by Donna Obeid
Every new moon they arrived, the People from Elsewhere.
I’d stand upon the shore with my angel-trumpet earrings and banana leaf crown and gaze into the offing, waiting for the boat to appear. Sometimes there’d be a whole family which made the wind blow strong. Sometimes a man and his wife who could change the color of the day, and occasionally, when the sky surrendered itself, there’d be an older woman who’d come all the way alone, little more than a notebook and a knapsack slung across her shoulder, seeking her soul.
As soon as the boat moored, I sang the song of newness and did my dance along the shore for everyone to see. And no matter who came, they always looked a little surprised as if they were expecting someone else. The women stood admiring my trumpet earrings and the men stared at my bare chest and grass skirt before I shyly turned away, leading them down the trail to their huts while my uncle followed, balancing their things on his back.
I clicked my tongue and pointed to different things, but their eyes were unaccustomed to those things that dwelled beneath the surface. I wanted to tell them of the wudu bird with the spotted beak that flew around the world every year and always came back to perch on my outstretched arm. Or the heartbeat of the white whale you could hear from your bed at night. Or the pink kelp that was a panacea. But these things I could not say, I did not know the words, and so I smiled and shrugged my shoulders and led them away.
We went through the dark veil of ferns and the gusts of blue butterflies, and down the bridge that led over the canopy and to the huts. I showed them where the drinking water was kept, the coils and lantern, and the lizard they should not touch who perched on the edge of their roof.
In the afternoon, my uncle gave them a tour of the orchids and pearls. Greatest on earth! – he said. They took bottle after bottle of vanilla, bars of soap I’d shaped myself, whole vanilla beans. Then my uncle brought out the pearls. Best quality! – he said. Afterwards, my uncle showed me the printed paper they’d given him, and we quietly laughed together at what they did not know: that it meant nothing here.
In the evenings we gathered at the long table, the women in their white sundresses and long strands of pearls, the men in shirts with coconut buttons and gigantic printed flowers. Beneath the sheltering stars, I served sweet vegetables and rice, pineapple and papayas. The People from Elsewhere ate like they hadn’t eaten in years and always asked for more. Afterwards, they sat around the fire and told their stories of where they came from and what had been done by machinery and progress and wars. That there were no more fruits, no more bees, no more fish. That most things were manufactured in factories now, even the rain. But these were only sounds, hollow and strange, and I always slipped away from them and down to the shore where the children were gathered. I pointed out the shapes of the gods in the stars and how to say things without words.
Sea, one click.
Star, two clicks.
Moon, three clicks.
Love, a high note.
In the mornings, the People from Elsewhere read glossy magazines on the sand and rubbed white cream on their shoulders and noses that turned red anyway. The children swam with the schools of fish and delighted in the moment I stood on the shore and whistled to the whale who rose from the bottom of the sea and spouted into the sky, making little rainbows everywhere. Always when they left, the People from Elsewhere would leave something behind. I’d look at the pages of the glossy magazine they forgot or try on the lip gloss they’d dropped in the sand or smile at the crayon drawings the children had made of me.
In one of the last boats from Elsewhere, there were just two guests – a father and his son. They came the day the sky turned orange. From the shore, I could see the father making hand signals in the boat to the boy who looked my same age. Their skin was shiny and so black, it seemed outlined in gold. Their teeth were white as the moon. I did my dance and sang my song, and rather than staring, they bowed before me, and I remember thinking they were the most beautiful of all the People from Elsewhere who’d ever come to Tuluwadu.
The boy and his father followed me down the trail and to their hut, their soles soft on the ground. They bought only soap and vanilla, no pearls, and at night, instead of telling us their stories, they gazed out silently at the darkness of the sea. And instead of me teaching the boy how to say things without words, the boy came to my room and taught me his hand signals. Rain. Sun. Grief. Grow. We stayed into the night making signs at each other and then he fell asleep beside me on the floor, a smile on his dreaming face.
The morning they left, I stood for a long time looking out at the horizon, the high note a stone in my throat anytime I tried to swallow. After that, the world was silent, like a door had closed on the other side of the horizon. At night in the corner of my room, I made shadows along the wall of the things he’d taught me. Rain. Sun. Grief. Grow. Hope is the pointing of your finger to your head and the flapping of your hands to heaven. One day, he whispered without any words, everything will be taken away.
Donna Obeid’s stories and poems have appeared in Carve Magazine, The Malibu Times, Detroit Metropolitan Woman, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council sponsored anthology, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Raymond Carver Short Story Award, a Seventeen fiction prize, and Stanford photography award. She lives in Palo Alto, California. www.donnaobeid.com