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CARNIVAL – EXCERPT

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Carnival

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EXCERPT FROM CARNIVAL

[from Chapter 1, 2]

Laurence de Boissière was once the tennis champion of Oxford. Don’t think I’m too highly impressed by that as a tennis title, but it meant something to Laurence. He loved tennis, though he did not go to Oxford to play it. In fact, until he arrived there, it did not even occurred to him that they would have had a team. But in a matter of days he had all those English boys running redfaced around the court. This gave him an odd sense of inner satisfaction, which he found he grew to like, although, being extremely well-mannered, and still a little shy, he kept it hidden. And in any case for Laurence the sport was little more than a healthful distraction from his studies. He was really an excellent tennis player. More than that, he was a natural. Beautiful to watch on the court. So talented, the story goes, that his coach at Oxford promptly advised him to give up his degree, and go to the States to train as a professional. This old coach had been around, he knew what he was talking about. He had connections, vision. He was an American himself, from a place called Carmel, California, where such things were imaginable. But only the sound of the name, Carmel, was enough to convince us. Laurence, the coach said, would be a first, and he was right. Not only would he have been the first West Indian to dream of playing on the professional tennis circuit, something which may not have occurred to the coach, in those days he would have been one of the first black men. He would have been famous. He would have been endorsing brand-name sneakers and kids’ cereal. He would have made some serious money.

A few years later Laurence did come to the States, but not as a tennis player. He came as a poet. People at home, still following Laurence’s story—still swooning a little over the name of a place that sounded like it wanted to be a chewy candy, a place that in their own minds already glittered like Hollywood—said the boy was crazy. “Mad like toro,” they said, and it was a real shame for the rest of us, but he’d made an admirable decision. A few of us said it was the only choice that Laurence could have made. It did not prevent his climb to fame and fortune, either. It simply shifted the parameters. Soft-toned it some. I was there to watch it happen. At least the second trajectory. As a matter of fact, when he arrived in Manhattan—not fresh out of Oxford, but from London’s West End where, in addition to being a prize-winning poet with three books already published, he’d also established himself as a successful playwright—though we hadn’t heard from each other in a full ten years, I was the first person Laurence called. He made a point of telling me so himself. And truth is, I was flattered.
There are two secondary boys’ schools at home, one Anglican and government run, the other by the Jesuits, and Laurence and I went together to the Roman Catholic college. But we’d been friends long before then. Because I happened to be one of a dozen spoiled white children literally playing on the precious clay courts back behind the British Club, on the Saturday morning Laurence made his appearance, causing a bigger commess than he did later at Oxford. A lanky and very shy little Laventille boy holding the cheapest kind of wooden drugstore racket that looked like it had been strung with fishing-twine, wearing new and unmarked crepe-soled washykongs, baggy shorts and a stiff-collared shirt his mother had obviously sewn out herself from 12¢ cotton. A lanky and very shy yet willful little Laventille boy who, despite any auspices of his French-Creole surname, could never have made it past the Club’s front door.
Ann-Marie, my freckled, carrot-headed cousin, steupsed out loud. She sucked her teeth. Stomped off the court, her ribboned braids flying, the Pied Piper leading the rest of the spoiled little white children behind her. Laurence and I stood at opposite ends of the court littered by bright yellow balls. We stared at each other over the net. And I can tell you that from that moment, even at nine years of age, even before I could have possibly articulated it for myself, I knew that I adored and despised this boy even as much as I did myself.
I dug a ball out of my pocket. Bounced it with its hollow thud and the puff of detonated dust on the clay surface. Lobbed it over at him.

He swung, holding his racket by the middle of the handle, spinning half way around, missing it altogether. Eventually he managed to swat one into the net. Then to get it over onto my side.

