Bruised Hibiscusby Elizabeth Nunez
When the body of a white woman is fished from the waters off Trinidad, the event reunites two childhood friends and forces both to confront a terrible crime they witnessed together two decades earlier. See more details below
When the body of a white woman is fished from the waters off Trinidad, the event reunites two childhood friends and forces both to confront a terrible crime they witnessed together two decades earlier.
- Random House Publishing Group
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It didn't take long for the news to beat through the bamboo and the mangrove bush off the shore from Freeman's Bay in Otahiti, to spread like wildfire once the fisherman, his brown skin turned tar black by the sun, and leathered by the salt in the wind and sea, staggered into the Oropouche Police Station. Terror made him incontinent: When the constable stopped him, urine ran down the legs of his tattered red shorts and splashed on the concrete floor, sprinkling the constable's trousers like holy water from a priest's Benediction.
The fisherman seemed hardly aware of what he had done. He wriggled his toes, but his eyes remained glazed, his jaw dropping and closing as if he would speak but couldn't, his mind still frozen on a strange mass he had seen in the soft dawna brown lumpgently ebbing and flowing with the white froth on the edge of a crystal clear blue sea, buoyed by hollow clumps of pale yellow bamboo splattered with slivers of green sea reed and the gleaming wet olive of wide sea-almond leaves.
A burlap bag stuffed with the husks of dried coconuts, the fisherman thought, dragged offshore by the previous night's stormy ravage of the sea in the mangrove, until he drew near. Squinting in the pristine light of the early morning sun, he saw the rounded bulk that had spilled out from the top of the bag take shape, and he recoiled from the horror of it.
The constable, an irascible man, would have drawn his stick viciously across the fisherman's back the second his eyes fell on the urine, steaming and stinking, curling along hisspotless floor, had he not caught in the fisherman's eyes the glassy glint of pure terror he had witnessed only twice before and never forgotten. As it was, he called for a chair and a glass of water for the fisherman, and waited until the words came. Then he ordered his men to tell no one what they had heard, put on his hat and went with the fisherman to Freeman's Bay.
Such was Trinidad in 1954, and is still now, that the constable's strictures were a guarantee that the world would knowTrinidad world. So that by the time the constable reached Freeman's Bay, a tight knot of bodies had already formed around the mass the fisherman had found, and the constable had to break through it before he could see what had so engaged them. When the church bells rang for the Angelus that evening, the details of the fisherman's discovery, embellished by a hundred imaginations, had already passed far out of the village of Otahiti to the capital in the north, travelling rapidly through the towns and villages between Otahiti and Port-of-Spain without the aid of telephone, television, radio or newspaper.
For though in 1954, the British colony of Trinidad had telephone, radio and newspaper (to have television also was asking too much then of the mother country), only the colonists and a favored few had telephones; nevertheless, they did not trust them, and there was only one radio station, Radio Trinidad, and one newspaper, The Trinidad Guardian. In the case of The Guardian, it would have been necessary to wait until the next day for the news because the lone morning edition was already out, but the station had no such excuse except for the interruption of middle-class dreams: "Portia Faces Life," "Second Spring"the serialized romantic adventures of the British that took precedence over what a poor and illiterate fisherman saw in the little country village of Otahiti on the edge of Freeman's Bay. But there was an intricate network of people who could be counted onmen's women, women's men, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friendswho passed the word from mouth to mouth as they thought they should; news too sensational, too shocking to keep to themselves, news it was their duty to share. So that two women who lived twenty miles apart would hear itone in the stifling gloaming of a grocery shop in the heart of Port-of-Spain; the other in the bright, breezy dining room of a tiny two-story house in Tacarigua across the wide expanse of the Orange Grove sugar cane estate.
Two women who played with each other as children and had long forgotten those times or that they were ever children, would feel the sudden panic of self-discovery, a rapid quickening of their heartbeats, the moment their husbands gave motive and reason for the appearance of the unspeakable mass the fisherman had seen. Two women, who had long ago witnessed behind a hibiscus bush a scene so brutal, so dehumanizing that they lost all innocence, though at the time they were just twelve, would, a day after hearing the news, each resolve separately to make the pilgrimage up the Laventille hills to the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Frightened into irrational guilt by a thought insidious and sinful that had entered their consciousness without their willing it, they felt a desperate need for absolution: a miracle of Fatima to purify them, to restore them to the numb passivity they had long grown accustomed to before the seed that had been lying dormant in their souls for years was catapulted from its protective encasement by their husbands' impassioned reaction to the fisherman's discovery.
