Ixie feels it right away, as soon as soon as she wakes up.
Her body is being obstinate again. Her nipples are engorged to what feels like twice their size and she knows better than to touch them. She touches them anyway. Masochist. She flinches at the pain. She looks down her nose at them, chin pressing in to her sternum. Nipples standing up straight like sentinels at attention, darker than the rest of her skin, harder and more tender at the same time. She sighs. The hand that reaches down to examine her vagina is almost clinical. It finds no pleasure there, only wetness. It isn’t her bleeding. She is done with that. Even if her brain still half expects it. For an irrational moment, she hopes she peed herself. Sniffs the air for the scent of ammonia. Brings her hand up to where she can see it. Residue on her fingers, translucent like coconut water – and “just as sweet” Izzy says in her ear.
Shut up, she says, instinctively though he is not beside her.
She wipes her hand on the sheet as her teeth, tongue, and lips come together in a drawn out long dutty choops. This again. Her joints will hurt too for the next however days, and her body feel hot and sluggish, even her gums will ache. And paranoia will prick the edges of her awareness.
Everyone watching me, pitying me. Judging me.
She can almost hear the vexing crooning meant to soothe.
It makes her feel violent.
Which is at least something to hang on to, not like the dreams. There is no ease to waking from those, just this sense of being pulled down until she can feel the soil rising only to crumble over and cover her, scratching too sensitive skin and suffocating her. Those mornings, she flails up, gasping, body and spirit insisting, “not your time yet, not so fast, sec.” It’s not usually Izzy. He’s an early riser. It’s not her voice either. She doesn’t have the energy. It’s Tanty, or this vague phantom version of her that Ixie’s mind is hanging on to, a version of her that smells of soursop leaves, eucalyptus, and comfort.
Ixie draws herself up, dry washing her face with a trembling hand, her other hand, before rising to step in to the fresha, turned to full blast. It punches air and water, cold as foreday morning dew drops, straight through her from all sides for a few seconds. More effective than coffee. It wakes her up more than she wants to be but if she doesn’t bathe, Tanty will really come to dunk her in an old school bush bath, to scrub away whatever spirits have her feeling she can just go out into the world without at least going through the motions of cleaning herself, as if she didn’t have no broughtupsee. Refreshed, Ixie draws the first thing her hand lands on over her head. It is a white one armed cotton maxi with a peacock design, hand drawn by her in blue-green and gold. She scrubs her hands briskly over her low curls – only just catching themselves from her last big chop – and walks in to the general area. Long strides toward the apartment door. It swooshes open when it feels the pressure of her bare feet.
“Where you going?” Izzy asks, as if he doesn’t know. He is at the kitchen island in front of the glass wall with the far off sea view, probing eyes, a frothy bananapaya float in the clear and comically oversized glass in his hand. His latest experiment from the skins and seeds on the counter before him. “I was just bringing this for ….”
“Tanty,” she throws back, still moving, knowing he won’t be surprised. After three years together, he knows the routine.
“What about…” he starts to ask, about, no doubt, to remind her of her responsibilities. Ixie is a resident artist and takes the children in her unit once a week for art discovery. Not today, though.
She likes being a resident artist, creating, guiding art protégées and hobbyists, but she will be no good to anyone today.
In irritation she reaches for a term that had been archaic before she’d been born. “Tell them I’m taking a woman’s day.”
It was at Rain Falls, so-called because it only spouted after rainfall. Hard to get to. Ixie herself might not have attempted it if it wasn’t for Gray, as sure-footed a steed as had ever lived, as fond of solitude as she was. They could be quiet with each other for hours.
It was hot. So hot even young lovers might have climbed the risky path of narrow banks, slippery after the recent rainfall, equally slippery rocks for hopping, nothing to grab hold of if you slipped except stray roots and that one sandbox tree that would stab you if you grabbed at its bark without asking. Worth it if they made it for the sweet relief of plunging in to the pool at Rain Falls. The plural was generous; the rock face gave up a trickle, if that, most of the year – but heavy rains increased the flow.
The evergreen forests and body ponds on Antigua had recovered over time as Caribbeaners fought to pull the planet from the brink of extinction forever ago, but the island’s character was still generally on the dry side, making Rain Falls – if one could get to it – a rare treat. Most stuck to the beaches.
Not Ixie, not during peak hours. Too many people and she had always been shy of too many people.
“Just so she stay,” so Tanty does say.
