PREE is proud to collaborate with the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival in publishing THE WAILERS by Akhim Alexis which was awarded the BCLF Elizabeth NUnez Award for Writers in the Caribbean from a shortlist of eight stories.
Everybody knows that when you go to a funeral you don’t wear all black, you must slip in some colour for the Lord to see you in mourning. If everybody wear black then he might look down and decide is just a swarm of black garden ants moving from one place to the other looking for their hole in the ground. So when Yvette get the call from Baby that they had a booking for a funeral, she immediately set out her outfit, a black satin skirt with a navy blue top and hat, with the blue push-in-foot shoe from the Catwalk closing down sale. She heated up the leftover porridge from last night and gulped it down in a frenzy so she will have enough time to comb she hair and sweep the yard before she left.
Usually, they got bookings on the day of the funeral because people never consider who will shout for the dead until the cemetery looking scarce and only a handful of mourners show up. Preacher man does say that the spirit in the casket could refuse to leave if not enough people make noise, so that is how the three wailers Yvette, Isabel and Baby, come to be.
Nobody in these near parts could bawl down a funeral like those three women.
They never went into the church building, that was not part of the job. If you want them to shout and carry on inside the church you had to book days in advance and pay twice the amount; so they usually did their work at the cemetery. Yvette did not depend on the funeral work as much as the other wailers, Baby and Isabel, because she was a full-time caterer, one of the sweetest hand in South, so she attended to her part time job only when she had the time and needed some extra cash.
After sweeping the yard she went into her car and phoned Baby.
“Aye, I leaving home now eh, meet me by the highway I’ll pick you up.”
Baby on the other end of the call was distant, her voice trembling under a mountain of sorrow.
“Oh god girl I get some news just now, I not able Yvette, we sister gone!
“Gone where? Who you talking about? Is not Isabel you mean? I talk to she last night and she say she coming with we to Mr. Moses burial today. Don’t tell me something happen to Isabel! Baby, oh god!
“No no Yvette, Isabel good good, is Cherie, she son call me just now from New York to tell me she drop down in the bathroom. I feel so bad Yvette we never go America to check she all these years, Oh God and now she just dead just so!”
Yvette went silent in the car, she could barely hold the phone up to her ear anymore, her chest felt heavy. All the years of disconnect just came together in an instant. When Cherie was part of the wailers, she was the loudest and most visceral shouter of the four, Cherie alone could send the casket down in the ground from the power of her voice rumbling through the cemetery like hurricane wind. But Yvette had not kept in contact with Cherie as much as Isabel and Baby did. Yvette learned to love her from afar, but she never forgave her for leaving. Eight years of distant love ending in death. Yvette sat with the news, filling up the car with guilt and shame. That good for nothing son Cherie make. He force the woman to move from she house in Arima to stay in America with he and that white woman. After all ah we raise that boy he just take she away and say to hell with we! Look now. Look what it come to.
“Yvette, yuh there? I not feeling to do no funeral today sister, we need to sit down and spend some time with weself”
“Alright Baby, call Isabel and tell she I coming, we will come back by me and sort this out.”
A momentary silence ran through the phone before Baby broke the gap.
“We should have visited her you know, it was too long now”
“I know Baby, I know.”
Isabel and Baby sat in Yvette’s living room, uneasy, flipping their skirt between their legs, shifting their feet to unstick the hot plastic covering on the couch from their thighs. Cherie never said she was sick or experiencing any type of pains, she was always upbeat when on the phone. Baby wondered what type of sickness does just mash you up instantly, leaving you with no time to prepare yourself for God to pull you asunder.
Isabel called out to Yvette who was putting together some sandwiches in the kitchen.
“Yvette, I know yuh avoiding the topic, but we have to go New York.”
Yvette looked into the living room from the open space in the kitchen, her face scrunched up.
“I can’t do it Isa, I just can’t.” Yvette put the bread down, wiping away tears before the water ran out the corner of her eye onto the counter.
“Don’t be so Yvette!” Isabel interjected. “I know you feeling ah how but that was we sister, Cherie is one ah we through and through. I could get my daughter to organize the tickets for we. Cherie son say the funeral is Monday, he giving people enough time to come up New York.”
“Yes Yvette” Baby joined in softly. “We need to show up at least this once. Me and Isabel will go even if you don’t want to. We will send your love.”
Yvette stepped out of the kitchen in smooth vexation “Don’t send nothing from me! Allyuh want me to go. I will go. You don’t think I in pain like you Baby? She never even tell me she was leaving, she just went and never come back. You don’t think my pain deep like the roots on the mango tree outside?” she was no longer in control of the tears, they ran away from her like birds fleeing a rapture.
Her voice now a whisper, “Don’t tell me nothing about sending my love, Cherie always had that, she left with all my love, what else I have to give again?”
Isabel stood up, her tall body and long neck aiming for the ceiling as she walked towards Yvette and squeezed her arm, “I hear everything sister, I feel you. I will organize and we will go up and send Cherie off.”
