“Did you sleep well?” she asks, and you make sure that your face is fixed into a dreamy smile as you open your eyes into the morning after. It had been an awkward third date; a clumsy fumbling in her bed, both of you apologizing and then fleeing gratefully into sleep.
“I dreamt that you kissed me,” you say. That line’s worked before. She’s lovely as she was the first time you met her, particularly seen through eyes with colour vision. “You said you wanted me to be your frog.” Say it, say it, you think.
She laughs. “Isn’t that kind of backwards?”
“Well, it’d be a way to start over, right?”
Her eyes narrow at that. You ignore it. “You could kiss me,” you tell her, as playfully as you can manage, “and make me your prince again.”
She looks thoughtful at that. You reach for her, pull her close. She comes willingly, a fall of little blonde plaits brushing your face like fingers. Her hair’s too straight to hold the plaits; they’re already feathered all along their lengths. “Will you be my slimy little frog?” she whispers, a gleam of amusement in her eyes, and your heart double-times, but she kisses you on the forehead instead of the mouth. You could scream with frustration.
“I’ve got morning breath,” she says apologetically. She means that you do.
“I’ll go and brush my teeth,” you tell her. You try not to sound grumpy. You linger in the bathroom, staring at the whimsical shells she keeps in the little woven basket on the counter, flouting their salty pink cores. You wait for anger and pique to subside.
“You hungry?” she calls from the kitchen. “I thought I’d make some oatmeal porridge.”
So much for kissing games. She’s decided it’s time for breakfast instead. “Yes,” you say. “Porridge is fine.”
Ban . . . Ban . . . ca-ca-Caliban . . .
You know who the real tempest is, don’t you? The real storm? Is our mother Sycorax; his and mine. If you ever see her hair flying around her head when she dash at you in anger; like a whirlwind, like a lightning, like a deadly whirlpool. Wheeling and turning round her scalp like if it ever catch you, it going to drag you in, pull you down, swallow you in pieces. If you ever hear how she gnash her teeth in her head like tiger shark; if you ever hear the crack of her voice or feel the crack of her hand on your backside like a bolt out of thunder, then you would know is where the real storm there.
She tell me say I must call her Scylla, or Charybdis.
Say it don’t make no matter which, for she could never remember one different from the other, but she know one of them is her real name. She say never mind the name most people know her by; is a name some Englishman give her by scraping a feather quill on paper.
White people magic.
Her people magic, for all that she will box you if you ever remind her of that, and flash her blue, blue y’eye-them at you. Lightning braps from out of blue sky. But me and Brother, when she not there, is that Englishman name we call her by.
When she hold you on her breast, you must take care never to relax, never to close your y’eye, for you might wake up with your nose hole-them filling up with the salt sea. Salt sea rushing into your lungs to drown you with her mother love.
Imagine what is like to be the son of that mother.
Now imagine what is like to be the sister of that son, to be sister to that there brother.
There was a time they called porridge “gruel.” A time when you lived in castle moats and fetched beautiful golden balls for beautiful golden girls. When the fetching was a game, and you knew yourself to be lord of the land and the veins of water that ran through it, and you could graciously allow petty kings to build their palaces on the land, in which to raise up their avid young daughters.
Ban . . . ban . . . ca-ca-Caliban . . .
When I was small, I hear that blasted name so plenty that I thought it was me own.
In her bathroom, you find a new toothbrush, still in its plastic package. She was thinking of you, then, of you staying overnight. You smile, mollified. You crack the plastic open, brush your teeth, looking around at the friendly messiness of her bathroom. Cotton, silk and polyester panties hanging on the shower curtain rod to dry, their crotches permanently honey-stained. Three different types of deodorant on the counter, two of them lidless, dried out. A small bottle of perfume oil, open, so that it weeps its sweetness into the air. A fine dusting of baby powder covers everything, its innocent odour making you sneeze.
Someone lives here. Your own apartment—the one you found when you came on land—is as crisp and dull as a hotel room, a stop along the way. Everything is tidy there, except for the waste paper basket in your bedroom, which is crammed with empty pill bottles: marine algae capsules; iodine pills. You remind yourself that you need to buy more, to keep the cravings at bay.
Caliban have a sickness. Is a sickness any of you could get. In him it manifest as a weakness; a weakness for cream. He fancy himself a prince of Africa, a mannish Cleopatra, bathing in mother’s milk. Him believe say it would make him pretty. Him never had mirrors to look in, and with the mother we had, the surface of the sea never calm enough that him could see him face in it. Him would never believe me say that him pretty already. Him fancy if cream would only touch him, if him could only submerge himself entirely in it, it would redeem him.
Me woulda try it too, you know, but me have that feature you find amongst so many brown-skin people; cream make me belly gripe.
Truth to tell, Brother have the same problem, but him would gladly suffer the stomach pangs and the belly-running for the chance to drink in cream, to bathe in cream, to have it dripping off him and running into him mouth. Such a different taste from the bitter salt sea milk of Sycorax.
That beautiful woman making breakfast in her kitchen dives better than you do. You’ve seen her knifing so sharply through waves that you wondered they didn’t bleed in her wake.
You fill the sink, wave your hands through the water. It’s bliss, the way it resists you. You wonder if you have time for a bath. It’s a pity that this isn’t one of those apartment buildings with a pool. You miss swimming.
You wash your face. You pull the plug, watch the water spiral down the drain. It looks wild, like a mother’s mad hair. Then you remember that you have to be cautious around water now, even the tame, caged water of swimming pools and bathrooms. Quickly, you sink the plug back into the mouth of the drain. You must remember; anywhere there’s water, especially rioting water, it can tattle tales to your mother.
Your face feels cool and squeaky now. Your mouth is wild cherry-flavoured from the toothpaste. You’re kissable. You can hear humming from the kitchen, and the scraping of a spoon against a pot. There’s a smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. Island smells. You square your shoulders, put on a smile, walk to the kitchen. Your feet are floppy, reluctant. You wish you could pay attention to what they’re telling you. When they plash around like this, when they slip and slide and don’t want to carry you upright, it’s always been a bad sign. The kisses of golden girls are chancy things. Once, after the touch of other pale lips, you looked into the eyes of a golden girl, one Miranda, and saw yourself reflected back in her moist, breathless stare. In her eyes you were tall, handsome, your shoulders powerful and your jaw square. You carried yourself with the arrogance of a prince. You held a spear in one hand. The spotted, tawny pelt of an animal that had never existed was knotted around your waist. You wore something’s teeth on a string around your neck, and you spoke in grunts, imperious. In her eyes, your bright copper skin was dark and loamy as cocoa. She had sighed and leapt upon you, kissing and biting, begging to be taken. You had let her have what she wanted. When her father stumbled upon the two of you writhing on the ground, she had leapt to her feet and changed you again; called you monster, attacker. She’d clasped her bodice closed with one hand, carefully leaving bare enough pitiful juddering bosom to spark a father’s ire. She’d looked at you regretfully, sobbed crocodile tears, and spoken the lies that had made you her father’s slave for an interminable length of years.
You haven’t seen yourself in this one’s eyes yet. You need her to kiss you, to change you, to hide you from your dam. That’s what you’ve always needed. You are always awed by the ones who can work this magic. You could love one of them forever and a day. You just have to find the right one.
You stay a second in the kitchen doorway. She looks up from where she stands at the little table, briskly setting two different-sized spoons beside two mismatched bowls. She smiles. “Come on in,” she says.
You do, on your slippery feet. You sit to table. She’s still standing. “I’m sorry about that,” she says. She quirks a regretful smile at you. “I don’t think my cold sore is quite healed yet.” She runs a tongue tip over the corner of her lip, where you can no longer see the crusty scab. You sigh. “It’s all right. Forget it.” She goes over to the stove. You don’t pay any attention. You’re staring at the thready crack in your bowl.
She says, “Brown sugar or white?”
“Brown,” you tell her. “And lots of milk.” Your gut gripes at the mere thought, but milk will taint the water in which she cooked the oats. It will cloud the whisperings that water carries to your mother.
Nowadays people would say that me and my mooncalf brother, we is “lactose intolerant.” But me think say them mis-name the thing. Me think say is milk can’t tolerate we, not we can’t tolerate it.