Humanity – at least on these islands – had learned to live in harmony again, with each other, with nature, with the ancestors. Mostly. But Ixie was Ixie, and if this world accepted anything it was that. The is-ness of people and things, embracing not manipulating or dominating, being together. Even for someone like Ixie who too often felt more comfortable being apart.
Some said – because people will still say – that it came of her not having father and mother to suckle from but she wasn’t the only one; things happened but no child was ever abandoned. If anything, the ones without blood were hugged that much closer by the community. Everyone was blood. Ixie had grown up closer to Tanty than anyone in her crèche. And Tanty was the first person to accept her is-ness.
The moon was far enough away that night that she was nothing more than a shadow inside of a shadow as she slipped naked in to the pool at Rain Falls. She felt her way across, keeping to the edge, and climbed up the rock face just a bit. She seated herself right in the water’s path, and when she lay back, it covered her, the cold water a sheet muffling the world and giving her something warm to wrap herself in. She didn’t even need to hold her breath if she angled her chin downwards. And so she could lay there for a while.
After a time, she climbed down and felt, more than swam her way across to a flat slab of rock she spied on the other side of the pool. She lay on it, skin against cool rock, and instinctively began counting stars as she had as a child. Some people said it wasn’t possible to count them all but, who says.
She lay there long enough to see the moon shift and the light change, and for the sparse clouds crawling across the sky to take some kind of ghostly shape. She didn’t think she had slept but knew that at some point she had lost count of the stars. Another night.
She got up and dipped herself again, her legs kicking a little, some muscle memory still deflecting instinctive fear of the water – it had claimed so many of hers, according to the old stories sung during Ancestral Remembrance, stories recalling the time before time.
These days most Caribbeaners knew how to swim and those who set their mind to it could even fly, a gift that would have served the ancestors well. To soar above the tragedy of their enslavement and fly home.
She dunked her whole head and stayed under in the silence, eyes open though there was nothing to see but grey-ish blackness lightening by degrees. When she came up and climbed out, she plucked and broke an aloe leaf, the plant just beyond the bank, dribbling the slime into her hand and rubbing it in to her locs, twisting with her fingers, resealing frayed strands. When her whole head was done, she started rubbing her hands against her skin, at her thighs where her hands hung. First to wipe it off, but then, liking the silky feel of the aloe juice, proceeded to rub it in to the soles of her feet, her ankles, up her legs, her backside, her arms, her shoulders, her breasts, down to her stomach, so lost in the self-caress, she did not hear Grey’s warning.
Grey was a palomino, pale and freckled and blonde, an unusual breed for the island but here nonetheless, as anomalies are everywhere. Perhaps it was their differentness that made them such good companions. The horse had waited patiently through the night. Now, she snuffed and fidgeted, as she rarely did, and when that didn’t get Ixie’s attention, she neighed. Ixie looked over to see a man standing, watching.
Grey was a palomino, pale and freckled and blonde, an unusual breed for the island but here nonetheless, as anomalies are everywhere.
He was naked too and she instinctively looked down then quickly up which caused his naturally laughing eyes to crinkle. She had a thing for eyes like his. You could keep your bedroom eyes and your soulful eyes, eyes that danced were like music all the time; looking in them you could almost tap out a rhythm. Compelling as his eyes were, Ixie found hers drawn down again. She looked, then looked away.
And he laughed outright at this.
And this sparked some spirit in her. “Laugh pon me.”
“No,” he answered promptly, his eyes sweeping her fully, unashamed. “Not at all.”
And that was how Ixie met Izzy. He was from Away and had been allowed in for the Carnival. That night was his first night free from the quarantine required of all off-islanders. There was a quota – Carnival was for the people, not spectators, but he had island blood. From somewhere upislands but it was enough, such distinctions hardly mattered anymore.
