The old campsite was yards from the beach and almost completely covered from view by a thick growth of naupaka on its seaside, and rows of palms along the roadside.
The road itself slid like a river down the mountain that jutted over the bay, crisscrossing the ghuts with dips and bridges before spilling into the flat, splitting the salt ponds on the left and the expanse of sand and water on the right. In this season, gold sargassum snaked its way into the island’s many bays and coves. Here in Brewer’s Bay it rolled up the coral banks in thick clumps and lay there until it rotted into a ruddy rust.
Before, Greta would take selfies outside of the bar, her locks draped down one side of her neck, the sun over her and the radiant beach. When the sargassum first started to appear in the water, Greta thought it made a gorgeous sight. A vista full of greens, whites, blues, and browns crowned with the gold of the fresh bloom. If she liked how the photos came out she might post them, or send them to her mother. The smell was a different story. Like someone left thousands of cartons of spoilt eggs in the sun to ripen. Islanders complained bitterly that the government couldn’t be bothered to clean it up.
As she lived just a short way away in the village, she often got to the bar early. She would walk up the road in the morning, between the crumbling ruins of the distillery and the massive sandbox tree that had grown up within it, past the campsite, until she got to a single-story concrete building at the western end of the beach. The simple red sign outside advertised the opening time as eleven but most days by half past ten she’d already pulled up the heavy wooden shutters and fixed them to their metal hooks, raked away the brown clumps of seaweed on the sand in front, and laid out the plastic beach chairs.
In the winter, buses would come from the cruise pier in town full of pale visitors and leave hours later full of red ones. They’d keep to her end of the beach, near the bar, and business would be so good, her Aunt Aveline would hire somebody to help out. But in these summer months, there might be one or two rental cars with faded paint jobs and nicks and scratches on their bumpers parked by the roadside—the more carefree couples island hopping and saving on hurricane season hotel prices. For the frugal, adventurous types, there was still the old campsite at the other end with its wall of naupaka and heavy canopy of palms overhead to protect the tents from the sun and the rain.
As the season wore on, the bays became so clogged with sargassum that when it was calm, the seabirds could stand on the water’s surface and feed freely on the many small creatures that swam in and amongst the clusters. The smell of sulphur choked the nose and the bay alike.
Here and there, something that belonged in the water was deposited on the shore. Usually it was a fish or two and the birds would circle above until the hungriest one approached in small hops to investigate. Soon, a handful would begin to peck at the dead thing in between squabbling with each other. It was so normal that she thought nothing of the spectacle of half dozen or so gulls down the beach, quarrelling amidst the sargassum on the shore.
No one had come in yet for the morning, so she could sit at the empty bar and gaze at the boring horizon ahead of her. Because of how slow the seasons had become, more recently Aunt Aveline had taken to spending her summers in the States with her children and grandchildren, leaving Greta to run the place as she pleased. And she did. She had no inclination to open up late to try to attract the local crowd or to hire DJs and have happy hour promotions like the bars in Cane Garden. That required much more work than she was willing to do, and more money than Aveline was willing to spend.
Now and then the policeman stationed in neighbouring Cane Garden Bay would come by on his rounds. Officer Williams wasn’t particularly handsome, but he had this way of making her, and others she assumed, comfortable. He had the kind of eyes that made everything he said seem deeply sincere and caring when those traits seemed to be less and less common. She’d thought sometimes of them having something, but neither of them seemed ready to exchange anything more than a warm hello and island politics.
So she sat in front of the rolling sea with rows of bottles on the shelves behind her, a sort of standing battalion of booze. Here and there, in the scene in front of her, a flash of white dipped across the blue plain. A yacht sailing away. She wondered if they were day charters, or if the owners were having their boats moved south to safety from hurricanes. She was lost in this imagined world for a while, until shouts interrupted her.
Back towards the campsite, the seagulls were scattering into flight, and a group of children were gesticulating wildly at something in the sand. Their voices came over the Atlantic’s wind in scattered syllables Greta could barely make them out in the day’s glare, their clothes and bodies blurring into daubs of colour.One child broke from their number and came tearing up the strand toward the bar. .
