Red Palms
Hardcover | 978-0385746489 | Random House Children’s Books | Wendy Lamb Books | November 2004
Paperback | 978-0553494129 | Random House Children’s Books | Wendy Lamb Books | March 2006

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The tropical storm quit as quickly as it had begun. As soon as the sun peeked over the rim of vanishing clouds, the whole place went hot and sticky and the water turned turquoise blue and clear as glass.

Our carriers put us down on the beach. Captain Pepito came round and paid the men, introducing Raul as his son. As soon as he got his money, he turned away without a word.

All the other villagers came closer in packs of three and four, tentatively at first, as if we might lunge or bite. They were practically naked, barefoot and beaded, their faces splashed with mud red paint. The women wore some cotton rags tied at the breast, and the men went shirtless.

Once a small crowd had gathered, the rest of the village poured out of their huts to have a look. They stared into our faces in a way that expressed curiosity and fear at the same time, studying us as if we were some kind of alien race. Their attention was unnerving, but I stared right back, trying to smile. I wouldn’t have thought that so many lived on Paíta; nearly a hundred people were on the beach by then. Where did they all sleep? There were only ten huts on the whole island, as far as I could tell.

One old woman grabbed Mama’s hand to get a better look at her gold wedding ring. Mama let her, but when the woman tried to take it off her finger, Mama pulled her hand away. They made some remarks to themselves about that, in a language I could not understand. Another lady held a leaf up to the side of her head and then pointed to me, and I realized she was commenting on my flowered hat, but I moved back before she tried to take it off my head. My brothers faced a trio of naked and giggling native boys with round brown bellies.

I snuggled under Papa’s arm to hide, trying to make their garbled voices fade away. All of a sudden I felt very tired and I wanted to get where we were going. I was glad these people greeted us with laughter rather than anger, but so far, Paíta only made me want to run away home, to shut the door, and never come out again. No wonder the handsome Raul left the beach. Maybe he hated all this silly joking just like I did.

I tugged on my father’s shirtsleeve, “Are we staying here, Papa?”

“Good question, Benita,” Papa said. I was still snuggled close to him and I could feel how fast his heart beat inside his chest. He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket to pull out a folded map. “What we need to do is find the territory on the south west quadrant which should be…” He pulled at the accordion folds of his map and attempted to spread it open. “Let go now of me now, Benita,” he said. Reluctantly I took my arms away from his waist. Papa bent down low and laid the map out on the sand. The crowd gathered around noisily but I couldn’t tell if they knew they were looking at a likeness of their own island.

“See this body of water here?” Papa said to Captain Pepito. He pointed to a small lake on the map. “Can you tell me where it is located? Our land is one kilometer directly to the south.”

Captain Pepito bent down to get a closer look. “It doesn’t exist now,” he said

“Then why is it here on the map?” Papa asked.

“Because this is where the lake will be.”

“What kind of nonsense is that?”

The captain started to walk away from us, away from the beach. He gestured for Papa to follow, then turned and continued walking.

Papa stood, brushing the sand from his trouser legs. He went after the captain. I followed them, walking beyond the village huts and through the yards out back. Sleeping hammocks hung haphazardly across rooms, dirt floors were strewn with clothing and foodstuffs. Little children, too young to walk, peered out at us pathetically from their dark dens. I caught a whiff of a nasty smell from a boiling pot. I kept my gaze fixed on the back of Papa’s shirt. At least we didn’t have to live here like this.

On the backside of the village, there was a clearing in the jungle at the end of a long ravine. The clearing was nearly circular in shape and the vegetation was matted down, as if all the grass and bushes had been mowed under. Clumps of cattail grew all along the farthest edge and at the center the ground was marked by what looked like a mineral stain, almost sea green in color, that swirled in the same pattern that water makes when it goes down the drain.

“I see now,” said Papa.

“See what? See what?” I said.

“This is our lake,” Captain Pepito said. “When the ocean tide is high, the seawater shoots up the beach. See how it made that ravine. All the water collects right here.”

“It’s a salt water lake then?” my father asked.

“Yes, good for fishing. Good for a steady supply of food for the months that it is here.”

“Fish can’t live in the jungle,” I said, thinking I’d catch Captain Pepito, for Papa’s sake, in what was obviously a lie. His story seemed all made up.

“They ride in on the ocean tide,” Pepito answered. “You will see.”

“I have seen all I need to see,” said Papa and turned away then. He seemed disappointed. I followed Papa back down the beach. We’d left the captain standing at the edge of the dried-up lake.

“What’s the matter, Papa?” I asked, afraid of what he might answer.

“I was counting on finding a fresh water reservoir here, to irrigate the planting fields. I can’t irrigate with salt water. But that’s not the only problem.”

“It’s not?”

“Well, if this is the reservoir, then do you remember that blue shack on the beach we passed on our way into the village.”

“You mean the one we saw from the boat? How could I forget it, it’s so completely awful?”

“That shack sits right on our property.”

“Oh well. We can always tear it down.”

“If we tear it down, we’ll have no place to live.”

“What do you mean? What about the house that…” As soon as I said this, I realized what Papa was trying to tell me. That the house we were planning to live in, the house that my grandmother had supposedly given to us, was that uninhabitable blue shack on stilts down the beach. “No!” I cried.

