(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)
IT was the 1950s, and in Trinidad, the British West Indies, Winston Rama's mother believed in soucouyant, spirits who left their skins and flew about in the night sky clad only in raw pink flesh. She kept a pan of salt under her bed to throw on them if they came to steal her breath away.
Winston's mother had many remedies, many rituals.
If you had an enemy, you put his name on a piece of paper and placed it in your shoe, so that you walked on him all day.
To get children, in addition to prayers to Mary, Saint Elizabeth, Saint Francis, she had done special penance on her knees, and, for good measure, had her mother, Nenin, prepare rich foods for her to eat -- breadfruit and cassava, pepper-pot stew with oxtail, calf's foot, pork, and chicken, all flavored with boiled and sweetened cassava.
To stop having babies, after Margaret and Winston, Mrs. Rama drank a bitter brew concocted by the obeah man, the ancient magic man who lived in the hills.
A piece of bread behind the image of the Sacred Heart above her bed ensured food in the house at all times.
If you dreamed of losing teeth, that was very bad.
Spiders were good. If you fell and cut yourself, you could put a spider web over the cut to heal it.
Everything had to be done just so. Monday was washday, and when Winston came home from school, the clothes would be spread on stones in the yard to dry. Tuesday his mother did her mending and darning, with a solid wooden ball that had been in her family for generations for the toes of the socks, and she made Margaret's dresses, using the treadle Singer sewing machine in the front room, feet plying forward, back, forward, back, her whole body moving with the effort. Wednesday, Mrs. Rama rode the country bus to visit her mother and sisters and their families, bringing them city things -- silver-paper pinwheels for the children, big bars of soap for laundry washing, scented talcum powder in tin cans, which sprinkled out from little holes at the top like a metal shower nozzle. And for the men razor blades wrapped in thin paper, orange and white, a tiny picture of two swords crossed, and also Player's cigarettes, already made and lined up in a perfect little box, which later held pins, needles, matches, or ground coriander or ginger. Thursday, Mrs. Rama cleaned the parish church with other women, and Friday was the day the house was done top to bottom, although dust would have sifted up between the floorboards and in through the front door and windows by evening of the very same day.
Breakfast was tea and fried biscuits, sometimes a piece of cheese. Lunch was the same, the biscuits wrapped in brown paper, and Winston had tea sweetened with a drop of canned condensed milk when he came home. At dinner, if he was lucky, his mother prepared pelau -- rice and pigeon peas, rice and salt pork, or rice with curried eggplant. At Christmas the treat was dark fruitcake saturated with rum, pastelles wrapped in banana leaf, ginger beer, and roti with curried chicken.
After finishing his homework, Winston would walk up to the Queen's Park Savannah, laze with the other boys under a cannonball tree, and drink coconut water from the coconut truck -- the driver took one whack with his machete to crack a coconut open. Little fire stands circling the savannah signaled roasting corn. Margaret, because she was a girl, was not allowed to go out of the house at night, and instead would listen to the BBC on her father's big Telefunken radio if he was not home, snapping it off quickly when she heard his step. She also liked to play tea party with her two dolls, pink rubber babies with eyes that opened and shut and painted-on hair like a brown cap. She was very good in school, and her mother spoke of her going to convent, becoming a nun. At that Margaret would roll her eyes upward, give Winston a conspiratorial look, and silently mouth the word never.
During soccer season Winston played with a ball he had made of rags wrapped around a stone; in cricket season he used a stick and a can. In kite season he made kites from strips of young bamboo, thin tissue paper begged from the Syrian store owner on the corner, paste of flour and water, and string saved from his mother's packages. He celebrated Carnival with calypso and costume, Christmas with Spanish parang, Boxing Day, the Queen's Birthday.
Of course, every day, until he lost his job, Mr. Rama went to work in the accounting department of Texaco Oil. A Calcutta Indian, descended from grandparents who had come to Trinidad after slavery to work the land, Mr. Rama was the only father on the street who wore a white shirt and a tie. He could add up numbers in his head as fast as Mrs. Rama could say her rosary. And he would give the children a shilling every week for candy, putting his hands behind his back, asking them to guess -- which one? When they were little babies, Mrs. Rama told her children, their father would be so eager to see his family that he ran the last block home.
