EVERY FRIDAY, AFTER taking tea at four o'clock, St. William Rawle would drive downhill in
his blue Ford Fairlane, dressed in a crushed white suit.
Tall and thin, with a belly gone to pot, he'd flunked
out of Cambridge before the war and had returned to San Carlos to discover that fate had
changed his fortune. A blight had swept the island and the family's coconut wealth was
gone, which meant he had to work. With a high school education and a letter from the
bishop and the commissioner of police, he was appointed headmaster of an all-girls'
school, a position that he kept until a book by Graham Greene convinced him that he was a
man of letters.
Since that revelation, he had published thirty books,
a volume for each year, thirteen novels, six books of verse, nine books of science, a
natural history of the island, a translation of the New Testament in the local dialect and
a primer on etiquette for ladiesall at his own expense.
He had been married four times, all of them to Rebecca
Salan, the daughter of the island's richest Arab merchant, who had died beside him in her
sleep four years ago, in 1971, while he asked the Lord to take him in her place. But to
anyone who offered him condolences, St. William would reply that he was not bereaved,
because Rebecca came to him at night in dreams with answers from the other world.
Every Friday evening at ten to five, St. William would
sit on a folding chair below the statue of Admiral Nelson, face the public buildings that
three-cornered the square and have a drink while shouting: "The leader of this
country is a bloody ignoramus and as such he must resign."
The square had been renamed for him four years ago,
and so it was with deference that the cops would execute their orders to arrest him, a man
descended from the English general who'd seized the island from the Spanish in 1802 and
razed the domed cathedral, erecting in its place a parish church whose spired clock was
mute and arthritic.
On the morning that St. William heard the
brick-and-plaster timepiece chiming for the first time in his life, he sat up in his
postered bed and made a quick decision. For the last eight months his wife had been
appearing in his dreams in army greens, her eyes replaced by watches.
And so it was, at the age of sixty-five, when he
should have been gazing at retirement from public life, that St. William Rawle decided
that history had invited him to start a revolution.
He lived alone in the Metropolitan Hotel, which
everyone still knew as Mt. Pleasanta plantation house on
fifteen hundred blighted acres that hadn't seen a guest in three years. The floor planks
were damp and the rafters draped with spiderwebs and the new extension that created what
was advertised as "modern relaxation by the pool" had all the style and polish
of the Bates Motel.
St. William was not a violent man, but in his soul
there ran a subterranean stream of anger that erupted with orgasm into flood. An early
riding accident had left him sterile. Still, he'd accepted from his wife and many
mistresses a brood of eighteen children. The chief minister was one of themthe only boyand he'd caused St.
William great humiliation.
In a recent address on national radiotelevision would arrive in later yearshe'd
ridiculed St. William's plan to will the old plantation to the people of San Carlos as a
national learning center: a library, a museum, a teachers college and an institute for the
study of Atlantis.
The property had been in St. William's family for a
hundred and fifty years. The chief minister, who was St. William's heir, had plans to use
the land for public housing.
That fucking bastard, thought St. William, standing at
the dresser, whose top was inlaid with mother-of-pearl and littered with old books, enamel
bowls of melted ice and bottles of the finest Royal Standard rum. The last time we built
them housing they were slaves.
By the time the footfalls had arrived outside his
door, he was dressed in a khaki shirt, a baseball cap and knee-length water boots.
From his double holster hung a pair of silver-plated
pistols that had once belonged to his grandfather, and slung across his shoulder was a
bolt-action rifle with a wooden barrel and a clip that held six slugs.
His silver hair was parted and his oval jaw was
radiant with the soft gardenia whiteness of an egg.
As he heard the turning knob, St. William swiveled to
the mirror to appraise himself, resuming his stance to see at the door not his old
long-suffering maid, but a young woman in a calibrated state of semi-dresswhite string bikini loosely tied at the side and an unbuttoned vest
in iridescent Indian silk that stopped just below her bosom and continued to her waist in
a shower of delicate braided fringes hung with colored buttons.
Her hair, which was brown and curly, was parted in the
middle and tied in a pair of poufs. She was holding a bouquet of roses. And in her state
of shock her arm began to fall until the petals brushed the floor.
