Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke







The People Who Retreat from Themselves


I was drawn to the mountains by whispers of an empty village, overheard rumors of a small, high plateau ringed by a natural wall of smooth, conical boulders.  The huts, it was said, formed another, concentric ring, and their doorways gaped inward at the flickers of a dying flame.  Yet it often happens that rumors and whispers dissemble when confronted, running for cover and cloaking themselves in new skin--the secrets of the universe are revealed only at a slant, a dim light that touches the corner of an eye, a vanishing scent that leaves one hanging by threads of desire, the briefest and lightest touch that may not be a touch after all—and so it seemed that the closer I got to the Mabas’ village, the less sure I was of its existence.  When the whispers lost their shape and the murmurs dissolved into wind, I prepared to move on.  Then, at the last moment, an old man with thin, muscular legs and milky hair approached me in the train station and begged me to follow him.

I did so for four days on a treacherous and nerve-shattering journey.  At the outskirts of town we hiked briefly through a dense jungle, pulling leeches from under our collars and hacking away vines and snakes as we followed a path that only my guide could see.  When the terrain soared we climbed three days without equipment.  At night, we bivouacked on tiny ledges while bitter winds and restless dreams urged us toward the abyss.

Except at the most harrowing moments, my fears were skillfully diverted by my guide, who in that week told me all he knew of the Mabas, unburdening himself, it seemed, of a lifetime of secrecy....

The Mabas once lived in the long valley where the city now sprawls.  Centuries ago, as the young city grew toward and then around them, the Mabas were slowly forced from their homes or pressured to change their customs to better fit in.  But the Mabas were fiercely independent; they stuck to their ways as though waging a battle, even when the city people made fun of them, of their overly bright and colorful clothing, the child-like sound of their language, the shameless movements of their seductive walk.

So the Mabas began a retreat that continued for many generations and which some say led to their inevitable demise, but which others--those who believe in the indomitable spirit of humankind or perhaps are overly sensitive to the sadness of loss--say allowed the Mabas to live on.  Whichever the case, the Mabas were tired of the ridicule and determined to maintain their traditions, so they moved themselves farther and farther up into the mountains.  Adapting to the new environment was difficult at first: they were short of breath; they had to develop a taste for new foods; they had to add a warm lining to their showy attire.

Many did not survive those early years.  Yet the Mabas were satisfied that they’d saved the important features of their culture from ridicule and eventual loss.  High in their hidden villages, in the gray and white setting of the upper climes, they wore the bright colors as they had before, spoke their beautiful, child-like language, and walked with the pleasing rhythms of sexual foreplay.

They did not forget the ridicule of the city, however, even as the generations passed, and they worried it would happen again.  Year after year, they would peer over the side of the plateau and observe how the growing city stretched its hands into the jungle and clawed through the trees.  Someday, they knew, those hands would grasp the rocks and pull themselves up the side of the Mabas’ mountain, or else dig at its base until the mountain itself collapsed.  Either way, the Mabas would one day be back in the midst of the city, this time with no escape up a mountain; they’d be forced to assimilate with the city-dwellers or be ridiculed forever.

When the city finally grew to the base of the mountain, the Maba elders reached a decision: they would send some members of their tribe into the city to spy on the city-dwellers and learn their senseless and unusual customs.  The Maba pilgrims would then report back to the village and teach the other Mabas these customs.  That way, when the Mabas were once again surrounded by the city, they would know how to fit in and avoid ridicule but in the privacy of their own dwellings would practice their true customs.  This time the Maba retreat would take a different form, from public life to private, from open expression to collective whisper.  They would create their own ghetto whose invisible barriers would protect, they hoped, as the mountain heights once did.

The Maba pilgrims descended the mountain and quickly immersed themselves in city life.  They studied its strange customs so diligently and imitated them so precisely they had to struggle not to laugh at each other in public, at least at first.  Then, after four months, they returned to the mountain and found they had trouble relating to their own people.   Many of them could not bring themselves to return to the old ways, and one went so far as to ridicule his old clothes as garish, and then blush with shame when a beautiful Maba woman walked past seductively.  An elder cuffed him: “This is your village!  Don’t forget!”  The others looked on in shock and fascination.

The pilgrims did return to their old ways, but only in public.  Secretly, they continued the ways of the city dwellers, and because many Mabas were fascinated by the city customs, they approached the pilgrims in private.  “Teach me the new ways,” they whispered.  “Teach me to walk like I’m smashing ants.”

So it happened that the elders’ plan turned against them.  Soon, many of the Mabas were outwardly practicing the old customs but behaving like city dwellers in the privacy of their huts or out on the mountain paths in small groups, where they changed into homemade replicas of city clothes, walked the graceless, mechanical city walk, and talked what little they knew of the city talk, chattering endlessly the same few city phrases and laughing overly loud, in city fashion.  A secret movement had hollowed out Maba society, leaving an increasingly ironic shell of meaningless rituals and customs.

When this became known to the elders, they saw that the dirty hand of the city had already reached up the mountain and seized their village around the neck, and that it had been by their own invitation.

