Grange Island is a tiny private island in the Grenadines. It is uninhabited now after all the buildings were destroyed in hurricane Ivan. Back in the fifties, there was a very nice vacation home and several outbuildings. I remember visiting the island with my parents as guests of the owner Leon DeLisle. It was a magical place to me, and I was particularly impressed by a large peacock who roamed the manicured grounds, displaying his magnificent plumage at will. He was a bit shy and I never got very close to him. Soon after that visit we moved to Canada. That island visit often came back to me in dreams.
Many years later I was married and living in Vancouver. Even after spending most of my life in Canada, I still pined for the Caribbean of my childhood. I longed to get away from ringing phones, blaring TVs and advertising everywhere. One year when our kids were small I convinced my wife, Sheila, to spend a family Christmas in the Caribbean. I thought of Grange Island, and after a few phone calls found that it was possible to rent the whole island for about the same price as a decent hotel room. I immediately booked it for Christmas week. I was told that a cook and provisions could be provided at extra cost but we decided to feed ourselves.
The kids, Jake and Katya, grumbled about going away from their friends and relatives at Christmas but when I told them tales of palm trees, white sand beaches and buried treasure they began to show enthusiasm.
When the time came, we flew to nearby Grenada arriving late in the evening. After a night in a hotel, we spent the morning getting supplies before heading out. I began to have some doubts. The local supermarket had a very poor selection of food. I had forgotten to ask if there was a fridge on the island, although I was told there was a generator for power. I felt it was safer to assume no refrigeration. The agent had told me not to bother buying any fruit as plenty grew wild there. We bought bread, sausages, and bacon. lettuce, tomatoes, onions and UHT milk plus a few tins of soup. The kids, Jake and Katya, chose some chips and snacks. I grabbed a bottle of Westerhall rum and a few bottles of French wine.
In the afternoon, we took a taxi to a meeting place beachside on the windward–rough–side of Grenada. The caretaker who met us was called Paul. He was a tall and very thin, very black man with long ropy arms. His face was leathery and I guessed him to be in his fifties. He spoke clearly but with a strong lilting accent.
“De sea be smooth today, but we best protect de food and luggage,” He handed me several large plastic garbage bags.
We put the grocery bags and suitcases inside the bags. Paul and I carried them while Sheila took the kids by the hand.
Paul led us down the beach to a wooden skiff, pulled up on the sand. It was old and the turquoise paint was peeling but a fairly new looking outboard was reassuring. We loaded the gear. Then he handed us some well-used life jackets and we put them on. They were all the same size, small on me and huge on the kids. Sheila’s was perfect, but everything looked good on her slim frame.
Jake was literally bouncing with excitement at the prospect of the boat ride, but Katya had her thumb in her mouth and her stuffed Panda held tight. We were all used to boats, but not a small skiff in the open sea. Paul helped Sheila and the kids to board.
“Yo feet will get wet now,” Paul started to push on the bow and I helped. In shorts and sandals, I didn’t mind getting wet. With great effort, we got the boat sliding into the water. As soon as it was afloat Paul jumped in. He instructed me to hold it off the beach while he got the motor started. Two pulls and it was running, a good sign. I pushed the boat out and clambered aboard as he gunned the motor and headed out to sea. Grange Island was less than a mile away, but once we got away from the cove the waves started to get bigger. The bow was crashing into them. Jake was up forward screaming with delight. I had hold of his belt with one hand. Sheila held Katya tightly between her knees and looked a bit grim. Maybe we should have brought Gravol.
Saltwater flew high over us and we were soon completely soaked. Paul started bailing water out of the bilge with a cut-down bleach bottle. Then the seas got smoother as we moved into the lee of the island. The whole trip only took about ten minutes but it seemed longer. As we approached the beach a small jetty appeared and we could tie alongside. There was quite a swell and getting out was an adventure, but soon we were all ashore. The shore was sandy but there were large boulders and rocky patches. The Island was covered with dense vegetation. In my memory, I pictured expansive lawns and gardens but all I could see now was a tropical jungle.
