We are at her beach, her riverbank. We move quietly because she loved this beach. Her shape is still here. I feel it in the mud imprint of paws under my boots. I wonder how long it will take for the rain to wash her away, into the coffee-dark river below. Memories here are swift, and without time, pushing west through current and fallen detritus. Water seems to snake, as if to remind us, this river is whip fast.
There is a weight of a dying season. I can smell it, the fug of earth drying and turning crisp. Roiling under foot, in musty golden light. The flood plains across the Amazon, across Bolivia, are receding.The swamps through which we walked out here today are waist high, rather than neck deep as they were a week ago. They will dry out entirely within the month, with parched heat crawling on their heels. Hot, crumbling leaves. Wait a few months, and then the smoke and the stench of fires will come again. Death. Different death. Rabid, unstoppable. Not like this. Not like the soft composting of rain, the stench of making, of moss, fungi and mulch.
Nuestra casa está quemando.
I flinch, even now, surrounded by water and raindrops. Our home is burning. If I cut down this old mapajo tree, I imagine I could see the dark press of scars staining each ring. Predictable, and deeper, hotter every turn. Screams lie in the backs of my ears. Like worms, parasites that burrow and lie down to sleep in my vulnerable edges. When the rain dries out again, and all that’s left are the farmers framing us like a box, slash and burn, and we cannot get out. Cannot hang onto the miles of forest that fly up into the sky in ashes, and the bloated corpses that litter the blackened ruins.
Time and grief keep turning. We don’t bury those corpses. There are too many, and there are too few of us. We do not know their names. But they are dead, and their ashes will compost.
This is their burying, too.
Time and grief keep turning. We don’t bury those corpses. There are too many, and there are too few of us. We do not know their names.
It regrows, and here we are again. The day is dark, the jungle slick with grey shadow. Its eyes look out at us. Beneath my boots the earth is muddy, wet, and the flat patch of ground we have chosen is high up on the sandy beach. I can feel a hot breeze on my face, making my clothes clammy with sweat. I slept in her hay last night, in her bed. I touched, perhaps, the edges of her final dreams. I watched her through the moonlight, her eyes night-swollen. She couldn’t move. She’d fallen, perhaps, the vets thought. Her insides were broken. Broken now and broken before. From an old story. Broken with beating sticks, with rotten food and chains that tied her to a shed where she couldn’t move, and cried for something different. Her eyes were green, speckled with amber and blue. They are closed now. We have closed them for her because, this time, we cannot fix her broken pieces.
We will bury you. And remember.
Bamboo hangs thickly over our heads. The pickaxe burns against the calluses of my hands, and the humidity sticks to my skin. We gave you a name. Yuma. And we will bury you today.
‘Recuerdo cuando la vi por primera vez.’ I laugh softly, as the axe whistles with another swing. I remember when I first saw her. It was thirteen years ago. I have been coming to this place for thirteen years. And I have known her, been a part of her, and she of me,. ‘She was so angry. I was so afraid of her.’
We are a refuge. And we gave you a home, and it was the best we could do. I repeat this, as my pickaxe hits rock, and I claw it away with my hands. We are a refuge. And we gave you a home, and it was the best we could do. The confused, melting shapes of her paws blur into the red flowers atop her cold fur, her difficult, hard angled bones.
Oso, crouching above me on the edge of the grave, nods. His face is grave, the coca leaves wadded into his cheek, a swollen mass. Oso is from the village nearby, but he has lived here since he was eleven. He is now in his twenties, and he has buried so many of us. He passes me the bag of leaves, and I take a handful, adding them to the ball in my own cheek. My hands are shaking, bleeding. A pulse of energy passes through, and I swing the axe again.
‘Creo que estuvo enojada la mayor parte del tiempo,’ he says, looking up at the scarlet-edged sky. She was angry a lot of the time. Angry, confused. I nod.
‘But she loved this beach.’ Scott says defiantly, his face swollen, grey from crying. I look at him, and I nod again. Scott has been here a year, two perhaps, and he holds memories with her, like I never could. Yuma did not like women, picky and stubborn, but she adored the men who gave her their attention, who fell in love with her, with her claws and hisses, her soft fur and green speckled wild eyes.
Behind, in the shadows of the trees, Nena – the one who built this refuge, fought for it and holds it every day – stands, stooped and shattered. She has been in charge here for a long time, and her dark head is bowed. Yuma is written on her, like a language, along with all the others. She contains our griefs, our wantings, with all of her own. Nena has dug many graves. Each one she has covered with flowers, apart from the ones she couldn’t. The ash corpses. The nameless bones. There will be more. There are always more. Her shape has been eroded, I think, by the seasons. And like the growing burn scars in these trees, I don’t know when the cumulative hurt makes new growth untenable. Her shape is this place. Nena has over twenty-five years of burying, of battling the escalating turns of rain and fire and smoke.
She looks back down the trail, to where Yuma is waiting for us, covered in her celebration of flowers. I pass the pickaxe to Oso, and he swings himself down into the hole beside me. Nena extends her hand and pulls me up. I hold the roughness of her skin and feel the heat encase me as I rise up out of the cold earth, crying. Matching tears fall down Nena’s cheeks. Hang on, Yuma. There is the thud of Oso’s steady pickaxe. Nena gazes back through the night jungle. Hang on, and we will bury you in the place that you love. And you will be here, until you no longer want to be. The clouds will take you, if you wish, and the earth will cushion you, and the water will slink over your dawn-grey fur. We will keep this place safe for you. We are your home, in breath and in dying. You will be puma, again, again and again, and your gutted parts will be mended.
THE PUMA YEARS by Laura Coleman has just been published by Little A. Proceeds are going to support Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi’s work fighting the illegal wildlife trade, supporting local communities and providing safe homes to those who need them. If you too would like to help, either by volunteering or making a donation, please visit CIWY’s website: intiwarayassi.org.