By now the other children had returned, accompanied by several adults, my auntie, Ann-Marie’s mother, among them. It was ten in the morning and the adults, also wearing their tennis costumes, were drinking rum-cocktails out of little glasses. Sam, the Club’s owner, held the beaded silver shaker rattling with ice.
Suddenly my throat ached, like I’d been shouting. The sun was beating down on my head, sweat stinging my eyes. The damp clay smelled like vegetable rot.
We were a spectacle too amusing to stop. The children giggled, my auntie actually guffawed. Laurence and I kept on. Now I missed the ball as often as he did. My racket felt so heavy I could hardly hold it up. My flesh like it was melting off me, sliding from my bones in great, dripping shingles. On the other side of the net, Laurence’s face appeared to have been pounded out of that same wrought-iron as the gate behind him.

So it was ironic, to say the least, that when he called to tell me he’d reserved a court for us at Hudson River Park—though our tennis date was still another two weeks off, though for years now I’d sworn myself off tennis as an exceptionally bourgeois, white people’s sport—I went out immediately and bought the cheapest wooden racket strung with fishing-twine Walgreens had on offer. I was dead broke.

“Compère,” I’d said into the receiver, surprised, genuinely excited to hear his voice. “Me ain’t hit a ball since Bazil wearing shortpants!”
I’d felt ridiculous, embarrassed. Two minutes talking on the phone, and already I sounded like I’d never left. Like a country-bookie. Not Laurence: now he spoke like a proper Englishman.
“Fair enough,” he’d told me. “Neither have I.”

It was one of those perfect Saturday mornings—streetside gypsy flower venders arranging their bunches in white plastic buckets in the bright sun, the halal butcher in his crimson turban just rolling up his galvanized curtain, sleepy bent-over Asians in front of the markets laying out vegetables on beds of crushed ice—one of those perfect, sunny, early summer mornings, when you knew you’d rather be scrunting the most precarious kind of existence in this place, than live like a prince anywhere else on earth.
All I’d found for a tennis outfit was a pair of cut-off Levis and a Despers T-shirt. But fifteen minutes later I remembered that Desperadoes was the Laventille steelband, and I decided Laurence might take it the wrong way. So waiting for the light at the corner of Broadway and West Houston I balanced my racket for a second on the rounded top of a mailbox, pulled the T-shirt up over my head and put it back on inside-out. The rubber soles of my sockless red high-tops were so thin I could feel the cracks in the sidewalks. Count the glass buttons of the basement gratings beneath my feet.

There was still a trace of shyness in Laurence’s smile. I wasn’t sure if his polo shirt had the creases from being packed in his suitcase, or if it had actually been pressed. But hugging him I smelled the burnt-steam smell of the drycleaners’ irons. Mingling with aftershave, or more likely French cologne. We held each other for a second, and I looked over his shoulder, down at the fuzzy little balls attached to his socks hanging over his heels. He looked like he’d put on a few pounds, but I could feel the hard muscles running across his back. He was still in excellent shape. The only exercise I’d done in as long as I could remember was to climb the six flights of stairs to my apartment for which, for the first time, I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving.

Laurence bent over and bounced the ball a few times, quickly, with his left hand, and I took a deep breath. Prepared myself for a royal cut-tail.
But he paused before the service.

“William,” he said, “you got your Despers jersey on wrong-side-out.”

I exhaled slowly. Relaxed my grip on the racket.

“Didn’t want you to take it the wrong way.”

“Come again?”

“I was afraid you’d feel insulted.”

“Oh-ho,” he said.

And with those two syllables—not just the syllables themselves, but the way he pronounced them, pounding hard on the second one with the blast of air chopped off and squeezed into a high-pitched singsong—with those two syllables I felt a sudden surge of warmth inside my chest. For a second we were back on the damp clay court back behind the British Club. Though I wasn’t sure if the emotion I was feeling was thrill, or dread.

Laurence bent over and bounced the ball a few more times. Then paused again.

“Compère,” he said, his pursed lips loosening into a smile. “You got that one wrong-side-out, too.”

_____

The story we all heard was that after Oxford he’d fallen in with theater people. In the west end of London, but more precisely in the largely West Indian area of Notting Hill. He wrote a play in verse inspired by CLR James’ book of the Haitian revolt, in which Toussaint L’Ouverture daubs his face with the blood of his former French master, whom he had also defended fiercely and loved like a father. The play was performed in the local theater and the Times Sunday Supplement named Laurence London’s new rising playwright, though until that moment he’d thought of himself exclusively as a poet. A very beautiful and elegant Senegalese actress played the part of L’Ouverture’s muse, taunting him in the critical scene from the heights of a crystal chandelier as L’Ouverture knelt, his reddened face shining, gazing up at her from below, and soon after the play’s run was concluded we heard she married Laurence. The marriage created quite a stir in London circles, and it was even reported about in the tabloids, not because of Laurence’s rising fame, but because his new wife was a model and a celebrity already famous in her own right. Her face had even appeared on the covers of several fashion magazines, including Cosmopolitan and the French Vogue. But as Laurence’s wife she gave up her modeling career, not that she could have had many more years of it left, anyway, and both of them dedicated themselves to the theater, and within three years they had two sons.
All of this was even bigger news for us at home, as you can well imagine, and the magazines were fished out of someplace and handed around, already tattered with the covers creased up, and once again people spoke of Laurence’s accomplishments with an admiration that spilled over into envy and even awe. There were two factors, however, that stuck at the back of everybody’s mind, though nobody mentioned either of them aloud. These two things jarred, and they tainted Laurence’s latest accomplishment in the marriage. Because although his wife had arrived in Paris an infant in her mother’s arms, and her family migrated to London only a year later, where she’d been brought up and educated so that by now of course she was a perfect Englishwoman herself, the part of the story none of us could get beyond was the part about her African origins. Somehow it felt like a regression. That, and the fact that her elegant face on the covers appeared even darker than Laurence’s. So no one was surprised to hear, after three years, that he had left her.

We were looking for a place to have a couple cold beers and cool down after the tennis. Not so easy to find at ten on a Saturday morning, even in this alcoholic, insomniac city, since all the late-night bars had already shut up tight, and the chichi cafés wouldn’t be opening for lunch for another hour. But we were in no hurry. Lazying our way along. Savoring a moment of quiet. Only the tight squeak of Laurence’s tennis shoes against the sidewalk, flop of my own hightops. I’d dumped my ruined drugstore racket in the first trashcan. Laurence carried his zipped into the outside of his white leather bag, Wilson stamped in red across the pill-shaped pouch. The heat had just started rising in waves off the fresh asphalt patches along an almost empty West Side Highway. River dancing behind it, sumptuous, blue blue blue.

We cut across to Hudson St and followed it for a few blocks until it split into Bleeker, into the heart of the West Village. At one point we passed an empty lot completely paved over with pieces of jagged glass-bottle—like the choice shards we used to tie to the tails of our hexagonal, warring madbull-kites—in the hard white sun the parking lot glittered like a field of diamonds.

The tennis had started off slowly, very slowly, until Laurence came up with the brilliant idea that we swap rackets. Of course, he still had a clear advantage. But at least now I had a chance of returning the ball. Answering his serves. And after a while we even managed to get a few decent volleys going. After a while, when I’d worked up a decent sweat, I was pleased to discover that not only did a lot of it come back from oblivion, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Sadly, by the end of the first hour, Laurence had popped three fishing-twine strands of the drugstore racket. Then, with an over-ambitious, grunting, two-handed backhand, the ball passed right through the racket.
Laurence held it up to the sun, incredulous, examining the strings. Broken ones poking out like guitar wires.

“The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,” he said. “Unbated and envenomed.”

“My line you thiefed!”

We’d performed it together in Father O’Connor’s sixth form special English—me playing Laertes to his Hamlet—but at that moment I refused to be distracted. The score was love-30, best I’d done all morning, though admittedly, the last point was gained on the pass-through backhand.

“Service,” I said.

“Always thought it was a metaphor for your namesake’s own uncapped ballpoint. Think about it, William.”

