Beyond the Limbo Silence


“[A] haunting story . . . Bears witness to the struggles of an African Caribbean woman as she seeks to find her place in America without selling her soul.” –BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL, Author of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine

When Sara Edgehill is given a scholarship to leave Trinidad and attend a college in Wisconsin, she is thrilled. America, the one she has seen in the movies, is a land of dreams, prosperity, and equality. Not like Trinidad, where her parents cast disappointed glances ...

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“[A] haunting story . . . Bears witness to the struggles of an African Caribbean woman as she seeks to find her place in America without selling her soul.” –BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL, Author of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine

When Sara Edgehill is given a scholarship to leave Trinidad and attend a college in Wisconsin, she is thrilled. America, the one she has seen in the movies, is a land of dreams, prosperity, and equality. Not like Trinidad, where her parents cast disappointed glances her way because she wasn’t born with lighter-colored skin. But when Sara leaves her island’s brilliant green fields and warm sparkling waters for the pale cornfields of the Midwest, the ties to her home and her past grip her as strongly as America’s cold, winter winds.

For as soon as Sara sets foot in her new home, she must make tough decisions. Wanting desperately to fit in, she begins to understand that in America, the color lines run deeper than they did even in Trinidad. And as Sara forms ties with two other West Indian students–the beguiling, haunted Courtney and the passionate, vivacious Sam–she is irrevocably pulled into the very center of America’s exploding civil rights movement.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This powerful illumination of race and culture by the light of dreams, ritual, and Vodoun will remind many of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker." –Booklist (starred review)

“The reader has the pleasure of experiencing Sara’s discovery of American life through Nunez’s wonderful, descriptive voice." –The Bloomsbury Review

Anderson Tepper
...[The protagonist] succumbs to the sea of emotions, both personal and racial....even as the novel sinks under the weight of an interior language of ancestral mysticism. -- The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345451088
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.74 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

    My grandmother cried when I told her that a priest had given me a scholarship to go to a Catholic college in America. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. I told her the news of my scholarship, more excited for her than for myself. For though this scholarship would give me the escape I craved, I knew that for my grandmother it would mean the fulfillment of the thwarted ambitions that for years she had nursed for her children. I expected praise, advice, reassurance, perhaps some words about how much she would miss me, but not tears. She had that reputation.

    The women said she was mannish. At least my mother and my mother's sisters did. It was not a compliment. When I was a child, I thought this characterization of my father's mother had to do with her size and color and the fact that with six sons she was almost always surrounded by men. She dwarfed my grandfather by what then seemed to me to be at least two feet, but what I knew later, with the eyes of an adult, to be merely inches. Then, too, she had a body unlike that of any other woman I knew in Trinidad. Most were short like my mother and me, though not as skinny. At twenty, I barely had a figure--slim hips, thin arms and legs, hardly any breasts. I thought I was unattractive. My grandmother, on the other hand, was tall and muscular--except for her enormous breasts.

    I used to imagine they weren't really breasts at all, but rather two taut balloons that would burst the moment I touched them. My mother, like her sisters, had tiny breasts the size of loaves of hops bread, and when I rested my head on her chest, they flattened out easily against the pressure of my skull bones. I longed for breasts as large as my grandmother's and with the softness of my mother's. I got neither. My breasts turned out to be as small as my mother's and as firm as my grandmother's. But in the days when I wished that my grandmother would be like other grandmothers, that she would clasp me between her generous, plump arms and nestle my head against her warm cushiony breasts, I saw no beauty in hardness.

    My grandmother's body was unyielding. Even the lines on her face and down her neck seemed held there by invisible wires. The parts of her legs I saw beneath her knee-length skirts were sinewy, too, and the short, laced boots she wore rainy season or dry gave the impression that she had just finished, or was about to do, man's work. Then there was also her hair, the most feminine part of her, my aunts said, though they disapproved of the way she wore it. The proper style for women in those days was to tuck their hair over a sausage-like roll that curled around the base of their heads. My grandmother wore her hair in a short bob. But it was curly, and in spite of the fact that it was gray, gave a youthful and frivolous cast to her face that was quite disconcerting against the firm lines of her body. Mannish indeed, but no one could ignore that she was a woman and had been a girl.