What the fisherman found that morning was gruesome enough. Gory. Not because of what it was now but what it once had been. For the shape the fisherman had recognized tangled between the bamboo and the sea reed, rolling idly with the quiet waves, was the head of a corpse, still too fresh to have begun to decompose. A woman's head, her face protruding from the brown burlap coconut bag, gnawed open perhaps by the very fish that had nibbled away her eyes, lips and tongue, before trying to make their way past the stranglehold of the cord that secured the rest of the body hidden in the bag. A sight revolting in itself, but more so for what it had been. Enough for no one to question the story that, before the fisherman became incontinent over the station floorthough they now said urine was not all he released from between his legshe had vomited his breakfast on the bamboo-strewn sand.
People took bets on what the fisherman had eaten that morning, divining meaning from the scraps of half-digested food they claimed to have found, needing to put their world in order, to give context to the relics of the senseless horror left for them to interpret. The fish bones they said they found in the vomit foretold punishment due to the fisherman for an obscenity he had committed against the seathe dolphin he had mangled with a metal hook, or the school of baby fish he had torn to shreds with the rusty propeller of his boat engine. Not that they blamed the fisherman for the horror he had found, but, rather, that they needed to attach some cosmic significance to the one who was chosen to see it first.
He could never be the same again, they said. And they were right, for the head had been the head of no ordinary womanwhich would have been horrible enoughbut the head of a white woman; the kind of woman who, to the eyes of the villagers, seemed mystically protected, unaffected by the taint of poverty, sickness, or the everyday tide of calamities taken as a way of life in Otahiti; protected certainly from the vulgarity of violence. The kind of woman who seemed hardly human, or rather, more than human: the wife of an overseer, the woman glimpsed smiling in the breeze of a passing car; or a tourist, shaded under a broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses, sipping lemonade in the sun, throwing coins to children as if money did not matter. To see one now, dead, a lump of flesh, rotting, corbeaux screeching, ready to pounce from between the rusty edges of wind-torn sea-almond leaves, there must be meaning. There must be something terrible about to happen.
So Zuela thought, though she had not seen the vultures, but she saw the Chinaman spit on the ground and heard the malice in his voice when he silenced the talk in the shop that night about a white woman stuffed in a brown burlap coconut bag and dumped in the sea in Otahiti. Later, Rosa, the other of those two women who played together as children but who no longer remembered each other, or that they had ever been children, would herself be confronted with the shocking details.
Zuela was told the news as she was bending over the flour bag on the wooden floor in the rundown grocery shop in Nelson Street, scooping out the last pound of the thirty pounds of flour she had weighed that day on the rusty scale on the counter, some in parcels of a quarter-pound, some in half-pounds, her breasts pressed against her belly, which was swollen as if she were expecting her eleventh child, which she was not; twenty-nine now, she had already had ten. At least fifty times she had bent over that belly for the flour, more times for the sugar and rice, pouring carefully on the brown paper on the scale so that not a speck would escape, not a grain; weighing carefully on the scale so that not an ounce was oversold, all the time knowing that wherever he was, the Chinaman was keeping his eyes on her.
It was the woman who came to buy the flour who told her.
"Eh, Miss Zuela, you didn't hear the news? They find a white lady in a bag in the sea in Otahiti. Dead, dead so. Fish eat out she eye and half she face. They say somebody strangle she and stuff she in the bag."
Zuela, pushing back the strands of her heavy, straight, long black hair that had fallen across her face when she bent to the flour, saw the Chinaman's fingers stop in the middle of the metal pole of his counting board. Saw his fingers clutch the yellow bead in the middle of the metal pole, but he didn't look at the woman, the last of the customers that night, or at the ragged band of men who still lurked by the doorway. Always. Every night, even after he had chased them away. Yet she felt him listening, though his eyes did not leave the counting board and his lips stayed still.
"You think is Boysie?" the woman pressed.
Zuela saw the Chinaman lift an eyebrow, but that was all. His eyes remained on the counting board.
