Mamie does practice she tongues. I does well hear she, sitting on she brown and sticky mat, with her chin to the mirror and eyes tracing the rawness of the galvanize peering over the crown of her head. The rust from the roof would trickle down slowly, pouring itself down the air and into the sunlight like a halo as she enunciates each word. Practice for the Saturday mass. For the Sunday morning. Practice for when she wears that big hat like the white ladies does wear to guard their freckles from the glint of the sky’s heat, dancing under the sun like Canboulay to the ringing of the Basilica’s bell. I pretend I don’t hear her. I refuse to shatter the illusion of intimacy she has created within her bedroom; I know she likes the feeling of being small while rehearsing her duet with God.
Sometimes she does stutter, and curse in the same breath, and start again. Mamie does practice she tongues until the night does come, and Daddy does walk in speaking his own tongues too. I does hear them converge, like the way the riptides at Mayaro does hook onto yuh foot and tug you beneath the sand, and suddenly you are locked somewhere in between sky and ocean and blackness and the silky floor of the sea. Sometimes there is a distinctness in the way their tongues sound together, inharmonious; Daddy words does trail off into each other as if the tongue in his mouth is heavy with the night, and God. As if he is trying to create a ladder with his sentences with which to climb through the galvanized roof and into the clouds. This sounds silky against Mamie’s sobs, and the thudding and the silence that comes with the bouncing of springs. Sometimes their tongues does sound like moans, quivering as if on the cusp of a song, or a sob. Its softness interrupts the stagnation of the night. I can hear it all against the foam mattress that erodes underneath me. Every night the brown, damp sponge of its insides does sink low to the cold concrete floor as it gives in under my thin body, and allows me to feel the sturdiness of the ground against my hip, unrelenting as it presses its surface against my bones.
Tonight there was nothing. Mamie was silent all day, she een even watch me as she mixed sugar-water for our dinner. She een even swat the mosquito that land on she forehead. Not even as its thin mouth fastened itself onto the softness of her flesh and began to suck. When the night did come, guided by the meditations of the crapauds and the night-draped gilded wings of fuzzy fruit bats, Daddy came with the stench he carried with him in his palms and in his mouth. She said not a word when Daddy fell down by the curtain of our doorway, pulling its once white lace until it ripped. Not a word, not even a whimper, when his prayer hands connected with her soft cheek, and the blossoming scarlet fell onto the porous, cold tiles.
I heard this all as I lay, sweaty from the humidity that engulfed the bedroom, yet chilly from the breeze slithering through the cracks of the leaky window that refused to shut, intruding its way through my thin sheets. It felt as if it were some kind of omen, but I remember this happens most nights anyway. It does seem as if every fall of the darkened sky coaxed a submission into the sleepy bodies who happened upon scenes of heartbreak, such as this one, which unravelled before me as I lay hidden behind thin wooden walls, to unveil the stumbling of my father’s heavy feet and the writhing of termites dining on the bones of we shack. And I whispered to God as I clenched my hands in a fist, for Mamie to stop crying herself to sleep, and to learn tongues so she can take communion too, just like the white ladies do.
In the morning, Daddy was making pancakes. It was strange to see this man— who had just hours before brought some kind of jumbie into we house, smelling stink of gutter and drink— now humming and singing to us. He was bathed in rum the night before, and was now bathed in sunlight. Bathed in dawn with the chirping of kiskadees wrapped around him in a holy shroud. A smile on his lips as he playfully licked the batter off the spoon, and flicked it at my siblings as they squealed with delight. His hands were that of a sculptor’s as he cracked open eggs with two fingers, and unleashed a sweet smell of vanilla and burnt sugar that sank between the dusty brown cushions of our couch as he boiled them into runny syrup. It always coats my tongue with shards of dewy sugar lumps, which I crush between my teeth as I fold pieces of pancake into my mouth. He always leaves the smell of burnt butter to entangle with the aroma of pungent cockroach that resides in our small kitchen. The peeling and discoloured eggshell paint of our walls crack and sweat, and its stickiness becomes more pronounced by its new skin of grease. I had an appetite for my gnawed nails and the fleshy beds of my stubby fingers rather than burnt sugar on fluffy flour. I stepped outside to feel the air of the rainforest kissing my eyelids, and as I stepped out into the yard Mamie was yelling behind me.
