Read Kristine’s short stories Truth Be Told, Everything for a Time, Island Granny, and a sample of Island Time.
Truth Be Told
© Kristine Simelda, 2019
Snow is falling outside the lobby of Fond Memories retirement home. A brisk wind blows huge flakes up against the revolving glass doors where they pause as if pleading to get in before melting in disappointment. Believe me; they’re the lucky ones.
For them the end comes quickly. But once you’ve been taken prisoner by extended care, longevity feels more like a curse than a blessing. Abandoned by our families, robbed of our dignity, we old folks are condemned to a life of boredom, pills, and pain. It’s as if some evil warden has tacked an invisible message on the bulletin board:
ATTENTION SENIORS! THERE WILL BE NO MORE FUN HERE ON EARTH!
We’re expected to forget all about worldly pleasures of yore, like skating on moonlit ponds, or floating on the sea under the topical sun, or making love any way, any day. Well, I for one refuse to surrender and not remember! And since the name of this moldy institution is Fond Memories, what better way to pass the time than by recalling pleasantries from the past? I’d be willing to bet every one of us has a fascinating story to tell if only we had the courage to share it.
Humph. Entertaining ourselves by telling our stories might have been a good suggestion, but what I failed to realize was that most of us seniors revert to extreme fantasy in our old age. You’d be amazed at some of the tall tales that get passed off as the truth around here. So far this week we’ve run away to join the circus, been held captive by aliens from outer space, and beaten the odds at Vegas. And as if all that wasn’t outrageous enough, today it’s my turn to pander my stories from paradise.
Wrinkled faces atop feeble bodies gather around my hospital bed in search of deliverance from the tedium of assisted living at exactly ten o’clock. Rheumy eyes sparkle, chapped lips part, and sagging ears strain in anticipation of transportation to a warmer, more welcoming place despite our pathetic situation.
“Looks like it’s going to be a slow day for visitors on account of the snow,” says Julia, the nice old lady installed in the bed next to me. “How about spinning us one of your spicy yarns from paradise to get our blood flowing?”
I wink. “No problem. As we used to say on the island, ‘The Carnival’s not over until the last lap.’”
Actually, I did live on a Caribbean island during my pre-menopausal middle age. But these folks aren’t interested in the day to day particulars of what it was like to lose my cultural identity and surrender to unfamiliar whims of nature and fate. Except for a couple of disparaging old men, they want to hear a fairytale, a carefully embroidered lie that begins with ‘once upon a time’ and finishes with a happy ending. So who am I to disappoint?
“Once upon a time, there was a forty-five-year-old woman who outwardly enjoyed an ideal life. She was married to a handsome man, lived in a lovely home, had a good job, and two grown sons she could be proud of.”
Julia squeals. “I’ll bet that woman was you!”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I say craftily.
Julia cocks her head like an expectant dog waiting to catch a bone.
“The woman should have been happy, yet when she looked inside her heart, she felt something was missing. So she left her husband and her home and her family to search for a more meaningful existence.”
“She was a self-centered bitch!” Harry, a half-deaf gentleman leaning on a walker hollers.
I smile. “Let’s just say she traveled the world looking for a lifestyle that better suited her disposition.”
“Yeah. What was so wrong with that?” asks Julia.
“Ayen,” I say in Creole. “Nothing.”
When Julia giggles, her trust and her innocence spur me on. “When our heroine first laid eyes on the island, she thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. The emerald green mountains, crystal clear rivers, and thundering waterfalls spoke to her like nothing ever had before. The fragrance of the tropical flowers and the balmy sea breeze saturated her senses and captured her soul. Not to mention the handsome Creole people. They were so healthy and happy that she decided to make the island her home. So she gave away all her material possessions and moved south.”
“Why in the world would she do such a thing?” asks Ethel, an ancient snob bedecked with gold jewelry.
“She wanted to be free,” I say.
A sour puss in a wheelchair gives me the raspberries. I think his name is Walter.
“It’s true,” I insist.
What is the problem with these old folks, anyway? Have they forgotten the thrill of starting over, the excitement of embarking on a grand adventure? I decide to bypass the peanut gallery and speak directly to my roommate.
“Julia, can you imagine living in a house without glass or screens in the windows, without locks on the doors?”
“Ah,” she sighs, “fresh air.”
“The shutters of the woman’s seaside cottage were always open to the sun and the trade winds, and the bamboo curtain that served as a door parted for anyone who cared to enter.”
Ethel frowns. “Like who?”
“The parade of local characters that visited was both colorful and amusing, especially a good-looking young Rastafarian who was eager to entertain the fantasies of a middle-aged white woman determined to go native.”
“Her boyfriend was a black man?” Harry asks obtusely.
I nod. “Yeah, man. He was a genuine West Indian.”
A look of total bliss wraps itself around Julia’s desiccated face, but I notice Ethel has started to drift off. Best I pick up the pace before I lose the rest of my listeners.
“Our heroine and her paramour had just finished another extraordinary round of early morning lovemaking when they heard the conch shell blowing the signal that fresh fish were on sale in the village. She wrapped her tanned body in a printed sarong, he pulled on a pair of cutoff jeans over his bare bottom, and they strolled hand in hand down to the beach to inspect the catch. There were many tantalizing species on display. They selected a large grouper, which she grilled with slices of plantain and rings of pineapple for breakfast. Then they stripped off their clothes and fed each other chunks of ripe mango, and she prayed that the juice dripping onto their naked bodies would help them stick together.”
Julia giggles like a child tickled ruthlessly, but the Walter is not amused. Grumbling something about my being a damned liar, he rolls his wheelchair down the hall toward the washroom.
“She left her lover sleeping and went for a swim in the sea. Tropical fish surrounded her while she snorkeled amongst the vibrant corals. As she emerged from the sparkling blue water, frigate birds and pelicans swooped overhead. Wandering the streets of the village on her way home, she stopped to chat with anyone who had something interesting to show or tell. Reggae music pounded along with her heartbeat in the shop where she purchased a bottle of local rum.
Harry snorts. “Probably an alcoholic.”
“Back at the cottage, a heavenly aroma greeted her. Her Rasta boyfriend, who was an excellent cook, had reinvented the grouper in a Creole sauce for supper. He relieved her of the bottle and kissed her in the style of the French before putting the finishing touches on the dish. She was relaxing in the hammock on the veranda, awaiting the legendary green flash, when he appeared bearing two coconut shells awash with rum punch. As she sipped her drink, he lowered his body beside her. She opened like a flower when he loosened her sarong. It was hard to say which was more brilliant; the flash of the sun as it sank into the sea or his smile as he nuzzled her bare breasts.”
Now I believe I have everyone’s attention. Even Ethel is wide-awake.
“When he tipped her gently from the hammock, she was as moist as the sea breeze and he was as hard as the tiles. Food forgotten, they lay side by side moaning in pleasure while moonlight danced uninhibited over the waves.”
Clapping her hands like a toddler, Julia pulls the sheet over her head. Walter returns from the washroom, followed by Melody, a young black nurse, pushing a cart loaded with what passes for food around here. While I wait for my lunch, I gaze out at the winter wonderland and take a sip of chemical water from a bent plastic straw.
“We used straws to drink punch from a coconut shells on the island,” I muse, remembering.
Melody grins as she adjusts my pillow. “I’ll just bet you did.”
“Did I mention there were flying fish leaping in the sea and fresh fruit falling from the trees?” I say, pushing the soggy food around my plate with my fork.
Melody pats my bony, age-spotted hand before swishing on. “You sure do have a great imagination, ma’am.”
She’s right, you know. I always did have a vivid imagination. Still, I knew how to draw a line between true and false—that is, up until now. But since I’ve been hanging around the rest of these impostors, I’ve noticed that I, too, have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction, especially in the realm of yesteryear. Locked in this concrete box, breathing stale, recycled air, memories have a way of adjusting themselves to fit the mood of the moment, to the point that forgetting is sometimes a blessing.
Truth be told, I’m hard pressed to remember that Rasta man’s name.
