Boundaries

ETHAN KNOWLES

“Ise watch da Museum,” Paloma replied.

I found it strange that she did not say direct. Or oversee. Or simply run. 

“You mean you run it?”

“No, I mean just what I say,” she responded curtly. “Ise watch it.”

Then she exposed her winning raffle ticket, got up, and left the palapa.

This was a decade ago, at Regatta. It occurred to me that we had never actually spoken before. Once, carrying three fat mangoes in my arms, I brushed her freckled elbow at the food store. But we shared no words, only a quick glance. Her eyes scanned my body like a bird’s shadow. Then she blinked in absolution.

It was the first of a series of reunions — some coincidental, others not. These reunions were often brief, unorthodox, and accompanied by a current beyond our control. I would be the last to know where the current came from. 

Up until the elbow incident, Paloma and I had been running parallel. Our lives, however closely related, had a space in between them. At school we never directly interacted, and I can’t imagine we had much in common anyway. She had more spirit than a sour lime and everyone adored her. I was an unpicked sapodilla.   

The day I brushed her elbow at the food store had been an exception and, in this way, also a beginning. She had changed immensely since our school days and this change, so jarring and unexpected, had captured my concern. Her age had begun to show, of course, but the more significant shift had been a temperamental one. In demeanour, she was an entirely different person. 

When I saw her in the supermarket, it was clear she had lost something. All electricity had left her, as if suddenly released one day by a blown fuse. The work of Nina, I later learned. 

Fortunately, things improved when I began visiting her place of work. In this way, the space between our paths started to shrink and, soon enough, an odd intersection occurred. I call it our point of closest approach. It happened at the cay, and while I remember every detail, I still find it hard to fully comprehend. They told me that writing would be a good way to get a grip on it. That I would be able to put things in order, maybe even to understand. 

I disagreed. 

I told them I didn’t think what happened could be understood. But they were insistent, and would not leave the matter alone. 

Paloma watched the Museum, as she asserted, but she also tended to it. Perhaps that was what she meant all along. 

Each morning she accounted for its eighty-three artifacts and each evening she secured its crimson shutters. Beyond general upkeep, she also oversaw bookkeeping and communications. Twice a month she liaised with local vendors to sell their goods at the gift shop and she alone curated the annual exhibition. The Museum, it became clear after some time, was more than a museum to her. It was a willing vessel — a sort of body she deployed. On the few occasions I stepped inside the Museum, it was impossible to tell where she began, and where it ended. 

The Museum, though well-equipped, was characterised by certain absences. Strict timelines had been abandoned in favour of a more gestural grouping of artifacts. Intricate straw crafts overflowed from one shelf to another while colourful raffia and crêpe paper costumes danced between rooms. Great canoes, carved some five hundred years ago by Lucayan hands, sat alongside estate records and recently processed sponge. There was an entire wing dedicated to the utility of goats. 

I was quite disoriented during my first visit. Though I gradually came to appreciate Paloma’s unconventional curatorial decision, I found myself utterly bewildered on a number of occasions. Coherence could not be found in the Museum. The rooms made no sense. Labels did not clarify, but only confused further. Time, having spent itself, gave up the fight and stewed in the corner like a fish. 

In the Museum, all manner of boundaries broke down. It was as if the exhibition itself were a gateway that, when passed through at just the right pace and in just the right order, could send me spinning back to sisal times. This of course never happened to me. But by now I have imagined the scenario so many times I cannot say with absolute certainty that, in one way or another, it has not happened from me. 

Ultimately, as uncanny as the Museum was, I left that day feeling assured. Maybe the immediacy of Paloma’s presence put me at ease — this occurred to me first, but the first things can never be trusted. She wasn’t reassuring in the slightest. Perhaps something had been learned, or unlearned, or even undone. The only given was that the Museum would do no harm. If I were to be taken away — transported, rather — it would be a remarkably neutral event. Like happening upon an unoccupied sports pitch. An inert thing. An acceptable thing. 

You’ll be surprised to learn the Museum did not always stand where it stands now. Most people have been surprised when I told them. Some even go as far as to actively resist the fact. I once told it to Onassis, who was sucking on three good guineps at the time, and he spit every last one out onto my shoe. 

“Man Yuma ya too like talk fool! Dat museum ever been up dere by da cemeturery!”

This was the first denial, and no words would come. His passion (along with his shoe-staining guineps) had sent me reeling back. This was not a passionate man, or at least not a man passionate about land use. For a while he did not speak to me, would not dare share his good good guineps.

The Museum, though well-equipped, was characterised by certain absences. Strict timelines had been abandoned in favour of a more gestural grouping of artifacts. Intricate straw crafts overflowed from one shelf to another while colourful raffia and crêpe paper costumes danced between rooms. Great canoes, carved some five hundred years ago by Lucayan hands, sat alongside estate records and recently processed sponge. There was an entire wing dedicated to the utility of goats. 

