‘Sponger Money’ by Ethan Knowles

Every success was short-lived, every conspiracy a distant cousin. Life, as we had come to know it, was leaving our islands in sloops, only to come back more refined, and more expensive. These were the years that crawled by like sun-baked iguanas, carrying promises for the few and disappointments for the many. Our father was alive then, when time had proven longer than rope, and it was from him that we learned what happened on the Mud. They called him Eyes because he saw the sponges first.

Our father left school to study the sea floor. He was twelve, the seventh of ten, and had a cleft lip. All six of his older siblings had already left Acklins, and only one had ever come back. The one to return was a brother named Scully.

One morning, while playing marbles in the shade of a sea grape tree, our father overheard a woman on a bicycle say there was plenty money to be made on the Mud. He turned to Scully, whose pockets swelled with cat’s eyes, and asked in a whisper where the Mud was. Scully hesitated, weighing the superior wisdom of three years, before refusing an explanation.

Our father simmered with frustration. He rose from the sand in a fit and bolted barefoot down the damp limestone road. The cyclist’s shadow, long and greasy in the light of midmorning, was almost in his hands when a great cast of white land crabs flooded the road, bogging down his feet, and bringing the chase to an end. Our father felt the vision fade to memory.

Content with the outcome of things beyond his control, Scully began smoking Cuban tobacco from a goat bone pipe. Then he took aim at another of our father’s marbles, confident the game had been won.

They called him Eyes because he saw the sponges first

When the woman came again, a month later, she repeated the same message, and our father chased her shadow through three settlements before collapsing at the foot of the island’s main dock. When he came to, a Greek merchant named Pericles invited him to take a trip to the Mud, and it was there, on the Great Bahama Bank, that he became Eyes.

Eyes had never been to Andros, had never even crossed the Tropic of Cancer. The spongers he met that first night in the schooner Mercy came from all over, not just the Bahama Islands, but Cuba, Haiti, Barbados and beyond. Some had come with their own dinghies and sculling partners, while others, like Eyes, came with nothing at all.

Of the tongues and territories mingling in the vessel, Eyes was largely ignorant. He ate his salt beef in silence, sandwiched between a young boy from Andros who swore more forcefully than the captain and a middle-aged Abaconian who bit his toenails. As the night went on, more and more of the all-male crew rejoiced at the inviolable fact that sponger money could never done, combining creoles of English, French and Spanish in an anthem that skirted over the shallows before tangling in the roots of nearby mangroves.

When Eyes finally retired to the shaggy hammock sold to him by Pericles, his mind throbbed with the realisation that ignorance was an island, that six weeks at sea was more than enough to change a man, and that sponger money, if he was smart, might take him far beyond the Mud.

The sun was prickly on his umber skin and little relief could be found beyond the brim of a straw hat

The next morning, Eyes was assigned to a dinghy with Paul, the Abaconian who he only now discovered was blind. The captain, a stout Eleutheran whose mahogany skin creased when he spoke, briefed Eyes on the various kinds of sponges to be hooked, the appropriate manner in which to inspect the seabed with a glass-bottomed bucket, and the best-known technique – which the captain himself had developed as a young boy – for freeing sponges from their coral base with a double-pronged staff. The hooking rod, which was triple the height of Eyes and half as heavy, would have to be handled in tandem with the water glass, and could also be used to catch spiny lobster.

Eyes, intimidated by the task ahead of him, blinked slowly as he committed the instructions to memory. The captain smiled and said it was a privilege to hook at such a young age, in this industry that for seventy years had kept so many Bahamians afloat. These words, which betrayed the captain’s entitlement, would return over and over again to Eyes, who would go on to turn down undue privileges for the rest of his life.

Eyes helped Paul board their vessel, one of three dinghies in the schooner’s flotilla, and the two set off to scour the Mud for grass, velvet, and sheep’s wool sponges.

Eyes did not expect the work to be so bitter. The sun was prickly on his umber skin and little relief could be found beyond the brim of a straw hat. Spotting the sponges was not too difficult – it came, in fact, quite naturally to Eyes, who had scanned the bight of Acklins for conch and turtle since infancy – but prying sponges from the coral beds without tearing them proved almost impossible. Eyes toiled for hours, struggling to convey detailed sculling instructions to Paul who, for all his years of experience, could not tell one reef from another.

By the time evening came, Eyes could no longer lift his arms

By midday, Eyes had witnessed the immense richness of the Great Bahama Bank but had little more to show for it than a dozen grimy sponges of the lowest grade. Paul suggested they pause to eat the johnny cakes they brought along, and it was in between bites of the doughy discs that Eyes began to see Paul for the first time. The man had covered his entire body with grey silt gathered from a nearby settlement. Where he had been less thorough, sandy skin and a motley of freckles broke through. His eyes, shaded by the straw hat his mother had left him before she swam away to begin again, were swampy green. Save for a pair of disproportionately swollen biceps, he was incredibly thin, indeed on the verge of malnourishment. His affinity for sculling was only exceeded by a fondness for the glossy soldier crab shell he wore around his neck, which now and again he stroked to soothe himself. For all his curious qualities, Eyes felt quite at ease in the dinghy with Paul, who, in addition to treating him as a capable peer, was the first person in a very long time to refrain from bringing up his cleft lip, if only because he did not know it was there.