    I think my darker-skinned aunts, my mother's sisters, envied my grandmother because of her pinky-white skin. (My mother, they believed, was the luckiest of them all. She was butterscotch brown, they would say, sighing as if they wished they could change their own blackberry complexion.) Of course, to them my grandmother's whiteness was additional proof that she was mannish. She was the color of the English, the colonizers who controlled our island. But they knew, and I did, also, that though her skin was white, my grandmother was not white.

    Who could be pure white on an island that gave birth to calypso? my father used to ask. He told me that the English put wax in their children's ears and shipped them back to England to find husbands and wives before the sounds and sweet airs--the pinkety pang of calypso's sweet steel band music--could stir them to dream dreams of a world that needed no Prosperos. Still, some escaped. My grandmother's mother was one. Later, I discovered, nothing could shut out the music that filled her ears, not even a rope tied around her feet in a hospital in St. Ann's. My grandmother, grieving for her, built a wall of silence to seal in her secret when the people in town found out about the obeahman in Sans Souci sending signals with the sun. For love had trapped Bertha before her English parents could shield her from the Siren. So her daughter's eyes, my grandmother's, were washed by the rivers of Africa, wide and black and sparkling with the energy of rushing water. And her nose, scratched out in places where the air was weighted down with too much oxygen, pushed apart the thin nostrils that would have been the legacy left to her by her mother's people.

    But in spite of the evidence of my grandmother's mannishness, the unkind gossip that sometimes peppered the talk among my aunts and my mother around the kitchen table, I was never convinced that my grandmother did not have the same feelings and yearnings as other women. I had cause to be certain, though, that she would not cry when I told her I was leaving Trinidad, for by then I had witnessed that she was, if nothing else, a master at controlling her emotions, a woman who had proven that nothing, not even the loss of a grandson whom she loved more than anyone or anything in the whole world, could bring her to tears.

    I was ten years old at the time. My mother had sent me to my grandmother's to join the welcoming party for my eldest cousin, Alan, who was returning to Trinidad after spending ten years in England. Studying, my mother told me. Alan was my grandmother's first grandchild and old enough to be my father. My grandfather took me to meet him at the dock in Port-of-Spain. The ship that brought him was huge and white. At the tip of its hull, painted in big bold black letters, was the name of our recently crowned queen, Queen Elizabeth II. At the time I shared the awe my teachers had for her. The sun never sets on British soil. This young queen had the responsibility for us all, and the arrival of a ship named after her was an occasion for much pomp and circumstance.

    Hundreds of people thronged the dock that day, pressing against the wooden barriers that separated them from the ship's passengers. The police brass hand, comic to me then as it was now, played military marches in praise of our queen. The musicians looked like costumed players at Carnival: chocolate faces melting under stiff white cardboard helmets, white plumes fanning on top of brass spikes, brass-buttoned white jackets, heavy navy pants, black leather shoes crimping flat feet. But they were not players at Carnival; the uniforms they wore paid homage to the queen and to a system of government of which we were proud.

    Down the steps streamed passengers sprinkled with confetti that fell like colorful rain from the hands of the ship's crew on the top deck. To the left of the ship's steps, I saw my cousin standing defiantly alone, his legs firmly planted apart, in one hand a spear and in the other an underwater spear gun. He reminded me of an African warrior, though the only ones I had seen at my age then were in my schoolbooks, and they wore grass skirts and carried no guns of any kind.

    Long after my memories of the excitement on the dock that day dimmed, the image of the spear and gun remained with me as clear as the sparkling waters that cascaded over the rocks in Blue Basin. For my cousin--who had caused jaws to drop in disbelief when, with the accuracy of a seagull plunging its beak into a darting fish, he dove from the highest rock into that tiny pond we called Blue Basin--let that spear and gun distract him under the water in Maracas Bay. When he floated to the surface again, blood was pouring from his eyes and ears.

