Seek The Lamb built a fine concrete block building at the south end of Sawa, upriver from the rest of the village, but never finished it completely. Still, it is the most impressive structure on the entire lower Coco. It sits on a large plot of ground that Truman cleared in order to reconstruct his house after he carried it across the river from Honduras at the end of the war. Truman's sister-in-law Casilita lives in that house now, and cooks for us when we are there. We stay in a tent on the concrete floor of the magnificent block building, a stone's throw away.
There is a landing where boats tie up to the exposed roots of a large puramaira on the very edge of the river bank; ten yards behind this tree stands a one room hut, made of rough-cut lumber on rickety stilts. A narrow front porch faces the river in the lee of trade winds, with a tiny wood stove -a kubus- in one corner, molded out of clay and mounted on a low table of pine boards. Kuka Bertalina, a tiny sparrow of a woman, lives here.
This is how Bertalina got half of the front of her house painted: although she's really Mirna's grandmother, Bertalina became her mother by raising her since she was a baby, and now Mirna, grown up and a grandmother herself, is married to Truman, so Bertalina became Truman's mother in law, and Truman became the leader of the Partido Liberal Constitucional -Nicaragua's traditional conservative party- on the lower Coco River. So now, the letters PLC, painted white, dominate a large red square covering most of the siding to the right of Bertalina's door.
Bertalina does not know how old she is but is way too old to be interested in politics except that she roots for her son-in-law to bring her good things. Two years ago they signed her up for Yo SÍ Puedo, the adult literacy program sponsored by Hugo Chavez. After the program was over we found a notebook left by the instructor, in which the names and ages of all the participants were registered, and at the top of the list was Bertalina Fagoth, edad 74. We all got a good laugh out of that.
"She is probably over a hundred," said Casilita, who is also her daughter-slash-granddaughter.
Bertalina still does not read or write, but watches the river from the rising of the sun till its going down, and there is very little that happens on it or in it that Bertalina does not know about.
Nutie had already bathed and returned to our room by the time I got ready to go. Rushing down to the landing to beat the setting sun, I noticed Bertalina leaning over her walking stick on the front porch, craning her neck to see around the back of the house without having to descend the four steps to the ground.
"Naksa," I greeted her. She had a worried expression on her face.
"My chickens can't get up into the tree," she said helplessly.
It was time for the chickens to find their roost for the evening, and a dozen of them were still mulling around on the ground, clucking nervously. I noted that the bamboo stalk that they use as a ladder to their branch on a pahra plum tree was lying on the ground. The roost is a nice, thick, horizontal branch, as good as any hen or cock in Sawa can hope to find. I went over and leaned the bamboo back against the branch.
"There, now they should be able to get a good night's sleep," I said, went down to the river.
The water was refreshing, but I was in a hurry to get out. When I scrambled up to the top of the muddy slope, however, I saw Bertalina still out on her porch, wearing that pained expression. The bamboo round was lying on the ground again, and her chickens still figuring things out. There was an unhappy-looking calf tied to to the trunk of the tree. I put the bamboo back up and stepped away to watch. Sure enough, when I was at a safe distance, the calf began butting against the bamboo pole to knock it down. So I jammed it into the fork of the tree at an angle that might withstand the calf's efforts and walked back over to our splendid building to dry off and get ready for the evening. Bertalina did not look so sure about it all, but it wasn't my calf to take and tie up someplace else; it belonged to Truman. They would have to work it out amongst themselves.
The sun set and Bertalina was still out on her porch. I could see her from the balcony. The bamboo pole was on the ground. Presently Nula, her great grandson (although called grandson) whose real name was Nolasco, having finished milking the cow and depositing the bucket in the kitchen, emerged from Casilita's house. He loosed the calf who went off, kicking, to find its mother robbed of the supper that was rightfully his. Then Nula went back inside.
I walked back over across the field, which was now full of cows and horses who had come in from their daily wandering in unfenced pastures upriver. I watched my path in the failing light so as not to step in the dark round circles. When I reached the bamboo pole I put it back up in the pahra plum tree, and the chickens remaining on the ground hurried up to their roost. Nula came back out with a pitcher of milk and handed it up to Kuka Bertalina on her porch. Satisfied, she turned inside for the evening.
Bertalina is the daughter of a German who came to the Mosquito Coast to harvest mahogany. Supposedly, this is where the surname Fagoth comes from. The Fagoths, the Mullers, the Hitlers and Kitlers, families now dispersed up and down the river, all boast at least a drop of German blood. This German did not stay with her Miskito mother, however, but went back to Germany when he had finished taking all the mahogany he wanted. Bertalina never learned to speak German, nor did she even grow tall like the Germans do, but is lighter skinned than most of the people on the river, and has what people call a temperament.