Most folks nap, play cards, or watch TV after lunch, but the storm has intensified and we invalids are off balance. The lights blink, and then they go out altogether. When the generator kicks on, a friendly fire springs to life in the artificial fireplace, but apprehension hangs in the air. A nervous audience regroups around me. Even Harry and Walter seem anxious to hear more of my story from paradise.
“A few years later, the woman moved away from the seaside and bought an abandoned estate in the mountains that needed lots of work,” I continue. “Luckily, her next boyfriend was quite the handyman.”
“What happened to the Rasta man?” asks Harry.
“He got his Green Card and moved to the States.”
Julia has dreamy look in her eyes. “But did she really love the handyman?” she asks.
One glance at her tucked alertly in her bunk gives provides the answer. “Of course she did.”
She snuggles down deeper in bed, apparently pleased.
“Life in the country was sweet. Coconuts, avocados, and citrus abounded on the property, so there was no danger of starving to death. And when they were thirsty, they drank clear, cool water from the river.”
Walter sucks his teeth. “I’m surprised she didn’t die of dysentery,” he mumbles.
“The handyman had plenty of energy and was ready and willing to help her renovate the old wooden house and restore the land. She appreciated his enthusiasm, and was forever finding appropriate ways to compensate him—new tools, work boots, a pick-up truck—”
“How was the sex?” asks Harry.
But in reality keeping the handyman satisfied was almost as exhausting as trying to keep my stories straight while entertaining these pitiful seniors. Julia appears to be fast asleep, so I decide it’s time to disable the happy ending once and for all.
“But paradise had its price,” I say, sighing.
Ethel arches one of her painted on eyebrows. “What do you mean by that?”
“The woman wanted too much. She continued to invent projects when she should have been content with what she already had.”
Walter is delighted. “Naturally,” he says.
“The house and the garden were looking good, but all that water from the river was wasting, so why not build a swimming pool? The handyman only needed to mix about a hundred bags of cement by hand. And since there was so much unused pastureland, why couldn’t she have a horse? All he had to do was fence in five acres and build a stable. And while he was at it, why not add on a guest cottage now that eco-tourism was in style so she could have someone more like herself to talk to?”
Harry nods. “Same old story—insatiable woman takes advantage of hardworking man,”
There is grumbling from the other members of the posse while they consider his point. Walter deliberately passes gas and then pilots his wheelchair down the hall again. Ethel and her entourage, who have probably decided the story sounds too much like real life, follow him.
Only Harry, who is perched on the edge of his walker like a vulture waiting to pounce, remains. “Needless to say, the handyman soon became disillusioned,” I say confidentially. “No matter how hard he worked, the woman always demanded more. When he brought his friends home to enjoy the fruits of his labor, she made it clear it was her place, and she made the rules.”
“Let me guess. No smoking, no drinking, and no carousing,” says Harry.
“Correct! But the lovely lady who owned the neighborhood rum shop was more than delighted to welcome him and all his thirsty partners. Needless to say, our heroine was furious. Yet the more she ranted and raved, the longer the handyman stayed away. Eventually he moved in with the local lady, took over the rum shop, and sued the white woman for the loss of his time and his talent. Bankrupt and humiliated, she left the island and ended up locked in a dreadful institution that reeked of urine and bleach.”
Harry pounds his walking apparatus up and down in mock applause and clomps away.
“Have a nice day,” I holler after him.
When I check the clock, I’m surprised to find there are still three more hours until dinner. I spend some time rearranging the ugly synthetic nightgowns in the metal drawer beside my bed wishing I could trade them in on sexy sarongs. Lord knows I try to keep my spirits up despite my depressing surroundings. But I still resent the way my children whisked me away from the sun-drenched tropics (for my own good, they said) and installed me in this gloomy dungeon. That’s the younger generation for you. They think they control how the world turns with their money, gadgets, and technology, but they know nothing of the ways of the heart. One thing for sure, people on the island would never abandon a close relative to the care of total strangers. They had too much respect for their elders, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing they might become.
Well, the good news is that I forgive all of them—my children, my ex-husband, the Rasta man, the handyman, even Walter the cynic, Harry the heckler, and Ethel the snob. Why would I make waste time wallowing in resentment now that it is so short?
As I watch the counterfeit flames dance merrily around the fake logs in the fireplace, I begin to feel sleepy. I roll over to face the wall anticipating the blessing of a catnap. Whew. It’s a good thing Julia wasn’t awake when I related the unhappy ending to the heckler. It would probably kill her if she ever heard a routine liar like me tell the truth.
I toss and I turn, but sleep just won’t come. When I peek over to see if Julia is awake, I notice the blanket covering her body is completely still—no twitching, no snoring, not even rhythmic breathing. “Julia, are you alright?”
I press the button for the nurse, and after what seems like an eternity, Melody glides into the room. I point at Julia. “She isn’t breathing!”
When the nurse peels back the sheet, my roommates face is an unnatural shade of blue. Melody checks her pulse and shakes her head. I watch helplessly while she administers CPR. Someone calls for an ambulance, but it’s delayed because of the weather. By the time the paramedics arrive, it’s too late. A gang of voyeurs assembles by Julia’s bedside as they attend to her body. I am so dismayed that I lash out at the nearest living person.
“Take a good look, Harry! You caused this with your habitual cynicism! Let’s just hope that Julia had already passed away before you goaded me into actually telling you the truth!”
Harry bows his head and turns away.
“I’m so sorry, Julia,” I whisper after he’s gone. “I didn’t mean any harm. I just wanted everybody to feel like there was still a reason to be alive . . . and then I blew it.” Tears roll down my cheeks. “You were a good friend and a great listener. Even though I’m sure you suspected my stories were too far-fetched to be true, you never let on; you stayed right with me all the way to the end.”
When a male nurse rolls the gurney bearing my roommate’s body through an exit reserved especially for such purposes, I call out so everyone can hear. “But maybe the story doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. Maybe a happy ending can consist of a simple pleasure like a soft pillow or a kind word, even if things didn’t turn out as expected.”
Julia’s body disappears from view when the metal doors, propelled by an icy wind, slam shut. The snow that has blown inside the room swirls around the foot of my bed as if bidding me farewell, and then it rises as luminous vapor in the suddenly balmy air.
Everything For A Time
© Kristine Simelda, 2015
“What happened to the beach?” Laura asked a local fisherman. She and her boyfriend Chad were on holiday from their jobs overseas; the fisherman was pulling in an empty net.
The fisherman shrugged. “Things tight,” he said.
“My family owns a condo nearby. We always swam in this cove when I was small,” said Laura. “The beach was so beautiful back then; it seemed the sand and palm trees went on forever.”
“Yeah. I remember,” he said. “But they taking sand day and night to build back the beaches at the fancy hotels.”
“The sea was such an awesome color back then—clear and aquamarine,” she rambled on as if she hadn’t heard him. “We used to snorkel here. The fish and the coral were fantastic. My dad said it was one of the best reefs in the Caribbean. Now the place looks filthy and disgusting.”
“Everything for a time,” the fisherman said vaguely.
Laura took a deep breath and continued talking. “I wanted my friend Chad to taste a jelly nut. But the trees where the boys used to pick them are halfway underwater and the coconuts are shriveled and rotten. There’s dead fish scattered all around the trunks.”
The fisherman sighed. “The sea just keeps coming in closer and closer.”
“Okay,” Chad piped up. “So there’s no beach. What about cooling out in the river?” Although he was wearing a straw hat, sweat was dripping off the tip of his sunburned nose. Dark, wet circles stained the armpits of his pink polo shirt.
Laura pulled a sour face. “It looks as if the river is all dried up. There used to be a waterfall.”
The fisherman nodded. “Since the drought.”
“I don’t get it,” said Chad. “If the river is low, then why is the sea level extra high?”
“So all you think it’s our little island alone that affects the sea?” the fisherman chuckled. “No, man. The Almighty have a bigger plan than that.”
“Like what?” asked Chad.