    I learned about grief that night, the kind of bottomless, yawning grief that can find nothing upon which to anchor itself, that stretches itself out into a long howl ending in a hollow silence. I heard men cry that night: my father, his five brothers, my grandfather, my cousin's friend, his two brothers. The sounds they made were different from the muffled sniffles of the women. The men bellowed loudly in impotent rage, lashing out at a young man who so missed his warm tropical sea on that damp, cold island we called the mother country, that one night was all he could wait before he took his spear gun with him and dove deep, deep into the sky blue water. They found no water in his lungs, only blood streaming down his face from veins in his head that had ruptured under the pressure of the sea. Still, his fingers were locked around his spear gun, his knuckles turned grisly white.

    "He must have thought he was a fish. The damn fool!" his father shouted through his tears. "Who the hell would dive down in the middle of the sea with no oxygen? Who the hell did he think he was? A damn fish? The Blue Basin champion? Blue Basin's no sea, dammit! The fool!"

    My uncle railed against my cousin's folly, his pride, his ignorance, his bullheadedness. He hurled blame at his dead son until he exhausted himself and only grief remained, releasing tears that poured without restraint down his cheeks.

    My grandmother remained in stony silence. Not a word of consolation. Not a tear in sympathy.

    Finally my youngest uncle, Melvyn, gathered up the courage to explain. He was with my cousin when he died. "We had a warning," he began cautiously. "I told him so. I told him--"

    "What warning?" My grandmother's voice, soft but firm, stopped Melvyn in midsentence. "Go on, tell me. Talk."

    "A big black fish like a giant dolphin. I saw it in the distance when our boat was out at sea. I saw it break through the water. It looked ..." My Uncle Melvyn paused.

    "Go on," my grandmother urged him gently.

    "Like a woman."

    Maybe it was his words alone that stoked his brother's fading anger, or the way he mumbled them under his breath as though ashamed for thinking them, begging some retribution that would have proven his thoughts wrong, but they revived my uncle and he flew into a rage again. "Stop it! Stop it! Not your goddamn stories and lies."

    But my grandmother did not stop. "Like a woman," she repeated dreamily.

    Melvyn's eyes darted nervously from her to his brother.

    "With arms like a woman?" she asked. "Short? Stunted? But like a woman?"

    My dead cousin's father stared at my grandmother in disbelief, his lower lip shaking, but he did not dare cross her. He unleashed his fury on Melvyn instead.

    "Like a woman! You goddamn liar! You stupid fool! This is what you have to say when my son is dead."

    "The Orehu," said my grandmother.

    My dead cousin's father held his tongue and let her speak.

    "The mermaid. The Orehu. She called your son home."

    Later when he chose to forget that his brother had said he saw a fish like a woman in the sea and that his mother had named it Orehu and claimed it had called his son home, my uncle asked Melvyn to tell his story again. He would listen to his tale about a big fish like a dolphin.

    Alan had laughed at him, Melvyn said, when he told him he had seen a big black fish with fins like arms rise vertically from the sea. "I laughed at myself, too. No fish has arms."

    My uncle was satisfied. Not like a woman. He was reassured.

    "Then what happened?" he asked.

    "Then all of a sudden the boat heaved, as if a huge wave suddenly rolled under us. We both got scared. All along the sea was calm. Beautiful. The sun was in the middle of the sky. You could see sunbeams plunging to the bottom of the sea. They looked like tunnels of iridescent light. Tiny diamonds suspended in space." Melvyn's voice drifted. "You could see even the tiniest sea life. They were dancing in between the sea grass and the coral. It was--"

    My uncle lost his calm. "What the hell does this have to do with my son?"

    Melvyn shook the dreams from his head and tried to explain again. "He said he saw something in the water. He almost capsized the boat bending down to it. `Did you see it? Did you see it?' He kept pulling my shirt. I thought I saw a cluster of sea grass shake as though something had hit it. I told him so. `There. Look!' he shouted. The boat heaved again, and before I could stop him, he jumped into the water with his gun and his spear."

    "Didn't you go after him?" Alan's father asked.

    "I didn't see the fish," said my uncle Melvyn.

    "Didn't you throw him the oxygen tank?"

    "He disappeared before I could give it to him."

    "Well, what did you do?"

    "I waited."


    Melvyn remained silent.

