Soon Come by Rick Ewing
Years after, in the town on the island, in zinc-hatted hutches and neat plaster cottages washed by a tropical palette found on the reef offshore--where the blazing-hued fishes whisk among the coral towers--they would say she was the first awake on the island that day.
Arrayed on a rise above the main street, in these small homes, humble browns and haughty pastels like eggs in a West Indian Easter basket, the people there whisper and cluck about the woman. Opinion is evenly divided that she is an Obeah witch, that she is mad, or that she is wise and blessed.
On her own hill, taller and nearer the sea, she awoke with the sun that morning, roused from the murk of sleep by a percussive fugue. Above the tiny bungalow, fat palm fronds greenly pregnant with hard May rains in the night, slapped the roof. Below, on the curved cusp of shoreline, waves from the Caribbean pulsed gently, in ceaseless rhythm against the coarse, bleached sand, pushing fins of soapy foam inland.
The ancient woman lay still for some time. Naked atop cotton sheets the color of mango, she watches the sun pin stripes of light on her freckled right breast, just above the chocolate gumdrop nipple, bands of gold stealing into the cottage between louvered blinds at her window.
As she spreads her arms to let the light play, she remembers that her left elbow has been paining her in the last days. She rubs and fusses at it awhile, one knuckle on the kneading hand stiff and sore too. Yawning loudly, she tilts her head back to see fingers of palm scolding her window, threatening to penetrate and poke between the blinds. She looks back at her nude body. Arcing down in a dust-gauzed cone, the light paints a two-inch sunray strand across the wiry hair on her pubis. She laughs and tightens the muscles of her rump, arching the bump of her sex up toward the light, stretching her legs, still worrying the elbow.
She asks her toes, “Wasn’t that the man’s injury, too…?”
Before her toes can answer, a melody adds to the drumming palms and slapping sea and lovemaking with the sun. It is Corelle, her nurse, climbing the steep hill, coffee knees churning up from her crisp-smocked lime shift. She sings, in a glassy soprano, the saddest song in the whole world, at least the saddest one the woman has ever heard. Of love found then lost--of men and women and sorrow unending. Corelle! The happiest woman, without care but silly, with a good man, four pickney and a true sweet life, who adores this unhappy song best of all…and sings it every day, twilight to twilight.
“Missus!” she cries, cutting mid-breath her weepy dirge, sweeping into the bungalow, smelling of berries and mint, teeth flashing like a lighthouse beacon.
“This is it!” she says, “The day!”
The world’s oldest woman is up, clean and dressed in twenty minutes. Her helper is frantic, a breathless hurricane as she ministers to her charge, who has only tapped her toes on the wood floor as the young woman, in such a hurry to deliver her to the crowds gathered below, tossing underthings and toiletries onto the bed, has fallen and cut the meat of her calf on the rows of seashells the woman keeps in neat rows at the foot of her bed.
“Reporters, ma’am! So many…” the nurse daubs blood with the corner of her smock, “And TV cameras with trucks…I counted six, and Damien Wright. Do you know who he is?”
“My cane.” Says the woman.
Corelle is stilled a moment by the even, faraway tone of her patient’s voice, then smooths the white apron atop her shift and finds the cane in the far corner of the bungalow. Draped over by a stiffened, yellowed casting net in the careful way the woman leaves it each night, the cane is not a cane at all, not factory-made, but a black fishing rod sawed through at the fourth line guide, shined to a high polish and fitted at the bottom with a perfectly round piece of petrified black driftwood, drilled in the center to house the tip.
The helper tries to evaluate the woman’s odd mood, seeing her huge Asiatic brown eyes fixed on the sea, out to the vanishing point where the surf goes from clear to green to limitless blue.
“It was this same day, your birthday.” Corelle says, her voice flat, eyes moistening. “When he left us.” The woman is silent, her gaze rigid on the water, her frail form still as death where she sits on the bed.
“He didn’t leave us.” she says finally.
“Missus?” Corelle, realizing the day is also an anniversary, chastened, feels a giant tear splash the collar of her uniform.
“The fish took him.” The woman says.
“The villagers still talk about that night,” the nurse whispers, holding the cane at an angle across her young body, following the woman’s eyes, “How the storm blew…and you know they loved him, ma’am, all of them…and him a white man, but kind, so kind…his gift with the sea, and his poor self at the edge of the rocks, and hooking the fish of five lifetimes as the winds came…” Another salt tear drops.
