Lilian not sure if she in purgatory or paradise. Every night, since the start ah the pandemic, a duppy breaking in she house and doing things to she body she never experience in she seventy years pan god earth. This Friday night, when the duppy done with Lilian, she forget she own name.
“Yuh haffuh change de lock, Reds,” she beg the instant she caregiver show up Saturday morning, late as usual. Reds only laugh and repeat the mantra she been throwing in Lilian face since before the Corona virus hit St. Vincent, “Is yuh deeds haunting yuh.”
Lilian live by sheself in a two-room bungalow pan Hilltop, the steepest hill in Freeland. She stand in she verandah every morning and watch the sun blaze out the sea like a ball ah fire, the flaming red and orange daily reminders ah the living hell of she existence. Lilian wasn’ always alone. She buddy, Duncan, use to live pan Hilltop before he marry a bigshot. She daughter, Esme, spend she first sixteen years pan Hilltop before she go Canada and leave she barely-one-year-ole pickney with Lilian. Lilian get the same sixteen years with she grandson before he join he mother. By then Duncan get sick and Lilian flat out refuse to leave Freeland.
Freeland use to be ‘Campbell Estate’ before fire gobble up the Campbells in ’79, on the same Easter Friday La Soufrière blow. The government rename the place, ‘Freeland’, and gift it to estate workers pan Independence Eve after no heritor put in a claim. Freelanders call the ole Campbell spot ‘Blighters’, because not a thing grow there after the ’79 fire. Fifteen years later, a big two-story replica ah the Campbell house throw up on Blighters, and a English family move in; a baldhead man, he wife, two sons, and he brother-in-law. The wife duh work, but she leave home every morning dress like she large and in charge. She duh draw breath to a soul in Freeland, and she drive she sons to a school halfway ‘cross the island in a black Toyota station wagon that look like it carrying the dead instead ah the living.
“Somebody better enlighten Ms. ‘Better-dan-de-rest’ ‘bout de last hoity-toity who use to live at Blighters,” Freeland High School PTA president pipe up at a Friday meeting.
“Campbell bin ah crazy ole fool who burn he family alive,” Lilian tell the president. She ultimately join the PTA in Esme final school year, and she duh intend to waste she time chatting fart. “Leh we figure out how we pickney goin’ pass English after dey teacher ups and leave witout a word,” she add.
“Wen yuh show yuh arse fuh no reason, yuh duh end up good. Dat’s all I sayin’,” the president insist before grudgingly dropping the subject.
The Englishman hear ‘bout the missing teacher. He stick up a big, red ‘English Lessons’ sign pan Blighters front gate. Lilian duh trust the man, but the rest ah Freeland falling over themself to get they pickney in he lessons. He very hard to forget, not because he does walk pan one side like he clap he backside too long in one he wife plush sofas and forever catching he royal to straighten up. No. He hard to forget because he seed scatter all over Freeland.
“Who cud teach English better dan a white Englishman?” the PTA president ask at the next meeting. “FHS goin’ mash up English dis year,” she promise. Everybody calling the Englishman ‘Teacher’ now. He dismiss the boys one by one, say them dunce. By the time Freeland catch itself, it have a bunch ah red pickney walking pan one side like a certain Englishman. Lilian grandson and the PTA president granddaughter in the bunch.
Freeland men hash out Teacher blatant violation ah they daughters every day at the rumshop. Free rum get to they head during Freeland Easter Friday cook-out and they decide to castrate Teacher. One unruly mob set off fuh Blighters. Lilian watch they movements from Hilltop and run down to see wey going on.
Teacher sniff he looming fate pan the breeze, and rip a full page out the Campbell arson guide. He light the whole damn house afire with he family inside. The mob wrestle with the fire ‘cause they want Teacher alive, but the raging inferno swallow everything. The police mek they appearance, throw four charred corpse in a death cart trailing behind they transport, and leave Blighters like the devil pan they tail.
The men still hanging ‘round Blighters, but Lilian see enough. She just about to turn up the hill when she behold the brother-in-law. He eyes red red. Not a strand ah hair pan he head, and he pack with blistery bubbles like hogskin turning pan a barbeque spit. “Shhh,” he plead, fingers trembling at a thin red line wey he lips suppose to be. Lilian too vex to think straight, plus something not quite right ‘bout him.
“Aryuh come see dis!” She bawl out. The mob surround the brother-in-law like fire ants.
“Name?” a boozy voice demand.
