"When you ask me about peace, Suwelo," said Miss Lissie, "if I've ever in all my lifetimes experienced peace, I am nearly perplexed. Could it be possible that after hundreds of lifetimes I have not known peace? That seems to be the fact. In lifetime after lifetime I have known oppression: from parents, siblings, relatives, governments, countries, continents. As well as from my own body and mind. Some part of every life has been spent binding up my wounds from these forces. In the memory, I would have to say, there are only momentsat most, daysof peace, except for the times I have been shaman or priest and have lived, for months on end, in a kind of trance. But as you probably know, these blessed periods are a vacation, in a sense, from life, and one screaming infant or barking dog can force one home again.
"In the dream world of my memory, however, there is something. I do not remember this exactly, as I remember the other things of which I have told you. But the memory, like the mind, has the capacity to dream, and just as the memory exists at a deeper level of consciousness than thinking, so the dream world of the memory is at a deeper level still. I will tell you of the dream on which my memory, as well as my mind, rests. When I think of it I realize there was at least a peaceful foundation.
"In the dream memory we are very small people, all of us, not just the children, who are really small, and the children live with the mothers and the aunts; our fathers and uncles are nearby, and we visit and are visited by them, but we live with the women. We are in a forest that, for all we know, covers the whole earth. There is no concept of finiteness, in any sense. The trees then were like cathedrals, and each one was an apartment building at night. During the day we played under the trees as urban children today play on the streets. Our aunts and mothers foraged for food, sometimes taking us with them and sometimes leaving us in the care of the big trees. When you knew every branch, every hollow, and every crevice of a tree there was nothing safer; you could quickly hide from whatever might be pursuing you. Besides, we shared the tree with other creatures, who, in raucous or stealthy fashion—there was a python, for instance—looked out for us. Well, our aunts and mothers were often tired after a day gathering food—roots and fruits, mostly—and occasionally cross. Those were the times they could not stand us children, and so we were sent to our cousins' trees. Our cousins, like our fathers and aunts, lived in different trees from ours, and it was fun to visit them.
"Our cousins were big—as big as we were small—and black and hairy, with big teeth, flat black faces, and piercingly intelligent and gentle eyes. They seemed strange to us because they lived together as a family; that is, the fathers and uncles lived with the mothers and aunts, and all of them played with and looked after the children. They loved us, too, and would chatter with joy when we crept up on them. We crept because they were so serene, their trees so quiet that loud noises startled and frightened them. We were, by comparison, regular din makers. The only analogy I think of in this lifetime would be the experience, as small children, of being sent south to your grandparents' for the summer. Grandpa and Grandma might be old and decrepit, quiet, mellow, and unused to noise. They know a visit from the 'grands' might do them in for a while, but they let you know every day they're thrilled you are there. Same with our cousins. And I loved the little baby cousins, with their hairless pale faces, who were always clinging to somebody's back. It was a lovely feeling to hold a little cousin under one's chin, and how the parents delighted at this means of holding it! We had no hair on our bodies, you see, for the little fingers to clutch. It was from these cousins that I learned to love babies and to want to grow up and give birth.
"There was such safety around their trees. The fathers and uncles were gigantic and mean-looking when provoked, with a roar that hurt your ears. The mothers and aunts could bare their teeth viciously. They could bite through the fiercest neck. I used to practice baring my teeth and biting the way they did. My imitation tickled them very much. But they were menacing only when someone or something came into their domain uninvited. We—our mothers and aunts, fathers and uncles, too—were always welcome, and almost always, if there was anything to fear, we gathered at our cousins' trees. They had long sharp nails on their hands and feet, strong arms, and hard teeth, and they ripped rather large animals apart with one swipe. They protected us, and seemed to have great fun doing it. After they destroyed an attacker they chattered gaily and slapped each other on the back.
"They liked to feed us children, too. They did everything as if it were a game. I liked to go on the hunt with them because, unlike our fathers and mothers, who ate meat and therefore killed small game all the time, the cousins ate only plants. They would hide roots they'd already dug, just for us, who were clumsy and had hopelessly weak hands, to find.
"My mother, whose name was Guta Ru, was often angry with me; consequently, I spent a lot of time with the cousins. The days were long and full, with food gathering and grooming taking up a good part of each day. But what adventures there were during the hunt for food; what fascinating other relatives, besides the cousins, one saw, and grooming was the most satisfyingly sensual experience I've ever had, in the dream memory or not. Because I lacked body hair—which I regretted no end!—I had a very short groom period, compared to theirs, which could last most of the day. The big cool teeth clicking over my steamy little body felt wonderful. The rough-tongued licking for lice, too. At least I had hair on my head, a ton of it. They could work on that for an hour or two, and I was beneath their teeth and tongues, perfectly content.