“Stop dodging, and serve.”

“Or Hamlet’s own drawn, uncircumcised prick—our boy had been focking his bro’s crazy sister.”

“Serve, nuh!”

“Focked his mother too, of course. But not so well as his uncle. Why else should she protest, ‘thou’rt fat and scant of breath?’”

“Listen—”

“And since sex is the twin sister of death, then metaphorically at least he focked the same uncle too; focked his bro; focked his bro’s crazy sister’s father. Let me tell you, plenty poison in our boy’s envenomed point. Plenty work.”

I let him enjoy himself.

“Only family he couldn’t fock was his own father.”

“Or out-fock.”

“Very nice! Question is, who was more Freudian, Hamlet or Shakespeare himself?”

He dropped the racket and turned to face me.

“Or to put it more pertinently, who of the three was most West Indian?”

“Fine,” I said, “we’ll call this last game a draw.”

“Agreed. And take back this ruined instrument. It’s bent and busted. It don’t work.”

“Careful. That’s hitting below the belt.”

“Allow me make it up with a cold one. Must be an open tavern someplace in stinking Denmark.”

[from Chapter 11]

The night was alive with people, flashing in and out of the streetlights. Most, like us, dressed in rags—dirtymas, mudmas—their faces and bodies blackened. Or painted head-to-toe in devil-red. Bright baby-blue. Some wearing oldtime jouvert costumes: mokojumbies on tall stilts, caped Midnight Robbers, Dame Lorraines in frills and petticoats—flipped up to reveal stiff pink dildos. Fancy Sailors shaking canisters of talcum over our heads, busting gunpowder-packed, bamboo-cannons against the sidewalk. Fire-and-smoke breathing dragons. Bats. Imps. Pitchfork-stabbing jab-jabs. Or jab-jabs attached to their jabbless-cohorts—by thick, rusty chains. And jab-molassies, of both sexes, wearing only tattered underwear, horns and tail—already dripping in putrid-smelling used motor-oil and molasses.

Explosions of fireworks, car horns, whistles—and soca, everywhere, coming at us from all directions.

We were headed over to the Roxy, meeting point for our jouvert band. For years this wonderful old Deco cinema remained abandoned, falling down, left to rot. Now it was fully restored—an enormous, two-story KFC. Multiple awnings of the Colonel’s smiling face on a background of red-and-white stripes, flapping over the windows. But we still referred to it affectionately as the Roxy.

While we walked an open bottle circulated, joint passing. Alicia and her sister had on their sunglasses, plastic squeeze-bottles hanging around their necks, rum-and-coke crackling with ice. For a while I found myself walking between them, two exquisite sisters, an arm around each of their waists. I’d caught up quickly, already running a nice head.
Then, not ten minutes after we’d left the hotel, we heard shouting. Wrong kind of noise. Incongruous. We stopped and turned around: Alicia’s sister and her boyfriend, standing under a streetlight. We saw the crack of a slap across his face—freeze-frame for an instant—and he was gone. Dissolved into the night. Alicia’s sister dissolved in tears, squeezed between Alicia and me.

“Fock him!”

We started off again.

That was all. One fleeting moment of anxiety, bad vibes—a moment of ugliness—and it was gone. Smoothed-over. Everybody pleasant again. Our big happy family.

It had officially started.
_____

Chinese Laundry was already blasting soca when we arrived. Thick mob of revelers wineing in the street around his big-truck, spilling over the grass-covered roundabout in front of the Roxy. Car-horns blowing, squeezing through the crowd.

They swallowed us up. Literally. Like a hot seawave of energy—of soca, naked limbs, whistles, smoke, diesel fumes, sweat.

In addition to Laundry’s eight-wheeler DJ big-tuck, loaded top-to-bottom with giant speakers, we had our own metal band—our own “engine room”—a pickup loaded with percussionists beating cowbells with pieces of rebar, car brakes and hubs, pots-and-pans. Covers of aluminum garbage bins. Rubbing pieces of rebar against the washboard strapped to their chests. Another mob pressed against this pickup—beating the ever popular bottle-and-spoon— wineing against each other down to the pavement.

