Thursday, April 17, 2014

Our House in the Middle of the Swamp

Our lot, like most of the town of Punta Gorda, is below sea level.  Any money we had went in to purchasing the lot and the lumber needed to build our one room ramshackle house.  There is not money left to pay the public works department to fill the lot in with gravel from the quarry.  The sounds of Mr. Peters and his brukdown style of music blare over the radio.
“I got seven pikney to feed – and one pon de way!  
My wife always in need – and no money deh!”

No money deh.  It always seems to come to this.  Way has a plan to build a fruit stand along the dusty road that leads into town.  He will sell fresh fruit and juices to motorists and pedestrians in need of refreshment in the blistering heat.  Exactly where the fruit will come from – well, he hasn’t figured that part out yet.  But he has begun to cut the bamboo.  There is a lush thicket of bamboo flourishing along the tiny creek that runs in front of our lot.  The creek cuts under the road before emptying into the sea, which is about 150 feet away.  The fruit stand will be built on the roadside near the creek, under the shade of the baboon cap and zapote trees.  

As he transforms the bamboo stalks into building material, he puffs on a joint and listens to the radio, turned up to full volume as the DJ plays a mix of country and western ballads, American pop music, reggae, calypso, merengue and the occasional Belizean brukdown hit.  Particularly popular at the moment is “El Africano” by Wilfrido Vargas, a song that blatantly demeans black men but since it’s in Spanish, most Belizeans sing along gleefully unaware.   
“Mami, yo me acuestro tanquilo
Me arropo pie a cabeza
Y el negro me destapa
Mami que sera lo que
quiere el negro”

After our school lessons and chores, Rosie and I chase crawfish and crabs in the creek.  Na boils the daily pot of rice and reheats yesterday’s pot of kidney beans seasoned with salted pigfoot.  Without refrigeration, food must be warmed up twice a day to prevent spoiling – one in the morning and once at night. 
Sometimes she takes us out for a trip to the beach.  We cut through the lot in from of ours, which is undeveloped and over-gown with grass then turn left on to the main road, away from town.  This part of the road runs along to ocean.  To our right is the inviting blue of the Bay of Honduras.  Fishing boats bob up and down in the distance.  Further out are Moho Caye and Lime Caye, dark specks along the horizon.  The sea breeze is strong, salty and warm.  The road takes us over the simple bridge that spans Joe Taylor’s Creek, a small tributary that twists and turns deep into the mangrove forests the hug the Northern edge of PG Town. 

Crossing over the bridge, I look down into the murky water below.  I see several large, light blue crabs scuttling into the dark crevices of the mangrove roots.  A fish makes a splash then quickly dips back under the surface.   Then a more grim sight:  a dog, floating in the water, dead and bloated.  It was probably hit by a car going to fast over the bridge.  I stop and point.
“Look!”  My mom waves me along before Rosie can get in on the rubbernecking.
“Let’s keep going, honey.”
As we scurry across the bridge, I crane my neck to get one last glimpse of the morbid sight.  The image of that dog just floating there like that still haunts me. 
The beach is a thin strip of dark gray volcanic sand.  The water is shallow and warm with a carpet of sea grass underfoot.  Rosie and I can frolic there for hours, losing ourselves in the unique magic of the Caribbean sea.  Our mother sits on the sand, keeping a watchful eye over her little brown mermaids. 

Soon, the deluge comes.  The fruit stand is not complete.  Our low-lying lot becomes submerged under two to three feet of water.  Under gathering rain clouds, Rosie and sit in doorway, dangling our feet over the edge of our stilted house watching brown algae sway in the current below.  We play with our coveted strawberry shortcake dolls.  We may have the funkiest house in the neighborhood, but we have the best dolls.  Cathy, or mother’s best friend, sends us packages from the US, covered in brightly colored flower stickers, and filled with sweet smelling dolls.  Playing with the dolls takes my mind off of wondering why we have to live like this.  Why can’t we get the lot filled?  What ever happened to the fruit stand?
I know better than to ask questions.  Rosie and I find joy in the imaginary world of Strawberry Shortcake, Grape Suzette and Orange Blossom, tuning in to the radio and tuning out our parents’ heated debate about my father’s latest money-making ideas.  The song “Our House” by Brit pop bad Mandess comes on.
“Our house, in the idle of the street
Our house, in the middle of the street”

Before long, Rosie and I have changed the lyrics to “our house in the middle of the swamp.”  Na and Way join in the singing.  Much needed laughter ensues all around.
Life in our house in the middle of the swamp grows increasingly difficult..  Despite an abundance of ideas, Way struggles to make ends meet.  I am always rooting for him, hoping in my heart of hearts that this time things will work out.  I take comfort in the fact that no matter how bad it gets, Rosie and I always have each other. Perhaps the song Our House still says it best:
“I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we’d play simply waste the day away
Then we’d say nothing would come between us two dreamers.”

~ Sarah Jane Forman

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