We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man we’d hired as a tour guide, with a van and driver, for the day. We were to drive to Cachoeira, where the sisters live: the famous Sisterhood of the Good Death, founded by former slaves in the nineteenth century. "Negroes of the Higher Ground," they called themselves, the governesses who found- ed the Sisterhood as a way to serve the poor. Their motto, "Aiye Orun," names the door between this world and the other, kept ajar. They teach that death is relative: We rise to dance again. Locally canonized, they lead quiet, celibate, nunnish lives, joining after they’ve been mothers and wives, at between fifty and seventy years of age: a sisterhood of sages in matronage. We drove on Salvador’s four-lane boulevards, past unpainted cement houses, and billboards, and pedestrians wearing plastic shoes, and little shops, and streets, and avenues, a park, a mall . . . Our guide was excellent: fluent in English, and intelligent, willing to answer questions patiently and to wait out our jokes. The history of Salvador flew past. At Tororo we slowed as much as the traffic would allow, to see the Orixas dancing on the lake in their bright skirts. The road we took sped past high-rise apartment neighborhoods, then scattered shacks, then nothing but deep woods of trees I didn’t recognize and lands that seemed to be untouched by human hands. We stopped in a village, where it was market day. We walked among the crowds, taller than they and kilos heavier, tasting jackfruit and boiled peanuts, embraced by absolute, respectful welcome, like visiting gods whose very presence is good news. Our guide suggested a rest stop. We were sipping Coke when a man came into the shop and quietly spoke to our guide, who translated his request: Would we come to his nightclub, be his guests? We didn’t understand, but shrugged and went a few doors down the street. "What does he want?" we asked. The club hadn’t been opened yet; by inviting us in, the owner hoped to get our blessings for it. Which we humbly gave: visiting rich American descendants of slaves. For hours we drove through a deep wilderness, laughing like children on a field-trip bus. We made a side trip to the family home of Bahia’s favorite daughter and son, the Velosos, Bethania and Caetano, in the small town of Santo Amaro. The greenery flew by until the descent into a river valley. There we went to a nice little restaurant to dine on octopus stew, rice, manioc, and wine. Then we crossed a rickety bridge behind a dray drawn by a donkey, and wended our way, at last, to Cachoeira, an old town of colonial buildings, universally tan and shuttered, darkly lining narrow streets. A tethered rooster pecked around our feet in the souvenir shop. At the convent I wondered what the statues really meant: Was it Mary, or was it Yemanja in the chapel, blue-robed, over the altar? Was it Mary on the glass-enclosed bier, her blue robe gold-embroidered, pearls in her hair, or was it the Orixa of the sea? There were no Sisters around for us to see; they were in solitude, preparing for the Feast of the Assumption, when the Virgin passed painlessly from this world into the next, Aiye to Orun. Posters showed them decked out for their big Assumption Day parade, big, handsome mamas wearing Orixa beads, white turbans and blouses, red shawls, black skirts. The man in their gift shop was an expert on the Sisters’ long struggle to find a way to serve the Christian Church and Candombl . The eldest Sister is called "the Perpetual Judge"; every seventh year, she becomes the bridge on which the Virgin Mary crosses back, sorrowing love incarnate in a black ninety-odd-year-old woman facing death and saying Magnificat with every breath. We drove out of the valley looking back on lightbulbs which intensified the thick, incomprehensible, mysterious darkness of the unknown. Grown serious and silent in our air-conditioned van, we rode back into the quotidian.
Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Copyright © 2005 by Marilyn Nelson.