Last came the small dumptruck hired by the band, carrying its load of ochre-colored mud. Sufficient in quantity, by the time the sun rose in a few hours, to coat the several-hundred masplayers of our jouvert band. And the several-hundred others who stumbled into our path. Four or five guys already clinging to the sides of the truck, bareback, wearing motorcycle goggles or swim masks, their buckets dripping. Already dripping themselves—if you went anywhere near them you knew what to expect. You took your life into your own hands.
Without warning we were on the road, Chinese Laundry leading the way, our mudtruck taking up the rear. Everybody chipping together—a way of dancing and walking at the same time, hardly picking up your feet. Skidding them across the asphalt. Staving up your energy, all of us chipping in time to the deafening soca. And under the hard-pulsing music—the heart-pulsing music—faintly, you could hear the thousands of feet. Chipping in rhythm together—shu, shu, shu. That sound would remain the soft unconscious underbelly of our music for the next two days and nights. If it wasn’t for chipping, like treading water between sprints, even the strongest of us would dead-up long before morning.

I’d left the hotel carrying a bottle—somebody’d walked off with it already. But Laurence had gotten a wine-skin from someplace, hanging around his neck. He’d filled it with white rum, and every couple minutes one of us would take a turn shooting it into our mouths. Or into the wide-open mouths of anybody else who came around. Spraying as much rum over our faces as we managed to get into our mouths.

Rachel kept buying snowballs of crushed ice in pointed papercones, without the syrup or condensed milk, which we kept passing around. Grabbing out handfuls of ice to rub across each other’s foreheads, along each other’s backs and necks.

We’d already lost Shayling and Alicia. Roses had been dragged off by a gang of grease-glistening musclemen, including the two who’d helped earlier with the costumes, wearing only stumpy horns and red thongs.

I was chipping between Laurence and Rachel. Somebody grabbed me around my waist, from behind, and Laurence and Rachel chipped on ahead, arms wrapped around each other’s hips.
For a second, in the dark, I thought it was Oony, happy to see she’d come out after all. It turned out to be Alicia’s sister, whose name I still blanked on. Only when a jabbless sitting up high on one of Laundry’s mammoth, vibrating speakers, cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted down to us, did I remember—Jennifer.

Two of us chipping arm-in-arm behind Laundry—the band headed downtown, along Abcromby St—when suddenly we got jammed up in an intersection with a steelband. Crossing from the other side.
Jennifer shouted and grabbed my hand, pulling me behind her. Towards one of the wide, wheeled carts with several pannists up there beating, jumping, their locks flying. They were beating out the chorus of this year’s chutney hit, Indian Soca. From Drupartee Ramoonai, her sweetly militant cry to the nation for douglahood.

Screaming out the chorus—rhythm of Africa and India/blend together in a perfect mixture—Jennifer fixed my two hands onto the cross-bar of the cart. At the same time she squeezed in front, locked between my arms. Both of us leaning onto the aluminum bar, pushing the cart as we walked. Chipping in time to the soca.

But more than anything else—more than anything I was aware of—Jennifer was back-backing her half-exposed, exquisite bamsee against my crotch. She was squeezed into my own chopped-up Levis, little that remained of them. And because of the way she was built, her wider hips, she’d had to leave the top snap undone, zipper pulled half-way up. Wearing my own shredded Despers T-shirt—split down the front and knotted between her breasts—her dark-sienna abdomen exposed to the top of her half-open zipper. Gyrating and jostling and jooking-up—shoving backwards against me at the same time—my own hips shoved forward, riding Jennifer’s bamsee from behind.

Like holding onto one of those machines that busts up the sidewalk.

How long it lasted I’m not sure. Maybe half-an-hour. All I can say is that I did not want it to stop.

