After mentioning my upcoming flight from winter at a New Year’s party in Templeton, I was drawn aside by a young woman who, in a few breathlessly-confided sentences, told me a bizarre tale. Writers often hear confessions, and I puzzled over the encounter for several days before letting it drop. I had never seen the teller before – nor have I spotted her since, to my regret – and I was not entirely sure of her sanity, given the story. But some weeks later, I heard a portion of the same from a salt-eaten Yankee transplant and yachtsman at an open-air bar in the town of Coral Bay. When I asked how on earth he came to know such a thing, the old man claimed that there were those who could commune with the ‘cnidarians’ of Drunk Bay.
Such coincidence seemed to cry out for telling…
The girl who had been christened Tamarind — named after a tree that shaded the room where she had been conceived – gave a stretch of pleasure, and a man with rope and machete shifted to watch her from the tip-top of a ladder leaning against a palm. She passed his truck and peered into the bed, heaped with bunches of green coconuts. Glancing up, she saw him turn back to the harvest, his long dreadlocks swinging to one side as he severed a stem of coconuts. She snapped a picture of him with her new camera and walked on.
The day, sparkling with sun, was merely a usual sort of day on the island where the girl called Tamarind had once been only an infinitesimal egg. Her parents had stood under the bougainvillea that climbed above the French doors, gazing out at tamarind and hibiscus and an abalone bay with mother-of-pearl chips that meant sails, and her mother had said, “If it’s a girl, let’s name her Tamarind.” Her father had been amused by his wife’s certainty of conception.
But I was sure, she told the little girl, when she was old enough to tell. “I felt a wave of joy, and that was because of you.”
And now, at last, they had brought her to St. John’s, along with her younger brother, Steve, who had been made at home, in ordinary time and not in paradise.
She had the afternoon to wander; her father would be attending classes in the resort’s conference rooms until 5:00, and her mother had driven Steve to a snorkeling lesson at Cinnamon. It was her first whole day on the island. The evening before, they had taken the Ouestin ferry from St. Thomas, the long undulating line of the islands deep blue in first dark, with lights coming on. Never had she seen lamps look so much like stars, and as the ferry rocked forward, the real stars came out and were reflected in fragments by the waves. This is where I began, she thought, in this magical place. Her parents hadn’t worried about leaving her for the afternoon; this was, after all, where she belonged. And the Ouestin was as safe as safe could be; the resort was a private world, with shops and restaurants and places to rent a little boat and explore the bay. All she had to do was give the number of her room and her last name; she could buy or rent whatever she liked. Already she had eaten conch fritters with a coconut soda and, finding last summer’s suit too tight, had charged a bathing suit printed with leaves and pale red hibiscus blossoms, with a brief skirt for a cover-up.
“Perfect with your dark blue eyes,” the owner of the shop had judged. Her fingers had fluttered against Tamarind’s shining hair and glanced on her shoulder as the girl stared in the mirror. She was “beautiful, beautiful,” the fashionably bleached and sun-dried woman had said. And it was true; Tamarind was as perfectly formed and morning fresh of skin as if she had just been made to please the eye, out in the Ouestin garden. Her mother’s voice came back to her – ”and every day, I felt another wave climbing up, and I loved you more and more until you were born. That was like waves, too, but of pain. It felt like giving birth to the world. Your small round head felt enormous, banging to get out. I saw your soaked crown in a mirror that the nurse held. My body was open like the O of a scream. Then all at once you were sluiced into the light – ”
Tamarind smiled and shook her head to refuse a ride from one of the Iguana taxis that puttered ceaselessly through the Ouestin lanes. The drivers of the open carts were men from the island, and their musical voices sounded sweet to her ear. She walked by the spot where she had earlier seen iguanas – four-legged ones, not taxis – munching on flowers; she passed the tennis courts and the gazebo and the pool with its islands of trees and waterfalls. On the sand, rows of white lounge chairs waved to her with their little red flags – no, it wasn’t that but sunbathers signaling the nearby cafe for drinks. She slowed to watch the parrots, prying at nuts with their beaks and hard gray tongues, before drifting on. What would she do? So many possibilities…
A plump local woman in a Ouestin uniform was clipping round leaves from a sea grape hedge. Tamarind knew what they were – late the night before, the family had eaten at Miss Lucy’s, on the far end of the island, under the sea grape trees. Twisted through the branches, white Christmas lights had glimmered on waves that washed onto sand only a few feet from their table. She had stuffed herself on flying fish and candied plantains that tasted of lime and cloves, on okra fungi, pigeon peas and rice, and a bit of fiery mango that made her ask for a glass of milk. She had felt a little let down to find that the fungi was not fungi but only something like polenta with okra added, but she had loved eating under the big sea grape trees with their long bunches of unripe fruit… The woman’s hand moved lazily, pressing the stems against her thumb with a knife until they came away and were added to a pile pinched between her other thumb and forefinger. The harvest had an oddly ceremonial look, especially since the islander’s elaborate headdress of braids lent her a hint of royalty.
“What are you cutting them for?” the girl asked.
“For plates,” the woman said; “To make the food pretty.”
Tamarind wandered on, then wished that she had asked about the sea grapes – why had they sawed them into a hedge? There seemed to be a constant hacking of plants, as if their growth were so quick and luxuriant that one had to defend the planet from being drowned in a tidal wave of green. She had seen one of the workers shearing a mass of bright red bougainvillea with an electric trimmer. Afterward the papery blossoms sprinkled the pathway. It gave her a pang to see them scattered and wasted; at home the world was cold and dull and without flowers, and would be so for months to come.
When a toddler in a sun suit appliquéd with a jumping frog grasped at her leg, Tamarind squatted and handed over a horned shell that she had picked up on the beach.
“I’m sorry,” the mother said; “Is she bothering you?”
“No bother.” Tamarind plucked a sprig of plumbago and tucked it behind the child’s ear. “I like kids.”
“Well, I guess they must like you, too.” Very pregnant, the woman stood with her arms akimbo, feet splayed.
Tamarind could see the curve of a distended bellybutton through the fabric of the maternity swimsuit. The cloth was a shade of green that the makers of catalogues were calling seafoam this year.
“Is it a papaya or a mango?” Words popped out while she was thinking about the stem end of a fruit and the belly under the cloth.
“What – ” The mother let out a single high note of laughter: Ah! “It must be a mango. Unless maybe it’s a watermelon. That’s what it feels like. But my husband wants a papaya.”
The little girl stroked the florets with her fingertips.
“Mango!” The lily pads and pink flowers that topped her sandals shook when she stamped her feet.
“Don’t you look pretty? Maybe I’ll see you again some time. Okay?” Tamarind was smiling again, waving, her eyes moving from the plumbago in the fine blond hair to a man she had seen waiting tables. She wanted to know what he was saying, and as she came closer she could hear him coaxing the red and yellow parrot, reproaching it for not being more loving: “Why you acting like you don’t know your good friend Matthew, why you acting so ugly like this? Give me a kiss now, give me a kiss, come on – ”
Carrying armfuls of bird-of-paradise and the blooms called flamboyant–clusters of orange and yellow and parrot red – a woman approached her on the path.
“Where are you going with those?”
“To decorate the ladies’ rooms. Everything must be so beautiful, even the toilet.” She raised her eyebrows, and the girl laughed.
Tamarind wanted to tell this islander with the dozens of braids and high cheekbones that she, too, was beautiful. But a shyness rose up, stopping her mouth, and she walked on. Anyway, it was all lovely here – ridiculously so.