"Is not Boysie that do everything." The voice came from a man who had unhinged himself from the clump of smirking young men in old men's rags, bellies rounded from the abuse of alcohol, and eyes that had lost their capacity to express any emotion except derision, their mirthless laughter always ready to disavow the serious, to diminish the beautiful. These were men prematurely forged into cynics by deprivation and failure, or rather, by the loss of faith in the possibility of the reversal of their misfortunes; men who, having nowhere to go, sought to build colonies of their kind if only through the debasement of others.
"Well, I watching what I doing from now on. Boysie ent go get my heart." The woman took the paper package from Zuela and clutched it to her bosom. She was not much older than twenty-five, though it was difficult to tell. Desire in her eyes, a hunger for excitement that sometimes made them wide and shiny, would at times give her age away. But her body had long lost its youthful softness. Her limbs were long and wiry. Her skin was tough and dry.
"Boysie have no uses for the likes of you." The man curled his lips and sneered at her. "If is heart he want, he looking for young heart, or white woman heart."
The woman lurched to strike him, but at that moment the Chinaman coughed, a deep, raucous sound that seemed to explode in the middle of his chest and thunder up his windpipe. His body shook with the force of the cataclysmic waves. His face turned pink, then purple, and his veins stood out on his forehead like a maze of wires inside some tiny electrical machine. No one moved or said anything. In seconds, the coughing stopped and then the Chinaman cleared his throat and spat out on the ground.
"Boysie ent no damn fool. You don't know him." And looking directly at Zuela, he snarled, his voice hoarse from coughing, "That have man-woman business in it."
It was then that the germ lodged in Zuela's soul broke loose and sprouted roots.
The young men in old men's rags, frightened not by what Zuela saw in the Chinaman's eyes, but by something more immediatethe familiar way he spoke of Boysie, confirming a friendship between them they had long suspectededged out of the doorway, the woman behind them. And a breeze blew across the Port-of-Spain harbor up Nelson Street, reeking of rotting fruit and the putrid remains of animals slaughtered there for the market, yet it was still refreshing. The breeze lifted the heat of day that lingered about the piles of stinking garbage mauled apart by starving dogs, their rib cages etched against hairless skin, thin legs infested with sores. It fanned the stench of urine and excrement rising from open canals, and swirled umbrellas of dirty newspaper and rancid-smelling wrappings of food discarded with decaying peels of fruit and vegetables all along the broken pavements. The cool and quiet of Nelson Street after a sultry market day were broken now by the footsteps of a woman running from the Chinaman's shop and the nervous laughter of three men, and then the shout of one when he was at a safe distance from the Chinaman, "You better run. Chinaman tell Boysie what you say."
When he'd gone into the rainforest in Venezuela looking for alpagats to sell in his store, the Chinaman found Zuela, too, and had taken her for himself. Some said that it was Boysie Singh who'd led him there, not just that one time to buy alpagats and to bargain for Zuela, too, but every month, ferrying him in his boat through the treacherous Bocas up the Orinoco River. They said that at night Boysie Singh used to take a boatload of Trinidadians there. Criminals like himself, except Boysie couldn't be officially called a real criminal since nobody, not even Justice Vincent-Brown, could get a really big crime to stick to him. But Boysie did favors for friends of his friends who went in too deep with the Americans. Rum and Coca-Cola. Waiting for the Yankee dollar. The quick dollar to be made on the black market after the war while the Yankees were partying in the base in Chaguaramas. Women selling for five dollars an hour and rum like water. Drugs, too, if that was what Americans wanted. And a killing or two over racehorses. Boysie would smuggle bandits into Venezuela without papers, making a laughingstock of the police.
They took all the cash they could carrythese outlawsand jewels, too. Nor was there any possibility of return to Trinidad, two facts that warmed them to Boysie. Past the Dragon's Mouththe Bocas, swirling currents between Monos, Huevos and Chacacharacare that almost swallowed the Santa Maria and made Columbus drop to his knees before the trinity of mountain peaks rising over the land in TrinidadBoysie poured drinks. Then, when the sea was smooth and calm again, and rum had loosened tongues and chased away the fear of the dragon's teeth, he set upon his customers with his knife. Stabbed them to death, they said, and cut out their hearts for racehorses. Some said, to feed them; others said, to rub on the hooves of racehorses to make them run fast. Or so the woman who came to buy flour in the Chinaman's shop believed, and she told Zuela about the corpse of the white woman floating in the sea between the bamboo and the sea reed in Freeman's Bay in Otahiti.
