Bradford Philen. Memories of Batad.

14 Dec

Memories of Batad

Alfred and Gertrude, hiking poles in hand, descended from the towering Cova de Paul in Cape Verde. The mighty sea was slightly in sight, but from where they stood, the harsh surf was still, like in a photograph. They were exhausted and running out of water. Visions of their dehydrated trek through the rice terraces of Batad, Philippines kept reappearing in Gertrude’s mind. Her usual pale face was beet-red after that day and Alfred couldn’t rid himself of the swelling in his hands for days. That was a tiring day and one to be forgotten, not repeated.

The rugged island of Santo Antão was a gift of the sea, a mere salvaged spittle of Senegal and the Cap-Vert peninsula. Islanders live a cautionary life – as if they are aware of the gift of land that was granted by the sea. Cradling this gift with great care and diligence, they are cognizant of their borders and boundaries, penetrating the waters only with purpose. They aren’t an indigenous people, rather a people coined half-caste. Métis. Mestiço. Mulatto. Mixed race. Tan-skinned. Indifferent to a solid shade. Tainted. A people of deportation. Auction. Importation. Assimilation. Latte skin, thick and dark hair, and hazel-blue eyes. Where did we come from? Sweat. Chains. Ropes. Metal. Guns. Stew. Privilege. Riches. Grub. Slop. Sty. Red. Black. White. They were conceived. It is a story true and real, but neither all true nor all real. Love and peace dwell among the islanders, as does cynicism and optimism. Shyness and confusion. Laughter and diligence. Worry and hatred. They live. They, too, are West African. They are complex beings, just like the Chinese and Portuguese of the world, just like the Americans of the world who view Africa as one place, just like the Senegalese who dance the Tazen Baax. They watch the sea and wait on Mother Nature to turn, move, provide, and grant another day within the borders of the wrecking waves that strike their shores.

Gertrude, plump and freckled, stopped and sighed, and Alfred, husband of 27 years, reached for her. “Come, take my hand,” he said.

“I’m feeling quite tired, darling,” Gertrude said.

“Me, too, Schöne. It can’t be far from here. According to the map we should meet the main road just below here,” Alfred said. He pointed to cliffs as sharp as broken glass. Alfred’s face was square and his nose was pointed.

This was their first time to Santo Antão – and first excursion to West Africa. They were much more accustomed to Asian excursions and adventures, falling in love first with the Southeast Asian massages and then the hiking. Yet, Alfred’s colleague Martin convinced Alfred to head to the islands, where the only disappointment was the serving size of a bottle of Super Bock beer, the national beer, a mere 25 cl.

Alfred, with Gertrude’s hand in his, led them along the path, which fell to a fork. Left meant a walk down – Alfred’s hunch towards the main road – while the right ascended. They stopped and sipped the last of their water. Gertrude waited. Alfred looked both ways, uncertain. His throat was dry and thick with saliva.

The valleys and villages of Paul are far from the staggering sea. Children from Paul sit in awe and wonder, and gaze at the waters when they first visit the sea that they have only heard of from friends or family. In the valleys, the sea is not heard; rather the sway of sugar cane stalks, the cackling chickens, the creaking crickets, and the flow of mountain springs pulse through the air with the echoing mountain conversations and the occasional passing vehicle. Life there exists not as it would with an island people, but as it would with a mountain people, who look as rough as the landscape, but are as sturdy in their way of life as the stubborn mountain refusing to submit to the sea’s force.

Sturdy though the islanders may be, unaffected by the sea they are not. Hot and humid air, sent from the Sahara, passes through Dakar and the Cap-Vert peninsula, building strength, until a tropical storm forms and strikes, soaking the West Indies and the Americas with rain, thunder, and uncontrollable winds. Cape Verde, the West African island nation, sits in the middle of this seasonal phenomenon. On Santo Antão, the tiny village of Drogeiro waits. Rocks tumble. The month of September, the month of fierce rain, brings the most devastation to Drogeiro. By October the rains virtually quit until the following August.