"They were always trying to dress me. Leaves, skins from dead animals, moss, tree bark. It was funny. But it was from their experiments that I learned to dress and to want to be dressed; I learned to fasten a couple of pieces of leopard or panther skin fore and aft, and this pleased them, though I could tell they thought of my costume as a sort of prosthetic device. They seemed nearly unable to comprehend separateness; they lived and breathed as a family, then as a clan, then as a forest, and so on. If I hurt myself and cried, they cried with me, as if my pain was magically transposed to their bodies.
"When I reached an age to mate, I did so with one of my playmates, a boy I had known and loved all my life. After we mated and I became pregnant, he was expected, by custom, to move back with the men. This he refused to do. And I refused with him. We wanted very much to be together all the time with our babies, as we had seen happen in our cousins' trees. Well, you know adults. They haven't changed in a million years; they weren't going to have this. The women complained that he would only be in the way and possibly throw off our common monthly menstrual cycle; the men insisted they needed him for ceremonies and hunts. They punished us by isolating us from each other. We stood it as long as we could. But when the baby was born, we ran away to stay with the cousins, who in most things took a decidedly more progressive attitude than our parents. We were happy with them. They thought it natural that we would want to live together. They made a special bed out of moss for us to sleep on.
"I realize that in our smallness we were like perpetual children to them and that our babies were like the tiniest dolls. We were so small that one of their babies was too heavy for us to carry by the time it was a week old. Meanwhile, the cousins could easily carry me and my mate in one arm or with us clinging to a hairy back.
"There was no violence in them—that is to say, they did not initiate it, ever—only thoughtfulness. I used to look at them and wonder how we, so little, so naked, so easily contentious, had splintered off.
"In the dream memory there are suddenly days and nights of terror, and the faces of fathers and uncles who looked like us but were much bigger. They carried sticks with sharp points on them, and they hurled these at our cousins, striking them in the chest. To our horror, they took our cousins' skins and sometimes cooked and ate our cousins bodies. Us, so little, they brushed off as if we were flies, and we dashed to the tops of the trees screaming and crying.
"Over time and after many attacks, our cousins and we ourselves—the little people, as we now recognized ourselves—were driven into the most remote reaches of the forest. We learned to make the sharp pointed stick and to poison its tip as well. We learned to make blowguns and slingshots. The trust that had been between us now disappeared. We were perceived as helpless and cute no longer, and, for our part, there were those among us who gloried in at last having the means to make our giant cousins fear.
"But my mate and I never forgot what we learned from the cousins. We brought up our children to be as much like them as possible; and we stayed together until death, just as the cousins did. It was this way of living that gradually took hold in all the groups of people living in the forest, at least for a very long time, until the idea of ownership—which grew out of the way the forest now began to be viewed as something cut into pieces that belonged to this tribe or that—came into human arrangements. Then it was that men, because they were stronger, at least during those periods when women were weak from childbearing, began to think of owning women and children. This very thing had happened before, and our own parents had forgotten it, but their system of separating men and women was a consequence of an earlier period when women and men had tried to live together—and it is interesting to see today that mothers and fathers are returning to the old way of only visiting each other and not wanting to live together. This is the pattern of freedom until man no longer wishes to dominate women and children or always have to prove his control. When man saw he could own one woman and her children, he became greedy and wanted as many as he could get. There is a popular African singer today who has twenty-seven. Idi Amin had so many that the ones he is rumored to have killed aren't even missed.
"My life with the cousins is the only dream memory of peace that I have. In one of the worst lifetimes, many lifetimes later, I was, by some accident, permitted to marry another man I myself actually picked and loved, and there was peace for a time, a beautiful 'rightness' about the world, but because I was apparently born without a hymen and therefore there were no bloodstains to show the villagers after our wedding night—during which I had responded to him passionately, or, as he later claimed, shamelessly—he denounced me to the village and my parents turned me out. After that I was the lowest sort of prostitute for the men of the village, including the husband I'd loved, until I died of infection and exposure at the age of eighteen.
|to Anniina's Alice Walker Page|
|to Alice Walker Books|
Design ©1998 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.