She paused to retrieve a blossom lying in the grass. She stared at the whorl of lavender-pink, rose at the heart. How lovely it was – the perfection of the pinwheel, with its slight curl at one side of each petal.
“What is it?” Her voice was only a whisper.
“That’s frangipani. Plumeria. The Buddhist temple flower.”
She looked up, startled but ready to be pleased. The young man standing before her was handsome, remarkably so – as excessively good-looking as the whole island seemed to be. Blue-eyed, with fair hair and bronze skin, he had the kind of strong jaw and sharp-cut features that seemed to belong in the realm of movies. He was wearing a pair of the stylish black swim trunks with scarlet piping that she had seen displayed in a shop window earlier in the morning.
“And that flower on your – on your very attractive little swimsuit – is hibiscus schizopetalus.”
She blushed; was he laughing at her?
“How do you know?”
He came closer, examining the cloth until she blushed again.
“The petals, see? They’re so deeply curved – why are you blushing? – and schizopetalus has those toothy leaves.”
“What’s this, then?” The girl pointed at a yellow blossom beside a splayed fan of palm.
“Oh, that’s hibiscus rosa-sinensis. You can easily tell because the other one doesn’t come in yellow, just a faded red. But sinensis can be red or pink or yellow or white. The branches on schizopetalus are more delicate, and the leaves are farther apart.”
“How do you know all that? Are you a botany major?” She thought he must be a college boy.
“No, not at all.” He was smiling at her again in a way that made her shiver right down to her toes, now curling secretly inside the green and red water shoes that matched her swimsuit. “I’m just a magpie – clever at picking up things. Here and there. You know, I’ve got a jeep from Honor’s.” One eyelid drooped, and he held up a hand to screen a glare of light bouncing off the bay. “Well, it’s my Dad’s rental, really. Everything’s my Dad’s, I guess.” He grinned at her. “Want to ride over to Saltpond Bay and go snorkeling?”
Somehow she agreed. After catching a lift to her room in an Iguana taxi to collect her gear, she met him beside the parrot cages. She felt perfectly dressed for the island in the leafy skirt, with the hibiscus flowers on her bathing suit peeping through a gauzy blouse.
“Oh, good. I was afraid you’d scamper off and not come back,” he said, but his look belied the words. He had known that she wouldn’t be able to keep away.
Perhaps he was conceited, Tamarind thought, or simply confident. She was excited; she even felt that she had half a crush on him, just because he was so striking and seemed to know things – the Latin words for flowers, at least.
“What’s your name? I forgot to ask.”
He paused an instant, as if to make her anticipate the more. “Nicholas – Nicholas Mallin. Very ordinary, isn’t it, compared to Tamarind?”
The wind lapped against her, and she gave a start; her skin had gone all gooseflesh. When she looked away from him, she could see a skein of drops falling toward the hills beside the bay.
“How did you do that?”
“What? Know your name?” He tapped her net sack, with the mask and snorkel and a Ouestin towel inside. “It’s on the tag.”
“Oh.” So it was. She had forgotten: nothing strange, then.
As Nicholas rattled on about their destination, they cut across flower beds and lawns toward the tennis courts. A girl of six or seven wearing a pink tennis skirt and pink-and-white vest and blouse was neatly returning the serves of a pro, who kept up a running commentary.
“Check the angle of your racket… Good, good. Now you’re getting it. That’s right, give me another just like that one, uh huh, come on, give it to me – whoa! that’s a tad too hard – ”
A henna-haired woman sat watching the girl with an even younger boy on her lap. She smacked his hand lightly when he grasped at her gold necklace.
The diminutive player kept on sending the balls over the net, looking like an advertisement for the best sort of children’s clothing.
“Is that your daughter? She’s a pretty little girl.” Tamarind paused to watch the ball sail toward the pro.
The woman didn’t answer, her eyes sweeping over the unfamiliar features without a change in expression and then returning to the two figures in a sea of balls.
At this, Nicholas laughed. “Volley and return,” he said, nodding toward the bench.
This time the mother looked up at him, interest quickening. What was it that people were lured by, Tamarind wondered. Though dressed in an expensive new outfit from one of the Ouestin shops, she hadn’t mattered. She was somehow not right. But Nicholas had registered with the woman; her gaze had fastened to his face – and hers betrayed a flush of interest.
“My friend thinks your daughter a pretty little girl.” A trace of something – a jeer, perhaps – was in his voice.
“Yes, she’s – ”
What the mother had been about to say was left unfinished, because Nicholas turned his back on her and walked off. At the narrow lot behind the courts, he began weaving through the rental cars.
“What are you doing?” Tamarind followed, watching with some alarm as he leaned into the front window of jeep after jeep.
“Oh, I just don’t remember which one my dad rented – but I know he left the keys inside.”
She trailed after him, clutching her bag and straw hat.
“But what if it’s somebody else’s? What if two people leave their keys behind?”
“My old man’s the only one who wouldn’t bother to pocket his keys – the only one trusting enough.” Nicholas groped at the ignition of a fire-engine red jeep peppered with dents. “There it is!” He held up a key with a small gold sunburst and an Honor’s tag dangling from it.
“You’re sure?” She felt uncertain. “Maybe we should ask at the office.”
“Nah. They always go out for lunch. Anyway, I remember the star.” One corner of his mouth quirked into a smile. “See, each jeep has a different key chain. This is mine. Get in, will you?” He tossed their bags – she noticed that there was nothing in his but a snorkel and mask – through the rear window.
Tamarind slid into the passenger seat; the jeep was new but already marred by dings and stains. The plastic windows didn’t unzip properly, and Nicholas had to reach over her to help. When his arm brushed against hers, she noticed that he was absolutely odorless, while she reeked of coconut sun block. And though she would never have gone out without a cover-up, he was still bare-chested.
“Aren’t you afraid of burning? – you didn’t bring any lotion.”
“Hah. The sun worships me. I never burn.” Grappling with the gear shift, he reversed the car with a roar, barely grazing an Iguana taxi. He waved to the driver and shot toward the entrance. “These jeeps are nothing but motorized cans,” he shouted over the rumble of acceleration.
“My mother told me it could be dangerous not to wear sun lotion in the Virgin Islands – that the light’s stronger here than at home.” She grabbed onto the window frame, jouncing as they turned left toward the town of Cruz Bay.
“Oh, well, I’m sure you’d burn. Everybody does but me. And the natives, of course. You can’t scorch a man who’s already black, can you? All you can do is darken him up a bit.” He whistled a snatch of a tune, shifting gears as they climbed a hill.
“Look at that funny little church! Cinder blocks all trimmed in turquoise and pink.” She craned out the window to see what had been spray-painted onto the bus stop close by. Something about JESUS saving somebody from RASTA, with a big flowered cross and the date.
“They’re a superstitious lot.” Nicholas swept around a tourist jeep that hadn’t quite made it to the crest and was beginning to slide back on wet pavement.
So it had been raining on the hills. Tamarind peered out the rear window to see if the other car made it to safety, but their own dropped precipitously into a valley before she could tell.
“My father told me the islanders here are Moravians, that they’re really quite modest people. He says visitors have brought bad habits and change.”
“Oh yes, those vicious stateside tourists,” Nicholas said, flashing her a smile as the car dove into a gulf once more. “Is your old man a Moravian?”
Tamarind shook her head. “He’s a professor. That’s why he’s here – for a conference.”