I eventually came to understand that I had gone too far. This is an issue I have. Going too far. I am not always aware of the boundaries of things. The only boundaries I am good with are those that I have taught myself with great care. Like the boundary of personal space: an arm’s length or so. And even that one I have broken. 

It would take many more denials, and the odd fruit evacuation, before I realised that to refuse the fact of relocation—a small, seemingly benign thing — was to deny something else, something much larger.

All the same, the Museum once stood right opposite the red mangroves. I manage to remember this fact with another more interesting fact: it used to mark the exact midpoint of the island. It is not clear whether it was built for this purpose — a pole would easily have sufficed, or maybe a restaurant — but nevertheless it split the island in two. It was a grand and welcoming construction, resting proudly on the lip of a shallow bay famous for its bonefish. It bathed in bougainvillea and had a wide wooden veranda with a wonderful view. Its roof, dark and glossy like a grouper, was impeccably shingled.  

Needless to say, field trips were a regular affair.

Unfortunately, though, the Museum did not make it through hurricane Nina. Like many of us, it lost things. Thirty-three artifacts were sunk, scattered, or otherwise sucked up into the atmosphere. The island would remain museum-less for many years. 

I try not to dwell too long on the hurricane. They say the more you think about something the more you experience it, and once was more than enough for me. Though I was fortunate not to lose my life, I did lose my profession. 

Or, more precisely, I lost the ability to carry it out. 

Before the hurricane, I was an accomplished plumber. I found it deeply satisfying to unclog a drain. For me, there was no greater pleasure. Whether a sink or some out of the way tube, it did not matter. Joy was a working valve. 

After secondary school, I apprenticed for a few years under my uncle. He wore orange corduroy and smoked fat, putrid cigars. I buried them in the ground when he wasn’t looking. After a nasty motorcycle accident, I took on all his clients. Each day, I drove up and down Queen’s Highway, stopping in every other settlement to solve some plumbing problem or the other and, before long, I was a master of float valves and discharge drains. A connoisseur of entryways and exits. 

I was probably the third most reliable plumber the island had ever known, behind my uncle and God. 

Then the hurricane came, and I changed.  A gurgling pipe would send me spinning, and I could no longer walk the coast. Worst of all, to drink any liquid had become an excruciating burden. In short, fluids were a real issue for me. And you cannot be a plumber if you are afraid of fluids. So, I became a banker, which has been much better for me. As I said, the first things can never be trusted.

But this story is not about me. It’s about Paloma.

When the Museum reopened, Paloma lost her anxiety. Or, more precisely, she lost the ability to carry it out. This appeared to me as a good loss. 

With so little to do on the flattened island outside repair, the reopening came with great enthusiasm and exceptional attendance. It was around this time that I began visiting her at work. I can assure you Paloma had no time for unease. She was organising tours, talks, and extensive updates to the archives. A big part of her malaise, I believe, had been separation anxiety — from the Museum, that is. So, to be back with it, operating inside it, well you can imagine that must have been a real help. But she never confirmed this, and I can’t ask her now anyway.

The problem came one day in April. On this particular day I had called in sick to the bank. This is something I would ordinarily never do. But that morning, I could not shake the sensation that I had to visit the Museum. It was illogical. The Museum was open six days a week. I could simply go the following day, which was a Saturday, when I did not have to work. But the impulse would not subside. As I brushed my teeth and dressed, it only mounted. I experienced it as a steadily intensifying current. Before long, I was swept away. 

I made the call. 

Driving to the Museum I was certain a colleague would learn of my lie. The island has one main road so the chances of running across someone from the bank really were quite high. But the unease did not last. After I ceded to the current, an odd calm overtook me. It was like drinking soursop tea. My heart slowed to gentle swells. 

La Vaughn Belle. Storm (how to imagine the tropicalia as monumental-as in heroic), charcoal, ink and acrylic on paper 42 x 64 in.

I decided to park my car on a side road, about half a mile from the Museum, and walk the rest of the way. It was all very suspicious. 

I reached the general entrance without being spotted and followed the sea grape hedge a short while east to where the cemetery lay. I positioned myself behind what would be best described as a small mausoleum and began to wait silently. The earth was wet and dark from fresh rain. It soaked my shorts when I sat.

I have to admit that none of this seemed to me in any way invasive. While I had, prior to that particular morning, wandered the Museum grounds and other public venues to check on Paloma from a discreet distance, it had always been a gesture of care. 

This seemed to me a matter of need. But whose need?

