Bush Medicine / jody rathgeb

She insisted on snake-stick tea. Vera was sick, and she was stubborn. Shark knew he was being cold walking away from their argument, but he needed to get rid of his anger. He let the door slap sharply and stood on the porch, the beer bottle he had grabbed from the fridge breaking into an instant sweat in the heat. Gazing over the turquoise bay to the emerald of East Bay Cay, he took a deep, dive-worthy breath and tried to calm himself.

He imagined going down, down to the sea bed, hooking a fine lobster, then kicking upward with it as he had thousands of times. He swigged his beer.

Vera. He’d offered to take her to the clinic, even to the hospital on Provo, but she shook her donkey locks and insisted that he visit Walker instead. Ask for snake stick. Snake stick! What was some vile bush tea against real medicine?

As if in answer, Vera appeared at the screen, still clutching her stomach. “Tell Walker it’s really bad, too. If he can get anything better, I’ll do what he says.”

Shark turned away from her to hide his sour look. Surely, after all these years, his wife knew how he felt about the bush healer, had finally heard from someone about Walker’s pathetic attempt to challenge him some 30 years ago, and how Shark had defended his right to Vera, the most beautiful girl on North Caicos.

He glanced back at her now, her curves turned by childbirth and time into a block beneath a tattered, flowered shift. But her eyes still shone and the quiet strength he’d admired in school remained … though lately it seemed to cross into this stubbornness.

Shark had to admit that time had been equally unkind to him. Years ago, when that writer from the American dive magazine described him as “a sleek black shark,” well, that was the top of it, really. The praise for his free diving had made him a star and opened opportunities that the other young island men—notably, Walker—lacked. And while he still enjoyed being better off than most of his crowd, he wished the word “sleek” had stuck to him as long as his nickname had. He patted his beach-ball gut, finished the beer responsible for it and sighed.

“You goin’?” Vera asked, and he jumped a little, having forgotten that she was still at the door. He turned, prepared to argue again, but caught the pain in her features.

“I’ll go.”

As his truck breezed down the road—once a rutted path, now paved and deadly—he remembered the Walker of school days, no rival when it came to Sports Day or the rough play of the neighborhood but annoying as a sand burr when mothers mentioned him. He had been the measure of manhood for the mammys: polite, serious, focused, a good boy. Everyone was surprised when “Young Paul” ignored his opportunities for college and began following his crazy uncle’s forays into the bush for roots and herbs. He learned bush medicine and became “Walker” from his refusal of rides while he searched the island for the old remedies. Now he lived alone in a spare concrete room in Kew, getting by on his garden, some sales to a holistic healing center on Provo and the gratefulness of those who still came to him to cure a boil, a sore throat, insomnia, a sour stomach.

Shark pulled up to Walker’s place, cut the engine and sat in the cab a few moments, knowing his visit would come as a surprise. They’d been civil all these years but far from friendly. Finally, Walker came out of his house and squatted on a log that served as a bench. Shark approached and sat beside him.

“It’s Vera,” he said.

Walker squinted at the sun. “I figured. What’s wrong?” He made Shark describe every symptom, every incident of nighttime moaning, every clutch at the middle. Shark kept his voice flat and neutral.

Walker stood. “There’s some snake stick in the house, but it won’t be good enough.” He disappeared briefly, then returned and gave Shark a bundle of twigs. “She knows what to do. Tell her to boil it strong. I’ll have something better for her tomorrow night.”

Shark handed over a bill and left wordlessly. No thank-yous.

Walker was right about the snake-stick tea; it wasn’t good enough. But he didn’t show up with something better the next day, and the day after that was when the island began to talk.

“Didn’t show up at prayer meeting, and you know he’s always there.”

“Went by his house, but it’s closed up.”

“Saw him walking through Bottle Creek.”

“Saw him down the road toting a sack.”

“Saw him headed to the Pine Yards.”

The women in his prayer group decided that something had happened to him in the Pine Yards and they put together a search group. One by one, women found their sturdy shoes and cut walking sticks. One by one, men found excuses and cut jokes.

“Maybe he finally found himself a wife out there.”

“Ah, he’d just be embarrassed if he’s lost. It’d be better for the women to find him.”

“Maybe he found the fountain of youth and a young’un will come out.”

“He knows his way around. He’ll be back.”

Vera, sick as she was, wanted to join the search party. “It’s my fault he’s out there. I owe it to him,” she said. She grunted a pair of Reeboks onto her feet and began making a pile of supplies: bottles of water, cans of Off!, sugar apples, a jar of her snake-stick tea.

Shark was appalled. “You’re sick!”

“Yeah. That’s why this is happening.” She slid smoothly by him to rummage in the closet. Shark noticed more life in her than he’d seen in weeks. She seemed less sick, almost happy. He watched as she removed his fins and snorkel from his gear bag and replaced them with her items, taking a sip of tea before adding the jar. She paused before pulling the zipper. “I wonder what he went after,” she said.

Her comment was not directed to him, but it set off Shark. “Vera, you’re not going out there,” he stated. “This search-party thing is ridiculous. He’ll come back on his own. Unless he’s dead.”

Vera reacted as if he’d struck her. Her face twisted in pain, and she flailed her arms at him. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t!” she screamed, starting to cry. Shark, taken aback and puzzled by this sudden emotion, caught her and held her as she sobbed. He hated tears, but mixed with his disgust this time was an unsettled shakiness, the moment when he could see the skin of the water above him but weakly wondered if his thumping lungs could endure. He exhaled and gasped, remembering the delight of surfacing marred by self-disappointment. “Please don’t go,” he said.

She separated from him and searched his face with shining eyes. “I have to.”

After the other women came and swept Vera away with them, Shark got a beer and drank it on the porch, staring at the water again. At first he rejected the idea of joining the other men under the sapodilla tree, knowing that the talk would be about Walker and this foolish venture. But then, realizing that any news would arrive there first, he grabbed another beer and walked down the hill.

“They went in at the path by Fang’s broke ’dozer.”

“Carl said his wife had enough food to last four days.”

“My wife’s gonna starve. I know she’ll eat all that she took in ’bout an hour.”

Shark dozed in his broken plastic chair. He didn’t volunteer any information about Vera, but they talked about her anyway.

“He wouldna gone in there for anyone.”

“Yeah, Walker always had a thing for her.”

Shark opened an eye. “I’m right here, you know.”

“Ah, Shark, you know all about it.”

Well, Shark did know, but not really, not the “always” part. He grunted. He thought about Vera and how she was always there, cooking and taking care of his needs. He was sure of her. He dozed again.

Waking, he felt a bubble, just under his right breast. Not exactly something to think about, but there nonetheless. But he hadn’t been under water in years; it was nothing.

“They’re coming.”

He roused himself and saw the women marching toward them, triumphant. He searched for Vera’s face, but couldn’t make her out in the group.

The men moved to the upper road, where the women cackled and boasted of their adventure. Walker was in the middle of the noisy cluster, silent. Vera, next to him, simply smiled. Finally, one of the men called out, “So, what happened, Walker? You get lost?”

Everyone fell silent and turned to the bush healer. He looked around at them, lingering on Vera’s face, then said, with equal parts reluctance and truthfulness, “A spirit kept calling to me, and I was following her.” He paused and waited for their laughter.

“Was the spirit lost, too?”

“What kind of a spirit lives out there?”

“Maybe it promised him a wife.”

“Did you have enough water with you?”

“Yeah, spirits like it hot and dry.”

Walker shook his head. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. But Vera saw her, too.”

Now all eyes turned to Vera. Shark took a step forward to protect her, but his other foot felt stuck, as if mired in a salt marsh. So he merely watched as his wife, surprisingly, glowed in the attention. She was 16 again, clasping her hands as she had making recitations at school.

“Yes, she was beautiful. The spirit was silver and sparkly, with long hair, pure white. She floated around and around Walker, then came to me when I saw her and did the same to me, circling, circling. Then she went up, up, until we couldn’t see her any more because of the sun.”

Shark felt a snort escape from him, and Vera now focused on her husband. “And I am healed,” she said. She walked past Shark, toward their home.

There it was again: that bubble. His breath growing shallower, Shark followed Vera, hearing as if from under water the whispers that would follow him forever and drown him.

•••

Jody Rathgeb grew up in Western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of St. Francis College and John Carroll University. From 2003-2008 she lived on North Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands. She currently lives in Richmond, Va., but continues to visit the islands and draw inspiration from them.

One comment

  1. Reply

    A true Caribbean story. It combines the belief in the power of bush tea and the belief in the power of spirits–both backbones of the Caribbean tradition. Seems like Walker, Vera and the spirit have conspired against Shark. He is right. He should be worried. Walker might finally win Vera after a long life competition with Shark.

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