(An Excerpt, Writing the Walls Down)
IT IS A DARK NIGHT. A man comes to the door and rings the bell. It is late. She wakes. Is that really the bell? There is a pounding on the door and in her heart too a pounding. The dog next door is barking and barking. She gets up from underneath the blankets – it’s freezing in the house. She drags an extra shirt over her head and moves quickly up the stairs. Who could it be? The bell is still ringing; she puts on the light. Who is it? She peers through the tiny hole; she makes out no one. There is no voice, just the insistent ringing. Lights come on next door. The neighbor yells at the dog. Enough already, quiet down! She doesn’t know who is at the door; she is right there; it’s ringing and ringing. Finally she grabs a knife from the kitchen; she grabs a hammer. Okay, she cries. Her arms are shaking. She flings opens the door. Yes!
A man enters. A man she can only see from the periphery of her vision, if she stares too hard she doesn’t see him, or if she stares head on; but if she looks off to the side she can see him. There is a child too, a boy, and they walk in together. They seem cold; they are shivering. It’s been raining, but they’re not wet. They are wearing black suits and sparkling white shirts and real skinny black ties. They walk past her and head into the living room. They don’t say hi, good night, or thank you. They recline on the sofa; they ease off their shoes.
She knows she is to make something warm, tea perhaps, something sweetened for the boy, and for him, something black and strong. She looks out briefly into the darkness and then locks the door behind her. In the kitchen she makes tea, sweetens it with honey, hands it to the boy who is fast asleep. She has to pry him awake and waits so he takes it carefully in both hands. She just had the white couch cleaned. If he stains it there will be hell to pay.
The man looks at her warily. I don’t work for you, she says.
Still she brings him coffee; he sips it slowly, slurping on the mug.
It’s two in the morning. She has to be at work by seven. What is this that has entered her life?
The man watches her. It feels as if he’s saying something that’s coming through the crown of her head. She clears away the cups, rinses them and turns them down in the drain. Her hands are shaking. She folds her arms. She has all this pent up energy, she feels like a large cat wanting to spring. She cries quietly at first then begins to wail. Then she stops. Out the window, there is a pale light creeping over the horizon. She lights a wad of white cedar sage and walks through the house with it muttering the 23rd psalm under her breath. When she is done, she feels clean, she feels light and emptied.
There is a knock on the door again. She drops her cup; it shatters on the floor. A voice. It’s her neighbor, Bill.
Justine, are you all right, we heard you screaming?
Was she screaming? She opens the door. Charlene is with him. She is so relieved; she hugs them. Come in, come in, she says, she wants them to fill up the space with life, with sounds. She glances briefly outside the door before she shuts it. She thinks the boy is standing out there still. The boy. She returns to her friends.
Sit, sit. She tells them. I just had the strangest experience. There was this ringing and knocking on the door and when I opened it… She can’t go any further. To utter it is to bring them back and to suffer again.
I am sorry, she says. She’s been sitting on the green chair next to them. Now she is on her feet. Now she wishes them gone. She is ushering them out. I can’t go into it. I have to put it behind me. I’m sorry. I know I must seem fragile.
Why don’t we just stay with you for a while, Charlene says, standing up, drawing her close. You seem scattered.
I feel erratic. But thank you, I will explain later.
They are out the door. She locks it again and fits the chain and leans back against it. She tries to catch her breath. She tries to think what to do. But the boy is beside her. She can only see him from the edges of her eyes. But he is decidedly there. This time though, she is strangely calm. She feels rooted. The boy takes her hand.
What do you want from me?
Love, he says quietly.
I DON’T EXACTLY REMEMBER THE DAY Ma Mait came to live with us. I don’t remember a car pulling up to the gate with her inside it, but I remember how it was after she arrived; I became a prisoner – I could no longer run and shout and jump and sing; even sound caused her pain. I don’t remember her walking around the house either, or serving in my mother’s rum bar; I only remember her stretched out in bed, narrow and straight, her legs so long they hung over the edge. The floral curtains in her bedroom were drawn so the room remained dark and slightly cool. She wore white always, and the sheets too were white, and a white cloth drenched with bay rum was tied to her head. I think she was dying, but nobody told me this.
My mother and Miss Ilene and sometimes even me, we had to help her to sit up, and to walk to the doorway to get a sip of fresh air. Someone had to bring the spoon to her mouth with the yam already crushed and creamy with butter, had to turn the glass of warm cow’s milk to her head so she could swallow, had to help her sit on the pail or on the chair that was placed in the bathtub, and someone had to help her wash.
I resented her. It’s as if she came and suddenly my childhood was over. It’s as if she came and suddenly my mother was taken away again.
I already had to compete with the bar, which was open all day, every day, even Sundays after church, and with the committees she chaired, for everyone wanted her to sit on coffee board, water board and road building board; she was a woman with loud and high-minded opinions, and they wanted her on their side. Perhaps it was Ma Mait’s helplessness I hated, the constant attention and care she demanded, and the smell of illness and decay that pervaded the house, her everlasting moaning all through the night. And how I had been relegated to being seen and not heard, in my own house!
I spat in her face one day – her face that was full of lines like old lace and mottled with brown spots. She did not wipe it away, and the spit bubbled there for some time near her nose before it sank into her skin. I’d had it with her. I couldn’t go anywhere anymore – school trip, church outing, choir practice; the school play was the last straw. On the appointed day, she came down with a fever that shot her temperature so high, I had to cool her down hourly with a wet cloth at her throat, had to frequently change the clothes she was sweating through and feed her the bitter medicine. The wad flew from my lips into her face before I could even think. And her eyes flickered open with a light of interest before closing again. I’m going to tell Nora, was all she said. After the lashing, I didn’t speak to my mother for days.