“Oscar,” The brother-in-law croak, he voice like cockroach trying to crawl out a glass bottle.
“Yuh skip out ah hell? Wey yuh bin?” another voice chip in.
“Ahwasatherumshop.” Oscar shaking so much, he words running together.
“Beat he lying arse! Yuh ever see a white man in de rumshop?” ah third voice belt out.
The mob beat the daylights out ah Oscar. He wriggling pan the ground with blood oozing from he open blisters.
“Duh kill him! He not Teacher!” Lilian duh realize she shout ‘til one the men push she. “Yuh only sorry fuh he ‘cause he resemble Ernest,” he grumble.
Just so Lilian vex. Wey she dead husband have to do with this? Is years now since Ernest in he grave.
Ernest get close to Lilian ‘round the same time the island get independence. He fresh off the plane from ‘Merica, and nobody know much ‘bout him. By the time Lilian catch onto Ernest true nature, she done married and pregnant with Esme. Ernest temper like a rat trap, and poor Lilian tripping it just by breathing. She hide she troubles from Duncan whenever he visit and try she best to make things work.
Duncan not please with Lilian choice in husband, but he happy fuh she. He shower Lilian with gifts every summer. Over the years Lilian get plenty souvenirs, but she favorite include a stereo from England with she favorite Queen CD, holy water from Rome, garlic spice from India, and a dagger from Japan. Once Duncan and he wife set off pan they usual globetrotting, Ernest tote Lilian gifts to he ‘ladyfriends.’ One time, out the blue, Duncan circle back. Lilian wasn’ home, and Esme tell she uncle all ‘bout she father. She tell Duncan ‘bout the whoring and how Ernest does beat she mother when he drunk.
Duncan find Ernest singing Sparrow’s “Fraid Pussy Bite Me” in one he ladyfriend yard. He knock out the words, the spit and most ah Ernest front teeth with the first cuff. News spread like wildfire, the whole ah Freeland, including Lilian congregate by the gate early enough to hear Duncan order the ladyfriend to switch to Lilian favorite Queen CD. Everybody watch Ernest get he arse cut right through the Bohemian Rhapsody; from the time Freddie Mercury croon, “Is this the real Life” right down to the last line, “Nothing really matters to me….”
Ernest didn’t live too long after the fiasco. People blame Lilian.
“Ernest duppy go mek she fart. Watch an see!” Lilian own pastor hah the heart to say at Ernest funeral. Freeland wicked people aware that Ernest choke pan he own vomit in a drunken stupor. The rumshop kill him, not Lilian. And definitely not Duncan. Duppy does call pan they lover, but Lilian stop open she foot fuh Ernest from the time she discover he first ladyfriend. If he come back, Lilian is the last woman he paying a visit. She buy some red panty to be on the safe side; ole people say no matter how much a duppy want a woman, it will never go near red drawers.
Oscar hate the color red bad bad. It does remind him ah the licks he get the night Blighters burn down. He cyar remember how he mek it out the blaze. Truth is, he cyar remember much ‘bout heself, but he here, and he grateful. Some weedheads help him knock up a shack pan in Blighters. It tek a while before Freeland accept him, and even then, only as a regular in the rumshop so they could watch him gobble down rum like water. The only other body capable ah that was Ernest. Oscar duh understand why he mouth always taste like vomit, or why the only thing dulling the bitterness is Sunset rum. He ‘low the gang ah weedheads to build they own shack at Blighters. Freeland people say the place haunted, but the weedheads high night and day, they cyar tell a duppy from a saint even if yuh pay them.
The duppy have Lilian in limbo again. Rain beat down whole night, but instead ah the sweet calm that does come with a good Vincy rainstorm, Lilian pan the floor with the duppy squealing like a pig in muck in a mixture ah she sweat and eye-water. By morning, every part ah Lilian body aching. Reds meet Lilian sweeping up glass from the two front windows. Before Lilian say anything, Reds hands stretch out like a traffic police charging a mini-van to halt. “Lemme guess, ah duppy break out de windows.”
Lilian know Reds looking fuh fame after Esme fix she good yesterday.
“Me nah pay yuh fuh stress out me mother. If she want de locks change, den change de friggin’ locks!” Esme scream through the Samsung cellphone she send fuh Lilian last birthday.
“Me real sorry, Esme,” Reds tell she.
“Nah me fuh give apology!” Esme bark.
