My lover is never happy. I met him a year ago when I was diving at the Land and Sea Park. I’m the warden and it is my job to examine the chains and shackles of the moorings. Without them, people would drop anchors on the reef, crush the coral.
The first cold front had come and gone. Swell had broken branches of elk-horn coral, but the sea had momentarily returned to the calm of summer. I saw Cuda’s skiff, a glass-bottomed bucket, a gas can, a ball of clothes. Nothing moved around the boat, over the reef. The flat surface rose and fell like the side of an animal.
The reef grows near a channel between two long, fringing islands that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the shallow inside waters. Around the full moon the tides flow strongly in and out of the channel, the water pushing along the islands until it finds passage through. I sometimes worry during these extreme tides that someone snorkeling on the reef will be overcome by the current, swept out to sea.
The moorings are made of cement pilings resting on sand in twenty-five feet of water. I spit in my mask and rinsed it before putting it over my face and pulling on my long Scuba fins. It was still early in the morning and when I jumped in I saw the reef in sharply contrasting shadows and circles of light. The school of blue tangs, which I have watched grow in thousands, seemed joined to the reef, swaying this way and that like a crowd of rare sea fans, their tiny pectoral fins fluttering like clear silk.
At the surface I blew out a few times and then drew in a deep breath to dive down to the first piling. I swam down along the chain searching for corrosion and then I held the shackle in my hand to see the pin was still securely fastened with wire. At that moment I felt something brush across the skin on my shoulder. Sharks do this, but even as I stopped, letting go of the metal piece and turning, I knew it was a person. I saw Cuda’s laughing eyes, felt all the air release out of my lungs, shocked at how he was right behind my back. I pushed away from the bottom, kicking up sand, and swam for the surface.
You have to understand that’s the way Cuda is, a trickster. The locals gave him his name because he is like a barracuda. He tests people, their courage, their patience. Not in a bad way, more like a child will do. People step out of themselves for him. He came up that morning smiling, perhaps the most brilliant smile he’s ever shown me. I sat on the tube of my inflatable too surprised to speak. He pulled himself over the side laughing, coughing.
“I hope you choke to death,” I said.
The Bahama Islands have always been a haven for outcasts—the innocent and the lawless. The original peoples, the Arawaks and Lucayans, were no match for the Spanish. Fifty years after Columbus’s landing they were extinct, gone, with no one to record their language or lifestyle. After the Spanish had taken all the pearls and moved on to the Americas, there were the pirates, then the wreckers, then rum runners and recently, drug smugglers.
People wash up in the islands: Haitians in their jury-rigged boats with stitched flour sacks for sails, crooked tree trunks for masts; retired Americans who never want the holiday to end, who find themselves in the morning at other people’s houses with rum and mosquitoes in their mouths; Europeans who wear G-strings on the beach in front of Club Med and dance in the cabaret at night; tax dodgers; drifters; people escaping the rat race; people starting a new life; people who plan on sailing around the world but never do; dreamers.
Once I found a strange man at the park. There are four small islands inside the park boundary, nothing more than sand, low shrubs, limestone rocks occupied by bird eggs and geckos. The man was on one of these islands alone. He carried a small backpack on one shoulder and wore nothing else but a pair of cut-off jeans. As I came in with the boat he began wading out in the water towards me. I cut the engine and let the boat glide into the shallows. From a distance I could see his face and shoulders were badly sunburnt.
“Please,” he said. “I need a lift to town.”
As he spoke he raised his face and I saw his eyes were burned too.
“Where’s your boat?” I asked.
“Gone,” he said.
“It broke loose?”
He shook his head. “They left me. They put me ashore.”
His eyes were red, like an old rummy’s eyes. I thought I saw something savage like a sick dog in them. I wondered if rescuing abandoned sailors was part of my job.
“Why did they leave you here?”
He shrugged. I gave him my bottle of water.
“Merci. Thank you,” he said and drank from it.
During the boat ride to town he stood beside me, holding onto the console. He asked me questions.
“Is this your boat?” he started.
“Do you live here? Ah, you are from here? Which island do you live on?”
I began to lie. “My husband and I come here in the winter. We live in Ft. Lauderdale.”
“Ah. So today you are cruising by yourself.”