Laura didn’t want Chad to get started on religion. When he talked about God, it was as if he was the only person on earth who was enlightened and everybody else was still in the dark. “What’s your name?” she asked the fisherman to change the subject.
“Jefferson,” he said.
“So tell me, Jefferson, why don’t you catch any fish?”
The fisherman draped his net, which was shaggy with algae, across the hull of his overturned boat and indicated the dozens of juvenile fish that were decaying by the shoreline. “The sea too warm. The young ones die, and the old ones move way off,” he said.
Laura waved a plastic bag she had brought along in his face. As she did, the hot, dry wind whipped it from her hand and sent it flying down the beach. “You mean we can’t even get some fish? When I was a kid there were always jacks and tuna and snapper. One time we even ate some turtle meat.”
The fisherman sucked his teeth. “I told you, nothing can make it in this soup.”
Laura stuck a well-pedicured toe into the murky water as if to test it. “You’re right. It’s totally revolting.”
“So what’s all that brown stuff floating around and clogging up everything?” Chad wanted to know.
Jefferson opened his mouth and then shut it. It appeared he was tired of answering questions.
“It looks like Sargasso,” Laura volunteered.
“That sounds like some kind of Italian pasta,” Chad joked.
“Well if it is, I’m not eating it,” she said.
“Too bad,” said Chad. “I’m starving.”
Laura smiled. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll just stop and get some KFC on our way back to the condo.”
Chad guzzled the last drops of imported water from a plastic bottle he had carried with him. “I’ll drink to that!” he said, tossing the empty container into the stagnant lagoon.
Of course Jefferson didn’t have the option of dining on fast food. No fish, no money, no supper. When he got home, his wife, Bernice, was dressed in her maid’s uniform waiting to walk up the road to work. She had a part-time job tidying up after rich folks who flocked to the island despite the drought. She said most of them didn’t seem to mind the heat and the dust. Neither were they bothered by the lack of fresh water or fresh fish or fresh fruits and vegetables. They just turned up the AC, cracked open a soda or a beer, and chomped down on whatever version of junk food they happened to pass while they were out touring the island.
“Has the baby been fed?” Jefferson asked Bernice as she was leaving.
“What you think? We have a cow in the backyard? I’ll stop at the shop and get a tin of milk on my way home.”
“But what if she starts to fuss?”
“Give her some biscuits. Soak them in water first, and don’t forget to clean up afterwards.”
Jefferson turned the radio on real low. It was time for the lunchtime news, and the Minister for the Environment was talking gloom and doom as usual.
“In the past ten years, we have experienced three major droughts on the island,” she said. “But the current dry spell is by far the most prolonged. The temperature of the sea is at an all-time high, and now that we’re in the hurricane season, we have to be on the alert. If and when it starts to rain, persons dwelling on low-lying areas should be on the lookout for storm surges, coastal flooding, and rising sea levels.”
“Right,” Jefferson groaned.
“Additionally, the public should be aware that several small earthquakes have been reported in the last seventy-two hours. Persons are advised not to drink water directly from wells due to possible salt water intrusion.”
Jefferson rolled his eyes. “Best we get used to it.”
“In the future,” the minister continued, “one hundred percent of portable water will have to be the product of desalination. The agricultural sector, which is already severely impaired, will naturally suffer the most, and fisherfolk should consider seeking other forms of livelihood.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” Jefferson said, flipping off the set.
The baby started crying as soon as he did. Her diaper was wet, so he changed her into a brand new Pamper. He threw the old one into the ditch drain that ran along the side of the shack. If and when it rained, as the minister put it, the diaper, like countless other pieces of discarded plastic, would eventually be washed into the sea.
By the time Bernice reached the complex of condos, she was sweating and covered with grime from the road. The paper slip in her box instructed her to clean #307 and #308. “What they think, I some kind of robot?” she said. Bernice took a handkerchief from her uniform pocket and wiped her forehead. She sat down on the step to catch her breath, and then gathered her supplies and shuffled down the hall to the elevator.
When she knocked at 307 and hollered “Housekeeping!” there was no response. Bernice unlocked the door. The occupants were passed out on the couch, stark naked and surrounded by empty bottles of rum. “I’ll just come back later,” she apologized as she tiptoed back out into the hall.
At 308, Bernice was more cautious. She had already knocked several times before Chad, fresh from an extra-long shower, answered the door with a towel wrapped around his waist. “Hi there. Come on in,” he said.
“I don’t want to disturb,” said Bernice.
“That’s okay. We were just getting ready to go out. Laura! It’s the housekeeping woman.”
Laura, still in her robe, appeared from the bathroom looking like a freshly boiled lobster. Her face was red and swollen and her legs were dotted with insect bites. “I can’t go like this! How did I get so burned and bit up?” she whined. “I mean, I was slathered with a super high powered sunblock, and had bug repellent on the whole time.”
“The mosquitoes and the sun plenty wicked these days,” said Bernice.
Laura stuck out her lower lip. “I used to get such a beautiful tan. Now I look like just another rookie tourist,” she pouted.
“Just put on some makeup and a long dress,” said Chad, “and the problem will be solved.” He tried to give her a hug, but Laura backed away.
“Ouch! That hurts!” she cried. “Why don’t you just go ahead without me?”
“No way,” he said. “Hurry up and get dressed, and I’ll do the same.”
Laura stood around moping after Chad left the room. Bernice reached into the pocket her uniform and withdrew a plastic bag. “Here. Try using some of this Aloe Vera. It’s good for burns and itching. I grow it at home in pots on the veranda, and always keep a few blades handy in case of emergency. Just split the leaves in half and rub the gel on the hot spots.”
Laura raised an eyebrow and regarded her suspiciously. “And what’s the cost for this miraculous local remedy?”
Bernice smiled. “No charge for you, Miss Laura. It’s on the house.”
Laura disappeared back into the bathroom. When she reemerged a half-hour later, she felt much more comfortable.
“Thanks,” she said to Bernice. “That Aloe is amazing.”
Chad followed her, smelling mightily of men’s cologne “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Better. How do I look?”
“Good enough to eat,” Chad grinned.
“I swear,” she giggled. “Everything is about food for you.”
“Yep,” he said.
Laura spent the next several minutes posing and adjusting her elaborate flower trimmed hat in front of the mirror in the foyer. “We’ve been invited by the governor to a cocktail party at the State House,” she explained to Bernice. “It’s to be held outdoors in the rose garden. I just hope it doesn’t rain and spoil everything.”
Bernice swallowed thickly. The entire island had been praying for rain since the beginning of the year, and now it was July. “No telling what could happen, Miss. It’s the hurricane season, you know.”
“Come on, Laura. Stop primping. We’ll be late,” Chad interrupted.
Laura turned to Bernice and said, “Help yourself to what’s left of the takeout. We have reservations at the club for dinner after we finish with the governor’s hors d’oeuvres.”
Chad grabbed a drumstick from the red and white striped cardboard bucket on the table on their way out. “See you later, Bernice.”
The condo was a mess. It was well past five o’clock by the time Bernice finished cleaning. She was locking the door when she spied the half-empty bucket of KFC on the dining room table. “Best I take it home for Jefferson and the baby,” she said wearily. As she waited for the elevator, she felt the building shudder and shift. But then again, Bernice had been lightheaded all day; she hadn’t had anything to eat since morning. Outside, a strange sense of foreboding hung in the overheated air. The sea was dancing a crazy jig, and the sky was an odd shade of green. Dust stung her eyes as she headed back down the road.
When she reached the shop, the place was in an uproar. “Bernice! You not hearing? There had another earthquake! Tsunami on the way!”
Bernice left the bucket of KFC on the counter and hurried home. Jefferson was standing in the yard, holding the baby and gazing out to sea. “Something not right,” was all he said.
