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Archipelago

By Sue William Silverman

When I was thirteen, my family and I left our home in the West Indies. On the day of our departure I plucked a red hibiscus, putting it in the pocket of my French madras skirt. I lagged behind my family as we walked from the tin-hangar airport, crossed the tarmac, and climbed into the small, sweltering cabin of the Caribair plane.

I didnít want to leave.

Even though Iíd been young, just six, when we originally moved here from the States, it was as if my skin, itself, still remembered the chill of asphalt-gray mornings, frigid hands and feet. All winter bleak trees longed for green. I longed. Static, suspended in ice, we waited to finally melt into summer.

Only here, on my island of mimosa-scented charms, sun-drenched amulets, I felt transfigured into endless days of warmth.

But the move was decided. My sister, now in high school, was too old to attend the Antilles School. She would have to continue her education in the States. My father, a banker, had a new position outside New York City.

After liftoff, I pressed my forehead against the window. I seemed to see all of my Caribbean life far below, in one glance, as we arced toward the horizon. For years, Iíd ridden my donkey up/down volcanic mountains, hooves clip-clopping Calypso rhythms. Our cook, Sylvanita, twisted the necks of chickens, voodooing them into dinner. I slept frothed in a mosquito net, stars and moon bluing the reflected viridian sea. I waded into dolphined waves, seaweed haloing my hair.

Now, the airplane itself seemed gusted by trade winds, propellers spinning like silver doubloons through an operatic sunset--a chorus of ibis, bananaquits, blue-crowned euphonias. The sky was a blizzard of bougainvillea, poinsettias, flamboyants, before birthing an emerald-drop dusk, staining fields of sugarcane. Wanting to carry all of my green memories with me, I took a deep breath and strapped my seat belt tighter across my stomach. I wanted to contain each ginger flower, each blade of fever grass. If only my suntanned skin would last all year long. Enough color, enough warmth...enough to last.

~~~

We landed a few hours later, like magic, at Idlewild airport. On the way to the hotel, speeding across the city in a sun-yellow taxi cab, I pressed my face to the window. Times Square marquees blazed red and white, like neon frangipani petals, fluttering. Skyscrapers soared high as West Indian mountains. The Marlboro man, tanned golden as a pirate, puffed halos of smoke-- almost like my breath, gently fogging the window. Rising above Riverside Drive, Yale Truck tires spun billboard lights, around and around, as our taxi crossed diamond-studded suspension, bridging water frozen by alchemy. Snowy clouds mystically caped stars and planets.

Later, when we left the hotel, my new penny loafers struck steel drum percussion on city streets. At Horn & Hardart, dinner was conjured behind little glass windows--an apparition right here at 182 Broadway. Roast chicken, seaweedy spinach, banana cream pie. Rich island-bean coffee poured from dolphin-head spouts. Here, a fistful of silver coins bought paradise, warm and perfect. Green and crimson apples glowed as delicious as sunsets.

~~~

All that winter I barely felt the cold. Nor did I sense the waiting, month after month, for summer. Rather, I kept seeing bright tropical afterimages as if I had only, just then, turned my head from the window of that airplane. For years, whenever I was about to touch down in another port on another shoreline--no matter how far inland--I felt as if trade winds reversed, tugging me back. Always, at this moment, I see that long chain of islands I live in still...its outline, its history, its secrets of flaming abundance.


 

Sue William Silverman's first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press), won the Associated Writing Programs Award Series in creative nonfiction and is in its sixth printing. Love Sick (W. W. Norton), her second book, is under development for a Lifetime Television original movie. Silverman's books have been translated into German, Norwegian, Chinese, and Japanese and her poems and short works have appeared in such places as the Louisville Review, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Charleston Review, WordWrights, Nebraska Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Redbook, The Writerís Chronicle, Rockhurst Review, Southern Poetry Review, Mid-America Poetry Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Poetry Motel, Potomac Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is associate editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction as well as a faculty member in Vermont Collegeís MFA program.

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