Open Faces Nine
Sweet Water Ways
We’re in Barbados, sweet man. We’ve been here for awhile. But look how I’m already starting this letter out wrong, since, Hugh keeps telling me that sailors are never in shore, they’re on shore. Well, anyway, we’re in port, we’re in Barbados, and we’ve been here long enough so that this is our last legal day. Not that it seems to matter. Least of all to Hugh who’s taken the dingy in to spend the night drinking with old bar friends. So I guess there’s no reason for me to worry about it either.
I kind of like it when he leaves me alone on the Lord Jim. I can listen to the conversations on the radio’s short band. Or I can turn to one of the island stations. Mostly Rastafarian. And the ska beat. But it is still like you called all the music one time, the glorious detail. And I can get into my bunk that’s so much like a closing clam shell, or sit on the deck and watch the sky that’s like the night light sky we used to talk about. Except that, here, her cloak is all spangled. If I look closely enough, it sometimes seems to shake a little in its own wind. And I feel as if I am remembering something I once knew. Especially when I’m turning to the glorious detail. Starting to learn maybe. I don’t know.
We kept to the inside of the Caribbean all of the way down, crossing over the stream. Hugh said the winds are better handled, tacked he said, that way, so it’s what we did. The stream felt like wading through a river. But it wasn’t until we got here, and I hiked over the island to its western side, that I saw what all the pirates must have seen the first time they got waylaid inside so small a sea. You would probably call it a warming seadream, or something like that. But I’ve been trying not to think about what you might see. And I’ve never seen anything so blue. So deep, so pure, and a thousand shades of shifting blue.
I don’t know how I feel about Barbados. It’s kind of sad, really. Or maybe it’s me. It’s just that everything is soft and easy here, which is not what I mean. I don’t know. Everything seems to be reaching up with arms here. Like children, really. And everything hangs so heavy. Like the fruit trees. The mangos, the papayas, the bananas, the plantain, and the fruitbread trees. And I know I’m at home here. This may be closer to what I mean. In the ruins up in the hills where the walls are covered green and grown over with vines. Or snorkeling out from the beaches that are coral pink, and out over the live reefs where the fishes are silently going about their business. Then seeing all of the birds I’ve seen when going over the island, but not knowing the first name to call them when they’re so bright and cheerful. And the monkeys. I know I know these colors, sweet man, even if I’ve never seen them this bright before. And, most of all, the houses that are almost all veranda and patio, open and built of coral, and slanting out to catch a trade wind.
It feels like home and I don’t know why. Especially in the caverns on the eastern side where I can stay for hours, and where I know there is nothing out there between me and Africa. That’s where it can be rough with the surf closing in, beating in, streaming in, and prying inside the cliffs to touch the starfish that are as big as my feet. That sounds silly, I guess. It’s the open water there. And it makes me feel like I’m ready. But I don’t know what I’m ready for. What am I ready for?
Do you remember saying how you thought that, for some men, there is an internal kind of logic they will spend their whole lives solving? That they first have to find it, and then meander through it like through a tangle of underbrush. Can you remember, also, I asked you about women? Or that I actually said, what about me? You made me really mad, that day, with what you said and how you said it. I remember. I almost slapped you. I would have except you suddenly looked so young. Just like a boy. You know? Sometimes your words can be tough on people. Anyway, I’ve thought a lot about what you said when I’ve been down inside the seacliffs with the surf pouring in. Maybe I just didn’t understand you. Keeping true to my nature, is what you said. And sticks and stones, and unfurling homes is what you said. And no one else can know but me.
I guess I’m learning in the islands. Yes, I’m learning. Hugh has been very kind to me, which is something you need to know. But you would barely know him when he is away from land. He’s not the same as he is on shore. He’s very much the great sea captain you are always wanting him to be. He really doesn’t need a second hand when guiding the Lord Jim. There is nothing about the ocean that ever seems to bother him. Not even when we were down inside a water valley and we couldn’t see the sky for the swells. He just keeps on making his calculations, looking to bow, to starboard and port, to the tack on his sails, to how much keel the Lord Jim has to give, then letting the ship sail herself. Even if there was one bad night when the poor man stayed at the wheel so long he messed his pants. He made me promise never to tell anyone, but it really was funny. But that reminds me. We sailed out far enough so that, when we did turn back in towards the island’s spine, we came into a cloud of odor long before we could see the clouds over Barbados. And it wasn’t very pleasant, or not at first. And I can’t tell you what it made me think of. I couldn’t name it then. Except I realized it must be what life smells like. Sweet smells, ripe smells, pungent smells, birthing smells, deathing smells, smells of everything I had never paid much attention to before. And it was a shock, at first, to be tacking back into all those smells. So you see, I am learning. And I am still loving you. May I tell you? I need you to know.
I knew it, I mean how it wasn’t leaving me, the third night out when my turn came to keep watch. I had nothing to think about except you, and where I was going, and how I left, and how you held me on the beach the morning we waited for a sunrise. I must have been waiting for the sun to rise. And it came to me I could get fat with you and every smelly thing else. But maybe you can’t understand. Please try.
I turned Hugh out of his bunk, down on to the cabin floor. I told him to take me back. I said a lot of other things, too, that I hope you’ll never hear me say. Poor Hugh. And then I got away from him as far as I could for the rest of the day, most of the next night, and until I finally went back to the stern and made him promise you would wait for me. May sound silly now but it didn’t then. It made perfect sense. And it must have made sense to Hugh too, since, he said, in the way you know he has for saying these things, that, in so far as it is being demanded of him to speak for another man’s intentions, and in as much as the gentleman in question is a journeyman whose intentions he can say, with confidence, look pretty good, he considers himself adequate to giving validation. I made Hugh put it in writing, sweet man, and so I have your great sea captain’s written pledge that you’ll wait a little longer, just a little more time, it’s all I need to know you’ll wait a little longer, just you, so I can learn about what I feel I once knew, since, I am ready too.