Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Legend of St. Lucia (according to Cee-Cee)

Santa Lucia. St. Lucy: patron saint of the blind. I am in St. Lucia, South Africa, located in the KwaZulu-Natal Province just south of the Mozambican border.

I was talking with a woman from Holland who has lived here with her husband for the last 8 years managing a bed & breakfast.  Over several cups of coffee, I learned from her that there are only about 450 residents in St. Lucia, but during the tourist season, the population explodes to 6,000. And the face of tourism has changed over the years from that of fishermen to that of wildlife watchers and ecotourists. Some residents like this change and some do not, which is one of a few schisms that make it challenging to stand and collaborate as a unified community in the first established World Heritage Site in South Africa. 

But I am getting ahead of myself…I need to back up and explain why the face of tourism has changed.  The people changed because the environment changed.  The mouth of the estuary closed along with the prohibition of 4x4 driving on the beach. This sent most of the fisherman packing. So, in order to explain the scientific and social aspect of this place, I share with you The Abbreviated Legend of St. Lucia According to Cee-Cee.

Ten years ago, Rasmar was grazing early one morning when he felt a tingling in his horn. He grunted under heated breath, “something is different today.” But as is his nature he continued to graze; too hungry to prioritize unfounded inklings.  He had adopted a more blasé approach to life after being almost killed more times than he could count. His family had nearly been wiped out several decades before, but they made a come back and he had grown accustomed to eating in peace.

Maputa, an 11th generation patrol officer, jumped from branch to branch and fence line to fence line looking for her. Would the search never end? Losing Luz was tragic, but the process of trying to find her had become more of a religion—a sacred duty, rather than part of the job. He was tired of it. So, he occupied his mind and took a mango from Ms. Isi’s fruit bowl. “Give it back you silly monkey!” She screamed, but he hopped the fence before she could even rustle up the momentum to run.  She was large and he was quick. That poor woman refused to put her fruit bowl inside.

Crayteez, more introspective than others, surveyed the road before she barreled across.  She liked watching the mamas in the market set out their giant bags of passion fruit and avocados. She was small for her age, but it didn’t keep her from going unnoticed. Folks, especially shopkeepers didn’t look kindly on her newly acquired window-shopping habits. She attempted a slow strut although she couldn’t keep her tail from acting like a tiny spastic pendulum. “Maybe if I just graze and act casual people will stop staring”, but the paparazzi always came.  She wasn’t just a hippo.  She was a messenger, but no one seemed to get that.

You see, as with many shipwreck survivors of the 1500’s, they tend to hallucinate once they reach the shore. And Manuel was no exception. He hallucinated all sorts of talking animals. He asked for his last rites from the only priest on board (who actually died of a heart attack hours before once he realized they were sinking). In reality, Manuel was talking to a dead priest, but what he saw was an elephant-headed clergyman with kind eyes. That was the last thing he remembered before rolling ashore half naked and nearly blind.  Once he came to, there she was a luminescent vision of hope smiling down upon him. “Santa Lucia!” He exclaimed. And the rest is history.

What isn’t greatly known (especially among tourists and migrating shorebird populations) is that once ashore, Prince Vidal and Princess Luz took in Manuel. The reason it isn’t widely told is because Manuel was thought to be out of his mind in his final years (some would say for most of his years). The story that Manuel told on his deathbed was this.

Luz & Vidal were keepers of the area s ince before things were written. True, theirs was an arranged marriage due to their family’s kingdoms being next door to one another, but they loved each other and their place long before marriage was even a thought.

Princess was raised along the lake’s edge and she spent most of her youth exploring her small but unique home, which was about 43 miles long and 11 miles wide.  A stork literally delivered her.  Her mom was wading into the lake early one morning when Princess decided to come into the world.  Stork was contemplating the landscape when the Queen asked for a little help. So, the stork did what it could with its large beak, flapping wings and gangly legs to helped deliver that baby right onto the lake banks. The story goes that when she let out her first sneeze, the clouds moved and the sun came out. So, her mom named her Luz. They said that because an animal delivered her, she communed with the wildlife in a way that no one else in her kingdom ever could.  She was raised alongside young hippos and chirping baby crocs and no one was alarmed. She had a way with them.  If something across the lake caught her eye, a bird nest or what-have-you, the crocs would line up and form a bridge to the other side so she could walk along their backs to investigate. She would blow bubbles and cavort with hippos. Their favorite game was lake tag. She would chase them into the lake and they would chase her out. Some think that’s why the hippos always seem to run in and out of the water so quickly.

Prince was born on the ocean. He learned to swim before he could walk and talk. He had these endearing little scars behind his ears that he would always scratch when he was anxious or just thinking really deeply about something. His mother said the scars were from birthmarks, but most of the fishermen agree that the scars most certainly were the remnants of gills that his parents had removed by one of the local sangomas (traditional medicine healer) just after he was born. That’s the trouble with having a baby in the ocean—especially a boy. They’re just so impressionable at that age. 

