I point my five-year-old finger towards the fish, asking my father about how it got there. He stands beside me tall and black in front of the blue sky. His quiet demeanour allows a calmness to surround us despite the loud waters. I watch the fish’s, a Blue Tang, lifeless vibrant blue body against the sand as white waves inch towards her. My father tells me that sometimes people throw rocks into the sea and it hits the fish, killing them. He picks me up, taking me into the ocean.
St. Thomas is a notable vacation spot for people who want to get away from America without really leaving it. It is set apart because it has a different culture, different people, a different atmosphere. Their calmness, their friendliness and what will be, will be attitude define the people. The only true chaos belongs to the sea and the past. The island, along with the others creating the Virgin Islands, was bought by the U.S. on March 31, 1917 from Denmark for $25 million. But the islands were more known for slavery. Slaves were shipped from West Africa in such numbers that they outnumbered the freemen. The islanders before such a time were considered pirates. Some tales of Blue Beard and Black Beard coming from the washed away history. My father’s family is from Tortola, a part of the British Virgin Islands, but they immigrated to St. Thomas for a better opportunity. At twenty-five, my father, first generation American and youngest in his family, moved to Georgia for the same reason.
Grandmother is a stout woman who wears colorful flowered dresses that fall to her ankles. Her eyes are quite small, shrinking behind her eyelids particularly when she smiles. When she grabs us into hugs, she brings her moist lips to our foreheads. She lives in a tall home atop a steep hill looking out to the blue ocean water with a lovely garden she tends to in Smith Bay. It is a two-story white house with many rooms, though I have only been in a few for others were being worked on or occupied by renters. A balcony stretches over the garden and when stood upon, a person can reach out to the tops of the trees, always occupied by an iguana, hiding among the brush. The home was built by her children in the mid to late 80s and well into the 90s and was never quite finished. Before the house, they lived in a trailer. In 1989 hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm, hit the island. They lost the trailer. The unfinished house was damaged, yet they had to move into it. Twenty-nine years later, Father tells me about the hurricanes, A lot of wind and rain. A lot of howling. A lot of debris flying around. Roofs being torn off. Poles and trees snapping. Certain areas would flood, but because it is an island, the water goes to the ocean.
Perhaps I have always known my father’s brother, but my memory is meeting him for the first time at age five. Uncle is always at Grandmother’s house, for that was his home. He is a towering, skinny, big-eyed, happy man. Uncle wraps me into a strong hug, and I grin. He is a good funny man. His smile is contagious. They say you can’t please everyone, but he is the type of person who could.
Uncle is a drifter. His heart is not one to settle for the conventional as he may have been born with a sort of fire that burned differently than the rest of his family. It was a good warm fire, but it was not one that led his searching, drifting feet towards family, towards a career. He did odd jobs growing skilled at construction. But he could never be still.
In this world, who am I? So I know where I belong. I ask a different question that leads my father to say, What does it matter if another person is black or the other white? If we ever want to change, we should stop calling out the differences and stop making distinctions. I nod. So nowhere. Why did I care now to ask? I found it strange that I couldn’t care, couldn’t find my place and belong where one should or one who looked like me should. The problem was always the actions. In school, it was the action of spending more time in the library and talking to the librarians than with my own peers. The action of being in marching band or hanging out at lunch with a boy who didn’t look like me, yet we were treated the same, rejected from fourth grade high society. And in high school, when my friends and I looked behind us to the circular table in the lunchroom with a single race, we looked at ourselves, black, mixed, white, but at the end of the day all the same. We just weren’t black enough. But even as I write such an answer out, I still do not truly know. What are you? A question asked when I straighten my hair that falls down the length of my back. I can’t help but feel I have lost something, missed something, but where lies the confusion, there is a sort of peace. This postulation leads to no significance. Shall we go again, or consider something new? With the fail, a fall, time moves forward. We inevitably do too. So here I am once more. Unbothered. Untethered. A cycle of finding one’s place and losing it the moment one catches purchase.
The fruit has green skin like no other fruit I have seen. The innards are yellowish orange and it is soft and sweet. I peel off all the skin, not caring that now my hands are sticky with its sweet juice. I bite into it, fibers lodging themselves between my teeth. The mango is freshly picked and unlike that red, green, yellowish kind we find at The Dekalb Farmers Market with stickers proudly declaring that they are from Mexico. These straight from the tree green mangoes we eat in Grandmother’s kitchen. My father bites the end of the mango and sucks, squeezes the juice out. This is the proper way. When I am home and my parents gift us with mangoes from The Dekalb Farmers Market, I am grateful, but they do not taste the same or have the same warmth or the same softness. Yet the juice rolls down my arms all the same.
My father takes us to the cemetery to visit Grandfather in Smith Bay, St. Thomas. It is a place that can be seen from quite a distance as colorful cement containers lie atop one another. Some green, yellow, purple, pink, perhaps to distinguish them. Perhaps to say that this person lying in this cement box in this casket is different from the one below. Such stacks, sad for the ones hidden in the ground where they should be, are there for there is not enough space on the island for people to have individual plots. At this time, the beaches would be full of tanning people, laughing people, country and rap music blasting people. I ask my father his favorite thing about St. Thomas. He says, The people, they do not act like strangers.
The mango from St. Thomas tastes like home because it is the home that lies within me. A mango from anywhere else can never be the same for it represents a place elsewhere. Everything about it says that it is different and from a different place except for the fact that it is a mango. We are the same. However different from one another, with our homes and origins of many variations within us, everything is telling us that we are different and meant to be that way except for the one thing that we seem to forget.