Between his dancing eyes and Carnival, her body hadn’t stood a chance. There was a reason why July was known as the mating season. Ixie had considered herself lucky over the years that it hadn’t happened. For as much as she kept herself to herself, she was as enticed by the spirit of Carnival, by all of them – southern Caribbean, northern Caribbean, eastern Caribbean, even outliers like Bermuda and Bahamas linking ups as one. Belize and Guyana and Suriname and so couldn’t shift their landmass and rise up like the islands could, but plenty of them flew in. Soca reverberated like the call of the conch, and few islanders could resist, fewer still wanted to. Ixie was no different, not in this. As with any islander, Carnival called to her, lighting a flame right in her belly that made her feel more alive and taken with abandonment than at any other time. Ixie had never missed a Carnival and had even managed to forget herself a time or two, up there where the islands met and the air was thinner and purer and intoxicating. But with Izzy it was different, there was no forgetting, every wine and grind on the streets and later in a bed of grass was etched into her memory, and when day broke and the Carnival fugue with it, and she looked in to his dancing eyes, even as the island floated back down to reality, it was like she could still hear the music. For the first time in a lifetime, Izzy had found someone she wanted to be close with, and it caused a little trembling in her belly, right where the flame had been, but it was a pleasant thrumming and she didn’t move away from it, or him. And when he decided to stay, rather than flying straight back home, she neither pushed nor pulled, merely accepted.
Izzy was easy. He grew and blended things, a mad scientist of flavour and her body had never looked nor felt so healthy as it did in the weeks and months after.
“You were a skinny thing when we met,” he would joke, “all knees and collar bones.”
And she would feel affection for him warm her belly like hot tea.
Then she got sick. People still got sick. Just less so, as they were more in tune with the world, and grew more healing things. Whereas before time they cut trees for sport, in this do-over they had claimed for themselves, humanity, or Caribbeaners at least, planted everything that would grow, all the time. The world had never been so green and the Caribbean had led the way.
Lots of healing to be found.
Ixie drank and smoked whatever bush Izzy brought or blended to soothe her upset belly. Nothing worked, but before he had time call a healer, she bled out one morning in the fresha. Clumps of clotted blood, a bucket’s worth, some so thick she had to break them apart with her foot to get them to wash down the drain. This gave her something to do to keep from thinking too much, or even crying, if she was so inclined.
She felt weak and empty afterwards. But she didn’t cry.
Ixie had no particular craving for children, nothing against them. But she’d never felt any particular desire for any of her own, not the phantom yearning some women spoke of, almost like they could feel the baby in their arms before they held them, nor the way some men lactated in anticipation wanting to be fully a part of the experience.
You can’t really lose something you never wanted in the first place, she told herself. She didn’t tell Izzy anything; ever the early riser, then and still, he had been out picking leaves or something when whatever had been growing inside her lost its grip and was flushed away.
She had visited a healer after more days of still not feeling like herself, but in a different way.
“… I didn’t know women still got fibroids.”
“We’re doing better but not every illness can be eradicated, sickness and health, life is about balance,” Healer Jean, an old friend from her crèche, said.
Ixie knew this already, of course, but hearing it said in Healer Jean’s careful dulcet tones, was oddly reassuring. Sometimes, Ixie’s contrariness made her feel like a stain in this world, something to be plucked out, like a weed. It was nice to be reminded that all wasn’t perfect in paradise.
“There are things you can do,” Healer Jean said.
“No. I never wanted children. Is there something I can drink to be done with this unnecessary bleeding for good?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“But it can be done?”
“It can be done.”
Healer Jean told her which bush to take to flush away everything, tout monde sam and baggai. As decisive as the surgery they didn’t do anymore.
She left a note telling Izzy she was going to visit Tanty and though Tanty had been dead before he knew her, she knew he would understand. No one truly died, not while people they loved still lived and remembered them, not while there were living things like Tanty’s baobab, that yet held their spirit.
She liked that the baobab was wide enough for her to curl up in. Her stomach griped the whole time she was there, and she bled and shit and vomited and sweated, and Tanty held her the whole time.
It was during that time that the dreams started.
There is a tree whose bark is grey and stripped of life. Its limbs have been amputated to prevent the spread of disease but the lines of infection curve up its side like country roads. It doesn’t grow anymore. Insistent as nature is, new growth doesn’t even seek it out.
Ixie dreams of this tree at irregular times but especially during the cycle that still comes though there’s no reason for it. On days when she dreams this dream, she wakes up flattened by the song and colour and life all around her and she pushes down the images of this dead thing and how it’s the only thing that feels real to her and tries to let sound, the shhhh shhhh shhhh of the wind, the yip yip yip of a frog pull her up. If Izzy is still out, she might pluck one of the leaves he grows in the window garden, she doesn’t know what is for what, but the more bitter the better, hoping to wake up by shocking her taste buds, but on those mornings, the bitterest leaf tastes like everything else, like nothing in particular. And she crawls back to bed if she can. Sometimes, he finds her on the couch with the half drunk tea cooling in the cup, he makes a face and mixes her something sweet-sweet-sweet, hibiscus juice or soursop drink, thick just like she likes it, and she tries to taste that too.
