I should have known when the neighbor’s rooster came in our yard one morning and crowed long and loud that nothing was set to go well that day, a sign of trouble like the old heads liked to say.
I had folded and unfolded my father’s letter looking at the few words he had scrawled but unable to bring myself to read it. Anger and frustration were building in me, pressing like a palpable thing across my chest.
I found Aunt Winnie in the kitchen whirling the contents of her enamel cup with a large tablespoon. From where I stood in the doorway, I could see at second glance that the cup held the remnants of lime leaf tea.
She looked especially large today, her head tie adding volume to her already prominent head, and her light-blue gingham housedress ballooning around her frame made her appear twice her usual size.
On most days, by that time of morning, she would be in her self-imposed uniform of off- white shirt, patterned peasant skirt, and soft slip-on sandals. Now, she was hunched over on the edge of the stool and barefoot staring intently at the leaves floating in the golden-brown dregs. I knew she was watching to see if one leaf stayed to the edge of the cup, something I had seen her do many times. She could tell a number of things by that, the cousins had told me. If the leaf kept near to the rim, she would know that good news or money was coming soon.
Perhaps even that very afternoon.
I wasn’t quite sure if such things were true, but nothing seemed to happen without some direct action of this nature from Winnifred.
People said because Aunt Winnie had opened an umbrella in the house when she was eleven, now, no matter what she did, no one would marry her, not the man that had given her Ronnie, her first born, and not the one that had given her Bernice, her wash belly. Perhaps this was what had angered her most about Mama running off to marry Daddy at almost nineteen while Winnie was stuck in Prospect with a baby in her and no one to claim him.
I stood there with all I wanted to say trapped in my chest. I wanted to ask her what right she had opening a letter addressed to me. I also wanted her to talk to me about Mama, about what she was like as a sister.
I had imagined us—Aunt Winnie and me—sitting at that table and she would show me pictures she kept in a frayed album, and we would slice the cheese thick enough without thinking about the others going without, and we would munch on water crackers and hard-dough bread and talk about how Mama liked stewed June plums like I did or that she was scared of spiders as a child like I was, or what she really wanted to be before she married Daddy, or say what Aunt Winnie and Mama would do when they came in from school every day.
Something nice for a change.
Now, Aunt Winnie looked up at me and I flinched.
“What you doing just standing around idle like dat?” she said. “Everybody finish them tasks yet?”
Nodding, I crept from the room before she could assign me something else. I was not really sure if they had finished sweeping the back steps or rehanging the curtains or checking the rain barrels, but I went down to the ravine where under the shade of the coolie plum tree, I unfolded the letter once again. This time to read it.
What could my father say to explain away what he had done, how he had taken Mama from me?
“Baby girl, Now that you are a little more grown, I hope you will come to visit me. There are things I want to tell you face to face so you can really understand…”
I felt my fingers clench around the paper before I realized I had curled it into a tight ball.
I resolved never to set foot at that penitentiary, even if Aunt Winnie discovered my deeds with Solomon and turned me out.
Later, I sat at the table calmly shelling the gungo peas, not meeting my cousin’s eyes. I was convinced Bernice could hear the whirring sound rushing in my head. It felt like that first time I pressed a conch shell to my ears as a child, convinced it had swallowed the ocean.
It amplified when Solomon came into the room carrying on his shoulder a crocus bag full of more gungo peas.
Bernice groaned in exhaustion, laying her head on the only visible part of the kitchen table that was not covered in a growing mound of empty shells. She, Topaz, the twins and I had been working steadily for the better part of an hour, but even the reducing pile, a mark of our earlier progress, had not made me any more at ease or contented.
“Hurry up before Mama come back,” Topaz said, who always seemed to lord her one year of seniority over Bernice whenever she could.
“Um-hmm,” Hannah said, who at times found herself in Aunt Winnie’s good graces because she was always so neat and accommodating to the woman’s every command. “You know how you love her gungo soup.”
“Yes,” said Ivy, her twin, who could not bear to be left out. “You the first to lick the bowl clean.”
“Leave me alone,” Bernice said, but rubbed at the blackened stains on her fingertips, picked up a pod, and resumed the monotonous task.
I watched Solomon dump the pods onto the table. He neither offered secret smile nor knowing glance, a skill I could not master. My fingers stilled on a half-opened pod as I looked up at him, waiting for some acknowledgement that what had passed between us had truly happened.
Holding this secret was at once intoxicating and isolating. This was the first thing I could not share with Bernice, my one confidante in the house.
How could I tell her that for the past two nights I had been out in the shed learning sin with Solomon?
That first day, the day of the delivery, when I had let him kiss me, when he had pressed up against me so close his pounding heart felt like it was inside my own chest, I gave myself over to the warm aching feeling. Though at times his whole mouth had covered mine and his tongue darted awkwardly around my lips, I savored the tingling feeling tracing its way down my spine and spreading in my core.
I was not prepared, however, when with one hand, he shoved up my dress and his fingers found their way inside my panties. I gasped, opened my eyes, and pushed him away from me.
“Is okay. Is okay,” he’d kept saying, his voice low, his breathing uneven, but his fingers still holding me in my most secret place. Then, the sound of a car door and the front gate banging open intruded, and with a pained look, he released me and left me standing in the shed.
I suddenly went cold and walked back to the waiting washing tub, trying to quiet the humming in my head that was rising to a crescendo.
Now, all of that seemed gone from his face, not the memory of how the next night I, myself unable to sleep, saw Solomon in the doorway of the room I shared with the other girls. He was half shadow, half illuminated by the weak streetlight streaming in through the window. He pressed a finger to his lips and with the other hand beckoned me to him. For a moment, I lay there wondering if I should concede. Soon, I found myself crawling over Bernice and Topaz, careful not to wake them or the others, and followed him on cat feet through the backdoor out to the shed.
I could have stopped it at any time, I told myself.
I could have asked him why he had pulled me into the shed that day and what he was really feeling. I could have insisted we talk about something, anything, even about my father who that very week had written me from the Tower Street Adult Correctional Center in Kingston for the first time in the years I had come to Winnifred’s house.
Perhaps it was better we did not say anything. I didn’t really want to recount how Aunt Winnie had given me the envelope, ripped open, and with a casual remark said “the man” had finally decided to say something to me.
I could not bear to read it then, not after knowing how she had intruded.
I stumbled along behind Solomon, the only light coming from the street. He opened the door to the shed, and he took my hand and pulled me inside. I reached up to tug at the chain on the dangling bulb, but he stilled my hand.
He was right, of course. In moments, Aunt Winnie would have found us, and we would not have much to say to defend ourselves, not even her beloved ward, Solomon.
I felt Solomon reach down and pull the long cotton night gown all the way over my head and I did not resist. Then, he gruffly pulled off his own shorts and shirt. I looked at him standing there in his briefs and was glad the weak light could not show how I was only in my ugliest polka dot panties with the rip at the side. I folded my arms over my small breasts unsure of how much of me he could really make out.
He led me to the old mattress in the corner that had not been there the day before. I did not allow myself to wonder what it meant that he had brought the broken-down thing from the back yard, in even far worse shape than the one we girl children slept on. There in the backyard with the other castoffs, it had been rained on and dried, rained on and dried for weeks and weeks before. The light streaming in through the broken louvered windows revealed that Solomon had covered the mattress with an old sheet with the faded sunflower print, one Aunt Winnie would not miss.
I sank into it, and he knelt over me. He smelled like sweet grass, earth, and sweat, much like the old mattress.
I could not make myself go back into the house.
I found I liked the intent way he was looking at me, half his face in shadow. I liked that his face, which before was always dark, always scowling as he’d toiled with that pitchfork, now had a smile playing across it, just for me. I liked that I was making his breathing short, the quick rise and fall of his chest belying the sureness of his hands.
I held his stare with a boldness I did not really possess and hoped he did not feel how I trembled as he pulled down my underwear.
