by Dave Gregory
Bamboo keeps them afloat. Fifteen giant brown stems, wide as a fist and long as a bus, are tied together to form a narrow raft that drifts down Jamaica’s gentle and serene Martha Brae River. Thick vegetation grows along each bank and reaches high overhead, forming a canopy that encloses the river and casts dappled shade across dark green water.
Bob and Connie—mid-thirties and lovers for five long years—sit pressed together on a red cushioned seat with a padded backrest. Ernesto, their guide, says, ‘Some believe Martha Brae is a corruption of the Spanish name for this river, Mateberion, but Martha Brae was as real as you and I.’ Ernesto is tall and gaunt. Gray hair speckles his close-cropped afro. He holds a much thinner bamboo pole and punts the craft with little effort, barely increasing their speed. Water seeps through the slats between the bamboo when his weight shifts. His dark, bare feet are wet and shiny.
‘She was a Taino witch,’ Ernesto continues, ‘a powerful woman, captured by the Spanish and tortured mercilessly, with sharpened bamboo sticks, until she revealed the location of a cave filled with the island’s gold. Once her tormentors found the entrance, Martha Brae vanished and diverted the river. A torrent of water rushed in, drowning each and every Spaniard. Silt and mud sealed the cave, forever.’
‘Has the gold ever been found?’ Gold interests Connie. Diamonds too. A large expense recently appeared on Bob’s credit card statement, which she wasn’t meant to see. It made her think Bob bought a ring and planned to propose. At last.
‘They’re finding it now. Not in caves, though, and not Spaniards. Canadians are mining most of it.’
‘I had no idea,’ Bob confesses, wiping sweat from his upper lip, looking guilty. There is snow on the ground back home.
Ernesto indicates a great blue heron standing in the shallows on the opposite bank. Connie holds her breath as Bob leans across and raises his phone to take a picture.
When Bob sits back, he asks, ‘Why is that kid wading into the river?’
‘That’s a proud young entrepreneur. If you’re thirsty, he has all you need: water, cola, rum.’
A large cooler, gym mat blue with a thick white lid, floats on the river, tied with a short twine leash to the skinny boy’s shirtless waist. His hair is shorn to the scalp.
Bob smiles at Connie. ‘Can’t visit Jamaica and not sample the rum.’ Last night at dinner, he said the same thing about Red Stripe beer.
The raft drifts closer and the young man opens the cooler, creating tiny waves on the river’s smooth surface. Among many glimmering bottles and cans, Bob is pleased to see Appleton Estate Signature Blend, with its friendly “Crafted in the Heart of Jamaica” slogan spelled out above the cascading Blue Mountains and orderly, green sugarcane rows.
Bob pulls a bill from his pocket. ‘Twenty for the rum?’
The vendor nods. Bob regrets not opening with a lower bid.
The raft glides so slowly the boy only needs to shift his feet sideways, twice, to stay within reach during the transaction. Bob sits back, cracks the cap, closes his eyes, and inhales fermented sugar. He offers Connie the first swig.
Her eyes widen when she swallows. She blows hard, then fans her open mouth. ‘Whoa. It burns.’
‘Inhale first and don’t exhale until it’s down. You’ll taste it better that way.’ Bob takes a long, slow drink and enjoys the sweet sting in his mouth and throat. His sweating grows more intense. ‘Can life get any better than this?’ He leans back and looks up. ‘It’s like we’re floating through a tunnel.’
Connie agrees. ‘A peaceful, living tunnel. So romantic. Just birds, fish, and us.’
‘And locals catering to our every need.’ Bob takes another swig before nimbly replacing the metal cap.
Ernesto names the flora as they cruise. ‘Agave. Arrowroot. Plantain.’ His words are poetry. ‘Ackee. Lobster claw heliconia. Breadfruit.’ Bob and Connie confidently follow wherever Ernesto points. ‘Ironwood. Mahogany. Nutmeg.’
‘Where’s the coffee?’ Connie asks.
‘Up in the mountains,’ Ernesto motions behind them.
Connie turns but sees only the leafy green canopy, with hints of blue sky beyond.
‘Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?’ Bob asks.
‘Absolutely. Great choice picking this tour, dear.’ Her heart raced when he’d first shown her the brochure. ATVs and ziplining were more his style but Connie recognized an ideal setting for a proposal. Now here she is. She playfully touches Bob’s knee and feeds him an opening, ‘I’ll always remember this.’
He wipes sweat from his brow in silence.
She waits, then looks away and says anything to fill the void. ‘Glad to be clear of all that haggling.’
He laughs. ‘Bartering is a sport I enjoy. The initial price is always ten times an item’s worth. Vendors will lower the amount as much as two-thirds or three-quarters for something you absolutely don’t want.’
Though Bob relishes an intense negotiation, after two days in Jamaica he already regrets buying a bongo, a wooden whistle, a coconut shell carved like a bird, and two knitted reggae hats with long, black, imitation dreadlocks sewn into the rim.
He unscrews the cap, takes another swig, and hands the bottle to Connie. ‘Could you imagine living here and seeing this view every day?’
‘What would we do for work?’
Bob turns toward the boy but the winding river shields him from view. ‘Sell rum to passing tourists.’ He smiles at the idea. Sweat pours down his forehead and drips off his chin. He raises his arm and wipes with his sleeve. Across his belly, perspiration leaks through gray fabric. The dark pattern slowly expands.
‘Sawgrass,’ Ernesto adds. ‘That orangey-red shock of color, a short-ways inland, is the flamboyant tree—or royal poinciana.’
‘Royal poinciana,’ Connie repeats, enjoying the taste of the sound.
