There is not always just beauty while enjoying nature. Occasionally we come across something disturbing. Far as I am concerned, the worst is caused by humans. One such incident occurred several years in a small paradise off the coast of Georgia.
Thirty-six years ago, for our honeymoon, my husband Pebble introduced me to a place he called “magical,” Cumberland Island. It didn’t take me long to agree with him. Even today, we are drawn there for a week-long stay every November and April. Welcomed breaks from the winters of Maine.
Cumberland Island is framed by a river to the south that divides Georgia from Florida. To the north, a sound separates it from the next Georgia barrier island. To the west lie vast marshes and the intercoastal waterway. To the east, Atlantic Ocean waves pound thirteen miles of snow-white beach.
Cumberland is a designated National Seashore known for its beach and maritime forests, saltwater marshes, and the renowned white beach. About thirty people inhabit the island year-round, in addition to 125 wild horses—more or less — flocks of wild turkeys, pigs, bob cats, deer, armadillos, raccoons, squirrels, snakes, skinks, chameleons and numerous species of bird life, particularly during the migration season. In June, loggerhead turtles drag themselves from the ocean edge into the dunes to lay their eggs. Sometimes manatees swim in the tidal creeks to eat the aquatic plants.
The flora is semi-tropical with thick stands of lush palmettos, a few palms, tall southern pines, grape vines as thick as a man’s bicep, cedars, live oaks, magnolias and hickories, to name a few. We love to take walks on the northern wilderness trails in the Federal Park area and along the shore.
Two particular moments on Cumberland Island have stayed with me; one in the early morning, the other at dusk. I got up at 5 am and walked through the dark house to the kitchen to begin my daily ritual by turning on the espresso machine. Pitch black outside. The bright light from the screen of my laptop against the darkness annoyed me. My mind wasn’t focusing on my writing. My eyes darted to a larger, brighter disturbance — King’s Bay Nuclear Submarine Base. The multitude of bright lights on the other side of the waterway made long pathways to our side. The base looked like a city rising from the floor of an ocean. No other light was visible. As I eased back in the chair, I was reminded we are not too far from the harsher realities of life.
I sipped my cappuccino as the dawn lightened and thought about the slaves who had worked on this island from daybreak to night. I thought about them crowded into small cabins on the cotton plantation owner’s land where some of the propped-up chimneys still stand. I thought about the music, folktales and dialect that the slaves brought to the island. I thought about how hard they worked, and how hard they died. I thought about how different the island is today.
Movement caught my eye. A small herd of wild horses slowly ambled by on the way to get a drink at our makeshift pool. Pebble had positioned an abandoned, claw-footed bathtub in the yard to catch a small, flowing stream from the artesian well.
Behind the horses came a flock of wild turkeys, heads bobbing, pecking at the ground. The tom flared his tail and strutted around his ladies with his chest puffed out. Behind him, the dawning light revealed all the foliage, the dock, the river and birdlife. Other birds joined a Carolina wren in song. A nuthatch spiraled around the trunk of a magnolia tree.
It was time to walk — to the beach.
Our attention was on the migrating bird population that was strung along the shore. We were exclaiming how fortunate we were to be here at this time of year when I spotted a peregrine falcon sitting on a broken tree trunk at the edge of the dunes. As we turned to look at it, we noticed, to the right, what appeared as a pile of weathered lumber with an upright pole sticking up.
“What’s that?” our curiosity was piqued.
I squinted. “Maybe a wooden crate or a piece of a deck…” We changed our pace and headed toward it. As we got closer, I recalled the article on the front page of the New York Times we had read only a few days before about the large exodus of people from Haiti on small, homemade rafts, headed to the United States.
I froze in place, staring at the alien object. There was an eerie silence. The beach was deserted except for us. A gentle sea breeze was blowing fine sand onto the broken, wooden derelict. We walked slowly around it trying to get a better view, trying to process in our minds what our eyes were seeing, though we both knew.
“How could anyone possibly get into this raft and set adrift?” I whispered. Looking further up the beach, we could see four more rafts. They were all about eight to nine feet in length, and four to five feet wide with only a foot or less of freeboard. Some were just a square or rectangular box. One was shaped at one end into a pointed bow by two planks nailed in a “V”. They were all crudely constructed with old, wooden boards of varying sizes. Some were nailed together. Some were tied together with ropes. One had a tiller and a mast. Others didn’t. Some had red and blue, the flag colors for Haiti, painted on the sides. One had USA in scrawled letters. I could feel the bile forming in my gut when we discovered the human remnants. A piece of clothing. A very-worn brown leather shoe. Food containers. A hair brush.
“How many people do you think were on this raft?” I managed to push the words out of my tightened throat.
“The news reports stated ten to fifteen,” Pebble answered, shaking his head. His eyes were moist. “But I don’t see how,” he continued, “unless they were sitting on top of each other.” We looked at one another, images flooding our minds.
I stared towards the horizon of the ocean. “How far is Haiti from here?”
Pebble was examining the crude tiller. “About 100 miles off Southern Florida. These rafts came up here on the gulf stream.”
I closed my eyes and let the soft sea breeze dry the tears streaming down my cheeks. I heard faint voices — voices being carried in the wind along with the rote of the sea — the chatter of children, women, men. I tried to imagine these people gathering at the shoreline of their homeland, finding the courage to step into these rickety rafts. Questions flooded my mind. What was each person thinking, sitting, huddled and squeezed together in the tiny space? Whom did she leave behind? Whom did he leave behind? As they drifted in the vastness, were they praying? Were they singing? Were they all of the same family? Or just good friends? What happened to them? Did they die at sea? Or were they picked up by the Coast Guard and returned to the desperation from which they were fleeing? Or are they melded into a community somewhere in Florida; safe, free…Sometimes the sea brings life. Sometimes the sea brings death.
“We’d better start back.” Pebble was the first to speak. He put his arm around me. The sun had dropped behind the sand dunes. “It’ll be dark soon.” I nodded and turned away from the rafts. We started back to the house in silence, each with our own thoughts.
As we reached the path entrance, I turned and looked south toward St. Mary River’s outlet. I saw a large, partially submerged, shiny black, slender shape with a shark-like fin, slinking purposefully through the water. A sub, heading for the sea. Another reminder of another reality.
(Excerpted from “Along the Shore,” first published in the Louisville Literary Review, 2008)