“Lucky for me.”
I took him to town without giving him my name or offering a place to stay. I saw him almost every day for the next few weeks. He slept on the north beach. In the daytime he sat on the steps to the post office or on the swing outside the library, hoping to find someone sailing south to St. Maarten or Guadeloupe or someone kind enough to offer him a meal. I wondered if he had found out that I was the park warden and that I lived in a house on the point and that I wasn’t married. At night when it rained I thought of him sleeping on the beach and wondered what had happened, what he had done to become a castaway. I could still see the madness in his eyes, thoughts passing quickly through his mind. Then his luck must have changed, some boat perhaps needing more crew. I never saw him again.
Cuda is an outcast in his own mind. The longer he stays here the less chance there is that he will ever leave. He talks about other places, the Galapagos, the Marquesas, the Solomon Islands. He lives on a sailboat in Black Sound. I know this boat, all forty-five feet of it, like it’s my own. Allure she is called, built in Brittany, France, designed by Cornu. She is a sloop made out of mahogany and oak. I have to say that I love this boat and, of all material things, boats can be loved. It comes from having worked on her myself, sanding and varnishing, refastening and caulking planks on her body; it comes from Cuda’s devotion to her, from sleeping inside her, from seeing the lights through her portholes at night when I’m ashore, from her dark past, her unused sails, her always being there in Black Sound among other boats that come and go as ephemeral as the wind.
I know the sound of the anchor chain rolling to one side when she swings. When it rains, I know how to dock the hatches in my sleep. My feet know the left pedal for the sink, which is salt water, and the right pedal, which is fresh. I know her Perkins 4-108 engine and the Coleman generator. I know the birds that have rested on her deck. I know everyone who has ever touched her tiller. I know the photographs of Marguerite, alone, and the ones of Marguerite together with Cuda. I see them every time I pass the chart table. I know the sounds of water under her hull; it is the lullaby for a peaceful sleep, as if I am a child again, resting my head on my mother’s stomach, listening to the noises inside.
The first time I went diving with Cuda, he took me to the freight wreck, a ship called the Viceroy. You can’t see the ship from the surface; it sank in fifty feet of water. You just have to know where it is. Cuda showed me how he lines his course up with a hill on Whale Cay and steers straight out into the Atlantic for three-quarters of a mile. It takes a lot of rope to anchor there. I followed Cuda, crossing through his mercury bubbles down to the broken silt-covered vessel. A school of grunts moved aside and disappeared behind the bow as we approached. Scuba diving calms me. I hear myself breathing, kneel at the bottom, and wait until the fish forget I’m there. I look up at the surface, silver and green with blue hollows for sky. I was feeling this way when Cuda touched my arm. He pointed at the forward hatch and then wrapped the deck with his knuckles. Even under water I could hear this. Then suddenly and miraculously something rose out of the hatch, so fast that I moved back instinctively. It was a green eel coming out like a genie. I don’t know if anyone can imagine how an eel swims. It dances. Its body ripples like a muscular iridescent flag. The eel curled around Cuda’s body like an excited cocker spaniel, mouth opening and closing, tail wriggling, seemingly happy. Sublime, I thought, my heart beating fast. The eel swam around me, touching my waist. I closed my fingers into my hands. “Easy,” I heard myself say, trying to relax. Then the creature, the sea serpent retreated inside the ship without a trace.
That afternoon the ocean was still, reflecting the sky. Cuda pulled the anchor and let the skiff drift farther away from shore. We sat in the bow wrapped in towels, drinking cans of beer. We still hardly knew each other.
“This is my home,” Cuda said. “Some people have houses or condos or apartments. I have the sea. I have fish for my community.” He laughed and waved his arms out to the ocean. “I’m like one of those guys who went to Vietnam and couldn’t come back. They’d seen too much. I’m like that with the sea. It has taken from me and now I’m waiting for it to give me something back. I don’t know what.”
I didn’t know what he was telling me or why. But I thought I understood.
“The Lucayans believed the ocean was created when a calabash full of water and bones was accidentally knocked over,” I said.
