illustration in nature

Secrets of the Earth

On a trip home to Jamaica, I searched for the vanishing landscape of my memory.

When I tell ex-pat Jamaicans that I travel the island by bus, they look at me as if I’ve gone mad. They’re picturing the old country buses, with standing room only among live goats. But I’m on the Knutsford Express: reserved seating, air-conditioned, and punctual. We drive along the coast for an hour or so, from Montego Bay toward my hometown of Kingston, past country shacks, roadside poinciana, and the turquoise sea. In Ocho Rios there’s a rest stop, and I buy one of my favorite Jamaican meals to go—jerk chicken, grilled with allspice and hot peppers, and a bottle of Ting, a tart grapefruit soda. In Jamaica, the cheaper the food is, the better it tastes.

A few miles down the road, the bus turns inland toward Fern Gully, a 3-mile gorge where the sun filters through more than 500 varieties of towering ferns. Before it became a road, this was a river, shifted and destroyed by a 1907 earthquake. When I was little, the place enchanted me with its cavernous silence and hazy green light. Sheltered from the tropical sun, it felt like an ancient—even prehistoric—place, a place of legends. But today it’s sunnier and busier than I remember. The road banks have been widened for tour buses and vendors. The ferns still flourish, but they look different in this harsher light.

Port Royal is a derelict town these days, but in the 17th century it was known as “the richest, wickedest city on Earth.”

I’m back on the island doing research for a new novel. I was born and raised in Jamaica, but having lived in the U.S. now for three decades, I travel back to refresh my view, to authenticate remembered details. My novels are set on the island, and I can’t rely solely on memories. On these trips, I sometimes rediscover things I’d forgotten or hadn’t previously paid attention to—that my aunt’s kitchen smells of thyme, or that fruits sold along the roadside are the colors of the earth, not brightly colored like in pictures.

Whenever I return, I find myself looking through multiple lenses, navigating the landscape of memory along with the landscape of the present. I’m aware, too, of another more elusive ancestral landscape, the island Columbus described as “the earthly paradise.” Eden-like in its physical beauty, this was never a place without pain. Beneath the lushness are echoes of conquest and enslavement. Columbus relentlessly searched for gold here, believing the friendly natives, the Taino, would show him los secretos de la tierra. He finally gave up, leaving the conquistadores in charge, and they were brutal. In school, I learned about the Tainos’ extinction but always found it hard to believe. They were, after all, the ones who gave the island its name: Xaymaca, “land of wood and water.”

It’s dusk when I finally arrive in Kingston. From my hotel window, there’s a tremendous view: mountains to the east, and to the south rooftops stretching all the way to the sea. As darkness falls, the beams from Port Royal’s lighthouse appear in the distance. The city’s southern-most point, Port Royal is a derelict town these days, but in the 17th century it was known as “the richest, wickedest city on Earth,” a hub of pirates. Most of it sank beneath the sea during the 1692 earthquake, taking with it all that gold and decadence. Only a few remaining relics are on display in a small museum. As I draw the curtains I’m reminded of why I’m here and why I write. Because of places like Port Royal, dark and fragile in the distance. Because the ferny landscapes of childhood memories bring with them the echoing of extinct people—a road where there was once a river, the sea where there were once roads. Because this tropical landscape that I love rapaciously changes and takes with it so many untold human stories.

Derek, a family friend, comes by the next morning. He’s a graphic artist whose screen print of the giant swallowtail butterfly, endemic to Jamaica, has been reproduced on T-shirts and posters. We’re going to Hellshire, a rocky region where caves and underground rivers meet the sea. As a teenager I drove there on a motorcycle with my boyfriend and swam in a secluded bay. The area’s known to naturalists for its endangered species, particularly the Jamaican iguana. We saw an iguana once, emerging from a cave the same color as its skin. I want to visit again but have only a vague recollection of its location. Deciding we need a landmark to focalize the outing, I pick a historic site in Hellshire called Two Sisters Cave. Google shows us the stalactite walls of the cave descending toward crystal blue water, and another image reveals school children halfway down the cave on a viewing platform. We hover over my laptop and read: 200,000 years old, the cave was used as a source of water for Tainos and also for ceremonial purposes, evidenced by the petroglyph of a human face.

The cave drawing interests me, as does the theory about the cave’s name: Two slave sisters escaped from a nearby plantation and stopped at the cave to rest. They heard their pursuers and, fearing captivity, leapt to their deaths in the waters of the cave.

What I want is some reassurance that the landscapes of memory and history won’t disappear.

Approaching Hellshire’s coast, I notice changes: unfinished housing schemes and a gutted high-rise hotel. There are no signs leading to the cave. Derek’s ’91 Honda performs heroically, backing out of narrow, dead-end roads, until someone finally gives directions that bring us to the site. The gate is locked; across the road, teenagers sit around an old car. “Governmen’ close it down,” one of them says, watching us peer through the barbed wire fence. There’s no watchman. We climb over the gate.

The cave itself is enclosed in scaffolding, the viewing platform in disrepair. At the bottom there’s black water, and, as hard as I try, I can’t see the petroglyph. Derek walks over to a building, presumably where the gift shop was located, and finds a plaque telling the story we read earlier about the sisters. The plaque hangs lopsided, and he secures it using a rock as a hammer. I wonder how much of the story is true and whether they were African slaves or Taino girls centuries earlier escaping from conquistadores. Maybe they survived the ordeal. We walk to the edge of the cliff, looking in vain for a cave opening to the sea, trying to retrace the sisters’ path of hope.

Back in the Honda, we continue searching for the bay. Even in these altered surroundings, I still see what drew me here—limestone against sea and sky, a ruggedness that saturates everything. We end up on a steep road that looks familiar. But it leads to a military range, and we turn back.

My thoughts return to the cave drawing. The Taino believed the world originated from a single cave, one from which twin gods, the sun and moon, emerged. Marocael, a mortal, was given the task of guarding this sacred cave. One night he returned late to his watch and, as punishment, was turned to stone. From then on, the Tainos drew a face at the mouth of caves, perhaps to make an example of Marocael, the negligent watchman.

Two days later, we drive to the lush foothills of the Blue Mountains, heading for Irish Town, which got its name from the 18th-century immigrants who made rum barrels there. I imagine this misty landscape of rivers reminded them of home. My friends Andrew and Lisa, who own a nearby pineapple farm, meet us at a bend in the road. The view is sublime and gratifying after the disappointment of Hellshire: miles of green hills and, beyond them, mountains. I have wonderful memories of time spent here with another childhood friend, Netia, especially of the river near her house. The house has been knocked down and rebuilt by a new owner, but Andrew knows another good spot along that river.

We trudge 3 miles through mountain forest, eventually reaching a shack. Outside, a woman roasts yams while two little boys play soccer. The woman, Crystal, greets Andrew and Lisa and asks about their three grown sons by name. Her own sons stop playing and eagerly take us to the swimming hole. It’s deep, cool, and fed by a waterfall. I think, This is Xamayca, and then immediately worry about it being discovered by some hotel developer. I ask the boys what the place is called. The oldest shrugs and says, “Big Hole.” There’s no road, no sign. Without Andrew, I would never have found it. Maybe no one else will.

Lisa offers us slices of pineapple so delicious Derek and I come close to fighting over the last piece.

Later, we go to Andrew and Lisa’s place. The hill is steep, so we park in a clearing below and follow the energetic couple uphill through rainforest. Their house is unapologetically cluttered, with evidence of ongoing carpentry and sewing projects. They built the place themselves, carrying water pipes, solar panels, and lumber uphill. I imagine them raising their sons here, Swiss Family Robinson–style. It’s like a big tree house, with only the forest providing privacy.

A ceiba tree stands directly across from the house. Seventy feet tall and more than 10 feet wide, there’s room inside its buttressed roots for several people to stand. Andrew says locals won’t go near it because they believe it’s inhabited by duppies, spirits. He wanted to build a deck extending out there but decided the risk to this ancient tree wasn’t worth it.

Back inside, Lisa offers us slices of pineapple, fruit so delicious Derek and I come close to fighting over the last piece. Andrew takes out scrapbooks of photographs and begins telling stories about the people in them, stories he plans to write someday.

Night falls upon the ancestral tree and surrounding hills. I realize, sitting here, that I nearly made the same mistake as Columbus. I’ve been too anxious about los secretos de la tierra, the cherished spots that are becoming increasingly inaccessible to me, to all of us. What I want is some reassurance that the landscapes of memory and ancestral history won’t disappear. And on this trip, I think I’ve found that in friends like Andrew, Lisa, and Derek—Jamaicans of my generation. They are memory keepers like me, and they are watchful. Unlike Marocael, they won’t be late returning to the cave.

Margaret Cezair-Thompson is the author of The Pirate’s Daughter and The True History of Paradise. She lives outside Boston.

Illustration by Sam Kalda

Originally Published April 2017