Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters - Excerpt
The adults in the tribe now spent a good part of their time felling trees of a certain red wood, trees the color of burning embers, those magnificent trees whose dye would be used to make the most fashionable clothes in Europe. The right to don this majestic color, previously reserved for kings and Church prelates, had been extended to all, and the demand for the tree’s purple-colored dye had intensified. Those natives who possessed steel machetes, gifts from the caraíbas, were able to cut the trees with much greater speed, frenetically hacking away, proudly gathering rows of Brazilwood trunks in a few short hours. Had Inaiá lived a bit longer, she would have seen how, day after day, these trees with their metallic green leaves, yellow flowers, and red trunks—found everywhere in her childhood—slowly headed toward extinction.
What was Inaiá like, you ask?
Well. Inaiá was never especially beautiful. I realize you all would like it if this woman with whom it all began, this nearly mythological mother figure, were as perfect as in a fairytale. But she wasn’t. If I said she was, it would be bending the truth, although any judgment is relative, of course, both because the standards of beauty of an indigenous tribe at that time are not the same as ours today, and because beauty has never been an absolute truth. There will always be those who consider what the majority finds beautiful to be ugly, and those who find beauty in what the majority judges to be lacking in it. But it’s pure foolishness to try to idealize the very first woman in our family. There’s no reason for it. It’s enough to know that, in every way possible, the first inhabitants of our country attracted many a stare, as was noted by none other than the illustrious penman Sir Pêro Vaz de Caminha in the first document written about this new land. It appears he was unable to take his eyes off them, as he himself admits, and was incapable of concealing his fascination: “So young and so full of charm, with long hair black as night, and their bare bodies so upright, so composed, their hair so immaculate that, after observing them at great length, we too felt no shame.”
We’ll never know for sure if all the women were so eyecatching—and if Caminha saw them from a distance or was able to examine them up close—but that shouldn’t cause you to think that Inaiá was a beauty among beauties, because she was nothing of the kind. She was plump and of average height, a bit asymmetrical in relation between her torso and her legs, the latter being skinnier than some might like, her buttocks were simply average, neither large nor small, neither firm nor flaccid, her bosom ample but fated to succumb to the law of gravity at an early age, and her black hair was long and straight like that of all the native women, neither more nor less silky than all the rest. She had a flat nose, average black eyes, the same red mouth as her sisters, and a birthmark—this last detail a characteristic all her own—a dark triangle near the base of the nape of her neck that tilted left near its peak. But beyond this, not even Inaiá’s personality was particularly exceptional. She performed daily chores eagerly and splashed about as she took baths in the river, and was as social and carefree as her sisters, as well-mannered and happy to be alive as they were.
After a time, she no longer trailed the groups of white men. She maintained a distance, along with her sisters, the whole of them laughing out loud. But their laughter was already different, something in their gazes had changed. That was when one of the men—a caraíba about her age by the name Fernão, with an extraordinarily white face nearly devoid of hair, with bright eyes that looked like little rocks made of crystal-clear seawater—cast his eyes on her, smiled, and began to repeat:
“Here, over here. Pretty girl, come here.”
Inaiá went. She was twelve years old.
A smile on her face (she had never been so close to a caraíba), the curious Inaiá inched forward. She reached out to touch him, touched him and laughed, she smelled him, smelled him and laughed, his flesh was so white beneath that second skin and she laughed, his hair the color of falling leaves, she touched him and smelled him and laughed: Those eyes, yes, I want to see up close these crystals the color of the sea as it nears the sand, the sea without waves, the sea just after the day has begun.
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
Birds of a thousand colors flew up into the sky and the verdant trees slowly closed in around the two of them.
You might not believe it, but Inaiá was the first woman Fernão had known. The young man from Lisbon had no doubt laid his hands on a working girl or two on dark nights near the port, but on account of his tender age, his inexperience, or his innocence, he’d been content not to take it further.
While Inaiá continued exploring Fernão’s strange white body, its every scent and its workings, he also explored the body of this young woman with the reddish skin, taking in her smell, her taste like the forest. The two of them stood there between the leaves, Inaiá laughing, always laughing, as was her radiant nature, and Fernão finding cause for laughter in hers, the two of them young, complete, at peace.