They say when trouble come close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, 'because she pretty like pretty self' Christophine said.
She was my father's second wife, far too young for him they thought, and, worse still, a Martinique girl. When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told me that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was very bad and that road repairing was now a thing of the past.(My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed - all belonged to the past.)
Another day I heard her talking to Mr Luttrell, our neighbour and her only friend. 'Of course they have their own misfortunes. Still waiting for this compensation the English promised when the Emancipation Act was passed. Some will wait for a long time.'
How could she know that Mr Luttrell would be the first who grew tired of waiting? One calm evening he shot his dog, swam out to sea and was gone for always. No agent came from England to look after his property - Nelson's Rest it was called - and strangers from Spanish Town rode up to gossip and discuss the tragedy.
'Live at Nelson's Rest? Not for love or money. An unlucky place.'
Mr Luttrell's ho was left empty, shutters banging in the wind. Soon the black people said it was haunted, they wouldn't go near it. And no one came near us.
I got used to a solitary life, but my mother still planned and hoped - perhaps she had to hope every time she passed a looking glass.
She still rode about every morning not caring that the black people stood about in groups to jeer at her, especially after her riding clothes grew shabby(they notice clothes, they know about money).
Then, one day, very early I saw her horse lying down under the
frangipani tree. I went up to him but he was not sick, he was dead and his eyes were black with flies. I ran away and did not speak of it for I thought if I told no one it might not be true. But later that day, Godfrey found him, he had been poisoned. 'Now we are marooned,' my mother said, 'now what will become of us?'
Godfrey said, 'I can't watch the horse night and day. I too old now. When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for Him. Rest yourself in peace for the righteous are not forsaken.' But she couldn't. She was young. How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning. 'You're blind when you want to be blind,' she said ferociously, 'and you're deaf when you want to be deaf. The old hypocrite,' she kept saying. 'He knew what they were going to do.' 'The devil prince of this world,' Godfrey said, 'but this world don't last so long for mortal man.'
She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn't speak distinctly. I don't know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually. She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all.
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible - the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice at year the octopus orchid flowered - then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.
All Coulibri Estate had gone wild like the garden, gone to bush. No more slavery - why should anybody work? This never saddened me. I did not remember the place when it was prosperous.
My mother usually walked up and down the glacis, a paved roofed-in terrace which ran the length of the house and sloped upward to a clump of bamboos. Standing by the bamboos she had a clear view to the sea, but anyone passing could stare at her. They stared, sometimes they laughed. Long after the sound was far away and faint she kept her eyes shut and her hands clenched. A frown came between her black eyebrows, deep - it might have been cut with a knife. I hated this frown
and once I touched her forehead trying to smooth it. But she pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that I was useless to her. She wanted to sit with Pierre or walk where she pleased without being pestered, she wanted peace and quiet. I was old enough to look after myself. 'Oh, let me alone,' she would say, 'let me alone,' and after I knew that she talked aloud to herself I was a little afraid of her.
So I spent most of my time in the kitchen which was an outbuilding some way off. Christophine slept in the little room next to it.
When evening came she sang to me if she was in the mood. I couldn't always understand her patois songs - she also came from Martinique - but she taught me the one that meant 'The little one grow old, the children leave us, will they come back?' and the one about the cedar tree flowers which only last for a day.
The music was gay but the words were sad and her voice often quavered and broke on the high note. 'Adieu.' Not adieu as we said it, but à dieu, which made more sense after all. The loving man was lonely, the girl was deserted, the children never came back. Adieu
Her songs were not like Jamaican songs, and she was not like the other women.
She was much blacker - blue-black with a thin face and straight features. She wore a black dress, heavy gold ear-rings and a yellow handkerchief - carefully tied with the two high points in front. No other negro woman wore black, or tied her handkerchief Martinique fashion. She had a quiet voice and a quiet laugh when she did laugh), and though she could speak good English if she wanted to, and French as well as patois, she took care to talk as they talked. But they would have nothing to do with her and she never saw her son who worked in Spanish Town. She had only one friend - a woman called Maillotte, and Maillotte was not a Jamaican.
The girls from the bayside who sometimes helped with the washing and cleaning were terrified of her. That, I soon discovered, was why they came at all - for she never paid them. Yet they brought presents of fruit and vegetables and after dark I often heard low voices from the kitchen.
So I asked about Christophine. Was she very old? Had she always been with us?
'She was your father's wedding present to me - one of his presents. He though I would be pleased with a Martinique girl. I don't know how old she was when they brought her to Jamaica, quite young. I don't know
how old she is now. Does it matter? Why do you pester and bother me about all these things that happened long ago? Christophine stayed with me because she wanted to stay. She had her own very good reasons you may be sure. I dare say we would have died if she'd turned against us and that would have been a better fate. To die and be forgotten and at peace. Not to know that one is abandoned, lied about, helpless. All the ones who died - who says a good word for them now?'
'Godfrey stayed too,' I said. 'And Sass.'
'They stayed,' she said angrily, 'because they wanted somewhere to sleep and something to eat. That boy Sass! When his mother pranced off and left him here - a great deal she cared - why he was a little skeleton. Now he's growing into a big strong boy and away he goes. We shan't see him again. Godfrey is a rascal. These new ones aren't too kind to old people and he knows it. That's why he stays. Doesn't do a thing but eat enough for a couple of horses. Pretends he's deaf. He isn't deaf - he doesn't want to hear. What a devil he is!'
'Why don't you tell him to find somewhere else to live?' I said and she laughed.
'He wouldn't go. He'd probably try to force us out. I've learned to let sleeping curs lie,' she said.
'Would Christophine go if you told her to?' I thought. But I didn't say it. I was afraid to say it.
It was too hot that afternoon. I could see the beads of perspiration on her upper lip and the dark circles under her eyes. I started to fan her, but she turned her head away. She might rest if I left her alone, she said.
Once I would have gone back quietly to watch her asleep on the blue sofa - once I made excuses to be near her when she brushed her hair, a soft black cloak to cover me, hide me, keep me safe.
But not any longer. Not any more.
These were all the people in my life - my mother and Pierre, Christophine, Godfrey, and Sass who had left us.
I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. Let sleeping dogs lie. One day a little girl followed my singing, 'Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.' I walked fast, but she walked faster. 'White cockroach, go away go away. Nobody want you. Go away.'
When I was safely home I sat close to the old wall at the end of the garden. It was covered with green moss soft as velvet and I never wanted to move again. Everything would be worse if I moved.
Christophine found me there when it was nearly dark, and I was so stiff she had to help me to get up. She said nothing, but next morning Tia was in the kitchen with her mother Maillotte, Christophine's friend. Soon Tia was my friend and I met her nearly every morning at the turn of the road to the river.
Sometimes we left the bathing pool at midday, sometimes we stayed till late afternoon. Then Tia would light a fire(fires always lit for her, sharp stones did not hurt her bare feet, I never saw her cry). We boiled green bananas in an old iron pot and ate them with our fingers out of a calabash and after we had eaten she slept at once. I could not sleep, but I wasn't quite awake as I lay in the shade looking at the pool - deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun. The water was so clear that you could see the pebbles at the bottom of the shallow part. Blue and white and striped red. Very pretty. Late or early we parted at the turn of the road. My mother never asked me where I had been or what I had done.
Christophine had given me some new pennies which I kept in the pocket of my dress. They dropped out one morning so I put them on a stone. They shone like gold in the sun and Tia stared. She had small eyes, very black, set deep in her head.
Then she bet me three of the pennies that I couldn't turn a somersault under water 'like you say you can'.
'Of course I can.'
'I never see you do it,' she said. 'Only talk.'
'Bet you all the money I can,' I said.
But after one somersault I still turned and came up choking. Tia laughed and told me that it certainly look like I drown dead that time. Then she picked up the money.