When home, I do not hear much of St. Thomas. Sometimes a worrisome call here and there or a call from Grandmother. Or a call about Uncle. He has slipped again. He is scared. There are people we cannot see coming for him…white ghosts. I hear he is a man with an addiction, though he smiles the same. I hear he sometimes scares Grandmother, though his arms still wrap me in that same tight hug. Yet his arms, how skinny they’ve become. Still, he is a man. A man who was left with no one to hear his lighthearted jokes during the storm.
In Fall of 2017, two Category 5 hurricanes hit St. Thomas. Irma and Maria. Grandmother’s house is damaged once more. It is not a place for a person to stay. I hear of Puerto Rico on the news. I hear my friends talk about it, about how to help them. They gather water bottles, canned foods, garbage bags, first-aid kits, money and more. I ask myself, what about St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands? My father tells me, Puerto Rico is big, is well known. It is more important. Why save one person when you can save ten?
There was aid at first. Then Maria. On St. Thomas, islander’s eyes watched Navy ships turn to Puerto Rico. Almost 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico. What of the USVI? 5. Uncle called to family in Georgia. Mold. Destruction. Flu turned to pneumonia. It is possible to treat in the right setting. After a hurricane, nothing is right. I wonder who picked up the phone, spoke to him. I wonder who was the last to hang up.
That night, I will never know the truth. I won’t know the story that led to it and what came after. Yet I see my uncle sitting on a wet floor, back against a damp wall. His big eyes looking across the room, to his past, his mistakes and regrets. Perseverance does not give a person a one-way ticket to a happier life. All journeys end. When the mountain is scaled, who says that one must come down? A sneeze, another, and another…
My mother’s anger vibrates the walls, the very structure of the house. Father’s brother is the he she cries. I sit in my bed, computer open as my own skin vibrates and my heart grows heavy. I go to my mother and she asks me, Why aren’t you upset? I laugh, make a joke with my deadpan face. Make them smile. That is all I can do. I can’t be the sad one.
Because I know a tomorrow exists elsewhere beyond our attempts at comprehension. We have endless questions with answers yet to be discovered. Will there be some sign before we give up, move on to a different problem with its own endless journey when we could have been right at the answer? Are we expected to go on like this, forever? Are we not living for the end, for the proof, for that thing? Can’t I too propose my own theory? Just over the wave.
We pull into my aunt’s home in Georgia and sit in the sun. Grandmother flew here from St. Thomas. She looks off into the blue sky. The world is more beautiful on sad days. I watch her, knowing she must be looking or perhaps searching the few clouds for her garden now lost to the tides. My mother asks questions as I stand. There are no words good enough to say, but hello, goodbye, and a whisper, I love you, too.
When I was a child, I talked to my hamsters through my head. I would communicate without opening my mouth, forgetting they cannot hear me. Maybe people don’t speak, say what they are truly thinking not because they are not thinking up anything to say. Maybe they are just forgetting to open their mouths. As we sat at my aunt’s house, the warm, still air surrounding our silence, I thought of all the things we are not hearing because of our closed mouths. But for a moment, I will open mine.
I wish I could remember my uncle as he were even on the bad days. They are better than what I am left with, constant cries for help that I cannot answer. Yet I know why they are there. A reminder of who you could have been. A reminder of who I will be.
If someone asks me who I am, I will always say I am black, and I will hide my discomfort at saying the word at going against how my father leads his life. That is not who I wish to be, like the others who care so much about the differentiations. If you ask me again, which you won’t because that is not what we are taught to do. But ask me again…
The fluid filled his lungs, as Uncle swam, his skinny black arms weak from the effort and years of abuse as the waves pushed him back to shore, but he continued because he knew that over the waves, just farther beyond the scope of the island, was freedom. But the waves still came, and his throat burned with the salt sea water and his feet touched the sand. The rain came like brimstone, the dark cloud-filled sky impossibly bright. Again, he jumped in and swam, did all he could to swim to a happiness that was just in his grasp, but he was lost to the sea as sharp water pellets hit his black skin. And perhaps he saw something, a silhouette of a person in the distance. He screamed for help, ripping his throat and exhausting his last bit of energy. He must have thought, If I could just keep swimming, as the silhouette turned, disappearing into the distance. He yelled with a might before a victory or before an end as another wave came overhead and the crash, a crescendo was louder than any of his pleas to be saved. The white sheet, a surrender, a finale.
What I imagine seems so close to reality for pneumonia is characterized by fluid filled air-sacs of one’s lungs. A person will struggle for breath, above land, drowning. I can’t find any other way to make sense of the events. My mind places me on the beach as a ghost, as a silhouette, for I am my family tree, and I get to turn away. There is only one hospital on St. Thomas that serves two islands. As the winds whipped, breaking the windows, ripping the ceiling panels, the patients and staff must have wished for their transgressions to be washed away. I watch the night, watch the waves come and go, receding with the rising sun, taking home secrets of that night. Who was there to hear? If no one, who will remember?
I’m five again. My father holds me in his arms as we wade in the ocean. I point to a boat. Take me to that boat. We stumble in the ocean, and fear grips my heart as it knows that I do not know how to swim, but I want to keep going. We try again and again for I am determined to touch that boat, touch the lonely speck against the sea. We never made it.
Camryn Smith is a student at Agnes Scott College, an all women’s college in Georgia, studying neuroscience and creative writing. The Hurricane is her first published piece.