“Yuh see you so, just make sure yuh skin back here in time fuh mass, eh?” she yelled from the bedroom window.
I began walking toward the stream of water that flowed behind the yards of the tropical shacks. The water glinted and threw reflections of sky toward the colourful paint blocks that kept safe the secrets of families as if it were a fist shut tight, tight. So tight that nails were digging into palms, unrelenting, refusing to allow the combination of tears, heartbreak, and rum find itself free to root into the clouds. Who knows what kind of rain that would bring down? I wonder what strange flowers a deluge could make, with clouds kissed by whatever lives within the pores of people like Mamie and Daddy.
Sitting by the river, in the distance, I made out a figure. He was small, and the off-white shirt jack that engulfed him was made sheer by the sweat that oozed from his skin under the weight of the sun’s foot. His whistling faded in and out with the violent trickle of water against rocks, and carried the sounds he made from his end of the river to where my feet stood naked against its rocky shores. Something about the sweetness of his manner felt foreboding, and I know this only because my nervousness led me to touch the end of the plaits tickling my shoulder. and I twirled the hair around my thumb and index finger as I stared. Battimamzelles skidded over droplets in the air, dancing, and creating spirals of purple and green. They glittered like hummingbirds, their wings displacing the bits of space where the blushing blue sky and earth converge.
The figure continued his whistling, and I saw he was crouched over a bundle, which wiggled on the pebbles below it. I recognized the figure as Mr. Popo. He was the man with the parlour shop just up the road. He would sit in his chair, so worn that the split leather scratches your back if yuh not mindful as to how you’re leaning, behind wrought iron painted green, now flaking off with rust. He had coarse, curly, salt and pepper hair and a moustache that prompted him to glide his purple tongue over his full brown lips to relieve the sensation of the sharp curls’ tickle. He would mamaguy the tanties who planted themselves on the white plastic chairs in the open-air parlour, fanning themselves as beads of sweat formed on their necks like ornate pearl necklaces. Those plastic liming chairs clutched onto secrets that escaped the teeth of those loose lipped women, the heels of the chair legs digging against the rough rocky slabs of cement.
He always wore cream shirt jacks, with empty, dried-up pens in the pocket, and pants that were too big, eating him up and making him seem even smaller. His skin was red and soft, and seemed cool against the deep brown eyes that always squinted as if he was trying his best to watch yuh proper. I didn’t mind Mr. Popo, he would hand me purple Penna-cool through that green iron grid, laughing as I flicked my tongue over the corners of my mouth where the plastic bit into my skin.
I had not gone back in weeks. Not since my last visit. The sun was angry that day, sending its heat in an inexorable march that made the school children collapse onto a singed pitch that would stick to their skin and make their mammies fuss. I found my way to Mr. Popo, delighted at the thought of Penna-cool, imagining how the hotness of the day would elevate the taste of the grape purple against my cheeks. As I got there, the tanties sat in their habitual places, more sweat than usual and bamboo fans swinging like cutlass through the air. I did not know what comess I had walked into, but it was comess for true.
The women did not hush when I entered. In fact, I feel my presence gave the comess heat, for the bacchanal revolved around my neighbour. She was a pretty, pretty woman from Curaçao, who found her way into my brangadang apartment building. She looked like an embellishment as she walked through the rundown halls, her bouncy, soft curls brown like the bottom of my Mamie palau pot. It would look golden against the peeling blue paint of the walls. Her skin was the colour of her hair, and her cheek bones protruded from her face. Her eyes were a dark cocoa brown, and her lips were full and pink. Mamie tell me don’t talk to she, for she is a loose woman. I never cared; I could not help but want to speak to her. I would hear her humming to the men who visited her, and I would listen to the vibrations they created, with my ear against the cool tiles of the floor. Sometimes she would sing in Papiamento. I wonder if she knew I was listening above her head, floating suspended in the air over her bed where she hummed until the morning come.
“Watch na Mavis, what yuh expect from a jagabat woman like dat? Is not like anyone goh marrid she,” came a woman on my left, pointing her finger as she spoke.
“But de girl pretty, pretty. Yuh een see she hair? Nice eh?” came another, who tutted in disappointment as she spoke.
“Well I hear she get beat bad. From the chile fadda na. He call she jamette and beat she just so, on the road in front of the whole village too.”
“Mabel, look. He didn’t have to beat she. But how she even know dat is de chile fadda? I hear she have all kind of man in and out she house. Ah damn shame, she shoulda stay she arse in Curaçao. We doh need dem kinda mouva lang behaviour in we backyard. And chirren living in that building too!”
I walked slowly toward the counter, my eyes staring at the rough pebbles embedded in the cement squares of the floor, listening to the women, who slapped their fat thighs with their heavy hands as they spoke with excitement. The stones were a scattering of browns and whites against grey concrete, and my eyes traced each one over as if my lingering gaze were a paint brush, and the tiles beneath my small rubber slippers were part of a canvas. I did this as I listened to the shrill voices of the gossiping women.
“Who gonna bury she? How a young girl so have no family to come get her. I hear they look all morning and nothing. No mammy, no fadda, no uncle, nothing!” Mavis sucked her teeth and shook her head.
“But wait na! Is really dead she dead then?” came a fourth voice that squealed with excitement. “I thought is just hospital they hadda take she. But is for true? Is dead she gone and dead? Hrrmph. Well, who tell she goh and do all dat to she self? God give yuh chile and dat is what you gone and do?”
My heart fell. I knew what the women meant. No more humming until the morning come. No more whispers of soft Papiamento, and darling, darlings to drift upstairs in the softness of the night.
“I wonder who help she. Some corrupt docta? Dem doh care about hippo-cracy oath, or whoever it call? Well I doh know how exactly she dead, I hearing all kinda thing. But alyuh, ah could tell yuh this in big and bold. She realize the child fadda not dotish, he not minding she and she outside chile, and she try to…” Mavis trailed off, her eyes meeting Mr. Popo who stared with a look of admonishment.
“Alyuh cyah see the chile? Hrmph,” he said as he handed me a cream soda and a green Penna-cool.
I was no longer thirsty, and it was not the sun that made my face feel swollen and red hot. I did not want them to see me cry, I could not let them see me cry, and I ran to Mamie’s thin arms and asked her why God killed the pretty woman downstairs. I thought Mamie might know. I always hear her talk to God in the bathroom with the sink on full. She would say, “Please Fadda God, please,” so much that she’d cry, and I figured she was close to him if she yelled at him the way she did. To my question she said nothing, and that night there was no sweet humming of lullabies to drown out the thuds of Daddy’s fists against Mamie’s soft skin.
I made my way to Mr. Popo at the river bed. He smiled, and hid the bundle behind his skinny calf, his gray pants baggy and blowing against the thinness of his shins. He had a nervousness in his eyes. Mr. Popo always brought cool bottles of cream soda to mass for the children. It was something to look forward to after being trapped in the stifling heat in between the splintery pews. He was in his favourite church pants now, gray ones that were slack on the waist, and wide around his black shoes.
“Look this chile! Yuh eating? I selling wrap roti at the shop now. You should come tomorrow, I will give you some for you and yuh siblings. I een see yuh in ages inno. What yuh doing here?” he laughed as he spoke. His voice quivered, his hands shook the way the lightbulbs in our house do when earthquakes strike.
The bundle wiggled again, and I heard the sound of yelping and whining. Out spilled the snout of a puppy dog. He was black like pitch, and his ears were too big for his head. I reached toward him, and he struggled against the rough burlap before running into my foot head first. I scooped the puppy up and giggled. So why did Mr. Popo look so nervous?
The bag still rustled. There were more puppy dogs, chirping and whimpering and wiggling their small bodies against the sack.
“Yuh want him? Take he, na! I now find this bag here. I leaving it here too. Maybe whoever come fuh it goh come back? Church starting soon, yuh better go and do yuh hair. I hear yuh mammy calling fuh yuh!” He said, frantically waving his hands for me to go.
The clouds danced. The river threw its body against the banks, and the smooth, mossy rocks. It eddied and swirled, and had the Battimamzelles mesmerised. Little frogs leapt into the air, threatening the buzz of long-legged mosquitoes. The water gushed. I didn’t want to turn around, but I did. I clutched the pitch-coloured puppy dog to my chest, and walked toward my yellow house. And as I did this, I felt tears drape my cheeks like curtains because I heard the splash that followed my leaving. And I heard the damn sound that followed. And the sound of Mr. Popo’s hands as he dusted them together in a clap.
Sometimes the hardest part is being silent. Because I know Mamie does need the silence so that she can practice she tongues, over and over until she frantic. Even when tears poke and prod at my eyelids and I want to ask her why her tongues are meaningless, I stay silent. I want to ask her why her tongues don’t save nobody, why they don’t pity yelping puppy dogs, why they don’t stop the bloody fists of Daddy. I want to ask if the lady downstairs used tongues to rid sheself of she baby. I was standing in front Mamie now, as she fusses over our Sunday wear, and I stay silent. Mass was Mamie’s distraction from the red letters pasted onto our door. It was her distraction from the way the lights would go out in a loud click and buzz. She never left the house unless it was Saturday Mass. On most days, Mamie was held down by her own life and confined to her mattress, so numb that she was unable to feel the bloody pricked skin against the orange-brown springs that held her body up. She would ignore the raps on the door, and the sound of the couch scraping against the tile as they took it away, revealing the bare ribs of our home. I think I understand now.
Squeezed into our only nice clothes, and the only shoes that did not have peeling soles and toes peeking through, we walked through the hot sun to Port of Spain, sweating under our frilly socks and sour faces. The Basilica stood tall, and seemed to create a disquietude in the small bodies that entered. Their eyeballs would flicker, and they would quiver in genuflection, as if God could smite them at any moment.
Mamie cries during the opening hymns, but she never uses the tongues she practices so fervently throughout the week. She was crying now, and I saw how her tiny body crumbles and looks small, like me. Daddy stared blankly at the pulpit. I understand Daddy well. He has his own God. Just like Mr. Popo, and the women in his parlour shop. I never had a choice. I was born and Mamie draped me in a white dress and a priest declared his god my own with the drizzle of smelly, stale water from his wrinkly palms. The sound of the organ and chime of the bell reminded me of the Papiamento at night. Is Mamie mourning, too? Did she hear the sound puppies make when they know they are going to die? Must I repent too, just like Mamie does?
As the sounds of sorrow and repentance rang from the mouths of the churchgoers whose large laced and frilled bodies engulfed me, my eyes refused to break the gaze of the soggy cuffs of Mr. Popo’s pant legs. The river water oozed from each thread, like the way blood does from a pricked finger when you squeeze hard enough, onto the shimmering cold tiles of the Basilica. As each droplet kissed the floor, he sang louder and louder, proclaiming his love for God. It was almost synchronous with the heavy clapping hands of the tanties, who were now planted in splintering pews. They resembled a strange machine, sitting in a row, praying hellfire for the jamette who kill she chile. Do they practice tongues, too?
I thought about this throughout the entire service, amongst the hums and drones of sad people singing to the sky. As they looked up, eyelids spasming as they strained to keep them shut, aware of the drifting eyes which peeked slyly through draped eyelids and heaps of messy eyelashes, and loyal to the facade they had effortlessly crafted to festoon themselves in a devout shroud, the veins in their neck would bulge and their Adam’s apples would stay still to give away the phantom voiceless lyrics which their lips formed.
I was more engrossed by these masses of strange people— all sharing the same sadness that fervidly consumed their bodies — than I was by the preacher at the front of the room. The man who sang strange words that promised to fill empty people with clouds hung ripe in the sky, the ones he pledged to pluck himself and hand to us, though he never once did. Instead, he’d urge us all to bow our heads, and look away from heaven and to the dirt. I would always feel the sun’s suffocating heat trapped in the bubble of our white church house, choking me under my Sunday dress, and I always thought that the woman in front of us would faint because she could bear the heat’s chokehold no longer. Mamie couldn’t bear anything either — from the sun’s unrelenting scarlet fist, to the God whom Daddy revered so much that he would return each night with bloodied fists and drowned lungs putrid and full with rum. I do not know why she pretended she was crying because of the holy spirit, or that the heat stroked woman had found the love of Christ. She would say it with tears in her eyes and a blank face, and I considered the way her protective delusion hurt her own feelings. Maybe the tongues she does practice is a curse upon God. I think I hate him too.
I wish Mamie could take me to see the expanse of blue ocean more often, so that for once I would feel as tiny as my frail body. I does feel large when I sleep on my patch of sponge, amongst the sleeping bodies of my siblings. I does feel large when I stare at the forkful of chicken leg being shared among nine, like a giant unsatiated by a meal prepared in a miniature house, the ones in shop windows behind glass with small cups of porcelain and smiling children. I does feel large when I enter parlour shops and learn that love and humming of lullabies make babies like me. I feel large when I think about the room I sit in now, and the skin teeth from people who beat the ones they love and suck their teeth at the death of pretty haired women.
The minister’s words cut through the echoes marble floors make, I can taste the disruption of the stale air created by his words: Peace be with you. Peace be with you.
His voice is husky, as if the God that speaks through him right now is mustering all of his courage to speak just an octave louder. It quivers and shakes, God is nervous. He speaks with the conviction and vibrance of a shrivelled bud that never saw its bloom day. My eyes grasp at my surroundings like claws, for the visualisation of the phrase in action, and I never thought my stomach would turn over and wish to be full of a word, a sentence. Or that my mouth would water for a taste of the word described. I contemplate the marvellous locution that lifted off his lips, the chirps of kiskadees instead a mimicry over and over, each syllable a car horn blaring, each popping of lips to form letters a tyre rim grinding against deep empty pools of nothing in the road, each click of a tongue the sound of my shoes scuffing against the hot pavement.
I am unsure if the word is the same when you reach the door to your home—a termite-ridden thing reduced to a mere shell of wood—and can barely find the handle amidst the swarm of notices that scream into the face of your Mamie each time she opens it. I question whether the feeling is the squelching sound a dog does make under the weight of tyre metal and aloofness and rosaries. Or the screaming of drowning puppies. I question whether the feeling is a wire pushing into you under the hot blanket of night, (the same way your lover did just months before until your belly start to buss), the muffled screams and flow of blood that refuses to cease. I question whether the feeling is the same when your home is a haven for smashed bottles and tears, and bills littered on the floor and your Mamie heaped in a corner like a dainty corpse, perfumed with flowers, a dingy dress, and a bloody lip.
I know when the bell of the church rings, and the powdered masses pour out through the doors onto the hot cobble concrete smeared with shit and spit and left-over rain, nothing can bring back perfumed Papiamento drifting through the sleep drunk air. Nothing can bring back Mamie’s laugh. Nothing can make me love Daddy, and men who pretend to deliver us to God. Not even tongues.
What an elusive word. Peace. And I turn it over in my mind, over and over and over again.