Papa clamped his hand over my mouth. Beads of sweat clung to his forehead and quivered as he spoke. “Not now, Benita. Don’t say another word. If your mother hears she might throw herself into the ocean. I need you to pretend it’s all going to be all right. And it will be, you’ll see. I promise. The shack will only be temporary. We’ll build a real house. As soon as we can. I promise, all right?”

I couldn’t answer. Papa had my face in his hands, and he nodded my head for me. He looked and sounded like he was out of his mind. When he let go I just kept nodding, even after he turned to walk back towards the rest of the family. I felt sick to my stomach again.

The crowd was gone. A few of the little boys had hung around to play with my brothers, hunkered down in the sand taking turns slapping at each other’s wrists, a game my brothers had obviously taught them.

Papa clapped his hands. “It’s time we were off!” he said, his voice full of false enthusiasm.

“Where are we going now?” Mama had taken a seat on a piece of hand luggage.

“Just down the beach a little way. It’s not far to walk. We can make it on foot. Stand up, I’ll get that bag.” Papa pushed Mama off of it and grabbed the handle. “Let’s go kids, let’s go,” Papa shouted back over his shoulder.

We marched up the beach single file, with Papa in the lead of course. Mama had little Alfonse by the hand, to help him walk in the soft sand. A few of the villagers trailed along at a distance, as if they were minding their own business but just happened to be headed in the same direction. It sort of bothered me that they were still with us, but I figured there had to come a time when we would no longer be so strange to them. Surely they’d grow bored of us.

After walking for several minutes I spotted the blue shack. It wasn’t actually that far from the village. When we’d gotten close enough, Papa stopped us and said, “All right everyone. We’re here.”

The hut, leaning sideways on its stilts, stood staring down at us from its lopsided height. It was much worse up close, barren and deserted, and for good reason. There were planks missing from the walls, and a patch of sky showed through the thatched roof. From the looks on their faces, I could tell Mama and my brothers had come to the realization that everything was about as terrible as it could be. I dropped the bag I was carrying and it hit me in the foot.

Papa went up the steps first, taking care to step over the gaping hole where the third and fourth step were missing. He called from the doorway. “Pilar? Boys? Benita?” No one answered and no one moved. He went inside the shack and yelled, “There’s plenty of room in here. It’s just fine for a temporary shelter. Jose! Manuel! Bring up the bags.” My brothers kicked at the sand like they were hoping to dig themselves out of there.

“What a disgusting mess, Josef.”

“You’re not going to leave me alone here are you?”

Mama sighed. “It’s a bit late for that now.”

Sounding relieved, Papa said, “Then why don’t you come inside? We need to eat, and get some sleep. In the morning we’ll get up early and decide where to build our house. This is only temporary.”

I found that I had been holding my breath during their conversation. My parents had never spoken to one another like that before. Not in front of us.

Finally Mama said to us, “Come along children,” in a resigned-to-living-in-hell voice. “Your father can’t run his plantation all alone.”

So we dragged ourselves into the hut just as it started to get dark. The islanders who had followed us now started to walk away down the beach. Would they go back to their kin and say some kind of voodoo spell to protect them from the crazy intruders…us?

That night we ate a dinner of rice salad that Mama had brought from home and fresh mango picked from a tree just behind the shack. Afterwards, I wrote in my journal about the trip and how terrible it was on Paíta, how mad I was about where we wound up, and how weird the people were. I also wrote about the handsome one, Raul, but I did not write about him in a way that anyone reading my diary might know that I was interested in him. All I wrote was that one strong man carried Mama all the way to shore, and that maybe he would be a nice person. In my mind of course, I composed a completely different description of him.

Late that night, we sat on the rickety front porch and watched the moonlight play on the swaying ocean. There was nothing else to do. My brothers started to fall asleep there, Alfonse with his head in Mama’s lap. My father leaned back against the hut studying the water intensely as if looking for clues. I could have fallen asleep myself, the sounds of the waves gently lapping at the beach were so peaceful. Back in the jungle behind the shack an orchestra of crickets kept their own time, chirping away at one another.

But the lovely monotonous noises were interrupted by the sound of a boat’s motor, growling in the distance and getting louder by the minute. I could tell by the little blue light pegged to its bow that the boat was traveling towards us.

“That must be Pepito now, ” Papa said, jumping up. He kept his gaze riveted to the water.

All of a sudden I felt glad the boat was coming. I wanted my nightgown and my hairbrush. I wanted a pair of socks because I was sick of the bugs biting at my ankles, and I wanted to look into my hand mirror to see if I looked any different after this strange day.

Soon the little boat was beached in front of our shack. Captain Pepito and Papa carried our things one crate at a time, across the sand, up the steps and into the hut. I fell asleep watching them and woke up in the middle of the night to find that I had been placed in one of the hammocks. I lay there half asleep, fanning my nightgown around my legs to cool off, vaguely aware that something was moving around in the thatch of the roof. A rodent was sneaking around up there. I almost fell asleep again, when the sound of persistent rustling gave way with a snap, and the gentle night air was punctuated by a piercing cry.

“What was it, Papa?” I cried.

“I don’t know darling. Go to sleep, you’re safe,” he said.

We lay awake for a while after that, all of us. I heard the same terrible sound again, but this time it wasn’t hard to guess what it was. The snap of a predator’s jaws closing around its prey and a small animal screaming for help. There were snakes catching rats in the thatch and they were having a busy night. I didn’t fall asleep until daylight came. That night took forever to end.

Excerpted from Red Palms by Cara Haycak, Copyright © 2004 by Cara Haycak. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. Thank you.

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