For Gordon Rohlehr
i woke one morning and the Caribbean was gone.
She’d definitely been there the night before, i’d heard her
singing in crickets and grasshoppers to the tambourine of the oncoming rain.
A childhood song. i slept down into childhood.
i woke blinking in a null glare without sunbeams, with no winkling motes,
all things bright and 20/20 visible in neon but unilluminated.
And though the finches, doves, bananaquits, tremblers, grackles, mockingbirds
sang to each other still, the music ended when their singing ended.
Not like the day before when what they sang were motifs in an overture,
a maypole reeling and unreeling of ourselves and other selves of nature
swirling out into a futuriginal symphony of civilisation entitling itself Caribbean.
i thought: she can’t be gone. If she is gone,
what is this place? With her gone, who am i?
If she is gone, who braids the fraying fibres of memory into accord?
Traces the beach footprints of our children back to the first tracks of the Ciboney?
Who plaits the scattered flowers of islands and sprigs of continent into a votive wreath
cast in appeasement on the ocean restless with the unrestituted dead
to sea us into the altering calm of Sunday mornings, trees in surplices of light
and the allaying litany of the waves’ asking and the sand’s assenting?
i thought: She isn’t gone, just hidden. i’ll go find her.
And so i went looking.
i went first to the beach, of course, remembering
how she loved fluidities, the wavering margins of the sand and water,
the way that wind could soothe into the stinging of the sun’s rays –
the original elements, she’d said, dwelling within themselves while intermingling.
But at the beach, the barricades of deckchairs, ramparts of pastel walls
blocked any wandering. A non-pastel guard, though, told me he’d glimpsed her
walking off between clipped hedges that closed after her into a maze,
tatters of madras hanging where there used to be hibiscus.
There had been rumours of hotel managers trying to hire the sunlight,
contract the hurricane into a breeze for gently fluttering brochures,
draw columns of strict profit margins permanently on the sand;
and the Caribbean, sensing the intimation of quick, crab-like hands crawling
to get underneath the white broderie anglaise of her skirt, withdrew herself
the way the sea, clenching herself into a tidal wave, withdraws.
i left the beach, wondering my way back towards a town still struggling towards a city,
looking for her, as i used to, in an unexpectedness of roadside flowers,
a sudden glorying of croton plashing against a low grey house,
a slump of cane leaning into the road, just so, beside a shack.
And it was strange, their way now of receding from me while remaining.
Into the town, following the fadeout track of a child’s footsteps into memory
or perhaps trailing the under-scent of hot molasses, her history’s black sweat,
i dipped into the volatile conviviality of rumshops, their ricochet of dominoes,
cracking reports of man-to-man talk, the slam of coins on counter,
brawling laughter half an inch short of a fight, the bottle tipping, rum-settling everything –
the rituals exactly as they were when i was nine and she’d walked the whole neighbourhood.
i asked the rum acolytes – who unbowed their heads from drinks and dominoes and swore
she’d just been there, just! They asked me where she’d gone!
i left them in a spluttering fusillade of words about who’d seen her last
and stepped into a Saturday morning of a market hopscotched with vendors,
their come-to-me calls criss-crossing in a birdflight chattering,
their seasonings, vegetables, fruits set out in clusters – breves, crochets, minims
of aubergine, pomerac, thyme along the staves of foodpaths – and i thought:
Surely, somewhere within this kente-tartan-madras self-arranging medley,
this market-women melody within sound and smell of the hot pepper sizzling of Accra,
i will find her? And, tell you the truth, there was one moment:
A woman, sitting thighs akimbo, the cascade of her wide blue skirt
falling towards the plenitude she’d gathered from her hillside garden
from the abundance of her country where land is still the earth,
called out to me, one hand holding the green orb of an avocado:
‘Solinah friend! For you.’
And then the ceremonies of thanks, gracious inquiries, regards, ‘Ba-bye.’
And somewhere in this intermingling, though i didn’t know, the moment:
between her fingers loosening from / mine tightening around
(both of us holding, neither of us quite owning, in that strange interval)
what she was giving me, what i was accepting, in that green present
which i received really only later that day when i’d stopped looking
and realisation ripened like a fruit or vegetable or whatever people call an avocado.
i left the market and the moment without knowing
where my feet were going or should go or if there was a where
that i could go to in the certainty of finding her.
i walked, all i could do was walk.
