San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 1929
For my mother, Elizabeth
The wind started far out at sea. It blew in over the United Fruit Company freighter in the harbor, over her father’s warehouses on the wharf, and over the town of wood plank houses and stores, corrugated tin roofs, dirt roads, and one white stone church. The wind shook the coconuts on the palms above the small park in the square. It rippled the sugar cane on the hillside like the green waves rising in the bay. She was walking home from mission school and saw the palms blowing, the hillsides rippling, and heard the rattling of the leaves on the banana trees in the tiny yards they passed. She lowered the big black umbrella with which she shielded herself and her little fair-haired sister from the equatorial sun, so it could now shield them also from the dust and debris flying up to their faces from the road. Her sister had her hands in front of her eyes. Neither of them said anything.
At the far end of the square, from out of a narrow side, a man on horseback called out to them. “Yankees,” he said. “I have a message for your father.” He was taking in Spanish. Most of the lessons in their mission school were in Spanish, but Elizabeth did her reading time in English. Her favorite book, From the Tower Window, was tucked under her arm.
She glanced up at a man on a gray horse. He looked like one of the men who worked for her father. Another man sat horseback beside the one who spoke. But if they worked for her father, why weren’t they loading goods onto donkeys down at the wharf or leading those donkeys up over the mountains to Tegucigalpa? She was taught never to talk to strangers, so she kept walking.
“Gringas,” the man continued. Her sister, Carolyn, was looking back at him. Elizabeth wasn’t going to glance at him again. If he had a message for daddy, he could talk to Mr. Thomas. “Tell your papa that there will be a great revolution tonight,” the stranger said. “Our leader, Raoul Coleman, that’s Coleman, same name as you, muchachas, is bringing his band down from the hills. He is part of a revolution that will sweep all you foreigners back into the sea. You will need good boats, like the ones that brought you here. But this time they will be taking you away--all you Yankees and Germans and English. Raoul Coleman, a great man, wants your papa to know this because he respects family. We can’t get to your father, so we deliver the message to you. I myself think no one should be warned.”
The dust swirled up and stung Elizabeth’s eyes. The man was calling from behind the girls now as they walked. “Can you remember all this, senoritas? Can you? We’ve done our duty.”
“Don’t look back,” Elizabeth said to her sister. They were almost at the stone steps of the church now. They could go in there.
But he had stopped shouting at them. She heard the tapping of leaves falling on tin roofs, the thud of a palm branch in the middle of the road. Then she became brave, like her grandfather who had fought the Yankees. She turned and faced the man. No me importa, she shouted back. No me importa.
She thought she saw him shrug as he turned, and she heard the hooves clop away up the road toward the edge of town, where banana trees became all the world. Elizabeth and her little sister passed a curly-haired boy, smaller than Carolyn, sitting in the doorway of a shack. A machete lay in his lap. He cut a stalk of sugar cane and put it to his mouth. He stared at them as he sucked on it.
What did that man mean, that’s Coleman, same name as you? She didn’t know of an uncle who lived in the hills and was a revolutionary. The stranger was probably drunk. Elizabeth knew a little about drunk people. Some of papa’s friends ended up that way after a party, usually Mrs. Auchenweis.
They were having a party tonight. The thought drove all the others out. “Daddy’s having a party tonight,” she said to Carolyn. “Let’s sneak down again.”
“Wake me up,” Carolyn said. “Don’t forget to wake me up.”
They entered their father’s property through the back gate. Carolyn covered her head with her hands as they passed under the palms that swayed heavily in the wind.
“ Do you think,” said Elizabeth, “that if a coconut falls on you, your hands will protect you? You’ll just break your fingers.”
They heard the thock of tennis balls hit back and forth. “How can they play tennis in this wind?” Carolyn asked, her hands still on her head.
“They can always play tennis,” Elizabeth answered.
That evening before dinner, after they had bathed, after Julia had brushed and combed their hair—Elizabeth wanted to grow hers; it was cut with bangs straight across her forehead and didn’t fall past her shoulders, but her mother said that was the style now—she and Carolyn entered the world of light female laughter and deeper male, important voices, and of glasses gently put down on small, round, shiny mahogany tables. Everyone was in white—she, her sister, their mama, Mrs. Waters, and Mrs. Auchenweis, wore white cool dresses that fell just below the knee. Their father, Mr. Waters, and Mr. Auchenweis, drinks in hand, stood in white linen suits above the ladies, sitting with leisurely crossed legs. Everyone looked jolly. She could hear the wind in the palms outside. She smelled the jasmine climbing along the terrace float in strongly in the warm air through the screen door.