Nicholas whooped. “So that’s what they call it! Can you imagine? A bunch of college teachers grinding away in a place like this! I suppose they scrape up a grant and come boondoggling for free. Is that it? They could’ve had a meeting in some cold, benighted spot.” He laughed heartily. “Tell your old man that next year’s conference is in Newark. See what he says.”
“I suppose you’re right. The school pays for his meals and hotel and the plane ticket.”
“What’s he studying?”
“I don’t know, really. But the conference is called Powers, Principalities, and the Post-Postmodern Age. It sounds – well, I don’t know what it sounds like.”
Tamarind clung to the door, catching picture-postcard glimpses as Nicholas whirled her through Cruz Bay: a narrow, shop-jammed street swooping into the heart of the village where, head tilted back, Adam’s apple working, a man with a machete gulped from a green coconut; the tiny harbor with a ship packed with tourists, flags snapping; a fisherman, also with a machete, chopping a large black fish into chunks on a slab table in the sun; a cemetery above the town with white tombs stacked one on top of another; a heart-stopping catch of brilliant blue sea next to aloes scratched with names; pre-parade clusters of children, decked in shirts of peach or rose or lemon and gripping band instruments that caught the glare of sunshine and broke it into stars.
“Not a single place to park. Typical Cruz Bay. So he’s a theologian, is he? Your old man?”
“He teaches in the Philosophy and Religion department at the college. He’s just a professor.”
For some reason this made Nicholas laugh once more.
“Should’ve known,” he said. “Professors are hardly ever devout. Too bound by taboo. Let’s stop, shall we, and walk around?” He zoomed into a slot between open-air tourist buses.
“Not there! Not there!” A group of local men on benches began shouting.
“What do you mean, taboo? Look,” Tamarind said, touching his arm with a finger; “They say we can’t park here.”
“Oh, you know. All this politically correct stuff – can’t allow a thought that might offend. The new liberalism. It amuses me. Mind you, I’m an equal opportunity mocker. I’ve got it in for the conservatives too.” Nicholas hung half out of the window. “Where then?” he yelled to the bus drivers and the old men. “Where?”
“Anywhere but there! Anywhere but there!” they chorused.
He lowered himself into the seat, his eyes narrowing, then shrugged. “Skip it. We’ll go straight to the beach. But we need some – ” He reached into the back and jerked a cooler from the floor.
“Would you look at that! My old man thinks of everything.” Ignoring the shouts, feebler now, from the benches, he popped open the lid. “Plenty of lunch here,” he said cheerfully. “There’s pâtés – wonder what kind? That’s spicy meat and vegetables fried in dough. Like a pierogi only with spices. Heart of palm salad. Pigeon peas. And here – that’s seaweed salad.” He held up a container with a ravel of vivid light green strands tucked inside. “Sodas. Tamarind soda on ice! Just what you need. Ginger beer. And some Jamaican Red Stripe.”
“Won’t he be angry?” She was uneasy, imagining what her own parents would say if she drove off with the family picnic.
“Nah, it’ll be a good joke. He’s used to me playing tricks on him. He’ll figure it out. Anyway, he’ll just order more lunch and rent another jeep if he wants one. There’s plenty where this came from.”
“Are you sure?”
Nicholas didn’t answer; he reversed the jeep and blew a kiss to the old men, who jeered and flapped their hands at him in disgust.
“Shoo. I’m getting, I’m getting – but I’ll be back. Just you wait and see.” He swerved into the left lane, startling Tamarind. She would have to get used to riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the street. “And wouldn’t you like it, you poor old geezers, to have a banged-up jeep full of gas and a pretty girl inside – ”
The jeep clanked and backfired as they climbed the island highway, and Tamarind felt faintly worried: her mother had wanted to show her the sights, and here she was already seeing them. A quirk in the road hugged a cottage-sized boulder, looking like an immense pod crashed to earth from some unseen world-tree. Not long afterward she caught a glimpse of the turquoise and royal blue of the island waters, rimmed with white sand, shining far below the north shore drive, and then she forgot everything old and remembered only the man beside her and the sights of the afternoon.
“Ginger Thomas, oleander, ixora, allamanda,” Nicholas cried over the noise of the engine, pointing to flowers in yards. “Look there,” he said, slowing to let her pick out the strange green tower that was row after concentric row of bananas. “See that pod-like thing? See there? You can’t miss it.” It hung down, a big purple phallus. “That’s the male flower. When it drops, the bananas are ready to be cut down.”
“Not very attractive, is it?”
“Not everything has to be. Even in paradise. Some things are fascinating; there are lots of dangerous plants. The ones with milky sap, especially.”
Coasting along, he showed her papaya, kenip, and mango trees. She had imagined the fruits loading down the branches to the tips, as on an apple tree, and was half repulsed to see papayas bunched close to the bole. It reminded her of some pagan fertility goddess. Who was that? Nicholas might know but she wouldn’t ask – a goddess with a cluster of many breasts.
“I ought to show you a sandbox. Then you’d have seen something alien. They’re yellowish gray, with spiny bark. Some people call them monkey-no-climb.” He gestured toward the woods. “Did you see that dark mass in the trees? Termite mound.”
“Termites?” She gave a twitch of the shoulder. “Up in the air? I saw something – I thought it was a gall.”
“Nope. Termite mound. Anyway, the fruits on the sandbox tree have ridges, and a shape like a slightly flattened pumpkin. When dry, they explode.” He jerked the wheel away from a precipitous drop. “The seeds are sickle-shaped, and they act like shrapnel.”
“From the days of quills, when sand was sprinkled onto a fresh page to blot the ink. Shake this kind of sandbox, though, and you might end up with a little scimitar buried in your eye.”
“I don’t think I want to,” Tamarind said slowly, rubbing her arms. “Funny kind of scabbard… That’s not one of your favorite trees, is it?”
He darted her an amused glance. “No, I think manchineel would be my very favorite. Lovely yellow apples nestled in green leaves: Columbus’s men were impressed with the powers of manchineel.”
“Powers,” she repeated. “We’re back to that word again.”
“Not the same kind… So, is your father really interested in the powers and principalities?”
She considered and shook her head. “He was interested in the island. Not that he won’t go to classes! The first was on the power of the media.”
“Power of the media? You’d think they’d have more respect for the powers than to haul out those hackneyed old warhorses. What tripe!” Nicholas swung the jeep onto a scald, big enough for three or four cars. “There’s a view from the top. I’ll lug the picnic.”
The footpath was grooved from rains. A ruinous tower, all that remained of a Danish sugar plantation, squatted at the head of the trail.
“How wonderful!” Tamarind was not so grown-up that she didn’t think of fairy tales and long-abandoned castles.
Nicholas set down the cooler with a thump.
“This was the cane mill – come on, I’ll show you a sight.” He held out his hand and she took it, and though she had felt uncertain and apart from him when he had talked about the monkey-no-climb tree, she felt a small spiraling thrill of attraction.
“Look up.” He led her through the arched door. “Right there.”
She glanced into a jagged aperture high above her head. Mortar and stones were dank and darkened by mold, but hanging in the gap were pristine panels of something pale – three, four of them.
“Oh!” she cried, “combs.” Now she could see a knot of bees collecting and burgeoning on the wall, while others jigged in place near the opening. “And that’s a swarm! I’ve never seen such a thing.”
