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Fiction Basil the Dog

Illustration by Cathie Bleck

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, and goat hooves fitted tightly into human shoes

by Frances Sherwood

(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.
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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.

Auntie Elizabeth.

Through the Grill Roof

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.

Nenin

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.

Continued...

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.


Frances Sherwood is the author of a collection of short stories, Everything You've Heard Is True (1989), and two novels, Vindication (1993) and Green (1995).

Illustrations by Cathie Bleck.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Basil the Dog - 99.09; Volume 284, No. 3; page 84-90.