So; he find himself another creamy one. Just watch at the two of them there, in that pretty domestic scene.
I enter, invisible.
Brother eat off most of him porridge already. Him always had a large appetite. The white lady, she only passa-passa-ing with hers, dipping the spoon in, tasting little bit, turning the spoon over and watching at it, dipping it in. She glance at him and say, “Would you like to go to the beach today?”
“No!” You almost shout it. You’re not going to the beach, not to any large body of water, ever again. Your very cells keen from the loss of it, but She is in the water, looking for you.
“A-true. Mummy in the water, and I in the wind, Brother,” I whisper to him, so sweet. By my choice, him never hear me yet. Don’t want him to know that me find him. Plenty time for that. Plenty time to fly and carry the news to Mama. Maybe I can find a way to be free if I do this one last thing for her. Bring her beloved son back. Is him she want, not me. Never me. “Ban, ban, ca-ca-Caliban!” I scream in him face, silently.
“There’s no need to shout,” she says with an offended look. “That’s where we first saw each other, and you swam so strongly. You were beautiful in the water. So I just thought you might like to go back there.”
You had been swimming for your life, but she didn’t know that. The surf tossing you crashing against the rocks, the undertow pulling you back in deeper, the waves singing their triumphant song: She’s coming. Sycorax is coming for you. Can you feel the tips of her tentacles now? Can you feel them sticking to your skin, bringing you back? She’s coming. We’ve got you now. We’ll hold you for her. Oh, there’ll be so much fun when she has you again!
And you had hit out at the water, stroked through it, kicked through it, fleeing for shore. One desperate pull of your arms had taken you through foaming surf. You crashed into another body, heard a surprised, “Oh,” and then a wave tumbled you. As you fought in its depths, searching for the air and dry land, you saw her, this woman, slim as an eel, her body parting the water, her hair glowing golden. She’d extended a hand to you, like reaching for a bobbing ball. You took her hand, held on tightly to the warmth of it. She stood, and you stood, and you realised you’d been only feet from shore. “Are you all right?” she’d asked.
The water had tried to suck you back in, but it was only at thigh height now. You ignored it. You kept hold of her hand, started moving with her, your saviour, to the land. You felt your heart swelling. She was perfect. “I’m doing just fine,” you’d said. “I’m sorry I startled you. What’s your name?”
Behind you, you could hear the surf shouting for you to come back. But the sun was warm on your shoulders now, and you knew that you’d stay on land. As you came up out of the water, she glanced at you and smiled, and you could feel the change begin.
She’s sitting at her table, still with that hurt look on her face.
“I’m sorry, darling,” you say, and she brightens at the endearment, the first you’ve used with her. Under the table, your feet are trying to paddle away, away. You ignore them. “Why don’t we go for a walk?” you ask her. She smiles, nods. The many plaits of her hair sway with the rhythm. You must ask her not to wear her hair like that. Once you know her a little better. They look like tentacles. Besides, her hair’s so pale that her pink scalp shows through.
Chuh. I’m sorry, darling. Him is sorry, is true. A sorry sight. I follow them out on them little walk, them Sunday perambulation. Down her street and round the corner into the district where the trendy people-them live. Where you find those cunning little shops, you know the kind, yes? Wild flowers selling at this one, half your wages for one so-so blossom. Cheeses from Greece at that one, and wine from Algiers. (Mama S. say she don’t miss Algiers one bit.) Tropical fruit selling at another store, imported from the Indies, from the hot sun places where people work them finger to the bone to pick them and box them and send them, but not to eat them. Brother and him new woman meander through those streets, making sure people look at them good. She turn her moon face to him, give him that fuck-me look, and take him hand. I see him melt. Going to be easy for her to change him now that she melt him. And then him will be gone from we again. I blow a grieving breeze oo-oo-oo through the leaves of the crab apple trees lining that street.
She looks around, her face bright and open. “Such a lovely day,” she says. “Feel the air on your skin.” She releases your hand. The sweat of your mingled touch evaporates and you mourn its passing. She opens her arms to the sun, drinking in light.
