats with gold trim, with iron pots and bolts of cloth,
with cowrie shells, sweet oil, candles, pigs, sheep, combs.
And the beast
has come sniffing across the sugar fields, and the children hiding
in the bushes, or in their hammocks, or in their cribs in the shanties
that cannot hold them, and their mothers are saying, oh no, oh no.
The beast has
come trotting with the legs of his trousers flapping.
It is on the Machado
plantation. Where the beast is reflected in the eyes of the child
Josie. The beast is reflected in the eyes, in the eyes of the black
child Josie who has just been purchased by Jorge Machado.
The girl is twelve
and already has her menses, she is twelve and thin and delicate, with
dark eyes and long legs.
It is on the Machado
plantation, and involves Jorge Machado himself, the look of shock
in Josie's eyes, the look of fear, of terror, and then of shame, and
the touch of the man who has grabbed her, the man who owns her, the
man whose property she is.
The weight of
Jorge Machado's neck is pressed against the child Josie's face, and
his arms have pinned her arms to their sides, and what he is doing
to her, she cannot stop him, his thick neck that is pressed against
her mouth, his shoulder that is digging into her breast, his flesh
that is pushed into hers, and what he is doing to her,
and her eyes are
open and staring.
Where is the mama
of the child Josie? The mama is so far away now. And the mama cannot
protect her. And the daddy cannot protect her. Where is the daddy
of the child Josie?
It is from fear,
perhaps from fear and anger, perhaps from the aggrievance to her body,
or from the weight of his neck against her face, or from his arms
which have pinned her, or the pain from what he is doing to her, the
child Josie cannot stop herself she bites Jorge Machado. It is on
his neck that she bites him, his neck that has been pressed against
her mouth, she sinks her teeth deep into his neck, as he penetrates
and his shock
to feel it,
and his fist pounding
down on her mouth,
and her teeth
that are broken, and the blood filling up in her mouth.
He rears up like
a beast and brings Josie up with him, and Josie is screaming, and
the blood is pouring out from her mouth.
But that is not
enough to contain the rage of Jorge Machado.
He has a rage
that cannot be contained and he spills it out on the child Josie.
And her screams
pour out with the blood from her mouth.
And Jorge Machado
is pounding and pounding, with his fist like a hammer he pounds her,
and her arms flail against him, she is trying to protect herself with
her flailing arms, with her arms that flail against him,
until he twists
both her arms in their sockets,
and her arms are
hanging limp from their sockets,
until Jorge Machado
fully spends his rage and by the savage force of his own massive arms
he tears the arms out from the sockets of the child Josie.
your beast, Madame Gabay," Maria Sibylla says solemnly, having
listened with full attention to the account. "And there is your
beast, Doctor Kolb, there is the wolf that you suspect with its eyes
flashing and with its teeth that rip and tear and rip and tear, and
there is your beast, too, Widow Ivenes, your fine white beast that
trots behind you like a dog, and it is sitting right beside the beast
of Madame Gabay."
That night she
dreams that she is on the ship, The Peace, that it has come
to take her home. The ship sets sail and she is returning to her home
in the Netherlands. She is standing on the deck as the ship leaves
the shore, as it sets sail out to the sea. She is standing on the
deck and there is still light from the sun, but the air is cold. And
when night comes she is still on the deck and it is now very cold.
In her dream she can see the moon at three-quarters, and the planets
and the stars. All those miles away from her.
The next day she
is alone in the small forest, Marta is not with her. It is called
the Surimombo Forest because it extends along the edges of the Surimombo
Plantation and can be seen from the sugar fields.
It is the day
she discovers the little-bird spider. It is a tarantula, covered with
hair, straddling its prey, sucking the blood out from a tiny bird.
The bird is on its back only a few inches from the nest, its head
hanging limp between a fork in the branch. Maria Sibylla is transferring
the scene to vellum, painstaking and accurate in her rendering.
She has announced
that morning during breakfast she will cut short her visit. On its
approaching journey back she will again board The Peace.