We made love right away when we were still strangers, no daydreams or courting. We did it selfishly at first like two lonely people with no time to talk. One morning I got up and stared at the photographs of Marguerite. In them she looks like Cuda, dark-haired, thick eyebrows, a strong square chin. That morning I looked at the Polaroid of she and Cuda at a restaurant. The table is overflowing with candles and wine glasses. There is a whole red snapper on a platter with sliced limes and pineapple, peas-n-rice and johnny cake. Marguerite is wearing a low-cut dress with no bra. I can see her delicate breast bones. Conch pearls dot her ear lobes. Cuda is holding up a bottle of beer. He wears his hibiscus shirt. He still wears it now.
I took the photograph into the forward cabin where Cuda lay naked, staring up through the hatch.
“Is this your sister?” I said.
He took the photograph from me and lay back looking at it for a moment.
“No,” he said. “This is Marguerite.” He sat up and looked directly at me. “Marguerite and I were sailing around the world. We made it from St. Augustine to some place in the ocean east of Cuba. I went below one night to get a fix on our location and when I came back on deck she was gone. I never found her.” He paused and rubbed a hand over his chest. I heard something loud inside my head like a jet taking off. I saw myself listening but I could barely hear him as he continued. “I was at sea for eighteen days looking for her. Then I ran out of fuel and had to come this way with the wind. And here I am. Yours truly.” He smiled weakly.
I’m not very good with grief. I don’t know how to comfort people. I remembered hearing about a young couple who’d been separated at sea.
“I’m sorry, ” I said. “I didn’t know it was you.”
You can’t compete with the dead. They are forgiven all their trespasses. Marguerite, I think to myself, such a beautiful name. Mine is Brynn, short and blunt, “a boy’s name” as people claim. Marguerite, I like to say it sometimes. I have glimpses of her from Cuda; she’s fiery and stubborn and unnecessarily brave, at least that is how he remembers her.
“She was a go-getter,” he says affectionately. “Crazy sometimes.”
He told me about how they got in a fight once. “What about?” I asked. He couldn’t remember, but she had hoisted herself up the mast in the bosun’s chair and wouldn’t come down.
“Honest to God,” he said. “She stayed up there for two nights and three days. I’d beg her, ‘Marguerite, please come down. I’m sorry for whatever I did. Please come down. You have to eat and sleep. You have to go to the bathroom.’
“’I’ll piss on your head,’ she said.” He laughed when he told this story.
Cuda’s father owned a courier service in Florida. When he died he left his son half a million dollars. Cuda had bought Allure with it and was going to sail as far as the money would take him.
“It’s kind of strange getting rich when your father dies. Leaves you feeling empty,” he says. “That’s the way this world is, always giving and always taking away.”
He gets low; for days he won’t leave the sailboat. I feel lost. I go out to the channel and dive up conch. I gather three at a time, gripping them by their firm pink lips or by the knuckles on the outside of the shells. Sometimes the conch weigh three pounds a piece and they feel like anchors, pulling me down. I swim hard for the boat. I tell myself I can get there without letting them go. I drop them over the side, get in the boat, and drive it back up into the current and then it drifts down through the channel again.
When I have eight or nine conch, I go to a beach and break out the meat. I take my little hatchet and chop at the shell between the second and third row of knuckles. Then I stick a blunt knife in the hole and loosen the suction of the muscle on the shell. The whole creature curls out and the juices run over my hands. I cut off the eyes and all the organs, the penis if it has one and the intestines, until I’m left with a square of white muscle, which tightens in my hands as I cut it into smaller pieces.
I’ve seen conch the size of my thumbnail, just developed from an egg enough to have grown a papery, transparent shell. At that stage, if you hold one up to the sun, you can see its tiny heart beating within.
I throw the shells back in the sea and take the meat home and make a salad of it with bird peppers and onions and tomatoes. I do this because I have to do something when Cuda feels bad. I run the boat around to Black Sound. Sometimes before I can tie my boat alongside I hear him shout from below, “Don’t come aboard.” I leave the salad in the stern and push off.
“I’m grieving,” Cuda said to me once. He said it like there was a green tamarind in his mouth.
The way these islands were formed is a story of miracles and mistakes. In the stillness of the islands, where so little changes, I like to imagine their movements through time, their affairs with the sea. First they were part of the original landmass, Pangaea. Then it tore apart, North America and Africa separated, and the Atlantic Ocean filled the space between them. The shallow water beside North America cultivated algae, molluscs and corals that decayed and grew continuously over tens of millions of years until they formed huge beds of lime husks or oolites.
