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he dragged her limp body to a public stand pipe in a deserted, four-cornered street

 

 

A Hurricane for Irene

By Jessie Calliste 

 

One: Middle Beginnings (Excerpt)

I used to think that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  This story does not have an end, and I’m not sure it even has a beginning.  Sometimes it seems like all middle, except I don’t know the middle of what.  I can pick a point to start telling the story, but it always seems to have already started.  Perhaps, for this story, like in life itself, the best part is in the middle.

When she was 16, my mother jumped out of her grandmother’s kitchen window, zipped through guava trees, flashed past cackling chicken coops, jetted down an unlit hill, and did not stop until she got to the island of Trinidad.  There she paused for a drink of water, marriage to my father, Lincoln, and the start of her family. 

Lincoln had finally gotten to her.  When she met him, he was a 24 year-old charmer, a true saga-boy who flaunted his “good-catchiness” like a kaleidoscopic fish in the mating season.  He was back from Trinidad, where he was studying accounting at Codrington College.  He cruised around the neighborhood on his champion’s bicycle, the one that won him the national cycling competition the year before. 

He would perch lopsidedly astride the bicycle, lingering for the occasional chat with the budding young women, wowing them with his liquid hair and velvet eyes, with his hands-free legwork and national-winner head-stands—all the while keeping a keen eye on the curvy girl who lived up the hill.  The one with the moon glaze in her eyes and the sunshine trapped in her skin.  Surely, someone had placed a little piece of the sun on the inside to illuminate her. 

And that laugh.  Like a merry stream after an invigorating rain.  He could hear it from half-way down the hill when he sat on his mother’s verandah after supper in the obscurity of the evening.  Sitting there blended with the night, with only the dull glow of the cigarette to mark his presence.

He had asked his mother about that laugh, but she had instructed him to take his mind off that one, son, he’s gon’ marry an Indian like himself, not no half-black girl with no mother and no father to give her nothin’.  And he shouldn’t tink that just because the grandmother is a DeGale, wid white blood in she veins, that she has somethin’ to she name.  Because, what he don’ know, son, is that the fadder done cut her out of the will already.  And who could blame ‘im for that?  That black man she married threaten to give the father six pair o’ kicks and half-a-dozen of the other and that’s why the fadder had to cut her out of the will.  Now, all that ’oman has is a life interest in the land, and not a penny to she name.  They may have nice, pretty face an’ ting, but that’s all he’s getting’, so don’ say his mudder didn’ warn him.

He knew his mother already had someone in mind for him to marry.  Florrie.  An Indian girl who showed up with an envelope containing fifteen dollars for his mother every two weeks.  Florrie always seemed to know exactly when he was home from college, had his schedule down with Timex precision.  She hung around him, asking him the same stupid question in her bad English, running out of things to say after the initial, So, how you like school, bwoy?  If his mother had ever bothered to ask Florrie where the money came from, she may have learned that it rightfully belonged to Mr. Sandiford.  From the cocoa which he grew on his four acres and sent Florrie to sell in Grenville every fortnight.

And why not young Irene?  Sure, she had no mother or no father to give her property.  She had no cocoa money to give to his mother every fortnight.  In fact, she was not even yet a woman.  But her body, with its ripe, defiant bosom and bold, wayward hips, strongly disagreed.  And why argue with it? 

When his mother tended the garden behind the house, he would ride his bicycle past Mamma’s house several times a day, trying desperately to look cool on the steep uphill ride.  He would start jangling the bicycle bell when the crimson arms of the hibiscus tree first twisted into view, timing his approach to give a certain interested occupant sufficient time to get from the house to the yard.  He would slow down to a conversation pace and ready his wave hand for the too-casual greeting, being careful to look cool all the while.

He must have succeeded with the cool approach. 

Irene soon developed a special interest in sweeping the yard.  Not at the back of the house where the gouva trees copiously freed their leaves, but at the front of the yard, under the hibiscus tree.  A spot which seemed perpetually in need of a good, long sweep.  It didn’t matter that cousin Sybil swept the yard bright and early every morning.  She could never get all that red off the ground.  Such was the nature of hibiscus trees.

At the sound of a certain bicycle bell, Irene would grab the bamboo broom and race pel mel from the pantry, her steps transforming into a dignified stroll as she approached the edge of the yard.  She would sweep the ground under the hibiscus tree with clinical absorption, surreptitiously noting my father’s approach.  Of course, the broom had seen so many sweeps that it was doing more dirtying than cleaning.  But, no one seemed to notice.  Certainly not Lincoln.

To hear her tell it, my mother married my father because he was educated and athletic.  We knew better.  There was something else that she talked about with that long-ago sound to her voice.  Something that brought that mischievous brilliance to her eyes, and a playfulness about her mouth.  It was his hair.  Hair that fell in a solid darkness to his shoulders, rich and dense, with a single dangerous, gravity-taunting loop at the top of his head.  Hair that, she admitted slyly, she was determined to claim for her future children because it would not beat her up nor break the comb.  

I saw my father then.  Riding his bicycle at top speeds.  With his immovable hair loop, impervious to the wind and all the hurricanes that would dare strike. 

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Even without the hair, the bicycle and the education, my mother would have married my father.  She was ready to have her own home, her own husband and family.  Ready to give love in the hope of finally getting back some for herself.  And to escape.  From the life that she had known since she was eight years old, when she and four year old Dykes were brought by boat from St. Vincent.  After the neighbor told her that her mother was dead.  Dead at the age of 30 by her father’s hands. 

Dead because she had taken Irene and Dykes, had escaped his nocturnal beatings and started a new life with a gentle Cuban and a new baby girl.  Dead, because even though she had fearfully avoided him for over a year, he had caught her one moonless night and beaten her to near death’s door.  Dead because he knew that he had gone too far this time; because there was too much blood, because she wouldn’t wake up. 

Dead because he dragged her limp body to a public stand pipe in a deserted, four-cornered street and opened the pipe over her head.  And left her there.  With the water flowing into the blood and the blood flowing into the water, and her liquid life force moving much too swiftly, carrying her down the long drain toward death.

He had run off into the night and stowed away, like a caged animal, on a cargo boat to Barbados.  Fearing that he had killed her this time.  Knowing that he was too cowardly to stand trial for murder. 

Hoping that, somehow, she had survived.

And she had.  Long enough to catch pneumonia and die a few weeks later at Mamma’s home in Grenada.

My mother spent a lifetime hoping her father would show up.

He never did.

*     *     *     *     *

In Grenada, far from the home she knew, she was no longer a child.  She was rapidly changing into a work-horse.  It was the lot of the parentless.  After all, she had to earn her keep, to prove herself worthy of the saltfish and bluggoes, of the privilege of a night’s rest on flour-bag sheets under her grandmother’s canopy bed. 

She may have been worthy of food and shelter.  Love and affection proved more elusive.  As if in dying, her mother had recanted what she had once so freely bestowed.

And, in the beginning, she had searched.  As if for something precious that she had misplaced, not wanting to accept that it was gone. 

She had searched among the daily rituals of cleaning and cooking, in the never-ending battle to keep the water barrels filled, in the cutlassing, tilling, planting, harvesting of the young jungle Mamma called a vegetable garden, in the feeding of the horses and pigs, and goats, and chickens, in the wood gathering, in the mountains of grown uncles’ dirty clothes to be hand-washed, starched and ironed each week. 

And still she searched.  Though she had begun to weary of the weekly five-mile hikes to the garden, of the daily trips to fetch water from the spring at Kankazo, of the miles of muddy, unpaved road riddled with vicious potholes and sharp twigs lying in wait for naked feet.  Feet caked with the reddish mud from the spring, because Mamma had said she don’t need shoes for that kind of work, they will only hambug her. 

But there was not a hug to be salvaged, not a kiss to be snared, not a gentle word to be uncovered.

