Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

 

Original Fiction

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Portent
By Joanne C. Hillhouse

August 2008

Mago woke with a start. There was someone in the room. She stilled, listened; heard, inexplicably, a child’s laughter. Her mind immediately snapped to Peaches, her sister’s daughter, the daughter of Mago’s heart; but the laughter had the timbre of a boy.

The boy laughed and made sounds like he was playing with a truck. Vroom Vroom! Vroom! Her third eye saw it clear as day. It was a red and yellow truck; in the same style as the ones that hauled garbage to Cooks dump. But her vision got filmy, like she had cataracts, when she tried to get a good look at the boy’s face. Jumbies, Mago knew, had the power to ‘blind you’ so you couldn’t see more than the surface of things; couldn’t see their true face. Mago didn’t doubt this, just as she didn’t doubt the existence of jumbies; she’d grown up with that knowledge. She knew oddness when she felt it.

She felt it now in the way her limbs hung heavy, refusing to follow instruction. She’d had a little Cavalier on the rocks with dinner; not enough to produce this inertia. Unease quickened Mago’s heart; the rest of her remained sluggish.

She remembered her learning, concentrated on specific bits and pieces of her body. Her long toes, her thick eye lashes, her fingers – big fingers, fingers a classmate back at Christ the King High School 15 years earlier had marvelled were “huge!”; fingers the first man to hold her hands in his own, caressing her palm, assured her were “beautiful”; Her grandmother’s fingers.

The child’s presence became insistent, the truck ramming into her back now.

Mago fought to maintain her focus on her extremities.

Soon, the child was pulling at her, trying to get her to turn to him, even as her back ached where the truck continued to ram it mercilessly. He was amazingly strong.

She felt herself becoming distracted, even as she resisted weakly; afraid now of looking into his face.

Then, another image came to her, that of her grandmother, Appie, the mother of her heart, the one who had named her Mago after her favourite fruit, the Mango. Appie wore her usual loose dress, its hem sweeping the floorboards of their modest but well kept wooden cottage, head tied high, regally, like the Dominican holy woman that she was. She’d never set foot in any Christian church – though she owned a worn King James bible, but she was spiritual enough to draw many to her altar of herbs and charms. “Never to harm,” she vowed, “always to protect.”

She knew which whispered words, crushed herbs, blue water, and the like could keep evil at bay. She knew what bush to take for what – guava leaf for diarrhoea, orange leaf for nausea, periwinkle to lower blood sugar, ginger lily to settle an upset stomach, mango leaf to carry down fever...           The mountain people of Capuchin and some making the long journey from the city paid well for her services; fruits, vegetables, soaps, cloth, whatever currency they could afford. Appie took it all, as long as they meant no harm, and as long as she was successful in chasing whatever evil had tied the tongue of a child, or whatever mischief caused utensils to fly and things to rattle. She mixed potions for protection of those going off to the city or preparing to sit exams. She was fearless in the face of all the darkness, which she told Mago existed around them. Sometimes Mago could almost see the blackness in the trees around them, feel it on the wind. But she was never scared, because of the fearlessness of her grandmother. To the young girl, who had known little beyond their small mountain home, Appie was equal to, greater than, the evil. Sometimes Mago could close her eyes, and almost see the furies swirling impotently around Appie, a narrow framed woman with tightly stretched skin, long fingers, and thick ropes of hair – just barely peeking out the edges of her elaborate, homemade tete casé. Her hair was always covered. “Your hair is your strength,” she’d caution. Sampson’s betrayal at the hands of Delilah was her favourite, oft repeated, of many cautionary tales. Appie never cut her hair, and uncovered and untied the ropes only at night when she’d sit at Mago’s feet like a little girl as her granddaughter brushed it, relishing the ritual. Her grandmother would whisper stories – their instruction subtly masked – as the kerosene lamp danced like a fire spirit across the otherwise dark walls. The room would smell of coconut oil, and Mago’s hands would be greasy from it. The dregs were rubbed into Appie’s small feet, with their splayed toes and cracked heels, a little TLC after meeting the rough surface of the ground all day. When Mago pictured Appie facing the furies, these feet seemed rooted to the ground; and when the furies quieted in frustration, Appie would be still there standing, unblinking.

