Mabiri stood up from her hammock to savour the afternoon breeze. For as long and as far back as she could remember, there had been almond trees beside the river — with sunshine-coloured branches that children used as diving boards. She and her friends were on that same tree not so long ago and this late Friday afternoon was no different. There, when she watched them from her verandah, human fruit outnumbered the young, green almonds on hot summer days like these. Her hope was equal parts maternal and envious. There were not enough dishes to wash, clothes to fold, pictures to dust to keep her mind off the phone call.
Mabiri was grateful that important phone calls usually came when she was in the middle of something. She might have been driving, checking exams or simply exercising on the pier when someone would reach her with the most inconvenient set of syllables. At such times, she would have preferred stillness or privacy or both. There would be no need to power through and pretend to herself or anyone else that her life wasn’t fragile. Maybe because she had no distraction this time the implications of the call brought her anger more than concern. Why this? Why now?
The black birds, pigeons, and parrots were competing for attention when she rose that morning. It was a Friday, and the market was bursting with activity. People bought ground food and seasonal fruit for spouses or students who commuted weekly from Belmopan or Belize City. Mabiri was among them. She enjoyed the extended summer holiday as one of the few perks that teachers received. If she had only married a fellow teacher she would have had more excitement each summer. Wexler was a rare and valuable man who had loved her enough 24 years ago to diligently execute all of the traditional customs of courtship, obscure and well-known to the Garinagu, even though he was from Corozal where there was no dabuyabaor other signs that Garinagu had long settled in that area. At times, he had felt that the elders in her family were inventing customs just to deter him, but this did not change his resolve that Mabiri was the woman who would become his wife.
On one particular occasion she had invited Wexler to the family farm just three miles outside of Dangriga. He was instructed to bring his machete to her house at sunrise where an uncle would pick them up. Both were geared in long-sleeved shirts of thin white cotton, faded old jeans, rain boots which covered their pants up to their knees and straw hats. They coordinated so well that her family called them Gene and Gina for most of the first day. Three generations of the family headed to the farm, from seven years young to seventy-eight years old. Wexler was used to the farm—not this exact one since it was his first time there, but farms are like rivers. Corozal had slightly different hardwood, birds and memories, but he was still in his element. As sunset drew near and the family began roasting cashews, birds flew in flocks over them. Okra, Scotch bonnet and underbrush grew beneath giant guanacaste, near fruiting cashew trees. Months before, Mabiri’s family had chopped enough firewood for the roasting and to prepare two days’ worth of meals. Now, they placed two tin buckets of cashew seeds onto pieces of zinc, nail-sized holes all around them and spent the evening roasting. This served to ward off the swarms of mosquitoes and sandflies which planned their attack with a precision that only nature can orchestrate.
All day they’d collected cashew seeds from under the closest row of perfectly lined trees. First, they’d collected the set that were already on the ground, many still attached to their juicy red or yellow fruit. The elders detached the fleshy fruit from each seed and set them aside for jam or for wine based on their state of ripeness. The eldest child harvested the younger fruits still attached to their stems. This required swiftness as armies of pea-sized red wee wee ants advanced upon them as they climbed the tree to shake its branches.
The conversation remained lively with an equal mixture of Garifuna from the older folks and Creole from their children. As Wexler was retelling his close call with a beehive on his own family farm, it occurred to him and Mabiri that the elders did not set him up for any challenge this time and were ready to accept him as one of their own.
All night they roasted cashew seeds before retiring into a narrow, thatched roof house, where the men slept on one side and the women slept on the other. Mabiri felt quite close to Wexler although they had barely spoken all day on account of being so busy. They awoke near dawn to the music of forest birds. After quick baths in the clear shallow river behind the farm, they began cracking the charred nuts and attempting to estimate the yield. Each person was busy making breakfast, cracking cashew seeds, or rinsing and packing cashew fruits. Her granny’s brother, Yao Pike, at 78, played the supervisor at each stage while lifting not one finger, entertaining young and old with animated stories of when he used to work on banana plantations in Guatemala and Honduras.
