We are walking to my house when it begins to rain and the long chalk road turns to a river of milk. I stop in my tracks and turn to Cami but she is off and running. Her laughter echoes as if we’re at the top of Hermit Mountain, as if she reached inside her mouth, and threw it up into the wind. I run after her, rain clouding my eyes, amazed by the sudden storm.
We reach my house, soaked and panting, and streak through the gate heading to the back yard. It is early spring, but the rains have already started gushing out on us like Noah and the flood. Cami and I stand under the lone casuarina where the dirt in my back yard turns to sand and meets the sea, while the high wind ropes around and slaps us in the face. Then Cami points her finger out toward the ocean and calls to me “Can you see the sun?”
I shake my head “No!” But Cami keeps pointing so I stick my neck forward, and narrow my eyes. It’s hanging low in the sky, leaving a ginger trail behind, a solitary traveler on its way toward the horizon. As it sinks and lights different parts of the sea, I know Cami is scanning the waters for Lusca. The folklore is that Lusca—the sea monster—lives in the waters of The Bahamas. But Cami believes that her spirit also travels through the rain. She lets out a whoop and spreads her arms open like she expects to be gifted with something. I take off my shoes that are heavy with water and stomp around in the sandy mud. A lighting bolt crackles quick through the sky. We stop and suck in our breaths. I look over at Cami whose face is lit up so it seems that the lightning just struck her.
One of the first things I noticed when I met her was how fast she talked. She was sitting on our front porch the day we came to Cat Island. The first thing she said was, “Y’all come from Nassau? By plane or by boat?” She always did that, asked strange and personal questions in quick succession. When I later asked her why, she looked at me like I was stupid and said simply, “Because I want to know.”
After we’d told her that we came by plane, she stood and hopped off the porch. I saw that she was taller than me and I figured older too: her body ripe with curves in all my flat areas. Her hair was rowed down tight from the front to the back, and her face was cut sharp with the bones underneath her skin kissing all the right places. I suppressed the urge to find a glass and look hard at myself. It didn’t really matter anyway; I knew what I would see: a girl with an awkward stance and a round face that also managed to be flat. Daddy always joked that if Columbus sailed it, his ship would definitely fall off.
She came up close and put her back to mine announcing to my family the similarity of our height, then she hooked me with her arm, interlacing it with mine, and said, “We’re like day and night.” I was embarrassed that she made such barefaced reference to our difference in color, but after a moment shrugged my shoulders, because it was true. I was what most Bahamians would call hard red or high yellow or very light skinned. My light brown hair and clear pale eyes were where I held my pride.
“You guh go far on this island with colour like that, but don’t let it get to your head, else I guh tell you bout yuh-sef,” she said.
I could see Mom took what she said as an affront, but Daddy turned his head, trying to hide a smile. I took my cue from him and decided that I liked her. I asked her name and her age and was shocked to find that like me she was twelve.
Cami and I are still out in the middle of the storm when I guess my Mom sees us because I hear her scream from the house to, “Come inside.” I act like I can’t hear her, and Cami does too, but then she calls to Cami, “Do you want me to call Vie?” We don’t want her to call Cami’s mother so we run toward each other and interlock our hands and reluctantly run over to the house.
Inside Mom asks, “What the hell were y’all doing?” So I tell her about the milk river, and about Lusca, and about the lightning, and about us being alight. She looks at us hard for a moment, and then shakes her head, sighing that we’re both crazy.
Cami walks around the kitchen hands on her head, pressing hard to flatten her hair. The second she stops, her hair, resuscitated, breathes with life and springs back. It was only last week that inside my bedroom we stood opposite the mirror and with Cami demonstrating how ‘Blue Magic’ grease smoothed hair down.
Cami believes that with good hair like mine, you have an easier life and mostly I agree. I don’t tell Cami about the other part, where I think that this may not be true. I don’t tell her how having good hair did not seem to work for my mother, who hates it so much that before we came here she chopped all hers’ off; or how when Daddy saw, he was so mad; or how she shouted and shouted when he asked her why.
I see Mom eyeing Cami whose hands are still in her hair smoothing the angry storm down. Cami props herself against our two stainless steel sinks, leans over, and turns on the faucet. She’s still turning it, confused, when the water comes only in a trickle. She shrugs her shoulders and cups her hands until she’s caught enough, then dabs the water on her already damp head performing what she calls her quick fix: “When you don’t have grease to put on yuh head; better try hard use water. It’ll at least keep yuh hair in place for a lil while.”
“What’s for dinner, Mom?” I ask, and for a while Mom doesn’t answer, then she shifts her gaze from Cami’s hair to the faucet. As the water drips I see Mom’s mouth get thin and tight and I know she’s thinking of how the faucet is broken, and of all the times she’s asked for it to be fixed. Mom stays quiet for another minute then turns to the freezer, opens it, and pulls something out. She faces us again, mouth still tight and holds up a steaming cold chicken.
Cami is forced to shift her position and stand next to me when my mom drops the chicken in the sink. Mom puts her hand on the other faucet and with a snap of her wrist, she turns it on. It shakes and stutters like a meek child before rusty water comes out. Mom sucks her teeth and motions to her wet kitchen floor. “You two girls are making a mess, come out of my kitchen.” We glance at each other and beat a hasty retreat but before we can get away Mom’s voice cracks over us: “Go dry off in the garage and if your father’s there let him know the fool you’ve been up to. Then come right back here and start cleaning this chicken!”
On the way to the garage, Cami punches my arm. “Why did you have to tell her?”
“I wanted her to know that we were doing something special and not just being fools in the rain.”
“Well it didn’t work; she thinks we’re stupid anyway.”
