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Wide Caribbean Sea 

Calling up the spirit of Jean Rhys

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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When I arrive on most West Indian islands, I am empty. I want it to be that way, for the land fills me up with its heat, its emerald pools, its orchids. I arrive on the tangled terrain of Dominica, however, in a different state entirely. I am led here, to Roseau, the island’s capital, to 48 Cork St., by a spirit that has haunted me since I was a very young girl. I am full of this wild woman, having memorized her every word. She has called me to come.

I am drawn to a huge mango tree behind Vena‘s Guesthouse, birthplace and childhood home of the novelist Jean Rhys. It is midday, and I have had little sleep. A young Dominican man is drinking rum and pawpaw juice at the bar. I ask him if he knows whose garden this was. He laughs, a drunken laugh.

I sit beneath the tree and pretend it is 1900, that I am Jean’s playmate. We are 10, both of us, she of English colonial stock, I of French. Dominica was at times ruled by England, at other times by France, which stole it from the Caribs in the late 1600s. Jean warns me that if I stay too long in the sun, the black land crabs will take me on a dangerous journey. To the mornes, she tells me, spinning around and pointing to the rain forest, where the lakes boil and the bats prepare to feed on the night. Touch the water, she says, and your skin will burn. Wake the bats and night could come early.

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Apres Bondie c‘est la ter, I hear Jean sing, over and over. After God it’s the land, goes the island‘s song. Lush and wild and beguiling Dominica, with more colors of green than there are names for. I want to lie down and kiss the land that fed her such bitter poetry.

The Dominican girl behind the bar asks what I would like to drink. The two 10-year-olds retreat into my head. I order mango juice, fresh. Could it be from the tree? I wonder.

“Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea?” I ask her. In it, Rhys spins a West Indian nightmare for Jane Eyre’s madwoman-in-the-attic, Bertha Rochester.

“No,” she answers plainly, taking a sponge to the wooden countertop that serves as the bar. This surprises me, for she prepares mountain chicken and flying fish in a kind of literary oasis. Readers from all over the world must come here, I think -- Rhys is to Dominica what Derek Walcott is to St. Lucia, and Saint-John Perse is to Guadeloupe.

I sit down in the tree‘s shade and look around what is now called the World of Food. It is a grim place, with hard benches and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. Liquor posters dot the walls. The smell is unsentimental, with a touch of callaloo that’s cooking in a soup pot on the stove. Rhys would be pleased.

I ask the girl where to find out more about the garden, and about Rhys, who left Dominica at 17 to study in England.

“In Dominica, by Lennox Honychurch,” she says. “It‘s a small book. You can get it at Frontline Bookstore, on Queen Mary Street. That way,” she says, pointing toward the sea, the sponge still in her hand. Her eyes are gentle, sad even. They match her creamy brown skin. A red-and-yellow madras apron covers her yellow dress.

Sensing my disappointment, she offers me something: “Rhys mentions that tree in the book. Somebody from the guesthouse once told me.” I smile and sip the mango juice, and let the afternoon lull me. “I bet the tree’s over 200 years old,” I tell her.

“Could be,” she says, looking up to the top of the tree, where it reaches toward the dark-blue sky. What it must know.

While I want to talk about my ghost, the drunk at the bar, who is amazingly philosophical and definitely interested, doesn‘t understand. “Dominicans will never forget what the Americans did for us after Hurricane David, ’79,” he says.

A white woman with very long fingernails and short shorts enters the courtyard, sits in the corner, lights a cigarette. She lifts her face to the sun. A worshipper, I think: kin.

A man with dreads joins the drunk at the bar. “Rum,” he says, sitting down, speaking to the girl behind the counter in French Creole, the first language of the locals here. She pours some white Macoucherie into a heavy glass.

A cock crows very loud, and I take this as a sign. I order a shot of Macoucherie, to raise the spirit.

“To Rhys,” I say, holding the glass aloft.

“And her mango tree,” says the girl behind the bar as she reaches for the sponge, smiling.

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