TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 3

Staring into the Dark

 · Fiction

Walking home along the shore, the moonlight cutting the sea into interlacing black and white strips, Elizabeth thought about machetes. Everybody had them here. Wooden, splintering handles and long, rusted blades. To the touch the edges were often dull, like an old kitchen knife, but something about the way they balanced in the hands of the men — weightless, at the length of their extended arms — deeply troubled her. They were sudden tools, unpredictable. They made the whole country feel sharp to her — ready to tear in two.

On the ride home from the reef that day Maria told her about the pieces of white woman found on the beach only days before Elizabeth’s plane had landed in the city. “Kids found her fingertips on the beach,” Maria said. “Her nails were painted red.”

Elizabeth took her hair in her hands and combed the brine and sun-stained mottle of blond with her fingers. The panga skidded over the teal and navy water. It looked like camouflage, alternating patches of light and darkness.

Maria hid her face from the sun under a white sweatshirt, spread her bronze legs out on the boat’s bench, and studied the measurements they’d taken underwater. Maria was mestizo, Elizabeth learned; she looked Mayan, but her green eyes told some other history. Gordon, the panga driver, an enormous Garifuna man with short stumpy dreads and legs thick as palm trunks, started to sing over the hum of the motor. His kriol dialect was usually unintelligible to Elizabeth.

She’d taken a four week internship in Belize because her adviser said they spoke English there. Her Environmental Science major required a field study, and this organization, which once she arrived seemed to be little more than Maria and a few extra hands, was a pseudo-governmental environmental group that served the dual purpose of reporting poachers to the Coast Guard and providing population estimates to the Fisheries Department. Everything else they did — speargun invasive lionfish, enforce tourist regulations, track coral death, untangle the occasional sea turtle from fishing lines — seemed to be a labor of love on Maria’s part.

“Did they find the guy who did it?” Elizabeth asked, after a few minutes of silence. She took her sunglasses out of her bag and offered Maria a piece of cut-up pineapple.

Maria shook her head. “They all know the man. Her lover. They think he sailed away or went to Guatemala or someplace.” She leaned into the clipboard and groaned in frustration. She held it out to Elizabeth. “I can’t read my own handwriting. This number, twenty-six or twenty-eight, do you remember?”

“Twenty-eight, I think,” Elizabeth replied. She had been the one taking the measurements. She’d hand Maria the measuring tape’s end then swim the length of the sea grass, kicking her flippers and trailing schoolmasters who’d dive into the sand clouds that her human movement had made. Then she’d swim back over and mime a number with her fingers. Ten fingers, ten fingers, eight fingers.

“Had the woman lived here long?”

“Not long. You know that mural on the school by our office?” Elizabeth nodded. “Yeah, that was her. She was an artist.” The painting showed children holding hands, bowed along a rainbow, a spectrum of skin colors. Starfish, coral, tapir, jaguar, and toucan — Belize’s prized wildlife — inhabiting the background.

“Dolphin,” Gordon pointed. A pair of dark silver backs cut through the waves twenty or thirty feet from the boat, one breaching, then the other, keeping pace with the boat.

“Porpoise,” Maria corrected him.

“How can you tell the difference?” Elizabeth asked.

“Porpoise is smaller.”

Bit by bit, Elizabeth learned that Maria grew up on a remote atoll with a permanent population of less than one hundred. She had no formal education, but to whatever question Elizabeth had about the barrier reef and marine life, Maria had an answer. She could turn her kriol on and off, mid-thought or sentence, and was one of the only people Elizabeth had met she felt she could have a real conversation with.

The islet nearest to shore came into view and Gordon pulled hard to the left, leaving the porpoises behind. The boat slowed to edge around the mangroves and toward the dock. Elizabeth hung over the side, studying the coral in the shallows. In the tangled and salty trees she watched plastic Coke bottles bob up and down, imprisoned in the roots.

She pulled her jean shorts on over her bikini bottom. The denim was tough and dry on her sunburnt thighs. Maria stepped around Elizabeth to uncoil a rope, anchoring to the wooden dock.

“You go home,” she told Elizabeth. “Gordon and I will handle the gear.”

Elizabeth stepped from the boat. A boy lying face down on the dock sunk his hand in the space left by a missing plank.

“Fishing,” Gordon told her, laughing. “Like me when I was little.” He reached out to touch Elizabeth on the shoulder. Her on dock and him below in the panga — they saw eye to eye. “You come to the bar tonight?”

“Okay,” she answered. “I’ll come.”

“The Split,” he said. “Past the resorts, ocean-side. Dinnertime.”

It was a short walk through the tourist center of the village to the hotel where she was staying. A man missing a hand followed her, offering her snorkeling trips. Another whistled and called to her in kriol. She passed the Chinese groceries and the Internet cafés and the palm-roofed tourist bars. Barefoot children rode bikes far too large for them. A Mayan woman shook an armful of bracelets at her. “Handmade,” she said in accented English, “Maya culture.”

The shower in Elizabeth’s room took a few minutes to warm. She stripped her salt-starched clothes and peeled away her bathing suit, and pausing in front of the mirror, studied the pale white triangles of her breasts, her pink thighs, her peeling nose, and the green tinge her hair was taking. She stepped into the tub and washed the sea away.

* * *

She walked north on the main road toward the edge of the village. Once she left the center with the shops and hotels, the paved road became a dirt road, and every concrete home gave off steam and the smell of fried fish. Half-naked children grouped together and followed her at a safe distance, and when she smiled or spoke to them, they giggled and dispersed for their homes. When the road dead-ended at the shore, she turned left, and continued north up the peninsula’s shore.

The Split was a small one-roomed kitchen with an attached hut packed with picnic tables. Two old Rastas sat opposite one another with plates of chicken and rice. A young woman with smooth ebony skin and long pink fingernails nursed a Belikin, her gaze anchored to her cell phone. At the counter Elizabeth ordered a drink — a piña colada.

The woman who took her order, middle-aged, reminded Elizabeth of someone she knew from back home, though she wasn’t sure where. She took Elizabeth’s crumpled Monopoly-like money and turned slowly to the blender.

Elizabeth sat with her drink, sipping through a straw, and watched people come and leave with Styrofoam takeaway — fried plantains, fried fish, fried chicken, and rice and beans. The sun set and empty bottles started to fill the tables. The young woman now had a friend, the Rastas were joined by several others, and a thin man in a LeBron James jersey paced around a side door, talking occasionally to the cooks. He and Elizabeth shared a look, and though she turned from him she felt his eyes remain. He muttered something in kriol and kicked a plastic crate of empty bottles, rattling the glass.

Elizabeth finished her drink and took another. The dinner crowd left and the woman at the counter didn’t know who or where Gordon was, so she decided to walk home alone. This was the second time he’d left her stranded at some tucked-away local bar.

The village felt bigger in the dark. Some jungle bird trilled its hysterical call in the canopy above the palms, up from the shore. It seemed almost to be mocking her uneasiness. She thought of the murdered woman, a foreigner just like her, and her lover. Her hand raised in defense, his blade came down on her fingers, skin and bone giving so easy. Elizabeth tightened her hands into fists and crossed her arms into her chest, as if to keep these parts from leaving her — what fish or bird might swallow them, what children might poke them with sticks.

The jungle and empty houses along the shore gave way to the multi-storied resorts. Tourists sat behind tiki torches on balconies and floodlit ocean-side pools. She saw the European and American couples up there, on some easy vacation, and she knew she was as invisible as the black sea through the black trees. For the first time since she’d arrived she felt irretrievable, so far from home that home might cease to be. And this country, which she at first experienced like a movie, became her reality.

Looking into the artificial lights she walked straight into some sort of steel box, kicking it with her bare leg. Her gaze returned the beach, her pupils widened, and she stepped back to see the obstacle.

A wagon, like the one her brother had pulled her in as a kid, sat parked under a tree. In it was a large bag, burlap maybe, skull-sized bulges jutting out. She reached towards it, to touch the misshapen things, when something crashed behind her.

She turned. Nothing. The empty beach and her footprints, a few fallen fronds, driftwood and rotting coconuts. Another crash sounded from the other side of the tree. She turned towards it, but nothing.

The leaves of the palms rustled overhead, and the legs and feet of a man swung suddenly into view. Elizabeth stepped around the wagon, to continue for the distant lights and her rented room, but the man fell out of the tree and into the sand, blocking her way.

“Good evening, ma’am.” The man was black, shirtless, and barefoot, wearing tattered shorts. In his left hand was a machete, limp at his side. The moon was at his back and she couldn’t make out his face, just the outline of dreadlocks over full, round shoulders.

“Hi.” She walked around him, continuing on as quickly as her feet would move in the sand, each step dragging. She could hear the creaking axles — the wagon, she presumed — its sound following her. She looked over her shoulder to see the man, the moonlight now in his face, pulling the burlap sack and wagon with one hand, holding the machete in the other, and smiling.

“Wait,” he said, a few feet behind her, speaking articulately and slowly. His sweat glistened; the same light shined on the chopping sea. A scar ran from his eye to the corner of his lip.

* * *

On her first trip out with Maria and Gordon, Elizabeth had been given a few minutes to snorkel away from the boat, anchored in a shallow along the barrier reef, to take pictures of the coral and highlighter-colored fish with her underwater digital camera. The warm Caribbean water washed over her and she breathed the thick air through the plastic tube of her mask. She took pictures of what resembled a massive collard green growing on the sea floor.

She looked back to the boat. Maria threw scuba tanks into the water and tightened a mask to her face. Elizabeth swam farther, towards more of the vegetable-like things and the chalky remains of bleached coral. They were there to take pictures of Maria’s experimental coral “garden” — she was trying to see if she could successfully “grow” reef to replace what had disappeared in the massive die-offs.

Elizabeth took another picture, and then turned her back towards the boat and Maria. Halfway between them, visible through the sand clouds and shallow water, swam a six-foot-long reef shark. Its body snaked along in no sort of rush, making its way steadily towards Elizabeth. Its pectoral fins angled, eyes dead, and jaw slack, exposing teeth.

She kicked her flippered feet around, between her and the shark, and backpedaled. Her back toward the sea floor, her snorkel tube sank and she inhaled a lungful of seawater. Coughing and spitting out at the surface, her mask fogged as she desperately searched for the shark. Gordon’s motor hummed and Maria called out to her.

She tore off her mask and looked for a fin; spinning, searching, she saw nothing but teal sea and soft blue sky. Gordon’s red panga eased towards her. His massive arm lowered over the side and he muscled Elizabeth aboard.

Back in the boat she scanned the water for the shark, but it had gone, back into nowhere.

“You no can swim, huh?” Gordon asked her. Maria offered her a bottle of water.

“Did you see the shark?” she choked out, taking a drink.

“Shark?” Maria looked around. “No, no shark.”

Gordon laughed. “Yes,” he said, putting his large hand on her shoulder. “Big fish.” He turned back to the wheel. “Sharp teeth.”

Elizabeth’s stomach turned; she felt full, imbalanced. The boat rocked back and forth. The salty air, the heavy sun. She turned over the side and vomited into the sea. Tomato, avocado, and tortilla, chunked and chewed — yellow fish that followed her everywhere she went took the little bits away with them, enjoying her lost breakfast.

* * *

“Where you from?” the man from the trees asked. Walking alongside her now, he trapped her between the sea and his machete.

“I stay with a friend.”

“You got a friend in this village?”

She didn’t answer, only smiled. She drew her sweater around and bent into the wind. They must have passed the road in the dark, because she felt she had gone too far, and would now take the shore to the hotel. It was safer here anyway. Empty buildings lined a stretch of the jungle road, and the trees alone watched its travelers. She might be able to escape by sea, dashing out, and hiding from him with long breaths and underwater strokes, his machete carving only the water.

“What you name?”

“Elizabeth.”

“Elizabeth,” he repeated. “American?”

“Yes.”

“New York?”

“Kentucky.”

“Kentucky Fried Chicken,” the man laughed. “You like coconuts?”

“Coconuts?”

He stopped and grabbed her by the wrist, stopping her, too. She pulled away but remained with him. He bent over the wagon and removed some of its contents. He lowered to his haunches, raised his machete, and swung the blade. And swung again. She saw the ripe green fruit in his hand, its husk severed, and flesh exposed. He swung once more, and then stood, presenting her with the coconut, a quarter-sized hole opened in its side.

“Drink,” he said. “They call me Coconut Man.”

She took the coconut from him, and tilting the heavy sphere to her mouth. She drank. It was sweet and cool, nothing like what she’d had from cans at home. After drinking, even the air tasted sweeter — not so intrusive, thick, or stagnant. It was the fullest breath she could remember taking.

“It’s good.” Elizabeth smiled at the man, who beamed at her enjoyment.

He turned back to his bag and took another coconut. He opened this one for himself. As he drank he waded up to his shins in the surf.

“My country is so beautiful.”

“It is,” Elizabeth agreed.

“You hear?” He put his hand to his ear.

Elizabeth listened, hearing nothing of note.

“Howler monkeys,” said Coconut Man after a moment. “Very rare now.” Faintly, over the sound of the tides and insects she could hear a barking noise. She would have thought it stray dogs had he not pointed it out. But it was more substantive, more guttural, more human. It was coming from the jungle center of the island. The tallest palms shook violently.

“You were collecting coconuts?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Elizabeth finished drinking. He took the coconut from her and set it on the ground; in one swift stroke he severed the fruit in two, exposing the soft, white meat. Another stroke made a scoop-like tool from the husk. He handed them both to her. “Eat.”

She scooped the meat into her mouth, sucking down the strange, gelatinous texture, before saying, “I have to go home now.” She set down the fruit and primitive tool.

“I will walk with you.”

“It’s all right.”

“No. It is late. I will walk with you.” She continued down the beach, the wagon’s axles creaking behind.

When they entered the tourist area, streetlights and porch lights lit the beach in small, erratic splashes. Bottles and abandoned fishing nets collected along the surf, and a battered hammock swung between two trunks.

“I’m here,” Elizabeth said, stopping in front of her beachside hotel. She paused a distance from the building, hesitant to walk to her door and give away the specific room number.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. Turning, his wagon wheels made a sweeping semicircle in the sand. “Have a blessed evening.”

“Thank you.” Elizabeth watched him return to the darkness beyond the few village lights. She heard him then, barking out, a response to the distant monkeys in the trees. It was primal and deep. “Yes. I is hearing you. Yes, yes. I is hearing you there.”

When his voice disappeared she went to her room and locked the door. For a long while she stood at the window looking out — the sea crashed in blackness, uncaring, not noticing her or her crude electric lights. The monkeys howled on, yipping to each other; it sounded like terror, like pain, but what did she know about monkeys? These could have been cries of joy, of exhilaration, ecstatic just to be — just to feel the sea and its tidal breeze sway their trees back and forth until morning.
 


Copyright © 2017 TINGE Magazine. All rights reserved.