“Best be quiet and slow,” Nicholas said. “They might be Africanized bees, this far south.” He tugged her closer, as if he wanted to protect her, and Tamarind felt the urge to press her cheek against the burnished skin below his collarbone.
She didn’t; she hardly knew him.
“They can kill a child, can’t they?” Tamarind stepped back toward the light.
“More, if they’re angry. That would be a weird spectacle, wouldn’t it?” He followed her into the sun.
Only a few yards from the mill, she stumbled on the promised view. She stopped, staring down at white shore and island and dark patches under turquoise and blue that meant coral reef.
“That’s Trunk. Nice little package.” He kneeled, rooting in the cooler for a Red Stripe.
“I’ll say,” she murmured.
She drank in the colors, wanting to save them for the drab months after her return. Fishing her camera from the net bag, she captured the bay. Nicholas grabbed her wrist hard when she thought to take his picture.
“Hey,” he said, “don’t do that.”
She looked at him, startled. He was smiling, drawing her by the hand until he seemed about to kiss her. Just then some children spilled into the clearing, and a boy with a stick began jumping beside the tower. He ducked through the archway and began yelling bees! bees! bees!
“So maybe we’ll find out whether they’re Africanized or not.” Nicholas glanced up, winking at the bright sun.
“You wouldn’t let me – why not?”
“Sure, why not? Here, I’ll save his life while I’m at it.” He leaned forward. “Hey kid! You with the stick – come take our photo.”
Holding up a branch like a giant claw, the boy raced over. Siblings followed, one in diapers toddling forward with thumb corking his mouth.
“That your girlfriend?” Grinning, the kid seemed to sprout more teeth than could possibly fit inside his mouth. He was freely flecked; splotches streamed down his arms, collected on his knees, veiled his face.
“Sure. The lovely Princess Tamarind, that’s who she is. And I’m Prince of the Manchineels. I just met her, but she’s mine.”
“Huh. And I’m a king.” The boy revolved the camera in his hands, searching for buttons.
“King of Freckles, maybe,” Nicholas said.
This bit of witticism made the child howl with pleasure, and Tamarind had to wait for him to calm down before she could show him what to do.
The royal couple stood with backs to Trunk Bay and to the white sailboats like crescent moons sown broadcast on the turquoise furrows. Nicholas slipped behind Tamarind, bending to wrap his arms around her waist. She could feel his body against hers, pressed close, and her own heart running to catch up with the surprise of it, while his, already knowing, beat steadily on.
“Lemme get another.” The kid took one, two, three, more – until Nicholas jerked the baseball cap over his eyes. “Hey, where am I?” he screeched, dancing in a circle, arms out in mock dismay.
“It’s awfully hot.” Tamarind fanned herself with the straw hat. Her cheeks were red. “I feel faint.”
“It’s the sun.” Nicholas took the hat and flapped it vigorously so that her hair flew back. A small, knowing smile had hooked a corner of his lips. “Just the sun,” he said, more softly.
“Wi-ill, Sa-am, and I‑ris – ” The names were drawled out, each ending on a rising note. After a silence, the voice floated up once more: “Answer me!”
“Better scat,” Nicholas advised the little ones, who stared without blinking for a few instants before scampering. “Here, kiddo.” He grabbed the cap from the boy and skimmed it toward the path. “Mama’s looking for you.”
Cheerful, he bowed from the waist before bounding off, dipping once to retrieve his cap.
“Thanks for the pictures,” Tamarind called. She took her hat and fastened it under her chin. The brim made her feel private, aloof from Nicholas.
“Hey,” he shouted. “Those were killer bees, you know.”
Will – or was it Sam? – shrieked with glee as he jumped onto the trail, out of sight.
“Oh!” Tamarind looked at the images stored on the camera. Nicholas was almost entirely obliterated, save for fragments of leg and arm. In several memorable failures, Tamarind’s face floated in a sea of fire.
“Strange.” Nicholas peered over her shoulder.
“I hope the camera’s all right.”
“It must be the glare. Or the kid’s a jinx. If you’re worried, we’ll stop by a shop later; how about that?”
She smiled, relieved. Everything would be fine.
He unpacked another Red Stripe for himself and a soda for her. Both ate with eagerness, as if they had gone on a taxing hike. Always adventurous when it came to food, Tamarind found the curried pâtés and the salads to her liking, the heart of palm crisp and cool. They didn’t chat; perhaps they had worn down the trigger for talk, or were simply tired by the effort of becoming acquainted.
The girl would have liked a nap, but felt it to be impossible. Strangers would be scaling the path. Africanized bees – if they were Africanized – boiled in a mass on the tower. The sun was fierce. And Nicholas: she scrutinized him from the shadow of her brim. She knew nothing about him. It hadn’t bothered her at the Ouestin, but now it did, a little.
He was gazing into Trunk Bay as he polished off the Red Stripe. Dots of sweat stood on his chest. It seemed that he was smiling faintly; or maybe his lips always had a slight upward curl. He appeared older than before, not in face or body but in an air, perhaps of weariness.
A child’s voice piped from the woods.
“Let’s go. Too many brats, too many bees.” Nicholas checked the cooler. “Suppose I may as well take it along. There’s a Red Stripe and a mango soda.” He yawned. “That beer made me sleepy.”
Tamarind couldn’t read him. Was he really deciding whether or not to abandon what belonged to his father? That seemed odd. He was distant, though he had been so attentive earlier.
“Come on.” He tossed the leftovers inside and shouldered the cooler.
As she picked a route along a fissure in the steep path, she kept glancing after Nicholas. He was jogging, letting out war cries as he jolted downward. That would wake him up. At the scald, he was waiting for her, the remains of lunch already stowed. When he beamed a grin, she felt relieved and was content to climb into her seat and let the shiny red jeep go zinging through the sunlight.
He whistled a ballad, “The Gypsy Rover.” Perhaps the merry round of verses was making him careless – he kept weaving over the center line, and now and then he had to wrench the wheel around a curve. After finishing with a flourish of trills, he spoke again. “You know where you are? We left the town of Cruz Bay, right? Then we passed Lind Point and Salomon Bay and Caneel Bay – after that we edged around Hawksnest and had a picnic between that bay and the next ones – Denis and Jumbie and Trunk. Trunk’s the one with the island. The next big one is Cinnamon, but that’s too crowded. Campgrounds. People. Nosy parker rangers.”
“We might bump into my mom and Steve there.” She wondered whether that might not be a good idea, though her mood was already shifting, and she felt a renewed glimmering of pleasure at being with Nicholas. Meanwhile the island was becoming two things at once; as they twisted along the coast, she could see on her left the dazzle of beach and sea, while on her right lay the forest, with its rich foliage and occasional termite nests that added notes of deeper darkness.
“Perish that thought! Your mother might disapprove of me, and the day would be over. We’ll just keep on going. Except for a stop at the mer-toilet. Mural mermen and maids and a real live bathroom. At Maho we’ll cut over to the town of Coral Bay – then hug the eastern bays until we curl to the west and reach Saltpond.”
He laced his fingers with hers, dropping her hand abruptly as the jeep narrowly missed striking a wild goat.
“Look! Slow down!” She stared after the ruins of another sugar mill, ferns sprouting from the walls. One of the wild island donkeys drifted in the murk like a ghost. Queer what a gaiety of stone was left – a nougat of colors and shapes in plasterwork. “So that’s where the ancestors of the people who work at the Ouestin and drive the tourist taxis and work in Cruz Bay were slaves.”
