Sunny stayed up the entire night, mopping the floors of her living room and bedroom as the heavy winds forced water through the shutters and windows. It was silly, in hindsight. The water was coming anyway, and fast. But she had to pass the time. Once every half hour or so, she would run to the hallway, frightened by the loud crashing noises from outside, anticipating that one of the shutters would give way and the kitchen window would burst wide open. They never did that night.
Between the mopping and the almost choreographed hallway scatter, she checked her phone, hanging on to what was left of cell service. Her sister was still messaging her, asking for another check-in. Nothing had changed in the ten minutes since she last asked but Sunny answered anyway. Nothing worse than knowing nothing at all.
The sounds of the transistor radio sitting on the dining table had gone silent, leaving room for the monster wind outside to speak loudly in tongues as it ravaged whatever she knew of normal. The radio station must have lost its power and transmission signal. She knew it would not be much longer before the phone service would give out. She checked her phone again. Last text from her mother was after 7pm. She was going to take a nap, she had said. Sleep? Her mother cherished the early hour of her bedtime. She envied her that gift on this particular night even though it was one of the few traits she had singularly adopted from her mother. Her sisters were night owls. Still, she wondered if her mother did wake up and what she was doing, and why she never wrote to her again.
She quickly checked her social media to get a sense of the storm’s location. At half past eleven, it felt like it should be over soon. But no good news came from the internet that night. A blob of black, red and swirling white covered the dot of a land mass where she lived in every online radar and photo she encountered. It wasn’t moving. The whole island had been replaced by the forces of Medusa. If only for one night. Sunny once again became conscious of the mop in her hand as she heard a thump coming from the hallway closet that she used for shoes and linen. It was a large space and probably the most secure space in her home to weather a storm. So that’s where she put her most precious things.
Months earlier, she had committed to co-parenting a bright-eyed, gorgeous and curious eleven-year-old girl, the daughter of extended family, whose smile and academic promise just lit up her entire world since she met her five years before. She was a little biased though. It was as if the young child had jumped out of her own body and soul, a physical copy of who she was at that age, only with the voice, optimism and confidence that she wish she had then. She would always protect her. That night, after hearing that the approaching storm was at Category 5, her little drama princess started to panic. So Sunny tempered that by sharing her bed and listening with her to a science fiction audiobook, fitting for a night of Caribbean supernatural forces at work right outside their front door. Once she fell asleep, she made a bed of blankets for her in the hallway closet and lay her in there, snug and warm, away from the banging and the clashing and the fear that pumped through her own body as the night drew along slowly.
Shortly after putting the little girl to sleep, she contended with her other precious thing, her Angel, the tri-colored feline that she’d raised from a newborn for the last four years. Once Angel felt the storm drawing nearer, she tried to escape, jumping toward the now shuttered kitchen window, her usual escape to go sit on the washing machine, taunt the dog and maybe take a nap or a stroll. But there was no escape tonight. She brought out her cage and made a bed for her in it, then expertly lifted the cat into the plastic box, soothing her with head rubs once she was secure. Angel joined Annie in the closet. There would be quiet in there for most of the night.
By 2am, the water was coming in faster than before. She kept mopping and wringing out blankets and towels, in between the social media and text message check-ins. But she was getting tired. She thought of her father and worried that they hadn’t spoken since much earlier that day. His phone went to voicemail every time. She had to trust in his strength, strategic thinking and courage, the tools she knew could save him. It was this inheritance from him that was carrying her through the night. She yawned as she cursed at her dying phone again. The battery had been weak for months and she kept promising to replace the phone, but life and her passion project got in the way of her spending extravagantly on herself. Now she wished she wasn’t using all the stored battery life on power banks trying to keep the phone charged. She was down to twenty percent and she had no idea at that time how much she would need to conserve power for the times ahead. She would not have electricity again for another one hundred and sixty-three days.
She set down the phone and got back to mopping. She was just grateful that the water was getting nowhere near her books. They were her whole world, all the worlds she’d ever wanted and imagined. She would certainly give up if the storm waters tried to claim them. For now, their safety was a small victory in a night of insurmountable loss.