“He’s here.” the woman says, looking nowhere in this world for confirmation. “I can feel he’s here.” She extends her arm elegantly for her fish-cane.
Soon they are beyond the door, the helper guiding the old woman with a firm hand under her left armpit, her other hand grazing the relic’s bony hip. She stands for a minute looking toward town, tapping the head of her cane against the side of the dusky clapboard bungalow. Corelle turns her toward the tight cluster of people at the base of the hill, where, at the sight of her now, they wave colored kerchiefs and ribbon-tied fabric bundles, cheering, bellowing “huzzah!” and “Look you the young maid!” and “Come to us, missus!”
A loud mechanical cough cleaves the happy chorus. On the seaward turn of the hill, it is the bark of an engine. The woman turns toward the sound. A tall purple-black child in smudged beige shorts in the rear of an outboard skiff straightens from the motor as the whirring screw roils the water in a soup of bubbles and blue smoke. The ragged craft jumps in huffing protest out to sea and away in seconds, carving a lemon-wedge curling wake as it disappears.
“I want to go up.”
“But missus. They want us down below. Such a crowd! We’d best go down right away.”
“Up.” She whips her sore elbow around, unbalancing Corelle as she plants the fishing-rod cane in the soil beneath the long grass. Looking up at the lone tree at the top of the hill, she says “He’s getting my attention.”
The helper, fearing her patient may be intimidated by the ruckus below, or worse, not just right in her mind today, faces the expectant group downhill, a few of the men stepping forward, palms upstretched and questioning, as if they know something is wrong. The old woman is facing away from them, upturned almond eyes drawn by the gnarled ghost tree at the top of the slope. As Corelle scrambles to catch up, several of the crowd drift from the backside of the hill toward the front, by the sea, to more easily keep eyes on the woman as she climbs, unsteadily at first then faster. A thin smile dawns under her flashing eyes.
A tiny girl of four sitting on her father’s shoulders, looks away as the crowd watches the woman ascend. She is terrorized by the ebony tree at the hill’s summit, its arthritic limbs half-furled like a duppy. She is the first to see the creature.
“Dada!” a staccato yelp, then she screams and holds a piercing note, then spits on her thumb and rubs it down her white party dress. The group looks where she points with her other hand to the sea. Above, Corelle hears the child and looks. The old woman does not, but keeps her eyes on the fearsome tree, only steps away now. As the throng forms a crescent at water’s edge, even members of the press murmur and point at the approaching beast.
The ancient woman reaches the top of the hill, slapping Corelle’s hand away when the helper tries to give aid. She bends forward and kisses the dark trunk of the tree like an old friend. Her smile widens.
“Ma’am, look!” The nurse takes her by the shoulders and gently turns her toward the Caribbean.
Undulating forward toward the beach is a massive brown orb, ten feet across, as deep in color as the tree the old woman has kissed. When it surfaces, flipping a spray of saltwater from the tips of its wings, its color changes, now a broad, tawny caramel like the complexion of the woman. On the sand, the crowd gasps at the monster; children shriek and run closer. Above them, the woman feels Corelle’s hands tremble on her shoulders as her mouth opens soundlessly.
The huge ray noses all the way to the sand line, then glides parallel to the left, about ten yards, before turning and doing the same in the other direction. The ancient woman steps away from the tree, lifting her cane high in her right hand, over her head. Her smile is widest now, her eyes glisten with unspeakable joy. Through her sea foam and coral dress, her diaghram pulses.
The ray ends its sideward sweep of the shoreline, points its nose back toward the sea and shoots out at stunning speed, in no time at least fifty yards offshore. Turning in a vivid flash, it darts at unseeable speed back toward the beach, stopping just before it ends on the sand. A cry goes up from the people. The ray is motionless for about a minute, then moves its head from side to side. As if watching the crowd watching him.
On the hill, the one hundred and twenty year-old woman begins to laugh. She raises the cane even higher, shaking it at the monster ray. Her laughter fills the bay. The ray seems to lift its blunted nose toward her, then slowly turns completely around. Remaining in place, it lifts its spiny tail, longer than a man, from the water. It is aimed directly at the old woman. The tail shakes, an indisputable salutatory movement. It pauses, then waves again. People on the beach look up at the laughing woman.
“Yes, darling,” she is heard to say. “You came for my birthday.” Her laughter drowns the waves.