Voices from Under the Cliff:


Alicia Jenkins

Piscataway, New Jersey

Copyright © 2003 by Alicia Jenkins, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

I can smell Barbados in April
A dry season gone on too long
Whiff of cane burning
A touch of sweet going on to bitter
Small bits of ash drift down
Skittering across the tiled galleries in St. James

There is the sea
Quiet Caribbean hissing the casaurina shaded beaches
Churning up chunks of bleached white coral
East coast abandon of salt spray
Clean and fishy
Glistening the backs of black Bathsheba dinosaurs,
Feeding their green mossy skirts

Deep in a gully
Over a stream so thick with concentrated life
It is the color of fresh peas
Hovers a soup
Rich with the odor of decay and new life
Muffling birdsong and monkey chatter

Above the cliff
Un-harvested cane rustles and bends
And when the ever-present wind
From a continent away
Eases for a moment and takes a breath
That breath is filled with ripeness
Banana frangipani bougainvillea
Till rain briefly sets free the smell of loam
Mixed with the steamy breath of hot coral beneath

A church
Quite empty
Host now to dry wood
Old pages in old books
The memories of those buried in walls and floors
And just beyond the doors
In a cemetery too blindingly bright
For the neglected stones
Incongruous cinder block walls
Guard dead flowers
Tossed in a ditch of crumbled graves

Under the cliff St. John
Smelling of damp and soil
And small critters staking their claims
Ghosts live here
Drawing me in
Tempting me home
Invitations to share space and time
Then and now
Wind carried whispers
Commingled with scents of Barbados in April

Sarah took the train to Bridgetown
And without a backward glance
At Joe's River, Crab Hole, Foster Hall
Climbed aboard the ship
Determined she would reinvent herself
A milliner on Coney Island

She had lost her place
Or could see none for herself
She was poor
She was white
Becoming an anathema
In a paradise prison

She could no longer see the beauty
Tomorrow here held no promise
Where once her great great grandfathers
Saw tomorrows in fields of
Indigo or cotton or cane
She saw simply the almost certain future
Of her dead father's seventeenth child
By his third wife

She was unable or unwilling
To embrace her past
Rejected her present
And turned her eyes narrowly to a nebulous future
Among thousands of her fellow exiles
On a much colder beach
Miles to the north
And light-years away

She would return only once
Bearing home the wasted body of her dream
Father of the child
Curled upon itself beneath her breast
In heat and pain
And the genteel poverty
Of a grudgingly hosted prodigal
She brought forth her firstborn child
Whose arrival was greeted by tree frogs
And a low-lying southern cross

Then once more
Unable to bear beauty's mockery
And the prospect of a life
Lived on the good graces of others
She fled a final time
Closing all doors
Cutting all ties
Revisiting them gingerly
Like a tongue on a sore tooth
Choosing instead
A life lived out in shades of gray

In years to come she would marry again
Bear more children
New homes fields churches
Unasked-for new lives for many
Would spring up like mushrooms
Fairy circles after the rain

Nothing would mark her past
Graves would exist only etched on her brain
A sound
Howling banshee wind so loud
It drowned the screams of her children
Leaving a vision of silent open mouths
In faces contorted with fear
Her husband swallowed
In a sea of mud
As it swept their by-then roofless house
To meet the coast

Sitting at Cattlewash
Looking toward the sea
For answers she would not ever find
Her ears probed the breeze
That now gentle still
Raised hackles of fear at the base of her neck

She was alone
For the first time in her life
Covered with mud and sweat and filth
Her world contracted
To a pile of rubble and debris
Several hundred yards downhill
And by her present form of reckoning
Several hundred years distant
From the smiling Irish girl who had last seen the sun

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