(Inspired by The House That Vanished, by Rosario Ferre)
Fly away home, to Zion! Fly away, home!
On that morning, when my work is over,
I will fly away home!
…The old man at the crossroads, call me from out the gully. Him voice did loud, loud in me head. Him almost sound like a woman and a man singing together—a powerful, welcoming harmony meant for my ears only. Them voice did beat like a drum—like the way church hymns used to stay with me, long, long after the service finish.
The singing reminded of t’under and lightnin’ and rain, together. Yet, it did still quiet—almost like prayin’. Like when Miss Sheila and the other people down at the Revival Church would pray: “Father, we the People of Zion come to you in faith and humbleness. We beseech the Holy Court, singing songs of joyful praise!”
It kinda hard to explain, really! But, me know say me did have to go with him…and, just like that, we were in the cotton tree!
I saw Miss Sheila, beating her drum. As she see we enter the tree, she turn and said: “Welcome to the cotton tree!”.
I was drawn to the scene unfolding in the yard next door. I smelled the fire. It enveloped the dusky Suspect sky, like mosquitoes after the long dry season ended in heavy rains. This was unlike the routine burnt orange of the sun, resisting orders to stand down, to make way for the faint luminescence of the emerging crescent moon.
Stumbling from the branch, I was just in time to see a man throw a bottle with liquid in it. The bottle hit the side of our three-bedroom board house and with a thud flared into a thousand long, orange fingers. “Come out of we community!” he ordered.
The commotion in the yard was like a fuse, igniting a supernova of emotions inside me. The chaos threatened to drown out the earlier welcome of the drums. I hovered in the yard, like a John Crow watching the scene below. I was powerless to influence anything, even as I struggled to make sense of it all. I was like one of the fishermen down by the beach, trying to manoeuvre their canoes against the slams.
The vibration of the tree indicated the importance of what was happening. The red heat seeped into my consciousness, as it engulfed the aged board. A fire sprung up, erecting an immediate barrier. I could not cross it. “Mikey? Why?” I shouted. He did not hear me.
Mikey was wearing the black T-shirt with the writing: “we run things, things no run we” on the back. His telltale limp betrayed his now disguised features. Pow! Crash! The bottle connected. There were more loud explosions. Other implements fell against the board structure. “Come out of we community, you dutty, stinkin’ piece a shit!”
“Stop tell lie pon we!”
“Yes! You better run cause anything that happen now is your fault!”
“Run go look for Lenky! The two of you, deserve each other!”
My cousins screamed, shoving open the door, “Woieee! Fire! Fire!”
“Granny!” Rajay, cried. He was the youngest. His twin sisters Keisha and Munchie were right behind him. “Woiee! Lord Jesus!” Munchie said, tripping over some pans in the back yard.
“Jesus, Saviour, Pilot me!” Granny screamed, as she too rushed outside. One of Granny’s legs was amputated at the base, because of “sugar”. She could walk, but it was hard. Running was harder. Still, she managed to escape, just in time before the whole house went up in flames.
I did not realise right away why our house was attacked or what caused our neighbours to be chanting “We want justice!” outside our yard. I could only watch from this distance. Granny and the children made it to safety. It was dangerous for them to remain in Suspect. Plus, there was nowhere for them to sleep tonight.
The community burned down our house after the media reported that my body was found, naked in some nearby bushes in the community and that Lenky was responsible. Lenky, who the reporter said, was known to Suspect had escaped the police. “We don’t know him. Lenky no come from Suspect! Them tell too much lie on we!” they said.
“How she can report say is man from our community do this?”
“Next minute people believe say is the whole a we stay so!”
“No man, we have to put a stop to this!” And with that, like wildfire, the news spread that Granny had to be put out of Suspect. “Is she one responsible for what happened to that girl!”
“Always encouraging that child to take man!”
“And look how the pickney used to dress to?”
“Damn whore…anything that happen to her, she deserve it!”
“Them need to stop mix up Suspect people in them bangarang!”
“We don’t know Lenky! Him not from our community!”
My cousins were too young to understand. Like they were too young to “help out”, as Granny said to me, that first time, last year when Lenky started visiting. “You turn big woman now! You have to start help out the family! You cousin them too young!” she said, looking at Keisha and Munchie.
I was turning thirteen. The twins were seven years old. Rayjay was five. They were Uncle Dre’s children. Granny took them in after their father left for America. That was four and a half years ago.
Based on the little I overheard Granny say on the phone, “Uncle Dre got caught up in something.” That was shortly after Rajay was born. His mother wasted little time afterwards in depositing all three children with Granny; complaining that she was not about to care for any man who in jail pickney them!
Granny often said she was burdened with three new babies (including me) in her old age. I was given to her when I was four years old. That was, after my mother— Granny’s only daughter—packed up all my belongings in a plastic bag one day and put me on the bus to Suspect.
I remember her talking to the driver, a man she said she knew and who was from the community. His job was to get me to Suspect, all the way in the country. That was the longest trip I ever remember taking. Not just because of the distance but also because of what happened. Granny said she waited for more than eight hours at the bus stop for me.
The driver, an older, stocky, short man, who reminded me of Mikey, who threw the bottles into our yard earlier, did not take me to Suspect right away. Instead, we went to a house, which he said was “on the way”.