He looked down at himself, and I tried not to look at first, but I was curious too. His was to be the first buddy I had ever seen for real, not counting the time I saw the man who came to
fix our barbed wire fence who I caught relieving himself in the bush. I had not seen much more than a flash of skin then from where I had stopped on the path, but here was Solomon’s bare before me, but he was cloaked in darkness.
The pain was a surprise when he put himself inside me, a pain that radiated so sharply through my whole being that Solomon’s hand pressed against my mouth to suppress my cries. The next night, I found there was pleasure beyond the pain of his thrusting, like how tamarind balls’ sweetness and sourness at once competed and satisfied.
“See how sweet it can be,” he had murmured as I held unto him trying to keep up with the rippling waves of sensation.
Now, a different aching strummed at the pit of my stomach as I watched him walk away from the table with the empty crocus bag limp on his shoulder, still no word to me.
“Is what?” Bernice asked me. “How you gazing so? Something wrong wit’ you?”
“Yes, you very quiet all of a sudden,” Ivy said. “Not even humming like normal.”
I shook my head, and I knew from their probing stares that they did not believe me. “Maybe this time, Aunt Winnie will add some meat to the soup,” I said, quickly switching the subject.
“Is too soon in the month. Remember?” Bernice said, sighing at the heap of unshelled peas. “Don’t expect that until weekend at least.”
Released from the shelling of peas, I decided I would try to get some answers to the thing that was happening with Solomon. Weeks before, I had happened upon a slim volume— Jamaican Folklore—about signs and wonders in the parish library. Intrigued, I had opened it to the center of the book:
“When a young woman’s stockings suddenly come loose,” the section read, “it means her lover is thinking of her.”
I had never worn stockings passed the age of eight and had not ever seen garters on knee highs on any women I knew, not even then in the seventies. I remember Mama always wore sheer pantyhose almost exclusively to work and to dressed-up dinner functions with Daddy, but that was it.
Still, I took the book with me into the shed and decided I would perform a ritual of my own. Perhaps, living with Aunt Winnie in those days had taught me enough to make me less the skeptic about her acts I once dismissed as superstitious. She did not pronounce incantations like a seer man, nor did she douse herself with oil secured from any mother woman, but she read her tea leaves and on pain of death would not cross her legs in a doorway for fear of inviting unwanted spirits inside the little house. What I knew for certain was I had never met a spirit, and I was always fed and clothed, so who was to say that whatever strange ceremonies she performed had not protected us this long?
Now, in the shed, I looked around for a piece of cord, glancing out the window where the others were completing their chores before Sunday service. Ronnie, William, and Jacob were taking a large bunch of plantains inside and Solomon was chopping down the tree.
Over those tense days, Solomon and I saw each other only over mouthfuls of cornmeal porridge at breakfast, through branches of naseberry trees in our toil, over sudsy water tubs and turned up earth, and again in the main room with all the cousins, but never on the same side of the room and rarely alone at home in the daytime. Each time if his eyes caught mine, he would look away or through me, and I felt irritation surge with each indifferent glance.
In the light of day, the little shed held none of the intrigue and seediness of the previous nights. I stopped to look at the mattress, stripped now of its faded fitted sheet, looking sad and dejected leaned up against the wall but perfectly in tune with everything else. It made my heart sink a little to see the discoloration, the rips and bumps in all its grim reality. The rain barrels just outside were full and covered neatly, wood shavings covered the floor, and the wheelbarrow with the missing hinge all seemed as benign and uninteresting as before the clandestine unions with Solomon began.
I found the piece of cord I needed near the row of overturned buckets and used a small knife to cut a piece as long as my forearm, just as the book said. Then, I knotted it in three places spaced nearly equal measures apart.
I felt in my pocket for the match box I had swiped from the kitchen. I had not started attending church until I came to Prospect, but now I closed my eyes reverently and said his name aloud as though saying it somberly, like a prayer, may help the outcome: “Solomon Ethan Benjamin.”
I struck the match. Then, I said my own name as I set the flame to the first knot: “Clarissa Marjorie Singh.”
I watched it crackle and willed the flame not to be extinguished before it had burned beyond all the knots. Part of me felt foolish about it, but the other part of me wanted to believe that should all the knots burn before the fire went out, it meant that everything that had happened in the shed was right and true.
I jumped at the sound of Bernice’s voice and dropped the cord. The flame lapped greedily at the wood shavings around my feet. I jumped to my feet. Bernice ran from the doorway and used her shoes to stomp out the fire before it could spread further.
“You trying to burn down the shed?” She was breathless and still stamping out stubborn sparks that kept reigniting.
“I know what I was doing, Bernice,” I said, unable to hide my irritation and looked at the pitiful cord that had one blackened knot but the other two spared. I picked it up from the unsinged end.
“Now, I going to have to do the whole thing again,” I said, trying not to shout at her.
“You acting strange from the other day,” she said quietly. “You keeping something from me? What all this you doing?”
“Bernie, you too young to understand,” I said, getting up and dusting off my shorts.
“Since when?” Bernice said, putting her hands on her hips. “You only two years older than me. You think thirteen is too young? How much things you must know more than me so?” I didn’t respond, and I didn’t want an enemy in Bernice. She had always been, after all, my closest ally, but all that had happened to me in mere days were clashing inside me and making it difficult to think.
I left her standing there, arms folded over her chest and head cocked quizzically.
I don’t know how long I lay asleep in the tall elephant grass in my usual spot in the ravine before I woke up to find Solomon standing over me.
“What you want?” I said, shielding my eyes with my right hand and squinting up at him. I made no attempt to mask my annoyance.
“I just come to find you,” he said, kneeling down.
“For what? I did my chores-dem already,” I said, sitting up and moving away from him.
“Not for that,” he said. “You coming to the shed tonight?”
I turned my back on him and used a finger to touch a patch of shame ladies. I watched them immediately fold their miniature leaves into themselves.
Then I shook my head.
“I did think you like it as much as me,” he said. I turned to glare at him.
“You think you can treat people so? You think people don’t have feelings? You jus ignored me!”
“What you going on about? You want everybody to find out?”
I got up, but he grabbed my hand and pulled me back down.
I yanked my hand away from him.
“You think I don’t want to be around you all day?” he said. “I don’t know why. Is jus…I don’t know . . . I have nature for you, but we have to smart about the thing.”
I didn’t say anything right away. I sat back down. He had not said he loved me. He did not say he liked me. He was saying only his body wanted me, but I could not argue with the logic that the others knowing would make things worse for me. Bernice would probably let it slip. Topaz would have too many questions. Hannah would all too eagerly tell Aunt Winnie if she knew, and anything she did, Ivy copied. The boys would never look at me the same.
“This something you do with . . . with other girls?” I asked, not meeting his eyes.
“When I would have time to do that?” he scoffed.
This was not the answer I had hoped for, but it would do for now, I decided.
Sighing, I searched his face. I wondered what it was about him that made Aunt Winnie want to take him in at age nine and now had set him as charge over the rest of us in the house.
I wondered what I saw in him now that made me feel drawn to him.
“You never talk about your real family,” I said. “You knew your mother?”
Solomon plucked at the tall grass and passed a stalk across his lips and then between his teeth.
“I believe they used to call her Tit,” he said. “Her real name was Helen.”
I sat up, pulling my knees up to my chin. Solomon sat back and continued to play with the stalk.
“When was the last time you see her?” I asked.
“When I was about five or six,” he said. “She used to call me Solo for short. She and my uncle.”
I smiled. It made me think of Mama in the good days when Daddy was working sometimes over in Trinidad and would bring back the Solo soft drink for us that tasted a little like sorrel, but I didn’t say anything which might make Solomon stop talking.
“I only remember how her hand was heavy sometimes when she was mad,” he continued with a far-off look on his face, “and how she used to buy me tamarind balls at evening time when she come in from town. She used to work in a big government office, but I don’t remember for sure what she did do every day.”