The more sophisticated knew that racehorses were not the only reason why Boysie took his prey to Venezuela. There was the prize of money and jewels. Sometimes more than three thousand dollars' worth in one night's trip. Quick, safe and easy. Except if the corpse floated on shore. Except if the corpse broke loose from its anchor. Like the corpse of that white woman in Otahiti and the body of the man they said Boysie had killed, for which Justice Vincent-Brown convicted him but he couldn't get the death sentence to hold, though they kept Boysie on Death Row for weeks before they were forced to release him.
The young men in old men's rags saw the Chinaman leave the shop, go to Venezuela and come back, safe and sound, tens of times, bringing back alpagats and saltfish for his shop in Nelson Street. And once, Zuela, too. They weren't deceived by his man-woman business answer. The corpse the fisherman found was the corpse of a murdered woman, murdered like that man Justice Vincent-Brown said Boysie had butchered and tried to bury in the sea by tying it to a thick rope attached to a heavy piece of iron. Still, the body floated to the surface. Foiled one more time and in Otahiti. It had to be Boysie. The Chinaman was protecting his navigator. Money, jewels, and dead people's hearts (this time a white woman's heart) making Boysie's racehorses win races in Arima.
But they were wrong, Zuela thought. Not this time. She had heard the malice. She understood the man-woman business that could get a woman, even a white woman, stuffed into a coconut bag and dumped in Freeman's Bay in Otahiti for fish to gouge out her eyes and feast in her mouth. She understood the man-woman business that could make even a woman (provided she had the strength of a man) stuff a man into a coconut burlap bag and dump him in Freeman's Bay in Otahiti so the fish could swallow his balls and chew up his cock.
She had never thought of murder. The seed the Chinaman jarred out of its quiet place was not bred out of thoughts of murder. Of death, yes, but not of brutality. Of wishing he would no longer be there to torment her. But then, at that moment when the slits that were his eyes narrowed to a sliver of black light, and spit jettisoned from between his teeth, stained from years of tobacco smoke and much, much more, she conceived it: his murder. The Chinaman's murder. Man-woman business.
On the outskirts of Port-of-Spain going south, and then farther inland to the east, the cool salt wind that blew off the Gulf of Paria across the filth of Nelson Street turned fresh and took on the odor of the candy-sweet stalks of sugar cane that were planted across most of the low-lying area in Trinidad. The wind blew past the Croisée, with its stench of rotting fish, past where sailors took prostitutes in the narrow crevices between the dilapidated buildings and warehouses bursting with bags of sugar and cocoa, stacked to the roofs, squeezed against banks with names like Barclays of London and Chase Manhattan. The wind swirled dirty paper and dried animal droppings off the pavements in Nelson Street and then raced through La Basse, chasing after children fighting corbeaux for scraps of food in the piles of garbage on the seas side of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway opposite Shanty Town, that spilled out of the foothills like an infectious disease spreading sorescardboard shacks. Eyesores, the ladies in Goodwood Park called them, with yesterday's newspaper and the bright colors of last Sunday's comics plastered like paint on their outsides, a few lengths of rusty galvanized roof on their tops to ward off the rain.
Now buffeting the Churchill-Roosevelt, through the cane fields, toward the Caroni River, the wind was beginning to lose its salt-sea smell and the mango-sweet stench of the garbage from the La Basse. It crossed the zigzag of ditches dug patiently, then frantically, by East Indians who kept believing they could lick the power of the thunderstormsor that their gods couldthe inevitable thunderstorms that each year ruptured the banks of the Caroni, flooding the rice paddies, even the meticulous rows of tomatoes, cabbage and eggplant they had planted safely (so they thought) near the edge of the highway.