Martina sent her daughters a simple message letting them know that she was going to take a rest, her way of preparing for the worst. She was going to take a nap. Sleep and pray. Those were the things she could control. She lived now in a house with friends who had given her the opportunity for a fresh start after the life she had built a few islands away was abruptly disrupted because of the failures of Caribbean integration. She had served a country legally for fifteen years to only hear that she no longer ‘belonged.’
The family had been there for her, without question, offering more than she would ever think to ask. So, on this night which would be the worst of their lives, she would be there with and for them. Her daughters would not understand. They saw that she gave of herself to everyone and found so little value in giving to herself – and sometimes even to them. She gave to their own fathers so much that somewhere along the way she lost herself and had to ask God to help her find that woman again. Her girls both loved and chastised her for it. They couldn’t understand. She was happy that they didn’t. They owned themselves in ways she was still learning; that was her greatest legacy.
That night, she would take a nap, wake up and sit with this family through the storm. But her waking wasn’t as coordinated as she had planned. It was the rumbling that moved her, agitating all the senses. Everything felt more like an earthquake than a hurricane. The noise from outside was palpable. But it was the rumbling noise and the shaking of the ground beneath them that made her jump into action. The kitchen and dining area that stood over the driveway was moving like perfectly chilled Jell-O in a pan. She had to find out why.
They always thought it would be the river that lay to the south of the house. The water would rise up and destroy the elderly matriarch’s flower garden outside – her source of peace and pride, and her source of income into retirement. The family wasn’t poor by any means, but the security of her earnings through the garden was a space of comfort that was the closest thing to soothing the loss of her husband some years before.
Martina’s senses heightened as she searched for the source, looking out into the darkness, things were moving too fast and too slow at the same time. She couldn’t pin anything down. She deepened her listening and finally heard the rush of water coming from somewhere so unexpected that she had to snap herself out of the shock of it all. A dried-up ravine had now turned into a churning waterway and was running straight through the garage beneath her feet, essentially undermining the foundation of the house and putting them all at risk of something unimaginably tragic. She grabbed the tablecloth on the dining table, steadied herself and found resolve. We have to move. She ordered her housemates to the opposite western side of the house, where the ground was steadier, a full apartment and foundation beneath them.
All this time, the percussion of other people’s zinc roofing hitting the house screeched above the rumble, as the pieces of metal and the fallen trees did their work as shrapnel on the rooftop. There were leaks in the bedrooms and in her own room, Martina returned to the flood of water coming in through the western window. She tried her best to soak it up with blankets and towels. But there were other urgencies. She could not focus on containing it all. The water to worry about was across the way. But there was nothing they could do. They got into the living room, where they had dragged a bed from one of the rooms and huddled there and wait. Martina prayed. And she thought about her girls. And hoped they weren’t too worried about her.
Nothing worse than knowing nothing at all. Actually, there is. What’s worse is seeing disaster rushing toward the people you love the most, watching it in real time, and finding yourself completely powerless to change the outcome. On that night, it felt worse than knowing nothing. Tomorrow, knowing nothing would give her the biggest punch in the gut, knocking the wind out of her and setting off her most primal instinct to fix and protect and gather everything she lived for in one place. She sent messages to her sister all night long, panicking and chastising her for not controlling their mother into being with her that night. Since they were little, she had tried to model for her elder sister the power of assertion, but she never caught on. She couldn’t understand why someone who had such a great command of the trajectory of her life and intentions would always give in to the needs and desires of others, even when they cost her peace. But she knew why. It was the same reason she got loud and controlling in crisis – love.
She called their aunts in the US, trying to figure out how much they knew. She stayed connected with her friends in their group chat. One of them was the master of information seeking for fixing, the other a master of worrying about every piece of new information. She was the balance between them. But in this moment, she was the one who needed balance. The bottom was falling out. The entirety of her life’s purpose was zoned in to one small place, fallen victim to a tempest. Her parents, her siblings, her family was in danger. Her sister, Sunny, was being a bit too nonchalant for her taste. The images and reporting she was getting from the comfort of her apartment didn’t seem to register to her sister who wasn’t sounding scared or hiding away. There were people who had already lost their homes and there were early reports of death and injury. Her sister was oblivious. She was sounding a little too much like herself – too sturdy, too controlled, too on top of everything for any of this to make sense. Sunny was one-upping her again, even when she was the victim. And it was infuriating.