Reds hug Lilian. “Lilian, me sorry yuh hear?” Lilian skin crawling from Reds fakeness.
After Esme say she goodbyes, Reds turn off the phone and swoop in pan Lilian like a chicken hawk.
“Yuh tell yuh daughter yuh does see tings?” she spit out the words in disgust.
Lilian duh play to match Reds, “Like how yuh does leave here every night?”
Reds cyar afford to lose the drop ah money she get as Lilian caregiver. She change tactics, “Sometimes dem pickney does sick. How me fuh leave them alone?”
“Yuh tek me fuh idiot? Me know yuh granny does keep dem,” Lilian fling back.
Reds give up. “Just stop mash up yuh own place!” She shout.
“But is not me doin’ all dat,” Lilian wring she hands in frustration.
“De duppy doin’ it?” Reds ask, rolling she eyes.
Lilian duh bother with the snot running out she nose. She feeling real sorry fuh sheself.
“Watch how yuh deeds have yuh!” Reds grumble. She pull out the cellphone Lilian never get a chance to touch, call she latest man pan WhatsApp, and ignore Lilian.
Esme call at five o’clock pan the dot next day. Reds set up the phone wey Esme could see she and Lilian.
“Mummy, how yuh doing today?” Esme voice sound hopeful.
“De duppy nearly kill me agen Esme!” Lilian wail.
“Mummy duh say dem tings,” Despair chase out the lil hope in Esme voice.
“Esme me body weary, me soul tired,” Lilian start trembling.
“Reds, yuh staying wit Mummy, nah true?” Esme ask.
“Yes Esme,” Reds say in she best attempt at a reassuring tone.
“Reds, yuh not doing dis fuh free,” Esme remind Reds, as if she suspect the truth.
“Dis Alzheimer’s nuh easy pan none ah we. Me trying me best, Esme,” Reds remarks cut through Esme doubts smoother than a butter knife. By the time Esme end the call, it dark, and Lilian still sniffling.
“Yuh leavin’ Reds?” Lilian barely whisper the question.
“Shut up Lilian. Me want the same ting yuh dreamin’ ‘bout every night,” Reds hiss.
“Stick ‘round. See who dreamin’,” Lilian retort.
“Ello, ‘low me fuh ride me own duppy. Yuh want all fuh yuhself?” Reds lean up some ole galvanize by the windows, jam in two rusty nails to keep them in place, and head off Hilltop. She duh even spare a backward glance fuh Lilian.
Lilian cringe up in the corner whimpering like a lost puppy in the rain. “If yuh was yuhself, all dis advantage cudn’ happen,” she moan, thinking ‘bout she buddy, Duncan.
Back in the day, Duncan was a walking coconut tree, tall tall with size fifteen foot, like the good Lord stick on two row-boat pan he legs. He muscles stand out as if The Maker spend quality time etching every sinew pan he frame. Duncan fall in with Governor Mitchell daughter, and since the Mitchells own estates all over the world, he only in St. Vincent a few weeks in the summer – except fuh the time he show up early and pepper Ernest backside fuh illtreating Lilian. The earth vanish from under Lilian foot as if she in the middle ah the earthquake mashing up Haiti the same day in January Duncan arrive in Freeland grinning wide wide, like some sort ah invisible puppet master stretching the two corners ah he mouth. He in-laws say he hit he head in some sort ah ski accident. Lilian search fuh recognition in she buddy eyes, but all she see is she own reflection.
Lilian turn philanthropist that January; she sweeping the church yard even though she no longer step foot in the service, she taking care ah Duncan even though he have he own team ah nurses, she cooking fuh the gang ah weedheads even though the whole ah Freeland disapprove.
Esme threaten to fly home fuh Lilian. Lilian ask she, “How me fuh leave me one buddy to Vincy bad-minded people?”
Then Esme inform Lilian that she hire ah caregiver.
“Me nah need nobody fuh come harass me ine me own house!” Lilian argue.
“Reds is a nice girl, Mummy. Me and she mother go Freeland High together. Reds granny use to be de PTA president. She father is dat wutless Teach __”
Lilian duh like wey the conversation going, “We go talk later, Esme.”
Esme not having it. “Okay Mummy. Reds starting Monday,” she end the call before Lilian could think of a comeback.
The years fly past. Reds go and come pan Hilltop as she please. She hardly bother to have ah proper conversation with Lilian. So Lilian wary when Reds describe how she head raise anytime she pass Oscar pan the road. Two-twos, Reds and Oscar best ah friends.