Now in the rapid descent of nightfall, the sun slipping into the horizon as if it had no energy left to linger, the wind curled softly around palm-roofed mud huts, picking up the stink of manure, to be sure, but also the pungent odor of curry and dahl from black cast-iron pots and the rich, earthy smell of the land. At San Juan, it fought with the sudden flurry of cars swirling around the roundabout: to the right, then straight, or to the left, then straight, or round and round. A tiny town, no competition for Port-of-Spain, San Juan nevertheless had its markets and its shops, too, and its share of crime (Boysie Singh was reputed to have two women there, and scores of boys in training to follow in his footsteps). The wind breezed past it in minutes, rolled lazily over the wide-open plains toward Tacarigua on the edge of the Orange Grove sugar-cane estate, blew out the thin white curtains in the dining room of Rosa DesVignes' pretty house and fanned the fire on the stove in her kitchen so that she had to shut the window tight, but not before Cedric heard it bang.
"You didn't latch the window, Rosa?"
That night was a night like any other night when Rosa anxiously tasted the food still in pots on the stove, hoping the pinch of salt or pepper she added was just right. That what she cooked would please her husband, Cedric. Except that night, her anxiety turned to fear as she felt the seed loosen in her breast where it was buried, a seed like Zuela's. Because before the window banged and the fire on the stove flared and Cedric shouted, he had walked unexpectedly into the kitchen, caught her with the salt in one hand and the spoon to her lips, said not a word about her cooking, which she was braced to hear, but cool as ice water, not facing her directly, he gave her the news that had spread up north that night, news of a white woman stuffed in a burlap coconut bag in Otahiti, her eyes and lips and tongue eaten by fish, her body dumped between the bamboo and the sea reed in Freeman's Bay, corbeaux circling to finish her off.
"Bet they all think is Boysie. But that has no signs of Boysie. Crime passionel," he said, pleased with the sounds of his words. He was studying French, ancient Greek and Latin. "A man caught his woman in flagrante delicto. And then CRACK ..."
The word cut across the room. Ugly. Like the brittle sound of a centipede's back snapping.
Rosa jumped. The next moment she was grateful for the wind that had left Nelson Street and blown through the cane fields, banging shut the kitchen windows, so hard that they sprang open and struck the walls again, making their own echoes. For Cedric didn't see the blood rush from Rosa's face, and later, at dinner, when she brought his food to him in the dining room and he repeated flagrante delicto, knowing well enough she knew no Latin, she had time to control the color in her face again, but not the pain in her head.
Her temples throbbed; sharp pins stabbed her eyes. Flagrante delicto. Even if she were not certain of the words, she understood the meaning. Caught his woman. She had seen that smile on Cedric's face many times. She knew that smile, the wet smile he wore only on his lips, the smile that never touched his eyes. It was a camouflage she had long learned to recognize: He wanted to be considered cultured and educated, because he thought it would hide the pictures he had in his heart. But she saw them, and pain flared across her forehead when suddenly they reflected the very images that came to her in the kitchen the moment he told her of the white woman in Otahiti, a cord around her throat, her eyes, lips and tongue gouged out by fish. She saw the images as in a mirror, but in reverse, so that where he saw woman, she saw man. Now she put her hand to her forehead to push them away, feeling too late Cedric's eyes on her.
"What's the matter, Rosa? Sick again?"
"No. No." She answered him quickly.
"Headache again?" He didn't look up from his plate.
"What you said."
"About the woman in Otahiti?" He glanced at her with feigned concern. "That bothers you?"
"It's so sad."
"That she was murdered."
"Didn't you hear me, Rosa? In the kitchen? I said, flagrante delicto. In the very moment. In the act. You understand that, Rosa? In the very act. In flagrante delicto."
"I mean, to murder her like that."
"To put her in a bag and dump her in the sea."
Cedric put down his knife and fork, dug his elbows into the table, arched his hands above them, and looked steadily at her. It was a look she had seen many times, in the last year more than she could bear. The first time he had stared at her like that, he told her why. He had married a white woman, he said. Like a fool, he had married a white woman. At another time he spoke of her eyes. "Like cubes of frozen iced tea," he said. "But your skin, not your skin. It gives you away." He told her that the sun had burned it so brown, it betrayed her. Let English people know that she lived here, not there; that she belonged here, not there, though there had been ancestors there once in the blinding white.
Now he spoke slowly, looking compulsively at the white spot that had begun to form on her lower lip where she had bitten it, watching the blood drain slowly into the corners of her mouth. "When a woman forgets ... Thinks she can go out and take it somewhere else ... When a woman betrays ... You understand me, Rosa? A man has no choice. And if he catches her in flagrante delicto ..." He paused, still studying her lips. "Such a man cannot be held responsible. It's a crime passionel. "He savored the words. "A crime of passion that even the courts understand." He shifted his eyes to hers.
Rosa's lips trembled. "But it could have been Boysie," she said.
Cedric trained his eyes on her.
"He did it before. Don't you remember?" She looked away. "Don't you remember the body that floated out of the sea near the Yacht Club?"
"No one could prove it was Boysie."
"Well, it was possible. Justice Vincent-Brown said ..."
"He didn't say that, Rosa."
"He said ..."
"Not that, Rosa."
"He convicted him."
"And people said Boysie took out the man's heart."
"They say Boysie does that all the time. Cuts out people's hearts and rubs them on the hooves of his horses. You know, to make them run faster. This woman could be another one, Cedric. Like that man in the water at the Yacht Club."
"I warn you, Rosa, that man's heart was not missing."
"The judge said ..."
"His heart was still in his body."
"He said ... People say ..."
"Shut up!" Cedric brought his fist down hard on the table.
Rosa felt tears gathering in her eyes, but still she persisted, her voice shaking. "Maybe he didn't get a chance ... Maybe someone caught Boysie before he could take out the heart."
Frowns rolled like wavelets on Cedric's forehead. They gained speed, and then as they were on the verge of crashing, they suddenly grew calm, retreated and disappeared. Cedric threw back his head and laughed: "That's what I like about you Trinidad white people. You believe in more foolishness and superstition than colored people themselves. You believe in soucouyant and la jablesse and duene. Long after black people stop believing in foolishness like that, you Trinidadian white people still holding on. So you think Boysie's using human hearts on his racehorses? It would take people like you to believe that. Boysie must think you're real fools."
Behind her eyes it ached, and Rosa pressed her thumbs against the sides of her head.
Cedric leaned forward toward her. "You can't again tonight, he asked. "Headache?"
She shook her head. "No, no. I'll clear the kitchen."
"Because last night ..."
"Look, just get that Boysie nonsense from your head."
"It's okay, Cedric."
He paused, and without looking at her, he asked, "Shall I go to the study now or later?" But he didn't wait for her answer. He brought his knife and fork together in the middle of his plate and stood up. Then he surprised her, saying, "The dinner was good tonight, Rosa."
When he left, she surrendered to the tears that pricked the corners of her eyes. She knew what he wanted, what he meant by his in flagrante delicto, looking steadily at her mouth. By his question: You can't again, tonight? His tone was caustic. Mordant. It seemed a lifetime but it was only three years ago when he didn't have to ask, when she couldn't wait until he came back out of the study. There, with the dishes still spread on the table, she would look across at him and he would know. He would take her then, sometimes on his chair, pulling her legs astride his lap. He would wait only for her to unbuckle his pants and slip them down his thighs. Sometimes he would screw her on the hard floor, and later she would have to pull slivers of wood out of her backside. She knew always to close the windows before dinner and draw the curtains, but when one day she stopped doing that, when one day she removed the drapes and left only the sheers, when she suddenly stopped sending him signals that her body was on fire for him, it did not seem to matter to him whether they made love before and after he went to his study, or only after, except on nights like that one, when the wind banged the window against the wall and then blew it shut again and the noise brought him early to the kitchen.
How had she reached that moment when the thought of waiting for him in their bed until he was finished with his books brought tears to her eyes? When now she took as long as she could in the kitchen, and bathing before she went to bed was painful, washing the places he would touch?
She had wanted him from the beginning. Not that she had known much about him, or had cared to. It was his body she had desired. She had wanted sex, had been desperate for sex, and he had found her out.
Twenty-eight, the last of three sisters and still unmarried, she had been living in a residential camp on the Orange Grove sugar-cane estate in the somnolent languor of a vanishing decadence. Yellow pawpaws like the swollen udders of cows hung heavy, plump and overripe in bunches from the tops of long slim trees in backyards. Avocados were left to rot in the sun, their pale yellow flesh slimy and slithery, turning black and hard in the burning heat. Mangoes were squashed about lawns, their hairy seeds and bright yellow pulp mashed into the wet green grass. Experiments with flowers were abandoned out of boredom and excess. Hibiscus forced to be roses ran rampant, the elegant simplicity of their single-layered petals curled into ruffles resembling a French petticoat. Poinsettia, once wild, tall and wiry, now tamed, short and stumpy, were threatened into extinction by the thorny grip of bougainvillea that had defied a determination to train them into fences. Now bougainvillea scaled walls like ivy, and poinsettia bloomed way before Christmas.
