Since arriving in Culebra, Tallulah has fallen victim to a variety of fevers, colds, coughs, and fungal and staph infections. She has drunk bleach and eaten bread containing BHT. Now add to that list: Playing with the fruit of the most toxic plant on earth. That's right, good family fun was had today tossing manchineel fruit hither and yon in the gentle surf of Electric Beach. The fruits are like little green apples that float. Perfect for water games. Mom was intrigued by said fruits and peeled back the skin to sniff at the flesh. Hmm, I thought. Sweet. Tantalizingly so. I showed Tallulah the interesting large white seed within. (One of our hobbies, across the world, has been dissecting the local flora. And on occasion, fauna.) I saw more, scattered along the sand, and wandered around collecting them, intending to look them up in the field guide at “home.”
Then a little voice in my head started to whisper. It's a little intuitive voice I have, and it's been there for a long time, probably thanks to the fact that when I was a little girl, my own mom used to take me out into the fields and woods and teach me the names of plants. And it was getting more urgent. It was saying, manchineel. Manchineel. This was after I'd lifted one of those sweet little fruits and brushed it ever so delicately against my lips, savoring its siren sweetness.
Several minutes later I felt an uncomfortable sensation in my mouth, a certain numbness, a certain tightness, and I thought I could feel the right side of my body go slack and then my heart jolted, possibly with adrenaline, or just wrongness. I sat down.
When we came back to the boat and looked it up, we found out that the Caribs used to poison their arrows with this stuff.
Why am I quickly being disqualified as a parent? Well, partly because it's the full moon. Is there some Scorpio in this one, or some Aries? Astrologers, help me out here. I've been tense and edgy. I'm full of delusions of grandeur on the one hand, fear of failure on the other. I've been wearing myself out with thinking about how to make some money without sacrificing family life, because lately our finances have been like buffalo meat (you know, very healthy).
So I'm in the process of finishing the next airport bestseller, but in the meantime I'll be launching my new business: Fear Grin Productions. Copyediting and Proofreading Services. No Job Too Large or Too Small. I'm a Virgo, ergo a perfectionist, and when you're talking about comma splices or “which” versus “that,” perfectionism is a good thing. (That comma before “because” in the previous paragraph? Technically, it shouldn't be there.) I'm considering this as a tagline: If there's one thing I can get right, it's your writing.
Forty years ago, when the Marines were here, the economy of Culebra was heavily dependent on laboratory rats. The US government had set up a rat factory--this was their way of keeping the locals happy. Then they decided they wanted them unhappy. People were getting in the way of artillery shells, and bombs, and secret posts for listening to the ghostly whistling, the squawks and bleats of our friends and enemies flying, invisible, across the airwaves.
The factory is by far the largest building in el pueblo. I can only imagine what is inside. That dim decay of abandoned offices, the laboratories where the rats were bred, the sterility necessary to places where life is experimented with.
We went over. A couple of horses graze on the grounds. Tallulah had spotted them when we went foraging for mangoes one afternoon beside the fire station. The horses were eating green mangoes right off the tree. Their long, rubbery lips reached up, grappling with the crunch. They were also open to eating grass shoved through the chainlink fence. The next day, she insisted we return. She ran happily to the fence looking for horses, but they were nowhere in sight. When I explained, the local firemen said, They're back there. But is it safe? I asked. They looked at each other, shrugged and nodded. One of them pulled open the gate.
So we wandered into the rat factory. We found the horses. We petted and discussed them. Then we left, because I couldn't get the flattened face of a woman I knew in New Orleans out of my head. She was kicked by a horse and the doctors never could fix her bones. It struck me that I may be unfit for modern life. I can find things to worry over even in the most innocuous, bucolic places. Then again, maybe this time it's to do with the posted warning signs, the industrial shower that accompanies a place where toxic substances collect, the odd metal cages. Maybe something's clinging to this odd intersection of manipulation and things bred to die that the simple practice of ordinary life has yet to overcome.
I have been foraging. There is something in me that loves a found object. Fortunately it is mango season and the trees are dripping with great green teardrops. I found a carambola tree accessible through a family's gate, when they weren't home and had left the gate open. But then I realized the neighbor across the street was always watching through those slatted windows they have here to keep out the light.