When I studied geology at the University of South Florida I fell in love with words like oolites, calcium carbonate, and accretion.
Oolites eventually accumulated in layers up to three miles deep and during the Ice Ages when the sea was bound up, these small unbecoming shoals emerged as land. The deepest waters in the Bahamas—Tongue of the Ocean and Exuma Sound—geologists believe, were formed by rivers.
The Wisconsin Ice Age brought the sea level down three hundred feet. Then the banks rose, creating one surface: Palaeoprovidence. Winds whipping across Palaeoprovidence formed dunes that later, when the sea rose again, remained as islands.
It’s just a series of accidents how the islands grew. Mangrove seedlings, foot-long probes, became mired in coastal mud and rocky crevices. As their roots claimed an area they became nets for debris, accumulating nutrients, and sheltering marine life. As more deposition occurred, the mangroves were suddenly on dry land. Animals like the hutia, the iguana, and the raccoon arrived clinging onto floating vegetation. Birds like the white egrets were blown across the Atlantic by hurricanes. Coconuts floated from Africa. The Lucayans, who called themselves ‘Lukku-cairi’ or ‘island people,’ arrived in canoes, fleeing from their soulless enemies, the Caribs, who were cannibals.
And new arrivals continue. The year I was born, a plane carrying Cuban birds to Europe was forced to land in Nassau. During the two days the plane was stalled for repairs, the birds inside began to die by the hundreds from the heat. With no means of keeping them alive, officials authorized their release. And so, in one short instance of history, a quick opening of cages, the Cuban grassquit arrived. I like to imagine, although I have never found out the exact date when it happened, that I was born in those minutes when the birds, cramped and exhausted, filled their wings with air. They have since taken over with a vengeance.
I like knowing how all this happened. I like looking at the sago palm and seeing a small woman with paint on her face grinding the roots and stems for flour. She is a sculpted figure, a flat-footed ballerina, with a small pouch of dyed cotton cloth over her vulva. She wears a necklace of pink and white limpet shells and a gold dot can be seen in her nose when she turns into the sun. She rinses the raw sago flour with water, removing its fibers and poison. She will bake bread with the starch or dry it to store for later. When the palm leaves brush together, I can hear the soft music of her voice. She is at peace because she believes her uncle is approaching “coyaba,” a paradise in the afterlife where he will join others in an eternity of feasting and dancing. His moaning has stopped; she no longer hears him wrestle the pain in his hammock where she and her brother have carried him to die in the bush.
This summer Cuda and I dove frequently at night. Our first dive was on a full moon at one of the few places where the rock rises up in a column out of the ocean. In the deep water we see larger fish: hammerhead sharks, their heads like tubes with eyes for holes at each end, and rockfish of over a hundred pounds, schools of squid attracted to our flashlight, shooting backwards like loose hands, and at one hundred feet we sometimes find the miniscule sea slug of vivid red, yellow and white. I have put one on the face of my watch and taken a photograph but the National Geographic Society, as well as the Smithsonian Institute, says it doesn’t exist. It is the same with the sea snakes that are supposed to be limited to the Pacific. Cuda and I have seen them on four occasions, orange with brown dots. Cuda hypothesizes that they have swum up into the bilges of ships that pass through the Panama Canal from the Pacific and pump the snakes out into the Atlantic.
The dive is a few miles east of the island not far from the wall where the depth suddenly plummets to a mile deep. The rock column, we call the Acropolis, brings the depth back up to six fathoms. I have a friend called Luke, a fisherman turned rummy, who will drive the boat for me from time to time in exchange for a bottle of Añejo. Luke has known my family since the citrus days when we had a farm on the mainland. He comes with me like a guardian, like what the Lucayans called a ‘zemi,’ a whimsical spirit who can be good or bad and always has to be appeased. Luke was driving the boat for us that night when Cuda asked me, “Are you afraid?”