On those days, she feels like she has had a death in the family, and she doesn’t quite understand why.
“It’s hope that you’re mourning,” Tanty says, not for the first time, there at the baobab she leans against, where her spirit lingers and Ixie knows she can always find her. “I never had no children of my own, either, but up until you know you can’t, you can, and then when you find out you can’t, it doesn’t matter whether you ever really wanted to or not, it’s gone, all gone. You not grieving some baby you never met or the babies you’ll never have, you grieving youself.”
“The ability to carry babies is not what makes me a woman.”
“No it isn’t,” Tanty agrees. “Now you just need to remember that. You need to tell him. Let him help you.”
That’s the thing, three years and she still hasn’t told Izzy. What would be the point? Mourning is a lonely thing. It doesn’t matter how many people mourn with you, see you through the rituals of letting go. You are alone. It is in the way, once the rituals are through, people carry on and expect you to too even as you still feel shell shocked. Like being hit by a car, a rare enough thing these days, but still, that blank spot in your awareness when you try to remember what has happened. Scientists have studied it, trying to understand everything as scientists do, and the closest they’ve come to it is your brain is protecting you from yourself. She could’ve told them that. Empathy may be at an all time high but humans don’t have a hive mind, they are still individuals after all, easy enough for a loner like herself, already outside of things, to hide her pain, a pain no one would imagine she is feeling anyway because she doesn’t understand it herself. Mourning a thing that had never been and now will never be.
“You think if you don’t tell him it won’t be real? It done happen. It is.”
She smiles at Tanty’s reference to the is-ness. If the woman that reared her has a religion, it is that.
“His hibiscus juice better than yours, you know,” she tells Tanty. “He lets it seep over night, sweetens it with cane sugar.”
“Yes, but does he garnish it with love?” Tanty teases.
And that gives her pause.
“I think he does,” Ixie says, finally.
And Tanty says nothing at that but if a smile can be felt, Ixie is pretty sure Tanty is smiling.
“His soursop drink could be thicker though.”
“You need to tell him, doo-doo,” Tanty says.
And she looks at Tanty, wondering at the insistence in her voice; this is hardly the first time they’ve had this conversation. What’s the rush, she wants to ask, though, after three years it would be the slowest rush ever.
She looks at Tanty proper, hanging on to this plane because she knows Ixie needs her but more and more looking like she’s ready to become one, fully, with the baobab. And Ixie feels desperate looking at her, the way she seems like a ghost though already a spectre. A ghost of a ghost.
“Ixora, time to let me go,” Tanty says.
And that finally is when Ixie cries because she feels so alone. Just then Grey nudges her. Always so patient, it is rare for the horse to interfere. But she nudges Ixie again.
Ixie looks up in to Grey’s eyes to see Izzy looking at her.
“Go,” Tanty says.
“You went in to Grey.” It sounds like an accusation the way Ixie says it the minute she walks in to the apartment. Izzy is still standing there with a too big glass in his hand, and she wonders if he’s been standing there the whole time.
“Is that soursop drink?” she asks.
He hands it to her without word, and she drinks like it is mother’s milk.
“I hope you asked her first, hender she bite you next time she see you,” she says as he wipes the white moustache forming on her top lip with his thumb, her eyes closing in reflex at the touch.
“You were gone longer than usual,” Izzy says. “I got worried.”
“Tanty gone for good now,” she says, her voice breaking, not resisting when he pulls her in.
“Are you real?” she asks. She knows he is, this is, they are, because her nipples still hurt and there is still a familiar aching in her lower back and stomach.
“I’m right here,” he says.
Later, after she has told him everything she can, and he is rubbing aloe in to her nipples with a light touch, she worries that he is too perfect and she’ll wake up to find that he too is another nightmare.
What she told him, he already sussed, even as she filled in the details.
“Was just waiting for you to trust me enough to tell me.”
“How you knew?”
“I would have to be a piss poor partner not to notice something was off with you. And I’m not a piss poor partner.”
“No you’re not…But for all you knew, that was me, you barely knew me then. Sometimes I think I barely know myself, still.”
Ixie dreams of a tree. It too is amputated at the stem, grass grows at its root. It looks like it would snap at a touch but it is harder to break than it looks.
Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of several books of fiction. Find her at jhohadli.wordpress.com