    "There was nothing he could do," whispered my grandmother.

    "Nothing!" My dead cousin's father shouted to my uncle though he knew it was my grandmother who had spoken. "Nothing? For God's sake, he was your nephew. You could have gone after him."

    "I thought he'd be back. He was a better diver than me."

    "So you waited?"

    My uncle Melvyn did not answer.

    "When did you stop waiting? When? When?"

    "The sun was so hot, I felt dizzy. I don't know how long I waited."

    "The Orehu," said my grandmother.

    "I didn't think I waited long, but I must have."

    "Didn't you think that something had happened to him?"

    "Just when I became afraid, I saw him floating on his back. Like he was sleeping. Except for the blood in his eyes. He was still holding the spear gun but the spear was gone."

    "The Orehu," repeated my grandmother. She did not shed a tear.

    When I returned home with my parents that night, my father told me about the Orehu. She is one of the gods of the Waraos, he said.

    I remembered that long ago my grandfather had told me that when he was a boy, the Waraos came in their pirogues from off the coast of South America to sell their ground provisions in the markets in Trinidad. They once lived here, he told me. All the islands in the Caribbean were their home until the white man pushed them onto the mainland. The rain forests protected them there. The white man knew if he tried to follow them, the jungle would eat him alive.

    On the night my cousin drowned, my father told me that the Warao god, Orehu, was probably a manatee, a sea cow. Sea cows are very rare, he said. Almost extinct. They rise up from the water to suckle their young. They have arms and palms without fingers except for thumbs. The Waraos love them and fear them. They have been known to carry the Waraos' pirogues on their backs safely through a storm, but then, at other times, they have pulled them down to the bottom of the sea.

    I asked my father how did they do that: pull them down to the bottom of the sea?

    "By some magnetic force, I suppose," he said. "Maybe ultrasound."

    At ten years of age I was already a romantic. I invented the true story of my cousin's death. The fish he had seen was the tail fin of a mermaid. He had shot her with his spear gun before he saw her face, and when he did, he was so dazzled by her shimmering beauty that he fell hopelessly and completely in love with her. He was hers. He had no choice. He had to follow her wherever she took him. The rope between the spear that pierced her scaly thigh and the gun he held in his hand was his only lifeline to her. He held on to the gun until her jealous lover came to her rescue and severed the rope between them.

    I did not share this true story with anyone, but it was a great comfort to me at my cousin's wake as I sat with the weeping women around his coffin. Only our grandmother and I did not cry. I wondered if she, too, knew the truth, but the next day when they lowered my cousin's body into the grave, my mermaid story could not stop my tears. At the sight of big men crying, even my grandfather and the priest, I wept uncontrollably for my cousin, who, after all, though he died for love, did not live to enjoy the island that he had waited for so long in that dark England place. Still, my grandmother's eyes were dry.

    My mother was kind at first. She explained that my grandmother was in shock, but when for days and weeks after my cousin's death, my grandmother continued the unbroken rhythms of her life, acting as though nothing had changed, as though she had not planned and waited for years for the return of this grandson whom she had raised from babyhood after his mother died, my mother joined my aunts in pronouncing that my grandmother was a mannish, unnatural kind of woman, a woman who held back her feelings like a man.

    They said some other things too, that I did not understand at the time. "It's mad Bertha in her blood. That Englishwoman tied to her bed in St. Ann's."

    Those words would haunt me all my life. Mad Bertha. If she was in my grandmother's blood, she had to be in mine. When I learned about the music that trapped her to a rope tied to her bed, I feared that one day my ears would be filled with the music she had heard, and that I would slip into the same darkness that had imprisoned her.

    But then, in those days, I thought my grandmother had the same strength of character and nobility as the queen of England, our young Queen Elizabeth who, though surely she must have cried herself to sleep when King George, her father, died, knew she had to be brave for us. There were people awake with the sun in all parts of the world, every second of the day, even when it was night in England, who were depending on her. She could not succumb to tears.