“He say me remind him ah somebody special,” Reds explain, she words dripping with a smugness Lilian could trace back to a certain charmer. Goosebumps spring up pan Lilian hand like sweat pan ah cold glass ah water. She mek the sign ah the cross, rebuking whoever or whatever walking over she grave.
All hell break loose one evening when Reds turn up singing, ‘Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me’.
“Wey yuh hear dat?” Lilian snap.
“Is one ah Oscar favorite tune. Me cyar get it out me head,” Reds start jigging and singing. Lilian feel something heavy settle in she chest. “Duh sing dat in my place,” she tell Reds with such ferocity, Reds freeze up right away.
Is around this time Freeland people start whispering ‘bout how Lilian not right in she head, like she buddy Duncan. Reds seem to be in the midst ah the comess. She always sharing stories; how Lilian forgetting names, how she does forget wey day it be, how she does get angry and lash out fuh no reason. Oscar tell the weedheads that Lilian turn up at Blighters with bucket and mop and when he ask she wey she going, she claim she come clean the church. Everybody watching Lilian funny, but she duh waste time pan Freeland ignoramus. She mind she own business, ‘til yesterday when she go down Hilltop with some callaloo soup and fish fuh the weedheads.
“Wey yuh going?” Oscar ask, materializing in front Lilian at the bottom ah the hill. He lips turn a sickly pink hue, like somebody douse Pepto-Bismol on rotten salmon and leave it in the sun.
“None ah yuh business. Ah want yuh move out me way,” Lilian tell him.
Oscar laugh, “Woman, me ah the last body who care wey yuh want after yuh cost me two painful cut-arse.” He walk round Lilian, he rum scent stifling in the hot sun.
“Oscar, yuh accusin’ me ah someting I know noting ‘bout,” Lilian manage, trying hard not to breathe in the rum stench.
Oscar start singing, “Right now, nothing really matter to me.”
Lilian know exactly wey she hear this song before. All of a sudden, the two cut-arse mek sense. “Go to hell!” she scream, pelting the pot ah callaloo soup in Oscar direction and running all the way up Hilltop. Lilian duh even know wey she fling the fish. She tek off she shoe at the front door, put them facing out, then walk backward through she doorway. She lie down and stare at the ceiling, dreading wey bound to come later.
“Jesus, cover me under yuh blood.” She mouth silently, too frighten to voice the prayer.
Reds meet Lilian in a sad state when she show up round 11:30 Friday morning.
“Lilian, yuh rip off yuh own front door?” she gripe even before she enter the yard.
“Yuh really tink me go mash up me own place?” Lilian gasp through she tears.
“De duppy visit last night?” Reds ask, getting ready to lambast Lilian.
Lilian show Reds the fresh set ah bruise all over she body. Reds tek one look and exclaim, “Yuh either have ah serious bed-bug problem, or yuh catch someting bad.”
The minute Esme call, Reds show she Lilian skin. Esme instruct Reds to carry Lilian by a dermatologist. “Mummy, me praying hard fuh you and uncle Duncan,” Esme tell Lilian, but she mother refuse to say one word in response. Reds mumble she usual placating lies, stick ‘round long enough to see Lilian eat some pelau, and leave by 6:30 pm.
Lilian at peace fuh the first time in months. She fed up feeling like a frighten puppy. If is one night she going fight back, is tonight. St. Vincent reeling from dengue, Coronavirus wreaking havoc and the island pan Code-Red fuh ah volcanic eruption. Is a good thing Freeland in the safe zone, because Lilian duh want to evacuate anywhere else, she want to deal with she demons right here in Freeland. A Radio 705 announcer remind listeners that school close, church pan hiatus and all mass gatherings postpone. “Is water more dan flour dis Easter! Who ain’t droppin’ like August boo-boo over ah coal pit, scatterin’ like big flies from under Soufrière. Water dark my people, alyuh be safe out dere!” he holler before signing off the ‘Vincy-Vybz’ morning show.
Everybody off the road except Freeland rum men. The rumshop open fuh business as usual. The drunkards getting money to dig graves, $600.00 fuh each hole. They making so much money, they don’t know wey to do with themself. A police visit the rumshop trying to appeal to whatever conscience still alive under the alcohol.
“I cyar believe me eyes,” the officer say, mekin’ sure he mask and face shield in place. “No sanitizer, no mask, no shame!” he voice sound like it vibrating from all over he body.
