Outside the Island
It is from Dead Man’s Cove that the small group leaves. The sign reads ‘Pretty Beach’ and is nailed to a tree at a rakish angle. Soledad traces the faded yellow lettering with her fingers, watching the boat disappear out of sight. She had renamed the beach for the benefit of tourists like these, but had neglected to inform anyone else, and many a hot and exasperated khaki-clad body, with extremities already turning the pale pink of the first colours of sunset turned back in defeat when told no place of that name existed.
Knowing instinctively the importance of story, but thinking that this place had none worthy to offer, Soledad had invented a legend involving an indigenous princess, and a handsome dowry paid by the region’s wealthiest land-owner: an island, whose beauty and abundant iguana population would become the newest jewels in the tribe’s coffers. She told this, and other tales of bravery and intrigue, to the glistening, heaving visitors when they came back on the rickety bicycles after their aborted swim, and they would forgive her the irritations, the imperfect fly screens promising an interrupted night’s sleep, the ill-fitting doors and the mismatched linen.
Most never found out Soledad was from outside the island, but occasionally, when a lurking cyclone had zapped the lights, and they sat under the muffled glow of gas lanterns and candles, she tells them of her arrival here, a fantastic legend in itself. Her older sister was kidnapped, she says, by an old man with a gold tooth, silk shirt and foreign accent. Soledad would spend three years searching the country, following false leads and circular tip-offs in a desperate and heroic quest.
It was while working as a waitress on one of the shore-line shacks that border the mainland’s ferry terminal that she was told of the country girl kept prisoner in a concrete hut on a small island inhabited only by birds. Over there, she gestures towards the northern corner of the peninsular. And so, Soledad arrived here and enlisted the help of a fisherman, whom she would later marry, to carry out the rescue operation. Lulled by her voice, and the gentle flicker of the lights, most never notice that the timeframes made the conception of her children (watching, dark-eyed from the hammock in the corner) somewhat miraculous, and or ask pedantic questions about what happened to the old man in the silk shirt.
Soledad turns from the beach to head home down the track strewn with leaves, the bare trees having lost hope the rains would come. Glancing upwards at the resolutely blue sky, she counts off in her head the things she will take to the hospital later that day.
The peninsular is serviced by a concrete box of a hospital, garishly painted pink after a spat between two rival senators over public infrastructure. The port was cluttered for weeks by lithe young men with paint-pots, their heads wrapped in old shirts to protect them from the pulsating heat of the sun, claiming each man’s territory and love for his city in alternate pink and green.
It is in the hospital, now known locally as the sweetshop, that Soledad will spend the night in vigil over her best friend, giving Merced’s husband some much-needed respite. Not just best friend and sister-in-law, but also partner in the ramshackle huts called charming by the brochures distributed on glass-topped counters in countries where the sun and seasons can be trusted to behave themselves. Genuinely indigenous, Merced must have been the inspiration for the story of the princess, as her glossy brown skin and butterfly fingers always put Soledad in mind of the rich dark soil under their feet, and the insects that emerged in a constant stream from the tropical forest surrounding their village.
Back in her dark house, Soledad gathers together clothes and fresh bedding. She farewells her husband, who sits in a wooden rocking chair on the verandah, patiently knotting and re-knotting his net torn on the nearby reef. He barely acknowledges her presence so she flaps at him dismissively and continues down to the wharf, where the passenger boat that services the islanders is waiting. Sheltered by land on both sides, the island’s waters never experience the swell or wild waves of the open ocean. Tamed by its flatness, most of the resident boatsmen never learn to swim, although they scorn the regulation life jackets distributed annually by the coast guards and funded by foreigners. The passengers hug the bright orange floaters to their chests, and the breeze whips Soledad’s long dark hair across her face in salty strands.
It is past six when she arrives at the hospital. The pale green room has survived the rose-coloured onslaught wreaked on the external walls, but the yellowish glare of the fluorescent tubes throws a sickly hue over the threadbare sheets of the patients. It is empty, except for the four beds, two chairs and a rusty fan valiantly attempting to move the air that hangs thick and still. Merced’s husband occupies one of the chairs. Hands folded in his lap, pulling at each finger, one by one. He looks up at her, then looks back at the unconscious figure in the bed. Other men have wives and many mistresses, he says, standing and putting his hand on Soledad’s shoulder. But she is all I have. Go and sleep for a while, she replies, I’ll call if anything changes. He nods, and turns to leave.
Moving closer to the bed Soledad reaches out and traces the outline of her friend’s face. Skin waxy and soft under her calloused fingertips, breath light and regular.
Hours later, she falls asleep in the white plastic chair sporting the logo of the local rum, owner of the sugar-refining factory that was accused of dumping its waste in the peninsula’s waters. The islanders wonder about the illnesses they had never seen before, but the sugar executives laugh, and tell them to start expanding their gene pool, saying marrying your cousin is more dangerous than too much sugar.
Awaking with a start, Soledad notices the fan is no longer rotating. The room is silent, although she can hear the muffled footsteps of a night nurse in the adjoining ward. She stands and bends her head down to listen. The silence seems louder suddenly, and her chest fills up with words she’s swallowed and can now never say. Straightening up, she reaches for her telephone.
By the weak light of dawn, she dresses the body in the cold, clean morgue, whose fleshy pink walls make her gag as she struggles with elastic and buttons. The assistants transfer the body to the waiting coffin, garishly ornate compared to the plain walls and metal bays of the room. Outside, a dusty station wagon is waiting. The boot is not quite long enough to hold the coffin, so the driver ties down the door with fraying red rope. People turn to stare at the bouncing back door and the protruding edge of the casket as the car crawls through the already crowded streets.
Arriving at the port, a truck’s radio blasts English golden oldies, and the wharf workers inexpertly mouth the words as they toss the night’s catch into the refrigerated trailer. A sweet smell of fresh fish hangs heavy in the air, stronger than the salt and only with a vague promise of future decay. The hearse driver calls a few of the men over to help transport the coffin to the waiting wooden dinghy. They silently acquiesce, exchanging startled glances as they shoulder the dark box, the thin polished veneer already chipped from the journey.
A broken watermelon bobs in the waves, stripy green skin and scarlet flesh an abrupt contrast to the dull plastic wrappers that clutter the water bordering the concrete steps leading to the boat. The youngest assistant slips on the algal forest underfoot and for a moment it seems like they will all fall in. Stifling a giggle, Soledad imagines them all diving headfirst into the sea, coffin, flowers and men joining the flotsam and jetsam without home or destination.
They manage to install the coffin, the unraveling wreath, the captain and the husband, and she carefully moves to join them, clasping the forearm of the hearse driver, who gives her a sympathetic toothless grin. As they set off, the husband lifts the lid and glass pane, and strokes the dead woman’s face, mirroring her own movement of the night before. He leans down, lips pursed, and Soledad turns away, narrowing her eyes against the glare. Orange and blue blobs and stripes swim across her eyes. The island appears in the distance, a waxy dark shadow that wobbles in the heat. The flowers wilt, slowly losing their colour and smell, and she shreds petals into a small defeated pile.
As they arrive at the beach, Merced’s mother falls to her knees and wails at the cloudless sky. Father and brothers silently move towards the boat as they disembark and shoulder the coffin, ankle deep in the lapping water. They turn and head up the path back towards the village and the family’s home.
Relatives arrive from the surrounding islands for the first time in decades, and focus immediately on her speckled skin and pointy features, unspoken questions in their arched eyebrows. She’s not from here, the answering shrug of the shoulders from the immediate family. Married one of the brothers, in a whisper.
The occupants cleave into two groups after paying their respects to the coffin, now the centerpiece of the wooden dining table. Women install themselves in the kitchen, and don floral aprons incongruous with their somber clothing. Soon platters of fried bananas, rice and cabbage salad are precariously balanced on the small side tables cluttering the four walls of the crowded room. Outside, the men are in loose formations, younger men leaning against the concrete wall of the patio, the older ones in plastic chairs. Bottles pile up, but voices stay muted, and their eyes follow the games of the children in the adjoining field. The husband flits in and out, staying awhile with his hand caressing the glass pane, then turning away.
It is past midnight when there is an unspoken decision to abandon the customary all-night vigil. The body has bloated in the heat, straining against the hand stitching of the mauve suit made especially for this occasion. The starchy aroma of cooked rice, mixed with the heavy sweetness of the fallen mangos from the trees outside, masks the odorous gases emitting from the coffin, but the concentric circles of family and neighbours jostling to peer in has gradually grown wider, rippling outwards onto the patio.
The cemetery is back on the mainland, where it is said the islanders can more easily accept moving to a better place. Father and brothers shoulder the coffin once again. The mourners shuffle back down to the shore, accompanied by the dusky light of handheld lanterns. Lightning cracks and the sky shakes, obliterating for a moment the sniffing and soft singing.
They pile into their small wooden crafts, the darkness hiding imperfect paint jobs of hand-sketched mermaids and cartoon characters, turning them into a uniform Hadean fleet. Soledad backs away from the shore, standing under the deeper shadows of the tree guarding the track back to the huts. The flames of the lanterns dance and the silhouettes of the boaters are thrown long across the water. The chugging of the motors forms a purring chorus that remains strong even as the lights shrink and blend into the reflections of the stars.
The procession fades into the horizon, leaving Soledad alone again on the beach. She reaches up and fingers the sign nailed to the tree, the letters cool and familiar. It begins to rain.