Of course, that white man, him only write down part of the story. Him say how our mother was a witch. How she did consort with monsters. But you know the real story? You know why them exile her from Algiers, with a baby in her belly and one at her breast?
She spins and laughs, her print dress opening like a flower above her scuffed army boots. Her strong legs are revealed to mid-thigh.
Them send my mother from her home because of the monster she consort with. The lord with sable eyes and skin like rich earth. My daddy.
An old man sitting on a bench smiles, indulgent at her joy, but then he sees her reach for your hand again. He scowls at you, spits to one side.
My daddy. A man who went for a swim one day, down, down, down, and when he see the fair maid flowing towards him, her long hair just a-swirl like weeds in the water, her skin like milk, him never ’fraid.
As you both pass the old man, he shakes his head, his face clenched. She doesn’t seem to notice. You hold her hand tighter, reach to pull her warmth closer to you. But eventually you’re going down, and you know it.
When my mother who wasn’t my mother yet approach the man who wasn’t my father yet, when she ask him, “Man, you eat salt, or you eat fresh?” him did know what fe say. Of course him did know. After his tutors teach him courtly ways from since he was small. After his father teach him how to woo. After his own mother teach him how to address the Wata Lady with respect. Sycorax ask him, “Man, you eat salt, or you eat fresh?”
And proper proper, him respond, “Me prefer the taste of salt, thank you please.”
That was the right answer. For them that does eat fresh, them going to be fresh with your business. But this man show her that he know how fe have respect. For that, she give him breath and take him down, she take him down even farther.
You pass another beautiful golden girl, luxuriantly blonde. She glances at you, casts her eyes down demurely, where they just happen to rest at your crotch. You feel her burgeoning gaze there, your helpless response. Quickly you lean and kiss the shoulder of the woman you’re with. The other one’s look turns to resentful longing. You hurry on.
She take him down into her own castle, and she feed him the salt foods she keep in there, the fish and oysters and clams, and him eat of them till him belly full, and him talk to her sweet, and him never get fresh with her. Not even one time. Not until she ask him to. Mama wouldn’t tell me what happen after that, but true she have two pickney, and both of we shine copper, even though she is alabaster, so me think me know is what went on.
There’s a young black woman sitting on a bench, her hair tight peppercorns against her scalp. Her feet are crossed beneath her. She’s alone, reading a book. She’s pretty, but she looks too much like your sister. Too brown to ever be a golden girl. She looks up as you go by, distracted from her reading by the chattering of the woman beside you. She looks at you. Smiles. Nods a greeting. Burning up with guilt, you make your face stone. You move on.
In my mother and father, salt meet with sweet. Milk meet with chocolate. No one could touch her while he was alive and ruler of his lands, but the minute him dead, her family and his get together and exile her to that little island to starve to death. Send her away with two sweet-and-sour, milk chocolate pickney; me in her belly and Caliban at her breast. Is nuh that turn her bitter? When you confine the sea, it don’t stagnate? You put milk to stand, and it nuh curdle?
Chuh. Watch at my brother there, making himself fool-fool. Is time. Time to end this, to take him back down. “Mama,” I whisper. I blow one puff of wind, then another. The puffs tear a balloon out from a little girl’s hand. The balloon have a fish painted on it. I like that. The little girl cry out and run after her toy. Her father dash after her. I puff and blow, make the little metallic balloon skitter just out of the child reach. As she run, she knock over a case of fancy bottled water, the expensive fizzy kind in blue glass bottles, from a display. The bottles explode when them hit the ground, the water escaping with a shout of glee. The little girl just dance out the way of broken glass and spilled water and keep running for her balloon, reaching for it. I make it bob like a bubble in the air. Her daddy jump to one side, away from the glass. He try to snatch the back of her dress, but he too big and slow. Caliban step forward and grasp her balloon by the string. He give it back to her. She look at him, her y’eye-them big. She clutch the balloon to her bosom and smile at her daddy as he sweep her up into him arms. The storekeeper just a-wait outside her shop, to talk to the man about who going to refund her goods.
“Mother,” I call. “Him is here. I find him.”
