Girl With an Olive Branch,
by Margarita Engle
Historians have long been accustomed to the puzzling abundance of headless ancient statues, but until now, archaeologists have never been able to trace the whereabouts of all those missing heads. The recent discovery of a leering, greenish face atop a wooden stake at the edge of a remote apple orchard in California's Sierra Nevada foothills sheds light on a mystery that has troubled museum curators for centuries.
The apparently inanimate nature of sculptures has led to the surprisingly inaccurate assumption that stone is, by nature, immobile. As it turns out, rounded fragments of granite, marble, serpentine, alabaster, and other forms of statuary have the innate ability to float on currents of electricity during lightning storms. This remarkable phenomenon may help explain a plethora of
arcane legends, ranging from Death Valley's gliding boulders to Washington Irving's Headless Horseman. Physicists are calling this newly discovered anti-gravitational migration of rounded stones the Paranormal Optometric Effect, in honor of the foothill optometrist and his apple-grower wife, who were the first to capture a bodiless statue's flight on film.
According to unnamed sources, investigators have informed local residents that during the initial phase of this fascinating research, there will be an unprecedented attempt to prove that at night, when no one is looking, statuary heads not only move, but actually speak and eat as well, raiding orchards. This would explain a troubling decrease in apple yields observed ever since the sudden appearance of eerie stone faces in the most unexpected locations, all over the region.
Thanks to the sharp-eyed optometrist and his wife, visitors to a planned theme park may soon have the chance to feed and converse with captive flying-statuary heads in a safe, controlled environment. Advanced reservations are available on all of our global archaeotourism websites. Five-star accomodations are available!
(Travelers to the flying statuary research zone are advised that they enter at their own risk. Picnics are not recommended. If food must be brought into the area, it should be stored in standard, cylindrical bear-proof canisters. Anyone approached by a flying-statuary head should immediately take cover. If caught out in the open, assume the fetal position. Do not feed or speak to flying-statuary heads without professional supervision. Guides, bodyguards, and porters for expeditions into the region are available at our new state-of-the-art Archaeotourism Welcome Center. Adventure insurance is highly recommended. Protective apparel and expedition gear can be rented or purchased.)
The first one hundred visitors will receive VALUABLE door prizes. One LUCKY winner will be offered the choice of a guided camera safari, or fully licensed mounted-head hunting extravaganza, with all taxidermic services included. Void where prohibited by law.
Girl With an Olive Branch
The first painting of my daughter was completed over a century before her birth. The Basque artist's original portrait of a young shepherdess shows a weary girl with a tired, impatient face, and unkempt hair. Gray sheep can be seen in the distance. The shepherdess turns her head to glance over her shoulder, giving the artist just a moment of her attention, before returning to the endless task of guarding and guiding vulnerable lambs. Her hands are clasped behind her back, holding a branch of bristly oak. Her clothing is drab. The sky is dark and threatening.
The second painting was completed after my daughter was grown. The Valencian artist made her face more relaxed. Clearly, she has rested. Her hair is tidy. Her skin glows. Her pose is the same as before, but now she greets the artist with an expression of tolerance, welcoming the familiar interruption of her work. This time she is harvesting olives, instead of tending sheep. The olives cannot escape. They cooperate. She does not have to stay awake all night, wondering if any of the trees will stray, imagining the troubles she will face if branches decide to run off into the wilderness, where wolves and bears can still be found, at least in protected areas, twenty-first century game preserves and National Parks.
When I cook, my daughter watches me patiently, looking at me over her shoulder. My husband can be seen in the sunlit distance, wearing a straw hat, gathering olives. Our daughter's hands are clasped behind her back, holding an olive branch, symbol of peace. The sky is blue. Her clothing is bright. All around her, the landscape of my kitchen is green. In the painting, all of our faces are hopeful. The artist has achieved a perfect balance between modern physical comfort, and archaic spiritual contentment.
People on the island had been carving, crocheting, and embroidering elephants for centuries. The trunks of the elephants curved toward sky. These handmade miniature herds, with gracefully uplifted trunks, were perched near open, east-facing windows. The prehensile tips of the elephants' trunks were expected to catch any stray wisps of luck that happened to pass, carried along on the sea breeze.
Gradually, men lost interest, but women kept making little elephants out of any material they could find. No one on the island had ever seen a live elephant, but the small images were anatomically accurate, the proportions balanced, trunks, tusks, and treelike legs convincing. Only the colors and textures were fanciful. Island elephants were sparkly, velvety, mirrored, or iridescent. There were elephants made of sequins, buttons, cloth, wood, clay, stone, sea shells, dried herbs, and living topiary vines, carefully shaped and trimmed.
Eventually, even young women gave up all hope of receiving luck captured by an elephant's trunk. Only old women and small children believed the legends, keeping them alive by baking elephant-shaped cookies, and eating them while facing sunrise. Every child assumed that the tiny elephants would come to life one day, magically growing, trumpeting, charging to catch enormous storm clouds of windblown fortune.
No one could have foreseen the unexpected truth of scientifically improbable transformations attributed to drifting landmasses. The island itself was a limestone elephant, slowly rising up from the sea, floating away from a swiftly approaching continent of granite. If the limestone form had not been blessed with so many protective caves, not even the old women and small children would have survived the thunderous vibrations that shook the living island when the continent finally collided with another, less fortunate island.
Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of three books about the island, most recently The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Henry Holt & Co., 2006). Short works appear in a wide variety of anthologies, including Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, 8th edition, and in many international journals, including Issue Fifteen of The Cafe Irreal. Recent awards include a 2005 Willow Review Poetry Award, and semi-finalist selection for the 2006 Nimrod Hardman/Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. Margarita lives in California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program.
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story copyright by author 2006 all rights reserved