m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

S E P T E M B E R  1 9 9 9

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

Auntie Elizabeth

Illustration by Cathie Bleck 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.

The Most Awful

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.

Oh yes, oh my, time does fly.

The dirty dog thought he was King of Carnival, Emperor of the Caribbean, Ruler of the World, God Himself Supreme.

Oh yes, be my guest, I love you so, don't be slow.

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.

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


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 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 3; page 84-90.