The Story of a Beach

Andrea Lee

Summer 2018

Rokely Beach was a five-mile curve of sand white as table salt tracing the eastern coast of a small mountainous island of vehement green jungle and sugarcane. Far across the Mozambique channel rose the headlands of Madagascar, and in between lay reef and deep water in a million translations of blue. A few tall cumulus clouds stood overhead looking solid and sculpted, as if the scene were a tableau that would never change.

In November, at low tide, under a laserlike midday sun, the sea lay mirror-flat and the scorching beach boomed faintly with emptiness. I felt shipwrecked, with a postcatastrophic mixture of hope and dread, as if finding human footprints amid the tracery left by the tiny colorless crabs would be both a blessing and a terror.

Of course, even then I knew that the place was not at all deserted. Behind the screen of coconut palm, mango, sea pine, and kapok trees were red dirt tracks that led to the sugar mill, to the shrimp fishery, to a decaying port town that retained the lineaments of its French colonial past. Hidden just in back of the sand were villages where I was an object of curiosity: a foreign woman wandering the beach in a showy getup of Indian silk wrap and Chinese lace parasol.

I was there on honeymoon with my second husband, who was Italian and had sailed and dived in the Indian Ocean for years before we met. The disorienting fact of being newly married, in that place so remote from Europe or America, made all my impressions flat and conventionalized, like an exotic toile de Jouy: Paul and Virginie under a coconut palm, and perhaps a couple of cannibals peeping around a bush.

This was ironic, because I am African American, from a strong-minded Philadelphia family whose members had fought for civil rights and for whom any stereotype was anathema, especially one regarding the Great Mother Continent. Still there I was, parasol in hand, playing memsahib.

Andrea Lee is the author of Russian Journal, the novels Sarah Phillips and Lost Hearts in Italy, and the story collection Interesting Women. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Red Island House, her collection of stories set in Madagascar, is due out in 2019. She divides her time between Amsterdam; Turin, Italy; and Nosy Be, Madagascar.

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