LEFT BEHIND

NASTASSIA RAMBARRAN

Marielle was waiting for the boat to come in. The three shades of blue that merged sky and ocean stood flatly in front of her like a painting. Behind her, the hills stood rooted in their seaward gaze, covered with splotches of brown that the rainy season had not yet revived. But it was the kind of day where the clear sky teamed up with the heat, making the enveloping beauty intensely uncomfortable at the same time. Normally she liked the respite from chores that the boat run offered, but today she was impatient to get back home — Mils was coming over soon. Even Donkey seemed unusually antsy, making fussing movements of his head. Soon she was spared from the heat, as she spotted the boat rounding the corner and swiftly approaching the rickety dock.

“Morning!” she shouted at the crew as they pulled up alongside.

“How tings girl? The regular amount?”

“Yes please.”

A man from the boat hoisted the boxes of manufactured goods onto the donkey cart, while another lifted barrels of cheese from the cart and placed them on the boat. Marielle found herself giving the barrels a wistful look. This was only the second batch she had been responsible for making from scratch, and though she knew their Bajan black belly cheese already had a solid reputation on the mainland, she liked the thought that she had tweaked the process just enough to make the cheese a smidgen better.

“You gon buy the news this time?”

Up to this morning she wasn’t sure whether she was going to buy the news, but then had considered that Mils would really love it, so had gone ahead and parcelled out some tea leaves in exchange. The news was a luxury she resented a little bit , because she felt short changed ever since Miss Angie had told her how news in the past used to be printed on huge sheets of paper with coloured pictures and sent out to people every day. But she wasn’t even sure whether the old lady was telling the truth, because compared to the two pages of tiny, closely compressed words — which now had to relate a whole month of events from around the world — she felt that such extravagance must have cost a fortune. 

After collecting the news, with all cargo loaded onto either cart or boat, she mounted Donkey for the trek back up into the hills. There was a canopy above to shield them, but it seemed inadequate in the face of this heat. Marielle wasn’t given to ruminating on the possible trajectories her life could have taken— she considered it a waste of her energy. But a sudden, sullen slice of a thought popped into her head. If her grandparents had just left when everybody else did, she would not be here now with the sweat lazily winding down her back. If they had left though, maybe her parents would not have met, and she wouldn’t be anywhere at all. 

See this is why this type of thinking was a waste of time, she thought. It would make more sense to think about why her parents hadn’t left and still weren’t leaving, but she shook her head to chase away that oncoming thought, too. Thoughts about the older generation were abstract; and circling back to the present, and the possibility of everything being different made her queasy. Luckily, she was almost home.

“Mils!”

The other girl broke into a smile; “Marielle!” she said. 

She stepped off Donkey and received a tight and happy hug. Mils’ hair smelled of coconut oil, and her shoulder vaguely like fried chicken. It felt natural that this hug flowed into a gentle sway with them still clasped together, but Mils was pulling away and grinning; “Yes I get to come over early. Let we unpack this quick so we could talk”. They both knew that after unpacking there was still so much to be done — including the tedious tasks of replenishing the water drums and attending to the sheep — but they would be able to talk the whole time, and that was the point. Mils lived across the valley and, like every family, her’s normally needed her at home to help with household tasks. Overnight visits were extremely rare, so when they occurred, the girls felt the pressure of time sliding by and the need to cram every moment with talk. 

“I got something special for you after too”

Mils clapped her hands, “Oooooo”. The excitement suffusing her face told Marielle that the tea leaves were more than a fair exchange for the news.  

Late afternoon found them sitting side by side on the veranda, with one grating coconut and the other shelling pigeon peas. By this time, they had caught up on almost everything, and managed to read the first page of news in between tasks. Marielle realised that this relaxed feeling was actually a melting contentment. As soon as she allowed herself to feel this, it bled into sadness at the thought of Mils leaving in the morning. She looked up from her shelling to distract herself, and found her eyes narrowing. Something was off.

“Mils you hear anything about a storm on the radio?”

“No,” Mils wrinkled her face in thought. It was essentially a rhetorical question. If there had been a warning on the radio the entire community would have known 

“The sky look weird. As if the purple gon come in soon”

Mils stopped grating and peered intently into the distance as well. Sometimes storms popped up so suddenly there was no time for advance warning. Most people only turned on their radios at night because they were busy working during the day. Even though the radios operated on solar energy, it was believed that using them unnecessarily wore out the expensive devices.

“Oh God,” groaned Mils. She was starting to see what Marielle was talking about. 

Marielle stood up and went inside to get her mother who had more experience reading the storm signs. Now there was a noticeable difference in the air. The approaching night sounds had fallen quiet. No bleeps and chirps from the tree frogs; just a stillness in the air, as if the island had started holding its breath. Marielle’s mother came onto the veranda and stared at the vista in front of her. She sighed.

“Storm coming fuh truth. Looking like a bad one too. Call your mother Mils.”

Mils went inside to try to get her family on the two-way radio. After a few attempts, she got through. They decided she should still stay at Marielle’s overnight, as previously planned. They couldn’t spare the time and resources it would take to send someone to ferry her back to her hill anyway. Preparations for securing the house and animals had already started while Mils was on the call. Everyone knew their roles by rote. Having Mils as an extra hand would make things move even more swiftly, and Marielle appreciated having her there more than she could have imagined.  