On the drive around to the other side of the island, Laura noticed that the surface of the sea was covered with a net of miniature waves like something was boiling down below. An occasional fish, covered in Sargasso, leapt into the air as if trying to escape from a hot frying pan. A couple of large seabirds wheeled in the air, watching with interest as the poor creatures floundered and died. Laura was attempting to focus her attention elsewhere when a jet ski bearing two scantily clad tourists zoomed into the bay. The machine screamed like a banshee and belched toxic exhaust as it plowed through the choppy, gray water. A sole lethargic dolphin dove out of its way in the nick of time.
Laura shook her head. “I think this will be my last trip down to the island.”
“Why ?” Chad asked distractedly.
They were passing by a dump that was stinking to high heaven and swarming with flies so the answer should have been obvious. “Things aren’t how they used to be,” she said. “The beach and the river is messed up, the sea looks ugly, and it’s too damn hot.”
“Yeah,” said Chad. “Just like back home.”
Their rental jeep was the smallest car in the State House parking lot. The rest of the vehicles were gas-guzzling SUV’s, mostly black with tinted windows and official license plates. After cruising around the perimeter, they were able to squeeze the undersized vehicle into a wedge-shaped space left between two badly parked monstrosities. Laura adjusted her hat and smoothed her dress as she and Chad stepped up to the gate to the courtyard.
The doorman asked to see their invitation, and then ushered them inside. Copious rum was flowing and the pitch of the conversation was deafening despite the early hour. Chad guided Laura through the crowd to a table near the corner. A waiter brought them each a “Welcome to Paradise” rum punch and a plate of fancy canapés while they waited for the governor to acknowledge them.
“Which one is he?” Chad whispered.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him in years. I think he’s the one puffing on that humongous cigar.”
Just then, the table where they were seated started to shake violently. Rum sloshed over the rims of their glasses and soaked through the cloth. Chad waved at their server and pointed to their soggy hors d’oeuvres. When he finally arrived to replace them, Laura asked if earth tremors happened often.
“Of course,” the waiter replied brightly. “No cause for concern.”
But when she stole a glance at the governor, the extreme look of alarm on his face told her otherwise. One of his aids continued to whisper urgently in his ear as he extinguished his cigar in a potted palm and headed upstairs. “Carry on without me,” he announced to his guests as the building continued to rock and roll.
In a flash, the courtyard erupted into chaos. Women crammed canapés into their handbags, and men grabbed bottles of rum from behind the bar. Chad, who at one time had been in the Air Force, recognized the whir of chopper blades revving on the rooftop and leapt to his feet.
“That sounds like a helicopter getting ready for takeoff,” he shouted over the racket. “What the hell is going on?”
“Tsunami!” hollered one of the staff.
Laura’s hat was blown into the swimming pool in the confusion. She was trying to retrieve it when Chad grabbed her roughly by the arm. “We’ve got to get off this island! Right now!”
“But how?” she bawled.
Chad looked up to the roof as if it held the answer. He and Laura galloped up the stairs two at a time. But when they tried to climb aboard the chopper, the governor pushed them back. “Diplomats only,” he said, slamming the door in their faces.
Laura started to cry. She could hear the giant wave coming in the distance. It sounded like a freight train that was plowing a tunnel through the sea as it roared toward shore. “Oh, my God!” she wailed.
“Maybe we can outrun it!” Chad panted. “Get to the car!”
“But there’s nowhere to go!” cried Laura. “There’s no place higher than a mole hill on this whole island!”
Chad grimaced. “We’ve got to try something.”
The rental jeep was racing toward the condo when they passed Jefferson and Bernice standing by the roadside. The baby, who had sensed the gravity of the situation, was screaming her head off. The local couple waved frantically as the vehicle whizzed by in a cloud of dust.
“Aren’t you going to stop?” said Laura. She couldn’t believe Chad was so hardhearted as to leave them stranded.
“It’s every man for themselves!” Chad ranted.
Laura was stunned by his callousness. “But what about the women and children?”
Chad stared straight ahead. When they careened into the condo’s parking lot, he left the keys dangling in the ignition and bolted toward the elevator. “Our only chance is to get to the top of the building.”
“You go on. I’m going back for them,” Laura said. Chad looked at her as if she’d lost her mind as she slammed the vehicle into reverse.
Jefferson and Bernice and the baby were waiting just where they’d passed them. “Hop in!” she instructed. The tsunami, bearing its load of trashed vehicles, capsized boats, parts of destroyed buildings, and, yes, even the governor’s helicopter, was right behind them. So instead of turning back, Laura headed toward an 18th Century fort that she had explored when she was a kid. It was situated on a rise that overlooked the entire island. “We might be safe here,” she said without conviction as they skidded to a halt.
The group rushed up the old stone staircase and positioned themselves at the lookout on top of the stronghold. They were just in time to witness the condo building across the way being demolished by the huge wave. “Chad,” Laura exhaled.
“Here it comes!” yelled Jefferson. “Grab onto something heavy and hold on!”
He laid the baby lengthwise along a cannon barrel and pushed his wife down to cover her. Then he wrapped his arms and legs around both of them with the determination of someone trying to climb a coconut tree during a hurricane. The baby shrieked and Bernice began to pray, but Jefferson lifted his head and kept his eyes wide open. The initial surge pummeled his back with stinging salt water and loose stones. Debris rained down on his head with hard, unrelenting blows. At one point, he and his family were completely underwater. There was a moment of reprieve when he was able to catch his breath, but the backwash, when it came, was even worse. It was as if the undertow wanted to turn him inside out— rip his limbs clean from their sockets. Yet through it all Jefferson held tight to the two most important people in his life.
After it was over, he peeled his wife and daughter off the lifesaving cannon and fell on his knees. He was so busy hugging them and thanking God for their salvation that he forgot about Laura. When he finally got around to looking for her, she was nowhere to be found. The fisherman hung his head and remembered something he had said earlier that morning. “So all you think it’s our little island alone that affects the sea?” No, man. The Almighty have a bigger plan than that.”
Yesterday was a very hot day in Dominica, so my good dog Zion and I went for a sea bath. At first we thought we were the only ones on the beach. But as we reached our usual resting spot under the trees, Zion started barking at a big pile of coconut branches. When the branches started to move, we realized we were not alone. Yikes! What in the world could it be: a giant Iguana, a huge Boa? It turned out to be an enormous sea turtle that had crawled onto the beach to lay her eggs the night before. She was about five feet in length and must have weighed over 300 pounds! Some wicked person who wanted to steal her eggs and butcher her for her meat had turned her on her back, tied her flippers with a heavy rope, and covered her with trash.
Island Granny to the rescue! Zion stood guard while I untied the rope. I tried to flip her right side up, but she was way too heavy for me. So I called the local police for assistance. While I was waiting for them, I found an old plastic bottle and poured seawater over the poor turtle. She got very excited when she tasted the sea, and the dog started barking. The commotion alerted a boatload of fishermen who suspected we had discovered their hidden treasure, which was worth a lot of money when sold by the pound. If it hadn’t been for Zion, I think I might have been in big trouble. The police arrived and were amazed by the size of the turtle. I tied the dog to a tree and convinced them to drag her to the seaside where we flipped her over and off she went! The police took the rope as evidence; there is a big fine for disturbing nesting sea turtles in Dominica. We have four species who visit us on the island: Leatherback, Hawksbill, Green, and this turtle, the Loggerhead, which with luck has a life span of 47-67 years. Its scientific name is Caretta Caretta, and I’m glad this one got a second chance.
Blessings from Island Granny
The antiquated aircraft had been up and down at least a half a dozen times since it had rumbled into the hot, blue sky. So far none of the islands had even slightly resembled Isaiah’s childhood home. This was definitely not the tropical paradise he remembered as a kid. What had happened to the puffy white clouds? A metallic gray haze floated under the shadow of the wing. Where were the towering green mountains? A monotonous parade of shrunken atolls dotted with a few scraggly coconut palms loomed below. When had the sparkling blue water turned brown? Ash from the frequent volcanic eruptions combined with global warming had submerged the coral reefs and white sand beaches into an unappetizing soup of primordial muck.
Isaiah stared out the window at the bland scenery in disbelief. It was as if the vibrant landscape of his youth had virtually disappeared. Now he understood why island hopping, once a favorite past time of the nearly-rich and semi-famous, was no longer in fashion.