It is the heat
that is driving her, she has told them, that is prompting her to cut
short her visit, and she is still fatigued from her illness, from
the malaria, and she believes that if she remains she will not survive,
and all the while the heat is breathing itself into her, hot and needling
and insistent like the mouth of an insect.
she is vaguely aware, the sound of someone thrashing against the jungle
growth, she stops drawing and turns in the direction of the footsteps.
It is Matthew
van der Lee who has followed her, who has come to seek her out where
she is working.
She stands silent,
the sun's rays on her.
You are working.
I am working.
Is it true what
you said, you will leave soon?
Yes, true, it
But I thought
that you might stay.
I am sorry, I
must leave, Mr. van der Lee.
Will you not change
It is too hot,
Mr. van der Lee.
I have purchased
some cane fields, Madame Sibylla.
You will soon
be rich, Mr. van der Lee.
There is something
in the shape of his face, its triangularity, and the impression that
it gives, there is something in the expression on his face.
And her face still
flushed from the malaria.
It will be difficult
to leave you, Mr. van der Lee.
He is thin and
his lower jaw protrudes slightly. He has the look of a student long
past his student days, he is reserved and yet he is intense, he is
somewhat delicate and yet there is a strength to him.
And the heat from
the sun beating down.
What is the contradiction
welling inside her, the contradiction rising inside her? The heat
on the one hand -- the insidious armies of ants, the wood ticks that
in seconds can cover the entirety of the body,
and on the other,
everything is lush, lush, and the clouds tinged pink, and the floor
of the jungle is thick and soft, so soft you can sink down into it.
Her hair shines
Her black hair
falling past her shoulders.
Her beating heart,
And Mathew van
der Lee standing before her.
stares, then she beckons him closer, motions him to come closer, closer,
quiet, puts her fingers to her lips, quiet, quiet, here, come, Mr.
van der Lee, and she shows him what it is that she is drawing, the
tiny bird that has been vanquished by the spider, the tameless spider
still in the act of ravaging the bird, she shows him first on her
drawing on the vellum and then points to the live model on the tree,
and they are standing very close now, with their faces nearly touching,
and there is the mingling of their breaths in the hot, humid air of
the forest, under the branches of the tree, this tree that rises up
like an altar, like an altar to which they have brought their supplication,
their devotions and their dalliance, their yearning and their desire,
and the parrots on the branches high above are screaming, as though
the birds are giving voice to the intensity of the drama that is taking
place below, to the triumph of the silent spider, and to the agony
of the vanquished bird, and to the intentness of the woman and the
man, and Maria Sibylla is solemn now, as still as stone, her chest
no longer rising and falling with the inhalations and exhalations
of her breath, she is no longer breathing, her breath held, held for
an impossibly long time, and Mathew van der Lee is so close to her
now, and quiet, and he is also barely breathing, his breath also held,
until at last in one continuous breath he whispers the words, I thought
that I might -- I thought that we might, and then Mathew van der Lee
goes down on his knees before her.
On the deck of
the ship there are three figures: Maria Sibylla Merian in ship-dress,
a muslin jacket and a chip hat, her body rigid, her face pale; and
next to her, her Indianen, Marta, who is dressed much the same as
Maria Sibylla, and who is going home with her to the Netherlands;
and on Marta's shoulder a macaw perched with its huge wings from time
to time flapping, it is the same macaw that had been traded with Mama
Cato. The bird has a gold chain fastened to its leg and that in turn
is fastened to a heavy bracelet on Marta's wrist, and the bird's feathers
are a brilliant mix of yellow and green and turquoise, the yellow
is sunflower yellow, like the king's yellow, like Indian dyes and
canaries, and the green and the blue are like emerald and cobalt,
or a green like mittler's green, or a blue like indigo, steel blue,
To Mr. Mathew van der Lee
from Maria Sibylla Merian
van der Lee
I have received
the gentleman's (your) letter of March 19th and read therein that
you are surprised to have received no letters from me.
I have also
received your previous letters, as well as animals from you on two
occasions. The first time, they were brought by the apothecary,
Mister Jonathaan Petiver, but because I was not in need of such
creatures I gave them back to him and thanked him, requesting that
he write to you, telling you I have no use for such animals and
did not know what to do with them. For the kind of animals I am
looking for are quite different. I am in search of no other animals,
but only wish to study certain transformations, how one emerges
from the other. Therefore, I would ask you not to send me any more
animals, for I have no use for them.
