Read an Excerpt
It's Easter, and Jamaica is in a state of emergency.
A woman looks out from her veranda. Like most verandas on the island, this one has recently been enclosed in iron grillwork, and this grillwork also covers every window of the house. It's a hot, bright afternoon without breeze. Inside, a transistor radio is playing, and now and then she hears the dogs bark at a stray goat wandering past the garden gate. She wears a faded red housedress and diamond earrings. Her eyes are light brown, an unusual color for someone of such dark complexion ("Where dis black pickney come from?" her own mother asked, examining her at birth).
She lives on Bonnieview Terrace in the suburban highlands of Kingston. To her east are the Blue Mountains, air-blue at the horizon.
But that isn't where she looks now.
Spread out before her, between the broken circle of mountains and the sea, is the capital: corrugated tin roofs, leaning shacks, high-rise hotels, flamboyants she can name from this distance by their colors, the irregular geometry of city houses and lawns, swimming pools, great bushy treetops, animal and vehicle pausing and proceeding, and the corrugated tin roofs repeating themselves all the way out to the corrugated gray water of the harbor.
Since morning she has counted six fires. They continue blazing, barely luminous on such a bright day, adding no noticeable heat to the already insufferable air.
She telephoned her mother earlier, having heard about a fire on Molynes Road not far from the family business. The moment the secretary answered Jean regretted making the call. Her mother was busy. "She talkin' long distance. Hol' awn a minute-" Her mother's assistant, Miss Wong, shouted across the room to a delivery man, something about Easter buns. "Jean, you can cawl back later?" "It's all right," Jean said, feeling pointless, realizing it was all business as usual at Island Bakery. Still, she fumbled on, saying she had heard on the radio about the fire across the road at Mr. Mahfood's shop and-
Monica Landing got on the phone:
"What happen? You 'fraid?"
Monica has never been afraid of anything and is openly contemptuous of anyone who shows fear. She considers her daughter weak-minded, like her late husband, Roy Landing.
Roy died when Jean was seven. But memories of him surface so often that he continues to live with her in a bright, episodic way. One of his paintings-one of the few he ever finished-hangs in the National Gallery, and a story of his, published posthumously, turns up now and then in anthologies.
Another fire now blazes, near the university, just a few miles away. The firemen won't come. They've been on strike since the King Street fire, when they were shot at by men with machine guns.
She unlocks the veranda grillwork and walks down the long paved driveway to the gate. The gardener, Hilston, is late. She knows what he has to go through to get here from his part of town. Roadblocks and soldiers are the least of it; there's the danger of ambush on every unguarded lane. The city has been divided into war zones marked out by graffiti. The name manley or seaga, or letters, PNP or JLP, are painted on sidewalks and walls in their respective party colors, orange and green. No graffiti means you're in No Man's Land and you take your chances.
She peers down the road, hoping to see Hilston making his way up the hill. A few days ago he told her about an incident he saw on his way to work.
"Dem chop down a man on Birdsucker Lane dis mawnin'."
"What you mean 'chop down'? They stab him?"
"No, ma'am. Chop 'im 'ead off clean-clean."
He has never been this late. He must have decided it was too dangerous to go out.
She looks at the red ginger growing in front of the veranda. It's overgrown and is bringing lizards into the house. She has wanted for some time now to dig it up and plant roses there instead. Hilston said he would help her even though he has the day off. He has worked for them for twelve years and thinks of it as his garden.
Something must have happened, she thinks. He won't come.
He doesn't realize-how could he? she can barely admit it to herself- that the red ginger has to be done today because tomorrow, God willing and nothing standing in her way, she will leave this house, this garden, this city.
She goes back inside, locking the grillwork, securing the chain and padlock around it.
The kitchen smells of onions and thyme. Irene is marinating fish and listening to her radio drama, Portia Faces Life. The story has been on the air for as long as Jean can remember. She would like to tell Irene that she is going away, to sit and talk with her in this honest kitchen with the hum of the refrigerator and crackle of the transistor radio.
"Fire at the university," Jean says.
"Eh-eh! Look like dem wan' bun down de whole country."
Jean pours herself some lemonade, pink, sweet, and so cold it chills the glass.