Years ago they had cut down the big trees on the Orange Grove estate: the wide-trunked samaan, the spreading immortelle. They had needed the space, they explained, for a clubhouse for the women to amuse themselves with bid whist and bingo, a distraction while their men fucked the natives; later, for a gathering place where the men could brag over Scotch, thin cue sticks clenched between closed fists to stab little colored balls across green-grass carpeted tables.
For in those days, when Rosa was a young girl, sugar cane was king and no one in Trinidad dreamed there could come a time when Europe would sweeten its chocolate with beet. So Orange Grove bloomed. Its future was its present, it thought, and it splurged, believing that children loved to live in shanty towns and chase vultures, and that cane cutters were happy with ten cents a day and yesterday's newspapers plastered on their walls.
But it was not long after the war when signs were everywhere that Orange Grove had miscalculated. There was talk of the English bailing out, of colonies becoming a drain on His Majesty's Exchequer: Sugar could be produced cheaper and faster in the big countries. Frantic, Orange Grove sent its children to England for mates. If nothing else, it would secure Trinidad's white blood for its progeny. But many returned. They discovered that they could not explain to their English mates why they threw salt behind their backs and crossed themselves, or why they cut loose strands of their hair from combs and brushes and threw them in the fire. Or why they couldn't stop.
Rosa's mother sent both her sisters to England to find husbands, and when their marriages failed, she found white men for them in Trinidad. But she had not sent Rosa to England; she had not searched for white men in Trinidad for her to marry. She held her behind closed doors.
"She love you too much," the black woman who cleaned their house used to say to her. "She think you too good to give away."
Another woman had said the same thing, a woman with a butterfly on her face and a name that was both a first name and a surname: Mary Christophe. She said it when Rosa's mother left for England the second time, and Rosa asked, "Will she take me away there, too?"
"No," Mary Christophe answered. "You belong here. You one of us. She knows that. She won't take you away. You too good to give away."
Yet when Cedric came, his hat in one hand, his books in the other, her mother said, "Yes. Yes, you can marry her," maybe because by then she had become an embarrassment. For in an age when women were wives before they were twenty-one, she was already an old maid, one whose habit of withdrawal was causing gossip about an unnatural woman who didn't like menone of the zamies, les amies, who walked arm in arm down the main streets in Trinidad, uncaring of the scandal they caused. Yet this was not reason enough to explain why, after so many years of claiming there was no one suitable for her daughter, Clara Appleton would surrender, throw out her scruples. And for a black man.
There was speculation. At long last Mr. Appleton was dead and buried. But people observed, too, that Cedric was not pure black. Not offensively black. Some other blood had loosened the curls in his hair and tempered the dark color of his skin. He was brown, café au lait. And he was an educated man, a schoolteacher, a headmaster. A fact, they knew, that was not lost on Clara Appleton whose education, like that of white women of her time in the Caribbean-island colonies, was below secondary-school level. For schooling was unnecessary for the daughters of the marooned when there was a plantation owner to find, an overseer or a landlord, in islands where England had abandoned their great-grandfathers for her profit. It was superfluous when there was bait they could use in England if fishing became necessary: a promise that in the colonies a white man was worth his weight in gold.
Clara Appleton must have been impressed with the high-sounding titles of the books Cedric carried: Ars Poetica, the Decameron, the Iliad, the Odyssey. She must have swooned with ecstasy when he quoted to her from the Aeneid in Latin. Still, she must have been surprised that Rosa did not oppose her; that Rosa seemed eager, even, to be with Cedric; that she said yes without hesitation. Yes, submissively; yes, timidly, though not once, in the sixteen years since she had become a woman, had she shown the slightest interest in men. But Clara Appleton did not know of the passion that burned in her daughter's heart, the desire that consumed her and terrified her, too, for the power it had given her since she was twelve, when she used to lie on her belly at nights rubbing her bare skin against the hardness of her stiff mattress.
