Owen Arthur Bradshaw watched as the little girl was tied up with lace and silk. He jostled the warm rum in his glass and listened to the wind.
The storm outside wasn’t a hurricane. Just a tropical gale. It was the season for storms. Lightning slated through the heavy wooden shutters that were closed but unfastened. The thunder was coming through the walls built with blue bitch stone. There was no one outside walking in the rain. That sort of thing was avoided.
A scientist visiting from America had brought the lace and the silk. They were all at the house of Mr. Lovernkrandt, an eminent Danish businessman. Denmark was giving up on the West Indies and American was buying in, but Mr. Lovernkrandt was not leaving. The scientist was tying the girl up. He was demonstrating an experiment that had become stale on the Continent, an experiment of electricity. The little girl was very beautiful. And she was very little. And she was very afraid. She was also very brave.
Captain Bradshaw thought on his daughter, Eeona, who was not unlike this American girl. Only Eeona was more beautiful and at least as brave.
The people who had come together to make Captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw could be traced back to West Africans forced to the islands as slaves and West Africans who came over free to offer their services as goldsmiths. Back to European men who were kicked out of Europe as criminals and to European women of aristocratic blood who sailed to the islands for adventure. Back to Asians who came as servants and planned to return to their Indies, and to Asians who only wanted to see if there was indeed a western side of the Indies. And to Caribs who sat quietly making baskets in the countryside, plotting ways to kill all the rest and take back the land their God had granted them for a millennium.
Owen Arthur had been raised from a poor upbringing to a place of importance and ownership. He was the captain and owner of a cargo ship. And now he was among the important men who sat in this living room and watched through the haze of the oil lamps as a girl was hoisted off the ground via lace and silk and a hook in the ceiling. The little girl’s body jerked as the American scientist tugged. Her body jerked until she was a few feet off the ground, but she did not cry out. Owen Arthur Bradshaw was not sure how much longer he could bear to watch. But it was essential for him to be at this gathering. The host, Mr. Lovernkrandt, was a rum maker and Owen Arthur had always shipped rum. But with Americaness would come Prohibition, and Owen Arthur needed to ensure he was included in any of Lovernkrandt’s nonliquor endeavors.
He pressed his own earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. Success and solvency should have been on his mind, but Owen Arthur could not help but watch the American girl with a father’s tenderness. This little girl was pale-faced and blond, and Owen’s little girl, Eeona, was honey-skinned and ocean-haired. But still he looked at this strange little girl as though looking on his own child. The first half of him desired that he had created this little girl. She was a pretty yellow thing. The lower half of him desired the girl. How young could she be?
He put his mouth to his glass and tilted it until the warm sweetness met his lips. She will outlive me, he thought to himself. And who was the “she” he was referring to? Perhaps his wife, who was just then sitting at home doing the sewing that it seemed God had created her to do. Or perhaps he was speaking of his mistress, who was at that moment sitting in her home playing the piano he had bought her, making a music that only God or the Devil could bless. Or perhaps he was actually speaking of his daughter, whom he loved like he loved his own skin. Perhaps he was speaking of the little girl to whom the scientist was now attaching cords of metal. Perhaps the little girl was, in a way, all women to him, as all women might be to a certain kind of man.
Owen Arthur is right. All these shes will outlive him, though he cannot bear the thought of his women going on. He knows his daughter will live forever, in the way all parents do, simply because parents generally die first. But Owen will not die of old age. Owen will die of love. The Danish West Indies will become the United States Virgin Islands and then this patriarch will die. And perhaps these things are the same thing.
“Behold,” the American is saying in his strange accent. He hands the girl a glass ball and then whispers to her, “Do not drop it or I will punish you.” She does not make a move to suggest she has heard. She only takes the glass ball in both her hands. And then the first miracle happens—her hair begins to rise. The storm outside begins to howl.
“Christ, have mercy.” This is what the Christians whisper. The Jewish and Muslim men for whom these islands have been a refuge, mutter “Oy, Gotenu” and “Allahu Akbar” under their breaths respectfully. Yes, America will bring us progress. Here is progress before us.
Lightning claws through the window, as though hunting. And Owen Arthur watches the girl’s hair rise towards the ceiling until it is sticking up like so many angel horns.
Oh, the stories these men will tell of this night. How they will embellish one part, shrink the other. How they will make this night real again and again, some in Arabic or Danish or Yiddish or English, others in that Caribbean language that tourist guidebooks will call “Creole.” The story will become more real than the night itself because the story of it will last, while this wet night will soon be over. And here we are putting it down, so that it may last forever.
But Owen Arthur thinks on his firstborn. His only child, thus far, who has survived to life. His honey-skinned Eeona. Her hair, too, has a life of its own. He has combed it himself and knotted it into braids and found that he can get lost in its forest. He collects the pieces of her hair from the brush and burns them himself, so that no one can steal them and put a curse on her. Owen himself is not a hairy man, he does not even sport the sideburns so popular for men of this time and place. His daughter has the glorious hair on her head but otherwise she, too, is smooth all over.
Eeona is so beautiful that many call her pure and they think on the virgin hills. Or they call her pristine and they think of the clear and open ocean. Or they might use terms such as untouched or undefiled, but then they are cautious because they know that their words alone might spoil her. So on damp nights men imagine that they are angels and may touch her as they please, but when they wake, they sign themselves with the cross. And if available, they pat handfuls of holy water on their chests. They do not really wish to pollute little Eeona. They only wish to witness a bit and then return, like a tourist might.