“Here or some other spot. The tower where we picnicked. Catherineberg. Annaberg.” He was smiling again, a small secret smile.
“They sound like names of concentration camps.”
“There you go. More of those Africanized bees. Camps, hives – you see? The world is full of them.” He began whistling again, a quick sprightly reel, but broke off to ask why she bothered thinking about things she didn’t like. “You can’t change the past. And it’s your duty to be happy in paradise.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Tamarind said, though she thought he was only partly so.
Nicholas certainly seemed happy, once singing a snatch of a ballad: I’ll show you where the white lilies grow / At the bottom of the sea
Tamarind noticed that the landscape of the island was changing as they aimed away from the coast, heading toward Saltpond Bay. They stopped once for a pair of ambling donkeys, once for the mer-toilets, and once for a view – finishing off the last of the drinks and watching goats graze along the brink of a cliff that bristled with tall cacti. On the opposite side of the road the slope dived toward the inlet of Coral Bay, where a school of sailboats was at mooring.
“The camera’s working again. I wonder why – ”
“Hummingbird,” Nicholas said; “See it? Needling the hibiscus.”
“So headlong.” She followed the bird’s flight toward the cliff but lost it among the cacti.
He jumped onto a ledge that overlooked the bay. “Can you make out the boat that’s tilted to one side? Three days from now, it’ll be underwater. In the bars they’re taking bets on the hour.”
“Just a second.” Tamarind was counting the wild goats. “Seventeen.” She watched the kids frolic from rock to rock. “Seven babies.”
“Annoying little beasts. They string out across the road and jam the way. But I like them – I wouldn’t mind being a billy goat.” He tossed his bottle into the jumble of foliage in the valley.
“That was very bad,” she told him. She was teasing, but she felt it was so: wicked to despoil the world. Boys, she thought.
“Bad, very bad,” he said, sliding a hand along her shoulder blade; “It’s bad not to do what Tamarind wants.”
Not for the first time, she wondered if he would try to kiss her.
But he didn’t try; they banged the doors shut on the red jeep and rocketed away from the overlook – down, down, down to the sprinkle of roofs that meant Coral Bay, where there were places to park and brand new shops selling abalone and imported beach wear and jewelry made of a milky blue stone native to the Virgin Islands. They paused to look, then flew on toward Saltpond Bay, swooping and rushing, swerving to avoid a baby goat.
She felt a pang of longing for her mother and Steve: what were they doing? Tomorrow her father had the afternoon free. The four of them would drive to Leinster Bay, and where sand yielded to a rocky thrust just opposite to Waterlemon Cay, they would don gear and lasso the island in one long swim. If her little brother tired, she would let him hang on her arm.
Tamarind had looped Waterlemon in dreams: it was already hers, as if her parents’ desire had forced not just a child but a fairyland into being. Falling swiftly from the shore of Leinster Bay, the world under waves would be a pale blue, with light sifting through the ceiling like a fine, luminous flour. Fish would flicker by, dimly seen at first: a cloud of yellowjacks, perhaps, with a fairy basslet bolting for a branch. She would drift over a ring of coral that French angelfish explored, their lower jaws jutting and sulky, their movements dreamy. The gardens were purple and yellow and rust, with globes of brain, staghorn trees, and wafting fans where fish took shelter. The fish would be rainbows broken in the water: stoplight parrotfish and redbands and midnights, queen angels, rock beauties, triggerfish, butterflies. Another world, bright as a shattered prism, lay waiting for her.
“Heaven,” she said aloud.
“What?” Nicholas ran his nails along her arm.
“I was daydreaming about Waterlemon Cay,” she said; “That’s where we’re going tomorrow.” For a few minutes she had forgotten him, but now she turned to look, surprised once more that one so handsome and sure of himself had noticed her.
“Heaven, huh? Well, mobs of fish gather there. The coral’s in good shape.”
She smiled, thinking about why they were going. Her parents had made the circuit of Waterlemon only hours before she was conceived. Of course, she wouldn’t tell Nicholas. She was too timid, like a small coral-dwelling fish: the shy hamlet, perhaps.
“Here we are – Saltpond Bay.” With a twitch of the wheel, he veered onto the dirt, spraying pebbles.
The shore wasn’t far. That its border of sand was littered with cast-off fingers of reef surprised Tamarind. Convoluted pieces of brain lay in bleached mounds like a graveyard of coral. Only a modest display with map and guide to wildlife, faded to a drowned blue, suggested the national park. After a glance at the board, she waded the shallows, watching the minnows sling themselves away from her feet. The water felt cooler than she had expected. Nicholas had already thrown himself into the sea, striking out for a yacht moored in the bay. In a few minutes, he hoisted himself onto the deck. Tamarind shaded her eyes; she could see him gesticulate, a drink in one hand. He’s not a bit shy. Soon he crashed back into the water and swam toward shore, where he flung himself onto wet sand. No, he hadn’t known the couple on board. It was just a lark.
“Oh, that’s good.” Lying half in, half out of the waves, he pillowed his head on one arm and closed his eyes. “The sun’s just right.”
Slowly his smile eased away and he was asleep, breathing deeply; it seemed to the girl that he did everything to excess, and she felt abandoned and lonely. She glanced at her near neighbors, who were gathering up scattered snorkels, masks, and towels.
A small boy sat shivering on a rock, occasionally calling out to his father.
“There’s all these mean black pointy things that hurt my feet,” he yelled.
“We’re not going to come get you. You’ve got legs – get yourself back.”
Tamarind wondered if he would’ve rescued the child if there hadn’t been another man along. The son would have to prove himself now. He hunkered there for a long time before jumping in.
Afterward, she stripped to her bathing suit – feeling self-conscious because Nicholas had been awakened by the slap of a wave and now watched her without expression. When she waded into the water, he rolled over and pushed himself onto hands and knees before standing. He flicked the hair from his eyes with a jerk of the head. “I’m going for another swim.”
Tamarind didn’t reply, guessing that he never asked permission of anyone. There was no use in feeling a twinge of hurt, not when she hardly knew him.
As she slipped into the waves, she was pleased to spot a young tang, yellow as a slice of sunshine. The child was right; urchins with long spines had invaded the bay and clustered among the coral and rocks. Her mother had said that the sea plunged quickly at Leinster, but here she felt too close to the coral and was fearful of being scraped and gashed. Now and then she rose and scanned the bay; Nicholas was proving to be a strong swimmer, arrowing far from shore. Slowly she drifted above the beds, a little disappointed that she didn’t see more fish, and that the coral appeared so drab.
While treading water, she looked about and saw that he had returned again and was floating close by. The boy on the rock and his family had departed, and several other groups had taken their spot. When Nicholas lifted his face, she pulled her mouthpiece aside.
“Time seems dreamy when you’re in the ocean,” she said.
“Maybe an hour. A bit more.”
She dove, caught sight of a trunkfish, and surfaced in a panic. The spikes of urchins had seemed about to pierce her hands. Tomorrow she would remember to bring gloves, she told herself, though surely the waves would be milder at Leinster.
“Everything appears about a quarter bigger and nearer,” Nicholas told her; “Salt water magnifies the floor.”
She spat out the snorkel and raised the mask. “I don’t like the urchins so much.”
“No? I love the way they look, so dramatic and inky. Gothic.”
He tugged at her fingers and she floated toward him and perched on his knee, her toes curled tight. She was more tired than she’d thought she would be, and the tears came into her eyes. When he drew her forward, she rested against him for a moment.
