Four Prose-Poems from the Abacos Islands

by John Lane

Hope Town Harbor, Abacos

As the Misfit said in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “If what he did was true, then there’s nothing to do but follow.” I think of Jesus and Flannery O’Connor as my wife Betsy wanders out on the tide flats at the end of Bay Street. At first she pauses and tests the depth of that diminishing salty harbor, then ventures forward one step at a time. She’s stepping into her vacation finally after a long spring of her own local literary sturm und drang.

The water is shallow but cobalt blue all the way to Great Abaco, 11 miles distant. The old explorers reversed their course in these shallows but Betsy wades, their plunder not what she’s after. Draining away is the fundraising, the bookstore construction, a life of literature floated one book at a time.

I watch as Betsy walks farther and farther. The reaches of the bay look as if they hold her up.  She’s walking on water in the shimmering late sun.  It’s a moment of illusion that brings back some certainty to all our hours and days. I’d follow had I worn the right shoes.

Sketch: Spring

After Robert Hass

A man thinks hammerhead, and remembers the moment a decade earlier sailing in the Abacos when a friend snorkeling on a reef had reentered the boat as if the sea itself had shrunken to that spot of disturbance. There had been two couples sailing, the man and his lover, and the man who saw the shark and his wife, and a woman in her forties, single still. Now one couple is divorced, the man and his lover are married, and the single woman’s married too, but no longer keeps her captain’s certification, her husband a rich software executive with a beach house on the nearby Jersey shore to spread out her longing for the sea into manageable affordable weekends.

The sea, the man thinks, is a metaphor too lovely to reduce to threat. Only the force of his circling mind holds the shark memory to this place—wide view off a peaceful porch of nothing but blue bay—and not that. A shark can live decades and they say memory burns deeper—as sound, they say, extends outward through the universe. Snorkeling is a recreation replete in memory, and couples when traveling together always stow their future resolve and never consider they’ll risk it diving on some reef for the chance to see what’s below. Here this sea is so shallow that boats flounder in spots it seems that to pass is natural, ignoring unheeded warnings, lights, and a battery of testimonials from those who have sailed before. Walking the beach the man thinks his own marriage is an island standing above that shallow sea.

The high tide’s in a few hours, but that rise and fall is natural as wind—which they didn’t have that day they saw the shark. She walks in the sand and he is still in the surf, just off shore, and again he thinks hammerhead and wonders if the shark is still alive, or is it dead as the marriage of the friend who saw it? He says marriage and the word feels more like a shark than the sea. The movement. The ceaseless searching of commitment. Like a vacation from the universe’s own menu for chaos. Two knitted together briefly, in grief and joy, the bond beyond the clarity of sea water.

The man cups his two hands like man and wife and holds the water as long as possible. His palms are wrinkled and white, and she says, having waded in, “You can see the bottom if you open them.” He lets it go back into the larger vessel. And he looks and there below is the shore moving under him as she said it would be—shells, sand, seaweed, and under it all the hard marl that the islands are made of, what keeps them standing above the churning sea.

Pete’s Pub, Little Harbor

The printer’s wife says they have been coming to the islands since ’73. “’93,” her husband corrects. She wears a tee shirt from a 1970s rock band—“Captain Beefheart”—and one of her painted toenails is half-missing. We sit and eat grouper sandwiches and talk about the printing business and how ironic it is for a printer to have a Kindle on vacation. “I still buy real books, but we both need something to read. This makes it equitable. You can’t take a Kindle to the beach,” he says. There is plenty of sand at Pete’s Pub. The floor is churned up with the feet of tourists who somehow make it out this far—the bare boat squadrons, the snorkel charters, the souls lost fifteen minutes from the airfield at Marsh Harbor.

Industry has always stalled in this shallow sea—centuries of get-rich run aground by time and circumstance. There have been wreckers, sponges, pineapples, logging the yellow Abaco pine, and now the spotty migration of fickle tourists from the inner destinations like Nassau and Grand Bahamas. The printer takes another bite of grouper, says he saw his own demise early in the ‘70s when the desktop publishing started. Soon after that they broke up his grandfather’s old letter press shop. They threw out all those drawers of type and sold the platen press for scrap. “Now that type’s worth a fortune in the antique malls.”

Earlier we’d donned masks, snorkels, and fins and entered the sea along a coral reef at Sandy Cay. He remembered a direct atavistic connection between the grouper swimming in mayo on his plate and the ones he’d seen on the reef below.

There was little real industry in the islands, the kind where you can make a killing. At times it felt like the present was stalled centuries earlier. After they eat, they tour the foundry where sculptor Peter Johnson casts sea animals out of bronze. A sign above the door says, “Lost and Foundry.” He shows them the process called “lost wax” that’s 2500 years old, and they see how the molten bronze is poured from a crucible into the waiting molds. “We use beer bottles to cure it, to draw out the impurities.” Out comes a metal grouper, to be polished and sold to tourists.

Boat Hippies

Captain Mark says there aren’t many left, and there used to be plenty. “Everybody’s so serious about their money, even the young. Nobody comes here to disappear anymore.” Now most everything is Beneteaus and Jenneau’s high-dollar charters or owner-leased yachts, the La Sonata we’re on anchored off Foul Cay for snorkeling.

He remembers back thirty years to Cumberland Island and the harbor where the boat hippy sailed in one day and anchored off the point in his feral cement sloop. He’d built the boat in his parents’ yard outside Boston as he worked 9-5 downtown.  It took three years to lay the keel, build up the hull, and launch. It costs almost as much to haul the boat to the harbor as it did to sail south to Granada and back north again in five more years.  He’d row out to his boat and sit and talk esoteric world religions, mostly a mystic the boat hippy followed named Alice Bailey. He’d make tea and quote from her book, a blue paperback, Ponder on This: “Deep inside of us all a huge potential beckons, waiting to open us to joy, genius, freedom, and love within.” The boat hippy was like some floating saint and he was the acolyte come over water to confer on the spirit world as his cement boat rocked to the rhythm of the tides.

Captain Mark says there’s a feral cement boat in the Man-O-War harbor and one of the last boat hippies lives aboard. “Man-O-War is so quiet it feels like paradise,” he says. “Until you try and get a drink.” He says it’s dry, and there are eight churches. “They used to broadcast the Sunday services over loudspeaker in the harbor.” 

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