Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke









You know there is something unusual about the Pamoot people as soon as you approach their village, which sits on a green peninsula of land surrounded on three sides by desert.  Groups of men and women come running out to meet you on the path.  You are hesitant and afraid, even though their faces are beaming with smiles.  The Pamoot clap you on the back and rub your shoulders, saying, “We’re so glad you’ve returned, my friend.  We thought you’d forgotten your old friends.”

“You must be mistaking me for someone else,” you say.

“You old jokester,” says one man.  “Come eat with us.  Your wife will leap for joy when she sees you.  She is as beautiful as ever.”

When you enter the village, there is indeed a beautiful woman there who claims to be your wife.  She puts her arms around your neck and looks deeply into your eyes.  “I have missed you,” she says, and kisses you softly on the lips.

You have a difficult decision to make then.  Do you try to correct them at the risk of alienating yourself from the tribe?  And to anger people with such nervous energy might be dangerous.  Rather than rebuff the entire tribe, you play along.  Which, you learn later, is exactly what the Pamoot expect.

Though slightly nervous, the Pamoot seem like happy people, by appearances, anyway.  Most of them have big smiles on their faces and laugh easily.  But sometimes their smiles seem like stage smiles and their laughs like stage laughs--a little too big to be believable, a little too much for real life.

You play your part and become husband to a beautiful Pamoot woman who treats you in every way as though you had left some years ago on a long journey and promised to return.  She calls you Bahno, and at night she draws her long, delicate fingers across your cheek and whispers in your ear, “Bahno, I missed you so.  Tell me how much you still love me.”

And you have no choice but to respond, “I love you as much as always, Alani.  I’ve never loved you more.”

In conversations with other Pamoot you begin to grasp the willfulness of their convictions.  One day, you go walking with one of several men who claim to be the village chief.

“We’re glad you’ve returned, son,” he tells you, putting his arm around your shoulders as a father does to his son.  Then you stop at the edge of the desert and gaze out at the endless expanse of sand broken only by small clumps of scrub.  “As I stand here with you, I recall with joy the moments of your youth, when these waters teemed with fish and you and I fished together in the boat of my grandfather.”

You stare at the sand, trying to understand him.  “I remember,” you say.

“For old times’ sake,” he says, “let’s you and I sail to the island of the Pamat and check in on our distant relatives there.”

As your “father” readies the “boat” for the next day’s journey, you see a woman in the village with her arms cradled as though holding a baby.  She lowers her head and coos, rocking her arms and smiling.

“What are you holding?” you ask her.

“Bahno!” she says.  “Did no one tell you I had a child while you were gone?”

You shake your head.

“Would you like to hold her?”  She stretches her arms out toward you, and you’re forced to oblige.  You pull the invisible baby to your chest.

“Mm.  Heavy,” you say.

“She’s growing quickly,” she says.  “She’ll be big and strong like her father.”

“May I ask the father’s name?” you say.

She looks at you quizzically.  “Bahno,” she says, shaking her head and smiling.  “I thought you’d recognize the face of your own child.”

You nearly drop it.

“Oh!  Be careful with her!”  The woman pulls your invisible daughter from you and holds it to her shoulder.  “You’ve upset her, Bahno.  You should be more gentle!”  Then she walks away, leaving you agitated and speechless and feeling strangely guilty for having cheated on Alani.  Though you tell yourself that none of it’s true, you’re beginning to have doubts.

The next morning, the man who claims to be your father comes to get you in your hut.  You walk with him to the edge of the desert.

“Hop in, Bahno,” he says.

There is nothing to hop into, but by this time you’ve figured out the game, so you step into an imaginary boat and sit down in the sand.

He laughs at you.  “We’ll never get anywhere in that position,” he says.  He steps in beside you and helps you to your feet.  You then begin walking out into the desert.

“Brings back good memories, eh?” says your “father.”

You walk for two hours and begin to think this man is leading you into certain death.  Your throat is burning with thirst and your skin feels like it will melt off your bones.  Finally, you come to a village in a little oasis.

“The island of the Pamat,” says your “father,” pointing.

