T’s Nov. 11 Travel issue is dedicated to a series of five fairy tales written exclusively for us — the kinds of stories that will inspire your own adventures, if not of the body, then at least of the mind. Read more in our letter from the editor.
YOU HAVE LIVED longer than any child should.
By now, your hair is locked tight and salt has pickled your eyes, your tongue, your throat. Like you’re made of crystals. You’re not sure where your body went after you died — maybe the fishes ate you away slowly, maybe a riptide collected your bones and flung them out into the deeper dark waters. All you’ve known is this thorned island, and now the drag of rocks that you’re locked to, in this small, clear cove, a few feet under the surface. You can’t remember how long you’ve been dead, or why you continued to live afterward, bound to these stained stones and the sound of the sea sluicing between them. They built a boardwalk over you a while ago, a stretch of lined wood, and the other children love it. They run along it, they race, they leap into the blue jewel that is the water, clear of the rocks and the shadow you share with a thousand small crabs tiptoeing around your bubbled mouth. They smell so free it hurts — the kind of free that’s never known iron against their ankles or seen it weigh down their mothers’ wrists. You are jealous.
Now there are cruise ships that come in instead of the other ones. These are the biggest boats you’ve ever seen; they clog the water and the sky. There is a dead girl who likes to follow them from island to island. She’s young, like you, and sometimes she comes to visit your little cove. She taught you what to call the big boats, but she never tells you how she’s able to move so freely, no matter how many times you ask. If you try to follow her when she leaves, you only make it a few feet through the water before everything stops. It’s not even darkness that wraps around you, it’s just … nothing. When it starts again, you’re always back under the boardwalk with the crabs and the tiny darting silver fish. This time, however, you’ve decided it’s going to be different.
WHEN THE GIRL shows up, you float near her face. “I want to be loose,” you whisper.
She is playing with a piece of dead coral, her braids fluffy, a web of cracks spreading over her cheeks from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes are clouded, and her eyelashes are still as long as the day she drowned. “It’s too expensive,” she says, not looking at you.
“I don’t care,” you answer. “I’ll pay it, whatever it is.”
Your resolve is new and catches her attention. She tilts her head at you. “When did you become tired?” she asks.
You don’t want to talk about it.
The man with the scar on his neck brought his son to the cove today, to teach him how to swim. You can still remember the day he got that scar, back when he was a careless boy, when a current dashed him against your rocks and the water turned to wine as his neck bled. You have been here for such a long time. You watched the two of them, and it made you miss your mother. She was always so worried they would come and take you away from her. She would gather empty eggshells, cupping the pieces gently in her hands before putting them down on the floor, under an old upside-down chamber pot. “Against bad eyes,” she would say, touching your face. She dried leaves in the sun, basora pretu, then burned them to chase away bad spirits. When you had a headache, she put a small piece of loki loki behind your ear to soothe it. At night, she would tell you stories about the Luango people, who had wings and could fly back to Africa so long as they never ate salt.
On the empty days, which is most of them, you don’t remember her, and it’s fine that way. But on days like today, you remember she must be dead, too, by now. The pain is loud and sharp and it makes you want to run away, but you can’t run if you’re trapped.
“How do I get loose?” you ask, ignoring the girl’s question. She floats upright in the water, in her faded orange dress, and looks at you for a long time, deciding her own decisions. Finally, she leans in. You can see the bruises on her arms and thighs, large handprints, death memories that don’t go away.
“You have to forget everything,” she whispers, like her words are unclean. “Remove all of it from your head.”
A thrill of hope and fear runs through you. The pain will stop if you forget, but you’ll lose other things, small things you’ve held onto. Like the smell of the trade winds that bend the trees. The fragments of Guene songs you know to sing only in your head. Fish scales flying iridescent from under your mother’s knife, catching light. You hesitate.
The girl sees it and her mouth twists. “I knew you couldn’t afford it,” she says, her voice cruel. The big boat blares a violent horn and she spins her head around. “Time to go.” She throws the coral into her mouth, then spits it out and tosses it to you. You catch it, surprised. “I take pity on you,” she says. “One night on land to get free.”
She is already leaving before you remember to shout after her. “How? How do I do it?”