The light outside was changing to a glowing, red-tinged orange with the heavy clouds gradually suffused by a deepening purple. Marielle had lived through many storms in her sixteen years on the island, and prepping for them was second nature, but ever since her father had carried them on that trip down south six years ago, the Great Hurricane always invaded her mind, intruding on her preparations.  People never really went to the south of the island anymore, but she had a vague memory of  her father having access to a neighbour’s boat while the neighbour was away. Wanting to make the most of this uncommon occurrence her father took the family for trips on the water every day.

Marielle had a healthy respect for the water and could swim, of course, but being out on the open sea always made her tense. To her the sea was like a mercurial parent, and once she had seen it angrily churning in a storm, a trusting relationship was never possible. Her father had run out of nearby areas to explore, and the trip south was an impulse. It was also dangerous, as manoeuvring among the wreckage was tricky. She could never forget her first glimpse of what was once the capital. It was unthinkable that in less than an hour of travel she was in a place that so starkly contrasted with the placid, undisturbed beauty of her hillside home. The weather had been the same for the whole trip — intensely sunny — but the haunting stillness of the remains of the city dimmed the brightness of the day. Her father pointed out what had once been the hospital, telling them about the many people who had been trapped and died within its walls. She looked at the ruined building and imagined that each one of the tiny squares on the barely blue surface contained a screaming face. Neither she, nor any of her relatives, had gone back south since then. 

With every storm she thought of the people who had lived and died in the capital city. Apparently, they had adapted to walking around in constantly flooded streets as they figured out how best to deal with the situation. On the day of the Great Hurricane they must have greeted the storm with the same preparation her family always had, yet their efforts had been futile and the storm’s devastation that day led to the first wave of migration from the island. Holding that imagined past alongside her present possibly served to fuel her preparations with an urgency that would ensure past mistakes were not repeated, but she never consciously examined it, just accommodated the weight.

The prelude to the storm came with the usual gusty winds, then a smattering of rain. By midnight, the storm was in full force and the radio informed them it was a category two hurricane. Marielle was relieved. She didn’t mind these smaller magnitude storms, and lying here in bed next to Mils had mentally downgraded the stormy weather to little more than a cosy, rainy night. They were lying facing each other with a pillow in between, their hands loosely around each other’s midriffs. The window-shaking thunder broke dispelled the illusion as Mils let out a small yelp. Storms of any magnitude bothered her friend. 

“You think they have this right now in Guyana?” Mils asked.

Marielle tried to see Mils’ face in the dark. She suspected this had to do with Mils’s father, who had just disappeared one day. A few months after the disappearance, the family had received a voice message from one of the boat men. The message was from Mils’ father saying he had reached the mainland and was never returning. There was no apology for his sudden departure. Mils didn’t often talk about him, but she paid extra attention to any mention of Guyana in the news.

“I dunno. Mommy say they get different kinds of storms from we. I think I gunna go there soon…”

“Where? Guyana?” Marielle was genuinely shocked. Mils had never expressed a desire to go there before, and they had talked about every conceivable topic. 

“Yea. I can’t take much more of this Marielle”

“Is just a storm. It soon over,” Marielle stroked Mils’ arm soothingly.

“Not just this storm. Everything. The constant storms, the hard work. The loneliness.” Mils’ voice had dropped almost to a whisper. Marielle thought maybe she was imagining some of the words. 

“Lonely? But you got me,” she said. A sudden heaviness was in her belly. She pushed down the pillow so she could better see whether the person she was talking to was still Mils. 

“I know. But we doan see each other often. I does miss you so bad when I home and I just…I just can’t take no more.”

Marielle didn’t realise that her eyes had tears in them, although the heaviness in her centre seemed to now be crawling up into her throat. 

“Don’t cry man Mari.” Mils cupped her hand to Marielle’s face.

“I not crying.”

Her voice wasn’t sounding as confident as she wanted it to. She squeezed her eyes shut to prove there were no tears. She felt Mils move in a second before their lips touched. It would be a lie to say she had never thought about kissing her friend before. Mil’s lips had a full, enticing shape after all — but girls didn’t kiss other girls. She had heard the adults talking about gay couples, meaning men who married other men, and had wanted to ask whether the same ever applied to women. There just never seemed to be an appropriate time to ask this question. The soft touch of Mils’ lips was immediately reassuring in its tenderness. They were still best friends after all. Her mouth wanted to open and explore this tangy new sensation. A light buzzing was rising up just outside her ears, making her head feel strangely disconnected from her body. Tongues were now touching, and this was feeling like the final piece of a puzzle clicking into place, when she hadn’t even known she was assembling one. Mils leaving the island was a ludicrous idea. She smiled into the kiss. Outside a flash of lightning lit up the entire room. 

Nastassia Rambarran is a Guyanese researcher, writer, activist and physician living in Barbados. She identifies as a queer, feminist, woman of colour and is currently wrapping up the first year of a PhD programme at University of Glasgow researching queer movements in Guyana and Barbados.

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