Balenbouche (in light of Baltimore)

“Balen” in Kweyol (and perhaps French??) means Whale. and “Bouche” means mouth. 

copper

There is a birdless, leafless quiet. Strange for early afternoon in the country. I get out of my car. A huge semi-spherical copper sits on the lawn, like a planet split in half, growing water-lilies on rain water. I have the well-dressed but rugged look, the stressed, coffee-blooded researcher, on the road conducting interviews in the field. In my own little country, there are ‘natives’ that one must go to, to ‘enlighten’ oneself, to learn their ways and customs with surprise and impatience and discomfort. Where they live is squalid; what they eat from is disturbing; where they sleep is thoroughly depressing. Having interviewed them, you leave distressed but achieved, satisfied. I am part of a tradition of researchers and poets and artists who fight for the legitimacy and acceptance of the lives and customs of the folk, my mother’s people. Like Harold Simmons in Roseau or Vieux Fort or Dennery with Alan Lomax and their recording apparatus. Like St. Omer and his murals. Like Walcott and Hippolyte and his vagrants and madmen and prostitutes. With names like these, or even such ambitious a task (so lofty a notion) of giving life and visibility and legitimacy to people, it is easy to feel smug and self-congratulating, to feel the caravanserai of one’s generosity filling up with their simplicity of donkeys and their simple trades and lives and stories.

I had taken the wrong road at first, that had led me to a cemetery, in an obscure, unexpected place. I wondered how the hearse managed along the unpaved, rutted road, how the dead would have rattled in their coffins; how the smooth, solemn walk would become belaboured with interruptions of gravity and stones. The air filled with small, suspicious flies. I reversed all the way out, for there was little room to turn. I found the road to Balembouche a short distance away. The roads to the guest house and to the cemetery, were identical. There is no discernible parking lot. The place is pristine—- I park on the grass, a little way from the dirt road. I pick up my tablet and walk. Weeks before I had brought up the idea to my wife— both of us complaining of not having time and space to work. An artist- retreat, like Walcott’s dream for Rat Island. Both of us, in the quiet and comfort of the country, an empty, safe cabin. A place with no internet, no distractions. It would be a sort of abstract space, the great house excavated from its origins and meanings into a guest house of peace and reception. The ambition itself, noble and hermetic. I the poet, she the painter/photogapher. This was di dream until it have dogs snapping at my ankles, and my ‘good afternoon’, all fur and ferocious, wit’ collar but looking like pothound and mongrel. I try to kick them off, scare them, making like I pickin’ up big stone to pelt them. But they eh stoppin’, and a family gathered, so sweetly, so nice, as if for a family photograph, on the gallery of their Great House, watching long and clear and slow like linseed porridge, what happenin’ to me. Me, the artist, me, the black** writer. And it seem a while after, long after the gruel and growl, long after the dodge, moving my foot swift like a footballer dribbling di ball, calling out words I doh even remember,one of the family, a long white girl step out of the photograph on di gallery start calling the dog and dem, all of dem by their human names, and slowly, gradually them walk away, as if nothing did happen. Is like the one in T.S. Eliot poem ‘that is not what I meant, that is not it at all’ or someting so…

 

And without apology, smiling and polite and civilized after all the raised dirt, and my unravelling, she comes polished and pleasant from the photograph and shakes my hand. I can’t remember her name now: Rachel or Judith or something.  Introduced herself. I tell her, squeezing in three words between each sharp breath, that I was merely looking for a place, a retreat to come and write. I am a writer. My wife a painter. You grow up in this island thinking that things like that matter to all white people, that all white people are connoiseurs, that all of them shall find this important and admirable and respectable, even in a black man. She tentatively walks me to the house. The photograph has dispersed, and as I get to the gallery, and she leads me round the corner, (still the gallery) I see that they have entered another photograph. The family, having lunch. She introduces me, with my nice Educated name. Tells them I am a writer. They do not look up from their food. Looking for a retreat to write, and for his wife to paint. They chew slowly, looking down at their plates. A woman is snarkily shaking her head. This is not the time, they are having lunch. Rachel again: he wanted to have a look at the accommodation. Rachel, all polite and forbearing and messianic. Something in me, near the stoic table, the family-having-lunch-photograph, clings to her. I want to whisper to her like I would whisper to my wife, walking from an awkward scene. Is this still a guest house? Rachel, through her politeness, her civility or perhaps her business-savvy, brings me back to the anguish of the stoic table, her svelty frame moving so lightly through all the heaviness, saying jauntily to the hard faces at the table that Vladimir is leaving now. As if I was a frequent visitor whom the dogs knew or licked or left alone. I wanted to cuss the whole blasted table. I watch. It had a likkle black child there too, with her face same way like the white people. She was there like she feel she is family. Same hard face and food on she mouth. I was shaking and feeling my blood hot and boilin like the cuss and dem was inside it.

 

But what then would I say to Rachel? How would I explain that behaviour, that party-pooping to her, after all her civility and gentleness. She leads me out of the gallery, and down the stairs that she walked so gracefully and slowly to come to my rescue earlier. Half way on the path she says something about one learning how to deal with animals, that throwing stones at them is not the way, that you must talk to them, that they can understand. Ever so gently, in her Rachel way, she lets me go the rest of the way alone. Like a child, who has just been taught an axiom of being and is sent out to see its irrefragable truth and reality, a child sent out in the world to see that his parent’s were right all along. I walk to the car shaking from the frazzle and frisson and now anger at the dogs, the photographs and even at Rachel. I get in the car, wind up the tinted windows, and curse to myself in darkness.

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