The water from out the bottles start to flow together in a spiral.
You hear her first in the dancing breeze that’s toying with that little girl’s balloon. You fetch the balloon for the child before you deal with what’s coming. Her father mumbles a suspicious thanks at you. You step away from them. You narrow your eyes, look around. “You’re here, aren’t you?” you say to the air.
“Who’s here?” asks the woman at your side.
“My sister,” you tell her. You say “sister” like you’re spitting out spoiled milk.
“I don’t see anyone,” the woman says.
“El!” you call out.
I don’t pay him no mind. I summon up one of them hot, gusty winds. I blow over glasses of water on café tables. I grab popsicles swips! from out the hands and mouths of children. The popsicles fall down and melt, all the bright colours; melt and run like that brother of mine.
Popsicle juice, café table water, spring water that break free from bottles; them all rolling together now, crashing and splashing and calling to our mother. I sing up the whirling devils. Them twirl sand into everybody eyes. Hats and baseball caps flying off heads, dancing along with me. An umbrella galloping down the road, end over end, with an old lady chasing it. All the trendy Sunday people squealing and running everywhere.
“Ariel, stop it!” you say.
So I run up his girlfriend skirt, make it fly high in the air. “Oh!” she cry out, trying to hold the frock down. She wearing a panty with a tear in one leg and a knot in the waistband. That make me laugh out loud. “Mama!” I shout, loud so Brother can hear me this time. “You seeing this? Look him here so!” I blow one rassclaat cluster of rain clouds over the scene, them bellies black and heavy with water. “So me see that you get a new master!” I screech at Brother.
The street is empty now, but for the three of you. Everyone else has found shelter. Your girl is cowering down beside the trunk of a tree, hugging her skirt about her knees. Her hair has come loose from most of its plaits, is whipping in a tangled mess about her head. She’s shielding her face from blowing sand, but trying to look up at the sky above her, where this attack is coming from. You punch at the air, furious. You know you can’t hurt your sister, but you need to lash out anyway. “Fuck you!” you yell. “You always do this! Why can’t the two of you leave me alone!”
I chuckle. “Your face favour jackass when him sick. Why you can’t leave white woman alone? You don’t see what them do to you?”
“You are our mother’s creature,” you hiss at her. “Look at you, trying so hard to be ‘island,’ talking like you just come off the boat.” In your anger, your speech slips into the same rhythms as hers.
“At least me nah try fe chat like something out of some Englishman book.” I make the wind howl it back at him: “At least me remember is which boat me come off from!” I burst open the clouds overhead and drench the two of them in mother water. She squeals. Good.
“Ariel, Caliban; stop that squabbling, or I’ll bind you both up in a split tree forever.” The voice is a wintry runnel, fast-freezing.
You both turn. Your sister has manifested, has pushed a trembling bottom lip out. Dread runs cold along your limbs. It’s Sycorax. “Yes, Mother,” you both say, standing sheepishly shoulder to shoulder. “Sorry, Mother.”
Sycorax is sitting in a sticky puddle of water and melted popsicles, but a queen on her throne could not be more regal. She has wrapped an ocean wave about her like a shawl. Her eyes are open-water blue. Her writhing hair foams white over her shoulders and the marble swells of her vast breasts. Her belly is a mounded salt lick, rising from the weedy tangle of her pubic hair, a marine jungle in and out of which flit tiny blennies. The tsunami of Sycorax’s hips overflows her watery seat. Her myriad split tails are flicking, the way they do when she’s irritated. With one of them, she scratches around her navel. You think you can see the sullen head of a moray eel, lurking in the cave those hydra tails make. You don’t want to think about it. You never have.
“Ariel,” says Sycorax, “have you been up to your tricks again?”
“But he,” splutters your sister, “he . . .”
“He never ceases with his tricks,” your mother pronounces. “Running home to Mama, leaving me with the mess he’s made.” She looks at you, and your watery legs weaken. “Caliban,” she says, “I’m getting too old to play surrogate mother to your spawn. That last school of your offspring all had poisonous stings.”
“I know, Mother. I’m sorry.”
“How did that happen?” she asks.
