The Illuminations

(fragments from a story)

The people in the village say that amber is best gathered after a storm. You must wait until the waves have calmed and the clouds have cleared the sky. On the island, there isn’t much for us to make money from. There is the coffee and the rum and the plants they trample to make cocaine. The men that arrive from boats once a month at dawn: you see them pull up in the Western Cove and the villagers rush to meet them, their faces hidden with scarves. You can take tourists into the Fairy Caves and maybe they will tip you a handful of silver; or maybe they will steal your soul, down in the dark pool where stalactites drip, every plop echoing on the rock. The Caves are very deep, and no-one will hear your screams.

Mother told me to wait till I was eighteen, and then, she said, I could find a tourist to take me back to the mainland. There will be work there, she said. I can’t do much, but I can paint and draw. I can draw the veins of my wrist, the radiant innards of a jellyfish. I stole my pencils from school and I make paint from the island’s secret spoils: red shellac of insects, green of spirulina, blue of iron oxide, chipped from the walls of a cave. I long to make cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine: the pigments of the sky and sea; crumbled to dust, smoothed to a sheen.

There must be people elsewhere who dream as I do; who see the same colours cast across their sleeping brains. I will leave one day and see. Mother says with luck I will sell my paintings.

***

A day in the blistering fire of July, and Stephen takes me down to the shore – just as the sun is setting. The humidity is a million insects sucking your every pore. Stephen’s touch is misted, dewy; not clammy exactly. When I kiss him he tastes like coconuts, and his eyes glitter the way a bead of oil glitters on your skin. I tell him that soon I will be going far away, and he laughs and says there is a storm coming. I will take off my clothes and run down into the water. We will go, he says, into the Fairy Caves and take shelter till it’s over. Over the mountains behind us a spark of God crackles and there is the grumble of thunder. The sun is melting, melting like a solvent of gold ore, pouring its lifeblood across the sky. I cannot take my eyes off it. I will go there, I whisper to Stephen. The lightning forks and hisses steam upon the ocean, distant and brilliant. He grabs my hand. Colours are running everywhere, but I am not afraid.

We pass the night in the Fairy Caves, our bodies quivering to the sound of the sea hurling up against the sand and stone. Water pours in through the catacombs and the air is thick and dark like treacle. When we are in here we could be anywhere. The candle wax leaves a trail across my bare chest, and every whisper resounds along the walls. If you look up, you see the illuminations that gave the Caves their name. The villagers say they are fairies, but I know the real name for them. You say it with a softness of the tongue: phosphorescence. The lights shift from green to white to blue and you close your eyes and still you see them, shimmering. This flicker, Stephen says, is what it’s like to live in the city. I don’t believe him.

***

In the morning I slip underwater and escape to the fresh cool sky, alone. A new world has settled over the ocean, and the island is born again. I am breathing the same air as the swaying palms exhale.

On the beach I walk along the seaweed and shingle tossed up by the storm. I find a piece of amber, rippled with gold and orange and smoothed by the sands of time. Inside a little insect hangs: trapped, staring out at me with all the knowledge of its eternity. But I will not sell this amber; I fling it back into the water. It doesn’t make a splash, just dissolves into nowhere. I know that one day, too, I will go there. Still and silent and sylvan: I will keep this vision.

(Prompts: amber, underwater)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

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