She bathed in the bay of bitterness. An islet of granite rock, covered with barnacles, sea snails, sea-eggs and tiny crabs that scurried all over it, stood at the entrance of the bay, indifferent to the wind, indifferent to the waves that prostrated themselves at its feet and the clouds that wept copious tears of remorse. She compared the rock to her father. Silent all these years, unyielding, unforgiving. But he was dying now, of cancer, and before he died she hoped to transform this rock into flesh, free its soul from the hardness of its core, and give it voice to sing her name once again.
All these years her mother had stood by her. Her mother was her rock against the onslaught of the wave of scandal and the wind of shame. After the birth of her son, her mother took her and the child down to the bay and baptized them under the breaking waves in the shadow of an albatross that soared overhead on extended wings. It was a secular baptism, a rite of passage to a different idea of herself. She was a mother now, a woman now, innocent no more; she was no longer an adolescent girl, green and tantalizing. Her spirit had risen and become one with the albatross. She soared like a song, like a seagull.
Every morning she and her mother went down to the sea, to walk the length of the beach, curved like a banana, and to bathe in the sin-cleansing sea. The sea was therapy for sore joints and broken hearts. The massaging movements of the water and the waves soothed like a lover’s caress. They carried the child with them, cradling him in their arms. When he learned to walk, they each held a hand and guided him across the gravelly paths. They held him between them and bathed him in seawater. When he learned to swim, they learned to let go his hand but not before counseling him: the ocean has no branch to clutch at, only endless, endless horizons.
Her father was one with the sea. The salt of the sweat by which he earned his livelihood was the salt of the sea and he sounded very solemn when he boasted that seawater and not blood coursed through his veins. His father and grandfather had been ship builders and mariners. The skills and vocation had been handed down to them through generations. They made wooden schooners and captained them up and down the necklace of islands worn around the neck of the Caribbean Sea, trading in rum and cigarettes, black wine and imported liquor. They were husbands of the wave. They understood her moods. They tamed her like the shrew that she sometimes became and passed on the secrets to their sons. The wind was their mistress. She filled their sails and they learned the secrets of taming her too. From Bermuda and the Bahamas in the north to Magarita and Aruba in the south, they sailed the islands.
When she was growing up, her father regaled her with stories of adventure, some of which he starred in. Others were stories that were handed down to him by his father and grandfather, both of whom the intractable ocean had claimed when the wind and the waves conspired with lightning and thunder and the pitch darkness of a starless night to dash their wooden schooner against a reef somewhere on the far side of Tortuga. Their bones roll around, restlessly, on the bed of the ocean they had made their mistress.
Her father would die on land. The old mariner, wizened and aged, looked dried and preserved like a herring that had been smoked, salted and put out in the sun. She had been to see him the day before. He had not deigned to look at her. He stared out of his window at the sea in the distance. Her son, his grandson, was keeping him company. It appeared that he had transferred unto her son, whom he had named Innocent, all the love he once held for her. But she never felt jealous. She felt grateful instead. He could have rejected the child. He was the only father the boy knew. She had never had another man since climbing out of the abyss of heartbreak and betrayal to confront her father’s unforgiving withdrawal and rejection of her. Innocent, in return, loved his grandfather and was an avid listener to his sea adventures just as she had been during her own innocent and impressionable age.
‘I’m goin’ to cook for you, Papa’, she announced. ‘And you goin’ to eat the food. You cannot live and die like this, hard as a rock, a prisoner of your stubborn pride. I’ve atoned for my sin against you. I’ve forgiven him and you and myself and everyone else. Forgiveness has healed me. I no longer bathe in the bay of bitterness. But I feel guilty seeing you like this. I want you to break out of the prison of your silence. Tomorrow I’ll cook for you.’
He used to love the food she cooked. His favourite was rice-n-peas and stew fish.
‘You have a good hand for cookin’, he used to say.
But after her betrayal, he turned his back on her cooking. Those eleven years traversing the geography of her pain, she had used food offerings as a barometer to measure his softening but he had remained hard, unyielding, unrelenting in his bitterness towards her. He had refused every food offering from her hands.
She had shelled the peas and cleaned the rice, the night before, with the solemnity of one carrying out a ritual. Early the next morning she had gone down to the bay to buy his favourite fish from the fishermen: barracuda. She cleaned and sliced the barracuda and left it to marinate in a mixture of freshly-squeezed lime juice, fresh bay leaf, crushed cloves, grated garlic, diced onions, chives and thyme, the way he liked it. As the pot of peas and rice boiled in freshly-squeezed coconut milk on the stove, just the way he liked his rice-n-peas cooked, she mixed wheat flour and curry powder, dusted the slices of fish in the mix and fried them in coconut oil.
The aroma of spices and cooking wafted out of her kitchen window on an inquisitive wind and drifted over the neighbor’s hedges.
‘Mia, what you cookin’? It smellin’ delicious!’
She could have replied that she was cooking food but the meaning of what she was doing could not have been captured by this reply. She was doing more than merely cooking, she was cooking more than mere food. She was engaged in an act of liberation, she was cooking up a healing.