When she came of age, she married a Spanish-speaking man from the Pacific side of Nicaragua who had a lot of cattle. She did not learn to speak Spanish. The Spanish man died young and she became a wealthy widow. She married again, a Miskito this time, and they had children, but this husband also died. Many years went by and then war came to the river and she, along with everybody else from Sawa, left everything behind to become a refugee in Honduras. The soldiers of the Sandinistas and the soldiers of the Contras killed and ate all her cattle, and then the war ended and she crossed the river back to Nicaragua, and built her little hut.
The American missionaries worked with Truman and he became a leader of the people on the lower Coco River. Salt and Light was the only agency that was helping out the people who had lost everything, so he became a very important man. Mirna saw that her mother had nothing, so she sold her a choice female calf for two hundred Cordobas.
"At least when you die we can slaughter a cow and bury you with dignity," she said.
But Bertalina went on living, her calf grew and had female calves every year. When those calves grew they also had female calves each year. She then bought pigs and chickens. Now the pahra plum tree is filled with chickens every night, at least fifty of them, and the field between the splendid block building and Truman's house is filled with fine, grey, humpbacked cattle, a good many of which are hers, and not just the rangy longhorns like the ones she had before the war. Everyone in Sawa comments on Bertalina's good fortune.
Bertalina has a temperament. People say that it is the German in her; Miskito people are not like that. No one calls her Bertalina; for Miskito people to call someone by their first name is disrespectful. All of her family call her Mama Kuka -"Momma Grandma"- which is very respectful, but she will have none of that.
"You must call me Mamalpia," she says. "Little Momma." She is very particular.
Every month, Mirna sends her vitamins and other medicines from Waspam, to keep her healthy. Mirna wants her to come live with her in the grand house in Waspam, but Bertalina will have none of that. She wants to die looking out onto the river. From her porch she will ask for medicine -any kind of medicine at all- and complain to anyone who passes by about how they don't take care of her. It is a trifle embarrassing for Truman and Mirna but they console themselves thinking about how everyone is acquainted with Mama Kuka's little temperament and that this is what happens when you get very very old.
The big thing going on in Sawa upon our arrival was the construction of a new house for Mama Kuka. She had bought lumber from the sale of some cattle, and Truman had put Guido and his son Abel on the job. It was going to be a fine house -at least three times the size of her one room hut- and it was already well underway. The posts, the framing, and the metal roof were in and the siding was being cut and nailed. Miskito people don't put in the floor until after all this is done, which means they have to notch the ends of the floorboards around the studs. This may seem peculiar to someone from the outside, but there is a reason why they do this. If you put in the floor before you have the framing up and the roof on, rain is liable to rot it before you are able to buy metal or gather all the palmetto leaves for the roof. Building a house is a slow process, especially if you have little money and use recycled nails, pounding each one straight again after you pull them out of their old places. For Mama Kuka's new house, however, the men will spare no expense and the work is going very rapidly with power tools that Truman has supplied, yet the custom is to put the floor in last. They are building it right up close to the river bank, just as she likes it.
I wonder how Mama Kuka will take to living in her new house. What if she feels lonely in such a large place all by herself? Old people are like that. I figure her to be around ninety years old, because the Germans were here taking mahogany by 1915, 1920. I see all the effort the carpenters have made and hope she will feel well taken care of at last. How many years will the Lord give her to enjoy it? Where will Mama Kuka go after that, for the rest of eternity? Will she inherit a mansion in heaven? I think about Bertalina and want to ask her all these questions. Since her childhood she has heard about isingi, the spirits of the dead. Does she expect to haunt her new house for a season if they find it too nice to tear down after she's gone? Does she believe she will find eternal rest, her spirit visiting earth in distant trails of rain gently arched by wind as they sweep the horizon? She has also heard of heaven and hell and purgatory from the Catholic Church. Do all these notions converge in her mind? They are surely all present, in conflict with each other yet unchallenged, passively accepted as true. I know what she would say to my questions.
"God knows," she would say. "God knows where I will go when I die."
I would tell her that she can know for sure, that she must decide, but it probably would not go well. I would tell her that it is to be face to face, that just as this man Jesus died and arose again, we too will arise, and those whom He has known, those who have deposited their lives in Him, will go to live with Him in the city of God. She has heard of the Sacrament of Last Rites, yet she must know that time and geography will prevent the priest from coming all the way from Waspam just for her. She has heard of the old ceremony, of Pura Yapti, in which the spirits of the dead are sent to their rest, yet Pura Yapti is practiced no longer. She has heard of Jesus, yet she does not know the Jesus who is alive and willing to come all the way to Sawa to live in her heart. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing and hearing; how many times will she need to hear in order to believe after ninety years of the old stories? I have never enjoyed nor even coveted the ego-affirming thrill of the salesman's kill, yet I want her to know. I must make a start of it; she doesn't have that much time left. Only one thing is for certain: soon there will be a new house on the bank of the Wangki River in Sawa, but Mama Kuka will have gone away.