I waited without incident behind the mausoleum for about eight hours — until sundown — when Paloma had just about locked and shuttered the Museum which, in that coppery evening light, bore a haunting resemblance to the original structure right opposite the red mangroves that had no doubt been deemed faultless by some senior governmental official and accordingly reproduced. 

Paloma did not go directly to her vehicle that evening. She too seemed to be drawn by something. Before I knew it, she was walking in the direction of the cemetery — in my direction. Not wishing to be seen, I receded further behind the limestone edifice, only just glimpsing the object of her attention. 

It was a bright orange land crab, calmly making its way toward the thick coppice at the back of the premises. Paloma approached with care, not wishing to frighten it. She guided her curly brown hair behind her ear and removed her tortoise shell glasses. For perhaps the first time, I truly took in her eyes. They were a striking hazel flecked with gold. Set deep in her face, they were astute and gave way to warm tamarind skin. A delicate white blouse and black pants were her work attire. I had never seen her wear a skirt.

The crab softened Paloma’s expression, which, in the wake of the hurricane, was normally remote and — as some have suggested — quite severe. It was true that Paloma could be severe, but I found this intensity of hers deeply alluring. What this says about me, I do not know. What I do know is that the crab inspired in Paloma a generosity of spirit. It was as if she had all of a sudden discovered a new way to negotiate this life, one that was much more suited to the realities she now faced. 

But then the crab spotted her, raised its fore claws, and scurried sideways toward the brush. 

As if desperate to prolong the encounter, Paloma stole after it. She flew past headstones and offerings, gaining ground with every step. Six seconds passed in chase before she extended her left arm, ready to pin the crab from behind. But before she could, its buttery body slipped into the brush and her hand struck stone. When she pulled it from the coppice, it dripped with blood.

By then I had abandoned the mausoleum and taken refuge behind a not-so-distant headstone. What I saw next was hard to read. I cannot say, even now, that I fully understand what Paloma experienced after the crab escaped. All I can say is that she began tearing away at the coppice. That her glasses fell quietly to the ground. And that she uncovered an old overgrown gravestone, one the orange crab had revealed to her. 

I looked to her and I looked to the gravestone. She gasped and the gravestone did not gasp back. She leaned in and the gravestone was still. She squinted, blinked, teared up. But the gravestone showed no emotion. The gravestone did only what it had done, without fail, for the past sixty years. It remembered. In this way, the gravestone was a very reliable thing. 

Paloma’s face writhed. It looked to be despair, but more likely—yes, much more likely—it was shame. Before her, the gravestone was inert. It rose like an unchipped tooth. I had never seen anything so ruthless. It seemed to blind her, and would have otherwise sent her flailing backwards were it not for its owner. Or rather, its owner’s name. 

It was the name that drew her in, I later learned. That refused to release her. She inspected the headstone like a warped reflection, taking in its strange and twisted truths. Tracing her fingers over the carved characters, she mouthed her own name. Paloma Burrows. I can only imagine that what struck her in that moment was the stupidity of her survival. She was the only one who escaped the flooded house, and it was by the luck of an undertow. Her body had been spared, but those of her family were never found. She had no use for a grave and yet, here was one presenting itself to her. 

Life was a difficult thing to abide. 

Paloma seemed to leave her body after encountering the gravestone. I think she too began to struggle with boundaries. When I visited the Museum again, she was all but vacant. The sheen in her eyes had faded and her skin had taken on a green undertone. Her uniform was unchanged, but it was clear the clothes hung more loosely than before. And the Museum choked with dust. 

I left the premises that day feeling helpless and deeply worried. It seemed checking on Paloma was no longer an adequate form of care. I had to do more. I had to cross a boundary.

The following week I spoke to Paloma’s body. It’s strange to say, but this captures the experience best. I had only spoken to it once before, at Regatta, and that time she had decidedly been occupying it. This time I was not so certain. But then again, I was in the Museum, where an absence of certainty exists. 

“Do you need any help?” I ventured.

“What?”

“Is there anything I can do to help? Please, I really would like to lend a hand.”

Paloma’s body was wary. 

“Current exhibit up ‘til furda notice, follow da signs.” 

She did not face me when she said this, it seemed she was operating on autopilot. For a while I was at a complete loss. No viable avenue of care opened up. 

With no other option, I left Paloma alone. I did not see her body for about a month until, driving past the Museum one afternoon I spotted her on the veranda looking out to sea. I immediately pulled over. Approaching from the rear and squinting rather severely, I gathered she was staring at Bird Cay. Her gaze was fixed, ferocious. A sign of life. 

This was when the second current overtook me. Much like the first, it was a state of decisive calm. I scaled the steps, grabbed Paloma’s hand, and led her to the parking lot. Just like before, she too seemed to give way to a pull. We loaded into my car, which at the time overflowed with imported menstrual cups, and drove to the nearest dock. The port throbbed with sun-baked fishermen, my cousin Solomon among them. I asked to borrow his boat.

