[Nonfiction] On Burning
(The National Museum of Brazil)
There is a space for things the earth has rejected: deficient skulls of a forgotten homo sapien posthumously named Luzia, other old-worlds run into extinction, old stone no one touches & broken bits of pottery that don’t fit
into any conceivable bowl or spoon. There is a place where these things can be stacked up & polished & identified.
They say Brazil was once a heaven for pterosaurs & other dinosaurs. I imagine they flocked like seagulls, lithe & knuckled. I imagine the world grew heavy with them.
Oxalaia Quilombensisis one. His noduled & sedimented head is in such a place. A place where children can stare. Where children could have stared.
Oxalaia : derived from air & water & a god that is oblivious to all violence. He does not care : derived from, imagine, in small villages in the Brazilian state of Bahia, perhaps, women wash chuch steps with water & amaryllis, praying Oxalá& dressed in white, which is the color of creation. It is said that all stories about the creation of the world pass through Oxalá, who is blind to quarrels.
Quilombensis: derived from, Quilombo, also referred to as mocambo: derived from a colony of slaves that refused to ever return.
As far as we know, Oxalaia Quilombensis is not a survivor.
I look for essays from the past. Specifically, there is one I want, about Viking artefacts & how I have always been someone with the need to touch things. I am a kind of dangerous person who is always holding things up to the light & checking for marks of forgery & I have always been someone who asks for so much—I remember how just this week I called my father and said yes, I am an idealist & I told him to say nothing.
In this essay I lost, I quote Seamus Heaney. He wrote that objects which have been seasoned by human contact possess
a moral force. Sometimes it bowls me over. The world is so full of stuff.
Everything I touch is art.
I know what happened to my essay; I am careless with my things, & if my memory serves me right my computer was left alone on the ground because time & other things got in the way. It was stepped on some morning as I rose from bed.
It is not unique, even in my personal history. I left many things behind that year I returned to my America: an umbrella in the back of a train, a paperback in an airport, a wool coat in a dumpster. I came back all but empty.
Seamus Heaney wrote that objects from the past suggest obligations to & covenants with generations who have been silenced.
Silenced? But they possess me.
Outside Rio de Janeiro, in Guapamirim, my two friends are getting married. It’s wet because this climate & the orchids growing on the trunks of trees like it, flexing out of their coconut bulbs. It’s wet because the house is not temperature controlled & a fog has settled over everything & reached greedy into our clothes. I sweat, & the rooms are congested with the vibrations of a language I cannot decode. Obrigada means I am small-minded, take no notice of me. Onde é—means follow the cues of my hands, please don’t make me finish this sentence, I don’t know how & I don’t know what to do with my body here.
The wedding party sits outside with the family & the neighbors; I wear a summer dress that hits my ankles & watch the patriarch cook barbeque.
He cooks chicken hearts on metal skewers over a fire subdued in the belly of a churrasqueira. He takes them out & we pull the hearts with our fingers, eating quickly and burning our gringo mouths a pinker red. It feels something like communication.
We split tall cans of beers three ways, pass them around & drink from small glasses.
I ask my friend, is this normal
here ( here meaning Brazil )?
He says, this is just my family.
I read they saved the mollusk collection.
I don’t know whether they saved all of it, or rather, enough to count as saving the mollusk collection. I wonder, how was this decision made? I imagine
the team of academics, rattle-headed & gleaming in the fingers of the fire or behind a wall of smoke. I imagine they barely speak behind their coughs, but one of them says, let’s get the mollusks& they do, or no one says it & they do because they know. They are not systematic.
They are afraid & take what their hands land on—bivalves & gastropods & cephalopods & cuttlefish,
all already dead—
& haul them in buckets or trays naked in their arms & they burst out onto the lawn of the museum. Now,
the belly of the ocean is fragmented on the ground around them.
What were they thinking?
Ancestors & Fire
The New Year’s Eve after my uncle died in a motorcycle crash—or was it the year my father nearly died in a motorcycle crash? I remember my mother said let’s have a bonfire. Let’s burn
all the tragedy.
We took scraps of paper & wrote our sufferings using the palms of our hands to keep our privacy.
We folded the scraps & threw them in the fire in the backyard of the house we no longer live in. I don’t remember what I wrote. I have a terrible memory inherited from both sides of the family.
Now, I watch the footage from the other side of the Americas. The flames, incorporeal, were the main attraction.
For most of human history, the sight of a fire in town has been a kind of cinema. I learned
in college that this is about aesthetics—a hunger for the sublime. Kant wrote that all sorts of things can be sublime: men & the Atlantic & a mountain view & time. A long duration can be sublime. If it is one of time past then it is noble. If it projected into an incalculable future, then it has something of the fearsome in it.
I read on the internet that there is nothing left from the linguistics division. We have lost all of the indigenous languages collection. Recordings & transcripts of tongues no longer spoken; thin spool unreeled into extinction. Mouths silenced.
What would Kant say is the feeling we have when we have destroyed the past forever, into the incalculable future?
A lobotomy, someone called it.
One day there will be no such thing as a mouth.
20 million artefacts in the fire.
The mollusks survived.
Ancestors & Fire & Obligations
I am the owner of my great-grandmother’s pocket-bible. Before she died, it was hidden from me. After her death, it emerged
from a box of sepia photographs & plastic brooches & plastic pearls. I took it home, although she was, to my knowledge, only modestly Christian. It sits on my nightstand, although I myself don’t know god.
What I know
is obligations to people who have either forgotten, or never knew, my existence.
There is a bandage taped to the back cover of the bible. It reminds me of some incomprehensible modern art. I don’t even try to guess at its history.
In Rio, four days before the wedding, we wandered the burnt out ruins of a socialite’s home. It is a monument of a bygone era I hardly recognize in this context. From the back we look over the faces of favelas. These places also look anonymous & calcified. Besides,
our looking makes no difference. We have entered into some covenant strictly for voyeurs. Of course, I speak only for myself & never for others.
I move back to the exoskeleton of a home—roof gone & all domestic precedence set aside. Vines situate lavishly along the walls my palm presses to as I move, ghostly down the stairs. Fernando Pessoa, or one of his many selves, writes that at the end of this day there remains what was left behind of yesterday and what will be left behind tomorrow: the insatiable, innumerable longing to be always the same and always other.
A samba swings through the open-windows & I peer out to watch people the next yard over dancing with each other. I would not join & would instead inspect the scorch marks on the walls. I can almost feel the heat, radiating.
My friend tells me in confidence that every time he thinks of the library at Alexandria, sinking softly into the sand, he cries.
(I added the part about sinking. Of course, Alexandria burned.
But I can only imagine it burying itself slowly in the sand. Some glorious dessert crab sulking homeward.)
There is a picture from the museum I can’t get out of my head:
all of history is a crumbling megalith which only recently stopped smoldering.
Framed in the doorway—door gone—is a pedestal. On this pedestal sits a meteorite. Her name is the Bendegó meteorite & she is from the state of Bahiá. She was found by a boy tending cattle. He alerted the authorities. After which, it took her a century and then some to reach the museum, having, quite accidentally, fallen into a stream bed during transport. She stayed submerged for one hundred & three years.
She is darker now than when she arrived. She has seen worse.
Ancestors & Fires & Obligations & Material Culture
After my grandfather died we opened up his house. The whole family went:
Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins. The ex-wife, my grandmother, stood on the lawn. We armed ourselves with flashlights & indifference. Past the threshold
the hallway was caving in—the biscuit tile punched in the center and soft to the touch. The house groaned. We skirted the issue & struck out in opposite directions, foraging for valuables & waylaid memories amidst the rubble of my grandfather’s neglect. My cousin raced by with a paper weight shaped like a tortoise, inquiring, can it be mine?
I stood on the breakfast table & opened the cabinets, excavated past vintage aluminum lunchboxes & cookie jars in order to smuggle out a collection of four pink depression-era glass cups.
The house smelled like garlic & rat shit & cheap linen.
The adults argued in the front yard over who would get the cars. I heard their voices by way of the living room window. The yard was 12 years overgrown.
We carved a small path through the ruins of as-seen-on-t.v. merchandise boxes, un-opened, & other objects of small violence. There was no sentimentality in that place, except for my aunt, who, I distinctly remember, sat on the floor loading every pair of scissors she found into an unlabeled box
& I remember one of us with a garbage bag whisper,
is that necessary?
My friend’s grandmother’s name is Terezinha, which means little Theresa.She knows it will rain during the wedding & it is an outdoor wedding. We don’t see it, but she performs a rain dance somewhere on the periphery. She tells God that she knows it must rain, but if it could only hold off through the ceremony, that would be enough.
The rain begins right after the ceremony, as we are dancing quadrinhos,which means little squarebecause one’s ass moves left, down, right, up. Corner. Corner. Corner. Corner & the rain begins as we are slowly getting drunk & muddying the hems of our dresses and the suede of our shoes. We kick our shoes into a corner & run around barefoot & I hear about Terezinha. Bruxa, they say, witch.
Later, one of us is sick & she makes tea with yucca leaves. Bruxa, we say again & we start to believe it. Of course,
I speak only for myself. I am not a mystic, although I am beginning to believe our grandmother’s haunt us.
In the end, it came down to bad wiring. There was no insulation, & as the flames rose, the sprinklers were relaxed and mute. The plans for fire suppression? Muted too. Strictly for the time being.
There is something of the fearsome about time.
Ancestors & Fires & Obligations & Material Culture & Trash
When I was thirteen I ripped all the pages out of my journal. I cut them into fat slabs & brought them straight outside to the bin behind the house. I was remorseless & pagan.
Nothing has changed.
I could lie & say I was merely Spring cleaning. I could be kind to myself. But then again,
what happened to the red sweater my father’s family gave me in their home outside Boston? It was rough, homespun & dishonest & I loved it. The holes let the wind in.
My father’s mother was a lunatic. I was meeting her for the first time & too young to be blamed for what transpired. She served me warm milk that I gulped down despite myself & then yelled at me from the dark corner of her bedroom. I shoved the sweater into my suitcase. We left the house.
Where are those pages? Where is that red sweater? Where is my grandmother?
It’s too easy to misplace things.
Now, at the museum, they wade through the wreckage.
Did anyone make it?
They are looking for Luzia. She is so old she can’t even remember
how old—11,000 years or more. Is she a grandmother?
She went missing once. I say we lost her. But it was so long ago. I say she was lost
So now we lost her again. What happened is a kind of second death.
Victoria Rego is an MFA candidate and composition instructor at Northern Michigan University. Rego also works as an associate editor of Passages North. Their creative and critical work has appeared on The Keats’ Letters Project, Heal(er) Magazine, and in KY Story’s Bully anthology.