“Leewards to Windwards, Windwards to Leewards” the steward complained in a singsong voice. “Boring, boring, boring.”
Isaiah was inclined to agree. Lulled into a kind of geographic trance, he had been dozing for most of the flight. He was dreaming of his mother, when he was jolted awake by a sharp explosion. The turbo-prop stalled in mid-air and then made a violent u-turn. Though his seat belt was buckled, his body was whipped around like a puppet cut loose from its strings. His head smashed into the window with a mind- numbing crack, and the so-called present moment paused at a set of foggy crossroads. A Mystic directing traffic at the junction offered him four choices: to go back, to go forward, or travel left or right in time… read more
The Century Palm
© Kristine Simelda
Heavy footsteps ring out behind me while I sprint down the narrow alleyway. The cops are hot on my tail. Blap, blap, blap. Their boots pound the broken pavement.
“Stop or we’ll shoot!” they holler like a line straight out of a movie.
I pick up my pace, arms pumping and feet flying. The pockets of my cargo jeans are stuffed with wads of lightweight cash instead of the bulky mangoes I pilfered in my youth, so I still might have a chance to get away. Yeah, man. If I can pull this off, everything is bound to improve. I can settle my debts, pay Ma’s doctor bills, liberate my sister from the gangsta who’s holding her captive, and maybe even wrangle a set of wheels. But first I have to ditch the law.
A borrowed ski mask scratches at my eyes as I race past closed shops and rundown shanties. Broken glass crunches under my shoes, and ghetto dust that smells like stale pee fills my nose. A familiar voice echoes in my ears when I swing around a tight corner. ‘Where you think you going, Lucien?’
I lose concentration and step down on a nail sticking out from a rotten board. Blood gushes from the sole of my sneaker while I stagger into a dimly-lit doorway and try to pry it loose. The wood comes off in my hand, but the nail stays put. I stare at the pool of red liquid collecting under my foot and start to feel giddy. But I can’t rest here for long. The sound of angry voices launches me back onto the road. I tear off the sweat-soaked mask and see a telltale trail of blood soaking into the dust as I limp toward the gate that separates the innocence of my childhood from the chaos of this messed up, modern world.
For a moment I think to surrender. But the gate to the abandoned botanic gardens is right in front of me now. Breathless, scared shitless, I lunge toward it like a caged animal trying to escape. Gunshots explode all around me. Sparks ricochet off of the chain link like fireworks as I vault up and over. My bulging pocket catches on a stray piece of wire on the way down, and most of the money spills out while I struggle to get free. Fuck! I leave my pants hanging on the gate like forgotten laundry and hop across the lawn in my boxers. But the police have circled around and are waiting at the other end, so I pull up short.
Lights flash and harsh words blare from bullhorns while I crouch in the weeds under one of the few remaining trees in the place. Panting, I lean back against the trunk and gaze up through the huge umbrella-like foliage to try to come up with a plan. That’s when it dawns on me: I’m sheltering under the Century palm. According to family lore, it’s the same tree that my great-great-grandfather brought with him from England as a seedling and planted in our botanic gardens. Granny Lucy, who was my mentor and my round-a-bout namesake, used to bring me here during school holidays and tell me stories about days gone by. But now’s not the time to linger on memory lane. Things are extra crucial. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to stay quiet while seeds about the size of ping-pong balls begin to rain down on my head. The cops pass me straight and head for the massive stand of bamboo where lovers meet and criminals like to hide.
I’m thinking to make a break for it when I hear Granny’s voice again. ‘Can you believe it, Lucien? It’s been exactly one hundred years!’ The present moment slips away, and my mind rewinds to a simpler, happier time.
“Lucien, this tree is one of the most amazing plants in nature,” Granny Lucy used to say when we picnicked under the Century palm. “That’s why my grandfather, Sir Henry, brought it along with him on the boat when he was appointed chief horticulturalist on this island. Near the end of its life, it sends up a flag pole from the center of its crown that turns into a Christmas tree when it blossoms!”
I was just a little kid. “No way!” I giggled. “With baubles and lights and all?”
“Would I lie to you, boy?” She smiled and gave me a hug. “But it spends so much energy sending up that big shoot—making all those flowers and setting all that fruit—that it forgets about taking care of number one. Eight months later, it withers and dies.”
I didn’t like to hear about death since my father had been killed in a car crash, but Granny Lucy continued talking as if dying was the natural thing to do. “Of course, I’ll never live to see it bloom. It only happens once in a hundred years. That’s why it’s called the Century palm.”
“We’ll see it together, Gran,” I said hopefully.
“No, Lucien. By that time I’ll be gone. But if you keep your eyes open, you’re sure to witness it for yourself.”
Things were different after Granny passed on. My life wasn’t fun like before. I begged Ma to take me to visit the Century palm, but she never did. Then all of a sudden the weather on the island began to change. It was broiling hot and hardly ever rained. Rivers dried up, and water, which had always been so plentiful, had to be rationed. People used buckets and old metal drums to try to collect dew off their roofs, but there was barely enough water for the mosquito larva to swim in. After the island’s crops failed, folks weren’t much interested in anything beyond day-to-day survival. Horticulture was considered a lost art, and Sir Henry’s prized botanic gardens were permanently closed.
When Ma got sick with a virus, she lost her job. Things were tight at home, so I joined a teenage gang to free myself up. Granny would be vexed to know that smoking weed and playing rude music with my partners was suddenly more interesting than family life. But as far as I could reckon, there was only one way to get the cash I needed for Ma’s medicine and to score the drugs I was hooked on. I started out stealing from friends and neighbors, and then I moved up to robbing gas stations, small businesses, and finally ATMs. I’d been running from a cash machine tonight, but I shoulda known that on a small island like this there was really no place to hide.
So here I sit under the same tree where Granny used to bring me when I was small, caught like a rat in a trap, stuck like a fly on a sticky strip of yellow paper. I go to reach into my pants pocket for a little something to ease my mind, and I’m surprised to find I’m not wearing any—pants, that is. I left them attached to the gate. Didn’t I?
The wind moans, and the dead leaves of the Century palm rattle against its trunk like shak-shaks in an old-fashioned band. Shak, shaka, jing ping, shak. Time stands still for a moment and then fast-forwards. When I look up, I see a sprout that looks like a fountain shooting from the palm’s crown just like Granny told me it would. It’s covered with thousands of white blossoms that shine like magic against the dark sky. Ghostly shapes that are either bats or jumbies slam into the ripe fruit while the moon passes through all of its phases eight separate times. I feel the ground shift. Then a long drawn-out cracking sound echoes in the night air. Right on schedule, the Century palm collapses. It flattens everything in its path including me, worthless, thiefing Lucien.
I expected to get some sympathy from Granny Lucy, but she seems amused instead. “Eh, eh! Took you by surprise, not true?” She chuckles. “Don’t worry, Lucien. You’re too young to die.”
As usual, Granny’s right. I might be mashed up, but I’m still breathing. Maybe there’s still hope for a rude boy like me. Maybe it’s not too late to change.
Granny and I used to play a numbers game. To be born, she said, everyone had to have had two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on. Besides Granny Lucy, Sir Henry and his wife, Priscilla, their daughter Jasmine and her husband, Geoffrey, and my father, Archie, were all milling around in my head while I was knocked out on the lawn! I hoped they might have some helpful advice to offer me, but most of the talk was negative. As far as I can remember, the conversation went something like this…
“Lucien. I’m really disappointed in you,” Sir Henry scowled, shaking his finger at me like I was still a child. “I thought a chap with your breeding would have had better sense than to get yourself into this kind of mess.”
I swallowed hard. “Believe me, sir; I didn’t plan it this way,” I said. “Why’d you plant that big ole stupid tree if you knew it was going to self-destruct?”
He frowned and straightened his vest. “The Century palm is not on trial here. You are. I planted the tree because I was brought up to believe it was important to leave something worthwhile behind for future generations. That’s why I married Priscilla. She was a respectable woman who I expected would raise up proper God-fearing children. But in your case, genetics must have gone astray.”