Suddenly Jennifer looked back at me over her shoulder, through her dark sunglasses, flipping her long wet hair out of the way. She reached back and held my crotch. Smiling wickedly. Several long seconds. Turned her back to me again.

Instantly I became aware of my own profuse sweating. The heat. Noise. I felt suddenly lost, confused, dizzy—too quickly drunk, too quickly high.

I let go of the aluminum bar. Pulled my T-shirt up over my head. Wiped it across my face and flung it into the gutter.

Jennifer put my hands back on the bar. Roughly. Held them there. Her back-backing. Jamming up hard against my crotch. Then she looked at me over her shoulder again, reached bank and shoved her hand into my pants.

I shut my eyes—and in a flash, in my mind—we’d switched places: Jennifer was the one standing behind, shoving her wet face into my back—I could feel the soft knob of her nose pressed between my shoulderblades. And I clutched my own genitals.

I opened my eyes: in her sunglasses, reflected twice, I saw the expression of horror on my face.

Jennifer pulled her hand back. Like she’d shoved it into a coalpot. At the same time she spun completely around to face me. Still caught between my arms—between my sweat-dripping chest and the cart’s aluminum bar—walking backwards.

“What happen?” she shouted into my face. “You ain’t like me? Can’t handle the heat?”

She put her hands on my chest and shoved out from between my arms. Under. Away from the cart.

I half-turned behind her. Stumbling for a few steps, one hand still holding the bar. Searching for her in the dark.

Then the bar of the cart behind caught me in the kidneys. Winding me. I went down on the asphalt. Rolling, by reflex, out of the way of the cart’s wheels. I tried to stand, went down on one knee. Tried again. Went down again—and this time I went down so hard my nose hit the blacktop.

I crawled the remaining distance over to the curve, four or five yards, towards the concrete sidewalk. Pulled myself up onto it—like pulling out of the water, into a rocking pirogue. I sat on the edge of curve with my head down between my knees, eyes closed, panting, catching my breath.

My head spinning. I couldn’t remember where I was. Lay back against the cold concrete, gritty against my bare shoulderblades, sneakered feet shuffling past.
_____

Somebody was pulling me by both hands onto my feet.

“Willy-boy!”

I opened my eyes: my friend Vincent. Smiling. Shoving an oversized, tan-colored pacifier back into his mouth. Short, brown-skinned, completely bald—huge bulging eyes, huge bulging beer-belly. A brilliant architect, I hadn’t seen him in years. Vincent was painted head-to-toe in bright blue, wearing only baby-diapers, nippled babybottle sloshing with rum hanging around his neck.

After he got me standing, after a wet bearhug around my waist, he reached to the sidewalk to retrieve his biscuit-tin, which he proceeded to beat with a wooden spatula. We stumbled, my arm draped across his shoulders, over to a battered pickup crowded with musicians playing instruments more-or-less the same, wearing more-or-less the same outfit—bright blue paint and baby-diapers. Five or six others stumbling in the street behind the pickup.

One of the guys in the truck passed me down a half-empty bottle of white punching-rum, the hard stuff, and a soup-spoon. Which I proceeded to beat. And after a minute another oversized, bright-blue diapered baby—instead of the pacifier he had a snorkel in his mouth, mask on his face—jumped off the truck with a can of paint and a huge, wide brush. Painted me head-to-toe, bright blue like the rest.

_____

At some paint, way downtown, end of Fredrick St, I found our jouvert band again. Roses and one of the musclemen who’d helped with the costumes—three of us stumbling together, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. The rest of our group, they told me, had disappeared hours ago.

Then I found myself walking alone. Dragging my feet. My sloshy sneakers—like two wet bricks. I felt I couldn’t take another step. Only the soca shoving me forward. For a time I walked next to our slow-moving mud-truck, holding onto the side. Then, with an extreme effort, I climbed up and threw myself in. With five or six others—men, women, all the same now. Not that there was much mud remaining in our truck at this point. Enough for us to wallow and squirm over each other, happy pigs in a trough.

