by Marcelle Thiébaux
There was a wrecking site on the corner where the old Associated Supermarket had been. I used to pass it, always the same gaping cellar-hole with dirty planks slapped over rubble. Only yesterday I’d seen the crew blasting with jackhammers, breaking mortar into slag. They wore hard hats and rugged canvas gloves. The sun had burned their biceps and forearms dark bronze, as if they were island men.
One morning the wreckers were gone. Overnight they’d hauled away their pickaxes and backhoes and vanished. In place of the raw, ruined pit, a community garden had sprung up.
Ailanthus trees, elephant ears, dinner-plate dahlias crowded the lot. Fleshy sunflowers grinned at me, flaunting their knowing hearts of black fur. This lush wilderness looked as if it had flourished in this lot for years. Was I on the right street? I looked up at the street sign. It told me I was still on West 80th, still in my Manhattan neighborhood.
I felt the air charged with energy. An equatorial wind sucked oxygen from my lungs. Some presence lay inside this disheveled garden, drawing me irresistibly. The empty lot wasn’t empty. I pushed through the tangle and it closed around me, enfolding me in the humid heat of its thickly beating heart.
The smell of decomposing vegetation hit my nostrils like old bones. I strained to breathe. My pink sundress stuck to my skin. The mop of my long flax-yellow hair lay drowning against my neck. Under a cluster of baobab trees, I saw three theater seats leaning together. Threadbare and shackled, they looked as if they’d lurched out of an auditorium and collapsed here like three drunk buddies. Linger, they whispered to me, sit a while. What’s your hurry? They threw out weedy brambles that caught at my bare legs. Tugging, coiling, gently tickling, holding me back. I tore free. I needed to plod through the greenery to where I saw a curio shop, a hovel knocked together out of driftwood. Nailed to the door was a hand-lettered sign that read: Geology Ices. Refreshing Jewel Flavors. Topaz. Jade. Sapphire. Chalcedony.
I pressed my sweaty face to the shop window and peered inside. Dust sifted over the treasures jumbled in bins. Sandalwood fans, rugs striped with blood, wizened coconuts like human heads with the eyelids sewed shut. Dolls to stick pins in like pincushions while you did your sewing. Cotton kangas that the island women wore wrapped around them, or folded into slings to carry their babies. Behind the counter, I caught sight of my dead mother, dead two summers ago. She was rearranging fluted shells and conches. She waved to me. I pulled open the door and the bell tinkled. The air in the shop smelled like ancient incense.
“Mama, oh, darling Mama, you came back!” Here in the dim shop, she didn’t look ill. She looked like a younger photo of herself except that the muslin dress she wore was soiled and shabby. She kept fussing with old shells.
“Mama! Look at me! It’s me, Jadine!” My mother had named me Jadine because I’d been born with unusual traces of nephrite, a calcium-magnesium silicate, in my body. Sufficient to skew my body’s chemistry and nature, jade was indigenous to the country where I was conceived, and it had entered my human system endowing me with a strangely magnetic force. I knew of this oddity in myself, but mostly tended to forget it. Try to ignore it, anyhow, although it did give my skin a polished, almost translucent sheen.
I reached for my mother’s hand. “Oh, Mama, I missed you so much. Are you…happy where you are?”
She edged away. “No, don’t touch me, Jadine, honey.” She shrank and wavered, and I was afraid she might vanish into the beaded curtain behind her.
“Stay with me, Mama,” I cried. “Don’t leave me, please don’t go. There were so many things I didn’t get to ask you!”
I meant what happened to me once, somewhere in lost time, so far away that I couldn’t remember it. Mama knew my mind, as I was sure she would.
She smiled sadly. “What happened there in Roqador, what they did to you in Roqador, was all for the best, Jadine.” Her voice trailed off, and she grew pallid as a shifting summer cloud.
“Roqador!” I breathed. I hadn’t thought of it for years, our old island home where I had been so happy as a girl. For a time. But I was no longer that person. Something had happened to me there. Whatever it was had slipped through a memory crack. I would have to split it open again to quarry the tender fissures of consciousness and memory.
Could I? It was so long ago. I had to find out what took place in the stone galleries of our big house, back on that sunstruck island, so green with palmettos that men needed machetes to walk through their forests. To hack them down.
“Mama,” I begged her, “I need you to tell me about my baby. Could I—” I nearly choked on the words. “Could I get him back?”
She had already drifted through the rippling beaded curtain like a fine smoke. I went after her but someone grabbed me. The black-tinted mirror threw back the reflection of a man who’d just come in the shop.
“You don’t want to follow there,” he said. His face was fatally wan and carved with a long cicatrix. He wore a rough navy pea jacket. I knew him, and I ran to him. He smelled like brine and tar. His dark hair was matted with traces of old blood. Salt stains crusted the blackness of his beard.
“You’ve come back to me too,” I said, barely above a whisper. In Roqador he had been my lover. I held him close to me. I touched his scarred face, his stern pale mouth. I searched his gray eyes that were mournful as old sea chanteys. I felt his presence like a longed-for shadow falling cool against my bare arms.
“Did you come off a ship?” I asked. “Or did they drop you into the sea?”
He didn’t answer.
On an impulse, I undid the buttons of his pea jacket, then unbuttoned his torn shirt and there was the bullet hole. The captain of the firing squad had sketched a charcoal circle on the left side of his chest as a convenient target for the soldiers, so they wouldn’t have to waste bullets.
I laid my hand over the red hole. It was small, deep, and neat. His skin was clammy. “I won’t let it happen again,” I said. “You need a Band-Aid. You shouldn’t be walking around like this.”
