My house, Sweet Spice, was destroyed when Hurricane Irma slammed into St. John. Luckily, I was not in it. I was traveling in the states with my girlfriend and our two dogs on a pre-planned trip to visit family. Like many people stateside, I could not get any information about our remote neighborhood of Coral Bay after Irma hit. And then, days later, came the report my house was gone.
Three years ago, when I first saw Sweet Spice, it was a mess. My realtor got stuck in the driveway. Catch and keep tore our skin as we picked our way through donkey poop to get to the front door. There were holes in the wall in place of AC units. There were no appliances. It was the domain of lizards and hornets and occasional humans who needed a free roof. But when I stood on the front porch and gazed across the valley and out at the hillsides beyond, I knew I’d come home.
After we moved down, we learned how beautiful Sweet Spice had once been. Its former owner was a master gardener and everyone remembered the splendor of her yard. It seemed half of Coral Bay had either stayed in or helped build some part of the property. We tried to restore it to its former glory, working slowly within our means. And in the last six months, we were actually starting to make some progress. We had the porch screened and ate breakfast every morning enjoying the red and orange bursts of flamboyants against the hillsides. Throughout the day, we watched hummingbirds dart between flowering shrubs finally thriving now that a fence kept hungry donkeys and goats away. We planted hibiscus with flowers the color of sunrise and weeded and mulched and weeded again. And at night, as the lights of Centerline Road rose like gold beads across the hillsides and tree frogs sang in a bellicose chorus, we set out elaborate dinners and had Campari spritzes on what we now called “the terrace.”
So when I got the news about Sweet Spice, I couldn’t really process it. My friends and neighbors on St. John were suffering terribly and people on nearby islands were also dealing with incredible challenges and deprivations. Eventually, this knowledge would sink in and put my own sense of loss and despair into perspective. But right then, right there at the breakfast table in New Jersey, all I could think was how does a house just disappear?
“Did you see that thing on TV?” my aunt said. “They show you what happens with winds at 100 miles an hour and then at 130.”
“First your roof comes off,” she said, “then your door gets blown in.”
“Piece by piece,” she said.
But still I couldn’t believe it. I believe in science – matter cannot be created or destroyed.
“It’s all down the hillside,” my sister said, “scattered everywhere.”
And then I thought about everything that had been inside my home. Practically everything I owned. What happened to all of my silly, lovely stuff – the 42 years of carefully collected curios?
I imagined my taxidermied butterfly and beetle collections, freed from their glass encasements and flitting through the air in metallic flashes of blue and green. Kestrils are making nests from my beautifully-bound Patrician Highsmith collection. Carl, my cowboy lampshade, smiles jauntily out from a thicket of catch and keep as a rooster struts by.
Or maybe the wind was so strong it didn’t displace my house piece by piece. Maybe it all burst at once, exploded into billions and billions of atoms that lifted into the air and swirled along in Irma’s fury. And once the storm was past my island, once it was over the sea, my house reformed and sunk deep under the water to join the lost city of Atlantis.
It belongs in that city struck down by the gods for dreaming too big. I had grand visions for my house too. I joked it would be a never-ending project, but quietly gloated over how quickly and successfully it was finally coming along. I wrestled the wildness of my Caribbean home and I thought I was winning. But I was wrong. Nature always wins.
So I suspect under the water there’s an ancient Atlantian sitting on my new screen porch, and he’s playing my ukulele, and he’s looking out into the angry, warming sea, and he’s waiting for the next big storm to build up his neighborhood.
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