I grow up listening to my mother talk non-stop to herself, but only when we alone. She would say things like, “She gat the Jezebel sperit ‘pon her. Is that what destroy you, Elijah, my prophet. That wickedness come into my house and take you away from me.”
Or, “This is not we chile. This is Satan messenger. I tell people she deaf and dumb, is why I don’t send her school or church. But truth be known, I gattie keep her away from them other children, from the Church. I can’t let her corrupt that holy place. I mustn’t let people know this Jezebel chile come outta my belly.”
I wish my mother was dead. Not my father. I hear my mother say how the moment I slip out of her womb and into the hand of the midwife, a black storm cloud appear over we house. The rest of the sky stay blue, blue. My father, waiting in the front room to hear about his first child, walk to the window to see what causing the darkness. He look up at the cloud. In one instant, a bolt of lightning zip through the window and strike my father dead. He didn’t even know I born. The midwife say is a sign but she didn’t know if it was from the light or the dark side. My mother did know it was a dark sperit. Who else would take away her beloved husband and bring that Jezebel sperit in her house?
My mother talk as if she having conversation with another person, saying something and then waiting for the other person to answer before continuing.
One day I ask my mother, “What is this Jezebel sperit?”
My mother eyes bulge open and she look at me as if she seeing me for the first time. She lunge at me, grab my hair and say into my face, “Chile, you don’t see me talking with your Pa, hey? Why you mixing up in big people business? You, Jezebel sperit, who take away my life, my Elijah, your own Pa.”
I squirm, yelling, “Ma, stop, you hurting me!” As soon as I able to get out of her grasp, I run out of the room leaving her shouting.
“You better repent, you rebellious chile. And if you ever open your mouth again, I will sew it shut,” she threaten me.
If only I could tell my mother how I hate her. I sure if my father was here he wouldn’t call me a Jezebel sperit, and he wouldn’t want to sew up my mouth.
Up until I was fourteen, when we go out, my mother use to be hugging and kissing me up like I was newborn and tell everybody about the sign that visit her house when I born.
“I believe is why she don’t talk,” my mother, with a weak smile, use to say when she finish the story.
The first time I hear my mother say that, I start to say, “That een….” But a sharp slap across my mouth shut me up quick.
“Children must be seen and not heard, especially when you see me talking to people,” my mother say to me and then turn to carry on she conversation with Miss Taylor. “She try to talk but is all kinda nonsense come out her mouth. I try keep her away from bad influence, but Lord help me with this chile. I gattie go now.”
I bet if my father was alive he would let me talk all I want. I did want so bad then to tell my mother I wish it was she who was dead.
Then, one day, I just stop talking with my mother. But I still listen to every word she say. I let her get away with telling people I is a bit slow. Anybody who listen to her cluck they tongue, shake they head and whisper, “Poor darling.” And then caution my mother, “You mus’ keep her away from man. No chile, she een gattie have nutten in she head once she gat suppum ‘tween her legs them.”
My mother never let me forget my birthday and how old I was. On the anniversary of my father death, she always remind him of the number of years he leave her to suffer alone with the Jezebel.
When I turn twelve and start seeing my blood, my mother add a new verse to her old story. “I gattie keep her away from man. Elijah, I can’t let this Jezebel find no Ahab sperit. I can’t be responsible for the destruction of this holy place.” My mother pause. Then continue, “Like since you dead you forget how yinna man does go, hey? You never know which one is Ahab. Which man have no backbone. Which one will give this Jezebel sperit freedom to murder and destroy good people.”
I never bother to ask my mother about this Ahab sperit. I didn’t want to get my mouth sew shut.
It was my ‘slowness’ and my mother trying to ‘protect me’, that encourage my father brother, who was the Island Commissioner, to make sure that the government take care of me and my mother. I hear him tell my mother that it was only right to pay my mother a monthly stipend so she could take care of we since it was God’s will to take away my father. My uncle say he make provisions for the government to care for me and my mother till we dead. Every time he visit we, he tell my mother he was only doing his duty. He was only doing what any good brother would do, be his brother’s keeper.