Lee did her best not to share the panic of over-saturation from the media with her sister, still cautious that unnecessary panic could make for a harder, longer night. But the longer this went on, the harder it was for her to keep it together. She called her sister in England, asking especially if she had heard from their mom. Same answer. She went to sleep. No new information. The phone lines in her area must have gone out very early in the course of the storm’s passage. That’s the sense they were both getting from local news. Her sister dismissed her fears, telling her to calm down. Frankly, she was sick of them all, sick of the constant diminution of her self-expression. She was the one having the most appropriate reaction to this life changing traumatic encounter and none of them could face themselves long enough to be vulnerable enough to say they were scared. She was scared and she had a right to be. This night, the longest night of her life, would change everything, and it would get worse before it would get better. She had a right to be loud, to be aggressive, to be scared. She only wished she didn’t feel so alone in her right to be herself. She still wished they could be with her or she could talk to them all, even only to tell her to calm down.
Kay was getting tired. Her life had seemed to be falling apart but she spent the past year doing her best to put it back together, on her own, on her own terms. She wanted so badly to do it out of the gaze of her watchful, overbearing sisters and for the first time in a long time she felt she was succeeding. She was ready for the new start that she was getting to complete something that so many times seemed to fall out of her grasp. Her aspiration for this degree and career in law was a long time coming. She had never felt so strongly about any other life decision before. She had such a hard time settling on a major in college. But once she really figured it out, she had it. But life, broke mothers and deadbeat fathers had a way of interfering with plans. She was happy for a chance to finish what she started. That night, she had no way of knowing that she would have to wait again.
That night, her sole concern was staying cool and level headed as she talked her older sister off many ledges, rolling her eyes often during the phone calls, so used to the dramatic antics of her sister’s worry. She had trouble sleeping anyway, so the major time difference didn’t bother her too much. It was mostly the register of her sister’s voice that was getting on her nerves. Their parents and siblings were caught in the storm. Weeks before, she was there on the island, waiting out her time until she could get back to her real life. It seemed surreal that she had just missed it. She was happy she did and she tried her best to focus her thoughts on that lucky break instead of giving in to the worry of not knowing and not being able to stop the eight-hour 200 mile per hour vortex that threatened to engulf her family and her life’s story. She was a quiet worrier, the yin to Lee’s yang. And her introspection could spiral into a latent anxiety and depression that she was well aware of. The last time she spiraled, it was Sunny who was sick, the person who she looked up to more than anything was ill and she could do nothing to help her. Her quiet worry drove her to a panic attack so intense that she had to miss her exams and attend advisor-ordered therapy. That night, she was careful. She wouldn’t give in to the chaotic energy that hovered a little too close. Instead she talked her sister out of the worst-case scenarios and relied on the knowledge of her loved ones’ best instincts to offer her an alternative, more hopeful option. It really was all she could do from where she was. She didn’t understand yet how many things would be out of her control in the days and weeks ahead. She didn’t know she would end up right back there to share in the aftermath of this very long night.
Sunny fell asleep at about 3:30am. Cell phone service went out about an hour earlier. She had no idea that she would be off the grid for another forty-eight hours. She took the child and the cat out of the closet and brought them into her room, put the child in the bed and the cat’s crate on the floor next to her. Although she usually slept on the other side of the bed, she chose the side closer to the window for herself, protecting the little girl at all costs just in case Maria decided to turn around and hit them with another round of wind and water. It was too soon for her to trust the quiet. But she was tired and weak and there was nothing left to do. The floor was mostly dry by then. She finally lay down and tried to deep breathe her way to close her eyes when she couldn’t get her lids to stop fluttering. But eventually, with a silent tear, they would stay shut. She would find only a few hours of respite. After all, it was already tomorrow.
Schuyler Esprit is a scholar of Caribbean literary and cultural studies. She is the founder and Director of Create Caribbean Research Institute, which bridges academic research, technology and civic engagement to help young people build a better Caribbean. She is a Program Officer for The University of the West Indies Open Campus and her forthcoming book ‘West Indian Readers: A Social History’ is currently under contract with Papillote Press.