Caribbean Hurricane Rhyme

Julia Morris Thomson

May, no way

One day in May, during a depression, when the atmospheric pressure over north Eleuthera was lower than its surrounding system, Gail was challenged to enter Gregory Town’s pineapple baking contest by her best friend Keniesha.

“I know you can’t win this one. Ain’ no way you could make something without eating it,” Keniesha said.

“How you think you know me so good.”

“Remember the pineapple eating contest?” Keniesha’s laugh forced a smile out of Gail. When Gail was ten years old, she had eaten the hanging pineapple, with her hands behind her back, so fast that she’d thrown up behind the tent five minutes later. She’d walked around all day with the winning ribbon pinned to her t-shirt, cheeks shiny from the dried juice and a belly full of bile.

“I miss the old days with the egg and spoon and them sack races,” Gail said.

“That’s cuz you always winning. Only time I won was with you in the three-legged race.”

“You think your Mummy would give me her recipe?”

“She don’t care. Nobody could make pineapple tart like Mummy—some people don’t need a contest to know they good at something.”

***

The weather, under such an area of low pressure, tended to be unsettled. Dense clouds formed as the air rose and cooled and the water vapour condensed.

That afternoon, Gail went by Miss Nellie’s at the East & Final grocery store to get her pineapple tart recipe. A black Honda with a crushed side door pulled up at the adjacent liquor store, its music pulsating behind tinted windows. She waited until the guys returned to the car with their Kaliks and drove off before walking up the mauve steps to the store. She didn’t want comments about her large figure right now—however much they admired it.

Miss Nellie’s head lifted with the door chime.

“Good afternoon, Miss Nellie,” Gail said.

“Put your shoulders back darlin’,” Nellie said. “And let me see your pretty blue eyes.”

“I was just wondering about your tart and if I could get your recipe for the baking contest,” Gail said.

“Sure thing. I don’t have time for those kinda things.”

“How long you been making it now?” Gail asked.

“Plenty plenty years,” Nellie said. “I’m telling you though, people taste it different depending on how I feeling.” She copied the recipe onto a brown grocery bag and slid it over the shiny wooden counter. Gail picked up a piece of Nellie’s tart that was entombed in plastic with a $3.00 red sticker on it. There were already a few local pineapples and mangoes lined up near the cash register along with some cucumbers and tomatoes.

“You want me to go over this with you?”

“That’s okay, Miss Nellie. I could borrow your pan though?” Gail took the long rectangular pan and skipped out of the store not even noticing the scores of knife cuts embedded in the metal like scars.

***

May was the beginning of rainy season; May’s rain doubled from April’s two inches. The rain brought comfort and relief to the rising temperatures and filled the cisterns with much needed fresh water. The frogs creaked rubbery approval from their subterranean caverns.

Big drops of salty sweat dropped from Gail’s forehead onto the floured counter turning the flour into a gluey paste. She wrestled the dough to the pan chiseling the sticky bits off her hands and rolling pin with a knife. Dough stuck to everything she touched—nose, ear, hair, shirt, pants and eyelids. When the pineapple filling stuck to the pan, she added water.

“I didn’t know baking was such a workout,” Gail’s mother said when she saw Gail drenched in sweat and dough.

There were high hopes for Gail’s tart on account of the reputation of Miss Nellie’s recipe. The judges tasted inexperience with every bite. Gail’s tart had a thick bloated crust and a watery pineapple filling.

“Maybe Mummy left something out,” Keniesha said.

“No,” Gail said. “I gotta get out from under this cloud.”

June, too soon

Gregory Town still held the only Pineapple Festival in the Bahamas the first week in June, even though Hurricane Andrew had wiped out the pine fields in 1992, just like Betsy had in 1965. Andrew, a category five storm with winds hitting 160 miles per hour, had devastated the northern end of Eleuthera. The forty-odd pineapple farmers near Gregory Town were but a small casualty left in his wake. Now, there were only a few spikey fields here and there growing the sweetest pineapples in Eleuthera’s red soil.

The old mariners’ rhyme went: June Too Soon; it was the official start of hurricane season but nobody thought about hurricanes in June.