Alfred and Gertrude halted at the fork in the path, which was lined by mud-brick and tin structures. These were Drogeiro homes, strategically built upon the terraces to the very edge of the cliffs. Terraces of sugar cane, coffee beans, and sweet papaya surrounded the area. The trails nestled against steep mountainside.

“Is there anybody here, Alfred? It’s so quiet,” Gertrude said. Frustration and worry suffocated her. She was tired, passing her years in retirement, traveling the world with her husband, and attempting to ease the pain she felt in her heart for the loss of both of their children.

“The farmers must be resting. It’s hot out. It’s probably the siesta now,” Alfred said.

Traveling for them had become the least worrisome way to pass their time and to spend their money. Alfred rarely spoke of their children, but longed for the exuberant laugh the love of his life lost some years ago. Traveling, at least, brought out a carefree serenity in Gertrude, Alfred thought. His heart beat a bit faster when he heard his wife’s snorting laughter. Alfred’s hard and determined German heart had years yet to travel at full speed, but Gertrude did not. Alfred knew it. Batad had been a breaking point for her.

From the doorstep of his home that sat right on the path, Jão curiously watched the foreigners. Pasty skin, bags strapped to their shoulders, walking poles, boots tied so tightly it looked like they couldn’t breathe. Jão had just eaten lunch with his father and older brothers, who were now sleeping. Alfred and Gertrude didn’t notice Jão for several breaths.

“Let’s ask him which way to the main road,” Alfred said.

“Do you think he speaks Portuguese?” Gertrude said.

“I would assume a bit. I will ask him.” Alfred approached Jão.

Jão didn’t understand Alfred’s words, but knew what he wanted. He responded in his native Kriolu.

“Go right,” Jão said. Elbows and arms skinny and angled almost like a puppet, he was shy but assertive. His body language was clear. He stepped in front of the path that led left, the path that descended, the path that Gertrude and Alfred desired.

“Do you think he understands what we want?” Gertrude said.

“I don’t think so. I really think we must go left,” Alfred said. He had become increasingly confident with his sense of direction. “Left is really the only logical way towards the main road.”

Jão sensed the couple’s urge to walk left. He repeated again, “go right.” Jão had seen many foreigners pass and was always mesmerized by the items they lugged. He figured there was some merceria in Praia that sold such gear, but having only traveled as far as Coduli, some 30 kilometers from Drogeiro, he wasn’t sure. He wondered about the photos they took, about the languages he heard, about the footprints they left. So many questions passed through his mind, but the day that Alfred and Gertrude passed was not a time to dither with the foreigners. He was intent on protecting Kima. They will not go left, he thought.

Alfred and Gertrude began to do just that.

Weary, Jão looked to his sandy feet and flip-flops with the Brazilian flag on each tong, and back again to the couple. He stepped in front of them.

“You can’t pass this way. You must go right, today. Now, now,” Jao said.

He pointed towards the other trail. He stood his ground and leaned again to block the path to the left, which was indeed the closest and quickest route to the main road. What Alfred and Gertrude did not know was a group of women were bathing at a fountainhead just along the trail that descended.

“Alfred,” Gertrude said. “I can’t walk up anymore. My leg is just throbbing and I can feel my hands swelling again. Do, let’s go down.”

Alfred knew he could not persuade his wife to hike up any further. He, himself, was growing tired of the steep climbs. He just wanted to reach the main road and then flag down an aluguer and get to their hotel in Vila da Pombas. This boy didn’t know what he was talking about, Alfred thought.

“Love, let’s go down this mess of a steep place. We’ll be fine, I promise,” Alfred said. He took her hand again and moved past the boy.

Jão tried once more to block the path, but he was simply too scrawny. He was raised on papaya and afternoon sugar cane and was little match for Alfred, burly and beer bellied, who had enjoyed three to four hearty meals a day for the last 57 years.

“Please, don’t walk this way, senhor,” Jão said.

“Escusa, pardon,” Alfred said.