She had come to hate the water barrel, because if it was empty in the mornings, she couldn’t attend the River Sallie Government School with Sybil and the others until it she had filled it again.  Often, she was late for school, or didn’t make it at all.  Because that water barrel never seemed to stay full, her uncles’ clothes never seemed to stay washed, the wood never stayed gathered, the floors never stayed scrubbed, the coconuts never stayed grated, the animals never stayed fed, the garden never stayed cutlassed, planted, harvested, tilled, manured, or whatever was the particular need of the day.

And, it was not that she didn’t like school.  It was easy living, compared to staying at home.  Besides, she was good at it.  Especially with history and English.  She liked to read the poems and short stories in The Royal Reader.  She had even started writing her own poetry, and when her friends wanted to write love letters to their boyfriends, she was the one they asked for help.  That’s how she knew about Lincoln.  His mother had asked her if she could come every month and read Lincoln’s letters to her, and to write him back for her please, because she never had the chance like young people nowadays to learn to read and write. 

Even her teachers at school told her how bright she was.  Teacher Uthlyn had visited Mamma, had asked Mamma to let Irene take the exam to go to secondary school, because she is a bright child and she could go far, Mrs. Donald.  But Mamma had already taken her out of school.  Had told Teacher Uthlyn she couldn’t afford to spare her, that Irene was her right hand and her right foot.  She had asked Mamma about taking sewing lessons, but Mamma had sent Sybil instead.  And she watched Sybil take the bus to Grenville on Monday morning, dressed in her new plaid dress and polished shoes, on her way to learn knitting and sewing. 

And in the evenings, when all her chores where done, she taught herself to sew on Mamma’s old Singer hand-machine.  And in the end, Sybil couldn’t sew a stitch and it was Irene they came to for mending the uncles’ pants and shirts and darning the table cloths, and embroidering the pillowcases, and making the flared cotton skirts that her cousins wanted to wear on Sunday afternoons.

All she had in the world was her little brother, Dykes.  She knew she had to take care of him because there was no one else to do it; he still cried in his sleep at night.  She knew she needed to care for the festering sore-foot that kept him moaning as he shuffled around the house.  He was not cut out for hard work; he was better with book learning.  Mamma had sent him to the garden one early morning, and, while trying to use the cutlass, he had sliced-open his foot instead of the coconuts.  No one took him to the health center, and the wound turned into a festering sore. 

Irene would trash around in the bushes behind the chicken coops, searching for corraila for Dykes’ sore-foot.  She would wash the delicate herbs in a calabash, pound it into an emerald mush, and add lard for easy spreading.  Before she went to bed, she would kneel on the floor where he slept under the bed in the sitting room, have him stick out his sore-foot, and apply the green paste, while he squirmed and grimaced his way through the entire ministering.

She spent her youth ever hungry for approval, needing to please, trying to wring it out of nothingness.  And like her father, it never came.  Not in any way she could tell.  And, after a while, she accepted that there never going to be enough love, enough attention, enough mothers and fathers to spare for children like her. 

Understood, that if she displeased anyone, Uncle Roy would call her into the pantry and use the pecie on her until she peed herself.  That she shouldn’t be sick, shouldn’t complain of period cramps, because even on wet, rainy days, when it was muddy outside and the sand-flies were angry from being displaced, it was safer to kneel in the dirt under the house and pretend she was grating coconuts while she waited for the pain to ease.  Because, to expect anything else would be ungrateful. 

Still, there were days when she could almost forget.  Forget to search for that hug and kiss and kind word.  Forget that she once had a mother and a father, and a home to call her own.  Like Gardening Fridays, when she, Sybil and Jenkins were sent to work the land at The Point.  She would saddle up old Braham, the donkey, for the two-hour walk, and arrange to meet her friends there.  They would spend the day first doing the chores – cutlassing the land, planting potatoes, corn and peas – then bathing in the river, cooking over a three-stoned fireplace, and settling down for a feast of smoked herring and roast breadfruit, smothered in coconut oil and washed down with coconut water. 

