A short story by Sue Dawes
I hold the smooth, brown coconut shell in my palms and force the milky liquid down. The yaqona is fibrous and peppery, and grazes the back of my throat. It reminds me of drinking shots at university, swallowing hard, avoiding the burn, and not allowing it to set fire to the inside of my mouth.
It’s why I am here: to unearth the woman who had the stomach to try anything once.
I swallow, and then push my tongue over my teeth, trying to release the grains of pounded root that escaped the sieve and are lodged in the gaps between them. The texture reminds me of split tea bags.
My mind flips back to an image of my kitchen in London. It was barely out of its boxes when I left, the work-surfaces pristine, except of course, for that one tiny mark where the teapot shattered. I shake that marble chip out of my head and focus on clapping the cup onwards, listening to the ceremonial words as each man drains the strong, muddy liquid and chants.
The yaqona anesthetizes me. It happens slowly. I fall backwards, legs still crossed. My body sinks down into the weave of the grass mat beneath me, and further into the sandy earth. I imagine a mosaic of tiny cowrie shells pinching my skin, the gap in their shells a grimace.
Grabbing the edge of the mat, I try to haul myself upright, back into the circle but the twine burns my fingers, flakes and disintegrates and I do not actually move. The men laugh as the cup is passed across my body. It hovers like a dragonfly above me, then dips to the man on my right and disappears from my eye-line.
Fixing my gaze on the ceiling above my head, at the point where the bundles of dry grass twist in embrace, I exhale. I have been holding my breath in, frightened that the pressure behind it will lift the roof off.
Then I hear my name, at least the one I have become accustomed to, “English”. It both describes and excuses my behaviour. I like it so much better than Rose.
I do not have the capacity to follow what is said in the circle anymore, or to trace the cup’s progress. My mind is full of fog and the taste of fish stew, which has rolled back into my mouth from tonight’s dinner, speared just an hour before cooking. I imagine spitting the fish eye that was so hard to swallow, back into my palm. What it would see? A woman out of her depth? Or one just swimming against the tide?
Trying to lift my legs from the tangle they are in, I focus on moving out of the hut but the trip to the beach seems an impossible task. I visualise the journey: past the coconut trees (I can see the children hanging from them like ropes in a gym); over the patch of dried leaves and to the water’s edge. But my will cannot be strong enough because I have not moved, not even a bare toe. My old fear of being trapped, which had begun to wash away with the surrounding water, starts to trickle back in.
Panic gives me focus and I manage to roll myself over onto my side. I lay there for a while, not caring about the temporary diamond tattoo that imprints on my cheek from the mat.
A man is speaking: the one with a jagged scar that tears along his cheek. His voice is deep, yet musical and I listen to his story; about a big fish that bit his nose while he was swimming in the ocean. He explains that the shark was reminding him who was the real king of the sea. His language is like syrup; it coats my fear and cements me back on the Island.
I lie in the fetal position and remind myself how lucky I am. I have never had to dive deep into crystal water, risking my life with just a wooden spear and a torch, in order to put dinner on my plate. The thought of the man’s courage gives me the energy to twist and kneel. I stand up, remembering to round my shoulders and walk, bowed, to the door. Even in this heady state, I remember my manners.
Leaving the warmth of bodies and sweat at the open doorway, I greet the sea air. It is refreshing; a squeeze of lemon in a glass of ice water. I rip a handful of cokamana leaves from a low bush as I pass, and make my way to the beach to scrape a shallow hole. The powdered sand runs through my fingers as I dig. I crouch, no longer hearing the crack of bone as I bend. The sun dips behind the ocean and daylight fades.
I look out over the endless water in front of me and consider the things that have changed since I came here: my skin has darkened to the brown of the cassava bark; I have put on weight and there is enough pinch in my cheeks to make the Islanders smile and nod. I no longer pull at the lines on my face or picture myself wearing an apron, forced to communicate through food thrown back in my face.
Finished, I sweep the sand across the hole, burying the leaves and my waste with it. The light here snuffs out in a second, and I do not want to turn the wrong way.
I no longer want to walk blindly into the sea.
As I turn I find I can barely see the end of my nose, certainly not the lump where it was broken. But I am used to the darkness now and using the kerosene lights that wink at me from the huts, and the rough bark of the trees, I feel my way to the meeting room.
The village women are sitting in a circle, singing softly as they rinse and strip the bark from cassava roots. I know this because it happens every night. They make food for their whole community and for survival, not simply to try and please one man.
As I walk through the door, the scent of burning fuel mixed with salt and mango, wraps around me like a comfort blanket. The women move to let me in, squashing me with their plump ebony thighs. Cross-legged, I reach across to the basket in the middle and take a root, peeling and snapping the yellow flesh that tomorrow will be transformed into dumplings. I am once again part of domesticity, but here it is without mechanics, hierarchy or impossible expectation.
Time passes in small movements as the lamp flickers until I feel the pressure of a hand on my shoulder. I do not jump or shrink away as I used to, but enjoy the touch and the life that seeps through it. I can map each callous and scar on those strong black fingers.
The women rise at the signal and form a line, a backbone that trails out of the hut, following the flickering light of the lamp. The air is warm with the sweet scent of ripe fruit and I drink it in. It is so different from the sterile air in London, perfumed by chemicals from a can.
The procession halts and we split off into four adjacent huts. Woven grass mats are pulled onto the floor and we lay down side by side to sleep. It is my one regret: the girlfriends I discarded at his insistence.
Tonight yaqona is my mattress and I sink down as if the grass mat underneath me is filled with feathers. I slip into a deep sleep but even with heavy limbs and a loaded mind, the dreams still come. But they have changed during the time I have been here, no longer vivid, they are just shadows dancing in my unconscious. His angry voice is softening against the music of island life: hard work, hot sun and the cleansing simplicity of every day.
And one day soon, I am confident, I will rediscover my hunger.
Sue Dawes completed an MA in Creative Writing in 2010 at Lancaster University. Since then she has had some success in writing competitions, with her stories published on-line and in magazines. Primarily a mum, in her spare time, as well as writing, making jewelry and bookkeeping, Sue edits and produces a writing pamphlet for commuters. Visit her blog.