Miss Rolle was hired, against our better judgement, after the stingrays started washing up on shore. They were spotted eagle rays, she told us, although even that detail I struggle to believe now.
The stingrays were a wretched sight: bleeding ears, tortured eyes. We had never seen such desperation.
I sent the chef, Jorge, whose shoulders were wider than mine, to ferry them back into the sea with a wheelbarrow. We had guests coming soon, and dead stingrays were no good for business. They were probably even worse than the putrid sargassum which assaulted The Cay in midsummer.
From the veranda of one of our six alabaster villas, stilted like egrets, I watched Jorge heave the rays into the wheelbarrow and convey them to the shallows. With the solemnity of a priest carrying out a baptism, Jorge restored the stingrays to water – but they did not flutter away as anticipated. Many simply sank or drifted at unsettling angles. This scene repeated itself, again and again, until Jorge turned to me and threw up his hands in exasperation.
“So, what now?” Jorge shouted. “You want me to cook them?”
I thought he was joking, but it turns out that stingrays are edible. We collected half a dozen to freeze for another day. Jorge deposited the twenty or so rays that remained back into the ocean, leaving them to the mercy of the tides.
I wish that was where the story ended, but throughout that cloying summer, strange events continued to occur, some of them of my own making, and it was only a matter of time before I would break my only rule.
I had started at The Cay just months before, a day after my thirtieth birthday. At the time, I was optimistic. The days were bright and peppery as a pleasant vinaigrette. I spent them harassing the accountants, repairing the villas, purchasing provisions, and exchanging secrets with the neighbouring island managers.
Gradually though, I began to feel quite desolate on The Cay. The guests, many of them wrinkled and wealthy, were prone to flagrant displays of intimacy. I watched one woman, a Sicilian architect, run a hand along her husband’s lower back before leaning in to press her lacquered lips to his cheek. Starved of my own torpid kisses under the Caribbean sun, I broke into explosive sobs.
My wife had left me earlier that year, and I turned to Jorge, a stony widower from Costa Rica, for advice on how to quell my fulminant moods. His company, steady and gentle, had become a harbour for me in even the most violent of times.
One evening, as we played dominoes with the engineers, he casually suggested I take up sailing. I took his advice. The Cay had a few old Lasers, which I repaired that week and began taking out on the weekends.
My grandfather, whom I never met on account of his untimely death, had been an avid sailor, winning countless regattas all over the Bahamian archipelago. Practising the sport made me feel less alone, made me feel connected to a maritime heritage that seemed to be fading away, at least in my family.
The Cay, ostensibly a source of employment, was more than a place of work for me. It signified a new beginning, a stable set of tomorrows. I was hoping with the help of Jorge, and perhaps The Cay itself, I would overcome my divorce, and the voices that came with it. But then the stingrays appeared, and I made the mistake of hiring Miss Rolle. Slowly, The Cay began to punish me, and it took all my strength to serve out that sentence.
Biology was her trade. She was keen on collecting, measuring, and classifying. In the interview, we learned that she had solved many problems. But then she arrived and created more problems than we knew what to do with.
We quickly understood that Miss Rolle was a particular woman. Within the first week, she coerced Jorge into changing the breakfast menu three separate times, single-handedly depleted the island’s supply of insect repellent, and even stole sunscreen from a guest’s handbag.
Chief among Miss Rolle’s professional shortcomings, however, were the long stretches during the work week when she disappeared without notice. This tendency was not immediately apparent. In fact, first impressions of her were glowing. She had thrown us all into a sick kind of excitement, the kind of fervour that only the new can conjure amid so much monotony.
She arrived by charter plane, her long black braids spilling over a pair of orange aviator sunglasses. She wore white jeans and a breezy cream button-up. As she stepped down onto the tarmac, her straw wedges sent her towering over much of the staff, myself included.
“Welcome to The Cay,” I shouted over the roar of the engine. She offered an impish smile in return.
After seeing Miss Rolle in person, I was careful to remind the staff of the zero-tolerance policy surrounding personal relationships. We were an island of men, and Miss Rolle’s presence introduced new variables that the owners of The Cay were adamant on eliminating. Of course, her very urgent work would naturally require support, given that the stingray problem grew worse and worse as the summer wore on. I assigned Jorge to act as her assistant whenever his culinary obligations allowed.
Aware of the importance of her position, Miss Rolle charged an astronomical fee for her services. Indeed, entire categories of The Cay’s budget had to be manipulated to accommodate her addition to the team.
Her role had not been anticipated, so the bookkeepers were thrown into a terrible fit on hearing that she would be coming on full-time. One went as far as to confront me in my office, grabbing a stapler and hurling at me with all his strength — a projectile I only just avoided — which went on to shatter my most prized window. I was forced to evict him from The Cay the following afternoon. He was the first of several losses.
In the beginning, I did not believe Miss Rolle had taken to absenting herself from the Cay without notice. We had just brought in three crates filled with scientific equipment she had personally requested, everything from scalpels to digital callipers. Perhaps it was naive of me, but I merely thought she was taking an unconventional approach to her work. You see, I always assume the best of people.
But weeks had gone by and more and more rays were washing up on shore. They accumulated faster than we could feed them to the guests — all of whom without fail, and much to my surprise, agreed to a diet rich in stingray for the duration of their stay. These were not regular tourists, I eventually concluded. These were tourists that had done it all and were searching for something rare. Something local yet curated. Something foreign made familiar.
It was Jorge who first discovered the reason for Miss Rolle’s absences. He followed her one morning — I chose not to interrogate this decision — to the docks, where he watched her climb into a dinghy and speed off to a nearby island. Jorge then fetched a pair of binoculars from my office and stole back to the docks for a closer look. What he saw added to the odd character of that season on The Cay.
Miss Rolle was running naked across a sandbank that connected two desolate cays. It was low tide, and the sea seemed to have retreated for good. The sand was bone white and impossibly fine, and the sparse foliage that sprung up from the limestone rock curled in patches like coarse hair.
By her side were three potcakes, one a coppery orange, the other two milky brown with wisps of white. It was unclear where the dogs came from. They might have travelled miles on the sandbanks that linked these low-lying islands, if only for a few sacred hours each day. In the midmorning sun, the scene had the quality of a mirage, or an impressionist painting. Jorge was unsure what to do, so he simply returned the binoculars to my office, and reported what he had seen. As Jorge sipped the hibiscus tea I prepared for him, I could tell from the way his lip quivered that he was in love.
I went to Miss Rolle’s residence that evening to broach the issue. As Island Manager, I had faced many unforeseen challenges. Once, in the spell of early morning, the engineer’s quarters were seized by starving flames, leaving The Cay without power for weeks. Then there were the thieves who fled one night with our solar panels, and the chef before Jorge, whose body was consumed by crimson sores and had to be airlifted to Nassau. None of these trials prepared me for that conversation with Miss Rolle.
The cicadas were screaming, the stars just beginning to spin overhead. I crept along the gravel path toward her villa, and before I knew it my knuckles were rattling at her window.
“It has come to my attention,” my voice was stiff and raspy from cigar smoke. “It has come to my attention that you’ve been absenting yourself from The Cay.” I floated in the doorway of her villa, wary of entering without her explicit consent.
“So, you’ve seen me,” she replied, moving calmly toward me in her lilac nightgown.
“This can’t happen again, Miss Rolle,” I carried on in the same steely tone.
“Forgive me, Emerson,” she replied softly. “It’s difficult to explain, but the dogs are helping me with my work.”
“Well, run with them in the evenings, Miss Rolle, not during –”
“The problem is that they only come in the afternoon,” Miss Rolle explained, cutting me off. “I can’t control their whereabouts. We only have that precious hour before the tide turns.”
“Well surely you can do it with your clothes on…” I implored.
“I think you know as well as I do that there are certain things The Cay requires of you,” she said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. My hands had begun to sweat. Somehow, I had crossed the threshold of the villa and was sitting on her sofa.
“I suppose, but I can’t see why –” I trailed off, bewildered by her logic.
“Don’t you find that there are parts of yourself, parts you’ve always hidden, that have to be revealed here?” Miss Rolle went on.
“Miss Rolle, I’m not sure I follow,” I stammered.
“If you can look past this,” Miss Rolle said, inching closer toward me on the couch. “I promise the stingrays will be gone by the end of summer.”
“All right, Miss Rolle,” I relented, hypnotised by her auric eyes. “I just want them gone, the owners are up in arms about it.”
Exhausted by the direction things had taken, I stood up to leave.
“Emerson,” Miss Rolle whispered, her slender hand catching mine. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity to work on The Cay.”
Perhaps it was my lonesome state, perhaps it was the fever of The Cay, but I remained in Miss Rolle’s villa that night. I broke my own rule, and I could not have been more pleased with the decision.
During those months of furtive love making, I got to know Miss Rolle intimately. I learned that she was a decade older than me, and that she despised my citrus cologne. I discovered that before coming to The Cay, she had been a professor, and that her students adored her teaching style. One graduate student described it as “vicious and intoxicating”.
