Long before where I’m from displaced me, and fish swam through windows, and the last blue tarp was washed to sea, and people—far far away—used their phones to look for maps to see how close they were to devastation, Nelia dragged the slimy side of a snail down my arm before chucking it into the bush and running into her house, shrieking with delight. And I heard her cackle, from somewhere inside, while I stood at the gate to watch mucus catch the sun.
Long before the turtles stopped burying their eggs in the sand of narrowing beaches, and fishermen stopped dragging nets into the sea, and tourists stopped taking selfies at plantation houses, Nelia bent next to me and stroked my hair and reassured me while my knee oozed and the bike lay twisted in the road. And I tried to catch my breath when she held my hand.
“But she’s my best friend,” I explained the first time the headmistress told Mummy that Nelia and I had not only had a fondness for hiding, but also a peculiar interest in each other. And Mummy said, “Bes’ friend or not, you’re not to hide from your teachers. They might think you’re lost!” And the next time the headmistress said anything about peculiarities, or hiding, Mummy snapped, “How many times I mus’ tell you not to hide? What if there’s an emergency?!” The third time, she said, “Who’s to save you if you need help? Yuh bes’ friend?” I knew she didn’t want me to say yes.
Nelia told me her mum cuffed her upside the head the first time the headmistress mentioned my name to her. And her mummy said, “We won’t have any peculiarness in this house, yundahstand?” Her mum said nothing about hiding.
Long before anything was ever urgent, before the first and the last evacuations, and before hiding wasn’t safe, Nelia and I used palm husks to cover the hole we’d dug at the edge of her back lot. And sometimes we’d sit in our trench to inspect what we thought were treasures— crawling and dead insects, seashells found far from the sea, ripe cashew fruit, green mangoes and juicy juicy aloes that we’d slice and massage into each other’s hair, before working the jelly into each other’s arms, or fingers or thighs or cheeks. “Do you like how that feels?” either of us would ask as we explored what we tried to hide. Yet I don’t know that either of us could ever answer. Aside from rustling husks, and the crunch of shells (of bug or sea,) or the wisp of a quick inhale that accompanied a surprise, our time in the hole was mostly quiet, little talk—perhaps to stay hidden from others. Or from ourselves. And when we’d inspected enough, and dragged the husks into place, we left everything in what we’d dug for our next visit. It wouldn’t always be like this, we knew. Nothing stays the same forever—a truth to earn proof in the hole. Over time, remains of the fattest aloes withered and the most determined insects escaped, while the boniest parts of our bodies elongated and swelled. And instead of digging a bigger hole, we merely crouched closer, our legs and fingers to tangle, until we no longer fit.
Outside the hole, Nelia always stood taller than me, laughed louder than me, cared deeper than me about everything. As girls, she cared about our classmates who couldn’t afford books before I ever realized some rucksacks weren’t as heavy as my own. When she turned fifteen, we went on a date—though I don’t know we’d have called it that at the time. I took her to Chips and Chutney. And while I slurped at a milkshake, and tingled at the thought of what had tangled in the hole, Nelia explained that calves are separated from their mums within hours of their birth, “So as not to ‘waste’ an ounce of milk.” And she looked at me through downcast eyes while she dipped cassava wedges into apple chutney.
With time, the caring she’d given to textbooks and baby cows grew to include turtles’ eggs and fishermen’s nets and narrowing beaches and plastic water bottles and eroding reefs and tourist-etiquette and erasure and gender-equity and race-equity and organism-equity and global-equity, and she had more questions than answers. “Why don’t you care more?” she’d ask with exasperation to match her enthusiasm. I never said, “Because I’m scared.”
Outside the hole, in the fullest light, beyond the years of girlish curiosities, Nelia’s twisted hair had come to frame her round face—edges to glow gold in the sun. And the pores next to her nose would glisten, and if she was in the right dress you could see the outline of her hips. If you were looking. And she knew I looked. She’d run her hands over her hair, when I looked. And when she reached for my hand, years beyond the hole, I’d pull it away.