Atlantic hurricanes were born off Africa’s west coast where the trade winds of the northern hemisphere met those of the southern hemisphere. But first, the surface ocean temperatures had to have heat—specifically 26.5 degrees Celsius.

***

The next year, during an extended area of high pressure when the weather was fair and clear, Gail worked on presentation. She cut the fat. Her dough resembled breadcrumbs—soft and airy—yet firm. She sprinkled flour on the counter and spun the dough into a cloudy ball. She rolled and wove the top lattice crust like a straw market artist. The pineapple filling was boiled down to a creamy golden jam. The sky was blue and light winds blew in a clockwise direction with the sinking air. The seas were smooth with wave heights between a tenth and half a meter.

“You should make a baking workout video,” Gail’s mother said noting her daughter’s loose clothes. “Nobody would believe it.”

***

Gail brought her pineapple tart over to the mechanic in Hatchet Bay. She’d met him hanging out at Kel-D’s some Friday nights. She liked him because he talked to her about his cars like they were eccentric cats.

“Now, this jeep here likes to be warmed up before she goes for a ride. I have to talk sweet to the Malibu, tell her where I’ll take her, before she turns over. Now, this Chevy, this silver Chevy right here, just purrs the moment you turn the ignition.” Gail looked into his dark eyes and wondered what kind of car he thought she was.

“I brought you a piece of my pineapple tart,” she said.

“I didn’t know you could bake,” he said.

“You didn’t get around to asking,” Gail replied.

***

Gail had always known how to give what others wanted. At the age of eight, after being crowned “Little Miss Pineapple Princess”, she’d posed, arms akimbo, right in front of the lens of the biggest camera. That photo made the Nassau Guardian: a beaming girl in a dress twice her girth that cascaded, shiny and wave-like, around her like a shell. Keniesha had also been in that photo—a little black and white smile at the bottom edge that only Keniesha recognized as herself.

Gail’s mother had not wanted her to enter.

“That pageant is for the local girls,” her mother had said.

“I’m local. I live here,” Gail said.

“You know what I mean.”

Gail had only half known what her mother had meant. After she won and after her picture had made the paper, she struggled to figure it out. People recognized her as the “little white girl from Gregory” who had got her picture in the paper. There was something confusing in the way they said it.

“They thought you’d be from Spanish Wells,” her mother said referring to a predominately white settlement.

“Keniesha and I just wanted to be princesses,” Gail said.

“Keniesha had a brilliant answer to the question, but that isn’t what makes a princess, is it?”

“You didn’t like my answer?”

“That wasn’t why you won.”

Gail wanted to be told why she had won but she was afraid of the answer. Her mother just didn’t understand the contest—nor did Keniesha really. Keniesha didn’t care about her hair and make-up or even about the dresses. Gail had tried to get Keniesha to smile and wave with her on stage but she had stood like a policeman.

And yet, her mother had only commented on Keniesha: That Keniesha is a smart one. Her speech was interesting.

For their talent segments, Keniesha had read a poem she’d written about the environment. Gail had done an interpretative dance to the Spice Girls’ song Wannabe. I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want,” her mother said in a singsong voice. Gail waited but her mother didn’t tell her anything.

July, standby

Just before a hurricane, the air was still with a vivid clarity. The birds and insects have gone without anyone noticing their exodus. The echo of their absence permeated a motionless dreamscape. No camera could capture the picture-perfect azure hues of the sea and sky.

Gail baked love, love and some more love into her pineapple tart the next year. She selected the sweetest smelling fresh pineapples instead of using canned. Her sticky pineapple jam with vanilla overtones glistened beneath the honeyed pastry dough. It was like she had perfumed her tart with sweetheart nectar.

Her mechanic couldn’t get enough. Licking each other’s fingers, they ate tart down by the wharf at James Cistern while the sun sparkled in its descent. With detached interest, they watched the fishermen scale that day’s catch—silver flakes flying like confetti into the air. Machetes hammered off fins and tails; red guts were tossed into the water. Flies droned over the table.

***

The judges tasted Gail’s tart twice and declared that they had wanted to eat the whole thing. Keniesha had entered a pineapple upside-down cake in the contest without telling Gail. She had also arrived at the fair with this guy that Gail had only heard about in whispered stories.

“Girl, when you started baking?” Gail asked.

