We’re at the end of our month-long series about Water: The High Price of Cheap. How we take water for granted, don’t want to pay for it, and as a result, can find ourselves without it. Which is, you know… not good.
The poet and novelist Tiffany Yanique has a unique perspective on water. She grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, surrounded by the sea, but on land with very little water to drink. The author of “Land of Love and Drowning,” Yanique tells us what water means to her:
Land of Love and Drowning
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 America 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 rummaker and Owen Arthur had always shipped rum. But with Americanness 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.
Reprinted from Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Tiphanie Yanique.