"No sugar in de supermarket," Irene drones.
A month ago, Irene sprained her ankle in a riot at the supermarket over a shortage of rice. "Miss Jean," she said, recounting the incident, "me neva see anyting like dis from me bawn."
She has worked for the Landings for almost twenty years and, in the face of the recent hardships, has finally assumed the culinary martyrdom to which she always aspired. Every dish of rice-an'-peas that reaches the family table is due to her cunning market strategy and fearlessness. She also provides an ongoing political commentary: "Me neva see anyting like dis from me bawn. Prime Minista 'im na know people ha fe put food ina dem belly . . ."
Jean walks back through the living room. It's dark and cool this time of day. She's tempted to sit down, and, while she can, quietly take in the things around her. Only recently has she come to realize how much she likes this room with its gleaming wood floor and bright Armenian rugs, and her mother's piano, which is rarely played. But she is determined to dig up the red ginger; the roses are outside, ready to be planted. On her way out she passes the small brass table where the old family photograph stands, the faces in it distinct only in her mind since the morning sunlight has long been whitening away the features of all four-Roy, Monica, Jean, and Jean's sister, Lana.
She's on her knees pulling up the red ginger, the sun scorching the back of her neck, when her own voice jolts her: "Why are you doing this? Why are you bothering with this now?"
She goes on digging, uprooting several plants at a time. The effort of her hands and the smell of the soil steady her. Upstairs in her bedroom drawer is a U.S. passport with her photograph and someone else's name. She's leaving. She's made up her mind. There's nothing more to think about, she tells herself and brushes the crawling ants from her arm.
She's still digging, and there's a heap of red, waxlike flowers beside her, when she hears the dogs come tearing around from the back of the house and sees the white pickup truck at the gate.
It's Paul, a day early. Has something happened?
"Jasper! Cleo! Down!" she shouts at the Alsatians, who carry on as they always do when anyone arrives, barking like crazy and lunging at the gate as if they're out to kill. She opens the gate so Paul can drive right up to the house. The dogs run barking alongside the vehicle, a compact Japanese model that cost him dearly in bribes, import taxes, and patience ("But in the long run is well worth it, man, the Japanese build these things to last"). The dogs quiet down, wagging their tails and sniffing the warm body of the pickup, waiting for Paul to get out.
Jean walks up the driveway. She has known Paul since childhood and it is to him that she's always turned for company, solace, safe passage. His habits are well known and dear to her. By now he's usually comfortably sitting on his favorite veranda chair or is inside chatting with Irene, helping himself to a cool drink from the refrigerator. It's odd that he's still sitting in the truck. Is he waiting for her? Does he want her to leave with him now?
One of the dogs begins to whine.
She reaches the top of the driveway, and Paul gets out of the truck. Something has happened.
He tells her, "Lana is dead."
They bury Lana the next morning because, as someone explains to Jean, burned bodies decompose quickly.
There will be no nine-night for Lana, no tambourines, drums, singing, fried fish, sugar cake, no sprinkling of rum, no glass of water left out at night for the spirit, no time to grieve or seek an explanation or explain. There's the immediate matter of shoes: The mortician needs a pair. Should they buy new ones? Should they cover her burned scalp with a scarf, her hands with gloves? What does it matter? The coffin will be closed. It matters to Lana. It would have mattered to Lana. They're not sure what tense to use now when they talk about her.
It's raining lightly. The funeral takes place in the city's Catholic cemetery at the shrine for the Blessed Virgin. Jean expected graffiti and smashed walls. She's surprised to see how well tended it is. So there's still something the gunmen respect and fear-duppy.
Jean watches her mother, mesmerized. Monica stands by the closed coffin of her elder daughter-the daughter she has not spoken to in over fifteen years-stroking the wood with a manicured, jeweled hand. Her black hat and veil cover her face completely. One of her nephews walks up and puts his arm around her. At his touch, she starts to cry. He says, "Hush, Auntie, is awright," and signals Father Thomas to begin.
Every funeral takes Jean back to that time in her great-grandfather's grocery shop when the family gathered to pay respects to the dying patriarch. She was only five, and yet the shop is one of her clearest memories: its smell of dried herring and carbolic soap, and its neatly arranged tins.