Margaret, the more Indian-looking, with her long, straight hair and pale skin, was his favorite. After she died and the rum took him, Mr. Rama, indifferent to what Mabel, next door, could hear, would shout and carry on, calling Winston, his dark son, who had his mother's African features, "old nigger" and "bastard" and other bad names. Winston's mother said it was the drink talking. Yes, Winston, trying hard, knew that bottle had mouth, and he also knew that despite the modest measure of their island life, despite each day's knuckled vigilance, despite the fence his mother put up against dirt and disease, despite humility in the face of fate, empire, and God, there was Basil.
Basil came for every breathing creature, no matter. He could not be outwitted, ignored, or placated. He came in sickness and in health, in age and in youth, in the midst of cheer or sorrow. He came with the cool breeze of late night or on days so hot that even the hummingbird stayed still in the shade. He came with worms that entered your heel and lived in your stomach, eating the food that you swallowed, with mosquitoes whose touch was so light that you did not feel the long needles of their noses injecting their treacherous venom. Basil came when the world held its breath before break of day, and in rolling clouds of thunder. Even his smell was a puzzle. It was the scent of stale sweat and green gangrene, the smell of spent, cold ashes, the smell of overripe pineapple, rancid banana skin, ulcerous pus, rain-rusted tin roof, goat pills, dead cat. Also clean seawater, bicycle spokes, white chicken feathers, pages of Alice in Wonderland at the small library on Knox Street, Father McCauley's breath of anise and gin.
Basil dressed like a man, with shirt and pants, but he had the long snout of a dog, yellow eyes as scary as a snake's, tippy-toe goat hooves fitted tightly into human shoes, and jackass ears, which were kept folded under his hat. Basil lingered on corners of city streets, smoking a cigarette, appraising, from under the brim of his hat, the passersby. In the evening he could be found among the slender stalks of green bamboo in the botanical gardens, or perched in the spiky leaves of the prickly palm, or hiding in Old Man Bitter Bush, and in the morning, the day fresh and the streets just filling with bicycles, he could be stumbled over on the savannah, a piece of grass in his mouth, sleeping the way the dead do, his eyes open.
Winston had actually seen Basil three times before Margaret's death.
When he fell through the Grill roof.
When his grandmother, Nenin, died.
WINSTON was standing on the roof of the old abandoned Grill, on Abercomby Street, and it was a clear, blue day in December, an in-between time after Christmas and before Carnival. He was ten, at the Tranquility Grammar School, still in short pants. Margaret, who was twelve, was his companion, for she could climb trees, run fast, shoot marbles. They were on that day flying a Chinese kite, chickichong, a fighter kite prepared for battle with zwill -- small pieces of glass -- glued to its tail, and paste with ground-up bottle in it on its string, so that when he whipped it across the sky, it could slice the strings of other boys' kites and win.
Winston had made his first communion the year before, and had hoped that his godmother, who had a cookshop in her front room, would give him a bicycle, a Raleigh, but she hadn't. He had hoped that he could save enough from his job at the chemist's on the corner, wrapping packages of medicine in brown paper and string on Saturday mornings, to buy a bicycle, but he had to give his money to his father every week for the house. Winston knew that Mr. Singh, the chemist, would dismiss him shortly anyway. The brown paper was in a long roll, difficult for Winston to rip off, short as he was, with the quick, flipping movement he had been shown, and the string, on a tall cone fixed to a pole, gave him fine, smarting cuts, and then the bandages on his fingers, deducted from his wages, made him even slower and clumsier at his work.
On the Grill roof that day Margaret said not to bother about the job, she was going to be rich when she grew up and would buy him a bicycle first thing. She meant it, cross her heart and hope to die. At that moment, with the wind ballooning out her checkered cotton dress and the strands of her hair playing around her face like the memory of something, she was so beautiful that she scared Winston, and shuddering, he quickly replied no, he was going to be rich and buy her a bicycle.
The sky sprouted kites that day, a bunch tailed in brightly colored rag bows from the city streets and another fleet gaily sailed up from the savannah. Some were the colors of flowers. Winston's was plain newspaper, made the night before using thin, pliable strips of young bamboo and flour paste. A kite was nothing compared with a bicycle. If he had a bicycle, he would spend all his time riding around, exploring from morning to night on Saturdays, and on school days he would ride to school, pulling up right in front of his friends.