“Tamarind is a lovely little mer-creature,” he said; “I’ll keep her in a glass jar and feed her slips of sushi.”
“I’ve got legs.”
“Very fine ones, too.” His hand brushed against her calf. “You’re so lovely today that I think you must be at the very peak of your beauty. Like a flower that needs picking.”
“That would be sad. What about you?”
“Me? Not a flower – a fire thorn, maybe. But you’re one. Unless you’re a mermaid. Though I guess you’re trembling too much to be a sea girl, because they don’t get cold. Let’s go in – we can walk to Salt Pond and the bay beyond.” He pushed the mask up. “Want to? It’s on the other side of Ram Head. Not far, according to the map.”
“What’s that beach called?”
“Drunk Bay. There’s Trunk Bay and Drunk Bay. Everybody goes to Trunk, though.”
Salt Pond was three things: low rippling water to their right, a narrow seam of path, and, to the left, dense vegetation with cactus – the taller sort called pipe organ or, more grossly, dildo cactus. Intermixed were clusters of turk’s cap, green barrels topped by red and bristly hats garnished with the occasional pink flower. It was dimmer than in the bay, though why there should be less sun was not obvious. Tamarind missed the rhythmic slap of the waves. Salt Pond felt claustrophobic in contrast. But it was interesting, she acknowledged.
“A hermit crab!” She was as pleased as a little child, spying the trundling shell. For the hike, she had insisted on putting her leafy skirt and white blouse over her swimsuit. The water shoes squelched as she walked, but the going was easier here, where there was no coral to hurt her feet.
“Soldier crabs,” Nicholas corrected,” crawling around in their shell tanks.” He seized hold of a large one with a cone-shaped turret as big as his fist.
“Look at that! It’s huge! I wonder if that’s what – I dived and picked up a conch, but when I lifted it from the water, a claw poked out and I let go.” She drew back as the crab waved a pincer.
“Probably just a sea-going soldier. Want me to drag him out of his lair? So you can get a look at him naked?”
“No, don’t! That’s mean,” she said, but he only laughed and tossed the crab into the underbrush.
Afterward they switched places; now he was tailing her, whistling and occasionally pausing to skip stones across Salt Pond.
“You’re really good at that.”
“All in the wrist.” He made a flicking motion with his hand.
Tamarind had begun to feel uneasy. It took her some minutes to realize why, because the sound had begun so gradually.
“What’s that?” She half turned, looking across Salt Pond and listening.
She couldn’t think what it reminded her of at first. Then she remembered a family trip to Niagara Falls. The faraway thunder of the river as it catapulted over the cliffs had crept into her mind in just the same way. The fright of coming on the falls was of an order of magnitude akin to what she imagined it would be to slam through the atmosphere of Earth and into the infinite black closet of space. She hadn’t cared for the Grand Canyon either, the way the rift in the world disordered the ground.
“That pulse,” she whispered.
Nicholas drew her close until her ear was against his chest, and she could hear the steady tidal thump of his heart.
“Drunk Bay, I suppose,” he said.
And he kissed her, just when she was no longer wondering whether he ever would or when. Which was just like a boy. But it was exciting, this kiss, because it was all mixed up with a fear that was in turn whipped by the rhythmical threat of Drunk Bay. The flare of desire, the edge of his palm brushing the curve of her breast, and the drumming of his heart conspired to make her forget the bluster of the waves, but she did not; instead, the sound seemed to widen and thrum and flower around her. When her eyes opened, she saw the eyelashes black and spiky against his skin. His mouth tasted of cinnamon and cloves.
“Tamarind, Tamarind.” He sighed, weaving her fingers with his and luring her along the path.
She would have liked to kiss him another time, wished the edge of his hand to barely meet the rise of her breast, wished to taste his mouth. She wanted to lean against him and hear the muscle of his heart, yielding up the message tucked in emptied shells: the sea, the sea, the sea. Her nerves, linked with his, trembled and shone like a pale-barked sapling in the sun and breeze. The passage wasn’t wide enough for two, but his grasp kept her close.
The thudding that was not his heart but the rhythm of Drunk Bay made her stop, fingers loosening.
“I want to go back.”
“Come on,” he said, “why don’t you come on? It’s just a bay. They’re all different. That’s the fun of poking around the island. Is it the noise? Come on.”
She thought of whirling to race toward Saltpond Bay. But what silliness! This was no obscure track through wilderness; the route had been marked with a stippled line on the park maps, and the ground showed wear from many feet.
“All right,” she said.
And then they were at Drunk Bay, the rut lifting slightly and vanishing into a landscape of cobbles and spars, with a boulder hard to the left and a tide that forced itself, jostling with coral and white with foam, onto the land. It was bewildering, really, how one minute they were hemmed in, following the seam of the shadowy Saltpond walk, and the next, the world had shaken itself free of the interior. Tamarind stood on the brink where trail transformed to monstrous beach, her hands held out slightly to steady herself in the wind, the leaves of her skirt whipping. The other side of the Ram Head point was savage, subject to riptide and blast, and there was no sand visible, only chunks of dead reef hurled by the thrust of sea. Sky glowed; foam on the waves was lurid. Incessant breakage of ocean against beach had been the source of the ominous, omnipresent, slowly swelling sound that had threatened her on the path. For one held breath, Tamarind felt only astonishment at the fierceness of the surf and the rough bones of coral.
Then she began to see more. It was as though an unreeled scroll lay before her, one she had assumed to be in an ancient tongue until a word here and another there revealed her own language, curiously inscribed. A child-sized cairn speared through by a crooked cross stood directly in her way; beyond it, she saw a massive boulder studded with shelving projections.
“Skeletons,” she whispered, but that wasn’t it. The figures, dead white, reclined on bunks of rock – oval heads of brain with arms and legs made of branch and other coral. There was something of the barrow and Stone Age about the scene: a trick of time that made this world into another.
The jagged surface hurt her feet through the thin water shoes. She read the inscription on the cross – not the name of some lost child but a hiker’s admonition to pack out trash. She laughed in relief, turning to follow Nicholas, who had wandered farther down the bay.
“How weird,” she murmured, her eye lighting on another figure, collapsed onto the rubble. Had it been a local or a tourist who scraped his knees on coral as he fitted together the head and neck, the torso, the arms and legs and feet, added disks for buttons and bewigged the head with string, bleached and frizzed by long immersion? She looked about and realized that form after form lay tumbled on the ground or propped against boulders: a pair of twins, their heads bald and oval; crude sexless beings with seaweed or ravels of wind-teased strings in their hands; a delicate creature with a toothed mouth that was the underside of a cowrie shell; a boy pinned to the earth by the enormous scepter of a phallus. A sculpture of coral, twine, and narrow boards resembled a gallows. The blades of another suggested a windmill, and on an outstretched line that had been pegged to the ground, a tied stick of driftwood twiddled. Beyond these contraptions Tamarind could make out further ranks in the mortuary of coral, the bodies diminishing as the beach swept into the distance – as if Drunk Bay might be infinite.
Where wild waves had flung booty of destruction, some obsessive visitor had sorted shells, sea glass, and salt-raveled rope into separate mounds. It was like some fantastic concentration camp at the end of the world, with its corpses and harvest – stacks devoted to teeth, shoes, or hair. Mist rose up like smoke from the dissolution.
