The hurricanes came early to the island the year that the red-haired foreigner came to Naggo Head. The entire village echoed the news about the pretty young lady who arrived at Cross Road in an off-duty milk truck in the breaking dawn of a holy Sunday. It was said that the milk truck pulled up at Cross Road with the empty milk cans clanking in the back. A young, pale lady with hair as red as the setting sun climbed down from among the milk cans carrying a small, brick-colored tote bag, a small, greasy brown paper bag, and a straw hat with a purple ribbon wrapped around it. They said she walked up Naggo Head Road to the Rutherfords’ abandoned pink mansion that was perched on top of Pill Hill.
Anyone who saw the stranger took great pride in telling the story. The storyteller with the sighting would take up station around twilight time at the customary gathering in the only grocery shop in Naggo Head.
Miss Zeppa, one of Naggo Head’s two widows, extracted her money bag from her bosom, ordered a half pound of salt fish, and recounted that she had seen the foreigner in the seaside market, four miles away in Blue Bay. The foreigner wore dark glasses with golden trim on the round lenses, and the straw hat with the purple ribbon covered her head. She sauntered among the clothing stalls, lingering at Miss Mavis’s stall the longest, and with painted fingernails on pale hands she kept touching a green, flared-skirted, sleeveless dress. The postmistress, Miss King, who had come in to buy a pound of flour mixed with cornmeal, and who was so dainty that she barely disturbed the air around her when she moved, dipped in a half curtsy, fingered the high lace collar at her throat, and whispered that the pretty stranger’s name on the document she had shown at the post office was Maria White.
Someone else saw the stranger wearing a white nightgown and talking to herself on a bench in the moonlight in the Rutherfords’ front yard late at night. Another caused a stir when she insisted that she had seen her that very same night and that she had been singing, not talking. Bro’ Man took on the judgment and dismissed it at the top of his voice as “Inconsequential! Inadmissible!” since none of the storytellers could repeat a word of what the stranger said or sang. Bro’ Man lived at the top of his voice.
They all agreed on one thing: the stranger spoke upside down, like all foreigners did.
The only place of retail and source of entertainment in Naggo Head was the grocery shop at the entrance to Mongoose Run. It was managed by Mr. and Mistress Ferguson, who had a penchant for serving and the burden to provide entertainment. The few hard-top wooden stools and benches were shifted around the shop by the regulars and customers on an almost hourly basis, their placement opposing the angle at which the brilliant sunlight hit the front of the shop. These stools served as thrones for the person with the current gossip or for the best storytellers. Someone would silence the gathering by saying aloud, “Let de story be tole.” Bro’ Man was the crowned king of storytelling.
I saw the foreigner for the first time on the bank of the Sweet River where it curved and narrowed behind Nanna’s house. It was the day after my fourteenth birthday. I was just about to lie down in my favorite spot under the coconut tree in the afternoon shade when I saw her under the banyan tree a few yards farther down on the riverbank.
The faded, lavender, floral, short-sleeved dress she wore had a tightly fitted bodice, as if it were made for a smaller woman. Her curly, long hair was the color of the flaming sun setting behind the bamboo trees in Bamboo Walk. Her wide skirt was spread out around her on the grass as if she had taken the time to arrange it. Round, dark glasses with golden rims covered her eyes. One arm was thrown across her waist, and the other rested on a wide-brimmed straw hat at her side. The sunshine that filtered through the leaves of the banyan tree suffused her beautiful upturned face.
A frog warming itself in the sun on a rock near her leaped suddenly into the underbrush, disturbing the dried leaves and a nearby bird. The bird flapped its wings and maneuvered itself through the tree toward the sky, brushing the leaves. Startled, the foreigner raised herself up on her elbows, craning her neck and looking cautiously around her. I ducked out of sight and low into the fever grass and the fairy flowers, knowing then that she was a city person unused to the countryside, with its dense green bushes and small brown animals.
Satisfied that she was safe, the foreigner settled back onto the ground. She raised both arms above her head, crossing them slightly at the wrists, and then stretched her legs and torso languidly. She yawned sleepily and shifted her body to settle it further and more comfortably in the ground. A light breeze lifted one corner of her gauzy skirt. She had walked a long way, and there were two half-moon sweat spots under her small breasts, and large circles at the raised armpits. Immediately I imagined that she wore white cotton panties and that the crotch had a sweat spot. I rose quietly and sneaked away, carrying the shameful thought that had jumped from out of nowhere into my head.