“It will be like a monsoon tonight,” Mr. Waters said. He had been in India. He liked to talk about monsoons. They were going into dinner, and the ladies took the arms of their husbands. “Nothing like a Calcutta monsoon,” Mr. Waters went on. “Everything stops. We’ve got nothing to complain about here.”
“Mama,” Elizabeth tugged at her mother’s dress. “Mama, may I talk with you?”
“We’ll meet you in there, Jim,” her mother said. “Just a minute.”
“What is it, dear? We’re going in to dinner.”
Elizabeth was nine years old now, and she knew a lot of things. She had thought about this one. “Did Grandpa Coleman have a Honduran wife before he met Grandma Clair?”
Her mother sat on a blue upholstered chair now by the French doors at the edge of the parlor. She took Elizabeth’s hands in hers. They always felt cool and Elizabeth liked it when her mother held her hands.
“Why do you ask, dear?”
“A man on horseback said so to Carolyn and me today.”
“You didn’t talk to him, did you?”
“Well, when the colonel first came here after the war, he was shipwrecked, you know; he didn’t have a penny and thought he’d never return and married a Honduran girl. Then she died, and later he built up his business and came back to Georgia and married his sweetheart from before the war. She had been waiting all that time. It’s a very sweet story.”
“What did the Honduran wife die of?”
Mama still held her hands and looked her in the eye. Mama never lied. “She died in childbirth, I believe. You don’t need to bother yourself with all these things, Betty.”
“Was the child’s name Raoul?”
“Yes, I believe it was. When your grandpa came back with his new wife, his son had taken off. It was a shame, for you knew Grandma Claire; she would have been a good mother to him, too.” Grandma Claire had been the softest, most jolly person in the world, Elizabeth thought. She and Carolyn had sat on either side of her in bed on Saturday mornings and Grandma Claire had read to them out of From the Tower Window. Now the book rarely left Elizabeth’s side.
“Susannah,” her father called gently.
“Yes, we’re coming.” And her mother stood up. The cool hands were gone. But Elizabeth didn’t move. “Is that all, dear?”
“The man said to tell Daddy that Raoul and his band are coming down from the hills tonight. There’s going to be a big revolution. He likes Daddy, though, so he wanted me to tell Daddy about their revolution. That’s what he said.”
Elizabeth wondered if she got it all right. It didn’t seem as important when she said it. “They’re having the revolution tonight,” she added.
Her mother regarded her seriously for a moment. “Thank you. You did right telling me. I’ll give your father the message. But we have guests, now. I’ll let him decide what to do. You do know, Betty, they have revolutions every few months here. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“But daddy sleeps with a pistol under his pillow and has a machine gun on top of his warehouse.”
“Did your sister hear any of this?”
“Ladies,” Jim said from the dining room.
“Yes. but I told her it was no importa. She understands no importa.” That was a joke because once daddy had told her to put away her dolls and their doll tables and chairs; someone would trip on them, he said, and Carolyn said, no me importa, and walked away. She had a good spanking that night and the term had been kind of a joke ever since.
“Yes, she does,” Mama said and put her hand gently behind Elizabeth and ushered her into dinner. Candles glowed over the shining silver and glasses. Outside, the wind swished through the palms. Jim said grace, and Mr. Waters asked him about the new RCA victrolas Jim was sending by donkey-back over the mountains to the capital. When Mama got up to go the kitchen to tell Julia to bring more gravy for Mr. Auchenweis, Elizabeth saw her lean over her father’s shoulder and whisper something to him and saw his face grow serious, but the same serious as when he was behind in a tennis game, a determined seriousness, and he usually won. Her father nodded and touched his wife’s hand, and the dinner went on.
She knew nothing really ever bothered her father. Even if a pack of rebels carrying torches came to his door, he would calmly tell them to go back where they came from, and because of the might of his presence, they would. They would take one look at him and figure they’d go be rebels somewhere else. But his father had been a rebel hero, she thought. But that had been fighting the Yankees. Now they were the Yankees. She decided she wouldn’t think about it. Her father could think and act for them all. And since nothing could ever harm him, nothing could ever harm her. She watched him laugh at a joke from Mr. Waters, even after receiving that message from Mama.