Miss Rolle — I used her first name, Felice, in private — also learned more about me, about my failed marriage and the voices which incited me to violence. I told her that I had come to The Cay to start over, and she revealed a simpler intention.
“I came here to see the stingrays.”
By the end of summer, however, things had taken a dire turn. Felice was no longer reporting to work, preferring to spend hours roaming the vast sand banks of the Exuma cays with her canine companions. The stingrays were still washing up in droves, and we had given up on hiding them from the guests. More and more visitors were leaving inflammatory reviews of their time at The Cay, attracting unwanted media attention. The owners were understandably furious. They were threatening to fire me if I did not replace Miss Rolle. But I could not bring myself to dismiss her. Love had made me a slave to her inclinations, from her fixation with the ballads of Andre Toussaint to the fire dancing she rehearsed while I lay naked in her bed.
As my passion mounted, Miss Rolle only grew more remote, evading the calculated advances of my heart. Initially, I welcomed the challenge, but as she grew more and more distracted during our night-time meetings, I knew something else was at work.
Eventually, I discovered the source of Miss Rolle’s disinterest. The sun had just risen, and I was repairing a faucet in one of the villas when, from the bathroom window, I caught Jorge returning to The Cay on one of our speedboats. He clutched a large brown paper bag, which he ferried urgently to the canteen. I followed him discreetly, cursing the gravel that crunched under my feet, before approaching a south-facing window. I watched as he pulled out heaps of green, teardrop-shaped leaves, the likes of which could only be from the gum elemi tree. He deposited these leaves in a large pot of water and began brewing a strong batch of tea.
It was clear that Jorge had been to visit the obeah man. The bush doctor in town had heard his desperation and prescribed a love potion, which that same morning I watched him serve to Miss Rolle.
So, the love I had spied on his lips that day had lasted after all.
I wanted to kill Jorge for his betrayal. Have you ever been put in such a position? To know you are on the brink of losing that which you need most?
I spent the following weeks trying to find proof of their illicit partnership. One morning, I hid in a thicket of sea oats to supervise a stingray dissection Jorge had volunteered to help Miss Rolle with on the north shore. I lay there in the underbrush for hours, vanquished by the clinical disinterest of their interactions.
Later that week, I set up a camera on Jorge’s porch, adamant on keeping track of his comings and goings. I pored over the footage for hours, even at the expense of my night-time meetings with Miss Rolle, only to discover his life was extraordinarily boring. Other members of staff noticed my absence at mealtimes, but by then the voices had grown so intrusive that I made a rule of only ever eating by myself, having grown wary of simple conversation.
Later on, when Jorge approached me about the camera — I was foolish to install only one in my hysterical state — I told him we were in the process of ramping up security. He appeared sceptical, so I spent the remainder of the day installing cameras in the remaining villas to disguise my intentions.
By the end of the month, with no proof to justify firing Jorge, I broke into a fit of desperation and crushed seven handfuls of diuretics I had smuggled in from Florida and sprinkled them in the guests’ meals. Three fainted due to dehydration and one suffered acute kidney failure while the others roamed around The Cay in a delirious stupor.
Some may consider it extreme, but this was the only way I could think of to justify firing Jorge. I gave one of the engineers a raise so that he would testify against the Chef when the police arrived, and by the end of the week my erstwhile companion Jorge had been expelled from The Cay.
The night Jorge left The Cay, I went to Miss Rolle’s villa to interrogate the state of our relationship.
“Do you love me or not?” I probed, standing in the doorway where it all began.
Miss Rolle was silent. She pushed past me and ventured onto the porch. The moon’s reflection swayed like slime on the corrugated waves. My heart was throbbing, I could barely breathe. Eventually, reclining on a woven hammock she began to speak.
“I saw you in the sea oats,” she said. “I knew you were jealous of Jorge, but he was not the reason I pulled away.”
“So why did you –”
“I did not want to suffer,” Miss Rolle stated plainly. “I wasn’t ready to love again,” she went on. “More than ever before, I felt a need to be free. The dogs helped me with this.”
“But all our nights together…” I pleaded, on the brink of tears.
“Forgive me, Emerson, but it was just a way to pass the time.”
That night, I gave into the voices. I waited till the tide was slack and scoured the sandbanks for the potcakes. I found them nestled under a sea grape tree, their eyes shimmering with starlight.
I left the bloodstained cutlass at Miss Rolle’s doorstep, and she abandoned The Cay the following morning, leaving the stingray issue unresolved, and The Cay more desolate than ever.
By then, there was little island left to manage and with no companion, no lover, I kept company with the voices. I did not know how much longer I could last on The Cay. What I did know was that I had been a fool to think an island could fix me.
Anchor image: Lee Jaffe