Dead parrot fish. It was the first thing that Donovan saw as he walked through the remains of Little London, a town that once brimmed with life. The laughter of children, the chattering of rumheads in Fisher’s Bar, and the gossip of market women had been replaced by a heavy stillness. A tidal wave had destroyed the town. Even the Methodist Church, which had seen its share of hurricanes and earthquakes, was now a shadow of its former glory.
If only they had listened, Donovan thought, so many lives could’ve been spared.
As he trudged through the muck and grime with his lantern, Donovan spotted a baby’s shoe in a pool of briny water. It was too much. He needed a break.
“Patrick,” he shouted, “I can’t take this anymore. I’m going to take a walk down to the beach. I’ll soon be back.”
Patrick, his friend from primary school, pointed his flashlight at Donovan’s face.
“Take your time,” Patrick said. “You’ve been working longer than everyone else.”
“Give thanks,” said Donovan. He put down the lantern and started walking along the path to the Cabarita Rive, hoping she’d be there like the first time they’d met.
It had been the first day of the summer solstice— a time when Little Londoners stayed inside their home, fearing the duppies and rolling calves came out because of the shortness of the nights.
Donovan had been snorkeling for scallops when he saw her sitting on a rock and untangling sargasso from her locks.
At first, he thought he must have been hallucinating--another reason the townspeople, especially Patrick, didn’t trust him when he warned about the tidal wave Tanya told him was coming.
“Are you sure you’re not smoking ganja?” Patrick had teased him, even though he knew Donovan never smoked anything. Not even a cigarette.
The sun hadn’t yet risen over Mount Zion, where Donovan, and a few tourists, who had followed him, hid during the tidal wave. With an elevation of over one thousand feet, it was the perfect place to take refuge.
As he walked along the beach, gulls wheeled overhead, their raucous cries echoing off cliffs as if they, too, had seen enough. He stopped for a second when he saw a peacock feather beside a log that had washed ashore. Donovan couldn’t figure out where the feather had come from. There weren’t any peacocks in Negril to the east or Treasure Beach to the west. Was it a sign?
Before Donovan met Tanya, he didn’t believe in signs. “Just give me the facts, no fiction,” he often said to Patrick, who was always coming up with conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and the lizard people in the Jamaican government.
But all that changed when he met Tanya. He was now a believer.
He picked up the feather and stuck it in the small of his back. It would be a surprise. Tanya didn’t see things like that where she came from.
Donovan had walked about a mile along the beach when he saw her sitting on the rock as if she had been waiting for him. Her scales glistened as her glorious tail lapped the waves.
“Good morning,” she shouted. “How are you feeling?”
“Not too good,” said Donovan. “I saw something that disturbed me.”
“A baby’s shoe.”
Tanya gasped and turned her head away. Her locks trailed down her back to where her pelvis met her tail.
“As long as I’ve lived, I have never gotten used to things like that,” she said.
“Me too,” said Donovan, and Tanya laughed. She’d grown fond of his sense of humor in the brief time she'd known him.
“I have something for you,” Donavan said, giving her the feather.
“It’s beautiful, “she said. “But I can’t keep it.”
Donovan was going to ask her why, but he knew the reason. Tanya would soon return to her underwater home where she had lived for the past four hundred years, appearing every now and then to warn sailors or drunk fishermen about impending danger. Donovan was neither. He felt lucky to have met her.
“Speaking of gifts,” he said. “Is there any way of taking back the gift you gave me when you touched my forehead?”
“I warned you, didn’t I? I told you I had to grant the wish if you asked. But you wouldn’t heed my warning. You insisted that you wanted to see things clearly--as they are. And I granted you a wish.”
Donovan shook his head, and a few locks tumbled out of his tam and covered his face. He tucked them gently under his tam before he looked into her eyes, which were as dark as the underwater caves he and Patrick used to explore.
“I never knew the price I’d have to pay.”
“We never do, do we?”
It reminded him of this story Tanya told him about how she had been changed into a mermaid during the earthquake that destroyed Port Royal in 1692.
Tanya had been working as a maid in the White Horse Tavern, a popular place for pirates, sailors, and scumbags. They loved to exchange stories about their battles with the Spanish and the fortunes they had hidden on the islands up to Florida.
The pirates loved her stories about how she’d lived as a princess until Dahomey defeated her brother Alaafin Obalokun, and she was sold into slavery. But the part that the pirates loved, which she frequently embellished, was how she escaped slavery by poisoning her Spanish master. When the earthquake hit Port Royal, the last thing Tanya remembered was screaming, “Save me, Mama Oshun.”
She woke up on the seabed with her tail, and she could breathe underwater.
“At least you could’ve warned me,” said Donovan. “What’s the use of seeing things clearly when no one else will listen?”
“You already know the answer,” said Tanya. “You were already walking on this path when I met you; you had already grown your locks and lived by your faith. It made you stronger and wiser, and you could understand what people were going through without them saying a word. But how do you know no one is paying attention?”
“Because they didn’t follow me to Mount Zion!”
“Not everyone will reach Mount Zion in your lifetime. But it’s not your job to change anyone. Your job is to live up to what you know and leave the rest up to Jah.”
Donovan laughed when Tanya said, “Jah.” At least she had listened when she had asked him about his locks that looked like hers, and he told her about his belief in Jah Rastafari or Haile Selassie as he was known to the rest of the world. She didn’t laugh or contradict him even when she believed something else.
“So what am I going to do now?” Donovan asked.
“What everyone else like you has done when they saw the world as it is. ‘Help the weak if you are strong,’ as your prophet sang.”
Tanya remembered when Donovan showed her a rectangular metal box—a phone, he called it—with music inside.
“This is a miracle, “she said. “So much has changed in 400 years.”
“So much has changed, yet so much remains the same,” said Donovan. “Our people are no longer in physical chains. As our other prophet said, we are now in ‘mental slavery.’”
“Yes, my brother,” said Tanya. “But I have to go now. The sun is rising over Mount Zion.”
“Will I see you again, and I mean without a tragedy?”
“I don’t know,” said Tanya. “I go where the spirit leads me. You keep walking on the beach every day. Enjoy as much as you can the songs of the birds, the wind at your back, and the sun, oh yes, the sun on your skin all day. It’s the only thing you mortals should do with your brief time on this earth.”
“You mean you will never--”
Tanya flashed her locks and cut Donovan off in midsentence. It was a side of her that he had never seen before.
“Haven’t you learned? Don’t go asking for something that you don’t know what’s on the other side. I am the loneliest creature the goddess ever made—lonely as a goddess herself, who only knows herself through us.”
“And through me?”
“Find that out for yourself,” she said. She placed the feather on the rock and dived into the water.
Donovan watched as Tanya’s tail flapped in the water before she resurfaced again and waved. Donovan waved back, and she disappeared under the waves.
He picked up the feather and looked around. No one else was on the beach. Everything had returned to how it had been before he met Tanya. But now it felt different.
Yet he had a feeling that somehow, some way, he would meet Tanya again. But that was a mystery, like Jah, that he would never understand. Nor did he want to. All he had to do now was walk in the morning light until he saw her again.
But until then, he had work to do.