I felt the smile leap around my little group. There was no
real cause for it. I just looked up and met the eyes of Auiya and I saw the joy
there. And she, my oldest friend, saw the joy in my eyes. And then we looked at
the others and we realized we were all sharing the same feeling. Pure joy. There
was no exclusion, no back-biting, no clawing for status. Just joy. In that
moment, we were together, as the elders had always wanted us to be.
That morning, a once great tree had been brought low by a
mite. Like so much of the downwind forest, it had been infected long ago – by
us. It had stood, dying, for years. And then, with stone axes and ropes and
brute force, the men of the tribe had pulled it down. The crack of the great
tree’s trunk was stunningly loud as it finally gave way under the pressure of our
Then, the tree lay dead on the ground, ready to be put to
its final use.
We didn’t know we’d be chosen, then. Our little cohort of young
women had grown up together. We’d started with the basics. The first task I can
remember us doing is carrying fruit. Our little team of girls gathered into
pairs and lifted baskets of fruit, carrying them from the trees where others
picked them to the darkened huts where they were protected and stored. Others
directed us, telling us where to go and giving us advice on how to carry our
loads. That was the beginning. But, slowly and surely, our challenges grew. Sometimes,
we would gather fish from the ponds mankind had engineered alongside the river.
Sometimes, we would grind the paste every person wore to ward off the insects
that dominate our world. Gradually, we grew more and more independent. We were
proud of our cohort. The fifteen of us were a capable team. In some ways, we
were more advanced than any of the other groups of girls.
But despite all of that work, we had never been allowed to
do something this important.
We didn’t know what to expect when the tree had been brought
down. We didn’t know why we were there. We assumed, once again, that it
was to watch our elders at work. To watch grown men and women do what had to
come next. But then the elders had spoken. And they had pointed at us. And
we knew that we had been chosen. And then the elders did something
They asked everybody else to leave.
We were going to do this alone. There was an almost palpable
energy then, as we realized what was going to come next. Once the men and the
women and the boys were gone I gathered our little group together and we got to
work. First, we moved around the fallen tree, piling the brush and broken
branches near the center of the fallen mass. Everything had been infected by
the mite we had killed the tree with. None of it could be allowed to come close
to our orchards. None of it could be allowed to threaten the trees that gave us
life. We did our job conscientiously and carefully. And proudly.
And then we moved on. A runner fetched a small flame from
the flame-house and we encircled the tree and then lit the brush we had
gathered. The job was simple: char the tree. We had to manage the fire
carefully, ensuring that the tree was not turned to ash. We needed only to kill
the mites and remove whatever life had taken hold in the already dead flesh of
the tree itself.
It was a delicate job. A good result would be charcoal,
uniform charcoal. No ash and no living flesh. So, here, we would add fuel to
the fire to encourage more burning. And there, we would pull the fuel away and
then smother the small fires with thick and coarsely woven blankets intended
for that purpose. The entire time we watched the fire with careful eyes. We had
to make sure the mites did not ride flaming embers into our orchards. We burned
these trees downwind from the orchards, but sometimes the winds around fires
are not entirely predictable. And so, we would watch the embers and we would
chase any that dared blow towards our crops.
As we watched and acted, the fire spread steadily along the
tree. We could watch it burn and we could see, with our own eyes, that we were
doing our job perfectly. After us, men would come with stone hammers and smash
the tree to pieces. Finally, boys would come and carry the charcoal back into
our lands, mixing it with pottery and flesh and eating away at the nothingness
of the jungle.
Ours was only one small part of this job. But it was
important and we were doing it perfectly. And so, as we watched, the joy spread
from girl to girl. And in that moment, we all saw our futures. We knew we’d be
together for the rest of our lives, having babies and planting and working and enlarging
our world. And then we would pass together and give our work to another
That thought filled my mind. And then, I suddenly felt
myself pulled upwards – away from the fire. And then I saw the forest from high
above, as no man has seen it.
And I looked down. And I saw nothing. Everything my people
had created was gone.
There’s no trace of us, no trace of our world. No trace of our people could be seen. I came back down into the forest, but my world was gone. Everything was jungle.
