Jessie Calliste

Middle Beginnings

I used to think that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This story does not have an end, and I am not sure it even has a beginning. Sometimes it seems like all middle, except I don’t know the middle of what. I can pick a point to start telling the story, but it always seems to have already started. Perhaps, for this story, like in life itself, the best part is in the middle.

* * *

When she was 16, my mother jumped out of her grandmother’s kitchen window, zipped through guava trees, flashed past cackling chicken coops, jetted down an unlit hill, and did not stop until she got to the island of Trinidad. There she paused for a drink of water, marriage to my father, Lincoln, and the start of her family.

Lincoln had finally gotten to her. When she met him, he was a 24-year-old charmer, a true saga-boy who flaunted his “good-catchiness” like a kaleidoscopic fish in the mating season. He was back from Trinidad, where he was studying accounting at Codrington College. He cruised around the neighborhood on his champion’s bicycle, the one that won him the national cycling competition the year before. He would perch lopsidedly astride the bicycle, lingering for the occasional chat with the budding young women, wowing them with his liquid hair and velvet eyes, with his hands-free legwork and national-winner headstands—all the while keeping a keen eye on the curvy girl who lived up the hill. The one with the moon glaze in her eyes and the sunshine trapped in her skin. Surely, someone had placed a little piece of the sun on the inside to illuminate her. And that laugh. Like a merry stream after an invigorating rain. He could hear it from half-way down the hill when he sat on his mother’s verandah after supper in the obscurity of the evening with only the dull glow of the cigarette to mark his presence.

He had asked his mother about that laugh, but she had instructed him to take his mind off that one, son, he’s gon’ marry an Indian like himself, not no half-black girl with no mother and no father to give her nothin’. And he shouldn’t think that just because the grandmother is a DeGale, with white blood in her veins, that she has somethin’ to her name. Because, what he don’ know, son, is that the father done cut her out of the will already. And who could blame ‘im for that? That black man she married threatened to give the father six pairs o’ kicks and half-a-dozen of the other and that’s why the father had to cut her out of the will. Now, all that ’oman has is a life interest in the land, and not a penny to her name. They may have nice, pretty face an’ t’ing, but that’s all he’s getting’, so don’ say his mother didn’ warn him.

He knew his mother already had someone in mind for him to marry. Florrie. An Indian girl who showed up with an envelope containing fifteen dollars for his mother every two weeks. Florrie always seemed to know exactly when he was home from college, had his schedule down with Timex precision. She hung around him, asking him the same stupid question in her plantation English, running out of things to say after the initial, So, how you like school, bwoy? If his mother had ever bothered to ask Florrie where the money came from, she might have learned that it rightfully belonged to Mr. Sandiford from the cocoa which he grew on his four acres and sent Florrie to sell in Grenville every fortnight.

And why not young Irene? Sure, she had no mother or no father to give her property. She had no cocoa money to give to his mother every fortnight. In fact, she was not even yet a woman. But her body, with its ripe, defiant bosom and bold, wayward hips, strongly disagreed. And why argue with it?

When his mother tended the garden behind the house, he would ride his bicycle past Mamma’s house several times a day, trying desperately to look cool on the steep uphill ride. He would start jangling the bicycle bell when the crimson arms of the hibiscus tree first twisted into view, timing his approach to give a certain interested occupant sufficient time to get from the house to the yard. He would slow down to a conversation pace and ready his wave hand for the too-casual greeting, being careful to look cool all the while.

He must have succeeded with the cool approach. Irene soon developed a special interest in sweeping the yard, not at the back of the house where the guava trees copiously freed their leaves, but at the front of the yard, under the hibiscus tree, a spot which seemed perpetually in need of a good, long sweep. It didn’t matter that cousin Sybil swept the yard bright and early every morning. She could never get all that red off the ground. Such was the nature of hibiscus trees.