She and Caroline left for bed, and the gentlemen excused themselves to go to the library. At the top of the stairs, Elizabeth heard Mr. Waters’ English accent, “In India we heard rumors like this all the time. Something said to a child, for goodness’ sake.” And her father: “One must take Raoul seriously. After all, we have the same rebel father, George,” and their door closed.
By the time the men had finished their cigars, Carolyn was asleep. Now the ladies would be joining the gentlemen, playing cards in the parlor. “Get up, Sleepyhead,” said Elizabeth. “Now put your feet on the floor. That’s right.”
In their nightgowns they slipped down the stairs and around the corner into the dining room. They were just in time. The servants hadn’t finished clearing the table, and she and Carolyn went to each place setting and drank any wine left in a glass. “Mrs. Waters has the most,” her little sister said. “Can you help me?” Elizabeth sipped it clean.
“Oh,” she said, “Mrs. Auchenweis prefers champagne.”
Then the rain started. The palms snapped in the wind. The rain ripped against the still open windows. Julia and Jose dashed in to close the shutters and caught Elizabeth with the wine glass in her hand. Carolyn put hers back and it slipped off the table and broke. “Wouldn’t your mama just love to know what you girls have been doing,” said Julia. “Off to bed now.” And Elizabeth scampered up the stairs before her sister, as she heard all the shutters being closed. The stairs swam a little before her eyes, and she groped in the dark of her room, bumped into the bedpost, and fell down on her bed, relieved to have found it. “That was exciting, wasn’t it?” she said to her sister, who had just made it to her own bed.
“I don’t feel so good,” Carolyn said.
In the middle of the night Elizabeth woke from a dream of her aunt’s house in Georgia. Huge magnolias floated like moons above the porch. Now, her in Honduras, she heard snapping sounds like rain on the palms. Then they continued more steadily, and she realized it was gunfire. She had heard it once before. Then it had disappeared toward the square and in the morning everything was quiet. But this kept up. She was going to lie there until it passed, but she hated the stuffiness and heat with the shutters closed. The room reeled a little when she jumped from bed, then it stayed in one place as she raised the window and threw the shutters back. The rain rushed in and slapped her face and neck. She still peered out. Shots and shouting receded toward the harbor. “What is it?” her sister sleepily asked.
“Just another revolution,” Elizabeth said. “Go back to sleep.”
Then she saw a group of torches detach itself from the rest and head back toward the house.
The rain stopped as quickly as it had come. But the wind picked up more. The palms and mango trees whipped themselves in the dark of the broad yard in their own private storm. A shingle flew off the roof. Elizabeth saw half a dozen torches stop now at the iron gate of their long entryway.
Suddenly the door flung open, and Mama stood, fully dressed in the light from the hall. Julia stood behind her with a suitcase in her hand. Mama had her purse in hers, as if she were going shopping, or to church. “Come now, children,” she said. It was the kind of voice she used when there was no arguing, whatsoever. “Get a coat or a shawl. Put on your slippers. Feet on the floor, Carolyn. We’re going on a trip.
Don’t bother to bring anything. Right now. Julia is waiting.”
“Where’s Daddy?” Elizabeth said.
“He’s at the warehouse. He’ll join us later.” Elizabeth heard a shot in the direction of the gate and saw the torches surge past it. Her mother glanced at the window, then ushered the girls in front of her. Elizabeth grabbed her book from the nightstand.
“I don’t want to go now,” her sister muttered.
“Do as you’re told,” Elizabeth said.
At the bottom of the stairs Elizabeth saw Jose’s back, as he disappeared into the kitchen. She saw through the front window the torches and shadowy figures advancing quickly down the driveway. She heard the crunch of their feet on the gravel.
“Out the kitchen door, girls,” Mama said.
“Who’s that out there?” Carolyn said.
“Revolutionaries,” her older sister said, “So hush up.”
She heard them at the door, now, pounding. “Senor Coleman,” one shouted. “Senor Coleman, we want to talk with you.”
They were out the back door when they heard glass breaking at the front of the house. They ran in a quiet line now: Julia with the suitcase, Carolyn, Elizabeth, and Mama. A palm frond smashed onto the tennis court in the wind. Carolyn ran with her hands over her head. There are revolutionaries at the front door, and she’s afraid of coconuts, Elizabeth thought. They heard shouting in the house, and they were out the back gate, running up the street. Elizabeth felt her lungs burning. She took Carolyn’s hand. A tram wound around the bend in the street. Julia waved and it stopped.