Mary, that’s my mother name, grow up in the Ranfurly Home for Children in Nassau. She did never know her parents, or if she did have any brothers or sisters, or for that matter, any relatives at all. The only family she did know was the other children and the people who work at the Home. And the Catholic nuns who used to go to the Home every Sunday to take the children to church.
When she was fifteen, Mary went with the nuns on the Labour Day weekend to Long Island. In Clarence Town, the nuns had was to hold Mary to stop her from falling when she see the twin towers of the shining, white St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, high on top the hill. Afterwards, she tell the nuns that she did feel like the two towers was lifting she up to heaven. She say she just had was to go inside that church to pray. What she see inside, what change her life forever, was not a vision of the Virgin but a yellow-skin, match-stick-thin, altar boy who look straight into her black eyes with his sea-green eyes. At the end of the weekend, Mary stay behind in Long Island to live with that fifteen-year-old young man name Elijah Cartwright, who forget his desire to become a priest and vow to cherish Mary for the rest of his life.
Elijah become a fisherman and build a two-room clapboard house just outside Deadman’s Cay where he and Mary spend the whole steaming summer, curl up together, night and day, like two millipede. Elijah tell Mary her smooth, black skin remind him of Darling plum and it was like he could not get enough of them sweet plums to eat when he with her. A year later, I was born and my father was dead. All of this I get to know as I listen to my mother talking with my dead father. But I never hear her tell my father how his brother does visit we and be his brother’s keeper.
Every time my uncle visit, from I was old enough to remember, my mother use to cook plenty food. She make peas ‘n rice with green pigeon peas, or lima beans or red peas, whichever in season. She use tomatoes, that she grow herself, to smother down the grouper or yellow tail snapper or grunt that my uncle buy live from the fisherman and them at the dock. Then she fry plantain and make coleslaw from cabbage and green pepper that she pick from her garden. She season everything, except the plantain of course, with plenty bird pepper so hot that we nose run and we eyes water. But after the meal uncle would say, “I like my things hot,” blowing his nose hard and drying his wet eyes.
I clear away the table and wash up the dishes after we done eat, leaving my mother and uncle to discuss business in the front room. That is where they would be when I say goodnight and go to bed. Then, sometime after falling asleep, I wake up and hear my uncle shouting, “My brother’s keeper! My brother’s keeper! My ….. brother’s …..keeper.”
The first time I hear uncle shouting, I creep out of bed, tip-toe to the bedroom door and crack it open. I see uncle lying on the couch with a creature on top of him, choking him. I thought I was dreaming, so I rub my eyes and then when I look again, I see my mother standing right in front of me.
“Lawd, chile, you sleepwalking again! You goin’ cause the death of me. Come, go back to bed,” she say, taking my hand and leading me back to bed. She tuck the cover tight around my body. Then she hug me and kiss me just like how she do when company around.
The next morning, I tell my mother that I see a creature choking uncle on the couch the night before.
“You sure you wasn’t dreamin’ ‘bout chickcharnee?” she ask raising her eyebrows and looking at me sideways.
I know that look. She always do that just before she whisper to herself that somebody crazy.
“Chickcharnee is them creatures what does live in the forest and play tricks on people,” my mother continue. “They is half-bird and half-man. But what that Jezebel askin’ me question for, Elijah? That harlot what kill you, what she want know my business for, Elijah?”
I leave my mother having her conversation with my so-long dead father. The noise continue every time my uncle visit but I never again get out of bed to see what making my uncle shout. I listen till I drop asleep wishing for my father to be alive in the living room, talking nice, nice with my mother and that the two of them happy to have a daughter like me.
When my mother start carrying on and not even calling me by my right name, Vashti, a Bible name, as she tell everybody she meet, I just steer clear of her and go to find my cat, my only friend. My cat name Right So. I call her that because every time I feel sad or angry or I just have one of those ‘I not sure what wrong with me’ feelings, I hold my cat, caress her, listen to her purring like a little boat engine and before I know it, everything is right so.
Me and Right So does play a game. I does sit quiet, quiet and stare into her eyes, concentrating hard. She too, sit quiet, quiet and stare back into my eyes. Then, before long, it is as if I know everything she thinking and she know everything I thinking. Without moving my lips, with my mind, I say to Right So, “Come,” and quick, quick she jump into my lap. When I first start the game, I have to concentrate for a long time, so long that I get a headache. But now, I almost don’t have to concentrate at all. Right So and me, we have a good understanding.
Sometimes at night, I sneak out of the house with Right So and we go into the woods across the road. Right So love exploring the woods at night. There is a clearing in the woods where I does sit on the dry leaves and just listen to all the night creatures moving about in the darkness. I feel as if they talking to me, especially the crabs during crab season, who click and chatter away all night.
One day, my uncle wife call we house and say her husband dead the night before. My mother tell her she sorry. Then she say we can’t come to the funeral because Clarence Town, where they live, too far for me to travel.
The day after my uncle dead, my mother stop talking to my father, go in the bedroom and lock the door, leaving me with no choice but to sleep on the couch in the front room. I feel sorry for her a little bit but that soon pass when I think about all the bad things she say to me and I continue wishing she was the one who was dead instead of my father and uncle.
A week later, the telephone ring. My mother did not come out the bedroom to answer it, so I pick it up. I hear a man say, “I am calling from the Commissioner’s Office. To whom am I speaking?”
“Vashti.” I answer.
“Is that Vashti Cartwright?”
“Good. After the tragic passing of Mr. Cartwright, your uncle, I was assigned your Social Services file. I would like to pay you and your mother a visit. I believe in being in close contact with the less fortunate in society. Otherwise, they could get lost in the bureaucratic red tape of government.”
“No, you mustn’t come to see we. My mother don’t let strangers come in we house,” I say, suddenly afraid and feeling all alone. I hang up the phone even though the man was still talking.
The phone ring again a few days later. My mother didn’t come out the bedroom to answer it, so I pick up the phone and it was the same man. Right away he say, “I am sorry for not identifying myself properly during our first conversation. My name is Daryl Woodside and I was recently transferred from Nassau. Okay, instead of me visiting you, I would be honoured if you and your mother would pay me a visit at the Government Office Complex here in Clarence Town.”
“No, that too far for me to travel,” I say and hang up the phone.
Four days later, the phone ring again. I pick it up and before I could even say hello, Daryl start singing,
“Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday Dear Vashti,
Happy Birthday to you.”
“Wha… ho…. nobody ever sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me before,” I stammer. “How you know today is my birthday?” I ask. I was frighten but I stay on the phone.
“I read it in your file. You are sixteen years old today,” Daryl tell me, as if I don’t know my own age.
“How you know I would answer the phone?”
“I didn’t know but I hoped it would be you,” Daryl say and he sound as if he happy. Then he ask, “Can I come and see you today? Can I celebrate your birthday with you and your mother, please? Don’t say no. Your house is the blue clap-board house after the corner by Miss Taylor, right?”
“You know where I live? How you know?” I feel something brush against my ankle like if Right So was rubbing against my leg. But when I look down it was nothing.
“I asked folks around here to show me where you live. I would really like to meet you and your mother. I have a car, it’s no trouble for me to come and see you.”
All I thinking then was how Daryl must care if he ask other people about me, and that he still want to meet me after they tell him how I slow. I start to feel warm, like I getting a fever, but I know I not getting sick. My belly rolling all over like the sea when weather coming up and my mouth so full of saliva that I have to swallow hard before I don’t choke. But I still so frighten, I say no and hang up the phone. .
When night come, I collect Right So, creep out the house and go in the woods. It dark, but I see the glow coming up in the sky so I know it go soon be bright, bright with moonlight. Me and Right So sit down in we circle. I pretend Right So is me and I is Daryl. I sing, in Daryl voice, “Happy Birthday, Vashti.”
