Read an excerpt from Even in Paradise by Elizabeth Nunez
Elizabeth Nunez: On Writing Even in Paradise
The sisters in King Lear intrigued me. When Lear cries out, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning,” there can be no doubt what he means by sinned against. His two older daughters are heartless, wicked women who threw him out of their castles and left him stranded in a storm. But what was Lear’s sin?
I have five sisters, and when we were young, we would try to trap our father into declaring which of us he loved best. Such was our need to feel special in a crowd of six daughters. We never succeeded; our father always found ways to deflect our pleas, though nevertheless reassuring us that we were each loved. Lear, however, made it clear that his youngest daughter was his joy, his favorite, and when she tells him that she would have to share her love for him with her future husband, he becomes unhinged. His bizarre behavior seals his two older daughters’ conviction that he prefers their young sister, and the seed of resentment and jealousy that had lain coiled in their hearts erupts into a poisonous, twisted plant strangling everything that hinders its growth.
Yes, their “sin” is ingratitude and greed, but it seems to me that at the heart of Shakespeare’s play is also a story about our need to be loved exclusively by our parents and the resentments that arise when we must share our parents’ love with siblings. I wanted to explore that human flaw in Even in Paradise.
from Even in Paradise
I met Corinne Ducksworth when she was a young girl, just turned twelve. There was nothing about her or about the day I first saw her to give me the slightest warning that years later I would fall hopelessly in love with her. At sixteen, I considered myself already a man, and Corinne, to my mind, was still a child.
She had come with her father, Peter Ducksworth, to the racetracks at the Queen’s Park Savannah, in the heart of Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, and I had come with mine. My father, being a stickler for punctuality, had insisted we arrive some fifteen minutes early and I was forced to wait on one of the green wood benches that lined the sidewalk around the Savannah while my father paced, glancing back and forth from the racetracks to the street, checking his watch and mumbling under his breath about inconsiderate people who think nothing about wasting other people’s time. He was facing the opposite direction when I saw the Ducksworths coming toward us, the daughter skipping ahead, two thick plaits swinging across her face, legs long and gangly like a young colt’s, girlish knobby knees, the father trailing behind her, red-faced, huffing and puffing.
“Sorry, old man.” He extended a thick, sweaty hand to my father. “Had to wait for her.”
He tossed his head in his daughter’s direction and pursed his lips as if he were angry with her, but I could tell he was pretending for I did not miss the gleam in his eyes. I had already been told that Corinne Ducksworth was Peter Ducksworth’s favorite child, the youngest of his three daughters, the apple of his eye.
“Oh, Daddy.” Corinne raised herself on her tiptoes and kissed her father on the cheek, disarming him completely. The lips softened, the gleam intensified, proving the rumors not unfounded. “You know I was the one waiting for you,” she said gaily.
“Had to have my coffee.” Peter Ducksworth grinned sheepishly at my father. “Keeps me alert this early in the morning.”
My father shook his hand and then glanced again at his watch. The Ducksworths were five minutes late, an eternity for my father. “Sun will be up soon,” he grunted.
It was dark, not quite dawn, the stars still visible, shining like diamonds in the navy-blue sky. Dew beaded the grass in the Savannah, skirting above the cool damp earth and signaling the first hints of the coming heat. It had rained all week and the ground was sodden beneath our feet. Along the path to the racetracks and some distance beyond, the Savannah was potholed with pools of thick mud that clung to clumps of grass, making it seem as though tiny brown and green bouquets tied with string had been deliberately planted there.
Corinne was far ahead of us, skipping happily again, a silhouette of arms and legs flung backward and forward until she slipped and I saw her go down, sliding across the wet grass. Peter Ducksworth roared with laughter and quickened his pace toward her. “Well, you wanted to come with me,” he said, stretching out his hand to help her up. “I told you it would be messy here.”
