Beth Sherman – Sulphur
From the beach, the Pitons didn’t seem that far away. Two gray twin peaks hovering over Jalousie Bay. They changed with the weather. Yesterday when the sun was out, they’d looked mossy green. Dionne took another sip of her drink and rested it on her stomach, feeling the ice rattle against her skin.
“That could be me,” she said, pointing to a young woman near the water carrying a basket on her head. Locals weren’t allowed to solicit tourists on the beach. They sold their wares in a special roped off area designed for vendors.
“What do you mean?” asked Jake.
“If my great-great grandparents had landed in the Caribbean instead of Atlanta, I could be selling you cassava or a rope bracelet.”
It was the third day. On the drive from the airport, they’d passed acres of damaged banana trees, the fruit wrapped in blue plastic to protect it from the next hurricane.
“But they didn’t and you’re not.” He had eyes the color of the sky back home and a scruffy beard. His parents had given him this trip as a graduation present. Dionne tried not to think about how much it was costing.
“I want to go there,” she said, pointing to the Pitons. “You can hike to the top. I heard some guy at breakfast say it was amazing.”
“We don’t have time. Unless we ditch the market at Castries. We already committed to zip lining and the drive-through volcano.”
They’d gone horseback riding and dolphin watching and had a couples massage in a sulphur spring, where a lady who looked like Dionne’s Aunt Clarice had slathered hot black mud all over their bodies. The sulphur had a terrible odor. Dionne tried to scrub it off with expensive spa products in their bathroom though she thought they both smelled bad.
She’d been seeing Jake for eight months and the relationship had reached a steady simmer. He was smart, kind, attentive, pleasant looking. But the whole inter-racial thing bothered her. Back at school, it wasn’t a big deal. Here she thought she detected people staring at them a beat too long. Judging.
“A couple of hundred years ago, those mountains were teeming with slaves,” she said, watching him apply more sunscreen. “They escaped and went there to hide.”
“How do you know that?”
“There’s a brochure in the lobby. This place is called the Fond Doux Plantation and Resort. Plantation, get it? The slaves worked in the cocoa fields.”
“But now things are different.” He looked vaguely miserable. “It’s eco-tourism. The cottages were built without machinery and excavated by shovel so the trees wouldn’t be disturbed. They grow their own breadfruit right on the premises.”
She got up and walked toward the water, her toes squishing into the soft white sand. She hadn’t intended to pick a fight but she was angry at herself. Four hundred years of oppression and brutality erased, like it never happened, all so she could sleep with a white boy and get a sulphur massage. It didn’t seem fair.
The Pitons loomed out of the sea like ancient monuments. They’d changed color again – emerald tinged with blue, like they’d swallowed the sea.
She felt his arms enfold her waist. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in her ear.
“Maybe we should have gone to Italy instead.”
“That’s not the point. When they caught escaped slaves, they used to tie them to a tree and spread sulphur around the roots. Then they lit the whole thing on fire.”
He sighed. Around them white tourists lounged on chaises while the black hotel staff set up umbrellas and served drinks. Gazing at the Pitons, she knew she wouldn’t go. Not because she felt guilty she’d escaped the yoke of slavery. But because they reminded her of how shallow and ordinary her life had become.
Because like so much in this world, they made her seem smaller.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
The other day I got an email from Ulta, the cosmetics superstore: Too Much Beauty? No Such Thing. In enticing candy-colored photos, the company promised to make my hair sexier, my skin clearer, my lashes longer, my lips fuller, my nails stronger and my eyes as pretty as a “superhero.” Plus, free shipping on any $35 purchase! It seemed like a sure thing.
But then I started thinking about the whole essence of beauty in America, how reductive it has become, how perpetually linked to youth, money and marketing. We are always being told we could become beautiful – hope in a bottle – if only we invest in the right product. The directive sent me scurrying to the Oxford English Dictionary. There I found 18 pages describing the origin, etymology and usage of the word, with various definitions. The first one seemed to sum things up – “that quality of a person (esp. a woman) which is highly pleasing to the sight; perceived physical perfection; attractive harmony of features, figure, or complexion; exceptional grace, elegance, or charm in appearance.” Turns out the word is derived from the French beaute; the first time it appeared in writing was in 1325.
Shakespeare, Tennyson and Chaucer described their fictional heroines as beautiful. So did Milton, Byron and Joyce. What’s changed? Today, we say Beyoncé and Rhianna are “hot,” adding a slight sexual element when what we really mean is that they possess a high level of physical attractiveness. Their features are pleasing to the eye. Their faces and bodies command our attention. By most standards, they exceed beauty norms.
But beauty isn’t just about the human face and form. It is also found, free of charge, in nature. Who hasn’t been captivated by a tie dye sunset ? The delicate wings on a grasshopper as it peeks out from behind a tomato plant? Storm clouds tumbling across a sky as pale as eggshells? We rush to our phones, eager to capture the pictures or share them with friends on Snapchat and Twitter. Beauty endlessly replicated on the Internet, in photographs or greeting cards. It’s harder to simply appreciate the experience and let go. If we don’t record the moment, the image isn’t real. We can’t fully appreciate its impact because it always seems to be in motion – growing, shifting, changing.
Beauty is transient. Whether we’re talking about nature or people, one thing is certain: beauty fades over time. The petals of a summer rose wither in the fall. A young woman develops wrinkles and broken capillaries on her face in middle age. It can be sudden or gradual. Usually we view this change as negative. As twilight descends, the sky darkens; that spectacular sunset disappears. A woman ages and is no longer desirable. So I ordered Smashbox’s Always On Matte Liquid Lipstick from Ulta, in a color called Baja Bound, a soft pink coral shade. Because the caption said it was “smudge-proof,” “budge-proof” and “non-featherless” and would make me look “fresh and flawless.” In other words, if only briefly, I could be beautiful.
Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Gloom Cupboard and Panoplyzine and is forthcoming in Delmarva Review and Joyce Quarterly. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, Synecdoche, Gyroscope and The Evansville Review. She is also the author of five mystery novels.