'I did do it,' I said when I could speak, but she shook her head. I hadn't done it good and besides pennies didn't buy much. Why did I look at her like that?
'Keep them then, you cheating nigger,' I said, for I was tired, and the water I had swallowed made me feel sick. 'I can get more if I want to,'
That's not what she hear, she said. She hear all we poor like beggar. We ate salt fish - no money for fresh fish. That old house so leaky, you run with calabash to catch water when it rain. Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn't look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people but white nigger now, and black nigger better that white nigger.
I wrapped myself in my torn towel and sat on a stone with my back to her, shivering cold. But the sun couldn't warm me. I wanted to go home. I looked round and Tia had gone. I search for a long time before I could believe that she had taken my dress - not my underclothes, she never wore any - but my dress, starched, ironed, clean that morning. She had left me hers, and I put it on at last and walked home in the blazing sun feeling sick, hating her. I planned to get round the back of the house to the kitchen, but passing the stables I stopped to stare a three strange horses and my mother saw me and called. She was on the glacis with two young ladies and a gentleman. Visitors! I dragged up the steps unwillingly - I had longed for visitors once, but that was years ago.
They were very beautiful I though and they wore such beautiful clothes that I looked away down at the flagstones and when they laughed - the gentleman laughed the loudest - I ran into the house, into my bedroom. There I stood with my back against the door and I could feel my heart all through me. I heard them talking and I heard them leave. I came out of my room and my mother was sitting on the blue sofa. She looked at me for some time before she said that I had behaved very oddly. My dress was even dirtier than usual.
'It's Tia's dress.'
'But why are you wearing Tia's dress? Tia? Which one of them is Tia?'
Christophine, who had been in the pantry listening, came at once and was told to find a clean dress for me. 'Throw away that thing. Burn it.'
Then they quarrelled.
Christophine said I had no clean dress. 'She got two dresses, wash and wear. You want clean dress to drop from heaven? Some people crazy in truth.'
'She must have another dress,' said my mother. 'Somewhere.' But Christophine told her loudly that it shameful. She run wild, she grow up worthless. And nobody care.
My mother walked over to the window.(Marooned,' said her straight narrow back, her carefully coiled hair. 'Marooned.')
'She has an old muslin dress. Find that.'
While Christophine scrubbed my face and tied my plaits with a fresh piece of string, she told me that those were the new people at Nelson's Rest. They called themselves Luttrell, but English or not English they were not like old Mr Luttrell. Old Mr Luttrell spit in their face if he see how they look at you. Trouble walk into the house this day. Trouble walk in.'
The old muslin dress was found and it tore as I forced it on. She didn't notice.
No more slavery! She had to laugh! 'These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people's feet. New ones worse that old ones - more cunning, that's all.'
All that evening my mother didn't speak to me or look at me and I thought, 'She is ashamed of me, what Tia said is true.'
I went to bed early and slept at once. I dreamed that I was walking in the forest. Not alone. Someone who hated me was with me, out of sight. I could hear heavy footsteps coming closer and though I struggled and screamed I could not move. I woke crying. The covering sheet was on the floor and my mother was looking down at me.
'Did you have a nightmare?'
'Yes, a bad dream.'
She sighed and covered me up. 'You were making such a noise. I must go to Pierre, you've frightened him.'
I lay thinking, 'I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.'
The light of the candle in Pierre's room was still there when I slept again. I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. I would change and go on changing.
I don't know how she got money to buy the white muslin and the pink. Yards of muslin. She may have sold her last ring, for there was one left. I saw it in her jewel box - that, and a locket with a shamrock inside. They were mending and sewing first thing in the morning and still sewing when I went to bed. In a week she had a new dress and so had I.
The Luttrells lent her a horse, and she would ride off very early and not come back till late next day - tired out because she had been to a dance or a moonlight picnic. She was gay and laughing - younger that I had ever seen her and the house was sad when she had gone.
So I too left it and stayed away till dark. I was never long at the bathing pool, I never met Tia.
I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think 'It's better than people.' Black ants or red
ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin - once I saw a snake. All better than people.
Better. Better, better than people.
Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I was somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer.
I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.
I was bridesmaid when my mother married Mr Mason in Spanish Town. Christophine curled my hair. I carried a bouquet and everything I wore was new - even my beautiful slippers. But their eyes slid away from my hating face. I had heard what all these smooth smiling people said about her when she was not listening and they did not guess I was. Hiding from them in the garden when they visited Coulibri, I listened.
'A fantastic marriage and he will regret it. Why should a very wealthy man who could take his pick of all the girls in the West Indies, and many in England too probably?' 'Why probably?' the other voice said. 'Certainly.' 'Then why should he marry a widow without a penny to her name and Coulibri a wreck of a place? Emancipation troubles killed old Cosway? Nonsense - the estate was going downhill for years before that. He drank himself to death. Many's the time when - well! And all those women! She never did anything to stop him - she encouraged him. Presents and smiles for the bastards every Christmas. Old customs? Some old customs are better dead and buried. Her new husband will have to spend a pretty penny before the house is fit to live in - leaks like a sieve. And what about the stables and the coach house dark as pitch, and the servants' quarters and the six-foot snake I saw with my own eyes curled up on the privy seat last time I was there. Alarmed? I screamed. Then that horrible old man she harbours came along, double up with laughter. As for those two children - the boy an idiot kept out of sight and mind and the girl going the same way in my opinion - a lowering expression.'
'Oh I agree,' the other one said, 'but Annette is such a pretty woman. And what a dancer. Reminds me of that song "light as cotton blossom on the something breeze," or is it air? I forget.'
Yes, what a dancer - that night when they came home from their honeymoon in Trinidad and they danced on the glacis to no music. There was no need for music when his arm, down till her black hair touched the flagstones - still down, down. Then up again in a flash, laughing. She made it look so easy - as if anyone could do it, and he kissed her - a long
kiss. I was there that time too but they had forgotten me and soon I wasn't thinking of them. I was remembering that woman saying 'Dance! He didn't come to the West Indies to dance - he came to make money as they all do. Some of the big estates are going cheap, and one unfortunate's loss is always a clever man's gain. No, the whole thing is a mystery. It's evidently useful to keep a Martinique obeah woman on the premises.' She meant Christophine. She said it mockingly, not meaning it, but soon other people were saying it - and meaning it.
While the repairs were being done and they were in Trinidad, Pierre and I stayed with Aunt Cora in Spanish Town.
Mr Mason did not approve of Aunt Cora, an ex-slave-owner who had escaped misery, a flier in the face of Providence.
'Why did she do nothing to help you?'
I told him that her husband was English and didn't like us and he said, 'Nonsense.'
'It isn't nonsense, they lived in England and he was angry if she wrote to us. He hated the West Indies. When he died not long ago she came home, before that what could she do? She wasn't rich.'
'That's her story. I don't believe it. A frivolous woman. In your mother's place I'd resent her behaviour.'
'None of you understand about us,' I thought.
Coulibri looked the same when I saw it again, although it was clean and tidy, no grass between the flagstones, no leaks. But it didn't feel the same. Sass had come back and I was glad. They can smell money, somebody said. Mr Mason engaged new servants - I didn't like any of them excepting Mannie the groom. It was their talk about Christophine that changed Coulibri, not the repairs or the new furniture or the strange faces. Their talk about Christophine and obeah changed it.
I knew her room so well - the pictures of the Holy Family and the prayer for a happy death. She had a bright patchwork counterpane, a broken-down press for her clothes, and my mother had given her an old rocking-chair.
Yet one day when I was waiting there I was suddenly very much afraid. The door was open to the sunlight, someone was whistling near the stables, but I was afraid. I was certain that hidden in the room(behind the old black press?) there was a dead man's dried hand, white chicken feathers, a cock with its throat cut, dying slowly, slowly. Drop by drop of blood was falling into a red basin and I imagined I could hear it. No one had ever spoken to me about obeah - but I knew what I would find if I