a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Ace trotted down the graveled road ahead of me, the electrical wires above us buzzing in the near-darkness, every other street lamp with a burned-out bulb making some sections of the road darker than others. One by one, the other potcakes joined us—semi-stray dogs dubbed as such because of the rice, caked to the bottom of the pot, that people typically fed them, enough to keep them hanging around specific locations and to remain faithful to the people who lived in those locations, but not enough to domesticate them. Bear, Daisy, and Ziggy—all named by the community, I guess—each excitedly sniffed the others upon arrival, happy to see each other and happy to have a purpose—protecting me—in ambling around the settlement.
The other potcakes were nice, but Ace had always been my favorite. He was fiercely loyal, never allowing me to leave the house without escorting me to wherever I was going. If I walked to Rachel’s house, he would sit outside her door until I came outside again, and then he would walk me back home. Every time I went to Jasper’s, the small and only convenience store in the settlement, he would walk me there, sit on the doorstep until I came outside with my loaf of bread or onion or ginger beer, and then make sure I arrived safely back at my door. Once he followed me into the store, and as soon as I realized, I ushered him back outside as Jasper shook his head in disapproval. Ace growled at other dogs that passed by, urinating wherever they had been to assert his dominance and never letting anyone—dog or human—near me. With the troop of dogs surrounding me, I felt safe.
About halfway to Mike and Cody’s, I could hear the music blasting, interrupting the night’s normal sounds—breeze through the coppice, the occasional rooster. As we approached the house, Bear and Ziggy ran up ahead, eager to see who was there. Daisy lingered behind, sniffing at some trash thrown on the side of the road. Ace stayed near me until we got to the house; he lay down in the yard and yawned while I headed up the front steps and entered through the open door.
It was hot inside. There were about fifteen people there, crammed into the small living room, which was decorated with tapestries and Christmas lights. Someone had borrowed the projector from school, and a basketball game was illuminated on one wall. A big piece of plywood rested on two kitchen stools, a makeshift beer pong table, taking up most of the space in the room. Half-empty bottles of pineapple rum and tequila stood, caps off, on the sticky counter. An intern—I think he was only eighteen—sat quietly on the couch, his own personal bottle of rum held between his knees, and I groaned quietly. Who was going to look out for this kid? Why did he have an entire bottle of rum to himself?
I saw Rachel in the kitchen and squeezed my way past the beer pong table as she waved at me, a glass covered in condensation and nearly empty, ice cubes melted down to the size of pebbles, in her right hand. She had on her flirty eyes, so I knew she was already drunk. No sooner had I hugged her than Cody entered the kitchen through the back door, probably having just finished a cigarette, and the flirty eyes turned their attention away from me. Liana was busy at the beer pong table, not much of a drinker, but forever competitive, so I sat down on the couch next to the intern, not knowing what else to do.
I watched the game of beer pong with disinterest as the intern sipped on his bottle and didn’t blink. Someone told a stupid joke and everyone laughed, except the intern, who just smirked to himself. I didn’t think it was funny. Why doesn’t laughter come easily to me? I wondered. I stood up and headed out the back door.
On the back steps, the cooler, fresh air hit me easily, but the softness of it also triggered something in the back of my throat that wanted to be let out. I felt hot tears surrounding my eyes, but I blinked them away when I saw Solomon walking toward me across the backyard from the house next door. “Hey dere,” he said to me as he approached the back steps.
“Hey,” I said. “Are you going inside?”
“I figured I’d see what’s goin’ on.”
“It’s only white people in there,” I told him. Solomon was one of the Bahamians who worked at the school. Everyone inside was a white American, here on a work visa.
Solomon laughed, his musical, bell-like laugh. “You tink I’m not used to being around all white people?” His voice was deep.
“I guess so,” I said, feeling guilty about being a white American, here on a work visa.
“It don’t matter,” he said. “You want to go for a walk or sometin’?”
“Yeah,” I said, lifting my chin. “I do.”
I didn’t know Solomon that well. He always sat by himself at mealtimes and generally kept to himself at work. We’d talked a few times, here and there, when a student needed help with a computer or the internet in the faculty office wasn’t working. He sold sodas out of a green tote bag at lunchtime for a dollar each, and when I needed an afternoon caffeine boost, I’d buy one. But we’d never had a real conversation.
We walked in silence across the dark yard, past the clothesline and the firepit. Ace stood up when we walked past him and followed behind us as we walked down the street. The stars were so bright, I had to continue holding back my tears.
