The orchid vanilla planifolia opens in the morning and closes on the afternoon of the same day, never to re-open. Only during that brief span can it be pollinated. Each sheath-like flower contains the necessary organs for fertility but cannot pollinate itself.
Hector Poullet rises before dawn and visits his garden. He looks for a vanilla blossom open on its sturdy vine. If he finds one waiting like a little trumpet ready to sound, he lifts a smidgeon of pollen from its anther and lays it on the stigma. As he works he explains that in Guadeloupe there once were stingless bees, Meliponini, that specialized in pollinating vanilla. But their entire population was exterminated by more aggressive swarms brought from Europe.
In the listener's mind, this story of extinction becomes an allegory in which the European bees figure conquistadors and colonizers; the stingless bees are Arawaks felled by Carib spears and Caribs felled in turn by Spanish swords. The lovely garden widens into a whole ecology distorted by European mischief—forests sacrificed to cane with its greed for labor and nutrients.
Hector Poullet, gardener, entrepreneur and historian, is above all a linguist. He studies, speaks and writes the Creole language created by men and women deprived of their African speech. He tells me there is a Creole word, lévé, that corresponds to se lever, to get up, but none corresponding to se réveiller, to wake up, because in Guadeloupe to wake up is the same as to get up and work. He says there is a word, malè, for unhappiness, but none for happiness. It would be easy enough to invent one and put it in his dictionary, but he refuses.
“When we know what happiness is,” he says, “we’ll have a word for it.”
Bartolomé de Las Casas, future author of “The Devastation of the Indies,” wanted a goat for his birthday, but his father said:
“You’re fifteen today. I have something better for you.”
Fearing that the paternal gift might be a sword, the boy asked:
“ What could be better than a goat?”
“Another boy,” replied Captain de Las Casas, “a present from the Admiral on our return from the Indies. I’m passing him on to you. He’s your age, as limber as any goat. You can name him whatever you want and do whatever you want with him.”
“I want him gone.”
“Then, take him out in a boat and drown him.”
After a few weeks of searching, the younger de Las Casas found officials who would transport the Amerindian and return him to his family. In the meantime, Bartolomé never named him, never taught him a word of Spanish, never looked him directly in the eyes.
“The sky is flooded with light!”
“A light in the shape of the Cross! the work of God’s hand!”
“I shit in God’s hand.”
“Shit on the blind guy who runs this country. He put the Cross in the sky—”
“An electric Cross that drains all our power.”
“It makes me happy to see our power in the Cross.”
“If it were in my TV I could see telenovelas.”
“But it’s a Cross on the roof of the world’s biggest lighthouse !”
“A tomb for the bones of Columbus.”
“I shit on the bones of Columbus!”
“The greatest navigator in history!”
“He saw Santo Domingo and thought it was China. He must have been blind like our
“Or like me. I can’t see a thing in my own house.”
“You call that a house? What’s to see in that hen-coop?”
“I almost saw Tomas return to his lover Imelda. He had just come to her door when the screen went
“Poor Carmencita, you were looking forward to a good cry.”
“A bunch of Dominicans in the dark under a Cross—couldn’t she cry about that?”
Sarah White's recent book, Alice Ages and Ages (Blaze Vox, 2010) was reviewed in Offcourse #44 by Ricardo Nirenberg. She is also author of a poetry collection, Cleopatra Haunts the Hudson (Spuyten Duyvil, 2007), a chapbook, Mrs. Bliss and the Paper Spouses (Pudding House, 2007), and a lyric essay, The Poem Has Reasons: A Story of Far Love (online at www.proempress.com). She lives, writes, and paints in Manhattan. See her poems in Offcourse #43 and "You mean you are allowed to do that?" in #44.