The Return of the Scarlet Ibis
Yasmin Tong

Over the course of one week, each of us landed in Trinidad on different days: I flew in from Los Angeles via New York; my younger brother, Ian, and his girlfriend, Jen, came from San Francisco through Venezuela; and my father arrived from Fresno after layovers in Miami and Jamaica. Weeks earlier my father's older brother, Clyde, had come from Maryland via San Juan, Puerto Rico. Auntie Joyce, the only one of my father's siblings to remain in Trinidad, had the thankless job of picking all of us up from the airport as tens of thousands of people jammed the island for Carnival.

During my childhood my father had often said, "One of these days I'll take you all back home for Carnival." But the promised trip never came. My father returned to the island only five times during forty years of residency in the U.S., and all those years I never felt like he was trying to avoid his past; it just wasn't something that interested him.

My father never told a single story about his youth in Trinidad, and the few things he had brought with him to the U.S. wouldn't even fill a small suitcase: a half-dozen black-and-white photographs placing him in Port of Spain during his youth, an academic medal the size of a silver dollar that he kept in his sock drawer, and a charcoal-gray Pringle sweater vest that I borrowed during high school and never returned. And yet my father never completely cut his ties to his past. He never lost his island accent that prompted strangers to ask about his first language, or the gang of Trini friends—guys with nicknames like Dopey, Spanish, and Maddoo—who, like him, had left the island in the early 1960s.

Not until 2002, when I visited my ailing 91-year-old grandmother in Port of Spain, did I begin to recognize how little I knew about my father's childhood in Trinidad or his journey to America. Most tragic of all was feeling like I barely knew one of the most important people in my life. But all that changed the moment I returned from Trinidad after visiting my grandmother and asked my father to tell me about his childhood.

I was the runner. Mom used to send me to get money from Pop at the club where he played mah-jongg and pai khow. I don't think he was a compulsive gambler. I'm sure he lost a lot, but he never showed it. The only way you'd know he lost was when Mom looked in his pants pockets for money and you could see they were empty.

I was hooked. My father became my Scheherazade, and for the first time in my life, I was calling him at least once a week to talk, to ask questions, and to explore the differences between us that had kept us at odds.

Although I'd like to think that those conversations encouraged my father to return to Trinidad for Carnival in 2003, I couldn't take credit for his homecoming any more than I could Uncle Clyde's. Neither of them had been to Trinidad in at least a decade, and yet each had decided independently to return for Carnival that year. I felt compelled to follow them there because I wanted to participate in the next chapter of our family's story.

* * *

Our haphazard family reunion began at my aunt's house in St. James, about a mile outside the capital of Port of Spain, with the sound of Carnival music vibrating in the thick, tropical air. At Auntie Joyce's gray, stucco house with white fretwork and a red roof that was lumpy with patches, Uncle Clyde watched TV alone on the living room sofa. His wavy, silver-and-black hair was combed away from his face without concern for his receding hairline. He looked strong and trim in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts, although one foot was swollen and resting on the coffee table. I kissed him hello on the cheek.

"What happened to your leg?" I asked.

"My gout's acting up," he said, wincing. "When's your father coming?"

"Two more days," I replied.

The countdown had begun. Uncle Clyde needed my father for a prescription to tame his gout, without which he was housebound, hopping on his good leg while Carnival throbbed in the background without him. Meanwhile, I needed my father to help bridge the quieter distance separating my Trini relatives and me, something that could not be measured in years or miles. We shared the same bloodline but lived in completely different worlds.

* * *

The next afternoon, with the house stifling hot, I dug out the oldest of five photo albums to show Uncle Clyde. He sat in front of the TV, sipping a small glass of punch of crème, a super-rich eggnog made from raw eggs, a flask of rum, and a half-gallon of condensed milk and evaporated milk. His swollen ankle rested on the coffee table, about to burst.

My uncle's face brightened. "God, I haven't seen these in years," he said. I sat next to him on the couch, looking over his shoulder at a photo of him with his first wife, a pretty girl with olive skin, posing in front of a backdrop of the Empire State Building. My father had disapproved of their marriage because they were too young to raise their son.