Her lips were dark and pouty, and below her eyes,
whose lids were rainbow-shadowed in yellow, pink and blue, her long cheekbones resembled
"Get away from here!" St. William shouted in
sancoche. The woman leaped backward, and he slammed the door and flung himself
across the bed, where he pumped his surge of anger till it burst its banks, erupting in a
Over a breakfast of jackfish and pounded plantains in
a little room beside the kitchen, Estrella told St. William that the woman was a paying
guest who had arrived the night before, an American with a New York address who was the
lover of the man who had arrived at dawn that morning, hours after he had been expected.
The man was short and slim, described Estrella, and
judging from his face and arms possessed a body that was tightly muscled. His hair
resembled an explosion, and his voice was keen in pitch and edged with danger like a file
against the blade of a machete.
The woman's arrival, Estrella gathered, was not in
fact a rendezvous. It was an ambush, a surprise, for her voice had been timid when she
requested to be notified the minute that the man called down for breakfast, her intention
being, Estrella thought, to present him with something more delectable than bread.
"So why did she come to my room?" St. William
asked as the clock began to strike again.
Estrella raised her brow to indicate that she was
wounded still by choices she had made in the vertigo of youth, and muttered: "Like
every other woman who has ever made that trip, she made a grave mistake."
That day, St. William kept watch through his window,
which overlooked the pool, a palm-shaded puddle in a square inscribed by the back of the
house and three wings of concrete extensionsrow upon row of brown doors and glass
jalousies and redwood railings stained black with rot and water.
How many revolutionaries, he asked himself, had been
faced with such a monumental choice? If Toussaint had been faced with a woman such as
this, would Haiti be French today?
The Spanish influence in San Carlos ran deeper than
its name. Sancoche was based on Castilian. Old men still foraged for love songs
between the wires of the cuatro; and Carlitos of all ages kept an almost sanctimonious
faith in the virtues of siesta.
But at two o'clock, after using the pealing bell to
mark the terraced descent to the hour of sleep, St. William did not go to bed. If he did,
he knew, he would dream of Rebecca, who would admonish him for ignoring the call of duty.
And disobeying her, the only person who had ever believed in his greatness, would be a
monumental act of treason, surpassing in vileness the affair he had pursued with her
goddaughter, a teenaged seductress who would entertain him by raising her tunic above her
breasts, crossing her ankles behind her head and performing tricks of ventriloquy with the
lips of her vagina.
At two-thirty, just as St. William's lids began to
droop from habit, the woman appeared on a balcony, dressed in a full-length caftan whose
neck and cuffs were trimmed in gold. Her hair was no longer in poufs, but had resumed what
he assumed to have been its natural form, a style that he knew as a makeba.
She glanced over her shoulder and slammed the door and
tipped up on her platform clogs and slapped it with her palm, shooting a remark whose
answer was a burst of automatic laughter.
By the pool, she spread a towel on a slatted chaise
beneath a palm and lay without moving. To observe her more closely, St. William watched
through his binoculars, holding his breath as she withdrew her head and arms into the
caftan, reappearing in a bathing suit whose color matched her skin, the evenness evoking
foreknowledge of her body in the nude. On her inner thigh there was a mole that made him
marvel. It was black and slightly raised, and in its center was a single copper hair.
The way the shadows striped her, the wooden slats that
pressed into her flesh, the suggestion of her ribs through the fabric like gills, St.
William felt the hunger rise inside him, and he wanted to consume her like a fish.
As he thought of this he heard a rusty hinge and
changed his view and saw the man emerging through the door. He was wearing jeans with
bell-bottoms and, when he raised his foot against the wooden rail, St. William saw a pair
of zippered boots.
He was shirtless. In his mouth there was a conical
extravagance of what St. William's hairy nostrils told him was imported marijuana; and he
was holding a guitar, which he carried by the neck, slackly but with need, like a drunkard
holds a bottle.
"Baby," the man commanded.
The woman did not reply. The man chuckled and
disappeared inside the room, returning with a vase of roses.
"Baby," the man called out again.
