WE’RE IN PARADISE, so the tourist brochures say. That’s what I thought, too, before last June, when the unspeakable happened, when Dad took the blue boat out and didn’t come back.
The Caribbean island of Curaçao beckons sun worshipers and cruise ships that sail up St. Anna Bay and dock near the House of the Blue Soul. Taffy pink, aqua, and lemon yellow buildings like squares of colored candies line the streets of Willemstad’s shopping district. Bon bini signs welcome arrivals at every port of call, the airport, and almost every shop in Punda and Otrobanda. They’re even plastered to the side of boats taking tourists out to scuba-dive in deep water. Paradise.Where the water is so blue, so calm, so deceptive.
“You’re sure you don’t want to come with me, Cyan?”
Standing in the driveway outside our rented house, Mother says my name—Cyan—like a sigh. “I’m sure Kammi would appreciate your meeting her at the airport. You know, the first time. To welcome her.”
I shake my head while the dry wind billows my broomstick skirt like a sail. The girl in the photograph Mother showed me last night—the one she keeps in her art studio— is younger than I am. Thirteen, Mother said, two years younger. Her face in the photo appears fair and freckled across the nose, but she has brown hair, not blond like me. She’s thin, too, not fat. I studied every detail.
Mother opens the car door and folds herself into the back seat of Jinco’s rusty faded-denim-colored taxi. Untroubled by the wind, her spiky short hair sets off her sharp cheekbones. Today she’s highlighted them with a subtle peach color, but she’s still all angles, down to her creased linen pants, bony ankles, and pointy red leather mules.
“I’ll wait here,” I say, “with Martia.” I’d rather stay with the housekeeper, whose services have come with the lease for as long as I can remember. For Martia, who’s already abandoned us to prepare a welcome meal, everything centers on the kitchen. Mother and I aren’t even allowed inside except to get a glass of iced tea or to sample sweets from a tray.
Mother’s face goes flat, as if she’s smoothing out emotion the way she would layer paint with a palette knife.
The scent of plantains mingles with burning motor oil from Jinco’s taxi. As soon as Mother snaps the car door shut, Jinco punches the horn—his usual way of announcing his arrival or departure—and floors the gas pedal. I lose sight of the car in the fine dust of the shell driveway. I imagine Mother sitting straight, her feet planted, staying balanced even as Jinco careens toward the airport. She is so practiced, so centered.
Martia appears in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron. When I was little, I imagined the spices she mixed were like voodoo. I told Dad that if she wanted to, Martia could poison us. Dad laughed. Martia, though, said I was a smart girl, that you can’t be putting the trust in just anyone. I trust Martia now.
“I’m okay,” I say before she asks.
She shrugs, motioning me into the kitchen. From nowhere she hands me a plate of kokada.
“Kome,” she says. “Eat.” I start to say no, but I don’t. I can’t. I lift the first pink treat to my mouth, sucking in the sweet coconut taste.
Mother always refuses Martia’s sweet offerings. She won’t eat them.
I can’t get enough.
Martia smiles and turns her back, leaving me the rest of the kokada. She starts to peel some just-cooked shrimp; their shells bubble like painful blisters in her hand. Her worn raffia scuffs sound like palm fronds as they brush the floor. She never seems to wear the new pairs Mother brings her every summer from Maine. Like mine, Martia’s middle is wider this year, but she is comfortable with it. Her apron is stained with papaya and the essence of almond. She belongs to the house more than the absentee owner, who lives in Amsterdam and visits here in the winter months when the European skies turn gray.
Come to Curaçao, blue heaven. But Martia is not what the tourist brochures advertise with their slick, modern photographs: Perfect smiles. Thin bodies in thong suits lying underneath beach umbrellas, sipping cold drinks.
Except for the thong, that could be my mother on the cover of the brochures.
Cupping two more pieces of kokada in a napkin, I flee the safety of the kitchen. Martia’s peeling mangoes now, letting the thin green skins plop into the sink. I hear her singing tambú, and I wonder what she thinks when she sings the old slave songs. I don’t ask, though. Martia acts as if she doesn’t know I’ve left the room, or where I might be going.
At the top of the metal staircase, I enter Mother’s studio, the forbidden room. Martia cleans here only under Mother’s direction, with any paintings in progress shielded from sight. Martia cannot risk looking and perhaps being fired.
From the studio windows, I notice the sea is the color of tumbled blue-green glass, roiled and unsettled. Last June after Dad died, his seat between Mother and me on the plane going home sat empty until just before takeoff, when a redfaced, sweating tourist weaved her way down the aisle and claimed it. She stuffed an oversized tote bag under the seat in front of her, leaving me to huddle against the window. As our plane rose into the sky, I couldn’t take my eyes off the sea. I thought the color of the water might change with the light, but it didn’t. It appeared deep blue, almost black, and dense as oil. No light penetrated the surface; we were left with the dark skin of the sea and no answers.
By now, the end of the first week of June at Blauwe Huis, Mother should be knee-deep in wet canvases, already ignoring me for the favorable slant of light under the eaves of the widow’s walk. This spring she said the hot, dry island has been her “artistic touchstone” ever since she started coming here as a girl, and she had to come back, even this year, even after what happened. She insisted I come, too. We would start over.
Her canvases remain stretched and ready but empty, and her mixing palette has dried out, the smudges of blue paint wavy and stiff under my touch like a bad van Gogh imitation.
The tubes and glass bottles of paint feel cool in my hand. Mother’s lined them up on the shelves like a display in a paint store, with the blues up front. She contemplates blue, collects it, honors it in every painting. Her marine blue appears steel gray, like a New England harbor in winter. Savannah blue acts sultry, with an undertone of indigo. Bahama blue seems paler than curaçao liqueur, more a bleached blue, the color of shallow water. It reminds me of the shade of Winslow Homer’s Caribbean water, but not quite—as if for Mother the sun has come on too strong, the glare blinding her to the undertones.
Mother chooses her blues carefully, with an eye toward the light, the swirl of colors on a glass palette tray. Fifteen years ago, she even named me for cyan, a fundamental blue.
On some mornings when she says she is working, I can stand down the beach, careful of the poisonous sap of the manchineel, and see her on the widow’s walk, hand raised, holding a glass. Martia keeps the shelf in the dining room stocked with blue curaçao, the national liqueur, made from the bittersweet peel of the apelsina. Mother drinks it with bitter lemon soda over ice—a Blue Bay. Sometimes the light catches her drink glass like a prism. Maybe she is toasting the...