“Follow the tambu,” she calls back, already disinterested in your fate. You are sure she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and anger beats in your chest. How are you supposed to follow anything from where you’re trapped? You think about throwing away her stupid coral, but you decide to wait, just so next time you can tell her how wrong she was.
IT IS HOURS later when you first feel the drum, faint but insistent. The coral grows hot in your hand, and although all you hear is the ocean, you can feel the tambu like a pulse. It’s tugging at you, low and stubborn. You are afraid to leave the rocks in case everything stops again, right before you’re dragged back, but you swallow the salt in your throat and move toward the shore. To your shock, nothing stops you. The water gets shallow, the surf breaks white around your chest, a sheet of rock and broken shell undulates under your feet and nothing stops you. Soon, there is just wet sand below and sky above. Your eyes are filled with sea and half blind. Water drains from you, and the floor turns hard under your feet. You don’t try to look around. You’ve been dead for too long, the world has changed, and you already know that if you look too closely, it will drive you mad. Besides, the thing calling you is the only real thing.
It leads you down a vague starry street, down small alleys between blurred colorful houses, past a collapsed church, until you are winding back toward the sea. You can hear the vibrating goatskin of the tambu and the sharp scraping metal of the wiri, all breathing together like a live animal calling you into its mouth. A wave of unsteadiness rocks you and you stumble faster toward it. The people are on the beach, a circle of bodies moving to the same pulse. They are playing muzik di zumbi, the only sound that can haunt something as dead as you. You walk through the circle and everyone moves aside without looking at you, like their bodies just wanted some space the moment you passed. A handful of people are dancing in the center, shining dark skin and thrown limbs, rapid waists and quick feet. One of them is a woman with green cloth tied around her hips. She stops suddenly, as if she’s been struck, the moment you enter the circle, then spins around to face you. Her eyes are white, rolled back into nothing, her mouth slack. She shouldn’t be able to look at you with such fixed clarity, but she does. “Mele,” she whispers. “Sweetheart.” Her voice sounds almost exactly like your mother’s. The piece of coral you’re holding sears your hand with fresh heat, and you almost drop it, shock weakening your hands. The woman stretches quick warning fingers. “Ai Djo! Hold tight to it,” she says. “You will be thrown back if you let it go.”
You curl your hand around its new fire. She seems to be the only one who can see you. The musicians are watching everything, including her, but their hands don’t stop. One of them is holding a benta to his mouth, the bow arced against his knee. There is a donkey’s skull nailed into a tree behind them. The music feels like it’s holding you up, like if it stopped, you would die all over again.
“I was told to come,” you say, and your words come out garbled and watery. She steps closer and sniffs the air in front of you.
“You want to fly,” she says. “You want a wing.”
You nod. “I’m ready to forget.”
The woman’s chest jerks once, twice. Her mouth opens and a deep strange laugh pours out. “You have to remember before you forget,” she says, and the coral flares again in your hand.
You see everything.
Not the shadows and edges that memory had become, but everything. The smell of burning wood and cooked food. The veins in the leaves of the calabash tree. The lizards running along its branches, the metallic turquoise of their tails, the white spots along their bodies. The gap in your mother’s front teeth, each wrinkle around her eyes, the pigment of her lips. You can feel her arms around you, large and soft. Every hitch, every rise and fall of her voice. You can see her face clearer than you’ve seen it in longer than you can tell. It’s like she’s there, right there, alive and you are alive, and you are together at last, at last.
The coral falls quiet. You come to, and you are weeping, pieces of salt tearing small cuts in your eyelids, blood and water on your face. The woman holds out her hand. “Come, take your wings,” she says, and it sounds like 10 people said it.
You shake your head. It is too much. You can still smell the scent of your mother’s neck, her soft skin. You are too young and too old to be this alone. It hurts too much. “Bring her back,” you cry. “She was here, she was here!”
“Don’t eat salt, if you want to fly,” the woman replies. She no longer sounds anything like your mother. “The pain will soon be over, little one. How many lives do you want to live in the water?” The benta wails in your ear. The woman’s jaw clicks from side to side. “Time to go,” she says, and reaches out to hold you.
You twist away from her — you have already decided, and it seems worth it, to remember how it felt to be loved. Tears leak into your mouth and you swallow their salt, dropping the coral.
Model: Denisha Struijck. Production: Chicas Productions, Curaçao