From The House of Six Doors: An Autobiographical Novel
I dreamt Opa stood in front of me. “Let’s go to the House of Six Doors!” he declared. The landhuis was a one-and-a-half-hour drive from town and down dusty dirt roads, and about half a mile from the ocean. Next to the house was a windmill to lift water from the well. There were no other buildings for miles around, just rolling hills and gray-green brush.
The house got its name because it had six doors, three on the ocean side and three on the bush side. The ocean-side doors opened directly on the center of the house. Here there was a large living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The three bush-side doors opened onto a gallery that ran the entire length of the house. Oma had said all the plantation houses were built this way to let the trade winds flow through them. When I asked her why six doors and not four or eight, she told me each door had a purpose. The three ocean-side doors were to bring in gratitude, wisdom, and compassion, and the three bush-side doors were to let out greed, ignorance, and anger. I loved staying at the House of Six Doors.
I found myself sitting in the backseat of Opa’s car, cradling on my lap the cake Oma had made six months before for his upcoming birthday. It was a Bolo Pretu, a black fruitcake soaked in rum, Curaçao liqueur, and Marsala wine, and decorated with snow-white icing and tiny silver balls of candy. Bolo Pretu was made only for very special occasions and tasted best six months to a year after it had been made. Opa’s birthday must have been a significant one, although Oma didn’t mention his age.
We traveled to the landhuis in my grandfather’s car. Boxes were tied to the roof of the car with rope; the trunk was so stuffed that several boxes were hanging out halfway. On the way, we stopped three times. We stopped at Shon Pètchi’s house, a modest mud house painted red with two green windows on either side of a green front door. The thatch on the roof was dry and sparse. Shon Pètchi came running when he saw our car arrive. He waved and smiled as if we were Santa Claus. Chickens and goats scattered in all directions. Three dogs tied on long ropes under a tree barked furiously when Oma got out of the car and went to greet Shon Pètchi. She shook his hand and asked how he and his family had been since the last time she had seen him. His wife came out of the house with three of her children. Her oldest daughter stopped feeding the donkey and smiled at us. It was good to see familiar faces. “I’m glad everyone is well. Look how much the children have grown,” Oma complimented him.
“Thank you, Shon Elena, thank you for your kind words. How long will you be staying at Kas di Seis Porta? Are you having any parties?”
“Oh yes, we’ll be here for the summer, and this year Don Diego’s birthday will be a big celebration.” I listened from the car. I was bursting with impatience to see all of Oma and Opa’s friends and my aunts, uncles, and cousins again.
“Would you like a goat for the party? I have some fat ones, really nice ones. They’ll be ready two weeks from Saturday. That’s the day, no?”
“Yes, that’s the day, but I would like to cook iguana. This is a very important year.” Shon Pètchi smiled and nodded; the whites of his eyes and his white teeth glittered in the sun against his black skin.
“Ah, Don Diego is having a special birthday? All right, I will find you the fattest, tastiest iguanas on the island.” Iguanas once had been abundant on Curaçao but now they were difficult to find. “Don’t worry, Shon Elena, I will catch them myself.”
A mango dropped from the tree, just missing his shoulder. Everyone looked up. Hidden among the branches was a ten-year-old boy, one of Shon Pètchi’s sons, trying to make himself invisible. I knew how much fun it was to climb a mango tree. Shon Pètchi frowned at his son and then turned back to my grandmother, apologizing and smiling.
We drove on down the dusty road lined with thorny, small-leaved shrubs. The occasional black-and-yellow barika hel flew from its hiding place, startled by the sound of the car. A turn off the main road led us to the beach and Shon Momo’s house. His one-room house was painted light blue with dark blue doors and windows. The recently thatched roof was golden yellow. Shon Momo sat in his rocking chair under a big tamarind tree.
He was asleep as we drove up, but when Opa turned off the engine he opened his eyes and stared at us as if we were a mirage. His three short wooden boats lay in the yard, fishing nets scattered around them. Fishing lines were hanging in the trees and an old anchor leaned against the house. His dog, tied on a rope, barked and wagged his tail. Oma got out of the car and slowly approached Shon Momo, who recognized her as she got closer, and his face lit up. “Shon Elena, kontá bai?” How are you? Very kindly, he took my grandmother’s hands in both of his and, nodding and smiling, he welcomed her and asked what he could catch for her.
His black skin looked like polished leather from being out on the ocean for so many years. He waved to my grandfather as he moved slowly and gently to Opa’s car, as if he were a boat on a calm sea. He took my grandfather’s hand in his, his big black hand covering Opa’s slight white one, leaving only Opa’s wrist showing. Shon Momo assured my grandfather he would bring him all the fish he could eat. With a smile and a wave, we were on our way again. Lizards scurried in panic as the car bumped along the dusty road.
Shon Tisha’s tiny pink house had a corrugated roof and a car in the driveway. The antenna on the roof proudly announced she owned a television. A chicken-wire fence ran around her yard, confining her dogs, cats, chickens, and goats. Shon Tisha was a very large woman; her hips jutted out eight inches to either side. She could easily rest children or baskets on them. We picked up her daughter, Mirelva, who would clean and serve while we were at the landhuis. Mirelva and I had played together for longer than I could remember. She knew me so well we could communicate without saying a word.
“How long before we get to the House of Six Doors from here?” I asked Oma.
“Well, if we were traveling by horse and buggy, the way your grandfather and I used to go, it would be another hour, but since we are in a car, it will be only fifteen minutes more. Aren’t you lucky?” Oma smiled. We turned onto another road. The House of Six Doors came into view as a speck at the top of the hill in the distance. A panoramic view of the landscape appeared as we ascended. Scrubby divi-divi trees, with their gnarly trunks and their branches all leaning in the same direction, were reminders that the trade winds always blew the same way.
Oma pointed out the window. “Serena, look at those trees. Curaçao doesn’t get enough rain to grow big shade trees so it gets strong winds to shape the trees we have, into giving shade.” It was true; a divi-divi tree had the perfect shape to lie under in the midday sun. As our car climbed to the top of the hill, a herd of wild goats scurried in front of us.
Opa blew the horn and waved his hands outside the window, trying to give the goats some direction, but they were confused and terrified as they dashed back and forth, bleating frantically. Opa stepped on the gas to scare the goats with the engine’s noise, but the car surged forward, barely missing one of them. The cobalt-blue house patiently waited for us against a backdrop of green-blue ocean and light-blue sky.
As soon as we arrived, we opened all the doors and windows to clear out the musty smell of the closed house; it was immediately replaced with the smell of the ocean. I helped Oma take off the colorful sheets that covered the furniture. Mirelva was busy unloading and unpacking.
Opa went to the kitchen and came back with a large bottle of blue Curaçao liqueur and three tiny glasses. “Ban dal un bríndis, Elena,” he said, calling for a toast as he poured. Opa always kept a large supply of Curaçao liqueur at the House of Six Doors. He put his arm around Oma and she raised her glass to meet his. “Un bida largu bon bibá,” he said. To a long life, well lived. Opa and Oma clinked their glasses, then each touched their glasses to mine, which contained only a tiny drop of Blue Curaçao. I pretended to drink: I didn’t like the taste of the liqueur, but I loved the occasions on which it was served. Opa took Oma’s glass from her and set it on the table. He hummed an old waltz as he took Oma in his arms, and they danced across the room. I sat watching them, giddy with joy.
I opened my eyes. The joy disintegrated. I was in the car, alone.