The question was there, wedged in my neck: What happened to her?
I may have said it outside my head because Solomon looked up at me, the hard edges of his mouth softened, his eyes misty despite how much he blinked.
“A man with a sharp cutlass come in one night and that was it. Kill her for less than twenty-five dollars in her nightstand.”
I gasped, but didn’t say anything.
“She did push me under the bed where she think him couldn’t see me, but I see him raise the machete. I hear her scream until she get real quiet. I lay down there and see the blood drip- drip unto the floor and spread under there to touch me. The neighbors-dem find me under there but I was too scared to come out.”
He was silent for a moment, his face drawn. We let the sound of the swaying elephant grass brushing up against each other fill the pause.
“My uncle. He wouldn’t take me. He prefer him rum bottle and him woman-dem,” Solomon said. “And he was the only good uncle I did have.”
I looked at him, realizing the pain in my chest was because I wouldn’t let myself cry though I wanted to. I thought how I had seen Solomon every day for five years and had never seen him look this dejected. All this time when he had been treating us like cattle, we had suffered the same unnatural loss. I thought about how I had also been sent to a childcare facility, a Place of Safety in Stony Hill, St. Andrew, when they took Daddy to jail for killing Mama. For six weeks, I stayed in that place with other girls, some as young as seven to as old as 18, wondering how my life had suddenly changed, how just like that both my parents were gone.
I reached over and took his hand. He looked down at it like it was a foreign object and I pulled it back.
He looked back at me for a moment, but I couldn’t read his expression. The drooping look was gone from his face. Then he pushed me back into the grass.
This was the first time we did the thing in the daytime.
I sat in the front pew next to Aunt Winnie, twirled the lace trim of my blouse around my index finger and hoped she could not see the shame on my face. I thought it strange that for us church was mandatory even though most people in the community knew Aunt Winnie’s practices went directly against Bible teaching. One time they had even let her preach when the pastor could not come, and the head elder had sprained an ankle. Aunt Winnie had straightened her hat and simply walked up to the pulpit. The spectacle was talked about for weeks because Winnifred Saunders used the opportunity to mention the sin and the doer with alarming clarity along with threats of damnation. She told who needed to stop climbing through married women’s windows at nighttime or who needed to stop selling watered-down syrup at full price or whose oversized field mice needed to eat their own vegetables and not the crop of good and hardworking church people.
This Sunday, though, Aunt Winnie kept adjusting her starched collar and looking out the window. Just as well to have the harsh light of her attention shifted away from me, Solomon, or even the cousins. I was acutely aware of the sinfulness of what Solomon and I had done just mere hours before. When we were out in the bush together, it had bothered me less. Now as the wooden Savior glared down on me, I felt the full weight of my sin and what was worse, I found myself asking for forgiveness for what I was certain I would do again that evening.
Usually, after we would listen to Bishop Phillips drone on about the fate of unrepentant soul, we would make the trek back to the little home where Aunt Winnie would finish making corn pone and saltfish or gungo peas and rice and some salted beef, but this time, we made the short trek to the house on our own as Aunt Winnie went into town.
“She really acting strange,” I murmured more to myself than to Bernice.
“Is so Mama stay sometime,” Bernice answered, nonetheless. Solomon and the cousins passed us and walked ahead. He looked back and smiled at me as he passed, the first time he did this in front of the others. It made a warm feeling start at the back of my neck and spread across my jawline as if he had traced his finger there.
“Is wha sweet him so?” Bernice said. “How him look like please-puss so?” “Who?”
“Solomon.” I shrugged.
“I think we should try to find out why Aunt Winnie so distressed,” I said, quickly. “This seem more serious like something bothering her and when something bothering her, we usually get more trouble than anything.”
“Well, that’s true,” Bernice said, nodding.
Feeling some measure of relief that I could enjoy my secret a little longer, I exhaled slowly and followed the rest of the cousins and Solomon back up to the house.