Eleanor Stanford (Cape Verde 1998-2000) is the author of two books of poems, Bartram’s Garden and The Book of Sleep (both from Carnegie Mellon University Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, and many others. Eleanor’s Peace Corps memoir, História, História: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands, received the 2014 Peace Corps Writers Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award.
She was a 2014/2016 Fulbright fellow to Brazil, where she researched and wrote about traditional midwifery. She lives now in the Philadelphia area.
Of That Wide Water, Inescapable
MY HOUSE ON THE ISLAND of Fogo was built into the side of the volcano. When I moved in, Gustinha explained: here is where you draw your water; here is where we keep the chickens. These rocks are from the ’51 eruption, these from ’95.
In the evenings, I bathed in the enclosed stone quintal. I heated the water first on the stove. I couldn’t stand the shock of a cold bath. I poured cupfuls over my shoulders, the water cooling as it coursed down my body.
Banhu di kaneka, it’s called in Cape Verdean Creole — a cup bath.
For the first month or two, I put the vegetables I bought in the market — small tomatoes, a lopsided bell pepper — to soak in a bowl of water with two drops of bleach. That was what the Peace Corps nurse told us to do.
Girls passed with buckets of water balanced on their heads. Whence had they summoned the precious liquid? Empty riverbeds reached toward the summit, dust-streaked, the water gone deep underground.
In the old goat pen, I set up my rickety desk. I read Wallace Stevens:
The day is like wide water, without sound.
Those are apples? I asked, when I saw the first of the harvest in the market, spread proudly on one vendor’s blanket. (Had I misunderstood the word in Creole, I wondered?) They were small and gnarled from lack of rain, the size of large cherries. They clenched what water they could hold in their little fists.
And oh, sour. They brought tears to my eyes.
Even for brushing your teeth, the nurse warned, use purified water.
But that advice, too, was quickly down the drain.
Gustinha was pregnant again. Thirty years old, expecting her fifth baby. She entered the room carrying a bucket in one hand and a rag in the other. Water sloshed at her side.
Sometimes, when reality falls short, metaphor suffices: the drumming that begins as a gentle drizzle, intensifies into a downpour, a rain so hard it seems it would overturn a year of drought in minutes.
Praia, Santiago: I spent that first summer in the capital. Summer was rainy season, and when the rain came, it washed the gullies and dry riverbeds where people threw their garbage. The ocean turned brown; from the plateau, you could watch the line of filth spread north to south, which meant no swimming for a week.
The flies multiplied, fat and lazy in the heat. Sickness spread like water stains, and women hung the doors with white mantillas.
In sleep, mosquitoes stitched me full of holes, their needlepoint careful and exact. Cholera collected in drain spouts, giardia gurgled in the gutters.
The beach where we swam in the capital was called Kebra Kanela: break your shin, a reference to the sharp rocks embedded just beneath the surface of the water.
On Fogo I didn’t swim. Most of the shoreline was steep cliffs; the water that washed up onto the few spits of black sand was rough and shark-infested.
Below, the water lapped at the black sand beneath the cliffs: it washed up in a shallow skein across the beach, then suddenly dropped off, and every year took several swimmers into its roiling depths.
During the first rain of the season, people ran into the streets. Adults and children, laughing, soaking wet, shrieking gleefully. The water rose ankle deep over the cobblestones.
Then just as quickly disappeared. The sun, hotter than before, recollected its bounty.
In my goat pen, I read Dickinson:
Water, is taught by thirst.
In Praia, sometimes I sneaked into the fancy hotel. No one stopped me. I sat by the pool, reading a book called Shame by Salman Rushdie. I floated through the dense, serpentine story, strung out on mefloquine and my own self-consciousness.
A man in a canvas jumpsuit walked slowly around the pool, skimming for fallen leaves. Every time he passed, I cringed, imagining what he must be thinking of me. I wanted to explain to him that I was not a rich European tourist, that I lived in this country and spoke his language fluently.
But what could that have meant to him?
Outside the hotel’s gates, the girls lined up at the chafariz to fill their buckets, then hoisted them expertly onto their heads, not spilling a drop.
I could not erase the circumstance that brought me there, uncomfortably exposed in my bathing suit. I could not escape where I came from; it was written on my skin.
Across the water, Fogo, island where I lived, appeared, its cone floating above a nebula of haze.
I longed for that island solitude, the kerosene lamp flickering on the wall like waves.
For that wide water, inescapable.
After two years in a desert, April seemed surreal, its gray-green damp, its glazed skies. America was full of distractions, pulsing with life and lights, everyone moving like water bugs, quick and directionless, held by fragile surface tension.
The vocabulary of rain: its varied rhythms, syncopations. The language of water in Cape Verde was blunt, un-nuanced — the thud of dishwater emptied on the street; women in the market with jugs, cholera in a cup, five cents; rain a rare release that unbraided the hillsides in a rush of mud, carried feces and plastic bags, goats and bony cows in sudden rivers to the sea.
I was staying in a hotel room on 18th St., courtesy of the Peace Corps, watching movies, taking hot shower after hot shower, eating chocolate bars and strawberries and Chinese takeout. But nothing tasted as good as I’d remembered it.
The first time in a grocery store, the tomatoes large and dull orange under fluorescent lights, the varieties of apples, hard in their skins, unyielding to my thumb. I said the names of things, trying to summon an excitement that wasn’t there. Water sprayed from invisible misters onto the produce, and I wanted to cry.
I tried to picture the hillsides in their first green, that color that is too delicate to fix in memory.
The rains came later than usual that second year, and the lack left everything covered in a dry film. The apples withered on the trees. I sat in the quintal with Gustinha, and we wondered together if summer, with its green blessing, would ever come.
Some things make themselves felt more acutely in their absence.
In the road, the girls lined up at the chafariz, waiting to drop their buckets into the nearly empty tank.