A break appears in the thick vegetation, where a dirt slope leads to the water’s edge. Several ropes are tied between pairs of tall palm trees. Colorful towels and t-shirts hang on each line. Rays of sunlight play upon cascading bright purples, regal yellows, and macaw blues. A local woman, missing several teeth, wades into the water. ‘Good price,’ she says. ‘Whatchu wan?’
Bob turns to Connie after taking more photos. ‘Magic and beauty are everywhere in this world but don’t they seem more concentrated here? Imagine how many memorable moments in our lives this little cruise is surpassing.’
Her eyes narrow, then flicker with hope. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Like…graduation. Mine was outdoors, in summer. I’ll never forget the bright sun that day, shimmering on the green lawn. But right now, we’re surrounded by a thousand shades of green. This experience easily beats that.’
Connie taps her chin with an index finger and considers. ‘For me, more meaningful than graduation was the night I defended my thesis. My roommates and I celebrated at the local pub. The patio was around back, lit with a dozen hanging white lanterns. We ordered margaritas. Then the power went out. It happened now and then in the student ghetto. I looked up and saw stars, brighter than I could ever remember.’
‘Lovely. And this moment, right now—is this better than that?’
She kisses him and says, ‘Yes,’ hoping he’s building up to something. It sounds like he’s building up to something. There’s a jewelry-box-shaped lump in the pocket of his baggy, burgundy shorts. She prays it isn’t another tacky souvenir. She notes the charge and signal strength on her phone, in case she needs to call her mother.
‘Visiting Niagara Falls and the view from the Skylon Tower. Feeding swans along the river in Stratford. Ted and Joni’s wedding at the botanical garden. This beats them all.’ Bob takes the bottle from Connie and has another sip. His fingers fumble but he manages to replace the cap.
She continues the thread. ‘Kite flying at Newport. The day I toured San Simeon…’
‘Once, in a lakeside cottage near Pembroke, we awoke to the call of loons on the water. Only time I ever saw them.’
Connie’s shoulders slump. She stares at the river’s impenetrable emerald surface and asks, ‘We?’
He looks away. ‘I was with Jacey, then. I told you about her.’ He removes the cap and slurps another drink.
‘Funny you should mention her, now.’
‘I didn’t exactly mention her and, besides, this is better than that. Being next to you,’ he clutches her wrist, ‘holding your hand right now. This is better than any moment I spent with her. That’s what I was saying.’
Connie reaches for the bottle and rinses away one bad taste with another.
‘Meanwhile,’ Bob says, louder than necessary, ‘I’m waiting for you to say this moment is better than your wedding.’
Her eyes roll. ‘Elgin and I got married in his mother’s backyard in Albany, beneath a magnolia tree that had bloomed one week too early. Rotting pink petals littered the ground. It doesn’t even rate as a beautiful moment. You and I have already been dating twice as long as that marriage lasted.’
In silence, Connie hands the bottle to Bob. He releases her wrist, sips more rum.
‘This tree is the soursop.’ Ernesto draws close enough to tap the spiny fruit with his bamboo pole. ‘We’ll soon pass an old plantation cemetery. Don’t be alarmed by grim headstones.’
Wild vegetation along the riverbank thins, then ends. Farmland encroaches. The bamboo raft emerges into hot sunshine. A small stream trickles into the river and tints the water brown. At the cemetery, a woman with graying, braided hair and a marigold orange, full-length dress, kneels before a thin gravestone, its inscription worn, almost invisible. She rises, using a gnarled wooden stick as a crutch, and turns toward the bamboo raft. Her dark face remains inscrutable, until she gives her head a dismissive shake.
Connie feels rebuked.
Bob struggles to reseal the bottle. On his fourth try, the cap hits the rim and slips from his hand. It rolls off his knee and tinkles as it bounces from one bamboo stalk to another, before splashing into the water. It lands upside down and floats away, behind them. Connie admires the brazen escape.
‘Now we gotta finish this.’ He holds the half-empty bottle at arm’s length, jiggles it, and squints. ‘I accept the challenge.’
Connie smiles but knows Bob will fall asleep on the bus back to the hotel. There will be no proposal today. She’ll spend half the night holding his head above the toilet. Tomorrow he’ll lounge by the crowded pool, in a sun-bleached beach chair, repeating, ‘Hair of the dog,’ every time he sips his beverage.
She looks at the Appleton label. Weeks ago, while planning this vacation, Connie’s Jamaican neighbor told her about poisonous snakes roaming the cane fields. Did she call them fer-de-lance or auto-da-fé? Connie tries to remember. Her friend described crops being set aflame before each harvest, to frighten snakes away. Charred stalks remained, filled with molasses and cane juice. Dry, burning leaves rose in the heat, turned to ash, and traveled for miles on the breeze, before falling like ribbon, in long, black strands.
Connie pictures ominous, melancholy shards dropping from the sky, blanketing the sultry, humid landscape. She looks at Bob and replays the scene of that black bottle cap rolling over his knee. His too-slow fingers. The soft clink against bamboo. One leap, then another, straining toward the edge. Her vision blurs. The cap morphs into a golden ring. The glint from a sunbeam recalls a diamond solitaire.
The tiny splash of metal meeting water brings Connie relief. She wishes the bottle cap would sink but it floats like a bad memory, moving faster than the raft—which is impossible, unless Martha Brae is diverting the river again.
Connie glances at Bob’s sweating and indifferent face, then looks back at the bottle cap, a tiny dot on the surface, near the riverbank, in the shadow of the woman in orange, who hasn’t moved. The rum cap no longer represents an engagement ring but her own desperate freedom, swimming ashore. She presses her temple to hold the memory in, hoping that tomorrow, in the clear, cool morning, she’ll remember the river goddess’ unequivocal sign.
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer, a retired sailor, and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles-based literary journal Five South. His work has most recently appeared in Orange Blossom Review, Firewords and Bright Flash Literary Review. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.