Sun Children
Gabrielle Hovendon

— In all likelihood, you have not heard of their tribe.

I am speaking to my intern, not my intern, but a boy so scrawny and terrified-looking that he seems to need to belong to someone, anyone. I am speaking to him instead of letting him sort journal articles in silence because we will, after all, be spending the semester together and because he does not seem to know what to make of a middle-aged lesbian ethnobotanist. He is not wholly unique in this sense.
— They do not wear wooden saucers in their ears like the Botocudo; they do not make killing canoes like the Shrimp-Eaters, the Potiguara. They do not cannibalize bishops or explorers or ethnolinguists like their cousins the Caetés; they do not worship the piranha or the tapir or any of the three hundred forty-two varieties of tree frog.
The day I met Carmen, I was not thinking of tree frogs. I was not thinking of love or falling in love or the thousand fragile impossibilities of love. Until she drifted into the arboretum and began applying her lipstick beside a Cattleya orchid, I was concerned only with spore clusters and mesophyll and pollen. There was sufficiency in the underside of a fern.
— They call themselves the Kogi, and there are only several hundred or thousand remaining in their forest of leafmold and creeping vines. There is little to distinguish them from their downriver neighbors – no distinct language, no special deities. Only their shamans are unusual; only the sun children set them apart.
I am reciting facts to put my intern at ease. Facts are solid. Facts do not fall out from under a person like a dissolving staircase. At the same time, I am also thinking about how Carmen never cared about shamans, how in certain ways she was her own shaman, casting curses and granting wishes with a hairflip, hipsway, walkaway sort of charm.
— The sun children. Rare photographs reveal them to be pale, small, birdboned. They may face in the direction of the cameras, but their eyes stare through the photographers. Beyond them.
Carmen did not find them beautiful, Carmen with her perfect lips and teeth, her glossy hair free of bones and beads and tangled pinion feathers. Her perfect body, her perfect sorority sisters, her perfect new boyfriend.
My intern is looking at me strangely. Is this pity or fear or just a desire for me to keep talking?
— The sun children are chosen from birth, shamans in training, and are raised in a cave three miles upstream from their tribe. They remain in the cave until they are adults, fed on manioc and capsicum and stories. They are taught the ancient secrets of their tribe – divination, raising the dead, communing with benevolent spirits – and they never once set foot in the world outside.
My intern clears his throat and I realize I am crumbling a pinecone into scales in my hand. I set it down carefully and keep talking as if nothing has happened.
— Then, when they are ten or twelve or fourteen, whatever the fickle age of their bodies’ spontaneous combustions, they are brought into the real world. Led forth from the cave, allowed to step squinting into the lavish dappled twilights of the jungle. Sometimes I try to imagine that first moment they see not sky or water or mountains but rather vastness reflected in miniature, the entire universe in the venation of a leaf. I imagine they think they have seen God.
And did Carmen understand how this would feel? Did she understand allegory, pantheism, the hundred humble ways I would worship her treetops and plateaus?
— For the rest of their lives, the sun children are dazed. Half-stunned, perpetually astonished, all the slow stalactiform stories brought to life before their eyes. Their people believe them to be in the perfect state to commune with the gods, to intercede on behalf of the Kogi. They belong to no world, neither tribe nor cave; their existence is bewilderment, anomaly.
The day Carmen walked into my office, definitively belonging to no one but herself, I was not thinking of gods or intercessions. Not miracles, not meteors, not the buckling of tectonic plates or the breathshattering paralysis of a car crash. I was thinking of nothing a self-respecting person cannot recover from.
— What do you think it feels like? asks my intern, the intern, startling me. When they leave the cave? When they see something for the first time?
I consider how to reply. What is it like, indeed?
— It is dazzling, I tell him. It is beauty. It is ruin.

Gabrielle Hovendon has stories in or coming from Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, apt and others. She's an MFA candidate at Bowling Green.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of gwenboul.

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