A choice had to be made, then, either to save the village they’d grown to love or to save the customs that defined them as a people.  For the elders, the decision was simple: their people must abandon the village.  “Go down to the city and live among the city dwellers, as many of you have long wished,” they said.  “There, you will learn the customs of the city and behave in every way so as to blend in with the city dwellers.  If you find you prefer those customs, then you are to ignore the customs of your own people and renounce them forever, as you are no longer a Maba.  If you find that you yearn for your old customs then you are to practice those customs by yourself or with other Mabas in the privacy of your dwelling.  Under no circumstances may you expose the Maba customs to public ridicule.”

The elders hoped that once the thrill of secrecy was removed from the city customs, most Mabas would return to the old ways, and the ones who didn’t would no longer threaten to expose the rest of the village to the city ways.  Only by joining the enemy could they one day hope to retreat safely to the old village, having purged themselves of spies and traitors, leaving the faithful few.

So it was that the Mabas retreated from their village--and from themselves, it seemed to some--and headed down the mountain in small groups, so as not to attract notice.  Once in the city, they did as the elders had told them, and even the elders did their best to blend in with the city dwellers, though they struggled inwardly with humiliation and despair.

They left their village as it stood, hoping one day to return there for good and meanwhile setting aside one week each year when they would return temporarily and practice their old customs in the open.  At the end of the first year, the majority of the Mabas did return and enjoyed the festival, the renewal of friendships and ancient cultural bonds.  But with each succeeding year, fewer and fewer Mabas returned to the village.  To many, the festival seemed less and less a celebration and more and more a relic, the bright old clothes now costumes, the musical language a child’s song they were too old to sing, and the seductive walk a shameful habit they’d worked hard to overcome.

The elders finally sensed this, too, and with trembling voices ordered that the festival no longer be held, since the Mabas had now begun to ridicule their own culture, succeeding far more effectively than the city dwellers could at dissolving the meaning of the most time-honored Maba traditions.  The elders understood that Maba culture, if it survived at all, would never resemble what it had.

For a while, the old village was used as a meeting place for far-flung Mabas seeking a mate, but the arduous climb proved too much, and soon the village was all but forgotten, the retreat seemingly final.

“Today,” said my guide, “there are no Mabas that practice the old customs.  Not one, not even in private.  But the Maba ways survive in uncertain and handed-down memories, images that bear just the slightest resemblance to the truth, and there are Mabas who pass on those images, describing them as best they can but never very well, often speaking only on their deathbeds to children and grandchildren.  The Mabas live on, even if each generation knows a little bit less, their memories less and less sure until they are little more than feelings.  These memories are all that is left of the Maba customs, and the memories retreat as the Mabas have always done.  And the Mabas do not visit the old village because none of them knows the way there.  It is an idea to them, a distant home they can reach only through the vaguest recollections.  That, I think, is for the best, because I have thought much about the Mabas and see now that it was never the bright clothes that defined them, never the child-like language or the sexy walk--all these things have only provided the Mabas with something to retreat from.  That is what Mabas do: they are people who retreat from themselves.”

At last we pulled ourselves over the boulders and jumped down into the Maba village.  I’d expected a ring of crumbling huts, maybe only foundations.  Instead, the huts were as sturdy as if they’d just been built, and a small flame still flickered in the central firepit.  There was even a little garden with vegetables almost ripe.  Inside the huts, there were bowls and cups and cooking utensils laid out neatly, and sleeping mats rolled up in the corners.  The effect was eerie, as though some yet unknown disaster had just occurred, or was about to.

When I circled back to the center of the village, I found my guide building a fire.

“You are a Maba,” I said, understanding finally.

He looked at me without expression.  “I’ve kept this village all my life, knowing the Mabas would not return, but also knowing that they often think of their village and draw meaning from its memory, even if the memory is vague and pales with each generation.  The memory must resemble the village; if the village crumbles so does the memory, and the memory is what makes us Maba.  So I once thought.  Now I know I was wrong.”

And then he asked me to start down the mountain ahead of him so that he could circle the village a final time.

I descended a short way down the path, imagining the solemn actions of my guide--tending the garden one last time, blowing dust off the bowls, repairing the huts, feeding the fire--and believing that he had given me the greatest honor, he had shown me his village so that I would care for it as he once had.  But when I paused to look back, I saw that I’d been fully mistaken.  Pillars of flames began to rise above the conical rocks and up over the high peak of the Mabas’ mountain; the village slowly dissolved into smoke, and the smoke dissipated into the wind.

I waited for my guide, watching the gray smoke thin and fade, until I at last understood that he had retreated, too.

My first thought was that my guide had ensured the survival of Maba culture; without any physical evidence of its existence, it could now be certain of a safe and steady retreat.

But then, if he wanted the Mabas to retreat forever, why did he tell me their story, knowing I would write it down?

Because now the Mabas have retreated beyond the reach of clawing hands and prejudice.  Now they exist only on paper, and the paper is a shield that hides their final retreat.