Until she saw Cedric, Rosa had managed to control the lust and the feelings of power, too. Perhaps it was simply timing, she thought; so often, no matter how much a person plans, arranges and organizes, timing is the only explanation for why things, events and people that under ordinary circumstances would never come together, suddenly do. Perhaps it was simply that Cedric had accepted the job to tutor children on the Orange Grove estate at the very time that she had reached the limit of her ability to bottle the passion she had suppressed for so many years. When she saw Cedric striding past her house, she already had lost control. His long legs, the ripple of his muscles in his thighs against his thin pants, his full lips beneath his dark mustache, the sensuous flaring of his nostrils tortured her. She thought only of having sex with him. Of screwing him.
On the nights of the days when she saw him, she tossed restlessly on her bed, finding no satisfaction in the rubbing of soft flesh against her hard mattress, consumed by the thought of Cedric's legs wrapped around hers, feeling the throbbing of his heart above hers, his breath in her mouth. She woke up in a sweat and with a longing that left her panting, until she stopped him one day and asked if he would consider tutoring a new student, a woman of her age, in fact, a woman her age. Her. Rosa herself, since she had never finished secondary school. She didn't say this last directly, but saw in his eyes when he said, Yes, he would tutor her, that he understood why she wanted to be tutored.
He came the next day, and she led him to the room she had chosen for her tutoring, near the back of the house where the grass grew tall and wild and shaded the windows. She closed the door and brought his fingers to the slits between the buttons on the front of her blouse, knowing he would reach for her breasts, and when he found them, naked and trembling, her nipples hard and erect, that he would tear her dress apart and discover that not only had she not worn a bra or a slip, but nothing else either.
They were married within three months, and for six months after that, it was never enough for her when he took her twice a day, sometimes more, without asking. Then one night, suddenly, her passion died. There, on the dining room floor, without warning, when she caught the pictures behind Cedric's smile, her desire ebbed, dried up like flour.
She could not explain it. Not sensibly. If anyone were to ask, she would have to say she didn't know what he thought, how he felt, exactly. How could she have known what pictures were in his mind? She hardly knew him, had not bothered to know him. Sex was what she had married him for, what she was willing to give up everything for: the things that mattered, like the Church that consoled her when there was no one else; like the Body of Christ she took on her tongue every Sunday at Mass. But after Cedric, she felt her soul was not pure enough, not white enough, to receive the Host. Not with lust in her soul.
Sometimes the sacrifice became unbearable, and desperate for the grace of the Eucharist, she waited until late on Saturday to make her confession, planning to go to the first Mass the next day, at five in the morning. But even then she knew that by nightfall her soul would be black again.
But wasn't she married? Hadn't she received the sacrament that made sexual intercourse with her husband not only permissible, but sanctified?
"Marriage between a man and woman is like the marriage between Christ and the Church. It is holy, it is pure, it is blessed by God."
The priest who heard her confession found no reason to give her penance, but upon her insistence, he gave her what he gave to schoolboys who confessed to wet dreams they had at night.
"Six Hail Marys? Is that enough, Father?"
"But you've done nothing, child." The priest was puzzled by her breathlessness, the near hysteria in her voice.
"I said three times, Father. And on Friday, four. I couldn't stop."
"God's will be done, my child."
"I don't do it for children."
"In Holy Matrimony ..."
"I don't think about children."
"You are married, my child."
"You don't understand."
"Unless you do things that do not lead to procreation ..."
"I do, I do, Father."
Still, it was not enough for the priest. Still, she could not convince him that there was nothing she felt for Cedric but carnal desire, raw lust, the actualization of dreams that had tormented her when she used to lie on her belly rubbing her bare skin against her mattress. She was twelve then, but even then she was frightened by the passion that consumed her. She told no one of these longings, not even the girl she could no longer remember. Perhaps she had chosen not to tell her because she couldn't; because before they both saw behind that hibiscus bush the thing that had caused them to lose memory, she already knew pleasures in dreams of sexual perversities.
Why did her passion for Cedric die so suddenly? How did the pictures she saw behind his smile that night blind her to all else? (How could she see them? How was that possible?) Yet her mind became a tabula rasa for everything except the shadows of what she and that little girl had seen. (Her name? It had sunk so deep in her memory she wondered now if the girl had existed at all.) What was it they saw through the tangle of vines that wove the wild hibiscus bushes together like a curtain: green splashed with the bright reds and pinks of delicate petals, long, thin stamens protruding
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