    Now, at twenty, I no longer had such feelings about the queen. In fact, I had grown to resent her for her captivity of my island home, her continued policy of colonization. But I had not changed my opinion of my grandmother's courage and nobility, her selfless masking of her feelings. I knew that she felt pain and happiness like everyone else. I knew that although she did not cry, my cousin's death had wrung her heart. She saw herself as a partner with my grandfather, sharing responsibility for their family. She had to be strong; she had to set an example for us. So she wore her mask. How many times was I to wish I had that same strength, that stoic control over my emotions.

    For a fleeting moment before I told her that I was leaving Trinidad, I thought my news might possibily sadden her. It occurred to me that the announcement of my departure would bring back memories of my dead cousin who had spent so many years away from home only to return to die. But I hadn't expected tears.

    She was standing in front of the stove clutching a handful of seasoned raw chicken when I entered the kitchen. Hot oil bubbled in the black cast iron pot on the fire, filling the room with the familiar sweet scent of the burning sugar and garlic that women in Trinidad used to brown their meats for stew. I went to my grandmother with my news, giving her the facts the way I believed she would have liked to receive them.

    "I have a scholarship to go to college in America," I said. "All my expenses will be paid. My books, my tuition, my food."

    I saw the lines on her face grow rigid. She sucked in her breath with such force I thought something had happened to her. I rushed toward her but she put up her hand and blocked me. Then, as if nothing was wrong, she turned back to the stove and dropped the raw chicken in the boiling sugar. Hot oil shot out of the pot and rained on the countertop. The chicken hissed and sizzled like ice water on burning coals. Clouds of gray smoke climbed to the ceiling.

    I stood near her until the sounds simmered down, waiting for her to speak. Only when she turned around did I see her tears. They rolled softly down her cheeks, caressing the rigid lines on her face, curling into the corners of her mouth. Her bottom lip shook. I wanted to hug her, to hold her, to do anything to stop those unnatural tears, but she walked past me to the kitchen table. I noticed her hands when she sat down. The spidery veins on their backs were blue and scraggly and her knuckles were pointed and white.

    I tried to comfort her. "Don't cry," I said. "Don't cry."

    The rivers of Africa rushed through her eyes. "Enough!"

    She brushed the tears off her cheeks. The muscles on her temples twitched. She folded her lips into a tight knot and reached for the bowl of dasheen bush on the table.

    "Are you sad to see me go? Is that it?" I dared to ask, thinking the improbable: I was the one to break her mask; I, who in the past year had spent so many hours locked in my room, was, after all, the one she loved most, the one whose absence would be too much for her to bear. But the lines in her face did not soften.

    "There are things you don't know yet, Sara," she said. "Things you don't know."

    I thought, perhaps, she had not understood me fully. I knew her ambitions for her children. Education was the only escape she saw for her sons from the future the colonizers had designed for them.

    "College in America is like university," I said. "It's not what we call college here. I have a scholarship to go to a university."

    All her sons had gone to St. Mary's College, the best education Trinidad offered, but it was not more than secondary school, two extra years for the more brilliant, the ones who hoped for a British scholarship to a university in England, or the sons of the plantation owners who could afford to pay. None of her sons went to university, though all finished the two extra years at St. Mary's. There was a rumor that my father had won one of the two university scholarships that the British offered once a year. Two for the entire population on the island. One chance in two hundred thousand. The British, or rather the agents of the British, of which there were more than a few on my island that was proud of its loyalty to Mother England, didn't give the scholarship to my father. His answers on the physics examination were too perfect, they said. Most unlikely. One chance in two hundred thousand. They discounted the fact that my father had a photographic memory and that he had gone weeks without sleeping, studying by the light of a candle, kept awake by the mugs of thick black coffee my grandmother had brewed for him.

    Perhaps that was why my grandmother asked no questions when my cousin Alan left for England. Studying, his father said, though everyone knew he had no scholarship and his family had no money. No one asked where. Which university? There was an understanding in the family. I supposed my grandmother knew in her heart it was a lie.

    "In America?" she asked. Her words formed more of a statement of condemnation than a question.

    "Wisconsin. Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I have a full scholarship. Everything paid for."

    "You'll be the second grandchild I'll lose to those big countries," she said flatly. "That's all."

