A Million Details
A young boy, eight or nine, drowned not far from here, under a bridge. One can hear him yelling, people say, as soon as night falls.
There is variation, but not much. Some say he curses anyone crossing the bridge on foot or slower than thirty miles per hour; in another version the boy cries out in playful ecstasy, ordering people to join him in those waters; a few alleged witnesses will tell you the boy yells whatever the unfortunate passerby thinks but dares not say, things like, I owe such and such x amount and have no intention of repaying, or, I once slept with the husband or wife of so and so, and we would do it all over . . . You get the idea.
No one cares what the weather was like. It was evening. Quarter to seven or so; the sky was still Caribbean blond. But nightfall happens fast here. It’s nothing like Kotzebue that way. I had just started to cross that bridge—the only one in this village—aboard an overburdened motorcycle, sandwiched between the driver and another passenger. That’s when the rear brakes started to moan. Next thing, the driver was talking to a man, maybe in his late sixties—the motorcycle swerving a little, the old man walking faster than a proselytizing Mormon who’s got nowhere to pee. Mieeeeeerrrda, ran the thought. A third passenger! Where do we put this guy? Entrepreneurial optimism, if that’s what prompted the driver to stop, soon became something else—not solicitation but a mockery of the shit one has to do to make a living. This was solicitation on stage, Neale Hurston might’ve said.
“Where are you going, Nao? Looks like you need a ride.”
The potential third passenger stopped walking, looked up at the sky, and said something like, “My respects to all who are here, listening to this, what’s uttered through me.” He said this as if greeting a large audience, the grand opening to a fucking speech. Imagine that! And, Who or what else was there, I thought, beyond us four little Black souls?
“No ride for me, young people. Not now. Have to work on a report about that plane crash over there.”
He pointed past the mountains, away from the coast, the direction of our mutual destination. That was Nao! Had I known who it was, I might’ve reacted differently—tapped the driver on the shoulder, slipped him a fifty, a piece of paper, asked him to move on or something.
Nao is as crazy a person as you or anyone will find in this place. I’m talking about crazy proper. Universally so. Always in a hurry, he’d sometimes employ himself as air crash investigator and could talk about this for hours—to himself, if need be.
“Now, that’s 157 passengers and 7 crew members: 98 women; 40 men; 17 both male and female; 5 neither male nor female. Now, take your time if you want to get these things right. Take your time. It’s yours!”
He stared at us, all three of us, and said it again: “Take your time. Now!” As if time were some material thing, a slow-moving but determined mule one could ride anywhere. Silly laughter wouldn’t let the driver and the other passenger get past a stammering, “Pro, pro, pro,” wanting to interrupt Nao with an objection or two. (Pero, you’ll remember, is sometimes pronounced pro here, like the burst of an automatic rifle.) Nervous, upset, and increasingly wanting to have both feet on the ground, I got off the stupid motorcycle.
But that was Nao! I didn’t know it, then. Just about everything about the scene had all the makings of a mean practical joke on a mute guy like me, I thought. The world about to turn dark, stopping right in the middle of that crappy bridge, the story about the drowning of that young boy . . . Remember?
I’d heard about Nao; my second cousin Tania had told me stories about him. I had wanted to know more because, apparently, the guy hadn’t always been that way; and because his own son, Tania’s neighbor, is attributed at least two forms of madness in this place; and lastly, because here was a case to help prove—to you or anyone reading this—that madness isn’t a hereditary thing.
You see, it’s seen as a type of madness here to waste opportunities. If ever the gods smile at you, and you turn a cold shoulder, you’re crazy, nuts, loco. Nao’s son worked at one of the hotels on the coast where an older Canadian woman apparently fell in love with him. The woman actually moved in with the guy, a few months ago. Imagine that, to give up all the comfort of an all-inclusive joint (they charge something like $150 a night there!) for a little hut here. The woman even bought him a yellow scooter, brand new. Instead of building a house, buying half a dozen piglets or something, the guy took to drinking, heavily. Naturally, everyone questions his sanity.
The second type of madness is entirely the work of envy, I think. I’m talking about the young fans, not of the person but of the situation: to have a woman willing to give one the joys of the world. Those guys are quick to diagnose him with a different type of madness, a word and condition usually reserved for gay men, generally said and meant as an insult.
