ELISHA EFUA BARTELS
She was born the carnival Tuesday David Rudder win everything — February 11th 1986 — exactly thirty years after Fred himself. Rudder take home Young King, Calypso Monarch and Road March, and Ash Wednesday, Fred (and ma, of course) bring home Zoraya. I was seven. I wanted a dog.
I was allergic and couldn’t and knew it, but that reality did nothing to endear Zoraya to my seven-year-old self, who knew that she was no substitute. Plus I was ambivalent to her immediate default status as the “best birthday gift ever”. That wasn’ fair. Far as my precocious mind knew about baby-making, she eh do nothing for that rank. I start watching my mother with slight suspicion…
Zoraya was everybody favourite, except mine. All I saw was a fat, bawling, helpless little brat, later an annoying intrusion, later, more annoying tagalong. I try selling her to strangers who stop to say how beautiful she was, to people standing up next to us in the grocery line, to family and friends commenting how much she look like her father…
Now, seeing his eye (in her face) squeeze closed, his stubborn mouth tight, jaws pressing hard, her not wanting to cry — not again — before eyes, tear ducts, throat, had chance to recover from the last rounds, not before she get us there and could park and not have to study blurry vision, I realise I doh actually know how Fred felt about tattoos. We never talk that. He never say, so I assume he doh business, and now have to wonder if he was disappointed in us the whole time and just eh say. He was a man like that. Might decide to just say nothing. And it eh go change nothing? Same reason I was never sure if he happen to look through the kitchen window between the gap in the curtains in just the right timing before I hear the metallic warning of his keys; to see the two brown hops bread of Kevin Campbell’s bamsee tense as he thrust what felt like his whole self into me without so much as a sheet under the small of my back — inverted and rubbing against the ground with my legs over his shoulders, acquiring a burn I didn’t know I’d have to explain to ma, who always, always, chooses to say, to demand, to tell. With Fred you might never know, but I damn sure I will never be the daughter my mother want. Even if I wanted to…
Yardfowl, roadfowl and pothound alike still unusually quiet this St. James morning. I notice how many cars whooshing through the still-dewy dampness and how early the jamming really start. Birds hailing by the time we wake, belly in hand called by the smell of the downstairs neighbour breakfast. Long before I make out sounds of accumulating morning rush on the mainroad a block outside our louvres — the pan-tuner adding his work’s monotonous music to the early birds, and green parrots taking off from the nex’ neighbour tree to leave the yard in a scream of feathers and furious voices — a few cocks finally remember theyself, and rouse the dogs. By the time we get in the car and she bounce the starter, the rest of the neighbourhood waking to a day already deafening by anywhere else standards. Nowhere loud like the tropics; here a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells constantly clamour, competing for attention.
This morning’s relative quiet remind me of going Toco when we were small, half-asleep in the back of the yellow Mini. I later never understand how all of Fred frame could fold up and fit into it. I would see photos and dust off my memories and still not quite believe, because life had more recent corroboration of his bigness than the capacity of the car…at least until these last years. I shake my head, wanting to remember the him he was before he stop being himself — tackback to those Toco drives, waking up and leaving home early, feeling the quiet wetness of the world, a quieter place then, even we were a quieter people, then. We would pull out the yard in the still-darkness — embarking on a secret journey — one of less than a handful of cars on the road that hour in them days…feels like forever ago instead of just a generation…going east deeper into the sun so it impossible to sleep again, highway run out and come down to barely-paved road, one lane either direction through small villages breaking up long swathes of bush…
“Hoss, seriously. Who’s really go for a tattoo this hour of the morning?”
“Like you even know the hour.”
“I know is early o’clock…”
“And you’s the busy one? Look, I only here for a week and this is the time that work for all three of we, so is this. Besides, first clients of the day, we getting him fresh before stupid people kill his creative spirit. And you eh even hadda be properly awake yet because you eh driving. So wha’ you complaining ‘bout? Besides, he was a morning person, ent? Very fitting.”
“Yeah, but is about how I working the rest of today after I get jook…”
“Wh’appen? Where you putting it?”
“Writing hand, so…”
“Eh think of none yet; we go see…although, post-tattoo come rum and post-rum might be a no-wuk zone.”
She shakes her head; laughs.
She seems the older sibling, practical, sensible; she woulda had a contingency spot. Probably does. People make that mistake all the time when they doh take us for each other. You would think 7 years headstart would make that impossible, but demeanour’s something else, Fred used to say. I put it down to Zoraya being taller. And maybe more serious-looking, like Fred; not that he didn’ have a sense of humour but he was a serious-minded sort who thought too much, something I wish I didn’ inherit because it only leads to insomnia and heartache — something else I wish I didn’ inherit.
Even nights noisy in the tropics. When I reach double-digits I start sitting at the top of the landing in the wee hours. I straining to maco the parents’ late-night talk over crickets and croaking cocquis, instead of reading Fred’s books in my dark bed by weak light wandering through drawn curtains. Years later when I tiptoe downstairs to spy him sitting staring blankly at the TV watching he at 3 a.m, I understand. Smart is a curse; the more you know the more you have to worry about, the less your brain does rest.
I wonder what he would think about us actually getting up this early to do this, for him, in his absence. Probably, that eh go change nothing; try getting up early to change the world. Fred was a man like that.
