Still We Survive

© Kristine Simelda

Europeans called us Caribs, but we call ourselves Kalinago. Famous for our fierce resistance to foreign invasion, we used to be the dominant Amerindian tribe in the Caribbean. Now just a smattering of us remain. My father, Maxroy, who is our chief, says it’s important for us to maintain our cultural integrity. Sometimes we meet in the karbay to drum, dance, and listen to council members retell traditional stories, but none of that is very useful when it comes to modern day survival. Our village on the cliff above the sea has been half-dead since last year’s monster hurricane. And with no government assistance or infrastructure in place, it’s hard for me to imagine a brighter future.

Just this morning a radio news bulletin announced that another freak storm had materialized in the Atlantic. It was huge, moving at record speed, and predicted to hit the island around midnight. I thought it might be a hoax, something like fake news, but when I asked Ma if she knew anything about the threatening weather, she rolled her eyes. “Here we go again,” she said, moaning. LaVerne wasn’t born in the Territory. Pa had to fight hard to make her his official bride because the Kalinago didn’t usually accept outsiders. Her main concern, besides the new baby, was her stock of baskets she had learned to weave from reeds of larouma. She practiced hard to perfect her skills, and her work was exceptional, but villagers had remained suspicious.

“Who LaVerne really think she is?” the clan wanted to know. “Roy may be chief, but up till now, the Kalinago people never had no queen.” Sighing, Ma filled plastic trash bags with baskets and stashed her handiwork under her bed for safekeeping. My big sister, Adeli, put away our few remaining breakable possessions, while my little brother, Maruka, played with a toy truck that had seen better days. I busied myself making sure all doors and windows could shut tight. The frames were warped and some of the latches were missing, so it was hit and miss.

When Pa didn’t show up for lunch, I decided to go out and find him. Menacing storm clouds formed on the horizon as I trod the byways of the village. Hammers pounded furiously while neighbors nailed scraps of plywood across the entrances to their homes. Although community action used to be a customary part of our lifestyle—everybody helped everybody— now it was every man for himself.

“Mabrika!” I shouted over the chaos. “Anybody seen Roy?” Pa is Roy, I’m Max or Maxi.

“No man, Maxi, but the radio say another storm coming, and we getting ready,” they said.

“Okay. If you see him, tell him to check us at home.”

Most folks, including my family, lived in prefabricated shacks donated by well-intentioned foreign volunteers. My mother was grateful to have a free roof over her head, but Pa called the houses death traps. “In olden days, our karbarets were built of round wood, shingles, and thatch,” he said. “When times got tough, we hunkered down in caves until the bad weather passed. These flimsy prefabs are too weak to withstand a major storm. If people try to shelter inside, somebody’s bound to get hurt when walls collapse and metal roofs go flying.”

LaVerne sucked her teeth. “So now you’re a building contractor as well as a historian,” she mumbled.

The wind switched direction as I climbed Horseshoe Ridge to the meetinghouse. The view from up there was awesome. All three thousand seven hundred acres of the Kalinago Territory lay at my feet like a sleeping giant. There was no such thing as a land title according to our tribal council. Land ownership was still communal, so it was easy to believe all that I saw was mine. But what was I supposed to do with all those acres? After the last hurricane mashed up the roads, there wasn’t any way to take farm produce to market, so commerce was at a standstill.

I spotted an old man bent over a hoe in a sloping garden. The joke was that some plots in the Territory were so steep that you had to plant crops with your teeth. “Yo! Uncle! Have you seen the chief?”

He continued staring at the ground. “Eat what you grow and grow what you eat,” he repeated like a parrot, so I assumed the answer was “no.”

I checked the ajoupa, the hut where my father slung his hammock and cooled out by the river, but he wasn’t around. In a clearing on the edge of the savanna, I chatted with a man who had felled a gommier tree to fashion a dugout canoe. I already knew how a canoe was made, but I listened attentively. “First you hollow out the trunk with a chainsaw,” he said, “and then you shape the outer part.” He was in the process of filling it with rocks and water to open it further. “Next you put pieces of wood across the inside to keep the width. When you’re finished, you sell it to a fancy overseas museum and celebrate with plenty rum for all your friends!”