Last thing I remember the sun was coming up. So bright it was painful. I was back on my feet again. We were all the way back at the Savannah. Crossing mainstage. I was surrounded by a mob of revelers, tribe of people I didn’t know. Never seen them before in my life. Jumping-up together, wineing against each other to the unstoppable soca.
Chinese Laundry parked somewhere beside the stage.

A solid mass of humanity, indistinguishable, embracing each other. Covered, head-to-toe, in every imaginable nastiness: axle grease, baby oil, flour, Quaker Oats, tar, mustard, peanut butter, Hershey’s chocolate syrup. In addition to the paint, mud.

This—I told myself, I proclaimed it every year, every jouvert morning—this could save the world.

Standing in the middle of mainstage, my head thrown back, staring up at the blinding sun.

[from Chapter 16]

For the first half-hour the path followed the contour of the cliffs, high above the sea. The ledge occasionally no more than a foot in width, with the sheer drop on the other side, and we weren’t accustomed to the weight of our packs yet. It took your breath away. Both the stark beauty of the sea sparkling far below, and the thought of pitching over the side into it. We were climbing the whole time, in and out of sunlight, and though the air was cool, we were sweating.

Then the path turned inland, in a decent so gradual you hardly noticed, and we left the sea at our backs. Within minutes we found ourselves in deep rainforest. Mammoth mossy trunks reaching up all around us, into the thicker layer of mist pressed against the canopy high overhead: bois cano, spiked boxwood, beech, cedar. Thick vines hanging down—we brushed them out of our faces. Pale-green ferns sprouting from between the branches of the trees, from nooks and crannies in the boulders and rock walls. Carpets of damp lichens spotting the trunks. Thick curtains of Spanish moss draping down. The air still, misty, also pale-green in color. Now we left the sun behind us too.

Occasionally one of us pointed out a bromeliad or orchid, the neon sprays of their blooms, purple or fire-orange or shocking pink. We no longer walked on solid ground, but over a thick, loose layer of leaf trash. Our sneakers slipping beneath us. The overwhelming smell of vegetable rot, together with the faintly smoky odor of the jungle. The world suddenly water-drenched, all edges softened. A film of water suddenly rolling down the bark of the enormous trunk beside us, bouncing over splotches of spongy moss. A sudden gush spilling, without warning, from the drooping bromeliad above our heads. If you looked closely, you could see the tiny waterdrops at the apex of each individual leaf. Now and then the softened pah! of a thick drop falling to the leafy floor.

We hardly spoke. Only the soft padding of our sneakers over the leaves. If we wanted to point out something we simply pointed. Like the time I touched Laurence’s shoulder and nodded in the direction of a scorpion, making its way slowly up a barkless limb. Steel-gray, long and fat as our thumbs. With the thick weave of its tail curling over its back, twitching, pointed barb stuck to the end like an oversized comma. Laurence raised his brows, moved in closer to watch. Usually, though, we kept on walking. Otherwise we’d feel the chill. Now our T-shirts were damp, but light on our backs, not saturated. Like we were walking through a cloud.

The path became harder to follow, and sometimes we lost it. We’d have to stop and back-track until we picked up the trail again, or better yet, one of the rangers’ markers. A red stripe above and white below, painted on prominent boulders and trunks. I had a compass in my pack just in case. I was walking up in front with my cutlass out, swinging at the occasional vine hanging before me. Laurence walking at the rear, occasionally held back by Rachel, whose pace was slower. We kept tabs on each other, like deep-sea divers, there was a comfort in that, but no way keep the solitary feeling of the forest from overtaking us.

We passed thick groves of banana-like balisier, bright red-and-yellow notched spears of their blooms shooting up. Legendary haven of mapapee snakes—thin, black, lightning quick—we kept our distance. Picking our way among giant, pale-green ground-ferns, each separate frown the size of a mattress. Thick clumps of bamboo, enormous tufts of it, antediluvian in appearance. Some of the individual bamboo trunks as thick as your waist, reaching up a hundred feet. Suddenly creaking with a loud cak! cak! cak! followed by a flutter of tender moist leaves high above. It was almost as though you could see the bamboo growing before your eyes, supposedly a foot overnight.

