The River at the Beginning of the World

* A fable based on Arawak and Caribe mythology


I will tell you, now, this story which my granmè tell me when I was just a tiny speck of dust under a cassava leaf. It is just a tim-tim, eh?

silk cotton treeIn the time before time, high upon the volcano, at the very top of the world, a very large silk-cotton tree grew up out of the earth and stone. Its giant roots go deep down into the very center of the earth. Right down there into the sea of creation. From the fissures made by the roots of this tree there sprung four rivers which flow in the four directions down the side of the volcano and fill up the oceans. There is enough water down there under that tree that the whole world would have been flooded, except for those roots.

Perhaps that is not how it begins. Perhaps, afraid of the flood, the first man searches about and finds four large stones, which he uses to stop the flow of water from the four springs. Sometimes the story goes that way, I think. But I like the other way better.

Now, there was this man. His name was Louquo. He was the first man, and he was lonely, because there were no others like him. He wandered about the world, searching for a companion. He walked along the seashore and the rivers, looking behind the driftwood, and in the caves. And then he searched in the forest, in every thicket and meadow and marsh, and, at last, he climbed high upon the mountain. There was no one up there on top of that mountain, just this silk-cotton tree, which I have told you about. So Louquo climbed up into this tree, and he just sat there, contemplating his world, feeling his loneliness, because there was no one to keep him company, except for this tree. One day the tree said to him, You know, Missiè, this fruit has become too heavy for my branches, and I could use a little bit of pruning. If you would help me to unburden, then perhaps I could do something for you, eh?

So, Louquo, having nothing else to do, decided to help his only companion. He pulled off some dead twigs and dropped them on the ground. Before his eyes, they became people and four-legged animals. He tossed some leaves down, and as they fluttered away, they grew wings, and became the birds. Unlike the silk-cotton tree of today, this tree has many kinds of fruit. And after eating a few tasty morsels, Louquo threw the rest into the sea, and the fishes swam away.

Now, seeing how lonely was Louquo, the great Mother Tree did not wish the same for her new children, so she gave each of them a spirit, an opoyem. And to the two-legged twigs, who become The People, she also gave a companion spirit, called the chemin.

Now, if you treat your chemin with respect, then you are rewarded with good luck. You become kakaburokwa, one who is brave and upright, and when you die, your chemin will float in the air above your ajoupa and keep you company for all time.

But if you are a drunkard or neglectful, you became makoburokwa, one who forgets. These poor souls, the chemin abandon upon death, and the opoyem must wander in a desolate place, lonely as Louquo.

Now, Louquo, the first man, and the Great Mother, Silk-Cotton, they had a daughter called Mahogany, who lived happily in her ajoupa, high upon the slope of Pelèe. Mahogany was a very fine young woman, who treated her chemin with honor and gifts of cassava, and who nurtured those less fortunate than herself. One day, a stranger arrived by sea in a pirogue. He looked tired and hungry, and so Mahogany invited him into her ajoupa and offered him a gourd of oüicou. He drank it thirstily. When she offered him a bowl of manioc, he refused politely, and then he said, kind Mamzél, please take me to the Old Man—he was speaking of Louquo, whom everyone called by that name. I have a very urgent message to give to him.

Now Mahogany had a quandary. Louquo had gone away on a long journey, and she had no idea where to find him. Reluctantly, she told this to the traveller, and she could see the sadness which overcame him. But, then, he said, If that is the case, Mamzèl, I must leave this prophecy with you to pass on.

Mahogany was not sure whether or not she wanted to be responsible for a prophecy—she could tell that the stranger was honest, and that he carried very powerful medicine. She also knew that one does not always have a choice in these matters, and so, after much thinking, she said, I will hear you, stranger.

And so the traveler told Mahogany of invaders from across the sea whose skin was the color of death. The invaders would bring four powerful maboya. These maboya are very bad spirits, and according to the stranger, they would loose upon the world four great calamities by destroying the roots of the great tree of life.

The first disaster, said the stranger, will be a great river of blood in the east, which will wash away whole villages and tribes and drown them in the sea. And Mahogany saw a vision of great sailing ships crossing the waters, filled with pale-skinned men who carried long knives with which they beheaded their enemies. These men enslaved the people and took the women for their pleasure. They made all bow down before their god, who, like his servants, was terrible and vindictive.

Then will come a river of black death, said the stranger, even more deadly than the river of blood. And Mahogany saw hunger and disease in all of the villages of the People, on all of the islands, and on the mainland; so many deaths that the invaders burned them in great mountains of flesh from which black smoke rose and covered the sun.

Then, said the traveler, there will follow a burning river of fire, which will come down the mountain from the south. And Mahogany witnessed the volcano explode, and throw its fire in mighty bursts of anger, and all in its path was destroyed, the villages, the fields, the forests. None could escape its fury.

Finally, said the man, from the north will come a mighty river of ice, and all of mankind will be vanquished beneath it. And Mahogany felt a cold wind on her face, and she saw the people fleeing the coldness of the gods’ breath, falling, frozen like stone.

When the stranger’s prophecy was finished, Mahogany began to weep, and she wept until her tears created a fifth river, which threatened to flood everything. Her chemin did not know what to do to console her, or how to stop the flood, so it paid a visit to the oumekou, the spirit who lives on the seashore.

The oumekou said, why should I help you, spirit of a human? And Mahogany’s chemin said to the oumekou, if we do not stop this river, then the seashore will be under the sea, and you will have no home, you foolish spirit. This alarmed the oumekou, and so it agreed to take the chemin to call upon Yurokan and Jaluka, the twin spirits of the sea.

At first, the twins were not at all sympathetic. Yurokan said, but why should I care if all of the land is underneath my domain? I will be even more powerful then.

Ah, yes, said the chemin, but who will there be to fear your fierce storms, Yurokan? The fish? Who will you have power over, then?

What you say is true, said Yurokan. My power lies in my fierceness.

And Jaluka said, With every storm at sea, I am born again. What do I care about your pathetic humans?

But who will behold your great beauty, Jaluka, if not the People? said the chemin.

Jaluka, the spirit of the rainbow, said, I see your point, spirit of a human. We will talk this over.

At last, after much debate, these twins decided to make a path across the sky for this new river made from Mahogany’s tears.

When the time comes, the chemin told Mahogany, the people must put their pirogues upon this river. It is not an easy river to navigate, my dear Mahogany, said the chemin, and I am afraid that many may fall overboard and drown. But if you steer carefully, and you carry with you the spirits of your ancestors, you will arrive safely at the land of the Fortunate Isles.

And there you may begin anew.