It has become my goal to eat only fruit I have picked. I step hesitantly at first and then brazenly into those margins I'm able to trespass, as someone who owns no land and is here temporarily, without claim. This is partly because the mangoes in the local colmado cost two dollars. I think they come from the Dominican Republic. I think only the tourists buy them now. They are piled high, they have been ripening slowly, and now they are turning an unusual shade of peach.
In every place I have traveled, without trying, I have come across solitary shoes. I have seen many ordinary shoes and some beautiful shoes. These, too, I want to pick up and carry home. I am planning a photo essay entitled “One Shoe.” But I haven't started it yet because I keep thinking, What would be the point? And then I think, one shoe is one of the most useless objects imaginable. I love shoes, like my mother and grandmother before me. I really want to find the other shoe. I search for it among the plastic bottles and seaweed, farther down the road, back among the trees.
I recently read about people who run barefoot. I had no idea that running shoes can actually hurt your feet. It made me think about the other day when I rowed to shore to take a walk and forgot my shoes. I decided to walk without them. I started up the hill and for the first half hour I kept thinking about how radical it seemed. When I returned to the dock, my feet felt perfectly fine, but my mind was still reeling a little. The sensation of unraveling received knowledge—and, not to be so grand about it, habit—seemed to be a feeling of nakedness. What else don't we need? My mom used to say—maybe she still does—that I was “cavalier.” I knew exactly what she meant. A sort of overly casual attitude, a tendency to want to take shortcuts. Now, with some extra maturity, we could move over one romance language and say I'm going for sprezzatura—careless ease. Trying very, very hard to make something look easy. And then, gradually, it is. Oh, the delicious lightness of a free ripe mango.
Rhythm is, indeed, everything. I failed music theory back when I was eight or nine and played the violin indifferently. I never could figure out what they were talking about when they talked about 5/6 time (?), or 4/4 time. The house and the car were filled with music, mostly baroque, mixed with the solemn, annoying voices of NPR reporters. I attended the opera. Why couldn't I get it? I sit listening to the soaring arc of George Lewis's clarinet in “Over the Waves” and I think, surely it's the fact that I was mysteriously unprepared to make an intuitive leap. To feel. Or, perhaps, to feel with intellect. Rhythm is a sort of sign or metaphor. If I had to guess I'd say our lives are lived these days at something like a 2/4 beat, overwhelmed sometimes in the faster, higher rhythms of a new place, some gaping—opportunity, that is, some problem waiting to be transformed into the most astounding future we could never have imagined. Isn't that what's waiting?
Recently, Tallulah drank bleach. Jesus! It was diluted so thoroughly it didn't even have a smell. We have no idea how it got onto a measuring cup on the counter. She threw up all over the floor and then said she felt better. I wasn't at all satisfied. But Adam had gone to Fajardo and taken the dinghy; a storm was passing over, interfering with the internet connection; oh yeah, and Adam had the cellphone. We triangulated by shouting into our respective instruments, “Can you hear me?” and bleating the relevant words like morse code. It was kind of like being in a war a hundred years ago. It turned out Adam was calling Lawrence, who lives on a boat nearby, while I was hailing the anchorage on the radio. Then two men in dinghies were heading straight for our boat, medevac style. We all visited the doctor together. He looked down her throat and said she was fine. Then my platoon and I walked over to the health food store for a quick recon of life-giving fluids. When I thanked them, they said, “Happy to help. We don't have much money, but we have lots of time.” A little day-in-the-life for ya.
I recently read a book called Radical Homemakers. It's all about people who, the author says, “did the math.” They did the math and they decided to opt out of the traditional paradigm of working and spending. They turned their family units into “units of production” rather than “units of consumption.” Make, forage, barter, do with less. Drop out. Relearn. Reintegrate, but with a difference. I'm wondering if the commune movement of the late sixties and seventies ran into such trouble because there was no internet. Apparently Adam and I are not alone. Rather than being consumed with anxiety over the crisis of resources, we can look upon it as a reason to live better. What's so great about massive consumption, anyway? Does it make people happy? We've got rhythm. Now, we just have to swing it.