The streets still knew each other’s names, met at corners, exchanged views –
St Louis gossiping with Coral, Marchand Road turning to Riverside,
joined in one conversation till Mary Ann, then Brazil, interrupted –
but fewer people heard them; their chat, their names, dispersed to whispers
in the snarl of vehicles revving further north to Rodney Heights, to Cap Estate, to NY 00001…
i stood at a crossroads, squinting at an oncoming rush of cars wearing wraparound dark glasses,
trying to see into them in case someone had taken her for a ride.
i failed. Too fast, too loud, too tinted. Not just cars. The whole thing.
i kept walking:
past the downtown, quick-change, wannabe boutiques with glitzy accessories,
the young women inside clickety-jangling glass beads, ankle chains, slave bangles,
themselves accessories of the unraveling tawdry evening dress of empire;
i passed the cave mouths of the games arcades, their gnash and screeling in a dimness
juddering with the silhouettes of our children transmogrified into Ameritrons;
i recognised my son’s friend; his eyes clicked; de-recognised me; i kept walking.
The slow lemon light of the hours after work, accumulated weeklong,
slid down the sides of buildings drained of meaning on a Saturday afternoon;
incipient growth of evening shadow on the façades of stores, banks, offices;
the crick of faces loosening their rictuses; the after-sound of slackening footsteps
going home. And something still undone, unfelt. Missed. Where was she?
And if in truth she had gone – the centuries of her civilising presence, in the air like sea salt,
the cascade of good years like grains of rice pouring from cup to pot, generations
of her mothering, neighbouring, villaging, lend-hand, raising up, lifting up
our eyes higher than empty hands closing into tight fists to scratch an itch of silver,
if after all this, she had gone, what wider absence was there left to know
except the sky-wide absence of our not even knowing?
So now – walk home? Sun winking red, last minutes of battery life… Walk home.
Same house. Yet not. It too has receded into the elsewhere of the intimate distance
with the crotons, the cane stalks near the shack, the greying flower-flecked road,
into the infinitesimal distance between longing memory and a wanting present.
Open the door. Walk into displacement. Sit at a kitchen table. Stare
at a half-curled hand of bananas, some knuckles of turmeric, straw basket clutching tomatoes…
The wisp of a remembered argument – Is tomato a vegetable or fruit? –
reminds you of the avocado in your backpack. The gift from her,
a woman whom you didn’t know and who did not know you but you both knew
And somewhere along the arc out of my bag onto the kitchen table, the avocado
ripened into me: in the hot haggling of the market, a gift between two strangers
for her sake. In the green globe of one moment, the seed of a whole civilisation.
Really? Had a market woman, hand raised with a gift, from her to me
through Solinah, in that casual gesture traced the curving line that rounds into community?
Romanticism, surely? Yet how else, through centuries of the stock exchange of flesh
– glistened black bodies > < tarnished silver coins transacted on an auction block –
how else had the bought-and-sold kept within their own unchatteled selves?
Gift. The unslaved remembering of hands held out with no calculating fingers, offering
the graciousness that grows out of a ground of knowing: existence is a grace.
Grace eliding into graciousness eliding into gift. The first fruits of civilisation.
And since that glimpse like a green flash, i’ve seen her, the Caribbean,
in unexpected places. Her visitations are a gleam and then a dimming:
a far hillside district, descendant of a freetown settlement, in the midday light;
or a glint of zinc from a house changing half of its roof on a Saturday half-day, given
to a koudmen, lend-hand, gayap, koumbit, fajina, jollification, maroon, gotong rojong,
or whatever people say to try to nail with names the element beyond grasp, above our heads,
holding the sheltering restored roof of community in place. Harder to find now,
and when found, held better lightly, in an open palm; then best unheld, let go
in an unexpected, unexpecting, freehand green thankful of avocado.
‘Avocado’ was originally published in So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans (Little Island Press, Pacific Islands & ANZ 2017; Peekash Press, Caribbean, US & CAN 2017; Telegram Books, UK 2018).