“So how are you tonight?” Solomon asked.
“I’m okay.” Then I decided to trust him. “I feel kind of sad.”
“I just feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t think these things are fun,” I said, motioning back toward the house.
“How do you tink I feel? I’m tirty-five! The people here, dey just keep gettin’ younger.” Solomon’s lanky body cast a long, skinny shadow in the streetlight.
We walked slowly, in near silence, until the road turned. There was a baseball field there, speckled with clumps of weeds, and an old set of bleachers. “Let’s sit,” Solomon said, and we climbed to the top row. Ace continued down the road to find more places to pee. “How do you feel when you see dose stars?”
I looked up. There are few places on Earth I’d seen stars this clearly. I remember the first night I saw the starry sky here in The Bahamas, on our island in the middle of the quiet, dark sea. I gasped audibly, though I was by myself. The world around me was spinning and the stars were close enough for me to grab them and sprinkle them around me like glitter or dust, my skin pale and shimmering in their light. “I feel like there’s something else out there,” I said, though I had never felt something like this before. “My dad died when I was a kid,” I continued, without intending to. “Sometimes I wonder if I don’t laugh easily because that happened to me.”
Solomon looked up at the sky too. He tapped his wedding ring against the bleachers, the metal on metal clinking through the still air. “He’s out dere, you know,” he told me. “Da whole universe—you can see it. I know he’s dere.”
I let the tears slide down my face this time, but I kept as quiet as I could as Solomon told me about his twin brother, who died from Leukemia when they were twenty-five, and about his wife’s three miscarriages, and about his faith, and about his mother, who immigrated to The Bahamas from Haiti, and about his father, who was a bad man. The stars moved around us.
I don’t remember specifically saying goodbye to Solomon that night. I’m sure we sat in silence, for a while. I’m sure we climbed together off the bleachers, and that Ace pranced up to us, ready to walk me home. There’s a special kind of trust that’s built in the darkness, in the quiet night and under the stars. So we became friends.
Some of our colleagues might have thought our friendship was weird—a married Bahamian man and a single American woman. Joey, the Haitian farmworker on campus, once said something to Solomon in Creole with a wink, and Solomon wouldn’t translate for me, so I know at least one person was convinced that we were more than friends. It’s true that we loved finding the quietest beaches together, the places where nobody else could be found, but this was more for our love of silence than for any particular interest in being alone together. It was that silence we craved on the day the Haitian refugees landed in Freetown.
No one else needed a ride to campus that morning. Ace wagged his tail from his spot in the shade as I got in the school van that had been parked in my driveway overnight. There were no houses between Freetown and school, just the coppice, mangroves, occasionally a glimpse of the sea. I drove along the empty road. I was about halfway to school when I was pulled over by a man standing in the middle of the road with a pistol in his hand. This was an unusual sight, and I was certainly not used to being so close to someone with a gun at the ready; I felt anxiety rising in my chest as I pushed in the clutch and brought the empty sixteen-passenger van to a halt. The man was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, so it wasn’t until I saw the police vehicle several yards behind him that I realized he was authorized to hold the gun.
I rolled down my window as the police officer approached. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or annoyed, and he didn’t say anything, not even the customary “Good morning” that everyone—everyone—says to each other in The Bahamas. He raised his free hand to signal to me to wait, and he walked around the van, looking carefully in each window. Once he circled the van, he waved me on, without saying a word. I put the van into gear, still unsure what was happening or what he was looking for, but as I passed the police officer’s vehicle, I saw two men, handcuffed and stoic, looking straight ahead, in the backseat. I didn’t realize until I passed them that the backs of my knees were sweating against the plastic-covered seat.
I drove less than a mile when I was stopped again—this time by Rob, my next-door neighbor and self-designated Risk Management Officer in Freetown. Rob was a good neighbor, always generous, and the one who fed Ace every day, but he was also filled with all the self-confidence and self-importance of a middle-aged white man. “A shitload of Haitians landed in Freetown at three o’clock this morning,” he said, after flagging me down, without a hello. “Did you hear the dogs barking? We’re rounding them up now.”
I grimaced as I thought of the potcakes, loyal only to the ones who fed them, wrapped up in their own strategies for survival, giving these people away. Had Ace been one of the dogs to let this secret slip? And why had Rob taken it upon himself to help “round up” the Haitians? He wasn’t any kind of authority; he wasn’t anyone designated to enforce Bahamian law. He was just an overprotective colleague who handed out airhorns to the young women who worked at the school.