A girl no more than twelve clattered up the four planked stairs that brought patrons from the beach to the level of the bar floor. Sweat darkened her yellow vest and beaded her forehead trickling down her temples. She wiped it away with the back of her hand and wiped it on her blue jean shorts. She paused, her hand still pressed against the front of her pants. Her large brown eyes were darting everywhere but Greta’s face. Greta was sure she didn’t know her, but she could tell by the slope of her nose, the roundness of her face, and her complexion exactly which village family she belonged to. The Hinchleys. Theirs was a rich history, once full of upstanding churchgoing folks, boat captains, and tradespeople. These days though, it seemed like the Hinchleys had fallen on harder times and the young people in the family had taken to riding aimlessly around on scooters, smoking weed on the beach, and getting into minor troubles with the police. Greta was about to ask about her parentage, but the child spoke first.
“Miss Greta, come. It have something on the beach…” The girl did not wait on Greta’s response,instead she turned, leapt down the stairs and bounded away back towards the group, little explosions of sand chasing her heels.
Greta hesitated, thinking briefly of pulling down the shutters to protect her aunt’s investment. Instead, she grabbed her phone, slid off her barstool, clambered down the uneven stairs and hurried off after the Hinchley girl. As she got closer to the small crowd she could better discern and recognise each of the children. There were five of them. Three boys and two girls barefooted in variously coloured vests or t-shirts and shorts. She knew most of them. They often biked down the road from the village to the beach and bathed in front of the bar, or came by for juices or specials. Sometimes she gave them peppermints since the bar didn’t sell candy.
A child lay on her back amidst the sargassum. Her body was almost grey and covered in a thin clear slime, her clothes—a white t-shirt and green shorts— were soaked and clinging to her. She could have been asleep. Her eyes and mouth were closed, one knee pulled closer to her hip, one palm facing upwards beside her face. There was no way to tell how long she had been dead. She recognised this child too. Her stomach tightened and seemed to twist within her.
“Who this child is? Who she for?” she managed, her voice trembling.
“That’s Alaya. Alaya Gregg.” Greta didn’t know which of the boys had spoken. The name didn’t help. Gregg wasn’t a local name.
“But nobody call her parents? Nobody call the ambulance? The police?” The children looked away from her, her questions falling silently in the sand between them. Most kept their eyes on Alaya, others looked at their bare feet in the bone white sand. Greta realized she’d been shouting. One of the little boys smudged tears off his cheek with the back of his hand. The Hinchley girl spoke up.
“Miss Greta, none of us have a phone. We ain’t know what to do.”
Greta remembered her phone in her left hand. She thumbed three numbers into the keypad and raised it to her ear. The line pulsed twice.
Greta imagined Alaya as she must have been. Smiling, laughing, cavorting in the water with her friends, turning cartwheels in the wet sand.
The ambulance came from Road Town in about twenty minutes, fifteen minutes after Officer Williams had made it over the hill and pulled Greta and the kids away from the body. He had shepherded them back towards the bar and written down their names and the numbers of their parents in a little black notebook. Now that the EMTs were there and Officer Williams was talking to them, Greta and the kids sat at the bar where they clutched bottles of cold water and exchanged quiet fearful looks with one another. Greta sat on her rickety stool behind the register and the kids sat side by side, a line of hunched shoulders.
Soon more police arrived. First a squad car with two more grey-suited officers, a woman and a man. The woman officer was older and short while her partner, tall and thin, looked like he’d not too recently finished secondary school. These two quickly circled the scene with a bright yellow tape then engaged Williams in conversation, the disparity of their figures exaggerating the drama of their gesticulations. Minutes later, the plainclothes crime scene unit arrived, looking a ridiculous sight, walking about in the sand and seaweed with their nice shoes, shirts and ties. One stooped over the brown mass of sargassum where the body still lay in the sun.