At the sound of a certain bicycle bell, Irene would grab the bamboo broom and race pel mel from the pantry, her steps transforming into a dignified stroll as she approached the edge of the yard. She would sweep the ground under the hibiscus tree with clinical absorption, surreptitiously noting my father’s approach. Of course, the broom had seen so many sweeps that it was doing more dirtying than cleaning. But, no one seemed to notice. Certainly not Lincoln.

To hear her tell it, my mother married my father because he was educated and athletic. We knew better. There was something else that she talked about with that long-ago sound to her voice. Something that brought that mischievous brilliance to her eyes and a playfulness about her mouth. It was his hair. Hair that fell in a solid darkness to his shoulders, rich and dense, with a single dangerous, gravity-taunting loop at the top of his head. Hair that, she admitted slyly, she was determined to claim for her future children because it would not beat her up nor break the comb.

I saw my father then. Riding his bicycle at top speeds. With his immovable hair loop impervious to the wind and all the hurricanes that would dare strike.

Even without the hair, the bicycle and the education, my mother would have married my father. She was ready to have her own home, her own husband and family. Ready to give love in the hope of finally getting back some for herself. She was ready to escape from the life that she had known since she was eight years old, when she and four-year-old Dykes were brought by boat from St. Vincent. That was after the neighbor told her that her mother was dead, dead at the age of 30 by her father’s hands. Dead because she had taken Irene and Dykes, had escaped his nocturnal beatings and started a new life with a gentle Cuban and a new baby girl. Dead, because even though she had fearfully avoided him for over a year, he had caught her one moonless night and beaten her to near death’s door. Dead because he knew that he had gone too far this time; because there was too much blood, because she wouldn’t wake up. Dead because he dragged her limp body to a public stand-pipe in a deserted, four-cornered street and opened the pipe over her head and left her there with the water flowing into the blood and the blood flowing into the water, and her liquid life force moving much too swiftly, carrying her down the long drain toward death.

Fearing that he had killed her this time and knowing that he was too cowardly to stand trial for murder, her father had run off into the night and stowed away, like a caged animal, on a cargo boat to Barbados. Somehow he hoped she had survived. And she had. Long enough to catch pneumonia and die a few weeks later at Mamma’s home in Grenada.

My mother spent a lifetime hoping her father would show up.

He never did.

* * *

In Grenada, far from the home she knew, she was no longer a child. She was rapidly changing into a workhorse. After all, she had to earn her keep, to prove herself worthy of the saltfish and bluggoes, of the privilege of a night’s rest on flour bag sheets under her grandmother’s canopy bed.

She may have been worthy of food and shelter. Love and affection proved more elusive. As if in dying, her mother had recanted what she had once so freely bestowed.

And, in the beginning, she had searched as though for something precious that she had misplaced, not wanting to accept that it was gone. She had searched among the daily rituals of cleaning and cooking, in the never-ending battle to keep the water barrels filled, in the cutlassing, tilling, planting, and harvesting of the young jungle Mamma called a vegetable garden; in the feeding of the horses and pigs, the goats and chickens; in the wood gathering, and in the mountains of grown uncles’ dirty clothes to be hand-washed, starched and ironed each week. She had begun to weary of the weekly five-mile hikes to the garden, of the daily trips to fetch water from the spring at Kankazo, of the miles of muddy, unpaved road riddled with vicious potholes and sharp twigs lying in wait for naked feet caked with the reddish mud from the spring, because Mamma had said she don’t need shoes for that kind of work, they will only hambug her.

But there was not a hug to be salvaged, not a kiss to be snared, not a gentle word to be uncovered.

She had come to hate the water barrel, because if it was empty in the mornings, she couldn’t attend the River Sallie Government School with Sybil and the others until it she had filled it again. Often, she was late for school or didn’t make it at all. Because that water barrel never seemed to stay full, her uncles’ clothes never seemed to stay washed, the wood never stayed gathered, the floors never stayed scrubbed, the coconuts never stayed grated, the animals never stayed fed, the garden never stayed cutlassed, planted, harvested, tilled, manured, or whatever was the particular need of the day.

And, it was not that she didn’t like school. It was easy living, compared to staying at home. Besides, she was good at it, especially with history and English. She liked to read the poems and short stories in The Royal Reader. She had even started writing her own poetry, and when her friends wanted to write love letters to their boyfriends, she was the one they asked for help. That’s how she knew about Lincoln. His mother had asked her if she could come every month and read Lincoln’s letters to her, and to write him back for her please, because she never had the chance like young people nowadays to learn to read and write.

Even her teachers at school told her how bright she was. Teacher Uthlyn had visited Mamma, had asked Mamma to let Irene take the exam to go to secondary school because “she is a bright child and she could go far, Mrs. Donald.” But Mamma had already taken her out of school. Had told Teacher Uthlyn she couldn’t afford to spare her, that Irene was her right hand and her right foot. She had asked Mamma about taking sewing lessons, but Mamma had sent Sybil instead. And she watched Sybil take the bus to Grenville on Monday morning, dressed in her new plaid dress and polished shoes, on her way to learn knitting and sewing. And, in the evenings, when all her chores were done, she taught herself to sew on Mamma’s old Singer hand-machine. And in the end, Sybil couldn’t sew a stitch and it was Irene they asked to mend the uncles’ pants and shirts, to darn the table cloths and embroider the pillowcases, and to make the flared cotton skirts that her cousins wanted to wear on Sunday afternoons.

All she had in the world was her little brother, Dykes. She knew she had to take care of him because there was no one else to do it; he still cried in his sleep at night. She knew she needed to care for the festering sore-foot that kept him moaning as he shuffled around the house. He was not cut out for hard work; he was better with book learning. Mamma had sent him to the garden one early morning, and, while trying to use the cutlass, he had sliced open his foot instead of the coconut. No one took him to the health center, and the wound turned into a festering sore. Irene would trash around in the bushes behind the chicken coops, searching for correile for Dykes’ sore-foot. She would wash the delicate herbs in a calabash, pound it into an emerald mush, and add lard for easy spreading. Before she went to bed, she would kneel on the floor where he slept under the bed in the sitting room, have him stick out his sore-foot, and apply the green paste, while he squirmed and grimaced his way through the entire ministering.

She spent her youth ever hungry for approval, needing to please, trying to wring it out of nothingness. And like her father, it never came. Not in any way she could tell. And, after a while, she accepted that there was never going to be enough love, enough attention, enough mothers and fathers to spare for a child like her. Understood that, if she displeased anyone, Uncle Roy would call her into the pantry and use the bull pistle on her until she peed herself. That she shouldn’t be sick, shouldn’t complain of period cramps; because even on wet, rainy days, when it was muddy outside and the sand flies were angry from being displaced, it was safer to kneel in the dirt under the house and pretend she was grating coconuts while she waited for the pain to ease. Because to expect anything else would be ungrateful.

And at night, when she was too sore and tired to think, she would crawl into her own bed on the floor under Mamma’s canopy bed. She would call to Mamma to put down the curtains, which were really the bedskirts; she would go to sleep, selfless and innocent in her ignorance, too tired to wish for parents who might have told her Ananci stories, tended to her cuts and bruises, plaited her hair, chastised her about her grades, and asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. And, Dykes would call goodnight to her from under the bed in the sitting room, and she would tell him don’t forget to do his homework and make sure he says his prayers when he’s done. And afterwards, they would go to sleep. To dream the dream of children without parents. Of a mother, and of a father, and of what might have been.

So when my father proposed to her at the age of 16, even the innocence of her youth, the window in her way, the night with its disquieting secrets, the passage money, the solitary voyage on turbulent seas, the unknown world of Trinidad were but small impediments. Because, finally, someone who loved her was waiting, with her uncle, Frank, and a birth certificate that made her 21and of legal age to marry. Of legal age to live.


An earlier version of this essay was previously published in Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes in August 2005.

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