Goatwater is a column which explores the mystifying, joyous and liberating concept of Carnival through the New York born and raised, Caribbean-American perspective of poet and artist Tiffany Osedra Miller.
Literature, Like Music, Is a Soundtrack
I was visiting the island of St. Lucia while on my third reading of Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. I read the novel, years prior, in an English literature class at my Bronx, NY, Catholic high school, an institution with ominous catacombs, a chapel and wide, old-fashioned staircases – which made it a fitting location to first encounter the romantic, Gothic tale. I felt so sad vacationing in lush, gorgeous, St. Lucia, rabidly re-reading Rebecca, while mourning the end of a relationship.
Wild, tropical birds flew throughout the house I stayed in, frightening me, making me duck and sway dramatically to avoid their sudden presence at breakfast, lunch or dinner. My reaction amused my hosts, relentlessly, as I, a city girl, morphed into a Caribbean-American, Tippi Hedren, fighting off scores of winged beasts in Hitchcock’s film, The Birds. Heartbroken, I felt as foolish and forlorn as the second Mrs. De Winter – living in the shadows of her new husband’s deceased wife, Rebecca – instead of myself. Who did I want to be? What masque did I want to play? Or wear? Perhaps, the mythic, ever-desirable, Helen, in Derek Walcott’s epic poem, Omeros, largely set in St. Lucia.
Santa Lucia, though her name means, light, is the patron saint of blindness. Despite many attempts to claim her virginity or marry her off to various suitors, she remained steadfast in her devotion to God. I recall the churches of St. Lucia, the emptiness of the schoolyards, where I sensed the ghosts of children running and singing, wearing clean, well-ironed uniforms, hair ribbons and bow ties blowing in the wind.
I washed my hair outside, in the heat, caressing pearls of mango conditioner throughout each strand. Behind me, an unfinished cottage, where inside one of the rooms, a hanging crucifix repeatedly tapped against a black wall. Out of place and down the road, was a popular Italian restaurant called Capone’s. I was struck by how cool the air felt near the rainforest. Paradise? Yes. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I left and awoke in the dark, alone, inside a small hotel in Paris near the Rue De Strasbourg. I finished reading Jean Rhys,’ Good Morning, Midnight, a novel about a melancholy woman meeting men in cafés and hotels throughout Paris while reflecting on her complicated liaisons. Reading this book was akin to listening to Billie Holiday sing, Good Morning, Heartache.
Literature, like music, is a soundtrack.
The comely, Creole concierge, who sat behind the front desk, invited me to dance with him after I returned from wandering the Parisian streets, perusing the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop near Notre Dame, dining at Brasseries in the Latin Quarter and praying at the Sacre Couer Basilica in Montmartre. At the hotel, whenever you left for the day, you were required to leave your keys with the concierge. You retrieved your keys when you returned. I felt uneasy about this as maids from Monserrat to Martinique, would let themselves into my room at will, ignoring the ‘do not disturb’ sign. One morning, I found two French maids, vigorously cleaning my room, as I exited the bathroom after a shower. I was so frightened, I screamed: Why have locks at all?
Before I left, I gave my keys to the concierge. I returned later, and we danced, at his insistence, in the empty lobby near the window, revealing the rooftops and shiny streets of late-night Paris. First, he served me warm, sweet, buttered bread, tea and Port wine on a platter. He spoke a little English – while he fed me – and I, a little French. He put on jazz music, embraced me and we danced, close. It was highly inappropriate, this lack of boundaries. It felt so good and so bad, that I feared he might enter into my room – as the maids did, at will – sometime during the night. I wanted him to. I didn’t want him to. Wait. Did I want him to? Another guest arrived. The concierge, suddenly professional, pulled away and returned my key. Shaken, I went to my room with the unfinished Port wine.
Every sound that night terrified me. I imagined the doorknob turning, the concierge entering my room and whispering, More sugar for your tea, Mademoiselle? Sweet, tender love? Then, a real sound. Another key in the door? Hello? Go away! No, don’t leave. Come here. Oh yes! No! Goodbye? Hello, heartache.
After reading Carson McCullers’s novel, The Member of the Wedding, I watched the film adaptation, which starred Ethel Waters. In the film, Waters comforts her two charges – the restless Frankie who wants to attend her brother’s wedding, and her doomed cousin, John Henry – while she holds them close and they all sing, His Eye is On the Sparrow, together.
Literature, like music, is a soundtrack.
I had just arrived, via ‘A’ Train, at Sugar Hill in Harlem, on my way to meet a funny valentine of a man – a Jekyll and Hyde – at St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, to hear live music. I was about to exit the 145th Street Station, when I heard a woman singing into a microphone. Her back against a filthy wall, she wore an off-white dress. Speakers at her feet.
She was singing, gospel, the good news, with her whole heart. I was so riveted and moved – I couldn’t move. I caught the spirit and swayed to her soulful music as she sang to the place inside me, never in want of anything. Reader, I should have gone straight to church and lit a candle for Santa Lucia. I was destined to go to St. Nick’s.
I arrived at the pub with a lump of coal in my throat, vultures in my chest and greeted my angel-faced companion where he waited at our table – his face lit up like a delighted devil. He was reading Tolstoy’s, War and Peace – of all things – in the thick, smoky, bluesy, Dark. Hello? Hello. Then, a long, slow, harrowing, Goodbye, as we both reached for the Light.