All of a sudden he felt himself fall. The wind rushed in his ears like the end of the world. He grabbed air, he kicked air. He wanted to scream help. His mouth opened.
Hail Mary, Full of Grace.
Thud. He landed on something.
His bowels loosened before the world collapsed.
Seconds, minutes, hours, whole days? A ray of light touched his face. I am in heaven, he thought, and a trio, the Trinity -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost -- peered down curiously at him. But the Father was none other than his mother, her face drawn together like a rooting rodent, the agouti; and the Son was the Chinese doctor from Frederick Street, Dr. Woo; and the Holy Ghost was his sister, Margaret, crying, "Wake up, Winnie, wake up."
The roof had broken under him, and Winston had fallen through onto dusty cardboard boxes, not the hard floor, not cement. He was alive, and Basil, outside the building, walking up and down, up and down, gnashed his teeth in anger and frustration, let his long, thin tongue out from the cage of his teeth, and hissed, Zcurses, zcurses, zdrats, zdrats, I am going to eat my zhat.
HIS grandmother had been with them for a while, sleeping in his mother's room, sharing her bed. Nenin slept curled like a little cat; she was so light that Mr. Rama could easily carry her into the front room and place her in the Morris chair under the wedding photograph hanging by a rope. Nenin loved, longed for, her sip of brandy, measured out by spoon twice a day, morning and night. When Mrs. Rama went to the market or to mass, Nenin sent Winston and Margaret scurrying all over the house to find the hiding place.
Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Winston would make a big show of his search, looking in the chifforobe, where Nenin kept her teeth, or the kitchen safe, covered by screen to protect from flies. Margaret looked in her father's house shoes, street shoes so old that the leather was as soft as a wool blanket and went slip-slop when he walked about. When Winston found the little bottle of brandy, he would shout out "Eureka."
There it was, behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin or the Sacred Heart above his mother's bed. The Blessed Virgin, in serene blue, her arms outstretched, her eyes cast modestly down, stood on a snake. The Sacred Heart had two little doors. Winston's mother would kiss the image and then close the doors, saying "Good night, Jesus." In the morning, first thing, she would open the doors, and the heart beaming bright rays looked ready to burst right out of Jesus' body like a red-hot cannonball.
Nenin's brandy, retrieved, administered, replaced, was actually mixed with water, and the last drops were barely flavored, merely tinted. Yet Nenin would smile as if it went straight to her cancer, made it all better. When they could afford it, they took her to the Colonial Hospital for morphine, which the nurse gave her in an injection, followed by a glass of English Beefeater gin. The Trinidad Guardian printed notices all the time asking people to give money for morphine so that cancer patients could be put out of their pain.
Unfortunately, Nenin's pain increased, and she wasn't always able to be taken to the latrine in the yard in time; she dribbled and had to wear a bib, and when she could, she smoked a rough country pipe, stinking up the house so that Mr. Rama said Nenin would have to go. Mrs. Rama arranged for Mabel, next door, to keep Nenin.
"Where are my children?" Nenin would cry. "Where are my lovely ones?" she sang faintly from her pallet on the floor by the window. They could hear her quite clearly from their house, and Margaret, disregarding her father's look, would run outside to the street, calling, "I'm coming just now, Nenin."
Margaret was the one who helped to wash the old woman, stroking her face with clear, cool water from a bowl on the floor and soaping her neck and shoulders with a soft cheesecloth, under her arms with a square torn from one of Mr. Rama's shirts gone to rag. She boiled cornmeal pap with evaporated milk into a thin gruel. When changing her grandmother's gown, Margaret did it quickly and gently, using a sheet to cover her withered parts and the lump in her stomach, which was as big as a soccer ball.
Toward the end Nenin, gazing out at the patch of blue sky from her pallet on the floor, mumbled over and again, "God, I'm ready. God, take me home."
But it was not the rush of golden wings and the angelic host proclaim that Winston saw hovering in the sky the day Nenin passed. It was Basil, Basil himself, Basil as bird -- and not one of the scarlet ibis that clustered in the mangroves of the swamp like little licks of flame, or any kind of nice little bird, but a hard, big bird, a bad bird, a bird of prey with feathers as black as night, as sharp as arrows, crow after carrion, death after life.
WINSTON'S favorite aunt came into town from the country to have her baby in the big bedroom where Winston himself had been born. He knew very well where babies came from. He had seen dogs, goats, mount each other, and once, in Woodford Square, two cats. He had heard his father call to his mother at night, "Gouti, I'm lonely -- gouti, come to me."
Winston knew what the words of certain calypso songs meant, such as "the big bamboo," and he knew that swizzling on your own in the shower was a sin you had to confess: Father, I have sinned. But to do it, finally, man to woman, in the way to make a baby -- a child to be baptized, dressed, steadily fed, sent to school, taught his catechism -- Winston envisioned as an event full of power and mystery, much like the picture of the train he had seen in the encyclopedia in the library on Knox Street, an engine shooting puffs of steam from either side, entering a dark tunnel ribbed with bands of bone, emerging into an explosion of light, God's light.
Auntie Elizabeth got his mother's bed, the one curtained with mosquito netting, its head and foot bars of metal. Under the bed Winston's mother kept her best things -- a toaster from England, in the box it came in; a set of special china plates painted with bright-blue windmills, wrapped one by one in white tissue; her wedding dress, wilted and yellowed, bundled into a straw basket; and the Christmas ham, in a string bag covered with brown paper. Margaret cleaned under the bed using a wet cloth tied on a stick. She did the rest of the floor by standing on the cloth in her bare feet and shuffling along, instead of getting on her hands and knees, which was how her mother made Margaret clean when she was watching.
Mrs. Rama spread a rubber sheet on the bed and added a layer of newspapers, and the jalousies were shut tight so that the room was as dark and as cool as the inside of a cave. Their auntie, who had been waiting all the while in the front room in the Morris chair, with a rag dipped in ice water on her forehead, was brought in.
Winston and Margaret, banished from the room, had to go outside and play.
The afternoon was cloudless. The hot sun bore down on the hibiscus bush in the yard with a vengeance. The bush, full of showy red flowers (each corona of petals with a long, tubelike stamen), seemed to be sticking out its many tongues. The air was taut, inscrutable. Winston felt uneasy. The night before, he had dreamt of evil men with knives chasing him, and only at the last was he able to take flight, soar above all harm.
He and Margaret made boats with cork and pins and little triangles of paper snipped from the frail blue airmail envelopes sent by their British pen pals. The boats were set to sail in the drainage stream that ran in the yard along the verandah, between the latrine shared by several neighbors and the front room of their house. After boats they looked at the five stamps in Winston's stamp collection, kept, along with his best marbles and his slingshot, in a cigar box that had on the underside of the lid a picture of an old-fashioned man in a beard. They did times tables as far as they could go, up into the hundreds, all the whole afternoon, trying to ignore the thread of pure glass, the high, eerie wail of Auntie Elizabeth, that cut through whatever their play.
She called for her mother, poor old Nenin gone some one year, and she called on God to help her, save her, spare her. She asked that she could please just die, be buried in town, in Pechier Cemetery, which had a tall iron gate and broken bottles along the top of its wall. She wanted to be forgiven, not forgotten. She wanted to know if anybody had ever loved her, name one. She wanted a glass of cold water, she wanted the priest, she wanted a real doctor for God's sake, she wanted to die, to live, to die.
Winston finally put his hands over his ears. Margaret tried to pull his hands away. They got in a fight. His mother came out of the room, saying, "What are you children doing?" His aunt began to scream again. Winston's mother rushed back into the room. "Hush -- hush, hush."
And then the screaming stopped. It stopped. Shortly his mother came out of the room with the baby, wrapped tightly in a blanket like a little package, except its head showed bald. "It's a boy," she said. Now, Winston thought, maybe now they would at least have their evening tea, turn on the radio to the BBC since his father was not home, have a treat of sweet bread spread with tinned New Zealand butter. But Auntie Elizabeth called from the room, "It's not coming out."
His mother said to Margaret, "Get Mabel, next door," and to Winston, "Run, boy, fetch the Syrian down the street to drive your auntie in his car to Colonial Hospital. Run, now."
When he came back, Margaret was holding the baby, and Mabel from next door was holding Auntie Elizabeth's knees open, and Winston wondered if this was like the Black Hole of Calcutta, which he had heard mentioned once, or if it was like the giant ants he had seen in a movie, who swarmed over people, ate them alive -- for it was terrible beyond compare. Bloodied newspapers were wadded up on the floor between white-enamel bowls of bloody water. The mosquito netting was pulled down and in a dirty pile. The baby was crying. His aunt's skin was going from brown to ash, and her eyelids, fluttering like butterflies, desperately tried to stay open.
"Push, girl, push," his mother instructed.
Winston's own dried placenta, as flat as a pressed flower, as brown as a dead leaf, his mother kept safely wrapped in paper somewhere under her bed. As was the custom, she would give it for safekeeping to his wife when he got married, to be eaten in dire sickness.
"Push, girl, push."
Mr. Vivi arrived. Scooping up Auntie Elizabeth in his big, strong arms, he carried her to the car, gently settling her into the back seat.
"No bother at all," he said.
Not thinking of her agony, Auntie Elizabeth reached out of the car window and put her hand on Winston's cheek.
"You take care of your little cousin, you hear, boy?"
"Right as rain," Mr. Vivi said. "She is going to be right as rain."
Winston wanted to believe in that, in rain, but what he saw was Basil, Basil the Dog, in the back seat, as comfortable as could be, his long tail curled around his neck like a great mapepire snake, and a wicked, wicked smile on his thin, cruel lips.
The baby's father, a cane cutter, arrived the next day and took the baby away, going deep into the bush with his child and getting a new wife the following week, a strong, fat woman with thick flat feet.
WINSTON crouched on the tin roof of the house, rocking back on his heels, hearing his mother in her room, humming as if wearing her good funeral clothes were sport. The humming stopped abruptly when she looked up from the window facing the courtyard and caught him.
"Winnie, Winnie, I see you up there. Come down, boy, and dress."
Winston squatted resolutely, wrapping his arms around his knees, holding on for dear life, because he felt that if he did not grip himself hard, he might float up, up, and away, like Superman, or like one of his chickichong kites cut loose. His mother came out in the yard.
"Winnie, what do you think your sister will feel if she knows you don't even go to her own funeral, eh?"
To his mother, Margaret was walking up in the clouds, probably looking down and getting heaven ready for the rest of them, much like straightening up the house on Friday. Winston wished his mother were the one who was lying in the coffin on the table with chipped ice packed all around her. Margaret, a honey brown, was now a powdered, painted doll wearing her Sunday dress, which she had always hated for its starched skirt, babyish sash, and guava-green color. Two professional mourners, old ladies with no right to long life, were by her coffin, sobbing and moaning as if they were not paid to sit. Moving around the roof, Winston saw through another window his father thrown across his sister's bed, twisted in grief.
The day she died, the nuns from Tranquility had said, "God needed her more than we did."
Winston's father had replied, "God's rump, God's face, God go to hell, you stupid, stupid."
And Winston had wildly agreed with his father. Oh, how he had agreed.
Then Mr. Rama ran through the house beating his head against the walls, knocking things down with one swipe, all the dishes, kicking, swearing, screaming, as if with enough destruction he would be released from grief and Margaret would rise from her bed, saying, "Daddy, stop. You see, I am alive, God is love."
Mr. Rama even spit on the crucifix in the front room and tore down the Sacred Heart above his wife's bed. For naught.
The sickness had started because Winston and Margaret used the drainage ditch as a channel for cork-and-pin boats. The part of the house by Mabel's was sheltered by a large flamboyant tree, and Winston imagined afterward that Basil, already in the vicinity because of Auntie Elizabeth, had spotted Margaret from a limb in the tree, his legs dangling over, julie mango in his hand, sweet juice running from the corners of his mouth. Or perhaps Basil was lingering by the latrine. A wily fellow, like Granddaddy Roach, sitting in the crack, who skittered on the floorboards when lights were out, Basil was everywhere always.
Margaret got a little cough is all. But Dr. Woo came, just to be sure, examined her chest with black rubber tubes dangling from his ears, placing the little metal cup at the end on the smooth skin over her heart, the wings of her lungs, turning his head away as if listening hard to distant music. He told Mrs. Rama that Margaret needed rest, good food, lots of liquids.
Margaret got her mother's bedroom, the bed with the toaster and the wedding dress underneath. They had eaten the ham on Christmas Day, before Margaret got sick, Winston's mother placing the thin slices on the plates with blue windmills, mango relish to the side. She had also made for Christmas sorrel, plantain balls in callaloo soup, souse and cucumber, dark cake soaked in rum. In fact, the night before Christmas even his father had gone to mass. It had been, all told, except for the death of Auntie Elizabeth, a good year, Mrs. Rama declared at grace, and the year before, except for Nenin's dying, a good year. Looking back, she could find no fault. They had food on the table, clothes on their backs. Margaret in her most hated dress, her braids tied in red ribbons, peeked a look at Winston across the table during this speech, mouthed hungry, giggled.
"Mind your manners," Mrs. Rama cautioned. "You want to bring bad luck?"
The day the doctor had to come again, because Margaret's cough would not go away at all, at all, Winston's mother closed the jalousie shutters to keep out the sun and noise, the dirt from the street, just as she had for Auntie Elizabeth. And in the following days Mrs. Rama attended Margaret around the clock, bringing her tall glasses of mauby, chips of ice to suck on from the Syrian's fridge, sea moss to build strength. She made puddings of breadfruit or pumpkin, and rubbed Margaret down with bay rum and Tiger Balm every afternoon. In addition to Margaret's Saint Christopher medal and cross, Mrs. Rama had Margaret wear around her neck a piece of camphor sewn in a little bag on a string for easing the throat, and a little bag of stones to protect the child against the evil eye. At night, when Mr. Rama came home from work, he sat by his daughter's bed, held her hand gently in his, and told her stories about mongoose, tortoise, parrot in the tree.
Winston went to school, of course, but all other times he sat on the floor by his sister's bed and watched. The nuns from Tranquility swept in like birds of ill omen; Father McCauley appeared, pronounced "Be a brave girl"; Mabel from next door said, "Brave my arse, by Carnival you be so well, you be dancing for so, just you wait and see, nuh?" Mr. Singh came with a bottle of tonic from his shop free of charge. The Syrian brought sticks of candy whorled green and apricot. Little girls filed in, Margaret's friends, their eyes wide with curiosity and fear.
At the beginning of her illness Margaret had seemed to know, for she had given Winston her cat's-eye marble, which was worth a good trade of at least five ordinary marbles, and the picture of a champion cricket player she had saved from the Trinidad Guardian. She also had a picture of the boxer Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who had visited from the States, staying in the Queen's Park Hotel.
When the coughing got worse, Winston's mother summoned the obeah man. He poured rosewater in all the corners of the room, lit incense, chanted spells, and made a mixture of plants gathered near Maracas Beach at three o'clock on a Sunday morning.
"Get that witch doctor out of here," his father had shouted, loud enough that Mabel had to run over and calm things down.
The day Margaret died, rain fell so hard in the afternoon that the drops, like bullets, dented holes in the ground. Then the rain stopped. Then the sun came out, as unrelenting as ever. Then darkness fell, and that was like mercy bestowed on the good, for Winston felt that the cool air was a sign that Margaret would get better. Indeed, her cheeks appeared to gain color that night, and she smiled.
"Look," she said to him when they were alone in the room, "I can still stand." With several attempts, pathetically thin, almost faded to extinction, yet all by herself, she stood on the bed and stretched out her arms. "See?"
But later she got worse, very bad.
Father McCauley was summoned. He gave her the last rites, and with them kneeling around her bed, his mother praying and crying, his father struck down by the unthinkable, and he, Winston, in a fury of grief, there, on the outskirts of their suffering, Basil began his strutting, a little chip-step to a calypso beat.
The dirty dog thought he was King of Carnival, Emperor of the Caribbean, Ruler of the World, God Himself Supreme.
This was before the rum took Winston's father.
This was before -- or maybe it was when -- Winston knew he had to leave the island, travel over the waters, go to university, learn to do serious battle.
Frances Sherwood is the author of a collection of short stories, (1989), and two novels, (1993) and (1995).
Illustrations by Cathie Bleck.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Basil the Dog - 99.09 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 3; page 84-90.