Paul led us into the woods along a dirt path covered with crushed seashells. After a few hundred yards, it opened into a clearing with a house at the far end. I recognized it from my childhood but it seemed far less imposing than I remembered. It was a wooden bungalow with overhanging eaves covering a wide veranda across the front. The roof was rusty corrugated steel. Although the house was an attractive pale yellow with light blue trim, the paint was far from fresh. The veranda sagged on one end and was propped up by a pile of stones. I put a bold face on it.
“Hey kids, look at this fabulous jungle home. What adventures we’ll have here!”
Jake did a fist pump and laughed loudly. Sheila looked dubious and Katya was examining her wet shoes.
“Let’s get into dry clothes and explore,” I tried to show enthusiasm.
We took the plastic bags into the house and looked the place over. It showed signs of comfortable neglect. There were 3 bedrooms, one double and two singles, and all had clean white linens and towels. Furniture was sparse, there were no curtains but the windows all had louvered shutters. Just one bathroom, with an old-fashioned tub on clawed feet and a flush toilet, the kind with the tank up high and a pull chain. There was running water but just a single cold tap. I wondered where the water came from.
“Cistern behind de house catch de rain,” offered Paul. It made sense. Gravity feed, no pump needed. A septic tank would take care of the waste. He left us while we changed our clothes and hung up the wet ones on a line out back. Then he took us for a tour around the house.
The kitchen was in a separate building with a covered walkway to the main house. It had a propane cooker with 4 burners and an oven, a fridge with the door ajar and plenty of cupboards. There was an odd assortment of dishes, cutlery, and utensils, but it seemed to be enough for our purposes. Paul showed us how to light the stove with long kitchen matches, and explained that the fridge worked, but only when there was power.
The rooms were wired for electric lights with a single bulb hanging in each room, but there were also kerosene Aladdin mantle lamps on the side tables. I was familiar with these from my time in the North. They threw a bright warm light and were easy to light.
Paul took me out back to a shack which housed the generator. It was quite small and started with a hand crank. He started it for me, then stopped it with a kill button. Then I gave it a go. It started on my third try. He said it should only be used at night. There was no phone on the island but there was a handheld marine VHF radio, and he told me to use channel seventy-seven to contact him in an emergency. That is when it began to sink in how isolated we would be.
“Delia will come Friday to clean de place and do laundry,” It was Monday when we arrived, Christmas was the following Sunday. Six days.
“Paul, when I was here as a child there were peafowl on the grounds.”
“Dey still around I tink but I ain’t seen any for a while. Easy to stay out of sight in de bush. Dere’s also a sheep dat mow de lawn.”
Paul left shortly and we were on our own. He promised to bring us more food on Friday when he brought Delia over to clean, and I gave him some money and a list of items. I also asked him to use his own judgment to substitute if something was not available. I gave him an extra fifty for himself.
It was still early in the afternoon so I took the kids to explore while Sheila unpacked and got organized. Katya rode on my shoulders while Jake ran ahead, turning around to make sure we kept up. The southern part of the island was roughly circular, about 300 yards across. To the north was a narrow peninsula extending in an arc which formed a good-sized bay on the Northeast side of the island. The path we were following took us there and the white sand beach had a decent surf rolling in.
“Jake, this is could be where the pirate Blackbeard buried his treasure,” I pulled out a wrinkled map I made from a nautical chart and showed him the X marked on the beach ahead.
“Can we dig for it?”
He had a plastic bucket and shovel with him.
“Well…I guess we can try. Let’s find the spot marked on the map!”
Katya spoke up. “There it is!” She was pointing to the X on the map.
“Silly! That’s just a map. We have to find the real place.” Jake always was confident. He spread the map on the ground and oriented it the same way as the island without any help from me. He held a hand over his eyes and sighted along the beach.
“It should be just near that rock.” We walked toward it, Jake in the lead. About ten feet from the rock I began dropping local pennies in the sand and burying them with my foot. He didn’t see me but Katya noticed.
She giggled and I whispered in her ear, “Our secret.”
Jake picked a spot and began digging. He was a quick worker and soon had a deep hole, which was filling with water. He didn’t find anything.
“Let me try!”
Jake looked up at me. I nodded and reluctantly he handed Katya the shovel as I swung her off my shoulders. She ran back a few feet and started digging.
“Jakey, come quick. I found the treasure!”
She held up two pennies.
Jake ran over and examined the coins. He looked a bit suspicious.
“Those aren’t gold.”
“They’re copper, not all pirate coins are gold.” I winked at Katya.
Jake dropped to his knees and started digging with Katya. Soon each had a handful of pennies, and big grins plastered on happy little faces.
Suddenly Katya stood up and pointed to the woods above the beach. “Somebody is watching us!”
I looked where she was pointing but didn’t see anyone. I knew we were alone on the island except for Sheila. I ran toward the woods and I heard sounds of something hurrying away.
“What did he look like Katya?”
“He was wearing a bright green coat. I couldn’t see his face.”
I was puzzled, but we started back to the house. As we neared the end of the beach Katya cried out, “There he is!”
Just to the side of the path where it entered the woods stood a magnificent peacock, tail in full display. His head and neck were blue, and his huge fanlike tail shimmered with iridescent green, gold and black. The kids were enthralled and scared at the same time. I was relieved. Better a peacock than an unknown intruder.
“That’s a peacock. They are harmless. I remember him from when I was here as a child,” In my mind, I realized it couldn’t be the same one after more than thirty years.
The kids relaxed and we walked toward the lovely bird. When we were a few feet away he folded his tail, turned, and stalked off into the bush.
“They can live here because there are no dogs or mongoose to harm them,” I was always eager to educate the kids.
“What’s a mongoose?” Jake was curious.
“Ever heard of a Meer Kat? Very similar. There are a lot of them in Grenada. They eat snakes, birds, and rats. They are small but fearless, just like you.”
Later I found some books in the house. One of them was the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I gave the book to Jake and pointed out the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the brave mongoose. It was a bit above his reading level but I figured he could handle it.
When we got back Sheila showed us what she found in the overgrown garden.
“I found mango, papaya, okra, and these things,” she held up a small fruit.
“That is a waterlemon, my favorite. They grow wild by the side of the road in Grenada and my Dad used to cut one open for me when we went for a walk. Juicy and delicious with lots of small seeds. I haven’t eaten one in thirty years.”
“There are also a few banana trees, but the fruit is too small to pick.”
“Those are lady fingers. That is the size they grow to, smaller and sweeter than supermarket bananas.”
“We saw a peacock,” piped Katya and she told her mother about our encounter. Jake showed her the pirate treasure. He was gracious.
“Katya found it first.”
Later, Sheila produced a delicious curry with the sausages we brought along with mango, carrots, and onions. I had seen callaloo out there too and told her about it. It makes great soup and salads.
By the time we finished eating it was dusk and I went to the shed and started the generator. It was a noisy thing and we soon decided we preferred the kerosene lamps. With the generator off the island was so quiet you could here many tiny sounds. The rustling of leaves in the trade winds, the distant surf and other noises we couldn’t identify. We went to bed early and slept well.
The next few days were a lot of fun as we got to know the island. Despite the small size of the place, we found plenty to explore. We turned over rocks on the beach and watched crabs scuttle away. We shook coconut trees and I used the machete to open the ones that fell. We didn’t see the peacock again, but a sheep appeared grazing in the yard. It took no notice of us. We bathed in the sea every day and washed the salt off with a hose we found behind the house. No radio or TV, it was as if we were the only people on the planet.
The food was great. We ate a lot more fruit than usual because it grew in abundance and was so sweet. I showed Sheila how to make fried bananas for breakfast, which we all enjoyed.
As promised Paul came back Friday with two sacks of goodies, and Delia, a plump older lady with a dazzling white smile. Delia changed the beds, washed our dirty clothes by hand and hung them out to dry, and left us clean towels. As she worked Jake regaled her with tales of pirates and peacocks.
When Paul and Delia were leaving, I gave them each an envelope with some money and wished them a happy Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, Sheila produced some flattened origami Christmas ornaments and tinsel. She showed the kids how to make paper snowflakes and angels with a pair of nail scissors. She had cleverly brought colored paper. I found a machete in the shed and cut a tree roughly the right size and shape. The kids had fun decorating it.
We traveled light so we didn’t have much to put under the tree, but Sheila had a couple of packages for each kid. I found an old flour bag in the shed and filled it with as many coins as I could find then buried it in the sand near the rock where the kids found the other coins. I made a new treasure map and put it in under the tree for Jake to find. I knew that would thrill him more than any store-bought present.
Late in the afternoon, I dozed off in a hammock on the veranda. I was awakened by screams and shrieks. I rolled out of the hammock and fell on by face as my foot caught. I extricated myself and ran in the direction of the noise. On the edge of the woods, I could see the peacock from behind with its tail spread. It was shrieking and each shriek was answered by a scream. Katya.
I ran over as fast as I could and grabbed it by the tail. It turned and jabbed its beak at my thigh, drawing blood, then ran off into the bush. Katya was cowering under a big fern, terrified but seemingly unhurt. I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. By then Sheila and Jake were there and I told them what had happened. Katya settled down, and I gave her three peacock feathers that came out when I grabbed the tail. She liked those, and later they were attached to the top of our Christmas tree. I was annoyed that the beautiful bird had attacked Katya but I rationalized that she had probably got too close to it.
We had a simple dinner and played some kid’s card games afterward. Then we got them ready for bed and I sat on Katya’s bed and read “Twas the night” which was a family tradition. Katya bounced on the bed and Jake imitated the reindeer and the jolly elf. Then Sheila tucked them in with a kiss and they went off to sleep.
Sheila and I made plans for Christmas dinner. I promised to take care of the main course if she would produce the side dishes and dessert. With what we found on the island and what Paul had brought we had the makings of a fine feast.
In the morning, the kids were up at first light. I boiled water to make coffee then brought a cup to Sheila in bed. When she got up we opened the presents. She surprised me with a new watch, and I had a necklace for her. The kids got books and socks filled with oranges and chocolates. Jake got a Rubik’s cube and Katya got a Cinnamon Pull-a-part, an odd little doll with a collection of interchangeable arms, legs and heads. They were ecstatic.
Paul had given us a box of guava cheese and a rum bottle filled with cashews. Both were local treats. Jake found the treasure map and I promised to take them out there again right after breakfast.
We had bacon, eggs, and fried bananas along with mango slices. When were full we all headed for the beach, leaving the dishes for later. Jake talked non-stop, telling Sheila about our previous adventures, adding some fanciful details.
When we got near the rock Jake consulted the map and began to dig. This time he used a strategy of pushing the shovel in deep, then if he didn’t hit anything he moved to another spot. I was proud that he was so systematic in his approach. Soon he struck something and dug it out. It was a small conch shell, called lambi in Grenada. He tossed it aside and resumed his search.
I became aware that Katya had attached herself to my right leg making a keening sound. Sheila pointed to the edge of the jungle just behind us. The peacock was there, with his tail on display, missing a few feathers in the middle. Suddenly he folded his tail and ran at Jake who was busy digging. Sheila jumped between Jake and the bird, I was hampered by Katya clinging to my leg. The peacock jabbed Sheila on the thigh and then ran off as I loosened Katya and made chase.
We were all shaken by the vicious surprise attack, but Sheila wasn’t seriously hurt. Jake had found the treasure at the same time but he wasn’t too jubilant. We headed back to the house in a tight knot keeping an eye out for the angry bird. I was burning with inner rage but tried not to let it show. The peacock had sullied my vision of a perfect holiday.
After we all calmed down we went for a swim and ate a light lunch. Then the kids played with their new toys while Sheila and I made the holiday feast. I took over the cookhouse and she worked at the dinner table. I went outside to hunt up some local ingredients to add to the food Paul had brought. After I finished my prep I lit the oven and put in the main dish to roast. Sheila used the stove top for the side dishes.
I made a rum punch and Sheila and I each had a glass and relaxed while dinner cooked.
When dusk came, the table was set. An Aladdin lamp was set up in the middle surrounded by a wreath of leaves and fruit Sheila made. She brought out candied yams, boiled onions, crab and callaloo soup. We drank red wine and the kids had Guava juice. I brought out the bird on a platter. It was a bit smaller than the turkeys back home, probably about twelve pounds. It was a golden brown with crisp skin rubbed with nutmeg oil. I carved it up carefully. The kids each took a drumstick. It was delicious and everybody came back for seconds.
“This is the best Christmas ever!”
Jake’s sentiment was echoed by all of us as we drank a toast before dessert.
We never saw the peacock again.