I knew no history. I had little concept of time beyond the harvest seasons, the changing weather. When I stood on the fishing dock as a child and looked out at the other islands in the archipelago, I was not thinking of battleships or explorers or sea monsters from mythologies. I was not thinking about what came before or what lay beyond.
What can I tell you about my young life on the island? It is shrouded in the mystery of childhood itself. I try to picture myself age ten, for that is the time when the ‘trouble’ – as you call it – began. But I don’t have an image of this girl. I can’t see her from the outside. There are no photographs. Besides, I don’t trust them.
I could tell you that my only true friend on the island, apart from my older sister, Giovanna, was a donkey with weepy eyes and long lashes, a white patch of fur on his belly I took pleasure in scratching. A rusted bell hung around his neck. He had a bung leg. We called him Shuffles. What is the significance of this donkey, I imagine you asking. Nothing, nothing. Except to say that when he was deemed useless we cared for him. Fed him apples. Tied scarves around his head. A big bow between the ears. I remember thinking I would marry him when the time came. I remember thinking this as if it were the most normal thought in the world.
Do you see what I am trying to say? Our world was very small. When I was ten and Giovanna was twelve, we had never left our island, not even for the others in the archipelago. We knew the islands surrounding us not by their proper names but by what they resembled: a turtle, a dog lying down, a mountain, a jagged crown. Those islands were black or grey or brown depending on the position of the sun. Ours was emerald green.
Every morning, Giovanna and I went down to the fishing dock to watch the water. We could tell if rain was coming by where the clouds hung in the sky (this, we learned from the fishermen). From May to September, it hardly rained at all. The cisterns on our roofs went dry, and the smell of dead fish – thick in the summer – wafted through the circular hole above the door of our bungalow, even when our mother stuffed it with rags.
Although we lived at the bottom of the island in a small fishing village, we still felt we were better than the people who lived on the opposite side of the island by the port. The port people were ignoble, Mother told us, because they cavorted with the sailors, and they were not ashamed to live near the rubbish heap. Besides, the port was ugly. The port was not a well-regarded place. Even where we lived – in the damp, narrow alleyways above the fishing dock – had more prestige than the port! Between the two villages was a large valley with vineyards planted all over the slopes. Two mountains – our two sleeping volcanoes – stood on either side. On our island, the higher you lived, the richer you were. Still, our little village was respected. In the evenings, everyone gathered in our square. Most nights, we saw amber specks fizzling against the black sky coming from the volcano on the island opposite. Little spurts of lava that shot up rhythmically. A constant, hazy glow. We knew those amber specks meant danger for the people on that island, but we were on the green island, and so we cared little.
You must understand: from birth we had been told that our island was rich in resources. We had no need to worry – the shipmaster would take care of us all.
He was the only person who routinely left and returned. Left not just for the other islands in the archipelago, but for unknowable places beyond. He brought back gifts. He had a gold cane with a goose-head handle, and he took it with him on his walks around the square. The way that he moved – slowly, gracefully – signalled his difference to the rest of us. He did not stumble. He rarely yelled. If I close my eyes, I can see him standing at the balustrade at the edge of our square looking out at the sea below. His long beard is neatly combed and turning grey at the tips. His lips are hidden underneath his thick moustache. He is walking past the baker’s shop and raising his cane. Now the baker’s daughter is running out.
He was a king to us. A god. At the very least, our protector. Really, he was a trader in exports who commandeered an impressive fleet.
All of us in the village, whenever we saw him, would make a little gesture as he passed us. Mother bowed her head, so Giovanna and I did the same. The fishermen only ever spoke to him with eyes averted and their hands clasped firmly behind their backs. The older widows fussed over him. Often, they tried to kiss his hand. Once, the baker’s son saluted him, and we – all of us in the square – had to wait until the shipmaster was out of sight to let out our laughter. Our bellies sore from holding it in. It was the baker’s daughter, though, who embarrassed us most with her confusing gestures. Whenever she held out the bread, she squatted before him – an awkward curtsy – and we had to look away.
There was another embarrassing woman in our village. A widow, like Mother, who went about in an evening gown that was torn and yellowing. This woman refused to wear black. She had no tact, Mother told us, because she wore her hair in the manner of the shipmaster’s wife. Uncovered, that is, and twirled into two shapes that looked like snail shells, pinned at the nape of her neck. She lived alone, and although she tried to hide it, she spent her nights in the grotto near the port where the other drunks met. To get there, you had to wait until the tide was low and climb along the rocks. People talked about a secret path, a way to get there from the lighthouse above, but none of us ever found it.
There was a rumour about the woman leaving the grotto one night and throwing herself into the sea. Apparently, she had to be fished out. When she came to, she told the rest of the drunks that she had merely wanted to wash her dress. She clambered over the rocks and left the wet gown on the roof of her bungalow to dry. We knew this, because the baker had seen it there.
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