The little boy was overwhelmed at being suddenly projected into a world of such fluid activity. He was standing on the old bale and cask strewn quay at Bridgetown watching a police launch carry a load of Negro country folk out to a British packet smoking blackly in the bay.
He was a dainty little boy, about eight years of age. He wore a white stiff jumper jacket, the starch on it so hard and shiny it was ready to squeak; shiny blue-velvet pants, very tight and very short — a little above his carefully oiled knees; a brownish green bow tie, bright as a cluster of dewy crotons; an Eton collar, an English sailor hat, with an elastic band so tight it threatened to dig a gutter in the lad's bright brown cheeks.
He was alone and strangely aware of the life bubbling around nelson's square. Under the statue masses of country blacks had come, drinking in the slow draughts of wind struggling up from the sea. City urchins, who thrived on pilfering sewers or ridding the streets of cow dung which they marketed as manure; beggars, black street corner fixtures, their bodies limp and juicy with the scourge of elephantiasis; cork-legged wayfarers, straw hats on their bowed crinkly heads; one-legged old black women vending cane juice and hot sauce.
It was noon and they had come, like camels to an oasis, to guzzle Maube or rummage the bags of coppers, untie their headkerchiefs, arrange their toilet and sprawl, snore, till the sun spent its crystal wrath and dropped behind the dark hulk of the sugar refineries to the western tip of the sky. Then it was their custom to pack up and sally forth, on the singing jaunt to the country.
Scores of ragged black boys, Gerald's size and over, filled the Square, half-covered by the dust, snoring. Old boys, young boys, big boys, little boys; boys who'd stolen on the wharves at sundown and bored big holes in the wet sacks of brown sugar; boys who'd defied the cops, and the sun, and the foaming mules, or the ungodly long whip of the driver, and skimmed on to tin cups the thick brackish froth the heat had sent fomenting up through the cracks in the molasses casks; boys who'd been sent to the Island jail for firing touch bams at birds lost in the bewildering city or for flipping pealoaded popguns at the black, cork-hatted police.
Melting target for the roaring sun, the boy turned and gazed at the sea. it was angry, tumultuous. To the left of him there rose the cobwebbed arch of a bridge. Under it the water lay dark and gleaming. Against its opaque sides there were scows, barges, oil tankers. Zutting motor boats, water policemen, brought commotion to the sea. Far out, where the sun kissed it, the sea shone like a sheet of blazing zinc.
Creeping to the edge of the quay, he peeped over and saw a school of black boys splashing in the water. They were diving for coppers flung by black tourists on the side lines. They slept on the Congo-slippery rafts holding up the city, and would, for a ha'penny, dart after parasols or kites—that is, if the kites happened to be made of hard glazy "B'bados kite papah"—lost on the rolling bronze sea.
"Come, Gerald, eat this."
He turned and there was his mother. His big bright eyes widened for her. And a lump rose in his throat. He wanted to hug, kiss her. With the heat of his mouth he wanted to brush away her tears, abolish her sorrow. He wanted, too, to breathe the lovely, holy beauty of her.
"Come, son, tek yo' fingah outa yo' mout', quick, de launch will be yah any minute now."
He took the lozenge, the sun making it soft and sticky.
"Don't yo' want some ginger beer, son?"
"Oh, mama, look!"
The launch had come up, and one of the sailor-cops, a husky, black fellow, was making it fast.
"Orright lady, yo' is de nex' — come ahlong."
With much agitation she got in the boat. She had to hang on to her bag, to Gerald, and she was not prepared to get the ends of her slip wet. The men seized him, and she stepped down, barely escaping a carelessly dangling oar.
Bewildered, they clung to each other. "All right, son?" she said. But he was too unspeakingly concerned over the concurrent miracles of sea and sky.
Leaping through the sea, the boat would drown them in a shower of spray every time it came up, and Gerald was repeatedly tempted to put his hand in the water. "Keep yo' hands inside, sah," she cried, "shark will get you, too."
He remained aware of only foam and water, and the boat's spit and sputter, and the warmth of Sarah's bosom. Away back, on the brown and gold of the horizon, he saw speeding into nothingness the scows and warehouses and the low lofts of Bridgetown. Now, the sea rose — higher, higher; zooming, zooming; bluer, darker — the sky, dizzier, dizzier; and in the heavens war was brewing — until the shroud of mist ahead parted and there rose on the crest of the sky the shining blue packet!
From Tropic Death by Eric Walrond. Copyright 1926 by Boni & Liveright, Inc. Copyright renewed 1953 by Eric Walrond. Excerpted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company.