The wind was blowing in over the Atlantic, roaring over the frothing waves and rattling the sword-like fronds of the palm trees. It made its way into the little beach bar too, spinning around Greta and the silent group of children. Somewhere unseen, a rooster crowed.
A round-faced man came bounding up the stairs, his tie flapping about his face, his shirt dark under the arms.
“Diane!” The Hinchley girl was in his arms almost before he’d finished calling her name. She buried herself in her father’s embrace and let out a long guttural moan.
Officer Williams came up quietly behind Mr. Hinchley and, not wanting to disturb the moment, gently put his hand on his arm. The two men whispered briefly to one another, then Williams went back down the stairs and disappeared.
Mr. Hinchley smiled weakly at Greta. “Thank you,” he said softly. He turned, and with Diane’s slender arm wrapped around his waist the two descended the stairs. Diane looked back briefly at her, her eyes swollen and red.
Shrieks broke the air. There was a commotion back up the beach where that tangled mass of sargassum still clutched the girl’s body. A man and a woman were past the cordon, kneeling in the sand and seaweed as if in prayer. The police officers stood around them silent, like sentinels.
Greta’s phone vibrated violently on the wooden bar, rattling amidst the rows of upturned glasses. The voice on the other end bristled with static. Officer Williams.
“How you keeping?”
Greta held her breath a second too long.
“Hello? Greta, you there?”
“Yes, Officer Williams. I still here.” Greta sighed. “I guess I okay. Is just seeing that girl so stick in my head you know? Is like I can’t stop seeing she.” Greta spun a lock around a finger.
“I know what you mean. Is a terrible thing. When we finish dealing with the children over here I going come back to check. Don’t close down or nothing please.”
“Okay. Is fine. I going be here.”
One by one the children’s parents appeared. One by one they left with their children. Shortly after the last child had disappeared from view with his mother, Officer Williams came back up the steps. The specks of grey in his hair reminded Greta of the sea foaming over the bay’s reef.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes she explained what had happened as best she could. Already the events had begun to wither from her memory. All she was sure of was that the Hinchley girl, Diane, had come running down the beach to get her. After that, all she could see was Alaya, skin bluing in the light, the gold sargassum glittering her skin, the water rolling up to nibble at the shore and the awful relentless wind.
When Officer Williams was finished scribbling in that little notebook, he rose from the stool and turned to go. He paused and shook his head. “This island just ain’t what it used to be,” he said. Then he left.
The sun had gone past the western hillside. It would still be bright in Cane Garden, but in Brewer’s twilight had arrived. A slice of moon hung over the valley, and the eastern sky had already started to darken into a deep cobalt. Officer Williams hadn’t come back. Once, he’d visited when she was closing up. By the time she’d gotten home, the moon was beginning to fall.
Greta went around the bar, pulling down the heavy wooden shutters and locking their metal hooks into loops that were fixed to the sills. She hauled the stools and placed them seat-side down on the tables like she did every other day at closing time. A dog barked in the distance. She worked. First she bagged the money out of the register and placed it in the small safe in the back office; she refilled the chiller with water bottles and juices, then grabbed her bag and made her way down the stairs, before turning and pulling down the shutter for the main entrance. Something fell as she pulled, briefly brushing past her shoulder. Greta let out a little shriek then held her breath. A second later, she looked down to see a small snake hurrying away from her, first into the sand at the bottom of the stairs, then away into the bush near the roadside. She took a minute to catch her breath and for her heart to stop throbbing. She slid the thick metal bolt into its lock then started down the road towards the village, taking care to look where she placed her feet. She knew the only snake on the island was a simple boa, and the most those grew to was three feet. That little one was barely six inches long and probably hunting sleeping lizards.