“It don’t matter,” Keniesha said.

“Your Mummy know?”

“Enough. She think we baking together.”

Gail saw that the cake had stuck to the side of the pan. She frowned when she saw that the caramelized pineapple was a little charred on the bottom. “Your Mummy won’t like her name associated with this,” Gail said. When she looked up, Keniesha was gone.

***

A fresh wind, Beaufort force 5 speed, rattled the triangular flags strung up on the stage. She couldn’t hear the judges’ comments but noted the advance of a cold front. The pressure increased, the temperature fell and there was a clockwise change in wind direction. A shiver went through her when she saw Keniesha’s guy shake one of the judge’s hands. She couldn’t take her eyes off the glint from his thick gold watch.

Gail threw her second place ribbon into the garbage after she saw that Keniesha had won. Her mechanic pulled them away from the tent and kept his arm around her waist.

“Sometimes, it cost too much to win,” she told her mechanic and gave him a kiss. “I don’t want to win that bad.”

***

At home, her mother asked about her tart.

“Keniesha won with an upside down cake,” she said.

“Well, good for Keniesha,” her mother said.

“No, not good for Keniesha,” Gail replied. She could tell that her mother wanted her to explain but Gail went to her room.

August, come it must

A tropical disturbance began as a circular pattern of low-pressure over the tropical Atlantic that carried weak winds. Tropical cyclones blew in frequently and typically weren’t named until they reached high wind speeds. There could be a hundred disturbances in a season but only a handful grew to be tropical depressions with a structured low pressure centre.

Gail and the mechanic were arguing a lot since she’d come home from school for the summer. She’d expected everything to be the same since nothing ever seemed to change, but she was learning that the changes were subtle like a little dip in atmospheric pressure or a slight thickening in the clouds. Their frequent disagreements blew in and out of his Chevy’s open windows and refreshed the air but condensed their mood.

There was also a front between her and Keniesha. Keniesha didn’t get the scholarship she required to go to the United States, so she had been studying in Nassau and coming home frequently.

“Hey, you been working on your upside-down cake this year?” Gail asked.

“Girl, there ain’ no time for that.”

“But it’s still our thing, right?”

“I guess.”

“And what about that guy?”

“He been gone long time. Long distance don’t work. You should know that.”

Gail watched the cumulous clouds out the window. The puffy scalloped shapes gave her no clue to the weather shifts. All she could see was a double-masted ship.

***

The squall hit a few hours later. Gail and her mechanic were driving on the Queen’s Highway past the old silos towards Hatchet Bay. Wild bush had taken over the old farming fields except for small patches where pineapple and other crops were again being cultivated. Pineapple, like banana, was a “long-time” crop that took about a year and a half to grow. Their large sword-like leaves crowned out to protect the golden jewel in its centre.

Afterwards, Gail couldn’t even recall what they were arguing about; each insult hit like pelting rain on parched soil. Impenetrable at the time but later, the soil was drenched deep.

From out of the bush, a potcake ran across the road. The bump/yelp/screech ran like a slow-motion sound loop through Gail’s ears.

“You hit that dog! We have to see if it’s ok,” Gail said.

“It better not have dented my car.”

“It’s hurt, we can’t leave it there.” Gail struggled to contain her tears. “Please turn around.”

“And have it bleed all over the back seat? No way.”

***

Gail took her frustrations out on her pastry. “If we weren’t arguing, we wouldn’t have hit the dog,” she said to herself. She slapped and pounded the pastry onto the counter. “This is a such stupid contest anyway. I don’t even want to enter this stupid tart.”

She was still banging things about when the tart came out of the oven. The dough was pinched into pointed peaks that had browned almost to burning. There were bitter overtones from the limes in the pineapple filling.

Gail’s mother came into the kitchen. “Here, just sprinkle a little sugar over your tart.” She scraped the blackened pastry down to round bumps and covered it with a shiny glaze.

“I didn’t know you knew about pastry.”

“My mother taught me. She didn’t bake either.”

“You were right. What’s the point of these contests?”

“People are so afraid of pastry. They should be more frightened of chicken—I’ve tasted more awful chicken than pastry. Not you, though.”

Gail waited for her to say more but she went back to her book in the living room.

“Wait. I have one more thing I need help with,” Gail said. They returned to the silos and rescued the injured dog she named Squall.

September, remember

A hurricane was fueled on wind and warm water. When tropical cyclones reached seventy-four miles per hour, a Beaufort Force scale of 12, they got redefined as a category one hurricane; Cat one.

A hurricane watch was when storm conditions were within thirty-six hours. Hurricanes were highly unpredictable—the tricksters could rapidly change directions, double back, peter out or gain strength. They required constant monitoring.

The next year was the strongest year for Gail’s pineapple tart. She experimented by adding coconut to the crust along with a pinch of nutmeg. Her pastry had a depth of flavor that lingered in the mouth. The lime worked in tandem with the juicy pineapple balancing sweetness and bite. The glazed crust perched like a lattice crown on her creation.

It was even harder to reconnect with everyone after two years away. Gail and the mechanic were struggling. He wasn’t very available between his job and his sick mother. Keniesha was also frustrating to pin down. Gail went by East & Final.

“No, she’s not here. Wasn’t she just by you? You girls been baking plenty of them upside down cakes I hear,” Miss Nellie said.

“I guess,” Gail replied trying to cover for her friend. “They selling well at the store?”

“She don’t bring them by here. Seems they is popular with lots of other people though.”

“Well, tell her I say ‘hey’.”

“Will do darling. Give my love to your family.”

***

Hurricane warnings were issued when a storm was within twenty-four hours. These warnings were taken seriously because the hurricane path was more predictable at this stage. With a warning, windows were boarded over, trees were pruned and cars were gassed-up. Supplies like food, batteries and water were stockpiled.

Warm water was required to fuel the storms’ engines. As hurricanes moved in a northerly direction over cooler water, they generally lost their strength. But first, they hit land and wreaked havoc.

***

Gail had this unusual knowing in her gut when she carried her tart to the Pineapple Festival. She just knew her tart would win that year but it was twinned with a feeling of dread instead of excitement. It was like she was outside herself and watching this character Gail on a television show. She could almost hear the thundery bass of the music track warning her: Don’t go in there. Go home. Walk away.

Just outside the tent, she paused. All the other contestants, including Keniesha, were talking and laughing amongst themselves. There was a time when it would have been her and Keniesha whispering to each other outside the tent. She wanted to be ten again—vomit behind the tent and have everything feel better. Did she imagine it or did the conversation evaporate when she put her tart down? She fought internal impulses to drop her tart or knock it over the table to release the turbulent feeling inside her. She kept looking around waiting for something to happen.

Her stomach was still churning when she won the first place ribbon. As Keniesha left the tent, Gail cornered her.

“You got your ribbon,” Keniesha said.

“Why it so crazy in there?”

“People just feeling tired after the fish fry last night. Why you didn’t come?”   Gail motioned to her tart.

“Alright. That’s your choice then.”

***

The front edge of a hurricane generated strong winds with a pounding rain. When the centre of the storm, the eye, passed over there was a brief period of eerie calm and blue sky. The dogs could be let out, damage surveyed and neighbours checked on. Then, the rain and winds hit from the opposite direction even harder.

Gail had avoided the centre stage ever since the Little Miss Pineapple pageant but her legs just seemed to lead her towards the Royal Bahamas Defence Force Band. She picked up a pineapple rum bubba along the way. The music was loud and she liked how it blocked off conversation. The mechanic’s mother was there.

“I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” Gail shouted to her.

“Chile, what you talking ‘bout?” she shouted back.

“Your lung infection. The antibiotics cleared it up?”

“You mixing me up with someone else. I ain’ never felt better.”

Gail had a pineapple daiquiri and then a pineapple margarita.

***

In 1965, everyone thought that Hurricane Betsy had passed Eleuthera and they breathed a sigh of relief. But Betsy performed a rare loop and came back down the island.

Later, Gail asked herself why she had looped back to the baking tent instead of going home. Without a warning, she was hit defenseless. She witnessed the full impact of the mechanic devouring Keniesha and her ribbon-less upside-down cake. And people were acting like it was normal.

The pressure inside her head burst and the destruction was rapid. Wrappers were blown off like roof shingles in a hurricane. Cakes and tarts and squares were uprooted and strewn about like a child flinging her building blocks during a temper tantrum. Insults like a roaring train screamed out in fury. Keniesha hunkered down defensively—her back battered with icing. The mechanic was flung to the next settlement with pineapple mashed into his hair, his clothes shredded. And when its passion was spent, there were the two friends facing each other and the deafening quiet.

October, all over

After a hurricane, there was a new raw smell to the land. The still air carried the damp odour of decomposition and destruction coupled with growth and rebirth. New light reached the drenched earth through shorn tree canopies. Receded waters left an ocean-churned trail in its wake. Chain saws buzzed as felled trees and branches were chopped up and carted away. Sand, seaweed, rocks and carried debris were shoveled off roads and yards. Piles of water-damaged household items lined yards. Generators, with their stuttering whirr, serviced a few choice homes. Leaves were stripped away or else brown from the salt but the trees themselves were not dead. It was a time of regrowth and regeneration for the island and the people. Hurricanes had happened before and they would come again. People counted their blessings and moved on.

***

The seas were calm, less than one tenth of a metre and the winds were light, a Beaufort Force between one and two. Gail and Keniesha were looking at the Pineapple Festival flyer outside East & Final.

“Guess you won’t be making no more pineapple tart,” Keniesha said.

“Why you bring that up? You know we done with all that.”

“They change the cooking competition this year. You got to cook with whatever they give you in a basket. You could have chicken or grouper or grits or whatever they think of and you got to use it. With the pineapple of course.”

“Like that show on television. I forget what it’s called.”

“Yeah, like that.”

“That ain’ for us, we can’t practice,” Gail said. Then, she heard something in Keniesha’s silence. “Now, this is your kind of competition. I’m going to set you up with a mystery basket directly.”

“I don’t know…”

“I do. Let’s go.”

“How you know me so good?”

***

Hurricane names were retired from six alphabetical rotating lists after severe damage and emotional impact. Bahamians list the name and year of hurricanes like they’re an old aunt or uncle who went on a bender. I wasn’t around for Donna but Betsy, Betsy was in ’65 and I remember her. We all thought she’d gone north but she turned right around and hit us hard. Now Andrew, he came during a year when there was an El Nino when we weren’t supposed to get any hurricanes. He could have been even worse.

Donna, Betsy, Andrew, Michelle, Noel, Irene and Sandy were removed from the list and replaced with alphabetical equivalents. Their names couldn’t inflict any more damage on the Bahamas.

***

Gail and her mother were watching the news on television. Squall was at Gail’s feet.

“You know, a lot of people have asked me why you’re moving to Toronto,” Gail’s mother said.

Gail didn’t say anything.

“Are you going to make me ask you why?”

“I had so many questions growing up that I couldn’t ask you,” Gail said.

“Of course you could. And you did. All the time.”

“It didn’t feel like that.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Why didn’t you support me in the competitions?”

“You didn’t need my help, you had Keniesha.”

“Tell people there aren’t any hurricanes in Toronto. Except for this one-off storm Hazel. But, I’ll always come home.”

Hurricane season ends November 30

 The Gregory Town Pineapple Festival began in 1988 as a way to honour and acknowledge the hard work of the pineapple farmers. The pineapple was a mariner’s symbol of hospitality; seafaring captains would place a pineapple outside their home to signal their safe return. The concrete finials on homes became a fixture of Bahamian and Caribbean architecture.

Gail made a point of returning home each year for the Pineapple Festival. Keniesha entered the cooking contest each year and eventually won. Gail coached from the sidelines and thought she could win it if she entered. Their daughters participated in the three-legged race. They were discouraged from entering the pineapple eating contest and the pageant. But, what say did the mothers have in the matter anyway?


Image credit: Peter Dean Rickards

Julia Morris Thomson is a storyteller, essayist and late-in-life creative writing student at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, Canada. Julia grew up in the Bahamas from the ages of three to thirteen living on the islands of Eleuthera and New Providence. When she began writing, childhood memories and stories emerged. Caribbean Hurricane Rhyme is part of a collection of short stories that she is currently working on to complete her certificate. She won first prize in the 2016 Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Prize with her story, Roached, also set on Eleuthera. She divides her time between Toronto and the Bahamas visiting family and friends.

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