Our captain has promised us key lime pie made by Eugenia Joe, along with something he calls island delights. He tells us to watch for sapodilla trees, the chewing gum trees, as sapodillas are the tallest trees on the island. And so, from the starboard side of his forty-two foot sailboat named Grace, we scan the horizon for the green leafy tops of the sapodilla trees, and then we see them, along with houses painted turquoise, lime, peach, and rose, small dots of color that appear to float on the water.
And there where the surf breaks upon the white shore, stands Wallace, a very dark man, holding his boat close to his ankles, as he waits in the foam and water. Further back stands a tall woman, the hem of her purple dress flapping about her calves. Five children huddle around her. Even from where we anchor I can see her long arms circling around the children, guiding them, gathering them close as they watch us row to shore in the glass-bottom row boat our captain calls Mercy.
Eugenia and the children meet us at the edge of the water. Eugenia extends a hand as I step out of the boat, step onto the shore of the small island. “Ya, you be soakin’ up some of da sun,” she smiles. Her hand is warm, her grip strong. “You be welcome here,” and she sweeps her arm in a wide arc including the houses and the other people of the island. Her teeth are the whitest I’ve ever seen.
Wallace hugs our captain about the shoulders, and winks at us. “Sure good ting he got you here. I sailed wit him once, but just once,” he grins and slaps our captain on the back. “Come wit me man, I git you some pie and some rum.” He winks again and heads up the beach, his pink-soled feet slapping in the sand. My husband follows them without looking back.
“Ah then, you come wit me,” Eugenia says to me. “I know what da women like. Some onions, a tomato, cabbage. Maybe some cassava. I’ve got some of dat just for you. Come wit me and I’ll show you.”
Eugenia takes my arm and we pad up the beach. She steadies me in the sand, though it is clear she is much older than me. I glance around to get a feel for this place. The drone of a huge generator hums just ahead. From time spent on other islands, I know they run their generators only until 3:00 PM, and leave the late afternoons and evenings quiet. Trumpet-shaped yellow elder flowers blast me with a dizzy scent, exaggerated by the heat. Without looking at me she asks, “And so white woman, where you be born?”
“Wild Rose.” The words tumble out of me. I am out of breath trying to walk through sand that gives way with each step.
Her grip tightens on my arm as I struggle to keep my balance in the shifting sand. “Now dat sounds to me like a very beautiful place to be born.”
“And Eugenia, where were you born?”
“I be born here.”
“You’ve lived here all your life?”
“Yes, white woman, here. I started tending the cassava when I was this many.” She holds up ten fingers. “I have been here eight times that many.”
“You’re eighty years old! Have you ever been off the island?”
“I never even been to dat side.” She points a bony finger, indicating a place past a stand of hog cabbage palms, wild unction, and gumbo limbos also known as the tourist trees because they are always red and peeling. The island is nine miles long and five miles wide.
“Not even to the other side? How come?”
“The beach is here. No one come to dat side. Them who come, come to see us. We are here.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“The water, she bring me all I need of what is not here.”
“So it all comes in on the water?”
“It brought you, and you have your story. Will you tell me your story?”
And so I tell her my story, of where I am from, and what kinds of things I do everyday. I tell her of snow, and red leaves on oak trees, and lilacs in the spring as we, Eugenia, the children, and I stoop to pull up onions and cassava roots. When we are through she shows me how to cook the cassava, keeping them whole. “Don’t let the juice get free, or this can make you sick with poison.”
“These are poisonous?”
“Only if you let the juice run free. These must go together, the root with the milk. We ate them at evening, and we, we are still fine,” she says.
We turn a corner and I see the captain and my husband standing near the row boats. My husband is balancing a key lime pie in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other. I clutch the cloth bag filled with da kind of tings da women like, using it as a counterweight to balance myself as I trip through the sand. Wallace greets me with another wink. “You have what’choo come for?” he smiles and touches the white cloth bag with his dark fingers. He holds my hand as I step into the little boat and take my seat. I wave at Eugenia and the children and they wave back.
As the captain rows toward the sailboat called Grace, I hear Eugenia’s voice float out onto the water, “And once der be a woman who was born under a wild rose, in a land where leaves grow red upon da sturdy oak trees…”