“It doesn’t matter now.” His amusement was wry, and I could see he was very tired. “I’ll get you to Roqador if you want to go.”
“Yes, I need to find our baby and bring him back. What boat would take me there? You look as if you’d know.”
He held my face in his hands. They felt cold on this summer day. “Your earthly element.”
“You don’t mean the jade in my blood, do you?” He knew that so well. He was one of the few people who would take me for what I was.
“Naturally, that would be the way.”
“All right, I accept it. Just tell me how.”
“The geology ices are here.”
“That’s what this place is? I saw the menu in the window.”
“The crushed gems are frozen. It’s what they have. Rubylike cherry, lemon amber, mint diamond, you take the one that is for you. But I think you know the one.” He seemed to be talking to me from his dream, asleep under the waves.
I saw the labeled chrome spouts behind him. They were arranged in a circle like those you see in a spa where you drink the waters for your health.
I was skeptical. “Those aren’t just the names of ordinary ices?”
“Stones, transmuted. That’s the way for you to travel. If you want to get there and retrieve lost time.”
“Because of my nature.” I understood. I realized I had been trying to deny my nature. “It’s me, it’s who I am. I’d better have that one.” On the marble counter, the goblet sat waiting, mounded high. It looked like a delicate green Frostee of pistachio or kiwi or lime. I knew it was jade. Next to it lay a long silver spoon. I took the chrome goblet, dipped the spoon, and lifted it to my lips.
The icy slush melted on my tongue and slid down my throat. It was earthy, stony, and slick, with a moldering taste of old seaweed rot and rain-soaked cellars. Of mine shafts where infant morels germinate; of rinsed laundry and decayed vanda orchids cooling in the goat pens of shantytown.
“It does taste exactly like jade,” I admitted, a little shocked. “It’s delicious.” I held his eyes, and he held mine until at last I closed mine to the light. Dish and spoon fell from my loosened fingers. I gave in to the stone’s power and sank backward into the blackness of time.
* * *
I woke to light filtering through the mosquito netting that tented the mahogany bed of my old room. The netting’s milky gathers draped my four-poster, each post a carved pineapple.
My lover lay warm beside me, and my hair spilled over his bare shoulder like a blond bridal veil.
Our bed was a fragrant cave beneath the mosquito netting, to which a baby tarantula was clinging, its hairy claws trapped in the mesh. It could have been any of the creatures that flew or crawled through the open stone galleries on Roqador nights. Winged cockchafers, moths, tiny lizards, even hummingbirds. But I knew that this tarantula was the earthly, unearthly infant I’d conceived through the magnetic attraction of my mineral nature, so dense and tenacious.
My nature had taken up this night creature and infused it with the vitality of jade. The creature would be mine, to protect and bring up.
That night was our last, my lover’s and mine, for the well-meaning mob charged with machetes through the overgrown garden. Outraged, they stormed through the whole house and into my room. They pulled him from my bed. I cried out in horror. I saw the blood on his face. I called his name, despairing.
Now, over this span of time and memory, I could not remember what his name was.
The mob hauled him by the feet through the streets of Roqador, his head bobbing and tumbling on the dirt road behind a pickup truck. Then they wanted it to look as if they had some pity, as if they were capable of humanity, so they threw him on the bed of the truck and let him ride.
“To the stadium!” they shouted.
The stadium! I knew what they did to men in the stadium. Men they kidnapped and forced to disappear. I had to run after the truck.
This time, I plucked my tarantula baby from the mosquito netting, and I carried it with me. It was still very small.
I jumped through the unglazed window of my sleeping gallery. I hit the ground hard. Stunned a few seconds, I managed to get up and run. The stadium was far, but I kept running. Never winded, I had legs that were long and spindle-lean. Hiking up my nightgown, I ran barefoot, high-arched, and speedy through the palmetto streets of Roqador. I raced over cobbled avenues and alleys, sprinted up stairs hewed from rock. I did a serpentine lunge-and-leap through stalled traffic. I dodged the cyclists, the donkey carts, the luxury convertibles.
I bounded over the last highway and I reached the seashore, looking for a boat. I was still far from the stadium.
The shore was a waste of vacant sand, long and barren, like a dead planetary landscape of the afterlife. It was pebbled with jade, but I kicked at the precious stones. They were useless to me.
Across the water on the farther shore, I saw the cracked stucco pillars of the stadium, white and cold. I knew I couldn’t get to it in time.
I heard the shots and the cruel yells of joy from across the lagoon, the voices carrying over the water. I was never to reach the stadium. I would mourn, and then would mercifully lose this memory to oblivion.
I looked around me in despair. Lost. There was nothing on this beach, no boat, no one. Only three seats that had stumbled out here from a ruined amphitheater, a place like an arena. The seats were sagging, cuffed, yoked together for all eternity like the three of us: my lover, my baby, and me. Forlorn, the three seats leaned under the baobab trees. I knew they had come from the stadium of death. I dropped to one of the seats. I felt it prickly with mange against my bare legs. I saw how we were betrayed. Now I had to think what to do. I had challenged time. I had traveled years backward to Roqador.
I opened my hand. In it lay the small baby tarantula, shaped of the purest rose jade. It had my nature, and my lover’s mortal nature. But I, too, had a partly mortal nature. If I blew on it, if I breathed on it, my human breath must surely warm my rose-jade tarantula baby back to life. Human life.
Once it lives, I don’t know what my son will become. But beyond a certain point, I can’t bring myself to speculate.
Category: Short Story