The driver opened the door. At this hour, the tram was empty, and the driver looked sleepy. They stepped in before he noticed who they were. “Can’t give you a ride. Can’t carry any Yankees,” he said. “Out. Now.”
Mama then surprised her daughters. No one ever talked to her like that, but she still surprised them. She calmly took a pistol from her purse and held it to the temple of the driver. ”You’ll take us to the harbor,” she said. “Sit down, girls.” Julia quickly kissed the girls goodbye and left.
Her mother sat behind the driver and held the pistol in one hand, her purse in the other. “You look after your sister,” she said softly to her older daughter. “They’ve killed Mr. Waters. We just need to get to the harbor.” Elizabeth thought of Mr. Waters’ son, Lionel, who had a private tutor and always knew everything. He hadn’t known about this. No one had. Except she and Carolyn. She should have told her mother earlier. It was all her fault for not warning them properly.
She took Carolyn’s hand and tried to think of Georgia, now. She tried to think of the snow-white magnolias against the dark, smooth leaves in her aunt’s yard. She tried to think of the coolness and sweetness of the watermelon. She began to hear her father’s deep voice singing, and her sister started to sniffle beside her, and she held her hand tight. They were all together now on the porch in Georgia when the shots grew louder. They would be in the middle of them soon. Her mother sat like a statue in front of her, but glanced once toward sudden flames, leaping into the night sky where her father’s warehouses were, at the far end of the wharf. Elizabeth thought of him now not on the porch in Georgia, but on the roof of his precious warehouse, with flames dancing around him and bullets everywhere and the roof about to collapse. What had happened? She had got out of bed because the room was too stuffy. She had looked out the window. What did they do to deserve this? Couldn’t she go back to when she and Carolyn were stealing the sips of wine?
“Out,” the driver said and, Elizabeth leading her sister, her mother coming last, stepped down into puddles on the wharf, and the tram backed up and left. The only sound here was the waves hitting the piles. She saw the warehouses clearly now, flames higher than the roofs. The crackle and crash of burning timber carried over the water.
Mama turned her back on the warehouses. “We’re going to the pier,” she said. Elizabeth saw a small group huddled but couldn’t see the tall figure of her father. A man in a boat reached up and helped a large lady, Mrs. Auchenweis, Elizabeth thought, down into the boat. Others followed. She glanced back. The fire behind her, Mama still had her pistol out. When they reached the group, Mr. Auchenweis said, “Thank God you’re here. They’re not taking anymore off. Jim’s still at the warehouses. They can’t wait any longer. I’m sorry.”
They rode silently over the dark, oily water. Mrs. Waters sat at the back of the boat. Elizabeth thought maybe she was crying. She had her head down. She had her arm around Lionel, whose head leaned against her. If he was crying, he was quiet. Elizabeth felt sorry for him now and bad for disliking him so. She could end up like that too.
Two sailors who talked American helped them from the boat onto a narrow iron stairway on the side of the great ship. Elizabeth clutched her book in one hand and Carolyn’s hand in the other. On deck the water swelled darkly far below them, with long flickering lines of the warehouse fire reflected across it. Elizabeth looked around for her father. She vaguely noticed crates and crates of bananas, piled high. They were in a world of bananas that was going to sail off safely to the United States. She turned back towards the wharf. It was so dark she could see little but the leaping flames, and she heard the waves rushing against the ship in wind.
She decided not to look at the black water and the fire any longer. She slipped away and found a nook where towering crates surrounded her. She stared at the one in front of her, the bananas still connected to each other in bunches, just as they were on the tree, going all the way to America like that. She sat against a crate and dropped her book on the deck. What was the use of stories about castles?
No one could find her. Why should anyone ever find her? She would stay here forever. When the ship reached America, it would turn around, and she’d come back and look for her father. She thought maybe she fell asleep among the crates.
She heard a bell clang and a low whistle blow above her. Now she heard her mother calling for her. She didn’t move. Then: “So this is where you’re keeping yourself?” It was her father’s voice. She turned to him, and he picked her up impossibly and forever, and she knew in that moment that he had lost everything.
She sunk her face into his coat that smelled of smoke. His big arms held her.
The moonlight on the wide, black sea stretched all the way to America.
© Copyright 2008 by James Tipton