by Chet Raymo
“There are days here when the sea is as calm and flat as bottle glass, an apparently infinite expanse of turquoise stretching to the place where sea meets sky, where sky-gods touch the earth. I sit in a beach chair with my feet in the gently lapping surf and imagine that day 523 years ago when the white sails of three ships appeared on the horizon to the bewildered gaze of the gentle Lucayan people who inhabited these isles. Sails like the wings of birds, sea-birds, white and glorious. God-birds, dreamed of perhaps, but never met, and now they came, drawing closer, folding their wings, kind and benevolent.
And there are other days, rarer to be sure, when the wind blows up from the north, and the waves crash on the shore, glittering like burnished steel, cutting like the edge of a sword, roiling out of a horizon obscured by rain, pounding, wrathful, wonderful and frightening.
Twenty-five years after the arrival of those white-winged gods from the east, not a single Lucayan was left in the Bahamas. The only natural resource of value to Spain's Christian Majesties was slaves, a docile people who were shipped to die in the gold mines of Hispaniola or the pearl fisheries of Venezuela. The islands were left desolate.
I stand on the rocks above the pounding, spray-swept beach, the tide angrily swirling at my feet, and I think of lines of a poem by Grace Schulman, a poem about a crashing surf:
“Speed, thunder, surprise. The jarring thump
of low bass drums, the dancers leap and bow,
the gospel singer's growl, the pause, the shout,
dodging the beat, notes jammed with syllables,
the hums, mumbles, and cries, the choruses,
cymbals that gleam in sudden white-gold light.”
Sky gods, out of the east, folding their wings on a calm sea- and then the clash and clatter, the scrape of steel and stench of powder, the terrible exterminating gloria Deo. And now-
“How all that matters is to stand fast
on the ridge that's left, and hear the music.”