Mermaid’s Chair

By Jenae Richardson

“Road ends ahead,” read a white, rectangular sign resting on a pole near the winding cement road.

At times like these, you pretend as though you haven’t just trod for 40 minutes in flats despite your parents’ suggestion to wear sneakers. My feet are no doubt blistered, my throat parched. It’s a Sunday afternoon near three in late December. My parents, my older sister Soy, my friend Jo and I are walking toward Mermaid’s Chair on the western end of St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. Our car’s parked near the entrance of Botany Bay Estate because the security guard said the only way to get to the Chair is to walk. Jo is panting; I’m afraid she will faint. Her shoulder-length, brown hair is tousled with sweat, her eyes floundering, her shoulders slouching toward the pavement. My mother jokes that she’s probably not used to this much walking in Syracuse.

We meet another sign: “Welcome to Mermaid’s Chair: Use caution. Swimming is at your own risk.” The waves pound the rocks in jest. Facing north, I step onto the narrow strip of land separating two bodies of water. Here I stand at Mermaid’s Chair. The Caribbean Sea is on my left, the Atlantic Ocean on my right. At times like these, you fall to the ground and kiss it, elated to be in the presence of such beauty. There is no other place in the world where these two bodies of water lie juxtaposed with only a sandbar separating their union. 

There is no other place in the world where these two bodies of water lie juxtaposed with only a sandbar separating their union. 

“Shhh,” my mother whispers as though I had been thinking aloud. She points to the Atlantic Ocean, white foam surfacing as the water charges at our feet. The ocean is ferocious, bellowing, its salt stinging my pores. Next, I turn to the Caribbean Sea, its waves forming perfect undulations. But the two bodies of water have completely different temperaments. The Atlantic Ocean is like a child wailing for her parents, throwing tantrums until she’s consoled. The Caribbean Sea is like a parent that rests placidly, a Sojourner that has already arrived at her journey—no fussing, no beckoning, with waves coming toward me slowly and submissively. I stoop down to uncover a few coral seashells for my mother. My parents’ heads turn left and right, right and left. My mother presses her palms on her face and remarks, “I can’t believe how differently these two bodies of water behave,” as I, too, stare at both. 

Here I stand wondering where my St. Thomas has gone

***

A few months after I’d left for college, I called my mother to find out how St. Thomas was. There had been another murder, she said. This was no typical gunshot wound to the head or stab wound to the chest story. A man had been killed, and his corpse had been stuffed in a grocery shopping cart. The cart was found in a highly populated area known as Hospital Ground, or “Round deh Field,” as St. Thomians refer to it.

“What kinda person does something like that?” I asked her, flummoxed and disgusted. She didn’t know. I immediately called my siblings to inform them of the homicide. 

“Them man don’t done!” my brother remarked, meaning the extent of the crime had exceeded his expectations and that the murder truly was heinous. My sister and I tried to uncover the symbolism of the murder. Stuffed in a shopping cart to be found? Why was there a shopping cart in “Round deh Field” to begin with? And why was his body placed there? A shopping cart is something you use to temporarily store items you will purchase, but there could be no purchasing of a dead man. We talked for an hour, trying to reason.

Only several months earlier, while I was still a senior in high school, I’d found out about the death of a 12 year-old girl whose body had been found in a bin in an abandoned shed downtown. I went to school one morning in mid-April and noticed The Daily News on most of my teachers’ desks. Laquina Hennis had been found dead a week after she was reported missing. When a child is murdered in St. Thomas, the whole island is shaken up. The territory explodes with fury and anguish, and the news of the tragedy suffuses every government building, grocery store and laundromat until everyone living on the 32 square-mile island has heard and grieved.

***

Here I stand facing the Atlantic, wondering where my St. Thomas has gone. Wind stirs my hair, and the ocean’s bitter roar engulfs my thoughts. In 2009, St. Thomas accounted for about 60% of the 56 murders that occurred in the three main islands comprising the U.S. Virgin Islands. Gang violence and drugs were the main causes cited for the increase in bloodshed.

“You must be happy you’re going home,” a woman from Maine had said to me on the flight home from Charlotte, NC to St. Thomas last summer. What she asked next was typical: Where should she visit while in America’s Paradise? I described the ordinary laundry list of activities: go to Cuzzin’s Restaurant for some boiled fish and fungi during the day and Greenhouse Bar at night for a piña colada mixed with Cruzan rum. Shop on Main Street for 14-karat jewelry at a cheap price (and duty free!) and purchase a tamarind and coconut fraco (the St. Thomian version of a snow cone). Go for a swim at the famous Magen’s Bay Beach. Visit the giant sea turtles at Coral World. Call my father for a sweet mango. Catch a safari to get around. They’re $2 from town to country or $1 if you travel within the town or country limits. Don’t buy a gallon of orange juice for $10. Or a pack of 24 slices of cheese for $8. Oh, and don’t get murdered. I’d thought those last few things, but of course, I didn’t tell her.

***

I’ve inquired about the meaning of Mermaid’s Chair on the western end, but no one knows. Some speculate the area is shaped like an imaginary chair. But that must be one rather large chair or an enormous mermaid. Mermaid’s Chair depicts St. Thomas—present and past. The Atlantic Ocean is the new wave of terror I’ve grown to know. Its ferocity parallels the upsurge of violence by youth. The Caribbean Sea reflects a tranquil island I can’t quite remember; it is St. Thomas in the past tense—the years my mother grew up and went to school leaving the door to her grandmother’s house unlocked.

With sand steeped underneath my toenails, I squeeze the shutter button of my camera, securing the image of the Caribbean Sea, its arms cradling the boulders in its watery blanket. Here I stand in the center of the two temperaments, hoping the Caribbean Sea will spill over some of its tenderness into the Atlantic to calm it, hush it and ensure that another tide will come.


Jenae Richardson graduated from Syracuse in 2011 with degrees in psychology and magazine journalism. She currently works in Palo Alto.

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