Nevertheless, Prince Vidal was in the ocean more than he was on land and as a result, was fairly fluent in echolocation and song of most of the local cetaceans. He never shared what it means as he was sworn to secrecy and the bottlenose dolphins apparently threatened to “out” him as a fish to his kingdom if he ever revealed their language. It seems fair and it keeps the cetacean biologists busy, but it didn’t keep one of them, Dr. D. (as he shall be called) from harassing Prince every now and again for answers. The prince patiently told him with the utmost sincerity (as there is no sarcasm in the ocean), “If you want to know, then ask them yourself.” This always made Dr. D. drink more. In fact, he drank himself into a righteous stupor one night and turned into a mudskipper right in front of Vidal. Prince neither confirmed nor denied it, but the mudskipper population increased slightly not long after Dr. D’s disappearance.

One day, during high tide, both the prince and the princess found themselves in the estuary on opposite banks. An orphaned elephant calf with one eye accompanied her.  He was escorted by a noisy flock of 1,000 flamingos. Honestly, they would have been blind and deaf not to notice one another.  A particularly astute croc noticed this interaction and rallied some of the others to make a bridge. They did and without ever losing eye contact with him, Princess walked across. In her trance, she accidentally stepped on one of the crocs heads squishing its eye. “Ouch!” the croc cried. She paused, still not losing sight of the prince, gently massaged the croc’s eye with her big toe, and kept walking. This impressed the prince.

When she made it to the last croc back, the spellbound prince instinctively held out his hand to help Princess to shore.

“What are you doing here?” She asked quizzically, dreamy-eyed, as if she had known him for years.  “I’m clicking,” he fumbled and looked down. “I mean I’m. I mean was walking. No, I was swimming and I saw this pink blanket of birds in the sky. So, I followed them. And here I am.”

“Is this your first time to the Eastern Borderland? You look a bit lost…” she said smilingly. “No, I’ve been here a thousand times, but never to this spot,” he stated confidently. “Or, I don’t know. Maybe I have, but it was at low tide.”

In the years that followed, their romance was a secret.  Well, the wildlife knew…all 1,971 species, but no one talked.  The dune forest bush babies tried, but no one ever understood their nightly fever-berry babble. 

Arranged marriages for each of them would inevitably follow, but they tried not to focus on the future. For them, every day with each other was a gift.  He took her to swim with the dolphins and showed her secret sea turtle nests. She introduced him to the hippos and the leopards that hid in the bush.

When they finally came out with their relationship, their parents relieved the situation by indicating that the arranged marriage was to be to each other all along. They were married the next morning in the estuary close to the spot where they met. The stork performed the service.  He orated from a high branch of a white mangrove overlooking the estuary.  The couple was standing on a raft of crocs and the stork wanted nothing to do with a raft of crocs. There was a reason he had been around for so long. 

It was said that there were at least 2, 000 different kinds of animals present (including the humans). Word traveled quickly about this auspicious day so at least once representative from each species was there to witness the union.  A red-capped-robin-chat chirped a song written especially for the service and the newest hippo calf served as ring bearer adorned with a necklace of woven raffia palm to hold the rings. There were (and this is undisputed) 50,000 greater flamingoes and 500 pink-backed pelicans there. Even a palm nut vulture pair from Kosi Bay flew in for the special occasion.

Their kingdoms combined and worked in harmony for many tides.  The lake enriched the sea and the sea diversified the lake.  The estuary was a place of balance, community, life and great pride among the court.

Manuel’s story became hazy at this point.  They said he voluntarily drank an infusion of Tonga ordeal tree towards the end of his tale. He started rambling on about needing to speak with the cavefish.  The next day, he disappeared from his bed and they found only his clothes on the beach near Sodwana Bay. We don’t know all the details or circumstances of the deaths of Prince Vidal and Princess Luz, but it is said that they dwell in St. Lucia even now.

In 1951, alien pine and gum tree plantations were erected near the lake and estuary and not long after, water levels started to diminish.  Ten years ago, the Lake St. Lucia was permanently cut off from the sea.  Cyclones have come and gone and they say that each storm is a love letter from Vidal to Luz. He misses her and cannot stand to be apart from her. So, he sends waves to reach into the estuary to find her and be with her again. She went missing and they say that every time a hippo comes to town, it is carrying a message from Vidal to ask about Luz’s whereabouts, but he didn’t anticipate that they would make such intimidating messengers. How was he to know that they would become so obstinate towards humans after her disappearance?

And who am I, you ask? How do I know all of this? Well, my name is Cee-Cee.   I was with Manuel when he died and he told this story to me.  I had been a fairly secretive resident of St. Lucia until about 10 years ago. I remember the day quite well. I woke up that morning to a strong surge in my lateral line; so strong it made my ancient scales stand on end.  It wasn’t the first time I had this sensation. The surge is legendary among my kind. Coelacanths have been around for ages and my ancestors passed down a particularly sensitive lateral line. Sometimes we stand on our heads to relieve the pressure. During this particular surge, I remembered my great grandmother’s words that she shared with her years before. “Cee-Cee, life is lonely and dark for us, but you will live in the light one day.” I didn’t understand what she meant because I love the darkness. It’s easier to keep all my secrets down here. We live in caves during the day and hunt at night. We’re like underwater bats and we like it this way. But I knew enough not to question my Great Gran as she tended to be mostly right 100% of the time. And she was right. A group of adventurous divers found me one day at about 350 feet. They never took a picture and I never saw them again, but I hear they took some footage of my cousins. Anyway, after being spotted, I thought, “well, they came all this way, I might as well share at least one of my secrets.”