When Stephen and I were very small, and
Sam was not yet born, our family used to live on my grandfather’s land near Palmiste. My father has only one sister,
and her house was next to ours on the main road. Ma and Pa (as our grandparents were called) lived in a little house
far down the back trace, away from the noise and the dust of main road traffic. I can remember little of this time, although
I know the estate and my Aunt’s family very well.
After my father got steady work and we
moved to San Fernando to live, the closeness with our cousins was disturbed - but not destroyed. Visits by one family or the
other were frequent. At first, both sides worked on the understanding that they could "pick up and travel" anytime they
felt like it. As the years went by, however, this spontaneous method became inconvenient, and once or twice proved embarrassing.
A system then evolved under which or "country cousins" would spend two weeks at our house either over Easter or Christmas
holidays, while we "town folks" would return the compliment for a month during the August long vacation. It was during
these visits that I learned every track and fruit-tree on the estate like the back of my hand.
I must confess that the continued friendship
between our cousins and ourselves was not credit to the San Fernando side of the bargain. We quite frankly considered
our cousins a dreaded secret, and their visits a nuisance. Not that they weren’t nice children. Far from
that. The trouble lay in the fact that their country-bookie ways left us the laughing-stock of the street for weeks
after their departure. Their clothes - both "home clothes" and "good clothes" - announced to even the most uninformed
observer that the wearer was at home in the tallest bush and the most unpaved roads. The games that they excelled at
lacked what we considered the finesse and class befitting town life. Most offensive of all were the names. Each
had a perfectly ordinary English name, and a quite respectable Hindu name as well. They shunned both. Instead, they
hailed each other as Boboy, Lankey and Baby in the loudest of voices, much to the amusement of our street.
Unashamed by our own inhospitality, and
unconcerned as to how we looked to their friends, our return visits to Palmiste were looked forward to and planned
for months in advance. We were sure that come what may, we would have a good time. Forgetting our urban manners,
we did our best to blend into the bush and gravel roads, to beat all others at their special games, and most of all to ignore
the fact that our cousins could possibly claim any other names beside Lankey, Baby or Boboy.
At the corner of the main road and the
back trace stood the ruins of the old estate great house, and half-way down the track was a pond. These two items made the
back trace the most important part of the estate, and they belonged exclusively to Lankey, my oldest cousin. Of course,
anybody could go and play at either place during the day, which we often did. But it took twilight and Lankey to weave
a magic spell and transform the back trace into a place of terror and fascination. Lankey told the best ghost stories
I have ever heard. Combining local folklore with his own unbelievable imagination, he could hypnotize us for endless hours
with takes of spirits and supernatural beings, of slave-masters’ cruelty and of slaves’ equally cruel revenge.
Lankey, sitting by the pond, his face half-lit by moonlight, surpassed every horror movie and suspense book I have ever seen
It had been a long day of roaming the
estate, and we were all tired as we sat down to eat that evening. As my aunt cleared the table, Lankey asked, "Mama,
we could go by the pond for a little while?"
Tiredness vanished in a flash, as we all
chimed in with "Please, Mama" or "Please, Auntie". My aunt pretended to object for a few minutes, then agreed provided
we all went together and stayed together. We walked happily along the main road, recapturing the day’s events
and planning for tomorrow. As we turned into the back trace, Lankey and Boboy took the opportunity to remind us of the
cruelty of the white race that had ruled here, and the ferocity of the black race they had set about to tame as animals.
When we got to the pond, the mood had
already set in. All minds were ready to delve into the world of dwens and sousouyants. Lankey, the king of all
before him, started off with the history of one slave-owner who studied the Muslim law of his African Slaves and turned it
against them. The most memorable of his exploits was to take any slave found guilty of petty thievery and sever his
right hand at the wrist, in full view of the other slaves. This was an old tale which we had all heard many times before.
But the vivid detail with which Lankey described the descent of the sharp cutlass, the spurting of blood, and the frantic
efforts of the estate nurse to prevent the disfigured slave from bleeding to death, sent chills down my spine.
We respectfully observed the period of
silence that follows a good horror story, and waited for our monarch to begin another. Without warning, the king bequeathed
a royal favour.
"Let Boboy tell allyou what he see in
this same pond last May," he said.
"You mean ‘bout the black fis’?"
This was a new one. And for Lankey
to step aside and let Boboy tell it, it had to be really good. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it, so I tried a
"Boboy, you better save that one for tomorrow.
Sam does get nightmares when he frighten, so we better go home now."
Sam really did suffer from nightmares,
but that wasn’t my real reason. I was scared. As eldest child, however, I could beg off on Sam’s behalf
and get us both out of it. Instead of the argument I expected, my comment was greeted with silence. I looked around
the circle at Lankey, Boboy, Stephen and Baby. Each face wore the disgusted stares normally reserved for a lunatic who
is making a fool of himself. I shut up. Boboy took the stage.
"Well, you remember how hot and dry crop-season
was last year. By May everybody was praying for rain. Dust and cane-trash all over the place day and night. We
going to school but just the little walk making you hot and stink with sweat. Before bell ring your clothes sticky.
Teacher teaching, and all you doing is dancing in your seat to let the sweat dry out of another part of your clothes.
The whole classroom sweating like hog, and even if you try to write something down, sweat from your hand wetting up the page.
And every day the onlyest thing on my mind was the pond, and all that water.
"Well, after this go on for a while I
couldn’t take it no more. One day I break away from school after recess. I know that Mama and my father
did go to work by the scale, and Ma and Pa don’t come up by the pond often, so I didn’t worry about getting catch.
When I reach the there, I couldn’t hold myself back. I take off all my clothes fast-fast, and dive in. I
was bathing and swimming for nearly a hour when I see something dark in the water. When I make it out, it was a big
black fis’. First, I try to swim away, but it only following me. I do some fancy ducking and diving, but
no dice. This black fis’ only staying right behind me. I study my mind and decide that if mister man want
to follow me, I go see what happen if I spin round and try to catch he ..."
"You lie!" I shouted. "If that did really
happen you woulda run straight home naked as you was! You can’t fool me, you hear. I know you!"
The reaction to this outburst made me
doubt my own sanity. Stephen looked sick with embarrassment. Lankey seemed to be getting ready to rent me a room
in St. Anns. Boboy and Baby seemed quite prepared to dump me into the pond behind my back. Sam was asleep.
Not a word was spoken. The night stillness was punctured with a single splash in the pond. I jumped violently.
Boboy commented in an impossibly calm voice, "that could be it."
My outraged nerves could take no more.
Without even a glance backward, I shot to my feet and went charging up the back trace at a speed that I would not ordinarily
have believed possible. Nothing registered in my mind except RUN - RUN - RUN. Then up ahead loomed the ruins of
the estate house. Good Lord! In those ruins were probably the owner of Boboy’s black fist, as well as the
man who cut it off. And I would have to go past there ALONE. No way! Not me!
Let the scientists and engineers argue
all they want. I know for a fact, and will swear to my dying day, that I made a right-about-turn without stopping.
One instant I was tearing up the back trace as fast as my unathletic legs would carry me. The next I was fleeing in
stark panic in the opposite direction.
The way the others scampered our of the
way as I returned, I’m sure they expected me to run right into the pond. I did stop, however, by flinging myself
onto the ground. As I struggled to regain my breath and calm my wildly pounding heart, they clustered around me.
Baby, with as much patience as she could muster, asked "but what really wrong with you?"
"What wrong with me?" I demanded, my voice
almost sobbing, "is what the hell wrong with allyou. Lankey start off with all kinda talk about man chopping off man
hand. Then Boboy seeing a big black fist in the water, and lying ‘bout how he so brave he try to catch it.
Then it had a splash in the water and Boboy say that could be it. I frighten and run! I only human. Me ent
shame to say I frighten! Is allyou something wrong with. Playing heroes! Why all of allyou don’t go and
try to catch it right now? Allyou don’t want a big black fist to carry home?"
I really didn’t expect sympathy,
but the reaction I got was totally unexpected. Everyone of them, including Sam (now awake) burst out laughing.
It was no ordinary laughter, either. The peals rang out to the highest heaven. They rolled on the ground.
They pulled the grass out. They beat the ground with the flat of their palms. They laughed, and they laughed,
and they laughed.
Finally, after an eternity, the laughter
subsided into groaning, and they pulled themselves together. They held their shaking bellies, and rubbed their aching
jaws. With the patience of a prophet and the self-control of a saint, I refrained from beating them up while they were
helpless. Instead, I waited until I felt I could get a reasonable answer. Then I asked politely, "One of allyou better
tell me what the ass going on here real fast, otherwise is blows from a side."
Lankey giggled girlishly, then pulled
his face together, suppressed a grin, and explained.
"Damn fool," he said, "everything in your
own stupid head. When I done tell my story I didn’t want to tell no more ghost stories so I asked Boboy to tell
his story. You forget that when Boboy get excited he does get kinda tie-tongue. The big black fis’ he talking
‘bout is not a hand from some old slave. Is a big black fish - a tilapia. In fact, we coming with a hook
and line tomorrow to try and catch it."
I could feel all eyes turn and look at me, but not for
long. As Lankey finished his explanation, he could contain his grin no longer. As if by signal, all five rolled
over in fresh, loud, unbridled laughter.