She threw crushed garlic, onion and shredded celery in a saucepan and stirred them in the oil that barely covered the bottom of the pan. She continued to stir them until they began to go brown. She threw in a sprinkling of wheat flour and stirred. Then she added water and threw in a small bowl of shredded celery, chives, sweet pepper and tomatoes. She added a pinch of salt and stirred the gravy with a wooden spoon. She tasted it and added some black pepper powder, a little more salt and a bit of tomato ketchup. Then she added more water and placed the slices of fried fish in the saucepan to complete the stew.
The wizened old mariner was telling his grandson, Innocent, about a time in his life when, as a teenager, he had borrowed his grandfather’s radio and compass, without permission, to sail to Tobago on a yacht with some friends. It was an old yacht they had fixed up. He had believed that his father and the old man were immune from fatal accidents at sea. They always managed to escape unscathed from the clutches of misfortune and live to tell the tale. They were veteran seafarers who knew the ocean like the palm of their hands, men who had mapped the seaways in their minds and could navigate by the stars or just by instinct.
His grandfather possessed the gift of reading the color codes of a language on the surface of the sea only the initiated could comprehend; they were able to discern changing hues of profound meaning that were imperceptible to others. The old man possessed the gift of smelling the wind for signals of sudden storms at sea. He possessed the uncanny ability to sense danger when approaching reefs and navigate his schooner through the most dangerous labyrinth of them. They had navigated their vessels through the turbulent waters of Kick-em-Jenny, the most active subterranean volcano in the western Hemisphere, between the islands of Grenada and Carriacou, without incident, even when the bad-tempered Jenny was at her restless worse.
‘All these years I lived under the weight of a burden, son. I never forgave myself for takin’ that compass and that radio. I always wondered whether me father and me grandfather woulda died in that storm if they had the compass and the radio.’
His eyes wept long water. The river of tears coursed down the gullies of his wrinkled face. Innocent looked alarmed and tried to console his grandfather.
‘Don’t cry, Papa. It happened a long time ago.’
‘They never had the opportunity to forgive me, son.’
The clock in the room struck noon.
‘Lunchtime’, Innocent said.
‘I don’t feel like eatin’, son.’
His mother burst into the room, nervous and breathless, carrying a wooden tray covered under a clean white towel.
Her father was lying on his back in his bed, his head propped up by three soft pillows. He was lanky and withered. He looked away when his daughter entered. She rested the tray on a bedside table and stared at her father, her arms akimbo.
‘Papa, how you feelin’?’
He stared out the window at an albatross gliding leisurely high above the sea and the land, against a background of sea-blue sky with touches of cirrus clouds like wisps of sea-island cotton.
‘You hungry? I cooked for you your favourite dish. Stew fish barracuda and rice-n-peas.’
He patted Innocent’s nappy head with his bony hands.
‘I’m dyin son. I’m goin to join my father and grandfather. Perhaps, they’ll forgive me.’
‘What’s he talkin’ about?’
Mia looked askance at Innocent. Innocent told her the confession his grandfather had made.
‘He never told me about that’, Mia whispered, in awe. ‘You never told me about that, Papa!’
He looked away.
‘Look at me, Papa!’
Innocent was alarmed by the harshness of his mother’s command.
‘The sea’, the old man said to his grandson, ‘I couldn live without it, I can’t die without it. You think the sea goin’ to mourn for me? The cancer is killin’ me.’
Mia shook her head vigorously.
‘What’s killin’ you, Papa, is the hardness of your heart, the stubbornness of your pride, the guilt in your soul. That’s the cancer that’s been eatin’ you all these years. Take this food, Papa, eat it and let your spirit become that albatross.’
She waited. The old seafarer sighed and focused on the albatross.
‘You can smell the sea from here, son. You can taste the salt.’
‘The past has gone out with the tide’, Mia said, softening her tone. ‘Take this food and eat it. It is redemptive and sumptuous. It would unchain your soul.’
She took up the tray and knelt beside her father’s bed with it. She proffered it to him with both hands. Innocent noticed the moisture of her almond-shaped eyes, their iris black as sapodilla seed.
He rebuked her instead.
‘You brought down shame on me! After all that I did for you! I wanted so much for you!’
‘Forgive me, please!’
He filled his lungs with the breath of the sea and held it. When he exhaled, it sounded like air escaping the lungs of a fissured rock against which a mighty wave has broken.
‘Put the food on the table, child.’
Mia slowly stood up and replaced the tray on the table beside the bedside.
‘Come a little closer.’
She knelt once more beside the bed. His bony hands caressed her head of corn rows.
‘My child! My child!’ he sighed.
She wept the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Innocent looked slightly embarrassed and fascinated at the same time. He tasted the salt and sugar of the moment.
‘Feed me, Mia. Before I die I want to taste your hand once more.’
Mia stood up and removed the white towel from the wooden tray. The fish stew was in one bowl, the rice-n-peas in another and a salad of fresh garden vegetables in a third. There were three empty plates and some knives and forks. Ice cubes floated like icebergs in a jug of passion-fruit juice.
The old man inhaled with melodrama that caused his daughter and grandson to chuckle.
‘Smells good, Mia. We havin’ a feast today!’
The albatross cast its shadow against the window. Innocent watched it soaring on high against the rays of the blazing sun. His mother smiled and a brighter ray of light glinted in her eyes. He knew that, higher than the albatross could fly, his mother’s spirit soared. His spirit soared with hers.