With the faint lingering scent of the fairy flowers on my hands and thistle burrs on my dress, I left the riverbank, bemoaning the invasion of my bubble on the riverbank. I was thankful that the flowers were all dried on their stalks or lying on the ground, for it was said that if a child wandered alone into the woods and picked a fairy flower, that child would never be seen again.
But how had she happened to find the finest spot on the riverbank? I worried that I might never again lie in shaded solitude on the riverbank with an open book on my chest, sucking the sweet juice from a piece of sugarcane; that I might never again in privacy lift my skirt and tuck its hem in the waist of my underwear and then wander barefoot down to the water’s edge to lift rocks and peer at a delicately sheer crawfish that had tucked itself away fearfully in the crevice only to flit away in an instant, leaving mud in its wake; that I might never again sit undisturbed under a broad-leafed tree for shelter from the fresh rain pouring from the skies, breathing the odor of dry earth turning to mud and listening to the stiff grass drinking itself full and plush.
I crept home to Nanna. Around this time in my life, I crept around a lot.
Nanna, my mother, and I lived on Mill Yard, near the grocery shop that was at the corner of Mongoose Run. Mill Yard was the only piece of level land on Naggo Head Road. Our four-room house was set far from the road on the very flat, circular piece of land. The land was flat and circular because at one time it had housed a large sugarcane mill with grinders that were propelled manually. My grandfather Papa Doc built the house from the ground up with weathered, unpainted boards from blue mahoe trees. It sat on hand-hewn log stilts that left a foot of air space and hard-packed ground underneath at the front of the house and expanded to two feet at the back end. The corrugated tin roof had not leaked once through all the hurricanes and storms. Smooth, naturally white stepping stones led in from the gateway up to six broad, solid, stone-slab steps that led up to the L-shaped veranda that ran along the front and the entire length of one side of the house.
I loved our home. Hibiscus, wild bluebells, and ferns hedged the circular front yard, where dark green, tightly curled grass covered the ground like a low carpet. A vegetable garden grew parallel to the long sides of the veranda: okras, pumpkins, sugarcane patches, avocado trees, banana trees, breadfruit trees, and eggplants. A footpath led through these trees down to the chicken coop and farther down to the bottomland to the banks of the Sweet River. The latrine and the roofless bathhouse were off on the other side of the house.
We lived close to the earth in Naggo Head. The majority of the residents earned their living off the land, with their hands and their backs. All mechanizations were man or animal powered. The light sources were the sun, the moon, firewood, and kerosene lamps. The firewood, water buckets, mules and carts, mortars and pestles, water wells, and oil lamps provided us with as much comfort as fuel, faucets, and electrical energy did for others.
It was said that Nanna was a descendant of the island’s native Indians. There were two kinds of Indians: the gentle, peace-loving, farming and fishing kind, and the warlike kind with the most feared warriors. Nanna belonged to the second kind.
I never knew Nanna’s age; I never asked. All I knew was that she was on her third set of teeth and that my mother, who was the only survivor of two siblings, had been a late child. From overhearing bits and pieces of adult conversations, I had learned that she was the second-oldest citizen in Naggo Head behind the postmistress’s husband, and he was eighty-six. Nanna became a widow when I was eight years old. One day my grandfather Papa Doc was wearing his favorite old straw hat to shade his head from the sun as he went around his vegetable garden picking gungo peas and putting them in the straw basket he carried over his shoulder, and the next day the sunlight went out and he was stretched out on a table in the sitting room with his toes pointing up, a block of ice on his stomach and pennies on his closed eyelids. His nostrils were vast and dark, and I wondered if they had made a mistake in thinking that he was no longer breathing the air.
Nanna’s grieving for her husband took the form of preparation for her own passing. No one was really sure when she did it, but my mother and I discovered that she had written our names on pieces of paper and placed them under her cherished cups and saucers, ceramics, and vases. She placed the names in the few books that she owned; she pinned the names to her best linens. She washed and ironed the dress she wanted to wear to her grave and placed it in a drawer with a pair of stockings, shoes, a hat, and a pair of white gloves. The navy-blue shoes were polished and buffed.
My mother and I often sneaked around the house looking at our inheritance—namely, whose name was pinned to what or was under what—without having a sense of the inevitable loss. This was a game to us. Papa Doc had been ill, but I had never heard Nanna complain of a headache or of exhaustion. Perhaps this was why I had never thought of her leaving us or passing away to some other place.
By no stretch of the imagination could we think of waking up to a new day without Nanna’s sweet face and patient voice giving direction, steering, guiding, and teaching.