I laughed and bid the boat builder goodbye. Then I headed for the Boa’s Staircase, the rocky outcropping where the legendary snake king supposedly crawled out from the ocean and founded our nation. Pa kept his fishing boat on the beach near the base of the steps, but my heart sank when I saw it was gone. Even though he was an expert seaman, the waves on the Atlantic coast were dangerous in the best of weather. I didn’t want to think about what might happen to him if he was caught out in the storm.

On my way home, I stopped by Roy’s favorite shop. Bottles filled with clear white liquor laced with local herbs and spices—nani, poive ginet, bwa bandé—lined the shelf behind the counter. A few tins of milk, candles, and matches were the only other items on sale. My father had tried to convince the villagers to set up a bakery to reintroduce cassava bread to the village, but no one had taken up the task.

“Seen the chief?” I asked.

Chalo, Pa’s best friend, shook his head. “Not since early morning. Roy say he going out fishing, but he never come back.” I thought of quizzing the other men who sat gathered round a rickety table drinking rum and slamming dominoes, but I changed my mind. Alcohol abuse was a major problem in our village, and I decided not to waste any more time.

Across the road from the shop, Pastor Randy was preaching gloom and doom to anyone who would listen. “Cast your eyes to the heavens, and what do you see? Apocalypse is now!” When he threw himself on the ground and started speaking in tongues, I moved on. Pastor Randy was my father’s one true enemy. Roy had tried to prevent him from building his church on Kalinago land but failed, and Randy delighted in rubbing it in. “The sensible people in the village have all converted,” he gloated. “Even your own wife.”

My parents seldom quarreled, but there had been a silent war raging between them ever since the baby was born. LaVerne had joined the church where the white man preached, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to calculate where the blonde, blue-eyed infant had come from. Naturally, the baby embarrassed Pa, but when he finally spoke up, he pretended the issue at hand was sovereignty, not paternity. “The Territory should be independent and have control over our own schools, health center, and police force,” he declared. “Furthermore, the idea of letting strangers dictate our religious beliefs is as wrong as the notion that the Caribs were cannibals.”

When Randy insisted that all Indians were heathen savages, Roy laughed in his face. “Five hundred years have passed since Columbus tried to exterminate us, and still we survive.”

*

Ma was pacing back and forth on the porch when I reached home. “Did you find him?”

“Not exactly,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her what Chalo said or about the missing fishing boat. “Roy can take care of himself. It’s the rest of our family I’m worried about.”

The sky darkened while I liberated the goat, opened the door to the chicken coup, and cleared away any junk in the yard that could be potentially lethal. When I tried to overturn my father’s canoe to protect my bike, it was too heavy, so I left it alone. I made a mad dash for the house as soon as the stinging rain started, and coaxed Kairi, our half-blind hunting dog, with me.

“Okay,” I said, panting. “I think we’re ready.”

Maruka wasn’t so sure. “I want Daddy,” he whined.

“Daddy’s coming,” Ma said without conviction.

I tickled my brother to distract him. “Remember, little man,” I said while he squirmed, “I’m in charge until Pa gets here.” We pushed his toy truck back and forth between us until it got too dark to see. When I tried to switch on the lights, nothing happened—the power was already down. The flashlight died, and the radio was useless because no one had bought spare batteries.

“That’s supposed to be your father’s job,” Ma complained.

Wind whistled through the cracks and loose galvanized rattled on the roof as we sat nervously around the kitchen table. “It sounds like a jet plane passing through,” said Adeli.

When the front door burst open, I hoped it might be Pa, but it was an extra-strong gust. The candle I had lit blew out, so we huddled together by the light of my phone. Torrential rain hammered on the roof like mallets on a steel pan drum. “Heavenly father, deliver us,” Ma prayed. Then she laid down on her bed, put the precious baby to her breast, and pulled the covers over both their heads.

Hours passed, and the weather got worse. Kairi howled each time thunder exploded. When lightning struck the mango tree in the backyard, a limb crashed onto the house, and a broken rafter narrowly missed Maruka huddled on his cot. “I want Daddy!” he shrieked.

Adeli, who had moved to the floor behind the couch, coaxed him onto her lap and kissed his silky black hair. “Don’t be scared, sweetheart. We’ll be fine,” she said.

Just then, the roof began to peel off. Jagged strips of metal flew by like hatchets, windows shattered, and broken glass was all about. When everybody, including Kairi, piled onto Ma’s bed, the plastic bags containing her baskets floated around the room like buoys bobbing on the sea. “All that work for nothing!” she said, sobbing.

When murky water flooded the shack, the walls collapsed just like Pa said they would. The soggy mattress was about to go under when the dugout canoe glided inside and circled around us as if a ghost was steering it. “Thank you, Jesus!” Ma cried out, but in my Kalinago heart, I knew my father’s spirit had come to our rescue. I loaded the others first, and then I clambered onboard myself. There was no paddle, so we drifted with the current until we snagged on a pile of debris that had collected above the newly formed waterfall. Ma clung to the baby, I gripped Maruka’s hand like a vice, and Adeli started to sing. At the next clap of thunder, Kairi got a wild look in his usually dull eyes and panicked. He jumped overboard only to realize he couldn’t swim. When he struggled to claw his way back in, the canoe listed precariously. I didn’t dare let go of my brother to help, and Adeli kept on singing as the old dog sank beneath the swirling water.

The deluge continued through the night. I bailed non-stop with a small bucket I found under the seat, or we would have surely capsized. When the dam above the falls burst, the canoe broke loose and hurtled toward the edge of the cliff. “Help!” bawled Maruka. As if conjured up by magic, a substantial length of maho rope that looked a lot like a snake floated by. I silently thanked the spirit of the boa, made a grab for it, and tied the canoe to a tree rooted on the bank. The wind died down and constellations of bright stars shone in the pitch-black sky while the eye of the storm passed. Ma was nodding off when the backside of the hurricane hit like a wakeup call. In the confusion, she dropped the baby. “Is it okay?” I asked as she scooped up the screaming infant.

Her lips were trembling. “No, Maxi. The baby has never been okay.”

*

I took the rainbow that formed over the village the following morning as an omen. By noon, the water had begun to recede. We met our shack flat down when we waded, thirsty and hungry, into the yard. Council members had assembled in the debris-strewn wasteland, and Pa’s massive figure stood under the remains of the mango tree taking in the scene. He nodded at me, hugged Adeli, picked up Maruka, and wrapped an arm around Ma and the baby. The rest of the villagers formed a circle to hear what the chief had to say.

“We, the Kalinago, have always been a proud and resilient nation. Yet I’m sure some of you are wondering if traditional beliefs are enough to protect us according to how the world is turning. Climate change is real, my people. We didn’t cause it, but it has landed smack on our doorstep. The situation isn’t hopeless. If only we respect our past connection to the earth, we will be able to find a way to withstand the environmental challenges of the future.”

After the crowd thinned out, Pa took me aside. “Max, you showed great courage in my absence. Your spirit is like the rainbow at the end of the storm, and I’m proud of you my son.”

I walked on a cloud for a long time afterward. My father, the chief, had likened me to the rainbow, so I figured it was my totem. But with several persons confirmed dead or missing, dwelling houses gone, and crops destroyed, resilience was a tall order.

If the Caribbean region is a stepchild of the developed world, the Kalinago people are its orphans. Most of us have never been anywhere, but my father carries a diplomatic passport. After the storm, he traveled abroad to ask for assistance from other indigenous tribes. The search for aid landed him in Venezuela, the place where our people originally came from. Unfortunately, they were worse off than we were and unable to help. My family was still living under a leaky tarpaulin, when, a year later, Pa bowed down and asked the House of Assembly for reparation. “The Kalinago controlled this entire island before Europeans stole it from us. Then all you shoved us off into a corner that nobody else wanted. But you cannot ignore us any longer! We demand restitution!” He kept at them until, fed up with the harassment, parliament declared the Territory unfit for human habitation. That’s correct. Our remaining turf was taken away from us just like that. Government offered each man, woman, and child a choice of E.C. $10,000 or the option of relocation to apartment buildings in town. One year’s free rent was part of the so-called “revolutionary” deal.