When I asked Uncle Clyde why he had immigrated to America, he talked about all the reasons he had left Trinidad. "There were three good jobs in Trinidad: working for a bank, an oil refinery, or the airline," he said. "My skin was too dark to work at a bank. I worked at the airline as a mechanic only because Father Ryan, our parish priest, got me the job.

"Imagine that. I was an honors student in math and couldn't get a job at a bank. I wish I had that airline pension now, boy. My last job was doing repairs at Circuit City."

"Do you regret leaving?" I asked.

"I could live like a lord here on my Social Security, but there's nothing to come back to."

"My dad says that too," I said.

Sitting next to each other on the couch, I felt comfortable in our momentary silence.

"This might be my last Carnival," said Uncle Clyde, pausing before taking another sip of his drink and looking straight ahead. "The cancer came back."

My chest contracted. "I heard, I'm sorry," I said, staring at my orange flip-flops on the floor.

"I ain't dead yet, though," he said as he rose up from the couch and hopped to the kitchen.

* * *

After my father arrived and Uncle Clyde got his prescription and started walking on both feet again, the two of them went their separate ways. Uncle Clyde spent a good part of every day at the Off Track Betting office in Port of Spain, while my father played tour guide for his two adult children, since we hadn't been to Trinidad together since 1973.

The only time our clan gathered together was after sunset on the patio behind Auntie Joyce's house. A little more than a year earlier, during my last visit, the yard had been a large plot of dirt with a few clumps of weeds. Now there were dueling construction projects vying for space. One was a large workbench that ran the length of the backyard, where my cousin Martin ran his sign painting and carpentry business. At the far end, my youngest cousin, Mark, was nearing completion of his masterpiece—a two-room apartment awaiting electricity, flooring, and windows—when he had the time and money to invest. Opposite Martin's workshop, my cousin Peter's long, narrow house ran the length of the yard and had a corrugated metal roof overhang where Auntie Joyce hung laundry to dry. Even my father started to mark some backyard turf during his stay and borrowed a small boom box from Mark to play CDs and read his medical journals in the sweltering afternoons.

Under the glare of fluorescent light and hanging laundry, we strained to make conversation and sipped Johnny Walker Black. In the beginning we talked about anything having to do with Trinidad: skimpy Carnival costumes, Auntie Joyce's water service being cut off for days without notice, and who might win the Panorama, the big battle of the bands contest that was the culmination of Carnival. My father, Auntie Joyce, and Uncle Clyde also exchanged updates about long-lost friends, most of whom had immigrated to Canada or the U.S., where sad things had happened to them.

One night a giant cockroach skittered underfoot, and we all squealed and laughed, raising our knees to our chests, as it disappeared under the large-capacity washing machine leaning against Peter's home.

"I forgot they could make them that big down here," said my father, shaking his head. "The only thing with room to grow in Trinidad is these cockroaches, yes. I couldn't wait to get out of here. I had my job at Barclay's Bank. You get promoted once or twice and that's it. You're stuck. I got out as soon as I could," he said to no one in particular.

"I'd leave if I could," said my cousin Peter. He was married to Maureen and had the looks and swagger of a single man, with a diamond stud piercing one ear. His hands were always clean and smooth despite supervising mechanics at Port of Spain's Mercedes Benz dealership. "It's tough being a single parent when Maureen's away. She earns twice my salary working six months in the U.S. or Canada," he sighed.

"You come on across," my father said to Peter. "I'll help you get started with a Mercedes repair shop in Fresno." I rubbed my forehead. My father had been driving a Mercedes for as long as I could remember, but that did not qualify him to start an auto repair shop.

"Why don't you leave?" I asked Peter. "With all your Mercedes certifications, I bet you could go anywhere."

"Too much risk," he said. "If I didn't have a kid to think about, I'd go," said Peter, looking straight at me, his diamond stud glittering under the brutal fluorescent lighting.

* * *

The next day my father asked me to arrange a trip to Maracas Bay, a white-sand beach about a forty-minute drive outside of Port of Spain on the windward side of the island. I had spent nearly a half-hour calling all the overbooked rental car offices to listen to prerecorded messages apologizing for the long wait to speak to an agent before I found a lone private taxi for hire.

The next day, a few minutes before eleven, Peter called out, "Yasmin, your ride is here."