It seemed so real. So real that when I opened my eyes, I
wasn’t sure I had re-entered my reality. I looked up and saw the other girls looking
down at me.
Their faces were full of care and concern.
“The fire!” I blurted, “We must manage the fire.”
“The fire is out,” said Auiya, “It has been for a day now.”
I looked at her, confused.
“You’ve been away,” said Auiya, “Something happened at the
“Did you finish it?” I asked, “Did you finish our task.”
“Perfectly,” she said. And then she asked, “What happened?”
I thought about telling her and the other girls who were
there. I thought about telling them what I’d seen. But would they mock me then?
Would they force me out and exclude me?
What would I do to a girl who claimed to see visions
of our world erased? Even if I believed her, fear would make me drive her away.
Even if I loved her, I would only offer her false consolation.
I would not solve her fear. And so, I knew they would
not solve mine.
“I think the heat must have gotten to me,” I said, “I don’t
know what happened.”
In a way it was true.
I got up from that bed then, uninjured. And I talked to the
girls about the fire and about our great success. They were worried about me,
but I shared none of my own fear. I acted as if nothing at all had happened.
But I knew I needed to talk to someone. Not to the girls and not to the elders.
They did not like change or new things. Who could say how they would react? And
not to my mother or to the men of our place. I needed to speak to somebody who
could help me push back against the nightmare I had encountered.
Eventually, we stopped talking about the fire. The
excitement was replaced by simple contentment and not a little worry for me.
And then, as night came, the girls lay down to sleep. But I told them that I
was not tired. I had slept for a day, after all. Instead, I began to walk
through the world. I wanted others to see an aimless girl wandering at night.
But I was not wandering. I was seeking a target. I was seeking Tekeo, the
strangest man in the world.
Everyone in the world worked together. They built the
sluices and berms that trapped fish – together. They planted trees – together.
They pushed back the jungle – together. They harvested and built and carved and
cooked – together.
But Tekeo did none of these things.
From when we were small children, Tekeo was different. He
didn’t play with others. He would wander, fearlessly, stupidly, into the
jungle. He would explore, by himself, beyond the edges of the world. The elders
wanted to stop him. They wanted to make him useful. But then they discovered
that he was useful. He found new seeds, new insects, new parasites, new
animals. He brought things back, things that the world could use. He was only
15, but we learned more because of him.
He made our world stronger.
I went to Tekeo because he alone knows about the world
beyond the world. And so he alone might have an answer to my nightmare. And he
alone is not a part of us. And so he alone will share what I tell him with
So, in the middle of the night, I came to his small home. He
did not live in the world, but on its edge. The elders feared diseases
he might carry. His house was dark, without fire. I opened the door and snuck
I thought perhaps I would escape attention, but instead I
heard a whisper, “Naia?”
He knew I was there.
“Yes,” I said.
I could almost hear a smile when he answered, “I am glad you
I skipped any formalities. I told him why I was there and
what I had seen. And I asked him what I must do. He listened quietly and
patiently. And then, when I was done, he spoke.
“Naia,” he asked, “Have you ever wondered what would remain
should the jungle overcome our world?”
“No,” I said.
“Everything in our world will vanish,” he said, “Our trees
are just trees, they will mix with the species that live in the wilds. The
river will wash away our berms and sieves. Our thatch homes will be consumed by
the jungle. And our bodies will be overwhelmed by insects and humidity and rot.
We build with life, and with death everything we create will disappear. Nothing
I stared at him, beginning to understand.
“Your vision,” he said, “Is of what will be left when we
stop planting and harvesting and clearing.”
I just stared at him. Everything would vanish. And I knew
it would vanish. I had seen through the eyes of those who would never know we had
“What do we do?” I asked.
He sat there, thinking for a long while. He did it like it
was the most natural thing in the world. Just to think, without speaking to
those around him.
Eventually, a smile crossed his face and he said, “I have an
We stepped outside his hut. And under the cover of darkness,
we began to dig. We dug and dug, an enormous hole in the ground. And when the
sun came up, we were stilling digging. The people began to come and watch us
and wonder what we were doing. But Tekeo did not explain it.
He said only that it was something he had learned from his
We worked for weeks, our hole getting deeper and wider and
longer. For those weeks, I did not work with my cohort. No one criticized me.
But, bit by bit, I knew I was growing apart from the women who had defined me.
And then, after weeks of labor, Tekeo turned to me and asked,
“What do you see now?”
I stared back at him, confused.
“Close your eyes,” he said, “And think of the future. And
tell me what you see.”
I closed my eyes and thought of the future. And once again,
I was pulled away from myself. Up into the sky above. But then my vision
changed. The green trees turned to colors: red and oranges. And then, in an
instant, they were gone. And I saw the grey earth below. And there, drawn on
the canvass of the land was a dot. Our hole. I opened my eyes. Tekeo was there,
“I saw it,” I said, “Our hole has survived, below the overwhelming
foliage of the jungle.”
He just smiled. And then he said, “I think that is what our people
Tekeo became my prophet. He told the people then of what we
were doing and why. We told them of the future. He told them of the messages we
would create, to tell the people who came from above that we had once been
The elders were angry. Our world was perfect. All were fed.
All were happy. Why did we need to think of the future? But we kept digging,
and slowly others joined us. They too wanted some part of themselves to survive.
Bit by bit, we built greater and more complex designs. And I
would check them, viewing them from on high, knowing how others would see them.
And Tekeo testified to the truth of my visions. We became leaders of our
people. But we were no longer a part of them. We were priests, separate from
But it was worth the cost. Our people acquired something
new. They acquired meaning. We began not only to live – eating the fruit of our
garden – but to leave our footprint on the world. We would no longer simply
pass away, leaving no trace of our lives.
And I began to love Tekeo. It was he who had made my nightmare
become a dream. It was his wisdom that had reshaped the reality only I could
see. Before long, Tekeo and I married.
It was then that he told me there were other worlds,
other places mankind had carved out of the jungle. Before he met me, he had
travelled between them, sharing wisdom between peoples. We both knew what we
must do. And so, together and alone, we travelled across worlds. And we brought
the people who lived within those worlds’ knowledge of the future. We shared
the idea of the future with them.
And everywhere we went, Tekeo lovingly guided the creation
of designs only I could see.
And slowly, bit by bit, I watched the jungle fill with the
stamp of the people who lived within it.
In time, we had a daughter. Like us, she belonged to no
world. She was dedicated only to the future.
Decades passed. We grew old together, honored by the peoples
of the jungle as we hobbled between their worlds. They saw wisdom and meaning
within us. And we saw it grow within each other.
And then, while we were travelling between worlds, Tekeo fell
ill. He had never been ill before. Somehow, he knew his end was coming. And so,
we took one final voyage; we travelled back to our world, the place where we
had been born.
We stopped on the edge of that place, surrounded by the dead
trees that marked where our orchards would next expand. And there, on the edge
of our world, Tekeo grew sicker. There, on the edge of our world, Tekeo died.
The villagers came then. They wanted to help bury the great
man. They wanted to take part in his final chapter. But I knew I alone must honor
him. It was the greatest honor I could give and the greatest honor he
could receive. I prepared his final resting place. It was a bed of coals and pottery;
materials that would lock in the nutrients of his body.
He would be made a part of the pottery and coals; so that he
could be reborn within the fruit that feed our people. But, in that moment, it
did not seem like enough. It seemed like he deserved more.
I knelt there, my daughter beside me. I knelt before the
body of the man I loved. The moisture of the jungle filled my lungs and the buzzing
of insects filled my ears. And I knew I had never been so aware of my present. I
looked at him, trying to find a hint of the wisdom that had once filled his
eyes and the strength that had once filled his arms. But his eyes had been made
hollow and his arms had been eviscerated by death.
I closed my eyes then. I willed myself to dream. I begged
for a vision. I wanted to know what would become of his memory. But nothing came
to me. For the first time in many years, there was no vision. There was only
me, my daughter and the shell of a man I had loved.
It was in that instant that I understood. Those who will see
the jungle from above will know we were here. We had told them that. But
they will never who Tekeo was. They will never know who any of us were. That
memory belongs only to us. Humanity is not in monuments, but in stories.
