AYANNA G. LLOYD
(After Shivanee N. Ramlochan, Duenne Lorca)
Shelagh paused in mid-flight, her belly low to the ground, talons gripping the softened earth. She sniffed the air: Blood and iron. There, just there. The next turn. She’d find her at the next turn in the path. The warm wet pounded in her belly, down her thighs. Her ears pricked up, catching the edges of a small voice, calling, urging her on:
‘Just there! Just ahead!’
She knew that if she just followed the voice, it would tell her where to go, that all would be right again.
But before she could get there, she woke. The forest was gone. There was nothing but the beeping of metal things, the bars of the bed raised against her, the whiteness of the room and the faint taste of iron in her mouth.
The bed was narrow, the sheets were blinding white and her fingernails were scrubbed clean; no talons. There was a plastic tube attached to the back of her hand connected to an IV bag dangling from a metal stand at her bedside. The place the needle pierced her was swollen. In the hard light, the blue lines just below the brown skin on the back of her hand looked like pulsing, swollen rivers. The tubes that snaked out from below the sheet that covered her body ended at monitors that beeped and blinked with red and green lines and digits.
Her head felt like a sodden sponge, full and dripping. There was something she was supposed to remember, something she was supposed to be doing, but it escaped before she could catch it. She had been somewhere else, hadn’t she? Somewhere else before she was here?
She turned her head slowly and looked around the room. She wasn’t alone. There were rows and rows of women in beds like hers, like white loaves of bread laid out neatly on a baker’s tray, still and silent. She recognised the sickly-sweet smell of the grey coat healers, the sticky tape plastered to her skin.
Two men with their backs to her stood a little way off from the foot of her bed. The grey coat scribbled on a clipboard. The other wore a rumpled shirt. His shoulders were hunched, and she could read exhaustion in the set of his back. She couldn’t see their faces but there was something about the hunched man’s back and the way he held his head that made her think of home.
‘Listen, your wife has a file. It’s not the first time. With her record, you can’t afford to take these chances.’ The grey coat shook his head as he spoke and scribbled on the clipboard.
‘I know. I’ve tried but she . . . she can’t help it,’ the hunched man mumbled.
As soon as she heard his voice, she recognised him. It was Gregory, her Gregory. She tried to reach her hand out to him, but her arms felt so heavy, and the tubes left her little range of motion. She tried to say his name but there were small stones in her throat and all that came out was the faintest of whispers.
The grey coat didn’t look up. ‘Don’t worry about it. It still happens sometimes.’
‘But we did everything they asked.’ Gregory’s voice rose slightly, cracking at the end.
‘Yes, yes, I’m sure you did. Every now and again one surfaces. You know how it is.’ Grey coat’s voice had already started to flatten. He’d stopped listening. Going through the motions.
‘But isn’t there any other way? Maybe just this once. No one would have to know.’
‘Sir, trust us. These kinds of . . . irregularities. Dangerous to us all. This is for the best.’
The grey coat started walking away. Gregory reached his hand out like he wanted to stop him, to say something, then his hand dropped to his side again.
Shelagh willed her husband to turn around, to look at her but he followed as the grey coat beckoned him out of the room.
‘This way, sir. Some things for you to sign.’
Their voices drifted away leaving Shelagh alone with the rows of silent women. She wondered whether they too were in the place that she had been that she couldn’t remember. Where did women like her go now that there was nowhere left for them to dream?
They had heard the news like everyone else, the whispers that the Council was coming for the forests. But they had been newlyweds, drunk on possibilities. They made love in the small wooden bed next to the window when the moon was full and whispered plans to each other when the sun rose again in the morning. Surely, it was safe here in Morne Marie, on the land her grandmother had left her, up in the hills where the old ones had hidden years before.
He didn’t even ask what they were when she opened the small wooden box that she had brought with her, unwrapped each one of her mothers and dusted them off. He called them her dolls and smiled that his new wife could still love such things in times such as these.
Each figure was a replica of one of the Archibald women from Gran Couva – from Gertrude, the oldest of them all whose face had been rubbed clean from handling, to Ama, Shelagh’s mother.
She’d planted them at the border, where her garden met the edge of the forest: Gertrude, made of wood, nestled in between her anthuriums; Amelia, made of stone amidst the yellow gold lantana; Jenifer, black obsidian under the first of the tonka bean trees; Rita made of clay at the foot of the pink poui.
Ama had taught her their faces, how to talk to them. Shelagh made sure to always put her hands into the soil so they would know her skin; none of this nonsense about gardening gloves. She knew how to make her offerings when it was time, how to ask for their favour: honey for the clay and the salt for stone, fever grass for the wood, coffee grounds for the obsidian and clear standing water for the copper.
When they began to grow, as she knew they would – from the size of her palm to the length of her forearm, then knee and then waist high, each one growing roots of her own, burrowing into the earth where she had been planted – her poor husband! What was he to do? These were not the days for strange things.
And when her mothers began to sing, each one holding her own note at dusk, pure and clear like spring water, well, these were not things that could be hidden.