A druidic ring suggested a miniature Stonehenge. Pairs of columns were capped by a flat lintel, and although a first glance suggested a diorama, the scene retained something of the pagan and the terrible. It might have served as a ceremonial stage for fairies – not the pastel flower-bearers sold in shops but sharp-nosed imps who savored a night’s work of blighting cattle and stealing children.
Nicholas navigated the coral, wind jerking at his hair and clothes as if it would scalp and rip and hurl them toward Saltpond.
“Drunk Bay,” he yelled, exultant, jumping onto a stone; “I’m drunk on Drunk Bay.” With a whoop, he leaped forward, his feet finding purchase on a joggling spar of coral. He teetered for an instant before careening forward and stumbling to a halt beside a sprawled figure.
That one had seemed pitiful to Tamarind. Peculiar, she had thought, how much an expression could be changed by setting two simple pebbles of eyes close together or apart, giving variety to these crude beings.
His left hand fluttered, reaching for balance; with the right, Nicholas snatched the spike of a phallus from the boy. A rock underfoot shot away, and he took several skittering steps before landing securely, the stick of coral raised slantwise to the sky as if he would use it to stab the white disk of the sun.
“Oh!” Tamarind cried out; the altering of the coral child seemed a violation – of what, she was not sure.
He laughed, whirling around.
“Tamarind, Tamarind – ”
With heedless leaps, he plunged toward her. She noticed that his eyes matched the elusive color of the sea just before it hurdled the margin of heaped coral and smashed itself into foam. The buffeting winds and the unleashed waves had awakened a wild gusto in him.
When he kissed her this time, the coral branch in his hand tore a fine layer of skin from her inner arm.
“Ow!” She retreated from him, her arm cocked as she looked at the blood.
“Here,” he said with relish; “Let me lick it.” He seemed not to have the least care for what he had done.
“No.” She took another step. Was he joking? “We ought to be getting back to the jeep.”
“Why? It’s perfect right here.” He shrugged. “Besides, it’s not my jeep. If I want, I can just walk off through the cacti. Go bounding with a herd of goats. I’m the Prince of the Manchineels, remember? I can do whatever I like.”
“I thought your father rented the jeep for the day.” Tamarind’s voice trembled; the breeze dashed her syllables against the coral.
“No. I just borrowed it.”
“What do you mean?” She edged away once more, the pulse at her temple sounding in her ears like the sea.
“I wanted; I took it.”
“So the lunch wasn’t yours – wasn’t your father’s either?”
He smiled, flipping the branch of coral into the air and catching it neatly.
“Could have been. Anything’s conceivable. But I always take what I want. Did I say that already? The world’s my oyster; I eat what I like and toss the rest. That’s how it is.”
She scrambled over a nest of coral twigs and eggs.
“And you know what I want,” he went on. “You could lie down on this nice smooth sand and let me kiss you again, Tamarind. I would like that.”
“No,” she said to the gust of wind. The air was too strong for her, and hard to breathe when it thrust so violently against her face. The sky over the sea had darkened slightly, a cloud shielding the sun. It would be raining offshore in a few moments, letting down one of the brief tropical rains that were here and gone quickly but made the roads slick and hazardous.
When she looked over her shoulder, he was still smiling, the length of coral inscribing circles in the air.
“It’s too bad,” he said; “I ought to send you home to your father. It would be a good lesson to him. Dissing the powers that way, not believing in what’s there to be believed.” He stroked a hand over the place where his heart would be. “Still, pleasure before duty.”
“No,” she said, but faintly. Rain had begun to yield to ocean: a navy-colored cloud wept onto a spot of sea that, deeply shaded, began to glow with luminescence.
“I always get what I want, Tamarind. You ought to see that by now.” He began walking after her, moving lazily, his hips swinging, the coral held lightly in his hand.
The first rock flung against flesh raised an instantaneous weal and bled freely. Tamarind dropped to her knees, the breath rasping in and out of her mouth. Her arm and throat hurt. Panic was in her like a ravel of fishermen’s line knotted with hooks and beads, bedeviled by a corkscrewing wind off the sea. Fear weighted her arms and legs with sinkers.
Nicholas reeled, lifting a hand to his face – the stone egg had made its mark at the left eyebrow.
The rain cloud cast a tide of shadows across the coral.
Figures on the beach were struggling to sit up and teetering onto club feet in rickety unison. Even the circle of two-legged dolmen bestirred itself, each stumbling blindly over a chaos of unmade, unchosen coral. A cry spiraled from Tamarind’s throat. The uprising could have been a comic, skeltonic joke if only it had been tucked behind a luminous screen while she watched, close by Steve and Roy and Lisette. But family was impossibly far, on the other side of the island – it might as well have been on the other side of a mirror or of the moon: on the bright, reflective face, while she was jailed in the darkness of the back side.
Nicholas was laughing as he wiped the blood from his eye.
String-haired and squat, bald and eyeless, knock-kneed and giant, a coral army wavered toward him. They gathered missiles, hammered with their horny fingers against stone, shoved lumps of coral into the remnants of nets to make slings. But all this activity took place inside a silence that was in turn eaten by the gush of the ocean, devoured and forgotten, as if it never had been. Not even the striking of rock and coral against brawn and bone was audible: nothing but sea.
Tamarind glimpsed Nicholas with his mouth open in a roar. His face looked weirdly joyful, as if he had not yet realized any danger. He was whirling about, the scepter in his fist. For a while, it looked like a game of ninepins, heads toppling over and crashing into spines and legs. Domino-sized pieces of coral sprayed the air; then, all chance for play stopped. He was, quite simply, outnumbered. The white sea surged forward and boiled over him.
What was it she had said to Nicholas? Something about the dreaminess of time at the ocean? She flinched; no, it was better to think of a long-legged nightmare folded on one’s breast, refusing to go, making it a fight to breathe the air – the whole battle being packed into a flick of an instant that was also seven years of bondage to hell.
She strained to pierce through shade to where the mob was jostling, pressing, dragging something along the margin of the sea, shoving it slowly up the shore. Reflux scalded her throat with gall. She retched onto the ground, blotted sudden moisture from her eyes. She could make out the stubby and the tottery-tall ones shimmering over their trophy in a mirage-like mass, while a few, almost excluded, dived between legs or jigged with antic glee. The dolmen half-men jittered at the heels of the others. Cute. They’re almost cartoon cute. If only they weren’t–
The subject of their ministrations had completely disappeared in the moil of bodies. Under drifting clouds, the coral took on a fungal glow. A rhythmic clok! clok! clok! could be heard, faint under the crescendo of surf. Tamarind listened harder than she had ever listened to anything. Clok! clok! clok! Arms made from the skeletons of once-living coral rose and fell as regularly as if they were wielding mallets. She made a queer, shivering moan, her teeth set. The high-pitched note of it frightened her, but she couldn’t stop. Motes swirled before her eyes. They, too, were a fearsome swarm. When her sight was altogether black, wholly absence, she might topple into the dark.
A memory of the bees and their combs, with the slow accumulation of sunny days and flowers in cells of wax, wavered like a mirage before her. She clung to the image of purity in shadow: panels of snow faintly gleaming with the gold of stored light. Even now a brave young queen might be skyrocketing above Trunk Bay, a projectile headed into a new world, for the tower with its aged queen would never again be home. And whether queen or slave, the old one in her tattered wedding gown would never escape the infinite cells of her palace. Africans all, laboring after sweetness in the dark tower…
Breathe slowly, slowly. I’m drinking the wind, and it’s too much, too much for anyone. Her blood was freighted with oxygen. Cupping her hands over nose and mouth, she slowed her breaths, counting herself down by one-thousands. Breathe in. One one-thousand. And out. Two one-thousands. And in. Two one-thousands…
Tamarind could see once more. The coral swarm fell away from what they had done. Though some had legs so thin it looked as though bulky torsos were held up by mere scribbles of white, they moved off with surprising quickness. Here and there, a creature began to fold itself up, the dice of toes and slats of legs collapsing onto the bed where it had been joined.