The road was empty and dark but the night was not. The dark draped itself over everything— the bar, the stoic beach, the shimmering sea, the hillside, the village. A few thin clouds filtered the moonlight, but the stars glimmered like schools of flickering fish overhead. Not a soul was in sight, but the whole world was alive. As Greta walked, coquí frogs serenaded her in rising choruses from either side of the road. Bats swooped silently from the canopy. The palm trees and their long slim trunks stretched and concealed themselves in the sky. The wind began to push itself through them until the swaying trunks began to resemble the dancing legs of the moko jumbie. The moko jumbie, the protectors of the village, the transporters of our spirit. Where were they now when the village needed them?
The night began to hum as Greta made it past the campsite and closer to the crook in the road that threaded the old ruin. The road passed closest to the chimney of the boiler house, and there were several other structures along the way, mostly obscured by the thick assembly of trees. The brush was littered with rusting pieces of metal and rotting wood. It was a wonder she didn’t often come across snakes. A thought rose, then faded in Greta’s mind— all the village men who had tried to tend the boiler’s fire now slept peacefully in the burial ground.
A crab the size of her head skittered sideways out of the way, flaring its massive claw at her in anger. Greta had walked this road a thousand times after closing the bar, but tonight the night terrified her. She pulled her phone out of her bag and pressed one of its smooth buttons. A bright bluish light bathed her face. This comforted her, made her feel that her fear was unfounded, unreasonable, irrational. Reassured, she walked a little faster. The quicker she got home, the quicker she could start to pack the day up into drawers and wash its film off of her skin.
A loud papery rustling interrupted her from a rogue bit of naupaka. She stood still and listened. Something dropped from the palms a few feet in front of her. Another snake. She screamed. A little larger than the first, the snake didn’t even stop to look at her, instead slithering down the road ahead as if it had somewhere to be. Before she could compose herself, another snake of a similar size slid out of the naupaka and followed behind the first.
She gave the serpents some time to get where they were going. She would have no choice but to follow them in order to get home. A minute passed. Two. When she figured it was safe, she continued walking, much less assured. A cord of unease twanged in her gut and shivered all the way up her spine. The bay had grown wild and mad. Only the prospect of the yellowing warm light of her apartment offered any comfort.
Greta came to the bend in the road. The bricked wall of the boiler’s tower leaned over her, vines menacingly slithering down its side from the trees above. She imagined the souls spent in this place— the backs bent in the heat of an old evil. The island cared nothing for that now. First the animals, now even the trees had reclaimed every bloody inch of this plantation. Further down the road, past all this and past her house, she could picture the orderly graves of the village cemetery, their whitewashed crosses gleaming in the moonlight.
The ruin’s walls, chipped and pockmarked, carried the history in their limestone mortar. They appeared a pale foam into which the bricks pressed their patina patterns as she walked. A black square hung upon the building’s face at head height— a plaque, she knew, speaking to that history of cane, of sugar, of rum, of blood. The road wrapped, as it always did, around the boiler so closely that a driver could extend their hand to feel the rough pores of the wall with their fingertips. Around the other side of the wall, a cavernous mouth opened up where the floor and large parts of the structure had long since fallen away. From deep within that murky shadow a pressure built so dense she could feel it reaching out slowly, inevitably towards her. She could see nothing in there. But she could hear. And she could run. So she ran.
Her sandals threatened to snap at the sides each time they slapped the asphalt. Each step’s report ricocheted about the walls of trees and brick before escaping somewhere over the black waves. She knew the road would quickly twist away from the ruin if she ran as fast as she could. Soon the lights of the village would appear in the dark between the foliage like dying embers. She could be home in a few minutes. But where Greta thought the road would turn, it undulated and surged and rippled towards her.
Snakes. Large and small. Dozens of them, hissing and skidding their long writhing bodies over her feet and past her into the night. She wished she could scream again. She wished it mattered if she did. She trampled a few underfoot before an ankle betrayed her and she slipped. Her back hit the ground just before her head.
The mass of snakes pushed themselves over and by and through her. None of it mattered—the bar, the tourists, the village, Officer Williams. Everything ached. Her throat, her chest, her legs. Her desire to run wafted away in a current of air. Besides, there was nowhere to go. There was only the island, and the island was older and greater, wiser and more beautiful and terrible than it all.
She struggled to her feet facing the ruin. The snakes were growing much bigger than they should be. Larger than any she had ever seen on island. Their heads were broad and squat, their necks thick and muscular, their tongues long and ridged and curious. All of them were disappearing into the gloom of the ruin’s hole. The night grew thicker. The stars extinguished, the dogs and the roosters were mute, the coquís halted their chorus, and the snakes drowned out the surf and its wind.
At first Greta could not see. But soon she knew that something was with her. Two small moons opened in the ruin, the mighty roots of the sandbox moved, and a row of daggers revealed themselves. The serpent rippled green, blue, and gold in the low light of the blackness. It was magnificent. Blood dripped from its mouth, its tongue flicked the air, and its hiss sounded like breakers over a reef. Greta thought that she could just climb between the great snake’s jaws, past its stalagmite fangs and impossible tongue, right into its belly. Maybe there she would see what Alaya saw, a past world devoured, an ending that is never an ending.
The serpent’s wet eyes caught all the light there was. They pulled at Greta the way a fisherman gives his line a gentle tug when he thinks there’s been a bite.
Mine! the eyes said.
Greta could feel her feet pressing into the ground. She could feel her toes turning and digging down through the earth, could feel herself being rooted in this place. She knew somewhere beneath her and the divinity before her, that blood coursed like rivers in its own network, a great world that contained all that was past and all that was to come.
Water glazed her cheeks. The knowledge was monstrously beautiful. The serpent’s kaleidoscopic scales shifted and shimmered, its tongue licked the air like a man’s tie caught in a gust. To keep from screaming, Greta bit the inside of her lip until she tasted the warm metallic wetness of blood.
Mine! this god reminded her.
Slowly, the great serpent’s coils hardened into the sandbox’s network of roots. Its eyes sank into the depressions of the bricked wall of the ruin, and its teeth receded into the sandbox’s thorny trunk.
Mine, an echoing whisper.
The Atlantic uttered a low and hungry growl. A brisk wind hurried through the trees and up the road towards the village lights. The crickets and the coquís squatted in the naupaka and sang their songs with lust.
Greta’s house was a small cream-coloured concrete box, with aluminum louvers to keep the storms outside and the living in. The front door opened into the kitchen, and that is where Greta stood, slipping one sandal off a dusty heel and then the other.
The kitchen led into the living room, from which a narrow doorway took her to the modest bathroom and the bedroom. The walls were white and unadorned, bouncing warm yellow light between themselves each time Greta flicked a switch.
She left the light in the living room off but turned the TV on to keep her company, the cool blue glow cascaded over the living room and the echoing voices made her feel less alone in the small place. She slipped her clothes off as she made her way to her shower. Her shirt made a circle of purple, her jeans an island of blue on the white of the bathroom tile. Her underwear followed and she stepped into the constricted space under the shower head.
A voice from the living room spoke solemnly about Alaya, of a child slipping away while her grandmother slept, of the dangers of tides and currents, of how easily a small person could get tangled in the rich blooming sargassum. Greta thought about how the world could spirit the body away and bring it back to a place changed. Or how a place changes. How it could be one thing, and then another very different thing, and how if you never leave you never see the change happen. How one morning you open your eyes and you are no longer where you thought you were.
Somewhere in the small house, Greta’s phone hummed and vibrated. Its blue light flashed vibrantly before dimming to a dull haze and then back to a perfect blackness.
The steaming water filled the bath with a thin mist, and Greta got to work sloughing the day from the pores of her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the giant Moko, its legs like great protective trunks over the village. The suds foamed as they climbed down her calves and spiraled around the drain like white snakes.
Anchor image: Heather Gallimore, Negril, 2020
Richard Georges is an author of essays, stories, and three collections of poetry. His work has appeared in Prelude, Smartish Pace, The Poetry Review, WILDNESS, Wasafiri, The White Review and elsewhere. He is a Founding Editor of Moko magazine and Poet Laureate of the British Virgin Islands where he lives.