Photograph by Isuru Senevi
by Charles Bane Jr
At exactly dawn, a very young man, perhaps twelve years old, stood at the rail of an Italian liner in a worsted wool suit and watched the island of Puerto Rico rise from the sea. He was not awed, but stood gazing at the sight with the unearthly poise of a soldier who has escaped death in battle and now witnesses fires of artillery that can do him no harm.. He returned to the ship’s library, and spared no more time looking at the sea. For Collier − his first name − the spectacle of the ships’ arrival was of a piece with the vastness of a life populated entirely by beings unlike himself. He had learned to live among them with the grace of his breeding, and a stoic acceptance; but his pallor betrayed to his uncomfortable family and to servants and friends that he was stemmed from the shortest lived of the field. Once, Mrs. Hargrave had appeared at the family’s brownstone with her car and driver. Blanketing him, she had taken Collier to the horse races and spoken carefully, but without pity, as she plied him with hot chocolate. He found a photo of her setting in his mother’s dressing room, and taking it to his bedroom, took the photograph from its frame and placed it below his pillow.
His father appeared at the door of the Adriano’s library and the two left the ship, and taxied to the Imperial. Here perhaps, the father thought, the boy would rally. He looked at his son as twilight appeared at the window of their suite. The sun was open shirted here; it spread its arms wide as its torso descended into the water. They would be driven tomorrow into the hills. It would be an entertainment, like the historians and authors the father invited to lunch with the boy at the Century Club. Each had looked at Collier with an all too familiar gaze, and visibly softened. The great historian Bixby had told Collier − to the boy’s sympathetic delight − that Franklin Roosevelt had been mocked by classmates at Groton, for his rarefied accent. And eyeing the boy carefully, he told him that Roosevelt had overcome, through force of will, paralysis and a secret dread of fire.
The following morning, their driver appeared in the lobby. It was a hot day; father and son were in suit and tie. Their driver left old San Juan and motored towards the hills. The road steepened the moment they left the city. The brazen light had been pirating and shook chests of gold and emeralds across the boy’s face through the window of the taxi. In Spanish, their driver spoke of the island. He told the man and boy in his back seat that their like had ruined the old city, save for Sundays, when islanders could walk past the sleeping casinos to early Mass. He said he did not mind fasting before Communion for the pleasure after, of quesito and sweet black coffee. He told them the hills were richer than the father’s watch chain; and he said that he was nervous today, for there were signs of a coming hurricane. He turned onto a secondary road, hoping for an easier climb and less burden on his engine.
On a road above water the color of Navaho stone, the car sputtered and came to a halt. Collier’s father burst into rage. The driver shrank before the fury, and like the boy, climbed balefully from the car. Nearby there was an open space and what passed for a village. Collier walked a few steps forward and looked about, at chickens pecking in the dirt for grains of corn and kettles of asopao simmering over burning wood. Nothing in his make up was atuned to the lives of the poor and he stiffened, as though readying for inspection. His appearance was taken as a good sign by the men who peered at him, though they had been interrupted listening to the song that had met the boy’s ears. It was a song of hurricanes, and of paddles far away on the Orinoco that began a journey now lost to record. The song had many Taino words. Collier’s father approached and still furious, muttered that he would wait at the main pass and find a passing car. He touched his son’s shoulder.
Far off, in the Atlantic, a fierce storm gathered its army. Collier’s father stood impatiently in the open mountain road, unaware of the hurricane. Like him, the storm was a father also, and yearned to return to villagers forced to leave Africa to settle this island in the Caribbean. This was only just, and a gale swelled to rain upon their sleep who cut the sugar cane. It longed to strum palms and pour on fires.
Collier took off his coat and folded it neatly on the ground below a tree. The wind was picking up, he felt a twinge of alarm. He wished to be in the comfort of his bed and to smell the now wished for odor of flowers in the hotel lobby. There was a last resignation inside him, a last, flickering desire to find a lamp of hope. He wished, as his eyes closed, to know the sensation of good health. He conjured images of footraces through the park and soirees where pretty girls were in abundance. He saw himself going to work with a briefcase, and lifting his children in the air in his spacious home as his wife, kneeling on the floor beside newspapers and pots of tea, looked on. Collier’s dream wafted overhead. It was not unlike the dreams of the villagers, of cafe con leche on a landowners’s verandah.
The boy’s father returned to the village and wiped his brow. Surely, the father thought mistakenly, the hotel would phone the police or at the least, send a car and driver when he and his son did not appear at dinner. He sat down beside his son. “Collier,” he said quietly, “we shall camp here tonight, and do our best.”
The driver appeared, and apologizing to father and son, sought out elders. Protocols were shared, and all looked at the rich Americans who were now the guests of the village and must be treated with a courtesy befit their honor. A villager brought Collier a New Testament in Spanish, left by a missionary. He must not think they were unlettered.
The boy was walking about the village when suddenly he reached out to the air, as if to grasp an invisible arm. He fell back, seizuring. His father rushed forward, and lifting Collier’s head, fanned his face with the palm of his hand. Of all the boy’s maladies, the man most despised his son’s epilepsy for its utter cowardice, and stealth. Ever again it struck, only to retreat to its lair. The father was beside himself with worry; there was neither telephone or electricity in the village and its huts were nothing for shelter. When he returned to the city, he would purchase the Imperial and burn it to the ground. He helped Collier to his feet and they sat together within the walls of a kapok tree.
His arms wrapped across his chest, the hurricane spun and neared San Juan. The waters of the bay below the village changed direction, like birds beating an escape. In the lobby of the hotels in the city, wooden shutters were nailed over the windows. At the front desk of the Imperial, the clerk noted that father and son were missing. He hated Americans; he had begun his long career at the hotel as a waiter, and watched turistas blanch when they were served sopon de pescado, with the head and tail of the fish intact. Any of the starved of Puerto Rico would have wolfed it down. There was nothing to be done; he would send a car and driver into the hills when the storm had moved away.
His father fitfully asleep in a corner of a shack, Collier stepped outside into the maw of the hurricane. At once he was on hands and knees. The wind lifted him, and his arms outstretched in fresh seizure. His eyes half closed. The trees bent; the rain moved in horizontal roads. Collier was loosed from himself. He felt, at last, kinship with a world he’d never been closer to than a photograph. His brain flickered like the lights in the Imperial. Why had he not passaged on this ship when it embarked from Africa onto the Atlantic, in a blessedness he recognized? He would sign on, or stowaway when it moved again. But then he knew it would break apart on land and the tragedy of its short life would pipe away. Collier shot a hand to the sky.
The eye of the hurricane passed over the island. They had had the worst of it below the storm’s west side. In terror, his father rushed into the village center where Collier was sprawled, asleep.
About the Author:
Charles Bane, Jr. is the American author of The Chapbook ( Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems ( Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by the Huffington Post as “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” Creator of The Meaning Of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida.