by R. S. Garcia
Watch her good, they said to her husband. The old ones who came to the wake that evening, wearing their black skirts and their white shirts. Heads covered with pieces of silk decorated with blue, yellow, green, red flowers. They think she is dead to their talk and their bright-eyed concern. They feel safe to grip Stewart’s hand as he passes around the coffee, the biscuits and cheese, the rum for the men standing on the veranda outside.
Watch her good, an’ don’ let her go in the forest, they whisper, one after the other. Young mother like that, to lose a child is a terrible thing. The forest does wait for that. Get water from the river for yourself. Don’ let her go until she better.
As if she will ever be better.
She sits by the door, open to the gathering evening and the stream of guests and sympathizers, macos who only want to see so they can pass the gossip, family, friends and neighbours. She watches her husband do the job that is hers by right and feels hand after hand press hers, barely hearing the condolences murmured into her ear.
She knows that none of them understand. Outside, the dry January wind freshens and pushes the leaves in the trees against each other. They whisper like naughty children. Wood creaks under the low talk the men of the village make as they smoke their cigarettes and sip their rum and coke. Soon the heat of the day will give way to the chilly Caribbean night, with countless stars jostling for primacy in the ink-blue sky.
Her baby will never know these sights and sounds. Never feel the wind on his face as she rocks him in her granny’s chair on the veranda. All she has ever wanted is the chance to be the woman in her dreams that rocks her baby to sleep. None of that now, and the doctors say, never again. The pain that slips between her ribs makes her catch her breath and sit up straight.
She wonders for the thousandth time what would have happened if she had promised…
The old ones watch and whisper: She not looking right, oui. That dress fit her good, good at Jo-Jo wedding, and now look how it hanging. Stewart better keep a good head on he shoulders before the Douen make off with he wife.
Douen. The word fills her with cold, with a dull sort of apprehension. She listens, wondering how they know. How they have guessed. But the talk swings to something else. To the hot dry season, and the sickness Gopaul’s cows have that making them drop down jus’ so.
She relaxes, her iron resolve a hard, warm nugget that she nurses in her breast. Nurses like the baby boy she’s lost, just five days out of her womb.
Outside, the trees whisper.
Whisper and talk as the setting sun turns the undergrowth into a deep green blur, and orange rays slant between branches. The river talks to itself, murmuring over rocks and the silt bed. She bends down to collect the bit of blue soap her mother forgot, and some animal leaps from the water in a sleek line, splashing her bare feet with cool droplets under the knee-high hemline of her battered home dress.
She grins, watching the sparkle that lingers on the river, before turning to start back through the forest to her village on the other side.
That’s when she sees a small, pale-brown hand slip away from the leaves to her left, hears the rustle of the bush falling back into place.
“Hello?” she says, her eight-year-old voice small in the listening silence. The birds that sang so stridently before have fallen still. “Somebody there?”
There is no answer. The slippery sliver of laundry soap in her hand, she steps toward the bush. She frowns, wondering if she has the time to take a look. Her mother will realise that she has turned back soon, and she knows that she is not supposed to be alone by the river.
Her mother has warned her many times. The forest can be dangerous. She could fall into the river. Lose her way on the track in the gathering dusk. If she gets lost, all manner of creatures could take hold of her.
But the hand was smaller than hers. Perhaps it is one of neighbour Vero’s six children, lost and afraid in the bush. She can’t just leave them out there at night.
“Somebody there?” she asks again. Her answer comes in the form of a rustling bush, and a soft sigh.
Curious, but not afraid, not while the sun is still shining, she takes another step and pushes the moist leaves aside.
Cool night air flutters her white nightgown as she looks out into the night through her living room window. Behind her, everything is dark. Her husband is finally asleep in the bedroom at the back of the small wooden house, his snores a light tickle to her ears. He tried to talk to her again, after the guests left, but she was in no mood to hold a conversation. When he reached for her across the sheets earlier, she feigned sleep. His low question fell in the silence like a pebble. She never moved; she does not want to feel his pain. Hers leaves no room for sympathy.
She waited until he turned away and his breathing evened out before slipping out from between the cool sheets. He is a heavy sleeper and will not miss her until it is too late.
The trees dance like limber giants in the cold air; they seem to beckon to her from across the small yard. Opposite her front door, she can see the stairs that lead down into the yard. Beside the unvarnished, unpainted wood, she can see the bush with the white flowers of the night blooming jasmine bright as stars in all the dimness. They nod their heads and the heavy musk of their perfume surrounds her with each puff of the night wind.
She doesn’t feel the cold. She is much colder inside, where her baby used to be. She waits, knowing that she will not be disappointed.
A jumbie bird calls, low and suspicious, just as something white hovers into view at the edge of the forest. Her heart leaps, and she grips the slim, blunted edge of the louvered glass in her window.
A shape appears, indistinct in the distance and the darkness. It is broad at the top and tall grasses at the edge of the forest keep the lower half hidden, but she knows what it is. She knows because she can hear the cry, the plea she has heard every night since her son died.
Mammy…you not coming? Mammy, I frighten.
It can’ be her boy. Is the Douen the old ones talk about. The spirits of babies that wander the night calling for their mothers. Babies who died before they could be baptised into a Christian church and the way of God.
Like her boy. Her sweet little boy who would have been Joshua. In her heart, she knows it is him. As he would have been, if he had lived.
Stewart cannot hear him. Big, quiet man that he is, he knows the docks of the Port in Town, where he works every day, muscles glistening as he swings barrels onto his shoulders. Not the green welcome and laughing talk of the village women as they wash their laundry in the river, pound their shirts white against stones smooth from years of visits.
Mammy, I frighten.
She does not hesitate as she lowers her hand and grips the cold metal of the door handle.
Her fingers grip knobbly branches, tight with surprise. An almost invisible track winds deeper into the dim forest. Across the gloom, a very small child stands, hands clasped in front of its hips and what looks like a broad straw hat on its head. The child is half hidden behind a hibiscus bush, and she cannot see the face, but she knows this is not one of Vero’s children. They are bigger than this tiny baby.
She is too small to wonder how a child that young can walk.
“Eh-eh,” she says. “What you doing here? Where you mammy?”
A cool wind sweeps down the path, tossing her hem against scabby knees. The child does not move or answer.
“You can’ talk or what?” She takes a step onto the path. Now she can see that the hat seems to have artificial vines on it. They trail against the bush, waving in the breeze. She wonders why any mother would put a hat on a child and no clothes, but the thought is pushed out by a more urgent realisation. It is getting very dark, and if she is to find her way, she must leave now.
“Come. I go take you to my mammy. She go fin’ your mammy for you.”
She takes another couple of steps.
No mammy, a voice whispers in her ear. It is the voice of a little boy who is alone in the world. A voice of terrible sadness that makes her eyes tear. No mammy for me.
She halts, wiping at her face with her free hand. Far off, she hears a sound, like something heavy moving through the bushes. She is worried, but more concerned about getting the baby to come with her. Long as the noise stays far off, she alright.
“How you mean, you don’ have no mammy? Everybody have a mammy.”
The figure finally moves, dipping its head and stepping back a little. Not me. You go come with me? Be my mammy?
She grins. This chile small for true. “I can’ be your mammy. I too small.”
When you big. Promise me for when you big.
She takes a few more steps as the crashing stops, and then starts again.
“Chile, you there?” Her mother’s voice. High with frustration and worry.
She answers automatically, turning in the direction of the voice. “Yes, mammy, I right here. I jus’ talking with this little boy.”
Her mother’s head appears over the tops of the bushes to her right, and she pulls them apart to step through. She still balances the bucket with the clothes against her hip. Her hair hangs down in her sweaty face.
“What little boy?”
“This little…” She turns to the darkened path, but there is no one there. A small bird, yellow with black wings, hops out of the bush and flutters away.
You go come with me? Be my mammy?
“Chile, I don’ have time for stupidness. I tired tell you to stay with me. Hold on to my skirt and let we go home.”
She does as she is told, following her mother through to the other side and only looking back once to be sure. But she cannot see the path now. The sun has finally slipped below the horizon and darkness descends in the space of a breath.
The board of the veranda creaks under her bare feet, rough and gritty with dust. The yard is worse; cold and full of pebbles. She does not care. The moon comes out from behind a cloud and shines down like a spotlight. Ahead of her, she can see the small shape waiting.
The broad straw hat it wears flaps in the breeze with a noise like clothes on a line; vines dangle from it like a curtain.
She walks faster, stepping into the first stretch of night-damp grass now, the ground hard beneath her feet, uneven.
Directly in front of her, the child raises one small hand and fades back into the forest. A chill runs up her spine, tickling the base of her neck, but she pushes on, entering the rustling gloom.
At first she is disoriented. It is so much darker here. The moon’s light fails to penetrate the trees. Starlight is a memory. She smells mossy dampness and deep beneath, hidden under the fresh of growing, the rot of the dying. She wavers, unsure. Then she sees movement to her right, and a dim light. A soft flapping noise teases her ears.
She follows, feet slipping on the wet sponge of the forest undergrowth, sometimes tripping on unseen sticks and rocks. Once she falls and bruises her knee, but she does not feel it. Does not hear the hungry sighs around her, or see the drifting shadows that hem in from all sides, only to fall back as she rises again.
“But I did see him,” she insists on the way home, the soft, damp weave of her mother’s skirt clutched in her hand.
” He was talking to me and asking me to be his mammy an’ thing.”
Her mother stumbles, almost dropping the bucket. “What you say? He ask you what?”
“To be his mammy.” They have come to a halt in the dark, crickets chirping around them. Ahead, she can see the wavering light from the living room oil lamp. Daddy must be home.
Her mother whispers to herself. “Almighty Father, what is this? Why this thing come to my chile?”
“What thing, mammy?” She tugs at the skirt, impatient to be out of the dark now.
Her mother starts moving again, still muttering. “They say it have a silk-cotton tree somewhere in here. Ah never believe before, but now…Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect me.”
“Protect you from what, mammy?”
Her mother does not turn. “Chile, when you see you come in here, don’ ever stay till dark again, you hear?”
It is the tone of voice that means a licking if she disobeys. “Yes, mammy.”
“An’…an’ if you ever see that boy again, I want you to not speak to him. Just turn you back and come straight home. You understan’ me?”
“Yes, mammy,” she promises. But in her heart she remembers the loneliness in that voice. The horrible sadness and desperation.
Promise me for when you big.
When she comes to the clearing, it is a shock. She stumbles into a round space, trees towering above her and moonlight shining down white and clear. The edges of things stand out sharp. Above her, a silk-cotton tree spreads wide branches, holding back the night.
Silk-cotton. Devil tree. A meeting place for things best left unmentioned. Light shivers around it, giving off a chilling phosphorescence that even the moonlight cannot outshine.
Sweating, tasting the dry copper of thirst in the back of her throat, she stops moving. Her nightgown’s hem is muddied and prickly weeds hang from the tattered edges.
All she sees is the very small shape that stands in front of her, head lowered under a broad hat. A hat that is not straw, she knows now. The hat is woven of dried vines, and fresh green ones trail to the ground.
She realizes that same light that gilds the tree, gilds the child. Tiny hands are clasped in front of naked hips and she sees something glitter between its fingers. And the feet…
…they are dirty with mud and leaves and all she can see are ankles and heels because they point backward. They point backward to keep the wanderer from ever following the tracks out of the silent, waiting forest.
It don’ matter, she knows. It don’ matter at all. Tired now, she falls to her knees and the douen draws closer. She can see the glitter in its fingers now. A sharpened piece of wood. It glows with the same light as the silk-cotton tree, and the creature before her. As she watches, the douen lifts its head so that she can see under the hat.
There is no face, only a horrid emptiness, blank as the pages of an unwritten book.
Mammy. I miss you.
The bushes around them rustle and the others emerge. Naked and tiny as the day they were born. Bare of sex, and blank beneath the drooping straw. Hands held in front of them, grasping like the blind that they mimic. They smell like the ocean.
Her heart beats erratically as her knees sink further into the cold rot below her. Her tongue is stuck to the roof of her mouth and blood rushes hot in her veins.
But part of her lifts her hands toward the children. Part of her pushes against the restraints of sense and fear, breaks free into a calm she has forgotten. A peace she’s lost since her days helping her mother dip clothes into the river under the swaying, murmuring branches of the trees.
It is this part of her that unlocks her tongue and opens her arms wide. This part of her that watches the children pause, still as sentries while tears run down her cheeks, hot against the cold of her skin.
The douen in front of her lifts its tiny hand, and the shard in it glimmers like ice. She understands now. Understands the price of all her dreams.
And she is willing to pay.
“Mammy here,” she says. “Mammy here.”
The hand stabs downward, once, and they fall upon her, silent as the moonlight night, treacherous as the breaking sea.
R.S. Garcia lives and works on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago with an extended family and far too many dogs.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish