As soon as the magistrate say, “Life,” the people in the courthouse shout out, “No, no, no.” The magistrate start banging the gavel for order. The pro-bono-lawyer girl jump up, saying something about prolonged mental effects of sexual assault. I didn’t bother with her. I turn to Piya and I send a message with my eyes: I do this for you. She bow, like in temple. Then she walk out. My sweet doux-doux, my baby girl.
On my way out of the courthouse a reporter stopped me, asking if I thought my mother’s sentence was fair. I didn’t answer. Fair? Is anything in this world fair?
Outside, yellow poui flowers were falling in whispers. I sat cross-legged under a tree. No one bothered me.
Later that night I saw myself on TV in the white shirt and black pants that the lawyer wanted me to wear. She thought it would make me look respectable, as if I cared. The reporter said, “The eighteen-year-old daughter, Piya, had no comment when asked about her mother’s life sentence for arson and murder.”
My sister, Didi, really help me when I run away from Piya’s father. I didn’t plan it at all. To be honest, he was a good man until he get drunk and turn into a leggo beast.
Every Saturday I cooked Piya’s favorite lunch: rice, dal and curry chicken. Piya always arranged a special salad of lettuce, watercress, parsley and even red hibiscus petals from the garden.
Since Saturday morning was for me and Piya to spend time together cooking, on Friday night I always made sure my kitchen was sparkling clean. It was a small kitchen, but it was mine. On the counter next to the white gas stove, I had all my spices and knives on a nice carved wooden tray that Didi gave me.
One Friday night I just finish cleaning up when Piya’s father come home. He say he hungry.
“Oh god, is Friday night and I just clean up the kitchen. Why you didn’t buy something to eat in the rumshop?”
I say this knowing full well it will enrage him, that he is one of those men who don’t eat as a rule when they drinking. They only spending money on petit quarts, and like to see plenty bottles on the table.
“Woman, what shit you talking?”
He stagger over to the counter, pick up the wooden tray and fling it on the ground. It make a loud crash and I was hoping it didn’t wake Piya.
I knew what was coming next, but this time I didn’t care. I look at that tray on the kitchen floor and like I see my whole life. Right then and there I make up my mind to leave. This one time I didn’t care about licks and pain.
After Ma left Dada we stayed with Auntie Didi. I felt comfortable. I was relieved not to listen to the sounds of Ma and Dada fighting, the sharp slaps, her crying and begging him to stop.
Everything we owned was in the back room where we slept. All the cardboard boxes with our possessions were stacked neatly against one wall. My cousin, Gayatri, who was three years older, gave me a box of old clothing that she usually kept for charity cases in the neighborhood.
Gayatri and I hardly spoke, but whenever she went to the mall with her glamorous friends she bought me fudge and we shared it in the hammock. She was tall and thin while I was heavier. She taught me to style my long hair into a tight bun like hers, so we looked like sisters. Her two younger brothers were so annoying, she said.
Gayatri confided that she was waiting to move into the back room when Ma and I left. Her brothers shared a bedroom but she slept with Auntie. Uncle had taken to sleeping downstairs in a spare room at the back of the kitchen, where he had his own TV. Nothing about this arrangement seemed unusual; Ma often slept with me when Dada was in his drinking phase.
For Ma, Auntie Didi was a second mother. Being twelve years older, Auntie always took care of Ma. Whenever Uncle was out at night, they sat talking quietly in the kitchen, but left the TV in the living room on high volume, perhaps to ensure their privacy.
One night when Uncle was out and Ma was downstairs with Auntie, I was in bed but tossing, unable to sleep. I heard someone come into the bedroom. I was too scared to open my eyes. I knew it was Uncle. He had a strong body odor that I hated. I kept my eyes shut, hoping he would leave. My heart was racing. My mother kept all her money in the top drawer of the dressing table. Did he come to steal it? He kept standing over me, breathing heavily. I heard loud footsteps and when I opened my eyes no one was there. When I told Ma she scolded me for not locking the door.
“We have nowhere to go. Your Auntie was good to take us in, so don’t do nothing to mess everything up for me and you.”
The next day Uncle never looked at me, and my mother doubted what I related.
“He don’t even look at you. What you tell me last night? Like you was dreaming? You better watch yourself.”
Days later I was downstairs in the hammock looking through a cooking magazine. Sneaking up behind me, Uncle snatched the magazine out of my hands. I jumped out of the hammock immediately.. Sweat was running down Uncle ‘s curly grey and black hair. His pot belly was punching through his shirt. He seemed agitated.
“You feel I don’t see who you is. You is a little rude girl. I feel you have a boyfriend and you doing stink things with him. Nasty things. Like you could teach me something, eh?”
I was confused and frightened by his words, his menacing tone, his anger towards me. I froze. I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice disappeared. I heard myself making a weird, wispy sound. I was uncertain it came from me.
Just then one of the boys called, and Uncle dropped my magazine on the ground and walked away.
What it is Piya telling me? She is my child, but take it from me, that child too spoil-up. I tell her don’t walk down the back steps because Uncle’s room right there. She still doing it, and making plenty noise in the bargain. I say to lock the bedroom door. She keep forgetting. I tell her don’t lie in the hammock alone with her legs up in the air, but she not listening, and posing there with her fancy magazine.
She should know that we have nowhere to go, that we living between dog and wolf.
“Just hold on Piya, we moving out just now.”
“I want to leave now, Ma. Right now. Why we can’t leave now?”
We moved in with Auntie in March and I turned eleven in July. Ma assured Auntie that she had saved almost enough to move out, and Gayatri was elated that she would finally have her own room. Days after my birthday we got the news that I passed the entrance exam for the same Catholic high school Gayatri attended. Gayatri agreed to give me her old uniforms and books. She and her friends were fifteen and too mature for me, she declared, but she was sure I would quickly form friendships with girls my age.
A week after my birthday we planned an outing to Maracas beach with our neighbors. In all the hustle of packing three car trunks with food, towels and beach bags, Gayatri and I managed to squeeze into the car with Angie’s family. Uncle shouted at us, saying he had room in his car, but we ignored him. I liked Angie, who lived right next door. She was kind to me and gave me a Julie mango every day in June when her tree was laden.
All along the narrow, winding road to Maracas I was staring out the window. Mists covered the Northern Range, muting the lush greenery. At times, when we turned a bend, the calm aquamarine sea appeared below the cliffs.
On the beach I stayed with Angie’s two girls, helping them build sandcastles and a mermaid. We ran along the shoreline looking for shells and weathered blue-green glass.
Ma didn’t like that I was avoiding the family. “Piya, how you stick up with Angie and them. Why you don’t play with Gayatri and her brothers?”
My cousins were in the water with Uncle. I didn’t respond.
When we returned home, Angie invited everyone to her place. She had purchased some fish and wanted to roast it on her backyard grill. We stopped at the house to unpack, bathe and dress. I went to shower last. I was thinking of the pleasures of the day and I stayed for a long time washing the sand from my hair and loudly singing my favorite Drupatee tune: Indian soca/Sounding sweeter/Hotter than a chulha.
While dressing in the back room, I could see Ma, Auntie and Gayatri liming in Angie’s yard. Gayatri was in a white t-shirt and jeans, and I wanted to wear the same. I was about to unwrap my towel when I heard a loud noise, the door of the bedroom being shut. Uncle was inside my room. In his white briefs he looked disgusting. He pulled down my towel, pushed me on the bed and jumped on me. He was heavy. I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t scream. I kept thinking, “You can’t do this to me. You can’t do this to me.”
It was paining. I felt the tears down my face. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out.
When Ma came later she found me cold-sweating and trembling uncontrollably.
Ma called Auntie, who helped me to the bathroom and told me to shower. She locked the bathroom door from the outside, and said to call her when I was clean.
After it happen, Piya, my pretty baby-girl, get so strange. People hear what happen, you know it have no secrets in Trinidad, but nobody ask me nothing.
Piya like she haunted. She not talking to anyone and lock up day and night in the back room. I had to hurry from work to put together whatever leftovers Didi had into a little macafouchette and force Piya to eat, sometimes feeding her like a baby. Didi start complaining, saying that eating in the bedroom was bringing ants upstairs.
I was going through a graa, wondering whenI would have enough to move out. Then like the gods feel sorry for me, and I meet Ranjie. He used to wait with me at the taxi stand and chat until my regular car picked me up. He was thin and small, people probably wouldn’t look at him twice, but my blood take him.
One day it was raining bucket-a-drop. People waiting for their taxis were sheltering under a store awning. Everybody was press up against each other. All of a sudden I feel Ranjie holding my hand tight.
“Shanti, girl, I feel I want to put you in house.”
He didn’t have to ask me twice. Sometimes luck will come, and you have to seize it before it slip away.
We couldn’t move out from Auntie right away, and in those unbearable months, Gayatri gave me the silent treatment. She stopped buying me fudge, and that’s how I realized she didn’t believe me. I was so happy to finally leave. I never wanted to see that house again.
When something terrible happens to you, it changes you. In my new bedroom in Ranjie’s house, I always remember to lock my door.
Every afternoon after high school I waited for Ma on South Street. Ranjie had a new car and would pick us up outside the old library building. I finished high school at two and Ma finished work at four, so I browsed cookbooks in the dilapidated library until Ma came.
At the side of the library was a bustling street lined with food vendors. Sitting on a wooden box at a slight distance from the vendors was an old woman in a white sari. Next to her was another box where she placed a canvas bag that I imagined held all her possessions. She looked like a priestess, but I wasn’t sure from what religion. People in the town called her “Mother.” Almsgivers waited patiently until she said, “Bless you my child.”
I decided to meet her. She motioned me to sit on the box with her canvas bag. She was extremely thin and had high cheekbones and dark eyes. Her white sari moved like smoke whenever she lifted her frail hands. She knew ancient stories.
Down the hill behind the library was a bamboo forest where a shallow stream of clear water flowed over beige stones. At dusk, Mother went there to bathe and wash her day-sari. The drumming of water on stones put her into a trance, and she slept there on a jute bag. I asked whether she felt safe being alone because of the many crimes in the town. She laughed. I wondered what would happen if her jute sleeping mat was stolen. She laughed again, saying that someone would bring her another.
Ranjie trying so hard to be a good stepfather, but Piya like she don’t appreciate nothing. I mean, we not by Didi anymore. I beg her.
“Piya, your teacher tell me they have a counselor in school. Baby, go and talk to her, nah. She will help you.”
“Ma, don’t be ridiculous. I don’t need help. Those nuns in my high school don’t know anything.”
“Piya, you is my child. You feel I don’t see you talking to that old beggar woman outside the library? What it is she really telling you?”
“Nothing Ma. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Listen Piya. I older than you and I know about life. You stay away from that woman, you hear?”
She didn’t answer.
You make your children but you don’t make their mind. Piya is a strange girl. I don’t even know who she is anymore.
Gayatri and Auntie meet Ma on the days they go to the temple. In their beaded shalwars they pretend to be pious, as if nothing unholy every happened in their house. I accompany them. I observe the men and I sense that some are secretly like Uncle, lustful and violent.
Going to the temple is a waste of my time because Mother told me about the true goddess, Kali. Kali is a warrior and must wear a fearsome disguise. She is wild, beautiful and courageous. She will protect her daughters. I feel her fierce love.
Living with Ranjie is good. I start back cooking and like it bringing me and Piya closer. On Saturdays I still make the curry chicken she loves, but on Sundays Ranjie want rice, red beans, stew chicken and macaroni pie. Piya would prepare the chicken the night before with a seasoning blend of bhandhania, celery leaves, parsley, thyme, pimento and scorpion pepper. She was a great cook and I thought she should study to become a chef, but after her CXC exams she said she wasn’t going back to school. I told her she was making a big mistake, but Ranjie said to leave her alone, let her take the time off.
During Sunday lunch he turn to Piya. “Piya, I telling you this in front your mother. You do what you want. If you want to stay home I go mind you. We is not blood, but you is my child now and Indian men does take care of their children.”
The tears just come to my eyes. It was the happiest day of my life.
That night when I was with Ranjie I didn’t hold myself back like usual. I never wanted Piya to hear us together, even though her bedroom was far down the corridor. That night was different. Ranjie was my man. I shouted, “Oh God, Ranjie!” We moaned together. For us.
When Uncle was forcing me I thought I was going to die. Ma said that if only I had screamed, she would have heard me, because she was in Angie’s backyard, only ten feet away from the house. I understand now why I couldn’t scream, why I cried quietly. In battle, Kali does not scream either, but converses with the demons using the chant Hum.
On my eighteenth birthday I told Ma and Ranjie that I wanted to go to Maracas beach, like I did for my birthday seven years ago.
The drive along the north coast was stunning. Vibrant greenery and orange heliconias surrounded the road, encasing us in their untamed beauty.
At the beach I felt Ma cautiously observing me, I wasn’t sure why. It was a weekday so there were only a few families. We relaxed and walked around deciding whose shark and bake to buy. Ma put pepper sauce on hers, and I chose garlic sauce and pineapple dressing. While Ranjie played cricket, Ma and I relaxed under a coconut tree.
We ate without speaking. The turquoise sea before us was calm, and the waves broke in a gentle rhythm. Ranjie and Ma were content with each other and I reflected on their chance meeting at the taxi-stand and the way he saved her.
Auntie was having a party the next night and Ma wanted to go. Despite everything, she still loved her sister. I offered to drive her and pick her up. Ranjie was working overnight, so I could use his car. Ma was surprised and wouldn’t agree at first.
“Piya, listen to me. In life all kinda thing does happen and you have to take it. You have to stop holding on to the past. You have your whole life in front of you.
“I not holding on to anything Ma. I good.”
“I blame myself, Piya. I feel for these past seven years I want to do something to make it right.”
“Is ok Ma, don’t worry.”
I was ironing a blue dress with silver metallic threads and playing some soca music to get into the party mood. Too bad Ranjie was working the night shift and couldn’t come with me. Piya refused to go, but she was ready early to drop me off.
“Take your time, Ma.”
She was sitting in the living room staring out the window. Her shirt was the same fabric as my dress..
“You could well come with me. We will look like a mother-daughter team.”
She smile but like it wasn’t real, like she was somewhere else in her mind. I feel a chill come over me, but I push it aside.
Piya was eighteen now, a beautiful young woman. She had so much to look forward to. Things were good.
I picked up my mother at two in the morning when the party ended. When we got home I waited until she was completely out of the car.
“Ma, I forgot to tell Auntie Didi happy birthday. I going back.”
Ma says no, wait until tomorrow, but my mind is already made up. I speed along the empty road.
I park and wait until the lights are off and the house is in darkness. I imagine Uncle sleeping peacefully. It is something I can no longer do. I awake often with flashbacks and nightmares. For the past seven years Uncle simply carried on with his life while he had ripped apart mine.
There are three entryways on the bottom floor. Ten-gauge wire is thin and malleable but can firmly secure the doors. This wire takes a while to burn, I’ve experimented before. One can of gasoline will be effective.
When Kali fights Raktavera it seems impossible because every drop of his blood generates new demons. She figures out how to defeat him. She lifts him above the earth, slays him, and drinks his blood. Consuming Raktavera’s blood, Kali goes into a destructive trance. She can’t control herself. She kills.
I watch the yellow flames until they rise blue-black, strident and unrestrained.
I had a bad feeling after Piya drop me off. I was waiting up for her but I fall asleep on the couch. I jump up in the morning when the phone ring. It was Angie crying, saying it had a fire last night and she think Auntie and the whole family dead and she see Piya outside the house watching everything.
What it is my child do? What possess my sweet baby to do something like that?
I banged on her bedroom door, but no answer.
I heard someone calling at the front. It was a thin, tall policeman. He looked tired. He asked to speak to my daughter who was seen last night at the premises. I said my daughter was home sleeping whole night. She didn’t do nothing. It was me.
He shook his head. “Madam, make some black coffee for me please.”
I gave him the coffee and sat at the wooden kitchen table across from him. I started to cry.
“Let me tell you something Madam. The justice system in this country is not for poor people. It have men and women rotting in jail for ten, twenty years waiting for their case to call. Think about what you saying.”
I was sobbing loudly. “Is me. Is me. I do it.”
The policeman leaned in and asked very softly, “A whole family burn. You do that?”
I didn’t answer.
The policeman sighed and stood up to leave.
“Miss Shanti, think about what you doing, please. I don’t know for who or for what. Talk to your husband when he come home from work. Then if you still want to confess come down to the police station tomorrow morning and ask for me, Officer James. Thanks for the coffee.”
I put my head on the table, weeping. I was still wearing my blue and silver party dress. I knew I would never wear it again.
Kali’s bloodlust is insatiable. No need to exclaim over the loss of innocents like the magistrate who lamented that Auntie, Gayatri and the two boys were burnt to death with Uncle. No need to propitiate Kali with pink ixoras, incense and camphor. She will only come to her senses when her beloved, Shiva, covers himself in ash and lays still among her corpses. When Kali sees Shiva’s beauty, the spell of destruction is broken, and she becomes herself again.
At the courthouse, when I looked into Ma’s beautiful brown eyes and bowed to her, I was saying thank you, my beloved, for this freedom.
Ranjie said that I destroyed his life, Ma’s life, and mine. What he doesn’t understand is that Kali will destroy you, but only so you can find what in you is indestructible.
The day after the sentencing I go to see Mother. She nods silently, acknowledging what will never be spoken.
I understand now why everyone takes care of Mother. It is because she, like me, has done all there is to do in this world. When you want nothing from this world, the world brings everything to you.
From today I will be here with Mother. Passersby will say, “Look two beggar women.” Some will bring us food and discarded items. Perhaps someone will bring me an iron pot and kitchen utensils, and I can cook a meal near the river, under the bamboo. Perhaps someone will give me money so I can take the bus to prison to see Ma.
A vendor walks over with doubles wrapped in brown paper. Mother opens it, breaks off a piece of the doubles, and holds it out for me. The delicious aroma of curry channa mixed with hot pepper and sweet tamarind sauce makes my mouth water.
“Eat this, child.”
Joy Mahabir is the author of Miraculous Weapons: Revolutionary Ideology in Caribbean Culture (2003) and the novel Jouvert (2006), She is co-editor of Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women’s Literature (2012) and has published essays on literature, visual art, music and jewelry. She is a professor at Suffolk County Community College (SUNY) in New York. Forthcoming is her short story Datura in Jewish Noir 2 (2022).