I jogged through the house to meet the driver and passed Peter in the narrow hallway. "You all travel in style, yes," he said. I did not stop to ask what he meant since the driver was waiting, but when I reached the street, there was a long, silver Mercedes, nearly the length of the neighbor's house, parked in front, and our driver, who nodded hello and introduced himself as Mr. Habib.

While I waited for my brother, father, and Jen to assemble, Peter strolled down the driveway as I tried to hide my embarrassment behind a pair of black Calvin Klein sunglasses. I wanted to explain to him that this was the only way to get us to the beach, and I had not ordered a Mercedes. But there was nothing to say. Peter stayed home, my father paid Mr. Habib, and we left for Maracas Bay.

* * *

A few days later Ian, Jen, and I followed my father on a walking tour of Port of Spain. We started in Corbeaux Town on Sackville Street, where my father had grown up, situated between the port and the government offices that were all closed for Carnival.

"That's where the house was," said my father, pointing at a boutique across the street. "I wouldn't recognize this place, yes. Everything is gone."

Sackville Street was only two blocks long, with a nondescript collection of small offices and industrial spaces, all of which were closed during Carnival. What fascinated me was its location: around the corner from a small grocery store and the Mercedes dealership where Auntie and my cousin worked. Opportunities, or the lack of them, had landed two generations of my Trini relatives just one block from the house where they had both grown up; meanwhile, growing up in America had set me on a personal trajectory with a sense of endless possibilities and an antagonistic mix of embarrassment and pride among my Trini relatives. I had worked very hard to achieve what I had in life, but not nearly as hard as my father.

We continued on Sackville to Abercromby Street, where, at the corner, a two-story masonry building was closed for renovation. My father glanced at it, then turned his attention to Woodford Square, diagonally across from us. Ian, Jen, and I stood behind him when I noticed that the building being renovated was the old public library.

"Isn't this where you got your first library card?" I asked, hoping to get my father to talk about what the library had meant to him.

"Yes," he replied without turning around to admire its portico or arched floor-to-ceiling windows on both floors. "We'll go this way," he said, pointing his chin at Woodford Square. I asked Ian and Jen to stay behind.

"This is the library where he used to study," I said. "He said the happiest day of his life was when he received his first library card. He was just seven and reading magazines like Saturday Evening Post gave him his first glimpse of the world outside of Trinidad."

We followed my father across Woodford Square, where a collection of two dozen derelict-looking men had gathered in one corner. "They call this the University Of Woodford Square because people debated the topics of the day," said my father. "Eric Williams got started here."

"Do you know who Eric Williams was?" I whispered to Ian.

"Yeah, he was prime minister for a long time," he replied.

"Right, but did Dad tell you that Williams was married to one of his cousins, who lived on the same block on Sackville Street?" I asked. "Auntie Joyce said that she never saw the inside of their house on Sackville Street or the White House where the Prime Minister lived. It's sad they were that close to the most powerful man in Trinidad and never received any help with scholarships or student visas to the U.S."

We reached a large park where a youth Carnival was winding down and found preteen kids covered head to toe in cobalt-blue body paint with cardboard horns, teenagers on six-foot-high stilts, and eight-year-olds doing a maypole dance and reciting poetry in a gazebo. I took lots of photos of exhausted young people and sensed that they anticipated Carnival as much as Christmas.

We stopped to rest next to a three-tiered fountain where a street vendor served shaved ice with bright red and blue syrups and condensed milk poured straight from the can. I was ready to head back to Auntie's. My feet were burning even though we hadn't walked that far or long. "St. Mary's is just around the corner," said my father, wiping sweat from his forehead and smiling. Ian, Jen, and I fell into formation, trudging behind him.

Still considered one of Trinidad's top high schools, St. Mary's College occupies one long block in downtown Port of Spain, surrounded by a ten-foot-high, solid block perimeter wall. We entered the campus through an archway and walked along a corridor overlooking the courtyard where students in maroon golf shirts and khaki pants were drenched in sweat, playing soccer.

"We wouldn't have been able to get away showing up to school dressed like that," said my father.

"We used to wear white pants, a blue wool blazer, and a striped tie in my day. Imagine that, in this heat. We'd be sweating." My father touched the iron padlock on the door to a classroom where he had taken biology and then turned the corner to show us where the chemistry lab used to be.

An Indian man in a lavender shirt approached us, looking concerned, and asked, "Can I help you?"

"I'm just showing my children around," said my father. "I graduated St. Mary's in 1955," he said with a grin before extending his hand to the man.

"Oh, welcome back, sir," said the man. "Where do you live now?"

"I live in California, I'm a physician," my father replied.

"California! Well, you've come a very long way. Please do have a look around. You're always welcome at St. Mary's," he said before turning away and walking briskly in the opposite direction.

"People are pathologically polite here," said my father.

My father resumed our tour and led us up the stairs, past three boys practicing break-dancing moves, where we could look out over an open-air auditorium equipped with ceiling fans, and a small, wooden stage below.

This time my father recalled a story I had heard before, about a priest who had singled him out one day for nodding off in class. "Father Knox told everyone in the class I would flunk biology," he said. "He had no reason to say that. We took an exam at the end of the year, and I didn't go in trying to prove anything, but I had won top honors, first place in biology on the island. The governor general pinned a medal on my chest for that. No one in my family was there. It was not a big deal to them," he continued.

The weight of my father's memory hung in the air, and a somber mood settled over us. He had been Anglican at a Catholic school, mixed-race black and Chinese, and a scholarship student among a well-to-do, and predominantly Chinese, student body.

We descended the stairs, past the break-dancing trio, and were in the middle of the passageway overlooking the soccer game with my father leading the way, when suddenly he yelped and then began to sob with a force I had never seen before or since. His shoulders heaved up and down while he covered his face with his hands and wailed.

Relieved that Ian was there to rest a reassuring arm around our father's shoulder, I felt panicked, not knowing what to do. I had never before seen my father lose control or sob. Part of me wanted to console him, but part of me wanted to disappear to give him some privacy, a chance to collect himself. As Jen and I walked single file behind Ian and my father, she and I awkwardly adjusted our gait to give my father, and each other, some space.

"It must feel pretty good," said Ian, massaging our father's shoulder.

I wiped away a few tears with my fingertips as the four of us proceeded in a broken line down the corridor until my father stood still and stopped gasping for air. "I don't know what happened," he said. Then we left St. Mary's, and he never mentioned that moment again during our stay in Trinidad.

In the weeks and months and years after our visit to St. Mary's, no matter how many different ways I asked the question, my father's answer about why he had cried was always the same: "It just brought me back to each year I was there."

For most of my life, I had only seen my father as a model of immigrant striving and perseverance against the backdrop of America. But visiting Trinidad cast a new light on him and the lonely, painful journey away from his origins. He was still from Corbeaux Town and proud of it; but he'd been running his entire life away from the very circumstances that had made him who he was.

* * *

On the day before Ian and Jen were scheduled to leave, my father asked me to make arrangements with Mr. Habib to take us to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary to see the scarlet ibis, Trinidad's national bird. Even though he had never been there himself, he insisted, "You gotta do this, man."

We sat in the middle of the boat with two African American couples in front of us and a group of five loud Canadian journalists behind us. With the motor chugging and mirthful chatter filling the air, we fell into formation behind another boat while our fast-talking South Asian guide explained that the sanctuary had been established to protect the scarlet ibis from poachers who had nearly killed off Trinidad's entire population.

Our tour continued for about an hour into the swamp, amid a cloud of gasoline fumes, gliding slowly through the murky water in search of other wildlife. The guide located a pale-pink scarlet ibis alone in a mangrove, which looked like a flamingo with its long, skinny legs, expansive wings, and a black, hook-shaped beak. Looking through borrowed binoculars, I thought the bird seemed near death, with its feathers clumped in tufts; plus its stark-white color made it easy prey against the dark-brown and gray habitat.

As the sun began its descent and broad strokes of pale pink and lavender streaked the sky, the guide took us to a lagoon and cut the motor at a muddy embankment. "You must be quiet while we wait for the scarlet ibis to appear," he said. As the minutes ticked by, silence turned into a low murmur among both boats. Then one of the journalists stood up and yelled, "Here they come!"

Five large, red birds soared by, and then a flock of maybe fifty more birds appeared with their legs tucked under them and necks extended for flight. One flock after another and another soared above us and then landed on the sun-facing trees. Camera shutters opened and closed as the birds covered the trees in a curtain of red, completing their timeless cycle of departure and return.

Yasmin Tong ??????????????