The first time I see she, I was leading a gang of workers to pave the street in front of she grandmother house in Hope Village.
She lived there with she mother, Miss Betty. The house was brick on four concrete piles and had fancy wooden decorations, like them houses in colonial times, and a porch in the front. The salty sea blas’ from Hope Bay had eat away the galvanised tin roof and left blackish teeth marks on the roof’s curly edge. Most of the time, the two women kept the wooden jalousies closed so the workers couldn’t see inside the house. But sometimes, she, the daughter, would open one jalousie a lil’ bit and look out for hours. From the road, she looked like a cotton shape with wooden stripes and no face. Then just so, the jalousie would be shut for days and from church bell to whistle blow, me and the workmen searched the wooden eyelids of the house for a glimpse of she.
Then, one morning she appeared on the porch with a jug and ask if we wanted water. She was shapely, tall and strong, with a mannishness to she. A plain face that I didn’t know how to read yet. She poured my water without looking at me, then turn and went inside. That was how Queenie was. All she actions flow into one another, like river into sea. She was the mouth of the river. You could never know how deep she was. This was the real reason I did love she, though I never used that word.
After the road finish, I visited she a few times. Miss Betty was often there, sitting at one corner of the porch, crocheting some endless doily and sucking she teeth. Queenie sat across from me, a glass of lime juice on the table between we, nodding she head, not saying nothing. Me, talking more than I ever talk. ‘Bout people in Hope. Who get married. Who buying land. Then I start to talk ‘bout myself, boasting about my land in the village interior, ‘bout my salary and all the people who work under me, feeling like I had to impress Queenie and she mother. This went on for three weeks or so until late one morning I was going there on my bicycle with a peccary I did ketch that dawn and instead of taking River Road to their house, I kept straight on Windward and rode to John Dial, the next village over, to a one-room house on four concrete piles. There was a separate kitchen, flat on the ground at the left of the house.
In John Dial, Katie was in the backyard hanging out clothes. I could see she legs, dark and solid. From where I was, it look as if she legs was holding up the house. I called out to she from the street, but she didn’t answer. She stand up still, listening, not knowing that I could see she. Overhead, a kiskadee scream out as it flew from the dry gully at the back of Katie’s house. She came out to meet me and clap she hands.
Hector, you bring a peccary for me, or you on your way to somewhere else?
A wire bend across she forehead, but a bell was ringing in she voice.
I here, Katie. I smiled.
She clap again and took the animal from me, the wire gone from between she eyes.
I didn’t say nothing more to Katie. She left the clothes and made a fire near the kitchen. As I was bathing in the open air on the concrete slab near the gully, I smelled the charred, sweaty odour of she singeing the hair from the peccary. I put on the same clothes and hang out the rest of she washing. When she did done cook, we ate, me sitting on a crate and she standing at the kitchen door. Afterwards, just so, without even washing she hands and mouth, she lift she skirt to show she front to me. I didn’t really want any, but I was generous with the peccary, so she wanted to be generous with me. I took a little with my head turn to one side so she couldn’t kiss me.
After that, I stayed off River Road in the day. It was easy too, ‘cause the government was cutting more roads in Scarborough, and I got another foreman post. It was 1946, you see. The War was over by then, and the big boys from England and Trinidad wanted to develop Tobago after they did neglect we for so long. Some people say it was the distance and the cost of the steamer to travel between the two islands. But I think it was that Port-of-Spain was far away, and Tobago was just a village to them big boys making decisions, from nice offices in town with fans and ice water.
Was so then. Same now.
I think, altogether, I didn’t see Queenie for almost a month. So, when Ottley’s youngest boy bring the message that she wanted to see me, I was in two minds about going. I gave the boy a penny for the message then got on my bicycle.
No one was in the yard, so I took my bike under the house and lean it against one of the concrete piles at the back. I was starting to feel that feeling again. You know? Like a boy playing among he betters. But I straighten my back and walked up them concrete steps. No one was on the porch, and the drawing-room door was open, so I went in. I stand up in the drawing room and could just make out the shapes of cabinets and chairs in the false dawn inside. Uneasy, I fingered the hem of my shirt at the back then I hear something behind me. When I turn, Queenie was there in a thin cotton duster. The light from the open front door made the duster into whitish glass, and I could see she full, bare breasts underneath. I slap she hard on she waist with one hand like I was sizing up a tree before I cut it down. She turn, close the door, and we did we quick, searing thing right there.
When we got together, I moved out from my Tan to live with Queenie. Betty put up a one-room on family land, not too far, and hardly called on we. After each of the first three boys, Sidney, James and Phillip, was born, Betty stayed about a week to take care of Queenie. Banded up Queenie belly and gave she bush to drink, so the body would come back to itself after the babies.
Just around after Phillip was born, Betty married a Horace James, who she did know from Scarborough General, where she worked, washing bedding and clothes. Fast, fast they had a son. Then a boy and girl twin. After we daughter, Freda, was born, Betty visited more often, staying longer each time. Sometimes weeks away from she own house and husband. I think things wasn’t going good between she and Horace, ‘cause sometimes I see him in Scarborough and since the wedding, he got small.