She screwed up her face, lips and nose twisted comically, turned away from him, and tried to brace herself up on the palms of her hands. Feisty, I thought, but she slipped again and this time I rushed to help her. Her hands were clotted with mud that spread over mine when I pulled her up and for a split second our eyes met. Was that the moment she pierced my heart?
“Don’t know why they call this a savannah,” Ducksworth said, casting a disapproving eye at me before turning back to his daughter. “Look at your shorts. They’re covered in mud.” He fished out a handkerchief from his pants pocket and handed it to her. From where I stood, I could see there were brownish stains on it.
“Daddy!” she cried, and pushed away the handkerchief. “It’s filthy. I told you I’ll wash your clothes if you put them in the hamper.”
“Use it anyhow.” He waved the dirty handkerchief at her.
“Put it away.” She wiped her hands on her shorts, spreading the mud even farther across the back and front.
My father’s head jerked backward involuntarily and his mouth fell open. But if he were shocked by Corinne’s defiance (I had never dared to defy him so openly), he said nothing, though I had not failed to notice the tightening of the muscles in his jaw when he closed his mouth.
“My daughter,” Ducksworth said, balling up the handkerchief and shoving it in his pocket, “she has her own mind. But she looks after me. Right, Corinne?” He winked at her.
“When you let me, Daddy,” she said.
“It’s this place,” Ducksworth grumbled. “Always muddy. Queen’s Park Savannah, hah! No more park than a savannah.”
And strictly speaking, he was right, for the Queen’s Park Savannah—we referred to it simply as The Savannah—was neither a savannah nor a park, though indeed, in the hundred and sixty-five years before we gained our independence, it was once the property of the reigning British monarch since Trinidad was among the chain of islands in the Caribbean that belonged to England after she won her battles with Spain in 1797.
Enslaved Africans, driven mercilessly under a broiling sun, had planted sugarcane here, where we now stood—Peter Ducksworth and his daughter, my father and I—turning what had been a rainforest thick with massive trees and bushes into a thriving sugarcane plantation so that the English could have proper parks in the motherland: Pemberley, where the dashing Mr. Darcy romanced the beautiful Elizabeth Bennet; Mansfield Park, where poor, innocent Fanny Price was cowed into silence when she dared to ask Sir Thomas Bertram what business he had in Antigua that had kept him away from his home for so many long months.
When the horrors of slave labor ended in the British West Indies, Queen’s Park Savannah became a cattle pasture, and I suppose that is how it got its reputation as a savannah, for it resembled one: wide swaths of grassy flatland surrounded by big trees that had survived the deforestation, the ground cleared to plant sugarcane. Then someone had the idea that the area could indeed be a sort of park—a park for sports, that is. A cricket mound was erected, a rugby field too, and, of course, a racetrack, where my father, who had a distaste for the slightest whiff of gambling, had been persuaded to accompany Peter Ducksworth, who had come to say goodbye to the last of his racehorses, the ones still remaining in the stables after the races had moved east, to Arima. He needed a friend at his side, Peter Ducksworth said to my father. “Who knows if I could have a relapse?”
My father, John Baxter, was not Peter Ducksworth’s friend. He was his doctor, the most prominent surgeon on the island, an important and highly regarded man. And he looked the part: tall, erect, and formidable in his three-piece dark suits, always clean-shaven but with a meticulously trimmed mustache that shadowed what would have been attractive lips—the bottom lip slightly fuller than the top—had he smiled more often. By most standards he would have been considered a handsome man—skin the color of warm caramel, clear brown eyes, an impressive square jaw, his height the envy of most men. But though generally people are drawn to handsome men, my father had such a serious air about him that he intimidated even his colleagues, so it seemed odd to me that Peter Ducksworth would refer to him as a friend.
Ordinarily my father did not attend to patients in their homes. Peter Ducksworth, however, was a cousin of the minister of health, who controlled the purse that financed the efficient running of the hospital. When the minister asked my father as a special favor to take care of Ducksworth in his home, my father obliged.