You risk a glance at the woman you’ve dragged into this, the golden girl. She’s standing now, a look of interest and curiosity on her face. “This is all your fault,” you say to her. “If you had kissed me, told me what you wanted me to be, she and Ariel couldn’t have found us.”
Your girl looks at you, measuring. “First tell me about the poison babies,” she says. She’s got more iron in her than you’d thought, this one. The last fairy tale princess who’d met your family hadn’t stopped screaming for two days.
Ariel sniggers. “That was from his last ooman,” she says. “The two of them always quarrelling. For her, Caliban had a poison tongue.”
“And spat out biting words, no doubt,” Sycorax says. “He became what she saw, and it affected the children they made. Of course she didn’t want them, of course she left; so Grannie gets to do the honours. He has brought me frog children and dog children, baby mack daddies and crack babies. Brings his offspring to me, then runs away again. And I’m getting tired of it.” Sycorax’s shawl whirls itself up into a waterspout. “And I’m more than tired of his sister’s tale tattling.”
“But Mama. . . !” Ariel says.
“‘But Mama’ nothing. I want you to stop pestering your brother.”
Ariel puffs up till it looks as though she might burst. Her face goes anvil-cloud dark, but she says nothing.
“And you,” says Sycorax, pointing at you with a suckered tentacle, “you need to stop bringing me the fallouts from your sorry love life.”
“I can’t help it, Mama,” you say. “That’s how women see me.”
Sycorax towers forward, her voice crashing upon your ears. “Do you want to know how I see you?” A cluster of her tentacle tails whips around your shoulders, immobilizes you. That is a moray eel under there, its fanged mouth hanging hungrily open. You are frozen in Sycorax’s gaze, a hapless, irresponsible little boy. You feel the sickening metamorphosis begin. You are changing, shrinking. The last time Sycorax did this to you, it took you forever to become man enough again to escape. You try to twist in her arms, to look away from her eyes. She pulls you forward, puckering her mouth for the kiss she will give you.
“Well, yeah, I’m beginning to get a picture here,” says a voice. It’s the golden girl, shivering in her flower-print dress that’s plastered to her skinny body. She steps closer. Her boots squelch. She points at Ariel. “You say he’s colour-struck. You’re his sister, you should know. And yeah, I can see that in him. You’d think I was the sun itself, the way he looks at me.”
She takes your face in her hands, turns your eyes away from your mother’s. Finally, she kisses you full on the mouth. In her eyes, you become a sunflower, helplessly turning wherever she goes. You stand rooted, waiting for her direction.
She looks at your terrible mother. “You get to clean up the messes he makes.” And now you’re a baby, soiling your diapers and waiting for Mama to come and fix it. Oh, please, end this.
She looks down at you, wriggling and helpless on the ground. “And I guess all those other women saw big, black dick.”
So familiar, the change that wreaks on you. You’re an adult again, heavy-muscled and horny with a thick, swelling erection. You reach for her. She backs away. “But,” she says, “there’s one thing I don’t see.”
You don’t care. She smells like vanilla and her skin is smooth and cool as ice cream and you want to push your tongue inside. You grab her thin, unresisting arms. She’s shaking, but she looks into your eyes. And hers are empty. You aren’t there. Shocked, you let her go. In a trembling voice, she says, “Who do you think you are?”
It could be an accusation: Who do you think you are? It might be a question: Who do you think you are? You search her face for the answer. Nothing. You look to your mother, your sib. They both look as shocked as you feel.
“Look,” says the golden girl, opening her hands wide. Her voice is getting less shaky. “Clearly, this is family business, and I know better than to mess with that.” She gathers her little picky plaits together, squeezes water out of them. ”It’s been really . . . interesting, meeting you all.” She looks at you, and her eyes are empty, open, friendly. You don’t know what to make of them. “Um,” she says, “maybe you can give me a call sometime.” She starts walking away. Turns back. “It’s not a brush-off; I mean it. But only call when you can tell me who you really are. Who you think you’re going to become.”
And she leaves you standing there. In the silence, there’s only a faint sound of whispering water and wind in the trees. You turn to look at your mother and sister. “I,” you say.
Spread the word!