She felt what her stone-time ancestors had felt on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the thrash of surf: whelmed. Surely it had been thousands of years since a menhir had been made in a spirit of awe and in fright at the wideness and lunging power of creation.
But at Drunk Bay someone had been seized by the ancient horror of the world’s overweening, inhuman beauty: had bent, scrabbling after the forms that lay in shapeless chaos. They called to that man or woman: brain! arm! hand! eye! And the newborn artist of the place took hold of a coral spine and laid it on the ground below the oval of a brain. They tamed the ruinous world. If he, he marked his presence. If she, she gave birth to a child with a face as pitted as the moon. They longed to make, as they had surely been made, dreamed into slow being in a time without time, when the universe was void. Perhaps they instilled in the images something of their own loneliness in the world, their desire to protect and to be protected. Perhaps it was also a desire to succor the land by setting something human against the tantrums of the elements. After the first builder, others came and were inspired to create. Yet the place called Drunk Bay was only the stranger for such mortal work of creation.
Tamarind felt all these things as if she had been seared with wisdom in one dazzling strike of lightning. No fire bolted from cloud to coral, scarring her from crown to sole with secret knowledge, but it might as well have done, because a wound was made, though invisible.
Along the beach, more of the beings were collapsing or propping themselves against stone. The sketchy lot she had seen outstretched on shelves of rock wobbled past her now, heading toward sleep.
More rain sifted from the cloud, close beside the lurid sunshine. A few of those sinking onto the shore were moistened by drops as the pall moved steadily off. As light increased, Tamarind could clearly see their handiwork.
A hundred yards down the shore, a barrow made from stones and coral hulked against the backdrop of ocean. Wearing the mystery of a monument that had endured from a prehistoric age, it echoed the cairn at the head of the trail but was larger, and had nothing of a cross about it anywhere. If the winds had been gentler, she might have imagined that some day it would be fertilized and seeded by birds and wreathed with grasses. Bleak as a skull, the tumulus gathered the landscape about itself.
The trembling that began after Nicholas had shrugged off her need to return to Saltpond Bay and the jeep now slackened. She was still weak from that first terror and felt unsure whether she could stand. The scrape on her inner arm made a rhythmic throbbing, but the sea-like pulse of blood in her hand had subsided. Tamarind jerked, startled by a movement: one of figures had not gone to its hard rest but was veering toward her, rocking from side to side. It was the boy Nicholas had mutilated.
The mute, craterous face of the eunuch turned toward hers. The pebble eyes were set far apart, as in a child’s drawing, and the tiny, upturned smile of blue sea glass had a simple sweetness that belied the upheaval of Drunk Bay and the fresh presence of the barrow.
When it became evident that he had come for her, Tamarind managed to rise, hands shaking. He made no sign but limped toward the cairn at the trailhead, occasionally turning his head in its socket to see if she still followed, pausing to wait. In the dim atmosphere of Salt Pond, the stumpy figure seemed to emit a spindly light. The scar of trail was smooth and easy under Tamarind’s feet, yet it felt like a long time had passed before they reached the trees that divided the pond walk from Saltpond Bay. Here, where the path vanished into scrub, she overtook him. For a moment she stood still, peering at the bay through the leaves. As she reached to push aside a branch and pass between trunks, she thought to look back, but he was already gone.
Here the air was sunny, as before. It seemed as though no time had passed, though the groupings of people on the beach suggested that several families might have departed and others arrived since. She remembered the boy on the rock; perhaps his mother was now poking at his feet with a needle, prying out the black tips of spines while she complained against the ways of men in a fierce whisper. Nearing a couple lying on a blanket, she turned her face toward the bay, as though she had just caught sight of something fascinating. She kept to the sand at the water’s edge, only once crossing the broken coral in order to retrieve her hat and the net bag of gear. She averted her eyes from the other bundle close beside it.
She didn’t want to consider how she would get back to the Ouestin. If she had to, she would drive the jeep, she supposed, but she didn’t want to touch it – didn’t want to see its fire-engine shine ever again.
“Hey! Hey! Mango – ”
A child waylaid her, signaling with a shovel.
Tamarind stopped, staring at the little girl. It took her much longer than usual to see what lay before her: to recognize the snub nose and silky hair, the frog on the front of her play suit.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, moisture springing to her eyes. When she kneeled, letting down the shoulder bag, the toddler hugged her ecstatically.
The pregnant mother was wading in the shallows, close to another child who bobbled face down in the waves. He leaped from the water, jerking away his snorkel.
“I saw a fish like a box,” he said, and his words sounded jubilant with discovery; “It had corners.”
His mother swung him out of the water, but he splashed back in.
“Oh, now I remember,” she said to Tamarind. The faille tank top to her suit rode up, showing a crescent of belly. “You’re the girl with the blue flower.” She lifted her sunglasses and gazed at her. “Is something the matter?”
“My ride.” Tamarind coughed, blinked against the tears. “My ride left me behind.” Her voice trembled when she asked, “Could you give me a lift to the Ouestin when you go?”
Tamarind went to bed early, but in the morning she rode in another rented jeep with Roy and Lisette and Steve. They drove to Leinster Bay and traipsed the path through the trees to the stones and strip of sand opposite Waterlemon Cay. Tamarind’s mother had tucked a frangipani flower in her daughter’s hair. They had all noticed some alteration in her mood but thought little of it.
With them she swam twice around the island, but all that day she never spoke about anything that had taken place on the afternoon before. She was afraid of what had happened; equally, she was afraid of being questioned.
Despite everything, the circuit of the island was just as beautiful as she had dreamed it would be, when she was a little girl. In the bay the water was a sky blue, light-drenched and cool, and the world dropped away quickly. When she gained the reef, she swam above corals that were not bleached but gay with color. Sea feathers yielded, fluttering with the current. The fish were radiant, whisking to the shelter of staghorn or hiding under the curl of a live fan.
She forgot nothing. The taste of cinnamon, the hand close to her breast, the clustering bees: all of the previous day was with her, so that she did not want to stray too far from Steve and her parents. She feared some manifestation of darkness in the water, but none came. Instead, the shadow of the last day seemed to throw this one into dramatic relief.
And then the queen angels and the parrotfish and the fairy basslet and a host of others – the bright, broken pieces of her long-desired rainbow – made her forget, so that she lay entranced for a long time on the skin of the water, gazing at the flashing of fish through beds of coral. The pain of salt on her arm’s tender scrape seemed to fall into abeyance. The secret world under the sea was a fount of life, and, lost in witness, she stopped dreading the shadows of barracuda and shark. Light dispersed from the summery sky; she drifted on the waves above angel and fairy, and it came to her that this underwater garden was, as her mother had promised, a glimpse of heaven. For some obscure length of time she was pierced by the loveliness and the joyful profusion of fantasy trees and flowers. All that was Tamarind seemed to melt into the cradling waves and the shared-out rainbows and the living coral, so that she felt herself to be as rich and strange as the very seas of paradise.