Long before Nelia told me I didn’t care enough, about her, or anything, before she found someone who she thought cared more than me, before I wanted to care more, I stepped on a sea urchin where the sea was clear and the tide was low. Its black spines broke in my foot before everything went dark. I’m told I fell backwards into the sand, to face the sky. The full force of the sun was blocked by the branches and dangling fruit of a machineel tree. I woke to a stranger picking my feet while Mummy shook my face in her hands. And I decided then, that looking down would always prove more useful than looking up.
The day would come— when Nelia matter-of-factly said, “Your shame will never serve you,” as if I wasn’t hysterical. As if I wasn’t pleading for another chance to show her just how much I cared: “Let me show you. It doesn’t have to be for everyone to see, but you’ll see. In a million ways I can prove what you mean to me!” Matter-of-factly, as if I wasn’t desperately trying to justify why I hadn’t given her more: “It’s not that I didn’t want to give more, I merely didn’t know how. Nobody showed me how. I didn’t know how to give what you want. But I can learn!” Matter-of-factly, as if I wasn’t gutted by the declaration that she’d fallen in love with someone who wasn’t me: “I should’ve done more, but I—I don’t know how to love like you do—.” And Nelia was patient when she said, “Please stop.” When she held my shoulders and urged calmness. “For yourself, please stop.” And her thumb wiped my tears—and might have swept all feelings away. A numbness to allow me to continue to know Nelia, and to know the one who cared more than me, and to know what their lives would become.
Long before the refugees arrived, before shop shelves lay bare, before a single roll of toilet paper cost as much as a bottle of Gatorade, before politicians started making promises to land on now-unbelieving ears, I might have believed doors were held open to infinite possibilities. And that one day, I might not have to pull away.
After the last surge and the last slide and last quake, it took three weeks to find anything of Nelia. Because, you see, dirt and gravel and concrete and shit and uprooted trees and everything that everyone has ever called waste not only buries, but carries—for kilometers—siblings and parents and newborns and great-great-great grans and peculiar friends and vacated seashells and favorite pets and terrified cattle and snails that had been tossed into bushes. And washed into the sea might seem almost poetic for those who’d never lost a thing to the ocean.
“She might have been hiding,” rescuers explained to her mother when they found what remained of Nelia. “We never thought to look down that way because—well, no one really goes there. Unless you’re a—.” They didn’t finish their sentence because by then Nelia’s mother had collapsed, clutching the white and zippered bag containing her daughter’s arm— torn just above the pineapple, a tattoo to mark the opening of the refugee support center that she’d established with the one who cared more than me. I’d gone to the opening. At her invitation, I ventured where no one really goes, to see what Nelia had accomplished. And while she heaved plastic bins, I saw her hips, and she ran her hands over her hair and said, “It’s a pineapple,” when she saw my eyes grow at the sight of the spiky fruit on the softest part of her arm. “A pineapple means, you are always welcome here.”
Nelia wasn’t alone when the mountain side slid into the ocean. She was with those who cared most, I’d learn. She was with those who couldn’t evacuate, those who knew exactly what was coming, those who knew that there would be more refugees, those who thought they were welcome, those who knew to ask: “What will they call us when the country we’re from is no more?” With those who knew that nothing stays the same forever.
Long before global support vanished into lined pockets, before the country I called home was declared a bio-hazard by an agency far away, before my own refugee-status brought me to sit in a high-rise above a grey city to listen to wind rattle frosted windows while your father turns up the heat on the thermostat, and you and your friend giggle from a blanket-and-paperclip fort in her overly-pink bedroom—long before losing a home, a people, and an identity— Nelia and I couldn’t have known that hiding wouldn’t have protected all that would be lost.
Image credit: Zoya Taylor. Sisters who do more than just lunch. 2020.
Lise Ragbir was the 2017 Jack Jones Literary Art’s Tiphanie Yanique Fellow at the inaugural retreat for women writers of color. In 2015, she was an invited participant in Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshop, in Barbados. Her essays about race, identity, and immigration have appeared in the Guardian and Time Magazine, among others. Ragbir’s short fiction has been honored with finalist recognitions by Glimmer Train Magazine, New Letters’ Alexander Cappon Prize for Fiction, Kore Press (judged by Edwidge Danticat.