She cried for days afterwards. Gregory had got word that they were coming. All she could do was bawl when she realised he had locked the doors so she couldn’t run out. From the window she watched the brown of her husband’s back as he swung the blade to destroy the garden, as he smashed the clay and chopped the wood, as he burned her mothers in the steel barrels. She watched the backhoes from the Council come, watched them fell trees older than anyone living could remember, and heard her mothers’ song turned to wailing. The men in overalls poured wet concrete to cover the green land and harden it to grey stone. Smoke trailed from the barrels for days, and Morne Marie smelled like death long after it was done.
Afterwards, Gregory came to her smelling like ash, cried into her hair and held her. She almost couldn’t bear it, her eyes wide and staring. How could he have done it?
‘We had to. You know we had to. They would come for us. They would take you away.’
He stroked her hips over and over, ran his fingers over her belly like they could guide the seed he had planted, make it unstrange, keep them safe with the blind will of a man who had never grown wild.
She remembered him too, in this room with the white walls, cradling her body, holding her hand. The grey coats, the mute women with the needles, the beeping, the smell of blood, her body splitting in two, then the head between her thighs, the shoulders, the tiny, round belly, the struggling legs and then the feet, the kicking, willful feet. She smelled the forest and she called her daughter’s name: Semoya!
She remembered. Her baby. Gregory and the grey coat, they were talking about her baby.
Shelagh pulled the needle slowly from her hand, released the tube and put her mouth to the wound, tasting her own blood. She willed her head clear. The small voice from her dream like a message left in her hair was now unmistakable:
She pulled off the tape stuck to her stomach and under her breasts and freed her body from the other tubes connected to the monitors. She reached her hand down and pressed the lever at the side of the bed to release the metal bars and swung her feet off the bed. The cold tiles chilled her bare soles. She tiptoed across the wide room. The other women were still asleep. She wondered how many of them would be going home and how many would never leave. Would they remember when they woke up?
A few feet from the door Shelagh felt eyes on her. It was one of the women. Her head was shorn as if she had done it herself with dull scissors, and she was staring at Shelagh with eyes wide, her chest rising and falling like she was gathering herself to scream. Shelagh froze, her eyes locked with the woman’s. Could she reach her in time? It would have to be now; she couldn’t risk a single sound. And as her body tensed to spring, the woman’s breathing slowed and her eyes relaxed. They stared at each other and the woman nodded and glanced toward the door. No thanks were necessary. Shelagh fled.
She padded down the corridor barefoot, naked under the thin birthing gown. The grey coats were long gone and there were no assistant healers at their stations, but the twists and turns of the stone corridors meant she could come across someone at any moment. The chill night breeze blew through the high arches that opened onto the grounds. She scanned them and kept her ears tuned for any sound around corners. She stayed close to the walls, trying to remain out of sight. Down one corridor and up another she heard the voice.
‘This way. This way.’
She moved faster. Her torn, swollen body ached. She couldn’t risk running, couldn’t risk falling.
She thought of Gregory and her step faltered. Then she remembered the smell of ash that never stopped trailing him, remembered the trees that had taken generations to grow, remembered her mothers, and she ran. No more sticking to the walls. Shelagh ran full out down each corridor as they grew narrower and narrower until there were more broken light bulbs than working ones until there were no more high arches and no more sturdy benches for visitors.
‘Here. In here.’
She pushed a pair of wooden doors at the end of an abandoned corridor with an old peeling sign that said Storage. A single, rusted cot stood in the far corner and there were broken machines and discarded metal chairs in another. She drew closer to the cot and found her daughter, Semoya, blood-streaked, covered with clumps of Shelagh’s insides, her eyes staring up at her mother like she’d known her even before the trees had known themselves.
The grey coats had not cleaned her tiny body. Her navel string still hung from her belly and the blanket she lay on was stained. Shelagh wanted to rush out of the room and attack the first grey coat that she saw and rage at him for not cleaning her baby, for not seeing her as someone that deserved a clean bed and loving hands, someone that was so broken she did not deserve touch.
She bent over the cot and looked at her daughter with the old eyes, her daughter that smelled like her garden, her daughter that did not cry. Her arms were perfectly formed, her body smooth and bloody and brown, her strong legs kicked the dirty sheet and her feet! Oh, her feet . . .
Shelagh smiled. She spat on the corner of the sheet from the cot and wiped her body as clean as she could. She swaddled her, leaving only her face exposed, picked her up and gently tucked her daughter’s backwards-facing feet out of sight, the feet that marked her as a child the forest had claimed.
She left through the same door that she had entered. No one noticed a woman and her baby sneak out of the hospital grounds and into the night.
Ayanna Gillian Lloyd is a writer from Trinidad & Tobago. She was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize and received the second-place prize in the Small Axe Literary Competition. Her work has been published in The Caribbean Writer, Moko Magazine, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism and Poui: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing, University of the West Indies. She is currently pursuing the MA Creative Writing Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and will take up an International Postgraduate Research Studentship for the PhD in Creative-Critical Writing, also at the University of East Anglia, in October 2018.