I continue my
work and am still doing it, bringing everything to parchment in
its full perfection. But everything I did not bring, or did not
find at the time when I cut short my journey, cannot now, after
so long a period, be similarly rendered, or remembered, or imagined.
And there are so many wondrous, rare things that have never come
to light before, and which I will now not be able to bring to light.
For the heat in your country is staggering, and many were surprised
that I survived, and I have still not fully recovered from my malaria.
Thus all my memory associated with that time -- which even then
had the quality of a dream -- has become now all the more ephemeral
in its proclivity to fade. And that is so much so that what I have
preserved on parchment remains as the only tangible reality that
I can summon of that time.
On the journey
back, Mr. van der Lee, the sky raged for one entire week with storm,
and I believed that God had set upon me, that he was pursuing me
in the violent wake of the ship, and we all held fast upon the vessel
as our only hope for life while day and night the storm raged, and
the good captain, sallow, soaked and freezing, did not let go his
place at the helm beside the helmsman. Though this I knew only afterwards,
as you might guess, for during the storm I was confined to my own
quarters, where never previously sick from motion, I was at that
time quite ill. For my weakness from the malaria was still inside
me, and that along with the tossing of the ship brought back my
fever, and in my fever I believed, Mr. van der Lee, that I was beset
upon by God, so filled as I was with remorse for all that had happened
and perhaps as much so for what could not.
It has been
my pride for all my life to rely upon my good sense, and to engage
the pragmatic view to carry me, and science to inform me, and God
to guide and to protect me. But during those days and nights of
storm at sea these went out of balance, Mr. van der Lee, and I came
to believe that God was in pursuit of me for my weakness, and that
the storm had been sent by His intention to fell me, and that the
ship would be destroyed and everyone on board along with myself
would perish, unfortunate as they had been to journey with me. I
came to believe, too, that the sailors had been correct in their
judgment of me as a witch. And I counted myself fortunate that the
trials for witchcraft had been long since discontinued in the Netherlands,
and that the last of these trials (it afterwards being deemed unlawful)
had preceded me by a full 90 years. For were that not the case,
I was convinced that I would surely be among those numbers of unfortunate
women who were hung or burned or drowned. That is how distraught
my mind was, Mr. van der Lee, from the fever and the storm. But
then the storm cleared and the ship proceeded forward on a sea that
was again calm, and we on board all settled back into its more gentle
motion and continued that way for the remainder of the journey.
With that my
mind, and my heart, too, became restored, and my days were spent
again on deck, where I imagined I could catch the fading scent of
the flamboyant trees, and all the other sweet smells of Paramaribo,
and Marta, whom I brought back from your land to the Netherlands,
and released from her condition of servitude, continued to nurture
me throughout the journey with infusions of plants. These skills
she had learned from her mother, who in turn had learned them from
a Shaman in her former village of Kwamalasamoetoe, which in our
language means the Bamboo Sand.
It is true I
feel a longing for your land. In my ears there is still the sound
of the rivers with their surface waters one minute placid, the next
roiling. And my thoughts in some strange way are still carried forward
by the sweep of those rivers.
There is great
beauty in your land, I have never denied it, Mr. van der Lee; there
is great beauty alongside the brutal harshness. I saw many things
and many forms of life that I would elsewise not have seen, and
I know you glimpsed and understood them, too. Your land has a multitude
of small insects that are rare, and other creatures, fierce and
strange and beautiful. I observed the habits formed by these creatures,
and observed the way they have their own laws and their own proceedings,
and these I regarded as metaphors for our own human lives.
I saw the swarm
of ants devouring the spider, and the spider devouring the hummingbird.
The Palisade Tree that is called the Tree of Paradise, the apple
of Sodom that is red and poisonous, the thickness of the jungle
with its tangle of vines, the rats, the storks, the armadillos and
the lizards, the toucans and the parrots -- all of these have I
seen, Mr. van der Lee, and they have moved me. I felt, too, the
heat that daily burned there, the heat that in the end I believe
almost killed me. For the sun burns hotter there than a furnace,
and hotter, too, than the strong clear fires used for boiling the
sugar cane. But enough has been spoken of that heat.
It is that other
heat I wish to speak of now, a heat capable of arousing in some
unwilled and wild way. For it was that heat, too, that breathed
itself into me, Mr. van der Lee, hot and needling and insistent.
And perhaps you will now understand that you wish to recall to me
what I have not forgotten.
it you see? What do you see, Madame Sibylla?" How frequently
you plied me with such questions, Mr. van der Lee. "What has
taken you so far from your home?" you asked. "What keeps
you as far? What do you yearn for to the point of dying?"
On that afternoon,
Mr. van der Lee, when you followed me into the small forest, the
one called Surimombo Forest, you plied me again with these same
questions. And with other questions, too, while all the while the
heat from the sun was burning me and the moisture in the jungle
air was suffocating me. You wore a charm around your neck -- untypical
of the fastidiousness of your attire -- it was a piece of bone,
yellowish and slightly curved. You were telling me about the Cerro
de la Compana, the mountain that sings like a bell, telling me that
it was located south of the savannah on the rolling sandstone hills,
and that we must journey there together to hear its bell sound.
And I was in the Surimombo Forest and you had followed me and Marta
was not with me and I told you again I had already made up my mind
to cut short my journey and you went down on your knees before me,
down to the leaves on their tiny stems shimmering blue-green on
the jungle floor. And the perfume was overpowering from the delicate
begonias, the caladiums, the fragile calla lilies, the red passion
flowers. And you pushed in against the forest growth, Mr. van der
Lee, no longer plying me with questions then, but saying to me instead,
"I thought that you might -- I thought that we might,"
and taking me down to the jungle floor with you.
But I must ask
you now, as it seems to me I asked you then, there in that staggering
heat -- what is it that is expected? What can be hoped for now?
when it could not be hoped for then?
I could not
stay then, Mr. van der Lee, because the heat would have killed me,
and apart from that your life on a sugar farm could not be my life.
That has not changed. The entrancement that we shared cannot endure.
There can be room in my life for only one thing, Mr. van der Lee,
for only one thing that is passionate and irresistible. And the
rapture that I seek is in the transformations that I study, and
in bringing everything to parchment in its full perfection.
A light rain
is falling now with the sun still shining. We call that Leichter
Machen, or the Lightening. It is regarded as bewitching
light, Mr. van der Lee, and sometimes it is called the love light
or the lovers' light, or interchangeably the festival light. And
if you stand at some strategic point you can see this light reflected
on the waters of the canals still rippling with the falling rain,
and to the eye it looks like countless lights reflected on the waters
of the canals, and with the outlines of the bridges on each one.
It is a fairy scene, Mr. van der Lee.
But when the
rain stops, the strange light will disappear, and all will be as
normal again, and no one will know what had been seen. There are
visions like that, Mr. van der Lee.
I did not answer
your earlier letters because there seemed no more on my part to
be said, and because I did not wish to give the impression that
there was something to be hoped for or expected. I still do not
wish to give that impression, Mr. van der Lee.
write and ask you now to not send animals. For I have no use for
them. That is, for the animals such as you sent previously. I wish
only to study certain transformations, how one emerges from the
other. And I therefore ask you not to send me animals, for I have
no use for them.
if you must send something, Mr. van der Lee, send butterflies, small
caligo butterflies, diurnal
butterflies and ricinis, sactails, jatrophas, moon moths, peacock
moths, send primulas with nun moths, pale tussocks and pease blossom
moths, tachinid flies and calicoid flies, owl moths and harlequin
beetles, or send lantern flies, Mr. van der Lee, in a box that is
filled up with the lantern flies, and make certain they are alive
when you send them and can be kept living, so that when I open the
lid, Mr. van der Lee, they will rise up like fire, and shoot out
of the box like a flame, and that will delight me, Mr. van der Lee,
and will remind me of that other fire that one day rose up inside
Rosalind Palermo Stevenson interview