Baby stood up as well, a short woman with strong legs, picked up her purse and looked out to the yard,
“Yes, they take Cherie and carry she America, but everybody know she is one ah we, when we reach up so we going to reclaim we sister and restore she as one of the original Four Wailing Sisters. We will show them burial.” she said, walking into the kitchen for a sandwich.
The plane touched down on Saturday night at the JFK International Airport. The three women, dressed as though they were about to meet the Pope himself, Baby with her white head tie, Yvette with her brand new yellow dress and Isabel in a polka dot matching blouse and skirt all waited for Robert, Cherie’s only child to come collect them and carry them to Utica, where he and family lived.
The home was a pleasant place, hugged by a well-kept garden and plenty of yard space, but the three ladies made no remarks beneath the night. They offered Robert’s family the same taut greetings they had afforded to him.
“Well, is nice to meet all of you again after so long” Isabel said, moving towards the room they had identified as hers when she arrived. “I’ll just find myself some rest now, it was a long flight yuh know” she left little room for debate.
“Yes girl, very true” Yvette chimed in, making no eye contact with Robert and his wife, who were both standing awkwardly in the hallway.
“Well Miss Yvette I’m just glad you could make the trip, I know it’s been hard for everybody, but thanks for coming.” Robert measured his words. He knew Yvette saw no need for extended conversation, so he left space for silence where needed.
“Well yes, I couldn’t miss this homegoing. Is my Cherie we talking about. Although, if she was in Trinidad maybe a good sea bath every now and then would have kept her strong and above ground a little longer, some bush tea, but allyuh don’t know about all of that up here so…it is what it is.”
Robert felt the lash, but received it passively, turning his attention to the luggage he was carrying.
“Well. Thanks again Miss Yvette, I appreciate you for coming, she would have wanted you here. All three of you.” Robert nodded towards Yvette, in kind.
Sharing a room, Baby turned to Yvette and said “Make that the last time yuh throw talk for that boy, this not we house and he wife already watching we all how.”
“That white woman don’t mean nothing to me, she is a little girl. Imagine that eh Baby, you ever imagine America to feel so small? So suffocating? The atmosphere just depressing.”
“Yvette, that is not the atmosphere, that is you, you suffocating yourself since you hear Cherie dead. America have nothing to do with that, release yuhself from yuhself, you hear me?”
“I not able with all that tonight Baby, I going and sleep.”
Yvette took to her bed and turned to the wall. Baby pretended not to hear the cries in the pillow.
Everybody wore black, the entire church looked like the pitch lake. Over the years Cherie had joined the church choir and the ladies’ class, so they all wore a silver brooch along with all black dresses to remember their departed member. Yvette, Isabel, and Baby sat in the church in full colour, discomforted by the darkness and low singing voices.
“What kind of depressing thing is this?” Isabel whispered to Yvette.
Yvette looked over to Baby for confirmation of her disapproval.
“Oh gosh girl” Baby said to Yvette, “I really don’t know what to say, God must be sleeping.”
Yvette just shook her head, turning her lip upside down, furrowing her eyebrows.
Fewer people migrated to the cemetery, less than twenty people in all. This small number seemed almost worrisome to the three friends. Why did the church stay away? Where did everybody else go? Yvette walked over to Robert who was assisting the pallbearers and asked “Son, where everybody else? You sure they get the address?” he looked at her in confusion. “Yes Miss Yvette, we only invited close friends and family for a private burial.” Yvette looked over to Baby and Isobel who heard the answer, “Private!?” they all shouted. Yvette felt her bosom sink down into her spirit and the heat from her chest rise up to her head. This boy must be mad? she thought. In two-two’s Yvette’s lungs burst open and a loud tumult of soaring pain rang through the cemetery, she held her hands to her head and bent over near the open hole in the ground, shouting “Woiiiii Oh God Oh God Oh God, Cherieeeeeeeee”. Baby grabbed Isabel’s hand and joined in the clamour, almost harmonizing with Yvette, “Blessed Assuranceeee Jesus Lord God Mercyyyyy Mercyyy Oh Goddddd, Take One Ah We Insteadd!!!”
Family and friends were shocked into sorrow. Robert, who was standing in quiet mourning, covered his face.
The wailing spread through the cemetery, turning the burial from a silent gathering to raucous rapture. And as Cherie’s coffin went into the ground, the wailers woke Jesus out of his slumber to welcome Cherie, with Yvette leading the ruckus, because when the day turns, Cherie’s spirit will leave this place, and rest in Trinidad.
Akhim Alexis is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. He is a graduate of the University of the West Indies and holds an MA in Literatures in English. He was a finalist for The Bocas Lit Fest Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize (2021) and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The McNeese Review, Transition Magazine, Chestnut Review, Juked, Interviewing the Caribbean, Moth Magazine, Moko Magazine, The Caribbean Writer, and other periodicals.