The southern tip of the island curves like the hook of a walking stick. Our little district is nestled on the inside bend, not far from where the river mixes into the sea. From my backdoor, I can throw a stone and kill a fish. The water whispers and hides in the crack of rocks. The river is seasoned brown with dried leaves but downstream it blends into the blue of the sea. It doesn’t rain as often as we would like and sometimes the shallow patches of the river dry up. The houses are scattered about like they were thrown here. Our closest neighbour lives on the other side of the cane piece where even the dogs are afraid. Green algae carpets giant stones. There are dirt trails snaking around thick tree trunks.
The river is longer now because the sea has receded; once the sea shore was up in our backyard. The soil is loose and salt — Martha eats it. She says it tastes like asham, a powdered sweet made from dried corn. She believes the sea speaks if you listen to the emptiness of the shells scattered about the backyard.
Martha, my niece, has been living with me since the morning she stumbled upon her mother collapsed in the back yard stiff, stone-dead. The broom — made from wild rosemary — was still in her hand, and saliva frothed from the corners of her lips. People said duppy boxed her. And even though the doctors reported that it was a heart attack, we still believe the duppy story. How else would a healthy and hearty woman in her early forties just drop down dead so? She hardly ever caught the common cold and she drank bush tea every morning. I’ve never heard or seen a whole community cry in chorus and hold onto their jaws as if they got boxed too. Jenny’s funeral was the biggest ever witnessed in River’s Edge.
I remember that as little girls Jenny and I would go down to the river every morning, make katta from cerasse bush, set it on our heads, balance a bucket of water on it and walk back home, both hands holding up our hips. But when we were in our teens, she preferred going to the river in the evening, just before night come down. I continued going in the mornings. Sometimes word would come to papa that Jenny was spotted on the other side of the river. And no matter how much beatin she got she would still swim across, for Jenny could swim better than fish. But she couldn’t manage the current when she was pregnant; a few times I had to haul her out.
It wasn’t until months after Martha was born that Jenny admitted who her father is. But I knew it was Earl who used to graze cow on the other side of the river. For some nights she would sneak out when Papa gone to bed and come back before cock put on him draws. She always returned soak.
And after she moved out to live with Earl, plenty nights Jenny would come back to leave the baby with me when she wanted to go to street dance.
Every day Martha reminds me of my sister. If you were to cut off Jenny and Martha’s heads and exchange their bodies, no one could guess the difference. And I always wonder how a fifteen year old girl could look so like a woman long dead. Their eyes are the same size, their noses too. Both their frowns are crooked. Not even a mole to differentiate them, just the breath in the little girl’s chest and the worms in her mother’s. Sometimes by slip of memory and tongue I spit out the wrong name when talking to my niece. Even the way how Martha’s knees knock against each other when she runs, you would think they spark with every strike. One of these days this little girl is going to start a bush fire with those match-stick legs.
I look through the kitchen window just in time to see Martha blazing barefoot through the bushes coming towards the house. She is without the clothes and the wash-pan she left the house with this morning. She is running like she is mad — no bucket of water balanced on her head, and her arms held out. She collapses before she can get to the kitchen door. I drop the knife and run through the knee-high grass to see about her. She is stripped down to panties and her chest print through the soaked blouse; she smells of bleach and soap-powder. The wooden clothes pins are all biting on to the hem of her blouse.
It is early morning but it looks like midnight in her eyes. This look makes sweat seep between the new wrinkles in my face. It is the same terror that I saw bubbling in her eleven years ago when Jenny died. I throw an arm around her waist to help her stand, walk with her to the kitchen and feed her a cup of water, “What happen?”
The only thing that comes out of her mouth is, “de river”.
“What happen to de river?”
“All of a sudden it just turn red with me in it and all of me white clothes dem,” she breathes.
“What you mean de river turn red?”
“Yes Aunty Doris de river turn blood red. All a de fish dem wash up dead with dem belly de grin white. Everybody gone down there to look.”
“But that sound strange,” I say knitting my brows as if my face could fold in on itself.
“People is assuming and a say dat they throw paint in it, but how much paint you gonna throw in it for it to look like dat?”
And I remember this is not the first time I‘ve heard of the river changing colour just so. My father told me a story of how the river turned red when we were living up the hill near River Settlement. I was too young to remember. But every now and again I walk to what is left of that house; it is where Mama and Papa are buried. From their graves, I can see thick cane fields, the blocks and debris on the neighbours’ house-tops and the foam at the river’s mouth. I can hear the rambling of the waters when it tumbles over rocks. I can see where the river dips its tongue to taste the salt in the sea. The breeze is strong there and it borrows some of the sea’s salt, too. Every time I go up there, my head swells and I smell the rum on Papa’s breath. The leaves’ rustle remind me of their nightly arguments and my head under a pillow.
Papa said the morning the river changed it was the loudest he’d ever heard the water roar, as if it had knocked its head on a stone or it was sick to its stomach. The river had barfed up a batch of bright silver scales that were too big for regular sized fish. He said it was a mermaid that had shed its tail, covered its gills with mud and wandered on land. His nightly stories always involved the River Maiden. He never told his tales without a disposable plastic cup of Wray and Nephew white rum, so I hardly ever took him seriously. It is no wonder people called him Submarine; he was always under his waters. And little by little he drowned — his liver died first.