If anything, I’ve come to think, Nao’s son might be too macho with that woman. They sometimes engage in strange heated arguments, where seemingly small things sound as if they’re causing the world to fall apart. Late at night, from that little hut, you’d hear things like,
“Come taste this shrimp!”
“I don’t want your fucking shrimp!!”
This goes on for a while at times. Apparently, she’d offer him Canadian dishes, and, I imagine, he’d want stuff that was more Caribbean. I’ve seen similar things happen in New York, where a person feels part of his identity threatened and compensates by exaggerating another part of himself.
Sometimes the conversations take a strange turn, stuff I’m still trying to figure out. He’d yell to her, “¡Prométemelo!” And she’d shoot back, “¡No! ¡Tú prométemelo!” Maybe there is suspected infidelity on both sides, prompting each to demand a promise from the other that something is or isn’t true. I don’t know.
It still bothers me to no end, to have had a golden opportunity to speak with Nao simply slip away. Maybe madness is hereditary but assumes a different form with each generation. I don’t know, and not knowing sucks.
That was fucking Nao! As these legs started to move away, discretion soon gave way to primal urges, the lure of fleeing, and a desperate need, not for speed but distance, space; all this while the old man broke off into one liners, more fuel for the stupid laughter of the driver and the remaining passenger.
“Help me! I can see!!”
It was dark, very dark, already.
“Arizona wants to be New Mississippi.”
A geography lesson.
“A person is a million details.”
Fuck it, if they saw me running away.
“I am starting to feel like a Jeremiah.”
It was second gear now.
“A person is, at bottom, a system of reality.”
No shit, and I wanted no part of that one.
“And there are a million details, twenty-four hours of every day, spelling out that you are a worthless human being.”
¡Adiós! I was almost at the other end of the bridge now.
That was the last I heard, now in high gear but also pondering whether one really has much say in choosing what one notices. For instance, at some point between getting off the motorcycle and what happened next, I dropped a book (essays by James Baldwin); can’t really say how or when.
I looked behind my left shoulder; too late. A car with one headlight and plenty of loud music was right on me. There was neither time nor space for anything other than jumping, and jump I did.
All that stuff people say about time slowing down when you are in the middle of a near-death experience, well, I guess it doesn’t always happen that way. A shitload of bushes and what I think might have been small fruit trees softened the landing; and it was there, after death had kissed both these cheeks, that the world stopped for me.
No moon, just a butt-load of stars; even the faint ones came into focus, provided enough of a backdrop for me to make out five or six swallows the fall must’ve startled and just the right amount of light to see my arms and stomach and legs covered in that sticky milky sap that oozes out when you scratch a green papaya or squeeze a handful of spurge. And it was beautiful, for a timeless little bit, to notice all that, and to think, If the dead boy wants to make an apparition, I will notice him too, like I do these stars flickering at me.
Don’t treat this as a confession, because it isn’t, unless you read it that way. It wouldn’t have bothered me to have died there. Not in an I-don’t-give-a-fuck way; I mean, death ceased to exist for me, not even the mosquitoes bothered me, there and then, for that timeless bit. There was no time, no death, and so no fear of dying, of harm or pain. That must be it, I now think; that must be how one defeats death, makes it disappear: stare it in the face and whisper, “Aha! I know your secret.”
Can’t help but wonder if that’s what drives so many emigrants to return to this place, year after year, bursting with luggage. Being able to feel and notice things one rarely notices and feels abroad: the scent of loss, the million stars and details that remind you, at every turn, that you are an irreplaceable and timeless human being, all the shit, I imagine, one must need in order to, among other things, die a peaceful death.
Don’t know how long I laid there. Told my cousin Tania I fell down, when I got home, late, but couldn’t tell you how late. Over breakfast and tea, I asked her yet again about Nao; not much. Guy came to this village as a farmhand, years ago, with his very young son. One day, something happened, causing him to walk and keep walking away. It’s all sketchy, I know, but that’s what I have on Nao. And that he’s always moving; like a comet, he makes an apparition in this village every other month or so. Stuff that tells you there’s much more out there, I know, but that’s fucking Nao. All that’s available to us at the moment.
Often in the repeating islands of the Caribbean, Mauricio Almonte splits time between baking (a mean cassava bread), dreaming (of Pan-Caribbeanism), translating (the seemingly untranslatable), and writing (readerly experiences). He is currently at work on a collection of short fiction dealing with perceptions of madness, with recent publications in THAT Literary Journal and Culture Strike Magazine and occasional tweets (@adifferntword).