The American scientist takes the ball from this other little girl in this parlour. Now he prepares for the real triumph. He will make the little girl into a miracle. The scientist raises the vial to the little girl’s face. The little girl is wise as little girls must be. She does not flinch, but she closes her eyes. The scientist touches the vial to her nose. White lights spark like lightning about her face. She cries out, but the men clap louder. They have seen electricity! They have seen the future!
“Mr. Lovernkrandt,” the scientist says, “you must try.” The vial is passed to the man of the house, who has been standing near a window that is fastened but not sealed—the legs of rain kicking at his back. He steps forwards, and with great hesitation that might be mistaken for trepidation were he not a wealthy man, he presses the vial to the brave girl’s nose. He feels the shock in his hand and up his wet sleeve and lurches away. “Mercy,” he exclaims so loudly that no one hears the little girl cry out again. His face is hot. For a moment he had thought he would be paralyzed. But he had survived.
Owen feels the rain sneaking through as kisses from a tiny mouth. Now he raises his hand. “I should like to try,” he says. The American scientist smiles as Owen Arthur steps forwards. He passes Owen the vial. Owen walks towards the little girl. She is suspended so that he and she are level. Their eyes meet. He bends towards her and caresses her earlobe gently, for he enjoys the feeling of that soft skin. “Men are foolish when pretty girls are involved,” he says loud enough for all to hear, and then he dashes the vial onto the floor.
The great men snort. Many look away, ashamed that they had not had Captain Bradshaw’s integrity. “My apologies, Mr. Lovernkrandt. I seem to have broken the American’s instrument. I am afraid I have ended the game.” Owen thinks on the major shipping deals he must have lost now. Thinks on how his business has depended on Lovernkrandt’s rum for more than a decade. But then he thinks on something else. “I fear most that it is past this little girl’s bedtime.” He touches the girl’s hair then tips his hat and takes his leave into the storm.
Science is just a kind of magic, and magic just a kind of religion, and Owen Arthur knows all about this because Owen owns a ship and men who spend their lives on water know that magic is real.
As he stands in the rain, the lightning brightening the way ahead of him, Owen cannot decide to which house he will walk. Lovernkrandt’s house, so well positioned at the center of town, is not far from the opening of the sea. Wherever Owen goes, the sea will be at his side either way. A small wall of stone has been built to block the bay. So it is no longer really a beach but a proper harbour. Still, it would be nothing at all for Owen to walk to the ocean right now. He has done it before. He swam in this harbour as a boy. The ocean, look now, is coming to him. The waves are bounding over the seawall, leaping, like animals, like little girls.
If he keeps the sea on his right then he will go past the market square where entrepreneur ladies sell their produce and straw creations. There, Rebekah lives in a small house with her sons. None of these sons are his, yet.
If he puts the sea on his left, he will pass the smaller fish market where men haul in the catch of the day before dawn. Beyond, Owen’s wife, Antoinette, lives in Villa by the Sea. It is a wealthy but modest estate where their daughter and their cook, Miss Lady, and their groundskeeper, Mr. Lyte, all live. The house is at the shallow edge of the harbour. The living and dining rooms are separated from each other by a line of linen curtains, which makes the house feel like a ship at sail. From the Villa by the Sea balcony the captain can see his own ship docked farther into the bay.
Now Owen Arthur thinks of the little girl’s hair rising into the air and he faces the beach. He waits until his whole body has received the rain. Then he goes towards his Eeona, because the little orphan girl reminded him of her. Owen cannot see into the future, but he can see into the past, and this is a magic we all have. As he walks, the sea is at his side, but the rain is at his back, pushing him towards his only child. The waves slip over his shoes.
When Owen arrives, he goes to his wife, who is telling a story to little Eeona in the parlour. This family will know itself through stories told in time and others told too late. In this way they are no different from any other tribe. “Holy Ghost,” his wife cries when she sees him wet, as though he’d been drowning. “Lady!” Antoinette calls. “A towel, a change of clothes for the captain. Quickly.” Eeona has no restraint. She runs to her father and he picks her up and puts her to his chest, even though he will make her wet and they will both be sick over this. When Miss Lady comes from upstairs with the towels, she knows to bring two.
At this moment it is only the one child and she is in love with her father. It is no large thing that this daughter will, in time, kill Owen Arthur. No large thing at all. Family will always kill you—some bit by bit, others all at once. It is the love that does it.
In her womb mother Antoinette is carrying another child. But she does not want more children, so this child, like the three before it, will be made to know the island ways of washing the womb. But women do not always have their way. This child will survive and will be the last of Owen’s children. She will be called Anette.
Anette Bradshaw will be as different from her elder sister as water is from land. The elder sister will be so stunning that men will scare of her. But not Anette. Boys will stick to the younger sister like the slick of mango juice. A trinity of men will feel the love of her like casha bush burring their scalp in sleep. Anette’s own image will grace the silver screen. The islands will drop the BOMB because of her say so. But baby Anette has not come as yet. Right now it is only Eeona and Papa, with Mama there watching.
A N E T T E
Don’t mind I ain born as yet. I is the historian in this family. Teacher of history at the Anglican school where all the fancy families does send their children. So is me could really tell you what happen on Transfer Day. If anyone know the history is me. Nowadays people think historians are stuffy types, but history is a kind of magic I doing here.