Later, because they were expected to bring home the dried coconuts, they would spend the afternoon peeling coconuts, competing to see who could shuck the most.  Sometimes, she would peel up to 40 coconuts, and be the envy of the bunch, even beating Fefe and Avis, the older boys in the group.  At the end of the day, when it was time to leave, they would clean the corn, load the donkey with vegetables from the land, and set off for the day.

And at night, when she was too sore and tired to think, she would crawl into her own bed on the floor under Mamma’s canopy bed.  She would call to Mamma to put down the curtains, which were really the bedskirts, and she would go to sleep, selfless and innocent in her ignorance, too tired to wish for parents who might have told her Ananci stories, tended to her cuts and bruises, plaited her hair, chastised her about her grades, and asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.  And, Dykes would call goodnight to her from under the bed in the sitting room, and she would shout back, don’t forget to do his homework and make sure he says his prayers when he’s done.

And afterwards, they would go to sleep.  To dream the dream of children without parents.  Of a mother, and of a father, and of what might have been.

So when my father proposed to her at the age of 16, even the innocence of her youth, the window in her way, the night with it’s disquieting secrets, the passage money, the solitary voyage on turbulent seas, the unknown world of Trinidad, were but small impediments.  Because, finally, someone who loved her was waiting, with her uncle, Frank and a birth certificate that made her 21and of legal age to marry.  Of legal age to live.

Jessie welcomes any feedback you would like to provide.  You may email her at jcalliste@comcast.net

*   *   *   *   *

Jessie Calliste is a West Indian woman, originally from the island of Grenada, and currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia.  She experienced the Grenada Revolution of 1979, as well as the U.S. intervention in 1983.  She attended Fisk University in Nashville, TN, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, with the highest G.P.A., and highest honors in political science and sociology.  She is  currently attending graduate school at the Georgia School of Professional Psychology, where she is training to be a psychotherapist.  She has taught English, English literature, drama and social studies at the high school level.

She believes she has a very good understanding of human nature, that her characters are authentic, vibrant and funny, and that her voice is pure. She has written creatively and academically for most of her life.  While she has never before sought publication, her short stories have received scholastic awards.  As an undergraduate, she obtained the distinction of having several academic papers placed on library reserve (by professors) and upheld as a desirable standard.  One such paper was on the Grenada revolution and intervention, and won her the appointment to represent her university at the annual Southern Regional Honors Colloquium.   

She is currently completing a memoir that is similar to Angela’s Ashes, but with the drama of revolutionary turbulence, and the cultural flavor of the Caribbean.  The above story is an excerpt of that work

A Hurricane for Irene tells the true story of a young girl, Jace, the last child in a family of six siblings, with an unconventional mother, and an alcoholic father.  Jace is growing up amidst an environment of personal and political turbulence.  The island is in the middle of a revolution, her family is disintegrating around her, and poverty is settling in.

When, at the age of sixteen, her academic achievements prompt the new revolutionary government to offer her the chance to study in Cuba, she jumps at the opportunity.  But Cuba is far from what she expected.  She finds herself at a Cuban facility, more refugee camp than academic institution, with armed guards, iron gates, international communist refugees, and horrible living conditions.  And she’s unexpectedly pregnant.  Despite threats and deceitful machinations from Grenadian embassy officials, she attempts to leave Cuba.  However, her persistence thrusts her under political scrutiny, and she is suspected of being a C.I.A. spy.  Her passport is confiscated, and, unbeknownst to her, her life is increasingly in danger.  She catches the eye of an embassy official, who, despite intense political opposition, manages to get her out of Cuba.  She goes home, but not without paying a steep price.  A lifelong price.  Two years later, the U.S. intervenes and the revolutionary government is ousted.  The new government offers her a scholarship to study in the U.S., and she finally gets the chance to fulfill her dreams.

Jessie welcomes any feedback you would like to provide.  You may email her at jcalliste@comcast.net

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Ancient African Nations

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