All of this forest was a second growth, and occasionally we passed moss-dripping cocoa trees, the deep purple bulbs of their pods stuck right to the stubby trunks. If they were soft and ripe we’d pick them, splitting them open with our fingers. Scraping out and sucking the sweet, fuzzy white meat from the shiny black beans. Sometimes, spread high above the abandoned cocoa trees, a gigantic orange or yellow immortelle, its petals sifting slowly down, carpeting the forest floor, introduced as shade trees in the days of the coca estates. Pink poui. Purple jacaranda. A couple times we stumbled across the rotting remains of a drying-shed or storage hut. And if we searched them out, the inevitable trees nearby for us to fill our pockets with ripe cashews, golden nuggets of nutmeg.

Any number of streams to hop over, the occasional winding river, plank bridges built by the rangers for us to cross, sometimes including a railing. Now we’d pause to lean over the railing, admiring the falls cascading down. A deafening roar of the white water. Great misty breaths rising up among the branches. With the rains last night there were lots of trees freshly down, particularly bamboo. If they were too thick across the path, I cleared them away with my cutlass.

At one point a enormous cedar had come down, dense groves of balisier on either side of the path, the trunk difficult to circumvent. Just as hard to climb over. We took turns helping each other out of our packs, crawling on our bellies through a gap under the trunk, pulling our packs through to the other side.

Then, when we’d almost reached the point of having forgotten it for good, we turned a corner, stumbled down a sudden drop in the path, and burst into dazzling sun. We looked up, shutting our eyes for a minute, letting it warm our faces. As we continued the trees became wider spaced and smaller, they changed from cedar and bois cano to a few thin, straggly pines, then to almond and seagrape and casurina. The ground beneath our sneakers became rocky again, then hard-packed dirt, then sand. In the distance, through a gap between two mangrove clumps, we saw the glittering, blue-black sea.

But it was still another twenty minutes before we trudged, sweating beneath the sun again, down towards the beach. By now our packs felt twice as heavy as when we’d started out. We found a shady spot beneath a huge, furry casurina. Slight sea-breeze whistling through the needles high above.

We helped each other out of our packs. Setting them down on the carpet of crunchy brown needles, the acorn-like cones, sitting with our backs leaning against our packs. We’d filled our canteens with cold water from the spring in Matlot, and now Laurence had taken a drink of his and was handing it around. Still cool after the hike, with the faint tang of aluminum. Slight electric buzz along the fillings of your teeth as you drank.

It must have been four-thirty or five o’clock, and the sea looked like it was on fire.

We took off our sneakers and tied them by their laces hanging from our packs. Then, grunting, helped each other into them for the last, short spell, trudging through the loose sand. But when we got down to the hard, wet beach it was easy going again. We walked along the water’s edge, foamy swells lapping our ankles. Stepping over garlands of seaweed, tiny wet shrimp popping out along their lengths. Tiny crabs scuttling away. Spindly starfish beating up in the wet sand. After a hike of half-a-mile down the beach, we came to the bocus of the river, where it was maybe thirty feet across, wider now than I remembered it after the rains last night.

We turned up and skirted the clump of mangrove, hiking along the hard-packed dirt of the riverbank for ten or fifteen minutes, till the ground turned rocky again, and we got to the place where the river narrows and seems, somehow, to shallow-up at the same time. Where you can cross over fairly easily.

We were excited, having made it almost to the end our journey, and now we plunged into the river. Stumbling over mossy stones through the deceptively hard-pulling current, the cold water up to our waists in the middle. Bending forwards, trying to keep our packs dry. Slowly climbing up over the rocks onto the bank at the other side, Laurence giving Rachel a hand.
We’d arrived. Few more minutes downriver on this side, beneath a shady grove of almonds and seagrape, was the place we’d make camp.

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