He told us the story of the Spaniards who came to Jamaica in search of El Dorado — the lost city of gold — but it was by their miscalculation of the winds. They thought they had arrived in South America. But the only gold they found was the yolk of an iguana’s egg, nuggets of maize, and the yellow heart of the sweet potato. But then they heard the news of a Taino girl who could speak to the waters and tell it what to do. She could also see the future in the rippling reflection of the river. She was the only person who knew the location of a possible gold mine hidden in the hills. When she refused to show them the discreet dirt trails and how to duck under the thick bamboo canopy, they tortured her so she would lead them to the gold. But in disobedience, she slivered through their fingers and dodged down a trail that led to nowhere. The girl used her mystical powers to summon a thunderstorm. The storm engorged and burst the river’s banks, changing its course. In the middle of the river, the Spaniards saw a table made of pure gold and attempted to retrieve it. But with the turbulence of the water, they slipped from the algae-covered boulders. The Europeans, the girl, and the secret all drowned. And when the river settled, it turned back to the black of the sand. Her name was Martha and Jenny named her daughter after her because her hair was a thick black, and the river came down the night my niece was born.
Occasionally, after dark, the Taino girl’s spirit surfaces in the form of a half-woman, half-fish. Her eyes are as silver as salt. Some say she comes in search of love or to summon souls with her sinister song, or to tell a prophecy of a great tragedy. Papa was more inclined to believe in the tragedy because shortly after the river’s colour changed in ‘51, the sky made up its face — as if it was upset with the land — and let out a brutal storm. It is what Papa said left us roofless and seeking a new home.
Papa surmised that in ‘51 the mermaid must have been lured by the red of an unopened ackee. That would’ve caused her to vomit everything she ate before. All the fish, krill and crab, all the shell and scales, all the gills and blood, and even her own insides would mix the river into a raw soup.
River water once blurred my eyes to mistake a ripe scotch bonnet pepper for a cherry. Which woman wouldn’t unleash wrath and rage on the earth and its trees for such deceit? Deceit is deceit, even if she is not quite a woman, and wrath is worth a reprisal even if it is after death.
Three days passed since the waters looked like the sand and stones haemorrhaged. Nobody has gone too close to the river since. The news says something about science and Sargasso but I don’t know about that. The days fester with the stench of dead fish. The reek runs through the bushes like gossip. Most of Martha’s clothes washed downstream and emptied into the sea. Some are stuck between rocks and mangrove with very little sign of the white they were before. The washing-pan is half buried in the morass. The river has calmed, but the mosquitoes are plump and plenty.
This morning, my niece mixes white-rum, egg white, and Kananga water into red oak powder and uses the potion to polish our veranda. I don’t know where she gets Kananga water from, but Papa would love the scent of rum walking through the house like it lives here. She sprinkles chicken blood at the four corners of the house, and then ties a tape measure around her waist, all the while ignoring my questions. She puts on her panties inside out, wraps her head with a white cloth and steps out of the house barefoot.
“Martha is where yuh going?”
“To de river Auntie Doris;” she answers me for the first time since I told her good morning.
“Go do what? Yuh no see nobody no go down there anymore? But see ya!”
“It calling me.”
“Martha yuh getting off or sum’n? What calling yuh? De river?”
“Yes Auntie, it sound like it wounded and have mud and stones stuck in its throat and it need me help.”
“Martha yuh not making any sense. Yuh scaring me. What really happen to yuh?”
“Later a talk to yuh Auntie,” she says walking away.
“Martha! Martha! Come back here likkle girl! Jesus saviour pilot me! Dis little girl a get off.”
I don’t want to allow her to go by herself so I pace behind her shouting her name, but she ignores me. Her walk is different, like she is not use to her own legs and her arms don’t swing like they normally would. She doesn’t dodge under the macka trees as everybody would, and she is taking a different route.
As she nears the river, the water meets her at the mangroves. The trees’ roots have changed colour and all the leaves are brittle and brown. Some tremble and fall off as if afraid. It is like the river — with all of its death, stench, garbage and smudges — is drawn to Martha. I catch up to her and grab her hand just as she puts her feet in. The water ripples at her ankles.
“If a have to haul yuh out by yuh hair today de way how me did haul out Jenny when she was pregnant with you.”
But the girl pulls her hand away and I fall in. While I’m struggling to get out, the water slowly makes its way up to her knees, then to her thighs like a wet perverted hand. I reach for the tape measure around her waist but she loosens her skirt and lets it float down-stream. She does the same with her blouse and head wrap as she keeps walking out. She sits like an alluring woman on a big stone half way out in the widened waters. Her hair is longer and blacker than usual, and the river is dripping from it. Her lower body is submerged. Then the river opens its mouth into a hungry yawn, and in a gulp it swallows Martha — her breasts, then shoulders, then head. But she doesn’t struggle. It’s as if she wants to go under.
Topher Allen is a Poet and Fiction Writer from Clarendon, Jamaica. His work explores the Jamaican geography, and the island’s cultural and historical experience. Mr. Allen is an Obsidian Foundation Fellow whose work has appeared in the Santa Ana River Review, The Caribbean Writer, Poetry London and elsewhere. He received the 2020 Obsidian/Arvon Prize and 2019 Poet Laureate of Jamaica: Louise Bennett-Coverley Prize for Poetry. Allen’s Poet Laureate Prize winning poems are featured in the anthology New Voices: Selected by Lorna Goodison.