Right So purr.
Then I pretend to pull something out of my pocket and push it in Right So paw. “A birthday present for you, my love!” I say in Daryl voice.
Then I change back to my voice and say, “For me? Nobody ever give me a present before.”
And then I don’t want to play that stupid game no more. Without talking, I say to Right So, “What if I have a boyfriend for true? I could be happy like how my mother and father was before he gone and dead. I could look in my boyfriend eyes and feel like I going to heaven like how my mother feel when she see the church towers.”
Right So only purr.
“You is no help at all,” I say to Right So. Then I get up and we go back in the house.
The next night, the phone ring. Since my uncle dead, the phone never ring in the night. I didn’t answer and it keep ringing and ringing. The bedroom door bang open. My mother come rushing out, pick up the phone and shout, “Stop calling this house, you Ahab sperit! Get thee from that wickedness on your mind!” She slam down the phone and go back in the bedroom.
“I is not no Jezebel sperit and I really wish it was you who did dead instead of my father,” I grumble.
The bedroom door bang open again and my mother stand there, her face bulging.
“What you say? You Jezebel, you wish I did dead! Let me shut your mouth once and for all,” my mother shout and start coming towards me.
I jump up from the couch and dash out the house, straight across the road to my safe place in the woods.
As soon as I stop, sit down and catch my breath, Right So come purring and nudging me. The full moon light up everything. I pick up Right So and say out loud, “How we go get away from my crazy mother, hey?”
Soon as I say that, the moonlight get dark. I look up and see something coming down on me. I feel a piece of wood hit my arm. I tumble and roll to one side. Then I hear a scream. I scramble and stand up. There, on the ground, was my mother, screaming and trying to cover her face from Right So who on top of her, scratching and hissing. One mind tell me call off Right So. A next mind say no. The mind that say no, win. I turn and start walking away. My mother still screaming and Right So still hissing. Then, without looking back, in my mind, I tell Right So, “Come.”
I walk until I reach the beach. I lie on the damp sand and close my eyes. Is then I realize my heart thumping and my breathing shallow. I force myself to listen to the wave. Soon I was only hearing, ‘shhhhh… shhhhh… shhhhh’. The wave come three at a time, shushing me like a mother soothing her baby. Then Right So reach. I cradle she and she only cleaning, cleaning. She cleaning herself and she cleaning me same time. Finally she stop and we stay on the beach until the sun came up. Then I take Right So home.
When I reach home, the house quiet, quiet like nothing happen during the night. I don’t see my mother nowhere. I make boil fish and grits breakfast with plenty bird pepper. I think of uncle and wonder if my father did like pepper too. I feed Right So some fish and then I eat as if I starving my whole life.
Image credits: Ananda Poon. From the series What if ghosts drank coke?
Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming is a Trinidadian Bahamian Mechanical/Building Services Engineer, poet, fiction writer, and artist. Lelawattee has won the David Hough Literary Prize and the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize from The Caribbean Writer; the Grand Prize in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association 2001 Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize for Fiction 2013, and long listed for the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize for Fiction, 2019. Her work has appeared in WomanSpeak; Anthurium; Poui; Zocalo Poets; Interviewing The Caribbean; The Commonwealth Foundation’s addastories; Akashic Books Duppy Thursday; Caribbean Erotic, Peepal Tree Press, 2011; Capitals, an anthology of poetry on the capital cities of the world, Bloomsbury, 2016; Thicker Than Water, an anthology of poems, fiction and creative non-fiction by Hollick Arvon Prize finalists, Peekash, 2018; as well as We Mark Your Memory, an anthology of writings by the descendants of indenture, published by School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with Commonwealth Writers, 2018. Lelawattee’s first book of poetry, Curry Flavour, was published in 2000 by Peepal Tree Press. Her second collection of poetry, Immortelle and Bhandaaraa Poems, which was shortlisted for the Inaugural Proverse Literary Prize (2009), and which contains some of her artwork, was published in 2011 by Proverse Hong Kong