“No,” I said. I was sitting on the edge of the boat with my tank on, and so that he knew I wasn’t afraid, I dropped back into the water and swam slowly down with the light pouring ahead. The beam caught the silver flash of a barracuda and a school of pilchards that drew back like a curtain. Soon I could see the shadow of the Acropolis, a steady presence, a woman’s head with schools feeding around it like loose, waving hair. As I swam closer I could see green sea whips bowing towards me and red patches of fire coral, like coals inside the fluted holes of the reef. We discovered a small colony of black coral, a rare and delicate cluster of flexible branches. It was the first time I had seen it alive; most has been taken and made into jewelry. Here it moved like a fine collection of unraveling threads, not static and hard as it is preserved in enamel.
That night as we lay in the cabin of Allure, Cuda stroked his fingers through my short hair.
“What are you afraid of?” he asked in the darkness of the boat.
I thought for a long while. “Change.”
“Come with me,” he said.
I didn’t answer. After an hour or so I heard him sleeping in long, deep breaths. I lay there trying to sleep, smelling the ropes in the bow, the folded sails stowed in bags.
People carry other people within them. In Cuda I can feel Marguerite, how she shaped him, touched him. In me it is the Lucayans who arrived here in canoes just looking for a place to settle, to survive. They had no metals except for gold and that they used to make fish hooks and spear heads. They burned the base of silk cotton trees to fell them and used hot coals to hollow out the trunks for canoes. An open calabash was a bailing bucket. They befriended a small yellow dog, an ‘alco,’ which couldn’t bark, and with them they hunted the hutia, a mammal that survives still in small numbers. These mute dogs were often their pets but sometimes were eaten. The Lucayans smoked cigars of rolled tobacco leaves and slept above the ground in hammocks. They ate in one week what a European eats in a day. They were a people entirely unfit for this world. When the Spaniards brought them from the Bahamas to Hispaniola as slaves to dig for gold, the Lucayans were lured aboard their ships by the promise of being taken to heaven to join their loved ones who were already dead.
Winter is here again and the ocean is too stirred up for diving. A low-pressure system has settled over the northern Bahamas and now the swell rolls in, a drum beat along the shore. I walk the beach in the afternoon, throwing back the small conch left high by the waves. At night I watch the strobe of the lighthouse as it circles the island: across the ocean, white on black, the foam of the inshore waves is highlighted. Then over the hills of the island, lighting up trees bent by the wind. And the harbor, the boat masts, Black Sound where Allure sleeps, and the ocean again. I think about the wreckers and how they were said to hobble a mule and walk it along a hilltop carrying an acetylene lamp. Incoming sailors would see the shifting light and head for it expecting an anchorage or a channel but then they would hear the hissing of the break already on them and feel shuddering through their limbs, the fractured, splintering hull, rendered powerless and coming apart. I think about all the people who were deceived, all the lives taken, the African slaves who were shipped here to grow sugarcane and sisal, the Lucayans who had never seen swords and were said to grasp them by the blade, amazed at how their hands bled.
I think of Marguerite and I can see the night she was lost, how the mainsail and jib are full in a stiff north wind, how Allure is moving along with a clip and Cuda is thinking it might be time to reef the main again. Marguerite is getting tired at the tiller; her arms and back ache from holding it into her stomach. But they are sailing around the world and this is what it is, so she doesn’t complain. The sky is overcast and blank. Once in a while a heavy gust sends Allure like a kite; a wave washes down into the cockpit. Marguerite wears her foul weather jacket but she leaves the hood off and now her face and thick black hair are dripping with spray. The wind is loud in the sails, and when she talks she can’t hear what she’s saying. She licks her lips and stands awkwardly because of the angle of the boat. She stretches her legs and looks below at Cuda who is hunched over a chart with his reading glasses on. “Cuda,” she wants to say. “I’m tired.” But then it’s the cold fingers and the lifeline hitting her thigh and foot and sinking, the foul weather jacket lifting up around her shoulders.
Rhonda Claridge was born and grew up in Nassau, The Bahamas. She has a Master’s in English Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has published creative nonfiction, fiction, and journalism in Brick, A Literary Journal; Nimrod International; The Denver Post; E/The Environmental Magazine, and other publications. Most recently, her short story “In the Distant Waters Land” was published in WomanSpeak, A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women. She teaches English at the Colorado Mesa University—Montrose Campus, and divides her time between Abaco, Bahamas, and the mountains near Telluride, Colorado.