One way to erase an island is to invent
a second island absolved of all the sounds
the first one ever made. We don’t know
who concocted this one, where the triggerfish
and clowns fade to inky neon dashes under
a fisherman’s skiff. A few plastic pontoons
knock around makeshift slips. Dusk coaxes
from the shore the small, dull chime
of a spoon against a pot and TV voices
flash slow across a cliff. Two pink lovers
in matching swimwear kiss their glasses
at the edge of a blue pool built just low enough
into the hill so the couple can gaze into the sea
and think of infinity. Many, many years ago,
a great emperor wiggled his finger
and commanded his army to corral all the lepers
in his domain then pack them into a sailing ship
to be delivered to the missions on this cluster
of verdant volcanic rock. The emperor’s orders
to his captain were clear: if the monks refused
the ship’s freight, the skipper was to simply
dump the whole sick cargo far from any shore.
Other incurables followed in lots over time,
or trickled in, hiding from nearby tribes,
or banished from other lands to live among these
lush slopes of mahogany, papaya, and weeds.
Two women, Filomena and Josefa, arrived
within days of one another. By then, each had lost
most their toes, though they had ten
full fingers between them, each woman
with one hand still intact. No one is sure
how it began, but once a week the pair
would knock on the door of the scowling
Madre Clementina to borrow the hospital’s
only guitar, carved from jackfruit and cracked
pretty bad along the back. To these women—
no big deal, for Filomena once transcribed
the early moonlight serenades of the horny friars
in the Royal South for the brats of an Andalusian
duke. Josefa was the daughter of a carpenter,
a maker of tables to be exact. She learned
to play a harana’s tremulous melodies
on her mother’s banduria at the age of three.
The pair of outcasts would stifle laughs, thrilled
to earn the crusty nun’s grudging Yes, then
amble out to lowtide and find a flat rock to share,
so they could prop the old guitar on both
their laps, the one bad wrist of each woman
unwrapped to their stumps, pulled for now
behind their backs as they looked past the bay
toward the violent waters that first carried them
here—and they jammed. Filomena with the five
deft hammers of her left and Josefa with her right,
thick-muscled—both blue-veined and furious,
scrubbing from the instrument all those wicked
rhythms from Castile to Nowhere, on a fragile
scrap of furniture that could barely hold its tune.
They sat shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh,
their good hands brushing from time to time.
What they couldn’t remember, they made up,
and everything they made up disappeared
past the lagoon and over the ocean, every note
in every run, every lie and desire, every nick
and crack in the jackfruit, the fat harmonics
plucked from the old nun’s grunts, six taut strands
of gut whose chords skimmed the water
like night locusts in bursts of low clouds
and which bore everything in front of them and behind,
the brine of the women’s necks mixed with the salt
of the lagoon, the cliffs, the spoons, the bright
nimbus of the West dipping like a noose,
the future of pontoons and fake tits, the history
of nifty crowns pried loose of their jewels,
the jiggle of a little finger gone still.
One way to erase an island is to invent the waters
that surround it. You can name the waters
which will turn all the sounds the island makes into salt.
It will teach you to listen to everything you love
disappear . . . or you can invent a song so big
it will hold the entire ocean.
Josefa and Filomena
rocked in the dark, hip to hip, joined by that third
body of wood, which made sure there was
nothing left in the unbroken world
to possibly make them whole.
Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.