[excerpt]

My name is Eva, which means “life”, according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory. My father, an Indian with yellow eyes, came from the place where the hundred rivers meet; he smelled of lush growing things and he never looked directly at the sky, because he had grown up beneath a canopy of trees, and light seemed indecent to him. Consuelo, my mother, spent her childhood in an enchanted region where for centuries adventurers have searched for the city of pure gold the conquistadors saw when they peered into the abyss of their own ambitions. She was marked forever by that landscape, and in some way she managed to pass that sign on to me.

Missionaries took Consuelo in before she learned to walk; she appeared one day, a naked cub caked with mud and excrement, crawling across the footbridge from the dock like a tiny Jonah vomited up by some freshwater whale. When they bathed her, it was clear beyond a shadow of doubt that she was a girl, which must have caused no little consternation among them; but she was already there and it would not do to throw her into the river, so they draped her in a diaper to cover her shame, squeezed a few drops of lemon into her eyes to heal the infection that had prevented her from opening them, and baptized her with the first female name that come to mind. They then proceeded to bring her up, without fuss or effort to find out where she came from; they were sure that if Divine Providence had kept her alive until they found her, it would also watch over her physical and spiritual well-being, or, in the worst of cases, would bear her off to heaven along with the other innocents. Consuelo grew up without any fixed niche in the strict hierarchy of the Mission. She was not exactly a servant, but neither did she have the status of the Indian boys in the school, and when she asked which of the priests was her father, she was cuffed for her insolence. She told me that a Dutch sailor had set her adrift in a rowboat, but that was likely a story that she had invented to protect herself from the onslaught of my questions. I think the truth is that she knew nothing about her origins or how she had come to be where the missionaries found her.

The Mission was a small oasis in the heart of an expanse of voluptuous vegetation writhing and twisting from the banks of the river to the feet of the monumental geologic towers that rose toward the firmament like one of God’s mistakes. There time is bent and distances deceive the human eye, persuading the traveler to wander in circles. The humid, heavy air smells of flowers, herbs, man’s sweat, and animal breath. The heat is oppressive, unalleviated by any breeze; the stones steam and blood boils in the veins. At dusk the sky is filled with phosphorescent mosquitoes whose bites produce endless nightmares, and the still night air carries the distinct cries of birds, the chattering of monkeys, and the distant roar of the waterfalls born high in the mountains to crash far below like the thunder of warfare. The modest mud-and-wattle Mission building, with its tower of woven stakes and a bell to toll for Mass, balanced, like all the huts, on piles driven into the mud of a river of opalescent waters whose banks evaporated in the reverberating light. The dwellings seemed to drift amid silent canoes, garbage, carcasses of dogs and rats, and inexplicable white blossoms.

Consuelo was easy to distinguish even from a distance, her long red hair like a whip of fire against the eternal green of that landscape. Her playmates were young Indians with swollen bellies, an impudent parrot that recited an “Our Father” salted with curses, and a monkey chained to a table leg; from time to time she would let the monkey loose to look for a sweetheart in the jungle, but he always returned to the same spot to scratch his fleas. Even in those days Protestants were everywhere, distributing their Bibles, preaching against the Vatican, and hauling their pianos through heat and rain so their converts could celebrate salvation in public song. Such competition demanded the total dedication of the Catholic priests, and they paid little attention to Consuelo, who was growing up scorched by the sun, poorly nourished on yucca and fish, infected with parasites, bitten by mosquitoes, free as a bird. Aside from helping with domestic chores, attending religious services and a few classes in reading, arithmetic, and catechism, she had no obligations; she roamed outdoors, sniffing the flora and chasing the fauna, her mind filled with images, smells, colors, and myths borne on the river current.