    I thought she was referring to the secret we kept about my dead cousin. By then I knew what everyone else had already known when I was a child. Alan was a link in a chain, on better days swinging buckets of coal from one man to the next, on others, descending deep into a black pit, lower than the depths of the sea that took his life.

    "No, I have a scholarship. Really. I'm going to university."

    "Dead people don't come back."

    I thought I had not heard her clearly and asked her to repeat what she had said.

    "Dead people don't come back," she said again.

    I didn't know what she meant.

    "Alan died in England way before he came back."

    I held my breath. This was the first time I had heard her speak of him since his drowning.

    "His spear and his gun couldn't help him. They were spoilt in England. The Orehu knew."

    My eyes scanned the floor. I knew about her mystical and spiritual beliefs. They were part of the culture in which I was raised. My mother told me her stories, too--of the soucouyant and the diablesse. But I was twenty years old. A grown woman.

    "The Orehu knows," she insisted, and reached for my hand, pinning it to the table.

    I tried to move but she held me still.

    "The Orehu knew what happened to him in England."

    I fought with her. "Alan drowned right here in Trinidad in Maracas Bay. He dove too deep. He was too arrogant and foolish to take his oxygen tank."

    I had already cast away my stories of mermaids and lovers. I had put them away with my other childish things.

    "You may know too much for your own good."

    I believed I was a grown woman, but she spoke to me as if I were not, and the truth was I did not have the courage to contradict her.

    "You think I have nothing to teach you. You think only water can drown you."

    I looked away. She gripped my chin and twisted my face toward her.

    "Like America," she said. Her eyes pierced mine. Her voice seemed to come from the bottom of her throat, forced through her windpipe in a whisper. I became afraid.

    She saw the fear in my eyes and slackened the pressure of her fingers on my chin.

    "People think I say foolish things, Sara." She stroked my face. "But I know what I say. Listen to me. America is like the sea. You think it's good. You think you can swim in it and you'll be safe. Yes, you can find food in the sea. Plenty of fish in the sea. But when you're not looking, not thinking about it, America can drown you like the sea."

    Her eyes turned glassy and her voice became more agitated and strained. "Your grandfather knows. Let him tell you about his brother, Thomas." She removed her fingers from my face. "Let him tell you about the big-shot dentist. `America did this for him. America did that for him.' Told your grandfather we should move to America. Said your grandfather had a small island mind when he said his family was too black for America." She picked up the white kitchen towel hanging over the back of her chair and brushed the air. "America was good to him all right. Made him feel he didn't have to look over his shoulder. Then it got him."

    She stopped waving the towel, pulled it taut and wrapped one end around her neck. The other, longer end, she stretched above her head. She looked like an animal about to be slaughtered. Her head dropped on her shoulder. She stayed like that for what seemed to me an eternity, her eyes continuing to stare at nothing, her lips moving as if she would speak and couldn't. I remained transfixed where I was, not knowing what to do, not understanding her. At last she loosened the towel and turned to me.

    "Do you understand now, child?" she asked. Her voice seemed to carry the mysteries of the past. She was expecting me, blood of her blood, to understand, to know, but I did not know what she meant. "Do you understand me, big child?"

    I said what I did not believe. "He was hanged?"

    She laughed and brushed the towel back and forth across her shoulders. "And you want to go to America?"

    "Then tell me." I was caught in her web, wriggling.

    "The word is lynched," she said. "Lynched. Your great-uncle Thomas was lynched. Strung up on a tree, American style. No questions asked. No jury. Rope round his neck. His body like any old sack of black coals."

    My mother said that my grandmother was getting old and didn't know what she was saying. My grandfather's brother had been shot accidentally in a bar in Georgia. Not lynched. The police there said he resembled a colored man who had raped and strangled five white girls.

    My father turned his back on me when I asked, but not before I saw anger narrow his eyes and set his jaw in stone.

    My grandfather said that my grandmother had no right bringing up his brother's name from the dead. What happened in 1950 to his brother in Georgia would have absolutely no bearing on my going in 1963 to Wisconsin, which was way up north in America and as different as day from night.

    "Too, besides," my mother reminded me, "the Americans saved our family. They are angels."

    I knew what she meant.

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