After Paul finished eating, he asked Eyes why he decided to come to the Mud, expecting the same answer he always received: because there was no other way to make a living. Eyes did not respond right away. He was in no rush to reveal himself, and yet, before long, he had told Paul about the woman on the bicycle, about his tight-lipped brother, and about the desire to leave ignorance for a bigger and better island.

“I see,” Paul replied.

In the afternoon, Eyes improved. He skipped over the small, less valuable sponges, preferring to refine his hooking technique on the most prized specimens, which he hoisted from the sea in quick, decisive bursts, at times sending the creatures plummeting straight into Paul’s lap. Paul would feign irritation before erupting into laughter, a routine that made Eyes grin without fail. When the joke had passed, Paul would gently stroke the putrid sponges, caked in slime, before estimating their value by texture alone.

Paul began to hum a soft hymn, which soothed Eyes 

By the time evening came, Eyes could no longer lift his arms, and rivers of sweat had cut stripes in his partner’s armour. Paul guided the dinghy, now brimming with mounds of sponge, toward an empty cay, where, with the help of Eyes, he left the sponges to die. The sponges, Paul explained, would later be bathed by the tide in shallow water kraals made from mangrove sticks, before being beaten and trimmed for sale. As the schooner Mercy finally appeared on the horizon, Paul began to hum a soft hymn, which soothed Eyes to the brink of sleep as his left foot caught lips of orange surf.

That night, the spongers exchanged spirited accounts of their first day over a meal of stewed conch. Meshach, the Androsian boy who knew the Mud better than most of the older spongers, dazzled the crew with the tale of how he ran down and caught two green turtles at the same time in the shallows off Central Andros. Not to be outdone, Maurice, his Barbadian partner, described the previous year’s marvellous escape from a sudden squall – the greatest threat to a sponger and his harvest – which he accomplished by hooking a blue marlin and riding it against the rugged currents of the Old Bahama Channel for one hundred miles up the coast of Cuba.

At the mention of his homeland, Gabriel, whose Haitian mother had given him the gift of creole, turned to the mate – a Nassuvian of Haitian descent – and motioned for him to translate the story of how, as a young boy, he first learned to sponge in the gulf of Batabanó before sailing from Havana to Nassau to marry a woman whose name he could not bring himself to mention. At this the crew grew sombre but were soon returned to high spirits when Paul announced, matter-of-factly, that Gabriel had nothing to worry about because he was obviously the most handsome man on board.

Gabriel had nothing to worry about because he was obviously the most handsome man on board

Five weeks passed in this fashion and Eyes grew accustomed to the routines of life on the sea, which were only ever interrupted by trips to nearby settlements for provisions and the occasional thunderstorm. Despite a sense of foreboding brewing among the more experienced crew members – a swelling anxiety brought on by the fact that fewer and fewer sponges were being hooked than in previous years – the captain and his mate ultimately dismissed such lingering concerns, assuring the spongers that the colony’s new closed season and size regulations would guarantee a sharp rebound within the year. Gabriel, however, would not be soothed by such guarantees. He tossed and turned in his hammock the entire night, cursing the dawn when it came to show Eyes the first sponges that fell victim to the fungus.

The morning marked a sudden change, and from our father we learned the violence of sudden changes on small islands. The water was flat, the wind was shy; there were three seagulls tearing at the corpse of a snapper just above the schooner.

Eyes and Paul loaded into the dinghy and set off to explore a remote sponge bed off the southern tip of Andros, where the Great Bahama Bank met the Tongue of the Ocean. After hours of sculling, Paul took a break, and Eyes used the occasion to study the sea floor. He grabbed the water glass, pressed it to the surface of the sea, and made out what looked to be a pair of sponges nestled in the shade of a giant sea fan. Eyes pried one of the sponges from the coral bed and brought it up to the surface. To his horror, what came up was not a bouncy sponge covered in slime but rotten slivers and strings that slipped from the prongs like intestines. Eyes retched.

Paul asked if the sponge was any good and Eyes lied that he had torn it by mistake. When the second sponge fell apart in the same sickly manner, Eyes grew uneasy and Paul probed more insistently, alarmed by what sounded like loose stool returning to the ocean. Still, Eyes would not share the details of his terror.

 He tossed and turned in his hammock the entire night, cursing the dawn when it came

The sponges that did not fall to pieces were bleached, and the sponges that were not bleached came up rotten and cavernous, dispelling awful odours Eyes could not endure. When evening came and the dinghy was empty, Eyes was driven to tears. He felt beguiled by the sea and by Pericles, both of whom had no reason to conspire against him and yet seemed, in that sulphurous hour, to have been plotting his fall all along. As Paul quietly sculled toward Mercy, Eyes prepared his testimony for the crew.

Meshach refused to believe that the Mud – his Mud – was under siege. The captain was of the same opinion. Baptiste, the mate, tried to evince a similar scepticism, but fear creeped into the corner of his lips like a cockroach. Gabriel, buried in the sands of insomnia, proclaimed to have seen it coming all along, while Maurice, the Barbadian, cursed his father for having come to this corner of the West Indies. The cook, to ease his angst, began gnawing at the last mango on board while Paul, who would never set eyes on the fungus that caused the collapse of the most productive sponging grounds in the world, saw his blindness as a small mercy for the first time.

The final week of the sponging expedition was a stunning disaster, as Eyes had foreseen. The entire crew eventually came face to face with the ruinous fungus and little could be done, despite the wisdom of years and the resolve of imminent destitution, to replenish the increasingly vacant kraals. The captain decided to sail to Nassau three days early, fearing further losses from an increasingly anaemic operation. Eyes consoled himself with the memories of siblings whose faces had left him, imagining they might return in the streets of the capital.

An urgent meeting was called

When Mercy arrived at Nassau Harbour, there was a fever in the air. Merchants paced the Sponge Exchange with beads of sweat snaking across their pallid skin. Though, in the long term, they stood to lose the least, they seemed to grieve the most.

First news of the fungus had come a few weeks before from the eastern islands, and now it seemed the disease had spread all the way to the most prolific waters of the archipelago. An urgent meeting was called, wherein the merchants and brokers who dominated the industry negotiated the sustainability of their exploits. Eventually, it was decided that the sponge auctions would be suspended, so that captains now negotiated directly with the furtive brokers, who exploited the heightened competition by lowering wholesale prices.

When Mercy’s captain returned to the crew with the profits divided in shares, Eyes was astounded to learn that he actually owed money – the cost of the hammock coming to more than double his final wages. Paul offered to settle the difference but, driven to fury by the mathematics of old men, Eyes fled the Sponge Exchange, dodging tall women with wares on their head, tall men with strange trousers, and tall pressures which struck his ears like goatskin drums.

In the end, our father returned to his island. He abandoned the memories of siblings who had moved on, preferring to hide away in the roots of a silk cotton tree until the right winds came to take him back to Acklins. Having convinced an old woman he was her youngest nephew, Eyes arrived home late one afternoon in a modest sloop – disembarking at the same dock where, just weeks before, Pericles had extended his invitation.

there, waiting for him, was Scully

By dusk, our father found the sea grape tree where he first saw the woman on the bicycle and there, waiting for him, was Scully.

As the brothers began a new game of marbles, Scully asked Eyes whether he had found what he was looking for on the Mud. He said it playfully, knowing that there were things his brother would only find now, in the infancy of understanding, with his head turned back to the wake of days.

Eyes did his best to battle the fatigue of evening but failed, in that moment, to muster a reply. It was only years later, when our father sailed us home from Nassau to begin a new year in Acklins, that the words finally came for what he found on the Mud. What he told us we would never forget, if only because we wrote it down.

Our father said that every success was short-lived, every conspiracy a distant cousin. Life, as he had come to know it, was leaving our islands in sloops, only to come back more refined, and more expensive. These were the years that crawled by like sun-baked iguanas, carrying promises for the few, and disappointments for the many. I am alive now, but my time is coming, and soon only the rope will be left. If you children ever remember anything, let it be my time on the Mud. There, in the real shallows, I saw visions of islands like our own. I fell into a trap, it’s true, but I do not regret playing the game – I only regret my convictions. I thought that money would take me far away, but instead it took me right back to Acklins. Now I see the island differently, and whether this is a loss or gain I still don’t know. All I know is that wisdom is the only currency I can offer, and even that has come at a cost.

Eyes died that year, falling victim to time. At the funeral, Uncle Scully revealed the last time he saw the woman on the bicycle was the very same evening Eyes returned. Dragging dusk behind her like an empty coffin, the woman spoke of new opportunities on nearby islands. But our father, wary of easy riches, let her shadow pass him by.


Ethan Knowles is a Bahamian writer. He was selected to participate in the 2019 Fresh Milk Writing Residency in Barbados and was the 2022 resident writer for Caribbean Linked VI in Aruba. He currently works as a speechwriter and researcher at the Office of the Prime Minister of The Bahamas. His writing has been featured in publications across Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. He is the winner of the 2023 BCLF Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean, of which Moko is a publishing partner.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *