Red Tides (part 2)

Before the thought of the hurricane took form the waters of the North Atlantic were teeming and stolid. Robert turned off of I-10 at exit 324 as the storm clouds gathered overhead. Bellowing slowly, the near gale force winds against the passenger side window streaked drops of rain like running animals against the glass. The late August sun which normally left the landscape below the scorched and oppressive blue plain of Florida sky the same immortal extension of scrub and pine, with its layers of green blades and brown foreboding, was now buried behind the swirling rain bands. U.S. 90 opened before him where the towering longleaf pines stood wavering slightly above their scrub bed like moving walls on either side of the paved route. He could see one pair of headlights and one of tail lights ahead in the distance. Behind were more vehicles, more cars leaving the coast for Lake City, he assumed.

He saw the powerlines to the left, along with the occasional, mysterious chained off country road. To the right he could see open behind the pines the expanse of a controlled burn, black and finally under a suitably dark sky. Then a small pasture, with palmetto islands. A small colony of mobile homes. A softball field, ditches, irrigation, stretches of St. Augustine grass, mobile homes. Lives he would never understand. Then the train tracks emerged beside him, making him feel a little less lonesome. Caught in a straight line of asphalt between this battle of tracks and trailers under the approaching hurricane, Robert hardly noticed that not a single soul saw him as he as passed through the sparse habitation of Olustee. He was greeted entering Lake City by three crosses at the edge of a clearing lined thickly with palmettos, pawpaws, wild coffee, myrtles and acacias.

The town didn’t leave the flatwoods behind, but made up a part of it. The live oaks by the gas station and Family Dollar stood sturdily with their thick beards of Spanish moss fleeing against the wind. Across from a Popeye’s stood a two-story cracker style wood frame with its metal roof turning green and its wraparound porch sinking in one corner. He drove on. The palms drooped their heads down, reserved to the fated tempest. He drove further. He flew over Lake City like a tropical storm, taking a decisive left which broke his leeward procession from the coast. Down state road 47, slash pine, sabal palm, fast and heavy shelf clouds. The land seemed higher than he thought it would be here, where the flatwoods continued along the two lane county road. The live oaks were more plentiful, their Spanish moss less panicked.

The entrance to Cross City was marked by three more crosses, made of steel pipe. Robert pulled into a restaurant and parked. He looked down into his lap for a moment, then raised his head again. It was still the same place where he had parked his car. He looked around the main road where he was going to drink his first coffee since he left his windows unboarded and entered into the strange night of day, heading west without a word to anyone – except Camilla.

The first change in Turnbull’s plan came when he stopped at the port of Mahon on British Minorca, where he caught wind of and decided to collect and contract over a hundred Tuscan men from Livorno. After depositing this cargo back at Mahon and setting sail for Greece, the Scottish doctor found his recruiting efforts there significantly thwarted by officials of the Sultan. But upon returning to Mahon with less than the expected five hundred colonists, he found that the presence of the young Italian men in the city had added to his party nearly a hundred newlywed women, arrived from elsewhere on the island. Off-setting this surge of Catholic colonists was the unexpected acquisition of two hundred Greeks from Corsica, thus completing the original number of five hundred.

Despite this haphazard success, when word of the colonial enterprise spread throughout Minorca (as these things seemed to do), several hundred more Catholics flocked to escape their crop failures and start afresh in the land of Florida. Turnbull and the English governor of Minorca capitulated, and on April 17, 1768, over fourteen hundred colonists – mostly Catholic – set sail under the flag of the Anglican monarch, with two papist priests shoed-in for good measure. Among the passengers was Don Francisco.

The voyage lasted eighty inhospitable days, with a portion of the Mediterranean passengers finding one or the other of them to be their last. Finally, the colonists sighted land. The long journey was over, and having left the familiar sun, rocks, and vines of that ancient marine highway from which the came, they now saw before them the promising land surrounding Mosquito Inlet. It was good on its promise, to the point of malaria. The tangled shoreline of mangroves and swamps was at once impenetrable, teeming and stolid.

Camilla was born to Richard and Flora Whitley in St. Augustine on April 27, 1986, the birthday of U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, a point of pride for Flora to recount to her daughter. It was part Caesarean, part Providence, her mother figured. Even then, indecent reflections on the human will in the acts of conception led her to further speculate on the unfolding of His will, and such thoughts dissipated and returned again unremittingly and as though she were the only one to dwell in such matters.

One of the things Camilla’s grandparents once brought her was an old gray, plastic seven inch record player, with several records. Among them were a narration of The Three Little Pigs, Grimm Fables, and The Songs of Stephen Foster. The first two were of marginal interest, where the former seemed a cheap attempt at gripping her imagination just like she already unconsciously realized the Disney films to be. The former was taken as though it were an encyclopedic object of information: stepmothers are to be evil, fishermen are to talk to flounders.

It was the third one, The Songs of Stephen Foster, which impacted her the greatest. After hearing it a few times she picked up the harmonica and kazoo her father had bought her a year before but which she had so far shown little interest in. In a half daze she would play and replay both sides of that record and rotate between the nasal humming and the saliva-filled exhaling and inhaling which either instrument had called for. It was in that way, before her young heart had felt any particular pull toward road or companion, that she vicariously yearned for a Susanna and understood the inescapable necessity of traveling from Alabama to Lou’siana. It seemed only natural that one would grow impatient aboard one’s steamboat or train in such cases, however little Camilla grasped the effect of the telegraph wire.

I jump’d aboard the telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber, De lectrie fluid magnified, and kill’d five hundred Nigga.

“Momma,” she tugged at her dress in the yellow wallpapered kitchen one day, “Momma, what’s a Nigga?” Flora Whitley stopped her washing and dropped her jaw. Grabbing both Camilla’s cheeks in one hand and squeezing them, she pontificated, “Don’t you ever say that word again.” Camilla felt for the first time that she was guilty of something she had not done. “But what is it? I wanna know.” Her mother was exasperated by this time, adding this string to the greater ball of yarn which stuck in her throat, and which was the impossibility of her living this life in this role which she now had.

“It doesn’t matter. Don’t say it, ever again.” Camilla returned to her room and pulled the sleeve of the record down from the horizontally organized collection of books and records, stacked from the bottom largest to smallest, as was only logical. She looked at the photo on the front, at the man, Stephen Foster. Who was he, to write such unutterable words? To sing them, or to himself have witnessed such an incidental massacre (if Camilla comprehended it as such) by the banks of this proverbial ribber? It would be a while before Camilla encountered that unutterable word again, this time on TV, written large in black and white, flashing. And then it would be even longer before she thought twice about that river, which for her part was any river, and any river was mostly the Matanzas, San Sebastian, or St. Johns.

She turned the record sleeve over and saw an image of a steamboat with its red stacks and wheel, framed by magnolias. It seemed to her that she could understand, and that she knew how terrible it would be to be stuck aboard that boat while Susanna might be further upstream crying. Camilla never wanted her mother to cry. Perhaps she could not understand the reason for the traveling nor the effects of the effort, but she certainly understood the desire to do something. This was the beginning of her two bosom childhood companionships. There was the past, for which she was an unwilling and ignorant instrument, and then there was minstrelsy. Whenever the past came up behind her like an inescapable Alabama, her troubadour would visit from the other side of the unspeakable present with his banjo on his knee. I says, I’se coming from de souf, – Susanna, don’t you cry. All in all it was a happy childhood in the Old City; in the City of God.

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