So, I knelt before Tekeo, and honored him as only I could. I
carved one little pattern in the soil before him. It was a pattern that will
wash away in the next rain. No one would remember the pattern, but all would
remember that I had drawn it – a ephemeral reflection of a life of wisdom and
Soon, Tekeo was joined with the soil and I rose from before
Then, my daughter at my side, I turned towards my old village.
Stories cannot survive in the wilderness.
As I raised my eyes, I saw Auiya, my oldest friend. And I saw
her son beside her, a strong young man.
Our eyes met and there was a moment of bittersweet joy.
We had once created charcoal, charcoal meant to preserve the
nutrients of the earth. Charcoal meant to sustain our bodies. Now, we would
create stories. Stories that would preserve the heart of our people and sustain
their souls until the day in which we vanish from the earth.
This story is set in the Amazon River basin. In the early
years of European exploration, one small Spanish group navigated down the
Amazon River. They reported seeing massive settlements along hundreds of
kilometers the river. But when later explorers came, everything was gone. It
was assumed the first explorer had heavily embellished his stories. And so, for
hundreds of years, we thought of the Amazon as the world’s only unspoiled wilderness.
But then, as clearcutting spread, we began to uncover vast earthworks. They
were seen first by people flying over them and recognizing the hand of mankind.
We call them geoglyphs. And with every discovery, our assumptions have been
undermined. We have learned that a population of as many as five million once inhabited
this place, and they defined everything about it. From soils made of pottery, charcoal
and blood, to trees cultivated so they could produce all the fruits a society
could need, these people fashioned a vast reality in a harsh world.
But they had no metal and few stones. And so, when European diseases
came, everything they made, everything but the geoglyphs, was ultimately consumed
by the jungle. In a world made up only of life, nothing survives death. In this
world, one can imagine an existence without past or future. Nothing survives
its own life. There is only the garden and the here and now. Everything we know
speaks to this reality. Everything, that is, but the geoglyphs. In a way, Naia
and Tekeo bring holiness – timelessness – to the jungle. Because of them, the
people can dedicate their bounty to something beyond themselves.
Naia and Tekeo are, in their world, a version of Avraham and
Sarah. Avraham was inspired by visions. He worked on a vast canvass. Like
Tekeo, Sarah acted on a far more practical level. She protected her family and
the legacy it would establish.
But Naia and Avraham differ in a critical way. Naia lived in
a world without physical permanence. And, her people ultimately vanished.
Unlike Naia, Avraham lived in a world full of monuments, but
he understood that it is ideas – carried by a people who will live forever – which
In a way, Avraham builds the idea of history itself. For our
people, history is not only about the past. It is also about the future. Only
with a past and a future can you see yourself as part of a greater
story. Only with a past and a future do the children of Avraham find meaning in
But when Sarah dies, Avraham no longer wrestles with vast
ideas or histories. Instead, he engages with the smallest and most basic of
concepts. He buries his wife in a cave, not a glorious tomb. He reserves the honor
of her burial for himself, refusing to have her story hijacked by the likes of
Ephron. Through his actions, he creates an enduring memory of the holiest of
men honoring the greatest of women. It is the story of her burial, not
the gloriousness of the structure, that makes that cave holy even today.
But he does not stop there. Through Eliezer, he arranges the
marriage of his son. As with Naia’s daughter, Yitzchak is brought back into the
human world. The boy must establish the future; not with timeless monuments or
incredible gestures, but through the simple act of marriage.
In the end, Avraham’s does not act on the scale of nations
or stars. In the end, he acts on an individual level. Ultimately, this is how the
past is woven into the future and the future into the past.
In Parshat Bereshit, mankind is told: “In the sweat of thy
face you shall eat bread, until you have returned unto the ground; for out of
it you were taken. For dust you are and unto dust shall you return.”
It is Avraham who changes this reality. And it is through us
that his work is continued.
Through stories and ideas, we create the past and establish
Through stories we give meaning and light both to those who
have returned to the earth and to those who have not yet been born.
p.s. This story is dedicated to the memory of the 11 killed by a terrorist in Pittsburgh and to the memory of the family of 8 wiped out on Israel’s Highway 90 by a driver allegedly under the influence of drugs.
Image: By Sanna Saunaluoma, CC BY-SA 3.0,