Mr. Ho Sing (whom everyone, even his family, had always called Mr. Ho Sing) was not ill, but his third wife had died a few months earlier in a car accident, and he decided it was time for him to go. He was thought to be about a hundred years old when he lay dying. He himself was unsure of his age. According to his indentured-servant papers, he was twenty when he came from China in 1884 on the Prince Alexander. He had been orphaned when his village was destroyed and had spent most of his childhood begging and stealing around the docks of Macao.
He wanted all his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren around him at the end. There must have been close to a hundred people there. He had never spoken much about China or been known to speak Chinese. But during those last, confused days he had been speaking, or rather grunting, some gibberish that led his children, who had never heard a word of Chinese, to believe he was speaking in his native tongue.
Mr. Ho Sing had not written a will, and although he lived in three rooms at the back of the shop, he was a wealthy man. At the age of eighty or so, assured that his children were financially secure, he had finally indulged in the great, secret wish of his life: he had bought a racehorse, Marshal Bloom. At the height of his career, Marshal Bloom had been worth over fifty thousand pounds, and at the time of the old man's death, the horse's filly, Twice Bloom, was worth three or four times more.
The family contacted the Chinese Benevolent Association, which sent someone to translate Mr. Ho Sing's dying words. He arrived, the Chinese Benevolent Association man, heavyset, wearing a white polyester suit and a flower-print shirt, looking, as Jean's grandmother said, "like a real pappy show-a wonder if him can speak Chinese fe true." He sat around all day with the Ho Sing men, whose preferred beverage, like his, was rum, and joined them in a few games of dominoes.
As relatives wandered in and out of the death room, Cherry, Jean's grandmother and Mr. Ho Sing's only daughter, fussed around her father, fixing his pillows and shouting questions at him the way people do sometimes to people who speak another language.
"You feel awright, Mr. Ho Sing? You need anyting?"
He waved his hand; it was an incomprehensible gesture.
"What about de horse?" Cherry shouted.
Mr. Ho Sing looked startled: "House?"
"Horse! Twice Bloom!"
Mr. Ho Sing blinked and looked thoughtful. He seemed to understand and to be formulating a reply. The Chinese Benevolent Association man was hastened from the dominoes table to the bedside: "Quick, man! Come quick! Mr. Ho Sing wan' fe say someting."
Mr. Ho Sing recognized him and began to grunt.
The translator bent over the bed to listen more closely; Mr. Ho Sing clutched the man's shirt.
"What 'im say? What 'im say?" everybody began asking.
The Chinese Benevolent Association man released himself from Mr. Ho Sing's grasp and chuckled. He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, immensely pleased at being able to hold everyone in suspense.
"Him say, 'Gimme one a dem Benson an' Hedges.' "
A ripple went through the room, the hilarity of it all, the old man begging a cigarette, not in Chinese, but in the Jamaican patois that they all spoke. Even the small children tittered, without fully understanding, when they saw the grown-ups laughing.
And it was then, as he had his last smoke, that Mr. Ho Sing looked at Jean. He had recognized very few people that day, and it was impossible to tell whether he recognized Jean, but for a moment she, out of all the children, held his attention. It might have been because she was the youngest, or it might have been that, among the varying shades of white, yellow, and brown faces-the mixed-up progeny of the old man's oceanic urges-Jean's was the only one that could unquestionably be called black.
Lana's funeral is barely a funeral. The priest didn't know her, but he knows Monica, and so he speaks vaguely about "a mother's suffering" and reminds everyone to attend the Easter vigil later that day. Only a dozen or so mourners have turned up. There was not enough time to tell people. And there's another reason. Jean counts and names the missing: Roy, Daphne, Cherry, Mary, Deepa-they're gone. Skeletons and spirits.
It isn't until she's walking with the others, following the coffin to the grave, that Lana's death hits her: Her sister is being carried, yes, carried; Lana's footsteps are not among those she hears trampling the wet grass.
She smells something-perfume-and turns around to see who it's coming from. It's no one. It's a hedge of jasmine, the small white flowers drenched with rain, drooping from the branches.