“Let me know if you see anything suspicious,” Rob continued. “Anyone lurking in the coppice—especially if he looks like a skinny Haitian.”
“Sure,” I said, knowing there was absolutely no way I would report anyone I saw lurking in the coppice, whether that made me complicit in breaking Bahamian immigration laws or not.
The faculty office was relatively quiet when I arrived, and the few people there looked somber. “Did you hear what happened?” Liana asked me as I put my backpack down.
“Yeah, I got stopped twice on my way here,” I said. “What do you know?”
“They found a body at The Cliff.”
“Oh my God,” I uttered. “Someone drowned?”
“I think so.”
We learned, from bits and pieces that people brought to the conversation throughout the morning, that a boat of sixty-three Haitians had landed in Freetown; the police were capturing them—that’s the word that was used: “capturing”—and sending them to Nassau on the afternoon flight, to be held at the immigration detention center there and then sent back to Haiti. The body that was found was assumed to be a part of the group that had landed, but we didn’t know if the man had died upon landing or before. Either way, he, like the rest of them, had risked everything to come here. We didn’t know what made them leave Haiti or how long they had been at sea; we didn’t know their stories. We just knew that they had reached star-lit land after an uncertain journey, only to be discovered a few hours later.
I couldn’t pretend to imagine this journey. I couldn’t pretend to imagine the need to flee a place—a need so great that one would risk leaving everything behind, risk the elements, risk legal consequences, risk life. What I could do on this day was to honor that courage, honor that desire for something better, honor those people who clung to hope even as the dogs barked and they stumbled to shore.
But as soon as the gossip had circulated—as soon as we knew everything we were going to know—our normal lives resumed. Once again, I was caught in the weird bubble that so often surrounded me: the bubble formed by cohort after cohort of white Americans arriving in this place—to learn, to grow, to make a difference, sure, but a place far too easily disconnected from the realities of what happened on our same shores, in this same sea that we loved so much. I felt something heavy within me drop a little deeper into my gut—guilt, frustration, disappointment—I’m not sure what it was.
I went to find Solomon.
“Can we get out of here?” I asked—no, begged. It wasn’t his responsibility to remove me from this bubble of perceived apathy.
“Sure,” he said, simply.
The radio in Solomon’s car was broken. My window was rolled down, and I could feel the sun burning the tops of my thighs. We drove through Freetown, past my house. Ace wasn’t in his usual spot in the yard. I wondered where he was.
We chose a beach that was difficult to get to, reached via a long, bumpy road that crossed tidal creeks and could only be traveled at low tide. We chose it because we knew no one else would be there. Solomon drove in silence, taking the old car slow over potholes and steadily over sandy patches. He stared at the road. I don’t know what he was thinking as we arrived at the beach. Maybe he was thinking about his family in Haiti. Maybe he was thinking about his mother’s safe and legal immigration to The Bahamas. Maybe he was thinking about the riddles in Creole his grammy taught him, or the way she would cover a rash on his skin with salt and a bit of lime to help it heal. Maybe he wasn’t thinking of any of that.
We could see the sail blocking the sun when we parked, but we didn’t take it all in until we stepped outside of the car and approached the beach. The receding waves had left the sloop tilted in the sand, its mast pointing towards us. It was immense in the way that it filled our view, the horizon, our minds; but it was so small when we thought about the sixty-three people who had lived on it for we didn’t know how long. The mast was cobbled together with large pieces of driftwood. The sail was a piece of a billboard-sized advertisement, faded to illegibility by the Caribbean sun.
Solomon stood in the sand, facing the boat. He didn’t say anything. I hung a few steps behind, waiting for him to say something or to move. I felt out of place—in the moment, in the place itself. I bore witness to this relic of struggle, but I didn’t know what more to do with it. Somewhere in the distance, I thought I heard a dog barking. The waves slapped against the sand.
After a few minutes, Solomon bent down to pick up a half-buried glass bottle, and then another. At first, I thought he was going to throw them, in anger or frustration, at the small ship, relishing some satisfaction in the crash of glass against ocean-worn wood, littering the sand with brown and green glass fragments. But as he bent to pick up a third bottle, I realized he was just collecting them to remove them from the beach. He didn’t know what to do, either.