The woman did not answer, and the man began to toss
the blooms. As one hit the water he would toss the next. When the vase was empty he
disappeared inside the room, leaving the door ajar.
When the clock struck three, St. William vowed to take
bold action. He would send a note with Estrella. If the woman did not reply in his favor
he would commence his revolution. If she did, he wasn't sure what he would do.
He invited her for tea at four o'clock. And when he
arrived downstairs in the drawing room, she was sitting on a hassock trimmed in chintz
beside a window whose translucent curtains softened the Antillean light.
Out of habit St. William was dressed in a crushed
white suit. His shirt was blue to match his eyes. And he walked with a silver-handled cane
that he did not need but which he carried, in case she was the kind of woman whose
passions would disguise themselves as sorrow.
"Good day," he said as he stepped off the
mahogany stairs onto a Chinese rug. "Welcome to the owner's tea at the Metropolitan
Hotel. It is a long tradition here for us to cater to our guests, especially those that
bring to mind the exquisite beauty of our local flora."
"I'm sorry for our rendezvous this morning."
Her smile, which on one side was clamped with a
sarcastic tuck, was otherwise open and persuasive in a way that implied that he had been
given accidental insight to her erotic mysteries, which were deep and dark and usually
accessible only to those on the verge of undertaking a journey through the constricted
passage that released the soul into the light.
"My name is St. William Rawle," he said in
courtly manner, sweeping his hand to invite her to the table, which was set with dull
silver and chipped porcelain and baskets of freshly baked scones.
"Felicia Morris," the woman said, passing
her hand along her flanks before sitting down to prevent her dress from creasing.
"Have you been to the Caribbean before?"
"Yes," she replied. "Many times."
"And what brings you to San Carlos?"
"To be with a man who doesn't want me."
That isn't true, St. William thought. Such a man, I'm
sure, does not exist.
He inhaled deeply as he had often coached young
actors, and hoisted his chin, staring at her down his nose in a way that he believed
communicated power. And as he appraised her, the cup dangling halfway between the table
and her lips, she whispered that his nostrils were clumped with boogers.
"My goodness," she exclaimed. "How can
you breathe?" Before St. William could recover from the shock of her response, she
was standing by his side with her elbows on the table, pressing his nose into a napkin and
coaxing him to blow. As if summoned by the honking, Estrella entered the room. "I am
fine," St. William grunted.
"You won't be when you hear this. Do you know why
the bell has been ringing all day?" she asked in sancoche, sparing the guest
from experiencing an anxious moment. "A band of idiots from Black Well tried to start
a revolution. They used the bell as a sign. What kind of idiot would try that in San
Carlos?" She raised her arms and showed her palms, which splattered on her thighs.
"They tried to take over the radio station, I heard, but the police cornered them and
they surrendered. I hope they get some licks with the pistle for their work."
"At least." St. William sighed; they had a
"What's the matter?" Felicia asked, as
Estrella left the room.
"Some fools tried to take over the country. But don't
worry. They caught them. There is no excitement. All is well."
"And you were their fearless leader?" she
She brought her elbows to the table and cupped her
face. The tucked-in smile appeared again, and with her face framed by her hands, St.
William looked anew and saw the freckles sprinkled on her nose, which brought to mind the
memory of the mole, which he began to think of as a scar remaining from the scorch of his
"Your friend," he asked to change the
subject, "what does he do?"
"He is a singer."
She told him the name, but he did not recognize it.
"And what do you do?"
"Floating around. Hoping to become a
She slid her hands around her cheeks to hide her face;
and he allowed her this moment of childish indulgence and held his breath through her
re-emergence, forehead first, hands retracting like the hood that hides the clit.
"I am feeling very sensitive right now," she
said, arousing his appetite for scandal with a sigh that caused her breasts to heave.
"I need someone to talk to. I'm leaving in the morning. So it doesn't really
"That is true."
"I left my husband for him," she said,
leaning forward in a whisper, her eyes flitting from the doorway to the stairs. "And
this is what I get."
"I saw him throw the flowers in the pool,"
St. William told her. "I was watching."
"Oh, you must think I'm such a fool."
"It depends. How long have you known him?"
"Today makes a week."
St. William tapped his tongue against his palate.
"And you followed him here and he doesn't want
St. William found this fascinating, for she did not
strike him as a woman who was weak. And although he had often been guilty of bad judgment,
he instinctively believed in his instincts, which were urging him to offer her his help.
"Would you like me to say a word?"
"About the two of you?"
"Remind me of his name again?"
"People call him Bob."
"I must tell you something," he whispered,
gathering his thoughts as the clock began to peal again. "I am doing this because I
want you, and I know I cannot have you. When you came into my room this morning I was
going to start a revolution. But I haven't been able to think about anything since you
came into my life. I laid down my gun and took off my clothes and touched myself as I
thought of you. I watched you all day through my window. I need to touch you. Allow me,
please. Can I touch you? Out of sympathy. I am old."
"You could be my father."
"I understand," he reasoned as she laughed,
"but that is neither yes nor no. Do you know what you are doing?
You are making me feel sensitive right now. You are making me feel old. I watched you and
wanted you. He threw you away."
As he listened to himself, St. William was aware that
his voice was rising and that his brave appeal had liquefied into a grovel.
But what he was too old to understand was that in
those flagrant days of the sexual revolution, when women were still excited by the view
from the top, an appeal from the bottom, wet with blood desire and the suggestion of
tears, would soak and undermine a woman's will.
"I have to go to my room," she said with a
dreaminess that he mistook for boredom. "Don't worry about dealing with this. I'll
handle it on my own."
St. William nodded and, having lost his pride,
confided that he hadn't had a drink all day and would be going to his room to be
Ascending the stairs, he began to use his cane,
although Felicia was not watching. His heart was filled with lamentations and his lungs
filled with the dust that his repeated sighs had brought into his scoured nasal tunnels.
I have failed myself, St. William thought. He sat on
the edge of his bed and gargled with the rum before he swallowed. Through the window he
watched the man, who was sitting on the railing, strumming his guitar and singing softly
what sounded from a distance like a psalm, his voice light but keen and edged with a
profound sense of longing, as if it emanated from a hole in his heart; and as St. William
felt himself being drawn into the mystery of that hole, he put away his bottle and walked
to the window and pressed his face against the glass and felt the coolness on his forehead
as the rage evaporated out of him into the gash from which that voice had come, that
primal place of grief, that wound left behind when the first fruit fell away from the
first tree and faced the conflict of survival, the unconquerable knowledge that it too
would cause pain when it split the earth to set down its roots.
As St. William watched, Felicia climbed the stairs and
the man put down his instrument and draped his arms around her as a bird would fold its
wings around its young, and as she opened her mouth and the man's head dipped toward her,
his hair like an ignited plume, St. William felt his bones reverberating as if they had
been struck by a gong; and in a flash of clarity he understood why she had come this far
this quickly to see the manhe had the charisma of the
revolutionary, the capacity to embrace and rebuke without apology, which is rooted in the
understanding that life is a cycle of regeneration, and that regenertion is a cycle of
pain, and that the great leaders are those who can inspire people to face the coming pain
with strength and grace and a vision of life beyond it.
That night Rebecca did not appear in St. William's
dream. He dreamed instead of Felicia. In the reverie she lay across the bed and spread her
legs, and he saw her lower lips, which were sealed and folded in a dusky line, glistening
like a keloid that had overgrown a wound, and he slid his tongue along it to console her,
to ease the remnant of her deep, abiding pain.
The next morning, he arose to the sound of a roosterthe chief minister had ordered that the mechanism of the clock be
removedand found outside his door a package and a note.
Thank you for reminding me that I'm wanted. I almost slept with you. Yes, for
a minute you could have stolen me, but I would have gone back to him. Accept this gift as
a token of whatever, of two people, no, three people and a moment. It will be coming out
this year. One love. Sorry that I couldn't make him sign it.
What a fascinating name, St. William thought as he
tore the paper: Natty Dread. His thirty-first book was a translation and
discussion of the lyrics in sancoche. In his memoir, published at his own expense
on the eve of the millennium, St. William would describe it as "my most important
work to date."