“She fresh outta fuel doe! And where you off to in such a rush anyway?”

I sucked my teeth.

“Just let muh use the boat bulla,” I insisted. “I ga be quick.”

I gestured to Paloma, whose hand I continued to hold. Solomon’s face twisted in confusion.

“Whatevuh Yuma, gone den,” Solomon agreed, reluctantly.

The two of us stepped off the wooden dock and into the boat. I started the engine and we pulled away from the shore.

“So youne scared a wata no more den!” Solomon bellowed.

I was in fact quite terrified. The only thing that saved me from an acute burst of panic was my current. Its calm kept the frenzy at bay. 

Bird Cay was about twenty minutes away by boat, or so people said. I figured the fuel would at least get us there and then we would worry about getting back. 

It did not. 

We made it about three fourths the way before it became necessary to scull. I searched for the oars, but Paloma seemed violently unsatisfied with the decision. I watched her turn and look back to the island. The Museum and its bougainvillea were a proud speck on the island’s only hill. I half-expected her to turn into salt but she only looked deeply distressed, as if this were the only remaining option and no longer a promising one at that. 

Paloma took it upon herself to swim the remaining distance. She did not bother to undress—it was clear she could wait no longer. She dove from the bow with immaculate form, slipping between the waves without so much as a splash. She made much better progress than the boat, but I refused to swim. Swimming was a risk that could not be calculated.

I gave up paddling when Paloma reached the shore. With great haste, she began digging a ways above the high tide mark. At the time, I assumed she was looking for something. A personal treasure most likely, something that needed to be unearthed that very evening. This was not the case. I gathered something else was at work when, after about fifteen minutes of digging, Paloma suddenly stopped and took a very deep breath. By then the pit was quite wide, though not apparently very deep. I could not fathom what she hoped to do next. 

In the end it was a very simple act: Paloma put her body inside the shallow ditch. 

Something about this undertaking made me terribly uneasy. In fact, I felt my skin curdle. When combined with the immediacy of so much moving fluid, I suddenly began hyperventilating. I started to separate from my body, my legs buckled, and I fell abruptly to the floor of the vessel, helpless. 

This was our point of closest approach, the moment we overlapped. 

I imagined if a seaplane were to pass over at that moment, it might see Paloma and me in very much the same position. But whereas Paloma’s body had clearly planned its burial, mine was improvising.

I woke to the shrill cry of a sea gull. The sun had set, and the sky was in ashes. It was the afterlife, this much was clear. 

During death, my body had leaked strange, putrid substances, so that rising from the wooden craft produced an awful, coagulated squelching. Adjusting to the light, my eyes saw a small cay and all the water in between. Could fear follow you to the other side? It appeared so. 

I took to sculling with my eyes closed, wary of another passing. As my pace increased, great soupy waves began to slap the hull, freeing prickly shrieks from the arthritic wood. I begged the madeira to be quiet, but it would not listen. Dusk suffered the cries like lashes. 

To my relief, a chorus of breaking waves soon rose above the dreadful symphony. I paddled wildly, my arms throbbing, sweat pooling in the alcoves of my skin, until the hull endured one final grinding impact — a harsh, crunching plunge into sand that launched my body back to land.

I fled sea level like an ancestor. When I came upon Paloma, her eyes were shut and her body still. She had passed easily. Only crusty tears snaked across her cheeks. Kneeling in the sand, I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook wildly. Soon enough, she awoke, startled. I was immediately struck by her eyes. They flamed with life, each fleck of gold gleaming in the twilight. 

Had she come back to her body? What did this dying earn? Again, language failed me. 

Without a word, she rose from the grave and stepped beside me. We both looked down at the ditch, then to the island across that evil sea, then at each other. A silence suffused the beach.

The new life would not begin here. Paloma knew this, and I knew this. It would begin back on the island. Paloma took my body in her arms and ferried me back to the rancid craft like an infant. Then she laid my body supine, grabbed the oars, and slipped into a slow, rhythmic scull.

Amid the cries of wood and water, my mind drifted. I left behind logic, for it no longer served me. I abandoned reason, finding faith in intuition. And I forgot boundaries, for they failed to exist. 

But I could not forget Onassis, his guineps, and all the unremembering that followed. 

Anchor image: La Vaughn Belle. Storm (how to imagine the tropicalia as monumental-as in memory), charcoal, ink and acrylic on paper.

Ethan Knowles is a Bahamian writer and multimedia documentarian. He was born on New Providence and his family is from Long Island, Bahamas. His work is concerned with landscapes, whether physical or sociocultural, and navigates topics of sustainability, queerness and cultural resilience. 

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