I studying for months, what mark to get to keep him with me, the him that gave me myself, teach me to read and write and love…and it hard, trying to think about something for a person who not here, and towards the end was barely here, even when he was…I been thinking about what was important to him, what important to me that he teach me, what we woulda be without him…
I flick an eye back at Zoraya, feel bad for a moment for making her be the adult when I know how shitty it is when all you want is to curl up in a silent ball or scream or weep or whaever you need to do to get through, but nobody else in the situation prepared, or capable, and suddenly your own survival depend on you keeping it together. We never even talk ’bout what we intend to get when we talk ’bout this morning. Never cross our minds because we both know nobody opinion could deter either of us from getting exactly wha’ we want. So might as well wait and see idea executed. Is our way, to each do it our own way, always. Fred daughters.
We coulda stay children longer, dream longer, deeper, without the realities of life rushing in before young minds ready, before children ready to parent. We mighta learn the lessons about how your friends will take you, but eh go bring you back, and the dangers of excess, indulgence and escapism the hard way…not that Fred way was easy, but maybe learning vicariously by watching him still less painful than learning through your own fuckups. At least, tha’s wha’ I tell Zoraya: he is how he is to make us be better.
Zoraya pull into the yard, kill the engine and fall apart. I doh ask; doh need to. We both know this ink eh no celebration, much as we might say so. Out loud we celebrate him, his life, our lives through him, but this is a requiem.
But this is our way. Me and Zoraya always do it each our own way. Is we father raise we so.
I extend a tissue in her peripheral vision, suddenly feeling dark, quiet, very much the big sister: nobody ‘llowed to make my little sis’ cry!
I wanted a dog. Zoraya was a huge, screaming mess of constantly-stinking diapers I wanted no part of. I try to drown her a few times, concoct elaborate, outrageous lies to scare her when she keep surviving (once, gloriously, both simultaneously–if you put the arm-band floaty-tings on your ankles you could walk on the water like Jesus), call her “stinkbottom” in public like it was her regular home-name, make her as miserable as my imagination could conjure tactics for. Her thriving in spite of all this eventually win my respect. Tha’ was before I realise, she’s look up to me…not as smart as I thought.
You doh think about big-sister-ness. Is a thing that happens to you. You have no choice in the matter, no control over that situation. All my efforts to exert control in all-a-them years of resenting her unnecessary presence never once yet render her dead. One evening, sitting on the gallery watching sun plummeting faster than the lingering dusk ever suggests (as is the way here), drinking tea, talking about finishing school (her, high school; me, degree) becoming friends, finally, and she comment on the tropical twilight, how long it last after the sun dive out, how quiet the light seem to make the place feel. I tell her, nah man, it still, but this place always have noise…directing her ear beyond our yard to the neighbour down the block playing tabanca music hard-hard, while a nex’ one on the ‘nother side cuss ‘way her nowhereian pseudo-man again, maxis passing in the distance, horns blaring, hard pong blasting, monkeys chattering in the breadfruit tree in the empty, overgrown lot opposite where the corner-boys go to hold a medi, smoke curling up, around and through branches that bore the bounty of our boy-days, king orange, mango both julie and starch, plums galore for chow. Her eyes open big as her ears take it all in then turn back to study me, and I see the surprised admiration when she say, you make out all that jus’ so? You as good as pops…
I wish…but then she eh know how terrifyingly soon after the mad scramble to my room and frantic hiding of Kevin Campbell, Fred call my name, I finish navigating a big jersey over head and arms and step into the corridor, carefully pulling the door close at my heels until I feel the soft, reassuring click. Do my level best to listen and respond to whaever he saying about whaever ma say but barely maintaining focus, trying desperately to ignore the warm slow trickle of Kevin Campbell down my inner thigh, running into the valley behind my knee and dangerously low down the back of my calf, pleeeaaase finish talk before I puddle. She doh know ‘bout the abortion that soon follow, absolute secret for fear of Fred’s disappointment; doh know how he really find out about that first tattoo, bouncing up in the kitchen when I swear I home alone and come out in my panty for water. His raised eyebrow and silence, my understanding he wouldn’ say a word because I didn’ go brave and take in front and tell him I do it. She doh know the repeat letdown that is my real self, the distance of disappointment between Fred’s dreams and me. I should not be looked up to.
The day real now. We here, sitting in the tattoo-man yard, money in pocket, ideas in hand, at least one of us. I in two minds, for the first time, but still ask, yuh ready?
Anchor image: Nadia Huggins. Sea Urchins.
Before escaping the unnecessary hazards of winter for home, elisha efua bartels spent her time in Washington, D.C. teaching, stage-managing and performing with several theatres from Bowen Macaulay Dance to the Washington Shakespeare Company and Folger Shakespeare Library, and freelancing as an associate producer/writer for The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, 88.5fm. Since returning to Trinidad+Tobago she’s been published in Akashic’s Trinidad Noir and their online Mondays Are Murder, performed in Jamaica, Barbados and Costa Rica as well as at home, hosted Writing a New Caribbean for BBC Radio4, had a radio play, Water More Than Flour, commissioned for BBC Radio3 and a stage-adaptation of Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey commissioned by the BocasLitFest, co-hosts the Wajang Diskotheque podcast, and continues to write/edit, teach, perform, stage-manage and direct with griot productions, continuum dance project, the Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Theatre, Metamorphosis Dance Company, Lilliput Theatre and 3canal, strongly committed to raising the standard and the profile of the arts in sweet T+T, empowering we the people by showing Trinbagonians we can be, and are, the subjects and authors of our own stories.
This is exceptionally riveting. Congratulations to Elisha.
I loved the expression of the relationship between the sisters and the haunting absence of the father