Roy was livid. “Money cannot buy dignity! Once the Kalinago give up our roots, our culture will be lost forever! Beware of bribery disguised as generosity. Indigenous people like us have no choice but to turn to mischief when stories, rituals and language disappear.” With that pronouncement, he took his money, resigned as chief, and stayed on the land.

Of course I wanted to stay with him, but he wouldn’t allow it. “Your mother needs a man in her life, Max. Better you than some stranger.”

Since Kalinago women were not entitled to property the same way as men, Ma elected to be practical. She collected $10,000 for herself and each of her children, and moved us to town. Everybody hated it. The two-bedroom apartment unit was like a concrete oven. The air conditioning broke down constantly, and the windows were sealed shut. Outside, the river was polluted, the air thick with exhaust, and there was no place for a garden. Most frightening of all, drugs and crime of every possible description ran rampant on the streets.

It’s interesting how people behave in times of crisis; like Kairi, they grab hold to anything they can to keep from drowning. Adeli was the first to jump ship. She got herself a job in a fancy jewelry store, found a rich boyfriend, and forgot all about the rest of our family. Diagnosed with some kind of post-traumatic stress, Maruka never recuperated from the shock of the storm and did poorly in school. Ma called his teacher a racist and didn’t send him back. We ran out of money when the baby contracted a mosquito borne virus and needed doctoring. The child eventually died, and Ma was desolate. She stayed in bed all day and roamed the streets at night. Then, one morning, she didn’t come home.

They’ve repossessed most of the furniture and the appliances—no more couch, fridge, cooker, or TV. It’s just me and my comatose little brother wondering what to do with ourselves. When I found some opened tins of paint in the basement, I started covering the bare walls with murals that illustrated our lost culture. My first work of art depicted old-fashioned village life—pastimes like drumming, dancing, and basket weaving. After that, I showed how Christopher Columbus terrorized the Kalinago people and how we fought back. When I ran out of inside wall space, I took a chance and moved outdoors. My latest painting is on the cement wall that surrounds our apartment building. It portrays a young man astride a rushing river. One foot is rooted in tradition, and the other is sinking in a quagmire of modern development. Actually, the partner looks a lot like me.

This morning there was a warrant for the painting’s removal in our mailbox. It threatened a hefty fine or thirty days in jail if the person responsible for the desecration failed to comply, so I guess I’ll have to whitewash over it. But how can I do that without erasing everything my people have endured for the past five hundred years? I checked to make sure Maruka was asleep before I tiptoed out the door. When I reached the street, a gang of rude boys and girls was hanging out on the block.

“Hey! Redskin! Whatcha doin off the reservation?”

There comes a point when enough is enough. I took the bucket of white paint I was carrying and hurled it toward them. They scattered when I pulled out my knife.

“I am Max, first son of the last chief of the Kalinago,” I shouted. “I was kicked out of the Territory, and now I’m struggling to survive in this godforsaken concrete jungle. Does anybody have a problem with that?”

As it turned out, the other youths were as lost as I was. “No man, Max,” they said. “Welcome to the hood.”

We call our tribe the Rainbow Warriors. Imagine a set of tough black kids, a couple of Syrians, a skinny Chinese, a light-skinned chabine, and myself all fighting together for what we think is right. It feels good to take a proactive stand at a time when most folks are living in disarray and denial. Sure, I miss the village on the cliff above the sea. It was my home. I also miss my mother and my sister—even the baby. But most of all I miss my father. I haven’t got a clue how Roy is doing. Maybe I could steal a horse and go visit him. That would be in line with the stereotype of my Amerindian cultural heritage. Right? Maybe I could build a canoe, sail around the island, and land at the foot of the Boa’s Staircase. But what would be the point? Legend says that the snake king is sleeping until the world is at peace again, so I doubt if I can count on his help anytime soon.

Meanwhile, everything Pa warned us about has come to pass: disharmony among the people, escalating violence, and an onslaught of natural disasters. Well, I guess it could be worse. At least we’re not in the middle of a real war.

Or are we?


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