I cut my eyes at Priscilla, who looked kinda fuzzy, and blinked. “Are you okay?”
“Lord help us to rise above our suffering,” she mumbled.
“Speak up!” Henry boomed. “How many times have I told you to enunciate clearly?”
She didn’t answer, only seemed to shrink further into her shell.
Sir Henry turned his attention back to me. “For your information, Lucien, details are very important. I took such extraordinary care in creating the botanic gardens because I wanted to leave a proper legacy. What, I wonder, will be your contribution?”
I shrugged. I had to admit I’d never given it much thought. “Maybe I’ll have some cute little kids someday,” I said.
“To what avail?” he roared. “So you can teach them how to thief like you do?”
His daughter Jasmine interrupted. She died the year I was born, but I knew her from a picture Granny Lucy showed me when I was small. “Why are you always so judgmental, Papa?” she asked.
“Because I’ve been knighted, damn it!” Henry shouted.
But Jasmine didn’t back down like her mother. “Well, things are a lot different nowadays. I hope you haven’t forgotten how hard Geoff and I campaigned for social reform so people could have choices about how they lived their lives.”
Sir Henry peered over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses and glared at her. “You always were a rabble-rouser, working on that radical newsletter and delivering it to foolish women like yourself by bicycle. And when you married that colored man, a Catholic nonetheless, things went from bad to worse.”
I knew that Henry was a devout Christian with very strict beliefs, but the fact that he was prejudiced, intolerant of liberated women, black folks, and Catholics was news to me.
“I loved Geoff,” Jasmine proclaimed nobly. “Together, we fought for equal rights and justice.”
Geoffrey, a handsome devil, smiled. “And I loved Jazzy too.”
“Ha!” Henry ranted. “You left her alone with those horrible half-breed children in order to pursue your own trumped-up political career! And when they finally threw you out of parliament, my daughter welcomed you home with open arms. Had you no pride, man?”
Hmmm. Interesting. According to Granny, Geoffrey had been a good father, and Jasmine had been a shining example of maternal love.
“Get a grip, Grandpa,” Lucy hissed. “This is about Lucien, not some stupid grudge you have against my daddy.”
But rather than being insulted, Geoffrey seemed delighted. He winked at Henry, and then swatted Jasmine’s backside. “Let’s go, sweetheart.” he said.
Henry, fuming, followed them out just as my father, Archie, butted in. “Luce? Aha! There you are. I’ve been looking for you.”
I wondered when he was going to show up. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Archie. He was generous and funny when he was sober. But when he was drunk, it was a whole other story.
Granny prickled even more. “Who invited you?” Come to think of it, Sir Henry wasn’t the only one in the family who was prejudiced. She never could abide the fact that Archie, a pure-blooded Kalinago Indian, had stolen my mother away to live on the reservation, and then cheated on her. As far as she was concerned, Ma had wasted her energy trying to turn the redskin into a decent man.
Accustomed to Gran’s hostility, my father carried on as usual. “I thought this was supposed to be a party,” he slurred, making me wonder if they had cask rum here in La-La Land. “By the way, son, how’s your mother? How’s Rosie?”
“Ma’s been sick for some time,” I said.
At the mention of my mother’s illness, Granny really went off. “That’s why Lucien took to stealing,” she said crossly. “If you hadn’t been such a vagabond, there might have been something left over for Rose and the children when you died.”
It was past time for this conversation to get real. “Actually, helping Ma wasn’t the only reason for my thiefing. I was greedy and hooked on drugs,” I confessed.
My father didn’t seem to hear me. He was already on the move, probably headed to the next rum shop. But the way he looked at me before he faded into the background, I could tell he was disappointed. “Wait!” I pleaded. “I can change! I’ll make you proud someday!” But Archie just kept on walking.
I turned to face Granny, who seemed to be the only one willing to listen. “Gran, I’m sorry I let you down. I love you, and I never meant to cause you any pain. I promise I’ll try to do better from now on.”
She squeezed my hand. Granny liked to talk tough, but she was like a hard nut with a soft, sweet center when it came to dealing with me. “Apology accepted, Lucien. Everyone deserves a second chance. Let’s just hope you’re smart enough to take advantage of it,” she said. “Now snap out of it, boy!”
I wake up in a clean but unfamiliar bed as if Granny has waved a magic wand. My girlfriend Patsy is bent over me with a worried look on her face. “Boy, Lucien. That was some fever you had going on. We thought we were gonna lose you for a time.”
“Fever? What fever? Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital. The doctors said you got that disease that’s spread by mosquitoes like your Mom did. It caused you to hallucinate bad, man.”
“What did I say?”
“You kept on raving about losing your pants.”
When I check under the sheets, I see that my foot is bandaged, and I’m wearing the same boxer shorts as in the gardens. “Patsy, do you have any idea what happened to my foot or my jeans?”
“I don’t know about your foot, but you were wearing those same boxers when you were admitted.”
“And what about the money?”
“What money?” she asks suspiciously.
I decide it’s best to change the subject. “Never mind. How’s Ma?”
“Your mom’s doing better,” Patsy says. “She’s been to visit you every day.”
“How long have I been in here?”
“Over a week. But the doctors said as soon as the fever broke, you could go home. So many people are ill with the virus; I guess they need the bed.”
“Home to where?”
“Don’t you remember? We rented a little house right before you got sick. It needs a lot of work—a couple of gallons of bleach to get rid of the smell and a new coat of paint—but the place is ours for the time.”
“Actually, I don’t remember much from before. How are we going to pay for it?”
“I got a job!”
“When the nurses saw what good care I took of you, they recommended me as an aide. I start next week.”
I can’t get over my luck. Somehow I’ve escaped from the cops, Ma is better, and I have a nice girl with a job plus a place to go home to. But then I remember the money. “Yeah, but what am I supposed to do to earn bread?”
Patsy already has me sitting up in a wheelchair and is buttoning my shirt. “Don’t worry, honey, something will turn up.” She gives me a hug and a long, sweet kiss. “For now we just have to concentrate on getting you well.”
I grin. “I’m feeling better already.”
The bus ride through the ghetto to our shack is pretty depressing. Peeling paint, derelict galvanized, and the smell of garbage are chronic; partners dealing drugs and ladies of the night selling their bodies in broad daylight are draped on every corner. Old friends call out to me as we pass, but I turn my head away and hold onto my girlfriend’s hand like a drowning man holds onto a life ring. A wave of déjà vu ripples through my gut when the bus turns into the alley that dead-ends at the botanic gardens.
Wait a minute. Was the scene with the cops chasing me real, or was it a hallucination caused by the fever? What about the nail in my foot, not to mention the collapse of the Century palm and the time I spent in La-La Land with Granny Lucy and my troublesome ancestors?
I’m still wondering when I hobble inside the ramshackle house.
“Make yourself at home,” Patsy says. “I’ll warm up the food.”
I’m surprised to find a plastic leather recliner parked in front of a brand new TV set in the living room. I peep into the bedroom. “How’d you get the money for all this?”
“I took credit at Blings,” Patsy calls from the kitchen. “Once I start work, we can get a mirror and dresser to match the bed.”
I sigh and pick up her cell phone. I guess I left mine in my pants, wherever they might be. I dial Ma. She sounds okay at first, but when I start to tell her about my run in with Granny and Archie, she doesn’t believe me. “But it was so real. Archie even asked about you.” She sucks her teeth and cuts the call short.
While we eat, I quiz Patsy to see if she knows anything about a robbery that happened a while back. She thinks I’m talking about the news report that’s blaring from the TV. “Which robbery? There’s dozens of them every day.”
“I might have robbed an ATM,” I whisper. “I kind of remember the cops chasing me. I stepped on a nail, lost my jeans with the stolen money in the pockets, and then the Century palm collapsed on top of me.”
“The what collapsed?”
“The Century palm. The tree Sir Henry brought with him from England as a seedling.”