The village is the most depressing sight of your journey.  The people there are gaunt and starving.  Listless children hobble around with bellies swollen from hunger.  Many of the adults are all bones and sunken eyes.  Yet most of them still manage to smile, almost as broadly as the Pamoot.

One man approaches you as you enter the village.  He is older, nearly bald, gray skin hanging from his bones.

“Balah!” he says and hugs your “father.”

Balah turns to you and says, “You remember your Uncle Gee, Bahno?”

“Of course,” you say, smiling.  You’ve grown more comfortable with this game of pretend.  Too comfortable.  But you don’t hug him for fear his bones might crumble.

After a few minutes of friendly conversation, your “father” announces he is going to seek out other relatives.

“We’ll join you shortly,” says Gee.  “Bahno and I have a little catching up to do.”

When you are alone with him, your “uncle” says quietly, “It’s sad the way they delude themselves.”

You’re startled.  Here at last is someone who can fill you in.  “You understand what’s going on?” you ask.

“Of course,” he says.  “You must be one of those scientists who come out here occasionally to study the strange customs of the Pamoot.  As usual, the Pamoot pretend you are someone else.  This man, who mistakenly believes he is my brother, also mistakenly believes you are his son.  But I know from my own visits to the Pamoot village that this man’s real son disappeared years ago.  He’s been waiting for a stranger.  And I suppose you’ve been claimed as a husband by his daughter-in-law, too.”

You nod.  It’s all coming together now.

“It’s tragic, really,” says Gee.  “The woman, like all the Pamoot, believes she can make something real just by saying it’s true.  They live a fantasy life.  But you must admit they’re good actors.”

“Excellent actors,” you say.  “They’ve led me to play along, and I’ve even caught myself believing it’s all true!”

“Careful,” says Gee.  “Don’t be drawn in too deeply.  You might forget yourself and never return home.”

You visit with other Pamat, supposed relations of yours.  Everyone is friendly, and no one seems bothered by the starvation and poor health of the tribe.  You try to return smiles, but your heart aches too much at their wretched condition.  You feel helpless, and you wonder if you’ll ever be the same when you do return home, wherever that might be.

“We should return before dark,” Balah says finally.

“Oh, but you must stay for the feast,” says Gee.  “We have a pig roasting right now.  It will be a great celebration in your honor.”

“We really can’t,” says Balah.  “You know how unpredictable the sea is.  We should return while it’s calm.”

Your Pamat relatives reluctantly say their goodbyes.  As you walk through the village, you see the fire they’ve started for the feast.  Beside the fire, a skeletal, starving man with diseased skin turns the handle on the spit, slowly roasting an imaginary pig.

“It’s tragic the way these people delude themselves,” says Balah, shaking his head at the heartrending sight.

You look at him, shocked and confused, no longer sure who to believe, including yourself.  You say no more.

You cross the “sea” with Balah and return to the Pamoot village, where you find there’s been a skirmish with a rival tribe.

“Look what they did to me with their spears,” says one man, raising his shirt to show you his stomach.  It is smooth and uninjured.

“I see you fought bravely,” says Balah.  “You will be rewarded, but only after you get that deep wound treated.”

The man smiles and runs off to see the medicine man.

You realize that night you’d better leave before it’s too late.  You already have a wife, a lover, and an imaginary child.  Balah has even promised to give you some governing responsibilities in the village.  You feel yourself getting entangled in village life, as though the Pamoot have cast a net of imaginary relationships to trap you there.  And then you see something that confirms your decision.  At the victory celebration that night, there is a Caucasian man dancing among the Pamoot.  He dances just as well as the Pamoot, as though he’s been there a long time.  You ask him his name.

“I am Nabolo,” he says, revealing a French accent.  “Husband of Beela and son of Byat and Gani.  I, too, am glad you’ve returned, Bahno.  Welcome home.”

He hugs you and then returns to his dancing.

You tell Alani the next morning.  “I must leave the village to go hunting,” you say, because you don’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

Her eyes widen and a tremor passes through her.  “I’ll wait for you,” she says.

“I’ll think of you,” you say.

She follows you a little ways down the path.

“I’ll miss you, Bahno,” she says, smiling widely even as her tears fall.

Your heart tightens, and a few steps down the path, you begin to cry, too, and then you understand that not everything about the Pamoot is imaginary.