Ducksworth had inherited five racehorses from his father, who was at heart an inveterate gambler. Yet Peter Ducksworth had no stomach for the roller-coaster world of horseracing. Still, he liked the horses and long after his father died he kept them—until he was bitten by a mosquito in the Caroni Swamp and would have died from a severe bout of the West Nile virus had my father not saved him.
Mosquitoes, it is often said, can be discriminating. They like fresh blood, foreign blood. Peter Ducksworth was not a foreigner even though without any mixing of the bloods he could trace his family back to the mother country. As Jean Rhys’s Rochester observed of his West Indian wife, “Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.” And Peter Ducksworth was not English or European either, though his hair was sandy brown, his eyes blue, and his skin, weathered by the sun, would have been pale as the insides of an almond had he lived in the cold climes of the northern countries.
Peter Ducksworth was Trinidadian; he considered himself a Trinidadian, a Caribbean man, someone who could be completely at home in any of the English-speaking Caribbean islands. Like the English families who had made the islands their home for generations, he spoke with his whole body, with his head, his shoulders, his hands—very un-English expressive movements punctuating the rise and fall of his Trinidadian lilt. He danced like a Trinidadian too, with his hips, not just his legs. Years later, when I saw him dance, it was hard to keep from laughing for he was a solid man. He carried his weight in his broad shoulders, wide chest, and ballooning belly, but his legs were thin and when he danced he looked as if he were balancing a colossus on sticks.
Ducksworth loved calypso and steelpan. Carnival was his favorite festival and it was a source of pride for him that one of his own, Peter Minshall, a descendant too from the English, was for years the owner and costume designer of the best Carnival band in Trinidad. And so, as a true Trini man, Peter Ducksworth didn’t hesitate to join his Trinidadian friends—the dark-skinned ones—on a trip down the Caroni Swamp to watch the scarlet ibis return from their feeding grounds in Venezuela to roost on the mangrove trees.
“You have to watch out for the mosquitoes, though,” his friend George had warned him.
“Just me, or you too?”
The others laughed. “They don’t like peppery blood,” one scoffed.
Ducksworth knew of course what they were talking about. He was not dark skinned like they were, but, as most Trinidadians, he liked his food spicy and would complain if his cook did not put enough pepper in it. Rumor had it that once, when a whole pepper in his pelau burst, he continued eating without even stopping to cool his tongue with water.
“We’ll see who they bite first,” he challenged them.
They lost their way in a turn in the swamp, blindsided by the low-hanging branches of the mangroves that crisscrossed each other from one side of the narrow river swamp to the other, making it difficult to see in front of them. Without warning, their pirogue hit a buzz saw of mosquitoes. They were all bitten; only Peter Ducksworth got infected with the parasite.
For days he lay in a delirium, hallucinating and burning up with fever, unable to hold down solids or liquids. My father was called to attend to him. I don’t think my father administered more than the usual treatment—intravenous liquids to keep him hydrated—but when Ducksworth recovered, he announced that my father was a miracle worker who had not only rescued him from the jaws of death, but had given him a new lease on life. He would no longer put off for tomorrow what he wanted to do today. And what he wanted to do, had always wanted to do for years now, was to live in Barbados. He loved the sea, but the sea in Trinidad was either brown on one side or rough on the other: to the west and south, laden with silt draining from the Orinoco River; to the east, buffeted by the relentless trade winds that eroded the roots of coconut trees; and on the north, except for a smattering of coves where there were wide sandy beaches, was the Atlantic Ocean, big and powerful, slapping huge waves against gigantic black rocks stranded from the shore.
Paradise, Ducksworth called Barbados. The sea there was as blue as the sky, the beaches long and wide, and the sand sparkling white. If he were in Barbados, he could swim in the sea every day, and every day the sea would be blue and clear as glass wherever he went. His wife was dead now many years. His eldest daughter Glynis was sixteen. At the end of the year she would sit for the CXC exam that had replaced the Cambridge O-level exam from colonial times. It would be easy to get her into a good school in Barbados the following year where she could take the CAPE exam, the equivalent of the British A-level exam, which like the CXC was set by the Caribbean Examination Council for the English-speaking Commonwealth Caribbean countries and was required for entry into the University of the West Indies. Rebecca, the middle girl, was one year younger than Glynis, and he worried that changing schools in the year before her CXC exams would put her at a disadvantage. He thought about boarding her at the convent school in Trinidad, but he knew that Rebecca would never agree. She was attached to Glynis. “Like a lost puppy,” he said. “She wouldn’t know what to do if Glynis wasn’t there to tell her.” Corinne was twelve. She would begin secondary school that September and would have to go to a different school anyhow. But it had never entered Peter Ducksworth’s mind to be separated from his youngest daughter, his joy. This was his chance, he told my father, to have the life he always wanted. He had stayed in Trinidad for his wife’s sake, but the miracle that my father had wrought for him was a sure sign that the time was right to make his move. He would sell his assets and relocate. The racehorses were part of his assets.
We were on our way to the racetracks when my father told me this. He said Ducksworth had sold all his horses except one, which was especially hard for him to give up. “When he was in his delirium, Mr. Ducksworth kept mumbling two names, Corinne and Raven,” he said. “Of course, I knew Corinne is his youngest daughter, but I didn’t know who Raven was until he told me it was his father’s old horse. I suppose I felt sorry for him. He must have known, as I did, that the only reason someone’s going to pay him for an old horse is to slaughter it for its meat and use the bones and tissues for glue.”
I had not thought my father so caring, but then there was a lot I did not know about him, as he did not know about me. He did not know that I had been to the racetracks many times, and though this was the first time I had seen Corinne, I had already met her father.
Ducksworth too had not known I was John Baxter’s son. He was still grumbling about his daughter’s stubbornness—“I told her the tracks would be muddy, but she wouldn’t listen”—when suddenly he turned to me. “You stay behind and watch that she doesn’t fall again while I go with Dr. Baxter to negotiate a price for my horse. I’ll give you two dollars for your trouble.”
My father may have been surprised by his manner of speaking to me, but he gave no indication. He simply informed Ducksworth that it would not be necessary to pay me to look after his daughter. “Émile doesn’t need the money,” he said.
“I don’t think Trevor makes that much at the tracks,” Ducksworth countered, “especially now that there are no more races in the Savannah.”
“Trevor?” My father arched his eyebrows.
“He’s the best groom in Trinidad. Not so, Émile?” Ducksworth slapped me on the back.
I cast my eyes downward and slid my feet on the grass, pretending I was wiping off the mud on the bottom of my shoes.
“Isn’t that right, young man?” Ducksworth insisted.
“I suppose so,” I mumbled, feeling the heat of my father’s eyes on me.
“Don’t be shy,” Ducksworth said. “You should be proud of your father.”
“His father?” Reproof dripped from the upward tilt of my father’s voice and I cringed.
“Comes here with him,” Ducksworth said. “But not often enough though. You could learn a thing or two if you came with him more often, Émile. Like I said, Trevor’s the best in the business.”
“Émile?” My father had not taken his eyes off me; he was waiting for my explanation.
“He’s not my father, Mr. Ducksworth,” I said, finally looking up.
“Not your father?”
“Dr. Baxter is my father.”
My father held my eyes a second longer before he released me from the cold grip of his stare. “Trevor is my housekeeper’s common-law husband,” he said to Ducksworth. The creases in his brow disappeared. “Émile is my son.” No questions for me. No apparent curiosity about why Ducksworth should think I was his housekeeper’s son.
Ducksworth narrowed his eyes, swiveled his head from me to my father, cleared his throat, and then noticing, as I did, the tight line my father had drawn across his mouth, he shrugged his shoulders and apologized. “Sorry, old man. Hope I didn’t offend.”
“No offense taken,” my father replied.
And concluding correctly that my father wished to put an end to any further discussion about why I had been mistaken for Trevor’s son, Ducksworth turned his attentions back to the mud on his daughter’s legs. “I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to bring her,” he said. “You don’t mind staying back with her, do you, Émile? There’s mud here, but horse crap on the racetracks.”
Corinne giggled. “You can say shit, Daddy.” Her eyes twinkled mischievously and she looked across at me. “Daddy doesn’t want me to get horse shit on my sneakers.”
“What a mouth my daughter has!” Ducksworth tugged his daughter’s plaits. “She has me all twisted around her little finger, you see, Dr. Baxter.”
Corinne giggled again, though this time she blushed.
“And what a pretty face. Can’t deny her anything when she smiles. She has me too-tool-bay.” Ducksworth pecked his daughter on her cheek.
Too-tool-bay. A quintessential Trini expression. He would be willing to be a fool for her, his youngest daughter. She had him in her hands, his mind turned upside down by his love for her. In spite of the story my father had told me about Ducksworth’s long family history in Trinidad, it surprised me that a man who looked like an Englishman, a very tanned one to be sure, would use that common Trinidadian expression.
My father seemed a bit disconcerted too by Ducksworth’s casual use of the term. Mout’ open, ’tory jump out. There was much truth in this country saying. From the way a man speaks you can tell his background, his education, his class, his story. Dark-skinned men in important positions, men like my father, were careful to speak the Queen’s English. They didn’t say too-tool-bay. But Ducksworth could, and no one would doubt his story. He was white; there would be no question that he definitely belonged to Trinidad’s upper class.
My father grimaced and said gruffly, “We better get going along, Mr. Ducksworth. I have to be in the office soon.”
I wanted to go with them. I wanted to see what help my father would be to Ducksworth. I couldn’t imagine my father sympathizing with him. What words of consolation would he give him, he who took care of me certainly when I got ill, when I had a cold or a fever, but offered me little else? He gave me medicine and I felt better, but there was no coddling, no hugging, no sympathizing when I vomited my insides or when my body shook with ague. Corinne, though, wanted to stay. She would not admit it, but I think she was repelled by the possibility that horse crap, or shit, as she brazenly said, could get smeared along her bare legs. She flashed me that same smile her father had found irresistible, and caught too in its spell, I said to Mr. Ducksworth that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to wait with his daughter until he and my father returned.
The sun was beginning to cast its first light across the horizon, lining the edge of the dark blue sky with gold, tinged with pink and gleaming silver, throwing off enough light to set aglow the wisps of hair loosened from the thick mane of dark brown hair corralled into two long plaits falling past Corinne’s shoulders. Sparse, weightless as gossamer, the wisps swirled around her forehead. An innocent girl at play, and yet I saw intimations of a woman secure in her own skin in the way she ran her fingers through those loosened strands, not putting them back in place on her head, but letting them fall again, skimming the surface of her skin, touching and then not touching her forehead. She would be a beauty when she grew up, when her figure blossomed. That hair, those long coltish legs, would turn many a man’s head. But what I noticed most about her were her eyes. They were full of light and life as if she knew that the world ahead of her held promises of a future full of all the happiness she could hope for.
“What do you think about moving to Barbados?” I asked her, and she replied, bubbling over with joyful optimism, “My father said it’s paradise.”
ELIZABETH NUNEZ is the award-winning author of nine novels and a memoir. BothBoundaries and Anna In-Between were New York Times Editors’ Choices. Anna In-Betweenwon the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Nunez also received the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in nonﬁction for Not for Everyday Use, the 2011 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers and Barnes & Noble, an American Book Award, and a NALIS Lifetime Literary Award from the Trinidad & Tobago National Library. She is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, CUNY, where she teaches ﬁction writing. She divides her time between Amityville and Brooklyn, New York. Even in Paradise is her latest novel.
Posted: Apr 27, 2016
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