Mabiri heard a splash in the water. A different set of children were now on the almond tree though their faces resembled a few of her schoolmates. One of them could even have been her own if she and Wex hadn’t saved, borrowed and prayed enough to ensure that their only child attended the most prestigious university in the region. Danique was likely in a lecture at that very hour across the Caribbean wishing she could be on her favourite branch.
The river was on the south side of her verandah. On the east side she had a view of the Caribbean Sea, the market immediately before it, and the bridge over the river which marked the centre of town. Miss Chica, Da Ben, Mr. Arthur were the neighbours whose houses comprised the view on the north side of her house. It was her grandfather’s house or at least his design. He had told her about the house’s origins long ago. The story involved a hurricane and his family’s survival. He told her about his parents and siblings who lived communally in seven houses on four lots. During the storm the entire family sheltered in the biggest and sturdiest home. It was a two-storey mahogany house built by the most able men in the family for his father, Mabiri’s great grandfather, who used to cut those same logs in the bush. Mabiri’s grandpa always dabbed his eyes with a monogrammed white handkerchief before describing how his father died soon after the hurricane. His house followed suit shortly thereafter as if it felt there was no need to stick around, since the person for whom it was the biggest source of pride would not be around to admire it.
Mabiri could recite his description of the events of the hurricane because she had recorded him. The details of the layout of the house and its downfall fascinated her beyond her own understanding. Splashing and carefree laughter reached her from the river.
“Petey. Higabu!” She called towards the river.
A gangly youth made his way out of the almond tree to a shaded spot beneath her verandah. After bidding each other the time of day, she gave him $5 with instructions to buy a pack of Milports. In her day, old ladies would spit on the ground and you had to get back before the spit dried or else! About four spits later, just as she was about to hail another youth to track him down, she saw Petey coming down the lane. Climbing the stairs, he said, “Sorry, Noufuri. Mr. Ye close down early today sake ah shooting da Belize City weh kill ih cousin so I end up di go by di gas station ova di bridge. I yer Uncle geh shot, up da side too and ih inna haspital. Dat true? Dat da why you send me fi buy dis?”
He handed her the pack on the last word which led her to believe that he’d rehearsed his delivery on the way back. Her watery eyes answered his questions. He returned to the almond tree to give his peers the report. The splashing and laughter ceased. Mabiri would have to get used to those looks until people moved on to some other headline.
After two servings of dinner, she began her work. It was now 9:12 p.m. Her only company was the full moon and a handful of stars blinking on beat to the sound of nightlife floating through the vibrant town. On any given night, Punta could be heard from a club, a stage or a neighbour’s radio.
She sat in Wex’s plush recliner in stillness and darkness, deaf to the music. Inhaling his scent, she awaited a sign instructing her to do something contrary to her instincts, but no message came — literally or figuratively. After her midday nap was interrupted by the call about Wex she had turned off her phone. It was the phone call he’d insisted she prepare for when he joined the police force, yet the reality was so unexpected that when she heard the silence signalling the end of the call, only four words registered — husband, shot, hospital, flight. Now, nestled in stillness, she could recall the conversation. PC Waight had given a summary of the incident and said that Wex looked so bad, that she should catch the next flight to see him while he was still breathing.
The candles were at the bottom of a blue barrel in the guest bedroom. Three years before she had bought them on a trip to Esquipulas in Guatemala. At the last minute, she had gone on the annual pilgrimage with a busload of community elders to pray to the Black Christ. Maybe it was the combined scent of Bengay and Vicks VapoRub on that journey that compelled her to return with something her late grandmother would approve of. It was on a similar day-long road trip decades ago that her granny had revealed to her that some of her dreams weren’t dreams. Her mother also had the gift. How else could she have such insights into Mabiri’s school life even while living in Canada? She had tucked away the candles and edible clay tablets after her recent road trip. However, if now was not the time to use them, then when would that time come? She encircled herself with twelve of the twenty multi-colored candles and rested on her back with her eyes closed. She tried to tap into the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-being creator of the universe with eagerness and faith that everything cloudy would become clear. Soon she saw a small, red-feathered bird with brown legs, a brown beak, black eyes and a relatively long tail for its size. The bird silently granted her permission to use his eyes, his wings and other gifts. She was equally with him and in him.
She saw the bird flying over Belize City neighbourhoods before perching by a window at the intensive care unit at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital. Inside the room were four beds occupied by sleeping men of different ages. Luckily, Wex’s bed was nearest to the window, so the red bird got the view she needed. There she slept overnight until she sensed the arrival of a nurse at 6.30 a.m. Dressed in all white scrubs, the broad young Mestizo man listed their schedules, then assisted each in and out of a bathroom near the entrance of their room.
Wex was awake, but hardly responsive. He stayed in bed and glanced at the door each time someone came. There were waves of visits from hospital staff, family members or friends of the other men. Visiting hours ended before the sun set, then another morning brought a repeat of the same sequence. The following day Wex was responsive enough to be moved into a private room. In this room a junior officer he seemed quite familiar with visited him and Wex recounted his ordeal.
“I was on bike patrol close to Second Chance Market after hearing about a crew of youngstas staking out the place for the entire week. I anticipated their big move on Friday afternoon since da mi payday. From what I coulda see the men were in teams of two and the women in teams of three. They musta told customas to walk outta the shop and empty their handbags and pockets along with their cell phones into a pigtail bucket by the left side of the entrance. The second set had high school students mixed in. I no sure whether they just happened to travel inna pack like that or they were part of the thing, but they reached a few minutes lata to collect the pigtail bucket and distract the owna and guards with a fight outside. Another two had weapons that surprised the owna, the workas and the security guards who were still trying to make sense of the fight and at the same time figga out why people were walking out without buying anything. It was at this point, when I see the guns that I came out from my hiding spot into the shop. As I seh ‘freeze’ somebody shoot me.”
Wex reclined his bed to return to sleep. His colleague turned off his phone, stepped outside to scribble some notes, then walked down the hall. He returned, looking into the room as if he’d forgotten something. He peered in long enough to see Wex scrolling through his phone then left again.
After 23 years of marriage Mabiri knew definitively when Wex was lying. It was the way his left eyebrow twitched as he tried to keep the officer’s attention. While she couldn’t tell exactly at which point in the story he had inserted lies, she knew that there was more to the incident than what she’d heard through the ears of the red bird. She reverted to conversation with the all-being, all-seeing, all-knowing creator to give her clarity. Did she really see that twitch? Was he just nervous? The small but HD avian eyes definitely saw each expression.
She was then reminded of the tone he had used three years earlier to explain his transfer to Belize City immediately after an audit had exposed widespread moral and financial corruption in his department. His explanation was closed for discussion. She’d once made the mistake of confronting him about the rumour that a young boy in his village bore a resemblance to him. He was using the same tone, spoken with the same air of finality. He had convinced her then to let it go despite her concerns. What was he hiding? Why was he hiding it? What would this mean for them?
When she pestered him about his evasiveness he had blamed her for having expensive tastes beyond his capacity to provide. He’d lamented their family vacations, their cars, even installing air conditioning in the hottest rooms in their home. Mabiri had since changed their lifestyle enough for them to live within their means. There was absolutely no reason for him to be involved in crime or be anything other than a law enforcement officer. Yet, she kept returning to his arrogant, evasive tone and that unmistakable twitch. When she searched for answers to questions she should have asked many moons earlier, she found nothing.
Wexler knew that he was being watched by the camera near the TV, and by a pair of tiny black eyes which had been in the room for the past two days. He knew the eyes belonged to his wife and if he ever made it out of the hospital he would have to explain his lies in that interview. That was the last thought he had as he made the mistake of taking a picture of the haunting little black eyes at the very moment Mabiri decided that it would be easier to bury her husband than spend the rest of her life apologizing for him.
Felene Michelle Cayetano is a Belizean, Garifuna, Librarian, Author, Mother, Screenwriter and Director. Since 2007, she has served as Librarian at the National Heritage Library branch of the Belize National Library Service and Information System. She is a founding member of the Belizean Writers Guild and currently serves on the board of directors of the Belize Book Industry Association (BBIA) and Belize Copyright Licensing Agency (BECLA). She has published 2 collections of poetry (Evolution and Crossing Bridges), edited/published an anthology of short fiction by Belizean authors (Belizean Nail Soup) and written/directed a short film (Afieni).