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This paradise reflects your deepest thoughts in its mirror. By Colin W. They live in mythic time. Centuries ago, five-acre Ram Island off the St. George Peninsula was prized by settlers as a sheep pasture surrounded by a universe of blue water. No need for a collie here! One still morning, the flock woke to the ringing sound of hammers.
Unlike other islands, Manhattan is not a cloud-dump. Was that why it rained so much? And why sometimes the whole place hissed? But no matter how islands like Barbados and Trinidad, say, came to be formed, you can feel them percolating beneath your feet as you walk to market or up to the graveyard, or on your way to meet a lover. They bubble with impermanence.
I want to go on with my friend forever, not least because he wants to know who I am; he wants to see me, and that includes knowing something about my past, and that past includes, of course, my first experiences on islands.
He wants to connect my past of water and tectonic shifts with his island, and the bay. The mind unfamiliar with geography does not know how to define any one place. That summer in Barbados: I could only make sense of it through the character of the people, various someones I could touch or sit with at the foot of a stunted coconut tree, people who smelled of themselves, their island.
Nevertheless, the homesickness my brother and I felt in Barbados our first long trip away from everything could not be assuaged by anything, nor was it in the least mitigated by knowing each other. Our loneliness cast us further apart than we had ever been. We were guests, charges, therefore our behavior had to contain a certain forced humility.
This further emphasized our separateness. The only way we could be in the least bold was to reject each other. We refused to share any experience and agree on its value. The dust rising from the road and settling on concrete walls, on the fronts of houses and in our hair, did not affect us the same.
Until we arrived in Barbados, my brother and I had wanted to be as similar to each other as two people can be. In short, my brother abandoned me to myself on that island, he who knew what an island was, as though I did not, starting and staring at the water.
At home, our mother and sisters had protected our natural timidity. On this trip to that place neither of us could ever call home, my brother had to be as different from me as he could allow. He became less timid, yet more afraid to be thought unconventional. Before Barbados, I had never seen so many black people who disliked one another, or who did not have photographs in their homes.
In short, my brother abandoned me to myself on that island, he who knew what an island was, as though I did not, starting and staring at the water. At home, our mother and sisters had protected our natural timidity. On this trip to that place neither of us could ever call home, my brother had to be as different from me as he could allow. He became less timid, yet more afraid to be thought unconventional. Before Barbados, I had never seen so many black people who disliked one another, or who did not have photographs in their homes.
The people we saw quarreled with one another in the streets, in front of their homes. They kicked skinny dogs that hung around their yards with heads bowed; the dogs took as much hurt as those hurt people took from one another. Their fucking sounded like hurt, too. The fucking my brother and I heard those people do occurred after lunch, after they had eaten their strange food and the sun was so hot it was ugly.
My brother and I sat not-together on opposite sides of whatever house we were staying in, listening to their bodies breed more misery. There was nothing else for those people to do in that place except dissect one another in the cruelest language imaginable, and breed more people who would behave the same way everyone else did.
In Barbados, my brother wanted to join that community of men who talked their sex as much as they performed it. My brother invited these two girls in when my aunt was out being unkind to people. I can recall the two young girls looking as thin and vulnerable as my brother and I must have looked then. My brother demanded that I lie on top of one of the girls as he lay on top of the other, on the floor. He wanted me to be less the girl I had become and more the boy he was inventing himself as, right before my very eyes.
I stood over the girl my brother had chosen for me as my brother lay on top of the other girl, both of us writhing in imitation of all we had ever heard other men say to women, listening outside their bedroom windows. The young girl lying beneath me wore a green school uniform and a brown beret. I stood over her for what felt like forever, as forever as standing at the edge of the bay would.
No words came out of my mouth as I lay on top of the young girl, not daring to move, since what I wanted, she wanted, which was a fatter, bigger, larger tongue that would swallow her own whole, just as I began to be afraid of this: that my brother would never leave the family we were born into, doing everything, including fucking, just as they all have, and perhaps always will.
I never looked at them again.
The photographs were arranged by my mother in a haphazard way; she was the least sentimental person I have ever known. Sweet lillies of the valley, and art thou removed to a more congenial soil? It has an organ, which is not so entirely out of tune as are the pianos on the island. One of the ladies played, while the gentlemen sang, -- old-fashioned New-England church-music, which it was pleasant to hear, but it did not thrill us as the singing of the people had done. During the week we moved to Oaklands, our future home.
The house was of one story, with a low-roofed piazza running the whole length. The interior had been thoroughly scrubbed and whitewashed; the exterior was guiltless of white-wash or paint. There were five rooms, all quite small, and several dark little entries, in one of which we found shelves lined with old medicine-bottles. These were a part of the possessions of the former owner, a Rebel physician, Dr. Sams by name. Some of them were still filled with his nostrums.
Our furniture consisted of a bedstead, two bureaus, three small pine tables, and two chairs, one of which had a broken back.
These were lent to us by the people. The masters, in their hasty flight from the islands, left nearly all their furniture; but much of it was destroyed or taken by the soldiers who came first, and what they left was removed by the people to their own houses. Certainly, they have the best right to it. We had made up our minds to dispense with all luxuries and even many conveniences; but it was rather distressing to have no fire, and nothing to eat.
But Cupid the elder came to the rescue, -- Cupid, who, we were told, was to be our right-hand man, and who very graciously informed us that he would take care of us; which he at once proceeded to do by bringing in some wood, and busying himself in making a fire in the open fireplace.
While he is thus engaged, I will try to describe him. A small, wiry figure, stockingless, shoeless, out at the knees and elbows, and wearing the remnant of an old straw hat, which looked as if it might have done good service in scaring the crows from a cornfield.
The face nearly black, very ugly, but with the shrewdest expression I ever saw, and the brightest, most humorous twinkle in the eyes. One glance at Cupid's face showed that he was not a person to be imposed upon, and that he was abundantly able to take care of himself, as well as of us.
The chimney obstinately refused to draw, in spite of the original and very uncomplimentary epithets which Cupid heaped upon it, while we stood by, listening to him in amusement, although nearly suffocated by the smoke. At last, perseverance conquered, and the fire began to burn cheerily. Then Amaretta, our cook, -- a neat-looking black woman, adorned with the gayest of head-handkerchiefs, made her appearance with some eggs and hominy, after partaking of which we proceeded to arrange our scanty furniture, which was soon done.
In a few days we began to look civilized, having made a table-cover of some red and yellow handkerchiefs which we found among the store-goods, -- a carpet of red and black woollen plaid, originally intended for frocks and shirts,--a cushion, stuffed with corn-husks and covered with calico, for a lounge, which Ben, the carpenter, had made for us of pine boards, --and lastly some corn-husk beds, which were an unspeakable luxury, after having endured agonies for several nights, sleeping on the slats of a bedstead.
It is true, the said slats were covered with blankets, but these might as well have been sheets of paper for all the good they did us. What a resting-place it was! Compared to it, the gridiron of St. Lawrence--fire excepted--was as a bed of roses. The first day at school was rather trying. Most of my children were very small, and consequently restless.
Some were too young to learn the alphabet. These little ones were brought to school because the older children -- in whose care their parents leave them while at work -- could not come without them. We were therefore willing to have them come, although they seemed to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion, and tried one's patience sadly. But after some days of positive, though not severe treatment, order was brought out of chaos, and I found but little difficulty in managing and quieting the tiniest and most restless spirits.
I never before saw children so eager to learn, although I had had several years' experience in New-England schools. Coming to school is a constant delight and recreation to them. They come here as other children go to play. The older ones, during the summer, work in the fields from early morning until eleven or twelve o'clock, and then come into school, after their hard toil in the hot sun, as bright and as anxious to learn as ever.
Of course there are some stupid ones, but these are the minority. The majority learn with wonderful rapidity. Many of the grown people are desirous of learning to read. It is wonderful how a people who have been so long crushed to the earth, so imbruted as these have been, -- and they are said to be among the most degraded negroes of the South, -- can have so great a desire for knowledge, and such a capability for attaining it.
One cannot believe that the haughty Anglo-Saxon race, after centuries of such an experience as these people have had, would be very much superior to them. And one's indignation increases against those who, North as well as South, taunt the colored race with inferiority while they themselves use every means in their power to crush and degrade them, denying them every right and privilege, closing against them every avenue of elevation and improvement.
Were they, under such circumstances, intellectual and refined, they would certainly be vastly superior to any other race that ever existed. After the lessons, we used to talk freely to the children, often giving them slight sketches of some of the great and good men. Before teaching them the "John Brown" song, which they learned to sing with great spirit, Miss T.
I told them about Toussaint, thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race. They listened attentively, and seemed to understand. We found it rather hard to keep their attention in school. It is not strange, as they have been so entirely unused to intellectual concentration.
It is necessary to interest them every moment, in order to keep their thoughts from wandering. Teaching here is consequently far more fatiguing than at the North. In the church, we had of course but one room in which to hear all the children; and to make one's self heard, when there were often as many as a hundred and forty reciting at once, it was necessary to tax the lungs very severely.
My walk to school, of about a mile, was part of the way through a road lined with trees, -- on one side stately pines, on the other noble live-oaks, hung with moss and canopied with vines. The ground was carpeted with brown, fragrant pine-leaves; and as I passed through in the morning, the woods were enlivened by the delicious songs of mocking-birds, which abound here, making one realize the truthful felicity of the description in "Evangeline,"-- "The mocking-bird, wildest of singers, Shook from his little throat such floods of delirious music That the whole air and the woods and the waves seemed silent to listen.
Out of the woods the roads are generally bad, and we found it hard work plodding through the deep sand. Gay handkerchiefs for turbans, pots and kettles, and molasses, were principally in demand, especially the last. It was necessary to keep the molasses-barrel in the yard, where Cupid presided over it, and harangued and scolded the eager, noisy crowd, collected around, to his heart's content; while up the road leading to the house came constantly processions of men, women, and children, carrying on their heads cans, jugs, pitchers, and even bottles, anything, indeed, that was capable of containing molasses.
It is wonderful with what ease they carry all sorts of things on their heads, --heavy bundles of wood, hoes and rakes, everything, heavy or light that can be carried in the hands; and I have seen a woman, with a bucketful of water on her head, stoop down and take up another in her hand, without spilling a drop from either. We noticed that the people had much better taste in selecting materials for dresses than we had supposed.
They do not generally like gaudy colors, but prefer neat, quiet patterns. They are, however, very fond of all kinds of jewelry. I once asked the children in school what their ears were for. These people are exceedingly polite in their manner towards each other, each new arrival bowing, scraping his feet, and shaking hands with the others, while there are constant greetings, such as, "Huddy?
How's yer lady? How's your wife? There is never the faintest shadow of a smile on anybody's face during this performance. The children, too, are taught to be very polite to their elders, and it is the rarest thing to hear a disrespectful word from a child to his parent, or to any grown person. They have really what the New-Englanders call "beautiful manners.
We made daily visits to the "quarters," which were a few rods from the house. The negro-houses, on this as on most of the other plantations, were miserable little huts, with nothing comfortable or home-like about them, consisting generally of but two very small rooms, --the only way of lighting them, no matter what the state of the weather, being to leave the doors and windows open.
The windows, of course, have no glass in them. In such a place, a father and mother with a large family of children are often obliged to live. It is almost impossible to teach them habits of neatness and order, when they are so crowded.
We look forward anxiously to the day when better houses shall increase their comfort and pride of appearance. Oaklands is a very small plantation. There were not more than eight or nine families living on it. Some of the people interested us much. Celia, one of the best, is a cripple. Her master, she told us, was too mean to give his slaves clothes enough to protect them, and her feet and legs were so badly frozen that they required amputation.
She has a lovely face,--well-featured and singularly gentle.
In every household where there was illness or trouble, Celia's kind, sympathizing face was the first to be seen, and her services were always the most acceptable. Harry, the foreman on the plantation, a man of a good deal of natural intelligence, was most desirous of learning to read.
He came in at night to be taught, and learned very rapidly. I never saw any one more determined to learn. We enjoyed hearing him talk about the "gun- shoot," -- so the people call the capture of Bay Point and Hilton Head. They never weary of telling you "how Massa run when he hear de fust gun. He tell we dat de Yankees would shoot we, or would sell we to Cuba, an' do all de wust tings to we, when dey come.
If I stay here, I can't be no wust; so if I got to dead, I might 's well dead here as anywhere. So I 'll stay here an' wait for de "dam Yankees.
I found this to be true of nearly all the people I talked with, and I thought it strange they should have had so much faith in the Northerners. Truly, for years past, they had had but little cause to think them very friendly. Cupid told us that his master was so daring as to come back, after he had fled from the island, at the risk of being taken prisoner by our soldiers; and that he ordered the people to get all the furniture together and take it to a plantation on the opposite side of the creek, and to stay on that side themselves.
An' he telled me to take Patience -- dat's my wife -- an' de chil'en down to a certain pint, an' den I could come back, if I choose. Jus' as if I was gwine to be sich a goat!
He and the rest of the people, instead of obeying their master, left the place and hid themselves in the woods; and when he came to look for them, not one of all his "faithful servants" was to be found.