Mago never felt safer than when she crawled into bed with Appie, the night sounds coming in through the open window and the scents of the various herbs clinging to everything around them.

The remembered vividly being ripped from this womb, the day the woman trudged up the hill purposefully; come up from the city, Roseau, to claim her. The woman called her Clarice that day and many days thereafter before conceding that the child would answer only to Mago. Appie had been withdrawn all morning the day she came, before she came. And as the woman she didn’t know was her mother sat, stiffly, at the edge of the small bed whose hills and valleys Mago knew well, Appie sat quietly sipping ginger lily from her favourite can cup. The woman announced that she would be leaving Dominica soon with her other daughter and new husband, and wanted to take Clarice with her. Mago hadn’t understood then that she was the one being discussed. She remembers being transfixed by the woman’s tidy French roll, and the rosy hue of her cheeks and lips; fashion that was a unique blend of old world and new, a colourful foulard adorning her neck, the rest of her attire a navy dress, of some kind of soft fabric, with pearl buttons down the centre, framing her curves. When later she understood the relationship between Appie and the woman, Mago still struggled with the idea that this full-grown woman was her grandmother’s offspring. Appie had stood before the furies; but before this woman, she seemed small.

Mago recalled the last time she’d seen her grandmother, whose disapproval of her mother’s decision never spilled from her mouth but was there in the dark glare of her slanted eyes – inherited from the Carib side of her bloodline – and in the tightening of her lips, usually full and moist and smiling, now hard and thin.

Appie had pulled Mago to her then, before she shuffled along behind the woman she didn’t know, Georgie Bungle hugged to her chest.

“Be strong,” her grandmother had whispered. Then with a “here, take this,” she’d taken out a brown leather patch sewed up with the night herbs whose scent was as familiar as her own. “Evil keep clear,” her grandmother had hissed, pinning the small square to the inside of the new bra, her first, which her mother had brought up for her from the city. It chafed almost as much as her nipples, just coming in, on the still boyish chest. Her grandmother had then sent her off with a little shove. She wasn’t a woman given to sentiment.

The scent of herbs, coconut oil, and smoke clung to Mago, making her feel safe as she headed off into unknown territory.

It was that flavour and that image that she reached for now, even as she chanted “Jesus,” – Christianity having been hammered into her at the Catholic School her mother sent her too once they’d arrived in Antigua. The child mocked her, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” it echoed.

But she was steadfast, clinging to the memory of when she’d felt safest and strongest. Her mind focussed, and soon the force that held her weakened; and she pitched out of her stasis like a sprinter breaking out of the blocks. She took the time to settle her wildly beating heart, before looking back to the bed where, of course, there was no child and only the impression of her own body. Her back still burned though, and she knew she’d danced with evil that night.

“Is a foolish person who won’t protect sheself,” her grandmother had often said. Now 30, Mago considered herself anything but foolish. She was an astute businesswoman who’d converted her inherited knowledge into a popular health food shop right in the heart of St. John’s City – the more obscure items procured from her grandmother still living in that mountain village in Dominica. An alluring blend of Appie and her mother, as eccentrically stylish as both of them, Mago had no shortage of male suitors; but remained defiantly independent. No, she was no fool. She knew enough to be restless; scared even by this uneven night.

She stepped out onto her balcony where the wind rustled the leaves of the many trees in her vegetable garden, rubbing at the herb patch that now hung from a leather cord around her neck.  She stayed out there until the sky faded from indigo to yellow.

She got two bits of news that day.

The first from her doctor: “You’re pregnant.”

The second from home: “Appie dead.”

The child just coming to life within her, Mago flew to the place she still considered home. There, with Appie’s neighbours from the hillside village, she bathed, rubbed down and dressed the old herbalist; and long into the night they beat the djmebe and djun-djun in an incomplete drum circle, as voices rang out and beads rattled, and the willow whistled and leaves of the various other trees rustled and whispered, like they had a secret they simply couldn’t keep.

Mago felt the baby move, though it was much too early for that.

Antiguan Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of two novellas: The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Her fiction and poetry have also appeared in Ma Comère, The Caribbean Writer, Calabash, Sea Breeze, and more. She freelances as a writer, journalist, editorial consultant, and producer. For more visit www.myspace.com/jhohadli

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