Cami likes to tell people that she doesn’t have a father. She does, but she doesn’t get to see him. Her favourite teachers are Mr. Tate and Mr. Lant, and she likes to hang around Daddy. She asks him about his cars and closes her eyes while he talks to her about them. When she does this there is a sensation of hornets nesting in my belly. Sometimes one gets loose and floats up, stinging inside my throat. Then I get nervous and make all sorts of noise and speak everything that comes to my mind. Like how Cami reads comics and talks to herself and believes in what she calls the old gods, and other things that I’ve seen Daddy laugh at. When it gets like this Cami and I both stand opposite each other in charged silence while things melt between us. And when she leaves our house, Mom says, her voice stretched, “That girl is searching for something.” Daddy doesn’t say anything but twenty minutes later, he’ll make me call to see if she got home.
Cami’s always going on about the plight of being father-less and says being illegitimate on Cat Island is the worst. I looked up the word illegitimate and told Cami the meaning and said it didn’t sound so bad. But she said that Webster didn’t know what he was about and told me the real definition was leper.
We walk through the side door a little ways from the kitchen and into the garage. I don’t feel like announcing our presence so I let the door slam. Daddy looks up from his work station and at seeing us; gets up and pats on the stools. While we sit down he saunters over to the car he’s working on and sticks his head under the hood. He braces himself with his hands on either side and to me they look like monster hands: big and ugly and greasy and worn like the undead risen from graveyard soil. His fingers splay across the car, leaving grime in their wake. Then he pops his head back out, looks over at us, raises his eyebrows and asks, “What?”
My Grammy doesn’t like that Daddy is a mechanic. She says that profession belongs to a certain type man. Whenever she says this, the wrinkles that bracket her mouth get really deep. When Mom told her that we were moving to another island, she said, “I thought over there people mostly walked.” Mom’s voice got sharp in that angry way it does and she said that he could fix more than cars. Grammy just sighed and said, “I hope that you’re right about that.” Since we got here he’s fixed plenty of things and has made lots of friends. But I think he must be missing something because every Sunday when Grammy calls she asks my mother, “Y’all fixed things yet?”
“Mom says I’m s’pose to tell you what we were doing.” Daddy looks at me expectant so I do. He chuckles when I finish up with explaining how it looked like Cami’d been struck by lightning. Then he tells me to go get his cigarettes and not to let Mom see. I tiptoe past the kitchen where I catch a glimpse of her; she’s mopping up the water we left on the linoleum. I stop for a while and watch her shift back and forth; her face calm and relaxed. I continue up the stairs telling myself that everything with her is all right.
At the very top of the stairs I go to my room and reach into my shoe box that I keep at the back of the closet. Daddy says that if he keeps the packs in their room, Mom will be sure to find it. At first I kept the cigarettes in my underwear drawer, but Mom’s in and out of there all the time too.
When I get back, Daddy’s looking at Cami, who’s standing at the front of the garage, peering out into the rain. It is barely coming down now and her face looks like she hates to see it go. The wind turns around and blows in her direction so that speckles of water wet her face and neck. She jumps back in delight squealing.
Daddy wipes his hands off on a towel and leaves it on the car hood. Then turns toward Cami and asks, “Aren’t you too old to be playing in the rain?” Cami thinks about her answer, but before it can come he walks over to her and wipes the water from her neck. His hands stroke her from the base of her chin down to her collar bone. I remember how in my first week of school, they had to call the Doctor cause she broke it. She was running and looking back at me so she didn’t see the tree coming. Then Daddy moves his hands away, lifts them up, letting droplets of water fall into his mouth.
Cami tells him, voice halting, that she’s just as old as me and I slip the cigarettes in my pocket and get into the car. Daddy looks at me and says, “Turn on the engine. I want to hear what’s wrong with the car.” I stick my hand out the window and grab the towel that he left on the hood. I wipe the grease smudges left on it onto my fingers and I stick the keys in the ignition, turn them in a half circle and press gas revving the engine. Daddy nods and looks away and I imagine that I’m driving. It’s just me and Cami. We’re heading down Bay Street cause we’ve moved to Nassau and we’re all grown up.
Daddy’s still talking to Cami but I can’t hear what they’re saying over the sound of the engine, plus he’s turned back his turned. Cami’s still facing me so I see her peel her shirt away from her chest and imagine the suction sound it might make. Her shoulders collapse like she’s been shot in the stomach and her eyes search for and find mine. I think I’m gonna go she says to me, I know this ‘cause I read her mouth. I turn the car off and open the door just in time to hear her say, “Mummy’s making mutton.” I wonder if she knows how stupid she sounds: her mother never cooks. I get out to remind her, but she’s out of the garage swiping her bag up from the plywood porch. She doesn’t run, but she walks fast with the unsteady strides of a new born goat. And the porch groans with relief as she jumps down. She puts both hands through her backpack and hurriedly unlatches the gate, then lifts her hands wringing and flapping—I guess shaking off water. She stops like she remembers she forgot something, pulls at her pants and tugs at her shirt, and after a while keeps on walking.
I let her go and walk back to the garage where Daddy and I watch her. I reach in my pocket and hand him his cigarettes and he puts one in his mouth. He strikes a match and takes a long slow pull and I watch as he blows out smoke. When he’s done this a couple of times he passes the cigarette over to me. “You can take a small puff. Just one breath.” My mouth closes over where his has just been and a rancid taste fills it. I want to cough when the heat burns my lungs and spit the cigarette out. I look at Daddy looking out of the garage and decide that it’s better if I don’t. I exhale the smoke just like he’s taught me: hold, then release, then hold. Through the mist of the smoke I can’t see Cami and the clouds from the rain have gone. In the distance I hear the roll of thunder and it’s hard to believe it was here at all.
•••Christi Cartwright lives in the Bahamas. She loves to write.