When she finally died, I was relieved. She died one cool rainy afternoon with the sound of the water pelting the zinc roof and rivulets pooling across the windowpanes. She died sandwiched between my mother and her sister, my aunt Doris, her head leaning on my mother’s breast. She was born in 1865, just thirty years after slavery officially ended. She was 107 when she died. The body was not sent to a morgue, but was washed and dressed in white and laid out in state in a cool, darkened corner of the house for family and friends to observe and pay respects to. The laying out lasted three full days and three full nights; a hog was slaughtered and left on a spit to roast slowly, its aroma slowly stirring up the night; three goats were also butchered and thrown in a pot to make mannish water and curried stew. Women with enormous breasts dressed in white with turbans on their heads poured in from all over the district to cook and to sing mourning songs, and to tell stories about the dead and to weep openly. An inordinate amount of rum and tobacco was consumed by the men who were hired to dig the grave and to hammer nails into the coffin, which they built from the limbs of mahogany trees that were plentiful on the property. The men too had long, winding tales about the dead, and they wept copiously, their eyes red and bulbous with drink. Finally, she was buried near the tomb where my mother’s brother, Uncle Egbert, was also buried.
She did not stay there for long.
Years later, while I was in the middle of deep and troubled sleep, she appeared at my bedside surrounded by a great bounding light. She was smiling like an old friend, her face was unlined and she wore a big curly Afro on her head. I was nearly forty by then, had left Jamaica twenty years earlier and was living in San Francisco in an apartment with a painter named Lucas.
Come, she said. She put one hand on my heart. It was heavy and crowded with green sapphire rings. It was also warm. I sat up in bed at once. Lucas was out and snoring softly.
What is this? I said out loud to no one. But there I was slipping into my shoes. I did not ask where. The pull was strong. The television was still on in the living room and student papers were scattered on the coffee table.
A white steed was waiting outside at the door near the metal mailboxes. It was not yet dawn, but dawn was rising. We leapt on the horse, my arms tight around Ma Mait’s waist. The horse immediately grew wings, and we flew east toward the rising sun. How long. Impossible to tell. Below us were the endless stretches of grassland, magic caves hidden inside the crevices of ravines, volcanic mountains still vomiting fire and brimstone, endless roads that multiplied and divided, then appeared and disappeared into labyrinths. I was neither hot nor cold. I did not drench with sweat.
It was now deep into the night. A crescent moon hung from the sky.
We nosed along the narrow edge of a forest swirling with spirits. It was just the horse and me now, as Ma Mait had disappeared. It’s okay, the horse said. I heard his voice with ears that were inside my chest. He could sense the panic. His voice was gentle. I’m your guide.
We stopped to rest under a tree. The horse stood off to the side to piss, something long and steaming and rank. I bored deeper into the forest until I heard what sounded like ecstatic cries piercing the night. I stopped. Off to the left, a mass of people materialized in the dark. I couldn’t tell if they were men or women. I couldn’t tell if they were black people or otherwise. They were uttering chants and incantations now, and they all had glowing red orbs for eyes. There was a man in their midst thrashing on the ground. I knew right away it was my father. I had never met my father in real life. He and my mother had had a brief encounter, and after I was born a great silence shrouded his existence.
He got up off the ground to greet me. So you’ve come at last, he said.
I’d been longing for this man all my life. I said this to him.
We walked to a clearing where the bush had been burned away and tree stumps uprooted. There was a pullulating light about him. And when I could finally see, he had a face like a bird, with iridescent blue-black feathers and a hooked bill.
He pulled out a cigarette.
I wanted to laugh. He was wearing a pinstriped suit.
You’re beautiful, he said, even more beautiful than your mother. His eyes were sparkling.
What happened between you and her? Because of you, she has never loved me, I said. Why didn’t you come get me? Did you even know about me?
Yes, he said. I’ve always known.
I started to cry. Why didn’t you come for me? Why didn’t you show yourself?
He held me close to him. The beak felt like porcelain against my neck. He smelled of coconut oil. I’ve come now, he said. You’re ready now. His arms inside the suit were skinny and strong. I lay there with my whole body burrowed into him. I didn’t want to move. I wanted to nest. I wanted my whole body to take him like nectar. It was daytime now, and the sun beamed down gently on us.
Let’s walk, he said after a time. He carried me on his shoulders. I was thirty-nine and twenty-seven and fourteen and three, all at the same time. The birds were jubilant in the Sapodilla trees, even the wind was whistling. He smelled of codfish and pepper pot soup. He smelled of Kananga Water. His soft shoes on the white marl road were black and shiny. We were somewhere in the tropics, though not a place I recognized. The sun was warm and pleasant on our skin. Jasmine scented the world around us. Hibiscus and bougainvillea and orchids and citrus trees grew wild along the roadway. Bubbling brooks surged abruptly and flooded the grasslands.
Whenever you want to find me, just go to your heart, he said, and call me from there. I will come.
Just so, I said.
He knew all the people that passed us on the roadway. And there were many – regular-looking black people, all of them wearing long purple dresses. They cried out hello. They stopped to kiss him on both cheeks and to wink at me. We were the only two heading down the road; everyone else was heading up hill. They rode small dusty brown donkeys that moved slowly under their unbearable weight.
Sometimes someone would call out – Is that one yours, Happy; is that your sweet girl?
And he would grin. And I floated on the effervescent glow of his love as it swirled around us.
The horse was coming, and Ma Mait too was on the horse.
You must go, he said.
I started to cry again.
I will always love you, he said, and he touched the centre of his chest.
She came again two nights later. This time with gold lamé appendages sprouting off her shoulders like wings.