“Who’s Sir Henry?”
“Granny Lucy’s grandfather.”
I realize I’ve never bothered to discuss my family history with Patsy. “Granny Lucy was the most important person in my life, besides Ma, and now you, of course.”
“You keep talking about money,” she says. “What money?”
I sigh. “I guess that part might be wishful thinking.”
Patsy smiles and shows her dimples. “Lucien, you’re crazy, but I love you anyway.”
“I love you, too, baby.”
Time passes. Patsy starts work, but I’m still too shell-shocked to function; I can’t get the “incident” out of my mind. Friends call offering drugs, but I’m determined to stay clean. I need to look for a job, but I’m afraid to show my face on the block. So I stay inside the house brooding with the curtains drawn. Then one especially boring afternoon, I get up and wander outside. The yard looks like nobody cares. There are no trees or shrubs, not even a flower plant in an old paint tin to liven up the porch steps. I feel useless and ashamed. Why haven’t I bothered to try to fix the place up? I look longingly down the road towards the botanic gardens, the oasis that was special to me as a child. The gate is off its hinges, so it would be easy enough to squeeze through.
A mangy dog whines and beats its tail in the dirt as I wriggle inside. The place is like a desert now. There’s no trace of the Century palm or any other greenery, only a kind of corral made from branches of dead bamboo off in a corner. For some reason I start to cry. I guess it’s because everything that connected me to the past has disappeared and I have no clue about the future. Tears are running down my cheeks when a voice—definitely not Granny’s—startles me.
“Lucien?” An old white man wearing an official looking helmet with a ratty ole feather stuck in the hatband taps me on the shoulder.
I jump back. “What you want? Who are you, and how do you know my name?”
He sets down his wheelbarrow and wipes his brow. “I used to work here. Your Granny Lucy and I are related.”
“By blood. I’m Henry.”
I study him. “Sir Henry?”
“You can drop the Sir, Lucien. All that pomp and ceremony gets old after a while. Colonial times are long gone, thank goodness. Everybody gets to be themselves now.”
“Okay. If you say so. What’s in the barrow?”
“Seedlings and whatnot.”
“What kind of seedlings?”
“Century palms. The ground is littered with seeds where the old tree used to be. I set up a nursery over there under the cover of the bamboo. Come on. I’ll show you.”
I follow him and his squeaking wheelbarrow across the parched lawn. He pushes back the circle of dead branches to reveal a patch of tilled ground. “Let’s plant the palms here,” he says. “If we water them regularly and give them a little fertilizer, one or two might survive.”
“You want me to help you?”
“Everybody needs a little help,” he says.
I’m surprised at his humility. I guess I’m not the only one in my family trying to change. “No problem, Henry. Truth be told, I’m glad to have something constructive to do. But maybe we should start with something that matures quicker. A Century palm takes a hundred years to flower, you know.”
“Of course I know. I’m glad you were lucky enough to see it. But why not give your progeny the same opportunity?”
I’m unsure about the meaning of the word progeny, so I start to dig a hole. “You’re right,” I say eventually. “It would be good to leave something positive behind for posterity—that is, if I ever have any children.”
“Don’t worry. You will,” says Henry.
He seems so certain about my future that I believe him. We work side by side for a while before I get up the nerve to say, “By the way, do you know anything about a robbery in the neighborhood a month or so back?”
Henry grins mischievously. Then he gets up off his knees and walks to the barrow. With great flair, he pulls out my cargo jeans, the ski mask, and a bloodstained nail like he’s some sorta magician. “Looking for these, boy?”
I try to snatch the evidence away, but he’s too quick. “I was planning to burn these rags and bury the ashes in the same bed where we plant the seedlings. We’ll throw in the nail for good luck. What do you think, Lucien?”
I nod. “Sounds like a plan, Henry.”
I’m so relieved that I don’t even bother to ask what happened to the money.
© Kristine Simelda
There is a legendary creature native to Amerindian belief. It lives in the watery depths and has an appetite for human flesh and revenge.
Iola had always loved animals. She believed each one of God’s creatures had a special role to play in the world and deserved respect. As a child, she had taken in all sorts of strays and given them cute names. The starving cat with two mewling kittens was called Squeaky. The crippled dog was Sir Limpalot. The sick rabbit was named Pinko, and the orphaned goat was Miss Doudou. She had set her sights high, said she wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. But plans are one thing and fate is something else. Iola had to drop out of school when she got pregnant with Antoine at the age of sixteen. Now she was struggling with a two-year-old toddler, no job, and no man to help her out.
One day, while Iola was lamenting about her stagnant lifestyle, her mother spoke her mind. “Girl, it’s time for you to face up to your responsibility as a single parent. You tink life is a fairy tale and some handsome prince is gonna ride in on a white horse and rescue a poor black girl like you? You have to make your own way in the world, Iola, just like I did back in the day.” She paused. “Besides, we need the money.”
How could Iola argue with that? The abattoir was right down the road, and they were hiring locals at way above minimum wage. “Go and ask them for a job,” her mother said. “I can take care of the baby while you’re at work.”
Iola gritted her teeth. As a long-time vegetarian, the sight and smell of blood made her sick. But what else was she supposed to do? She had no means of transportation besides her bicycle, and she had no marketable skills. The only other choice was to apply for child welfare, but she was too proud for that. So she signed on at the slaughterhouse as a last resort. “I guess somebody has to bring home the bacon,” she said, shrugging. Even her mother knew it was a lame joke.
The construction of the abattoir had been the brainchild of foreign investors from the island’s nearest South American neighbour. Highly sought diplomatic passports were doled out in exchange for their investment, and Maymond, who was some honcho’s wayward nephew, was put in charge. But the proper operation of the facility seemed to be the last thing on his mind. Iola felt sorry for the animals. Chickens, pigs, cows, and goats came in bawling, were carelessly slaughtered, and left with glassy-eyed stares on their bewildered faces. Worse yet, no one knew how to dispose of the leftovers.
Eventually, a dry well was dug out back, but it soon filled with water from the island’s many underground rivers. Iola’s unpleasant task was to throw the bloody guts, filthy feathers, and bones and horns alive with maggots into the pit. Never mind that springs and drinking water were polluted in the process.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Maymond said, grinning like a shark.
Iola prayed the job was merely temporary. Something more appropriate was bound to come along. She hated Maymond. He was a chauvinist and a sexual predator who never missed a chance to ogle female workers’ breasts, murmur indecent innuendos in their ears, or touch their tempting backsides. But if she wanted to stay employed, she had to put up with him.
Late one afternoon, while she was pushing her wheelbarrow heavy with gore for disposal, Iola thought she heard a baby crying. When she paused to listen, it sounded like it was coming from the depths of the well. “Oh, my God!” she gasped. “It sounds just like a newborn! But it can’t be. How could a baby end up down in the well?”
She wondered if one of the girls from the village might have dropped it there to get rid of it. Humph. What kind of mother would do such a thing? “Best I investigate before the poor child drowns!”
Iola let go of the wheelbarrow’s handles, and its slimy contents spilled on the ground. She slipped several times in her haste, but when she reached the well, the crying had stopped. What if she was too late? She peered into the darkness. The usual stench rose up to meet her nose, but there was nothing to see but gloom. When she picked up a stone and dropped it into the pit, the sole sound she heard was the echo when it hit the water. Plop. Iola sat down on the edge of the cement ramp she used to empty her barrow and put her aching head in her hands. Antoine had kept her up most of the night before, and she was so exhausted that she was probably hallucinating. A baby in the well behind the abattoir? Her mother was right. She was living in a fairy tale. Bone tired, Iola plodded back to the slaughterhouse to get a shovel and a broom to clean up the mess she had made.
Unfortunately, Maymond was waiting for her by the tool closet. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her inside. Iola bit and kicked like a madwoman. “Let go of me!” she shrieked. “You stink like a manicou.” He released her and laughed when she threw her stained apron in his face. “See you tomorrow, sweetheart,” he sneered as she made her escape.
“How was your day?” her mother asked when she reached home.
Iola burst into tears. “My job is making me crazy,” she said. “My boss is impossible, and I imagined I heard a baby crying down inside the well. I thought it might have been Antoine.”
“Girl, you’ve been working too hard,” her mother said. “Look. Your baby is asleep right there in his playpen. Why don’t you take a nap before supper? It will do you good.”
Her daughter nodded. “Good idea, Ma. I’ll take Antoine with me. Wake us up in a little while, okay?”
Iola picked up the toddler and tiptoed to her bed. She fell asleep almost immediately, and dreamed about the creature she had heard crying in the well. In her dreams, it turned out to be an animal the size of a small dog. Its skin was smooth and black, almost as if it was made out of rubber. It had pink, pointed ears, a whiskered snout, and the long tail of a manicou. It was kind of cuddly, except for the sharp claws that protruded from the human-like hand at the end of its tail.
Iola tossed and turned in her bed while the mysterious thing introduced itself. “I am Ahuizotl,” the creature said. The language it spoke sounded more like sneezing than actual words.
“That’s a funny name,” she said.
But the creature was not amused. “I have swum up all the way from South America to seek revenge on someone who deserves to be punished,” it hissed. “When I reached your island, I traveled up its underground rivers until I found Maymond, the ultimate perpetrator.” Its eyes glowed in the dark. “Did he really think he could get away with how he burned down our forests, polluted our rivers, and ruined our homeland? No way!”
On one hand, Iola was terrified, on the other hand she was fascinated. “I agree,” she mumbled aloud in her sleep. “Maymond is a creep who needs to be punished. You have my blessing, but it’s hard for me to pronounce your name. Hmmm. I know! I will call you Maymocou because you speak with the same accent as he does, and you look a bit like a manicou. In fact, you’re kind of cute. ”
“Don’t play with me!” the maymocou snarled. “I’m nobody’s pet.” With that it grabbed Iola with its extra hand and pulled her into the well behind the abattoir. She felt as if she was suffocating as it wrapped its tail around her neck. Everything turned red, then yellow, then black. Panic-stricken, she woke up screaming, and soon Antoine was bawling too. “Hush, baby boy,” she whispered. “It was just a silly nightmare.” But in her heart of hearts, she had her doubts.
Even though it was payday, Iola skipped work the following day. “Call them and say I’m sick,” she begged her mother. How could she face Maymond after what had happened in the closet? How could she leave her baby alone after her frightening dream?
Iola armed herself with a penknife and a bottle of pepper spray when she returned to her job on Monday. She had brooded over the crying she heard coming from the well and her perplexing dream the entire weekend. She wanted to be prepared to defend herself if need be. But defend herself from what: A creature in a crazy nightmare with an unpronounceable name, or a walking, talking ginal like Maymond who was determined to make her life miserable?
Her first trip to the well was uneventful. She wheeled her barrow up the cement ramp and dumped its contents without incident. But on the second trip, she heard the strange whimpering drifting up from the pit again. Iola knew it was pointless to try to locate the source. The maymocou only existed in her dreams—it was simply a figment of her stressed-out imagination. Her mother was right. It was time for her to grow up.
Iola gathered her courage and forged ahead. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw a rubbery black hand rise above the rim of the well and wiggle its fingers in the air like a snake searching for the scent of its prey. The hand was attached to a long, slinky tail, and then the entire creature, the hideous maymocou, clawed its way over the edge.
For a moment, Iola was so frightened she couldn’t move. But when the maymocou lifted its tail and sprayed its territory with foul-smelling musk that burned her eyes and nose, she was forced to take a step back. The creature raised its ugly snout and hissed in her direction. Its eyes glowed red and drool dripped from its razor-like teeth. “I am Ahuizotl,” it growled, “and I’ve come to punish someone who deserves to feel pain.”
When Iola turned to run, she bounced straight into Maymond, who had been stalking her from behind. She squealed as he trapped her in his arms. “You look delicious this morning, my dear,” he said. His voice sounded just like the monster, but she couldn’t reach the knife or the pepper spray in her apron because of his fierce embrace. The most she could do was spin him around so that his back was to the well. They danced a kind of tango as she clumsily guided him toward the beast.
The maymocou’s eyes narrowed and its tail twitched as they drew closer. Then, quicker than a heartbeat, the creature grabbed Maymond with its vice-like extra hand. He struggled to get free, but its claws dug deep into the flesh of his ankles. Howling, Maymond reached out to Iola. “Help me!” he cried. She cringed as the monster strangled her nemesis with its powerful tail, but she stayed put. As it dragged him beneath the sludge, she ignored his screams. A round of violent splashing followed, and then everything was quiet.
By the time the rest of the abattoir’s employees arrived, it was all over. “What happened?” they asked Iola. “Where’s Maymond?”
Shaking, she pointed at the weapon that had fallen from her apron pocket onto the ground during the scuffle. “He came at me with a knife,” she said. “We struggled, and when I finally managed to push him away, he fell into the pit.”
There was an investigation. But when they pumped the muck out of the well, they found Maymond’s body more or less intact. His limbs were in place and his skin was smooth. Only his eyes, teeth and fingernails were missing.
The abattoir closed down shortly after Maymond’s death. Her mother took care of Antoine while Iola went back to high school and got her diploma. She did so well on her exams that she won a scholarship to the State College, where she studied biology. After graduation, she landed a job with the forestry division analysing the impact of invasive species on the native environment. Invasive species? Ha! Whatever that thing in the pit at the slaughterhouse was, it was the ultimate invader! As a hobby, she investigated Caribbean folk tales that described mythical creatures and decided that the maymocou was indeed the legendary Ahuizotl, swum up from South America, hell bent on revenge.
Antoine grew up happy and healthy in the interim. Sometimes Iola took him into the field to collect unwelcome animal migrants to observe: Puerto Rican anoles, Cuban frogs, and stripe-tailed iguanas. They brought them home and kept them in cages like pets while she did her research, until, unknown to Antoine, they were humanely destroyed. Time passed, but Iola didn’t see or hear from the maymocou again, except, of course, in her dreams.
One lovely summer’s day, Iola and Antoine decided to make a picnic and enjoy a swim in the Layou River, the island’s longest. As she unpacked the basket on the riverbank, Iola thought she heard a baby crying. Her stomach flipped. “Oh, no. Not again,” she whispered to herself. Parrots squawked overhead while she took up her binoculars and surveyed the scene. Her son was standing on top of a boulder that sat in the middle of a translucent green pool. “Ma! Watch me!” he yelled. Antoine’s gangly brown body gleamed in the sun. Rainbow droplets dripped from the tips of his dreadlocks, and a brilliant smile lit up his face. And then she saw it. A black whiskered snout with glowing red eyes poked its head above the surface of the water.
“Antoine! No!” she screeched. “Don’t jump!” But he couldn’t hear her above the rush of the river.
Time stood still while both Antoine and the creature contemplated their next move. The maymocou slapped its extra hand on the surface of the water in warning just as her son launched himself from the rock into the river. Iola held her breath while he stayed underwater for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, he bobbed to the surface whooping with joy. “Ma! That was great!”
Iola gathered Antoine in her arms as he waded ashore. Naturally she was relieved; she had seen first hand what the creature was capable of. But her scientific mind told her there was no logical reason why the maymocou, or whatever it was called, would attack an innocent boy unless it was truly evil. Her knowledge of animal behavior told her that was extremely unlikely. The creature was simply doing what its nature required of it. Iola had observed how it had regarded Antoine before it slapped the surface of water with its extra hand. She had heard it sneeze, as if to signal farewell, and then she’d seen it dive into the watery depths. Having taken its revenge on Maymond all those years ago, she figured the maymocou had decided to return home.
Iola imagined it traveling along the underwater passageways that led back to its homeland, where it could resume its place in Amerindian mythology. Sure, it was a monster. But she would never forget how the beast had dealt out primordial justice when humans failed to stand up for what was right. Yet she never mentioned the maymocou to Antoine or anybody else. Some things were better left unsaid.