With Gertrude’s swelling hand in his, Alfred shoved Jão. Jão stumbled. The tong of his right flip-flop broke. 
Alfred and Gertrude walked steadily though the sun’s crippling heat soaked their skin.

After turning a few bends along the dusty path, Gertrude noticed Jão was still near.

“Honey, you know the boy is following us,” Gertrude said. “I hope you didn’t hurt him back there. He may call for someone to help him.”

“He probably is following, but he’s just a boy, dear. Just a young, dumb mulatto. Let’s keep walking. We’re almost there,” Alfred said.

Jão’s pitter-patter quickened. He thought to run past the couple to alert the bathing women. Afraid of the creole child, Gertrude flinched and jerked her hand from Alfred’s. In one swift movement, Alfred turned and glared at the boy, who still ran. He raised his hand and slapped the boy in his face.

“Parate,” Alfred said.

Jão had never been struck before. His body fell limp to the ground. The hot ground felt cold against his burning chest. He lay in fear and waited for the trekkers to leave. He wondered when the ground would be warm again.

“Alfred, why would you,” Gertrude said.

“Stop talking,” Alfred said. He cut her off. The saliva in his throat moistened. “Don’t talk now, dear. Let’s move.” He grabbed her hand and continued descending down the path, abandoning the boy.

The women sat by the watering hole. Some bathed. Some washed and dried clothes on the smooth rocks that lined the pool. They laughed and teased one another. Gossip and advice flowed with the running water. Kima sat aloof and distant. She had been sullen and awkward for several months. She feared group gatherings and Kima would have certainly been left out had it not been for Jão. You must take care of her, he told the women in his village. She was in physical and emotional pain. Her neck and shoulder never really healed. Scabs still bled. She found it difficult to sleep. The scars ailed her, as well. She looked and felt different. Inadequate. No boy will ever look at me, she thought.

Jão yelled to the women from the steep descending trail. Alfred and Gertrude took the cries to be little more than a young boy calling for an adult. Their greater concern was their well- being, their elusive security, getting to the paved road and finding an aluguer.

Just as they rounded a second bend in the path – the bend that made the bathing pool quite visible – Kima stood. Her auburn skin shone. Gertrude noticed the tan body. She saw the scar. How awful, Gertrude thought. It looked heavy, as if she carried it. It was red, black, blue, white, and full of pus and yellow discharge. From her collar bone, across her chest, deep through her breast, and down her side, it penetrated her rib cage, the scar, like a growing bacteria. How awful it was, Gertrude thought. The she remembered Batad and how tired she was. She remembered her daughter. How tired she was when she found out. The creole girl’s scar looked like Uma’s scar. The seat belt had sliced her still childish, jugular veins and ended her adolescent life. The jugular scar that wasn’t her fault. Gertrude stopped. “It wasn’t her fault,” Gertrude said.

“What, darling?” Alfred said. He, too, saw the girl.

“Look. The girl there. I’ve seen it before. It’s like.”

“No, it’s not. Don’t say that, Gertrude. She’s nothing like our girl,” Alfred said. Gertrude screamed. The dry cries echoed through the mountainside. It was too tangible, too close. Too real, like the day she received the phone call. Like the day she had to identify her daughter’s scarred body.

Kima, too, screamed. I am ugly, she thought, they see it. The rocks weren’t supposed to tumble on anyone. It was too steep. The rocks were supposed to fall to the valleys.

Jão ran to Kima. On the trail he pushed Alfred out of the way. “Don’t cry, my sister, don’t cry,” he said to Kima.

Alfred grabbed his wife and held her. He didn’t understand what was happening.

The women grabbed Kima and covered her scarred body. They looked at Gertrude, who was crying, too. They wondered what happened to her.

Jaded, Jão pointed past the pool. “Go right,” he said.

Alfred said nothing. He led Gertrude, who kept her face in her hands.

They tiptoed by the women who sat caressing Kima. Gertrude sobbed.

Jão went to his sister’s side and washed his hands in the pool.

They were just scars.



This story is part of Bradford Philen’s new book of stories Everything is Insha’Allah.

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