With all the children, mine, plus Betty’s three sometimes, I hired a woman, Carol, to help with the cooking and washing. Most evenings, I came home to quarrels that finished just as I was parking my cycle under the house. By the time I reached upstairs, Betty left the room quick, mumbling to she self as she went. Queenie, like always, was unstrummed by whatever tune Betty was playing.
We was together five years and Betty was still bad-mouthing.
She said that I had other women.
How I didn’t have enough money.
How I was too ugly for she daughter.
Sometimes, I wanted to spin Betty around and put some bad words in she face. Let she know how I was the best man for she daughter. But Betty was a starched cotton and hat kind of woman, and it was easy to imagine these things when she was not in the same room. In she face, I couldn’t find my voice. This was about the time Queenie ask me to build a house for we alone.
We will rent out this house I inherit from my grandmother, so it stay in the family. That way people will stay in their own house.
It was the first time she almost said something about Betty being in the house all the time.
I had land all over Hope, and since Queenie’s house was near the main road, I choose a nice plot almost to the centre of the village. Betty would have had to leave the paved street and follow a dirt path along Hope River to get to it. Ha!
Queenie was pregnant with Henry, we last child, when I started as foremen on a project to cut and pave new roads in Roxborough. I was putting in work at the new house most evenings during the week and on weekends. When I did go to Queenie, it was to sleep or to wash and cook when Carol was off. Queenie got fat, round and nice. Things was good between we. We had we own way of talking without words when Betty was there. Sometimes, we talked with we eyes and left Betty with the children and went to make fierce love in the small kitchen next to the house. All my sons was toy versions of me, tall, broad-shoulders with laugh lines that went from both sides of their noses to the corner of their mouths. Freda, with she Demerara sugar-coloured hair and fair skin, looked like Queenie, moved like she but had a vast ocean-like way about she. She wasn’t a river mouth at all. Freda was someone you could know.
That morning, I did wake up early, early to play with the children before I went to work. When I walked up from the bathroom enclosure behind the house, a stiff brackish wind was blowing off the bay, so I hugged my damp skin and waited for Queenie to open the door. She did just finish nursing Henry and handed him to me. We hear a grumble from Betty room, and stifle a giggle. I got dress and talked soft to she about the house in the interior. Henry, at nine months, was trying to walk, and the boys got up from their bedding under we bed to hug my neck and play. Freda sat at the edge of the bed staring. I ask she what she was looking at and she cover she face. She keep it covered till I left for work.
In town, the shipment of pitch to pave the road was delayed in Trinidad, so I send the men home and rode my bicycle back to Hope. I sat on a metal railing at the side of the main road smoking a Du Maurier when Errol, a fella from town who lived in the village, sat and ask me for a cigarette. Errol talk through three cigarettes worth, then got quiet. I don’t remember what I ask him or how we got to it, but he tell me that if I went home now, I would see Queenie with she man. After he said it, he jump off the railing like if somebody push him and hold up he two hands, like he was surrendering.
I throw the rest of the cigarettes at him and got on my bicycle. I couldn’t feel the handlebars or the pedals. My body was moving from memory.
When I got there, Betty was under the house with Freda and the twins. She run toward me and shout out Queenie’s name. I push Betty, take my cutlass from the house pillar and run up the front steps. My heart was boiling in my chest. I was sweating, the air like just before a rainstorm. My body tingling like I was hunting and about to corner a gouti.
On the porch, Queenie was by the front door, and for the first time, I could read she.
Behind she was a man. I tried to get passed she, but she block the doorway. Then, I don’t know, I wanted to bathe she, so I tried to take she to the bathroom and when she wouldn’t go, I hit she with the side of the cutlass, hold she two hands and drag she down the stairs on she belly. The man, I can’t say he name, jump over the bannister and run away. In the bathroom, I throw a bucket of water on she and ask, What you doing?
I don’t know. Is, is Mame. She was crying and the spit and phlegm made a bubble when she said it.
She face and chest was scrape-up––dress tear-up. Heavy footsteps pounded my head and chest. She and me was the only people in the world. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, Queenie, the bathroom, the yard, the house, everything went behind a door, and I was looking at them through a small hole, seeing only glimpses of things, never the whole picture.
Next, it was like I did just wake up––hands, feet, head, every part of me tired and heavy. My throat hurt, and I was trying to remember something that was at the tip of my tongue. The side of my face was itching and when I scratched it, my fingers was bloody. It was all over my chest, my pants, my boots. I was looking for Queenie ‘cause I thought I did just come home from somewhere and wanted to tell she something. Then, my boot hit she head, done cover up with bluebottle flies. She was split down she centre, she insides mix up with grass and dirt. Between she legs, a bloody pulp. I roared hard to bring down the sky so that it would flatten me ‘cause I did spoil she. When the sky didn’t fall, I put the cutlass to my throat and rub it back and forth, a damp, rubbery noise in my ears. Sounds from far away came closer. Hands hold me down, grabbed the blade and hit me till I was out.