Oscar step forward “Ah could help yuh officer?”
The officer step back. “Dis place is a Corona nest,” he announce.
Oscar grin, unapologetic and pompous as ever. “So officer, if ah sanitizer wit sixty percent alcohol cud kill dis Corona virus, wey yuh tink Sunset strong rum go do to it when it hit de gut with more dan eighty-five percent alcohol?”
The police scratch he head. Oscar ease behind the counter and mix two rum shots with a Hairoun beer. “Steel Bottom, on de house” he say loud loud, and pass the drink to the officer. By the time the police pan he second steel bottom, the fellows spinning him round like a top in the palm ah they hands.
“So officer the virus only walk ‘bout at night? Ah Nicodemus?” Oscar ask.
The police bob he head up and down, “Yeah,” then shake from side to side, “Well no.” He hiccup, belch and fart loudly before laughing raucously with the rest ah the men. He leave the rumshop bellowing, “Vincy gah de haardesst, steel in me head, steel in me head!” The men follow him outside prancing like they in a carnival parade. In the middle ah the revelry, thunder boom like the Almighty scolding the whole rabble fuh they drunkenness. The ground start quake, the place turn pitch dark like midnight and rocks blasting from the sky like hailstones. All man forget ‘bout steel bottom and head back to the rumshop. Seven hours later, when the place clear up lil bit, everybody scamper home. Freeland look like a ghost town; ashes falling like rain, and everything under several inches ah grey soot.
Lilian alone as usual. The evening is a carbon copy ah the ’79 eruption, and although it dread, is the least ah Lilian concern. She bathe in a bucket ah rice water – ole people say rice water does mek yuh see duppy clear as day. She never realize all she red panty disappear ‘til now, but she duh mek that bother she. Lilian prepare she living room fuh the big show down. She light candles in a circle, jump over them three times, sit down pan she Bible in the middle ah the circle facing the door and wait patiently. The duppy call Lilian name fuh the first time. She know not to answer.
It float in the room pan rum scent so potent, Lilian surprise she bungalow nuh go up in flames. This duppy powerful. It walk past the circle without a scratch, pull Lilian off the Bible, and push it aside without flinching. Lilian ‘low it to rip off she clothes. No resistance. Not even as it push she pan she back and crawl over she body. She wait ‘til she and the duppy eye-to-eye, then she smile.
“Ah going release yuh tonight Ernest,” She murmur in it ears. The duppy eyes open wide. It try get off Lilian but she foot lock round it waist like a human fetter.
“Ah release yuh in the name ah de Father,” Lilian voice like a sweet caress. The duppy duh feel the first stab. Lilian soak the precious Japanese dagger Duncan gift she all these years in a mixture ah the holy water, and garlic spice.
“Ah release yuh in the name ah de son,” Lilian voice stronger now. Confident.
The Duppy bawl out. Lilian tighten she legs ‘round it waist.
“Ah release yuh in de name ah the holy ghost!” Lilian scream this time, she cries blending with the duppy unholy shrieks. It sound like a Billy goat who just realize he ‘bout to be dinner when he throat done cut open.
“Shhh,” Lilian whisper, she voice like honey now, “Go back to the pits ah hell Ernest!”
Reds march in Lilian bungalow next morning and grip she chest like she trying to keep she heart from falling out pan the ground. She gape like a fish out ah water as she try to comprehend wey she seeing on Lilian living room floor.
“Wey de arse going on here?” She finally blurt out as she two foot start buckling.
Lilian peep out from she kitchen wey she busy preparing some callaloo soup and fish. She figure she owe the weedheads a good Easter meal. “Aye! Yuh reach?” She call out to Reds, “Go Get de enamel mop bucket behind de house nah. Me go need help fuh clear way all dat mess.” She look at she living room floor and shake she head.
Reds retrieve the mop bucket like a robot, she mouth paralyze in shock as she look at a naked Oscar in a pool ah blood staring she down with unseeing eyes.
“Reds?” Lilian call out from the kitchen, “When yuh getting dem windows fix? De door too. Time to get me house in order. Me get rid ah de duppy now.”
Lafleur Cockburn is a Vincentian writer living in Barbados. Her writing explores her identity as a mother, sister and daughter; curates her personal experiences; serves as a repository for her grandmother’s stories; explores the liminal space occupied by empaths and grapples with the realities of an academic in love with the Vincy creole. A mouthful, she knows. Her bio will probably change with the next story.