She can barely see herself anymore, so much powder has fallen into the mirror. But she keeps brushing patiently. She spends hours at it, as if trying to cover up how kinky her hair is. She’s still only a girl, but even if she were already a mother she would pay just as much attention to her hair. Tonight she’s going out, and her hair must be as smooth as feathers and shiny with gel. Isn’t that merely a way of denying who she really is, a dark girl with countless stubborn curls?
Behind her there are voices, behind her back they’re gossiping and telling jokes. When she gets tired of brushing, a woman comes to help her. That’s how it always goes: girls and mothers help each other preen, the way their distant ancestors painted each other’s faces before a sacrificial feast. The ritual lives on, in the shade of some backroom or beneath the mango tree in the yard. No woman or girl ever does her hair alone, and those who do not know that bond, know nothing of this mirror’s secret.
What would this water be like without it’s oil slick? Like Curacao without its refinery. Clean. Sterile. Monotonous. The oil creates a spectrum of colors, the contamination turns the water into a Monet. Nothing disturbs the perfection, until the wooden keel of a boat or the bullet-shaped nose of a tanker cuts through the water. Then the colors spatter to all sides, then everything starts to move. But for a little while the slick remains a lily, afloat in the pond of Giverny.
A copy of me
The painting is hanging on the wall. Her husband maybe, as a toddler? No, it’s her son. The outfit is still in the closet. Do we want her to dress him up in them again? The little boy thinks it’s fun. Wearing exactly the same clothes, he walks up to the painting and takes in off the wall. A copy of me. Look, Mom!
Right after he was born, Mama and Papa moved to Holland. Mama got a job in a nursing, at an old-people’s home. The elders were afraid of her, mistrusted her, thought those dark fingers of hers would be stealing everything. Then she wanted to go home. Papa became a truck driver, Mama couldn’t find a job. And Mama got fat.
Her son, a duschi, isn’t he? He already goes to school. Too bad, you know. Without him she doesn’t have anything to do in the mornings, without him she just feeds herself, morning, noon and night.
The swam looks down at the sea far below. At the azure blue waves soaking into the volcanic grit of the beach at Playa Canoa. The swan balances on the wall surrounding a little restaurant. Its brittle body is a flowerpot with an aloe plant in it. Swans don’t live on Curacao, but then Dutch people originally didn’t either. Both species have seen beter days. Such is life – and to each his swan song.
The Arowak Indians. The thirty-two Spaniards who put the island on the map. The seamen of the Dutch West India Company. The builders of the fort. The privateers. The pirates. The slave traders. The English, whose occupation lasted from 1800 to 1815. The South American liberators who caught their second wind at the Waaigat before diving back into the fray, with Simon Bolivar at the fore. The leaders of the Dominican revolution. The Venezuelan smugglers. The Dutch colonial officials. The Sephradic Jews who continued their Diaspora. The friars. The Shell engineers. The students who wanted to go on studying at a distant college or university. The poor sods in search of work. The tourists on their way to the next destination. The sailors. The drug couriers. How many pairs of dull, teary, suspiciously squinting or wide-open eyes have bid farewell to Curacao?
The word is one introduced to the island by the Huguenots. Ayo. Adieu.
Everyone who passes by looks at her hands. Chichi sells lottery tickets on the market. You see a woman like Chichi sitting on folding chairs in front of the post office, or at traffic lights along the highway, or beside the supermarket door. They sit there in the morning, in the afternoon, and on the day before the lottery winner is announced, until they slump over from exhaustion. Women over fifty, over sixty, over seventy, doddering old women sometimes, wearing a straw hat or huddled beneath a parasol.
To emphasize the fantastic bits of luck she holds in her hand, Chichi pays a lot of attention to her fingernails. One half she paints red, the other an opalescent white, like playing cards. The rings on her fingers are also a reference to the glisten and glitter now within reach – atleast for those who are not too poor to buy a ticket. For the rest, Chichi’s not saying a thing. Buy a number?
No, she doesn’t ask you that, let alone shout it out. Whenever a passer-by approaches, she simply waves her hands, and her nails light up like beacons leading to a seductive port-of-call.
You can buy happiness. Just go to Dona Thelma’s shop in Normandie. At a first glance, a five and ten for household articles. Then you see the bottles. You ask for happiness and Dona Thelma pours you a shot of ‘Buena Suerte’. You can also rub the plant extract on your skin, or add it to your bathwater. The scent, not strong but refined, draws out the best in the people around you.
You can also ask Dona Thelma for a shot of jealousy, or a heavy dose of hard feelings. Which you can also use to fumigate those bastards who stand between you and happiness, And then there are the magic potions that keep you in good health or chase away you ills, your migranes, sore muscles, or menstrual cramps. And the dried leaves that banish evil spirits for your home, when burned the way you do with incense.
Bruha is practiced everywhere on Curacao. It’s milder than voodoo, and precisely because it puts no one in an evil trance, everyone does it. Not all too openly, of course. After all, it remains bruha, sorcery, and secret powers lose their punch when they’re laid on the table like candied yams. Bruha and voodoo have one thing in common: the way they both become effortlessly intertwined with the Catholic faith. Dona Thelma’s shop is actually called Casa Jesus. Besides magic potions she also sells prints of the saints. Of her own patroness, Santa Lucia, who is honored by many women on Curacao for her way of bringing light into a dark existence. Anyone who knows the bright light of the Antilles will understand why it is Santa Lucia in particular who is associated with the island: it’s as though her countenance is made of sunlight. Dona Thelma also sells prints of the Archangel Michael giving the devil the boot and protecting homes. The brightly colored prints she imports from Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. But her best seller is the ochre-colored magic potion ‘Buena Suerte’, and a powder that women sneak into their man’s drink when they feel like spending a night between the sheets with a legitimate rooster.
The clouds hesitate. Should they drop their rain, or should they take it with them to the continent? Usually they save their water for the foothills of the Andes. When this happens, it can get so hot in the island’s most remote corners that, even in the early morning, the seat runs down your chest.
Wanchi fixes tires. He stiffens when he hears the shutter click. Outside the garage, no one is to see him like this. If he is to be immortalized, then with a shirt on if you please. Being bare-chested and covered in sweat is doubly humiliating… a reminder of the days of slavery.
Fat is not something you hide. You show it, you flaunt it. You wear the tightest, most transparent clothes you can find, bright red if at all possible. Then you are a women of the Antilles. Otherwise you end up looking like one of those starved lilies, no matter how brown or black you are.
Ask the girls of the Erasmus College what they want to become. You will get the same answer every time: fashion model. Or else…well, they’d have to think about that one. Nurse, maybe. Dentist. Lawyer. Or mother. But anyway, then later on. First they want to stroll the catwalk, in Naomi’s footsteps. They already have the wardrobe for it, and the airs. In fact, they’ve already got it all down, all they need is a chance to show it.
On the island’s north coast, the sea has worn a hole in the rocks. A big hole on the inside, a small one on the top. If you hold your breath, you can hear the water roar. The spot is given the name The Navel of the Earth.
A Chinese brother and sister, the little black boy from next-door.
Three children of Curacao, home to Lebanese and Indians, Pakistanis and Portuguese, Javanese and Jamaicans, Sicilians and Surinamese, Dominicans and Danes, Colombians and Canadians, Argentines and Swedes, Venezuelans and Panamanians, Cubans and North Americans, Haitians and Swiss, full of half Dutchmen, Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Hindustanis, Taoists and, of course, a great many godless.
Little island, big immigrant ship.
Three hundred days a year the wind blows over the island, at thirty or forty knots. And always from the northeast, making the trees bend towards the southwest.
As long as the sun is shining, it’s rarely quiet on the Leeward Islands. You hear the plastic flapping in the bushes, the empty cans rolling down the street, the car doors rattling in the junkyard. And you hear the orioles warbling, like they’re trying to compete with the trade winds.
Until night falls. Then the wind dies down too, and the plastic bags sag loosely on the pepper trees, like the shredded sails of a ship that has narrowly escaped the hurricane.