There, he stopped and ordered me to follow him inside. He told me to take off my clothes. He touched me, saying, “You are a big girl!” And, for a long time after, I thought that was what big girls did—allow grown men to touch them, on their private parts.
When Granny first told me, “to make friends with Lenky”, I asked her if that meant “acting like a big girl” She looked at me then, held down her head. Wiping away a tear, she held my jaw and smiled, “Ahh, mi dear.”
Granny did not say the words but somehow I realised right then that “big girls” allowed men and boys to touch their private parts. Some of them even did other things, like Lenky did to me. Sometimes, their grandmothers collected money before and after some of those things.
Some of those things often ended with men telling big girls, at first, not to tell nobody—like the bus driver had done that day my mother placed me in his care and asked him to take me to Suspect. That was a Saturday, like today.
And the house we went to was also made from board and had several trees in the backyard. It reminded me of that place Lenky took me, several times, after Granny told me to make friends with him. And that, because I was a big girl, I was to help out the family. I said nothing then.
“Lord have mercy! Look what Suspect come to!” Miss Sheila said, as she watched the scene unfold in our yard next-door. She was a Revivalist woman, who always wore a turban on her head and pencils behind her ears.
Miss Sheila had visited Granny a week earlier. She came to warn her about a dream she got about a bright red cloud hanging over our house and how she saw our grandfather in the dream, walking with a big stick. “Old dead, mean new dead, Miss Pam!”
Miss Sheila, who all of Suspect claimed was an obeah woman, who could leave her skin and fly at night and work magic, continued, “In the dream, I see a angry, red cloud…red, red, red, almost like blood. Next thing me notice, it start rain down fire on your house and into your yard!”
I was not sure what the warning was about, or who the angels were, but Granny was irate. “Look here, no Sheila, come out of me yard with your duppy business! What Lenky is to we is none of your damn business! You too fast! Bout angel say! You and this obeah business! Come out of me life! And leave me and my family alone! Angel going to feed me?”
Miss Sheila stood in the cotton tree in her yard, at certain points in the day, and wrote things down in her notebook which she always carried. Miss Sheila wrote with one of the pencils she kept in her head wrap. Suspect people would laugh at her most times, but, deep down, many of them were afraid of Miss Sheila.
“That woman and her excitement!” I overheard Maas Ruel say to Teisha, another of our neighbours, one day when I was outside sweeping up the yard. “I ‘fraid that she will make people fear this community with her duppy business!”
“Yes, next thing people feel that all of we wicked like her!”
“She just a spoil up Suspect good name!”
In moments of frustration, Granny would remind me, “Your mother come and leave you on me and the children them mother died, leaving me, in my old age, to take care of young babies. You ever see anything like it? How me one so bad-lucked?” She paused, looking down at her leg. “Your mother in Town, acting like she forget she have responsibilities. You have to help out.”
At that, she took out two crumpled notes out of her bosom. “Look, go down to the shop and buy pound and a half of rice. Lenky comin’ today. Him expectin’ him dinner.” She said.
I hated the shop. The boys and men who congregated there spoke about me all the time. The day before the fire, I saw them talking to Lenky. I was on my way to get supplies for Granny. “Is you a cut the little catty, me Gee!”
“She look good though.”
“Yeah man, her breast them stiff,” Lenky responded.
“Ting supposed to well tight,” Lenky was in the middle of the men. They laughed. Burning with embarrassment, I stopped in my tracks. I wanted to hide. But there was nowhere to go. I just could not allow myself to pass them or stand in the shop and wait to be served.
I ran into the bushes at the back of our house—the same way Granny and the children made their escape, when I watched them from the cotton tree earlier.
I was not sure what I would tell Granny but there were no other shops in the area for miles. I would have to make the long trek over to the neighbouring community, Derricksville, which was about a half hour walk if I went through the shortcut.
“Yow, girl come here!” I heard the voice and saw the group of boys. They were all from Suspect. About six of them. It could have been more. “N-no, I have to go to, to the shop.” I stammered. They were the same boys who would call out and taunt me on my way home from or to school.
“Today, the body of the missing girl from the rural community of Suspect was found in bushes. The child who lived with her grandmother has been missing since Friday. Her grandmother is in a state of shock and grief.
The police are searching for a man, from the community, known only as ‘Lenky’ in connection with the crime.”
The voice called out to me. The old man looked familiar. But, somehow I did not recognise him, at least not right away. I looked at myself, lying in the ravine. The old mas said, “We have to go…to Zion. But, first we had to make a stop.”
I could see Miss Sheilah beating her drum and there were friendly faces.
Image credit: AP. Carved driftwood at Port Antonio craft market.
Inspired by Rosario Ferre’s ‘The House that Vanished’, this is Agostinho’s official debut as a writer. He is currently undertaking the treacherous journey of a Ph.D., at Loughborough University, in the United Kingdom, where he is investigating the links between nationalism, popular dance and the visual arts in Dancehall culture. His interests in creative writing were resurrected after a successful reading of a previous draft of this story, in early 2018, at the UWI, Mona campus. It precedes another, longer work on sexual violence and Jamaican history which he hopes this will be his first novel.