I spend most of the court case trying to remember what happen between the bridge and finding Queenie so. I listen to the lawyer man with the white wig, the constable, Betty in black. All of them talking and talking. But they was talking about scenes from a magic lantern show that I never see when the man from Trinidad came to set up he complicated business in Scarborough Market. In the end, I got manslaughter––five years on Carrera Island. People say I didn’t hang ‘cause Betty was the only witness. Betty encourage wrongdoing, they say. Bible justice.
Upholding, Horace tell she, just as they was carrying me out, chained up like a animal.
They say too that I got five years ‘cause my mother dress a fowl cock with obeah to sway the judge. My Tan would do something like that, but I could never ask, ‘cause obeah is not a conversation.
The children was scattered, some to this one, others to that one.
When they release me and I was back in Hope, my father gave me the house he lived in with the woman he married after he and Tan mash-up. I was there a week when Betty drop Sidney, James and Phillip in the yard and left before I could walk to the place where the Barber-Green meet the dirt in the yard. I couldn’t look at them boys without my eyes burning and thinking about the darkness after the cigarette on the bridge that made them not have a mother. Not too long after, Leonard, Queenie’s father, brought Freda and Henry on the front of he bicycle with their bedding and school books in a flour bag tied to the back. At eight years old, Freda was the mirror of she mother in face and almost in body. But that wasn’t the reason I send she to live with Tan. The house was one room then. Me and four boys? Not proper for she. Freda had a long, bumpy scar on she stomach that she scratched sometimes. When I ask she ‘bout it, she said she always had it. I know she got that mark somewhere in the twilight between jumping off a bicycle in the middle of the day and trying to cut my own throat.
Once me and the children was back in Hope, things settle into a rhythm. Steady. Like waves back and forth on Hope Beach. Freda with Tan. Me carrying food there every week to help out. Bonito, Moonshine, ‘gouti, cassava, anything I ketch or plant. Freda played with she brothers after school or on a Saturday evening after she wash she school clothes and anything else Tan wanted she to do. The boys spend time between me and Betty and their endless fighting. Sydney and Phillip was alright, but James. Greedy and often picking at people. At things. At ants, for walking near he foot. From he small, he had a thing in him I didn’t like. Henry stay, say ‘bout three months, then went back to Leonard in Scarborough. I tried to tell him, I is he Daddy and these is he brothers, but I read he eyes from the first day he reach and them eyes was always asking: Who is these people?
I did stop dreaming after it happen, then just so I was having the same dream every night. I’m looking for someone or something or some place that I can’t find. I used to wake up from this searching dream with a deep, deep disappointment that made me vex that they take away my cutlass too soon. Then I was shame that God know what I thinking. Since they release me from Carrera, my throat is dry all the time, a thirstiness I can’t get rid of. So I drink. Rum. Drink till the dryness is gone, till I fall, grateful for sleep without the endless searching and finding nothing.
I sell the half-built house and gamble away some of the land. I beat the boys sometimes ‘cause I can’t beat myself.
As to women. Well. Nobody for a long time. But I have property and draw pay, and that is enough for them with children to mind and who want to eat their yam with salted cod instead of salted butter sometimes. When the feeling is more than me and there is no one, I go to Katie. She let me in she house at night, but I have to leave before the birds’ wives wake up. Eventually, I take up with one Charlene. She lived in a three-room with she mother and three brothers. Men went in and out to the mother, when things was tight with them. Charlene was gaunt and stunted with open sores on she hands and feet, hardly talked and didn’t ask questions. At first, like everybody else, I climbed in she bedroom window at night for one thing. Then for other things. I started washing she sores with Bluestone to dry up the weeping and to take away the smell. Feed she marmite and Horlicks with boiled cow’s milk. One night I notice she body was fuller, warmer. That same night after we finish, she mother came in the room, sit down on the only chair, and looked down at we, lying on the floor on rice bags stuff up with grass.
Belly ah tell pussy secret, Mr. Scott, she said. You ah go claim me only daughter?
I looked from Charlene to she mother and nodded yes, a direction taken.
I add-on another room to the house and took Charlene there. We started a family, grafting a thin failing branch to a strong tree with termites eating the root that no one could see. Freda and she brothers, I keep close in the breast pocket of my shirt, as me and Queenie was together in them. Proof that there was another direction at one time.
Sometimes I see Betty in town. In the market usually. She severe daughter and quiet knotty sons and husband in tow. She still don’t talk to me. And she does make a point to turn she back when she see me. Sometimes, I can see she back muscles tense up under the gingham as she turn away. Sometimes, I turn away too, my hands shaking and needles sticking me all over.
A. K. Herman was born in Tobago. A. K. writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2009 and placed second in the Small Axe Literary Journal Contest. A. K. has published in Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Journal, Aster(ix) Journal and Rigorous. A. K. lives in Brooklyn and is working on a novel.