The four of us watched as the white man drove his truck right onto the beach. It stuck out with its slick, red paint job as it ground its way down, leaving ragged trenches deep enough to fall into. We’d grown used to the little off-road jeeps that we sometimes saw climbing through the bush, weaving their way inland to the waterfalls. Those guys knew the space and understood the rules. None of them would have driven directly onto the sand during nesting season.
We were regulars on St. Madeline Bay – Junior, Keisha, Micah and me. Used to be that the whole coastline was wild, and the only people here were the villagers who looked after the turtles when they came to nest, a few conservationists from the University, and us. Not anymore. Now we had to go past the big colourful umbrellas and the picnic spreads to get to our little corner of the bay.
On our side the sand was a dirtier white, the sea almond trees were broad and shady and with every step to the ocean’s edge the terrain underfoot changed. First was the silvery dirt of the shortcut from the road, then the scraggly patches of seaweed and sticky moss that grew on bits of sharp rock or smooth driftwood, then a stretch of coarse sand growing deeper brown closer to the shoreline.
We could lie under the trees, sit with our backs against the rough, rocky cliff face or lie on the sand. And we didn’t need signs to tell us not to drive on the beach because it was turtle season; we just knew. Although we were from town, and not the little village nearby, we had long figured out how to fit into its rhythm.
Micah glared at the red pickup truck and grumbled, “White people.” He took a last drag of his cigarette and dropped the butt into the empty beer bottle that we had stuck into the sand as a temporary ashtray. His long, skinny body was folded up into itself, knees almost reaching past his shoulders, back leaning against the tree trunk, pale brown skin a fraction darker than usual.
Keisha laughed at him as her slender fingers rolled the spliff and put it aside in the Ziploc bag with the others.
“Micah, you know you white too, right?”
“I tell you to stop that shit. I not white.”
Micah’s face got a little redder despite his tan “You know is the expats I talking about Keisha – the foreign kinda white, the rich people kinda white. Acting like if the place belong to them.”
Keisha raised her eyebrows and Junior laughed. “Leave the man nah Keisha. You know Micah sensitive.”
I smiled and listened to them go at it like they had been for the better part of fifteen years. Micah was the only white person we knew that had a problem with being white. No matter how long we had known each other, he still got heated about the joke and Keisha never stopped making it. She couldn’t forget the way Micah’s father had looked at her when Micah had brought her home, calling her his girlfriend when they’d first dated years ago. Me and Junior didn’t like the way he looked at us either, but we let it go. Plenty things in life you can’t help. Your father is one of them.
“If allyuh going to argue…” Junior interrupted in his slow drawl and reached over me to Keisha’s lap for the Ziploc bag. We both knew that when Keisha and Micah got going it could be a while. She and Micah’s on-again, off-again relationship was just part of the landscape; it might change from day to day, but it was always there.
When you were friends for as long as the four of us had been there were always things you didn’t talk about, little things you just couldn’t help – like Micah’s dad for instance – and it didn’t make sense talking them to death. But today I wondered about this tendency of ours. The way we talked about some things and not others, the way the years rolled over the things we didn’t mention, covered up in teasing.
Micah was still carrying on about people who drove on beaches where turtles nested when he let out a triumphant laugh.
“Look!” He pointed in the direction of the truck. “Stacey, look at the truck.”
I looked over. The idiot was stuck in the sand. “Yeah, well. No off road tires. Sand too deep on this side.”
“Even if he had off-road tires, he not supposed to be driving on the beach!” Micah grumbled. He stood up to get a better look at the truck, shaking his head every time the engine turned over and the tires whirred, spraying sand. Any second now Micah would launch into a tirade about people who didn’t give a damn about the nesting area but then came turtle watching at night and posted pictures to their Instagram to show off to their friends, like if they really cared.
I glanced over at Keisha so we could roll our eyes together at Micah, but she didn’t look my way. Instead she rooted around in the Ziploc bag then cupped her hands around the spliff to light it, guarding it from the breeze. Her hair had fallen over her forehead and we sat close enough that I could see the tiny grains of sand in her curls. She took a deep pull and slowly exhaled. The sunlight created little flecks in her eyes that most people wouldn’t see otherwise. They usually looked plain brown behind her glasses, but she wasn’t wearing them today and when the light hit them, then they were hazel, even a little green.
I turned away and looked at the ocean instead. She hadn’t said a word to me all day. We were sitting next to each other like we’d done countless times before, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Micah!” She called him over, took one more pull and instead of passing to me who was closest to her on her left, passed it to Micah and then scooted backward away from me, stretched her body out on the sand, propped herself up on her elbows and continued staring at the ocean. If Micah noticed the breach in etiquette he didn’t let on but since Micah hardly ever noticed anything that wasn’t right in front of his face, I doubted it. I mean, I loved Micah, we’d been friends forever, but once he got in his feelings about something it took a while for him to come back to earth.
Junior was a different story. He glanced at me and then his eyes flicked in Keisha’s direction. He was usually quiet and seemed slow to process, especially when he was minding the rum bottle, but nothing got past him.
“Here, Stace,” Micah reached over and passed the spliff to me and whatever Junior might have said was lost.
We sat in silence. The truck man was taking turns surveying his tires that were halfway deep in sand and jumping in the driver’s seat trying unsuccessfully to get some traction going.
“You wait and see,” Micah said, “It will be us he going to ask to help him push his truck out of the sand. Lemme see how long it take for him to figure it out.”
Micah lit a second spliff while the rum bottle made the rounds. Junior had joined Keisha and was now lying on the sand, his head resting on a rolled-up towel. I was the only one on edge, glad that the truck man’s predicament and our buzz provided a good cover for my mood.
I was sure that Junior had picked up on Keisha’s coldness toward me. He’d kept looking at me on the drive over too when Keisha let him sit in the passenger seat while she sat in the back with Micah. Keisha usually rode shotgun because she liked to control the music selection. But today she’d made a beeline for the backseat and said nothing about the tunes. Even though he was in relax mode laying on the said, I imagined I could feel his eyes boring into my back. Junior had a way of looking at a person with that calm quiet that made them want to spill all their secrets and I didn’t want that gaze turned on me now.
We were all high, drunk and splayed out in the sand when from behind us, came the unmistakable sounds of another vehicle ploughing its way through the bushy short cut. “Let’s hope it’s another pickup and they have rope” drawled Junior, “Truck man is fucked.”
It was a large, dark navy SUV, windows tinted, no plates, and as it approached the driver rolled down the window. A clean-shaved, bald-headed man squinted at us from the driver’s seat. Shit. Police.
We knew better than to scramble. Keisha imperceptibly passed the Ziploc bag to Junior and he stuffed it under the driftwood. Micah pulled himself up making him the most visible one of the group.
The front door of the SUV creaked open, but the man remained in the driver’s seat, looked at us and deliberately shifted his body just enough so even from where we sat we could we see the piece tucked in his waistband. A second later the back door opened and two giggling girls in bikinis came stumbling out, one clutching a bottle of puncheon.
The man climbed out of the front seat and the group of three crossed the berm and walked out onto the sand near to our tree. He was big and tall with a high, round belly. Everything about him just screamed ‘officer’. He could have been my dad’s age and the girls with him looked way younger than we did. He looked at Micah and Junior and they nodded in the mysterious way men nod at each other.
“What going on over there?” he asked, pointing with his chin to the truck with the geyser of sand now spraying into the pickup’s cargo tray.
“Stick,” Micah replied, “Idiot was driving on the beach.”
“But them is not off-road tires.”
“Same thing I say.”
The air around us eased. We were obviously high, and he was obviously an armed, on-duty officer with two under-aged girls in his police vehicle. All cards face up; everyone could relax. Micah and Junior got up and the guys walked off and stood together staring in the direction of the truck, discussing off-road tires and traction and the depth of sand. The two girls didn’t approach us but stuck to themselves, leaning against the SUV trying to look cool. I wondered if we had ever been that young.
Keisha and I were alone under the sea almond tree. She sat up and scooched closer to me. I had been sitting in the same position so long trying to avoid looking at her that my back hurt, but I didn’t dare move. The drama of the truck, the policeman, the girls, even the boys faded into the periphery. All I could hear were the waves and my own breathing.
“So, we ever going to talk about what happened?”
Keisha didn’t turn to look at me as she spoke. She kept staring in the direction of the boys. The driver had finally realised he wasn’t alone and began the long walk over to ask for help.
“I didn’t think you wanted to talk about it. I called…”
“You called to ask if I needed a drop by Junior.”
“Yeah, but I called. I didn’t know if…”
I didn’t know what else to say.
Keisha sat cross-legged, her hair surrounding her head like its own black sun, her face in shadow. She flicked the lighter off and on watching the flame die in the wind then reached over again for Micah’s bag, took out his cigarettes and lit two, one for me and one for her. She finally turned around properly to face me, handed me a cigarette and leaned in to light it. It was the closest we’d come to each other all day, and as she leaned away from me to light her own, the smoke curled in the space between our faces until the breeze snatched it away.
“Listen, let’s not make this a big thing, ok?” she said looking off toward the ocean “If you want to forget about it, cool. We were drunk.”
“Well, whatever it was. If you want to forget it…”
I couldn’t read her face. Did she want to forget it, or did she just think that I did? “What about Micah?” I asked
“You and Micah still have this… thing. You always on his case and he looks at you, you know, still. And he’s my best friend too.”
She looked away. I put the cigarette out in the sand.
A small crowd had gathered across the way. A few more people had come walking down the beach, observing the commotion. It seemed the truck was about to get moving after all. Junior, Micah, the officer, the driver and a few of the newcomers were fiddling around with rope and a hook and gesturing from the pickup truck to the police vehicle. Finally, the engine revved and they all heaved. The truck rocked in place. They tried again, and the truck rocked a little farther. Then with one last mighty push, the truck dislodged from the deep impressions it had made in the sand and slowly, slowly reversed until it was pulled to sturdier ground.
Junior and Micah came back, chatting about the truck and the police and his girls. Keisha began packing things into her bag and I followed her lead looking around for bits of trash, butts, bottles, anything we might have left. I was never so glad that the rum was done and that we’d be getting on our way soon.
“What’s that smell?” Micah asked suddenly, “Sun raise something nasty in the bush boy. Smell like something dead.”
He looked around and sniffed the air. I could smell it now too. Something about the smell was different though. It was rotting, yes, like something that had been dead for days – strange that we hadn’t smelled it before – but it also smelled like the sea.
“Look” Junior said softly and pointed out to the ocean. Something was floating out there, still a long way off but coming in to the shore. It looked like a boat, but it didn’t bob about lightly like an overturned pirogue would. God, was it a man? Maybe bloated and swollen till it looked nothing like a man at all. We started walking up the beach for a better look. The truck driver and the other people that had helped him had noticed too and were pointing in the same direction. They too began walking toward the thing that was floating in the sea.
More and more people gathered, this time from even further up the beach. Small children hung on to their parents who stood looking out at the thing. People covered their noses with towels. The smell was worse every time the wind shifted. What was it? And then the answer hit me. At the same time, it seemed to hit a few other people in the gathering crowd. I could hear the word being murmured all around.
It was a giant leatherback turtle, dead and floating toward the beach in the ripe heat of the afternoon. We stood together, Micah, Keisha, Junior and me watching the grisly sight, all of us wanting to leave but unable to look away. All was forgotten – the arrogance of white people, the corruption of police officers, the heat of the day, even the way my heart hurt when I thought of Keisha and Micah together, all that was left was the dead thing floating inexorably closer to shore.
There’d been a night, years ago just before we had all gone off to University. We had come here together to St. Madeline’s Bay to watch the turtles lay their eggs. Micah had been really into the turtles even then and he’d dragged us along, swearing that it was going to be one of those unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime things, circle of life and all that. The four of us rode in the back of the maxi, stoned out of our minds, shrieking with laughter at the flattened hair of the girl that sat in the seat in front of us, the terrible gospel music played by the driver and Micah’s futile attempts to get us to quiet down and take the whole thing seriously and read the guide book before he collapsed in giggles again.
We walked along the beach huddled in our jackets against the chill night air and stuck close together. I held on to Junior – he had the flask and the most body heat – and Micah and Keisha were wrapped up in each other like they’d always been. We couldn’t hear a word the guide was saying so we just followed along with the group and awaited the arrival of the turtles. Micah said they’d been coming to this beach every year for thousands of years, following a rhythm agreed upon between their turtle ancestors, the waves, and the shore.
We waited and waited. Hours passed. The moon rose high and then dipped behind a bank of cloud, but no turtles came. It got colder, and the flask got emptier. Junior was calm as ever, but Micah seemed to be irritated that the outing was not going according to plan. Then there she was. Her back was a black dome in the moonless night. She moved through the surf, making her long, slow way inland through the gentle rolling waves. Micah was thrilled. He abandoned us and bounded away to stand close to the tour guide. Junior had had enough. He sat on the sand, bundled up in his jacket and promptly fell asleep.
But I remember feeling suddenly very young, very silly and very sober. I looked over at Keisha then and saw the same expression on her face that was probably on mine. I couldn’t explain it, not even then. But I guess it was a kind of sadness, an awareness that in the face of something that was so old, we were smaller than we could ever have imagined. In the grand scheme of things, we really only mattered only to each other and sometimes even that was very little.
The sun beat down on us and the smell of death rode the air. None of us wanted to be there when the corpse reached the shore so we turned away and started walking back up the beach. I wondered if anyone else remembered that night years ago when we’d seen the most magnificent creature that ever was.
The boys walked on ahead, and Keisha quickened her pace to catch up with them. I watched her go and then called to her, “Keish…”
She paused but didn’t turn around.
“This could change everything, you know that, right?”
She still didn’t turn but I knew she was listening.
“We could fuck everything up, you and me. The four of us, everything could change.”
The waves continued crashing on the shore, but Keisha stood silent. I took a deep breath. It was a bad idea; the stench of death was everywhere. Somehow it made me brave. Maybe it made me reckless.
“I don’t want to forget it happened.”
She finally turned around and looked up at me, her face grave and unsmiling. We fell in step with each other and walked on.
Ayanna Gillian Lloyd is a fiction writer from Trinidad & Tobago. She received the second-place prize in the Small Axe Literary Competition and was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize. Her work has been published in The Caribbean Writer; Moko Magazine; Small Axe; Poui; PREE; and Callaloo. She is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and is now a postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing at UEA. She is at work on her first novel.